Breaker Morant: Blu-ray
Mister Johnson: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Turkey Shoot: Blu-ray
In 1980, when Bruce Beresford’s court-martial drama Breaker Morant was released around the world, Americans could be forgiven if they’d never heard of the Boer War. If a historical event hadn’t occurred in the northern hemisphere, after all, our textbooks hardly bothered to mention it. A similar case of benign xenophobia would apply a year later, when Peter Weir’s Gallipoli was greeted here as if the World War I battle had taken place in a corner of the world that time forgot. Both of these fine dramas described tragedies related to Australia’s willingness to sacrifice its most gallant fighting men for the greater glory of the British Empire. Aussies and Kiwis rallied to the commonwealth’s call after Hitler’s forces steamrolled their way through Poland, but troops in the Mediterranean would return home after 242 Japanese planes attacked Darwin, two months after Pearl Harbor. Those Americans drawn to Breaker Morant by its performance at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival probably were surprised to learn how closely the 1902 court-martial of Bushveldt Carboniers Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton mirrored the 1970 trial of Lt. William Laws Calley Jr., the U.S. Army officer deemed most responsible for the My Lai Massacre. While the defendants in both trials were guilty of serious crimes, the officers who demanded such terrible behavior of their subordinates escaped with the reputations largely intact. In 1901, several Boer prisoners-of-war were murdered in retaliation for the death of Captain Simon Hunt. Shortly thereafter, a German Lutheran missionary, Rev. Daniel Heese, was shot and killed by a long-range sniper, ostensibly because he was on way his way to Pietersburg to report the slaughter to British high command. Fearing German intervention in the war, British officials demanded a quick legal response to the incidents and a resolution that would satisfy the Kaiser. As was the case in the Calley trial, it was argued by the defense attorney – accorded a single day to prepare for his first court-martial — the soldiers had been given direct orders to reduce the number of prisoners taken to Pietersburg by summarily executing them, which was exactly what happened to POWs after an ambush of the Carboniers at a farmhouse reported to be a safe harbor for the Boers. After the bloody skirmish, the wounded Captain Hunt was brutalized and killed. One of the Boers arrested by British troops was wearing Hunt’s jacket, the sight of which enraged Morant when he came upon the column. The British officers conducting the court martial made sure that attorney Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) was completely hamstrung in his defense of the three Aussies and the execution of two of them took place less than 24 hours after they were found guilty.
Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald are terrifically effective in their portrayal of the defendants, never overplaying the hands dealt their characters or wringing unwarranted sympathy for them out of viewers. Thompson, one of the most popular of all Australian actors, was awarded the Best Supporting Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Thomas, whose frustration is palpable from the time his motion requesting more time to prepare his case is quashed. Beresford’s greatest achievement, however, was opening up Kenneth G. Ross’ play, “Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts,” as a way of putting the defendants’ actions into the larger context of a long, brutal and imperialistic war. The immensity of the remote and rugged Northern Transvaal is depicted in a way that helps viewers understand what happened in that then-remote corner of the planet, much in the same way as camera teams recorded the difficulties of fighting a war against a highly motivated and firmly entrenched enemy in Southeast Asia. In an interview included in the Criterion Collection edition, Beresford says that his intention wasn’t to make us feel undue sympathy for the defendants, but to ask “why men in war would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives.” This, of course, is the same question that troubles Americans whenever their men and women misbehave in combat. The supplemental features include commentary with Beresford; new interviews with Beresford, Brown and cinematographer Donald McAlpine; an archived interview with Thompson; a backgrounder on the Boer War, with historian Stephen Miller; Frank Shields’ 55-minute documentary, “The Breaker,” and the subsequent corrective, “The Myth Exploded”; and an illustrated leaflet, with an essay by Neil Sinyard.
Beresford would return to colonial Africa a decade later for Mister Johnson, a bittersweet drama based on Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel. Cary had joined the British colonial civil service in 1913 as someone dedicated to the idea that its colonies would be better served if their native populations adopted certain European ways of life. Cary’s opinions on the benefits of colonialism would change significantly during the more than two decades he spent in Africa. Set in British Colonial Nigeria, circa 1923, Mister Johnson tells the story of an educated black man with one foot in the European world and other in his homeland, where tribal leaders and Islamic clerics are vying with the Brits for control of the poor and illiterate natives. As portrayed with immense relish by first-timer Maynard Eziashi, the humorously Anglophilic Mr. Johnson plays a clerk who has ingratiated himself with the British district officer, Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), and merchants in a tiny village in the interior. The villagers take him seriously, but only as long as he provides them with incomes – however meager — and protection from the cruelty of the elders. What Johnson can’t do, however, is protect himself from being exploited by white men who consider him to be only a step or two removed from the bush, no matter the fancy store-bought clothes and pith helmet. As trained by missionaries, Johnson is clever enough to help the white men achieve their goals, among them the construction of a road connecting the village to the country’s primary highway. What he isn’t able to recognize, until it’s too late, are the ramifications of being over-confident in his ability to manipulate numbers and pushing a personal agenda. Bereford’s primary objective in Mister Johnson is to demonstrate what happens to a simple community when forced to adapt to outside rule, whether it’s from imams, missionaries or colonists. The director encountered problems of his own, filming in a post-colonial Nigeria that clearly wasn’t ready to embrace what many considered to be cultural exploitation. If it weren’t for the casting of an influential shaman, the production almost certainly would have become mired in such modern traditions as bribery, extortion, hostility and bad juju. As it is, though, the portrayal of traditional village at a pivotal juncture in the nation’s history seems hugely credible and respectful of cultural values. Mister Johnson apparently fell victim to skittish distributors, who feared that African-American audiences would consider the protagonist to be cartoonish. Eziashi’s portrayal is far more nuanced than one might expect, however. There are times when you can almost see the gears inside Johnson’s brain spinning feverishly to stay one foot ahead of his superiors and detractors. Brosnan keeps a tight rein on his portrayal of a civil servant, who benefits from his clerk’s machinations, but doesn’t want to be considered soft on the “nigs” when they take advantage of his humanity. The Blu-ray adds new interviews with Beresford, Brosnan, Eziashi and producer Michael Fitzgerald, and an illustrated leaflet, featuring critic Neil Sinyard’s essay “Off the Beaten Track.”
It’s with no small degree of trepidation that I make the leap from the sublime to the ridiculous, by grouping Turkey Shoot (a.k.a., “Escape 2000″ and “Blood Camp Thatcher”) together with the work of such a brilliant Australian artist as Beresford. Indeed, the newly upgraded edition of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s widely disowned grindhouse extravaganza is so deliciously vile that it makes such Ozploitation classics as Mad Max, The Cars That Ate Paris, Howling III: The Marsupials, Razorback, Mad Dog Morgan and Dead-End Drive-In seem tame. Made smack dab in the middle of the sub-genre’s golden age, Turkey Shoot is set in a post-apocalyptic “re-education” camp for hippies, radicals and “deviants” of all stripes. As was the case in all of the then-current women-in-prison flicks, the guards and warden are sadistic monsters, quick with the whip and never reluctant to slap the sass out of recalcitrant prisoners. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in the movie’s 80-minute length, which culminates in a terribly lopsided human turkey shoot. Turkey Shoot is every bit as gnarly as it sounds. What distinguishes it from such kindred flicks as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, Women in Cages and Black Mama, White Mama is a production history that almost defies description and the presence of Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man) and Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet). Unlike some of the actors, who probably were pleased to work with exploitation specialist Trenchard-Smith (Day of the Assassin), the non-Aussie stars always look as if they signed on to the project while strung out on heroin. In a story oft-repeated in the bonus interviews, the production lost about $700,000 of its $3.2-million budget two weeks before its start date, causing Trenchard-Smith to eliminate the first 15 pages of the approved script, a four-page helicopter chase scene and two weeks of its original 44-day schedule. Overnight, what began in the director’s mind as a gritty homage to “1984” became something else entirely. Depending on who’s telling the story, the $700,000 either was pulled back by a skittish investors or wagered on horses that might have keeled over before reaching the finish line. Recollections of Railsback and Hussey’s idiosyncratic behavior and demands, alone, are worth the price of a rental. The Severin restoration is far better than the movie deserves, but, that said, the bonus package is exemplary. It includes extended interviews with Trenchard-Smith, Railsback, Antony I. Ginnane, Lynda Stoner, Roger Ward, Gus Mercurio and Bob McCarron, taken from the Ozploitation documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood”; “The Ozploitation Renaissance,” a roundtable discussion with Trenchard-Smith, producer Antony I. Ginnane, and Ozploitation cinematographer Vincent Monton; the featurette, “Turkey Shoot: Blood & Thunder Memories”; commentary with Trenchard-Smith; an original trailer; and alternate title sequences from the “Escape 2000” and “Blood Camp Thatcher” editions.
Saint Laurent: Blu-ray
The way these things go, there soon could be as many documentaries and theatrical films about fashion designers as there are based on conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 and the Kennedy assassinations. In the last five years, alone, there have been three movies about Yves Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, at 71, in Paris. By then, his name had become his brand and his brand was as famous as any in the world of commerce. Less known, of course, was his personal story, which would have been difficult to invent, even out of whole cloth. Perhaps, as a concession to the times, Bertrand Bonello’s lush and colorful Saint Laurent – like Pierre Thoretton’s L’Amour Fou and Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent – goes beyond the runway and red carpets to document his personal and business relationships with his friends, business partners, employees and lovers. Foremost among them is Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent Couture House and, despite a rupture in their romantic relationship, longtime business associate. A few days before Saint Laurent died, of brain cancer, he and Bergé were joined in a civil union. Bonello has consistently demonstrated a high comfort level for sexually explicit subject matter — The Pornographer, House of Tolerance, Tiresi – and, without being particularly lurid or graphic, the same is true in Saint Laurent. At the height of his career, there was no more decadent environment in which to work and play than fashion design. And, of course, wherever celebrities partied, drug dealers and trend-obsessed freeloaders hovered like flies at a picnic. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in one movie or another, but Saint Laurent’s inability to cope with the clamor for his attention is compellingly presented here. At 150 minutes, though, anyone whose attention to fashion is limited to QVC and HSN, might want to take a pass on Saint Laurent. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background material.
In the Name of My Daughter: Blu-ray
At an age, 71, when her American peers have begun to pray for sitcom assignments, Catherine Deneuve continues to star in quality pictures made by influential directors. And, not just occasionally, either. Still one of the world’s great beauties, Deneuve has played prominent roles in a half-dozen movies in the past two years. The latest to reach our shores via Cohen Media Group is Andre Techine’s legal thriller, In the Name of My Daughter. The company imports more fresh and vintage products from Europe – at least four starring Deneuve, in the same period — than any company not involved with cheese or wine. In this fact-based story, she delivers a totally believable portrayal of Renée Le Roux, the très élégant owner of the Palais de La Mediterranée casino, in Nice. It is 1976 and her newly separated daughter, Agnès (Adèle Haenel), has returned from Africa to live at home. At the same time, Renee has begun to receive threats from the Corsican mafia, whose interest in casinos apparently has to do with laundering money. Meanwhile, Agnès has fallen in love with Maurice (Guillaume Canet), a lawyer who also serves as Renee’s business advisor. Maurice hopes to use the turmoil in Renee’s business to be promoted to the prestigious position of casino manager. Adding to her mother’s anxiety, Agnes demands access to her inheritance, which includes shares in the casino. After being passed over for the promotion, the très ambitious lawyer abandons Renee and conspires with Fratoni, the owner of a rival casino, to use Agnes’ financial interest in the Palais to topple her mother. Once the coup is complete, Agnes becomes estranged from her mother, who is humiliated in the press for the betrayal. When the already married philanderer, Maurice, loses interest in her clinging personality, it causes the insecure young woman to attempt suicide. None of this information should spoil anyone’s interest in In the Name of My Daughter, though, because it all leads to a mystery that, in real life, took 30 more years to unravel. It’s pretty solid stuff from Techine, one of France’s most versatile filmmakers (Unforgivable, The Girl on the Train). Among the movie’s considerable treats is Julien Hirsch’s splendid cinematography, which neatly captures the beauty of the Cote d’Azur and privileged lifestyles of its corrupted citizenry. The Blu-ray adds an interview with Guillaume Canet, whose slick interpretation of Harlan Coben’s best-selling mystery, “Tell No One,” became a sleeper hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
The American Dreamer: Dennis Hopper Documentary: Blu-ray
After appearing alongside kindred spirit James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, Dennis Hopper might have been expected to enjoy a long career in feature films, if not as leading man, then in highly visible supporting roles. Instead, for the next dozen years, he kicked around Hollywood doing guest spots in TV shows, ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “Petticoat Junction,” and only the occasional feature film. Hopper had been branded an “enfant terrible” — French for “more trouble than he’s worth” – and it never completely disappears. A temporary reprieve was granted in 1969, after Easy Rider tapped into a vein in the counter-cultural audience that studio executives had previously found impossible to raise. Finally allowed to write his own ticket, Hopper decided it might be fun to cash a million-dollar check from Universal to make a cocaine-fueled Western in Peru, which, at the time, was between contested by communist rebels and a military-led government. The Last Movie describes what happens after a tragic accident causes an interruption in a film shoot in a remote village and the natives decide to continue on with the Western, despite the absence of an American cast and crew, comprised largely of Hopper’s pals. They used sticks and other artificial material to create reasonable facsimiles of cameras and sound equipment. out of. Hopper’s stunt coordinator character, Kansas, had by then moved in with a local prostitute, but was summoned back to the faux set to explain the difference between the firearms used by actors and the real ones being shot by the villagers. Although Hopper’s edit of The Last Movie won the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival and the premise was sound, Universal executives demanded a rewrite to eliminate the arthouse conceits they believed would confound American genre fans. When he refused, Hopper and his pet project were effectively blackballed by studio brass for another 10 years, at least. Apart from a handful of interesting assignments in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan and a couple other foreign projects, the 1970s were a wash. While Hopper’s show-stopping portrayal of a stoned photographer in Apocalypse Now was unjustifiably ignored by Oscar voters, it effectively jump-started his career, allowing him to bounce between indie and mainstream pictures for most of the next 30 years. His atmospheric directorial adaptation of Charles Williams’ pulp-noir The Hot Spot received some excellent reviews and remains a popular distraction on premium cable networks.
Newly founded Etiquette Pictures, in collaboration with Vinegar Syndrome and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is making its presence known with a fully restored Blu-ray edition of The American Dream, Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s absorbing profile of an artist in extremis. Rarely seen since 1971, the quasi-documentary chronicles Hopper’s attempts to reshape The Last Movie, while living at his creative retreat in Taos, New Mexico. His marriage to the Mamas and the Papas’ thrush Michelle Phillips had just ended after eight halcyon days and he was free to indulge his passion for filmmaking, booze, pot, cocaine, groupies, assault rifles and powerful handguns – not necessarily in that order – in the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. The Taoes landmark once provided a haven for such writers and artists as D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Robinson and Una Jeffers, Florence McClung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Hunter Austin, Frank Waters and Jaime de Angulo. Based on the vérité evidence presented in The American Dreamer, the roomy estate might as well have been located in the Haight-Ashbury, across the street from Golden Gate Park, or re-dedicated Dennis’ Psychedelic Playhouse. Hopper is given plenty of time here to expand on his artistic principles, which don’t include reading books of any kind or adhering to adhere to commercially proven cinematic conventions. If one takes into account that he was stewed to the gills most of the time, the discourses can be enjoyed as a novelty, if nothing else. Within the context of the times, one can also forgive the groupies and hangers-on for being attracted to the historic setting, spectacular landscape, hot- and cold-running inebriants and proximity to stardom. How Hopper survived long enough to enjoy a second career resurgence, 10 years later, is a mystery that remains unanswered in the film. This home-video edition is enhanced by a new, director-approved 2K restoration, reconstructed from four 16mm prints housed in the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, as well as “Fighting Against the Wind,” a 30-minute making-of featurette; “A Long Way Home,” a seven-minute preservation featurette; an extensive photograph gallery; a booklet and essay by Chris Poggiali; and a reversible cover. (BTW: Carson would go on to write Paris, Texas, Breathless and, yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, while Schiller directed such fact-based films as The Executioner’s Song, The Plot to Kill Hitler and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenét and the City of Boulder.
We Are Kings
Theresa Is a Mother
Discovering the occasional gem stone in a fully mined quarry is roughly the equivalent of finding cinematic treasures in the forbiddingly large pile of movies mailed to critics every week. They’re there, but who has the time and patience to dig through all of them to find a keeper? When confronted with a similar mountain of entries, festival judges might give a movie 15 minutes to capture their fancy or be tossed out like a ringer on “The Gong Show.” (The academy’s documentary nominators used the same process, including a bell, until they were exposed in the “Hoop Dreams” scandal.) Sending out screeners can be an expensive gamble for distributors, so it isn’t unreasonable to ask editors of niche websites, at least, to assign genre specialists the task of sniffing out a potential sleeper. The ones that do have proven to be essential resources for fans and filmmakers, alike. As a generalist, I don’t consider myself to be an expert in anything, in particular, but I occasionally enjoy digging below the surface to find treasure among the dregs. If I enjoy a niche film, maybe someone else will, too.
To that end, anyone who’s spent any time in Chicago or Mississippi will understand the appeal of We Are Kings and how its message might resonate beyond the festival circuit. In Toby Hubner’s sophomore feature (Deep Toad), an elderly bluesman and his chanteuse wife are in serious danger of having the local bank foreclose on their blues bar in a small Mississippi Delta town. When the pressure builds to the breaking point, Lilly (Rita Graham), who’s also chief cook and bottle-washer, suffers a near-catastrophic heart attack that leaves her in a coma. Her guitarist husband, I.B. King (Sammy Blue) decides that their only hope lies in him hopping in their RV for a trip to Chicago, where he hopes to secure a record contract. Alas, because Chicago may be the only place on Earth where aspiring blues musicians outnumber Republican presidential candidates, his journey fails to bear fruit. What does occur along the way, however, are serendipitous meetings with three teenage musicians, who have been driven from their homes by parents and stepparents who lack the patience to subsidize their dreams of stardom any farther. King may be a cantankerous old sot, but he doesn’t mind the company and enjoys jamming with the kids, who demonstrate real talent. On the way back from the Windy City, I.B. lacks even the money necessary to pay for fuel, so they use the van’s loudspeaker to drum up business in small towns along the way. It isn’t easy, especially when police are put on the lookout for the runaways. Instead, Lilly offers supernatural guidance to I.B. and the teens from her hospital bed, allowing for a potential last-minute miracle. We Are Kings may push the limits of credulity, at times, but never past the breaking point. The musical interludes are delightfully lively and frequent enough to keep the plot from getting caught in a rut. I most enjoyed the respect shown to a musical genre that has been in danger of extinction for more than 50 years, but survives on the enthusiasm of musicians exactly like those we meet here. The Midwestern and Deep South landscapes also add to the fun.
I will admit to almost giving up on Theresa Is a Mother after the first 20 minutes, if only because the protagonist’s determination to become a punk-rock queen is based on an assumption of facts not in evidence. While it’s sometimes difficult to discern good punk-rock singing from bad, Theresa McDermott’s caterwauling wouldn’t be mistaken for singing in a Humane Society shelter. Neither would she ever be considered a candidate for mother-of-the-year honors, attempting to raise three young girls in a flophouse apartment in New York City. Out of money, Theresa (C. Fraser Press) reluctantly decides to move Upstate, into the house in which she was raised by a pair of truly kooky parents (Edie McClurg, Richard Poe). The arrangement is far from perfect, even if the parents cut Theresa plenty of slack for the sake of the children. Things come to a head, when a money-making scheme impacts the 13-year-son of a local banker. Naturally, Theresa calls on her eldest daughter to come to her rescue. It works, but in a way that couldn’t possibly have been expected. By pulling the boy out of his shell, the girl finds a reason not to give up hope for her own future. And, yes, the solution involves music. Blessedly, it is as far distant from punk, as Sardi’s was from CBGB. In addition to writing, co-directing (with her husband) and starring in Theresa Is a Mother, I have to assume that Press created the songs, as well. She deserves a lot of credit for convincing us – me, anyway – to hang in there with her characters.
Nightmare Weekend: Blu-ray
The Sentinel: Blu-ray
I’ve seen a lot of bad feature films in my time, some of them so bad that they’re a blast to watch. Released by Troma in 1986 after several rewrites, Nightmare Weekend is so appallingly bad that it redefines how crummy a movie can be and still rate as watchable, at least. (The aforementioned Turkey Shoot barely qualifies.) The antagonist of this incoherent mess, originally distributed by Troma, is the demented colleague of a “brilliant” scientist, who has created a super-computer with the ability of transforming juvenile delinquents into model citizens. The sorcerer’s apprentice, Julie (Debbie Laster) has plans of her own for the computer, which is controlled externally by a clairvoyant hand puppet named George. (Think, a malevolent escapee from “Mrs. Roger’s Neighborhood.”) In addition to allowing George to take control of moving vehicles – it borrows the screen imagery from ColecoVision’s home version of the Sega arcade classic, “Turbo” – the computer permits Julie to direct explosive spheroids at promiscuous teens and monitor the disastrous results using equipment that wouldn’t have been out of place in a “Flash Gordon” serial. Beyond that, I have no idea what we’re supposed to take away from Nightmare Weekend. As we learn in the bonus material, the film was shot in Florida by an international crew unfamiliar with the English language, under the direction of French soft-core specialist Henri Sala. All of the dialogue is dubbed, even the English spoken by American actors, and, judging from the rawness of their performances, the casting could have been conducted at Ocala-area biker bars and strip clubs. Of the women, only Andrea Thompson would enjoy an acting career beyond Nightmare Weekend … the highlights being a three-season stint on “NYPD Blue” and a short-lived job reading copy on “CNN Headline News.” If the movie was intended to be campy or hilariously rotten, none of the actors appear to have been in on the joke. On the plus side, few movies as incompetently made as Nightmare Weekend have been accorded the same kid-glove treatment as Vinegar Syndrome’s extreme makeover here. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes the uncut and R-rated versions — restored in 2k from original 35mm negatives – as well as nostalgic interviews with special-effects artist Dean Gates and producer Marc Gottlieb, and material edited to get a R rating.
Looking back on the pre-tentpole mid-1970s, the popular cinema is noteworthy primarily as the golden age of “spawn of Satan” thrillers. The trend probably began in 1968, with the commercial and critical success of Rosemary’s Baby, but really kicked into gear with The Exorcist, The Omen. Burnt Offerings and Carrie. By the time The Sentinel and The Legacy rolled out, the subgenre had pretty much played itself out, trumped by killer sharks and space cowboys. The Legacy was released into Blu-ray last week, mostly for the edification of buffs and completists. The Sentinel owes far more to Rosemary’s Baby, than to any of the other movies in which Satan was the incognito antagonist. Here, a model played by real-life supermodel Cristina Raines (Nashville) moves into a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that serves as the portal to hell. She doesn’t realize that anything is amiss, beyond the usual New York weirdness, until she is informed that the neighbors she meets at a party don’t actually exist. In fact, apart from a blind priest (John Carradine), the ghostly guests represent the souls of long-dead killers and other miscreants. Actually, the party scene remains a favorite of subscribers to Mr. Skin, for nude appearances by Raines, Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo, who are surrounded by various freaks and goons. Only the priest understands the horrors awaiting the model. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Raines, director Michael Winner (Death Wish) and writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz; an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton; and vintage marketing material. Look for cameos by Ava Gardner, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Arthur Kennedy, Deborah Raffin, José Ferrer, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, William Hickey and Jerry Orbach.
Secrets in the Fall
Beginner’s Bible: Volume 4
Searching for background information on Brittany Goodwin, writer and director of Secrets in the Fall and 2012’s Secrets in the Snow, I came across an interview in which the Raleigh-based filmmaker and musician cited the movies of John Hughes as a primary influence on her work. While Goodwin wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to be inspired by Hughes’ teen-themed comedies, she might be the only one to have made faith-based odes to The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Uncle Buck. Not having seen her first directorial effort, I can’t say one way or the other if Goodwin was successful in finding a creative link between “Breakfast Club” and her story about a group of students trapped inside of their school during a blizzard. It certainly wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, even if the boys and girls weren’t likely to share anything that would cross the boundaries separating family-friendly films with clear Christian messages and strictly secular entertainment. Secrets in the Fall was shot on location in a gorgeous mountain campground, near Hendersonville, N.C. The young campers participating in the weekend retreat at Camp Pinnacle may all be Christians – as strictly defined by those of the evangelical persuasion, at least – but some are more committed to the Lord than others. When a boy with identity issues runs away from the group, the campers band together not only to find him and keep him from harm, but also to help him find answers to his personal questions. And, he isn’t the only camper who needs to get right with Jesus. I can’t imagine Goodwin being too directly influenced here by Meatballs or Friday the 13th, all that’s really required of a movie set at a mountain retreat is a lake and campfire, both of which are prominently on display here. The Dove-approved Secrets in the Fall may not fit the tastes of all American teens, but, based solely on the recent success of the bible-thumping War Room, the audience for faith-based entertainment is willing to support movies that reflect their world view.
And, speaking of bibles, the fourth installment of Time Life’s animated series, “The Beginner’s Bible,” is newly available to parents interested in introducing their preschoolers to the events described in the Good Book. The producers have taken a simple, non-denominational approach to stories that someday may shape the way the kids live their lives. Besides full animation, the collections feature original music and the theme song by Kathie Lee Gifford. The new chapters are “Joseph & His Brothers,” “Daniel & the Lion’s Den,” “The Battle of Jericho” and “Jonah & the Whale.” The Old Testament overflows with blood, gore and righteous indignation, none of which find their way into “The Beginner’s Bible.”
Sundance: The Red Road: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Growing Up Trans
PBS: The Mystery of Matter: Search For the Elements
PBS: Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise
CPO Sharkey: Season 2
The Nanny: Season Four
Nickelodeon: The Adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants
Television can be a cruel medium, both for the producers of ongoing series and fans of shows that straddle the razor-thin line separating success and failure. There’s always a certain amount of suspense that begins to build as the end of every season approaches. While audiences prepare for the cliffhangers designed to keep them guessing over the summer, producers and actors sweat the very real possibility that their show might be canceled. Now that dozens of cable networks have begun to showcase original programming of their own, some of the more interesting borderline shows have successfully made the transition from airing on broadcast networks to being shown via cable, satellite and streaming outlets. Because “The Red Road” began its life on the niche-cable network SundanceTV, it isn’t likely that anyone else will pick it up, now that it’s been cancelled. This is bad news for lovers of off-the-beaten-track dramas that have opened doors for minority actors – in this case, Native Americans – to be cast in non-traditional roles. After a New Jersey tribe wins recognition from the federal government, it begins making plans to take possession and control of a lushly forested mountain, not all that far from New York City. To no one’s surprise, the white residents of Walpole, New Jersey — the nearest midsize town — aren’t anxious to relinquish land they’ve always used for hunting, fishing and other recreational purposes … and some nefarious ones, as well. For its part, the small, but tight-knit Ramapough Lunaape Nation now faces such challenges as policing its own people, dealing with extreme poverty and chronic illness, and deciding whether its leaders should listen to overtures about building a casino. Complicating things even further are the interpersonal relationships that are of soap-opera proportions. And, yes, there were plenty of cliffhangers left hanging when the show was cancelled. Who, then, should be interested in checking out the second-season compilation? Well, for one, any viewers who enjoyed Season One, but missed the final six episodes. Then, there’s anyone anxious to do some binging on two seasons’ worth of high-quality programming, with enough closure at the end of the second stanza to satisfy most folks. The bonus material includes two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
There could hardly be a timelier subject for exploration in a “Frontline” episode than the “new frontier” facing transgender youths. Observing the transition that Bruce Jenner so publicly underwent while becoming Caitlyn Jenner might lead one to assume that the issues probed in “Growing Up Trans” are trivial. Among the wealthiest and widely admired of people who’ve addressed the issue head-on, Jenner may not be the most relatable of role models, although his willingness to represent his/her LGBT peers certainly is admirable. It’s worth remembering that he’s far being the first high-profile person to have transitioned from one gender assignment to the other, just the most recent. Renee Richards took her fight for transsexual rights to the New York Supreme Court, in 1976, finally winning the right to play tennis professionally on the women’s tour. And, this was well before Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova decided that it was safe to exit the closet. Today, it’s difficult to find a television drama or sitcom that hasn’t added a transgender character or storyline. Kids in the same position face even greater obstacles than adults, however. They range from being disowned by church and family, to being tortured at school by fellow students and administrators who can’t even decide which bathrooms should be open to them. “Growing Up Trans” is told from the perspective of parents, doctors and eight transgender kids, ranging in age from 9 to 19. It was given extraordinary access to the gender program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where filmmakers Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor examined the complicated and often controversial treatments now available to gender non-conforming and transgender kids.
PBS’ “The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements” revisits a subject that many of us slept through in high school chemistry and physics lessons. The three-part mini-series employs dramatizations, backed by extensive scientific and historic research, to describe how alchemists stumbled upon methodology that would lead succeeding generations of scientists to identify, understand and organize the basic building blocks of matter. Actors impersonate such key players as Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, whose discovery of oxygen and radical interpretation of it led to the modern science of chemistry; Humphry Davy, who made electricity a powerful new tool in the search for elements; Dmitri Mendeleev, whose Periodic Table brought order to the growing gaggle of elements; Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking research on radioactivity cracked open a window into the atom; Harry Moseley, whose discovery of atomic number redefined the Periodic Table; and Glenn Seaborg, whose recovery of plutonium opened up a whole new realm of elements, still being explored today. None of this would be meaningful if viewers couldn’t stay awake past the opening credits. Host Michael Emerson, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor, helps us makes sense of the otherwise mystifying science.
Mozambique’s million-acre Gorongosa National Park may not be as widely recognized as the major safari destinations in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, but it’s not because government officials had much choice in the matter. A cruel civil war was fought from 1977 to 1992, ravaging the countryside and preventing the nation from experiencing any kind of growth. To keep from starving, along with countless other citizens caught in the crossfire, rebels treated the animals in the park as if they were livestock waiting to be devoured. Recovery efforts have been slow and uncertain, leaving the inventory of animals depleted and not always anxious to stop on the annual migrations or maintain historic breeding patterns. In PBS’ six-part “Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise,” American-born, African-raised cameraman Bob Poole chronicles the two years he spent living in the park, joining scientists and conservationists in the battle to “re-wild this once-legendary nature preserve.” Besides keeping an extensive film record of the existing wildlife population, Poole is shown here helping scientists dart and track the park’s elusive lions; decoding the behavior of the park’s often fickle elephants; studying massive crocodiles, which thrived due to the rebels’ aversion to their meat and sharp teeth; and helping transport herds of animals to replace the ones lost during the war. The cinematography is truly magnificent and it’s thrilling to watch Poole work his way into and out of harm’s way.
The archivists at Time Life begin their month-long celebration of Don Rickles’ contributions to televised entertainment with Season Two of the NBC sitcom, “CPO Sharkey,” in which Mister Warmth plays a chief petty officer stationed at the San Diego Naval Base, where he has been assigned the task of leading a group of raw recruits. In the second go-round, the show added two new characters. Captain Quinlan has been replaced by Captain Buck Buckner (Richard X. Slattery), a by-the-book former submarine captain; and recruit Apadoca (Phillip Simms). Buckner cringes at the thought of Sharkey hosting a Japanese CPO, and almost blows a gasket when a child is born in the barracks while crusading Congresswoman Bagley inspects the base. His girlfriend gives him an ultimatum. He deals with a bout of Russian flu. He trains Rocky-style for a boxing match with a rival Marine lunkhead. Sharkey gleefully bails out his guys by foiling a crooked used-car salesman. In October, look for “The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1” and “Mr. Warmth: The Ultimate Don Rickles TV Collection.”
In “The Nanny: Season Four,” Fran Drescher welcomes such guest stars as Bette Midler, Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson, Celine Dion, Jon Stewart, Jason Alexander and Joan Collins.
From Nickelodeon, “The Adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants” is distinguished by the complete collection of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episodes, available together for the first time.