The Place Beyond the Pines: Blu-ray
Ryan Gosling has gained a reputation as being a thinking man’s action hero and fantasy role model. Handsome, buff and seemingly fearless, the Ontario native has proven himself adept at playing criminals, cocksmen and adrenaline junkies. He hit a pothole of sorts with the recent release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylishly violent “Only God Forgives,” a movie many mainstream critics loathed with a passion usually reserved for Uwe Boll. In “The Place Beyond the Pines,” Gosling plays a carnival stunt rider, whose daredevil motorcycle skills will allow him to rob a few banks and outfox cops in hot pursuit. On the carnival’s last visit to Schenectady, Luke had a hit-and-run affair with a blue-collar goddess, Romina (Eva Mendes). Unbeknownst to him, she bore him a son. When, a year later, he’s introduced to the boy, Luke decides to man-up and support him, using the only real talent God gave him. Rowina, who, in the interim, has moved in with another man, makes the considerable mistake of allowing the bad boy back in her life, if only on its periphery. As the fates would have it, Luke’s destiny leads him on a collision course with Avery, a cop with a law degree and no tolerance for bank robbers. He, too, has an infant son and dreams that go beyond his current status as an honest policeman laboring in a nest of corruption. The hero’s mantle weighs heavily on Avery, especially after being approached by fellow cops and coerced into accepting what he believes to be blood money. (Ray Liotta’s trademark cackle reverberates through this, the middle section of the 140-minute film.) In a script overflowing with portent, other profound coincidences await. None, however, requires unveiling here. Suffice to say that co-writer/director Derek Cianfrance has something interesting in store, 15 years hence, for the sons of the protagonists. Cianfrance worked previously with Gosling on the quirky rom-dram, “Blue Valentine,” and their sympatico relationship extends here to Cooper’s heart-wrenching performance. Also very good are Eva Mendes and Rose Byrne, as the significant others; rising stars Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen, as their sons; and, in key supporting roles, Harris Yulin, Ben Mendelsohn and Mahershala Ali. The handsome Blu-ray adds commentary with Cianfrance, deleted and extended scenes, and an EPK-style featurette.
The Silence: Blu-ray
Early in Baran bo Odar’s excruciatingly sad and deeply affecting crime drama, “The Silence,” the audience learns everything it needs to know about the kidnapping and likely murder of two girls, exactly 23 years apart. This includes the faces, names and psychological makeup of the perpetrators of the first horrible murder, Timo and Peer (Wotan Wilke Mohring, Ulrich Thompson). The second disappearance immediately reminds police in the German agricultural district of the first, forcing them to reopen a case that’s baffled and frustrated them for all that time. Because there are even fewer clues left behind in the second abduction, detectives work backwards in an effort to solve the earlier crime first. They’re counting on the perpetrator not being a copycat killer. The still grieving mother of the first girl, Pia, makes a daily jog to the cross placed in the wheat field where she was grabbed and driven away by two men who look as if they might be twins. With nothing else to gain, the mother’s only wish is that she may someday look into the face of the person or persons who raped, kidnaped, killed and dumped the body of her only child in a lake. When news of the second abduction breaks, the now retired lead detective on Pia’s case returns to comfort her and share her pain. Krischan never forgave himself for being unable to bring anyone to justice for the crime. Together, they almost make a whole person.
The detective assigned to the second crime is as messed up as everyone else we meet in “The Silence.” David (Sebastian Blomberg) understands that he’s searching for a needle in a haystack, but, recently widowed, has nothing better to do than invest 100 percent of his time sifting through old clues. Fortunately his predecessor kept every notation he made and models of the crime scene. His boss is a career-minded jerk who seeks positive results from his team, but only if it means not making waves or putting in any hard work himself. Instead of leveling with the freaked-out parents of the second girl, Sinikka, he’d rather have them believe that she’ll show up on their doorstep one morning, apologizing for making them worry. David and Krischan both know better than to raise anyone’s hopes unnecessarily. When David firmly determines that two persons were almost certainly responsible for Pia’s murder – thus, upsetting the working theory of their only being a single kidnapper – it frosts his boss no end. Even if it’s a long shot, the realization gives the team its first breakthrough into what might have prompted Sinikka’s abduction.
If it were only about solving two almost certainly related crimes, “The Silence” would still be recommendable as a dandy police procedural. It’s when Swiss writer/director, working from a novel by Jan Costin Wagner, puts the long-term relationship between the two pedophiles under the microscope that the story’s momentum really picks up steam. There’s a reason why the kidnappings mirror each other so precisely, even after 23 years, and it has to do with a similar kind of separation anxiety and feeling of loss haunting the parents and lead detectives. This doesn’t make Peer and Timo look any more human in our eyes, or worthy of an ounce of our sympathy. It does, however, add a layer of credibility to the characters that’s missing in the standard-issue sociopaths we meet in Hollywood thrillers. And, while we’re on the subject of Hollywood, Odar wisely allows “The Silence” to unfold at its own deliberate pace, without car chases, explosions, brow-beaten suspects, voter-conscious politicians, wise-guy detectives, know-it-all reporters, gratuitous sex and extraneous gore. I can’t even remember if the cops carried guns. “The Silence” describes the human condition, as experienced by a handful of people with whom we can empathize, and terrific performances by actors whose names and faces don’t add celebrity baggage to the proceedings. The Blu-ray presentation nicely captures the contrasting colors of the wheat fields, forests and often threatening skies of Thuringia and Bavaria. It adds interviews with cast crew and two interesting short films by the director.
It’s been said, “the study of mind and brain is the final frontier in science.” Thousands of years before Sigmund Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious,” learned men and women interpreted dreams according to the customs, beliefs and superstitions of the time. In 1954, Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception” ushered in the psychedelic age with its exploration of his experiences while taking mescaline. In the 20 years after WWII, the CIA’s MKUltra and other top-secret programs did more for the advancement of LSD research and any subsequent abuse than the Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary combined. Recent advances in medical technology have allowed scientists not only to better understand how the brain functions, but also given them the tools to explore the subconscious mind. Until someone invents a nano-camera, however, no one really knows how close filmmakers have come to visualizing dreams, the impact of psychotropic drugs on the mind and the parameters of the subconscious mind. God knows, they’ve tried. While most depictions of drug use have bordered on the ridiculous, some titles have succeeded in going beyond stereotypes that derived from “Up in Smoke” and “Woodstock.” Kristina Buozyte’s intellectually demanding “Vanishing Waves” fits neatly alongside such cinematic explorations as “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Altered States,” “Dune,” “Enter the Void,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Naked Lunch,” “The Holy Mountain,” “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” “The Cell,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Upstream Color” and “Inception.”
The rare Lithuanian export combines science fiction, science-fact, digital artistry and dreamy erotica in the service of movie that challenges viewers to consider what’s at stake when it comes to messing with the mind. Here, a medical student named Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) volunteers to participate in an experiment intended to link the subconscious impulses of two unrelated people. Before being submerged in a sensory-deprivation tank, Lukas will don a headdress of sensors intended to link him psychically to Aurora (Jurga Jutaite), who’s wearing a similar apparatus. The young woman has been locked in a comatose state since nearly drowning in an accident. At the same time as scientists monitor what’s happening chemically and electronically in Lukas’ brain, he will describe what he’s visualizing through an intercom. At first, all he’s seeing are lines and blurred images that amount to nothing. Eventually, though, the lines and swirls begin to form precise geometric shapes that could be roadmaps to something far more exciting. Things get really interesting when Lukas actually does make visual contact with Aurora, who seems very much alive and active. Not surprisingly, Aurora’s subconscious world is as intoxicating for Lukas as any intensely romantic wet dream might be. They’re surrounded by water and their sexual attraction is palpable, even beyond Lukas’ tank. Aurora’s physical state always remains in doubt, however, and no one can predict what might happen to Lukas’ mind if she dies while they’re cavorting in the subconscious world.
Fearing the kind of disaster that could result in the loss of financial backing from the state, the scientists decide to pull back on Lukas’ participation in the experiment. When he feels Aurora pulling away from him, however, it only makes him more determined to rescue her from whatever it is that’s happening to them. In effect, he blackmails the scientists into maintaining his role in the study. His obsessive behavior really messes with his domestic life, but the sensual pleasures he experiences in his dream state are unlike he’s every felt. Buozyte does a nice job approximating the more hallucinogenic aspects of inner-space travel, from the trippy ambient music she employs to the imaginative visuals. These include a pulsating group-grope, in which the bodies look as if they’re covered in chocolate. “Vanishing Waves” is far too far out to grab a large audience in its DVD iteration and fans of conventional sci-fi probably will miss the presence of aliens and mad scientists. Viewers who’ve found a lot to like in the ambitious titles listed above should find “Vanishing Waves” to be quite a ride, though. A second disc of bonus features includes Buozyte’s intriguing first feature, “The Collectress,” about depressed speech therapist, who, after the death of her father and her sister’s marriage, can only relate to outsiders through the lens of a voyeuristic camera. There’s also a post-festival interview with her conducted in English; a making-of featurette; the 18-track musical score; a booklet; and reversible cover.
Welcome to the Punch: Blu-ray
One of the nice things about movies whose plots are built around art thefts is that they tend to be smarter than the average heist flick, in which such non-sensual pleasures as cash, securities or data are stake. It isn’t enough for a screenwriter to assume audiences will share his vision of what makes one thing more valuable than a dozen others found in a bank vault or warehouse, or why a Faberge egg commands a greater price or ransom than any another Russian trinket. He has to convince them that it is, without question, valuable. The “Mona Lisa” may not be everyone’s idea of a compelling painting, but they lines of people waiting to see it are enough evidence most viewers need to buy into the notion. If, then, the value of the object to be stolen isn’t up for dispute, viewers can assume other things, as well. The security system installed to protect it will be next to impossible to crack and the theft might be less difficult to pull off than the escape. The use of copyrighted paintings can cost as much or more than the licensing fees paid for music, book excerpts, photographs, cartoon characters and other trademarked material. “Trance,” a very smart and exciting heist thriller, uses Goya’s “Witches in the Air” as the object of desire for a gang of art thieves. The dark and foreboding painting was completed in 1798 and, therefore, isn’t protected by copyright. Neither, though, was director Danny Boyle able to use the original in the movie, as it currently resides in Madrid’s Prado museum and curators there probably would have frowned on the thought of putting the painting under the bright lights of a movie shoot. Instead, he commissioned Brighton-based artist Charlie Cobb to paint three representative copies of the work, along with replicas of paintings by Van Gogh and Delacroix. In some circles, of course, there’s a thin line between copies and forgeries. Some very good movies have been made about this artistic discipline, as well.
To jack up the suspense, “Trance” opens with an auction-house employee, Simon (James McAvoy) describing for the camera some of the intricacies of the art-theft game and what, for example, the 1990 disappearance of Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” has meant to us all. To clear some serious gambling debts, he has made himself available to a stylish crook, Frank (Vincent Cassel), whose crew invades the auction house, distracting everyone except him. Simon easily steals away with the painting, stashing it where it can be picked up when the smoke clears. Sadly, for everyone involved, he does something that causes Frank to punch him in the face. The jolt erases Simon’s memory bank of all knowledge of the painting’s whereabouts. When a serious beating fails to jar his memory, Frank insists that Simon visit a hypnotherapist, Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), who demands a full share of the action. From this point on, Boyle and co-writer John Hodge take us on a magical mystery tour through the subconscious of several key characters, some of whom may not have been aware they even had one. As in such early Boyle-Hodge collaborations as “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting,” it helps to understand how psychotropic drugs and hallucinogens can open doors that lead not only to perception, but also to misplaced painting. The trick becomes figuring out whose subconscious is being revealed at any given time and how their contrasting dream states differ from reality. In this way, “Trance” resembles “Memento,” “Inception” and such golden oldies as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and “The Magus.” As befits a movie about art, Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera captures colors that don’t necessarily appear in nature or on the palettes of painters before Van Gogh and Gaugin. Besides capturing the movie’s brilliant color scheme and fantastical visuals, the Blu-ray adds several worthwhile bonus features. They include several deleted scenes and interesting making-of pieces; a retrospective look at Boyle’s films, with commentary; Spencer Susser’s short film, “Eugene”; a primer on hypnotherapy; and a UV copy. If you dig “Trance,” try Neil Jordan’s “The Good Thief,” an excellent remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le flambeur,” and Morten Tyldum’s terrific art-theft thriller, “Headhunters.”
James McAvoy also stars in “Welcome to the Punch,” a furiously stylish and hyper-violent crime thriller in which almost nothing makes logical sense, from its title to the antagonist’s act of mercy toward a cop immediately before the credits roll. There’s no need to make the usual comparisons here to the gritty Brit-flics turned out by Guy Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn and their many imitators. The London of writer-director Eran Creevy’s imagination could just as easily be Los Angeles, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Rotterdam or Singapore. Any city with a port and high-rise buildings would have served just easily. McAvoy’s incorruptible police detective Max Lewinsky has had it out for Mark Strong’s Jacob Sternwood, ever since the criminal mastermind shot him in the leg during an elaborate heist and chase three years earlier. When Sternwood’s son is critically wounded in failed rip-off, Lewinsky sets a trap for his nemesis in the hospital. It’s one of several that occur during the course of the movie, even though it takes forever to learn what the young man was attempting to accomplish. Finally, the two mortal foes are forced to join forces against an even greater common enemy. Creevy has a talent for staging flashy shoot-’em-up set pieces – Ridley Scott is one of 19 producers listed — but the narrative tissue that connects them is far too flimsy. Moreover, I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what in the world the heavily accented actors were saying. If nothing else Creevy was able to recruit an all-star cast that also includes Andrea Riseborough, Peter Mullan, Johnny Harris, David Morrissey and Daniel Kaluuya. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a background featurette.
Although the offbeat French-Canadian dramedy “Starbuck” could hardly be considered a horror flick, it effectively describes a series of coincidences many infertile couples would consider to be their worst nightmare. After 42 years on Earth, Montrealer David Wozniak (a.k.a., Starbuck) remains a world-class slacker. He lives for soccer, can’t pay his bills, grows marijuana and can barely hold a job, however menial. Typically, though, he’s not without friends or misplaced ambition. The only time David has been able to support himself, without actually working was 20 years ago, when he made what for him was a small fortune donating sperm. Clearly, the clinic’s owners weren’t interested in turning out in-vitro geniuses, as was the intention of the Repository for Germinal Choice. Through a clerical error, the clinic managed to deploy the nectar of Starbuck’s 533 deposits to fertilize an entire year’s worth of wannabe parents. Two decades later, David not only is informed of his girlfriend’s pregnancy, but he’s also made aware of a class-action suit filed against the clinic by 142 men and women who want to know the identity of their biological father. Against the better judgment of everyone in his orbit, David sneaks a peek at the identities of several of the plaintiffs and surreptitiously attempts to meet them. The last thing clinic executives want to see happen is the revelation of their SNAFU, so the baby-daddy is offered a large amount of money to remain anonymous.
In effect, David is given the choice of paying off his debts to banks, credit card companies, friends and loan shark or giving some small amount of comfort to the 142 plaintiffs, who are as diverse a collection of people as could be imagined. They include a manicurist, a soccer player, a bartender, an actor, a drug addict and a busker. They’re male and female, gay and straight, and from several different ethnic backgrounds, besides Canadian. The most poignant case, perhaps, is the one made by a young man who’s been institutionalized due to cerebral palsy. If David is surprised by the ability of his seed to produce such a wide variety of offspring, imagine what the plaintiffs must think when the father of their dreams turns out to be a middle-age ne’er-do-well. Writer/director Ken Scott based his story on actual reports of men who fathered hundreds of children, if not anyone resembling Wozniak. He currently is putting the finishing touches on an English-language remake, starring Vince Vaughn, Britt Robertson and Chris Pratt. It will be interesting to see how much the DreamWorks version squares with the low-key and frequently quite tender “Starbuck.” Much of the credit for the movie’s likeability is the performance of Huard, a journeyman Canadian actor whose hangdog performance makes David credible as both a deadbeat slacker and someone who would make a swell buddy for his 143 biological children. Being a father, of course, requires skills he would be forced to acquire if expect to be positive force in his own baby’s life. The DVD adds interviews, bloopers, deleted scenes and a music video.
Since returning to the writer/director’s chair for first time in a decade, with 2007’s complex psychodrama “Youth Without Youth,” Francis Ford Coppola has committed himself to making “personal projects.” By that, he effectively means pictures with budgets considerably less than the pasta budget on the sets of the three “Godfather” episodes. It isn’t as if Coppola hasn’t made projects near and dear to his heart throughout his 50-year career. How else could one characterize such risky pleasures as “The Conversation,” “One From the Heart,” “Gardens of Stone” and “Tucker”? As with “Youth Without Youth,” the low budget “Tetro” and “Twixt” would be launched into a marketplace where all guarantees of distribution had disappeared. Even with the participation of A-list talent, projects that were once loudly touted in trades now frequently go straight-to-DVD or VOD. Artists who can continue to make personal projects, while accepting the consequences without whining, ought to be praised and not be dismissed as over-the-hill or lazy. I found a lot to like in “Twixt” that, in its momentary theatrical run, other critics didn’t to see. In a conversation with Elle Fanning, heard in the Blu-ray’s single making-of featurette, Coppola calls it a “Halloween story” and encourages her to have fun in her portrayal of the youthful ghost, V.
When a writer of best-selling witch tales holes up in a lonesome rural town, V appears to him in his dreams. She’s wearing a filmy white gown, a pentagram neck ornament and her red makeup stands in direct contrast to the whiteness of her face. Val Kilmer plays the blocked writer, Hall Baltimore, who’s up against a tough deadline from his publisher and a potentially costly ultimatum from his beleaguered wife. Not only does V’s story kick-start Hall’s imagination, but he also finds inspiration in the ravings a busybody sheriff (Bruce Dern). As hinted in the writer’s name, Baltimore, the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) also makes a guest appearance. Poe once stayed in a local hotel, now in ruins, and wrote a short story there about a demon that inhabits the seven-sided clock that towers over the town. It is, of course, no mere coincidence that Hall picked this particular town to get back in writer’s shape. That’s a lot of stuff to pack into an 88-minute film, which already feels as if it were borrowed from a collection of Stephen King short stories.
Coppola claims the story came to him during a dream he had while visiting Istanbul. Clearly, there were other bats flying around in his personal belfry, because there are some things here that, while hardly gratuitous, come straight out of left field. What distinguishes “Twixt” from dozens of other low-budget horror films, however, is the cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr., who appears to have become the Maestro’s go-to guy for inventive camerawork. Coppola has never shown a reluctance to employ high-contrast black-and-white cinematography when going for a certain effect. In “Twixt,” the background textures feel particularly velvety. V stands out from everyone else, as if a bright white light is illuminating her from the inside. Scenes shot in the town retain their natural colors, but, at night, in the deep forest, the Goth look is accentuated. Film buffs never need to be encouraged to sample a Coppola film, even if critics have dismissed it. Genre buffs may want to give “Twixt” a go, as well, if only to see how he’s tweaked genre conventions, when money actually is an object. (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” cost an estimated $40 million, at a time, 1992, when that figure really meant something.) For those keeping track of Hollywood royalty, granddaughter Gia Coppola directed the making-of featurette. She is the daughter of the late Gian-Carlo Coppola who was killed in a boating accident before she was born.
Babette’s Feast: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released 25 years ago, it’s entirely possible that one-time viewers may have forgotten everything else about “Babette’s Feast” except the arousal of their taste buds caused by the sumptuous presentation of the titular meal. Every time a list of the “10 Best Movies About Food” is published, Gabriel Axel’s Oscar-winning rom-dram — adapted from a story by Isak Dinesen – is either at the top or somewhere near it. Indeed, I’ve heard it argued that “Babette’s Feast” should be credited with launching the on-going foodie revolution. As they say, it was all that and a bag of chips. The pleasures didn’t end at the groaning board. They extended to the beauty of the musical soundtrack, the simple elegance of the set design and precision of the preparation of dishes before refrigeration and the Veg-O-Matic. The philosophical clash between fundamental Protestant practices and classic French opulence, as represented in Babette’s gastronomical celebration of her adopted town’s founder, also proved to be tremendously appealing. Rarely has the consumption of the Lord’s bounty been depicted with such sacramental reverence, with room left over for no small amount of sly humor.
The feast is celebrated 14 years after the then-young French woman, Babette, is accepted into the modest home of the Danish minister’s two daughters. Both women had been given opportunities to escape the village, but chose instead to stay near their father, whose generosity to those in need was legend. Babette came recommended by a singing teacher, who, years earlier, had attempted to lure one of the daughters to Paris. He said that her family had been killed in the revolution and conditions remained such that anyone who served the aristocracy was endangered, as well. In time, Babette would become a valuable addition to the household and win the respect of the congregation. She repays the sisters’ kindness by staging the centennial dinner, while the sisters honor Babette by devising a strategy that would allow the guests to enjoy the forbidden wine courses and acknowledge their pleasure in ways God, himself, would have approved. (The guest of honor is an aristocrat and onetime suitor with no such desire to abstain from earthly pleasures.) The film contains several more surprises, if little in the way of conflict or drama. Neither is missed. The supplemental features include a 2012 interview with Stephane Audran, the French actress who so wonderfully plays Babette; a new interview with the Danish director, Axel, conducted at the Karen Blixen Museum, in Rungsted; “Table Scraps,” a visual essay on the production; “Karen Blixen: Storyteller,” a fascinating feature-length profile of the writer, also known as Isak Dinesen to her readers; “An Artist of the Everyday,” sociology professor Pricill Parkhurst Ferguson discusses the importance of cuisine in French culture; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu and Blixen’s story, written in 1950.
New World: Blu-ray
No country is producing better gangland thrillers these days than Korea. In the span of about 10 years, its genre specialists have found ways to turn out pictures that not only deliver action, but also can surprise audiences with their intelligence and fine acting. This won’t come as news to anyone who’s followed the advances Koreans have made in horror, psychological thrillers and dramas. As American studios continue to dig a hole for themselves, filmmakers in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and China have learned not to rely on gimmicks, trends and overseas revenue streams. Or, maybe, the success has more to do with the fact that there’s so much money being made in Asia right now that gangsters have assumed the same role as those who made a mockery of America’s Prohibition experiment. Organized criminals dress cooler than most people, have nicer cars and enjoy the allegiance of small armies of sunglass-wearing operatives. In some respects, they’re portrayed as being less greedy than politicians, who always hands their hands out for their cut of the action. In the movies, at least, the industry is no longer dominated by extortionists, drug kingpins and vice lords. Here, the name of the most powerful gang is prominently display on the side of their high-rise headquarters. In the United States, the Mafia is in a period of transition, if not outright decay, and ethnic gangs have begun calling the shots.
At its core, Park Hoon-jung’s captivating “New World” is about how the business of crime is being conducted among the highest echelon of Korean and Chinese gangsters, corrupt police officials and politicians. When the head of Korea’s dominant syndicate is killed in an accident, the succession process becomes a battle of wits between the two young lieutenants, one of whom has been a deep-cover mole for the last eight years. What we’re never quite sure about, however, is who’s pulling the strings from behind the curtain and what they expect to accomplish. When the loser comes to a frightful demise, there’s a funeral scene that could have been written by Francis Ford Coppola for an Asian remake of “The Godfather.” In fact, all of the last 20 minutes of “New World” seem to pay homage to that masterpiece. Park’s direction is deliberately paced, with an eye toward catching the audience completely off-guard at the end. Jeong-jae Lee and Hwang Jeong-min are terrific as the two men dueling for the top job, while Choi Min-sik is also good as the cop who recruited the mole and stands to gain as much as he could lose in a power play.
Love and Honor: Blu-ray
It’s fair to wonder what 28-year-old Danny Mooney was thinking when he decided to make a movie about the effects of the Vietnam War on soldiers and their civilian peers on college campuses at least 15 years back home. Even with warehouses full of news clips and documentaries about everything that happened in the 1960s, the vast majority of all movies and TV shows set in the decade look as if the producers of summer-stock renditions of “Hair” made them. The Vietcong and NVA soldiers remain the faceless enemy, while the famous 1,000-mile stare of American forces has only accurately replicated at the Do Long Bridge in “Apocalypse Now.” In “Love and Honor,” the “war at home” doesn’t connect with any memories I have of the way people looked, dressed, cut their hair, spoke, protested or acted when they were on R&R. Mooney gets the pot-smoking and clubbing of hippies down pretty well, though. After a surviving an intense firefight, ace platoon leader Dalton Joiner (Austin Stowell) receives a “Dear John” letter from his girlfriend, Jane (Aimee Teegarden), who now calls herself Juniper. Instead of spending a week in Hong Kong, drinking and getting laid with his pals, he decides to spend his R&R in Ann Arbor trying to win her back. His buddy, Mickey (Liam Hemsworth), tags along to ensure that Dalton doesn’t do something foolish, like desert or commit suicide. Jane is living in a house full of people dedicated to ending the war, so the sudden presence of two guys they consider to be “baby killers” is problematic. To smooth things with Jane’s friends, Mickey invents a wild story about deserting from the war in mid-conflict. The students eat it up. The story literally impresses the pants off Candace (Teresa Palmer), who bought the story hook, line and sinker. The story also makes an impression on local law-enforcement officials, who salivate over the possibility of collecting the scalps of two deserters. Will love conquer devotion to duty? Stay tuned. What “Love and Honor” does have going for it is a cast that includes fresh-faced young actors who should be familiar to potential viewers in the prime demographic target. Their upbeat approach to the material keeps the movie from sinking under its own weight. The Blu-ray includes a making-of featurette.
In the last few months, I’ve received several screeners from Reality Films, a British company that specials in movies about “ancient mysteries, UFO’s and aliens, secret societies and conspiracies, the paranormal and occult, quantum theory, prophecy, spirituality, religion, esoteric teachings, history and much more.” How much more could there be? Among the titles are documentaries, docudramas and features, some of which look like documentaries and docudramas, and vice versa. Technically, they recall genre movies from 1960-70s, when pioneers in zombie and slasher films tried got by with 16mm and Super 8 equipment, cheapo special effects and weirdly distorted dialogue tracks. In some ways, they’re almost quaint. “Exorcist Chronicles” imagines a scenario in which a plague of demonic possession is reported in various places around the globe, severely testing the Vatican’s ability to exorcise enough of them to prevent its spread. A priest and amateur Goth sleuth determine that all of the young women they’ve seen share the DNA of a snake, as does the stuff in the water in a pond somewhere in Ireland. Apparently, Saint Patrick wasn’t able to chase all of the serpents off the island and the ones that remained have been plotting their revenge for centuries. Somehow, the Knights Templar are part of the conspiracy of silence from the Vatican. As goofy and amateurish as “Exorcist Chronicles” sometimes is, Philip Gardiner’s freak-fest is strangely watchable. That’s more than I can say for a lot of the DIY and indie horror that passes my way.
Detention of the Dead
House Party: Tonight’s the Night
The thing most fledgling writer/directors forget when they attempt to pay homage to the great John Hughes is that it takes quite a bit more than fading memories to capture the same magic as he did in movies about the agony that was high school. Resumes that include such empathetic teen comedies as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Weird Science,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Pretty in Pink” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” – not to mention the kindred “Home Alone” and “Vacation” franchises — are as uncommon in Hollywood as unemployed cosmetic surgeons. One or two, maybe; a half-dozen or more, never. It not only explains why Hughes was one of the industry’s most valuable commodities before his untimely death in 2009, at 59, but also why he made and set his movies in faraway Chicago. In the interview section of the “Detention of the Dead” Blu-ray package, freshman filmmaker Alex Craig Mann freely acknowledges the debt he owes to Hughes. He also admits to being inspired by “Shaun of the Dead” creators Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Throw in a bit of “Buffy” and “Dawn of the Dead” and most horror fans could guess exactly what happens in “Detention of the Dead” even before the end of the opening credits. Essentially, it describes what happens when the zombie apocalypse breaks out on the campus of a Midwestern high school and the only students who have a fighting chance of surviving it are cut-out replicants from “The Breakfast Club.” When it comes to zombie movies, however, it goes without saying that every new entry listed in IMDB.com should carry “uncredited” next to the names George Romero, Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton in the writer’s column. Ditto, when it comes to every movie about American teenagers in the wake of “The Breakfast Club” and Amy Heckerling’s adaptation of Cameron Crowe’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” So, it’s no crime that Mann borrowed so freely from Hughes and an idea or two from “Ridgemont.” They played an integral role in the collective memory of every American teenager in the 1980s, after all. All that said, “Detention of the Damned” isn’t a total wash. I didn’t see anything in the unrated movie that might have warranted consideration for anything except a PG-13 – a plus for parents, if a minus for anyone over 16 – and the wild application of special makeup effects could inspire some kids to get into that line of work. To that end, the making-of featurette could be considered essential viewing for those impressed by the fake gore. Mann also adds his commentary.
Ever wonder where Kid ’n Play ended up after their partnership came to its natural end? No, neither have I. For a while, I thought that one of them grew up to become the star of “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but what do I know? (What ever happened to Will Smith, anyway?) For the record, they show up near the end of the fifth installment in the “House Party” series, “Tonight’s the Night.” Any relationship between it and Reginald Hudlin’s original, in which the duo starred, is pretty much limited to the calamitous event arranged by a pair of young wannabe rappers, Chris and Dylan (Tequan Richmond, Zac Goodspeed). This time around, however, in the interest of Obama-era diversity, the rappers are a salt-n-pepper team and the party guests represent all colors in the rainbow coalition. If they impress the invited talent scouts (guess who?), they might be able to cruise for a while, anyway. Otherwise, the party pretty much lives up — or down — to its “R” rating. No fresh ground is broken here. The DVD offers a discussion of hip-hop, vis-à-vis the “House Party” flick and deleted scenes.
PBS: Rebel: Loretta Velasquez Secret Soldier of the American Civil War
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut
Adult Swim: Superjail: Season 3
Nick Jr.: Dora the Explorer/Blue’s Clues Double Feature/Let’s Learn Colors
With all the attention being paid to Abraham Lincoln this year, it’s probably a good time to become acquainted with some of the unsung heroes of the Civil War, as well. Before watching the documentary “Saving Lincoln,” I hadn’t heard of Ward Hill Lamon, the president’s bodyguard and shadow, who, tragically, was assigned elsewhere on the night of the assassination. The PBS report, “Rebel: Loretta Velasquez Secret Soldier of the American Civil War,” introduces us to a Cuban-born woman from New Orleans with an amazing Civil War story of her own. It’s so delicious, I can easily imagine seeing it dramatized in a feature film someday. Velasquez became a controversial figure in the 1870s when her memoirs were published and stomped upon by old farts happy to promulgate mythic portrayals of the Southern fighting man and the nobility of their cause, while ignoring profiteers on both sides of the conflict. The political hacks in charge of deciding the veracity of books managed to convince enough powerful people in New York and Washington that Velasquez was perpetrating a hoax and therefore should be banished to the dustbins of history. Recently, women’s-studies scholars were able to reopen Velasquez’ case by discovering information long-buried in Washington archives that verified the existence of a Civil War hero – depending on which color uniform one favored — who literally disappeared after being discredited by men with a vested interest in glorifying war. As a teenager, Velasquez enlisted in the Confederate Army under the name Harry T. Buford and fought at the first Battle of Bull Run. After being wounded at Shiloh, she served as a Confederate spy. In 1863, Buford saw the error in many of her beliefs and began to serve the union in a similar capacity. It was treacherous work for men and women, but not as uncommon as we’ve been led to believe. In fact, research shows that more than 1,000 women served in the Civil War as soldiers. Women known for being “camp followers” – launderers, cooks, nurses, prostitutes – frequently passed along information about troop movements, weaponry and personnel. Considering the willingness of lonely men to confide in friendly women, no one was in a better position to do so. After being silenced for many years, Velasquez would make her presence known as an advocate of Cuban independence. The DVD adds interviews with the researchers who decided to reopen her case file.
In a mere nine years, the centennial of the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s nearly intact tomb will be celebrated around the world. While historians and archeologists argue that the boy king was to pharaohs what Millard Fillmore is to American presidents, he attained superstar status in the 20th Century. If anything, he’s hotter than ever. The deities weren’t shining brightly on Egypt during Tut’s brief reign and his health was almost always in question. And, yet, the quality and abundance of artifacts found in his tomb have made him among the most famous of all rulers. Given the overwhelmingly positive response to touring exhibitions of the collection, it’s safe to assume that someone, somewhere is planning a wang-dang-doodle to end all wang-dang-doodles. Unless Jimmy Hoffa’s dead body is found in the same grave as Judge Joseph Force Carter, 2022 will be the Year of the Pharaoh and Tutsploitation will rule popular culture. What’s remarkable about the two-hour PBS documentary, “Ultimate Tut,” and its “Secrets of the Dead” series, in general, is discovering the lengths contemporary researchers are able to go in the pursuit of the truth surrounding the deaths of noteworthy men and women. Many of the tremendous advances we’ve witnessed in digital-age medical technology now are readily available to scientists and forensics experts. “Ultimate Tut” could easily serve as a pilot for a TV series titled “CSI: Thebes” or “NCIS: Luxor.” In attempting to unravel the cause of the pharaoh’s death, several different theories are advanced, disputed, quashed and resubmitted based on new information. The absence of the mummified Tut’s heart in his sarcophagus raises several questions, as do injuries that suggest he was fatally injured in battle or from a fall from a chariot. Charred tissue presents another mystery. Then, too, how did Tut’s final resting place avoid being looted, as was almost every other tomb in the Valley of the Kings. CGI technology opens the door for visualizations of the events that might have led to Tut’s death at 18. After an hour-and-a-half of intense scientific debate, I half expected to see someone in a blue CSI jacket walk into the tomb and find evidence that Tut’s wife had spiked his mead with the venom of an asp.
While it’s all too easy to compare the animated series on Adult Swim to one kind of acid trip or another, every new episode of “Superjail” is crazier than the last one and it’s virtually impossible to know what’s going on without setting your VCR to super-slow-mo. Otherwise, only a meth head could possibly could keep track of the incessant narrative shifts and breakneck pacing. If you can still recall how it sounds when a piece of music recorded at 33 rpm is played back at 78 rpm, you’ll understand how difficult it is to retain the artistic conceits on display in “Superjail.” The 10-episode series of 11-minute shorts, now in its third season, is typical of the fare on Adult Swim, in that it is wildly inventive and geared toward the skewed senses of humor of hipsters, game geeks and dopers who prefer brain candy to the mush usually available on TV in the wee hours. The animators of “Superjail,” set in a maximum-security facility underneath a volcano, appear to be obsessed with characters with unusually shaped bodies and all manner of gratuitous violence, sex and gore. (It’s been labeled M-for-mature, but anyone who can’t distinguish between animated violence and the real thing probably shouldn’t be allowed to use a remote-control device, anyway.) If such underground cartoonists of the 1960s as S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and Spain Rodriguez had access to their own television network, the results probably would have looked something like “Superjail.” Bonus features for the DVD include animatics, rough cuts and an Introstring featurette.
Pre-schoolers can double their fun in the new 116-minute package from Nickelodeon. In “Dora’s Musical School Days,” Dora and Boots accompany kid viewers through four musical adventures on their way to class and Grumpy Old Troll to his Happy Dance. The feature-length “Blue’s Big Musical Movie” represents a first for the popular “Blue’s Clues” series. Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland before them, Blue, Steve, Periwinkle and other friends decide to put on a sing-along, dance-along musical. The DVD package adds a sneak peek at “The Wonder Pets!,” music videos, an interactive guessing game, a backstage featurette and a pair of “Blue’s Clues” DVD-ROM games, “Instrument Sound Matching” and “Water Xylophone.” Also from Nickelodeon, “Let’s Learn Colors” encourages preschoolers to learn how to identify colors allowing them to mix their own hues with the help of Bubble Guppies and Blue. There are Dora and the Wonder Pets coloring books and a shape-search with Team Umizoomi. It’s a continuation of the “Let’s Learn” series that began with numbers and letters.
Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles/Love Live Alive: Blu-ray
Now that another Comic-Con has disappeared into the sunset, “Robotech” geeks should have plenty of time to catch their breath and check out the latest adventures of Lt. Lance “Lancer” Belmont, of the show’s “New Generation.” In addition to “The Shadow Chronicles,” which was awarded Best Animated Sci-Fi Film at the 2006 International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, the package includes a new feature-length sequel, “Long Live Alive.” Both are extensions of the wildly popular and commercially diverse anime series, which began its run in the 1980s. In “Shadow Chronicles,” exiled Earthlings attempt to take back their planet from the Invids, first, and, then, the backstabbing Haydonites. The film received positive notices from critics in both the genre press and more mainstream websites. “Love Live Alive” takes place during and after the events of the “New Generation” series. Once again, the enemy is the mechanized Haydonites. The package includes several featurettes, ranging in length from 20 seconds to 45 minutes; image galleries; deleted scenes and outtakes; animatics; and a music video.