The Conjuring: Blu-ray
Director James Wan proves that he’s no one-franchise wonder with “The Conjuring,” an old-fashioned spinetingler that’s already succeeded artistically, critically and commercially in its theatrical run. Conceivably, it could do even better in DVD/Blu-ray. Hitting such a trifecta, especially in the overcrowded and highly competitive horror genre, is a rare feat. With the super-profitable “Saw,” Wan has already cashed one trifecta ticket. Ranked No. 1 in WatchMojo.com’s list of best “torture-porn” movies, “Saw” helped distinguish the subgenre from the long-established splatter and slasher categories. Made for only $1.2 million and only modestly marketed, the first installment grossed $55 million domestically and another $48 million overseas. “Saw II,” which Wan exec-produced, took in a total of $148 million, against a budget of $4 million. It probably did every bit as well in the after-market. In all, there would be seven “Saw” episodes. Based simply on a couple of underperformers, however, some observers wondered if Wan had lost his mojo and “The Conjuring” would have trouble making back its $20-million-plus nut. Ultimately, it returned $137 million domestically and $172 overseas. In doing so, Wan demonstrated just how durable time-honored tropes and gags could be in the creation of a modern supernatural thriller.
There’s no mistaking the similarities between “The Conjuring” and “The Exorcist” and “The Amityville Horror.” Almost everyone working in the genre owes those frightening, fact-based thrillers a huge debt of gratitude. The real trick comes in creating something fresh and interesting from ingredients sitting on a shelf in the horror pantry. Not everyone puts a great deal of faith in eyewitness accounts of hauntings and exorcisms, but all horror fans welcome a challenge. “The Conjuring” benefits mightily from verified accounts of possession at a Rhode Island home and an actual exorcism performed on the mother. It was conducted by the only lay paranormal investigator cleared by the Catholic Church to perform the rite. As was the case in Amityville, N.Y., an unsuspecting family moves into a too-inexpensive-to-be-true house, not expecting several generations of boogeymen to come out of the woodwork. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are well-matched as a pair of respected investigators, whose jobs have begun to get to them. Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor are also good as the parents of three young daughters, who, of course, see the ghosts and demons before the older folks do. If that sounds too much like a couple of dozen other haunted-house movies we’ve all seen in the last 20 years, you’ll appreciate the difference within the movie’s first 15 minutes. Wan puts on a clinic here of turning tropes into terror. The Blu-ray contains the featurettes “A Life in Demonology,” in which Wan and other participants provide an overview of the lives, faith, research and investigative career of the investigators; “The Conjuring: Face-to-Face With Terror,” with surviving families members; and “Scaring the ‘@$*%’ Out of You ,” on the art of scaring audiences, the inspiration for “The Conjuring” and Wan’s command of the tone, atmosphere, suspense, sounds and rhythm of horror. – Gary Dretzka
The Internship: Blu-ray
If they were working together 60-70 years ago, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson might have competed for the affection of moviegoers with such teams as Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, Hope & Crosby and Laurel & Hardy. There abundant chemistry, likable personalities and willingness to play the fool would have convinced some studio czar to milk their charisma for all that it was worth. Today, of course, the stakes are considerably higher for everyone involved. Hardly anyone anymore laughs out loud at the mere presence of a stuntman in a gorilla suit or would mistake the Paramount backlot for Morocco, Singapore or Bali. Dorothy Lamour probably would be required to forgo the sarong, in favor of a string bikini, as well. The budgets for “Wedding Crashers” and “The Internship” ranged from $40-58 million, not counting prints and marketing, putting the break-even point somewhere in the box-office stratosphere. Here’s the rub: while “Wedding Crashers’ returned $285 million in worldwide revenues on a budget of $40 million, “Internship” struggled to return $92 million on its $58 million investment. As much fun as it is to watch Wilson and Vaughn riff off of each other, they’re nothing without an inventive screenplay. (“Hangover III” proved that point, as well.)
In “The Internship,” Vaughn and Wilson play Everyman characters caught in the same maelstrom as too many other Americans, whose jobs have been made “redundant” by the Bush/Obama economic meltdown. Up until recently, Wilson’s Nick Campbell and Vaughn’s Billy McMahon were the kind of salesmen who could peddle air conditioners to Eskimos. Between QVC and eBay, however, no one with access to a phone or computer pays full-retail prices for everyday items, anymore. There latest dodge was selling wristwatches, an accessory as endangered as the manual typewriter. Their boss (John Goodman) leaves them high and dry, preferring to split for Florida than offer a decent severance package. Nick agrees to take a job selling mattresses for his sister’s smooth-talking boyfriend (Will Ferrell, uncredited), until Billy convinces him to shoot for the stars. In this case, it’s an internship at Google, a career path for which they are no more suited than Jerry Lewis’ characters were for their jobs.
Miraculously, though, they pass the first test for internship consideration. They’re invited to Google headquarters for a summer of face-to-face competition with tech geeks too young to recognize a dial telephone, but capable of inventing the next iPhone or Xbox. Naturally, their team is comprised of kids who lack the confidence or personality it takes to stand up to their cockier and more outgoing peers. Only one group can make the cut for full-blown internships and Nick and Billy represent the two strikes their teammates already have against them. What they lack in knowledge, though, Our Heroes make up for in unvarnished chutzpah. It’s a foregone conclusion that “The Internship” the geeks will triumph in the end, so the only thing that matters is how they get there, which is also predictable. Even so, fans of the stars should be able to find several amusing detours along the way. Rose Byrne (“Damages”) and Jessica Szohr (“Gossip Girl”) aren’t required to stretch all that much as the love interest and Ferrell’s Ferrell. For once, the difference between the PG-13 and unrated versions of a DVD is obvious. One storyline makes a side trip to a strip club, where the number of bare breasts expands from zero to a couple of dozen. It’s gratuitous, of course, but not entirely unwelcome. If anything, I’d give “Internship” a NC-17 for the incessant glamorizing of all things Google. Blu-ray extras include commentary on both versions and a featurette on the nerdy broom-and-ball game that serves as one of the tests. – Gary Dretzka
Monsters University: Blu-ray
If some of the Disney Pixar luster has been lost on mainstream critics over the last couple of years, it’s primarily because so much was expected from the corporate marriage. With the success of “Toy Story 2,” Pixar executives had to eat their pledge not to focus on sequels and prequels, and now they’re a staple. The need to push out scores of DVD-original titles, video games and other ancillary products seems to have had a negative effect on basic storytelling, at least from a grown-up’s point of view. Technically, though, the films still look and sound great. Audiences greeted “Monsters University” with the same enthusiasm reserved for “Monsters, Inc.” and other stand-alone movies. Instead of fretting over than lower-than-normal scores on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes for “MU,” Disney bean-counters found a silver lining in the additional $200 million derived from overseas revenues. For those of you keeping score at home, the $737.8 million take for “M.U.” bested the original’s grand total of $562.8 million, of which $279 million came from outside the U.S. “Inc.” even edged the returns for 2012’s “Brave” and 2011’s “Car 2,” both of which had to be rescued by foreign audiences. There’s no question, then, the monsters are here to stay. In something of a Pixar first, “MU” actually is a sequel to “Inc.” It describes how the mismatched monsters, Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (Billy Crystal and John Goodman, in top vocal form), met in their freshman year at Monsters University. They would be thrown together as outcasts after their competitive natures and unwillingness to cooperate conspired against them.
After being dropped from a prestigious training program, Mike and Sulley came to the realization that they will have to work together as teammates if they’re going to realize their dreams of being Scarers. It also means making friends with dorks in the school’s least popular fraternity, Oozma Kappa. Blessedly, the moralizing doesn’t get in the way of the fun or ensure they’ll become Big Monsters of Campus before the final credits roll. Steve Buscemi and John Ratzenberger are back from “Inc.,” while Helen Mirren hits a home run as the winged Dean Hardscrabble. The delightful animated short film, “The Blue Umbrella,” accompanies the feature, along with commentary with director/co-writer Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae and story supervisor Kelsey Mann. A single hi-def disc has been dedicated to other bonus features, including “Campus Life,” a video journal detailing the creative team’s daily routines; “Story School,” featuring concept art, pre-visualizations, storyboards and other steps in the development of key scenes; “Scare Games,” emphasizing collaboration, unity and teamwork; “Monthropology,” on the designing, diversifying, puppeteering, animating and breathing life into the Monsters University students and faculty; “Welcome to MU,” Scanlon provides an overview of the prequel and its production, focusing on the university campus itself, from its front gate to its statues, architecture, grounds and history; “Music Appreciation,” with music editor Bruno Coon and longtime Pixar collaborator and composer Randy Newman; “Scare Tactics,” on the art of the perfect MU scare, as learned, performed and utilized by the various animators tackling each expressive shot and scene; interviews with cast and crew members; deleted scenes; art galleries; and “Furry Monsters: A Technical Retrospective,” comparing the animation of 2001′s “Monsters Inc.” – which used early computer-based hair simulation — and 2013′s furrier, hairier, scalier prequel. – Gary Dretzka
The work of Munich-born actress Martina Gedeck is far too infrequently seen in this country. She starred in the Academy Award-winning “The Lives of Others” and demonstrated her range in Uli Edel’s chilling “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” and Sandra Nettelback’s culinary comedy, “Mostly Martha.” In the existentialist drama, “The Wall,” she plays an unnamed middle-age widow, Frau, who’s vacationing in an isolated hunting lodge in a spectacular Austrian forest with two traveling companions and her dog, Lynx. One day, as she’s out for a walk with Lynx, Frau literally bounces off of an invisible wall. It isn’t made of glass, but it might as well be. After much Marcel Marceau-like fumbling around the barrier, she accepts the fact that she’s cut off from the rest of the world – permanently, perhaps – and will be required to fend for herself for as long as necessary. She’s also dismayed that her friends have yet to return to the cabin and her closest neighbors appear to be frozen in time. Frau can only speculate that something terrible has happened outside the walls, but, if so, why has she been spared? Or, if this is heaven, where’s St. Peter?
As weeks, months and years slip by without answers to her questions, Frau teaches herself how to survive and keep her mind active by keeping a diary. It describes her day-to-day activities, thoughts and progress with the pregnant cow she inherited. The rifle serves as the 800-pound gorilla in the room, facilitating her ability keep from starving, but remaindering her of the impermanence of life. If the same thing had happened to Frau while visiting friends in North Dakota, she might have picked up her gun and killed herself after two weeks. Instead, the pristine Alpine setting is one of a handful of places on Earth that God would consider going for a break from work. Besides the lodge, Frau is able to hike to a less comfortable shack far above it, in a meadow where the panoramas are even more heavenly. There are deer and smaller critters in abundance and her garden supplies her with fruit, roots and vegetables that can be harvested and stored according to the season. As if to make certain we’re aware of how alone Frau is, writer/director Julian Polsler layers the solitude with Gedeck’s voiceover recitation of her diary entries. He leaves viewers free to make up their own minds about what “The Wall” represents – serious depression, dystopian reality, a woman’s ability to transcend extreme duress, punishment for a since-forgotten crime — but any similarity between the movie and NBC’s “Under the Dome” clearly is coincidental. It’s based on Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel, “The Wall,” which very well might have influenced the TV show’s producers or Stephen King, who wrote the source material. The DVD adds a collector’s booklet with photos, essays and an afterword by Polsler. Because there’s no actual spoken dialogue, the accented English-language track is an improvement over dubbing and subtitles. – Gary Dretzka
Shepard & Dark
At a time when the U.S. Postal Service is on the brink of insolvency and most human correspondence is limited to 140 characters, “Shepard & Dark” arrives from out of left field as a revelatory surprise. At some point the late 1900s, correspondence between friends and associates was unofficially declared a lost art. It wouldn’t be fair to entirely blame the Internet and AOL for our terrible loss. Plummeting rates for unlimited phone calling took their toll, as well. Anyone who’s ever corresponded with another human being – via ink on paper and stamped envelopes – can easily recall how it feels to await the daily arrival of the mail and either rejoice at the sight of a letter or the sadness that comes when it doesn’t. By comparison, Skype is merely another way to ask someone how they’re feeling on any given day. Longtime friends Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark met in Greenwich Village, after the latter watched one the former’s plays and recognized the writer on the street. A conversation between men who had very little in common would lead inevitably to four decades of correspondence and shared experiences. Before Shepard deserted his family to live with actress Jessica Lange, he had married the daughter (O-Lan Jones) of Dark’s wife (Scarlett Johnson) and they all lived together for the next decade. It would fall to Dark to be a surrogate father for Shepard’s teenage son, Jesse. Almost 30 years later, they would collaborate on a book of shared correspondence. It reveals a friendship that once seemed perfect, but turned imperfect – for lack of a better word – over time and events. After the unexpected death of his wife, Dark found solace in being alone and picking his spots for sharing his unforced good will. As Shepard’s Hollywood and off-Broadway stars rose to their zenith, so, too, were the number of things expected of him by business, creative and personal interests, while also maintaining his cowboy/outsider persona. Although Treva Wurmfeld’s “Shepard & Dark” is beautifully staged and frequently quite engaging, it raises almost as many questions as it answers. Moreover, when turbulence does rock the men’s relationship, it hits us like brick … as it probably did her. Ironically, it comes when they share the same space in Shepard’s Santa Fe home, putting the letters in order for publication. The DVD adds extended interviews, deleted scenes, the featurette “7 Things I Learned From You” and photo and poster galleries. – Gary Dretzka
Just Like a Woman: Blu-ray
There’s no mistaking the parallels we’re supposed to draw between “Just Like a Woman” and “Thelma & Louise,” which extend from the photos and blurb (“two friends … one journey … no limits”) on the Blu-ray’s jacket throughout the entire length of Rachid Bouchareb’s movie, itself. It isn’t a strict remake of remake of Ridley Scott and Callie Khouri’s feminist buddy adventure, from the point of view of an Algerian outsider, but the similarities could hardly be more apparent … or distracting. Sienna Miller and Iranian-born Golshifteh Farahani play Marilyn and Mona, Chicagoans who share a love for belly dancing and fragile marriages. Marilyn lives with an unemployed lout who takes advantage of her meager income and absence from their home during work hours. Mona was brought to America as part of an arranged marriage to an Algerian storekeeper and pathetic momma’s boy. Mona blames herself for the accidental death of her mother-and-law and splits for points unknown, while Marilyn leaves home after she discovers Harvey in bed with some bimbo, a hour after being fired without cause by her useless boss and his girlfriend. It gives her the impetus to up into her convertible and take off for Santa Fe, where she’s been invited to compete for a spot in a belly-dancing troupe. Along the way, she almost miraculously chances on Mona, whose bus has stopped for an unlikely pit stop just outside Chicago. They finance their trip by performing their craft in redneck bars and supper clubs, not always with the desired consequences. By the time they get to Santa, both of the women have had one adventure too many and are in desperate need of emotional rescue. Bouchareb, whose “Days of Glory,” “Dust of Life” and “Outside the Law” were nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscars, intends for “Just Like a Woman” to be the first installment in a trilogy about change relations between the western and Arab worlds. Belly dancing would seem to be a fragile hook for such a large conceit, but adding some Native American culture into the mix dilutes the resemblance to “Thelma & Louise.” The Blu-ray presentation is quite nice and it adds a picture gallery. – Gary Dretzka
Every so often, a movie from Africa captures the fancy of western audiences, simply by creating a story in which the tribal characters are portrayed as being exactly as they are in real life and the great white bwana isn’t there to save them from themselves. Given a chance to reach viewers, I think “Oka!” could have a similar impact as the hugely popular 1981 comic allegory, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” And, although there is tall and gangly white guy at the movie’s center, he’s there to introduce us to the wonderful community of Bayaka Pygmies, with whom he lived as an equal for 25 years. The real-life ethno-musicologist Larry Sarno (Kris Marshall) has one mission in life and that’s to capture on tape the music and instruments of the Bayaka, all within the environmental context of the untamed wilderness in which they live. Upon his return to his New Jersey home to raise funds and find takers for his recordings, he’s told by his doctor (Peter Riegert) that he’s living on borrowed time. Given the choice between going back to the Central African Republic one last time or waiting for a liver transplant, which may not cure him, anyway, he chooses to be with his adopted tribe. In part, Larry does this to cap his collection with the rarest of sounds, produced by a possibly mythic beast deep in the bush. The possibility of its existence is one of the few things that can scare the crap out of the Bantu, who treat the Bayaka as if they were their slaves. The Pygmies are lorded over by “the mayor” (Isaach De Bankole), a pompous Bantu law-enforcement official who makes up new rules whenever he feels the need to keep the Bayaka from straying too far from their government-authorized community on the edge of the bush. Larry’s return coincides with the arrival of a Chinese businessman intent on ravaging the largest trees in the rain forest and going home with some poached ivory. The mayor sees it as an opportunity to trick a Bayaka hunter to kill an elephant – they value the meat and challenge over the ivory – which would give the government another reason to diminish tribal lands and open them to exploitation. Larry, a victim of the mayor’s capricious ways, understands this tactic intuitively and hopes to convince the hunters not to proceed with the hunt, which involves spears, not rifles. Being a de facto member of the tribe, he also appreciates the Bayaka point of view and how it might involves his personal quest.
Because “Oka!” was filmed with the cooperation of the notoriously corrupt CAR government, co-writer/director Lavinia Currier (“Passion in the Desert”) treads carefully in her portrayal of the oppression of the Bayaka by the Bantu and growing Chinese role in the country’s economy. Although small by African standards, it is rich with natural resources ripe for the picking by countries that need such things as diamonds, uranium, crude oil, gold and lumber. The 2011 Danish documentary “The Ambassador” described in great detail the ability of outsiders to bribe CAR officials and the exploitation of the Bayaka as tourist attractions. Currier does a masterful job of capturing Pygmy life in their assigned village, as well as the beauty and dangers of their natural forest environment. The wildlife is amazing, as are the sounds collected by Sarno. It’s impossible to tell with any certainty how much of the interaction between the Bayaka and Larry is scripted and how much is completely natural. Either way, it’s wonderful. Sadly, “Oka!” isn’t in Blu-ray and it doesn’t contain any extras. Apart from considerable National Geographic-like semi-nudity, there’s no reason the film can’t be enjoyed by teens and other family members. – Gary Dretzka
The Waiting Room
One sure way to avoid the kind of government shutdowns caused this month by heartless Tea Party jerks would require them to give up their rights to the health-care benefits they receive simply for showing up at the office, clogging the legislative process and sucking on the teats of lobbyists. I would also recommend tying them to their chairs and forcing them to watch Peter Nicks’ “The Waiting Room,” which chronicles a 24-hour period at a public hospital, in Oakland, whose patients are largely uninsured. The reasons for being uninsured range from losing a job or being too impoverished to even imagine they could get help. As is made perfectly clear in Nicks’ “story approach” to the documentary – meaning the patients are heard in voiceovers and interviews – is that people who delay treatment invariably will get worse before they get can afford to get better. Here, a young man diagnosed two years earlier for testicular cancer at Kaiser – two years! – shows up in the hospital’s waiting room for what may be hopeless surgery. There was nowhere else for him to go and the cancer wouldn’t disappear on its own. Someone’s going to pay for his treatment and it won’t be him. Another horrifying fact of life at the hospital is a policy that limits admittances to the number of beds available. Patients on those beds can’t be released unless they have somewhere to go. This means that some of the patients on those beds would have been released from any other facility. Although the Affordable Healthcare Act isn’t mentioned in the documentary, viewers can readily see how it might positively affect everyone we meets, from the patients to the caregivers, and eventually taxpayers. Nicks’ film doesn’t advocate change, as is the case in Michael Moore’s “Sicko.” He trusts that the evidence will speak for itself and it does. The DVD includes commentary, deleted scenes and extended stories. – Gary Dretzka
Pawn Shop Chronicles: Blu-ray
“I just found out Jerry Springer is a Jew,” says the tweeker with the spider web tattooed on his neck to the tweeker with the swastika tattooed on his neck. “Why are we supposed to hate the Jews? If I saw him on the street, I’d kiss his ass and ask him for an autograph.” That’s only one of the dilemmas faced by the white-trash characters in Wayne Kramer and Adam Minarovich’s testosterone-fueled grindhouse dramedy, “Pawn Shop Chronicles.” Minarovich (“Chop”), who grew up in South Carolina and resembles a junkyard dog, supplied the stories of backwoods glory, while Kramer (“The Cooler”) added the cinematic flare. If the movie went almost completely unnoticed upon its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release this summer, the blame can’t be laid at the feet of the stars on display on the poster and DVD cover. The names above the title include such indie stalwarts as Brendan Fraser, Elijah Wood, Vincent D’Onofrio, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Thomas Jane, Lukas Haas and Paul Walker. Listed in smaller type are Chi McBride, D.J. Qualls, Michael Cudlitz, Sam Hemmings, Pell James and Ashlee Simpson. That’s a lot of talent to squeeze into a movie, even one that runs 112 minutes and only was given $5 million to make. “Pawn Shop Chronicles” tells three stories, all connected by items bought and sold at a Southern pawn shop/gas station run by D’Onofrio. One is a shotgun, the others are an expensive ring and an Elvis medallion. The first segment is every bit as chaotic as the manic behavior of the meth heads on their way to rip off a cooker. The Faustian finale finds Fraser performing nightly at a fleabag carnival, sporting a thunderbird jumpsuit and a pre-death Elvis hairdo. It’s the second story that should come with a warning label, in that it involves Matt Dillon’s long search for his kidnapped wife and the torture he inflicts on the sick bastard (Wood) who’s been holding her prisoner with a dozen or so other caged women. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. The comedy takes some getting used to, as well, but it’s nothing any fan of Quentin Tarantino can’t handle. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the filmmakers. – Gary Dretzka
Dead in Tombstone: Blu-ray
I’ve recently groused about how little time Danny Trejo is visible in straight-to-DVD movies on which his extraordinary visage is prominently displayed. It borders on bait-and-switch advertising. “Dead in Tombstone,” though, demonstrates just how much difference there is between movies that merely promise Trejo and the ones that deliver Trejo in all of his outlaw glory. In a word, it’s “huge.” It helps mightily that “Dead in Tombstone” was written with the story in mind, instead of the violence, and it looks great in Blu-ray. Not having seen the new sequel to “Machete,” but there’s nothing here that would dissuade me from checking it out. Hell, even the presence of Mickey Rourke serves the picture, instead of just the Oscar-nominee’s bank account. Here, Trejo and an almost unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall play gun-slinging stepbrothers, who, while they agree on targets, disagree on the amount of brutality a criminal needs to administer to pull off a job. After Trejo’s Guerrero Hernandez (Trejo) rescues Hall’s Red Cavanaugh from a date with the hangman, they agree to rob a bank rumored to be overflowing with gold. When Guerrero insists on grabbing the gold and hightailing it out of Tombstone, Red organizes a mutiny that result in his brother’s murder. Not surprisingly, Guerrero’s immortal soul descends straight to hell, where Satan (Rourke) is licking his lips in anticipation. The strike a devil’s bargain, in which Guerrero promises to deliver the six souls of his former gang and he will escape damnation. Satan gives him precisely 24 hours to accomplish this feat, or else the outlaw remains his property. How likely is the devil to make good on his promise, even if Guerrero pulls it off? You be the judge. There’s enough good Western action here to satisfy most genre addicts – think Clint Eastwood crossed with Robert Rodriguez – and the supernatural stuff isn’t allowed to get in its way. The Blu-ray contains 16 minutes of deleted scenes; an optional deleted-scenes montage; a decent making-of featurette, with interviews; pieces on the stunt work, production design and special effects; and a self-serving profile of director, “Roel Reine: Leader of the Gang.” – Gary Dretzka
Beauty of the Devil: Cohen Media: Blu-ray
The Faustian legend has been trotted out so times over the past 500 years, you’d think it would have lost its power to keep audiences from falling asleep after Mephistopheles strikes his bargain with the overly ambitious shmuck he’s lured into his trap. In fact, it’s still as ripe for picking as it’s always been. God knows, it’s also the only thing linking “Dead in Tombstone” to Rene Clair’s exquisite tragicomedy, “Beauty of the Devil,” which was released 63 years ago and still possesses to power to cast a spell on viewers. Because it is set in almost 200 years earlier and half a world away – Paris, 1700 –Clair was allowed the luxury of fabulous palace settings, grand costumes and the then-current pursuit of the alchemist’s art. Michel Simon and Gérard Philipe switch personae after the elderly professor agrees to give the devil’s bargain a test drive, at least. Suddenly, Mephistopheles is the alchemist and Faust is the wealthy playboy with aspirations of glory. Even as the devil allows Faust the ability to woo a married princess away from her much-decorated military officer, he also forces the capricious young man to witness the end-product of such ambition. The horrifying future prophesized in Mephisto’s mirror not only reminded French viewers of the German occupation, which ended only five years earlier, but it also gave them pause to consider the expanding nuclear-arms race, open-air testing of terrible bombs and increasingly visible Ban the Bomb movement. Indeed, in Faust’s vision of the future, man is less interested in turning handfuls of sand destroy into gold than in creating weapons of mass destruction. Clair’s whimsical representations of the devil’s tricks, alongside Faust’s willingness to exploit his new-found youth, are very much a part of the filmmaker’s repertoire and still have the ability to amuse us. The Cohen Media Group release has been impeccably restored in sparkling black-and-white and with an upgraded audio mix. The bonus features add a scholarly discussion of the film’s creation, recorded in 2010, along with an original French trailer. – Gary Dretzka
I Married a Witch: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
With Halloween right around the corner, it would only be natural to assume that a movie titled “I Married a Witch” might fit right in with the many other horror pictures released each October into DVD and Blu-ray. Instead, Rene Clair’s romantic fantasy represents a subset of the genre, which allows certain supernatural spirits to be as disarming and welcome as Marilyn Monroe at a pool party. The ghosts in “Topper” were tricksters, as were the witches and warlocks in “Bell, Book and Candle.” Indeed, the creator of TV’s “Bewitched” cited both “I Married a Witch” and “Bell, Book and Candle” as direct influences for the popular series, in which Elizabeth Montgomery played a wonderfully charming witch married to a constantly perplexed mortal and Agnes Moorehead played the more traditional witch mother-in-law. Clair made his “Witch” during his wartime sojourn in Hollywood, but you’d think he had been in residence for years before his arrival in 1940. There’s even a funny baseball reference in the opening scene, during which popcorn and candy venders pass through a crowd of Salem Puritans awaiting the burning at the stake of witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake) and warlock Daniel (Cecil Kellaway). Flash-forward a couple of hundred years and a bolt of lightning hits the tree under which father and daughter are buried, resurrecting them from eternal damnation. Once she gets her bearings and finds her broomstick, Jennifer decides to avenge her execution by ruining the life of one of the Puritan preachers’ descendants. She finds the perfect match in Wallace Wooley (Fredric March), a gubernatorial candidate about to marry the spoiled daughter (Susan Hayward) of one of his rich backers. Things go haywire when Jennifer and Wallace begin to fall for each other. Just as Moorehead is the constant meddler in “Bewitched,” a constantly soused Daniel uses black and white magic to break up the forbidden match between immortal woman and mortal man. The humor holds up extremely well in the 1941 farce, as do the old-fashioned special effects. Moreover, whenever Lake is on the screen, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. The Criterion Collection upgrade is top-drawer, and the Blu-ray adds an archival audio interview with Clair, conducted by film historian Gideon Bachmann for his radio program. There’s also a 28-page illustrated booklet, featuring Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s essay “It’s Such an Ancient Pitch,” and “Rene Clair in Hollywood,” an interview conducted by film scholar R.C. Dale. – Gary Dretzka
La Notte: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Having just finished re-watching two-thirds of Michelangelo Antonioni’s epochal “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” – or, take your pick, “trilogy of alienation,” “trilogy of barrenness and alienation,” “incommunicability trilogy” – I wonder how the maestro would have interpreted a society addicted to social media and cellphone worship. Antonioni’s cinematic journey from neo-realism to scathing portrayals of bored bourgeoisie mirrored Italy’s advance from wartime devastation to its “economic miracle” of the late 1950s and early 1960s. No longer was Italy a country in which people born in villages tended to stay there forever, performing the same labors as their parents and grandparents and observing the same customs. The action was in the cities, as were the jobs. In effect, “L’avventura,” “La Notte” and “L’eclisse” brought Italian cinema into the second half of the 20th Century. In “La Notte,” especially, modern urban architecture turns newly minted middle-class Italians into tiny cogs in a greater machine. The noise of helicopters, jet fighters, traffic and ambulances drowns out all conversation and continuity of thought. Antonioni continually uses Milan’s glass-and-steel skyline to reflect on the adopted behavior of his protagonists. When the setting shifts to more public spaces — some still showing the wounds of war — the director gives his protagonists time to consider the wages of progress. In this world, society’s pursuit of the expensive toys, alluring fashion, fitful love and cocktails was a substitute for communication.
In “La Notte,” Marcello Mastroianni plays an author whose success has opened the doors to the joys and vacuity of high society. His wife, played by Jeanne Moreau, has come to the point in her married life, where she can’t help but ask, “Is this all there is?” We meet them at the hospital bed of a close friend, within hours of his death. The encounter serves as a catalyst for the wife to re-evaluate her marriage and station in life, even if the options for women her age and social strata were few. The writer’s primary concern is the patient’s well-being at the time, even participating in the champagne ritual at bedside, toasting old times and soothing the pain of cancer. During the course of the next 18 hours, the wife makes several vain attempts to connect with her husband: as she reclines in her bathtub, at a reception for his new book, in a fancy nightclub (watching an African dancer balance a cocktail glass, while her partner takes off her clothes) and finally at a party hosted by a Milanese industrialist who wants to hire the writer to sing his praises in prose. It’s here that both of them are tempted by strangers, one of whom is the host’s bored dark-haired daughter (Monica Vitti) and the other a playboy in a Ferrari. Their sensual allure offers the otherwise faithful Lidia and Giovanni something different, at least. The garden party’s ebb and flow might very well have inspired the Election Night gathering in “Shampoo,” where everything he loves comes crashing down on Warren Beatty’s head. In “La Notte,” the only communication between the couple all day takes place at dawn on an empty, fog-shrouded and eerily silent golf course. By then, though, Antonioni has lost interest in them, himself.
If, at the time of their release, the movies in the trilogy defied the expectations of audiences and critics and left wondering what in the hell they’d just witnessed, it probably was because very few people had stopped to consider what was happening around them. They were too close to the problem to realize that they were being sucked into a maelstrom of materialism and an economic system that rewarded proponents of unfettered growth. As yet, there was no such thing as nostalgia for the pleasures of village or farm life and living in close proximity to people who actually mattered to you. That would come much later. Was Antonioni arguing that his characters were empty, frivolous people and beyond help? If so, why bother subjecting one’s self to someone else’s alienation for two-plus hours, when we’re either envious of their good-fortune or unwilling to stop the clock on progress? American intellectuals flocked to see the films, if only to say they’d experienced the European New Wave and didn’t quite get it. Satirists and pundits disparaged Antonioni’s movies as being exercises in boredom. A new generation of film buffs, themselves alienated from Hollywood’s vision of the status quo, knew exactly what he was attempting to say and it would be incorporated into what became the American independent movement.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray benefits from a thorough upgrade. The clarity of the angles, textures and reflections Antonioni deploys to comment on the changes in Italian life are clearly visible and there’s no mistaking his intentions. A new interview with Giuliana Bruno, a professor at Harvard University’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, amplifies on the visual style of “La Notte” and the essential role architecture plays in the film. In a separate featurette, film critic Adriano Apra and historian Carlo di Carlo discuss the unique structure of “La Notte,” specifically the film’s abstract qualities: the relationship between Mastroianni and Moreau’s characters, the “disease of emotions” that has affected their lives and importance of sound in Antonioni’s films. The package also contains an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Richard Brody and a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni. – Gary Dretzka
The Vincent Price Collection: Blu-ray
Look up “Vincent Price” on the IMDB.com website and it takes you to a list of names that includes six exact matches. Appropriately listed first, the true horror comes when his brilliant career is summed up as “(Self, The Hollywood Squares, 1965).” As far as the fact-checkers at IMDB.com are concerned, the truly iconic St. Louis-born actor is best remembered as the guy who sat kitty-corner to center-square Paul Lynde on a long-running TV game show. How soon they forget. The folks at Scream Factory weren’t about to ignore the 20th anniversary of Price’s death, at 82, in Los Angeles. Neither did Warner Home Video, which released a terrific Blu-ray edition of “House of Wax 3D” earlier this month. “The Vincent Price Collection” ups the ante by adding six more beloved horror titles to the hi-def library. All six were made and distributed by American International Pictures, with MGM/UA picking up VHS and DVD rights around 2000. Four were directed by Roger Corman, who applied his frugal filmmaking techniques to the series, even to the point of recycling sets and footage. The titles, largely adapted from works by Edgar Allen Poe, include: “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1964), “The Haunted Palace” (1963), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1960), “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Witchfinder General” (1968). Besides the 1080p transfer and DTS Audio Mono upgrade, the collection includes new and vintage bonus features, concerning both the films themselves and Price’s 55-year-long film and television career. Among them are introductions by Price; commentaries with Corman and other participants; vintage marketing material; the feature, “The Vincent Price Gothic Horrors”; and an interview with his daughter, Victoria. There’s no question that the movies still have the power to bring chills to younger viewers, especially as the seconds tick by in “Pit and the Pendulum.” They’re valentines compared to most of the stuff ‘tweens are exposed to these days. – Gary Dretzka
Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear: Blu-ray
Sean Weathers Presents Vault of Terror
In the immediate wake of “V/H/S/2” and “Horror Stories” arrives yet another anthology film, “Chilling Visions: 5 Senses of Fear,” and, with it, another gas-masked fiend in a Hazmat suit. While far from great, I have to give this one extra credit for being made for airing on cable’s Chiller channel and not sucking. Being a corporate cousin of Syfy, that’s saying something. Each of the chapters is written and directed by an up-and-coming filmmaker with aspirations of horror-genre stardom. Here each has been assigned a human sense, around which to build a short film. (Just wondering, do short films included in an anthology qualify for Oscar consideration in that category?) Degree-of-difficulty points are added, as well, for working in extreme circumstances. Each segment reportedly was filmed in four days, back-to-back, with only 3 days between shoots. Applying the special makeup effects, alone, probably ate up the largest percentage of the allotted time. Extra bonus points go to Nick Everhart (“2012”, whose segment, “Smell,” was shot in a Connecticut hotel room during Hurricane Sandy, while most of the state was experiencing power outages. The films hinge on gags that wilt under too much exposure, so I’ll skip the spoilers altogether. “Sight” is written and directed by veteran actor Miko Hughes (“Remains”), who’s set it in the office of a crazy optometrist. “Touch,” about a blind boy who stumbles upon the lair of a serial killer, was written and directed by former teen wunderkind Emily Hagins (“Pathogen,” “My Sucky Teen Romance”). “Taste,” about a job interview that goes horribly wrong, was made by Eric England (“Madison County”). Directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton (“Yellowbrickroad”), “Listen” uses modern digital equipment to investigate an urban legend.
I don’t know if Brooklyn-based filmmaker Sean Weathers has reached the stage in his young career where he’s actually developed a cult following or if he’s simply making post-grindhouse horror flicks for the perceived amusement of his friends. In addition to such epic sleaze-fests as “Hookers in Revolt,” “They All Must Die!” and the recently reviewed “The Trade Off,” Weathers and collaborator Aswad Issa host a podcast, “Full Circle Movie Talk,” in which they show movies and share their feelings on classic slasher films, among other things. “Sean Weathers Presents Vault of Terror” appears to be a re-creation of one or more of those podcasts, for which Weathers and Issa provide introductions and summaries. Included in this “Vault of Terror” are the exponentially better “Night of the Living Dead” and Abel Ferrara’s “The Driller Killer.” Both pictures are in the public domain, so the podcasters aren’t required to pay anyone anything to show them or add credits to the DVD box. Doesn’t seem fair, somehow. Bookending those films are Weathers’ “Maniac Too!” and Issa’s “A Good Samaritan in New York.” Believe it or not, the former is comprised exclusively of a series of brutal rape/murders in a deserted warehouse district of the city and the killer’s apartment. Everything, apart from a few minutes spent walking from one rape to another, is gratuitous. Contrary to the promise of psychological enlightenment on the jacket blurb, the only thing we learn about the fiend is that he’s black and either can’t or won’t seek help. That’s it. Issa’s contribution describes a mugging on a subway car and what happens to the poor sap who attempts to break it up. The only revelation in 250 minutes of DVD time is how watchable Ferrara’s debut feature still is and how many images are repeated in “Bad Lieutenant.” It’s also pretty clear that Weathers’ style was influenced by Ferrara. The interesting thing to know about Weathers is that he was born in Jonestown, Guyana, sometime before the mass suicide/murder occurred. He claims to have become interested in filmmaking after stealing a camera in junior high and using it to document his gang’s exploits. If he ever decides to make a movie about his own life – or license it to someone else — it could really be something. – Gary Dretzka
Acadia/Death Valley: National Parks Exploration Series
If all anyone watches when they purchase a Blu-ray player are TV sitcoms and movies shot on film and transferred to HD, they might wonder what all the fuss is about. To achieve the best effect, programs and movies ought to be shot on HD, edited digitally and transformed directly to Blu-ray. Any well-made DVD can approximate the HD experience if it’s played on a higher-resolution monitor, but there’s always room for improvement. When HDTV was introduced at CES, the images shown weren’t taken from cable or broadcast feeds, because the transmission technology wasn’t yet ready for prime time. Instead, the pretty pictures were of sports events, nature, travelogues and, yes, even aquariums, shot in HD specifically for promotional purposes. Even today, you can tell the difference between a TV show shot on film and an NFL game shot direct to digital. I was reminded of the early days of HD and digital while enjoying the latest installments in Mill Creek’s “National Parks Exploration Series.”
In Maine’s Acadia and Death Valley, you have two national parks as diametrically opposed in all of the qualities that matter to anyone, except scientists, as they could possibly be. Acadia, the first national park east of the Mississippi, is comprised of more than 47,000 acres of islands, mountains, woodlands, lakes, ponds and craggy ocean shorelines off the rugged coast of Maine. It provides a haven for a wide variety of plant and animal life and you can tell what season it is simply by looking at the native foliage. By comparison to the 3.2-million-acre Death Valley, which straddles the line separating California and Nevada, Acadia is a postage stamp, albeit it a pretty one. It isn’t easy to find anything green and wet in Death Valley, hence its name. You can find patches of life here and there – especially if there’s been a lot of rain and long dormant wildflowers bloom – but mostly its color palette consists of shades of brown, gray and white. You’d be surprised how many there are. As for seasonal change, it would be difficult to discern the difference between 25 degrees Fahrenheit and 125 from an air-conditioned sedan. And, yet, winter or summer, there are plenty things to see and do in Death Valley, besides stare at distant mountains and die of thirst. Its ecosystem is as fascinating as any on Earth. These Blu-ray discs nicely capture the exquisite details of both parks, while leaving it to geologists and rangers to explain how both places came to be and remain the treasures they are. Films in the series are created for general consumption and are narrated by men whose voices more often are used to sell products on radio. It’s only a minor distraction, however. – Gary Dretzka
Here are three words guaranteed not to build sympathy for a protagonist: “Stanford Law dropout.” Anyone accepted into such a prestigious program could be expected to be exceedingly intelligent and sufficiently dedicated to the law that he or she would stop at nothing to graduate, at least. Passing the bar exam is another thing altogether. In Jay Gammill and Jim Beggarly’s low-key feature debut, “Free Samples,” the ever-appealing Jess Weixler (“Teeth”) plays just such a rare bird. Aimless, even as she approached her final year, Jillian decided to take some time off to weigh her options, one of which apparently is partying ’til the cows come home and staying in bed until her one-night stands leave. In other words, she’s become one of thousands of other overeducated slackers laying low in SoCal. Apparently, Jillian has also entered into a pact with her fiancé to postpone their marriage until she gets her head together. On this particular morning, Jillian has agreed to man her roommate’s ice-cream truck until she can finish some family business. Only in L.A., right? Hindered by a wicked hangover and unable to make a pit stop for a super-grande cup of coffee, Jillian is at the mercy of the unforgiving sun and the characters who stop by for the advertised free sample of chocolate or vanilla. Because her friend’s business takes longer than expected to complete, she’s given even more time to meet customers evern more out of sorts than she is. Among them is the young man with whom she spent the previous night (Jesse Eisenberg), her roomie’s alcoholic boyfriend (Jason Ritter), a neighbor who is being driven nuts by the truck’s music, the vacant lot’s resident homeless person, her fiancé and, most enchantingly, a lonely former star (Tippi Headren) too vain to move into a retirement home. Jillian doesn’t make it easy for anyone – viewers or customers – to like her, but, in Weixler’s hands, we refuse to give up on her. At a brisk 79 minutes, there are very few wasted moments here by anyone. – Gary Dretzka
Primeval: New World: The Complete Series
Cook’s Country: Season Six
Steven Spielberg, Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle notwithstanding, no evidence exists that would lead anyone to believe that non-avian dinosaurs still roam the Earth or any lost world can be found above its magna core. And, yet, they can be found all over cable television and the shelves of video stores. In “Jurassic Park,” clones were created by extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitos that, long ago, were trapped in amber. It seemed reasonable at the time, but suspension of disbelief doth not a dinosaur make. It would be nice to think that an ancient world exists far below the surface of the Earth and it can be reached by falling through a chasm inside a non-active volcano. So far, though, not even one non-cinematic pterodactyl has managed to escape. Who knows what could result from unlimited fracking, however? The British sci-fi adventure series “Primeval” found a loyal audience during its five-season run on ITV and BBC America. Dinosaurs found their way to present-day Earth by being sucked into the same sort of anomalies (“earthquakes in time”) as allow Doctor Who to travel through time, although fitting into his phone-booth TARDIS would require a certain amount of shrinkage. Scientists are able to take advantage of the same anomalies to go back in time for research purposes. The special effects necessary to animate the creatures were expensive and ITV was having money problems, so, after Season Three, it became a victim of austerity measures. An outcry by fans caused ITV to reconsider its decision and “Primeval” was renewed for another two years, along with a short series of fresh webisodes. It ended production in November, 2010. Two years later, the Vancouver-based “Primeval: New World” would be spun off for airing on Canada’s Space channel. It could be seen here on Syfy and Hulu. “New World” is basically an extension of the British series, except with taller trees and characters who put mayonnaise on their French fries. As with “Primeval,” the premise of “New World” involves scientific investigators who deal with animals from the past and future that travel through anomalies. In an attempt to attract younger viewers, all of the scientists look as if they’re still waiting to graduate from high school. This “Complete Series” package represents the first and only season of “New World.” Bonus features add “Meet the Cast,” “Inside the Tank” and 13 episodic behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Now in its sixth season on PBS, “Cook’s Country” takes a scientific approach to the culinary arts. The show’s laboratory is located in a renovated 1806 farmhouse in Rupert, Vermont, a place where fresh produce and meats can be found in abundance. For my taste, the show’s research-oriented approach could use a bit more of a “Watch Mr. Wizard” vibe, than one that approximates Scientific America magazine. That’s appropriate, considering that the show’s target demographic is comprised of people who can afford the wide variety of expensive utensils and state-of-the-art appliances as Christopher Kimball and the chefs from America’s Test Kitchen. There’s no arguing with salivating taste buds, however. The classic American dishes and tasty regional fare smell great, even when bounced off the Dish satellite. This season’s treats include Bourbon Street desserts, Atlanta-style brisket, Chinese-style glazed pork tenderloin, green-chile cheeseburgers, Guinness beef stew, tres leches cake and crown roast of pork. Each show adds equipment reviews or product tastings, recipes and tutorials. – Gary Dretzka
While New York Sleeps
You never know who’s going to turn up in a vintage B-movie from Alpha Home Entertainment or what you’re going to learn about a director or writer. “While New York Sleeps” isn’t much different from dozens of other low-budget cops-and-killers stories from the 1930-40s being offered, but it has charms of its own. Here’s the description from the DVD jacket, “A series of bond couriers have been brutally murdered, and while the police are totally baffled, fearless reporter Barney Callahan is tirelessly digging for clues. The investigation leads him to the Marine Cafe, where he has been romancing gorgeous chorus girl Judy King.” Intrigue and musical interludes ensue. Bond couriers, though? That’s one you don’t hear anymore. In any case, when his girlfriend is framed for murder, it’s up to the reporter to save her from the electric chair.
Michael Whalen, who plays the newsman, is best remembered today for playing alongside Shirley Temple in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) and “Wee Willie Winkie” (1937). He embodied the same character in two other “Roving Reporters” movies. Prolific director H. Bruce Humberstone was a founding member of the Directors Guild of America and at the helm of several “Charlie Chan” and “Tarzan” movies. Among the other familiar faces that turn up are William Demarest (“My Three Sons”), Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Jean Rogers, who holds the dubious distinction of being told by Louis B. Mayer that she couldn’t go through with plans to be married. – Gary Dretzka