As tiresome as most movies about our shared dystopian future have become, longtime fans of the increasingly predictable sub-genre shouldn’t give hope of finding something new and different until they’ve seen Crumbs, an instant classic from a place that looks as if it had already experienced the apocalypse and was left standing. Earlier this year, Ethiopia-based Spaniard Miguel Llansó captured the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival and the Imaging the Future Award at the Neuchâtel International Fantasy Film Festival. If it isn’t given serious consideration for a Spirit Award, it’s only because the folks at Film Independent haven’t cast their nets out far enough this season. If it had been made 30 years ago and released here as a midnight movie, Crumbs might be mentioned today in the same breath as El Topo, Eraserhead, Freaks, A Boy and His Dog and Pink Flamingos. It’s that fresh and unique. Crumbs was shot primarily in the far northeastern tip of Ethiopia, in and around the ghost town of Dallol, which is one of the most remote human settlements on Earth. It makes the Salton Sea look like the Garden of Eden.
A tiny malformed scavenger, Candy (Selam Tesfayie), whiles away his daylight hours in the punishing sun, picking through remnants of late twentieth century pop culture. At night, he shares a long-abandoned bowling alley with his artistic lover, Birdy (Daniel Tadesse), who worships the found relics in the same way as religious artifacts, ancient coins and antique jewelry are today. An amulet crafted from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurine is considered to be an especially significant item, as are a vintage copy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” LP and is a framed photograph of Michael Jordan. The only other thing of relevance to the Amharic-speaking survivors – including a witch, gangly old man in a Santa Claus suit and a horseman in Nazi garb – is a mysterious spacecraft that hovers over the planet, like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Silent for generations, Candy senses that the ship is coming back to life – the ball-return machinery starts working again – and he wants to be on it when it makes its next move. Llansó makes full use of the remnants of the mining community that were left behind after its minerals were played out in the 1960s. He and cinematographer Israel Seoane also pay homage to such fantasies as District 9, WALL-E, E.T. and Wizard of Oz along the way, with a special musical nod to Andrei Tarkovsky. If this all sounds suspiciously pretentious, know that Crumbs times in at a comfortable 68 minutes and the surprises along the way make it feel even shorter. The DVD adds “anecdotes” and the short films “Night in the Wild Garden” and “Chigger Ale,” also featuring Tadesse.
If the mere mention of the band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo raises a smile, it isn’t necessarily because you can recall whistling along to the band’s hits, “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science,” or that you were among the few to see Forbidden Zone, upon its release 35 years ago. Relegated to the midnight-movie ghetto, it disappeared completely after politically correctness reared its ugly head and the whistle was blown on some inarguably racist characterizations. Forbidden Zone originally was conceived as a video showcase for the theatrical eccentricities of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s extravagant live performances. Tentatively titled “The Hercules Family,” the 16mm film would consist of 12 musical numbers and bumpers loosely constructed around a family’s unfortunate decision to move into a house whose basement served as a portal to hell. As Richard’s 16mm vision evolved into a 35mm reality, the musical sequences were extended to reflect its completely off-the-wall narrative and the Elfmans’ cinematic aspirations. It now betrayed influences ranging from Spike Jones and the City Slickers; the Three Stooges; Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer’s 200 Motels; Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees’ musical, Head; music videos by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; and Terry Gilliam’s animation on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Among the many surprises in Forbidden Zone, apart from 3-foot-11 Hervé Villechaize’s portrayal of King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension, are delightfully twisted, if questionable homages to Josephine Baker and Cab Calloway. There’s also a human-size dancing frog, jockstrap-clad Kipper Kids, a chicken-boy able to communicate telepathically with his transvestite brother, Joe Spinell as a drunken sailor, classroom violence, a Jewish wrestler fighting a guy in an ape suit, and Danny Elfman playing Satan, while singing “Minnie the Moocher.” The Blu-ray set includes a re-mastered version of the original B&W film, a later colorized edition and interviews with the Elfmans, co-writer Matthew Bright, and co-stars Susan Tyrrell and Marie-Pascale Elfman. Danny Elfman’s next project was composing the theme music for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Before April 18, 2014, when an avalanche crashed down the slopes of Mount Everest, killing 16 Sherpa guides, climbing the world’s tallest peak was becoming as newsworthy as riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Reports of gridlock on the most direct route were being common, as were issues surrounding decades’ worth of garbage and human waste, and, more recently, how to deal with the growing number of frozen corpses of less-fortunate mountaineers visible to trekkers. Even after Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and Lou Kasischke’s “After the Wind” described the events surrounding the 1996 tragedy, in which eight climbers were killed, the rush to “conquer” Everest continued apace. So did such theatrical films, documentaries and cautionary tales as Touching the Void, The Wildest Dream, The Beckoning Silence, K2: Siren of the Himalayas, The Summit, Messner, Cold, North Face, Dying for Everest, The Climb, Blindsight and Farther Than the Eye Can See. No such traffic jams exist on the trails leading to Meru Peak, a mountain which lies in the Garwhal Himalayas, in the Uttarakhand region of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2001 that Russian climber Valeri Babanov reached the summit of Meru Central, overcoming a 100-meter rock face along the way. It would take another 10 years before the more direct and difficult central route – imagine clinging to the edge of a shark’s fin, 21,000 feet high — was used to reach the top by a team consisting of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. The fabulously thrilling documentary, Meru, is their visual record of the feat, as well as the preparations and setbacks that led up to it. It was co-directed by Chin, who carried a Red Epic digital camera on the climb, and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who chose to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground. Mountain climbing isn’t often lumped together with so-called extreme sports, unless fingernails are used instead of ropes and climbers sleep in portaledges, high above the floor of a canyon below them. There’s almost nothing in Meru, however, that viewers wouldn’t consider to be extreme, in one way or another. The Music Box Blu-ray is excellent, with deleted scenes, commentaries and interview segments.
No matter how spectacular the images in Meru are, it isn’t likely that tourists and amateurs will beat a path to the doors of its permanent residents, including the local fakirs. The peak is far too forbidding for anyone not a world-class climber to attempt. Icarus Films’ provocative documentary, Gringo Trails, raises questions asked previously in films decrying the trashing of Everest. It boils down to the steep price paid by the native populations when their homeland is “discovered” and revenues from tourism become impossible to resist. The exploitation of each new earthly paradise happens in dozens of different ways, some obvious and other far more subtle. As depicted by director Pegi Vail, associate director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, the examples are all too familiar to what’s happened in and around our national parks, and during spring break in Florida, Texas and Palm Springs. In 1981, Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg survived a month lost in the Amazon, emerging from the jungle nearly as emaciated as a concentration-camp survivor. Rather than frighten tourists away from the Amazon basin, his memoirs resulted in a new cottage industry, with adventurous tourists delivering prosperity to some and new forms of poverty to others. Likewise, an intrepid backpacker’s search for an “unspoiled” island paradise in Thailand has the unintended effect of turning it into a destination for debauched young people from around the world. Another victim of word-of-mouth publicity is the original inhabitant of an island on the Salt Flats of Bolivia, whose kindness to strangers nearly turned his backyard into an eco-tragedy. If all Vail related in her film were horror stories, it would hardly come as news to most enlightened American travelers. (The titular gringos aren’t limited to Yanks, by any means. We’re simply the most desired and despised of tourists.) She finds several examples of local residents taking control of their own tourist industry and limiting our footprints to something manageable and eco-friendly. Several of the experts interviewed are travel journalists whose job it is to discover such destinations and alert well-heeled readers and their backpacking kids to them before they’re spoiled by Euros and other people just like them. Bonus material adds another 45 minutes to the 79-minute film.
When it comes to dealing with sexual maturity, teenagers have a tough enough time without adding rare and potentially embarrassing ailments to the mix. In the sensitively rendered Italian export Short Skin (“I Dolori Del Giovane Edo”), Edoardo is a 17-year-old virgin with an obstacle to manhood most males aren’t even aware exists. While most boys his age routinely fret about the width, length or shape of their penis, even despairing of the appearance of pubic hair, Edoardo (Matteo Creatini) suffers from phimosis: a potentially painful condition, in which the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back to accommodate urination and/or ejaculation. (In women, phimosis prevents the clitoral hood from retracting, limiting the ability to experience orgasm.) Apart from that, Edoardo is every bit the normal teenage boy: gangly, chronically horny and regrettably ill-informed about human physiology. This summer, however, he’s complicated his situation by accepting a wager proposed by his best friend as to which of them will be the first to lose their virginity. Fortuitously, the post-pubescent girls in his neighborhood have begun to see in Edoardo something they could use to cure their strange longings. What they can’t see, of course, can’t freak them out. Sensing future sexual challenges, he reluctantly seeks the advice of his parents and local doctors. It isn’t until he consults a prostitute, though, that he’s made to feel reasonably confident that he’s not a freak. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make it easier for the girls in his life, also virgins, to accept the fact they aren’t causing his pain by doing something “wrong.” As unentertaining as this might sound, first-timer Duccio Chiarini finds ways to mine enough humor from the material to enjoy it as a comedy, in all of the usual ways coming-of-age films are funny. Among other things, Short Skin does for octopi what American Pie did for apple pie. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a pair of short films by the director.
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
While movies and documentaries about noteworthy artists and sculptors can be stimulating, they are rarely, if ever more fulfilling than visits to a museum or in a private collection. Films that dramatize the struggles of women artists — Séraphine, Frida, Artemisia, Camille Claudel – tend to be significantly more interesting than biopics of male artists, struggling or otherwise. Movies in which models, clothed and unclothed, steal the spotlight from famous painters — La belle noiseuse, Renoir, Klimt, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Surviving Picasso, Goya’s Ghosts – are better than those in which artists sit around a table at a Parisian bar sipping absinthe. Mr. Turner and Vincent & Theo succeeded, in part, because they demonstrate how difficult it is to capture the grandeur of nature on canvas and why so few artists are capable of doing so. In terms of sheer entertainment value, however, it’s difficult for biopics to beat stories in which forgers, phonies, thieves and conmen exploit great beauty for their own selfish purposes. Arne Birkenstock’s fascinating documentary, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, many not ask as many penetrating questions as Orson Welles’ F for Fake, but it does a nice job getting inside the head of artists of a more larcenous bent. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger and artist, who has admitted to producing hundreds of fake paintings from the works of about 50 prominent painters. Beltracchi, his wife, and two accomplices sold these as original works by such famous artists as Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Kees van Dongen. Beltracchi’s genius, if you will, involved selling the legitimacy of the forgeries to people whose job it is to protect well-heeled consumers, auction houses and gallery owners from crooks exactly like him. For the police to build their case, though, they not only had to separate the masterpieces from the fakes, but also get Beltracchi’s victims to admit that they were capable of being conned.
If there were a mold, from which forgers and thieves were cut, it probably wouldn’t fit Beltracchi. If anything, he resembles a former hippie who struck it rich somewhere along the way and sees no reason to cut his hair or throw away the jeans he wore to Woodstock. He’s personable, funny and forthcoming, even as he is being interviewed within the lax confines of a minimum-security prison in Germany. Before their release, Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, even were allowed to take commissions and work together in their home studio during the day, before having to return to their respective cells at night. His six-year sentence, which began in 2011, ended last January with a promise to paint only in his own name and move from Germany to France. There’s no indication in the documentary that Beltracchi suffers from remorse, guilt feelings or poverty. He was charged and found guilty of forgery and corruption related only to 14 works of art, which sold for a combined $45 million. One of the ways he escaped detection for as long as he did was forging paintings by well-regarded, albeit lesser-known artists, and confusing their provenance through dummy galleries and auction houses. In an overheated marketplace ruled by blind greed, it wasn’t difficult to create and maintain a business creating paintings that few outside the cognoscenti would recognize, let alone sniff out as forgeries. A great Hollywood ending might have come if Beltracchi and his merry band of con artists had sold a piece of art to an investor whose collection was subsequently stolen by thieves whose fence recognized the works as phonies. A similar scenario played out in Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley Under Ground,” in which Tom Ripley is confronted by a collector, who correctly suspects that the paintings sold to him are forgeries. He probably should have left well enough alone.
Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax
Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Gil Scott-Heron didn’t coin the Black Power slogan, “The revolution won’t be televised,” but, by surrounding it with radical poetics, bongos and conga drums, he created an anthem for the movement that had left “We Shall Overcome” behind, in its militant wake. Forty-five years later, the B-side to Heron’s first single, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” has lost none of its ability to stir dissent. Although the Chicago native’s popularity would wane in the years before his death, in 2011, the debt owed to him by two generations of rappers and hip-hop artist is still being paid. In Robert Mugge’s essential 1982 documentary, Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax, the self-described “bluesologist” gave viewers of the UK’s then-brand-new Channel 4 Television a tour of Washington, DC, unseen by tourists. In soft, but authoritative tones, Heron could be mistaken for an afro-coiffed Fred Rogers welcoming guests to his adopted ‘hood, starting with the monuments within walking distance of crime-plagued projects and flop houses. The setting moves to the Wax Museum Nightclub, where Heron stands among frozen-in-time politicians, musicians and celebrities to introduce half-sung/half-spoken renditions of his repertoire, backed by his 10-piece Midnight Band. Although “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” isn’t on the night’s playlist, the doc features full performances of “Winter in America,” “Alien,” “Johannesburg,” “Storm Music,” “Waiting for the Axe to Fall,” “Gun” and “‘B’ Movie,” a scathing analysis of how Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. On his walk-and-talk tour of the capital, Heron recites his poems “Paint it Black,” “Black History,” “Billy Green is Dead,” “The H2O-Gate Blues” and “Whitey on the Moon.” The original 16mm print has been restored to tip-top shape.
Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary may be a long and unwieldy title for a concert Blu-ray/DVD, but it conforms to the truth-in-marketing dictates of the DVD Wrapup. That’s because Martha Davis and the Motels is what remains of groups formerly known as The Motels Featuring Martha Davis, Martha Davis, solo, The Motels, Angels of Mercy and, way back in 1971, the Warfield Foxes. To be completely accurate, please note that it’s the venerable Whisky a Go Go that was marking its 50th year in business, not the group, which, excluding separations, is closer to 27. Of the original members on stage that night, only Davis and sax and keyboard player Marty Jourard performed. Even so, the audience dug watching Davis belt out such hits as “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Only the Lonely,” “Mission of Mercy” and “Total Control.” Being her birthday, Davis was gushingly introduced by Rosanna Arquette and singer-songwriter Linda Perry. The film was shot in hi-def by Roy H. Wagner, and directed by choreographer Denise Faye. It includes a chat with former band members.
Tenderness of the Wolves: Blu-ray
The Voyeur: Blu-ray
Queen of Blood: Blu-ray
Although only partially based on the same serial killer who inspired Peter Lorre’s character in M, Ulli Lommel’s thoroughly disturbing crime drama, Tenderness of the Wolves, is cut from the same torn cloth. As portrayed with nightmarish precision by co-writer Kurt Raab, Fritz Haarmann is within weeks of being arrested, charged and convicted in the sexual assaults, murders, mutilations and dismemberments of at least 24 young men and boys in Hanover, Germany, between 1918 and 1924. Unlike Lorre’s deeply disturbed fiend, Hans Becker, Haarman was a homosexual. (The word, gay, doesn’t quite fit the description, here.) He earned the moniker, Vampire of Hanover, by attempting to rip out the Adam’s apple and trachea of his victims, before strangling them. Shaved bald and bearing a curious resemblance to Lorre and F.W. Murnau s Nosferatu, Raab plays Haarmann as a reasonably social being, with friends in high and low people. They weren’t limited to gay men and he didn’t have to lurk in the shadows to narrow down his choices of victims. Germany was still reeling from the impact of losing World War I – here, updated to World War II — and Hanover bore no resemblance to the divinely decadent Berlin. Lommel does a great shop capturing the menace in the air and desperation in the streets that followed both wars. He experiments with German Expressionist shadings, but a color scheme favored by producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder is especially scary in Blu-ray. Considering the nature of the crimes, Tenderness of the Wolves limits the extreme violence to specific scenes. We’re also spared any questions of guilt or innocence based on mental illness. What’s likely to shock most viewers are the insinuations of non-censual sex between Haarmann and minors, and full-frontal male nudity in more consensual preludes to murder. The high-definition digital transfer was prepared by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, which is doing a great job restoring his library. Also new are insightful interviews with Lommel and director of photography Jürgen Jürges; an informative appreciation, by film historian and expert on European horror cinema Stephen Thrower; a theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Tony Rayns. If Lommel’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of his mid-career move from Fassbinder’s factory to Andy Warhol’s Factory and such movies as Cocaine Cowboys and The Blank Generation, in which the artist cameoed as himself, and a string of straight-to-video genre flicks universally loathed by critics. (Look for a brief Fassbinder appearance in “Wolves.”)
At a time when American porn specialists were draining the eroticism from soft- and hard-core films, Tinto Brass decided to fill the worldwide vacuum by breathing fresh air into the moribund Euro-porn sub-genre. By 1990, home-grown producers of hard-core movies had fully committed to video and gonzo sex that was completely devoid of a narrative framework. Soft-core films were made to conform to the dictates of late-night cable television, which required of surgically enhanced actresses that they strategically position their hands during sex, so as to avoid any hints of genital-to-genital contact or pubic hair. Brass embraced fables of sexual desire, adding world-class cinematography, lush soundtracks, expensive lingerie, sumptuous locations and performers capable of acting and making love simultaneously. If he too often fell back on the use of mirrors, reflective glass and window frames in his films, and he favored women with large buttocks to those with more average figures, not all of the women required breast implants, at least. And, in another departure, male roles weren’t limited to gym rats under 25. The Voyeur was adapted from the erotic novel, “L’uomo che Guarda,” by Alberto Moravia. It tells the story of “Dodo,” a handsome professor of French literature who fears being cuckolded by his exhibitionist wife and cock-blocked by his father, whose live-in nurse specializes in leaving her clients with blue balls. Even when Dodo allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous mixed-race student, his wife steps in at the last moment to share the experience with him. The Voyeur may look overly familiar to longtime fans, but newcomers and couples should be pleasantly surprised by what they see. The extras include a stills gallery, trailers for the main feature, as well as other Tinto Brass films, and a 25-minute interview with the quintessential dirty ol’ man, himself.
There’s nothing quite so foolhardy for a genre journalist to attempt than make a movie of his or her own and invite criticism from juries of their peers. Chris Alexander is the Toronto-based editor of Fangoria magazine, a critic with the Toronto Film Critics Association and, of late, a multi-hyphenate filmmaker. His 2012 directorial debut, Blood for Irina, won the Best Experimental Feature Film award at the 2013 PollyGrind Film Festival, in Las Vegas, which may offer prizes in more categories than the AVN Awards, which I never thought possible. I don’t often say this, but I doubt there’s any way that someone not familiar with the original can fully appreciate the sequel, Queen of Blood, as they share the same dialogue-free conceit and blood-starved lead character, the vampire Irina (Shauna Henry). In the former, Irina has reached the end of her 100-year run on Earth. By day, she’s living in a run-down motel on the water (probably Lake Ontario), while, at night, she stalks city streets looking for fresh blood. Her desperation is mirrored by the motel manager and a prostitute “living a life on the fringe, trapped in world of literal and figurative decay.” In the latter film, we first encounter Irina slowly emerging from a bog in the middle of a forest, trailing a stream of blood like the umbilical cord it represents. After being rescued by a mysterious fellow who lives in an isolated cabin, she seems to appreciate being cleaned up and given new clothes. Just as we begin to think that pathetic creature might have adopted an ethical code, she uses her razor-sharp fingernails to rip out his throat. And, so it goes, until Irina comes upon a pregnant woman … and, well, you might be able to guess the rest. Queen of Blood benefits from a certifiably Euro-horror look and an evocative soundtrack that almost makes up for the lack of dialogue.
Here’s a movie that arrives with almost no advance marketing push or buzz, from a fledgling production company with no track record, except for a single festival appearance, in Europe. The synopsis in the press kit doesn’t appear to have been translated correctly into English and there were no published reviews for The 9th. What the DVD does have going for it, however, is the kind of cover art that draws one into a movie like a magnet, not unlike a classic poster by Saul Bass. The setting for Nathan Codrington’s debut feature, promoted as “a neo-noir psychological drama,” is a cocktail party in the penthouse apartment of what appears to be a swank urban residence. I kept waiting for Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world,” to walk in at any minute, surrounded by young men in tuxes and women in low-cut gowns. Here, though, the drink of choice is champagne and mystery is in the air. In fact, something terribly sinister is happening in a room not far from the gathering. A man in diapers and angels wings is being tortured for reasons unknown by thugs whose faces remain unseen, as directed, perhaps, by the party’s Master of Cermonies (Edward Barry). The 73-minute film clearly is based on two very different entertainment vehicles: the game, Clue (a.k.a., Cluedo) and seminal jazz pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines. (The names of the characters are derived from famous singers and musicians.) Beyond that, I’m not sure of anything, including my interest in discovering who’s doing what to whom and why. The music, as performed Nigel Hart and Dan James, had the desired effect on me, however.
3’s a Shroud
Troll/Troll 2: Blu-ray
Listen to enough futurists and you’ll think that day artificial-intelligence technology supplants human intelligence is just around the corner. After watching the Republican debates, however, a robot would make a better alternative to any of the morons hoping to call the White House home. Nightmare Code is a cautionary sci-fi thriller that argues against our current system of checks and balances being able to stand up to a threat built into a computer network by a mad genius. Here, a paranoid nerd goes off his rocker when he comes to believe that he won’t get the credit he deserves for inventing an important new computer program. To avenge the perceived slight, he introduces a virus into the Internet that overrides the software from controls programmed into the system, triggering artificial intelligence at its least benign. Almost everything that happens in Mark Netter’s surprisingly accessible debut feature takes place through the multiple lenses of security cameras monitoring activity in the technology-company’s offices, hallways, computer system and meeting rooms. The government client appears ready to shut down the advanced behavior-recognition project, perhaps causing a key programmer to commit suicide and take a few of his colleagues with him, ostensibly to consult with Steve Jobs in the afterlife. With just a month to finish ROPER and a depleted staff left to do it, a famously brilliant young programmer, Brett Desmond (Andrew J. West), is recruited to burrow his way through the installed software to discover how much damage was done by the paranoid slob before he ate his pistol. As it turns out, more than anyone can imagine. And, beyond that, lie spoilers. Blessedly, the use of a quartered-frame screen doesn’t feel as gimmicky as it usually does, actually complementing the action taking place within the Skype-like system and reading the minds of the characters as they move out of one and into the other. Because Brett brings some emotional baggage of his own to the rescue mission, important things are revealed, as well, in conversations with his wife and daughter, at home. Mei Melançon plays the hot Eurasian programmer who inconveniently and unexpectedly adds her baggage to Brett’s pile. The DVD interviews are helpful.
3’s a Shroud is described as a modern British horror anthology in the tradition of Asylum and Tales From the Crypt. It earned some favorable notices on the festival circuit in 2012, none of which translated into a wide distribution. This hardly qualifies as news to horror aficionados, especially fans of the anthology sub-genre. With the exception of scream queen Suzi Lorraine (Busty Cops), none of the segments writers or directors — Dan Brownlie, David V.G. Davies, Andy Edwards — has yet to make a splash in feature-length films, so name recognition always becomes a problem. The individual shorts aren’t at all bad, however. Randle plays the maughty-nanny babysitter, who’s asked to read three scary stories to the boy and his Teddy before dozing off. None of them can be summarized in a sentence or two, except to suggest they might not be the kind of bedtime stories you’d want a babysitter to tell your children.
Eleven years before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels became a worldwide sensation, Noah Hathaway and Michael Moriarty played Henry Potter Jr. and Harry Potter Sr. in John Carl Buechler 1986’s cult classic, Troll. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The resemblances between Trolls, Ghoulies and Gremlins, however, is much more suspect. Harry Potter Sr. and his wife, Anne (Shelley Hack), are moving into a rented apartment in San Francisco, when Junior and daughter Wendy (Jenny Beck) first encounter the wicked troll, Torok, who uses his magic ring to possess the girl’s body as a host to transform the apartment dwellers into other trolls. When Junior senses that something is wrong with Wendy, he consults upstairs neighbor/witch Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart). If the presence of Lassie’s mom weren’t enough, Troll also represented Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ first film appearance (and nip slip) and one of Sonny Bono’s last, before accidentally becoming mayor of Palm Springs. It adds “The Making of Troll,” with interviews and background material. Also included in the Blu-ray package is Troll 2, a film so onerous that it once maintained a 0-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (That’s improved to 6 percent with “top” critics and a stunning 44 percent audience score.) Apart from not resembling the original in any meaningful way, the sequel is about as frightening as a “Three Little Pigs” cartoon. Actors George Hardy and Deborah Reed provide commentary. A limited number of Blu-ray packages contain a separate disc with the feature-length, “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary that extends making-of memories to include reconnections with cast and crew.
Swim Little Fish Swim
It would be just as unfair to lump every quirky low-budget indie, informed by hyper-chatty dialogue and socially unformed characters, to the Mumblecore subgenre as it is to think that every neurotic New York Jew, wearing nerdy glasses and addicted to psychotherapy, is created by a Woody Allen wannabe. Sometimes, it just seems that way. Still, I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar’s practically weightless rom-com Swim Little Fish Swim than to say it reminds me of films that might have featured the work of Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers. That, or Lena Durham. Set in the New York demi-monde of aspiring artists, musicians and perpetual slackers, Swim Little Fish Swim stars the waifish Bessis as a visual artist, Lilas, desperate to convince immigration officials to renew her visa. One night, after being tossed out of her crash pad by a pervy artist, Lilas finds shelter in the already crowded apartment of Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Brooke Bloom), a married couple about to discover just how unsuited for marriage they are. While Mary works overtime as a nurse to support their household, Leeward jams with friends who play instruments they might have purchased at a FAO Schwarz toy store. Thoroughly coddled by his anti-capitalist parents, Leeward has convinced Mary that he’s willing to do commercials to help her out financially, but has committed his resources to a CD of songs written for his pre-school daughter, Rainbow/Maggie, depending on which parent you ask. Some of them aren’t bad, while others are aggressively pretentious. Not surprisingly, Lilas and Leeward are two peas in a pod. Her hang-up, though, it being the daughter of a prominent avant-garde artist, who denigrates her multi-media collages whenever she can. In various off-kilter ways, they lift each other’s spirits and even enlist Sunshine/Maggie in their harmless conspiracy. Swim Little Fish Swim ends much better than it begins, I think, even though none of the characters appear able to survive in New York’s artistic community without trust funds or generous grandparents.
Living in Oblivion: 20th Anniversary: Bluray
The great thing about re-watching Living in Oblivion, probably for the third time in the last 20 years, comes in the realization that the more you know about how independent films are made, the funnier it is. In 1995, I’d never been on a set, interviewed a star, attended a festival or covered a Spirit Awards ceremony. As much as Tom DiCillo exaggerates the process in Living in Oblivion, everything about it now rings true to me, especially how many things can go wrong in a short period of time. Then, too, there’s the coddling of fragile egos, the boredom that allows tensions to fester, the obsequious nature of on-set etiquette and the surprises that come with improvisation. While I haven’t witnessed the kinds of outbursts we see in the film, I have seen the happiness on the faces of everyone on the set when things go indisputably right. It also is wonderful to see some of the great actors of our time, at a point in their careers when they were standing on the cusp of crossing over from indie popularity to mainstream stardom. See if you recognize these names: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage. The sad thing is knowing that after making the entertaining, if unprofitable Johnny Suede, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy, Delirious and the Doors documentary, When You’re Strange, has been limited to doing episodic television. It’s better than the alternative, however. The Blu-ray includes a deleted scene, a 2002 Q&A with the DiCillo and Buscemi, and longer interviews with cast and crew.
The Breaking Point
At a brisk 75 minutes, The Breaking Point probably could have been trimmed even more to fit the boundaries of a cops-and-courtroom drama on television. There are several scenes in James C. Hunter’s thugs-in-the-hood drama that wouldn’t missed and room made for commercials, without ruining the flow of the narrative. Does this sound familiar? Three gangbangers with completely different physiques and hairstyles enter a convenience store. Before they can even demand the contents of the cash register or Lottery tickets, one of them pulls out a gun and, instead, points at the angelic white woman we’ve just seen handing out goods to local residents. When she resists, he shoots and kills her. Turns out she’s the wife of a former cop, who vows revenge, knowing the unlikelihood of the store manager going the distance as a witness in a trial. It then becomes a race between the angry widower and the police, as in any procedural. Well, not only is there a trial, but a “Law & Order” trick ending, to boot. While it’s nice seeing this many young African-American actors working a feature film, it’s a shame that The Breaking Point feels as if it were made in 1987.
The Churchmen: Season 1
Don Matteo: Sets 11/12
Kaboul Kitchen: Season One
Camilla Läckberg’s The Fjällbacka Murders, Set 1/2
A French Village: 1940: Season 1
MHz Networks is a programming service that has begun to provide viewers in the U.S. access to some of the most interesting shows on networks around the world via streaming and over-the-air digital transmission. In this way, it’s similar to Acorn TV, which specializes in English-language programming from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, including series and mini-series previously shown on PBS and BBC America. Both services are well worth the effort it takes to find them on such services as Hulu, Roku, Samsung Smart TV, iPhone, iPad, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For the purposes of DVD Wrapup, however, many of the shows are now being packaged on DVD, as well. The latest MHz titles I’ve seen include:
From France, “The Churchmen” is the most unlikely of mini-series dramas. It follows five young candidates for the priesthood after their arrival at Paris’ Capuchin Seminary. As is usually the case with such ensemble shows, the characters come from wildly different backgrounds, bringing with them very different reasons for setting out on such a difficult path. As they prepare to take their vows, each of the men will be tempted, tested and tormented by forces from outside and within the seminary walls. As, yes, that includes issues of sexual preference of the adult variety, if not pedophilia. They also are required to slog their way through an aging institution fraught with its own weaknesses, not the least of which is a power struggle between seminary head Father Fromenger and the ambitious Bishop Roman. One needn’t be Catholic to become hooked on “The Churchmen” after giving it an episode or two. The intricate drama is complemented by settings that recall an institution that’s withstood countless dilemmas – most of its own making – and hasn’t surrendered to the same trappings of modernity embraced by the American Church.
In the same ballpark are the extremely popular “Don Matteo” mysteries, from Italy, in which Spaghetti Western star Terence Hill (They Call Me Trinity) plays the titular small-town priest with an extraordinary ability to read people and solve crimes. The series has been airing since 2000 on the premier channel of Italian national television. Hill’s cheeky portrayal reminds me a bit of “Columbo.”
I wonder how American audiences would react to “Kaboul Kitchen,” a black comedy set in the embattled Afghan capital, circa 2005, years before the current Taliban offensive and at a point when dollars were flowing through the hands of warlords and profiteers like water. The Kaboul Kitchen is a multipurpose gathering place in the heart of the city, where westerners can enjoy a non-halal meal, a stiff drink and a dip in the pool, surrounded by women in bikinis. As such, much of the show’s intrigue comes from the owner, Jacky (Gilbert Melki), having to negotiate his way through the roadblocks of war, religion, bureaucracy, corruption, espionage and family. After operating his business on a par with Rick Blaine, in Casablanca, Jacky walks into the club one day only to find his long estranged daughter, Sophie (Stéphanie Pasterkamp), who’s taken a job with a humanitarian-aid organization whose most recent charitable contribution was a truckload of skiing equipment. The series is loosely based on the real life experiences of journalist and co-creator of the series, Marc Victor.
“The Fjällbacka Murders” is based on the world of Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg’s character, Erica Falck. She’s a successful crime writer and mother of three, who’s moved from the city to her hometown of Fjällbacka, a fishing village on a picturesque island off the coast of Sweden. Her return seems idyllic, but simmering beneath the village’s surface lie hidden secrets, twisted desires and murderous deceit. The chapters are based on the characters from Läckberg’s novels, but the stories are largely new, with actors Claudia Galli and Richard Ulfsäter playing the lead characters. Like most other Swedish exports, this mystery series is quite engrossing.
The ambitious period series ”A French Village” is set in Villeneuve, a fictional town in German-occupied France during World War II. Since 2009, it has dramatized year-by-year accounts of life there, as despair gave way to hope and fascists of both the German and Vichy variety fought for control of the sleepy district with the Resistance and Allied saboteurs. Liberation would come to central France, of course, but for not for five more TV seasons.
Manimal: The Complete Series
Automan: The Complete Series
Sisters: Seasons One & Two
PBS: Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres
PBS: Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration
Comedy Central: Nathan For You: Seasons One & Two
Gene Autry Collection 12
The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Final Season
During his nearly 50-year career in television, Glen A. Larson wrote and produced some of the most memorable series in the history of the medium. Such long-running series as “Knight Rider” (1982), “The Fall Guy” (1981), “Magnum, P.I.” (1980), “Battlestar Galactica” (1978), “Alias Smith and Jones” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979) will find homes on cable-TV outlets for a long time. Others barely lasted half a season. Newly released in complete-series packages are two shows that will live in infamy for as long as historians retain a sense of humor about the 1980s. In his lifetime, Larson frequently was accused of ripping off concepts, characters and storylines from popular movies. It’s possible, then, to imagine that the 1983 sci-fi “Manimal” was inspired by the erotic thriller, “Cat People,” in which a brother and sister shared the ability to shape-shift into black panthers. “Manimal,” which lasted all of eight episodes, told the story of Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), who could turn himself into any animal he chose to fight crime, but preferred being a black panther. Only two people were aware of Jonathan’s secret, his friend Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts) and police detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson). The transformation sequences were designed and created by the Academy Award-winning SFX artist Stan Winston. Sadly, the potential for a bestiality throughline involving Chase and Mackenzie never was fully realized. Otherwise, this one had “cult classic” written all over it from the moment it was canceled on December 17, 1983
The lineage of Larson’s “Automan” was far more obvious, as the sci-fi/cop series shared a producer (Donald Kushner) with Tron, a movie that many considered to be several years ahead of its time, because it took place inside a video game. The brilliant blue outlines for the computer-generated vehicles and uniforms look exactly the same. Desi Arnaz Jr. plays Walter Nebicher, who’s constantly ridiculed for pushing computer-based crime detection on the department’s resident dinosaurs. Their attempts to keep Nebicher rooted at his desk are stymied, however, by an artificially intelligent computer hologram that looks real, sounds real and given enough electrical power can physically exist in the real world. Together, Walter, Automan and Cursor — a small floating droid that creates any object Automan desires — battle crime on city streets. It’s every bit as lame as it sounds. It lasted 13 episodes, before being achieving immediate cult status.
As unfathomable as it sounds today, NBC’s “Sisters” was the first primetime network television drama series to focus specifically on the lives of women and the issues relating to them. “Maude” dealt with many of the same hot-button issues, years earlier, but it typically used caustic humor to make its point, often at the expense of the recurring male characters. The sponsors of
“Sisters” risked losing male viewers to capture women in the key demographic segments. The 1991-96 show succeeded well enough to log a run of 127 episodes, a number that easily cleared it for syndication. “Sisters” follows the trials and triumphs of the four very different Reed sisters, living in the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb, Winnetka. Besides having unique personalities, the characters played by Sela Ward, Swoosie Kurtz, Patricia Kalember and Julianne Phillips looked as if they had either been adopted or had different fathers by the same mother. The poor sap had died a year before the series’ storylines began, causing his wife to bury herself in an alcoholic haze. He left enough secrets behind, however, to inspire several episodes throughout the show’s tenure. The new compilation contains all 29 episodes from the critically acclaimed first and second seasons, The series would go on to receive eight Emmy Award nominations, winning once in 1994 for Ward as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Kurtz was also nominated twice in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category in 1993 and 1994. The package adds lengthy conversations with created by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who also developed the American adaptation of “Queer as Folk.”
Celebrity chef Jose Andres returns to Haiti, once again, after the 2010 earthquake inspired him to found the World Central Kitchen, as a non-profit that fights hunger and poverty in developing nations. He opened a bakery in an orphanage in Haiti that not only feeds the orphans and staff there, but also provides job training for the kids and has become such a successful business that it is bringing in several thousand dollars a month. In “Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres,” he hopes that by boosting the profile of Haitian cuisine, he can inspire more travelers to visit the much-maligned island. The special shows him spending time with local chefs and markets, and sampling island specialties ranging from spicy pikliz sauce to djon-djon rice and akasan, a sweet, thick, milky beverage. In between hunting for crabs, visiting a hilltop fortress and attending a voodoo ceremony, Andres visits with former President Bill Clinton and chef Mario Batali.
She “turned the world on with her smile” on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration” features dozens of classic clips, plus comments from Betty White, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, John Amos, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and the actress, herself. Plus, Oprah Winfrey recounts Mary Tyler Moore’s critical role in inspiring her — and millions of other women — as TV’s first independent career woman.
Nathan Fielder is an “alternative” Canadian writer and comedian, who’s found a niche on cable TV offering off-the-wall business tips to entrepreneurs in desperate need of turning a profit. The fun in “Nathan For You” comes from convincing the business owners to embrace marketing tactics no traditional consultant would dare attempt. He made headlines when one of his clients agreed to create a coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks. He also suggested inventing a poo-flavored yogurt and staging an elaborate viral video, in which a pig saves a goat. While Nathan’s efforts may not always succeed, they always have big results. The package includes all 16 episodes from the first two seasons!
Beside the good ol’ boy joshing around between cowboy hero Gene Autrey and sidekick Pat Buttram, the 12th edition of “The Gene Autry Collection” features The Sagebrush Troubadour (1935), in which Rangers Gene Autry and Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) travel undercover as Western troubadours to find the killer of old, half-blind Frank Martin. Their only clues are a guitar string and a swayback horse that is the key to finding the dead man’s lost goldmine. It’s one of only two whodunits on the singing cowboy’s resume. The other movies in the set are Ride, Ranger, Ride (1936), Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge (1937) and Gold Mine in the Sky (1938).
Shout! Factory brings out farewell packages of “The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two,” in which the protagonist visits his namesake city and has to convince a diehard Confederate loyalist from killing General Grant, and “WKRP In Cincinnati: The Final Season,” which opens with the station getting a terrorist threat and the staff’s attempt to form a union.