Anyone who doubts that there is an institutionalized prejudice against films in which the protagonists are out-lesbians and well past a certain age ought to find a copy of “Cloudburst” and watch it without delay. A film festival favorite, Thomas Fitzgerald’s tremendously affecting road comedy co-stars Oscar-winners Brenda Fricker and Olympia Dukakis as Dot and Stella, partners for the last 31 years in a country that has long refused to recognize their love for each other. Blessedly, things have changed tremendously in Maine in the two years since “Cloudburst” was first shown at the Edmonton International Film Festival. Instead of having to travel all the way to Nova Scotia to get legally married, Dot and Stella could simply visit the local courthouse, apply for a license and exchange vows in front of friends and relatives. That wouldn’t make for much of a movie, though, would it? The drama in “Cloudburst” comes when Dot’s money-grubbing granddaughter decides to end her personal shame by putting the legally blind woman into an old-folks home. Stella’s only recourse is to break her longtime lover out of the facility and get married, thus quashing the granddaughter’s guardianship demands. The so-professed “old dykes” make a wonderfully comic team. At 80 years old, Stella dresses like a cowboy and can out-cuss any sailor on the eastern seaboard. By comparison, Dot’s a spring flower. On their road trip to scenic Nova Scotia, they pick up a handsome young hitchhiker on the way north to visit his seriously ill mother. A modern dancer with an ecumenical view of the world, Prentice (Ryan Doucette) fits neatly between Dot and Stella in the front seat of their truck. On a stop at a beach along the coast, Prentice performs a dance of ecstasy that Dot can actually make out through her seriously blurred vision.
There are potholes on the way to the wedding chapel, of course, but none has been added to the narrative in an artificial or mean-spirited manner. “Cloudburst” unspools at a spirited, if completely natural pace, just as any good road picture should. Neither does Thompson ask us to reference Thelma and Louise, Jack and Neal or even Oscar and Felix. And, when the road trip comes to its intended end, the romance that has informed the story all along comes to the fore. I don’t think it’s necessary to stress how terrific Fricker and Dukakis are in “Cloudburst,” but I will anyway. If the movie had been released in the U.S., both women would have been serious contenders for Oscar and Indie Spirit nominations. Working completely against type, Dukakis’ interpretation of the extremely loud and profane Stella is a thing to behold. Ironically, if either one of the women had been nominated, it would have come in the same year as Christopher Plummer took home an Academy Award for his role in “Beginners.” In it, he plays an elderly gentleman, who, to the consternation of his son, decides to exit the closet after the death of his wife of 44 years. All three of the performances by these veteran actors are cut from the same cloth and can be enjoyed on DVD by people who insist that movies for adults aren’t being made anymore. (For the kiddies, there’s also a fart joke.) “Cloudburst” arrives from Wolfe Video, an independent company that’s distributed films of specific interest to the LGBT community for years, long before “queer cinema” began crossing over to mainstream audiences. The DVD adds interviews and a making-of featurette.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I’m old enough to remember when Hasbro introduced G.I. Joe into the marketplace in the 1960s and common wisdom argued that little boys wouldn’t play with dolls, even those in soldier drag. Their sister’s Barbie was the closest thing most young lads came to soft-core porn and those caught playing with dolls risked being branded a sissy. Hasbro understood the distinction and decided to market its G.I. Joe line as “action figures,” instead. Even though the Vietnam War was raging thousands of miles away, Hasbro decided not to draw parallels between the characters and Green Berets already fetishized by John Wayne, singer Barry Sadler and writer Robin Moore. It might have necessitated the creation of enemy action figures in pajama-like uniforms and twigs in their helmets for camouflage. Instead, Hasbro pushed an “Adventure Team” angle, which is just as well, considering the outcome of the war. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the G.I. Joe action figures—with a full range of accessory items—really caught on in the marketplace. In this regard, it got plenty of help from the popularity of “Star Wars” figures. It’s possible that Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade tiny Grenada—an island nation that Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Gabby Hayes could have taken by themselves—spurred the resurgence in sales, because, otherwise, the decade was relatively peaceful. Despite reluctance on Hasbro’s part to introduce villainous characters, the G.I. Joe team desperately needed some asses to kick on a regular basis and, in 1982, Cobra Command was born. The first live-action feature film, 2009′s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” may not have returned the kind of money that “Batman” and “Iron Man” did at the box office, but it sold a lot of ancillary products and enough tickets to convince Hasbro and Paramount that a similarly expensive sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” might do likewise. And, thanks to a huge overseas response, it did substantially better than the original.
This time around, “Retaliation” benefitted from the presence of Dwayne Johnson, as Roadblock, and more than enough action to make viewers ignore a plot that makes no logical sense whatsoever. Channing Tatum returns briefly as Duke, along with an international cast of hot-looking actors. Jon M. Chu, whose previous credits include “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” and “Step Up 3D,” took over the reins in the director’s chair, ensuring a “Retaliation” that would more closely resemble a video game or disco than your average action thriller. It helped that Chu, himself, was a collector of G.I. Joe figures and probably knew as much about the franchise as anyone at Paramount. No sooner does the movie open than Cobra wipes out all but three members of G.I. Joe in a dastardly sneak attack. Since Cobra operative Zartan kidnaped and stole the identity of the President of the United States, he’s been able to convince the military that G.I. Joe captured nuclear warheads from Pakistan and now was a threat to world peace. Only Roadblock, Flint and Lady Jaye were able to survive the attack. The distraction allows a Cobra team to free Cobra Commander from a maximum-security prison in Germany. It’s from this point on that it becomes impossible to tell with any certainty who’s in cahoots with Cobra and who might see through its deception and ally themselves with G.I. Joe. The only person in whom Roadblock has complete faith is the retired team commander, played with great enthusiasm by Bruce Willis, who supplies the team with weapons and intelligence. The action then moves to the Himalayas for some truly wild ninja action and Japan, where Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and Jinx must decide for which team they’re playing.
Back in the U.S.A., Zartan has conned world leaders to gather for a summit meeting at Fort Sumter (Louisiana’s historic Fort Pike), during which he intends to coerce them into giving up their nuclear arsenals so Cobra can control the Earth. Logic demands that no world leaders would bother to attend such a conference, let alone give up their weapons, but, by this time, viewers have agreed to suspend disbelief to the point where anything is possible. So, why not? The ninja battle is right out of the James Bond playbook, down to the exotic women combatants, and is lots of fun to watch. I also enjoyed the killer-bee bombs that are wielded by Cobra fighters. Beyond that, however, “Retaliation” is pretty much a free-for-all staged for the enjoyment of teenage boys. That said, though, the Blu-ray presentation borders on state-of-the-art for action extravaganzas. I assume that 3D edition doesn’t disappoint, but couldn’t say for sure. The bonus package adds commentary, deleted scenes and eight pretty good making-of featurettes. At the beginning, a pre-menu screen allows users to choose either a Joe or Cobra theme. Also included are a DVD and UV digital copy.
The Bronte Sisters: Blu-ray
Last month, the Bank of England announced that novelist Jane Austen will replace naturalist Charles Darwin on the 10-pound note, beginning in 2017. The British and French have always had more ornate fun with their currency than our president-obsessed Treasury officials, although putting Susan B. Anthony and Sacagawea on the “golden dollar” was a good first step. It’s not their fault that whoever designed the coin made it indistinguishable from a quarter when digging through one’s pocket. While it’s impossible to say whether any more women writers will be so honored, again, a case could be made for the Bronte sisters, I suppose. In 1979, director Andre Téchiné and writer Pascal Bonitzer collaborated on “The Bronte Sisters,” a masterful biopic that somehow got lost in the cracks between the advent of the video era and today. After being out-of-print and ignored for many years, Cohen Media Group has fully re-mastered the film and sent it out in a splendid Blu-ray edition. The film’s primary selling point, perhaps, is the presence of three of France’s greatest stars, Isabelle Adjani (Emily), Marie-France Pisier (Charlotte) and Isabelle Huppert (Anne), with Pascal Gregory filling the essential role of their brother, Branwell.
What sets Téchiné film apart from most other Victorian-era biographies are his precise attention to period detail and ability to discern the spectral auras of his characters and use them as filters for Bruno Nuytten’s camera. The prevailing color scheme, though, is as muted as the clouds that float ominously above the Yorkshire moors, so frequently traversed by Emily. The brooding skies are reflected, as well, in “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” “The Bronte Sisters” also captures the harsh environment created for them by their father, aunts and teachers. As children, the siblings disappeared into imaginary worlds that would inform their poems and novels, which were presented to their first publishers under the pseudonyms of three brothers. The failed romances of Branwell and Charlotte, along with the family’s generally poor health, cast long shadows over much of the film, as well. If this makes “The Bronte Sisters” sound about as a pleasant as a rained-out picnic, well, you may be comforted to know that Téchiné’s original cut timed in at 180 minutes, or an hour longer than the finished product. The Blu-ray does a nice job replicating the 34-year-old film’s sharp visual presentation, including the purposefully subdued land- and seascapes. It adds Dominique Maillet’s illuminating hour-long featurette, “The Ghosts of Haworth,” and, on the audio track, a new conversation between critic Wade Major and Bronte scholar Sue Lonoff de Cuevas.
The Jeffrey Dahmer Files
If Chris James Thompson’s Kickstarter-funded “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files” doesn’t break any new ground on the serial killer who made Milwaukee famous, it deserves kudos for capturing something the majority of similar true-crime explorations ignore. Without ignoring the heinous nature of the crimes, the documentary expands on the people who knew Dahmer only as a neighbor or customer, but got caught in media circus, anyway. Thompson combines naturalistic re-creations of Dahmer’s everyday life with no-nonsense recollections from Milwaukee Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jentzen, police detective Patrick Kennedy and neighbor Pamela Bass. Even if none of the 17 killings, dismemberments and cannibalism is dramatized on screen, their descriptions of the crime scene could hardly be more off-putting. We’re also carried back to the morgue and interrogation rooms. Milwaukee is depicted as a city in which an average guy could still make purchases for such items as beer and oil drums with a check and not be asked for an ID. Even with the stench emanating from his apartment, courtesy dictated that he be accorded privacy and the benefit of a doubt. On the other hand, Thompson and Kennedy recognize Milwaukee as a city whose police made decisions—based on racism, homophobia and sheer laziness—that prevented an earlier arrest of Dahmer and, perhaps, the lives of one or more of his victims. The DVD adds an interesting post-screening Q&A, deleted scenes and some making-of material.
Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection: Volume 2: Blu-ray
Once again, Raro Video USA has delivered on its promise to provide American fans of vintage Italian genre flicks with DVDs and Blu-ray products that continue to reflect the qualities that made them as unique and exciting as they were in their heyday. The second volume of the “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection” adds three films that show different sides of the master’s work than the more gangster-minded “Volume 1” titles: “Caliber 9,” “The Italian Connection,” “The Boss” (a.k.a., “Wipeout”) and “Rulers of the City” (a.k.a., “Mr. Scarface”). The much-in-demand policier “Shoot First, Die Later” (1974) was released into Blu-ray separately two months ago. Anyone who missed it, then, will be rewarded with its inclusion among a pair of other classics, “Naked Violence” (1969) and “Kidnap Syndicate” (1975). In “Shoot First, Die Later,” Luc Merenda plays a highly regarded police detective who is taking syndicate money in exchange for departmental favors. One of those favors requires the detective to hit up his by-the-book father, also a cop, for a file that holds the key to the conviction of a gangster. It’s the kind of story that could have been written about any ambitious cop, anywhere, who works both sides of the street. It’s Di Leo’s stylistic touches that set it apart, however. The Blu-ray arrives with the documentary featurettes ”The Master of the Game” and ”The Second Round of the Game.”
“Naked Violence” is a straightforward procedural, in which dogged police detective Marco Lamberti (Pier Paolo Capponi) becomes obsessed with a case involving the rape and murder of a night-school teacher, ostensibly by students in her class. Lamberti has his work cut out for him, as the kids are hard cases who either were just released from reform schools or about to be sent to one. They’ve already rehearsed their stories, with a boy singled out to play the scapegoat. Lamberti, who has little patience with the punks, is constantly being admonished about his strong-arm interrogation tactics. When he’s finally able to catch a break from the weakest of the boys, Lamberti doesn’t really know if he’s getting real information or being steered in the wrong direction. The step-by-step investigation is fascinating to watch, as are the performances by the young actors. What’s truly interesting, though, is the restraint Di Leo shows at the beginning, when the attack on the teacher plays out in flash cuts, revealing very little nudity or graphic violence. You can feel the woman’s pain and powerlessness, but the mystery of who’s to blame for the rape is retained until later. When it’s replayed toward the end of the film, viewers already have a pretty good idea what happened that day and the nudity and violence doesn’t seem as gratuitous as it might have in the beginning. The Blu-ray adds the ”Goodfellas” documentary featurette and ”Fernando di Leo at the Cinémathèque Française.”
In 1975, kidnappers of both the political and criminal variety plagued Italy. Rather than romanticize the crime or make excuses for the perpetrators in “Kidnap Syndicate,” Di Leo shows them for what they are: vicious and frequently quite stupid thugs. Luc Merenda and James Mason play the fathers of boys kidnaped by a well-organized group of criminals. Merenda is a strictly blue-collar mechanic, who’s trying his best to raise Fabrizio as a single parent. Mason is an extremely wealthy businessman, who, at first, refuses to negotiate with the kidnapers. It results in a terrible tragedy. Fabrizio’s father senses that the police aren’t doing enough to break the case, so he hops on his motorcycle to follow the clues, which lead to a much greater conspiracy. Once again, Di Leo demonstrates that he’s far more interested in solving the crime than balancing crazy outbursts of violence with the presence of insanely beautiful actresses every 15 minutes. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The featurettes here are “Violent Cities” and ”The Other Fernando di Leo Trilogy.” The boxed set also comes with a fully illustrated booklet.
The Demented: Blu-ray
Stop me, if you’ve heard this one before: six college friends take a ride into the country, where they expect to enjoy a leisurely weekend of play, romance and relaxation, when, out of the blue, the Zombie Apocalypse breaks out. It arrives much in the same way as the Spanish Inquisition did—unexpectedly and with great portent—in numerous sketches on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” In Christopher Reynolds’ freshman feature, “The Demented,” the sight of a mushroom cloud in the distance ruins the friends’ vacation. We’re told that terrorists are responsible for the biological weapon being deployed at such an inopportune time, but like the Spanish Inquisition “Nobody expects the Zombie Apocalypse.” Almost the entire first third of “The Demented” is taken up with the interaction of the students, as they enjoy the comforts of a large Louisiana estate. The first sign of imminent danger is the sudden appearance of a rabid dog, but it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Naturally, the friends freak out and begin to plot ways to escape their posh prison. If they find no relief in the big city, at least the action sequences come alive with the usual displays of carnage and destruction. There’s really nothing new in “The Demented.” It’s reasonably well made and the actors try their best to look terrified. Unless I missed something, there’s nothing in the film that would warrant its “R” rating. Among its young, attractive stars is Sarah Butler, whose resume includes the 2010 remake of “I Spit on Your Grave” and working as Snow White at Disneyland. Any actor who can pull off that Daily Double is deserving of our attention.
The Fog: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Incredible Melting Man: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The latest releases from Shout! Factory run the gamut from the utterly ridiculous to the deliciously creepy. William Sachs’ “The Incredible Melting Man” probably wouldn’t have gotten the company’s red-carpet treatment if it weren’t for the contributions of makeup wizard Rick Baker, who merged the distinct look of the creature from the Black Lagoon with the imagery of Jimmy Webb’s widely ridiculed “MacArthur Park” (“someone left a cake out in the rain”). When the idea was presented to Sachs, its title was “The Ghoul From Outer Space” and he assumed it would be just another “glob” movie, which it pretty much turned out to be. Indeed, Sachs’ conceit reads something like David Bowie’s “Major Tom” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” in that the title character is an astronaut irradiated by a massive solar flare. Upon his return to Earth, Astronaut Steve not only begins to melt, but he also develops a craving for flesh. After he escapes from a top-secret medical facility, he wanders the countryside stalking easy targets. A doctor thinks he can find something redeeming in Astronaut Steve, but the government wants to wipe any memory of him from the face of the Earth. “Melting Man” is best watched for its camp value. The Blu-ray features offer several interesting takes on the makeup effects and mixing of sci-fi and horror.
John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s “The Fog,” on the other hand, is a bona-fide genre classic. The 2005 remake didn’t do anything for me, but the 1980 original still has the power to raise goose-bumps and jolts, especially as reconstituted on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray. Not only are the creatures that come out of the fog plenty scary, but there’s also a very compelling mystery at the movie’s core. The northern California fishing village that becomes enshrouded by an impenetrable fog has a history that the zombie-like fiends understand, but about which only one of the contemporary residents has a clue. It keeps everyone else, including viewers, guessing for most of the film’s 89 minutes. Carpenter’s genius was getting us to care about the wide array of potential victims, including the deejay in the lighthouse (Adrienne Barbeau), the happy hooker (Jamie Lee Curtis), the good padre (Hal Holbrook) and blond civic booster (Janet Leigh). The Blu-ray bonus material goes a long way to explaining why “The Fog” still works and the individual contributions of its creators and stars. There’s also an entertaining tour of places where the movie was staged, from Point Reyes to my hometown of Sierra Madre.
War on Whistleblowers
PBS: The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power
Months before anyone outside of his family, friends and co-workers had ever heard the name, Edward Joseph Snowden, the documentary “War on Whistleblowers” predicted exactly what would happen when his name became as well-known as the Nixon-era leaker, Daniel Ellsberg. For revealing details of several top-secret mass surveillance programs, Snowden has been painted as a traitor and spy by President Obama, members of Congress, Pentagon officials, newspaper pundits and key players in the secrecy industry. For his revelations, which have been widely reported, Snowden has become a man without a country and Public Enemy No. 1. Many other Americans consider Snowden to be a hero for blowing the whistle on a program that has the potential for spying on the conversations and business transactions of not just potential terrorists, but anyone with whom someone in government holds a grudge. If it had been up to President Nixon, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the media, Ellsberg, would still be in prison. Robert Greenwald, who’s known for his anti-establishment documentaries, didn’t need to wait for the next Ellsberg to make his point in “War on Whistleblowers. In it, he describes four cases in which whistleblowers noticed government wrongdoing and took to the media to expose the fraud and abuse. Among them was the revelation that the Pentagon was holding back on the manufacture and deployment of vehicles that could withstand an explosion by an improvised explosive device, then the leading cause of death for American fighters. After our forces were provided with MRAPs, the fatality rate plummeted. And, yet, the man who blew the whistle on Pentagon malfeasance was ostracized and threatened with all sorts of legal retribution, including costs attendant to defending one’s self. But, he’s not alone in the documentary. It includes interviews with whistleblowers Michael DeKort, Thomas Drake, Franz Gayland and Thomas Tamm, as well as such award-winning journalists as David Carr, Lucy Dalglish, Glenn Greenwald, Seymour Hersh, Michael Isikoff, Bill Keller, Eric Lipton and Jane Mayer. The information related in “War on Whistleblowers” goes against everything American students learned in high school civics classes about the protections afforded the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Patriot Act, passed during the Bush administration, opened the door to such widespread snooping and such abuses as those leaked by Snowden. Greenwald contends, however, that the Obama administration has only broadened such illegal programs and threatened potential whistleblowers and the reporters who report the leaks with a loss of freedom, income and destruction of their reputations. How can we expect people in gang-plagued neighborhoods to snitch, if the government punishes whistleblowers hoping to save lives and protect taxpayer interests? The bonus features add commentary and extended interviews.
Upton Sinclair was given a writing credit for writing the novel, “Oil!,” from which Paul Thomas Anderson based much of what happens in “There Will Be Blood.” He could just as easily have credited Daniel Yergin’s non-fiction book, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power” and the subsequent multipart documentary, which even uses the drink-your-milkshake analogy that originated in the Teapot Dome scandal and was repeated in “There Will Be Blood.” The syndicated documentary was first shown in 1992, when oil was very much on the minds of the American people. Images of oil infernos turning the skies over Kuwait black, as Iraqi forces retreated from the embattled nation, were fresh in our minds. Indeed, one of the excuses given for the invasion was that Kuwaitis were sucking oil out of Iraq as if they were using a longer straw than Iraqi drillers. Like the book from which it sprung, “The Prize” offers a broad survey of the worldwide oil industry, beginning with the discovery of a practical use for the “rock oil” found in a stream in western Pennsylvania. A full hour is devoted to John D. Rockefeller’s role in creating a framework—albeit one based on his monopoly—for the greater industry to come. The documentary then goes on to explain how other industrialists spurred demand for the oil and what it meant for undeveloped countries looking to enter the 20th Century. It describes how Japan and Germany’s demands for oil shaped their war strategies, including the attack on Pearl Harbor. When occasional gluts threatened the profitability of the industry, oil barons asked the government to protect them from wildcatters and independents, while also inventing the cartel strategy. (Some Saudis are already voicing their concern over how natural gas and shale oil production here might impact their economy.) Narrated by Donald Sutherland, the eight-part series was shot on location in Azerbaijan, Egypt, England, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Mexico, Russia, Scotland, Turkey and various American boomtowns. It uses much archival footage and interviews with historians and people who helped shape the oil industry, attempted to corrupt it or are related to those who did.
Shameless: Seasons 1 & 2: Original UK Series
The Border: The Complete First Season
Gangster Empire: Rise of the Mob: The Complete Series
The Magic School Bus: In a Pickle/Revving Up
One of the true gems of American television currently is the outrageous Showtime comedy series, “Shameless.” It chronicles the affairs of what arguably is the world’s most dysfunctional family, the Gallaghers, as they attempt to fly under the radar of Chicago’s social-services agencies. Paterfamilias Frank Gallagher is as useless a human being as was ever put on Earth and his wife split when she realized that she didn’t want to share the spotlight with her large brood. There are several good reasons why the series is so wonderful: the acting of Emmy Rossum, William H. Macy, Joan Cusack and Justin Chatwin, among several others; a crack writing and producing team that includes creator Paul Abbott and John Wells (“ER,” “West Wing”); and no reluctance to show skin. I wonder how many of the show’s fans know that “Shameless” was adapted from Abbott’s similarly raucous series of the same title, which first appeared on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2004. The first two seasons of the British “Shameless” are newly available on DVD. Just as NBC’s “The Office” was built on a template created for the BBC’s hit series by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, it’s obvious that Abbott saw no reason to deviate much from the storylines of his original creation. It stars such accomplished Brit actors as David Threlfall, James McAvoy and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as several wonderful child actors. Threlfall plays the completely useless and profanely outspoken lush, Frank Gallagher; Duff is his beleaguered daughter, Fiona, who’s responsible for the care and feeding of the gang; and McAvoy, the rich and handsome car thief who steals Fiona’s heart. The primary difference between the two series is the location of the Gallagher abodes. In Chicago, they live in a decrepit house in the shadow of the El tracks, while, in the English version, it’s in a low-income housing estate so cramped that everyone knows everyone else’s business. It adds a slightly different dynamic to the storylines, even if there are never enough rooms to ensure everyone’s comfort and privacy. Otherwise, the generic “local” frequented by Frank is a carbon copy of his favorite tavern in Chicago. It isn’t necessary for Americans to be familiar with the Showtime series to enjoy the original, and vice-versa. (There is a bit less nudity in the Brit version.) Again, as was the case with “The Office,” fans of one version almost certainly will want to sample the other. They’re all exemplary entertainments.
While American politicians and border-state vigilantes bend over backwards condemning the influx of economic refugees from Mexico and Central America—all willing to work in roach-infested restaurants for less than the minimum wage—thousands of actors and comedians freely cross the world’s longest undefended border to take jobs from American entertainers. Some have even conned immigration officials into allowing them to become U.S. citizens, as if we didn’t have enough of those, already. I say, build a fence along the border and make them sweat a bit before they land their first standup gig or sitcom. “The Border” is a Canadian TV drama that lasted three seasons before being cancelled in 2010. It involves the fictional Immigration & Customs Security task force, whose mandate is to save the Great White North from terrorism, drug trafficking and the abduction of children. It looks like most other hour-long American dramas in that the people who work the computers are pretty geeky, the young agents are a mix of hot and hotter, and the supervisors are crusty guys who’ve seen it all, but retain an ounce of passion for their fellow North Americans. In “The Border,” however, ICS agents enjoy the luxury of blaming American security goons for big-footing their investigations and, then, screwing them up. Actually, it isn’t a bad show, if a bit simplistic, even by American standards. The Toronto-area settings are pretty fresh, though. I didn’t recognize any of the actors, probably because all of prominent stars have already crossed the border and are working on premium-cable shows.
If there’s anything that’s been beaten to death by makers of documentaries and true-crime reality shows, it’s the history of the Mafia and the role played by Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. “Gangster Empire: Rise of the Mob” was the latest such series and it lasted all of a season, which translates to “The Complete Series” in DVD shorthand. In a nod to the hit HBO show, a whole chapter is devoted to “Atlantic City and the Boardwalk Empire.” The stories of organized crime in America are told through dramatic re-enactments. It was created by Kevin Hershberger, also responsible for “Up From Slavery” and “The Ultimate Civil War Series.”
All of these value-priced collections have been released by Mill Creek Entertainment, a company that specializes in packaging and re-packaging films, television and documentary series, and popular kids’ titles. Its partners include several major Hollywood studios. Other prime July releases include “The Korean War: 60th Anniversary: Commemorative Documentary Collection,” which contains dozens of mini-docs and segments on every aspect of the war effort and the 1964 theatrical release, “Iron Angel”; the three-disc, 32-hour-long “The Vietnam Chronicles” boxed set, comprised of “Vietnam: America’s Conflict,” “Secrets of War: Vietnam: A War Unwanted” and “Vietnam War Stories”; and “Benji: 4 Movie Collection,” which combines the features, “Benji,” “Benji: Off The Leash!,” “For the Love of Benji” and “Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story.”
Likewise, Scholastic continues to pour out new compilations from its Emmy Award-winning PBS Kids series, “The Magic School Bus,” for a new generation of children. Lily Tomlin voices teacher Ms. Frizzle of Walkerville Elementary, which is the base for the students’ bus and educational field trips. The three-DVD “Revving Up” is comprised of 12 episodes from the 1990s, while “In a Pickle” adds “Meets Molly Cule,” “Makes a Stink” and “Meets the Rot Squad.” It is recommended for children, 4 to 10.
A Night for Dying Tigers
At one time or another, we’ve all been invited to a dinner party during which all hell breaks loose when one or more of the couples decide to unload on their significant others. Ever since the release of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” filmmakers have attempted to replicate the horror, pathos and cruelty they’ve witnessed at such wingdings and make dramatic sense of the outbursts. It only occasionally works as intended, however. Francis Veber’s “The Dinner Game” and its American remake, “Dinner for Schmucks,” turned the subgenre on its head with dark comedy, while “Among Friends,” “The Dinner Party,” “Would You Rather” and other murderous titles have taken the “10 Little Indians” path to horror. Films set at wedding-rehearsal gatherings and anniversary events never fail to make single viewers happy they’re not married or are related to someone with substance-abuse issues. Generally speaking, however, watching such ugly rows break out at parties on film is only slightly more tolerable than being present for the real thing. On DVD, at least, you can hit the stop button and be happy you only wasted the cost of a rental, not a bottle of wine or box of chocolates for the hosts.
“Between Us” and “A Night for Dying Tigers” make the same mistake as too many other so-called relationship movies, in that the skirmishes begin before we’ve gotten an opportunity to care much for the characters. In “Between Us,” monogamous couples Grace and Carlo (Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs) and Sharyl and Joel (Melissa George, David Harbour) exchange home visits two years apart. Both men are photographers and old friends, and we have no reason to believe that any bad blood has passed between them or their spouses before the first one. When New Yorkers Grace and Carlo arrive at their hosts’ rural Midwestern mansion, they are taken aback by the opulence and vastness of the home. Sharyl’s inheritance allows them to live in such style, even if the unmarried couple doesn’t seem comfortable within the spacious digs. Before long, the hosts begin bickering about all sorts of trivial things, saving the important stuff for the drunken standoff later in the evening. The next time we see Sharyl and Joel they’re in New York, at the door of their friends, who had pledged never to see them again. They have a chauffeur and Town Car to do their bidding and want to make amends. As comfortable as these newlyweds seem to be, that’s how uncomfortable are Grace and Carlo in their presence. In the two years since the disastrous Midwestern trip, Carlo’s once-thriving career has hit the rocks and Grace is pissed off over having to live like a pauper with a baby in the crib. Once again, the conversation turns to marriage, fidelity, parenthood, wealth and copping out to commercial interests, instead of remaining committed to artistic values. If the Midwesterners were genuine in their apology for the hard feelings, they didn’t wait long before picking a fight with the equally pugnacious New Yorkers. Dan Mirvish adapted “Between Us” from a play by Joe Hortua, which explains why the movie feels so theatrical and the characters shout at each other as if they’re attempting to extend their misery to the cheap seats. There’s nothing wrong with the acting that a stage and live audience wouldn’t cure, though.
Terry Miles’ “A Night for Dying Tigers” is set during a family gathering called to bid farewell to a brother, Jack (Gil Bellows), who, the next day, will begin a five-year bit in prison for killing the man who raped his mistress. It coincides, as well, with the one-year anniversary of the death of their parents, who died in some kind of New Age suicide stunt. The men in the family are intellectuals who wear their IQs on their sleeves and clearly had been competing for their parents’ blessings for years. The adopted sister is an attractive blond beauty who simply couldn’t be more messed up and misused by her siblings. The brothers’ girlfriends, ex-wives and lovers reflect the neuroses of the men and probably would be likeable if their personalities weren’t made of cardboard. The interaction between the characters frequently devolves into hysterics, begging the question: if you’re so smart, handsome and wealthy, why are you so damn miserable? More to the point: why should we care? Miles doesn’t waste much time attempting to answer those questions. Jennifer Beals is particularly good as Jack’s vengeful ex-wife. She’s one of the only non-Canadians in a cast that also includes Lauren Lee Smith, Kathleen Robertson, Tygh Runyan and John Pyper-Ferguson. They almost make the material work.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox: Blu-ray
The latest animated adventure in the ongoing series of DC Universe originals features the Flash, who, as we all know, runs so fast that he’s able to turn back time. As cool as that sounds, it can also result in misguided decisions. In “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox,” the Flash (a.k.a., Barry Allen) is lured into an ambush by the time-traveling Professor Zoom. With the help of other members of the Justice League, Flash avoids disaster. The next day, however, he wakes up to a world in which he doesn’t have superpowers, a Justice League doesn’t exist and his mother is still alive. In fact, his fellow superheroes are actively working against world peace and Batman has a completely different personality. Together, with the help of Cyborg, they race to restore the continuity of Flash’s original timeline, while this new world is being ravaged in a war between Wonder Woman’s Amazons and the Atlanteans, led by Aquaman. The voicing talent includes Justin Chambers, Kevin McKidd, Nathan Fillion, Ron Perlman, Dana Delany, Cary Elwes, Danny Huston, Kevin Conroy, Michael B. Jordan and C. Thomas Howell. The Blu-ray edition adds a DVD and UltraViolet digital copy, as well as “A Flash in Time,” which separates fact and fiction in discussions of super powers; “My Favorite Villains! The Flash Bad Guys,” in which DC writers Geoff Johns and others share their favorite Flash villains; audio commentary; a sneak peek at the next DC Universe animated movie; and vintage cartoon episodes.