Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne: Blu-ray
It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and a few other influential directors began championing movies previously dismissed as “too foreign” or mere genre specimens that it became possible for us to see how small distance between grindhouse and arthouse really was. The time had finally arrived when the restorer’s art and modern technology could be combined to reverse the clock on movies ravaged by time, indifference and neglect. As the DVD and Blu-ray revolution took hold, distribution companies, almost certainly inspired by the high-end success of Criterion Collection, formed to feed the demand for obscure cult, experimental and genre classics. Digital software and old-fashioned TLC eliminated the scratches, artifacts and careless edits that helped contribute to the near demise of VHS cassettes, even as long-lost reels and snippets of valuable footage were being discovered in basements and lockers around the planet. Once a market for such arcana was established on DVD, it became possible for the addition of more learned commentary, background featurettes, deleted scenes and interviews than was possible with laserdiscs. The corporate pioneers of DVD only foresaw bonus packages comprised of original trailers and foreign language tracks. It wasn’t until the filmmakers themselves embraced DVD and Blu-ray that everything else came to pass.
Arrow Video’s truly revelatory reclamation of Walerian Borowczyk’s 1981 Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is representative of the British company’s dedication to restoration, education and collaborations with the growing number of academic institutions tilling the same gardens. Born and educated in Poland, Borowczyk would immigrate to France in 1959 and settle in Paris, where he was free to focus on painting, lithography, cinema posters and various schools of animation. Ten years later, he would become a leading figure in the re-invention of pornography as a vehicle for artistic and social expression. Not surprisingly, his surrealistic ideas and hard-core visions didn’t always correspond to the demands of the marketplace. It explains why Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, under one of its many different titles and edits, failed to find an appropriate audience for its outrageous blend of horror and eroticism. Despite earning Borowczyk the Best Feature Film Director distinction at the 1981 Sitges Film Festival, mainstream exhibitors weren’t anxious to promote controversy that comes with such borderline material, thus consigning it to theaters on the fringes of respectability. Not surprisingly, the raincoat-wearing crowd displayed little patience for the narrative and artistic interludes between sex scenes, which, themselves, were more perverse than titillating. After being chopped, channeled, censored and renamed, Borowczyk’s adventurous adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s time-honored novella was shelved and largely forgotten. In it, Udo Kier plays the infamous London doctor with a decidedly split personality as a considerably younger man, about to be married to the lovely Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), a name inspired by Stevenson’s own wife. The couple has invited several guests to a party at Jekyll’s intricately designed mansion to announce their betrothal. Meanwhile, Hyde makes his presence known in a series of rapes and murders in and around the house. Obsessed with “transcendental medicine” and its relationship to the current fascination with empiricism, Jekyll is experimenting with a substance that, when added to water, allows Mr. Hyde to take control of his personality, turning him into a sexually insatiable sadist. The kicker here is his fiancé’s mad desire to experience the same urges.
Unlike Stevenson and previous adapters, Borowczykq refused to introduce women simply as victims. Fanny’s willingness to experience the same pains and pleasures of her lover’s curse – harkening to the Countess Elizabeth Báthory and her taste for blood baths – didn’t feel out of place in the nascent post-feminist ‘80s. There’s more to the story, of course, but the beautifully shot movie defies easy summarization. For that, viewers are invited to stay tuned for the several informative featurettes analyzing the director’s visual influences (including Vermeer), Bernard Parmegiani’s avant-garde musical soundtrack and evolution as a filmmaker who some would dismiss as a pornographer with pretentions of glory. The Blu-ray and DVD presentation is impeccable, adding English and French soundtracks and optional English SDH subtitles; a somewhat dry, but informative introduction by critic Michael Brooke; audio commentary, featuring archival interviews with Borowczyk, Kier, Pierro and producer Robert Kuperberg, and new interviews with cinematographer Noël Véry, editor Khadicha Bariha, assistant Michael Levy and filmmaker Noël Simsolo; more interviews and visual essays; Marina and Alessio Pierro’s short, “Himorogi,” and the recently re-discovered “Happy Toy,” inspired by Borowczyk’s interest in Charles-Émile Reynaud’s Praxinoscope; a reversible sleeve with artwork based on Borowczyk’s own poster design; and a booklet with new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archive materials, illustrated with rare stills.
Last month, Arrow released the terrific 1967 Japanese film noir, Massacre Gun, as part of its first wave of restored Blu-ray titles for American consumption. Its director, Yasuharu Hasebe (Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter), and popular action star, Jo Shishido (Gate of Flesh), would re-teamed a year later in Nikkatsu’s color classic, Retaliation. It harkens to a time in the 1960s when Japanese farmers were pitted against corporate, federal and gangland interests for the control of their lush fields just outside Tokyo. The country’s post-war recovery didn’t make allowances for farmers whose crops were being grown the same way and in the same places for countless generations. Planes now carrying American tourists and business executives to Japan are landing and departing over those same fields, now covered by concrete. Here, three different gangs are battling not only for the negotiating rights to the farmland, but also control of vice in a nearby industrial district. Major star Akira Kobayashi (Black Tight Killers) plays a yakuza lieutenant, who, after serving an eight-year bit in stir, returns home to find his godfather’s power completely compromised and no one immune from back-stabbing, deceit and less-than-honorable behavior. Shishido plays the rival gangster waiting to kill him in retaliation for the death of his brother and the similarly popular Meiko Kaji (Lady Snowblood) is the farmer’s daughter who gets caught in the crossfire.
Hasebe pulled out all of the stops for Retaliation and keeping track of the gangsters in this operatic drama requires a sharp eye, if not a scorecard. His roving, handheld camera offers a different perspective on yakuza action, preferring a raw and intimate examination of the costs of violence, including rape. (A home-erotic bromance is suggested, as well.) Although a genre film from a studio that embraced both traditional exploitation themes and overt sexploitation, Retaliation never looks as if it had produced on an assembly line or could be accused of taking shortcuts to save money. Arrow’s limited-edition Blu-ray (3000 copies) includes the restored high-definition edition and standard-definition DVD presentation; the original uncompressed mono audio, newly translated English subtitles, fresh interviews with Jô Shishido and critic/historian Tony Rayns, the original theatrical trailer, a gallery with rare promotional images, a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by Ian MacEwan and a booklet featuring new writing on the film by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp.
Make Way for Tomorrow: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Jamaica Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
And, while we’re on the subject of film restoration, it’s easy to believe that the absence of movies in which elderly people are allowed authentically romantic feelings for each other is something new. The pristine classics we enjoy on TMC may play to an older demographic, but the characters are often cross-generational. (Bogie and Bacall, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, among them.) If On Golden Pond became a sensation in large part by pairing Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in a December-December relationship, it would take another 31 years for festival audiences and jurors to raise the profile of the aching French drama, Amour, for mainstream consumption. By comparison to the actors in those films, the romantic leads of 2014’s Love Is Strange — Alfred Molina and John Lithgow – are spring chickens. Leo McCarey’s rarely seen 1937 jewel, Make Way for Tomorrow, was far more admired by the director’s peers than studio heads and audiences, who much preferred such crowd-pleasers as Duck Soup, An Affair to Remember, The Bells of St. Mary’s and Going My Way. (According to Hollywood legend, when McCarey received his 1937 Best Director Oscar for The Awful Truth, he alluded to Make Way for Tomorrow by saying he got it for the wrong film.) Made at the height of the Great Depression, Make Way for Tomorrow tells the all too real story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore) separated after the old man is released from his longtime job as a bookkeeper and their home is repossessed by their bank. They reluctantly agree to live apart in the homes of two of their four children, where, at least, they’ll have company and some comfort for their ills. Unlike Ma and Pa Joad, Barkley and Beulah aren’t trading one economic disaster for another, though. Their children are surviving the Depression very well, thank you, and in comfortable surroundings. The greatest inconvenience comes when a teenage daughter is required to share her room with Grannie and an illness causes Gramps to take over the master bedroom. Long-distance phone calls are still a luxury, however, and the postal service takes its merry time delivering correspondence. Although things remain civil in their adopted homes, it soon becomes clear that the situation is too far from ideal to please anyone.
When Gramps is instructed to move to California for his health, the daughter we haven’t met on screen tells him that she only has room for him. His wife, meanwhile, has agreed to move into a pleasant senior residence. Before parting again at the train station, possibly forever, they are allowed nearly a full day together in the city, during which they relive memories of their honeymoon. Instead of cluttering their time with madcap Manhattan misadventures or cheap melodrama, McCarey permits them as satisfying an interlude as anyone could hope to experience in Gotham. The small surprises not only delight the couple, but also leave the door open for a happy ending … or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The film’s emotional pulse is so different from movies of the period – today, too – that it catches us off-guard … like a German comedy or Chinese Western. Indeed, it’s said that Yasujirô Ozu’s universally admired Tokyo Story was inspired by Make Way for Tomorrow, in that it recognized the cusp separating time-honored Japanese family structure and post-war indifference to traditions. Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that the film “would make a stone cry” and I have no reason to challenge that observation. The Blu-ray upgrade adds “Tomorrow, Yesterday and Today,” a worthwhile 2009 interview with Bogdanovich; another with critic Gary Giddins, in which he discusses McCarey’s artistry within the political and social context of the film; and a booklet featuring essays by critic Tag Gallagher and filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, and an excerpt from Robin Wood’s 1998 “Leo McCarey and Family Values.”
In his review for the New York Times, Frank S. Nugent predicted that Jamaica Inn “will not be remembered as a Hitchcock picture, but as a Charles Laughton picture.” Immediately after completing his adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier drama – the first of three – Hitch moved his tack from England to America, where he already was a known quantity. Nugent wasn’t attempting to dissuade readers from checking out the picture, only cautioning against expecting “those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor (and) the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize his best pictures.” That review may have run in 1939, but his opinions still hold true today. Because Laughton owned half of the production company, he was going to portray the wicked and oily squire who benefitted most from the plunder of shipwrecks off the rocky Cornwall coast, circa 1800. The pirates who did the dirty work didn’t resemble those working the Caribbean, but having distressed ships come to them was generally a safer proposition. Laughton discovery Maureen O’Hara plays the naïve young woman, who, after losing her parents, travels to Cornwell to live with her aunt. No sooner is her trunk thrown up the staircase of the Jamaica Inn to her room than she is drooled upon by the lascivious squire – a naughty vicar in the novel, but changed to pass Hollywood censors — and finds herself stuck in the web of violence and deceit that made the place notorious. It doesn’t take long for the spunky country girl to adjust to her new environment and discover an ally, but Laughton wasn’t about to be overshadowed by the ingénue, her rescuer or Hitchcock, for that matter. The result is a movie that can be relished in the same way that we enjoy other period classics in which the star is allowed free reign. Cohen Media’s splendid 4K restoration adds commentary with historian Jeremy Arnold and the essential featurette, “Shipwrecked in a Studio: A Video Essay With Donald Spoto.”
Mad Max: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
These Final Hours: Blu-ray
When Mad Max: Fury Road opens around the world this week, it will benefit from a marketing campaign several dozen times greater than the entire cost of making, advertising and distributing the Oz-ploitation classic, more than 35 years ago. Actual production costs for the fourth installment in the hugely popular and influential franchise are so much greater than what was available to co-writer/director George Miller that it’s permissible now for older fans to wonder if success might spoil “Fury Road.” Some mainstream pundits rated the far more lavish Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome higher than the original Mad Max and its immediate sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, while others found that extra dollars and its “Lord of the Flies” conceit more than a little bit off point. Still, as the trilogies go, Miller’s holds up better critically than “The Godather” trio. I know that the primary audience for “Fury Road” is likely not to be the Boomers who found something fresh and exciting in the post-apocalyptic asphalt-burner – one of the first – but the Boomlets who launched the “Fast & Furious” franchise into the stratosphere and might relish seeing it in 3D. It’s unlikely that the “Furious” soon-to-be octet would exist without Mad Max or H.B. Halicki’s even earlier high-octane/low-budget actioner, Gone in 60 Seconds, so I strongly recommend to newcomers that they pick up the hi-def Scream Factory edition asap. (Try Roger Donaldson’s kiwi follow-up, Smash Palace, too.) What I think they’ll be surprised to see is a cinematic vision this is so spare and unpretentious that it might have been churned out by Roger Corman’s exploitation mill. Indeed, it practically looks pre-apocalyptic. It might also be interesting for them to watch Mel Gibson, before he achieved A-list status and, later, destroyed his career by allowing alcohol to reveal his barely submerged inner demons. There simply was no way Gibson, in only his second feature, wasn’t going to become a superstar. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Gibson, co-star Joanne Samuel and DP David Eggby; vintage featurettes “Mel Gibson: The Birth of a Superstar” and “Mad Max: The Film Phenomenon”; a photo gallery; and commentary with Eggby, art director Jon Dowding and special-effects artists Chris Murray and David Ridge. And, no, this isn’t the version of Mad Max for which perfectly intelligible Australian English was dubbed over by the voices of American actors. That bonehead decision nearly killed the appeal of the movie in its first U.S. release.
When viewed from certain angles, Zak Hildtich’s latter-days thriller, These Final Hours resembles a prequel to Mad Max. A giant comet is seen streaking across the sky, heading for points unknown. Minutes later, we hear that the resultant fire storm is destroying the planet one time zone at a time. Perth, being the “most remote city on Earth,” is likely to be the setting for mankind’s last roundup. Already, residents are settling old scores, committing ritual suicide, praying on street corners and having sex … lots of it. The highways aren’t yet flooded with cars carrying desperate souls attempting to escape the final holocaust. Where would they go? James (Nathan Phillips) faces the dilemma of choosing to die with his pregnant lover, Rose (Angourie Rice), in her oceanfront pad, or making his way cross-town to a friend’s “epic” party, where his fiancé Vicky (Kathryn Beck) and several dozen other hard-core Aussie hedonists are snorting, smoking, screwing, swimming, chugging and playing Russian roulette to while away their final hours. Naturally, James picks the latter. Before he gets there, however, James saves a pre-teen girl from being raped by thugs who resemble members of the motorcycle gang in Mad Max. Uncharacteristically, he commits himself to helping Rose (Angourie Rice) locate her father at a designated meeting place. When that doesn’t happen, James brings Rose to the party, where an ancient hippie chick plies her with a mind-altering substance. The message being delivered here is that even facing imminent death, seriously debauched individuals, like James, can achieve something resembling redemption … or not. These Final Hours benefits from cinematographer Bonnie Elliott’s overriding hazy yellow light and Hildtich’s ability to pull emotional strings most other low-budget dystopian thrillers ignore, preferring instead to add more zombies to the mix. Neither does he cop out at the film’s end.
Beloved Sisters: Blu-ray
At 171 minutes, Dominik Graf’s speculative biopic of Weimar writer/historian Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller would test the endurance of most graduate students in German cultural history, especially those living outside the borders of whatever Reich it is that country is currently enjoying. Fortunately for everyone involved, Beloved Sisters isn’t intended for scholarly analysis or strict adherence to known truths. Instead, it is an epic romance that demands little more than our attention. When Schiller first met Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld, they were living a relatively frugal life as lower aristocrats in Rudolstadt, an artistic mecca in the central state of Thuringia. Already a controversial playwright and accomplished poet, Schiller affects the garb and genial demeanor of a carefree rover who thrives as much on romance as air and water. Although Charlotte is already committed in an unhappy marriage to a local courtier, both sisters dote on Schiller to the point where he rarely lacked for love … or, as is implied by Graf, intimacy. He had a wealthy lover on the side, as well, but the sisters’ irresistibility radiates from the screen. Once Schiller settles into a professorship at the University of Jena, and Christine delivers their first of four children, things take a sharp turn in the direction of melodrama and strident conflict. What really sells Beloved Sisters, however, is Graf’s good fortune in being able to stage his story in urban and natural settings that haven’t changed much, if at all, in the last 225 years. Many of the locations are quite beautiful, too. Florian Stetter, Henriette Confurius and Hannah Herzsprung are quite convincing as the three sides of a literary love triangle. (Surprisingly, for all the ripping, only a single pair of nipples manages to escape a bodice and neither aureole belongs to the sisters.) The Blu-ray takes full advantage of the region’s natural beauty and arrives with a decent making-of featurette.
Back in 1995, when Robert Jan Westdijk’s Little Sister became a sensation on the international festival circuit, the idea of shooting a movie simply from the point of view of a subjective camera operator was fresh and daring. The Blair Witch Project was still four years away from taking the video world by storm and very few people remembered that Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust had been the first out of the gate, in 1980, purportedly comprised of found video footage left behind by a news team that disappeared in the Amazonian rain forest. Today, of course, it’s the rare POV or found-footage film that is capable of holding our interest for more than 10 minutes. Once we know how the trick is done, after all, it’s no longer capable of surprising us. Here, on the occasion of her 20th birthday, Martin pays a visit to his sister Daantje’s Amsterdam apartment. At first, she reacts to the camcorder in her face as if it’s a weasel awaiting the first opportunity to rip her flesh. After much prodding, Daantje begins accept Martin’s constant presence and annoying personality. He follows her to a class at fashion school and a party that only ends when everyone has passed out. It’s also used to collect evidence against Daantje’s boyfriend. Finally, the real moment of horror arrives when the point of view is reversed and Daantje takes control of the camera. We’ve already been tipped as to what’s coming, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing. In the case of Little Sister, anyway, being first does have its advantages.
Now that this year’s fight of the century is fading from memory – except for the unhappy punters and PPV viewers unaware of the loser’s bum shoulder – it’s probably a good time for fans of the “sweet science” to remind themselves why they cared about the match, in the first place. Bert Marcus’ compelling, if celebrity-burdened documentary, Champs, goes a long way toward answering their questions, without also addressing one of the sport’s most pressing concerns. And, no, it has nothing to do with concussions, dubious judging or Don King, none of which are ignored by the filmmaker. By focusing so much attention on Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and the fighters who challenged them in their prime, I was left wondering why the heavyweight division is so much less interesting today than the one unified two weeks ago by Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s victory over Manny Pacquaio. Both welterweights weighed in at roughly 145 pounds, practically guaranteeing a more entertaining fight than any heavyweight skirmish in recent memory. Middleweight Bernard Hopkins, the other great boxer featured in Champs, normally carried between 155-160 pounds, even as a light heavyweight. A popular champion, Hopkins debuted as a pro on November 10, 1988 and was still drawing a paycheck in the ring last November 8, when he was defeated by the Russian light heavyweight champ, Sergey Kovalev. With the money potentially available to a serious American heavyweight contender, it remains curious as to why so few currently exist. By recalling the careers and travails of Tyson and Holyfield – as well as the excitement that surrounded their fights – Marcus pretty much repeats everything we already know about their careers. Hearing the former champs tell their own stories so candidly adds a great deal to the presentation. Hopkins’ escape from a life cursed by poverty and crime echoes the stories of hundreds of other American fighters — from a dozen different ethnic backgrounds — since Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Champs features clips from classic bouts, as well as the colorful observations of journalists, educators and such high-profile fans as Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Spike Lee and Mary J. Blige.
Stay As You Are
Frequently, in Italian films of the 1970s, the line separating exploitation and more artistic endeavor was blurred to the point of non-existence. That’s partly because of the commercial appeal of movies featuring women who were as beautiful fully clothed as they were naked, and directors whose talent exceeded the demands of genre work. There are times in the beginning of Alberto Lattuada’s 1979 erotic drama, Stay As You Are, when the music and seemingly gratuitous nudity recall giallo pictures from earlier in the decade. On closer inspection, however, it doesn’t seem likely that Marcello Mastroianni and composer Ennio Morricone would, at this point in their careers, lend their considerable talents to a project designed simply to titillate arthouse audiences. The presence of a barely 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski is easily explained by the fact that she already was a celebrity in Europe for following in the footsteps of her father Klaus. She already was in Rome during the casting process and on the fast track to international success in Tess, Cat People, One From the Heart, The Moon in the Gutter, Unfaithfully Yours and Paris, Texas. And, of course, she wasn’t at all shy about disrobing on screen. Here, Kinski’s perfectly suited for the role of a college student who either truly prefers dating way-older men or simply gets off on toying with their neuroses about growing old. Mastroianni, plays Giulio Marengo, a landscape architect who reluctantly allows himself to be seduced by the beautiful Francesca after meeting slightly cute at a Florentine historical site. Still extremely handsome at 55, Giulio is estranged from his wife and vulnerable to temptation, if not from Francesca then from her equally game roommate. What begins as a setup for a randy erotic comedy takes a sudden turn for the perverse when Giulio learns from a friend that his new girlfriend might be the lovechild of an old girlfriend and, by extension, his daughter. When he informs Francesca of this possibility, she doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it … or, at least, not as bothered as we are. Lattuada, whose credits by now included Mafioso, Variety Lights (with Federico Fellini), La steppa and Oh, Serafina!, was able to leave viewers with an ending that didn’t require taking a shower after seeing it. Besides the joy of watching Mastroianni in a meaty role, accompanied by Morricone’s music, we’re also treated with location shots of Florence’s Piazza San Giovanni, Piazza San Marco, Villa La Pietra and Boboli Gardens. The Blu-ray extras include the “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack” and an optional English-language or Italian-language track with English subtitles. I suggest the latter.
There aren’t many decisions that viewers anticipate with greater anxiety than when a movie’s bipolar antagonist decides it’s OK to discontinue taking his or her meds. That’s what happens in Mona Fastvold’s debut feature, The Sleepover, a four-character psychosexual drama that keeps getting creepier as it goes on … until, at the end, it doesn’t. Newlyweds Kaia and Andrew are restoring her family’s sprawling and secluded rural home when their routine is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of Kaia’s emotionally disturbed sister, Christine, and her boyfriend Ira. It doesn’t take us long to figure out that the sisters share a bizarre, possibly violent history and it’s possible that the worst is yet to come. For one thing, Christine is a somnambulist who doesn’t seem to have any control over what happens when she’s on her late-night prowls. The more we get to know about the sisters, the likelihood grows that something truly messed up is going to happen within the handsomely mounted film’s 91-minute duration. The tension between the women brings out the worst in Andrew, whose hair-trigger temper doesn’t allow much room for behavior he can’t predict or control. Ira doesn’t appear to understand what’s going on with his pregnant girlfriend, let alone be able to prevent her disappearances. All we know for sure is that whatever happened in that same house when they were kids is on the verge of happening again. The spooky mood is enhanced by the many scenes that take place at night and Sondre Lerche’s atmospheric score. Without revealing anything that happens in the final half-hour, I can safely predict that as many viewers will be disappointed by the ending as are satisfied. I’d also be willing to bet that Fastvold’s next effort will be something that finds wider release and be greeted with anticipation by critics. The DVD adds a Q&A conducted at Sundance, where the movie debuted in 2014.
The Drownsman: Blu-ray
Chad Archibald, director of the surprisingly chilling straight-to-DVD thriller, The Drownsman, includes in his helming credits the CTV documentary series, “Creepy Canada,” which took viewers to places even the Mounties fear to dread. Writer Cody Calahan is listed as art director for a bizarre reality-based series, “Canada’s Worst Driver,” that ran on Discovery Channel Canada. I don’t know when low-budget horror films officially overtook improv comedians as Canada’s leading export to the U.S., but what began as a trickle has become a deluge. At one time, these tax-incentive projects betrayed their origins as clearly as a maple-leaf patch on the backpack of a Canadian hoping not to be mistaken for an American while hitchhiking through Europe. Today, the actors are as self-assured as their contemporaries in Hollywood and much more care is given to eliminating such obvious production “tells” as the unique sound of police sirens and look of their uniforms; clearly foreign street signs; and the tell-tale pronunciation of certain vowel combinations. Streets still look cleaner there, I suppose. The Drownsman is about a young woman, Madison (Michelle Mylett), who, after falling into a lake, comes face to face with a dreadlocked monster that resembles a cross between the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Swamp Thing. She is so freaked out by this encounter that she locks herself in her room for a year and avoids all water. When Madison even goes so far as to ignore her best friend’s wedding, she is forced to undergo something resembling an “intervention.” During it, something is triggered within the humanoid beast that causes him to target all of the women, not just Madison. The Drownsman is shot in exceedingly dark tones, with light supplied by candles and the light from drowning tanks in the creature’s lair. There is a backstory to this madness, but it’s so unlikely that it can be easily ignored. Genre buffs have been quick to point out the similarities (a.k.a., homages) here to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, while also praising Archibald’s fresh approach to the material. As the serial killer turned supernatural psychopath, Ry Barrett is plenty scary.
Inspired, perhaps, by the Butcher Brothers (The Violent Kind), Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz adopted the nom de plume, The Vicious Brothers, for Grave Encounters (I & II) and Extraterrestrial. The difference between these filmmakers and, say, the Coens, the Hughes, Wachowskis and Polishes, is that they aren’t siblings or particularly evil. Extraterrestrial begins as a cabin-in-the-woods thriller, but ends up in a UFO, piloted by creatures that fit the accepted profile of the Roswell and “ET” aliens. Just as viewers are getting used to the likelihood that most or all of the archetypal cabin-dwellers are going to perish in the woods during the course of the weekend, a fireball streaks across the night sky. Now, for all we know, the flaming starship could be carrying the entire stable of Universal monsters, a shitload of alien zombies or a collection of slasher killers from the 1980s. Unable to contain their curiosity, the campers discover an alien spacecraft and indications that the passengers are still out there, somewhere. The ending may not surprise everyone, but those new to one or both of the subgenres will have better luck getting off on it. Michael Ironside is the most prominent cast member, although Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, Melanie Papalia, Jesse Moss and Emily Perkins probably have fans of their own, especially those of the Canadian persuasion. The Blu-ray adds a reversible wrap with alternative artwork, commentary tracks by the Vicious Brothers and actors Brittany Allen and Melanie Papalia, the featurette “The Making of Extraterrestrial” and deleted scenes.
A meteor also figures prominently into the truly goofy made-for-cable thriller, Icetastrophe (a.k.a., “Christmas Icetastrophe”), which borrows effects, characters and stereotypes from nearly every Syfy disaster movie ever made. At the very least, this means that residents of a small town in a picturesque corner of British Columbia are subjected to dangerous objects falling from the sky, other mysterious objects breaking through fissures in the streets and pretty young scientists from a nearby university joining forces with buff local lawmen and/or park rangers to save humanity. Veteran director Jonathan Winfrey (Carnosaur 3: Primal Species) and writer David Sanderson (Zodiac: Signs of the Apocalypse) only required one unique conceit to differentiate Icetastrophe from dozens of other Syfy titles. Here, the meteor splits in two above a small town in the shadow of a mountain, putting the town and its lake into a deep freeze. It mimics the effects of Ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” and the superpower of Mr. Freeze, in various Bat-man and DC titles. The crystallization of buildings, streets and humans can be immediate or take its merry time, as when a motorboat carrying two of the protagonists are attempting to outrun the ice on the lake. As also tends to occur in these movies, two young lovers separated by circumstances or parental interference must come together to save themselves and the town. The effects here are low-budget even by cable-television standards, but that probably won’t prevent younger teens from enjoying it.
The Vatican Exorcisms
An Irish Exorcism
At a time when Pope Francis is making new friends for the Church around the world with his progressive views on human rights and other social issues, he’s also been surprisingly candid on the iffy subject of exorcism. Now, while I think there’s sufficient evidence to argue that Satan possesses several world leaders, Wall Street financiers, hardened criminals, studio executives and pedophiliac clergy, rarely are they the subject of movies and documentaries about exorcism. Typically, it’s the domain of unruly children, disobedient wives and incessantly barking dogs. Earlier this month, Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 25 years, suggested that practitioners of yoga and fans of such fantasy novels and TV shows as “Harry Potter,” “True Blood” and “The Vampire Diaries,” might be opening themselves to possession. He’s previously cautioned against satanic sects within the Diocese of Rome and cabals of Freemasons. Somebody has to do it. This week, a pair of unrelated DVDs, The Vatican Exorcisms and An Irish Exorcism, have arrived in my mail, purporting to tell the truth about the current state of the practice. While neither is particularly convincing, they are harbingers of a tsunami of new straight-to-DVD faux-cumentaries on the subject. I’d have preferred seeing a mass exorcism of priests accused of crimes against parishioners and only recently acknowledged by the Vatican.
I’d have given more credence to The Vatican Exorcisms if the Italian-American filmmaker, Joe Marino, didn’t remind me so much of Father Guido Sartucci. Fans of “The Smothers Brothers Show” and earlier editions of “SNL” will remember Sarducci as comedian Don Novello’s chain-smoking gossip columnist and rock critic for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Sarducci is more credible than any of the priests interviewed in these movies. Nonetheless, Marino traveled to Rome accompanied by Padre Luigi, “a true exorcist,” and the south of Italy, described as a place where “Christian rituals are inextricably linked to the pagan ones.” I’m all for legitimate exorcisms, but suspect that Satan would notice a full camera and audio crew documenting one of his earthly manifestations. By watching a couple of episodes of “60 Minutes,” Marino would have realized that a hidden camera is more likely to produce results than a hand-held camera and sound boom.
An Irish Exorcism is less about the attempt to rid a tormented child of demonic possession than it is about anthropology student Lorraine (Aislinn Ní Uallacháin) and her half-assed approach to recording an exorcism for her final paper. A comely lass, Lorraine convinces a pair of local priests to sit for interviews about an exorcism they’ll perform soon on a local girl, Lisa, who’s either truly possessed or has watch The Exorcism too many times. Naturally, we’re required to endure watching the negotiations and interviews from the point of view of the production crew. If Dante Alighieri were to return to Earth today, he’d devise a way for sinners to be further punished by forcing them to watch an endless loop of POV shows and found-footage movies, such as An Irish Exorcism, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Duck Dynasty.” A special place would be reserved for horror flicks that aren’t scary. Somewhere, Linda Blair is spinning in her split-pie soup.
How come I wasn’t surprised to learn that the co-director of Who Is Henry Jaglom? also has given us Magical Universe, the strangely compelling bio-doc of an elderly artist in Maine who’s spent most of his life creating elaborate dioramas featuring Barbie dolls in a staggering number of poses, outfits and situations. It took 10 years for Jeremy Workman and his girlfriend, Astrid, to capture the essence of Al Carbee, an 88-year-old outsider artist, who, when he isn’t in the company of Barbie, writes fancifully drawn screeds about himself and whatever else is on his mind. Carbee’s work has been exhibited in a gallery in Portland, but I can’t recall any mention of sales. (He died owing several credit-card companies a small fortune in unpaid debts.) There’s no questioning the artist’s sincerity or talent, however singular, or Workman’s personal affection for Carbee and his eccentricities. Viewers, though, may get the feeling that he’s spent way too much time alone, tending his thousands of guppies in his spare moments. After so many years as a recluse, Carbee clearly fell in love with Workman’s camera. Another fascinating aspect of the artist’s life is his seemingly ramshackle home, which has hidden caverns and makes Pee-wee’s playhouse look like Romper Room. The DVD adds background material and outtakes.
It seems like a hundred years have passed since the original Jurassic Park captured the world’s attention with its wonderfully imaginative and strangely lifelike depictions of dinosaurs specifically cloned to populate a theme park for the enjoyment of kids of all ages. Steven Spielberg made anxious viewers wait a while before revealing the first breathtaking panorama of the park, with its many different dinosaurs peaceably assembled in the kind of idyllic setting only Hawaii could provide. He would make us hold our breaths even longer for the pivotal scene in which the park’s alpha T-Rex arrives, adding a palpable taste of horror to the speculative fiction first imagined by Michael Crichton in novel. Scientists have learned so many more things about dinosaurs in the ensuing 22 years that one can hardly wait to see if the Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World team has been able to make the same exponential leap forward in the art of creating cinematic dinosaurs. Dinosaur Island is a smallish, low-budget adventure for kids that features CGI dinosaurs that would have stunned audiences in advance of Jurassic Park. Compared to Avatar and other such visual extravaganzas, though, Matt Drummond’s film is the cinematic equivalent of small potatoes. As far as I can tell, it went straight-to-DVD overseas and wasn’t even accorded the decency of a limited theatrical release in the U.S. The fact is, Dinosaur Island is small potatoes. It tells the story of a 13-year-old boy, who, on his way to visit his father, finds himself stranded on an island in the South Pacific that’s populated with dinosaurs and other creatures, amazing vegetation, aboriginal tribes, a graveyard for 707s and a girl who’s been stranded there for several years. Parents who watched adults being attacked by velociraptors and a T-rex in the original “Jurassic” series might not be impressed by the velociraptors and giant “millipedes” in Dinosaur Island, but it could whet the appetites of kids already anticipating the as-yet-unrated Jurassic World.
Power: The Complete Season One: Blu-ray
Welcome to Sweden: Season 1
Masters of Sex: Season Two
The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show
The Midnight Special
It would be unfair to credit the popularity of Starz’ urban crime drama “Power” to the stunning success of Fox’s “Empire,” which, at first glance, would appear to be drawingfrom the same demographic pool. Exec-produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and show creator Courtney Kemp Agboh (“The Good Wife”), the series began more than six months before “Empire” hit the ground running. Neither was anyone at the premium-cable network positive if it could compete on the same turf that produced “Spartacus,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons” and, now, “Turn.” It did well enough, at least, to warrant a second season, which begins in early June. If it hadn’t been re-upped, the writers would have left nearly a half-dozen cliffhangers in its wake and thousands of followers unhappy. It took me a couple of episodes to get hooked, but, once I was, it was easy to come back for more “Power.” The story revolves around James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a street-level punk who parlayed his profits into a chain of laundromats – literally, to launder money – and, finally, a glamorous nightclub where New York’s elite meet to drink, network and snort blow in the washrooms. It’s a slick operation and the uber-slick St. Patrick rules the roost, while his longtime partner-in-crime, Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), oversees their subsidiary drug empire. St. Patrick and his wife and confidante, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), live the kind of penthouse life that typically would be out of reach for a mere laundromat magnate. The family lacks for nothing, except, perhaps, the security that comes with not being in cahoots with a Mexican cartel. Everything is going swimmingly for Ghost and Tommy, until a female assassin in pink boots begins to intercept shipments and kill their couriers. Then, too, there’s St. Patrick’s chance meeting in the club with an old Nuyorican flame, FBI agent Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), which is witnessed by Tasha. Certain to cause problems during the show’s initial eight-episode run is Angela’s ignorance of how Ghost makes his money and vice-versa. The only thing that truly distinguishes “Power” from “Empire” — from the male viewers’ point-of-view, anyway – is the proliferation of gratuitous female nudity, as is the custom of premium-cable programming. Fortunately, Kemp Agboh’s experience as writer/producer for such series as “The Good Wife,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hawaii Five-0” keeps the story’s disparate threads from fraying, altogether. The flashy Blu-ray adds a few undernourished background featurettes.
Some cynics, myself included, may suspect that NBC’s “Welcome to Sweden” owes its existence on the network to Amy Poehler’s role as executive producer and presence of her brother, Bruce, as the male lead and a staff writer. The premise of the sitcom supposedly derives from Bruce Poehler’s own experience as a New Yorker who moves to Sweden to live with his girlfriend. Besides the fact that a nebbish like Bruce (the character) wouldn’t last two weeks with a world-class babe, like Emma (Josephine Bornebusch), no one as socially inept could last one tax year as a CPA for celebrities in his sister’s orbit. It’s the job he gives up upon leaving New York, but, for some reason, won’t return to in Sweden, despite his inability to handle menial tasks in the tourism industry. On a more positive note, almost everything else in the sitcom is worth a look, starting with Emma’s very Swedish family, the beautiful setting and nutty recurring characters. It also is enhanced by an international crew of writers, who keep the culture-clash conceit from tilting too far on the side of American sensibilities. Their influence is detectable more in later episodes than those earlier in the season. Bruce’s former job ensures the regular inclusion of celebrity guests, such as Aubrey Plaza, Illeana Douglas, Malin Akerman, Will Ferrell, Gene Simmons, Neve Campbell, sister Amy and such Scandinavian celebs as ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, Claes Månsson, Christopher Wagelin and Per Svensson. The always welcome Lena Olin plays Emma’s delightfully cold-hearted mother.
“Masters of Sex” has become such a complex and surprising series that, when I received the “Season Two” package, I actually thought it’s been on Showtime for three, at least. Maybe that’s because it usually takes more than two years for other series to pack the same amount of drama into their storylines. On closer inspection, I realized that its season, like that of “Shameless,” is 12 episodes long, compared to the 8 or 10 received for other important series. In “Season Two,” the writers expanded the narrative beyond Masters, Johnson and their human guinea pigs. Such then-timely taboos as interracial love and substance abuse were introduced, as well as the potential for television to educate viewers and make celebrities out of people otherwise toiled in anonymity. Moreover, there was so much nudity in Season One that it practically became a non-issue in Season Two, except for the hospital administrators and mid-century prudes for whom Hugh Hefner had yet to become a household name. Masters and Johnson, separately and together, also are faced with losing control of their research and loved ones. The season’s must-watch episode is “Fight,” during which we learn more about Masters (Michael Sheen) than in the entirety of the first stanza. We’re also introduced to gender issues as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. The Blu-ray adds the lengthy featurettes, “The History of Sex,” “The Women of Sex” and “The Men of Sex,” as well as episode-specific deleted and extended scenes.
I don’t know how many times that highlights of “The Ed Sullivan Show” have been packaged, re-packaged and subdivided, as VHS and DVD collections exclusively available through television advertorials, at Amazon or other retail outlets. This time around, under the auspices of Time Life Entertainment, the performances included in the six-disc “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” package look better than ever. Given the crappy speakers built into mid-century television sets, the classic acts on display here can be considered as good as these things get, as well. From 1950 until 1971, the Sullivan show the owned 8 p.m. timeslot (Eastern and Pacific) on Sunday nights, at least on CBS, before cable and satellites began to eat the broadcast networks’ lunch. Sullivan, known first as a newspaper columnist, promised audiences something for everyone and delivered it. The word, “variety,” meant that a plate-spinner might be sandwiched between an opera diva and a scene from a Broadway drama. Sullivan showcased Elvis Presley, the Beatles and James Brown at times when they were being lambasted in the mainstream media, but screaming teenagers were making them millionaires. “The Best of the Ed Sullivan Show” doesn’t ignore the occasional controversy, but there were so few as to be deemed laughable over the course of a few months. The package is divided into six categories: “Unforgettable Performances,” “The 50th Anniversary Special,” “The All-Star Comedy Special,” “World’s Greatest Novelty Acts,” “Amazing Animal Acts” and “Bonus Interviews.” Among the rarities isthe only known film of prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, the Muppets’ first TV appearance, comic impressions of Sullivan, Broadway appearances from “My Fair Lady” and “West Side Story,” appearances by Barbra Streisand, Humphrey Bogart, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett and thousands more performers and audience guests.
Another television classic that’s been sliced and diced over the years is “The Midnight Special,” a late-night show that took rock, pop, R&B and country acts as seriously as the producers of the Sullivan show. The latest permutation of last fall’s comprehensive gift box is a three-disc set that includes such timeless acts as Glen Campbell, Earth, Wind & Fire, ELO, Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, Etta James & Dr. John, Heart, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, and Van Morrison, and such barely remembered performers as the Bay City Rollers, Captain & Tennille, Eddie Rabbit, Mac Davis, Albert Hammond, Peaches & Herb and Chic. Among the comedians represented are Billy Crystal, George Carlin, Freddie Prinze, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers and Steve Martin. Bonus features include an interview with guitarist George Benson and a featurette with series creator and producer Burt Sugarman.