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

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 6th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 29th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup: Ghost in the Shell, Final Master, Inseparables, Billy Jack, Stendhal Syndrome, Warlock and more

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Ghost in the Shell: 4K UHD/Blu-ray/3D
Revisiting the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 remake of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime, Ghost in the Shell, I wonder what would have happened if DreamWorks/Paramount executives had attended Comic-Con 2015 and put the question to a vote. Who would you like to see play Major in our $110-million adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s classic 1989 sci-fi manga: Lucy Liu, Maggie Q, Gong Li, Sandra Oh, Fan Bingbing or Scarlett Johansson? I suspect there would have been a runoff between Johansson and, just for the sake of argument, let’s say, Ms. Q (“Nikita”).  If the Comic-Con geeks, presumably the target audience for Ghost in the Shell, would have picked Johansson, based on her performances as the title character in Lucy and Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, the studios couldn’t have been accused later of “whitewashing” Major. If Q had been selected, the fans could have been accused of ignoring Scarlett’s international box-office appeal and dooming the project to middling returns. It has been argued, as well, that, if the execs were committed to Johansson from the get-go, the New Port City setting should have looked more like Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, than a brilliantly futuristic composite of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Ridley Scott’s dreamscapes. The only reason I bring any of this up is because the controversy appears to have had a devastating impact on international grosses. Of the $169.8 million in revenues, only $40.5 million can be credited to American ticket buyers. Having already sampled several animated versions of the same story, I think that Rupert Sanders’ remake deserved better. Ghost in the Shell looks great, features plenty of action and is only slightly more difficult for newcomers to the manga to comprehend than Oshii’s original, to which it’s extremely faithful.

Like Blade Runner, it is set in a near-futuristic fever dream, when the line between humans and robots has blurred and terrorists are threatening to tip the balance of power. Major Kusanagi is the latest iteration of a human – pulled from the brink of death in a terrible attack — cyber-enhanced to be the perfect soldier in the ongoing war against the world’s most dangerous criminals. When terrorists acquired the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major was pointed in their direction. As she prepares to face a new enemy, however, she discovers that her life was not saved, it was stolen. The “ghost in her shell” demands that she recover her past, by finding out who did this to her and prevent them from doing it to others. That summarization doesn’t really do justice to the wild sci-fi conceits at play and frequently thrilling set pieces. Major’s silicone Thermosuit has called no small degree of attention to her voluptuous, terrorist-resistant figure, but, after the initial visual jolt, the effect is no more stimulating than a wet dream starring Barbie and Ken. I kind of wish that someone with a sense of humor had paid homage to Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever) by adding nipples to her costume.

Perhaps reacting to the “whitewashing” controversy, Adam Wingard decided to relocate the setting of his upcoming adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s 12-volume manga, “Death Note,” from Japan to the United States. The cast being predominantly western — Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield – Wingard also had to make certain adjustments to the core concept. “In the early stages of the film, I was reading all of the manga, really just looking at how it might translate to the United States,” he explained. “Ultimately, ‘Death Note’ is such a Japanese thing, you can’t just say let’s port this over and it’s all going to add up. They’re two different worlds completely. It’s one of those things where the harder I tried to stay 100 percent true to the source material, the more it just kind of fell apart” Neither has it been easy condensing the volumes into a two-hour-long film. Apparently, the response from the preview audience at Comic-Con was mixed. I haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell in 3D, but the 4K UHD looks and sounds terrific. The Blu-ray adds the 30-minute “Hard-Wired Humanity: Making Ghost in the Shell,” a fan-oriented overview that includes a discussion of the story’s themes, the long process of developing the live-action project and Sanders’ influence on the project; “Section 9: Cyber Defenders,” a closer look at the details behind Section 9, as well as a further exploration of plot details, character design and qualities, and story themes; and “Man & Machine: The Ghost Philosophy,” a detailed look at the story and what it means to contemporary viewers.

The Final Master: Blu-ray
Western fans of the various Ip Man films will want to check out The Final Master, even if the legendary Wing Chun teacher’s presence is less seen than felt. Xu Haofeng, the screenwriter of Wong Kar-wai’s 2013 masterpiece, The Grandmaster, adapts his own short story here for a tale that forsakes arthouse conceits, in favor of uncompromising hand-to-hand combat, based on wuxia traditions and historical accuracy. Likewise, Wong’s atmospherics and straight-forward approach to the narrative give way in The Final Master to a plot that many viewers here will find difficult to follow, as it delves deeper into martial-arts mythology than we’ve gone beforehand. Once again, the setting is 1930s China, after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and tentative founding of a republic. Japanese imperialist forces are waiting in the wings to dominate the politically torn country, while a few warlords and gangsters desperately hold on to their corrupt power bases. Meanwhile, the fighting schools continue their business, as if nothing unusual has happened in the last 20 years and isn’t expected to occur in the future. Liao Fin plays Chen Shi, a master in Wing Chun, who’s encouraged to open a school in the northern coastal city of Tianjin, where the discipline isn’t taught. The eight dominant masters have no intention of opening Tianjin to a new competitor, especially one whose teachings involve knives. He also meets resistance from a underworld madam (Wenli Jiang), who dresses in drag, and the city’s military police. Among the many hoops through which he’s expected to jump are marrying a local woman, Zhao (Jia Song); hiring an acolyte, Geng (Yang Song), to stand in for him in fights; and defeat followers of the other schools, overseen by Grandmaster Zheng Shan’ao (Shijie Jin). Zhao is a terrifically complex lover, whose demands complicate things for Chen personally. There’s plenty of fighting on display throughout The Final Master, but the battle royal is conducted in a narrow alley, bounded at one end by four men with forged war swords, and, at the other, by several layers of combatants waiting their chance to kill the intruder. Their weapons include two-handed falchion swords and single-blade knives, long sticks and spears, and Mandarin duck knives. They attack singularly and with obvious respect for the opponent, if not their lives. Bonus features add an informative guide to the cutlery and discussion with writer/director Xu.

Inseparables
In 2011, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s charming French dramedy, The Intouchables, found the kind of success on the international arthouse circuit that inspires producers elsewhere to attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle with home-grown talent. It’s nothing new. For a while there, it seemed as if everything Francis Veber wrote and/or directed — La cage aux folles, Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire, Le jouet, Le Diner de Cons – was Americanized and accorded such A-list talent as Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Tom Hanks, Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. The English-language translations — The Birdcage, The Man with One Red Shoe, The Toy and Dinner for Schmucks – made the trans-Atlantic journey unscathed. The same can be said for The Intouchables, which has been adapted into Spanish as Inseparables, by Argentinian writer/director Marcos Carnevale (Elsa & Fred). Next year, it will be reimagined in English, as Neil Burger’s “Untouchable,” with Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Golshifteh Farahani and Julianna Margulies. In Carnevale’s version, Oscar Martinez (Wild Tales) plays Felipe, a wealthy businessman who lost the use of his arms and legs in a riding accident. While interviewing candidates for a therapeutic assistant, he decides to take a flyer on Tito (Rodrigo De la Serna), a belligerent young man who can’t even handle the gardener’s-assistant job at the mansion. The fact that Tito’s experience is more conducive to dealing drugs than being a healer appears to thrill Felipe, who’s coming to the point where boredom is a real problem. If memory serves, it takes Felipe a bit less time to adjust to Tito than it did for François Cluzet’s Philippe to come to grips with Omar Sy’s Driss, an arrogant West-African immigrant. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by revealing that Felipe and Tito develop a bromance that benefits both men, while only slightly complicating the lives of everyone else in the household. Complications naturally arise, but nothing that spoils the story’s inherent humor or humanity.

Black Butterfly: Blu-ray
Based on, if not credited directly to the French TV movie “Papillon Noir,” Brian Goodman’s cat-and-mouse thriller, Black Butterfly, should satisfy fans of Deathtrap and Misery, and don’t mind being manipulated almost unconscionably by talented, high-profile actors. Antonio Banderas plays Paul, a blocked, alcoholic screenwriter, who’s facing a deadline he can’t possibly meet and demons he can’t lay to rest. He’s trying to sell his isolated mountain retreat through an agent portrayed by Piper Perabo, but is too lazy and broke to fix it up to impress perspective buyers. One day, while in town for provisions he can’t afford, either, Paul is rescued from a confrontation with a crazed trucker by a drifter, Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who resembles a pre-“Hound Dog” Elvis Presley. On the way back home, Paul invites the hitchhiker to spend the night in his warm, comfortable cabin. Few viewers will be surprised by Jack’s offer to help the writer spruce up the cabin and, after gaining Paul’s confidence, giving him advice on his block and forwarding ideas for a story. He suggests the current situation, in which a complete stranger ingratiates himself with a blocked writer, while the search for a serial killer continues apace in the mountainous terrain. At first, Jack’s intentions are unclear. He demands that Paul give up the booze and focus resolutely on writing. Meanwhile, Jack’s furtive behavior would indicate that he’s the killer. And, maybe, he is. We witness as much before our eyes. The breaking point comes when the real-estate agent makes the mistake of visiting at an inopportune time and becomes a prisoner. If the ending begs credulity, viewers should enjoy the interplay between Banderas and Rhys-Davies and pastoral beauty of the setting. (Italy’s Central Apennines, for the American Rockies.) The Blu-ray adds commentary with Goodman and co-writer Mark Frydman, and “Black Butterfly: Backstage.”

The Country Doctor
Doctor-turned-filmmaker Thomas Lilti follows his multi-César-nominated Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor with another story about physicians at a crossroads, The Country Doctor (a.k.a.,Irreplaceable”). The social dramedy’s setting leaves Paris for an agricultural region deep in the countryside. It stars Francois Cluzet (Tell No One), as Jean-Pierre Werner, a devoted and revered doctor/confidante, whose clientele has gotten so used to his attention that he’s sometimes forced to take their whims as seriously as their illnesses. When he’s diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor, Werner is required to accept the presence of a middle-age female healer, Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt), who is his polar opposite. For the sake of the story, at least, Werner’s attitude toward her assignment is dismissive, to the point of being rude and possibly misogynistic. He criticizes her every diagnosis and treatment, frequently in front of the patients, and considers modern science to be something reserved for city slickers. Predictably, there will come a point in The Country Doctor when Werner can’t help but accept Nathalie’s medical opinions and assistance. As befits a dramedy, too, Nathalie’s relations with the community only begin to warm when she meets the locals more than halfway in their social routines. The fact is that Werner’s condition isn’t getting any better and push will come to shove. Lilti, who interned at a similar facility in Normandy, has a knack for being able to merge science and humanity, in the service of melodrama. The lead actors are perfectly matched and townsfolk, for the most part, look as if they could benefit both from some old-fashioned TLC and modern techniques.

Facing Darkness
There’s no disguising the fact that Facing Darkness is a faith-based documentary. It admits as much on the DVD jacket: “From executive producer Franklin Graham/A Samaritan’s Purse Film … A True Story of Faith: Saving Dr. Brantly From Ebola in Africa.” Even so, Facing Darkness tells a story even a hard-core atheist could sit through, without getting the heebie-jeebies every time the deity is invoked. Conveniently, the proselytizing and evangelizing occur mostly in the bonus package. Otherwise, the faith on display is limited to the occasional “Praise God” and belief that the combined force of prayer and medicine helped the Samaritan’s Purse team turn the corner on the Ebola epidemic in Liberia … not prayer, alone. The elemental conundrum is never far from the surface. If an all-powerful God refused to prevent the pandemic from spreading, why would He/She/It turn around and facilitate its cure? As a recruiting tool, perhaps? If that sounds cynical, potential viewers should know going into Facing Darkness that it’s impossible not to come away it impressed by the dedication of Samaritan’s Purse team not only to stop the spread of the plague throughout West Africa, but risk their own lives caring for and comforting the afflicted.

In the spring of 2014, as the Ebola pandemic swept through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the first line of defense was provided by Samaritan’s Purse, Doctors Without Borders and SIM USA. (There were only 50 Liberian doctors in country, at the time.) No amount of pleading could get other countries, or the WHO, seriously involved in the effort. Sadly, it wasn’t until Dr. Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol contacted the disease and were in dire need help themselves – including finding a plane equipped to fly them to Atlanta – that President Obama was compelled to send military personnel to West Africa to help containment and control its spread. Troops and vaccine arrived too late to save Samuel Brisbane, a former adviser to the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare; leading Sierra Leone Ebola doctor, Sheik Umar Khan; Nigerian physician Ameyo Adadevoh; and Mbalu Fonnie, a licensed nurse-midwife and nursing supervisor at the Kenema hospital in Sierra Leone, with over 30 years of experience.  Director Arthur Rasco does a nice job balancing the personal and professional in the various dramatic throughlines in Facing Darkness. Another good source of information on the war against the pandemic is Nova’s “Surviving Ebola,” also available on DVD. Like I said, the bonus package is reserved for the sales pitch on Samaritan’s Purse and Brother Graham’s ministry.

Red Leaves
For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, families have maintained order within themselves by adhering to norms, traditions and dictates that can be traced to the bible. I don’t think that anyone can argue that wives and daughters – especially those outside farm families, where the division of labor is more clearly defined – have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to sharing the power to affect crucial decisions. Today, of course, everything’s changed, unless the family adheres to fundamentalist values. It’s difficult enough to get the entire family to agree to a time when they’re free to sit down together for dinner, let alone maintain the patriarchy. The only things Bazi Gete’s debut feature, Red Leaves, adds to the oft-told story is an ethno-religious context that borders on the tragic. Twenty-eight years before the story begins, Meseganio Tadela immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, as Beta Israel. He built an agricultural business and raised a large, stable family. After losing his wife, Meseganio decides to sell his business and apartment – without consulting his children, who think he was cheated – and embark on a journey that he expects to lead him through his children’s homes. In fact, he pretty much shows up on their doorsteps unannounced and at some inopportune times. When the family gathered at his apartment, he could set the terms of engagement and proper behavior. Meseganio still believes that he’s in charge, even though, technically, he’s merely visiting his children’s homes. This translates into such demands as forcing his daughter to provide such menial services as locating the Ethiopian-language station on the TV to refusing to accept a daughter’s choice in boyfriends, and demeaning her in front of her siblings. Finally, he’s given the option of withholding his opinions or taking a hike. About 125,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel and Meseganio’s comfort level ends at the borders of the close-knit community. Left to his own devices, he’s adrift in a country whose language he doesn’t fully understand and where a disoriented African immigrant might feel unwanted. Debebe Eshetu, whose last film credits were notched in the early 1970s (Shaft in Africa), is scary good in the lead role.

Mali Blues
Gospel According to Al Green: Blu-ray
If you trace the roots of the blues far enough, they’ll lead across the Middle Passage to West Africa. Ry Cooder and African multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure demonstrated that much on “Talking Timbuktu,” as did banjo maestro Bela Fleck, in Throw Down Your Heart, in which he discovered the instrument’s ancient origins on his tour of Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda and Mali. Malian musical traditions are derived from the griots, who are known as “Keepers of Memories.” The title, Mali Blues, reflects two realities. The first involves the landlocked country’s musical legacy as the birthplace of America’s delta blues, while the second describes the current emotional state of musicians who’ve been silenced, in some parts of the country, by Islamic militants. Although things improved for people in the north after French and Malian troops combined forces to drive them out, reports of Sharia law being re-imposed have begun to circulate. Timbuktu’s ecumenical Festival au Desert has been suspended since 2013. (A touring Caravan for Peace has taken its place.) Lutz Gregor’s documentary is framed by a 2015 music festival held on the banks of the Niger River, in the capital city of Bamako. It profiles four of the participating performers: singer/guitarist Diawara, who appeared in Abderrahmane Sissako’s acclaimed 2014 drama “Timbuktu”; Bassekou Kouyate, a Grammy-nominated musician and griot who plays the ngoni, a traditional string instrument considered to be a precursor to the banjo; Master Soumy, a rapper whose politically charged lyrics directly comment on the fundamentalists’ distortion of Islam; and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a guitar virtuoso who had his equipment destroyed by Islamists and risked having his fingers chopped off should he resume playing. After performing a song about her own genital mutilation, Diawara engages in a spirited discussion with several older village women, some of whom defend the practice. We also learn that she fled home years earlier to avoid an arranged marriage and has only recently begun performing again in her native country. Less difficult to locate is John Bosch’s Sahel Calling, which covers much of the same territory as Mali Blues.

Nearly a quarter-century after it was released, Robert Mugge’s brilliant documentary, The Gospel According to Al Green, is as compelling as ever. It was shot 10 years after he was assaulted in his home by, depending upon whom one believes, an acquaintance/girlfriend who doused Green with a pan of boiling water/grits while he was bathing, causing severe burns on the singer’s back, stomach and arms. The woman, who was already married, with children, then found his .38 and killed herself. After he recovered from the attack physically and emotionally, Green became an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, while also touring as a R&B singer. In 1979, Green injured himself falling off the stage, while performing in Cincinnati, and interpreted this as a message from God to focus on pastoring his church and gospel singing. A few years later, Mugge caught the Hall of Fame artist in a reflective mood, as he discussed his lifelong interest in gospel music, recording, performing and preaching the gospel. At a church service, he’s led into the room by a military escort, before cranking up the crowd with soulful gospel singing and spirited preaching. Sometimes, the only real difference between R&B and gospel is the day of the week and hour of day they’re performed. While Green hasn’t completely cut his links to pop music, her can still be found at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, on Sunday mornings, doing his thing for parishioners and tourists, alike. The bonus package adds “Soul and Spirit: Robert Mugge on the Making of The Gospel According to Al Green,” in which the filmmaker documents the history of the project; an extended song from the church service; a lengthy audio-tape interview with Green; a “Climax of Church Service”; concert audio; and answering-machine message.

The Stendhal Syndrome: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
It’s entirely fitting that so much of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1995) is set within a few meters of the shrines that caused 19th Century French author Stendhal (a.k.a., Marie-Henri Beyle) to suffer an overdose of beauty and emotion. He wasn’t alone, either. Also known as Florence Syndrome and hyperkulturemia, it has been described as a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations in people who are exposed to extraordinary artistic achievement, whether it be paintings or sculptures. Variations of the ailment include Lisztomania, Jerusalem syndrome and Paris syndrome, in which tourists, mostly Japanese, are overwhelmed by the fact that the City of Lights isn’t quite as romantic and fashionable as the magazines make it out to be. Argento claims he experienced Stendhal syndrome while touring Athens as a child, with his parents. He was climbing the steps of the Parthenon when he was overcome by a trance that caused him to become lost for hours. Here, the young and beautiful police detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is on the bloody trail of a sophisticated serial murderer/rapist through the streets of Florence. While in the same room of the Uffizi Gallery as her prey, Anna is overcome by Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and Bruegel’s “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.” (Up until then, Argento was the only director ever granted permission to shoot there.) Thus, tipped off to the cop’s presence, the killer, Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), develops a scheme to confront and punish her. It isn’t for the squeamish … and knowing the father/daughter connection only makes it creepier. Residual feelings from both traumatic events leave Anna trapped in a twilight realm, in which she plunges deeper and deeper into sexual psychosis. It allows her to understand Alfredo’s murderous affliction more intimately and lay a trap of her own making. Fans of Argento and Italian giallo will appreciate Blue Underground’s 2K restoration and newly produced bonus material. It adds fresh commentary with Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse”; new interviews with Asia Argento, co-writer Franco Ferrini and special makeup artist Franco Casagni; and a booklet with an essay by author Michael Gingold. Other bonus material has been ported over from previous versions.

Devil’s Domain: Blu-ray
Warlock Collection: Blu-ray
Lust of the Vampire Girls
Horror specialist Jared Cohn’s brief IMDB.com biography describes the native New Yorker as a spiritual person who believes in karma. Having participated in the creation of such schlocky titles as Sharknado: Heart of Sharkness, Bikini Spring Break, Little Dead Rotting Hood and 12/12/12 (the prequel to 13/13/13), it’s difficult to imagine where he thinks his karmic destiny might lead him. If nothing else, Cohn’s willingness to dabble in Satanism, torture porn and murder demonstrates a lack of fear of hell. The one sin he can’t be accused of exploiting is sloth. Since 2009, when he added writing, directing and producing to his acting resume, Cohn’s worked like a demon to keep the straight-to-video marketplace afloat. Devil’s Domain, which must have been completed in late-2015, is only now being made available on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. Since then, Cohn has finished or began production on 11 other directorial projects and 5 screenplays. What do they say about idle hands? In this old-school throwback, the devil arrives via the Internet, in the form of a smoking-hot stranger, Destiny (Linda Bella), who answers a teen girl’s pleas for relief from cyber-bullying. Lisa (Madi Vodane) once made the unforgiveable mistake of acting on sexual cues she believes were being transmitted by her best friend. Instead, the BFF not only rejected Lisa’s advances, but she also made sure the girl wouldn’t enjoy a day’s peace thereafter. Her classmates, in turn, make the more egregious mistake of planting cameras in her bedroom and bathroom. Images of Lisa binging-and-purging, masturbating and doing odd things before bedtime are made available to everybody on the school’s social network. Somehow, while web-surfing for help, she catches Dynasty’s attention. The red-gowned seductress offers her a deal. In return for ridding her of the bullies, Lisa will bear Satan a child. When things get real, however, she panics. Devil’s Domain isn’t a direct lift of Heathers, Carrie or Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s safe to say that Cohn carried memories of those classics in his wallet, alongside his guild cards. To think that Satan’s minions monitor the Internet, as if they were employees of the NSA, is an excellent conceit for 21st Century horror. Michael Madsen, as Lisa’s rockabilly dad, is the only recognizable cast member, and, for once, he doesn’t have to get his hands very dirty. The soundtrack includes selections from Iggy & the Stooges, Big Jay McNeely, DMX, Onyx, VOWWS & Gary Numan and Brainticket.

Julian Sands is as at home on the stage, as he is in movies and television, where the diversity of roles he’s played borders on the ridiculous. For all his visibility in horror, sci-fi and suspense films – Arachnophobia, Dario Argento’s The Phantom of the Opera, Boxing Helena, “24,” “Smallville” — the lithe, blond-haired Yorkshire native could be mistaken on this side of the pond as a genre specialist. Classier credits include Leaving Las Vegas, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing Fields, A Room With a View, The Loss of Sexual Innocence and Naked Lunch. On their own, these titles would suggest Sands is an arthouse darling. If, after 35 years before the camera, he’s complaining about the confusion, it isn’t apparent in the interviews conducted for Lionsgate’s surprisingly entertaining “Warlock Collection.” I only say “surprisingly” because they still hold up after 20-30 years and I missed them the first time around … and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. The Vestron Video Collector’s Edition contains three movies on two discs – Warlock (1989), Warlock: The Armageddon (1993) and Warlock III: The End of Innocence (1999) — as well as more bonuses than anyone in 1989 could have imagined. Sands stars in the first two installments, while fellow Brit Bruce Payne takes over in “III.” The original is inarguably the best of the three, but none of chapters is less than watchable.

In Warlock, Sands plays a demonic sorcerer, who, in 1691 Massachusetts, escapes the hangman by slipping through a conveniently placed time portal. It transports him to 1980s Los Angeles, where smog and toxic particulates were a fair substitute for fire and brimstone. The portal also allows witch hunter Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant) to make the journey in hot pursuit. In addition to some pretty amusing fish-out-of-water setups, the story allows for some genuinely gory violence. Apparently, Warlock is looking for the missing pages to a long, lost grimoire, which would allow him to make contact with the ancient spirit Zamiel. In doing so, Warlock hopes to be accepted as a son of Satan. Lori Singer plays the girlfriend of his first victim, who teams up with Redferne to prevent the sorcerer from making the connection and launching Armageddon. The first scenes benefit from its carefully crafted Old New England setting, while the rest of the movie is carried by the inventive effects and interplay between the time-travelers. The bonus package is generous to a fault, as it overflows with interviews, making-of featurettes and backgrounders.

In Warlock: The Armageddon, the demon has, indeed, been resurrected as a true son of Satan. He returns to present-day America in pursuit of a collection of magical rune stones, handed down from ancient Druids and scattered around the western U.S. among a variety of unrelated people. Modern Druid practitioners have been warned of the arrival of the son of Satan and are already in place when he arrives. Meanwhile, high school sweethearts Kenny Travis (Chris Young) and Samantha Ellison (Paula Marshall) find themselves in a “Romeo & Juliet” dilemma when their fathers –rival religious leaders – demand they separate. Turns out, Kenny is destined to confront Warlock in a winner-take-all battle for souls and magic stones. Set and shot in Ireland, Warlock III should be a lot worse than it is, if only for the absence of Sands. Instead, the haunted-house thriller is saved by a taut script and tongue-in-cheek performance by Payne. When a gorgeous college student (Ashley Laurence) unexpectedly learns that she has inherited a derelict estate in the country, she invites a group of friends to help her clear the house of family heirlooms, of which there are precious few. Naturally, the visitors manage to ignore all of the signs of evil spirits and boogeymen, thus falling into all of the traps set by Warlock, who has a vested interest in the property. The second disc adds even more special features.

There’s a lot of inexperience on display in Matt Johnson’s debut feature, Lust of the Vampire Girls, a title that’s better than anything in the DIY movie. Everyone’s got to start somewhere. In what is described as a homage to European exploitation films of the 1960-70s, a man searches for his missing girlfriend, who has been abducted by a clan of vampires led by an insane Nazi doctor. The poor guy is required to battle this horde of bloodsuckers in order to retrieve the soul of the woman he loves, and save his own from eternal damnation.

The Complete Billy Jack Collection: Blu-ray
If, today, the name Billy Jack is more likely to be found in a pile of dog-eared Trivial Pursuit questions than anywhere else, it isn’t because he wasn’t a considerable force, back in the day. In fact, at a time when the independent-film movement was in its infancy, Tom Coughlin’s vigilante alter ego was a full-blown phenomenon. The series of films that comprise Shout!Factory’s “The Complete Billy Jack Collection” begins in 1967 with the then-revisionist biker-gang picture, Born Losers. Self-financed, it returned $35 million on an investment of $325,000. It updates the basic plot of The Wild Ones – outlaw bikers terrorize a town ill-equipped to protect itself – by adding a hero unafraid of any setting the thugs straight. What made the character unique was his existential approach to enforcing the peace and ridding the town of punks. Billy broke the mold as a half-American Indian/half-white ex-Green Beret, bent on correcting injustice and hypocrisy through a passive-aggressive persona, well-reasoned arguments, martial arts and a willingness to use extralegal methods to stand up for society’s underdogs. A true cowboy hero, Billy vows to protect several women called to testify against bikers accused of rape and assault. Despite the amazing success of Born Losers, Laughlin faced distribution roadblocks with his 1971follow-up, Billy Jack, even at AIP. Filmed almost entirely in New Mexico and Arizona, it upgraded the ex-Green Beret to a hapkido expert who saves wild horses from being slaughtered for dog food and protects a “freedom school” from local bullies and redneck cops. It’s here that Billy trades his cowboy hat for a wide-brimmed Uncle Joe and dials up the action with more frequent fights. Critics weren’t thrilled with a character who preached peace, love and understanding, but wasn’t reluctant to use his fists, feet and bullets when all else failed. It became a huge hit among kids and young adults who identified with the outcasts in need of a champion in Billy. The casting of actors who may never have stepped before a camera also was well-received. The second sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) also made money, but was roundly trashed by mainstream critics, who ridiculed its populist approach and atypical cast of characters. Two years before Jaws introduced the tentpole concept to distribution and marketing, “Trial” opened simultaneously in cities across the country and commercials were broadcast for it during the national news. Released in 1977, Billy Jack Goes to Washington is a loose remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it, he’s appointed a U.S. Senator to fill out the remaining term of a less-principled politician. Instead of going along to get along, as expected, he confronts corrupt politicians and lobbyists, in some cases naming actual names. A new version of “One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack),” sung by daughter Teresa Laughlin, is played over the closing credits. Because the film’s overtly political message made distributors uneasy, it wasn’t accorded a general release and was severely cut. (Most, maybe all of the deleted material has replaced.) After that, Laughlin focused on social activism and promoting issues close to his heart. He was also plagued by serious health concerns. Bonus material includes commentaries and galleries, but not much else.

The Glass Coffin
Seventy-seven minutes is just the right length for this single-character, locked-door thriller from the Basque country, although it could take place anywhere on Earth and have the same effect. Paola Bontempi plays Amanda, an actress at that certain age in life when she receives more invitations to lifetime-achievement testimonials than offers for roles. As The Glass Coffin opens, she’s just learned that her husband won’t be able to attend that night’s ceremony, deciding, instead, to spend it on the road, in a hotel. Peeved, Amanda nervously paces her room, memorizing her speech. Once the limousine arrives, however, she’s able to kick back and enjoy a drink before reaching her destination. The title of Haritz Zubillaga’s feature debut gives away everything, except the intensity of the actress’ dilemma when she realizes that the fancy limousine could soon be her tomb. The windows are darkened to the point that the world outside may as well not exist, her cellphone is jammed and the chauffeur stopped paying attention to her demands moments after the door locks slammed shut. A disembodied voice tells her that she’s trapped, and begins to force her into doing things that slowly eat away at her respect, integrity and sanity. How long can she endure such torture, before succumbing to whatever it is the person behind the voice wants her to do. My guess is 77 minutes.

Ad Nauseam
At a time when jobs for college graduates are few and far between, the desperate ones will consider taking work they know will demean their initiative, devalue their education and make them want to wear a bag on their head whenever they leave home. Two such young people, Derek (Andrew Johnston) and Clive (James McFay), are at the forefront of the dark Aussie comedy, Ad Nauseam. This is nothing new, of course, people have voluntarily made themselves look ridiculous on television, on shows such as “Let’s Make a Deal” and “The Gong Show” for more than 50 years. If picked, they still stand in line for a chance to trade real money for what’s behind Door Number 3. The game has changed only slightly since major corporations have learned to exploit the Internet’s most beloved sites and services for profit. Derek and Clive make videos they hope will go viral and, in doing so, create inherent value for sponsors. It doesn’t matter if the content itself carries a subliminal message or carefully disguised logos, because what really matters is that viewers are so entertained by the lads’ pranks that they’ll stick around to see who paid for such nonsense. As with any business, certain goals are created for the business’ employees to meet and surpass. In Ad Nauseum, the target for Derek and Clive to meet is 1 million views per video on YouTube. The problem comes when Derek decides that he’s sick and tired of making a fool of himself in front of tens of thousands of viewers and wants to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist. Desperate, Clive asks his partner to make one last video, which, he believes, will ring the bell on the million-views goal. It involves a mutual friend whose success as a playwright has driven Clive into a jealous rage. When things begin to go sideways, however, it’s difficult to separate the hilarity from humiliation. And, that’s the point. Things always threaten to spin out of control. In case you’re wondering, Nikos Andronicus’ other projects include “Vindalosers: How to Win in India,” “The Ronnie Johns Half Hour,” “Psychotown,” “Billy and the Bitch” and “Fish With Legs.” You get the picture.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: American Patriot
PBS: Frontline: Second Chance Kids
PBS: Frontline: Poverty, Politics and Profit
PBS: NOVA: Poisoned Water
BBC Earth: Nature’s Great Race
Anyone who still hasn’t figured out Donald Trump’s appeal to the masses could learn a lot from watching the PBS “Frontline” presentation, “American Patriot.” In the kind of detail some liberals, especially, will find frightening, the producers examine the battle between a ranching family – the Bundys, of Nevada — and the federal government, which inspired a wider militia movement, an armed confrontation in Oregon and widespread challenges to law enforcement. During the presidential campaign, Trump rejected the radical anti-federal land movement, made famous during the Bundy family occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, claiming the lands should stay in public hands. In one of his many changes of heart since being elected, the President has indicated that he might consider privatizing national monuments and appointing a Bundy loyalist, Wyoming lawyer Karen Budd-Falen, to head the Bureau of Land Management. The agency controls almost 250 million acres of publicly owned lands. For those of us who don’t want to see such treasures exploited for corporate profits – not to mention allowing cattle to graze for free and drop cow pies on our most sacred reserves — “American Patriot” should be considered must-viewing.

What happens when prisoners convicted of murder as teenagers are given the opportunity to re-enter society? That’s the issue explored in the “Frontline” presentation, “Second Chance Kids.” Until Miller v. Alabama — the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life sentences, without the chance of parole for juveniles, unconstitutional – this was hardly a pressing issue for Americans who assumed such punishment kept society safe from “superpredators.” (The controversial phrase, coined during the Clinton administration, described young people who demonstrated “no conscience, no empathy” while committing serious crimes.) By charging the teens as adults, it was widely assumed that the offenders wouldn’t be automatically released at 18 or 21. According to the show’s producers, some 2,000 convicted youths are awaiting the opportunity to test their fates in front of probationary panels. “Second Chance Kids” follows the cases of two of the first juvenile lifers in the country to seek parole or re-sentencing following the landmark ruling. As the documentary argues, the “superpredator” theory resulted in the disproportionately extreme sentencing of black and Latino youths. It has since been largely discredited and disavowed.

In a nine-month investigation that took them from Dallas and Miami, to an upscale resort in Costa Rica, NPR’s Laura Sullivan and Frontline producer Rick Young not only discovered that just one in four households eligible for Section 8 assistance is getting it, but also that the nation’s signature low-income housing construction program is costing more and producing less. The “Poverty, Politics and Profit” team follows a money trail that raises questions about the oversight of a program meant to house low-income people, while also exploring the inseparability of race and housing programs in America and tracing a legacy of segregation that began more than 80 years ago. It includes examining charges that developers have stolen money meant to house low-income people.

How safe is our tap water? In the special “NOVA” report, “Poisoned Water,” reporters investigate what happened in Flint, Michigan, when local officials changed the city’s water source to save money, but overlooked a critical treatment process. As the water pipes corroded, lead leached into the system, exposing the community to dangerous levels of poison. “NOVA” uncovers the science behind this manmade disaster, from the intricacies of water chemistry, to the biology of lead poisoning and the misuse of science, itself. As we now know, city and public-health officials found it more convenient to turn a blind eye to poisoning, than to find permanent remedies. The overriding question, of course, concerns the number of communities whose officials are hiding potential problems with their water systems.

The gorgeous “BBC Earth” presentation, “The Great Race,” follows three groups of animals – caribou, zebra and elephants – as they repeat their annual migrations. Surely, we witnessed such amazing journeys from afar dozens of times, in nature documentaries, television or movies. It never fails to impress. What’s different, of course, are the advances in photographic technology, GPS tracking and drone-borne cameras that allow for reporters and researchers to put viewers as close to the migration routes as we’ve ever been. For example, how many of us have watched a bull caribou subdue an overly aggressive adult bear, using only its antlers? The three-part program uses new scientific discoveries to understand what drives these animals to risk everything in the race of their lives. What’s missing are the tens of millions of American bison slaughtered, largely for “sport” and to turn bones into fertilizers. We’ve been told that their migrations were unlike any on Earth. Sadly, we’ll never see the likes of them here, ever again.

The DVD Wrapup: Resident Evil, Buster’s Mal Heart, Free Fire, Tommy’s Honour, Stormy Monday, T.J. Hooker … More

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Buster’s Mal Heart: Blu-ray
Writer-director Sarah Adina Smith has described her dark and challenging second feature, Buster’s Mal Heart, as a mix of Donnie Darko and Bad Santa. I might have added Life of Pi, Barton Fink and Lost Highway, if only as visual references. It’s a very curious movie, about a young husband and father, Jonah (Rami Malek), whose inability to handle basic realities of everyday life pushes him quickly past bipolar disorder, to outright schizophrenia, as a wildly eccentric mountain man, Buster (also Malek). Smith reportedly asked Malek to take on the double role of Jonah/Buster, before he began production on USA Network’s similarly off-putting series, “Mr. Robot.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Smith and USA shared casting agencies and rushes from Buster’s Mal Heart convince network executives that he was a perfect fit for playing vigilante hacker Elliot Alderson. Both characters are cut from the same cloth. Our first glimpse of Buster comes as he’s being chased by a small militia of police through a snowy valley, high in the Montana Rockies. Cut to Jonah, a night manager at an extremely generic motel in the flatlands, at work and at home, with his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil), daughter and burdensome mother-in-law (Lin Shaye). It’s clear that he’s working too many hours at the motel, but, without them, he’d never be able save enough money to achieve his simple dreams. He takes caffeine pills to give him an edge at work, if not sufficient time to rest and recuperate from damage done. One quiet night, a guest who identifies himself as The Last Free Man piques his curiosity with bizarre questions, inspired by an apocalyptic event he calls “the great inversion.” He’s played by D.J. Qualls — Golem in Season Three of “Fargo” — who would have been my second choice for Jonah/Buster. His references to Y2K square with messages he’s hearing in the jibber-jabber being spouted, at home, by insane-looking televangelists. Something terrible happens while Jonah’s wife and daughter are “vacationing” – as his boss puts it – at the motel. It leads not only to the emergence of Buster the Mountain Man, but also Buster’s alter ego, who’s stuck in a row boat in the middle of a vast sea. I’m not at all sure what Smith is trying to say here, except that too much work, for too little return, will drive a good man insane. But, we knew that already. Her first film, The Midnight Swim, asked as many questions as answers, as well as adding a supernatural twist. In it, Dr. Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) disappears during a deep-water dive on Spirit Lake. Her three daughters travel home to settle her affairs, not expecting to find themselves unable to let go of their mother and becoming drawn into the mysteries of the lake.

Resident Evil: Vendetta: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The first thing that confused me going into Resident Evil: Vendetta was the absence of any mention of franchise mainstays Milla Jovovich and writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson. I recalled something about a recent theatrical release of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, but assumed that a name change had taken place between then and now. It happens. In fact, I was unaware of the existence of two separate “RE” movie series, both based on the same video game, conceived by Capcom in 1996. The six-part live-action series, which, began in 2002, starred Jovovich and was alternately produced, written and/or directed by Anderson. It has made over $1 billion, largely in overseas revenues. Resident Evil: Vendetta, originally “Biohazard: Vendetta,” is the third of at least four full-length CGI-animated features. It was directed by Takanori Tsujimoto (Bushido Man), written by Makoto Fukami (Psycho-Pass), produced by Takashi Shimizu (Ju-On) and scored by Kenji Kawai (“Ghost in the Shell”). Like its predecessors, “Biohazard: Degeneration” (2008) and “Biohazard: Damnation” (2012), it doesn’t appear as if “Vendetta” was accorded a theatrical release here. Once I learned not to expect a visit from Jovovich, who so happens to be married to Anderson, I was able to cut directly to the chase. Because the “Biohazard” installments don’t neatly coincide with the “RE” releases, I wouldn’t recommend for newcomers to leap into either franchise, without first becoming familiar with the video game. There are several recurring characters and themes, in addition to the zombies and demon dogs that require zapping by soldiers and gamers. Here, BSAA agent Chris Redfield (voiced by Kevin Dorman) enlists the help of government agent Leon S. Kennedy (Matthew Mercer) and professor Rebecca Chambers (Erin Cahill), from Alexander Institute of Biotechnology, to prevent death merchant Glenn Arias (John DeMita) from spreading the deadly A-Virus in New York. In addition to being an evil genius and buff dude, Arias has a very good reason to be pissed at a government willing to teach him a lesson, by lobbing a cruise missile into a wedding reception … just like Afghanistan. Much of the fighting takes place from the p.o.v. of single shooters as they make their way through mansions and buildings full of zombies. The bonus package adds three featurettes, “The Creature,” “Motion Capture Set Tour with Dante Carver” and “CGI to Reality: Designing Vendetta”; a still gallery (30 sketches/designs); commentary (in Japanese) with Tsujimoto, Shimizu and Fukami; a bonus disc with three more featurettes, “BSAA Mission Briefing: Combat Arias,” “Designing the World of Vendetta” and “2016 Tokyo Game Show Footage.” The 4K Blu-ray disc features both Dolby Vision high-dynamic range (HDR) and Dolby Atmos immersive audio.

 

La Vie de Jean-Marie
When Dutch filmmaker Peter van Houten embarked on his bio-doc of a sprightly septuagenarian priest, who tends to more than 20 villages in the French Pyrenees, he couldn’t have imagined how, when or where it would end. If the subject had died half way through the shoot, for example, all Van Houten would have had to show for the project would have been some lovely shots of the mountains and footage of the priest meeting with parishioners and tending to his beautiful garden. They could have been shown at his funeral, as an unexpected sendoff to a swell guy. As it is, however, La Vie de Jean-Marie is a 166-minute-long portrait of a remarkable, if wholly anonymous man, whose reward for a life well-lived would have to wait until his promised rendezvous with the Holy Father. This isn’t to say that Pastor Jean-Marie wasn’t appreciated by the people of Olette or that he didn’t make a lasting impression with his lifelong commitment to their spiritual well-being. They have to count for something, after all. He arrived at the priesthood in a circuitous, if not completely unlikely fashion. Jean-Marie was born the eldest son of a large family. In 1948, his Dutch father bought a mountain in the French Pyrenees – that’s right, a mountain – where, after being rejected in love, the young man turned to God. With simplicity, humor and openness, Jean-Marie emerged from his heartache with a great spiritual love for his neighbors. Over the years, as vacancies at other parishes occurred, he took it upon himself to ride the circuit, rather than demand the villagers come to Olette. In true cinema-verite style,Van Houten trails the pastor like a dog follows its master, catching every nuance and recording all of Jean-Marie’s many thoughts and observations. Viewers able to sit through 166 minutes of such closely observed portraiture will be rewarded with a narrative payoff that’s almost too good to be true. Certainly, if La Vie de Jean-Marie had been made in Hollywood, the unexpectedly uplifting summation would have been too tidy to be credible. I wouldn’t think of spoiling it. The hardest part might be finding a copy of the movie on DVD or VOD, from IndiePix Films. In a rarity, I couldn’t find a mention of it or Van Houten on IMDB.com. Keep trying, though.

Free Fire: Blu-ray
Ever since 2009, when writer-director Ben Wheatley’s Down Terrace caught the attention of critics and lovers of offbeat crime pictures, he’s deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino. Since then, the Essex-born filmmaker has reeled off a series of thrillers that combine stylized violence, colorful characters and the poetics of slang and profanity. Although Free Fall is set in Boston, in the mid-1970s, instead of the UK, where it was shot, it features all the Wheatley-isms fans have come to expect, with one significant variation. It’s a locked-room thriller, set in a large abandoned factory. It is where two groups of almost comically inept hoodlums meet to exchange cash for automatic weapons. We’ve seen the same thing happen hundreds of times in movies and television series, including Boston’s own, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Given the stakes, tensions run high from the get-go. The money’s right … the automatic weapons work … but they’re not the variety agreed upon beforehand. After some initial trepidation, the groups’ spokesmen agree that the unexpected change shouldn’t be considered a deal-breaker. Both sides might have exited the factory intact, if it weren’t for the insistence of two of the hired hands to reignite a violent argument begun the night before the exchange. One thing leads to another and a good old-fashioned Western shootout ensues, during which all the participants take shelter behind piles of rubble and, one-by-one, pull out handguns to shoot anything that moves. At that same time, they taunt each other with insults, threats and mocking sounds. Soon, a pair of seemingly unaligned snipers join the party, picking off unprotected individuals from above. Amazingly, Wheatley keeps the shootout going for 90 increasingly tense minutes, within the confines of the factory, occasionally relieving the carnage with inky black humor. Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor and Noah Taylor are among the familiar faces taking potshots at each other. The character who steals the show from the boys, however, is played by Brie Larson (Room), whose allegiance isn’t always clear. Martin Scorsese thought enough about Free Fire to lend his name as executive producer.

Ukraine on Fire
Until Donald Trump’s taunts, lies and insults lit a fire under the ass of the mainstream press, only a handful of media outlets cared enough about officially sanctioned propaganda, untruths and corruption to provide the public with a semblance of truth. If the President hadn’t dared the New York Times, Washington Post and a few other outlets to call him out on his ridiculous tweets and callous disregard for facts, he might have sailed through his first six months in office. Instead, he stirred up the hornets’ nest and lost control of his legislative agenda. Filmmaker and conspiracy theorist Olivier Stone has long fancied himself as a counterbalance to the mainstream press, occasionally paying well-publicized visits to dictators whose views, he felt, were being misrepresented. It was difficult to discern whose ego was more on the line in Stone’s interviews. Before Trump and Putin met at the G-20 Summit – twice, it turns out — Stone conducted a series of interviews with the Russian leader, for a Showtime mini-series. For all the advance hype, the best he could do was lob softballs at a politician well versed in deflecting criticism and shaping propaganda. Which is too bad, because, in his features, Stone has often presented articulate alternatives to the official versions of major historical upheavals. In Igor Lopatonok and Vanessa Dean’s debut documentary, Ukraine on Fire, Stone serves as one of three co-executive producers and chief interviewer. His photograph his larger than anyone else’s on the cover, including Putin. Apart from the chats, Stone’s contribution is zilch.

As documentaries on ongoing current events go, Ukraine on Fire leaves a lot to be desired. Even before it gets to the current state of affairs in the country, Lopatonok and Dean present a historical timeline that makes Ukraine look like a banana republic, dominated by fascists, anti-Semitic ultra-nationalists and politicians whose loyalty to allies is always in doubt. Given the CIA’s tendency to meddle in other countries’ business, it should come as no surprise to viewers that the filmmakers have been able to make a strong case for painting the agency as the bogeyman, inciting riots whenever pro-Moscow leaders take power and supporting the worst sorts of opponents. We’re expected to believe that the hundreds of thousands of students who demanded democratic reforms were ripe for cooptation by the right. They also take the side of the Russian nationals in eastern Ukraine, whose desire to join the Motherland gave Putin an excuse to send in paramilitary troops and spark confrontations that would lead to a full-blown invasion. As for the Crimea, they suggest, the Russians have an historical right to steal it. Naturally, Putin agrees with them. If Stone’s bullshit detector was working during the interview sessions, his questions don’t show it. No other side is represented, even when the filmmakers play devil’s advocate in the shooting down of Malaysia Airline Flight 17. And, that’s unconscionable. Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) was released a year earlier than Ukraine on Fire and takes a more populist approach to recent history there. Not having seen the doc, all I can point to is its being an official selection of the Venice and Telluride International film festivals, a 2016 Oscar nominee and People’s Choice Award winner for the Best Documentary, at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Tommy’s Honour
Listen to announcers and analysts reporting on any major golf tournament and you’d think they were watching a royal wedding or the installment of a pope, instead of describing a game played with a ball and stick, by men in branded sportswear. They speak in hushed tones whenever a contender’s caddy pulls a club out of his bag and the choice reminds them of something that happened in tournaments long past. A particularly impressive shot elicits the kind of praise usually reserved for Congressional Medal of Honor winners. You can almost hear CBS host Jim Nantz genuflect and cross himself whenever the names of the sport’s greats are referenced at the Masters. This wasn’t always the case, but, thanks to the network’s kowtowing to PGA executives, it’s become commonplace. The old farts at August National even dictate CBS’ lineup of commentators. (Gary McCord and Jack Whitaker were banned for being insensitive to tradition.) That’s what makes an appearance by comedian Bill Murray at a pro-am event, or in the announcers’ booth, so refreshing. It also explains why Happy Gilmore, Caddyshack and Tin Cup have made a whole bunch more money at the box office than such otherwise worthwhile dramas as Bobby Jones Stroke of Genius, The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Legend of Bagger Vance. The most shocking thing about Tiger Woods’ collapse, wasn’t the nature of his misdeeds, but that they reminded his many admirers that he was human and behaved like everyone on tour when the cameras weren’t pointed in their direction.

The “u” in the title, Tommy’s Honour, is a dead getaway that Jason Connery’s homage to his father’s native Scotland, and its historical role in golf’s development, is to be taken seriously. That’s clear, as well, in his choice of locations, which include the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, in Fife, which has been around since 1754, and is looked up by duffers and pros, alike, as a shrine. Tommy’s Honour depicts the lives and careers of Old Tom (Peter Mullan) and Young Tom Morris (Jack Lowden), one of the greatest father-son acts in the history of organized sports. Both men were born, raised and worked within spitting distance of the hallowed St. Andrews clubhouse, where, as commoners, they were personae non grata. As close as they were, much of the film’s drama derives the Morris’ complex and bittersweet relationship, fueled by jealousy and passion for the game. Tommy’s Honour is based on Kevin Cook’s 2007 biography, “Tommy’s Honor: The Story of Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, Golf’s Founding Father and Son.” The movie plays down Old Tom’s many legendary achievements, if not their rivalry, in favor of a romantic throughline that sets the moral and religious tone of the period, as well as the dramatic climax. Another storyline involves the sport’s roots in snobbery, which allowed for Young Tom to represent the club in competition, but not as a member. He remains, at 17, the youngest golfer to win a major tournament. In addition to being a great golfer, in his own right, Old Tom was noted as an innovative greens-keeper, course and club designer, and teacher. If the twits who ran the club ever considered him a “gentleman,” apparently the pinnacle of status in the Victorian period, it isn’t revealed here. The real fun takes place in the gallery, anyway. The golfers were natural-born gamblers, who tried their best to intimidate each other, while fans are portrayed as rowdy sots, whose lack of decorum often resulted in fistfights. It’s also fun to see how the courses looked, at a time when manicuring greens was neither encouraged or practiced. The DVD release coincides with this week’s unfolding of the British Open.

Psychoanalysis
In the slow-burn drama, Psychoanalysis, Paul Symmonds is Australia’s top suicide-prevention specialist. He’s riding high in the psychiatric community and about to make a major presentation to his peers. Before he can do that, however, Paul’s stunned to learn that five of his patients have taken their own lives in the past week, throwing his reputation into question when it’s revealed in the media. When the speaking gig is canceled, Paul’s ego demands that he not accept the fallout without a fight. Curiously, he hires a documentary crew to follow him around as he attempts to clear his name. This includes a Psychology Board hearing, during which he is forced to attend sessions with a rival psychologist, who will determine if he’s capable of resuming his practice. The perceived dis allows freshman director James Raue to ask us, “Did they jump or were they pushed and, if so, why?” Paul’s sole ally in his investigation is a mentally unstable client, so anxious to support Symmonds that he impersonates an American FBI agent during interviews with the victims’ parents, some of whom need help themselves. It goes without saying that his stability will spiral downward as the search for the truth goes in directions he hadn’t anticipated. It’s all captured by the camera crew, which may have motives of its own to stick so close to Symmonds and his unreliable assistant. If Psychoanalysis’ pace requires some adjustments, actors Benedict Wall, Jes Craig-Piper, Michael Whalley and Ryan O’Kane keep things interesting.

Game Changers
In most nerdist melodramas I’ve seen, the star-crossed geeks eventually are required to hang up their controllers and adapt to a life outside the fantasy realms in which they came of age. In Rob Imbs’ micro-budget Game Changers, however, the characters are allowed to remain true to their roots throughout. When they mess up, as they inevitably do, it’s on terms that are more credible to gamers than other viewers. It is the story of two childhood friends — extrovert Bryan (Brian Bernys) and introvert Scott (Jake Albarella) — gaming superstars in their youth, but now settling into jobs in Bryan’s family IT company. True to the gamer spirit, they can’t imagine wearing anything more presentable than jeans, t-shirts and gym shoes to work, even as they climb the corporate ladder. Bryan attempts to direct his nervous energy into poker, but is too impulsive to be an effective player. He talks Scott into getting back into e-gaming at an intensely competitive level, which is OK, but only until he realizes that Bryan has become a video-game Nazi. Coincidentally, a cute and talented new employee develops a crush on Scott, based simply on her respect for his work. Like any true nerd, he’s, at first, unprepared to deal with normal boy-girl interaction. As he grows closer to her, his relationship with Bryan takes a devious turn. Somehow, Imbs pulls it off without forcing his characters to compromise or adapt to non-gamer society.

Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story
In the winter of 2003, commercial director Sandy Collora and some of his friends set out to make a short film for his demo reel. Starting at 17, he began honing his creature design and sculpting skills at Stan Winston’s studio as an assistant on “Leviathan” and “Alien Nation,” before moving on to work with Rob Bottin, Steve Johnson and Rick Baker. All along, he harbored the dream of interpreting his comic-book hero on film. What Collora’s team lacked in money, they more than made up for in chutzpah and imagination. In fact, Collora and his team created one of the most widely trafficked short films ever made: “Batman: Dead End.” In the seven-minute production, a pissed-off Batman – even darker than Christian Bale’s interpretation – punishes the Joker for escaping from prison. Unbeknownst to the Caped Crusader, however, the Alien and Predator are waiting in the wings to prove who’s boss in Gotham. That’s all there is to it. But, it looks great and is true to the characters’ look and venomous nature. Eric Dow’s Behind the Mask: The Batman: Dead End Story chronicles what happened when it was shown to the geeks at Comic-Con and the shock waves were felt all the way to Hollywood. The doc is divided into halves. In the first, Dow describes the inception and development of the project, including meetings with Sylvester Stallone. The second covers what happens when Collora becomes a hot property and, almost predictably, allows his artistic hubris to turn victory into disaster. In effect, he was handed the keys to Hollywood and pissed all over them. His refusal to accept the first few offers was admirable — from the point-of-view of an uncompromising indie artist, anyway — but, ultimately, suicidal. His only feature to date is the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Hunter Prey, of which DVD Talk said, “is likely to go down as one of the best sci-fi films in a long time that most people will never see.” Despite finding some traction in Europe, it was released here straight-to-video. The inside look at the legend of “Batman: Dead End” is informed by interviews with Collora, comic book legend Neal Adams and convention players Sean Clark, Shawn Reeves and Jordu Schell. It immediately recalls Overnight, Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith’s insightful examination of Boondock Saints’ writer-director Troy Duffy’s spectacular rise and fall.

Stormy Monday: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1988, seven years before he would turn heads with Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis introduced himself to filmgoers with Stormy Monday, a taut, stylish gangster movie that recalled John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind and any number of classic American noirs, in which the art, lighting and musical conceits were as crucial as the dialogue. That it was set on Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s rough-and-ready waterfront district only added to the fun. Despite a soundtrack informed by excellent jazz, R&B and blues, the most significant musical note was provided by the ragtag Krakow Jazz Ensemble – something of an extended Polish joke, I’m afraid – in a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” so discordant, it set the tone for everything that follows it. That’s because it’s American Week in Newcastle and the red-white-and-blue imagery is so pervasive, it’s possible to imagine Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher snuggling in the corner booth of Sting’s upscale jazz club. Sean Bean (“Sharpe”) plays Brendan, a handsome drifter seeking a custodial job with jazz club owner, Finney (Sting), who’s under pressure from American mobster Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones) to sell, in exchange for a cut of a local land development deal. After Brendan overhears a pair of Brit mobsters discussing a possible hit on Finney, Brendan uses it as an entrée to Finney’s inner circle. Meanwhile, he’s hit it off with Cosmo’s sultry ex-lover Kate (Melanie Griffith, never sexier), who’s a part-time model, waitress and prostitute. Whether the Yanks or Brits win the showdown is almost beyond the point. What counts more than anything else is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, without which Figgis’ visions might have gone unrealized. (A scene in which Brendan and Kate exchange a kiss on a bridge overlooking the city’s fog-shrouded port is suitable for framing.) Arrow Video’s special edition is presented here for the first time in high definition and original stereo audio. It adds commentary with Figgis, moderated by critic Damon Wise; a video appreciation by critic Neil Young; a ”then and now” tour of the film’s Newcastle locations; a reversible sleeve featuring, original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacey; and booklet, featuring new writing by critic Mark Cunliffe.

Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Even since the late 1980s, I’ve avoided vacationing in Hawaii, Tahiti, Bali and other idyllic islands in the Pacific Ocean, fearing that I might accidentally swim or snorkel directly into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an amorphous blob of floating debris discovered 30 years ago by researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Even if its horrific description bordered on urban mythology – and I could have afforded such a trip — why risk being swallowed up in slowly decaying globs of plastic bottles and other refuse? Whew, that was a close one. In Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, journalist/filmmaker Angela Sun traveled to distant Midway Atoll to uncover the truth behind the mystery. For all the attention that it garnered as the site of one of the great naval battles of World War II, the island chain is extremely difficult for civilians to reach and, since 2012, the tourism program has been suspended due to budget cutbacks. In the absence of environmental and historical tourists, Sun’s film suggests that the albatross population now controls passage on the roads and other thoroughfares. (Of the 21 species recognized by International Union for Conservation of Nature on its Red List, 19 are threatened, and the other two are “near threatened.”) Sadly, the gooney birds are the most threatened of all species on Midway by the plastic flotsam. Studies of birds in the North Pacific have shown that ingestion of plastic goblets results in declining body weight and condition. The plastic, after being consumed, can be regurgitated and fed to chicks, many of which die prematurely. That’s because the patch, which isn’t visible from the air or space, consists of tiny pieces suspended beneath the surface of the ocean. Larger objects also find their way to the beaches of Midway, but they’re more of an eyesore than of concern to marine life. Sun also encounters scientists, celebrities, legislators and activists who shed light on what our society’s vast consumption of disposable plastic is doing to our oceans — and what it may be doing to our health.

Do You Take This Man
The downside of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriages was revealed when filmmakers began making movies in which the gay grooms and lesbian brides were portrayed as being as neurotically attached to tradition as heterosexual couples from time immemorial. In the movies that’s meant throwing as many roadblocks and potholes in the path of the betrothed to make audiences wonder if the marriage will be canceled or saved in the final reel. Joshua Tunick’s debut feature, Do You Take This Man, follows an intimate group of friends and family – only four of whom are gay — as they gather at the home of Daniel and Christopher (Anthony Rapp, Jonathan Bennett) for the rehearsal dinner. In lieu of gifts, each new guest carries with them an unspoken question that should have been answered before the two men – mismatched only by age – began to make plans for the ceremony. To me, none of them is worth more than a few minutes’ anguish, if that, but that wouldn’t make for much of a drama, would it? The fact is, though, Lifetime built a network around movies that are every bit as predictable and ultimately uplifting as Do You Take This Man. Neither should LGBTQ audiences be deprived of their right to wallow in schmaltz every so often. The veteran cast includes Alyson Hannigan, Thomas Dekker, Mackenzie Astin, Alona Tal, Sam Anderson, Lee Garlington, Hutchi Hancock and Marla Sokoloff. The DVD adds cast interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes and director’s commentary.

With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
When I last reviewed “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” the comic-book legend was 89 years old and still attending Comic-Cons with regularity. Now, at 94, Lee’s expected to attend next week’s event, in San Diego, as well. He’s appeared in nearly 60 films in the last five years – in person, as a voice actor, or animated – in roles ranging from narrator in Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Volume 1, to strip-club deejay, in Deadpool. The highly recommendable DVD is being reissued by Well Go USA. It features interviews with fans and colleagues, including Kevin Smith, Patrick Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson and Eva Mendes, and relating the oft-told tale of one man’s determination to tell incredible stories, which have enchanted the world for over 40 years.

TV-to-DVD
ABC/CBS: T.J. Hooker: The Complete Series
Lifetime: Love by the 10th Date
PBS: Earth: Great Yellowstone Thaw: How Nature Survives
PBS Kids: Arthur: Brothers and Sisters
With the exception of Betty White, I can’t think of another actor who’s enjoyed the kind of roller-coaster career on television as William Shatner. Never very far from the public eye since breaking into the spotlight at the dawn of the broadcast era, White and Shatner have found ways to remain visible, as stars, guest stars, supporting characters, talk-show guests and contestants on game shows. White began her career near the top, in the early 1950s, with title roles in “Life With Elizabeth” and “Date With the Angels,” hitting paydirt in the 1970s, with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and, a decade later, in “The Golden Girls.” Shatner was a familiar face in series television until 1967, when he ascended to the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, as Captain James T. Kirk, on “Star Trek.” The show’s failure put a dent in his career, only alleviated by cultists who wouldn’t let it die. The unexpected success of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) resuscitated his career as a pop-cultural icon, while a starring role in ABC’s “T.J. Hooker” demonstrated that he could attract an audience as something other than a fleet commander. Coincidentally, both actors’ careers were resuscitated once again by David E. Kelly’s sibling courtroom dramas, “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Shatner’s Denny Crane remains one of the medium’s singular characters, while White’s delightfully felonious Catherine Piper bridged several demographic gaps. They’re still active. For the first time on DVD, Shatner’s 90-episode run in Rick Husky’s popular 1980s cop drama is on view in Shout!Factory’s “T.J. Hooker: The Complete Series The Leonard Goldberg/ Aaron Spelling production premiered as a mid-season replacement on March 13, 1982, on ABC, and ran on the network until May 4, 1985. It was picked up for another season by CBS, which placed it in a late-night spot. In it, Hooker is a veteran police sergeant in charge of training new “LCPD” recruits for duty in the mean streets of “LC,” which is a dead ringer for L.A. He gave up his gold shield after his partner was killed and he was shot. Hooker’s return threatened to uniform coincides with a change in attitude about career criminals, drug dealers and other enemies of civility. In the 90Metal Jacket. As the show progressed, Hooker would mellow noticeably, without compromising his ideals or de-minute pilot episode, he does a pretty good impersonation of R. Lee Ermey’s no-nonsense D.I., in Full sire to clean up the streets. Among his young proteges are cocky lady’s man Vince Romano (Adrian Zmed) and Farrah-Fawcett clone, Stacy Sheridan (Heather Locklear). (Every time Sheridan goes undercover, she gets kidnapped and with rape, or so it seems.) Notable guest stars included Leonard Nimoy, Vic Tayback, Lisa Hartman, Jonathan Banks, Robert Davi, Melody Anderson, Jim Brown, David Caruso, Helen Shaver, William Forsythe, Tracy Scoggins, Greg Morris, Ray Wise, Nia Peeples, Heather Thomas, Dennis Franz, Glynn Turman, Robert Pastorelli, Delta Burke, Miguel Ferrer, Sharon Stone, Lauren Tewes, Vanessa Williams and Sid Haig. If “T.J. Hooker” isn’t recalled as anything special in the annals of TV crime shows, it’s because it arrived after the Joseph Wambaugh-inspired “Police Story” and in the same season as “Hill Street Blues,” shows that smashed all genre conventions. It took a while for the public to warm to the latter, however, and, in the meantime, Shatner’s fans kept his show popular with mainstream viewers. Even so, as is the case in any Spelling/Goldman product, the dialogue is often laughably cliché, as is the casting of supporting characters. Lots of chases, though. (I wonder if Lawrence Kasdan had Shatner’s T.J. Hooker in mind when, in The Big Chill,” he made the name of the series in which Tom Berenger’s character starred, “J.T. Lancer.” Both characters’ willingness to jump on and off moving vehicles is similar.)

Criticizing a Lifetime rom-com for its lack of intellectual value is exactly the kind of fool’s errand nutritionists face when pointing out the flaws in a Big Mac or Big Gulp. It’s pointless. No matter how silly women are made to look in their pursuit of careers, men or material goods, there’s always going to be a sizeable audience willing to buy into the stereotypes. “Love by the 10th Date,” which aired earlier this year, is no better or worse than other romantic comedies targeted at women who watch them as much to see what the characters are wearing as how they resolves their problems, such as they are. Lifetime dramas are starting to come of age, I think, but comedies based on stereotypes will always find an audience. The story focuses on the career and romantic ambitions of Gabby (Meagan Good), Nell (Kellee Stewart), Billie (Keri Hilson) and Margot (Kelly Rowland), exceptionally beautiful African-American journalists who work for a digital lifestyle magazine based in L.A. Their British editor (Kat Deeley) is unhappy with the level of pizzazz displayed in story ideas they’ve begun to forward, sensing that they reflect the lack of luster in their private lives. The editor threatens to fire them, if their next assignment turns out to be a flat as the last ones. They come up with a challenge based on the idea that a “relationship isn’t a relationship until the tenth date with the same person,” after which true love can be rooted in a solid foundation. The women are then required to navigate the ups and downs of modern dating, romance, exes and friendships, while also learning what they want out of life and love. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Brandon T. Jackson, Black Shakespeare, Christian Keyes and Andra Fuller are among the atypically eligible bachelors who are blindsided by the constraints placed on them by their dates. The cast, which includes three Grammy nominees, doesn’t have to stretch much to meet writer/director Nzingha Stewart demands. The biggest laugh comes when one of the women accidentally displays the results of her bikini wax, while being saved at a revival meeting, at which her 10th-date hopeful is laying hands on sinners. Conveniently, she had forgotten to wear underwear, before pretending to be overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and fainting, legs akimbo. Happens all the time.

PBS/BBC’s “Great Yellowstone Thaw: How Nature Survive uses mini-cameras to describe how some the national park’s permanent residents pass the winter and how they take advantage of the spring thaw and summer runoff, which never are exactly alike from one year to the next. It isn’t as natural a process as you might think. Animals, like the plants in your garden, can be fooled by a false spring and emerge from their long winter’s nap before the eco-system is ready to accommodate their needs. That’s especially true with Yellowstone’s bear population. The winter described in this series was atypically mild, so the usual menu of food sources wasn’t available for an early riser. The cameras also capture great grey owls mating, nesting and raising their newborns. Buffalo roam … wolves hunt … beavers munch … hummingbirds suckle … rivers flood. The predators don’t always win and the meek don’t always lose. The three-part mini-series provides a wonderful reminder that we’re not alone, even if backcountry Yellowstone is off-limits to most visitors.

PBS Kids’ “Arthur: Brothers and Sisters” is set in the fictional American city of Elwood City. The show revolves around the lives of 8-year-old Arthur Read, an anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family, and their daily interactions with each other. The latest collection of eight stories about the joys – and challenges – of having a brother or sister. From D.W. copying her big brother’s every move, to the Tibble twins discovering one of them is two whole minutes older, this DVD features loads of sibling fun.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Lost City of Z, Zookeeper’s Wife, Fate of the Furious, Song to Song, Rossellini’s War, Quiet Passion, Norman, Terror in a Texas Town… and more

Friday, July 14th, 2017

The Lost City of Z: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing that bugs me about the business of show – I know, just one? — it’s when someone decides that he or she can think of a better title for a work of art than the creator of the source material. The last time it really bothered me, I think, was when Disney’s mega-budgeted John Carter (2012) died a miserable death at the domestic box-office and, to some, it signaled one trend or another. In my opinion, the studio could have saved itself some agony – if not marquee space – if it had humored the folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., who had recently trademarked the phrases “John Carter of Mars” and “Princess of Mars,” in anticipation of reaping some quick cash. Director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E) said, at the time, that he lopped off the Mars reference in the title to appeal to a broader audience. My guess is that he couldn’t convince anyone at the studio to invest a tiny slice of John Carter’s titanic $250-million budget to secure either of the titles and avoid a lawsuit of dubious credibility. The decision may not have cost Disney its plans for another franchise, but it didn’t sell any tickets, either. Neither was I thrilled with Quentin Tarantino’s decision to change Elmore Leonard’s novel, “Rum Punch” (1992), into Jackie Brown (1997). It was inspired, however, by his very smart decision to showcase former blaxploitation princess Pam Grier (Foxy Brown) in every way possible. While adapting “Rum Punch” into a screenplay, Tarantino changed the ethnicity of the main character from white to black, as well as changing her surname from Burke to Brown, and the setting from Miami to L.A. While falling short of being an unqualified commercial success, Jackie Brown did well enough to deflect any questions about Tarantino’s changes to the property. And, while Leonard wasn’t asked for his approval, he admitted his admiration for the screenplay – I asked – and pleasure knowing the check from Miramax wouldn’t bounce.

At first, second and third glance, I assumed that The Lost City of Z, was just another comic-book movie, Indiana Jones knockoff or sci-fi extravaganza, this one set on a planet with regions that mimic the dense jungles of South America, Africa or Southeast Asia. The title accorded James Gray’s film doesn’t lead one to anticipate anything approaching the endeavor, adventure and courage evidenced in New Yorker staff writer David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.” If, in the commercials and trailers for the film, the actor doing the voiceover had said, “The Lost City of Zed,” instead of “Z,” as is the case in the movie, my questions might have been alleviated from the get-go.  Still, it’s my hang-up, no one else’s. I should have been required to read the book. The fact is, though, it isn’t at all clear how well Gray’s moderately budgeted picture did commercially. It was only given a limited theatrical release, before Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street Media turned their focus to the VOD marketplace, where the economics are far more byzantine.

Regardless, The Lost City of Z is an easy movie to like. Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) is very good as British explorer Percival Fawcett, who, after serving Queen and country in the military, was assigned the task of travelling to South America to map a jungle area at the juncture of Brazil and Bolivia. Fawcett would arrange seven more expeditions, between 1906 and 1924, at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society. As exciting as Fawcett’s reports were, they were greeted with equal parts awe, disbelief and ridicule by narrow-minded twits at the club. They were especially unimpressed by speculation that he’d come within a few days’ hike of a “lost civilization” long hidden in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He wasn’t the first explorer to report the possible existence of such a place, but, the Brits found it difficult to combine the concepts, “savage” and “civilization,” in the same thought. World War I would interrupt Fawcett’s most promising quest, leaving Gray the liberty to compact, exaggerate and ignore certain events in the explorer’s final seven years on and off the grid. Like Amelia Earhart’s final journey, Fawcett’s 1925 trek ended with a question mark. On it, he is accompanied by his son, Jack (Tom Holland), whose companionship Fawcett missed throughout miss of his career. The fact that The Lost City of Z ends in mystery squares with what we know about the explorer’s story and doesn’t detract from Gray’s yarn. The vast Amazon basin is famous for discoveries of “lost tribes” and valuable resources that force scientists to rewrite their textbooks. Who says that El Dorado — or the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, for that matter – doesn’t exist shrouded in vines and trees, somewhere between the Andes and Brasilia. Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, Edward Ashley and Angus Macfadyen are fine in key supporting roles. Franco Nero appears in a scene almost certainly inspired by Fitzcarraldo, while the uncredited Aboriginal performers play their ancestors very well. Moreover, Darius Khondji’s cinematography deserves to be remembered. The Blu-ray adds audio commentary and three behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The Zookeeper’s Wife
As of January 1, Israel’s Yad Vashem Memorial has recognized 26,513 “righteous gentiles,” from 51 countries, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust, according to the Seven Laws of Noah. That total represents 10,000 authenticated rescue stories. Among those men and women honored both as “Righteous Among the Nations,” and in films about their good work, are Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List), Raoul Wallenberg (Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg), Ángel Sanz Briz (“El ángel de Budapest”), Leopold and Magdalena Socha (In Darkness), Stefania and Helena Podgórska (Hidden in Silence), Czeslaw Milosz (“Let Poland Be Poland”) and, as we learn in The Zookeeper’s Wife, Jan and Antonina Żabiński. If even 1 or 2 percent of those 10,000 stories are as potentially cinematic as Niki Caro’s heart-wrenching drama, there should be a line of screenwriters camped out at Yad Vashem right now, seeking inspiration. Angela Workman (The War Bride) based her screenplay for The Zookeeper’s Wife on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same title, which was largely drawn from Antonina Żabiński’s unpublished-in-English diary. In the 1930s, Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) was a geography teacher, zoologist and director of Warsaw’s thriving zoo. During the occupation, he was appointed superintendent of the city’s public parks. The movie focuses –  a 60/40 margin, by my reckoning — on Antonina’s (Jessica Chastain) unofficial roles as associate zookeeper, wife and mother to the couple’s pre-teen son, Ryszard, and newborn daughter, Teresa, and hostess to visiting dignitaries. After the zoo is nearly completely destroyed in the blitzkrieg that toppled Polish autonomy, the Zabinskis shared equally in the care, feeding and transport of an estimated 300 Jewish men, women and children. In the movie, most are confined to the basement of the zoo’s villa, until, at least, the German guards leave for the night. In fact, the empty cages also were outfitted to provide shelter. The Zabinskis’ professional relationship with German zookeeper and geneticist Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) allowes them to remain at the zoo during the occupation and raise pigs as cover for transferring Jews from the ghetto, where scraps of food were collected, to the villa. Heck “volunteered” to move the most prominent of the endangered animals to German zoos – the others would be slaughtered for no good reason – and use the facilities to breed what became known as “Aryan cows.” His crush on Antonina causes all sorts of problems for the Zabinskis, the headstrong children and desperate survivors. There’s no reason to spoil anything else that transpires in The Zookeeper’s Wife, except to say that Heck’s position within Hitler’s inner circle would make an excellent movie on its own. Likewise, Caro’s depiction of the bombing of the zoo and subsequent panic caused by escaping animals is practically worth the price of a ticket, alone. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and short piece on the real-life Żabińskis.

The Fate of the Furious: Blu-ray
The untimely death of Paul Walker, during production of Furious 7, appears to have hadd the anomalous effect of adding almost $100 million of new business to the usual numbers associated with the venerable “F&F” franchise at the domestic box office and another $600 million to the global tally. The Fate of the Furious’s domestic take of some $225.5 million settled a bit below that of Fast & Furious 6 and a bit ahead of Fast Five. It’s significant that estimated production costs during the same period doubled, from $125 million, in 2011, to $250 million for “Fate.” So, what keeps the franchise from sinking from its own weight? You guessed it, an overseas haul that’s grown from about $415 million, in 2011, to $1.163 billion, in 2015, and $1.013 billion, today. Despite the dip, the Universal blockbuster became only the sixth film to cross $1 billion at the overseas box office. The others are Avatar (Fox), $2.027 billion; Titanic (Paramount), $1.528 billion; Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney), $1.131 billion; and Jurassic World (Universal), $1.019 billion. What that means for U.S. audiences is that another two sequels are practically guaranteed, and with matching budgets. If Universal depended on domestic sales, alone, “Fate” would have looked very different than it does. That holds especially true for the wonderful opening sequence, in which Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) races a cocky Cuban motorhead, Raldo (Celestino Cornielle), through Havana’s cramped residential neighborhoods and broad Malecón esplanade. Dom and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon, visiting a Cuban cousin, while the rest of the “family” members are enjoying a semblance of peace, quiet and freedom from prosecution elsewhere. Diehard fans of the series will appreciate the tight focus director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) puts on the pre-embargo cars driven by Cubans. Through Dom and Raldo’s encounter, viewers get to look under the hoods of vehicles that are held together by scavenged engines, cannibalized parts, duct tape and chewing gum. Even so, they look as if they were collected in California and flown to Havana for color.

Sadly, the rest of the story feels every bit as cobbled together as the cars. Mere moments after Dom wins the race and, of course, destroys his car, he’s approached by the international cyberterrorist, Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into covertly joining her team. Back home, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) calls on Dom’s team – Letty, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) – to help him retrieve an Electro-Magnetic Pulse device from a military outpost in Berlin. During the getaway, Dom goes rogue, forcing Hobbs off the road and stealing the device for Cipher.  All too conveniently, methinks, Hobbs is arrested and locked up in the same high-security prison as his nemesis, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). After escaping, both are recruited by intelligence operative Frank Petty/Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his protégé, Eric Reisner/Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), to help the team hunt down Dom and capture Cipher. Even more conveniently, Cipher has kidnapped Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky) – who recently became Dom’s baby momma – and is holding them in a cell in her tricked-out 747. If Dom doesn’t cooperate with her plan to retrieve a nuclear football held by the Russian Minister of Defense., Cipher surely will kill mother and child. This leads to the second of the three exciting set pieces, this one set in Manhattan and involving dozens of cars that she controls robotically. With EMP and nuclear football in hand, Cipher now intends to steal a submarine being retrofitted at a frozen-over base in the Arctic. Will Hobbs’ team arrive in time to save the planet from Cipher? Stay tuned. As exciting as the set pieces are, I don’t recommend that newcomers enter the series at The Fate of the Furious. All of the characters are carrying too much baggage from previous installments. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes, extended fight scenes and Gray’s commentary. The digital copy adds 13 minutes of unseen footage, which Gray describes as being “probably the most adult, tone-wise, in the franchise.”

Song to Song: Blu-ray
Critics can say what they will about Terrence Malick and the otherworldly turn his pictures have taken since his revelatory historical drama, The New World. Clearly, no high-profile filmmaker has taken greater risks, in anticipation of fewer financial gains and critical praise than Malick in the last dozen years. I can’t pretend to understand them anymore than anyone else, but, what I do love and admire about The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song is the intense visual palette he’s created with Mexican-born DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and, in the Voyage of Time couplet, the American natural-history specialist, Paul Atkins. They’ve explored the boundaries of cinematography as much, or more, than any other collaborative team extant. Malick’s meditations on love, passion, sex and self-indulgence, in To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song, frankly, have the same effect on me as paging through the September issues of Vogue and other high-fashion magazines. The camera demands we take seriously characters we might otherwise dismiss as unusually lifelike mannequins. The first thing to know about Song to Song is that it was filmed back-to-back with Knight of Cups, which it resembles, and is dated by footage taken at the 2012 Austin City Limits music festival. So, while it might look as if Ryan Gosling’s characters here and in La La Land are related, the coincidence can be traced to Malick’s fastidious post-production regime. (Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett appear in both pictures. Michael Fassbender replaced Christian Bale when his commitment to American Hustle interceded with Malick’s plans.)

The decadence described in Knight of Cups mimicked life among the rich and famous in the high-rent districts of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and its list of cameo appearances in the party scene rivaled that of The Player. Song to Song takes place largely in Austin — the capital of New Wealth Texas — and the Yucatan Peninsula, a convenient getaway for cowboys who ride the digital range. The cameos and worldly advice here are provided by rockers Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten, Florence Welch, Chili Peppers Anthony Kiedis and Flea, and twins Sara and Tegan (Quin). The story’s two competing love triangles involve record producer Cook (Fassbender, only one degree removed from his character in Shame); his musician protégé, BV (Gossling); and an aspiring songwriter, Faye (Rooney Mara). When the hookup with Cook doesn’t pay the expected dividends, Faye discovers genuine feelings for BV. For his part, Cook seduces and corrupts a seemingly innocent waitress, Rhonda (Portman), just because he can. After BV drifts away from the double-dealing Faye, she engages in some girl-girl experimentation with Parisian bombshell, Zoey (former Bond Girl, Berenice Marlohe). Lubezki’s wide-angle approach to these entanglements makes them look far more idyllic than they could ever have been in real life. (Not that I’m an expert in such things.) At the same time, his camera makes Austin look like Paradise on Earth for New Age millionaires. (The nearly emaciated female characters really ought to consider visiting the city’s famous barbecue and beer joints.) Always visually compelling, I’d be interested in seeing what Song to Song looks like in 4K. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “The Music Behind the Movie.”

American Fable
Reading a filmmaker’s resume on IMDB.com or in a studio-prepared press kit typically provides less information than a race horse’s part-performance chart in the Daily Racing Form, where it’s possible to predict a competitor’s future by what it’s done in the past. Learning, in advance, that first-time writer/director Anne Hamilton merely worked as an intern for Terrence Malick on The Tree of Life told me next to nothing about what to expect from her Midwestern gothic, American Fable. Perhaps, her role was limited to securing a ready supply of decent-tasting coffee in the Texas Outback or anticipating the weather conditions in Iceland, Chile and Italy. Instead, judging from her representation of life on a small Wisconsin farm, at the height of the Reagan-era economic crisis, Hamilton appears to have paid close attention to Malick’s modus operandi and close working relationship with DP Emmanuel Lubezki. If her fairytale mystery doesn’t always keep pace with Wyatt Garfield’s gorgeous cinematography, well, American Fable represents an auspicious start to a promising career. With her family’s livelihood imperiled by the farm crisis of the 1980s, 11-year-old Gitty (Peyton Kennedy) is mostly kept in the dark as to the true extent of their plight. For his part, a sadistic older brother relieves his anxiety by bullying her unmercifully, leaving Gitty with only one true friend and confidante: her pet chicken. Clearly, though, something ominous is hanging in the air. One day, after her ritual stroll through the corn field, Gitty comes across an abandoned silo, in which a man in a business attire is imprisoned. With an imagination stoked by storybook adventures, Gitty sees in Jonathan (Richard Schiff) someone who both needs her help and understands her loneliness. Hamilton leaves open the possibility that Jonathan is a demon, encased in the silo for reasons the girl couldn’t possibly understand, or an angel being held hostage by a cabal of cosplay freaks, led by Vera (Zuleikha Robinson), a woman who fancies a ram’s-head mask and rides through the fields on a horse borrowed from the local Renaissance Faire. Or, maybe, Gitty’s reading something mystical into a desperate cry for help by farmers hoping to extort money from an agri-business conglomerate. Viewers are encouraged to take their pick of the options … or not. It isn’t until very late in the proceedings that Hamilton gives us a solid reason as to why Gitty’s mom, dad and brother are treating her like a bad-penny orphan and, even then, it doesn’t quite wash. Neither does the overly ambiguous ending. As Schiff has demonstrated in such smallish indies as Take Me to the River and The Automatic Hate, he’s as effective on the big screen as he is on television (“The West Wing,” “Ballers,” “The Affair”). At the ripe old age of 13, Kennedy (“Odd Squad”) has already proven she can hang with the big dogs. Kip Pardue (Remember the Titans), Marci Miller (“Days of Our Lives”) and Gavin MacIntosh (“The Fosters”) round out the family unit.

A Quiet Passion: Blu-ray
Although it didn’t seem to register with Oscar, Globes or Indie Spirit voters, Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of poet Emily Dickinson comes as close to perfection as any performance I was able to see last year. After playing the festival circuit and garnering rave reviews, A Quiet Passion only opened in six theaters, expanding to a grand total of 135 screens, and making a bit of money along the way. It arrived in the direct wake of the lovely BBC Wales production, “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters,” which found an audience here on PBS affiliates. Both movies were shot in historically accurate locations and could still be taught – and debated – as part of any English-department curriculum, without any ink-and-paper purists protesting too vigorously. Their lifelines overlapped, a tad, as did the cultural, religious and sexual norms under which they labored. Among the reasons the acclaimed British writer/director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea) was drawn to Nixon was her uncanny resemblance to the author, as evidenced by period photographs, and an audition for a previous unmounted project. Nixon says she was attracted to the project because, apart from the 1976 adaptation of “The Belle of Amherst” for television, Dickenson’s life and work has been given short shrift on film. And, of she admires her poetry. If anything, she’s been treated as an artist whose idiosyncrasies were more significant than her work or as just another dead poet, whose writing bored high school students were forced to memorize. Partially, this is because so much of what we might have learned about Dickenson went up in smoke, when, on her orders, her correspondence was destroyed by her sister. While the idiosyncrasies are on full, almost maddening display in A Quiet Passion, so, too, is her humanity and likely struggles with depression or bipolar disorder. Viewers should be able to identify with her struggles, especially those associated with the family’s Puritan heritage and conforming to strict borders separating men and women at home and in the marketplace. As such, I couldn’t help but compare the agonies endured by Dickenson – as well as agnostics and other 19th Century free-thinkers — to those faced by open-minded Muslims under Taliban and ISIS domination. Keith Carradine is especially good as Edward Dickinson, a man who allowed his daughter atypical creative and philosophical latitude, but could become a tyrant when pressed on his beliefs. As her loyal and much-put-upon brother and sister, Duncan Duff and Jennifer Ehle also stand out. The Blu-ray adds a post-screening Q&A session with Davies and Nixon; a behind-the-scenes featurette; a radio interview with Nixon; and a booklet with interviews, photos and a critical essay.

Bitcoin Heist: Bluray
If, like me, you have only a rudimentary knowledge of how cryptocurrency and other alternative markets work, the rare Vietnamese export, Bitcoin Heist, might provide a convenient entry point. Not only is it one of the very few action/adventures to emerge from our onetime enemy and current trading partner, but it also bears comparison to such glossy caper flicks as Ocean’s Eleven and Now You See Me. If it isn’t in the same league, quite yet, at least it’s trying to get there. Web surfers will also appreciate the protagonists’ attempts to deal with the ransomware epidemic. Co-writer/director Ham Tran (Journey From the Fall) built Bitcoin Heist on the same foundation as other thrillers in the it-takes-a-thief sub-genre, while adding some hot, young actors and sexy locations. It’s the kind of fast-paced flick you’d expect from Hong Kong and Korean studios. Bitcoin Heist is set in 2020, although it might as well be tomorrow. To snare one of the region’s most wanted hackers, the Ghost, an elite police team headed by Dada (Kate Nhung) is formed to infiltrate his gang and make sense of the scam’s intricacies. A failed operation will cause Dada to be relieved of her duties and begin a back-channel investigation of our own, using crooks she’d previously busted. They include a purple-haired hacker; a conman who hides priceless diamonds behind prosthetic facial moles; and an illusionist whose stage name is Petey Majik Nguyen. The Ghost is a tough nut to crack, alright, but Tran’s real problem is bringing the Internet to life long enough to make it interesting as a virtual character. He also must convince us of the likelihood that reformed crooks can be counted on to remain loyal to Dada. The magic and action sequences, influenced by Tsui Hark and early John Woo, free viewers from focusing too hard on the incomprehensible Bitcoin setup.

Norman
Because of writer/director Joseph Cedar’s prominence within the Israeli film industry (Beaufort, Footnote) and storylines that lead from New York’s Jewish community to the Knesset, it’s likely that the buzz on Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer – again, with my fixation on original titleswas intended to spread from festivals in North America, to Tel Aviv and back to the U.S., rather than rely on the usual media barnstorming. As obscure as Cedar may be here, commitments from Richard Gere, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Harris Yulin, Hank Azaria, Josh Charles and Steve Buscemi could have attracted arthouse audiences, anyway. In his first English-language film, the American-born Israeli was fortunate to cast Gere against type as a slightly disheveled, possibly homeless macher, Norman Oppenheimer, who might remind viewers of Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig. As the picture opens, Norman strikes up a wholly unlikely friendship with a down-in-the-dumps Israeli politician, during his visit to New York. Norman’s pragmatic gesture to Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) will bear fruit, three years later, when his friend is elected Prime Minister. What Oppenheimer lacks in charisma, he more than makes up for in chutzpah. Recognizable for his unkempt white hair, snap-brim cap and ratty camel-hair coat, Norman could be any variety of New Yorker, from eccentric multimillionaire to panhandler. Instead, he’s known by the people he helps as a “generous Jew” … someone who gets things done for people who don’t possess his cunning and connections, without any obvious interest in personal gain. Once Eshel is elected and he warmly greets Oppenheimer at a reception in New York, however, the fixer’s dormant intentions rise to the surface. No longer satisfied with being “a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he uses Eshel’s name to leverage a series of quid pro quo transactions linking the Prime Minister to a nephew, a rabbi, a mogul, his assistant and a treasury official from the Ivory Coast. The perceived relationship even opens a door at Harvard. As Cedar explains in the bonus interviews, Norman’s timing coincides with a not dissimilar scandal involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ever since 2014’s Time Out of Mind, Gere has allowed himself to play characters closer to his own age or older, and he’s no worse for the wear. He does a terrific job here, alternately forlorn, manipulative and charming.

Feed the Light: Blu-ray
It isn’t often that I’m able to introduce a completely unheralded genre picture with an unqualified rave. It’s even more rare when a film as good as Feed the Light is the product of a single artist’s imagination and ingenuity. If only it were easier to summarize. Since 1999, Swedish filmmaker Henrik Möller has written, directed, produced and appeared in 60-some video shorts, as well as editing and shooting 20 of them. The tres, tres creepy Feed the Light, whose budget seemingly could be measured in rolls of quarters, is his first feature. Like so many other aspiring horror/fantasy/sci-fi specialists, Möller chose to adapt – loosely — a story by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Color Out of Space,” that’s already been resurrected several times. Here, though, he elected to shape his interpretation, based on visual patterns firmly established by the filmmaker he interviewed for the seven-minute short, “Henrik Möller Talks to David Lynch” (2010). Feed the Light is set in the labyrinthine corridors of a subterranean warehouse in Malmo, Sweden. There are no windows and the fluorescent lights twitch to a pulsating soundtrack, likely inspired by Philip Glass. Shot in grainy black-and-white, with the occasional flash of color, it reminds some critics of Eraserhead. The overriding mystery here, however, concerns an alien light source, independent of the electrical grid, that controls everything and everyone confined to the warehouse. Lina Sundén plays Sara, a slightly androgynous woman who’s lost track of her young daughter and thinks her abusive ex-husband, who works at the warehouse, may be behind the disappearance. Despite blowing her interview with the facility’s emotionally challenged Boss (Jenny Lampa), Sara lands the job she’ll use to search for her child. The custodial staff is either completely hostile to the newcomer or suspiciously helpful in sharing the warehouse’s secrets. Basically, though, except for the supernatural force, she’s alone. Only 75 minutes long, Moller doesn’t appear to have had any trouble maintaining Feed the Light’s tension, mystery and momentum. Occasionally, he throws in something disgusting, just to see if we’re paying attention. The Blu-ray adds “Making of Feed the Light” and “The Lovecraft Influence: Interview With Co-Writer/Director Henrik Möller.”

Their Finest: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: My Mother & Other Strangers
With Christopher Nolan’s historical epic, Dunkirk, set to open around the world in the next few weeks, it’s worth paying attention to another British movie, made on a considerably smaller scale and budget, about roughly the same subject. The defense and evacuation of British and Allied forces trapped in Europe took place from May 26 to June 4, 1940, on the beaches of Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France. The Blitz started three months later, on September 7, when Hitler’s Luftwaffe began systematically targeting locations in London for 56 out of the following 57 days and nights. If we already know the outcome of the Battle of Britain, Americans have largely been required to rely on PBS’ “Masterpiece” and other mini-series to fill in the details of what happened between then and America’s official entry into the war, more than a year later. Although this country’s material support was assured, it took the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as Britain’s fortitude in the face of continued German airstrikes, to push us into the global conflict. Based on Lissa Evans’ wartime novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half,” Their Finest describes efforts to make a movie so emotionally captivating that it not only would lift the spirits of fellow countrymen, but also inspire American audiences to demand an Allied effort. Gemma Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a character based upon the Welsh screenwriter and playwright, Diana Morgan, who worked at Ealing Studios throughout the 1940s. Catrin’s duties were mostly limited to punching up dialogue in propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, at least until she’s dispatched to the coast to interview twin sisters who allegedly helped ferry soldiers home during the evacuation of Dunkirk. While their reputation appears to have been exaggerated, the story is deemed worthy of further exploration. She’s paired with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), a sour young screenwriter described as having been “spawned in a pub out of sawdust.” Their primary directive, it seems, is to make movies that contain “authenticity informed by optimism,” and that’s exactly what they intend to do … God willing and the German bombs don’t land on the soundstage. Movies about people making movies tend to err on the side of the Industry and, while Their Finest doesn’t paint the actors and filmmakers as angels, Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) mines the humor in Gaby Chiappe’s (“Shetland”) adaptation of the novel, freeing Bill Nighy to steal the show as the crusty star, Ambrose Hilliard. You can probably guess how their movie turns out, but, as befits any good BBC mini-series, it hardly matters. The Blu-ray adds a making-up featurette and commentary with Scherfig.

The “Masterpiece” presentation, “My Mother & Other Strangers,” may be set three years after the events described in Their Finest, but it’s of a piece with other British mini-series and dramas staged on the homefront, before D-Day. Its primary difference is the Northern Ireland location, as befits a production financed by BBC Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen. Set on the shores of Lough Neagh, the series centers on the Coyne family and their neighbors, as they come to terms with the influx of thousands of American servicemen of the United States Army Air Forces’ Eighth Bomber Command. The pilots would soon relocate to England, but, in the meantime, the forced relationship often was rocky. By that, of course, I mean that the local men resented the appearance of so many cocksure Yanks in close quarters with the flower of Northern Irish sisterhood. There are times when their allegiances were decidedly mixed, as if Nazi soldiers wouldn’t try to take advantage of their sisters and wives, if they won the war.  At least, the Americans are polite. As displaced Englishwoman and the local publican’s wife, Rose Coyne (Hattie Morahan) finds herself acting as peacekeeper between the disgruntled locals and the soldiers, she is also drawn to the engaging young Captain Ronald Dreyfuss (Aaron Staton). Will Rose risk her family for this forbidden love? Stay tuned.

London Heist
It wouldn’t be fair to call Mark McQueen’s nasty crime drama a rip-off of Jonathan Glazer’s stylish gangland thriller, Sexy Beast, but there are too many similarities to ignore. At least, London Heist (a.k.a., “Gunned Down”) can’t be accused of mimicking Guy Ritchie, when he was still making movies that mattered. Both involve battle-hardened London gangsters, several of whom would kill their best mates to make an easier buck, and exploit sunbaked locations on Spain’s southwestern coast. There are crosses, double-crosses, shootouts and lots of tough, vaguely Cockney slang. The actors, even the dames, look as if they’ve just escaped from prison. Of the two films, Sexy Beast is, by far, the better movie. Considering that it’s 17 years old, however, fans of the subgenre might find a few things in London Heist to like. In a nutshell, it involves four seemingly allied gangsters and the equivalent of $4 million in cash stolen in an airport job. Co-writer Craig Fairbrass, who looks as if he could win a stare-down with Big Ben, plays the crook who not only is ripped off by his partners, but is forced to watch as his father is murdered. Cregan decides to catch the first thing smoking to Spain’s Costa del Sol, where his mentor (James Cosmo) is still calling the shots. To compensate for the missing money, while exacting his revenge, Cregan will have to round up mates he can trust and pull another job. You know how that usually goes.

Alive and Kicking
Although the Swing Era is said to have lasted from mid-Depression, 1935, to the year following V-E and V-J Days, when white Americans began their migration to the suburbs, it’s just as easy to trace swing and big-band music to the late-1920s and early-1930s, when African-American orchestras led by Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines and Fletcher Henderson turned Harlem into a late-night destination for the posh crowd. If 1935 sounds a bit arbitrary, it’s only because it coincides with Benny Goodman’s epochal performance at the Palomar Ballroom, in Los Angeles, on August 21, 1935. Spotting an instant trend, Hollywood musical would introduce the Lindy hop, jitterbug, various shags, Susie-Q, Big Apple and Truckin’ to the masses. In the post-war era, another generation would adopt the bop, rock (at its best, a variation of the Lindy hop) and twist to their needs. One of the women interviewed in Susan Glatzer’s delightfully lively documentary, Alive and Kicking, pinpoints the modern resurgence to Thomas Carter’s Swing Kids (1993), Doug Liman’s Swingers (1996) and The Gap’s ubiquitous, 1998 “Khakis Swing” commercial, featuring Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” If the 1990s swing craze appeared to give way to other, more trance-induced dance forms, Glatzer argues convincingly that the new-breed Lindy-hoppers simply lowered their public and media profile, organizing competitions and quietly forming social networks. As the rest of the world re-took to swing, the cream of our crop spread the gospel in clinics, contests and dance schools abroad. Alive and Kicking also showcases the dynamic culture and cathartic power of swing dancing from its historic origins to its impact today. Glatzer argues that, boiled down to its core, swing dancing simply is the pursuit of happiness, as joyous as it can be therapeutic. Only 88 minutes long, she follows a half-dozen individual dancers through highly personal stories. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an interview with the director and commentary with Glatzer and DP John W. MacDonald.

Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There’s no greater gift a lover of classic cinema can give to someone just beginning their own artistic journey than films that can be collected the way wealthy men once kept and, yes, sometimes hoarded, first editions of great literature. Things are simpler now, of course, and leather bindings no longer are in fashion. For an amount of money considerably less than a dinner for two at a good restaurant, you can ensure that a loved one or friend possesses three of the building blocks of 20th Century cinema in pristine, high-definition resolution. Criterion Collection has repackaged “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy” — Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero – for connoisseurs, collectors and novices to appreciate for as long as the plastic discs allow. Although the first neorealist film is thought by some scholars to be Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), the national film movement represented, first, in Rome Open City, would be characterized by stories set among the poor and the working class, filmed on war-ravaged locations, frequently using non-professional actors. If Europeans didn’t need to be reminded of the indignities and deprivations suffered during and immediately after World War II, the stories showed audiences that the devastation wasn’t limited to one class, city or neighborhood and words like “heroism” and “humanity” weren’t reserved solely for medal-presentation ceremonies. They had endured the horror together and survived only to clean up the mess left behind by the pursuit of fascism. For American and Canadian viewers, especially, neorealism brought the war home to people largely protected from the ugliest truths of war and genocide by government censors, Hollywood fantasists and veterans haunted by lingering memories of death and dying. Rome, Open City (1945) is set in the capital during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Although the Allies are advancing on the city, the Gestapo is still hunting communists and members of the resistance, some of whom wear the clerical collar. Divided into six episodes, Paisan (1946) opens as the Allies are preparing for the invasion of Italy and ends in the Po Delta, where partisans remain an endangered species. Germany Year Zero takes place in post-war Berlin, as survivors come to grips with the reality of total defeat and the shame of being revealed as co-conspirators to mass murderer. Not surprisingly, it was the most hotly debated entry in the trilogy.

A decade later, as the so-called economic miracles took hold across western Europe, neorealism would give way to other stories and genres. The boxed set features new high-definition digital restorations, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks, as well as vintage introductions to all three films by Roberto Rossellini; interviews from 2009 with Rossellini scholar Adriano Aprà, film critic and Rossellini friend Father Virgilio Fantuzzi, and filmmakers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; commentary on Rome Open City by film scholar Peter Bondanella; “Once Upon a Time … Rome Open City,” a 2006 documentary on the making of this historic film, featuring rare archival material and footage of Anna Magnani, Federico Fellini and Ingrid Bergman; “Rossellini and the City,” a 2009 video essay by film scholar Mark Shiel on Rossellini’s use of the urban landscape in “The War Trilogy”; excerpts from rarely seen videotaped discussions Rossellini had in 1970 about his craft, with faculty and students at Rice University; “Into the Future,” a 2009 video essay about “The War Trilogy” by film scholar Tag Gallagher; “Roberto Rossellini,” a 2001 documentary by Carlo Lizzani, assistant director on Germany Year Zero, tracing Rossellini’s career through archival footage and interviews with family members and collaborators, with tributes by filmmakers François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese; “Letters From the Front: Carlo Lizzani on Germany Year Zero,” a podium discussion with Lizzani from the 1987 Tutto Rossellini conference; Italian credits and prologue from Germany Year Zero; and essays by James Quandt, Irene Bignardi, Colin McCabe and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Terror in a Texas Town: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I could recommend picking up Arrow Academy’s upgrade of Joseph H. Lewis’ much-neglected noir Western, Terror in a Texas Town, for a half-dozen different reasons, without spoiling the best part ahead of time. Although I hadn’t heard of the movie before it arrived in the mail last week, I will happily sample anything the company sends my way. Not only do the films tend to be wildly entertaining, but the bonus features can be revelatory, as well. The same can be said about releases from Criterion Collection, Cohen Media Group and a few other boutique distributors represented here each week. Arrow’s movies, however, range from completely off the wall to delightfully eclectic. Upon its release, in 1958, the 80-minute Terror in a Texas Town was intended specifically for distribution as a B-movie, or second feature on a double-bill. While it could have lost another 10 minutes and no one would have known the difference, 80 minutes was the length exhibitors required to sell some popcorn, candy and pop during intermission and previews. The first image, which could be interpreted as a parody of High Noon, finds an as-yet-unidentified Sterling Hayden marching with purpose down a dusty main street, somewhere in Texas — actually, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch – brandishing, of all possible lethal weapons. a harpoon. In fact, the scene is a flash-forward to a showdown with gunslinger Johnny Crale (Nedrick Young), 75 minutes later. Crale is a nearly over-the-hill gunfighter, in town to intimidate the peaceful farmers into selling their plots to a fat-cat businessman (Sebastian Cabot), who covets the oil he knows is hiding just below the surface of their nearly worthless fields. Two days before Hayden’s George Hansen arrives by train, Crale murdered the Swede’s immigrant father for refusing to sign over his land in a cheap hustle. His hired hand, Mirada (Victor Millan), witnessed the shooting, but, like everyone else in town, is afraid to blow the whistle on Crale … not that the sheriff would have done anything about it, anyway. Hansen takes it upon himself to convince the townsfolk to stand up for what’s right and refuse to sell their soon-to-be-valuable property for pennies on the dollar. Soon enough, he’ll be strolling down main street, harpoon in hand.

Terror in a Texas Town’s unusually stylish look – for a Western, anyway – carries Lewis’ then-unmistakeable fingerprints. He’s known best for My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), The Big Combo (1955) and Gun Crazy (1950), a Bonnie and Clyde-inspired crime drama still considered to be one of the essential noirs. OK, here comes the surprise … at least, for me. The movie’s populist message was anything but accidental. The credited screenwriter, Ben L. Perry, was a pseudonym for blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who also has penned Gun Crazy under the “front” identity, Millard Kaufman. Nedrick Young, the actor who plays Johnny Crale, would win that year’s Oscar for best screenplay, The Defiant Ones, under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas. He, too, was blacklisted for invoking his Fifth Amendment rights while testifying before the 1953 House Committee on Un-American Activities. Terror in a Texas Town would be Lewis’ final feature. He went on to direct such TV Westerns as “The Rifleman” (51 episodes), “Gunsmoke” and “The Big Valley.” In 1960, at Kirk Douglas’ insistence, Trumbo would be accorded the screenwriter’s credit for Spartacus, in his own name, effectively ending the blacklist. Even so, Ned Young, who also wrote Jailhouse Rock (1957), reverted to Nathan E. Douglas once again for Inherit the Wind (1960), also nominated for an Oscar. That’s a lot of backstory for an 80-minute “programmer,” but well worth the time it takes to peruse the featurettes. The Blu-ray features a 2K restoration from original film elements produced by Arrow Films exclusively for this release; an introduction by Peter Stanfield, author of “Hollywood, Westerns and the 1930s: The Lost Trail” and “Horse Opera: The Strange History of the Singing Cowboy”; scene-select commentaries by Stanfield; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Vladimir Zimakov; and a limited-edition booklet, featuring new writing by Glenn Kenny.

Pulse: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Doberman Cop: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Few national cinemas have been impacted as much by the fickleness of commercial trends as Japan’s studio-dominated system. Apart from Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu and other giants of the arthouse realm, a select group of genre practitioners not only were exhaustively prolific, but also sufficiently nimble to occasionally create something brilliant within the strict guidelines of time, budgetary and studio pressure. No better example can be found than in J-horror, a genre variation that changed the way audiences around the world viewed supernatural phenomenon, especially ghosts and apparitions. Hollywood has done its best to transplant such films as Ringu, The Grudge, Dark Water and One Missed Call, only discover that not all plants bloom in foreign soil. This month’s double feature of vintage Japanese films from Arrow Video is a mixed bag of J-horror and yakuza crime. Listen closely to the atypically candid interviews included in the Blu-ray packages and you’ll get a pretty good idea of how teamwork frequently trumped the demands of bottom-line-conscious studio executives. Not all the films were gems, of course, but the ones that weren’t helped finance the ones that were. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s dark and foreboding 2001 Pulse is widely recognized was one of the hallmarks of J-horror. Even with Wes Craven’s adaptation of the screenplay, Weinstein/Dimension’s American remake was pummeled by critics and, at best, may have broken even at the box office and in ancillary sales. Arrow’s sparkling digital transfer brings the original back to life – or death, if you will – in ways that should thrill buffs on both sides of the Pacific. Informed by an early embracement of Internet and social media in Japan, the apocalyptic film foretells how technology will only serve to isolate us as it grows more important to our lives. A group of young Tokyo techies experience strange phenomena involving missing co-workers and friends, after a mysterious website asks, “Do you want to meet a ghost?” They set out to explore a city which is growing emptier by the day, and to solve the mystery of what lies within a forbidden room in an abandoned construction site. Check out new interviews with writer/director Kurosawa and cinematographer Junichiro Hayashi, hunched over a fully stocked bar; “The Horror of Isolation,” a new video appreciation, featuring Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett; an archived making-of documentary and four behind-the-scenes featurettes; premiere footage from the Cannes Film Festival; cast and crew introductions from opening-day screenings, in Tokyo; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tommy Pocket; and limited edition booklet, featuring new writing on the film by critic Chuck Stephens.

Doberman Cop arrives on the heels of Arrow’s facelift of Wolf Guy (1975), a Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba actioner that combines lycanthropian horror with yakuza conceits. It’s an unholy mess, but far from unwatchable. Released to little fanfare in 1977, Doberman Cop reunites director Kinji Fukasaku (Cops vs. Thugs) with Chiba in a Western-style crime movie that mixes gunplay and pulp fiction, with martial arts, lowbrow comedy and revenge. It follows a hick cop, Joji Kano, to the big city, where he’ll help the locals in a murder investigation that may have ties to a missing-person case he’s been working on for several years. We know Joji’s a fish-out-of-water, because he arrives from Okinawa wearing a straw hat and holding the pork-bellied pig he intends to bestow on the chief. Before that can happen, though, Joji will visit a garish girlie show, during which one of the strippers decides to incorporate both recent arrivals into her act. Doberman Cop was adapted from an extremely popular manga, one of a “new breed” of cinema-ready gekiga. As he probes deeper into the sleazy world of flesh-peddling, talent-agency corruption and mob influence, Joji uncovers the shocking truth about the girl, her connection to a mobster-turned-manager (Hiroki Matsukata), and a savage serial killer who is burning women alive. It was Fukasaku’s sole film adapted directly from a manga and unreleased on video outside of Japan. It also showcases the combined talents of Chiba’s ”Piranha Army” of actors and pals. The package is enhanced by “Beyond the Film: Doberman Cop,” a new video appreciation by Fukasaku biographer Sadao Yamane; new interviews with Chiba – Part 2 of the one started on Wolf Guy – and screenwriter Koji Takada; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s book, featuring new writing on the films by Patrick Macias.

Species: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If nothing else, Roger Donaldson’s 1995 sci-fi/horror flick, Species, probably will go down as the first mainstream movie in which American scientists intently observe a space alien – who could pass for a Victoria’s Secret model – as it attempts to make sense of a brassiere. Natasha Henstridge spends a lot of time in the altogether, as she roams the streets of L.A. looking for a human mate. A brief topless flash by Marg Helgenberger, as molecular biologist Dr. Laura Baker, prompted Mr. Skin to award Species a rare 4-star, Hall of Fame rating. One suspects that more serious fans of the genre were less impressed by the alien nudity than Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s otherworldly designs. Henstridge’s Sil wasn’t always such a babe. Giger’s concept of her, pre-entry, makes her look far more “biomechanical.” He also contributed a Ghost Train nightmare sequence that MGM refused to finance, so he invested $100,000 of his own money to keep it in the picture. Otherwise, the story’s focus on what happens when Sil escapes from observation and scientist Xavier Fitch (Ben Kingsley) dispatches a crew of experts to find her before she fulfills her horrific mission: to acquire human sperm and produce offspring that could destroy mankind. As her deadly biological clock ticks rapidly, Fitch and his team are hurled into a desperate battle in which, we’re told, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. Of course, it does. The Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” features a 4K scan of the film’s inter-positive and a new featurette, “Afterbirth: The Evolution of Species,” featuring interviews with director Donaldson, cinematographer Andzej Bartkowiak, production designer John Muto, composer Christopher Young, creature designer Steve Johnson, chrysalis supervisor Billy Bryan and “Sil” creature supervisor Norman Cabrera. A full disc’s worth of commentaries and bonus material has been ported over from previous Blu-ray editions.

Urban Traffik
Don’t You Recognize Me?
If I hadn’t recently watched The Chosen Ones, David Pablos’ unsparing drama about a Tijuana family involved in wining, dining and enslaving teenage girls for the purpose of turning them into heroin-starved prostitutes, I might have thought better of Jason Figgis’ similarly themed debut, Urban Traffick. The Un Certain Regard nominee is only available here through VOD services, including Netflix, which is where I found it. The Chosen Ones reminded me of Lukas Moodysson’s  Lilya 4-Ever (2002), Damian Harris Gardens of the Night (2008) and a dozen, or so, episodes of “Law & Order: SVU.” Urban Traffik is hampered by what appears to be a non-existent budget and a script that takes too long to get to the point. Neither do all the actors appear to be up to the task. That said, Dublin always provides a compelling setting for serious criminality and horror, and Figgis (The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, Children of a Darker Dawn) practically owns the town, when it comes to filmmaking. It opens with first-time actor Damien Guiden, as Adam, stalking and befriending a homeless teenager in a Dublin cafe. She allows him to take her back to his apartment for some tea and sympathy, not suspecting that he’s a key player in a trafficking ring and needs to fill a quota, because the older girls keep disappearing. The most accomplished member of the gang is Alex (Kojii Helnwein), a raven-haired demon who appears to be conflicted by Adam’s insistence on testing the merchandise before turning the girls over to pimp central. It’s when Adam picks up the destitute street urchin, Amy (Clare Murray), that he recognizes his long-suppressed conscience and must decide what to do with it. Frankly, I’m not altogether sure whether Urban Traffik is intended to be an indictment of a crime that’s reached epidemic proportions on the Emerald Isle or the trafficking is just another excuse for the hyper-prolific director to roll film.

Figgis, reportedly a cousin of Academy Award-nominated writer/director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), is nothing if not prolific. Made two years before Urban Traffik, the slow-burn thriller Don’t You Recognize Me? takes a very different tack. Tony (Matthew Toman) is a documentary filmmaker who’s always on the lookout for interesting subjects for his “A Day in the Life Of” webisodes … the worse off they are, the better. Following an online appeal for fresh subjects, Tony has been contacted by K Gallagher (Jason Sherlock), a gang-banger from a rundown Dublin project. Along with a cameraman and sound recorder, Tony sets off by car to meet K, his mates and two girlfriends. K’s the real deal, alright. Things really get scary, however, when K leads the film crew to a warehouse set up like a rudimentary sound stage. It’s here that K’s older brother, Daz (Darren Travers), and his droogies have prepared a surprise party for Tony.  Daz explains that, when he heard someone was going to make a documentary about K, he decided to add his own contributions to the mix. Tony doesn’t recognize Daz, whose unfortunate twin brother, Damo, became the unwitting subject/victim of one of his first films. No need to go much further into the narrative, except to say that payback’s a bitch and Figgis has a knack for torture porn. If only he could afford a sound engineer who knew what he/she was doing and the equipment to pick up brogue-y dialogue in a cavernous warehouse. The subtitle option is recommended. Travers, who divides his time between stage, TV and movies, deserves a shot at better financed projects, as well.

Last Day of School: Blu-ray
Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo
It would be difficult to find a movie with lower production values and less reason to exist than Michael and Sonny Mahal’s grindsploitation quickie, Last Day of School. Anyone so inclined, however, could avoid a long, tiresome search by heading for www.troma.com, or the Troma Channel and Troma Universe at YouTube Red, and the Troma Now subscription service. In it, four college seniors at a school that looks very much like UNLV are caught cheating on their final exam. Instead of flunking them outright, their sex-addled and alcoholic professor demands that they perform a scavenger hunt, involving skanky sex workers, fat campus cops, horny sorority sisters, strip-club bouncers and his wife, who wakes up every morning hoping she’s magically been transformed into Jennifer Coolidge (a.k.a., Stifler’s Mom). The guys bounce between the campus and the Sex Strip on Industrial Road to collect the dancers. It’s possible, though, that the pros who actually dance in clubs like Sapphire’s and Spearmint Rhino make more in two hours than the producers of Last Day at School were willing to pay for several days’ work, while also showing their tits. Where they found these gals is anyone’s guess. All things considered, the Mahal Empire production (30 Girls 30 Days) could be forgiven its reliance on cut-rate talent, if Rolfe Kanefsky’s (Sorority Slaughterhouse) displayed an ounce of originality or modicum of humor, which it doesn’t. It’s possible, of course, that Kanefsky and the Mahals saved their best stuff for the Empire’s upcoming, “Party Bus to Hell,” during which “a party bus on its way to Burning Man — filled with a bunch of sexy young adults — breaks down in the desert … in the middle of a group of Satanic worshippers.” It stars Tara Reid … of course. The Blu-ray bonus package adds an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman; a behind-the-scenes slideshow; a “30/30” trailer; and other Troma-tastic promotional material.

The great thing about This Is Spinal Tap was the target audience’s willingness not only to buy into the closely observed spoof of heavy-metal bands and culture, but also to support the faux ensemble by purchasing albums and tickets to concerts and reunion events. Fans didn’t even have to grasp the mockumentary concept to enjoy the music, which sometimes is reprised on Sirius/XM’s Underground Garage. Twenty years later, Primus frontman Les Claypool would write, direct and perform in Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo, a more obvious satire that attempted to stick a needle in the jam-band balloon. It features Steve “Aiwass” Trouzdale (Adam Gates); Steve “Gordo” Gordon (Bryan Kehoe); Herschal Tambor Brillstien (Jonathan Korty); and Lapland “Lapdog” Miclovich (Claypool), who display the requisite musicianship and ability to ad-lib dialogue. The premise holds that, in the Spring of 2005, a UCLA graduate filmmaker set out to make a documentary reflecting an element of contemporary-music culture that had yet to be fully examined. What he discovered was the music of Electric Apricot, through which he “achieved enlightenment.” Like Spinal Tap, Electric Apricot played occasional shows in 2004 and 2005, including the High Sierra Music Festival, to collect footage for the movie. It also performed a few gigs afterward, on the publicity tour. Skewered, as well, are Deadheads, Phish phans, Phil Collins, Burning Man, vegans, Lilith Fair poetics and Harry Potter. The handful of song parodies are well-mounted and funny, without also being terribly memorable. If the National Lampoon movie didn’t catch on, it’s probably because the gags are too spot-on to engage the ecstasy-amped jam-band crowd, for whom lyrics only get in the way of the “cosmic flan.” Troma, a sort of Criterion Collection in reverse, has picked up the distribution rights and, with a little help, could tap the same audience that embraced Cannibal! The Musical. It adds a High Times interview with the cast, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes slideshow and some NSFW marketing stuff.

Navy SEALs v. Demons: Blu-ray
If the ongoing wars in the Middle East ever end and the military-industrial complex doesn’t push us into another expensive conflict immediately thereafter, there’s a place back home for our extremely well-trained and highly efficient Special Forces troops to land and make enough money to afford the medical benefits President Trump wants to steal from them. Yup, you guessed it … in the movies. While there may not be much room left in Hollywood for military consultants and stunt performers, producers of genre films are rushing to deliver fresh products to VOD services and the straight-to-DVD marketplace, where action is everything. The musclebound and elaborately tattooed warriors in such films as Navy SEALs v. Demons, Navy SEALs vs. Zombies and Texas Zombie Wars: Dallas, to name just three projects forwarded by fiction writer and producer Jeff “AK-Charlie” Waters, should be in high demand for a long while.  Among the cast members are Mikal Vega (Navy SEAL), Dale Comstock (Delta Force), Max Mullen (Army Ranger), Trevor Scott (Army 101st Airborne), David Lonigro (Special Operations Sniper), Tim Abell (Army Ranger), Kerry Patton (Air Force), Tony Nevada (Marine Corps) and Matthew R. Anderson (Army Special Forces). Even without taking a single class at Stella Adler or the Actors Studio, the muscular vets can be cast as ex-soldiers, bikers, prisoners, coaches and gym rats. With a lesson or two, they could portray business executives, priests and college professors … no problem … as long as aliens and superheroes are involved. I only mention this because of the current epidemic of zombies and other monsters that require special handling in the movies. The days of the wimp hero are over. In Navy SEALs v. Demons, the action moves New Orleans – site of “NSvZ” – to south Texas, where God-forsaken killers are ripping out the guts of illegal immigrants and turning virgins into wives. When the first wave of SEALs proves unequal to the task of eradicating the demons, they join forces with a local biker gangs and their stripper girlfriends. It’s all pretty stupid, but, where else are Hispanic actors going to find decent work these days … Hollywood

Truth or Dare?
The backstory here is better than anything in the movie, which some observers of slasher fare consider to be a classic specimen of the subgenre. In 1986, straight-to-cassette goremeister Tim Ritter sold the script to Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness to a production company that also allowed him to direct his own adaptation. When the executives discovered Ritter was 17, they took the picture away from him and, he claims, butchered it. It’s almost impossible to discern when a horror movie shot on 16mm film, for the consumption of VHS owners, has been butchered, so we’ll have to take his word for it. Ritter would go on to write, direct, produce, edit and appear in quite a few more movies. Truth or Dare? has been recycled several times already. SRS Cinema, which specializes in such things, didn’t waste much money trying to clean this one up, however. I’ve seen worse. When an already unbalanced Mike Strauber (John Brace) catches his wife Sharon (Mary Fanaro) in bed with his best friend, the result is a rapid descent into madness. Mike’s revenge is triggered by the seemingly innocent child’s game “Truth or Dare?” His version is quite a bit more deadly than Madonna’s take on it, though. Look for an appearance by 9-year-old A.J. McLean, of the Backstreet Boys, as Little Mike. And, yes, Big Mike totes a chain saw and wears a leather mask. Its “A Critical Madness” theme song is the cherry on the sundae. The bonus package adds and an almost feature-length trailer reel of even less defensible SRS Cinema products; the director’s commentary; a 30th-anniversary scrapbook; several “TorD” trailers; and, of course, an Italian-language track.

The Blessed Ones
Although movies about Doomsday cults come and go, it’s possible that the negative publicity surrounding the ritualistic deaths at Heaven’s Gate, People’s Temple, Branch Davidian and Solar Temple has put a damper on the more murderous operations. The poor record of charlatans prophesizing the apocalypse hasn’t helped their cause much, either. In his second completed feature, behind Client 14 (2011), multihyphenate Patrick O’Bell describes what happens when two disaffected members of a messianic cult decide to test their luck in the vast desert wasteland surrounding their enclave, rather than “drink the Kool-Aid” provided them by a crackpot preacher. When their absence is discovered, the manipulative mastermind siccs his henchmen on them. Why he should be bothered by a couple of defectors, when heaven is only a few hours away, is beside the point. O’Bell and co-cinematographer Simon Hayes make the best out of what must have been an extremely limited budget, turning the desert landscapes outside Los Angeles into a formidable obstacle course. He also benefits from the work of actors, who, while active, probably need another feature credit on their resume: Dave Vescio (Wolf Mother), Andy Gates (Garden Party Massacre) and Tamzin Brown (The Adderall Diaries).

Bad Attitude
Search for Bad Attitude in IMDB.com and you’ll find a half-dozen entries, none of which lead to the one starring Ben Kobold, as Officer Kip White. Type in the actor’s name and you’ll be led to the entry for “White Cop,” which shares the same cover photo as the DVD for “Bad Attitude,” which was completed in 2014, only a few months after hashtag #BlackLivesMatter entered the social-media lexicon and hit the streets of America. I wonder who decided that “White Cop” might not be the best title for a comedy that’s supposed to remind viewers of “Reno 911!” By comparison, at least, Bad Attitude was an expedient compromise. Just as the roots of “Reno 911!” led from Nevada to the improv-comedy clubs of Los Angeles, so, too, it seems, do the roots of Jake Myers and co-writer Lara Unnerstall’s story lead to the improv stages and casting managers of the Windy City. It’s one of a handful of places in North America where naturally funny people either grow on trees or come to find jobs making people laugh. So much for the travelogue. Bad Attitude isn’t in the same league as comedies associated with the Groundlings, Second City or SCTV, but it isn’t devoid of laughs, by any means. Kobold plays a Clouseau-like cop, whose mission it becomes to wipe out a gang of European drug traffickers, who specialize in a popular new street drug, Stamp, for reasons made clear early in the picture. Among the actors who must deal with Kobold’s hapless character are David Liebe Hart, as the mayor of Chicago; and Britt Julious, as a TV news reporter.

Monster X
The first thing to know about Ruthless Studios’ Monster X is that it has nothing to do with Minoru Kawasaki’s 2008 creature feature, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit, whose premise sounds quite a bit more interesting than anything here. Imagine an English-language remake in which bodyguards for President Trump and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are required to protect world leaders from a giant dragon-like beast, capable of going mano-a-mano against Godzilla. I know which side I’d be backing. The 2017 iteration of Monster X has far more to do with vampires, werewolves, zombies and, even, banshees, than beasts hoping to disrupt Trump and Putin’s tea party. It took me nearly an hour to figure out that Monster X follows an anthology format. The chapters represent movies playing on different screens in a multiplex during a horror festival and the audience members who grow increasingly more sinister – and hairy – as it unspools. Some of it plays out, as well, through the eyes of a pair of nerds on their first date. It works intermittently, but only in a DIY sort of way.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Prime Suspect: Tennison: Blu-ray
PBS: The Tunnel: Sabotage: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
WGN: Underground: Season Two
MHz: Detective Montalbano: Episodes 29 & 30
BBC: Food: Delicious Science
Smithsonian: Mummies Everywhere/Mummies Alive
If an American broadcast network announced that it was launching a prequel to “Columbo,” “The Rockford Files” or “Gunsmoke” – as opposed to, say, USA Network’s ill-fated reimagining of Ving Rhames as Lieutenant Theo Kojak – most viewers would greet the news with trepidation, at best. When Britain’s ITV revealed plans for a prequel to “Prime Suspect,” one of the most admired shows in television history, the trepidation was outweighed by anticipation. On Britain’s prestige networks, at least, such delicate endeavors are taken far more seriously than they are here. Apparently, though, the only person who was disappointed by the results was novelist Lynda LaPlante, upon whose books the long-running series was based and, it’s said, couldn’t work out the details on a deal. It’s our loss. The six-part “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Prime Suspect: Tennison,” opens with probationary officer Jane Tennison (Stefanie Martini) arriving late to work, as usual, to her North London headquarters, for which she receives a stern reprimand by the desk sergeant. Typically, she would be kept busy – out of the male detectives’ hair, if you will – directing traffic, working the dispatch desk, holding back looky-loos at crime scenes or getting coffee for the lads. On this day, however, the unusually grisly murder of a heroin-addicted prostitute requires her to canvass a working-class neighborhood with another WPC (Jessica Gunning), seeking clues and evidence. The crime’s resolution will take all six episodes to sort out, during which Tennison will blossom before our eyes. A related case, involving an elaborate bank heist, will further test her resolve. It’s pretty involving stuff. The fear going into the prequel, I suspect, was that the writers would push too hard on the sexism of veteran male cops – a bias that never really escaped Tennison – and that they might be treated shabbily as subordinate characters. They’re not. The semi-obligatory love interest rears its head by mid-series, but it, too, is handled with kid gloves. The best part is the verisimilitude accorded the supporting characters, headquarters setting and exterior locations. That, and a credible last-minute surprise, or two. The worst is the insertion of period rock hits, just in case viewers forget that this is 1973. It easy to see, as well, how Martini’s WPC Jane Tennison would evolve into Helen Mirren’s sainted Detective Inspector Jane Tennison. The Blu-ray adds several making-of featurettes and a backgrounder, comparing the two Tennisons.

Now showing on PBS affiliates here, as well, is the second season of “The Tunnel,” an Anglo-French co-production that not only extends the drama and interpersonal relations of Season One, but continues to honor its source. “The Bridge” was set largely on the bridge separating Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden. Like that mini-series, which was adapted for re-location to the bridge spanning El Paso and Juarez, the first stanza opens with police on either side of the border debating as to which department has jurisdiction in the case of a severed body found at the precise middle of the bridge. In addition to the language gap, personality traits associated with the chief investigators reflected cross-cultural tropes that were worked into the storylines. Lacking a bridge connecting England and France, the bisected body found in Episode One of Season One of “The Tunnel” lies along the center line of the Chunnel. “The Tunnel: Sabotage” bears a vague resemblance to the second-season plot of “The Bridge,” in that terrorists strike at the center of the crossing, but the culprits aren’t among the usual suspects rounded up in such calamitous events. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell who exactly is responsible for the mysterious downing of a jetliner over the English Channel and what they were hoping to accomplish. We’re encouraged to think of the mini-series as an “investigative thriller” that reveals its intentions in the same way as the wooden figures of a matryoshka doll are revealed, one by one, until only a single nested character is left. Without going into too much detail, the terrorists in “The Tunnel” all appear to have separate agendas, not all of them based on ideologies or religious dogma. The common connection leads to Colonia Dignidad, a Chilean enclave of Nazi exiles, pedophiles, arms traffickers, abused children and Mengele wannabes, that was protected by the Pinochet regime in exchange for the right to use it as a torture chamber. It’s complicated, but not outside the ken of the investigators played by Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy, who truly are pieces of work. The mostly unknown cast of supporting actors has been recruited from a half-dozen European countries. They’re all very good, as well. The Blu-ray adds several behind-the-scene featuretts.

Even with the attention paid recently in theatrical films to the indefensible institution of slavery – and remake of “Roots” — I didn’t think I’d see the day that a weekly series about slaves in the antebellum South was accorded a Season One, let alone a Season Two. Alas, a third season of WGN’s “Underground” wasn’t in the cards. The large cast and high production values must have taken their financial toll. “Underground” tells the story of American heroes and villains of all colors, as well as the harrowing journey of escaped slaves seeking freedom in the north. Anyone still wondering why Harriet Tubman will soon be gracing our $20 bills need look any further than this series.  In the second season, white and black women are given an opportunity to confront their oppressors in armed struggle. The producers don’t shy away from portraying the brutality and indignities suffered by slaves. As such, “Underground” may be too rough for some younger viewers and especially sensitive adults. It should also be noted that the use of a modern music, dialect and grooming enhancements can be off-putting, but no more than those on other historical dramas on TV.

The review of “Prime Suspect: Tennison” that leads this section concerns the prequel to a popular British cop series, starring an actress, Helen Mirren, who would be a tough act to follow in any language. For nearly 20 years, “Inspector Montalbano” has been a big hit in Italy and throughout Europe, and can be enjoyed here on DVD or the streaming service MHz Networks. It, too, spawned a prequel, “Young Montalbano,” that lasted two years and may still be on hiatus. The personality-driven series’ longtime star, Luca Zingaretti, resembles Telly Savalas in a couple of ways, including a pronounced lack of hair and laid-back approach to his job. Montalbano, the creation of 91-year-old novelist Andrea Camilleri, is chief of police of Vigata (a.k.a., Ragusa), a small fictional town on the sun-drenched coast of Sicily. It’s a gorgeous setting for crime and enjoying some of the best food on Earth, al fresco. He has a long-distance girlfriend, Livia (Sonia Bergamasco), but, of course, isn’t averse to inviting one of the show’s gorgeous guest stars to join him for dinner, as well. The new DVD contains episode 29 and 30, “A Nest of Vipers” and “According to Protocol.” In the former, a man arrives at his wealthy father’s villa, only to find him murdered while drinking coffee in the kitchen. There’s no shortage of suspects, not the least of them being the 20 young women he routinely seduced, photographed in the buff and abandoned. Then, there are the folks who owe him money, to be paid off at exorbitant interest rates. The investigation takes another turn when Montalbano discovers that the victim not only was shot, but poisoned hours earlier. If nothing else, the news increases the likelihood of Montalbano arresting someone who feels guilt for a murder they couldn’t have committed. In the latter chapter, a beautiful, if badly beaten and gang-raped  woman manages to drive herself to an apartment building, where she collapses and dies in the foyer. Her intent appears to have been to direct investigators to one of the building’s tenants. In the investigation, during which Montalbano’s two girlfriends meet for the first time, the team uncovers a world of vice and hypocrisy that leaves them all in shock. Montalbano also strikes up a friendship with his new neighbor, a retired judge haunted by the idea that true justice and objectivity may not be possible.

Consumers are rightly advised not look too closely into how the food they eat – hot dogs, especially – is processed and packaged. I grew up in a meat-packing town and it’s a wonder I didn’t turn vegan. The researchers we meet in the BBC’s “Food: Delicious Science” — Dr. Michael Mosley and botanist James Wong – argue persuasively that more we know about the food we put into our bodies, the more we’ll learn to appreciate it. The global culinary adventure “celebrates the physics, chemistry and biology hidden inside every bite of your next meal.” If it tends to do so in microscopic detail, plenty of room is left for an enjoyment of the variety of tastes we savor and, too often, take for granted, including mother’s milk.

When the latest incarnation of Universal’s 85-year-old The Mummy franchise opened around the world, in mid-May, the studio hoped it would be the first installment in a Universal Monsters shared universe, also known as “Dark Universe.” While it did OK at the overseas box office, the Tom Cruise vehicle underperformed at home, despite an expensive publicity campaign. Could it be that shows like the Smithsonian Channel’s “Mummies Everywhere” and “Mummies Alive,” in which the dead stay dead, even as their corpses tell tales from beyond the grave, have dampened our appetite for such folly? Here, the mummies on display come in all shapes and sizes, not merely wrapped in fabric and entombed in gold-leafed caskets. They are as diverse as a Roman soldier buried under Mount Vesuvius ash; an Irish king preserved in a bog; and teenage Inca girl frozen in time at the peak of the world’s tallest active volcano. Most are in astonishingly good condition and, through the miracles provided by modern forensics technology, have fascinating stories to tell.

The DVD Wrapup: Laugh-In, Johnny and Friends, Homicide, Bob Hope, Pink Panther, Savage Innocents and more

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series
Textbooks could and probably have been written about the role played by “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in American television history, at a time when the divide separating mainstream entertainment and the counterculture could be measured in miles. No one at NBC knew what to expect when the show’s pilot debuted on September 9, 1967. President Johnson was still expected to run for re-election and, in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive was still in its planning stages. Flower Power was beginning to wilt in San Francisco and college campuses soon would resemble police states. Although Richard Nixon was anything but a shoo-in to become the Republican standard-bearer, he recognized the schism dividing anti-war liberals from traditional Democratic voting blocs, including organized labor and the no-longer-Solid South. The pilot show performed well enough, however, to convince the network to give the green light to co-creators George Schlatter and Ed Friendly for a mid-season launch on January 22, 1968. Almost immediately, “Laugh-In” somehow managed, if only for an hour each week, to bridge the many gaps separating Americans of all political persuasions, colors and religion. Hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin appeared first each night, in tuxedos, exchanging the kinds of gags that made them popular in nightclubs, lounges and in variety-show appearances. It was after they invited viewers to join them at the “mod” party going on behind the curtain — it incorporated elements of “Playboy’s Penthouse,” Olsen and Johnson’s “Hellzapoppin’” and “The Ernie Kovacs Show” — that the method behind the madness began to reveal itself.  Go-go dancers Goldie Hawn and Judy Carne set the zany tone with their brightly colored bikinis and graffiti tattoos. Behind them, cast members and guests delivered one- and two-line gags with the rapidity of Gatling gun. If one didn’t work, another was only a couple seconds away. The sketches that followed may have been longer, but they rarely lasted long enough to wear out their welcome. Among the cast members whose names were announced each week by popular L.A. radio personality Gary Owens were such under-the-radar talents as Arte Johnson (Wolfgang the German soldier), Ruth Buzzi (Gladys Ormphby), Jo Anne Worley (“Is that a chicken joke?”), Henry Gibson (Nashville), the sexually ambiguous Alan Sues, Lily Tomlin (Ernestine/ Edith Ann/ Suzie Sorority of the Silent Majority), Teresa Graves (“Get Christie Love!”), Larry Hovis (“Hogan’s Heroes”), Jeremy Lloyd (Murder on the Orient Express), Dave Madden (“The Partridge Family”), Pigmeat Markham (“Here come da judge”), Pamela Rodgers (The Maltese Bippy), Richard Dawson (“Family Feud”), Moosie Drier (Oh, God!), Johnny Brown (“Good Times”), Hawn (Shampoo) and Carne (“Love on a Rooftop). In addition to Carnes’ “Sock it to me” bits, the cast members popularized such enduring catch phrases as “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!,” used to poke fun at NBC censors; “You bet your sweet bippy!”; “Beautiful downtown Burbank”; “One ringy-dingy … two ringy-dingies …”; “Blow in my ear and I’ll follow you anywhere”; “Want a Walnetto?”; and “Verrry interesting.”

The stock cast of characters skewered stereotypes ranging from dirty hippies and swishy gays, to macho-man jocks and conservative blowhards. The show’s greatest coup occurred in the first episode of Season Two, when then-presidential candidate Nixon looked into the camera and asked, rhetorically, “Sock it to me?” Unlike Carne, he wasn’t doused with water or assaulted by an off-camera boxer. The appearance did, however, serve to humanize a politician known to many voters simply as Tricky Dick.  An invitation was extended to Nixon’s opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but he declined. According to Schlatter, “(He) later said that not doing it may have cost him the election,” while “[Nixon] said the rest of his life that appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected.” Among the many celebrities who popped up from time to time, as well, were Jack Benny, Cher, Don Adams, Rita Hayworth, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Smothers, Barbara Feldon, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Peter Lawford, Tiny Tim, Flip Wilson, Henny Youngman, Debbie Reynolds, Liberace, Raquel Welch, Tim Conway and, yes, Wayne and Buckley. The first season featured some of the first music videos seen on network TV, with cast members appearing in films set to the music of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Bee Gees, the Temptations, the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the First Edition.

For the first time on disc, Time Warner is offering “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Series,” a boxed set covering all 140 episodes, from January 22, 1968, to March 12, 1973. The landmark 50th anniversary package is comprised of 38 discs, covering all 140 episodes and 150-plus total hours of entertainment. (Eighty-nine of the episodes have yet to be released on any format.) Also included in the collection is the rarely seen pilot episode; a collectible 32-page memory book, with archival photos, show images, classic jokes and one-liners; Schlatter’s “liner notes”; the complete “25th Anniversary Cast Reunion”; interviews with Tomlin, Schlatter, Martin, Buzzi, Owens, Johnson and Sues; “Still Laugh-In: A Tribute to George Schlatter; bloopers; and “How We Won the Emmys.” Currently, the set is only available through Time Life, by calling 1-800-950-7887 or at timelife.com/products/laughin.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny and Friends
Johnny Carson shared with “Laugh-In” the catchphrase, “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” and countless references to Funk & Wagnall’s dictionaries, as well as making several cameo appearances on the show. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin not only were frequently guests on “The Tonight Show,” but they also served as substitute hosts. Time Life has been offering a la carte packages from its “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” collection for a while, now. Lately, the DVDs have begun to feature entire shows – complete with vintage commercials – dedicated, in part, to famous comedians who were part of that night’s lineup. This week, T/L released eight hours’ worth of vintage shows from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, in which the featured guests were Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy. Being invited to join Johnny on the couch, after knocking the audience dead, was considered the highest honor an up-and-coming comic could earn. The seal of approval practically ensured a boost to the young performers’ careers and return visits weren’t taken for granted or treated as excuses to rest on their laurels. The highlight for me was watching Williams and his hero, Jonathan Winters, riff off of each other’s ad-libs for more than a half-hour.  Time Life has plenty more of these moments in its inventory.

Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series
As long as we’re on the subject of Christmas in July gifting options, let me suggest “Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series,” from Shout!Factory. Simply put, the Baltimore-set cops-and-criminal drama was one of best and most influential series on television, leading directly to HBO’s “The Wire” – also inspired by the reporting of David Simon – and the genesis of police detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), one of the medium’s most memorable characters. Munch is one of only a small handful of characters to appear on shows as disparate as “Law & Order” (three editions), “Arrested Development,” “The X-Files,” “The Beat,” “The Wire,” “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” He has been mentioned by name in the terrific British crime series, “Luther”; depicted in the 2016 comic book, “Spider-Man/Deadpool #6,” and as a Muppet, in the “Sesame Street” sketch, “Law & Order: Special Letters Unit”; and on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” both in character, and as Belzer. Fans of the noted conspiracy theorist, especially, will have a field day binging on the “Homicide” collection. The series, which ran from January 31, 1993 to May 21, 1999, was “created” by Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show), executive-produced by Barry Levinson (Rain Man) and Tom Fontana (“Oz”), but based on real crooks, cops and scenarios introduced in Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” It featured an outstanding ensemble cast, including Belzer, Andre Braugher, Yaphet Kotto, Melissa Leo, Ned Beatty, Clark Johnson, Daniel Baldwin, Kyle Secor, Jon Polito and Reed Diamond, and such guest stars as Robin Williams, Paul Giamatti, Rosanna Arquette, James Earl Jones, Joan Chen, Bruce Campbell and Jerry Orbach, as “L&O” detective Lenny Briscoe. Although it wound up being the most honored shows of its time, “Homicide” was anything but an instant hit. TV Guide dubbed it, “The Best Show You’re Not Watching,” while critics routinely listed it among the best shows on the air.

Initially, viewers appeared to have been confused by the show’s no-nonsense, police-procedural glimpse into the lives of a squad of inner-city detectives. Bad guys didn’t always pay for their crimes and the rigors of “the job” frequently caused the characters to question why they had decided to go into law-enforcement, in the first place. “Homicide” developed a trademark feel and look that distinguished itself from its contemporaries. It was filmed with hand-held 16mm cameras, almost entirely on location in Baltimore, using musical montages, jump-cut editing and repeated images shot during crucial moments in the story. It was also noted for interweaving as many as three or four storylines in a single episode, a practice that wasn’t applauded by cautious NBC executives. The “shaky camera” approach was modulated a bit after Season One, but innovation never fell out of favor with the creative team. “Homicide” arrives in its entirety in this comprehensive 35-disc collection. Among the featurettes are “Homicide: Life at the Start,” with Levinson and Fontana; “Homicide: Life in Season 3″ and “Homicide: Life in Season 4,” with Levinson, Fontana, Simon and producers Henry Bromell and James Yoshimura; “Inside Homicide,” with Simon and Yoshimura; “Anatomy of a Homicide,” a hour-long documentary about the making of “The Subway”; a panel discussion with Fontana, Levinson, Yoshimura and Simon; “Law & Order” crossover episodes; and “Homicide: The Movie (2000).

Bob Hope: Salutes the Troops
With our country now having passed its 241st birthday, and wars threatening to break out around the world, it’s not a bad time to recall when Bob Hope’s annual tours not only warmed the hearts of our servicemen and women stationed overseas, but also viewers and listeners back home. If the coverage of such USO-sponsored events has changed in the last quarter-century, it isn’t because celebrities and popular entertainers have failed to pick up the baton handed them by Hope, upon his retirement from touring in 1992. It’s only that the nature of war has changed since the liberation of Kuwait and network subsidies for such missions appear to have dried up. Instead of mass gatherings of troops in central locations, entertainers are helicoptered to distant outposts, where many fewer soldiers are there to greet them, with no less enthusiasm. Time Life/WEA’s latest compilation, “Bob Hope: Salutes the Troops,” is, at three discs, a bit longer than usual, as it encompasses his 57 tours for the USO between 1941 and 1991. The DVD includes appearances by Ann-Margret, Ann Jillian, the Golddiggers, Miss World Penny Plummer, Marie Osmond, the Pointer Sisters, Frances Langford, Patty Thomas, Bing Crosby, Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench, former NFL star Rosey Grier and such novelty acts as trampoline specialist Dick Albers; “Bob Hope: Memories of World War II,” in which Hope, his wife Dolores, Frances Langford and others reminisce about the era and the beginnings of Bob’s long service with the USO.

The Pink Panther Collection: Blu-ray
And, while we’re in the mood for binging, why not check out one of the top comedy franchises of the last 50 years? Shout!Factory’s “The Pink Panther Collection” is comprised of six installments representing the original collaboration between writer/director Blake Edwards, actor Peter Sellers and executive producer (uncredited) Walter Mirisch. As such, it does not include “The Pink Panther” cartoon series, in which Inspector Clouseau was voiced by Pat Harrington Jr., or Inspector Clouseau (1968), a Mirisch Company spinoff made while Edwards, Sellers and composer Henry Mancini were otherwise occupied with the uproarious comedy, The Party (1968). It was directed by Bud Yorkin, starred Alan Arkin and is collected in MGM’s “The Ultimate Pink Panther Collection,” released on DVD in 2008, prior to 2009’s The Pink Panther 2. “Ultimate” also includes Volumes 1-8 of the cartoon series; Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), the second of two spinoffs filmed after Sellers’ death, in 1980; Son of the Pink Panther (1993), with Roberto Benigni; and The Pink Panther, the first of two hit sequels starring Steve Martin. It does not, however, include the box-office favorite, The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), for which the team reunited. Apart from the Blu-ray upgrade, “The Pink Panther Collection” includes The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976), Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978) and Trail of the Pink Panther (1982), in which Sellers appeared via clips and outtakes from previous episodes.

Before Sellers was cast as Clouseau, he had never worked as a physical comic. His ideas, timing and leadership in the genre took shape for the first time under Edwards’ direction, in The Pink Panther.  Lest we forget, David Niven was assigned the role of master thief, Sir Charles Lytton, who was in dogged pursuit of the famous Pink Panther diamond. By the time filming was complete, it had become abundantly clear that Clouseau had been allowed to steal the show from Niven. Today, Sellers’ interpretation of the incurably clumsy detective tops all other portrayals. This isn’t to say, however, that all the films were created equally. The decline in quality could be tracked in the roller-coaster box-office returns. Most of the bonus material included here — some of which reveals dissent within the production team — appeared in the 2003 and 2008 collections. Among the new featurettes are “An Italian Indian: The Pink Panther Princess,” an interview with actress Claudia Cardinale; “Back to the Start: The Origin of the Pink Panther,” an interview with Mirisch; commentaries by Jason Simos, of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society; “A Bit of Passion and Lots of Laugh,” an interview with actress Catherine Schell; an interview with production designer Peter Mullins; “Panther Musings,” an interview with actress Lesley-Anne Down; “A Cut Above: Editing the Pink Panther Films,” with editor Alan Jones; and commentaries by author and film historian William Patrick Maynard.

Money From Home: Blu-ray
Shag: Blu-ray
Savage Innocents: Blu-ray
Chicago-based Olive Films has started offering DVD editions of vintage films that, while they might not qualify as classics, are delightfully eclectic and of interest to completists. The company describes its June releases as “an under-appreciated oddity from one of our favorite auteurs, the ultimate girls’-night-in flick, a classic comedy, a Cannon Group film and a Slasher Video guilty pleasure.”

Money From Home is the 11th of 17 movies in which Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared as a team. It was the first to be shot in color and their only film made in 3D, one of two shot in three-strip Technicolor. In 1953, Martin and Lewis comprised one of the most popular comedy acts in post-war America. Lewis wouldn’t begin to direct until “The Bellboy,” four years after their partnership dissolved. Based on a story by Damon Runyon (“Guys and Dolls”), Money From Home takes place in a universe in which the protagonists sing and dance their way through difficult situations, underworld thugs have cute nicknames and their molls are glamorous. Martin plays Herman “Honey Talk” Nelson, a gambler who owes money to all the wrong people. Lewis portrays Herman’s cousin, apprentice veterinarian Virgil Yokum, who, he hopes, will help him fix a horse race for the mob. Along the way, Virgil meets a female vet (Patricia Crowley) and Herman falls for the owner of the horse (Marjie Millar). Among the highlights is a “Cyrano de Bergerac” homage, in which Lewis tries to woo Martin’s love by proxy. As usual, mistaken identities grease the skids for madcap humor. To promote the 3D novelty, Money From Home debuted in special preview screenings at 322 theaters across the country, on New Year’s Eve, 1953. Unfortunately, a screw-up at the lab forced distributors to show it in 2D. Trivialists might notice the credit, “Special Material in Song Numbers Staged by Jerry Lewis” … another first for the team.

Zelda Barron’s surprisingly effective coming-of-age comedy Shag, released in 1989, is equal parts Where the Boys Are, Bachelorette, Dirty Dancing, American Graffiti and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. In it, four teenage girls from Spartanburg, S.C., sneak away from their respectable homes for a weekend at Myrtle Beach, a magnet for Carolina teens approaching such adult challenges as college, the pre-Vietnam military, marriage and a lifetime of stultifying labor in jobs they’ll hate. An early summer festival promises the girls a dance contest, beer blasts and lots of cute boys … some from the other side of the socio-economic divide. If it doesn’t sound terribly original, Shag does benefit mightily from an atypical location, dead-on period feel, a dandy rock-and-soul soundtrack and bright, young cast that includes show-biz royalty: Bridget Fonda, Phoebe Cates, Annabeth Gish, Page Hannah, Tyrone Power Jr. and Carrie Hamilton. Cates plays Carson, the prim debutante who’s engaged to a stuffy young tobacco heir (Power), but not so committed that she refuses the advances of a silver-tongued local, Buzz (Robert Rusler), a charming Lothario with bohemian pretensions. As Melaina, Fonda is a budding femme fatale, intent on hitching her bleached-blond star to the wagon of teen heartthrob, Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher), in town for the annual Miss Sun Queen contest. Gish is appealing as the dreamy-eyed Pudge, who befriends a shy naval cadet, Chip (Scott Coffey), who cuts a mean rug in the shag contest. Hannah plays Luanne, the bespectacled daughter of a congressman whose carefully tended summer home is trampled and TP’d by uninvited partiers. Although the climax is reasonably predictable, Barron holds on to her story long enough to prevent clichés from ruining it. My only gripe is that the only African-Americans on view are the musicians and congressman’s maid. Even in the Jim Crow South of 1963, you’d think a dance contest without blacks was like “American Bandstand” without Italians.

Any movie made in the early 1960s that attempted to present an honest portrayal of Aboriginal life, here or abroad, is bound to be interesting, if only as a curiosity. Nominated for the Palme d’Or Award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents tells the story of a strangely jolly Inuit hunter, Inuk (Anthony Quinn), whose life in a forbidding environment only gets complicated when he allows a white trader to cheat him in a transaction involving a cheap rifle and small fortune in pelts. Until then, the only weapons Inuk needed were a spear and knife, and his sustenance was provided by the wildlife found north of the Arctic Circle. A cultural misunderstanding results in the death of a white preacher, who turns down Inuk’s offer of his wife’s warm body in return for a kindness. Suddenly, the hunter becomes the hunted, but, this time, on his own frozen turf. Ray adapted his screenplay for The Savage Innocents from Hans Ruesch’s novel, “Top of the World,” which was inspired by W.S. van Dyke’s similarly plotted film, Eskimo (1933). Unlike Danish explorer Peter Freuchen, who wrote the book from which Eskimo was adapted, Ruesch had no direct knowledge of Inuit life and customs. It’s also likely that both writers and directors freely borrowed from Robert J. Flaherty’s great 1922 docudrama Nanook of the North (a.k.a., “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”). Ray probably saw Inuk as an extension of the outsider characters he’d championed in previous films (Rebel Without a Cause). Shot partially in Greenland, the barren snowfields in The Savage Innocents look almost blindingly white in Blu-ray. The hunting scenes are brutally realistic, as well.

Where the movie stumbles, I think, is in its portrayal of the Noble Savage as a giggling naïf who comes to peril when confronted with the villainous whites and their loud toys. The depiction of such Eskimo customs as wife-gifting feels too stereotypical to be true, but who knows? As goofy as it sometimes looks, The Savage Innocents remains captivating throughout. In one of his first screen roles, Peter O’Toole plays a Mountie assigned to capturing Inuk. When he learned that his dialogue had been dubbed, O’Toole demanded that his name be taken off the film. He and Quinn would reunite two years later in “Lawrence of Arabia.” And, yes, after seeing Quinn as Inuk, Bob Dylan immortalized the character in the song, “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” made popular by the British group Manfred Mann.

The other two Olive releases are Déjà Vu (1985), an obscure reincarnation-thriller, starring Jaclyn Smith and Nigel Terry; and Victims! (1981), a slasher/stalker/rape/revenge flick about four girls terrorized on a camping trip.

The DVD Wrapup: T2 Trainspotting, Autopsy of Jane Doe, Dirty, Trespass, Monster Hunt and more

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

T2 Trainspotting: Blu-ray
God bless Margaret Mitchell. When pressured for a sequel to the novel of Gone With the Wind, she claimed not to have a notion as to what may have happened to Scarlett and Rhett, and that she had “left them to their ultimate fate.” Ditto, François Truffaut, who, in 1974, turned down an opportunity to remake Casablanca. It took 14 years for writer-director Richard Curtis to acknowledge the clamor for a reunion sequel to his surprisingly resilient Love Actually. It runs all of 15 minutes, and was shown on British and American television two months ago, as part of one of his charity’s worldwide events. If fans of Grown Ups, Bridget Jones’s Diary and American Pie could be as easily sated, the world would be a better place. That said, however, as unnecessary sequels go, Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, isn’t bad. Loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel, “Porno,” it revisits, after 20 years, a close-knit group of friends united by drug addiction, self-imposed poverty and life in the squalid housing projects outside Edinburgh. Here, Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home from Amsterdam, where he fled after stealing his friends’ share of the money they made in a drug deal. Waiting for him are Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), still a barely functional heroin addict; Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), now a cocaine addict, who runs the pub he inherited from his aunt and uses his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), to extort money from johns; and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a violent offender, who, before his escape, was serving a 25-year prison sentence. All of them are suffering one form of distress, or another, not the least being a sudden need for cash. There also are children to consider. Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald’s characters have returned, as well, but in key supporting roles, as functioning adults. T2 is again directed by Oscar-winner Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by John Hodge (Trance), whose collaborations began with Shallow Grave in 1994. Although Trainspotting could hardly be considered formulaic, T2 resembles the original in all the ways that made it so revelatory. The musical soundtrack features Blondie, the Clash, Wolf Alice, High Contrast, the Prodigy, Queen, Run–D.M.C., Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Underworld, the Rubberbandits and Young Fathers. The cinematography reflects the frequently frenetic action and occasional hallucinatory detour, while the comedy is inky black. In the 21-year interim, Boyle overcame one nearly fatal Hollywood misstep (The Beach) to become one of the industry’s most honored and in-demand directors.“T2 proves that neither he nor his fine ensemble cast has lost any of their edge.  The 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions include 30 minutes of deleted scenes, commentary with Boyle and Hodge and the lively featurette “20 Years in the Making: A Conversation with Danny Boyle and the Cast.”

The Autopsy of Jane Doe
The not-at-all-bad gag here is that Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch run a century-old mortuary/crematorium business in their Virginia home. It also doubles as the police morgue. The building’s age doesn’t allow for modern lighting, high ceilings or other accoutrements of modern forensics work.  All the better for Norwegian helmer André Ovredal (Trollhunter), who takes full advantage of the primitive conditions to ratchet up the suspense in The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Just as the sardonic widower, Tony (Cox), is about to close up for the night and free his son, Austin (Hirsch), to go on a date, the chief of police calls with news of a multiple homicide and to ask for an urgent favor. Among the victims found in a local basement is a half-buried Jane Doe (Olwen Catherine Kelly), whose body appears undamaged and unrelated to the carnage. The chief is interested in learning what might be revealed in an autopsy, to be performed ASAP. Rather than call off the date, Austin accedes to her desire to witness the proceedings, which are a tad more graphic than those conducted on your average TV cop show. Just as Ms. Doe’s innards are about to reveal secrets not obvious on the surface of her naked body, the lights go out and things begin to go bump in the night. Veteran horror fans will already know to pay attention for the sound of bells Tony has attached to the legs of corpses, just in case one of them isn’t quite dead. At 86 minutes, Ian B. Goldberg and Richard Naing’s screenplay is heavy on atmosphere and foreboding detail, if a bit familiar in the resolution department. Still, a good way to kill some time in the dark.

Dirty
The best thing about this cliché-ridden story about a pair of corrupt cops, who push their luck beyond all normal limits, isn’t even noted on the jacket of Dirty. It’s a juicy cameo by Chaz Bono – the transgender son of Sonny & Cher –who plays a grimy stoolpigeon, with terrible teeth and a 600-pound mother screaming at him from her bedroom prison. It’s short, but wonderful. Tony Denison (“The Closer”) is noted on the dust jacket, playing the LAPD chief stuck with a couple of bozo detectives who wear their bad intentions on their sleeves for all peaceful citizens to fear. Roger Guenveur Smith, especially, looks as if he were born specifically to play ill-bred villains, in and out of uniform. He and his partner (Paul Elia) have managed to accumulate quite the nest egg of stolen drugs and money in their time together. Instead of merely stealing a portion of a perp’s ill-begotten booty, then letting the wheels of justice grind away at them, the cops take all of it and kill everyone involved. Director Daniel Ringey and writer Benjamin J. Alexander are attempting to make a point here about the ease with which some cops get away with murder, but even Barney Fife could smell these two bad apples coming a mile away. Neither is it difficult to figure out ahead of time how the mighty will fall.

Motion
Evan Tramel’s Motion allows viewers to watch as all manner of cool things are blown up real good – as Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, hosts of SCTV’s “Farm Film Report,” might say — in slow motion and highly defined colors. Bullets are shot through balloons full of paint, marbles are thrown into the whirling blades of blender, animals and birds burst into flight, and galaxies expand in ways never thought possible. The images are amplified by a soundtrack filled with snippets of classical music … some familiar, others not. I can’t say that there’s much here we haven’t seen before, no matter how cool it looks. Indeed, some of the images can be traced back to the foundations of motion photography. Kids unfamiliar with such extraordinary cinematography will get the biggest kick out of Motion, but Dads will find something fun here, too.

Through the Looking Glass
When someone whose livelihood depends on a constant flow of creative juices experiences a block, it’s not dissimilar to an accident victim slipping into a coma. As far as I know, there are no known medical or psychological cures for a sudden inability to be artistic. Typically, patience and sensory stimulations are the best hope for rehabilitation. In Craig Griffith’s 2006 debut, Through the Looking Glass, the Artist (Paul McCarthy) has seen his career come to a grinding halt. The Agent (Michael Langridge) continues to remind him of a rapidly approaching deadline, while The Friend (Jonathan Rhodes) arrives at The Artist’s foreboding Gothic estate to see if he might be able to impart some wisdom on the subject. Not even The Life Model’s exquisite body can jolt the Artist from his malaise. Those are the only human characters in Griffith’s 93-minute exercise in existential horror. The Monster, if such a creature even exists, arrives in the form of a mysterious package left at the mansion’s doorstep. It contains a mirror, which, when it isn’t reflecting The Artist’s angst is providing him with visions that he’ll work onto a canvas. Unfortunately, they can only be seen by the man holding the brush. When The Agent alerts him to this fact, it results in the peculiar disappearances of everyone around The Artist.  Through the Looking Glass’ claim to marginal fame is winning Best Horror prize at the 2007 Swansea Bay Film Festival. Griffith’s ability to tell his story, while his characters are bathed largely in darkness, obviously impressed the judges.

Grey Lady
The title of John Shea’s second writer/director credit in 20 years – Southie came first – derives from Nantucket Island’s nickname, “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea,” based supposedly on how it appears from the ocean when it is fog-bound … which is frequently. Apparently, too, all of the expensive homes in the modern, post-whaling era have been painted in shades of gray (American spelling). Grey Lady is set in the naturally gray off-season, when the population decreases from 50,000 to 10,000 full-time islanders. Shea’s screenplay offers another explanation, based on the gray homes that line the inlet to the harbor, and the whalers’ wives who lived in them, but, I think, it’s a stretch. No matter, it’s a terrific location for a crime story not involving sharks or tourists. Boston homicide detective James Doyle (Eric Dane) is drawn to Nantucket, based on clues left behind in the murders of his sister and lover/partner. Once he lands on the island and begins to investigate, Doyle comes to realize that the killer is still active and appears to be targeting people who once were in the same orbit as his parents. These include characters played by Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams), Natalie Zea (“Justified”), Adrian Lester (“Hustle”), Carolyn Stotesbery (“Agent X”), Rebecca Gayheart (“Vanished”) and Laila Robins (“Homeland”), who may have owed Shea a favor, as Grey Lady has arrived on DVD virtually unheralded and unsung. Even so, the setting alone is worth the price of a rental or PPV donation.

Life of Significant Soil
In writer/director Michael Irish’s debut feature, Life of Significant Soil, the title isn’t the only thing that requires scrutiny. Billed, early on, as a “repetitive comedy” – the qualifier, “sort of” was added later, then deleted — its only similarity to Groundhog Day is the basic conceit, which requires its small handful of characters to constantly relive the events of the previous day. Suffice it to day that Irish has a long way to go before he can walk in Harold Ramis’ shoes. His stars, Charlotte Bydwell, Alexis Mouyiaris and Anna Jack, while game, aren’t nearly as capable as Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, either. The focus of each day’s dilemma is the floundering relationship of aspiring dancer Addison and her uninspiring slacker boyfriend Conor. Addison has just learned she’s pregnant and Conor’s fundamental concern is the air-conditioner, which is usually on the fritz. For some time, she’s been aware that he’s been cheating on her – sexually, if not emotionally – with the downstairs’ blond, Jackie. About halfway through the day, Addison decides to have an abortion, which Conor and another friend arrange through a back-alley practitioner, Upstate, although there’s probably a dozen perfectly legal clinics within a mile’s radius of their Brooklyn flat. Because Life of Significant Soil tops out at 72 minutes, it’s likely that Irish realized that he was in over his head at some point and decided to cut his losses. Smart move.

Wichita
Justyn Ah Chong and Matthew D. Ward’s debut feature, Wichita, borrows from all sorts of sources, not the least of which are The Shining (the long, lonely drive into the Colorado wilderness), Sliver (room-to-room surveillance cameras) and all sorts of Cabin Fever clones. I’m not quite sure what the title represents, except the stitching on one of the sweatshirts worn by the protagonist. The working title was “Manifesto,” which may have been even less precise. Trevor Peterson plays Jeb, the creator of a children’s cartoon show, “Amy and the Aliens,” that’s sagging in the ratings, but features the voicing talents of the network boss’ daughter. Jeb is ordered to hole up in a fancy house in the mountains with a writing team and churn out 30 brilliant scripts in 30 days. The first sign that Jeb is starting to crack under the pressure is when he begins monitoring his team’s activities through mini-cameras strategically located throughout the property and using what he sees to intimidate and blackmail them. (Who set up the cameras and why remains a mystery.) The deeper he sinks into his pit of narcissism, rage and fear, the uglier things get for the team members. Things get even nuttier when Jeb takes a side trip to visit his religious-nut mom – Sondra Blake, former wife of Robert – and she mistakes him for a terrorist, or Satan, and begins shooting. True slasher junkies will get a kick from the mayhem that follows Jeb’s return to the mountains, but everything else left me cold.

Legion of Brothers: Blu-ray
In this up-close-and-personal look at about 25 of the 100 Special Forces troops, who, immediately after the 9/11 attacks, were airlifted into Afghanistan to join forces with the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban and send Al Qaeda packing. They fought alongside anti-Taliban rebels, sometimes on horseback, and provided eyes and ears on the ground for Coalition bombing missions. Those were heady days for Americans still reeling from the horrors of 9/11 and, for a while there, it looked as the mission was accomplished. Sadly, White House and CIA interference allowed Osama Bin Laden and Taliban leadership to slip past other Special Forces units at Tora Bora, and that effectively ended the euphoria over deposing the Taliban government in Kabul. When American troops and Marines were relocated to Iraq, well … that’s another story, altogether. Legion of Brothers not only allows the Special Forces veterans to relive their heroic campaign to get the Coalition’s efforts on solid footing, but it also re-visits events that left a far different taste in their mouths. Director Greg Barker illuminates the impact of 15 years of constant combat on the soldiers and their families, as well as having to observe the aftermath of certain “victory” as it turned sour. There’s probably no better time than the July 4 to listen to the stories these men tell about the horrors of war and peace.

Death Line: Limited Edition: Combo: Blu-ray
The Unholy: Blu-ray
Nurse Sherri: Blu-ray
This week’s selection of horror reissues includes a pair of relatively obscure thrillers that look fine in Blu-ray and feature actors who elevate the genre. The third is just plain nuts. Shot largely in an unused London Tube station in the early 1970s, Gary Sherman’s Death Line (a.k.a., “Raw Meat”) features Donald Pleasence and Norman Rossington as a humorously crusty Scotland Yard detectives; James Cossins, as a pervy politician; Hugh Armstrong, as a fifth-generation ghoul; and a wacky cameo by Christopher Lee. The plot takes some explaining. Decades earlier, a group of male and female tunnel workers were lost in the collapse of a subway wall and presumed dead. Instead, they managed to survive on rain water, sewer rats and refuse, and the solidarity of the damned. Oh, yeah, they occasionally consumed the flesh of their own dead comrades, as well. Not having that luxury, the sole living descendant of the original surviving tunnel dwellers is forced to exit his cozy boneyard to find fresh victims, who he also tries to feed to his decaying ex-wife. The disappearance of the honorable OBE member demands the attention of the skeptical detectives, as does the subsequent kidnapping of the pretty hippy chick (Sharon Gurney) who first reported finding his collapsed body on the steps of the subway station. The producers lucked out when their location scouts found an abandoned station that literally reeked with atmosphere. Armstrong’s portrayal of the vile antagonist is what really pushes Death Line over the top, however. The courtship of his replacement bride – the kidnapped young woman — is as disgusting as it can possibly be. But, don’t take my word for it. When the film was shown as part of a horror series at Lincoln Center in 2002, director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) pronounced it one of his all-time favorites. Sadly, just as interest was beginning to mount among European distributors for Sherman’s tasty little film, it was re-edited by the producers and sold to AIP for American grindhouses and drive-ins, under the title “Raw Meat,” and largely forgotten. (It was shown in Britain in its original form, under its original title.) It has been freshly transferred and fully restored in 2K from the original uncensored camera negative and comes fully loaded with new bonus features, including commentary with Sherman, producer Paul Maslansky (Police Academy) and AD Lewis More O’Ferrall; “Tales From the Tube,” an interview with Sherman and executive producers Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr., whose younger brother, David, plays the boyfriend witness; “From The Depths,” an interview with David Ladd and Maslansky; “Mind The Doors,” an interview with Armstrong; marketing material for “Raw Meat”; and a booklet featuring new writing by authors Michael Gingold and Christopher Gullo.

Phillip Yordan originally wrote the script for The Unholy in the 1970s, after the box-office successes of films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976). Director Camilo Vila found the script years later, in Yordan’s office, while they were working on something else and asked if he could use it. Unfortunately, the thirst for movies involving priests, exorcisms and Satan’s intrusions into church affairs was at a low point, and The Unholy languished in box-office purgatory. Set in New Orleans, a series of horrific murders of priests has only recently come to light. The latest involves a priest who succumbs to the charms of a beautiful woman (Nicole Fortier) in a diaphanous outfit that leaves nothing to the imagination. Viewers, of course, sense that she’s the devil in disguise Elvis once prophesized and there’s nothing we can do to save the doomed cleric. The archdiocese recruits the handsome Father Michael (Ben Cross) to take on the demon and his other manifestations. The priest deduces that Daesidarius (a.k.a., The Unholy One) murders the sinner in the act of sinning, then sends that person’s soul to hell. The movie’s biggest selling point is a cast that includes Peter Frechette, Ned Beatty, Hal Holbrook and Trevor Howard, in one of his final roles. Otherwise, there are a few too many missed opportunities here to make The Unholy stand out among other exorcism flicks. Fortier, however, isn’t one of them. The special features add commentary with Vila; isolated score selections and an audio interview with composer Roger Bellon; an audio interview with production designer and co-writer Fernando Fonseca, featuring selections from his unused score; ”Sins of the Father,” with Cross; “Demons in the Flesh: The Monsters of The Unholy”; ”Prayer Offerings,” with Fonseca; an original ending with optional commentary by producer Mathew Hayden; a storyboard and stills gallery.

One sure way to determine the degree of depravity of a particular grindhouse or drive-in specimen is to track the number of alternative titles under which it’s listed. In the case of Nurse Sherri, there’s “Possession of Nurse Sherri,” “Black Voodoo,” “Hands of Death,” “Beyond the Living,” “Hospital of Terror” and “Terror Hospital.” A second DVD, included in the package, is labelled “Killer’s Curse.” Added as an “exploitation cut” version, I failed to identify any differences between them. This shouldn’t be taken as a complaint, just an observation. The key point to be made is that it was made in the late 1970s, by semi-legendary schlockmeister Al Adamson (Dracula Vs. Frankenstein, Satan’s Sadists) and is a textbook example of what can happen when such an “artist” sets out to create a “violent and sleazy hybrid of ‘nurse’ films and supernatural horror.” That, it is. As usual, Vinegar Syndrome has invested significantly more money and TLC into its product than Adamson felt it deserved. It has been freshly restored, in 2K, of its original 35mm negative, and features interviews with its stars and semi-legendary producer Samuel Sherman, who supplies the commentary track. “Nurses’ Confessions” is a terrific backgrounder with co-stars Jill Jacobson and Marliyn Joi, and there’s a “Then and Now” locations featurette.

Trespass: Blu-ray
Stripped to its bare essentials, Walter Hill’s 1992 action/thriller Trespass works best as an urban adaptation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, set in an abandoned factory in East St. Louis. It begins with a pair of good-ol’-boy Arkansas firefighters, Vince and Don (Bill Paxton, William Sadler), being handed a hand-drawn map and old newspaper clipping, purportedly leading to a stash of a stolen religious artifacts and hidden somewhere in the once thriving plant. The robber won’t need the map anymore, as he plans to kill himself in the four-alarm blaze. Naturally, the firefighters become fixated on the possibility that the museum-quality artifacts can be fenced or turned in to the insurance company for a nice reward. What Vince and Don don’t take into account, of course, is that the abandoned factory also is a hideout for local gang-bangers, including characters played by Ice-T, Ice Cube, Stoney Jackson, John Toles-Bey, Tommy “Tiny” Lister and De’voreaux White. Inconveniently, the factory serves as a home for a wily homeless gent (Art Evans). The Arkansas rubes aren’t prepared to take on an entire gang of obscenely well-armed thugs, who fear their sanctuary has been invaded, and the locals have no idea that they’re in possession of a fortune in gold. If you haven’t guessed already, the homeless guy is there to remind us not only of the folly of youth and wages of greed, but also Walter Huston’s old prospector in the John Huston classic. Fresh off their work on the Back to the Future trilogy, collaborative screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis supplied Hill with enough of a framework to fill in the blanks with brilliantly choreographed violence and sardonic humor.  If Trespass failed to ignite a bonfire at the box office, the blame can be laid on the coincidence of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Originally titled “The Looters,” its release date was pushed from the July 4 weekend to Christmas, so that a new marketing campaign could be devised around the new title and conceptual spin. By either title, Hill’s picture is lots of fun. The package contains a vintage making-of featurette; five new ones, including interviews and pieces on the stunts and weaponry; deleted scenes; and a music video.

Monster Hunt
Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions: Blu-ray
As of February, 2016, when it was surpassed by Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt held the title of highest-grossing, domestically made Chinese film of all time. Worldwide, it scored more than $400 million at the box office. Hui may not have been as stunned by those numbers as other observers, considering he’d previously worked on Shrek, Madagascar and Antz, and is listed as co-director on Shrek the Third, with Chris Miller, and director of several DreamWorks shorts. In other words, Monster Hunt’s success wasn’t a fluke. By combining live-action and animated characters, it tapped into a family-friendly market – even finding a ready audience in its very limited U.S. run – that most studios here would envy. Naturally, a sequel is already in post-production. This isn’t to say, however, I can safely describe what’s happening in Roi and writer Alan Yuen’s fantasy universe, I’ll paraphrase, thusly, “In a mythical ancient world, monsters rule their land while humans keep to their own kingdom. When adorable baby monster Wuba is born to a human father and the monster queen, mortals and creatures alike set out to capture the newborn. They include both monster-hating humans and monsters claiming Wuba as their own.” It has been dubbed into English.

I’m only a little more familiar with the universe described in Yu-Gi-Oh! The Dark Side of Dimensions, a feature-length spinoff of the multi-tentacled Japanese animated franchise. The film is an original story, featuring Yugi Muto and Seto Kaiba as its main characters. It follows events of the original “Yu-Gi-Oh!” storyline and the original manga. Once again, I defer to a more accurate summarization than I could provide: “A year after the departure of the Pharaoh, Yugi and his high school friends are discussing what they will do after graduation. Meanwhile, Seto has commissioned an excavation to retrieve the disassembled Millennium Puzzle from the ruins of the Millennium chamber. The item had previously housed the soul of his rival, Atem, who he hopes to revive in order to settle their score. The excavation is interrupted by Diva, who faces Kaiba in a game of “Duel Monsters” and steals two pieces of the recovered Puzzle. He keeps one fragment and gives the other to his sister, Sera, who passes it on to Yugi … host of the Pharaoh.” At 130 minutes, the movie might be too overwhelming for novices. Bonus material includes “Favorite Moments With the Cast,” featuring the English voice cast; Q&A’s with the actors who voice the lead characters; “Show Us Your Cards!,” a gallery of fans displaying their favorite “Yu-Gi-Oh!” cards;  and a separate collector’s card.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Epic: Blu-ray
PBS: The Story of China with Michael Wood: Blu-ray
ABC: Dirty Dancing: Television Special
PBS: Masterpiece: King Charles III
PBS: Frontline: Last Days of Solitary
I can’t think of better way to celebrate America’s birthday than binging on the four-part PBS documentary, “American Epic,” which the network describes as a “journey back in time to the Big Bang of modern popular music.” It’s well worth missing a fireworks barrage, or two. The “Big Bang” came in the 1920s, as radio took over the music business and scouts for record companies were forced to leave their studios in search of new voices and customers anxious to purchase phonographs. What they discovered was a treasure trove of uniquely American musicians, willing to share their sounds with the world and, perhaps, make some money doing so. Most had never heard themselves perform on a disc or over the airwaves. As unwieldy as the portable studios were, the sounds they captured were pristine and impassioned. The pops and scratches would be added later, at home. The 310 minutes of music in “American Epic” represents what today is commonly known as roots or Americana. It includes country singers in the Appalachians, blues guitarists in the Mississippi Delta, gospel preachers across the South, Cajun fiddlers in Louisiana, tejano groups from the Texas/Mexico border, Native American drummers in Arizona and Hawaiian musicians. It adds a companion book, a soundtrack featuring 100 remastered songs, an educational outreach program and a historical archive. None of it is boring or without reach, even to untrained ears. The remarkable lives of America’s seminal musicians are revealed through previously unseen film footage and photographs, and exclusive interviews with music pioneers, their families and eyewitnesses to the era. “American Epic” is the brainchild of exec-producers T Bone Burnett, Robert Redford and Jack White, whose excitement for the project is palpable throughout. Engineer Nicholas Bergh, a pre-eminent restorer of audio tracks for early films, had just finished collecting parts and rebuilding just such a machine — none of the original 20, made by AT&T’s Western Electric division, had survived — which works on pulleys and allows for no stopping or restarting, while recording straight to wax. It took first-time director Bernard MacMahon, who also produced with Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, more than 10 years to complete the documentary, as it morphed and expanded. Among the participating acts are Alabama Shakes, John, Nas, the Avett Brothers, Taj Mahal, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rhiannon Giddens and Taj Mahal. In a word, “American Epic” is breathtaking.

I recently referred readers to hour-long documentaries on several aspects of Chinese history, including the discovery of ancient chariots, terra-cotta warriors and battlefields. I couldn’t imagine how the PBS documentary series, “The Story of China,” written and presented by historian Michael Wood, could encapsulate 4,000 years of continuous history into a meaningful 360-minute package. A CliffsNotes or Classics Illustrated version, maybe, but not six hours of gorgeously captured landscapes and informed discussions of architecture, geography and military history. And, yet, by stopping short of the events that led to Chinese Civil War, communist takeover and embracing of a free-market economy, Wood probably saved himself another two-hour dissertation. By journeying along the Silk Route, down the Grand Canal and across the plain of the Yellow River, where Chinese civilization began, Wood found common elements in his story. He also meets people from all walks of life, visiting China’s most evocative landscapes and exploring such ancient cities as Xi’an, Nanjing and Hangzhou, which still reveal the fingerprints of history.

Anyone attempting to remake “Dirty Dancing,” on the big screen, TV or stage, must have known they would be opening themselves to a noisy backlash by the movie’s rabid fanbase. With a 30th anniversary edition already in the marketplace, the producers of ABC’s adaptation probably weren’t nearly as concerned about reviews, as word-of-mouth leading into this Blu-ray release, less than six weeks later. Although it closely follows the original narrative, there are several key differences, besides the casting of Abigail Breslin and Colt Prattes in the roles made famous by Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Today’s teens might appreciate the stronger emphasis on race relations and class divisions, and the honest portrayal of a young woman’s coming of age at a time when birth control was an uncommon luxury and young middle-class males were practically clueless as to how to behave in their company. The lower-class dancers are painted as being more well-versed in the ways of the world, but just barely. The dancing is good, of course, and the locations attractive. Baby’s parents are experiencing problems that went unaddressed in the original, as well. Supporting cast members include Sarah Hyland, Nicole Scherzinger, Tony Roberts, Shane Harper, J. Quinton Johnson, Trevor Einhorn, Katey Sagal, Billy Dee Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Debra Messing.  Andy Blankenbuehler, a veteran of “9 to 5: The Musical” and “Hamilton’s America,” handled the choreography very capably. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “The Legacy Lives On” and “Don’t Step on the 1, Start on the 2.”

Those of us who’ve grown up wondering what crime Prince Charles must have committed to be denied his birthright — and by his mother, no less — might find a hint or two in PBS’ overtly Shakespearian, “Masterpiece: King Charles III.” Based on Mike Bartlett’s critically acclaimed and award-winning play, Rupert Goold’s interpretation benefits from terrific performances and a teleplay that includes ghosts, thoughts of patricide, romantic entanglements and much political intrigue. After waiting a lifetime for the call, Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) ascends to the British throne after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. With the future of the monarchy under threat, protests on the streets and his family in disarray, Charles must grapple with his own identity and purpose. The stellar cast includes Oliver Chris, as William; Richard Goulding, as Harry; Charlotte Riley, as Kate; Margot Leicester, as Camilla; and Katie Brayben, as Diana’s ghost.

PBS’ “Frontline: Last Days of Solitary” teaches us that the U.S. is the world leader in solitary confinement, with more than 80,000 prisoners being held in isolation. Besides introducing Maine’s ambitious attempt to decrease its reliance on the disciplinary practice, “Last Days of Solitary” investigates what happens when prisoners who have spent considerable time in isolation try to integrate back into society, sometimes only days or weeks after being forced to live like animals and act like mental patients participating in a cruel experiment. The truly scary presentation offers some reason to hope that solitary confinement could someday be abolished, without ignoring the fact that some prisoners simply can’t adjust to life among other inmates, let alone civilians. The self-abuse these men endure to make their complaints known and taken seriously border on the unwatchable. That the prisoners we meet are almost exclusively white begs other questions.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Marseille Trilogy, Life, Bird With Crystal Plumage, Lawnmower Man, Car Wash and more

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

The Marseille Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
They Live by Night: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Way back in the Pleistocene Age, when all film students and cineastes had to rely on for evidence of a film’s virtues were barely-watchable 16mm prints of vintage movies, it was sometimes difficult to appreciate what differentiated true classics from run-of-the-mill entertainments. Poorly maintained projectors occasionally caused the film stock to melt, while scratches and other defects turned dialogue into garble. That all changed with laserdiscs, DVDs and the concerted efforts of preservationists, who benefitted mightily from advanced digital technology. In his introduction to the Criterion Collection release of Marcel Pagnol’s “The Marseille Trilogy,” Bertrand Tavernier (‘Round Midnight) describes how his opinions about Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936) changed after watching the 2015 restoration, conducted by Compagnie Méditerranénne de Film and the Cinémathèque Française. In short, the experience was revelatory. As the silent era gave way to talkies, Pagnol turned his attention away from the Paris stage for new challenges as a filmmaker in his native Provence. The writer/producer of Marius turned to Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Don Juan) to adapt his 1929 play into what became a trilogy about star-crossed lovers in the port city and the working-man’s cafe that serves as the center of Pagnol’s fictional universe. Part One introduces us to Marius (Pierre Fresnay), the sedentary son of the bistro’s boisterous owner, Cesar (Raimu), and Fanny (Orane Demazis), whose strait-laced mother, Honorine (Alida Rouffe), runs an adjoining seafood store. After reaching adulthood, Marius and Fanny take their friendship to the next level, by embarking on an impetuous sexual relationship. When Honorine discovers them in flagrante delicto, she orders Cesar to force his son to marry her daughter, which he does. Just as they’re about to tie the knot, however, Fanny recognizes her lover’s overriding desire to experience life on the high seas before settling down and reluctantly gives him a pass. The first installment ends with Marius’ ship pulling out of the harbor, destination, the Indian Ocean. Fanny’s in tears and Cesar yelling at a ship that no longer is there.

In Fanny, directed by Marc Allégret (Entrée des artistes), we learn that the female protagonist is pregnant with Marius’ child and, as such, runs the risk of being ostracized by neighbors and family members in the heavily Catholic community. Honorine instructs Fanny to accept a long-standing proposal of marriage from wealthy businessman Honore Panisse (Fernand Charpin), who, after being advised of her condition, still agrees to legitimize the child’s birth. Fanny would have preferred to wait for Marius, but his letters home are non-committal, at best. When the baby arrives, Honore is as good as his word and Cesar evolves from a blustery old coot into a doting “godfather” to the child. The comic relief is much appreciated. In Part Three, Cesar, written and directed by Pagnol, the elderly Honore is dying; his adopted son, Cesariot (André Fouché), has returned home from military school to comfort him; Marius is working as an auto mechanic in Toulon; and Fanny is faced with the dilemma of possibly having to reveal the name of her son’s birth father to him. All the loose ends will ultimately be tied, but not until the melodrama reaches a fever pitch. As old-fashioned and conventional as the trilogy sounds, the interweaving of fortunes makes it as compelling as such vintage mini-series as “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “The Thorn Birds” and “Winds of War.” Indeed, it has been readapted several times on French television and in Joshua Logan’s 1961 feature, Fanny. Marseille is a splendid location, even in black-and-white, as are Toulon and Les Lecques. In addition to the 4K digital restorations of all three films, Blu-ray features include a new interview with Nicolas Pagnol, the writer/director’s grandson; segments of “Marcel Pagnol: Morceaux de choisis,” a 1973 documentary series on his life and work; a short documentary on the Marseille harbor, by Pagnol; archival interviews with actors Demazis, Fresnay and Robert Vattier; “Pagnol’s Poetic Realism,” a video essay by scholar Brett Bowles; a French television clip about the restoration of the trilogy; and an essay by film critic Michael Atkinson and excerpts from Pagnol’s memoirs. (BTW: If Honore’s surname sounds familiar, it’s because Alice Waters adopted it for her landmark Berkeley bistro, Chez Panisse, as a “homage to the sentiment, comedy and informality of these classic films.”

Criterion also has delivered a pristine Blu-ray edition of Nicholas Ray’s terrific 1948 debut feature, They Live by Night, a lyrical film noir that incoming RKO boss Howard Hughes kept on a shelf for two years, before word-of-mouth praise from abroad and Hollywood’s private-screening-room circuit changed his mind. When the release first came to my attention, I’ll admit, I confused it with Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940) and Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), both of which share certain tonal qualities with Ray’s adaptation of Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel, “Thieves Like Us.” It would be re-adapted in 1974 by Robert Altman, under the book’s original title. I took some comfort in learning that, like me, Altman was not aware that Ray had previously adapted the book. They Live by Night anticipated Ray’s subsequent existential genre films, such as Knock on Any Door, In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar. It would be difficult, as well, not to see the resemblance between Farley Granger’s alienated bank robber, Bowie, and James Dean, in Rebel Without a Cause, seven years later. After spending seven years on a Mississippi prison farm, 23-year-old Bowie joins a pair of hardened criminals in a string of thefts. During a pitstop, Bowie hooks up with the mechanic’s naïve teenage daughter, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), who wants to taste freedom as much as he does. Instead, Bowie is implicated in a bank robbery that eventually results in the death of a highway patrolman. Although he had nothing to do with the shooting, itself, the media label him “Bowie the Kid” and paint him as the ringleader. Keechie believes enough in her man’s innocence that she decides to join him on his escape to Mexico. Naturally, things don’t work out as planned. When it comes to amour fou, do they ever?  The 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, adds commentary with Granger and historian Eddie Muller; a new video interview with film critic Imogen Sara Smith; a short piece from 2007 with film critic Molly Haskell, filmmakers Christopher Coppola and Oliver Stone, and film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini; excerpts from a 1956 audio interview with producer John Houseman and a new essay by film scholar Bernard Eisenschitz.

Life: Blu-ray

Last month, in my review of The Space Between Us, I wondered if audiences have grown weary of stories based on the possibility of life on Mars and the many unexpected things that can happen during the commute from Earth. The Martian did well at the international box office, while others have struggled. If Daniel Espinosa’s adaptation of a smart and ominous screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) looked inviting in print ads and TV spots, it also suggested yet another merger of tropes from Alien and previous trapped-in-space flicks, including Gravity. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem. At a time when the sci-fi/horror market is packed to bursting, however, covering a production budget of nearly $60 million is no small trick. In May, Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien: Covenant kicked off the summer season with a loud thud. In Life, astronauts aboard the Mars Pilgrim 7 space station are doing their weightless thing somewhere between the Red Planet and Earth, when a scientist (Arlyon Bakare) studying a sample of soil discovers a large, single-celled organism he suspects could provide evidence of extraterrestrial life there. Eureka! After being nourished on glycerin, it doesn’t take long for the miniscule creature, christened “Calvin,” to grow tentacles and behave like a mischievous baby squid. The problem comes in watching the Calvin grow like Topsy and realizing that it craves nutrients found in the human body.  Suffice it to say that the rest of the mission is eclipsed by the efforts of the remaining five astronauts – Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya and Rebecca Ferguson, playing an overmatched quarantine specialist – to save their asses and mankind, if the shuttle returns to Earth and Calvin is unleashed there. Despite Life’s familiarity, Swedish-born director Espinosa (“Easy Money”) benefits from a cleverly designed space capsule, which allows for credible simulations of weightless movement, as well as the occasional jump scare. Like Gravity, ample time also is reserved for suspenseful space walks outside the shuttle. Sci-fi completists shouldn’t have any problem enjoying Life for its engineering conceits, if nothing else. Clearly, general audiences need something more than extraterrestrial squids to get their blood flowing, however. I wasn’t accorded the opportunity to sample the movie in 4K, but can see where it might be effective in places. Otherwise, the Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, astronaut diaries and three very good making-of featurettes: “Claustrophobic Terror: Creating a Thriller in Space,” “Life: In Zero G” and “Creating Life: The Art and Reality of Calvin.”

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
In movies, as in life, some stories are simply too good to be true. The better ones also tend to be too good not to pass along as fact. As apocryphal as it may or may not be, the origin story attached to Dario Argento’s classic giallo, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is just such a tale. It’s said that at one point during the early days of production, an executive producer was so disappointed by the dailies that he considered firing the first-time director. Argento’s primary claim to fame had been co-writing the story for Once Upon a Time in the West, with Sergio Leoni and Berthold Bertolucci, so any directorial skills were based on observation, alone. When producer Salvatore Argento heard the complaints, he paid a visit to his associate’s office to hear him out of the subject of his son’s incompetence. Before that could happen, however, he noticed that the man’s secretary was visibly shaken by something she’d just experienced. The woman said that she was terrified by the footage she’d seen from The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and couldn’t get it out of her head. The proud papa then asked her to tell her boss about her reaction to the screening. Without exerting an ounce of clout, Salvatore saved Argento’s job. Because the thriller would prove to be a box-office smash — in Europe, at least — it would be nice to think that the secretary was given a raise or promotion. Among other things, it became noteworthy as the first installment in Argento’s groundbreaking “Animal Trilogy,” which also includes the highly stylized murder/mysteries The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972). After more than 45 years, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage still retains its ability to shock and terrify viewers who don’t know what’s coming. In another possibly apocryphal story, one of the historians interviewed for the bonus package points out the debt of gratitude Argento and Hitchcock owed Gerd Oswald’s obscure 1958 adaptation of Fredric Brown’s noir thriller, “The Screaming Mimi.” Screaming Mimi starred Anita Ekberg, Philip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee He insists that the depiction of a buxom blond being stabbed to death in an outdoor shower, not only influenced Argento’ deployment of razor-sharp cutlery, but also the famous shower scene In Psycho. Although neither film is considered an adaptation of the book, “The Screaming Mimi,” Argento only wrote the screenplay for “Bird,” on spec, after Bertolucci gave him a copy of it.  (Screaming Mimi has only been available on video since 2011 on VOD and MOD formats.)

Comparisons to Hitchcock extend, as well, to the role played by the American protagonist, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), who becomes involved in the investigation of a series of vicious murders, even though he was simply an innocent bystander to one of them. The writer was passing by a glass-walled art gallery when he observed a woman fighting for her life from a knife wound. Although double glass doors prevented Dalmas from coming to her aid, he was able to give police their first vague description of the killer. Because it also made him a possible suspect, Dalmas’ passport is confiscated and he’s instructed to make himself available for further questioning. The misplaced notoriety also turns the American and his girlfriend, Giulia (Suzy Kendall), into sitting ducks for the man draped completely in black. If he wants to clear his name, Dalmas will have to launch an investigation of his own. It leads him to the nutso artist of grisly painting, which may have inspired the killer; the bug-eyed pimp of a murdered prostitute; an antiques dealer who employed one of the victims; and an assembly of retired pugilists, whose yellow jackets provide cover for a similarly dressed suspect. The closer Dalmas comes to actual clues, the more imperiled he and his girlfriend become. In case you’re wondering, the title refers to a magnificent crane in the city zoo, whose distinctive chirping can be heard in the background of a call made by the killer. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage may not be a barrel of laughs, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Newcomers to giallo should find a lot to like here, as well, including the sumptuous cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now) and a seductive score by composer Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in the West). The new 4K restoration of the film from the camera negative, in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, was produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release. It adds commentary with Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “The Power of Perception,” a new visual essay on the cinema of Dario Argento, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, author of “Devil’s Advocates: Suspiria and Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study”; fresh interviews with critic Kat Ellinger, Gildo Di Marco (Garullo, the pimp) and Argento, now 76; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp; and a limited-edition 60-page booklet, illustrated by Matthew Griffin, featuring an appreciation of the film by Michael Mackenzie and other essays.

The Paul Naschy Collection: Blu-ray
Inquisition: Blu-ray
Although his name isn’t nearly as synonymous with horror as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price, Scream Factory’s five-disc The Paul Naschy Collection (1973-1981) makes a very good case for the Spanish actor being compared favorably to Lon Chaney pere et fils. Bearing a fair resemblance facially and in stature to John Belushi, Naschy has portrayed werewolves, vampires, mummies, hunchbacks, serial killers and evil priests, frequently using the same pseudonym, Waldemar Daninsky. If the films in which he appears don’t quite measure up to the classics from Universal, Hammer and AIP, it’s more a function of impossibly tight budgets and low production values in a national cinema not geared for genre fare. Still, they aren’t without their cheap thrills, including actresses who would give the last 50 years’ worth of Miss Universe candidates an inferiority complex. It’s been reported that Naschy developed a taste for monster movies as a boy, growing up during the Spanish Civil War and its brutal aftermath, in Madrid. He sought escape from the real-life horrors around him in adventure comics, movie serials and such American imports as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). His athleticism was honed as a soccer player and competitive weightlifter. Naschy got his start in the movie business as an extra during location shoots for such American and Italian productions as King of Kings, El Cid, 55 Days at Peking, Messalina vs. the Son of Hercules and Fury of Johnny Kid. Waldemar Daninsky’s first appearance came in Enrique López Eguiluz’ Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968), for which he received a writing and story credit, as Jacinto Molina. He would supplement his acting and screenwriting as a producer, illustrator, director and author of Western pulp novels under the pseudonym Jack Mill. The Blu-ray box set includes Vengeance of the Zombies, Horror Rises From the Tomb, Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, Night of the Werewolf and Human Beasts. While none of them is particularly noteworthy on its own merits, they easily qualify as movies that are so bad they’re good and too sexy to be completely unwatchable. In a first, the bonus package includes “alternate clothed sequences” and deleted scenes.

Being released separately from Mondo Macabre, Inquisition represents another common theme in Naschy’s repertoire. In addition to directing and writing the 1978 bloodbath, as Molina, he plays three key roles: Inquisitor/magistrate Bernard de Fossey, the Devil and the Grim Reaper. When it comes to horror, there are few events in history to top the Inquisition. Representatives of the Vatican were given carte blanche to torture and murder anyone it considered to be a heretic, blasphemer or enemy of the Church. This included women accused of being witches, devil worshippers and carriers of the plague. Here, Inquisitor De Fossey travels to the plague-ridden region of Peyriac, in southwestern France, a particularly target-rich environment for sadistic priests. Local beauty Catherine (Daniela Giordano) quickly catches his eye, tormenting him with impure thoughts. Her affections lie with her fiancé Jean, however. Her family’s embittered one-eyed manservant Rénover (Antonio Iranzo) rats out his enemies to the Inquisitor as blasphemers, including several semi-nude women who we’ll watch being tortured on the rack, then burned at the stake. (It isn’t as graphic as it could have been, especially by modern standards.) When Jean dies in mysterious circumstances, Catherine allies herself with Satan to get revenge on De Fossey and his henchmen. Because Naschy plays three roles, things sometimes get confusing. Still, the story is more compelling than most of the plots with which he was saddled. The Blu-ray adds an introduction by Naschy; an interview with Giordano; commentary by Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn, of the “NaschyCast” podcast; and “Blood and Sand,” a documentary on Spanish horror films.

The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Shout!Factory’s 25th anniversary release of The Lawnmower Man: Collector’s Edition serves as a concrete reminder of how far Hollywood has come in its ability to duplicate images once reserved for virtual-reality headsets and other immersive hardware and software. Released 10 years after Tron failed to ignite the box office for excursions into the cyber-universe – the video game did better – The Lawnmower Man merged elements of Charly (“Flowers for Algernon”), a Stephen King short story and arcade-game technology. In Brett Leonard’s cult thriller, Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) is a scientist obsessed with perfecting virtual-reality software. When his military-financed experiments on animals go haywire, he finds the ideal substitute in Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey), a slow-witted gardener who resembles Raggedy Andy. Angelo shoots Jobe up with intelligence-enhancing drugs, before strapping him into a VR apparatus and introducing him to an extensive schedule of learning disciplines. In short order, Jobe absorbs more recorded knowledge than Wikipedia and with a higher degree of accuracy. He also comes to realize that, if he’s going to attract the MILF next-door (Jenny Wright), he’d better buff up and clean up his act. Once he’s passed that test, it becomes clear that Jobe has become addicted to the experience and juices up to the point where develops telekinesis and other psychic abilities, including being able to control his souped-up lawnmower without using his hands. When he becomes too powerful for Angelo and his fiendish backers, things really get nuts. Not surprisingly, the computer-generated graphics look primitive to anything we’ve become used to seeing, especially in such soon-to-arrive entertainments as Disclosure, The Matrix, The Cell, eXistenZ and Virtuosity, also directed by Leonard. Some old-timers might recall that New Line Cinema had obtained the rights to King’s story, “The Lawnmower Man,” and an unrelated script called “Cyber God,” to which the studio attached the title and an idea for a single scene. King was furious, as well, that New Line attached his name to the purloined title, and he sued the studio to have both removed. When it refused,  a judge fined it $10,000 a day and full profits until it did. The controversy didn’t help business. The new Blu-ray includes both the theatrical and director’s cut of the movie, from 4K scans of an interpositive and footage from the original camera negative; commentary with Leonard and writer/producer Gimel Everett; conceptual art, design sketches and stills; storyboard comparisons; the new featurette, “Cybergod: Creating The Lawnmower Man”; deleted scenes; and an original EPK, with cast interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

Car Wash: Blu-ray
When Michael Schultz’ workplace comedy was selected for the Palme D’Or competition at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, some French critics interpreted as a proto-Marxian parody of capitalistic oppression of the proletariat. The multiethnic cast of characters and hypocritical behavior of the business’ seemingly benevolent owner, Leon “Mr. B” Barrow (Sully Boyar), gave Car Wash a boost in the voting for the Best Music Award and a Technical Grand Prize. When it opened back home, a few months earlier, audiences overlooked the perceived political overtones, focusing, instead, on the frequently hilarious antics of the minimum-wage workers and their interaction with well-heeled customers and street rabble. Joel Schumacher’s script was, at once, funny and sympathetic to the employee’s various issues, while Schultz’ nimble direction validated the promise shown a year earlier in the urban teen dramedy, Cooley High. For all the structural comparisons to Nashville – each character having a discernible identity and story arc — Car Wash’s early buzz could be credited almost exclusively to producers’ Art Linson and Gary Stromberg’s decision to release Norman Whitfield’s funky soundtrack and titular theme song months ahead of opening weekend. It appealed to white and Latino disco audiences, as much as it did to African-Americans expecting some blaxploitation flavor. The pent-up want-to-see factor was palpable. As an extra incentive, there was the prospect of watching Richard Pryor’s spot-on imitation of Reverend Ike (a.k.a., Daddy Rich). Others making key contributions were George Carlin, the Pointer Sisters, Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, Pepe Serna, Garrett Morris, Dr. Irwin Corey and Melanie Mayron. The other showstopper was Antonio Fargas’ gender-unspecific, Lindy. When Car Wash had its network television premiere in 1978, on “NBC Monday Night at the Movies,” among the things deleted by network censors were scenes that included Fargas’ overtly gay and not at all unpopular character. They were replaced with a subplot involving a diner owner, played by Danny DeVito, and material with Brooke Adams and Benny Baker. Special features include new interviews with Stromberg and Otis Day (Animal House), and reprised commentary with Schultz.

Altitude: Blu-ray
At this point in her career, all 46-year-old Denise Richards is required to do to earn a paycheck is show up, look good and kick some ass, as if to remind us of her 15 minutes of true fame years earlier in The World Is Not Enough. Her association with former husband Charlie Sheen continues to pay dividends – as one of his two baby mommas, they’re still friendly – through occasional mentions in gossip columns and sitcoms in need of a recognizable star. True, being voted the “Worst Bond Girl of All Time,” by the readers of Britain’s Daily Mail, was a bummer, but she’s hung in there. In Alex Merkin’s Altitude, a confined-space thriller set on a hijacked jetliner, Richards plays an FBI hostage negotiator on her way back to headquarters to be reamed out for blowing an assignment. Relocated into business-class after a confrontation with an obese passenger, who’s hogging her seat in steerage, Gretchen will soon learn that her suave neighbor is harboring a dangerous secret. It’s revealed when Dolph Lundgren, Greer Grammer and Chuck Liddell take control of the plane, demanding that the Brit, Terry (Kirk Baker), relinquish the elephantine diamond he stole from them. Learning that Gretchen is a federal agent, he offers her $50 million to help him stay alive. She’s already recognized the air marshal (Jonathan Lipnicki) on the flight, but he’s too green and corruptible to be of much use. If the chase could hardly be more recognizably absurd, well, most of the good plot points were revealed already in Turbulence and Passenger 57. Even so, Richards holds her own in the kick-ass department.

Under the Turban
In the first month after 9/11, more than 300 cases of violence and discrimination against Sikhs were recorded by the Sikh Coalition, a 15-year-old community-based organization that has “worked towards the realization of civil and human rights for all people.” During the ensuing period, the coalition has documented hundreds of hate crimes, many of them described by police as simple cases of mistaken identity. The crimes have included the murders of several Sikhs – six in one 2012 rampage, alone – and the bullying of countless students. Earlier this year, a violent attack on a Sikh man, working on his car in the driveway of his Seattle home, followed the killing of a dark-skinned Indian man in Kansas. In both cases, the attackers shouted, “get out of my country.” It wasn’t until 2013 that the FBI agreed to track hate crimes against members of all self-identified religions, as listed in the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and Statistical Abstract. It took two years for the agency to implement the changes, however, and hate crimes have increased since then-candidate Donald Trump began his politically motivated campaign against Arab immigrants. Satinder Garcha, Mike Rogers and Meghan Shea’s documentary, Under the Turban, goes a long way toward explaining the history of the Sikh religion, how it differs from Islam and Hinduism, and why male followers honor their religion by wearing turbans and growing out their beards and hair. (Hint: it’s not just to piss off rednecks.) It’s a distinction even pea-brained bigots with assault rifles should be able to understand. Under the Turban should qualify as must-viewing for high school students not yet poisoned by society’s toxins. In it, entrepreneur Garcha attempts to answer a question posed to him, in 2012, by his 9-year-old daughter, Zara, “What does it mean to be Sikh?” It encouraged him to take his family of six on an extended adventure, with camera crew in tow, covering seven countries over five years. In visits to Italy, Argentina, Canada, India, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States, Zara asked dozens of fellow Sikhs the same question. The question of anti-immigrant violence is addressed in the family’s visit to the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where the 2012 attack still reverberates. While there are times when the documentary resembles a compilation of home movies, the Garchas’ message can’t help but ring through.

TV-to-DVD
Starz:  Power: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Workaholics: The Final Season
Lifetime: Showing Roots
PBS: Nature: Hotel Armadillo
PBS: Nature: Forest of the Lynx
PBS: Audubon
PBS: NOVA: Holocaust Escape Tunnel
PBS: NOVA: Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb
PBS: NOVA: Chinese Chariot Revealed
Too often lately, my reviews of TV-to-DVD compilations read like obituaries of aborted series or final seasons. It’s nice to report that Starz’ gangsta drama, “Power,” will be with us for at least two more seasons. Through three action-filled stanzas – check out the first two, before Numero Tres — it has documented the fortunes of antihero James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), owner of a popular New York City nightclub, “Truth,” and drug kingpin. As cool as a Persian cucumber, Ghost has for three years balanced two careers; a supportive wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton); two kids, who miss and sometimes resent their daddy; his mistress, federal agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren); a loyal, if unpredictable Irish-American lieutenant, Tommy (Joseph Sikora); several employees/pushers; and a few enemies, who, despite the fact that he’s made them rich, would kill him in a heartbeat. As Season Three opens, Tommy has switched his allegiances to another gang and a smuggler earlier believed to be assassinated. Angela still doesn’t know that she’s sleeping with a fugitive from justice and Tasha isn’t about to ignore her husband’s unfaithfulness much longer. Meanwhile, there’s a mole in Angela’s office, who threatens to expose her affair with Ghost. As the season comes to a close, it’s impossible to tell the difference between his friends and foes. Oh, yeah, bodacious ta-tas are still a staple of the show. Among the plethora of producers, exec-producers, supervising producers, line and associate producers is 50 Cent, who also plays Ghost’s former business partner and all-around bad guy. “Power” creator Courtney Kemp Agboh, previously served as writer and executive producer of “The Good Wife.” The package adds a Season Two wrapup and short episodic commentaries by Agboh. New episodes begin next month.

The seventh and final season of Comedy Central’s “Workaholics” has come and gone, so, the laughs end here, in “Workaholics: The Complete Series.” Hence, consider this to be another obit. As consistently funny as the low-brow series was, I’ll never know  how the series made it through seven full seasons … and, I expect, neither will creators/stars Blake Anderson, Adam Devine and Anders Holm. Before entering the cable arena, they had a YouTube Channel called “Mail Order Comedy” and a mini web series, “5th Year.” Comedy Central executives noticed the series and turned it into “Workaholics.” An apt summary might read, “The stoner grandsons of the Three Stooges find work in the only industry that employs such misfits – telemarketing – and how they managed to stay out of jail or the unemployment lines.” The first episode’s plot, “The guys must figure out how to pass a drug test at work,” told Comedy Central’s slacker audience everything they needed to know going forward, except to expect a rapport between the characters that would remind them of “The Office,” if it had been co-produced by Cheech & Chong. And, by the way, a summarization of the show’s final episode reads, “The guys become party gods after an energy drink company starts paying them to throw ragers.” That about sums up the whole series.

As contrived as it sounds, the Lifetime movie “Showing Roots” is a period melodrama that shouldn’t work as well as it does, and begs the question as to why so few viewers have been able to find it. Even now, it’s only being sold at Walmart. (It goes wide on August 22.) It is set in a sleepy Southern town during the same week as “Roots” debuted on ABC. Maggie Grace (Taken) and Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) play friends and co-workers in a beauty shop – a.k.a., hair salon – run by a blond, church-going racist, Shirley (Elizabeth McGovern), who engages in nooners with a local cop. All of the white people in the movie are racist of one strip or another, except Grace’s Violet. Blue-collar types refuse to work alongside African-American men, as ordered by a government mandate, while the delicate flowers of Southern womanhood wouldn’t consider having their hair styled with a comb previously used by a black woman. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Things pick up as the city’s blacks gather to watch the first episodes of “Roots,” which proves to be an ennobling experience for Aduba’s Pearl and Cicely Tyson’s Hattie. After Shirley fires Violet and Pearl for insubordination – cutting hair from designs in fashion mags – they rent a shop across the street. Some of the white women test Violet’s skills, but most refuse to share the waiting room with their peers from across the racial divide. Not surprisingly, something terribly cathartic happens to upset Shirley’s apple cart. In another unlikely scenario, Adam Brody plays a long-haired Vietnam vet, who rides into town in a VW van to ensure the integration of a construction site. Of course, he will worm his way into Violet’s heart. Will he, however, allow her to cut his hair? It’s that kind of a movie. Somehow, though, director Michael Wilson and writer Susan Batten find a way to dilute the clichés with fresh ideas on an overly familiar topic.

PBS’ aptly titled nature series, “Nature,” rarely fails to surprise viewers with its choice of subject matter and the technical expertise on display in capturing the animals in their natural habitats. When “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures” introduced some of the same photographic techniques, it was usually possible for anyone over 21 to see the seams in the productions. Kids didn’t care. It’s far more difficult to tell how “Nature” works. And, frankly, I don’t care. “Hotel Armadillo” and “Forest of the Lynx” are perfect examples of technology being able to tame the savage beasts … temporarily, at least. The former is set in Brazil’s remote Pantanal, which covers more than 80,000 square miles and, as such, is the largest tropical wetland in the world. It is chiefly made up of flooded grassland, with patches of dry savannah or forest. It is populated by some of the most amazing animals on the face of the Earth, whose roots extend back to prehistoric times. The focus here is on the highly secretive giant armadillo, whose den provides an independent eco-system for dozens of other species, including anteaters. “Hotel Armadillo” follows the work of conservation biologist Arnaud Desbiez, who founded the Giant Armadillo Project, and his team. The project is supported by more than 40 zoos and aquariums worldwide.

“Forest of the Lynx” takes us to forests in Austria, so remote they’ve been able to heal themselves from logging, fires and mining, and return to their natural state. The most symbolic change, perhaps, is the return of the lynx, a medium-sized cat with short tail, characteristic tufts of black hair on the tips of their ears, large, padded paws for walking on snow and long whiskers. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the Eurasian lynx has been considered extinct in central Europe. An extensive resettlement project has reintroduced lynx to Austria’s Kalkalpen National Park, which is nestled between two great mountain ranges. Three years in the making, “Forest of the Lynx” chronicles life in this remote wilderness and the complex partnerships among plants, insects, animals and trees, over the seasons. Especially interesting to watch are the white-backed woodpecker, one of Europe’s rarest birds, and pygmy owls, in mating season.

No single person was more responsible for introducing America to the rest of the world than James Audubon, who arrived here in 1803 on a false passport obtained by is wealthy French father. (George Washington had yet to build a wall around the 13 colonies.) Instead of pursuing a career mining lead on the family’s Pennsylvania estate, Audubon acted on his passion for birds. After selling his interest in the farm, he would marry and test his luck in other business opportunities. He would enjoy far more luck painting his favorite subjects than in any of his other endeavors. He subsidized his art work through portrait painting and teaching in the South. For someone who essentially was self-taught, Audubon’s ability to replicate the feathers, colors and poses of individual species bordered on the uncanny. While “Birds of America” wasn’t an easy sell in his adopted country, he found support in England and Scotland for the monumental work, which consists of 435 hand-colored, life-size prints of 497 bird species. The PBS documentary, “Audubon,” covers every aspect of his life, career and the process used to create his books. The DVD, which is wonderful, contains both the 60-minute broadcast version and 90-minute theatrical cut. I suggest the latter.

Historians and archeologists interviewed in the “NOVA” presentation “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” argue that the Lithuanian city of Vilna – once known as the “Jerusalem of the North” – not only was an early target of German forces on their march to the major cities of the USSR, but also “ground zero of Hitler’s Final Solution.” Instead of pretending that the concentration camps were work camps or temporary housing for Jews rounded up throughout Central Europe, thousands were murdered as soon as the SS Einsatzkommando 9 arrived in Vilna on July 2, 1941. They didn’t die in gas chambers, either. They were shot to death, at close range, by Nazi intelligence squads, SS assassins and Lithuanian collaborators, who blamed Jews for the rise of Bolshevism and subjection by Soviet troops. The Ponary massacre chronicled here involved the mass murder of up to 100,000 Jews, Poles and Russian POWs, and simultaneous destruction of Vilna’s synagogues and cultural institutions. Out of 70,000 Jews living in Vilna (a.k.a., Vilnius) only 7,000 survived the war. Sadly, the title, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” is both overly promising and a tad misleading. Yes, the documentary features the efforts of archeologists searching for proof of one of Vilna’s greatest secrets: a lost escape tunnel dug by Jewish prisoners inside a horrific Nazi execution site. (Few actually escaped.) It is, however, a smaller part of a longer report on efforts to excavate the remains of its Great Synagogue, which was destroyed by Nazis and entombed by Stalin’s minions. No matter, because the entire documentary is interesting and important.

In 1986, in the heart of Ukraine, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded, releasing 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima Bomb and creating a restricted area larger than Long Island. Ever since, daredevil scientists, laborers and filmmakers have risked exposure to deadly radiation, to show the world how a post-apocalyptic Earth might look. My favorites are the docs in which we can observe how animals and plants have adapted to the extreme conditions and are thriving in the absence of man. They’re better than most of the sci-fi films I’ve seen lately, which can only speculate how a dystopian landscape might look. In the rush to confine the disaster, a so-called “sarcophagus” was built to contain the radioactive materials that lingered there. It wasn’t built to last forever. “Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb” describes how engineers and laborers from around the world are rushing to replace the temporary structure with one of the most ambitious superstructures ever built: an extraordinary 40,000-ton, 30-story-high, $1.5-billion dome. When it’s completed, workers will slide the dome over the sarcophagus, which, then, will be dismantled, along with the removal of the reactor pieces. If, in the meantime, the temporary roof collapses, another huge cloud of irradiated dust will follow the prevailing winds as far they take it. Clearly, too, construction workers are being exposed to radiation and, if that weren’t sufficiently unpleasant, the Ukrainian winter makes Chicago feel like Sarasota. The project is expected to take decades.

Every so often, a Chinese farmer will scrape the surface of his property and discover the ruins and artifacts of a civilization that thrived thousands of years earlier. It’s how the remarkably well-preserved Terracotta Army of the Qin necropolis was discovered, in 1973, and, last year, the Eastern Han Dynasty tombs of Jianghuai. The King of Zheng tomb was discovered by farmers in 1923, as well, but extensive excavations are still ongoing. Not only were the remains of hundreds of chariots discovered, but also the skeletons of as many horses in a mass grave. Horse-drawn chariots, once limited to transporting royalty and parades, were retrofitted for use in war and buried for use in some departed duke or king’s afterlife. Thundering across China’s battlefields, chariots dominated combat for a millennium, longer than anywhere else on Earth. “Chinese Chariot Revealed” documents the efforts to investigate the design secrets, reconstruct and test China’s first super-weapon.

The DVD Wrapup: John Wick 2, 3 Generations, Frantz, Three Sisters, South Park 20 and more

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2: 4K UHD/Blu-ray
So many people are killed in the John Wick movies that it’s next to impossible to keep track of the body counts. Depending on who is counting, of the 119 deaths that occurred in the 2014 original, Keanu Reeves’ character was directly responsible for between 77 and 84. In John Wick: Chapter 2, the total is set at 128 kills, of which 123 are credited to Wick. I’d be hard-pressed to identify the five victims not attributed to Wick, although one key character commits suicide before he puts a bullet in her cranium. (Who gets the credit for that one?) If memory serves, only one police officer, Jimmy (Thomas Sadoski), appears in either or both segments, unless one takes into account the sirens heard at one point in the sequel. The paucity of cops in these films borders on comic relief. As was the case in the former, Wicks is forced out of momentary retirement to avenge serious affronts to his psyche: the unrelated deaths of his wife and dog. Here, the life of Wick’s extremely obedient American Pitbull is spared at the expense of his thoroughly trashed Boss 429 Mustang, vintage 1969, and out-of-the-way Post-Modernist home. Italian crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) uses twin RPGs to destroy the house, after Wick refuses to honor a commitment to return a favor, as directed by the code of his underground assassins’ bureau. His refusal is polite, but pointless. After the house is destroyed, Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental Hotel – headquarters, of sorts, for the New York operation — reminds John that, if he rejects the sacred “blood oath” medallion, he will be violating one of the two unbreakable rules of the underworld: no killing on Continental grounds and Markers must be honored. Wick will honor the commitment, begrudgingly, but there’s no question he and D’Antonio will meet again to settle the score. Instead of waiting, the oily D’Antonio commissions a $7-million hit on Wick. With that kind of money on the table, every assassin within the tristate area saddles up to track down Our Hero.

Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad make it ridiculously easy for Wick to be found and even more ridiculously easy for the battle-hardened assassin to eliminate his pursuers using “gun fu,” a hybrid fighting style that combines martial arts and close-up gun play. That’s pretty much the whole story here. How John Wick differs from almost every other ultra-violent franchise extant, including the straight-to-video flicks of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris, is the attention paid to detail, nonstop action and imaginative death blows. Reaves, who, like Tom Cruise, performs most of his own stunts and is an attentive student of the martial arts, is far more credible as a master assassin than anyone could have guessed, at least before he made 47 Ronin and Man of Tai Chi, in 2013, and, of course, The Matrix trilogy. The set pieces in John Wick 2 border on the exquisite … beautifully choreographed and shot. Among them are a chase through a subway station (Montreal for New York); Rome’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art; a hall-of-mirrors exhibit, inspired by Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon; and an elaborate party, staged in a disco hidden in the catacombs of Rome (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). There also are dozens of obscure references to Wickian minutiae and a video game called “Payday 2.” Although the distributor originally announced plans to bypass theaters, fans took to the social media to demand a theatrical release and it paid off handsomely. I doubt the same doubt will impact the triquel, which likely will be set immediately after the events at the close of the sequel. The striking HD/UHD presentation adds deleted scenes; commentary with Reaves and his onetime stunt double and coach, Stahelski; a “Dog Wick” short; and featurettes ”RetroWick: Exploring the Unexpected Success of John Wick,” ”Training John Wick,” ”WICK-vizzed,” ”Friends, Confidantes: The Keanu/Chad Partnership,” ”As Above, So Below: The Underworld of John Wick,” ”Car Fu Ridealong,” ”Beat Down: The Evolution of a Fight Scene,” ”Wick’s Toolbox” and ”Kill Count.”

Frantz: Blu-ray
If any filmmaker carries a better batting average into each new project than François Ozon, I don’t know who it would be. Although he returns to certain themes and character traits with some frequency, each new Ozon release is different than the one that came before or will follow it. They include such award-winners as Young & Beautiful, Potiche, Swimming Pool, Angel, 8 Women, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Time to Leave and Hideaway. His films are just as likely to debut at a festival dedicated to gay and lesbian titles, as Cannes or Venice. In his subtly Hitchcockian Frantz, Ozon introduces a character’s sexuality as a McGuffin, then returns to it much later from a different direction. As vague as that revelation may be, however, it probably tells potential viewers more than they should know going into the movie. Inspired in part, at least, by Vertigo, Ozon shifts directions so often that any spoiler would be one too many. Based on Ernst Lubitsch’s1931 Broken Lullaby and a 1930 play by Maurice Rostand, whose title itself qualifies as a spoiler, Frantz is set in Germany and France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Both countries had suffered great losses and were in no hurry to welcome tourists from the opposing side.

Most of what happen in Frantz we observe from the perspective of a young German woman, Anna (Paula Beer), living with the parents of her late fiancé, who died in the trenches. Although Frantz’ body was buried in France, Anna visits the family plot almost daily. One day, she’s surprised to find a rose at Frantz’ marker. She will discover that it was left by a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who tells her he was friends with her fiancé in Paris before the war. Left as despondent by Frantz’ death as Anna, Adrien eventually is accepted by his parents, Doktor and Magda Hoffmeister, as someone who might provide them with a semblance of closure. Knowing that he’s unwelcome in the village, Adrien takes every opportunity to be with Anna and the Hoffmeisters, who even allow him to play Frantz’ prized violin. In turn, he regales them with couched memories about their time together in Paris. As abruptly as he arrived, Adrien makes plans to return to France, but not before unloading something heavy from his mind. Without giving anything away, Anna decides to follow him to Paris, where the mystery thickens and viewers can expect more surprises. What can be said is that, despite being on the winning side, the French are no more over the war than the Germans we met earlier. In fact, from the tortured landscape clearly visible from Anna’s train, you’d guess that France lost the war. Most of Frantz was shot in black-and-white, which Ozon considered to fit the period better than color. He uses that sparingly and with a strategic purpose in mind. The performances by Niney and Beer could hardly be any more compelling. The Blu-ray package adds a Q&A with Ozon, festival coverage, deleted scenes and a selection of ads and poster that demonstrate how difficult a task it was to market a film that could be interpreted in so many different ways.

3 Generations: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to overstate the disappointment registered by critics concerning 3 Generations, a well-intentioned dramedy in which three A-list actors tackle a hot-button issue, but let it slip away halfway through. In it, rising megastar Elle Fanning takes on Ray, a female-to-male transgender teen, desperate to begin hormone treatments before entering a new school, where no one knows her story. He was raised by in New York City by his impossibly neurotic single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), and grandmothers, Dolly and Frances (Susan Sarandon, Linda Emonds), who life in a lesbian-friendly multi-level home right out of Central Set Design. None of the adults, including Maggie’s estranged husband, Craig (Tate Donovan), is comfortable with Ray’s commitment to change, despite this late point in LGBTQ history. Maggie is holding on to the consent papers, as if her daughter will come to her senses in a few weeks and magically change her mind. She needs to get re-connect with Craig to get his signature, but, when she does, it triggers another unlikely contretemps. Meanwhile, Dolly would prefer that her grandchild come out as a lesbian, so she could date girls and skip the surgery. Really. If 3 Generations were set in 1975, and didn’t co-star someone as famously progressive as Sarandon, some of this tomfoolery would be timely, at least. (Another example: of all the cars in the world a lesbian couple would choose to own, here Dolly and Frances are hanging onto a barely roadworthy, if eminently practical Rambler station wagon.) Ray, on the other hand, is an extremely together young woman, who’s been recording her thoughts and observations for years and only wants to be treated as a male of the species. Even so, she seems anachronistically attached to her skateboard. Gaby Dellal and Nikole Beckwith’s story ends, not surprisingly, in a split decision that respects Ray’s narrative, while allowing the adults to escape with a smidgen of their dignity intact. 3 Generations debuted at the 2015 TIFF, but was pulled back from theatrical release soon thereafter for major revisions, a rewrite and two title changes. Fans of the actors will find more to enjoy here than almost anyone else, including members of the LGBTQ audience, some of whom have complained that Fanning’s role should have been played by a T. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes.

Alone in Berlin
Based on Hans Fallada’s 1947 German-language novel, “Every Man Dies Alone” – only translated into English in 2009 – Vincent Perez’ wartime drama, Alone in Berlin, tells a story of grass-roots resistance to fascism, at a time when the Nazi government was telling the citizenry to expect a swift end to the fighting. Otto and Elise Hampel were no different than anyone else, accepting the propaganda because they had no reason to disbelieve it. Then, one day, they receive word from the front of a personal tragedy. If the war is going so well, they reason, why were so many other Berliners receiving the same sad telegrams. Although the movie might have benefitted from German actors and subtitles, we’ve become so accustomed to watching Brits impersonate Nazis that the casting of Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson is not at all unwelcome. Otto and Anna Quangel, as they’re known in the novel and movie, protest the lies in the only way available to them: by pouring their rage and grief into postcards carrying anti-Nazi messages and scattering them across the city. By doing so, they hope to identify and spark a resistance movement comprised of people seeking the truth, if nothing else. Because the number of bodies returning home in caskets has yet to attain critical mass, however, German citizens are content to hold hands and sing “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” whenever prompted. Instead of rallying the citizenry, the postcards are dutifully handed over to the Gestapo, who, in turn, order local police to track down and arrest the perpetrators. They land on the desk of Inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl), a dutiful cop about to learn where he stands in Hitler’s pecking order. (The longer it takes to find the perpetrators, the more he’s treated as a co-conspirator.) If there had been a happier ending to the Hampel/Quangel’s story, history would already have recorded it for posterity. Instead, Alone in Berlin is limited to dramatizing the three-year search for the protagonists, their quixotic quest and final betrayal. The story, as directed by Pérez (The Crow: City of Angels), is told in a straight-forward direction, with little room for dramatic high points. It’s influenced, perhaps, by Perez’ family history: a grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain; a great-uncle was murdered by the Nazis in a gas chamber; and another uncle died fighting on the Russian front.

Chapter & Verse
If anyone’s earned the right to make a movie about how one battle-hardened ex-con can make a difference in the life of an aspiring thug, it’s Jamal Joseph. Boil Chapter & Verse down to its essence and this, his first feature as writer/director, is nearly autobiographical. Films about tough love and how the absence of a father figure can impact a boy on his way to manhood have been around since the boot-camp movement took hold in the early 1980s. By dispensing with the abusive yelling and posturing, Chapter & Verse carries with it a ring of truth for almost all its 97-minute length. It’s also legitimately entertaining. Since Joseph went legit, the former member of the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army has distinguished himself as a filmmaker, author, film professor, community leader and poet activist. If it weren’t for a few solid breaks, he’d still be doing time for his crimes. In 1969, the teenager was held at Riker’s Island with 20 older party members on charges of conspiracy to blow up public buildings in New York. The expensive, eight-month “Panther 21” trial ended with the co-defendants acquitted after three hours of jury deliberation. A couple years later, he would he would cop a plea for his role in the murder of a prominent BPP newspaper manager, Sam Napier, based on a bloody bicoastal rivalry stoked by the FBI. Joseph was also implicated in the infamous 1981 Brinks truck robbery, in Nyack, N.Y., in which two police officers and an armored car driver were killed. He was sentenced to 12½ years in Leavenworth for harboring a fugitive, but released after 5½, with a pair of college degrees from Kansas University and his first play. He would continue his work as a playwright, become a full professor and chair of Columbia University’s Graduate Film Division, and artistic director of the New Heritage Theatre Group in Harlem. In 2008 Joseph was nominated for an Oscar for his contributions to the song “Raise It Up” from the film August Rush.

Chapter & Verse is the first title to be co-produced by the Harlem Film Company, an integrated film and digital-media company engaged in creating a studio that will develop, produce, market and distribute independently made African-American and Latino films. It follows reformed gang leader S. Lance Ingram (Daniel Beaty), who’s out on parole after an eight-year bit, and struggling to adapt to a Harlem in which crime, violence, poverty and gentrification co-exist none too peacefully. Like Joseph, Ingram collected a couple of computer-repair certificates in the joint, but can’t find anyone willing to consider the credentials of a black ex-con. Prodded by his parole officer to accept any old job, Ingram agrees to deliver meals to shut-ins for a local food bank. At night, he dutifully checks into a local halfway house. After a disagreement over a mislabeled meal with 75-year-old Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), one of the more particular customers on his route, he strikes up an unlikely friendship with her. She warms to Lance after he saves her a bundle, by fixing her computer and attempting to serve as a role model for her 15-year-old grandson. At first, Ty (Khadim Diop), a wannabe gangsta with one foot already on the road to prison, isn’t interested. One afternoon, Lance runs into an old gangbangin’ buddy, Jomo (Omari Hardwick), who also tries to steer Ty in the right direction, Normally, Jomo would be expected to serve as the devil-in-disguise character, tempting Lance with promises of respect and money as a dope dealer or enforcer. Instead, he turns out to be anything but that. In fact, Joseph isn’t at all reluctant to give Lance every opportunity to succeed in his personal reclamation project. More unexpected twists are reserved for his humorously lascivious boss (Selenis Leyva) and unpredictable probation officer (Gary Perez). Even the OG is shocked by the ferocity of Ty’s hoodlum buddies. Among the other things missing in “C&V” are the de rigueur pounding hip-hop soundtrack and cheap moralizing usually found in urban melodramas, today.

Bitter Harvest
The Iron Ivan
Anyone looking for subtext in the ongoing debate over overtures by Trump loyalists to Vladimir Putin – or, perhaps, vice versa — need only look at the continuing hostilities in the Ukraine and Crimea, which, this week, prompted the Senate to renew economic sanctions against the Russian aggressors. If the investigations into the clandestine meetings between presidential adviser Jared Kushner, former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and various Russian officials, have accomplished anything, it’s a delay in President Trump’s anticipated relaxing of sanctions. George Mendeluk’s gripping drama, Bitter Harvest, offers a few million reasons why Ukrainians, today, are leery are of any encouragement given to Putin to keep troops in their country and support insurrection by Russian nationals in Crimea. It’s set against the background of the little-known Holodomor, a Stalin-directed famine that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 million to 10 million people, in the early 1930s. Afraid that Soviet agricultural strategies were failing, Stalin ordered soldiers to confiscate Ukrainian food stocks and property, and severely ration supplies to cities and towns. Peasants were painted as counterrevolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when workers, who were constructing the “bright future” of socialism, were starving. The Holodomor went largely unreported and officially unrecognized until the glasnost era opened secret files to historians from both the east and west. Bitter Harvest is considered the first movie to dramatize the tragedy with any concern for historical accuracy, and it took the efforts of Ukrainian Canadian screenwriter Richard Bachynsky Hoover and investor Ian Ihnatowycz to come up with the $21 million to make it. Even Ukrainian government agencies were reluctant to support it financially.

Inspired by actual events, Bitter Harvest follows two star-crossed lovers, Yuri and Natalka, played by Max Irons (“The White Queen”) and Samantha Barks (Les Misérables), struggling with their kulak grain-farmer families to survive Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign and attacks on the church. Yuri’s father (Barry Pepper) and grandfather (Terence Stamp) are famous warriors, whose fighting was mostly done on horseback and with swords in hand. When an anti-Soviet revolt breaks out, Ivan is attending an art college in the capital. After being arrested and nearly killed, all he can think of is getting back to his village and rescuing Natalka. It’s during a train ride home that viewers are given a glimpse of the extent of the horror, via emaciated beggars and bodies dumped into creek beds. Critics weren’t impressed by Mendeluk’s decision to blend melodrama with straight historical drama, but there’s no denying the impact of being introduced to such a terrible event in world history for the first time, so many decades after it occurred. In this regard, Bitter Harvest recalls recent movies and documentaries about the Armenian genocide, which many Turks still refuse to acknowledge. The DVD comes with a photo gallery.

The events described in Gleb Orlov’s entertaining, if not wholly accurate biopic, The Iron Ivan, take place a couple of decades before the Holodomor, but in roughly the same vicinity as the horrors depicted in Bitter Harvest. It’s where Ivan Poddubny was born, in 1871, into a Cossack family, and grew into a man capable beating every opponent he faced as a circus performer and Greco-Roman wrestler for the next 45 years. I didn’t believe it, either, until I began doing some research on “Iron Ivan” in preparation for this review. Like Mikhail Porechenkov, the actor who plays the wrestler in his adult years, Ivan was a mountain of man who acquired his strength baling hay on his father’s farm and, later, working on the docks in Sevastopol. On a day off from work, Ivan took in the show at a traveling circus. One of the acts involved wrestlers, extremely large and from diverse backgrounds, who competed for the entertainment of the audience. If the outcomes were sometimes fixed, the strength of wrestlers couldn’t be faked. Ivan went through them like Hulk Hogan at a county fair. In lieu of the agreed-upon prize money, he joined the circus and took on all comers. Before long, he was training for international competitions in St. Petersburg and Paris. In 1903, he placed second in the world championship to Raul Bouchet, who greased his body with olive oil to prevent Ivan from getting a grip on him. He got his revenge the next year and never looked back. In America, he made a small fortune, but wasn’t allowed to claim it when he wanted to return home for good. Promoters weren’t anxious to lose their golden ticket and advised him against giving Soviet authorities a chance to confiscate it. The Iron Ivan skips over most of Ivan’s trials under the communist regime and during the Nazi occupation, choosing to romanticize his tragic romance with a gymnast (Katerina Shpitsa) he met in the circus. Its happened, but the context was largely lost in the retelling. I enjoyed the movie, despite the revisions, and may even try to learn more about the greatest grappler most of us never knew existed.

Three Sisters
The corner of China we visit in Wang Bing’s grueling documentary, Three Sisters, is so far removed from the teeming megalopolises shown in other movies, it might as well be on another planet. Xiyangtang is a tiny rural village in the mountains of China’s Yunnan province, where a handful of extended families grow potatoes, tend to livestock and work the land for the greater glory of the people. These villages were left behind when the communist government decided that the free-enterprise system could work to its benefit. Progress often can be observed over the next hill — in the form of power lines and stronger homes — or on television. but the peasants of Xiyangtang can barely afford the taxes to bring it closer, faster. At 153 minutes, Three Sisters provides ample time to describe what life is like for 10-year-old YingYing, 6-year-old ZhenZhen and 4-year-old FenFen, scrappy little kids forced to live with an aunt or grandfather, while their father is looking for work in the city. Their mother left the family a couple years earlier. Among their chores are herding sheep, goats and pigs, searching for firewood and collecting dung. The eldest sister, Ying, seems withdrawn and cautious, but can be as authoritative as she needs to be to keep the others in line, and loudly recite lines from books in the classroom.

Under different circumstances, she probably could have expected to attend college in a faraway city and become a future leader of her country. At this point in her life, however, the most she can hope for is that her father beats the odds, by finding a good job and taking the girls along with him. The intimacy of Wang’s approach can be overwhelming. The families’ poverty isn’t like that Wang has documented in the cities and PRC censors don’t want anyone to see. No one in the village is homeless, lacks basic sustenance or drinks to excess, but no one dares dream of the kind of life shown on television, either. Maybe, in a few years, but not now. The other thing Three Sisters has going for it is the natural beauty of Yunnan province, which borders Burma, Vietnam and Laos, as well as Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. The village is well above the tree line, though, so the great views come with a caveat. Icarus’ dGenerate collection features independently made documentaries from some of China’s most exciting and socially conscious filmmakers. Wang’s similarly provocative titles include The Ditch, ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, Man with No Name and Bitter Money.

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie: Blu-ray
When it comes to stoner comedy and its impact on Hollywood, Cheech and Chong carried the same weight as such mainstream duos as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, minus the dope references. Not only were they able to tap into the zeitgeist of the 1960s counter-culture, but they also survived long enough as individual artists and advocates for the legalization of marijuana to influence several generations of entertainers, including Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Before Up in Smoke (1978) made a small fortune for Paramount and director/co-producer Lou Adler, Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong honed their act on the stages of strip joints and night clubs across Canada and the U.S., and immortalized such hilarious sketches as “Basketball Jones,” “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” and “Sister Mary Elephant” on best-selling albums. As loosey-goosey as Up in Smoke turned out to be, its 1980 follow-up Cheech And Chong’s Next Movie – the second of seven C&C collaborations –made it look polished and refined. Reduced to its essence, the frequently uproarious and occasionally flat-out stupid movie represents a day in the life of the Cheech and Chong’s comic personae. This time around, they didn’t even bother to give their characters pseudonyms … except when Marin puts on a long blond wig and plays Cheech’s cousin, Dwayne “Red” Mendoza. Otherwise, the characters tool around Hollywood in stolen sports cars, using a duffel bag full of primo pot as a free pass to massage parlors, a movie set, fancy dinners, a comedy club and animated adventures in outer space. Today, viewers can enjoy discovering such familiar faces as Groundlings members Paul Reubens (Pee-wee’s Big Andventure), Edie McClurg (Wreck-It Ralph), Cassandra Peterson (“Elvira”), John “Jambi” Paragon (“Pee-wee’s Playhouse”) and Phil Hartman (“Saturday Night Live”), as well as Rita Wilson (Sleepless in Seattle), Jake Steinfeld (“Body by Jake”) and Michael Winslow (Police Academy), in early screen performances. The Shout!Factory restoration includes a fresh interview with Cheech Marin.

Handsome Devil
In his second feature, John Butler finds valuable lessons to be learned about homophobia and bullying at a posh Irish boarding school. We’ve come to expect a tolerance to sexual experimentation at elite “public” schools in England, where the bizarre hazing ritual known as “fagging” until recently practically was part of the curriculum. In movies set in Ireland, it’s the priests and nuns who typically put the fear of God into students they deem abnormal or overly mischievous. In Handsome Devil, the film’s sensitive, red-haired outsider, Ned (Fionn O’Shea), somehow finds himself in a school where rugby is king and queer-baiting not only is tolerated, but encouraged by the win-at-all-costs coach. Nicholas Galitzine is perfectly cast as the title character, a transfer student named Conor who automatically is assigned the bed, desk and dresser in Ned’s half-occupied bedroom. Both boys have a chip on their shoulders and take out their frustrations on each other. Things get even worse for Ned when it’s determined that Conor would be an asset to the school’s rugby team and the only thing holding him back from that obligation is his understated attraction to his roommate. Their mutual interest in singing is interpreted by the coach and the athletes as evidence that Ned’s gayness has rubbed off on Conor. At the same time, the team’s displaced star has discovered why Conor was kicked out of his previous school – guess what? – and is threatening to reveal the secret to school authorities. Anyway, it’s a mess, compounded by the fact that the coach also is blackmailing the boy’s inspirational, if closeted English teacher (Andrew Scott). As cliché as that might sound, viewers already know to expect surprises from the academy’s surprisingly reasonable headmaster (Michael McElhatton). Butler’s insistence on keeping Handsome Devil on the high road makes it one of the most widely accessible coming-out/coming-of-age specimens I’ve seen lately. The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurettes and a director’s commentary.

The Wedding Party
I’ve attended enough wedding receptions to know that, while, no two are precisely alike, they all resemble each other in certain predictable ways. Like everything else these days, nuptials and the parties that follow tend to be ritualized and orchestrated to exclude anything resembling spontaneity. As weddings have become more complicated, expensive and exotic, a cottage industry has grown around their preparation, attention to detail and execution. Some of the same people also cover bar and bas mitzvahs, political receptions and birthdays. What they can’t do is eliminate such variables as outbursts from drunken ex-lovers, too much salt on the entrée and the occasional sprained ankle or broken arm. Martin Short’s portrayal of hyperactive wedding planner Franck Eggelhoffer, in Father of the Bride (1991), hit the nail on the head so directly that it inspired an archetype that would be copied in dozens of movies, TV sitcoms and reality shows. In Thane Economou’s surprising debut feature, The Wedding Party, a groomsman and maid-of-honor assume the duties of a planner, working from a binder full of names, schedules and place settings. Nevertheless, shit happens, and Economou does an amazing job capturing most of it in one continuous take.

That’s the gimmick, if you will, that separates The Wedding Party from dozens of other movies about nuptials, funerals, baptisms, birthdays and quinceañeras. At 112-minutes, so many things could have gone wrong for Economou – a story that falls apart after 95 minutes, for example – that the exercise would have had to be abandoned, out right. Not many films have ever been made in a single take. When filming Rope (1948), Alfred Hitchcock intended for the film to have the effect of one long continuous shot, but the cameras available could hold no more than 1000 feet of 35mm film. Every 10 minutes of action ended on the back of a character’s head, a door or wall, to allow for a magazine change. Given the extreme difficulty of the exercise and the technical requirements for continuous shots, such feature films have only been possible since the advent of digital movie cameras. The titles include Timecode (2000), Russian Ark (2002) and PVC-1 (2007). Economou was able to pull it off, in large part, because the action begins as the ceremony ends and the reception is held in a spacious backyard, within a crane’s reach of the festivities. There’s enough room between tables to accommodate movement by actors and cameras, without forcing long walks through traffic or other extraneous movement. I didn’t recognize anyone in the ensemble cast of actors, who didn’t appear to miss a beat or step. (I hope this DVD finds its way to the desk of Hollywood casting directors.)

Everybody Loves Somebody
Un Padre No Tan Padre (From Dad to Worse)
You wouldn’t think it would be all that difficult to craft movies that appeal as much to Mexican audiences as Mexican-Americans, if only because they feature actors that are familiar from their roles in popular Spanish-language telenovelas and occasional appearances in American movies. Apparently, though, it is. The problem, I suppose, involves not having a sufficient number of screens available to test the market for films such as Everybody Loves Somebody and Un Padre No Tan Padre (“From Dad to Worse”), whose stories adhere to conventional themes, while maintaining a decidedly Hispanic tone and texture that should appeal to mainstream audiences on both sides of the border. Y Tu Mama, Tambien faced the same challenge. (American action films and comic-book superheroes play the same in any language, regardless of dubbing or subtitles, and dominate available space in theaters everywhere.)

In the romantic dramedy Everybody Loves Somebody, Karla Souza portrays Dr. Clara Barron, a successful OB/GYN who’s torn between two lovers and two cultures. Souza’s name and face are familiar from ABC’s ”How to Get Away with Murder” and her award-winning performances in Nosotros los Nobles (2013) and Suave patria (2012). Clara lives and works in Los Angeles, but has family in Ensenada and patients in Tijuana. She isn’t nearly as desperate to get married as her mother is to hook her up with an old boyfriend, who gave her up for a tour of duty with Doctors Without Borders. He’s played by José María Yazpik, a handsome Mexico City-born actor who’s won kudos for performances in Las oscuras primaveras and Solo quiero caminar, if not his turn in Beverly Hills Chihuahua. To avoid any unpleasantness at the seaside marriage of her mother and father (Patricia Bernal, Alejandro Camacho) – finally, after four decades of living together – Clara asks an Australian medical resident, Asher (Ben O’Toole), to serve as her beard at the event. Naturally, two things happen: 1) she develops a romantic interest in the younger Aussie, and 2) she’s confronted by her old beau, Daniel, who’s been invited to the wedding by her mom. Even after sleeping with both men, as if to test the whims of her heart, she can’t decide which man to choose. In Hollywood, the star system would decide the winner for her. In Catalina Aguilar Mastretta’s story, however, the verdict is always in doubt, if only because Clara has yet to mature to the degree she could make the right decision, whatever it is. Among the things Everybody Loves Somebody has going for it are its perfectly tuned ensemble cast and the natural beauty of the Ensenada shoreline. Although hardly a blockbuster, the picture did reasonably well on the 333 screens it played here, while making back its nut in worldwide receipts. That should come as good news to someone.

Raúl Martínez and Alberto Bremer’s Un Padre No Tan Padre (“From Dad to Worse”) did pretty well in its limited release here, in March, even if its cast doesn’t contain anyone who’s particularly well-known outside telenovelas. Héctor Bonilla is extremely credible in the role of an 85-year-old man so cantankerous that he’s been evicted from his nursing home for his abusive behavior toward staff and patients. The only one of his sons who volunteers to take him in – reluctantly – lives in a multigenerational commune of gentle folks outside lovely San Miguel de Allende. Not satisfied to be the fish out of water here, Don Servando isn’t at all reluctant to voice his displeasure for the hippy-dippy living conditions, the healthy menus or the non-conformists he meets. As rigid as a steel rod, in his standard three-piece woolen suit, he vehemently objects to sharing a bathroom with a woman who leaves her bras and panties on the floor or drying on the shower’s curtain rod. He carries a wooden cane, which he uses to punctuate his many grievances and can’t bear the fact that his son has long, stringy hair and is living with a woman who isn’t his wife, under the same roof as his aspiring artist grandson. Don Salvador shares Archie Bunker’s opinions on gays, minorities, unorthodox clergy and vegans. That is, until he unknowingly steals a brownie laced with medicinal marijuana — intended for the house’s resident cancer patient – and, not surprisingly, begins to a dance to a different beat. Neither are we shocked when the problems of the other non-cliché inhabitants begin to take precedence over those caused by the octogenarian. Even so, the solutions are never pat or forced on viewers.

The Blood of Fu Manchu/The Castle of Fu Manchu: Blu-ray
When it comes to controversial ethnic stereotypes, Sax Rohmer’s international super-villain, Fu Manchu, makes Charlie Chan and Amos & Andy look like models in an advertising campaign for United Colors of Benetton. Apart from the evil genius’ contribution to 20th Century tonsorial trends, the character has been offending Asians of all ethnic persuasions since the 1932 release of MGM’s adaptation of “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” In it, he tells a gathering of pan-Asian characters that they must “kill the white men and take their women.” As such, he became the poster child for the Yellow Peril. If only MGM had dialed down the rant and hired a Chinese actor to play Rohmer’s brainchild, Fu Manchu might have gone down in the annals of crime fiction as a worthy counterpart to Sherlock Holmes’ Moriarty. Consider, if you will, that his longtime nemeses are British police detective and gentleman spy Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and his loyal assistant, Dr. Petrie. Moreover, where would Ming the Merciless be, in the pantheon of supervillains, if it weren’t Fu Manchu’s precedent-setting bad-assery. It explains my surprise when I opened the package from Blue Underground and found its Blu-ray double-feature of The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and Sax Rohmer’s Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), directed by Jess Franco and starring Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Richard Greene and Howard Marion-Crawford. The former is set in Fu Manchu’s secret lair, deep within the South American rain forest, where the mad scientist and his sadistic daughter, Lin Tang, are once again plotting world domination. This time, 10 beautiful slave girls are infected with an ancient poison so deadly that one kiss from their lips will bring instant death and lead to a global plague. When Nayland Smith is infected, Dr. Petrie races against the clock to find an antidote and foil the scheme. Among the women carrying the kiss of death are Maria Rohm, Loni von Friedl, Olívia Pineschi and, in an authorized cameo lifted from Rio 70, Shirley Eaton. The Blu-ray adds “Rise of Fu Manchu,” containing interviews with Franco, Lee, Chin, Eaton and producer Harry Alan Towers.

Set half a world away, in Istanbul, The Castle of Fu Manchu conjures a fiendish new chemical weapon that will turn the seas into a giant block of frozen water. (Ice-nine, anyone?) Once again, Smith and Petrie are called upon to save the world. In doing so, Smith becomes trapped in Fu Manchu’s “impenetrable lair of cruelty.” Maria Perschy and Rosalba Neri contribute their considerable charms, while Franco impersonates a nutty secret agent. The extras include “The Fall of Fu Manchu,” featuring interviews with Franco, Towers, Lee and Tsai.

Madhouse: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to find a more derivative entertainment than Madhouse (1991), produced and directed by Ovidio Assonitis, a B-movie specialist who wasn’t reluctant to borrow a good idea when he saw one. The independent film producer and businessman made his bones in the mid-1960s, when he launched an extensive distribution network catering to the Southeast Asian market in the mid-’60s. After 10 years, it’s said that he had distributed more than 900 films from offices in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia. In 1974, Assonitis satisfied an itch by co-directing, co-writing and co-producing Beyond the Door, an Italo/American bloodfest that turned a huge profit. His name and/or pseudonym also could be found on such drive-in fare as The Visitor, Tentacles, Over the Line and James Cameron’s feature debut, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. Although that film still carries the future director of Aliens and Titanic’s sole credit, Assonitis took the helm midway through the process. Among other things, Cameron found it difficult to work with an Italian crew that didn’t speak English.

Assonitis did the same thing on Madhouse, this time retaining sole directing credit, but sharing the writing credit with three others. This time around, Assonitis brought his largely Italian crew to Savannah, which offered the proper facilities for a cross-subgenre movie involving an evil twin, evil priest, evil Rottweiler and birthday party from hell. Trish Everly and Allison Biggers portray the twins, Julia and Mary. When the disfigured sibling escapes from the booby hatch, no one in Julia’s vicinity is safe. Mary’s place in the subsequent killing spree becomes uncertain when the vicious dog and crazy priest also begin to turn up at crime scenes, along with gurgling sounds that might have inspired future composers of video-game music. If the plot seems borderline incoherent and suspiciously familiar, Madhouse (1981) is just gory enough to be disturbing. Apropos of that, that it was included on one of the official lists of video nasties, compiled by British censors. It was released fully uncut in U.K. in 2004. The Arrow Video package features a 2K restoration from the original negative; commentary with the Hysteria Continues; new interviews with cast and crew; an alternate opening-title sequence; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach; and a booklet featuring new writing on the film.

Political Animals
The only thing wrong with this topical documentary on insider politics is a title, Political Animals, and subtitle – “When Women Lead … Leaders Follow” – that tell us almost nothing about the film and may, in fact, be misleading. Co-writer/directors Tracy Wares and Tracy Wares maintain a tight focus on only four “out” legislators, Sheila Kuehl, Carole Migden, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe, who struggled individually and as a group to convince their peers that equal rights belong to all Californians, not just born-again evangelicals and married heterosexuals. Kuehl’s first battle involved pushing legislation protecting gay and lesbian students from being harassed, bullied or harmed because of their sexual orientation. Simple enough, but, from the reactions of fellow legislators, you’d think the former TV star had advocated the abolishment of snow in the Sierra Nevada. Without answering the question of whether straight teens should be allowed to beat up their LGBTQ peers, the Republican lawmakers pontificated on their disapproval of same-sex couples. After Kuehl was joined in the statehouse by the other “out” women, they took on such meaty issues as equal protection under the law for all Californians, job discrimination and, of course, marriage equality. The same strident voices objected to these proposals, using the same tired arguments. One dimwit compared lesbians to the minority of heifers on his farm who didn’t seem particularly interested in birthing their first calf. It isn’t until the debate over marriage equality that viewers are introduced to legislators who vociferously supported the gang of four’s position, although, there must have been more than a few fellow Democrats, at least. Still, because the women’s roots extend back to the 1960s, the filmmakers are able to demonstrate how much personal fortitude was needed to fight for rights that already appeared to be protected in the Constitution.

Americano
Kuu Kuu Harajuku: Music, Baby!
The first major animated co-production between Mexico and the United States features a young male parrot, Cuco, in desperate need of reaching the United States to convince his make-believe hero to return home with him to save the family business. First, however, he must get past the eagle guarding the border. Sound familiar? If there’s a political subtext informing Americano, it’s probably in my imagination. Still, if a pre-teen parrot can find his way from Mexico to Hollywood, with a stop at the San Diego Zoo, what’s to prevent anyone else with a dream from getting here …a wall? Instead of performing his chores and rehearsing at the family bird circus, Cuco (Rico Rodriguez) kills time watching the crazy stunts of his TV super-parrot hero, El Americano. He hopes to enlist the powerful bird’s help in rescuing his family from a revenge-fueled, villainous kingfisher. Not everything in America is what it seems to be on TV, however, and Cuco must rely on his wits to save the day. The best thing about Americano is its vibrant color scheme. The bilingual songs are fun, too. Among the voicing-cast members are Lisa Kudrow, Edward James Olmos, Gabriel Iglesias, Kate del Castillo, Cheech Marin, Erik Estrada and Paul Rodriguez.

The animated world of “Kuu Kuu Harajuku!” is based on the singer’s retail brand of “pop electric fragances”: Harajuku Lovers. Produced originally for airing on Australian television, the show features the “super cool” band, HJ5, comprised of five hot girls: Love, Angel, Music, Baby and their inspirational leader G. They love to sing, dance and sport the latest “kawaii” (cute) fashions. With help from their humorously incompetent manager, Rudie, HJ5 travels all over to put on shows, which always seem to be interrupted before they finish the first bar. In the U.S., the series premiered on Nickelodeon, before moving to Nick Jr. on February 3, 2017. Season 2 of the series is currently in production.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: South Park: The Complete Twentieth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: James Beard
PBS: American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution DVD
Time Life/WEA: Hee Haw: Pfft! You Was Gone!
The 20th season of “South Park” premiered on September 14, 2016, just as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump entered the home stretch of the presidential campaign: a.k.a., “Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich, Part II.” Mr. Garrison, Trump’s stand-in on the show, adopted the candidate’s strident anti-immigration stance, but the closer he got to victory, the less he wanted to win. As Election Day approached, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone pushed their deadlines to the breaking point, so as to be as topical as possible. With Trump/Garrison’s stunning victory – thanks to the anthropomorphic Member Berries — the boys had less than 24 hours to work it into the narrative. The approach worked for storylines involving Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton and Internet trolls. Special features on the Blu-ray include “South Park: By The Numbers,” “South Park: The Fractured But Whole: E3 2016 Game Trailer,” “South Park: We’ve Been There,” “Comic Con 2016: Extended Panel With Matt & Trey,” deleted scenes, season commentary and #Social Commentary.

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the “American Masters” presentation, “Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft.” Since then, I’ve received the tantalizing companion pieces, “American Masters: James Beard” and “American Masters: Alice Waters and Her Delicious Revolution.” Like Pepin, these pioneering foodies changed the way Americans shopped, ate and prepared food that tasted good and was healthier than that grown by farming conglomerates and processed to within an inch of its nutritional value. Beard’s story is more personality driven than the Waters’ piece, which focuses on a Berkeley institution, Chez Panisse. The world-class restaurant evolved from a place where 1960s’ counter-culturists could find healthy, inexpensive “counter-cuisine,” to the shining restaurant on the hill for diners willing to pay the price for the best locally grown and seasonal products. She also changed the way farmers and community gardeners serve their patrons. Like Pepin, Beard was an early advocate for localism and sustainability, as well as a cookbook author, journalist, television celebrity and teacher.

The title of the collection of episodes from Time Life/WEA’s “Hee Haw” library gets its title from Archie Campbell and Gordie Tapp’s trademark punchline, “Pfft! You Was Gone!” It was just one many bits that, repeated often enough, prompted comparisons to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In.” In addition to Roy and Buck’s weekly pickin’ and grinnin’, this two-DVD collector’s edition is features musical performances by Dolly Parton (“Coat of Many Colors”), Tammy Wynette and George Jones (“We’re Gonna Hold On”), Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried,” “Branded Man”), Marty Robbins, Porter Wagoner and Susan Raye, along with the Kornfield Kounty repertory company. The set adds bonus interviews with original cast members, including Moe Bandy and Aaron Tippin.

The DVD Wrapup: The Assignment, Beauty/Bambi, Land of Mine, Sense of an Ending, The Ticket, Gene Kelly, Heath Ledger and more

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

The Assignment: Blu-ray
Kill ‘Em All: Blu-ray

While you can’t say the story told in Walter Hill’s latest, The Assignment, was ripped from today’s headlines – Denis Hamill’s original screenplay is nearly forty years old, after all – the fact that a protagonist undergoes gender reassignment, however involuntary, is reasonably topical at least. It might have garnered more positive media exposure, however, if, instead of choosing Michelle Rodriguez to play the butchered assassin, Frank Kitchen/Tomboy, Hill cast an actual member of the LGBTQ community: Laverne Cox, Candis Cayne or even the late Alexis Arquette. Transgender activists weren’t thrilled with the decision or the fact that Kitchen is so pissed off over not being consulted on the transformation that he seeks revenge on the surgeon (Sigourney Weaver), whose brother he killed. The latter complaint devalues the character’s legitimate source of rage at the discovery of his missing appendage. (Yes, he might have learned to live with it eventually, but certainly not in 90 minutes of screen time.) As it is, the distributors of The Assignment avoided an unnecessary stink by releasing it through video-on-demand outlets on in early March prior to a limited release a month later. Before that, though, someone leaked footage of the discovery scene to Mr. Skin, who dutifully posted the image of Kitchen with very acceptable new breasts and a jungle of pubic hair where his penis once hung. (We’re told it’s all a prosthetic hoax, but on Mr. Skin, image is everything.)  The rest of the movie concerns itself with getting even with the surgeon – who described it as an experiment – and those who helped her. At 75, Hill still knows how to orchestrate violence and, at 38, Rodriguez (Girlfight) remains in fighting trim. The Blu-ray adds “Filmmaking Portraits,” a photo montage.

There are more assassins stirring up trouble in Kill ‘Em All than you can count on the fingers of two hands and not all of them are of the male persuasion here, either. In veteran stunt coordinator Peter Malota’s directorial debut, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Philip, a mysterious stranger who’s been transported to a local hospital on the brink of death. All we know about him is that he’s less interested in getting patched up than in getting out of the mostly empty facility as quickly as possible. Before he can escape, however, a gang of well-dressed Serb thugs invade the hospital, killing everyone who gets in the way of their search for a fallen comrade. How he got there almost certainly has something to do with Philip being in a room only a few floors above the morgue. Flashing forward a bit, the nurse (Autumn Reeser) who tended to Philip’s wounds and survived the onslaught is brought before FBI agents played by Peter Stormare and Maria Conchita Alonso. Malota uses the occasion to explain what happened to Philip before and after he was dropped off at the hospital and how it fits into the larger scheme of things. Confined almost exclusively to a single location, the fight scenes begin to repeat themselves after a while. Even so, the surprise payoff saves Kill ‘Em All from collapsing in on itself.

Beauty and the Beast: Blu-ray
Bambi: Signature Collection: Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
In American pop culture, almost every marketing trend can be traced back to Elvis Presley. When it comes to the matter at hand, Disney’s live-action remakes of classic animated features, it worth recalling the King’s second compilation of hit singles, commonly known as “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” The bold proclamation may have dwarfed the album’s actual title, “Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2,” but it was the 16 cloned images of Elvis in his trademark gold lamé suit, drooping forelock and a cooler-than-you’ll-ever-be stance that made the cover so iconic. Presley was nearing the completion of his tour of duty in Europe and RCA Victory was running out of ways to exploit the music he recorded before having his hair shorn in the service of his country. Even though the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, it only reached No. 31 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart. That left plenty of room for squares in the media and recording industry to repeat the question raised three years earlier by Down Beat writer Les Brown, “Can Fifty Million Americans Be Wrong?” Older readers might have recognized the reference to the jazzy 1927 hit, “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong,” popularized by, among others, Sophie Tucker, Ted Shapiro and Miff Mole’s Molers. If the Elvis phenomenon had lost some steam during his absence, his transformation into a Hollywood leading man ensured that his fan base would grow exponentially, worldwide, and sales of his soundtrack albums would ensure more gold and platinum records for his trophy room at Graceland. But, once again, I digress. The release on DVD/Blu-ray of Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast requires that I try to offer a fresh take, not only on Bill Condon’s adaptation – which is an unqualified success – but also the studio’s recent practice of repurposing everything in its catalogue of hits, even against charges of redundancy and exploitation. The problem is, of course, that Disney’s live-action transformations are extremely entertaining and hugely popular with kids and adults, prompting the rhetorical question, “Can $1.18 billion in worldwide revenues be wrong … or, perhaps, a tad misleading?” Probably not. We can only hope is that the success of Disney’s life-action adaptations won’t impact the creation of original animated features that aren’t followed by Roman numerals. For Disney, Beauty and the Beast is the gift that keeps on giving.

Based on the venerable French fairytale, alternately credited (or, here, uncredited) to Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the 1991 blockbuster spawned a lavish Broadway musical; a colorful “Disney on Ice” presentation; a dozen, or so, reissues on cassette, DVD and Blu-ray; a pair of direct-to-video follow-ups; records and soundtrack albums; a syndicated TV series; a comic book; video games; and merchandise that ranges from plush toys and costumes, to trading cards and singing tea sets. What’s not to like? Already this year, I’ve watched or re-watched the “Beauty and the Beast: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray”; Christophe Gans’ live-action Beauty and the Beast, starring Vincent Cassel, Lea Seydoux; and Criterion Collection’s superb Blu-ray edition of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. On my large-screen high-def monitor, at least, Condon’s hyper-realistic adaptation feels very much like a musical that, with a few allowances for CGI gimmickry, could be have been shot live on a Broadway or Las Vegas stage. Having human actors makes a difference, of course, and the $160-million budget afforded a cast that easily qualifies as “all-star.” As the title characters, Emma Watson and Dan Stevens are both charming and credible as singers, dancers and unlikely lovers. They’re supported by Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and several dozen lesser-known human and computer-generated players. The physical sets merge seamlessly with the CG backgrounds. The Blu-ray offers three separate ways to experience the movie, including a no-frills version; the same version, with an overture; and sing-along edition. Bonus features include coverage of the first, elaborately staged table read, complete with singing and dancing to live music; the comprehensive featurettes, “A Beauty of a Tale,” which explores the process of transforming a beloved animated film into an instant live-action classic, “The Women Behind Beauty and the Beast,” “From Song to Screen: Making the Musical Sequences,” “Making a Moment With Celine Dion,” a music video and making-of-the-music-video piece, an extended song, “Days In The Sun,” deleted scenes and song selection.

I wonder if anyone at Disney has considered doing a live-action version of Bambi or, even, “Bambi on Ice.” Julie Taymor, who directed musicals of “The Lion King” and “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” on Broadway, probably would have some thoughts on the subject, but how could anyone get past the tragic death of Bambi’s mother without losing half of the audience? Let’s hope it never comes to that. In the meantime, there’s “Bambi: Signature Collection: Anniversary Edition,” which likely will have to suffice until Disney commits to 4K UHD, and that could take a while. It joins Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast in the elite grouping of Disney classics on Blu-ray. For the most part, the video and audio presentations haven’t changed much since their release in Diamond Edition packages. Fans and collectors should know that the latest iteration of Bambi adds several new bonus features, while losing a couple in the transition. They include “Studio Stories: Bambi,” in which archival sound clips and footage are interspersed with scenes from the film to showcase how different sequences were animated and how the filmmakers sought to make more realistic animal characters as compared to those featured in previous films; deleted and uncompleted scenes, “Bambi’s Ice and Snow” and “The Grasshopper,” with introductions by animator Floyd Norman; “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Africa Before Dark,” a vintage black-and-white cartoon; “The Bambi Effect,” a brief informational piece covering how the realistic character animations and more whimsical background art impacted future films; “Bambi Fawn Facts,” trivia about the real animals on which Bambi’s characters are based, including deer, skunks and rabbits; and a collectible Tyrus Wong artwork on the digital-only version. Vintage material adds deleted scenes, “Two Leaves,” “Bambi Stuck on a Reed” and “Winter Grass”; a deleted song, “Twitterpated”; “The Making of Bambi: A Prince is Born”; “Tricks of the Trade”; “Inside the Disney Archives”; “The Old Mill”; an original theatrical trailer; and, new to Blu-ray, “The Golden Age.”

Land of Mine
One of the ways Allied troops punished extermination-camp guards and German citizens, after the atrocities of the Holocaust were revealed, was to force them to dispose of the corpses of prisoners. It ensured that future generations couldn’t deny knowledge of what went on inside the walls of nearby camps. Other civilians were paraded before the emaciated prisoners left behind in the camps to die. By and large, the faces revealed in footage recorded after the liberation were those of adults. By 1945, tens of thousands of German boys, aged 12-16, were drafted and sent to the front lines to serve in various capacities, including combat. In Denmark, at least, more than 2,000 captured German men and boys were ordered to stay behind and sweep the beaches where an estimated 2 million land mines were planted. Shot at historically authentic locations, including in Oksbøllejren and areas in Varde, writer-director Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine is a gripping depiction of how one of those missions might have looked. Because of the ages of the boys and passion for revenge on the parts of British and Dane soldiers, it is one of the few movies in which Allied officers are almost as reprehensible as their German counterparts. Indeed, it was explicitly forbidden in the Geneva Conventions that any prisoner-of-war be forced to perform dangerous and/or unhealthy labor. (German adults with knowledge of the detection of mines further inland and at sea served under more official auspices.)

On top of the obvious dangers inherent in locating and defusing antitank and antipersonnel mines by hand – half of the POWs died in the process – the teenagers we meet here were denied food and medical treatment. Understandably, few tears were shed by Danes, who suffered greatly during the occupation. The 14 boys put under the command of Danish sergeant Carl Leopold Rasmussen (Roland Møller) are made to understand from the get-go that he isn’t likely to cut them any slack or treat them as anything but defeated soldiers, no matter their ages. If the emotional arc of the drama is never in question, Zandvliet keeps us riveted by personalizing all the characters and letting us know that none is immune to the possibility of being blown to smithereens before our eyes. Because none of the actors is recognizable outside central Europe, it isn’t likely that the highest paid or most photogenic among them would be spared ahead of anyone else. Zandvliet also acknowledges, in the bonus interview, that some of decisions were based more on audience concerns than historical accuracy. I think his instincts were correct.

 

The Sense of an Ending
Based on a Man Booker Prize-winner by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending is the kind of highbrow entertainment one expects to find on PBS’ “Masterpiece,” where the smaller screen – not to be confused with cellphones — provides a sense of intimacy frequently missing from adaptations to film. In this case, at least, it also helps to know a bit about the kinds of students who attend universities like Cambridge and Bristol and assume that they’ve got the world by the short hairs, until, of course, shit happens. Even the title requires a scholarly explanation. It’s borrowed from Frank Kermode’s book of literary criticism of the same name, published in 1967, subtitled “Studies in the Theory of Fiction.” Its stated intention was to “make sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” As such, both Barnes’ novel and Ritesh Batra’s movie turn out to be meditations on memory and aging. Here, the memory and aging pretty much begin and end with Jim Broadbent’s Tony Webster, a small businessman in London who sells the occasionally Leica camera to people willing to pay the price for quality. His marriage to a wonderful woman, Margaret (Harriet Walter), finally collapsed under the weight of his sense of self-importance, while his single daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), is nine months into a difficult pregnancy. Tony isn’t much help to either of the women in his life, until Margaret breaks a leg and he’s enlisted to fill in for her at Susie’s Lamaze classes.

What shakes him to the core, however, is the arrival of a letter from a lawyer informing him that Sara (Emily Mortimer), the mother of a college girlfriend, has bequeathed him £500 and a diary. He’s frustrated by the fact that his former girlfriend, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), has commandeered the diary and refuses to turn it over to him. The movie then flashes back 40-some years, to the period in his life when everything made sense … until it didn’t. It began when teenage Veronica (Freya Mavor) invited teenage Tony (Billy Howle) to her family’s country home, and he was mysteriously encouraged by Sara not to let her daughter to take advantage of him. A while later, he receives a “Dear John” letter from Veronica, who’s disappeared with his best friend. He responds with a letter seething with toxic vitriol, cursing them and their childen’s children ad infinitum. For the next four decades, it’s filed away with all of the other bad memories of his youth. Obsessed with what the diary might say about his role in Veronica’s adult life, if anything, he asks to meet with her and bring the diary. Viewers who’ve stuck with Nick Payne’s overly patient narrative this far are rewarded with a swiftly evolving series of events that not only amplify everything’s that’s gone before, but also what’s about to happen to Tony. And, it’s pretty compelling stuff. Anyone who caught Ritesh Batra’s Mumbai-set first feature, The Lunch Box, may be surprised by the choices he makes in The Sense of an Ending, which could hardly be any different in tone and setting. Fans of Brit-lit should enjoy it for the joys that derive from watching great actors working at the top of their game in material worthy of their talent. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

The Ticket: Blu-ray
The lesson to be learned in Ido Fluk’s sophomore feature can be summed up in a moralistic parable repeated several times in The Ticket. It’s the one in which a luckless man beseeches God for his help in winning the Lottery so often that his guardian angel intercedes with the deity to cut the poor sap a break. God replies, “I might let him win, but he would have to buy a ticket, first.” Point taken. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is quite convincing as James, a blind man, who, one morning, inexplicably regains the ability to see, lost as a child due to a pituitary tumor. James has been employed as a drone in a real-estate business that relies on cold-calls to produce leads for its sales reps to pursue. It’s mind-numbing work, but James has few options available to him and he’s good at it. Using the riddle as a starting point, James asks his boss to consider a series of motivational sessions to raise the performance level of the staff. He’ll also begin meeting with groups of perspective buyers, whose reluctance to believe the company’s pitches is completely understandable, if based on an unwillingness to pull the trigger on what could be a good deal for them.

Meanwhile, his new-found sense of sight opens the doors to a closet full of bourgeois pleasures denied him as someone whose job only required phone solicitations. Naturally, his upwardly mobile behavior impacts his relationships with a close friend, also blind, Bob (Oliver Platt), and his solicitous wife. The marketing material would like us to think that his wife, Sam, is drab and unenticing, but that’s not a description Malin Akerman could easily match. As Sam begins to withdraw from her no-longer-needy husband, drifting toward their resentful friend, Bob, James has already become enamored of a friendly blond co-worker, Jessica (Kerry Bishé). With her encouragement, James’ stock within the company rises with every new sales seminar and purchase of expensive toys. You may be able to guess what happens next. No matter, because Fluk introduces the surprise climax almost as naturally as he had when James’ sight returned. That might be enough to fill a “Twilight Zone” episode, but, at 97 minutes, is probably too obvious a trajectory for viewers conditioned to expect something closer to fireworks.

Heartland
If Maura Anderson’s debut feature, Heartland, had arrived on my doorstep in a plain brown sleeve, instead of a street-ready jacket, with a photo of two attractive women nuzzling up to each other and laurels from the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, I might have been able to experience the movie without certain expectations. Knowing that it was being released by LGBTQ-friendly Wolfe Video seemingly left no more room for surprise, which is OK, because most of the DVDs I receive telegraph their intentions well in advance in trailers or photos on the covers. The real surprises come when a lightly reviewed DVD-original defies those expectations by redirecting the narrative flow and resisting the temptation to deliver only what’s expected of it by the target demographic. Superior performances on the part of little-known actors are a big plus, as well. While it’s likely that Anderson and screenwriters Velinda Godfrey and Todd Waring were acutely aware of how familiar their story might sound to targeted audiences, and worked diligently to avoid clichés, they understood, as well, that solid casting decisions would distract viewers from the stereotypes inherent in such movies set in the Bible Belt. Co-writer Godfrey pulls double-duty as Lauren, an Oklahoma City graphic artist, who, almost simultaneously, loses her girlfriend to disease and her home and job to the amount of time she spent tending to her in the hospital. She knows it won’t be easy to return home to her well-meaning, if devoutly Christian mother (Beth Grant) and the inevitabilities of small-town life, even if the town isn’t completely devoid of gays and lesbians. In the short run, a little boredom might do her some good. A ray of hope shines on Lauren when she learns that her brother, Kenny (Cooper Row) and his intended will soon arrive, specifically to raise money for a winery they’re backing in the Oklahoma hill country. In fact, that might be the most unlikely narrative conceit in Heartland.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone when circumstances lead Lauren and her future sister-in-law, Carrie (Laura Spencer), to become booger buddies, if only to sneak away together for the occasional smoke and forbidden belt of vodka. At first glance, the sneaky-sexy redhead looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Under the influence of inebriants and a sympathetic ear, Carrie lets her hair down so quickly that you wonder if Kenny really knows very much about his fiancé. His disappearance on a last-minute business trip leaves Lauren and Carrie plenty of time to get to know each other better. That, and a hurricane that forces them to take shelter together under the house. When Kenny gets back, the firmament of their relationship has permanently shifted. So much for the obvious, though. The rest of the movie, during which the real shit happens, plays out in a way that can’t be easily predicted or dismissed for its improbability. Although fans of romantic dramas probably aren’t thrilled by ambiguity, the ending to Heartland leaves plenty of room for conjecture.

Enter the Warriors Gate: Blu-ray
With a plot that can be traced as far back as Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” Matthias Hoene’s action/fantasy, Enter the Warriors Gate, is one of several contemporary time-travel adventures that advance the technology beyond DeLoreans and hot-wired telephone booths. In doing so, it combines elements of The Last Starfighter (1984) and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) in the service of a story that should appeal most to teenage gamers. A French/Chinese/Cambodian production, co-written and co-produced by Luc Besson, Enter the Warriors Gate features an American protagonist (Uriah Shelton) and a Chinese princess (Ni Ni), being hunted through time by a marauding army of barbarians. Jack is a fairly typically American kid, who, if it weren’t for his underdeveloped stature, probably would be eligible to hang with the cool kids. As it is, though, Jack is an easy target for bullies. To compensate, he and a geek buddy create a world of their own within the framework of a martial-arts video game. One morning, after being given an antique urn from a friendly Chinese shopkeeper, Jack is surprised to find an ancient Chinese warrior standing over him in his bedroom. Zhoo (Mark Chao) has traveled forward in time to ask the Black Knight – the boy’s video persona – to protect Princess Su Lin (Ni Ni), whose image is found on the heirloom. After trading Su Lin’s royal rags for jeans and a comfortable top, she’s able to blend in with the crowd … temporarily, anyway. When she’s captured by the Barbarians on her tail, Jack is tasked with following her back to ancient China and, with Zhoo, take on all manner of magical and mystical adversaries. Derivative? Sure. Still, Enter the Warriors Gate is as well-made as any of Besson’s other projects — Leon: The Professional, The Fifth Element – and as good a way as any for a gamer to kill a rainy afternoon. Special features include a deleted scene; the featurettes, “Beyond the Gate: Making Enter the Warriors Gate” and “The Journey East: Bridging the Cultural Divide”; and commentary with Hoene (Cockneys vs Zombies).

Sky on Fire: Blu-ray
Hong Kong action specialist Ringo Lam churned out 20 comedies between his debut, in 1983, and seeming retirement, two decades later. Then, for the next dozen years, zilch. Sky on Fire, his second film in the last two years, provides ample evidence that Lam still knows how to blow stuff up real good and destroy late-model vehicles in tunnels and freeways. It is the fifth in an informal series of crime films that share the words, “on fire,” in their titles: City on Fire (1987), Prison on Fire (1987), School on Fire (1988) and Prison on Fire II (1991). The first of those releases is said to have inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Lam also directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in three films — Maximum Risk (1996), Replicant (2001) and In Hell (2003) – largely shot in Vancouver, Toronto and Bulgaria … the Canada of Eastern European. Perhaps, this explains why so much anticipation was built in to his return to action – literally — back home, in Hong Kong. The bad news is that Sky on Fire gets bogged down in a nearly incomprehensible storyline, so quickly out of the gate, that I was never sure on which side of the law the dozen or so key main characters stood at any given time. It opens with a chemical fire that rips through a laboratory dedicated to research on a potential cancer breakthrough, based on “ex-stem cells,” whatever the hell they are. One group of ethically challenged scientists wants to reap huge profits from the new treatment; another researcher only wants to vindicate his late father’s work and nail his killers; and Hong Kong’s finest simply want to protect the cure from falling into the wrong hands and prevent an all-out war from bringing the city to its knees. The good news is that viewers’ patience will be rewarded by an even more explosive climax, inspired, perhaps, by The Towering Inferno and collapse of the World Trade Center, on 9/11. The immensity of the set piece argues for the possibility that everything that preceded it was a MacGuffin. (I don’t mention it to be a spoiler-sport, but to provide a reason to stick with the movie through the less eventful moments.) Popular Asian stars Daniel Wu, Joseph Chang, Zhang Jingchu, Leon Lai, Lam Ka Tung and Amber Kuo spend most of their time dodging bullets or discharging firearms of their own, sometimes for no apparent reason.

He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly: University Press of Kentucky
In the Steps of Trisha Brown
It would be impossible for today’s generation of educators, students and journalists to appreciate the amount of work that once went into the creation of scholarly essays, dissertations, biographies and, yes, even obituaries … once, at least, one of the closely read sections of a newspaper. The contents of libraries, museums and “morgues” now are accessible via the Internet, almost instantaneously, and transportable with the flick of a few fingers. Even 25 years ago, the ready availability of such a wealth of data, information and imagery seemed like a distant possibility. The creation of such dedicated databases as Wikipedia and IMDB.com would come as less a boon to academics than students and reporters who couldn’t afford the time even to make sure that the information they would pass along was accurate. It produced some embarrassing moments for those who were caught borrowing passages – sometimes footnotes and quotes – from entries later deemed unreliable or biased. While things have gotten significantly better on the encyclopedic websites, in terms of accuracy and protecting the integrity of their pages, the caveat, “Garbage in, garbage out,” still applies. I was inadvertently reminded of how much things have changed in this regard, over the past 25 years, by Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s comprehensive biography, “He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly,” which expands on periods in the multihyphenate performer’s career not already covered in other biographies, retrospectives and introductions to films shown on TCM. Simply being able to review his films, at a moment’s notice, would have been impossible in the years before streaming took hold. In a show-business career that spanned a half-century, Kelly wore so many different hats that any scholarly biography less than 200 pages, not including an index and filmography, would practically be meaningless. Even though “He’s Got Rhythm” logs in at 560, some critics have argued that more room could have been devoted to how such an admirable fellow – likeable in every outward way — could also be such a demanding and punishing taskmaster, away from the limelight.

Kelly’s mother steered the Pittsburgh native and his brother, James, to an early interest in dance. The neighborhood bullies put the kibosh on that idea, by picking fights and calling them sissies. Gene switched his allegiance to baseball, before taking up journalism, economics and law in college. In 1937, after keeping afloat in the lean years, teaching dance and choregraphing shows locally, Kelly took up dance full-time … and, how! His first Hollywood credit was Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal, co-starring Judy Garland and George Murphy. By then, Fred Astaire was the town’s top hoofer. Even so, Kelly’s combination of athleticism, masculinity and balletic training would complement, rather than overshadow, Astaire’s more sophisticated and graceful approach to the art of dance on screen. There was plenty of room in Hollywood for two great male dancers and choreographers, as well as occasional visits from Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion, beginning in the 1950. Both men’s work is more readily available to lovers of dance and movies than ever before, thanks to DVD/Blu-ray, TCM and YouTube. Beyond the great musicals themselves, there’s the That’s Entertainment series, which he co-hosted; “Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer,” from PBS’ “American Masters”; and “Dancing, a Man’s Game: Gene Kelly,” which aired in 1958, as part of NBC’s “Omnibus.” Released last July, the latter reveals more about Kelly and his work than a dozen wiki entries possibly could. Written, choreographed, co-directed and starring the onetime wannabe shortstop, “Dancing, a Man’s Game” enlisted some of the top names in sports to illustrate Kelly’s belief that the same seemingly effortless movements employed by great athletes in game situations, paralleled the graceful movements of fine dancers, in performance. It featured appearances by Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Bob Cousy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Dick Button and fellow dancers Edward Villella and Patrick Adiarte. If Astaire’s work was savored best with champagne and caviar, “Dancing, a Man’s Game” could be enjoyed with a bag of peanuts and six-pack of beer. Even the bullies back in Pittsburgh might have been impressed. “He’s Got Rhythm” is part of the University Press of Kentucky’s “Screen Classics” series of books intended for scholars and general readers, alike.

If you’re enough of a dance aficionado to recognize such names as Merce Cunningham, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Martha Graham, and be able to use them in the same sentence as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, you may want to take a shot at Marie-Hélène Rebois’ In the Steps of Trisha Brown. If not, start your exploration of post-modern and experimental dance somewhere else. In the 79-minute documentary, dancers from the Trisha Brown Dance Company, teach the ballerinas from the Ballet de l’Opéra, in Paris, one of Brown’s most representative works, “Glacial Decoy.” For the rest of us, the documentary can serve as a master class on a form of dance that combines movement and physics with the cerebral and sensuous sides of the artistic discipline. In their introduction of the piece to the Paris cast, dancer Lisa Kraus and associate artistic director Carolyn Lucas advise them, “Do exactly the opposite of what your training told you to do,” which, in the world of ballet, is easier said than done. In a preview to the piece in the New Yorker, Joan Acocella was more specific, “French ballet students are instructed to hold their backs straight, their buttocks in, and their arms and legs and shoulders and heads in carefully modelled positions that have been elaborated by dancing masters, and recorded in rule books, for more than two centuries. By contrast, Trisha Brown’s dancers were taught by her to walk down walls, twirl down poles, semaphore to one another across rooftops, and, quite often, fling their limbs around like bags of wet laundry.” The rehearsal footage is interspersed with archival footage from original productions of “Glacial Decoy” and Brown’s own preparation for it. “In the Steps” also features archival dance footage, directed by Jonathan Demme, who died in April, at 73. After being treated for vascular dementia since 2011, the choreographer died last February, at 80.

Dredd: 4K Ultra HD: Blu-ray
Ex Machina: Ultra HD: Blu-ray
Last month, Severin Films released “Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD,” a documentary that traced the comic-book roots of such New Age superheroes as Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper and Halo Jones. Created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra, Dredd has been a fixture of the “2000 AD” universe for 30 years. In the 1995 film adaptation of the dystopian crime-fighting series, Judge Dredd, Sylvester Stallone played the one-man judge/jury/executioner. Seventeen years later, Reliance Entertainment decided to resurrect the character in 3D, forsaking the star-driven approach to the story and reimagining his look. Dredd underperformed at the box office, as well, but longtime fans and critics liked it better than the Stallone version. It must have done some business in its Blu-ray 2D/3D incarnations, because Lionsgate has decided to give it a shot in 4K Ultra HD. Moreover, last month, independent entertainment studio IM Global and Rebellion announced plans to develop a live-action TV show, “Judge Dredd: Mega City One,” an ensemble drama about a team of Judges “as they deal with the challenges of the future-shocked 22nd Century.” Maybe they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. Here, judges Dredd (Karl Urban) and Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), his significantly less menacing intern, are dispatched by the central authority to wipe out Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a ruthless crime boss bent on expanding her empire through sales of Slo-Mo, a dangerous reality-altering drug. Dredd wasn’t shot in 4K, so the payoff isn’t what it could be. The most noticeable uptick comes in scene shots from the perspective of Slo-Mo junkies. All of the bonus features are carryovers from previous Blu-ray releases.

The only real connection between Dredd and Ex-Machina, apart from the 4K UHD and Lionsgate, are the contributions of Alex Garland, who wrote the former and was writer/director of the latter. His writing credits also include The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go. One of the smartest, sexiest and most original sci-fi dramas in memory, Garland’s directorial debut managed to make some money, despite an undernourished marketing campaign. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) plays Caleb Smith, a 26-year-old programmer at the world’s largest internet company. Oscar Isaac portrays the reclusive CEO of the company, Nathan Bateman, who owns a piece of idyllic property, roughly the size of Rhode Island. Caleb is helicoptered onto the property after winning a contest promising an opportunity to commune with nature and Nathan. In fact, Nathan fixed the contest so that Caleb’s trip wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of co-workers unaware of its true purpose. Nathan wants Caleb to put his star robot through the paces of the Turning test, used to judge a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. As portrayed by Alicia Vikander, Ava has a robotic body and human-looking face … one that can be camouflaged by fashionable clothing and the other removed and traded for another visage. Although the depth of her artificial intelligence has yet to be plumbed, she plays Caleb like a fiddle, even while confined to glass cage. The only other person at the compound is a drop-dead gorgeous Asian servant, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who, silent and obedient, represents every yuppie tycoon’s idea of an ideal second wife. Ava not only is smart enough to know that her model robot likely was designed to operate outside the compound, independent of Nathan’s oversight, but that she’ll also need some help getting there. What makes this edition of Ex-Machina such a treat in UHD is its overall visual presentation, thanks to sets designed to be shot in digital at 4K resolution. The gleaming surfaces, breathtaking scenery and large slabs of glass enhance a set design specifically lit and color-coordinated to look ultra-modern, yet compatible with the natural background. The vintage bonus package, included on the Blu-ray 2D disc, is worth a long look by newcomers to the story.

Evil Ed: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The Climber: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Spotlight on a Murderer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The latest release of special editions from Arrow Video/Academy could hardly be more eclectic. None of the titles has been accorded much of an American release, despite the presence of a couple of recognizable stars and a place in the history of subgenres near and dear to the hearts of geeks everywhere. They’ve been impeccably restored and surrounded by bonus material unimaginable to anyone who worked on them.

By far, the most depraved movie in the bunch is Evil Ed, Anders Jacobsson’s blood-soaked homage to the splatter films of the 1980s and rebuke of then-current European censorship of video nasties and flicks that combined sex and violence. The fun begins with the title, a none-too-subtle reference to The Evil Dead (1981), and naming of Olaf Rhodin’s character, Sam Campbell, after director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell. Images from Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator and The Shining are scattered throughout Evil Ed, as well. Also pay close attention to one-sheet posters nailed to the walls and such overly descriptive names as, Edward “Eddie” Tor Swenson. He’s the mousy technician at a company that puts the finishing touches on high-end arthouse films and low-end genre titles. One day, Ed’s sleazy boss transfers him from the Bergman-esque pictures to the company’s Splatter and Gore Department, where he’s assigned the task of editing “Loose Limbs,” a movie whose content won’t pass muster in the censorship office. The boss does, however, want to maintain a scene in which a girl is raped by a beaver and shot in the head with a bazooka. As if to demonstrate how the censors might actually be on to something, Ed soon begins to experience bizarre hallucinations, terrible nightmares and overwhelming urges to commit violent acts on people he mistakes for devils and gremlins. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the gag pretty much runs out of gas after about 30 minutes, or so, leaving an hour’s worth of padding and very decent special effects. (Göran Lundström would later work in the makeup department of such films as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and X-Men: First Class.) The 2015 “Special EDition” adds another six or seven minutes of goofy material. And, as if 99 minutes of this silliness weren’t enough, there’s a bonus package that would be excessive, even if Easy Ed had somehow managed to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. So, besides the 93- and 99-minute versions of the feature, there are deleted scenes, bloopers, a three-hour-long and separate 50-minute making-of featurette, a reversible sleeve with newly commissioned artwork and a collector s booklet with new writing on the film by critic James Oliver. Even at three hours, the deadpan recollections of the cast and filmmakers in the making-of featurettes, “Keep ’Em Heads Rollin” and “Lost in Brainland,” are pretty funny.

A couple of weeks ago, we learned how Warhol favorite Joe Dallesandro found his way into Jacques Rivette’s tortured arthouse mystery, Merry-Go-Round, after disappearing from American films for nearly a decade. As if by Hollywood magic, he returns this week in Pasquale Squitieri’s pulpy Italian crime thriller, The Climber (1975). In the early 1970s, he followed Paul Morrissey to Italy for Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula. The Italians considered Dallesandro to be a marketable American star on both sides of the Atlantic and saved the money it would have taken to fly him back to Rome. He stuck around Europe long enough to co-star in several Italian genre flicks and work with Serge Gainsbourg, Walerian Borowczyk and Louis Malle, all the while staying as drunk and high as possible, before returning home to play Lucky Luciano in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club. The Climber may be small change, compared to that extravagant production, at least, but there are several things to recommend it. Influenced thematically by The Public Enemy and Scarface, it charts the rise and inevitable fall of a small-time Naples smuggler, Aldo (Dallesandro), who makes the mistake of trying to skim profits from his boss. After he survives a savage beating, Aldo hooks up with lonely young woman, Luciana (Stefania Casini), who provides him with a ride to Rome and temporary shelter. His cousin refers Aldo to a mob fence, who sends him on a suicide mission, which he narrowly survives. After exacting his revenge on the fat “poofster,” Aldo organizes a gang of thugs on motorbikes to rip off deliveries of contraband and extort money from nightclub owners. Eventually, he makes his way back to Naples and a reunion with his old boss. The really terrific thing about The Climber is Squitieri’s ability to convey the ugliness of life for poor working-class Italians, whose only way to make ends meet is to pull the occasional heist. Moreover, I couldn’t tell the difference between actors impersonating thugs and amateurs who might have been brought in to provide color. Neither is there anything glamorous about the urban settings. The highlights of the bonus package are an alternative English-language soundtrack; “Little Joe’s Adventures in Europe,” a new interview on the actor’s film appearances during the 1970s and early 1980s; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and new writing on the film by Roberto Curti, author of “Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980.”

Today, Jean-Louis Trintignant is the most recognizable member of the ensemble cast of Georges Franju’s Spotlight on a Murderer (1961). While the Agatha Christie-like mystery also featured such high-profile stars as Pierre Brasseur, Dany Saval, Marianne Koch and Pascale Audret, I was most impressed with the Breton chateaux that provided the setting for the old-fashioned game of cat-and-mouse. Bordered on two sides by a lake, the multi-towered structure also featured a courtyard large enough to accommodate audiences for son et lumiere productions. The chateaux is owned by Count Herve de Kerloquen (Brasseur), who, knowing he’s about to die, decides to play a trick on his greedy heirs. Before expiring, he locks himself into a small closet, alongside the formal dining room, whose two-way mirror allows him to observe his relatives when they arrive to divvy up the spoils. He knows that no one will be allowed to inherit as much as a chair or ashtray, until his body is discovered or five years have passed since his disappearance. In the meantime, they’ll have to invest their own money to maintain and preserve the property. They decide to finance the upkeep through a series of son et lumiere shows recounting its history. Even as those productions are occurring, however, fate is narrowing the field of individual heirs. Who, if anyone, will survive what appears to be a curse? Stay tuned. “Spotlight” isn’t nearly as gripping or memorable as Franju’s previous thriller, Eyes Without a Face, but, at 95 minutes, even the black-and-white visuals are easy to absorb. Thanks for that, in large part, goes the writing team of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who, as screenwriters and novelists, have given us Diabolique, Vertigo, Eyes Without a Face and, yes, even Body Parts. The nicely restored edition adds a vintage production featurette from 1960, shot on location and including interviews with Franju, Audret, Brasseur, Koch, Saval and Trintignant; “Spotlight on a Filmmaker,” a look at Franju’s career presented by Michael Brooke, author of the “Midnight Movie Monograph” on Eyes Without a Face; newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and new writing on the film by Chris Fujiwara

Where the Buffalo Roam: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s tempting to imagination how Hunter S. Thompson might have covered last year’s presidential campaign. His reporting for Rolling Stone in “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” popularized the “gonzo journalism” concept, which only a handful of writers could pull off on their best days. As targets go, however, Donald, Hillary and the rest of the clowns – he might have embraced Bernie, as he had Jimmy Carter – likely would have proved too easy for him to skewer. And, even if he hadn’t committed suicide in 2005, at 67, his scalpel had grown dull years earlier. Still, when Thompson was on his game, no political observer was more observant and entertaining. By 1980, more young people were willing to buy tickets to his lectures, than to go back and read the books and columns that made him famous. They expected him to amuse them with his booze- and cocaine-fueled rants, instead of enlightening them on the current issues. And, he complied. The release of Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam didn’t do him any favors, either. It’s possible that Bill Murray’s impersonation of Thompson was on the nose, but, it seemed too far-fetched to be true. Neither was there much of a focus to the movie, especially compared to Terry Gilliam’s frequently brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). John Kaye’s screenplay merges key elements from Thompson’s earlier political writing, events described in “Las Vegas” and “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” his 1977 eulogy to Chicano attorney and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta (a.k.a., Raoul Duke’s 300-pound Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo, in “Las Vegas,” and, as portrayed here by Peter Boyle, Carl Lazlo, Esquire). Together, they provide a cockeyed look back at the 1960-70s, when he could get away with being drunk, stoned and tripping most of his waking life. The Shout!Factory reissue is noteworthy for the restoration of Neil Young’s original musical score – missing from earlier versions – and an entertaining interview with Kaye, “Inventing The Buffalo.”

Juice: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
The most obvious selling point for “Juice: 25th Anniversary Edition” is the prominence of Tupac Shakur on its cover. Known best as a rap artist martyred for a cause that most of us can’t begin to fathom, Tupac proved in his first featured role that he might have a better shot at stardom as an actor than a member of Digital Underground. He was good enough to mix acting and music, though, as a solo rapper. The thing to remember here, though, is that he was one several young black actors whose careers would be enhanced by their appearance in Ernest R. Dickerson’s debut as a co-writer/director. Today, it stands up alongside Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City as movies for a generation of African-American viewers – by African-American artists — once removed from the blaxploitation era. They’re informed as much by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as the kind of hip-hop and gangsta rap blasting from Radio Raheem’s speakers. Consider, however, who else was introduced in Juice: Omar Epps (Love & Basketball), Jermaine ‘Huggy’ Hopkins (How to Be a Player), Khalil Kain (Girlfriends), En Vogue’s Cindy Herron; Vincent Laresca (“24”); Queen Latifah (Chicago); George Gore II (“My Wife and Kids”); and, in a wee part, Donald Faison (“Scrubs”). Juice follows four inseparable Harlem teens, who waste their days skipping school, getting in fights and shoplifting. The only member of the group who has concrete plans for the future is Q (Epps), who has legitimate dreams of becoming a deejay. One day, Bishop (Shakur) happens to see James Cagney in White Heat and the film inspires him to buy a gun and rob a corner store, with his pals. It falls on the same night as Q’s first big shot at success. Needless to say, Bishop’s fate is destined to match that of Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. The bonus material includes Dickerson’s commentary; “You’ve Got the Juice Now,” featuring new interviews with Dickerson, producer David Heyman and actors Epps, Kain and Hopkins; “The Wrecking Crew,” on the bonds the actors immediately formed with each other; “Sip the Juice: The Music,” explores the essential role that music plays in the film; “Stay in the Scene: The Interview,” a vintage on-set interview with the four lead cast members, including Tupac; and a photo gallery.

Danger Close
From the vantage point of the Pentagon, the press corps in Vietnam was given too much access to the front lines and ugly truths of war. Reporters and photographers found their own way to hot spots, frequently sending back unfiltered dispatches that ran counter to the official version of events described by military spokesmen. By the end of the conflict, the media were accorded almost as much of the blame for the fall of Saigon as Ho Chi Minh. Things would be different during the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. The Pentagon decided to keep reporters away from the front lines for as long as possible. One of the first things journalists were able to describe with any amount of accuracy was the carnage discovered on the Highway of Death, leading from Kuwait City to major cities in Iraq, the retreating civilians and military personnel attempted to escape Kuwait with pillaged treasures … and their necks. The media repeated descriptions of the assault, recorded from cockpits of jet fighters, as a “turkey shoot.” Ghastly images of charred bodies and destroyed luxury cars were said to have influenced President George H. W. Bush to end Persian Gulf War hostilities the next day. The invasion of Afghanistan was covered from arms’ length, as well. To appease media concern in advance of Operation Iraqi Freedom, two years later, the Pentagon decided to allow the “embedding” of reporters among military units, under certain conditions. Although the reporters weren’t likely to whitewash what they saw during the invasion, neither were they likely to be exposed to anything potentially controversial, either. By the time they reached Baghdad, friendships had been established and limits set. After our troops raced into the capital, against a backdrop of cheering Iraqi citizens and toppled statuary, President George W. Bush famously took advantage of the positive images to declare victory on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Those cheers wouldn’t last very long, however, as some of the same people who welcomed the Americans to Baghdad, decided it made more sense to devote their energies to settling religious scores, looting the national museums and stealing as much money and gold as they could carry from the banks. It took a while for journalists to figure out why so many Iraqis turned their backs on us, but, by then, the revolt was in full swing and IEDs and RPGs replaced conventional armaments as the insurgents’ weapons of choice.

After a while, most American media outlets decided that maintaining a presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was too costly and dangerous to maintain. If they were going to cover the wars at all, it would be through freelance sources. Alex Quade is among the rare breed of journalists willing to risk everything tell the stories that no longer were being relayed to American viewers and readers. She sold pieces to CNN, Fox News and other outlets, documenting both the day-to-day and extreme fighting conditions experienced by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Referring to her as an “embedded” reporter and videographer doesn’t do justice to the kind of work she produced and risks she took in the Middle East and aftermath of natural disasters. She is the primary civilian focus of Danger Close, the third chapter in Christian Tureaud and David Salzberg’s series of wartime documentaries, preceded by their highly regarded The Hornet’s Nest and Citizen Soldier. The overriding story, however, concerns the mission of Special Forces Operational Detachment A-Teams in Diyala Province, Iraq, as they went after high-value terrorist targets and called in airstrikes with A-10s and F-16s. The most poignant moments come after describing how Green Beret Staff Sergeant Rob Pirelli was able to coordinate the construction of a defensible compound in the middle of territory controlled by Taliban and Al Qaede insurgents, and the aftermath of his death to enemy fire. After being sent home to repair broken bones suffered from a fall from an armored vehicle, Quade followed up with Pirelli’s family, showing them video of the facility and pictures of the men who were shaken by his death. Quade also decided to return to the compound as a follow-up to her original report, but found many of the doors previously open to her now closed. She was required to “hitch” rides from various Green Beret units, recording their missions as she went along on raids. It’s thrilling stuff, not unlike the helmet-cam video sent back in the early stages of the war. Danger Close also includes several reports Quade filed from the forward positions and during flights taken in fighter jets and attack helicopters. (A Chinook in which she was supposed to ride was shot down after she traded places with combat soldiers. She interviews the pilot of a rescue helicopter who risked his own life, believing she was on board and might have survived the catastrophe.) Her credentials include two Edward R. Murrow Awards; the Congressional Medal Of Honor Society’s Excellence in Journalism Award for her “honest & courageous” war reportage; a joint Peabody award for coverage of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005; (a CNN group award); a joint Emmy award for coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and a Du-Pont Columbia Award for the in-depth reporting she did for CNN on the Asian Tsunami.

TV-to-DVD
Spike: I Am Heath Ledger
PBS: American Masters: Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft
PBS: Rocktopia: A Classical Revolution: Live from Budapest
After turning his attention away from hockey and other things inarguably Canadian – Anne Murray, the CFL – Derik Murray shifted his focus to hit-and-run bio-docs of celebrities, ready for distribution on cable television and in DVD. The ones I’ve seen are interesting, but limited by what Murray could afford to show, in the way of archival clips, and the time it takes to get beneath the skin of a subject worthy of a feature-length doc. Asif Kapadia’s award-winning Senna and Amy are good examples of celebrity bio-docs that leave very little to imagination after watching them. I Am Heath Ledger is the seventh entry in Murray’s “I Am …” series, after profiles of Evel Knievel, Chris Farley, Bruce Lee, JFK Jr., Steve McQueen and Dale Earnhardt. His parallel series, “Facing,” has profiled Donald Trump, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vladimir Putin, Suge Knight, Saddam Hussein, Pablo Escobar and Muhammad Ali. Frequent collaborator Adrian Buitenhuis served as co-director on I Am Heath Ledger, which is enhanced by material shot by the Perth native for the enjoyment of friends and family, mostly, and the testimony of people like Naomi Watts, Ang Lee, Ben Harper, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Catherine Hardwicke and Mel Gibson, as well as close family members and boyhood friends. Although comparisons to James Dean are inevitable, the doc doesn’t push them on anyone. Ledger was a young man blessed with an unusual bounty of talents and capacity for close, personal relationships with many people simultaneously. His homes could be mistaken for youth hostels, what with the transient friends and vagabond Aussie musicians he attracted. Anyone looking for dirt probably would be better served by sticking to TMZ and other gossip sites. Conspicuously, if not expectedly missing is Michelle Williams, the mother of Ledger’s daughter, Matilda, and much in-depth reporting on his death, ascribed to an accidental overdose of pharmaceuticals.

It seems odd that PBS would devote an entire edition of its “American Masters” to an ex-patriot French chef, albeit one who wrote best-selling cookbooks – or, to be precise, an appreciation for the way great food is prepared — and advancing the revolution Julia Child launched on public television two decades earlier. Jacques Pepin arrived in the United States in 1959, when great French dining only was available at the New York restaurant Le Pavillon, his first employer, and, two years later, in the White House, under the watchful eye of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The First Lady asked Pepin, twice, to become commander-in-chief of the president’s kitchen. Instead, he accepted an invitation from regular Le Pavillon customer Howard Johnson — yes, that one — to work alongside fellow Frenchman Pierre Franey to develop food lines for his nationwide chain of restaurants. And, yes, one of his greatest successes at Howard Johnson’s came in his decision to change the ingredients used in the fried clams’ recipe, making it a guilty pleasure of American motorists for years to come … myself, included. Accepting the White House gig might have seemed like a lateral move, despite the Kennedy imprimatur. While living in Paris, Pépin avoided being sent to Algeria as a conscripted soldier by being assigned duties as personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle. Having already prepared meals for many of the same world leaders who would be invited to dine with the Kennedys, he decided that a drastic change might do him some good. Years later, after a near-fatal automobile accident, Pepin used his convalescence to translate his knowledge of preparation into English. In 1999, Pepin co-starred in the PBS series, “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home,” which, in 2001, was awarded a Daytime Emmy. The rest is culinary history. “Jacques Pepin: The Art of Craft” is informed by interviews with friends, family members, journalists and celebrity chefs, including Anthony Bourdain, José Andrés, Tom Colicchio and Rachel Ray. You’ll never look at an omelet the same way, again. The DVD includes extended interviews, demonstrations, an 80th-birthday tribute and flashback to the first episode of “Today’s Gourmet.”

In the 1970s, one of the ways record labels extended the lives of top-selling albums was to have rock artists perform the same songs while accompanied by a symphony orchestra. Procol Harum and the Moody Blues were among the first to initiate symphonic rock, which would evolve into progressive rock of the 1970s. A 1972 collaboration, “Tommy (London Symphony Orchestra album),” featured the Who, the 104-piece orchestra and an all-star supporting cast of rock artists. It pre-figured the 1975 soundtrack for the movie, Tommy, which anticipated the 1991 Broadway musical, “The Who’s Tommy.” Today, pops orchestras routinely slate programs for their Boomer patrons. As entertaining as these performances were, they added little to the music that wasn’t already there. Neither was the collective personality of the orchestra discernible. Distributed by PBS, “Rocktopia: A Classical Revolution: Live from Budapest” represents the latest effort to fuse classical music, classic rock and opera, and it isn’t bad. The music is performed from original arrangements, drawing from Elton John, Mozart, Journey, Strauss, Aerosmith, Heart, Beethoven, Pink Floyd, Copland, Bruce Springsteen and the Who, as well as vocalists who recall the intensity and range of the original artists. The songs were chosen, we’re told, because they tell “the universal story of the human condition,” ways that transcend time, trends and commercialism. As such, the classical music and rock vocals form a song cycle accessible to audiences that range in age from ’tweens to geezers. Singing along to the individual numbers appears to have been encouraged. A making-of featurette is included.

The DVD Wrapup: World Cinema Project 2, Obsession, Pelle the Conqueror, Jacques Rivette, Dark Angel and more

Sunday, May 28th, 2017

Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project: No. 2: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
It would be difficult for most of us to sustain the level of affection and enthusiasm Martin Scorsese displays in his introductions to the half-dozen films collected in World Cinema Project: No. 2. They are his godchildren. Scorsese has always been a key player in the film preservation movement and this is the second batch of movies the World Cinema Project has rescued for future generations to enjoy. Established in 2007 under the auspices of the Film Foundation, which, in 1990, Scorsese founded and now chairs, the project has thus far restored 30 marginalized, infrequently screened films from 21 regions generally unequipped to preserve their own cinema history. They have been made available for exhibition on various platforms. For its part, the foundation has helped restore more than 750 films, accessible to the public through programming at festivals, museums and educational institutions around the world. It easily qualifies as God’s work and Scorsese has a right to be expect a few plenary indulgences. The films collected in the second volume, one made as recently as 2000, not only look better than they have in years, but, along with being historically significant, they’re also genuinely entertaining. Some are more challenging than others, however. The six titles collected in 2013 were Touki bouki (Senegal), Redes (Mexico), A River Called Titas (India and Bangladesh), Dry Summer (Turkey), Trances (Morocco) and The Housemaid (South Korea). Each has benefited from a 2K or 4K digital restoration, courtesy of the World Cinema Project, in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays. The second collector’s set of nine DVD and Blu-ray discs, contains a booklet featuring essays by Phillip Lopate, Dennis Lim, Kent Jones, Fábio Andrade, Bilge Ebiri and Andrew Chan; Scorsese’s brief introductions; and a half-dozen informative video interviews with the directors, historians or collaborators.

Lino Brocka’s uncompromising 1976 melodrama Insiang describes one Philippine girl’s desperate efforts to escape the degradations of urban poverty, while exacting revenge on everyone who’s taken advantage of her subservience and fears. Among them are Insiang’s wicked mother, her much younger lover and a boyfriend who seduces her with lies and peer pressure. Set in the Manila slums, it was the first Philippine film ever to play at Cannes (Director’s Fortnight).

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s uncategorizable 2000 debut feature, Mysterious Object at Noon, combines visual experimentation, fantasy and documentary portraiture as the film crew travels from the Thai countryside to Bangkok, asking the people they encounter to contribute to a game of Exquisite Corpse, beginning with a story about a handicapped boy and his teacher. Since 2000, Weerasethakul has been nominated for five major awards at Cannes, winning three, for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Tropical Malady and Blissfully Yours.

Mario Peixoto’s 1931 silent film, Limite, was inspired by a hypnotic André Kertész photograph the 22-year-old Brazilian poet/filmmaker saw on the cover of a French magazine. Rarely seen, it been compared to the notorious first Buñuel-Dali collaboration, Un Chien Andalou, praised by Sergei Eisenstein (allegedly), hailed for its visual experimentation and artistry, and enhanced by the music of Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev. It’s the only film Peixoto ever made and, although digitally preserved, still shows signs of extreme degradation. In short, it’s amazing.

Kazakh director Ermek Shinarbaev and Russian-Kazakh-Korean novelist Anatoli Kim collaborated on the 1989 historical drama, Revenge, a spiraling meditation on the way trauma is passed down through generations, like toxic DNA. In this decades-spanning tale of obsession and violence, a child is raised in Korea to avenge the death of his father’s first son. The cycle of hate extends from the feudal period into the 20th Century. Revenge was the first Soviet film to look at the Korean diaspora in central Asia.

Lutfi Aka’s 1966 Turkish Western Law of the Border describes a border war between government troops and outlaws whose only source of income involves working both sides of the Turkish/Syrian border. This includes clearing a minefield and wrangling a flock of sheep from one country into the other. Another storyline involves the son of the outlaw leader, who must decide between attending school or maintaining the family tradition. An unlikely alliance between adversaries also plays into a time-honored Western trope. Erol Tas, the “most famous villain in Turkish cinema,” co-stars in Law of the Border and Dry Summer, restored in 2013.

Edward Yang’s mournful 1985 drama Taipei Story reveals a city – and an entire generation of young adults — trapped between the past and present. As one yuppie couple’s dreams of marriage and emigration begin to unravel, Yang’s gaze illuminates the precariousness of domestic life and the desperation of Taiwan’s globalized modernity. It was made in collaboration with Yang’s fellow New Taiwan Cinema master and future Cannes sensation, Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Puppetmaster, The Assassin).

Obsessions: Blu-ray
The obscure Dutch-German exploitation film, Obsessions (a.k.a., “A Hole in the Wall”), is more noteworthy for its back story than almost anything that happens in the movie. That much is obvious from the promotion of Martin Scorsese and Bernard Herrmann’s names on the cover of the Blu-ray package. For once, it isn’t a case of bait-and-switch advertising. They contributed to Pim de la Parra’s Hitchcockian-by-way-of-giallo thriller, set in Amsterdam, if not as vigorously as the highlighted type suggests. As it so happens, Scorsese was in Holland for location work on Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) and agreed to provide notes on Parra and Wim Verstappen’s script. It’s what filmmakers did for each other, back in the day. Parra hoped that Herrmann would take pity on a fan of his work with the great Alfred Hitchcock and contribute music at a tenth, or less, of his last paycheck. Instead, he offered a few snippets from soundtracks he’d discarded or were in the works. Cool. Even so, Obsessions was never released in the U.S., despite the fact that it was shot in English, with some dubbing to support the dialogue of supporting actors.

When a painting of Vincent van Gogh shaving off his ear with a safety razor falls from a wall and exposes a makeshift peephole, med school Nils Janssen (Dieter Geissler) becomes an unwitting witness to a gruesome sex crime in the room next-door. When his young fiancée, Marina (Alexandra Stewart), an enterprising journalist, tells him about a report of a murder that she is writing, he naturally wonders if it’s the very same killing. He will, in turn, witness other violent acts, which he decides not to report to police. Nils and Marina will soon find themselves over their heads in intrigue and violence. Blessedly, there’s plenty of world-class nudity here, as well, to keep exploitation fans interested. This is no schlocky production, though. It looks good and displays an attention to Hitchcockian detail. The bonus features should also be considered must-viewing, especially a recent interview, by phone, with Scorsese, who was happily surprised by Obsessions’ unlikely journey to restoration and recounted the events leading up to his participation in the project. The new high-def transfer also is enhanced by fresh introductions and interviews with Parra and Geissler, a featurette on Holland’s influential Scorpio Films, Scorsese’s original script notes and a photo/video gallery.

On the Way to School
This inspiring French documentary provides parents with the perfect response to their children’s complaints about having to walk more than two blocks to school or being forced to stay home and study more than one or two nights a week. Pascal Plisson’s On the Way to School describes the lengths to which some impoverished kids will go to get an education and improve their lives. The camera follows 11-year-old Kenyan, Jackson, and his sister, as they walk 9 miles to school, through a savannah populated by wild and potentially dangerous animals; 11-year-old Argentine, Carlito, 11, and his sister, who traverse 11miles of rocky plateau on the back of a single horse; 12-year-old Moroccan, Zahira, required to hike four hours through the rugged Atlas Mountains, each week, to reach their boarding school; and 13-year-old Indian paraplegic, Samuel, whose makeshift wheelchair is pushed three miles each day by his two brothers, over riverbeds and soft dirt, and with the occasional flat tire. The 77-minute film doesn’t waste much time lecturing viewers on the students’ courage and determination, against formidable odds, because that much is obvious. It does make great use of the scenic backgrounds, which, are as beautiful as they are intimidating for anyone without a helicopter or Jeep.

Pelle the Conqueror: Blu-ray
Dheepan: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In 1983, Gregory Nava’s El Norte introduced American viewers – perhaps, for the first time — to the hardships faced by Mexican and Central American peasants in their attempts to escape poverty, war and prejudice, and make a new life in the United States. A dozen years later, Nava’s epic family drama, Mi Familia, would recount the story of the Sanchez clan, whose patriarch walked across the border, from Mexico to Los Angeles in the 1920s, and, three generations later, would include a writer, a nun, an ex-convict, a lawyer, a restaurant owner and a hot-headed son, who would fall victim to the eternal war between gang-bangers and police. Although Hollywood studios would continue to ignore such stories, for as long as they could get away with it, independent artists successfully explored questions and dilemmas raised by our country’s frequently hypocritical stance of illegal immigrants and undocumented workers, not only from Mexico, but also Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Among the disparate movies and documentaries that stand out are A Better Life, Sin Nombre, The Visitor, Crossing Over From the Other Side, Under the Same Moon, A Day Without a Mexican, Spanglish Sangre de mi sangre, 7 soles and Desierto. In 2002, Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things and Michael Winterbottom’s In This World joined the growing list of British films addressing similar issues among African and Middle Eastern refugees seeking refuge there. It’s interesting to contrast what happens in these movies to those documenting the experiences of an earlier generation of immigrants who found their footings in distant lands legally, but not without the same hardships and struggles faced by Spanish-speaking refugees from poverty here.

Newly released in brilliant Blu-ray editions, Billie August’s Pelle the Conqueror (1987) and Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015) are Palme d’Or winners that address the plight of immigrants, but, otherwise, could hardly be more different.  Although released 15 years after Jan Troell’s The Emigrants and The New Land, Pelle feels very much like a prequel to those films. All three star Max von Sydow and chronicle the hidden costs and broken promises of legal immigration, as well as the importance of community in times of happiness and great stress. Troell’s saga began in mid-nineteenth Century Sweden and concludes in Minnesota, with tragic a detour through the gold fields of California to fulfill the American dream. Based on a 1910 novel by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexo, Pelle opens with two Swedish immigrants — a widow father, Lasse (Von Sydow), and son, Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) – arriving on Denmark’s Baltic island of Bornholm, seeking work and relief from famine and poverty. They’d heard that jobs were plentiful there, but, not that Lasse likely would be considered too old for the heavy lifting required and Pelle too young. Their only offer would come from an overseer who arrived at the port too late to have his pick of the fresh arrivals, but could set the terms of employment as harshly as he wanted. Lasse and Pelle would be paid as one man, a year after their joining the group of men and women already on the farm. The work was difficult, of course, and conditions rough. The farm’s owners left it for the managers and interns to be cruel to the laborers, but the matriarch sees promise in Pelle. As the years pass, all manner of insults and tragedies impact the Swedes living on the farm. Pelle is bullied at school and Lasse strikes up an illicit relationship with the wife of a sailor, who she presumes to be dead, but has yet to be accorded any proof of it. There are weddings to celebrate, as well as moments of great sadness to observe. Ultimately, Pelle will be given reasons both to anticipate a decent life as a gentleman farmer and to turn his eyes toward the new world. The movie ends before the events presented in the novel. In addition to the Palme d’Or, Pelle the Conqueror won the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Like Troell’s epic story, it does a spectacular job recording the seasonal changes and period look of the settings – Scandinavia and the Upper Midwest not being all that dissimilar – as well as the courage of the settlers. The superb Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray offers commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie and a collector’s booklet with an essay by critic Terrence Rafferty.

Contemporary refugee crime drama, Dheepan, opens in a teeming Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka, but largely takes place in a violence-wracked housing project outside Paris. Only in his second film appearance, Antonythasan Jesuthasan (a former child soldier, novelist and political activist) stars as a veteran Tamil fighter, who, after the collapse of the nearly 26-year rebellion, decides to forge a more peaceful life in Europe. To accomplish this feat, however, Dheepan must invent a family sufficiently credible to convince French Customs officials that he’s worthy of doing the most demeaning shit work the country has to offer. Newcomers Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby play his “wife” and “daughter”: Yalini and 9-year-old Illayaal. (His real-life family was killed in the war.) While they aren’t thrilled by the arrangement, Yalini and Illayaal find ways to adjust to life among the feral African and Arab drug dealers, if only because Yalini has a cousin in England awaiting her arrival and there’s nothing for them back in Sri Lanka. To help accumulate enough money to afford the last leg of their journey, Yalini takes a job feeding and cleaning up for the invalid uncle of a druglord, who’s confined to the building by an ankle bracelot . Apparently, Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) anticipated combining elements of Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” with Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge-porn thriller, Straw Dogs. I can’t vouch for the former, but I’m pretty sure Peckinpah would have endorsed the ending, during which the former soldier reverts to his former warrior self to save his “family” from a rival ganglord’s attack. If the genre flavor of the final confrontation divided critics at Cannes, the violence felt warranted and not at all uncharacteristic of a man and woman with survival instincts honed by a faraway war. It’s a trait shared by immigrants around the world. The Criterion Collection includes commentary with Audiard and co-writer Noé Debre; new interviews with Audiard and Jesuthasan; deleted scenes with Audiard and Debre’s commentary and an essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

The Jacques Rivette Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
While many highly regarded critics are confident enough of their opinions that they’ll defend them with the same ferocity as a mama bear protects her cubs from strangers, there must be times when they wonder if their views are so far out of the mainstream as to reveal a momentarily lapse in critical thinking. Those of us who stick to DVDs and Blu-rays not only have the luxury of time – and rewind buttons – on our side, but also the ability to compare our opinions to those of dozens of other writers with proven track records. I tend not to do much research ahead of watching a movie, most of which now come with commentary tracks, making-of featurettes and interviews that aren’t any more trustworthy than the blurbs that appear on ads in the newspapers. And, while I don’t think anyone at Criterion Collection or Arrow Films is ever going to ask me contribute an essay to their bonus packages, I know what I like. While watching the movies included in Arrow Academy’s The Jacques Rivette Collection: Limited Edition there were times when thought I might not be up to the task of passing judgment. Although Rivette isn’t as well-known here as his Cahiers du Cinéma colleagues Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer, his Paris Belongs to Us (1961) Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), La belle noiseuse (1991) and Va Savoir (Who Knows?) (2001) invite repeat viewings. The films in this collection – Duelle (1976), Noroit (1976), Merry-Go-Round (1981) — are far less easy to recommend without a prior understanding of what Rivette hoped to accomplish.

In 1975, Rivette was approached by producer Stéphane Tchal Gadjieff, with whom he’d collaborated on the 13-hour Out 1, with an idea for a cycle of four interconnected films – “Scenes from a Parallel Life” — none of which represented the same genre, musical stimuli or cinematic references, although several of the same actors appeared in more than one entry. Only one received much of a release outside France, while two others failed to gain distribution. Plans for “Marie et Julien,” starring Albert Finney and Leslie Caron, and a musical-comedy, featuring Anna Karina and Jean Marais, were abandoned completely. Almost everything that could go wrong on a production did go wrong for Rivette, including his emotional stability. I found Duelle to be the most accessible and beguiling of the whole bunch. In the myth-infused fantasy, the Queen of the Sun (Bulle Ogier) and the Queen of the Night (Juliet Berto), converge on Paris in search of a magical gem that will allow one of them to remain in the city. Much of it takes place in a taxi-dance nightclub, which wouldn’t have been out of place for a noir-ish story about disaffected tango aficionados in Argentina. The fanciful costumes are a delight and Ogier and Berto could hardly be any sexier. Imagining Edith Piaf sharing a table with the ghosts of Henry Miller, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, isn’t at all difficult.

In Noroit, the pirate Morag (Geraldine Chaplin) seeks revenge against the pirate Giulia (Bernadette Lafont) for killing her brother. Except for a couple of dashing boy toys, the rest of the swashbuckling crew is comprised of women, wearing colorful leather costumes and then-fashionable bell-bottoms. It is very loosely based on Cyril Tourneur’s 1607 play, “The Revenger’s Tragedy” and Fritz Lang’s 1955 adventure, Moonfleet. If the plot is largely incomprehensible and the depictions of violence risible, there’s nothing not to love in a cast that includes Kika Markham, Anne-Marie Reynaud, Babette Lamy, Danièle Rosencranz, Anne-Marie Fijal and Marie-Christine Moureau-Meynard. The same Brittany coast previously provided locations for The Vikings.

It wasn’t until I looked at the interviews included in the bonus package, as well as some reviews, that I understood why I was so perplexed by Merry-Go-Round. Simply put, the reason it didn’t make any sense to me is that it didn’t make sense to anyone, including Rivette. Blame for that goes to the director’s decision to cast dope fiends Joe Dallesandro (Trash) and Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) in lead roles and follow a script that was largely written on the fly. Schneider would take a powder after Rivette suffered another breakdown, only to be replaced in mid-stride by another actress who approximated her appearance. At some point, the surviving cast and crew threw up their hands and surrendered to an ending that effectively put everyone out of their misery. It wasn’t accorded a release, either. Dallesandro and Schneider play Ben and Leo, the American lover and French sister of Elisabeth, (Danièle Gégauff), who’s summoned them to her rural Paris home to divvy up their father’s estate. Elisabeth fails to show up at the agreed-upon meeting place, causing everyone involved to believe one of several theories: 1) the old man wasn’t killed in a plane crash, after all, and his cemetery plot is empty; 2) his fortune is hidden in a safe – or safety-deposit box – somewhere in Switzerland, but the key and combination are missing; 3) a sniper is targeting Elisabeth; and 4) someone in a suit of honor, atop a white steed, wants to kill Ben. A year after the film shoot was completed, Rivette decided to insert footage of the film’s composers, Barre Phillips and John Surman, on cello and clarinet, at logical chapter breaks in the narrative.

And, for once, the mess wasn’t a figment of my imagination or untrained mind. The bonus material includes “Scenes From a Parallel Life: Jacques Rivette Remembers,” a tellingly bizarre interview with the director, in which he discusses the movies; “Remembering Duelle,” in which Bulle Ogier and Hermine Karagheuz recollect their work on the 1976 feature; an interview with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who reported from the sets of both Duelle and Noroit, and has funny observations about Merry-Go-Round; an exclusive perfect-bound book, containing writing on the films by Mary M. Wiles, Brad Stevens and Nick Pinkerton, plus a reprint of four on-set reports from the locations; and reversible sleeves, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ignatius Fitzpatrick.

Cops vs. Thugs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Wolf Guy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
His name may not be as familiar to western audiences as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, but, when it comes to genre films, Kinji Fukasaku’s legacy may be every bit as formidable. Before emerging as one of the leading creators of revisionist yakuza flicks, starting with the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, Fukasaku co-directed the Japanese sections of Tora! Tora! Tora! Thirty years later, he would collaborate with his son, Kenta, on Battle Royale, a dystopian action/horror flick that would directly influence Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and such “teen death game” pictures as The Hunger Games, which neglected to accord Fukasaku a story credit. Kenta replaced his father in director’s chair for the Battle Royale II (2003), after Kinji succumbed to what he knew to be terminal cancer. In the early 1970s, Fukasaku focused his attention on the subset of organized-crime thrillers, known as jitsuroku eiga. In the “Battles Without Honor” series and Cops vs. Thugs, which some consider to be his masterpiece, Fukasaku and such writers as Kazuo Kasahara, Fumio Kônami and Koichi Iiboshi elected not to portray the gangsters as honorable heirs to the samurai code, but as well-oiled hoodlums and leaches on Japan’s booming economy. And, the cops weren’t much better. Fukasaku’s directing style incorporated a “shaky camera technique” that would be widely imitated.  Like other jitsuroku eiga from Toei Studios, the events and characters described in Cops vs. Thugs literally were “ripped from the headlines” and presented like pulp fiction.

It is set in the southern Japanese city of Kurashima, circa 1963, as business and yakuza interests are deciding how to divvy up land that’s ripe for development. Hard-boiled police detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) oversees a fragile detente between the warring Kawade and Ohara gangs. The Kawade clan uses its political connections to further their activities, while the Ohara take advantage of their alliance with the local police. When Kuno greases the skids for Ohara acting boss Hirotani (Hiroki Matsukata) to usurp a land arranged for the Kawades, a war breaks out. The violence inspires government officials to import a by-the-books lieutenant (Tatsuo Umemiya) to take control of the situation. Kuno must decide where his true alliances lie. The upgraded two-disc Arrow Video package includes “Beyond the Film: Cops vs. Thugs,” a new video appreciation by biographer Sadao Yamane; a visual essay on the chemistry between police and criminals in Fukasaku’s works, by film scholar Tom Mes; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan; and a limited-edition illustrated booklet, with new writing on the film by Patrick Macias.

Arrow Video has also given Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s B-movie thriller, Wolf Guy, a digital facelift. More interesting than anything else in this bizarre horror/action/sci-fi hybrid is the presence of Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba, an international martial- arts superhero known best for his “Street Fighter” series. Produced by Japan’s Toei Studio, Wolf Guy is based on a manga by Kazumasa Hirai, whose work also inspired the 1973 prequel Horror of the Wolf, made by Toho Company. Chiba stars here as Akira Inugami, the only survivor of a clan of ancient werewolves, who relies on his supernatural powers to solve mysterious crimes. After a series of bloody killings, in which the victims appeared to be clawed to death by a phantom tiger, Inugami uncovers a conspiracy involving a murdered cabaret singer, corrupt politicians and a plot by the Japanese CIA to harvest his blood for its lycanthropic powers. Meanwhile, Inugami also learns that he may not be the last of his breed. Yamaguchi’s cult classics include Sister Streetfighter, Wandering Ginza Butterfly and Karate Bullfighter. The rarely seen Wolf Guy touches all the bases of the exploitation game, with plenty of violence, karate action, T&A, actual surgical footage and a psychedelic musical score, and Chiba gives viewers their money’s worth. The Blu-ray adds entertaining and informative interviews with Chiba, Yamaguchi and producer Tatsu Yoshida, and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Patrick Macias and a history of Japanese monster-movie mashups by Jasper Sharp.

Malibu High
The High Schooler’s Guide to College Parties: Unrated Edition
One way to ascertain whether an old, vaguely memorable B-movie from the 1970s has attained cult-classic status is when Quentin Tarantino runs into one of the cast members at party and pronounces their film to be one of his favorite pictures. I’ve heard the same praise mentioned in so many DVD featurettes that it makes me wonder how long Tarantino’s list of faves could possibly be. Another sure way to know that a movie makes the grade in his mind is if it’s been granted a special showing at the New Beverly Theater — another Tarantino concern – complete with a Q&A session featuring its director and one or more of its stars. It’s one of the things that make Los Angeles such a great place to be a movie buff.

Released in 1979, Malibu High is just such a guilty pleasure. Made for a song and released by Crown International Pictures during the death throes of the drive-in era, Malibu High features of mix of fresh young talent and seasoned pros, including Russ Meyer-regular Garth Pillsbury (Supervixens), John Harmon (Funny Girl), Wallace Earl Laven (Clambake) and Alex Mann (I Drink Your Blood). In her one and only lead performance, Jill Lansing was momentarily plucked from obscurity to portray a troubled teenager who’s just lost her father to suicide and boyfriend to a spoiled rich girl, Annette, played by Tammy Taylor (“Days of Our Lives”). Lansing is surprisingly good as bad-girl Kim, whose grades are so low she’s in danger of not graduating. Instead of picking up a book, she uses her kittenish wiles to coax her male teachers into trading sex for passing grades. Actually, she blackmails them, but who’s keeping score? Her pursuit of good grades evolves into a lust for fancy cars, cocaine and avenging Annette’s capturing of her fair-haired ex-boyfriend. Naturally, instead of taking a job at the Gap, she turns to prostitution. Such bad behavior can be tolerated for only so long, even in the teen-hooker genre, and, as the 90-minute mark approaches, Kim gets her just desserts. Malibu High may have it supporters, but, in my opinion, rarely extends itself beyond the borders of drive-in exploitation fare. Even so, the Vinegar Syndrome rehab job befits a movie of much greater stature. The bonus material includes commentary with Taylor and producer Lawrence Foldes; an amusing and comprehensive 26-minute making-of piece, “Making Malibu High,” in which Foldes describes how he, a 19-year-old college dropout, was able to put together the $56,000 necessary to make the movie; “Playing Annette,” with Taylor describing the trials of working alongside a delusional diva and family members’ reactions to her topless debut; “Playing the Boss,” with co-star Garth Pillsbury, who’s slightly bewildered by the feature’s lasting appeal; a 27-minute “New Beverly Q&A,”  which reunites Foldes, Taylor and Mann for a pre- and post-screening conversation (recorded in 2006); and Foldes’ student films, “Struggle for Israel” and “Grandpa & Marika” One story that’s repeated is how Lansing’s decision to hold out for more money cost her the exposure and publicity that came to the Playboy model who stood in for her in the poster, which became famous for being stolen out of display cases.

The High Schooler’s Guide to College Parties is an enticing title for a teen exploitation picture. The “Unrated Edition” makes it sound even juicier. The problem is that there’s hardly anything here that qualifies as exploitative, unless the target demographic is comprised of white suburban males on the cusp of adolescence. Despite a Parents’ Guide listing on IMDB.com that argues, “This movie makes American Pie look like The Sound of Music,” and an entry at the authoritative Mr. Skin website that only contains images of lingerie and pasties, the DVD hardly warrants “unrated” status. I doubt that MPAA approval was in anyone’s best interests. In any case, Nate Rubin (Wuss) plays a white kid named Shaquille, who’s afraid that he doesn’t have what it takes to make an impression at a top college. To prove that he isn’t just another run-of-the-mill dweeb, he decides to throw a “college party,” whatever that is, just like the one in Risky Business. He fears being stuck in a stereotypical middle-class world, like his father, but lacks the money and influence to attain his goals. Shaq thinks that his smart, popular and athletic cousin, Brett (Zach Rose), may be is his best chance at getting into the school and social circle he so desires. Brett is on the scholarship committee for the private university he attends and is highly connected to a sponsoring alumnus. Thus, the need to throw a party sufficiently wild and cool to impress him. It didn’t even impress me.

Blackenstein: Blu-ray
The Blackcoat’s Daughter: Blu-ray
The Hearse: Blu-ray
Dark Harvest/Escapes
What director William A. Levey and wannabe mogul Frank R. Saletri’s Blackenstein lacks in production values, acting and narrative coherence, it more than makes up for in a backstory that, itself is worthy of a movie. The first thing to know, however, is that this reimagining of the “Frankenstein” legend not only was made at the height of the blaxploitation craze, but also in the direct wake of William Crain’s infinitely better, Blacula. In it, a critically wounded Vietnam veteran is transferred from a substandard VA hospital, where he’s abused by an orderly, to the laboratory in the castle-like home of Dr. Stein (John Hart), in the Hollywood Hills. And, yes, he’s black. Stein, we’re told, recently was awarded the Nobel Prize for deciphering the genetic code. Not quite mad, but certainly possessed, the doctor specializes in the reconstruction of damaged bodies through infusions of chemically altered DNA and the “laser beam fusion” of limbs borrowed from patients who no longer need them. (Somehow, writer/director Saletri was able to borrow items from Universal’s original Frankenstein set.) The soldier’s physicist girlfriend and, coincidentally, an admirer of Stein’s work, convinces her mentor to treat the quadruple amputee, knowing that he might die in the process. While all this is going on, Stein’s devious assistant takes a shine to Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) and sabotages the soldier’s treatment. An overdose of the DNA cocktail causes Eddie (Joe DeSue) to turn into a brutish creature with a blockish forehead even Dr. Frankenstein’s monster might find hideous. After the Blackenstein monster escapes from the lab, he wanders through the streets of L.A., alternately rescuing damsels in distress and killing everyone else who gets in his way. Genre historian Michael Weldon, author of “The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film,” described Blackenstein as “a totally inept mixture of the worst horror and blaxploitation films,” as if that were a bad thing.

A perusal of the bonus features provides a different, far more intriguing side of the story. Turns out, Seletri not only wrote, produced and created special effects for exploitation flicks – only one of which was completed – he was a lawyer whose client list was largely comprised of unsavory characters, some of whom he cheated. The Clark Gable-lookalike also was fascinated with all things related to horror and the occult, going so far as to buy Bela Lugosi’s totally cool, purposefully spooky home. Almost a decade later, Seletri would be murdered gangland-style in a crime that remains debated and unsolved to this day. If that weren’t enough, the Blackenstein cast includes a former TV Lone Ranger (Hart); a genuine 1940s Hollywood starlet, Andrea King (The Beast With Five Fingers); a one-time legal client (DeSue); and platinum-haired Liz Renay, who, in 1959, served two years in prison for refusing to testify against mobster Mickey Cohen, performed in what was believed to be the first mother-and-daughter striptease act and became the first grandmother to streak down Hollywood Boulevard. Renay was married seven times, but allegedly also found room for flings with Joe DiMaggio, Regis Philbin, and Cary Grant, among many other male celebrities. She appeared in John Waters’ Desperate Living (1977), as Muffy St. Jacques. It’s why I strongly suggest checking out the bonus features: “Monster Kid,” interviews Saletri’s sister, June Kirk, and veteran actors Ken Osborne and Robert Dix; an archived local L.A. news report on the one-year anniversary of the murder investigation; and a discussion with creature-designer Bill Munns. The set also offers the theatrical (78 minutes) and video-release version (87 Minutes).

Completed in 2015, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (a.k.a., “February”) is a nifty teens-with-cutlery thriller that oozes with atmosphere and throws in an exorcism, for good measure. It made the rounds of fantasy and horror festivals, garnering some excellent reviews, before inexplicitly opening on Internet VOD platforms a few months ago. Of all the movies I’ve seen lately that were denied a theatrical release, The Blackcoat’s Daughter is the one I think would have benefitted most by being seen on the big screen with master-blaster speakers. Exquisitely paced, beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted by such hot young talents as Emma Roberts (“Scream Queens”), Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”), Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) and Emma Holzer (Spring Breakers), it represents Osgood “Oz” Perkins’ debut at the helm, after acting in several movies and TV shows and co-writing a couple of features. If the name rings a bell, it should be noted here that he is the 43-year-old son of the late Anthony Perkins (Psycho) and Berry Berenson, who was on board the hijacked American Airlines’ Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center. His brother, Elvis Perkins, composed the nerve-tingling musical score and songs recorded by the actors. Filmed at the coldest point in an Ontario winter, The Blackcoat’s Daughter largely takes place at an all-girls Catholic boarding school, just before parents are expected to arrive to retrieve them for a seasonal break. When two of the girls’ parents don’t arrive on time, they’re stuck inside the same abandoned dormitory, with only a pair of spinster nurses to watch over them. A slightly older woman (Roberts) is headed toward the school, after being picked up at a chilly bus stop by a middle-aged couple (James Remar, Lauren Holly), who, we can tell just by looking at them, are bad news. How bad will quickly become apparent in the tightly knit, 93-minute thriller. The Blu-ray includes commentary and a making-of featurette.

When The Hearse opened theatrically in June, 1980, it was greeted with a review by Roger Ebert, in which he declared it to be that summer’s best example of an “idiot plot.” It was his way of pointing out that only an idiot – here, a recently divorced teacher who inherits a home at the end of a dark, secluded lane – would remain in a place so clearly haunted and a distinct threat to one’s sanity. Moreover, everyone in town knows the place is haunted and keeps the newcomer, Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere), at arm’s length. Her claims of being stalked by a reckless driver behind the wheel of a long, black hearse also fall on deaf ears. We know better. William Bleich’s debut script appears to have been cobbled together from a dozen other movies about ghosts and haunted houses – especially those of the European-gothic strain, favored in the 1960s – and ideas borrowed from a shelf full of Stephen King books. Director George Bowers (My Tutor) cut his teeth as an editor, so it isn’t surprising he would fill the narrative with enough jump-scares – audio and visual – to choke a Trojan horse. Admittedly, while some are effective, they’re telegraphed by heavy percussive cues and the sound of a dozen screeching violins. For some buffs, the best reason to watch The Hearse will be a decent performance by Joseph Cotton, who would retire only a year later, as an obnoxious lawyer. The Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray has been newly scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm original camera negative. It adds “Satan Get Behind Thee,” a video interview with lead actor, David Gautreaux (“The Young and the Restless”), vintage marketing material and reversible cover artwork by Chris Garofalo.

The archivists at Intervision Picture Corp. decided against pouring a lot of money into restoring Dark Harvest, a 1992 thriller that pits a group of stranded tourists against killer scarecrows in a desert setting that hasn’t seen a harvest since the Anasazi deserted their pueblos and split for points unknown. While killer scarecrows have been employed with great effect in more than a dozen slasher movies, they’re located in places where crops actually are able to grow. Typically, the more malevolent decoys mind the crops from the vantage point of a crucifix, as they are here. A lot of mayhem could have been avoided if the tourists hadn’t been too busy pitching woo to notice that the nearest crucified scarecrow has slipped off his perch and disappeared into the night. Otherwise, David I. Nicholson’s directorial debut is an eminently forgettable excuse for skewering half-naked college kids with pitchforks. The best that can be said for Dark Harvest is that Nicholson does a nice job photographing the rugged Mojave Desert landscapes due east of Los Angeles, even shooting directly to video. As a favor to those considering renting or purchasing the DVD, Intervision has added the Sci-Fi Channel anthology, Escapes, which is comprised of a half-dozen rather decent shorts from 1986, or thereabouts. The show’s host, Vincent Price, appears at the both ends of the anthology, as well as on the cover. The titles include “Something’s Fishy,” “Coffee Break,” “Who’s There,” “Jonah’s Dream,” “Think Twice” and, as a bonus, “Hobgoblin Bridge.” The package contains recent interviews with actors Patti Negri and Dan Weiss, from Dark Harvest, and Escapes distributor Tom Naygrow, who discusses the bizarre artistic demise of writer/director David Steensland.

Shaquille O’Neal Presents All-Star Comedy Jam: Live From Sin City
Shaq may executive-produce this highly popular series of comedy “jams,” but his appearances are pretty much limited to cameos and handing off the hosting duties to comedians more comfortable on a smaller stage than the one bookended by basketball nets. “Shaquille O’Neal Presents All-Star Comedy Jam: Live From Sin City” represents the series’ second visit to Las Vegas, this time filmed live at the Penn & Teller Theater in the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino. The crowd came ready to laugh out loud and, if called upon, be dissed from the stage, which could be brutal. Viewers probably know, by now, to be prepared for a barrage of rough and profane language, politically incorrect humor and sexual material not to be shared around the dinner table. Easily offended viewers may want to stick with Sinbad and J.J. Walker, because this is some hard-core stuff. “Live From Sin City” is hosted by Lavell Crawford (”Breaking Bad”), who may be bigger around than Shaq is tall, and features K-Dubb, Cocoa Brown, Donnell Rawlings and Earthquake. It runs 91 minutes, which is the average for Las Vegas shows.

Rock Dog: Blu-ray
Even if some animated features from the major Hollywood studios are made with massive financial returns in mind, there’s still plenty of room for artists and writers willing to cut the occasional corner, due to significantly tighter budgets, and creating stories that appeal to a more tightly focused audience. In some cases, that’s meant retooling pictures made in Asia for western audiences, hiring familiar actors to dub the dialogue into English and fudging cultural references through Anglicized signage and digitally altered type faces. That’s nothing terribly new or revolutionary, of course, dubbing and selective translations have been a part of the business for decades. What is different, perhaps, is a business model that recognizes how differently the box-office pie is being sliced these days. Worldwide revenues are growing, even as American eyes are turning to smaller and smaller screens. In 1998, Disney executives took a rather large leap of faith by greenlighting a big-budget feature, based on the Chinese poem, “The Song of Fa Mu Lan,” in which the daughter of an aged warrior becomes a hero by impersonating a man in the effort to counter a Hun invasion. The mostly American production team on Mulan had to rethink almost everything they’d learned in the Disney bible about heroes and villains, men and women, as well as the look, texture and sounds of a country previously reduced to clichés and stereotypes. The much smaller-scale Rock Dog purportedly marks the first time the production of a Chinese animation property — an adaptation of Zheng Jun’s graphic novel “Tibetan Rock Dog” – was outsourced to America, where a merging of cultural touchstones was achieved.

Ash Bannon, who’s logged quality time with Disney, Pixar and Sony Animation, was handed the reins of a story that begins in a secluded mountain village, Snow Mountain, where a Tibetan mastiff guards the sheep against a gang of predatory wolves. He dreams of becoming a guitar god after discovering a radio that’s dropped from the sky. A 10-year-old viewer in the U.S. could easily mistake the Himalayan background for the Sierra Nevada, where sheep also are a cash crop and dogs are used to keep them in line. The pursuit of rock stardom has never been as universal as it is today, but Bodi has to leave home to hear the heart of rock ’n’ roll beating out its hypnotic message, because all music is forbidden in the village. If the ending recalls Footloose … well, so be it. Among the performers on the English-language soundtrack, at least, are Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Beck and Adam Friedman. The A-list voicing talent includes J.K. Simmons, as the boss mastiff, Khampa; Luke Wilson, as Bodi, the title character; Lewis Black, as a big, bad wolf; and Eddie Izzard, as Angus Shattergood, the coolest cat in town. Also on board are Kenan Thompson, Mae Whitman Jorge Garcia, Matt Dillon and Sam Elliott. The featurettes are “Finding the Fire: The Making of Rock Dog,” “Mic Check: Casting the Voices,” “A Rockin’ New World: Animating Rock Dog,” “Rock Dog and Roll: Exploring the Music,” which focuses largely on Friedman, co-writer of “Glorious,” and a music video of same.

The Shack: Blu-ray
The success of Stuart Hazeldine’s adaptation of William P. Young’s runway best-seller, “The Shack,” confirms the depth of the divide that too often separates critics and audiences, when it comes to unabashedly faith-based movies and books. The initially self-published novel, inspired by the author’s real-life test of faith, in 2005, describes how one unfortunate family man comes to believe that God – assuming she exists – has turned her back on mankind, as evidenced by such ungodly events as terrorist attacks, famine, epidemics and, in the protagonist’s case, having to endure an abusive parent and suffer the loss of a child to a sexual predator. It’s as if the oft-repeated bromide, “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform,” was written with him specifically in mind. (It’s from the hymn “Light Shining Out of Darkness,” written in 1773 by William Cowper, after being institutionalized for insanity and finding refuge in evangelical Christianity.) After receiving a message, delivered either by God or the serial killer, Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) is drawn to the abandoned cabin in the Oregon woods in which his daughter is believed to have been murdered. Instead of confronting the killer, gun in hand, Mack is led to an idyllic lakeside home inhabited by Papa (Octavia Spencer), Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) and, standing in for the Holy Spirit, Sarayu (Sumire Matsubara).

While being comforted for his loss, Mack is allowed to ask the kinds of questions anyone in his tragic position would demand from a seemingly all-knowing, all-loving deity. Instead of quick answers, the totally contemporary Holy Trinity asks him a few of their own. The truth is revealed, by and by, in a way that divided some old-school evangelicals and more ecumenical Christians, who weren’t freaked out by the notion of a black, female God, Her Native American alter ego, a lithe and lively Asian Holy Spirit and, in the only example of typecasting, a Jewish/Israeli carpenter, Jesus Christ. There’s more to the story, which one of the filmmakers described as a spiritual/mystery/thriller – I’d add sci-fi/fantasy – but, you get the picture. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the professional critics assembled by Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes, have been almost unanimous in their disapproval of The Shack, while audience polls have been overwhelmingly positive, creating a gap of more than 60 points both times. Critics are a cynical lot, so, even if they liked it a little bit, their praise would be muted. Compared to other faith-based movies that pass my way, The Shack is distinguished by excellent production values and set decoration – heaven could be a suburb of OZ – along with convincing performances. The cast also includes Rahda Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Alice Braga and Graham Greene. Special features add “Touched by God: A Writer’s Journey,” “God’s Heart for Humanity,” ”Heaven Knows': The Power of Song With Hillsong United,” “Something Bigger Than Ourselves: The Making of The Shack,” “Premiere Night: A Blessed Evening,” a deleted scene and Hazeldine’s commentary.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD: Blu-ray
So many books and documentaries have been produced about the evolution of the American comic-book industry and the role played by superheroes in pop culture that it’s difficult to imagine anything more to say on the subject. Throw in underground comix and graphic novels and the list grows even longer. If the Democrats had chosen Stan Lee — the creative force behind the ever-expanding Marvel Comics Universe – to run against Donald Trump, instead of Hillary Clinton, the country might not be in the fix it is, right now. If, perchance, Hillary had asked Lee to oversee an image makeover – ditching the doughty pantsuits, would have been a good start – we still might be in the fix we’re in, but she’d possess the superpowers necessary to repel supervillains Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP horde. Paul Goodwin’s entertaining documentary, Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD, reminds us that American artists and the masters of Japanese manga haven’t been the only fish swimming in the comic-book seas over the last 40 years. After a steep decline in interest in adventure comics aimed specifically at boys, a group of British sci-fi specialists emerged from the clash of cultures represented by the simultaneous mid-1970s rise of the Sex Pistols and Margaret Thatcher.

Kelvin Gosnell, an editor at IPC Magazines, read an article in the London Evening Standard about a wave of forthcoming science-fiction films, and urged the comic-book company to follow suit. Pat Mills, a freelance writer and editor who had created Battle Picture Weekly and Action comics, was asked to round up a creative team to develop something completely new and different, even from their American counterparts. Mills and fellow freelancer John Wagner chose the then-futuristic name 2000 AD because it seemed to be so far in the future and no one expected the comic to last that long. The company’s longest running storyline would feature a character who might have been inspired by Texas “Hanging Judge” Roy Bean, Dirty Harry and the leather-clad moto-gladiator, Frankenstein, in New World Pictures’ Death Race 2000. As visualized by Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, Judge Dredd became an ultra-violent lawman, patrolling a future New York with the power to arrest, sentence and, if necessary, execute criminals on the spot. Twenty years later, Sylvester Stallone would be cast as Judge Dredd, in an adaptation that underperformed for reasons that are discussed here. It’s probably safe to say, however, that the writers of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop owe an uncredited debt of gratitude to 2000 AM. At 110 minutes, plus featurettes, “Future Shock!,” could easily be accused of overkill, even if he copious interviews editors, writers, artists and fans and background information covers 40 years of history. There’s plenty of visual evidence to peruse, as well.

Man of La Mancha: Blu-ray
Kiss Me, Kate: Blu-ray
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!: Blu-ray
These tuneful titles represent the second wave of post-Broadway musicals sent out on Blu-ray from ever-eclectic Shout!Factory. The only ringer in the bunch, so far, is Man of La Mancha and that’s only because the original United Artists adaptation was readily available through a licensing agreement with MGM Home Entertainment. At the time of its release, in 1972, it was one of the hottest properties in the business we call, show. The original 1965 Broadway production ran for 2,328 performances and won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It has since been revived four times on Broadway, with productions mounted around the world. “Man of La Mancha” began its life in 1959 as a non-musical teleplay written by Dale Wasserman for CBS’s “DuPont Show of the Month.” It was retitled “I, Don Quixote,” because the geniuses at DuPont didn’t think the show’s viewing audience would not know that La Mancha was a Spanish territory, easily found on a map. A while later, director Albert Marre asked Wasserman to consider turning his teleplay into a musical. and suggested that he turn his play into a musical. The original lyricist was the celebrated poet W.H. Auden, but his contributions were discarded, in favor of those by Joe Darion. At the time, film adaptations of hit Broadway properties were accorded roadshow treatment, which meant they would be exhibited on an extremely limited basis, in theaters with plush seats, wide screens and high-fidelity sound systems. Religious and historic epics, such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, also were reserved for these grand venues, where they played until the bean-counters decided it was time to give viewers in the boonies a break. Man of La Mancha was one of the last pictures given such a sendoff. Once again, however, studio brass decided that they could improve on their Broadway counterparts, by casting a terrific lead actor, Peter O’Toole, who couldn’t sing, and a striking lead actress, Sophia Loren, who’d only sung in two previous movies, more than a dozen years earlier. Entire songs were eliminated from the soundtrack and verses from well-known tunes were condensed, possibly to squeeze in an intermission. With the exception of a road trip that allowed Don Quixote an opportunity to tilt at an Italian windmill, the overall cinematic experience felt stagebound and confined. Today, however, Man of La Mancha can be enjoyed for the musical’s singular moments and crowd-pleasing songs, as well as O’Toole’s interpretation of the character and, of course, the radiant presence of Loren in her prime, as Aldonza. A vintage making-of featurette comes with the package.

No such problems affect Chris Hunt’s delightful adaptation of Kiss Me, Kate, a wildly popular 1948 musical that was written by Samuel and Bella Spewack, with music and lyrics by the inimitable Cole Porter. The version being distributed by Shout!Factory represents the cast of the 1999 London revival, starring Brent Barrett and Rachel York, both of whom are excellent singers and actors. It was shot in high-definition, before a live audience, and looks terrific on the small screen. The story involves the production of a musical version of William Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and the ongoing conflict between Fred Graham (Barrett), the show’s director, producer and star, and his spunky leading lady and ex-wife Lilli Vanessi (York). A secondary romance concerns Lois Lane, the actress playing Bianca (Nancy Kathryn Anderson), and her gambler boyfriend, Bill Calhoun (Michael Berresse), who runs afoul of some gangsters. Barrett was nominated for an Olivier Award, as Best Actor for Fred/Petruchio, while Anderson could be a clone of Bernadette Peters. Its chapters are divided by song titles.

Two years before rising Aussie star Hugh Jackman would become forever identified as Logan/Wolverine in the X-Man franchise, he assumed the role of Curly in Trevor Nunn’s 1988 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!,” under the auspices of the Royal National Theater. Howard Keel, John Raitt and Gordon MacRae left behind a big pair of cowboy boots to fill, through the years, but Jackman must have done something right, because, in some circles, he’s more well known as a singin’ and dancin’ cowboy than an antihero with retractable claws and a mean disposition. “Oklahoma!” debuted on Broadway in 1943, breaking new theatrical ground like a plow on the prairie. A year later, it won a Pulitzer Prize, in addition to almost every other award handed out for live performances in New York. In 1955, Oklahoma! became the first feature film shot in the Todd-AO 70mm widescreen process, while also being filmed in CinemaScope 35mm. Unlike the newly released Blu-ray adaptation, it was shot on location in Arizona, which had fewer oil derricks to spoil the shots. At the end of its West End run, Nunn took Jackman and company to a London film studio, where it was restaged under ideal lighting and sound conditions, and varied camera placements. It was released on DVD before airing on PBS. It includes a behind-the-scenes featurette guide to musical numbers.

Special Blood
The most effective documentaries, regardless of their modest origins, deliver unsuspected reminders about how little we know about the human condition and the capriciousness of fate. Unlike much of her previous work, which “explores the dark, surreal side of human nature,” Natalie Metzger’s no-frills Special Blood alerts viewers to a disease so rare that only a relatively small handful of doctors know it exists, let alone recognize and treat in an emergency-room setting. Because an attack of Hereditary Angioedema, caused by a problem with a gene that controls the blood protein C1 inhibitor, is easily mistaken for other common ailments, it takes an average of 10 years to diagnose. The genetic condition causes sudden, unpredictable and occasionally shifting swelling under the skin, in different parts of the body. Symptoms usually show up in childhood and get worse during the teen years, but many people don’t know HAE is causing their swelling until they’re adults. It can be triggered by stress or sickness, hormonal changes, mild trauma, dental work or surgical procedures, and such medications as oral contraceptives containing estrogen and ACE inhibitors If the swelling occurs in the neck, it can close the airway, sometimes resulting in death. In Special Blood, Metzger chronicles the lives of four patients with HAE … five, if one takes into account her own struggles with the treatable disease. She also introduces us to specialists, who, only recently, have be able to combine their research and make serious inroads into combating HAE at a dedicated facility in San Diego. The film is being shown at screenings arranged by people involved in awareness campaigns that include a series of 5K runs.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Dark Angel
PBS: Victorian Slum House
PBS: Independent Lens: Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster
PBS: Frontline: Iraq Uncovered
WGN: Outsiders: Season two
PBS: David Holt’s State of Music: Season Two
Smithsonian: Air Warriors: Season 1/Season 2
Nickelodeon: Welcome to the Loud House: Season 1, Volume 1
PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: Peg and Cat Save the World
Over the course of six full seasons of “Downton Abbey,” Joanne Froggatt stole everyone’s hearts as Anna Smith, the underappreciated head housemaid and loyal confidante to the frequently imperious Lady Mary. In the current “Masterpiece” drama, “Dark Angel,” the wee Yorkshire lass plays Anna’s polar opposite: Mary Ann Cotton, who, between 1852 and 1873, may have murdered as many as 21 people, including 4 husbands and 11 of her 13 children. No one knows precisely how many people succumbed to the arsenic Mary Ann mixed into their “nice cups of tea,” but all it took was one conviction for her to be found guilty of murder and executed in a botched hanging. Today, of course, the local medical examiner would have nailed the cause of death and established a list of likely perpetrators after the first or second murder. The life-insurance policies redeemed by Cotton, so quickly after the first few funerals, would have narrowed the number of suspects to one. In the context of Victorian England, however, there was no reason to believe that a former Sunday-school teacher and nurse would intentionally kill a loved one, even if the families were struggling to make ends meet and Cotton had a married lover on the side. Periodic epidemics of English cholera and typhoid were blamed for the early victims’ gastric and intestinal disorders, although the comparatively short amount of time it took for them to die should have rung some bells. Even if Froggatt doesn’t much resemble pictures of Cotton, she does a nice job tracing her devolution from normal working-class wife and mother to a demon possessed by greed and lust. Director Brian Percival (The Book Thief), who had worked with the actress six times on “Downton Abbey,” takes full advantage of the almost timeless locations found in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, North Yorkshire and Durham County. The costumes, as usual for “Masterpiece” presentations, are as visually compelling as the period-correct exteriors and interiors. “Dark Angel” is the seventh in a series of ITV mini-series dramatizing the most notorious British murder cases of the past two centuries, following on from “This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper” (2000), “Shipman” (2002), “A Is for Acid” (2002), “The Brides in the Bath” (2003), “See No Evil: The Moors Murders” (2006), and “Appropriate Adult” (2011).

And, speaking of Victorian horrors, there’s PBS/BBC’ “Victorian Slum House,” which provides a distinct contrast between the country settings of “Dark Angel” and what life was like for slum dwellers between 1850 and 1900. Although London was the richest city in the world’s most industrialized country, the poor and destitute led difficult lives in ramshackle neighborhoods, teeming with poorly paid laborers, immigrants, undernourished children, street peddlers and criminals. In the five-part living-history series, a Victorian tenement in the heart of London’s East End – modeled after the notorious Old Nichol slum in Bethnal Green — has been painstakingly brought back to life. Host Michael Mosley joins a group of 21st Century families as they move in and experience the tough living and working conditions of the Victorian poor. The producers also took into account changes in economic and housing conditions, clothing, food, furnishings and politics over the 50-year period. As such, the series combines elements of “Big Brother” and “MTV Real World,” with the novels of Charles Dickens. It’s fascinating, as would be a similarly themed series shot in New York’s Lower East Side.

All first-year film students are exposed to the parallel controversies triggered by the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s alternately brilliant and overtly racist historical epic, The Birth of a Nation. They include issues pertaining to an artist’s First Amendment right to distort history, the public’s perceived right to prevent a work of art from being exhibited, the limits of censorship in a democracy and, of course, the ongoing debate on the film’s place in the education of a students from distinctly different cultural backgrounds and majors. The “Independent Lens” presentation “Birth of a Movement: The Battle Against America’s First Blockbuster” is less concerned finding answers to these questions – how could it? – than adding a perspective not typically considered when addressing them. It pertains the competition within the African-American community to decide which individuals and organizations should represent blacks in Washington, D.C., and the media. Bestor Cram and Susan Gray’s exhaustively researched documentary focuses on William Monroe Trotter, a prominent civil rights activist and publisher of Boston newspaper, who urged black Americans to protest to release of the movie in their cities and have it censored by leaders of the white establishment. While he was as prominent at the time as WEB Dubois and Booker T. Washington, Trotter’s contributions have largely been ignored in history books. The film also describes unsuccessful efforts by the fledgling NAACP to fund a film of its own on the subject and independent African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s long-lost Within Our Gates, which countered Griffith’s Birth of a Nation with a new set of heroes and villains. Among those interviewed are Spike Lee, Reginald Hudlin, DJ Spooky and, of course, Henry Louis Gates Jr.

In PBS’ “Inside Iraq,” “Frontline” correspondent Ramita Navai makes a dangerous and revealing journey inside the war-torn country to investigate the war within the war against ISIS. Militias have played a crucial role in Iraq’s fight against ISIS and are supposed to answer to the prime minister. Some of the Shia forces, however, have been accused of kidnapping, torturing and even killing Sunni men and boys. Because ISIS aligns itself with Sunni Islam, the militias often see Sunni civilians as potential enemies on the ground, now and the foreseeable future. Over several months of filming, Navai traveled to areas of the country where few journalists go, including refugee camps, to interview Sunnis who say their relatives were abducted and abused at the hands of the militias. Interviews with leading Sunni and Shia politicians, as well as militia members themselves, were also conducted.

WGN America’s third original series, “Outsiders,” lasted all of two seasons on the superstation. It found viewers, but probably was a victim of an unsustainable budget, weighed down by a large cast and location shoots in the mountains outside Pittsburgh. Set in the fictional town of Blackburg, in Crockett County, Kentucky, the series tells the story of the Farrell clan and their struggle for power and control in the hills of Appalachia. The Farrells have been a force in that neck of the woods for as long as anyone can remember. Living off the grid and above the law on their mountaintop homestead, they defend their way of life using any means necessary. “Outsiders” is one of the most violent series I’ve seen on basic cable, but in a way that recalls movie portrayals of Vikings, Barbarians, Hells Angels and the Zombie Apocalypse. It stars the always-watchable David Morse, Ryan Hurst, Kyle Gallner, Thomas M. Wright, Christina Jackson, Gillian Alexy and Rebecca Harris, all of whom look smashing in animal-skin fashions and filthy dreadlocks. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Four-time Grammy winner David Holt has spent his life learning and performing traditional American music. It has taken him from the most remote coves of southern Appalachia to the bright lights of TV studios and the Grand Old Opry stage. In “David Holt’s State of Music” he shares tunes and stories with modern masters of this historic music, which is easily confused with bluegrass. The second-season package features such artists as the Steep Canyon Rangers, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Kruger Brothers, Mipso, Laurelyn Dossett, Dom Flemons, Amythyst Kiah, Rayna Gellert, Alice Gerrard and the St. John AME Zion Unity Choir. The season finale, recorded live onstage, features Rhiannon Giddens, Dirk Powell, Jason Sypher, Balsam Range, Josh Goforth and the Branchettes.

“Air Warriors” has been a staple of the Smithsonian Channel for five abbreviated seasons. To me, it’s like the old Ralph Edwards show, “This Is Your Life,” except for American fighter planes and helicopters. Their individual journeys from the blueprint and appropriations stages, to combat missions, are amplified through rarely seen action footage and the stories of the dedicated pilots. “Air Warriors: Season 1” and “Air Warriors: Season 2” cover the first six episodes and six very different airships and fighters: the Marine Corps’ U.S. V-22 Osprey, which can convert from helicopter to plane, and back again; the U.S. Army’s AH-64 Apache, considered to be the world’s premier attack helicopter; the F-15 Eagle, which, for decades, has been the U.S. Air Force’s weapon of choice when there’s any real chance of air-to-air combat; the Army’s Black Hawk UH-60 helicopter, which has played a role in nearly every American conflict and is used all over the globe; the Prowler and Growler, developed to help win battles electronically, by locating, jamming and destroying enemy radar; and Air Force’s A-10 Thunderbolt II, made to eliminate armored vehicles and buildings with remarkable accuracy, while also protecting American troops on the ground. Most have survived battles in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon, in addition to those fought in the skies over war zones.

Welcome to the Loud House: Season 1, Volume 1” is new to the DVD aisles. The animated series is set in the fictional town of Royal Woods, Michigan, which is based on creator Chris Savino’s hometown of Royal Oak, Michigan. Middle child Lincoln Loud is the only boy in a family of 11 children. His sisters have distinctive personalities and interests: bossy eldest child, Lori; crazy, but ditzy fashionista, Leni; musician, Luna; comedian, Luan; athletic, Lynn; gloomy goth, Lucy; polar-opposite twins, Lola and Lana; genius, Lisa; and baby, Lily. Lincoln occasionally breaks the “fourth wall” to explain to viewers the chaotic conditions and sibling relationships of the household, and continually devises plans to make his life in the house better. Each of the 13 episodes, contains 2 cartoons. I’m not aware of any kinship between the Louds of Royal Woods and the “An American Family” Louds, formerly of Santa Barbara.

In the two-part movie, “Peg and Cat Save the World,” the President of the United States (voiced by actress Sandra Oh … if only) summons Peg and Cat to the White House to solve a problem of national importance. The president needs Our Heroes to identify a mysterious object floating in space. This series is designed to engage pre-school children and teach them how to solve math-based problems, with Peg, a chatty and tenacious 5-year-old, her feline pal, Cat, and her smart, handsome friend, Ramone.

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 20
The latest collection of 15 vintage shorts from Impulse Pictures’ ever-expanding, if not ever-evolving series of salacious 8mm loops — re-mastered from original prints – with such descriptive titles as “Swinging Sex,” “Lady on Top,” “Lesbian Hairdresser” and “Intimate Friends.” No mysteries, there. Look for hall-of-famers Linda Shaw, Jamie Gillis and Sharon Kane, and an essay by “porn archeologist” Dimitrios Otis. Little known factoid: between 1960-80s, there may have been as many as 60,000 peep-show booths in adult stores around the country. Today, you can probably count them on your fingers and toes.