The Connection: Blu-ray
It probably would have been impossible for Cédric Jimenez and his writing partner, Audrey Diwan, to duplicate in The Connection all of the thrills and heart-pounding intrigue William Friedkin built into his groundbreaking police thriller, The French Connection, even though they’re based on the same series of events. Instead, they succeeded in telling the story of a major heroin bust, this time from the perspective of the French police and heroin traffickers. There was no reason to correct the record or re-write history, either. Instead of the characters played so well by Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey, Jimenez and Diwan focused their attention on the deadly game of cat-and-mouse played in Marseille, by the port city’s dogged magistrate, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), and the charismatic Corsican drug kingpin, Gatean “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). If the names don’t ring a bell, American moviegoers should have no trouble remembering Dujardin’s Oscar-winning performance in The Artist, while arthouse buffs might recall Lellouche from Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One and Little White Lies. Neither is there an extended, pedal-to-the-metal chase scene here. Instead, we’re rewarded with plenty of gangland violence, outstanding police work, political corruption and millions of very real dollars at stake. Present-day Malta makes a reasonable facsimile for Marseille, which, in the early 1970s, was the place where a highly organized network of criminals collected opium from Turkey and turned it into heroin, destined for New York. The smack was hidden in what appeared to be cans of French food products and loaded into a van, which made the trans-Atlantic journey in the cargo hold of a freighter, before being snuck past Customs agents, into the waiting hands of New York mobsters and veins of American junkies. Michel is as determined to put an end to the French connection, on his end, as Doyle and Grosso were on their turf. The biggest difference in the two movies’ takes on the same crime is Jimenez’ decision to make Michel’s family an integral part of the drama, which, of course, it was. His wife, Jacqueline (Céline Sallette), is, at first, deprived of her husband’s attention at home and, then, threatened by some very serious Corsican thugs. Eventually, the long hours and pressure on his family took its toll on Michel. It wasn’t until New York police intercepted one of the trucks and they invited him to participate in the interrogation that Michel was able to exploit the weakest links in the chain of command. It allowed him to intimidate the politicians and police officials who were protected the mobsters and tipping them off to raids. What Michel didn’t know was how much pressure was being exerted on Gatean by his customers in the U.S., who were being wooed by traffickers from Southeast Asia and Latin America with lower prices for heroin. At the same time, pressure was put on Turkish leaders to reduce or eliminate their production of morphine, ostensibly used for medicinal purposes. It raised the ante on Michel and his family, without him even knowing it. For viewers, the suspense is palpable. The stylish Blu-ray presentation adds a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.
I would have been attracted to Aloft, simply for the presence of Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy and Mélanie Laurent, a French actress of astounding beauty who made a big impression in Inglourious Basterds. Even without their participation, however, I would have rented Aloft just to see how Peruvian writer/director Claudia Llosa would follow up her stunning debut features, Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow. It didn’t long for me to figure out Aloft wasn’t going to be me my cup of tea, however. Even by all of the usual arthouse standards, it soon become apparent to me that this was a movie, or should I say, film, that was going to demand more of my attention than I was prepared to give it. The last things that left me as far out at sea from Minute One were the bewildering HBO series “John From Cincinnati” and “The Leftovers.” Nearing its second season, “The Leftovers” began Season One three years after 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared, leaving survivors and viewers to wonder what could have precipitated such a cataclysmic event. The revelation, several episodes later, of a Lynchian cult named the Guilty Remnant, whose followers wear white, take vows of silence and chain-smoke cigarettes, added little to my comprehension of its creators’ intentions. The opening scene in Aloft reveals a line of cars and trucks, some of whose passengers, we’ll learn, hope to hear their names announced as winners of a lottery conducted by an enigmatic healer, known as “The Architect.” Connelly plays the mother of two boys, one of whom carries a falcon that crashes into a structure made of sticks when it senses that the boy is in danger, thus disrupting the ritual. Sacrilege. On the way back home, the bird is shot in flight by a random jerk, again for no good reason. Sometime soon, the Architect informs Connelly’s Nana Kunning that she’s the real healer, even she’s unable to prevent her youngest son from drowning in a tragic accident. Despondent, Nana blames the older boy, Ivan, effectively banishing him from her life.
Twenty years later, Nana is a renowned artist and healer, while her estranged son has grown into a falconer of some distinction. Jannia, a journalist, insinuates herself into the lives of Nana and Ivan, for no apparent reason than to facilitate an ending that some viewers will consider to have been worth their investment in time and patience. The amazing thing about Aloft is the stark environment in which it’s set. Like the similarly chilly The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm and Affliction, most of the movie takes place in late fall or the dead of a Manitoba winter, on and around a large frozen lake, where global warming is nothing more than a cruel joke. Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc makes the conditions look every bit as forbidding as they probably were during the location shoot. I imagine that the frigid environs hold some deeper meaning as to the tortuous feeling of abandonment Ivan feels toward Nana and the grief left over from the death of his brother. I don’t recommend tackling Aloft without first becoming acquainted with Llosa through Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow, movies whose strange magic feels as indigenous to the Andes as llamas and coca leaves. An interview with the filmmaker would have been a nice addition to the Blu-ray package, but, I’m afraid, the producers decided to cut their losses by leaving us in the dark.
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Cohen Media’s delicious documentary, Deli Man, and Film Movement’s mouth-watering Famous Nathan, or, for that matter, the even more obscure If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent. Those who aren’t, however, might require a translator to savor the films’ full flavor. Deli Man uses the rise and gradual decline of delicatessen dining to comment on the spread of Jewish culture in 20th Century America. Famous Nathan puts a tight focus on a single Jewish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, whose single-minded resolve turned a Coney Island hot-dog stand into a New York landmark and model for fast-food restaurants everywhere. He did it so future generations of Handwerkers – whose thick accents might require a screening of If These Knishes Could Talk to understand – would have a place of their own to go to work. Or, not, as the case might be. Nathan’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, appears to have created Famous Nathan as much to get a handle on the complexities of his cantankerous family as to memorialize the man who made it all possible. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the story of how Nathan made his way from Eastern Europe to Brooklyn is as interesting as how the restaurant that bears his name became as familiar a destination as Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden. The archival material that informs Famous Nathan necessarily describes what Coney Island meant to the millions of New Yorkers who flocked to it on hot days and weekends, when it served the city as a natural air-conditioning system. Less interesting is the discussion about the business’ evolution from a single dining institution to a brand, struggling to keep pace with dozens of other chains not as closely identified with a single product or location. Neither does the revelation of family secrets and other spilt milk add much to our enjoyment of the documentary. It’s the interviews with former employees and longtime denizens of Coney Island – now a far cry from the attraction it was in its heyday – that enliven the proceedings and paint a more essential portrait of a quintessential New York character.
One of the dubious things about movies in which prominent people are brought down by their own sexual malfeasance is that they assume viewers share the same disdain for the characters’ frailties as the filmmakers. The same goes for the media, which want us to be appalled by their reports of misbehavior by politicians and celebrities and revelations about escort services that would be legal in many parts of the world and a few counties in Nevada. Unless the accusations involve rape, sex slavery or children, generally speaking, the titillation dissipates after a few hours and is gone. Hypocrisy is something else entirely. It’s as good a subject for exploitation in the movies as any, but rarely dealt with the precision it requires. In Zipper, Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson) is an ambitious Louisiana prosecutor, who finds himself turned on by an attractive blond intern (Dianna Agron). The pope would have trouble resisting the young woman’s advances, but Sam manages to avoid anything more provocative than a mushy kiss. Not only are workplace dalliances taboo, but, if caught, his political career would die a quick death. Still, he was tempted. A few days later, he appears at a deposition where an even more stunning woman – this time, a high-price escort – makes googly-eyes at him. Despite the fact that he’s married to a woman, Jeannie (Lena Headey), who’s every bit as hot as the escort and dotes on him, personally, professionally and sexually, Sam decides that he can’t live another minute without making an appointment at the same service as is being investigated by the feds. His first date with a pro goes well enough, we’re led to believe, to rate liaisons with as many different women as he can afford. As addictions go, heroin is nothing compared to strange pussy in anonymous rendezvous … at least, for this poor sap. Sam tries to jog away his cold sweats, but can’t shake the need for sweet young things. Things begin to go south for him when he grows paranoid over the possibility that he’s being spied upon – he is, but not for the same reasons he imagines them to be – and he makes the mistake of rushing into oncoming traffic, where he’s hit by a car. While he’s still in a haze from pain-killers, Jeannie, already knowing the answer, asks why he was carrying an envelope containing hundred-dollar bills, while outside a hotel in the middle of the afternoon. Busted, but to what end? Cognizant of the disappearing act that occurs when the wives of prominent philanderers seek a divorce, Jeannie is forced to weigh the options open to her. Should she risk the loss of access and prestige that comes with being a politician’s wife – Sam’s being groomed to fill a vacancy in Congress – or seek a new life, somewhere out of the spotlight? Maybe, too, Jeannie can use jiu-jitsu to spin the situation to her advantage. Meanwhile, Sam is still not sure if he’s being followed, who may have hired the tails and what they’re trying to discover about him. If he guesses wrong, it could be as hazardous to his career as being caught in a twin spin with Heidi Fleiss and the Mayflower Madam. Despite some fine acting and a plausible narrative, Zipper left me with the feeling that Sam was being set up for a fall more by co-writer/director Mora Stephens than, say, the pair of FBI investigators, grubby reporter (Ray Winstone), political fixer (Richard Dreyfuss) and father-in-law who have a stake in his career. In her commentary, Stephens says that her story was informed by her fascination with addictive behavior and how Bill Clinton’s self-destructive tendencies may have impacted Hillary’s personal and political aspirations. That’s fair, as far as it goes. However, it ignores the fact that Jeannie and Hillary are portrayed as being two very different people and none of the former president’s “bimbo eruptions” were triggered by a woman who looked like Dianna Agron. The great unsolved mystery of Bill Clinton remains why he would risk everything (allegedly) for Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Kathleen Willey. JFK, at least, shot for the stars with Marilyn Monroe. Rounding out the cast are Christopher McDonald, John Cho, Alexandra Breckenridge, Elena Satine and Penelope Mitchell. Besides commentary, the disc adds deleted scenes.
Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron: Blu-ray
With a global box-office haul of a staggering $1.40 billion Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t need any further endorsement from me. Joss Whedon’s juggernaut enters the DVD/Blu-ray market on Friday – the day typically reserved for theatrical openings – for an assault on the autumnal marketplace. With the recent release of Furious Seven still setting records, video retailers and VOD outlets should be all smiles these days. My only recommendation is for consumers not to expect the overall experience to fit comfortably on their itty-bitty cellphone screens. This time around, things go horribly wrong when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron. It takes the combined talents of Earth’s mightiest superheroes to stop the A.I. monster – played by added starter, James Spader — from enacting his terrible plans. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and meet an old friend, Vision (Paul). Special features include commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes. Bettany Viewers new to the franchise may need a scorecard to keep track of the many new and old players.
Fans of “How I Met Your Mother” are the target audience for Cobie Smulders’ portrayal of a pregnant high school science teacher in Kris Swanberg’s Mumblecorian melodrama, Unexpected. Since leaving the long-running show, last year, she’s also carried the lead in Andrew Bujalski’s barely released Results, and appeared as Maria Hill in Avengers: Age of Ultron, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Smulder’s Samantha Abbott teaches at an inner-city school in Chicago that’s scheduled to be closed in the summer. The discovery of her unplanned pregnancy fills Samantha with the usual range of feelings experienced by working women who have yet to fulfill their career dreams, but aren’t necessarily averse to becoming a mom at 30. Once her husband, John (Anders Holm), gets used to the possibility of having to support a family on a single income, he turns into the kind of guy who embraces traditional expectations of how their child should be raised. His disappointment at Samantha’s decision to pursue a museum job that would begin a month after her delivery date both surprises and disappoints her. Neither is her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) very sympathetic to her concerns. Meanwhile, at school, her only prize student, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is pregnant and in dire need of solid advice. She’s decided to carry the child to term, based mostly on a promise from her marginally employed boyfriend to remain with her through thick and thin. Yeah, right. On the plus side, Samantha thinks she has arranged for Jasmine to attend the University of Illinois and live in family housing. Alas, that idea doesn’t work out so well, either. What Jasmine considers to be a broken promise splits the two women at the worst possible time. Unexpected received mostly positive reviews in its limited release, with the exception of a few critics who felt as if Jasmine’s plight was framed to fit the perspective of white screenwriters Megan Mercier and Swanberg, upon whose own life the picture is loosely based. As sympatico as they are with both their characters, it does occasionally feel as if they’ve stacked the deck against Jasmine, in order to goose the narrative.
Miles to Go
The West Side of Los Angeles is lousy with the children and grandchildren of well-known entertainers and industry executives. Most manage not to embarrass their elders, but few can say they didn’t find the leg up to be helpful. Some seem to go out of their way not promote the fact that they’re related to someone – the Gummer sisters, for example – while others count on their publicists to help audiences and critics make the connection for them. Such is the case with Quincy Rose, the author, director and star of the micro-budget rom-com, Miles to Go. In it, the beyond-neurotic protagonist, Miles, has decided that he’s a failure at romance and compensates for it through masturbation and regular massage-parlor visits. He’s a mess, but in the recognizably comic mold of characters created by Albert Brooks and Woody Allen. At 6-foot-2 and covered with tattoos, Miles is a frustrated writer who doesn’t easily fit the classic definition of a nebbish, even if that is how he’s been drawn. He also is surrounded by friends, a therapist and a sister whose advice ranges from supportive to crudely inappropriate. The central dilemma here, however, is his on-again/off-again relationship with Julia (Jen McPherson), who can’t seem to decide if she’s repulsed or attracted by Miles. That she seems to enjoy teasing him with regular booty-calls, before pulling the rug out from under him in the morning, only adds confusion to his neuroses. As perplexing as Julia is, however, in McPherson’s capable hands, she’s the only multidimensional character in the movie. In his portrayal of Miles, Rose demands that we recognize the creative debt he owes his father, Mickey, and “godfather,” Woody Allen,” who grew up together and collaborated on What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run and Bananas. Moreover, as we’re informed on IMDB.com, his mother and Woody’s sister, Letty Aronson, are best friends. At a formative age, Miles played small parts (“Guy on Bench” and “2d AD”) in Allen’s Whatever Works and Melinda and Melinda. If that ain’t nepotism, then Mayor Richard J. Daley didn’t say, “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons and help them, then, what’s the world coming to?” This isn’t to suggest Miles to Go is devoid of humor, only that Rose might want to shelf the nebbish routine for a while.
9 Full Moons
There’s almost nothing less interesting for audiences not comprised of angst-ridden hipsters than movies that are full of them. Although the characters’ woes seem important to them in the moment, to paraphrase Rick Blain, in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a couple little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The tragically hip characters in Tomer Almagor’s brooding rom-dram 9 Full Moons can’t seem to get their acts together, even if they have enough money to live in Los Angeles’ coolest neighborhood and can afford endless supplies of booze, drugs and ironic headwear. Frankie (Amy Seimetz) is a longtime alcoholic and emotional basket case, who hangs out among the indie-music crowd in Silver Lake and frequently accepts rides home with the wrong men. Lev (Bret Roberts) is a self-tortured hunk, who aspires to becoming the kind of uncompromising sound engineer who rejects demands for commercial appeal. They meet very un-cutely at a neighborhood bar and, after a rocky start, decide to see if opposites really do attract. It will take a substantial jolt of reality to get Lev and Frankie thinking of something greater than themselves, however. Just when it seems as if they might be growing up, Almagor pulls the rug out from under them. Even so, Silver Lake is the kind of place where everything is possible, so it pays never to give up on love. There’s nothing wrong with the performances here, especially a guest appearance by Donal Logue as a belligerent outlaw country star. Cameos by Pamela Adlon and Harry Dean Stanton don’t hurt, either.
Eaten Alive: Special Edition: Blu-ray
A Plague So Pleasant
Following in the crimson wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s fact-based creature feature Eaten Alive couldn’t avoid the intense scrutiny of horror fans and critics. It box-office performance suffered from unrealistic expectations and spotty distribution. Forty years later, though, Eaten Alive remains as entertaining as any genre picture of the period. In addition to being inspired by the story of Joe Ball — the Alligator Man from Elmendorf, Texas – it has everything one would expect from a Southern Gothic chiller: killer reptiles and rats, a demented innkeeper, moon-illuminated swamps, sharply honed garden tools, a brothel with an African-American hostess, children in danger, lots of nudity and a rogue’s gallery of dubious characters, played by Neville Brand, Carolyn Jones, William Farley, Stuart Whitman, Mel Ferrer and a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Among the drive-in dollies and alligator bait are Janus Blythe, Marilyn Burns, Crystin Sinclaire and Roberta Collins. After Collins’ hideously wigged strumpet is drummed out of her job at the local whorehouse – she refuses to submit to demands for anal sex by Englund’s redneck douchebag – she seeks refuge in a spooky hotel run by a scythe-wielding freak (Brand), whose pet gator (or crocodile, depending on whom one asks) resides in a small pond on the side of the ramshackle building. The proprietor doesn’t cotton to prostitutes, so, after interrupting her bath, makes her his first victim of the evening. Despite its remote location in the boonies, the hotel also is found by the slain prostitute’s father and a woman who’s traveling with her cute and surprisingly fearless 6-year-old daughter. Because the entire film was shot on a soundstage at Hollywood’s Raleigh Studios, most of the action in Eaten Alive takes place in a relatively claustrophobic environment. For my money, the mechanical alligator deployed here is more realistic than the dozens of others that have followed in its wake. If the title, Eaten Alive, doesn’t ring a bell, older viewers might remember it as “Horror Hotel,” “Horror Hotel Massacre,” “Legend of the Bayou,” “Murder on the Bayou” or “Starlight Slaughter.” Ownership changed hands several times and, apparently, every new distributor thought its title held the key to success. They were wrong. Arrow Video’s 2K transfer cuts through the darkness of the Gothic conceits and the musical and dialogue tracks have also been given a fresh polish. The Blu-ray bonus package adds commentary with co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, stars Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon; interviews with Hooper, Janus, Reardon, Englund and Burns; vintage marketing material; a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Steven; and very entertaining chat with a close relative of the South Texas bar owner on whom Eaten Alive is loosely based.
From the ever-adventurous Wild Eye Releasing, A Plague So Pleasant is a zombie movie that owes almost everything to a close study of George Romero’s ground-breaking “Night of the Living Dead.” What separates Benjamin Roberds and Jordan Reyes’ debut feature from the pack, however, are a couple of interesting conceits that advance the sub-genre in unexpected ways. A cease-fire in the apocalyptic war between zombies and humans, which Romeo first chronicled in 1968, has been declared and appears to be holding. The undead shuffle their way through town, seemingly oblivious to the humans among whom they circulate. For their part, the living are legally obligated to tolerate the presence of the zombies in their midst. Anything to avoid another costly war. Because the corpses of dead combatants have become so prevalent, cemeteries have been turned into free-range preserves, surrounded by high fences. Relatives can visit their deteriorating loved ones, but shouldn’t expect their affection to be returned. Of course, not everyone is satisfied with the new status quo. Clay Marshall (David Chandler) has grown tired of taking his sister Mia (Eva Boehnke) to visit her dead boyfriend Gerry, for whom she’s even knit a new wool cap. His roommate Todd (Maxwell Moody) would like to hook up with Mia, but it’s difficult to compete with an undead memory. Clay knows that anything he does to eliminate the corpse from the equation theoretically would break the ceasefire and start a new war. How far is Clay willing to go to straighten out his delusional sister? It’s at this point that filmmakers elect to change the color palette entirely, shifting out of the black-and-white mode to something different. While it’s an interesting decision, they lacked the budget to avoid all of the clichés as they approached the climax. It’s amazing, though, how far they were able to stretch the $3,000 they reportedly had to make A Plague So Pleasant, especially in the special makeup effects, some of which are truly grotesque.
The easiest way to explain Crab Queen to anyone who hasn’t seen its cheesy cover is to suggest that it’s a made-for-Syfy movie that wasn’t made for Syfy. It opens on a serene lake, where a cabin doubles as a laboratory for a mad scientist working on a growth serum. His precocious daughter, Melissa, steals samples from her dad’s experiment to feeds it to her “best friend,” a fresh-water crab, which resembles a Potamon ibericum, several thousand miles away from its natural habitat. Twenty years after an accident destroys the lab, spewing chemicals into the lake, Melissa still resides on the property, protecting its secrets with a gun and riot grrrl attitude. One night, a childhood friend chances upon Melissa (Michelle Miller) in the woods, dancing in the moonlight, either nude or in a gauzy nightgown. (It’s shot from a distance, unfortunately.) Now a Hollywood movie star, Jennifer Kane (Kathryn Metz) not only is the closest thing Melissa has for a friend, but she also enjoys cock-teasing the local rednecks. Jennifer convinces Melissa to come out of her shell long enough to visit a nearby honky-tonk. Sensing her discomfort, Goliath the gigantic crab makes its presence known by doing what monster critters do in movies like Crab Queen. Given the creature’s gender, it should come as no surprise when iridescent eggs begin to litter the landscape, promising even more mayhem to come. There’s nothing in the movie to suggest that writer/director Brett Piper (Bacterium) has ever watched a genre flick enhanced by CGI technology that he’s wanted to copy. Because Crab Queen is old-school all the way, it can be enjoyed for its camp value, if nothing else. Bonus features include a pair of making-featurettes, a blooper reel, commentary with Piper and producer Mark Polonia and trailers for some of Piper’s previous films, all of which fall into the same category as the semi-legendary Birdemic.
There is a certain subgenre of horror that covers movies that describe what happens when writers and filmmakers find themselves stuck in the same nightmare worlds inhabited by their characters. Typically, they are severely blocked or depressed to the point where schizophrenia rules their waking life. In freshman filmmaker Gregory Blair’s Deadly Revisions, genre favorite Bill Oberst Jr. plays novelist and filmmaker Grafton Torn, who awakens from a coma with large chunks of his internal data base missing. In an effort to recoup his memories, he accepts a friend’s invitation to hole up in his remote lakeside cabin. Even under the supervision of a psychotherapist, this strategy never seems to turn out right. This is especially true when dealing with the kind of artists whose best dreams are everyone else’s nightmares. Not surprisingly, either, the writer’s imagination dredges up images of horrors he’s created, but buried deeply within his subconscious mind. Among them are a hooded figure, a possessed doll, a zombie and hangman’s noose. It would be difficult for a sane person, living in a noisy household, to handle, but the setting only amplifies the sound of things that go bump in the night. Oberst’s presence, alone, makes everything better. Bonus features include trailers and a blooper reel.
And, speaking of faces that go bump in the night, there’s the frightening visage of one Tommy “Tiny” Lister. At a muscular 6-foot-5, the former pro wrestler and basketball player would only be a slight underdog in a fistfight with King Kong and, in Death’s Door, he’s been given facial makeup that would scare the grin off of the Joker. He plays the doorman at a haunted mansion, where a dozen young men and women have been invited to boogey until the cows come home. Like the Hotel California, however, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” It seems to have been modeled after Hollywood’s Magic Castle, where there’s a secret behind every door and hallways that lead to unexpected places. Here, you can substitute “unexpected” for “horrifying.” The gag here is that the guests all have connections that date back to an ill-fated performance by a magician named Mesmer (Obba Babatundé). It would be a stretch to say that Kennedy Goldsby’s Death’s Door breaks any new ground in the haunted-house sub-genre, but the jolts are reasonably unpredictable and the actors are enthusiastic enough. Bonus features include a “Shorty Wassup” music video, by Sizzol Pop with Sean Samar; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and the personal accounts by cast and crew members of ghostly encounters on the set of Death’s Door, reputed to be a haunted house.
The Duke of Burgundy: Blu-ray
Anyone who believes that a work of cinematic erotica requires nudity to be truly sexy hasn’t seen Peter Strickland’s sensually riveting, The Duke of Burgandy, which relies on delicate lingerie, experimental music, subtle visual effects, intricate set designs and superb acting to accomplish in 15 minutes what 50 Shades of Grey and 9½ Weeks couldn’t pull off in four hours of combined running times. Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) and Chiara D’Anna (Berberian Sound Studio) hardly seem to be acting, as they take their bourgeois characters, Cynthia and Evelyn, to places most actors wouldn’t go, even if the nudity is limited to a fleeting glimpse of a nipple escaping a silky nightgown. It doesn’t take long to see that writer/director Peter Strickland is playing games with our first impressions. Evelyn is a maid in the ivy-covered estate owned by Cynthia, a widely respected butterfly researcher. Evelyn is completely subservient to her mistress, who demands she repeat simple chores – scrubbing her dainty britches by hand, always missing one frilly panty — and refrain from speaking. We aren’t really all that surprised when Cynthia finally opens herself to her servant’s caresses and careful massaging of legs in shiny black stockings. As time goes on and chores are repeated in the precise order that they’ve been performed previously, we see that Cynthia is following a script written by her submissive lover. The interplay between the two women truly is hypnotic, enhanced, as it is, by a lingerie wardrobe that makes the Victoria’s Secret collection look like a pre-Valentine’s Day sale at Sears. When Evelyn decides that she trade the plush comfort of Cynthia’s bed for an antique wooden box only a few feet away from where her mistress sleeps, it’s impossible not to wonder where pleasure ends and pain begins … and vice versa. Unlike the butterflies in their collection, neither woman seems pinned to or by their fetish of choice. Strickland intentionally has left open the question as to whether Cynthia and Evelyn relate exclusively to women. By focusing on the dynamics and details of their relationship – and excluding male characters, entirely – Strickland allows viewers to focus entirely on what’s happening to them on screen and not what might happen when things get too weird for the apprentice, as was the case in both 50 Shades of Grey and 9½ Weeks. It’s the sensuality that exists in the moment — like the fleeting beauty of a butterfly or moth in flight — that transcends the medium. Strickland accomplished something similar with the amazing audio palette in Berberian Sound Studio. The attention to sensual detail even extends to the conceit of adding a perfume credit (Je Suis Gizella) alongside that for lingerie designer (Andrea Flesch) and ethereal musical contributions by Cat’s Eye. If the film harkens back to 1970s European erotica, with its gauzy cinematography and soft-core sex, well, it’s almost certainly intentional.
The sensuality in Philippe Audi-Dor’s Wasp is provided primarily by the spectacularly beautiful scenery of Gordes, Provence, in southeastern France. To call it idyllic is to understate the obvious. Olivier (Simon Haycock) and his lover, James (Hugo Bolton), are staying in a family estate overlooking the valley for the summer, essentially doing nothing except luxuriating in the sun. Both men seem comfortable with their sexuality and, therefore, viewers don’t sense impending danger when the recently dumped redhead, Caroline (Elly Condron), is invited to join them for a while. Seemingly, without raising a finger, Caroline’s mere presence causes a rift between the two men, however. The first fissure becomes visible when Olivier becomes upset with all the attention paid to their guest by James, who seems only to feel sorry for her. The dynamic reverses itself when James becomes concerned with Olivier’s obsession over Caroline’s presence and subsequent rapprochement. He even goes so far as to demand of Olivier that he define what being gay means to him. Although she looks as if she would burn to a crisp if she stayed in the sun more than two minutes without a hat, Caroline isn’t nearly as harmless as she appears to be. Bored to the point where she prefers being mischievous to reading and swimming all day, she decides to take out her unhappiness with men, in general, by gently flirting with Olivier. At one point, Caroline reveals her unsupported breasts to him by changing her shirt in front of him. It’s a game intended to test the gay man’s response to a sight that technically shouldn’t have any effect on him, and it doesn’t. It’s when James walks in on them, clearly uptight, Caroline knows that she’s set the hook. The tension that grows out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness is palpable and not at all fun to watch. As drama, though, it works pretty well. Audi-Dor’s script sometimes sputters as it struggles to convince us that James and Olivier’s relationship is sufficiently fragile that wee ginger lass could come between them. In only her first feature, Condron looks as if she has a long career ahead of her in British rom-coms and BBC mini-series. The DVD adds several interviews with the actors and director, as well as a commentary track with Audi-Dor.
37: A Final Promise
Adam Webb is a successful goth-rocker, living in a spectacular Malibu aerie overlooking the ocean. Almost by definition, goth-rockers shouldn’t feel comfortable in such splendid surroundings, but Webb is only killing time until his 37th birthday, when he expects to commit suicide. He’s been tortured by the untimely death of his brother for many years and the number, 37, hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles. Before that can happen, though, Webb wants to deliver one last album. Instead, Adam falls in love with an ethereally beautiful woman, Jemma Johnstone (Scottie Thompson), he meets after a show, but is warned against pursuing by her sister, Christina (Tricia Helfer). Although Christina comes across as a groupie, she doesn’t trust the heavily tattooed musician to be anything but trouble for the fragile Jemma. As it turns out, Jemma is slowly dying from an unusually early onset of ALS. In true Hollywood fashion, Jemma’s plight reveals something bright and hopeful in Adam. As Jemma’s candle begins to burn out, 37: A Final Promise demands of Adam that he consider the ramifications not only of his own suicide, but also Jemma’s plea for an assisted death. It is a subject very much in the news these days, of course, and co-writer/director/Randall Batinkoff handles it with appropriate sensitivity. Batinkoff was inspired by the true story of Guy Blews, as described in his autobiographical, “How Angels Die.” Before becoming a lifestyle adviser, Blews was lead singer for the band, Monrow. He backs up Adam in the band Wendigo on lead guitar. “37” isn’t particularly credible as drama, as it too frequently comes off as disease-of-the-week movie on MTV. Bruce Davison isn’t bad as a psychic, who sees the kinds of things his customers might not want to know. Also prominent are Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”), Kate Nauta (“Transporter 2”), Leon Robinson (“Cool Runnings”) and the rocker, Shavo (System of a Down). The DVD adds the music video, “No Answer,” by Dark Chapter. Cinematographer Wes Cardino does a particularly nice job capturing the natural beauty of Malibu, when the local surfers aren’t beating up outsiders and owners of beachfront property aren’t allowed to prohibit visitors from the sand owned by taxpayers.
Five Films by Patricio Guzman
Souvenirs of Bucovina: A Romanian Survival Guide
A Murder in the Park
Few genres have benefitted as much from advances in filmmaking technology than documentaries. The smaller the camera and less obtrusive the sound equipment, the purer the product … or so the theory goes. Certainly, we’ve seen the benefits of digital cameras in covering such historical events as the resistance movements in Burma (They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain) and China (Disorder), which were shot by citizen documentarians using handheld equipment and smartcards. The introduction of lightweight 16mm cameras, in the 1960s, had a similar effect on independent filmmakers pursuing the cinéma vérité approach to non-fiction cinema. No greater demonstration of the possibilities afforded by 16mm cameras could be found than in the films of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who almost single-handedly delivered both the truth behind his homeland’s peaceful socialist revolution and of the violent, CIA-sponsored counter-revolution against it in 1973. As proof of the impact his films had on the military regime, Guzmán was rounded up with thousands of other suspected radicals and held in a soccer stadium. Upon his release, he left for Europe and didn’t return to Chile until General Augusto Pinochet was rendered powerless, 25 years later. It was during this period that Guzmán created his three-part The Battle of Chile, which, last year, was ranked 19th Sight & Sound’s list of Greatest Documentaries of All Time. It’s included in Icarus Films’ essential collection, “Five Films by Patricio Guzmán,” which also includes, Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case(2001), Salvador Allende (2004) and Nostalgia for the Light (2011), an almost impossibly beautiful and meditative essay on the nexus of astronomy, archaeology and Chilean politics in the Atacama Desert. “Nostalgia” was ranked No. 12 in the Sight & Sound poll. The collection adds a 24-page booklet, with a new essay written by José Miguel Palacios, and exclusive feature-length profile, “Filming Obstinately, Meeting Patricio Guzmán” (2014) by Boris Nicot.
Most of what we know about ISIS (a.k.a., Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) derives from propaganda supplied by the terrorist organization, itself, and whatever information the U.S. government cares to share with us, which isn’t much. The rest comes from Internet-delivered footage of mass murders committed in the name of a God who knows no shame or pity. The new Disinformation documentary, Meeting ISIS, only scratches the surface on the political and tactical blunders that led to emergence of an alternate Islamic universe equipped with like-new American equipment and populated by religious fanatics from around the world. The camera crew that was allowed access to extreme Takfiri ideologues came back with footage loaded with rhetoric, but blessedly short on actual atrocities. (A warning appears before the more grisly stuff is shown.) Their aim is said to be the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, absent any Shias, Christians, Sunnis, Yazidies, and any other group that dares question their distorted version of Islamic Sharia. The villagers we meet tend to go along with the program, if only to avoid being shot or deprived of staples. We also meet militants who’ve left ISIS and become affiliated with other organizations fighting the Syrian government. And, of course, women associated with ISIS are nowhere to be seen, as are those who were kidnapped, raped and forced to serve as sex slaves.
Souvenirs of Bucovina: A Romanian Survival Guide, directed by rock-doc specialist Robert Mugge, is a two-hour historical documentary masquerading as a travelogue. Bucovina is located on the northern slopes of the central Eastern Carpathians and adjoining plains, which means it’s been coveted for the last 2,000 years by the Romans, Goths, Huns, Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Nazis, Soviets and Soviet puppets. Since World War II, it has been split between Northern Romania and Southern Ukraine. In typical fashion, Mugge opens the film with performances by a traditional band and folk dancers. It sets up a discussion of the rich ethnic history of the region, which was re-populated by people from surrounding areas seeking a haven from religious prosecution and prohibitive taxing bodies. The film is divided into six parts: the first examines such enduring treasures of the Bucovina region as its pottery, its native dances, and the Eastern Orthodox monasteries built in the 16th Century by Moldavian princes and decorated with colorful exterior frescoes; the second introduces multiple generations of a unique Bucovinan family; the third explores some of the last remaining synagogues and cemeteries of the once-dominant Jewish population, which was largely killed off or deported during and after World War II; the fourth explores the Roma (gypsy) population, which was enslaved for 500 years and, like the Jewish population, transported to death camps by Nazis and their sympathizers; the fifth compares life under Communism from the 1940s through the 1980s, with life under Capitalism and democracy today; and the sixth explores the outbreak of color in Romanian society since the democratic revolution of 1989. Interviewees include the Mayor of Radauti, a local historian, an Eastern Orthodox archbishop, a Ukrainian rabbi, a cemetery caretaker, the president of a local Jewish Federation and a wide variety of musicians.
A Murder in the Park is an investigative documentary that completely demolishes one of the most controversial murder acquittals in Chicago legal history. The acquittal came several years after Anthony Porter was sentenced to death for the murders of teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green, on a hot night in Chicago’s Washington Park. In 1998, a group of university students re-investigated the case, and seemingly found the real killer, Alstory Simon. Simon confessed to the crimes, and Porter was released and pardoned after his harrowing ordeal shook the public’s confidence in the justice system and led to then-Governor George Ryan to vacate the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates. Soon after his confession, Simon accepted a plea bargain and began serving a 37 year sentence for the killings. He later claimed that he was coerced into the confession by overzealous journalists, students and lawyers who sought to use him simply as a tool in order to achieve their true goal of abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. From where I sit, though, Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber weren’t determined to bring the death penalty back to Illinois, but to prove that police investigators had arrested the right guy and the wrong guy was a victim of overzealous prosecution by the state and an ego-driven journalism professor, who fell in love with his own headlines. In fact, there’s no end in sight to the case’s fallout, which now includes against Northwest University. It’s also an indictment of a legal system that treats minority suspects and witnesses as if they’re either lying or blind.
If you can imagine an estranged sibling version of Lost in Translation, it might look something like Dog Years. Brent Ellis plays an emotionally withdrawn Japanese-American accountant, who isn’t at all pleased about being sent to Tokyo by his employer. He likes it even less when he’s immediately contacted by his half-brother, Ben (Warren Sroka), who teaches English to Japanese kids that already know the language. He’s so good-natured that he doesn’t seem to mind the fact that their father split for Thailand with his secretary almost immediately after he landed at Narita. Brent clearly is still smarting from the loss of his mother at an early stage in his development and no sooner does he check into his hotel than he begins seeing her ghost riding a bicycle through the busy streets. Ben really wants to show Brent a good time, but he’s determined to be miserable. A bad case of insomnia doesn’t help lighten his mood and neither does bad romantic news from home. In typical boys-will-be-boys fashion, Ben finally wears down his brother enough to convince him to join him on a road trip to the countryside. It’s no sure thing that their truce will continue after they get back to Tokyo, but, by this time, we’re willing to hang in there a while more. Sroka and Willis’ script offers a bit of levity, in the form of a classroom flirtation for Ben, but it also comes at some emotional cost to Ben. Dog Years may not be in the same league as Sofia Coppola’s film – how could it, without Bill Murray? – but it takes us to places we wouldn’t have gone, otherwise, and got better as it went along. How many first features can say that?
The Crazy Kids of the War
Leave it to Cheezy Flicks to unearth a 1967 World War II comedy that makes “Hogan’s Heroes” look like Stalag 17 and the creative team is identified only by half of their real names: director Steno and co-writers Castellano and Pipolo. The Crazy Kids of the War is a wildly madcap affair, in which funny Nazis demonstrate once again just how entertaining it can be to be occupied by SS officers with death’s-head buttons on their hats. Italy is still occupied by Germans, most of whom fit the mold cast for the Three Stooges and Katzenjammer Kids, when a buffoonish American pilot crash lands in a lovely little town, populated by people who are more loyal to Uncle Sam than Il Duce. The rest of the movie is spent keeping the Nazi from discovering the pilot, who’s assumed the identity of a priest. Along with a fat cleric, a deaf rocketeer and pixie-ish waitress, the Yank tooks around the countryside in a stolen motorcycle and sidecar. They also are required to impersonate Nazi officers after finding themselves trapped in a commandeered mansion. It is at this point in the story when tiny pop star Rita Pavone is required to add a Hitler mustache to her SS uniform and dance with a much larger German woman who thinks she’s cute. It’s likely that Italian audiences were attracted more by Pavone than the comedy, as she performs several lively song-and-dance numbers. As crazy as all of this sounds, it harkens back to a time when anything was fair game for slapstick, even Nazis. Still, I can’t imagine Mel Brooks being inspired by these crazy kids.
SWAT: Unit 887
Ever since the existence of Special Weapons and Tactics teams was made known to the public, in the 1960s, Hollywood has struggled to stay ahead of the curve in depicting their heroics … rarely, their debacles. The one-sided SLA “shootout,” in 1974, was broadcast live to millions of viewers who probably didn’t know that the teams were created years earlier to more efficiently snuff out militant groups, like the Black Panthers. Because no one bothered to copyright SWAT as a brand name, movie and television producers have been free to throw it on their products, willy-nilly, whether or not it fit properly. In the straight-to-DVD SWAT: Unit 887 (a.k.a., “24 Hours”) the only resemblance between a real SWAT unit and the characters in the blue windbreakers are the fake weapons carried by the fake cops. That’s not even the biggest whopper contained therein, however. That one can be credited to whoever was responsible for casting 29-year-old Mischa Barton, formerly of “The O.C.,” as FBI Agent Melanie Hamlin. It’s not that she doesn’t look great in a windbreaker, because she does. It’s just that she’s at least 10 years and 20 pounds shy of being credible as someone allowed to bark orders to the head of Los Angeles’ SWAT teams. Tom Sizemore, as usual, called in his role as the head of paramilitary team assigned to kidnap a sultry VIP bio-chemist (Emilie Jo Tisdale) during a political fundraiser for a senator (Said Faraj) with a thick Lebanese accent. The howlers don’t end there, either. This mess was directed by Timothy Woodward Jr. (Throwdown), who plays one of the cops assigned to the party. He reports directly to Michael Pare.
The Bear: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1981, Jean-Jacques Annaud made a big splash with a wildly inventive movie that approximated our distant ancestors’ search for that most valuable of commodities: fire. It was set 80,000 years ago, in Paleolithic Europe, even before the formation of a recognizable language. Not everyone embraced Quest for Fire, which some saw merely as a 100-minute extension of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and others took for comedy. A lot more viewers, however, appreciated Annaud’s chutzpah, which extended to hiring authors Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”) and Desmond Morris (“The Naked Ape”) to add their expertise to the proceedings. Not for nothing, but Quest for Fire also introduced Ron Perlman – whose skull may someday be mistaken for the missing link in human evolution – to international movie audiences. Seven years later, immediately after The Name of the Rose, Annaud took another audacious stab at presenting nature on its own terms. From Shout! Factory comes “The Bear: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” which, in Blu-ray, looks nothing short of spectacular. Once again, minimal dialogue was required to tell the coming-of-age story of an orphan bear cub that endears itself to a much larger bruin, by giving him some TLC after being wounded by a hunter. The giant grizzly gets its revenge by going medieval on the hunter’s camp, horses and pack mules. His partner will return after a trip downstream, with a pack of dogs and provisions for the long haul. In between, we’re treated to some wonderful play acting by the bears in the pristine meadows and river beds. If the scenery doesn’t quite resemble what most moviegoers, by now, recognize as British Columbia, it’s because Annaud decided to shoot The Bear high in Italy’s uniquely shaped, but equally rugged Dolomites. It would be another 10 years or so before the use of animatronic animals, enhanced by CGI technology, would become a reliable shortcut for directors of animal pictures. Reportedly, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was hired to make five animatronic bears to act as stand-ins for the real ones and avoid anything that might be considered cruel. In the bright light of day, however, none of them looked quite as realistic as the cubs already enlisted for their individual talents, as explained in one of the Blu-ray featurettes. The Bear is based on a novel written in 1916 by American naturalist James Oliver Curwood, but some sequences are right out of the Walt Disney playbook. And, yes, any child who survived their first viewing of Bambi or Old Yeller isn’t likely to be freaked out by what happens in The Bear, which can be enjoyed by grown-ups, as well.
Soul Boys of the Western World
Unless one is familiar with the British rock band Spandau Ballet, George Hencken’s Soul Boys of the Western World is going to look a lot like a million other rock-u-mentaries currently in circulation. I can’t remember the band making much of a stir on this side of Atlantic, but, in the UK, it scored 10 Top 10 hits, including a No. 1 single “True”; a No. 2 single, “Gold”; and two No. 3 singles, “Chant No. 1″ and “Only When You Leave.” Additionally, the group has had 8 UK Top 10 albums, including three “greatest hits” compilations and an album of re-recorded material. What’s interesting about Spandau Ballet, though, is its place in British pop-music history as a leading proponent of the New Romantic movement, along with Duran Duran, Visage and Culture Club, bands known for their smooth, soulful style and anti-punk fashion sense. For the kids who frequented Covent Gardens’ Blitz club, New Romanticism freed them to dress as if every night was Halloween at fashion school. Likewise, the members of Spandau Ballet never went on stage unless their clothes and hairdos were as close to perfect as possible and the requisite accessories were in order. Later, as the drugs and booze began to corrode longtime friendships, squabbles over royalties led to lawsuits and a nasty breakup. Gary and Martin Kemp won critical accolades, for George Hencken their portrayal of the infamous twin gangsters, Ronald and Reginald Kray, in Peter Medak’s The Krays. George Hencken’s film winds up as the lads have re-formed for the inevitable reunion tour.
Outlander: Season One, Volume Two: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: Great Performances: Driving Miss Daisy
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger-tastic 3 Pack
I’m not sure what constitutes a surprise hit on premium-cable television these days, but I’m pretty sure that the Starz series, “Outlander,” easily qualifies as one. The time-travel romance follows the recent programming trend of dividing individual seasons in half, with a longer-than-usual hiatus period that reflects the demand for higher production values and tight storylines. Instead of waiting to compile full-season boxed sets, studios have begun to send out half-season DVD packages. Despite pricing considerations, it’s likely that fans of the show and people without cable prefer not to wait to re-savor individual episodes or sample the featurettes. The ability to endlessly replay the torrid sex scenes, featuring Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe), is worth the price of admission alone. The new compilation opens with even greater threats to the newlyweds by the sadistic Black Jack Randall. Soon, too, Claire’s knowledge of medicine will make her a target for those who equate healing outside the church as witchcraft. The real capper comes in the last two episodes after Jamie is re-captured and put into a cell that makes him easy prey for Black Jack. It’s as profoundly troubling a sequence as I’ve seen on television in a long time. The sparkling Blu-ray package adds 3D cover artwork; a 32-page book with photographs, excerpts from the scripts and an introduction from exec-producer Ronald D. Moore; podcasts; a gag reel; several lengthy making-of featurettes; deleted scenes with introduction by Ronald D. Moore; an extended version of “The Reckoning,” with Introduction by Moore; a cast and crew table read; and tour of the set with author Diana Gabaldon.
At a time when race relations in this country appear to have sunk to new lows, PBS is releasing its version of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” which has provided audiences with rays of hope for 30 years on stage, at the movies and on television. The pairing of Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones makes this edition must-viewing even for fans of the 1987 off-Broadway staging and Hollywood adaptation with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines reprises his Broadway role as Daisy’s son Boolie Werthan. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work was recorded in Melbourne, Australia, at the Comedy Theater. For those unfamiliar with the story, when Daisy Werthan, a widowed, 72-year-old Jewish woman living in mid-century Atlanta, is deemed too old to drive, her son hires Hoke Colburn, an African-American man, to serve as her chauffeur. What begins as a troubled and hostile pairing, soon blossoms into a profound, life-altering friendship that transcends all the societal boundaries placed between them.
The new “Tiger-tastic” collection of episodes from “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” includes 26 stories produced by the Fred Rogers Company. In them, Daniel learns to navigate social situations, while discovering skills that parents and their children can practice together. In “Life’s Little Lessons,” Daniel even uncovers interesting ways to deal with visiting his doctor, managing the “potty” issue and mastering the responsibility of time-management. In “Daniel’s Big Feelings,” he discovers that talking about his feelings makes it easier to deal with being sad, jealous and frustrated. And, in “Daniel Tries Something New,” Daniel and his parents discuss what to expect when doing something for the very first time.