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The DVD Wrapup: Lion, Toni Erdmann, Worlds Apart, Daughters of the Dust, Ludwig, Cathy’s Curse and more

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

Lion: Blu-ray
We hear so much about the kidnapping and virtual imprisonment of young women sold into slavery and prostitution that it’s easy to forget about the thousands of children stolen each year from their mothers at birth or grabbed from the streets of urban slums by traffickers and pimps. At the end of Lion, we’re alerted to the fact that upwards of 80,000 boys and girls go missing each year, while more than 11 million children live on the streets, just like the film’s protagonist, Saroo Brierley. He was one of the lucky few, who not only survived a great ordeal and but also were able to share their histories. Garth Davis’ thoroughly absorbing drama is based on Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” which chronicled his years-long search for the childhood home whose name he couldn’t pronounce or remember. After losing his older brother at the Burhanpur depot, two hours from his village, Saroo sought shelter in a compartment of passenger train he couldn’t have known would arrive, days later, in Kolkata, where he would become one of thousands of “lost children living and dying by their own wits. After nearly being snatched by sex traffickers, Saroo is taken by police to an orphanage, where, after a fruitless search for his parents, he was awarded to a loving family in Tasmania. It was as harmonious a union as such things get. Even before she learned his story, Sue Brierley put a map of India in his room and filled the house with Indian artifacts. She learned how to cook Indian food and only gradually introduced a western diet. His adoptive brother, Mantosh , a year younger than Saroo when he was adopted by the Brierleys, quickly revealed psychological problems that either were unknown to the agency or ignored. Twenty-five years after he left home, Saroo would use Google Earth to identify and return to his tiny rural village, where his mother and sister still lived and prayed every day for his safety. He learns, only then, the real reason his brother hadn’t come back to the depot that fateful night. In many western countries, an orphan’s ability to trace his/her biological parents has allowed for reunions, not all of them happy or mutually agreed upon. In Saroo’s case, the Brierleys not only encouraged him to trace his roots, but Sue would accompany Saroo on one of his visits to his first home.

Both the actors who play Saroo — Sunny Pawar, as the 5-year-old “lost boy,” and, later, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) — are terrific. Sue Brierley couldn’t have been happier to learn that fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman would portray her in Lion. Also excellent is Priyanka Bose, an Indian actor who gained widespread attention on stage in South African playwright Yael Farber’s “Nirbhaya,” which was based on the 2012 Delhi gang rape. Rooney Mara is very good, as well, as Saroo’s American girlfriend, Lucy, who shares classes with him in Melbourne. She encourages his quest, but sometimes bears the brunt of his frustration over not finding answers quickly enough. In real life, Lucy is Lisa Williams, an Australian, who Saroo began dating because she had a fast internet connection at her apartment. Supposedly, his “eureka” moment occurred during a meal at the home of some Indian friends. The sight and smell of jalebi — a sweet he loved as a child – brings him to tears. After Saroo confides to Lucy that he is adopted, a friend suggests he use Google Earth to search for his hometown in India. Easier said than done … but ultimately the correct decision. The reunion scenes are likely to trigger tears in viewers’ eyes, as well. Lion turned a nice profit for Weinstein Company and its partners. The six Oscar nominations it received — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Luke Davies), Best Original Score – certainly won’t hurt Blu-ray/DVD sales. Ironically, American production companies rejected the story when Australian producers Andrew Fraser and Shahen Mekertichian refused to change the Australian setting to America. Duh. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a making-of gallery and “Never Give Up” music video, performed by Sia.

Films made about children appropriated by authorities and handed over to politically connected or wealthy families as orphans aren’t all that unusual. Lion’s happy ending is what sets it apart from other stories. Argentinian documentaries The Disappeared and Spoils of War describe the efforts made by the children and parents of victims of Argentina’s Dirty War (1976–1983) to investigate the truth concerning the murders of dissidents and kidnappings of an estimated 500 children born to women who would be killed by junta assassins.  In 1985, Luis Puenzo’s The Official Story, on the same subject, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The Magdalene Sisters and Sex in a Cold Climate are among several films about abuse at Ireland’s Magdalene Sisters Asylum, where some unwed mothers were forced to give their children up for adoption, while also being punished for their “sin” by working in the laundry. In Philomena, a journalist (Steve Coogan) picks up the story of a woman’s (Judi Dench) arduous search for her son, who was taken away from her decades earlier, and whose records were conveniently lost by the nuns in charge. Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner are said to be in pre-production on “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” which recounts the story of a young Jewish boy in Bologna, in 1858 who, having been secretly baptized Catholic, is forcibly taken from his family to be raised as a Christian. A good movie could probably be made about the Native Americans forcibly converted to Mormonism – sometimes after being purchased as slaves and “adopted” by families as unpaid workers — and raised according to beliefs handed down by founder and prophet Joseph Smith. In 1823, Smith proclaimed that American Indians were a branch of a lost tribe of Israel, the Laminites, and the Mormon faith was meant to bring them salvation. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 put an end to the sanctioning of such adoptions, but brought to the fore an argument over whether tribes can dictate what’s in the best interests of an adopted child. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “Pigs in Heaven” deals with just such a case. The sex trade in Southeast Asia and India largely depends on the cooperation of impoverished villagers willing to sell their virgin daughters to traffickers for cash. Dozens of documentaries on the subject – and a movie and TV series, Trade of Innocents and Human Trafficking, both starring Mira Sorvino – have failed to dissuade western tourists from making the abuse of “lost children” profitable.

Toni Erdmann
It isn’t surprising that an American remake of Maren Ade’s thoroughly offbeat comedy Toni Erdmann is already on the drawing table, or that Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig’s names have been attached to it. In Alexander Payne’s not dissimilar About Schmidt (2002), Nicholson played a retired, recently widowed insurance executive who uses the excuse of his estranged daughter’s wedding to make amends for his emotional absence in her life. And, while mainstream comedies Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty have catapulted “SNL” alum Wiig onto Hollywood’s A-list, it’s her mold-breaking performances in such barely seen indies as Nasty Baby, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Skeleton Twins, Hateship Loveship and Welcome to Me that make her an ideal candidate to play the no-nonsense corporate executive forced to accommodate her father’s eccentric behavior. Wiig’s ballsy portrayal of a manic-depressive lottery winner, who finances her own “Oprah”-like talk show, suggests that she’s acutely aware of what made Sandra Hüller’s performance in Toni Erdmann so remarkable. The likelihood that the Hollywood remake might retain the original’s 162-minute length borders on zero, even if it were re-worked to fit the bounds of an easier-to-market PG-13, which would zap many of its funnier moments. (The R-rating accorded Toni Erdmann seemed generous, at least by the usual MPAA standards.) Hüller’s tightly wound Ines Conradi represents the interests of a German management-consultancy firm in Budapest. Negotiations have reached the critical stage, so the last thing she needs in her life is her prankster father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), showing up with his fake teeth and fright wigs. Because Ade has already demonstrated Winfried’s willingness to embarrass loved ones for the sake of a gag, we’re ready for anything to happen when he shows up unannounced not only at his daughter’s doorstep, but at her office, business receptions and dinners with her ex-pat friends. His favorite prank is to dispense gobbledygook advice to anyone willing to spend five minutes in the company of his alter ego, “Toni Erdmann.” Imagine a hybrid of Jerry Lewis and Dr. Irwin Corey – who died two months ago, at 102 – and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the title character’s shtick, which is as off-putting as it is hilarious. Indeed, it takes us almost as long to warm to Winfried as for Ines to figure out how to accommodate his whims. It’s what makes the extreme length – for a dark comedy, anyway – so easy to endure. Special features include commentary with Simonischek, Hüller and producer Janine Jackowski, and an AFI Fest Q&A with Simonischek, Hüller, Jackowski and co-star Ingrid Bisu. Apparently, a Blu-ray version of Toni Erdmann is available through Amazon on manufactured-on-demand basis, using BD-R recordable media.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer
It would take four or five hyphens to classify Pierfrancesco Diliberto’s affectionately drawn comedy, The Mafia Kills Only in Summer, which manages to find the humor, romance, excitement, danger and mystery in one Sicilian boy’s formative years in the mob-controlled city of Palermo. Real events that took place in Sicily between the 1970s and the 1990s provide the background for a film that probably couldn’t have been set anywhere else in the world. No city located outside a warzone was more prone to institutional corruption, targeted bombings and assassinations than the ancient capital of Sicily, a city of roughly 855,285 souls. While most of its residents aren’t affiliated with La Cosa Nostra, very few have been unaffected by its lawlessness. It’s shown through the eyes of Arturo Giammaresi — Alex Bisconti, as Arturo bambino, and the director, as the adult — a sensitive and politically aware child whose story spans 20 years and includes a romance with a pretty little girl, Flora (Ginevra Antona/Cristiana Capotondi), who grows up to become a campaign manager in the embattled city. The bambini are separated just as they’re about to make a puppy-love connection and reunited when she needs a videographer to cover her candidate’s slightly odious campaign. The Mafia Kills Only in Summer is the rare movie that gets away with mocking some bad people — all the major political, judicial and criminal figures depicted are real – while extolling the virtues of the heroes who risk their well-being to clean up a system whose corruption has been accepted as a cruel fact of life by the populace. This includes former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, with whom Arturo maintains a nearly lifelong obsession. (A comparison can be made to Andrew Bergman’s smart and funny The Freshman, in which a film-school student, played by Matthew Broderick, accepts a job with a mob chieftain, played by Marlon Brando, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Don Vito Corleoni, also played by Brando.) Because most of the Mafiosi involved in the crimes illustrated in the movie have since been killed or died in prison, the movie’s final conceit allows for a genuinely sentimental what-did-you-do-in-the-war ending.

Worlds Apart
Recent Academy Award-winner J.K. Simmons is featured on the cover of Christopher Papakaliatis’ topical drama, Worlds Apart, but enters the picture so late that it’s possible to wonder if his presence might be limited to a cameo, intended to tantalize American audiences. In fact, Simmons’ role turns out to be an essential portion of a triptych set against the backdrop of contemporary Greek life. Like the Athenian writer/director’s first feature, What If … (2012), it is informed by the country’s ongoing struggle to survive economic strife and crushing unemployment. Worlds Apart adds Greece’s current dilemma over issues related to becoming a first-stop refuge for immigrants escaping Syria’s civil war and sub-Saharan poverty. It is comprised of three separate narratives, each following a love story between a foreigner and a Greek. In the first, Tawfeek Barhom plays Farris, an immigrant street peddler who rescues a young Greek woman, Niki (Niki Vakali), from an attack and possible gang rape on an Athens street. One day, he recognizes her through the window of the bus taking her home from work. It allows him the opportunity to return the cellphone he recovered from the alley and embark on a tentative friendship. He returns each night to an abandoned jetliner at a decaying airfield outside the city, where dozens of illegal immigrants, some inarguably dangerous, have found shelter. It has become a target for right-wing Greeks who blame the refugees for a rise in crime. In the second narrative, Papakaliatis plays Giorgos, a department supervisor in a foreign-owned company that’s downsizing to squeeze every drachma from its Greek subsidiary. In addition to the problems he faces at work, Giorgos is fighting to keep his head above water paying the bills for family members, including a young son. One night, while drowning his sorrows in a bar, he meets and engages in a one-night stand with a cool Scandinavian blond, Elise (Andrea Osvárt), who kicks him out of her apartment after sex, because she “doesn’t like to sleep with men I don’t know.” It’s the perfect definition of a distinction without a difference. Naturally, Elise and Giorgos are further linked by the fact that she’s his new boss and has charged with initiating, however reluctantly, the severe cuts impacting his co-workers. Nonetheless, the sex is good and she eventually warms to his presence in the sack. In the third interrelated segment, Simmons plays a German ex-pat, Sebastian, who moves to Greece because he loves the country and his marks go further in an economy partially destroyed by his government’s ability to avoid paying debts accrued from the Nazi occupation. After a meet-cute encounter outside a neighborhood market, he and Maria (Maria Kavoyianni) come together on a weekly basis at the same place to chat and narrow the language gap. It’s sweet and innocent, for the most part, but aborted by a freak incident that tangentially links all three couples with the agony and ecstasy that is modern Greece. If some of the coincidences beg credulity, it’s all for a good cause. At home, Worlds Apart became the first movie to exceed 600,000 admissions since December, 2009, when Avatar opened. It was the top-grossing movie in Greece in 2015, surpassing Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Spectre. That has to count for something.

Daughters of the Dust: Blu-ray
Before this year’s Academy Awards nominations were announced, Hollywood insiders held their collective breath in anticipation of another year in which performances by African-American actors, writers and directors were overlooked or ignored, and protests erupted. Given the number of excellent pictures from which to choose, however, it wasn’t likely that the debate would continue for another season. The perceived snubbing of onetime favorite The Birth of a Nation was attributed to the revived controversy surrounding allegations that, while at Penn State, director Nate Parker and story collaborator Jean McGianni Celestin raped a fellow student and, at the time of his trial, Parker had exposed himself to another woman. He was acquitted of all four counts brought against him, while Celestin’s conviction for sexual assault would be overturned several years later.  Neither did more recent comments by Parker, stating that he would refuse to play a gay or stereotyped character, help the picture’s chances. The debate didn’t prevent Parker and The Birth of a Nation from receiving several nominations for Black Reel and Image Award honors or detract from the excellent reviews the film received. Eyebrows were raised, though, when accusations of sexual misconduct against Casey Affleck – later mediated and settled out of court – seemingly were ignored by Oscar nominators and voters. I wouldn’t care to predict how colorful the palette of next year’s Oscar slate will turn out to be, but it’s worth recalling that one of the greatest snubs in Academy Award history came a quarter-century ago in the organization’s total rejection of writer/director Julie Dash’s masterpiece, Daughters of the Dust, newly available in a splendid Blu-ray edition. Ironically, its snubbing is routinely ignored by reporters assigned each year the task of pointing out snubs and surprises in the voting. Arthur Jafa’s impressionistic cinematography, alone, would have warranted a nomination most years. Don’t take my word for it, though. Rent, purchase, download or stream a copy of the elegantly restored film — credit Cohen Media Group, in conjunction with UCLA – and experience it for yourself. Or, you could trust Beyoncé, whose visual interpretation of her album “Lemonade,” on HBO, featured several references to the film.

In addition to its standing as the first wide release by a black female filmmaker, Daughters of the Dust was selected in 2004 to join the Library of Congress’ National Registry of Film in 2004. Thanks to the kinds of articles and documentaries generally reserved for exposure during Black History Month, more Americans than ever before are aware of the Gullah (a.k.a., Geechee) culture that informs every aspect of Dash’s work. Her father was a Gullah from the Sea Islands of Georgia, as was her nanny, who performed certain rituals Dash would only later identify with a specific people and place. Daughters of the Dust tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family, on St. Helena Island, in 1902. It is narrated by the Unborn Child, carried by Eula, a married daughter in the Peazant family, who represents the first generation of black Americans born free. Several of the Gullahs we meet in the movie have already joined the Great Migration, while others will soon seek prosperity outside the agriculturally based South. Matriarch Nana Peazant, who can recall the arrival of the last illegal slave ship, Wanderer, in 1858, will remain on the island after this last family dinner on the beach, if only to maintain the graves of her ancestors and preserve traditions handed down from slaves of Ibo, Yoruba, Kikongo, Mende, Twi and Caribbean extraction. Dash had worked on Daughters of the Dust since 1975, while a student in Los Angeles, finally garnering the necessary $800,000 financing in 1988, from PBS’ “American Playhouse,” to launch full-scale production. Besides the historical and personal references, Dash’s incorporation of magical realism and Gullah creole dialogue make the film altogether unique and wonderfully poetic. The ecstatic response by critics and judges at the 1991 Sundance festival should have given Golden Globe and Oscar nominators sufficient cause to pay attention to film’s limited release 11 months later. Pleading ignorance wouldn’t have been a legitimate excuse to overlook Daughters of the Dust. Considering that it never played on more than 19 screens at the same time, an initial domestic box-office of $1.6 million is remarkable. The beautifully restored Blue-ray adds an interview with Jafa, who would go on to shoot Crooklyn, and be second-unit cinematographer on Eyes Wide Shut, Malcolm X and Selma; a Q&A with Dash; and an interview with Dash and Dr. Stephane Dunn.

War on Everyone: Blu-ray
At a time when police forces around the country are being besieged with complaints over incidents ranging from unwarranted stops and searches, to the questionable use of force against unarmed citizens, it’s probably just as well that John Michael McDonagh’s bad-boy action/comedy War on Everyone wasn’t accorded a theatrical release. I get that it’s designed as a parody of the cop shows of a bygone era, in which a pair of unorthodox dudes could get away with all sorts of mischief, as long as the bad guys paid for their crimes in the end. Here, Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Peña play a consciously malevolent reimagining of “Starsky and Hutch,” with hefty helpings of profanity, homophobia, racial slurs, beatdowns and sexist humor. The London-born filmmaker has already proven that he can handle hyperviolent action in The Guard, Calvary and his screenplay for Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly. A certain number of stylishly executed beatdowns in War on Everyone were only to be expected. It’s the piling on that draws the flag here. In it, Albuquerque police detectives Terry Monroe and Bob Bolaño meet their match in a scheme to steal a million bucks from an aristocratic Brit villain, Lord James Mangan (Theo James), and his lisping sidekick, Russell (Caleb Landry Jones). Not surprisingly, an inordinate amount of time is spent in a strip club that serves as Mangan’s cover. (Where would Hollywood be without the shorthand provided by titty bars?) The real problem comes in knowing that the sun has set on law-enforcement officials who think they can run roughshod over the citizenry – criminals, whores and other shady characters, among them – and not expect to pay for it, even in the popular media. The number of cops who can get away with being cool, ironic and studly, simultaneously, while committing such abuses, is pretty low, as well. Back in the day, the Production Code simply wouldn’t allow it. Paul Reiser plays their chief, who, while questioning their excesses, serves as an enabler. The Blu-ray adds, “Everyone Sounds Off: The Quirky Cast of War on Everyone.”

White Girl
After causing a bit of a stir and Sundance, White Girl suffered the same unkind fate as too many other red-hot indies when they come down from their Rocky Mountain highs. Only a few ride the wave all the way to awards season, while the majority are forced to settle for being picked up for release on DVD and VOD. There simply aren’t enough screens available to accommodate the large number of pictures that are seen and reviewed at Sundance, Telluride and, even, Toronto. Marketing costs are another hurdle altogether. Equal parts urban myth and urban cliché, White Girl forwards the age-old fable of the naïve college girl from the boonies, who moves to the big city and is immediately corrupted by its less savory elements. Rising star Morgan Saylor is extremely credible as Leah, a button-cute blond who no sooner unpacks the boxes in her new Queens apartment than she hooks up with a street-corner dealer, Blue (Brian Marc), mostly with the sole intention of getting high. It doesn’t take long for Leah to go from pot to cocaine and begin having rough-and-tumble sex with him, though. While that’s not particularly unusual, she also allows herself to be seduced by her boss at the job arranged through her school and become the middle (wo)man for cocaine (a.k.a., white girl) provided by Blue. Leah not only ends up getting hooked on the drugs she’s selling, but also the hot sex he provides and the thrill that comes with becoming a big shot at the nightclub she frequents with her insatiable friends. All sorts of complications arise from this situation, not all of them predictable. As nice a guy as Blue appears to be, at first, he answers to dealers who drive hard bargains and have a sixth sense for potential welshers. When Blue gets in trouble, Leah turns to a lawyer (Chris Noth) known for getting small-timers out of jail. His expertise comes at a stiff price, as well. By the time things sort themselves out, Leah has absorbed more about crisis management than she could learn in a classroom. In her freshman feature, Elizabeth Wood (Wade in the Water, Children) does a nice job capturing the contrasting vibes that electrify neighborhoods in the process of being gentrified, and the naivete of young people willing to cross boundaries without looking both ways, first. Leah’s increasingly high-stakes pursuit of hedonistic pleasures, we’re told, was inspired by Wood’s own experiences

After launching four well-received theatrical features on the LGBT festival circuit, it would nice if some deep-pocketed fellow gave John G. Young an opportunity to find success in the wider indie market. At this point in his career, money, or lack thereof, would appear to be an impediment to expanding his horizons. Bwoy is an example of bare-bones cinema that works, but probably could have been shot in three differently decorated phone booths, with a cellphone, with the same positive results. The deceptively simple premise also would fit a trifurcated stage. In Jamaican patois, “bwoy” is slang for boy, while “batty bwoy” is a pejorative term for a male who’s gay, bisexual or effeminate. Its use here is ironic, in the same way that the n-word once was deployed in titles during the blaxploitation era. In fact, Jamaica plays a crucial role in the advancement of the drama here. After suffering a great personal loss and the rupturing of his marriage, fortysomething phone-solicitor Brad O’Connor (Anthony Rapp) has come to the end of his tether. He’s finally decided to acknowledge his homosexuality, if only on the down-low, via the Internet. After a mind-numbing eight hours spent attempting to collect debts by phone, he ignores his patient African-American wife, Marcia (De’Adre Aziza), and heads straight for the man-cave in the basement of their Schenectady home. Brad is new to the online-sex game, where honesty and sensitivity are reserved for suckers. He gets no responses to his early postings, but plenty when he stretches the truth to fit the desires of respondents. Brad finds a playmate in Yenny (Jimmy Brooks), a handsome 23-year-old Jamaican, who quickly discerns the older man’s desire to serve as a father figure. After he breaks his cherry on Skype, things quickly evolve to the point where he become obsessed with Yennie and begins sending him money. No surprise, there. The story then takes a turn so unexpected that it reshapes the drama, opening it up for a bit of Jamaican sunshine to restore some needed light. The distance between New York and the Caribbean disappears in an instant. Despite the cramped quarters, the acting sells the story, which, in different hands, could have turned into a masturbatory trifle.

Dead or Alive Trilogy: Blu-ray
With 102 directing credits listed on his resume, Takashi Miike has undoubtedly been one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers of the past quarter-century, regardless of genre. The vast majority are feature-length and almost impossible to encapsulate in a few sentences. Miike may have begun his apprenticeship under two-time Palme d’Or winner Shôhei Imamura (The Ballad of Narayama, The Eel), but he is as close to being self-taught and self-motivated as anyone who’s made a career in the cinema dodge. While most of us were introduced to his work through his way-beyond-creepy Audition (1999), such divergent entertainments as Black Society Trilogy, Shinjuku Triad Society, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, Over Your Dead Body, Zebraman and Ichi: The Killer have been given the red-carpet treatment by Shout! Factory and Arrow Video. For sheer gonzo excitement, it would be difficult to top his Dead or Alive Trilogy. Ostensibly, all three films — Dead or Alive, Dead or Alive 2: Birds, Dead or Alive: Final – are about gang wars pitting rival Chinese triads and Japanese Yakuza mobsters against a dogged enforcer, who could be a distant cousin of Wayne Newton and Don Ho. If none of the three titles is a direct sequel to the other, all of them star Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa. In Part One, Takeuchi plays the gangster Ryuuichi, who, along with his ethnically Chinese gang, is making a play to take over the drug trade in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district by massacring the competition. Detective Jojima (Aikawa), who sports a black trench coat, shades and a pompadour hairdo, uses his wiles and weapons to get the triads and Yakuza to thin out each other’s ranks, so that he can finish them off. It’s distinguished by perverse sexuality, stylized violence and clowns. In “Birds,” Aikawa and Takeuchi are together again, but as competing Yakuza assassins.  After a botched hit, the childhood friends flee to their home island and dedicate themselves to killing in the name of peace. In “Final,” Takeuchi and Aikawa are catapulted into a post-apocalyptic Yokohama that’s ruled by multilingual gangs, cyborg soldiers and a nutso mayor. They will butt heads, until the outrageously conceived finale, when they’re joined forever in a steampunk rapture. Miike’s raw display of unfettered imagination is nothing short of exhilarating. The special edition is enhanced by high-definition digital transfers of all three films; original uncompressed stereo; new interviews with actors Takeuchi and Aikawa, and producer/screenwriter Toshiki Kimura; new audio commentary for Dead or Alive by Miike biographer Tom Mes; archive interviews with cast and crew; vintage making-of featurettes for “DOA2: Birds” and “DOA: Final”; original theatrical trailers; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Orlando Arocena; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger.

Ludwig: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After watching Arrow Academy’s exquisitely restored edition of Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1973), I went on line to learn which monarch was crazier, Britain’s “Mad King” George III or “Mad King” Ludwig II of Bavaria, both of whose insanity has been documented in grandiose fashion on film. According to the TopTenz website, these men were only Nos. 10 and 7 on the top-10 list of wacko royals. (For those keeping score at home, the leading loony was Charles IX of France, who ascended to the crown only after all of the others in line for the job died.)  George III and Ludwig II had other things going for them, when lucid, but may best be recalled in posterity for the biopics made by Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett, Visconti and co-writer Enrico Medioli. Of the two films, The Madness of King George fared much better at the box office and awards ceremonies. Ludwig was the final piece in Visconti’s so-called German Trilogy, which also included The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971). All of them dealt with one form of depravity, or another, including several things the MPAA tends to lump together as “aberrant sexuality.” In fact, though, when compared to the other films, Ludwig is rather tame. Even in the longer, preferred cut edition, the male nudity is either quite brief or shown from a distance. There isn’t any sex to speak of, either. That shouldn’t dissuade anyone from tackling the 238-minute cut, however. Ludwig remains notable, if only for Visconti and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi’s celebration of such grand Bavarian locations as Roseninsel, Berg Castle, Lake Starnberg, Castle Herrenchiemsee, Castle Hohenschwangau, Linderhof Palace, Cuvilliés Theatre, Nymphenburg Palace, Ettal, Kaiservilla and Neuschwanstein Castle. The stigma attached to Ludwig when it was released derived from at least two severe edits demanded by European and America distributors, undertaken after Visconti had suffered a stroke. When it was first shown in New York, it ran 173 minutes. It would lose another half-hour on its way to the hinterlands. The nearly four-hour edition is complemented here by the television mini-series cut, which is at least as long. While no barn-burn, it benefits from some fine acting by Helmut Berger, as the king; Romy Schneider, as Empress Elisabeth of Austria; Trevor Howard, as composer Richard Wagner, a beneficiary of Ludwig’s foolhardy largess; Silvana Mangano, Wagner’s imperious wife Cosima von Bulow; and Gert Fröbe, as Father Hoffman. There’s also the splendid Alpine scenery, Piero Tosi’s Oscar-nominated costume design and a soundtrack that’s heavy on Wagner and Jacques Offenbach. Among the highlights for me were Ludwig’s truly bizarre entrances, by boat, through indoor swan pools. The limited edition features a 4K restoration from the original film negative; two viewing options, the full-length theatrical cut or as five individual parts; original Italian soundtrack and English soundtrack, available on home video for the first time; a new interview with Berger; “Luchino Visconti,” an hourlong documentary portrait of the director by Carlo Lizzani, containing vintage interviews with Burt Lancaster, Vittorio Gassman, Francesco Rosi and Claudia Cardinale; an entertaining interview with script collaborator, Suso Cecchi d’Amico; “Silvana Mangano: The Scent of a Primrose,” a half-hour portrait of the actress; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector s booklet containing new writing by Peter Cowie.

Sword Master: Blu-ray
Longtime fans of Hong Kong martial-arts epics will recognize Sword Master as a technically superior updating of the Shaw Brother’s 1977 wuxia pian, Death Duel. Fans of American Westerns and Japanese Samurai flicks are likely to find many similarities between those two films – adapted from a novel by Gu Long – and American genre films and TV episodes in which a retired gunslinger is required by circumstances to strap on his weapon one last time to defend his honor or die trying. In Derek Yee’s 2016 version, the Third Master of the reigning Hsieh clan (Lin Gengxin) has so grown weary of killing people in the defense of other people’s interests that he disguises himself as Ah Chi, a lowly servant in a brothel. His cover is blown when he’s stabbed several times by thugs attacking a prostitute, popularly known as Sweetie (Jiang Mengjie). Another wandering swordsman, Yan (Peter Ho), intends to prompt a duel with Third Master to test his own skill, but an impending war between various martial-arts houses poses a threat to both of the old-school warriors. It inspires a high-flying battle royal, with lots of cool wuxia action, likely supervised by producer Tsui Hark. While some critics have argued that the CGI and fairytale backgrounds occasionally detract from the swordplay, Sword Master is a lot of fun and easily accessible to wuxia beginners. The 3D edition of the film has yet to be released here. The Blu-ray comes with a making-of featurette.

Mad Families
Standing 6-foot-3, writer/director Fred Wolf has repeatedly proven that he can take a punch. He survived the early cancellations of talk shows hosted by Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase, becoming head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” throughout most of the 1990s. He’s also weathered the scathing reviews received as co-writer, with, among others, David Spade and Adam Sandler, of Joe Dirt, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, both Grown Ups and the completely unnecessary direct-to-Crackle Joe Dirt: Beautiful Loser and straight-to-Internet Mad Families. For all the insults hurled at those movies by critics, Wolf was handed the director and co-writer’s reins of the slightly higher profile Drunk Parents, with Alex Baldwin, Salma Hayek, Joe Manganiello and Bridget Moynahan. Made with former “SNL” collaborator and Strange Wilderness  partner Peter Gaulke, it was scheduled for a March release, but appears to have been made available for free – legally or illegally, I don’t know — on Internet services. According to his mini-bio on IMDB, Wolf splits his time between Carmel and Santa Fe. If still true, Mad Families’ tanking probably won’t put a dent in his lifestyle. It’s set over a July 4 weekend at the Salt Stone State Park, whose campsites have been overbooked to the point where three families — Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian – are required to share one spot. It appears to be large enough to accommodate all three, but where would be the fun in that? Since none of them volunteer to split the scene, they agree to compete in a series of competitions to determine a winner. One requires the characters to participate in a contest to decide who can come up the best racist joke. There’s also an agonizing race around the pond. Several gags involve Charlotte McKinney’s ample bosom and short-shorts, while the drama derives from the Hispanic daughter and African-American son’s unannounced plans to be married. Charlie Sheen and Leah Remini headline a cast that also includes Finesse Mitchell, Naya Rivera, Barry Shabaka Henley, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Efren Ramirez and Danny Mora.

Dark Waters: Blu-ray
The Other Hell: Blu-ray
As is often the case with obscure genre titles distributed by such niche companies as Severin Films, the journey can be more interesting than the destination. Newly transferred into high def from their original 35mm negatives or prints, prime nunsploitation specimens Dark Waters (1993) and The Other Hell (1981) fit that description to a “T.” The only difference from such classics as Ken Russell’s The Devils, Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic, Jesus Franco’s Love Letters of the Portuguese Nun, Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls and Nigel Wingrove’s Sacred Flesh, is that they’re largely free of nudity and lesbian sex. (Yeah, I know, then what’s the point?)They are, however, loaded with sadistic violence, gore, spooky Catholic iconography, endangered babies, blood-stained habits and stylistically ominous cinematography. In the interview section of the Dark Waters Blu-ray, Naples-native Mariano Baino explains how his fascination with horror began at age 8, during a school visit to Rome. While there, he purchased a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch-House” — presumably not in the Vatican gift shop – and became hooked on studying things on the dark side of life. Ten years later, he entered Rome’s Experimental Centre of Cinematography, where he was handed the tools to the trade. His short cannibalistic fantasy, “Caruncula,” attracted the attention newly wealthy Russian producer Victor Zuev, who offered initial financing for a feature, as long as it was made in post-Chernobyl Ukraine. While there, Baino encountered more setbacks in a month than many filmmakers face in a lifetime, from losing his studio space in a deal brokered by his corrupt production manager, to nearly having his cast and crew asphyxiated in the poorly ventilated Odessa Catacombs. In a nutshell, the plot focuses on a young Englishwoman, Elizabeth (Louise Salter), who returns to the island of her birth, both to investigate a convent her recently deceased father has been making payments to for years and visit a friend in residence there … before her mysterious death, at least. Apparently, the nuns are killing people at the behest of the Mother Superior, who looks as if she has just risen from the dead. She’s directed to a decaying library, hidden laboratories and a blind oracle/painter in the catacombs, who warns of demon cult and a Beast in the basement. The Blu-ray adds more than four hours of commentary to this Lovecraft-inspired ditty, with Baino; the featurettes, “Lovecraft Made Me Do It,” “Let There Be Water,” “Controlling the Uncontrollable” and “Deep Into the Dark Waters”; an intro; deleted scenes; a silent blooper reel with commentary by Baino; short films, “Dream Car,” “Caruncula” and “Never Ever After”; and a piece on the making of “Never Ever After.”

The Other Hell was made by Bruno Mattei, a director known affectionately as “The Italian Ed Wood,” for his ability to churn out exploitation flicks and “shockumentaries” that most of his peers would be embarrassed to make … unless they needed a gig. Mattei also enjoyed the distinction of having more pseudonyms than any working director on the planet. They include Vincent Dawn (Mondo Cannibal, Snuff Killer), Gilbert Roussel (Women’s Prison Massacre), J. Metheus (Emanuelle and the Erotic Nights), Jimmy Matheus (Libidomania), Jimmy B. Matheus (Cicciolina amore mio), William Snyder (Cruel Jaws) and Stefan Oblowsky (The True Story of the Nun of Monza, The Other Hell). Filmed mostly at Rome’s Convento di Santa Priscilla and Naples’ Cimitero delle Fontanelle, The Other Hell doesn’t look any worse for the wear of miniscule budgets and cut-rate production values. It opens with a nun searching for one of her fellow sisters in the lower levels of a convent. After making her way through the well-stocked ossuary, she arrives in what first appears to be a mad scientist’s lab, but is soon revealed to be a poorly lit embalmers’ chamber. It’s here that we’re treated to a lesson on how to embalm a sinful nun, the first step of which is to identify where the sin derived and thrust a knife into it. In this case, she’s told, the nun on the slab had been impregnated by Satan … so, you make the leap. The unsuccessfully aborted spawn is a monster with black body hair and demonic eyes, who suckles at the breast of the embalmed corpse of the convent’s former Mother Superior, which is stored in a closet. It’s just as yummy as it sounds.  A couple of priests are imported to investigate the rash of killings, with the younger, new-school cleric using modern methodology to find the source of the evil. While Mattei employs some fancy-schmancy effects and cinematography, the story rests on good old-fashioned stabbings, stigmata, Satanism, violence, graphic savagery, immolation and a severed head. The Other Hell stars Franca Stoppi, Carlo De Mejo and Franco Garofalo; was written by Claudio Fragasso (Rats: Night of Terror, Troll 2); and features a score “borrowed” from Goblin. It’s been newly transferred from a 35mm print allegedly discovered behind a false wall in a Bologna convent. The Blu-ray adds commentary with co-cirector/co-writer Claudio Fragasso, moderated by Freak-O-Rama’s Federico Caddeo; an amusing interview with Stoppi, who played Sister Franca; and “To Hell And Back,” archival interviews with Mattei and De Mejo.

House: Two Stories: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Released at the zenith of Hollywood’s slasher era, 1986, House is a haunted-domicile thriller that exploits another then-current conceit: the Vietnam veteran so traumatized by the war that he’s a hazard to himself and people around him. PTSD had officially been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, but only as an anxiety disorder, not the more paralyzing “trauma- and stressor-related disorder” it would become. At the time, almost all slasher and splatter films were rated “R,” with plenty of gratuitous violence and nudity, if not always sex and pubic hair. The only problem facing director Steve Miner and producer Sean S. Cunningham – early veterans of the Friday the 13th franchise – was the fact that House, for all its well-earned thrills and chills, was a picture on the verge of being rated “PG-13.” The rating was added in 1984 to bridge the gap separating borderline attractions, such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, and the clearly rougher Friday the 13th and Halloween. Short of adding of a shower scene or decapitation in post, it’s possible that a second F-bomb could have be added to the dialogue. Like Robert Mandel’s extremely clever thriller, F/X, whose “R” was attributed to crude language, House could hold its own in the jump-scare department, with some demonic creatures and nightmarish flashbacks experienced by the protagonist, played by William Katt.  Made for a modest $3 million, it returned $18.5 million at the domestic box office and spawned three so-so sequels, including House II: The Second Story, included in the Arrow set.

The original opens with a boy discovering the lifeless body of his aunt hanging from a ceiling fixture in the second-story bedroom of her Victorian-style house. Several years later, Roger Cobb (Katt), a horror novelist struggling to pen his next bestseller, inherits the creaky old mansion and moves in, despite the still-vivid memory of her death and, worse, the disappearance of his son at the same residence. Roger’s obsessive search for the boy destroys his marriage to Sandy (Kay Lenz) and his writing career. What the heck, he figures, the ghosts might even serve to untangle his writer’s block. Instead, the things that go bump in the night are either real live monsters or hallucinations. Meanwhile, his dreams take him back to Vietnam. That, or a Hollywood depiction of Roger’s time in-country. It’s not always easy to tell. Helping him escape his dilemma is the son of the blond bombshell across the street, who, while being babysat by Roger, stumbles upon portals to supernatural worlds protected by the house. Miner succeeds in tying up the loose ends and delivering a payoff that, if not terribly frightening, is entirely satisfying.

Two years later, the PG-13 onus has gone away, allowing co-writer/director Ethan Wiley the freedom to make a movie that teens could enjoy, as well as older horror buffs. “It’s an all new house with brand new owners,” read the ads for House II: The Second Story. Yuppies Jesse (Arye Gross) and Kate (Lar Park Lincoln) move into the same old Gothic mansion in which his parents died in 25 years earlier. (Why do people do that?) Not long afterward, his buddy, Charlie (Jonathan Stark), and his girlfriend, Lana (Amy Yasbeck), roll into town for a housewarming visit. While the ladies chill, Jesse and Charlie pore through the books and photo albums contained in the library and basement, discovering evidence that could lead to an Aztec treasure. It takes them to the grave of Jesse’s great-great-grandad (Royal Dano), where, they believe, a key piece of the puzzle can be found. The lads do what any clear-thinking yuppie would do: dig up Gramps’ casket, open the lid and lift out the crystal skull in the corpse’s hands. Surprise, surprise … Gramps’ previously lifeless hands grab Jesse’s arm, suggesting that we now have a zombie movie on our hands. Well, sort of. Gramps turns out to be a spry old geezer, after all, becoming Charlie’s booger buddy overnight. “House II” then turns into a comic adventure that combines elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future and One Million Years B.C. There’s nothing to gain by spoiling the fun, except to point out that George Wendt and John Ratzenberger play substantial supporting roles in the films, practically reprising their Norm and Cliff roles, in “Cheers.” Also showing up, in “House II,” is aspiring actor Bill Maher, as a music-industry weasel hoping to steal Kate away from Jesse. The restored Limited Edition package contains “The House Companion,” a 60-page book, featuring new writing on the entire franchise by researcher Simon Barber, alongside archival material; commentary with Miner, Cunningham, Katt and Wiley; “Ding Dong, You’re Dead! The Making of House,” a new documentary, featuring interviews with Miner, Cunningham, Wiley, story creator Fred Dekker, stars Katt, Lenz, and Wendt, composer Harry Manfredini, special make-up and creature-effects artists Barney Burman, Brian Wade, James Belohovek, Shannon Shea, Kirk Thatcher and Bill Sturgeon, special paintings artists Richard Hescox and William Stout, and stunt coordinator Kane Hodder; and a stills gallery.

Cathy’s Curse: Blu-ray
Lake Eerie
Fear Town, USA/The Slashening: Double Feature: Blu-ray
The Blackout Experiments
The Ungovernable Force
Crimson Nights
Dream Stalker/Death by Love
Once again, the good folks at Severin Films have performed yeoman’s work in rescuing and restoring a long-ignored genre gem: the 1977 Canuxploitation classic, Cathy’s Curse (a.k.a., “Cauchemars”). Although it looks primitive, especially by the standards set by such cruel-kids thrillers as The Omen, Eddy Matalon’s Quebec-set film demonstrated that credible special effects could done on the cheap and laughs could be had at the expense of unsuspecting victims. That it was completely taken for granted at the time of its release and, of course, butchered to fit time constraints was par for the course for non-studio products, as well. Even when viewed primarily as a precursor to the slicky made horror flicks of the later-1970s-80s, Cathy’s Curse is fun to watch. Matalon moved from France to Montreal to take advantage of the same tax breaks American and British filmmakers were exploiting in Toronto and Vancouver. Canada’s Capital Cost Allowance would be severely reduced in 1982, but the path had already been laid by such beauties as My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Prom Night, Terror Train and Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (“The Picture With The Warning Bell!”). In Matalon’s film, co-scripted with Myra Clément and Alain Sens-Cazenave, a young girl is roasted alive in a car accident after being abducted by her cuckolded and, therefore, misogynistic father. Thirty years later, her grown brother (Alan Scarfe) returns to their childhood home with his mentally unstable wife (Beverley Murray) and daughter, Cathy (Randi Allen). Almost as soon as the movers pack up and leave, the dead aunt’s vengeful spirit possesses the child through a demonic doll. Curiously, she also inherits her grandfather’s sexist diatribes. Cathy’s dad can’t imagine his little angel being so cruel, so dismisses her participation in a series of nasty accidents to visitors and potential guardians. Two of the set pieces are especially juicy: when Cathy is introduced to neighbor kids, she persuades them to restage the accident in which her aunt and granddad were turned into toast; later, Cathy gets the old caretaker (Roy Witham) drunk, so that she can sic a menagerie of imaginary critters on him. It gets wilder from there. The new Blu-ray includes the 81-minute U.S. release edit and 91-minute director’s cut); “Tricks and Treats,” an interview with Matalon; “Cathy & Mum,” interviews with Randi Allen and costume designer Joyce Allen; commentary on the U.S. cut by BirthMoviesDeath critic Brian Collins and filmmaker Simon Barrett; and an introduction to Cinematic Void screening at American Cinematheque by Collins.

Lake Eerie shares a few things in common with other thrillers mentioned here, not the least of them being a house that’s revitalized after standing abandoned for a few decades. This time, though, the previous owner mysteriously vanished while on an archeological expedition in Egypt. As if the crazy lady next-door, who delivers muffins to the traumatized widow, isn’t sufficiently ominous, there are neighbors who won’t go near the place and a dark presence that speaks Egyptian and tracks sand all over the hardwood floors. (Although Egyptology does play a role in the narrative, I made up the last two plot points.) If the rest of the story is fairly predictable, we are given a brief glimpse of the always-welcome Lance Hendrickson. The music was supplied by the aforementioned Harry Manfredini (House).

The double-feature packaging of Fear Town, USA and The Slashening is noteworthy only as a reclamation project by Troma. Adding Blu-ray to the presentation does nothing to improve their stories – both directed by Brandon Bassham — but it’s an upgrade from the cheesy audio/visuals already on display to YouTube Red subscribers. “Fear Town” takes place on the fictitious St. Blevins Day holiday, when four boys looking to lose their virginity, a girl haunted by a dark secret, a lonely teenager and an escaped mental patient all meet at a party in the woods. (Exclamation points optional.) In “Slashening,” a slumber party is thrown by best friends Lucy, Eva, Ashley, Beth and Margot … but, as we all know, “MURDER NEVER SLUMBERS!!!!!.” The actresses must have had no-nudity clauses in their contracts, because, sadly, there isn’t any. Troma has enhanced the package with commentary on “Fear Town” and the company’s standard array of promotional features: “Radiation March,” trailers and teasers to more representative products.

Paul M. McAlarney’s The Ungovernable Force is extreme, even by the standards usually applied by Troma, whose films revel in gratuitous sex, violence and about everything else some viewers might consider to be offensive. Some might recall McAlarney’s previous stroke of genius, Hillbilly Holocaust, in which surviving members of the Manson Family leave their bunker, years after Charlie’s death, expecting to enjoy life in post-Helter-Skelter America. As crazy as it was, Honky Holocaust wasn’t completely lacking in entertainment value. I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ungovernable Force, whose links to Troma appear to begin and end with appearances by Debbie Rochon and Lloyd Kaufman, whose voice also was heard in “HH.” Here, A gang of misfit punks teams up with a local community of bums (a.k.a., homeless gentlemen) to defeat a fascist sheriff and his two deputies. The resistance leader, Sal Purgatory (Jake Vaughan), is experiencing the anxiety the comes with becoming an over-the-hill punk and sex-shop employee. The film takes aim at fascism, police brutality, sexism, classism, racism, homophobia and political correctness. The cast includes punk “icons” Steve Ignorant from CRASS, Nick Cash from 999, Steve Lake from Zounds, Mensi from Angelic Upstarts, Paul Russo from the Unseen and Tony Moran (Michael Myers, in the original Halloween). The soundtrack features Flux of Pink Indians, Paranoid Visions, the Kids, Raxola, Who Killed Spikey Jacket and Eskorbuto. No, I haven’t heard of them, either.

Rich Fox’s innovative horror documentary The Blackout Experiments introduces us to a real-life fad in which volunteers, chosen via Facebook, allow themselves to be subjected to all manner of psychological manipulation, abuse and degradation, in an empty commercial space “blacked out” with plastic tarp. After being blindfolded or gagged, the disoriented participants will be treated to forced nudity, verbal abuse, restraints, brief suffocation and waterboarding … just like all of those Taliban rascals. The immersive horror experience, one supposes, helps them locate places in the recesses of their subconscious mind that need a bit of work … either that, or get their rocks off in scary sexual situations.  We’re told that the experiments and footage are “100% real.” Like everything else on the planet, we’re also told that the experience can be addictive and some participants need to be weaned off it. The DVD adds deleted scenes, an interview with the Blackout creators and bonus footage.

If anyone deserves a star on a Walk of Fame, it’s sexploitation superstar Misty Mundae. She’s accrued 83 acting credits over the past 20 years — Spider-Babe, Play-Mate of the Apes, The Lord of the G-Strings, Dickshark, among themand has also dabbled in behind-the-camera work. For a long time, the East St. Louis native drifted between hard- and soft-core assignments, as well as appearing in genre fare. As Erin Brown, she also co-starred in the late-night Skinemax soap, “Lingerie.” In a plot that might have inspired this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” Sinful imagines Mundae as an infertile woman so desperate for a child that she’s willing to kill for the opportunity to steal the fetus growing inside the womb of a neighbor (Erica Smith). Since skin flicks tend to avoid any mention of pregnancy, then, Sinful is pretty ambitious. A lot of the star’s fans will be put off their feed by the prop fetuses, and the dialogue is frequently absurd. Even so, it’s easy to see that Mundae and Smith are attempting to elevate the drama beyond the limits of the genre. (Why bother?) It includes footage from Erica Smith’s audition; a seven-minute behind-the-scenes segment and six-minute interview with Mundae; two clips from the 2006 New Jersey International Film and Screenplay Festival, including a Q&A, in which Jeff Faoro (Shock-O-Rama Cinema) chats with Mundae and Smith; liner notes written by Merle Bertrand; and commentary with director Tony Marsiglia who discuses writing the screenplay, directing, the cast and the difficulties of shooting a film in five days.

Mundae can be found in the Crimson Nights (1999) package, but only if one makes it as far as the bonus features, in which she co-stars alongside scream queen Ruby LaRocca (Where the Dead Go to Die) in William Hellfire’s 24-minute Peeping in a Girl’s Dormitory (2000). There’s plenty more girl-girl action in the feature, in which Roberta Orlandi (“True Blood”) stars as Susan, a voluptuous woman who embarks upon a sexually charged rampage after being infected with a virulent strain of blood-born plague. It moves from victim to victim like a game of tag played by vampires. Unfortunately, the nudity and shower scenes are the only things Jeffrey Arsenault’s blood fest has going for it. The DVD arrives with a vintage peep show and trailers from the Seduction Cinema vault.

Knowing that the pair of films that comprise Intervision’s Dream Stalker/Death by Love double-feature were shot on video for release on VHS cassettes, it’s easier the cut them some slack. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to spend more than five minutes with either of them. In the former, a Sacramento model is haunted by the corpse of her motocross-racer ex-boyfriend. After rising from the dead, Ricky (Mark Dias) not only revisits Kitty (Diane Cardea) for a midnight quickie, but also to murder her new boyfriend and the undertaker who botched his posthumous makeup session. If, God forbid, a remake were attempted today on a cellphone camera, the visuals in both pictures would look significantly better. The dialogue, acting and cinematography, however, are different stories. Nothing could save them. The original director even took legal action to strike his name from the credits … or, so we’re told in the bonus interviews. Death by Love, at least, benefits from significantly more exposed skin. Producer/director/writer/star/contractor Alan Grant plays a babe-magnet sculptor whose girlfriends all end up dead with their throats ripped open. Meanwhile, he’s being spied upon by an unknown person and followed by a pair of cops. Almost none of it makes any sense and the production values are non-existent. As vanity projects go, however, it qualifies as being so bad, it’s funny. The package comes with featurettes “Remembering Ricky,” with Mark Dias; “Dirt Bike Dreams,” with executive producer Tom Naygrow; “Alan Grant Remembers Death by Love,” via Skype; and “Yvonne Aric and Brad Bishop Remember Death By Love,” via Skype.

For his first feature, Backgammon, Francisco Orvañanos had the great good fortune to rent, borrow or steal the kind of out-of-the-way mansion, in Maine, that other filmmakers and location scouts might wish they’d discovered first and kept word of it to themselves. The hilltop setting provides sparkling long-distance views of the ocean, interrupted only by an unspoiled pasture that angles gently to the rocky coastline and almost demands to be traversed barefooted. The house’s handcrafted fixtures would whet any sophisticated traveler’s appetite for fireside lounging, leisurely dinners and expensive cognac, served in antique crystal snifters. Sadly, most viewers will be left to wonder how such a heavenly spot could be wasted on such an insignificant story. Orvañanos had the right idea, at least. When Ivy League wimp, Lucian (Noah Silver) arrives at the mansion with college friends Andrew (Christian Alexander) and Elizabeth (Olivia Crocicchia), for a weekend vacation, they don’t expect to find Andrew’s kittenish sister, Miranda (Brittany Allen), and her Baudelaire-obsessed boyfriend, Gerald (Alex Beh), already ensconced there. Andrew and Elizabeth decide that five’s a crowd and split early, leaving Lucian to fend with the precocious painter and his flirtatious red-haired muse. Not having read the R.B. Russell’s novella, “Bloody Baudelaire,” from which Backgammon was adapted, it’s difficult to ascertain where the blame for the ensuing exchanges of dopey dialogue ought to be placed. By the end of the second evening, though, Gerald has lost all his nude paintings – for which Miranda modeled — to Lucien in a drunken card game, and completely disappears from view. Taking advantage of his absence, Miranda freely toys with Lucien, who appears to believe that either Gerald and/or his girlfriend are spying on them through a peep hole or hidden camera. Over time, the sexual tension dissipates like the air from a tire with a slow, but persistent leak … just like our curiosity over where Gerald might have gone. The scenery is nice, anyway.

Lonely Boys
Jules and Saul are best friends at loose ends. Both have recently broken up with their significant others and will soon lose their sources of income. One drinks and the other is trying to stop. They look alike and squabble like brothers. That’s really all we know about Jules and Saul, before being asked to empathize with their plights. Dan Simon, who plays struggling playwright Jules, directed and co-wrote Lonely Boys, with Patrick Davin (The White Russian) and Gregory Lay, who portrays the soon-to-be-divorced Saul. When low-budget indies are this incestuous, they tend to demand things of viewers they haven’t earned, in this case a reason to really care about the characters’ search for happiness. They’re surrounded by convivial and attractive women, but are so consumed with their own problems they eventually wear out their welcome with them, too. Things pick up when the guys leave Brooklyn and head to Connecticut for a beachside weekend and more failed opportunities to heal their wounds. At one point, just as Jules is about to break the ice with a pleasant brunette, he is stricken with an anxiety attack so intense that he’s forced to beg off. I suppose it was meant to be funny, but comes off as just one more inexplicable blunder. Even so, anyone undergoing withdrawal from the final episode of “Girls” might feel right at home with these archetypal millennials.

Claire in Motion
Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson’s follow-up to Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, which got some critical attention in 2012, serves the same purpose as a Richter scale as it measures the emotional stability of a woman who’s lost her husband, literally, to forces she and we never quite grasp. Betsy Brandt (“Life in Pieces”) is quite effective as the title character in Claire in Motion, a movie that’s less interested in solving the mystery than painting a portrait of a woman who suddenly realizes that her husband’s lover knows more about him than she does. Both Claire and her husband, Paul, teach at a college in Ohio. He’s in the art department, while she’s a math instructor. When Paul doesn’t come home one night, Claire’s head spins with possible reasons. She knows that he fancies himself to be an amateur survivalist, so she conducts her own search in a nearby forest, where he might have fallen off a cliff and his body could have disappeared from easy view. It isn’t until she goes to his office to retrieve his property that she meets his pretty blond “graduate assistant,” Allison (Anna Margaret Hollyman), who’s almost shockingly forthcoming with information about Paul. She points to a sculpture and drawings representing flight, which make Claire think he took up skydiving to understand more about it. (There’s a metaphor in there, somewhere.) When Allison also picks up on their son’s need to know more about his departed dad, she works with him on some simple sculptures. It’s sad to watch Claire come unglued over her own possible shortcomings, when all signs point to her husband going middle-age crazy and succumbing both to his vanity and the magnetism of a blond half his age. She’s better off without a guy who thinks he can hide out in a state park in frigging Ohio for a few weeks and, suddenly, he’s Robinson Crusoe.

PBS: Masterpiece: To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Divided States of America
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Panda-monium
Nickelodeon: Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: It’s Ladybug
Unlike most BBC mini-series that wind up on PBS affiliates, the two-episode “Masterpiece” presentation “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters” times in at two easy-on-the-eyes hours. Filmed mostly in ever-gorgeous Yorkshire, with the family’s home village of Haworth being used extensively, Sally Wainwright’s story offers an excellent representation of life around the moorland of scenic Penistone Hill in the 1840s. With the original Parsonage at Haworth not made available for filming, a dead-on replica of it was constructed there. The drama focuses on the relationship of the three Bronte sisters — Charlotte, Emily and Anne — and their artist brother, Branwell, at a critical juncture of the family’s history. With their father half-blind and Branwell struggling with addictions to alcohol, laudanum and opium, the sisters’ dreams of making a living as writers had yet to be realized. They dared not reveal the true identities of the pseudonymous brothers, Acton, Currer and Ellis Bell, but the time was drawing near when they might be required to do so. Wainright introduces the siblings as wildly imaginative children, their minds literally aflame with ideas. By the time they enter their 20s, the sisters’ precocious ambitions are weighed down by Branwell’s decline and their dad’s financial needs. Still, they can’t help but write and prey for a miracle. Finn Atkins, Chloe Pirrie and Charlie Murphy not only are able to capture the sisters’ strikingly different personalities, but they also mimic Branwell’s family portrait, from which he deleted his own image. The title is taken from a clergyman’s observation about Curren Bell’s ability to work in anonymity, “What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible?” The Blu-ray adds background featurettes.

The two-part “Frontline” presentation, “Divided States of America,” examines how President Obama’s promise change and unity was derailed almost as soon as he was inaugurated, by the realities of race-based politics in Washington. As we now know, Republican congressmen vowed early on to cripple every initiative proposed by the White House, for as long as he would be in office, no matter how negotiable they might have been. The perception of Obama outside the capital changed drastically, as well, as he was blamed for his inability to deliver on pledges made during his campaign. Part Two examines racial tensions in America, the war for control of the GOP and the growing dysfunction in Washington, which led to the election of perceived outsider Donald Trump. Today, Trump is facing many of the same obstacles that stymied Obama, in reverse. It’s a provocative documentary, even as our memory of those hopeful days of yesteryear fade into despair.

This time around, in “Wild Kratts: Panda-monium,” kids are invited to join Martin Kratt and Chris Kratt as they learn about some of the amazing features of giant pandas, red pandas, golden pheasants and snowy owls. In these four adventures, the brothers save giant pandas from the evil Zach Varmitech, help to reunite a lost red panda and her mother and save animals captured in China from the villain Donita Donata.

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: It’s Ladybug” describes what happens when Paris is threatened by supervillains and our cartoon heroes are the city’s only hope! With the help of their magical pets, Ladybug and Cat Noir team up to outwit the forces of evil. Their biggest challenge, though, might be getting their alter egos Marinette and Adrien through junior high school.

The DVD Wrapup: Rogue One, Office Party, Three, Story of Sin, Actor Martinez and more

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Blu-ray
If, like me, you were a tad confused about how Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would fit within the Star Wars mythos, especially since the franchise’s Mother Ship is currently between Episodes VII and VIII and two related novels, a soundtrack album and a video game also were being released in December. Moreover, “Rogue One” had been incorporated into YouTube’s “The Star Wars Show” and the ongoing “Lego Star Wars” series on Disney XD. Anyone who’s visited Disneyland lately can see the company’s commitment to the “Star Wars” franchise/brand by strolling past the former site of Big Thunder Ranch, which is giving way to a 14-acre mega-attraction, unofficially known as Star Wars Land. So, where does Rogue One: A Star Wars Story fit into the mix? In a nutshell, it is the first installment of the “Star Wars Anthology” series, set immediately before the events of the original Star Wars film. (Untitled “Anthology” standalones, including a Han Solo project, are set for 2018 and 2020.) Ironically, the story’s seed was planted way back in 1977, in the opening crawl of “Episode IV: A New Hope,” On it, quizzical audiences were advised that “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star …” OK. Four decades later, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story would follow that group of rebels on their mission to steal the plans for the Death Star, or die trying, which, of course, didn’t happen. According to interviews included in the extensive bonus package, John Knoll, visual effects supervisor for the prequel trilogy at Industrial Light & Magic, pitched the idea for the film 10 years before its development began. After the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm, in 2012, Knoll decided to re-pitch it, this time to his new boss, Kathleen Kennedy, who ran it up the flagpole at the newly combined company.

The first things longtime fans will notice is the absence of an updated crawl and an overture by a composer not named John Williams, although his aural fingerprints can be heard throughout the score. Buffs probably were already aware of the absence of Jedi in the cast of characters and the difference in narrative tone from the other episodes. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and co-writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Indentity) have emphasized that “Rogue One” was conceived as a war story with a sometimes ambiguous moral code. Otherwise, almost everything that happens in the story would require a spoiler alert to summarize. Because the movie has passed the billion-dollar barrier, worldwide, I suspect that very few, if any diehard fans have yet to see “Rogue One.” So, let’s not ruin the surprises for the one or two people out there who’ve yet to enjoy them. Returnees should know that the Blu-ay presentation is excellent, from beginning to end and inside-out. The more sophisticated the home-theater setup, the better the experience will be.  That said, however, while “Rogue One” is available in 3D, new owners of 4K UHD players and monitors will be disappointed to learn that Disney/Buena Vista has decided, once again, to play the delay game. Collectors should know, as well, that Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target and the Disney Store – surprise, surprise – offer the movie in exclusive packaging and slightly different bonus selections. None of the dozen making-of featurettes is longer than nine minutes, but they do add value to what already is a noteworthy addition to the franchise. I further suspect that commentary and longer featurettes will be added to the inevitable super-duper holiday edition.

Office Christmas Party: Unrated: Blu-ray
The unrated version of Office Christmas Party, which kept two directors and six writers from the unemployment lines, is five minutes longer than the theatrical edition (also enclosed), and eight, if you include deleted scenes. It contains a bit more of everything that warranted the original’s R-rating, but nothing terribly salacious. Among the things that offended the MPAA ratings board were several scenes with partial nudity, crude sexual references throughout, a scene in which a man drinks eggnog from a phallic-shaped portion of an ice sculpture, coarse language, a penis sculpted by a 3D-printing machine and more shots of “alcohol/drugs/smoking” than in all three Porky’s movies combined. In Germany, Norway, Netherlands and Sweden, however, anyone over the age of 12 was allowed entrance to the multiplex showing Office Christmas Party. Here, of course, kids under 17 would be required to drag along a parent or guardian or simply buy tickets for the PG-13 screening next-door. To be fair, though, most parents probably would agree with the MPAA on this one, especially in its unrated iteration. (Based on Office Christmas Party and Bad Santa 2, some impressionable youngsters might come to believe that holiday parties in Chicago really are this outrageous and degrading, and pray someday they get a job there, too.) All snarkiness aside, though, “OCP” is probably as good as things are going to get in the out-of-control-party subgenre, at least until someone dramatizes what goes on at a state dinner at Mar-a-Lago, with Bill Murray playing President Trump. The filmmakers were allotted a generous $45-million production money, most of which probably went to secure a cast of talented comic actors.

The setting is Chicago’s Zenodek company, a failing tech interest that takes up two floors in a Loop hi-rise. The office is run by Josh Parker (Jason Bateman) and party-hardy figurehead Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), who inherited the company from his fun-loving dad. His uptight sister, Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston), was made CEO of the international corporation and has ordered Josh and Clay to spend the days leading up to Christmas, downsizing the Chicago office. She also demands that the annual holiday party be cancelled, along with bonuses, which Clay is loath to do. They might be able to save the company, but only if they can convince a major client, Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance), to send millions of dollars in business their way. Where better than at an orgy, where everyone will be on their worst behavior? Josh’s cohort, Tracey Hughes (Olivia Munn), has committed herself to sealing the deal, but it isn’t until Walter accidentally inhales a kilo of cocaine, mistakenly dumped in the snow-making machine, that the skids are sufficiently greased. Even so, when Carol’s flight is canceled at a snowbound O’Hare, she could still ruin everyone’s plans and holiday cheer. This includes an emergency run to a pimps-’n’-hos soiree, just down the street. Mayhem, of course, ensues. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck benefit from a supporting cast of funny actors: Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer (“SNL”), Jillian Bell (“Workaholics”), Rob Corddry (“Ballers), Randall Park and Sam Richardson (“Veep”), Jamie Chung (“Gotham”), Da’Vine Joy Randolph (“This Is Us”), Andrew Leeds (“Bones”) and Jimmy Butler, of the Chicago Bulls. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the directors (on the theatrical disc); the background featurette, “Throwing an Office Christmas Party”; outtakes and alternate lines from various scenes; deleted scenes, not included in the extended version; and an alternate ending.

Three: Blu-ray
The Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Two
Even by current standards, Johnnie To’s latest crime thriller, Three, is a departure from the norm. Set almost entirely inside the intensive-care unit of a bustling Hong Kong hospital, it pits a trio of completely different professionals against each other. Their paths cross in the emergency room after a desperate criminal is brought in with a bullet lodged in his head. The patient, Shun (Wallace Chung), shot himself to avoid being taken directly to jail after a blown heist. He knew he would be rushed to the hospital and given sanctuary until his gang was able to hear about his arrest and rescue him. Awaiting him is the headstrong surgeon Dr. Tong Qian (Zhao Wei), whose tireless pursuit of perfection has begun to backfire on her. She wants to remove the slug as soon as possible, but Shun violently resists her efforts. Waiting for Shun to be released is Chief Inspector Ken (Louis Koo), a dogged cop who sometimes ignores regulations to secure a conviction. The criminal has given the doctor a phone number to call, but Ken has forbidden her from doing so, in fear of a bloody escape attempt. As these three bump heads, everyone else is required to act as if nothing unusual is going on around them. It precipitates some unlikely interaction between bed-ridden patients, nurses and doctors on their rounds. The director compresses six hours of time into 90 tension-filled minutes, with a stunning slow-motion climax that Sam Peckinpah might have envied. Three works best as a diversion, akin to a parlor trick, as To makes us wait for the ending we all know is coming, but surprises us with its ferocity. The Blu-ray adds featurettes, “Making-Of: Master Director Johnnie To” and “Three Complex Characters.”

In the 40-plus years since the untimely death of Bruce Lee, filmmakers far and wide have stood in line to create biopics that have attempted to interpret/exploit his legacy. Most of them have distorted the facts to suit the tastes and gullibility of their audience. Others were made according the stipulations imposed by family members. It wasn’t until 1993, when Rob Cohen’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story became the first to acknowledge the influence of Wing Chun master Ip Man, that the real Bruce Lee saga began to emerge. Kar Wai Wong’s The Grandmaster and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man series – a new one arrives next year, we’re told – gave serious fans of martial arts a reason to cheer. Produced by China Central Television and exec-produced by daughter Shannon Lee, “The Legend of Bruce Lee” played out in 50 episodes on the CCTV network and was syndicated around the world. It starred Hong Kong actor Danny Chan and American actress Michelle Lang as Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Cadwell. Lionsgate compressed the series into a 183-minute straight-to-DVD film that satisfied almost no one. Released on November 1, 2016, the first volume of Well Go USA’s “Legend of Bruce Lee” times in at 451 minutes, while Volume Two covers the 480-minutes of Episodes 11-20. This one opens with Lee suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of an older master and his determination to combine disciplines to create a new system and school, based in Seattle. Lang’s part expands as Lee suffers a serious back injury – a rival fighter assaults him with a log … true story — and she devotes herself to his recovery. Because the series was designed to appeal primarily to the vast Chinese audience, it isn’t surprising that the overtly melodramatic and mythic elements dominate the narrative. Too often, the lame English dubbing – curiously, the non-Asian actors are made to sound like characters in an anime — interferes with the narrative flow. The fighting and training scenes are good enough to keep hard-cord fans interested, though.

The Story of Sin: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Property Is No Longer a Theft: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In revealing his list of the ten-best animated films of all time, Terry Gilliam described Walerian Borowczyk as “a twisted man whose films were infused with a unique cruelty and weirdness.” I’m sure he meant that as a compliment. His obituary in the New York Times opened with, “Walerian Borowczyk (was) an internationally known Surrealist filmmaker, described variously by critics as a genius, a pornographer and a genius who also happened to be a pornographer.” The Polish-born Borowczyk, who also spent much of his career in France, was all of that and, as we’ve begun to learn, a whole lot more. In 2015, Arrow Video released brilliantly restored Blu-ray editions of Immoral Tales, The Beast and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, three of his most notorious films, all packed with illuminating bonus material. Later this month, Olive Films is sending out “Walerian Borowczyk: Short Films,” Blanche, Goto Isle of Love and Theatre of Mr. & Mrs. Kabal. Apart from being a sexual provocateur, Borowczyk’s features are distinguished by their exquisite period look, attention to details and integration of classical music into situations one might think wouldn’t support it. The Story of Sin was released in France in 1975, the same year as The Beast opened in Poland. While the latter remains one of the cinema’s more outrageous re-conceptualizations of the “La Belle et la Bête” fantasy, Story of Sin is a thoughtful and beautifully constructed adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s 1908 novel about a young woman’s picaresque quest to reconnect with the man who took her virginity and disappeared. As a boarder in the home of Ewa Pobratynska (Grazyna Dlugolecka), Lukasz Niepolomski (Jerzy Zelnik) promised to divorce his wife and make a proper lady of her. After being refused a divorce in Catholic Poland, Lukasz travels to Rome, ostensibly to seek an annulment, leaving Ewa behind to struggle making ends after being kicked out of her home. In Warsaw, Ewa is approached by friends and wealthy acquaintances of Lukasz, who provide her with information on his whereabouts and enough money to tempt her to follow them around Europe in search of him.

Finally, while still professing her love for Lukasz, who’s a bit of a conman, Ewa succumbs to life in the Victorian Era fast lane. Lessons are learned and lives are ruined. Borowczyk’s gift for period staging makes the journey – from sumptuous spas and resorts, to sordid brothels – a visual treat. As Ewa, the stunning Dlugolecka is required to spend much of her time in the nude, although almost all of it is presented in ways that cover her nether regions. Lovers of turn-of-the-century erotica surely will find much here to savor. In addition to a recent interview with the delightfully candid actress, the crisply restored Arrow edition offers a great deal of evidence to substantiate Gilliam’s admiration for Borowczyk’s animated films, nearly a dozen of which are included here. They’re wonderful. Also included are an introduction by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski; featurettes on Borowczyk’s career in Poland and innovative use of classical music; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Klimowski; and, in the first pressing, a fully illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new and archival writing, including an exclusive interview with the producer of Story of Sin, director Stanislaw Rozewicz, a text by art historian and one-time Borowczyk collaborator, Szymon Bojko, and excerpts from Borowczyk s memoirs, presented in English for the first time.

The inelegantly phrased title of co-writer/director Elio Petri’s Property Is No Longer a Theft can be traced to a slogan coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book, “What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government.” As a onetime committed Communist Party member – he quit in 1956, after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising – Petri would have been aware of the “property is theft” concept, which even was questioned by Karl Marx and German philosopher Max Stirner. Here, most of thieving is done in reaction to those capitalists who would argue that property is a gift, handed down by God himself. It’s a dark comedy, informed by giallo and radical politics of 1970s Italy. “Theft” is the final entry in Petri’s “Trilogy of Neurosis,” which also included the Oscar-winning Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and Lulu the Tool (a.k.a., “The Working Class Goes to Heaven”). The former tackled the corrupting nature of power, while the latter questions where a worker fits in a world in which he can’t even trust his trade union. Here, Total (Flavio Bucci) is a low-level bank clerk who’s allergic to money, even though it’s his job to handle it every day. His father raised him to believe that property was to be respected, if not worshipped. His mind is changed when he is refused a loan request, moments after a dishonest businessman blackmails his boss into giving him an exorbitant loan.

The customer, known only as the Butcher (Ugo Tognazzi), endears himself to bank employees by handing out packages of prime cuts of beef. If he pulls his money out of the bank, the boss knows it could ruin him. That kind of arrogance makes the Butcher the perfect target for Total’s newly invigorated anti-capitalism. After quitting his job, Total devotes himself to tormenting the Butcher, stealing his possessions one-by-one, starting with the man’s meat cleaver and mistress (Daria Nicolodi), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Morticia Addams. Eventually, the former clerk begins stealing from thieves, who go about their business without the benefit of a political agenda. (Total only steals property, not money.) “Theft” is enhanced by some hallucinogenic visuals and a complementary score by Ennio Morricone. The nice thing is that viewers need not be politically left of Bernie Sanders to get a kick out of it. The newly restored Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Bucci, producer Claudio Mancini and make-up artist Pierantonio Mecacci; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and, with the first pressing, an illustrated booklet containing new writing on the film by Camilla Zamboni.

Youth in Oregon
It’s difficult to imagine a comedic premise – dark or light – more challenging than the one that informs Joel David Moore and writer Andrew Eisen’s Youth in Oregon. In it, Billy Crudup plays Brian Gleason, the son-in-law of 80-year-old Raymond Engersol (Frank Langella), who insists upon traveling from New York to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act. Raymond doesn’t look particularly ill, but he’s already undergone one excruciating operation on his heart and doesn’t want to go under the knife again, even if the surgery could delay an inevitable second heart attack. Tellingly, he breaks the news to his incredulous family on his birthday. Raymond’s wife, Estelle (Mary Kay Place), wants to tag along, if only to help Brian try to talk him out of going through with the euthanasia. Brian’s wife (Christina Applegate) is unable to make the trip, because their daughter (Nicola Peltz) is experiencing boyfriend problems and leaving her alone is out of the question. Estelle plans to break the tedium by remaining high or unconscious on pills and booze. No sooner does Brian put the SUV in gear than Raymond puts on his favorite CD of bird songs. Already, viewers know that they’re in for a long ride, because the codger isn’t listening to their arguments – he’s already done all the necessary homework – and he’s intent on making amends with his estranged gay son (Josh Lucas) along the way. Brian also decides, while they’re in the neighborhood, to swing northward to Montana to visit his own college-age son, who informs them of his decision to drop out of school. He thinks that grandpa is doing the admirable thing and shouldn’t be talked out of it. There’s humor here, folks, but it’s the kind that sneaks up on you. The punch to the heart comes at the end, but not in the way we’ve been led to believe it will arrive. Needless to say, Youth in Oregon isn’t for everyone. As usual, Langella is terrific as a frequently unlikeable character in a difficult situation for himself, his family and the audience.

We Don’t Belong Here
If Peer Pedersen’s debut drama We Don’t Belong Here somehow landed on a double-bill with Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, management might consider handing out samples of Prozac and Zoloft with every bag of popcorn … if not complimentary whiskey and morphine. Then, at least, viewers could be on the same wavelength as the desperate characters in both movies. This isn’t to say that We Don’t Belong Here deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the O’Neill classic, just that you wouldn’t want to see it after being fired from your job or dumped by a lover. As usual, Catherine Keener is extremely convincing as the tightly wound matriarch of a very messed up family, living in a posh suburb of Boston. Also good is the late Anton Yelchin – in one of his final performances – as Nancy Green’s only son, Max, a recently institutionalized drug addict and survivor of a suicide attempt. His sisters Elisa, Lily and Madeline (Riley Keough, Kaitlyn Dever, Annie Starke) may not be as fragile as Max, but they also qualify as damaged goods. While her kids tread on wafer-thin ice, Nancy attempts to hold her shit together long enough to make it through a party for high-society hens at her home. Good luck on that one, mom. The cast also includes Maya Rudolph, as Nancy’s BFF and secret lover; Molly Shannon, Cary Elwes, Justin Chatwin and Michelle Hurd, as various dealers, enablers, shrinks and other unstable adults. Everything that could possibly go wrong, does. Trivia fanatics should note that Annie Stark is the daughter of actress Glenn Close and producer John H. Starke; Riley Keough is Elvis’ granddaughter; and Rudolph’s mother was singer Minnie Ripperton.

Actor Martinez
In the world of independent filmmaking, there are pictures that look unpolished because budgets were tight and the production team lacked the experience and/or equipment to slicken it to studio standards. And, lots of us like them that way. There are other indie films that push the boundaries of the experimental envelope and are less concerned with audience acceptance than that of their peers. Depending on the eyes of the beholder, they can either be wonderful or horrible. Mike Ott and Nathan Silver’s latest brainteaser, Actor Martinez, is exactly the kind of movie that finds lots of traction at festivals, but struggles to be seen and reviewed outside of them. Depending on which press release you believe, the filmmakers went to Denver to find an aspiring actor around whom they could build a faux documentary or they were hired by aspiring actor and full-time computer tech Arthur Martinez to collaborate on a film that would showcase his skills. Does it matter? Yes and no. At first glance, it’s the former. That’s because, at first glance, it looks like a mockumentary, with delusional characters who might have been recruited from a Salvation Army superstore. While articulate and dedicated to his craft, Martinez looks as if he could find plenty of work as an extra in a movie set in a factory or as a member of the star’s bowling team. That isn’t intended as an insult, just an observation. A world-class know-it-all, Martinez is allowed an inordinate amount of time arguing with the directors. When they decide to spike the action by bringing in a working actress (Lindsay Burdge), who was chosen because she looks like Martinez’ ex-wife, things really go haywire. Actor Martinez is very weird and, if intentional, borderline cruel. That ambiguity probably is what endeared it to festival audiences and a goodly number of critics. The DVD adds the short film, “Riot”; festival Q&A panels at the Denver and Tribeca Film Festivals; and deleted scenes. For the record, Martinez has since appeared in four short films.

Cooking at the World’s End
For gourmands who’ve graduated to the next level – planning vacations according to star ratings in the Michelin Guide — Cooking at the World’s End should qualify as a must-see. There are enough great restaurants in Spain’s easy-to-get-to locations to keep visitors satiated for year. Getting to Galicia, on the northwestern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, requires the kind of energy many non-European travelers could put to good use eating in great restaurants in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia and the nearby Basque country, where four of the recently announced top-50 restaurants in the world are located. (Catalonia also had two winners.) Alberto Baamonde Bello’s documentary describes what began to happen when, in 2003, nine young Galician chefs combined their talents and knowledge to transform the cuisine of their region. Along with a new generation of producers and farmers, the Grupo Nove developed a theory of gastronomy grounded in traditions, attached to the land and the product, using radically new cooking techniques. Today, Grupo Nove is composed of 20 chefs and in a short period of time, has accounted for 8 Michelin stars, 19 Soles Repsols awards and international recognition. Among the people interviewed here are Pepe Solla, Xosé Cannas, Yayo Daporta, Beatriz Sotelo and Javier Olleros.

Delphine Lehericey’s sexually charged coming-of-age drama, Puppylove, has not, as far as I know, been shown in theaters in the U.S. It’s been exhibited at several prestigious festivals in Europe and been considered, at least, for awards there. It deals with situations not uncommon in Hollywood and indie films, but rarely depicted with the same visual integrity. Until Film Movement’s release of the DVD edition of the 2013 release, it’s likely that distributors didn’t see any upside in courting the same kind of controversy – however, marketable – that greeted such pictures as Lolita (both versions), Baby Doll, Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon (both with Brooke Shields), The Crush, Birth, American Beauty, Hounddog and Fat Girl. In all of these films, underage actresses, their body doubles or characters were either seduced or compromised by older men. That taboo was reversed in the 1980s in such coming-of-age comedies as Class, My Tutor, Private Lessons, In the Mood and They’re Playing with Fire. Because statutory rape isn’t considered laughing matter or particularly romantic in most places outside California and France, standards were imposed on the industry here forbidding nude scenes in which underage actors are involved or present during production; depictions of rape or sexual-related violence, without the presence of parents and child-labor reps during the shoot; and use of adult body doubles in scenes involving underage characters in sexual situations. Even the porn industry has conformed with such laws, going so far as to display disclaimers and addresses of its records keepers. The studios will push the limits of the laws on occasion, but only sparingly and on the advice of counsel.

In Puppylove, Diane (Solène Rigot) is a 14-year-old loner, who juggles looking after her little brother, Marc, with a turbulent relationship with her single father, Christian (Vincent Perez). She prefers to dress conservatively and shuns makeup. Her polar opposite is Julia (Audrey Bastien), a newcomer to Diane’s school and neighborhood. She exudes independence, spontaneity and an adventurous spirit everything that Diane seems to be missing. They form a somewhat uneasy mentor/student relationship, based on a shared interest in the piano, substantiating each other’s alibis, pop music and dancing. While Diane is overtly hostile to her father’s advice and girlfriends, Julia appears to have set her sights on seducing him. Again, hardly an unusual setup in mainstream movies. The closer the girls become, the more willing Diane is to experiment with her inhibitions. We realize how dangerous this might be when she responds to the mostly innocent, if belittling harassment from male classmates by strolling into the boys’ locker room with only a towel to protect her modesty. It ceases to be amusing when she drops the towel and allows herself to be ogled by the startled adolescents. Lehericey ratchets up the sexual tension when, on separate occasions, the girls convince their parents to bring them along on weekend retreats. If we were experiencing Puppylove first as a novel, the depictions wouldn’t be nearly as upsetting. On the screen, however, the nudity alone is enough to give most viewers pause. It caused me to check out the ages of the actresses – not included in their resumes – if for no other reason than to ease my own misgivings about staying with the movie. (Both were in their late-teens or early-20s at the time of production.)  That said, I came away from the movie feeling that the sexual intimacy was treated honestly, as was the girls’ behavior. The men’s willingness to suspend their disbelief over their ages is never in question, either. (No obvious references to the continuing Roman Polanski saga were necessary.) The unexpected ending also worked. Francophile viewers should find plenty here to enjoy, but only if they’re not easily shocked.

Bob Dylan: In His Own Words
It’s only taken five months for Bob Dylan to make his way to Stockholm, where he finally received his Nobel Award in literature. He was in the neighborhood at the time, so, he must have figured, why not? It was a closed ceremony, as opposed to the one in which Patti Smith stood in for him, leaving the gathered media at a loss for his words. The one juicy detail revealed, by a photographer with a long lens, was that he arrived wearing a black hoodie and brown boots. Even at his most loquacious, the Bard of the Mesabi Iron Range has confounded reporters attempting to get more than a handful of words out of him, one or two of which might reveal something about his opinions on extemporaneous poetry to why he began to wear mime makeup on the Rolling Thunder tour. What you hear is what you get. It explains why I.V. Media’s Bob Dylan: In His Own Words – despite its many technical imperfections – will be must-viewing in the homes of Dylanologists. It includes 100 minutes of filmed interviews – some “rare,” others not — with Dylan, primarily when he was on the road outside the U.S. and probably had nothing better to do. Although never completely forthcoming, he gives them the benefit of answers that probably pleased their editors, anyway. And, he does so without appearing hostile, superior or purposefully ambiguous. At one point he even takes the time to sketch a portrait of the reporter interviewing him, and it’s quite good. The downside comes in the producers’ lack of concern over the viewers’ inability to cut throw background noise, the need for subtitles and identification of names and places. Most of them took place during the 1970-80s, but also included are the excellent Ed Bradley interview for “60 Minutes” and his bizarre acceptance speech at the Grammys. As usual, beginners probably will wonder what all the fuss was about.

Tank 432: Blu-ray
Veteran UK “camera operator” Nick Gillespie has chosen for his debut as writer/director a claustrophobic thriller, in which a small group British mercenaries, their hooded prisoners and a victim of gas poisoning are attacked by mysterious forces represented by a figure in the distance, wearing a gas mask. After taking refuge inside an abandoned M41Walker Bulldog tank, left standing in a field overlooking a lovely English valley, they discover to their dismay that the door is jammed and all but one wounded comrade are stuck inside the cramped, immobile vehicle. While Gillespie plays with themes of isolation, paranoia and combat insanity – the wounded soldier (Michael Smiley) taunts the tank as if it were a bull in a plaza de toros in Spain – viewers may stop caring about their fate. Tank 432 (a.k.a., “Belly of the Bulldog”) only begins to pick up speed when one of the men inside manages to hot wire it and kick it into gear. The fact that Gillespie apprenticed under executive producer Ben Wheatley (Kill List, High-Rise) should lure fans of the pressure-cooker subgenre, especially for its unforgiving atmosphere and well-sustained mystery.

The first credit registered under the name of Zurich-born filmmaker Alain Gsponer on is a three-minute animated short, “Heidi,” that asked the musical question: Does the image of Switzerland as “Heidiland,” which so many Swiss have helped to spread to the far corners of the Earth, correspond to any kind of reality?” His latest release is a feature-length Heidi that’s far more traditional and almost two hours longer. It’s the most recent of about 20 filmed and televised versions of Johanna Spyri’s beloved 1881 children’s novel, with the most famous being the 1937 musical, directed by Allan Dwan and starring Shirley Temple and Jean Hersholt. Gsponer’s adaptation stars 10-year-old Anuk Steffen, alongside the great Swiss-born actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) and a very credible herd of goats. It was shot on location in the Alps, mainly in the region of Grisons, including Bergün and Rheinwald, and has been dubbed into English. And, yes, Heidi easily qualifies as fun for the whole family.

The Best of Tim Conway
PBS: Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror
PBS: The Talk: Race in America
Smithsonian: Sports Detectives: Season 1
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS. It feels as if the folks at Time Warner/WEA and, before that, Columbia House and Gunthy-Renker, have been anticipating the landmark occasion for most of the last 17 years. The highlights and seasonal compilations first were made available through direct-response infomercials and, now, through Internet and retail outlets. “The Best of Tim Conway” appears to be the first stand-alone collection dedicated to the gifted comic actor’s contributions to the show, which has been in syndication on various cable outlets for most of the last half-century. Most fans of the show probably think Conway and his trademark characters were there from Day One. In fact, he was only made a regular performer, as opposed to an occasional guest, in Season Nine. Although the material featuring Conway in this 153-minute disc is funny, there isn’t enough of it to justify the title and, for no good reason, there are too many times when Conway isn’t part of what’s being shown on screen. That caveat noted, the highlights include Conway’s “Oldest Man,” as the world’s slowest head of a racetrack pit crew; “The Virgin Prince, in which he’s a “swishbuckling” hero with an appetite for flies and destruction; Conway’s take on the Lone Ranger; the hilarious Conway/Korman sketches, “The Dentist” and “Man’s Best Friend”; and “Mr. Tudball,” who takes leave of his senses while showing compassion for his dimwitted secretary, Mrs. Wiggins. The DVD includes outtakes.

With this week’s news of the Syrian government’s complicity in the deaths of dozens of men, women and children in a gas attack makes PBS’ “Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from WWII to the War on Terror” essential viewing for anyone who cares about how wars are conducted and what constitutes a crime against humanity. Before the Allied victory in World War II, such questions were rhetorical, at best. The willingness of Japanese and German leaders to condone and encourage even the most hideous atrocities against non-combatants and prisoners-of-war forced the victorious governments to seek justice in the name of the victims of the Holocaust and other mass murders. Most of the worst offenders were rounded up and forced to face the music for crimes that hitherto had no names. Others, like Adolph Eichmann and Claus Barbie, found new homes in South America, protected by local authorities and comrades still in governmental positions in Germany. Barbie worked for the CIA while he was being hunted by French police and Nazi hunters. Our fear of communism allowed Japan’s royal family to escape prosecution for its complicity in the crimes committed by insanely loyal Japanese soldiers and officers. Atrocities committed by Soviet troops in Poland were ignored, because they were on the winning team. As time passed and genocides continued around the world, it became increasingly more difficult to bring the monsters to justice. The world’s superpowers could barely agree on what constituted genocide, let alone which of their proxies should pay for atrocities committed in their interests. The World Court has tried leaders of insurgent movements in Bosnia and Africa, while others have evaded justice. The big shots who should have been held responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam were cleared, leaving platoon leader Lieutenant William Calley Jr. to take the heat, which amounted to serving only three and a half years under house arrest. The documentary inquiry begs the question as to whether Syrian President Bashar Assad will ever be arrested and tried for the gassing of civilians and other crimes in the country’s civil war. If “Dead Reckoning” doesn’t break your heart, nothing will. He’s more likely to end up in a condo in Moscow or Tehran than on trial at the Hague.

The Talk: Race in America” is a two-hour documentary about a subject that, even two years ago, was easily ignored by the mainstream media, politicians and law-enforcement officials. Complaints about police brutality were nothing new and neither were accusations of unjustified killings of minorities in police custody. In most cases, the police were given the benefit of the doubt by grand juries and investigative bodies within the departments. That all changed in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a lumpen auxiliary cop, George Zimmerman, who stood behind Florida’s stand-your-ground law and was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. The verdict was largely seen as business-as-usual in a state where such miscarriages of justice happen all the time. When similar shootings of unarmed suspects began to happen in Missouri, Baltimore, Cleveland, South Carolina, Washington and Los Angeles, trigger-happy cops no longer were able to hide behind their badges, spawning the “Black Live Matter” was born. Citizens armed with cellphone cameras captured any behavior they judged to be suspicious, police were forced to wear cameras as part of their uniforms and ride in patrol cars equipped with them, as well. The title, “The Talk: Race in America,” refers specifically to the increasingly common conversations that began taking place in homes and communities across the country, between parents of color and their children. Sons, especially, were advised about how to behave if they were ever stopped by the police in driving-while-black situations or while strolling through predominantly white neighborhood where paranoia runs deep. African-American and Hispanic celebrities related stories of their own about being stopped while driving within minutes of the homes, even in ritzy neighborhoods. Growing up in fear of the people entrusted with protecting all Americans is a heck of a civics lesson.

Also timely is the Smithsonian Channel’s “Sports Detectives,” which might have joined the search for Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey if the theft had happened a couple of years earlier than last February. The reason O.J. Simpson’s cooling his heels in a Nevada prison isn’t because he killed his wife and a friend who made the mistake of following her home that fateful night, but for attempting to recover memorabilia he claims was stolen from him. The documentary series reminds us that these incidents were anything but isolated and rare. Some of the most coveted and valuable treasures from history’s greatest games and players are missing or misidentified. In Season One, private investigator Kevin Barrows and sports reporter Lauren Gardner travel the country in search of Muhammad Ali’s missing Olympic gold medal, Jim Craig’s “Miracle on Ice” flag, Dale Earnhardt’s first race car, the saddle worn by Triple Crown-winner Secretariat, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game ball, a bat used by Lou Gehrig and other valuable items.

The DVD Wrapup: 20th Century Women, Silence, Just a Sigh, Art Bastard, Blow-Up, MST3K and more

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

20th Century Women: Blu-ray
Writer-director Mike Mills has said that the protagonist of his third feature — Dorothea, played so knowingly by Oscar-nominee Annette Bening – is based on his mother, a woman who probably couldn’t exist outside of a few zip codes on the west side of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Berkeley and Marin County. Mills was raised in the People’s Republic of Berkeley and 20th Century Women is set in a section of Santa Barbara commonly known as “The American Riviera,” and not just for its idyllic weather, lush hillsides and million-dollar views that start at $10 million. It would be misleading to describe Dorothea as a single mother who runs a “boarding house,” with her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Set in 1979, they live in the kind of the old Santa Barbara domicile that qualifies as a fixer-upper, but most people would consider to be walk-in condition. Her boarders include a 24-year-old “free-spirited” punk photographer, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), whose recent bout with cervical cancer has brought warnings against conceiving children; William (Billy Crudup), a post-hippie handyman, whose abilities run from fixing cars and doing carpentry, to holding up his end of the bargain in countless one-night stands; and Julie (Elle Fanning), an introspective 17-year-old flower child, who, after sneaking out of the house she shares with her shrink mom, spends her nights in Jamie’s bedroom, where they share a Platonic relationship.

exc It’s her best performance since The Kids Are All Right, which 20th Century Women kinda, sorta resembles in a SoCal sort of way. She gets terrific support from Gerwig, Fanning and Crudup, all of whom represent specific types of people who might have sought refuge in laid-back Santa Barbara. America was morphing from Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, gospels-informed approach to governing into the I’m-in-it-for-me Reagan juggernaut, so where better to lay low? Mills’ revelatory post-script rings true, as well. The Blu-ray adds revealing commentary with Mills and the featurettes “Making 20th Century Women” and “20th Century Cast.”

Silence: Blu-ray
Even more than gangsters and pasta, the thread that runs through Martin Scorsese’s entire resume is the role played by conscience and religion in the decisions made by his diverse array of characters. Silence joins such obvious examples as Kundun, a film about the life of the Dalai Lama; The Last Temptation of Christ, which portrays Jesus Christ as a man, first, and deity second; and Mean Streets, in which an aspiring gangster (Harvey Keitel) struggles to reconcile his faith in the Church and the realities of the family business. A sharp eye will find characters dealing with issues related to faith in many other Scorsese films. Scorsese has said that he considers himself to be a lapsed Catholic – perhaps, even, excommunicated for his divorces – but not someone who’s rejected Christianity or the inevitably of sin and redemption. (He’s also publicly discussed his own practice of Transcendental Meditation.) Before Silence opened here, Scorsese screened it at the Vatican, before an audience that included 400 Jesuit clerics and their guests. The film is based on Shusaku Endo’s 1996 novel of the same title. Both are fictionalized accounts of the persecution of Christians and Jesuit missionaries in 17th Century Japan. As such, it immediately recalls James Clavell’s novel and mini-series, “Shōgun”; Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe; and Roland Joffé’s The Mission. Those Jesuits did get around. Anyone raised Roman Catholic has heard dozens of stories about Christian martyrs and the trials of missionaries as they attempted to convert people to the faith. By wearing a cross around your neck, you, too, could become a soldier for Christ and, as such, someone who would sacrifice their own lives in His name. No film that I’ve seen, outside of Sunday School indoctrination, has delivered the same message as succinctly and persuasively as Silence.

The story follows two 17th Century Jesuit priests, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel from the Portuguese colony of Macau to Japan to locate their missing mentor, Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson). We’ve already been introduced to Ferreira as he’s being forced to watch the torture and slow deaths, through crucifixion, of newly converted Japanese. They arrive on islands in the Nagasaki prefecture during the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), which followed the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion of Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate. They receive a warm welcome from the peasants desperate to receive the sacraments and be guided in the faith. At the same time, the priests must avoid contact with a samurai weeding out suspected Christians. The Inquisitor senses the arrival of the priests and hopes to draw them out by torturing villagers who reveal their beliefs by refusing to step on a fumi-e (a carved image of Christ). Even after Rodrigues advises them to do so, some peasants still can’t bring themselves to blaspheme the image. They are crucified on the beach, against the rising tide, and refused a Christian burial. The priests will go their separate ways, leaving Silence to focus – temporarily, at least – on Rodriguez’ continuing mission, arrest and the mental torture of watching peasants suffer for his refusal to renounce the Church. It would be easy for the shogun to kill Rodrigues, but not advance the greater glory of causing another priest to commit apostasy, like Ferreira, who’s bound to turn up sooner or later. Silence is an exquisitely made film, which benefits from being shot in a spectacular area of Taiwan and world-class acting. At 161 minutes, though, it’s probably too long slog for viewers who don’t care much for Roman Catholic history. (Opening with something from the Shimabara Rebellion, instead of the crucifixions, might have captured their attention.) It did very poorly at the box office and Scorsese was further rebuffed by nearly being shut out of the Oscars. (Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto received the only nomination.) The featurette, “Martin Scorsese’s Journey Into Silence” squeezes a lot of information into 25 minutes.

Just a Sigh
After spending the last few years languishing on a shelf, Jérôme Bonnell’s newly released romantic drama Just a Sigh should give fans of Gabriel Byrne a reason to smile, anyway. A bit too tentative for viewers expecting a large dollop of comedy with their love stories, its stillness and time-release intimacy reminded me of Before Sunrise. Alix (Emmanuelle Devos) and Doug (Gabriel Byrne) are traveling from Calais to Paris, in the same train car, a few rows separated from each other. They exchange furtive glances, but are blocked from an impromptu meeting when another traveler provides him with the directions he was hoping to get from her. Doug is an Irish professor in Paris to attend the funeral of a friend, while Alix is in the city to audition for a movie and, as fate would have it, attend the same funeral. After the service, mourners gather at a local café, where they share even more glances. This time, however, it’s possible to feel the heat being exchanged between them. After being cock-blocked by another well-meaning fellow, the two will-be lovers devise a way to get away from the crowd and meet in Doug’s hotel room. For a couple in their mid- to late-40s, Alix and Doug do a pretty good impression of love-struck teenagers. Possessed with an allusive beauty, Devos may not be a known quantity on this side of the Atlantic, but she’s a five-time César Awards nominee, winning twice for performances in In the Beginning (2009) and Read My Lips (2001). Byrne, of course, is a legitimate leading man of the old school. Even at the ripe old ages of 66 and 52, they make a fit pair and the love scenes are hot. The drama comes from Alix having used up the batteries in her cell phone, being overdrawn at the ATM and being unable to hook up with someone we assume is an old boyfriend. Still in mourning, Doug simply is trying to extend the moments of blissful intimacy, while she tries to decide whether she’ll make the last train back to Calais or wait to re-connect with her boyfriend. It’s possible that they’ll get together, again, but, as was the case in Before Sunrise, we’re left with no assurances.

Art Bastard
It’s been a long time between documentaries for journeyman editor Victor Kanefsky (Bloodsucking Freaks). His directorial credits are limited to Art Bastard and 1978’s Just Crazy About Horses, whose lasting memory is a graphic depiction of the mating habits of champion Thoroughbreds. Here, Art Bastard once again takes on the rituals of the rich and famous, this time through the eyes of a bitingly satirical artist whose unwillingness to compromise with the hidebound gallery and museum establishment has cost him dearly. Now 76, Robert Cenedella has challenged the system with his scabrously funny and fantastical paintings of life in New York City, especially within the realms of celebrity, politics and commerce. A student, protégé and friend of German artist George Grosz, Cenedella expresses his personal visions of contemporary American life in paintings that recall Pieter Brueghel, George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Honore Daumier and William Hogarth. I might throw into that mix Hieronymus Bosch and Mad magazine. About his work and unwillingness to go along with the commercial flow, he’s said, “You can bastardize everything else in your life, but if you compromise your art, why be an artist?”

His commissions include works for the Bacardi Corp., Absolut Vodka, a theater piece for Tony Randall and two paintings for the Le Cirque 2000 Restaurant in New York and Mexico City. He may be best known, however, for the controversy surrounding a 1988 one-man show at Saatchi & Saatchi’s New York headquarters, in which a painting of a crucified Santa Claus was removed before the show opened. In December, 1997, “Santa on the Cross” was displayed for the second time in public in a front window of the Art Students League of New York. It is the institution from which Cenedella was educated – after being expelled from the city’s High School for the Arts – and still teaches. Among those interviewed in this lively, 82-minute film are Cenedella’s wife, Liz; his sister Joan; TV critic Marvin Kitman, evidently a friend of his; Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum; art appraiser Paul Zirler; and Ed McCormack, managing editor of Gallery & Studio Magazine. In an unusual gesture, the end credits include a slide show of every painting used in the film – even those by other artists — complete with full identifications. Since the completion of Art Bastard, Cenedella was commissioned to create “Fín del Mundo,” a triptych that “captures the chaos surrounding Donald Trump’s march to the White House.” It’s worth looking up on the Internet, even if it didn’t prevent the clownish mogul from being elected.

Blow-Up: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni was already famous around the world for creating films about the alienation, neuroses and the “existential ennui” affecting Italians, who, while enjoying the fruits of the country’s transformation from a poor, mainly rural nation into a global industrial power, also sacrificed traditional values and historical identity. In his series on “modernity and its discontents” — L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1964) — the characters represent an urban bourgeoisie unable to cope intellectually with its own good fortune. Although two of the three chapters of I Vinti (1953) were shot outside Italy — in Paris and London — Blow-Up was Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film and the first completely shot outside Italy. The interviews included in Criterion’s splendid supplemental package describe the director’s obsession with nailing the details of what a single day in the life of his successful London photojournalist and fashion photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), might be like. He picked the brains of  London’s most prominent shooters, models, architects, designers, artists and scene makers, even going so far as to cast several of them — Reg Wilkins, Veruschka, Jill Kennington, the Yardbirds (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf), Janet Street-Porter, among others – and incorporate their art into the overall design. To create a feeling of hyperrealism, Antonioni spray-painted streets, trees, grass and houses to the shades and textures he desired. And, for all that, Blow-Up’s box-office success could be credited in large part to Thomas’ steamy session with Veruschka and the playful romp with aspiring teen models (Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills) in the rolls of background paper in his studio, which actually belonged to photographer John Cowan. Today, of course, that oh-so-controversial glimpse of pubic hair is ridiculously brief and about as sensual as the propeller Thomas purchases from an antique shop.

Antonioni uses Thomas to show us how “the experience of the protagonist is not a sentimental nor an amorous one, but rather, one regarding his relationship with the world, with the things he finds in front of him.” After spending the night inside a flophouse, where he has taken pictures for a book of editorial-art photos, Thomas fills the next 24 hours transitioning from Victorian London to Swinging London. Between fashion shoots, he chances upon a couple embracing on a grassy plateau in Maryon Park. It isn’t until he’s confronted by the woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), who demands the roll of film, that he begins to think that his photos might contain something more than a cheap voyeuristic thrill. Indeed, when they are developed, enlarged, hung from a beam in his studio and enlarged again, Thomas senses that he might have captured a murder in progress. Jane’s willingness to trade something of herself for the negatives convinces him of that. When he returns to the park, however, nothing is there, except some crushed grass. The idea here is that, “By developing with enlargers … things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye. (Thomas), who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that, by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears.” Just when we think we have a grasp on what we’ve been shown, it disappears, as well. The same thing happens after Thomas wins the fight for the neck of Jeff Beck’s demolished guitar, only to realize when he leaves the nightclub that it’s a worthless piece of junk.

The more we learn about Blow-Up, however, the better it gets. The Criterion addition is enhanced by the restored 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a new piece about Antonioni’s artistic approach, featuring photography curators Walter Moser and Philippe Garner, and art historian David Alan Mellor; “Blow-up of Blow-Up,” a fresh 52-minute documentary on the making of the film; a 2016 conversation between Garner and Redgrave; archival interviews with Antonioni and actors Hemmings and Birkin; and a book featuring an essay by film scholar David Forgacs. It must be said that Antonioni’s next English-language film, the widely reviled Zabriskie Point (1970), lost the handle on the American counterculture and 1960s radicalism almost from the first student demonstration. It did a nice job capturing the enigmatic beauty of Death Valley, though. Also in English, The Passenger was hailed as a masterpiece by many of the same critics who hated Zabriskie Point.

Arsenal: Blu-ray
The best and, perhaps, only reason to check out Steven C. Miller’s almost comically violent Arsenal is the over-the-top performance by Nicolas Cage, who appears to be channeling Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci and Moe Howard simultaneously. Mumbling and wearing a wig even John Travolta might have considered to be too bizarre and obvious, Cage plays a Mississippi Gulf Coast gangster who spends most of the movie in a ramshackle titty bar snorting coke and barking instructions to his dreadlocked and musclebound associates. The target of Eddie King’s wrath is Mikey (Johnathon Schaech), a ne’er-do-well who looks as if he just was released from prison, where he spent the last 10 years pumping iron and getting tattooed. Mikey not only owes Eddie a pile of money, but he’s also lost the $10,000 given to him by his brother, J.P. (Adrian Grenier), to help him get back on his feet. Instead, he invests the bread in a bag of cocaine, which is promptly stolen by some other thugs. J.P. is a clean-cut god-fearing Biloxi developer, who, apparently, also serves the city as an auxiliary cop. Don’t ask. His contact on the force is Sal (John Cusack), whose undercover disguise wouldn’t fool anyone who isn’t a Hollywood costume designer. Mikey is such a world-class dirtball that he colludes with Eddie to extort $350,000 from J.P., by posing as a kidnap victim. J.P. doesn’t have that kind of money just lying around, so he enlists Sal in his mission to rescue his brother and do away, once and for all, with Eddie. Left unsaid in that summary – if not the movie’s title – is the amount of firepower Miller has invested in his story. The violence is frequent, aggressively loud, extremely bloody and largely gratuitous. This isn’t to say that fans of such excess won’t enjoy Arsenal, because the explosive action sequences are well-choreographed and as over-the-top as these things get. Anyone looking for the Nic Cage of Leaving Las Vegas, National Treasure and Snowden may want to take a pass, however. The Blu-ray adds Miller’s commentary; the “Building an Arsenal” featurette; and extended cast and crew interviews.

Zachary Shedd’s first feature as writer/director is adapted from a short film he made eight years earlier. Both share the title, Americana, which is the name of the movie within Shedd’s uneven, if somewhat promising debut. I’m not sure why either of these movies is called “Americana,” but that’s only one of the confounding things about a picture that essentially merges neo-noir mystery with atmospheric drama and forces viewers to contend with switchbacks, flashbacks, flash-forwards, withheld information, rampant paranoia and undernourished characterizations. It’s set in San Francisco, which is nicely photographed and adds all sorts of character to the story. It is not, however, a place where movies about people making movies within movies makes a lot of sense. The putative protagonist is Avery Wells (David Call), an accomplished film editor, who, after a shocking on-set incident two years earlier, moved into a remote mountain cabin to drown himself in booze and self-pity. Almost out of the blue, a producer shows up there to talk him into editing the film Avery’s vivacious blond sister, Kate (Kelli Garner), was starring in when she was killed. The person who murders her, we’ll learn, is linked to the victim of a fatal automobile accident, she may or may not have caused. The producer, Calib (Jack Davenport), we’ll also learn, has several ulterior motives for calling on Avery to work on his sister’s last film. For Avery to get back on track, personally and professionally, however, he’ll first be required to figure out the mystery behind Calib’s request and his feelings of guilt over his sister’s fate. That, my friends, is a lot of weight for a first-time writer/director to carry, while also trying to make a movie that looks great while straddling genre borders. (Somehow, in its second stop on the festival circuit, Americana was featured at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, even though it wouldn’t appear to fit its defined parameters.) Still, an A for effort.

Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek
In the American South, historical sites are almost as common as the kudzu that took root in the 1930s and now blankets the hillsides and forests, from Louisiana to Georgia. They’re so prevalent that some politicians think nothing of selling the sites off to developers or removing the people who’ve lived there since the Civil War. And, yes, white politicians find it far easier to uproot African-Americans who stand in the way of “progress” than anyone else. Leah Mahan’s inspirational documentary, Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, describes how a transplanted Boston teacher worked tirelessly, over the course of a decade, to prevent corporate interests from bulldozing his ancestral home and the graves of his ancestors. It was being done simply to accommodate the sprawling city of Gulfport, Mississippi, and its casino-, military- and tourism-based economy. In 1866, a group of emancipated slaves settled along about 320 acres formerly owned by Arkansas Lumber Company. Thomas and Melinda Benton acquired enough land to bring their holdings to 50 percent of the community. It straddled the 13-mile-long Turkey Creek, a freshwater marsh and coastal hardwood forest. It continues to be a haven for wildlife and migrating birds. Although the community predated the founding of the City of Gulfport, it was annexed in 1994 to allow for commercial development and expansion of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the area, city planners used the disaster as an excuse to begin uprooting vegetation that helped preserve the watershed. In 2001, Derrick Evans left his teaching positions in Boston and moved back home to Turkey Creek. The documentary follows his efforts to rally support for the once-voiceless community, through the Turkey Creek Community Initiatives. After Katrina, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and received assistance from the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain and Audubon Mississippi. The film has inspired other such community preservation projects and was featured on “The Daily Show.”

Fair Haven
Before watching Kerstin Karlhuber and co-writer Jack Bryant’s quietly effective drama, Fair Haven, I was under the impression that conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy – was acknowledged to be a cruelly ineffective way to “cure” LGBT youths of what their parents and church perceive to be a disease. Apparently, not. Here, Michael Grant (Where Hope Grows) is well cast as James, a young piano prodigy, who returns home, to his family’s apple farm, after a long stay at a Christian conversion-therapy retreat. His hard-ass father, Richard (Tom Wopat), not only has forced James to endure such torture, but he also insists that he give up the piano and work toward saving the farm. The 19-year-old might have been more inclined toward accommodating his dad if he hadn’t already blown James’ college nest egg to pay for his therapy and mother’s funeral. He becomes even more upset when Richard tells him that he’s turned down generous offers to sell the property and wouldn’t think of giving up the family homestead, even if it means James has to give up his dreams. He believes that the conversion worked and gets angry with his former boyfriend (Josh Green) when they bump into each other in town. He even agrees to date the pastor’s daughter (Lily Anne Harrison), who couldn’t be more pleased that James is available to her. We’re not convinced of his conversion, however. Even if we know how Fair Haven is likely to end, Karlhuber doesn’t insult our intelligence by creating shortcuts or employing clichés to help her get there. In fact, the flashbacks to therapy sessions leave room for debate – however futile – among the participants and their soft-spoken instructor (Gregory Harrison). Karlhuber makes good use of the lovely rural setting and veteran cast. Special features include behind-the-scenes material, deleted scenes and cast interviews.

Witchtrap: Blu-ray
When it came to making horror films, writer/director Kevin Tenney could be considered a natural. He shot his first Super 8 film in the 6th grade and left USC early to make Witchboard, a silly, if highly profitable thriller notable for the presence of former child star Rose Marie (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”) and former O.J. lover Tawny Kitaen (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak). In it, a female college student is harassed and later possessed by an evil spirit summoned through a Ouija-board experiment. Tenney’s third film, Witchtrap, doesn’t have anything to do with witches or Witchboard, and it was released straight-to-video. By 1989, video originals had come of age, so there wasn’t any real stigma attached to it. For years, it seems, the once elegant Lauter House has been plagued by strange and violent occurrences. Unexplained deaths and seemingly supernatural activities have scared away all perspective tenants and buyers. Its new owners are toying with the idea of turning the old mansion into a bed-and-breakfast, targeted at tourists who claim not to be afraid of evil spirits. First, however, a team of paranormal experts are brought in to identify the demonic forces and trap them in a gizmo especially designed for such purposes. Sure enough, the big, bad ghost takes the bait, but not before Linnea Quigley is killed in the shower by a malevolent nozzle. It’s a classic scene in a movie mostly devoid of real shockers. Vinegar Syndrome has restored Witchtrap in 2k from the 35mm Interpositive, totally uncut, with its long-censored gore fully intact. It adds lively group commentary with Tenney, producer Dan Duncan, cinematographer Tom Jewett and actor Hal Havins; video interviews with Tenney, Quigley, Jewett and SFX supervisor Tassilo Baur; audio interviews with SFX makeup artist Judy Yonemoto and composer Dennis Michael Tenney; “Book of Joe” a short film directed by Tenney, with an alternate ending; a production/promotional still gallery; and original cover artwork by Corey Wolfe.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXVIII
Frontline: President Trump
Most longtime fans of MST3K probably have already heard the good news that the Satellite of Love will return to Earth orbit on April 14, with 14 new episodes of the series set to stream on Netflix. A record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, initiated by Joel Hodgson, raised $5.8 million from 48,270 backers, with an additional $600,000 in backer add-ons that allowed for two more episodes and a Christmas special. Comedian Jonah Ray will play Jonah Heston, the new host aboard the SoL, with the voices of Crow and Tom provided by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn. YouTube heartthrob Felicia Day (“The Guild”) will play Kinga Forrester, Clayton Forrester’s daughter and one of the new Mads in charge of the experiments, alongside comedian Patton Oswalt, as Kinga’s henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Rebecca Hanson, a Second City alum, assumes the role of Gypsy, as well as another of Kinga’s henchmen. Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy will cameo on the revival, reprising their roles as Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy (a.k.a., Observer) and Professor Bobo. The list of movies to be scorched has yet to be revealed, except to say that most of the selections will be of a more recent vintage than those in the original shows. If that doesn’t give fans something to live for this spring, nothing will. Meanwhile, the latest compilation of evergreen episodes arrives this week from Shout!Factory, presenting “the worst” in the subgenres: Cold War drama, Sword and Sandals, Juvenile Delinquents and Monsters. They include the irredeemably bad Invasion, U.S.A. (1952), Colossus and the Headhunters (1963), High School Big Shot (1959) and Track of the Moon Beast (1976), plus several featurettes.

PBS debuted its “Frontline” presentation, “President Trump,” on January 3, while the president-elect was picking his Cabinet and futilely attempting to coax celebrities to perform at his Inauguration. Trump was still basking in the glow of his historic victory, convinced that everyone in Washington was practicing their bows and curtsies in anticipation of the First Family’s coronation. If President Obama had warned him against expecting too much from Congress in the first few weeks and months of his administration, he’d ignored the advice. In three weeks, Trump would learn just how complicated things can get when an outsider promises to drain the swamp, without consulting the alligators and copperheads first. Those blissful days in January must feel like a distant memory right now. In fact, the information imparted in the six-part “Frontline” documentary series feels very much like ancient history. No candidate has been subjected to as much media scrutiny – or ridicule, for that matter — as Donald Trump and they still got the results wrong. “President Trump” does a good job backtracking on the events in the man’s life that endeared him to America’s great unwashed. It does so through interviews with advisors, business associates and biographers, who describe how Trump transformed himself from real estate developer, to entertainer, to president. It also explores the roots of the division and polarization in Washington that frustrated the Obama presidency and laid the groundwork for the election of a defiant outsider.

The DVD Wrapup: Julieta, Sing, Kind of Murder, Nightless City, Multiple Maniacs, Cinema Paradiso, 45RPM, Ali & Nino, American Princesses, Split and more

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Julieta: Blu-ray
While any new movie by Pedro Almodóvar is cause for celebration, Julieta stands out for several reasons. Upon its screening at Cannes, critics were quick to point out that it not only marked a return to the women-centric dramas for which he’s been associated for the entirety of his 40-year, 20-feature career. It’s also one of only a very few titles that he’s adapted from a literary source or shared a writing credit. Based on three stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” from her 2004 collection “Runaway” – Almodóvar originally planned to adapt them as his first English-language screenplay, possibly starring Meryl Streep. He didn’t feel comfortable pursuing that,  and re-set the film for locations in Spain. If reviewers missed the director’s outrageous comedy and other trademark touches, loyalists savored his insider riffs on Spanish telenovelas, Hitchcockian tropes and film noir, as well as Julieta’s distinct visual style and complementary color palette. To this end, Almodóvar re-teamed with production designer Antxón Gómez, costume designer Sonia Grande, composer Alberto Iglesias and set designer Federico García Cambero. French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu capably filled in for José Luis Alcaine. His muse, Rossy de Palma, also plays a prominent role. Emma Suárez won several Best Actress awards in Europe for her portrayal of the adult Julieta, a woman who experiences great romance and great despair in her lifetime, but not for reasons usually associated with such upheavals. Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta, an aspiring teacher whose steamy encounter with a married fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on an overnight train to their homes, opened the door for the next 30 years of fate-driven events.

For example, coincidental to learning she’s pregnant from her one-night-stand, Julieta receives a letter from Xoan, who’s managed to track her to the address of her former school. Taking it for an invitation, she arrives at his bayside home in Galicia, within days of his long-suffering wife’s funeral. They have no problem rekindling their romance, even though Xoan’s former lover and confidante, Ava (Inma Cuesta), is still in the picture. Their daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), will grow into her teens as a true daddy’s girl, but one with a curiosity about life outside the fishing village. Mother and daughter are devastated by news that Xoan has died in a terrible storm, possibly after a squabble over the continuing presence of Ava in his life. Years later, Antia is given reason to believe that the squabble – along with her being away from home, at camp – caused Xoan’s death and not his disregard for the power of the storm. While on a religious retreat in the Pyrenees, she decides to turn her back on her past and reject any contact with her mother, now living in Madrid. If the decision seems awfully rash, it sets up the emotionally charged second half of the story. Once again, as fate would have it, Julieta finally falls in love with another man, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), she meets at Ava’s funeral. They even make plans to move to Portugal, which she abandons after running into Antia’s childhood friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), who delivers some alarming news to her. Not only does it cause Julieta to remain in Madrid, but also sink into a debilitating depression over feelings of guilt and abandonment. The tantalizingly ambiguous ending probably will encourage some viewers, at least, to refer to Munro’s stories. In this case, though, that’s a good thing. The lovely Blu-ray adds featurettes “Portrait of Julieta” and “Celebrating Director Pedro Almodóvar,” from a retrospective of his works at MoMA.

Sing: Special Edition: Blu-ray/UHD/3D/DVD
In their seven-year partnership, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures have already launched four legitimate franchises in the highly competitive animated-features arena: Despicable Me, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets and, now, Sing. Feature-length sequels and triquels to these hit flicks have already been scheduled, as well as several related or stand-alone shorts (a.k.a., cartoons). They also appear to be moving ahead on a series of Dr. Seuss adaptations that began with The Lorax (2012). Made from a relatively modest $75-million production budget, Sing did very well both domestically and worldwide. The easiest way to describe the tuneful movie is to compare it to an “American Idol” for anthropomorphic animals. Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, an eternally optimistic koala – more Mickey Rooney than Ryan Seacrest — who stages an elaborate singing competition to save his crumbling theater. To cover rent and utilities, Buster resorts to several funny, if less-than-honest schemes. The cast also includes fellow Academy Award-winners Reese Witherspoon, as Rosita, an overworked and underappreciated mother of 25 piglets; Scarlett Johansson, as Ash, a punk-rock porcupine with a beautiful voice behind her prickly exterior; Seth MacFarlane, as a small, suave mouse named Mike; Taron Egerton, as Johnny, a young  gorilla hoping to break free from his gangster family; and, among other artists, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, the Jennifers Saunders and Hudson, the Nicks Kroll and Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman and Laraine Newman. While kids should enjoy watching the animals perform, parents can sing along to the brief snippets from 85-plus hit songs, from the 1940s to 2016, performed by the voice actors or cover groups. (Songs performed by the original artists, at longer than abbreviated lengths, would have cost a fortune in licensing fees.) Co-director Garth Jennings previously directed the quirky comedy Son of Rambow and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, while first-time helmsman Christophe Lourdelet has worked on Minions, The Lorax and French-language delights The Rabbi’s Cat and A Monster in Paris. The Blu-ray edition adds character profiles; making-of and background featurettes; several music videos; and three entertaining mini-movies.


A Kind of Murder: Blu-ray
Adapted rather loosely from Patricia Highsmith’s third of 22 novels, “The Blunderer,” A Kind of Murder would have benefited greatly from sticking to the details of the 1954 thriller and resisting the temptation to tweak them for reasons known only to director Andy Goddard (Set Fire to the Stars) and first-time screenwriter Susan Boyd. They did a nice job changing the time frame to the early 1960s and even made Cincinnati environs look like New York. The costumes are appropriate for the period – JFK had yet to take possession of the White House – and a scene set precariously in a Greenwich Village bar avoids insulting the “beatnik” patrons and viewers’ intelligence. The problem is that the plot twists invented to make the movie more appealing to modern audiences don’t hold up to scrutiny by mystery buffs, who, ostensibly, are the target audience. Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel play an unhappily married suburban couple, living in an almost oppressively modern house he designed not far from the city. In “The Blunderer,” Walter Stackhouse is a mild-mannered lawyer condemned to constantly adjusting to the whims of an overreaching shrew, Clara (Biel). In the movie, Walter is an architect and aspiring writer of crime fiction and Clara doesn’t become insufferable until she conjures a sexual dalliance between Walter and a sexy cabaret singer, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett), who’s brought to a party at their home as a guest.

Clara makes him so miserable with her accusations of infidelity that he finally decides to confirm her fears by succumbing to Ellie’s not-at-all subtle advances. Clara’s failed suicide attempt puts a wrinkle in Walter’s plans to divorce her, but not before she’s found dead on a bus trip to visit her dying mother. In the mind of a single-minded police detective (Vincent Kartheiser), her death too closely resembles an unsolved murder he believes was committed by the wonderfully named, if oily bookshop manager, Melchior J. Kimmel (Eddie Marsan). After reading about the Kimmel murder in the newspaper, he clips the item as reference for a future novel. Its discovery by the detective effectively gives him all the evidence he needs to make his suspects’ lives miserable. While not terribly far from capturing the gist of “The Blunderer,” Boyd’s script forces her protagonist to make the kinds of mistakes that no mystery writer – even a novice – would commit. These include repeatedly allowing himself to be caught in lies any rookie flatfoot could detect and trusting too many people to make alibis for him. A deliberately noir-ish conclusion also begs credulity. Even so, A Kind of Murder is well-acted and sufficiently atmospheric to be recommendable as a rainy-day diversion. But, then, so would picking up any Highsmith book from the library or downloading it to a hand-held device. The bonus material includes interviews with the director and cast, as well as featurettes on capturing the right period feel.

The Nightless City
Here’s an interesting movie that came out of nowhere, absent any release information or reviews. Even now, all I know about The Nightless City is that its studio is listed as the eclectic Shami Media Group and that it’s available through MVD Visual. Sometimes, its reps know what I’ll enjoy watching before I do. That’s certainly the case here. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear incident, a hypersensitive photographer (Maya Murofushi) is so haunted by the surrealistic manifestations of the nuclear disaster and subsequent tsunami that she’s unable to sleep. Mariko decides to move to Sicily, the current home of a former lover (Giovanni Calcagno), Rocco, who might provide her the space she needs to her reset her inner alarm clock. If anything, her insomnia gets worse. By chance, Mariko discovers that she’s able to sleep at night whenever Rocco agrees to drive her around the city, which I assume to be Palermo. Refreshed, she picks up her camera and begins a series of photos relating to her dreams and memories of the disaster, as well as hyper-realistic photos of Rocco in bed, which she blows up to fill the apartment’s walls. I don’t know who shot the photographs, but they’re truly amazing. The thing is, just as Mariko’s life begins to return to normal, his gets turned upside-down, due to her need to be chauffeured around the city until the wee hours. Finally, his devotion is rewarded with the loss of his own job, if not his sanity. What I really liked in The Nightless City is the merging of art mediums – including Massimo Foletti’s cinematography and Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari and Lorenzo Feliciati’s music – to reveal the disassociation experienced by Mariko from the disaster. In this way, it reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 arthouse thriller, Diva, which blended several disparate artistic impulses in the service of wonderfully complex and super-hip crime story.  If you loved Diva, or only remember it for Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez’ performance of the first-act aria from the opera “La Wally,” you may want to take a chance with The Nightless City.

Ali & Nino
Anyone who’s able to find Baku on a map, without consulting Google, already is part of the target audience for Asif Kapadia’s Ali & Nino, an epic romance based on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel. Those of us who couldn’t pinpoint Azerbaijan on a map, let alone Baku, might need more convincing. For the record, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a crossroads nation in the South Caucasus, situated at the borders of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. Rich with oil, it is bound by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south. Baku is its capital. In 1918, multicultural Azerbaijan was under the control of czarist Russia, and mostly content with its wealth and religious diversity. That situation would dramatically change, twice, in the next two years. After the collapse of the Russian Empire and end of World War I, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Twenty-three months later, after Vladimir Lenin declared that Soviet Russia could not survive without Baku’s oil, Red Army troops invaded the country. And, that was all she wrote for the next 70 years, when the dissolution of the USSR opened the door for another shot at independence. That’s all the information a non-Azerbaijani viewer needs to enjoy Ali & Nino on its merits. Those more familiar with the country’s history probably will find in undernourished, though.

Adam Bakri and María Valverde play star-crossed lovers, Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani, a Muslim boy and Orthodox girl, who defy their parents’ wishes by deciding to marry. Ali killed a wealthy suitor after he attempted to kidnap Nino and marry her in Moscow. For this, a price was put on his head by the victim’s family. For once, then, religion isn’t the determining factor causing them to run off to mountains to begin their life together and raise a family. His Muslim relatives there like Nino and she adapts to their customs. It’s a lovely setup for a far more explosive second half, when Ali’s patriotism trumps Nino’s desire to stay in the mountains until the smoke clears. Once they reach Baku, again, it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them to live together in peace. Ali sends Nino to then-Persia, to live in a harem until their baby arrives and he’s able to contribute to the new government. The primary question then becomes whether they’ll ever be able to celebrate their belated honeymoon in Paris, as promised. Shot in Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ali & Nino is easy on the eyes. What’s missing is the passion that’s informed other romantic epics, including Doctor Zhivago, which the marketing team wants us to think it resembles. The political throughline, while historically accurate, feels too cut-an-dried, as well. The international cast includes Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen, Homayoun Ershadi and Halit Ergenç, indicating that the producers thought they could draw an international audience. (Exec-producer Leyla Aliyeva is the daughter of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan.)

Multiple Maniacs: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview conducted with John Waters for the release of this welcome special edition, which bears both the Criterion and Janus logos, the Pope of Trash recalls how almost all the art films he obsessed over as a teenage buff were released by Janus. To see it attached to one of his most scandalous entertainments, he offers, means that his career has truly come full circle. I don’t know if Waters has hung up his director’s megaphone just yet – he’s declared that “irony ruined everything” and it’s no longer possible to make independent films that cost $5 million – but he’s spent most of his time lately writing, lecturing and playing guest roles in other people’s projects. While the commentary track here argues against Waters having been totally defanged by time and competition, his nostalgic memories of the creation of his second feature, Multiple Maniacs, occasionally border on the sentimental. Delightfully blasphemous, it scores directs hits on the norms of life in suburban Baltimore and the rise of the politically correct left at the end of the 1960s. The centerpiece depravity in Multiple Maniacs is the Cavalcade of Perversion, a mobile midway attraction mounted by a troupe of misfits organized by Lady Divine (Pink Flamingos). Then and now, her presence mocked everything held sacred by the Hollywood studios and fashion-magazine editors. According to ringmaster Mr. David, the freaks include “assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps (who) know no bounds! They have committed acts against God and nature, acts that by their mere existence would make any decent person recoil in disgust!” They re-enact the Stations of the Cross, while Lady Divine goes on a rampage after being raped by a 15-foot lobster. Divine would famously trump this outrage a year later in Pink Flamingos, of course, but not before Canadian censors burned their print of Multiple Maniacs, rather than validate it with public condemnation. The restoration team offered to retain the period blemishes, artifacts and scratches, but Waters asked them give it the first-class sheen it wasn’t accorded on 16mm stock. The 4K digital upgrade, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, was supervised by Waters. The Blu-ray also adds entertaining interviews with cast and crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs, as well as an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.

Juli Jackson’s debut feature, 45RPM, debuted as a work-in-progress at the 2012 Ozark Film Festival and, again, a year later, at the Little Rock Film Festival, before hitting the circuit for another two. I have no idea what distributors didn’t see in the delightfully unprepossessing rock-’n’-roll fantasy. In my opinion, someone really missed the boat. In spirit, at least, the micro-budget indie reminded me favorably of High Fidelity and Empire Records, both largely set in a record store, but mostly of Ace Atkins’ first novel, “Crossroads Blues.” In it, an ex-New Orleans Saint turned Tulane University blues historian searches for the fabled lost recordings of Robert Johnson — and a missing colleague – and, as they say, finds trouble at every turn. In 45RPM, Charlie (Liza Burns), an artist who seeks a connection between her work and her deceased father’s music, teams up with Louie (Jason Thompson), an obsessive record collector from Memphis. All they have to go on are a few vague memories of a record she listened to as a child and his extensive knowledge of obscure 1960s garage-rock. After a false start caused by Charlie misremembering the name of her dad’s band – Five Man Trip, not Five Man Trio – they visit every used-record store, small-town radio station and swap meet in central Arkansas looking for clues. The thrill of the hunt invigorates Louie, while a deadline back home causes Charlie to take out her frustration on him. If it feels forced on her part, the financial pressure is really the only source of drama throughout 45RPM, which was OK with me. Somewhere along the way, we’d also expect them to realize their mutual love/lust for each other and hit the nearest rest stop for sex. Instead, Charlie and Louis stick to the task at hand, which, again, is OK. The scenes and stops along the road are enhanced by a soundtrack full of songs by what I assume are active Southern blues/rockabilly/garage bands. The ending satisfies, even without Jackson having to add some fireworks to spice it up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and uncompleted short film that inspired the feature.

Creature Lake
The Creature Below
The cover art for direct-to-videos is notoriously derivative, often ripping off marketing campaigns for infinitely better and demonstrably more successful movies. Rarely, though, have two genre pictures that are so similar been released in the same month than Wild Eye Releasing’s Creature Lake and Breaking Glass’ The Creature Below. One each, a woman in a bikini is shown emerging from a body of water, with tentacles protruding behind her back. On closer examination, the woman on the cover of the former wears a demonic grin beneath glowing eyeballs, while the woman on the latter appears to be standing on the lower jaw of a sea monster. The images are quite striking, if inarguably generic. Only one of them reflects what happens in the movie, however. That would be Drazen Baric and Damien Slevin’s debut feature, Creature Lake (a.k.a., “Gitaskog”), whose bathing beauty is, in reality, demonic and naked. If it is a hybrid of exploitation flicks that emerged from the found-footage and cabin-in-the-woods subgenres, it also owes something to The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Deliverance. Here, a bunch of urban bozos repairs to a remote Canadian lake for a weekend “sausage party.” A member of a First Nations tribe warns them against disrespecting the sacred waters, which are protected by a powerful spirit. Naturally, one of the men mistakes the naked woman beckoning him into the lake for an Indian maiden or garden-variety nymphomaniac, who must have been enjoying a swim when she chanced upon this bevy of horny hunks. Imagine their surprise when the fellow who jumped into the water first is sucked into the depths, never to be seen again. Somehow, they fail to put two and two together, until it’s too late. Creature Lake is just goofy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure, which is more than can be said about most post-“Blair Witch” and -“Cabin Fever” efforts.

The Creature Below isn’t as easy to categorize, although parts of it resemble other sci-fi/horror pictures in which humans conduct experiments on sea creatures without regard to the ramifications of messing with Mother Nature. Anna Dawson plays Olive, an expert deep-sea diver and marine biologist who’s on a mission to research theories of the seaborne origins of life. The dive that opens the picture is interrupted by something that nearly kills her. Before Olive’s rescued, though, she grabs an egg. After being berated by her sponsor (Zacharee Lee) for destroying a precious piece of equipment, Olive smuggles the egg home with her, stashing it in the basement of the house she shares with her boyfriend, Matt (Daniel Thrace), and her nosy sister, Ellie (Michaela Longden). As the creature emerges from the egg and begins to grow, Olive forms an oddly symbiotic relationship with it. She discovers the creature’s bloodlust at about the same time the scientist realizes that Olive may have stolen evidence to prove his thesis. Ellie also becomes curious about what was growing in the aquarium downstairs. Olive’s experiencing horrific nightmares, as well. The trick becomes keeping her sister out of a danger, while protecting herself from her sponsor’s wrath. To this end, she receives help from an unexpected ally. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a Frightfest Q&A and director Stewart Sparke’s very short short, “Rats,” about a young woman who finds her home plagued by mutant rats from outer space.

Sisters of the Plague
3 Sisters
Death Walks on High Heels: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Death Walks at Midnight: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Anyone who can’t find atmosphere in New Orleans isn’t breathing and Jorge Torres-Torres’ supernatural thriller nearly drowns in it. Josephine Decker, an impossible-to-pigeonhole actress with roots in the Mumblecore discipline, plays a seemingly sane woman who makes a tentative living leading tourists on haunted-house tours around the French Quarter. It isn’t until Jo’s desperately alcoholic father (Thomas Francis Murphy) moves into the house she shares with her girlfriend (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) that things really begin to get weird. The old man probably is hiding his culpability in the death of Jo’s mother and, in turn, her increasingly disturbing nightmares and hallucinations. She seeks the help of a medium, of which there’s a surplus in the Crescent City, who warns her to prepare for something beyond her control. It turns Sisters of the Plague into the kind of possession drama that could play in arthouses, but has trouble exiting the LGBT festival circuit. Torres-Torres (Shadow Zombie) and co-writer Jason Banker (Toad Road) leave a lot to the imagination, but the atmosphere is thick enough to hold it together for 80 minutes.

Ireland isn’t a bad place to look for atmosphere, either. Dáire McNab’s modern giallo, 3 Sisters, shifts the points-of-view with a frequency that makes it difficult to tell where his camera is pointing at any given time and why. (The police investigation, autopsy and burial of the first victim is shown from the POV of the corpse.) The one thing we know for sure is that someone is murdering the members of a Dublin family, one by one, and without waiting for the blood to dry between killings. In addition to the POV tricks, the camera bounces from intimate, in-your-face close-ups, to shots captured on security cameras. It takes a while to get fully adjusted, but adventurous viewers will find value in the effort. No sooner is the uncle of the title characters found in a pool of his own blood – possibly from a self-inflicted wound — than one of the sisters is brutally murdered in her home. The victim’s sister/housemate Sarah (Gillian Walsh) discovers the body and, unable to face staying the night there, seeks refuge with her ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Elliott Moriarty). As they tentatively rekindle their extinguished romance, the killer lurks menacingly in the background, targeting the third sister. As it also turns out, the patriarch of the family is dying of cancer. Sarah, Dylan and an almost comically brusque police detective discover almost simultaneously that she stands to inherit a small fortune when the father dies. As the 87-minute mark approaches, it’s difficult to say how much satisfaction McNab is going to give his viewers when/if he reveals the killer and what will happen to him. We miss the gaudy colors associated with giallo, but everything else is there, including Italian cult favorite Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Ferox, House on the Edge of the Park). The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

For a more traditional giallo experience, a good place to start would be Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, from the early 1970s. Less known than Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, Ercoli only directed a handful of films before retiring on a substantial inheritance, or so the legend goes. He lived another 38 years without making another one. There’s nothing wrong with his “Death Walks” duo, though. We reviewed them here last year, when Arrow bundled immaculately restored versions of them as “Death Walks Twice.” Both star Spanish-born model/actress/bombshell Nieves Navarro, who embodied all the traits with female giallo superstars. In “High Heels,” she plays an exotic dancer terrorized by a black-clad assailant determined to steal her murdered father’s already purloined gems. She flees Paris to evade her knife-wielding pursuer, but England offers only temporary refuge. In “Midnight,” Navarro portrays Valentina, a model who, during a drug-fueled photoshoot, witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. Naturally, the police fail to find anything amiss, forcing her to play amateur sleuth to unravel the mystery. The separately sold discs carry over featurettes and interviews that were included in the boxed set.

Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Sometimes, good things do get better. The hyper-eclectic MVD Entertainment Group has just added Arrow Academy to its roster of companies whose products it distributes in the U.S. It is a division the U.K.’s Arrow Films, which does such a nice job with restorations of specialty and genre titles, including the aforementioned Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. The new imprint will release “definitive and prestige-edition films by revered maestros of cinema from across the globe, including filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, R.W. Fassbinder, Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard.” Typically, the digitally upgraded titles will come loaded with newly produced commentary, featurettes and interviews. Its “Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition” and “The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition” packages are a very good start. One of the most honored films of the last 50 years – foreign language or otherwise – Cinema Paradiso (1988) has only been available in stripped-down versions of the theatrical cut or bonus-free DVD editions of the extended director’s cut. Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore initially said that his intention for the picture was to serve as an obituary for traditional movie theatres and the movie industry in general, in the post-war era. If, upon completion, that was all Cinema Paradiso turned out to be, it might have branded as an Italian version of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Instead, especially at the 174-minute length, it stands as a loving homage to the cinema, as told through the eyes of Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio/Marco Leonardi/Jacques Perrin), now a successful film director, but, as a boy, an apprentice to the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), at the local cinema. When Toto, whose father was killed in the war, returns home for Alfredo’s funeral, he’s flooded with memories filled with love and regret. Noiret’s performance was worth the price of admission, as was Ben Johnson’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Sam the Lion, The Last Picture Show. The Arrow package includes the 124-minute Cannes Festival theatrical version, as well 174-minute Director’s Cut, which incorporates more of Salvatore s backstory. Restored from the original camera negative, it’s further enhanced by uncompressed original stereo 2.0 Audio and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio options; commentary with Tornatore and Italian cinema expert, Millicent Marcus; “A Dream of Sicily,” a 52-minute documentary profile of the director, featuring interviews and extracts from his early home movies, and set to music by the Ennio Morricone; “A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise,” a 27-minute documentary on the genesis of Cinema Paradiso, featuring interviews with the actors who play Toto and Noiret; a discussion of the emotionally charged “kissing scenes” sequence; a 25th-anniversary re-release trailer; and collector’s booklet, by Pasquale Iannone, illustrated with archive stills, behind-the-scenes images and posters.

And, now, for something completely different from the same place: The Creeping Garden is a visually stunning documentary that explores the extraordinary world of, believe it or not, “plasmodial slime mold,” as revealed through the eyes of the fringe scientists, mycologists and the artists who work with them. In recent years, this curious organism has become the focus of much research in such areas as biological-inspired design, emergence theory, unconventional computing and robotics. Like so many other scientific endeavors, much of the research shown on film borders on science fiction. In fact, as I began watching The Creeping Garden, I thought it was a genre flick, with actors in lab coats describing yet another pre-apocalyptic threat to humanity. Soon enough, though, the film transports us from the laboratory into the primitive lifeform’s natural habitat, studying them using amazing time-lapse macro-cinematography to reveal hidden facets of the world around us. As fascinating as the science can be, what sells The Creeping Garden are the images that come alive before our eyes. It was co-directed by the artist/filmmaker Tim Grabham and author/critic Jasper Sharp, with an original soundtrack composed by Jim O Rourke (Sonic Youth). The package adds commentary with the directors; a short film on biocomputer music, which allows a two-way musical dialogue between man and slime mold; “Return to the Fungarium,” a featurette revealing further treasures of the facilities at Kew Gardens; “Feeding Habits of Physarum,” a featurette on the feeding preferences and dislikes of slime molds; three Cinema Iloobia shorts: Angela Mele’s animated slime molds; a separate soundtrack disc,
rearranged by O’Rourke; and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the film by Jasper Sharp. As usual with Arrow packages, be aware that some features are limited to the first-edition pressings.

Apocalypse Kiss
The Quiet Hour
Even if Lloyd Kaufman is given an extended cameo in Apocalypse Kiss, as POTUS, Troma isn’t distributing Christian Jude Grillo’s pre-apocalyptic genre-bender. Michael Berryman makes a brief appearance as an evil corporate mogul, as well, but that doesn’t mean Apocalypse Kiss resembles The Hills Have Eyes, either. The critics seem to agree that it bears a surface resemblance, at least, to a cut-rate version of Blade Runner. If only. Besides directing “AK,” which apparently has been sitting on a shelf for three years, Grillo (Booley) also is credited as writer, composer, editor, production designer, set decorator, VFX coordinator, camera operator and part of the casting team. Far more prominent than Kaufman and Berryman are aspiring scream queens Carmela Hayslett and Tammy Jean, as lesbian lovers who murder horny rich guys by luring them into sure-fire sex traps; D.C. Douglas, as Adrian, the Red Harvest Killer, who’s jealous of the newcomers; and Tom Detrik, as government security agent Jerry Hipple, who blames Adrian for the death of his wife, but accepts his assistance against the lesbians. All the while, killers and victims, alike, are unaware the world is about to reach an abrupt catastrophic ending. This allows for generous helpings of gratuitous T&A and dystopian violence. The DVD adds the featurettes, “The Making of Apocalypse Kiss” and “Make Your Own Damn Space Station,” with Lloyd Kaufman; commentary with cast and crew; and fake commercials from the future.

Here’s another sci-fi drama in which the vehicles that bring aliens to Earth hover in the clouds, this time looking like wasp or hornets’ nests hanging on the branch of a tree. They’re here to harvest the planet’s resources and kill anyone who gets in the way. In her first feature, Stéphanie Joalland borrows a conceit from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” that allows her to forgo giving her aliens a physical presence. It’s enough that we know they’re there and are slowly sucking the life out of Earth. Survivors are allowed to leave their homes for two hours each day, during which the farmers we meet can tend to their crops, livestock and the solar panels that keep them safe. It also gives marauding bands of cannibals time to attack the survivors. The action here centers around an Irish family stranded in a farmhouse in County Tipperary. Nineteen-year-old Sarah (Dakota Blue Richards) and her nearly blind brother have just buried their father in the front garden. The loss leaves them vulnerable to attack, at least until Sarah can master the finer points of self-control. When a stranger named Jude (Karl Davies) appears from the wilderness, dressed like a soldier and hobbled by a bullet in his leg, she’s forced to decide if she can trust the outsider or assume he’s a cannibal and put another round in him. Because the story is less sci-fi than narrative drama, viewers are encouraged to wonder how they’d perform under similar circumstances. And that, after all, is what genre fiction is all about, anyway.

Death Passage
In this urban-legend thriller from Down Under, American backpackers Maya, Amelia and Toby meet a pair of Aussie rascals at the beach. A bonfire provides the setting for a retelling of the local legend of Lemon Tree Passage – Death Passage’s original title — where the ghost of a motorcyclist warns young drivers to slow down … or else. Naturally, the visitors want to experience such an amazing supernatural phenomenon for themselves. After witnessing the ghost firsthand, they realize that they’ve been caught in the clutches of a malevolent force that possesses the area and threatens to turn the final days of their vacation into a living nightmare. Part of the suspense comes from knowing that the Americans are isolated and in danger, 10,000 miles from home, and the ghost may be the least of their problems. Australian horror flicks tend to take place on lonely roads in rural locations, where things have plenty of space to go bump in the night. The DVD package adds behind-the-scenes material, blooper footage and an alternate ending.

The last time most of heard anything about Deborah Kampmeier was 10 years ago, when, in her second film, Hounddog, she directed 12-year-old Dakota Fanning in a scene that involved a rape. Nothing unsavory was shown, but the possibility that her parents and Hollywood heathens would allow an America’s princess to be on the same set as a fictional rapist precipitated a feeding frenzy among bluenose politicians and other would-be censors. The furor killed the picture, months before critics could sink their teeth into it and may have done irreparable harm to her career. It certainly didn’t hinder Dakota. In her first film, Virgin (2004), a precocious Baptist teenager (Elizabeth Moss) finds herself pregnant, with no memory of having had sex, and determines that she is carrying the child of God. It received several favorable reviews and showed promise for Kampmeier’s future. Split’s opening has been reserved for VOD outlets and DVD, but she’s already in pre-production on another 2017 release, so, maybe she’s on the comeback trail. Split is an intensely dramatic, decidedly feminist story about a young actress and exotic dancer, Inanna (Amy Ferguson), who attempts to expand her horizons by joining an all-woman acting troupe. It’s about to stage an emotionally grueling indictment, in the Athenian tradition, of the violence perpetrated on women by men. At first, Inanna is overwhelmed by the outpouring of pain by the other women, whose inhibitions clearly disappeared years earlier. Very quickly, Inanna falls in love with and marries the womanizing artist who’s creating the masks the actors will wear during the play. In short order, though, she discovers to her horror that practically everything she loved in Derek (Morgan Spector) disappeared on their wedding night, including the desire to have sex. Instead, he becomes secretive and abusive. Finally, after much trepidation, Inanna finds the strength to claim her independence and sense of self-worth by accepting the play’s theme and support of the other actresses. While it makes a very strong statement on an issue that couldn’t be more topical, Split could be accused of sending a mixed message about victims of abuse enabling their attackers. It should be noted, as well, that Split contains a lot of nudity – full-frontal and otherwise – but almost none of it could be considered gratuitous within the context of the story. Neither is it reserved for women of a single Hollywood-approved shape, size or color. In several ways, Split reminds me of Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996) and specific storylines in the HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies.”

Ascent to Hell: Blu-ray
Co-writer/director Dena Hysell sets the stage for the horror to come in Ascent to Hell by flashing through photos of victims of industrial fires, including the ones involving sweat shops with locked staircases and exits. I suspect that most, if not all of them were taken at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno, which, in 1911, claimed the lives of 146 garment workers. Is it sacrilegious to build a horror film on the ruins of such a tragedy? Maybe so, but, as the closing credits roll, we’re encouraged to cut the producers of Ascent to Hell a break through reminders of more contemporary disasters. In it, Kate (Azura Skye) is a residential real estate agent told by her boss to sell a commercial property with a shocking history. It might as well have been named after the Asch Building – now Brown Building — still standing at 23-29 Washington Place, in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred. By 1916, New York University had taken over 8th Floor, where so many people died or leaped to their deaths. Today, tourists are directed to the building’s top floors as part of sightseeing excursions targeted at fans of haunted houses and ghosts. Hysell makes sure we know whose side he’s on, by characterizing potential developers as heartless yuppies who couldn’t care less about the building’s legacy. Neither are they impressed by Kate’s disclosure of the community’s efforts to create green zones around it. Yes, these are bad people, who deserve everything they’re about to receive as they survey the uppermost floors, where reminders of the long-ago tragedy are still there to be seen. Genre buffs don’t need a spoiler alert to know what’s going to happen to them on the least-renovated floor. Hysell pulls it off pretty well, I thought.

Splatter Disco
RoboCop 2/3: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Battle of the Worlds: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Night of the Living Dead: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Few filmmakers have done more with less than writer/director Richard Griffin — Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon, Pretty Dead Things, Necroville, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead – one of the true auteurs of extreme exploitation. It’s fair to wonder what he might be able to accomplish with even a Corman-sized budget and support team. Released in 2007, Splatter Disco is said to have had a more sustainable budget than usual, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where the money went. I suspect that it was invested in a cast that includes exploitation specialists Lynn Lowry (Model Hunger), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Trent Haaga (Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula), Sarah Nicklin (A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set) and Debbie Rochon (Killer Rack). The acting is several notches above what’s evidenced in most of Griffin’s pictures, including The Disco Exorcist, which came later, but isn’t a sequel. On the cover of the After Hours re-release, a blurb declares that Splatter Disco is “The First Splatter Musical,” which would come as news to the producers of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”  Here, the owner of the fetish club Den O’ Iniquity has his hands full dealing with an unhappy wife, dying father, censorious citizenry and a psycho killer targeting his staff and clientele. As abhorrent behavior goes, Splatter Disco falls short of John Waters’ 2004 fetish-fest, A Dirty Shame. Most the club’s patrons resemble squirrels in pajamas. It arrives with commentary with Griffin, behind-the-scenes featurette, an alternate scene and “trailer vault.”

What is it they say about not missing your water …? Watching bad public-domain movies absent the commentary provided by the orbiting critics of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” can be a real drag. Even movies that are so bad they’re good require some witty repartee to break up the monotony occasionally. The only thing new about the Comic Book Collectors Editions of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, Battle of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead, which still holds up on its own merits, is the cover art. It made me think that there might be a graphic-novel adaptation of the movie inside, along with the movie. But, nooo. The gimmick isn’t bad, but collectors should consider if the reasonable $9.99 price tag warrants a second or third purchase of a movie already in their collection. Maybe, but only if they were available exclusively in a limited-edition series.

RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 are perfect examples of what can happen to the legacy of a genuinely entertaining and completely original movie when a studio is bleeding red ink and desperately needs a hit. After three years and a successful release into video, RoboCop was still a hot property. Sequels hadn’t worn out its welcome, yet, and special effects were only getting better. RoboCop 2 suffered immediately from the exit of director Paul Verhoeven and addition of Hollywood veteran Irvin Kershner. Frank Miller’s original version of the script was deemed unworkable and everyone with an opinion to spare felt it necessary to chip another two cents into the mix. Along the way, much of the humor that informed the original was lost, as well as the fresh take on a venerable genre. The half-man/half-robot conceit remained valid, but the MegaCop vs. MegaCorp theme wasn’t as relevant to post-Reagan audiences. Even so, there’s plenty of action to be enjoyed and the “Thank you, for not smoking” gag still works. The second sequel transplanted Detroit to Atlanta, which looked even less Midwestern than the Dallas locations in the first two chapters. The widely rumored game of musical chairs – including the addition of director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) and John Burke in the title role — failed to spark any interest in younger audiences and it tanked. Here, Our Hero was forced to decide, once and for all, if he was on the side of the corporation or the people being rousted by OCP. It might have worked better if RoboCop was sent to Kuwait, instead. The Collector’s Editions do add value in the form of fresh 2K polishes and new commentary tracks, interviews, making-of featurettes and galleries. Shout!Factory, as usual, takes its job of giving new life to old product very seriously here and delivers accordingly.

SpacePOP: Princess Power
The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover
The latest animated series to make the leap from the Internet to DVD is “SpacePOP,” which, according to Andy Heyward, CEO of Genius Brands, “is like Spice Girls meets Star Wars.” Ask any parent of a pre-teen girl and they’ll tell you that any movie with a princess in it is going to attract their attention, whether it’s Disney’s Moana, Tangled and Frozen, or such kindred royals as Princess Barbie, Anne Hathaway’s Princess Amelia “Mia” Thermopolis Renaldi, Princess Leia, Princess Mononoke, Kristin Chenoweth’s Princess Skystar (in this fall’s “My Little Pony: The Movie”) and Princess Alise, in The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover. A kids’ sensation on YouTube, SpacePOP: Princess Power extends the brand from three-minute webisodes to a 72-minute feature. It describes what happens when the evil Empress Geela takes over the Planets of the Pentangle and five teen princesses disguise themselves as pop-music musicians. Their band, SpacePOP, may remind some parents of the animated TV series “JEM and the Holograms.” Their mission is to spread the message of freedom, friendship, joy beauty and fashion through music … kind of like Kanye and Kim. In doing so, they join the resistance to take down the Geela, free their parents and liberate the people of the Pentangle.

The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is the seventh addition to a franchise that began in 1994 with an animated musical fantasy, based on the ballet “Swan Lake.” It featured the voice talents of Jack Palance, John Cleese, Steven Wright and Sandy Duncan, and was directed by a former Disney animation director, Richard Rich. It didn’t do very well at the domestic box office, for several pretty good reasons, but rallied to spawn six  direct-to-video features. Here, when mysterious visitors arrive in the Kingdom, Lucas, Princess Alise and their friends go undercover on a secret spy adventure to see if they can be trusted. They will need all their superior detective skills, as well as some cool gadgets, to solve the royal mystery and save the Kingdom. Both films are being distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Smithsonian: Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series
Smithsonian: Polar Bear Town: Season One
PBS: Nature: Snowbound: Animals of Winter
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear
PBS: American Masters: Mike Nichols
PBS: Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field
Nickelodeon: Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Heart of Faith
In the not-so-distant past, newspapers supplied all of the information TV viewers needed to choose the shows they wanted to watch and the times they would be broadcast. The popular acceptance of cable television forced newspaper to expand their grids and listings to the bursting point. Today, schedules for original programming on dozens of legitimate cable, satellite and streaming services are largely relegated to the scrolls and grids provided to subscribers. The problem for viewers and critics, alike, is all the work it takes to separate the wheat from the chaff, making sure the best are seen and the worst ignored. I’m fortunate to receive boxed sets of DVDs carrying entire seasons’ worth of programming. It wasn’t until I received the Smithsonian Channel’s multipart, “Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series” – distributed through PBS — that I became aware of a show that extended the “Downton Abbey” experience, without endlessly repeating favorite scenes, interviews and BBC spinoff shows. Elizabeth McGovern, who played the American heiress married to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, whose estate was in desperate need of the money provided by her dowry. Who better, then, to introduce us to some of the American women who, in effect, traded their inheritances for titles and, sometimes, love. Who knew, right?  The seven-part series takes us from the late 1800s, when daughters of America’s new industrial millionaires marry into the money-strapped British aristocracy, to the 20th Century, when a new kind of American Princess wields power not through wealth, but through character, style, wit and sexuality. Through the decades, these women bring dramatic change to the European aristocracy and eventually the world. The series also tells the stories of such headline-making women as Peggy Guggenheim, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jennie Jerome, Grace Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Winnaretta Singer, Rita Hayworth, Clara Ward, Barbara Hutton, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and Nancy Astor. Each is different and singularly interesting.

Another Smithsonian offering, the Season One package of “Polar Bear Town,” describes what happens every fall in Churchill, Manitoba, when a thousand bears migrate directly through town on their way to Hudson Bay. Tourists from all over the world come to see it for themselves and it’s up to veteran guides and conservation officers to protect the bears and the people.

Winter’s hard on everyone, especially animals stuck in places where the only relief available is what they create for themselves. In the “Nature” presentation, “Snowbound: Animals of Winter,” wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan introduces us to some of the world’s most iconic snow animals, from the penguins of Antarctica, to the bison of Yellowstone, polar bears and the Arctic fox. He also burrows beneath the ice to show us how some animals are able to survive months of hibernation and other adapt in ways unfamiliar to us.

Too many times, Hollywood’s version of the truth doesn’t come close to squaring with the truth presented as evidence by prosecutors, defense attorneys and forensics experts. This notion was summed up best, of course, in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, when Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) advised Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It isn’t a particularly novel concept in Europe, either. For most Americans, including those of us who would fly to Amsterdam on a whim, just to visit the Van Gogh Museum, Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life is close enough to pass for fact. In 1991, Maurice Pialat’s beautifully rendered Van Gogh confounded some audience members by suggesting that the artist did not cut his ear entirely off, but, instead, took some nasty swipes at it. It wouldn’t be Pialat’s only debatable decision. Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo was more interested in drawing a psychological portrait of Van Gogh, as he stared into a shattered mirror. So, the argument leading into PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear” not only was how much of his ear was lopped off, but also what happened between that moment and his arrival at Dr. Felix Rey’s office for treatment. The accepted scenario argues that he walked into Arles’ red-light district, where he delivered a portion of his ear –or lobe — to a prostitute named Rachel, probably nicknamed Gaby, in a handkerchief. Narrator Jeremy Paxman joins Provence-based “art sleuth” Bernadette Murphy as she nears the end of her career-long mission to solve the mystery of what happened on that fateful night of December 23, 1888. What she discovers is no less exciting than anything described in the movies.

The most overworked word in the Hollywood vernacular, by far, is “genius.” Anyone with more than one blockbuster movie or hit TV series is a borderline genius, at least, while a franchise or spin-off ensures genius, especially for producers and directors. Very few of them are, however, even if they have the papers to prove it. Mike Nichols was a genius. As a third cousin, twice removed, of Albert Einstein, he had the pedigree to prove it. In April 1939, when the Nazis were arresting Jews in Berlin, 7-year-old Mikhail and his 3-year-old brother, Robert, were sent, alone, to the United States to join their father, who had fled Germany months earlier. His mother eventually joined the family, escaping through Italy, in 1940. Thirteen years later, as a student in Chicago, he became an announcer for classical music station WFMT-FM, where he would launch the pioneering folk-music program, “The Midnight Special.” It’s still on the air. In some sections of the city, Nichols’ greatest accomplish might still be his work with Compass Players, the predecessor to Chicago’s legendary improvisational troupe, the Second City, whose members included Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, Nancy Ponder and director by Paul Sills. In 1958, the comedy duo, Nichols and May, took New York by storm. As we are reminded in PBS’ “American Masters: Mike Nichols” – directed by May — his trajectory never stopped rising. He excelled as a director, actor, writer and producer, winning an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys, nine Tonys and three BAFTAs. On each step of the ladder, Nichols changed the way things were done before him. Among those interviewed are Renata Adler, Bob Balaban, Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Tony Kushner, Dustin Hoffman, Neil and Paul Simon (separately), Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Robin Williams. Mostly, though, it’s Nichols’ alone, on a stool, reminiscing.

Until wars are fought by robots, drones and malware, soldiers’ wounds will continue to be treated by doctors, surgeons, nurses and therapists whose abilities may always be two or three steps behind an enemy’s demonic desire to kill, maim and otherwise neutralize their opponents. One of the fascinating things about PBS’ “Mercy Street” is learning how the art of healing and treating wounded Civil War soldiers advanced, if ever so slowly, to the point where significant numbers survived amputations and prosthetics were introduced in the recovery process. Just as World War I was a proving ground for the weapons that would be commonly used in World War II, and the Korean War opened doors to the horrors of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, each new conflagration presented unique challenges to medical professional on the ground and in hospitals back home. The most diabolically effective weapon used against coalition troops in Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq became armor-piercing IEDs – Improvised Explosive Device – which were as simple to construct and detonate as they were harmful to those riding in convoys.  The same applied to easily portable RPGs — rocket-propelled grenades – which could take out tanks and helicopters with equal ferocity. The only good news came in the ability of doctors and medics to stabilize the wounds long enough for casualties to be rapidly transported to well-equipped Combat Support Hospitals, which, in 2006, replaced the Korean War MASH units that played an important role in the development of the triage system. From there, survivors could be quickly transferred to hospitals in Germany and the U.S. for intensive care. In PBS’ “Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field,” ABC newsman Bob Woodruff traces the stories of veterans, surgeons, researchers, rehab experts and families, from battlefield to military hospitals, from hi-tech research centers to rehab facilities, to homes and workplaces, where a new generation of wounded warriors are given a chance to live a productive, if vastly different life, away from combat. In January, 2006, while covering the ongoing insurrection in Iraq as co-anchor ABC’s “World News Tonight,” of Woodruff was critically wounded by a roadside bomb. The documentary is informed, as well, by Woodruff’s remarkable recovery. It also allows him to pass along what he learned about treatments for traumatic brain injuries, which not only afflict wounded soldiers, but also athletes and victims of car accidents.

In Nickelodeon’s “Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo are pitted against “their strongest, most dangerous, most deadliest enemy ever,” the Super Shredder. After recovering from wounds inflicted in a fight with Master Splinter – and being injected with mutagen — the metallic fiend has bowed vengeance against Splinter and the Turtles. To protect their beloved sensai, the Turtles prepare for a final showdown by enlisting the help of April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Karai, Shinigami and the Mighty Mutanimals. If successful, they could put an end to Oroku Saki’s reign of terror forever. The episodes span Season Four’s “The Super Shredder” and Season Five’s “End Times.”

Hallmark has never made it easy for fans of “When Calls the Heart” to easily tell the difference between the episodes shown and television and those sent out on DVD. Don’t bother looking for “The Heart of Faith” in the synopses provided by various Internet sites, because you aren’t likely to find it. A perusal of the small print of the back of the package informs anyone who takes the time to look for it that “Heart of Faith” originally was shown last November, as “The Heart of Christmas.” In fact, the title PPV subscribers should look for is, “When Calls the Heart Christmas.” It’s a subtle change, but enough to confuse search engines. I suspect that “Heart of Faith” was attached to encourage faith-obsessed newcomers to buy a Christmas special in spring, without reading the synopsis or noticing the wee decorated tree in a photo on the box’s bottom-right corner. The story opens with Rosemary and Lee’s return from their honeymoon and completion of their new row house. It’s next to Elizabeth, who’s busy helping her students mount a nativity play. A traveling peddler, Sam, is mistaken for Santa by the kids and, by Jack, for a thief. Meanwhile, the pageant is threatened when word arrives that the supply train has derailed. Without costumes for the play, food for the feast and presents for the kids, Christmas will be just another day in December. It takes a lot of faith, spirit and cooperation to show Hope Valley what the holiday is all about.

Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box
What could be more fun for admirers of the soft-core erotica that’s made Skinemax a late-night pastime for insomniacs and post-pubescent boys than a collection of 12 sci-fi flicks from Surrender Cinema’s heyday. Unlike such original Cinemax series as “Erotic Confessions,” “Hot Line,” “Passion Cove,” “Lingerie” and “Co-Ed Confidential,” now being repeated ad nausea on the network, the films included in the “Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box” probably would have opened on the drive-in circuit, before going straight-to-DVD or premium cable. With that option closed to distributors by the mid-1990s, they became a staple of late-night cable in the U.S. and Canada. Typically, the skin was limited to T&A, but the occasional limp penis and bush would slip through. Now, of course, actresses have their pubes lasered to extinction at puberty or are allowed the slightest of landing strips. Some of them even were allowed to leave their original breasts unenhanced. Thus, such easily forgettable movies as The Exotic Time Machine, Femalien and their inevitable sequels and trailers qualify as nostalgia. There’s also The Exotic House of Wax, Hidden Beauties: The Awakening, Lolida 2000, Dungeon of Desire, Virtual Encounters, Pleasurecraft and Virgins of Sherwood Forest, featuring such immortal stars as Jacqueline Lovell, Holly Sampson, Regina Russell, Brandy Davis, Gabriella Hall and Nikki Fritz. Long may they wave.

The DVD Wrapup: Fences, Elle, Passengers, Solace, Film/Not Film, Robert Flaherty, Drunk History and more

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

Fences: Blu-ray
It’s possible to enjoy Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-, Tony- and Drama Desk-winning play, Fences, without knowing anything about the playwright or his Pittsburgh Cycle (a.k.a., Century Cycle) of 10 plays chronicling the evolution of the African-American experience throughout the 20th Century. You could watch it simply to savor Viola Davis’ Oscar-winning performance or Washington’s interpretation of Troy Maxson, a could’ve-been baseball star, who, at 53, is supporting his family as a garbage collector for the city. The stories behind Fences’ long journey to the screen and Wilson’s rise to prominence as a distinctly American voice in the theater are definitely worth a closer look. Nine of the 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle are set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly blue-collar Hill District, which, while economically depressed, seemingly offered a secure mid-century home for a cross-section of African-American residents and recent immigrants. Even so, everything that happens in Fences is colored by Troy’s resentment over being passed over by the Major Leagues for reasons he believes range from his prison record and advanced age, to being black, which is the one he prefers to blame. His resentment is equaled by his pride at having pulled himself up by the bootstraps to be a self-sufficient family man. Troy conveniently overlooks the $3,000 stipend the government awarded his brother (Mykelti Williamson) for a traumatic head injury he suffered in the war, but was redirected to pay for the Maxsons’ modest house. Rose Maxson (Davis) is proud of her husband, but often bears the brunt of Troy’s disapproval of his trumpet-playing son from a previous marriage, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), and weekly visits for “loans.” Then, there’s the perceived disrespect shown him by their headstrong teenage son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), who’s been given an opportunity to play football at a college in North Carolina, but, for mostly selfish reasons, Troy vetoes. Rose isn’t given the opportunity to add her two cents to the debate, mostly because her husband has convinced himself that those two cents already belong to him. The voice of reason is supplied by their good-natured friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), who he met during their time together in prison and works alongside him on the truck. The title, Fences, derives as much from the walls that failed to contain Troy’s Negro Leagues home runs, as the wooden barrier Rose has asked Troy to build around their house, but will only complete when and if Cory buckles to his demands.

In 1987, when “Fences” was first produced on Broadway, Wilson rejected prospects for any movie adaptation that wasn’t directed by an African-American. In its infinite myopia, Hollywood was unable to come up with one until producer Scott Rudin asked Washington to reprise on film his Tony-winning portrayal of Maxson in the 2010 revival of the play and direct it. Davis, Williamson, Hornsby and Henderson also agreeed to repeat their roles. A few eyebrows were raised when playwright-screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) was hired to build on a draft written by Wilson before his death in 2005. Finally, though, Wilson was given sole authorship of the adapted screenplay, as well as an Academy Award nomination, while Kushner is credited as co-producer. It explains why Fences sometimes feels as if it were transplanted directly from the stage and the establishing exteriors are limited to a few shots of Troy and Bono working in the streets of Pittsburgh, his visit to downtown headquarters to be promoted to driver and a shot of kids playing stickball. The movie never feels stagebound or contrived, however. Wilson’s genius for turning conversations into poetry is as evident as ever. It’s worth noting that Washington has committed to a deal with HBO to bring the other nine plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle to the premium-cable network as producer, one a year, for the next decade. The featurettes, which could have benefitted from being longer, include “Expanding the Audience: From Stage to Screen”; “The Company of Fences,” a closer look at reuniting the stage cast for the film and a few new faces; “Building Fences: Denzel Washington; “Playing the Part: Rose Maxson,” an examination of Viola Davis’ character and her performance; and “August Wilson’s Hill District.”

Elle: Blu-ray
Not having seen La La Land – its release on Blu-ray/4K/DVD is now set for April 25 – it would be impossible for me to say with any certainty if Emma Stone’s performance was more deserving of an Academy Award than Isabelle Huppert’s, Elle, an honor for which they were both nominated. By splitting its Best Actress contest into light and dark categories, the HFPA allowed its members to accord both women their due respect and avoid any fruitless debate. In hindsight, of course, it’s easy to see how Huppert was the perfect choice to play the emotionally damaged, but fiercely resilient title character. Among the names floated ahead of Paul Verhoeven’s decision to stage Elle in France, instead of the United States, as planned, were Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore and Diane Lane. He wanted Jennifer Jason Leigh to be considered by the producers, as well, but, “She’s an artistic presence and we were looking for names.” While Marion Cotillard and Carice van Houten then were mentioned, the combination of rape, rough consensual sex and nudity would be enough to scare any A-list actress away from the project. Huppert was the obvious choice all along, I suspect, but she wouldn’t be any easy fit in an English-language adaptation of Philippe Djian’s French-language novel, “O …” Nevertheless, at 64, Huppert is still a highly prolific and popular star in Europe, as well as an arthouse draw here. Moreover, throughout her 45-year career, she’s portrayed several female characters caught in desperate straits – beautiful and short in stature, but never fragile — and has looked as comfortable acting nude as clothed.

In Elle, her Michèle Leblanc dusts herself off after being raped and pummeled by a ski-masked intruder, clearly distressed but curiously unwillingly to bring in the police to conduct an investigation or immediately turn to anyone else for comfort and support. She goes to work, as usual, at the video-game company she runs with a close friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). We soon will learn just how conversant Michèle is with manifestations of abhorrent violence: the video games sold by her company contain nightmare visions of rape, while, as a girl, her abusive father was imprisoned as a mass murderer. A haunting photograph of the very young Michèle, staring blankly at the camera in her underwear, had been widely disseminated in France and, even decades later, she and her mother are harassed by strangers with long memories. As determined as Michèle is to not be reduced to being a victim, she does show signs of cracking. In addition to racing a deadline at work, Michèle is forced to deal with a needy ex-husband with a much younger girlfriend; a jealous lover, who’s married to her closest friend (and, likely, onetime lover); and an aimless son, trapped in a relationship with an abusive girlfriend and pregnant by another man. That’s a lot of turmoil for an actor to imbue in a character, especially one as chic as the bourgeois Michèle. Her opportunity to take control of her predicament – and turn the tables on her attacker — comes in another shocking home invasion. Huppert skillfully navigates her character through a perfect storm of diverse emotional impulses, looking disheveled and vulnerable one minute and fashionably buttoned-down the next. In the interviews included in the bonus package, Verhoeven says he intended Elle to be considered “a protest against genre” and easy pigeonholing as either a victim or avenging angel. Then, in the closing scene, the tables are turned on her in a completely unexpected way. Special features are “A Tale of Empowerment: Making Elle” and “Celebrating an Icon: AFI’s Tribute to Isabelle Huppert.”

Passengers: Blu-ray
For the Love of Spock
Ghost in the Shell: Movie: Blu-ray
Far be it for me to make excuses for a major studio, but Sony/Columbia clearly drew the short straw when its big-budget sci-fi picture Passengers was forced to open a week after Buena Vista’s even more expensive sci-fi adventure, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, just ahead of the long Christmas holiday. Even if the two movies’ narratives could hardly be more different, they both were largely set on space vessels in galaxies far, far away. And, while “Rogue One” promised fun and excitement for three generations of filmgoers, Passengers carried a distinctly mature vibe with it into megaplexes. Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and screenwriter Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) imagine a time, several hundred years down the road, when Earth has become so crowded and unlivable that 5,000 people from around the globe willingly board a giant luxury liner – yes, the Titanic in outer space – for the 120-year-long voyage to the idyllic, corporate-owned colony, Homestead II. In addition to the thousands of passengers, the spacecraft is carrying 255 crew members, all of whom have been placed in a state of suspended animation for the duration. Again, in keeping with the Titanic’s first and final voyage, the ship’s protective energy shield is damaged in a collision with an asteroid. The ship’s computerized repair system corrects most of the damage, without being thrown off course or destroyed. It isn’t until one of the passengers, mechanical engineer Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), is awakened from his induced slumber, 90 years short of the spacecraft’s scheduled arrival. Jim spends the next year living in splendid isolation, with only a few maintenance robots and Arthur the android bartender (Michael Sheen) providing company. (Here, Tyldum admits to freely borrowing the bar’s look and lighting from the Gold Room bar in The Shining.)  Instead of committing suicide, Jim takes a gigantic moral leap by picking out another passenger to make his ordeal easier. Given a choice of 5,000 pods from which to choose, Jim decides to disrupt the slumber of Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a blond beauty who looks as if she knows how to party.

It takes a while before Aurora warms to Jim and they begin to partake in the luxuries the ship offers. It takes even longer for her to learn that her predicament is anything but accidental. By then, however, the ship is starting to malfunction. Coincidentally, another pod failure awakens Gus (Laurence Fishburne), a chief deck officer and veteran space traveler. Together, they discover multiple failures in the ship’s systems that will eventually cause the ship to break down if not fixed. It opens the door for a thrilling series of precarious repair efforts that might remind viewers of Gravity. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to watch one or both of the protagonists float off into deep space, with a broken tether hanging from their space suit. The reason I don’t think young audiences here didn’t flock to Passengers – it did very well in the overseas market – is that the action that occurs in the final third of the movie comes after a bit too much courting, romance, moralizing and jogging around the ship’s interior. There’s also the incongruity of Lawrence’s many costume changes, which might have been appropriate if a character played by Elizabeth Taylor had been awakened from hibernation, not a reporter on a 250-year-long assignment (don’t ask). That said, sci-fi buffs should enjoy the amount of thought and hard work that went into the set design and scientific touches. The best occurs when Aurora is swimming in the pool in her suite – which extends from the ship’s outer shell, like the one in Playboy suite in the Las Vegas Palms resort – and a mechanical glitch knocks out the ship’s gravitational control. It causes the water to swallow up Aurora and knock her around as if she were a goldfish in a plastic bag. I also loved Sheen’s turn as the android bartender, whose computerized memory holds the recipes for thousands of cocktails and the languages of all the passengers. He also has the temperament of a professional, who’s heard all the jokes a dozen times and still manages a chuckle. The bonus package adds a great deal of background and making-of material, as well as deleted scenes, outtakes and interviews.

So much hoopla was raised in the media by last year’s 50th anniversary of “Star Trek” that anyone who wasn’t a card-carrying, costume-wearing Trekkie could be excused from wanting to see anything franchise related, at least until it begins again this spring with “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek Equinox: The Night of Time.” The title, For the Love of Spock, suggests yet another fan-driven salute to everyone’s favorite Vulcan, cobbled together after Leonard Nimoy’s death on February 27, 2015, at 83. Instead, Adam Nimoy’s compelling bio-doc celebrates the life and career of his father, without obsessing on his alter-ego, Mr. Spock, or playing down the character’s importance in his life. Originally, the film was going to focus on Spock – he’d already directed “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston” for the city’s PBS affiliate, WGBH — but his father died, Adam decided to expand the scope of the project. In addition to dozens of clips, interviews, home movies and testimonial, For the Love of Spock explores the son’s frequently troubled personal relations with his father. If these reflections sometimes disrupt the rhythm of the nearly two-hour film, they demonstrate, once again, that no one’s perfect. Fellow Bostonian Barry Newman describes the struggles they faced breaking into the business in the 1950s, while making a meager income doing odd jobs and appearing in bit parts on TV series. Nimoy shares his own anecdotes about the road to “Star Trek,” which began when he worked on Gene Roddenberry’s “The Lieutenant.” This leads to the give and take that preceded the launch of “Star Trek,” including the problems involved in shaping Spock’s trademark ears. Also testifying are William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Neil deGrasse Tyson, J.J. Abrams, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana and Simon Pegg, among several others. The DVD adds “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston”; a Kickstarter gallery; a Tribeca panel; “Trivia Time,” with Jason Alexander; an on-set visit with “The Big Bang Theory” cast; Adam Nimoy’s commentary and the Tribeca Teaser.

There already are two Blu-ray editions of Ghost in the Shell: Movie extant, as well as various sequels and television offshoots. The difference in Starz/Anchor Bay’s new edition is its “Mondo X SteelBook” packaging, which is nice, as far as it goes, but doesn’t make original the adaptation of the Japanese anime/manga classic any better than it already was. What the release does do, however, is anticipate Paramount’s life-action adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson, as the Major; Michael Pitt, as Kuze; and Juliette Binoche, as a new character, Dr. Ouelet. In the anime, it’s 2029 and a cybernetic government agent, Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the Internal Bureau of Investigations, are hot on the trail of the Puppet Master. It’s a mysterious and threatening computer virus capable of infiltrating human hosts. The movie, which combines CGI with standard animation, questions human existence in the fast-paced world of the information age. Not everyone is excited about the “whitewashing” of “Ghost in the Shell” and protests have already been lodged about reports on the dubbing and use of visual effects to make white actors look Asian. But, who knows what it will turn out to be. What hasn’t been kept secret, especially as fanboy bait, is news that Johansson will appear nude, as is her character in the original. If you haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell: Movie already, I recommend checking out the Blu-ray.

Solace: Blu-ray
The cover of Solace appears to promise a mano a mano battle between characters played Anthony Hopkins and Colin Farrell, although it’s impossible to tell from their expressions who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. The only hint we’re allowed is the subtitle, “How do you stop a killer that can read your mind?” Given only that much evidence, I couldn’t wait to find out who’s mind was being read and which one these somber-looking characters was capable of doing it. About two-thirds of the way through Afonso Poyart’s 101-minute drama, I began to wonder if the producers had failed to inform the Brazilian director (Two Rabbits) that they’d hired the two-time Golden Globes-nominated actor – Lobster, In Bruges – and he was waiting in the dressing room for his call. I had just watched Passengers, in which the fifth-listed actor, Andy Garcia, appears in the last 15 seconds of the movie and doesn’t have any lines. When Farrell does make his appearance in Solace, it’s like a breath of fresh air in a room wrapped tightly with plastic sheeting. Hopkins, who couldn’t deliver a poor performance if he tried, has already established himself as a former FBI consultant, John Clancy, who used clairvoyance and psychometry to solve crimes. He’s being beckoned from an uneasy retirement by his friend, Joe Merriwether (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and newbie agent Katherine Cowles (Abbie Cornish), who are in desperate need of help in capturing a serial killer, whose gifts include clairvoyance, clairaudience and claircognizance. They’ve kept the killer several steps ahead of the FBI, which is only now reaching out to him. Like Hannibal Lector, Clancy wants to see the case files before making a commitment. They suggest he anticipates doing battle with the master and has been setting traps to make such a confrontation happen. The problem is that far too many other seemingly unrelated things happen before the two psychically gifted men meet finally meet and are given very little time to tie up loose ends. In fact, it isn’t until the killer spells everything out for him that we’re left to wonder if he isn’t such a bad guy, after all. Legend has it that the original script for Solace was picked up by New Line as a sequel to Se7en (1995), tentatively titled “Ei8ht.” Several years after that didn’t happen, the stand-alone version of Solace – now owned by Warner Bros. – was bought by Relatively, which went bankrupt and sold it to Grindstone and Lionsgate for a limited release and DVD/Blu-ray. The faces on the cover have to count for something, after all. The disc arrives with Poyart’s commentary and an eight-minute making-of featurette.

The Forest for the Trees
Film Movement originally released The Forest for the Trees on DVD in 2006, as a Film of the Month Club selection. The company has since expanded upon the original subscription concept, which was based on making festival favorites available to viewers with little or no access to such events. It is wisely re-releasing The Forest for the Trees to piggy-back on the heat generated by Maren Ade’s third feature, Toni Erdmann, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Picture category by Academy, Globes and BAFTA voters. It will be released by Sony Classics on April 11. The Forest for the Trees, which was Ade’s film-school graduation project, follows mousy country girl Melanie Pröschle as she weathers the same rocky shoals faced by countless other teachers when they enter a classroom for the first time. She left her parents and boyfriend behind, thinking that big-city life would be exciting enough to compensate for their absence. In her first staff meeting, Melanie sets herself up for a huge fall by promoting her plans for a progressive curriculum and ability to bring a “warm breeze” of fresh ideas to the school. Naturally, the kids in her classroom are as brash and rowdy as any depicted in an American movie, including “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” Eager for some kind of companionship, aside from the attention of a creepy co-worker her age, Melanie orchestrates a “chance meeting” with her neighbor, Tina (Daniela Holtz). As friendships go, however, Tina’s runs as hot and cold as tenement shower. The butt of jokes at school and a thorn in Tina’s side, Melanie decides that enough is enough and she’s due a fantastical escape. Ade based the movie on stories her parents, both teachers, had shared with her. The incorrigible father in Toni Erdmann also was modeled after her father. The short film added to the DVD is Paul Cotter’s “Estes Avenue.”

Film: Blu-ray
Notfilm: Blu-ray
Most Internet biographies of Nobel Prize-winning author Samuel Beckett introduce him as an avant-garde Irish novelist, playwright, theatre director and poet. They quickly mention, as well, that he lived in France for most of his adult life and wrote in both English and French. Anyone who isn’t already familiar with “Waiting for Godot,” his monumentally influential “tragicomedy in two acts,” probably was searching for a different Samuel Beckett. Buried deep within these biographies, if at all, is mention of Film, his only known screenplay. Commissioned by Barney Rosset, of Grove Press, as part of a larger project matching playwrights and the cinema, it was filmed in New York City in July, 1964. (Rosset had also solicited scripts from Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, to no immediate avail.) and In his first and only visit to the U.S., Beckett spent two weeks of a hellishly hot and humid Manhattan summer quietly observing the production and offering advice when solicited by first-time feature director Alan Schneider. While it debuted at the 1965 Venice Festival to acclaim, Film’s New York release prompted wildly divergent opinions from film and theater critics. The best reason for anyone who isn’t a PhD candidate to pick up the excellent Milestone restoration is the presence of 68-year-old Buster Keaton, who, at the time, was occasionally asked to appear in straight and comic roles on television, movies and the stage, but was broke, terminally ill and largely stayed busy playing imaginary games cards with long-dead studio moguls. He quickly accepted Schneider’s offer. As the 20-minute film opens Keaton’s “Man” is a lonely figure, a handkerchief over his face, skittering alongside a large brick wall in a barren patch of land on the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge. His destination is a furniture-less apartment, where, after he silently scrambles to control the cats and dog that sneak into the room as soon as he shoves them out the door. The Man commences to rip up photos of what may be his mother, himself and turn-of-century ancestors, before he is finally forced to confront his own face in a mirror. In an interview with a reporter for the New Yorker, Beckett said, “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.” OK, but Film is worth the effort of finding just to see Keaton perform, again, in a serious work of art.

The Blu-ray adds a restored edition of Schneider’s definitive 1961 television adaptation of “Waiting for Godot,” which starred Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith, for NET’s “Play of the Week,” as well as outtakes from cats-and-dog sequence. Also from Milestone comes film-restorationist Ross Lipman’s 2015 documentary, Notfilm, an exhaustive kino-essay on the making and meaning of Film. At 128 minutes, it is six times longer Beckett’s movie. Without it, however, I don’t think that an appreciation of Film would be fully attainable, especially for those of us without a degree in film theory or contemporary literature. Through clips, interviews, anecdotes and analysis, Lipman is able to frame Film within the context of western culture at a pivotal time in the mid-20th Century, while also deconstructing it as a cinematic treasure. Among the first sources interviewed by Lipman was in his seven-year restoration process was maverick publisher and First Amendment champion Rosset, who discovered reels under the sink in his kitchen. He then turned to Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson; film historian Kevin Brownlow; Film actress Billie Whitelaw; Keaton’s friend and Film actor James Karen; and critic Leonard Maltin, who visited the set as a star-struck 14-year-old Keaton fan. Other featurettes include “Street Scene: A Lost Scene Reconstruction, from outtakes; audio Recordings of Beckett, Kaufman, Rosset and Schneider; “Buster Keaton and Film,” James Karen in conversation; “Memories of Samuel Beckett: An Afternoon with James Knowlson,”; “Jean Schneider: Memories of Alan Schneider”; “Jeannette Seaver: Beckett and Godot”; “Photographing Film/Photographing Beckett,” Steve Schapiro and I.C. Rapoport in conversation; a photo gallery; and “The Music of Notfilm,” with downloadable MP3 recordings by Mihály Víg.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
45 Years: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Most of what Americans remember about the 1968 Summer Olympics, held in Mexico City, between October 12-27, involves the black American medal-winners – the Australian sprinter who came in second also supported them — who raised their black-gloved fists and lowered the heads during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They did so in solidarity with civil-rights activists back home, who were being targeted by law-enforcement agencies in the wake of riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and growing influence of militants in the Black Power movement. In response, IOC president Avery Brundage suspended Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the U.S. team and banned them from the Olympic Village. It triggered a huge furor in the U.S., based largely on the photographic images displayed on front pages of newspapers across the country and, likely, the globe. Ask any Mexican of a certain age and they’re likely to say that the thing they remember most about the Olympics were the widespread protests leading up to Games, under the banner of the Mexican Student Movement. They prompted the country’s right-wing government to impose strict restrictions on speech and assembly, as well as a visible military presence.

Ten days before Opening Ceremonies were scheduled to begin, army and police snipers were ordered to open fire on a gathering of some 10,000 protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. Early government reports put the death toll at between 20-28 people, with hundreds wounded and 1,300 more arrested. The foreign media, which had yet to reach Mexico City to cover the Olympics, were unable to verify the extend of the massacre and accepted the lowball figures from partially complicit U.S. authorities there. Most of the Mexican media reported that the students provoked the army’s violent response with sniper fire of their own, from the apartment buildings surrounding the plaza. Witnesses and other non-government observers estimated that at least 300 students and bystanders were killed or made to disappear. The Games went on as planned, with visitors from around the world largely ignorant of the actual carnage. It would take another 32 years and toppling of the longtime ruling party for an impartial investigation and accurate tally of casualties. It supported the eyewitness reports.

Eight years later, Felipe Cazals and writer Tomás Pérez Turrent’s Canoa: A Shameful Memory would become the first Mexican movie to dare challenge official accounts of the summer of student protests and comment on the deep schisms within mainstream Mexican society and the Catholic Church, which, itself, was split between hard-liners and the priests espousing liberation theology. As far as I know, the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of the movie offers American viewers their first glimpse of the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 1976 Berlin International Film Festival. It’s about time. Canoa: A Shameful Memory employs a Brechtian narration conceit to re-stage the 24-hour period that led to and followed the savage attacks on five innocent hikers, two weeks before the Tlatelolco massacre in the capital. The tragedy occurred in the impoverished rural village of San Miguel de Canoa, about 120 km southeast of Mexico City, in the shadow of La Malinche. News of the protests in the capital and universities around Mexico had reached villagers through politically slanted television reports and the fiery rhetoric of the local priest (Enrique Lucero), who not only calls the demonstrators godless communists, but also the physical embodiments of Satan on Earth. He demands from the easily bullied parishioners that they maintain a militant vigilance against outsiders, while simultaneously picking their pockets of whatever centavos they have. It is into this highly charged atmosphere that five employees of the Autonomous University of Puebla – employees, not students – arrive in the village, by bus, on a rain-soaked evening. The only shelter afforded the young men, who were turned away from the church and jail, is the home of a resident who freely shares his disdain for the priest. Before long, word is passed via a public loudspeaker that Satan’s envoys have, indeed, arrived and are about to plant the “communist flag” at the church’s altar, defile their animals and steal snacks from the village store. After a lynch mob is mobilized, four of the five outsiders and the man who opened his door to them are beaten, slashed and shot to death. Ambulance drivers are denied access to the village, before military police are called to quell the violence. Meanwhile, the priest who fomented the lynching – a dead ringer for Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones — stands in the background, acting like the cat that ate the canary.

Canoa: A Shameful Memory is most effective in its characterizations of the dirt-poor peasants, whose misplaced pride and religious convictions turn them into mindless killers. Cazals builds tension by shifting the camera’s perspective from the hikers’ points-of-views, to the church, bar and homes of the villagers. Cinematographer Álex Phillips Jr. is especially adept at finding whatever light is available – the mob’s torches, bare lightbulbs –and using it to illuminate the horror, without rubbing our noses in it. I don’t know if Cazals would consider himself to be a student of Costa-Gavras’ documentary-style indictments, but “Canoa” feels as if it were made with Z, State of Siege and The Confession in mind. Although there aren’t as many bonus features attached as most Criterion titles, the conversation between Cazals and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), describing the effect the movie had on a new generation of Mexican filmmakers, is fascinating. A new introduction by Guillermo del Toro and essay by critic Fernanda Solórzano also are included.

It’s only taken nine months for “45 Years” to be given the Criterion treatment, after a perfectly decent Blu-ray release by Paramount last June. The difference between them, I suspect, lies in a bonus package that includes the original Sundance Select theatrical trailer; “The Making of 45 Years,” with clips and fresh interviews with director Andrew Haigh, Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, producer Tristan Goligher and editor Jonathan Alberts; commentary with Haigh and Tristan Goligher; a new video interview with author and poet David Constantine, who discusses Haigh’s adaptation of his short story; and an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by critic Ella Taylor. The title refers to the 45 years of marriage Geoff and Kate soon will celebrate, as well as his sublimated memory of the woman he loved and lost before he met his wife. A letter addressed to Geoff from Germany informs him – and Kate, who’s only heard of the woman – that her body has been discovered in a glacier, somewhere in the Swiss Alps. Not only that, but, even after 45 years in the deep freeze, her body is in perfect condition. Geoff’s reaction to the discovery makes Kate wonder if she’s been playing second-fiddle to a ghost for all that time or he’s just experiencing a particularly disturbing senior moment. It’s a neat premise and Rambling and Courtney are terrific.

To Tell the Truth
A Boatload of Wild Irishmen
When is a documentary not a fact-based reflection of the truth? When it’s propaganda. OK, but is it possible for a documentary to also be propaganda? In the same way that history is said to be written by the victors, the difference between documentaries and propaganda depends on whether the ox is being gored or doing the goring. These and other questions are raised in Calvin Skaggs’ two-part To Tell the Truth, which, in “Working for Change,” explores the evolution of the non-fiction genre through social documentary films, from 1929 through 1941, and, in “The Strategy of Truth,” examines the uses of documentary/propaganda during World War II. The latter allows us to wonder how the Third Reich would have treated Colonel Frank Capra, mastermind of the U.S. Army’s “Why We Fight” series, if Germany had won the war. After the Nazis were defeated, Allied forces hunted down Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl and virtually assured that she would be ostracized from the international film community. In “The Strategy for Truth,” we’re shown how Capra’s 1944 follow-up, “The Negro Soldier,” was used to soften African-Americans’ reluctance to serve in an officially segregated and, frequently, downright racist military, typically in service, custodial and maintenance jobs. He also hoped the film would convince white Americans of the patriotism of black soldiers and positive role they’re already playing in the war effort. Although it was an undeniably impressive piece of work, it’s foundation was built on sand. Among the people interviewed are Alec Baldwin, the late Agnes Varda and Kevin Brownlow. It adds John Huston’s wartime contributions, “Anatomy of a Jeep” and “Let There Be Light,” which was suppressed for 30 years. It’s also worth noting that many of the progressive filmmakers who participated in the U.S. Office of War Information’s propaganda campaign would be thanked by being blacklisted and banished from Hollywood.

Several generations of film students knew Robert Flaherty as the “father” of the modern documentary film. Revisionist historians probably would argue that the director of “Nanook of the North,” “Moana,” “Man of Aran” and “Louisiana Story” is the father of modern reality-based programming. That, however, would have us stipulate that “reality based” and the manipulation of known cultural and historical facts for the purposes of mainstream entertainment are synonymous, which they most assuredly are not. The whimsically titled “A Boatload of Wild Irishmen” makes the case for the latter, while explaining why his films are as relevant and emulated today as they’ve been for most of the last 90 years. Flaherty is said to have opened Pandora’s box by demonstrating how filming the everyday life of real people could be molded into dramatic, entertaining narratives. If the events and dialogue shown on the big screen didn’t take place in precisely the same order as they were captured by the camera, it wasn’t because Flaherty hadn’t studied them for countless days and hours ahead of time. And, if the ethnographic details were fudged, who back home in the U.S. would know it. Certainly not, paying customers. The title, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, refers to the Aran Island fishermen he convinced to go to sea in a stiff gale and risk their life attempting to make it back to shore unscathed. Mac Dara Ó’Curraidhín and writer Brian Winston’s 2010 warts-and-all documentary is best when drawing a portrait of a Hollywood original and old-school adventurer who lived the kind of life others only read about in books or observed in newsreels during double-features.  The film benefits from much archival footage, clips and interviews with people who either are related to people in the documentaries or remember when they were being made. Joseph Boudreaux, who played “the Boy” in 1948’s The Louisiana Story, may not have appeared in another movie, but he’s lived long enough to re-live some of the hunting and fishing scenes staged by Flaherty for Ó’Curraidhín.

The Gospel of Mark
Every once in a while, some ambitious producer decides that it might be fun to make a series of movies based on stories from the Old Testament or New Testament gospels. This doesn’t include the individual Hollywood biblical epics that Cecil B. DeMille churned out for holiday viewing for more than 30 years or such politically and spiritually charged stand-alones as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In the mid-1960s, Dino De Laurentiis announced that The Bible: In the Beginning …,” directed by and starring John Huston as Noah, would be the first in a series of feature films based on the books of the Bible. When Fox lost $1.5 million on the deal, however, it abandoned any plans for sequels. Imagine if God had simply pulled the plug on humanity after Sodom and Gomorrah, instead wasting good fire and brimstone on it, and waited for something cheaper and more malleable to come along in its place? Thirty years later, a group of producers led by former Jimmy Carter aide Gerald Rafshoon commissioned a series of seven classic Old Testament stories — employing top-shelf actors, directors and composers – even going so far as to build a production facility in Ouarzazate, Morocco. They established a worldwide distribution network, taking advantage of new cable- and satellite-delivery systems. It has since been recycled several times over in DVD and other cable networks. The Gospel of Mark is the third of four films from a consortium of production companies with experience in the Christian subgenre. The others are The Gospel of Luke/John/Matthew. The simplicity of the idea is practically inspirational. Each depicts the life and toils of Jesus Christ, as written in the gospels. Narrated in English, they adhere to the New International Version of the scripture, while the actors speak in Aramaic. (You’d have to lip read Aramaic to understand it, though.) Each installment shares David Batty, as director; Selva Rasalingam, as Jesus; Karima Gouit, as Mary; Leila El Fadili, as Mary Magdelene; El Housseine Dejjiti, as Judas Iscariot; and so on and so forth. No screenwriters are credited and it’s entirely possible they used the same Moroccan facilities as the ones built by Rafshoon. I was impressed by how effective the concept worked as cinema and entertainment. The casting of Middle Eastern and Northern African actors and extras adds verisimilitude missing in past religious epics. The featurettes include “Deconstructing a Scene,” “Building Jerusalem,” “Composing the Gospels,” “Filming the Gospels” and “Narrating the Gospels.”

Beyond Redemption: Blu-ray
Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
It took a while for me to figure out where Beyond Redemption, the debut feature by stuntman-turned-director Bruce Fontaine, was set and why all the Asian characters were speaking undubbed English. That’s because Vancouver isn’t the first place that comes to mind when organized crime comes to mind … great food, welcoming Canadians and cruise-ship depots, sure … but Triads?  In the 2011 National Household Survey, it was determined that 27 percent of Vancouver’s “visible minority” community – or, roughly, 163,000 people – were of Chinese ancestry. Apparently, many of the city’s wealthy Asian immigrants winter in places other than British Columbia, so the number fluctuates. In the 1980s, Canadian martial arts expert Fontaine made a name for himself as a western gweilo villain and stuntman in Hong Kong cinema. He’s since returned to B.C. to train actors working in western Canada’s film industry. In Beyond Redemption, undercover cop Billy Tong (Brian Ho) fights his way into the inner circle of a street gang that’s kidnapped the daughter of a Triad boss and is in danger of becoming collateral damage in a police sting … or something like that. Frankly, the only things that work in Fontaine’s film are the action sequences. With so many first-rate martial-arts exports now available on DVD and PPV, though, it’ll take more than a few good fights to compete with Hong Kong as a reliable producer of such products. But, then, they probably said the same thing about Vancouver and Toronto before they were turned into Hollywood North and New York North. The package adds short studies of two fighting scenes.

Anyone interested in seeing just how far the Hong Kong film industry has come since Bruce Lee turned it into a prime source for action flicks should pick up “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury” or the newly released “Return of Kung Fu Trailers of Fury.” The sequel adds 35 more original trailers from the Golden Age of Martial Arts Cinema, starring such legends as Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung, Don Wong, Chang Yi, Bruce Li, Leanne Liu, Lo Lieh and, yes, even Chuck Norris. According to the marketing material, it’s “another invincible collection of treachery, brutality, swordplay, wirework, darting daggers, flying fists and the most insane fighting styles ever unleashed on celluloid,” with “insane” being the operative adjective. Considering that the plots of these movies were as nonsensical as the action was fun to watch, the extended previews contain most of what made the movies watchable in the first place. The Blu-ray makes them look better than they have in 40 years, but no less off the wall. Among the titles represented are Yellow-Faced Tiger, Bruce and the Iron Finger, Revenge of the Shaolin Kid, The Avenging Boxer, Snuff-Bottle Connection, Hell’s Windstaff, Thundering Mantis, The Legendary Strike, Kung Fu Killers, Crazy Horse & Intelligent Monkey and Shaolin Invincible Sticks. Audio commentary is provided by writer Ric Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Frank Djeng (New York Asian Film Festival), martial arts instructor Greg Schiller and Ric Stelow, of Drunken Master Video

Firestarter: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Drive-In Massacre: Blu-ray
By 1984, when Firestarter was released into theaters, seven of the eight novels Stephen King had written under his own name – as opposed to Richard Bachman — and five of his short stories had been adapted for the screen. His first book “Carrie,” had been turned into a supernatural horror film that launched or expanded the careers of Sissy Spacek, Nancy Allen, William Katt, Amy Irving, and John Travolta, and confirmed Brian DePalma’s promise as a potential successor to master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Like Spacek’s telekinetic Carrie, Drew Barrymore’s Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee has been gifted/cursed with psychic powers she sometimes has trouble controlling. In an extreme stretch of narrative logic, the cute 8-year-old has inherited ESP and the ability to start fires – pyrokinesis, if you will — from her parents, Vickie and Andy (Heather Locklear, David Keith). While in college, they had participated in a controlled trial of a mind-expanding drug, like LSD, coming out of it with telepathic and other psychic abilities. When Charlie’s powers first manifested themselves, they were fairly easy to contain. Before long, however, her pyrokinesis grew far more powerful. Andy was able to teach his daughter how to extinguish the fires she started, but her ESP failed to predict that agents from the federal Department of Scientific Intelligence (a.k.a., “the Shop”) would murder Vickie while kidnapping the child. Andy is able to short-circuit the agents’ efforts to bring Charlie into the Shop, causing them to seek refuge with an anti-government farmer and his wife (Art Carney, Louise Fletcher) who provide them with a vehicle to a secluded cabin on a beautiful North Carolina lake. When they make the mistake of telegraphing their location in a letter to the New York Times, Captain Hollister (Martin Sheen), sends Agent John Rainbird (George C. Scott) to capture them and stop the release of state secrets. Father and daughter are kept in separate living units until the pony-tailed, half-Cherokee Rainboard allows them to escape. Inexplicably, he hates Charlie and vows to kill her. The final fiery showdown – none of which is beholden to computer graphics – provides a showcase for some of the industry’s top stuntmen and pyro technicians. Throw in a juicy musical score by Tangerine Dream and Firestarter is a guilty pleasure for the ages. The Shout!Factory Collector’s Edition adds commentary with director Mark L. Lester; a 53-minute making-of featurette, featuring interviews with Lester, actors Freddie Jones, Drew Snyder and stuntman/actor Dick Warlock, and Johannes Schmoelling of Tangerine Dream; a visit to Schmoelling’s studio and performance of “Charlie’s Theme”; and a stills gallery.

Released in 1976, at the dawn of the slasher era, Stu Segall’s Drive-In Massacre is less a a guilty pleasure than an extremely cheesy one. Even so, buffs and completists probably will want to check it out as a historical document, if only to see how things were done when no one in Hollywood wanted to touch the genre. As the title suggests, a sword-wielding serial killer is slaughtering young men and women at a SoCal drive-in theater, seemingly for the crime of demonstrating their affection for each other in public. The killings are gruesome, if not particularly credible, and the usual drive-in hijinks are limited to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it topless scene. The primary suspects include the drive-in manager, who hates everyone and everything involved in the exhibition business; his unpaid maintenance man, who once labored as a geek in a carnival; a drooling voyeur; and various suspicious characters who come out of left field when the action begins to lag. The Ozploitation classic, Dead-End Drive-In wouldn’t arrive for another 10 years, so, I guess, you can say Drive-In Massacre was ahead of its time. Believe it or not, the movie was restored from the original camera negative, recently discovered in the ruins of the Sky View Drive-In, near Oxnard. The bonus features include commentary with Segall; and interviews with star/co-writer John F. Goff, actor Norm Sheridan and Segall.

Child Eater
Because writer/director Erlingur Thoroddsen is from Iceland, we’re free to wonder if the boogeyman at the heart of his nifty first feature is used by parents around the world to scare their children into behaving properly at night or it’s strictly an American invention. Trolls condemned to live under bridges around the world probably serve the same purpose as bogeymen, but, today, the only beings who live under bridges are homeless people, so, where do they go? Child Eater expands upon a short film of the same title that Thoroddsen took on the festival circuit in 2012. Its bogeyman has a name and a history, but, likewise, is used by parents to scare their children. As the legend goes, a fellow named Robert Bowery owned a petting zoo in the 1970s, but he was forced to close it when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. On the last day of its operation, it was discovered that all the children visiting the zoo had their eyes ripped out. Ever since, adults have used the story to convince children not to stray too deeply into the forest. In the present day, a curious kid named Lucas (Colin Critchley) and his parents have moved into a house next to the old zoo. Soon, the boy begins telling stories about seeing a scary looking man wandering around the property, and he bears a striking resemblance to the eyeless Bowery. Then, one night, when his parents have hired a babysitter, Lucas simply disappears into the night. Frightened that she’s blown the gig, Helen (Cait Bliss) picks up a flashlight and follows his footprints into the zoo. Child Eater benefits from cinematographer John Wakayama Carey’s ability to shoot at night and not lose the characters in the darkness and an early scene in which a little girl from a quarter-century earlier is shown holding her own severed eyes, innocently delivering the line, “He hurt me.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar
Texas blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan bought his ticket to Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven on August 27, 1990, when he decided to hitch a ride from Wisconsin to Chicago on one of the four helicopters reserved for Eric Clapton and his entourage. They’d just finished a two-show gig at Alpine Valley and the night sky was heavy with fog. The chopper with Vaughan aboard failed to navigate a 150-foot ski hill and crashed into it, 50 feet below the summit. Legend has it that Clapton gave up his seat to make room for his friend and fellow guitar god, but he’s since denied that was the case. The incisive bio-doc Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1984-1989: Lonestar picks where Sexy Intellectual’s previous documentary, Rise of a Texas Bluesman: Stevie Ray Vaughan: 1954-1983, left off. His debut album, “Texas Flood,” had finally been released to widespread praise and solid sales, and his name was being mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Elmore James. Typically, though, one out-of-the-chute success doth not a career make. Vaughan’s demons laid in wait ahead of him and he drove himself and bandmates to the point of exhaustion to avoid losing forward momentum. The 108-minute “Lonestar” is enhanced by rare film footage; exclusive interviews with many close friends and confidantes; contributions from industry professionals and music writers who documented Vaughan’s career as it unfolded; seldom seen photographs; and more concert footage than usual for these unauthorized docs.

Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 4
PBS Kids: Super WHY!: Triple Feature
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Triple Feature
Among the many highlights of the fourth season of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s narrating of the story of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the infamous duel that not only shaped a young nation, but also Miranda’s smash Broadway musical. The trick here is, of course, recounting it while three sheets to the wind. Not drunk are the actors mouthing the narrators’ words, whether or not they make sense. Here, Alia Shawkat plays Hamilton and Aubrey Plaza is Burr. Other founding fathers are portrayed by Tony Hale, David Wain and Bokeem Woodbine. Among the other luminaries featured are Timothy Leary (Thomas Lennon), Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald (Juno Temple, Gabourey Sidibe), Carry A. Nation (Vanessa Bayer), Andrew Jackson (Michael Cera), Charles Ponzi (Jesse Plemons) and Julia Child (Michaela Watkins).

In “Super WHY!: Triple Feature,” Whyatt and the Super Readers embark on entertaining and educational adventures set in such classic fairytales as“Humpty Dumpty,” “Hansel & Gretel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The three previously released DVDs are bundled together onto two discs, logging in at 280 minutes. Young viewers can learn from helping Cinderella get ready for a party at the prince’s castle, by spelling D-R-E-S-S and using an alphabet map to aid Hensel and Gretel in their search for the witch’s house. In total, the Super Readers go on 10 journeys designed to help them with the critical skills they need to learn to read.

In “Wild Kratts: Triple Feature” kids are invited to Join Martin and Chris Kratt as they meet amazing animals from around the world. Here, three previously released DVDs – “Predator Power,” “Lost at Sea,” “Rainforest Rescue” — are bundled together onto one 205-minute disc. Among the eight stories included are “Stuck on Sharks,” “Mimic,” “Little Howler,” “Raptor Roundup,” “Speaking Dolphinese,” “Blowfish Blowout,” “Rainforest Stew” and “Shadow: The Black Jaguar.”

The DVD Wrapup: Moana, Brand New Testament, Weissensee Saga, 100 Streets, and more

Thursday, March 9th, 2017

Moana: Blu-ray
Seventy-five years ago, at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt, Walt Disney embarked on a good-will mission to South America. FDR knew that America would soon be forced to intercede in the war in Europe, at least, and Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco had already made political and financial inroads there. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck had already won the affection of tens of thousands of people there and Disney was greeted warmly everywhere he went. His absence from the Burbank studio coincided with the bitter walkout by animators unhappy over broken promises and the firing of a key ally. The Good Neighbor Policy excursion south not only allowed for a cooling-off period, during which federal mediators worked out a settlement, but it also led to the Oscar-nominated package pictures, Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros. The sponsors allowed Disney to bring along a group of roughly 20 composers, artists, writers and technicians, whose observations directly informed both of the movies, which debuted in South America and Mexico before their American premieres. It’s paid dividends ever since, especially through the popularity of José “Zé” Carioca, a dapper, cigar-smoking parrot who’s served the same branding purpose as Jiminy Cricket. Today, it isn’t unusual for Disney/Pixar creative personnel to be flown to countries that will provide the settings for animation projects. In 2011, directors John Musker and Ron Clements (The Princess and the Frog) fell in love with the idea of a project based on Polynesian mythology and the heroic exploits of the demigod Maui. They pitched the original treatment for Moana to Pixar-Disney Animation boss John Lasseter, who recommended they go on research trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti.

Over time, Moana was reshaped from a story focused on Maui to one that chronicles the historic migrations of Polynesian people and their symbiotic relationship with the ocean. They decided to set the film at the end of the last great mass exodus, about two thousand years ago, on a fictional island in the central Pacific Ocean, not unlike Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The protagonist became Moana, the daughter of a chief, and she would be voiced by Hawaiian teenager Auli’i Cravalho. Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is of Samoan background, was hired to voice the repurposed Maui. In another critical decision, Disney recruited a variety of experts on Polynesian history and culture to ensure authenticity and pre-empt what had become almost pro-forma accusations of cultural insensitivity in earlier features. Throughout the production process, revisions to everything from language and characterizations, to hair styles,, tattoos and ancillary products, were suggested and made. The result is a wonderfully entertaining family movie whose Oceania influences are reflected in the color palate, music, dance, dress, physical backdrops and customs.

As the story of Moana now goes, a small jade stone that is the mystical heart of the island goddess Te Fiti is stolen by the demigod Maui, who was planning to give it to humanity as a gift. As he makes his escape, he is attacked by the lava demon Te Kā, causing the heart of Te Fiti and Maui’s power-granting magical fish hook to be lost in the ocean. A millennium later, Moana Waialiki is chosen by the ocean spirit to receive the heart, but drops it when her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), comes to get her. He insists the island provides everything the villagers need, but, years later, fish become scarce and the island’s vegetation begins dying. After Tui forbids Moana from going “beyond the reef” to find more fish, her grandmother, Tala (Rachel House), encourages the precocious princess to trust her ancestral instincts and take to the sea to save their people. She sets out with her pet rooster, Heihei (Alan Tudyk), to find Maui, recover the hook and heart, and make Te Fiti happy, again. It could just as easily been Jose, Jiminy or Tink. The extensive bonus package adds the short films, “Inner Workings” and “Gone Fishing,” with Maui; the deleted song, “Warrior Face”; “Voice of the Islands,” on the filmmakers’ trip to the islands and islanders’ trips to Burbank; rapid-fire Q&As with the talent; deleted scenes; commentary with the directors; and several making-of featurettes.

The Brand New Testament: Blu-ray
The Ardennes
Belgium may not be the largest country in the world, or even northern Europe, but its contributions to cinema are substantial. Among the names and titles that have been honored at festivals and awards ceremonies over the past 40 years, or so, are Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, L’Enfant), Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels), Marc Didden (Brussels by Night), Robbe De Hert (Blueberry Hill), animators Nicole van Goethem (A Greek Tragedy) and Raoul Servais (Harpya), Stijn Coninx (Daens), Erik Van Looy (The Alzheimer Case), Nic Balthazar (Ben X), Lieven Debrauwer (Pauline and Paulette), Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) and Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde (Man Bites Dog). And, while most of these films would hardly qualify as mainstream entertainments, it should be noted that Belgian bad-ass Jean-Claude Van Damme starred in Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD (2008), one of the most engaging and intelligent martial-arts/action flicks made anywhere west of Pacific Rim. If Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte had followed the lead of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel and ventured into a cinematic collaboration, like Un Chien Andalou, the result might have looked something like Jaco Van Dormael’s feature debut, Toto le héros (1991), which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In it, 8-year-old Thomas Van Hasebroeck is convinced that he was exchanged with his neighbor, Alfred, the day of their birth during a fire in the hospital. As a result, Thomas comes to believe he is living the life God intended for Alfred, and vice versa. He resents Alfred’s good fortune and spends most of own life seeking revenge for the perceived injustice. Once seen, it lingers in the memory like a brilliantly colored dream that combines mystery, fantasy, drama, action and comedy. Van Dormael’s 1996 follow-up, The Eighth Day, features an unexpected friendship that develops between an unhappy salesman (Daniel Auteuil) and a young man (Pascal Duquenne) with Down’s syndrome, who’s just escaped from a mental institution. His 2009 drama/fantasy/romance Mr. Nobody examines the life of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the human race has achieved quasi-immortality. The English-language story is told through the different lives Nemo would have led, had he made different choices as a 9-year-old boy, waiting at a train station. It starred Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger. Kiss & Cry (2011) is an experimental fantasy featuring miniatures and dancing hands.

Anyone familiar with Joan Osborne’s 1995 hit record “One of Us” will immediately recognize the conceit in Van Dormeal’s his delightfully playful surrealist fantasy, The Brand New Testament. The song asks, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us/Just a stranger on the bus/Tryin’ to make his way home …” In the film, God has taken up residence in an apartment in Brussels he shares with his meek and disengaged wife (Yolande Moreau) and 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne), to whom he is emotionally and physically abusive. God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is a grumpy sadist who created humankind specifically to have something to torment. He manipulates reality via a personal computer, which, one day, Ea manages to hack and provide everyone on Earth the day and hour of their deaths. She escapes the apartment through a washing machine that provides a worm hole to the outside world. Jesus, materializing in the form of a religious statue in the kitchen, encourages his sister to defy their father by gathering a motley crew of disciples and writing a brand-new New Testament. Her six apostles include a one-armed woman, a sex maniac, a killer, a woman who has been left by her husband, an office worker and a gender-dysphoric child. Catherine Deneuve’s love-starved housewife is the funniest and most absurd vignette of them all. Meanwhile, in his blundering attempt to corral his daughter, God is cursed by having to play by the same maniacal laws he imposed on humans living outside his apartment. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil any more of the surprises, except to point out that they are consistent with our dependence on personal computers and the plot isn’t any more blasphemous than “One of Us.” In Van Dormael’s hands, it’s a celebration life and love. The Music Box package adds interviews with the director and making-of material.

It’s easy to draw comparisons between Robin Pront’s directorial debut, The Ardennes, and David Mackenzie’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. In each, a pair of brothers – one a hot-headed ex-con – embark on a crime spree intended to fund what turns out to be an impossible dream of going straight. The violence, which is harsh and explosive in both pictures, is diluted somewhat by one of the brothers’ relationship with a woman who decided over time to modify her own behavior. The settings could hardly be any more diverse, however. While Mackenzie’s drama played out against a bleak and wind-swept background of the American Southwest, The Ardennes is set in the gritty working-class neighborhoods of Antwerp, as well as the dense forests of Belgium and Luxembourg. Brothers Dave and Kenneth (Jeroen Perceval, Kevin Janssens) are reunited on Kenneth’s release after four years in prison, following a failed home invasion. While Kenneth is anxious to dive headfirst into the drug-centered existence that ensnared him in the first place, both Dave and his brother’s former girlfriend, Sylvie, have adopted clean lifestyles. When Kenneth begins to sense that Sylvie was unfaithful to him while he was away, he goes on a tear that threatens to pull everyone into a maelstrom of violence and death. Tonally, at least, The Ardennes will remind viewers of Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead. Many of the same actors and producers — Jeroen Perceval, Bart Van Langendonck — involved in that crime drama play key roles here. Even if the narrative doesn’t always keep pace with the action sequences, the imaginatively staged shootouts, fistfights and emotional eruptions should please fans of such things. The Film Movement DVD adds commentary and an interview with director Pront and Janssens; a making-of featurette; a short film by director Robin Pront, “Injury Time”; a director’s statement; and the distributor’s “Why-We-Selected” statement.

100 Streets: Blu-ray
Fans of such British TV series as “Luther,” “Rebus,” “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries,” “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands,” “Hollyoaks” and “EastEnders” are the target audience for 100 Streets, a trio of interconnected stories that play out within an economically and racially diverse section of London. The title suggests that it’s an extension of screenwriter Leon Butler’s debut short, “One Square Mile: London.” In the first segment, Idris Alba plays a retired rugby star, Max, whose womanizing has caused him to be kicked out of the home he shared with his estranged wife (Gemma Arterton) and children. His massive ego prevents him from giving them the space they need to heal from his abuses. Eventually, the green-eyed monster of jealousy will force Max into the same corner as Othello. If that’s too obvious a comparison, Alba makes the most of it, at least. Ken Stott (“The Vice”) plays a retired actor who sees something in a local gang-banger and drug dealer (Franz Drameh) that’s invisible to everyone else in the boy’s circle. Even as Terence and Max’s wife, also a semi-retired performer, attempt to turn Kingsley into an actor, his street cronies vow to keep him in the game. The third story involves a cabbie and soccer coach (Charlie Creed-Miles), who made a mistake years earlier that could block his and his wife’s efforts to adopt a child. Meanwhile, an unavoidable accident puts him into a depressive state that threatens his marriage. 100 Streets may not be the most original of stories, but the actors give it their all … which is plenty.

Cold War 2: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 2012, Sunny Luk and Longmond Leung’s Cold War was promoted as the second coming of international hit, Infernal Affairs, which spawned a prequel, sequel and Martin Scorsese adaptation, The Departed. While, it didn’t have the same desired impact, Cold War left enough people wanting more to warrant Cold War II. Fans of the original will recall how a van carrying five highly trained Hong Kong police officers and equipment was hijacked by criminal/terrorists demanding a huge ransom. Thanks to an informant inside the department, the hijackers always managed to stay one step ahead of the police. A power struggle at the highest level of the police hierarchy suggests there’s plenty of room for intrigue. Left unresolved at the end of the thriller were the identity of the mole and whereabouts of the van. Cold War II picks up a while after the events of the original, which ended in a successful rescue operation, with the kidnapping of the wife and daughter of Commissioner of Police Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok). The ransom demand this time involves the release of an imprisoned hijacker, who has connections of his own within the department. Lau’s former rival, the retired commissioner M.B. Waise Lee (Tony Ka Fai Leung), is called upon to rein in the ringleaders and determine, once and for all, who’s in control of Hong Kong. And, of course, there’s the unresolved matter of the mole. Despite a bit too much talk and posturing, the action sequences are sufficient reason to recommend Cold War II to admirers of the original. An EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette is included.

Trespass Against Us: Blu-ray
To completely understand and appreciate Adam Smith’s ferocious theatrical debut, Trespass Against Us, a wee bit of knowledge about England’s “travelling people” is necessary. Although all three groups play by their own set of rules and answer to family before law-enforcement authorities, they believe in a God-given right to navigate the highways and backroads of the U.K., camping illegally on public or private land and causing mayhem wherever they weigh anchor. The original Rom Gypsies aren’t as prominent in Britain as they are on the continent; Irish Travelers, comprise an itinerant ethnic group (a.k.a., pavees, pikeys and tinkers) that maintains a set of religious, cultural and familial traditions; and Scottish Highland Travelers, known as Tinkers for their origins as itinerant tinsmiths, no longer mend household utensils for income.  Although hundreds of thousands of gypsies were slaughtered in World War II, Roms and Travelers don’t appear to be protected by any politically correct guidelines. No ethnic group is more widely and freely slandered, although some filmmakers have attempted to give them a fairer shake than others: The Man Who Cried, The Red Violin, Black Cat/White Cat, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, Time of the Gypsies, The Field, Into the West and Trojan Eddie. Like The Harder They Come, whose English-language dialogue and patois demanded the addition of subtitles. Trespass Against Us not only could benefit from subtitles, but footnotes, as well. Conversations are peppered with Shelta or Cant, dialects that bear enough of a resemblance to English as to be confusing, if not indecipherable to outsiders and moviegoers.

Michael Fassbender plays Chad Cutler, the second generation in a small band of Irish Travelers living in a slum of their own creation somewhere in the scenic west of England. His father, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), is the rough-hewn patriarch of the clan, which enjoys a parasitic relationship to their upscale neighbors. He enjoys nothing more than telling tall tales around the campfire and reminding his grandchildren not to believe anything they learn at school. Even so, Chad and his wife (Lyndsey Marshall) are adamant that their children get an education. While Chad envisions a more conventional future for the kids, he’s limited to a life of crime, kicks and car chases … lots of them. The drama comes when he attempts to wrest control of his brood from his father and brothers, without being completely disowned by them. Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons don’t always succeed in balancing drama with action, but it’s lots of fun to watch … in a Tarantino-ish sort of way. Finally, though, apart from Chad’s wife and children, there’s no one in Trespass Against Us that stands out as being particularly sympathetic. The Chemical Brothers’ score is a big plus.  Special features include “Blood Bonds: On the Set of Trespass Against Us” and “Heartfelt,” in which Smith discusses his collaborations with the Chemical Brothers.

Tupac: Assassination: Battle for Compton: Blu-ray
Last month, in this space, I commented on Michael Dorsey’s Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders, a documentary largely based on interviews with lead LAPD detective Greg Kading and other witnesses. At, at least, the title of Kading’s book, “Murder Rap,” adds the misleading “Investigations by the Detective Who Solved Both Cases.” As self-serving as the documentary is – for Kading and the department — it couldn’t help but be of interest to true-crime enthusiasts and fans of the hip-hop legends. In Tupac: Assassination III: Battle for Compton, Richard Bond makes a rather different case, using some of the same evidence, testimony and sources. Bond’s entry in only shows documentaries related to Tupac and events that led up to and followed the attack in Las Vegas. It goes to great lengths to explain why, after 20 years, the investigation has bogged down to a crawl and isn’t likely to pick up any time soon. Reporters, lawyers, cops, gang-bangers and other people close to the story describe just how bolloxed up the investigation got after police in three cities – Los Angeles, Compton and Las Vegas – decided it wasn’t in their interest to solve the crimes. The depth of corruption in L.A. and Compton – at one time, Death Row Records controlled the suburb – matched the ability of street gangs to operate with impunity. It also was matched by the greed of participants hoping to derail their gravy train. As the mafia has demonstrated, making witnesses disappear is the easiest way to ensure a mistrial or not-guilty verdict. Finally, too, Bonds appears to be making the case for treating the murders – however devastating to their fans – as sideshow events to a much larger conspiracy. At just short of two hours, “Battle for Compton” may be exhausting, but rarely tiresome.

New Life
In what could easily be described as a family-friendly adaptation of Love Story or Terms of Endearment, Drew Waters’ debut as a co-writer/director is a three-hanky weeper that takes a paint-by-numbers path to an uplifting ending. New Life opens with a love-at-first-sight moment between kids who live next-door to each other and continues through long-distance relationships, diverting flirtations, marriage, pregnancy, sickness, recovery and I’ll bet you can guess what comes next. Jonathan Patrick Moore (Christian Mingle) and Erin Bethea (The Redemption of Henry Myers) make a very cute and credible couple, no matter how formulaic New Life gets. The worst faux pas, however, is forcing American supporting actress Kelsey Formost to affect a French accent even Pepé Le Pew wouldn’t buy. Old pros Barry Corbin, Bill Cobbs and Irma P. Hall add a sentimental aura to the proceedings, as well.

The C Word
At a time when the Trump administration is on the brink of opening the floodgates built to protect Americans from industrial, chemical, medicinal, food- and water-borne toxins, Meghan O’Hara cautionary documentary, The C Word, could hardly be more relevant. Most of the information dispensed in the film has been available on the Internet, in documentaries and books, but, here, the immediacy of the message carries a sense of urgency and timeliness. Apart from narrator Morgan Freeman, the voice of authority belongs to French physician and neuroscientist David Servan-Schreiber, author of “Anticancer: A New Way of Life,” a New York Times best-seller that has been translated into 35 languages. In it, he discusses his two successful battles with a malignant brain tumor – the first, at 31 — and the treatment program he put together to help himself beyond his surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. He would succumb to brain cancer on July 24, 2011, but not until 20 years after his first diagnosis. While it’s probably true that everything we eat, drink, touch and breath can potentially cause cancer, Servan-Schreiber’s treatments and research demonstrated that much less exposure to the carcinogens, even after surgery, can temporarily thwart its progress, at least. O’Hara’s clever mix of animation, graphics, clips and interviews makes the 90-minute film pass quickly and painlessly. The DVD adds several ancillary featurettes.

Here’s another borderline-mainstream film about a gay teenager that likely will be pigeonholded among new releases of gay/lesbian videos, but easily could find a ready audience among arthouse audiences. Neither a coming-out or first-kiss drama, Departure tells the story of a family in crisis about things other than romances between same-sex couples. In it, an English mother (Juliet Stevenson) and her teenage son (Alex Lawther) spend a week preparing for the sale of their lovely summer home in the Languedoc district of France. Beatrice is having a difficult time dealing with the imminent dissolution of her loveless marriage to his father, Philip (Finbar Lynch), and it’s interfering with Elliot’s pursuit of an enigmatic local, Clément (Phénix Broassard). A budding poet, Elliot doesn’t appear to be the kind of boy to whom the older, more robust Clément would be attracted. With his mother back home in Paris, dying of cancer, however, Clément not only values his sincerity and companionship, but he also warms to Beatrice’s unquestioning approach to their friendship. While Clément isn’t oblivious to Elliot’s advances, he puts up an ambivalent front during their time together. This includes lazy interludes at the local reservoir, swimming, sunning and sharing confidences. At the cottage, Clément helps Beatrice put together the family’s memorabilia, while also performing chores and, yes, sharing confidences. Predictably, perhaps, as their stay in the country nears its end, both mother and son are compelled to confront their desires for Clément, as well as the growing storm in their family’s dissolution and clandestine betrayals. Stevenson, an atypically attractive actress, is best known here for her appearances in Bend It Like Beckham and imported British mini-series. She provides a touch of class as the almost tragically vulnerable Beatrice. Lawther, who impressed as the young Alan Turing in the film, The Imitation Game, is excellent, as well. Largely unknown outside France, Broassard does a nice job as the object of their attention. The bucolic Languedoc locations also add to Departure’s appeal. Freshman writer/director Andrew Steggall interviews his stars in the bonus package.

Co-writer/director Amit Gupta’s debut feature is a what-if tale, adapted from a novel by Welsh poet, author, playwright and TV presenter Owen Sheers. (In 2011, Sheers also became the first writer-in-residence at the Welsh Rugby Union.) Resistance explores the possible ramifications of a failed D-Day invasion and successful crossing of the Channel by German forces. It’s set in a remote village in the Olchon Valley in the Black Mountains of south-east Wales, where a group of women awake one morning to find their husbands missing and the village occupied by a small unit of German soldiers. Almost everything that happened to the battle-weary troop after D-Day is held back from viewers, as the bulk of the fighting presumably occurred elsewhere. Michael Sheen plays a resistance leader who pops up every so often to assure us the men haven’t been slaughtered or abducted by alien. Otherwise, everything’s quiet on the Welsh front. The story really belongs to the women and their dealings with the soldiers, who seem more interested in waiting out an armistice than intimidating the residents or scrubbing the countryside for partisans. As such, Resistance offers a substantially different take on the dynamics of occupation than we’ve seen in movies driven by fighting and cruelty. Given what we know about the punishments meted out by Nazi forces on villagers believed to be supporting resistance fighters, however, the movie doesn’t always ring true, especially as they begin to feel an affinity with the women and friendships grow. Excellent performances by Andrea Riseborough (Birdman), Iwan Rheon (“Game of Thrones”) and Tom Wlaschiha (Game of Thrones) allow us to suspend our disbelief, if only for 92 minutes.

Pig Pen
This unrelievedly bleak portrait of a 13-year-old runaway, Zack (Lucas Koch), plays out like a dark underground horror flick, until it becomes clear that the horrors on display in Pig Pen are extremely real and probably more prevalent than anyone cares to believe they are. The sadly alienated child of a pill-popping mom (Nicolette le Faye), Zack is thrown out of their home by her sadistic boyfriend, dealer and would-be pimp (Vito Trigo). He instructs the boy not to come home until he’s earned – in one of the worst ways possible – at least $50 to pay for his mother’s habit. While on his own in the streets of Baltimore, Zach encounters all sorts of the usual riff-raff, as well as a couple of homeless folks who take pity on him. When he returns home to rescue his mom, he’s forced to confront the monster who’s devoured her soul and hopes to do far worse to him. Co-writer/director Jason M. Koch (7th Day) pretty much limits the narrative to what’s revealed in those few sentences, but anything more would be overkill.
The potential hazards of online dating have been exhaustively considered and described in police dramas on TV and countless straight-to-video releases. Apparently, these warnings continue to be ignored by young women, especially, who believe their intuition provides a better defense against unhappy endings than healthy doses of skepticism and caution. But, then, where would the slasher genre be without desperate dumbasses? In Chip Gubera’s imprecisely titled,, no sooner do Jack (Ben Kaplan) and Kristy (Morgan Carter) meet on-line than they embark on a weekend getaway to the woodlands of rural Missouri. Things start out innocently enough, until they’re introduced to their hosts, Jesse (R.A. Mihailoff) and Momma Meyers (Jewel Shepard), who are right out of Central Casting. Mihailoff, some might recall, played Leatherface, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, while, back in the day, Shepard was a highly visible princess of soft-core porn (Christina, Mission: Killfast). The newly introduced lovebirds’ timing could hardly be any worse, as a serial killer is on the loose and all signs lead to the backwoods inn and the torture chamber contained within it. But, you knew that already. isn’t much, but fans of hillbilly horror – and/or Ms. Shepard — might find something to like.

Bloodrunners: Blu-ray
Try to imagine Francis Ford Coppala’s The Cotton Club being remade on a bargain-basement budget, with Ice-T as the speakeasy’s bandleader/host and more corrupt cops than the average episode of “Boardwalk Empire.” Now, consider that Ice-T’s character not only is a vampire, but ruler of a nest of undead prostitutes and traffickers in bottles of moonshine blood. (“True Blood,” anyone?) Not a bad concept, really, but co-writer/director/editor/cinematographer/designer Dan Lantz probably should have sold Bloodrunners to someone with enough money to do a vampires-vs.-cops picture right. Shooting Bloodrunners on a digital 4K camera only serves to enhance the shortcuts taken in the construction of otherwise credible nightclub set and costumes. And, apart from Ice-T and a few of the vampires, the acting is well below standard, even for genre fare.

Man Down: Blu-ray
When he isn’t making a spectacle of himself, Shia LaBeouf routinely demonstrates how capable an actor he is. His amazing performance in American Honey is proof enough of that. In Dito Montiel’s thoroughly disjointed Man Down, LaBeouf’s battle-scarred Marine, Gabriel, starts out as a loving husband and father, who enlists after 9/11 with his childhood friend Devin (Jai Courtney), and, after surviving boot camp, lands in the thick of battle in Afghanistan. While there, Gabriel and Devin are involved in a bloody encounter with insurgents that also claims the lives of civilians. From this point forward, Gabriel and Montiel’s well-meaning narrative both begin to unravel. After their tour of duty ends, Gabriel and Devin return home to an America that’s suffered a catastrophic attack and is unrecognizable to them. Oh, yeah, his wife and son have disappeared and may be in the possession of terrorists … or, perhaps, the demons in his head. Montiel, who worked with LeBeouf previously on A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, is making a statement on the continuing PTSD epidemic among veterans, but it only becomes clear when an info card is flashed before the final credits. Otherwise, it too often resembles just another crazed-veteran flick. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Montiel and military advisor Sergeant Nick Jones Jr.

MHz: The Weissensee Saga
MHz: Corp + Anam
MHz: A French Village: 1945: Season 6
PBS: City in the Sky
PBS: American Experience: Oklahoma City
Time Life: Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection
WE: Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies
Americans who’ve fallen in love with “Masterpiece” and other programming from the UK, thanks largely to PBS, BBC America and Acorn TV, owe it to themselves to check out MHz Choice and the DVDs of series carried globally by MHz Networks. This week’s releases attest to the quality of programming available to viewers who don’t mind reading subtitles. For example, “The Weissensee Saga” is the kind of sweeping family saga of conflicting loyalties, betrayal, love and hope that we’ve come to expect from the BBC. What’s remarkable about the three-season-long series is that it’s set in East Berlin, in the decade before the Wall was brought down and unification of East and West Germany began. It stars Uwe Kockisch as Hans Kupfer, a high-ranking Stasi official whose oldest son followed him into the internal spying operation and the other a policeman. Kupfer’s wife (Ruth Reinecke) is loyal to her husband and her country, even in the face of evidence that he’s made contact with an old flame (Katrin Saß). The singer also loves her country, but has been marginalized by her willingness to stand up to party officials who use communism as shield for human-rights abuses and fear-mongering. In a coincidence that would strain credulity if it weren’t so well-handled, the cop (Florian Lukas) falls in love with the singer’s daughter (Hannah Herzsprung) after she’s arrested for an aborted attempt to flee to the West. Meanwhile, rising Stasi star Falk Kupfer (Jörg Hartmann) – far more rigid in his neo-fascist beliefs than Hans — has begun to establish a network of spies, informers, backstabbers and dupes, using their own frailties and liberal opinions against them. We also watch their children grow into young adults, with stories of their own to follow. Americans might be surprised by the depiction of East Berlin as city that doesn’t look particularly devastated from post-war neglect and citizens as suspicious of the west as Americans were of Soviet Union. The views of hardliners and dissidents are aired fairly, as are the divides within the Kupfer family. Not surprisingly, the most joyous episode dramatizes the events that followed stunning announcement that border crossings no longer would be policed and citizens of both Germanys could come and go as they pleased. An American version of “The Weissensee Saga” would end there, probably, but there’s still a year’s worth of tumult, intrigue and revelations to go in the series. In one way, at least, it’s a perfect complement to FX’s “The Americans,” in which a pair of Soviet spies embrace socialism, while enjoying a typically middle-class American lifestyle.

From Ireland comes the superb Gaelic-language crime series, “Corp + Anam” (“Body and Soul”), which exposes the seamy side of life in a city large enough to have a couple of TV channels, but still small enough to retain a sense of small-town charm and intolerance. The worst of it is filtered through the lens of dogged television crime reporter Cathal Mac Iarnáin (Diarmuid de Faoite), who, while something of a loose cannon, usually gets to the bottom of things. His intense pursuit of the truth has destroyed his relationship with his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and children. His ethically challenged reporting also causes problems at work, where he frequently locks horns with his too-cautious news editor. In the first season, alone, Mac Iarnáin pursues cases of health-service neglect, Internet pedophilia, teenage recklessness and police corruption. I, for one, wasn’t aware of the prevalence of Gaelic in everyday and official discourse.

In its sixth season, the blockbuster French drama, “A French Village,” arrives at the point where France has been liberated and the citizens of Villeneuve are coming to grips with ensuring peace and the slippery slope of reconciliation. In the wake of the occupation this not only means getting back to work and repairing the damage caused by bullets and bombs, but also identifying and punishing Nazi sympathizers, Vichy collaborators, traitors and opportunists. Resistance leaders have returned from the shadows to exact justice on everyone they determine to have betrayed them. Within the Resistance, of course, the political struggles became just another extension of the war, with Gaullists, communists, socialists and non-allied freedom fighters all struggling to capture the high ground. Common criminals, black-marketeers and blackmailers have also come to the fore. Not having been forced to survive an occupation or play by rules set by a collaborationist government, much of Season Six may seem dry or overly complex. They might be more interested in learning how the newly liberated French citizens consider the American soldiers left behind to counter possible Nazi insurgencies and ensure stability. As much as the French welcomed liberation, some partisans considered them to be enemies of their political beliefs and, as such, capitalist tools. Their relations with French women, some of whom are shown profiting from commerce and romantic alliances with the soldiers, also caused resentment. It isn’t something Americans are likely to have read about in history books, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Implicit in any discussion of the PBS documentary series “City in the Sky” is the worrisome question, “If we can’t keep our cities and infrastructure from falling apart and malfunctioning on solid earth, how can we expect our cities in the sky from remaining safe and aloft?” It certainly isn’t something passengers care to ponder at great length. We have enough to worry about while standing in interminable lines at the TSA checkpoints. Consider that, at any one time, there are as many as a million people airborne somewhere in the world, with 100,000 flights crisscrossing it every single day at variants of 30,000 feet. In the series, viewers set off around the world to uncover the invisible global networks and complex logistics that make it all possible. The segments — “Departure,” “Airborne” and “Arrival” – bring us into the cockpits of planes traveling at night, in storms and landing at airports that weren’t constructed to accommodate the needs of today’s travelers, carriers and freight haulers.

Domestic terrorism didn’t begin or end with the terrible bombing of the Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 people and left 675 more injured. People rushed to blame the same Arab terrorists who had attempted to bring down the World Trade Center, two years earlier, but it soon became clear that the attack was timed to coincide with the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound and Ruby Ridge standoff. The ripple effects continue to be felt today, as white supremacists sense an opportunity to eliminate gun laws entirely and re-write the Bill of Rights to reflect right-wing values. PBS’ “American Experience: Oklahoma City” traces the events that led Timothy McVeigh to that day and recounts the stories of the survivors, first-responders, U.S. Marshals, FBI investigators and journalists who covered the events. The film provides an in-depth and provocative exploration of the white supremacist, extremist militia movement that rose to prominence in the early 1990s and still makes news today.

It’s difficult to tell how Time Life finally is able to distinguish between complete-series collections of such hit shows as “Mama’s Family” and “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” and more tightly focused “best of” and “favorite guest” packages. There’s also individual season sets for fans to consider. The latest, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites Collection” contains 37 unedited episodes on six discs, hand-picked by Vickie Lawrence and struck from the original broadcast masters. They include “Mama on Jeopardy,” “Mama Goes Hawaiian,” “Found Money,” “Pinup Mama,” “Bubba’s House Band,” “Soup to Nuts,” “Country Club,” “Mama Buys a Car,” “The Wedding” and “Mama’s Boyfriend.” By contrast, the company’s 24-disc and substantially more expensive “Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection” weighs in at 3,052 minutes, including 12 hours of bonus features.

It’s been 10 years since Kendra Wilkinson left Hugh Hefner and the Playboy Mansion in her rear-view mirror. This week, the former cheerleader and celebrity concubine (a.k.a., “girlfriend”) plead her case before her Instagram fans, arguing that she no longer wants to be labeled a “Playboy girl,” because “Comparing me now to that 18-year-old girl, then, is apples ’n’ oranges.” To avoid further confusion, Kendra attached to the post a mildly erotic shot of her stepping into a swimming pool. I assume that this flurry of activity was intended to coincide with the release of “Kendra on Top: The Complete Fourth and Fifth Seasons: Uncensored.” It isn’t clear if the show will be renewed by WE tv, but clearly it’s running on the fumes. In Season Four, producers were able to milk lots of sympathy for Kendra by playing the Hank card. (The former NFL player had an ill-advised affair with someone he may or may not have known is a transvestite.) It doesn’t take long – a couple of tequila shots, to be precise – for her to hook up with pinup boys she met on other reality shows, leaving her baby in Hank’s hands while she’s partying in London, New York and Seattle. In Season Five, Hank appears to have taken a powder, which is exactly what Kendra is seeking on a trip to Sundance.  Meanwhile, her evil mother threatens to write a tell-all book, and her estranged brother, Colin, wants to meet with her. There’s lots of other boring stuff, but fans – you know who you are — probably will eat it up.

The top-rated Nickelodeon franchise, “Paw Patrol,” ramps up for the holiday season with the seven-rescue compilation, “Paw Patrol: Pups Save the Bunnies.” They include the double-length mission to save Adventure Bay’s Easter-egg hunt, “Pups Save the Bunnies,” “Pups Get Growing,” “Pups Save the Mayor’s Tulips.” “Pups Save a Stinky Flower,” “Pups Save the Songbirds” and “A Pup in Sheep’s Clothing.”

The DVD Wrapup: Moonlight, Doctor Strange, Arrival, Before Trilogy, Chronic and more

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Moonlight: Blu-ray
It’s the nature of the Hollywood beast that memories of Sunday night’s misnaming of La La Land as Best Picture won’t be forgotten. Comedian Steve Harvey, who misread the name of the 2015 Miss Universe winner and barely lived to tell about it, was kind enough to tweet Warren Beatty Monday morning, offering his condolences and support. Beatty will have a much easier time living with his faux pas than PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan, now relieved of future duties, who was too busy tweeting to notice the impending shitstorm. If I were in charge of next year’s Oscar ceremony, this first two people I’d invite to open an envelope would be Beatty and Harvey, who, in 2012, appeared as himself in Medea Goes to Jail. This time, at least, there’s no question that Moonlight and La La Land were worthy candidates for top honors. This, of course, hasn’t always been the case … Crash, anyone? The controversy could actually serve to raise awareness of both pictures, especially among East Coast viewers who nodded off after the dreaded three-hour barrier passed. Indeed, the biggest beneficiary of the debacle could be Lionsgate, which owns the home-video distribution rights here, along with those to Manchester by the Sea, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Lion and 20th Century Women.

Moonlight tells three interrelated coming-of-age stories, all involving Chiron, a Miami youth trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, drug addiction, intolerance and despair. In the first chapter, “Little,” we’re introduced to the desperately shy and withdrawn child, nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), as he takes refuge from bullies in an abandoned building. He’s rescued by Juan (Oscar-winner, Mahershala Ali), a Cuban crack dealer, who takes the close-mouthed Chiron to the house he shares his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). After being fed dinner and allowed to spend the night, Chiron begins to warm to Juan. The next morning, he delivers Chiron back to his emotionally abusive mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), whose home is as disheveled as his is tidy. Sensing that Chiron could use a well-meaning father figure in his life – in Miami, drug dealers aren’t necessarily excluded from such roles — Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, while also advising him to make his own path in life. The boy also befriends Kevin (Jaden Piner), a cocky classmate who sees something in Chiron the bullies want to punish.

In the second chapter, “Chiron,” our now-teenage protagonist (Ashton Sanders) continues to be bullied, but now with the added intimation of being a “faggot.” Although Juan has died in the interim, Chiron continues to spend his nights with Teresa. His crack-addicted mother now supports herself through prostitution and whatever money she can wrangle from her son’s benefactor. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and Chiron notch up their friendship with a first sexual dalliance, shared on a moonlit beach. The next day, Kevin kowtows to a gang of thugs by betraying his friend in the cruelest possible way. Chiron refuses to reveal the identities of his attackers or take any more crap from his mother. His startling response to being pummeled by his only friend ensures that Chiron has turned the corner into early adulthood … at least, as far as the law is concerned. The third chapter, titled “Black,” after the nickname given Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) earlier by Kevin, opens a decade later, outside Atlanta, with the young man fully assimilated into the life inadvertently introduced to him by Juan. After experiencing a portentous dream, Chiron decides to seek personal redemption by confronting his mother in a drug-rehab facility and responding to a mysterious late-call from an apologetic Kevin (André Holland), now working as a chef in Miami. Things get pretty deep in “Black,” but not in any predictable way.

Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical text, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” written in 2003 to cope with his own mother’s death from AIDS. Never produced, it was ten years before Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) – who grew up only a few blocks from McCraney, in Miami’s poverty- and crime-wracked Liberty City projects – was pushed to begin work on a second film. The characters are informed by people who influenced both men at various times in their lives. If Moonlight feels hyperreal, it’s because McCraney and Jenkins endured many of the same powerful forces as Chiron and Kevin. The gay subtext shouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking up the movie, even if some observers have put Moonlight into the pigeon-hole reserved for LGBTQ title. McCraney and Jenkins’ points are made in ways that are no more graphic than anything in Brokeback Mountain, which won important awards and made money for Focus Features and Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Moonlight took statuettes for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was a finalist, as well, for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Harris) and Best Achievement in Directing/Cinematography/Film Editing/Music Written for a Motion Picture. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Jenkins and the informative featurettes “Ensemble of Emotion: Making Moonlight,” “Poetry Through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight” and “Cruel Beauty: Filming in Miami.”

Doctor Strange: Blu-ray 2D/3D
A lot of people who care deeply about such things, as well as a few of us that don’t, thought 2017 might have been the year when a movie based on a comic-book superhero would be shown some love in Oscar voting.  There appeared to be enough room in the Best Picture category for Deadpool to sneak into the expanded mix, which had a slot open for just such a longshot. But, nooooo … it wasn’t to be.To their credit, Golden Globe voters nominated Deadpool as Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy and Ryan Reynolds, as Best Actor in the same category. Looking ahead, fans of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy are hoping the upcoming sequel will surpass expectations prompted by the crossover success of the 2014 original, which was a runner-up in the Best Achievement in Makeup/Hairstyling and Visual Effects categories, traditionally reserved for green-screen epics. Suicide Squad did take home an Oscar this year in the ridiculously abbreviated list of candidates in the Makeup/Hairstyling, while Doctor Strange was nominated for Visual Effects. Meanwhile, genre and mainstream critics praised Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of surgeon Stephen Strange’s origin story for its introduction of Eastern mysticism to the Marvel Cinematic Universe bible and his ability to navigate the comic’s cross-dimensional conceits. Visually, Doctor Strange frequently merged Chinese-box mechanics with the surrealistic architecture of Inception’s dream scenes. If the narrative spends a bit too much time laying the foundation for future installments, the stunning action sequences justify such forward-looking plans.

The problem, of course, is that Disney/Marvel has so many projects circling the airport right now that the studio probably couldn’t absorb the loss, if more than two or three of them crashed and burned in the interim. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an abrasively arrogant neurosurgeon, who, like Dr. Gregory House, is only interested in helping patients whose conditions challenge him. If he can be a world-class prick, in and out of the surgical theater, Strange would still be the first person called by the Vatican or White House to remove a bullet or tumor from the spine of a pope or president. While being appraised of a possible next patient, while driving very rapidly in his sports car, Strange takes his eyes off the road long enough to miss a turn and go careening off the side of steep hill. He survives the crash, barely, but not without the loss of the physical and neurological tools necessary to do his work. It isn’t until his therapist alerts him to the miraculous recovery of Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a construction worker who’s overcome his injuries to the point where he can once again live a productive life, while standing on his own two feet. After much cajoling, Panghorn points Strange in the direction of Nepal, where sorcerers Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) teach the mystic arts to very select students at the secret compound, Kamar-Taj.

The Ancient One demonstrates her powers to the skeptical Strange, revealing the hidden seams connecting the astral plane and Mirror Dimension. After he begs her to take him under her wing, she begins to recognize similarities in personality between Strange and her black-sheep student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who recently led an invasion of Kamar-Taj, killed the librarian and stole an ancient text. The Ancient One prepares Strange to do battle with Kaecilius to protect Earth against invaders from other dimensions, using a spell generated from three buildings called Sanctums, found in New York City, London and Hong Kong. By comparison, the story behind Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth, and subsequent emergence as Superman, is as simple as a nursery rhyme. After all the mumbo-jumbo is dispensed with, however, the action becomes non-stop and wonderfully complex. The Blu-ray package adds more than an hour’s worth of interesting background featurettes; a humorous short, in which Thor copes with life away from the battlefield in a contemporary American setting; deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel; and commentary with Derrickson.

Allied: Blu-ray/4K
More than anything that happens in the movie, itself, Allied will go down in pop-cultural history as the catalyst for precipitous change in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s surprisingly fragile marriage. The cause was, at first, attributed to an on-location romance – since denied – between Pitt and leading lady Marion Cotillard. The irony didn’t escape anyone whose primary memory of the 2005 spy-vs.-spy caper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is the role its pairing of Pitt and Jolie played in breaking up the fairy-tale marriage of Pitt and America’s Sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston. In that picture, a bored married couple is surprised to learn that they are assassins hired by competing agencies to kill each other. In the far more sober-minded Allied, one of the married spies is ordered to eliminate a threat to the Allied cause, by killing a treasonous spouse. In Hollywood, what goes around, always comes around. There are better reasons to appreciate both pictures, but not if you’re a fan of TMZ and the Enquirer. Cotillard has publicly denied the rumors, while Jolie has used the gossip rags to present an indictment against Pitt that practically defies belief. At one time, sparking or defusing speculation about on-location liaisons were within the prevue of a studio publicist, who was paid to find the most favorable spin for his boss. Today, studio publicists spend most of their time preparing press releases, arranging junkets and deferring to personal publicists and freelance specialists able to trade favors with the tabloid and gossip press and set rules limiting access to the talent. I can’t remember Pitt doing much press in support of the Allied – things had gotten far too ugly in the divorce proceedings – but Cotillard dutifully made the rounds of the talk shows, dutifully knocking down rumors in lieu of promoting the old-fashioned wartime romance. It’s too bad, because the movie needed all the positive spin it could get, especially going into the intensely competitive holiday season.

If, while watching Bob Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight’s Allied, viewers immediately are reminded of Casablanca, it’s no accident. The designers in charge of costumes, exteriors and set designs borrowed freely from perceived period ambience and pressure-cooker relationships established in Michael Curtiz’ beloved classic. Pitt plays Max Vatan, a French-Canadian pilot and spy, who is parachuted into Vichy French Morocco, where he’s assigned the less-than-onerous task of pretending to be married to deep-cover assassin Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard). Apart from his Quebecois accent, they make a convincing pair. When the mission is successfully completed and they’re extracted to England, Marianne and Max get married for real. She delivers their child during a German air raid and prepare to live happily ever after … if only. One day, Max is called into the offices of the British S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive), whose head man informs him of reports that his wife is a German operative, still reporting to Axis spies planted in England. Naturally, Max denies any such thing is possible. Even so, their marriage is covered under the “Intimate Betrayal Rule,” which demands of married spies that they execute their spouse, post haste, if proven to be a double-agent. If the execution isn’t carried out, both could be arrested, tried and punished for high treason. Max decides to risk his life in a covert mission to German-occupied France to determine the truth for himself. It’s at this point that the suspense begins to take hold. One of the things that’s made Casablanca so enduring was a collection of supporting characters nearly as memorable as Rick and Ilsa. Here, Lizzy Caplan is the closest thing to a recognizable face and, so, Pitt and Cotillard are forced to carry the load. Allied doesn’t look too bad on the small screen, if only because we’ve gotten used to watching such vintage dramas on TMC. The Blu-ray adds an hour’s worth of featurettes, the longest of which is 10 minutes long.

The Before Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Just as investors and participants were required to make a giant leap of faith when committing to Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood, backers of what became known as the “Before Trilogy” were challenged to ignore disappointing results for the first chapter and accept the possibility the Austin-based writer/director could turn things around. In 1995, Linklater’s reputation was based largely on the cult popularity of indie faves Slacker and Dazed and Confused, neither of which resembled the walk-and-talk Before Sunrise in any recognizable way. “(It) was a little European art film that was never going to be a mainstream success,” Linklater recalls. “But, it was generally well-reviewed and, I felt, people got it. That’s where (the trilogy idea) started: the people who liked it, liked it. Most people … didn’t notice it.” In it, characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke meet on train from Budapest to Vienna, becoming fast friends while chatting in the dining car. Because Jesse has a plane to catch the next morning, Céline decides to hop off the train to Paris and hang out with him in Vienna for the next several hours. Before they go their separate ways, however, they agree to meet six months later at the same railroad station and pick up where they left off. Neither has enough money to afford a hotel room or much in the way of food or drink. What they have, even for so brief a time, is each other and that’s more than enough. In fact, what happens to Jesse and Céline roughly approximates the fantasy every youthful backpacker carries with them when hitchhiking through Europe on holiday. Linklater was influenced by a similarly magical encounter with a woman he met years earlier on a train in Pennsylvania. He’s said that the purposefully ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise serves as a litmus test for viewers, forced to decide for themselves if the lovers will reunite, as planned, or blow it off.

Before Sunset (2004) picks up nine years later, when Jessie is signing his semi-autobiographical novel at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, on Paris’ Left Bank, and Céline makes a surprise appearance at the end of his reading. The obvious question hanging between them is whether one or neither of them returned to Vienna for the rendezvous. (It’s also on the minds of the reporters and readers, who, likewise, were left hanging at the end of the novel.) They hadn’t exchanged addresses, so were unable to reschedule their meeting for a more convenient date. In the interim, Jesse has gotten married and fathered a son. Céline spent a couple of years in the U.S. before moving back to France to become an advocate for the environment. Not so coincidentally, Jesse has another plane to catch, this time in only a few hours, giving Linklater an opportunity to upgrade their story in real time.

Released in 2013, Before Midnight finds Jesse, Céline, their twin girls and his son from his first marriage on vacation on the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece. He’s a successful novelist and she’s chomping at the bit to take a job with the French government. Jesse would prefer to move to Chicago, for reasons that seem more than a little bit selfish to Céline. Despite the idyllic location of their summer residence and friendly relationship with smart and witty friends there, the couple is facing the very real prospect they no longer are in love and, by extension, are no longer young. Neither is their predicament remotely unique. We’ve enjoyed sharing a few days with them and might even envy their ability to converse so easily and sound as intelligent as they do. It’s nice that, after 18 years, Jesse and Céline are still as attractive a couple as when we met them on the train to Vienna. The director-approved 2K restoration makes all three chapters look as if they were filmed back-to-back, instead of nine years apart. It adds several new and vintage interviews with Linklater, Delpy and Hawke; behind-the-scenes footage; audio commentary on Before Midnight; “Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny,” a feature-length 2016 documentary by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein; “After Before,” a new documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari about the making of Before Midnight in Greece; a new conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone about Linklater’s work; an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” featuring host Terry Gross, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke; “Linklater // On Cinema & Time,”  a new video essay by Kogonada; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Dennis Lim.

Many horrifying things about Australia’s historic mistreatment and neglect of its Aboriginal population are revealed in John Pilger and Alan Lowery’s heart-breaking documentary, Utopia. And, yes, the title reflects the ironic notion that one of the most hellish regions of the Northern Territories, possibly in the entire world, could be considered to be an idyllic place to live. The most mind-blowing revelation, perhaps, comes when we’re taken to Rottnest Island, off the coast of Western Australia, now a popular holiday destination and nature reserve. Throughout most of the 1800s, and until 1931, this “heaven on Earth” served as a penitentiary and reform school for Aboriginals convicted of crimes, ranging from murder to theft. Some 3,700 indigenous men and boys were imprisoned there during the life of the establishment, with an estimated 369 of them buried there in an unmarked graveyard. With no signs or warnings posted to discourage them, generations of tourists have been encouraged to consider the hallowed ground as a playground and throughway for nature walks. Even worse, perhaps, buildings once used to “warehouse” prisoners now provide holiday accommodations, as part of the Rottnest Lodge. Imagine the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre Monument converted to accommodate a “Westworld” resort and condos and you’ll get an inking how Aboriginals feel about what passes for fun on Rottnest Island. It wasn’t until 2015, after numerous protests from local Aboriginal activists, that the Rottnest Island Authority agreed to create a memorial recognizing the events, deaths and unmarked graves and begin work on the Wadjemup Burial Ground.

It is only one of many examples provided by the producers of Utopia of how Australia’s unofficial apartheid continues to negatively affect the native population, while also whitewashing and twisting the reality of the country’s racist history in textbooks and tourism campaigns. Utopia further investigates government policies on epidemic levels of poverty, disease, pedophilia, suicide and illiteracy. In several “60 Minute”-like interviews, the producers offer government officials — many of whom freely acknowledge the failures of reform efforts — offer little cause for optimism. Out of sight, out of mind. In conclusion, Pilger points out that the indigenous people of Australia – unlike those in most other developed countries – have routinely been denied the right of self-determination and autonomy in places they’ve historically lived, farmed and developed, according to their own beliefs and standards. If a mining company finds an exploitable commodity in an area largely populated with indigenous people, the government finds a way to do so, without giving anything back to the natives. As bad as conditions continue to be on American Indian reservations, some autonomous tribes, at least, are legally allowed to steal white people blind in Las Vegas-style resorts and casinos. Aboriginal communities aren’t able to benefit from outsider-owned casinos in territories where poverty and unemployment are rampant.   The DVD adds another 90 minutes of extended interviews.

In Mexican writer/director Michel Franco’s first English-language film, Chronic, Tim Roth delivers an emotionally gripping portrayal of an in-home nurse, David, who works primarily with terminally ill patients. Away from them, he’s awkward and reserved. In their presence, however, he’s dutiful, efficient and intimately concerned with their comfort and well-being as they approach death. The reasons behind David’s devotion to his patients’ every need – no matter how unpleasant – are never made crystal clear. It leaves us wondering if he’s an Angel of Mercy, an Angel of Death or a penitent, working off his sins in the most humbling manner possible. One family interprets his overreaching concern as being somehow perverse. They threaten to sue him for sexually abusing their invalid father, who, before his stroke, satisfied his obsession with gay porn without them knowing about it. Knowing how close the patient is to death and incapable of amusing himself, David helps his him surf the web for anything that might take his mind off his pain. On the other hand, Sarah Sutherland, who plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ perpetually morose daughter, in “Veep,” brightens up whenever her college-age character is in David’s presence. His obsession with her is left vague. Franco’s uncompromising portrayal is facilitated through the objective lens of a nearly static camera and fewer than 100 shots. He’s approached the characters in After Lucia, Daniel and Ana, and After Lucia in much the same way. Chronic was accorded a Best Screenplay award at Cannes and nominated for Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony. (Roth was a finalist for Best Actor.) The DVD adds an interview with Franco.

We Are the Flesh: Blu-ray
For his first feature, We Are the Flesh, Mexican multihyphenate Emiliano Rocha Minter benefits from the kind of Arrow Films presentation usually reserved for classic horror and other cult treasures. Anyone coming to the Blu-ray package based solely on previous Arrow releases is in for a shock, however. While, someday, We Are the Flesh may rightly be accorded cult status, it’s of more interest today to extreme arthouse junkies and admirers of the post-surrealist theater espoused by Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, New York’s Living Theater, Jerzy Grotowski at the Theater Laboratory in Poland and Peter Brooks’ experiments with the Royal Shakespeare Company, including “Marat/Sade.” It also hues closely to the avant-garde and surrealistic films of Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky, both of whom lived and worked in Mexico. If all that that name-dropping sounds a tad pretentious, check out what critic Virginie Salévy – founder and editor of Electric Sheep, an online magazine “for lovers of transgressive cinema” – has to say about We Are the Flesh, in her 36-minute visual essay: “In a similar spirit to his illustrious predecessors, (Minter uses) incest, cannibalism, orgy and slaughter to build an extreme sensory experience that brutally shakes up audiences’ aesthetic and moral preconceptions, forcing them into new forms of perception.” I guess the same could be said of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox, but We Are the Flesh can’t be lumped together with old-school exploitation fare. In what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world, a young brother and sister, desperate for food and shelter, find both in the cavernous lair of a depraved hermit. They earn their keep by constructing a makeshift womb out of discarded wood, metal, rope and duct tape. Inside it, the older man, Mariano (Noé Hernández), hopes to create his own version of Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” The tables will turn several times during the 79-minute head trip. The set also adds interviews with Minter and cast members Hernández, María Evoli and Diego Gamaliel; Minter’s short films, “Dentro” and “Videohome”; a stills gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork; and an illustrated collector s booklet, with an essay by critic Anton Bitel and a note from the producer.

Kiyoshi “No Relation” Kurosawa returns to the psychological J-horror arena here,after such classy non-genre pieces as Tokyo Sonata, Journey to the Shore and the action/thriller Seventh Code. Based on a mystery by Yutaka Maekawa, Creepy lives up to its title by combining horror, detective work and suspense into a twisting, 133-minute package. A year after a botched hostage negotiation with a serial killer turned deadly, ex-detective Koichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima), and his wife move into a new house and a new job in academia. Sure enough, his former assistant, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), turns up, asking for help in an unsolved six-year-old case, involving a family that disappeared into thin air in a nearby town. Meanwhile, Koichi has his hands full at home, with a suspiciously belligerent neighbor, whose schoolgirl daughter and invalid wife might be missing links in the missing-persons investigation. As coincidences go, it’s a doozy. Eventually, the pressure that comes with solving two major crimes simultaneously pushes Koichi’s calm demeanor to its limits and he joins the list of suspects. Kurosawa employs all sorts of visual and aural tricks to push our buttons. And, yes, Creepy is very creepy, indeed.

Slaughterhouse: Blu-ray
Deadtime Stories: Blu-ray
Thirty years ago, it would have been difficult not to dismiss Lester Bacon’s Slaughterhouse as being just one more generic slasher flick, inspired by the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Today, in its impeccable 2K Vinegar Syndrome upgrade, it practically looks inspired. The setting is an old-fashioned rural hog farm and slaughterhouse, whose owner, Lester Bacon (Don Barrett), no longer can compete with the larger, assembly-line meat-packing plants dominating the industry. Lester and his morbidly obese son, Buddy Bacon (Joe Barton), are desperate to maintain ownership of the property, despite overtures by a rival company. Buddy, who displays an unhealthy fondness for his swine, has been instructed to keep an eye out for trespassers and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. Instead of industrial spies, Buddy’s first victims are teenagers, who, instead of being satisfied with necking and smoking pot, choose to antagonize the livestock. They become the first of several teenagers, cops and other innocent bystanders to wind up hanging from a meat hook, awaiting slaughter. Perhaps, you can guess the rest. Roessler, whose only further contribution to the American cinema was as a PA on Dead Girls Don’t Tango (1992), wisely gets a headstart on the impending horror by giving viewers a first-hand lesson in basic slaughtering techniques. To say it’s not for the squeamish is an understatement.

From this point on, audience members know only too well what could happen to any poor sot caught trespassing or investigating the teens’ disappearance. That Buddy carries a “bone-crusher” cleaver wherever he goes only adds to the aura of impending dread. Slaughterhouse (a.k.a., “Pig Farm Massacre,” “Maniac” and “Bacon Bits”) benefits from being filmed in and around actual meat-processing plants, with more porcine actors than usual, and production values that are so cheesy they’re part of the fun. While either seedy locations look as if they were created specifically for Roessler by professional set designers, they were, in fact, chanced upon by his staff. As such, Slaughterhouse remains a solid representative of the bargain-basement horror and teenagers-in-peril terror that dominated drive-in and grindhouse screens in the 1980s. Besides an entertaining commentary track with Roessler, producer Jerry Encoe and production designer Michael Scaglione, there’s a decent video interview with lead actress and future stunt specialist Sherry Bendorf Leigh; a new “Epilogue: 30 Years After the Slaughter”; several making-of featurettes; archival interviews and local news coverage from the theatrical premiere; outtakes; a shooting-script gallery; and vintage publicity material.

Deadtime Stories” is a 1986 anthology series with a D.I.Y. look that makes it interesting, even 30 years later. Made on a super low budget by college students looking for a challenge, instead of a career path, it re-contextualized a trio of classic fairy tales by changing the time frames and adding a sense of terror diluted over time from the original European folk tales. The wraparound gimmick here involves a lazy adult babysitter, whose nephew demands a bedtime story before he’ll agree to fall asleep. Marketed in England as “Freaky Fairytales,” it conjures visions of Little Red Riding Hood, being stalked by a werewolf while jogging; “Goldi Lox” and the three felonious bears; and a medieval world populated by blood-crazed witches, evil experiments and captive maidens. Most of the participants quickly disappeared into the anonymity provided by VHS purgatory, while a precious few others emerged unscathed. Among them are future TV fixtures Scott Valentine (“Black Scorpion”) and Cathryn de Prume (“Shameless”), and Oscar- and Emmy-winner Melissa Leo (“Treme,” The Fighter, Frozen River), who were interviewed specifically for the Scream Factory Blu-ray package. It also includes
commentary and a fresh interview, “I Like the Grotesque,” with co-writer/director Jef Delman; an alternate cut of the first story, “The Black Forest”; deleted scenes; and a stills gallery.

Contract to Kill: Blu-ray
I don’t know if Steven Seagal elected to open Contract to Kill in a handful in a handful of theaters to qualify for Oscar consideration or simply to avoid the onerous “direct to video” label. Either way, the only real effect of the decision apparently was to give critics at such mainstream publications as the Los Angeles Times and Village Voice an opportunity to spew some pent-up venom. If the Academy ever decides to include a category for Best Direct-to-Video Movie Made in Romania, Seagal may have a fighting chance at getting an Oscar. To his credit, the more movies Seagal and his go-to director Keoni Waxman pump out, the more actors and behind-the-camera workers find jobs in their chosen profession. Fact is, Seagal’s loyal fans know what they like and where to find it. The opinions of critics matter very little to them. In Contract to Kill, the ancient Black Sea city of Constanța stands in for Istanbul and Mexico, where Muslim extremists are working with the drug cartels that control the routes the terrorists need to infiltrate the United States. Seagal plays former CIA/DEA operative John Harmon, reactivated to prevent the alliance from realizing its goals. To this end, he recruits former associate Zara Hayek (Jemma Dallender) and drone-flying martial artist Matthew Sharp (Russell Wong). In the interviews included in the bonus package, Seagal and Waxman both emphasize their intention was to return to an old-school actioner from the actor’s glory days. The problem, of course, is that the 64-year-old Seagal is only able to pull off the basic martial-arts stunts with any authority. His love scene with the considerably younger and smaller Dallender (I Spit on Your Grave 2) is laughable, as are the cosmetic refinements used to maintain a semblance of his middle-age persona. No matter, Seagal is already working on four more projects and, like President Trump, is booger buddies with Vladimir Putin. How many people in Hollywood can say that?

Seagal may not be physically present in Elite, but his fingerprints can be found on nearly every frame of Mark Cantu’s straight-to-video actioner. The picture opens with a deadly ambush of eight Special Forces commandoes by foot soldiers of a Mexican cartel. Two years later, newly promoted U.S. Navy investigator Abbey Vaughn (Allison Gregory) takes it upon herself to find the drug lord responsible for the attack. After Vaughn finds herself in over her head inside a bar favored by cartel stooges, she’s required to accept the assistance of former ELITE-team leader Lt. Sam Harrigan (Jason Scarbrough), who’s gone to seed since the ambush. He cleans up pretty quickly, though, allowing for some fast-paced, if completely illogical action. Not surprisingly, Benitez’ tentacles extend from the Mexican border to Washington, D.C.

Babyface: Blu-ray
Released at the dawn of the golden age of porn, Alex deRenzy’s Babyface is a prime, if nearly isolated example of a hard-core film in which the story isn’t subordinate to the sex. Unlike Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, Babyface wasn’t contingent on a single concept or gag (no pun intended). It had a discernible beginning, middle and end, and the sex was portrayed, at least, to be almost entirely consensual. The production values were quite good and, with the exceptions of some blemishes in the fifth reel, hold up very well in the newly scanned and restored 2K edition. Parts of it are legitimately humorous, as well. A San Francisco dockhand, Dan (one-hit-wonder Dan Robert), allows himself to be seduced by a teenager, Priscilla (Lyn Cuddles Malone), who lost her innocence well before she met the hulking stud. Unaware of her promiscuous nature, Priscilla’s mom leads a cop (NFL star Otis Sistrunk) to the warehouse in which her daughter and Dan are wrapping up their liaison. After taking a beating, Dan washes up on the shore of a Sausalito houseboat community, where he’s tended to by a pair of women who wrangle men for a brothel dedicated to fulfilling women customers’ fantasies, as well as their libidos. A rock goddess, played by Kristine Heller, engages in a hot and surprisingly funny gang-bang scene that presages a similar encounter, three years later, in Insatiable. He fits right in with the other dudes (Paul Thomas and Joey Silvera, among them), of course, and things go swimmingly until Priscilla’s mom (Molly Seagrim) discovers where he works and endeavors to eliminate his manhood. The female talent includes Amber Hunt, Angela Haze, Desiree West, Linda Wong, Sandy Penny and Marion Eaton. The Vinegar Syndrome set has been restored from long-lost 35mm vault elements and includes a lengthy audio interview with Seagrim; deRenzy’s short, “Parochial Passion Princess”; and reversible cover artwork.

The DVD Wrapup: Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester, Arrival, Bad Santa 2, Tharlo, Chabrol X 3 and more

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge: 4K/Blu-ray
When a Hollywood movie is said to have been based on a true story, it’s safe to assume that the actions of the protagonist were embellished to make the character more heroic or saintly. In his multiple Oscar candidate, Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson was faced with the opposite problem. The real-life story of U.S. Army medic Desmond Doss — the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor – was too good to be true, even for the movies. If anything, the truth behind Doss’ actions during the Battle of Okinawa, in World War II, had to be scaled back, so that viewers wouldn’t think they were pumped up for dramatic effect. In Gibson’s first directorial effort since 2006’s Apocalypto – or, to be more precise, since he disgraced himself after being stopped in Malibu on suspicion of driving while drunk – the number of men Doss saved or rescued was limited to 75, when it probably was much higher. Left out, as well, was a similarly courageous action that occurred a few hours late, in which the seriously wounded PFC crawled off his stretcher and gave it to an even more critically wounded soldier. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet. Then, too, even before Doss’ infantry unit reached Okinawa, while serving on Guam and the Philippines, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for aiding wounded soldiers under fire. In an interview contained in the bonus package, Gibson concedes that even alluding to these heroic acts in Hacksaw Ridge might have been too much for audiences to buy and he’s probably right. If Doss’ amazing story came as news to most viewers, it’s only because he preferred to maintain a low profile throughout his life. He even turned down soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, when the Medal of Honor-winner attempted to secure the rights to his biography. His only concession to fame was a 1959 appearance on Ralph Edwards’s “This Is Your Life” and that might have come as a surprise to him, as well. It wasn’t until 2001, when a fellow Seventh Day Adventist convinced Doss that such a movie might serve the interests of the church, that the long, arduous long process could begin in earnest.

The easiest way to describe Hacksaw Ridge is to compare it favorably to Letters From Iwo Jima, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One and The Thin Red Line, movies in which the hell of war isn’t played down in favor of melodramatic backstories, a character-based scheme (Kelly’s Heroes) or suicide mission (The Dirty Dozen). After Gibson documents the problems Doss overcame in order to serve his country, without also having to carry a gun, ignore the Sabbath or eat meat, Hacksaw Ridge is all action, all the time. Squeamish viewers might be tempted to look away, at times, but they’d be in the minority. Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield is extremely credible as the soft-spoken American patriot, who’s willing to serve his country in the heat of battle, without also relinquishing his constitutional rights or reacting to peer pressure and persecution with violence. Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight’s screenplay does take some liberties with the film’s portrayal of Goss’ family life, but only to demonstrate what led to his commitment to non-violence. For once, too, the romantic throughline — Teresa Palmer plays his wife, Dorothy — doesn’t feel tacked on or contrived. The Aussie-heavy cast includes Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths, Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Garfield and Vince Vaughn represent the token Yanks. It should be noted, as well, that Hacksaw Ridge is well represented in the technical categories, with nominations for editing, sound mixing and sound editing. The excellent 4K UHD and Blu-ray editions provide plenty of evidence for the worthiness of those honors. The comprehensive, feature-length featurette, “The Soul of War: Making Hacksaw Ridge,” pays homage to Gibson’s ability to re-create the battle scenes on a patch of farmland in New South Wales, on a modest $40-million production budget. It also includes material on Goss, casting, stunts and special effects; deleted scenes; and a Veterans Day greeting from Gibson.

Manchester by the Sea
If Casey Affleck doesn’t walk away with an Oscar for Best Lead Actor, as expected, it will only be because of past allegations of sexual harassment, which he’s denied. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed Manchester-by-the-Sea, is slightly less likely to be honored with a statuette or two, but a La La Land juggernaut could sweep everyone away. Casey Affleck is terrific as Lee Chandler, an understandably moody loner, working off his penance for past sins as the custodian for an apartment complex outside Boston. When his older brother unexpectedly dies, Lee is stunned and perplexed to learn that he’s been anointed legal guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. While Patrick (Lucas Hedges) isn’t a bad kid, life has dealt him some bad cards and his defense mechanisms are solidly in place. Years earlier, Patrick was abandoned by his mother (Gretchen Mol), whose alcoholism and depression got the best of her. For his part, Lee had lost his children in a fire that he blamed on his own negligence, but was ruled an accident. His hysterical wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), deserted him at about the same time as he lost his will to live. Lonergan makes sure that viewers won’t be tempted to slash their wrists after the first reel by surrounding Patrick with friends from his high school hockey team, rock band and couple of horny girlfriends. Lee isn’t nearly as fortunate. He had no intention of ever moving back to working-class Manchester, where his demons are waiting around every corner. Neither is he ready to deal with the mood swings of an otherwise normal teenager, forced by circumstances to become a man overnight. As fragile as their relationship is, Lonergan allows us to anticipate a time when Lee and Patrick will feel compelled to hug it out and leave us smiling. When that doesn’t happen, exactly, we still feel good about their chances. Although Manchester-by-the-Sea provides a scenic backdrop for the drama, its brutal winter weather adds another layer of agony to the story. When Patrick is told that his father’s body can’t be buried until the spring thaw, it has the same effect as frostbite on exposed fingertips. Affleck knows the area and its blue-collar residents as well as anyone, so everything from the accents to the beer guts and bad haircuts feel authentic. First-time viewers should know going in to Manchester-by-the-Sea that the narrative is driven by frequent flashbacks and crucial information is revealed in each one. The Blu-ray adds a “conversation” with director/writer Lonergan, in lieu of a commentary; an EPK featurette, in lieu of a more comprehensive making-of feature; and six minutes’ worth of deleted scenes.

Arrival: 4K UHD/ Blu-ray
Without diminishing the originality of Arrival one bit, it would be difficult for fans of sci-fi movies not to make comparisons between it and such pictures as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Contact, in which breakthroughs in communications open the door to understanding. Compared to what happens in these films, deciphering the Rosetta Stone was a piece of cake. At least, the ancient Egyptians thought enough about the inscribed trilingual stele to leave it in a place where it could be discovered by scholars, instead of used as fill at a dilapidated Ottoman fort near the town of Rashid in the Nile Delta. If one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp hadn’t uncovered it while repairing the defenses at Fort Julien, in 1799, we might never have learned how to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. Two centuries later, in more thoughtful Hollywood movies, scientists and linguists struggle to translate communications between aliens and humans, without the benefit of a Rosetta Stone, before someone in a military uniform decides to blow it to smithereens. It would be helpful if someone in deep space would respond to the images and sensory hieroglyphics beamed from Earth to the heavens from communications centers around the globe. So far, as far as we’ve been told, no one has. Instead, we make do with such advanced sci-fi entertainments as Arrival, in which the forces of enlightenment are pitted against the forces of ignorance, fear and brute strength in a race to make sense of infinity. In very real way, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival merely connects the dots leading from The Day the Earth Stood Still, past the planet Spielberg and on to a digital universe that allows filmmakers to create alien beings that don’t look as if they were products of a Japanese toy factory or Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It’s modern, without also being particularly revolutionary.

Villeneuve (Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (The Thing) – working from a story by Ted Chiang – allow viewers to consider the possibilities raised by the simultaneous arrival of a dozen egg-shaped extraterrestrial vehicles, hovering a few feet above the earth in as many disparate locations around the world. We’re encouraged do so with the same curiosity, bewilderment and sense of wonder as that evidenced by linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who’ve been escorted to a makeshift military camp in Montana by U.S. Army Colonel G.T. Weber (Forrest Whittaker). It’s located a few minutes’ drive from one of the low-hovering UFOs, which is being monitored by CIA agent David Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a small of army of computer jockeys. Halpern looks upon Banks and Donnelly with the same impatience and aura of superiority as intelligence agents usually reserve for residents of Guantanamo Bay, while Weber stands between them as a buffer between blind certitude and fervid curiosity. It takes a while before the scientists are able to board the ship and even longer before making contact with a pair of “heptapod” aliens, dubbed Abbott and Costello. Scientists and militarists in China and Russia are also monitoring the spacecraft, grasping with the question of how much data to share with their rivals and how interpret the meaning of such words as “weapon” in English, Russian, Chinese and Heptapodian. To reveal much more of the story would spoil the fun for viewers, who also are asked to decipher a plot device that merges ESP with the space-time continuum. Arrival is a movie that rewards patience and paying close attention to narrative detail. Viewers are encouraged to ponder deeper questions, such as the aliens’ motivations and our place in the universe, but I found it easier to simply focus on the central linguistic mystery. The bonus featurettes add plenty of information on the formation of the “xenolinguistics” specifically created for the film; sound design; musical score; editing process; and “principles of time, memory and language.” The 4K/Blu-ray presentation isn’t particularly enhanced by the purposefully cloudy backdrops and non-descript laboratory scenes, but the artificially lit scenes inside the spacecraft work well. Like Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival received nominations for editing, sound mixing and sound editing.

Bad Santa 2: Unrated: Blu-ray
The good news for fans of the original Bad Santa comes in knowing that, after a 13-year hiatus, Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), Marcus (Tony Cox) and the Kid (Brett Kelly) have returned for Bad Santa 2. You’ve probably already guessed the bad news: almost no one else involved in the hit comedy joined them. That includes director Terry Zwigoff, writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; executive producers Ethan and Joel Coen; and actors Lauren Graham and the late Bernie Mac and John Ritter. In 2003, foreign receipts comprised 21.5 percent of the Bad Santa’s $76.5-million haul. Of Bad Santa 2’s $17.8-million worldwide take, 0 percent of the money came from overseas. Why bother, right? So, what does the sequel have going for it? Thornton, Cox and Kelly, are every bit as nasty as they were in the original; Kathy Bates is delightfully evil, as Willie’s detestable mom, Sunny; Christina Hendricks looks great, even in winter gear; and the unrated version is raunchier, more profane and vile than the R-rated theatrical cut. This time, the action moves to Chicago – or Montreal-for-Chicago – where Marcus has been apprised of a sting involving the proceeds of a Christmas season’s worth of charitable donations. It isn’t until Willie and Marcus reach the Windy City, however, that the source of the information is Sunny, who’s gone undercover at the Salvation Army. The Kid follows them to Chicago, if only to provide a bit of humanity and non-toxic humor to the mix. Hendricks is a decent substitute for Graham, even if it’s impossible to believe her character would allow herself to be touched by, let alone shag, Willie. (Sadly, if Hendricks wants to reach the next level, she might have to put her physical assets on display as a sexy, non-comedic character, like Honey Bruce, in Lenny, for which Valerie Perrine was accorded an Oscar nomination.) The true winner here is Kelly, who gained 50 pounds to reprise the role of the Kid (a.k.a., Thurman Merman). Portrayed largely as a doofus, the Kid emerges as the character who, in the end, melts everyone’s heart, including those of viewers. The unrated version is only available on Blu-ray and 4K UHD, which also include the rated version of the film and the exclusive bonus feature, “That’s My Willie,” an original animated series. Additional bonus materials include “Thurman Then & Now”; “Just Your Average Red Band Featurette”; “Jingle Balls,” an adult version of the classic holiday song; a gag reel; alternate opening and ending; and deleted scenes.

Beauty and the Beast: Blu-ray
As the countdown continues toward the release of Disney’s live-action adaptation of its animated classic and subsequent Broadway musical, Beauty and the Beast, it’s worth reminding a generation of admirers that the story’s roots extend far beyond the studio’s Burbank headquarters. The company deserves kudos for all sorts of things, but giving credit where its due isn’t always one of them. No one there felt it necessary to mention Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s source fairy tale, “La Belle et la Bête,” published in France in 1740, or Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s abridged version, published in 1756. Walt Disney also borrowed ideas from Jean Cocteau’s magical translation, released in 1946 and available in a splendid Criterion Collection. (For all I know, then-Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was inspired by CBS’s cult-favorite, “Beauty and the Beast,” which ran from 1987-90 and starred Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.) While the Cocteau version may be a bit too sophisticated for tykes, whose first experience with the fairy tale is in the Disney versions, it should be considered a must-see for fans in their teens and older. They might also be interested in Christophe Gans’ 2014 live-action fantasy, La Belle et la Bête, which stars Léa Seydoux and Vincent Cassel in the lead roles. Not quite as poetic as the 1946 iteration, or as welcoming as the Disney version, Gans’ take is very much in the European tradition, with grandiose sets and amazing costumes.

When her widowed father, Le marchand (André Dussollier), loses his ships in a storm, Belle is the only member of her family to embrace their new, humbler life in a country cottage. Her sisters and brothers lounge around dreaming of the life they’ve lost. When one of the lost ships makes it back to port and the merchant attempts to retrieve his earnings, Belle’s ungracious sisters demand of their father that he return home with jewels and dresses. Belle only asks that he bring back a rose. In another wicked twist of fate, however, her father loses his ship and its cargo to a cruel opportunist, Perducas (Eduardo Noriega), who holds his debts. On his way back to the cottage, the old man spies a crumbling castle full of strange doglike creatures and overgrown with roses branches. It belongs to the Beast, who offers food and shelter to the stranger, but bristles when he picks a rose without asking permission. The Beast gives him one day to say goodbye to his family and return to the castle for his punishment. The guilt-ridden Belle sneaks off to take her father’s place in the bargain, unaware that she has given her brothers, who are beholden to evil Perducas, a clue to the castle’s location. In the resulting tumult, Belle will learn to appreciate the Beast’s generosity and attempt to free him from the curse that turned him into a monster. It’s tres, tres romantic. The movie can be enjoyed in French, with subtitles, or credibly dubbed into English. It adds extended interviews with Gans, Cassel and Seydoux.

It’s the rare film about Tibet that isn’t tightly focused on Buddhism, the Tibetan diaspora and current Dalai Lama, or protests over the Chinese annexation of the country. It’s rarer, still, to find a movie that’s made in Tibet, by a Chinese or native-born filmmaker. Last year, Zhang Yang’s fascinating documentary, Paths of the Soul, followed a group of Tibetan villagers, who left their families and homes in Nyima to make a “bowing pilgrimage” — laying their bodies flat on the ground after every few steps — along the 1,200-mile road to Lhasa. Stunningly photographed over the course of an entire year, with non-professional actors and no script, it offered glimpses of contemporary life in the capital and the impact of modernity on the ancient culture. Tharlo is the fourth feature by Pema Tseden, a Tibetan novelist and filmmaker, who was born on the foothills of the Himalayas in rural Qinghai province. Tseden first wrote the story of the titular monastic shepherd (Shide Nyima) as a novella, but decided to adapt it to film when it was approved by the famously capricious Chinese censorship board. Tharlo experiences the vicissitudes of life in the high country when forced to obtain an ID card by bureaucratic police officials, but not before he entertains them by reciting the Mao Quotations by memory. (During the Cultural Revolution, communist authorities demanded such demonstrations of patriotism from native Tibetans.) In the mountains, the shepherd’s long ponytail was all the identification that was required of him.

After making the trek to the nearest city, Tharlo’s directed to a photographer who, among other things, stages pictures of costumers in front of large-scale photographs of the Lhasa temple, Tienemein Square and the Manhattan skyline. Before she takes Tharlo’s picture, though, she insists he get a shampoo from the makeshift salon, across the street. The young and attractive hairdresser, also of Tibetan heritage, takes a shine to the shepherd (and the “kid” he’s brought with him), even inviting him to a local karaoke joint, where they warble songs that span the generation gap. The lighthearted tone ends abruptly when Yangtso (Yangshik Tso) convinces her new friend to cut off his ponytail. It doesn’t have the same effect on Tharlo as Delilah’s shaving of Samson’s locks, but close enough. Sadly, when he returns to his flock, nothing is the same for Tharlo or his pastoral way of life. As spectacular as the Himalayan backdrop can be, Tseden decided that region’s natural beauty would detract from the story’s realism. Besides choosing to give Tharlo a more austere look, by shooting in black-and-white, he also managed to relate the entire 123-minute parable in 84 meticulously composed shots, many of them showing mirrored reflections of the characters. This is the case as we watch Tharlo’s reaction to having his head shorn by Yangtso. In real life, Nyima was identified by a ponytail, which he’d grown for 17 years previous to accepting the role. So, some of the emotional distress seen in Tharlo’s face is real. The six-panel digipack includes Tseden’s original novella, “Tharlo”; a music video cued to the shepherd recitations; and a post-screening Q&A with the writer/director.

Sophie and the Rising Sun
It’s probably just a coincidence that the DVD release of Sophie and the Rising Sun coincides with 75th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of the executive order that authorized the internment of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent during World War II. It isn’t likely, either, that Monterey Media anticipated the lynch-mob mentality currently infesting President Trump and his brain trust, such as it is. The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate, though. Based on the 2001 novel by Augusta Trobaugh, Sophie and the Rising Sun is set in the autumn of 1941, in the tranquil fishing village of Salty Creek, South Carolina. It opens with the discovery of the badly beaten body of an Asian man, left behind when a cross-country Greyhound passed through town. That he’s unconscious and without identification immediately raises a red flag in a Southern community depleted of draft-eligible men and traditionally wary of anyone whose color isn’t white. While he’s recuperating, the man tends the garden for his nurse, Anne Morrison (Margo Martindale), an atypically liberal widow. Turns out, the man they assume to be Chinese is of Japanese extraction, born in California with a decidedly green thumb. After news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor breaks and Ohta’s secret is revealed, he becomes an easy target for every redneck with a desire to avenge the sneak attack with a cowardly act of their own.

In turn, the town’s hyper-virtuous flowers of Southern womanhood begin spewing the venom usually reserved for the town’s “colored” residents on Ohta and Anne. Swept up in the hysteria, as well, is Sophie Willis (Julianne Nicholson), a widowed neighbor of Mrs. Morrison. One day, while fishing for blue crabs in the marshy inlets outside town and taking time to paint, Sophie and Ohta strike up a friendship based on their mutual appreciation of art. News travels fast in a small town, so, when they’re spotted together, she’s accused of consorting with the enemy, who’s as American as they are. When Mrs. Morrison senses that her patient’s days are numbered in Salty Creek, she suggests he move into a fishing cottage in the boonies. For a while, Sophie and Grover feel sufficiently safe to pursue a romantic relationship. Their sense of security isn’t destined to last very long, however. Blessedly, the bittersweet ending stops well short of tragedy. Sophie and the Rising Sun was adapted for the screen by Maggie Greenwald, who disappeared into TV purgatory after making the highly respected, if little seen indies The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) and Songcatcher (2000). The deceptively tranquil rural setting is expertly captured by cinematographer Wolfgang Held, a documentary specialist with an eye for painterly landscapes. The bonus material includes deleted scenes and an interview with Greenwald.

Tie the Knot
Anyone who’s ever wondered what Tara Reid does when she isn’t playing April in every new chapter in Syfy’s epic Sharknado saga may care to check out Tie the Knot, an early candidate for this year’s movie with the most ethnic clichés and least number of laughs per 90 minutes of screen time. Sharknado must be very popular among Indian viewers, because there’s no other reason for the eternally youthful blond to be in a romantic comedy for cross-cultural audiences or, for that matter, on a plane heading for Mumbai. Tie the Knot is Indian actor Shuja Paul’s debut feature. It tells the story of Sonia (Karishma Ahluwalia), a leading surgeon who’s been tricked into returning to Mumbai, so that her parents can badger her into dating an Indian man … presumably, any Indian man. Inexplicably, they rely on the local equivalent of to satisfy the perceived needs of their highly educated and beautiful daughter.  Not surprisingly, Sonia is introduced to more frogs than princes in her parents’ quest to turn over every lily pad in the western shore of the subcontinent to find a son-in-law. That the L.A.-based surgeon, who has the least discernable accent of any Indian actor this side of Bollywood, is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness to make her parents happy, is par for the course in movies designed to appeal to mixed audiences. A third of the way through Tie the Knot, top-billed Reid disappears until it’s time for her to ride to the rescue on her new friend’s wedding day. Naturally, too, it coincides with the mandatory Bollywood dance sequence. It isn’t Tie the Knot’s most outrageous plot contrivance – that occurs in the surgical theater – but it’s close. Meet the Patels and Bride and Prejudice are two movies that have a better hold on the Indian matchmaking process and are far funnier.

Seasons: Blu-ray
Given the revolution in digital filmmaking technology, a producer of nature films either would have to be incompetent or uncommonly unimaginative to make a bad documentary on the world’s endangered flora and fauna. Fortunately, that isn’t the case for Seasons, from the filmmakers already responsible for the imaginatively rendered docs, Winged Migration and Oceans. Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud have remained in the forefront of the genre since 2001, when Winged Migration was nominated for an Academy Award and returned $32.2 million at the global box office. Thematically, Seasons is probably their most ambitious of the three. Using a quasi-narrative format, it chronicles the gradual shrinking and subsequent depopulation of the European wilderness, from the close of the Ice Age until modern times. It wasn’t an easy task. The evolutional domestication of food-providing animals and near eradication of natural predators made their mission especially challenging. To re-create Ice Age conditions, the production team had to re-locate to the frozen of tundra of Lapland, while Poland’s Bialowieza Forest provided a backdrop for bison and other primary habitats. Various national parks throughout France were used to show how deer, wild horses and pigs, lynx, wolves and birds went about their daily business, before, during and after humans came to dominate the landscape. (Horses, for example, are depicted both as naturally wild creatures and the servants of aristocrats and farmers.) Amazing footage was captured in limited spaces with the assistance of “imprinters” – previously known as trainers or wranglers — who worked closely with the animal actors, so they would perform in as organic and natural way as possible, without resorting to genetically coded instincts to kill each other. The technicians put cameras on drones, scooters, ultralights, hot-air balloons and cables to allow the animals to run at top speed or be viewed from unusual angles. Cinematographers hid behind camouflaged barriers to be able to photograph birds and squirrels nesting inside and on the branches of trees. The result is a 97-minute documentary that is hypnotically beautiful and deceptively educational. The Seasons package includes a making-of featurette that’s as lengthy as the documentary, itself, but every bit as fascinating.

Blood on the Mountain
West Virginia, a traditionally Democratic state, gave Donald Trump all the ammunition he needed to deliver on inherently contradictory promises he made to mine owners, union members and everyday people whose lives depend on the viability of the coal industry, as well as safeguards imposed on it to prevent tragedies. Although the Republican presidential candidate won big, most of the races for state and federal offices went to Democrats. Go figure. If Hillary Clinton had watched and studied Mari-Lynn C. Evans and Jordan Freeman’s searing documentary, Blood on the Mountain, she might have found a way to convince voters that concerns over the loss of mining jobs and destruction of the environment aren’t mutually exclusive. While she may not have carried the state, Clinton could have raised questions that residents of the Mountaineer State will ask of their President allows mine owners to turn back the clock on 100 years of progress. Tellingly, one of his first decisions was to nominate Wilbur Louis Ross Jr. – the “King of Bankruptcy,” whose fingerprints are visible throughout the documentary – as his Secretary of Commerce. Ross founded the International Coal Group after several companies declared bankruptcy in the early 2000s, in lieu of paying legal settlements and penalties. The United Mine Workers of America protested the reorganizations, as they led to drastic cuts in health-care benefits and pensions for the existing employees, and prompted layoffs when ICG sold two of its union mines to Massey Energy Group. ICG retained its stake in two other non-union mines under favorable financial circumstances. Massey’s name comes up with regularity in Blood on the Mountain, as a company willing to blame coal miners and environmental “terrorists” for the loss of jobs and benefits. (If Obamacare is butchered by the Republican-controlled Congress, it’s possible that miners will lose their health insurance and/or coverage of pre-existing conditions.)

The 2006 Sago Mine Disaster, in which 12 miners died, occurred at a property indirectly owned by International Coal Group. The New York Post’s Roddy Boyd reported that Ross “had been intimately involved with the company that owned the West Virginia mine where 12 miners perished — and he knew all about its safety problems, former executives charged.” The article also reported that the mine had 12 roof collapses in 2005, and that the U.S. Department of Labor data showed 208 citations for safety violations in that same period, including 21 times for build-up of toxic gasses. Blood on the Mountain, which adds even more fuel to the fire, was released after the election, so it doesn’t dwell on the consequences of either candidate taking the state’s Electoral College. Evan and Freeman look much further back in regional history, at a time when every politician in the state was corrupted by industry money and union leaders followed suit. The documentary also shows what happened when miners decided that enough was enough and went on strike, only to be pitted against scabs, police and troops determined to keep the mines running at all costs. Blood on the Mountain isn’t as one-sided as this synopsis might make it seem to be. Institutionalized corruption is a demonstrable fact of West Virginia life, as are the tactics used by owners to crush the union and profit from the layoffs of workers. An overflight of southeastern West Virginia makes it abundantly clear how much damage has already been done to the land and the potential for disaster if the dams holding back toxic coal slurry suddenly break. If that happens, it’s a safe bet that the President will blame Obama, Hillary and the media, instead of his own mismanaged administration.

The King of New Orleans
If memory serves, the producers of HBO’s “Taxicab Confessions” only recorded their encounters in New York and Las Vegas, where there were more than enough oddball passengers willing to sign away their rights to the crazy things captured by the lipstick cameras hidden inside the cars. If they had decided to take the show to the City That Care Forgot, it might have looked a lot like The King of New Orleans. At first, second and third glance, I thought the seemingly improvised film was a non-scripted documentary. Veteran character actor David Jensen (Free State of Jones) plays longtime Big Easy cabbie, Larry Shirt, who’s seen it all in a city where anything can happen. New Orleans is a bigger place than most outsiders think it is and Larry visits places tourists and outlanders are warned against going. He stocks a cooler full of beer for his customers and native fast-food cuisine for himself and whatever homeless person is fortunate enough to get his leftovers. He spends his breaks with fellow cabbies, telling stories and discussing the Saints’ chances for a Super Bowl bid. One of his recurring passengers, Bobby Cohn (Richard Brien), has just been kicked out of Harvard and must deal with his parents’ disappointment in him and his own negative self-image. The King of New Orleans is set before and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which allows for interaction with passengers who are victims of the tragedy and lookie loos more interested in having their photos taken in front of a condemned house. Allen Frederic, Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah shared the directing duties, while Brian Friedman is credited with the screenplay. Anyone who’s spent more than a weekend in New Orleans, though, may have a tough time parsing fact from fiction. And, in this case, that’s a very good thing. If you like The King of New Orleans, you might also enjoy Chicago Cab, which began its life in 1992 on a Windy City stage, as “Hellcab.”

3 Classic Films by Claude Chabrol: Blu-ray
Cohen Film Collection’s love affair with the films of French suspense maestro Claude Chabrol continues, this month with a triple-feature of thematically divergent thrillers, starring a trio of superb actresses. One of the prime instigators of the French Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol rode the wave from 1958-2009, creating lean and keenly observed entertainments that were frequently mentioned in the same breath as “Hitchcock” and a few he preferred to forget. With 73 directorial credits to his name and more than 50 for writing and acting, Chabrol’s batting average is far higher than that of most of his peers. The three titles collected here are representative of his work in the 1990s, when he made eight narrative films that were somewhat taken for granted by critics and audiences, as well as a pair of documentaries.

In Betty (1992), Marie Trintignant plays a seriously withdrawn wife and mother, who sacrifices her comfortable bourgeois lifestyle when it begins to interfere with her alcoholism. After signing the papers agreeing to a divorce settlement, Betty makes a beeline for a hole-in-the-wall bar, where she allows herself to be picked up by a doctor who’s hooked on booze and heroin. They drive to a restaurant whose menu is dominated by rabbit dishes. When the host escorts the doctor into a room, where, we’re told, he’s getting his daily fix, Betty picks up her head long enough to notice that everyone has their eyes on her. It’s kind of like what happens in “Cheers,” when a stranger enters and the regulars are given a few moments to decide if he’s someone whose name they’ll all want to know. Just before Betty passes out, she makes the acquaintance of an older woman and fellow drunk, Laure (Stéphane Audran), who appears to be attached to the restaurant’s owner, Mario (Jean-Francois Garreaud). They take Betty to a fancy Versailles hotel, where Laure maintains a suite with an extra bedroom and welcomes the company. After routinely curing their hangovers with a bit of the hair of the dog that bit them the night before, they head for the restaurant … where, in fact, everyone does know their names and sad tales, to boot. This can’t go on forever, obviously, so it comes as no surprise when one boozehound turns on the other in the cruelest of possible ways that doesn’t involve violence. That’s it, really. Based on a novel by Georges Simenon, Betty represents something of a parlor trick on Chabrol’s part. He wondered if it might be possible to make an engrossing picture, during which we learn a lot about one or more characters, but the protagonist’s actions aren’t hooked to a recognizable plot or denouement. Trintignant’s almost aggressively enigmatic portrayal of her far less than sympathetic character proved it can be done.

L’Enfer (“Hell”) is a 1994 psycho-drama that Chabrol adapted from a project begun 30 years earlier by Henri-Georges Clouzot, but was left unfinished. Unlike Betty, L’Enfer has a plot that couldn’t be easier to discern. The protagonists are Paul and Nelly Prieur (François Cluzet, Emmanuelle Béart), an attractive couple that runs a popular lakeside inn in southern France. The antagonist is the same green-eyed monster that sits on the shoulder of insecure older men, whose sexy wives appear to be flirting with handsome, younger men, but probably aren’t. It isn’t as if Paul isn’t given the occasional hint that Nelly might be cheating – accepting an invitation to water ski with a guest who owns a boat – but most viewers, I think, would guess that she’s faithful to her increasingly mistrustful spouse. Others might assume that any woman as hot as Béart is guilty of something and probably deserves what’s going to happen to her. Because the story spans several summers, Chabrol is able to turn the screw of jealousy into his mind incrementally. We do wonder why Nelly stays with the jerk, but Paul’s also depicted as being exceeding charming, when he isn’t bouncing off the walls. Waiting for the volcano to erupt could hardly be made to feel more excruciating. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Wade Major and Andy Klein

Cluzet appears in a supporting role in Chabrol’s 50th film, The Swindle (1997), a caper flick in which the heavy lifting is left in the capable hands of Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault. “Betty” and “Victor” make the rounds of conventions in France and Switzerland, scamming middle-class professionals who mistake the affections of a con artist for true love. Once the hook is set, the 30-years-older Victor swoops in to memorize credit-card numbers and bank-account info, then steal a check or two and just enough money so that the victim will think he splurged at the casino or on a bottle of champagne for his date. Hubris arrives in the form of a naïve financial courier, Maurice (François), that Betty latches onto during a break from the convention circuit. Victor is apprehensive about the potential score, until he learns that Maurice is carrying a small fortune in Swiss francs in the attaché case attached to his wrist. Even a small fortune can be an overwhelming temptation to a savvy criminal, nearing the end of a long and arduous career, so he allows Betty to call the shots for a while. Maurice has been assigned by his handlers to deliver the money to Guadeloupe, a former French colony in the Lesser Antilles. Along the way, however, he either figures out that Betty is about to swindle him or she lets him in on the deal, so they can cut Victor out of the scam. It’s also possible that Victor, who’s practically clairvoyant when it comes to opening numeric locks, will stab both the supposed lovers in the back and steal all the money. There are other variables, of course, but those are the most obvious schemes. Once Victor and Betty reach the tropics and meet the men to whom the money belongs, the cold reality of their dilemma hits them over the head, like a blackjack in a Dick Tracy comic. Chabrol, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps everyone guessing until the very end of the 101-minute movie. Besides the Caribbean, the settings include the ancient spa destination of Aix-les-Bains, France, and Switzerland’s scenic Lake Sils. It adds commentary by Major and Klein, and an informative discussion with Cluzet and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones.

Five Nights in Maine
One of the new clichés of screen, stage and TV involves the drama that typically erupts when the widowed spouse of a young adult is called upon to deliver the urn containing the loved one’s ashes to parent(s) who disapproved of their marriage in the first place. To achieve takeoff speed, it’s almost essential that the husband/wife, husband/husband, wife/wife couples also were of different races and estranged from their families in one way or another. Five Nights in Maine provides an ideal example of the subgenre, whose roots can be traced to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and similarly confrontational fare. Writer/director Maris Curran adds a higher degree of difficulty to the proceedings by having the widower, Sherwin (David Oyelowo), be an African-American from the South and the grieving mother-in-law a fire-breathing Yankee lady, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest). She would love to blame him for Fiona’s death, but can’t because it occurred in a traffic accident. Lucinda, who’s dying of cancer, was so nasty to Fiona during her last visit that she vowed never to return to her childhood home. Talk about a boxcar full of baggage, Five Nights in Maine is it. Although it isn’t without a decent dramatic twist or two, Five Nights in Maine is recommendable mostly as an opportunity to watch two of our finest actors working at full speed and in total control of their gifts. Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) is mostly shown in happier times, via flashbacks. When the action moves outdoors, the Maine countryside does its job admirably.

The Great & the Small
I’d be lying if I pretended to understand the motivations of the characters in Dusty Bias’ offbeat sophomore feature, The Great & the Small, or said that I felt compelled to re-watch it, because, in both cases, I didn’t. Even so, from what I could deduce, the pluses outnumber the minuses, especially in the acting department and fans of the key players probably will want to check it out. Relative newcomer Nick Fink (“Glee”) convincingly plays a young petty crook, Scott, who graduates to felonies at the behest of his no-count boss, Richie (Ritchie Coster). Although Scott frequently looks as if he’s been sleeping under highway overpasses and in unheated basements since graduating from high school, he has winning smile and tries to be helpful to Richie and their marks. When he isn’t breaking into the homes of middle-class families on vacation and relieving them of their valuables and appliances, Scott is struggling to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend, Nessa (Louisa Krause), a working single mom. He isn’t much good in the babysitting department, but her child doesn’t demand much of him, either. His payment for services rendered is a romp in the sack. Otherwise, nada. Melanie Lynskey, who’s been in more indie films lately than any actor whose name comes to mind, is fine as a forlorn teacher who warms to Scott as the child she lost somewhere in the past. Meanwhile, a too-folksy-by-half police detective, Dupre (Ann Dowd), is on Scott’s trail. The likelihood that Scott will find redemption, with the help of one or all three women, is pretty high.

Psychomania: Blu-ray
I can’t recall if anyone condemned the producers of Psychomania (“The Death Wheeler”) for inspiring the Academy Award-winning British actor George Sanders to commit suicide, after completing what turned out to be his final picture. He had prophesized his own death years earlier, after all, but it’s entirely possible that a desire not to be around when the picture opened was as much to blame as Nembutal and “boredom.” Sanders plays the manservant to a wealthy medium, Mrs. Latham (Beryl Reid), who practices the occult arts and keeps frogs around the house to freak out her guests. Her son, Tom (Nicky Henson), is the leader of a Triumph-favoring motorcycle gang, the Living Dead, notorious primarily for being comprised of seriously reckless drivers. Mrs. Latham has convinced Tom that anyone who willingly commits suicide, with the firm intention of returning from the dead, will have eternal life. To test the theory, Tom steers his motorcycle off a bridge. Accordingly, his friends bury him in a sitting position on his beloved motorcycle. The prophesy comes true, of course. After Tom comes roaring out of the grave, his fellow gang members can hardly wait to off themselves. When red-headed gang member Abby (Mary Larkin) balks at killing herself, she risks losing Tom and the respect of her peers forever. It’s at this point that Shadwell (Sanders) and Mrs. Latham step in to put an end to the nonsense, breaking the curse and ridding Surrey of zombie bikers, if not witches turned into frogs. Psychomania was directed by Hammer Horror veteran Don Sharp (The Kiss of the Vampire), who made it look better than it had any right to be. The Arrow Video Blu-ray package includes a fresh and funny interview with star Nicky Henson; the 2010 featurette, “Return of the Living Dead,” featuring interviews with Henson, Mary Larkin, Denis Gilmore, Roy Holder and Rocky Taylor; “The Sound of Psychomania,” with composer John Cameron; “Riding Free,”  with Harvey Andrews, singer of the film’s “folk anthem”;  “Hell for Leather,” an interview with Derek Harris, owner of Lewis Leathers, the firm that provided the distinctive outfits the biker gang wore in the film; “Restoring Psychomania,” a short piece documenting the heroic efforts to rescue a color presentation from black-and-white separation master source elements; and an illustrated insert booklet.

Underground Kings
Fatal Instinct
Originally conceived as a web series from creator Skye Dennis (Myra’s Angel), Underground Kings has been reconfigured as a feature film set in Philadelphia’s netherworld of corrupt cops, gangsta hoodlums and aspiring comedians, of all things. The action begins in Harrisburg, where undercover cop Jayson Wylie (Dennis) is shot and left for dead in a botched drug bust. His partner, Noah Carter (Kevin Savage) and DEA agent Daniel House (Mark Kochanowicz) are already pissed off over the overdose of the agent’s wife and suspect a setup. Meanwhile, back in Philly, police Lt. Jack Wilcox tips off crime boss Walter “Smooth” Davis to be aware of the shit storm heading his way. Underground Kings is one of those not-ready-for-prime-time actioners that require a scorecard to distinguish between the players. This best thing about it is a realistic-looking cast, whose members dress, talk and act as if they’ve played similar roles in better productions. The episodic structure works against maintaining an even flow throughout the picture.

At 90 minutes, on the button, Luciano Saber’s police drama, Fatal Instinct, contains just enough twists, turns and action to fill an hour-long television show … commercials included. After that, the story runs out of gas and the mystery stops being mysterious. Once again, a serial killer/rapist is terrorizing the streets of Los Angeles and only a hard-boiled cop, enduring marital problems and the possible loss of his children is capable of ending the murderous spree. The most interesting thing about Fatal Instinct, perhaps, is seeing Krista Allen and Paul Michael Robinson reunited, possibly for the first time since their Skinemax days on the “Emmanuelle in Space” series.

PBS: American Masters: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Lifetime: Heaven Sent
Netflix: Grace and Frankie: Season Two
PBS: Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts
In her 86 years on Earth, Maya Angelo lived as full a life as any 10 persons put together. Not just any 10 men and women, but 10 highly motivated and accomplished artists, dancers, novelists, poets, activists, teachers, scholars, speakers, actors and mentors. The two hours allotted by PBS for the “American Masters” presentation, “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” provides barely enough time to cover the length and breadth of her many accomplishments. Most of what we know about Angelo can be traced back to the 1969 publication of the first of her seven autobiographical books, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” She was 41 at the time and it only covered the first 17 years of her life. She didn’t sugarcoat a single word or incident. After hearing her stories many times over, author James Baldwin introduced Angelou to cartoonist Jules Feiffer and Random House editor Robert Loomis, who challenged her to put pen to paper and record them for posterity. What most interested me in the documentary were the accounts of her rise from being the first black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a 17-year-old single mother and worker in the sex trade, to prominence as a singer and dancer, who specialized in calypso. Angelou performed in a Las Vegas showroom, toured Europe with a production of the opera “Porgy and Bess,” danced with the Alvin Ailey company and contributed to an off-Broadway revue that inspired the 1957 film, Calypso Heat Wave, in which she sang and performed her own compositions. In 1960, after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak, she helped organize Cabaret for Freedom, to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A year later, Angelou performed in Jean Genet’s avant-garde play “The Blacks,” alongside Abbey Lincoln, Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Godfrey Cambridge and Cicely Tyson. She would spend the next several years living in Africa with her son, Guy Johnson, before returning to a far more politically energized United States. In 1967, before she sat down to write “Caged Bird,” she hoped to be named permanent understudy to Pearl Bailey, in the all-black Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly,” but the star vetoed David Merrick’s decision, reportedly saying, “Oh, no … I ain’t gonna have this large old ugly girl be my understudy.” The recollection brings a tear to Johnson’s eyes. After being nominated for a Tony, composing songs with Roberta Flack and co-starring in “Roots,” Angelou would turn to academia and more writing. That only covers the first captivating third of material covered in “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.” Among the witnesses testifying on her behalf are Bill and Hillary Clinton, Common, Louis Gossett Jr., Cicely Tyson, Alfre Woodard and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. Baldwin and Feiffer appear in taped interviews.

Add perky blond actor Mallory James Mahoney to the list of irresistible curly-haired, half-pints who’ve inherited the mantle once worn by Shirley Temple, Alisan Porter (Curly Sue) and Aileen Quinn (Annie). In the Lifetime movie, “Heaven Sent,” Mallory plays an “8-year-old runaway from heaven” who pops up in the home of Billy and Maire Taylor, a no-longer-happy couple on the verge of signing divorce papers. After a heart-breaking loss, their lives and careers went in two different directions. In the hands of veteran faith-based director Michael Landon Jr. (“When Calls the Heart”), the likelihood of Billy and Maire (Christian Kane, Marley Shelton) not getting back together after 90 minutes of sugar-coated melodrama is practically zero. Which is OK, because it’s Mallory’s showcase and no one is going to take it away from her. There are, however, two complicating factors: the make-out artist at Maire’s office (Ryan McPartlin) and Donatello (Ernie Hudson), a celestial bounty hunter commissioned to track down the winged tyke and bring her home. And, yes, prayers are answered along the way. As these things go, Heaven Sent is reasonably entertaining and no more contrived than any other holiday movie on the network.

The Netflix-original sitcom, “Grace and Frankie,” probably would have found a convenient timeslot on network television, if anyone had cared to offer it to any or all four leading broadcast outlets. Any pitch that includes such popular actors as Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston would certainly grab the attention of executives in desperate need of a hit. I wonder if their interest would have stayed as high, knowing that the two male protagonists had decided to divorce their wives and move in together. Cable and streaming services aren’t nearly as beholding to timid advertisers and uptight censors as the networks. Still, the show’s openness on the subject of same-gender couplings isn’t any more provocative than the gags and double-entendres that informed “Will & Grace,” in its day, or Fran Dresher’s autobiographical “Happily Divorced” on TV Land. Going the streaming route makes it easier to work in a throughline involving Frankie’s line of organic-yam lubes and some pot smoking. At the start of Season Two, a serious health scare puts a kink in Robert and Sol’s wedding preparations and that, of course, causes a frenzy in Grace and Frankie’s household. Fans of the series also will welcome the arrival of Sam Elliott as Grace’s love interest. A gag reel is included in the package.

The informative PBS production, “Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts,” arrives at a time in our collective history when the President and Republican-controlled Congress are salivating over the prospect of finally being able to reward their benefactors in the medical and insurance industries, by gouging poor and middle-class taxpayers. Unless a cure is found soon, the threat posed by Alzheimer’s disease could bring about a crisis in our social and economic systems. The hour-long investigation follows several families dealing with Alzheimer’s. One or two have the parent in their home full-time. Another has had to put the mother in an expensive private-care facility, without the benefit of health insurance, Obamacare or Medicare. It examines the issue from different perspectives, including that of nursing-home industry.

Air Bound
Down on the Farm
Absent pullout quotes from critics or the names of widely known stars, it’s difficult to promote straight-to-DVD titles, such as the animated adventure, Air Bound. Bannered over the top of the box is “FROM A PRODUCER OF SPIDER-MAN & IRON MAN.”  That’s right, “a producer.” To be precise, Avi Arad is an Israeli-American businessman, who, took over Marvel Entertainment and founded Marvel Studios in the mid-1990s, when the company was in desperate financial trouble. His role in the superhero movies probably was limited to cutting the deals that allowed the use of the characters in those movies, but licensing is more important these days than green-lighting a logical screenplay. While Arad’s standing in the production of the upcoming tentpole pictures, Borderlands and Ghost in the Shell, is significantly more active, it’s difficult to monetize or promote ahead of the release. So, “a producer,” it is. I can’t tell you what the distinction means for Lionsgate’s Air Bound, which might benefit more from having Jon Lovitiz’ name above the title, alongside those of three voice actors mostly familiar to YouTube subscribers. That, and the Dove “family approved” seal on the cover. Kids won’t care a lick about anything except the cute and colorful flying mice, whose presence actually anticipates what they can expect to see on the DVD. In a nose-on example of typecasting, Lovitz provides the voice for a character named Winston the White Weasel. Winston and his clan of wicked varmints are threatening to harm a family of mice living on Dream Island. At 94 minutes, Air Bound may be on the long side for very young viewers, but they probably know where to find the pause button. The set also includes a making-of featurette and four amusing “Minuscule” cartoons.

Kostas Macfarlane and Lisa Baget’s animated feature, Down on the Farm, also carries a five-star blessing from the folks at Dove, as well as the name of exploitation mainstay Bill Oberst Jr. (Stressed to Kill). Here, Oink the Flying Pig and Boink the Owl have been entrusted with solving the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a bale of hay from the farm. The suspects represent a cross-section of barnyard buddies. There’s got to be a featurette-worthy story in the background of someone named Kostas Macfarlane.

The DVD Wrapup: Edge of 17, Gimme Danger, Cameraperson, Tree Of Wooden Clogs, London Town, Coffin Joe, King Cobra and more

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

The Edge of Seventeen
When Stevie Nicks wrote the song after which Kelly Fremon Craig’s coming-of-age comedy-drama was named, she was addressing the grief that resulted from the death of her beloved uncle, Jonathan, and the murder of John Lennon, during the same week of December, 1980. It probably didn’t have much to do with the angst, optimism and anxiety that comes with entering the final year of one’s childhood or experiencing the first genuine pangs of love or pain as young adult, as most of us assumed. “And, so, with the slow graceful flow/Of age/I went forth with an age old/Desire to please/On the edge of seventeen …” And, yet, the song applies so well to the many ambiguous and sometimes contradictory emotions on display in Craig’s emotionally testing The Edge of Seventeen. Onetime Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) plays Nadine, the kind of teenage misfit who might have felt right at home in The Breakfast Club. She lost her father to a heart attack, at 11, and still falls back on it as an excuse to blow off homework, at 16. Her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is no match for Nadine’s tantrums and taunts. She dresses less to impress than to repel the cool and popular kids who gravitate toward her largely supportive older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner). The real dilemma comes when her only friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), who she met when they both were ugly ducklings, turns into a beautiful swan and begins to date Darian. Nadine treats it as the worst sort of betrayal, but, on the edge of 17, cupid plays by his own rules.

Woody Harrelson co-stars as the archetypal supportive teacher, Mr. Bruner, who understands what it means to be an outsider, while also counseling patience and fortitude. Nadine thinks nothing of disturbing his lunch hour, which he prefers to spend reading and relaxing. Naturally, Mr. Bruner serves as the combination father-figure/sounding board she won’t allow Darian to be. He listens patiently to her complaints, but clearly would prefer if she got on with her life. Another significant part of Nadine’s problem is an inability to decide what kind of boys are worthy of her attention. While there is a fellow student who would be an ideal friend and companion, she’s seems more interested in rolling the dice on dating sites on the Internet. Nadine is alternately funny, confounding and tragic, as is The Edge of Seventeen. Craig’s first solo writing credit, 2009’s Post Grad, starred Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Michael Keaton, Jane Lynch and Carol Burnett, and received mixed reviews. The Edge of Seventeen exited last year’s Toronto International Film Festival as one of the pictures to watch on the road to awards season. I’m surprised Steinfeld and Craig were shut out of the Academy Awards and Indie Spirits. (Steinfeld earned a nod in the Golden Globes’ genre-divided Best Actress category.) Despite so-so box-office returns, I think that The Edge of Seventeen deserves to be seen by the same people who embraced Easy A, Mean Girls, Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles and Breakfast Club. I was impressed, as well, by Haley Lu Richardson, whose smile says as much about her character as any line of dialogue. The Blu-ray adds an actor/filmmaker roundtable and a gag reel.

Gimme Danger
In his introduction to this nostalgic rock/doc profile of the proto-punk band, the Stooges, Jim Jarmusch declares that the Motor City maniacs comprised “the greatest rock ’n roll band of all time.” It is an honorific typically associated with the Rolling Stones, but could apply as well to the Beatles, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, Nirvana and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, among several other ensembles, depending on how one defines greatness, rock ’n’ roll and band. It’s as debatable a distinction as being the greatest cheesecake or tattoo artist of all time. It’s as meaningless as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – Donald Trump has one, but not Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino and Robert Redford — or induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll of Fame, absent Captain Beefheart, Love, Mitch  Ryder and the MC5. Gimme Danger makes Jarmusch’s case with an eloquence and overall lack of hyperbole rarely associated with Iggy or the Stooges, alone or together. If the Stooges can now be ranked among the greatest bands of all time, it’s not because it was recognized as such in the late-1960s and early-1970s, when the same was being said of the Beatles and Stones. Back then, Iggy made it difficult for people to love the Stooges. Beyond doing disgusting things on stage in the name of his art, hard drugs took their toll on the musicians, the music and audiences. “We started looking dirtier and skinnier and more and more used,” Iggy recollects, in the film. “Upsetting people because of me wherever we went.”

In their reviews of Gimme Danger, several critics bemoaned the absence of material from Iggy’s solo period, which produced such killer albums as “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life.” The fact is, however, Jarmusch’s specific and stated focus was on the band’s roots, music, evolution, trials, dissolution and resurrection. Dave Alexander (bass), and brothers Ron (guitar) and Scott Asheton (drums), would still be unknown if it weren’t for Iggy and Iggy either would be dead or just another burnout if it weren’t for his comrades. They were in the right place at the right time, alongside the MC5, and discovered by the right guy, Danny Fields. Jarmusch’s lengthy interview with Iggy is almost shockingly cogent and informative. He also elicits prime interview material from band members, industry types, relatives, fans and other survivors, supplemented by archival concert footage from their heyday, the 2003 Coachella reunion and belated induction into the Hall of Fame, in 2010. (The band’s absence was so egregiously wrong that board members finally couldn’t ignore vox populi any longer.) Anyone who wants to learn more about Iggy’s solo period can check out Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, in which Ewan McGregor plays a character based on Iggy, as well as the MVD catalogue of vintage concerts.

The Witness
Few crimes have triggered the outrage of the American public as the murder of Kitty Genovese, which occurred early in the morning of March 13, 1964, in the Queens neighborhood of Kew Gardens. The case almost immediately became synonymous with urban apathy and bystanders’ fear of getting involved in a violent crime. According to original reporting in the New York Times, 38 people who heard the victim’s screams or saw her wounded body from their windows elected not to call the police or help their dying neighbor. The story has been adapted for dramatization in movies, television shows, songs, books and plays ever since then. It was taken for granted that the article was solidly reported by elite Times reporters and, in a city fully cognizant of the rise in violent crime, citizens might not have cared to get involved. Kitty Genovese’s name became as familiar to Americans of her generation, and beyond, as those of Sirhan Sirhan and Ethel Kennedy. Years later, reporters would attempt to reconstruct the events that led up to the murder and everything that happened afterwards, with a special interest in separating legend from truth. The Witness director James D. Solomon (“The Bronx Is Burning,” “The Conspirator”) began his inquiry with the intention of creating a screenplay. It wasn’t until Kitty’s brother, William Genovese, agreed to collaborate with Solomon on an investigation that not only would shed new light on the murder, killer and accepted story, but also introduce viewers to a multi-faceted woman, neighbor, sister and daughter. The Witness is as compelling a documentary as you’re likely to find on any subject. The reporting is excellent and cooperation with witnesses and family members exceptional. As an indictment of the press, even at its most respected outlets, The Witness could hardly be more telling. (Left unstated is the fact that the current 24-hour news cycle has made such rushes to judgment commonplace.) This is one case in which a documentary is a more effective way of telling a difficult story than any narrative film. That William is confined to a wheelchair, after losing his legs to a land mine in Vietnam, added an additional degree of difficulty to the investigation. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A and interview with Genovese.

Cameraperson: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Tree of Wooden Clogs: Special Edition: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In documentaries, more so than in features, the cinematographer is practically anonymous. Everybody knows Michael Moore, but who can recall the name of the person holding the camera outside the Capitol,on Fahrenheit 9/11, while congressmen scurried to avoid his questions and a soldier explained to him why he’d go AWOL, rather than do another tour of duty? That was Kirsten Johnson, who provided the same service for Academy Award-winner Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, The Oath), Oscar-nominees Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering (The Invisible War), Ted Braun (Darfur Now) and Katy Chevigny, her co-director on Deadline. Anytime a camera operator follows a director into a warzone for a documentary, they become as much a target for an errant bullet as the combatants, bystanders and other journalists. Tim Hetherington, who shared a Oscar nomination with Sebastian Junger, for Restrepo, was killed in Misurata, Libya, while filming the conflict there. Johnson’s intimately personal documentary, Cameraperson, is a finalist for an Independent Spirit Award. It was shortlisted for an Academy Award, but didn’t make the cut. Johnson was given permission to repurpose snippets of film she’d shot for other people to craft a cinematic memoir. “These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” she says, in a voiceover introduction. If the images didn’t necessarily fit the other directors’ vision for his or her documentary, Johnson was able to use them to create something wholly her own.

The collage/tapestry format reminds me of Godfrey Reggio’s “QATSI” trilogy, with its essays of visual images and sound that chronicle the destructive impact of the modern world on the environment. Here, the emphasis is on the people she’s met and filmed, many of whom found themselves in harm’s way and somehow survived their ordeal, or fell victim to inadequate health care. She also photographed her mother, as she gradually succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, and revisits a Bosnian family that suffered greatly in the war, but whose testimony didn’t make the final cut of Pamela Hogan’s “I Came to Testify,” for PBS. The Criterion Collection edition adds “Editing Cameraperson,” featuring Johnson, producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga, and editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws; “In the Service of the Film,” a roundtable conversation with Johnson, producer Gini Reticker and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp; excerpts from two 2016 festival talks with Johnson, including one between her and filmmaker Michael Moore; “The Above,” Johnson’s 2015 short film about a mysterious U.S. military surveillance balloon that floats on a tether above Kabul, for no known reason expect to make insurgents nervous;  and an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and reprinted writings by Johnson.

In his introduction to the Criterion edition of Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Mike Leigh makes his case for being “one of the greatest of movies.” Watching the neo-realist epic today, nearly 40 years after won the Palme d’or at Cannes, it’s almost too easy to agree with his observation. Inspired by stories told by his grandmother, Olmi chronicles a year in the lives of four large peasant families, living in a communal farmhouse located in the Bergamo province of far northern Italy at the end of the 19th Century. No detail was too insignificant for Olmi and his handheld camera, including the decision to have the “actors” speak in the native dialect. Throughout the film’s 186-minute length, children are born, crops are sown and reaped, animals are slaughtered, couples are married, stories and prayers are exchanged by the adults and children. At the time of its release, the New York Times’ critic, Vincent Canby, summed up the negative criticism, which no longer seems remotely relevant: “Like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Mr. Olmi’s film is almost too beautiful for its own good. In lesser films — and I’ll probably be castigated for including some of Flaherty’s work in this category — such density and clarity of image have a way of obscuring harsh subject matter or rendering it sentimental. Beauty is full of peril for the film maker. It can make reality seem exotic by putting it at a distance.” Others wished that Olmi had delivered more of a political statement, amplifying the arguments of the occasional Marxist agitator and criticizing the role of the Church in the peasants’ lives. Again, irrelevant today.

Although the landlord’s physical presence is infrequently noted, his ability to destroy lives with a single capricious decision is palpable throughout, but, most specifically, the few scenes involving the titular poplar tree. More subtle is the inherited belief held by all of the adults, except the Catholic priest, that the children of peasants belong in the fields, alongside their parents, and not in school. Olmi’s humanistic approach to the everyday drama in his characters’ lives is what continues to make The Tree of Wooden Clogs such an essential viewing experience. It also serves as an inadvertent prequel to Bernardo Bertolucci’s five-hour-plus 1900, which surveyed the class struggle in 20th Century Italy. The Criterion edition features a sublime 4K restoration, created in collaboration with the Film Foundation at L’Immagine Ritrovata and supervised by Olmi, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an alternate Italian-language soundtrack; Leigh’s introduction; the featurette, “Ermanno Olmi: The Roots of the Tree,” an hour-long 1981 episode of “The South Bank Show,” featuring an interview with Olmi on the film and a visit to the farm where it was shot; a new program, featuring cast and crew discussing the film at the Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna, Italy, in 2016; interviews with Olmi from 1978 and 2008; and an essay by film critic Deborah Young.

The Crooked Man
Stake Land 2: The Stakelander: Blu-ray
The production wing of Syfy has been so busy cranking out original series and movies with such tantalizing titles as Sharknado 5 … Earth O, Terror Birds and 2 Lava 2 Lantula, it’s easy to forget that it’s capable of mining the occasional nugget of something resembling gold. Because I didn’t check out the fine print first, I didn’t know that The Crooked Man was a made-for-Syfy movie. In fact, it wasn’t until I performed my usual post-screening research that it hit me. To describe it as being surprisingly good would sound as if I’m damning it with faint praise. In fact, The Crooked Man’s as good a Syfy movie as I’ve seen in a long time, not counting the so-bad-it’s-good qualifications of the original Sharknado. Director Jesse Holland and co-writer Peter Sullivan’s The Crooked Man allegedly is based on an urban legend involving the English nursery rhyme, “There Was a Crooked Man.” It stipulates that anyone who stumbles upon a certain website and completes singing the four-line song as written there will summon the Crooked Man and become his next victim. Here, a group of pre-teen girls calls up the site when their sleepover needs a jump-start and, sure enough, the demon shows up with the intention of killing a little girl and setting up another one to take the fall.

As punishment, Olivia (Angelique Rivera) is committed to a mental institution until she turns 18. Upon her return home, the town experiences a series of look-alike suicides. Viewers already know the deaths are anything but self-inflicted and they all can be traced back to the sleepover. Even though most of the town’s residents still think Olivia is dangerously crazy, there comes a point when the coincidental deaths add up to something more sinister. The surviving girls, now young adults, put their heads together with that of a cop, who also has a connection to the sleepover, to figure out how to stop the Crooked Man forever. The solution isn’t as predictable as one might think, given previous Syfy movies, but what really makes the movie work is a serial killer who not only is crooked, but shakes when he walks, like Jello in an earthquake. He also bears a passing resemblance to Freddy Krueger. I don’t know too many adults who would be spooked by The Crooked Man, but younger teens are likely to re-consider attending any sleepover that involves conjuring evil spirits.

Stake Land II: The Stakelander wasn’t made specifically for Syfy, but it debuted there, anyway. If the vampire-apocalypse thriller is a bit more realistically violent than other pictures the channel runs, anyone familiar with the original Stake Land will already know if it’s appropriate viewing for the kiddies who haven’t already been desensitized by “The Walking Dead.”  The sequel reunites Martin (Connor Paolo) and his mentor, Mister (Nick Damici), after the younger survivor’s home and family are destroyed by a revitalized Brotherhood and the albino vamp queen, Mother (Kristina Hughes). Martin finds himself alone in the badlands, searching for Mister and battling various undead enemies along the way. When they finally get together, it’s as opponents in cage fight. Naturally, the future of what’s left of humanity hangs in the balance.

Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim
Originally slated for one of those pledge-month orgies on PBS, “Judy Collins: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim” is now available on DVD. Collins and Sondheim first were mentioned in the same breath when she recorded “Send in the Clowns,” which he wrote for the 1973 musical “A Little Night Music.” It became a hit for Collins at a time when she was emerging from the folksinger pigeonhole and broadening her audience base. Sondheim would later thank her – with a wink and smile — for making the song his first top-10 hit. The show, which already had toured several cities, was recorded last May at Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall, with the Greeley Symphony Orchestra. Collins, who was in top form, took the audience through Sondheim’s remarkable treasure-trove of music, interweaving Broadway memories with personal anecdotes and a few non-Sondheim favorites, including a John Denver medley … hey, it’s Colorado.

Somewhere in the Middle
Sometimes, young and overly creative directors make the mistake of assuming viewers will recognize their ambitions as the various conceits roll out before them on the screen. Lanre Olabsi’s sophomore feature, Somewhere in the Middle, which arrives a decade after his family-reunion drama, August the First, is something of a three-ring circus, in that the narrative is non-linear, told from three separate perspectives (maybe four) and is the product of a yearlong improvisational process. If the story that informs the urban rom/dram/com actually were able to bear that much weight, Olabsi might have been able to pull off the hat trick. Alas … In it, four young lovers become involved in each other’s lives, as one marriage disintegrates into several intertwined affairs, all of which are likely to end poorly. Billie (Cassandra Freeman) and Kofi (Charles Miller), we are led to believe, are a typical Buppie couple living large in New York City. They are experiencing some kind of problem in their marriage, but we aren’t made absolutely clear as to what it might be. From his perspective, her unhappiness appears to derive from Billie being a successful businesswoman, whose circle of friends no longer includes him. From her perspective, however, her love for Kofi is no match for her sexual attraction to a pretty subordinate, Alex (Louisa Ward), who, after a few drinks, responds to her advances. After a loud argument in their apartment, Alex agrees to allow Billie to move into her small apartment.

Meanwhile, Kofi tentatively hooks up with Sofia (Marisol Miranda), a woman who’s portrayed as being either a nymphomaniac or desperately seeking meaningful companionship. Improbably, Sofia bumps into Kofi at the home/office of his brother, a psychiatrist. A few days later, before Kofi and Billie had separated, they run into each other again at a book store. After re-introducing herself, she unsuccessfully attempts to hook up with the fellow she knows only as a lawyer. Sofia hands Kofi her number, which he promptly throws away. Not one to give up easily, she stakes out the bookstore on the off-chance he might show up there, again, which, of course, he does. It doesn’t take long before they wind up in the sack, twice, causing Kofi to panic and run off both times. Ultimately, we’ll learn a bit more about Billie and Alex, whose relationship doesn’t make any sense at all. One or two more coincidences later and Somewhere in the Middle concludes on a bittersweet note. Just because I was unimpressed by the narrative devices doesn’t mean Olabasi wasn’t on the right track in attempting to make a statement or two about love and obsession. And, there’s nothing wrong with the acting or production values, either.

King Cobra: Blu-ray
It would be difficult to exaggerate the bad craziness that’s characterized the porn industry, ever since Deep Throat became a cause célèbre and Harry Reems’ conviction on obscenity charges was overturned, way back in 1976. Such behind-the-scenes entertainments as Inserts, Boogie Nights, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Rated X, Lovelace, The Canyons, About Cherry, This Girl’s Life and The Look of Love attracted A-list actors, writers and directors to tell stories that championed free speech, humanized the participants and toyed with Shakespearian tragedy. Justin Kelly’s true-crime drama, King Cobra, is one of only a few movies to explore the gay-porn industry, using mainstream actors and distribution routes. Casper Andreas’ Going Down in LA-LA Land and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s The Fluffer might have crossed over a bit further if their budgets were even half those devoted to the other titles. Christian Slater and James Franco are quite convincing as rival producers of gay Internet porn in the mid-2000s. They work from studios in their own homes and stream their products directly to customers anxious to break away from the VHS/DVD cartels. King Cobra head, Stephen (Slater), has found his meal ticket in Brent Corrigan (Garrett Clayton), a fresh-faced “twink,” barely out of high school, who’s ready to graduate from posing in masturbatory photos to starring in sex scenes.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, Viper Boyz’ less-prominent boss, Joe (Franco), is, like Stephen, living with his star, Harlow (Keegan Allen), who survived an abusive childhood, before washing out of the military. The older men use their stars as sexual playthings, as well as prime sources of income. Stephen lies to prevent Brent from learning exactly how much money he’s worth to King Cobra, while Joe keeps Harlow in the dark as to how much in debt the company is. (He gets the hint when the DodgeViper Joe bought for him is repossessed.) Finally, when Brent finally does learn how badly he’s being screwed, he decides to make it on his own. Unfortunately, the contract Brent signed with King Cobra demands several more appearances of the lad, while preventing him from working under his nom de plume with another company. Joe would love to pair Brent with Harlow, but Steven refuses to budge. Bad idea. King Cobra features plenty of sex, but nothing that feels gratuitous or particularly graphic. It may be far from perfect, but, considering the obstacles facing such films, King Cobra is good enough. Alicia Silverstone and Molly Ringwald appear briefly in supporting roles.

London Town
It seems as if I’ve seen a dozen coming-of-age movies from England, whose story can best be described as, “my life was saved by the Clash.” The so-called “Only Band That Matters” represented different things to different people, here and in the band’s home country, which, at the time, was torn by anti-immigrant violence, racist skinheads, high unemployment, an anti-Labor government and disaffected youths. The Clash’s high-energy mix of punk, reggae and rockabilly countered the hate-filled pronouncements of the National Front and Tory politicians, with calls for anti-capitalist activism and multiculturalism. Just as the Sex Pistols had effectively put an end to the glam-rock movement, the Clash demanded of punk loyalists that they stop pogoing long enough to get involved politically. Derrick Borte and screenwriter Matt Brown’s rock-’n’-roll fantasy, London Town, introduces us to 15-year-old Shay (Daniel Huttlestone), whose family is coming apart at the seams. His dad (Dougray Scott) is in the hospital, unable to pay the rent and bills associated with his meager business interests. His mom (Natascha McElhone) is living in a squatters’ flat with several other unemployed artists. And, Shay is left at home to take care of his younger sister. One day, on a train into the city, he finds a kindred soul in Vivian (Nell Williams), a punk princess who opens doors for him in the music scene. In a fairly tricky plot twist, Shay makes the acquaintance of the Clash’s electrifying frontman, Joe Strummer (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). They will meet again, this time in a jail cell, after a “white riot,” to solidify their unusual friendship. As far-fetched as this scenario gets, it’s all done in good fun and with the backing of a terrific period soundtrack. The DVD adds an interview with Rhys Meyers.

The Coffin Joe Trilogy Collection
For more than a half-century, Coffin Joe has been one of the singular characters on the international horror scene. Portrayed by prolific Brazilian director José Mojica Marins, now 80, Coffin Joe’s trademark top hat, black cape and long talon-like fingernails – finally cut after 30 years of growth — have been immortalized in films, TV programs, comic books and popular songs. It’s a bit difficult to pin down precisely how to describe what kind of monster he is. If Elvira, Svengoolie and Count Floyd had a bastard godfather, he might look very much like Coffin Joe as he delivers commentary on his films and those by other genre specialists. On screen, he’s portrayed as being an unholy undertaker, gravedigger, body snatcher and denizen of his victim’s dreams and hallucinations. He appears out of nowhere, knows everybody’s cards before they play them and is wholly misogynistic. Synapse Films has just released At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963), This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (1967) and Embodiment of Evil (2008), all of which focus on Coffin Joe’s bloody and determined quest to find his perfect bride and father a son. His plans are undone at the end of each film, when, while pursued by authorities and haunted by his victims, he is seemingly killed. If the first two titles look as if they were made in the 1930s, it’s because “At Midnight” is considered to be Brazil’s first horror film and the industry was ill-prepared for the nuances and demands of the genre. At one point, on location, Marins’ crew reportedly refused to shoot a scene, because there wasn’t enough sunlight. Legend has it that the director forced his cinematographer to shoot the scene at gunpoint. (He later said the gun was a prop.) The Synapse editions of the first two titles look as well as they’re ever going to look, after fresh 35mm negative scans, supervised by Marins. Each package comes with a making-of featurette; an introduction and interviews; and pieces on the character’s place in Brazilian pop culture.

PBS: Mercy Street: Season 2: Blu-ray
MTV: Beavis & Butt-Head: The Complete Collection
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Race Into Velocityville
The success of Season One of the PBS original drama, “Mercy Street,” probably surprised a few observers of small-screen trends. The network has focused most of its attention on documentaries and other non-fiction projects over the last decade, so being able to launch a mini-series with the same potential for success as those imported from England must have been a real pleasure. Going into it, I wasn’t so sure. For one, hospital-set dramas and soap operas have provided the bread-and-butter for the broadcast networks for decades and are perfectly suited to conveniently timed commercial breaks. Second, I wasn’t at all sure that Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) could convince viewers – and, by that, I mean me – that he would make a credible male protagonist and love interest, especially with a full beard. As the story evolved and other characters helped carry the load, however, Radnor’s Dr. Jedediah Foster grew on me. “Mercy Street” was inspired by memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital, created during the Union occupation of Alexandria, Virginia. After the posh Mansion House hotel was confiscated from the Green Family, in November 1861, it became the largest of the city’s military hospitals, with 500 beds. Characters based on members of the actual Green family, including Emma’s Confederate spy fiancé, Frank Stringfellow, add intrigue to the serious business of healing and dying in the hospital, next-door to the Green mansion. The second season picks up after the aborted assassination attempt on President Abraham Lincoln. Among the newly introduced characters are detective Allan Pinkerton (Brían F. O’Byrne), sent to Alexandria by Lincoln to root out Stringfellow and other rebel plotters; Major Clayton McBurney III (Bryce Pinkham), an almost comically by-the-book hospital administrator, assigned to replace tipsy Dr. Alfred Summers; medical illustrator Lisette Beaufort (Lyne Renee), Foster’s old flame and competition for poor nurse Mary Phinney, who’s lying at death’s door; and Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller), a runaway slave and abolitionist, who, while helping “contrabands” adjust to freedom comforts typhoid victims in the camp and serves as a teacher to the children. The various storylines informing “Mercy Street” grow in complexity and strength as Season Two evolves. The Blu-ray adds several deleted and extended scenes.

I have no way of knowing if President Trump spent much, if any time with his three oldest children watching television in the 1990s. It can be argued that he devotes far too much time, now, watching Fox News, “Saturday Night Life” and Arnold Schwarzenegger hosting “The New Celebrity Apprentice.” Back then, a decade before launching “The Apprentice,” he probably had plenty of time away from work to share with Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric, watching shows about big-game hunting and investing their fortunes, and watching MTV. If so, it’s possible the President was subliminally influenced by an episode of “Beavis & Butt-Head,” titled “Right On,” in which the little rascals are invited to appear alongside conservative talk-show host Don Baker – Rush Limbaugh, as channeled by Gilbert Gottfried – to weigh in on the music-video craze. “They suck,” the boys agree, in their trademark chortle. “Yeah, they suck.” Baker had already lauded B&B, after they called in to agree with his stand on unfettered gun ownership, reinstitution of the death penalty and rock-’n’-depravity. In doing so, he observed, “Talking to you boys, I can tell our young people still have the moral strength and character to make this country great, again.” Substitute “America” for “this country” and the future commander-in-chief had a ready-made campaign slogan in his memory bank. If nothing else, he owes episode creator Mike Judge a cut of the money he made on the trucker caps purchased by his supporters, who, one imagines, cut their teeth on “Beavis & Butthead.” It was one of things I learned from watching the imperfectly packaged and haphazardly abridged, “Beavis & Butt-Head: The Complete Collection,” from Paramount. Longtime fans probably are already aware that it’s comprised of all nine discs of three previous Mike Judge DVD compilations, plus two discs of Volume Four, containing the revival episodes from 2011, and “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” (1996). Music videos edited from their placement in weekly episodes appear on discs containing other bonus features. Sadly, the contents aren’t in any particular order and the set doesn’t include an index.

In the latest compilation of themed episodes from Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines,” the orange-red monster truck, Blaze, and its driver, AJ, head to the racing town of VelocityVille to compete with his new race-car pals in the Hundred Mile Race. In the six episodes from Seasons Two and Three, guest voicing appearances include those by professional drivers Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. The stories feature all areas of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teaching method.

The Babymoon
This is the second movie in a month that uses the “babymoon” phenomenon – we’re told – as a hook for a comedy/drama/whatever featuring couples trying to enjoy some R&R before the stork arrives and their lives, as they know them, are forever changed. The Babymooners was less about a vacation planned by expectant parents than an outpouring of neuroses. Newly released, The Babymoon, is set on a tropical isle, where rebels have infiltrated the staff of a resort hotel and a reality-show has-been, Trace (Shaun Sipos), ignores his radiantly pregnant wife, Hanna (Julie McNiven), to hit on other female guests and housekeepers. He also tries gain another 15 minutes of fame, by sucking up to a show-biz weasel in their midst (Mark DeCarlo). When Trace is kidnapped by a cabal of Che Guevara wannabes, it should have prompted Hanna to hop on a plane home and take her phone off the hook. Instead, she coaxes some locals into helping her rescue the cad. The only thing that rings remotely true here is McNiven’s pleasing screen presence and her character’s frustration with Trace. Even that fades, however, when, in an effort to confront the rebels, she risks a miscarriage by jumping aboard a zipline and soaring over the forest canopy. I could go on, but why beat a dead horse? And, yes, another Babymoon is expected to arrive later this year, starring Kelly McGillis, Kate Mansi, Brooke Burfitt, so, I guess, it’s officially a trend.

The DVD Wrapup: Loving, American Pastoral, Eagle Huntress, Come What May, Blush, Leonard Cohen and more

Friday, February 10th, 2017

Loving: Blu-ray
The horrifying story told in Loving may have been revelatory to many viewers, whose only knowledge of this footnote in history derived from feature articles and reviews that accompanied its Cannes debut and release last November. For others, such reminders of American apartheid are as fresh as yesterday’s news. The anti-miscegenation laws that allowed authorities to punish Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) for being married in Washington, D.C., while living in Virginia, were shockingly common in Southern and Western states, even as late as 1967. If their home had been raided while the lawfully married couple was engaged in an act deemed sexual, they could have been imprisoned for that “crime,” as well. Instead, the Lovings were prohibited from cohabiting or traveling together in a state whose trademark slogan proclaims, however ironically, “Virginia is for lovers.” As unlikely as that sounds in 2017, it was the norm in the Jim Crow South, where racist judges based their rulings on such biblical wisdom as, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. … The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Caroline County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Bazile’s judgment was dated January 22, 1965, six years after the Lovings’ first conviction and two years before the U.S. Supreme would overrule his decision and other miscegenation laws still in effect. In fact, such statutes also forbade marriages, cohabitation and sex between whites and Native Americans, Filipinos, Asians and Hispanics. Ministers were prohibited from officiating such ceremonies. The ruling did not, however, eliminate racism in the United States.

Nancy Buirski, whose 2011 documentary on the case, The Loving Story, received a producer’s credit for Loving, which relies heavily on her research. To inform her Peabody Award-winning project, she unearthed archival footage, from the 1960s, which captured details of the Lovings’ personal lives, and interviewed the Lovings’ only surviving child, Peggy. (Richard died in 1975, at 41, when a drunk driver struck his car in Caroline County, Virginia. Mildred, who lost her right eye in the same accident, died of pneumonia in 2008, at 68.) Sometimes, when a theatrical film is adapted from a documentary, the results either distort or embellish the truth. Of Richard Friedenberg’s 1996 made-for-Showtime dramatization, “Mr. & Mrs. Loving,” Mildred Loving observed, “not much of it was very true. The only part of it right was I had three children.” Here, writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud) based most of the dialogue on Buirski’s doc and cast actors who are dead-ringers for the Lovings. The sting of racism discrimination, even a half-century removed from their ordeal, is palpable throughout Loving. (Yet another version is in the works, “The Price of Love,” is in production, although I can’t imagine what new it could bring to the story.) Clearly, the State of Virginia wants to put the case as far back in its rear-view mirror as possible. Principal photography for Loving took place in Richmond, with location shoots in King and Queen County, Caroline County, Central Point and Bowling Green, where the actual jail and courtrooms still are in use. The Blu-ray adds Nichols’ commentary and featurettes “Making Loving,” “A Loving Ensemble,” “Loving v. Virginia” and “Virginia: A Loving Backdrop.”

American Pastoral
For some of us, coverage of the mass protests prompted by the inauguration of President Trump and his executive orders triggered memories of the political turmoil and violence that rocked the 1960s and early ’70s. Although the vast majority of demonstrators and activists were peaceful, a handful of self-declared anarchists decided to vent their anger on plate-glass windows, dumpsters and any graffiti-free wall they encountered. The 1969 Days of Rage confrontations, organized by the then-Weatherman faction of the SDS, may have attracted more media attention than the “black bloc” radicals who engaged police in Washington, Seattle, San Francisco and Berkeley, but the similarities were obvious to anyone who cared to look for them. (Thank goodness, President Nixon didn’t have the benefit of tweets to voice his displeasure of radical youths.) Based on Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title, American Pastoral puts an unsettling twist on stories already told in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst and such documentaries as Berkeley in the SixtiesThe War at Home, Underground and Weather Underground. In some ways, American Pastoral also resembles Uli Edel’s powerful drama, The Baader Meinhof Complex, which chronicled the rise and fall of West Germany’s Red Army Faction. By and large, the most violent radicals were children of privilege, whose motivations were as Freudian as they were political. Much of director/star Ewan McGregor and writer John Romano’s American Pastoral takes place on an idyllic dairy farm outside blue-collar Newark, where Seymour “Swede” Levov also runs the glove-manufacturing business built by his father (Peter Riegert). Despite his nickname, Seymour is the archetypal Jewish prince and star athlete, who ignored his parents’ wishes and advice by marrying the Roman Catholic beauty queen, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly). With their newborn daughter, Merry, the family settled in the rural hamlet of Old Rimrock. By all rights, Merry (Dakota Fanning) should have grown into her teenage years as happy and contented as any of her privileged classmates.

Instead, she’s burdened by a severe stutter, which throttles her ability to express her political beliefs and growing disdain for the status quo, which she takes out on everyone in authority, including her parents. By the time she turns 16, Merry is spending her free time in New York City, ostensibly hanging out with students in the SDS. Her parents can’t control her outbursts or understand what’s made her so hostile to them. Soon enough, the town’s dual-purpose post office and gas station is rocked by a bomb that kills the owner after he raises the American flag. As the only logical suspect, Merry decides to go underground, effectively disappearing from the narrative for several years. The bomb was ignited as a statement decrying a foreign war and inequalities at home. Instead, it effectively altered the futures of two Old Rimrock families with no ties to the government beyond handing the mail and paying taxes. Roth laid most of the emotional baggage on the shoulders of his all-American son/husband/father, who spends the rest of his life in search of rational explanations for Merry’s decisions, where none exist. Coincidentally, his factory is situated at ground zero of the Newark riots, which threaten the livelihood of black and Hispanic employees the Levovs have treated as if they’re part of a larger family. Dawn eventually will write off both her daughter and husband, deciding that a facelift and lover will relieve her anguish. After a surprise meeting with Jerry Levov at a high school reunion, which coincides with his brother’s funeral, Roth’s alter-ego, frequent protagonist and narrator, Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), is able to fill us in on the details of Swede and Merry’s demise. (It occurs in the film’s opening moments, so no need for a spoiler alert.) Fans of “American Pastoral,” the novel, may feel as if too many liberties were taken in Romano’s adaptation. I found McGregor’s portrayal of a seemingly blameless parent at wit’s end to be extremely moving. I wonder how many parents, today, will lose Merrys of their own to outrage over decisions they feel powerless to change, except through violence. The extras include commentary by McGregor and the featurettes, “American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic” and “Making the American Dream.”

The Eagle Huntress: Blu-ray
While Mongolia may seem as if it’s the end of the world, even for experienced travelers, it’s actually been fairly well represented in films and documentaries. Most of the credit for that belongs to the ever-fascinating legend of Genghis Kahn, of course, which has been re-enacted numerous times on the big screen. (Howard Hughes’ famously cursed The Conqueror, starring John Wayne as the powerful warrior, should never be confused with any Mongolian production after 1990.) The sparsely populated country’s great natural beauty, unique culture and its rich history have been shown to their best effect in such modern co-productions as Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, Andrei Borissov’s By the Will of Chingis Khan, Shin’ichirô Sawai’s The Blue Wolf: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea, Ken Annakin and Antonio Margheriti’s Genghis Khan: The Story of a Lifetime and Zolbayar Dorj and  U. Shagdarsuren’s Genghis: The Legend of the Ten. Roko Belic’s cross-cultural Genghis Blues was nominated for Best Documentary, while Luigi Falorni and Byambasuren Davaa’s The Story of the Weeping Camel was entered as the country’s Best Foreign Language candidate. Davaa’s critically lauded The Cave of the Yellow Dog didn’t make the finals, but is well worth the effort to find. An episode of National Geographic Television’s “Monster Fish,” “Mining Mongolia,” probably lured a few anglers to the isolated Lake Baikal watershed, where the world’s largest trout species, the taimen, lurks. Like “Weeping Camel” and “Yellow Dog,” Otto Bell’s adventure/documentary, The Eagle Huntress, should remind Boomer parents of Disney’s “True-Life Adventures.”

It follows Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, as she trains to become the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. In Mongolia, men traditionally have trained golden eagles to hunt for animals that provide food, pelts and clothing to family members, as well as meals for the birds. After seven years in service, the eagles are freed into the wild. Bell’s first instinct was to shape The Eagle Huntress as a classic father/daughter bonding story. It would, however, evolve into a movie about female empowerment and breaking down traditional borders. Because Aisholpan had grown up around eagles and the rewards of hunting, it seemed perfectly natural for her to follow her father in the family business. If the elders frowned upon her pursuit, Aisholpan’s father took it seriously enough to introduce her to the hazards, as well as the joys, of training birds and hunting prey. At one point, the girl is lowered down the face of a steep cliff in the Altai Mountains, by rope, to remove a chick from its nest. She impresses her father by using hypnotic gestures to make the task painless for her and the eagle. The crowning point of the story – besides training an eagle to capture a fox – is the annual competition for eagle hunters. The scenery captured on the Steppes and mountains is nothing short of spectacular, enhanced by long crane shots and drones able to follow the eagles on their dizzying dives and swoops. Daisy Ridley supplies narration in spots, but the dialogue is largely in the native Kazakh tongue. The Blu-ray adds Bell’s commentary and a worthwhile making-of featurette.

Burn Country
Although documentaries frequently provide the inspiration for narrative films, it isn’t often that the same person who made the doc writes and directs the adaptation for its theatrical run. Switch-hitting works far better on the baseball diamond than in feature films. Ian Olds’ curiously uneven thriller, Burn Country, is a perfect example of a movie so full of good and bad ideas, several prompted by his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, that they stumble over each other trying to get out. Olds’ prize-winning docs, Occupation: Dreamland (2005) and Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi (2009) told stories about life during wartime that were, at once, deeply chilling and painstakingly intimate. “Fixer” explores the 2007 kidnapping of Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, along with the highly regarded Afghan guide and interpreter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, and their driver, Sayed Agha, by Taliban insurgents. Mastrogiacomo was released after five high-ranking Taliban were released, but his Afghan companions were beheaded when other demands weren’t met. Olds modeled the protagonist of Burn Country (a.k.a., “The Fixer”) after Naqshbandi. After being exiled from Afghanistan, Osman (Dominic Rains) is offered a place to stay in the northern California home of an American journalist’s mother, Gloria (Melissa Leo). She is a cop in the scenic rural hamlet, which alternately resembles a refuge for unreconstructed hippies and a hideout for Manson Family diehards.

After Osman accepts an entry-level job at the local paper, writing the police-blotter report, he becomes entangled in a web spun to entrap outsiders who stick their noses too deep into the residents’ business. His first mistake is to hook up with a freaked-out longhair, Lindsay (James Franco), who appears to straddle the seemingly opposing camps, but currently is persona non grata in both of them. Osman’s time in war zones has convinced him that, in the aftermath of horror, “a hole has opened in the earth” that can sometimes expose truths not seen in daily life. Even so, he’s a fish out of water when it comes to fringe-dwelling Americans drawn to free love, majestic scenery, unlimited supplies of dope, open-air stages for experimental theater and an off-brand mysticism reminiscent of rites practiced in The Wicker Man. Olds has previously collaborated with Franco on such diverse projects as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Saturday Night, Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) and the upcoming Zeroville. He likes to work free-form, so it’s hard to say how much of Burn Country was scripted or improvised. As messy as it gets sometimes, the central mystery is pretty compelling, especially when Leo’s on-screen.

Nerdland: Blu-ray
Fans of the outrageous animated comedy, Sausage Party, should find something to like in Chris Prynoski and Andrew Kevin Walker’s equally raunchy Nerdland. It follows the exploits of Hollywood wannabes, screenwriter Elliot (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and actor John (Paul Rudd), who, as they approach their 30th birthdays, know that their days are numbered in Tinseltown. They appear not to notice that they’re living in squalor and their sex lives are limited to late-night dates with a duct-taped inflatable doll. Their pursuit of fame, however fleeting, leads to a nightmare vision of SoCal consumerism at its most sordid. Ironically, Elliot and John’s 15 minutes in the fickle spotlight of fame arrives completely by accident, when they witness a robbery being committed by a very wanted criminal and everyone wants a piece of them. That includes Sally (Kate Micucci) and Linda (Riki Lindhome), the buxom mall-workers who serve as the lads’ objects of lust. Other voices are provided by Hannibal Buress, Reid Scott, Mike Judge, Sally Kirkland, Laraine Newman and Molly Shannon. Nerdland isn’t as consistently funny as Sausage Party, but admirers of Rudd and Oswalt will already know where to find the laughs.

Life on the Line: Blu-ray
There was a time when the studios churned out workplace melodramas, in which natural and manmade emergencies inspire heroic actions by otherwise ordinary individuals. No matter the calamity, the star could be counted on to stick his thumb in the leaky dam, keep the dynamos humming and wheels of commerce greased. Typically, a love interest would be thrown into the mix to keep folks interested between lightning flashes and bridge collapses, but mostly the women were there to support the male protagonist and add some spice to the trailers and posters. By contrast, in Raoul Walsh’s hard-boiled truck-driver meller, They Drive by Night, there isn’t a token character or extraneous storyline. As such, it represents the high-end of the working-class-hero subgenre. Freelance long-haul drivers Humphrey Bogart and George Raft face all sorts of obstacles – bad weather, crappy roads, fragile vehicles, impossible deadlines, lack of sleep, corrupt cops and union thugs — while trying to make a buck delivering produce to distributors a night’s drive from California’s agricultural hubs. Ann Sheridan plays a damsel in distress, while Ida Lupino is the femme fatale. If the special visual effects are primitive, it was Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay’s exciting adaptation of A.I. Bezzerides’ novel and high-profile actors that put butts in the seats. Today, it’s the special effects that sell tickets, not the slapdash screenplays and interchangeable actors. I only bring this up here, because Life on the Line might have been a much better movie if David Hackl (Saw V) and his team of writers had screened They Drive by Night and other blue-collar melodramas from Warner Bros., in the 1940s, and studied the component parts. All the right ingredients for success are there. Not all of them fit where they’re put. John Travolta, who’s excelled at playing such characters throughout his career, plays the foreman of a crew of electrical-line workers hired to upgrade the equipment on a section of the nation’s increasingly fragile power grid. We watch in shock, early on, when Beau’s brother is burnt to a crisp while attempting to fix a snapped high-voltage transmission wire. Without saying as much, the terrible accident alerts viewers to the fact that the job is among the 10 most dangerous in America.

Beau’s team is on call day and night, especially in anticipation of severe meteorological events, and Hackl has no trouble conveying such perils of the job as lightning, live wires, faulty equipment and terrifying heights. Beau’s biggest problems here are caused by the private company that owns his section of the grid and has decided that fewer, less-experienced men can do the same quality work as before de-regulation changed the way everyone does business. High-line work is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training. Neither does it allow time for refereeing the romantic squabbles of crew members, one of whom, Duncan (Devon Sawa), Beau has forbidden to date his niece, Bailey (Kate Bosworth). Another lineman (Ryan Robbins), who suffers PTSD from his time in the war, is convinced that his wife, Carline (Julie Benz), is cheating on him and the distraction comprises the safety of the team. Sharon Stone even pops up from time to time, as Duncan’s broken and embittered mother. At 97 minutes, Life on the Line simply can’t accommodate the extra baggage, while also preparing the audience for the massive storm that is about to take out a large section of the grid. Only Travolta and crew stand between it and a citizenry that might lose access to the Internet for an hour or so. It doesn’t help that some of the subplots appear to be held together by the screenwriters’ equivalent of Gorilla Glue. Apparently, Life on the Line is the passion project of Chad Dubea, a former utility lineman and now CEO of T&D Solutions, a power-line-maintenance and construction company in Louisiana. In 2013, Dubea spent $250,000 to establish the Fallen Linemen Organization, which helps the families of utility workers killed in the line of duty. Dubea’s financial contribution to the production earned him an executive-producer’s credit. The Blu-ray package adds a music video by Fiona Culley, featuring Darius Rucker, and a behind-the-scenes featurette, with cast and crew interviews.

Come What May: Blu-ray
The release of Christian Carion’s excellent World War II refugee drama, from France, coincided with the influx of Syrians attempting to escape the war in Europe. The difference, of course, is that the distraught characters we meet in Come What May have yet to experience the cruelty of the German invasion, while the Syrian refugees we see on the news have been suffering for quite a while. In both cases, the refugees’ desperation, fear and determination can read on their faces. In May 1940, the German troops have just entered France. With the horrors of World War I still fresh in the minds of the adults in the far northern part of the country, the residents of Pas-de-Calais are faced with the choice of evacuating south, as recommended by civil-defense officials, or roll the dice on the Germans. Each of the villagers must make the decision for themselves, but the mayor and his wife (Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner) have decided that it is their responsibility to lead, rather than follow. The journey south is fraught with danger, even if the enemy is more interested in destroying pockets of resistance than tormenting refugees. Come What May also tells the parallel stories of a Belgian anti-Nazi activist, Hans (August Diehl), who fled his home minutes ahead of a raid by police looking for communists, and a Scottish member of the British Expeditionary Force, Percy (Matthew Rhys), who somehow got separated from his company near Arras and is on the wrong side of the Scarpe River. Able to converse in French, German and English, Hans and his 8-year-old son have been able to assimilate into the farming community Pas-de-Calais. When someone hears Hans speak German with Max, the snitch alerts police to the possibility that he’s a spy. He’s in jail when the first attack comes, separated from his son by a several miles. A young teacher, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz), takes Max under her wing when the caravan leaves the village ahead of Hans. In a clever conceit, the boy vows to leave messages for his dad on school blackboards in the towns they will pass. Hans and Percy’s journey south is considerably more dangerous. The lovely French countryside and a wonderful score by 88-year-old Ennio Morricone help make the nearly two-hour drama pass quickly. The Cohen Media Blu-ray contains commentary with Carion, who was inspired by stories he’d heard growing up; a making-of featurette; a behind-the-scenes piece with Morricone; and video interview with Carion and Richard Pena, former program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

As if being 17 weren’t difficult enough, in Israel or anywhere else, the protagonist of Michal Vinik’s Blush will also spend the next 81 minutes of movie time coming of age and coming out of the closet, almost simultaneously. Bored with school and alienated from her conservative parents, Naama Barash (Sivan Noam Shimon) spends most of her free time drinking, getting high and partying with friends. Moreover, her older sister has decided that this would be the right time in her life to go AWOL from her military duty – again — and move to a predominantly Palestinian village, where her boyfriend lives. Her father (Dvir Benedek) thinks that his daughters are conspiring to bust his balls, but that would be too simple. Naama finds temporary relief in the company of the new girl in school, Dana (Hada Jade Sakori), a bleach-blonde punker who introduces her to Tel Aviv’s nightclub, stronger drugs and a lesbian scene that appears to revolve around a deejay named Dracula. Not surprisingly, Naama falls hard for Dana after their first kiss and orgasm. Finally, when her sister does come home, Naama has someone older who takes her changes seriously and offers sound advice. It’s difficult to predict what’s ahead for the flighty teenager, except for a stint of her own in the army. Several critics have pointed out the similarities between Blush and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, and Vinik hasn’t denied them. In some ways, Naama also resembles such American teens as Ellen Page’s Juno MacGuff, in Juno; Emma Stone’s Olive, in Easy A; Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine, in The Edge of Seventeen; and Shailene Woodley’s Kat Connors, in White Bird in a Blizzard. Hollywood studios are reluctant, though, to risk an R- or NC-17 rating, when it comes to movies of interest to teens. The package includes Summer Czajak’s short, “This Is You and Me,” a director’s statement and “why we selected it” statement from Film Movement.

Movies about priests seeking redemption for their sins – real and perceived – aren’t likely to find much of an audience in the U.S. or any other country where Roman Catholics have been shocked and disturbed by accusations of pedophilia, rape and cover-ups in their religious community. Like John Patrick Shanley’s intense 2008 drama, Doubt, Terrance Odette’s Fall leaves questions about a priest’s guilt, innocence and the possibility of resurrection largely up to viewers. That is not the case with such conclusive indictments as Spotlight, Deliver Us from Evil, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, Calvary and The Club. They describe crimes of abuse almost too terrible to contemplate, while also condemning the Vatican for its feeble response to accusations. (It’s far more distressed by financial penalties and costly settlements.) The last thing I wanted to watch this week was another story about pedophilia and the clergy. Fall is set in a diocese on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls that’s literally dying before Father Sam’s eyes. He spends far more time conducting funerals and visiting rest homes than officiating over baptisms and First Holy Communions. The young adults left in the parish find it difficult to square their lifestyles and personal beliefs with things they were taught years earlier in Catechism classes. They’re getting weary, waiting for the Pope to wake up one morning and realize that it’s the 21st Century.

Veteran character actor Michael Murphy (Manhattan) was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for his portrayal of the tortuously conflicted Father Sam in Fall. Even in hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine a better choice. Neither could there be a much better location for such downbeat drama than Niagara Falls in winter. Early in the film, Father Sam receives a letter that throws his uneventful life into turmoil. It triggers the murky memory of an encounter, 40 years earlier, with a boy. His inability to recall the nature of the incident troubles him to the point where he visits family members – the boy’s and his own – to get a fix on what may or may not have happened. It doesn’t go well. Even so, he’s able to tend to the flock, with a time-worn Christmas homily that barely reflects the turmoil within himself and the Church. That comes after the funeral of an elderly woman, whose son is gay and bitter over the Vatican’s condemnation of homosexuals, in general, and Father Sam’s specific reluctance to confront issues with which he probably doesn’t agree. Writer/director Odette provides some clues as to the mystery surrounding the priest’s past and present predilections, but avoids any firm answers. Thanks to Murphy, he’s able gets away with it. The real question, of course, comes in deciding for ourselves if we could forgive this priest for what in almost any other situation might be considered a redeemable indiscretion or no longer within the statutes of limitation. Special features include behind-the-scenes material, interviews and a CBC Radio panel discussion with cast and crew.

Look at Us Now, Mother
Anyone who’s witnessed the frequently volatile dynamics between teenage girls and their mothers knows that they tend to settle down after the daughter’s graduation from high school and she realizes that mom may not be such a drag, after all. It took filmmaker, television producer and writer Gayle Kirschenbaum a much longer time to make amends with Mildred, the Jewish Mother in extremis. The result can be seen in Look at Us Now, Mother, a frequently tortuous examination of a relationship that is only slightly less unnerving than Christina Crawford’s “Mommie Dearest.” At the core of Gayle’s lifelong frustrations is Mildred’s narcissism. From the age of 5, Mildred was in competition with her daughter for the attention of her husband and anyone with a camera pointed in their direction. She resented Gayle for not being born male and, two decades later, not having to give up her freedom in pursuit of a suitable husband, as she was compelled to do. Instead, Gayle chose to pursue artistic goals. Even as an adult, Gayle was taunted for having unruly hair, inadequate breasts, a “Jewish accent,” not being thin enough and refusing to get a nose job. Mildred, now in her 90s, looks as if she’s had only one or two fewer nips and tucks than Joan Rivers. Her mother’s obsession with her daughter’s proboscis prompted Gayle to make the 2007 documentary short “My Nose,” whose popularity led to the feature-length “Look at Us Now, Mother.” They appear to have buried the hatchet after the death of the family patriarch, during production, but the relationship still appears to be testy. Gayle admits to having problems in personal relationships with men and Mildred still professes not to remember abuses described in Look at Us Now, Mother. Curiously, none of the men in the family have much to say, or weren’t asked for their opinions.

Spirit of the Game
For more than 125 years, basketball and religion have existed side-by-side. Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball as part of his job at the Young Men’s Christian Association. In the early 1900s, he coined the phrase “muscular Christianity” to describe the use of recreation for religious purposes. Roman Catholic schools and the CYO, which was modeled after the YMCA, quickly identified the benefits of organized basketball programs, as well. Even today, it isn’t unusual to find a priest sitting alongside the players in a Big East contest. The entire conference is comprised of Catholic colleges without football programs. Being baptized Catholic is not, however, a prerequisite for being granted a scholarship. The same probably is true at most universities associated with a religious denomination. Spirit of the Game tells the story of the Mormon Yankees, an exhibition hoops team composed of young Mormon missionaries based in Australia, from 1937-1961. During this period missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints used basketball to build bridges in various countries and communities. Some of the players had already competed at the collegiate level – Utah State University and Brigham Young competed for the first time in 1906 – and the training would specifically pay off when the Yankees were asked to get Australia’s first Olympic basketball team ready for the 1956 Summer Games, which were to be held in Melbourne. The team also was asked to compete against squads from around the world in their preparations for the Olympics. Darran Scott’s film plays fast and loose with some aspects of the Yankees’ history, but, for the most part, sticks to the essentials. At the heart of the story, is 20-year-old Delyle Condie, a star on the University of Utah squad, who, after his fiancé calls off their engagement, spontaneously decides to quit the team and embark on his missionary commitment.

It’s possible that Condie was specifically assigned to Melbourne to add some sizzle to the Yankees, but Spirit of the Game doesn’t push the point. No sooner does Condie disembark from the ship than he’s coerced into joining a pickup game, with players who history tells us did or would comprise the Yankees. Even though the team had already developed a positive reputation in Australia, the movie missionaries are greeted by the natives as if they were sent there to accumulate wives and kidnap children. The Mormon president in charge of the district is portrayed as being hostile to the basketball team, as he believes practices and games take time away from knocking on doors and convincing folks to commit to being baptized in the LDS tradition. Scott doesn’t share the sales pitch with viewers, probably assuming they’ve already heard it, sold it or rejected it. Another comes in his depictions of the opposition and their trainees. The Aussie hopefuls are portrayed as being oafishly inept and reluctant to subscribe to Mormon codes pertaining to smoking, drinking and staying in shape. The French are drawn to resemble Snidely Whiplash, complete with ridiculous mustaches and an inclination to break the rules when pressed. During the peak of the Mormon Yankees’ popularity, 1955-60, the LDS Church in Australia tripled in size. Something must have clicked, because, during the peak of the Yankees’ popularity, 1955-1960, the LDS Church in Australia tripled in size. Today, the country fields an extremely competitive team and regularly contributes players to the NBA, while, since 1961, missionaries have been prohibited from forming teams. If Spirit of the Game succeeds in reaching its target audience, it will be because viewers are able to able overlook the clumsy presentation and laughable basketball on display. It’s a far cry from Hoosiers.  The only actors I recognized were Aaron Jakubenko (“Spartacus: War of the Damned”), as Elder Condie, and Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”), his supportive father.

Ever wonder if the sins of a mother are visited on their children, unto the third and the fourth generation, as the bible says of fathers whose sins are an abomination unto the Lord? No, me either. Something like that did arise, however, while watching Sasha King and Brian O’Donnell’s debut feature, Akron. That’s because a terrible incident in the long-ago past of the protagonists’ mothers has come back to possibly destroy their sons’ future together. More than that I cannot say on Akron’s central dilemma, which, for once, has nothing to do with anyone being gay and in love. Benny and Christopher (Matthew Frias, Edmund Donovan) are freshmen at the University of Akron. They meet while playing in a pickup football game and, even in the rain, sparks fly between them. Christopher’s parents are pleased to learn of their son’s good luck and newfound happiness. Benny’s mom invites them to Florida, where she works as a yoga instructor. While lounging in a hot tub, she drops the bombshell that’s been hanging over the narrative since the first scene. Christopher’s devastated not only by the mother’s pronouncement, but also by Benny’s decision not to level with him in the first place. Things don’t get any better when the boys return to Akron. Can this relationship be saved or will it turn to rust, like everything else in the city? What’s nice is that Benny and Christopher’s problem isn’t unique to LGBTQ youths or anyone else. Neither does the red-state background require additional turmoil be visited on them. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

The surprise reveal in Piotr J. Lewandowski’s Jonathan also involves love, longing, guilt and family secrets. This time, the setting is a farm in a forested section of Germany, where handsome blond Jonathan (Jannis Niewöhner) is having a tough time keeping his volatile emotions under control. His terminally ill father, Burghard (Andre Hennicke), has been sabotaging his efforts to care for him or even to die with a modicum of dignity. Jonathan and his elderly aunt already have their hands full, working hard to keep the farm afloat. Finally, they decide to hire a hospice nurse, Anka (Julia Koschitz), whose presence gives Jonathan the time he needs to discover things about the old man he should have known years earlier. It may surprise viewers, who assume Jonathan is the gay character, when he and Anka fall in lust with each other. Things take another surprising turn when an old friend arrives and it serves as a shot of adrenaline to the sick man’s broken body. Jonathan’s best moments come in nature, with rays of sunlight bursting through the trees, and while watching Anka attempting to catch that night’s diner, wading in the stream topless. If nothing else, the movie teaches us that it’s never too late to come out of the closet.

Antibirth: Blu-ray
Wild Beasts: Blu-ray
Blood Mania/Point of Terror: Limited Edition: Blu Ray
There are a lot of things that can go wrong when an experimental or Internet-based artist makes the first big step into the world of feature films. Good things can happen, as well, but sometimes it’s easier to remember the mistakes. Danny Perez’ Antibirth has plenty of both to go around. Presented as a “psychedelic horror film,” it wallows in excessively rude behavior and the ugliness that tends to surround badly behaved characters. It’s difficult to find much to admire in anyone, here. Even so, patience will reward genre buffs in the form of a payoff that combines elements of Rosemary’s Baby, Jacob’s Ladder and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The setting for Antibirth is a god-forsaken city in the upper Midwest, possibly Detroit, which supports a motley community of derelict military veterans, generic stoners, petty criminals and conspiracy theorists. Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny play the self-destructive Lou and Sadie, local losers whose trailer-park sensibilities perfectly mirror the film’s low-rent production values. One night, after blacking out from too much partying, Lou begins to show signs of being pregnant. She doesn’t remember having sex in months, but getting pregnant doesn’t require more than a few minutes of physical intimacy or more than one partner being conscious. If she had been raped, the symptoms would suggest that it was at the hands of an alien.  As the pregnancy progresses, viewers might develop a distinct sense of dread over what might be delivered from Lou’s womb. She, however, appears to be too wasted to care, one way another. As Lou and Sadie kill time eating junk food and getting high in front of the television, the programming goes from cartoon craziness to totally insanity. It includes Teletubbie-like characters, televangelical yogis, gremlins and Vietnam-era soldiers. As Lou’s pregnancy progress, a conspiracy nut played by a shockingly plump Meg Tilly enters the picture, as a harbinger of horror to come.

And, if Antibirth doesn’t sate your appetite for truly bizarre genre fare, the Wild Beasts surely will. The concept is exponentially less complicated than the one that informs Antibirth, as well: when the water supply for a large city zoo becomes contaminated with PCP, the most dangerous animals go crazy and break out of their cages. Wild Beasts was the final film written and directed by Franco E. Prosperi, one of the creators of films in “Mondo” series of Italian shock-docs. At first glance, it looks like just another low-budget addition to the time-honored “nature strikes back” subgenre. As it evolves, however, it appears as if the Humane Society either was asleep at the wheel or simply not invited to the location shoots. Released in 1984, before the use of animatronic stand-ins became standard-practice, Wild Beasts could only have looked as realistic as it does if real animals – from polar bears, cheetahs and elephants, to rats, seeing-eye dogs and cats – were put directly in harm’s way during scenes of rampaging beasts, pyrotechnics and carnage. The idea here is to get the animals back in their cages, before the town’s populace is devoured. What transpires before either of those two things can occur is  just crazy enough to hold the attention of viewers who aren’t disgusted by the likelihood that some of the creatures were sacrificed in the service of schlocky cinema. I suspect that this might have negatively affected Wild Beast’s ability to find distribution here. Fans of Italian genre fare might recognize stars Lorraine De Selle (Cannibal Ferox) and Ugo Bologna (Nightmare City). Digitally remastered in hi-def for the first time, Wild Beasts arrives with featurettes “Altered Beasts,” an interview with director Franco E. Prosperi”; “Wild Tony,” an interview with actor Tony di Leo”; “Cut After Cut,” an interview with editor and “Mondo” filmmaker Mario Morra; “The Circus Is in Town,” an interview with animal wrangler Roberto Tibeti’s son, Carlo Tiberti; and “House of Wild Beasts,” a visit to the home of Franco E. Prosperi.

The common element in the Blood Mania/Point of Terror double-feature from Vinegar Syndrome is writer/producer/singer/star Peter Carpenter, who, the publicity material would have us believe was “one of the most enigmatic leading men of the era,” encompassing 1968-71. In addition to this “lurid double-dose of ’70s sleaze” the multi-hyphenate talent suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died two months after the scheduled, then delayed release of his fourth picture, Point of Terror. If he had survived – who knows? – Carpenter might have gone on to become the David Hasselhoff or Wings Hauser of his day. The advent of the video-cassette revolution was still several years away, so Carpenter’s reputation pretty much was limited to edited-for-television versions of these films. (They’re included in the limited-edition pressing, as well.) Carpenter, who may still be best known for playing Mountie in Russ Meyers’ Vixen, plays Craig Cooper who’s taken over the clinic founded by the bed-ridden pain-in-the-ass Dr. Ridgeley Waterman (Eric Allison). Cooper is being blackmailed over performing illegal abortions while a student in med school, so he considers accepting an offer made by Westerman’s amyl-snorting, nymphomaniac daughter, Victoria (Maria De Aragon), who would benefit financially from his assisted death. What she doesn’t know is that her father’s will bestows the bulk of his estate to her younger sister (Playmate Vicki Peters). When Cooper makes a play for Gail, Victoria comes down with a bad case of blood mania.

In Crown International’s Point of Terror, Carpenter headlines as Tony Trelos, a lounge singer whose act resembles a bargain-basement Tom Jones. One morning, after a show, Trelos wakes up on the private beach belonging to Andrea Hillard (Dyanne Thorne) and her wheelchair-bound husband, a record-label executive. After some chitchat with the Lana Turner-wannbe, Trelos convinces her to check out a set at the Lobster House. While he hopes for possible record contract, Andrea appears to be more interested in the bulge in his jeans and someone to help her get rid of her embittered spouse. She feels betrayed when the singer hooks up with her lovely stepdaughter Helayne (Lory Hansen) and decides to do something about it. The best thing about Point of Terror is the set design – or, what passes for it – which provides a lesson in tacky, post-Eisenhower Era modernism and middle-age-crazy fashion statements. Director Robert Vincent O’Neill’s color palette is more startling than anything in the movie. Both pictures have been newly restored from their original 35mm negatives. The package includes a commentary track with Blood Mania’s director Robert Vincent O’Neill, actresses Leslie Simms (both films) and Vicki Peters; a video interview and introduction with O’Neill; an interview with Simms; promotional galleries for both films; and reverse cover artwork.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax: Blu-ray
The Survivor: Blu-ray
Not even the presence of “Fifty Shades” hunk, James Dornan, Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”), Indie Spirit and Emmy-nominee Molly Parker, Emmy nominee Oliver Platt, Oscar- and Emmy nominee Barbara Hershey and the (Max) Minghella imprint on the screenplay could ensure more than a limited release for The 9th Life of Louis Drax. Before taking on the task of adapting Liz Jensen’s best-selling novel of the same title, director Alexandre Aja had just come off the offbeat hybrid fantasy Horns, with Daniel Radcliffe and Juno Temple, and goofy international hit, Piranha 3D. If M. Night Shyamalan had affixed his name to the project somewhere, more viewers might have been attracted to the picture’s intricate blend of supernatural intrigue, eerie special effects and head-scratching mystery. The story begins on Louis Drax’s 9th birthday, when a lifetime of curious mishaps culminated in the boy’s near-fatal fall from the ledge of a steep cliff, into the Pacific Ocean. After being pulled from the water, Louis expires on an operating table. As he’s being wheeled into the morgue, however, the boy startles hospital workers by rising from the dead … literally. Being alive and being alert enough to recognize his surroundings are two different things, though.

Even when he was fully conscious, Louis tended to drift in and out of a dream state, while also acting out some dangerous fantasies. Platt plays the psychiatrist entrusted with discovering what makes him tick. Their sessions are confrontational and freakishly candid, as if there was a much older sociopath controlling Louis’ every response. Without giving anything away, I can safely say that the rest of movie alternates between what’s happening in Louis’ subconscious, as he recalls the events leading up to the fateful day, and the efforts of the adults around him to fix or elude blame for the accident. Meanwhile, his father (Paul) has disappeared, his mother (Sarah Gadon) fears for her life and the boy’s neurologist (Dornan) steps into a web being spun by a black-widow spider. Parker plays a dogged police detective, who suspects everyone involved of being guilty for something or other, while Hershey plays Louis’ paternal grandmother, who swoops in towards the end of the movie to unravel the threads leading to common wisdom. One way to determine beforehand whether or not you’ll enjoy The 9th Life of Louis Drax would be to recall your feelings toward Shyamalan’s film, especially those released between Signs and Split.

Although David Hemmings’ 1981 supernatural thriller, The Survivor, can be found on most lists of Ozploitation titles, it differs from the car chase and slasher flicks in a couple of significant ways. It was one of the first Australian films whose budget was allowed to pass the million-dollar barrier and a cerebral approach to the mayhem that was less in tune with Mad Max than The Last Wave and Walkabout, which also starred Jenny Agutter. The inferno ignited by the crash leaves everyone on board dead, except the pilot (Robert Powell), who walks away from the wreckage unscathed. Soon thereafter, a local psychic named Hobbs (Agutter) begins to communicate with the spirits of the doomed passengers. Hobbs helps the pilot recreate the horrifying event, while a priest played by Joseph Cotton – in his final film performance – has other reasons to follow the investigation. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews with producer Antony I. Ginnane (Patrick) and cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient); “The Legacy of James Herbert,” author of the source novel; “Robert Powell on James Herbert,” an on-location TV special with stars Joseph Cotten and Peter Sumner; archived interview with Hemmings and Powell; and Antony I. Ginnane trailer reel.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man: Blu-ray
Leonard Cohen: Live Broadcast Sessions, 1985-1993
If Bob Dylan hadn’t sent Patti Smith to accept the Noble Prize for literature in his place, there might have been a clamor for Leonard Cohen to be awarded it in a posthumous ceremony. Proof of his greatness can be found on the many DVDs and Blu-rays flooding the market, most only vaguely authorized, if at all. Lionsgate has done his international fandom a great favor of re-releasing Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, a beautifully rendered documentary, during which several musicians he has influenced pay homage to him in song. There have been three tribute CDs dedicated to his work, at least, but, in “I’m Your Man,” it’s possible to see love and heartfelt gratitude in the faces of musicians Linda and Teddy Thompson, the Handsome Family, Perla Batalla, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, Bono and the Edge, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton, Julie Christensen, Antony, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The songs are sometimes interrupted by chats with Cohen and artists represented here, but not so often that it becomes a nuisance. The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Lian Lunson; a brief “conversation” with Cohen; and four additional performances.

I don’t know anything about how copyright laws work outside the United States, except what the MPAA tells me, but I suspect that they’re rather lax when it comes to material broadcast on television. Leonard Cohen: Live Broadcast Sessions, 1985-1993 features 18 live versions of Cohen classics, recorded in Norway in 1985, and again in 1988, and a further selection from Barcelona, Spain, in 1993. This represented an extremely productive period in Cohen’s career, with the release of “Various Positions,” “I’m Your Man” and “The Future.” The audio/visual quality is better here than in most of the concert videos I’ve seen from unauthorized sources. The songs are rendered in full-length versions, as well.

Dirty Dancing: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Even if Dirty Dancing is celebrating its 30th anniversary on film, it’s worth remembering that the universe in which the story exists is 24 years older than that. It seems like an entire lifetime. More things in our culture changed between the summer of 1963 and August, 1987, than in the 30 years since its release into theaters. Some of that change was noted in the movie, itself, when resort owner Max Kellerman alluded to the fact that teenagers were more interested in spending their summers backpacking through Europe, than learning the merengue in the Catskills. Among other things, President Kennedy was still alive, the Vietnam War was still a police action, the Beatles were a blip on the cultural radar, Mary Quant had yet to rock the mini-skirt and LSD was still legal. Ever cautious, Max might have prohibited his dancers from teaching campers the twist, even though it was two years past its peak. Contraceptives wouldn’t be made available to married women in all states until 1965 or 1972 for unmarried women, like Johnny’s dancing partner Penny, in all 50 states. Roe v. Wade wouldn’t be decided until almost a full decade after Dirty Dancing opened. The 1969 moon landing had less impact on society than legalizing a woman’s right to control her own reproductive system.

All those things and more come to mind while watching the movie for the first, tenth or hundredth time. There are now two new 30th Anniversary editions of Dirty Dancing on the market. At a full list price of $64.99, “Dirty Dancing: 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” offers diehard fans – and you know who you are – such groovy bonus features as a Kellerman’s cottage room key chain for Baby’s room; an I-carried-a-watermelon wristlet wallet; a compact mirror; 108-page shooting script, with written notes and a letter signed by screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein; vintage Kellerman resort postcards; a Kellerman resort brochure/map; ”Do Not Disturb” door sign; dance-step cards; original theatrical mini one-sheet; and limited and numbered collectible packaging. The $14.99 edition share brand-new special features “Happy Birthday, Dirty Dancing,” with celebrity testimony; “Patrick Swayze: In His Own Words” and “Patrick Swayze Uncut”; and Eleanor Bergstein’s “Thoughts on a Lifetime of Dirty Dancing.” The vintage supplemental material adds outtakes/deleted/alternate/extended scenes; music videos; “The Dirty Dancing Phenomenon” and “The Rhythm of the Dancing”; original screen tests; interviews with Jennifer Grey, Eleanor Bergstein, Miranda Garrison and Kenny Ortega; and separate commentary tracks with Eleanor Bergstein, and with Kenny Ortega, Miranda Garrison, Jeff Jur, Hilary Rosenfeld and David Chapman.

Life, Animated
Even if this Oscar-nominated documentary has been in general release for a few months now, street dates are practically irrelevant when it comes to films that aren’t destined for a can’t-miss posting atop the new-releases listings. For non-fiction films, any publicity — any time — could be good for business. When Life, Animated made the cut in the Best Documentary Feature category, it gave publicists another excuse to call reviewers and pitch their product. Roger Ross Williams’ deeply affecting film must be considered a longshot for the top prize, but stranger things have happened. For one thing, Williams has already won an Academy Award, in 2009, in the Best Documentary Short Subject category, for “Music by Prudence.” For another, Life, Animated demonstrates the almost miraculously therapeutic power of movies. It tells the story of Owen Suskind, a chatty and energetic 3-year-old, who, one day, stopped speaking and sank into autism.

No developmental disorder renders parents more powerless than autism, which betrays few signs of its advance and offers even fewer avenues for recovery. It wasn’t until Owen reached 7 that he showed any signs of improvement. The only things that held his attention for any length of time were the animated Disney movies that he stared at for hours at a time. One day, his father, Ron, picked up one of Owen’s puppets — Iago, the wisecracking parrot from Aladdin — and asked, “What’s it like to be you?” Out of the blue, the boy responded using dialogue from the movie. It represented the first step toward a life that would include becoming a highly proficient artist and mimic, meeting the voice actors behind his favorite characters, addressing a conference in France and moving into an assistant-living complex. There would be setbacks, some almost too sad to bear, but the high points make for exhilarating viewing. In charting Owens’ journey, Williams combines vintage home-movie footage, with his own animations and short segments from his favorite Disney movies.

Epix: Graves: Season One
El Rey Network: From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series: Season Three
History: Frankenstein: The Real Story/The Real Wolfman Double Feature
PBS: Moveable Feast: Season 4
Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Friendship Divine
PBS Kids: Caillou: Playtime With Caillou
PBS/Nick Jr.: Teletubbies: Big Hugs
Who better than Nick Nolte to play an irascible former president, commonly dismissed as the worst to have ever occupied the Oval Office? Larry David? Perhaps, but he’s otherwise engaged, preparing for a ninth season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Nope, Nolte is perfect as President Richard Graves, a right-wing extremist who was elected (twice), in large part, because he was a cowboy. Now, 20 years after leaving the White House, the protagonist of Epix’s frequently spot-on comedy, “Graves,” has seen the liberal light and has decided to right the wrongs inflicted on 99 percent of the American populace by his administration and retool his legacy. Clearly, Graves is modeled on former presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom had cowboy credentials, but the policies he shaped might have been lifted from Donald Trump’s campaign playbook. Lately, though, he’s gone so far as to invite illegal immigrants to take advantage of the sanctuary being provided at his Santa Fe compound. He’s also advocated diverting tax dollars to cancer research, instead of carrying Republican 1-percenters on the federal dole. The show, which takes full advantage of its splendid New Mexico location, also benefits from a terrific supporting cast. It includes Sela Ward as a former First Lady with political ambitions of her own; Heléne Yorke, as his debauched daughter; Chris Lowell, as his alienated son, home from the war; Skylar Astin, as Graves’ adoring assistant; Callie Hernandez, as his multi-tattooed hippie muse; and Ernie Hudson and Nia Vardalos, as political advisors. The early episodes were larded with real-life political nerds – including the unctuous Rudy Giuliani – but that novelty wore out its welcome rather quickly. A second season is expected later this year.

Season Three of the El Rey Network original, “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series,” continues to expand on the saga of the highly excitable Gecko brothers, the vampire goddess Santánico Pandemonium and the Fuller family. As it opens, Seth and Richie’s organization is infiltrated by an enemy fixated on destroying the Geckos, the Lords and all culebras. They attempt to persuade Santanico to help them fight various demons who have escaped from the ancient labyrinth of the Titty Twister. She, however, is being targeted by the ancient Xibalban queen, Amaru, who has taken on a familiar form of Kate Fuller. Meanwhile, Freddie and Ximena follow a trail of massacres to a deadly confrontation with Xibalban demon Brasa, who’s Amaru’s right-hand man. This is one show that demands of newcomers that they do their homework before jumping in feet first.

From the History Channel comes the double-feature package, “Frankenstein: The Real Story” and “The Real Wolfman,” both of which use historical, scientific and forensic data to trace the origins of these enduing legends. Doctor Frankenstein’s monster may have sprung from the brow of Mary Shelley, but efforts to raise the dead using spare body parts and electricity weren’t at all unusual in her time. “The Real Wolfman” examines the same legend of the Beast of Gévaudan that informed the French horror/thriller, The Brotherhood of Wolf, in 2001. As the story goes, a wolf-like creature prowled the Auvergne and South Dordogne regions of France during the years 1764 to 1767, killing about 100 people, often in bizarre circumstances.

In Season Four of PBS’s tantalizing “Moveable Feast,” we follow celebrity chef Pete Evans on a culinary journey across America, as he teams up with some of the country’s most innovative chefs — Curtis Stone, Sean Brock, Andrea Reusing and Brian Malarkey — to source the finest regional ingredients and create a multicourse feast for friends. The destinations include a majestic redwood grove, river oyster farm, a ranch in the foothills of Montana and the deck of the USS Midway. Learn cooking tips and techniques from chefs at Fine Cooking magazine. Special features include printable recipes for Thai-style deviled eggs, rye-berry succotash, low-country fish stew, honey-chipotle lamb ribs and Smith Island cake.

In the third DVD release for Nickelodeon’s hit animated preschool series, “Shimmer and Shine,” the genies-in-training encounter some fantastical new friends, including spunky mermaid Nila, Ice Genie Layla and Crystal Queen Empress Caliana. The episodes in “Friendship Divine” include “Zoom Zahramay,” “Mermaid Mayhem,” “A Tree-Mendous Rescue!,” “Freeze-Amay Falls,” “Lightning in a Bottle,” “All Bottled Up,” and “The Crystal Queen And Bling, Bling.”

In PBS Kids’ “Caillou: Playtime With Caillou,” the emphasis is on playing games and being active with family and friends. The episodes include “Caillou’s New Game,” “Caillou’s Leaf Pile,” “Rainy Day at the Beach,” “Soccer Trouble,” “Daddy’s Puzzles,” “What’s Ringette?” and “Sarah’s Kite.”

Big Hugs” is part of the popular “Teletubbies” series, which gives some parents the creeps, but kids love. (Facsimiles even showed up in an acid trip in the horror flick Antibirth, mentioned above.) The children’s show features whimsical characters who explore and learn amazing things about life, while on their adventures. In this collection, some of the show’s best loved characters find a magic door that leads them into a special world where a Big Hug awaits each of them. Join Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po as they splash in puddles, ride the Custard Train and watch Tummy Tales.

The DVD Wrapup: Queen of Katwe, Jack Reacher, Tyler Perry, Killbillies, Victoria and more

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Queen of Katwe: Blu-ray
Harry and Snowman
Mira Nair’s inspirational and wonderfully uplifting Queen of Katwe straddles three subgenres generally reserved for the athletic and academic accomplishments of minority and underprivileged youths. Typically, such entertainments focus on Americans who succeed against great odds, but, here, the closest we come to native soil is the Disney logo before the credits. That Queen of Katwe is set almost entirely in Uganda, with a side trip to Russia, shouldn’t matter a whit to anyone looking for an escape from the bad news relayed by the talking heads on cable news. The unlikely story of 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi, who rose from poverty in the slums of Kampala to excel in the cutthroat world of international chess competition, fits neatly alongside such compelling David-vs.-Goliath, Cinderella and fish-out-of-water dramas as Stand and Deliver, The Blind Side, The Perfect GameThe Great Debaters and Music of the Heart, as well as uplifting chess-specific titles as The Dark Horse, Life of a King and Brooklyn Castle. Shot largely in Johannesburg and the protagonist’s home turf, Queen of Katwe describes exactly how difficult it was for Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) to overcome every obstacle thrown in her way by the poverty that enslaved her dirt-poor mother, elitist big-city chess clubs and her own bouts with self-confidence and illiteracy. It also pays homage to the understated heroism of her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), another child of poverty and war, who, after graduating No. 1 in his college class, was unable to find work as an engineer. To make ends meet – barely — Katende returned to the same slums in which he was raised to coach soccer and begin the Katwe Chess Academy, as part of a sports-outreach program organized by Christian missionaries. Phiona’s 11-year-old brother, Brian, was attracted to the youth center by the promise of free porridge, but he stayed to learn the game.

Their mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), had lost her husband to AIDS when Phiona was 3 and another daughter, soon after, to an undiagnosed malady. Nakku couldn’t afford to keep the kids in school, so, while she and Phiona sold boiled maize from a saucepan on her head, in the market, Brian was pretty much left to his own devices. He encouraged his sister, then 9, to join him at the center, if only for the porridge. After Nakku created a scene by pulling Phiona from a chess game, Katende rushed to the market to plead with her to give the girl the same opportunity he got to break the cycle of dead-end poverty. Although she had never seen a chessboard before visiting the center – there was no word for the game in her native tongue — Phiona demonstrated an uncanny ability to recognize strategy and anticipate her opponents’ moves. After much trial, error and frustration, Phiona and two other boys were chosen to compete in Sudan, where she experienced modern plumbing and slept in a bed of her own for the first time. She would be chosen to represent Uganda at the 39th Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia. That’s not the end of the story, by any means, but, once she got rolling, Phiona, now 20, wasn’t about to be deterred from gaining an education and serving as a role model for kids like her. Nair and writer William Wheeler (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) reserve a recitation of Phiona and Katende’s accomplishments for a comprehensive wrap-up that leads into the closing credits, which begin at the movie’s two-hour mark. (Yes, it is a tad long.) In a sterling example of Mouse House synergy, the screenplay was adapted from an ESPN Magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, while the film was produced by Walt Disney Pictures and ESPN Films. Alicia Keys wrote and recorded the song “Back to Life” for the film and Walt Disney Records’ soundtrack album. The Blu-ray adds Nair’s commentary; 20 minutes of deleted scenes; a half-hour making-of featurette; a three-part feature on the film’s music; and “A Fork, a Spoon & a Knight,” Nair’s original short film on Katende.

The against-all-odds subgenre also includes horses standing one step away from the glue factory, before someone recognizes a hidden talent and rescues them. Harry and Snowman is just such a story and a bit more, besides. In 2008, Ron Davis directed Pageant, a crowd-pleaser doc about five female impersonators vying for the 2006 Miss Gay America crown. He returned to the pageant circuit in 2013, this time with Miss You Can Do It, a film that chronicled the challenges facing Abbey Curran, Miss Iowa USA 2008, before she became the first woman with a disability to compete at the Miss USA Pageant. In it, he also introduced eight other girls from around the country with various physical and intellectual disabilities, as they participated in the Miss You Can Do It Pageant, which Abbey founded in 2004. Harry and Snowman is, indeed, a horse of a different color. In 1956, Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer attended an auction in Pennsylvania looking for horses that could be used for lessons at his Long Island school. Arriving late, de Leyer was left only one horse – a large whitish-gray gelding, previously used as a plow horse – to study. He purchased the slaughterhouse-bound Snowman for $80. It wasn’t until Snowman was sold to a doctor who owned a farm six miles away, for $160, that its real talent became apparent. It would leap the fences surrounding the new owner’s paddock – once, dragging a tire deployed as an anchor — and return to de Leyer’s stables. The doctor, tired of retrieving Snowman, decided to leave it there. He would sell the horse back to de Leyer for expenses accrued from boarding fees.

After two years of extensive training, it began competing on the open-jumper circuit as “The Cinderella Horse,” against pedigreed show horses that cost their similarly pedigreed owners tens of thousands of dollars. At the time, show jumping was sport reserved for socialites, who could afford to compete at its highest levels. It still is, except when jumping and dressage are televised from the Summer Olympics. Snowman became famous as a people’s champion, even allowing Johnny Carson to sit on its back. De Leyer (a.k.a., “The Fly Dutchman” and “The Galloping Grandfather”) had a story of his own to tell on such shows as “To Tell the Truth” and in Life magazine. As a boy, growing up during WWII, he helped rescue Allied paratroopers and carry grain through enemy lines. After immigrating to the U.S. with his wife, de Leyer worked on a North Caroline tobacco farm. After saving some money, he returned to the life of a horseman in New York and, later, Virginia. At 88, he’s still riding and coaching. Snowman was euthanized in 1974, at 26, after suffering from multiple internal ailments. There’s nothing fancy about Harry and Snowman, either. The story is told in as straightforward a manner as possible, through first-person interviews and archival footage.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back: Blu-ray/UHD/DVD
If Steven Seagal and Dolph Lundgren had been asked to star in this sequel to the 2012 action/thriller Jack Reacher, instead of Tom Cruise, it probably wouldn’t have been accorded a $60 million production budget and a worldwide theatrical run. It would have gone straight to DVD/Blu-ray, skipped the 4K upgrade and lived up to more reasonable expectations. For their parts, fans of novelist Lee Child’s best-selling series would be happy to see an actor more in keeping with the character’s stature – 6-foot-5, between 230-250 pounds – and critics wouldn’t feel it necessary to point out that almost nothing in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back makes any sense. Nothing makes sense in movies starring Seagal, Lundgren or, for that matter, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and they still make money. As capable an action star as Tom Cruise has proven to be, here and in the Mission:Impossible films, it’s likely that Child’s loyal readers have yet to forgive him for being short. Diehards might also wonder why Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz – co-creators of the touchy-feely series “thirtysomething” and “Once and Again” — were brought in to helm and polish Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Clue: Cruise is loyal to past collaborators and he scored big with Zwick and Herskowitz, on The Last Samurai. (Likewise, he’s teamed with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie on Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Edge of Tomorrow, Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation and the upcoming M:I 6.) The only decision here that might raise eyebrows, but shouldn’t, is the casting of Cobie Smulders, best known for her co-starring role on “How I Met Your Mother.” At 5-foot-8, the athletic Vancouver native has played Agent Maria Hill in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she’s no slouch here as Reacher’s military liaison, Major Susan Turner. The picture opens moments after the former major in the U.S. Military Police and full-time drifter single-handedly dismantles a human-trafficking operation. Curiously, perhaps, Reacher dispatches the bad guys off-camera, saving the kick-ass stuff until he hitchhikes to Washington and discovers that the woman holding his old job is awaiting court-martial for what we can safely assume are trumped-up charges of espionage and being an accomplice to the murders of two of her investigators in Afghanistan.

In the first of several preposterous plot twists, JAG prosecutor Colonel Bob Moorcroft (Robert Catrini) attempts to steer Reacher off the case by advising him that he and the army are being sued by a former prostitute, who claims that Jack fathered her daughter, now 15, Samantha (Danika Yarosh), and abandoned them. Never mind that Reacher has no recollection of having had relations with the woman, whoever she may be, let alone impregnating her. In 2001, or thereabouts, the likelihood of a working girl not requiring the use of a condom when having sex with a soldier was practically nil. Moreover, if such as suit were successful, every prostitute within shouting distance of a military base would follow suit, hoping to scam a fortune from Uncle Sam. Essentially, the conceit allows for the introduction of a character that normally wouldn’t have anything to do with Major Turner’s court-martial. His curiosity piqued, our modern-day Paladin is compelled to check out Samantha, a move that assures she will become a bargaining chip for the mercenaries in their pursuit of Reacher, who, by this time, has broken Turner out of a high-security prison on a military base. To discover the truth behind the conspiracy, the trio heads for New Orleans, where even more unlikely circumstances lie. The saving grace in all this mishigas is that Zwick doesn’t allow viewers much time to become bogged down in plot lapses and inconsistences in logic. Between having to protect Samantha and solving the mystery, without getting killed, Cruise and Smulders are rarely given a moment’s rest or time, even, to have a sex scene. And, that’s a very good thing, because there’s a 20-year difference in their ages and, in Blu-ray 4K, especially, he’s finally starting to show his age. The Blu-ray package adds 80 minutes of bonus content, including interviews with the cast and crew, background on Lee Child’s popular character, filming on location in Louisiana and creation of intense action sequences. Some configurations add an illustrated version of Child’s short story “Everyone Talks.”

Pinocchio: Walt Disney Signature Collection: Blu-ray
Like previous inductees to Disney’s top-end Signature Collection — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Beauty and the Beast – the 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio, is a movie that needs no introduction. Neither do future designees Bambi, Aladdin, Fantasia, Peter Pan, The Lion King and Lady and the Tramp. As is the case for any Disney film released in a new audio/visual format, it behooves consumers to review the features included on previous editions they might already own and compare them to the ones added (and subtracted) from the most current release. So far, Signature Collections have reprised the Blu-ray audio/visual presentations from Diamond Edition releases, without adding the 3D or 4K Blu-ray enhancements many fans would love to own. It’s also worth checking out such niche sites as to learn of special editions only available, so far, through Best Buy and Target. That said, here are the latest enticements for collectors and newcomers, alike: “Walt’s Story Meetings: Pleasure Island,” with Pixar’s Pete Docter and Disney historian J.B. Kaufman as they explore artwork recently discovered in Disney’s animation research library; “Pinocchio” in which Uncle Walt discusses the making of “Pinocchio” through archival recordings and interviews; “The Pinocchio Project: When You Wish Upon a Star” follows music influencers Alex G, Tanner Patrick and J.R Aquino as they create their rendition of the film’s signature song for a new music video; the recently restored and scored 1927 short feature, “Poor Papa,” featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; and “Classic Bonus Features” ported over from prior editions, with  deleted scenes, sing-alongs, storyboards and theatrical trailers. There’s also a Disney Digital copy of the film.

Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween: Blu-ray
Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run: The Play: Blu-ray
Almost Christmas: Blu-ray
Of all the things asked of a certified film critic working for a mainstream publication, by far the most Sisyphean is being assigned to review any new movie by Tyler Perry. It isn’t necessarily because they aren’t particularly well made or that their readers aren’t interested. Most movies released between January and November by major distributors underachieve in one way or another. It’s vexing, as well, to know that Perry’s films – especially those starring Medea – are likely to succeed no matter what critics say about them. Not unexpectedly, Boo! A Madea Halloween was dismissed by the vast majority of all reviews cited on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. And, yet, in its first two weeks in theaters, it would crush such Hollywood hopefuls as Inferno and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back at the domestic box-office. Perry admits that the holiday-themed comedy, which took a mere six days to shoot, was conceived after watching Chris Rock’s Top Five. In it, Rock’s character is distressed to see movie goers lined up for a fictional Tyler Perry movie, “Boo!,” in which Medea fights ghosts in a haunted house. “A Medea Halloween” is a tad more complicated than that, but not much. Madea is asked by her son, Brian, to spend the night at his house, with Uncle Joe (all Perry) and Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis), so as to prevent her granddaughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), from attending a party at a local frat house with three of her BFFs. If they’re lucky, their underage status might dissuade the frat boys from roofie and raping them, but only if they chose to admit it. Eventually, the brothers must deal with Madea and her posse and hilarity will ensue. Or, not. “A Medea Halloween” isn’t completely devoid of belly laughs, but only fans of the Three Stooges, “Mama’s Family” and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” are likely to go ape over it. Special features include “Why We Love Madea!” and “Boo! From the Crew Montage.”

Tyler Perry’s Madea on the Run: The Play is one of several productions that began on the stage, in Atlanta or New Orleans, and toured the “chitlin’ circuit” (a.k.a., “urban theater circuit”) before ending up on the screen or video. Perry makes no effort to disguise the fact that what is being shown is exactly the same as what theater audiences saw, right down to the mics visible on the actors’ heads and responses of audience members. At one time, these movies suffered from inferior acoustics, a drawback that might have been cured with subtitles. Apart from the clunky mics and artificiality that naturally derives being stage-bound, most of the technical problems have been fixed here. Madea on the Run finds Our Heroine on the lam from police, laying low at the Bams’ house. Aunt Bam is recovering from hip-replacement surgery and fresh out of pain-killers and marijuana. It makes her more cranky than usual. The house gradually fills up with family and friends, all of whom have their own way to get on Madea’s last nerve. This time around, though, high-pitched Aunt Bam and her drug habit nearly steal the show from the characters played by Perry. Cassi Davis is a heck of a singer, as are most of the other cast members, and the songs are good. I enjoyed Madea on the Run a lot more than I thought was possible, probably because of the actors are able to overcome the many barriers imposed on them by being limited to a fixed stage and immobile cameras.

David E. Talbert’s Almost Christmas is a holiday-themed urban dramedy that owes less to Tyler Perry than it does to George Tillman Jr.’s Soul Food, Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man and The Best Man Holiday, and Lance Rivera’s The Perfect Holiday and The Cookout. (Before he died last July, Garry Marshall was Hollywood’s go-to guy in the sub-genre, logging the star-studded hits and misses, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, Almost Christmas divided the mostly white corps of mainstream critics, whose judgments don’t carry much weight in the minority community corps, anyway. Universal probably was far more interested in the opinions of the same First Weekend Club members whose early buzz helped Hidden Figures become a surprise crossover hit for Fox. Not that my vote counts for much, but I was entertained by Almost Christmas and would hope its appeal isn’t limited to “urban” audiences. Danny Glover plays Walter, the recently widowed patriarch of a large and noisy family, gathering in Birmingham for the first time since the death of their beloved wife, mother and grandmother. Considering the wildly divergent personalities of the siblings, it’s destined to be a bittersweet reunion, at best. Walter hopes their differences won’t erupt into the same cacophony of arguments, jealousy and posturing that accompanied such gatherings in the past. No such luck. It starts innocently enough with Walter comically trying to duplicate one of his wife’s favorite recipes … sweet-potato pie, if I’m not mistaken. It’s a messy disaster. When the daughters arrive, their first mission is to locate mom’s recipe tin, which she hid somewhere in the kitchen. Christmas won’t be Christmas without them. Anticipation for the annual feast served to quell the discord that continued to build as more guests arrived. Without the recipes, there may be no way to save Christmas. Never fear, the clichés are here to save it. For once, they don’t get in the way of the actors’ own personalities and charisma. The talented cast includes Gabrielle Union, Kimberly Elise, Omar Epps, Mo’Nique, JB Smoove, Jessie Usher, DC Young Fly, John Michael Higgins, Romany Malco and Nicole Ari Parker. The package adds commentary with Talbert, editor Troy Takaki and apprentice editor Gene Lewis Jr.; a gag reel; and several short featurettes.

Jim: The James Foley Story
I watched Brian Oakes’ Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary on the same day that President Trump’s executive order, banning refugees from several Muslim countries, turned JFK Airport into a holding cell for people who had already been vetted by immigration authorities. Jim: The James Foley Story tells the heartbreaking story of the teacher and freelance war correspondent, from New Hampshire, who was captured in northwestern Syria on November 22, 2012, and beheaded by ISIS terrorists on August 19, 2014. Before being abducted, the Marquette graduate reported from the rebel-held city of Aleppo, which was the target of bombardments by Syrian government officials aligned with Soviet monster-in-chief Vladimir Putin. Foley’s reporting helped raise awareness of the horrifying human tragedy playing out in Aleppo, which would soon lead to the flood of immigrants into Europe. It’s possible that Foley made contact with some of the same Aleppo residents who would be banned by our monster-in-chief from entering the U.S. Jim: The James Foley Story is further haunted by the fact that he had been abducted a year earlier, as well, while covering the revolt against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. After 44 days of beatings and torture, Foley was allowed to return to the U.S. He spent the next couple of months resting, re-connecting with friends and family, and thanking the people who worked toward and prayed for his release. It wouldn’t be long before he caught the bug to return to the Middle East to cover the Syrian Civil War, which proved to be even more hellish than the Libyan uprising. Oakes, whose previous credits included Bobby Fischer Against the World, Inequality for All and Wordplay, probably didn’t know what he was getting himself into, either. After 110 minutes, there isn’t much we don’t know about Foley and his fatal obsession with “the truth”; the twice-visited anguish of his parents and siblings; his close relationship to fellow journalists in the line of fire; and how it felt to be surrounded by indiscriminate death and destruction. It would be nice to say that Foley’s suffering wasn’t in vain, but we know now that it probably was. Libya is still divided, Aleppo has fallen, Bashar al-Assad is still in power, ISIS has yet to be defeated, the refugee crisis gets more critical by the hour and American voters punished the refugees by voting for Putin’s good buddy, Donald Trump. Still, Jim: The James Foley Story is an essential addition to the growing list of documentaries dedicated to chronicling the collapse of the Middle East as we once knew it. Blessedly, the producers let us know ahead of time that the beheading, itself, won’t be shown during the film, thus relieving us of the sense of dread triggered by anticipating moments of true horror.

Addicted to Fresno
Yoga Hosers: Blu-ray
Director Jamie Babbit and writer Karey Dornetto are either great fun to work for or extremely generous with their producers’ money. How else to explain the lineup of talent attracted to their inky black hipster comedy, Addicted to Fresno, which was doomed to failure after the critics began trashing it at the kind of festivals created to promote such offbeat fare. The compound modifier used most often to describe the film was “mean-spirited,” especially towards the city that lent it its name and locations. Judy Greer and Natasha Lyonne play sisters Shannon and Martha – a sex addict fresh out of rehab and an unlucky-in-love lesbian, respectively – condemned to clean up after lodgers at the Fresno Suites hotel and convention center. Shannon’s addiction not only got her fired from a teaching job, but it also jeopardizes her freedom when a hotel guest, Boris, a failed Olympian, is accidentally killed during a relapse. Martha decides to help her sister avoid prison by volunteering to cover up the crime. First, though, they must figure out a way to get the corpse out of the hotel and into a hole in the ground or crematorium. As is the case in most movies involving an inconvenient corpse – including the disposal of Billy Batts, in Goodfellas – the farcical elements quickly begin to dominate the story. When Shannon and Martha fail to convince the owners of a pet cemetery (Fred Armisen, Allison Tolman) that the body they’re toting is a Great Dane, their woes are further complicated by a blackmail demand. Broke and desperate, they concoct a plan that involves a tub full of dildos, a female softball team and a bar mitzvah for a boy channeling the Beastie Boys. Adding some comic relief to the increasingly nasty affair are Aubrey Plaza, as the personal trainer who takes a shine to Martha; Malcom Barrett’s disgruntled hotel employee and potential boy toy for Shannon; Ron Livingston, an easily seduced therapist; and Molly Shannon as Boris’ wacky sister. Babbit and Dornetto have worked with the actors together or separately in such entertainments as But I’m a Cheerleader, “Portlandia,” “Community” and “The Life & Times of Tim.” The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Lyonne, who’s everywhere these days, also appears in Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers, part two of his Canada-based trilogy, which opened with the generally well-received Tusk and will be followed by Moose Jaws, none of which have been shot anywhere north of North Carolina or Ventura County. Yoga Hosers was not well received by critics or anyone else outside the Smith or Depp households for that matter. In it, two 15-year-old yoga enthusiasts named Colleen (Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith) join forces with a legendary man-hunter, Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), to battle Canadian Nazis who take the form of deadly Bratzi sausages. (Don’t ask.) Smith’s wife, Jennifer, plays Colleen M’s mother. Depp and Vanessa Paradis’ son, Jack, plays cool history teacher Ms. Maurice. Other recurring characters are played by Genesis Rodriguez, Haley Joel Osment, Justin Long, Ashley Greene and Harley Morenstein. They’re joined by Tony Hale, Tyler Posey, Stan Lee, Adam Brody and Jason Mewes. Beyond that, I’d be hard pressed to explain what happens in Yoga Hoser, except to point out the forced Canadian accents and a Goalie Golem.

Barney Thomson
Robert Carlyle’s darkly humorous directorial debut shares one thing, at least, with the aforementioned Addicted to Fresno: a corpse resistant to being buried or burned. Barney Thomson puts a contemporary spin and Glaswegian twist on the “Sweeney Todd” legend, beginning with the accidental death of a Glasgow barber, while scuffling with his tonsorially inept co-worker, Barney (Carlyle). Unable to think of a way to dispose of the body without being discovered, Barney seeks the advice of his outrageously dissipated mother, Cemolina, played by a scene-stealing Emma Thompson. Cemolina is full of nasty wrinkles, only some of which were caused by chain-smoking cigarettes. Barney’s bad luck is compounded by the arrival of Ray Winstone’s Cockney cop, Holdall, who has problems of his own when it comes to taking orders. He immediately suspects Barney of being an elusive serial killer, famous for mailing his victims’ body parts to family members in the mail. He isn’t, but that’s another twist in the story. Richard Cowan and Colin McLaren’s adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s “Thee Long Midnight of Barney Thompson” keeps the surprises coming until the very end of the movie. The only real problem with the DVD is an absence of subtitles to translate the characters’ thick Glaswegian accents.

Out of (the) Darkness
Before I Die
Search as I might, I couldn’t find the “the” in the title of Out of the Darkness on the cover of the DVD sent to me as Out of Darkness. It wasn’t on the side panel or the non-shiny side of the disc, either. The “the” was clearly there, on the illustration accompanying the Amazon Video VOD release and the film’s page on On further inspection of the DVD packaging, I found the “the” in the smaller type, above the credits at the bottom of the backside of the box. Even knowing that that the mainstream-media establishment has effectively turned copy editing and proof reading into lost journalistic arts, this lapse was a doozy. Greed and shortsighted staff reductions have driven readers of novels to distraction with typos, misspelling and errors. Such a lapse shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying Shawn Justice’s faith-based drama – let’s call it, Out of (the) Darkness – but it does raise a red flag as to the care taken by its distributors not to confuse potential viewers … myself included. That said, the movie concerns a veteran of a foreign war, still in his 20s, who, upon his return home, finds himself alienated from his family and disconnected from the faith he once followed. Earlier in his life, Eli (Adam Elliott Davis) felt a calling from God that sparked a desire to become the Billy Graham of his time. His wartime experiences put the kibosh on those plans, however.  After being fired from his father’s company for incompetence and arguing with his wife (Sherry Morris) in front of their daughter, Eli pays a visit to the local pub, where he decides to get out of town. Eli misses a turn on a lonely mountain highway and careens over an embankment, landing deep in the forest. Disoriented, he neglects to follow the path of broken trees and car parts that might lead back to the highway. Instead, he heads deeper into the woods. Along the way, he encounters people who appear to be channeling Satan (John Lewis) and God (Graham Greene), during Jesus’ 40 days and nights of fasting in the Judean Desert. Out of (the) Darkness suffers from simplistic storytelling and a budget that forced Justice to make too many sacrifices, including adequate lighting at night. I would think that the faith-based audience is accustomed to such limitations, by now, and focuses more on the message than production values.

The Pacific Northwest is also the setting for the Brothers Freeman’s debut picture, Before I Die, which I’ve seen described as Christian horror. I’m not sure that in this case, anyway, faith-based and Christian are synonymous. Apparently trimmed from 142 minutes to a less grueling 105, I found it difficult to pay attention to the details of the story of Pastor Dan Bennett (Robert McKeehen), who uncovers a world of unholy trouble after moving his family to a seemingly idyllic small town. It’s far less than that, of course. The congregation appears to be cursed with strange spiritual obsessions, newly unearthed secrets and threats to the well-being of everyone involved. Before I Die may have made sense at its unedited length, but, at 105 minutes, it’s one long mystery without any clues.

Wax Mask: Blu-ray
Barely seen in the U.S. upon its release in 1997, Sergio Stivaletti’s wildly derivative Wax Mask recalls the glory days of Hammer Horror, Italian giallo and drive-in delights from William Castle and Roger Corman. If it didn’t gain any traction here, it’s probably because the economics of distribution had changed so drastically since the 1960s and the easy availability of vintage titles on VHS and cable made such throwbacks redundant. Today, however, the DVD/Blu-ray revolution has allowed distributors to restore even the most obscure titles to within an inch of their former luster – maybe less – while also adding interviews with the filmmakers and other featurettes. What’s interesting about Wax Mask is its pedigree. Written by Dario Argento (Phenomena) as a comeback project for Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling), it was finished by special-effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti and writer Daniele Stroppa after the director’s death in 1996. It freely borrowed elements from Mystery of the Wax Museum, House of Wax and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. In 1900, Paris, a young girl witnesses the gruesome murder of a couple, whose hearts are ripped out by the clawed hand of a masked fiend. Twelve years later, in Rome, she’s hired as a dresser in a newly opened wax museum dedicated to re-creating heinous crimes in its dioramas. Things get weird when people start disappearing from the streets and the museum’s halls begin filling up with new figures. The Blu-ray adds featurettes on backstage and special-effects scenes.

Parents: Blu-ray
Poltergeist II: The Other Side: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Poltergeist III: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Rage: Special Edition: Blu-Ray
Somewhere in the dark recesses of my analog memory bank, I managed to confuse Bob Balaban’s darkly comic 1989 suburban psychodrama, Parents, with John Waters’ darkly comic 1994 suburban psychodrama, Serial Mom. One is not a copy of the other, as the former is about a boy who can’t deal with the possibility that his seemingly normal parents, Nick (Randy Quaid) and Lily (Mary Beth Hurt), might be feeding him meat harvested from human beings. In the latter, Kathleen Turner is a serial killer, whose worst instincts are triggered by minor infractions of suburban decorum. In Parents, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lives in the horror of thinking his parents – or, whatever alien is inhabiting their bodies – are turning him into a cannibal. They do so in the nicest possible way, but still. The only people in whom Michael can confide are the school’s social worker (Sandy Dennis) and a classmate, Sheila (London Juno), who’s more than a head taller than he is and encourages him to search for clues behind his parents’ backs. Balaban and writer Christopher Hawthorne keep us guessing as to their motivations, as well. The Blu-ray package contains commentary with Balaban and producer Bonnie Palef; isolated score selections and an audio interview with composer Jonathan Elias; “Leftovers to Be,” with screenwriter Hawthorne; “Mother’s Day,” with Mary Beth Hurt; “Inside Out,” director of photography Robin Vidgeon; “Vintage Tastes,” with decorative consultant Yolanda Cuomo; and a stills gallery. (It was announced this week that a Blu-ray edition of Serial Mom will be released on May 9, just in time for Mother’s Day.)

The sequels to Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg’s hugely successful supernatural thriller, Poltergeist, didn’t do nearly as well as the 1982 original, critically or commercially. Considering the talent involved, the first installment’s $10.7-million budget was a steal for MGM. It would nearly double for Poltergeist II: The Other Side, which only enlisted the repeat services of principles Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke and Zelda Rubinstein. It made a bit of money, but not enough for MGM to consider wagering any more than $10.5 million on 1988’s Poltergeist III, three years later, with Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn Boyle, O’Rourke and Rubinstein. The 2015 remake, Poltergeist, starring Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, cost more than three times that much to make, and, at best, may have broken even, thanks to foreign receipts. In “PII,” the Freeling family is forced by previous circumstances to move to a new home. The problem, of course, is that the same demons that plagued them earlier hone in on the family’s new abode, thanks to Carol Anne’s psychic GPS. The most noteworthy thing here is the presence of Will Sampson, as the Indian healer; Geraldine Fitzgerald, as Gramma-Jess; and Living Theater co-founder Julian Beck, as the Reverend Henry Kane. If Kane looked half-dead, it was because Beck was dying of stomach cancer during production and there was no need to disguise it. Anyone familiar with Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger will want to watch “PII,” if only to see how his designs are integrated into the creation of the monsters. In “PIII,” Carol Anne has been shipped off to Chicago, where she’ll live in a famous high-rise building with her aunt and uncle. Once again, the supernatural forces are close behind. Besides new 2K scans of the inter-positives, both packages feature new commentaries and interviews with cast and crew members.

Thirteen months ago, Arrow Video released a three-disc special edition of Blood Rage, which contained three different cuts of a routine slasher flick that could never be mistaken for a classic. The film was shot in 1983, perhaps under the working title “Complex,” but wasn’t released to theaters until 1987, as “Nightmare at Shadow Woods.” Loopy Louise Lasser (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”) pulls out all the stops as the mother of twins Todd and Terry, one of whom kills a guy making out with his girlfriend at a drive-in theater, while his brother looks on in horror. Guess which one ends up in a mental institution for underage youths for committing the crime and which one gets to go home. Ten years later, the innocent twin escapes from the hospital, much to the consternation of everyone but his mother. Mayhem ensues. Genre buffs can still appreciate the mindless killings, gallons of spilt blood and T&A. Others will be less easily tempted. The two-disc edition contains a brand new 2K restoration of the ”hard” home-video version, transferred from the camera negative and featuring the original title card; high definition (1080p) and standard definition DVD presentations; commentary with director John Grissmer; interviews with producer/actress Marianne Kanter, actor Mark Soper, Lasser, special make-up effects creator Ed French, actor Ted Raimi; a featurette revisiting the original locations in Jacksonville, Florida; alternate opening titles; a still gallery; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Schoenbach.

The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann
Here are two fine examples of European splatter flicks that can stand alongside their American counterparts, in or out of a large puddle of blood and gore. The title, The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann, immediately reminded me such late-night temptations as The Disappearance of Alice CreedThe Seduction of Misty Mundae, The Submission of Emma Marx and The Sexual Liberation of Anna Lee. Whatever ecstasy Isabel Mann (Ellen Mullen) experiences here can be compared to that of a vampire as it sinks its fangs into the neck of a willing victim. By all accounts, Dublin teenager Isabel Mann enjoyed a normal childhood, until entering her senior year of high school. Her mentally unstable mother disappeared years earlier, but, ever since, her father and siblings have filled the void admirably. It isn’t until Isabell comes home from a day in the forest, with her face and blouse smeared with blood, that viewers sense they’re in for wild ride. We learn that she’s been seduced by Alejo, leader of a gang of “day-walking vampires,” and now recruits fellow students for their nourishment. The disappearances from school alert the local constabulary to the likelihood of a serial killer having moved to town, but the brutal nature of the killings suggest that others are involved, as well. Meanwhile, Isabel’s own absenteeism and ability to avoid slaughter raise red flags in their minds. This isn’t to suggest, however, that The Ecstasy of Isabel Mann is strictly a vampire movie. Instead, the blood-letting is far less interesting than her coming-of-age as a monster – a pretty one, but a monster nonetheless — and being completely unprepared for the changes she’s experiencing internally and externally. Perhaps, if her mother were still around to help her navigate the shoals of womanhood, but … well, maybe she’s not that far away, after all. Four years ago, writer/director Jason Figgis impressed genre buffs and critics with the dystopian thriller, Children of a Darker Dawn, and “Ecstasy” proves that their instincts were correct. It’s scary, repulsive, thought-provoking and exhilarating in equal measure. The same adjectives can be used to describe Michael Richard Plowman’s highly complementary soundtrack. The bonus features include other Dublin Noir trailers, deleted scenes, a music video and Figgis’ commentary.

Somewhere between Ljubljana and the United States, the title of Tomaz Gorkic’s debut feature changed from “Idyll” to the less ironic, if substantially more provocative, Killbillies. Combined with the grotesque likeness of one of the film’s antagonists on the cover, the natural tendency is to think of what’s contained therein as a Rocky Mountain High sequel to Deliverance. Well, sort of. The movie opens portentously with a group of Slovenian fashionistas getting shit-faced in a dumpy bar on a mysterious distillation of mountain herbs. Sensing an easy conquest, one of the local boozehounds attempts to rape Zina (Nina Ivanisin) in the bar’s communal bathroom. Instead, the heavily banged brunette lands a quick kick to the thug’s nuts, incapacitating him for the next 70 minutes of movie time. The next day, models Zina and Mia are driven to a photo shoot high in the Slovenian Alps, where they’re taken captive by the DVD’s heavily scarred cover boy and, presumably, his even more bizarre-looking son, who wouldn’t have been out of place on that porch in Deliverance. The models, their makeup artist and the photographer are taken to the dungeon in the men’s prison-like house, which also contains a still to make the evil brew. The rest of Killbilly is an exercise in torture porn, culminating in a harrowing chase through a dense forest. Gorkic packs more surprises and artfully delivered action into 83 minutes than most filmmakers provide in movies half-again that length.

Silicon Cowboys
I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned everything I care to know about the birth and formative years of the PC, Apple and Internet. The worldwide success of The Social Network emboldened such eminent directors as Danny Boyle and Oliver Stone to try their luck with Steve Jobs and Snowden, which tanked. Both “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Silicon Valley” have done well enough to earn a fourth season renewal, and that’s techy enough for me. Jason Cohen’s exhaustively researched and surprisingly enjoyable documentary, Silicon Cowboys, tells almost exactly the same story as “Halt and Catch Fire,” right down to the fast cars, lawsuits and occasional divorce. Conveniently, the Compaq executives interviewed aren’t nearly as nerdy today, as they probably were 30 years ago. The battle for dominance in the PC marketplace is presented in an interesting manner, but, to me, anyway, it’s ancient history.

Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders
Two decades have passed since Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (a.k.a., Biggie Smalls/ Notorious B.I.G.) were gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, respectively. Although allegations have been thrown around like hand grenades for most of those 20 years, no one has been brought to justice for the crimes. Michael Dorsey’s nearly two-hour documentary Murder Rap: Inside the Biggie and Tupac Murders is based on a book of the same title by former LAPD detective Greg Kading. Apparently, before taking his pension, Kading was assigned the task of clearing the tarnished department of wrong-doing in the murders. A huge lawsuit had been filed against it by the Wallace family and the LAPD couldn’t afford to lose one that size. Not only did he dig up enough evidence to save the city’s treasury from being drained, but he also came up with the most likely perpetrators and an explanation for both killings. Given the nature of gangland omerta, however, getting verification of the evidence probably would have been impossible, so the LAPD scotched any further investigation. Without an indictment, the documentary effectively loses its reason for existing as anything besides a true-crime show on television, narrated by Bill Kurtis. Without any of Tupac and Biggie’s music to accompany the revelations, the doc gets flatter and more repetitive as it nears the halfway mark.

4th Man Out
Here’s another movie that’s almost 20 years out of date … unless, I suppose, one lives in a red state, in which case, it might be au courant. In Andrew Nackman and writer Aaron Dancik’s first feature, 4th Man Out, a car mechanic in a small, working-class town exits the closet on the event of his 24th birthday, naturally shocking his unsuspecting, blue-collar best buds. They act like 4th-Graders who discover a gay skin mag in the school’s locker room, sparking a wildfire of misinformation and misplaced accusations in their unformed, prepubescent minds. While attempting to support Adam (Evan Todd), who’s handsome but dresses like every other guy in town, his friends toss around good-natured homophobic jokes to get around their obvious discomfort. I can’t recall anyone actually saying “Some of my best friends are gay,” but now they could fall back on the cliché and not worry about being called on it. Adam’s declaration is tested by friends who set him up with eligible young women, not knowing he’s been auditioning eligible young men at the same time. That sort of thing. Before the process becomes insufferable, though, Nackman tightens the reins on the awkward asides to reveal the humanity in Dancik’s script. How’s this for unsourced trivia: Alex Rennie, who plays “Paul the Stoner,” was at one time “an up-and-coming amateur boxer.” Alas, his career record stands at 1-17-5, with all 17 of his losses listed as TKOs. That and bus fare will get him a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Conspiracy Theory
Space Clown
If the class dunce in all of our high schools formed a production company with the class clown and class nerd, their first production might look a lot like “Alien Engineers,” a TV reality show lambasted in Jake Myers’ occasionally funny, if pointedly stupid Conspiracy Theory (a.k.a., “Lake on Fire”). It’s no coincidence that “Alien Engineers” resembles every flaky conspiracy show since 1973’s “In Search of Ancient Astronauts,” an edited version of the German documentary “Erinnerungen an die Zukunft” (“Chariots of the Gods”), which examined the theory that aliens landed on Earth in ancient times and were responsible for many of mankind’s oldest mysteries … such as the Edsel, New Coke and the proliferation of Trump towers. In it, a group of conspiracy theorists, led by a skinny hipster named Bjorn (Ben Kobold), travel from Chicago to the UFO-infested badlands north of Las Vegas and Lake Mead. In addition to interviewing generally clueless tourists on the Strip, Bjorn chats with NASA engineer T.D. Barnes, who worked on special projects in Area 51; park rangers, who navigate the waters of the giant manmade reservoir; and an inarguably unstable woman, who, for the last six months, has camped out on the lake’s northern shore to monitor strange lights in the sky and below the surface of the water, where she believes an alien submarine is parked. As prove, Bjorn points to the tourist walkway above Hoover Dam, where statues of winged guardians and a mosaic of a millennial clock greet visitors. The host further argues that no human could have designed and built the massive dam, which will come as a surprise to the descendants of the thousands of laborers – 112 of whom died during construction – who were hired to build the damn thing (pun intended). The payoff comes about 70 minutes into the 89-minute parody of found-footage and conspiracy flicks with a special-effects shit storm. Considering its low-budget, DYI approach to the threadbare subject matter, Conspiracy Theory works better than anyone could have expected.

If aliens are still commuting back and forth to Earth, better that they look like Clarabelle than the bloated creatures laid out on slab in a Roswell morgue, after their UFO crashed in 1947. The extraterrestrial clown in Graham Skipper’s DIY sci-fi farce, Space Clown, more closely resembles “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart, who, before he was convicted on kidnapping charges, in 1992, was famous for holding up signs reading “John 3:16″ at sporting events around the world. Apart from some outdated special effects lifted directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey handbook, Space Clown demonstrates exactly how cruel, heartless, noisy and insufferable a bozo in a multicolored wig can be. It should not be confused with the Chiodo brothers’ 1988 cult classic, Killer Klowns From Outer Space

Tripp Rhame’s first feature, Bleed, is a mélange of classic horror tropes: ghost-hunting, a haunted prison, uninvited visitors to the protagonists’ new home in the country, twisted hillbillies and a troubled pregnancy. Fortunately for everyone involved, those tropes fall well short of being clichés. When newlyweds Sarah (Chelsey Crisp) and Matt (Michael Steger) invite their friends Bree (Brittany Ishibashi) and Dave (Elimu Nelson) to celebrate their new marriage, new house, and soon-to-be family, they are unexpectedly followed to the rural house by Sarah’s brother, Eric (Riley Smith), and his girlfriend, Skye (Lyndon Smith). When Dave remembers there once being a prison nearby, which burned down with the inmates inside, the intruders suggest a visit. To top it off, one of the ghosts bears a striking resemblance to Charles Manson.

After is another accomplished genre piece by a promising freshman writer/director, Ryan Smith. It debuted in 2012 and has been lying around largely unseen ever since. In it, two survivors of a bus crash, Freddy (Steven Strait) and Ana (Karolina Wydra), awaken from an unconscious state, only to realize that the residents of their small town are either missing or behaving like robots. A John Carpenter-like fog has descended on the community, finally revealing the cause of the devastation to the forced couple. What threatens to become a run-of-the-mill creature feature, evolves satisfactorily into a “Twilight Zone” romance. As derivative as that might sound, Strait and Wydra keep After from succumbing to clichés.

Rarely has the subject of polyamory been handled with so little sexuality, eroticism and nudity as it is in Zoe Eisenberg and Phillips Payson’s Throuple. It’s as if they were shooting for a PG-13, but realized that no one in their target audience would be interested in a kids-safe movie about multiply monogamous couples. Even if the yuppies introduced in Showtime’s “Polyamory: Married & Dating” were self-absorbed dweebs, at least they shed their clothes on a weekly basis. The closest anyone here comes to nudity is an innocently staged shower scene and a simulated BJ that wouldn’t fool anyone over 14. The best things Throuple has going for it are Hawaii’s naturally splendid beaches, coves and waves no set designer could improve upon in a million years. James and Lexi (Jordan Turchin, Ingrid Vollset), we’re told, are a “conflicted couple,” who’ve moved to a lush Hawaiian rain forest after starring in a series of YouTube exercise videos, in which they wear leotards and pretend to be making love. Their nearest neighbors are a recluse, who lives in a castle-like fortress, and a polyamorous “throuple” (Caitlin Holcombe, Mikaal Bates, Todd Litzinger) pre-occupied with digging a hole in the lava behind their house. Mostly, though, they amuse themselves by getting baked on pot and a beverage distilled from local vegetation. For some reason, Lexi spends most her time indoors, calling and Skyping friends on the mainland, while James hangs out with the neighbors, getting high and harvesting marine life from tide pools. When the possibility of same-sex liaisons is broached, Jack and Lexi turn curiously prudish. A chance meeting with their mysterious neighbor (Ayinde Howell) provides them with an opportunity to learn his secrets and the filmmakers with a hook upon which they can hang a suitable ending.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria Blu-ray
PBS:16 for 16: The Contenders
Americans can thank Britain’s ITV, BBC and Channel 4 for making them more aware of the history of the British aristocracy than the lives of all but a half-dozen, or so, American presidents. PBS has attempted to rectify this curious anomaly with “American Experience: The Presidents,” “The U.S. Presidency” and such occasional Ken Burns’ treats as “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” and “Thomas Jefferson.” Even so, it’s the networks’ co-financing and carriage of such “Masterpiece” gems as “Victoria,” and “Wolf Hall” that hold the public’s attention. That, and such nudity spiced mini-series as “The Tudors” and “The White Queen.” If “The U.S. Presidency” taught us anything in its mini-biographies of chief executives from George Washington to Barack Obama, it’s that the bat-shit crazy George III would have been a better fit for the White House than most of our duly-elected presidents, vice presidents and their largely forgotten opponents. That’s certainly true of “Victoria,” an eight-part mini-series, that some might consider to be an unintended sequel to Nicholas Hytner’s BAFTA-winning, The Madness of Henry VIII (1994). That’s because the king’s granddaughter might not have ascended to the crown at 18, if weren’t for several freakish occurrences that eliminated her father and uncles from consideration. As we learn here, as well, Victoria’s enemies in Parliament would attempt to tar the inexperienced and occasionally flighty young woman with the possibility of her possibly suffering from the same malady, possibly caused by the blood disease porphyria.

Created by British novelist Daisy Goodwin, “Victoria” depicts the first few years of the reign of Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman) from her accession to the throne, through her intense friendship and infatuation with Lord Melbourne, to her courtship and early marriage to her 19-year-old cousin Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), and finally to the birth of their first child, Victoria. Apart from the frequently arcane maneuverings of the power-hungry twits in Parliament and the House of Lords, the story offers romance, upstairs-downstairs intrigue, heroes and villains, splendid set designs, amazing Yorkshire scenery and remarkable acting. The petite Blackpool native Coleman doesn’t look a bit like the photographs we’ve all seen of the doughty Queen Victoria, taken during the later years in her monarchy. Instead, she could be mistaken for a teenage Christina Ricci or Ginnifer Goodwin, while Hughes is a dead ringer for Adam Driver (“Girls”). Also very good are Rufus Sewell, as the honorable Lord Melbourne; Peter Firth, as the demonic Duke of Cumberland; Daniela Holtz, as the loyal Baroness Lehzen; and Adrian Schiller, as the devious head stewart, Penge. The package adds interviews and making-of material.

Also from PBS, in partnership with OZY Media, comes “16 for ’16: The Contenders,” a documentary series profiles some of the candidates and issues that mattered in the run-up to our quadrennial Election Day exercises in futility. Also-rans typically don’t fare well in this country, although points they made on the campaign trail often are latched onto by the winners. Among the 16 campaigns covered in the eight-part series are those conducted by Jesse Jackson, Barry Goldwater, Shirley Chisholm, Ralph Nader, H. Ross Perot, Geraldine Ferraro, Howard Dean and Michael Dukakis. Through freshly conducted interviews and flashback, we learn how previous elections are still influencing those today, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The DVD Wrapup: Inferno, Handmaiden, Light Between Oceans, Black Girl, Man Who Fell to Earth, Monster, Takashi Miike, Korean War … More

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

Inferno: Blu-ray
One way to tell that a movie franchise has run out of gas is when its third installment comes in a distant second to a Tyler Perry holiday-themed comedy in its second week in release. Madea may be a freak of nature, but who would have predicted she could outdistance Tom Hanks and Ron Howard’s next adaptation of a best-selling novel by Dan Brown? In 2006, The Da Vinci Code did extremely well domestically and around the world. Its 2009 sequel, Angels & Demons, made significantly less money on both fronts, if not enough to discourage Sony/Columbia from anticipating Brown’s next novel featuring Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon. Tellingly, though, Inferno would only be allowed a production budget less than half the $150 million spent on “D&A.” Howard isn’t capable of making a movie that’s less than entertaining and the commercial success of Sully is proof of Hanks’ continuing box-office appeal. Neither does Inferno lack for excitement or gorgeous scenery. The problem, for me, anyway, is a story that links the death of cyber-billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) – possibly modeled after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — to Dante Alighieri’s 14th Century poem “The Divine Comedy,” a death mask of the poet and a modified rendition of Sandro Botticelli’s “Map of Hell.” Zobrist’s plan to combat overcrowding and diminishing resources involves either killing off two-thirds of the world’s population or preventing it from reproducing … take your pick.

The poop hits the revolving blade when the crackpot scheme grabs the attention of the World Health Organization and a mysterious international mercenary force, the Consortium (represented by Sidse Babett Knudsen and Irrfan Khan, respectively). As the movie opens, Langdon is in a Florence hospital, slowly exiting from a coma that erased his memory, but left him with horrifying visions he later recognizes as being related to “Map of Hell.” The film’s least convincing character, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), helps him escape an assassination attempt before becoming his traveling companion and confidante. (At 5-foot-3, the lithe 33-year-old brunette neither resembles a doctor nor a badass sidekick.) David Koepp’s screenplay keeps us guessing throughout Inferno as to which characters Langdon can trust and the ones trying to kill him. On the plus side, the action carries us, along with Langdon and Brooks, from Florence to Vienna, Budapest and Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern. If Nostradamus had compared notes with Dante, viewers are led to believe, we might have been able to avoid 9/11, the 2008 Depression and the Trump presidency. The DVD, Blu-ray and UHD package adds nearly a half-hour’s worth of extended and deleted scenes; the featurettes, “Visions of Hell,” “Inferno Around the World,” “A Look at Langdon,” “This Is Sienna Brooks” and “The Billionaire Villain: Bertrand Zobrist”; and Ron Howard’s “Director’s Journal.”

The Handmaiden
I’ve rarely completely agreed with the academy members who decide which foreign-language entries deserve, first, to make the short list of nominees and, later, the five finalists. The list of excellent films overlooked by the host countries and nominating committee should make Oscar blush. Even when reforms are instituted the voters invariably miss the mark. But, hey, what do I know? In my opinion, and those represented in the year-end polls of a dozen-plus critics’ groups, Park Chan-wook’s intricately plotted psycho-thriller The Handmaiden deserved to be included in both lists. So, there. Inspired by Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel, “Fingersmith” — a “third slice of engrossing lesbian Victoriana,” by the Welsh author — Park changes the setting from 19th century London to Korea, which, in the 1930s, was subject to Japanese colonial rule. Like the novel, an orphan raised in family of thieves is hired by a phony aristocrat to infiltrate the household of a wealthy young Japanese heiress. The devious Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) has persuaded the lovely, if terribly naive Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) to take on Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) as her handmaiden and confidante. The pretty young con artist is instructed to convince Her Ladyship to ditch the older gent to whom she’s betrothed — the pervy Uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) – and run away with the faux count. Clearly, his intentions are far from honorable. That scenario, however, is only the first of three presented by Park (“The Vengeance Trilogy”) and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong (Lady Vengeance), as variations on Waters’ original Victorian theme. In the next two, the double-crosses not only are wickedly difficult to predict, but fun to watch transpire, as well. Consistent throughout, however, are the steaming-hot moments when Sook-Hee teaches the sexually naive Hideko what to expect on her wedding night. She proves to be a remarkably quick study, but not in the way Fujiwara anticipates. Park tweaks the narrative further to add ironic humor and other kinky notions to the mix, making the 144-minute story almost feel like a hot breeze from the tropics. Typically, The Handmaiden’s production values could hardly be any higher.

The Light Between Oceans: Blu-ray
The title of Derek Cianfrance’s tear-jerking follow-up to Blue Valentine and The Beyond the Pines refers to the movie’s fictional location: a lighthouse on fictional Janus Rock, an island a half-day’s journey from the coast of western Australia, where where the Indian and Pacific oceans meet. Based on a 2012 novel by M. L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans was largely shot at New Zealand’s Cape Campbell, but the images recorded further south, in Tasmania, are the most striking. Back from four years of fighting in World War I, an emotionally stressed Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job tending the gas-lit lamp in the lighthouse on the desolate, if quite habitable island. He’s warned about the dangers posed by such absolute isolation, but, after the horrors of trench warfare, he needs some time away from people. On one of his infrequent visits to the nearest town, Tom becomes captivated by the younger, far more spirited Isabel (Alicia Vikander), who’s in desperate need of a man in her life. (This is 1919, remember.) A determinedly ethical sort, Tom will only agree to live with her on the island if they are married, which is jake with Izzy. They enjoy each other’s company and relish the opportunity to start a family. After two miscarriages, though, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards.  One day, Tom spots a dinghy floating toward shore with a body in it. On further inspection, they discover that the man in the boat is dead, but clutching a very alive and hungry baby girl. When Tom suggests reporting their find to mainland officials, Izzy insists that it’s act of God and they should be entitled to keep the little bundle of joy.

A while later, as they’re about to have Lucy christened at a church on the mainland, Tom spots a woman, Hannah Roennfeldt (Rachel Weisz), kneeling in front of a grave. It bears the names of Frank Roennfeldt and his baby daughter, Grace Ellen, who were lost at sea on the day the Sherbournes found Lucy, in April, 1923. Wracked by feelings of guilt, Tom secretly leaves a message in the German woman’s mailbox, assuring her that the baby is alive and in good hands. There’s no need to spoil surprises that can be seen from a mile away, except to say that many viewers will be seriously torn when Tom’s note prompts Hannah to seek further investigation into the disappearance. At 133 minutes, Cianfrance’s pacing may feel a bit too leisurely for some viewers’ tastes, but it allows time to explore questions about love, heartbreak, joy, secrecy, guilt and the impact of those emotions on people we have no reason to distrust. Anyone looking for an old-fashioned weeper will find it in the lovingly photographed The Light Between Oceans. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director and his college mentor, film-studies professor Phil Solomon; the 16-minute featurette, “Bringing the Light to Life”; and “Lighthouse Keeper,” a closer look at finding just the right shooting location for the film.

Black Girl: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the debate over immigration policies has reached the boiling point, here and in Europe, Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl arrives on Blu-ray to remind us that a passport and visa have rarely ever protected outsiders from bigotry and greed. Released originally in 1966, six years after Senegal severed its colonial ties to France, it tells the heart-breaking story of a young woman who leaves Dakar as a governess to a bourgeois French family, but arrives in Antibes to serve as a slave for the Madame. Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a proud African woman from an impoverished section of the capital, couldn’t have anticipated how much her life would change after stepping off the boat from Dakar. The family’s three children were nowhere to be seen and, in their absence, Diouana would be required to do cook, clean, do the laundry and take Madame’s abuse, from morning until night. Her earnings are withheld for no good reason and the Madame forbids her from dressing up to perform her chores. Worse, promises of free time to explore France and shop together in fashionable stores, are ignored by Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek) as soon as Diouana empties her suitcase. “For me, France is the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom and my bedroom,” she says in a first-person voiceover. “It’s the black hole I see when I look out the window at night.” Monsieur (Robert Fontaine) appears to be somewhat sympathetic, but is no match for his wife’s inexplicable behavior. Sembène, a popular novelist and Marxist who studied film in Moscow after laboring as a longshoreman in France, doesn’t completely explain Madame’s change in heart, except to imply that it comes with the territory … once a colonist, always a colonist. The final straw comes when one of the boys returns home and Diouana is expected to act as maid, nanny and playmate. Black Girl is informed by flashbacks to better times in Dakar, when poverty didn’t prevent her from falling in love and showing off in the clothes and shoes handed down to her by Madame. Her final act of rebellion is open to wide interpretation today, but, in the mid-1960s, it probably reflected on the inability of some post-colonial states – as well as the men and women who served their white masters — to enjoy the fruits of independence, after being drained of their valuable natural resources and tribal heritage.

Only 65 minutes long, Black Girl is believed to be the first feature made by a sub-Saharan filmmaker. Sembène’s 1963 short subject, Borom Sarret, is also included in the Criterion set. Like Black Girl, it reveals the writer/director’s admiration for Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave. It describes a day in the life of a “cartman,” Le Charretier (Ly Abdoulaye), who struggles to provide for his wife and child by transporting people and goods through Dakar’s shantytown for whatever money can get. His customers represent a cross-section of life there, including a woman about to deliver a baby, people transporting construction material and man who’s carrying his dead child in a blanket and needs a ride to the cemetery. Le Charretier’s horse is only slightly less broken down than his wooden cart, which is distinguished by a loudly squeaking wheel. When a nicely dressed gentleman hires the driver to take him to the part of the city where wealthier residents reside, Le Charretier advises him about the prohibition on using horse-drawn carts in the swank neighborhood. The man waves off the warning. Sure enough, a black cop stops the driver and writes a ticket for disobeying a law that was left behind by the French, who once populated the neighborhood. Instead of merely giving Le Charretier a summons, the cop ensures the cartman won’t be able to afford to pay the fine by confiscating the wagon. He ignores the passenger, who, having reached his destination, slips away without paying for the ride. Dejected, Le Charretier once again returns home emptyhanded. This time, however, his wife gives him the baby and tells him to wait for her to put food on table, “the only way she can.” The package includes the hour-long documentary, “Sembène: The Making of African Cinema,” and other background featurettes.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Lair of the White Worm: Blu-ray
Jack Frost: Blu-ray
By 1975, when Nicolas Roeg chose him to play the title character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie had already transitioned from his Space Oddity/Ziggy Stardust persona, to one that merged American soul and early British glam-rock influences. A student of avant-garde theatre and mime, Bowie’s acting instincts were incorporated into his live performances, exquisitely captured by D.A. Pennebaker in his 1973 performance film, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” That he was a logical candidate to play the orange-haired alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who splashes to Earth in a remote lake in the American Southwest, was one of the few choices not in question about Roeg’s sci-fi drama. Newton had come to Earth from a drought-stricken planet in search of water, leaving his family behind him. After somehow managing to find a fashionable hooded coat to wear into the nearest town, Newton sells a couple of the gold rings he’s brought with him to finance his plan to build a spaceship and transport water to his home planet, before his wife and children perish. He must have done his homework, because one of his first calls is made to a patent attorney, Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry). In exchange for an equity share Newton’s company, World Enterprises Corp., Farnsworth is able attain patents for nearly a dozen gadgets previously unknown to corporate America. Among them is a disposable camera that develops its own film. The inventions make Farnsworth a very wealthy lawyer and Newton a tycoon who flies below the radar of the media. After registering as a guest in a dusty Gallup hotel, the dapper alien makes the mistake of accepting a ride in the elevator to an upper floor. He faints and begins bleeding from his nose. Fortunately, hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) revives him and carries his emaciated body to his room.

She’s easily impressed by his limousine and British accent, while Newton is pleased to be with someone who makes few demands on him – apart from questioning his ability and desire to watch a dozen TVs simultaneously – while alleviating his loneliness. Meanwhile, a debauched college professor and rocket-fuel technician, Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is hired by WEC to help create the interplanetary water tank. Before the task is completed, however, Newton is kidnapped by a mysterious Mr. Peters (Bernie Casey), who appears to be rouge CIA agent on loan to a rival company. Newton, now an alcoholic, is held in abandoned building for decades, during which Clark and Bryce grow old together and Newton continues to look as young as he did when he came to Earth. Beneath the camouflage of his normal-looking epidermis, however, lies a very different creature, indeed. As wondrously inventive as The Man Who Fell to Earth turned out to be, Paramount executives decided to re-edit it to fit their own limited imaginations and temper some of sex scenes. Until recently, Roeg’s completed version of the film was limited to imported tapes and discs, while “Papa” John Phillips and Stomu Yamashta’s soundtrack disappeared completely. Nine years ago, Criterion released its well-regarded version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but it’s since gone out of circulation. The new Lionsgate/Studio Canal edition includes supplements in DVD and Blu-ray, including fresh interviews with Candy Clark, writer Paul Mayersberg (Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), cinematographer Tony Richmond, Roeg, costumers May Routh, photographer David James, filmmaker/superfan Sam Taylor-Johnson and producer Michael Deeley; a featurette on the creation and fate of the original soundtrack; and a 1977 Bowie interview, recovered from French TV. Recollections of shooting at various New Mexico locations in the 166-minute interview featurette are especially fascinating.

No two British filmmakers did more to put a cap on the era of “kitchen-sink realism” than Roeg and Ken Russell, with, in 1970, Performance and The Music Lovers, respectively. Suddenly, home-grown movies were being made for the express purpose of tickling viewers’ senses, funny bones and libidos, instead of rubbing their noses in the country’s post-World War II doldrums, especially those pertaining to working-class families. While Roeg traveled to the far corners of the Earth to make movies that were, at once, stimulating, exotic and disturbing, Russell spent the decade reimagining the lives of great artists, such as Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Rudolph Valentino and Gustav Mahler; adapting “Tommy” and “The Boy Friend” for the screen; and rewriting the clerical history of 17th Century France, in “The Devils.” Russell gained a reputation for being able to shock and infuriate critics, clergy and historians, in equal measure to mainstream viewers who paid good money to have their limits tested. He would veer away from making biographies in the 1980s, even as he continued to provoke audiences and critics. Released in 1988, The Lair of the White Worm was loosely adapted from Bram Stoker’s final novel, based on the legend of the Lambton Worm. Stoker set the story around the River Wear, in Derbyshire, North East England. In it, young John Lambton skips church one Sunday to go fishing in the Wear. He doesn’t catch anything until the church service finishes, at which point he lands a small eel-like creature with nine holes on each side of its salamander-like head. John declares that he has caught the devil and decides to dispose of his catch in a nearby well. After he joins the Crusades, John forgets about the creature.

Seven years later, he returns home to find his father’s estates and nearby farms almost destitute because of the worm. Russell updates the legend to more contemporary times, relocating it to Staffordshire, to take advantage of scenic Thor’s Cave, which makes a perfect hiding place for the beast. Peter Capaldi plays a Scottish archaeology student, excavating the site of a convent at the Derbyshire bed-and-breakfast run by the Trent sisters, Mary (Sammi Davis) and Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). When he unearths a large skull, which appears to be that of a snake, he believes it may be connected to the local legend of the “d’Ampton worm,” said to have been slain by an ancestor of current Lord of the Manor, James d’Ampton (Hugh Grant). The mysterious Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) steals the skull and abducts Eve, intending to offer her as the latest in a long line of sacrifices to the snake god. In Russell’s hands, Lady Sylvia is a sexy MILF who dresses like a dominatrix and lures boys and young men to her lair, where she sucks them dry with her giant fangs and feeds them to the worm. He employs nasty jump scares to introduce the creature, as well as some blasphemous religious imagery. The Lair of the White Worm is not a movie you’ll want to watch while tripping on acid. In her day, Donahoe was among the top-10 hottest actresses working in film and television. During her two-year tenure on “L.A. Law,” she took part in the first of the so-called “lesbian kiss episodes” on American television, planting one on lawyer Abbie Perkins. Here, she’s both incendiary and dangerous. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries with Ken Russell and former wife Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia; a featurette on the special effects; interviews with editor Peter Davies and Sammi Davis; and a “Trailers From Hell” chapter, featuring producer Dan Ireland.

I’m not sure it’s fair to mention Michael Cooney’s direct-to-video Jack Frost within spitting distance of movies by Russell and Roeg, but all three were made by Brits and could be stretched to fit certain genre conventions. It’s also been repackaged to include a classy new audio/video upgrade, several new background and making-of featurettes, cover art and interviews. The similarities end there, however. Before putting his writer/director/producer’s hat on for good, Cooney owned video stores and was a presence on late-night television. Like everyone else who’s watched more than a dozen genre-specific movies, he came to believe that he could make a better movie than they ones his customers were renting. He didn’t, but Jack Frost was entertaining enough to qualify for cult-classic and so-bad-it’s-good status. In it, a vehicle carrying serial killer Jack Frost to his date with Old Sparky collides with a tanker containing hazardous genetic material. It turns him into a snow- covered mutant, determined to terrorize Snomonton, “The Snowman Capitol of the Midwest,” and exact revenge on the town’s sheriff (Christopher Allport), who ended his cross-country killing spree. The bulbous freak uses icicles to impale his victims and, in the case of a pre-American Pie Shannon Elizabeth, commit rape … before turning her bath water into a giant ice cube. It’s every bit as goofy as it sounds.

The Monster: Blu-ray
In his three produced screenplays, writer/director/producer Bryan Bertino has shown a knack for taking simple genre conventions and turning them into movies with identities of their own. In 2006, his vacation-home-invasion thriller, The Strangers, hit pay dirt with an 8-to-1 return on investment at box offices around the world. The 2014 found-footage flick, Mockingbird, failed to get a theatrical release, opening, instead, on VOD outlets before going into DVD/Blu-ray. Bertino’s latest, The Monster, effectively combines elements of the child-in-peril and bogeyman-in-the-woods sub-genres in the service of a story that also manages to tug at the heartstrings of more sensitive viewers. Zoe Kazan is extremely convincing as an alcoholic single mom, Kathy, whose license to raise a child should have been revoked before she got pregnant. Her pre-teen daughter, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) grows up fast in a household where she frequently is required to protect her mom from her own worst instincts. Lizzy is happy to learn that she’s been invited to move to her father’s house, which is where they’re headed when Kathy is forced off the main highway in the rain and detoured onto a lonely country road that cuts through a forest. Stop me, if you’ve heard this one before. While bickering with Lizzy, Kathy hits something she believes to be a wolf, seriously damaging the car. After calling for a tow truck, she gets out of the vehicle to check if the animal’s still alive. Just as naturally, the animal has disappeared. No matter, because another beast is lying in wait for stranded motorists, tow-truck drivers and ambulance personnel, and this one isn’t messing around. Bertino doesn’t rush the reveal, literally preferring to keep his characters and viewers in the dark, only hinting at the danger to come. When the monster makes its presence known, however, it’s 50/50 whether more viewers will be frightened or underwhelmed. A side benefit of Kathy and Lizzy’s terrifying encounter with the monster can be seen in their increasing willingness to trust each other’s instincts and work as a team, things that had been missing in their relationship. The enclosed EPK “Eyes in the Darkness” sheds a bit of light on the creation of the monster and what it actually looks like.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage: Blu-ray
Among the unforgettable scenes in Jaws is the one in which Quint drunkenly recalls surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and subsequent horror of being attacked by sharks while drifting in the Philippine Sea awaiting rescue and life-saving provisions. It’s likely that most members of the audience weren’t aware of the tragedy and some even assumed the screenwriters had invented the story. Apart from a couple of excusable factual errors, it was only too true. Since then, details of the sinking have been revealed in a 1991 made-for-TV documentary and several short films, some featuring first-hand accounts by survivors. An attempt by National Geographic to locate the doomed cruiser and film the wreckage is expected to take place later this year. Quint’s monologue only revealed the most harrowing details of the ship’s final voyage, though. Of almost equal interest is the historic top-secret mission just completed by the USS Indianapolis – it delivered the enriched uranium and other parts crucial to the bombing of Hiroshima to Tinian island — and the shabby treatment accorded Captain Charles B. McVay III, who barely survived the attack and ordeal at sea. In desperate need of a scapegoat to blame for the Navy’s own mistakes, his superiors in Washington court-martialed McVay, convicting him of “hazarding his ship by failing to zigzag,” a bogus, but convenient charge. Strapped with an inadequate budget to properly tell all three stories, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage tries its best to honor both the living and dead sailors. If it falls short, it’s only because director Mario Van Peebles was required to take narrative shortcuts and make concessions on the production side. Nicolas Cage’s portrayal of McVay is low-key, yet informed by his passion for the project. Tom Sizemore, Thomas Jane and Matt Lanter probably are the most recognizable actors in supporting roles. I appreciated Van Peebles and screenwriters Cam Cannon and Richard Rionda Del Castro’s attempt the show the role played by African-American sailors in the war effort, but learned later that liberties were taken here for dramatic effect. So, what else is new? It’s about time that anyone in Hollywood went even this far to dramatize such an essential piece of WWII history. The 33-minute featurette, “The Making of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage,” is well worth the effort to check out.

The Harrow
Not having grown up on a farm, I had to look up “harrow” in the dictionary, just to see what to expect here. It read, “a cultivating tool set with spikes, teeth or disks and used primarily for breaking up and smoothing the soil.” As such, I foresaw yet another genre flick featuring deaths by farm implements. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’d just seen a trailer for Pitchfork and wondered how much more agricultural horror I could stand. In fact, as The Harrow progressed I kept wondering when the blood and gore would kick in and the expository stuff would fade into the background. The story, after all, involves a Southern drifter, Miller (Tom McKay), who lives in seclusion in an abandoned 100-year-old slaughterhouse, while restoring antiques and performing other tasks for the owner. The hooks once used to hang and drain the carcasses of animals still are attached to a makeshift conveyor belt and on the walls of the abattoir. Oozing with portent, it is the perfect setting for a thriller. Miller is haunted by a vision of Gale (Maggie Geha), his dead lover who was murdered a decade ago. When Gale’s daughter, Ruth (Sonya Harum), arrives, hoping to discover what happened on the fateful night she died. Miller is extremely uncomfortable with her presence, but she eventually wears him down. The truth, in Kevin Stocklin’s debut feature, plays out in flashbacks, while the fitful relationship between Miller and Ruth takes on a palpable aura of suspense of its own. This may come as bad news to gore geeks, but fans of Gothic dramas should find something in The Harrow to like. The DVD adds two of Stocklin’s short film, “Eve” and “The Position,” as well as a Q&A from the Big Apple film Festival.

Flight 313: The Conspiracy
Even when a major star is attached, such investigative thrillers as Erin Brockovich and The Insider can only succeed if the science doesn’t overwhelm the drama — and vice versa — and the dialogue isn’t dominated by legalese and research-speak. Flight 313: The Conspiracy (a.k.a., “A Dark Reflection”) has only one star that might be well-known outside the U.K., Marina Sirtis, who will be forever recognized as counselor Deanna Troi, on various “Star Trek” spinoffs. It is a dramatized sequel to writer/director Tristan Loraine’s 2007 documentary, Welcome Aboard Toxic Airlines, which, among other things, accused the airline industry of covering up knowledge of a defect in modern jetliners that exposes passengers and crews to unfiltered air, pulled directly from the engines, known to become contaminated with neurotoxins, carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals. Loraine, a former commercial pilot, has been investigating this 50-year-old problem ever since friends and co-workers registered claims of short- and long-term health problems, due to “aerotoxic syndrome.” Studies have since been conducted by governmental and scientific bodies disputing the cause of such ailments and, of course, the aviation industry has long denied its existence. In Flight 313: The Conspiracy, the journalist wife (Georgina Sutcliffe) of a wrongfully suspended air traffic controller embarks on an investigative journey that reveals a disturbing succession of cover-ups, regarding air quality on flights, dating back to 1954. Sir Charles Jaspar (Nicholas Day) has tasked his company’s CEO (Mark Dymond) with the responsibility of keeping his business and his wife, Maggie (Sirtis) out of the investigation. Loraine does what he can to make the picture entertaining, but, without a concrete conclusion or settlement rendered, the tension is short-lived.

Antarctica: Ice and Sky
With a man in the White House who’s as obstinately anti-science as he is fiercely pro-commerce, it’s important for knowledgeable people to fight the good fight against ignorance and political recalcitrance. Although data can be manipulated to fit most any agenda, the preponderance of evidence argues in favor of battling global warming before things get worse than they already are. By that time, however, President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago “club” could be under three feet of water and he’d still be blaming the liberal media for distorting his vision of reality. Antarctica: Ice and Sky pays homage to Claude Lorius, a French glaciologist who’s participated in 22 polar expeditions, beginning in 1955. At the time, Antarctica was essentially untouched by scientific research and experimentation. Since the International Geophysical Year opened the door for multinational research, the ice-covered continent has practically become a suburb of Buenos Aires, Santiago and Hobart, Tasmania, as well as a popular bucket-list destination. At 22, Lorius volunteered to spend a year in Antarctica, practically writing the book on scientific study under hellishly frigid conditions. Foremost among the methodology was pulling cores from the ice pack and reading them like the rings on a tree stump. Not only could the scientists discern periods of atypical warmth and cold, but also the fallout from natural and manmade disasters. Air bubbles created many centuries ago revealed secrets, as well. Global warming and climate change weren’t on anyone’s radar when Lorius dedicated his life to glaciology and fell in love with Antarctica. When it became clear to him that the changes were caused largely by unnatural forces, he became a crusader for the unpopular truth. Luc Jacquet, whose March of the Penguins became a global box-office sensation, weaves archival and contemporary footage into a documentary that’s, at once, informative, entertaining and cautionary. As a contemplative memoir, too, Antarctica: Ice and Sky is extremely compelling.

Guardians of Oz
Outside the U.S., the computer-animated adventure/fantasy Guardians of Oz was known as “Wicked Flying Monkeys,” which would be a great name for rock band or circus act in Las Vegas. Targeted at younger viewers, though, that title might be a bit too on-the-nose for anyone whose lasting memory of “The Wizard of Oz” wasn’t Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow,” but being frightened to death by the winged monkeys dispatched from the Wicked Witch’s castle to harass and capture Dorothy and Toto. While still plenty nasty, the animated monkeys in Guardians of Oz aren’t nearly as intimidating as those in the 1939 live-action classic. The story picks up after the Wicked Witch of the West is melted by a bucket of water and Dorothy is sent back to Kansas. Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, decides to revive the Wicked Witch, but remove her powers by storing them in a magic broom. Glinda then gives the broom to Dorothy’s friends, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and Scarecrow, and they become its guardians. Evilene, the Wicked Witch, conspires with her flying monkeys to retrieve her broom. After Evilene transforms his father into a chicken, a friendly monkey named Ozzy joins forces with the Guardians to make the kingdom safe once and for all. Guardians of Oz was conceived in Mexico by Anima Estudios (“Top Cat”) and produced with India’s Discreet Arts. The animation looks modern and not remotely cut-rate, as might have been the case even 10 years ago. Kids not quite ready for the original might benefit from first checking out Guardians of Oz.

The Passing Season
Co-writer/director Gabriel Long’s freshman feature, The Passing Season, is an indie drama about a hockey player forced to come to grips with the likelihood that he’ll never sip champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup or even make it to the NHL. (And, no, it wasn’t made in Canada.) Understandably shattered when he’s told by his coach that he’s being cut, Sam (Brian J. Smith) decides to leave town in a hurry, only stopping for one last booty call with his girlfriend, Lindsey (Elizabeth Alderfer), who he keeps in the dark about his plans. He returns to his hometown, where his high school pals still enjoy getting hammered night after night and he’s something of a local hero. To keep busy, Sam agrees to help a friend refurbish his house, which he hopes to put up for sale when the time’s right. Despite his buddy’s generosity, Sam can’t resist the temptation to hook up with his girlfriend. It’s a disaster, of course. Although he’s a bit young for a midlife crisis, Sam struggles to put his life back on even keel, although he’d settle for getting back together with Lindsey. Because Long hasn’t been able to sell us on Sam’s worthiness as an adult, we’re as perplexed as she is by his desire to get back in her life.

A Month of Sundays
It’s a lot easier to find Australian actors portraying American characters in Hollywood movies than it is to find excellent Australian pictures starring the same talented men and women. It has almost nothing to do with the quality of the films or production values, either. Among those who made the grade Down-Under, before being lured Up-Over are Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett, Margo Robbie, Mel Gibson, Emily Browning, Rose Byrne, Liam Hemsworth, Heath Ledger, Miranda Otto, Joel Edgerton, Judy Davis,Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Eric Bana, Bryan Brown, Rachel Ward and Geoffrey Rush. The list goes on. Many of them return home on a regular basis to appear in “smaller” homegrown pictures and on stage, where they don’t have to fake an American or British accent and regional variations, thereof. Anthony LaPaglia has been working in the U.S. for so long, he might as well have been born in Oshkosh, instead of Adelaide. Until the excellent 2001 crime drama, Lantana, set in Sydney and its woodsy suburbs, I didn’t recognize his roots, either. The compelling coming-of-middle-age story, A Month of Sundays, was shot in LaPalgia’s hometown, which very much resembles hometowns here and the U.K. Adelaide real-estate agent Frank Mollard (LaPaglia) is stuck in deep personal and professional rut. He’s tired of selling properties owned by the recently or soon-to-be deceased and is having trouble recovering from his recent divorce from Wendy (Justine Clarke), an actress who grew apart from him after achieving sudden fame on a TV medical drama. He connects easier with his surprisingly nonchalant boss, Phillip (John Clarke), than his overly sensitive teenage son.

One day, he enters into a misdirected phone conversation with an elderly woman, Sarah (Julia Blake), who insists he’s her son. Despite the fact that his mother died a year earlier, Frank is so comforted by their conversation that he plays along with her confusion. He uses his job as an excuse to pay a visit to the retired librarian, whose middle-age son, Damien (Donal Forde), looks at Frank as if he’s trying to steal his inheritance by selling the house to an order of cloistered nuns. Instead, he’s in search of the kind of motherly advice he never sought from his own mom. Writer/director Matthew Saville probably assumed that the audience for A Month of Sundays would be old enough to appreciate the reflexive moments shared by the autumnal characters and wait patiently for them to work out their dilemmas. It’s not the kind of movie anyone in Hollywood is interested in producing, anymore. It’s also a departure for Saville, a television veteran whose memorably offbeat first feature, Noise (2007), involves a young cop whose ability to solve a terrible series of murders is complicated by self-doubt and a sudden attack of tinnitus. His condition reduces his ability to hear, while also magnifying the sound of everyday noises. His second feature, Felony, written by and starring Edgerton, was psychodrama involving three very different Sydney cops forced to decide what ethical lines can be crossed to achieve justice in an accident involving an off-duty police officer and a child, without destroying more than one person’s life. In all three of his films, Saville elicits moving performances from mostly homegrown casts.

Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Before the general release of the torture-porn classic Audition – inarguably, one of the most unsettling movies ever made — Takashi Miike was a largely an unknown quantity outside Asia. He had, in fact, directed more than 30 films over the course of the previous eight years, most of them extremely violent straight-to-video flicks that in America would have been dismissed as grindhouse or drive-in fare. After word-of-mouth turned Audition into a cult sensation, genre buffs around the world rushed to see such brashly energetic entertainments as The Happiness of the Katakuris, Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django, Detective Story, Zebraman and the Dead or Alive trilogy. If he continues to defy the expectations of mainstream critics and late-arrivals with the unevenness of his period, mange/anime and yakuza pictures, cultists have been far more forgiving. The films included in Arrow Video’s “Takashi Miike’s Black Society Trilogy: Special Edition” represent the director’s first foray into the theatrical arena. Even if Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), Rainy Dog (1997) and Ley Lines (1999) could be stand alone as non-serial releases, they work best as a series of pictures that capture the feelings of isolation, paranoia and rage that existed within the small population of Chinese and Japanese/Chinese living in Japan. To combat the discrimination they faced as outsiders, the Chinese formed underworld Triads that were as violent and exploitative as the yakuza. Set in the bustling Kabuki-cho nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, Shinjuku Triad Society follows a mixed-race cop (Kippei Shiina) struggling with private issues while hunting a psychotic criminal (Tomorowo Taguchi) who traffics in children’s organs, especially those of kidnapped Chinese youths. Shot entirely in Taiwan, Rainy Dog concerns an exiled yakuza (Show Aikawa), who, one fateful day, is introduced to the son he never knew existed and has a price put on his head by the same Chinese gang he’s served as an assassin. Ley Lines moves from the countryside to the city and back, as three Japanese youths of Chinese descent seek their fortune in Tokyo, only to run afoul of a violent gang boss (Naoto Takenaka). The narratives are alternately profane and profound, gut-churning and empathetic. The settings shift from brothels and flophouses, to fancy restaurants and villas. If it ever stopped raining on the characters, I didn’t notice it. The neon-lit puddles frequently fill with droplets of blood as the violence in the street escalates to open warfare. The special edition is enhanced by high-definition digital transfers of all three films and original uncompressed stereo audio. The bonus features include new interviews with Miike and Aikawa; commentaries for all three films by Miike biographer Tom Mes; original theatrical trailers for all three films; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the films.

PBS: American Experience: The Battle of Chosin
Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Odd Squad: The Movie
Before the embarrassing loss of South Vietnam to communist forces and a series of smaller wars and invasions that ended rather shabbily, thanks mostly to poor decision-making in Washington, the title of “Forgotten War” was worn by the Korean conflict, which lasted from 1950-54. Despite the heroics of American, South Korean and UN forces, all we succeeded in doing was keeping the Chinese- and Soviet-backed North Korean military from attempting to re-invade the South. The situation has yet to be resolved. After the glorious defeat of fascist and imperial governments in World War II, the American people didn’t know how to react to a stalemate. There would be no parades or displays of appreciation. Congressional approval for a Korean War Veterans Memorial only was confirmed on October 28, 1986. It’s in West Potomac Park, southeast of the Lincoln Memorial and just south of the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall. It was a long time coming.

PBS’ “American Experience: The Battle of Chosin” provides us with several very good reasons to remember the Forgotten War and salute the men who nearly were slaughtered, en masse, because General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command, decided to turn victory into defeat by provoking Chinese leaders to intercede on behalf of the North Korean communists. After the successful invasion at Inchon, American and Allied soldiers pushed the invaders back to the 38th Parallel and beyond. MacArthur decided it might be fun to keep on going, to the Yalu River, where 85,000 Chinese soldiers awaited orders to attack a much smaller force of UN soldiers and U.S. Marines. The general had arrogantly insisted that Chairman Mao Zedong wouldn’t elect to cross the Yalu and, if he did, China wouldn’t put up on good fight. What he didn’t take into account was Chairman Mao’s legitimate fear of a full-fledged invasion of his country by the United States and his willingness to promote communism with the same vehemence previously directed at Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, now ensconced in Taiwan. If Mao did make the move, however, MacArthur was perfectly willing to use nuclear weapons on China. As such, he directly challenged the authority of President Truman to wage the “police action” as he saw fit, and that didn’t include risking a third world war. “The Battle of Chosin” describes in harrowing detail how our men survived long enough – with no food, sleep or uniforms warm enough to withstand sub-zero temperatures — to retreat to a more defensible position, below the Chosin Reservoir. Among those interviewed are survivors of battle, historians and military experts.

MacArthur’s instincts were 100 percent correct when it came to the initial invasion of South Korea, already almost completely in the hands of communist troops. John H. Lee’s Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite, a huge hit in South Korea, describes the essential role played by a South Korean special-forces unit that infiltrated the North Korean army command center in Inchon 14 days ahead of the UN landing. The joint Central Intelligence Agency/military-intelligence reconnaissance effort, codenamed Trudy Jackson, was led by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Eugene F. Clark. After landing at Yonghung-do, an island in the mouth of the harbor, the unit relayed intelligence back to the fleet commanders on the tactical characteristics of the harbor, which is notorious for swift currents and major tidal surges. They also were ordered to secure a lighthouse crucial to the landing’s success and provide information on bombing targets inland. Lee’s direction emphasizes the dangers inherent in such a risky mission, while also pumping up the support provided by MacArthur (Liam Neeson), who went out on a limb to defend it. Although the fact-based action is often quite good, the North Korean government has described the film as “ridiculous bravado from ignorant lunatics.” Whoever wrote that might consider applying for a job with Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, where such criticism could apply to most action films made here.

The PBS Kids series, “Odd Squad,” follows the exploits of a kid-run organization that solves peculiar problems using math skills. “Odd Squad: The Movie” describes what happens when a rival agency, Weird Team, arrives in town with a gadget that fixes any odd problem, effectively putting it out of business. After the agents are forced to go back to their lives as regular kids, they use math and teamwork to uncover the gadget’s inability to fix the problems it masked. Olympia and Otis join forces with Olive and Otto to stop Weird Team and save the world from destruction. Special guests include Sean Cullen, Rizwah Manji, Sue Galloway, John Lutz, Keith Powell, Hannah Simone and Jack McBrayer

Lady Libertine/Love Circles: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 19
When, in the mid-1980s, Gérard Kikoïne made the transition from hard-core porn to such soft-core “love stories” as Lady Libertine and Love Circles, for non-French companies, it was because the government had imposed prohibitively heavy fees on the thriving industry. At the same time, in the United States, distributors of erotic films to cable-TV networks and video outlets could hardly keep up with the demand. Kikoïne was hired to produce erotic titles for Playboy Productions, which, at the time, was churning out fare that could pass for R-rated in theaters. Kikoïne took a few more liberties with such taboo visuals as full-frontal nudity and pubic hair, but nothing comparable to what’s seen on the Playboy Channel today. (Most grown women had yet to see the benefit, if any, of waxing or shaving their pubes to resemble Barbie dolls.) While almost anyone with a camcorder could create the kinds of movies shown afterhours on Cinemax, Kikoïne was accorded budgets that allowed for elaborate sets, period costumes and travel to exotic locations … or reasonable facsimiles thereof. The sex was integrated organically within the context of a recognizable narrative and the female actors, at least, were world-class beauties. The lavishly staged Lady Libertine was adapted from the Victorian novel, “Frank and I,” by Bill Adler. As such, there’s nearly as much S&M as horizontal sex. In the 1880s, a rich nobleman from London, Charles de Beaumont (Christopher Pearson), adopts a cross-dressing teenage orphan (Jennifer Inch) after learning Frank/Frances had escaped from a brothel. The count already has a lover, Maud (Sophie Favier), who contributes to the teenager’s home-schooling, such as it is. (When, some years later, Favier went legit and became a well-known TV host, she unsuccessfully sued the distributor to prevent the release of the DVD.)  Charles is an extremely jealous host, so, when his charge shows signs of hooking up with a suitor closer to her age, he’s forced to make a choice between youth and experience. (Inch would quickly find work as Ruby Gillis, in the CBC/Disney presentation, “Anne of Green Gables.”)

Also included in the package is Kikoïne’s more contemporary Love Circles: An International Odyssey, which is cut from the same cloth as the Emmanuelle series. An update of “La Ronde,” it traces a series of chance meetings between men and women from Paris to Rome, Cannes to Hong Kong, and Los Angeles to New York City. The commen element is a pack of cigarettes handed from horny dude to willing babe. It works pretty well as an erotic fantasy, if nothing else. There’s an entertaining interview with Kikoïne and separate introduction to Lady Libertine at the Fantasia Film Festival. In 1989, he would direct Anthony Perkins in the Jekyll/Hyde-on-crack thriller, Edge of Sanity.

Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 19” features 15 more “classic” 8mm loops, re-mastered from original film prints, with such titles as “Truck Girls,” “Lesbian Lust,” “Angie’s Dream” and “Pom Pom Power.” Among the stars in this go-round are Linda Shaw, Vanessa Del Rio, Merle Richards and a slew of unknowns, who, like Sophie Favier, wish they’d made better decisions back in the day. Liner notes are provided by “porn archaeologist” Dimitrios Otis

The DVD Wrapup: Girl on the Train, Whole Truth, Dancer, Death Race 2050, Train to Busan, Fox and his Friends, Something Wild,and more

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

The Girl on the Train: Blu-ray
Since I didn’t read Paula Hawkins’ worldwide bestseller before watching The Girl on the Train, I allowed myself not to compare what I might have loved about the book, contrasted to the decisions made by the filmmakers. These include everything from debatable casting choices to relocating the action from London to Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York, and refocusing the point-of-view to that of a single protagonist, Rachel (Emily Blunt), instead of her sharing it equally with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett). The whole movie was new to me. Devastated by her recent divorce, Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about Megan and Scott (Luke Evans) the seemingly perfect couple she sees most days from the window of her train. They live in a house with a million-dollar view of the Hudson River and always appear to be cuddling, making love or sharing the chores. Her perception changes in a flash when she witnesses something that jolts her to the core – it’s a real Rear Window moment – and she decides to insinuate herself into two interrelated marital dramas … three, when you take into account that one of the spouses is her ex-husband. The trouble with trusting Rachel’s point of view implicitly is that her former husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) really did a number on her and she’s since become a barely functioning alcoholic, prone to blackouts and misremembering events in her recent past. She’s also developed a morbid preoccupation with Tom’s newborn daughter. One of things that caused her to turn to the bottle was an inability to conceive a child. Another was Tom’s decision to cheat on her with their New Age-y real-estate agent, Anna. Because this is a movie and not real life, the female half of the “perfect couple,” Megan, not only lives a few doors down from Tom and Anna, but she also is their nanny.

One day, after Scott reports Rachel missing, Rachel wakes up from a night of heavy drinking with vague memories of something nasty having happened in a tunnel not far from the couples’ homes. She’d already begun stalking Anna, so, in her fog-shrouded mind, anything was possible, including being completely innocent. Detective Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) immediately suspects Rachel of having something to do with the disappearance, but, without a dead body, all she’s guilty of being a pest to Tom and Anna, and someone capable of harming their nanny or kidnapping their baby. She also makes Scott miserable by suggesting that Megan may have run away with her shrink (Edgar Ramírez) after being impregnated by him. Working from a workmanlike script by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), director Tate Taylor (The Help) pretty much remains faithful to the novel, or so I’m told. My biggest problems with the movie derives from an early confusion of blond actresses and a subsequent lack of interest on my part in the plight of their characters and their marriages. Eliminating their points of view from the narrative made Anna and Megan seem more distant to me. (Or, am I prejudiced against pretty blonds living in nice homes?) Things picked up rapidly after Taylor refocused his attention on the mystery of what happened to Megan and what’s really behind Rachel’s blackouts. Blunt ultimately convinces us of Rachel’s worth and commitment to sobriety. Despite the book’s popularity, The Girl on the Train fell well short of blockbuster status. A relatively modest budget and overseas box-office returns might have helped push it into the black, however. There’s no reason to think it won’t do better in VOD and DVD/Blu-ray/UHD. The bonus package includes deleted and extended scenes, Taylor’s commentary and a couple of perfunctory making-of featurettes.

The Whole Truth: Blu-ray
Once it became clear to me that Keanu Reeves is playing a defense attorney in The Whole Truth, I began to worry that his character might turn out to be a mere shadow of Kevin Lomax, the bedeviled lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. The movie was shown first on VOD, before being granted a limited release last October, so it could have been a real stinker. Reeves has fooled me before, however. Thanks to his freakishly youthful genetic makeup, Richard Ramsey doesn’t look a day older than Lomax did in 1997. Apart from the physical resemblance, though, the two lawyers play in completely different ballparks and “Devil’s Advocate” director Taylor Hackford was given far more to work with than Courtney Hunt, in her theatrical follow-up to the terrific 2008 drama, Frozen River. Another red flag was raised by screenwriter Nicolas Kazan choosing to write The Whole Truth under the pseudonym Rafael Jackson. It represents his first screenwriter credit since the 2002 Jennifer Lopez vehicle, Escape, and 1999 Robin Williams bomb, Bicentennial Man. Here, Ramsey is a hotshot Louisiana lawyer, hired by the widow (Renée Zellweger) of a more successful attorney (Jim Belushi) to defend their son against charges of murdering his father. Ever since the incident, the bright young man (Gabriel Basso) has remained mute, thus compounding the degree of difficulty for Ramsey.

Even if the verdict isn’t likely to surprise anyone who’s watched more than few episodes of “Law & Order,” the movie offers a few decent twists, at least. The Whole Truth wisely dispenses with the commonly held notion that all judges south of the Mason-Dixon Line are buffoons, bigots, fascists, crooks or combinations thereof. Judge Robichaux (Ritchie Montgomery) may be a wee bit eccentric – it’s a Louisiana courtroom, after all – but he’s atypically fair. He’s more interested administering justice in a swift and uneventful manner than grandstanding. That’s a rare thing. Then, too, there’s the re-emergence of Zellweger’s re-emergence in a key role. Because it was released last spring in several overseas markets, The Whole Truth, not Bridget Jones’s Baby, represents her first movie role in six years. While the cosmetic work she’s had done on her face takes some getting used to, she’s far from unrecognizable or unattractive. Now 47, Zellweger looks her age and can still pull off the role of the sexy widow, who’s harboring a secret. Then, too, there’s Oxford-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones), who does a nice job as the daughter of a respected African-American judge and Ramsey’s spunky second-chair. Kazan/Jackson’s script wisely spares viewers any race-based throughlines. Even so, if the story, itself, offered a few more unexpected twists and turns, it would be easier to forgive Reeves his frequently one-dimensional performance.

Come and Find Me: Blu-ray
In his directorial debut, writer Zach Whedon (“Southland”) has crafted a paranoid-thriller that probably could have gotten lost in theaters, but fits pretty well on the small screen. (Small comfort for opening on VOD outlets, I suppose.) Although, at 112 minutes, Come and Find Me tests our ability to suspend disbelief in the central mystery, Aaron Paul (”Breaking Bad”) makes us care very much about the sudden disappearance of David’s hot blond girlfriend, Claire. He’s a L.A.-based graphic designer who falls for a free-spirited photographer (Annabelle Wallis) who he meets – cute, of course — in their shared apartment building. No sooner do we warm to the couple than Claire simply disappears from David’s life, almost as if she never existed. Heart-broken and deeply concerned, he desperately searches for clues that don’t really exist. After discovering some rather ordinary-looking photos she had taken, David decides to ascertain where they were shot and ask people there if they recognize Claire. It doesn’t take long for David to learn that she was leading a double life and it involved guns, muscular guys with Slavic accents and spooks in look-alike black suits. An acquaintance breaks into his apartment, punching holes in the drywall in search of God-knows-what. Everyone David meets encourages him to forget about Claire, or else. But, where would be the fun in that. Instead, he uses their obsession with a missing roll of film as leverage to get closer to the truth about Claire. The deeper he digs, the more dangerous things get for him in the gorgeous mountains, surrounding Vancouver. Even if things stop making sense after a while, Whedon keeps things from getting boring with shootouts, chases and missed connections.

Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050: Blu-ray
In the annals of exploitation cinema, Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s 1975 action/satire Death Race 2000 holds a special place. Originally created to take advantage of advance publicity for the futuristic combat-sport fantasy, Rollerball, it is one of the most influential of all AIP/New World titles, pre-dating Mad Max, The Gumball Rally, the WWE superstars and Hunger Games. Robert Thom and Charles Griffith’s adaptation of a short story by Ib Melchior (The Time Travelers) hit home with a generation of teenagers and young adults who’d given up on peace, love and good vibes and were steeling themselves for a bleak, dystopian future … not that the word, “dystopian,” was part of the vernacular. If the apocalypse has yet to qrear its ugly head, as prophesized in Death Race 2000, the conditions for total annihilation could hardly be riper. Without completely discounting the previous “DR2K” prequels, sequels, remakes and ancillary products, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 strikes me as being a closer representation of the anarchic spirit that propelled the original drive-in classic.

In 2050, the United States is controlled by an all-powerful corporate government ruled by a dictator (Malcolm McDowell), not unlike the character he played in Rob Zombie’s 31 or, for that matter, Donald Trump. Once again, race fans are so invested in its outcome that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves at various points in the cross-country race, so their favorite driver can amass points. The reigning champion and fan favorite, Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), is anxious to retain the crown, but is continually thwarted by his rebel-spy co-pilot (Marci Miller). This time, the scenes of a ravaged American terrain were shot in and around Lima, Peru. The setting looks distressingly real. Corman may have allowed the production a slightly larger production budget, but it wasn’t enough to mask the purposefully cheesy production values and makeshift props. The race cars haven’t improved much, either. Even so, Death Race 2050 can be enjoyed as a throwback to the days when drive-in theaters ruled and viewers stopped paying attention after the first six-pack was downed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and features, “The Making of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050,” “The Look of 2050,” “Cars! Cars! Cars!” and “Cast Car Tours.”

If the Ukrainian-born “bad boy of ballet,” Sergei Polunin, isn’t as well-known outside of dance circles as Baryshnikov, Nureyev or Godunov, it’s because he didn’t have to risk everything by defecting to the west for his art. The west came to him. The lifting of the Iron Curtain denied the American media the ability to capitalize on artists’ and athletes’ desire to find wealth and happiness outside Eastern European. If it weren’t for the occasional Cuban baseball player making the 90-mile leap to the Major Leagues, the word “defect” would be limited to spies and Chinese exports. Just because I wasn’t familiar with Polunin before watching Steven Cantor’s incisive bio-doc, Dancer, doesn’t mean he lacks mainstream recognition in the United States. In 2014, his video collaboration with photographer and music director David LaChapelle, based on Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” went viral, not only introducing millions of the fans to Polunin, but also to a distinctly masculine merging of ballet and modern dance. In June, 2010, he became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal. Less than two years later, though, Polunin shocked the dance world by announcing his resignation from the company. “The artist in me was dying,” he said. If it precipitated the media’s characterization of the multi-tattooed Polunin as a “bad boy,” or rebel, they didn’t take into account the fact that he’d already spent most of young life training, rehearsing and performing under the most rigid circumstances imaginable, mostly without his parents and away from home.

From ages 4 to 8, he trained at a gymnastics academy in his hometown, Kherson, then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. He would spend the next four years at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute, while his father worked in Portugal to support the family. At 13, he was invited to join the British Royal Ballet School, sponsored by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Several months after leaving the company, he agreed to dance as a principal dancer with Russia’s Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, and as a guest dancer with other international companies. Still not satisfied, Polunin soon would develop a reputation as being flighty and undependable. Apparently, he now has his sights set on Hollywood, where Nureyev (Valentino), Baryshnikov (The Turning Point) and Godunov (Die Hard) enjoyed a modicum of success. Dancer makes a solid case for Polunin being an artist of extraordinary talent and intelligence, worthy of our patience and understanding. Moreover, at 27, he’s far from washed up. The documentary includes the dance video and details of the dancer’s life and career.

The Free World
The presence of Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer is a good-enough reason to check out The Free World, the uneven directorial debut of sophomore screenwriter Jason Lew (Restless). Holbrook (“Narcos”) plays Mohamed Lundy, a brooding ex-con who discovered Islam in prison after convincing fellow inmates and guards, alike, that he wasn’t raised to be anyone’s bitch. Exonerated of his guilt in a terrible crime, Mohamed finds work in an animal shelter, where the caged beasts might as well be sitting in a cell on Death Row. Apart from his sympathetic boss (Spencer), the wounded dogs are his only friends. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for trouble to come to Mohamed. A brutal cop arrives at the shelter to drop off his wife’s mutt, which he’s beaten within an inch of its life, just to piss her off. The cop recognizes Lundy and taunts him to provoke a fight, but “Mo” refuses to take the bait. A couple of nights later, the wife, Doris (Moss), shows up at the pound looking for her dog, her clothes stained with blood and as desperate to survive as a cornered animal. Worried that someone is lying in wait for her, Mo takes her to his furniture-deprived apartment for safekeeping. We’ll learn soon enough that the blood once belonged to her now-late husband and she’s the subject of an intense police dragnet. Because her trail disappears at the shelter, Mohamed is targeted for harassment by the merciless Detective Shin (Sung Kang), who believes he knows where Doris is hiding. He does, of course, but Mo’s apartment has already been searched and he’s given Shin no reason to intimidate him. Doris may not be terribly bright, but she’s impressed by Mo’s dedication to his religion and how it changed him. When she makes the kind of dumb mistake that could lead the police back to the apartment, Mo decides that the time has come to head for the border, with the assistance of another convert to Islam. Lew doesn’t exactly clear a direct path to Mexico for his characters. Instead, it’s littered with improbable obstacles designed to test Mo’s strength and faith. If Lew’s story is too contrived to be believable, the movie is salvaged by the leads’ excellent performances and some good fights.

Train to Busan: Blu-ray
As if South Koreans didn’t have enough on their minds, considering that North Korean despot Kim Jong-un could launch a nuclear attack at any moment, the hugely popular thriller, Train to Busan, added the zombie apocalypse to the mix. Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature imagines what could happen if someone infected with the plague stumbled upon a bullet train to escape a nationwide viral outbreak. It takes a while for the passengers, who boarded at an earlier stop, to figure out what’s happening in the car in which the diseased woman is nursing a bite wound on her leg. The situation worsens exponentially as the infection quickly spreads from car to car. Finally, the passengers in a single car are left to battle the undead legions inside the train and at every stop on the way to the Safe Zone. Yeon heightens the tension with almost non-stop action and gore, as well as a handful of clearly drawn characters we hope won’t end up having their brain bludgeoned by a baseball bat or errant bullet. Naturally, Train to Busan’s box-office success overseas ensured that a Hollywood remake would soon follow. Where they’ll find a bullet train here is anyone’s guess. The package includes behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.

Honky Holocaust: Blu-ray
B.C. Butcher: Blu-ray
Bubba the Redneck Werewolf
For at least one generation of horror and slasher buffs, Charles Manson is the gift that keeps on giving. Even while ensconced at San Quentin and Corcoran State Prison, he was rarely far from the public’s eye. His face appeared on T-shirts almost as often as Che Guevara and Mickey Mouse and the tabloid papers never tired of inventing ways to feature stories about his prison activities and parole efforts of jailed gang members. His bizarre magnetism was such that visitors conspired with guards and fellow cons to import contraband, such as drugs and cellphones, into prison on his orders. When, on New Year’s Day, Manson was rushed by ambulance to Mercy Hospital, in downtown Bakersfield, the news stirred a feeding frenzy in the media and scared the crap out of locals afraid that he might escape in his hospital gown into the Central Valley night. He didn’t, but imagine the scope of the manhunt if he had. Honky Holocaust, Troma’s latest assault on western culture, is built on the outlandish premise that Manson’s Helter Skelter strategy had played out as planned and his merry band of followers is finally ready to come out of hiding, fit and ready to save mankind from an apocalyptic race war. Writer/director Paul M. McAlarney tweaks the Helter Skelter scenario by killing off Manson a decade underground and creating a society dominated by militant blacks, who aren’t likely to be intimidated by a couple of dozen middle-age freaks with automatic weapons. Manson’s daughter, Kendra (Maria Natapov), is the first to realize that, among other things, her father’s plan failed to take into account the possibility that Angela Davis would be elected president in 1984; that dollar bills would someday feature the likeness of renegade slave, Nat Turner; and whites (referred to derisively as “albies”) would be relegated to slums and ghettos, in a reversal of Jim Crow segregation. Even so, a race war of sorts does break out in the streets of San Francisco, but it duplicates all the worst elements of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. As indigestible as Honky Holocaust is, it can’t be said that it’s devoid of deliciously Tromatastic flourishes. I can imagine Quentin Tarantino surveying the movie and seeing some of his own handiwork on display. It’s definitely not for the squeamish or politically correct. The Blu-ray includes an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman and director Paul McAlarney; a behind-the-scenes “Honkumentary”; “exterminated” scenes; a photo gallery; McAlarney’s exclusive video takes; “Troma Now! Xtreme Edition”; Radiation March; and Tromatic trailers.

Troma is distributing Kansas Bowling’s B.C. Butcher, which barely qualifies for mention in the same breath as Honky Holocaust or The Toxic Avenger. The best things that can be said for it are that it lives up to its tagline, “The first slasher film to be set in prehistoric times!,” and that Bowling, who was 17-years-old when she began to make B.C. Butcher, learned from the experience. Her music videos, included in the Blu-ray package, are already better than anything in the movie. For the record, though, the story involves a tribe of cavewomen, modeled after Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., who, after exacting a cruel form of justice on one of their own, is stalked by a laughably deformed monster. If only the gals had listened to the tribe’s blind soothsayer and made a beeline for the bayou. Shot on a shoestring, or less, it features cameos by Kato Kaelin and Rodney “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” Bingenheimer; narration by Kadeem Hardison; and a performance by the Ugly Kids. The bonus package adds an intro by Kaufman; amusing commentary with Bowling and Kaufman; an interview with the savvy-beyond-her-years director; and promotional material. I’d love to see what Bowling could do with a larger budget and a shot at a series on MTV or Syfy.

Bubba the Redneck Werewolf wasn’t churned out by the Troma factory, but it might as well have been. Overflowing with gags that Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-long rod and reel, it tells the story of local laughingstock Bubba (Fred Lass/Chris Stephens), who longs to win back the heart of his high school sweetheart, Bobbie Jo (Malone Thomas), but needs some help. When the Devil (Mitch Hyman) comes to Broken Taint, Florida, Bubba begs to be transformed into a hairy-chested macho man. Instead, the next morning, he wakes up as a macho wolfman, in constant need of a shave. To demonstrate his new-found heroism, Bubba engages malicious bikers, cryptic hobos, gaseous gypsies and, yes, a zombie hoard. Based on the comic book series of the same name, Bubba benefits from the humorously matter-of-fact attitude adopted by the local yokels toward their hirsute dog catcher.

Fox and His Friends: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lazy Eye: Extended Director’s Cut
I can’t recall when the term, “queer cinema,” became an acceptable way to describe films of specific interest to the LGBT and sometimes Q community. Probably around the same time that other minority groups reappropriated slurs traditionally employed by bigots for their own purposes. As the mainstreaming of the queer cinema continues apace, the arrival of the Criterion Collection edition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends reminds us of filmmakers whose non-polemical storytelling predated Stonewall or paralleled the rise of the gay liberation movement. A short list would include Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ken Russell, John Schlesinger, Luchino Visconti, Toshio Matsumoto and John Waters. At a time when William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band was being hailed and condemned, in almost equal measure, for its depiction of archetypal characters confronting their sexual identity, the work of these arthouse directors had already exited the genre closet and entered a world in which porn and self-pity didn’t necessarily inform the narratives. Ten years after the release of The Boys in the Band, Friedkin’s crime thriller, Cruising, about a serial killer targeting homosexuals, especially those associated with the leather scene, would inspire an outcry that forced Hollywood to rethink its approach to gay-themed movies. Tellingly, perhaps, it took 17 years for a major studio to adapt Édouard Molinaro’s hilarious Franco-Italian farce, La Cage aux Folles, as The Birdcage – rated “R,” for language and turn it into a huge hit, thanks to director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, and stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

By the time that Fox and His Friends was introduced at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, Fassbinder had already established a reputation as a leading light in the New German Cinema and provocateur of the first order. Many of the films he made in the early- to mid-1970s were inspired by the melodramas made in Hollywood by Hamburg-born Douglas Sirk. They explored societal prejudices about race, sex, sexual orientation, politics and class, while also tackling the “everyday fascism of family life and friendship.” In some ways, Fox and His Friends resembles a Sirkian tragedy, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion.” An atypically svelte Fassbinder plays Franz Biberkopf, a penniless gay man who performs in a traveling circus as Fox the Talking Head. One day, after his boss is arrested and the act is closed, Franz is cruised by a classy older man, Max, who introduces the rough trade to younger friends, Eugen and Philip. At first dismissive, their ears perk up when Max shares the news of Franz’ recent lottery win of a half-million marks. (The money for the ticket was stolen from a florist, who made the mistake of turning his back on his flirtatious customer.) Franz is beguiled by Eugen’s polish and willingness to show him a good time in Munich’s gay demimonde, for so long as he’s picking up the tab, anyway. To avoid undue embarrassment, Eugen (Peter Chatel) plays Professor Henry Higgins to Franz’ Eliza Doolittle. It also opens the door for Eugen’s father, a bookbinder, to hit up his son’s lover for an investment in his failing company. Franz jumps at the chance to join the ranks of important industrialists, even as Eugen’s cheap shots and frustration become more pointed. When the money finally evaporates … well, you might be able to guess the rest. The Blu-ray adds interviews with fresh interviews, vintage TV appearances by Fassbinder and essays.

Fassbinder, who committed suicide in 1982, at 37, said this about “Fox and His Friends: “It is certainly the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem. In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different. It’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s the story I always tell”.

In a nutshell, that explains how America’s queer cinema has evolved in the last 20 years, from narratives almost exclusively associated with the pain of accepting one’s sexuality and coming out to friends and family, to comedies, dramas and melodramas in which being gay is almost incidental to the story. The latest examples I’ve seen are from Breaking Glass Pictures, a distribution company that’s become a key player in several niche categories. In Nick Corporon’s Vertigo-inspired Retake, a lonely, middle-aged gay man, played by Tuc Watkins (“One Life to Live”), picks up a male prostitute on Santa Monica Boulevard, hoping to convince him to join him on a trip to the Grand Canyon. The offer sounds lucrative, if potentially dangerous to Adam (Devon Graye), who’s no stranger to taking risks for money. The Hitchcockian quid pro quo would require of Adam that he not ask Jonathan any personal questions and to help re-create memories from a road trip he took with a former lover, years earlier. Adam’s game for an adventure, so long as it doesn’t involve airplanes. His assignment is complicated, though, by Jonathan’s tendency to become temperamental when challenged or disappointed. And, that’s where things could get scary. Retake largely takes place in the Mojave Desert — beautifully shot by Collin Brazie – where the shabbiness of the motels and other roadside attractions is overshadowed by spectacular sunsets and mountainous horizons. The rootsy soundtrack fits right into the story, as well. The DVD arrives with cast and crew commentary, interviews, making-of featurettes, Q&A’s and Corporon’s short, “The Passenger.”

Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye also takes place in and around Joshua Tree, albeit a little further off the beaten path. At about the same time as Dean, a graphic designer in Los Angeles, notices a sudden change in his vision, a lover from 15 years earlier contacts him unexpectedly in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Dean’s been scouring the Internet for anything to do with Alex’s whereabouts, but to no avail. He invites Alex to a vacation house in the desert, near Palm Springs, but saves his deepest secrets for the day after they enjoy a long-delayed roll in the hay. Much of the movie’s 87-minute length is consumed by bickering and making up, as is the case in most other indie romance/dramas. At this point in their lives, both men are looking for a bit more permanence and stability than that afforded them in the urban bar scene, where they first met. Finally, Lazy Eye asks us to question the wisdom of hooking up with old flames, especially at a time when sexual-identity issues have re-invented traditional notions about love and marriage. Some viewers will find the picture to be too talky by half and a few of the symbolic touches – suicidal mice! – a bit hard to take. Even so, the lovely desert landscapes provide timely diversions for viewers’ lazy eyes and the characters’ problems are recognizable and credibly rendered. The disc adds a deleted scene, blooper reel and film festival Q&A. Kirkman’s previous credits include The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Loggerheads and Dear Jesse.

Something Wild: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Although its redemption-through-marriage conclusion wouldn’t pass muster today, Something Wild deserves to been seen by anyone interested in the evolution of the independent-film movement and, especially, the impact of the Actors Studio on the international cinema, since the early 1950s. The intense urban drama was directed by Jack Garfein, who, at 25, was invited to become a non-performing member of the Actors Studio, where he would serve as mentor to a who’s-who of future stars. A survivor of 11 different concentration camps, 16-year-old Garfein was among the first five Holocaust survivors to arrive in the United States after the war. An extremely quick study, he would in short order become proficient in English and an essential member of New York’s exploding post-war theater scene. Something Wild, starring his then-wife and student Carroll Baker, represents Garfein’s second and final motion picture. In it, Baker plays a student who’s brutally raped on her way home from a train platform in the Bronx. At first, Mary Ann tries to shake off the pain and trauma caused in the attack, but, soon, they overwhelm her. While contemplating suicide on the Manhattan Bridge, she’s pulled from the brink by a mechanic, Mike (Ralph Meeker), who happens to be walking across the span at the same time. Mary Ann agrees to take Mike up on his offer of food and shelter in his threadbare basement apartment. After a long sleep, she decides that it’s a better place to recuperate than under the too-watchful eyes of her parent and the flophouse to which she escaped after the rape. (Her next-door neighbor is a floozy, played by Jean Stapleton.)

Unfortunately, Mike’s tendency to come home drunk and belligerent at night has an adverse effect on Mary Ann’s recovery. Worse, Mike decides that saving her from suicide entitles him to holding her as a prisoner in his basement lair. Their deeply personal discussions and intensely choreographed arguments are straight out of the Actors Studio handbook. When push comes to shove, Mary Ann will be required to make a choice between the lesser of several evils and a shot at happiness. Not everyone will buy into her decision, but, at least, the ending isn’t as ambiguous as that of Garfein’s previous film, The Strange One, a commentary on American race relations that didn’t have one. Something Wild is interesting, though, for reasons other than the passionate storytelling or stylized performances, which, long ago, became the standard for American actors. Few movies have be able to capture the extremes of New York’s visual and tonal palette as vividly and succinctly as is accomplished here composer Aaron Copland, veteran cinematographer Eugen Schufftan and Saul Bass, whose strikingly angular title sequence — a montage of glistening skyscrapers, fluttering pigeons, dense traffic and bustling pedestrians – will stand in direct contrast to the loneliness felt by Mary Ann. (Copland would re-arrange music from the score for the concert performance, “Music for a Great City.”) The Criterion package includes a fresh interview with an almost giddy Baker; a filmed conversation between Garfein and critic Kim Morgan; an interview with film scholar Foster Hirsch on the roots and impact of the Artists Studio; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.

Long Way North: Blu-ray
Surf’s up 2: WaveMania
In a short time, Shout! Factory Kids has amassed an extremely healthy catalogue of animation titles, some vintage and others brand new. Rémi Chayé’s understated directorial debut, Long Way North follows collaborative work on the award-winning The Painting and The Secret of Kells. No one would mistake these French exports for blockbuster titles from Pixar, DreamWorks or other American studios, but easier access to animation from Europe and Japan, especially, has broadened many of our horizons. Long Way North can be fairly described as a girl-power adventure, set in 1882, in which a young Russian aristocrat, Sacha, risks her life to save her family’s reputation. Her grandfather was a world-famous explorer, who is believed to have discovered a water passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, but vanished in his quest to plant Russia’s flag at the North Pole. Prince Tomsky, a new advisor to the Tsar, becomes her instant enemy by disparaging Oloukine as a failure, who wasted a fortune in pursuing impossible dreams. After failing to convince the prince of the value in mounting an expedition to discover the truth, Sacha sets out on her own to recover evidence of granddad’s accomplishment. Although CGI technology almost certainly was used to animate Long Way North, the soft lines and pastels will remind some viewers, at least, of hand-painted cel animation. The package adds a 39-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a half-hour interview with Chayé and producer Henri Magalon; still galleries; and animatics.

It’s been 10 years since fledgling Sony Pictures Animation rode the wave of anthropomorphic penguin flicks with Surf’s Up. The gentle spoof of such surfing documentaries as The Endless Summer and Riding Giants, as well as North Shore, it featured the voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, James Woods and Jon Heder. If, at $100 million, Surf’s Up didn’t hit real pay dirt in its original theatrical release, DVD and soundtrack sales likely benefitted from positive reviews and being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The direct-to-video, computer-animated mockumentary, Surf’s Up 2: WaveManiae may be a far more modest production, but it’s likely to benefit from a brand association with WWE Studios. Since 2002, the company has expanded its reach from action pictures into holiday-themed and children’s animation, including Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery and The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown! Here, Cody Maverick (Jeremy Shada) convinces an infamous big-wave-riding crew known as the Hang 5 (voiced by WWE Superstars John Cena, The Undertaker, Triple H, WWE Diva Paige and Mr. McMahon) to let him join them on their journey to a mysterious surf spot known as the Trenches. It’s where, legend has it, they’ll find the biggest waves in the world. Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader return as Chicken Joe as Tank “The Shredder” Evans.

xXx: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If the producers of Paramount’s upcoming xXx: Return of Xander Cage had wanted to pound home their point any harder, they could have tweaked the title to read: “xXx: Return of Vin Diesel” or “xXx III: Come Back Back Vin, All Is Forgiven.” As was the case when Diesel and director Rob Cohen opted out of the first The Fast and the Furious sequel, the law of diminishing returns threatened to hobble what would become a monster franchise, but only so long as Diesel shared the lead with Paul Walker. Diesel and Cohen also chose to sit out 2005’s tepidly received xXx: State of the Union, preferring to light a fire under the “Riddick” series. While the modestly budgeted Pitch Black and made-for-TV The Chronicles of Riddick: Into Pitch Black (2000) had established Diesel as a legitimate action star, the decision to pump another $80 million to the cost of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick produced the opposite effect. The 2013 reboot, Reddick, benefitted from a return to fiscal sanity, but probably not enough to ensure anything but a straight-to-DVD future – or refocusing the video-game and animated shorts — with a less prestigious cast. Diesel’s disembodied voice, as the sentient plant, Groot, in Marvel/Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will re-echo in this spring’s sequel, as Baby Groot.

Xander Cage (a.k.a., codenamed xXx, for the tattoo on the back of his neck) is a rebellious extreme-sports enthusiast and adrenalin-junky, whose irreverent attitude toward life and patriotism has inspired comparisons to a quintessentially American James Bond. He listens to heavy-metal music and is drawn to dangerous women (Asia Argento, among them). In his first scene, Cage steals a Corvette from a politician, drives it off a high bridge to avoid a roadblock and B.A.S.E. jumps into the passenger seat of his getaway car. He is coerced by NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), who fails to see the humor in such stunts, into infiltrating the Prague-based underground group Anarchy 99. It is led by Yorgi, a former Russian soldier (Marton Csokas), who, like Cage, harbors a grudge against society and authority. From this point on, the story gets more than a little bit convoluted. Just when it seems as if Cage’s cover is about to be blown, Gibbons pops up, as if out of thin air. Neither are we ever sure who’s working for whom or whether Cage’s first priority is taking out Yorgi or profiting from the assignment. Unlike the sequel, which starred Ice Cube as xXx operative Darius Stone, it can fairly be described as an action/parody, with the accent on action. (Stone reprises the role in xXx: Return of Xander Cage.) The amped-up Blu-ray edition adds the new featurette, “Origins of a Renegade,” with stars from the upcoming sequel; deleted scenes; 10 vintage featurettes; commentary; and music videos.

The Babymooners
The advance marketing material for The Babymooners suggests that freshman co-writer/director Shaina Feinberg was “clearly influenced by old Woody Allen films” in the creation of this video letter to her unborn son. If only. I’d suggest that the influence of early Mumblecore or Ed Burns was more noticeable. Shania exhibits her neuroses by asking passersby if they think having a baby will negatively impact her creativity or if being noticeably pregnant makes her less attractive. The reply to the first question: I’m a defense lawyer and didn’t have time left for creativity, anyway; to the second: I’m not attracted to your cartoon-mouse face now, so probably not. The series of vignettes includes dealing with a newly sober husband (co-collaborator Chris Manley), interviewing her standard-issue Upper West Side parents, a boring Shih Tzu mix puppy, an overly anxious shrink and her views on daytime television. The title refers to “a relaxing or romantic vacation taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born.” Is that really a thing? No matter, when they get to the cabin reserved for a brief “babymoon,” everyone’s in for a surprise. It’s pretty much the only vignette that rings true.

PBS: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
PBS: Pearl Harbor: Into the Arizona
The IT Crowd: The Internet Is Coming
PBS: WordWorld: WordWorld: Let’s Make Music!
Like most good mysteries, the PBS documentary “Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne” began with a question. After watching the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers,” which was adapted from a book by Steven Ambrose, director Mike Edwards (Yellow Roses) and military historian Martin King decided to follow up on the brief mention of a black nurse, “Anna,” who treated wounded soldiers in a Bastogne aid station, during the Battle of the Bulge. Locating a Congolese/Belgian woman dubbed the “Angel of Bastogne” turned out to be a more difficult task than seemed possible at the beginning of their search. Given the ferocity of the conflict, it was difficult for them to parse fact from fiction, especially when it concerned civilian aid workers. It was also possible that “Anna” was, in fact, Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire, who was killed during a German air raid on Christmas Eve, 1944. For their purposes, the trail leading back to “Anna” ended where the Allies march into Germany began. To their surprise, word of mouth proved to be more accurate than the research of historians. The unassuming heroine, Augusta Chiwy, was “discovered” in a nursing home, around the corner from her last known address. Like so many other World War II veterans, Chiwy chose to keep what she’d seen and done during the war to herself. The daughter of a Belgian veterinarian, from Bastogne, and his Congolese wife, Chiwy was born in 1921 in the then-Belgian Congo. She returned to Belgium at the age of 9 and, in 1940, went to Leuven to be trained as a nurse. Racial discrimination prevented her from finding work through normal channels. It wouldn’t be the first time. Despite their wounds, some American soldiers from the Deep South refused to be treated by a dark-skinned nurse. (In similar circumstances, many diehard Nazis refused the treatment of nurses they believed to be racially inferior to them.) “Searching for Augusta” ends with Chiwy receiving the honors she so richly deserved, but never sought. It’s a terrific story.

Do you get queasy watching shows in which archeologists, anthropologists and historians traipse through sacred burial grounds or peat bogs, looking for clues to our shared existence? It depends, of course, on whose long-dead ancestors are being disturbed. The Giza Necropolis of ancient Egypt and catacombs of Rome and Paris have served their countries’ tourist industries well, providing museums with mummies, sarcophagi and other artifacts, as well as postcard images of amusingly arranged skulls and bones. Native Americans have begun reclaiming precisely numbered bones lying around in research centers, contributing almost nothing to science. The PBS show, “Secrets of the Dead,” does a good job balancing history and curiosity, as do the producers of documentaries for National Geographic. Thanks to miracles of modern technology, anyone who can afford an underwater-drone camera or deep-water submersible – James Cameron, for example – can tour sunken ocean liners, submarines and warships, in search of souvenirs and clues as to their demise. Since the discovery of skeletons isn’t likely after all this time, viewers don’t necessarily look upon these wrecks as underwater cemeteries. Even though the activities described in PBS’s “Pearl Harbor: Into the Arizona” were performed in the name of preservation, it struck me as coming a tad too close to being sacrilegious. The submerged battleship, which is slowly being eroded by natural forces, has been memorialized as the final resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. The ashes of survivors frequently are strewn on the waters above the bridge. Using a remote-controlled underwater camera, researchers hoped to map and study the ship’s ruins before they can collapse on themselves. Survivor Donald Stratton was invited to monitor and serve as guide to the investigation, so, by inference, if he didn’t object to the intrusion, why should we? It’s fascinating, of course, but the closest most viewers will come to being creeped out will be the opening of a hatch that leads to an officer’s quarters and guest bathroom for their lady friends. Conditions allowed for the preservation of uniforms, a made bed, silver buttons and porcelain shaving gear. In 2012, in “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” “NOVA” producers chronicled the search for conclusive evidence of the presence of Japanese mini-subs off Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. The recovery of bodies became an issue in that instance, as well.

Following hot on the heels of “IT Crowd: The Complete Series,” “The IT Crowd: The Internet Is Coming” really does wrap up the truly offbeat British series, which aired here on IFC and Netflix for four years. Completed three years after the culmination of the series, “The Internet Is Coming” was intended to part of a six-episode fifth season. Due to scheduling problems, it was shortened to a 50-minute, during which most of the loose ends were tied. An American version of the show never made it past the pilot stage. Having learnt from their boss, Douglas Reynholm (Matt Berry), that the secret of his success is wearing women’s slacks, Moss (Richard Ayoade) buys a pair for his wardrobe … such as it is. They somehow make him brave and creative. Meanwhile, Roy (Chris O’Dowd) is annoyed that tiny Troy the Barista (Gareth Morinan) is making his coffee too milky and they argue, after which Troy falls in front of a van. At the same time, Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is filmed accidentally throwing coffee over a homeless man. Both incidents are captured on camera and posted on the Internet, turning Jen and Roy into global pariahs. Roy also accompanies girlfriend Alice (Rachel Parris) to her grandfather’s funeral but overdoes the pepper spray to simulate tears of grief. It only works too well. Douglas then attempts to control the damage to his company on TV’s “The Secret Millionaire,” but blows his cover. Moss devises a plan to market the pepper spray and turn his colleagues into heroes. All in a day’s work for the geek squad at Reynholm Industries. The DVD adds interviews and featurettes.

In PBS Kids’ “WordWorld: Let’s Make Music” for beginning readers, Duck encourages Shark to dance in his show, “The Dancing Duck Bonanza.” Shark can’t do much more than flop around the stage, however. Later, Sheep is preparing a big musical show of his own. While singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” in front of his friends, Duck gets a case of stage fright. Can Sheep and Ant help Duck overcome his stage fright? Put on your dancing shoes and stay tuned. The new DVD contains eight stories from the award-winning problem-solving and word-building series.

The DVD Wrapup: Deepwater Horizon, My King, Hickey, Fritz Bauer, Murderlust, Brad Paisley, Since MLK, Broad City … More

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Deepwater Horizon: Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD/DVD
Typically, I don’t enjoy reliving disasters on film, whether they’re of the natural variety or manmade. By the time a movie gets released, we’ve absorbed enough actual reporting on the event to make most dramatizations superfluous, if not downright exploitative. Judging from largely unimpressive box-office numbers for recent movies based on such tragedies, I’m pretty sure that the public has grown weary of the instant-replay approach, as well. The producers of Deepwater Horizon had their work cut out for them, because the manmade catastrophe played out in three distinct stages, all extremely well-covered in visual and print media: 1) the explosion and inferno that leveled the oil rig and left 11 workers dead; 2) the ecological and economic calamity caused by the 87-day leak; and 3) the legal wrangling that began even before the spill was capped. The producers decided to focus directly on the series of events that led to and immediately followed the blowout, as well as the courage and fates of the oil workers. Because we’re already aware of the huge financial penalties and settlements agreed to by BP, Transocean and other corporate entities, director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand were able to build toward the dramatic struggle to escape the disaster by, first, making sure we’re able to distinguish the heroes from the villains, when the shit hits the fan. Instead of relying on courtroom testimony and source reporting from the New York Times, as credited, the filmmakers elected to frame the day’s events around Mark Wahlberg’s character, chief electronic technician Michael “Mike” Williams. Hours before he steps onto the doomed off-shore platform, 41 miles off the southeast coast of Louisiana, the amiable engineer has already demonstrated his dedication to his family and job, along with a willingness to help a fellow employee (Gina Rodriguez) figure out what’s wrong with her vintage Mustang. The guessing game will be recalled throughout the length of the movie, even as their ability to escape the inextinguishable blaze is most gravely tested. (Wahlberg and Berg previously collaborated on Lone Survivor.)

A brief exchange with a worker departing the platform by helicopter raises the first red flag for Williams. He’s told that a key test to ascertain whether the semi-submersible rig would be able to begin extracting oil from a depth of 5,000 feet below sea level, on schedule, had been bypassed on the orders of company supervisors. His concern is shared by Transocean rig supervisor James “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), who’s portrayed as having forgotten more about drilling than anyone on board the Deepwater Horizon would ever know. That includes BP managers Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza (John Malkovich, Brad Leland), and Transocean’s Captain Curt Kutcha (Dave Maldonado), who, as the first indications of trouble begin bubbling up far below them, was escorting company executives to the control room. Williams is conversing with his wife (Kate Hudson), via Skype, when the first explosion shut down communications. Harrell, who’s just reluctantly OK’d some crucial test results, is taking shower when the blast occurred. For the next hour, or so, it won’t matter who’s at fault for the disaster, because all that counts is reaching the lifeboats. The explosions and fires are re-created with such verisimilitude that at-home viewers will almost be able to feel the heat radiating from their television screens. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack and audio effects complement the visual presentation. While the rancorous legal battles that followed the disaster are merely alluded to in Deepwater Horizon’s opening and closing segments, it’s fair to say that the audience’s mind will already be predisposed to despise the cost-conscious oil companies, whose on-board representatives escaped the jail time we’re sure they deserve. The corresponding ecological disaster is represented in a frantic cameo by an oil-drenched pelican that manages to fly into a control booth and scare the crap out of the computer team … us, too. Even so, the massive oil spill and its residual damage to beaches, sea life and local businesses remains fresh in our minds and would take a completely different movie to dramatize. The Blu-ray/4K Ultra HD/DVD adds the 51-minute featurette “Beyond the Horizon”; 27-minute, “The Fury of the Rig”; 18-minute “Deepwater Surveillance”; and Berg’s shout-out to oil and construction workers, “Work Like an American.”

My King
In relationship dramas, screenwriters frequently allow viewers to detect fissures in a marriage long before their characters acknowledge that something has gone horribly wrong and divorce may be the only solution. The clues don’t necessarily have to be as blatant as infidelity or a growing lack of interest in intimate relations. Sometimes, it’s as subtle as a look of skepticism or alarm captured on the face of a supporting character, when a sour note is struck in a dinner conversation or stroll in the park. Typically, viewers are instinctually drawn to pull for the doomed marriage to succeed — the couple is played by actors we gladly paid to see, after all — right up to the moment when the rug is pulled out from under them. A good story demands we take sides or hope against all hope for reconciliation. French filmmakers don’t always make it easy for viewers to come to easy conclusions. Maïwenn Le Besco, who simply goes by her first name when directing, convolutes the disintegration process even further in My King by mixing flashbacks and flash-forwards as a narrative conceit. We’re first introduced to Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) on a ski run, moments before she suffers an injury that will require surgery and months of rehabilitation. What we don’t know is whether the fall was accidental or a cry for help. Soon enough, Maïwenn turns back the clock to the time when Tony makes a play for the narcissistic Georgio (Vincent Cassel), a restaurateur with a taste for models and cocaine. She’s coming off a bad first marriage and he’s game for a woman with something more to offer than a mirror to his own neuroses.

Georgio’s impetuous behavior is balanced in Tony’s mind by his passion for her. Their wedding may be a barrel of laughs, but her brother, Solal (Louis Garrel), and sister-in-law, Babeth (Isild Le Besco), can’t disguise their suspicions. Maïwenn keeps us off-balance by then flashing ahead to the rehabilitation hospital, situated on a beautiful lake, where she endures the daily ritual of intense physical therapy and trying to overcome a tendency to feel sorry for herself. The flashbacks return to critical points in the marriage – including the first discovery of infidelity and birth of their son, Simbad – where one, or both, of them could have acknowledged what we’ve known for more than an hour and bailed out of it. As one character shrewdly points out, “You leave people for the same reason that attracted you in the first place.” Georgio can be a real dick, but we like Cassel too much to want to see an early exit. Tony’s descent into depression and addiction to pharmaceuticals is difficult to watch, but the flash-forwards suggest she’ll turn out OK. Maybe not, though, if she continues to succumb to Georgio’s charms. There are times when Maïwenn (Polisse) appears to be channeling John Cassevetes, and other confrontational artists, and the French concept of amour fou begins to wears you down. By the end of My King, however, we know Tony and Georgio as well as we’ve known any movie couple. The actors are that good. The challenge is to stick with them long enough to forge a relationship of our own with these occasionally very disagreeable people. The package adds an outtakes/blooper reel; deleted scenes; and a short film, directed by Maïwenn, “I’m an actrice.”

The People vs. Fritz Bauer: Blu-ray
Almost a half-century after his death, German judge and prosecutor Fritz Bauer has become something of a celebrity. Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer is the third dramatized account in three years of how the Stuttgart-born Jew fought the East and West German judicial bureaucracies – at the time, largely populated with former Nazis — to bring war criminals to justice and make the citizenry aware of the scope of the Shoah. His work has also been chronicled in recent documentaries. Why now? Beyond the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which Bauer (Burghart Klaussner) helped initiate, it probably has something to do with the now common knowledge that the he risked prosecution, himself, for being homosexual. Although he was arrested in 1933, as a member of the anti-Nazi Social Democratic Party, and sent to Heuberg concentration camp, his stay there could have been much longer if it were known that he was gay. Two years later, after Bauer was released, he emigrated to Denmark and then, in 1943, moved to Sweden after the former was occupied by German troops. Bauer returned to Germany in 1949, as the postwar Federal Republic was being established, and once more entered civil service in the justice system. When, in the mid-1950s, he became District Attorney of Hessen, his efforts to prosecute former SS officials and camp guards intensified. It put him in direct conflict with some of the same government officials in a position to protect such individuals, including Adolf Eichmann. In The People vs. Fritz Bauer, we’re shown how his staff’s inability – or unwillingness – to locate known war criminals – weighed on him. He knew that government officials had evidence of his dalliances with young men, while on vacation in Denmark, and were willing to use it to discredit him if he put too much pressure on them. They also hoped he would admit to attempting suicide, when he was found unconscious in his bathtub by his chauffeur. “I have a pistol,” Bauer argues. “If I want to kill myself, there won’t be any rumors.”

It was about this time when he received a letter from a German man, living in Argentina, informing him that his daughter was dating Eichmann’s son. Capturing one of the architects of the Final Solution was Bauer’s goal, but he was afraid that his superiors in German intelligence, Interpol or the CIA would alert Eichmann ahead of any attempt to capture him, causing him to disappear, again. He also knew that Eichmann, if put on trial, would be able to blackmail ex-Nazis in positions of power in Konrad Adenauer’s government, thus jeopardizing judicial prosecution. Bauer decided to risk arrest on charges of treason by dealing directly with Israel’s Mossad, which demanded secondary evidence of Eichmann’s location before acting. (His contributions to the capture of Eichmann were kept under wraps for many years after his death, in 1968.) As exciting as the race for justice is, Kraume damages his story by inventing a composite character, Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld), in whom Bauer confides information on the Eichmann letter. The younger, married attorney is emerging from his own personal closet at a most inopportune time, ignoring sound advice from his mentor. (Apparently, wearing the same unusually patterned socks was an indicator of one’s homosexuality.) Because everything else in the movie is fact-based, it’s difficult not to fall for the dramatic conceit involving Angermann. Its clumsiness detracts from the rest of the story. If Bauer’s story is of interest to you, I suggest that you also check out Giulio Ricciarelli’s 2014 drama, Labyrinth of Lies, and the 2000 documentary Paragraph 175, in which historian Klaus Müller interviews survivors of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

University of Michigan graduate Alex Grossman’s theatrical follow-up to the video short, “Urban Meyer Spoof” is the coming-of-age comedy, Hickey. In it, a college-bound senior must choose between attending MIT, where he could dream of someday winning a Nobel Prize, or a southern California university closer to the co-worker he dreams of someday dating. Some teenagers would kill to be accepted by U.S.C. or U.C.L.A. – pretty good fallback schools — but not our boy, Ryan (Troy Doherty). It’s the kind of knotty dilemma typically associated with hopeless romantics who take their cues from movies like The Graduate and Say Anything … Ryan also is convinced that his mother (Janie Haddad Tompkins) wouldn’t survive a week without having him around to pamper. Carly Alvarez (Flavia Watson), the almost impossibly cute apple of his eye, doesn’t play coy games or act remote around Ryan. It’s just that she’s an aspiring musician with her sights set on pop stardom. Carly also appears to be holding out for a shot at the company’s devious district manager, Brady Krane (Alex Ashbaugh), who’s been conspiring to close the underperforming electronics shop. Brady gives the sales team a day to turn things around, which, while impossible, is just enough time for Ryan to save the store and win Carly’s heart. As unlikely as it sounds, he lures customers from a nearby medical-marijuana dispensary to Cy’s with the promise of free pizza. A more logical plan would be to dig up the kind of muck scumbags like Brady enjoying wallowing in when no one’s looking. And, guess what happens. If Hickey sounds as if it were written for a much younger John Cusack type — circa, High Fidelity, Tapeheads or Say Anything … – you’d be on the same wavelength as everyone else who’s likely to see it. Unfortunately, Doherty hasn’t quite reached that point in his acting career and Grossman would have needed a much larger budget and a bit more experience to lure an actor in the same league as Cusack, who was 23 when we played the boombox-hoisting senior, Lloyd Dobler. Nonetheless, Hickey offers plenty of bright moments and the cast is nothing, if not enthusiastic. And, besides, any movie that finds a prominent role for Tommy “Tiny” Lister can’t be all bad.

Apart from the tantalizingly pulpy cover art, the most entertaining thing about this newly resurrected serial-killer thriller is writer/producer/composer/actor/shooter James C. Lane’s commentary track. In it, he describes just how challenging it was to make a D.I.Y. thriller in the waning days of the analog age on a chicken-scratch budget. Among other things, he admits to using an ASC handbook as a primer in amateur cinematography and applying guerrilla tactics to location scouting. And, for the most part, he succeeded beyond all expectations. The unintentionally straight-to-VHS Murderlust lists Donald Jones (Schoolgirls in Chains, The Forest) as the director, but Lane’s testimony makes it sound as if it’s his baby and nothing short of an undiscovered gem. It isn’t, but that’s not really the point. Largely unseen since its VHS release in 1987, Intervision Pictures has accorded Murderlust the kind of digital facelift usually reserved for vintage horror flicks making their debut in Blu-ray. As such, it’s safe to say that more money was invested in restoring the picture than Lane spent making it. This suggests that the collector’s market may be faring better than any other segment of the DVD marketplace.

The movie’s antagonist, Steve Belmont (Eli Rich), is employed at a SoCal race track as a security guard, but is always on the verge of being fired for being late and insubordinate. He rarely pays his rent on time and treats his landlord/cousin like a doormat. Even so, Belmont is a well-respected member of his church, where he teaches Sunday School and hopes to be put in charge of its Adolescent Crisis Center. Once a month, Belmont is driven by misogynistic urges – due, in large part, to women ridiculing his impotency – to pick up a prostitute or unsuspecting date and strangle her. Afterwards, he drives his victims into the desert and dumps them into hole. When the bodies are discovered, the press dubs Belmont, “The Mojave Murderer,” a moniker he doesn’t seem to mind. In his commentary, Lane boasts of researching the known habits and personalities of serial killers, and that part of the story rings true, at least. Blessedly, we’re largely spared the blood and gore that typically accompanies violence against women in the slasher genre. I suspect that the money Lane might have spent on special makeup effects was invested, instead, on aerial shots provided by a leased helicopter. That works pretty well, too.

By sacrificing the ugly stuff, however, Murderlust became far less valuable to distributors of drive-in and grindhouse fare. Thus, the delayed straight-to-video release. The package arrives with a second Jones/Lane collaboration, Project Nightmare, a sci-fi affair involving two men who find themselves lost in the wilderness, absent a single clue as to how they got there and why they’re being stalked by a paranormal force. Here, the relatively primitive special effects merely serve to distract us from a plot Rod Serling would have immediately rejected for “The Twilight Zone.” It also is accompanied by Lane’s commentary.

Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy
It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Spanish documentarian Danny Garcia’s Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy as redundant, as it might reflect poorly on his previous, very good rockumentaries, The Rise and Fall of the Clash and Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders. The story of the untimely, if entirely predictable demise of former Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious and his domineering co-dependent lover, Nancy Spungen, has been told several times over the past quarter-century. They were centerpiece characters in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury; an episode of the cable series, “Final 24”; Lech Kowalski’s D.O.A.; Alan Parker’s Who Killed Nancy?; and Phil Strongman’s book, “Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk.” (In 1977, Roger Ebert wrote a screenplay for an ill-fated movie about the Sex Pistols, with Russ Meyer, Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and Vicious as co-conspirators. That, I would have gladly paid to see. The script can be found at

Although Spungen might have purposely committed hare-kiri or accidentally fallen on Sid’s recently purchased knife, she most likely was killed by her barely conscious lover or their heroin dealer, the pear-shaped actor (Trees Lounge) and raconteur Rockets Redglare. Vicious, already charged with her murder, which occurred on October 12, 1978, died of an overdose on the night he was granted bail, four months later. The heroin, it’s been reported, was procured by his mother and longtime enabler, Anne Beverley, who may have thought she was granting his final wish by assisting in his suicide. Sad Vacation: The Last Days of Sid and Nancy mostly benefits from being shot in and around New York’s famously seedy Chelsea Hotel, where the doomed couple lived in squalor after Vicious left the Sex Pistols. Spungen’s troubled path through life – she died at 20 — probably was etched in stone when, at 3 months, she was prescribed a liquid barbiturate by a pediatrician asked to quell her screaming fits. Her first unsuccessful suicide attempt came when she was 14 and had run away from her private high school.

By 15, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Two years later, she moved from Pennsylvania to New York City, where she worked as a stripper and prostitute, and hung out with rock musicians. Nancy met Vicious in London, where she was pursuing a different punk rocker. After he left the Pistols, she took over the reins as manager, girlfriend and junk buddy. Spungen has been compared to John Lennon’s Beatles-busting muse, Yoko Ono, it never stuck. The best thing any of the witnesses interviewed by Garcia could say was that she sometimes was funny. Among them are insiders, roadies, friends and members of other bands, such as Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), Walter Lure (The Heatbreakers), Kenny Gordon (Pure Hell) and Cynthia Ross (The B-Girls). The movie is sufficiently sordid to be of momentary interest, but, unlike Garcia’s profile of the late rock guitarist Thunders – another drug casualty — nothing much is revealed.

Brad Paisley: Life Amplified World Tour, Live at WVU
There’s no one hotter in the world of country music than Brad Paisley. Starting with his 1999 debut album, “Who Needs Pictures,” the West Virginia native has released 10 studio albums and a Christmas compilation, all of them certified “gold” or higher by the RIAA. He has scored 32 top-10 singles on Billboard’s country-airplay chart, 19 of which have reached the top spot. Paisley’s sold over 12 million albums and won three Grammy Awards, 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, 14 Country Music Association Awards and two American Music Awards. Not for nothing, he’s also a member of the Grand Ole Opry. At the ripe old age of 44, Paisley appears to be as popular with college-age fans as those who have followed him for most of the last 16 years. That much is obvious in Brad Paisley: Life Amplified World Tour, Live at WVU, his first live-concert DVD, which was shot in front of more than 30,000 people at a West Virginia University “pep rally.”

Frankly, I’m more a fan of old-school country music and Americana than the high-octane country-rock on display here. Considering the hyper-enthusiastic reception that he received in his home state, however, I’ll concede I’m in the minority on that count. His showmanship and guitar chops are on full display on such songs as “Crushin’ It,” “American Saturday Night,” “Water,” “Online,” “Perfect Storm,” “Celebrity,” “Letter to Me,” “This Is Country Music,” “Mama Tried,” “I’m Still a Guy” (with Chris Young), “She’s Everything,” “Mountain Music” and, of course, a spirited sing-along version of John Denver’s “Country Roads.” When he isn’t playing, he might be autographing a young fan’s guitar or a screaming girl’s hat. The DVD was impeccably shot by director Daniel E. Catullo III (Rush, Rage Against the Machine, Dave Matthews Band), using 20 cameras, and recorded on Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound. The package includes a separate CD recording, with only 13 of the 20 songs on the DVD.

PBS: Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise: Blu-ray
Fifty years ago, you probably could count on one hand the number of colleges that offered majors in African-American history or related studies. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, black students at many public and private schools demanded that such courses be established, diplomas awarded and efforts be made to recruit many more students and teachers of color. West Virginia-born Henry Louis Gates Jr. was one of the students – others are interviewed here — who took advantage of Affirmative Action directives and completed his BA degree in history at Yale University, summa cum laude. It isn’t difficult to imagine what King would have to say about recent demands for “ethnocultural” dorms and “safe spaces,” where the advancing of opposing viewpoints is forbidden. Gates’ four-part PBS documentary series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” recognizes the sudden shift away from integration, but doesn’t dwell on it.

The series does, however, suggest that early hopes raised by the election of Barak Obama were effectively dashed by widespread frustrations caused by political and judicial intransigence, the militarization of police departments and an economy whose recent upswing hasn’t made a dent in eliminating the African-American “underclass.” Gates isn’t reluctant to incorporate personal experience into discussions with leading scholars, celebrities, politicians, athletes and other people of color, who’ve shaped the past 50 years. Neither does he ignore the role street-generated music, art and dance played in the uniting of black communities negatively impacted by Reagan administration policies, police brutality and the crack-cocaine epidemic. His take on controversies surrounding the Clarence Thomas appointment and first O.J. Simpson verdict are almost maddeningly even-handed. While viewers who’ve been paying attention to such things over the past 50 years may not discover anything new in “And Still I Rise,” their children and grandchildren surely will find something new and enlightening here to savor.

Nickelodeon: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: Be Miraculous
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 3
NBC: The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny And Friends Featuring Jerry Seinfeld
History: Swamp People: Season 7
PBS: American Experience: Command & Control
PBS: NOVA: Treasures of the Earth
PBS Kids: Super Why!: Puppy Power
If women and girls have largely been reduced to subordinate roles in comic-book-inspired movies and video games, they’ve found a home in CGI-animated TV series featuring mixed-gender superheroes and villains. This is especially true in anime- and manga-informed shows targeted specifically at the “Hello Kitty” and post-“My Little Pony” demographic. Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir: Be Miraculous is a French action/adventure series produced by Zagtoon and Method Animation. It features two Parisian teenagers, Marinette Dupain-Cheng and Adrien Agreste, who transform into the superheroes Ladybug and Cat Noir, respectively, to protect the city from such supervillains as Hawkmoth and his evil butterflies. Besides compilations of televised episodes, the international franchise now includes plush toys, action/fashion dolls, backpacks, wigs, clothing, jewelry, accessories, interactive toys and books. The Shout! Kids DVD includes seven episodes from the Nickelodeon series, bonus features and a French language track.

Broad City” began its life in 2009 as an Internet series, inspired by the real-life friendship of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Their slacker characters, Ilana and Abbi, struggle to make a living in New York City, juggling menial jobs, underappreciated boyfriends, dope runs, clubbing and crashing parties. The gal pals not only excel in being rude, lewd and obscene, they’re also scatologically incorrect. They’re frequently shown conversing by telephone, while sitting on the toilet, or comparing their menstrual cycles. The men in their lives tend to be social outcasts, as well. The post-feminist vibe is enhanced by wardrobe choices that run the gamut from unapologetically trashy to thrift-shop chic. In Ilana and Abbi’s minds, at least, they look divine. Exec-produced by Amy Poehler, “Broad City” debuted on Comedy Central on January 22, 2014, and has since expanded its fan base from niche to borderline mainstream. A fourth season begins later this year. The third-season package adds expanded and deleted scenes and background material. The girls capped the season with a two-episode story that finds them on an El Al flight to Israel. It’s filled with Jewish singles, who are expected to pair off, get married and have many children. (Someone has to fill those disputed settlements on the West Bank.) By the time the plane lands, they’re duct-taped to the fold-down seats used by flight attendants, to be handed over to security police as possible terrorists.

Anyone young enough to believe that Jerry Seinfeld emerged fully formed as a sitcom actor – “Seinfeld” has been in reruns since the late 1990s, after all – might be interested in checking out Time Life/WEA’s “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson: Johnny And Friends Featuring Jerry Seinfeld.” It contains three appearances on the late-night mainstay by the up-and-coming standup comedian, several years before anyone thought he had a future in prime-time. In the mid-1980s, only a few standups had made the transition from stage to screen in something other than guest appearances. The show-about-nothing concept wouldn’t have lasted a minute in a pitch meeting, if Jerry hadn’t established an on-stage persona as the consummate observer, by then. That he was invited to sit alongside Carson after his bits only solidified Seinfeld’s status as a rising star. Three episodes may not sound very generous, but the DVD has been cannibalized from longer complete-series sets and other packages. For around $10, you also get full shows, with other noteworthy guests (Arnold Schwarzenegger, an 18-year-old Andre Agassi, Shelley Winters) and optional commercials.

How the History Channel has been able to mine seven seasons’ worth of episodes from its “Swamp People” franchise is well beyond my ability to predict success or failure on cable TV. From my easy chair, it makes “Duck Dynasty” look like “Dallas.”  I don’t have anything against the annual “culling” of alligators from the swamps of southern Louisiana or the Cajun hunters, whose families, we’re reminded at the start of each new episode, have been making a living from it for most of the last 300 years. Alligators aren’t in the same league with Bambi, when it comes to irresistibly cute critters, at least, and their population continues to grow, even after being protected by the Endangered Species Act from 1973 to 1987. I’ve eaten alligator stew and owned wallets made from the scaly skin. Fact is, though, except for a about five minutes of explosive activity each show, this is pretty boring stuff. And, if it weren’t for their elaborate tattoos, the hunters would be as devoid of charisma as the carcasses being tagged and measured at the end of each day’s search. Still, seven seasons and counting ain’t chickenfeed. The new season features new cast members and flooded bayous, which give the gators more room to hide and feed during the 30-day season. Do we pity the hunters? Not much. Still, the swamps of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin are as beautiful in their way as any other wilderness setting featured on cable reality shows. There’s also an abundance of wildlife, from which the Cajuns profit during the remaining 11 months of the year. Now, if they ever decide to build a show around “noodling” for gators … that truly would be entertainment.

It’s amazing to learn some of the alarming things that can happen when you aren’t paying attention. Watching the “American Experience” presentation, “Command & Control,” I was made aware of a near calamitous explosion that occurred in 1980, inside a missile silo situated on a military base in central Arkansas. The “accident” claimed the life of a serviceman, but tens of thousands of people living downwind of the Damascus facility could have died or been exposed to near-fatal doses of radiation. Based on Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” the PBS report is as frightening as any other political thriller adapted from a NYT best-seller. That’s because the control-room panic that resulted from a simple accident – an errant socket punctured a fuel cell after being dropped 80 feet during a maintenance drill – revealed serious deficiencies in our nuclear-safety network and an inability to determine if the Titan II’s warhead could be triggered by a fire or fall. The military’s standard cover-your-ass response to the near-tragedy proved to be as disheartening – and disingenuous — as anything else revealed in the follow-up investigations. In fact, dozens of other “Broken Arrow” accidents have been recorded before and since Damascus, without being reported to overseers and the press.  The disc adds an extended theatrical version and a report on a terrifying 1961 incident, when a B-52 bomber carrying two powerful hydrogen bombs caught fire and disintegrated in midair.

Once again, PBS’ “NOVA” goes to great lengths and, here, depths, to explain how our planet was formed and the ways humans have profited from unlocking clues to the mysteries set in stone during the act of creation … or, if you will, Creation. “Treasures of Earth: Gems, Metals and Power” is a three-part primer on the ways extraordinary circumstances, which took place deep below the Earth’s crust, conspired to elevate humanity from the Stone Age to the stars. In the segment dedicated to gems, we not only learn how various treasures were formed, but also some uses beyond the embellishment of jewelry. It also tackles questions surrounding the depletion of resources and unintended consequences that bring new perils and demand enlightened solutions.

The action in PBS Kids’ “Super Why!: Puppy Power” centers around a dog-adoption fair in Storybrook Village. When the Super Readers discover that Whyatt’s new friend, Woofster, needs a new home, they take it upon themselves to find a family to adopt the orphan and make him part of the team. The collection is comprised of four puppy-packed stories and “tons of new furry friends.”

The DVD Wrapup: Middle School, Operation Avalanche, Blair Witch, Red Skelton and more

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life
Among the many doors opened to adolescents by the movies of the late, great John Hughes was the one that led to an awareness of hypocrisy among their parents, teachers and the institutions they were brought up to trust. Separating the lies that protected kids from the ugly truths of life, from the ones invented to make adults feel better about themselves, could be a full-time job. The question: Why? The answer: Because I said so. As if having to deal with acne weren’t sufficient cause for anxiety, the teenagers in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink were required to make sense of the first stirrings of sexual maturity and a sudden deep-seated desire to break away from the pack. A driver’s license afforded such freedom, but what about kids two or three years short of that goal? What they didn’t understand was how tortuous puberty could be on their parents, who wanted desperately to connect with their children, and teachers expected to handle problems they brought to school with them every day. With a few notable exceptions, authority figures – dads and principals, especially – continue to be portrayed as clueless buffoons, at best, and, worse, dangerously inept. Thank goodness for grandparents.

Where I grew up, kids were only required to make the transition from grade school to high school. Since then, however, they’ve been required to repeat the hellish procedure twice. Whoever thought middle schools were a good idea, probably also saw purgatory as a place only slightly less pleasant than heaven. The title, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, pretty much sums up the feeling most kids have about the period when they’re forced to come into direct contact with boys and girls their age, but not necessarily from the same neighborhoods or social, ethnic and financial conditions. In Hughes’ movies, it’s possible for characters from disparate backgrounds to conclude – occasionally under duress – that opposites not only can attract, but reveal an entirely new world of possibilities. Then, when high school beckons, the cycle begins anew. If nothing else, it’s good practice for, college, the military, work and in-laws. In 1984, when Sixteen Candles was released, kids of middle-school age were drastically underrepresented in the media. Today, of course, they can’t be avoided, especially on cable television networks dedicated to the ’tween demographic. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, Steve Carr’s theatrical follow-up to the inexplicable box-office hit, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, is based on a series of YP novels co-authored by the freakishly prolific James Patterson (“Kiss the Girls”) and Chris Tebbets.

Although the screenplay takes several liberties with the story laid out in the book, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life focuses on displaced sixth-grader Rafe Khatchadorian (Griffin Gluck) – any resemblance to Yossarian, in “Catch-22”? – who works out his frustrations in a highly personal sketchbook. After principal Ken Dwight (Andy Daly) is alerted to it by the class bully, the comically villainous bureaucrat takes offense at the irreverent illustrations and references to his overly strict Code of Conduct and obsession with standardized tests. He not only destroys it, but exiles Rafe to the remedial class. Fellow bad apples Leo (Thomas Barbusca) and Jeanne (Isabela Moner) agree to exact revenge on Dwight through a series of outrageous pranks that younger viewers should enjoy immensely. The principal uses the pranks as an excuse to expel students whose test scores could hurt the school’s performance and spoil his chances for a promotion. He also makes the mistake of firing the only teacher (Adam Pally) who willingly stands up for the students. Meanwhile, at home, Rafe’s behavior prompts his mother (Lauren Graham) to seriously consider a suggestion made by her boorish fiancé (Rob Riggle) that he be sent to military school. Co-conspirators include Rafe’s precocious sister (Alexa Nisenson) and the school’s disgruntled janitor (Efren Ramirez). If Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life won’t make anyone forget Hughes’ contributions to the teen-movie genre, neither should its PG rating cause kids to dismiss it out of hand. Special Features include deleted scenes, a gag reel, a “Wedgie Wheel” and making-of shorts.

Operation Avalanche
Along with the many conspiracies surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, the ones involving the moon landing remain nearly as tantalizing today as when the rumors first caught fire four decades ago. It’s possible that fewer people now believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination than when the Warren Commission came to that conclusion less than a year after the terrible event. I’ve never doubted the lunar landing, but plenty of other people remain suspicious. In the last 12 months, alone, two new movies have been released, questioning the possibility that the CIA collaborated with Stanley Kubrick to stage a reasonable facsimile of the Apollo 11 landing and moonwalk. The working principle behind Antoine Bardou-Jacquet’s Moonwalkers and Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche – as it was in Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 (2012) and William Karel’s Dark Side of the Moon (2002) – posits that Kubrick was either directly or inadvertently involved in the CIA conspiracy. (Peter Hyams’ 1977 Capricorn One was based on a faked landing on Mars.) The grain-of-truth in all such conspiracy theories can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was being produced in England at the same time as our astronauts were preparing for their historic mission. With JFK’s promise of landing an American on the moon by the end of the decade ringing in their ears, government authorities knew that a failure could cost us political and scientific cachet at the height of the cold war. If putting a space capsule into lunar orbit was a given, the ability to safely land and recover the astronauts was anything but guaranteed.

Theoretically, Kubrick’s use of cutting-edge front-projection technology on “2001” provided the basis for a backup plan. In Operation Avalanche, a team of nerdy undercover CIA agents is sent to NASA headquarters, posing as a documentary film crew. Two of the them had already infiltrated Shepperton Studios, fruitlessly investigating the possibility that Kubrick was using stolen NASA technology on “2001.” The agents then were called upon to find a suspected Soviet mole within the NASA program. Their cover allowed them plenty of access within NASA. It leads to the agents using what they learned at Shepperton to create a film that could replicated the actual landing. It was accomplished with repurposed equipment, the advice of mineralogists and archival newsreel footage. Thinking they were being interviewed for the documentary, NASA employees happily contributed their knowledge to the ruse. Now, if disaster struck, the faked landing could be seamlessly substituted for the video feed emanating from the capsule. JFK’s legacy could be preserved and heightened secrecy protocols would buy time for the next mission. Johnson (The Dirties) maintains a credibly period feel, while also injecting a large dollop of darkly ironic Cold War humor into the mix. Operation Avalanche, which couldn’t have cost much to make, benefits from not having to create anything Kubrick hadn’t already come up with a half-century earlier.

Blair Witch: Blu-ray
Has it really been 20 years since a trio of film students vanished into Maryland’s Black Hills Forest, while researching the legend of the Blair Witch for a documentary? For critics who’ve since been required to sift through 20 years’ worth of found-footage flicks, prompted by the stunning response to The Blair Witch Project, the filmmakers’ blessing became their curse.  decades have sometimes felt like an eternity. Though a handful of wannabes have come close, none has quite been able to replicate the movie’s success, which benefitted from an amazing backstory. While it’s true that the original was shot in eight days, on 16mm film, with a cast and crew dominated by first-timers, it would be a stretch to continue to maintain that it only cost between $20-25 million to make. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez acknowledge that Artisan Entertainment, which acquired the movie rights for $1.1 million, invested somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000 into the completed product, while also spending an additional $25 million to market it. With a worldwide box-office take of almost $250 million – not counting video and other ancillary revenues — The Blair Witch Project set a new standard for returns on an investment. Myrick and Sanchez made the process look so easy that dozens of other filmmakers would spend the next two decades trying to replicate (or parody) their success. Technically speaking, the found-footage subgenre was launched in 1980, by Ruggero Deodato’s exploitation classic, Cannibal Holocaust. It was deemed to be too extreme for general consumption, however. The Paranormal Activity, REC, VHS and Cloverfield franchises have their admirers, but none raised the bar on the scares-per-dollars-spent ratio set by The Blair Witch Project. The ill-advised, if inevitable sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, recorded a still-not-bad $47.7-million gross worldwide, discouraging the rights-holders to attempt a third chapter until five years ago. That was when frequent collaborators Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett (The Guest, You’re Next) began planning Blair Witch for Lionsgate. It owes far more to the original than the sequel and is scarier than 90 percent of all other found-footage films.

Made on a frugal $5-million budget, Blair Witch may have made some money in its theatrical release, but marketing costs almost certainly made it a close call. I suspect that most diehard fans of The Blair Witch Project resisted the lure of having their hearts broken again, by choosing, instead, to wait for the DVD/Blu-ray release. Many will be pleasantly surprised by it. Cleaner, glossier and somewhat less shaky, Blair Witch extends the story 20 years, with the discovery of another video tape, this one purporting to contain a fleeting glimpse of the vanished videographer, Heather. For her much younger brother, James (James Allen McCune), this is all the evidence he needs to round up a posse of otherwise unoccupied Burkittsville youths – B.C. for Maryland, to keep under the radar — to spend a night or two in the forest chasing bogeymen. This time around, though, the young men and women James recruits are armed with tiny ear-mounted cameras, so as not to miss a single sighting or clue. (Had they deployed motion-sensitive cameras around the perimeter of their campsite, instead, they might have been able to capture images of whoever was hanging stick figures from the limbs of nearby trees.)  There’s no reason to spoil any more surprises, except to point out that the film’s climax benefits from an elaborately reconstructed “haunted house,” designed by Thomas S. Hammock. The Blu-ray adds Wingard and Barrett’s commentary; the exhaustive making-of featurette, “Neverending Night: The Making of Blair Witch,” which, at 106 minutes, is longer than either version of the movie; and “House of Horrors: Exploring the Set,” a 16-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the “haunted house.”

Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia
I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess as to why so many newly made Chinese movies are direct re-makes or re-interpretations of films that were released less than 20 years ago or are in their third, fourth or fifth iterations. The story of legendary martial-arts teacher Ip Man, for example, has been told and re-told a dozen times since 2008. Before that, his role in contemporary Chinese history was limited to being Bruce Lee’s mentor, in two films and a TV series, including Oscar-nominee, The Grandmaster. It’s possible that every new advance in production and exhibition technology is sufficiently great to encourage filmmakers to remake their hits, which, in turn, can be exported to action-crazy audiences overseas. Stringent content guidelines give Chinese films – like those from Bollywood — a leg up in countries where government censors limit or forbid gratuitous displays of nudity, sex and violence. Since 2003, the year China expanded its market to foreign exhibitors, the growth of China’s movie business has been so rapid, it’s even captured the attention of ever-watchful Communist Party authorities, who now are demanding their share of the windfall. That year, for example, the country’s box-office revenue totaled just $121 million, less than some films make here in a week. By 2015, box office revenue had grown to more than $7 billion. So, maybe, the decision to re-imagine the 1998 spy-vs.-spy thriller, Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?, as Jackie Chan Presents: Amnesia (a.k.a., “Who Am I 2015”) was based more on economic opportunity than any creative mandate.

The original might very well have been inspired by Robert Ludlam’s most enduring protagonist, Jason Bourne, in that Chan plays a commando on a mission so secret that the CIA orders him killed after it’s completed. After falling from a sabotaged helicopter, the mercenary suffers a blow that induces amnesia, leaving him unable to comprehend who he is and why he’s been chased. When his rescuers ask, “Who are you?,” he answers, “Who am I?,” which they translate as Whoami. In “Amnesia,” which isn’t about amnesia, at all, Ken Lo (Kill Zone 2) plays a bicycle courier who develops prosopagnosia (face blindness) after witnessing a murder and being pushed off a bridge by gangsters. He narrowly escapes death, but is left unable to recognize his pursuers, even if they were standing next to him. Neither does he know what’s in the parcel he was handed by the slain businessmen. He steals a car to escape the cops and thugs chasing him, stopping only once to pick up a comically sassy hitchhiker (Xingtong Lao), who almost simultaneously helps and hinders the courier. The charisma-challenged Lo and rising star Zhang Lanxin (Chinese Zodiac) handle most of the fighting, of which there’s far too little.

Projections of America
It’s surprising how little we Americans know about World War II, beyond Pearl Harbor, D-Day, a few key battles and horrors of the Holocaust. The information the government chose to share with our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents — before, during and after the war — was scripted as if it were a Hollywood melodrama, with clearly drawn heroes, villains, leaders, followers, survivors and victims. (FDR might as well have declared, “You can’t handle the truth.”) Peter Miller’s illuminating documentary, Projections of America, describes an ambitious wartime project designed to serve much the same purpose as the far better known Why We Fight series of short films. Led by Frank Capra, Why We Fight was comprised of seven propaganda films commissioned by the United States government to justify to American soldiers their involvement in the conflicts overseas and to persuade the American public to oppose isolationism. They also would chronicle the Allies’ progress in defeating the Axis war machine. They’re still being shown in history classes and film studies. So little is known about the Projections of America series, commissioned by the United States Office of War Information, that its existence doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia page of its own. That’s the 2017 definition of obscurity. Led by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night), best known for his collaborations with Capra, the filmmakers and photographers in the OWI’s overseas branch produced 26 short documentaries to be shown in areas recently liberated by the Allies. Apparently, Nazi/Vichy-produced propaganda did a pretty good job convincing Europeans that the United States didn’t always practice what it preached and should viewed as just another invasion force, seeking land and riches. Anti-American propaganda accentuated union-busting efforts, legally sanctioned segregation, police thuggery and the disparity of economic opportunity, as portrayed in Hollywood movies of the 1930s. (Why are all of the characters wearing tuxes and gowns, while laid-off workers can’t feed their families?) The films in the Projections of America series would paint a far rosier picture of America than Joseph Goebbels’ propagandists.

The first featurette, “Swedes in America,” was hosted by Ingrid Bergman. After the fall of Mussolini, Italians were presented with a film from this series featuring conductor Arturo Toscanini, who fled fascist Italy for the U.S. It featured a performance of Verdi’s “Hymn of the Nations,” updated to include the national anthems of the U.S. and Soviet Union. Irving Lerner and Joseph Krumgold’s “The Autobiography of a Jeep” adopts the point of view of one of the groundbreaking military vehicles, which had been designed specifically to handle rough terrain, shallow rivers and towing artillery. Other films blatantly exaggerated the American idyll, by showing happy negroes strumming guitars and dancing; visually charismatic cowboys and healthy cattle, grazing in lush meadows far from the god-forsaken reservations set aside for Native Americans; by overlooking internment camps for Japanese-Americans (that propaganda was reserved for folks on the home front); and showing factories operating at working at full-steam, only a few years after police and thugs hired by the owners joined hands to terrorize union organizers and weary strikers. Even so, Republican politicians argued that filmmakers’ vision of a pluralistic, democratic, multi-ethnic America was far too idealistic, if not downright socialistic, and demanded that more attention be paid to the radicals perpetrating such silly notions. The resultant scrutiny anticipated HUAC hearings to come, red-baiting and the blacklisting of some of the same people who produced propaganda in the name of democracy and the American way. The DVD adds a Q&A with Miller, cinematographer Antonio Rossi and editor Amy Linton. John Lithgow does his usual fine job narrating the doc.

CBS: The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Graveyard of the Giant Beasts
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: Ludo Lefebvre: Season 5
PBS: USO–For the Troops
PBS: American Masters: Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future
Color television has been an essential part of most people’s lives for the last 50 years, at least. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine why CBS, one of the early pioneers of the format, literally pulled the plug on its early “colorcasts” and, from 1960 to 1965, broadcast almost exclusively in black-and-white. Red Skelton, an advocate for color throughout the 1950s, was able to air some 100 episodes in color before CBS ended its investment in television manufacturing and went gray. The episodes included in the three-disc collection, “The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons,” have been culled from previously released 11- and 22-disc sets in the Time Life/WEA catalogue. Priced in the neighborhood of $20-25, the general release is far more affordable than the mega-collections, which include more bells and whistles in the mix. Otherwise, the new package offers 550 minutes of vintage entertainment – in living color, if you will — featuring such stars as John Wayne, Milton Berle, Phyllis Diller, Mickey Rooney, Tim Conway, Martha Raye, George Gobel and Vincent Price and Red’s trademark characters Clem Kaddidlehopper, Freddie the Freeloader, George Appleby and seagulls Gertrude and Heathcliff. The abridged package also includes interviews with Bobby Rydell and Vicki Lawrence. Skelton’s schmaltzy persona probably wouldn’t pass muster today, but, back in the day, he was among the most beloved performers in any medium. Each show allowed for an opening monologue; a musical interlude, with A-list guests, the David Rose orchestra and a dance troupe; and a series of comic sketches, in which the guests interacted with Red’s characters. The casual approach to the scripted bits frequently allowed for the actors to interrupt themselves with laughter. “The Red Skelton Hour” would fall victim to CBS’ infamous youth movement, during which shows that appealed to Middle America were jettisoned for those with more advertiser-friendly demographics. Skelton briefly sought refuge at NBC, but, by then, his ship had already sailed.

Once again, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” demonstrates just how little we know about the world beneath our feet. “Graveyard of the Giant Beasts” takes us to an open-pit mine in Colombia, where revelations beyond the imagination of any Hollywood screenwriter have changed what we know about the period after the dinosaurs disappeared and recovery from the horrific meteor blast began. Somehow, cold-blooded crocodilians and snakes survived the disastrous changes in climate and flourished when things returned to normal. With fewer natural predators hunting for food in and around the swamps, the inhabitants could continue growing so long as nature allowed. Fossils found in the mining operation suggest that competition for prey and open water caused gigantic crocodiles and snakes to feed off each other. Among the discoveries shown in the documentary is a fossil of a 43-foot-Titanoboa snake whose death may have been caused by a crocodilian that proved to be too large to fully digest. The scientists also study the ability of such creatures to crush their prey with a single bite or sudden constrictive attack. Even 58 million years removed from the fossilized event, the re-creations are terrifying.

The fifth season of PBS’s tantalizing “The Mind of a Chef” serves as the perfect complement to Laura Gabbert’s similarly mouth-watering documentary, City of Gold. In the first two episodes, renowned chef Ludo Lefebvre shares his love of contemporary Los Angeles cuisine, sometimes in the company of critic Gold, looking as if they just left a pickup basketball game, down the street. Other episodes explore Lefebvre’s French roots and how they inspired his ability to become a star in today’s food-obsessed world. His visits to French bistros and the kitchens of his mentors clearly demonstrate what make the country’s cuisine different than all others, as well as the importance fresh, seasonal ingredients.

For nearly 50 years, the USO was synonymous with Bob Hope, who, as a comedian and showman, brought a taste of home to American military personnel  stationed in every far-flung corner of the world. The shows were extensions of Hope’s vaudevillian roots, featuring singers, dancers, variety acts, a full orchestra, celebrities and beautiful women representing Hollywood, Las Vegas, Broadway and Atlantic City. PBS’s “USO–For the Troops” reminds us that Hope’s annual television specials represented the tip of the USO iceberg. It takes viewers behind the scenes and inside the work the USO performs, year in and year out, to lift the spirits of American service personnel and strengthen the ties that connect them to their families, their homes and our nation. We learn that President Truman deactivated the USO after World War II, but ordered its return for the Korean War. It’s remained a permanent fixture ever since then. It also reveals how the organization dealt with segregation in World War II and the protests surrounding the Vietnam War, at home and in Southeast Asia.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Eero Saarinen: The Architect Who Saw the Future,” re-introduces the acclaimed Finnish-American architect to viewers who, no doubt, have seen and admired his work, without knowing his name. His visionary buildings include the St. Louis Gateway Arch, General Motors Technical Center, New York’s TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Yale University’s Ingalls Rink and Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Virginia’s Dulles Airport and modernist pedestal furniture, such as the Tulip chair. The producers accompany his son, as he showcases the architect’s body of “neofuturistic” work, which exploded the constraints of the past to create a robust and daring American aesthetic.

The DVD Wrapup: American Honey, Snowden, Man Called Ove, Orphan Killer and more

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

American Honey: Blu-ray
Even though Kent-native Andrea Arnold was awarded the 2005 Academy Award for her live-action short film, “Wasp,” not many American viewers saw her widely acclaimed follow-up features, Red Road and Fish Tank. She would veer away from the grit and grime of life among marginally employed Brits, into the more refined precincts of Bronte country, for Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s adaptation striped the novel of certain literary elements to focus on those aspects that lent themselves to more darkly cinematic and sensory interpretation. Even though American Honey was filmed on location in smallish towns throughout the Midwest – Walmart country, if you will — Arnold brought to the Cannes favorite a familiarity one might not have expected. That’s because, apart from hiring Shia LeBeouf and Riley Keogh for key roles, she committed herself to casting actors who she discovered on the street or virtual unknowns. The strategy worked well in Fish Tank, with housing-estate resident Katie Jarvis, and, in Wuthering Heights, with mixed-race iterations of Heathcliff (first-timers Solomon Glave, James Howson). Independent Spirit nominee Sasha Lane – around whom everything in American Honey revolves — was initially approached by Arnold during spring break at Panama City Beach, Florida. Also of mixed-race background (African-American/Maori), she more than holds her own alongside LeBeouf and Keough, in a role that requires as much acting as intuition and personal recall. When we first meet her character, Star, she’s living in Muskogee, dumpster-diving with her younger sister, foraging for that night’s dinner and whatever might be left for their dog and useless stepdad. On the way home, they encounter a van full of teenagers, who arrive on the scene like a car full of clowns in a Fellini movie or the mime troupe at the end of Blow-Up. The exuberance and playful mischief on display immediately remind Star of the things missing in her own life. Likewise, the leader of the pack, Jake (LaBeouf), senses in Star a kindred spirit to the members of his team of itinerant door-to-door hawkers of magazine subscriptions.

As soon as she can sneak out of her house that night, she dumps her younger siblings on a woman – possibly their estranged mother or an aunt – who’s boot-scooting her brains out at a hangout for faux-cowboys, stoners and other local losers. While, none of the young people on the sales team looks as if they’d survive 10 minutes behind the counter of a McDonald’s, they’re right at home selling magazines. Energized by hip-hop, cigarettes and pot, they’re making a semblance of a living pretending to be college students, while selling subscriptions to families unlike the ones they left behind months or years earlier. Their supervisor, Krystal (Keough), is a tough, but strangely nurturing taskmaster, who stays behind at whatever Motel 8 they’re staying, arranging accommodations for the next stop and dealing with the parent company. She sometimes conducts business in a trashy Confederation-flag bikini and clearly views Krystal as potential rival for her boy-toy, Jake. Star has all the earmarks of an earner, however, and that’s more important to her. Star is initially teamed with the abundantly tattooed Jake, who, as they say, could sell ice cubes to Eskimos. She braces at his fabrications, but senses that she’ll be able to find ways to use her own acting skills to secure subscriptions, if not outright gifts from male admirers. Arnold’s narrative, which takes almost three hours to unwind, is far more picaresque than anything else. The romantic interludes are fleeting, at best, and there’s very little drama invested in the story … beyond our fear that Star might try to sweettalk a murderous trucker or rapist. The extra minutes allow viewers plenty of time to get to know the other kids in the van, as well as one or two of their potential customers. You might even recognize the teens as part of a crew that worked your own suburban neighborhood, pitching magazines at inflated pre-Internet prices to overly sympathetic homeowners. If anything is going to hurt American Honey’s chances with academy voters, it’s the length. At 163 minutes, it’s a long haul. Even so, everything from the street-savvy acting and dialogue, to the evocative cinematography and pulsating soundtrack, demands that we stick with Arnold’s vision. Otherwise, I would hope that due consideration is given Lane, LaBeouf, Keough, Arnold and her frequent DP, Robbie Ryan. The Blu-ray contains brief interviews with the actresses Lane and Keough.

Snowden: Blu-ray
Like a lot of other people, I greeted the prospect of spending another two-plus hours on the saga of whistle-blower Edward Snowden with a been-there/seen-that ambivalence. Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ 2014 Oscar-winning documentary on the former National Security Agency contractor, had already covered much of the same territory as Oliver Stone’s Snowden would dramatize. The back-and-forth debate over Snowden’s rationale for going public had reached ad nausea status, in my mind, anyway, even before the documentary was released. And, yet, there remained several extremely legitimate reasons to watch Snowden. The most obvious is the continuing visibility of Snowden in the debate over the Kremlin-sourced leaks that appear to have swayed the recent presidential campaign, even if it were by one or two votes. His detractors inside the Beltway would love for us to believe that Snowden is offering his expertise to Putin’s gang, even if there’s no reason to believe that he would be treated any differently by Donald Trump. Candidates and politicians on both sides of the aisle have denounced him as a traitor, while also using data he leaked to condemn unfettered spying on American citizens of non-Islamic persuasions. Such uniformity of opinion among the country’s military, political and industrial elite should always be held up to public scrutiny. If NSA eavesdroppers weren’t able to immediately identify the source of those and other damaging leaks – and determine why they only appeared to benefit Republicans – what’s the upside of being able to listen in on everyone from your local neighborhood mullah to Ma and Pa Kettle. Snowden, himself, admits to wasting time testing the amorous intentions of his girlfriend … a task his superiors also were doing. (Maybe they use FX Networks’ sexy spy-vs.-spy series, “The Americans,” as a training film.)

Snowden does an excellent job depicting exactly what it is the computer jockeys at the NSA do, whether for good, evil or just plain fun. It also nails the arrogance and sense of entitlement that accompanies employees of our government as they climb the latter to their desired stations in life. Their ability to succeed always trumps the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Stone also makes palpable the tightening of the noose around Snowden’s neck in the days before he makes the ultimate decision to leave the country and tell his story. By emphasizing Shailene Woodley’s role in his decision-making, the co-writer/director also adds the kind of humanistic throughline – the media couldn’t help itself, portraying her as merely the stripper girlfriend – that’s been missing in any discussion of Julian Assange’s culpability in the WikiLeaks scandal. As usual, Stone coaxes stellar performances, not only from Woodley and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but also from such supporting stalwarts as Melissa Leo, Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Chaplin Tom Wilkinson, Keith Stanfield and Scott Eastwood. Typically, no matter how severe the implications on personal privacy, Americans fall back on the bromide, “If you’re not guilty of anything, there’s no reason to be afraid of government or police surveillance.” By demonstrating just how invasive government snooping can be – reversing the Skype portal on the PC in your bedroom, for example – Stone deftly personalizes what’s at stake for all of us. If Snowden doesn’t leave you feeling more paranoid than when you began watching it, you weren’t paying attention. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Finding the Truth” and a post-screening Q&A with Stone, Gordon-Leavitt, Woodley and Snowden, via an Internet link.

Coming Through the Rye
At one time in the not-too-distant cultural history of the United States, reading “Catcher in the Rye” was as much a rite of passage as registering for the draft, buying that first car or surviving your first hangover. The book probably hit home harder with adolescents who aspired to attend good colleges, while suffering from undefinable feelings of alienation and angst in post-World War II America. The novel’s protagonist, Holden Caulfield, helped teenagers identify a deep-seated yearning for rebellion against conformity and group-think and deal with complex issues arising from innocence, identity, belonging and loss. When traditional role models and religious doctrine proved lacking, a large number of disillusioned American youths turned to Caulfield as a kindred spirit. Some even began sporting his trademark red hunting cap, complete with ear flaps. A few years later, in “Catch 22,” Yossarian would serve a similar purpose, as would Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Jack Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, and the characters who came to life in Bob Dylan’s post-protest songs. Coming Through the Rye is inspired by writer/director James Sadwith’s own youthful obsession with “Catcher in the Rye,” right down to the personal journey he made to track down the elusive novelist in rural Cornish, New Hampshire. Movies in which troubled individuals seek the personal guidance of their idols practically constitutes a subgenre of its own, typically concluding with the protagonist’s disappointment over discovering the Emperor’s nakedness or stumbling upon enlightenment on his own. The time is the late 1960s, and Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff) is consigned to a Pennsylvania prep school, not so different from the one that Holden Caulfield fled in Salinger’s novel. For his senior project, he decides to turn the book into a play he hopes to produce as his senior project.

Humiliated when his roommate shares with his buffoonish buddies Schwartz’ proposal letter to Salinger, whose endorsement he desires, Jamie convinces a local girl, Deedee (Stefania LaVie Owen), to drive him to New Hampshire to find the mysterious author and argue his case in person. The road trip is eventful in ways that viewers should find irresistibly relatable, especially if they remember the details of Caulfield’s personal journey. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Deedee proves to be significantly more worldly than Jamie. There’s no need to expand on the events that lead to their almost-inevitable encounter with Salinger or how that goes. Anyone who sees Chris Cooper’s name and photograph on the DVD cover will know that the Academy Award winner (Adaptation) isn’t there to play a cameo role as the high school dean. His mere presence provides an anchor for the various coming-of-age throughlines and Jamie’s neurotic search for acceptance among his peers. To that end, Wolff and Owen are nothing less than charming. As someone whose television projects have won or been nominated for three dozen Emmy Awards and Golden Globes, Sadwith recognizes a cliché when he sees one coming and manages to avoid them – or face them head-on – whenever one threatens to diminish the story. Coming Through the Rye was a popular addition to the festivals in which it was invited and critics gave it high marks, as well. Sadly, it apparently found its way into a only small handful of theaters, before going into DVD. Rated PG-13, it’s the kind of rom/dram that Boomer and post-Boomer parents should enjoy sharing with teens, especially those with a literary bent. The rural locations – Virginia for N.H. – are easy the eye, too.

A Man Called Ove: Blu-ray
For all the even-money favorites that have won an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, there typically are three or four excellent movies that didn’t make the short list or were passed over by the nominating committees of their home countries. This year’s entry from Germany, Maren Ade’s offbeat comedy/drama Toni Erdmann, made the short list and is considered the frontrunner to be nominated and take home the statuette. This year’s list of distinguished snubs includes Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary, Fire at Sea; Israel’s Sandstorm; Paul Verhoeven’s Elle; Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta. Sweden’s longshot entry, A Man Called Ove, not only made the first cut in the foreign-language category, but also is among the seven titles shortlisted on the hair-and-makeup list. Hannes Holm’s adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s best-selling novel no doubt benefited from a campaign strategy engineered by Edward Arentz, managing director at Music Box Films, a Chicago-based company that’s enjoyed considerable good luck in the past, even with snubbed pictures. Its catalogue boasts such outstanding films as the shockingly unnominated The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy, also from Sweden, and the widely admired Tell No One, Ida, Monsieur Lazhar, Potiche, The Innocents, Le Weekend, Meru and The Deep Blue Sea. Music Box’s The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared – likewise from Sweden — was deservedly nominated in last year’s hair-and-makeup competition. Finding any audiences at all, apart from festival crowds, is more than half the battle for foreign films hoping to make a dent in the American arthouse circuit and, increasingly, the VOD and DVD/Blu-ray market. Music Box wisely played the company’s Scandinavian card by previewing “Ole” at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival and creating buzz in theaters in the Upper Midwest, where many viewers didn’t require subtitles to understand. Comedies usually rate longshot status in the foreign-language category – ditto, Best Picture – any attention at all is appreciated by distributors.

A Man Called Ove fits neatly in the ever-popular “grumpy old man” pigeonhole. An age-appropriate Rolf Lassgård (“Wallander”) plays the title character, a crusty geezer who’s still grieving the loss of his wife when he’s unceremoniously laid off by his longtime employer. His best friend and occasional nemesis has been levelled by a devastating stroke, forcing Ove to handle the petty annoyances that kept them busy as property managers in their housing development. Naturally, he sees no other recourse than to loop a noose around his neck and hang himself in the living room of his tidy home. Just as naturally, Ove’s decision goes unfulfilled, due to defective ropes and a dedication to duty that requires him to answer the door to residents in need of assistance. If these interruptions don’t exactly force him to reconsider ending his life, they take his mind off his mission long enough for Holm to find ways to make him feel needed, again. Most of the credit belongs to a comically needy new arrival, delightfully played by Iranian-born Bahar Pars (When Darkness Falls), her hapless Swedish husband and their irresistible daughters. Ove isn’t particularly anxious to help his pregnant neighbor, but he’s driven to distraction by her pathetic attempts to handle a stick shift and make proper use of household tools. If that doesn’t make A Man Called Ove sound very different to such American favorites as Grumpy Old Men, About Schmidt or Grand Torino, it’s only because all movie curmudgeons share certain characteristics, including a need to feel useful and a bleeding heart when it comes to kids in desperate need of a male role model. It also benefits from flashbacks to the time when he and his wife first met – cutely, natch – and their differences, while distinct, served their marriage. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “The Ove in Us All: A Talk with Hannes Holm, Rolf Lassgård and Bahar Pars”; “Makeup Gallery” and “Makeup Time Lapse”; a Q&A with the director and cast at the Scandinavia House, in New York.

The Orphan Killer: Blu-ray
Just in time for Jesus’ birthday, fans of extreme horror, torture porn and gonzo/slasher movies must have been overjoyed by the nearly concurrent releases of special-editions packages of Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Driller Killer, Rob Zombie’s 31, Phantasm Remaster/Ravager, Jack Frost, Creepshow 2, Hellraiser and Black Christmas. My copy of Reel Gore Releasing’s kindred The Orphan Killer must have gotten lost in the Christmas rush, because it only arrived for review this week. Originally released in 2011, it received enthusiastic reviews from some niche critics, even though it wasn’t all that easy to find. Clearly, one-man-band filmmaker Matt Farnsworth (Iowa) hoped to interest investors in a franchise focused on a masked killer, who, at first glance, appears to be a composite of every masked, ax-wielding, mouth-breather killer who’s walked the earth since Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees joined the genre menagerie nearly 40 years ago. Here, the title character, a.k.a. Marcus Miller (David Backus), copped a bad attitude after his parents were slaughtered in a home break-in and he was sent to an orphanage with his baby sister, Audrey (Diane Foster). They are separated when Audrey is adopted and Marcus is locked in an attic by sadistic nuns, convinced that it will prevent him from bashing in the head of another naughty little boy. This is all revealed in flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative … such as it is.

As bad luck and worse timing would dictate, the adult Audrey is back at the orphanage supervising a religious pageant when Marcus decides to get his revenge on her for leaving him behind to deal with his tormenters. Naturally, Marcus is required to kill every student, nun and priest he happens upon before his sister completes the obligatory and entirely welcome shower scene.  Blessedly, it’s at this point that Farnsworth begins to tweak the genre tropes and clichés he’s invested in The Orphan Killer, by demonstrating how adept Audrey has become at enduring extreme pain – a crown of barbed-wire thorns, no less – and giving as good as she gets. For once, the scream queen is allowed the privilege of standing up to her attacker, without having to rely on a male cop, boyfriend or girly contrivance. As gory as things get, Farnsworth allows his senses of humor and irony to come into play. Foster’s role here isn’t limited to being a pin cushion for her insane brother’s pleasure. She also served as co-producer, alongside Farnsworth, just as she had on Iowa and the subsequent anti-drug documentary, Dying for Meth. As the blond who refuses to die, however, she’s extremely credible. The Blu-ray adds the informative video diary, “Behind the Murder,” a death-metal music clip and slideshow.

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: After Stonehenge
PBS: NOVA: Great Human Odyssey
PBS: Frontline: Terror in Europe
PBS: Frontline: Confronting ISIS
Three thousand years ago, at the same time as the Egyptians (and their slaves) were building the pyramids, some only slightly less amazing things were happening in Bronze Age Britain. Unlike the pyramids, however, proof that they existed wouldn’t be discovered until several millennia later. Until five years ago, the mysterious ring of standing stones at Stonehenge hogged the attention of British archeologists, tourists, Druid wannabes and alien-astronaut theorists. The charred remains of an ancient, post-Stonehenge settlement remained hidden just below the surface of Must Farm Quarry, in the Fens region of southeast England. The fascinating PBS documentary, “Secrets of the Dead: After Stonehenge,” chronicles the race against time being run by a team of archeologists, scientists, historians and specialists, as they shed new light on the discovery. The remains of the ancient site began to emerge from the quarry five years ago, but, due to its delicate nature, experts have largely been working in secret. Among other things, researchers have attempted to re-create the fire that destroyed a prominent structure, leaving a distinct pattern of charred building material. They’re also tracing non-native metals, used in tools and weapons, to mines known to have existed on the continent. Almost on a weekly basis, “Secrets of the Dead” explains how farmers, construction workers and meteorological phenomena reveal things to archeologists who then can deploy modern technology to answer questions they didn’t even know to ask.

Every so often, too, scientists will stumble upon a skull or bone fragment that completely changes what we think we knew about our prehistoric ancestors. I’ve always wondered how only a handful of fragments have managed to survive the elements this long and where the millions of others pieces might be buried. I’m still waiting for answers. The special two-hour “NOVA” presentation, “Great Human Odyssey,” employs recent DNA breakthroughs to trace the journeys made by tiny bands hunter-gatherers, as they spread to every corner of the planet. It also attempts to answer how they acquired the skills, tools and talent to thrive in every conceivable environment on Earth? With unique glimpses of today’s Kalahari hunters, Siberian reindeer herders and Polynesian navigators, we discover amazing skills that hint at how our ancestors survived and prospered long ago.

The “Frontline” presentations, “Terror in Europe” and “Confronting ISIS” demonstrate how difficult it is for investigative reporters to stay ahead of breaking news events as they try to make sense of the global war against terrorism, global warming, natural disasters, crime and corruption. Even as an alliance of military forces closes in on the ISIS strongholds in northern Syria, the organization’s tendrils are extending across Europe and taking different forms as strategies evolve. U.S.-led efforts to degrade and destroy ISIS progress apace. Otherwise, terrorist attacks might be a daily occurrence, instead of an occasional tragedy. The setbacks that occur throughout Europe shouldn’t mask the advances we’ve made toward hitting the central nervous system of bigotry, hate and religious intolerance.

The DVD Gift Guide 2: Da Cubs, Hellraiser, Downton Abbey, Bill & Ted; Bob Hope, Klown and more

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

2016 World Series Champions: The Chicago Cubs: Blu-ray
Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The nation’s longest-running soap opera ended this fall, after many generations of drama, romance, comedy, misplaced expectations, broken hearts, dismally small audiences and finally over-the-top ratings. It ran for more than a century, spanning the first isolated radio broadcast, in 1921, and the era of Internet streaming. Millions of fans lived and died without closure. It would come on a rainy early-November night in Cleveland, itself no stranger to heartbreaking losses, in an extra-inning baseball game fraught with tension and mixed emotions. Anyone who hasn’t already guessed that the subject of this review is the Chicago Cubs’ World Series championship – ending a 108-year drought — need never consider auditioning for “Jeopardy!” or any sports game show. For those diehard fans on your gift list who’ve yet to come down from the clouds, the only presents they’re likely to tear open and immediately demand to sample are Shout! Factory’s 2016 World Series Champions and Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series Collector’s Edition, available in Blu-ray and DVD. If the Cubs hadn’t met consensus expectations this year, it would have been a far greater blow to its inexplicably loyal followers — a list that includes Hollywood celebrities, politicians, blue- and white-collar workers, bleacher bums, men, women and kids — than anything that’s happened since the infamous 1969 flop. No one who followed the club via WGN that year has ever recovered from the team’s blowing a 17½-game lead in the standings to the Mets in the last quarter of the season.

Owner Tom Ricketts’ money, GM Theo Epstein’s brains and manager Joe Maddon’s cunning combined to make players Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist’s trip to the Fall Classic nearly inevitable. The Indians, however, made it a battle by taking a 3-1 series lead, forcing the Cubs to the Ivy-covered wall. It’s all here: the games, play-by-play broadcasts, comprehensive highlights, exclusive access and interviews. The less costly option, “2016 World Series Champions: The Chicago Cubs” features regular-season and World Series highlights, “clinching moments” and the World Series parade. “World Series Collector’s Edition” boasts footage of “every inning, play and heart-stopping moment” of the 2016 World Series, in its entirety, as well as key post-season games. The set adds eight complete broadcasts, including all games from the World Series and bonus material from the post-season “and beyond.” Enjoy it while you can, Cubs Nation. Fame is fleeting, disappointment is eternal.

50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary
In hindsight, 1963 probably wasn’t the most memorable year for pop music. Among Billboard’s multi-week chart-toppers were such forgettable adult-contemporary hits as the Village Stompers “Washington Square,” the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” Rolf Harris’ “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” Kyu Sakamoto’s “Sukiyaki,” Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” Al Martino’s “I Love You Because,” the Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In” and Steve Lawrence’s “Go Away Little Girl.” Bobby Vinton’s version of “Blue Velvet” remained at No. 1 for eight weeks, before being resurrected two decades later in David Lynch’s offbeat thriller of the same title, reprised by an unfortunate torch singer played by Isabella Rosselli. It was a great year, though, for the contemporary-folk trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, who scored a pair of No. 1 hits on the AC charts, with “Puff the Magic Dragon” (two weeks) and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (five weeks), and a No. 2 with his “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Recorded in 2014, “50 Years With Peter Paul and Mary” is a documentary that celebrates the impact of the pre-eminent trio on the American music scene and countercultural revolution of the 1960s. Their recordings of Dylan’s socially relevant songs helped make the “mystery tramp” a very rich young man. An original song based on a children’s story, “Puff the Magic Dragon” enjoyed a bizarre afterlife when rumors began to circulate claiming that it contained hidden references to marijuana use, and soldiers in Vietnam named deadly weapons after the dragon. The 78-minute film includes more than two dozen songs, in addition to the interviews and archival clips. And, yes, it is exceedingly giftable, especially to Baby Boomers who still own acoustic guitars they haven’t touched in decades.

Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy: Blu-ray
Serious collectors of modern horror have been given several reasons to rejoice this year, with Arrow Films/MVD’s continuing stream of “Limited Edition” packages of vintage films, the latest being “Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box.” Not all of the reclaimed titles are as familiar as Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, whose success triggered an avalanche of genre pictures released in the 1980s and relegated to drive-ins and shoebox multiplexes. Most arrived before the explosion in niche media and were left to the mercy of mainstream critics, who could barely disguise their unhappiness at being forced to sit through such gruesome fare. Decades later, fans and buffs have joined genre specialists in lauding the lasting entertainment value in movies that overcame miniscule production and marketing budgets, bargain-basement effects, over-the-hill stars, unrecognizable supporting casts, studio interference and outraged parents. Arrow’s stewardship of such movies demonstrates that it, along with several other likeminded companies,  takes the frequently dismissed titles seriously and is willing to invest money in director’s-cut editions, audio/visual upgrades, the porting over of featurettes, creation of new bonus material and compilation of marketing and publicity memorabilia. Roger Ebert may have awarded Hellraiser a half-star kiss-off, but it was embraced by genre buffs for its outrageous special makeup effects, imaginative demons and not-so-subtle S&M. It made 20 times its $1-million production budget, thus ensuring hope for franchise status.

The 1987 British release was written and directed by Clive Barker, upon whose novella, “The Hellbound Heart,” it was based. It involves the resurrection of bad-brother Frank (Sean Chapman), who had opened the door to an alternate dimension and had his body torn to pieces by creatures known as Cenobites. Years later, his good brother, Larry (Andrew Robinson), moves into Frank’s abandoned house with his daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), and naughty wife, Julia (Clare Higgins). An accident causes some of Larry’s blood to spill on the attic floor, which somehow triggers Frank’s resurrection. To complete his resurrection, he requires more blood, which Julia provides in the form of innocent visitors.  Meanwhile, Kirsty discovers an ancient puzzle-box that attracts the Cenobites, all of whom have horrific mutilations and/or body piercings, and wear fetishistic black leather clothing. Pinhead, one of the great monsters of genre history, is one of the leaders of the Cenobites. “Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box Limited Edition Trilogy” includes 2K restorations of Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II and Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth; “The Clive Barker Legacy,” a fourth disc with Barker’s short films and documentary; the 200-page book, “Damnation Games”; and numerous interviews and making-of featurettes. The movie remains shocking, but fun, in a sadomasochistic sort of way.

It’s been said that the current trend in extreme body piercings and modifications can be traced to the popularity of Hellraiser, which wallowed in them. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. Hellraiser is included, along with several other Arrow, Scream Factory, Criterion, Mondo Macabro, Grindstone Vestron/Lionsgate and MPI volumes, in Steve Jay Schneider’s “101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die.” The thick, if compact book – perfect for bathroom reading — takes an in-depth, chronological look at the genre, with essays and stills. No subgenre, nationality or deformity is ignored. It’s also very affordable.

Department Q Trilogy
Klown Forever

Admirers of the kinds of Scandinavian crime mini-series that get remade for consumption by subtitle-averse Americans should relish this collection of movies, featuring the morose Danish detective Carl Morck, his assistant and best/only friend, Assad, and their diligent secretary, Rose. Carl (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has been assigned to duty in the cold-case department of the Copenhagen PD after an ill-planned raid on a suspect’s home leaves one cop dead, another one crippled and Morck guilt-ridden and depressed. He treats the assignment as a demotion, of course, but Assad eventually convinces him of the importance of tackling unsolved cases with the same dedication as that reserved for active investigations. The films included in Department Q Trilogy are based on best-selling stories written by Jussi Adler-Olsen. Released about a year apart from each other, The Keeper of Lost CausesThe Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith set box-office records in Denmark and deserve the attention of viewers who’ve enjoyed such originally Nordic thrillers as “The Killing,” “Wallander” and “The Bridge.” Mikkel Nørgaard’s “The Keeper of Lost Causes” kicks off the series with the reopening of a case that Carl’s supervisors all assume was a suicide or accident, because she was last seen on a ferry with her autistic brother. The team comes to believe differently, as the victim’s body was never found and her political activity was sometimes controversial. Nørgaard’s 2014 “The Absent One” tackles the unsolved murder of twins at a prestigious prep school and the resurfacing of a witness missing for 20 years. Hans Petter Moland’s “A Conspiracy of Faith” involves a series of killings that appear to be linked to a religious fanatic and a more-recent kidnapping of a preacher’s young son and daughter. The investigations lead detectives to places so dark and frightening you’d think they existed here, not in the fairytale kingdom of Denmark. The DVDs include making-of featurettes.

I was surprised to learn that Nørgaard also directed Klown Forever, Klown and 42 episodes of the hilariously offbeat “Klown” television series, from which the movies were adapted. (He also helmed four episodes of the terrific political drama, “Borgen.”) All three comedies focus on the lives of the main characters, Frank (Frank Hvam) and Casper (Casper Christensen), who let their worst instincts get them into all sorts of trouble with their spouses, friends and acquaintances. As such, the “uncomfortable” humor that informs “Klown” has frequently been compared to Larry David’s aggressively non-PC behavior in “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I would also suggest Rowan Atkinson, whose nebbish character, Mr. Bean, inspired a hit British TV show and spin-off movies. Niche distributor Drafthouse Films, which imported Klown in 2012, also is handling the sequel, Klown Forever. In the sequel, Casper decides to leave Denmark to pursue a solo career in Los Angeles, where he’s living large in the Hollywood Hills. Missing his BFF and creative partner, with whom he’s publishing a book about their friendship, Frank decides to visit him. It doesn’t take long for the horndog Casper to regret inviting the socially awkward Frank to his babe-magnet home. Long story short, Klown Forever is darker than the original in ways that some sexually cautious Americans might find offensive. Look for cameos by Isla Fisher and Adam Levine. The package contains deleted scenes and three hilarious episodes from the TV show. Apparently, Warner Bros. has slated an English-language remake of Klown, starring Sacha Baron Cohen.

PBS: Downton Abbey: The Complete Limited Edition Collection: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge: The Complete Series
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Inspector Lewis: The Complete Series
There once was a time when collections of PBS/BBC series were kept out circulation in video for months and sometimes years after their original airings. I think that it had something to do with the prices it could charge institutions, versus what the consumer marketplace would bear. The great acceptance of VCRs and DVRs made that practice obsolete, based primarily on the improvement of playback quality and competition from British distributors. Extreme popularity creates great opportunities, however, and Downton Abbey: The Complete Limited Edition Collection is a perfect example of how PBS has joined the crush of companies that have come to believe that more is more and more is never enough for rabid fans of beloved series. Arriving in a package the size of a toaster, the Limited Edition includes all six seasons (53 episodes) in the original, unedited UK versions; five all-new hours of bonus video and seven more hours of extras; a hardcover book for storing all 22 discs; a working pull-bell (just like Lady Mary used to summon Anna); six cork-backed coasters; and an exclusive, photo-filled booklet, “The Costumes of Downton Abbey,” with a foreword from the show’s executive producer, Gareth Neame. Less-inclusive Blu-ray packages are priced to sell, as well. Complete-series collections, based on the original UK episodes, of Mr. Selfridge and Inspector Lewis also were released in October. Unbeknownst to many American audiences (and subscribers), PBS routinely edits British imports for naughty bits and length, when Pledge Month pitches cut into the shows. It shouldn’t, but it does. The remedy comes in the form of these boxed sets, which represent the UK versions.

ABC: Two Guys and a Girl: The Complete Series
If it’s remembered at all, the late-1990s sitcom “Two Guys and a Girl” will be recalled as the show that changed its original title, “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place,” when the setting was changed from a restaurant to wherever it was the characters were working or sleeping. Of its three continuing stars — Ryan Reynolds, Richard Ruccolo, Traylor Howard – only Reynolds (Deadpool) would enjoy much forward trajectory. In 2005, Howard caught a sweet gig on USA’s “Monk,” as Tony Shalhoub’s extremely tolerant assistant, but, since then, nada. Even so, at one time, “TG&G” averaged more than 10 million viewers. Today, that would be considered cause for rejoicing. When, in 2001, ABC moved it from Wednesdays to Friday, some 4 million of those viewers failed to follow it. The series focused on the lives of twenty-somethings Pete, Michael and Sharon, who, naturally, worked at a Boston pizza joint for the first two seasons … just like, surprise, the show’s creator Kenny Schwartz, while in college. After the first successful season, the producers decided to jettison David Ogden Stiers, Jennifer Westfeldt and Julius Carry, replacing them with recurring characters played by Suzanne Cryer, Jillian Bach and Nathan Fillion. More impressive was a list of guest stars that included Carmen Electra, Jon Cryer, Nomar Garciaparra, Fred Willard, Adam Carolla, Conchata Ferrell and bands Blink-182, Barenaked Ladies and Dan Finnerty & The Dan Band. The 11-disc set features all 81 episodes of the series, as well as its alternate, Internet-determined finale.

The Hunger Games: 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD
It’s anybody’s guess as to whether this Christmas buying season will be the one that lights a fire under sales for 4K Ultra High Definition televisions and DVR units. (I just gave in to the temptation.) While the launch of Blu-ray 3D was greeted with consumer aversion to high prices and equipment limitations, the switch to 4K hardware isn’t nearly as prohibitive. I was given an opportunity to test my system with UHD copies of The Hunger Games, whose third chapter, “Mockingjay” was split into two parts. I assume that fans of the hit mega-series have already either purchased copies of it in DVD or Blu-ray – to savor the bonus package, if nothing else — so I’ll refrain from reprising the plot summaries. If the difference in resolution wasn’t visually overwhelming, it was at least noticeable, as was the “immersive, object-based audio,” although it would be more pronounced on a more expensive system than mine. The new releases accommodate Blu-ray 2D and digital HD formats. There are plenty of good reasons not to make the switch – shortage of product, for one – but, unlike the televisions, 4K units usually accommodate Blu-ray and DVD.

Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection: Blu-ray
For most of the last 100 years, the San Gabriel Valley city of San Dimas was known primarily for its many orange and lemon groves. Until the 210 Freeway extension was completed, the sleepy burg was relatively removed from the urban sprawl that had devoured groves further west and soon drag upscale commuters to area. Before that, however, San Dimas served as a destination for rabid fans of the “Bill & Ted” series, in search of the dudes’ high school and Circle K, where all the magic happened. In fact, most of the original comedy was shot in and around Phoenix, as in Arizona, although it was difficult to tell. In 2010, when the city celebrated 50 years of incorporation, its slogan was “San Dimas, 1960-2010 — An Excellent Adventure.” It could just as easily been “San Dimas, 1960-2010 — Center of the Universe,” as B&T referred to it. (Porn star Andy San Dimas, who was born and raised in Maryland, is said to have borrowed her screen name from references in the movies.) “Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection,” from Shout! Factory, is built around hi-def copies of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), but the set’s biggest draw is a bonus package with six new additions to the vintage material also included. Star Alex Winter and producer Scott Kroopf provide fresh commentaries on both pictures, as do writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. There’s “Time Flies When You Are Having Fun!,” an extensive documentary looking back at a “Excellent Adventure,” with Keanu Reeves, Winter and several other members of the cast and crew, “Bill & Ted Go to Hell,” which revisits “Bogus Journey,” with the same lineup. It adds eight featurettes from previous editions, stickers and guitar pick.

The Bob Hope Specials: Thanks for the Memories
The folks at Time Life/WEA don’t necessarily wait for holidays to arrive to release their collections of classic television programming. Every year, however, they like to remind DVD owners of their catalogue of boxed sets, which includes such evergreens as the newly updated “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes: Collector’s Edition: Official TV Release” and “Hee Haw: The Collector’s Edition”; and holdovers “The Wonder Years: Complete Series,” “The Tonight Show Vault Series, Collection Volume 1-6, Starring Johnny Carson” and “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” The newest entry is “The Bob Hope Specials: Thanks for the Memories” collects comedy-variety specials the entertainer did for NBC-TV, beginning in 1950 and spanning five decades … or, as Hope might remind, 10 presidential administrations, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton. The six-disc set features Bob’s first studio special “in living color,” with guests Jack Benny, Bing Crosby and Janet Leigh; “The Bob Hope Chevy Show,” with the entire cast of “I Love Lucy,” plus James Cagney and Diana Dors; a spoof of “Star Wars” and other sketches with Tony Bennett, Perry Como, James Garner, Mark Hamill, Dean Martin, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, Tuesday Weld and the Muppets; the murder-mystery parody, “Joys (A Comedy Whodunit),” with nearly 50 guest stars, Charo, Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, George Gobel, Alan King, Don Knotts, Groucho Marx, Vincent Price and Freddie Prinze; 30 years’ worth of bloopers; the 1967 USO tour to 22 bases around Vietnam, Thailand and the South Pacific, in 15 days, with special guest Raquel Welch; highlights from more than 25 years of specials in “Bob Hope’s World of Comedy”; a look at Bob’s personal relationships with American president, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman; his 90th birthday celebration; and the exclusive bonus feature, “Shanks for the Memory,” with historic clips of Bob with Bing Crosby, presidents and pros on courses around the world, and special appearances by President Gerald Ford, pro golfers Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus.

Roseanne for President
Eric Weinrib, who’s worked with Michael Moore, recorded for posterity comedian Roseanne Barr’s failed 2012 run for POTUS, as the Green Party’s candidate. Four years later, she might have proven to be a more formidable candidate than Jill Stein – the Alf Landon of quixotic progressive causes — against Hillary Clinton and fellow TV star Donald Trump. Neither would have stood a chance in a debate against the standup comedian, whose monstrous ego equals their monstrous egos, but, as the fictional Roseanne, was embraced by the same voters who’ve drifted away from the Democratic Party and would have voted for Mickey Mouse (or Bernie Sanders) against Hillary. Although Weinrib mined some funny material from Roseanne, she never lets us forget that she’s extremely serious about wanting to advise voters on the corrupt practices of mainstream politicians and the need for extensive government reforms. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she also was extremely fixated on repealing laws prohibiting the sale and use of marijuana, which is happening, anyway. Neither is she reluctant to pepper her discussion with profanity and derogatory remarks about Stein, who barely recognizes her campaign, and such liberal icons as Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. As a way to prove her pro-environment credentials, Roseanne chose to conduct most of her politicking via Skype, while puttering around her house in an apron, leaving the hard work to campaign manager Farheen Hakeem. In fact, though, it could have been perceived as something an elitist celebrity would do to avoid having to commune with the hoi-polloi. If the 2016 race weren’t such a shit storm, Roseanne for President, might be more appealing. As it is, only loyal fans of Ms. Barr are likely to stay the distance here.

Typically, in bros-will-be-bros comedies about anti-social behavior in fraternities, the brunt of the gross-out humor is reserved for freshmen, overserved sorority girls and humorless authority figures. Andrew Neel’s Goat adopts a more sobering approach to the increasingly troubling tradition of hazing and other manifestations of entrenched privilege. Hazing, racism and sexism aren’t limited to the Greek system on campus, of course. It is practiced by athletic teams and marching bands, as well. Here, 19-year-old Brad (Ben Schnetzer) survives a severe post-graduation-party beating by unknown assailants, only to be greeted by similarly brutal behavior from upperclassmen culling the weak candidates from the strong among the incoming pledge class. His brother, Brett (Nick Jonas), already is a member of the fraternity and ostensibly could be called upon to protect Brad, if things turn nasty. The tradition of ritual bullying was so ingrained at this frat that Brett let most of it slide, however. At first vaguely humorous, the hazing escalates well beyond the point of brotherly shenanigans. If Neel’s caricatures of neo-fascist upperclassman sometimes feel exaggerated, so, too, were the Greek characters in Animal House … it worked to our advantage, in that case. The overriding question asked in Goat surrounds the amount of torture is necessary to turn impressionable pledges into lockstep “brothers,” committed to preserving a code of silence and traditions that encourage date-rape, ritual humiliation and drunkenness. OK, now I’m exaggerating … not all fraternities are guilty of such atrocities. Whatever contributions co-writer David Gordon Green (George Washington) made to the story likely helped to soften the sharp edges and turn Goat into a movie high school seniors — their parents, too — might want to consider watching before taking the next step to adulthood. James Franco makes a cameo as a gung-ho ex-frat boy.

31: Blu-ray
The timing could hardly be better for Rob Zombie’s new industrial-strength horror flick, 31, in which five carnival workers are required to survive 12 hours locked in warehouse with bunch of insane killer clowns. While it’s highly unlikely that Zombie orchestrated the recent rash of sightings of potentially felonious clowns around the country, he probably wouldn’t deny the subliminal marketing opportunities they represent. It’s more likely that Zombie, whose parents were carnies before things turned ugly for them on the midway, was drawing from memory in the characters he developed for 31. When their van is hijacked, Charly, Venus, Panda, Levon and Roscoe are brought to a large building, where three geezers in Louis XIV garb explain the game to them. How Zombie convinced Malcolm McDowell to play Father Napoleon-Horatio-Silas Murder, alongside Sister Dragon and Sister Serpent (Judy Geeson, Jane Carr), is anyone’s guess.

The hostages are pitted against the six clownish “Heads”: Sick-Head, Psycho-Head, Schizo-Head, Death-Head, Sex-Head and Doom-Head. They’re allowed the luxury of cutlery and power tools, at least. Like previous Zombie vehicles, 31 overflows with gore, blood and violence. His fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Even so, he had to take the crowd-funding route to finance 31, which didn’t exactly shatter any records at the handful of theaters in which it played. As usual, Zombie enlisted members of his repertory company: Michael “Red Bone” Alcott, Elizabeth Daily, Ginger Lynn, Sheri Moon Zombie, Lew Temple, Torsten Voges, Jeff Daniel Phillips and Meg Foster. Reportedly, 31 had to be cut three times to obtain an R rating from the MPAA. Considering what was retained, though, it’s easy to see why some people feel that the ratings board’s stance on violent-vs.-sexual content is a joke. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a feature-length length making-of piece, “In Hell Everyone Loves Popcorn: The Making of 31.”

Critics may not be among the world’s most endangered species, but, as legitimate targets for revenge go, I’ve seen a lot worse. Typically, it takes the form of a maligned artist naming evil characters or nasty-tasting dishes after the reviewer who’s slammed their work. In Theatre of Blood, Vincent Price played a failed Shakespearean actor, who brutally settles the score with the critics he blames for ruining his career. In Bitter Feast, a celebrity chef exacts revenge on a food blogger who torpedoes his future. In Carl T. Evans’ Criticsized, the serial killer taunts police investigators who’ve failed to recognize the rather obvious clues that lead to a director whose work is routinely slammed by vitriolic critics. Or, perhaps, the culprit is a fan who resents being labeled a moron for admiring his films. Once the cops do figure things out, the killer has already begun to broadcast his crimes on the Internet, thus enflaming public opinion against the department. If it sounds like the plot to an episode of “Law & Order,” well, maybe it was.

Road to the Well
Children of the Mountain
Freshman writer/director Jon Cvack’s quirky thriller, Road to the Well, tells the story of three old friends who are reunited after a strange and seemingly random murder. The black humor derives from watching how far and how quickly a man’s life can deteriorate, after arriving late to his birthday party and discovering his live-in girlfriend being orally pleasured by his boss. Hours earlier, the boss had told him that he was being transferred to the boonies of northern California and now he knows the reason why. It happens on the same day that Frank (Laurence Fuller) is reunited with his childhood friend, Jack (Micah Parker), a charismatic conman and possibly a drug mule, who doesn’t spend too much time in one place. Jack suggests they drive north together, but not before he hooks Frank up with hooker acquaintance, Ruby (Rosalie McIntire). While they’re making out inside his car, they’re attacked by a hooded, knife-toting punk, who kills Ruby, puts her body in the trunk and leaves Frank standing in underwear holding the murder weapon. It’s at this point that the mild-mannered clerk takes Frank’s advice and heads to their hometown, where, theoretically, nothing worse can happen. And, yet, it does. Cvack’s story benefits from the introduction of wickedly offbeat characters and a lumpen friend, who takes his fashion cues from Michael “Meathead” Stivic, in “All in the Family.” Intrigue follows Frank and Jack to the High Sierra, where they plan to bury Ruby’s body, but encounter another loony character. Road to the Well may be far from perfect, but I hope it’s good enough to lead Cvack’s Kickstarter supporters to believe their money wasn’t wasted on him.

Priscilla Anany’s fact-based narrative, Children of the Mountain, would almost be too sad to watch – or recommend — if we didn’t already know that solutions to the protagonist’s terrible problems would, in real life, been available to her. Set in contemporary Ghana, it is the story of Essuman (Rukiyat Masud), pregnant by her lover, Edjah (Adjetey Anang), and looking forward to life as a family. Inconveniently, she lives next door to the woman Edjah abandoned, and it prompts the close-quarters hostility that breaks out between them. Essuman’s sense of pride and privilege is deflated, however, when her son is born with a cleft lip and palate. Had the baby been born near a hospital staffed by adequately trained physicians – or Internet access to specialists — it might have proven to be a temporary inconvenience for mother and child. Instead, she lives in a village where superstition and prejudice trump science. The father insists that the baby couldn’t be his, while other women say she’s cursed with a “dirty womb.” Nuku’s deformity can be repaired with surgery and such charities as Facing the World provide facial reconstructive surgery to children whose parents are unable to receive treatments in their own countries. Instead, by the time Essuman seeks help from legitimate sources in the nearest big city, she is told that a Craniofacial Team has just left for another African city. If that weren’t enough of a burden to bear, Essuman soon will learn that Nuku has cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. Desperate and alone, she’s forced to rely on witch doctors, corrupt preachers and uneducated street healers. She’s also encourage her to abandon the child or take him to the mountains, where the souls of sick children are said to wait. Anany drew in part on the life of her aunt and on the writing of a friend whose child was born with Down’s syndrome. A postscript offers reason for some optimism in related cases.

Maximum Ride
Based on a bestselling series of YA novels by James Patterson, a proposed adaptation of Maximum Ride at one time seemed a natural companion to the films adapted from the “Twilight” books and other supernatural entertainments for ’tweens and teens. Studio projects were in place, but a sudden glut of movies and TV shows featuring mutant heroes and villains likely precluded another expensive roll of the dice. Jay Martin’s much-delated adaptation looks anything but expensive, although I suspect he did what he could with what he was given. Maximum Ride tells the story of six DNA-enhanced orphans, whose ability to sprout wings and fly was engineered by a diabolical scientist, who keeps them in cages. Lanky Canadian beauty Allie Marie Evans plays Max, the leader of the flock, who’s made it her responsibility to protect her fellow captives from his brutal half-human/half-wolf creations, known as Erasers. The orphans don’t want to believe that they were spawned in a petri dish and truly lack human parents. Their curiosity drives them to escape and hack the scientist’s computer to discover the truth. It’s then that Erasures are let loose and Max must come to their rescue. Think of Maximum Ride as a cross between X-Men and Black Swan and you’ll have an idea of what it could have been.

PBS: Nature: Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants
PBS: Nature: My Congo
It’s ironic that the life of one of the world’s most identifiable and popular wild animals, the giraffe, is still something of a mystery. Unlike rhinos and elephants, their diminishing numbers in the wild have only recently begun to be noticed outside the zoological community. According to Dr. Julian Fennessy, co-founder and co-director of Giraffe Conservation Foundation, giraffe populations in Africa are down by 40 percent in just two decades and for many of the same reasons that elephants and rhinos have become endangered. One of the possible solutions Fennessy has forwarded is the idea of moving a herd of rare Rothschild’s giraffes away from Ugandan poachers and oil-drilling operations, across the Nile River to a safer location in which to breed. Let’s hope that getting the sky-scraping beasts there – no small trick – was the greatest challenge he will face. Parents really ought to make a point of watching “Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants” with their children.

The same applies to the splendid “Nature” episode “My Congo,” which argues against the notion that within the troubled African nation beats a heart of darkness. Instead, when viewed through the eyes of a repatriated wildlife cameraman, it represents the end of the rainbow. Despite the number of years he spent living and working in Europe, Vianet D’jenguet always carried fond childhood memories of the Congo. He had filmed in many locations across Africa, but never in his homeland, which overflows with spectacular wildlife and great natural beauty. Of course, any such return was fraught with danger due to cross-border skirmishes and ongoing civil wars that have driven tens of thousands of people from their homes. In this first-person account, D’jenguet visits sites that evoke happy family memories, tours a famous chimpanzee sanctuary, films a variety of animals and birds in vast national parks, and makes his way through a remote jungle in search of his roots

The DVD Wrapup: Streep Sings, Obama’s Date, Seagal Kills, Noir Classics, Roma, Driller Killer and more

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Florence Foster Jenkins and opines, “That’s a role only Meryl Strep could play,” would only be half right. As terrific as Streep is, playing the most innocently delusional opera diva of the twentieth century, her characterization was equaled months earlier by perennial César Award candidate Catherine Frot, in Marguerite, a movie inspired by the same American singer. The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, made by German writer-director Ralf Pleger, who specializes in musical docu-dramas, has yet to be released in the United States. In any language, it’s a wonderful tale. During World War II, Jenkins was one of a handful of New York socialites whose contributions to the classical-music scene allowed it to survive the drought in charities not related to the war effort. The only stipulation was that the heiress be allowed to perform in public every so often. Her generosity was such that the people who benefitted most from her largesse held back their astonishment, grimaces and laughter whenever she performed. Critics weren’t invited and audience members unaware of her vocal limitations would be shushed if they wondered out loud whether she was in on the joke. She wasn’t.

In addition to Streep’s safely under-the-top performance, Florence Foster Jenkins benefits from Stephen Frears’ steady hand on the reins and a humorous Nicholas Martin screenplay that allowed plenty of room for Alan MacDonald’s production design and Consolata Boyle’s period costumes to shine. “She was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous,” Boyle emphasized, in interviews. “They were high camp, but with a softness, so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.” It shows. Martin’s script also includes a throughline in which Jenkins’ real-life accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), depicts what life must have been like for a closeted gay artist in mid-century New York. Hugh Grant came out of semi-retirement to play Jenkins’ supportive, if unfaithful husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, an aristocratic English actor determined to protect his wife from the truth. It’s no easy trick and Grant uses all of his considerable charms to pull off the ruse. He fears that the jig may be up when he isn’t allowed to control ticket sales to her a sold-out 1944 Carnegie Hall showcase, to which critics can’t be barred. Remarkably, Streep recorded her own singing for the soundtrack and Helberg does his own piano playing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Streep, Grant and Boyle all received Academy Award nominations, in addition to the Golden Globe nods. By the way, the only recording of Jenkins’ singing – depicted in the movie – still is a best-seller at the Carnegie gift shop.

Southside With You: Blu-ray
No matter what one thinks about Donald Trump, it’s never been easy to look at the future First Lady with anything but sympathy and bewilderment. Until her presence was no longer needed on the campaign trail, the Slovenian native served mostly as an expensive ornament to the billionaire candidate. Then, when he secured the nomination, she disappeared for the next three months. Derided by Internet wags for all sorts of reasons — some fair, most dubious — Melania potentially could become the least visible First Lady in modern history. Trapped in a New York penthouse, she already seems to be Donald’s bird in a gilded cage, preferring, he says, to stay home with their 10-year-old son than take up residence in the White House. Right now, it’s impossible to imagine anyone making as compelling and sensitive a movie about their relationship as Richard Tanne’s Southside With You, which merely covers the Obamas’ contentious first day together as couple. Or, if Melania might someday be portrayed with the same sensitivity as Natalie Portman invests in her portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy, in Pablo Larraín’s Jackie. There was good reason to fear that writer/director Tanne’s debut feature would turn out to be something as schmaltzy, uncritical and inaccurate as the average Lifetime movie of the 1990s. (They’ve gotten better.) Instead, Southside With You not only underplays the first sparks of romance, but it expands what we know of Barack Obama’s experience as a community organizer.

Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) presents Michelle as a proud and accomplished black woman, not without a sense of humor, working at a Chicago law firm where she might be more valuable as a “two-fer” than a litigator. In his portrayal of the future president, relatively unknown Parker Sawyers (Snowden) comes across, first, as an almost frivolous, borderline arrogant young man, whose lack of concern for first appearances is apparent in his sloppy attire, ramshackle automobile and cigarette addiction. It isn’t until he appears before a meeting of black Chicagoans, seething over yet another slap in the face from the city’s lock-step aldermen, that Barack’s natural charisma and commitment to social change surfaces. Michelle doesn’t immediately fall head over heels, but his change in demeanor and purpose makes her look at him through different eyes … and it feels absolutely real. Tanne meets the challenge of convincing us that love could blossom from such an occasionally awkward first day in each other’s presence, even as Michelle insists it isn’t really a date and their jobs preclude after-hours socializing. Frankly, I was surprised he could pull it off.  The Blu-ray adds animated illustrations pulled from the story.

Morgan: Blu-ray
If the sci-fi/action thriller, Morgan, could have benefitted immensely from a less-generic title, its biggest handicap was having to follow Alex Garland’s similarly themed Ex Machina so quickly into theaters. Like the humanoid played by Alicia Vikander in that picture, the title character in Luke Scott’s debut feature is an engineered being. It looks and acts human, but is gender neutral, androgenous and prone to violent outbursts when her circuits overload. After five years of accelerated growth, Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) and the scientists who created and nurtured Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) have become extremely protective of “her.” They are even willing to forgive a savage attack perpetrated on a fellow researcher (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who pushes her buttons too hard. By contrast, the company that’s financing the experiment treats Morgan as an “it,” whose temperament could prove troublesome in the corporate marketplace. The executive in charge (Brian Cox) assigns risk-assessment agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate the incident and return with a report based solely on the facts. Her objectivity is greeted with skepticism by the emotionally engaged staff members, who treat Morgan as if she were an errant child. It’s the untimely appearance of an arrogant psychologist, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), that likely will be the determining factor as to whether Morgan’s circuitry will continue to be modified or terminated. To say that Shapiro’s brain is outmatched by Morgan’s synthetic instincts would be an understatement. The confrontation leads to a wild-west finale that feels out of step with what’s come before it, but, in fact, may have been the only endgame for Scott. The scenery provided by locations in Northern Ireland and British Columbia recalls the bucolic setting of Ex Machina and looks great in hi-def. In addition to the usual making-of featurettes, the bonus package includes some discussion of our shared A.I. future.

End of a Gun
Steven Seagal may never win an Oscar, but he’s been nominated for several Razzie Awards, winning one for directing On Deadly Ground. As a pioneer in the lucrative video-original market, the action star has made the kind of fortune that trumps his detractors’ jokes and jibes. He’s also made a mark on reality television by serving as a fully commissioned deputy with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, in Louisiana, and Arizona’s Maricopa County. He’s a citizen of the United States, Russian and Serbia, who, like our president-elect, considers Vladimir Putin “one of the great living world leaders.” He represents the Russian firearms manufacturer ORSIS and has considered running for governor of Arizona. If that doesn’t qualify him for a Cabinet post in the Trump administration or ambassador to Russia, what would? Certainly, not the release of his new kick-ass feature, End of a Gun, which verifies that the 64-year-old black belt in aikido hasn’t lost more than a step or two in the last 20 years.

Here, he plays an ex-DEA agent living in Paris, but longing for retirement in Key West. After coming to the rescue of an exotic stripper, Lisa (Jade Ewen), her abusive boyfriend/pimp/dealer mistakes the gravelly voiced intruder for a well-meaning geezer. Within moments, the punk is dead. The next day, Lisa convinces Decker to help her steal two-million euros from the trunk of her dead lover’s car, which has been impounded by police. Apparently, they’re in no hurry to search the vehicle for clues to dead man’s identity, so Decker only is required to flash his fake badge to get past the impound guard and steal the money. Leaving involves a bit more violence on his part, but not enough for Seagal to work up a sweat. We quickly learn that the dough belongs to a Houston crystal-meth magnate who demands that his Parisian stooges get it back. In doing so, they are required to kidnap Lisa and use her as bait to hook Decker, who gets some help from a sympathetic friend (Ovidiu Niculescu) in the Paris PD. For what’s it’s worth, End of a Gun was co-written/directed by Seagal’s frequent collaborator, Keoni Waxman. Fans won’t have to wait very long for their next project, Contract to Kill, which hits the street on February 28. All told, Seagal has appeared in six movies in the past 12 months.

Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story: Blu-ray
Not to be confused with Stagecoach, the John Ford Western, Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story, was shot in British Columbia and substitutes Trace Adkins for John Wayne … hardly a fair trade, even if the country singer frequently looks as if he was rode hard and put up wet. This isn’t his first cinematic rodeo, though, and Atkins would make a credible cowboy in anyone’s movie. That said, the stagecoach robbery that opens the movie was staged by director Terry Miles (Lonesome Dove Church) as if he’d been inspired by the Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese plays the masked highwayman, Dennis Moore. Adkins’ Nathaniel Reed hung up his guns after the holdup, preferring to work a farm with his wife Laura Lee (Michelle Harrison), who’s no shrinking violet when it comes to gunplay. Reed (a.k.a., Texas Jack) is facing foreclosure on the farm by the local bank, as well as the unexpected threat from U.S. Marshal Calhoun (Kim Coates), who blames Reed for losing an eye, years earlier, in stagecoach heist. After a gun battle, during which Laura Lee is supposedly killed, Reed joins former partner Frank Bell (Claude Duhamel) and Sid Dalton (Judd Nelson) on a new series of stagecoach robberies, with Calhoun and his blond bounty hunter Bonnie Mudd (Helena Marie) in hot pursuit. Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story will be best appreciated by Western completists and members of the Trace Adkins fan club.

No Pay, Nudity
The titillating title refers not to amateur night at a strip club, but a stipulation in ads found in casting magazines seeking actors willing to disrobe, gratis, for the sake of their art. Most of the over-the-hill actors we meet in Lee Wilkof and writer Ethan Sandler’s surprisingly compelling comedy/drama, No Pay, Nudity, have answered such ads at various times in their careers. I say “surprisingly,” because everything about the packaging argues against it being anything more than another straight-to-DVD disappointment. Still, it would be difficult to ignore any movie with a cast that includes such veteran actors as Gabriel Byrne, Nathan Lane, Frances Conroy, Donna Murphy, Valerie Mahaffey, Ellen Foley, Jon Michael Hill, Loudon Wainwright III and Joe Grifasi. Anyone who loves the theater and appreciates the sacrifices of the men and women who appear on stage should find something to savor in No Pay, Nudity. Byrne plays Lester Rosenthal one of half-dozen, or so, thespians who meet each day at the Actors Equity office in Manhattan, as if they were longshoremen waiting at the union hall to be picked for a day’s work. While none is likely to hear the call, each has a story to tell or complaint to lodge, knowing that their audience wasn’t likely to walk out on them.

Lester’s first big mistake was souring on a steady gig on a popular soap opera. He thought it would catapult him to bigger and better assignments on stage and in the movies. When his agent stopped returning his calls, however, he turned to the bottle and refused to listen to the suggestions forwarded by his estranged ex-wife and daughter. If he’s lucky, Lester will be asked to play the lead role in “King Lear,” in a theater in his Ohio home town. It may not be Broadway, but it’s Lear and a paycheck. The longer it takes for that to happen, though, the more Lester resents the success of his friends and closer he comes to a diagnosis of cirrhosis of the liver. Lane is excellent as an actor who became so tired of dealing with incompetent directors that he effectively killed his career by punching one out. The ending may seem a bit too tidy, but, at least, it’s happy.

Brother Nature
Like “Saturday Night Live,” from whose cast many of the actors here were chosen, the Lorne Michaels-produced Brother Nature is a fitfully funny summer-vacation comedy. Borrowing, perhaps, the basic premise behind the Meet the Parents franchise, it stars former cast member Taran Killam as Roger, a strait-laced political aide who plans to propose to his dream girl, Gwen (Gillian Jacobs), at her family’s Oregon lake house. All of the Turleys are eccentric in their own way, but future brother-in-law Todd (Bobby Moynihan) takes the cake. If Brother Nature had been made before the untimely death of Chris Farley, he probably would have been Michaels’ choice to play the full-time camp counselor, who wants nothing more than to become bros-for-life with Roger. As the boyfriend of Gwen’s sister, Margie (Sarah Burns), and an avid outdoors enthusiast, Todd consistently pushes Roger toward activities he isn’t likely to enjoy, including fishing and water-skiing. He knows that the easiest way to win the hearts of Gwen and Margie’s parents — Jerry (Bill Pullman) and Cathy’s (Rita Wilson) – is to participate in Turley-family rituals and at least pretend to enjoy himself. Among them is catching and releasing the same ugly lunker with each passing season. Directors Matt Villines and Oz Rodriguez, also veterans of “SNL,” do what they can with the tepid script, co-written by Killam and “SNL” writer Mikey Day. Cameo appearances by Kenan Thompson, Aidy Bryant and Mike O’Brien also will make Brother Nature mandatory viewing for “SNL” fanatics. (Killam was unceremoniously dumped from the show, before the new season launched, but just landed a sweet gig on Broadway with “Hamilton.”)

Stevie D
It would be unfair and misleading to dismiss Stevie D as a vanity or calling-card project for aspiring multi-hyphenate Chris Cordone. True, his credits here include writer, director, producer and star, playing both the antagonist and look-alike protagonist. The title character is a Los Angeles mobster’s spoiled and possibly demented son, who accidentally kills the son of a higher-ranking gangster in a spat over a sexy bartender at a strip club. Naturally, the rabidly aggrieved father of the victim demands eye-for-an-eye retribution from Stevie D’s dad. He isn’t given much of a choice in the matter. His loyal aide, Lenny (Kevin Chapman), suggests hiring actor Michael Rose, who he’s just seen in a commercial, to play the role of doppelganger and possible target for revenge, if a peace settlement can’t be arranged. Given an offer he can’t refuse, Rose decides to play it for all it’s worth. This includes standing in for Stevie D in the wooing of Daria Laurentis (Torrey DeVitto), the extremely gorgeous aide to his father’s lawyer. Rose has his work cut out for him, because Stevie D managed to creep her out within minutes of their first meeting. Daria can’t know the details of the ruse or why two thugs are following them around town while they’re on dates. (Neither does Michael.) And, yes, Stevie D is furious to learn that his doppelganger is moving in on what he considers to be his personal property. Writer/director Cordone’s navigates this slapsticky scenario with relative ease, while actor Cordone is credible as antagonist/protagonist. If the two-hour Stevie D were significantly shorter, it would be easier to recommend. The problem is that Cordone probably fell in love with his baby and couldn’t bear the thought of cutting off an arm or a leg.  Still, an “A” for effort.

The Asphalt Jungle: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Sudden Fear: Blu-ray
In this racket, no two words get thrown around with as much imprecision as “film noir.” There’s a lot more to it than shadows, light and some hard-edged dialogue. More than six decades after their theatrical release, The Asphalt Jungle and Sudden Fear – recent recipients of impeccable 2K restorations — remain essential examples of the genre and splendid entertainments, to boot. Adapted from the 1949 novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle describes a nervy jewel heist from the point of view of the street-criminals recruited by the no-nonsense mastermind, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who couldn’t wait for more than a few hours to get back in the game after being released from a seven-year bit in prison. Armed with a sure-fire plan to steal a fortune in unset gems from a warehouse in an unnamed Midwestern city, Doc requires a small handful of professional “operators” — a “box man” (safecracker), a driver, and a “hooligan” — to pull off the crime, as well as enough financial backing to hire the team and collect the equipment they’ll need to bust the safe and escape. A bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) not only is able to put Doc together with the specialists – played by Anthony Caruso, James Whitmore and Sterling Hayden, respectively – but also the corrupt lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), willing to finance the job. You can probably guess which of the links in this chain is the weakest. Inconveniently, for the criminals, the local police commissioner (John McIntire) is unhappy with the detectives in his vice squad and demands they put pressure on their mid-level snitches, some of whom pay them off to avoid arrest. A tip here and a loose lip there provides the cops with the break they’ll need to link Doc to whatever it is that’s going to happen in their backyard in the near future.

In a sense, Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow are laying out parallel procedurals, in which blue-collar lawmen and crooks go about their business while the filmmakers do their jobs. Unlike more regularly cited noirs, The Asphalt Jungle plays down the cherchez la femme angle, preferring to keep the dames in subordinate, if still interesting roles. Marilyn Monroe nicely plays Emmerich’s young mistress – his invalid wife (Dorothy Tree) is bed-ridden – while Jean Hagen is laying low at the pad belonging to Hayden’s hoodlum character, while the cops are putting the heat on the dime-a-dance joints. The Criterion package adds commentary from a 2004 release by film historian Drew Casper, featuring archival recordings of actor James Whitmore; new interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey; archival footage and audio excerpts of writer-director John Huston discussing the film; an episode of the television program “City Lights,” from 1979, featuring Huston; an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien; and the amazingly candid 1983 documentary profile of Hayden, Pharos of Chaos, shot in and around the tricked-out barge he was living on in the Netherlands. In it, the actor drinks heavily, smokes lots of hashish, reads passages from books about the sea and describes the highs and lows of his career.

David Miller’s Sudden Fear, from Cohen Media, offers a substantially different take on noir. Deemed a “rediscovered masterpiece” of the genre, it stars Joan Crawford as a successful Broadway playwright, living in San Francisco, who marries a younger actor (Jack Palance), willing to abandon his career to build the foundation for a long con. Myra should have smelled a rat when Blaine, an actor she once fired, bumps into her on a train from the Apple to the west coast. By the time they reach the San Francisco Bay, they’re practically married. Blaine probably would have been able to pull off the gigolo act a bit longer, if it weren’t for two things: learning that her will leaves most of her fortune to a foundation and very little to him; and the arrival of a former lover, Irene (Gloria Grahame), who knows what he’s up to and is perfectly willing to blow the whistle on him, if she isn’t cut into the deal. When Myra overhears Blaine and Irene laying out the scam, she uses her literary wiles to turn the table on them. The plan is so diabolical that Myra almost pulls out of it at the last moment. It’s one of the tropes that makes noir so much fun to watch. The screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee and Robert Smith was based upon the novel of the same name by Edna Sherry. Oscar nominations were accorded Crawford, for Best Actress in a Leading Role; Palance, as Best Actor in a Supporting Role; Charles Lang, for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; and Sheila O’Brien, for Best Costume Design. San Francisco would have qualified as Best Supporting Location, if such a prize were available. Crawford’s only occasionally over-the-top portrayal of a woman in distress shouldn’t be missed. It adds commentary with film historian Jeremy Arnold.

Roma: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released back-to-back in the early 1970s, The Clowns, Roma and Amarcord are three of Federico Fellini’s most overtly nostalgic films, with the latter two titles collecting memories – and fantasies – of growing up in the coastal town of Rimini and moving from there to Rome, as a young man (Peter Gonzales). In all three, the maestro abandoned plot and linear narrative, in favor of a less constrictive, more poetic approach to storytelling. In Roma, he alternates the arrival narrative with one about creating a movie about the city amidst the political and cultural turmoil of the late-1960s. In this way, he’s able to contrast Roman life in wartime Fascist Italy with its counterpart in then-present Rome. Most striking about the wartime scenes are the raucous gatherings of neighbors and strangers – mostly poor or working class – in street restaurants, a variety show and a bomb shelter. There’s a brothel for the people who probably can’t spare the money and one for those who can. In the contemporary setting, workers building a subway inadvertently discover a chamber covered with ancient frescoes, all of which are threatened when the polluted air from the streets wafts through its brick walls. Fellini is shown conversing with hippies and radical students, who ask him not to romanticize the “eternal city,” which is experiencing social upheaval and a growing chasm between the rich and poor.

The most Fellini-esque portion of Roma is a fantasy fashion show, featuring runway models in outlandish clerical garb and a papal audience. There’s an invasion of motorcycles and a horse loose on a crowded freeway, where a truck carrying livestock – deadstock, actually – is lying on its side. It’s a remarkable portrait of a city and its people, some of the most luminous – Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Magnani, Gore Vidal, Alberto Sordi, Feodor Chaliapin Jr.– appear, as themselves, in cameos. Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love probably owes a lot to it, even if no one could touch Fellini for sheer extravagance and sense of place. In addition to the 2K digital restoration, the Blu-ray set adds commentary, with Frank Burke, author of “Fellini’s Films”; deleted scenes; new interviews with filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, on Fellini’s lasting influence, and poet/friend Valerio Magrelli; images from the Felliniana archive of collector Don Young; and an essay by film scholar David Forgacs.

When American movies combine a reluctant, but dedicated male bodyguard with an extremely troubled, yet intoxicatingly sensuous woman-in-peril, the tension between them usually explodes by the end of the second reel, clearing room for an ill-advised sexual coupling. That’s what happened in Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me, which paired Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers, and in The Bodyguard, between Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, to cite just two of many titles. Audiences expect it and studio execs are overpaid to give it to them. In European films, this isn’t always the case. French writer/director Alice Winocour’s much anticipated follow-up to Augustine and Mustang, on which she shared a writing credit with Deniz Gamze Ergüven, is a bodyguard movie with a difference. In Disorder, an Afghanistan War veteran (Matthias Schoenaerts), still suffering from PTSD, is assigned to work security at a party hosted by a Lebanese arms negotiator and his wife (Diane Kruger) at their luxurious villa on the French Riviera. Vincent performs his duties with a hyper-vigilance that the borders on paranoia. The next day, he’s asked to return to the mansion and watch over Jessie and their young son, Ali, while the businessman is away on business.

Once again, Vincent treats the assignment as if he were walking point on a patrol, hoping to sneak up on an unseen enemy. It gives Jessie the creeps, but his wariness pays off during a trip to the beach, where her limousine is attacked by hooded thugs. Things grow even more suspenseful from there. There are several points in Disorder when Winocour could have jacked up the tension between them with suggestive glances, brushed bodies or a wary embrace. Not here, not yet. Vincent knows that the enemy has yet to be vanquished and, even though he’s barely enjoyed a moment of sleep, plans to stay the course … as do we. In the meantime, Vincent is led to wonder how much Jessie knows about her husband’s work and what she might be hiding from him. She, in turn, grows increasingly concerned about the effects of sleep-deprivation on a walking time-bomb. The audience is rewarded with one of the most thrilling and ultimately surprising payoffs I’ve seen in a long time. Simply put, Schoenaerts and Kruger are two of the most interesting and underappreciated actors working both sides of the Atlantic.

The Driller Killer: Limited Edition Steelbook: Blu-ray
Black Christmas: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dreamscape: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Creepshow 2: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Phantasm: Remaster: Blu-ray
I don’t know if Abel Ferrara’s 1979 shocker, The Driller Killer, was the first to introduce the electric drill into the toolbox of implements used to murder characters in horror films. Three years earlier, Marathon Man had introduced the concept of torture by dental implement, which sent me scurrying out of the screening room in a fit of sympathetic pain. I didn’t react the same way while watching the death-by-drilling scene in Body Double, which was shot voyeuristically, from a distance. The notoriety of The Driller Killer, which I had yet to see, increased exponentially after it was made a charter member of Britain’s “video nasty” club. The Arrow Video upgrade of the shot-on-16mm movie goes a long way toward demonstrating how much more was going on in Ferrara’s mind than what was revealed in the cruddy iterations blown up to 35mm and shown on drive-in screens and other imperfect venues. More than anything else, it was a movie about an artist driven insane by the inescapable sights, sounds and trials of life in Lower Manhattan, decades before it was gentrified. At the time, Ferrara called Union Square home and it provided him with derelict locations and access to underemployed and amateur actors. Like Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, and Nada and Billy, in Blank Generation, struggling artist Reno Miller (Ferrara) snaps after too much exposure to an environment in which depravity rules and poverty limits all expectations. At the same time that he is missing deadlines on commissioned work, dodging unpaid bills and supporting two lesbian roommates, Reno is being plagued, as well, by the inescapably abrasive No Wave music being rehearsed well into the night in the basement next-door. The winos and bums, who also call the neighborhood home, become the first victims of Reno’s rage-driven power tool. The madder he gets, the wider he casts his net for new victims. If The Diller Killer has been relegated to the pigeonhole labeled “horror,” it’s primarily because it’s less easy to categorize black comedy whose social and cultural commentary are driven home by a power drill. Either way, it works. And, Ferrara’s ability to capture the same dead-end milieu on film – based on the screenplays of regular collaborator Nicholas St. John — would be demonstrated in such gritty exploitation pictures as Ms. 45, The Addiction, China Girl and King of New York. Arrow’s Limited Edition SteelBook edition features original artwork (2500 copies); new commentary by director and star Ferrara, moderated by biographer Brad Stevens; a new interview with Ferrara; “Willing and Abel: Ferraraology 101,” a visual-essay guide to the films and career of Ferrara, by author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; “Mulberry St.,” Ferrara’s 2010 feature-length documentary portrait of the same New York location; and a collector s booklet, featuring new writing by Michael Pattison and Brad Stevens.

Released in 1974, still the infancy of the slasher sub-genre, Black Christmas has withstood the test of time to become one of the most influential and copied movies of all time. If some of the gags and camerawork look exceedingly derivative today, it’s only because they originated in Bob Clark’s Canucksploitation classic. A few days before Christmas, an unknown and largely unseen intruder sneaks into the attic of a university sorority house. Inside, Barbara (Margot Kidder), Jess (Olivia Hussey), Phyl (Andrea Martin) and Clare (Lynne Griffith) are pulled away from their holiday party by a frighteningly obscene phone call. Barbara laughs it off, until she hears an unmistakable death threat over the snorting, screams and gurgles. From that point on, no one in the house is safe, including boyfriends. Despite all the violence, Clark infuses a lot of tension-breaking humor into the narrative. Black Christmas (Silent Night, Evil Night) would be a direct influence on John Carpenter (Halloween) and any director considering using the convention of a killer calling from inside the house or filming the action from that point-of-view. Black Christmas wasn’t greeted with open arms by critics and pundits, but the same can be said of reaction to his sexploitation Porky’s series. A decade later, Clark would redeem himself with the family-friendly A Christmas Story, a wonderful holiday comedy that would sneak up on everyone. The Scream Factory Collector’s Edition benefits from a fresh 2K scan of the negative (1.85:1), a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio Mono; more than a dozen ported-over featurettes; and a couple of new ones, in which co-stars Art Hindle and Lynne Griffin recall the film’s production.

Dreamscape is a respectable psychological thriller, released in 1984, whose stellar cast suggests that it harbors pretentions of belonging in an arthouse. Multiple Oscar nominees Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Eddie Albert support Dennis Quaid – fresh off his portrayal of astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, in The Right Stuff – who plays Alex Gardner, a young man of fantastic psychic abilities. The brash young man has dropped off the radar after playing lab rat for a top dream researcher, Doctor Paul Novotny (Von Sydow) and his drop-dead gorgeous assistant, played by a brunette edition of Kate Capshaw. After a period of time spent using his “gifts” to manipulate women and pick winners at the horse track, Alex is coerced into returning to the lab to test a machine that would allow someone with his talents to enter the dreams of others. Coincidentally, the President (Albert) is suffering from severe nightmares that have begun to affect the way he conducts business. Jealous of his fellow psychic’s prowess, another one of Novotny’s subjects (David Patrick Kelly) goes to work for a presidential aide (Plummer), who wants to get into POTUS’ head for nefarious reasons of his own. Things get really weird when the two young men perform dream linkage and confront the demons inside the President’s head. The new featurettes here include “The Actor’s Journey,” an interview with Dennis Quaid; “Dreamscapes and Dreammakers,” a retrospective including interviews with director Joseph Ruben, co-Writer David Loughery, actor David Patrick Kelly and members of the special-effects team; “Nightmares and Dreamsnakes,” about the monsters, with Kelly and Craig Reardon; and a conversation between producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer/producer Chuck Russell.

The horror anthology, Creepshow 2, followed the original by five years. Stephen King probably could have supplied enough source material for a release every 12 months, but he was probably busy re-writing the bible in the mid-1980s and couldn’t spare the time. The surprisingly successful Creepshow contained five stories, all written by King and directed by George A. Romero. In “2,” King shared the writing credits with Romero, who passed along the director’s baton to Michael Gornick (“Tales From the Darkside”), for the three new segments. In “Old Chief Wood’nhead,” three young hoodlums face retribution-in-kind from an unlikely source after looting a remote hardware store. It is owned by George Kennedy and Dorothy Lamour, who are famous locally for forgiving the debts of their Indian customers, but are defenseless against these monsters. In “The Raft,” a group of pot-smoking teens travel to a chilly spring-fed lake, hoping to get in a swim before the owners pull in the raft. In the boys’ rush to get to the raft and practice their breaststroke on their girlfriends, they miss the icky film on the water that’s devouring unsuspecting ducks. Somehow, when it senses the presence of human prey, the blob floats speedily toward the raft, where the teens are now trapped. “The Hitch-Hiker” describes what happens when an unfaithful wife rushes to beat her unsuspecting husband home, but gets into an accident after the lit joint in her fingers slips to floor. Assuming the hitch-hiker she’s hit is dead, Annie (Lois Chiles) splits the scene. Horror fans will already know that the corpse (Tom Wright) has a life of its own. Wrapping around the episodes is an animated story featuring the Creep (Tom Savini), who delivers bundles of comic books to rabid fans of Creepshow comics.

Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm series has become one of the most prolific in genre history, with a final installment released in October, 18 years after the last one.  It began in 1979, with strange things happening at the Morningside Cemetery. While Jody Pearson (Bill Thornbury) attends the funeral of a recently departed friend, his younger brother, Mike (Michael Baldwin), observes a tall mortician (Angus Scrimm) tossing the heavy, unburied coffin into a waiting hearse. Mike returns to the cemetery that night and breaks into the mortuary, where he discovers deadly, spectral creatures inhabiting the embalming cellar and comes face-to-face with the sinister Tall Man. After barely managing to escape with his life, Mike enlists Jody and their close friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), to investigate whether the fiend is reanimating corpses and why. Originally released in 1979, it can lay claim to inventing gags and gadgets that would be borrowed in other genre specimens. Restored in 4K hi-def, Phantasm: Remastered adds commentary with Coscarelli, Baldwin, Scrimm and Thornbury; deleted scenes; the featurette, “Graveyard Carz”; and vintage interviews with Coscarelli and Scrimm. The final chapter, Phantasm Ravager also is being sent out on Blu-ray by Well-Go. It brings back several of the original cast members, including Scrimm, who died last January, at 89. It, too, arrives with several making-of shorts, interviews, deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary and a car-centric featurette.

Sins of our Youth
Way back in 1986, Tim Hunter (Tex) and writer Neil Jimenez (Where the River Runs Black) created a sensation with River’s Edge, an alarming drama about a new generation of teenagers too wasted on booze, pot and bored to respond to tragedies staring them in the face. While killing time on the banks of the Sacramento River, a group of slackers somehow manages to ignore the naked corpse of a strangled friend in a patch of weeds only a few feet away from them. Even those inclined to notify the police were talked out of doing so by classmates who feared the shit storm that was sure to follow such a revelation. For many parents, River’s Edge provided a first, ugly glimpse into what would become known as Generation X in the long-prophesized Teenage Wasteland. I was reminded of that movie while watching Gary and Edmund Entin’s similarly disturbing, if not nearly as accomplished teen drama, Sins of Our Youth. Set in the suburbs overlooking the Las Vegas basin, it is the story of four teenagers who accidentally kill a younger boy, while shooting off assault weapons they’d borrowed from the closet of a friend’s father. They’d been drinking all night and wanted to use the weapons to demolish a Christmas display they’d stolen from a nearby home. Santa Claus and his reindeers stood a better chance of surviving the attack than the poor boy who ducked behind the display when the bullets started to fly. He only wanted to return a cellphone to one of the boys who’d left it behind at one of their hangouts, but failed to telegraph his approach with any authority.

The shooters’ natural reaction was to deny their culpability in the crime, while also scrambling to decide what to do with the corpse. They didn’t understand the legal ramifications of their act or feel any moral obligation to reveal the location of the boy’s body, at least. The one plan they come up with is so absurd that it barely lasts the course of a night. Instead, they attempt to make themselves feel better about themselves by returning to school the next day and waiting for the next shoe to drop, which likely would be the marshalling of a search party for the boy. All it takes for a chain to break is for one of its links to weaken and, of course, that’s what happens in Sins of Our Youth. The ending may be too melodramatic by half – it’s Christmas Eve, after all, so why waste the symbolism? – but it’s nothing we see coming or being conveniently staged. Lucas Till, Joel Courtney, Mitchel Musso and Bridger Zadina are all very good, but it’s Ally Sheedy who almost steals the show as one the boy’s less-than-exemplary mother.

The Falls: Covenant of Grace
Girls Lost
Of all the unexpected successes in recent television history, the five-season run logged by HBO’s “Big Love” must be near the top of the list. Imagine the initial response of programing executives when presented with the idea for a mini-series based on the shorthand premise, “A (atypically handsome) polygamist and his relationship with his three (atypically pretty) wives.” (Parenthesis, mine.) And, yet, it worked in every conceivable way. Actually, some ground might have already been broken with the 2004 release of C. Jay Cox’s Latter Days, which made the jump from the gay-and-lesbian festival circuit to a theatrical release. The sudsy rom/dram/com concerned a well-scrubbed Mormon missionary who falls in love with his neighbor, a promiscuous Los Angeles waiter named, of all things, Christian. Although not a huge success, it helped raise the profile of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rob McElhenney, Erik Palladino and Wes Ramsey. Ten years later, a one-man-band filmmaker, Jon Garcia, launched a straight-to-DVD mini-franchise, The Falls, through Breaking Glass Pictures. In it, Mormon missionaries played by Nick Ferrucci and Benjamin Farmer fall in love while on their mission. Elders Chris Merril and R.J. Smith travel to a small town in Oregon, which, while not far away from home, presents many of the same challenges that college roommates experience in their freshman years. They share a passion for their faith, even though its forbids the kind of intimacy they seek from each other’s company. A year later, The Falls: Testament of Love advanced the story five years, with Chris and R.J. reuniting for a friend’s funeral and addressing the factors that led to their separation, including the Church’s discipline and Chris getting married and having a child. The third and likely final installment, The Falls: Covenant of Grace, finds Chris newly divorced, but still an active member of the LDS. He lives in Salt Lake City with his daughter Kaylee, while R.J. has become a successful writer, in Portland. Chris takes a weekend trip to visit R.J., but their re-ignited relationship is dampened by the Church’s ban against baptisms for children of same-sex couples. When Chris’ mother unexpectedly dies, R.J. and his father fly to Utah for the funeral. They initially receive a frosty welcome from Chris’ father, Noah (Bruce Jennings), a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who disapproves of same-sex relationships. Once again, the protagonists are asked to weigh their devotion to their faith and families, against the power of their love. More to the point, will Chris stand up to his father and force him to face the same dilemma. Stay tuned. The Falls trilogy clearly could have benefitted from much larger budgets and more experience on Garcia’s resume. Even so, it successfully addresses important questions within both the LGBT and religious communities, while also showcasing fresh acting talent. It’s a unique and refreshing change of pace within a genre that’s rapidly finding new audiences. The DVD adds director’s commentary, deleted scenes, a Q&A with cast and crew, a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Based on a young-adult novel by Jessica Schiefauer, Girls Lost employs fantasy to take on issues pertaining to teen bullying and gender identification. Alexandra-Therese Keining’s imaginative Swedish-language drama describes how three girls’ friendships are tested after taking refuge in the garden planted by Bella’s late mother and tending to a very special flower. Tasting the vanilla-flavored nectar immediately changes them, by granting a wish that allows them to experience life as “one of the guys.” It works only too well, of course, but only so long as the spell lasts. Happiness for teens struggling with ostracism, sexuality and gender fluidity is a sometimes thing, in the best of cases, and magical realism only takes the characters so far. Girls Lost tackles such issues with a clarity and sense of purpose generally lacking in studio-produced pictures here, if only because such honesty could result in an automatic R-rating from the homophobes in the MPAA ratings board. In Sweden, on the other hand, the film was cleared for audiences above the age of 11.

Kampai! For the Love of Sake
Several years ago, a friend with better-educated taste buds than I’ll ever possess invited me to a sake tasting being staged for his benefit at a fancy Japanese restaurant in Las Vegas. I’d already enjoyed a tequila tasting at an upscale Mexican restaurant – not the same day, if you must know – and looked forward to the experience. In both cases, I marveled at the subtle differences in taste and texture from one flight to the other, backgrounds of the distillers and learning which brands complemented various foods. It was easily comparable to any wine tasting I’d attended in northern California and, of course, the personal attention was greatly appreciated. Now, at least, I know what I’m missing when I can’t afford to buy a shot of sake or tequila from the top shelves of the posh restaurants. Mirai Konishi’s debut documentary, “Kampai! For the Love of Sake,” feels a lot like an industrial film – a good one – that honors the labor and traditions of the craft, but doesn’t dwell on the sensory pleasures of the end products. It also devotes a lot of time to the devastating effects of the last great earthquake and tsunami on the business. “Kampai!” journeys from rice paddies in Japan, to breweries and tastings around the globe, as it chronicles the experiences of three passionate exponents of the increasingly popular beverage: Philip Harper, a British ex-pat who has become Japan’s first foreign master brewer (a.k.a., toji); John Gauntner, an American journalist known as the Sake Evangelist; and Kosuke Kuji, a fifth-generation Japanese brewer determined to shake up the industry. They’re all terrific ambassadors for industry and proponents of modernity and ecumenism in the ancient art. You’ll never look at your Rice Krispies the same way, again.

Discovery: Harley and the Davidsons: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
A&E: Streets of Compton
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Earth’s Last Stand
Having grown up in Milwaukee, I approached Discovery’s fact-based mini-series, “Harley and the Davidsons,” with more than the usual amount of trepidation I reserve for productions shot in Romania, when Wisconsin would have served just as well. If Harley-Davidson holds an iconic place in the annals of American industrial history – not to mention, pop culture – imagine what it means to the people in Milwaukee, which has been abandoned by most of the beer companies that made it famous. Today, it benefits greatly from revenues related to high product demand, factory tours, museum admissions, annual pilgrimages and, presumably, T-shirt sales. Presented as an inspirational, all-American family saga, the three-part series dramatizes the origins of the motorcycle manufacturer from its inception to the introduction of the Knucklehead model, prior to World War II. Michiel Huisman, Bug Hall and Robert Aramayo deliver credible portrayals of as Walter Davidson, Arthur Davidson and their childhood friend, engineer Bill Harley, who risked their entire fortune and livelihoods to launch the budding enterprise. The accuracy of the depiction of the battle for motorcycle supremacy between H-D and Indian ranges from fictional to highly dramatized, which is par for the course. Even so, most of the people likely to tune into “Harley and the Davidsons” will be happy with the reproductions of motorcycles and prototypes from the era, as well as exciting re-creations of races that may or may not have happened. The mini-series did very well for the cable network, so a second season isn’t out of the question. It could cover the post-war boom in motorcycle riding and outlaw clubs, the near-devastating sale to penny-pinching AMF, its popular resurgence and spectacular brand recognition. The Blu-ray includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and “Biketacular,” a special 44-minute showcase of impressive bike builds, through history.

Paramount’s “Legend of Korra: The Complete Series” would make an ideal gift for loyal Nickelodeon viewers who came late to the animated fantasy series or have been ridiculed by fellow anime geeks for missing it altogether. It was created in 2012 by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino as a sequel to the network’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which aired from 2005 to 2008. The series is set in a fictional universe, in which some people can manipulate, or “bend,” the elements of water, earth, fire or air. Only one person, the “Avatar,” can bend all four elements and is responsible for maintaining balance in the world. The series follows Avatar Korra, the reincarnation of Aang from the previous series, as she faces political and spiritual unrest in a modernizing world. I was surprised by the number of well-known actors who worked on the show: James Remar, Anne Heche, Lisa Edelstein, Henry Rollins, Aubrey Plaza, John Michael Higgins, Lance Henriksen and Eva Marie Saint, among them. The package comes with a booklet containing pages from the four “Art of the Animation” books released for each season.

Last season, “Fear the Walking Dead” ended with Travis (Cliff Curtis), Madison (Kim Dickens) and their blended family struggling to escape Los Angeles, before being succumbed by the dreaded Zombie Apocalypse. The 15-episode Season Two opens with the dysfunctional unit aboard the yacht owned by mysterious businessman Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), who has ideas of own about where to find a safe port. Until then, however, the family faces many of the same dangers it thought were left behind on dry land. That’s because, when the military’s Operation Cobalt dropped napalm on various SoCal locations to cleanse it of the Infected, the intended targets also fled to the sea. (Not swimming, per se, but floating with malice aforethought.) Audio commentaries accompany several episodes, along with a disc devoted to deleted scenes, “Flight 462” webisodes, a Q&A with cast and creative Team from Paleyfest LA 2016, “Inside ‘Fear the Walking Dead’” and “The Making of ‘Fear the Walking Dead.’”

A&E’s three-hour documentary mini-series, “Streets of Compton,” picks up several years after the events dramatized in Straight Outta Compton left off. Instead of focusing directly on the creation and ascendency of NWA, Mark Ford charts the city’s transition from idyllic L.A. suburb to gang-infested dead end, where drugs, violence and corruption filled the vacuum left by the departure of factories, businesses and middle-class white homeowners, after the Watts riots of 1965, and subsequent crack epidemic of the 1980-90s. For success stories, Ford not only cites NWA, but also Venus and Serena Williams, comedian Paul Rodriguez, actor Anthony Anderson, producer and musician Lil Eazy-E, singer Kendrick Lamar and superstar rapper, The Game, who truly can be said to be a child of the mean streets. For those interested in contemporary civics and pop culture, “Streets of Compton” should qualify as a must-see.

The latest compilation of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” episodes, carries the ominous title of “Earth’s Last Stand,” which pretty much applies to what’s at stake in most such collections. Now, the team is back in the Big Apple, catching up with old friends and new enemies, such as the Mighty Mutanimals, Mondo Gecko, Karai, Tiger Claw, Bebop and Rocksteady, Stockman-Fly and newcomer Shinigami. Them too, there’s former reporter April (Mae Whitman), who may be a female ninja now, but may be suffering from identity issues. The episodes include “The Ever-Burning Fire,” “Earth’s Last Stand,” “City at War,” “Broken Foot,” “The Insecta Trifecta,” “Mutant Gangland” and “Bat in the Belfry,” which takes viewers up to the end of the first half of the current, fourth season.

Christmas All Over Again
Star Paws
A Frozen Christmas
Tween-agers may not catch all of the references to Groundhog Day and A Christmas Carol in Christy Carlson Romano’s directorial debut, Christmas All Over Again, but they probably won’t need any introduction to its stars. It’s Christmas Eve, and Eddie (Sean Ryan Fox) hopes a new pair of Breezy 3000 sneakers will catch the eye of neighbor girl Cindy (Amber Montana). He even plans to wear the bright red shoes to the wedding the next afternoon of his father and his soon-to-be stepmother (Romano). Alas, when morning comes, there isn’t a single present under the tree. Things change during the rest of the day, but nothing that will alter the loop in which he’s trapped. Desperate, Eddie turns to a mysterious shoe-store owner (Joey Lawrence), who helps him understand that true joy doesn’t come tied up in a bow. Todrick Hall (“Straight Outta Oz”) plays a younger version of Breezy, after whom the precious shoes have been named. I doubt that Christmas All Over Again will reach the status of holiday classic, but kids might like it. The DVD adds four “Minuscule” bonus episodes, taken from an animated French Disney Channel TV series that looks at the life of insects from a ground-level perspective.

Star Paws tells the occasionally animated story of a team of space-dwelling dogs in search of the scientific wherewithal to travel back in time to thwart an evil cat’s attempts to take over the galaxy. General Ruff must beat Adventure Cat and his army of evil kittens to a giant dinosaur bone, which has been lost in the space/time continuum since the Jurassic Era. Some interesting information about dinosaurs is presented during the course of the saga, but not enough to justify Star Paws’ level of technical incompetence and sheer laziness. (There’s even a Tony Danza joke that won’t make sense to anyone under 40.)  The movie’s most obvious problem comes in watching dogs, cats and chickens “speak” without moving their lips or beaks. The dinosaurs’ movement are as repetitive as a record that will continues to skip to the same groove every few seconds if left untended. It’s hard for me to imagine a child of any age not wondering how it’s possible for animals to communicate without so much as a peep. Or, why they’re sitting stock-still, as if they’ve just completed a meal and find no reason to compete for their owners’ attention, anymore.

Don’t be confused with the word, “Frozen,” in the title or, even, the animated wraparound that opens the DVD, “A Frozen Christmas.” That’s because it bears no resemblance to the modern Disney classic and the wraparounds take up no more than 10 percent of the available screen time. The rest of the DVD is dedicated to a disembodied voice narrating holiday stories, while a selection of undulating images from seasonal gift wrapping and wallpaper fill the screen. It’s colorful, but no more appropriate than the Yule-log videos you can download from the Internet for pennies. A segment in which gingerbread cookies dance to hip-hop music could be used to torture terrorist suspects.Star Paws, at least, offered some factual material on dinosaurs.

The DVD Wrapup: Secret Life of Pets, JT Leroy, Just Eat It, Howard’s End, Quiet Earth, Henry, Phantasm and more

Friday, December 9th, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets: Blu-ray
When homeowners began to install video surveillance devices in every room of their house, the idea was to spy on babysitters and nannies who might be neglecting or abusing a child or, perhaps, catch a burglar in the act of ransacking a home. At some point, though, a pet had to have been caught tearing up the pillows on a couch or acting out when a mail carrier got too close to the front door. After admonishing their dog or cat for behaving as if they had a choice in the matter, the next logical step was to send a tape to the producers of “America’s Favorite Home Videos.” They probably needed a break from watching kids hitting their dad in the nuts with a Wiffleball bat. In 1992, three years after the show launched its 27-year run on ABC, host Bob Saget presented the VHS release, “America’s Funniest Pets,” which may or may not have inspired the uproarious animated feature, The Secret Life of Pets. Even before Alan Funt’s radio-based “The Candid Microphone” crossed over to television as “Candid Camera,” in 1948, the ability to monitor the behavior of our kids, nannies, pets and, of course, spouses, was an idea too juicy not to contemplate. Today, of course, anyone with wi-fi and a video-surveillance system can watch their pets cavort on their computer at work. Somehow, it took almost a quarter-century for an animation studio – in this case, Universal’s ambitious Illumination Entertainment division — to merge the core elements of “America’s Funniest Pets” and Pixar’s Toy Story franchise into a spanking-new entertainment franchise. Emboldened by the success of Despicable Me and Minions, IE wisely invested its financial resources in The Secret Life of Pets, a 3D computer-animated buddy/adventure/comedy about what happens when our pets are left to their own devices. The A-list cast of voice actors probably had something to do with the stunning box-office appeal as well.

In it, a Jack Russell Terrier named Max (Louis C.K.) shares a compact Manhattan apartment with his owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper). While she is at work, Max hangs out with other pets in the building: the obese and lazy tabby, Chloe (Lake Bell); hyperactive pug, Mel (Bobby Moynihan); laid-back dachshund, Buddy (Hannibal Buress); and parakeet, Sweetpea. When Katie adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a large and shaggy mongrel from the pound, all hell threatens to break loose behind her back. Enraged by Max’s effete attitude, Duke attempts to abandon his roommate in an alley, where, to his chagrin, they are both attacked by a gang of alley cats led by the hairless Sphynx cat, Ozone (Steve Coogan). The cats remove both dogs’ collars and leave them to be caught by Animal Control, opening the possibility that Duke will be put down for repeat vagrancy. In a clever turn, they are rescued by a rabbit named Snowball (Kevin Hart), the leader of the Flushed Pets Gang, which is comprised of sewer-dwelling animals who resent humans for their tendency to abandon their little friends when they tire of them. Max and Duke pretend to despise humans, but flunk the initiation test by refusing to allow a one-fanged viper to bite them.

After the dogs escape the sewers, things really get complicated. Their odyssey includes a trip to Brooklyn, on a ferry; a raid on a sausage factory; a visit to Duke’s last happy residence; a traffic mishap on the Brooklyn Bridge; and a plunge into the East River in an Animal Control van. They’re rescued at the last second by Gidget (Jenny Slate), a white Pomeranian with a crush on Max; characters voiced by Albert Brooks and Dana Carvey; and a repentant Snowball. Not surprisingly, perhaps, The Secret Life of Pets finds all the animals back home, their owners none the wiser. Director Chris Renaud (Despicable Me) joins the fun by playing Norman, a taxi-driving guinea pig who keeps getting lost. Sharp eyes will detect numerous references to previous Illumination titles, Universal brands and other cherished cartoon animals. The PG rating warns parents of pre-schoolers of scenes that contain “mild violence and peril” and a squished viper. The Blu-ray extras add a dozen, or so, informative making-of and background featurettes, sing-alongs, mini-movies and a visit from Brian the Minion.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story
While literary hoaxes come and go, some are better than others. Because so many readers around the world were touched by the house-of-mirrors story cooked up by a novelist purporting to be a street urchin named JT LeRoy, the drama continues to reverberate today, a decade after the hoax was uncovered. Jeff Feuerzeig’s intriguing documentary, Author: The JT LeRoy Story, is one of several books, films and crime-show episodes that have borrowed aspects of the case to discuss the literary and criminal ramifications of such chicanery, and the possible motivations of the perpetrator. In 2006, a New York Times article revealed that the15-year-old male author, LeRoy, was, in fact, a 35-year-old woman born in Brooklyn. Laura Albert adopted the pseudonym to facilitate her conceptualization of the troubled teenager, whose life played out in the highly realistic memoirs “Sarah” (2000), “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” (2001) and “Harold’s End” (2004). As a teen, Albert had called suicide hotlines for help, choosing to speak with counselors as a boy. One doctor encouraged Terminator, who later became known as JT LeRoy, to collect her thoughts on paper. Pseudonyms are hardly a new or novel literary device and, if the books hadn’t been marketed as autobiographical, the controversy might have been nipped in the bud. Instead, Albert’s deception extended to dealings with her publishers and a production company interested in adapting her short stories for film. She also invented a flesh-and-blood alter ego, who could stand in for her at signings and other literary gatherings, and accepted freelance assignments from prestigious publications in LeRoy’s name.

Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy was supposedly born in West Virginia to an abusive truck-stop prostitute. The androgynous teenager’s own backstory included prostitution, drug addiction and vagrancy in California. The poetically written novels initially struck a chord with readers who identified with the character’s total immersion in a lifestyle dictated by punk rock, drugs, gender confusion, pervasive societal bigotry, homelessness and inescapable violence. They would resonate, as well, with outsider artists who saw in LeRoy a younger version of themselves. His/her list of admirers included musicians Billy Corgan, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Gus Van Sant, Asia Argento, David Milch and Tom Waits, all of whom reached out to the author in taped phone conversations, e-mails and faxes … remember those? LeRoy’s growing appeal caused a demand by fans and publishers for public appearances. Knowing that her bubble would burst if the truth was revealed, Albert conspired with Savannah Knoop, the half-sister of her guitarist boyfriend, Geoff, to fulfill the obligations typically associated with stardom. Unlike the overweight and plain-looking novelist, the 25-year-old aspiring fashion designer could have passed for Andy Warhol’s emaciated little brother. In addition to a hideous blond wig, Knoop wore dark googles over sunglasses and non-gender-specific clothes. Wherever LeRoy/Knoop appeared, so did a red-wigged Albert and her shaggy-haired boyfriend – a millennial Sonny & Cher, if you will — to supplement her words with angst-filled songs. Close proximity to the writer allowed Knoop to sound informed when quizzed by reporters and autograph seekers.

Ironically, the New York Times article was published after Albert had revealed her identity to Corgan and a couple of other artists in positions to advance her career, while maintaining her public persona. A year later, a Manhattan jury found Albert liable in monetary damages for the tort of fraud, because she had signed her nom de plume to the movie contract. She was ordered to pay $110,000 to the production company, covering the option contract; $6,500 in punitive damages; and $350,000 in legal fees. The Author’s Guild released an amicus brief supporting Albert and opposing the jury’s decision, because of the impact it might have on writers in the future. (In 2009, after an appeal, a settlement was reported.) By this time, Albert had proven to herself and others that her talent wasn’t limited to the JT LeRoy brand. She appears as herself throughout Author: The JT LeRoy Story, recalling the various twists and turns of her personal story and, if anything, looking better than ever. For her part, Knoop took advantage of newfound notoriety to publish “Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy.”

The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger
Anyone familiar with the prolific artist, philosopher, writer, storyteller and “radical humanist,” John Berger, will naturally be attracted to the multi-sourced cinematic exercise, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. Segmented according to seasonal changes affecting the French Alpine village, Quincy, it features a series of unabashedly brainy, yet accessible conversations with the Booker- and Guardian Fiction Prize-winner. Anyone drawn to the DVD solely by the presence of co-director and longtime friend Tilda Swinton – an arthouse mainstay, newly re-minted as a star of action and comic-book flicks – shouldn’t bother. She doesn’t kick anyone’s ass or appear in costume. When Swinton isn’t behind the camera, she engages Berger in friendly conversations that, invariably, lead to an exchange of philosophical points of view. She freely admits to having “an indissoluble bond of kinship” with Berger, with whom she acted in the 1989 film “Play Me Something,” based on one of his short stories. While they’re chatting in the kitchen of his rustic home, they peel and core apples for a delicious-looking crumble. In the other segments, Berger combines ideas and motifs from his work with the texture and history of his mountain home. Berger’s wife Beverly, who mainly remains in the background here, passed away during the shoot, leaving a void that’s palpable. Among Berger’s more familiar works are the 1972 BBC series and essay on art criticism, “Ways of Seeing”; the Booker Prize-winning novel, “G”; and collaborations with the Swiss director Alain Tanner on La Salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974) and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). An original score by Simon Fisher Turner helps unite the segments, also directed by Bartek Dziadosz (“The Trouble with Being Human”), Colin MacCabe (“Ways of Listening”) and Christopher Roth (Baader).

Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story
There’s a subset of documentaries that attempt to prove that modern men and women can survive in this materialistic society without succumbing to such luxuries as processed food, shopping malls, red meat, electricity and, yes, even toilet paper. Such well-meaning exercises in guilt-inducement focus on the western world’s obsession with gluttony, convenience and conspicuous consumption. Canadian filmmaking couple Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer are obsessed with waste. The Clean Bin Project (2010) follows a “regular couple” who engage in a quasi-comedic contest to determine who can swear off consumerism and produce the least amount of garbage in an entire year. Their Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story addresses the same problem in a different way. This time, Grant and Jenny commit themselves to only consuming food that’s been discarded from farms, retail outlets and the overstocked refrigerators and shelves of friends. Grant gives new meaning to what it means to be reduced to dumpster diving to survive. To his dismay, he discovers an alarming amount of food thrown away not only because it’s approaching its expiration date, but also because it doesn’t meet the aesthetic demands of supermarket chains and picky consumers. Some is donated to agencies that provide food to poor people, but the demand for certain non-essential commodities simply doesn’t exist. One estimate puts the amount of food products disposed of in landfills, as opposed to being shipped to sub-Sahara Africa, at nearly 50 percent. They also discover that overproduction can’t be blamed on any one company, agency or agri-business conglomeration. As was the case with Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, a large dollop of humor helps the medicine go down. Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story is further informed by interviews with TED lecturer, author and activist Tristram Stuart, author Jonathan Bloom, food/agriculture scientist Dana Gunders, farmers, retailers, charitable organizations and consumers.

Howards End: Blu-ray
The re-release of Merchant Ivory Productions’ Howard’s End on Blu-ray, six years removed from Criterion Collection’s impeccable hi-def upgrade, reminds us once again of the great vacuum left by the loss of producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, as well as the subsequent retirement of director James Ivory. For at least one generation of movie lovers, the company’s adaptations of classic novels defined the term, “prestige picture” … or, if you will, period costume dramas. It did so on budgets that today would be reserved for genre films by untested directors. Howard’s End was the third adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel committed to the screen by Merchant Ivory, after A Room with a View (1985) and Maurice (1987), and the third, along with David Lean’s A Passage to India, to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (Maurice’s screenplay is credited to Ivory and Kit Hesketh-Harvey.) All of Merchant Ivory’s films are renowned for their attention to period detail, respect for the source material, world-class acting and beautiful locations. That baton has been passed to the British mini-series – “Downton Abbey,” “Poldark,” “Wolf Hall,” among them — we see here on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” The Merchant Ivory catalogue looks more sumptuous with every new technology.

Howards End is a romantic drama, based on Forster’s 1910 novel surveying class relations in early 20th-Century England. It does so by focusing on three families connected only by proximity and the occasion of intimacy: the Schlegel sisters, Margaret (Emma Thompson) and Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) who represent the enlightened bourgeoisie; the rich and largely uncultured Wilcox family (Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, James Wilby); and the white-collar middle-class Basts (Sam West, Nicola Duffett). When Ruth Wilcox dies, her estranged husband, Henry, is flummoxed to learn that she’s left her interest in the Howards End property to the less-frivolous of the Schlegals. To everyone’s surprise, Henry falls in love and marries Margaret, without acknowledging her hidden ownership of the country home. In response, Helen Schlegel turns to a married family friend – the lowly bank clerk, Leonard Bast – for comfort. Their brief, if fruitful encounter reverberates throughout the rest of the story, causing all sorts of acrimony and recriminations relating to Margaret’s “honor” and the Wilcox fortune. It’s wonderful stuff that translates well to the screen.

Thompson, Jhabvala and set/art designers Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker took home Academy Awards, while Merchant, Ivory, Redgrave, cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, and composer Richard Robbins were among the finalists. Cohen Media’s new two-disc set ports over some of the supplements from the Criterion release while also offering some new bonus material, including commentary with critics Wade Major and Lael Lowenstein; a 2016 conversation between James Ivory and Laurence Kardish, former senior curator of film, MOMA; a 2016 interview with Ivory and Redgrave at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; “On Stage Q&A,” with Ivory and critic Michael Koresky at Lincoln Center; an EPK short from 1992; featurettes “Building Howards End” and “The Design of Howards End,” with Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan; and a 12-minute testimonial to Merchant, by Ivory. Technically, it’s difficult to recommend one Blu-ray package over the other. The 2016 release benefits from a new 4K restoration, culled from the film’s original camera negative, and some fiddling on the aspect ratio.

The Quiet Earth: Blu-ray
In the 1950s, people around the world woke up every morning wondering if this would be their last day on Earth. Several powerful countries were conducting nuclear tests, without the benefit of knowing whether clouds of irradiated dust were harmless, deadly or somewhere in between. Pregnant women were cautioned against drinking the milk from cows that may have grazed on poisoned grasses, while schoolchildren were laughably led to believe that they could avoid death by ducking under desks and covering their heads. As if Americans weren’t sufficiently frightened by the concept of mutually assured destruction, Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, “I Am Legend,” gave them good reason to fear surviving the nuclear holocaust. The premise was strong enough to support would three motion pictures. The 1959 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Time Enough at Last,” demonstrated how a survivor’s good luck could reverse itself in a heartbeat. That year also brought Stanley Kramer’s sadly cerebral good-bye to mankind, On the Beach. After the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went, we were allowed to think that cooler heads would ultimately prevail, but only if Barry Goldwater was denied the presidency. Between Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” a new generation of Americans was given something to fear besides submarines carrying nuclear warheads. The current epidemic of dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies wouldn’t begin for another 30 years, or so. That’s a long and winding way of introducing Geoff Murphy’s 1985 The Quiet Earth, a largely ignored post-apocalyptic thriller that almost no Americans outside of large cities have seen.

Only one New Zealand film, Smash Palace, had made any kind of a splash here and, after Alien and Blade Runner, Americans had developed a taste for much more expensive sci-fi fare. The Quiet Earth simply didn’t qualify. It appears to have been based as much on Ranald MacDougall’s 1959 thriller, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which starred Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer, as Craig Harrison’s 1981 genre novel. In it, experiments with a radical new power source — a band of solar energy that would circle the planet — go awry and appear to wipe out all signs of life. All clocks have stopped at the biblically relevant time of 6:12 a.m. and only a handful of corpses are visible. Zak (Bruno Lawrence), a scientist who worked on the project, somehow survived the experiment. At first, of course, he’s frightened by the reality of his situation. Given time, however, Zak decides to take advantage of the situation by stealing fancy cars, declaring himself King of the Quiet Earth, enjoying the trappings of wealth and trying on women’s lingerie. Without giving too much away, Zak eventually will come in contact with a hippie girl and Maori truck driver, who demonstrate the hardiness of humanity, while also confirming that there’s nothing more destructive than a love triangle. Except for some metaphysical hocus-pocus, the enigmatic ending to The Quiet Earth reminded me of the ending to On the Beach, with a lonely Ava Gardner watching the last submarine disappear under the waves. The Blu-ray offers commentary by Neil deGrasse Tyson and critic Odie Henderson, and a detailed essay on the film by Professor Teresa Heffernan.

Neither Heaven Nor Earth
Clément Cogitore’s unsettling wartime drama, Neither Heaven Nor Earth, combines the haunting mystery of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with the cliff’s edge tension of Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s documentary, Restrepo. Here, French Army Captain Antares Bonassieu (Jérémie Renier) and his squad are assigned to monitor the remote Wakhan valley of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan. In the early stages of the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, its narrow passages were believed to provide a staging ground for cross-border attacks on allied troops and rival warlords. From their mountain-top outposts, the French also are within walking distance of the last Afghan village before the border and the shepherds who went about their own business in the valley. No one on either side of the conflict trusted the others particularly, but compromises based on mutual security and bribes often were negotiated.

The French soldiers may not engage the enemy every day, or even weekly, but the men’s vigilance and determination to get home in one piece are palpable throughout the film. One day, without a single shot being fired, animals and men from all sides start mysteriously disappearing. The French demand answers from the Afghans, who, in turn, suspect the warring forces of slipping into the village and terrorizing the residents. Captain Bonassieu is as confused as everyone else, but, as a realist, demands concrete answers to a mystery that may be steeped in metaphysics, religion or superstition. They all come into play here at one point in the investigation or another. A French chaplain is called in to contain the speculation, but ends up echoing mysticism found in the Koran. If Neither Heaven Nor Earth is not your typical war story, it’s largely because Afghanistan has historically resisted classification as a typical war zone. Alexander failed to tame it at a time when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion. Bonus features include Cogitore’s commentary and short film, “Among Us”; and Film Movement’s “Why We Selected” statement.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
When I was a mere lad, working at the Chicago Tribune and drinking at the Billy Goat, I’d frequently walk past one of the concrete pillars keeping Michigan Avenue from collapsing on the network of streets below it known collectively as Lower Wacker Drive. It’s provided an extremely cool setting for car chases and chance encounters in such entertainments as The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Adventures in Babysitting, The Fury, Code of Silence and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Anyone considering shooting a movie in Chicago, about real people who live and work in Chicago, at least, ponders ways of using Lower Wacker as a location. The Goat’s entrance was only a few feet away from the pillar upon which the flyer for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had been posted years earlier, and, ironically, where a key scene was shot. Once spotted, the flyer was impossible to ignore. The glowing opinions of esteemed critics might have confused some passersby into thinking the movie was showing at an arthouse, up the stars and down the street. Below the blurbs and stars, however, the reflection of the antagonist’s face, staring into a mirror, argued otherwise. It belonged to Michael Rooker, now a veteran character actor, but, then, one of many struggling to make a name for themselves in Chicago’s burgeoning off-Loop theater scene. Co-writer/director John McNaughton, himself a struggling artist, had taken one look at Rooker during the casting process – in the garb of a janitor on his way to work — and knew he had his serial killer. What he didn’t know was how much of an impact his ground-breaking first feature would have on a genre that had become bloated with poorly drawn slashers, stalkers and sociopaths.

By chronicling a week in the lives of two very sick Chicagoans, and refusing to pass judgment on their acts before the closing credits rolled, McNaughton brought something frighteningly new and different to the table. The first four tableaux were based on real life murders the self-admitted serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas, claimed to have committed. Indeed, McNaughton arranged the shot of a nude corpse to mirror the same position of a victim in a case involving Lucas. In another reversal of form, he refused to provide the audience with a litany of excuses for how such a good boy had turned out so bad. Henry wasn’t the product of a broken home, abusive foster parents, societal ills or being bullied as a child. McNaughton demanded of us that we perform the duties normally reserved for the state’s attorney, judge, jury and executioner. His refusal to tack a “happy ending” or positive resolution to the end of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – along with the graphic violence – left audiences as perplexed as the MPAA ratings board, which remained adamant about its decision to brand it “X.” (Along with Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,  it’s credited with forcing the MPAA to replace the X rating with slightly less restrictive NC-17.) As it is, three years would pass before the movie’s debut at the 1986 Chicago International Film Festival and its inclusion in the 1989 Telluride Film Festival, where half of the audience walked out.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer pulled in $600,000 in its first theatrical run — six times its production budget – before making a killing (pun intended) in video rentals, sales and re-releases. MPI previously released the film on Blu-ray in 2009. Dark Sky Films has restored the film in 4K resolution from its original camera negative and magnetic soundtrack, adding new extras to existing featurettes. They include “In Defense of Henry: An Appreciation,” with director Joe Swanberg, film critic Kim Morgan, film professor Jeffrey Sconce, exploitation expert Joe Bob Briggs and Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris ; “Henry vs. MPAA: A Visual History”; “Henry at the BBFC,” an interview with “Nightmare USA” author Stephen Thrower; “It’s Either You or Them,” an interview with artist Joe Coleman”; “In the Round: A Conversation with John McNaughton”; and a booklet, with an essay by Stephen Thrower. Features ported over from the earlier hi-def release are McNaughton’s commentary and an interview with the director; “Portrait: The Making of Henry”; deleted scenes and outtakes; the original trailer; still gallery; and storyboards. The making-of material reminds us of the chilling effects working on a film, like “Henry,” can have on the actors – co-stars Tom Towles and Tracy Arnold, and murder victim Lisa Temple — and behind-the-camera crew.

If There’s a Hell Below
Anyone who longs for the days when “paranoid thrillers” were as commonplace as any other subgenre shouldn’t have to wait too long for a new wave of conspiracy-based pictures to crash on our shores. The difference between today’s conspiracies and the ones depicted in such fictional entertainments as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, Klute, The Conversation, All the President’s Men, Z, Missing, Blow Out and The Pelican Brief, is that one needn’t be paranoid, anymore, to believe that a government agency is listening in on their phone calls, inventing lies to advance a political agenda or trying to deprive them of their constitutional rights. The evidence of such plotting can be found in the handful of newspapers that still believe that supporting investigative teams is as important as running comic strips, bridge columns and horoscopes. When the FBI’s top-secret COINTELPRO program was exposed, in the 1970s, the findings confirmed nearly every conspiracy theory forwarded by radical groups over the past 20 years. Oliver Stone’s Snowden might have done better at the box office if the story of the NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques hadn’t already played out in the mainstream and niche media, and Laura Poitras’ non-fiction Citizenfour. The same applies to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, in which WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The much-admired film made even less money than Snowden. It’s tough for screenwriters and activist directors to top the facts already laid out on “60 Minutes” or a dozen other TV newsmagazines, late-night comedy shows and “Saturday Night Live.” The hideous presidential campaign we’ve just endured was one long paranoid thriller, during which lies and innuendo were as widely accepted as facts as news reports to the contrary. Tens of millions of voters not only bought into the lies, but they also spread falsehoods of their own.

It’s against this background that Nathan Williams decided to test the resiliency of the paranoid thriller with the low budget If There’s a Hell Below, co-written with his brother, Matthew. In it, an employee of a national security agency lures a reporter for an alternative paper in Chicago to a desolate section of the Pacific Northwest, where the paucity of rain has created an amber wave of grain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Debra (Carol Roscoe), a “senior information processing engineer,” has promised to give Abe (Conner Marx) a thumb drive ostensibly containing state secrets. Before that can happen, though, Debra must make sure that Max is the reporter he claims to be and can be trusted with the data. She instructs him to drive into the country, which is curiously devoid of farm implements. Besides some abandoned sheds and silos, the only sign that anyone lives nearby is a wind farm as ominous in its own way as the black helicopters in “The X-Files.” Debra tells him where to go and when to turn, but it isn’t likely that any of roads are on a map. Just when it seems that the exchange will be made, Debra spots a black SUV in the near distance, parked and apparently ready to follow them. Before long, the chase is on, and we’re none the wiser as to what she’s hiding and who might be driving the SUV. That’s all I can reveal, except to say that Williams does a nice job maintaining the tension and keeping us interested in the story. Neither is the ending as predictable as it might sound from this summary. If If There’s a Hell Below’s setting recalls the crop-duster chase in Hitchcock’ North by Northwest, it’s a testament to Williams’ imagination and Christopher Messina’s splendid cinematography.

Call of Heroes: Blu-ray
Looking for action? If you don’t mind reading subtitles, Benny Chan’s new wuxia epic, Call of Heroes, could be your ticket, as it reveals the influences of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, any number of spaghetti Westerns and action director Sammo Hung’s unmistakable handiwork in the fight scenes. It stars Louis Koo (Drug War), Eddie Peng (Cold War II), Wu Jing (Shaolin) and Sean Lau Ching-wan (Overheard 3). Set in the period between the end of the Qinq Dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China, when warlords vied for power, Call of Heroes describes what happens after the government orders soldiers stationed in a rural village to move to the front lines, leaving it ripe for takeover by the sadistic son of warlord Cao Shaolun (Koo), who immediately kills three random people. While Sheriff Yang Kenan (Ching-wan) prepares for the convicted psychopath’s execution, his father’s aide Zhang Yi (Jing) arrives with the threat of a massacre. Instead of acquiescing to Cao and the fearful populace, the sheriff enlists the help of wandering warrior Ma Feng (Peng), who should remind viewers of Toshiro Mifune. They must organize a militia of peasants to defend the jail and keep the village out of Cao’s hands. Chan isn’t reluctant to borrow tropes from the Hong Kong action cinema, but he seems more interested in tweaking them for maximum effect. Made for the equivalent of $32 million, Call of Heroes delivers more than the usual number of grandiose sets, including an entire town. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes.

Never Open the Door: Blu-ray
Even over the long Thanksgiving-holiday weekend, city folks staying in secluded cabins in the woods should know enough to refrain from opening the door to strangers. This advice pertains, as well, to unexpected late-night visitors who look as if they might be in desperate need of assistance. Anyone who’s watched more than a few horror movies in the last 40 years knows that nothing good can come from such kindness, especially when out of cellphone range. No sooner is the turkey fully devoured in the opening minutes of Vito Trabucco’s Never Open the Door than Tess (Jessica Sonneborn) admits a wounded man, after he practically breaks down the door trying to attract the attention of someone inside. The stranger immediately spews her with blood and passes out on the floor. With his last ounce of strength, he advises the poor woman, “Never open the door.” Yeah, no shit. The rest of the movie requires of the couples that they go completely off their rockers, each one fearing they’ll be the next to die or be transformed into something unspeakably evil. Tess, bless her heart, decides this would be a good time to shower off the gore, instantly providing some viewers, at least, a reason to stick around for another 45 minutes of the film’s 64-minute length. Joe Provenzano’s nifty black-and-white cinematography imbues the proceedings with a 1950s “Twilight Zone” vibe, especially in its spooky final scene. The Blu-ray adds several interviews and making-of pieces that are almost as long as the movie.

Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs
Typically, when I come in possession of a documentary with a title like, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs, the first thing I do is turn the box around and check out the running time. Based solely on the cable shows I’ve seen dealing with “ancient astronauts” and people who’ve been abducted by aliens, the prospect of watching anything over an hour fills me with dread. Director Justin Gaar deserves lots of credit in my book for getting me to sit through his truly offbeat doc and a bonus feature that purports to show the lights of UFOs dancing over Monterey Bay. Christo Roppolo claims to have seen UFOs since childhood and, as an adult, has collected hours of footage of strange crafts shooting across the skies of Central California. The camera clearly shows the light from unseen objects blinking and occasionally racing overhead. They occasionally reveal interesting pigments, as well. All I know is that Monterey isn’t all that far from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where rockets are tested and satellites are shot into orbit, and it’s less than an hour’s flight from Area 51. So, why not? The thing is, Roppolo really, really believes that he’s seen UFOs and occasionally uses a flashlight to blink back at them. His vehemence often translates into the kind of colorfully profane outbursts that would scare the crap out of people who’ve never lived in California. Gaar looks beyond his subject’s case for UFOs, turning the film’s focus towards Roppolo’s love for film, music and horror movies. Roppolo also reveals passages in his life that help explain how he managed to find some comfort in the possibility that a UFO might someday land in his backyard and carry him away to a planet where being eccentric isn’t a curse.

The Devil’s Dolls: Blu-ray
Padraig Reynolds’ tres, tres gory The Devil’s Dolls (a.k.a., “Worry Dolls”) begins where most direct-to-video horror flicks end … with a blood-stained electric drill, a mutilated cop and dead antagonist. Neither does the writer/director (Rites of Spring) waste any time attempting to hide the root cause of the violence we’ve just witnessed, although anyone expecting to see killer Barbies in action may be a tad disappointed. I suspect that the original title was changed to avoid any potential confusion with Charles Band’s depraved 2008 thriller, Dangerous Worry Dolls, which benefitted from being set in a women’s prison. Besides inhabiting the same subgenre, Reynolds’ dolls bear very little similarity to Band’s dolls. Typically, worry dolls are slipped under the pillows of people who want to pass along their concerns to an inanimate object. Here, though, none of the characters are logging many hours of sleep. After the serial killer is eliminated by a cop named Matt (Christopher Wiehl), a box full of worry dolls is found in his workroom and put in the back seat of the police car. Before it can be deposited in the evidence room, Matt’s snotty little daughter, Chloe (Kennedy Brice), mistakes the box for a present and claims it for her personal use. She decides to make some money by giving the dolls a makeover and selling them as lucky charms in her mom’s gift shop. Instead of absorbing the buyers’ worries, the cursed amulets turn the shoppers into monsters. Soon, the peaceful Mississippi town becomes the setting for a chain of random and brutal murders. The local voodoo queen (Tina Lifford) – she’s black, of course, and lives in a shack in the deep boonies — is the only local resident privy to the dolls’ curse and, of course, police ignored her earlier warning. Despite what must have been an extremely modest budget, The Devil’s Dolls exhibits decent production values and credible special effects.

Kiss Me, Kill Me
Me, Myself and Her
Shot in West Hollywood and populated with LGBT characters, director Casper Andreas cautions potential viewers against thinking Kiss Me, Kill Me will fit only one pigeonhole. The prolific actor/writer/director (Going Down in LA-LA Land, The Big Gay Musical) and writer David Michael Barrett (Bad Actress) aren’t even sure if the word, “gay,” is spoken in what they hope will be considered a traditional noir thriller. Good luck, on that. Kiss Me, Kill Me wouldn’t be the first picture to fill that niche, in any case. A dozen years ago, four pictures featuring the gay P.I., Donald Strachey, were adapted from the popular mystery series written by Richard Stevenson. Apart from festival dates and the occasional theatrical debut, the movies went straight to DVD. It’s possible that LGBT audiences in 2016 have been given sufficient cause to de-segregate their viewing habits. Unless I’m mistaken, all four letters in the acronym are represented in Kiss Me, Kill Me. Unable to make up his mind between his current boyfriend, Dusty (Van Hansis), and ex-lover, Craigery (Matthew Ludwinski), successful Hollywood producer, Stephen (Gale Harold), is required to make a difficult decision when push comes to shove at a party. After an embarrassing confrontation, Dusty splits for the nearest 24-hour convenience store, with the unfaithful Stephen just a few steps behind. A violent incident inside the store leaves Stephen dead and Dusty, who’s blacked out, the prime suspect … at least, in the mind of the salt-and-pepper police investigators. Except for the WeHo setting, mystery fans aren’t likely to find anything particularly new or genre-bending in Kiss Me, Kill Me, which, probably, is what the filmmakers intended. A trumpet-heavy soundtrack immediately recalls Mark Isham’s work in Trouble in Mind and Short Cuts. Brianna Brown, Allison Lane and D.J. “Shangela” Pierce also turn in nice performances. The DVD adds commentary with Andreas and Barrett, interviews, background, red-carpet footage from FilmOut San Diego, a music video and the Kickstarter video pitch.

Last December, Todd Haynes’ Carol was being touted by critics and industry insiders as one of top contenders for Oscar nominations. Set in New York City during the early 1950s, it tells the story of a “forbidden love affair” between an aspiring photographer (Rooney Mara) and an older woman going through a difficult divorce (Cate Blanchett). Carol, based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, received six Oscar nominations, none of which were for Best Picture or Best Director. Maria Sole Tognazzi’s romantic com/dram, Me, Myself and Her, is built on a substantially different foundation, but the similarities are telling. At a time when Italy was weighing the question of legalizing same-sex marriages, Me, Myself and Her focused on a monogamous lesbian relationship that had avoided serious roadblocks until it hit the five-year mark. As the picture opens, Marina and Federica live together in the kind of posh apartment usually reserved for otherwise middle-class characters played by award-winning actresses. The voluptuous and self-confident Marina (Sabrina Ferilli) traded a career in the movie industry for the challenge of running a successful health food restaurant. The skittish Federica (Margherita Buy) is a respected architect with a marriage behind her and a grown son. Marina left the closet years earlier, while Federica is reluctant to admit that she’s strictly-clittly. When Marina inadvertently outs her partner in a magazine interview – she’s a dead ringer for Catherine Deneuve, in her 50s – Federica experiences a full-blown identity crisis, even going so far as to rekindle a romance with a younger man she met years earlier on a ski trip. If the betrayal crushes Marina, the tryst saddens Federica in ways that can only lead to the logical ending, circa 2016. (In the 1950s, the Production Code would have ensured a different ending.) Unlike Carol, which included a scene with partial nudity and caressing, Me, Myself and Her is sexy, but tame compared to other Italian romances. It’s the outstanding performances by Buy (Mia Madre) and Ferilli (The Great Beauty), who has one of the cinema’s great smiles, that will sell the movie outside Italy.

OWN: Greenleaf: Season One: Blu-ray
HBO: Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again
PBS: Frontline: The Choice 2016
PBS: Frontline: A Subprime Education
PBS: NOVA: School of the Future
PBS: Time for School
If Tyler Perry’s success has taught us anything, it’s that programming targeted at African-American audiences has a better chance of holding on to viewers if it adds a taste of old-time religion to the mix of scandalous behavior, hypocrisy, scandal, romance and music. “Greenleaf,” which contains large dollops of all three elements, is the second scripted drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network, after Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar.” The various storylines revolve around the antics and agonies of Memphis’ powerful Greenleaf family and their sprawling megachurch. The series, which has been renewed for a second season, was created by “Lost” and “Six Feet Under” writer Craig Wright and executive produced by Winfrey, Wright and Clement Virgo (“The Book of Negroes”). Religion isn’t a passing notion in “Greenleaf.” The righteous characters have been washed thoroughly in the blood of the lamb and the sinners know a reckoning will come, even if it’s in the sweet by-and-by. Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield) are the patriarch and matriarch of the Greenleaf family. In the first episode, their estranged daughter — preacher-turned-journalist Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) – returns home after a 20-year absence, following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. Much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter, Sophie (Desiree Ross), Gigi decides to stay in Memphis to investigate the death of her sister and begin working in Greenleaf World Ministries. In turn, Sophia begins picking up bad habits from her preppy classmates. Winfrey plays Mavis McCready, who, besides being Lady Mae’s sister, owns a blues club and serves as Grace’s confidante. Along with faith and prayer, the early episodes feature storylines involving rape and police brutality. Special features include “The Oprah Winfrey Conversations,” bloopers and featurettes “Creating Greenleaf” and “Greenleaf Musicians.”

Jennifer Lopez: Dance Again” originated as a New Year’s Eve special for HBO on December 31, 2014. Shot over a six-month period, it combines spectacularly staged musical performances with “intimate” documentary footage and interviews with Lopez and her closest friends. The biggest challenge, we’re led to believe, is keeping track of her two young children and parents, who accompany Lopez on her first world tour. On it, they visit 65 cities on five continents, traveling 100,000 miles and reaching an estimated million fans. Someone was assigned the chore of tallying the minutes of music produced (11,250), sequins sewn (500,000) and wardrobe changes (162). sequins and 162 wardrobe changes. It will be interesting to see how “Dance Again” holds up against Showtime’s two-hour presentation, “Madonna: Rebel Heart Tour,” beginning this weekend.

I’ve been too depressed to pick up a newspaper or watch CNN ever since the results of the presidential election were announced. It’s easier for me to believe that the moon is made of green cheese than Donald Trump will soon be president. Hillary Clinton was no prize, but, compared to Trump, she looked like the second coming of Eleanor Roosevelt. Oh, well, it won’t be long before the president-elect shows his true colors and the people who voted for him begin to wish Obama had sought a third term. First shown at the end of September, the “Frontline” presentation, “The Choice 2016,” is about as relevant today as yesterday’s horoscope. The
two-hour investigative biographies draw on dozens of interviews from those who know the candidates best, including friends and family, advisors and adversaries, and authors, journalists, and political insiders. Sadly, too few voters studied reports like this before casting their ballots.

As part of PBS’ “Spotlight Education” initiative, “Frontline” aired two films examining the realities of education in America. In “A Subprime Education,” correspondent Martin Smith revisits the show’s investigation of for-profit colleges, which aired in 2010 as “College, Inc.” The colleges say they’re expanding access to education and preparing students for success, but Smith finds that, in many cases, they’re just collecting money and leaving students in debt, without degrees and unprepared to face the job market. It puts a tight focus on the implosion of Corinthian Colleges and includes “Omarina s Story,” about how a program to stem the high school drop-out crisis has affected one girl’s journey.

Once the envy of the world, American schools are now in trouble. Test scores show our kids lag far behind their peers from other industrialized countries, and as the divide between rich and poor grows wider, the goal of getting all kids ready for college and the workforce gets harder by the day. The “NOVA” presentation, “School of the Future,” questions whether the science of learning — including new insights from neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators reveal – can reveal how kids’ brains work and tell us which techniques are most likely to engage and inspire their growing minds?

PBS’ “Time for School: 2003-2016” is a “longitudinal documentary project” that attempts to put a human face on the global education crisis. It does so by following five children in five poverty stricken countries — India, Brazil, Kenya, Afghanistan and Benin — from their first days of school through the next 12 years, as they try to get a basic education. Lax child-labor laws, early marriage and the chaos of war prevent legions of young people from getting an education. The stories are told primarily from the point of view of the children and their families.

The DVD Wrapup: BFG, Pete’s Dragon, Baked in Brooklyn, Weng Weng, T.A.M.I./T.N.T. and more

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The BFG: Blu-ray
Pete’s Dragon: Blu-ray
With great numbers already recorded for Disney’s Moana, it’s difficult to look back at the last two years and imagine studio executives not being completely thrilled about what they’ve accomplished. Several releases have exceeded or threatened to hit the billion-dollar barrier and critical response has generally been friendly, even for those titles with lower financial expectations. The BFG, a co-production with Amblin Entertainment, and the live-action re-imagining of Pete’s Dragon, opened nearly back-to-back with Finding Dory this summer in theaters around the world. Dory became a monster hit, while the other two pictures were disappointments to the folks who analyze box-office returns. Each entered its opening weekend with the support of critics, although the value of reviews in mainstream outlets, one way or the other, seems to have seriously diminished in the last 10 years. Of the two, it’s safe to say that expectations for The BFG far exceeded those for Pete’s Dragon. That’s based on an estimated production budget of $140 million, Steven Spielberg’s presence in the director’s chair, brand recognition from the beloved children’s book and a delightful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s words by Melissa Mathison (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), who died of an illness that was diagnosed only as production neared its completion. Of a total gross of $176.8 million, only $55.4 million derived from domestic sources. Certainly, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the movie, which, in fact, is very well made and entirely representative of previous work by the all-star cast and crew. I suspect that advertising that made the giants look big, but not terribly friendly, might have scared off some pre-tweens or their parents. Knowing ahead of time that a gnarly-looking giant kidnaps a 10-year-old girl from a London orphanage – do such places exist, anymore? –regardless of the fact he isn’t interested in putting her on the menu, might have been an unsettling prospect for some kids. Parents unfamiliar with the book may have misconstrued the meaning of the title, seeing “Big Frigging Deal,” instead of “Big Friendly Giant.” At first, that’s how I read it.

Once Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the BFG (Mark Rylance) reach his funky abode in Giant Country – off the British mainland — he explains that she must stay with him for the rest of her life. He’s afraid she’d reveal the existence of giants and open the habitat to military attack or, worse, tourism. Sophie, an insomniac, doesn’t believe he can control dreams, so, after reading her to sleep, contrives a nightmare in which a failed escape attempt causes her to be eaten by another giant. When one of Unfriendly Big Giants, the Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement), senses the presence of a human guest, he pays the BFG a visit. Sophie avoids detection, but demands they travel to Dream Country, where they can catch happy dreams and spread them to poor kids in London. They also forge a nightmare for Queen Elizabeth II, hoping it will inspire her to order the British Army to remove the unfriendly giants from her queendom. Penelope Wilton’s depiction of Her Royal Highness is wonderful, as are the contributions of Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall as her maid and butler. If your kids love fart jokes — of course, they do – The BFG will keep them giggling for weeks. The 2D Blu-ray includes the featurettes, “Bringing The BFG to Life,” with Dahl’s daughter, Lucy, screenwriter Mathison, executive producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Kristie Macosko Krieger, and other members of the cast and crew; “The Big Friendly Giant and Me,” in which Barnhill links characters in the book to their counterparts in the movie; “Gobblefunk: The Wonderful Words of The BFG,” a tutorial on giant-speak; “Giants 101,” in which Clement and Bill Hader (Bloodbottler) introduce us to the bad giants, along with movement-choreographer/motion-capture performer Terry Notary; and the bittersweet “Melissa Mathison: A Tribute.” Typically, 3D fanciers will have to wait a while for that version to arrive (ditto, 4K). BTW: the animated feature from 1989, Roald Dahl’s The BFG, was re-released earlier this year and it’s quite good.

David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon deserves to do a lot better in VOD/Blu-ray/DVD, as well. Of its $141.8 million worldwide gross, $75.5 million of it was earned here. The difference being that its production costs were $80 million lower and Disney won’t have to split the proceeds with other companies. In addition to changing the time-frame, location and certain aspects of Peter and Elliot’s relationship from the 1977 feature, Lowery’s biggest conceit here is adding a layer of short, green fur to the dragon. When asked about the decision, the co-writer/director (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) explains that he’d rather have “the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to” than a “Game of Thrones”-type dragon, which he described as “cool, but scaly and cold.” It takes some time to get accustomed to the fur, but kids may not see the difference in this more canine-like creature. Here, Elliot reveals himself to Pete (Oakes Fegley) after the boy’s parents are killed in a car accident in the middle of a vast forest. (The movie was shot in New Zealand, which hasn’t been completely stripped of old-growth trees.) Together, Pete’s able to live off the land and get along without such things as haircuts and shirts. At night, they share a cave deep in the wilderness, where the dragon’s fur provides comfort for them. It isn’t until several years later that that Pete and Elliot are forced to deal with the real world. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace, who grew up listening to stories of mysterious flying beasts told by her father (Robert Redford). She didn’t put too much stock in them until discovering Pete watching her tagging redwoods for her husband’s (Wes Bentley) logging company to avoid … or something like that. The boy’s description of his friend and guardian squares with her dad’s recollections and, together with his granddaughter (Oona Laurence), Grace joins in the effort to save the dragon natural habitat. Unfortunately, one of the loggers finds out about Elliot’s existence and, in a nod to King Kong, perhaps, decides to beat her to the punch by capturing the beast for profit and bragging rights. Pete’s Dragon more closely resembles a Disney adventure from yesteryear than the kind of superhero extravaganzas that fill the megaplexes today. Still, it should appeal to kids and their parents in need of some rainy-day entertainment. The Blu-ray adds bloopers, deleted scenes, the featurettes “Notes to Self: A Director’s Diary,” “Making Magic” and “Disappearing,” Lowery’s commentary with co-writer Toby Halbrooks and actors Fegley and Laurence, and music videos from the Lumineers and Lindsey Stirling.

Baked in Brooklyn: Blu-ray
Urban myth and yuppie romance both come into play in Rory Rooney and screenwriter David Shapiro’s diverting Baked in Brooklyn, not to be confused with Gustavo Ron’s My Bakery in Brooklyn or Tamra Davis’ 1998 stoner comedy, Half Baked, which it more closely resembles. Josh Brener, the half-pint computer genius in “Silicon Valley,” wasn’t required to alter his small-screen personality much to play the laid-off consultant, David, who turns to dealing pot via the Internet when the money crunch begins. Even a dog trained to detect drugs might be inclined to give the unassuming nerd a pass, if he tried to smuggle a kilo of grass through an airport in his solar-powered knapsack. That’s probably what Alexandra Daddario’s babelicious Kate thinks, as well, when he sings his sad song to her after meeting-cute at a party. Kate has a long-distance boyfriend, but finds something sufficiently comforting in David to ask him to be her BFF-without-benefits and his third roommate. David’s goth sister hooks him up with her decidedly non-geek dealer friend, Ace (Michael Rivera), who’s adapted Amway sales techniques to the marijuana trade. David’s brainstorm involves offering to supply small quantities of grass to strangers he meets on social media, so long as they’re reachable by bicycle from his Brooklyn pad. Not surprisingly, the business takes off like a rocket ship. Success, however, makes David as nervous as the prospect of someday making out with Kate. (Daddario’s bedroom scenes with Woody Harrelson, in “True Detective,” were nothing short of incendiary.) To calm his nerves during transactions with a rouge’s gallery of customers, David begins to ingest nerve-relaxants by the handful. They also help him make it through his sometimes acrimonious dealings with Ace. Naturally, David’s obsessive attention to business causes him to neglect his friends, all of whom remember the definition of “hubris” from their English lit courses and apply it to him. Despite a certain predictability, Brener never strays out of character long enough to become unrecognizable. Compared with other stoner comedies, Baked in Brooklyn is pretty tame. That doesn’t mean, however, that viewers who aren’t completely wasted can’t find things to enjoy in it.

Ants on a Shrimp
PBS: A Chef’s Life: Season Four
By the time that René Redzepi reached the ripe old age of 35, his two-Michelin-star restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, had already been voted the best restaurant in the world four times in the annual San Pellegrino Awards competition, sponsored by the British magazine, Restaurant. Before making a long-term commitment to Denmark, Redzepi spend some time working in the similarly honored kitchens of Spain’s El Bulli and the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. Not content to rest on his restaurant’s laurels, Redzepi accepted the challenge of creating a 14-course menu for the high-end dining room of Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental hotel. Three years earlier, he had had run a pop-up restaurant at Claridge’s, in London. Redzepi is credited with reinventing Nordic cuisine, through his use of freshly foraged ingredients, including a signature dish that consists of raw langoustine sprinkled with ants. Thus, the title of Maurice Dekkers’ food-porn documentary, Ants on a Shrimp. Curiously uninvolving, the film spends almost two-thirds of its time in the preparation for opening night and a third in the creation of delicacies fit for the world’s elite diners, and almost none on the dining experience, itself. As is typical in these sorts of documentaries, Redzepi is portrayed as a perfectionist, who demands the same of his employees, who traveled with him to Japan for the experiment … or, to be precise, ordeal. Perfection is an elusive goal, especially when it comes to food. Watching a chef attempt to translate his concept of perfection to a kitchen full of highly capable, if frequently frustrated assistants is like standing by powerless while a stranger berates their child in a store. Things really pick up when Redzepi leaves the hotel and visits the kind of places that will allow him to realize his desire to be “not just a tourist, but an informed traveler.” In addition to creating ways for his staff to study Japanese etiquette and basic language skills, he goes on trips to the mountains to forage for unique tastes and markets to learn about local ingredients and practices. Nothing’s easy, however, when it comes to putting what he’s absorbed into practice. If a dish doesn’t suit his palate — deep-fried fish sperm, for example — it won’t make the cut. I wanted to see the looks on the faces of the diners when they were presented with the individual courses and took those crucial first bites, but, alas, Ants on a Shrimp ends before that can happen. Foodies will certainly find something to love here. Others will have trouble getting past the idea of chowing down on a prawn the size of a lobster, with bugs sprinkled on its tail.

PBS’ Peabody Award-winning “A Chef’s Life: Season Four” is equal parts cooking show, tutorial on traditional Southern ingredients and soap opera, starring chef and author Vivian Howard. She’s famous in culinary circles, at least, for forsaking a career in New York City to return to her roots in the rural North Carolina town of Kinston. Her restaurant, the Chef and the Farmer, promotes cuisine that will be familiar to natives and promotes destination dining to outsiders. The most interesting thing about the new DVD to me, anyway, is her straight-forward approach to dishes and ingredients that need defending outside the South. Among them are rabbits, catfish, mayonnaise, sunchokes (a.k.a., Jerusalem artichokes), cabbage, watermelon and hocks. A negative Internet review momentarily puts her off her feed. (If it was on Yelp, the writer probably was looking for a free meal or other considerations to retract it.) The soap-opera aspect comes from involving viewers in her personal life (twins), her race to meet a cookbook deadline and the departure of her sous chef. Howard deserves credit for promoting community and incubator farming, addressing the complaints raised by meat-is-murder protesters at a culinary convention and admitting defeat when a recipe experiment fails. The presence of her mother and neighbors in the kitchen adds to the credibility of Howard’s trad menu,

The Intervention
One of the things that differentiates sitcom stars from their big-screen counterparts is a willingness to kill some of their time between seasons working on indie projects for friends that demonstrate an ability to deliver performances not supported by canned laughter and pratfalls. More often than not, however, these movies take the straight-to-DVD/VOD route to their fans. A common variation on the practice is ensemble casting, which gives equal time to a larger number of actors and a more relaxed atmosphere to the off-camera experience. Clea DuVall’s The Intervention seemingly fulfilled both considerations. In it, a group of 10 thirtysomething friends is invited to spend a few days relaxing, drinking and reminiscing in a large home near Savannah. By the time the movie’s over, they also will have wasted an inordinate amount of time and energy bickering, boozing, breaking up and swapping mates. If that description of The Intervention doesn’t immediately remind you of The Big Chill, you probably haven’t seen it. The difference is that this group of yuppies has been called together by Annie (Melanie Lynskey) primarily to intervene in the tortured marriage of Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza). The other variation involves a lesbian subtext, involving Jessie (DuVall), Sarah (Natasha Lyonne) and the obsessively bisexual Lola (Alia Shawkat), the much younger companion of Jack (Ben Schwartz). Also along for the ride are Rick (David Bernon) and Matt (Jason Ritter). Annie’s intervention doesn’t go as planned, primarily because she doesn’t have the guts to confront the dysfunctional couple. And, so it goes. Fans of the individual stars may enjoy seeing them outside their natural television habitats, but others will probably find it overly familiar by half. Also noteworthy here is the film score by Sara Quin of the Canadian duo, Tegan and Sara. Du Vall and the identical twin sisters have collaborated on several music and online videos.

The Search for Weng Weng
The closest most Americans have gotten to the Philippine cinema – location shoots for Apocalypse Now don’t count – is the series of women-in-prison films made by Jack Hill, Jonathan Demme and Cirio H. Santiago for Roger Corman. The actors we remember from those exploitation classics are Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Jeannie Bell, Roberta Collins and Judith Brown. Low-budget as they were, the movies made for New World Pictures looked like Gone With the Wind compared to most of the stuff churned out by Eddie Nicart largely for consumption by domestic Philippine audiences. It would be impossible, even today, for anyone whose seen such action/adventures asThe Cute… the Sexy n’ the Tiny, For Y’ur Height Only, D’Wild Wild Weng, Agent 00 and The Impossible Kid of Kung Fu to have forgotten the islands’ biggest box-office draw, Weng Weng. Standing a mere 2 feet, 9 inches, Weng Weng might have begun his career as a novelty act, but, after reaching leading-man status, he would be invited by then-First Lady Imelda Marcos to Malacañang Palace and named an honorary secret agent by General Fidel Ramos, who presented the actor with a custom-made pistol. He was a familiar guest on TV shows, at film festivals and awards ceremonies. Weng Weng stopped making movies – and money — after his popularity waned in the mid-1980s. Andrew Leavold, co-writer/director of The Search for Weng Weng, once owned and managed Trash Video, the largest cult video-rental store in Australia. As such, he was quite aware of the actor’s place in the Philippine film industry. What puzzled Leavold was what happened to Weng Weng – who didn’t identify with being a midget or dwarf, just small– after he stopped appearing in movies. He’d heard most of the stories, but needed to verify them for himself. It took him three visits to the islands and more than 40 interviews with the people closest to him, including his only surviving relative, brother Celing de la Cruz, to separate truth from myth. Fans of exploitation flicks will savor The Search For Weng Weng not only for its portrait of the artist as a small man, but also for Leavold’s exploration of the country’s cinematic history.

It’s All So Quiet
If Dutch auteur Nanouk Leopold’s austere drama had required a theme song, he couldn’t have picked a more representative tune than “Play It All Night Long,” Warren Zevon’s backhanded ode to redneck culture. In it, the late, great rock-’n’-roll poet observed, “There ain’t much to country living/Sweat, piss, jizz and blood. …” It’s All So Quiet fills the bill on all counts. Loosely based on Gerbrand Bakker’s International Dublin Literary Award-winning novel, “The Twin,” It’s All So Quiet follows a long-single dairy farmer, Helmer (Jeroen Willems), in his 50s, as he prepares for the death of his bedridden father (Henri Garcin) and, perhaps, a final opportunity to express himself in ways forbidden to him, so long as he remained under the stern old man’s roof. You may read into that what you will. As the movie opens, the close-mouthed Helmer is confronted not only with the imminent death of Vader, who is confined to his upstairs bedroom, but those of other elderly neighbors, and the retirement plans of closest friend, identified simply as Melkrijder, after his occupation. Wim Opbrouck plays the burly milk-truck driver who pays daily visits to the farm, but is about to give up the route and move in with his sister. Leopold (Wolfsbergen, Brownian Movement) leaves a lot of emotional baggage unspoken between the men. The same applies to the much younger farmhand, Henk (Martijn Lakemeier), who Helmer’s hired to help with the chores while he paints and cleans the first floor for the first time in decades.

The younger man’s presence raises the specter of Helmer’s long-dead twin brother, who we’re led to believe was Vader’s favored son and, had he lived, might have allowed the farmer some space to distance himself from his father’s once-iron fist. In the final film appearance before his untimely and unexpected death, at 50, Willems reveals the emotions behind his character’s dilemma with a quiet certainty that a statue might envy. Outside of central Europe, It’s All So Quiet’s was largely limited to festivals and the occasional arthouse. It would be an ideal picture to watch in a theater in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Iowa, where family farms have yet to be completely swallowed up by agribusiness concerns. Outside of Milwaukee, Madison, Iowa City and Minneapolis/St. Paul, however, you can probably count the number of compatible theaters on the fingers of one hand. It would make a terrific double-feature with Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam’s brutal 2011 drama, Bullhead, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It somehow turns the illicit cattle-hormone trade in Europe into the basis for a battle between a pugnacious slaughterhouse worker (Matthias Schoenaerts) – himself addicted to steroids – and gangsters with a 20-year grudge against him.

There’s no disguising the source of tension between Matias and Jeronimo (Ignacio Rogers, Esteban Masturini) in the Argentinian rom-dram, Esteros, which expands the 2015 short, “Matias and Jeronimo.”  In Papu Curotto and Andi Nachon’s debut feature, the boys who experienced their sexual awakening in the previous film reunite as adults. We learn that Matias’ disapproving father had caused them to separate, when he took a job in Brazil, and, in the interim, he’s walked the straight-and-narrow path. When, 10 years later, Matias returns to Argentina for Carnival, he’s accompanied by his girlfriend, Rochi (Renata Calmon), a charming young lady who doesn’t see the train about to hit her. In the kind of reunion that can only happen in the movies, Rochi’s desire for matching zombie makeup brings them both in contact with Jeronimo, who, in the interim, has fully acknowledged his homosexuality. At first, the resolutely glum Matias attempts to dampen the sparks that still crackle between them. It isn’t until Curotto switches the setting to the untamed wetlands of the Santiago del Estero del Ibera nature reserve that Matias loosens up enough to face his personal dilemma head-on. Esteros doesn’t push any particular social agenda, except to argue by example that LGBT-themed movies don’t have to exist in a ghetto created by inadequate budgets, compromised production values and actors only familiar to niche audiences. I’ve seen the same evolution in LGBT movies made in western Europe. Special features include interviews with the director and cast, and a stills gallery

American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock: Blu-ray
All movies come with a warning label, whether it’s in the form of the MPAA’s “advisory ratings” or the artwork and blurbs that appear on posters and DVD jackets. They all require some reading between lines and a healthy disregard for marketing hyperbole and the sometimes-hypocritical stance of the board. The warning attached to American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock can be found in the title, itself. Only serious students of hard-core horror are likely to decipher its meaning, though. Casual fans of the genre probably should avoid it altogether. The “Guinea Pig” in the title refers to a series of films made in Japan in the 1980s, so viscerally disturbing and unabashedly gory that one of them fooled no less an expert than Charlie Sheen into thinking it was an actual snuff film. It wasn’t, but the company making the manga-based series already was under investigation by Japanese authorities for their realistic depiction of torture. The scrutiny persuaded producer Hideshi Hino to cease and desist production, nearly 15 years before the subgenre acquired a name and subgenre of its own: torture porn. In 2002, a now-defunct German company collected six of the films, a making-of documentary and the previously unreleased “Making of Devil Woman Doctor.” Three years later, Unearthed Films released the first truly complete box set with all six features, both documentaries and Slaughter Special, along with bonus features and the manga on which Mermaid in a Manhole is based. The “American” in American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock alerts the cognoscenti that the baton has been passed to a new generation of genre specialists, whose mastery of special makeup effects was enhanced by CGI technology. In 2014, Unearthed Films’ founder and screenwriter Stephen Biro resurrected the concept with American Guinea Pig: Bouquet of Guts and Gore. In it, two kidnaped women wake up strapped to beds in a room full of men wearing assorted masks and armed with 8mm and VHS cameras. The two women are then sedated and dosed with LSD, before being dismembered, disemboweled and fileted by a big guy in the Baphomet mask. No kidding.

The “Bloodshock” in American Guinea Pig: Bloodshock pretty much telegraphs what viewers can expect to see in Chapter Two in the new series. It’s the name given the financially lucrative process dreamed up by the film’s sadistic and probably insane doctor. It involves the harvesting of a torture victim’s blood, while serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins are being pumped through his circulatory system. Each time he is dragged from his padded cell, the levels of torture are increased to maximize the substances’ content in the blood that’s drawn. Ostensibly, patients in need of a quick pick-me-up could benefit from transfusions of the purloined blood. Things really get nasty when the male victim (Dan Ellis) discovers a female victim (Lillian McKinney) in the cell next to his and they find exciting new ways to boost their own endorphins. It all takes place in an abandoned mental facility. This time around, Biro dusted off the director’s chair for effects wizard Marcus Koch (We Are Still Here, 100 Tears), who added his own special sauce to the recipe. As if being treated to the sight of the male victim’s tongue being sliced off and sutured in the first 10-minute sequence wasn’t sufficiently nauseating, a making-off video describes how it was accomplished, along with other atrocities. The entire package includes commentaries with Marcus Koch and Stephen Biro, and actors Andy Winton, Gene Palubicki and Alberto Giovannelli; Biro’s introduction; production videos; footage from the Days of the Dead festival Q&A; interviews with Koch, Biro, Ellis and McKinney; featurettes “Bloodshock: Deconstruction” and “Bloodshock: Behind the Scenes”; a soundtrack CD; and booklet.

T.A.M.I. Show/The Big T.N.T. Show: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Peter Green: Man of the World
Lovers of classic rock and R&B haven’t lived until they’ve seen video footage of a very young Joan Baez — wearing a conservative dress, stockings and heels — belting out “You’ve Lost That Living Feeling,” accompanied by Phil Spector on piano and a full orchestra behind them. She’d already established her folk credentials by opening with “100 Miles” and “There But for Fortune,” so the idea probably sprung from the forehead of the inventor of “wall of sound” record production. The reigning queen of folk music is preceded on Shout Factory’s combined T.A.M.I./The Big T.N.T. Show Blu-ray by the Lovin’ Spoonful and Ray Charles and followed by The Ronettes and Roger Miller, who looked a bit shocked by the screams from the teenyboppers in the audience. If it seems as if the shows might have been booked by Ed Sullivan, if he’d been tripping on LSD, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Take a closer look at these supremely restored concert events and you’ll see the missing links between Alan Freed’s inaugural Moondog Coronation Ball and Woodstock. Of the two events, the 1964 T.A.M.I. Show is the better known, if only because its highlight moment comes when Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones attempted to follow an electrifying performance by James Brown. Keith Richards admitted later that choosing to follow Brown and the Famous Flames was the biggest mistake of the Stones’ careers, because no matter how well they performed, they could not top him. The other acts represented a Who’s Who of current chart-toppers, including Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Supremes and Barbarians. Back in the day, Top 40 radio didn’t differentiate between white, black and Latino performers and frequently ignored genre boundaries.

The film was shot by director Steve Binder and his crew from “The Steve Allen Show,” using a precursor to high-definition television called “Electronovision,” invented by Bill Sargent. It was marketed for pay-per-view presentations in theaters across the country, as well as a movie released by teen-friendly AIP. The acronym, “T.A.M.I.,” meant both “Teenage Awards Music International” and “Teen Age Music International,” depending on who one asked. “The Big T.N.T. Show” is a 1966 sequel to “T.A.M.I.” and, if anything, more wildly eclectic. Shot before a live audience at the Los Angeles’ Moulin Rouge club – uniformed cops in the aisles and blacks relegated to the rear rows – the show also featured emcee and band leader David McCallum (a.k.a., Illya Kuryakin), Petula Clark, Bo Diddley, Roger Miller, The Byrds, Donovan and The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, who, despite Tina and the Ikettes’ atypically conservative outfits, absolutely killed it. The Blu-ray adds reminiscences from Petula Clark, John Sebastian, musician/photographer Henry Diltz and Binder; “The Big T.N.T. Show: An Eclectic Mix,” with more snippets of the same interview sessions, albeit with a focus on the different styles of music in the concert; and booklet of essays and photographs. The faces and fashions on display in the audience look like a casting call for “Hairspray.” (Keep an eye out for Frank Zappa, in the audience, and Teri Garr and Toni Basil among the go-go dancers.)

Along with Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson and Roky Erickson, the great blues guitarist and singer Peter Green may be best remembered today for going off the deep end on LSD and disappearing from view while the rest of the rockin’ world passed them by. Wilson has recently demonstrated how well he’s recovered from his ordeal, by returning to the recording studio and stages around the country. Erickson, too, has stepped back from the edge of the abyss. Barrett died in 2006, of pancreatic cancer, without fully recovering from mental illness and contrails of drug abuse. After replacing Eric Clapton in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Green went on to form Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, one of the essential blues-inspired rock bands of the second British Invasion. In addition to delivering superb interpretations of American blues classic, Green wrote and recorded “Black Magic Woman,” which would become a huge hit for Santana, as well as the ethereal instrumental, “Albatross,” and brilliantly layered, “Oh, Well.” Steve Graham’s thoroughly researched and interview-heavy rock-doc, Peter Green: Man of the World, goes a long way toward answering the 40 years’ worth of questions raised by fans and critics about his disappearance from Fleetwood Mac and how it impacted the band’s successful transition into superstardom. The film gives equal time to Green’s drug use and subsequent spiral into schizophrenia, discussing, as well, electroconvulsive therapy that prolonged his illness and extended absence from the music scene. He would make a tentative comeback in the mid-1990s, but also invest his energy into art and photography. “Man of the World” contains more than the usual amount of archival footage of live and studio performances, stills and original in-depth interviews with Fleetwood, McVie, producer Mike Vernon, Noel Gallagher, John Mayall, road manager Dennis Keane, biographer Martin Celmins, Carlos Santana and Jeremy Spencer. A visit to Green’s collection of vintage guitars is a highlight of the bonus package.

PBS: Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice
PBS: NOVA: Super Tunnel
PBS: NOVA: 15 Years of Terror
Despite the outcome of the race for the White House, the League of United Latin American Citizens found reason for optimism. After parsing the numbers, the nation’s “largest and oldest Hispanic organization” announced that Latino turnout increased over 17 percent since 2012, “a trend that LULAC feels will continue for the foreseeable future.” That news would have been greeted with approval by the subject of the PBS documentary, “Willie Velasquez: Your Vote Is Your Voice,” a Mexican-American civil-rights pioneer who died in 1988, at 44, after launching more than a thousand voter-registration drives in 200 cities. This was accomplished through the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, an initiative that “forever changed the local and national political landscape.” Hector Galán’s film was broadcast over PBS affiliates a month before the national elections. It’s impossible to determine if it had any impact on higher voter turnouts –the fear of a Trump presidency pretty much took care of that – but it would be nice to think that such inspirational portraits of Hispanic leaders would keep the ball rolling. A Mexican-American butcher’s son from San Antonio, Velasquez spent two summers as an intern in Washington working for San Antonio’s pioneering Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez. After that, he returned home to help found the Mexican-American Youth Organization and become a key player in the formation of the Raza Unida Conference. It wasn’t until he turned his focus onto voter registration, though, that he could see progress in the fight against the remnants of Jim Crow and the gerrymandering of political districts with significant Latino populations. Enough obstacles remain to make this documentary relevant today as a teaching tool and source for inspiration.

The “NOVA” documentary, “Super Tunnel,” takes viewers on a journey below the streets of London, where the $23-billion Crossrail transit system is being constructed by 10,000 workers, alongside portions of what is considered the world’s oldest subway. Not to be confused with the Chunnel, which runs under the English Channel, the Super Tunnel adds 26 miles of tracks bisecting some of the city’s most historic districts. The problem comes, of course, in avoiding damage to buildings situated above the construction sites and keeping the existing “tube” intact. Crucially, the workers must drive one of their gigantic 1,000-ton tunnel-boring machines through the earth, passing within inches of escalators and an active subway tunnel, without the passengers on the tube platforms below ever knowing they are there.

Also from “NOVA” comes “15 Years of Terror,” an investigation into the progress being made by U.S. counterintelligence agents in the struggle to anticipate terrorist attacks and prevent recruitment of new fighters by ISIS computer jockeys. Internet trolls also are attempting to understand what happens in the minds of terrorists and intercede to stop the next attacks, sometimes by making the leading proponents of jihad targets for drone strikes.

Alpha and Omega: The Big Fureeze
The Wild Life
Lionsgate’s animated DVD franchise, “Alpha and Omega,” continues apace with “The Big Fureeze,” the seventh entry in a series that began in 2010 with the big-screen feature, Alpha and Omega. That one featured an all-star voicing cast that included Justin Long, Hayden Panettiere, Dennis Hopper, Danny Glover, Christina Ricci and the ubiquitous Larry Miller. It was set in Canada’s Jasper National Park, where wolves Kate and Humphrey have known each other since puppyhood, but exist on opposing ends of the Western Pack’s social structure. Kate was the energetic Alpha daughter of the pack leader, while Humphrey is the good-humored Omega. If Kate agreed to accept an arranged marriage with Garth of the Eastern Pack, the packs unite in peace and prosperity. Love intervened in favor of Humphrey. Six sequels later, Kate and Humphrey have a litter of three wolf pups to tend. When they disappear in a fierce winter storm, looking for food, Stinky, Claudette and Runt — along with Brent the bear cub and Agnes the porcupine – set out bring them home safe and sound. For what it’s worth, “The Big Fureeze” is the first sequel to have original co-writer Steve Moore back at the word processor. Nevertheless, at a brisk 47 minutes, this one is strictly for the kiddies.

Originally titled “Robinson Crusoe,” Lionsgate and nWave Pictures’ feature-length adventure, The Wild Life, re-interprets the Daniel Defoe classic from the point of view of the island’s animal population. Things are going along swimmingly for the colorful critters until a seriously disheveled sailor washes ashore during a furious storm. Parents concerned about Defoe’s detours into cannibals, murders, slave trading and the Christian proselytizing should know that there’s nothing here your average pre-schooler can’t grasp. Instead, a chatty parrot named Mak, who dreams of escaping the island to see what else is out there, uses Crusoe’s arrival as inspiration to get going. His posse includes a goat, a chameleon, a porcupine and a tapir, each with little quirks of their own. The DVD adds “Meet the Characters,” “Tips for Your Trip” and “The Wild Life Musical Adventure.”