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The DVD Wrapup: Florida Project, Daddy’s Home 2, The Hero, Thirsty and more

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

The Florida Project: Blu-ray
Until the mass migration by white middle- and working-class Americans to the suburbs after World War II, one of the most enduring themes in American culture was the depiction of poor and hunger people struggling to survive in the shadow of great wealth and luxury. In one of his best-remembered bits, Lenny Bruce wondered how Moses and Jesus would react if, during a surprise visit to New York, they stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where then-Cardinal Francis Spellman was conducting Mass. “Christ says to Moses, ‘We went through Spanish Harlem, where there were 40 Puerto Ricans living in one room. What were they doing there, when this man has a ring worth $10,000?” Today, the homeless are found sleeping in the parks and under bridges in major cities from San Francisco to Manhattan, smf in the doorways of boutiques, salons and restaurants that cater to one-percenters. In most cases, the social safety net extends no further than the city limits. Look closer, though, and pockets of need can be found in the darnedest places. In 1964, Walt Disney World Company surreptitiously began acquiring the parcels of land around Orlando for what was then dubbed the Florida Project. Uncle Walt wanted to create a recreational mecca for the Americans – an estimated 75 percent of the population — who lived east of the Mississippi River and rarely visited Disneyland. He also wanted that property to be buffered from the same clutter and commerce that had attached itself to the original Disneyland like remora fish to a shark. The virtual moat would have to be wide enough to force visitors to pay for gas, lodging, food and souvenirs from companies licensed by Disney. And, for a while, he was successful. The moat couldn’t hold forever, though. By setting his closely observed humanist drama, The Florida Project, within the shadow of Disney World, Sean Baker (Tangerine) describes how a community of homeless, underemployed and frequently lawless single parents has taken root on one of the commercial strips leading into Uncle Walt’s greatest fantasy.

From its freshly painted lavender façade, tidy grounds and spacious parking lot, it would be as difficult for passersby to know what goes on inside the doors of the Magic Castle Inn & and Suites as it is for audiences during the first few minutes of The Florida Project. It doesn’t look like a welfare hotel, teeming with unattended kids, quick-buck artists and single moms who sometimes turn tricks to pay the rent, but that’s pretty much what it is. Kissimmee’s Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway is lined with low-rent hotels, trinket shops and fast-food restaurants that cater to tourists looking for bargains before heading into the park. The names of the hotels are close enough to legitimate Disney attractions that unsuspecting visitors aren’t likely to suspect that Florida welfare agencies also use them as temporary shelters for homeless families. Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe plays Bobby, the conscientious manager of the Magic Castle, whose limits are frequently pushed by the kids’ shenanigans, as well as the bad behavior of their parents, which he monitors from a bank of video screens. Dafoe’s terrific, as always, but he’s forced to hold his own against child actors so irresistibly and convincingly mischievous – not harmless, but not evil, either – that viewers might have nightmares about them moving in next-door to them. As the film’s de facto protagonist, Mooney, 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince is a force of nature and as good a reason to rent or stream The Florida Project as Dafoe. When Baker envisioned the kids’ roles here, he flashed to the original Little Rascals, with Mooney stepping in for George “Spanky” McFarland and Darla Hood, depending on the situation. As hard as we try to empathize with Mooney’s mother, Halley — well-played by newcomer Bria Vinaite – she’s clearly trapped in a cycle of poverty” and could easily drag Mooney into it with her. You wouldn’t Halley to move in next to you, either. Even so, Baker refuses to abandon his characters to their own peculiar devices. There’s plenty of humor in The Florida Project, but it’s dark and kind of scary, too. The Blu-ray adds bloopers and outtakes, as well as a worthwhile collection of interviews.

Daddy’s Home 2: 4K UHD HDR
When the original Daddy’s Home grossed $150 million at the domestic box office and another $92 million in foreign sales, there was nothing any of the critics who hated it could do, except pray they wouldn’t have to review the inevitable sequel. The bro’s-will-be-bro’s comedy may not have been as despicable as others that tried and failed to replicate the riotous success of holiday staples Home Alone and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – both written by John Hughes — but it didn’t come close to equaling previous work turned in by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Sure enough, 23 months after the original was released, on December 25, 2015, came Daddy’s Home 2. Just as predictably, while the reviews were overwhelmingly negative, the picture performed just fine for Paramount. If it didn’t match the original’s box-office numbers here and abroad, the ratio of expenses to returns couldn’t have disappointed the studio. Even though my expectations for director Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris’ follow-up were pretty low, I was pleasantly relieved by the sequel’s energy and warmth, if nothing else. And, while I wouldn’t recommend it do anyone who hasn’t experienced the insanity that comes with Christmas with the kiddies, especially in families divided by divorce, it provides several legitimately funny moments. For those, I credit the addition of Mel Gibson and John Lithgow to the cast, as grandfathers with diametrically opposed personalities, and serving as counterweights to Ferrell and Wahlberg’s overly familiar schtick.

In the interim between original and sequel, former rivals Dusty and Brad have become good buddies, happily sharing custody of the children. Dusty has re-married, this time to a self-absorbed writer, Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio), with a worldly teen daughter, Adrianna. Brad, Sara (Linda Cardellini), Dusty and Karen attend a school play, where Megan (Scarlett Estevez) reveals to the audience that she doesn’t like bouncing between homes to celebrate the holiday twice. So, Brad and Dusty agree to do a “Together Christmas.” Grandparents Don (Lithgow) and Kurt (Gibson) arrive almost simultaneously at the airport, insinuating themselves into the festivities. Not thrilled with the setup, Kurt rents a cabin large enough to accommodate both broods. You can probably imagine how things will turn out from here and wouldn’t be far from wrong. To my mind, the best gag comes when Brad decides to impress the gang by cutting down the perfect “Together Christmas tree.” Naturally, he chooses a cellphone tower disguised to resemble an evergreen. In doing so, a jolt of electricity knocks him for a loop, sending his chainsaw flying dangerously through the air. After Dusty revives him, Brad is charged $20,000 for the destruction of the tower. They decide to use it, anyway. One thing leads to another and … oh, yeah, hunky John Cena arrives out of nowhere to rescue Adrianna from the nuthouse. The very decent 4K UHD is bundled with a separate Blu-ray, upon which the five rather short featurettes, a gag reel and deleted/alternate/extended scenes are contained.

Same Kind of Different as Me: Blu-ray
The Star: Blu-ray
Despite a cast and production values far superior to those typically found in faith-based movies, Same Kind of Different as Me didn’t come close to matching ticket sales for Heaven Is for Real, God’s Not Dead, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie and The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything, among many others in the same genre. Any optimism inspired by hefty first-Friday audiences — enhanced by early group sales – diminished quickly after receipts for the following two days and weekend inexplicably plummeted.  I’d hate to think that fans of so-called Christian entertainment are less attracted to stories about redemption through community service and helping the homeless than to end-times dramas, silly cartoons, Medea and movies designed to re-affirm their own beliefs, but why else? If Jesus had tailored his message to attract Israelites who lived comfortably and didn’t mind the presence of Roman legions or money-changers in the temple, Christianity would probably have been a non-starter. Go figure. Here, Oscar-nominated Greg Kinnear (As Good as It Gets) plays wealthy Fort Worth arts dealer Ron Hall, who, after getting caught cheating on his wife, Deborah (Oscar-winner Renée Zellweger), elects to save his marriage by joining her in her ministry, which includes feeding the city’s homeless. They include a deeply embittered and violent former sharecropper, Denver Moore, played by two-time Oscar nominee Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond), who tests the faith of everyone around him. Rounding out the list of award-winners is Jon Voight (Coming Home), who, as Ron’s father, embodies the stereotype of the Texas good-ol’-boy bigot who loves his guns more than he does humanity.

The turning point of the movie comes when Deborah learns she has terminal cancer and will miss out on seeing the results of her good work at the church, soup kitchen and surrounding neighborhood. In 2006, Ron Hall and Denver Moore co-wrote a book, with Lynn Vincent, describing how Moore’s and the Halls’ life journeys intersected. They would go on to create similar ministries throughout the country and raise millions of dollars to feed and shelter the poor. Now, I’m not trying to say that the performances of the four major stars are Oscar quality here, but they are good enough to compensate for any miscues by freshman co-writer/director Michael Carney or in the adapted script by first-timers Alexander Foard and Hall. Even so, Same Kind of Different as Me is a highly inspirational, deeply personal and definitively Christian effort. The Blu-ray adds commentary, deleted and extended scenes, interviews and making-of featurettes.

By contrast, a CG-animated feature that recounts the Nativity from the point of view of the animals, including a pint-size donkey named Bo, did very well in its theatrical run. The Star takes the basic New Testament account and injects humor into the lead-up to the birth of Christ that apparently was sorely missing in the bible. In his first feature, Oscar-nominated Timothy Reckart (Head Over Heels) took a script that had been gathering dust at Henson Company since the late 1990s and turned it around in less than two years. In doing so, he decided to make the kind of spiritual, yet silly film that would be “accessible to a broader audience.” Huh? Bo (Steven Yeun), yearns for a life beyond his daily grind at the village mill. Finding the courage to break free, he teams up with Ruth (Aidy Bryant) the loveable sheep and Dave the wacky dove (Keegan-Michael Key). Along with three wisecracking camels (Tracy Morgan, Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey) and some eccentric stable animals, they follow the same star that’s leading the three wise men to Bethlehem. The Star is produced by Affirm Films, a company under Sony that produces and distributes mainly conservative Christian films. There must have been some real money behind it, because, in addition to the aforementioned actors, the voicing cast includes Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Levi, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth and Christopher Plummer, and songs by Mariah Carey, Fifth Harmony, Kelsea Ballerini, Kirk Franklin and A Great Big World.

Nayak: The Hero: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
An Actor’s Revenge: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest of all 20th Century filmmakers, wrote and directed Nayak: The Hero towards the end of his early realist period, which began so auspiciously a decade earlier with The Apu Trilogy and The Music Room. If it isn’t considered to be one of his masterpieces, it still has plenty to offer lovers of the Indian cinema. The simplicity of its premise disguises the urgency of subplots dealing with the toxic adulation of celebrity, rise of feminism and persistence of the caste system on the subcontinent. In it, Bengali matinee idol Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) is going by train from Kolkata to Delhi – a 24-hour trip, dictated by a lack of space available on planes – to receive a prestigious acting award (the only kind he’ll accept, anymore). During a respite from giving autographs to worshipful passengers, he’s approached by a magazine editor, Aditi (Sharmila Tagore), who’s pushed by a friend to seek an interview. The magazine is written, edited and published by women, without pandering to any fascination with movies and their stars. He’s amused by her lack of interest in his movies and invites her to tea. Arindam doesn’t agree to an interview, but, later, as he begins to warm up to her, she begin taking notes surreptitiously. Other well-heeled passengers playing key supporting roles are a wealthy businessman and his family; an ambitious advertising man, willing to pimp out his pretty wife to close a deal; an elderly former movie star, who disapproves of the trappings of fame; children, giddy over being in Arindam’s presence; and several overly solicitous attendants and waiters.

If Ray had been so inclined, he could have added a mysterious death and, instead, turned Nayak into an adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” called “Murder on  the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.” Instead, we’re allowed to observe what happens when Aditi gets under the star’s skin through pointed questioning, causing him to relive his past in sometimes painful flashbacks. They recall his early decision to sacrifice his ideals by turning his back on the theater; being deceived by a legendary actor in his prime; avenging the insult much later, when the same actor comes begging for a job; and allowing himself to be seduced by an aspiring actress, also seeking a part. Before the train pulls into the Delhi terminal, Arindam will be forced to look himself in the mirror and determine what, if anything, to take from his revelatory journey. In real life, both Kumar and Tagore were well-established actors, who’d probably grabbled with similar questions. The pristine Criterion Blu-ray adds a 2008 interview with Tagore; a new visual essay on Ray, featuring film scholar Meheli Sen; an essay by author Pico Iyer and a 1980 tribute to Kumar by Ray. By the way, anyone who discerns similarities between Nayak: The Hero and The Darjeeling Limited (2007) – including music in Wes Anderson’s soundtrack – should know that they are anything but coincidental.

Also from Criterion Collect this week, Kon Ichikawa’s An Actor’s Revenge (1963) takes a completely different look at the art and agony of a revered thespian. The great Japanese actor Kazuo Hasegawa plays Yukinojo Nakamura, a popular oyama (a male actor who not only performs female roles, but also lives the female role offstage as well) in a 19th Century kabuki troupe. While in Edo, he chances upon an opportunity to avenge the deaths of his parents, who, 20 years earlier, were driven to insanity and suicide by a trio of greedy merchants. By coincidence, two of the three thieves are in the audience during his bravura performance, with the beautiful Namiji (Ayako Wakao), the daughter of their sickly compatriot. To exact his revenge, Yukinojo, who’s also a master swordsman, decides to seduce Namiji and get them to betray each other. Namiji is the shogun’s favorite concubine, but she falls for the burly oyama, nonetheless. He’s then befriended by an attractive man-hating pickpocket (Yamamoto Fujiko), who, likewise, has strong feelings for Yamitaro the Thief, who’s also played by Hasegawa. Yamitaro’s primary role here is to serve as an observer of Nakamura’s scheming and comment on it. Everything plays out on the extra-wide kabuki stage, which gives Ichikawa plenty of room to work his magic through brilliantly colorful visuals and spectacularly atmospheric false backgrounds. The fights are staged in kabuki fashion, as well. It’s worth noting that Ichikawa originally created An Actor’s Revenge as a tribute to Hasegawa on the occasion of his 300th film. It is based on Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Yukinojô henge: Daiippen dainihen, which, 30 years earlier, starred Hasegawa in the same dual role. Both were inspired by a garish newspaper serial, originally written by Otokichi Mikami and revised in 1965 by Ichikawa’s wife and frequent collaborator, Natto Wada. The Blu-ray sparkles, thanks to a 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a 1999 Directors Guild of Japan interview with Ichikawa, conducted by critic and filmmaker Yuki Mori; the learned opinions of critic, filmmaker and festival programmer Tony Rayns; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Last week, Andrey Konchalovskiy’s Holocaust drama, Paradise, was favorably reviewed in this space. Had I known that I’d be considering a movie by his younger brother so soon afterwards, I might have held off my thoughts for a few days. As is my wont, I enjoy pairing movies with common elements and the work of siblings easy qualifies. Konchalovskiy and Nikita Mikhalkov have separately enjoyed moments on the red carpets leading to the Academy Awards, Cannes, Venice, César, Golden Eagle and various other awards ceremonies. Mikhalkov is best known here for Burnt by the Sun (1994), Close to Eden (1991), Dark Eyes (1987) and A Slave of Love (1976). His latest period drama, Sunstroke, wasn’t shown here upon its release in 2014. It won a few Golden Eagle awards, in Russia, but nothing special. It is set in both 1907, while the sun still shone on the monarchy and the bourgeoisie, and 1920, at the height of the Red Terror, during which troops loyal to the Tsar were severely punished. Sunstroke opens at a makeshift prison compound, where officers have been told to wait patiently for Moscow’s decision regarding their fate. Most have come to believe that their Bolshevik captors fully intend to send them home in a few days. No one is being beaten or tortured – as has been reported in other camps – and there’s even time for a soldier with a camera to attempt a group portrait. The arrival of a stern female Bolshevik, dressed in black leather, suggests that those days are numbered.

Soon enough, Mikhalkov focuses our attention on a single prisoner, Poruchik (Martinsh Kalita), whose memory of better times takes us back to a leisurely steamboat trip, up the Volga, full of fancily dressed passengers and children having a grand old time. Poruchik’s uniform is as white as it good possibly be and his sword appears never to have been tainted by human blood. On the journey, he is struck dumb by the appearance of a mysterious beauty (Viktoriya Solovyova), listed in the credits merely as Strange Woman. Upon their arrival at the first major town, they depart the steamboat and enjoy a blissful night in each other’s arms. The next morning, she leaves him the vaguest of goodbye notes, before hopping on the first boat heading upriver. When Poruchik realizes that he’s been left high and dry, he spends the rest of the day in the company of a boy who knows his way around the docks and gives him hope of catching up with Strange Woman. It’s easily the most satisfying section of Sunstroke, even if it foreshadows the sadness to come. After flashing backwards and forward in time, the prisoners are told they will finally be allowed to leave, on a large less-than-seaworthy barge. Or, will they? Either way, Mikhalkov ties up past and present in a largely satisfactory way. The problem, however, is that the abrupt transitions leave too many of the other questions unanswered and plotlines hanging. The film looks gorgeous, however, and that has to count for something.

It wasn’t until I watched Thirsty all the way through that I realized the musical biopic – “post-queer musical biopic,” if you will – tells the real-life story of self-described “girly-boy” and drag entertainer Scott Townsend (a.k.a., Thirsty Burlington). Unlike many such performers, who lip-synch the songs of the women they’re impersonating, Burlington is a very capable singer. For as long as he can remember, Townsend’s favored his predominantly feminine side and, growing up, paid the price by being bullied unmercifully in the projects of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The only time his alcoholic mother (Deirdre Lovejoy) complained was when little Scott decided he would save himself some agony at school by cutting his long, black hair and eyebrows. She merely thought he’d done a sloppy job of it. From an early age, Townsend displayed a gift for singing showtunes (“Jesus Christ Superstar”) and pop songs by such kitschy artists as Captain & Tennille. Recognizing the lad’s untapped talent, an uncle invited Scott to join his group on the Jerry Lewis Telethon. After getting through one number without a problem, he alienated the crowd by assuming the female point-of-view in the follow-up.

The singer he was born to impersonate – in song, dress and makeup — was Cher … an iconic staple of every drag revue on the planet. It won him a place with a local troupe, as Thirsty, as well as a loyal following. The only stumbling block he faced early on came from his boyfriend’s desire for a manly-man lover, not one who preferred looking like a woman. Thirsty is enhanced by plenty of singing and dancing. Indeed, director Margo Pelletier cushions several of the early bullying scenes by modeling them after the fights in “West Side Story.”  Cole Canzano and Jonny Beauchamp, the young and teenage versions of Townsend, are quite convincing, as is Lovejoy. Clearly, though, Thirsty was made on the cheap and it suffers, as well, from a non-linear narrative. The DVD adds commentary, cast interviews, an “All That I Am” music video and Pelletier’s original storyboards. In Thirsty’s real act, she supplements Cher, with impersonation of Sonny Bono, Judy Garland, Little Edie Beale and Townsend’s own drag persona.

The Girl Without Hands: Blu-ray
Based on a lesser-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, The Girl Without Hands conveys more information with a few well-chosen brushstrokes than dozens of other animated features I’ve seen lately. Writer/director/cinematographer/editor Sébastien Laudenbach employs an economic, yet visually striking style, using characters and backgrounds painted on paper in bold calligraphic lines and unexpected colors. In an interview included in the package, he allows that the technique allowed him to complete the project in far less time than usual, while telling a fully realized story. As it goes, an impoverished miller sells his daughter to a shape-shifting Devil (Philippe Laudenbach) for an endless stream of gold. Protected by her purity, la jeune fille (Anaïs Demoustier) escapes, but only after her father cuts off her hands. Walking away from her family, she encounters the goddess of water, a gentle gardener and the prince (Jérémie Elkaïm), who brings her to his castle and impregnates her. The prince is away, at war, when the baby arrives, and the announcement sent to him is so muddled by the Devil’s handiwork that the mother feels forced to flee with her infant son to the distant mountains. She awaits heavenly intervention to overcome the Devil, praying it doesn’t come too late.

Rise of the Footsoldier: Part II
Just as Chicago’s infamous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre inspired dozens of movies and television shows over the next 80-something years, the slaughter of three drug dealers on December 6, 1995, near the village of Rettendon, in Essex, has become part of British gangland lore. It’s known by various names, including the Rettendon Murders, Range Rover murders and Essex murders, while, by my count, inspiring nine separate film accounts, including prequels, sequels, spinoffs and rip-offs. Two local hoodlums were each given three life sentences for the murders, which they deny committing, with a recommendation that they serve a minimum of 15 years. There are three films in the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise. (Essex Boys and Bonded in Blood being the other two series.) The newly released second installment followed the original to DVD by eight years. It features the lone surviving member of the gangs, Carlton Leach (Ricci Harnett), has he tries to numb the pain of his friends’ loss through drugs and the desire for revenge. He’s also found a path to salvation that lies in climbing the ranks of the criminal underworld he had abandoned. Once at the top, he plans to use his power to destroy his friends’ killers once and for all. It’s easier said than done. I haven’t had to watch all nine films – thank God, for small favors – but the ones I have seen are hyper-violent, unpleasantly loud and probably not terribly accurate, none of which should discourage action junkies. I lost count of how many time the c-word is deployed, but it must be near 50. And, yes, I realize the word carries far more weight here than it does in England. Still, viewers with sensitive ears are forewarned. Besides starring in the first two of three “ROTFS” entities, Harnett directed and wrote this one.

Irish actress Valene Kane uses her cute overbite to its best advantage as a CIA whistleblower, Riley Connors, living in exile in Colombia. After two hard years, Riley’s old partner Bill Donovan (Charlie Weber) shows up with an offer she’s too gullible – they once were lovers — to refuse. If Kane helps the agency recover millions in ill-gotten money being laundered through Colombian banks, she’s told the agency will allow her to return to the U.S. with a clean record. While tracing the money’s paper trail isn’t difficult for Riley, she doesn’t foresee becoming a moving target for the criminals, corrupt agents and former boyfriend. It’s a pretty standard actioner that benefits from being shot on location in Colombia, but suffers from a tight budget. As straight-to-DVD movies go, it isn’t bad.

Doomsday Device
Previously known as “Pandora’s Box,” Doomsday Device went straight-to-Syfy in Australia and straight-to-DVD or VOD everywhere else. In it, an odd-couple pair of FBI agents are on the trail of several elusive crooks, who have stumbled upon an ancient Japanese artifact of enormous power. A rich businessman is willing to pay a fortune for it, so the agency puts the investigation on the front burner. When cops or rival crooks come close to taking possession of the box, whoever is holding it at the time opens the cover and unleashes a shitstorm of violent meteorological events. It’s at this point that I said, “Whoa!” That’s because the cloud spewing lightning bolts and molten boulders towards Earth looks exactly like doomsday clouds in the last half-dozen Syfy disaster flicks I’ve seen, including last month’s Shockwave. I expect better from my cheesy disaster pictures and so should you.

The DVD Wrapup: Ballad of Lefty Brown, Wonder, Blades, Seijun Suzuki, Fellini, Hellraiser, Paradise and more

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

The Ballad of Lefty Brown: Blu-ray
Hell or High Water: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Set in the desolate plains of Montana, before the arrival of the railroad, The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an ode to the traditional revenge Western. When famed frontier lawman and Montana’s first elected senator Eddie Johnson (Peter Fonda) is brutally murdered – assassinated, to be precise — his longtime sidekick and friend, Lefty Brown (Bill Pullman), vows to avenge his death. The trouble is, Lefty is more than a tad over the hill and he’s outgunned by some ornery desperadoes. Along the way, he joins company with a boy (Diego Josef) infatuated with dime novels and ready to come of age as a man. As written, directed and produced by Jared Moshe (Dead Man’s Burden), The Ballad of Lefty Brown gets bogged down by too many diversions and lofty references to classic Western tropes. On balance, though, there’s more good reasons to pick up a copy of the Montana-set movie than wait until it turns on cable. They include David McFarland’s emotive wide-screen cinematography; Jonny Pray’s dead-on period costumes; Eve McCarney’s well-researched production design; and excellent supporting performances by Kathy Baker, Tommy Flanagan, Jim Caviezel and Joe Anderson. The best reason, though, is to watch Pullman, one of the most versatile and consistently interesting actors of his generation. In the last three weeks, alone, I’ve watched him play very different roles in Lefty Brown, Battle of the Sexes, Walking Out and LBJ, in which he played Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough. Two years ago, he played a President in Independence Day: Resurgence and will portray former New York Governor and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in the upcoming Dick Cheney biopic, Backseat. What next, Pope?

It would difficult to find two less interchangeable terrains than those that provide the settings for The Ballad of Lefty Brown and Hell or High Water, and still be part of the same American west. The former takes place on the eastern edge of the northern Rockies, with rolling hills, blossoming clouds, spectacular vistas and badlands best traversed on horseback. The latter unspools several hundred miles due south, on land flat as a table top, with crystal blue skies and lonesome roads fit for high-speed getaways from bank robberies. The one thing both these fine Westerns – one traditional, the other modern — share is cowboy boots and hats, and looking great in hi-def. Now, David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water – one of the surprise hits of 2016 – has become available in 4K UHD, with Dolby Vision High Dynamic Range (HDR). It only makes a good thing great. A pair of brothers, one recently released from prison, goes on a spree, robbing banks for two completely different reasons. On their tail are the irresistibly cranky Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), and his laconic Native American partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who, in a few weeks, will no longer be required to put up with the old man’s race-baiting and teasing. “HorHW” was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Globe, as was Bridges and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. The nominations could just as well have gone to co-stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster. And, it’s well worth a second or third look in the new format. It accentuates Giles Nuttgens’ cinematography, which finds the beauty in a part of Texas – eastern New Mexico, to be precise — that it isn’t known for its scenery. The combo package adds special features, “Enemies Forever: The Characters of Hell or High Water,” “Visualizing the Heart of America” and “Damaged Heroes: The Performances of Hell or High Water,” footage from its red-carpet premiere and filmmaker Q&A.


Wonder: Blu-ray
Based on a best-selling novel of the same title, Wonder is the kind of heart-tugging drama that Hollywood does best, except when the geniuses decide that the source material can’t stand on its own merits and requires a bit more mawkish sentimentality to jerk audience tears. This is especially true of movies featuring children with birth defects, cancer or learning disabilities. Because Wonder’s central character, Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), has a congenital facial deformity so pronounced that he fears leaving home schooling behind and entering a regular middle school, it immediately recalls two movies that also got it right: David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985). Although Auggie’s disfigurement isn’t nearly as pronounced as the ones affecting the protagonists of those two movies, and probably wouldn’t have triggered the kind of bullying the boy endures at the prep school here, it makes the intended point. Auggie may be painfully shy – he wears an astronaut’s helmet whenever possible — but he’s also an excellent student, kind, generous and blessed with a wonderfully glib sense of humor. If, as Principal Tuchman (Mandy Patinkin) asserts, Beecher has a no-tolerance policy toward bullying, Auggie’s nemeses would have been expelled after the fateful post-Halloween hazing. Instead, it continues throughout the school year.

Co-writer/director Stephen Chbosky does a nice job maintaining an even keel here. The bullying never overwhelms the humanity built into the script and Tremblay isn’t required to play to the cheap seats to wring superfluous tears. There’s also plenty of room for Auggie’s parents and sister– Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Izabela Vidovic — to deal with their own issues, without injecting cheap melodrama into the mix. Most of the time, it doesn’t even look as if they’re acting. The PG-rating shouldn’t be perceived as an excuse for adults to avoid watching Wonder with their kids of middle-school age, and older. There’s nothing saccharine or soggy about it. As is generally the case whenever Hollywood tackles subjects that concern special-interest groups, Wonder took a bit of heat from activists for not casting an actor with a craniofacial disorder and neglecting to emphasize the fact that more harassment derives from social-media trolls and strangers than people in daily contact with the target. OK, but that’s not the point of the book and what’s in the movie, as made, beats the alternative, which is for Hollywood to ignore such issues, entirely. (When the outcry over blaxploitation grew too loud, the studios stopped making movies for African-American audiences and, by extension, hiring actors of color.) The Blu-ray adds a very good five-part making-of documentary; commentary with Chbosky and Palacio; two background featurettes; and a ”Brand New Eyes” music video.


Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield: Blu-ray
Blade of the Immortal: Blu-ray
As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t consider myself to be an expert on martial arts, Samurai and wuxia movies from the Pacific Rim nations, which is why I defer to experts as often as I do. Still, after watching dozens of genre pictures from the region in the last 10 years, I know what I like and am perfectly willing to learn from critics who specialize in them. That’s the case with Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield. Most of the reviews I’ve read not only are wildly positive, but favorably compare the prequel to the original, as well. That must have come as a relief to everyone involved in “Blades II,” because a sequel to the original is said to already be on the drawing board. The trilogy would be patterned after the Infernal Affairs series. It starts in 1619, in the blood-soaked aftermath of a battle between united Manchurians tribes and the troops of the Ming dynasty. Shen Lian (Chang Chen) is one of the few survivors, and he saves the life of Lu Wenzhao (Zhang Yi), who is about to be beheaded. Eight years later, a few months before the events of the first film, Shen is now a captain of the elite imperial guards known as the Jinyiwei, and Lu is his friend and superior officer, spending much of his time groveling to the all-powerful eunuch, Wei (Chin Shih Chieh), for a promotion. When a government official is murdered, Shen is forbidden from investigating the crime. Instead, he is sent to assassinate dissident Bei Zhai (Yang Mi), an artist whose work he has been collecting. It doesn’t take long for him to uncover a conspiracy, for which, if successful, he will be blamed. Like any true warrior caught in a trap, Chen knows to trust his sword and fighting skills above anyone or anything else. Not surprisingly, the artist holds keys to the door leading to the truth. The story allows for much exciting swordplay, a compelling romance and intrigue. It benefits, as well, from beautiful locations and set design.

In 1991, Japanese auteur Takashi Miike saw the release of his first two features, both on video. If they’ve ever seen the light of day in the U.S., no one bothered to mention it to anyone at Amazon. That’s probably the case with most of the movies he’s directed in the ensuing 16 years. Based on the manga of the same title, Blade of the Immortal could hardly be a more appropriate way to turn the corner on his 100th credit. I wouldn’t say that it makes Sam Peckinpah, Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino look like pussycats, but we haven’t seen body counts like this since Flags of Our Fathers. We’re back in Japan’s shogunate period, when a samurai named Manji (Takuya Kimura) is severely wounded in a battle in which he’s the only man left alive. A disheveled crone comes from out of nowhere to salve his severed hand with Sacred Bloodworms of the Holy Lama. Not only do the worms serve their purpose by re-attaching the limb, but they make him immortal. It is, of course, both a blessing and a curse. Although wounds by swords, axes and arrows cannot kill him, Manji is forced to live with his past sins and continues to be tortured by the death of his little sister, Machi (Hana Sugisaki).

Fifty years later, Manji crosses paths with another young girl, Rin (also Sugisaki), who is a dead-ringer for Machi. (The character reminded some critics of 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, in True Grit.) He agrees to teach Rin some tricks of the trade, so she can help him avenge her family’s death at the hands of master swordsmen Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi) and his band of killers, the Itto-ryu. There are plenty of other samurai looking for Anotsu, including another immortal and a kick-ass woman warrior (Chiaki Kuriyama), who favors brightly colored silk robes and platform shoes. The final showdown involves dozens, if not hundreds of samurai, with all sorts of exotic cutlery at their disposal. In short, Blade of the Immortal is a hoot. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews. The bonus package includes the “Manji vs. 300” featurette, a Takuya Kimura interview, cast interviews and poster gallery.

Line 41
For decades, most of the great movies we’ve seen about World War II have focused on great battles, individual heroism and group sacrifice, primarily from the American and British point of view. Except for Adolph Hitler and the Nazi officers and functionaries introduced to us at the Nuremburg Trials, the soldiers, pilots and U-boat crews were compliant drones, easily manipulated by Der Fuhrer’s bombast and revenge for perceived injustices in the Versailles Treaty. The Japanese were even more faceless. Unlike their Axis partners, Japanese were depicted as being so loyal to their emperor that the did things westerners considered to be completely nuts, such as flying fighter planes armed with torpedoes into American ships and remain in hiding in caves until Hirohito personally alerted them to the war’s end. It was OK with the Pentagon, CIA and White House if Hollywood was limited in what filmmakers could show and tell audiences about how wars are fought and what American boys looked like after being fatally wounded or severely wounded. Images from the liberated death camps were widely distributed and horrific, of course, but thousands more were held back by military censors. In 1981, Das Boot broke new ground by forcing European and American audiences to stare at the faces of ordinary German sailors struggling with the likelihood of death. We sympathized with them, fully knowing Nazi wolf packs had killed thousands of Allied sailors. Even so, Lothar-Günther Buchheim, author of the 1973 anti-war novel upon which Wolfgang Peterson’s film was based, dismissed it as “another re-glorification and re-mystification” of the World War II U-boat war, German heroism and nationalism. He called the film a cross between a “cheap, shallow American action flick” and a “contemporary German propaganda newsreel from World War II.” Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was almost universally praised for its unflinching depiction of the hellish violence that greeted Allied forces on D-Day. Some groups were appalled by the graphic violence and sight of American boys lying on the beach in pieces or drowning from the weight of their backpacks. It forever changed the way filmmakers would depicts scenes of war and improvised triage units. For better or worse, the Internet has opened the floodgates on photographs and films long hidden from public view in archives, museums and private collections.

That’s a long way of saying that movies now arriving from Eastern Europe, especially, mostly forgo re-enactments of combat and, instead, tell highly personal stories of survival, resistance, cowardice and despair. Hardly a month goes by when my pile of DVDs to review doesn’t contain a half-dozen, of so, movies and documentaries about WWII. Paradise and Line 41 arrive from Film Movement, a distributor that routinely finds and releases such films. The Russian-German co-production Paradise tells the story of Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya), a charismatic Russian countess, fashion editor and member of the French Resistance, into whose orbit two different Nazi monsters fall. The first, Jules, is a Vichy collaborator assigned to investigate Olga’s role in harboring Jewish children. She freely offers to trade sex for clemency, but Jules is killed before that can happen, perhaps by the Resistance. Olga is taken to an unnamed concentration camp, where the conditions are every bit as bad as the one in Son of Saul, but escape routes are non-existent. The newly arrived camp commandant, Helmut (Christian Claus), is an SS golden boy, assigned by Heinrich Himmler (Victor Sukhorukov) to end rampant theft and corruption. Before he became captivated by Hitler’s rhetoric, however, Helmut enjoyed a care-free, bourgeoise lifestyle and was a graduate student in Russian literature. He even met Olga while on vacation in Italy. Upon discovering that she was in the camp, he offers her a job cleaning his headquarters. Sexual favors are implied, but not shown. With the war nearing its end, Helmut knows that the promise of a “German Paradise” to which he was attracted isn’t likely to come to fruition. He could attempt to escape to Switzerland with Olga or avoid interfering in her fate. But Paradise is Olga’s movie and her future isn’t anyone’s business but her own. While Vysotskaya is clearing the drawing card here, Americans may be more impressed by the presence of co-writer/director Andrey Konchalovskiy on the list of credits. They’ll remember the Moscow native’s name from the English-language Maria’s Lovers (1984), Runaway Train (1985), Duet for One (1986) and Tango & Cash (1989), if not his Silver Lion Award for The Postman’s White Nights (2014) and Silver Lion-nominated House of Fools (2002), in Russian. Aleksandr Simonov’s monochrome cinematography also is worthy of attention. The DVD package adds Luka Popadic’s WWII-set short, “Red Snow” (2013).

Tanja Cummings’ debut documentary Line 41 serves as virtual companion piece to Marina Willer’s Red Trees, which was reviewed here a few weeks ago. In it, Willer traces a family’s journey as one of only 12 Jewish families to survive the Nazi occupation of Prague, finally settling in Brazil. She convinces her father that it’s finally time to return to the Czech Republic to help document their life before, during and after the war. In Cumming’s film. Holocaust and Lodz Ghetto survivor Natan Grossmann wasn’t so fortunate. His parents died during their arduous stay in the ghetto and he lost track of his brother, whose fate has haunted him ever since. For 70 years, Grossman repressed his desire to return to Poland to investigate the 1942 disappearance. Cummings follows him around modern-day Lotz, which still contains enough physical reminders of his life there to make Line 41 a frequently emotional experience. Along the way, Grossman meets people he knew as a boy and Jews who returned there after the war. What makes Line 41 stand out from other such docs, however, is the inclusion of Jens-Jürgen Ventzki, son of the former Nazi Head Mayor of Lodz and a true villain. Ventzki could hardly be more contrite, candid or helpful, as the investigation into his own family’s dark secrets overlap with Grossman’s efforts.

Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal: Special Edition: Blu-ray
To get the most pleasure from Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, it’s important to put it into historical context. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. Released in 1978, its production followed the massive disappointment and headache that was Fellini’s Casanova, a movie he didn’t want to make about a character he didn’t like. Ironically, “Casanova” followed in the wake of Amarcord, a highly personal picture that wasn’t just admired by audiences and critics, it was cherished and still is. It’s important to recall, as well, the political climate of the times, especially in Italy. Any residual glow from the Italy’s Economic Miracle and la dolce vita period disappeared completely with the wave of kidnappings and violence that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Aldo Moro, by left-wing fanatics, and murder of director Pier Paolo Pasolini, either by the Mafia or right-wing homophobes. Anti-intellectualism was rampant, as was labor unrest. The disruptive force of the social and political turmoil informs Orchestra Rehearsal, as does Fellini’s appreciation of the healing power of music. Although it’s been rarely exhibited since its release, Orchestra Rehearsal continues to prompt lively debate among critics, academics and buffs. It stems from the belief that the film, which some consider to be a divertissement, represents the first time Fellini delivered a movie that takes an overtly political stand. At 71 minutes, Orchestra Rehearsal also begs the question as to whether it’s a long short or short feature. It’s supposed to look like a documentary made for television, which is where it was first shown, but the musicians are played by actors, who couldn’t play a lick.

Maybe, though, the best part about Orchestra Rehearsal is that it can be enjoyed simply for its distinctly Fellini-esque conceits, starting with the cavalcade of bizarre looking characters and faux-historic setting. Some of the musicians are happy to be interviewed, while others bristle after learning they won’t be paid for their input. Besides the general grumpiness on display, the musicians appear to take their work seriously and have strong opinions about the personalities of their instruments. The dialogue simultaneously makes wonderful sense and nonsense. The Conductor (Balduin Baas) is Germanic autocrat – perhaps, modeled after Herbert von Karajian – who berates the musicians every time he hears a false note. The musicians’ union rep is there to make sure they take every second of their allotted breaks, which, of course, further incenses the Conductor. (Fellini wasn’t a fan of union-mandated rules, either.) During lunch, while the Conductor is explaining his passion for music and sadness over the passing of the good old days, the musicians have worked themselves into an anti-authoritarian frenzy. Things get much crazier before the music finally soothes the savage beasts. Orchestra Rehearsal marks the last collaboration between Fellini and composer Nino Rota, who wrote all the scores for Fellini’s films from 1952 (The White Sheik) to 1978. Soon after providing Fellini with one of his most beautiful themes, Rota died. The Arrow Films package is enhanced by a 2K restoration from original film elements and a 1.0 mono sound; Richard Dyer’s comments on Rota and the collaborations; “Orchestrating Discord,” a visual essay on the film by Fellini biographer John Baxter; a gallery featuring rare press material on the film from Don Young’s Felliniana collection; a reversible sleeve, featuring two original artwork options; and an illustrated collector s booklet, with new writing by Adrian Martin.

Seijun Suzuki: The Early Years, Volume 1: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
The marketing tagline for this wonderful collection of genre features by Seijun Suzuki, from his tenure at Nikkatsu’s B-movie factory, is: “Youths On The Loose And Rebels Without Causes In The Unruly Seishun Eiga Youth Movies of Japanese Iconoclast Seijun Suzuki.” And, that sums it up pretty well. In a 2016 essay for the Japan Times, Mark Schilling explains why these and other “youth films” found audiences at home but didn’t find outlets in the west. “With only a few exceptions, these films assume a familiarity with the insular world of the Japanese high school … that outlanders are unlikely to possess, with unrequited crushes on indifferent or abusive guys, that don’t translate smoothly to London or Los Angeles.” Or, perhaps, western audiences had already been inundated with what were then known as juvenile-delinquent movies, (By 1961, they were made passé by West Side Story.) Suzuki must have studied James Dean’s three features, because his ghostly presence is palpable throughout the genre quintet, only now making their home-video debuts outside Japan. Who could have blamed him? Eventually, Suzuki’s reputation would spread beyond Japan with such cult classics as Tokyo Drifter (1966), Fighting Elegy (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), now available through Criterion.

The films collected in the Arrow package reflect Suzuki’s desire to test Nikkatsu conventions and clichés, as well as Japan’s post-war youthquake. “The Boy Who Came Back” (1958) marks his first collaboration with Nikkatsu Diamond Guys Akira Kobayashi and Jo Shishido, with Kobayashi cast as the hot-headed hoodlum fresh out of reform school, “who struggles to make a clean break with his tearaway past.” The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Pass (1961) is a tale about a student who hooks up with a down-at-heels travelling circus troupe. Teenage Yakuza (1962) stars Tamio Kawaji as the high-school vigilante protecting his community from underworld extortionists. Based on Toko Kon’s novels about young love, The Incorrigible (1963) and Born Under Crossed Stars (1965) represent Suzuki’s first films set in the 1920s era, later celebrated in his highly regarded “Taisho Trilogy.” All of the titles contain plot points that Americans would have found to be incredibly cheesy in the 1960s. A half-century later, however, we’re able to see how they establish a context for scenes comparable to anything in Hollywood and European romances. That’s thanks to performances by Yumiko Nogawa, Midori Tashiro and Masako Izumi that are as affecting as any turned in by Natalie Wood, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret or Carol Lynley at the same time. Older actresses, playing geishas, mothers and office workers, also are afforded meaty roles. The Arrow Blu-ray package includes an authoritative introduction to the films by critic Tony Rayns and 60-page illustrated collector’s book, featuring new writing by critic and author Jasper Sharp.

Hellraiser: Judgment: Blu-ray
Drag Me to Hell: Collector’s Edition: Blu Ray
After taking a shot at directing a pair of live-action fairytale features — Hansel & Gretel (2002), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009) – longtime Hollywood makeup-affects designer Gary J. Tunnicliffe felt compelled to write and direct Hellraiser: Judgment. It is the 10th film in the Hellraiser series to which Tunnicliffe has been attached, one way or another, since Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. And, yes, Pinhead is back, as well. The aptly named antagonist, introduced in Clive Barker’s novella, “The Hellbound Heart” (1986), is a leader of the Cenobites, humans who were transformed into creatures that reside in an extradimensional realm and travel to Earth through a puzzle box called the Lament Configuration, to harvest human souls. An early icon of torture porn, Pinhead has since ventured into other realms of pure evil, even changing his appearance over the years. Paul T. Taylor is the third in a short line of actors to take on one of the most recognizable of all of screen monsters. It’s likely that the producers wanted to re-ground the characters and take the series closer to its roots. At 81 minutes, it feels more transitional than additional, introducing new characters and targets for Cenobitic abuse. The Digital Age has produced so many new avenues for evil that Pinhead is at a loss to keep up with them. He tags behind a trio of police detectives hunting a bible-obsessed serial murderer, as well as his own coterie of acolytes: Auditor (Tunnicliffe), Assessor (John Gulager), Chatterer (Mike J. Reagan), Butcher (Joel Decker) and Surgeon/Stitch Twin (Jillyan Blundell). Things get messy, fast, so newcomers should be prepared for stomach-churning images, created by brilliant makeup-effects work. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and outtakes, a gag reel. If there is to be another sequel, fans would be a happier lot if Dimension spent slightly more money on it than it has in the past

In its first theatrical go-round, Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell had the misfortune of going up against Pixar’s Up and, in weekend No. 2, the instant comedy classic, The Hangover. Even so, it ended its 2009 domestic run with a very decent $42.1 million return – against a $30 million production budget – with another $48.7 million in the foreign markets. Typically, home-media numbers remain unreported, but good news travels fast in Hollywood. In its first two weeks, the DVD/Blu-ray combo sold 459,217 copies, generating $7.98 million in sales. That total rose to $13.9 million in domestic sales, alone. It explains why Scream Factory has put together a “Collector’s Edition,” only eight years removed from the first release. In it, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is an up-and-coming loan agent, who’s forced to decide between renewing a mortgage on a home owned by a decrepit gypsy crone or calling it in, to please her greedy boss (David Paymer). Naturally, Christine makes the wrong decision. It results in a curse that demands she appease the satanic spirit that bestowed it in three days or she’ll literally be dragged into the fiery pit of Hades. It threatens to destroy her relationship with her boyfriend (Justin Long), a hard-earned job promotion at the bank and her sanity. Sam and Ivan Raimi’s story is alternately scary, gory, disgusting, hilarious and punctuated with several bombastic jump-scares. If the new edition does well, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a Drag Me to Hell sequel was in the works. The two-disc package includes the theatrical and director’s-cut versions, which benefit from new HD masters of both versions, from the 2K digital intermediate; several ported-over interviews; fresh featurettes, “To Hell and Back”; an interview with actress Alison Lohman; “Curses!,” an interview with actress Lorna Raver; “Hitting All the Right Notes,” with composer Christopher Young; and a stills gallery.

Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials
Everybody remembers the Russian rock group Pussy Riot and its members’ willingness to take on Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church … don’t we? Or, was it just another passing fancy on the part of the media, attracted more to the band’s name than its message? Most of us only have room in our craniums for one rock-’n’-roll scandal at a time and, admit it, that one left our radar screens five minutes after three of the women were sentenced to two years in prison. Yevgeni Mitta’s comprehensive documentary Act & Punishment: The Pussy Riot Trials takes a different tack from Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013) to get to relatively the same place. For one thing, the doc opens by putting the actions of the three defendants — and dozen, or so, people who performed non-musical tasks – into the context of a history of Russian feminism and political resistance that goes back to Medieval times, as well as the role of the “holy fool” in art and literature. By 2015, band members looked back on the experience in much the same way as Johnny Rotten recalled the Sex Pistols’ hysteria: Oy! They focus here on their longstanding ideas about art and philosophy, and core belief that changes can made even in a corrupt and phony democracy. The group doesn’t perform regularly, anymore. To its credit, though, Pussy Riot anticipated the two-peas-in-a-pod relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, when it released the song and video, “Make America Great Again,” a month before the presidential election here. The video depicts a dystopian world in which Trump, played by one of the band members, has won the presidency and enforces his values through beatings, shaming and branding of victims by stormtroopers. As the thugs torture their victims, Pussy Riot sings, “Let other people in/ Listen to your women/Stop killing black children/Make America great again.” Somehow, it failed to sway the electorate.

Digital technology and the Internet have pushed to the foreground ideas advanced 80 years ago by German philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin, in his essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It hangs over all the interviews collected in Manuel Correa’s short, but provocative documentary, #artoffline. Like most such intellectual arguments, however, it’s likely to be of little interest to the great unwashed. In Benjamin’s essay, he proposes that fine art was diminished by the ability of publishers to reproduce flat, two-dimensional images of paintings and sculptures that exist in their own three-dimensional world. It allowed anyone with a library card to forgo first-hand observation and still consider themselves to be a connoisseur. This, without taking account texture, contours, shrinkage and expansion of images, and their emotional pull. In a way, Correa argues, Benjamin anticipated the bizarre phenomenon of museums today overrun by tourists taking still and moving pictures of great works of art, sometimes without actually studying them … except, perhaps, when setting up a selfie. Likewise, when people began using their phones to take photographs of everything from sunsets to train wrecks, did it change the nature of photojournalism? Reviews of movies and books in Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon and IMDB create the allusion of criticism, no matter how vapid or disingenuous they may be. While I would tend to agree with that argument, the philosophers, artists and curators assembled for #artoffline beg to differ with Benjamin. They believe that endless reproduction liberates art from a muddled art market and the undemocratic exhibition circuit. A couple of critics wonder whether the continued prominence of physical art is “nostalgic fetishism.” In the era of the Internet and virtual reality, the demand for authenticity has become irrelevant. There was a time, not so long ago, when museums forbade the use of cameras in galleries, specifically for pictures that required flash units, arguing they could damage the paintings. (Or, maybe, to maintain sales of postcards and art books.) It would be wonderful if museums instituted no-camera days, if only for the sake of art lovers who seek refuge from technological overload.

Teenage Cocktail
For more than a year, now, John Carchietta’s sexy cross-genre thriller has been a VOD staple for Netflix. It has been promoted as being suspenseful and steamy, within genres dedicated to dramas, independent dramas and independent movies. In fact, Teenage Cocktail is likely to disappoint anyone looking underage nudity and barely-legal shenanigans. In fact, it’s more of a cautionary tale for teenage girls and their parents than an exploitation flick. Recent transfer Annie (Nichole Bloom) is having trouble adjusting to the mean girls at her new high school. It isn’t until she befriends the free-spirited Jules (Fabianne Therese) that she begins to feel comfortable. Jules not only guesses correctly that Annie might be interested in some mild girl/girl experimentation, but she also introduces her to the financially lucrative business of Internet voyeurism. Their webcam performances barely attain the level of soft-core titillation, but, as Sly Stone once observed, “different strokes for different folks.” Anxious to leave town after classmates discover their act, the girls raise the stakes by taking on an outcall customer (Pat Healy), who doesn’t appreciate being blackmailed after a night of play. It culminates in an attack foreshadowed in the opening scene. Teenage Cocktail accurately depicts what most parents fear could happen to their naïve kids when they spend too time on the Internet behind closed doors. Bloom has since become a regular on “Shameless” and “Superstore,” while Therese can be seen in the VOD release “American Pets.”

Richard Turner’s rise to the top ranks of close-up magic and sleight-of-hand would be fascinating, even he didn’t have the one thing that separates him from almost everyone else in the business: being blind. Even more remarkable is his desire for audiences to take his performances at face value, as they would any sighted magician. He feels the same way about people he meets in real life. To this end, Turner has refused to carry a cane, learn Braille or use a service dog, as does his sister, who lost her sight to the same degenerative disease. Neither is he introduced as “The Blind Magician” or promoted as “handicapped.” He didn’t even tell his wife, Kim, about his condition before they were married, fearing she might not go through with it or begin to treat him differently. The irony is that Turner probably wouldn’t have picked up a deck of cards, in the first place, if he hadn’t begun to lose his sight, at 9, and could still read a bit. The tactile routine of shuffling and manipulating the cards was therapeutic and, even today, he’s rarely without a deck in his hand. Turner has been accompanied for most of the last 18 years by his son, Asa Spades Turner, who’s only left his father’s side to attend college. It explains why Luke Korem’s inspirational documentary, Dealt, focuses less on the mechanics of his art – he doesn’t consider himself to be a magician – than his journey through a life. Dealt only stops being fun when Korem shows Turner seeking his black belt against sighted opponents, who, as instructed, take no mercy on him, or appearing to denigrate people who choose to use dogs, guidance software and other tools. It isn’t until the very end of the film, when Turner loses Asa’s ever-present support, that he re-evaluates his ironclad position on support tools. It only makes us feel better about him. The deleted scenes are also worth watching, as they further soften Turner’s hard edge, by showing him mentor kids and aspiring magicians; swapping stories with visually impaired magician, Chad Allen, author of “audio comics” and a motivational speaker; chatting with his sister; and, yes, learning to shoot a pistol at a target range. The featurette, “Magicians & Mechanics” is useful, as well.

Do It Like an Hombre
At 34, Santiago-born Nicolás López (Aftershock) no longer can be considered the wunderkind of Hispanic genre cinema. He’s been making and writing about films since he was 15 and sold a lot of tickets as a writer, director and producer of horror flicks. Let me preface my remarks on Hazlo Como Hombre (“Do It Like an Hombre”) by pointing out that the likeable, if dreadfully old-fashioned coming-out romcom last August became the fifth most viewed film in Mexican box-office history. It even made $2.5 million in a very limited domestic run here. The Pantelion/Lionsgate release describes what happens to the longtime friendship of Raúl (Mauricio Ochmann), Eduardo (Humberto Busto) and Santiago (Alfonso Dosal), when one of them confesses to the others that he’s gay. He does so in one of the movie’s many PG shower scenes – each one containing a drop-the-soap gag – causing Raúl to go all Mike Pence on Santiago and threaten to use gay-conversion therapy on him. Eduardo is content being the trio’s hipster metrosexual. Complicating the issue is the fact that Santiago is close to marrying Raúl’s sister, Nati (Aislinn Derbez), who can’t figure out why he isn’t interested in sex, anymore. Her pregnant best friend, Luciana (Ignacia Allamand), is married to Raúl and is caught in the middle. It’s easier to see the commercial appeal in “Do It Like an Hombre” by understanding the popularity of the five extremely cute and funny stars. Imagine the Jonas Brothers as the three male leads, with Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez playing Nati and Luciana, exchanging BJ and anal-sex jokes. No matter how retrograde the setup, the movie would still draw a crowd. The overlong featurette is lamer than anything in the movie. Check out Derbez, especially, who could make the same leap to stardom in the U.S. as Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Her two-episode spin on Netflix’s “Easy” was incendiary.

Resolution Song
Some movies are based on a foundation so unstable that they’re always in danger of collapsing under pressure of close scrutiny. Antonio James and writer Deborah Capstone’s Resolution Song is the kind of faith-based drama whose good intentions can’t overcome its one-dimensional characterizations. Veteran tough guy Lester Speight plays Marcus, the self-righteous head of a family that eats together every night and prays before each meal. Even so, Marcus won’t tolerate any form of sass or dissent, however mild, from his wife (Torrei Hart), mother-and-law (Ella Joyce), son (Cedric L. Williams) and daughter (Brittney Ayona Clemons), none of whom deserve his violent outbursts. It doesn’t take long to figure out that something is boiling under the family’s tranquil facade, beyond their fear of Marcus’ outbursts. The son, Levi, is a promising singer-songwriter, whose work in a local church choir causes him to work closely with his white next-door neighbor. Brianna (Kennedy Lea Slocum) is blessed with a heavenly voice and cursed with having to take care of a father (John J. York) who gave up on life after he drove his wife away from home and precipitated the tragedy weighing so heavily on Levi’s family. He doesn’t appear to have a job, subsists on peanut butter and wears a toupee that looks like a mop. The nature of the tragedy becomes clear when Levi invites Brianna to dinner – there’s never any real food at her home — and his mother and father freak out so completely that the kids feel threatened. And, that’s where the fault in Resolution Song’s foundation lies. How could two families so at odds with each other exist within 15 feet of each other, for so long, without police intervention? Common sense would demand that one of the families move to a place where they wouldn’t be reminded of the tragedy every day, and the teenage children wouldn’t be tempted to hook up, despite their parents’ hang-ups. But, the Lord moves in mysterious ways, especially in faith-based movies in which His son’s teachings only come into play when the shit finally hits the fan. That said, Speight’s portrayal of a father with severe rage issues is dead-on; Joyce’s take on the bible-quoting mother-in-law is a stabilizing force throughout; and the kids earn our empathy. The redemptive power of the music made by the choir validates the title.

Where’s Daddy?
That African-American men comprise a disproportionately large percentage of the nation’s prison population isn’t open to question in Rel Dowdell’s hot-button documentary, Where’s Daddy? In some jurisdictions, at least, the unbalance is compounded by a judicial system that demands that delinquent fathers be jailed if, for whatever reason, they can’t immediately come up with the money owed. The film also examines custody issues, social implications, cultural concerns and the emotional impact of navigating the child-support system as an African-American father. The documentary is set in Philadelphia, which explains the participation of local authorities, including Bishop James D. Robinson, clinical psychologist Dr. Kathleen Walls, Roc-A-Fella platinum-selling rap artist Freeway, Philadelphia Eagles Pro Bowl receiver Fred Barnett, writer Mister Mann Frisby and comedian J’Vonne. The examples include men thrown in jail after the ex-spouse falsely accuses them of child abuse; ex-wives who use child-support money on their own needs and desires; children poisoned by their mother’s contempt for their father; imbalance of parental responsibilities; and the use of court-ordered visitation rights as negotiating tools for personal gain. I can only assume that the men’s stories were vetted ahead of time and the experts are legit. It isn’t made clear if the problem is specific to Pennsylvania courts or it’s more widespread. Where’s Daddy? does allow for cases in which the father is a deadbeat, but not beyond the point of redemption. The Breaking Glass DVD adds a Q&A from the film’s premier at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, audience reactions, a deleted interview with barber/stylist Richard Taylor; and musical outtake from Jason Aro.

Codename: Diablo!
For as long as movies have been made, male directors have always found room for actresses with freakishly large breasts. The more extreme the bosom, the dumber the roles the women have been asked to play. For a long time, Mae West was the exception that proved the rule, but every succeeding generation, it seems, has produced a bra-buster to call its own. In time, Deep Throat raised the ante on such soft-core auteurs as Russ Meyer (Up!) and Andy Sidaris (Malibu Express) to the point where they had to retire or sell their wares to premium-cable outfits, like Cinemax. Their stars, including Kitten Natividad, were forced to choose between hard-core porn or accepting gag roles in mainstream comedies, like Airplane! Lately, the pendulum of porn has begun to swing back to women with natural breasts of small to average sizes. Still, it isn’t likely that large breasts will ever go away, on stage or in the movies. Dre-YS’ extremely lame Codename: Diablo! is the latest boobs-ploitation DVD to come my way – from who knows where – and, no matter how many comparisons to Meyer’s oeuvre are made on the jacket, it doesn’t even come close to matching the entertainment value of Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. The cartoonishly endowed Lilly 4K, Mary Madison Love, LRA and Martina Big play superspies fending off a small army of enemy agents wearing scuba gear, from their fins to the snorkel on their masks. Most of it takes place on a small yacht and the ladies’ breasts are kept in place by bras seemingly made of duct tape. It’s as ludicrous as it sounds. It’s in the bonus package that Dre-YS gets to the heart of the fetish, showing the gals on a shooting range, firing semi-automatic weapons … in high heels and bikinis. There’s also outtakes from a mud fight and shower scene, in which they wear wetsuits to maintain their dignity. Some trash is too weird to ignore.

Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie
Having once encountered a hedgehog in the wilds of my sister’s backyard, in France, I can attest to fact that they’re cute little critters, whose spines aren’t nearly as dangerous to humans as those belonging to porcupines, to whom they’re unrelated. Neither are they, by any stretch of the imagination, hogs. They’re protected in some parts of the world and considered a nuisance in others. The Pennsylvania Dutch tradition of Groundhog Day can be traced to Roman times, when February 2 was celebrated as Hedgehog Day. (It also serves as Badger Day.) The closest most North Americans have come to a hedgehog is Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog game. It they’re able to predict meteorological trends, it isn’t apparent in Lionsgate’s new animated feature, Hedgehogs. Released in its native China in July 2016, as “Bobby the Hedgehog” and “Spiny Life,” Huang Jianming’s Hedgehogs follows Bobby (Anthony Padilla), a reckless hedgehog that lives in an idyllic community, where all the hedgehogs consume a “yummy fruit” that keeps them happy and full. In a food fight with a badger (Ian Hecox) over the treat, Bobby is hurt and ends up in the big city, suffering from memory loss so severe he doesn’t even know he’s a hedgehog anymore. Bobby meets Hubert (Jon Heder), a large, friendly pigeon who declares him a feather-less, flight-challenged bird. Hubert creates wings for Bobby to fasten to his body, but learns the genetic truth from the badger, who advises him to beware the encroachment on his kind’s habitat by human exterminators. ThinkMan (Chevy Chase) believes they carry disease and has ordered their elimination. So on, and so forth. The bright and lively animation should keep younger viewers entertained, if not their parents. Anyone seeking zoological accuracy should visit a zoo, instead.

It may seem odd for a feature-length continuation of Nickelodeon’s groundbreaking cartoon series, “Hey Arnold!,” which ran from October 7, 1996, to June 8, 2004, to reappear on November 24, 2017. Apparently, Craig Bartlett intended “The Journal” to be made and shown shortly after the show’s final regular episode. Because a 2002 theatrical feature underperformed at the box office, however, the poo-bahs at Nickelodeon decided against giving Bartlett the closure he desired. Social media junkies decided the time was right and demanded the re-boot. It’s newly available on DVD.

PBS: Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents: The Rise of the First Secret Service
PBS: American Experience: The Bombing of Wall Street
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 4
PBS: NOVA: Extreme Animal Weapons
PBS: Nature: The Cheetah Children
PBS: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
PBS: Garfield: Nine Lives
PBS Kids: Ocean Adventures/Outer Space Adventures
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Heroes of Axle City
On many PBS stations, the three-part mini-series, “Queen Elizabeth’s Secret Agents: The Rise of the First Secret Service,” is being packaged with second-season episodes of “Victoria.” For those PBS subscribers keeping score at home, Elizabeth (a.k.a., the Virgin Queen, Gloriana and Good Queen Bess) was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife, who was executed two years after the future queen’s birth. Afterwards, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate, so as to allow for the accession of her half-brother, Edward VI; his cousin Lady Jane Grey (“The Nine-Day Queen”); his half-sister, Mary; and, finally, Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch. It’s said that Elizabeth was only able to rule for 45 years because of the foresight of her spymasters, William Cecil, his son, Robert, and Sir Francis Walsingham. The queen inherited a lot of enemies, including the Pope, militant priests, Spanish royalty and her half-sister, Mary. She would make new ones of her own, including the Duke of Norfolk, on the way to 14 separate assassination attempts. Leeds historian Dan Jones co-wrote and co-presents the series, with Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb. They’re joined by several other historians and academics, brought in to amplify on the dramatizations. It also combines paintings of the historical figures in question and exquisitely preserved archival material. Among the locations are Gwydir Castle and Caernarfon Castle, in Wales, and Chichester, West Sussex. Anyone who watched V for Vendetta and wants to know more about Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot and the sinister mask favored by contemporary anarchists will want to check out Chapter Three.

This played out centuries before the ascendency of FBI publicity hog J. Edger Hoover and post-WWII establishment of the CIA. Before that, America’s spy networks went largely unsung. AMC’s terrific mini-series, “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” related the story of the Culper Ring essential to victory in the Revolutionary War. Before Allan Pinkerton used the detective agency that bears his name to bust labor unions and step on the civil rights of left-wing and labor activists, he served as head of the Union Intelligence Service, credited with foiling a plot to assassinate president-elect Abraham Lincoln, who later hired Pinkerton agents for his personal security during the Civil War. His decisive role has been depicted in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, PBS’ “Mercy Street” and Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” The “American Experience” presentation, “The Bombing of Wall Street,” re-examines an incident in American history that, if it happened today, would have sent the media into a feeding frenzy. Instead, it’s barely recalled. That’s largely because the killers were never specifically identified, caught and prosecuted/framed – an Italian anarchist group is still suspected of pulling off the massacre – as was the case of the Haymarket and Los Angeles Times bombings. The Wall Street bombing occurred at 12:01 pm on September 16, 1920, in the Financial District of New York City. The blast killed 38 and injured hundreds of passersby, most having nothing to do with stocks and bonds. It helped launch Hoover’s career initiatives, while sparking a bitter national debate about how far the government should go to protect the nation from acts of political violence. It continues today, of course. The doc is based on Beverly Gage’s “The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in Its First Age of Terror.”

I wonder if Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson spent a lot time watching “Laverne & Shirley” growing up, because, apart from the Milwaukee setting, the same comic dynamic is at play in “Broad City.” While guy pals played by Hannibal Buress, Arturo Castro and John Gemberling easily recall Lenny, Squiggy and the Big Ragoo, Ilana Wexler and Abbi Abram’s single-Jewish-gals-and-the-city lifestyle would get them arrested in Brewtown, then and today. Their off-color language and crude sexual imagery, alone, would make their co-workers at the Shotz Brewery blush. In Season Four of “Broad City,” New York becomes a full partner to Ilana and Abbi in storylines that reflect the city far more than in previous seasons. (“L&S” and “Happy Days” were tapped 2,000 miles away from Wisconsin,) Even when the girls take a road trip to Florida to help Ilana’s mom (Susan Essman) and aunt (Fran Drescher) clean out deceased Grandma Esther’s apartment, they can’t leave New York behind, for long. The season opens with a kooky homage to Peter Howitt’s 1998 urban fantasy, Sliding Doors, taking viewers back to the day the characters serendipitously met. It ends with a nod to Rear Window, as the girls witness what they perceive to be a murder, through binoculars, on top of the Empire State Building, and investigate it in the same slapstick way Lucy and Ethel might have, back in the day. In other episodes, they encounter bedbugs, Shania Twain, Sandra Bernhard, Ru Paul, Wanda Sykes, Steve Buscemi and Jane Curtin, and take a vividly animated stroll through the city, tripping on ’shrooms. The two-disc package adds deleted/extended scenes and backgrounders.

From “NOVA” comes “Extreme Animal Weapons,” which questions why some species carry build-in armaments and defenses that no longer are commiserate with the dangers they face in the wild. It investigates why bull elks continue to be burdened with giant 40-pound antler racks and how tiny rhinoceros beetles are similarly hindered by horns bigger than their body. Tusks, horns and claws that once served legitimate purposes now can slow an animal down and even impair its health and nutrition. Why isn’t the same evolutionary process that continues to provide protection for lobsters, dogs, bees and snakes re-adapting to serve the needs of other creatures who’ve outlived their natural enemies. As usual, after “NOVA” producers investigate the riddle, they come up with theories of their own. In creatures as varied as dung beetles and saber-toothed tigers, shrimp and elephants, the same hidden factors trigger an arms race, which, once launched, unfold in exactly the same pattern. Join scientists as they crack the secret biological code that underlies nature’s battleground.

I know that producers of wildlife documentaries sometimes recycle their best footage and outtakes to give subsequent films a fresh look, without spending the amount of money it takes to re-capture the same material. As thrilling as it is, I wonder how many more times I’ll have to watch the same great white shark juggle and devour a seal, while airborne, several feet above the surface of the waters off Cape Town. One ocean looks about the same as the others … ditto savannahs, mountain ranges and jungles, so who’s to know? I only bring this up because the “Nature” presentation, “Cheetah Children” recalls at least two other documentaries I’ve seen on the same subject. For nearly two years, wildlife cameraman Kim Wolhuter shadowed a cheetah family on foot through the forested hills of Zimbabwe, where they capture the cubs’ remarkable journey from infancy to adulthood, and their mother’s dedication to raising them. The cubs are incredibly cute and a riot to watch, right up to the moment that mom drags a freshly killed beast to their den and they forget their table manners, or become targets for larger predators. I doubt that cheetahs would get the same kick watching human babies experience the same rites of passage.

PBS has picked up the distribution rights to Channel 4’s animated adaptation of Michael Rosen and illustrator Helen Oxenbury’s hugely popular 1989 children’s book, “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.” It follows siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie, Max, Baby and Rufus the dog, all of whom decide one day to go on an adventure through whirling snowstorms, oozing mud and dark forests in search of bears. And, of course, they find one. Along the way, young audiences will enjoy the onomatopoeic poetics (“swishy swashy,” “squelch squerch”) and Oxenbury’s lovely water-color images. Apparently, the producers needed to stretch the material to fill a half-hour viewing window and chose to add a gloomy bit about their grandfather’s unexpected passing. It’s still charming enough to recommend, however.

PBS is also re-releasing “Garfield: Nine Lives,” a made-for-television adaptation of Jim Davis’ book of illustrated short stories, showcasing the “nine lives” of the beloved comic strip character Garfield. The first airing was in 1988 and it’s been available in all sorts of formats and platforms ever since. The 10-segment anthology begins with “Cave Cat” and ends in outer space, with Garfield playing an astronaut in a jam. Meanwhile, PBS is sending out a pair of collections, “Ocean Adventures” and “Outer Space Adventures,” comprised of episodes cherry-picked from various PBS Kids titles. Some have appeared in previous collections, so be sure to check out the menus, first.

Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines” is a CGI-animated series that focuses on learning and having fun through the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematic) curriculum. “Heroes of Axle City” contains four high-speed tales, including the double-length episode, “Race to the Top of the World.” The others are “Tow Truck Tough,” “Light Riders” and “Rocket Ski Rescue.” Nickelodeon currently has nearly a dozen shows for pre-schoolers in production, with six new series set to debut through 2018.



The DVD Wrapup: Only the Brave, LBJ, Suburbicon, Aida’s Secrets, Clouzot’s Inferno, Jackie Gleason and more

Thursday, February 8th, 2018

Only the Brave: Blu-ray
Joseph Kosinski’s stunningly effective Only the Brave is the rare disaster movie guaranteed to leave its audiences not just in tears, but in mourning for the victims, their families and community at large, as well.

Anyone who’s lived in the path of a wildfire and lingered long enough to watch it move with the wind can attest to its ferocity, speed and unpredictability. After identifying the hollow feeling that comes with surrendering to the fire’s power, most witnesses will admit to being hypnotized by the beauty of its stories-high flames and the sparkling plumes of sparks dancing to the inferno’s roar. Even from a safe distance, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the skill and courage of the firefighters called to battle the monster barreling down on homes. Only the Brave, based on the tragic, true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, opened in theaters while an epidemic of wildfires was scorching wide swaths of property in northern California, causing more than $9 billion in insured property losses, alone, and leaving 44 people dead. Only a few weeks later, strong Santa Ana winds would trigger a new round of wildfires, this time to the south in Ventura County, forcing more than 230,000 people to evacuate, with the six largest fires burning over 307,900 acres and more than 1,300 structures. Despite numbers like these, Californians have learned to adjust to the threat of such disasters – including the mudslides that invariably follow them – just as people in the upper Midwest accept the inevitability of sub-zero temperatures in January and folks in Tornado Alley anticipate killer tornadoes. What’s never expected is the death of a firefighter engaged in protecting property and rescuing residents. In December, an engineer for Cal Fire, based in San Diego, died while battling the Thomas fire in the Fillmore area of Ventura County. It’s no exaggeration to say that Cory Iverson’s death shocked and saddened millions of people, not just in southern California, but everywhere volunteers risk their lives for those of people they’ve never met.

Only the Brave introduces us first us to Prescott’s highly trained and previously tested Hotshot unit, which was comprised of 20 men. In time, we get to know some of the members’ backgrounds and families. We already know that 19 of them were killed in the line of duty when the massive Yarnell Hill Fire – practically in the backyard — unexpectedly changed directions and overran their position. It is based on the book, “Granite Mountain,” which tells the highly personal story of the lone survivor, Brendan McDonough, well-played here by Miles Teller. McDonough is portrayed as a no-account local, who volunteers for the team as a last resort to losing his family and winding up in prison or dead of an overdose. It’s mostly through his eyes that we become intimately acquainted with firefighters played by battle-hardened Josh Brolin, Taylor Kitsch, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Geoff Stults and James Badge Dale, among more than a dozen other actors. Jeff Bridges plays the unit’s sage supervisor, while Jennifer Connelly, Andie MacDowell, Jenny Gabrielle, Rachel Singer and Natalie Hall make sure we know how the lives of the wives, children and mothers of these men are impacted by the work. It doesn’t appear as if writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer were required to take much poetic license with facts of the terrible incident or wring any more empathy from viewers than it already warrants. They balance the arduous process of training with humor that derives largely from McDonough’s hazing, while keeping the sometime thorny personal stuff in perspective, as well. As was the case with Deepwater Horizon, the fire, itself, carries Only the Brave the rest of the way, through a blend of digital and practical visual effects, and thunderous sound. A true 4D experience would have added some forced-air heat into the mix. If the movie failed at the box office, it wasn’t because of anything Kosinski failed to do. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography nicely captures the natural tinder box of the American Southwest and some spectacular nighttime footage. Ironically, perhaps, Bridges’ lavish home north of Santa Barbara survived the Thomas fire, but not the mudslide that followed a month later. The actor, his wife and their dog were rescued from the muck by a fire department helicopter. Only the Brave contains several worthwhile extras, including Kosinski and Brolin’s commentary; deleted scenes; a music video of Dierks Bentley’s “Hold the Light”; and a trio of featurettes.

LBJ: Blu-ray
For the outspokenly liberal Rob Reiner, the temptation to depict a real POTUS in action, especially after watching Donald Trump’s first few months in office, must have been far too great to overcome. His opinion of Lyndon Baines Johnson and his presidency has changed dramatically since the 1960s, when he was an easy target for antiwar protesters and black-power advocates who blamed him for everything bad that was happening in the country. While it’s clear that LBJ bore the brunt the blame for the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the CIA made it no easier for him to see the truth there than it did for the rest of us. Even if he wanted to pull out, it isn’t likely that Congress or mainstream pundits would go along with his wishes. Johnson probably should have encouraged Hubert Humphrey to disown the administration’s wartime policies before the Democratic Convention, in Chicago, but party leaders underestimated Richard Nixon as much as Hillary Clinton devalued Trump’s ability to overcome his self-inflicted wounds. That facet of Johnson’s tenure in office isn’t anywhere to be seen in Reiner and screenwriter Joey Hartstone’s LBJ, which pretty much ends when thoughts of re-election begin. What carries the movie is Woody Harrelson’s masterful impersonation of the president, with a tight focus on his ability to schmooze friends and allies, alike, over dinner, in the Oval Office and occasionally sharing anecdotes from his formative years, while taking a dump. Harrelson is especially adroit in recalling Johnson’s hilariously stern instructions to his tailor, complaining about a tightness in his trousers just south of his “bunghole.” To my mind, Reiner’s greatest miscalculation came in overestimating the interest of fellow boomers in watching another capable actor take on LBJ, so soon after Bryan Cranston’s Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated turn in Jay Roach’s adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s play “All the Way.” In 2014, in Selma, Tom Wilkinson also played Johnson. Even further back, Randy Quaid won a Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for NBC’s “LBJ: The Early Years” (1987). In another four years, he would be played by little-known Tom Howard in Oliver Stone’s JFK. In between came such authoritative books as “The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years,” by Joseph Califano Jr.; Robert A. Caro’s four-edition, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series; and Doris Kearns Goodwin’ “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.” Compared to the LBJ revealed in those books, even the best impersonations of the man amount to little more than parlor tricks. Jennifer Jason Leigh is unrecognizable as Johnson’s closest confidante, Lady Bird. Richard Jenkins, Bill Pullman, C. Thomas Howell and Michael Mosley are also good in key supporting roles. As JFK and RFK, Jeffrey Donovan and Michael Stahl-David effortlessly depict how miserable working with the Kennedys must have been for a good ol’ boy from Texas. Special features were MIA.

Suburbicon: Blu-ray
In “Welcome to Suburbicon,” the half-hour featurette that accompanies George Clooney’s latest turn in the director’s chair, almost all of the cast and crew members interviewed point to Suburbicon’s “darkly comic” script as their motivation for agreeing to appear in it. As much as I love watching darkly comic movies, especially those written and directed by the Coen Brothers, I found it difficult to be entertained by Suburbicon, for the simple reason that I couldn’t find anything particularly funny in it … light, dark or in between. Drama, yes … irony, yes … humor, not so much. The Coens wrote the screenplay years earlier with the intention of having Clooney playing a key role in the movie. For some reason, they decided to dump the script in a drawer and pursue other projects. When Clooney’s production company was scratching for a new project of its own, he remembered Suburbicon and received the Coens’ blessing to produce it. Clooney then called on Grant Heslov, with whom he co-wrote The Monuments Men and Good Night, and Good Luck, to revise and update the script. It’s easy to see the Coens’ fingerprints on the story, as it takes place in a seemingly idyllic Eisenhower-era suburb, where the events that inform the story aren’t supposed to happen. A series of murders elicits some skittish laughter, but it’s overwhelmed by the ugliness of the racism on exhibit next-door. Suburbicon is based on events that took place in the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957. With its look-alike houses, green lawns, micro-gardens, post-stamp porches, fences and concrete driveways, residents had every reason to believe they were sharing a facet of the American dream their immigrant parents couldn’t have possibly foreseen, and the GI Bill made it affordable.

It only took one African-American family to move into Levittown to prove that white middle-class Americans would fight to keep the dream to themselves. They didn’t feel the need to don pointy white hoods to protect their anonymity, either. Here, at the same time as protests over the black family’s presence grow louder and the potential for violence mounts, their next-door neighbors find themselves entangled in circumstances that would shock the hoodlums unhappy with the perceived decrease in the value of their homes even more. Gardner Mayes (Matt Damon) is the prototypical 1950s’ suburban male, except for the fact that he’s in love with the sister of his disabled wife, both of whom are played by Julianne Moore. There’s something fishy about the break-in in which the wife is killed and his son is overcome by chloroform, but it isn’t readily apparent. Before long, Gardner is playing house with his sister-in-law and making plans to move to Aruba, after the lump-sum life-insurance payment is made. The bigger problem comes when the crooks (Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell) who broke into the house attempt to extort more money from Gardner and an insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) shows up at his door to punch holes in the claim. Because the son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), eavesdrops on everything going on in the house, he’s able to suss out a two-pronged conspiracy long before anyone else does. It puts him in mortal danger, as does his friendship with the boy next-door (Tony Espinosa). The neighbors don’t like the fact that they play together, either. Everything that follows would require a spoiler alert, which I am loath to do. There’s nothing wrong with cast, which also includes top character actors Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and Gary Basaraba. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clooney and writer/producer Heslov; “The Unusual Suspects: Casting,” a closer look at the actors who bring life to the film’s key roles; and “Scoring Suburbicon,” which explores Alexandre Desplat’s music.

Walking Out: Blu-ray
The possibility of leaving Montana to make a movie must be as difficult for Alex and Andrew Smith to consider as setting a film outside New York was for Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, at least until it became beneficial to them financially. Like aspiring novelists, filmmakers are routinely advised to shoot what they know best, whether geographically or emotionally. The twins grew up in a region of west-central Montana blessed with lush forests, monumental mountain peaks, verdant valleys, snow-fed rivers, diverse flora and fauna, deep-seated traditions and close to the bright lights and schools of Missoula. The boys’ father died when they were 6 and their mother, Annick, became a successful writer, documentarian and producer – Heartland (1979), A River Runs Through It (1992) – leaving them with plenty of time to pursue “a classic Little House on the Prairie experience. (We) were able to play in the woods and subsist out there. We didn’t have a TV and I think that helped a lot.  … My mom was a cinefile and we would go into town every weekend.” In 1990, alongside her longtime companion — western author and educator William Kitteridge — Annick co-edited “The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology,” with more than 230 stories, poems, reminiscences and reports written by 140 men and women with special interest in the state. Alex and Andrews’ credits are pretty much limited to collaborations on The Keening (1999), The Slaughter Rule (2002), Winter in the Blood (2013) and the newly released, Walking Out. Of the latter, critic Matt Soller Seitz opined, “The movie would fit nicely in a film festival comprised of works with a similar theme, including Legends of the Fall and The Revenant and older wilderness dramas like Jeremiah Johnson and Bend of the River.” To that list, I would add The Call of the Wild and 127 Hours. Despite universally glowing reviews, festival exposure, a compelling story, fine acting, terrific cinematography and spectacular settings, Walking Out was accorded a release limited to 32 theaters. Adapted from a Hemingway-esque short story by outdoors writer David Quammen, it describes what happens when the estranged son of an off-the-grid Montana rancher is invited to join him on a hunting trip in the high country. Because the peaks are covered in snow and nighttime temperatures are forbidding, this wouldn’t be a walk-the-park bonding experience.

As a prototypical city boy, David (Josh Wiggins) is more interested in video games and texting friends back home than the prospect of tracking down a mythic moose or elk, just to make his dad, Cal (Matt Bonner), feel as paternal as his own father was to him. Even so, David humors him by participating in a preliminary bird hunt and agreeing to the more difficult trek, which some viewers will correctly guess is ill-advised and a tragedy-in-waiting. Sure enough, a terrible accident happens at a most inopportune time. They’ve stumbled upon a recently killed bear cub – possibly by a wolf – half-buried in the snow. It soon becomes apparent that the cub’s mother and brother are still maintaining a vigil nearby, which only spells trouble for the intruders. When a terrible accident cripples Cal, David is left with only one option: summon the strength to carry his father on his back, for many miles and through ankle-deep snow. Even though David isn’t portrayed as being a wimp, the odds of his success aren’t good. Even if he did reach the nearest home, the harsh conditions would make it difficult for him to retrace his steps and lead a rescue party to Cal. Fortunately, David was exposed to weightlifting at school and this afforded him a leg up, at least. With their heads practically touching, they’re able to remain alert by re-introducing themselves to each other through stories and important lessons taught to Cal by his dad (Bill Pullman). I don’t think many people will see the ending coming, but it fits with everything that’s led us there. If I were to hazard a guess as to why Walking Out, itself, wasn’t given more of a chance for survival, my first inclination would be that any marketing campaign outside red-state territory would face roadblocks in the form of talk-show hosts, reporters and PETA advocates, whose sentiments would be with the vengeful Momma Bear. Neither would many urban media reps consider hunting to be a viable rite-of-passage or bonding exercise in 2018. So, why bother? Although I wouldn’t categorize Walking Out as a date movie, I think that viewers who can get past the hunting scenario, which isn’t terribly graphic, will discover an old-fashioned story of survival, exceptionally well-told and well-executed, by filmmakers whose affection for the American wilderness – its pleasures and hazards – is palpable. The DVD adds some behind-the-scenes material.

Aida’s Secrets
One of the most discussed films at the just completed Sundance festival was Tim Wardle’s disquieting documentary, Three Identical Strangers, about identical triplets separated at birth and reunited 19 years later, in 1980, completely by accident. It’s a great story, but one that’s haunted by the suicide of one of the brothers, 15 years later, and the circumstances that caused them to be separated and adopted into families of very different economic backgrounds. The growth and maturation processes were monitored, filmed and documented, under the guise of normal adoptive follow-up, to serve the interests of a psychologist who wanted to test the influences of nature versus nurture. It isn’t clear when Three Identical Strangers might be released into theaters – if only to qualify for awards consideration – but anyone fascinated by that summary should check out Aida’s Secret, another picture that demonstrates how easy it is for unsuspecting siblings to be turned into victims because of decisions made before they were born. Alon and Saul Schwarz’ extremely moving documentary begins in the immediately aftermath of World War II and rather quickly leads to an emotional reunion nearly 70 years later. Neither does the mystery end there. Izak Szewelwicz was born inside the Bergen-Belsen displaced-persons camp in 1945 and, at 3, was sent to Israel for adoption. His mother Aida was refused entry to Israel, but is allowed to immigrate to Canada.

She would visit Izak in Israel occasionally, without telling him that he had a younger brother, Shepsel, who was blind and raised by his birth father in a different city in Canada. His father rarely spoke about his experiences during the war or the circumstances of Shep’s birth. The brothers would have plenty to discuss when they finally met in 2013. Among other things, Shep had no idea their mother was still alive and living in a nursing home in Quebec. Even though Aida was delighted to reconnect with Shep, she was far less than forthcoming about the details of the boys’ separation. (Why weren’t both boys sent to Israel, “for a Jewish education,” for example.) In fact, a slip of the tongue suggests to Izak, Shep and the filmmakers that a third brother might be alive and living in Canada, as well. Another question with possibly devastating consequences involves the mother’s true ethnic and religious background. Aida’s Secret wouldn’t have been possible or, at least, nearly as interesting, if it weren’t for the exhaustive search through records and archives in Germany, Amsterdam, Canada and Israel. Serendipitously, a researcher recalled seeing an album of photographs taken at the camp – little known outside Germany — which gave the brothers’ reason to think that they may not, in fact, share the same father. The filmmakers are there when the DNA-test results are announced. By this time, however, the filmmakers were pushing the limits on their production deadlines, leaving one or two more questions unanswered. The good news comes in seeing Shep being able to fulfill a lifelong dream of visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem and gaining the love and support of a newly expanded family. Although friends of Aida recount bits of background she had shared with them, it’s clear she took some of her secrets to the grave.

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton
Award-winning documentarian Rory Kennedy’s list of credits includes films that have taken on some of the world’s most pressing issues, including AIDS, immigration, torture, the collapse of South Vietnam, the threat of nuclear disaster and the problems faced by children being raised by mothers with mental impairments. The prospect of spending an untold number of hours in Hawaii, profiling one of surfing’s greatest competitors, innovators and bad boys must have seemed like a gift from the gods. Laird Hamilton is best known as the greatest big-wave surfer of all time, routinely taking on swells of 35 feet and moving at speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour. He’s also successfully ridden nearly vertical waves of up to 70 feet high, reaching speeds up to 50 mph. To accomplish such seemingly impossible achievements, Hamilton and his closest cronies invented tow-in surfing and equipment modifications unimaginable when Bruce Brown introduced the sport/lifestyle to ho-daddies from Maine to Malibu in The Endless Summer (1966). If Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton too often feels like an extended “60 Minutes” segment — without the annoying “gee-whiz” moments that make seasoned reporters sound like groupies – there’s much to recommend it. Hamilton’s life story is unquestionably fascinating. If he hadn’t caught a few breaks along the way, he might have ended up selling Maui Wowie to tourists or joining the pro circuit to cover alimony and child support. His against-the-grain arrogance, take-every-wave credo and competitive drive are legendary. One of Hamilton’s strengths is that he looks the part of a champion surfer, and has played them in movies, on television and as a model. He’s cognizant of the fact he’s made enemies out of friends and has acted at times like a complete dick. Kennedy doesn’t back away from such perceptions. What sells “Take Every Wave,” as something other than an easy-on-the-eyes character study, however, are the many scenes in which he’s shown taking extraordinary chances on big waves and the grandeur of sport, itself. Alice Gu and Don King’s cinematography – some images were collected for previous projects – are nothing short of breathtaking. I only wish that MPI had made it available in Blu-ray or 4K.

Victor Crowley: Return to His Swamp: Blu-ray
Day of the Dead: Bloodline: Blu-ray
The Aftermath: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say why the producers of the Hatchet franchise elected to make a midcourse correction, by naming No. 4 after its antagonist. Perhaps, Kane Hodder demanded top billing for his ax-wielding sadist, Victor Crowley, this time around, or they felt finally decided that Hatchet is too generic for a series with plenty of steam left in it. (Last year’s Leatherface was the first of seven Texas Chainsaw Massacre installments to rely solely on the name of its primary character.) In the 10 years since the series kicked off, creator/writer/director Adam Green has been an extremely busy fellow. In addition to adding three chapters to the saga, Green has acted in a couple dozen pictures and television shows, including his own horror sitcom, “Holliston,” for FEARnet; created biographical talk-shows “Adam Green’s Scary Sleepover” and “Horrified”; launched the “Movie Crypt” podcast, with Joe Lynch; added the films, Grace, Frozen, “The Diary of Anne Frankenstein” segment for Chillerama, Digging Up the Marrow and Tales of Halloween; formed the metal band Haddonfield; appeared at numerous conventions and signings; and wrote “The Jarvis Tapes” for “Friday the 13th: The Game.” With that many items on his plate, it would have been a safe bet that Victor Crowley: Return to His Swamp, if not sucked, exactly, then turned out to be an underwhelming addition to the franchise. Instead, as most sequels go, it’s a reasonably entertaining and often quite funny parody of genre clichés, with enough gore thrown in to keep fanboys happy. After a 10-year hiatus, swamp-thing Crowley is accidently resurrected by the recitation of a voodoo chant played on an iPhone that drops from the heavens after a plane crashes into Louisiana’s Honey Island Swamp. Among its passengers are Andrew (Parry Shen), lone survivor of Victor’s last massacre; the media and publicity crew supporting him on the publicity tour for his new book; and always-welcome scream queen Tiffany Shepis. Already on the ground is a movie crew, hoping to convince Andrew to join their production. If anyone steals the show here, it is the super-cute pixie, Laura Ortiz (The Hills Have Eyes), whose kooky voice will keep her employed in Hollywood far longer than her acting. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Green, Shen, Ortiz and Dave Sheridan; a technical commentary with Green, cinematographer Jan-Michael Losada, editor Matt Latham and makeup FX Artist Robert Pendergraft; “Raising the Dead … Again,” an interview with Green; and a lengthy behind-the-scenes featurette.

Reflecting on the possibility of life after death, the late, great George A. Romero once said, “I’m like my zombies. I won’t stay dead!” If that turns out to be the case – and I hope it does – let’s hope he’s allowed to return in a movie several times more imaginative than the most recent remake of his 1985 undead thriller, Day of the Dead. It isn’t a bad movie, as straight-to-VOD genre flicks go, but it doesn’t do much more with the original conceit than update the characters’ hair styles, clothes and the models of the cars they drive. As was the case the first time around, a small group of military personnel and survivalists dwell in an underground bunker, as they seek to find a cure for the “rotters” virus. A double-row of fences lines the perimeter –why aren’t they electrified? – effectively keeping the local zombie population from overrunning the facility. Inside, a drop-dead gorgeous scientist – aren’t they all? — is working on an anti-zombie vaccine, while quickly running out of the pharmaceuticals necessary to keep a patient alive and her research going. It means leaving the encampment and venturing forth into the world dominated by hungry brain-eaters. Somehow, they’re able to complete their mission, but without noticing that an old friend, Max, has hitched a ride on the undercarriage of the armored truck. Several years earlier, while still alive, Max (Johnathon Schaech) had developed a serious crush on the scientist, Zoe Parker (Sophie Skelton), even going so far as to carve her name into his forearm. During a party in the lab, Max follows Zoe into the morgue, where a keg of beer is being kept on ice. Before he’s able to rape her, however, a zombie raises himself from the slab on which he’s being stored and kills Max before he can do any damage to her. The incident does serve to ruin the party, though. Max, who’s supposed to remind us of Bub, from the original, is unique among the zombie horde, in that he still carries a torch for Zoe, thinks for himself and is nimble enough to climb into air ducts and pursue his prey on his hands and knees. Once he’s caught and caged, however, Zoe hopes to study the plasma of her would-be rapist to discover what makes him tick at a different frequency than that of his peers. Unfortunately, director Hèctor Hernández Vicens (The Corpse of Anna Fritz) and writers Mark Tonderai (Hush) and Lars Jacobson (Baby Blues) fail to develop their concept any further without resorting to clichés. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Day of the Dead Bloodline: Reviving the Horror,” with interviews and making-of material.

Shot in 1978 and released in 1982, The Aftermath looks very much like the kind of movie a high school AV club might make if they could afford the services of Sid Haig – a founding member of the Hollywood Heavy Hall of Fame – and Z-list star Lynn Margulies, noteworthy for being Adam Kaufman’s girlfriend when he died of lung cancer in 1984. The props and costumes might as well have been manufactured by students taking classes in home economics, woodshop and theater arts, and the weaponry could have been purchased at Toys“R”Us. Apparently, Steve Barkett’s DIY spectacular has achieved cult status among science fiction and horror buffs who favor exploitation films that are so bad they’re good. The Aftermath easily fits that bill. It opens on board a spacecraft that could have served as the model for the Satellite of Love on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The astronauts no longer receive communications from Earth and, upon their return, learn that the U.S., at least, has been largely destroyed by an apocalyptic nuclear catastrophe and subsequent zombie apocalypse. It must have happened quickly, because the first humans they meet who don’t want to eat their brains are lying on deck chairs along a SoCal beach, deteriorating from exposure to the sun’s radioactive rays. Almost immediately, the astronauts learn that the few surviving humans are being rounded up by a Manson-like cult leader, Cutter (Haig), who kills the male prisoners, rapes the women and enslaves the children. After rescuing Sarah (Margulies) and her son, Captain Newman knows the world can’t heal unless Cutter is destroyed, which is easier said than done. Along the way, writer/director/star Barkett breaks all sorts of genre rules, including depictions of children being killed. The Aftermath does reward exploitation geeks with enough unintended humor to keep their chatrooms buzzing for days, however. I can’t imagine anyone else finding much here to warrant anything but a brief look. Even so, the folks at VCI Entertainment have given the Blu-ray release an upgrade worthy of a Criterion Collection title, with featurettes ported over from the laserdisc edition, other short films of the same caliber and discussions with Barkett, who’s since acted in such gems as Dinosaur Island and Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold, for which he also supervised special effects.

Zombies could exist for a good long time on the blood and viscera expended during Christopher Lawrence Chapman’s twisty, if confounding thriller,Inoperable. Genre star Danielle Harris (Stakeland) stars as Amy Barrett, a young woman who one minute is stuck in traffic leaving Tampa ahead of a killer hurricane, and the next is lying on a bed in a hospital that, upon closer inspection, appears to be abandoned. As Amy attempts to find a doctor or nurse who might be able to explain why she’s in the hospital, the ones she encounters act as if she doesn’t exist. This adds a ghostly element to the proceedings, which is OK, as far as it goes. Soon, however, she’s being chased through the labyrinthine hallways, by monsters posing as doctors looking for a cheap meal. Amy then comes across another woman, JenArdsen (Katie Keene), and a guard, who do prove to be human, and are chased by the same demons, wielding scalpels, surgical saws and drills. (The difference in their heights and physical stature make them look like Mutt & Jeff.) As was the case in Day of the Dead, Chapman makes good use of the hospital’s heating ducts, and watching the leggy Keene wriggle her way through them in her super-tight mini-dress and heels is almost worth the price of a rental. The other angle exploited by Chapman involves the time loops that keep Amy guessing as to whether the storm has yet to arrive, and she’s in her car imagining things, or if it’s already passed and she’s doomed to remain in a hospital populated by ghosts and ghouls. The premise isn’t bad, but, after a while, the effort it takes to figure out what’s going on inside Amy’s head isn’t worth it.

Woody Woodpecker
A few years ago, the media were awash with stories about the possible re-emergence of a woodpecker believed to have gone extinct many decades ago. Sightings of ivory-billed woodpeckers are so rarely reported that birders refer to them as “The Grail Bird” or “The Lazarus Bird.” Even when an ivory-bill sighting is reported, experts assume locals have staged the appearance to lure birders to the Mississippi-fed bayous of eastern Arkansas to spend money. Evidence caught on film and tape recorders has been inclusive, at best. The reports reminded me of Woody Woodpecker, an anthropomorphic cartoon character I dearly loved as a kid. Woody was created in 1940 by Walter Lantz and storyboard artist Ben “Bugs” Hardaway, who had previously laid the groundwork for two other screwball characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at Warner Bros. Woody’s personality and design evolved over the years, but his cackling laugh was an original. Among the actors who’ve voiced the character are Mel Blanc and Lantz’ wife, Grace Stafford. Woody was put out to pasture in the 1970s, but has since been resurrected on television, video-game platforms, cassette collections and even a cameo in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His eponymous first feature is a live-action/CGI comedy that surprised me by not completely playing down to the kiddie audience or attempting to get away with a bargain-basement script, as has been the case with other cartoon-character revivals. In Woody Woodpecker, Lance Walters (Timothy Omundson) is a high-powered lawyer from Seattle, but, due to some ill-advised words about the environment, loses his job. He used this an opportunity to check out some land in B.C., which he inherited and wants to develop for a quick-flip. He asks his snooty fiancée, Brittany (Thaila Ayala), to join him on the wilderness excursion.

They will be joined unexpectedly by Lance’s son, Tommy (Graham Verchere), from his first marriage. Without access to the Internet or a television, Tommy is fully prepared to have a miserable time. It isn’t until he becomes fast friends with an anarchic acorn woodpecker, Woody (voiced by Eric Bauza), does he start to enjoy his lakeside sojourn. Then, he meets a local girl who lends him a guitar and invites him to join her band. The conflict comes when Woody objects to Lance’s plans for the garish house and does his best to pre-empt its completion, and Lance hires a pair of poachers to capture the annoying bird. Sensing that acorn woodpeckers are as rare as his ivory-billed cousins – they aren’t – the poachers hope to make a killing by selling him to a rich collector. Mayhem, as usual, ensues. Watching a CGI Woody navigate his way through a live-action world won’t be easy for older viewers and the bird-poop gags wear thin pretty quickly. It shouldn’t matter to kids, though. While Woody Woodpecker is opening on video here, a theatrical release is anticipated in South America, where the character and bombshell actress Ayala are extremely popular. The DVD contains three extra features and bonus cartoon. “Guess Who? The Evolution of Woody,” traces the history of the character, looking at how the design changed and how the character’s tone morphed from his earliest incarnation; “The Making of Woody Woodpecker,” provides comments from the cast and creative team; and “Working with Woody,” which focuses on the design of the character for the film, taking into account how the animated version looked, while thinking about how to bring him into a 3D world.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Gruesome Twosome: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The annals of Hollywood history are replete with stories about movies taken away from their directors and re-edited – a.k.a., “butchered” – by producers anxious to get something back from their investments or simply to say “basta” to recalcitrant artistes. Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil are textbook cases of the dubious practice. And, while we’re never likely to see the former two titles as intended, the 1998 restored cut of Touch of Evil demonstrates just how misguided those heavily edited versions can be. There’s reason to hope that Welles’ famously unfinished The Other Side of the Wind (1970) finally will see the light of day later this year, on Netflix, thanks to the persistent efforts of, among others, producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza, and executive producer Peter Bogdanovich. It recalls the fate of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s unfinished L’Enfer (“Inferno”), which still stands as one of the most ambitious and experimental projects of its time. In 1964, the acclaimed French director of Les Diaboliques and Wages of Fear began work on an impressionistic thriller designed to plumb the dark depths of unreasonable jealousy and its consequences. Set at a swank lakeside resort in Auvergne region, L’Enfer would have starred Romy Schneider, then 26, as the harassed wife of a controlling hotel manager (Serge Reggiani). Despite huge expectations, major studio backing (Columbia Pictures) and an unlimited budget, the production collapsed after three weeks under the weight of arguments, technical complications and illness.

In Arrow Academy’s new edition of “Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno” — Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s 2009 documentary and partial reconstruction – we’re made privy to a large, long-hidden cache of original rushes, screen tests and on-location footage. It sheds light on Clouzot’s original vision through interviews, dramatizations of un-filmed scenes and the director’s own notes. The experimental psychedelic imagery – in black-and-white and color – predates the visuals in Roger Corman and Jack Nicholson’s The Trip by three years. Clearly the doc’s primary appeal is to Francophiles and film nerds, which is OK. In 1994, Claude Chabrol adapted Clouzot’s screenplay for his own version of L’Enfer, starring Emmanuelle Béart and François Cluzet. The Arrow Blu-ray includes a discussion with French cinema expert Lucy Mazdon on Clouzot and the troubled production; “They Saw Inferno,” a featurette including unseen material, providing further insight into the production; a filmed introduction by and interview with Bromberg; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by Ginette Vincendeau.

It doesn’t take long for Arrow to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, in “The Gruesome Twosome: Special Edition: Blu-ray,” an early exercise in splatter, slasher and grindhouse tomfoolery from ”Godfather of Gore,” Herschell Gordon Lewis. Despite its questionable historical value, Gruesome Twosome – it could have been re-titled, “The Little Wig Shop of Horrors” – the restoration begs the question as to how bad a movie must be to be eliminated from consideration for such benevolent treatment. Even after restoration, Gruesome Twosome looks as if it had been left spinning on a loop, for days, before the drive-in’s projectionist returned from his days off. Before the movie begins in earnest, two Styrofoam heads, adorned with wigs, are shown discussing what’s about to unfold on screen. Lewis added this completely unnecessary preface to bring the running time to the minimum 70-minute length. As the story goes, the owner of a wig shop cons coeds – as women students were then referred – into inquiring about a room for rent. While taking the tour, the unsuspecting visitor is pushed into the basement, where the owner’s demented son scalps her. The pelt then will be processed into another wig in Mrs. Pringle’s inventory. It continues until a wily amateur sleuth (Gretchen Welles) risks her own blond tresses to discover the horrible truth. But, wait, there’s more! The package includes the bonus feature, A Taste of Blood (1967), which is essentially a cheesy updating of the Dracula legend. The Blu-ray, which can be enjoyed as low-camp, also adds introductions and archival commentaries by Lewis; the funny featurette, “Peaches Christ Flips Her Wig!,” in which the San Francisco drag performer and filmmaker discusses “Gruesome Twosome”; “It Came from Florida,” with filmmaker Fred Olen Ray discussing the state of Florida filmmaking; “H.G. Lewis vs. the Censors,” on the pitfalls of being a pioneer in the blood-and-guts business; and a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by The Twins of Evil.

Just Charlie
Like so many other films targeted for consumption by audiences already conditioned to accepting LGBT-themed entertainments on their own terms and merits, Just Charlie presents something of a litmus test to straight viewers. Director Rebekah Fortune (Deadly Intent) and writer Peter Machen, in his feature debut, ask them to consider how they might react to the same predicament faced by the perfectly normal family in the movie. It’s nothing terribly out of the ordinary, in the prevailing scheme of things, anyway, but some parents might treat their child’s coming-out as Chicken Little did when an acorn fell and hit him on the head. Not long after teenage soccer star Charlie Lyndsay (Harry Gilby) receives a note from a pro team expressing its interest in his future, he decides that it’s become too difficult for him to disguise his long-held belief that he’s a girl trapped in the body of a boy. It isn’t until his parents came home unexpectedly one night and catch him dressed up in his older sister’s clothes, that his secret is revealed to them. After doctors and teachers affirm Charlie’s dilemma, his father decides that he’s undergoing a manifestation of puberty and can be bullied into getting back to normal. His mother and sister have far less trouble accepting his decision. Knowing Charlie’s devotion to soccer, his atypically compassionate coach invites him to join a girl’s squad, but not before he proves his value and determination to them. The more comfortable Charlie becomes in his new role, the harder it is for his father to adjust to it. He’s thrown out of the house by his wife, just weeks before their daughter’s wedding. The filmmakers then decide to throw another rather sizable monkey wrench in the proceedings, leading to a climax designed to pull the rug out from under unsuspecting viewers. Just Charlie took home the Audience Award at 2017’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Anyone who thinks the story might be a stretch out to check out the revelatory story of 10-year-old Desmond Napoles (a.k.a., “Desmond is Amazing”) on the Internet.

Also from Wolfe Releasing, Sebastian is an appealing, if undemanding romantic drama written, directed and produced by James Fanizza, who also plays one of the two lead roles. The story, while tailored for gay audiences, is flexible enough to fit any combination of straight or LBGT dynamics. Fanizza plays a standard-issue Toronto yuppie, Alex, whose Argentinian/Canadian boyfriend, Nelson (Guifré Bantjes-Rafols), asks him to show his visiting cousin, Sebastian (Alex House), the town, while he’s away on business. Nelson is either unrealistically trusting or very stupid, because Sebastian bears a passing resemblance to Javier Bardem and exudes testosterone like cheap cologne. Although Alex momentarily fights the urge not to cheat on Nelson, he isn’t strong enough to resist Sebastian for any longer than a couple of hours. Knowing that Sebastian, who’s been studying in the U.S., plans to return to Argentina at approximately the same moment as Nelson’s plane will touch down in Toronto, imagines getting away with the affair. What he doesn’t count on is Nelson arriving a day early and forcing his hand on deciding where his intentions lie. Sebastian wouldn’t be the first Argentinian to rearrange his travel plans for love. The only real complicating factor comes when Sebastian announces that no Argentinian worth his salt would dream of stealing a cousin’s lover or allow lust to tarnish a relationship with a close aunt (Leah Doz). Even so, we’ve all seen enough of these kinds of movies to know in which direction the characters are likely to go.

Reset: Blu-ray
Extraordinary Mission: Blu-ray
Supervising executive producer Jackie Chan’s name is featured prominently on the jacket of Reset, a frequently bewildering sci-fi thriller directed Korean helmer Yoon Hong-seung (a.k.a., Chang), who may have bitten off more than he could chew, even with Chan holding the spoon. By playing fast and loose with such standard genre conceits as time-travel and parallel universes, Yoon hopes that audiences won’t be savvy enough to see where the wrinkles in time turn into gaps big enough to navigate a truck. Reset unfolds in a near-future, where time travel and the transfer of living tissue through time is becoming a reality. Here, the sci-fi concepts are facilitated by the discovery and use of wormhole portals to parallel universes, if only for two hours at a time. So far, it’s worked on chimpanzees unable to verbalize what happens when they make the temporal leap. Single mother Xia Tian (Yang Mi) leads a research team on the verge of a major breakthrough, when her son Doudou is kidnapped and held for ransom by the mysterious Cui Ho (Wallace Huo), who demands she turn over her research, which is contained in a glowing blue capsule. Why so soon? Who knows? Anyway, even though Xia Tian complies with the demand – barely — the fiend finds a reason to kill the boy. Stealing an idea from Back to the Future, perhaps, she pushes aside the chimp and leaps into the portal to see what she can do to alter the outcome. With every failed attempt to rescue Doudou, Xia Tian returns to the present and starts the process over again. In doing so, she creates multiple versions of herself in the parallel universe, and they’re all obsessed with saving the boy. If that weren’t confusing enough, the kidnaper sets off a bomb in the research tower that threatens to destroy the research and the scientists in residence there. In the nick of time, Xia Tian recovers the capsule. In attempt to avoid first-responding police, however, she climbs to the roof and jumps into a sky-high refuse chute. When she momentarily lets go, the capsule becomes lodged on a surface upon which loose garbage is raked into a bottomless pit by giant metal claws. It’s a cool scene, no matter how contrived the tick-tock drama may be. No reason to go much further here, except to say the five Xia Tians do come together at one point to combine their resources to save Doudou. Fans of insane Chinese action flicks – as opposed to normal-crazy specimens – might have an easier time deciphering Reset than I did.

As dramatized in Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong (2016), the war for control of the drug trade along the border shared by China and Myanmar has escalated to the point where Chinese filmmakers are able to point to it as a serious domestic problem, instead of one merely affecting countries traditionally supplied by cartels operating in the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent. When Mao Zedong led the Communist Party, drug use and other vices were strictly prohibited and punishable by death. At the time, Americans stationed in Vietnam kept operators in the Triangle busy enough to ignore China’s highly exploitable market. That changed, of course, after Mao opened the borders to international trade and capitalism provided young people with money to spend on luxuries and vices. Today, the number of addicts has skyrocketed, at the same time as Chinese factories have become major suppliers of chemicals that fuel the crystal-meth trade in North America. Lam was inspired by the actual Mekong Massacre, which occurred in 2011. Two Chinese commercial vessels were ambushed while traveling down the river, near the borders of China, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Thirteen sailors are executed at gunpoint, and 900,000 methamphetamine pills were recovered at the scene. It’s believed that the pills were planted on the victims’ ships to confuse authorities.

While several of the culprits were executed and a joint regional task forces was formed, the attack pointed to China’s growing appetite for heroin and cartels’ need to control the trade routes. The movie made it seem as if the problem was solved by patriotic Chinese law-enforcement agencies, but no such luck. Alan Mak, Anthony Pun and writer Felix Chong’s less jingoistic Extraordinary Mission takes a different tack in approaching the same issue. A drug-related crime causes a big-city police chief to assign his crack undercover cop, Lin Kai (Huang Xuan), to infiltrate a cartel whose tentacles reach into the Golden Triangle. He cleverly works his way through the ranks, finally reaching the top tier in Thailand. In a business in which no one really trusts anyone else, the Big Boss  (Duan Yihong) naturally tests Lin with a hot dose of top-shelf heroin. He also gains the trust of Eagle’s daughter, who is every bit as dubious as her father. Before attempting to take down the cartel, Lin discovers a one-time associate being held in chains in a filthy cell. Lin’s quest will take him back to China, where corruption threatens to reverse any gains he made in Thailand. The final half-hour is highlighted by a extended Hong Kong-style chase scene that has to be seen to be believed. It’s worth recalling that Chong, Mak and Pun collaborated on Infernal Affairs, one of the best HK police thrillers.

Accident Man: Blu-ray
24 Hours to Live
Based on a character conceived by Pat Mills for the short-lived UK comic book, Toxic! — created as a rival to the hyperviolent 2000AD — Accident Man is populated by a rogues’ gallery of assassins so despicable that its protagonist, Mike Fallon (Scott Adkins), becomes the default anti-hero for his clever dialogue, cool leather jacket and face that, unlike his fellow hitmen, wouldn’t stop a freight train. Not knowing how or why his victims are chosen for execution – intricately staged to look like accidents – also gives him an edge on his male and female compatriots, who hang out in the same pub and swap stories about their kills. Because each assassin has a unique modus operandi, they rarely compete for assignments carefully doled out by the sleazy middleman, Milton (David Paymer). Even though Fallon appears to be well-liked and respected, he isn’t immune to back-stabbing. When his pregnant girlfriend is raped and killed in a home-invasion, police are quick to pin the blame on a pair of junkies who are found dead before they can be arrested and tried for the crime. After surveying her apartment, Fallon comes to the inescapable conclusion that she was murdered in a manner that points to two of his business associates. What he can’t figure out is why anyone put out a contract on her. She belongs to Greenpeace, but, so what? To find the answer he must force his cronies to break the assassin’s code of silence. It won’t be easy, but all roads lead through Milton. There’s nothing remotely subtle in Jesse V. Johnson’s direction or the adaptation, to which Adkins also contributed. The gags carry the impact of a sharp jab to the nose and the fight scenes are choreographed with an eye towards giving viewers the maximum bang for their buck. Much of the fun derives from simply observing the interaction between the mugs at the bar, played by Amy Johnston, Brooks Johnston, Michael Jai White, Tim Man, Perry Benson, Ray Park, Stephen Donald, Ray Stevenson, Nick Moran and Ross O’Hennessy. After the Toxic! Folded, Accident Man ended up at Dark Horse, and was optioned to be made into a film in 1997. It finally made in 2017.

Ethan Hawke is a fine actor, who frequently appears in mediocre movies, presumably to afford taking roles in the independent films that don’t have the money to pay him what he’s worth. That appears to be the case with 24 Hours to Live, an extremely loud and confusing thriller in which he plays a mercenary ex-Marine, who accepts a lucrative gig from an old military buddy (Paul Anderson) but is killed after having sex with the Interpol agent (Qing Xu) he’s supposed to assassinate. (Not sleeping with your target may be one of the cardinal rules taught at assassins’ school, but it’s also the one most frequently broken in movies.) Travis doesn’t see it coming. Neither does he expect to be resurrected and given 24 more hours of life to complete the assignment, with a digital timer sewn into his forearm to remind him of its urgency. Much, if not all of what happens in veteran stuntman Brian Smrz’s sophomore feature takes place in and around Capetown, South Africa, which, perhaps, explains what attracted Hawke to the project. In the time he has left to him, Travis puts him in the middle of enough action to keep the Capetown police busy sorting out for the next year. Also killing time here are Rutger Hauer, Liam Cunningham and Nathalie Boltt.

Time Life: The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color
PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 4
Nickelodeon: Jojo Siwa: My World
Nickelodeon: Shimmer and Shine: Beyond the Rainbow Falls
Nickelodeon:  Rugrats: Seasons 3 & 4
Jackie Gleason was still one of the biggest attractions on television – literally and figuratively – when, in 1964, he decided to move production of “The Jackie Gleason Show” from New York City, where it had been mounted since 1952, to Miami Beach. He said that he wanted to play golf year-around and what the Great One wanted, the Great One gets … until 1970, anyway, when CBS yanked it for skewing too old. At the time, Miami Beach was referred to as “the sun and fun capital of the world” and everything about the show looked brighter in color. (Although CBS was a pioneer in color broadcasting, it took its time adding it to its roster of programs.) Since “The Jackie Gleason Show” went off the air, it’s been difficult to find reruns or collections of the complete episodes on video cassette or DVD. Time Life has remedied that with a boxed set of 27 episodes in color, including seven “Honeymooners” sketches that haven’t been seen in nearly 50 years. The single-disc “The Jackie Gleason Show: In Color” serves as a teaser for the larger package, not yet available in retail. It contains four never-before-released episodes, featuring guest appearances by Milton Berle, Red Buttons, George Carlin, Nipsey Russell, Phil Silvers and Florence Henderson, as well as three unreleased “Honeymooners” sketches, with Gleason, Art Carney, Sheila MacRae and Jane Kean. They’re still funny. It’s also a blast watching the supersize entertainer dance around the stage as if he were in the ballet. The big drawback here is the absence of dance routines by the June Taylor Dancers and more than a few regular skits, sketches and songs.

The surprise PBS hit series, “Finding Your Roots,” entered Season Four with a full head of steam behind it, and the first episode didn’t disappoint. Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Larry David, who impersonated him on “Saturday Night Live,” trace their lineage from 1940s Brooklyn to Jewish communities in Europe. Other guests whose ancestral mysteries were solved last season were Carmelo Anthony, Ava DuVernay, Téa Leoni, Ana Navarro, Questlove, Christopher Walken, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, William H. Macy, Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd, John Turturro and Amy Schumer. It’s kind of like a game show, in which the prizes come in the form of knowledge.

Like most American adults, I couldn’t pick JoJo Siwa out of a lineup in which Honey Boo Boo, the Olsen Twins and the ghost of JonBenét Ramsey also stood. Fortunately for the wee performer, she has a vast army of fans, who’ve followed her from her “Dance Moms” breakthrough and YouTube contributions, to the Nickelodeon special, “Jojo Siwa: My World,” which was taped last summer at Mall of America. It also contains 15 minutes of bonus content, in which the singer/dancer recounts the events in her still-young life that brought her to a such a huge performance venue and Nickelodeon stardom.

Also from Nickelodeon, “Shimmer And Shine: Beyond the Rainbow Falls” follows Shimmer, Shine and Leah as they embark on magical adventures, in which they’ll explore wondrous locales and meet exciting new friends. Whether they’re recovering a magical Genie Gem, searching for Zac in the forest or rescuing Zeta from a wild whirlpool, the animated characters are always ready to work together and lend a helping hand. The Season Three episodes include “Rainbow Zahramay,” “The Darpoppy,” “Hairdos and Don’ts,” “Flower Power,” “All That Glitters,” “Waterbent” and “Whatever Floats Your Boat.”

Paramount must have listened to the complaints of fans who were unhappy with the quality of previous releases of “Rugrats” episodes, which were available streamed or on Burn-on-Demand status, neither of which are up to standards set by DVDs. The series premiered in 1991, as the second Nicktoon after “Doug” and preceding “The Ren & Stimpy Show.” When production initially halted in 1993, after 65 episodes, popular demand forced Nickelodeon to order new episodes and feature-length movies from Klasky Csupo Animation. “Rugrats” focuses on a group of toddlers, most prominently Tommy, Chuckie, twins Phil and Lil, Angelica and Susie, and their day-to-day lives, usually involving common life experiences that become adventures in the babies’ imaginations. Their parents, of course, remain clueless. In Season Three, Phil and Lil take on new personas; Susie and Angelica head to summer camp; Chuckie is diagnosed with “Rhinoceritis”; and Stu relives a camping nightmare he had when he was 34. It also features the critically acclaimed episode, “A Rugrats Passover.” In Season Four, fans won’t want to miss the classic Rugrats family vacation, meet Spike’s babies or laugh along as Phil and Chuckie discover the joys of dresses.

The DVD Wrapup: Last Flag, Westfront 1918, My Art, Viva L’Italia, Gothic, Viva Espana and more

Friday, February 2nd, 2018

Last Flag Flying: Blu-ray
At first glance, the best reason for picking up Last Flag Flying are the names on the promotional material. The Amazon Studios production was directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood), adapted from a novel by co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan (Cinderella Liberty) and stars Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. (Good enough for me, anyway.) Last Flag Flying also got extremely positive reviews. But Linklater’s heartfelt story about whether honor and the bonds of brotherhood still matter, played in no more than 110 domestic theaters, earning  just under a million dollars before shipping off to ancillary markets, where money figures are kept close to a studio’s vest. When it was released, just ahead of Veterans Day, many pundits predicted Last Flag Flying might produce an Oscar nomination, or two, but it was ignored … not “snubbed,” ignored. That’s what happens when a picture underperforms in the marketplace for no good reason. Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) re-unites with his old buddies, ex-Marines Sal Nealon (Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Fishbourne), to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. After their arrival at Dover Air Force Base, where the caskets of America’s dead warriors are shipped, Shepherd is made privy to details about his son’s death that make him reconsider plans for his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Ponicsan’s 2005 novel was inspired, in part, by the government’s 18-year policy, begun in the first Bush administration, forbidding photographers and videographers from covering the unloading and warehousing of flag-draped caskets, as if it were embarrassed by the sacrifices made by the dead men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author decided to make a statement about that practice – since rescinded – and the lies told soldiers, parents and millions of other patriotic Americans to justify the expansion of the war on terrorism into Iraq and losses suffered in it.

In doing so, Ponicsan called upon characters introduced in his 1970 novel, “The Last Detail,” adapted three years later by Hal Ashby and Robert Towne, to play 30-years-older versions of themselves. That picture was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Randy Quaid) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material From Another Medium. Linklater decided not to reprise the same characters, insisting that Last Flag Flying was a “spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail, in which Nicholson’s Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky leads a detail assigned to escort Seaman Larry Meadows (Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison to serve an unconsciously long sentence for a petty crime. Despite the loose connection, some of the same railroad tracks used to transport Meadows to Portsmouth were borrowed to carry the casket bearing Shep’s son to Portsmouth for the no-frills, non-military burial. Like Ashby, Linklater not only sought actors who could handle the film’s dramatic elements but also add a humorous touch for the more light-hearted and profane moments. The balance is maintained throughout the picture, which asks several still relevant questions about our government’s tendency to lie first and let investigative journalists sort out the facts later. The question of whether honor and brotherhood carry expiration dates is answered satisfactorily, as well. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews and a featurette on shooting on Veterans’ Day.

Westfront 1918: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Kameradschaft: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Two truly great movies about the inescapable horrors of war were released almost simultaneously in the spring of 1930. Both argued against the use of violence to settle disagreements between nations, using the trench warfare on Germany’s western front as a symbol for the futility of attempting to do so, anyway. Tellingly, Adolph Hitler’s government banned both movies from being shown, arguing that they advanced pacifism over manly tests of strength; falsely represented Germany’s role in the war as cowardly; and could hamper the ability of belligerent nations from conscripting soldiers and waging war. If only a work of art were that powerful. Of the two pictures, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front is the better-known today, if only because it became the first talkie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and has better withstood the test of time. Moreover, Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same title was considered required reading for tens of thousands of American high school students. (Last year, in his belated Nobel Lecture, Bob Dylan cited it as being of one of his primary literary influences.) The lesser known film, G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, probably received little exposure here, outside New York; was adapted from a less popular book, “Four Infantrymen on the Western Front,” by Ernst Johannsen; and only recently was restored, from a master positive from the BFI National Archive Collection and missing scenes re-inserted using a duplicate negative from the Swiss firm, Praesens-Film. The original camera negative has been lost.

Westfront 1918 was Pabst’s first sound film, arriving only months after his Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl and The White Hell of Pitz Palu hit theaters. It is a mercilessly realistic depiction of the nightmare that scarred a generation of German, French and British soldiers, who entered the war for honorable reasons and lost them in the stalemate of trench warfare. Because it is set toward the end of the conflict, Pabst was able to replicate the frustration and fatigue that plagued soldiers who’d been enduring miserable conditions for several years already. The Americans had only recently entered the conflagration, avoiding much of the action in the trenches. He also followed a few key characters while they were home on leave or on the lam, during which they could see how the war had devastated civilians. Unless compromises were made, food was nearly impossible for non-combatants to acquire on the open market. One soldier finds his wife in bed with the son of the town butcher, whose shop is downstairs from their apartment. Westfront 1918 delivers images of war and battlefronts that recall comparable scenes in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. They include epic sweeps across the treeless vistas and trenches surrounded by coils of barbed wire and bomb craters, and fortifications drenched in rainwater and filled with exhausted men afraid to raise their heads, for fear of being used as target practice. It’s worth noting that “All Quiet on the Western Front” was released before the Production Code was instituted, allowing Milestone to show graphic images of death and dismemberment. The splendid Criterion Collection benefits from a high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a fascinating French television broadcast of French and German World War I veterans, reacting to the film, in 1969; a 2016 interview with film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak; a new restoration demonstration, featuring Martin Koerber and Julia Wallmüller of the Deutsche Kinemathek; and an essay by author and critic Luc Sante.

In a similarly humanistic mine-disaster drama, Pabst’s Kameradschaft (1931) almost serves as a sequel to Westfront 1918. Here, though, former German soldiers put their historic differences with their French neighbors aside long enough to help rescue miners trapped 2,000 feet below the surface of a shared border. Although still divided by memories of relatives and friends lost in the trench warfare, the German workers immediately volunteer – no real debate was necessary – to risk their own lives in solidarity with fellow miners. They’re even able to convince their boss to free up equipment to be used in the mission. After Pabst depicts their trucks crashing through the gates at the border, he gets down to the business of staging a rescue that stands up nearly 90 years after it was first shot. Once again, Pabst and cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner capture the horror of being stuck hopelessly so far underground, as well as the relief on their faces when their German comrades arrive. The same is true for the townsfolk gathered above them. Although the scenes that take place inside the mine look extremely real, they were, in fact, they were shot on sets meticulously designed by Erno Metzner and Karl Vollbrecht. It isn’t until late in the story that we learn that the border separating the two countries had been redrawn after the war and was a cause of constant resentment by the German citizens. Moreover, the imaginary line extends to the miners’ level, where a shaft has been gated to reflect post-war realities. The likelihood that the line would be redrawn in the not-too-distant future is clearly implied. Kameradschaft (a.k.a., “Comradeship” and “La Tragédie de la mine”) is based on the Courrières mine disaster in 1906, where rescue efforts after a coal-dust explosion were hampered by the lack of trained mine rescuers. Expert teams from Paris and miners from the Westphalia region of Germany came to the assistance of the French miners. Even so, 1,099 men and boys lost their lives. Even less of Kameradschaft was available to restorers than Westfront 1918, and the finished print is missing a couple of segments. The Blu-ray adds a new interview with German film scholar Hermann Barth on the film’s production; a 1988 interview with editor Jean Oser; a 2016 interview with Horak on the historical context of the film; and an essay by Sante.

Rendel: Dark Vengeance: Blu-ray
In a comic-book world dominated by American writers and illustrators, it’s nice to discover a foreign-born superhero who measures up to some of the toughest hombres our artists have created in the service of all that’s good, just, holy and commercially viable at the global box office. The fact that Rendel: Dark Vengeance is of Finnish origin – the first superhero feature to emerge from that country, apparently — is duly noted in all the articles and publicity I’ve read about the movie, after its arrival at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Although Rendel bears a passing resemble to DC Comics’ Bat-Man and Marvel’s Punisher, the character is an original creation of graphic designer and art director Jesse Haaja, who came up with the idea for a homegrown vigilante character nearly 20 years ago, while still a schoolboy. Clad in tight black leather from head to toe, Rendel is motivated by revenge and hatred for those responsible for ordering the murders of his wife and daughter. They are members of a criminal organization, VALA, led by the merciless Mr. Erola (Matti Onnismaa), a corrupt industrialist, and his hoodlum son, Rotikka (Rami Rusinen). Under his alias, Rämö, Rendel (Kris Gummerus) had learned that VALA is testing potentially toxic vaccines on children in Third World countries, under the auspices of legitimate relief agencies, in preparation of a larger rollout in Europe through underground sources. Erola profits whether the vaccines succeed or fail. Rendel is born after Rämö is awakened from a nightmare by a mysterious woman, Marla (Alina Tomnikov), who whispers to him, “Every single member of VALA must die.” The only true superpower Rendel possesses is an ability to withstand and inflict great pain and punishment to those assigned to eliminate him. The cool leather outfit helps him survive, as well. Rendel unleashes his own special brand of justice against VALA, threatening to put an end to the distribution of the vaccine. As the blood spills and the money burns, however, VALA recruits a group of mercenaries to do what others seemingly can’t. Needless to say, Haaja wasn’t able to command the kind of budget Hollywood accords its creative teams. He made do with lighting and set designs that emphasized the story’s dark and brutal underpinnings and characters whose roles weren’t dependent on a long and complicated backstory. Lovers of comic-book action should still get a kick out of watching Haaja’s fresh take on a familiar genre. Even though he only has three shorts on his drawing boards currently, I’d be very surprised if someone in Hollywood hasn’t already noticed what he was able to do with a small budget and unlimited ambition. My only question is, where are these dark avengers hiding when we really need them?

My Art
I was having trouble coming up with a way to interest readers in Laurie Simmons’ almost painfully self-aware, last-shot-at-glory drama, My Art, when I finally recalled the link I’d missed at the beginning of the film. When Lena Dunham appeared in a short, expository cameo, it should have alerted me to the likelihood that My Art may not be a strictly fictional endeavor, just as “Girls” evolved from its creator’s personal history, attitudes and hang-ups. A few minutes later, when several examples of the protagonist’s art work are displayed, I flashed on Dunham’s breakthrough feature, Tiny Furniture (2010), which featured some of the same miniature props. Later, putting 2 and 2 together, it finally dawned on me that Simmons not only is Dunham’s real-life mother, but the work that her character — 65-year-old Ellie Shine — is creating during a working vacation in Upstate New York resembles pieces Simmons has already exhibited. I might also have recognized Grace Dunham, Simmons’ other artistic daughter, who also co-starred in Tiny Furniture. It was far easier to get through My Art without making the connections earlier. By accepting a wealthy friend’s invitation to housesit her almost-too-perfect home and sprawling estate, Ellie hopes to gain the inspiration and tranquility she needs to complete a project important to her. Never mind that the conceit probably would be dismissed as a novelty act by a pretentious artist, who’s grown tired of teaching for a paycheck, anywhere outside New York. She’s accompanied only by her dog, Bing, who’s lost control of the muscles in his rear legs and needs Ellie as much as she needs him. (It doesn’t look like a trick you could teach a stunt dog.) At first, the artist is irritated by the familiarity of the property’s overly friendly gardeners – one an inactive actor — who occasionally intrude on her musings. Soon enough, however, Ellie sees how they might fill a void in her video installation, which involves mimicking famous actresses in their most popular roles. It’s kind of like the photographs of Cindy Sherman, except in digitally captured homages to classic motion pictures. For the scenes to work, Ellie requires the presence of costumed male actors, with whom to share dialogue. Newfound friends, played by Robert Clohessy, John Rothman and Joshua Safdie, nicely fill the bill in scenes from Morocco, Some Like It Hot, A Clockwork Orange, The Misfits and other TCM favorites. “You can never be Clark Gable, I can never be Marilyn Monroe,” Ellie tells a doubtful co-star. “I just want to see what it looks like.” What it looks like is a prime example of how Hollywood casting directors actually know what they’re doing and rarely make mistakes. The biggest problem for me was Simmons, herself, however. By playing what I assume to be an idealized version of herself, My Art comes across as a vanity project. I couldn’t help wondering how Jill Clayburgh would have interpreted the character, if only she had lived long enough to do it. Parker Posey, Barbara Sukowa, Blair Brown do well in supporting roles.

Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween: Blu-ray
If it’s true that only a fool argues with success, how does one explain the propensity of mainstream critics to continue to review every new installment of Tyler Perry’s “Medea” saga as if it’s going to surprise them by being good or believe that Perry’s constituency gives a flying fig about their opinions. Despite reviews that bordered on the contemptuous, Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween was as close a sure thing as there is the industry in mid-October. And, while it may not have raked in the same amount of money as previous releases, “Boo 2” nearly doubled its production budget – it was shot in five days — without having to waste a whole lot of money on marketing costs. This Halloween, Brian’s daughter, Tiffany (Diamond White), wants to attend the frat party being held at a haunted campground. (Last year’s party caused the fraternity to lose its party privileges.) The 18-year-old gets permission from her mother, Debrah (Taja V. Simpson), but Brian (Perry), Madea (Perry), Joe (Perry), Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and Hattie (Patrice Lovely) aren’t anxious to authorize her partying with a Murderers Row of movieland slashers, splatterers, serial killers, demons and horny boys. Hilarity ensues, of course, when the old-timers visit the campsite themselves. “Boo 2” reportedly was thisclose to getting a R-rating – it didn’t – but not for anything its target audience would find remotely offensive. The Blu-ray adds outtakes, deleted scenes and featurettes “Caddy Whack Boo” and “Why We Love Joe!” I’ve seen worse.

Napping Princess: Blu-ray
Legend of the Naga Pearls: Blu-ray
The alternative title of Kenji Kamiyama’s first stand-alone feature – Napping Princess, after it was changed from “Ancien and the Magic Tablet,” alludes to his heroine’s remarkable ability to nod off almost at will and enter the fantasy kingdom, Heartland. For a little while, at least, Morikawa Kokone is Princess Ancien, a precocious little girl of royal birth, able to unravel mysteries related to the challenges she faces in both Heartland and non-fantasy world. Heartland, it seems, is a vertical kingdom that revolves entirely around cars. In fact, the royal residence sits high above the factory that churns out the automobiles that Ancien watches from her lofty perch, barely moving, in a permanent state of gridlock. The princess carries a “magic tablet” she uses to give life to various machines, including a blue toy bear named Joy, and a transformative motorcycle, Heart. The king disapproves of this, however, and orders Ancien confined to her tower. To combat his chief nemesis, Colossus, a gigantic monster of molten metal, the king builds a force of giant robots. For her part, Ancien enlists a biker named Peach to assist her in the ultimate battle. (I was reminded of the seaborne beast in Cloverfield.) Meanwhile, the king’s chief adviser, Bewan, conspires against him. The other half of Napping Princess is set in is 2020, three days before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics. Brina Palencia, the same actress who voices Ancien, in English, also takes on Kokone, whom the princess resembles. Kokone is finishing up her school term and, when she isn’t dozing off, considering where to go to college. She lives with her single father, Momotarō, in Okayama Prefecture. He’s a gruff and eccentric car mechanic of few words, who has a jacket similar to that worn by Peach, as well as a robotic bear, motorcycle and cracked tablet similar to those seen in Kokone’s dreams. Her mother perished in an accident while she was young and Momotarō’s silence on her death leaves her suspicious of what else he isn’t telling her. In the leadup to the Olympics, Momotarō is framed and arrested for stealing technology from a powerful corporation. Kokone and her childhood friend, Morio, take it upon themselves to save him, basing their investigation, in part, on clues she remembers from sojourns in Heartland. It requires them to travel to Tokyo, where her father is being held by authorities. If the plot sounds a tad too complex for younger viewers, Kamiyama offers plenty of entry points and diversions for them to stay involved in the story. The main thing working in Napping Princess’ favor is that most American viewers won’t be able to differentiate it from the wonderful animated features generated by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Afterwards, fans of anime and Japanimation will get more from the bonus features than newcomers. They include a subtitled interview with Kamiyama; his introduction at the Japanese premiere; the cast’s greeting at the premiere; a featurette on capturing Okayama’s scenery; and quintessentially goofy interview show that looks as if it were shot in a spare room of a convention center.

Unlike other Chinese fantasy adventures, Legend of the Naga Pearls isn’t rooted in ancient myths and legends, or the heroics of warriors chronicled by dynastic historians. The blend of real-life and CGI-generated characters recalls Disney, while the story is consistent with Chinese folklore. In an animated sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a “My Little Pony” adventure, Yang Lei introduces the central conflict in the largely family-family film: a battle between the Winged People and Humans for the control of the idyllic city of Uranopolis. The Humans prevailed, but without eradicating the Winged People, whose crippling loss was the ability to fly. The story then transitions to live-action and the introduction of protagonist Ni Kongkong (Darren Wang), who, after being bullied and disfigured as a child, grows into the self-appointed role of “prince of thieves.” The title refers to a collection of magical pearls that have ensured the future of the Winged People, but, after the war, fell into the hands of Humans. Xuelie, a royal descendant of the Winged People, commits himself to finding the omnipotent pearls and restoring his peoples’ powers and status in the fictional world of Novoland. Ni (Darren Wang) and constable Raven (Zhang Tianai), a deceptively strong and beautiful woman of winged ancestry, want to track down the pearls, if only to return balance to their universe and prevent another terrible war. In a conceit that could irritate adults and delight children, Ni is accompanied wherever he goes by a cartoon pangolin, Oka, whose superpower is emitting brown-tinged farts that can be directed at their enemies. Here, some writers have detected a possible reference to Disney’s Aladdin – the pangolin, not the farts — with Aka sitting in for the monkey, Abu, and Raven for Princess Jasmine. The CGI-dominated segments of Legend of the Naga Pearls are splendidly drawn – possibly with a 3D version in mind – and the real-life locations are easy on the eyes, as well. Costumes, set design and other technical merits are also strong.

Class of 1999: Blu-ray
Gothic: Blu-ray
Mark Lester and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner’s potentially prophetic Class of 1999 extends a conceit that originated way back in 1955, in Blackboard Jungle. They ask viewers to imagine how a student body comprised of punks and hoodlums might react to a disciplinary policy administered by robotic teachers modeled after RoboCop and the Terminator. Not only are the robots programmed to teach, but their software also directs them when to kick ass to maintain order. Lester had mined the same vein, eight years earlier, in Class of 1984. The physical similarities between the two high schools argue that the only things that have changed in 15 years – Hollywood time – is that the students have grown more out of control and the physical plants no longer are fit for teaching. If the story is entirely predictable, Class of 1999 is enhanced by terrific makeup effects, robotics and costume design. Pam Grier’s breasts double as rocket launchers … do I have to say more? Lester also was able to recruit Malcolm McDowell, Stacy Keach and the excellent character actor, John P. Ryan (It’s Alive!). The only student who’s particularly memorable is Joshua John Miller, who also played the pee-wee psycho in River’s Edge. The Blu-ray includes commentary with Lester and interviews with Lester and co-producer Eugene Mazzola; screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner; special-effects creators Eric Allard and Rick Stratton; and director of photography Mark Irwin.

The other January release from Vestron’s fine Collector’s Series, Gothic, is Ken Russell’s fever-dream depiction of the stormy night at Lord Byron’s residence, on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva, when two of English literature’s greatest horror novels were born: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” and Dr. John William Polidori’s “Vampyre.” In 1985, when Gothic was released, Russell’s name above the title was as much of a trademark as Technicolor or Dolby. Still, commercial considerations demanded that Russell’s instincts not be as scandalous as those demonstrated in The Devils, Savage Messiah and Lisztomania, a decade earlier. Had this leopard really changed his spots or would those evil instincts return to inform Gothic, as well? I’m happy to report that they did. Although the details vary, it was at the Villa Diodati, in the summer of 1816, that the exiled Romantic poet (Gabriel Byrne) and his personal physician (Timothy Spall) hosted the 18-year-old author and her future husband, Percy Shelley (Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands), and her ditzy, star-struck stepsister, Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr). The weather not being conducive to enjoying the lakeside accommodations, they remained indoors, taking turns reading German ghost stories, translated into French from “Fantasmagoriana.” Byron then proposed they “each write a ghost story.” Neither of the resultant novels fit that description, but they’ve obviously stood the test of time. Mary’s night is spent fighting off nightmares and frightening hallucinations, possibly brought about by too many drops of the doctor’s laudanum in the wine served before, during and after dinner. If Russell actually had tempered his natural tendency to push the limits of the medium, newcomers to his work wouldn’t know it from the more grotesque imagery and salacious behavior on display here. After the laudanum kicks in, Gothic wanders well far off the beaten path. Special features include vintage commentary with Lisi Russell, in conversation with film historian Matthew Melia; isolated score selections and an interview with composer Thomas Dolby; and new interviews with Sands, screenwriter Stephen Volk and director of Photography Mike Southon.

The Sunshine Makers
Red Krokodil: Directors Cut: Blu-ray
Timothy Leary wasn’t even out of his teens when lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, on November 16, 1938, at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. It wasn’t until five years later, when Hofmann accidentally ingested an unknown quantity of the chemical, that LSD’s psychedelic properties were revealed. It was introduced as a commercial medication, Delysid. for various psychiatric uses in 1947. In the 1950s, CIA officials began testing LSD as an agent for mind control and chemical warfare on government employees, military personnel, doctors, prostitutes, mentally ill patients and other civilians, usually without their subjects’ knowledge. In the harrowing six-part Netflix docudrama series, Wormwood, Errol Morris describes what happened after CIA biological-warfare scientist Frank Olson was covertly dosed by his supervisor and, nine days later, plunged to his death from the window of a hotel room in New York City. The agency convinced reporters that his death was a suicide, but Morris, working at the behest of family members, effectively argued that Olson’s was anything but self-motivated. Among the test subject who experienced more pleasant trips were novelist Ken Kesey, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and actor Cary Grant. Well before the CIA was forced to acknowledge its role in the top-secret tests, LSD’s potential as a recreational drug was openly promoted by Kesey, San Francisco rock groups and Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (a.k.a., Ram Dass). The unauthorized production and dissemination of LSD was prohibited in 1967, ensuring a rise in interest in the drug by the uninitiated and rise of highly lucrative underground distribution networks. That much is common knowledge … although young people today might consider it to be ancient history.

Although cocaine supplanted LSD has the designer drug of choice it the 1980s, it has never really gone out of vogue as a recreational drug. Then, too, scientists are more interested than ever in researching its therapeutic and medicinal powers. Cosmo Feilding-Mellen and writer Connie Littlefield’s informative and surprisingly light-hearted The Sunshine Makers may not equate Stanley Owsley, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully with Hollywood anti-heroes Barry Seal and Pablo Escobar, but the FBI and other law-enforcement officials sure did. The science nerds had anticipated the popularity of LSD by creating a pharmaceutical apparatus to produce millions of tabs of relatively pure Orange Sunshine acid and a distribution network that presaged the Colombian and Mexican cartel. While racking in the dough, they justified their criminal enterprise by convincing themselves they were doing God’s work … freeing the minds and libidos of American youth. The Sunshine Makers also introduces us to some of their financiers, traffickers and girlfriends/accomplices, through flashback segments and interviews conducted before Sand’s death last April. It also features fresh input from the law-enforcement agents who chased them around the country and put Sand and Scully, at least, in prison. The Sunshine Makers shouldn’t be confused with William A. Kirkley’s Orange Sunshine, which focused on the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of surfers and hippies that became the largest supplier of LSD during the ’60s and ’70s, selling Sand and Scully’s products.

After the prohibition of LSD was imposed and arrests mounted, underground chemists and dealers opened the distribution stream to drugs that were laced with speed and other pollutants. Pressure also mounted to produce stronger, more addictive and increasingly more dangerous products for the consumption of users, not limited to flower children and Deadheads. Ecstasy proved to be a relatively safe alternative to crystal meth, opiates and other mind-altering substances, but, since it didn’t come with instructions, could prove fatal. Domiziano Cristopharo and Francesco Scardone’s exceedingly disturbing Red Krokodil portrays the effects of one such pain-killing drug on one pitiable survivor of a Chernobyl-like disaster. His substance of choice is desomorphine, commonly known in its homemade form as “krokodil.” The drug, formulated at about the same time as LSD, didn’t become popular in Russia until a crackdown on heroin production around 2010 and new restrictions on the sale of codeine-containing medications. Its street name comes from the similarity of an addict’s skin, damaged by the drug use, to crocodile leather. The sole non-hallucinatory character in Red Krokodil is Him (Brock Madon), a man seemingly in his 20s, who suddenly finds himself alone in a large city devastated by a nuclear bomb. His physical decay, due to a massive intake of the drug, is mirrored in his mind, where a frightening reality mixes with unpleasant fantasies. Adding to the horror of degradation is the setting: a small apartment overlooking the ruined city. Like Him’s clothes, it has been befouled by feces, garbage and other debris. Anyone who had trouble sitting through the second half of Requiem for a Dream won’t make it through 10 minutes of Red Krokodil. Also scary is the score, which was composed by London-based musical collective, the Heliocentrics. Kids, don’t try this drug at home.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Edition: Blu-ray
There’s no question that this 1978 musical parody of mid-century horror tropes and B-movie clichés holds an esteemed place in the modern history of motion pictures. Although it was universally lambasted by mainstream and alternative critics, alike – while at the Chicago Reader, Dave Kehr opined, “Self-conscious camp, the lowest artistic category known to man” — and featured actors, sets and special effects that weren’t even up to snuff 40 years ago, it encouraged a generation of filmmakers to cut every corner necessary to make films outside the Hollywood pipeline and create their own distribution channels. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes may have been shot on 35mm film, but its arrival at the dawn of the camcorder and video-cassette age inspired amateur auteurs and actors to exploit the new home-entertainment platform for their own purposes. There’s no reason to regurgitate the plot here … suffice it to say that John De Bello did for tomatoes what Hitchcock did for seagulls. It spawned three direct sequels, a cartoon series for Fox, a couple of books, comics, three different video games and a 1999 homage in Greek filmmaker Panos H. Koutras’ immortal “I epithesi tou gigantiaiou moussaka” (The Attack of the Giant Moussaka). Plans for a remake have occasionally been forwarded, but why spend good money on a lousy re-boot when you can upgrade the original every five years, or so, on the latest video platform. MVD Rewind has done just that with its spanking-new Blu-ray “Special Edition,” which features a newly remastered 4K digital transfer of the film; high-definition Blu-ray and standard-definition DVD pressings; original 2.0 Mono Audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray); commentary from co-writer/director DeBello, co-writer/co-star Steve Peace and ”creator” Costa Dillon; three deleted scenes; seven featurettes of varying length and historical value; ”Gone with the Babusuland,” the original 8mm short that inspired Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, with optional audio commentary; “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” the original 8mm short film, with optional audio commentary; a production design photo gallery; collectible poster; radio spots; original theatrical trailer; and Easter eggs. I can’t wait for the definitive 4K UHD edition to be announced by Criterion Collection.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Following the success of Dario Argento’s debut feature, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, distributor Titanus asked the writer/director to deliver a follow-up in short order. That film, The Cat O’ Nine Tails, was granted a greatly enhanced budget and heralded in its U.S. marketing campaign as ”nine times more suspenseful” than its predecessor, which had received some positive reviews here only a few months earlier. The additional money allowed for the casting of higher profile non-Italian actors than Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall, as well as risking an English-language dialogue track. Importing Karl Malden and James Franciscus, and Germans Horst Frank and Catherine Spaak, to fill the most visible roles gave the movie the lift it needed to overcome a narrative that feels a tad rushed, even now. The story, itself, leans toward American genre norms. (At one point, it even borrows dialogue directly from Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”) Even so, The Cat O’ Nine Tails represents giallo at its most accessible and purely entertaining, which is to say that the ratio of violence to nudity favors the garroting and knife play, over gratuitous, if welcome sexuality. Before a break-in occurs at a secretive genetics institute, blind puzzle-maker Franco Arno (Karl Malden) overhears men in a nearby car discussing a scheme to blackmail one of the institute’s scientists. After learning about the resultant crime and murder, he teams up with intrepid reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) to crack the case. Before long, bodies begin to pile up and the two amateur sleuths find their own lives imperiled in their search for the truth. To further dissuade the brilliant gamester, Franco’s young niece, Lori, is put directly in harm’s way by the conspirators. If the sum of the individual clues – nine, to be precise — doesn’t amount to a completely logical ending, well, it hardly matters. “Cat” swiftly led directly to the third and final entry in Argento’s so-called ”Animal Trilogy” of giallo thrillers, all of which were brilliantly scored by Ennio Morricone. Triva buffs might recognize 10-year-old Cinzia De Carolis (Lori) from Antonio Margheriti’s otherwise forgettable Cannibal Apocalypse (1980). The Arrow Films release offers a 4K restoration from the original camera negative; separate HD and SD discs; new commentary by critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; fresh interviews with co-writer/director Argento, De Carolis, co-writer Dardano Sacchetti and production manager Angelo Iacono; script pages for the lost original ending, translated into English for the first time; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Candice Tripp; double-sided fold-out poster; four lobby card reproductions; and a limited edition booklet illustrated by Matt Griffin, featuring an essay by Argento and new writing by Barry Forshaw, Troy Howarth and Howard Hughes.

Viva L’Italia: Blu-ray
Although statues of the great Italian general, politician and nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi can be found in many American cities, his contributions to his country’s reunification and liberation from tyranny may be the least studied of all revolutionaries by students here. The same can be said of Roberto Rossellini’s excellent Viva L’Italia, which chronicles the 1860 Expedition of the Thousand to conquer Italy’s disparate kingdoms under the banner of Victor Emmanuel II. The epic story opens with the violent quelling of an uprising in Sicily, but quickly moves north to Quarto, near Genoa, where Garibaldi has assembled a motley corps of volunteers and arranged for them to sail to Marsala. It’s where the Bourbons rule the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and their constituents might be ready to revolt. Vastly outgunned and outnumbered, the 1,000-man army gathers steam and hundreds more volunteers and weapons with every new victory. Garibaldi’s enlightened leadership and strategizing leads to a plebiscite that brings Naples and Sicily into the Kingdom of Sardinia, the last territorial conquest before the creation of the Kingdom of Italy, on March 17, 1861. Rossellini was commissioned by the government to make Viva L’Italia (a.k.a., “Garibaldi”) as part of the country’s centennial celebration. He approached the assignment as he had The Flowers of St. Francis, presenting the main character in neo-realist mode, as though he were making “a documentary made after the event, trying to figure out what happened,” he allowed. “I tried to lace myself in front of the events of a century ago, the way a documentarist would have done who had the good fortune to follow Garibaldi’s campaign with his camera.” Apart from the expository dialogue and strategizing, what makes the film extraordinary are the battle scenes, which appear to have been shot from the perspective of the general’s binoculars, capturing wide swaths of contested territory from a perch overlooking the action. From that distance, the movements of combatants resembled those of red, black and brown ants attacking a watermelon left behind by picnickers. Renzo Ricci, who had just finished working with Michelangelo Antonioni on L’Avventura, delivers an appropriately understated portrayal of Garibaldi. The nicely restored Arrow Blu-ray adds the shorter American version; a new interview with Rossellini’s assistant on the film, Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust); ”I Am Garibaldi,” a visual essay by Tag Gallagher, author of “The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini: His Life and Films”; and a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips. The first pressing adds illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by filmmaker and critic Michael Pattison.

Belle Epoque: Blu-ray
Jamon Jamon: Blu-ray
Red Squirrel: Blu-ray
Vacas: Blu-ray
Tierra: Blu-ray
The latest shipment of Blu-ray upgrades from Olive Films contained five truly exceptional Spanish movies from the 1990s. Apart from being distinctively different modern classics, each offers early glimpses of some of today’s most celebrated European actors. In Fernando Trueba’s period rom/com/dram Belle Epoque (1992), a Spanish army deserter, perhaps anticipating the Civil War, finds himself at the doorway to a lovely country villa, without many options open to him or allegiances. Soon, however, he wins the trust of the owner, whose four lovely daughters are about to pay him a visit. It creates a scenario in which he falls in love with all of them and they with him. Although the farmer envisions him as a future son-in-law, his sexually aggressive daughters’ designs on him are more immediate. The very different young women are played by Miriam Díaz-Aroca (High Heels), Ariadna Gil (Pan’s Labyrinth), Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También) and future Oscar-winner Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), while Jorge Sanz (The Girl of Your Dreams) is the lucky deserter. All are uniquely suited to their parts. Belle Epoque would deservedly win that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Trueba would go on to direct such international hits as the animated Chico & Rita, musical-documentary Calle 54 and World War II com/dram The Artist and the Model. It’s been 25 years since I last saw the film and it still holds up.

Eighteen-year-old Cruz made her feature debut that same year in Bigas Luna’s sexy Silver Lion-winner, Jamon Jamon, alongside another future Oscar-winner, Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Jordi Mollà (Lucky Star), Anna Galiena (The Hairdresser’s Husband) and Stefania Sandrelli (The Conformist). It traces the romantic entanglements of the beautiful and pregnant underwear-factory worker, Silvia (Cruz); her momma’s-boy lovers and heir to the factory fortune, Jose Luis (Mollà); a male underwear model, jamon delivery man and would-be-bullfighter, Raul (Bardem); Conchita (Sandrelli), the family matriarch and Raul’s lover; and Silvia’s ravishing mother (Galiena), who, when she isn’t running a roadside bar, turns tricks in the back room. (Jose Luis pays her to suckle her breasts). Through a series of Machiavellian plot machinations, Conchita will seek to tear apart the relationship between her wealthy son and the working-class Silvia, while seducing the underwear model for her own gratification. Meanwhile, Silvia and Raul fall in lust for each other, forcing Jose Luis to grow an extra pair of huevos. Melodramatic, surreal (a duel using ham legs is a highlight) and oozing with sexual tension, Jamón Jamón is soap opera at its grandest. In both films, Cruz turns in performances that anticipate her rise as one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Julio Medem (Sex & Lucia) is represented by three new Blu-ray releases: Vacas (1992), The Red Squirrel (1993) and Tierra (1996). His debut feature (“Cows”) is set in Spain’s lush, mountainous Basque Country, between 1870-1935. It chronicles a bitter rivalry between male members of the Mendiluze and Iriguibel families, stretching from the Third Carlist War through the Spanish Civil War. Their deep-seated hatred for each other dates back to a war-time act that left brave Carmelo Mendiluze (Kandido Uranga) dead on the battlefield and the cowardly deserter Manuel Iriguibel (Karra Elejalde) crippled but alive. Years pass and animosity between the families still overshadows the lives, loves and futures of younger members, who don’t want anything to do with it. The rivalry plays out in log-chopping contests, midnight liaisons and a strategic escape to the United States. All along, the patriarch of one of the families (Txema Blasco) paints surrealistic portraits of cows and invents contraptions designed to kill marauding boars. Vacas’ tragic outcome is both inevitable and as painful to observe from afar as the deterioration of Spain in the Civil War.

The Red Squirrel opens with a serious motorcycle accident that keeps suicidal Jota from jumping off a bridge, as he administers to the pretty young rider, Lisa (Emma Suárez), whose only lasting injury is the loss of her memory. Reinvigorated by his ability to keep her from drifting into unconsciousness, Jota (Nancho Novo) decides to claim Lisa from the hospital as his live-in girlfriend. She agrees to go along with the ruse, taking an early exit to go on a camping vacation together. The clues to Lisa’s identity and background slowly reveal themselves through hypnosis, involuntary flashbacks and visual references to her past, including a red squirrel. Things get creepier as her memory returns and her new life begins to intersect with the one she just left. Suárez would go on to win awards for her work in Agustí Vila’s family drama, The Mosquito Net (2010), and Pedro Almodóvar’s 2016 “return to female-centric storytelling,” Julieta (2016), while Nova would excel in Medem’s Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998) and Gerardo Vera’s period drama La Celestina (1969), alongside Cruz. Three years later, Medem would reteam Suárez, Novo, Blasco and Carmelo Gómez, in Tierra (“Earth”), which is a different kind of strange entirely. Gomez plays Angel, an exterminator recently released from a mental hospital, who’s hired to rid a small Spanish town of tiny grubs in the soil. The local wine-making industry has found these pests responsible for giving their product a distinctive “earthy” taste that has divided wine connoisseurs. Angel becomes involved with two beautiful and very different women (Suárez, Karra Elejalde), enrages their lovers and angers a local Gypsy clan by accusing them of stealing money from him. Can either of these women accept the fact that Angel travels with a “ghost” of himself, or that he routinely speaks with residents recently killed in lightning strikes? Tierra echoes themes advanced in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), but in a less melancholy way.

None of the packages contain bonus features contained in previous versions. Still, for lovers of Spanish cinema, all five titles are must-sees.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria Season 2: UK Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: NOVA: Bird Brain
Nickelodeon: Nella the Princess Knight
For those who simply can’t get enough of the British royal family, 2017 was a very good year. In addition to the anticipation leading to Prince Harry popping the question to his American sweetie pie, Meghan Markle, they had two very different versions of his great-great-great-great-grandmum Queen Victoria to savor. In the Oscar-nominated Victoria & Abdul, Dame Judi Dench reprised her portrayal of the queen in Mrs Brown, in 1997, this time advancing the calendar to the celebration of her Golden Jubilee. Stephen Frears’ handsomely staged comedy/drama depicts the real-life relationship between the monarch and her Indian Muslim servant Abdul Karim. The unlikelihood of such a friendship occurring only made the movie that much more compelling. Last January, the eight-part ITV mini-series, “Victoria,” began its run on PBS, as part its “Masterpiece” franchise. It was received here with great ratings and positive reviews. In December, as well, Netflix’s “The Crown” began it’s second-season run, focusing on Queen Elizabeth’s role in the Suez Crisis in 1956, through the retirement of the Queen’s third Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1963, following the Profumo scandal, and the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. Two more seasons have already been green-lit. In England, “Victoria” has already completed its second season, which was followed by a Christmas special. It explains why the DVD/Blu-ray collection of Season Two episodes is being made available, even before PBS has aired the fourth part of its seasonal run. (Because PBS doesn’t insert commercials into its shows, apparently there’s no loss of revenues. Affiliates can even offer the Season Two package, usually at the full retail price, to subscribers.) I don’t know how the “UK Edition” differs from the PBS series, but affiliates have the option of trimming for content or to squeeze in Pledge Month pitches. As any faithful viewer could have predicted, the second series follows the still young Victoria (Jenna Coleman) as she struggles with managing her role as Queen and seeing to the needs of her husband and children. For his part, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) is acclimating himself to his own duties, especially when it comes to filling in for his recuperating wife. There’s no question they’re in love, but don’t be surprised if a certain Green-Eyed Monster pops in for a cameo. As Victoria’s reign continues into the 1840s, her kingdom experiences constitutional challenges and scandals at court, the rise of the Chartist movement, the devastating Irish Potato Famine and revolutions in Europe. The Blu-ray adds more than 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The premise behind the “NOVA” presentation, “Bird Brain,” is that our feathered friends are no dumber than the average bear and, as such, smarter than most politicians. But, regular “NOVA” viewers would already know that. Birds have the same advanced problem-solving skills we usually assume are unique to humans. Parrots plan for the future; jackdaws “read” human faces; and crows solve multi-step puzzles with pebbles, sticks and hooks. The birds shown here reveal skills that even 3- or 4-year-old children have difficulty mastering, including putting off collecting one reward to get a bigger one later. Watch as scientists test avian aptitude and challenge our basic notions of intelligence.

Also newly available on DVD from PBS are “Slavery and the Making of America” on the financial benefits of a moral outrage that led to war; the “Frontline” report, “Putin’s Revenge,” which explains how President Trump has been trumped by his fickle friend in Moscow; “VA: The Human Cost of War,” takes a broad look at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs … it’s successes and failures; the “American Experience” documentary, “The Gilded Age,” on how prosperity served to uplift and divide the country at the end of the 19th Century; and “Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street: Season 1,” the latest in a long line of mouth-watering cooking shows on the network. From Smithsonian comes “Black Wings,” on the history of African-American aviators who took to the air, where color doesn’t matter; and “The Real Mad Men of Advertising,” which follows the evolution of advertising from the 1950s through the 1980s, via interviews with the industry’s top ad executives, and through classic ads and commercials.

Nickelodeon’s unconventional princess, Nella, is bringing action-packed adventures into the home-theater arena with her first DVD release. Fans can join the 8-year-old Brit on daring quests, as she transforms into a princess knight and courageously defends her kingdom. Whether she’s searching for a lost invitation or rescuing a phoenix, Nella stands up for what’s right. “Nella the Princess Knight” features eight episodes from the show’s first season: “Knighty Knight Dragons,” “Inside and Seek,” “Sir Clod,” “Up All Knight,” “Princess Nella’s Orc-Hestra,” “The Blaine Game,” “Big Birthday Surprise” and “That’s What Best Friends Are For.”

The DVD Wrapup: In Search of Fellini, In Her Name, High School Sinks Into Sea, Jigsaw, Argento’s Opera, Red Trees and more

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

In Search of Fellini
The Witches: Blu-ray
I can’t remember the last time I was so charmed by a movie that was dumped into limited release, received mixed reviews and could be lost in the shuffle of January releases that receive little fanfare. Maybe, though, I can help draw attention to In Search of Fellini if I point out the romantic fantasy’s “Simpsons” connection. (Everybody loves “The Simpsons.”) In Search of Fellini was adapted from a one-woman play co-written by Nancy Cartwright, who, since 1989, has been the voice of Bart Simpson on Fox’s trail-blazing animated series. Before that, however, the Ohio native joined an acting class taught by Milton Katselas. He recommended that she study Federico Fellini’s La Strada, which starred Giulietta Masina as the street urchin sold by her mother to circus strongman Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to be his comic foil. Cartwright recalls performing “every imaginable scene” from the movie in her class and spending several months trying to secure the rights to produce a stage adaptation. Like the protagonist in In Search of Fellini, she visited Italy with the intention of meeting Fellini and requesting his permission in person. Although she never met the Maestro, Cartwright kept a journal of the trip and later co-wrote the play upon which it was based. (Performed in Los Angeles in 1995, it won a Drama-Logue Award.) It’s been her dream to turn it into a film ever since then. In Taron Lexton’s feature debut, Cartwright is portrayed by the Latvian-born blond, Ksenia Solo (Black Swan), as Lucy. By opening up the play, Lexton not only was able to shoot in cities visited by Cartwright in her quest, but also replicate key scenes from Fellini’s movies, ranging from a lone horse wandering through empty Italian streets at night, to a grand, gilded orgy from Fellini’s Casanova (1975). Here, Lucy is a naive 20-year-old artist and would-be actor, who, after being propositioned at an audition, escapes that cold reality of show-biz life in a theater showing La Strada. Her resemblance to Masina, as much as the story, compels Lucy to take a crash course in Felliniana, via VHS cassettes. Coincidentally, her mother (Mario Bello) has been diagnosed with an incurable illness, which she tries to conceal from her daughter. Her aunt (Mary Lynn Rajskub) encourages her to pursue her dream of meeting Fellini in person, in Italy. While there, she experiences the highs and lows of solo traveling in a foreign land. First, she meets a sweet and handsome young man, who, under the right circumstances, would make an ideal companion. Then, she’s assaulted by a classic Latin bounder. Although Cartwright didn’t meet Fellini on her trip, Lucy is given reason to believe that he might turn up around any corner in Rome. It’s a stretch, but a little bit of magical realism goes a long way. I can understand how some critics might think that Lexton stuffed too many disparate elements into a 93-minute package and, stylistically, it’s all over the place. As a sucker for all-things-Fellini, however, I had no trouble buying into Cartwright’s almost-true fantasy. It also was a pleasure watching Ksenia Solo spread her wings in a lead role. Anyone who enjoyed Gary Winick’s Letters to Juliet (2010), also partially shot in Verona’s historical district, should rush to find a copy of In Search of Fellini. The DVD adds interviews and Cartwright’s commentary.

Fellini’s name may not be attached to Arrow Video’s restored edition of The Witches, but his fingerprints can be found on all five of the vignettes in the wildly uneven, but still entertaining 1967 anthology. The concept advanced by producer Dino De Laurentiis was for several of Italy’s most celebrated directors and screenwriters to create short films in which his wife, Silvana Mangano (Bitter Rice), plays a strega. They’re not your average, garden-variety witches, mind you, but Mangano makes them all bewitching in her own captivating way. Luchino Visconti (Ossessione) and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (Bicycle Thieves) open the film with “The Witch Burned Alive,” about a famous actress and a drunken evening that leads to unpleasant revelations; “Civic Sense” provides a lightly comic interlude from Mauro Bolognini (The Lady of the Camelias), but with a dark conclusion; in the delightfully surrealistic “The Earth as Seen From the Moon” combines the considerable talents of comedy legend Totò with those of Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron) for a tale of matrimony and reincarnation; in “The Sicilian’s Wife,” Franco Rossi (The Woman in the Painting) concocts a story of revenge and its ultimate consequence; and, finally, in “An Evening Like the Others,” Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine) merges a bittersweet homage to Italian comic books with a lament over the loss of passion in marriage. An impossibly young Clint Eastwood plays the business-obsessed husband of a not-at-all frumpy middle-age woman, who can’t help wondering how things might have turned out between them if reality were more like Hollywood musicals of the 1940s. Like Clark Kent, Mangano removes her character’s glasses whenever the unhappy wife transitions from plain to hot. The Eastwood/Mangano segment is worth the price of a rental, itself. In the U.S., Eastwood was still known for playing Rowdy Yates, on “Rawhide.” By the time “Witches” was released in Europe, however, his portrayal of the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” had made him a highly bankable star. The movie wasn’t shown here until 1969, the same year as Eastwood co-starred in “Paint Your Wagon,” contributing three less-than-memorable songs. The Blu-ray features a fresh 2K restoration from original film elements, produced by Arrow Films; a worthwhile commentary by critic and novelist Tim Lucas; an interview with actor Ninetto Davoli, recorded exclusively for this release; an English-language version of De Sica’s episode; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and an illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone and Kat Ellinger.

In Her Name
Unless I’ve missed something, the true story upon which this riveting French/German legal thriller is based hasn’t garnered much press coverage on this side of the pond. All the better for American audiences, for whom Vincent Garenq’s In Her Name (a.k.a., “Kalinka”) will feel as fresh as any other real-crime drama currently being shown in theaters or on television. The case, we’re told, kept France enthralled for more than 30 years. I believe it. The film is so compellingly rendered that viewers unfamiliar with the story will be left guessing until the final moments as to whether justice will finally be served or the antagonist, a German doctor, will once again escape punishment for defiling teenage girls under his treatment. The narrative begins in the early 1970s, in Morocco, as French accountant André Bamberski (Daniel Auteuil) confronts his wife, Danièle (Marie-Josée Croze) and her lover, Dieter Krombach (Sebastian Koch), midway through an afternoon tryst. The affair would continue for about a year after the couple moved back to France – with Krombach not far behind – causing the Bamberskis to divorce, with the custody of their two children to be shared. Flash forward eight years and Bamberski is next shown saying goodbye to his son and daughter, Kalinka and Nicolas, as they’re about to depart for a summer vacation with her mother and Krombach in Germany. Before long, Bamberski is informed that Kalinka, now 14, died in her sleep, after an exhausting day of swimming with friends. Krombach doesn’t immediately admit to injecting the girl with an iron supplement, to accelerate tanning, and giving her a sleeping tablet, only hours before she died.  Bamberski can’t imagine how an otherwise healthy teenager could die in her sleep, with or without the injections. His suspicions are validated when the autopsy belatedly is sent to him in France and, after being translated, is as revealing for what’s left out of the report as for what’s in it. Describing everything that happens over the course of the next 30 years would require more than a few spoiler alerts. Suffice it to say that the well-connected doctor somehow was allowed to observe the autopsy and probably encouraged officials to destroy key evidence, including the girl’s sex organs. Bamberski made a big enough stink about the autopsy that German officials felt compelled to conduct a show trial, at least. He would receive a series of slaps on the wrist that not only allowed him to continue practicing in Germany, but also be accused of rape in other instances. When French authorities fail to convince their German counterparts to extradite the doctor, Bamberski begins his decades-long crusade to keep the case alive and Krombach continually on edge. The obsessive campaign for the truth and justice will cost him a small fortune and the love of his son and girlfriend, as well as a discernible portion of his sanity. Will he be vindicated? Europeans, already well familiar with the story, already knew the answer to that question when In Her Name opened in 2016. Only a handful of American viewers will already know the outcome. Fans of true-crime documentaries won’t want to miss Auteuil’s anguished portrayal of a man so committed to his dead daughter’s memory that he risked everything, just so “she can rest in peace.”

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea: Blu-ray
From now on, no compilation of the 10- or 20-best movies about high schools will be complete without mention, at least, of Dash Shaw’s wonderfully inventive My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea. If you haven’t heard of it, by now, blame the vagaries of modern film distribution. Shaw adapted the animated feature from his graphic novel of the same title. After the teen-disaster flick made the rounds of the festival circuit, eliciting excellent reviews, it was released in only a handful of theaters. This, despite an all-star voicing cast — Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, John Cameron Mitchell – and the potential for a positive word-of-mouth campaign. Try to imagine Fast Times at Ridgemont High or “Freaks and Geeks,” by way of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Titanic, and you’ll be halfway there. “Sinking” is set in a generic public high school, populated by dozens of archetypal students, teachers and administrators. The school’s pecking order is roughly that of the characters in The Breakfast Club, only in macrocosm. At the lowest end of the food chain are Dash (Schwartzman) and Assaf (Watts), sophomore buddies who decide to elevate their station by joining the staff of the Tides High school newspaper, which is facing the same fate as most mainstream papers in the digital age. Its irritable editor, Verti (Maya Rudolph), demands that the newcomers come up with stories capable of getting the student body in the reading habit. Instead, the boy’s increasingly divergent personalities cause a major rift at the paper. Verti wants something sexy to tear teenagers away from their iPhones, which is OK with Assaf, but not the more traditional Dash. Cut adrift from the paper, Dash discovers a cover-up of the school’s likely inability to withstand an earthquake. It was built on landfill, on the edge of a cliff, but still managed to pass every seismic inspection. It doesn’t take long before a temblor strong enough to knock the building off its foundation occurs, causing it to slide down the cliff and into the sea. Miraculously, the school’s infrastructure survives the disaster mostly intact, allowing for survivors to maintain hope for rescue, but only if they can reason their way to a solution. Or, to put it metaphorically, Dash advises: “We must make our way to the senior floor and then graduate … to the roof!” Among the obstacles they face are marauding sharks, ruptured elevator shafts and their own anxiety. As the friends race to escape, they are joined by a “popular” know-it- all (Dunham) and the lunch lady (Sarandon). Shaw’s mix-and-match animation makes it easy for viewers to suspend their disbelief as the students’ situation grows increasingly dire. So, does the dizzying soundtrack by Rani Sharone (American Ultra). Only 75 minutes long, “Sinking” is the right length to sustain the conceit, without running out of gags, metaphors or its welcome. Special features include Shaw’s commentary, several animated shorts and a spotlight on the film’s unique artwork.

Jigsaw: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Cloverfield/10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray, 4K UHD HDR
Although the latest addition to the Saw franchise somehow managed to shed its brand identification during its seven-year hiatus, Jigsaw had no problem attracting old fans and newcomers to the series’ eighth installment. In 2010, producer Mark Burg announced that the seventh chapter, Saw 3D, would be the last. Even so, Lionsgate quickly expressed interest in continuing the still-lucrative series. That can be explained by comparing a combined $77 million in production costs to nearly a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales. That figure, of course, doesn’t take into account money from DVD/Blu-ray/VOD returns, video games, comic books and theme-park attractions. Not bad for a movie that’s never scored higher than a 50-percent approval rating in Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic polls and dropped to 9 percent for Saw 3D in RT. To be fair, the average CinemaScore grade is “B.” Believed dead for, lo, these many years, villain John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) appears to have returned to the scene of his terrible crimes. A cancer survivor and civil engineer with a genius for creating implements of torture and death, Kramer targets individuals who’ve shown a disregard for life or whose behavior endangered others. The new series of killings bear his unique stamp, even if police are reluctant to admit Jigsaw might still be alive. Neither are viewers completely sure of who’s pulling the strings on the ingenious traps and leaving behind the cassettes. Otherwise, it’s the same-old, same-old. Australian siblings, Michael and Peter Spierig (Daybreakers), worked from a script by Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (Piranha 3D). The Blu-ray/4K UHD extras include the seven-part documentary, “I Speak for the Dead: The Legacy of Jigsaw,” “The Choice Is Yours: Exploring the Props” and commentary with producers Mark Burg, Oren Koules and Peter Block. Fans of extreme gore will appreciate the added clarity of the 4K UHD presentation.

Unless close attention is paid to Easter eggs and an augmented-reality game related to Cloverfield mythology, the only thing connecting all three chapters of the Paramount/Bad Robot franchise – “Cloverfield Station” (a.k.a., “God Particle”) has been slated for April but could wind up on Netflix – appears to be producer J.J. Abrams’ guiding hand. There’s also the 2008 “Cloverfield/Kishin” manga and cross-media tie-in and viral-marketing websites. “Cloverfield Station” reportedly takes place in a stranded space station that’s lost the ability to connect with Earth. There’s no way to know if the monster in Chapter One or John Goodman’s space worms in “10” will make cameos, but don’t bet against it. It’s said that Abrams had plans for individual spinoffs of the modestly budgeted, yet profitable originals, but Paramount may not be interested in pursuing them. Until then, fans with 4K UHD machines are invited to check out those pictures in the enhanced technology. This raises one big question, at least. Cloverfield is a found-footage film that benefitted from the grainy visual presentation that would have been discovered in the aftermath of such a disaster. You wouldn’t want the upgrade to make the cassette’s contents too clean … and they aren’t. It’s fun to see future stars Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller and Odette Annable in key roles. The 10 Cloverfield Lane Blu-ray, released last June, already was very good technically and now offers Dolby Atmos sound and HDR performance. The generous bonus packages have been ported over from the Blu-ray editions.

Dario Argento’s Opera: Blu-ray
If your taste in horror is a bit more Italianate than the monsters of Cloverfield – reptilian and human – or the torture porn of Jigsaw, Scorpion Releasing has added a dollop of vintage giallo to this week’s menu, with Dario Argento’s 1987 thriller, Opera. It should not be confused with Argento’s 1998 misfire, The Phantom of the Opera, or the severely edited version of Opera that might have sneaked out of the lab before Orion Pictures capsized and sank into bankruptcy, in 1991. Scorpion’s newly restored Blu-ray neatly captures the grandeur of the Parma Opera House and brilliant color palette typically employed by Argento to jack up the gore factor in his genre flicks. He based the movie and one of its lead male characters on his experiences directing a failed production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth.” Part of the fun derives from the various superstitions and curse associated with the Scottish Play, some of which may have impacted the production of the opera and movie. Opera, which did well in markets outside the U.S., opens with an accident that prevents the company’s diva from performing in the avant-garde production. Her young and inexperienced understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), impresses the opening-night audience, even while a Phantom-like figure adds some real drama to the opera. Later, the fiend breaks into the apartment Betty shares with her boyfriend, Stefano’s (William McNamara), overpowering the singer and forcing her to watch him being killed. Horror buffs should recall the poster image of the killer taping a row of needles beneath each of her eyes, ensuring that she witnesses every horrific detail. Although the masked assailant unties Betty and flees the apartment, he’s far from done with her. He has a history with her family and fully intends to make her miserable. Argento takes full advantage of the historic setting, moving his camera nimbly from proscenium to ceiling, backstage to balconies. A subplot involving several trained crows is equal parts scary and funny. Interview (21:41, HD) with Dario Argento (recorded in 2016) finds the director in an upbeat mood, labeling “Opera” as one of his best films. The helmer recounts production inspiration, with Argento looking to bring a sense of Verdi’s “Macbeth” to the screen, though with a lot more ravens, which were difficult to control, with one bird even biting Argento’s lip. The feature’s technical achievements are examined, including elaborate cinematography needs, including a camera rig built inside an opera house that simulated raven flight (BTS footage is supplied to show how this was done). Argento shares his musical influences at the time, his difficult relationship with star Cristina Marsillach, and how certain special effects were pulled off. The Blu-ray adds lively interviews with Argento and McNamara.

Red Trees: Blu-ray
Marina Willer’s visual essay on her family’s survival, displacement and reinvention under the harshest of circumstances stretches the traditional boundaries of documentary filmmaking. Its impressionistic approach is suggested in the title, Red Trees, which refers to how her Austrian-born father discovered he was colorblind. (At 10, Alfred Willer was made aware of the fact that the leaves he drew on trees were red, not green, and disappeared ahead of a flaming background.) The focus is on her father and grandfather, who survived the German occupation of Prague, only because they possessed a secret non-military formula that the Nazis desired and their chemists were too busy creating implements of destruction to replicate. Alfred’s father, Vilem, had discovered a way to synthetically produce citric acid, which, at the time, was used as food preservative. Fortunately, the Nazis were convinced that Vilem carried the formula in his head and, therefore, was too valuable to kill. That fact that he was married to a woman who wasn’t Jewish didn’t hurt. The Willers constituted one of only 12 Jewish families in Prague to survive the war … barely. The family fled Czechoslovakia for a new life in Brazil, a rapidly developing country that welcomed the talents Jewish immigrants brought to it. Alfred marveled at the country’s tightly knit multicultural fabric and, after mastering Portuguese, contributed his own accomplishments to the mix as an architect. The more impressionistic aspect of the film details the sentimental journey daughter Marina encouraged her father to embark upon in the Czech Republic. Like so many other survivors of wartime madness, Alfred had rarely shared recollections of the period with loved ones. They were simply too traumatic and close to the surface to discuss. Upon his return to Prague, the good and bad memories came flooding back and he finally was able to share them with Marina. Very few words are needed to describe the powerful impact of the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of the Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis are inscribed, or their return to Vilem’s factory, where machinery has stood idle for decades and the boots and coats of long-dead laborers still hang from the ceiling of the changing room. The only footage of concentration camps was taken at nearby Theresienstadt, which the SS used as a showcase for visiting dignitaries and Red Cross workers. In fact, thousands of Jews were murdered at Theresienstadt, which also served as a transit center for captives on their way to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The past is brought vividly to life by the voices of Alfred, who bears a striking resemblance to Leonard Cohen, and narrator Tim Pigott-Smith. Marina was assisted in her quest by Oscar-nominated cinematographer César Charlone (City of God) and co-writers Brian Eley and Leena Telén. Not being a typical Holocaust documentary, Red Trees opens itself to criticism from viewers who might wonder why images of death, depravity and brutality are missing from the narrative and, perhaps, the degree to which Vilem may have collaborated with the enemy to save his family. Prague, itself, often stands out as more of tourist destination than a place that today might be too comfortable with its past. Clearly, though, Alfred has a fascinating story to tell and it was only through the determination of his daughter to know her father that his memories were unlocked. Finally, Red Trees demands that we consider what the many thousands of immigrants seeking new homes today could bring to their own adopted countries.

Chasing the Dragon: Blu-ray
Western viewers may be at a disadvantage here, in that the events depicted in Chasing the Dragon are as familiar to longtime residents of Hong Kong as the Miami mayhem described in Brian DePalma’s Scarface. Hard-core criminals and sociopathic killers once terrorized those cities, while providing fodder for writers of television shows and movies. If the perpetrators of violence occasionally came off as being more charismatic and enviable than the cops chasing them, well, that’s always been the nature of the beast. Carefully choreographed firefights at discos, car chases and martial-arts massacres are sexier than procedurals and sell more tickets than documentaries. Duh. It explains why I didn’t pay much attention to the facts obliterated by the balls-to-the-wall action in Jason Kwan and Wong Jing’s recollection of Hong Kong’s drug wars in the 1960-70s. I don’t suppose anyone on the island bothered themselves with the accuracy of the portrayal of Al Capone, in either version of “The Untouchables” or Scarface, either. That’s exactly what troubled some of the hometown critics after watching what they considered to the filmmakers’ overly sanitized portrayals of real-life drug kingpin Crippled Ho, by Donnie Yen, and the notorious police detective Lee Rock (a.k.a., Lui Lok), by Andy Lau. At this point in their career, the pundits surmised, neither of the superstar actors wanted to portray criminals as anything less than intermittently sympathetic anti-heroes, battling mutual enemies. As is the case with so many Hong Kong films today, Chasing the Dragon is a virtual remake of previous hits. In 1991’s To Be Number One, Ho was portrayed as a Godfather-esque figure, while a young Lau memorably played the same crooked police officer in the Lee Rock trilogy (1991-92). In real life, both characters were linked by their arrival in Hong Kong as immigrants and the proximity of their homes on the mainland. They meet here when Ho and his friends are arrested in a brawl with local gang member and, after recognizing them as homeboys, Rock saves them from an unwarranted beating by British police. Having a powerful cop in his corner allowed Ho’s criminal acumen to blossom and, once established, they would become allies in the island’s heroin trade. In Chasing the Dragon, all four of the earlier movies have been merged into one, with the additional enemy of a corrupt and brutal British cop. (That wouldn’t have passed muster in movies made before the transfer of power.) There’s plenty of action to go around here, along with a story that occasionally pulls at the heartstrings.

Jesus Meets the Gay Man
The Revival
100 Men
Typically, there’s nothing funny about the way bible-thumping evangelists and other opportunists treat gays and lesbians in sermons, political rhetoric and in the media. The targets of their poisonous claims have only recently been able to stand tall and openly challenge their misreading of scripture. Beyond holding pride parades, signing petitions and pressuring entertainment executives to tell their stories accurately and more frequency, gays and lesbians have made their presence known at the ballot box. It’s still difficult to use humor as a shield against bigotry and intolerance, however. It would be nice to think that progressive Red State preachers might find a way to use Jean-Claude Lafond’s funny and observant documentary, Jesus Meets the Gay Man to bridge the gap between fundamentalist Christians and the “LGBTQIA” community … yes, the acronym keeps growing. Lafond asks the same question untold thousands of Christians ask themselves each day, when confronted with ethical dilemmas and moral quandaries: what would Jesus do? He expands the question to include, “What would Jesus do if, upon His return to Earth, he encountered an openly gay man, lesbian etc.” Lafont does so in comic sketches, song-and-dance numbers, gags, interviews and animations. He also employs common sense and critical thinking. If the sketch comedy isn’t as polished as that performed by Monty Python, Second City or on “SNL,” it’s only because Jesus Meets the Gay Man’s was less than what most televangelists spend on their dry-cleaning each week. Even so, there are more hits than misses, and none of the humor is designed to disparage church-going believers. The DVD adds two hours of interviews and deleted scenes.

There’s nothing terribly funny in director Jennifer Gerber and writer Samuel Brett Williams’ The Revival, but it delivers a powerful punch as a deliberately provocative story about a rural Southern pastor confronting his sexual identity. The cover art appears to promise a faith-based drama in which one or both male characters in the photograph succumbs to the other’s sexual entreaties and/or is talked into committing to conversion therapy. A tall, black cross stands between them … usually, a sure sign that religious message contained therein would satisfy Vice President Mike Pence’s concept of family entertainment. The Revival, adapted from Williams’ play, is far more complex and potentially divisive than that, however. That’s because it’s a performance-driven story whose progressive message gets murkier as the climax approaches. David Rysdahl and Zachary Booth deliver impressive performances as Pastor Eli, the mousy minister of a failing rural congregation, and Daniel, the rough-hewn stranger who one day shows up after church for a free meal. Eli’s deceptively timid wife, June (Lucy Faust), is pregnant and worried that her husband is spending too much time trying to save the soul of a single interloper, instead of inspiring the members of his late father’s dwindling ministry. When she receives a photo of the two men in flagrante delicto, she forces the backsliding Eli to make a concrete decision on their future together, quick. Williams’ script paints him into a corner that a Harvard Divinity School graduate, like Eli, should have been able to see coming and escape before he became trapped. As it is, there’s no credible solution to Eli’s dilemma and the one forwarded in The Revival will infuriate the half of the potential audience that applauded the preacher’s earlier acceptance of his sexuality. Conversely, the explicit sexual material could turn off the conservative audience it’s trying to reach. In the commentary, Gerber and Williams admit to a certain ambiguity here that, they hope, might encourage positive debates in church groups. It can only accomplish that if The Revival gets that far, however. The DVD also adds deleted scenes and an alternative ending.

The title, 100 Men, reminds me of the half-dozen, or so, romantic comedies I’ve seen in which a guy puts together a list of women he’s dated and intends to contact before getting married, dying or dealing with a venereal disease he may have passed along to them (“Lovesick”). Another variation on the theme informed Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, in which a recently dumped guy (Bill Murray) receives an anonymous letter from a former lover, informing him that he has a son who may be looking for him. With the assistance of a freelance sleuth, who lives next-door, he embarks on a cross-country search for his old flames. In 100 Men, Paul Oremland presents a personal overview of his life as a gay man, by tracking down and chatting with men he’s met through sex. In the process, he finds himself exploring four decades of changing attitudes toward homosexuality. Because he’s lived in cities around the world, the documentary offers a bit more diversity of experience than if he’d stayed put in San Francisco or WeHo.

Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt
When Islamic radicals invaded the American Embassy in Teheran, taking dozens of employees hostage, the news media seemed at a loss for historical perspective. Eventually, viewers and readers were informed of widespread hostility that could be traced to Iran’s 1953 coup d’état, which was a covert Anglo-American operation that led to the overthrow of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and re-establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty. Instead of pursuing democratic and societal reforms, Mohammad Reza Shah used oil profits to create a state that favored wealthy Iranians and his western allies, while vigorously cracking down on dissent. It opened the door to the embassy to followers of exiled Muslim cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, who fanned the flames of revolt from abroad. The roots of anti-Americanism in the Arab world go even deeper and are every bit as misunderstood. Michal Goldman’s illuminating Nasser’s Republic: The Making of Modern Egypt is the first film aimed at American audiences about Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the Arab world’s most transformative leaders. As the Cold War raged, Nasser and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru made headlines here for their ability – or lack thereof – to leverage their resources and strategic importance to the U.S. and Soviet Union in pursuit of their newly independent governments’ goals. Since their deaths, it’s been easier for the media to ignore – or, oversimplify – the undercurrents of dissent, despair and revolution in the Middle East, Africa, Arabian Peninsula and Indian subcontinent. If the events leading to the Iranian Revolution, Palestinian Intifadas, Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War caught westerners by surprise, it’s only because no one had bothered to draw parallels between the Boston Tea Party and the many insurrections and intifadas triggered by the same desire for freedom from tyranny. Goodman spent four years following Egypt’s contribution to the Arab Spring listening to peasants and professors, secularists and Islamists describe Nasser’s contributions to Egyptian independence and prosperity, while also debating the legacy of a world leader who died at 52, with many of his dreams unrealized.

Shockwave: Countdown to Disaster
The Sword and the Claw: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Video nerds are always on the alert for movies that are “so bad it’s good.” Now that the VOD and straight-to-Internet marketplaces have filled the niches once held by straight-to-video and straight-to-DVD flicks, a new segment has emerged. Let’s call it, “too cheesy for Syfy” or, if you will, “too sappy for Lifetime.” Shockwave: Countdown to Disaster’s director Nick Lyon and co-writers Blaine Chiappetta, Rafael Jordan and Ari Novak have previously contributed such epic “straight to …” titles as Earthtastrophe, Stormageddon, Cowboys vs Dinosaurs, Puppy Swap Love Unleashed, Poseidon Rex and Timber the Treasure Dog. It isn’t easy to find financing for unpromising subgenre films, let alone getting them made, so every picture that succeeds in making it past the post-production stage should be considered a triumph. I would be remiss if I neglected to point out, however, just how pathetically illogical and goofy Shockwave really is. It opens somewhere in a Middle Eastern war zone, where terrorists have kidnapped a pair of American scientists – or some such – and threaten to set off a mega-weapon if their demands aren’t met. When American soldiers intercept the convoy, the terrorists make good on their pledge. So far, so good … but we’re only 10 minutes into the movie. The newly triggered “seismic super weapon” was designed to burrow into the earth and do what millions of children around the world have attempted to accomplish: dig a hole from one side of the planet to the other. In the U.S., the futile exercise used to be called, “digging a hole to China.” When massive volcanic storms, earthquakes and tornadoes are reported in major cities around the world, geophysicist Kate Ferris (Stacey Oristano) tries to convince the Department of Defense the shockwaves are the direct result of the unleashed weapon cutting a path through the planet’s crust, mantle and toxic inner core … twice. Somehow, Kate is able to make it to the Sierra Nevada, where her husband and daughter are doing seismic research unrelated to the attack, and sense a disaster on the horizon. As is usually the case in such entertainments, a small, dedicated group of amateurs and volunteers is the only thing preventing the destruction of the planet from a monster, weapon and/or the intransigence of government officials. They needn’t have bothered.

Typically, a 1975 action-genre flick from Turkey – actually, the rare Greek-Turkish co-production – shouldn’t qualify for inclusion in an item about movies that are so bad they’re good, but The Sword and the Claw is the real deal. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. One sage critic described it as, “Conan the Barbarian meets the Three Stooges meets Dolemite, with more lo-fi bloodshed, pop-art visuals, and bizarro dubbing than the boundaries of reality can handle.” I can’t top that summary. Turkish genre legend Cuneyt Arkin plays Süleyman Sah/Kiliçaslan, the son of a murdered king whose hands were cut off by the assassins. The unwitting heir to the crown was raised by a pride of lions and taught to survive as a feral beast. As is the wont of superheroes everywhere, he acquires superpowers linked to appendages he acquires along the way. Here, they’re mechanical lion’s claws, not unlike the Wolverine’s razor-sharp fingers. He dedicates himself to overthrowing the regime he doesn’t realize killed his father. (He was born after being hidden in a forest by his mother.) He accomplishes this by teaming up with the king’s former bodyguard and launching an all-out assault against the pretender. The Sword & the Claw is truly a unique experience. It further benefits from a fresh 4K transfer from the only 35mm theatrical print know to be in existence; action trailers from the AGFA vault; the 1981 Korean kung-fu thriller, Brawl Busters, starring Black Jack Chan, featuring a new 2K scan from an original theatrical print; and reversible cover art, with illustrations by Alexis Ziritt.

A Dog and Pony Show
Perhaps, the only fitting punishment for Harvey Weinstein for his atrocious behavior towards women – besides being flogged by his accusers during commercial breaks at the Oscars ceremony –would be forcing him to watch A Dog and Pony Show on a never-ending loop until he succumbs to madness. No offense is intended towards director Demetrius Navarro or anyone else involved in the live-action, talking-animal comedy, whose meager budget even precluded animating the lips of the circus and barnyard characters. I can’t imagine the average 4-year-old noticing the difference, but, for parents roped into watching it with their kids, the experience borders on the tortuous … that, and the fart jokes. It’s the story of Dede, a famous performing circus dog that gets left behind when her show leaves town. She’s discovered by Billy, a lonely city kid who’s just moved to a nearby ranch. Can the vain and arrogant dog get along with the farm’s eccentric critters, including a sleep-deprived rooster, a gassy cow and a hypochondriac horse? Then, there’s the bumbling thieves from a rival circus, who recognize a star attraction when they see one. So, how does Weinstein fit into this review? He reportedly was responsible for blackballing the movie’s female lead, Mira Sorvino – a magna cum laude graduate from Harvard University and Oscar-winner for Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995) – from projects helmed by Terry Zwigoff (Bad Santa) and Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). In reviewing movies in which she’s appeared since the blacklisting began, I’ve wondered why such a talented, well-credentialed actress – you can add beautiful, articulate and extremely likable to that description – could be stuck playing as many unmemorable roles as she has in the last 15 years, or so. Even Sorvino didn’t know the answer to that, until Jackson admitted buying into Harvey and Bob’s smear campaign. She could have walked through every scene in which she appears in The Dog and Pony Show, but, instead, Sorvino brightens this very dull movie every time she appears in it.

PBS: NOVA: Killer Hurricanes/Killer Floods
With the possible exception of President Trump’s dangerous pissing match with North Korean despot Kim Jung-um, there was no bigger story in the media than effects of severe weather on Americans, especially. Some learned scientists have blamed it on global warming, while more skeptical observers dismiss the hellish series of disasters as coincidence. A few moronic pastors have even credited God with using floods, volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes and other unusual meteorological disturbances as punishment for society’s acceptance of same-sex marriage. In a series of episodes dedicated to the question of whether these catastrophes are getting stronger, more frequent and deadlier, producers of PBS’ “NOVA” have discovered that our planet has been shaped by meteorological and geological phenomena infinitely more powerful than what’s being experienced today. In “Killer Hurricanes,” they dig into nautical archives and other personal accounts to solve the riddle of an 18th Century superstorm in the Caribbean that left 20,000 dead bodies in its wake. It remains the highest known death toll of any single weather event. To reconstruct its epic scale and investigate what made it so devastating, “NOVA” joins historians and storm sleuths, as they track down clues in eyewitness chronicles, old ruins and computer simulations. Their evidence points to a terrifying, 300-mile-wide storm, with wind speeds probably exceeding 230 miles an hour and 25-foot-high surges that demolished everything in their path. Nor was the Great Hurricane of 1780 an isolated incident in the annals of recorded history. We can expect more to come.

Researchers have speculated that the flood that prompted Noah to build an ark large enough to replenish the world’s population of wildlife and domesticated animals may have some basis in scientific fact, as well as biblical mythology. They also think Moses’ ability to lead his people across the Red Sea could be credited to the coincidence of a mighty earthquake – the same one that doomed Atlantis – and the tsunami it triggered caused the waters to recede long enough to expose the sea’s floor. In “Killer Floods,” the “NOVA” team travels to the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington, where the level prairie gives way to gargantuan rock formations, house-sized boulders, a cliff carved by a waterfall twice the height of Niagara and potholes large enough to swallow cars. The scientists depict catastrophic Ice Age floods more powerful than all the world’s top-10 rivers combined. They also uncover the geologic fingerprints of other colossal mega-floods in Iceland and on the seabed of the English Channel.

Trump: The Art of the Insult
When conspiracy theorist and mockumentary maker Joel Gilbert ventures too far away from easily parodied rock musicians and takes on liberal politicians, as he did in the scabrous anti-Obama documentary Dreams from My Real Father, he goes from amusing to dangerous at lightning speed. I enjoyed his far-fetched Elvis Found Alive (2012), which, at first, was marketed as a documentary, as was Paul McCartney Really Is Dead (2010), then reclassified as mockumentary. Non-fiction is easier to produce if a filmmaker isn’t required to back up his assertions with facts. The only relevant fact explored in Trump: The Art of the Insult is the inarguable assertion that the future POTUS used childish insults, insensitive ridicule and nonsensical nicknames to convince voters that he might be able to stand up to Vladimir Putin and the liberal establishment better than his Republican opponents and “Crooked Hillary.” Anyone who attempted to challenge his opinions with meaningful arguments, facts and scientific data was immediately lampooned and belittled by the former host of the fake-realism show, “The Apprentice.” Here, Gilbert twists the title of Trump’s best-selling, if not terribly reliable book, “The Art of the Deal,” into the eye-catching, if even less credible, Art of the Insult. By comparison to Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Jim Jeffries, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and other creatively abusive entertainers, Trump has always been a fraud. Still, you can’t argue with success, and all Gibson had to do in Art of the Insult was piece together enough video clips from the debates, campaign trail and media coverage to fill 95 minutes of screen time. Trump emerges as a marketing genius and performance artist, who, despite being a Manhattan billionaire and pervert, captured the hearts of middle America. Gilbert didn’t have to do much research or put in much hard work to prove that point.

The DVD Wrapup: Matinee, Crooked House, Jawbone, Cook Off!, Blue World Order, Into the Amazon, Tuxedo Park and more

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Matinee: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Now that two certified lunatics have their fingers on “the button,” I wonder if kids, today, are being prepped for the possibility of a nuclear strike. I haven’t read any reports of people stockpiling goods or hurriedly digging holes in their backyards for bomb shelters, as was the case during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s possible that Americans not only have convince themselves that cooler heads will prevail, as they did then, or they no longer can be conned into believing that ducking underneath a desk and covering their heads could protect anyone from becoming toast. Fifty-five years ago, however, that’s all the hope American school children were given. In Joe Dante’s wonderfully nostalgic Matinee (1992), kids living in Key West, Florida – 90 miles from Cuba, where Soviet missiles were being pointed directly at them – were allowed to take a break from ducking-and-covering exercises long enough to enjoy a movie about a man who turns into a giant ant after a botched X-ray exam at the dentist. Like other black-and-white creature features of the period, “Mant” combined post-war paranoia with a natural fear of the unknown. With a large percentage of the island’s male population already in the air or on the sea, preparing to intercept Soviet vessels carrying ICBM missiles to Cuba, the last thing Key West residents needed was the extra layer of excitement provided by the tub-thumping exploitation director Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) and his girlfriend/actress, Ruth (Cathy Moriarty). They arrived just as fighter planes were taking off for possible war, in a Cadillac full of gimmicks designed to heighten the horror experience. In a nod to director/producer William Castle’s The Tingler, Woolsey installs vibrating gizmos in the theater’s seats; assigns Ruth to put on a nurse’s uniform, sit in the lobby and collect signatures waiving liability for any nervous breakdowns; places equipment behind the screen to blow dry-ice vapors at the audience; and hires a local juvenile delinquent to wear an ant costume and appear in the audience when patrons are freaking out from the buzzers in their seats. In Dante’s capable hands, it’s the perfect recipe for mayhem. If that weren’t enough to keep viewers of the movie-within-a-movie occupied, however, he and writer Charles S. Haas (Martians Go Home) added a romantic coming-of-age angle for the young stars, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Simon Fenton and Omri Katz. All that baggage might have sunk the ship, if it weren’t for Dante’s ability to keep it afloat, by blending fact and fantasy with excellent performances by Goodman, Moriarty, theater owner Robert Picardo and the young actors. (Also look for cameos by Jesse White, John Sayles, Dick Miller and Naomi Watts.) Shout!’s “Collector’s Edition” adds several new featurettes and interviews, including those with Dante, Moriarty, Jakub, production designer Steven Legler, editor Marshall Harvey and DP John Hora. Also included is “Mant!,” a full-length version of the film, with an introduction by Dante; deleted and extended scenes; and other vintage material.

Crooked House
As one of those all-star confections that have Agatha Christie’s name etched on every frame, Crooked House probably would have been a better fit for PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” than as a limited release in theaters. In fact, it aired first on Britain’s Channel 5, on December 17, 2017. The temptation to piggy-back on the advertising and publicity surrounding Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, sent out a month earlier by Fox, must have been too much for Sony to resist, however. Logically, the strategy should have worked, even if “Orient Express” is the better-known title, by far. Ironically, many American and British critics found the adaptation of Christie’s twisty 1949 whodunit, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key) and co-written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), to be the superior production … and, not merely on a dollar-for-dollar, pound-for-pound basis of comparison. As is usually the case in Christie entertainments, a murder occurs in a relatively closed environment and everyone close to the victim falls under suspicion. This time, the scene of the crime is a splendid mansion in a sprawling estate not far from London. (Locations include the Maughan Library at the city’s King’s College, Bristol’s Tyntesfield mansion and Hampshire’s Minley Manor.) The poisoned business tycoon is Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant with a rags-to-riches story that might include some spying for the CIA. Private detective Charles Hayward (Max Irons) is lured by his former lover (Stefanie Martini) to identify her grandfather’s killer before investigators for Scotland Yard turn up dirt on the family. Hayward encounters three generations of the dynasty, including a semi-retired actress, Magda (Gillian Anderson); the old man’s much-younger wife, Brenda (Christina Hendricks), a onetime Vegas showgirl; and shotgun-toting matriarch Lady Edith de Haviland (Glenn Close). Leonides’s eldest son, Philip (Julian Sands), hated his father for passing him over to run the family business and for refusing to take interest in a new play he’d written for Magda. His creepy younger brother, Roger (Christian McKay), has proven to be much better at squandering the family fortune, than saving it. Terence Stamp plays Chief Inspector Taverner, who objects to Hayward’s interference in the investigation, which soon will include a poisoned nanny, sabotaged treehouse and suspicious will. Unlike other Christie adaptations, the film’s climax should come as a shock and surprise to most viewers. The Blu-ray includes the featurettes, “Agatha Christie: A Timeless Fascination,” “Whodunnit?: The Characters of Crooked House” and “Elegance & Innovation: The Design of Crooked House.”

Movies about boxing and the men and women who partake in the sweet science have come and gone with great rapidity over the last 100 years. When compared to other subgenres, however, they have fared much better than most. Even the bad and mediocre ones tend to have something worthwhile to offer viewers. That’s because almost everything about the sport is intrinsically dramatic … from the matches to the gangland connections and career trajectories of the fighters. While the addition of heart-wrenching romance and other histrionics isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the typical Hollywood production will shortchange the fighting, in favor of melodramatic clichés and tropes. It isn’t easy to stage a boxing match and make it look credible. And, yes, Rocky is the exception that proves the rule. From England comes Jawbone, one of the best no-frills boxing movies I’ve seen in a long time. Sadly, though, even the marketability of heavyweight actors Ian McShane, Ray Winstone and Michael Smiley couldn’t persuade distributors here to take a shot on Thomas Napper’s feature debut. The real star of the show, however, is writer and lead actor Johnny Harris, for whom Jawbone is his Sylvester Stallone moment. In it, the journeyman television actor plays former youth boxing champion Jimmy McCabe, who, after hitting rock bottom, returns to his childhood boxing club, still run by Bill (Winstone) and corner-man Eddie (Smiley). At first, Harris seems more than a little bit punch drunk. He’s being evicted from the housing-project apartment he shared with his mother and doesn’t appear to know where he’ll find his next meal. Although Bill and Eddie wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jimmy fall off the wagon, they give him a final chance, anyway. The fastest way to a payday is through an unlicensed match in foreign territory — the West Midlands — arranged by an old friend and gangster, played with ultimate cool by McShane. A local promoter assumes that McCabe will merely provide a punching bag for his undefeated fighter, but the invader surprises everyone with his guts and stamina. And, while a terminal illness involving a key character delivers an emotional punch, halfway through Jawbone, it’s Harris’ performance in and out of the ring that keeps our eyes pinned to the screen. Even if there were space in the 91-minute film for a fixed fight or fairytale romance, they wouldn’t add anything more worthwhile to the story than is already there. Paul Weller, a former member of Jam and Style Council, composed and recorded an evocative original soundtrack for Jawbone. British boxing legend Barry McGuigan and his son, the esteemed trainer Shane McGuigan, served as boxing consultants. Jawbone has been nominated in seven categories by the British Independent Film Association, including Best Actor and Best Debut Screenplay for Harris. He and Napper are finalists in the BAFTA category, Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.

Cook Off!: Blu-ray
Even if there’s no good reason to add a freshness label to movies released on DVD-Blu-ray – or medical alert, for that matter – the long-delayed delivery of Cook Off! begs a couple of interesting questions, at least. Cathryn Michon and Guy Shalem’s mockumentary landed on VOD outlets last November, nearly 11 years after its debut at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in Aspen. The cast is comprised of veterans of the L.A. improvisational-comedy scene, including members of the Groundlings, Off the Wall and “Reno 911!” While vaguely familiar to viewers, then, the faces of Wendi McLendon-Covey (“The Goldbergs”), Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”), Gary Anthony Williams (“The Soul Man”), Niecy Nash (“Claws”), Diedrich Bader (“Veep”), Mindy Sterling (“Con Man) and Jennifer Elise Cox (“Idiotsitter”) will immediately ring bells today. I should have smelled something fishy with the appearance of Marcia Wallace (“The Bob Newhart Show”), who passed away in 2013, but spent more time wondering if Gavin McLeod (“The Love Boat”) was still alive. He is. The thing is, though, Cook Off! isn’t all that bad. While it may not be in same league as Best in Show, Christopher Guest’s hilarious sendup of the Westminster Kennel Club Show, Cook Off! offers more than its fair share of laughs at the expense of the same sort of American archetypes. Here, the targets of Michon, McLendon-Covey and W. Bruce Cameron’s scattershot script are finalists in the Van Rookle Farms Cooking Contest, which offers $1 million first prize. Michon, who wrote the source novel “The Grrl Genius Guide to Life,” plays Sharon Solfest, a hot blond hoochie-mama who sells Lutheran-approved sex toys to women in her Minnesota home town. Strangely chaste, herself, she’s saving her most precious possession for Lars (Williams), a gregarious black man she describes as “the most Swedish guy in Minnesota.” It’s pretty clear, however, that Lars is saving his virginity for a dude. Sharon’s sister, Pauline (McLendon-Covey), also qualified for the finals. She is a nursing-home dietician who specializes in a lactose-free version of creamed corn. McCarthy steals the show with a concoction that is created from ingredients that come in cans and boxes. Two years before “Mike & Molly,” her star quality was already on full display. Also funny in smaller parts are Louis Anderson, as mayor of the sponsoring city, Blue Earth; Wallace and McLeod, as the celebrity judges; Little, as the costume mascot, Mister Muffin; and Markie Post (“Night Court”), as the food-channel announcer. As ragged as it is, Cook Off! should provide fans of the actors, at least, more than a few moments of pleasure. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and outtakes; and the featurette, “Cook-Off!: The Ultimate Food Fight.”

Blue World Order
With Billy Zane on board, how could any post-apocalyptic sci-fi action picture go wrong? A lot of different ways, really, but none of them here can be laid at the feet of the Titanic star and Straight-to-Video Hall of Famer. If Blue World Order co-directors Ché Baker and Dallas Bland had a few more million dollars on hand, it might have been easier to recommend to American fans of Ozploitation flicks. As it is, Blue World Order more closely resembles a pilot for a series on FX or Syfy, than a free-standing adventure. On October 19, 2022, an attack on an international web of bio-power plants spews irradiated bacteria around the northern hemisphere, killing most adults. Meanwhile, a massive electromagnetic pulse has wiped out all the planet’s children, with the exception of Molly (Billie Rutherford), the daughter of Jake Slater (Jake Ryan).  After two years in the wilderness, Ryan and his now-comatose daughter team up with the bumbling misfit, Madcap — Stephen Hunter, who played Bombur in The Hobbit – who concocts a plan to shut down the spread of the virus and destroy a tower, which sends intermittent signals to control the actions of infected survivors. Naturally, Zane leads the gang of rebels that controls the tower and is determined to capture Jake and Molly to see how they’ve managed to stay alive. Australian favorites Bruce Spence (Road Warrior) and Jack Thompson (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) liven up the proceedings, as well.

PBS: American Experience: Into the Amazon
PBS: American Experience: The Secret of Tuxedo Park
PBS: American Masters: This Is Bob Hope …
PBS: Great Performances: Havana Time Machine
PBS: Nature: Nature’s Miniature Miracles
They don’t make presidents like Teddy Roosevelt anymore … former presidents, either. Anyone who watched Ken Burns’ comprehensive bio-doc, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” already knows what the elder Roosevelt cousin contributed to the American presidency, democracy and psyche. The “American Experience” presentation “Into the Amazon” expands on an eight-week period in TR’s life that is as fascinating as any chapter in his biography. In 1914, the former president joined Brazilian explorer and naturalist Candido Rondon in a journey that would take them to the heart of the rainforest to chart an unexplored tributary of the Amazon, the Rio da Duvida. The crew included his son, Kermit, a physician and a representative of the American Museum of Natural History, as well as 16 porters and oarsmen. The adventurers set out on December 9, 1913, at the height of the rainy season and a mere two years after a would-be assassin’s bullet narrowly missed his heart and became lodged in his chest. That wound would become relevant when TR suffered a cut on his leg, after jumping into the river to prevent two canoes from smashing against the rocks. Already in a weakened state, Roosevelt soon contracted a tropical fever that resembled the malaria he had experienced, while in Cuba, 15 years earlier. By the sixth week of the trek, he couldn’t walk. The infection in his leg required the physician’s constant attention. TR insisted that Rondon continue the poorly provisioned expedition without him, but Kermit persuaded him to continue. Anyone who’s seen The Lost City of Z already knows how challenging such a mission could be, then and now. Indeed, “lost” Amazonian tribes are still being identified. The two-hour “Into the Amazon” not only captures the intricacies of the expedition, including tensions between the leaders, but also takes viewers on a visual journey on the same river.

More than 70 years after the end of World War II, we’re still being introduced to unsung heroes and discoveries that changed its course. Alfred Lee Loomis is one such man. An attorney, investment banker, philanthropist, physicist, inventor of the LORAN Long Range Navigation System and a lifelong patron of scientific research, Loomis created a laboratory and think tank where the allies’ top minds could work and exchange ideas, without having to anticipate budget cuts and other governmental interference. In 1940, as German bombs rained on London, Winston Churchill bypassed the Pentagon and took his country’s advances in radar technology straight to Loomis, who provided the money necessary to mass-produce the devices and install them in airplanes. MIT director Lee DuBridge would observe, “Radar won the war; the atom bomb ended it.” PBS’ “American Experience: The Secret of Tuxedo Park” describes the positive consequences of such trans-Atlantic cooperation, while also giving viewers a tour of Loomis’ Tuxedo Park mansion, which attracted such great minds as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, James Franck and Enrico Fermi.

Being profiled in an episode of PBS’ “American Masters” series is an honor that’s unique in the mass media. At two hours, the producers have plenty of time to touch all the bases in an important American performer’s career, with easy access to archival material and the cooperation of relatives, peers and historians. I wonder what the subject of “This Is Bob Hope …” would say about having to wait more than three years to be accorded the same treatment as his friend and partner, Bing Crosby. During his eight-decade career, Hope was the only performer to achieve great success in every form of 20th Century mass entertainment: vaudeville, Broadway, movies, radio, television, popular song and personal appearances. “American Masters” explores the entertainer’s life with unprecedented access to his personal files and clips from his classic films.

It’s possible to enjoy “Great Performances: Havana Time Machine” as an extension of Wim Wenders’ great musical documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, which introduced Americans to Cuban artists who’d almost completely disappeared from view in record stores here and on the island. If the element of surprise is missing, the music performed remains revelatory. Raul Malo, the wonderful lead singer of the Mavericks, explores his Cuban heritage alongside such musicians as Eliades Ochoa, Ivette Cepeda, Roberto Fonseca and the Sweet Lizzy Project. Once again, Havana provides a lovely background for the collaborations and history lessons. “Time Machine” begs the same question raised in “BVSC,” however: When is America going to get over itself and lift a boycott that’s punishing innocent Cubans far more than the country’s Communist Party elite?

PBS’ “Nature” series goes to the ends of the Earth to find rarely seen animals and capture them photographically in their natural environments.   “Nature’s Miniature Miracles” chronicles the epic survival stories of the world’s smallest beings. These tiny “heroes” have developed extraordinary skills through evolution and achieve amazing feats. They include the wee sengi, considered the cheetah of the shrew world; a hummingbird who travels thousands of miles, twice each year; a small shark that walks on land; and an army of baby turtles, as they instinctively race from their sandy nests to the safety of the open ocean.

The DVD Wrapup: 68 Kill, Bad Day for the Cut, Friend Request, Tiger Hunter, CERN, Conduct!, Macon County Line and more

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

The January doldrums are upon us, when Hollywood attempts to attract audiences in smaller cities and towns to movies ballyhooed in the run-up to awards season, but whose exposure has been limited to critics, guild members and viewers in select cities, as they used to call New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. Traditionally, movies that did well at the Golden Globes and in Oscar nominations could expect a bump at the box-office in January and run-up to Valentine’s and Presidents’ days. Lately, prestige films that miss the cut in the polls, critics’ lists, nominations and awards presentations might not be accorded even a wider theatrical release in non-select cities. But by advancing the streaming and DVD/Blu-ray windows, distributors now can take advantage of the pre-holiday marketing halo and avoid spending another fortune in advertising revenues. It might take current box-office faves Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Justice League, The Greatest Showman and Pitch Perfect 3  longer to reach the small screen. (The Last Jedi didn’t open in China until this past weekend, and Jumanji  has yet to show in several prominent countries. Neither have The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, I Tonya, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.)

Genuine awards hopefuls Dunkirk, Victoria & Abdul, The Big Sick, Blade Runner 2049, Mother! (Jennifer Lawrence), Girls Trip (Tiffany Haddish), Wind River, Mudbound and Get Out are available in the aftermarket. Meanwhile, distributors are holding their collective breath until January 23 – Academy Award nominations — to announce their plans for VOD and DVD/Blu-ray dates. Any way one slices this half-assed system, the only winners are the fortunate few thousand industry insiders – as well as their relatives, friends and neighbors — who are sent “for your consideration” screeners and never have to set foot in a theater to see how pictures are supposed to look.

January is also prime time for studios to dump disappointments and question marks into theaters, before a fast turnaround on video. Occasionally, an overlooked gem will sneak into circulation – last year’s The Founder and Split, for example — but it won’t be because anyone saw it coming. I’ve found a few titles that fit that description.

68 Kill: Blu-ray
If 2018 is going to be the year that women in film begin fighting back, Trent Haaga’s breakneck thriller 68 Kill would be a grand place for them to draw inspiration. AnnaLynn McCord plays Liza, an alpha female who tricks her ineffectual, if adorable boyfriend Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) into participating in a scheme to steal tens of thousands of dollars – $68,000, to be precise — from the safe in her sugar-daddy landlord’s bedroom. Chip could use the money, but clearly isn’t ready for the heist to go sideways or for Liza to relish the ultra-violence as much she does. Although Liza demands that he personally eliminate a pretty young witness, Violet (Alisha Boe), Chip decides instead to put his bloodthirsty lover temporarily out of commission and head for the hills with the money. It doesn’t take long for the hapless Chip to fall in love with the deceptively fragile flower. Violet has plans of her own for the money, and disappears. After seeking the assistance of a hard-boiled goth cashier at a local gas station, Chip is lured into an evil more diabolical trap, this one devised by a half-dozen meth heads with guns, zits and bad teeth. Just when he thinks he has control of the situation, Chip loses whatever edge he might have had to a pair of female tweakers, whose girlhood heroines probably included Juliette Lewis’ Mallory Knox, in Natural Born Killers, and Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny, in Pulp Fiction. Neither does Troma veteran Haaga (Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV) give up on the possibility Violet or Liza might return, looking for the money, which is hidden somewhere in the bowels of a low-rent trailer park. Based on a novel of the same title by Bryan Smith, 68 Kill could be accused of overplaying the gratuitous-violence card, if it weren’t for the juxtaposition of the women’s psychotic behavior and Chip’s inability to stand on his own two feet for more than a couple minutes at a time. It leads to some shockingly abrupt narrative shifts, as well as much inky black humor, mostly at Chip’s expense. It’s also sexy, without a great deal of forced nudity. That so much of the action takes place in trailers and mini-marts is only to be expected.

Bad Day for the Cut: Blu-ray
Newcomer Chris Baugh is the latest writer-director to join the short, but growing list of Irish genre specialists to watch. In the consistently involving Bad Day for the Cut, Nigel O’Neill plays a hard-working farmer whose only enjoyment in life comes from downing a pint or two at the local pub, breathing new life into broken-down cars and allowing his widowed mother to spoil him in the home they share. One night, after falling asleep in his makeshift garage, Donal interrupts a home invasion that leaves his mother dead on the floor of the living room. He’s seen the perpetrators, but they get away before he can identify them or get their license-plate number. No sooner has his mother been laid to rest than Donal is ambushed by a different pair of hooded thugs, who blow their attempt to hang him from the barn’s rafters. It gives him an opportunity to take one of them out for good. Donal doesn’t recognize his attackers this time, either, but is able to wring some valuable information from the thoroughly inept survivor, Bartosz (Józef Pawlowski), and whatever can be gleaned from the dead man’s phone. Still, Donal can’t imagine why anyone would want to murder his mother or him. Donal’s investigation will take him to Belfast in a garish red camper van he’s just restored. It is also where Bartosz’ sister, Kaja (Anna Próchniak), is being held against her will by the same white-slavers who forced the young man into participating in the botched hanging. By this time, Donal and Bartosz are cooperating in their separate quests. The only spoiler I’m willing to spill here comes in revealing that the original break-in was anything but random and the mystery can be traced to the bad old days of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The prostitution angle is also crucial to the story, but mostly as connecting tissue and a catalyst for extreme violence. Also terrific in Bad Day for the Cut is Susan Lynch, whose character could hardly be more menacing or tough. As such, she’s another formidable woman with whom to be reckoned in 2018.

Friend Request: Blu-ray
Even before Facebook became a ubiquitous presence in the lives of millions of Americans, serious questions were raised about trusting the identity of people hanging out in on-line chatrooms, posing as one thing, while being something else entirely. Middle-age male predators preyed on underage teenagers of both genders, until police figured out how to identify the perverts and initiate well-coordinated stings. When Facebook was launched in 2004, membership was limited to students at Harvard and other high-end colleges. As it expanded, students began to fall prey to some of the same scams as that perplexed AOL and other services. If anything, though, the new community of “friends” was more educated and able to see through the ruses. Conversely, this allowed some of them to conceive ever-more-devious schemes, while burglars monitored their “friends” movements to plan break-ins. While Munich-born writer/director/actor Simon Verhoeven carefully avoids aggravating FB lawyers in Friend Request, he extends the discussion by warning viewers against “unfriending” people whose identities they have been given reason to question. The story updates the source technology in Ringu, without eliminating any of the menace. Friend Request begins with a harried college professor upbraiding his class for downloading a suicide video that the deceased student had posted on the Internet. When he asks if anyone has any information about the death, the camera introduces us to Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey), a dead-ringer for Piper Perabo. In a flashback, Laura is shown accepting an invitation to befriend the class’ goth outsider, Marina (Liesl Ahlers), who everyone else avoids. Marina is talented artist whose macabre illustrations come to life in nightmarish animations. When things get too weird for Laura, Marina turns on her other friends on the site. Suddenly, they begin dying in horribly grotesque ways. Videos of their deaths appear on the website, complete with terrifying animations. One thing leads to another, and we’re back in the classroom, where the professor is grilling the students. Friend Request may not be the most original movie of the season, but most of the scares are genuine and the international cast of actors takes their roles seriously. Originally titled “Unknown Error,” the film was later renamed internationally to avoid confusion with Levan Gabriadze’s Unfriended (2014). In Germany, Friend Request was titled “Unknown User” to avoid confusion with the Filipino-language Unfriend (2014). Verhoeven’s version took its good-natured time opening in the U.S., possibly to distance it further from Unfriended, which appealed to the same audience demographic. The Blu-ray adds “Friend Request: The Social Nightmare,” in which brief interviews are intercut with scenes from the film. BTW: Verhoeven is the son of writer/director Michael Verhoeven (The Nasty Girl) and Senta Berger (The Quiller Memorandum), but no relation to the Dutch filmmaker, Paul.

The Tiger Hunter: Blu-ray
At a time in our history when the President of the United States has turned his back on the Statue of Liberty and demands that Congress allocate funds to build a fence to prevent “huddled masses” of color from breathing freely, it’s nice to find a movie that makes a quiet, yet emphatic case for tolerance and inclusion. This isn’t to say that Lena Khan’s debut feature sugarcoats the debate over illegal immigration or oversells the idea that America wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for men and women from foreign countries, not all of whom were welcomed with open arms. The Tiger Hunter is about a highly educated young Indian, Sami (Danny Pudi), who’s promised an engineering job in Chicago, but loses it when the company decides to downsize without warning. Inspired by his late father, who became a hero by saving a village from a killer tiger, Sami decides not to let the setback crush his spirit. Instead of being able to afford a nice apartment and send money home to his mother, he moves into a cramped flat with eight other men struggling to realize the American Dream. He also would love to convince his sweetheart’s demanding dad that he’s worthy of his trust and her hand. In a nice change of pace, the characters have left their political, religious and ethnic differences behind them in India and Pakistan. When Sami’s supervisor steals his idea for a countertop microwave oven and sells it to the Boss (Kevin Pollak) as his own – this is 1979, when such gizmos were rare – his friends rally behind him to find a way correct the misrepresentation. Khan keeps the atmosphere light by introducing the romantic throughline, which requires Sami to ask a wealthy co-worker (Jon Heder) if he can use his family’s mansion to impress his girlfriend (Karen David) and her father (Iqbal Theba), who are in the U.S. interviewing potential suitors. Plenty of things could have happened to turn The Tiger Hunter into a needlessly dramatic exercise in America-bashing, filled with racial jibes and unpleasant bickering. According to interviews in the hourlong making-of featurette, the movie’s individual stories and vignettes mirrored the experiences of their friends and relatives, who moved to the U.S. and the UK to realize their dreams. As such, The Tiger Hunter is sweet, without being saccharin, and can be enjoyed by anyone able to trace their roots to the Old Country, wherever that might be. Although Indian and Pakistani actors aren’t prevalent on American screens, the ones who appear here should be familiar to fans of “Community,” “Glee,” “Galavant,” “Outsourced,” “The Grind” and “House Arrest.” Sadly, it’s theatrical release was limited to 42 theaters. It deserves to be given a fair chance in video.

Austrian-born filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter is a new-school documentarian, whose borders stretch to the ends of the Earth and who employs techniques that combine visual artistry with existential questioning of fact-based subject matter. He is perhaps best known here for Our Daily Bread (2005), which changed the way viewers looked at the production of food and explained why it doesn’t taste the way it should. In 1999’s Pripyat, Geyrhalter became one of the first filmmakers to enter Chernobyl’s evacuated zone, a dozen years after the meltdown. In addition to discovering a technological graveyard, he interviewed people who returned to one of sthe most unlikely places on the planet to support life. In Elsewhere (2000), he directed camera teams that travelled to different extreme locations each month, searching for places untouched by the millennium hysteria. My favorite, Homo Sapiens (2016), quietly surveys post-apocalyptic landscapes in a pre-dystopian world. Outwardly, CERN is a far more traditional undertaking. The 75-minute, made-for-television documentary takes us to the human ant farm known as the Large Hadron Collider, a circular city of 2,500-plus scientists, physicists, mathematicians and technicians, from dozens of different countries, buried 100 meters below a northwest suburb of Geneva. Operated by the world-renowned research organization, CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the 27-kilometer-circumference tunnel is the world’s largest laboratory for particle physics. In laymen’s term, the facility’s primary mission is to re-create the so-called Big Bang and understand how the universe evolved. They do it by circulating proton beams through the 27-kilometer ring in both directions.  According to LHC’s main engineer, Steve Myers, this is like “firing two needles across the Atlantic and getting them to hit each other.” Among other things, the World Wide Web began as a CERN project named ENQUIRE, initiated by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 and Robert Cailliau in 1990. After establishing the scale and mission of the facility, he introduces viewers to some of the men and women whose job it is to keep this massive gray beast running. They attempt to define the work they do in terms that even college dropouts might understand, but the explanations flew by me as if they were, well, needles fired across the Atlantic. It was like watching “The Big Bang Theory,” translated into Mandarin Chinese. Those viewers who have no problem understanding what makes the geniuses in that show tick, however, might very find CERN to be very entertaining. The existential angle can be found in one scientist’s description of a conversation he had with Pope John Paul II, when he visited the facility. He asked the pontiff if the work being done by CERN contradicted Church doctrine. The answer should be of interest to fundamentalists of all stripe.

Conduct! Every Move Counts
To the same degree that I don’t understand particle physics, neither can I fathom the mysteries of classical music and how all the individual parts come together to make such beautiful sounds. Growing up, the job of conducting a symphony orchestra always seemed to require little more than looking imperious in a tuxedo, bowing grandly, being able to read music and wave a baton simultaneously, and occasionally stare down the one musician out of a hundred who needs a bit more encouragement. The more I began to appreciate repertoire, however, the easier it was to disabuse myself of such a stupid notion. I don’t suppose that a composer’s job can be said to be comparable to herding cats, but it requires an ability to keep dozens of moving parts working in unison like a fine Swiss watch. The showmanship evolves over time. In his first feature-length documentary, Götz Schauder chronicles the lofty ambitions of 24 young conductors from around the world, all invited to Frankfurt to compete in the prestigious Sir Georg Solti Conductors’ Competition. Having seen Solti in action with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – and edited our classical-music critic’s articles for years — it doesn’t take much additional background to gauge just how high the bar has been set for the competitors. (A little more information on the Hungarian-born pianist and conductor might have helped laymen, however.) The first thing that struck me in Conduct! Every Move Counts was the initial tension between the experienced musicians and the whippersnappers attempting to make them align their sensibilities to the unheard music in the conductors’ heads. Otherwise, the intensity of the competition approximates that which informs documentaries about chess, Scrabble, ballroom dancing, poetry and math. Great professional and amateur athletes possess the same inner drive and passion for their chosen disciplines.  Each candidate is accorded 20 minutes to work with an orchestra he – or the single she, Alondra de la Parra — has never met and impress an intimidating panel of judges … again, all men. “Conduct” follows five conductors: the 20-year-old Aziz Shokhakimov, from Uzbekistan; Parra, the rising star New Yorker, via Mexico City; Englishman James Lowe; Andreas Hotz, from Germany; and Japan’s Shizuo Z. Kuwahara, who conducts with his bare hands. Unlike most competition docs, not all of them will make it past the first cut, let alone the final list of three. Some tension occurs as two also-rans stick around long enough to check out the rehearsals and final performance of the finalists. Naturally, they think they were cheated and are every bit as surprised to learn that they weren’t. “Conduct” probably could have benefitted from another 10 minutes of exposition, during which the art of conducting could be deciphered for casual fans of classical music.

Macon County Line: Blu-ray
Now that the archivists at Shout!Factory have committed Macon County Line to Blu-ray, I wonder how long it will take the company to re-release Jackson County Jail in hi-def, as well. In 2011, it was packaged with Caged Heat! as part of the company’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” and “Women in Cages” series of double- and triple-features. Although all the selections resemble each other in certain Corman-esque ways, a discernible amount of individuality manages to peek out from behind the gaudy cover art. Macon County Line, which starred Yvette Mimieux and Tommy Lee Jones, is set in the same kind of Deep South hellhole where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were gunned down in Easy Rider. It could have been influenced just as easily by Two-Lane Blacktop, in which James Taylor and Dennis Wilson drag-race their way across the U.S., in a gray-primer ’55 Chevy, taking on all comers. Then, too, Macon County Line also borrows liberally from “Route 66,” a great TV series, in which Martin Milner and George Maharis wandered around the country in a vintage Corvette, taking odd jobs to pay for gas and allowing themselves to be seduced by beautiful women. Today, however, its biggest selling point may be the novelty of having been written by Max Baer Jr. (“The Beverly Hillbillies”), who also plays an extremely credible redneck sheriff, Deputy Reed Morgan. Based on a true story, Macon County Line is about two young brothers from Chicago, who are about to be inducted into the service. As they make their way south-by-southwest, Chris and Wayne Dixon (Alan and Jesse Vint) pick up an anchorless young woman, Jenny (Cheryl Waters), who’s on her way to Dallas. When the Dixons’ convertible breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they barely have enough money to pay for gas, let alone a new fuel pump. The owner of the garage (Geoffrey Lewis) jerry-rigs the pump, so that the car might make it as far as the next big city, but not much further. When it breaks down again, they’re practically in the front yard of the sheriff (Baer) who gave them a hard time at garage. This time, however, it coincides with a clumsy home invasion, during which the deputy’s wife (Joan Blackman) is raped and murdered. Without a stitch of evidence, the former Jethro Bodine picks up a rifle and tracks down the Yankee outsiders. The ending isn’t nearly as predictable as it might seem from that summary.  In fact, it’s downright poignant. Despite a shoestring budget that precluded anything remotely fancy, cinematographer Daniel Lacambre (Humanoids from the Deep) finds and exploits every inch of atmosphere from the rural location. The actors also contribute fine performances to the proceedings. That includes 13-year-old Leif Garrett, a future teen heartthrob who’s given a harsh lesson in 1960s racism by his dad, Morgan. The Blu-ray adds a fresh interview with editor Tina Hirsch (“The West Wing”), commentary with director Richard Compton and the featurette, “Macon County Line: 25 Years Down the Road.”

My Little Pony: The Movie: Blu-ray
I wonder how many parents noticed the PG-rating accorded My Little Pony: The Movie and scratched their heads over what might have caused the nincompoops at the MPAA ratings board to react so harshly to “mild action” and a story with fewer objectionable parts than most Disney pictures. Or, so says the Parents Guide on the website. PG may not be the new NC-17, but really … My Little friggin’ Pony? No matter what one thinks of the silly plots and fantastical characters, the franchise has stood the test of time as a harmless pastime for very young fans, many of whom profit from the lessons taught by miniature horses during the animated adventures. I could understand the rating if it were linked to the barely subliminal marketing of toys and other products to impressionable youngsters. If that were the case, however, none of Disney’s films would pass muster. Neither would releases from Nickelodeon and PBS Kids. The main character in this, the second My Little Pony: The Movie in 30 years, is Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), who, once again, is asked to explore the Power of Friendship that comes with her title. The new guest antagonist is Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), a disenfranchised pony who has become calloused and driven. Another antagonist, Storm King (Liev Schreiber) is just as important to the narrative as allies Princess Celestia, Princess Luna and Princess Candence. Along the way to restoring Equestria to its former luster, the movie provides lessons in loyalty, honesty and persistence. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, an “Equestria Girls Short,” “Baking With Pinkie Pie,” “Making Magic With the Mane 6 and Their New Friends,” “The Journey Beyond Equestria,” “I’m the Friend You Need” and “Hanazuki: Full of Treasures.”

The DVD Wrapup: Chavela, Teacher, Shadowman, Shock Wave, Laugh-In and more

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

It can be said of Chavela Vargas, near-mythic singer of Mexican rancheras that she spent most of her 93 years on Earth struggling to achieve the kind of success today’s prefabricated singers achieve by the time they’re old enough to drive. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s emotionally-charged documentary, Chavela, describes her journey from obscurity to prominence on the world stage, through painstakingly referenced video footage, recordings, interviews and photographs. Born Isabel Vargas Lizano, she left her native Costa Rica at 14 to pursue a career making music. Like Edith Piaf, Chavela found her first audiences in the streets, singing a distinctively Mexican form of the blues. In her youth, she dressed as a man, smoked cigars, drank heavily, carried a gun and was known for her characteristic red jorongo, a full-length poncho worn for special occasions. She adopted an androgynous persona, in part, because the canción ranchera was identified almost exclusively for its masculine points-of-view and Mexican audiences wouldn’t approve of a female singer drowning her sorrows in alcohol and refusing to articulate whether her heartbreaks were caused by men or women. Neither did she perform with the accompaniment of a mariachi band, preferring the support of a guitar or two. Chavela, who died in 2012, was in her 40s when she developed a fan base composed of fellow artists and intellectuals – among them,  Juan Rulfo, Agustín Lara, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Dolores Olmedo and José Alfredo Jiménez — and international tourists attracted to the Champagne Room of the Acapulco restaurant, La Perla.

In the late 1970s, Vargas partially retired from performing due to a long battle with alcoholism, which she described in her 2002 autobiography as “my 15 years in hell.” After getting sober, with the help of natural healing agents introduced to her by an Indian family that took her in, Vargas returned to the stage in 1991, performing at a bohemian Mexico City nightclub called “El Hábito.” Many fans of her recorded music, including Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, had assumed that she had succumbed years earlier. When he learned that Chavela was performing in Mexico, Almodóvar arranged for his personal muse to headline sold-out concerts in Madrid, Paris and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Although she had long dreamed of singing in such venues, her “overnight success” came late in her life. In her autobiography, Vargas also came out, which opened the door to a new demographic. As wonderful as the music is, many viewers will be struck as much by home-movie footage of Kahlo and Rivera, and Vargas’ recollections of their friendship. The DVD adds the directors’ commentary and a pair of Q&A’s, a 1981 interview with Vargas and a concert performance of “Paloma Negra.” (Her version also was featured in Frida.)

The Teacher
One of the rites of passage for parents of school-age children comes in recognizing the role politics play in the classroom, at PTA meetings, sports and other extracurricular activities. As is the case with every American institution, it doesn’t take a lot of time to distinguish between leaders and followers, volunteers and stragglers, winners and whiners. Teachers who attempt to distance themselves from the fray sometimes are caught short when a parent does an end-run and goes directly to a principal with a perceived grievance. In some schools, mostly public, the teachers and administrators hold the procedural edge over the parents, while, in tuition-based systems, it’s the parents with the most money and political clout who hold sway. It may seem like a typically American way of doing business, but Jan Hřebejk and writer Petr Jarchovský’s Slovak-language dramedy The Teacher, suggests otherwise. It is set in 1983, at a Bratislava middle school where Communist Party politics carry more weight than educational initiatives and parental input, combined. Like so many other dark parables that have emerged from the former Soviet bloc countries since the mid-1990s, The Teacher describes how certain theoretically egalitarian Socialist institutions were transformed into places where favoritism, corruption and spying were rewarded over achievement and ethical behavior.  The Czech director and writer, who previously collaborated with Jarchovský on the Oscar-nominated “Divided We Fall” (2000), doesn’t waste any time raising questions we can patiently wait to have answered later in the narrative. The biggest one emerges almost immediately, when new teacher Mária Drazdechová (Zuzana Mauréry) asks each boy and girl to stand up, introduce themselves and tell her what their parents do for a living. Wait, what? Was this standard operating procedure for teachers behind the Iron Curtain?

Turns out, Ms. Drazdechova moonlights as a high-ranking official of the Communist Party and she already knows more about the teenagers’ parents than they’re willing to admit on Day One of the school year. This includes defections, divorces and other perceived faults. In some cases, fellow students voluntarily fill in the gaps left in their classmates’ introductions. Clearly, the teacher has an ulterior motive for bringing the students’ parents into the picture. As the school year progresses, she divides the classroom between the students whose parents can be blackmailed into helping her out with errands, housecleaning and other random services, and those who fall short of her expectations. Drazdechova uses their cooperation as a factor in determining grades and approving participation in sports. Three strikes and they’re out. Her demands are anything but subtle. After one of the students, an aspiring gymnast, fails to meet Drazdechova’s standards and is denied the privilege of training and competing, she attempts to commit suicide. It leaves the director of the school with no choice but to call an emergency parents’ meeting to measure their outrage, if any. It plays out like any PTA meeting, anywhere, where things of greater importance than bakes sales and car washes are to be discussed. Parents already aware of Drazdechova’s abuses of power take sides, while others complain about being left outside the loop. Finally, though, the administrator will force the parents to make the decision for her, by presenting them with a petition intended to be presented to her superiors. That, of course, is when things get problematic. No one wants to attach their signature to a piece of paper that could find its way into the hands of people who control everything that’s important in their lives. If the teacher survives the inquiry, not only could their kids’ grades suffer, but the parents’ status at work and in the party could take a hit, as well. On the other hand, how could party apparatchiks justify ignoring the obvious and keeping Drazdechova in the classroom? The parents’ personal dilemmas are sketched out in darkly comic vignettes that have to be seen to be believed. Some American moms and dads might be able to relate to them, however.

Not having lived in Manhattan during 1980s, I was at a bit of a disadvantage when it came to the subject of Oren Jacoby’s fascinating documentary, Shadowman: street artist Richard Hambleton. I’ve recently been asked to review a small flood of bio-docs on the works of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Banksy, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Julian Schnabel, as well as films about the concurrent emergence of graffiti art and hip-hop, a decade earlier. My interest in Hambleton was sparked, in part, by an auction held last May, when Basquiat’s 1982 painting, “Untitled,” created with oil stick and spray paint, and depicting a skull, sold for a record high $110.5 million. Not bad for an art form once dismissed as vandalism. From all indications, Hambleton was every bit Basquiat’s equal, at least when it came to media attention and notoriety. So, why hadn’t I heard of him? Shadowman celebrates Hambleton’s successes and contributions to the international art community, without ignoring the fact that he became his own worst enemy when it came to profiting from his talent and vision. It was this trait, more than any other, that set him apart from his peers. Hambleton’s earliest public art, “Image Mass Murder,” could be found on sidewalks and stairways in his native Canada, New York and a dozen other cities in the U.S. and Canada. They resembled the chalk outlines police draw around the bodies of crime victims, to which a splash of red paint was added. The “crime scenes” often had the desired effect of startling or distressing passersby, who demanded police investigations. Hambleton’s next major project involved painting hundreds of silhouette figures on street-facing walls and alleys around lower Manhattan. In a city being ravaged by violence, his Shadowmen frightened pedestrians, who, from a distance, couldn’t ascertain whether the silhouette belonged to a hoodlum peeking out from behind a street corner, a watchman, an innocent bystander or simply was an illusion caused by artfully spilled paint. Others compared the silhouettes to the eerie death shadows found on the streets and sidewalks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after people were vaporized by the radiation delivered by the atomic bombs.

After he became identified with the Shadowman project, Hambleton produced a related series of “shadow” work, in which the characters resembled cowboys competing in a rodeo or the iconic Marlboro Man, often astride a horse. This time, the figures were painted on canvas and other material that allowed them to be hung in galleries and sold, without the aid of a jackhammer and crane. The artist, whose work would appear on both sides of the Berlin Wall, was profiled in mainstream magazines and made the late-night rounds with Warhol. It took its toll in the form of drug addiction and the debilitating effects of scoliosis and kyphosis. He defied potential patrons by refusing to turn the commissioned canvases over to them until they were completed, which, in his mind, they rarely were. Although he withdrew from society, consorted with junkies and was frequently homeless, Hambleton didn’t stop working. During his 20-year absence, he sometimes used paintings as currency among friends and completed a series of seascapes and color “landscapes,” known as the Beautiful Paintings. They were exhibited in 2007, at about the same time as his collaborations with Giorgio Armani were displayed as part of Fashion Week activities. Still, if his intention was to avoid the further commodification and branding of street art, as occurred after the deaths of Hambleton’s closest contemporaries, Haring and Basquiat, he succeeded. “At least Basquiat, you know, died,” Hambleton reflects in the documentary, during a scene shot in 2014. “I was alive when I died, you know. That’s the problem.” He succumbed to skin cancer on October 29, 2017, at 65. Shadowman is a compelling documentary about a perplexing and largely underappreciated artist and man. It is informed by archival images and interviews with curators, artists and people who knew him during the difficult years.

Love Beats Rhymes
In 1999, Jim Jarmusch’s genre-bending drama, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, successfully merged eastern philosophy and martial arts, with western gangster tropes and hard-core hip-hop culture. It may not have been the first movie in which these outlaw cultures overlapped – the mob frequently did battle with ghetto superstars in blaxploitation titles – but it was one of the first to exploit the interconnectivity of violent male cults, underground rituals and music usually reserved for so-called gangsta’ flicks. In it, Jarmusch introduced Wu Tang Clan co-founder RZA as a composer, actor and spiritual muse. If his hip-hop melodrama, Love Beats Rhymes, doesn’t break much new ground creatively, it demonstrates that RZA can direct a rom-dram that aspires to crossover success, while relying on others for its words (Nicole Asher) and most of the soundtrack’s music, beats and rhymes. I doubt he would consider popular entertainments to be his forte, however. In her acting debut, Azealia Banks plays an aspiring rapper in a crew dominated by her unfaithful lover, Malik (John David Washington). Even so, after a competition that recalls the ones in 8 Mile, Coco’s mic-dropping performance is noticed by a big-time producer, who wants to hear two more examples of the group’s sound before committing to a contract.

At the same time, Coco is pushed by her mother, Nichelle (Lorraine Toussaint), to pick up the credits she needs for an accounting degree, which could save her daughter from waiting on tables and washing dishes in her soul-food restaurant. It may not be the likeliest of scenarios, but Coco decides to take a poetry class at the Staten Island college as an elective. It is taught by the imperious Professor Nefari Dixon (Jill Scott), a former hip-hopper who’s come to detest rap and its influence on African-American youth. She treats Coco like a doormat for not acquiescing to her opinion. Things get worse when Dixon’s soft-spoken British teaching assistant, Derek (Lucien Laviscount)), invites her to a poetry slam, organized by her husband, Coltrane (Common). After she’s chosen as a judge, Coco repays the favor by giving Derek’s rhymes a low score. It causes a rift between them, but they continue to see each other. It isn’t until Coco discovers the clandestine sexual relationship he’s having with the professor that she truly begins to understand his continued disdain for rap and Dixon’s resentment of her, personally. It doesn’t help that Coltrane appears to be enabling their budding romance. In fact, the whole argument about rap not being poetry – and, therefore, an inferior art form – feels more than a little bit antiquated, considering the presence of RZA, Method Man, Common, Scott and Banks on the list of credits. It might hold water in an academic context, but not in real-world conditions. Not being aware of the difference between a couplet and a cutlet, or what differentiates iambic pentameter from a haiku, would hardly disqualify a rapper from turning their rhymes into hundred-dollar bills. The romances don’t ring true, either, but they rarely do in commercial rom-drams, where chemistry beats logic every time. If Loves Beats Rhymes finds an audience among students who need some encouragement to advance their educations, without sacrificing their musical tastes, I’d say that RZA has accomplished a great deal here.

Shock Wave: Blu-ray
Here’s another Asian movie that looks as if it were inspired directly by a popular western feature or series. In the last month, alone, I’ve traced the roots of movies from China and Korea to the Pink Panther series and La Femme Nikita. Writer/director/cinematographer Herman Yau has been churning out music videos and crime fare from his Hong Kong base since 1987. For obvious reasons, his latest revenge thriller, Shock Wave, immediately reminded me of The Hurt Locker, even though bomb-disposal units have been a staple of war and action movies, including The English Patient, Lethal Weapon 2 and Speed, for many decades. The scene in which Officer J.S. Chueng (Andy Lau), superintendent of Hong Kong’s crack Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, is called upon to defuse a bomb that could have been dropped on the city in World War II might as well have been directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The tension builds in precisely the same way it did whenever Russell Crowe approached an IED or booby-trapped vehicle, sucking us into the drama, as if there really were a chance Crowe’s Sergeant First Class William James could be written out of The Hurt Locker in its first half-hour. It takes a great deal of skill to convince an audience to suspend disbelief long enough to believe that an actor being paid upwards of $25 million could die before his first love scene or car crash. That’s why we continue to pay good money to see movies whose outcomes were telegraphed six months earlier in in long-lead teasers and trailers. If all the bombs in Shock Wave were neutralized with the same level of expertise and tension as the one unearthed at a construction site in downtown Hong Kong, it would have been better movie. It probably wouldn’t have been as commercially successful as Shock Wave turned out to be, but explosives experts in the audience would have left the theater in a happier state.

As the story goes, Officer Cheung joined the bomb squad after blowing his cover in an underground sting operation that might otherwise have resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent people. In doing so, however, he made an enemy for life in the criminal who trusted him. Time passes and Cheung is required to defuse an increasingly complex series of bombs, while deciphering the hidden clues the could identify the perpetrator. Everything leads to Yau’s coup de grace, a scene so outlandishly conceived that, if it’s pulled off successfully, will make everyone forget the more carefully choreographed sequence with the WWII bomb. Without spoiling anything substantial, it comes when the mob boss whose brother was arrested in the earlier sting decides to punish Cheung by trapping hundreds of motorists inside the busy 1.6-mile Cross-Harbor Tunnel, which links the main financial and commercial districts on both sides of Victoria Harbor. Naturally, the mob boss demands that Cheung bring his brother to the tunnel and stand by while he murders innocent motorists and sets up the explosives he’ll need to blow up the foundation and cause the tunnel to be crushed by the weight of the water above it. What makes the plan preposterous is … well, everything. I suppose the same was said about 9/11, though. And, yes, what happens next is extremely memorable … for a day or two, anyway. Fans of extreme Hong Kong genre fare should find plenty in Shock Wave to like. Others will probably wish they saved their money for the Lethal Weapon series to arrive in 4K UHD. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.

Babes With Blades
Standing 4-feet-9 and weighing 92 pounds, British multi-hyphenate Cecily Fay would appear to be an unlikely candidate for martial-arts superstardom. Any woman as conversant as she is with artistic movement and fighting swords, however, isn’t likely to be deterred by conventional notions about size. With an extensive background in ballet and gymnastics, the 16-year-old Fay decided to take a shot at tai chi, which was being offered at the London Contemporary Dance School as an elective. She appreciated the connection between philosophy and performance, but sought a martial art that was more combative and involved cutlery. Eventually, she met a master of Malay silat, who promised to reward her hard work with lessons in the rare Silat Melayu sword discipline. In 1997, Fay teamed up with record producer Jon X and formed the Morrighan, as singer and main writer/composer. After breaking into film in the 2001 made-for-TV documentary “Gladiatrix,” she was hired to perform stunts in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The petite brunette would go on to find work as a stunt double, actress, fight choreographer, costume designer and composer. Besides looking incredibly hot in a leather bodice and bikini, Fay has also founded the all-women performance troupe, Babes With Blades. Something tells me that Babes With Blades, the movie, bears a resemblance to the stage act, as it serves primarily as a showcase for troupe members. The movie’s plot borders on the ridiculous. Dig: “On the dark streets of Draiga, a mining colony occupied by the Visray Empire, lives Azura (Fay), the last of a fearless warrior race known as the Sarnians. After witnessing her once-beautiful home turned into a lifeless husk, Azura must fight to the death in the gladiatorial ring to stay alive. Meanwhile, a group of freedom-fighters form a resistance, seeking to protect their families from the oppressive and cruel rule of the Visray Section Commander Sorrentine. Unbeknownst to Azura, the fate of all humans on Draiga is about to rest in her hands. Can she survive long enough to save her colony?” Does it matter? It’s the action sequences, after all, that count in Babes With Blades and the 96-minute movie is full of them, as are the bonus features. With Quintin Tarantino teasing plans for a third Kill Bill installment, it would behoove him to check out Fay’s chops – pun intended – inBabes With Blades.

No Solicitors
Any movie that dares to star Eric Roberts as “the country’s leading brain surgeon” is either trying to pull the legs of potential viewers or has greatly overestimated whatever cachet is left from his 31-year-old Oscar nomination for Runaway Train. Or, maybe not. Since that terrific action picture was released, Roberts has registered an incredible 472 acting credits at, with nearly 40 unreleased titles still in one form of post-production or another. A charter member of the Straight to Video Hall of Fame, the 61-year-old actor has a real shot at passing the 600-picture barrier before he retires. I can’t imagine that he spent much time on the set of John Callas’ No Solicitors, a tongue-in-cheek cannibal flick that would love to be mentioned in the same breath as Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, Bob Balaban’s Parents, Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell and John Waters’ Serial Mom, but falls way short of those efforts. Unlike the hyper-prolific Roberts, Callas’ last credit of substance came in 1988, as director of Lone Wolf. In the interim, Callas produced live-action trailers for feature films and commercials, while also serving as a consultant and novelist. Here, Roberts plays the widely respected Dr. Lewis Cutterman – get it? – head of a seemingly normal suburban family that welcomes solicitors into their home to break bread with them. After some leading dialogue, the guests are drugged and chained to gurneys in the basement. Cutterman will harvest their organs, as needed by desperate patients, while his wife, Rachel (Beverly Randolph), eliminates evidence by cooking the leftover parts for dinner. Their adult children, Nicole and Scott (Kim Poirier, Jason Maxim), are growing into the family business, by learning how to separate guests of their precious organs, without killing them. Mostly, though, they taunt and torture them. The humor in Callas’ script is overwhelmed by the graphic nature of the amputations, which, even if we know they’re accomplished with special visual effects, might as well be real. The camera lingers on them far longer than is necessary, serving no useful purpose except to turn stomachs. And, yes, there is a big difference between shocking viewers and alienating them, even those attuned to torture porn.

Hell Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Released at about the same time as films in the slasher/splatter/stalker subgenres were approaching critical mass, Hell Night stands today as a reminder that excessive and gratuitous violence and nudity weren’t always determinants in the success of a horror picture. There probably were plenty of male viewers hoping for a glimpse of little Regan MacNeil’s grown-up Blair’s breasts, but they’d have to wait a couple more years for that to happen. If nothing else, it might have helped them erase the memory of her 1977 cocaine bust and her participation in Roller Boogie (1979). That career move would come two years after the release of Hell Night, a movie that probably could have gone out with an PG-13 rating, instead of the more promising “R.” The breakthrough came in her third women-in-prison epic – the first two being TV movies Born Innocent (1974) and Sweet Hostage (1975) – the highly respected Chained Heat, alongside old pros Sybil Danning, Edy Williams, Monique Gabrielle, Marsha Karr and Stella Stevens, and continued soon thereafter, in the less-admired Savage Streets and Red Heat, co-starring Sylvia Kristel. For a future Mr. Skin Hall of Famer, Blair remains remarkably chaste throughout Hell Night. She plays an above-it-all sorority pledge, Marti, forced to spend the night in a presumably haunted mansion with rich-boy Jeff (Peter Barton), party-girl Denise (Suki Goodwin) and surfer Seth (Vincent Van Patten). Suki picked up the slack by remaining in her Frederick’s of Hollywood bra, panty and stockings ensemble throughout Hell Night. The fun begins after fraternity president Peter Bennett (Kevin Brophy) revisits the mansion’s sordid past and possibility that deformed twin killers remain hidden within its walls. Because he doesn’t really believe the siblings are still alive, he instructs his underlings to trick out the mansion with scary accessories. Soon enough, the killing begins for real. By today’s standards, though, it’s pretty tame. What saves Hell Night is director Tom DeSimone’s imaginative staging, both on location at Redland’s Kimberly Crest Estate and on a soundstage in L.A. The DVD and Blu-ray features include a new 4K scan of the film, taken from the “best surviving archival print”; fresh interviews with Blair, Barton, Van Patten, Goodwin, Brophy and first-victim Jenny Neumann; and commentary with Blair, DeSimone, producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis. Blu-ray exclusives include new interviews with DeSimone, Curtis and writer Randolph Feldman; “Anatomy of the Death Scenes,” with DeSimone, Feldman, makeup artist Pam Peitzman, art director Steven G. Legler and special-effects artist John Eggett; “On Location at the Kimberly Crest House,” with DeSimone; “Gothic Design in Hell Night,” with Legler; an original radio spot; and photo gallery, featuring rare stills.

Time Life/WEA: Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Second Season
PBS: Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World
PBS: Frontline: Mosul
PBS: Frontline: War on the EPA
PBS: Frontline: North Korea’s Deadly Dictator
PBS: Mindfulness Goes Mainstream: Techniques
When Time Life released its complete, six-season boxed set of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” episodes last year, it came with a price tag many newcomers to the show and casual fans probably considered to be prohibitive. The company has begun to release full-season packages on an a la carte basis, with interviews that appeared in the set. At a full list price of $39.95, Season Two would be an excellent place to start. By then, mid-course corrections from the first stanza had taken hold and the ball was rolling at full speed. First-season regulars Judy Carne, Henry Gibson, Goldie Hawn, Arte Johnson, Jo Anne Worley and Gary Owens were joined by Alan Sues, Dave Madden, Chelsea Brown, “Fun Couple” Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, Dick “Sweet Brother” Whittington, J.J. Berry, Byron Gilliam and Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham, whose trademark “here come da judge” routine was incorporated into the show’s regular bits. Another reason to favor “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In: The Complete Second Season” over other options is the steady stream of unlikely guest stars, some of whom appeared only for a few seconds. In the season-opener alone, the list includes then-candidate Richard M. Nixon, Hugh Hefner, Mayor of Burbank John B. Whitney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Sonny Tufts, John Wayne and Barbara Feldon. The nature of the taping process precluded all the celebrities appearing with the hosts and cast members simultaneously, although some of the gags extended into the next episode, or two. Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, credits his loss, in part, to Nixon’s willingness to join the show’s parade of guests in the “sock it to me” routine. Markham sat in the mock courtroom, dispensing justice with a large rubber gavel to the noggin for emphasis. Markham was cast only after Sammy Davis Jr. imitated his act on “Laugh-In” in Season One and it sparked interest in the original judge. Prior to that, Markham hadn’t appeared on television or in the movies since 1947.

October 31, 2017, marked the 500th anniversary of Augustinian monk Martin Luther’s delivery of his “Ninety-five Theses” to his bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg. Historians still find room to argue whether he nailed it to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, or employed standard delivery systems. No matter, because the simple fact remains that Luther’s “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” led to a general rethinking of the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrine. It was, however, the Church’s practice of selling indulgences to shorten a soul’s time in Purgatory that struck a chord with common folks. In Thesis 86, Luther asked, “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers, rather than with his own money?” The unstated answer, basically, was “Because we can … and, by the way, how dare you question the infallibility of the pontiff?” PBS’105-minute special presentation “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” (a.k.a., “A Return to Grace: Luther’s Life and Legacy”) traces the roots of the Protestant Reformation, not only to that moment in history, but also to Luther’s earlier decision to disobey his father by leaving law school and entering St. Augustine’s Monastery, in Erfurt, on July 17, 1505. He hadn’t intended to upset the Church’s applecart all that much, but, in its intransigence to address logical bedrock concerns, the reigning pope opened the door to a revolution that continues today. The film is narrated by Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”) and stars Padraic Delany (“The Tudors”), whose impersonation of Luther makes him look somewhat daffy. One of things I discovered about Luther was his devotion to nonviolence, which, 400 years later, would prompt American preacher Michael King to change his name to Martin Luther King. He would give his son the same name, adding a designation for “Senior” and “Junior” at the same time. I didn’t know that, within the course of a decade, Luther moved from a tolerant position on Judaism to one that was so virulently anti-Semitic that Hitler found it useful in the promotion of National Socialist values. Over time, the show contends, Protestant religions splintered into numerous denominations, many of whose followers wouldn’t recognize Luther’s core principles if the “Ninety-five Theses” if they nailed to their garage doors.  Originally, “Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World” was exhibited in private showings across the country — in churches and movie theaters – as a conversation starter and teaching tool. I found a rather different biography of Luther and his problem with indulgences – among other things – on the Catholic Answers website.

PBS is also distributing three provocative and timely “Frontline” investigations: “Mosul,” “War on the EPA” and “North Korea’s Deadly Dictator.” Director Olivier Sarbil’s wartime documentary provides an extraordinary, inside look at the brutal, nearly year-long battle to drive ISIS out of Iraq’s second largest city, which some military commanders have described as the deadliest urban combat since World War II. “Inside Yemen,” a second film on the disc, examines the undeclared war in that country, between northern rebels and the Saudi Arabian Air Force – backed by the U.S. — and the high price paid by its civilians. “War on the EPA” wants us to ponder the question, “What is Scott Pruitt doing running the EPA?” and why does he want to reverse a half-century of progress on environmental issues and hand our precious resources over to corporations and other exploiters of the Earth? The third program asks, “Who killed Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, and what does the murder reveal about the North Korean leader and his regime?”

The three-disc, 165-minute PBS presentation, “Mindfulness Goes Mainstream: Techniques,” explains how one of the oldest methods for cultivating inner calm and stability – meditation – has now been proven by modern science to have a very positive impact on our health and quality of life, especially as we’re being bombarded by stressful impulses and demands. It explores this “revolution” and the power of meditation to transform our lives. The DVDs feature all the programs in the “Mindfulness Goes Mainstream” series, plus 20-minutes of bonus footage. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Chade-Meng Tan conduct the lessons.

The DVD Wrapup: The Year’s Top Titles, plus True Love Ways, Killing Gunther, Rock Docs, Unabomber and More

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

Titles that received a limited release in theaters or none at all make up my year-end list of DVDs and Blu-rays. Some are restored classics, while others are genre specimens that got lost in the crowd.

100 Years of Olympic Films: Criterion Collection: And, the gold medal goes to …
The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: Finally, the truth …
The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille: Archeology, Hollywood-style …
The Eagle Huntress: Girl power in Mongolia …
Good Time: You’re not the only one who missed it …
The Lure/Glory/The Treasure: Gems from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania …
Certain Women: Criterion Collection: Precious Western miniatures …
The Sissi Collection: Germany before the wars …
The Marseille Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Pagnol’s Chez Panisse …
Maurice/The Wedding Banquet: LGBT before LGBT was cool …
The Lovers: How to mess up a good affair …
The Lost City of Z: Jungle fever, for real …
A Quiet Passion: A rose for Emily …
Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer: Gere acts his age …
Feed the Light: H.P. Lovecraft in Sweden …
The Autopsy of Jane Doe: The unkindest cut of all …
Three Sisters: The China tourists never see …
Apocalypse Child: Coppola leaves something behind in Philippines …
Toni Erdmann/ The Forest for the Trees: Maren Ade takes two bows …
Daughters of the Dust: Dash’s masterpiece restored …
The Story of Sin: Borowczyk’s epic love story …
Film/Notfilm: Beckett by way of Buster …
Canoa: A Shameful Memory: Under the volcano …
The Brand New Testament/The Ardennes: Belgium takes its bow …
Bad Lucky Goat: Hoofing it around Jamaica …

True Love Ways
The title for Mathieu Seiler’s truly chilling psychosexual thriller, True Love Ways, harkens back to Buddy Holly’s achingly romantic hit single, which was recorded four months before his tragic death on February 3, 1959. It can be heard on the radio of the car Séverine (Anna Hausburg) is driving through a thick German forest, as she attempts to escape a kidnapping scheme devised by her ineffectual boyfriend, Tom (Kai Michael Müller). She’s also been haunted by nightmares that presage her ordeal to come. To win Séverine back, Tom has cut a deal with a slick conman, Chef (David C. Bunners), he’s met at a bar. Chef concocts a plan to abduct Séverine – who, in the right light, resembles a young Emmanuelle Béart – and alert him to the perfect time to rush in and “be her Tarzan.” Unbeknownst to Tom, Chef and his buddies are making a snuff film in the very same villa in which Séverine has sought refuge from Chef’s crew, tailing her in a black car. Sensing imminent danger, she hides underneath the mattress of a bed that will be used as the staging ground for the murder and necrophilic rape of another blond damsel in distress. This would be a swell time for Tom to swing into the bedroom on a long vine – a la Tarzan – and rescue his no-longer-bored lover. Instead, after realizing what Chef really intends to do to her, Séverine engages in a lengthy game of cat-and-mouse, during which she’s captured, locked in a cellar and nearly raped by one of his men. It’s at this point that she picks up a hatchet and turns the tables on her tormentors, ultimately succeeding in escaping into the forest, where another game of cat-and-mouse begins. Tom won’t be nearly as fortunate. Seiler’s decision to shoot True Love Ways in black-and-white evokes the period when all the great thrillers and existential dramas were filmed sans color and audiences had to use their imaginations as to how certain horrors might affect them in real life. Cinematographer Oliver Geissler’s use of mirrors also adds to the victim’s sense of desperation. Besides Holly, the Swiss-born writer/director (Der Ausflug) appears, at least, to pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock, Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, Jim Jarmusch and Géla Babluani (13 Tzameti). If that makes True Love Ways sound a tad high-falutin’, potential viewers should know that its arthouse conceits stray just south of being pretentious. Anyone looking for a rape/revenge fantasy with lots of blood and gore might be disappointed, although there’s a scene of carnage that should satisfy all tastes. Originally released here on VOD and streaming outlets, it’s now available on DVD through Synergetic Distribution. It deserves to find an audience that crosses genre lines.

Killing Gunther: Blu-ray
Hollow Creek
Anyone drawn to Taran Killam’s directorial debut, Killing Gunther, by the prominence of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name on the DVD/Blu-ray’s cover, should know that the former Governator’s first appearance in the gangster mockumentary comes 67 minutes into the 92-minute picture. Is it worth the wait? Most viewers, I think, would say, “no.” Arnold completists and fans of the actors probably would stick with what essentially is an extended “Saturday Night Live” bit, if only to see if he can pull writer/director/producer/star Killam’s butt out of the fire. Almost. Killing Gunther is a spoof set in the world of contract killers. A group of young, raw and undisciplined assassins hire a documentary crew to produce undeniable proof that they’re the ones responsible for killing the most infamous hit man of all time, Gunther (Schwarzenegger), and deserve first dibs on his contracts. No dummy, Gunther is on to them before they can say, “Oops, missed,” and makes their lives miserable by turning the hunters into the prey. The killers, who wouldn’t be mistaken for assassins in an “Austin Powers” movie, think they have Gunther cornered a dozen times before he’s shown on screen. Instead of masters of daredevilry and stealth, the killers are revealed by the camera crew as being little more than buffoons. Killam, who took time off from his “SNL” gig to make Killing Gunther, looks reasonably credible as a secret agent, at least. Bobby Moynihan, Hannah Simone, Allison Tolman, Aaron Yoo, Amir Talai and Paul Brittain … not so much. The director/etc.’s real-life wife, Cobie Smulders, plays a retired assassin and former girlfriend of both Blake (Killam) and Gunther. Although plenty of action transpires during the film’s first hour, things really pick up once he makes his presence known. As far-fetched as it gets, Arnold gets off some funny lines and the gunplay is reasonably entertaining. Curiously, his last three movies have opened on the Internet, with only a limited run accorded to them afterwards. His last substantial role came in 2013, in Kim Jee-woon’s excellent border thriller, The Last Stand. The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel and two deleted scenes.

I don’t know what inspired Schwarzenegger to join the cast of Killing Gunther, but Burt Reynolds’ “special appearance” in Guisela Moro’s debut feature, Hollow Creek (a.k.a., “A Haunting at Hollow Creek”) can be attributed to his generosity towards a former student. Reynolds makes a couple of brief cameos, during which he commands the screen, but nothing that directly impacts the narrative. Moro probably needed all the help she could get, bringing in a movie that looks this polished on a budget estimated to be in the $500,000 range. Not only did the Argentine immigrant write and direct Hollow Creek, but she also produced and stars in it. The kidnapping thriller suffers from weak depictions of police work, some too-convenient plot twists and inconsistent acting. At 116 minutes, it could have used a tighter edit, as well. Even so, Hollow Creek doesn’t lack suspense or atmosphere. Steve Daron plays Blake Blackman, a writer of horror novels, who retreats to the mountains of West Virginia with his mistress, Angelica (Moro), for inspiration. It doesn’t take long before Angelica begins to be visited by ghosts of boys we assume were kidnapped and killed by some local fiend. After checking out police reports and missing-persons posters, she sees one in the back of old Chevy at a filling station who appears to be signaling to her. Angelica follows the car to a gated property outside town, where her snooping leads to her being abducted by the crazed-hillbilly owners and locked in the basement. Oh, yeah, she’s pregnant. Naturally, inept local cops finger Blake for the disappearance, wasting time that could have been used looking for her and other kidnap victims. It isn’t until several months pass that the next major clue is discovered. Is it too late? Stay tuned. For a first feature, what’s lacking in execution is more than made up for in promise. Hollow Creek is the kind of woman-centric thriller that would have looked good as Lifetime Original, where it could have found an audience and an experienced editor.

The Adventurers: Blu-ray
If Stephen Fung’s mostly European-set actioner, The Adventurers, looks familiar, it’s probably because it appears to borrow freely from Blake Edwards’ original The Pink Panther, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Ocean’s 11, Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds Are Forever, Jules Dassin’s Topkapi and John Woo’s Once a Thief. Fung also appears to be reaching out to international audiences by adding Jean Reno to a largely Asian cast, as a dogged French detective, Pierre, determined to prevent the recently paroled jewel thief, Zhang (Andy Lau), from committing another headline-making heist. Zhang doesn’t waste much time and effort attempting to convince Pierre that he’s seen the light and is planning to return to China to find honest work. Instead, he immediately teams up with hacker Po Chen (Tony Yang) and driver Red Ye (Shu Qi) to swipe the Wings of Destiny jewels from a chic Cannes auction. If they succeed, it won’t be because Pierre isn’t monitoring the auction with sophisticated surveillance equipment, because his eyes are constantly glued to the slick crook. The Wings of Destiny are part of a set that includes the Eye of the Forest and Rope of Life, which were the object of the Louvre robbery for which Zhang was imprisoned.  He wanted to complete the heist for a fatherly gangster, Kong (Eric Tsang), who’s holed up in Prague. Zhang goes there after the Cannes job to finish the job and learn who sold him out. He also discovers that the final piece of the jewelry puzzle is currently in the possession of tycoon Charlie Law (Sha Yi), who lives in a castle down the road. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Rock docs on DVD
England Is Mine: Blu-Ray
D.O.A.: A Right of Passage: Special Edition: Blu-ray
L.A.M.F.: Live at the Bowery Electric
Frank Zappa: Summer ’82: When Zappa Came to Sicily
Before he became the frontman of the Smiths and a poster boy for anti-depressants, Morrissey was known around Manchester as Steven Patrick Morrissey, a morose young man who possessed great talent and intellectual curiosity, but had the devil’s own time getting his thoughts off the pages of his notebooks and into the lyrics of his songs. England Is Mine is representative of a subgenre of music-based bio-pics that describe an artist’s childhood trials, heroes and insights, without taking the next step into adulthood and commercial success or failure. The biggest problem with Mark Gill’s debut feature isn’t Jack Lowden’s compelling portrayal of the enigmatic singer/songwriter/author, but that he was given so little ammunition with which to do battle with a character whose chronic depression is contagious. That’s because Gill and co-writer William Thacker were handcuffed by Morrissey’s refusal to authorize the project or license any of his music and words. The only full concert performance is a cover of the New York Dolls’ version of the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss.” Nice, but hardly representative of his future output. Gill capably transmits Morrissey’s difficulties in social and work situations, as well as a pathological reluctance to enter into collaborations with other local bands. Working-class Manchester, itself, plays an important role in the drama, just as it did in such down-and-dirty productions as “Shameless,” “Queer as Folk,” Velvet Goldmine, Control and 24 Hour Party People. Katherine Pierce does a nice job as the supportive high-school friend Steven dumps in favor of punky artist Linder Sterling (Jessica Brown Findlay). As future Smiths’ collaborator Johnny Marr, Laurie Kynaston is only around long enough to let fans know the Morrissey’s next chapter is about to open … without us.

Lech Kowalski and Chris Salewicz’ tortured rockumentary D.O.A.: A Right of Passage tells several stories simultaneously. The first one chronicles the rise of punk rock in the U.K., with a tight focus on the Sex Pistols’ tumultuous 1978 tour of the United States, which introduced the band’s confrontational style to Americans who had yet to embrace it. The second story involves the excruciating breakup of the Pistols, which led ultimately to the deaths of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Another one traces the creation of “D.O.A.,” and the roles played by High Times magazine, its renegade founder, company bean-counters and the largely anchorless filmmakers. And, finally, there’s a nearly feature-length making-of documentary, that explains why such a compelling document almost never saw the light of day. Mixing this with footage of other contemporary bands, fashion trends and punks of all shapes and colors, the filmmakers captured a grainy, stained snapshot of the punk movement at its peak – including a disturbing interview with a nearly comatose Vicious and atypically nurturing Spungen — along with discussions the filmmakers and concert footage of the late 1970s’ music scene. “D.O.A” is one of several recently restored rockumentaries that cover the same musicians and period. The Pistols didn’t stay together very long, but they were a godsend for mainstream headline writers, rock journalists, photographers and government censors. The Clash, whose music had far greater impact on rock, especially in the U.K., garnered much less attention outside the rock press. Still the restoration of concert footage adds greatly to the film’s nostalgia value. Everybody, except the band members, appears to be having a great deal of fun. Besides ”Dead on Arrival: The Punk Documentary That Almost Never Was,” the bonus package adds a 12-page booklet with liner notes written by John Holmstrom, founding editor of PUNK Magazine; reversible artwork; photo gallery; and collectible two-sided poster.

L.A.M.F.: Live at the Bowery Electric is a concert film, enhanced by bonus interviews with musicians Walter Lure (Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers), Clem Burke (Blondie), Tommy Stinson (Replacements) and Wayne Kramer (MC5), all of whom, early in their careers, were identified with the domestic punk scene. Guest stars include Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), Jesse Malin (D-Generation) and Liza Colby (The Liza Colby Sound). “L.A.M.F.” is the album recorded by Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers in punk-era London, after they accompanied the Sex Pistols, Damned and Clash on the aborted Anarchy Tour. Comprised of former members of the New York Dolls, the Heartbreakers were lauded by the young U.K. punks, and went on to record the high-octane, if technically flawed “L.A.M.F.” album, which, after being re-mixed several times, is considered a classic. The live DVD recording is an extension of the remastered, 40th-anniversary edition of “L.A.M.F.” and the reissue of an extended four-CD box set (and triple-vinyl) of the album’s many mixes and demos. It also coincides with surviving Heartbreaker Lure taking his “L.A.M.F.” show on out the road again, this time with the Sex Pistols’ original bassist Glen Matlock, Social Distortion’s Mike Ness on guitar and vocals, and Blondie’s Clem Burke.

In the feature documentary, “Summer 82: When Zappa Came to Sicily,” filmmaker and Zappa fan Salvo Cuccia tells the behind-the-scenes story of Frank Zappa’s star-crossed 1982 concert in Palermo, the wrap-up to a European tour that ended in public disturbances and unwarranted police intervention. Cuccia had a ticket to the concert but never made it to the show, which coincided with a religious major festival. Thirty years later, collaborating with members of Zappa’s family, he re-created the events through a combination of rare concert and backstage footage; photographs; anecdotes from family, band members and concertgoers; and insights from Zappa biographer and friend Massimo Bassoli. The story is also a personal one, as Cuccia interweaves the story of Zappa’s trip to Sicily with his own memories from that summer. Far more entertaining are the intimate moments Zappa shared with band members in rehearsals, soundchecks and performance. When the family returns to Sicily, cameras followed them to a dilapidated house once occupied by their grandfather and great-grandfather, before immigrating to the U.S; a street naming ceremony; concerts by students at a local high school; formal reception with mayor; and dinner with members of the Sicilian branch of the Zappa family. The concert footage is sandwiched in between all the meet-and-greets.

The Apartment: Limited Edition: Blu-Ray
I never thought of Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s carefully blended romantic dramedy, The Apartment, as a holiday picture, but, re-watching it this week, it deftly describes the flipside of Christmas for people who have no one they love with whom to share it. This would describe Jack Lemmon’s hapless C.C. Baxter, who’s working his way up the corporate ladder by lending the key to his apartment to senior executives for their extra-marital liaisons. His neighbors assume that he’s the playboy of the western world, when, in fact, he spends his nights there alone. On Christmas Eve, when he finally does manage to summon the nerve to bring a fellow boozehound (Hope Holiday) home for a shag, Baxter finds his bed already occupied by a woman his boss (Fred MacMurray) left behind in a self-induced coma, from an overdose of Seconal. To make matters worse, he recognizes the unconscious woman as Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the bubbly elevator operator at work, who broke Baxter’s heart when he learned of her affair with personnel director J.D. Sheldrake. Instead of being gifted with the proposal of marriage Sheldrake has promised her – and at least four other women in the office – the cad handed Fran a hundred-dollar bill he had in his pocket. If she accepted it, Fran would have had to accept the fact that she was little more than a prostitute in both their eyes. Baxter and his physician neighbor save her life, without also solving her immediate dilemma. It leaves the door open for one more disappointment in the newly promoted bureaucrat’s sorry existence. If that sounds too much like a holiday bummer, Wilder has already lifted our spirits with scenes of a raucous office party and a bar where Baxter commiserates with a besotted department-store Santa and dances cheek-to-cheek with the aforemention floozy, whose husband is spending the holidays in a Cuban jail. The balance of humor, drama and romance was so artfully rendered by Wilder and Diamond that The Apartment somehow cleared the Production Code censors, despite depictions of infidelity and adultery. Several prominent critics at the time weren’t as charitable, accusing Wilder of exploiting the script’s prurient aspects and making male characters act like sharks in sharkskin suits. Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review dismissed it as “a dirty fairy tale.” Imagine that, predatory males in positions of power preying on single subordinates with promises of advancement and marriage. Mr. Weinstein, meet Mr. Sheldrake.

There’s so much else too learn from Arrow Video’s new 4K restoration of the multiple Academy Award-winning picture, especially if one takes the time to listen to the analytical commentary track by historian Bruce Block. Arrow adds a 150-page hard-covered book, with new writing by Neil Sinyard, Kat Ellinger, Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche, illustrated with rare stills and behind-the-scenes imagery; a vintage interview with Wilder; featurette on the 4K restoration; a new appreciation and select-scene commentary by film historian Philip Kemp; “The Flawed Couple,” a video essay by filmmaker David Cairns on the collaborations between Wilder and Lemmon; “A Letter to Castro,” an interview with actress Hope Holiday; and original screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (BD-ROM content). Oh, yeah, The Apartment ends on New Year’s Eve.

The Bad Kids
Twentynine Palms, California, is a high-desert town that serves as both the gateway to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and Joshua Tree National Park. You can see the lights of Palm Springs at night and fall asleep to the whirr of the wind turbines that dot the Coachella Valley like so many Candy Buttons. Despite the presence of a couple of better-than-decent restaurants and watering holes, most of the nearly 150,000 visitors to the Oasis of Mara — location of the original 29 palm trees planted by the Serrano people – drive right through town on their way to somewhere else. What they don’t see is what matters in The Bad Kids. About 13.6 percent of families and 16.8 percent of the population live below the poverty line, including 25.3 percent of residents under 18 and 10.0 percent of those 65 or over. It’s the last two statistics that hang like a dark cloud over Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe’s alternately heartbreaking and optimistic documentary, set at the Black Rock Continuation High School for students who’ve fallen so far behind in credits that they have no hope of earning a diploma at a traditional high school. Black Rock is one of 500 such alternative schools for at-risk students in California. They serve as final waystations for so-called “bad kids” likely to fail or drop out whenever the next personal calamity strikes. I don’t like the title, The Bad Kids, but understand that it’s more provocative than “Kids Struggling to Overcome Poverty and Parental Neglect in a High Desert Shithole.” Most of the students we meet already have experienced serious problems related to drugs, crime, unplanned pregnancies, sexual and physical abuse, and absentee parents. The only thing positive about life in Twentynine Palms – unless you’re a rock climber, bicyclist or Gila monster – is the proximity of resorts, hotels and tribal casinos always on the lookout for dependable workers willing to start their careers on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The school’s charismatic, supremely dedicated and empathetic principal, Vonda Viland, continually has to remind troubled students that graduates have a huge advantage over dropouts when it comes to finding worthwhile employment, anywhere, and a college or junior-college diploma is better than one from Black Rock. Even so, the problems endured by the students are many and varied. Each one presents a unique challenge for Viland and the teaching staff. The filmmakers take a fly-on-the-wall approach to the subject matter, probably using lipstick cameras and other unobtrusive technology. They’re with the kids and principal at the crack of dawn, when some of the kids refuse to leave their beds, and follow them home to deal with the turmoil of daily life, including raising infants, dealing with loneliness, abusive stepparents and hunger. Working together over the past two decades, Fulton and Pepe’s best-known credit is 2002’s Lost in La Mancha, a documentary on Terry Gilliam’s doomed feature, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.”

National Bird
Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, Sonia Kennebeck’s enlightening documentary National Bird introduces us to three former members of the U.S. military’s secret drone war, who’ve gone public with their concerns about civilian casualties and our government’s underwhelming reaction to them. Also on hand are an apologetic Air Force officer and lawyer for those facing espionage charges. More poignantly, we also meet surviving members of an Afghan family blown to bits by American rockets, directed to the target by coolly detached drone operators, who failed to see the baby being carried by one woman and other children. I can’t recall if the footage of the attack we’re shown – and dialogue we hear — is real or simulated, based on official records. Regardless, it’s nasty stuff. We’ve seen similar stories to the ones told here, but not quite as intimately presented.

Like the America’s Cup, Olympics boxing and tournament bridge, chess is something most Americans ignore unless one of our own competitors is involved.  I don’t know about bridge, but I can easily recall years when sailing, boxing and chess made front-page news, and not only in the New York Times. Norwegian documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree delivers the captivating story of Magnus Carlsen, who was bullied as an introverted 13-year-old boy, yet grew up to become a grandmaster and reigning World Chess Champion. A prodigy, Carlsen earned his grandmaster title at the age of 13. While some might the miss the idiosyncratic behavior of Bobby Fischer, Carlsen can lay claim to being young (27), a Matt Damon look-alike and as normal as one can be when engaged in such a taxing intellectual pursuit. Last February, Carlsen even made a special guest appearance on “The Simpsons,” in an episode where Homer’s chess history is revealed. In a 2012 “60 Minutes” profile, he was described as “the Mozart of Chess.” During it, Carlsen’s shown competing against 10 formidable players simultaneously, with his back turned to their boards. I wonder how he’d fare at the World Series of Poker

At a bang-bang 72 minutes, Brackenmore feels like a short film that wants to be a feature, but its creators either ran out of money or ideas as to how to differentiate it from the cult horror classic Wicker Man and Ben Wheatley’s largely unseen Kill List. Either way, it could have benefitted from another 10 minutes of exposition and 20 more minutes of hair-raising psychodrama. Chris Kemble and J.P. Davidson’s supernatural thriller simply ends — albeit, with a piercing scream and streams of blood — without exploring any of the intriguing options introduced along the way. As a child, Kate (Sophie Hopkins) survives an automobile accident that was, in part, precipitated by a mysterious radio signal that freaks her out and causes her father to take his eyes off the road long enough to miss a turn, killing Mom and Dad in the crash. Years later, Kate is summoned back to the southern Ireland hamlet of Brackenmore. An uncle she didn’t know existed has died and left her some property in his will. So far, so good. Even before she can empty her suitcase, however, everybody in town appears to know Kate’s arrived and makes her a target for malicious pranks. It doesn’t much longer for her to discover Brackenmore’s dirty little secret, which involves pagan rituals and sacrifices. After attending one such fiesta with a handsome suitor (D.J. McGrath), Kate is attacked in her bedroom by a creep wearing a friar’s outfit and white mask. She dispatches him with a knife and, thereafter, is treated as if she killed the Emerald Isle’s last remaining leprechaun. At the same time as the local yokels are breaking the windows in her car and taunting her with severed goats’ heads, others in the community refuse to allow her to sell the house and return to London. Satanic iconography appears on the walls of her room and a visiting boyfriend is tortured before her eyes. Before you know it, the closing credits are rolling. Brackenmore isn’t a total waste. The lakeside scenery’s gorgeous and the lead actors are pretty good. If only there was more to like.

Beware the Lake
Tabitha, who resembles Eliza Dushku in her “Buffy” phase, has just moved to the Pacific Northwest, in Elgin Cahill and co-writer Wendy Winterbourne’s evil-cheerleader thriller, Beware the Lake (a.k.a., “The Lake”). She’s played by newcomer Anja Knebl, who’s made up to look like she may be of Romanian Gypsy stock and is the polar opposite of the blond girls who dominate her high school’s social hierarchy. After moving to her new home with her mother, who doesn’t speak English, Tabitha attracts the attention of a helpful teenage neighbor and his brother, Mason, an atypically friendly jock. (At 27, Jonathan Lipnicki can still get away with playing boys 10 years younger than he is.) The head cheerleader believes that she’s the only one who can lay claim to his attentions, which makes Tabitha a target for hazing by the girls in the popular clique. They convince her to join them at a girls-night-out at the nearby lake. Before they get there, however, they add a roofie to her drink. After the drug begins to kick in, the cheerleaders drive off, leaving Tabitha wading in the lake in her bra and panties. As if that weren’t a mean enough trick to play on the poor thing, one of the girls calls a couple of pervy boys who might be interested taking in advantage of her situation. When she resists their advances, one of them chokes Tabitha to death and tosses her body back in the lake. Guess what happens next. That’s right, Tabitha’s spirit connects with an Old Country sorceress, who conjures a way for her avenge her death, in spades. Beware the Lake could have benefited from being considerably less predictable and a tad naughtier. If the filmmakers had wanted to have some fun, they could have exaggerated the built-in Sasquatch angle and included the beast in the film’s denouement.

Essex Spacebin: Blu-ray
The Middle Finger: Blu-ray
Over the course of 40 years, Troma has produced, acquired and distributed more than 1,000 independent films. Lloyd Kaufman, president of Troma Entertainment and creator of the Toxic Avenger series, has always found new and different ways to exploit the lowest common denominator in the video industry, with a song in his heart and smile on his lips. It was easy to distinguish Troma products from other purveyors of exploitation fare because its name either appeared in the titles — Tromeo & Juliet, Troma’s War – or was identified by a trademark character or theme: Toxic Avenger, Sgt. Kabukiman, Class of Nuke ’Em High. With each new advance in technology, Kaufman stuck his toe deeper in the video and digital waters. Hence, 1,000 films, which could be purchased or rented through traditional channels, or downloaded and streamed over the Internet through, Troma Direct and subscriber-based Troma Now. Earlier this year, Kaufman addressed Net Neutrality and the filters put on independent films by the “cartel of conglomerates” dominating the streaming media. “Amazon Prime recently announced that their service will ‘no longer allow titles containing persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes (‘adult content’) to be offered as Included with Prime or Free with Pre-Roll Ad,” he said in a grammatically challeged open letter. “WTF? All the movies The Troma Team and I have produced over the past 43 years contain ‘persistent or graphic sexual or violent acts, gratuitous nudity and/or erotic themes,’ yet are presented by the New York Museum of Modern Art, the American Cinematheque, the Kennedy Center in DC, Oxford, and more.” (Italics mine.) Censorship takes different forms in the digital age and one way to stunt the growth of upstarts is to narrow the distribution stream. Nonetheless, Troma perseveres by providing its fans, customers and subscribers as unique a market as anyone in the industry. The titles speak for themselves. This month’s output includes The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta, which I’ve already reviewed, Essex Spacebin and The Middle Finger.

Compared to the self-explanatory “Thingy,” the former and latter titles constitute family-friendly entertainment, which is only to say that graphic sexual and violent acts are trumped by tongue-in-cheek humor, outrageous characters and gross-out gags. I can’t remember seeing a bare breast or penis. In Essex Spacebin, Lorraine’s tale begins as a young girl, when she encounters a dapper gentleman on a beach who explains his quest to find the key for the “stargate,” a portal which connects our world to a different universe. It picks up years later, with Lorraine now an obese senior marketing executive for a fried-chicken shop. She’s still obsessing over her search for the stargate, which now includes communicating with a Rasta vagrant/alien, covering herself with aluminum foil, being splashed with milk and orange juice, and stealing televisions. It’s totally nonsensical, but not without sly touches of Essex charm … or lack thereof. In The Middle Finger, an awkward teenage nerd sinks into despair when he’s held back from school and his friends have gone off to college. After being bullied and tied to a fence, Dennis is visited by an otherworldly being who transforms him into a reluctant superhero. Not only is he incapable of mastering those powers, but his head has been turned into a giant hand giving the finger. It’s sophomoric, to be sure, but kind of funny. The Blu-ray adds a “Making of the Helmet” featurette, commentary, outtakes and music videos.

One Million B.C.: Blu-Ray
Released in 1940, Hal Roach Studios’ One Million B.C. shares many narrative similarities to Hammer’s One Million Years B.C., which arrived 26 years later. Both feature cave dwellers in skimpy garb, warring tribes, ferocious beasts, dubious paleontological and geologic timelines, a volcano and a couple of certified legends operating behind the camera. Indeed, the principle difference between the two movies is the reception accorded the two leading ladies. The career of pretty, blond and barely out of her teens Carol Landis enjoyed a solid boost from her portrayal of Loana in the original, opposite newcomer Victor Mature, unheralded Lon Chaney Jr. and Conrad Nagel. In terms of unabashed sex appeal, however, Landis’ Hayes Office-approved costume couldn’t hold a candle to Raquel Welch’s form-fitting leather-and-fur combo — described as “mankind’s first bikini” – which set the standard for dorm-room art, until Farrah Fawcett’s poster came along, a decade later. Unlike Landis, Welch’s star turn as Loana overshadowed everything else in One Million Years B.C., including Martine Beswick, who was no slouch in the sex-appeal department. Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation impressed the kids in the audience, but it went unrewarded by Academy voters. By contrast, the Roaches’ version was the top grossing movie of 1940 and nominated for two Oscars, for its special effects and musical score. The optically enlarged “slurpasaurs” seen in One Million B.C. include a pig in a rubber Triceratops suit, a man in a Allosaurus suit, elephants with fake tusks and fur, an armadillo with glued-on horns, a baby alligator with a glued-on Dimetrodon sail (Gatorsaurus), a rhinoceros iguana, a snake, a coati, a monitor lizard and an Argentine black and white tegu. Scenes involving the creatures and other special effects would be recycled in dozens of future action and fantasy flicks set in prehistoric times.

Hal Roach hired D.W. Griffith, then living Back East, to oversee certain aspects of the production, including the selection of “proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures.” Although Griffith eventually disagreed with Roach over production delays and went back home, Roach later insisted that some of the scenes in the completed film were directed by him. (This would make the film the final production in which Griffith was actively involved.) Cast members’ accounts recall Griffith directing only the screen tests and costume tests. When Roach promoted the film in late 1939, with Griffith listed as producer, he asked that his name be removed. Even so, the UCLA Film Archives and VCI/MVD Visual restoration of One Million B.C. succeeds in making it as watchable today as it probably was in 1940, although on a significantly smaller scale. The scratches and other artifacts typically seen on genre fare from the period are missing and the dinosaur costumes aren’t compromised by the hi-def Blu-ray presentation. Kids, today, might be too hip to admit to enjoying such old-fashioned fare, but, if watched with parents or grandparents, it could provide a couple hours of mindless fun. I watched the movie with film historian Toby Roan’s commentary track engaged and didn’t feel the need to watch it again for review without it. In one form or another, I’ve already watched the same movie a hundred times. Another 80 minutes didn’t kill me.

Discovery: Manhunt: Unabomber: Blu-ray
HBO: Camelot: Broadway Version
Pop culture quiz: which came first, the hoodie or the Unabomber? Few desperados can be said to have sparked a fashion trend, but that’s happened when the wanted poster was hung in post offices around the country. The man who would soon be known around the world as Ted Kaczynski did more for hooded sweatshirts and aviator shades than Tommy Hilfiger, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren combined. If nothing else, he reclaimed hoodies from Rocky Balboa wannabes and hip-hoppers, making them one more thing for mainstream society to fear. Discovery Channel’s eight-part mini-series, “Manhunt: Unabomber,” recalls the rise of the serial bomber, who emerged from the bowels of academia to become one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives. It also focuses on the agency’s 17-year manhunt, with special attention paid to the tenacity and imagination of FBI profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), who pioneered the use of forensic linguistics to identify and capture criminals as brilliant and egomaniacal as the certified math genius, Kaczynski (Paul Bettany). In the list of 100 notorious cases published on the FBI’s website to mark its 2006 centennial, readers were asked, “How do you catch a twisted genius who aspires to be the perfect, anonymous killer: who builds untraceable bombs and delivers them to random targets; who leaves false clues to throw off authorities; who lives like a recluse in the mountains of Montana and tells no one of his secret crimes?” How, indeed. One way was to play to his ego, by breaking precedent and allowing his 35,000-word manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” — claiming to explain his motives and views on the ills of modern society – to be published in the New York Times and Washington Post. There was the last-ditch hope someone might recognize the unknown suspect’s use of language, syntax, source material and hatred for the status quo. It worked. The other task faced by the FBI was getting Kaczynski, once captured, to plead guilty to his crimes, so that he couldn’t beat them out of a conviction. As a procedural, “Manhunt: Unabomber” works pretty well, encapsulating nearly two decades of intense investigative and criminal activity into 340 minutes of theatrical content. The padding can be seen in the depiction of Fitzgerald’s family life and the dissolution of his marriage to Ellie Ftizgerald (Elizabeth Reaser); an affair with a forensic-linguistics specialist (Lynn Collins); and taking considerable poetic license with the facts of the case. I caught one gaping hole in the narrative, dealing with an early, if easily dismissed suspect, and I wasn’t really looking for goofs. Even so, Greg Yaitanes’ mini-series doesn’t lack for suspense in its depiction of a violent chapter in modern American history. The Blue-ray adds a few short featurettes, “Criminal Profiling,” “Who is the Unabomber” and “Deciphering the Manifesto.”

In 1982, HBO had only recently begun transmitting programming on a 24/7 basis to subscribers and was still searching for the killer app that would propel it into in the forefront of cable-delivered entertainment and convince viewers to pay even more for television services that, for 30 years, had been free. First and foremost, of course, was the elimination of commercial breaks. The second was a commitment to presenting material not typically available on the networks, including uncensored comedy showcases, concerts and sporting events, especially boxing, which was being phased out by broadcasters. One idea was HBO Theater, which would bring Broadway hits to the masses. Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” which debuted in 1960, had enjoyed an 873-performance run on the Great White Way, winning four Tony Awards and spawning several revivals, foreign productions and the 1967 film Camelot. The original cast album was America’s top-selling LP for 60 weeks. How much of its continuing success could be credited to the Jacqueline Kennedy’s revelation that the album was the slain president’s favorite bedtime listening – JFK and Lerner were classmates at Harvard – is anyone’s guess. One of the musical’s more noteworthy revivals and tours began at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater, on November 15, 1981. It was recorded, with only a few minor tweaks, for airing a year later, on HBO. Once again, Richard Harris heads an all-star cast, with Meg Bussert as Queen Guinevere and Richard Muenz as Lancelot. The New York Times’ television critic John J. O’Connor commented, “Richard Harris, reported to have been ill and notoriously out of sorts during the taping, is a memorably majestic and troubled king. He skillfully elevates a serviceable musical to surprisingly moving drama.” The DVD adds the original Broadway Playbill (DVD-ROM) and bios of Lerner, Loewe and Harris.

The DVD Gift Guide 3: 100 Years Olympics Films, One Day at a Time, Monterey Pop, 4K UHD/HDR Action Editions, Coens, Nutcracker, Stronger, mother!, Leatherface… and more

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

100 Years of Olympic Films: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Olympics movement has come a long way since the IOC reinstituted the Games in 1896, in Athens, only a hop, skip and very long jump from Olympia, where the ancient Games were held from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. The site has been partially reconstructed and, if you’re in the neighborhood, is well worth a visit. Held annually in honor of Zeus and other gods, the Games began with a foot race among young women competing to be anointed priestess for the goddess, Hera, while a second race was run to determine a consort for the priestess at religious ceremonies. During the Games, a truce was enacted so that athletes could travel to Olympia in safety. In 394 AD, the Nicene Christian emperor of Rome, Theodosius I, banned all festivals in the territories that were considered by the church to be pagan. Archeological evidence indicates that some games were still conducted, though. We’ll never know if doping, bribery, misplaced patriotism and fear of nuclear disaster concerned Theodosius, but those are issues confronting IOC officials and fans heading to South Korea in February. It also explains why the Criterion Collection’s epic box set, “100 Years of Olympic Films,” is such an irresistible gift idea, even at prices ranging from around $220 to $395 list price for DVD and Blu-ray editions. Besides being extremely entertaining to watch, the archival films serve as a reminder of what the world could be like if politicians paid more attention to athletics and the arts than building arsenals and putting up fences. If the Olympics could bounce back from two world wars, there’s no reason to think peace isn’t be possible in our time. “100 Years of Olympic Films” spans 41 editions of the Olympic Games, from 1912-2012, in 53 surprisingly comprehensive and impeccably restored movies. They aren’t simply newsreels shown before  features, either. The feature-length films were made under the auspices of the IOC, to be shown to audiences around the world unable to make the trips to venues. The earliest ones feature camerawork of the point-and-shoot variety, with special attention paid to dignitaries, awards ceremonies, galleries and parades, in which winter Olympians carried their skis, skates, brooms and sticks, and participants in equestrian events arrived on horseback. As recording devices became more portable, the individual contests were captured with more fluidity and imagination. In addition to the impressive 10 features contributed by Bud Greenspan, the set includes such documentary landmarks as Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (Berlin 1936), Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (Tokyo 1964), Claude Lelouch and François Reichenbach’s 13 Days in France (Grenoble 1968), Carlos Saura’s Marathon (Barcelona 1992) and Visions of Eight (Munich 1972), with segments directed by Ichikawa, Lelouch, Miloš Forman, Yuri Ozerov, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, John Schlesinger and Mai Zetterling.

In the first chapter, “Stockholm 1912,” Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, smiling broadly after finishing first in a race, and Native American Jim Thorpe, accept laurel wreaths and the medals he would be forced to relinquish for playing two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics. (In 1983, 30 years after his death, the IOC restored the medals.) Other legends shown in action during early chapters are “Flying Finns” Paavo Nurmi and Ville Ritola, Eric Liddell (Chariots of Fire), and Johnny Weissmuller and three-time figure-skating champion Sonja Henie in their pre-Hollywood days. In 1936, Carl Junghans’ Youth of the World (Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936) and Riefenstahl’s brilliant two-part Olympia: Festival of the Nations/Festival of Beauty would mark a turning point in coverage of the Games, both artistically and as a platform for Adolf Hitler to demonstrate the superiority of Aryan athletes and advance his propaganda machine. (African-American sprinters Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Mack Robinson, high-jumper Cornelius Johnson and middle-distance runner John Woodruff spoiled that part of Der Fuhrer’s party.) The 1936 Summer Games were the first to be televised and broadcast live, while radio broadcasts reached 41 countries. While most of us are aware of Owens, Metcalfe and Robinson’s accomplishments, Riefenstahl’s ability to keep us guessing as to the results of other events, held 80 years ago, is truly remarkable. World War II forced the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics, picking up again in 1948 in St. Moritz and London, whose economy was still devastated. Neither Germany nor Japan were invited to participate, and the USSR remained ideologically opposed. (The joined the festivities in 1952, after re-evaluating their propaganda value.) The opening ceremony and over 60 hours of coverage were broadcast live on BBC television and color was added to the cinematographers’ repertoire.

The Olympics popularity catapulted from there and licensing fees turned the IOC into as much a corporate beast as any of the sponsors trying to affix their logos on anything that moved. The films, too, would take on the tenor of the times, evolving into works of art that included original music soundtracks and other conceits. For this set, however, scores for the silent films were composed by Maud Nelissen, Donald Sosin and Frido ter Beek, while Marathon added an evocative score by Alejandro Massó and contributions by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Angelo Badalamenti. As the chapters unwind, some viewers might mourn the disappearance of such old-fashioned challenges as the men’s tug of war, rope climbing, synchronized calisthenics and gymnastics, horse racing on ice, and hockey played with wooden pucks, but no helmets, masks or side boards. Splashes of unintended humor can be found throughout the early films. During a 1912 hockey game between the U.S. and Canadian, an onscreen intertitle advises, “In the audience were several women in masculine garb. They found it more convenient than skirts.” By 1928, Nurmi was refusing to be photographed, while most other athletes enjoyed the exposure, if only to say, “Hi, mom,” which didn’t require a separate text-block. By its very composition, “100 Years of Olympic Films” not only showcases the evolution of athleticism and equipment, but also the development of sports cinematography. By the late 1920s, cameras were able to bring viewers closer to the action and slow-motion was introduced to capture dives in midair and treacherous turns on the bobsled run. The boxed set represents the culmination of a monumental archival project, encompassing dozens of new 4K restorations sponsored by the IOC. The early black-and-white footage could hardly be more pristine. Chapter breaks come between events, so, if you’ve tired of, say, race walking or hand-shaking, they’re easy to skip. The package adds a lavishly illustrated, 216-page hardcover book, featuring notes on the films by cinema historian Peter Cowie. Instructive featurettes also appear on some discs.

One Day at a Time: The Complete Series
When “One Day at a Time” began its midseason run on December 16, 1975, it was the first of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom that didn’t quite fit the mold. His fingerprints were all over “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” even if the shows’ roots could be traced to the British sitcoms, “Till Death Us Do Part” and “Steptoe and Son.” The short-lived “Hot l Baltimore,” adapted from an off-Broadway play by Lanford Wilson, was deemed too hot for ABC’s prime-time audience and only lasted 13 episodes. “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” became a hit in syndication, only after the networks passed on the parody of soap operas and middle-class consumer culture. Although Lear was credited with developing “One Day at a Time,” it was created by Whitney Blake and Allan Manings, a husband-and-wife writing duo, who started as actors in the 1950-60s. Blake based the series on her own life as a single mother, raising her three children — including future actress Meredith Baxter — after her divorce from her first husband. In most sitcoms of the period, unmarried women spent their time serial dating or commiserating with their friends about the losers they met. “One Day at a Time” featured a single, divorced mother, Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin), and her two daughters — the rebellious Julie (Mackenzie Phillips) and smart-aleck Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) – who move from Logansport, Indiana, to an Indianapolis apartment complex, in search of a new life. As difficult as it sometimes was, Ann wanted to afford the girls the kind of freedoms her parents denied her, growing up in a dead-end town of less than 19,000 people. At first, CBS suits insisted on Ann having a male friend, at least, but, in the second season, Richard Masur was replaced by a frisky female confidante and comedic foil, played by Mary Louise Wilson. That didn’t last long, either. By then, however, Lear was able to focus on the core cast, which now included the macho-man building superintendent. Schneider (Pat Harrington) rolled his cigarette packs in the sleeve of his T-shirt, wore his tool belt like a holster and fancied himself to be a real catch. Like the characters in “Seinfeld” and other sitcoms set in apartment buildings, he didn’t feel it necessary to knock or buzz before entering their apartment and making himself at home. As popular as he became, in my opinion Schneider served the purpose of being the token white-ethnic-male stereotype. The show would last nine years on CBS, with or without my eyes on it. What I completely misjudged the first time around was the sitcom’s appeal to a generation of married or otherwise single working women who totally identified with Ann, whether her dilemmas related to raising teenage hellions or struggling to sort through the bozos courting her affections. While I had yet to encounter many, if any women in similar straits, Lear was inspired by friends, including his daughter, who provided scenarios for the moral dilemmas that challenged Bonnie each week. The Shout! Factory boxed set includes all 209 episodes of the series – a DVD first, apparently – as well as the 2005 reunion special; “This Is It: The Story of ‘One Day at a Time’”; and a new interview with Phillips and actor Glenn Scarpelli.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
While the arrival of yet another iteration of the musical documentary, Monterey Pop, would hardly appear to qualify as news, this Criterion Collection releases represents a step up, even from the company’s stellar 2009 Blu-ray edition. Director D.A. Pennebaker personally supervised the new 16-bit 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack, as well as upgraded high-definition digital transfers of Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey, and another separate disc of outtake performances and bonus material, featuring the Association, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Blues Project, Byrds, Country Joe and the Fish, Electric Flag, Jefferson Airplane, Al Kooper, Mamas and the Papas, Laura Nyro, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Simon and Garfunkel, Tiny Tim and the Who. The rock festival concept was generated in the spring of 1967 by musician John Phillips, record producer Lou Adler, festival co-producer Alan Pariser and publicist Derek Taylor. The idea was to establish rock-’n’-roll as a form of art to be taken as seriously as jazz and folk music, both of which were already recognized as such by festivals in Monterey, Big Sur and Newport. Another idea was to introduce bands from southern and northern California to audiences who’d yet to sample them. It grew to include musicians from New York, Chicago and England. It is recalled, as well, for the first major American appearances by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Who and Ravi Shankar; the first large-scale public performance of Janis Joplin; and the introduction of Otis Redding to white folks. Instead of having his team of cinematographers merely point their cameras on the musicians, on stage, Pennebaker had them seek out interesting faces in the crowd – including fellow artists — and nascent hippies on the fringes of the facility. In this way, Pennebaker laid the foundation for Michael Wadleigh’s even grander coverage of Woodstock. The three-disc Criteria package also arrives with alternate soundtracks for all three films, featuring 5.1 mixes by recording engineer Eddie Kramer, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio; commentaries by Pennebaker, Adler and music critics and historians Charles Shaar Murray and Peter Guralnick; new interviews with Adler and Pennebaker; “Chiefs” (1968), a short film by cameraman Richard Leacock, which played alongside Monterey Pop during its inaugural theatrical run; archival interviews from 2002 with Adler, Pennebaker and Phil Walden, Otis Redding’s manager; a photo-essay by photographer Elaine Mayes; Monterey International Pop Festival scrapbook; marketing material; an artists’ index; and a 72-page booklet, with essays by critics Michael Chaiken, Armond White, David Fricke, Barney Hoskyns and Michael Lydon.

Transformers: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Interstellar: Blu-ray, 4K UHD/HDR
Terminator 2: Judgement Day: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Paramount has decided to test the 4K UHD/HDR waters with new upgraded editions of its Transformer quintet: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Dark of the Moon (2011), Age of Extinction (2014) and, already available, The Last Knight (2017). The upgraded editions look and sound stunning in UHD/HDR – Ultra High Definition/High Dynamic Range — especially the bright yellow Bumblebee and other computer-generated characters and images. Their depth is impressive, as is the addition of theater-quality Dolby Atmos audio tracks. There aren’t any new bonus features, but commentaries and other material from previous Blu-ray editions have been ported over on separate discs. Critics may have already noted their displeasure with certain of the films, qualitatively, but fans will delight in the noticeably upgraded 4K UHD/HDR audio and visual presentation.

The studio is also trotting out Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi thriller, Interstellar, in the same advanced format. The sci-fi epic looks great, even on my system, which is hardly state-of-the-art. Listen to Nolan sell it, though, “4K Blu-ray with HDR is an incredibly exciting new home-video format that allows a much closer re-creation of viewing the original film print,” he observes. “The deeper color palette comes closer to matching the analogue colors of film and we’ve restored the original theatrical mixes for this release. If you can’t re-watch these films in the theater, this is the best experience you can have in your own home.” Couldn’t have said it better, myself.

Not to be left behind, Lionsgate is releasing its 4K UHD edition of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) on the day after Christmas. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in this explosive action-adventure spectacle, which James Cameron may have made in anticipation of such high-end technology. In the sequel, Arnold’s out-of-date Terminator is one of the good guys, sent back in time to protect John Connor (Edward Furlong), the boy destined to lead freedom fighters of the future, from T-1000 (Robert Patrick), the most lethal Terminator ever created. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), John’s mother, has been institutionalized for her warning of the nuclear holocaust she knows is inevitable. Together, the threesome must find a way to stop the ultimate enemy and rescue the franchise from premature extinction. Newly added is “T2: Reprogramming the Terminator,” a 55-minute documentary, including interviews with Schwarzenegger, Cameron and Furlong.

The Godfather Trilogy Collection: Limited Omerta Edition: Blu-ray
In celebration of the 45th anniversary of The Godfather, Paramount has re-re-released the beloved trilogy in a new, lightly colored four-disc Blu-ray package. Technically, “The Godfather Trilogy Collection: Limited Omerta Edition” is identical to the highly regarded “Coppola Restoration,” released in 2008. Besides different packaging, it adds a handful of cardboard and magnetic trinkets. Considering that Paramount has been in the forefront of the 4K movement, I wonder how much consideration was given to releasing a UHD package this year. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see one arrive next Christmas, though. So, caveat emptor. Bonus content includes a fold-open collection of five attached cards, each with a color image from a key sequence from The Godfather. On the flip side is text entitled “Anatomy of a Scene,” which recreates the shooting script for the sequence depicted on the front. Another set of collector’s cards feature character portraits and movie stills on the front, with character quotes on the rear. A perforated magnetic sheet holds a number of phrases, whose words can be removed and shuffled on a refrigerator. On a smaller cut-out at the bottom of the box are 10 “Godfather” trivia cards with the question on the front and the answer on the back.

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture: Blu-ray
Upon its release in 1986, critics weren’t terribly impressed by Carroll Ballard’s interpretation of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker, the production of which was designed by Maurice Sendak in collaboration with Kent Stowell, the company’s artistic director. They seemed to be overly disappointed by the fact that Ballard failed to incorporate the wonderful cinematography on display in his first two directorial efforts, Black Stallion and Never Cry Wolf. Considering that the holiday staple was shot on a pair of sound stages on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot – on a reportedly miniscule budget — that would have been a lot to ask of him. It isn’t likely that the producers thought they were sending out the definitive adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Nearly every little girl in the country – and more than a few little boys – has experienced “The Nutcracker,” in one form or another. Ballard probably could have chosen from a dozen other productions, but the Seattle company already was showcasing the Stowell/Sendak collaboration, as part of its standard repertoire, and it fit his notion of how special visual effects could be used to support the story and dancers in a unique way. Sendak had previously adapted “Where the Wild Things Are” for the stage. in 1979, and   designed sets for the Houston Grand Opera’s productions of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and the New York City Opera’s production of Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen,” both in 1981. Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, like the Stowell/Sendak stage production, is presented as Clara’s coming-of-age story. It depicts Clara’s inner conflicts and confusion as she approaches adolescence, as well as the beginning of her sexual awakening. The film emphasizes the darker aspects of Hoffmann’s original story and the significance of dreams and the imagination. That aspect must not have bothered the MPAA panelists, who gave the movie a “G,” even as they pointed out the dark and potentially disturbing subtext. Freudians might have suggested a “PG,” instead. The dancing is very good.

The Coen Brothers: The Iconic Filmmakers and Their Work
British film journalist Ian Nathan’s admittedly “unofficial and unauthorized” evaluation and celebration of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre focuses primarily on their work as directors of such wonderfully eclectic entertainments as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, True Grit and Hail, Caesar! Packed with stunning images from the Kobal Collection Movie and TV Archive, the book also highlights the brothers’ involvement, as writers, in recent films like Bridge of Spies, Gambit and Unbroken. If I were to guess, I’d say that the ideal recipient for this book would younger readers whose gateway to the Coens’ work has been provided by Fargo and The Big Lebowski, thoroughly offbeat comedies that have only gotten more popular with age. They might, then, want to work their way backwards through the easily accessible Raising Arizona and Blood Simple, before tackling the more obscure and personal projects. “The Coen Brothers” publisher is London-based Aurum Press.

Ella at Zardi’s
Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin
Trane 90
This being the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth, it’s only fitting that the great singer’s career be feted not only with a series of albums re-mastered digitally and on vinyl, but also a collection of 21 songs no one even knew existed until they were discovered 60 years later, gathering dust in the Verve archives. “Ella at Zardi’s” was recorded on February 2, 1956, at Zardi’s Jazzland, in Hollywood. Planned by Norman Granz to be the label’s inaugural release, it was shelved in favor of the now-classic studio album, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book,” which was put to wax a week later and kicked off a best-selling, signature series of “Song Book” releases. Here, Fitzgerald is backed by a stellar trio, composed of pianist Don Abney, bassist Vernon Alley and drummer Frank Capp. The intimate setting allowed for some lively give-and-take between the artist and audience members, many of whom worked in the recording industry. Ella, who’s in tip-top form, appears to be enjoying the casual nature of the session and easy rapport with the musicians. Among the songs taped that evening are Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone,” Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the Gershwins’ “S Wonderful” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” and Jerome Kern’s “A Fine Romance.” There isn’t a weak moment in the entire set, even if she does admit to fudging some forgotten lyrics. Released on CD and streaming sites by Verve/UMe it’s the perfect gift for anyone who appreciates jazz and great song stylists, and as a companion to Verve/UMe’s “Ella Fitzgerald: 100 Songs for a Centennial,” which is studio based.

Aretha Franklin has crossed so many genre borders that each new album should come with a copy of her passport. Previously unreleased on DVD or CD, “Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin,” was recorded at Radio City Music Hall for the inaugural “VH1 Divas” showcase, in 2001, and to support the channel’s Save the Music Foundation. The all-star tribute to the undisputed Queen of Soul — only one of her titles – featured appearances by Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, Backstreet Boys and Kid Rock, and spirited renditions of “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Respect,” “Freeway of Love” and, wait for it, “Nessun Dorma.” It arrives via MVD Visual.

Another can’t-miss gift for jazz lovers, especially those just beginning a collection of essentials, is “Trane 90,” released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s untimely death, in 1967, at 40. Although the selections are limited to material recorded in or before 1962 – the beginning of his historic “free jazz” period — the material here documents his formative years and emergence as a band leader and soloist. It traces Coltrane’s career from his earliest recordings, as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s early 1950s combo, which pioneered the post-swing bebop style; playing behind Johnny Hodges, a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band; as a key, if somewhat unreliable member of Miles Davis’ late 1950s groups, famous for introducing “cool jazz”; and as a leader of his own ensembles, in the 1960s. The material collected in the Acrobat import crosses label borders and adds some unpublished material to the mix, as well.

New to DVD/Blu-ray
mother!: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
No movie polarized critics and audiences more than Darren Aronofsky’s truly chilling mother! And, by polarization, I mean that it impressed critics and antagonized audiences in almost equal measure. Even before the film was introduced at this September’s Venice Film Festival, the ever-challenging Aronofsky (Black Swan) felt it necessary to explain his intentions to audiences. In a written statement, the writer/director quotes the author of “Requiem for a Dream,” a harrowing novel he adapted into an amazing film, against great odds: “I imagine people may ask why (mother!) has such a dark vision. Hubert Selby Jr. taught me that through staring into the darkest parts of ourselves is where we find the light.” If the movie opens in the light, its inexorable journey into the heart of darkness will confound, sicken and thrill audiences, sometimes simultaneously. The Venice audience divided its reaction between jeers and cheers, while, according to Aronofsky, British audiences found it to be hilarious. They might have benefitted from the featurettes included in the DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD that go a long way toward explaining what was on Aronofsky’s mind. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play Mother and Him, a married couple living in a rural mansion that’s being rebuilt after a fire nearly destroyed it, leaving only a crystal heart in the ruins. Mother stays busy putting the finishing touches on the interior, while Him is struggling to crack a writer’s block that has kept him from starting his next book of poetry and killed their sex life. The differences in their age and energy levels is likely adding a extra layer of tension between them, as well. One night, Man (Ed Harris) unexpectedly shows up at their doorstep with a hacking cough and burning desire to connect with Him. It’s an intrusion on their privacy, but Him warms to Man’s adulation and their exchange of ideas. The next day, Man returns to the country home, this time with his wife, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who exudes unbridled sexuality and forcefully suggests that their hostess follow suit. This unnerves Mother, but things don’t get really and truly weird until the arrival of Younger Brother (Brian Gleeson) and Oldest Son (Domhnall Gleeson), estranged siblings who somehow knew how to find their parents and whose arguments over Man’s estate turns into a violent confrontation, leaving one of them dead. The body’s barely cold when a dozen or so mourners begin showing up at the door, expecting to be welcomed inside for a wake no one had planned. Mother puts up with their nonsense until the mourners start swarming all over the house, even managing to destroy a sink that was only recently installed. She demands they leave. Somehow the chaos surrounding the unauthorized wake invigorates Him, lifting the dark cloud over his head and allowing him to finish the book. It also did wonders for their sex life, because Mother is pregnant. Once the book is published, another crowd of admirers descends on the house. This time, they occupy every nook and cranny of the multistory dwelling, destroying everything Mother’s been able to accomplish and picking up the pieces for souvenirs.  Once they’ve stolen everything worth stealing, even the infant child becomes fair game. What happens next might seem inevitable – especially to fans of Nathanael West’s great Hollywood novel, “The Day of the Locusts” – but it’s no less unnerving to Mother and viewers. Aronofsky still has a couple of tricks up his sleeves, though.

I probably should have inserted a spoiler alert somewhere in the previous paragraph, but nothing short of a link to the annotated screenplay could ruin the many surprises awaiting viewers in mother! It is a cornucopia of horror, dread and dark humor. From the moment the desperately ill Man is invited into the house by Him, and he ignores Mother’s edict on smoking indoors, viewers should prepare to fasten their seatbelts. Even going into the movie half-blind, I was impressed by Aronofsky’s ability to mold a home-invasion thriller that bears comparison to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games … both of them. We completely empathize with Mother as her house and husband are overwhelmed by his increasingly demanding admirers. Clearly, though, Aronofsky was digging for something deeper than mere horror. His pre-Venice statement cites his growing unhappiness with the general state of the world, hastened by a steady stream of alarming news reports and anecdotal evidence of mass hysteria. At the same time, he condemned those of us who attend to our chores unaffected by such annoyances and the “endless buzzing of notifications on our smartphones.”  (OK, here comes the spoiler alert.) If that weren’t enough, Aronofsky later explained, “Jennifer Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, while her house represents the world … a living, breathing organism being destroyed by its inhabitants. Him is God. Out of boredom, he creates Adam and Eve (the couple), who proceed to destroy both Gaia’s creation and His study (the Garden of Eden), which holds God’s perfect crystal (the apple). Their quarrelling sons are Cain and Abel. They also bring worshipers to praise God.” The invaders’ carelessness causes the pipes to burst into a Great Flood. “God impregnates mother, who gives birth to the Messiah … (triggering) a chaotic sequence followed by a disquieting communion and Revelations.” (End, spoiler alert,) I only bring that up because some viewers likely would benefit from knowing what to expect, philosophically, before things get too thick and weird for them to stick with the story. While the biblical allegory is valid, it probably scared the crap out of Lawrence’ loyal fan base. (Reportedly, the $7.5 million opening weekend was the weakest in her career.) I was more impressed with the director’s ability to create an original thriller that’s legitimately thrilling and, beyond that, hugely disturbing. Home invasions happen all the time and for reasons far less valid than those presented by Aronofsky. Although critics were largely supportive of mother!, it flunked the CinemaScore test. Only 19 features have ever received an “F” from audiences surveyed post-screening and one of them is mother! Moreover, it only grossed $18 million in total worldwide receipts, a number that should, but doesn’t shock me. The marketing campaign was weak and the buzz non-existent outside the arthouse and festival community. Lawrence deserves consideration for an Oscar nod, but numbers like that don’t often translate into nominations, let alone awards. In another surprising move, Aronofsky delivered the movie without a musical score and shot it in 16mm, as is his wont. Even so, the 4K UHD translation, via DolbyVision and Dolby Atmos, maximizes the chills for home-based viewers. It might as well be The Shining. The Paramount package adds featurettes “Mother! The Downward Spiral,” which goes into depth on the three-month rehearsal process and 2½-month shoot, and “The Makeup FX of Mother!

Stronger: Blu-ray
Judging from the tepid commercial response to Stronger and Patriots Day – despite their topicality and mostly positive reviews – it’s possible that the moviegoing public is suffering from an overdose of Boston-centric movies. That, or an overexposure to Mark Wahlberg or terrorism-survival stories. Wahlberg may not have appeared in Stronger, whose protagonist is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, but the marketing campaigns ahead of Patriots Day’s theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray debuts likely impacted the one originally planned for David Gordon Green’s drama. The Boston Marathon-related movies were filmed at the same time, on several of the same locations and share a character, Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the bombing. In Peter Berg’s picture, Bauman (Dan Whelton) isn’t given the same prominence, but, in Stronger, he’s the protagonist. Indeed, Bauman and Gyllenhaal threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park on the Marathon Monday game of April 18, 2016. The list of movies set in or around Beantown, since Good Will Hunting, anyway, includes, but isn’t limited to Spotlight, Daddy’s Home 2, The Departed, Manchester by the Sea, The Equalizer, The Town, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Black Mass, Ted, The Heat and, of course, The Boomtown Saints. Besides the presence of Wahlberg, the Affleck brothers, Matt Damon and/or Fenway Park, the pictures all share wildly divergent interpretations of Boston accents. The best of the lot, perhaps, Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle, got everything right, but was released at a time when most of the cast of Good Will Hunting was still in diapers. It proved to be a tough act to follow. Gyllenhaal’s Jeff Bauman is a working-class Bostonian, who was standing near the finish line of the 2013 marathon, cheering on his girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), when the blast occurred. The wounds he suffered caused both of his legs to be amputated above the knee. After regaining consciousness, Jeff was able to help law enforcement officials identify one of the bombers and hasten the pursuit of the killers. Although his own battles had just begun, Bauman came to personify the slogan, “Boston Strong.” John Pollono’s screenplay was based, in large part, on Bauman and Bret Witter’s eponymous book. From the point of view of this non-Bostonian, anyway, the problem with Stronger is that the truly inspirational stuff doesn’t come until two-thirds of the way through the story. Before Bauman accepts his fate and dedicates himself to the hard work it took to walk again on prosthetic limbs, viewers without a personal stake in the Boston Strong fervor must endure ugly depictions of his lumpenproletarian relatives.

Anyone who saw Ben Affleck’s terrific adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Gone Baby Gone” already knows how denizens of the Dorchester neighborhood are looked upon by people in more prosperous zipcodes. They barely function without the assistance of alcohol and unemployment checks. They’re quick to fight and distrust outsiders, sometimes for good reason. They’d rather give away their season tickets to the Bruins or Red Sox than cooperate with police. Their dialect requires subtitles and did I mention that they drink, smoke and cuss too much? I don’t know where Bauman lived at the time of the bombing, but his family members fit that description to a T. If they possess more than one redeeming quality – besides loyalty to each other and their sports teams – Green didn’t search too hard to find it. In the hands of Miranda Richardson, Jeff’s loathsome mother, Patty Bauman, is every bit as unsavory as Amy Ryan’s insult to motherhood, Helene McCready, in Gone Baby Gone. Because Erin grew up in a more affluent part of Boston, she’s looked upon as an interloper and potential threat to family unity. When we meet them, Erin is between breakups with Jeff. His passion for the Red Sox causes him to be routinely late for dates and appointments. Nonetheless, Jeff’s obsession with Erin causes him to be at the marathon’s finish line that fateful day. Her feelings of guilt bind her not only to his recovery efforts, but his intolerable family.  Patty’s idea of being supportive is contacting her heroine, Oprah Winfrey, and arranging for an interview with Jeff, which he’s refuses to do. A half-hour less time with the Bauman clan would have been a godsend for viewers. Stronger doesn’t pick up until Jeff reconnects with Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who helped save his life after the bombing and wanted to check in on him. Carlos, who lost his sons in the Middle East conflicts, introduces the very good question of what differentiates a true hero from an innocent bystander fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the villain. Even if his relatives have convinced him that he’s Boston Strong, he doesn’t consider himself to be a hero. Neither does he much like enduring his rehab classes or waving a flag at the Bruins’ playoff opener. Carlos turns his head around in a hurry. His ability to put everything in perspective allows Green to prevent a disaster.

And, that’s really the point of Stronger. If the picture had done better business, I suspect that Gyllenhaal and Richardson would have a fighting chance at some nominations. As the enablers, Lenny Clarke, Clancy Brown, Kate Fitzgerald, Patty O’Neil, Richard Lane Jr. and Nate Richman are almost too convincing. The Blu-ray adds “Faith, Hope and Love: Becoming Stronger,” a half-hour featurette documenting both Bauman’s real-life story and the filming process.

Also available from Lionsgate on VOD and streaming outlets, after a brief theatrical run, is Boston. The documentary traces the history of the Boston Marathon from its humble origins, starting, in 1897, with only 15 runners, to the inclusion of women runners, in 1972, through the tragedy in 2013. Beyond that, the focus of director Jon Dunham (Spirit of the Marathon) is the emotional comeback effort that began in the wake of the bombings and the pursuit and investigation that followed them. The event, we’re reminded, has been shaken time and again by world events and social change, but has always evolved to run another year.

Blood Money: Blu-ray
Anybody old enough to recall the legend of D.B. Cooper will have an advantage over viewers who might assume that Blood Money sprang fully blown from the imaginations of freshmen writers Jared Butler and Lars Norberg. Otherwise, the idea of a crook parachuting into a dense forest from a plane, with $3 million tethered to his body in Hefty bags, might sound too preposterous to take seriously. That, however, is what happened in 1971, when a non-descript fellow who identified himself as Dan Cooper hijacked a plane on its way to Seattle, demanded a ransom and parachutes, and after they were delivered to him on the ground, parachuted into the darkness from a rear exit. If he lived to tell his tale – or spend the money – no one’s been able to verify it. In fact, it’s more likely that Cooper died before he had an opportunity to do either one. If the forests of the Pacific Northwest could shelter Bigfoot, why not a man who likely had Special Forces training and a working knowledge of the terrain. Still, the FBI only recently ended its 40-year investigation, with a handful of weak leads and tentative suspects and none of the bills uncovered. An annual “Cooper Day” celebration has been held at the Ariel General Store and Tavern, in Aerial, Washington, one of the possible drop zones, each November since 1974. His face has appeared on T-shirts and other souvenirs items, as well. As directed by Lucky McGee (All Cheerleaders Die), Blood Money is less plausible than the mythology surrounding D.B. Cooper, but close enough for cable television, VOD and straight-to-DVD exhibition. Here, three friends on a wilderness excursion and rafting trip stumble upon several bags full of freshly minted hundred-dollar bills, floating down a river in Tennessee. We know that a black-garbed criminal, Miller (John Cusack) was able to parachute out his lightplane before it crashed into a hillside, losing the bags in his punishing descent and landing, and they apply the losers-weepers/finders-keepers rule to the bounty. It takes a while for Miller to get his bearings and locate their trail, which any Boy Scout could find in the dark. The two male students (Ellar Coltrane, Jacob Artist) make it even easier for him, by bickering over who has dibs on Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald). Although she’s slept with both men, Lynn wants to keep her options wide open, Once Miller catches up to them, all bets are off. As unlikely as everything is in Blood Money, Cusack is fun to watch and Fitzgerald (“Scream: The TV Series”) looks as if she might have a future as a scream queen. Cinematographer Alex Vendler takes full advantage of the beautiful scenery surrounding Tennessee’s Ocoee River. McGee appears to have watched Deliverance, without quite grasping how John Boorman was able to turn James Dickey’s backwoods thriller into a horror show for the ages. The featurette, “Blood Money Uncovered,” offers interviews and footage documenting how the river-rafting scenes were achieved.

Leatherface: Blu-ray
For those keeping score at home, Leatherface is the eighth entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise – unless one counts the 2003 short, “Jason vs. Leatherface,” and 1983 video game – and the second prequel (a.k.a., origin story) to Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel’s 1974 original. Like the sequels, the prequels aren’t religiously faithful to movies that preceded them, except for similar openings and, of course, chainsaws. Five of the eight installments were shot in Texas, one in Louisiana and the other in California. Leatherface was made in Bulgaria, with the help of an Eastern European crew. I was surprised to find indie mainstays Stephen Dorff and Lili Taylor in lead roles, but no more than when I learned that Dennis Hopper starred in the first sequel; Viggo Mortensen, in the second; Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, in “Next Generation”; R. Lee Ermey and Jessica Biel, in the remake; or Alexandra Daddario, in “3D.” Everybody has to eat and a gig’s a gig. Award-winning French filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (Inside) were called in to direct Leatherface. According to Taylor, “When they told me they wanted to do something that was a cross between Terrence Malick, like Badlands, and The Virgin Suicides, I thought ‘I’m there,’ because what I love is this stuff that’s happening with people pushing a genre as far as they could push it.” I’m not sure Sofia Coppola and Malick would be thrilled to hear that their work inspired Leatherface, but, even in Bulgaria, one takes praise no matter the direction it comes. The movie opens in typical fashion, with a pretty young thing being lured to the Sawyer homestead, where she’ll be slaughtered like a pig. This time, though, the victim is the daughter of Sheriff Hal Hartman (Dorff), who has to be restrained from killing Verna (Taylor), who’s just forced her youngest son, Jedidiah to join in the family ritual of using a chainsaw to murder strangers. Despite her protestations, Hartman quickly takes the boy into custody as revenge, sending him to a mental institution. Ten years later, Jed (Sam Strike) will escape the facility with three other psychos and a nurse they take hostage. They’re prevented from reaching the Mexican border by Hartley, who chases Jed and the lovely nurse (Vanessa Grasse) back to the homestead, where the carnage continues. Bustillo and Maury aren’t stingy with the blood, gore and special makeup effects, so I don’t think that fans of the franchise will be disappointed. It’s worth noting, however, that executive producer Hooper passed away on August 26, a few weeks before Leatherface’s premiere on DirecTV. Special features include “Behind the Mask: The Making of Leatherface,” six deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis
In the 1970s, many South and Central American countries were controlled by right-wing juntas, not at all reluctant to use torture and the very real threat of death to keep dissenters and leftists in check. They also would kidnap the babies of parents they intended to murder and present them as gifts to supporters anxious to adopt. Thousands of students, educators and intellectuals who leaned to the left of center politically were rounded up, tortured, killed and buried in mass graves. Some were escorted to a troop carrier, from which they’d be thrown into the sea. One method the governments used to keep their presumed enemies on edge was to reward informants – neighbors, waiters, co-workers — some of whom used the betrayal for personal gain. In Andrea Testa and Francisco Márquez’ The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, you can cut the paranoia with a knife and spread it on a cracker. In a mere 78 minutes, they’re able take a bureaucrat who was just awarded a gift box from his boss, instead of a promotion, and turn him into a man who would risk his family’s livelihood by alerting a pair of strangers to their imminent arrest and likely execution. Diego Velázquez (Wild Tales) plays the title character, who’s practically blackmailed by a long-ago girlfriend into making the choice between helping “the masses” or doing nothing. She reminds him of a poem he wrote 20 years earlier that, if it were to be found and published, could easily be construed as a paean to Che Guevara or Vladimir Lenin. Sanctis only has a few hours to act on the information given him and it will require him to suck up his courage and find the strangers without incriminating himself or anyone else. The way Testa and Marquez stage his movements through Buenos Aires while everyone else in the city appears to be sleeping, Sanctis might as well be Joseph K in Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” They decided against positioning police and soldiers on every street corner, preferring to insinuate the presence of unseen eyes and ears everywhere he goes. It’s extremely effective.

Hidden Kisses
Movies about the difficulties that gay teenagers face at school aren’t particularly rare, anymore, especially in countries where such films aren’t automatically branded “R,” “NC-17” or “M” by a ratings board determined to prevent squeamish of parents from complaining to their representatives in Congress about subjects they deem reprehensible. It’s why the MPAA instituted its ratings system, in the 1960s, and is so reluctant to modify it, today. Hidden Kisses, which was made for European television outlets, concerns the ordeal endured by 16-year-old Nathan, as the new kid in a French high school. It takes very little time before he makes meaningful eye contact with another male student, Louis, in one of their classes together. A few nights later, while attending a party, they sneak away from the crowd to become better acquainted, eventually working up the courage to share a kiss. Very soon, a picture of two boys embracing goes viral on Facebook, with Nathan’s face being the only one that’s recognizable. It opens the floodgates to a shitstorm of ridicule, rejection and bullying. Louis, who has a girlfriend, is able to pretend he wasn’t the other boy in the photograph. As Nathan continues to be bullied, Louis finally begins to feel guilty about his reluctance to protect his friend. When Nathan’s cuts and bruises become evident to his father, the typically homophobic cop is forced to take a stand neither of them expected he’d have to make. Meanwhile, Louis’ girlfriend and parents begin to sense what’s really been bugging him. His father, too, is forced to take a difficult stand. Which of the very different fathers will come through the way we want? Didier Bivel and writer Jérôme Larcher have already stacked the deck a bit, by showing Louis and his father going at each other in preparation for a regional boxing tournament. They seem more sympatico, but who knows? There’s no point in spoiling the resolution to their mutual dilemmas, except to say that it satisfies in a way that might not be acceptable to Standards & Practices executives at American networks, where, traditionally, naughty boys and girls are expected to pay for their sins, in one way or another. Because cable outlets don’t have to play by those rules, it would be nice to think that one of them might pick up Hidden Kisses as a statement for tolerance and against bullying. And, there’s nothing in it that would prevent teens from watching it with their parents, either.

PBS: NOVA: Ghosts of Stonehenge
PBS: NOVA: Killer Volcanos
Stonehenge may have become something of a tourist trap lately, but that doesn’t mean archeologists have solved enough of its mysteries to turn it into just another cool place to take selfies. The deeper one digs into the possibly sacred soil, the more questions are raised as to its origins, purpose and the fate of its builders. Was it an ancient cathedral, burial place, observatory or computer? Over the years, the evidence suggests all or none of the above. Over the last decade, fresh answers have come from an ambitious program of research, including the first scientific study of human remains — thousands of fragments of cremated men, women, and children — buried at the site 5,000 years ago. They were dug up once already in the 20th Century, but replanted when funds ran out for the project. In the “NOVA” presentation “Ghosts of Stonehenge,” archaeologists analyze the bones and piece together tantalizing details of the elite families who presided over Stonehenge. Remnants of huge feasts that fed the laborers at the site have come to light, including evidence that they traveled from the far corners of the British Isles to raise the stones and celebrate the winter solstice. Yet Stonehenge’s place as a centerpiece of ancient culture was not to last.

In another “NOVA” investigation, an expert team of scientists searches for the signature of a volcanic eruption powerful enough to have blasted a huge cloud of ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere. “Killer Volcanos” spotlights the search for the mystery volcano that plunged the globe into a deep freeze and inflicted famine on medieval Europe.

The DVD Wrapup: Trip to Spain, Lucky Goat, Viceroy House, Victoria & Abdul, Manolo and more

Friday, December 15th, 2017

The Trip to Spain: Blu-ray
I wonder how much, if at all, estimable Brit director Michael Winterbottom was influenced by Louis Malle’s indie sensation My Dinner With Andre – or, for that matter, Andy Kaufman in My Breakfast with Blassie – before embarking on the first BBC mini-series, The Trip. In Malle’s film, quintessential New York City raconteurs Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory meet for dinner at a fancy restaurant to reconnect after one of them disappeared for a few years. The don’t particularly like each other, but they manage to share two hours in each other’s company, engaged in the lively art of conversation. Dinner was so convincing that many, many viewers assumed that their conversation played out in real time and was wholly improvised. In fact, it was scripted, rehearsed and shot in a chilly Virginia restaurant that was closed for the winter. It still holds up to scrutiny, however. In The Trip (2010), British actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) are asked by the Observer to tour the finest restaurants in the Lake District and document the experience. Their goofy exchanges, impersonations and kvetching only occasionally detract from the magnificent scenery. It would inspire a pair of sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014) and, now, The Trip to Spain, both of which follow the same format and conceits. Each time, Winterbottom whittled the roughly 180 minutes of television content to standalone features of about 110 minutes, for foreign consumption.

Typically, the lesser-known Brydon is invited to accompany Coogan only after the “I’m Alan Partridge” star’s girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley), cancels at the last minute. Once on the road, they while away the time riffing on each other’s careers, romantic lives, families, hotel accommodations and the music being played on the car’s tape deck. Phone calls to their agents and loved ones back home reflect all the anxieties, despair and bravado one would expect from actors who are never quite sure what they’ll be doing in six months, let alone six years. The real fun comes when Coogan and Brydon compete over movie trivia, complemented by spot-on impressions of stars, ranging from Michael Caine and Sean Connery, to Woody Allen and Al Pacino. At times, they engage in these exercises at the expense of fellow diners. They’re easier to take from afar. Not so, the restaurants and scenery, which are better than advertised. While The Trip to Italy covered territory from the Piedmont region, down the western coast to Amalfi and Capri, paying special attention to the haunts of Percy Bysshe Shelley. This time around, the lads spend their time together in northern Spain, skirting the coastline and dipping south for a photography session at the windmills of Cervantes’ La Mancha. Once again, the dining and scenic beauty border on the indescribable. (My daughter and I just returned from a similar excursion and the movie brought back some tantalizing memories.) Coogan and Brydon have aged noticeably since their first trip and their concerns are those of middle-age family men. Even so, fans of the first two films will want to climb aboard for a third adventure.

Bad Lucky Goat
True Born African: The Story of Winston ‘Flames’ Jarrett
Although dozens of documentaries have been made about reggae, Rastafarianism and the ganja trade, only a handful of narrative features from Jamaica are worth the effort it would take to uncover. The best, by far, is Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), which introduced the island’s music, economic disparity and dreadlocks culture to the world. Rockers (1978), Countryman (1982) and Dancehall Queen (1997) made some noise outside Jamaica, but not enough to turn the focus away from docs about Bob Marley and the roots of Rasta. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Samir Oliveros’ Bad Lucky Goat is the best Jamaican movie since The Harder They Come. It contains all of the elements common to movies set on the island, including a bangin’ soundtrack, reefer, Rasta men and beautiful settings, but it’s what happens to the compelling characters that really counts here. It concerns a pair of incompatible teenage siblings, who, after colliding with an impressively horned and bearded goat on the coastal highway, are required to deal with life-and-death issues not normally associated with life in Port Paradise. After engaging in a nonsensical squabble over a mix tape, Corn and Rita borrow the truck used to transport tourists from the airport to the family’s hotel on the northern coast. Not being the island’s most conscientious driver, Rita isn’t paying attention when the black critter steps from the brush onto the road, seriously damaging the truck’s front bumper. Frightened that the poor beast might belong to someone who would blame them for the goat’s carelessness, they decide to weigh it down with stones and drop it into the sea.

They find a mechanic willing to replace the bumper that afternoon, but for a price just north of their ability to afford it. Figuring that the recently deceased animal had yet to begin decomposing, they pull its carcass out of the water and sell it to a local butcher, keeping the head as a souvenir. Riding past a roadside barbershop, with the head facing into traffic on the handlebar of their motorbike, a customer recognizes the disembodied creature as one of his own. It sets up a parallel chase, with Corn and Rita scratching to come up with the rest of the money needed to pay the mechanic, while the goat’s angry owner is hellbent on exacting justice on Corn, who’s riding the motorbike. Besides the stop at the butcher shop, the teens visit a Rastafari drum maker, a disreputable pawn-shop owner, a witch doctor and the local police headquarters. When Corn is finally grabbed by the thuggish farmer – who probably makes more money from selling ganja than selling goat-milk yogurt – Rita sets out to rescue him. Bad Lucky Goat probably could have been shot just as easily in any other part of the world, where a goat might cross a road unexpectedly, but Jamaica provides the perfect setting for a story that requires teenagers to embark on an odyssey of reconciliation and not have to rely on their parents to get them out of the fix. Oliveros also adds some magical realism as the movie nears its conclusion. The coastal locations are supplemented by scenes shot high in the Blue Mountains. It’s exotic without being completely foreign to viewers already familiar with reggae music, dreadlocks and other aspects of Jamaican culture. The DVD adds the short film, “Miss World.”

If, however, you haven’t tired of documentaries tracing the roots of reggae and Rastafarianism, there’s Nic Nakis’ True Born African: The Story of Winston “Flames” Jarrett, one of the true OG’s of the genre and religion. After moving to the impoverished Jones Town area of Kingston with his mother at the age of 5, Jarrett was taught to play guitar by Jimmy Cliff and Alton Ellis. He joined Ellis’s backing band, the Flames, in the early 1960s. After his mentor moved to the UK, Jarrett formed the Righteous Flames, which, in 1969, recorded for Lee “Scratch” Perry. In the 1970s, tired of recording for others without receiving adequate payment, Jarrett self-produced much of his output, releasing it on his own Attra, Human Rights and Humble labels. By this time, he had become an ardent Rastafarian. In “True Born African,” he recalls Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the island, where he was greeted as a living god. We travel to his old neighborhoods in Jamaica, a reggae festival in California and his new home in Seattle, sharing stories about the music and the philosophy that have kept him going for six decades. At 77, Jarrett is a spry old bird, with a ready smile and vibrant memory. Nakis adds plenty of concert footage, as well.

Viceroy’s House
Victoria & Abdul: Blu-ray
British filmmakers never appear to tire of reliving the tumultuous series of events surrounding India’s struggle for independence and their government’s role in the Partition, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. Ever since the almost simultaneous release of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, HBO’s “The Far Pavilions,” ITV’s “The Jewel in the Crown” and David Lean’s A Passage to India, several more movies and mini-series have traced the parallel dilemmas faced by the colonialists, forced to abandon their exalted place in the British Raj, and the Indians who either served them or plotted their demise … sometimes both. The dramas introduced mixed-race and mixed-faith relationships, amid the Brits’ fears of sabotage, violence and being forced to relinquish the lush life they enjoyed (“Indian Summers”). The contrast in lifestyles was accentuated by examples of torture, racism, economic deprivation and other injustices, sometimes exacted on the families of men who served valiantly in the British military. In Viceroy’s House, director Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) brings to life a pivotal historical moment that re-shaped the world. Lord Louis Mountbatten (Hugh Bonneville) and his liberal-minded wife, Edwina (Gillian Anderson), have just arrived in Delhi, essentially to turn out the lights on the Raj and hand over the keys to the palace to whomever is chosen to govern the newly independent India. The palace’s five hundred employees are unified in their devotion to duty, but divided by their religions as to how the residence and country should be administered. Mountbatten is determined to maintain a united India, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that violence will force the Partition and not even Mohandas K. Gandhi can stop it. Meanwhile, in the staff quarters, a love story is reignited between Jeet (Manish Daya), a Hindu, and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) a Muslim beauty he met while comforting her imprisoned father (Om Puri). Alas, her hand has already been promised to another man. Besides Mountbatten, the separate interests are represented by General Lionel Hastings Ismay (Michael Gambon) and Cyril Radcliffe (Simon Callow); Gandhi (Neeraj Kabi); Jawaharlal Nehru (Tanveer Ghani); and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith). As familiar as it is, Viceroy’s House is well-mounted and impressively acted.

Victoria & Abdul may be take place a half-century before the Partition, but it would be impossible not to recognize the seeds of discontent sown before and during the reign of Queen Victoria (Judi Dench). Based on a remarkable true story, Stephen Frears’ opulent historical drama describes the unlikely friendship that developed between Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a young Muslim clerk, who’s unexpectedly instructed to travel from India to England, to participate in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee ceremony. In a very real sense, “A&J” serves as a sequel to John Madden’s Mrs. Brown (1997), in which Dench delivered another splendid portrayal of a monarch who most of were taught to think of as a crusty old tyrant. Frears and writer Lee Hall were inspired by the book by Shrabani Basu, which, in turn, was based on volumes of Queen Victoria’s handwritten notebooks and journals, in Urdu, discovered in 2010. As soon as the queen began to demonstrate an interest in Indian culture – she had to be reminded that she was empress over all India, not just protector of British interests – her son, staff, aides and advisors turned on the newcomers as if he were a carrier of the plague. They even went so far as to threaten Victoria’s standing as Queen, if she went ahead with plans to beknight her Muslim “Munshi” (spiritual adviser and teacher). Their contempt and overt bigotry is palpable whenever the Queen is off-camera. They even despise Victoria’s willingness to find something inspirational in the culture of a subordinate nation. Eddie Izzard’s portrayal as Bertie, Prince of Wales, is so convincingly hateful that the future king might as well be Jack the Ripper. Michael Gambon and Simon Callow have meaty roles in both pictures. Dench was just nominated for a 12th Golden Globe and SAG award, which makes me think she’ll be a frontrunner for a second Oscar nomination as Queen Victoria. (Her sole Academy Award win came as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, playing Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love. She claimed the first of her two Globes as Victoria, in Mrs. Brown.) Because Oscar loves the Brits, it’s also likely to give serious consideration to Frears, Hall, Izzard, costume designer Consolata Boyle and production designer Alan MacDonald, who died on August 30, at 61. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short making-of featurettes

The Unknown Girl
The Dardenne brothers have become such a force in international festivals and arthouses that it’s borderline shocking to learn how difficult it’s become for American cineastes to find each new film, while the buzz is still hot, at least. Only the pictures with real Oscar and BAFTA potential get picked up immediately and held until December for limited release, in anticipation of nominations and critics’ polls. A Palme d’Or nod, of which the Dardennes have several, is no guarantee of wider exposure. While The Unknown Girl, for example, debuted at the 2016 Cannes festival, the Palme d’Or candidate only now is being sent out on DVD by MPI Home Video. The Liege-set drama was released briefly here, but it would have required a special kind of GPS to locate the theater(s) at which it played. Maybe, just maybe, the word-of-mouth emanating from Cannes wasn’t loud enough to reach American ears. After the festival, the brothers had originally planned to make only some very minor changes. That changed after consultation with friends, critics and their editor, who urged more extensive cuts. They made an additional 32 new edits to the film, which is now 7 minutes shorter than its original version. The new one was unveiled at the Institute Lumiere, in Lyon, in June 2016, and subsequently played the Toronto and New York festivals. This time, however, early reviews were mixed.

Typically, the searing story of guilt and redemption is set in a working-class neighborhood in the Walloon city, whose migrant population has grown considerably in recent years. One evening, after work hours, a young doctor decides not to answer the door buzzer at the small clinic where she works. Too many of these late-night calls are based on complaints she considers to be frivolous, or illegal, and could be handled better in a hospital’s emergency room. This time, however, the person at the door was an unidentified African woman who’s found dead shortly after by the side of a river. After examining the building’s security tape, police suspect that she was seeking refuge, instead of medical treatment, and, in either case, she was under no obligation to respond. Even so, Jenny (Adèle Haenel) is consumed by the thought that she is to blame for the woman’s death. It’s the kind of crime that police would only pursue with diligence if the victim were white and, in fact, she’s buried in an unmarked grave even before they can determine her name or next of kin. Jenny embarks on an obsessive crusade to do just that. At first, she runs into a brick wall. Slowly, but surely, Jenny’s able to determine that the woman was turning tricks that night and one encounter turned ugly. Later, her car is stopped on the road by an angry African man, who, in no uncertain terms, warns against her pursuing her inquiries. The police and potential witnesses urge essentially the same thing. The Unknown Girl plays out like a procedural, with unexpected flashes of rage and threats of violence. The redemption comes in such an unexpected form that it almost slides right past our eyes. It reflects the Dardennes’ dedication to realistic depictions of life among people whose unspectacular circumstances rarely warrant coverage in newspapers or films.

Heartworn Highways/Heartworn Highways: Revisited
If one cared to trace the history of country music over the last 50 years, one of the touchstone points of reference would be James Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways, which, in 1976, anticipated the emergence of such singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Charles Daniels, John Hiatt, David Allan Coe, Richard Dobson and Townes Van Zandt. They represented the next seismic shift after the Countrypolitan, Outlaw Country, Cosmic Country and California Country movements of the 1960s. They wore out the pavement between Nashville and Austin, hoping to capture the same lightning in a bottle that sparked Kris Kristofferson’s career, after Janis Joplin recorded “Me and McGee” and it became her biggest hit single (posthumously). The song had already been recorded 10 times, but Joplin’s version found the cross-genre niche sought by the everyone in town. (Emmy Lou Harris’ 1977 take on Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” had a similar effect.) Heartworn Highways captured a moment in time, when such singer-songwriters envisioned themselves to be troubadours, flying below the radar of mainstream record labels, radio and the Grand Ol’ Opry. Whenever possible, they sang, partied and traveled together. Szalapski visits a convivial Van Zandt at his trailer, in what is now downtown Austin, along with his girlfriend Cindy, his dog Geraldine, Rex “Wrecks” Bell and Uncle Seymour Washington (a.k.a., “The Walking Blacksmith”). He locates Daniels, playing before fans at a high school gymnasium, and Coe (a.k.a., “The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy”) performing at the same Tennessee prison that once served as his temporary home. The DVD, newly re-released by FilmRise, adds bonus songs and material from a Christmas party at Clark’s house.

But, that was then, and FilmRise’s Heartworn Highways: Revisited represents the now. Released 40 years after Szalapski’s film, it reunites Young, Coe and Clark (who died last year, at 74), while focusing on such new-generation troubadours as John McCauley, Jonny Fritz, Bobby Bare Jr., Josh Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Shovels & Rope, Langhorne Slim, Robert Ellis, Andrew Combs, Shelly Colvin, Nikki Lane and Phil Hummer. They are at approximately the same age as those musicians shown in Heartworn Highways. If anything, Nashville and mainstream radio networks have become harder nuts to crack for emerging talent. Although Wayne Price’s doc doesn’t dwell on it, the saving grace for these artists has been the arrival of satellite and streaming networks dedicated to the Americana and roots subgenres, as well as Internet services that provide outlets for their music and videos. If they haven’t yet been invited to the Opry, there’s no reason to think they won’t ever be summoned. Although Szalapski died in 2000, Price followed his blueprint to a T. And, that’s a very good thing. The DVD features bonus interviews, sometimes accompanied by music. (And, yes, the testosterone level on both albums is pretty high. In the former, at least, it probably couldn’t have been avoided.)

Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards
Michael Roberts’s wonderfully titled bio-doc derives from a comment made by legendary fashion designer Manolo Blahnik, when asked how he got his start in the business. Growing up in Santa Cruz de la Palma, in the Canary Islands, he made shoes out of candy wrappers for lizards that he caught in his family’s garden. Although his parents steered him in the direction of a diplomacy major, which bored him terrifically, he moved to Paris to study art at the École des Beaux-Arts and Stage Set Design at the Louvre Art School, all the while working at a vintage clothing shop. In 1968, he moved to Swinging London to work as a buyer at the  boutique Zapata and wrote for L’Uomo Vogue, an Italian men’s version of the magazine. His turning-point moment came in a meeting with Diana Vreeland, the editor-in-chief of U.S. Vogue, while he was travelling in New York. After presenting his portfolio of fashions and set designs, Blahnik recalls Vreeland looking him “straight in the eye” and saying, “Young man, make things, make accessories, make shoes.” The rest, of course, is fashion history. Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards explains how an extraordinary dedication to the craft led to his name becoming synonymous with high-end women’s footwear – not so much for men’s shoes – and a legion of well-heeled fans. They include celebrities, stylists, industry icons, heiresses, trophy wives and their teenage children, and very accomplished prostitutes. References to his work in HBO’s “Sex and the City” probably sold as many shoes as Michael Jordan did, at approximately the same period of time. After opening his first store in London, in 1973, and coming of age in the world’s fashion capitals, Blahnik now has shops and department-store concessions in over 20 countries and retains full control of the business, still creating every style, even hand-carving the wooden forms himself. The film features a who’s-who of fashion and celebrity types, including Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Rupert Everett, Karlie Kloss, Isaac Mizrahi and André Leon Tally. Blahnik remains resolutely coy about his personal life throughout most of “Manolo,” so anyone looking for insight about his sexuality or the secrets of celebrity podiatry may come away disappointed, as some critics were. Those allergic to hyperbolic and fawning interviews could react negatively, as well. Most everyone else who’s ever subscribed to Vogue or Bazaar, and admired an imaginatively designed shoe on a red carpet or in a film, will be delighted.

Pulp: Special Edition: Blu-ray
A year after Michael Hodges delivered the quintessential British crime thriller, Get Carter (1971), he reunited with Michael Caine for his sophomore feature, Pulp. Although gangsters play a prominent role in it, Pulp is more of a comic sendup of noir and giallo tropes and clichés, especially the linkage between sex, death and beautiful women. As is the case in so many other noir classics, who-dun-it matters far less than what happens between the first and final murders. Caine plays Mickey King, author of such down-and-dirty paperback detective novels as “My Gun Is Long” and “The Organ Grinder,” and pseudonyms that include “S. Odomy.” And, no, he isn’t at all proud of his success. Out of the blue, King is offered an abnormally large sum to ghostwrite the autobiography of a mystery celebrity. The intrigue begins even before the writer boards the ferry to Malta, where he’ll meet the subject of the book. On the bus taking him to the embarcadero, a man named Miller (Al Lettieri) introduces himself as an English professor. He assumes Miller is the mysterious contact, until discovering him dead in his bathtub after a hotel room mix-up. (Any movie co-starring Lettieri is OK with me.) Once ensconced on the historic island, King begins to get the distinct feeling that someone doesn’t want him to hook up his subject, who turns out to be retired Hollywood movie star Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney). Gilbert, like George Raft and Frank Sinatra, is famous for portraying movie gangsters by day and hanging out with real-life mobsters at night. Gilbert may be dying from cancer, but it doesn’t prevent Rooney from stealing the show in every scene in which he appears. His improvisations may not have endeared Rooney with Powell, but the anarchic performance almost made up for his terribly offensive portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

It will take a while before the assassin(s) is/are revealed in the 95-minute picture, but, in the meantime, viewers are encouraged to enjoy Powell’s loving depiction of life on Malta, the many pretty boys and girls, and offbeat performances across-the-board. If the actress playing femme fatale, Princess Betty Cippola, looks familiar, it’s only because, two decades earlier, Lizabeth Scott was an A-list star mentioned in the same breath as Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, Lupe Vélez and Lana Turner. Her most previous film appearance came 15 years earlier, opposite Elvis Presley in Loving You. She had been slandered in the gossip press and decided to pursue a singing career, with the occasional guest-starring role in a TV series. Although she lived to the ripe old age of 92, she wouldn’t make another movie after Pulp. She’s joined by Nadia Casini (Starcrash), Lionel Stander (“Hart to Hart”), Leopoldo Trieste (Cinema Paradiso) and Luciano Pigozzi (Blood and Black Lace). The Arrow Video release benefits from a 2K restoration from original film elements, supervised and approved by director of photography Ousama Rawi; new interviews with Hodges, Rawi, assistant director John Glen and Tony Klinger, son of producer Michael Klinger; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. BTW: if all one knows about Get Carter derives from suffering through Stephen Kay and David McKenna’s misconceived Americanization of the story, starring Sylvester Stallone, do yourself a favor and give the Powell/Caine version a try.

Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros: Blu-ray
When Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas, on August 26, 2017, the last thing on the minds of most people living in the Houston area was the Astros’ chances of reaching the playoffs, let alone the World Series. If the team did make it, fine … if not, the residents had bigger problems. In the immediate wake of the storm, the team’s three-game series against the Texas Rangers, scheduled for August 29-31, was relocated to St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field. A couple of days later, at the waiver-trade deadline, GM Jeff Luhnow acquired veteran starting pitcher and Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander from Detroit to bolster the starting rotation. All he did was win each of his five regular-season starts, yielding only four runs over this stretch. The Astros finished 101-61, with a 21-game lead in the division. Verlander carried his success into the playoffs, posting a record of 4-1 in his six starts. As anyone who watched the post-season games can attest, the Astros’ pitching wasn’t the only reason they won their first World Series in franchise history. Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and George Springer had something to say about it, as well. As was the case a year earlier, when the Chicago Cubs captured their first crown in a century, the seven-game series lived up to the hype. On the day the Astros beat the Dodgers in the decisive seventh game, it could have rained all night and no one at Minute Maid Park would have cared. Although I probably wouldn’t recommend giving either of these Shout!Factory boxes to SoCal fans who bled Dodger blue that night, fans in eastern Texas, at least, should welcome “Houston Astros: 2017 World Series Collector’s Edition” and “2017 World Series Champions: Houston Astros.” The former includes “Regular Season Highlights,” “Clinching Moments,” “Postseason Highlights” and “World Series Parade,” while the “Collector’s Edition” adds a bonus disc of the pennant-clinching ALCS Game Seven; four audio options (the TV feed, Astros radio, Dodgers radio and Spanish-language radio); and a SleeveStats insert, with game trivia and official stats.

The Brits have a great word for the kind of people who no one seems to miss when they turn up missing in Dan Pringle’s debut feature, K-Shop. “Yob” is a slang term that denotes an aggressive and surly youth, whose loutish behavior only gets worse with each succeeding drink. Yobs and Yobbettes represent the country’s troubling “binge-drinking culture,” which is further identified by fights, beatdowns, uncontrolled vomiting, passing out in the streets around nightclubs and pubs, and the ever-popular terrorizing of immigrants. An offshoot of the soccer hooliganism that has plagued Europe for years, it is considered one of the greatest problems facing a society in which heavy drinking has always provided a temporary cure for joblessness and underemployment. K-Shop is set in and around Bournemouth, a resort town on the south coast of England, where Pringle captured images of yobbo behavior on film and incorporated them in the film. The other thing to know about the movie is that it borrows liberally from Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” minus the singing. After his father is killed in an altercation with drunken thugs outside the family’s kebab shop, Salah’s world is plunged into darkness. Instead of finishing his studies and finding work that doesn’t require slicing meat off a vertical spit rotating over a gas flame, the young man is forced to work long hours doing just that. Things probably wouldn’t be so bad if a nightclub catering to intemperate drinkers hadn’t opened directly across the street from the shop, ensuring a steady stream of yobs and yobbettes whose stomachs have regurgitated early meals and need refilling. Knowing that Salah is of Middle Eastern or Pakistani background, they consider him to be fair game for their verbal abuse. One night, when a fight with an angry customer goes wrong, he finds himself with a dead body on his hands. Having no faith in the authorities, Salah disposes of the body in the one place he knows best: the kebabs. You can probably guess what transpires next. As befits a contemporary horror film, Pringle uses every trick in the book to convince us – viscerally, at least – that real actors are being sacrificed for the sake of his art. (Don’t watch K-Shop if your plans for the evening include late-night stops at your local gyros or shawarma stand.) Although no one truly gets away with their crimes here, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Salah’s actions are justifiable and we might do the same thing, if sufficiently provoked. If anything, the supporting actors may be a tad too credible in this regard.

All Saints
Anyone interested in seeing how good a faith-based, family-friendly movie can be when the proselytizing is kept to minimum and Christ’s message is able to cut through the gratuitous moralizing and evangelism. I’ve watched as many of these films as anyone not paid to do so and have noticed a decided improvement in overall production values and storytelling. Some genre specialists can’t help themselves, though, when it comes to churning out holier-than-thou entertainments for captive audiences. Steve Gomer and Steve Armour’s inspirational drama All Saints arrives at a time when the President, his chief advisers and Supreme Court have decided that the Statue of Liberty’s welcome is limited to Russian oligarchs, jet-set celebrities, models and movie stars. All others stay put. It also relates directly to the current situation in Myanmar, where Christian and Muslim minorities face daily persecution for their beliefs and the country’s leaders – including a Noble Peace Prize-winner – assume that no one else in the world is watching. All Saints counted be more topical and representative of traditional American and Christian values. It is based on the true story of salesman-turned-pastor Michael Spurlock (John Corbett) and the tiny Tennessee church he was assigned to shut down, before the arrival of a group of Karen refugees from Southeast Asia found relief under its eaves. Although few in number, the parishioners treat Spurlock as if he were the Grim Reaper, which, in a sense, he was. Neither were the Anglican-taught Karens welcomed with open arms. Back home, they were farmers and fighters. In Tennessee, they can only find work at a chicken-processing plant, while, at night, they tend a small garden on church property. One night, during a rainstorm, Spurlock receives a “message from God” to plant seeds for the salvation of His people. The only salvation both the parishioners and devout Karens could benefit from together would be a way to pay the mortgage on the church before it is foreclosed upon. One way to satisfy the parishioners, Karens and church elders, he decides, is to make full use of church property by opening it to planting and selling the produce to local markets and those catering to Asians in Nashville. Even his wife, Aimee (Cara Buono), and son, Atticus (Myles Moore), are skeptical of his plan. Most wary, though, is a cranky old geezer, Forrest (Barry Corbin), who’s tried farming and knows how difficult it has become to reap a profit. The Lord, as usual, works in mysterious ways. When it isn’t raining on the garden, it’s pouring buckets. All Saints is full of Christian messages, none of which are deeply hidden, and the ending will have some viewers praising God. Others can simply enjoy a good story, well told. The bonus features introduce us to the real people behind the characterizations and their personal testimonials.

The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon
Serbia isn’t the first country I’d expect to produce a sci-fi thriller with pretensions of existential and religious significance. Why not, though? Considering that it’s a Serbian/South Korean/Slovenian co-production – targeted at the English-speaking market – it’s no surprise that The Rift: Dark Side of the Moon has something of a cobbled-together look to it. The film follows a team of CIA and Serbian agents – led by Liz Waid (Katarina Cas) and John Smith (Ken Foree) – as they attempt to secure the remains of a satellite that crash-landed somewhere in the eastern part of the country. When the team finally reaches the crash site, they discover the satellite has vanished and the only clue is a trail leading to an abandoned silk factory nestled near the forest line. As they approach they approach the building, shots are fired at the team from locals guarding something hidden inside it. Upon further investigation, they find an astronaut’s suit on a table, presumably with something inside it. One of the team members, a former astronaut, recognizes the suit as belonging to another astronaut on the same aborted lunar mission. That man disappeared into thin air … very thin air. Turns out, villagers believe the newly arrived entity is the son of God – or, perhaps, a son of God — and that it has been sent there in anticipation of the Second Coming. Now that we’re in Stanley Kubrick territory, director Dejan Zecevic raises the ante by depicting the ill-fated moon mission and mysterious purple-rimmed hole in the time/space continuum that presented itself there. Back on Earth, things get even stranger as people already dismissed as dead come back to life as malevolent forces. This phenomenon extends to agent Waid’s terminally ill child, back in Belgrade. That’s a lot of metaphysical baggage to pack into a 90-minute vehicle, and it doesn’t all fit into the trunk. Even so, sci-fi buffs might find something here to enjoy. The horror is provided by the ax-wielding residents who go to great lengths to protect their own personal Jesus.

Valley of Bones
With some careful pruning of scenes shot inside a strip club, Valley of Bones might have made a dandy little thriller for the Syfy channel. While Dan Glaser’s film suffers from the same budgetary problems that limit the network’s feature-length movies, Valley of Bones benefits from not having to depend on the cheesy special effects that propel the action in such Syfy original movies as Sharknado, Magma: Volcanic Disaster and Mongolian Death Worm. The dinosaurs are long dead and are expected to stay that way. Neither is life on Earth imperiled by UFOs, global warming or plague-carrying teenagers. No, the suspense is provided here by humans. As it is, the R-rated Valley of Bones opened in 300 theaters over the Labor Day weekend, making a paltry $107,393.  The R-rating promises less than it delivers on DVD, as well. Still, it could have been a lot worse. Filmed largely on location in the badlands of North Dakota, it stars Autumn Reeser (“The O.C.”) as the passionate paleontologist, Anna, who served time in prison from digging up artifacts on federal land. She is about to lose her right to explore ranch land once open to her and her late husband, thanks to oil and natural-gas interests. When word reaches her of the discovery of T-Rex’s tooth on private land, she begs the owner to be given one last opportunity to restore her reputation and make a few bucks. The problem is that the tooth was found by a recovering meth addict with unpaid debts to a Mexican cartel, and he has no intention of being cut out of any deal. She reluctantly teams up with the bounder, McCoy (Steven Molony), who leads Anna, her late husband’s brother (Rhys Coiro) and her estranged son (Mason Mahay) to the place in the boonies where he found the tooth. Sure enough, they unearth a complete skeleton, which the meth head offers to the cartel leader (Mark Margolis) in exchange for his freedom from debt. The action picks up from there, with a fiery ending assured.

Cops and Robbers
In Scott Windhauser’s gimmicky and wholly unconvincing hostage drama, Cops and Robbers, a negotiator (Michael Jai White) and bank robber (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) play cat-and-mouse with each other, while a dozen, or so, employees, customers and fellow crooks weigh the odds of making it out alive. They’ve already watched helplessly as a supervisor and police detective are pistol-whipped by Jackson’s unnamed character and the thug’s cohorts are dismayed by his refusal to get out while the getting is good. Then comes a string of surprises and coincidences so unlikely as to be almost laughable. They all lead to an ending that would be satisfying, if anything that came before it was logically presented. Straight-to-video hall-of-famer Tom Berenger plays a lead detective whose only reason for being cast probably was to have a recognizable actor play a dirty cop. Jackson is completely credible as the kind of crook who would kill someone for the simple pleasure of watching him die.

Architects of Denial
This documentary begins as another convincing argument against the Turkish government’s century-long denial of its role as the instigator of the Armenian genocide. By now, however, the only people who appear to agree with the Turks’ ridiculous stance are American politicians who are afraid of pissing off their strategic partners in Ankara. No matter how much new evidence is discovered and presented for the perusal of our so-called statesmen, they refuse to put “genocide” and “Turkey” in the same sentence. And, as long as lobbyists grease the palms of our representatives and our military presence is required in the Middle East, no Turkish government will be made to face the music. What is new and equally disturbing in David Lee George’s Architects of Denial are reports of the ongoing persecution of Armenians in oil-rich Azerbaijan and threats to invade neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh, which is largely populated by Christians. First-person accounts of the violent attacks on Armenians in Baku, among other cities in Azerbaijan, echo those of reports from the 1915 genocide and other attacks sanctioned by the Turkish government since World War I. Among those non-Armenians interviewed are Julian Assange, George Clooney and a former FBI agent with first-hand knowledge of both the atrocities in Azerbaijan and the seducing of American congressman and -women who sit on committees responsible for monitoring the situation there. When confronted with the evidence and asked for comments, the weasels have nothing to say in their defense and put their aides between them and the cameras, lights and microphones.

Wolf Warrior 2: Blu-ray
IMAX: Mysteries of China: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
As many Chinese action pictures as I’ve watched in the last 10 years, there hasn’t been one quite like Wolf Warrior 2. In its predecessor, Wolf Warrior, Wu Jing (a.k.a., Jacky Wu) played a Chinese special-forces soldier, blessed with extraordinary marksmanship, who’s confronted by a group of deadly foreign mercenaries hired by a vicious drug lord to assassinate him. Unlike most other exports, the martial artistry in “WW” plays second fiddle to the type of fighting featured in such American franchises as Sniper, S.W.A.T., The Marine and, yes, even Rambo. The mercenaries included former soldiers from western nations, not simply Asian fighters controlled by the isolated mafia boss or CIA operative. It made about $100 million in the global marketplace, which, considering that very few of those dollars came North America, wasn’t bad. “WW2,” which moves the action to the Horn of Africa, where the Chinese government is heavily invested with money and personnel, took in – get this – a nifty $867.6 million in foreign sales and another $2.7 million on only 53 U.S. screens. What distinguishes it in my mind, at least, is the presence of Chinese military forces – not many, but they’re good – in the rescue of sailors from Somalian pirates and, later, Chinese-run factories captured by guerrillas of the ISIS variety. I’m not all sure that such a situation has ever confronted the Beijing government, as it has American leaders, but the barbarity shown African and foreign workers is considerable. With the UN reluctant to commit to the rescue, it’s left to Feng Leng (Wu) to lead the assault against the guerrillas, directed by Frank Grillo, and mercenary thugs. In days gone by, American Green Berets, French Foreign Legionnaires, Rambo and John Shaft might have been called in to protect the fruits of western imperialism. Today, of course, it’s the Chinese imperialists who matter most in much of Africa. There’s no question as to who’s wearing the white hats in this particular fight, however. And the action continues non-stop throughout the movie. Chinese-American actress, model, singer/songwriter and martial artist Celina Jade (a.k.a., Celina Haron) provides the love interest here … when she isn’t kicking some ass herself, that is. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Folks who find a 4K UHD television monitor under their tree on Christmas morning should be cognizant of the fact that the dang thing will only work as advertised if it’s also accompanied by a compatible disc player, receiver and HDMI cables. Not to worry though, as this ancillary equipment is far more reasonably priced than the technology required of 3D Blu-ray units. There’s also a growing number of 4K UHD titles and premium services dedicated to the format. Shout!Factory is one of the distribution companies that has stuck its feet into the 4K waters, through its partnership with Giant Screen Films, a supplier of large-format movies to museums and other institutions. Mysteries of China joins previous releases, Journey to Space, Humpback Whales, Flight of the Butterflies, Rocky Mountain Express, Wonders of the Arctic and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath the Sea. Because the movies were originally shown in large-format 3D, they’re in the 40- to 50-minute range – easier on the eyes – and oriented toward viewing by school groups and families. To fully cover all the Mysteries of China (a.k.a., “Mysteries of Ancient China” and “China: The Rise of Empire”), the film would have had to be several hours longer than it is. Instead, it focuses on the amazing story behind the discovery of the terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a united China. In 1974, farmers in Shaanxi province came upon artifacts while digging a well less than a mile east of the Qin Emperor’s tomb mound at Mount Li. They reported the find to Chinese authorities, who carefully uncovered the vast collection of terracotta sculptures, depicting Qin’s armies, whose purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. Later digs would locate funerary art of horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians and politicians, as well as the skeletal remains of workers who took their secrets to a mass grave. The 4K UHD format reveals the vast size of the dig – three football fields – and intricacy of the pieces.  The film makes use of 8K footage shot specifically for this project, high resolution CGI models and new scans of stock footage from feature films, such as The First Emperor. If nothing else, Mysteries of China serves as an excellent starter kit for people new to the format. Bonus material adds a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, with producer/director Keith Melton.

One of Us
The recent passing of Charles Manson, the capo di tutti capi of American cult leaders, led some observers to point out that there may still be as many as 3,000 such groups currently operating in the United States. I’m not sure that I would trust the government to parse the difference between a true cult and your run-of-the-mill post-hippie commune, but it’s an impressive number, nonetheless. One of Us appears to have been directed and written by folks — Blake Reigle, and Andrea Ajemian and Blaine Chiappetta — whose knowledge of cults comes from depictions in Lifetime movies. The leader is a well-groomed control freak, whose idea of mind control is forcing yoga lessons on his female followers and making them work in a coffee shop in the mountains above Riverside, California. Otherwise, the beautiful women wear togas and sheep masks for ceremonies. Naturally, the local cop is on the cultists’ payroll and those who choose to leave are threatened with torture or death. It’s hard to see what the leader might be concealing from view, however. When a friend goes missing, investigative reporter Mary (Christa B. Allen) springs into action by travelling to the San Jacinto Mountains town of Idyllwild, California. She has no trouble infiltrating the cult, led by Brent (Derek Smith), although the other followers aren’t anxious for the competition. When Mary’s sister (Ashley Wood) comes nosing around, the cultists smell a rat in their midst. (Investigative reporters usually don’t require the help of siblings.) Anyway, the scenery is nice and there isn’t much here that would corrupt a teenager. As usual, the DVD jacket promises more than it delivers.

Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!
In the last eight years, Jared Cohn has directed, written and acted in more than 25 films and videos, largely of the exploitation persuasion. Among the titles are Little Dead Rotting Hood, Bikini Spring BreakUnderground Lizard People and Hulk Blood Tapes, none of which have enjoyed much of a theatrical run, if any. I’m guessing that Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill!’s title owes less to the Russian riot-grrrl group, Pussy Riot, than the Russ Meyer classic, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Even so, Cohn’s horror thriller features an all-grrrl band, Kill Pussy Kill, which makes Hole sound like the Supremes, and whose fashion sense is limited to thrift-shop rejects. For some reason, the movie opens in Islamabad, Pakistan, where an American special-forces team is ambushed by Islamic militants and a couple of them lose their heads in the process. (Don’t ask what they’re doing there, five years before 9/11, but a little bit of poetic license goes a long way here.) Flash forward a few years and the band is performing before a crowd of meth heads, one of whom decides to sexually assault a member, before being admonished by a wheelchair-bound man in a mask. On their way to a gig, the band decides to make a pit stop at a gas station that was already old when the Oakies made their way into California. Naturally, the van won’t start when they’re ready to pull out. Enter, Richard Greico, looking like Mickey Rourke’s younger brother, as the gas-station attendant. He offers the ladies – and I use that term advisedly – lodging in a shack tricked out for an adventure in torture porn, as conducted by an unseen “evil genius dead set on revenge” (voiced by Megadeth’s Dave Mustain).  For one of the women to survive, she’ll have to kill at least two of the others. The real freak show is going on outside the view of the captives, though. (A hand grenade is tossed at a group of trick-or-treaters.) I can understand how Greico might be willing to take any job that comes his way, but what former child star Margaret O’Brien is doing in a movie titled Halloween Pussy Trap Kill! Kill! is a mystery to me.

CBS: Zoo: Season Three
PBS: NOVA: Secrets of the Shining Knight
PBS: Cook’s Country: Season 10
Nickelodeon: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters
When I was sent the Season Three collection of episodes of “Zoo,” I wasn’t even aware the show even existed, let alone for three summers. Now that I’ve watched it, I wonder if might have done as well, or better, on Syfy … like the aforementioned Valley of Bones. Not that three seasons on CBS is anything to dismiss, even as a summer replacement. The blend of action, science-fiction nuttiness and attractive actors seems to be a perfect fit for a cable outlet, especially as it can appeal to those adolescents, teens and adults disinclined to watch PBS and the History Channel. As “Zoo” opened, animals around the world are attacking humans in troubling numbers. A multidiscipline team comprised of American zoologist Jackson Oz (James Wolk), Kenyan safari guide Abraham Kenyatta (Nonso Anozie), Los Angeles reporter Jamie Campbell (Kristen Connolly), quirky veterinary pathologist Mitch Morgan (Billy Burke) and a French intelligence agent Chloe Tousignant (Nora Arnezeder) has been recruited to keep the attacks from reaching pandemic proportions. By the end of the first 13-episode season, mutated animals have taken over the streets of cities everywhere. Later, in Patagonia, a special-forces team comes across a human who has mutated into a monster and kills almost everyone. (The pretty one is spared.) Oz’s team captures the mutant beast and returns it to Mitch’s lab for further study. By the time Season Three rolls around, another group of scientists, the Shepherds, has joined the narrative and managed to make the war between man and animals even worse. Time passes and zones have been designated for humans and hybrids, alike. Sadly, even larger, more ferocious and less easily controlled creatures are turning up, demonstrating that the Shepherds’ plans have backfired. CBS announced the cancellation on October 23, so theoretically there’s still time for another network to collect the assets and put it back in production. It happens all the time, now.

No trip to Chicago is complete without a visit to the Art Institute. And, no visit to the Art Institute is complete without a tour of the George F. Harding Collection of arms and armor. It features numerous examples of full- and half-armors, finely etched helmets, firearms with carved ivory stocks, back- and breastplates with gilded figures, chainmail and other exotic items. It’s as popular an exhibit as any in the museum, and that says a lot about its appeal. Producers for the “NOVA” presentation, “Secrets of the Shining Knight,” visited the Institute as part of their research. In it, viewers are given an opportunity to learn how armors – shining and otherwise – were crafted, as well as the significance of the various styles and how they evolved over time. Tests are conducted as to their ability to withstand penetration by knives, jousting sticks, arrows and bullets fired by very long muskets. “NOVA” challenged blacksmith Ric Furrer and master armorer Jeff Wasson to recreate parts of an elite armor that was originally manufactured in the Royal Workshop founded by King Henry VIII. We trace their successes and setbacks from start to finish, as they rediscover centuries-old metalworking secrets, then put their new armor to the ultimate test against a period musket.

While other foodie entertainments have begun to broaden their horizons by traveling around the world to find interesting cuisine and meet people who cook for a living, fun or to feed their families, the team behind “Cook’s Country” prefers to wait for the world’s great dishes and recipes to America’s Test Kitchen, in Rupert, Vermont. It also features the best regional home cooking in the country, relying on a practical, no-nonsense approach to food preparation. Family-oriented recipes are scientifically re-imagined for the modern home cook, while utensils and brands are also put to the test. In Season Ten, Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison are joined by new test cooks Ashley Moore, Bryan Roof and Christie Morrison. The titles of the episodes are almost as mouth-watering as the recipes: “Pork and Pierogi,” “Spicy and Sour for Supper,” “Smoky Barbecue Favorites,” “Smothered and Dowdied,” “BBQ Thighs and Fried Peach Pies,” “Ribs and Mashed Potatoes Revisited,” “Bourbon and Broccoli Hit the Grill,” “Straight From So-Cal,” “Southern Discoveries,” “Cast Iron Comforts,” “Plenty of Garlic and Parm,” “When Only Chocolate Will Do” and “The Italian-American Kitchen.”

Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Final Chapters” encapsulates the show’s final hurrah on Nickelodeon, way back in 2012. Join the turtles as they battle an enormous army of monsters led by that time-traveling tyrant, Sevanti Romero. Then, rejoice at the return of their intergalactic Salamandrian friends — Mona Lisa and Sal Commander – only to be required to go to war with scourges of the universe, Newtralizer and Lord Vringath Dregg. But wait, there’s more. Our heroes are transported to an alternate universe, where they assist the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi escort the holy child, Kintaro, to the Temple Castle of the Sky Buddha. We also fast-forward to the future, where the world is nothing more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and it’s every mutant for themselves. Lone-wolf warrior Raphael and the now-bionic Donatello are the only ones who have the guts to find the ever-elusive Oasis.

The DVD Wrapup: Letter From An Unknown Woman, Despicable Me 3, Crucifixion, Maurizio Cattelan, A New Leaf, Silent Night and more

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Letter From an Unknown Woman: Blu-ray

Letter From an Unknown Woman is an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama I might have watched for a few minutes on television long ago and abandoned in favor of a baseball game. Black-and-white films, no matter how opulent or romantic, never looked the way they were supposed to on television. Even when Laserdiscs and TCM came, analog sets couldn’t do justice to the director and cinematographer’s shared vision. Scratches were left in disrepair, just as fuzz and other artifacts clung to prints as if intended. The digital revolution made restoration miracles possible, transforming tired old movies into the classics they actually are. High-resolution screens made everything even better. Even so, I might not have accepted the challenge of watching Letter From an Unknown Woman – its title is as inviting as a warm beer or cold cup of coffee – if I hadn’t already seen the Criterion Collection editions of Max Ophüls’ La ronde, Le Plaisir, The Earrings of Madame de … and Lola Montès, all of which were made after he returned to Europe after World War II. After absorbing the lessons dispensed in the bonus features, it was easy to appreciate this widely admired film from his surprisingly unproductive Hollywood sojourn. Now, at least, I knew what to look for in the upgraded Olive Signature release. The first thing I noted was Joan Fontaine, whose unadorned beauty escaped me in other films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Suspicion. The 30-year-old actress plays the same woman, Lisa, at three different stages in her life, looking radiant in all of them. Indeed, she reminded me very much of Laura Linney, who, at 53, still looks as if she could play recent graduates.

Ophüls directed Letter From an Unknown Woman from a screenplay by Howard Koch (Casablanca) and 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig. It opens with the famous concert pianist and world-class cad Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) offering ominous goodbyes to his servant, who’s just handed him a letter from Lisa, written on her death bed. It is intended to remind him not only of the unknown woman’s place in his life, but also the shit he’s put Lisa through without giving her a second thought. They had met three times previously, none of them fixed in his memory. During their second encounter, Lisa and Stefan fell in lust with each other, treating Vienna as their personal love nest. After lying to her about returning after a concert tour, Lisa delivers the son he won’t know exists until its too late to do either of them any good. The third time they meet, years later, their eyes meet across a concert hall, which she exits in near panic. Even though he’s enchanted by her, Stefan doesn’t recognize the mother of his child. Lisa is married to a wealthy older man, who accepts the boy as his adopted son, but her obsession with Stefan drives her into his uncaring arms for the last time. Now, however, his absence of feelings for Lisa backfires on him, leading years later to a duel with her husband. It’s here that the movie sharply deviates from Zweig’s book, but in a patently Hollywood sort of way. In 1992, Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The pristine 4K restoration of the black-and-white presentation makes it easy to identify Ophüls’ trademark touches, including a gliding camera, baroque imagery and lush atmospherics. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Ophüls expert Lutz Bacher; “A Deal Made in a Turkish Bath,” an interview with Oscar-winning documentarian Marcel Ophüls; “An Independent Woman: Changing Sensibilities in a Post-War Hollywood,” with Professor Dana Polan; “Ophülsesque: The Look of Letter From an Unknown Woman,” with cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Sean Price Williams; “Letter From an Unknown Woman: Passion’s Triumph,” a visual essay by film scholar Tag Gallagher; and an essay by critic Molly Haskell.

Despicable Me 3: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom: Blu-ray
It isn’t difficult to see why Universal’s Despicable Me / Minions franchise continues to grow – globally, at least – while other animated series have begun to run out of juice. Besides the fact that youngsters relate easier to protagonists their own size, the Minions think, act and move like kids on a 90-minute sugar rush. Neither does the creative team at Illumination Entertainment force viewers to be overly concerned about the kinds of things that drive critics crazy: unwieldy plots, disjointed action sequences, annoying sound effects and cookie-cutter characters. It’s as if directors Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin and Eric Guillon, alongside writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, live across the street from public elementary schools and study the behavior of unruly children during recess and lunch breaks. By capturing that level of anarchic energy, they’ve been able to play directly to the munchkins in all of us. Throw in a dastardly villain, or two, and supporting characters whose only purpose is to take some weight off the Minions’ barely-there shoulders, and you have a movie that relates to audiences around the world. And, that’s kind of the point. Although the third installment performed better at the domestic box office than the 2010 original, it gave up $100 million from tally registered by the 2013 sequel. The thing is, though, the budgets for the four films in the franchise have remained within the $70 million to $80 million range, which is nothing compared to those allotted the Shrek and Cars sequels. Like Minions, Despicable Me 3 surpassed the billion-dollar barrier on the strength of foreign revenues of $823.4 million and $767.8 million, respectively. And, of course, those figures don’t take into account DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, toys, video games and theme-park attractions. Not that the story makes any conceivable difference, it’s worth noting that Felonious Gru (Steve Carell), who’s now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is summoned by his long-lost twin brother, Dru (also Carell), to the land of Freedonia. (No, not that one.) Dru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have just foiled a plan by supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) to steal the world’s largest diamond. The former child star grew up to become obsessed with the character he played in the ’80s and is hell-bent on world domination. Dru and Lucy’s failure to seize the diamond and neutralize Bratt prompts their ouster from the AVL and the subsequent loss of most of their Minions, when they refuse to return to the dark side. Dru will help Gru deal with Bratt and the diamond, but for reasons that are substantially less than honorable. Suffice it to say that Bratt is a far more formidable foe than they imagined, but not infallible. The denouement leaves the door open for Despicable Me 4 and Minions 2. Besides the reference to Duck Soup, the triquel pays homage to the Pink Panther series. The Blu-ray adds a deleted scene, introduced by Dana Gaier (Edith Gru); the Mini-Movie, “The Secret Life of Kyle”; several background and making-of featurettes; a sing-along and music video; and visitors guide to Freedonia.

It would be difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to be the subject of an animated feature than a character based on the boy who grew up to be H.P. Lovecraft, but that’s exactly what Canadian comic-book writer Sean Patrick O’Reilly has given us in Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom and Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom. They represent two-thirds of the graphic-novel series created by Bruce Brown and Dwight L. MacPherson, and inspired by the author’s Necronomicon. The volume is a fictional grimoire – a textbook of magic – that appears in Lovecraft’s stories, as well as the books and movies of his followers. In 1897, young Howard (Kiefer O’Reilly) is taken by his mother to see his father, Winfield (Tyler Nicol), who is locked away in an asylum. (This representation is based on fact.) His doctors say Winfield is too deranged to meet with them, but Howard wanders off, anyway, to find his cell. Mixed into his father’s ravings are instructions as to where to find his copy of the Necronomicon and reasons why it must be destroyed. After going against his father’s wishes by reading it, Howard slips through a portal leading to another dimension. The journey to the Frozen Kingdom of R’yleh is fraught with danger, in the form of monsters and other threats to his safety. Fortunately, Howard befriends a hideous creature he names Spot, who helps him through the mess. A year after “Frozen Kingdom” concludes, with the defeat of the evil King Abdul Alhazred, the second part of the trilogy begins. In it, O’Reilly demands that Howard pass through the portal leading to “Undersea Kingdom” and conquer the demons that have captured his family and are holding them hostage. Additionally, Howard must take back the Necronomicon and prevent the impending wrath of Cthulhu. Lovecraft buffs will recognize these references, even if Winfield is a dead ringer for Edgar Allan Poe and Howard looks as if he stepped out of a cartoon by Charles Addams. Working against the movie is animation that wouldn’t pass muster in 1985, let alone 2017, and a family-friendly approach that’s meant to introduce young readers to Lovecraft, but effectively sucks the goosebumps out of his work. Somehow, O’Reilly was able to lure a voicing cast that includes Christopher Plummer (Go), Mark Hamill (Star Wars), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Doug Bradley (Hellraiser) to supplement members of his family.

The Crucifixion Blu-ray
Although it wouldn’t be fair to say, “If you’ve seen one exorcism, you’ve seen them all,” the movies about demonic possession I’ve watched all bear an undeniable likeness to William Friedkin’s still frightening, The Exorcist (1973). Likewise, the documentaries describing the ancient rite and the Vatican’s role in preserving it. Fact is, all the world’s prominent religions have established procedures for expelling evil forces from a possessed person’s body, once the typical manifestations are recognized, and some priests have even been able to identify the specific fallen angel they’re attempting to extract from the poor soul’s corporeal body. Even today, people of extreme faith will blame Satan for such physical and mental deviations as hysteria, mania, psychosis, Tourette’s syndrome, epilepsy, schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder. Novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist on a widely reported case of suspected possession, which occurred in 1949. Because the Vatican has kept careful records of exorcisms authorized by the Church, and fans of The Exorcist have bought into the mythology, journalists and other skeptics have been unable to routinely dismiss reports of such cases. The coverage has given screenwriters a leg up while scratching for ideas for movies involving demonic possession, exorcisms and houses built over gateways to hell. Also based on an actual case, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), kick-started the possession subgenre, just as The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) benefited from advances in special effects to raise the bar on haunted domiciles. Early buzz surrounding The Crucifixion could be traced to screenwriters’ Carey and Chad Hayes’ success with The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2, producer Peter Safran’s links to those films and the Annabelle series, and French director Xavier Gens’ previous genre hits, Frontière(s), Hitman and Divide.

The Crucifixion is closely based on the botched exorcism of Maricica Irina Cornici, a mentally ill nun at the Romanian Orthodox monastery of Tanacu, in Vaslui County, Romania. She was killed during a days-long exorcism conducted by 29-year-old priest Daniel Petre Corogeanu, who, with the help of four other nuns, chained her to a cross with her hands and feet bound, and her arms at a perpendicular angle to her body. They carried her into the church on the crucifix and prayed over her writhing body for three days. Finally, they stuffed a towel into Sister Maricica’s mouth to temper her outbursts. It killed her. An autopsy determined that she died of dehydration, exhaustion and a lack of oxygen. The case was widely publicized in the Romanian media and, following a lengthy trial, the perpetrators were convicted of her murder. To this fact-based foundation, The Crucifixion adds an overly enthusiastic American reporter, Nicole (Sophie Cookson), who somehow convinces her editor that readers of the New York Sentinel will welcome an investigation into the faraway case. The Hayes’ script calls for Nicole to be an atheist, in addition to a dedicated seeker of the truth. Because viewers won’t have any trouble predicting what happens to her during the course of the narrative, The Crucifixion suffers from predictability and a heavy reliance on jump-scares to maintain the drama. On the plus side, the decision to shoot the movie on location in Romania’s picturesque countryside pays real dividends. Appropriately, then, Cookson is the only actor who looks out of place in the rustic setting and an easy target for the demons’ wrath and curses of local Gypsies, who, of course, are feared and reviled by the locals.

Of Horses and Men
When it comes to movies from Iceland, it’s best not to take the summaries found on the back covers literally. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to capture in words the twists and turns the story is likely to take or the quirky personalities of the characters you’re about to meet. The common elements in all the Icelandic movies I’ve seen is a keen attention to the island’s diverse scenic beauty, the mortifying effects of chronic alcoholism and the toll taken by having to cope with too many hours of sunlight and darkness every six months. While Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavík) is probably the best known and most representative of the country’s filmmakers, relative newcomers Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson (Heartstone), Erlingur Thoroddsen (Rift), Grímur Hákonarson (Rams), Dagur Kári (Noi the Albino), Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavik-Rotterdam/Contraband) and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson (Paris of the North) have followed nimbly in his footsteps. Written and directed by Benedikt Erlingsson, Of Horse and Men focuses on the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals in an Icelandic farming village, miles away from the nearest convenience mart. Along the way, a few Swedes, Spaniards, Germans and Russians are introduced to interact with the locals. Of Horses and Men opens with a vignette so replete with dark humor and conflicting emotions that you’d think it would overwhelm everything that follows it. Horse lovers from near and far await the appearance of erudite Kolbeinn (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) as he rides his splendid white mare to a local inn, employing the “flying pace” gait unique to native Icelandic steeds. Not realizing the mare’s in heat, their journey home is interrupted by a black stallion so randy that it can’t be contained by a mere gate in the fence. When it catches up to Kolbeinn’s horse, which is patiently awaiting the coupling, all he can do is hang on for dear life while they do what comes naturally. This takes place in full view of the startled innkeepers – one of whom appears to be jealous of the mounted mare – and binocular-bearing tourists. What happens next is totally unexpected, heart-breaking and a necessary element of the continuing narrative. It’s followed by several interrelated segments that seemingly unspool from the point-of-view of the horses, although their demeanor is largely ambivalent. In a very real sense, it mirrors the disregard shown the characters by the surrounding ocean, mountains and pastures. Of Horses and Men was Iceland’s official submission to the Oscars’ 2014 Best Foreign Language Film category. It didn’t make the cut. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s amazing cinematography, which was able to capture the intimacy of life in the hamlet, without compromising the majesty of the setting, is nothing short of brilliant.

M.F.A.: Blu-ray
Now that celebrity rape has supplanted date rape as a hot-button topic for debate and trigger for activism, there’s the temptation to treat the events portrayed in M.F.A. as old news, instead of unfinished business. It’s the likely position of director Natalia Leite (Bare) and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick (“Makeup Call”) that the rich and famous bozos being accused of sexual abuse are no different than the frat boys and jocks who’ve never been taught that “no means no.” Because M.F.A. debuted last march at SXSW, it would be a stretch to draw more parallels between the movie and L’affaire Weinstein. It’s now possible that what started as a feminist exploitation flick – femploitation, if you will – might benefit from the continuing parade of headline-grabbing revelations. As far as I can tell, though, M.F.A. only played a few festivals before going into the VOD, Internet and DVD/Blu-ray marketplace. Although she cut her teeth on movies starring and/or directed by her parents — Clint Eastwood (True Crime) and Frances Fisher (The Stars Fell on Henrietta) — 24-year-old Francesca Eastwood only began climbing the Hollywood ladder for real in 2015, with a supporting role in Final Girl … that is, unless one counts gigs on the short-lived reality show “Mrs. Eastwood & Company” and being chosen Miss Golden Globes, in 2013, by the HFPA. Even so, Eastwood is arguably the most recognizable actor in Leite and McKendrick’s revenge/vigilante thriller. In it, she plays a graduate student in the art department of a small SoCal college. Timid and only a middling artist, Noelle accepts an invitation from a fellow student to attend a party. Even before her first beer loses its bubbles, she’s given a quick tour of his bedroom and thrown to the bed, turned on tummy and viciously raped. I’m not sure if a male director could have caught the same degree of anguish and embarrassment on Noelle’s face as the jerk quickly pulls up his trousers, leaves the room and she’s forced to perform the “walk of shame” ritual before the party guests. When Noelle confides in her neighbor, Skye (McKendrick), and the school’s social worker, she’s basically told to suck it up and try to forget about the incident. Police had ignored Skye when she complained about being raped in the same way, as did another woman who was attacked at a frat party by three football players. A group of campus women meet on the scourge of date rape, without offering Noelle any solace or advice, except to use nail polish that can distinguish when a drink has been spiked. Without giving anything away, Noelle then embarks on a mission to avenge her rape and those of the other women. With each ensuing murder, Noelle grows stronger as an independent woman and artist. As such, M.F.A. feels a lot like a cross between Death Wish and Ms .45, but without the same sustained bite. There’s also a palpable absence of the kind of tension that accompanies the best vigilante thrillers, including Francesca’s father Clint’s Dirty Harry. Still, it isn’t like we’ve seen the last of the Ms. Eastwood, if only genre flicks. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back
Angry Inuk
Karl Marx City
The War Show
Gun Runners
In no artistic discipline is it more difficult to separate the charlatans from the visionaries than the one associated with cheese-and-wine gallery openings, tony auctions and hyperbolic coverage in the Sunday New York Times. Learned men and women have probably debated the question of what makes a painting, sketch or sculpture “art” since the first Homo sapiens began decorating the walls of caves with naturalistic renditions of bison, aurochs and deer, instead of handprints and graffiti left by their former tenants, the Neanderthals. And, while every succeeding artistic movement since the Renaissance has been met with doubt and derision, it wasn’t until the Dadaists, Abstractionists and Pop Artists that collectors and curators raised the ante in this high-stakes game of chicken. Maura Axelrod’s provocative documentary, Maurizio Cattelan: Be Right Back, leaves the question of what is and isn’t art to the eyes of the beholder, while seeming to argue that any manmade creation that raises the pulse and/or ire of those same beholders should be considered artistic, at least. And, once the price tag for such works enters the five-figure range – and more — it doesn’t matter what they’re called. Italian hyperrealist Maurizio Cattelon has been delighting and confounding observers of his work, ever since 1989, when he hung a sign reading, “Torno subito” — “Be back soon” – on the door of the gallery hosting his first solo exhibition, citing an absence of ideas for the show. If politicians were as candid about their own lack of substantive thoughts, the world would be a better and more peaceful.

The art world, though, abhors such vacuums, so, when, a few years later, Cattelan declared himself open for business, it beat a path to his door. If the artist was happy to finally be recognized, it wasn’t always visible in his alternately disruptive, disrespectful and self-deprecating work. Unlike the site-specific public art of Christo (“Wrapped Reichstag”), topiary and stainless-steel art of Jeff Koons (“Puppy”), monumental sculptures of Richard Serra (“Tilted Arc”) and architecture of Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), which are easy on the eyes, at least, Cattelon’s most notorious pieces thumb their noses at art establishment. Axelrod’s film offers more than the usual number of specimens for our perusal, as well as allowing for contrasting opinions of curators, critics, peers, ex-girlfriends and passersby. Among the most controversial are his sculpture of Pope John Paul II, struck down by a meteorite; a rendering of Adolf Hitler, in the scale of a young boy, kneeling in a pose of supplication; an effigy of a serene and barefoot John F. Kennedy, lying in state; sculptures created from taxidermized horses; Pinocchio floating facedown in a fountain on the rotunda of the Guggenheim/New York; and a functioning 18-karat-gold toilet that some might compare to Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, “Fountain.” (Or, the plumbing in the Presidential Suite of the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, for that matter.) Everything in the film is pointed toward Cattelan’s eye-popping 2011 retrospective at the Guggenhein, which filled the entirely of its atrium. Fans of Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop are the target audience for “Be Right Back,” but anyone who’s ever pondered the question, “What is art?” – especially teens and art students – will find something of value here.

Those of us who routinely fall asleep in front of our televisions are consciously or subliminally exposed to hundreds of infomercials and PSAs pleading for donations to one cause or another, using distressed animals or starving children as bait for their emotional appeals. No effort is made to present the downside of such generosity, if any, or demonstrate how donations might not make it to those who need the money most. It takes dogged reporting and incorruptible accountant to determine if donors and victims are being ripped … not the television station on which the PSAs appear. Among the more memorable of these tear-jerking commercials is the one depicting the annual seat hunts in southeastern Canada, during which impossibly cute baby harp seals – “whitecoats,” if you will – are clubbed to death and stripped of their pelts. Only a monster could be left unmoved by the sight of the trails of red blood left on the white snow after the individual beatings. All it took for viewers to donate money was the face of a baby seal staring back at them and predictions of when its pelt might be headed. Thanks to commercials, the Newfoundland “hunts” are far more stringently monitored and controlled by the Canadian government. Moreover, sales of clothing and other byproducts made from the seal have been prohibited in many western countries. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s provocative documentary Angry Inuk begins where those infomercials left off by demonstrating how the boycotts and embargoes continue to impact Canada’s Inuit population – not the club-wielding white men — which traditionally has relied on the seal hunt for food, clothing, commerce and rites of passage. The people we meet here don’t participate in the harp-seal culling, which takes place hundreds of miles from their homes. Even so, the boycotts and sanctions directly impacted what they could command for the skins of ring seals, oils and other by-products. Sales also plummeted in reaction to a reduced demand for coats, boots and gloves made from the skin. It got to the point where the money a hunter received didn’t even cover gas for his snow mobile, let alone food, fuel, clothing and other household necessities not provided by the hunts. With no other source of income, residents have been forced to move to villages and cities, where, at best, they could make a subsistence living or be closer to government safety nets. Arnaquq-Baril describes how a new generation of Inuit, conversant with social media and armed with a burning desire to protect their families and threatened customs, are directly challenging what they believe is a disingenuous campaign by anti-sealing groups. Among others things the activists stress that the northern Inuit don’t slaughter the harp seals and, even if they did join the hunt, the animals have never been designated an endangered species. We follow a group of students to meetings of the European Union, which initiated bans on skins and other products after being confronted by delegates from Greenpeace, PETA and other well-financed groups. They handed out fliers and pamphlets, while their opponents provided delegates with dolls and trinkets before each debate/ The larger question, however, pertains to how much abuse should governments be allowed to inflict on Inuit and other First Nation communities, who already are suffering from the effects of unchecked global warming, limitations on whaling, the proliferation of oil rigs, effects of pollution on fish and wildlife, and, now, plans for humongous storage bladders to contain oil before it can be piped south or loaded onto tankers. They can’t afford to hire lobbyists to cajole or bribe politicians, let alone compete with images of fuzzy baby seals on televisions around the world.

Another new documentary from Film Movement/Bond360 echoes issues raised in The Tower and other films and mini-series set in East Germany before the re-unification. In Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s truly chilling Karl Marx City, disturbing facts about everyday life in the “workers’ paradise” are related like contemporary versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Epperlein grew up in the titular city, renamed after World War II for the author of “The Communist Manifesto” and “Das Kapital.” The Socialist Unity Party of Germany (a.k.a., Communist Party) conceived Karl-Marx-Stadt as a showcase of productivity, prosperity and the supremacy of the East German proletariat. Almost immediately after the Wall began to crumble, the name was changed back to Chemnitz and statues demolished. Epperlein grew up there, but moved to the U.S. when the ban against traveling to the west was lifted. In 1999, her father mailed her a cryptic farewell note, burned all his photos and letters, then hanged himself from a tree behind the old family home. He was 57. Karl Marx City not only is a personal investigation into a family tragedy, but also into a regime that mistook repression and paranoia for equality and freedom. Soon after the GDR collapsed, Epperlein’s father received a series of anonymous letters that threated to expose him as a former undercover Stasi agent. Dismissed by the family at the time, the accusations would serve as a starting point for her search for the truth, whatever it turned out to be. The film, which resembles a black-and-white espionage thriller from the early 1960s, features interviews with her mother and twin brothers, plus visits to the Stasi archives in Berlin and Chemnitz. She meets historians, scholars, former spies and informers, and experts on suicide. Even though Stasi headquarters was looted, she was given access to dossiers, films and recordings pertaining to her father and life in her neighborhood, growing up. They’re simply the tip of a very large and dangerous iceberg.

Until it became too dangerous for most western journalists to cover the war in Syria from the front lines, the escalation of hostilities was laid out in clearly defined chapters. At first, it was taken for granted that the cruel and corrupt Assad regime would fall in line with other governments overturned in the Arab Spring of 2011. Westerners long accepted Bashar al-Assad’s role as a despot, agent for state-sponsored terrorism and protector of war criminals, without fully appreciating his ability to leverage the support of the Syrian middle- and upper-classes, Iran’s Shia state and Russia’s expansionist agenda to his advantage. The longer the Americans and European nations waited to develop a plan either to eliminate Assad or support the resistance, the easier it became for Assad’s military to contain the uprising to urban centers outside Damascus. Knowing that Vladimir Putin would ignore the vicious barrages of rebel-held centers and starvation of trapped citizens, Assad was able to consolidate his hold on war-weary Syrians and imprison anyone suspected of opposing it. Frustration caused resistance groups to splinter and fight amongst each other, leaving a vacuum easily filled by ISIS and other Sunni fanatics. The crisis caused by the large number of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, was far easier for the media to cover. What will happen now that ISIS has been displaced remains to be seen. Obadiah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s shattering documentary, The War Show, closely follows that outline of events in Syria, but from a point-of-view unlike that of other films about the Arab Spring. Like so many other Syrians, Zytoon embraced the calls for democracy and felt confident they would spread like wildfire in Syria. As a radio host in Damascus, she was surrounded by young people caught up in the sudden ability to protest, with and without masks or shawls. I doubt that Zytoon took videos of her close-knit group of friends, thinking beyond the fall of Assad and their reactions to newfound freedom. Instead, the college-age youths serve as our eyes and ears on the ground in The War Show, which begins with such hope and ends in tragedy and despair. In between, the friends move from Damascus to Zytoon’s hometown of Zabadani and Homs, the latter practically levelled in rocket barrages and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes. They even make time to spend a day or two at a secluded beach, their pets in tow. The film’s emotional turning point comes when the abandoned puppy they adopted is killed after straying on a busy road, and Zytoon sees it as an omen of bad things to come. The War Show pays special attention to the role of women in the movement and fear of cameras exhibited by soldiers and militants, alike. Early on, the director asks a young girl why she shows her face: “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated. I’m demonstrating to breathe,” she replies. The film divides the ensuing events into seven sections (“Revolution,” “Suppression,” “Resistance,” “Siege,” “Memories,” “Frontlines” and “Extremism”), one more depressing than the chapter before it.

The fifth new doc from Film Movement/Bond360 also adds fresh perspective to a familiar story. Ever since the mid-1960s, when Kenyan men began to dominate foot races from 800 meters to marathons, the sports media have descended on the Great Rift Valley – otherwise, noted for international arms trading – to uncover their secrets. (In 2008, Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics.) Before establishing formal training facilities and dietary regimens, it was a commonly held belief that living at a relatively high altitude and running to school or work every day was the prime factor. Anjali Nayar’s inciteful film, Gun Runners, goes a bit further than most of ABC Sports’ trademark up-close-and-personal features might, focusing on a pair of world-class marathon runners, whose stories include time spent among the bands of warriors that terrorize the North Kenyan countryside, stealing cattle, raiding villages and running from the police. As part of a government-sponsored program to disarm combatants in conflicted regions, boyhood friends and Julius Arile and Robert Matanda agreed to trade their AK-47s for running shoes they didn’t have. Taking time away from their families and crops proved to be a sacrifice not only for the runners, but for the villagers whose dreams included sharing the riches from Arile and Matanda’s accomplishments. When they didn’t come, the men allowed themselves to be exploited by politicians, whose promises were as empty as their pockets. Nayar’s camera is able to follow Arile’s progress on the comeback trail from injury and competition at the regional, national and international level. Joan Poggio’s cinematography contributes greatly to Gun Runners’ success.

On Wings of Eagles
Too often, stories of true-life courage and sacrifice leave viewers with only a few lines of information as to what finally happened to the protagonists, or their cause, in advance of the final credits. Although I can remember how Chariots of Fire ended, I can’t recall if viewers were told how British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams filled the rest of their years, away from the track. A year after the 1924 Paris Games, Abraham broke a leg while long jumping, effectively ending his competitive career. It led him to return to his studies as a lawyer, but, for the rest of his life, he would remain involved in sports and Jewish causes. In the 36 years since Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four, I’m amazed that no one attempted to chronicle Liddell’s post-Olympics life. I say that because, for all its flaws, Stephen Shin and Michael Parker’s On Wings of Eagles (a.k.a., “The Last Race”) inspired me to learn more about this truly amazing man and his inspirational story. Without Chinese financing, Liddell’s story probably would have remained more of a question mark than hero, and the movie would still be stuck on Square One. Although he represented the UK at the Games, the “Flying Scotsman” was born in China to Scottish missionary parents, and died there 43 years later. In some circles, this qualified him as China’s first Olympics champion and someone well worth memorializing. After his moment of glory, Liddell returned to the city of his birth, Tianjin, to follow in his parents’ footsteps as a teacher, coach, Sunday School superintendent and ordained minister. In 1941, life in northern China had become so dangerous for foreigners that the British government advised its nationals to leave. Florence Liddell, who was pregnant, would leave for Canada with their two daughters to wait out the war, while her husband and physician brother-in-law returned to positions at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang.

As fighting between the Chinese army and invading Japanese forces reached Xiaozhang, the Japanese took over the mission station and Liddell (Joseph Fiennes) returned to Tianjin. Two years later, Liddell and members of the mission were sent to an internment camp in the city now known as Weifang. The Japanese called it Courtyard of the Happy Way” (or, in Chinese, Campus of Loving Truth), As portrayed in On Wings of Eagles, it was anything but “happy” or “loving.” Even so, Liddell became a leader and organizer at the camp, where food, medicine and other supplies would become increasingly scarce for everyone. If he had been Roman Catholic priest, instead of a Protestant minister, the Vatican might have financed the production and used it as testimony for Liddell’s legitimate shot at sainthood. By all accounts, he was just that kind of man: always sacrificing his food and comfort for others and never losing track of his Christian beliefs and principles. He agreed to compete in foot races against the camp’s boss, even though he was desperately undernourished, having given the allotments of food he received from the Chinese to his fellow prisoners. Criticism I’ve read argues that the Chinese financial backing ensured that the religious angles would be played down, in favor of a portrayal that demonstrated his willingness to stand up to the brutal Japanese officials and sacrifice to save the lives of local children. Liddell succumbed to a brain tumor, just months before the camp was liberated. A monument still stands at the former Weihsien Internment Camp. If the proselytizing is kept to a minimum here, there’s no doubt that Liddell was a man of God and devout Christian. I can’t imagine that the Japanese camp supervisors were anything but monsters, who worshipped the emperor as a living God who sanctioned anything done in his name, even torture, rape and murder. The bigger problem, especially for admirers of Chariots of Fire, is the production, itself, which relies on a weak script, too many composite characters and events, and some not-ready-for-prime-time acting. It’s possible that Hollywood producers were scared off by Liddell’s staunch Christian beliefs – he refused to participate in Olympics races scheduled for Sunday, if you recall – and the potential for controversies based on the number of times Jesus Christ’s name did or did not pop up.

A New Leaf: Blu-ray
Five years after her former partner in comedy, Mike Nichols, stunned Hollywood with his adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – and, a year later, The Graduate – Elaine May was handed the reins of a dark comedy based on Jack Ritchie’s short story “The Green Heart.” Critics also heaped praise on A New Leaf, but, in doing so, felt it only fair to point out to their readers that they didn’t know how much of the credit belonged to the star/screenwriter/director and how much should go to editors who re-cut her original three-hour film to 102 minutes. Not only was Paramount head of production Robert Evans unhappy over the cut’s length, but also May’s seeming disregard for her budget and the studio’s deadline. Reportedly, neither the director’s cut of the film nor the original shooting script have ever been made publicly available. While the same thing has happened to other fledging filmmakers, most have accepted the kudos without exposing the ruse. May was given a couple of other opportunities to redeem herself in the eyes of studio bigshots. Like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid (1972) received high praise from critics and still is considered one of the top 100 comedies of all times, depending on who’s doing the polling. It also did better at the box office. Shot in 1973, but not released until 1976, May’s talky buddy drama Micky and Nicky – starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk – suffered an almost identical fate to A New Leaf, creatively and commercially. A full decade would pass before she was once again allowed to go to the plate as writer/director. Plagued with similarly crippling budgetary and deadline problems, Ishtar laid a very expensive egg for Columbia. It took a long time for the dust to clear, but, upon further review lots of folks, including stars Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman and Charles Grodin, have found positive things to say about the high-profile adventure/comedy. Although she wouldn’t get another directing job until the 2016 “American Masters” salute to her former partner, Nichols did ask her to adapt screenplays for The Birdcage (1996) and Primary Colors (1998).

In A New Leaf, a never-better Walter Matthau plays Henry Graham, a playboy from a wealthy patrician family, who has run through his entire inheritance and is completely unequipped to provide for himself. His childhood guardian, Uncle Harry (James Coco), refuses to give him a dime. Henry considers suicide, but, instead, takes the advice of his valet, who suggests he immediately marry into wealth. With a $50,000 loan from Uncle Harry to tide him over, Henry has just six weeks to find a rich bride and repay the money, otherwise he must forfeit all his property to his uncle. May is wonderful as the painfully shy and beyond-klutzy botanist, Henrietta Lowell, who agrees to marry him, just days before the deadline. The other half of Henry’s plan is to eliminate his new problem – Henrietta – and inherit her wealth. Not surprisingly, Henry’s strategy doesn’t play out as he envisioned it would. If Paramount had left well enough alone, A New Leaf would have been significantly darker and the ending less quasi-romantic. As it is, however, it’s a terrific entertainment. Olive Films previously released A New Leaf on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012, sans bonus features. The new Olive Signature edition features a fresh restoration from a 4K scan of original camera negative; audio commentary by film scholar Maya Montanez Smukler; featurettes, “The Cutting Room Floor: Editing A New Leaf,” with assistant editor Angelo Corrao, and “Women in Hollywood: A Tragedy of Comic Proportions,” with director Amy Heckerling; an essay by critic, editor and film programmer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; and Ritchie’s “The Green Heart.”


Silent Night, Deadly Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Once Upon a Time at Christmas
Rarely has a hit-and-run genre flick generated as much controversy and outright contempt than master showman Charles E. Sellier Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night did, upon its 1984 release on the same weekend as A Nightmare on Elm Street. If the splatter classic wasn’t the first horror movie to exploit the holiday connection – that honor probably belongs to Bob Clark’s influential Black Christmas – its marketing campaign likely was the first to draw the collective ire of parents, the PTA, Siskel and Ebert. If the poster and commercials didn’t include an ax-wielding Santa, however, it existence might have come, gone and been forgotten in the wake of Wes Craven’s far superior blood bath. Once the furor broke out and a parents’ group organized a boycott and picketing, TriStar Pictures pulled its ads and attendance dropped significantly. A year later, “SN/DN” would be re-released by a different distributor, sparking a franchise consisting of six feature films, action figures, clothing, stockings, Christmas ornaments and numerous re-releases on home video. The latest is a Blu-ray “collector’s edition,” restored from the original vaulted film Scream Factory, with new bonus material and a limited edition, with an action figure and a poster. For the record, “SN/DN” relates the story of Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson), who, at 5, was cautioned by his seemingly catatonic grandfather about St. Nick’s propensity for punishing naughty little boys. On the drive home, his parents will be brutally murdered by a desperate criminal in a Santa suit. Billy and his brother are sent to an orphanage run by a sadistic nun. One Christmas morning, he’s horrified by the unexpected appearance of Santa. After being dragged to see the bearded geezer, Billy punches him and escapes to a corner of his room. Years after surviving that nightmare, Billy finds work in a toy store. His transformation to serial killer is sparked by having to don a costume to play Santa for a party. It’s his cue to “punish the naughty,” in various unsavory ways. Scream Queen Linnea Quigley delivers an unforgettable portrayal of one of Billy’s victims. The set adds more bonus features than you can shake an ax handle at, including an extended unrated version of the film; interviews with writer Michael Hickey, co-executive producers Scott J. Schneid and Dennis Whitehead, editor/second-unit director Michael Spence, composer Perry Botkin and actor Robert Brian Wilson; a new interview with the great scream queen Linnea Quigley; “Christmas in July,” in which locations used in the movie are revisited; new and vintage commentaries; “Santa’s Stocking of Outrage”; and classic marketing material.

In Once Upon a Time at Christmas (2017), British writer/director/producer Paul Tanter (White Collar Hooligan) delivers a Santa and Mrs. Claus in the form of a one-eyed lunatic (Simon Phillips) and a curvy, bat-swinging blond (Sayla de Goede). This serial-killing couple is splattering blood all over the holidays in a small town in upstate New York, staging one gruesome rampage per night. Though the victims seem random — a mall Santa, a smooching couple, a quiet family — high-schooler Jennifer (Laurel Brady) and clever cop Sam (Jeff Ellenberger) begin to unravel the sinister pattern behind the slayings.

“The Shattered Faberge Egg,” the novel upon which Natasha Kermani’s debut feature is based, is set in beautiful and historic Asheville, North Carolina. Nestled at the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, it could never be mistaken for Clarksdale, Mississippi, a town that’s flat as a board and noteworthy today primarily for being home to the Delta Blues Museum. It’s where screenwriters Paul Leach and Nicholas Celozzi set Shattered, a movie that hinges on prejudices, deep-seated fears and dark secrets peculiar to prominent families in the Deep South. Unfortunately, the film suffers from not being shot in a location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, where you can cut the humidity with a knife and kudzu grows on anything that stands still for more than five minutes. According to producer Marie Pizano, the team had 18 days to make Shattered and it was easier and less expensive for it to be made in California. As such, it looks like every other underbudgeted movie shot within a 40-radius of Hollywood & Highland. The only concessions to the Delta are some brief establishing shots of cotton fields and ramshackle homes, and a blues band whose leader looks like Joseph Buttafuoco. (Apparently, all the African-American musicians were busy that day.) No one breaks a sweat, even when they’re playing tennis in trousers and long-sleeved shirts, and a Southern accent isn’t heard. In it, Kate Stenson (Molly Burnett) dreams of an enviable life as the quintessential Southern bride. She marries Ken Burnett (Tom Malloy), the son of the town’s powerful mayor (Ray Wise) — a controlling father who will do anything to protect his reputation. Kate has two children with Ken — a biological daughter, and an adopted son, Logan — but Kate’s seemingly perfect existence begins to fray when she discovers that Logan suffers from severe mental-health issues. Just as Shattered begins to look as if it might turn into a demon-seed thriller, something terrible happens to the boy and the entire flow of the movie changes direction. Kate’s journey to uncover the true story of Logan’s genetic line reveals dark secrets that can destroy the entire Burnett legacy. But wait, there’s more. Once all of the cats are out of their respective bags, Shattered takes another abrupt turn, taking us into Lifetime movie territory. Some viewers will argue that the uplifting ending justifies the mistakes made getting there – including the mixed-race Logan, who looks as white as the Burnetts’ biological daughter, Emma – but others, who only judge a DVD by its cover, are likely to feel cheated.

All Male, All Nude
Body Electric
On Showtime’s few-holds-barred series “Shameless,” characters played by Steve Howey and Cameron Monaghan dance for tips at a rowdy gay nightclub in Chicago. Although all the dancers have their own reasons for doing so, the common denominator is money. Unlike the dancers in Magic Mike, whose primary audience is comprised of women who get off on the highly choreographed routines and fantasy of making it with a beefy cowboy, firefighter or Top Gun pilot, the strippers in Gerald McCullouch’s documentary, All Male, All Nude, forgo rip-away pants for jeans and jock straps that don’t stay on for very long. It’s The Full Monty for real. Four decades after the Village People introduced gay-nightclub iconography to Middle America, with the crowd-pleasing “Y.M.C.A.,” the only time people dress in such costumes to dance is on Halloween … or in movies like Magic Mike. All Male, All Nude reminds me of Jerome Gary’s 1985 documentary, Stripper, which introduced viewers to exotic dancers who owed less to Gypsy Rose Lee and Blaze Starr than to Jane Fonda’s “Workout” and Flashdance. (Eight years earlier, Gary produced Pumping Iron, which Stripper and All Male, All Nude also resemble.) The women’s routines combined acrobatics, ballet, contortionism and rock music, all designed to extract dollar bills from the stacks of money in front of men sitting around the proscenium stage. Graduates of the Vancouver School of Stripping then added pole, lap and table dancing to their resumes, effectively eliminating the “tease” from “striptease” and removing the traditional burlesque stage show. Today, pole-dancing is taught in aerobics and yoga classes. Not so much, lap dancing.

Movies in which strippers and strip clubs play key roles in the narrative not only became a staple of Cinemax and other early premium-cable services, but in such mainstream dramas and comedies as Dressed to Kill, Erotica, Showgirls, Striptease and Dancing at the Blue Iguana. All Male, All Nude, takes us to Atlanta’s Swinging Richards, purportedly the country’s only all-male, all-nude, gay strip club … not that women aren’t welcome, as well. The format isn’t all that different than that employed in a half-dozen episodes of HBO’s “Real Sex,” “Blue Iguana” and Strippers, which split their time between the bar area, backstage and the alley, where it’s quiet enough to smoke cigarettes and be interviewed. The club resembles the one depicted in “Shameless,” where the dancing also provides a showcase for the men’s muscular bodies and extraordinary penises. We’re introduced to a half-dozen dancers – gay, straight and bi- — who discuss their motivations, work conditions and customers. Some are married with children, while others are saving money for an advanced degree in college or a cool new car … just like exotic dancers the world over. Once again, the only common denominator is a willingness by all parties to accept or spend money to be entertained. Unlike “Shameless,” the dancers in McCullouch’s film don’t sneak into the shadows to service customers with the occasional blow job … just cigarettes. While Atlanta allows full-frontal nudity, it closely regulates the interaction between dancers and customers, right down to where tips can be placed (elastic garters above the bicep, only). The dancers all pay a straight fee for the right to dance at the club, with money deducted for special V.I.P. services and tips for the deejay and bouncers. I don’t know if celebrity dancers – typically porn stars – are imported to boost admissions and booze sales, as is common in gentlemen’s clubs. The downside of the job is represented, as well. At 57 minutes, All Male, All Nude doesn’t overstay its welcome or overstate its mission. And, no, the men’s naughty bits aren’t digitally disguised or edited by camera angles. The DVD adds several background featurettes and music videos.

While Marcelo Caetano’s debut feature, Body Electric, steers well clear of being a comedy, the overall mood is celebratory and carefree. That isn’t the usual vibe associated with films in the LGBTQ genre, where one form of conflict or another not only is expected, it also reflects the realities of life within a contentious society. The lack of conflict, while welcome, finally leaves us slightly off-balance. At 23, Elias (Kelner Macêdo) is an openly gay man who works as an assistant designer and supervisor at a small textile workshop, and, in his free time, enjoys exploring his sexuality and intimate friendships. Even so, Elias is limited by his circumstances at work, where he’s been asked to maintain a distance between labor and management.  He wants to have as much fun as possible, but can’t do it if he can’t hang out with the cool kids. Something will have to give, somewhere, but, at 23, those kinds of choices are too difficult to make in swinging São Paolo. Caetano describes Body Electric as “a poem that celebrates the diversity of bodies and the beauty that exists in every action of the body […] that sings the encounter of the bodies and the value of community.” In a sense, it pays homage the diversity of beauty, race and sexuality present within Brazil’s largest city. In another twist, Caetano doesn’t limit the associations made by Elias during the course of the narrative, crossing all of the boundaries of typical L-G-B-T-Q typecasting. Straight and lesbian women share screen time with characters who are gay, transvestites, transgenders and questioning, as Elias apparently is. Once the management/labor hurdle is cleared, everyone is playing on the same level field. The doesn’t necessarily make for great drama, but it will leave most viewers with a smile.

Trumping Democracy
If, like several my closest friends and relatives, you spend an inordinate number of hours watching MSNBC and have eliminated Fox News from your programming guide, Thomas Huchon’s Trumping Democracy is a documentary that not only will get your juices flowing, but also put you off your feed for days to come. In a nutshell, it describes how multi-billionaire Robert Mercer, a major shareholder in Breitbart News, took control of then-candidate Donald Trump’s loosey-goosey campaign and molded it into a lean, mean war machine against Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates. The secretive computer scientist and AI pioneer inserted Breitbart editor Steve Bannon into the campaign as its manager – paying his salary, so Trump didn’t have to put it on his books – and the unctuous Kellyanne Conway as a key adviser and current counselor to the President. A polling company attached to Mercer’s operation first identified the constituency willing to pull Britain from the European Union and found parallels to the large number of American voters becoming alienated from both political parties and mainstream candidates. By exploiting their inability to distinguish Trump’s natural hyperbole from outright lies, Mercer’s minions effectively flooded social media with fake news – a term they would usurp and turn on the Democratic opposition – and right-wing PACs with cash. Anyone who doesn’t already believe someone like Mercer isn’t the puppet master controlling the President’s strings – and those attached to Bannon — probably would avoid Trumping Democracy like the plague. Political junkies should, however, find Mercer’s methodology as instructive as it is frightening. His ability to corrupt Facebook, through “dark posts” and other fabrications, is either the work of genius or fascism, depending on which side of the fence one stands. “In the darkness of the web, democracy was ‘trumped’ by data,” the doc successfully argues. Experts include psychometric scientist Dr. Michal Kosinski, PhD Psychology (University of Cambridge); David Carroll, associate professor of media design at the School of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design; Rosie Gray, Whitehouse Correspondent, The Atlantic; and Brendan Fischer, director, Federal & FEC Reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan nonprofit. In November, Mercer announced he would step down from Renaissance Technologies and sell his stake in Breitbart News, which either means he has terminal cancer or is resting up for the 2018 midterm elections. Bannon has returned to Breitbart News, where he can manipulate Trump without being called to task for his crypto-Nazi beliefs.

Digimon Adventure Tri.: Confession: Blu-ray
In this, the third in a series of six feature length movies in the Digimon Adventure Tri series, infected Digimons continue to threaten both the human world and digital world. There is also a new threat when a mysterious message appears one night over all electrical devices stating that “the Digimon will be released again,” which creates mass panic. There is one possible solution: triggering a “reboot” which would reset the Digital World. But the reset comes at a high price, as the Digimons would lose all memories of their human companions. Special features include the English-premiere panel at Anime Expo 2017.

DVD Gift Guide II: Red Skelton, Bob Hope, Der Bingle, Hitchcock, Homicide, Agatha Christie, Jean Rouch, MST3K, Curtiz, Logan Lucky, Animal Factory, Woodshock and more

Thursday, November 30th, 2017

The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Deluxe Collection
Thanks for the Memories: The Bob Hope Collection: Deluxe Box Set
Bob Hope: The Ultimate Movie Collection
Holiday Inn: 75th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Because our grandparents and great-grandparents already seem to have everything they need, they get shorted when gifts are being handed out around the Christmas tree. The challenge of picking out presents grows greater every year, it seems. After all, how many sweaters, robes and slippers can a person possibly own? Why not give the gift that never gets older that it already is: nostalgia. No matter how many channels there are, the ones dedicated to shows seniors might recall with fondness are limited to TCM, PBS and niche services on premium networks. While it’s possible that they already enjoy watching reruns of “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” as much as their boomer and millennial offspring, I’d be surprised if they wouldn’t cherish the opportunity to revisit variety shows from the 1950-60s, hosted by and featuring entertainers they haven’t seen perform in decades. Shows dedicated to singing, dancing, comedy and holiday cheer disappeared from network television at about the same time that talk-show guests stopped wearing tuxedos and cocktail dresses and network execs figured out that it was more profitable to pull Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Frosty out of hibernation, than stage a gala attraction. A perusal of the website offers a plethora of suggested titles, in boxed mega-sets and more affordable themed packages, featuring the stars of yesteryear. There was a time when Boomers would no sooner agree to spend an evening at home watching Bob Hope or Red Skelton than they would consider inviting mom and dad to a Grateful Dead concert. Now, the tables have turned. Watching the shows included in “The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Deluxe Collection” and “Thanks for the Memories: The Bob Hope Collection: Deluxe Box Set,” I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bits I once dismissed as being hopelessly square, over-scripted or oppressively wholesome. While I enjoy a good dick joke as much as anyone, I haven’t met an old-timer who feels comfortable watching comedians who pepper their material with language they once attributed to sailors, or can handle the decibel range of the bands booked alongside flavor-of-the-month celebrities only their grandchildren might recognize.

Like most of the big stars of television in the 1950s, Red Skelton and Bob Hope hadn’t reached puberty before they started busking for loose change on street corners. Skelton was only 10 when he parlayed his comedic and pantomime skills into jobs on a traveling medicine show and showboat, before joining the burlesque and vaudeville circuits. From age 12, Hope earned pocket money by entertaining passersby with his singing, dancing, jokes and impressions. Hope and his partner Lloyd Durbin were discovered in 1925 by Fatty Arbuckle, who found them work with a touring troupe called Hurley’s Jolly Follies. The skills honed on the streets of Vincennes and Cleveland laid the foundation for jobs on the stage, in radio, the movies, nightclubs and television. “The Red Skelton Hour” wasn’t originally shown in color, largely because CBS didn’t want to invest money in the still-nascent technology. It didn’t take long for consumers to begin clamoring for programming that justified their investment in color sets. Time Life’s “Deluxe Edition” is twice as large as the basic 11-disc package, leaving room for 65 hours of comedy, singing, dance and sketches with Red’s beloved characters. It includes the best of his early years on TV, featuring appearances by Jackie Gleason, Johnny Carson and John Wayne; 31 never-before-released color episodes, featuring Milton Berle, Martha Raye and Mickey Rooney; the complete final season, with Jerry Lewis, Jill St. John and Phyllis Diller; a full-length biography with rare home movies and interviews; his farewell specials, including a Christmas show; and a memory book, providing a closer look at how his characters came to life.

Hope not only is represented this year with “Thanks for the Memories,” with 38 hours of specials on 19 discs, including his historic shows entertaining the troops around the globe, but also Universal Studios’ “Bob Hope: The Ultimate Movie Collection,” which features 21 of his funniest films. The titles range from debut features The Big Broadcast of 1938, College Swing, Give Me a Sailor and Thanks for the Memory (1938), to Where There’s Life (1947), The Paleface (1948) and Sorrowful Jones (1949). Among his co-stars were Lucille Ball, W.C. Fields, Dorothy Lamour, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Paulette Goddard, Jane Russell and, of course, Bing Crosby. The set adds the PBS documentary, “American Masters: This is Bob Hope,” and several newsreels from the 1940s.

Universal has also dusted off the cold-weather chestnut, Holiday Inn, in a 75th-anniversary Blu-ray edition. If the film is known today primarily for introducing the Academy Award-winning “White Christmas” and providing a brand name for a chain of motels, it was originally designed as a showcase for holiday-themed songs by Irving Berlin and the singing/dancing prowess of Crosby and Fred Astaire. The inclusion of “White Christmas,” which was written with an entirely different movie in mind, was almost an afterthought, as was “Easter Parade,” published first in 1933. In the film, Crosby sings “White Christmas” as a duet with actress Marjorie Reynolds, though her voice was dubbed by Martha Mears. In the script as originally conceived, Reynolds, not Crosby, would sing the song. Both fabulously successful, “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” would inspire movies under the same titles, in 1954 and 1948, respectively. The Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Ken Barnes, with the taped material from Astaire, Crosby and music arranger John Scott Trotter; the featurettes, “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” “All-Singing All-Dancing” and “Coloring a Classic”; and “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn: The Broadway Musical.”

Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection: Blu-ray
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released so many collections of movies by Alfred Hitchcock that it’s running out of superlatives to describe them. “Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection” was preceded by “The Masterpiece Collection” and “The Essentials Collection,” as well as packages from Diamond Entertainment and Warner Bros. Some of the movies and featurettes are repeated, so consumers are urged to carefully study the list of contents before making a purchase. Otherwise, it’s difficult to go wrong with anything by or about the Master of Suspense. “Ultimate” includes digitally restored versions of Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy and Family Plot. Not all were created equally, but even a flawed Hitchcock is better than a thriller by almost anyone else. Among the stars are James Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery and Kim Novak. The set contains more than 15 hours of insightful bonus features, an exclusive collectible book, 10 episodes of Hitch’s television anthologies and the six-minute-plus trailer for Psycho.

Homicide: Life on the Street: The Complete Series
Ever since the general acceptance of streaming, binge viewing has become the spectator sport of choice for couch potatoes and fans of quality television. Weekly series aren’t likely to disappear any time soon, but the opportunity to watch an entire season of a hot show, such as “Orange Is the New Black,” or every episode of an old favorite, like “Cheers,” in what amounts to a single sitting, can be too tempting to resist. Of all the packages released this year, Shout!Factory’s “Homicide: Life on the Street: Homicide: Life on the Street” is the can’t-miss title of 2017. Not only was it one of the most influential crime dramas in the history of series television, but it also provided David Simon with a launching pad for “The Corner,” “The Wire,” “Generation Kill,” “Treme,” “Show Me a Hero” and “The Deuce,” none of which resembled any series before them. “Homicide” broke the mold by offering viewers no-nonsense, procedural-type glimpses into the lives of a squad of inner-city detectives, giving full weight to minorities and women in roles not limited to heroin kingpins and prostitutes. Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) based the series on then-reporter Simon’s book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.” Another thing that differentiated the series from other crime shows was the producers’ willingness to adjust stylistic conceits when viewers reacted negatively to hand-held camerawork, jump-cut editing and the repetition of the shots in key scenes. In addition to all 122 episodes from the original series, the set includes commentaries on select episodes; interviews with members of the creative team, an hour-long documentary about the making of “The Subway”; a panel discussion with exec-producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, supervising producer James Yoshimura and Simon; “Law & Order” crossover episodes; and the 2000 finale, “Homicide: The Movie.”

Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express
The Best of Agatha Christie: Volumes 1, 2
When in doubt, studio executives in England and the U.S. tend to go with the tested and true over the experimental and offbeat. It explains why Agatha Christie’s chestnut mysteries continue to be reheated with such regularity and with few concessions to modernity over previous interpretations. Kenneth Branagh’s recent re-adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express may not have set box offices on fire or impressed critics, but international audiences pushed receipts to $162.3 million, against a production budget of $55 million. That isn’t too bad. It even prompted Fox to announce a sequel, based on the 1937 novel, “Death on the Nile,” re-teaming writer Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and director/actor Branagh, the 15th man to play detective Hercule Poirot in a direct adaptation. (Why not Helen Mirren for a change?) Just in time for holiday gift-giving, Acorn Media has released “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express” and samplers of other Christie favorites originally shown on Britain’s ITV and PBS. The 2010 iteration of “Orient Express” starred David Suchet, who played the suave Belgian detective 70 times between 1989 and 2013, as well as Inspector Japp in “Thirteen at Dinner” (1985). Suchet was renowned for extensively researching the personality and character of each role he plays. To prepare for the role of Hercule Poirot on “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989), he carefully read every description Christie ever wrote about the character, and adopted a soft French accent. In “Orient Express,” Poirot investigates the murder of a shady American businessman stabbed in his compartment on the famous train while it is blocked by a blizzard in Croatia. Suchet was joined by Sam Crane, Toby Jones, David Morrissey, Jessica Chastain, Eileen Atkins, Susanne Lothar, Barbara Hershey and Hugh Bonneville.

The Best of Agatha Christie: Volume One” is comprised of “And Then There Were None” (2015), in which 10 strangers are invited to an isolated island, only to be picked off one-by-one; “Five Little Pigs” (2003), in which Poirot is asked to clear the name of a woman, executed 14 years earlier, in the murder of her husband; and “Death on the Nile” (2004), in which a wealthy British heiress, honeymooning on a Nile cruise ship, is stalked by a former friend, whose boyfriend she had stolen before making him her new husband. Cast members include Charles Dance, Aidan Turner, Sam Neill, Miranda Richardson, Emily Blunt, J.J. Feild, Judy Parfitt, Rachael Stirling, Toby Stephens and Aidan Gillen. “The Best of Agatha Christie: Volume Two” (2016) is highlighted by “The Witness for the Prosecution,” about a young man attempting to clear his name in the death of his lover. In “Three Act Tragedy” (2011), when guests at successive dinner parties mysteriously drop dead, Poirot teams up with an old friend to find the killer. In “Hallowe’en Party” (2011), Poirot is asked by a crime novelist to investigate the macabre murder of a young girl at a children’s costume party. Here, besides Suchet, the stars include Zoë Wanamaker, Timothy West, Martin Shaw, Kim Cattrall, Billy Howle, Toby Jones and Andrea Riseborough. Bonus features on “Witness” add “From Page to Screen,” with Sarah Phelps explaining what inspired her adaptation of the 1925 story and subsequent play; “Post War Fashion,” in which costume designer, Claire Anderson, and cast members discuss the historical inspiration for the costumes; “Anatomy of a Murder,” in which lead makeup artist Samantha Marshall shares about creating a murder scene for the screen; “What Makes Christie Resonate Today,” with cast and crew members; and share about what makes Agatha Christie popular across the globe, and “Filming on the Front: When the Somme Came to Liverpool.”

Eight Films by Jean Rouch
Film Movement Film Club
Even if film buffs on your lists are unaware of French documentarian Jean Rouch’s work, they’re likely to appreciate an introduction through Icarus’ terrific retrospective, “Eight Films by Jean Rouch.” From 1946, when he made his first film in Niger, until his death in 2004, the Paris-born explorer, civil engineer, ethnologist and film director made more than 100 movies, most on African subjects, including six of the seven newly restored titles that are the focus of this boxed set. (One is a biodoc and the other a vérité walkabout through Paris.) Beginning in 1955, with his most controversial film The Mad Masters, through 1969’s darkly comic, Little by Little, they represent the most sustained flourishing of Rouch’s practice of “shared anthropology” – perhaps, inspired by Robert Flaherty’s partially staged docs — a process of collaboration with his subjects. They’re nothing like the documentaries and newsreels that emerged from colonial and post-colonial Africa in the period. For one thing, the white faces of the colonialists are in the distinct minority and the violence that came with liberation is secondary to images of social change and individuals caught up in the upheavals. He also made documentaries and feature films about France, including Chronicle of a Summer (1960), with the sociologist Edgar Morin, and Paris Vu Par … (1965), made with several New Wave directors, including Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. There are sections of Moi, Un Noir (“I, a Negro”) that could have provided a template for films made by writer/director Ousmane Sembène — the “father of African film” – and, perhaps, the characters in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come. The other titles are Mammy Water, The Human Pyramid, Jaguar, The Punishment, Jean Rouch: The Adventurous Filmmaker and The Lion Hunters, which follows a tribe on its ritual hunts over the course of seven years. It makes Donald Trump Jr.’s big-game expeditions look even worse than they already do.

Several years ago, when the Film Movement Film Club was still in its infancy, I gave a gift subscription to my father. Every month, he received an award-winning movie from one festival or another, usually months earlier than they were offered for public consumption. I can’t remember if I gave the service much of chance for survival – the movies were relatively obscure – but it did, and the selections have improved in quality and quantity. The service can now be streamed or delivered in the mail. Among the movies I’ve watched and admired in the past few months are Afterimage, Harmonium, Moka, Glory and After the Storm. There have been dozens of others, including some that competed for Oscars. Gift boxes are also available, divided by language, themes and festivals.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIX
The Violent Years: Blu-ray
Bat Pussy: Blu-ray
MST3K’s XXXIXth entry not only marks the end of an era for the show, but also for lovers of the kinds of movies lampooned by the crew of the Satellite of Love. In addition to a pair of typically schlocky movies — Girls Town and The Amazing Transparent Man – the package adds the show’s final episode, featuring Mario Bava’s 1968 spy film Diabolik (a.k.a., “Danger: Diabolik”), which starred John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Terry-Thomas, Michel Piccoli and Adolfo Celi. Even with the editing of naughty bits, it may have been the best of the bad movies shown on MST3K. More significant, however, is the featurette,“Showdown in Eden Prairie: Their Final Experiment,” which looks back on the making of the final episode. Mike and the bots finally get their chance to escape Pearl Forrester’s clutches, after she buys a joystick from Radio Shack and uses it to send the orbiting screening room into a dive and make its inhabitants nauseous. When the joystick breaks, the ship goes into a death spiral toward Earth. “The Last Dance” adds 76 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the production’s final days. The fourth disc, “Satellite Dishes,” includes the host segments from 11 episodes whose rights remain elusive to Shout!Factory. “Behind the Scenes: Daniel Griffith on Ballyhoo” is an 18-minute interview with the guy who created many of the featurettes on MST3K sets. Otherwise, Girl Town (1959) is noteworthy for a cast that includes Mel Torme, Mamie Van Doren, Charlie Chaplin Jr., Harold Lloyd Jr., Paul Anka and Robert Mitchum’s son, James. Mamie plays a girl framed for murder and sent to a reform school run by nuns. There isn’t anything positive to say about The Amazing Transparent Man, a sci-fi flick in which a mad scientist devises a way to make an escaped convict invisible, so he can steal radioactive materials he needs to conduct more experiments. Instead, he robs a bank. As is the show’s wont, a short film on railroad safety has been included on the disc.

Even if the pre-Netflix editions’ of MST3K were to disappear – a fate I doubt will be realized – it probably would take a hundred years to exhaust the supply of cheeseball flicks that are being discovered by companies devoted to saving and restoring them for posterity. AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) and Something Weird have combined efforts to provide the world with a Blu-ray edition of The Violent Years (1956), William Morgan and Edward D. Wood Jr.’s 65-minute commentary on juvenile delinquency of the female variety and parental indifference to their daughters’ unladylike behavior. Playboy model Jean Moorhead plays Paula Parkins, a spoiled-rotten blond bombshell who leads her degenerate teenage hellcats down a path of gas-station hijackings, coed pajama-party orgies and cold-blooded murder. Unfortunately, too much time is wasted in the pronouncements of a self-righteous judge (I. Stanford Jolley), whose advice to the defendant is to get right with God. While behind bars, Paula manages to get pregnant without having sex with a male character. Her response to both is, “So, what?” It’s a mess, but far from unwatchable. And, yes, there’s a cameo by Wood in drag. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 4K scan from the original 35mm camera negative; the amusing commentary of Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case) and Wood biographer Rudolph Grey; trailers of sexy European imports from the 1950s from the Something Weird vault; and a bonus movie, Anatomy of a Psycho, from a new 2K scan of an original 35mm theatrical print. It describes what happens when the brother of a condemned hoodlum vows to punish everyone he considers to be responsible for the perceived injustice. One of the co-stars is Ronnie Burns, the handsome adopted son of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Also from AGFA/Something Weird is a movie once described as the worst porno parody ever made and a bona-fide “boner-killer.” After its initial 1973 release, Bat Pussy disappeared until the mid-1990s, when the sole known print was found by chance in the stockroom of an adult bookshop in Memphis. That no one noticed it was gone speaks volumes about its quality. Apparently, the citizens of Gothum City are under attack by smut peddlers and only one hero can help: Bat Pussy. As played by Dora Dildo – probably not her real name – the superheroine hangs out in her secret headquarters, until her “twat begins to twitch,” warning her of imminent crime. She then jumped onto her Hoppity-Hop balloon to foil the grotesque sex schemes of unhappily married hillbillies, Buddy and Sam. The new 2K scan is from the only surviving 16mm theatrical print. It adds a commentary track with Lisa Petrucci and Tim Lewis of Something Weird; crime-smut trailers and shorts from the Something Weird vault; liner notes by Lisa Petrucci and Mike McCarthy, the savior of Bat Pussy; the bonus movie, Robot Love Slaves, scanned in 2K from an original theatrical print; and double-sided cover art with illustrations by Johnny Ryan.

Go, Johnny, Go!
Free to Rock: How Rock & Roll Brought Down the Wall
When rock ’n’ roll was in its infancy and still learning to duck walk, Hollywood didn’t waste any time in exploiting what was then considered by many to be a fleeting craze. What doubters expected to replace it with was never revealed, because it never went away or fell out of favor with teenagers. Blackboard Jungle (1955) has been cited as the movie that first put Hollywood in the rock-’n’-roll business, even if Bill Haley was heard, but not seen. Unless one counts an appearance in the rarely, if ever shown 1955 documentary, The Pied Piper of Cleveland: A Day in the Life of a Famous Disc Jockey, Elvis Presley’s debut would come a year later in Love Me Tender. Other idols of Top 40 radio appeared as performers or actors in such enticing titles as Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, Rock Rock Rock!, The Girl Can’t Help It, Mister Rock and RollCarnival Rock, Jamboree!, Shake, Rattle & Rock!, The Big Beat and High School Confidential! Even if the guitars weren’t plugged in and lyrics were lip-synched, it was fun to watch the musicians in action, as they are in Go, Johnny, Go! (1959). Produced by and starring legendary deejay Alan Freed, who soon would fall from grace in the payola scandal, it tells the story of a disc jockey who creates a teen idol (Jimmy Clanton), practically out of thin air. The story isn’t nearly as noteworthy as the contributions of Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, the Cadillacs, the Flamingos, The Cadillacs, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran, Sandy Stewart, Jo Ann Campbell, Harvey Fuqua and Jimmy Cavalio and the House Rockers. Like most, maybe all the aforementioned movies, the lineup is thoroughly and naturally integrated. In something of surprise, Berry sings and acts. The Sprocket Vault restoration — from the original negative — is pristine. Commentary is provided by Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker.

While Republicans continue to insist that Ronald Reagan single-handedly brought down Berlin Wall and evil Soviet empire, he had plenty of help. Pope John Paul II certainly had more influence on working-class Catholics in Poland and other Iron Curtain countries than the American president, as did the executives of media companies whose networks tantalized the citizens of imprisoned nations with rock music and reruns of “Dallas.” If there was anything that scared the crap out of the communist leaders of East Germany and the USSR, it was the threat presented by rock-’n’-roll and how it affected the fashions, hairstyles and attitude of western youths, who appeared to be under the music’s spell. As Emmy-winning documentarian Jim Brown points out in Free to Rock: How Rock & Roll Brought Down the Wall, Soviet leaders were so wary of the impact of rock music on its young people that they believed Elvis Presley was stationed in West Berlin to corrupt them. Not a bad idea, really, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone in Eisenhower’s Pentagon hip enough to come up with such a uniquely subversive idea. Brown traces the evolution of Russian rock from its banishment in the 1950-60s, through the end of the Cold War and on to the jailing of Pussy Riot members. Such bands as Flowers, Kino and Plastic People of the Universe sparked a revolutionary youth movement that openly defied the communist government, survived the KGB crackdowns and fueled a desire for freedom. Interviews with Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Latvian President Vike-Freiberga, KGB General Oleg Kalugin and NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow attest to the impact of music on disaffected youth. They’re interspersed with images from concerts finally allowed by Soviet authorities and interviews with musicians from the west and east. The 10-year production benefitted from the funding and support of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy Museum Foundation, and the Stas Namin Centre, in Moscow.

Saving Christmas
Actor-turned-filmmaker Tom DeNucci has followed an unusual career path since going behind the camera on the 2013 thriller, Self Storage. None has enjoyed a theatrical release – here, at least – but direct-to-DVD and VOD releases no longer carry the same stigma they once did. After three hardcore genre pieces, DeNucci somehow found his way into the lucrative children’s arena with last year’s Arlo the Burping Pig and 2017’s Saving Christmas and The Santa Files, both starring 88-year-old Ed Asner. He also co-starred in Christmas All Over Again (2016), alongside an adorable mutt. DeNucci’s upcoming heist picture indicates that he hasn’t entirely abandoned the genre game, but anyone who’s shown a talent for churning out family and holiday-theme movies is going to find work in the lucrative market segment. Here, middle-schooler Danny (Jack Brunault) is a tech wizard, who, as the picture opens, still believes in Santa Claus. This will be his family’s first Christmas without their dad, which makes Danny determined to cheer up his little sister, Jennifer (Lindsay Blanchard), who, still grieving, has become a doubter. Bullied by a popular boy from school because of his “childish” belief, Danny vows to use his scientific know-how to prove the existence of the holiday icon. It won’t be easy, even after he discovers that his community’s toy company may be an outpost of Santa’s North Pole empire.

Books & other stuff
Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film
Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood
You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood’s Golden Era
Owned: Property, Privacy, and the New Digital Serfdom
The Screen Classics division of the University Press of Kentucky has emerged as reliable publisher of books on film intended for scholars and general readers, alike. The series includes critical biographies, film histories and analytical studies, focusing on neglected filmmakers and important screen artists and subjects. That covers just about everything, I suppose. In the wake of a well-received biography of Gene Kelly come “Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film,” “Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood” and “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: Interviews With Stars From Hollywood’s Golden Era,” two are long-overdue biographies and the other a series of casual interviews intended for consumption by newspaper readers.  Born in Hungary in 1888, the 38-year-old Curtiz had already directed 64 films in Europe when he was invited to Hollywood by Warner Bros. He directed 102 films during his Hollywood career, mostly at Warners, where he directed 10 actors to Oscar nominations. Curtiz’ first Hollywood credit was a gangster melodrama, The Third Degree, which received a positive review in the New York Times. His final few films included King Creole, one of Elvis Presley’s best movies, and The Comancheros, with John Wayne, who took over the director’s seat when Curtiz became too ill to continue. In between, he directed such entertainments as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945) and White Christmas (1954). Before leaving WB, he tackled swashbuckling adventures, westerns, musicals, war epics, romances, historical dramas, horror films, tearjerkers, melodramas, comedies and film noir masterpieces. Writer and film scholar Alan K. Rode is the author of “Charles McGraw: Film Noir Tough Guy,” host and producer of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, and director-treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation.

If anyone under the age of 50 were to be asked to look at publicity photographs of three silent-screen stars seductresses, they might be able to identify Clara Bow and Theda Bara, although not without some hesitation. It’s likely that the picture of Barbara La Marr would remain unidentified, even though she starred in such movies as The Picture of Zenda, The Eternal City and Thy Name Is Woman, and made headlines for her tempestuous lifestyle. In “Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood,” Sherri Snyder not only explains why La Marr’s practically unknown today, but also the genesis of the book’s intriguing title. Hint: when she was 17, a year after being kidnapped by her older half-sister and a companion, a Los Angeles judge declared her “too beautiful to be alone in a big city” and ordered her to return home. (She reportedly was arrested at 14 for underage burlesque dancing.) When La Marr returned to L.A., she was ready to take the city by storm, as a dancer, party girl, serial bride, adulteress, scenario writer, actress and drug addict. She died at 29, three years after her final screen credit, a victim of tuberculosis, pain-killer abuse and exhaustion. (The Yakima native once said that life was too short to waste any of it by sleeping.) Cool, huh? Writer/actress/model Snyder portrays La Marr in a one-woman performance piece. “A Walk Through Time: Channeling Hollywood.”

In “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” James Bawden and Ron Miller return with a new collection of interviews with elite Hollywood stars, including Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Esther Williams, Buster Keaton, Maureen O’Sullivan, Bette Davis, Janet Leigh, Walter Pidgeon, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Although the interviews first appeared under their bylines in various mainstream publications, we’re assured that the pieces have been updated and revised for more in-depth coverage. Many were written before press agents began to dictate terms for interviews and profiles, and parcel out favors to prominent publications. As such, readers are accorded up-close-and-personal reflections, often in the comfort of a star’s home. The authors previously collaborated on “Conversations With Classic Film Stars: Interviews From Hollywood’s Golden Era,” which has just been released in paperback by the same publisher.

Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom” isn’t so much filled with holiday cheer than timely information on the changing nature of intellectual property, now that President Trump’s FCC is about to hand over the reins to the Internet to our country’s richest, greediest and least trustworthy media conglomerates. “Owned” explains how the increasing implementation of smart technology has given these corporations new opportunities to claim ownership over things we took for granted belonged to consumers. As one of the cover blurbs argues, “’Property in the digital age is getting strange. You can own things you can’t see or touch, like Bitcoins. But your ownership of things you can, like your car and your phone, has never been less secure. ‘Owned’ is an essential guide to how not to get owned by the things you think you own.” What better time and place to consider such dire warnings than Christmas morning, after the presents are opened. The author, Joshua A.T. Fairfield, is a professor of law at Washington and Lee University, where he is an internationally recognized law and technology scholar of digital property, electronic contract, big data privacy and virtual communities.

Master Models: ‘Star Wars’ Scenes
Master Models: ‘Star Wars’ R2-D2
With the hype machine in overdrive, promoting Star Wars: The Last Jedi ahead of its December 15 opening, it might be a good time to get ahead of the parade of merchandise that fans and parents will be asked to consider ahead of the holidays. Disney rarely leaves a stone unturned in its marketing campaigns, so, I suspect, the deluge has only just begun. Occasionally, though, material not specifically authorized by the Mouse House slips through, and some of it is well worth checking out. Becker & Mayer Books, for example, has already published Master Models kits that allow fans to learn the secrets behind the effects and innovations in three action-packed scenes: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader’s duel on the smoldering mining planet of Mustafar, in Revenge of the Sith; the trench run on the Death Star, in A New Hope; and Kylo Ren and Rey’s lightsaber fight in the forest of Starkiller Base, in The Force Awakens. They can be re-created in papercraft dioramas, including one with LED lighting. The easy, step-by-step instructions help turn the included punch-out pieces into keepsake replicas. Master Models’ R2-D2 kit helps buffs relive the character’s heroic adventures and build a foot-tall paper model of the wee droid. It includes die-cut pieces, with metallic-ink printing, push-button lights, a paperback book, a sound chip and detailed instructions. They complement the recently re-published “Star Wars: The Blueprints,” by J.W. Rinzler, an intricately detailed coffee-table book that we discussed here a couple months ago.

New arrivals

Logan Lucky: Blu-ray
When news of a daring midrace robbery at the Charlotte Motor Speedway finally breaks on a North Carolina television station, the anchorman cleverly labels the caper, “Ocean’s 7-Eleven.” Although Danny Ocean probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a NASCAR event or convenience store, the reference not only pinpoints where the getaway truck is discovered in Steven Soderberg’s irresistible Logan Lucky, but also his connection to the popular series of heist films, the last three of which he directed. (He’s currently producing “Ocean’s Eight,” featuring a cast of A-list actresses, for release next June.) Any further comparison between Ocean’s hand-picked crew of world-class thieves and the motley crew of Southern reprobates assembled by the notoriously unlucky Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) simply wouldn’t hold water. The insanely complicated heist, which takes place during the running of the Coca-Cola 600, is, however, choreographed with the same precision, fragility and comic timing as any of the jobs planned by Frank Sinatra or George Clooney. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel, The Killing. The Logans are unlucky in different ways. Clyde had his hand blown off in the war, while Jimmy’s bum leg kept him from pursuing an NFL career and, later, caused him to be fired from his job on a construction site underneath the surface of the speedway’s 1.5-mile track. Before he’s handed his walking papers, though, Jimmy discovers a system of pneumatic tubes that deliver currency from concession stands to a counting room and impenetrable underground safe. He’s already overheard the code number of a locked door that separates the construction from the track’s circulatory system, but needs help with other aspects of the plan. For that, Jimmy turns to Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a bulked-up safecracker currently doing time in a West Virginia prison, and his dim-witted brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson). Riley Keough and Katie Holmes must have studied reruns of “Hee-Haw” to play Jimmy’s sister and ex-wife, respectively, while little Farrah Mackenzie steals the show as the crook’s pageant-obsessed daughter. If that makes Logan Lucky sound as if it’s just another indictment of Southern culture on the skids, you should know that it stops well short of being a parody based solely on tired cracker stereotypes. The screenplay is attributed to Rebecca Blunt, believed to be a pseudonym for an unidentified writer or, perhaps, Soderbergh. The ever-inventive filmmaker decided to cut out the middle man, by creating a new company, Fingerprint Releasing, to serve as a distribution “conduit” that aims to connect filmmakers and exhibitors. He raised the money he needed to make the picture through selling off foreign distribution rights and post-theatrical rights to premium-cable outlets and other ancillary interests to cover prints and marketing. With nearly everything prepaid, and no hefty distributor fees coming off the top, even a modest $15-million opening would be a win. While the critics were overwhelmingly positive, Logan Lucky’s primary competition, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, attracted the larger share of its target demographic over an atypically slow August weekend. The only bonus feature is a pair of deleted scenes, one of which features a tabletop tap dance by legendary hillbilly outlaw, Jesco White.

False Confessions
After Love
Whenever a major movie star accepts a role on the Broadway stage, ticket sales tend to go through the roof. If the play is any good and reviews were positive, producers may be able to survive the absence of the A-lister by adding another familiar name to the marquee. With less surefire properties, though, the added expense usually isn’t worth the risk. The lines outside Paris’ Odeon Theater, where Isabelle Huppert was starring in Marivaux’s “Les fausses confidences,” probably were similar to those at New York’s TKTS Discount Tickets Booth, in Times Square, over the Christmas holiday. Considering her recent run of superb performances in Elle, Things to Come, Valley of Love and Louder Than Bombs, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more than a few of Huppert’s American fans made the trip to Paris, just to watch her light a fire under the 280-year-old drama. As is so often the case, some astute television executive took advantage of the occasion by recording False Confessions for posterity, as well as the enjoyment of contemporary viewers. Instead of merely placing cameras and microphones in strategic locations and recording what’s taking place on stage, however, director Luc Bondy shot the TV presentation during the day, using the same actors and Odeon Theater settings that were being employed at night for the plays. (He died in mid-production and was replaced by his wife, Marie-Louise Bischofberger.) The only concession to film comes when the interactions take place on a balcony overlooking a Paris street and in the Luxembourg Gardens. The costumes and hair styles also were updated. A DVD was released only a few days before it aired on French television. Huppert commands the screen as Araminte, the wealthy widow who unwittingly hires a secretary (Louis Garrel), pre-approved by her trusted servant (Yves Jacques) as someone able to weasel his way into her heart and check book. Manon Combes plays Araminte’s friend and confidante, who falls hard for the imposter. Bulle Ogier delivers a memorable turn as Araminte’s cranky mother, who suspects the young man’s intentions and wants to push her daughter into the arms of an elderly count (Jean-Pierre Malo). Apart from some Shakespearian twists and turns, False Confessions probably would require too much work on the part of American viewers to fully enjoy. But, Huppert makes the effort pay off.

John Cassavetes proved that arthouse audiences would happily endure a couple of hours watching a husband and wife yelling at each other and nearly coming to blows, before suddenly remembering the pleasure that comes with makeup sex. It helped, of course, that he could count on the services of a Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel or John Marley to deliver the goods. The Cassavetes touch is exactly what’s missing in Belgian filmmaker Joachim Lafosse’s After Love, a story about a once happily married couple, no longer willing to make the compromises necessary to stay together, even for the sake of their two charming daughters. The problem boils down to Boris’ inability to find work as an architect and Marie’s increasing weariness over covering the mortgage, bills and groceries. They agree to split, but Boris is too broke to afford a place of his own to crash and, for some reason, Marie won’t allow him to accept a job rehabbing her wealthy mother’s home. Instead, they argue in front of the girls and sleep in separate rooms. After an hour of bickering, we begin to feel as frustrated and angry as the kids caught in the middle of this turmoil. Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn are credible as combatants, but aren’t supported by a script that adds depth to their characters. It’s always nice to see Marthe Keller – co-star of Marathon Man, Black Sunday and Bobby Deerfield, in 1976-77 — who is still radiant at 72.

Woodshock: Blu-ray
Like too many other first features by artists who’ve made a reputation in other creative disciplines, Woodshock suffers from being too ambitious. Co-writer/directors Kate and Laura Mulleavy, known primarily for their distinctively ethereal fashion line, Rodarte, have followed designer Tom Ford (A Single Man) and Agnès B (My Name Is Hmmm …) by creating a movie that takes cues from their dreamy non-cinematic concepts and memories of growing up among the redwoods on California’s central coast. As such, Woodshock contains scenes in which the gigantic trees of upstate Eureka could double for backgrounds in a glossy magazine fashion spread. The characters, however, lack the kind of personal information that wouldn’t be missed in a Vogue spread, but are essential in a narrative feature. Kirsten Dunst’s deeply troubled protagonist, Theresa, sometimes appears to be channeling Justine, the palpably depressed bride she played in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Married to a logger who’s conflicted by the demands of his job, Justine works at a medical marijuana dispensary that appears to double as a clearing house for terminal cases seeking the means for euthanasia. She recently assisted her cancer-ridden mother commit suicide by concocting a mixture of pot and an unidentified toxic liquid. She spends the rest of the movie wandering around her mother’s house in a haze, occasionally tripping through the redwoods and being scolded by her boss, Keith (Pilou Asbæk), for being tardy or inattentive. As her depression worsens, Justine appears to play Russian Roulette with her stash of spiked joints, as well as playing God with friends who either want to get high or die. We know why the terminally ill characters are in contact with Justine and Keith, but not what makes the principles tick. Credit for the alternately meditative and spacy cinematography goes to Peter Flinckenberg (Concrete Night). Woodshock adds an EPK-like making-of featurette, with interviews. FYI: The Mulleavys designed some of the ballet costumes, at least, in Black Swan.

Rememory: Blu-ray
Not so long ago, the premise behind Rememory would be deemed sufficiently far-fetched to relegate it to the sci-fi ghetto on Netflix or Amazon. A closer examination would argue for Mark Palansky’s promising sophomore feature to be given a duel listing, with the accent on police procedural. Given recent scientific advancements, how difficult would it be to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when our brains were able to record and store memories in the same way that VCRs and DVRs capture television programming? Those recollections could then be transferred verbatim to a computer disc or some other kind of interpretive gizmo. Here, Martin Donovan plays Gordon Dunn, a visionary scientist whose lifeless body is found in his office, shortly after unveiling just such a device. After a patient’s thoughts are downloaded onto a computer, they can be transferred to a glass plate, not unlike the slides used in high school chemistry cl asses. Besides the killer, several people have a vested interest in discovering what Dunn might have seen before his death and recorded into the machine, which is missing. They include investors and a human guinea pig (Anton Yelchin), whose memories could reveal criminal activity related or unrelated to the crime, itself. Dunn’s wife, Carolyn (Julia Ormond), retreats into her rural house and cuts off contact with the outside world, until a mysterious man played by Peter Dinklage shows up with a bottle of vintage whiskey. He’s an architectural model builder, who, years earlier, survived a wreck that killed his rock-star brother (Matt Ellis). Still plagued with guilt, he’s especially sorry that he can’t remember the final words his brother mumbled as he died. Although Palansky sometimes has trouble holding things together, Rememory features another sterling performance by Dinklage and bears some resemblance, at least, to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Brainstorm (1983). The package adds commentary with Palansky and Dinklage, and the 32-minute backgrounder, “The Memories We Keep.”

Deathdream: Blu-ray
Bob Clark, who was killed in an accident caused by a drunk driver in 2007, is the rare director of exploitation fare whose more dubious achievements – Black Christmas, Porky’s II: The Next Day, Rhinestone — were redeemed by a movie universally considered to be one of the great holiday films of all time, A Christmas Story. Based on material from Jean Shepherd’s collection of short stories, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,” A Christmas Story took a while to find its audience – unlike Clark’s passable coming-of-age comedy, the original Porky’s, which was a huge hit – but, once it did, the nostalgic family comedy bypassed cult status to become a legitimate classic. (In December, Fox will broadcast a live rendition of the Broadway production, “A Christmas Story: The Musical.”) I only mention this to remind readers of Clark’s contributions to U.S. and Canadian culture, beyond the newly re-released Deathdream, one of many entertainments inspired by the W.W. Jacobs short story, “The Monkey’s Paw.” Although it was made in Florida, Deathdream (a.k.a., “Dead of Night,” “The Night Walk” and “The Night Andy Came Home”) is considered to be, at once, an early example of Canuxploitation and indictment of the effects of PTSD on Vietnam vets. According to the authoritative website, it was made after Toronto-based Quadrant films had success distributing Clark and writer Alan Ormsby’s debut, Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), to drive-ins throughout the Great White North. Deathdream opens in a Floridian facsimile of Vietnam, where Andy Brooks (Richard Backus) is shot and killed in a firefight. His mother, Christine (Lynn Carlin), refuses to believe he’s dead, even after an Army chaplain arrives at their home to deliver the bad news. Sure enough, hours later, Andy is seen catching a ride home with a patriotic truck driver, whose body will be found the next day drained of blood. Still, everyone’s happy to see him when he walks through the door of the family home. Not surprisingly, Andy’s not the same good-natured young man who left home to serve his country months earlier. In fact, he’s a dangerous cross between a vampire and a zombie. As long as he’s able to acquire fresh transfusions of blood, Andy will be able to pass for human. If not, he’ll begin decomposing before our eyes, thanks to the early gore effects of Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead). Blue Underground has restored the film in 2K, from the 35mm negative in its most complete version to date. It adds separate commentaries with Clark and Ormsby; a recollection with co-star Anya Liffey and Ormsby, her former husband; interviews with Backus, Savini, composer Carl Zittrer and production manager John Bud Cardos; alternate opening titles; still galleries; a student film by Ormsby; and collectable booklet, with new essay by critic Travis Crawford.

No Gods, No Masters
The last thing most Americans would choose to watch in their spare time is a three-part, 180-minute documentary on the tumultuous history of anarchy and the international body of men and women who devoted themselves to making it a reality. While no governments ever fully collapsed behind anarchic and libertarian uprisings, alone, I was surprised to learn how close these movements came to loosening the stifling grip of the ruling class, oligarchs, totalitarians and bourgeoisie on the necks of workers and peasants around the world. Besides the assassinations and bombings that changed the course of history in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, fear of a greater spread of violence probably eased the acceptance of unions in the U.S. and Europe by industrialists. They also pushed steadily for equality of the sexes, unfettered love, civil rights and the suffrage movement. Lenin and Stalin were no more anxious to see a rise in anarchism than were Calvin Coolidge, FDR and Franco. Lately, self-proclaimed anarchists took advantage of the growing disparity in wealth and growth of an underclass to stage violent protests wherever members of the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund gathered. Their anger only increased when the Obama administration refused to punish Wall Street interests for their role in the 2008 economic collapse and end a war in the Middle East that brought death and destruction to combatants and civilians, alike. With President Trump rushing to overturn every piece of progressive legislation enacted since the Carter administration, the time may once again be ripe for radical action. If so, the investment in time watching the first English translation of Daniel Gurin’s No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism could be considered three hours well spent. The series is broken into chapters, “The Passion for Destruction (1840-1906),” which explores how anarchism emerged from the horrendous social conditions facing workers at a time when industrialization was, paradoxically, providing better hygiene and social standards for the upper class; “Land and Freedom (1907-1921),” on the differing strains within the anarchist movement during the peak of its popularity; and “In Memory of the Vanquished (1922-1945),” which traces the appropriation of anarchism by communists and of anarchist symbolism by European fascists. It offers a vast array of unpublished documents, letters, debates, manifestos, reports, impassioned calls-to-arms and reasoned analysis of the history, organization and practice of the movement, as well as writings by Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, Berkman, Bakunin, Proudhon, and Malatesta.

Death Laid an Egg: Blu-ray
Released in 1968, on the eve of the golden age of giallo, Giulio Questi and writer Franco Arcalli’s wildly idiosyncratic Death Laid an Egg set a high bar for the emerging genre. Boiled down to its essentials, the bright, erotic and experimental thriller stages a traditional battle of the sexes against the background of a socio-political satire. A love triangle develops between three people who run a high-tech chicken farm: Marco (Jean-Louis Trintignant), his wealthy wife Anna (Gina Lollobrigida) and their secretary, Gabrielle (Ewa Aulin). Having sacked the workers and gone fully automated, the business now produces record profits. Beneath the glossy surface, though, run parallel streams of criminality, perversity and horror. Marco spends his weekends playing kinky games with prostitutes, before murdering them. He hopes to eliminate Anna and make off with her money, as well, but is required to compete with the company’s publicist (Jean Sobieski) for Gabrielle’s hand. A freak accident at the lab produces a mutant strain of headless, wingless chickens – this was before Buffalo wings — that Anna and the company’s stockholders see as a lucrative new profit center. Marco, the murderer, is repulsed by the new development and plots to subvert the process. Death Laid an Egg advances several giallo conceits, including the killer’s black gloves, a jazzy opening montage and disorienting score by Bruno Maderna. Questi had set the table for the movie’s inventive style with the bizarro Western, Django Kill … If You Live, Shoot! (1967). Arcalli would go on to share credits on 1900, Once Upon a Time in America and Last Tango in Paris. The Cult Epics Blu-ray adds a lobby-cards gallery and Maderna’s isolated score.

Animal Factory: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If Edward Bunker hadn’t existed, it’s unlikely that any Hollywood screenwriter could have invented a character quite like him. (The same could be said about Danny Trejo, I suppose.) A career criminal who once held the dubious distinction of being the youngest-ever inmate in San Quentin State Prison, Bunker was inspired by Caryl Chessman (“Cell 2455 Death Row”) to begin writing stories about his experiences and observations. The advice didn’t begin to pay dividends until the early 1970s, when his first novel, “No Beast So Fierce,” was published and rights to it were optioned by Dustin Hoffman, for the movie Straight Time (1978). Two years after being paroled, in 1975, Bunker’s second novel, “Animal Factory,” was published to favorable reviews. It would take another 23 years for the book to be adapted to film, this time by co-producer/director Steve Buscemi and co-writer John Steppling. In the meantime, he appeared in a couple dozen pictures – Reservoir Dogs, Tango & Cash, Best of the Best – co-wrote the screenplay for Runaway Train and served as a consultant on Heat and other genre flicks. He befriended Trejo in California’s Folsom Prison in the late 1970s and they since worked together on Runaway Train, Heat and Animal Factory. Despite a terrific performance by Hoffman, Straight Time, failed to attract the audience it deserved. Animal Factory, which was shot in a decommissioned prison in Pennsylvania and received excellent reviews, didn’t do any better. It stars Edward Furlong as Ron Decker, a troubled youth who’s sentenced to a five-year bit in a maximum-security prison on a marijuana-dealing beef. (It would subsequently be doubled for bad behavior.) Standing a sliver under 5-foot-6 and possessing the kind of hangdog look that would make him a prime target for sexual predators, Decker is taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), an experienced con who’s conversant with the ins and outs of prison life and has the respect of the various gangs. After surviving several close calls, their father/son relationship is severely tested by Ron’s increasingly cocky behavior. What separates Animal Factory from a dozen other very good prison pictures is its authentic dialogue, raw look and the tombstone eyes of the prisoners, many of whom were convicts recruited from other facilities. The professional actors did their homework, as well. Mickey Rourke is nearly unrecognizable as a prison-weary drag queen; Tom Arnold is frightening as a would-be rapist; Mark Boone Junior and Chris Bauer look as if they had been one of the guys discovered at an open call in a prison yard; Trejo is Trejo; Bunker looks as if he never left the joint; and Seymour Cassel and Buscemi might as well have been on the payroll as a guard and bureaucrat. The Arrow Video release adds an interview with critic and noir historian Barry Forshaw, covering Eddie Bunker’s varied career; vintage commentary by Bunker and Trejo; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips; and a collector’s booklet containing new writing on the film by Glenn Kenny.

Misery: Collector’s Edition: Blu Ray
No stranger to Blu-ray, Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s nifty adaptation of the Stephen King novel, “Misery,” really needs no further introduction in its Scream Factory incarnation. Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) remains as scary as ever, while the stranded novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is every bit as vulnerable as in Misery’s various other VHS, DVD and Blu-ray editions. The difference here is that it’s been given a fresh 4K scrub from the original film elements and new interviews with Reiner and special-makeup-effects artist Greg Nicotero. Previous bonus material includes commentaries with Reiner and Goldman; “Misery Loves Company,” featuring interviews with Reiner, Kathy Bates, James Caan and Frances Sternhagen; and the featurettes “Marc Shaiman’s Musical Misery Tour,” “Diagnosing Annie Wilkes,” “Advice for the Stalked,” “Profile of a Stalker,” “Celebrity Stalkers,” “Anti-Stalking Laws.”

Operation Petticoat: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Father Goose: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
After a brief delay, due to a technical glitch, Olive Films has released the wartime comedies, Father Goose and Operation Petticoat, as part of its limited-edition Signature Series. Unlike Blu-rays of vintage titles typically released by the company, Signature titles includes bonus featurettes, interviews, commentaries, newsreels and critical essays. The pressings are limited to 3,500 copies. Besides the period and military settings, Father Goose (1964) and Operation Petticoat (1959) share the presence of Cary Grant, who, in 1966, at 62, would retire from acting. In Blake Edwards’ Operation Petticoat, Grant plays the commander of the U.S. submarine Sea Tiger, which was commissioned and nearly destroyed after the attack on Pearl Harbor and declaration of war. After being sunk by a Japanese plane, the sub is raised, given a partial two-week overhaul and sent to a repair station, 400 miles away, limping out on one bad engine. Besides the crew, five American nurses are brought along for the ride. Just before New Year’s Day, the Sea Tiger is docked in Australia for retrofitting. Due to a shortage of traditional Navy gray paint, the primer is created by combining existing supplies of red and white paint. Temporarily, at least, the entire craft is a bright pink, with a topcoat of gray scheduled for application shortly thereafter. Tony Curtis plays a procurement officer, whose skill for acquiring requisitions will remind viewers of Milo Minderbinder, who would appear two years later in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Joan O’Brien and Dina Merrill play Edwards-ian nurses engaged in a comedic tug of war with the officers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new high-definition digital restoration; commentary by critic Adrian Martin; “That’s What Everybody Says About Me,” with Jennifer Edwards and actress Lesley Ann Warren; “The Brave Crew of the Petticoat,” with actors Gavin MacLeod and Marion Ross; “The Captain and His Double: Cary Grant’s Struggle of the Self,” – with Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant: A Biography”; Universal Newsreel footage of Grant and the movie’s premiere at the Radio City Music Hall; archival footage of the submarine USS Balao, which doubled as the USS Sea Tiger in Operation Petticoat; and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.

In what would be his second-to-last film appearance, Grant plays a boozy beachcomber on an idyllic island hideaway, coerced into service as a lookout for the Allies during World War II. He will soon be joined by seven mischievous schoolgirls and their prim and proper teacher (Leslie Caron), left stranded on a nearby island following an enemy attack. Trevor Howard plays the Navy commander Frank Houghton, who becomes the proverbial thorn in Grant’s side. Some observers believe that the scene in which Grant teaches Caron how to fish with her bare hands qualifies as big screen’s first “wet T-shirt” moment, although far less revealing than Jacqueline Bisset’s famous scene in The Deep, a dozen years later. Father Goose won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. The limited edition adds a 4K scan of original camera negative; commentary by film historian David Del Valle; “Unfinished Business: Cary Grant’s Search for Fatherhood and His Oscar,” with Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant: A Biography”; “My Father,” in which Internet pioneer Ted Nelson discusses director Ralph Nelson; Universal Newsreel footage featuring Caron; and an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri.

Lifetime: Girl in the Box
PBS: Masterpiece: Poldark: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
PBS: The Gene Doctors
PBS: Craft in America: Borders and Neighbors
PBS: POV: Swim Team
PBS: Vermeer, Beyond Time
Based on a frightening true story, Lifetime’s “Girl in the Box” is based on the 1977 kidnapping of 20-year-old Colleen Stan by Cameron and Janice Hooker, as she was hitchhiking from Eugene, Oregon, to a friend’s house in northern California. For the next seven years, the young married couple kept Colleen locked in a coffin-sized box, hidden beneath their bed, for up to 23 hours a day. When not imprisoned, Colleen was forced into becoming a live-in slave, child-minder and victim of Cameron’s perverted sexual inclinations. First-time writer/producer/director Stephen Kemp’s re-creation the young woman’s ordeal comes as close to “torture porn” as one could expect for a Lifetime movie, even one produced originally for Canadian television. The case received plenty of attention around the world and has inspired scenarios for numerous network crime series, books and movies. Coming so soon after the kidnapping and conversion to radical politics of Patty Hearst, Colleen’s predicament prompted media experts to describe it as another example of Stockholm syndrome, which causes abductees to empathize and sympathize with their captors. Eight months after she was kidnaped, Colleen signed a contract agreeing to serve as the Camp’s slave for life. To prevent her from attempting to escape, they also brainwashed her into believing that activities in the house were being monitored by a large, powerful organization called “The Company,” which would torture her and harm her family if she tried to flee captivity. Colleen eventually was allowed to leave the house without supervision and even visit her parents. “Girl in the Box” is enhanced by convincing performances by Addison Timlin (“Californication”), Zane Holtz (“From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series”) and Zelda Williams (“Dead of Summer”). The latter is the daughter of Robin and Marsha Garces Williams, who named her after Princess Zelda from the “Legend of Zelda” video-game series.

Season Three of the “Masterpiece” mini-series, “Poldark,” opens by tying up loose ends from the violent conclusion to Season Two and unraveling more strands holding together the ongoing BBC/PBS soap opera. Being 1794, war and the revolution in France hang like dark storm clouds over the Cornwall coast. Despite Ross’ declaration of love after the beating Demelza endured at the hands of George Warleggan’s thugs, their marriage is as fragile as it ever was. Also, hanging over the early episodes are questions about the paternity of Elizabeth Warleggan’s son, Valentine; the intentions of her newly arrived cousin, Morwenna (Ellise Chappell); and motivations of Demelza’s brothers Drake and Sam (Harry Richardson, Tom York). When the ships carrying Captain Blamey and Dr. Enys are reported missing, Ross leads a small raiding party to France to rescue Enys. George will test fate by using his stockpile of grain as a weapon against starving miners and farmers and Demelza gives birth to a baby girl. And, that’s just for starters. At the conclusion of the third-season finale, it was announced that Poldark will return for a fourth year. The Blu-ray adds 30-plus minutes of behind-the-scenes coverage.

PBS’ “The Gene Doctors” delivers reasons for optimism to parents of the estimated million-plus babies born annually with a hereditary disease, which are often fatal. Until lately, doctors could only treat the symptoms of these ailments. Now a pioneering cadre of gene doctors, is starting to target root causes. Through intimate stories of families whose lives are being transformed, “The Gene Doctors” takes viewers to the frontlines of a medical revolution.

In “Boarders and Neighbors,” this season’s theme for PBS’ Peabody Award-winning documentary series, “Craft in America,” the relationships and influences that Mexican and American craft artists exert on each other’s work and their cultures are explored. Visits with more than 25 weavers, ceramic artists, papermakers, jewelers, muralists and altar makers, reveal just how porous the borders separating these cultures are.

In the “POV” presentation, “Swim Team,” we’re introduced to the parents of a boy on the autism spectrum who take matters into their own hands, forming a competitive swim team, recruiting other teens on the spectrum and training them with high expectations and zero pity. Watch the extraordinary rise of the Jersey Hammerheads, capturing a moving quest for inclusion, independence and a winning life.

Images from Johannes Vermeer’s paintings have become permanent part of our collective imagination and are instantly recognizable as masterpieces. In French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Cottet’s splendid bio-doc, “Vermeer, Beyond Time,” we learn that this wasn’t always the case. Vermeer died in 1675, at 43, overwhelmed by poverty, physically weakened and humiliated. Soon afterward, his paintings were sold to cover his debts. It took another 200 years for his work to be appreciated for its sensitivity, unique light and interpretive genius. The film explores Vermeer’s family life, including his conversion to Catholicism, his artistic contemporaries and the wider world of the short-lived Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century.

The DVD Wrapup: Good Time, Hitman’s Bodyguard, Tavernier’s Journey, Valerion, Lemon, Jabberwocky, Mick Ronson, Harmonium and more

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

IMG_0174Good Time: Blu-ray
It’s been eight years since critics predicted great things from Josh and Benny Safdie’s semi-autobiographical dramedy, Daddy Longlegs (a.k.a., “Go Get Some Rosemary”) impressed audiences at Cannes and, two years later, was nominated for three Indie Spirit Awards, taking home the prestigious John Cassavetes Award. Audiences weren’t given much access to it, except in DVD. Between then and now, the Safdies focused their energy on several festival-favorite shorts (“The Black Balloon”) and documentaries (“Lenny Cooke”), and Heaven Knows What, a harrowing feature that revisited the same territory assayed in Panic in Needle Park (1971). Released in 2014, it once again impressed festival judges and critics, without making a dent at the box office. Their race-against-the-clock crime thriller, Good Time, followed the same route to theaters, but, this time, was able to parlay the presence of Robert Pattison into a decent run at a few hundred theaters here and abroad. The actor has come a long way from his tenure as Edward Cullen, in the “Twilight” series. Like Kristen Stewart, his co-star and love interest in “Twilight,” Pattison’s taken on several challenging roles — The Childhood of a Leader, Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars, The Lost City of Z – at least partially intended to challenge the public’s impressions of what he’s capable of accomplishing on screen. Good Times may be his most impressive transformation to date. Tuesday, Pattison’s performance was honored with a Indie Spirit nomination, his first, along with nods for Best Editing (Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie), Best Supporting Actor (Bennie Safdie), Best Supporting Actress (Taliah Lennice Webster), Best Director (Benny and Josh Safdie).

Pattinson stars as Connie Nikas, a bonehead hoodlum from Queens, who embarks on a one-night odyssey through New York’s criminal underworld in a desperate attempt to rescue his mentally retarded brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), from a heavily guarded ward in hospital. After extracting Nick from a court-ordered therapy session earlier in the day, Connie brings him along on a bank robbery that the dimwitted young man is singularly ill-prepared to handle. They get away with a duffle bag full of money, without anticipating that the teller might have spiked the bills with dye packs. When one explodes in their getaway car, Nick completely freaks out. One blunder leads to another and he is arrested and sent to Riker’s Inland, where the other inmates aren’t nearly as compassionate towards his limitations as Connie has been. A fight ensues, leaving Nick in a Manhattan hospital and a $25,000 bond hanging over his head. Brotherly love dictates that Connie raise the bail money or, failing that, bust him out of the hospital. Instead, he mistakes an alcoholic parolee for Nick, escaping with him into the New York night once again to come up with the money to cover the bail. This time, though, finds shelter with a 16-year-old waif, Crystal (Taliah Webster), who hooks him up with a manufacturer of LSD and aspires to nothing greater than being a gangster’s moll. In some ways, the brothers in Good Time remind me of George and Lenny, in “Of Mice and Men.” Apparently, the original screenplay – co-written by Josh Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein – was written more as a buddy comedy than a dark and scary thriller, whose urgency is magnified by a pulsating score by Cannes-winner Daniel Lopatin (The Bling Ring). In an interview with Charlie Rose, Benny Safdie said that he and Pattinson prepared for their roles by working in-character at a car wash in Queens. That rings true, as well. The disc adds the featurette, ”The Pure and the Damned”; a music video; and commentary with the Safdies, producer Sebastian Bear McClard, and actors Taliah Webster and Buddy Duress.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard: Blu-ray
Capping what was designated by Box Office Mojo as the worst August in two decades and worst summer in more than 10 years, the all-action buddy flick The Hitman’s Bodyguard brought smiles to faces at Lionsgate with three No. 1 postings in a row. The $30-million investment returned $75.5 million at the domestic box office and another $101.2 million in foreign sales. Shot on multiple locations in the Netherlands, England and Bulgaria, Patrick Hughes and Tom O’Connor’s extensively re-conceptualized story – from dramatic thriller, to comedy/romance — looks as if it might have cost twice that much to make. It stars such international favorites as Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung and Joaquim de Almeida and features car/boat chases galore. Neither Jackson nor Reynolds is required to stretch very far from their well-established personae, the former clocking 122 expletives in 118 minutes and the latter struggling to maintain his cool in the face of his client’s life-threatening antics. As their constantly tested love interests, Hayek and Yung aren’t asked to do much more than look good – OK, great – while waiting for their boyfriends to grow up and occasionally beating up bad guys. Ryan plays the titular bodyguard, whose reputation took a substantial hit when a high-profile client was assassinated by a gunman, situated at a distance so far away from the target that he could have escaped to Brazil before anyone located the shell casings. Jackson is the world-class hitman whose testimony at the International Criminal Court, at The Hague, is necessary to convict a notorious Eastern European leader of war crimes. Part of the deal involves the freeing of his girlfriend (Hayek) from prison in return for his cooperation. The ongoing gag involves Jackson’s Darius Kincaid continually attempting to out-maneuver Reynold’s by-the-book Michael Bryce in their danger-fraud trip from Manchester to The Hague. If there’s one thing that Kincaid enjoys doing more than showing up his former rival, it’s offering advice to him about his tenuous relationship with the Interpol agent (Yung) who hired him. The Hitman’s Bodyguard reportedly was made from a script included on the 2011 Black List of unproduced screenplays. Originally intended as a drama, it underwent a “frantic” two-week rewrite when the decision was made, at the last minute, to turn it into an action comedy. The Blu-ray adds several short making-of featurettes, outtakes and deleted/extended/alternate scenes.

My Journey Through French Cinema: Blu-ray
The Film Critic
Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema is a documentary for film buffs who miss sitting in a café or bar, discussing the movie they’ve just seen with friends who aren’t shy about sharing their opinions or having opinions worth sharing. Although the introduction of wine and snack bars to arthouses multiplexes has provided a comfortable place to extend the cinematic experience, it’s gotten far too easy watch the movies we want to see on high-definition monitors, at home, and try to stay awake before the screen goes dark. Given that most Hollywood movies defy further analysis and most post-mortems are limited to, “So, what did you think?,” it’s nice to hear smart people talk about movies as if they still matter … because, they do … somewhere. Tavernier’s life in film began when he was a boy and his family moved from Lyon, where they provided a refuge and a salon for the anti-Vichy intelligentsia, to post-war Paris. With the Nazis gone, Tavernier was able to haunt re-opened theaters and devour movies by such American directors as William Wellman, Henry Hathaway and John Ford. He almost made it through law school, but invested too much of his time at the Cinémathèque to succeed at the bar. Instead, he located the first step on the ladder to a film career and climbed every rung, until he convinced himself that he was qualified to make the leap from crusading critic and press agent for important artists, to co-writer/director of The Clockmaker of St. Paul, an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel that won prestigious prizes at the 1974 Berlin International Film Festival. Of all his titles, the one most likely to strike a chord with American audiences is ‘Round Midnight (1986), for which jazz great Dexter Gordon received a Best Actor nomination. At a none-too-brisk 200 minutes, “My Journey” overflows with recollections, opinions, observations, conversations and criticism, not just about the French cinema, but its various influences and inspirations. It’s also loaded with clips chosen to amplify his points. Naturally, Francophiles and graduate students will find “My Journey” infinitely more provocative than most viewers, even those capable of picking Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura and Eddie Constantine from a police lineup in a B-movie. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds a tentative preview of a follow-up series for French television.

It’s been said of movie critics that they spend so much time in darkened screening rooms or at a lonely desk, staring into a computer screen, that they have no real conception of how life plays out in the real world. While that may sound a tad harsh, ask your friendly local critic how much time they have to themselves between the start of awards season and the day their lists of 10-best and 10-worst films are due. The movie-reviewers’ dodge has changed considerably since the mainstream media started jettisoning scholarly types as if they were so much ballast on a hot-air balloon. Outside of New York and Los Angeles, screening rooms, themselves, are giving way to streaming codes, discs and the instant analysis of tweets and texts. Only a relatively few writers actually get paid for their thoughts, devaluing their opinions, no matter how astute or entertaining. Even so, there’s no denying the hard work and passion that go into the countless reviews that pop up on the Internet each week, even if the elimination of copy editors sometimes makes it difficult for readers to get through them. It’s for that reason that Argentine filmmaker Hernán Gerschuny’s uneven debut feature, The Film Critic, feels so anachronistic. It follows Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), a world-weary Buenos Aires critic who’s grown weary of being disappointed by every new release and writing negative reviews to justify his pitiful existence. (Or, being tortured by his editor for not cutting a popcorn movie an occasional break.) Because he prefers to think in French, instead of his native Spanish, he self-diagnoses himself as suffering from ennui and maladie du cinema. And, yes, in plain English he’s, a bit of a pill. In a decent twist that doesn’t really find its grip until halfway through the movie, Tellez falls for a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who’s his polar opposite in almost every way possible. More Sandra Bullock than Catherine Deneuve, she might as well be a refugee from an old-fashioned Lifetime rom-com. If it were possible for Tellez to simply live in the moment, he might enjoy the ride. Instead, he agonizes over his good fortune as if he’s just seen the latest head-scratcher by Terence Malick and he only has 20 minutes to write his review.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Once again, I’m at a loss to explain what’s right or wrong with a movie – in this case, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets — that’s based on a long-running comic-book series I’ve never seen and, in any case, was published in French, before being translated into several other languages I don’t understand. Neither was I aware of the animated French-Japanese television series, “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline,” likewise based on Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ comic strip, “Valérian and Laureline,” which ran from 1967 to 2010 and spawned several graphic novels. The TV series first aired in France in 2007, racking up 40 episodes before disappearing into the wild blue yonder. Nor can I recall much of Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1997), parts of which were inspired by key elements in the comic strip. The only thing I know for sure about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is that it cost a shitload of money to make and market – at $200-plus million, the most expensive French film to date – and only returned $40 million at the U.S. box office. It did better overseas, but not well enough to cover the total nut. It was recorded in English to avoid just such a debacle. The one positive thing I’m willing to say with any certainty is that the money spent on special effects and CGI technology was well spent. Brilliantly colorful backgrounds, sparkling pearls, azure skies and neon-lit marketplaces compete for our attention with purposefully drab steampunk machinery, while the 200 different alien species resemble a Who’s Who of fanciful characters from franchises ranging from Star Wars, Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy, to Barbarella, Cowboys & Aliens and Avatar. They all really pop in 4K UHD. Prior to the date production began, Besson wrote a 600-page book describing each of the characters. He insisted that cast members read it, so they could adjust their performances to the alien character with which they were interacting. Unfortunately, viewers unfamiliar with the mythology aren’t nearly as well-equipped to handle the on-screen traffic jam and convoluted throughlines. In the 28th Century, special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), they embark on a mission to Alpha, an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures in a peaceful and collegial manner. A dark force inside Alpha’s core threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. That’s all. Some of the fun derives from watching Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer and Benoît Jacquot deliver their lines in silly costumes and industrial-strength makeup. No amount of makeup could hide the beauty of Pearl royalty, as played by model/actors Aymeline Valade and Sasha Luss. Frankly, though, I suggest to newcomers to the story that they check out episodes of “Time Jam: Valerian & Laureline” or chapters of the comic strip available on the Internet, before attempting the movie. The Blu-ray and UHD packages include the hour-long “Citizens of Imagination: Creating the Universe of Valerian,” 14 separate enhancement pods and a photo gallery.

Co-writer/director Janicza Bravo describes her first feature, Lemon, as a dark, absurdist comedy about failure. (Although her name sounds as if she might be from Eastern Europe, Bravo is a black native of Panama, who currently lives in Brooklyn.) Her husband/collaborator, Brett Gelman, plays an acting coach, Isaac Lachmann, who, like a continually malfunctioning automobile, is a lemon waiting to be recalled by the factory for a complete overhaul. It’s the kind of role Steve Martin played at the start of his career – The Lonely Guy, Pennies From Heaven, The Jerk – but, in doing so, didn’t make audiences so uncomfortable that they might consider leaving the theater in tears. While it’s not difficult to sympathize with Isaac’s growing inability to connect with his blind, unfaithful girlfriend of 10 years (Judy Greer) or having to endure Passover Seder with his oppressively stereotypical family, it doesn’t take long for him to remind us of his less-empathetic qualities. They include berating acting students, as if his paying jobs weren’t limited to public-service-announcements for terrible diseases, and imposing himself on people totally unprepared for his complete lack of social graces. When Isaac begins dating a black woman of Caribbean background (Nia Long), Bravo introduces us to a family that’s the Jamaican equivalent of her protagonist’s dysfunctional clan. We’re no more comfortable in their company than we were watching Isaac react to his family’s atonal sing-along to “A Million Matzoh Balls.” Clearly, Lemon isn’t for everyone. It should appeal, however, to anyone who’s aspired to be an actor and taken classes from someone who thinks he’s Stanislavski, but begrudges the good fortune of students who find work in the movies or television. In such offbeat television series as “Married,” “Another Period” and “Blunt Talk,” Gelman has played variations of the same character so often that it’s possible to wonder how close to the bone his portrayal of Isaac might be. The excellent supporting cast includes Michael Cera, Gillian Jacobs, Jeff Garlin, Shiri Appleby, Megan Mullally, Rhea Perlman, Fred Melamed, David Paymer and Conrad Roberts. The bonus material includes deleted/extended scenes and interviews with Bravo and Gelman.

Jabberwocky: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Released in the direct wake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the final season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Jabberwocky suffered in the media from comparisons to those ground-breaking entertainments and a generally held misconception that Terry Gilliam’s directorial feature debut was an extension of the Python empire. Although it starred Michael Palin and featured appearances by Gilliam, Terry Jones and Neil Innes (“The Seventh Python”) – alongside a veritable Who’s Who of post-war British comedy – the humor in Jabberwocky wasn’t intended to be savored in segments, as was the case in the series and “Holy Grail.” However outlandish it could be, the 105-minute film had an easily recognizable beginning, middle and end. Described as a “giddy romp through blood and excrement,” Jabberwocky was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem of the same title, which was included in his 1871 novel, “Through the Looking-Glass.” Although the verse defies translation, Gilliam and co-writer Charles Alverson (Brazil) imagined a scenario in which an impoverished barrelmaker’s apprentice, Dennis Cooper (Palin) commits himself to making himself worthy of the less-than-lovely Griselda Fishfinger (Annette Badland). He leaves for the city, but not before his elusive beloved throws a potato at him, which he keeps as a cherished memento. The residents are paralyzed with fear over the appearance of a monstrous creature, the Jabberwock, that Gilliam says was inspired by Godzilla and chickens, in equal measure. Unable to find work, Dennis stumbles into the chambers of King Bruno the Questionable’s beautiful, if stupid daughter (Deborah Fallender). She mistakes him for the winner of a jousting contest called to determine the knight most qualified to battle the Jabberwock. Instead, the Princess decides to dress him in the guise of a nun and send him out to the countryside, where the peasants mistake him for Satan. It’s only by accident that he’s able to slay the beast.

The king delivers on his promise, but, in doing so, forces Dennis to decide between the Princess and a substantial dowry, or going home to live an uneventful life with an obese peasant girl who might end up rejecting him, anyway. In an interview included in the Criterion set, Gilliam says he perceived the kingdom to be the anti-Camelot, with a king who’s an oafish lout; a Princess whose beauty can’t disguise her unsuitability as royalty; a castle that’s on the verge of collapsing; a hero who wants nothing valuable in return for his courageous act; merchants and clerics who take pride in being greedy and corrupt; wretched peasants who don’t look as if they were culled from crowd scenes in Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella; and tournaments in which losers’ blood drenches the spectators, independent of their rank in society. Although Jabberwocky failed to find a ready audience in its theatrical run, it succeeded as a cult favorite on video. Made on an impossibly tight $500,000 budget, it finally began making the kind of money it deserved. The director-approved Blu-Ray edition features a 4K digital transfer from a restoration by the BFI National Archive and the Film Foundation; a 5.1 surround mix, supervised by Gilliam and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio; vintage commentary with Gilliam and  Palin; a new documentary on the making of the film, featuring Gilliam, Palin, Badland and producer Sandy Lieberson; an interview with Valerie Charlton, designer of the Jabberwock, featuring her collection of rare behind-the-scenes photographs; a selection of Gilliam’s storyboards and sketches; and an essay by critic Scott Tobias.

Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story: Blu-ray
It’s been nearly two years since David Bowie left this mortal coil for points unknown and the vacuum left behind still sucks, in all sorts of ways. Less noticed has been the 24-year absence of guitar virtuoso and original Spider From Mars, Mick Ronson. Jon Brewer and Scott Rowley’s extremely compelling rockumentary, Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, goes a long way toward establishing his place in the pantheon of unsung collaborators and extraordinary sidemen. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Bowie’s narration in this celebration of the Kingston-Upon-Hull native’s life and art. Like so many such partnerships, the Bowie/Ronson connection was as much an accident as anything else. After failing to make a name for himself in London, Ronson returned to Hull, where a former mate found him marking out a rugby pitch as part of his duties as a Parks Department gardener. The musician was scouting talent for an early version of Bowie’s touring band and an electric guitar was needed for a gig on John Peel’s national BBC Radio 1 show. It didn’t take long for Bowie to recognize Ronson’s ability to play guitar, piano, violin, arrange and eventually score music that helped propel Bowie into the stratosphere, with “The Man Who Sold the World,” “Hunky Dory,” “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and ended with the infamous “Farewell Concert,” in 1973. It would take the Spiders’ breakup for fellow rockers, critics and audiences to understand what Ronson meant to Bowie’s early success. Business relations within the Spiders were abysmal, as was top-down communication. While attempting to spark a solo career, Ronson collaborated with such established artists as Bob Dylan, Ian Hunter, Lulu, Lou Reed, David Cassidy, Roger Daltry, John Mellencamp, T-Bone Burnett and Morrissey. It didn’t translate into much money, but the hardest blow was still to come. During a short visit to his sister in London, Ronson was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. He survived the original prognosis by a year, long enough for a final high-profile performance at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, in 1992, where he played on “All the Young Dudes,” with Bowie and Hunter, and “Heroes” with Bowie. “Beside Bowie” gives credit where it’s due, through archival backstage footage, Mick Rock’s photography and substantial interviews with Hunter, Reed, Lisa & Maggi Ronson, Angie Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Glen Matlock, Cherry Vanilla, Earl Slick and David Stopps. Bowie fans are encouraged to give their albums another spin, this time to savor Ronson’s contributions. The disc adds several extended interviews.

Kôji Fukada’s complex family drama, Harmonium, is intended as a companion piece to his 2010 dark comedy, Hospitalite, which could only be seen at a handful of festivals or on a Film Movement DVD. Irony fairly drips from the titles. Harmonium came about only after Fukada determined that “Fuchi ni tatsu” — literally, “Standing on the edge” — didn’t carry the same nuance when translated. Harmony is a favored trait of Japanese families and a harmonium plays a key role in both the narrative and household of the protagonist. It’s the discordance that’s generated by the truth that drives Harmonium, however. Outside of the fact that the husband, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), and his wife, Akié (Mariko Tsutsui), don’t seem to have much in common anymore — most obviously, religion – their life revolves around their daughter, who’s kept busy rehearsing for a recital. Things begin to change, almost imperceptibly, when an old friend of Toshio’s appears out of the blue and not only is given a job at the machine shop in the garage, but also a room in the house. At first, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), is as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. We know that he’s spend the last several years in prison, but not the reason. Yasaka makes headway by mentoring the girl on the harmonium, then providing an ear for Akié’s religious views. His attentiveness serves as an aphrodisiac, even if she’s reluctant to give in to her desire. Again, out of the blue, something happens to drastically change the course of the drama. Even when the story is advanced by seven years, or so, and Yasaka is physically removed from the surroundings, his memory shrouds the second half like a raincloud. Fukuda keeps a firm hand on the wheel throughout this emotionally draining transition. By allowing some sunshine to sneak past the cloud’s dark edges, the audience is always kept guessing at where we’re being taken. The package adds an interview with Furutachi and Fukada’s short, “Birds.”

The Villainess: Blu-ray
I don’t know how the Korean producers of Jung Byung-gil’s hyperviolent thriller, The Villainess, were able to avoid crediting Luc Besson and La Femme Nikita as the inspiration, at least, for their story. The script also appears to borrow plot points from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, without acknowledging its influence. The possibility of an imprisoned woman being turned into a killing machine to serve the whims of a government agency or criminal organization might be considered too generic a concept to warrant attribution. No matter, because once the protagonist begins kicking serious ass – in a scene straight out of a first-person p.o.v. shooting game — The Villainess doesn’t leave much time for idle conjecture. Kim Ok-bin (Thirst) easily holds her own against the martial-arts chops of Anne Parillaud, Bridget Fonda, Uma Thurman, Maggie Q and Peta Wilson, all of whom have played what essentially is the same character. The biggest difference might be Kim’s ability to wield a hatchet with the same skill as a bushido blade or high-powered rifle. As the story goes, after Sook-hee (Kim) witnessed her father’s murder, as a child, she was raised by gangsters to be a skilled fighter and a ruthless killer. Then, days after her marriage to her boss and mentor, he’s also murdered. Her desire for revenge leads to that exciting opening, when Sook-hee storms into the rival gang’s headquarters and, corridor after corridor, wipes out several dozen men in identical dark suits. The slaughter only gets her into the inner sanctum, where the rival boss’ bodyguards offer a more formidable defense. After all is said and done, she emerges with three tiny scratches and in police custody.

The government agents who’ve eavesdropped on Sook-hee’s rampage sense an opportunity to get at the gang, using its own secret weapon. She is taken to a government training facility, where the sexy Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) offers her a deal she can’t refuse: if she works for the KIA for 10 years, they’ll let her go free to live her life. The other contributing factor is she’s pregnant and wants to be able to raise the child in peace. If The Villainess too frequently strains credulity and logic, there’s enough balls-to-the-wall action around every corner to satisfy any action geek. There are times when the wire work borders on the miraculous. The Blu-ray adds only a pair of short making-of featurettes.

Time to Die
How this terrific Mexican Western managed to avoid detection on the radar screens of genre buffs for the better part of a half-century is a mystery to me. My first guess would be that American distributors, audiences and critics simply didn’t take movies from south of the Rio Grande seriously, unless they were made by Luis Bunuel in his period of exile from Spain. Hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, many very good, have been set partially or in whole in Mexico. Many others have been made in Durango and other rugged locations. Until recently, it was easier to rely on the same kind of moronic I-don’t-have-to-show-you-any-stinking-badges stereotypes designed to make gringos feel better about stealing so much of Mexico from the Mexicans and minimize the country’s culture. It continues today, of course, but more superb Mexican movies and filmmakers are finding their way north than ever. Even so, how is it possible that a Western scripted by Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Marquez and novelist Carlos Fuentes could be ignored? Four years after serving as AD to Bunuel on The Exterminating Angel, Arturo Ripstein made his solo directing debut on Time to Die, which was produced by his father, Alfredo (El crimen del padre Amaro). As good a movie as it is, Ripstein didn’t consider it to be a landmark work. In an interview contained in the bonus features, Alex Cox (Repo Man) suggests that the director may have felt there were too many obvious homages to classic Westerns and directors identified with the genre, or that he didn’t want to place too much weight on his first film.

In most ways, Time to Die is a simple drama, based on classic themes, which just so happens to take place in a part of the country not all that dissimilar to parts of the American Southwest once owned by Mexico. In it, legendary horseman and gunslinger Juan Sagayo (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) returns to his home town, by foot, after spending 18 years in prison for killing a man, Trueb, who deserved the punishment, instead. When Trueb’s son, Julian (Alfredo Leal), hears Sagayo has returned to town, he demands they face each other in a duel to avenge his father’s death. Julian’s younger brother, Pedro (Enrique Rocha), begins to doubt Sagayo is an honorless killer after meeting and spending time with him. Then, Pedro hears from his fiance’s father that Trueb had provoked Sagayo, until he was forced to preserve his honor as a man. Furthermore, he points out that Julian inherited most of his father’s worst traits, which he’s now using against Sagayo. The events that play out in the final reel are unpredictable and smack of a fatalism not common in American Westerns or, for that matter, gangster films. Film Movement’s 2K restoration of Alex Phillips’ evocative black-and-white cinematography expertly brings out the loneliness and frustration in a man who only desires peace and to be reunited with his former lover. He didn’t deserve to be sent to prison for 18 minutes, let alone 18 years, and shouldn’t have to pay a debt that he doesn’t owe to his tormenter’s sons. In addition to Cox’s introduction, the disc offers commentary by Ripstein and Rocha.

Candy Apple
Made for $100,000 in 2015, Dean Dempsey’s 79-minute debut feature, Candy Apple, is as hard-core as indie pictures get these days. Transgressive would be one way to describe it, but so would rambunctious, audacious, off-putting and spellbinding. It’s one of the very few movies whose trailers demand to be seen before any commitment to a rental or download. Candy Apple is set in a Lower Manhattan hellhole that is quickly being gentrified out of existence, and the characters might have been inspired by Hubert Selby Jr. and Lou Reed. The lead character, played by the heavily tattooed double-amputee, Terry “Texas Trash – played by Dempsey’s real-life father, of the same name — makes Charles Bukowski and Ratso Rizzo look like Donnie Osmond. Sound appealing, so far? Having burned his bridges out west, Trash moves in with his adult son, Bobby (Dempsey), in his small apartment on the Lower East Side. Bobby is reluctant, but committed to helping the former junkie, while trying to stay focused on his own creative pursuits. Both men harbor dark secrets about themselves and support their decrepit lifestyles through illegal means. Ultimately, they’re required to balance desire with responsibility – such as it is – in a darkly comedic fashion. The thing to know about Hard Candy is that Dempsey elected to cast the picture with amateurs playing themselves in a narrative that sometimes parallels their own lives. “The only one who has done any acting is the guy who eats cereal off my character.” Despite having an arm and leg amputated after a collision with a train, the fledgling actor Trash fronts the band, Texas Trash and the Trainwrecks. (The FB page is hilarious.)  The cast also includes transvestite actor Neon Music (Scumbag), Cory “Whorse” Kimbrow-Dana (Werewolf Bitches from Outer Space), Sophia Lamar (Violet Tendencies), and performance artist Kembra Pfahler and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Anyone who’s gotten this far here probably will enjoy the hell out of Candy Apple.

Satan’s Cheerleaders: Blu-ray
The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta: Blu-ray
There really isn’t much to recommend these cross-generational examples of irredeemably bad exploitation flicks … except, in the case of Satan’s Cheerleaders, at least, the dubious joy that comes with recognizing familiar actors in movies they may once have considered to be beneath them. If that sounds as if I’m being cruel to Yvonne De Carlo, John Carradine, Sydney Chaplin, Jack Kruschen and John Ireland, well, I assume their paychecks didn’t bounce. The picture opens with a group of cheerleaders, who might have gotten lost on the way to auditions for Debbie Does Dallas, inexplicably practicing their routines for the big game on a beach in Malibu. While there, they attract the attention of the star football player (Lane Caudell), his pissed-off coach (Joseph Carlo), their delightfully clueless adviser (Jacqulin Cole) and a gang of rival cheerleaders. They threaten the other girls with TP’ing their high school campus, which only serves to perturb the pervy janitor and Captain Kangaroo look-alike (Kruschen), who provides the link to a satanic cult recruiting virgins. Before that happens, though, he sneaks a peak at the girls while they’re taking a shower. It could have inspired a similar scene, three years later, in Porky’s, although I can’t imagine Bob Clark admitting to the theft. After the girls have vacated the locker room, the janitor sneaks in to put a curse on the blond cheerleader’s clothes. He also sabotages the car carrying the squad to the game, arriving just minutes after it breaks down. Instead of fulfilling his promise to get them there on time, he drops them off at the home of the local sheriff and wife, who have a direct line to Satan. None of the girls qualifies as a virgin, so the blond (Kerry Sherman) has an edge over the sheriff’s cabal, by having already been introduced to the dark side with the janitor’s curse. Or, something like that. When the cheerleaders escape the clutches of Ireland and De Carlo, they make the mistake of confiding in their cronies, played by Carrandine, Chaplin and other poor souls. Schlockmeister writer/director Greydon Clark pulls the kind of ending out of his ass that has to be seen to be believed. If that sounds like fun, be sure to save room for Clark’s commentary and a photo gallery.

Trying to find a redeeming quality in a Troma pickup like The Thingy: Confessions of a Teenage Placenta (a.k.a., “The Miracle of Life”) is like searching for a fully functioning conscience in the White House. Even if such a thing exists, you’d have to sift through too many layers of dirt to find it. In his introductions to such fare, Lloyd Kaufman provides all the caveats most potential viewers would need to separate the merely curious from the truly depraved. That candor, of course, is also what’s separated Troma from its competitors and imitators for most of the last 35 years. Made in Belgium by newcomers Joël Rabijns and Yves Sondermeier, “The Thing” concerns a muscle-bound blond (Pascal Maetens) who suffers a miscarriage, but decides to raise the afterbirth as a normal human being. Like a miniature version of the Blob, the placenta, Luke, slithers through a world of hurt, buoyed by his intelligence, faith and sensitivity. As he struggles for his place in a world of drunks, junkies, whores, bodybuilders and bullies, viewers will begin to see the humanity in Luke and lack thereof in everyone else in the picture. Eventually, he comes to a crossroads, where he’s required to choose between holding on to his gentle ideals or becoming the merciless soldier his mother always wanted him to be. Anyone able to sit through the first 24 minutes without relinquishing their half-digested popcorn should be able to go the distance … should, being the operative term. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, the featurettes “Am I Really That Ugly?” and “Ham,” and typically outrageous Troma marketing material.

Lifetime: High School Lover
The Tower
Atheist America

At the ripe old age of 39, James Franco already has logged 146 acting credits – 13 still waiting for completion – and dozens more as a writer and director. Granted, many of them are for shorts and documentaries, but they require time and dedication some professional would otherwise dedicate to hobbies, traveling and family. He already was an accomplished actor when he returned to school for his BFA in English from UCLA, and then received two MFA degrees — both in writing — from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third MFA, in film, from New York University. He’s taught acting and enjoys painting. Among the 18 credits he accumulated in 2017, Franco played brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino, in the HBO mini-series “The Deuce”; directed and starred in the star-studded comedy about acting, The Disaster Artist; and made his second appearance in a Lifetime movie in as many years, “High School Lover.” If someone told me that he’s been slated to replace 77-year-old Alex Trebek, as host of “Jeopardy!” upon his retirement, I wouldn’t be shocked. Neither was I particularly surprised to see him playing the father of a 17-year-old girl (Paulina Singer), who falls for a predatory actor (François Arnaud) that’s 10 years her senior. She does so against the advice of everyone except her star-struck friends, who bask in her reflected glory. Her father tries to intervene before the relationship turns into a dangerous obsession for everyone involved, but that logic doesn’t apply in the movies or real life. At 39, it isn’t inconceivable that Franco would be credible as the character, especially considering he’s a director and a decade older than his current wife (Julia Jones). What is surprising is that the father-knows-best throughline could have been recycled from a dozen, or more, other Lifetime originals and his character normally would be have been filled by someone who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar, Golden Globe, Emmy, Un Certain Regard, SAG, MTV Video, Razzie, and numerous critics’ awards … or, for that matter, already has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In his previous Lifetime credit, “Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?,” Franco also played a director and served as executive producer.

It took a while after the re-unification of East and West Germany for screenwriters to begin making movies and mini-series about life in the hard-line communist state and how politics split family members who elected to survive within the system and those who quietly pursued democracy, if not necessarily capitalism. I’ve seen several such series, all of which resemble each other in their condemnation of party apparatchiks who wouldn’t recognize Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin if they rose from the dead and grabbed their asses. Even so, like parents everywhere, those represented in Christian Schwochow’s “The Tower” caution their children against making their feelings known to the wrong people … of which, there were many. The two-part, 180-minute TV drama, made in 2012, was based on a novel by Uwe Tellkamp. It chronicles life and politics in Dresden between the dark days of 1982 and 1989, when demonstrations – and Soviet indifference – pushed Stasi-backed elements toward democracy and the tearing down of the wall. The key conflict here is between a hypocritical surgeon in a state-run hospital and his open-minded son, who strives to be respected for what he is and wants to be, not follow his parents’ shallow footsteps. The melodrama gets a bit thick at times, but not oppressively so. It’s the depiction of how the government maintained control over highly educated professionals and intellectuals – here, doctors and writers – that is especially effective. Similar titles include “Deutschland 83,” “Good Bye Lenin!,” “The Lives of Others” and “Barbara Weissensee.”

Once upon a time, atheist spokeswoman Madalyn Murray O’Hair regularly appeared on late-night talks shows to chat up her beliefs – or lack thereof — and represent the loose threads in the fabric of American life. This all changed when televangelists took over cable television and Ronald Reagan exploited their power to win re-election. By vilifying the non-believers and proving themselves to be as fallible as other sinners, the money-grubbing reverends opened the gates to atheists unafraid to challenge religious leaders at their own game. (Perverted Catholic priests share the blame for this.) “The Atheist Experience,” produced in Austin, reputedly is the only TV show dedicated to atheism in the United States. (Bill Maher might dispute that point.) It is delivered via public-access cable in a call-in format every Sunday afternoon. Two atheists debate religious callers for one hour, on camera, while most other Texans are working off hangovers, plotting against abortion providers or waiting for the Cowboys game to start. The debates between believers and skeptics can be funny, touching and shocking in turn, and they’re interspersed with footage of the very public religious displays common in Texas.

The DVD Wrapup: Wind River, Unlocked, In This Corner of the World, Funeral Parade of Roses, Zoology, Romero Redux, Indiscretion and more

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

Wind River: Blu-ray
Being an early favorite to be nominated for Best Picture is as far from a guarantee as there is in the prognostication game. Academy voters have a notoriously short memory and some awfully good filmmakers have had their hopes dashed only a few months after they were raised. Wind River may only be writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s second turn at the helm of a feature – his first, Vile, was released to little acclaim on DVD, in 2011 – but his spec scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water were turned into popular entertainments by Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie, respectively. The latter was nominated as Best Screenplay by Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Glove voters, so, going into this awards season, he’s hardly an unknown factor in Hollywood. Earlier this year, at Cannes, Sheridan was handed an Un Certain Regard, as director, for Wind River, while the picture, itself, was nominated in two other categories. It’s that good. Set on Wyoming’s sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation, but shot in the mountains of Utah, the chilly thriller follows a rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who teams up with a high-altitude game tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), to investigate the mysterious killing of a local girl in a remote corner of the rez. The badly-bruised victim wasn’t wearing clothes designed for the harsh weather when she was discovered by Lambert, who was tracking a rogue mountain lion preying on cattle. The nearest encampment is a drilling operation a couple of miles away and the men working there aren’t Native Americans. That’s only significant because tribal authorities wouldn’t be allowed to arrest or prosecute a non-Indian perpetrator. It explains why Banner has been assigned the task of investigating the crime, which she is ill-prepared to complete without the assistance of Lambert and the tribal police officer, Ben (Graham Greene). Normally, a pair of non-Indian cops would be personae non grata on the reservation, but, here, Lambert has personal ties within the Wind River community and has suffered a personal tragedy not unlike that felt by the dead girl’s family. Another death adds urgency to the investigation, but what makes Wind River compelling is how Sheridan integrates it into the depiction of life above the tree line both for humans and animals. (If Lambert hadn’t been in that part of the reservation that day, racing a storm, the girl’s body might not have been discovered until the spring thaw.) The contrast between the natural beauty of the mountains and harsh depiction of life on the reservation also is impossible to ignore.

Wind River’s summer release may not be the only negative impacting its awards’ chances. Although the DVD/Blu-ray release is being handled by Lionsgate, the domestic theatrical distribution was carried out under the now-disgraced banner of the Weinstein Company, with Harvey and his untainted brother Bob’s names attached as co-executive producers. When the stories about Harvey’s behavior towards women reached critical mass, Acacia Entertainment, a company owned by the Tunica-Biloxi tribes that largely funded the $10 million film, insisted that the Weinstein name be scrubbed from the movie in its home-video release. Neither will TWC participate in awards-season campaigns. Moreover, any future profits now will be directed to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. (In it its theatrical release, Wind River returned $33.8 million at the domestic box office.) TWC president David Glasser agreed to the ultimatum. Along with performances by Renner, Olsen and Greene, consideration should be accorded Sheridan’s direction and script, Ben Richardson’s cinematography and music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The package includes deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes video gallery.

Unlocked: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine how any picture starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Douglas, John Malkovich, Toni Collette and Orlando Bloom, and directed by Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough), could fail to find a place on more than a small handful of American screens, at least for a weekend or two. That, however, is what happened to Unlocked, a spies-vs.-terrorists thriller that falls short in every almost category, except star power. Rapace delivers the goods as undercover CIA agent Alice Racine, who’s charged with preventing an upcoming bio-terror attack in London. No sooner does Racine extract key information from a courier for a notorious imam than she learns from her CIA/MI6 handlers (Malkovich, Collette) that she’s interrogating the right man, for the wrong agency. Within minutes, she’s attacked by a hit squad committed to stealing the intelligence and killing both Racine and the courier. She spends the rest of Unlocked being chased around London by gunmen and attempting to understand who she can trust. Once Racine thinks she’s figured it out – no need to spoil any of the plot twists – she discovers that someone has been planted in the agency to foil her investigation. If there were any doubts that Rapace could kick ass as well as Matt Damon and Jason Statham, she relieves of us them early in the loud and violent chases that follow. There are several points, however, when it becomes extremely difficult to parse the loyalties of the various hit squads and agency officials. Neither is it ever made clear which terrorist operation is planning the bio-attack. Screenwriter Peter O’Brien’s sole credits are for work he’s done on the “Halo” video-game series, where action always trumps logic. As convoluted and uninvolving as Unlocked can be, the screen lights up whenever Malkovich and Douglas pop up in the story. It doesn’t really matter what they’re required to say, either. Bloom and Collette aren’t bad, either. Take them out of the picture and it’s just another straight-to-video shoot-’em-up. The disc adds a making-of featurette.

Talon Falls
Amityville: The Awakening Blu-ray
I don’t know whose idea it was to shoot a horror film in an actual Halloween haunted house, but it worked well for writer/director Joshua Shreve, who didn’t even have to stretch for a title. Talon Falls could easily serve as a 75-minute infomercial for the Talon Falls Screampark, located in a forested patch of southwestern Kentucky. The attraction goes dark after Halloween, so there was probably plenty of time to take advantage of the buildings, monsters and implements of torture already installed there. Not surprisingly, a car full of teenagers stops at a dilapidated gas station, which appears to be abandoned but is inhabited by a fat hillbilly with a mysterious collection of VHS cassettes. After scaring the crap out of them, he directs the overamped quartet to the haunted house at Talon Falls. Sure enough, it’s every bit as scary as advertised … and far more realistic than any such scream park they’d previously experienced. Repulsed and thrilled in equal measures, they decide to investigate what’s happening behind the scenes. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that the “actors” aren’t mannequins or even really acting. They’re prisoners of a family of fiends, who wear hideous masks and wield fire axes and sledges hammers. The charred face of the character in the electric chair hasn’t been created by makeup-effects artists, either. By then, of course, it’s too late to escape the tormenters’ clutches. Spoiler: there’s a final girl. There’s also a making-of featurette.

And, speaking of haunted houses, the Big Kahuna of all such gateways to hell still can be found in Amityville, New York. Unfortunately, for Dimension/Weinstein interests, anyway, Amityville: The Awakening stumbled out of the gate and was only able to scare up $742 in gross revenues on its one-night-only release on the Saturday before Halloween. Considering that the umpteenth entry in the franchise – the first released theatrically since the 2005 remake of the original – had been scheduled for release into DVD/Blu-ray through Lionsgate so soon after the holiday, anyway, the “Hail Mary” strategy probably wasn’t a bad idea. Once again, Harvey Weinstein’s problems might have had something do with the meager distribution and marketing effort. It also debuted two weeks earlier on Google Play … for free. On the bright side, “Awakening,” has posted revenues of $7.4 million in the overseas marketplace. Not horrible, especially for a movie whose production and release have been postponed seven times in five years and was re-edited to fit the MPAA guidelines for a PG-13. “Awakening” is the first theatrically released “Amityville” film made from a completely original story. I use the term, “original,” advisedly. Here, Belle (Bella Thorne) and her siblings move into the famously demonic house, which was sold to her troubled mother, Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh), for a song. Mom claims she needed a house that large to accommodate the unwieldy life-support equipment keeping her son, James (Cameron Monaghan), breathing. She’d recently lost her husband to cancer and wasn’t about to accept the opinions of strangers about her son’s condition. Neither has the youngest sister, Juliet (Mckenna Grace), given up hope. When James’ motor skills unexpectedly appear to kick into gear, what appears to be a miracle probably has more to do with Satanic meddling. “Awakening” delivers a few quick shocks to the system, but nothing terribly fresh. Completists might even enjoy it. It arrives with a making-of featurette.

In This Corner of the World: Blu-ray
Tam Cam: The Untold Story
It would be difficult to think of a less likely subject for an animated feature than life on the Japanese home front in the years leading up to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This isn’t because there weren’t compelling stories to be told about the civilians left behind by husbands, fathers and friends sent to war in name of Emperor Hirohito and ambitions of blood-thirsty nationalists. The characters we meet in In This Corner of the World, based on a manga by Fumiyo Kono, accept the rationale for war provided them by authorities and assume that victory is always somewhere in sight. We meet the protagonist, Suzu (Non), as a girl growing up in pastoral bliss, anticipating the same essential events in a woman’s life as were experienced by her mother, grandmother and others in their unexceptional lineage. In 1943, our newly-turned-18 protagonist leaves Ebi, a rural town in the Hiroshima prefecture, for an arranged marriage in Kure, a seaport about 14 miles from the doomed city. It’s been decided that her husband will be Shusaku Hojo (Yoshimasa Hosoya), the son of a naval engineer. While he’s a pretty good catch, his sisters aren’t nearly as kind to Suzu. Neither does the activity in the busy harbor betray the cold reality of Japan’s fortunes in the war and the family’s place in the country’s future. If shortages and rationing are only to be expected at such times, the deployment of women in factories and repurposing of kimonos as workplace attire come as a surprise. As the story progresses, the lighthearted tone established by co-writer/director Sunao Katabuchi (Mai Mai Miracle), changes to reflect the fear that comes from being bombed by an enemy that civilians assumed was decimated at Pearl Harbor. Still, Suzu strives for happiness, while anticipating the long-promised peace. When the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima by the still-faceless enemy, the horror is depicted in ways that are subtle, but realistic. The carnage is like nothing anyone in the world has ever seen or would believe possible in a single blow. The charred bodies of the dead are strewn around the demolished city like fallen leaves in a forest on the brink of winter. Survivors can’t differentiate between a burn caused by radiation and a bruise they may have suffered in a fall during the blast. Viewers know far more about what hit them than they do. The other sad fact of life in the dead zones is that survivors have no more of an idea whether their loved ones will return home intact than the soldiers and sailors who’ve been told about the ferocity of the atomic bombs and have yet to learn the fate of their family and homes. It’s a roundabout way to deliver an anti-war message, but it will resonate from Tokyo to Tonopah. The beautiful hand-drawn illustrations are of a piece with other Japanese animation to which we’ve become accustomed from Studio Ghibli. (Katabuchi was assistant director to Hayao Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service.) At a time when Americans are being told that they might become the next victims of a nuclear attack, it’s important to understand what the results might look like to innocents and non-combatants. The Shout!Factory package adds interviews and featurettes on the artistic process.

Most fairy-tale romances conclude with a cheery, “and, they lived happily ever after,” leaving readers and viewers to imagine what might constitute happiness in a royal marriage not complicated by the ravages of war or burdened with the cruel task of collecting taxes from peasants. Based on a traditional Vietnamese folk tale, Tam Cam: The Untold Story doesn’t really take flight until the slippers – in this case, golden – are matched and “ever after” becomes “today, tomorrow and the foreseeable future.” Set in a lovely corner of Vietnam, the story turns nasty very quickly. In fact, the king’s new bride, Tam, disappears from physical view after she’s murdered by her wicked stepmother and replaced by stepsister Cam. From this point on, the story is dominated by fairies, witches, conjurers and battles enhanced by Hong Kong-style wire work. Reincarnations aren’t out of the question, either. The lush locations and palace sets add to the fun. “Tam Cam” was directed by Veronica Ngo, who plays the stepmother and wrote new, “untold chapters” into her script. She did so specifically to showcase in key roles members of the boy-band 365, which she manages. (Ngo can also be seen in the new “Star Wars” installment.) If the special effects don’t always hold up under close scrutiny, it’s easy to see how Ngo’s meager budget might have forced her to choose between grade-A visuals and the colorful costumes, wigs and backgrounds.

Slamma Jamma
Way back in Jurassic Age of college basketball, NCAA officials determined that UCLA phenom Lew Alcindor – later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – had too great an edge on players from other teams, primarily because he could “dunk” the basketball. Rather than celebrate Alcindor’s obvious superiority, the NCAA decided to nip it in the bud by forbidding dunking as an offensive weapon. The ban lasted from 1967 to 1976. It wasn’t a new move, by any means. Seven-foot-tall Oklahoma Aggie and two-time Olympian Bob Kurland is credited with introducing dunking to the game in the mid-1940s. At 6-foot-10, the brilliant DePaul center George Mikan was the only other player who could go toe-to-toe with Kurland. Their prowess convinced NCAA rules makers to widen “the lane” from 6 to 12 feet; outlaw defensive goaltending; enforce three-second violations; and introduce the 24-second clock to the NBA. With their fluidity and athleticism, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain added a dimension to the center’s position that Kurland and Mikan lacked. Yes, they were white, but so were most players in the NBA and NCAA at mid-century. The ban, which many considered to be racially motivated, fell far short of crippling Alcindor’s game, which perfectly complemented the talents of John Wooden’s recruits to the Westwood campus. Similarly, the collegiate ban against “spiking” the football after a touchdown – a celebratory act, mimicking the slam dunk, attributed to Homer Jones of the New York Giants, in 1965 – was similarly greeted with skepticism by fans, who saw it as an attempt to contain the enthusiasm of black players. When the NFL attempted to eliminate all end-zone demonstrations, in 2016, it only took a year for the competition committee to recognize the blunder. It’s against this historical background that I considered the faith-based sports drama, Slamma Jamma, written and directed by Timothy A. Chey (The Epic Journey). The filmmaker may not have been born when sportswriter Thomas Bonk nicknamed the University of Houston’s men’s basketball squad, Phi Slama Jama, and it stuck a chord among fans Along with Louisville’s “doctors of dunk,” the “tallest fraternity in Texas” popularized the daredevil “above the rim” style of play that pervades college basketball to the present day and helped launch the rabid brand-name popularity of March Madness. In the professional ranks, the annual Slam Dunk Contest was inaugurated by the old American Basketball Association, at its All-Star Game, in 1976, the same year that the ABA and NBA merged. It wasn’t until 1984 that the reconstituted league reintroduced what has become a highlight of the All-Star Weekend. By extension, then, it’s possible to see how Slamma Jamma, owes its title, at least, to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, et al.

It tells the story of a former college basketball star and slam-dunk champion, Michael Diggs (Chris Staples), whose pursuit of NBA glory was thwarted when he inadvertently became an accessory to the robbery of a gun merchant, in which a murder was committed. Instead of cutting some slack for the mostly innocent young man, who stood to become an instant millionaire in the draft, the judge decided to make an example of him. After spending six years in prison, during which time he found religion, Diggs returns home here in search of redemption. He would settle for a job that paid enough money to provide his seriously ill mother with proper medical care, but that’s not as easy to come by for ex-cons. In the interim, Diggs’ brother has turned to crime to make money, and his former girlfriend is coupled with an old rival. The only people willing to look beyond his soiled reputation are the playlot ballers, who require him earn their respect on the court. Knowing that a minimum-wage job will only take a convicted felon so far in L.A., a local priest offers him an opportunity to rehab a neighborhood church in his spare time. Ultimately, Diggs will test himself, once again, in an international slam-dunk contest that’s conveniently being staged in Santa Monica. Made on a budget reported to be $1 million, it wouldn’t be logical to think that Slamma Jamma would resemble a studio production. It cuts all sorts of corners to reach an ending that could be foreseen 10 minutes into the narrative. The acting is only as good as it has to be. As is the case with so many other faith-based pictures, Chey knows that his target audience will forgive the movie’s flaws, in return for a strong spiritual message and credible Christian characters. In that respect, Slamma Jamma delivers the goods. I could have very easily lived without a cameo by Jose Canseco, however.

Funeral Parade of Roses: Blu-ray
Desert Hearts: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses isn’t always listed alongside the films of Kenneth Anger as seminal influences on the New Queer Cinema, it’s only because the kaleidoscopic study of life in Tokyo’s gay demi-monde quickly disappeared from view after its limited American release in 1970. Pigeonholed among other experimental works of the late-1960s, it was, in fact, an accomplished work of New Wave cinema influenced by Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Pier Paolo Pasolini and as confidently rendered as any indie film made in the U.S. at the time. Stanley Kubrick would cite the film as a direct influence on A Clockwork Orange. After being restored in 4K from its original black-and-white negative and sound elements, the Cinelicious Pics release looks as if it might be relating a contemporary story, instead of one that is of historic significance to the LGBT community. Funeral Parade of Roses follows Edie Sedgwick look-alike Eddie (Shinnosuke Ikehata), a hostess at Tokyo’s Bar Genet, in her day-to-day ramblings and a violent love-triangle with reigning drag queen, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), for the attention of club owner Gonda (Yoshio Tsuchiya). Best known for his experimental and documentary short films, Matsumoto bends and distorts time, as in Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, while freely mixing interviews, Brechtian film-within-a-film asides, Oedipal premonitions of disaster, his own avant-garde shorts, and on-screen cartoon balloons, enhanced by fuzz bass and performance art. Whether she’s laughing with drunken businessmen, eating ice cream with her girlfriends or fighting in the streets with a local girl gang, Ikehata’s ravishing Eddie is something to behold. “She has bad manners, all she knows is coquetry,” complains her rival Leda. In fact, Eddie is an indefatigable force throughout Matsumoto’s drama. The Blu-ray package includes eight newly remastered avant-garde short films by the director; audio commentary by Chris D; original marketing material; and a new essay by Hirofumi Sakamoto, director of the Postwar Japan Moving Image Archive.

Also enhanced by a fresh 4K digital transfer, Desert Hearts (1985) has long been regarded as one of the most influential and widely seen LGBT films of all time. While its explicit depiction of lesbian sexuality is the film’s centerpiece, the honest portrayal of a soon-to-be-divorced woman’s coming out in Reno, 1959, is what allowed Donna Deitch’s debut feature to excel on the arthouse circuit. Natalie Cooper’s screenplay is based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel, “Desert of the Heart,” itself a landmark work. Straitlaced east-coast professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno to file for divorce and wait out the residency requirement, at a dude ranch established for just such occasions. She quickly winds up catching the eye of the significantly younger and infinitely more free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). It touches off a slow seduction that unfolds against a breathtaking desert landscape, vividly captured by cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood). No one should be surprised to learn that Desert Hearts was an entirely independent production, made on a self-financed shoestring budget, or that casting directors predicted that the careers of the lead actors would be severely damaged by participating in it. While it hardly registered as a speed bump for Shaver, Charbonneau’s resume mostly contains supporting roles in films and guest-star bits in television series, through the 1990s and early oughts. (Neither did Marielle Hemingway’s honest depiction of a bisexual athlete, in Robert Towne’s excellent 1982 drama Personal Best, interfere with her blossoming career.) The chemistry between the lead characters – and, by extension, the actresses – remains palpable. The Criterion Collection set adds vintage commentary with director Donna Deitch; new conversations between Deitch and actor Jane Lynch, and Deitch, Elswit and production designer Jeannine Oppewall; fresh interviews with Shaver and Charbonneau; an excerpt from “Fiction and Other Truths: A Film About Jane Rule,” a 1995 documentary about the author of “Desert of the Heart”; and an essay by critic B. Ruby Rich, who’s been credited with coining the term, New Queer Cinema.

Zoology: Blu-ray
How does a rising writer-director create a non-exploitative drama about a woman, who, at a certain age,, develops a distinctive physical deformity, without demeaning the character or turning his film into a freak show or dark comedy? Unfortunately, the nature of the lead character’s malady prevents me from answering that question, without posting an easily ignored spoiler alert. Indeed, in his sophomore feature, Russian writer/director Ivan I. Tverdovskiy waits until the second or third reel to reveal the movie’s crucial element. Instead, he builds to the moment by fleshing out the character of Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), a lonely, middle-aged woman, who’s overweight and almost intentionally unattractive. She holds an administrative position at a Crimean zoo – thus, the title, Zoology — where her co-workers delight in taunting her and she spends her off-hours sharing food with her only friends, the animals. Natasha lives with her God-fearing mother and leads a dull existence without prospects. The bizarre change in her appearance is greeted more with apprehension than shock, perhaps because it isn’t immediately visible to others, and it’s only one more thing for her to mourn. Nonetheless, she chooses to visit a handsome, young radiologist, Peter (Dmitriy Groshev), to see what can be done about it. The X-rays don’t immediately pan out, but it doesn’t prevent doctor and patient from crushing on each other. Even as the relationship appears to blossom, however, Natasha makes it difficult for Peter to give in to love. While the strangely affecting Zoology can stand on its own merits, it may remind viewers of genre-bending films by David Cronenberg and Aki Kaurismäki. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Tverdovskiy and Groshev, critical analysis and an illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Michael Brooke.

J.D.’s Revenge: Special Edition:  Blu-ray
This late-period blaxploitation flick was given short-shrift by AIP executives upon its release in 1976, mainly because they insisted on seeing an early print of the work-in-progress, in black-and-white, and it made no sense to them. That’s because the supernatural thriller, J.D.’s Revenge, involved flashbacks and flash-forwards that were shot out of order and characters whose appearance necessarily changed over time. Thanks to the archivists at Arrow Video, their loss was our gain. After a dinner date, a mild-mannered New Orleans law student, Ike (Glynn Turman), indulges his girlfriend’s whim by participating in a hypnotism show at a Bourbon Street bistro. While audience members enjoy the silly antics of the other participants, Ike suffers mysterious impressions that smack of déjà vu. In fact, he’s channeling the spirit of an old-school gangster, J.D. Walker (David McKnight), who was accused of a heinous crime he didn’t commit. J.D. was framed for killing his sister, Betty Jo (Alice Jubert), who was married to his archenemy Elija Bliss (Louis Gossett Jr.). Elija discovers J.D. standing over Betty Jo’s body and has him shot on the spot by the actual assailant (Fred Pinkard). When he isn’t studying for the law boards or driving a cab, Ike assumes the characteristics of the razor-toting, zoot-suit-wearing J.D., whose violent nature manifests itself in a frightening incident with the elderly passenger in his cab, an attack on the jealous husband of a one-night stand and attempted rape of his girlfriend, Christella (Joan Pringle). At the time, Turman was just coming off a breakthrough performance in Cooley High, while perennial television guest star Gossett was a year away from his standout portrayals of the dangerous Haitian drug dealer Henry Cloche, in The Deep, and Fiddler, in “Roots.” In a neat gag, director Arthur Marks (Friday Foster) even required Turman and Pinkard to wear conk wigs. After 40 years, J.D.’s Revenge holds up as well as, or better than, most other blaxploitation titles. The Blu-ray features a new 2K restoration from original film elements; fresh interviews with producer/director Marks, Turman, Pinkard and Jaison Starkes (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh); trailers from such Marksian exploitation efforts as The Monkey Hu$tle, Friday Foster, Bucktown, A Woman for All Men and Bonnie’s Kids; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a booklet containing new writing by Kim Newman, author of “Nightmare Movies.”

George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn: Blu-ray
In the wake of George A. Romero’s death, last July, at 77, distributors with access to his work have rushed to turn out Blu-rays that represent both his zombie epics and early obscurities. As the title of this Arrow Video set suggests, the trio of films included here were released between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). Those of you keeping score at home might already know that There’s Always Vanilla (a.k.a., “The Affair”), Season of the Witch (a.k.a., “Jack’s Wife,” “Hungry Wives”) and The Crazies, were sandwiched between “Living Dead” and Romero’s sports documentary, “O.J. Simpson: Juice on the Loose.” The rest is horror history. Although none holds up to scrutiny today, each title bears one of Romero’s fingerprints, at least.  If nothing else, they share Pittsburgh locations with most of his other pictures. There’s Always Vanilla, which suffered from being written by someone other than the master, was an exercise in post-hippie angst. A footloose young man (Raymond Lane) returns to his hometown and, after showing no great interest in finding a job, moves in with an aspiring actress (Judith Ridley), who provides him with emotional and financial support. Before long, Lynn tires of Chris’ lack of ambition and he stops listening to her complaints about doing commercials for toilet cleansers. Made in 1971, two years before Rowe v. Wade was decided, Lynn’s pregnancy pushes the relationship to its breaking point. Chris re-establishes ties to a boy who may or may not be his son, while Lynn decides to have a back-alley abortion, rather than tell her lover. The chemistry between the lead actors and their characters can’t be denied, even if everyone else involved in the picture disowns it in a bonus featurette.

Season of the Witch is a far more interesting movie, positioned to take advantage of the nascent feminist movement and its slow advance into Suburban America. Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a Pittsburgh housewife – as homebound women were identified, back in the day — whose dissatisfaction with her humdrum life and frequently absent husband causes her to seek solace in the occult, which has become a topic of discussion in her canasta circle. After visiting local herbs merchant Marion Hamilton — a tarot reader and leader of a secret black-arts coven — she comes to believe that she possesses wiccan powers. She begins slowly, by conjuring a visit from a local lothario for the purposes of satisfying her pent-up sexual desires. Even though the guy probably would have paid Joan a visit, anyway, after hearing that her husband was out of town, it helps convince her that she’s on the right track. Afterwards, she withdraws into a fantasy world of witchcraft and other hocus-pocus, sinking increasingly deeper into her new lifestyle. Finally, the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred and tragedy results. White, the rare professional actor in an early Romero film, carries Season of the Witch with her entirely credible impression of a hot and sexy MILF. Released in 1973, The Crazies is a straight-forward cautionary tale from the Cold War period. After a plane crashes into a nearby stream, residents of small rural town in west Pennsylvania start behaving like murderous loonies. What the federal troops and medical personnel know that the populace doesn’t is that the plane carried a vial, or two, of a weapons-grade virus. Dressed in white Hazmat uniforms and masks, the troops might as well be aliens from a belligerent culture on another planet. They don’t answer questions or refrain from pointing their weapons at anyone who tries to leave the quarantine zones. Finally, the enraged citizens take matters into their own hands. Even on a budget reported to be in the neighborhood of $270,000, for Romero The Crazies reflects a quantum leap forward in production and creative values.

Romero buffs likely will be as excited by the bonus features as the films, which mostly qualify as curiosities. Each newly restored disc adds fresh and vintage commentaries and featurettes; interviews with cast and crew members; galleries; commemorative booklets; marketing material; and newly-commissioned artwork. The best added feature is “When Romero Met Del Toro,” in which kindred filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro chats with George Romero in a comfy living-room setting.

Evil in the Time of Heroes
Island of the Burning Damned
In last month’s review of Shout!Factory’s Land of the Dead re-release, we noted the bonus featurette, “Sean Meets George,” in which Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright paid a set visit to George A. Romero and briefly ended up playing zombies in a wild scene. Among other things, it demonstrated Romero’s willingness to embrace the creators of the Dawn of the Dead parody, Sean of the Dead, but also their acknowledgement of the Master of the Undead’s influence beyond traditional genre lines. As noted in the review of Season of the Witch (above), the delightful conversation, “When Romero Met Del Toro,” reveals just how great an impression Night of the Living Dead left on aspiring filmmakers upon their first viewing, years earlier. “Sean” opened the door to an international buffet of parodies and homages, specific to the countries of original: Juan of the Dead (Cuba), Cockneys vs. Zombies and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (England), Seoul Station and Train to Busan (Korea), La Horde (France), Kill Zombie! (Holland), Berlin Undead (Germany), Schoolgirl Apocalypse (Japan), Zombio 2: Chimarrão Zombies (Brazil), Zombiehagen (Denmark), Dead Snow (Norway), Warm Bodies, Fido and, of course, MILFS vs. Zombies (USA). I’m sure that I’m missing a few hundred other Romero-inspired titles, but you get the picture. Greece hasn’t been immune to the zombie apocalypse, either. Giorgos Nousias’ Evil (2005) was an Athens-based variant on 28 Days Later, with a fast-spreading virus turning bitten humans into fast-moving, cannibalistic monsters. While his 2009 follow-up, Evil in the Time of Heroes – newly available in DVD, from Doppelganger Releasing – picks up where that gorefest left off, it also traces the affliction to ancient Greece, where it was planted in the Athenian soil like a time-release plague. Conveniently, a mysterious cloaked hero, Prophitis (Billy Zane), is sent by the gods to rescue the uninfected humans. Flash ahead a few millennia and survivors Melitis, Marina, Jenny and Vakirtzis are still on the run from the endless onslaught of zombies that threatened Greece in the original. Apparently, the outbreak has been checked at Greece’s boundaries with its northern neighbors, because the United Nations has decided to bomb the Cradle of Democracy back to the Stone Age to end the threat to mankind. It has given survivors a few days to escape, but it won’t be easy. Fortuitously, the gods have re-enlisted Prophitis for duty in modern Athens. Horror buffs should know that Evil in the Time of Heroes is only slightly less amusing than it is gory, which is to say that it’s lots of fun … even in the native tongue. Zane may be a founding member of the Straight-to-Video Hall of Fame, but he still sells DVDs off his performances in Titanic, Zoolander and the ongoing Sniper series. The Chicago native also speaks fluent Greek. If the special makeup effects don’t measure up to the carnage inflicted on the characters in other zombie epics – the actors and extras volunteered their time – the cheesiness quickly is integrated into the comedy.

Fans of Hammer Horror can safely ignore the presence of such studio stalwarts as director Terence Fisher and actors Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the half-baked sci-fi misfire, Island of the Burning Damned (a.k.a., “Night of the Big Heat,” “Island of the Burning Doomed”). The trio had worked together on such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and The Mummy, but briefly left home for Planet Film Productions, which produced all of five mid-1960s genre specimens, none of which are memorable. While mainland Britain shivers in deepest winter, the Scottish island of Fara bakes, with temps in the 90s … and the mercury is rising. The only ones who appear to know what’s happening are the sodden blokes at the local pub, the Swan. Although no one has actually seen any aliens and global warming had yet to be invented, it stood to reason that invaders from outer space were responsible. If nothing else, the influx of visitors, combined with the unusual heat wave, the Swan’s proprietor sold a lot of ale. Adding to the rise in temperatures is the unwelcome arrival of steamy hot Jane Merrow, who plays the former lover of a decidedly married local author (Patrick Allen). Lee and Cushing play scientists looking for the source of the heat wave, but, like everyone else on the island and audience, wind up spending most of their time in the pub. For most of the movie the romantic entanglement supersedes anything else in the story, which is just as well, because the aliens are none too impressive. The distributor, Cheezy Movies, doesn’t pretend otherwise.

Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait: Blu-ray
Julian Schnabel’s stature as one of our greatest living artists and a remarkably intuitive filmmaker – Basquiat, Before Night Falls, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — is never in doubt in Pappi Corsicato’s gushing biodoc, Julian Schnabel: A Private Portrait. The fact that his genius has been challenged in the past is mentioned, but left to hang in midair, like an untethered question mark. I took me a while to notice that the artist is also listed as an executive producer, but it explains why the film feels more like a testimonial than the critical retrospective some viewers might have expected. In addition to chronicling the Brooklyn-born Schnabel’s formative years in Brownsville, Texas, and beginning of his professional career in New York City in the late 1970s, the “Portrait” traces his rise to superstar status in Manhattan’s art scene and international acclaim as a leading figure in the Neo-Expressionism movement. Time is spent on the set of his movies, inside studios large enough to accommodate his outsized canvases and homes in Montauk, Long Island, and Manhattan’s West Village. We also spend time with him and family members on vacations in seaside villas that would be the envy of the gods. The problem is that Schnabel’s ego, posturing and ostentatious lifestyle effectively distance the subject from merely mortal viewers. Neither does the fawning commentary from friends, family, actors and artists, including Al Pacino, Mary Boone, Jeff Koons, Bono and Laurie Anderson, offer much insight into the subject at hand. Even his contributions to a memorial to the late Lou Reed, while admirable, reflect more on Schnabel than the musician. Even so, anyone looking for a starting point in their approach to the man and his work could do worse than this extended edition of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains: Documentary
Whose Streets?
In the 70 years since Little Richard, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry put their permanent imprints on rock-’n’-roll, distinguishing it from R&B and rockabilly, the number of African-American rock groups could be counted on the fingers of two hands. A straight line can be drawn from the founding fathers through Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee, Sly & the Family Stone and the Chambers Brothers, to Mandrill, Living Colour, Fishbone and the BusBoys, and on to Prince, James Blood Ulmer and Lenny Kravitz. If listeners tended not to differentiate rock from the R&B of Ike &Tina Turner, the reggae of Bob Marley & the Wailers, Latino rock of Cyprus Hill and War, the funk of James Brown and Funkadelic, soul of Stevie Wonder, blues of John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal, hip-hop of Public Enemy and N.W.A. and gumbo soul of the Neville Brothers, but radio stations and record labels sure did. Bad Brains stood out for being in the forefront of the early-1980s hardcore punk scene, but also for embracing reggae, funk, heavy metal, hip hop and soul. James Lathos’ Finding Joseph I: The HR From Bad Brains chronicles the eccentric life and musical inclinations of the band’s frontman, Paul “H.R.” Hudson. (The initials stand for Human Rights.) The band began its life in 1976 as Mind Power, a jazz-fusion ensemble composed of musicians from Washington, D.C. A year later, it took an abrupt left turn into the city’s burgeoning hardcore-punk movement, which incorporated elements of heavy metal and reggae. The band moved to New York in 1979, after being the subject of an unofficial ban among Washington, D.C., area clubs and performance venues. The documentary describes H.R.’s battles with schizophrenia – along with SUNCT, a rare neurological disorder that causes occasional excruciating headaches – and their negative effects on the band. Rastafarianism plays a key role in the story of the band, which has experienced many changes in the 40 years of its sporadic existence. As is the case with many schizophrenics, H.R. is alternately lucid and incomprehensible. The doc probably will be of interest exclusively to people who already are aware of Bad Brains’ contributions to rock and reggae. There isn’t enough music included to form opinions on its worth, one way or the other. For that, Lathos has called upon friends, peers and collaborators, who recall the highs and lows, while sharing their happiness that H.R. is still among the living.

When I reviewed In His Own Home last week, I wasn’t aware of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? The former describes what happened when trigger-happy campus police shot and nearly killed a Ghanaian graduate student for the crime of disturbing a neighbor. It went on to discuss the propensity of police around the country to militarize their departments, thus making it even easier for such deviations from protocol to happen. That film appeared to suffer from lack of funds that might have allowed Malini Schueller to broaden the investigation. Whose Streets? is a far more polished film about a case that received international attention and inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. The tight focus here is on the reaction of African-American residents of Ferguson, Missouri, when unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by police and left lying in the street for hours. The story is told by the activists, relatives and participants in the uprising that followed the boy’s death, one of several such incidents that occurred in 2014-15. Once again, the police reacted to the initial protests as if they were in Afghanistan, surrounded by Taliban forces, by calling in National Guard reinforcements and further limiting the movements of the citizenry. If the film isn’t as even-handed as some documentarians would prefer, I suspect that police weren’t allowed to respond, possibly due to ongoing litigation.

The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson
Although British puppeteer Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi creations look primitive today, it’s interesting to note that “Supercar,” “Fireball XL5,” “Thunderbirds” and “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” were introduced only a few years before or concurrently with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The stories about space exploration, espionage and other Cold War intrigues integrated pint-sized marionettes into live-action scenarios, not unlike Hollywood genre fare. Because the Supermarionation process limited the puppets’ movements to upper-torso and facial features, leaving the characters’ legs looking paralyzed, the effect bordered on the comical … unless, of course, you were a kid and possessed an ability to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the storylines. Blu-ray and DVD compilations of episodes from Anderson’s shows have already been released, but “The Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson” serves as a DVD debut for his rarely seen films, ranging from “Here Comes Kandy” (1955) to the final segment of the stop-motion animated comedy series, “Dick Spanner, P.I.” (1987). Also included are Anderson’s pilot films, “The Investigator” — the last Supermarionation project from the original key crew; “The Day After Tomorrow,” an obscure telemovie concept that spanned the production of “Space: 1999” (1975-77), which starred Martin Landau and Barbara Bain; and “Space Police,” a sci-fi adventure that served as the template for “Space Precinct.” There’s also a commemorative postcard signed by Anderson’s son and head of Anderson Entertainment.

Lifetime: Indiscretion
PBS: NOVA: Eclipse Over America
D.C. Follies: The Complete Series
Mussolini: Untold Story
Nickelodeon: Albert: A Small Tree with a Big Dream
Nickelodeon: Regal Academy: Rose Cinderella in Fairy Tale Land
If the wife of a political candidate is smart enough to be a practicing psychiatrist and possesses Mira Sorvino’s looks, why, in God’s name, would she risk everything, including her life and marriage, by having an affair with a heavily tattooed artist being treated by another psychiatrist, with whom she’s friendly. Sorvino, who, at 50, has never looked more radiant, plays the shrink, who falls for a hulking bohemian type most people would guess was dangerously off his rocker, if only by the sculptures on display in his gallery exhibit. It’s where Dr. Veronica Simon meets Victor, played by Sorvino’s real-life husband, Christopher Backus, who’s 14 years younger than the Oscar-winning actress. So, that much at least makes sense in the Lifetime Original Movie, Indiscretion. Plus, the story is set in New Orleans, a city where appearances of normalcy are never to be trusted. While Veronica’s husband is out of town courting backers, she decides to sample the delights of Bourbon Street with her new friend, after which they play hide-and-seek in a warehouse full of krewe paraphernalia for Mardi Gras. After one weekend of adulterous bliss, Veronica has decided to bid adieu to her lover and swear allegiance to her husband (Cary Elwes), who’s believed to have had an affair of his own. As could have been anticipated by anyone who’s seen Unfaithful, or a dozen other such passion plays, Victor has decided that Veronica is the love of his life and nothing she says can dissuade him from acting on it. When she refuses to return his obsessive affections, he devises a way to squeeze her, using her daughter as leverage and befriending her husband by chatting up their mutual hunting skills. I’m pleased, if not completely shocked to report that Indiscretion has followed in the footsteps of Lifetime movies that go beyond the usual stereotypes and don’t require a box of tissues to sit through. John Stewart Muller’s direction may have its shortcomings, but they aren’t of the paint-by-number variety. Neither should husbands or boyfriends dismiss it as just another Lifetime weeper. The DVD also appears to have unfiltered some of the naughty language removed from the original presentation.

Now that President Trump has bravely demonstrated that concern about being blinded by staring directly at the sun during an eclipse – brain damage was never an issue, apparently — it’s worth checking out some of the other things eclipse-science researchers learned. Apparently, a lot. In what is being described as the fastest “NOVA” turnaround film to date, producers for “Eclipse Over America” followed teams working on the forefront of solar science and solar-storm detection. In doing so, they employ user-generated content, NASA footage and immersive CGI animation to reveal the sun’s secret mechanisms and integrate stunning sequences of the eclipse itself, including scenes filmed at familiar locations along the path of the eclipse. At its apex, the eclipse left a lunar shadow that was 73 miles wide, across a path that stretched from Oregon to South Carolina, allowing continuous observation for 90 minutes. Anyone with enough money could lease a plane to follow the eclipse across the country, without leaving the shadow.

Shout! Factory’s release of Sid and Marty Krofft’s syndicated comedy series, “D.C. Follies,” recalls a period in American history when compromise wasn’t a dirty work and Republicans and Democrats could find common ground for laughs, instead of a mutual fear that World War III is just around the corner. The show’s use of puppets that mimicked pop culture and political figures was similar to the British series, “Spitting Image,” and the nearly life-size cast of characters wasn’t limited to familiar inside-the-Beltway faces. They ranged from Moscow, London and the Vatican, to New York, Hollywood and the Bible Belt, often in the same scene. Although the bartender-in-chief of “D.C. Follies” is the ever-delightful Fred Willard, he left the ventriloquism to the Kroffts. Celebrities would join Willard and the puppets in skits staged in the well-stocked tavern, just down the street from the White House. Although the series ran from 1987-89, the gags and references will be extremely familiar to anyone born before the Clintons took office. Many of the characters are still making headlines, as well as movies and TV shows. I was surprised at how well the humor, most of which was topical, holds up after 30 years. The set includes all 44 episodes.

For most of the last 20 years of George C. Scott’s life, his acting was limited to only a handful of movies, with television mini-series and made-for-TV movies filling his dance card, along with stage appearances. He wasn’t the easiest person to work alongside, but no one questioned his talent or dedication to his craft. In the 1980s, Scott suffered a series of heart attacks that might have limited his ability to find decent roles. Scott probably is the only American actor who’s played two very different generals — George S. Patton Jr. (twice) and “Buck” Turgidson, in “Dr. Strangelove” – as well as a German colonel, Franz Ritter (The Hindenburg); Shylock; Ebenezer Scrooge; Fagin; Beast (“Beauty and the Beast”); and Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. MVD Visual has released “Mussolini: The Untold Story,” a seven-hour NBC mini-series that was based on the memories of Vittorio Mussolini, the oldest son of ”Il Duce.” It opens in 1922, as Mussolini gathers power through his Black Shirt militia. Promoting himself as Caesar reincarnate, he provoked a nationalist fervor that peaked after the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), in 1935. In 1938, Mussolini attempted to convince Hitler not to invade other European countries until 1943, but that fell on deaf ears. Foreseeing a German/Italian takeover of the continent and northern Africa, Mussolini decided to support the Axis effort, extending his reach into Albania and Greece, before being turned back in an embarrassing defeat. Then, when the Allies defeated Axis forces in the desert war, Italy’s backdoor was open to invasion by the good guys. Scott is impressive as Il Duce, but seven hours of the dictator’s trademark posturing can be a long haul. Any resemblance to the current resident of the White House probably isn’t coincidental.

From Nickelodeon comes the original holiday movie, “Albert: A Small Tree with a Big Dream,” which tells the story of Albert, a tiny Douglas fir who dreams of becoming Empire City’s most famous Christmas tree. Along with his friends Maisie and Gene – a persistently positive palm tree and blisteringly honest weed, respectively — he begins the trip of a lifetime to prove his worth to the selection committee. On their journey, they encounter the villainous and prickly Cactus Pete and a horde of hungry rabbits. Along the way, of course, they discover the true meaning of friendship and team work, while saving Christmas along the way. The voicing cast for Max Lang’s delightfully drawn picture includes Judah Friedlander, Bobby Moynihan, Rob Riggle and Mary Pat Gleason.

Also from Nickelodeon, “Regal Academy: Rose Cinderella in Fairy Tale” is comprised of the first three episodes of the network’s “Regal Academy” series for little girls who dream of becoming princesses when they grow up. (OK, boys can have the same ambitions.) Rose Cinderella (Jessica Paquet) thinks she is a regular teenager, but things change when she finds a magic key unlocking a world where fairy tales come to life. While there, she discovers that Cinderella is not only her grandmother but also the headmistress of Regal Academy, a school where fairytale families teach the next generation how to become heroes. The 73-minute set includes “A School for Fairy Tales” “The Great Dragon Race” “The Swan in Swamp Lake.”

The DVD Wrapup: King George, Cars 3, Overdrive, Afterimage, Glass Castle, Whisky Galore, The Journey, Into the Night, Sissi, Stay Hungry and more

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

The Madness of King George: Blu-ray
Even if Olive Films weren’t presenting its Blu-ray release of The Madness of King George as a cautionary tale, it would be difficult for any American – Republicans included – not to draw parallels to our current political predicament. Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett’s meditation on power, and a state’s ability to overcome serious damage by a monarch’s mental illness, is based on the periods of dementia experienced by England’s George III (Nigel Hawthorne). The movie also describes his relationship with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett), particularly focusing on the period around the Regency Crisis of 1788–89, when Charles James Fox (Jim Carter) led the opposition and William Pitt the Younger (Julian Wadham) supported the king as PM. Upon its release in 1994, references to “King Lear” competed with reports of Richard Nixon’s oddball behavior in the final years of his presidency, as reported by Henry Kissinger. The British monarch, at least, had an excuse. It’s believed that he was a victim of acute intermittent porphyria, a blood disorder that affects the brain, but losing the American colonies surely had an impact on his sanity. Hawthorne, Helen Mirren and Bennett were nominated for Academy Awards, while the set direction and art design of Ken Adam and Carolyn Scott were honored with an Oscar. Today, of course, detractors of the current occupant of our White House wonder out loud if Donald Trump might be showing signs of dementia or megalomania. If, like Trump, George III had been able to share his thoughts on Parliament every morning, before dawn, they might sound a lot like his ravings in Bennett’s play and screenplay. If Trump were to be declared mad or impeached for incompetency, the debate in Congress as to his successor probably would resemble the movie’s depiction of Pitt’s power struggle with Fox and the king’s eldest son. By the time Parliament was ready to decide the fate of the Regency bill, the king’s madness appeared to disappear. (If Mike Pence, Jared Kushner or Paul Ryan begin wearing powdered wigs to work, look out!) This isn’t to say that The Madness of King George can’t simply be enjoyed as a brilliantly conceived historical dramedy or for its acting, because it can. Thank goodness, modern medicine relies on symptoms more reliable than daily examinations of stool samples and applying caustic poultices to draw out “evil humors.” (The most telling sign of porphyria, the blue tint of the king’s urine, was ignored.) The Blu-ray arrives without bonus features.

Cars 3: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Critics have been far less enamored of Disney/Pixar’s high-octane franchise, Cars, than the kids and parents who’ve turned it into a full-blown franchise, with sequels, big- and small-screen spinoffs, records, books, toys, video games and Cars Land, a replica of Radiator Springs at Disney California Adventure Park. Released in 2011 to less-than-stellar reviews, Cars 2 succeeded in expanding the series’ international base by reversing the ratio of box-office revenues flowing into the Mouse House from domestic and worldwide sales. I doubt it had much to do with animation czar John Lasseter’s decision to turn Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) into international machines of mystery. From my point of view, at least, the espionage conceits and 007 references overshadowed the characters’ pursuit of glory on the World Grand Prix circuit. In response to the overamped sequel, perhaps, the far better Cars 3 sputtered noticeably at the box office, both here and abroad. In the hands of first-time co-writer/director Brian Fee, the triquel adopts a back-to-the-future approach to advancing the mythology. In a scene almost too reminiscent of fiery crashes in actual NASCAR races, McQueen’s legacy is threatened by high-tech newcomer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). His future will be determined not solely by heart and TLC, but by recognizing that cars must join the digital world or accept also-ran status.

Four months later, while recovering in Radiator Springs, McQueen isolates himself from his friends, spending his idle hours watching footage of his late mentor, Doc Hudson. (The old-school racer has been reanimated, through unused recordings of Paul Newman from the first film.) He also reunites with girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), who fears he’ll be forced into retirement, like Doc. Much to his chagrin, team owners Dusty and Rusty (Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi) send him to a new state-of-the-art racing center, run by auto-parts magnate Sterling (Nathan Fillion). After failing one mechanical test, he orders McQueen to work with trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). He takes her on a trip down Memory Lane, with stops at a demolition derby, beach races and a meeting with Doc’s former mechanic and crew chief, Smokey (Chris Cooper). After Cruz explains her lifelong desire to compete at the highest level, McQueen begins to see her in a much different light. By lending their voices to racing analyst Natalie Certain and Louise “Barnstormer” Nash, Kerry Washington and Margo Martindale add even more feminist touches to the generally boy-friendly proceedings. If Lee and his writing team don’t break much other new ground here, Cars 3 does benefit from a return to the basics of racing, teamwork and trust. The special features include commentary; the new Mini-Movie, “Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool”; the theatrical short, “Lou,” a short film about grade-school recess and lost-and-found items coming to life; “Ready for the Race,” with race-car driver William Byron; “Cruz Ramirez: The Yellow Car That Could,” a closer look at designing and voicing the film’s key new character; a five-part making-of featurette; “fly through” looks at some of the movie’s key locales; deleted scenes; and “My First Car,” with cast and crew recall members.

Overdrive: Blu-ray
And, while we’re on the subject of automobiles, Antonio Negret’s Overdrive is a fast-paced thriller that can be enjoyed by classic-car aficionados and action freaks in equal measure. The only thing it lacks is a story that advances the chase subgenre beyond well-established conventions and tropes. The omission surprised me because the screenplay was written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, whose credits include 2 Fast 2 Furious, 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted, The Double and the creation of TV shows “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire,” Chicago Justice” and “Chicago P.D.” Set in the south of France, Overdrive features international car thieves Andrew Foster (Scott Eastwood) and his half-brother, Garrett (Freddie Thorp), whose victims include some archetypically drawn miscreants who probably wouldn’t notice the disappearance of a brand new Cadillac or Lincoln. The loss of a vintage Bugatti Type 57, Ferrari GTO, Maserati Quattroporte, Alfa 6C and Porsche 911 GT3 RS … yes, they’ll miss. The brazen young dudes steal the Bugatti, for example, while it’s in transit from an auction house, to the garage of Marseille crime boss Jacomo Morier (Simon Abkarian). After tracking down the Foster boys, Morier trades their lives for a promise they’ll steal a rare Ferrari from his rival, the ruthless Max Klemp (Clemens Schick). No band of Hollywood car thieves would be complete without the inclusion of a pair of world-class beauties, here, in the persons of Ana de Armas and Gaia Weiss. Providing nothing more than an extra body to kill, Morier adds his cousin, Laurent (Abraham Belaga), to the group, to make sure that everything runs smoothly. The double- and triple-crosses to come are launched when Klemp figures out the original plan and exacts his own form of justice from the Fosters. Finally, though, the 93-minute story fails to accommodate all of the disparate characters and subplots, accentuating, instead, the splendid countryside and magnificent automobiles. The Blu-ray adds three rather abrupt featurettes, “The Caper,” “The Crew” and, all too briefly, “The Cars.”

Afterimage: Blu-ray
True horror takes many forms, as do the monsters who provoke it. In Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s final feature, Afterimage, the perpetrator of great evil, Joseph Stalin, lives hundreds of miles from Lodz, where avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda), succumbed to the Soviet dictator’s madness. Stalin may never have spent more than a few seconds looking at Strzeminski’s work, but his disregard for art that didn’t fall within the general heading of “socialist realism” was heeded by Communist Party flunkies throughout the Eastern Bloc. Stalin’s condemnation of paintings and sculptures that didn’t glorify proletarian ideals dovetailed with Adolph Hitler’s abhorrence of so-called degenerate art, which he associated with leftists, Jews and internationalists. Unlike Stalin’s minions, however, Nazis weren’t at all averse to making a big show of their contempt, even going so far as to stage exhibitions to incite the public’s wrath. While Americans were made acutely aware of Hitler’s plans to eradicate artists, writers and filmmakers he didn’t like, it wasn’t until the collapse of the Iron Curtain that we learned that full extent of censorship there. Despite losing his right thigh and left forearm in World War I, Strzeminski gained an international reputation as an avant-garde painter, theorist and educator. Although some of his writings and sculptures were destroyed after the German invasion of Poland, he survived the war. For the next four years, he remained active as a painter, organizer and backer of educational institutions.

Afterimage opens in January 1950, when Minister of Culture Wlodzimien Sokorski orders Strzeminski’s dismissal from the State Higher School of Art. Practically overnight, he becomes a non-person in the eyes of the Polish government and those indebted to it. He can’t teach or mount exhibitions, and the jobs he does land don’t last very long. Without a job, he loses his access to food rations and finally is hospitalized with tuberculosis. Wajda’s depiction of the artist’s struggle merely to survive is horrifying from both an emotional and visual perspective. All the color is drained from Strzeminski’s surroundings and the persecution even extends to former students committed to committing his theories and observations to paper, on stolen typewriters. While Afterimage isn’t an easy movie to watch, it serves as a reminder of what happened to our creative community during the Red Scare and what could happen again, if religious fundamentalists in Congress were allowed to dictate taste and cut funds intended for the arts. Poland has blossomed since the return of democracy, but Wajda demands that freedom never be taken for granted. The package adds the comprehensive feature-length documentary, Wajda by Wajda.

The Glass Castle Blu-ray
For a pothead, Woody Harrelson is a remarkably prolific actor. In the last two years, alone, he’s starred in a dozen movies, played characters who range from cynical and neurotic (The Edge of Seventeen, Wilson), to militaristic and presidential (War for the Planet of the Apes, LBJ). The one constant in his performances, spanning Natural Born Killers and The Glass Castle, is the likelihood that he’ll slide off the deep end at one point or another, into uncharted waters. In Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle, he plays the kind of domineering father we first encountered in Peter Weir’s The Mosquito Coast (1986) … a man so alienated from society that he’ll drag his brood to the ends of the Earth to avoid contact with his personal demons. In a different story, Rex might be categorized as just another unrepentant hippie or non-conformist. Because The Glass Castle is based on a memoir by former journalist and best-selling author Jeannette Walls, however, we’re constantly required to distinguish between eccentricity and madness in a character we’re predisposed to cut some slack. Like Harrison Ford, in The Mosquito Coast, Harrelson’s Rex is an inventor in pursuit of some sort of utopian idyll.

Rex’s problems, however, begin with growing up in a family of dysfunctional hillbillies and continue through self-destructive bouts with alcoholism and failure to complete any of his projects. He can be kind, funny, supportive and wildly imaginative, but usually Rex is portrayed as being a mercurial lout. In this, he’s supported by his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), a talented artist who doesn’t appear to have been allowed an unfiltered thought since the 1960s. Jeanette is well played by Brie Larson, as an adult, Ella Anderson, as an adolescent. Like her siblings, Jeanette somehow emerged from a childhood of enforced poverty with a semblance of a traditional education and desire to succeed on her own terms. Even so, her success as a gossip columnist in New York can’t keep her from living in fear of the day when Rex and Rose Mary will show up in the city to shatter her dreams for a peaceful life. When they do, we can’t help but wish for them to be hit by a bus. Still, Cretton finds the humanity at the core of Wells’ memoir and leaves room for Harrelson to pull off a positive resolution.  We’re introduced to the writer in the featurettes and she doesn’t seem any worse for the wear. Her childhood, though, isn’t something you’d wish on your worst enemy’s daughter.

Darkness Rising: Blu-ray
Killing Ground: Blu-ray
The Tormenting
For years, Madison (Tara Holt) has been tormented by memories of the murder of her younger sister at the hands of their mother. Joined by her fiancé (Bryce Johnson) and cousin (Katrina Law), Madison returns to her childhood home just before it’s slated to be demolished. Instead of finding closure and collecting a few souvenirs — the home’s contents are nearly intact — they find themselves pursued by the same malevolent, supernatural presence that drove Madison’s mother to unthinkable violence. The demonic device deployed in Darkness Rising by director Austin Reading (“Death Valley”) and writer Vikram Weet (Devil’s Pass) is Madison’s obsession with the tally symbol for the number five. Naturally, the trio should have considered the possibility that they were prying open the gates to hell when the broke into the house, but what fun would that be?

Also from Scream Factory and IFC Films comes a nasty bit of business from Australia, Killing Ground. In Damien Power’s feature debut, a couple’s weekend camping trip becomes a desperate fight for survival, when everything that could go wrong, does. In need of a break from the pressures of city life, Sam (Harriet Dyer) and Ian (Ian Meadows) head to a remote beach in New South Wales. They ignore the first sign of impending doom, in the form of a menacing gas-station attendant right out of Central Casting. After pitching their tent, the couple notices another campsite not far away. The next thing they discover is a traumatized child, seemingly left behind or lost on a path through the forest. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to surmise that the crying child and hulking sociopath have something in common: the disposition of the missing campers. Upon further investigation, Sam and Ian find themselves within the crosshairs of two sadistic locals (Aaron Glenane, Aaron Pedersen). If there isn’t much in Killing Ground we haven’t already seen, Power capably orchestrates the frighteningly real dangers of camping in unknown territory.

The Tormenting isn’t a title that carries much weight as a purveyor of horror. If all that evil spirits and monsters did was torment their victims, an entire genre would disappear. The original title of Jaspreet Kaur’s debut feature was “Poignant,” which doesn’t convey a sense of dread, either. Amy (Laura Mitchell) is a medical researcher with ambitions to open her own health-care facility. After visiting a property for sale, she begins to experience visions of a young girl who was raped and murdered there. As the visions evolve, Amy feels less tormented than empowered with the responsibility of pursuing justice for the girl’s death and bringing peace to her soul. The problem is, of course, convincing someone in the police department to take her requests seriously. Kaur does a nice job of establishing chemistry between Amy and the girl’s spirit, and convincing us that something scary really is happening.

Gun Shy: Blu-ray
The Show: Blu-ray
If the folks who bestow Golden Raspberry honors are soliciting nominations for the recently added Barry L. Bumstead Award, they need look no further than Gun Shy. Typically, the prize goes to a film that costs a lot and makes very little money in its extremely limited release. The first two winners were United Passions, a soccer drama that starred Tim Roth, Gérard Depardieu and Sam Neill, and Misconduct, with Josh Duhamel, Alice Eve, Malin Åkerman, Julia Stiles, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins. In Gun Shy, Antonio Banderas plays a famously besotted rock star, who appears to be a composite of Steven Tyler, Ozzie Osbourne and Keith Richards. Newly retired, Turk Henry is wasting away in a Margaritaville of his own creation. His supermodel wife, Sheila (Olga Kurylenko), convinces him to take her on vacation in Chile, which, being in the southern hemisphere, is in its off-season for tourism. The chilly weather doesn’t prevent Turk from grabbing a lounge chair and recruiting a local boy to deliver beer to him. Sheila decides to do some sightseeing, during which time she and a few other visitors are taken hostage by a band of stereotypical guerrillas. As inept as the rebels might be, they’re able to recognize Sheila as a valuable possession. Turns out, however, that they’re big fans of her husband’s album, “Metal Assassin,” and treat her like royalty. Turk doesn’t mind paying the ransom, but is forbidden from doing so by some State Department types. Nothing else in the remaining hour, or so, makes any sense whatsoever. Curiously, Gun Shy was directed by Simon West, whose resume includes such legitimate entertainments as Con Air, The Expendables 2 and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. On the plus side, Gun Shy takes full advantage of the Chilean locations. The Blu-ray adds interviews and a music montage.

Another candidate for the Bumstead Award could be Giancarlo Esposito’s The Show, which attempts to make a statement about reality shows that put their participants in harm’s way, simply to milk ratings points from jaded viewers. Josh Duhamel plays Adam Rogers, a reality-show host who’s front and center when a spurned contestant shoots the man who rejected her and then kills herself. At first, everyone involved is appalled by what happened on live television. At second glance, however, the ratings for the episode inspire network executive Ilana Katz (Famke Janssen) to order Rogers to host a new show, “This Is Your Death,” in which suicidal viewers are encouraged to kill themselves while the cameras are rolling. Disgusted, Rogers turns the tables on his boss by embracing the blood-thirsty aspects of the production and pushing them to their extremes. Caitlin FitzGerald (“Masters of Sex”) plays the rare reality-show producer with scruples, while Esposito portrays a kind-hearted janitor, who volunteers to participate to help his struggling family survive at any cost. The Show goes completely off the rails when Rogers’ seriously depressed sister (Sarah Wayne Callies), a nurse, throws her hat into the program’s ring. If writers Noah Pink and Kenny Yakkel had done their homework, they would have recognized the futility in trying to mimic themes addressed 40 years ago, in Network, and, later, in Running Man and Series 7: The Contenders. I don’t know who’s advising Duhamel on career choices, but whoever it is isn’t doing the actor (“Las Vegas”) any favors. Losing Fergie probably didn’t help him make better decisions, either. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews.

Whisky Galore!: Blu-ray
Not having seen the original adaptation of Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel, “Whisky Galore,” it’s impossible for me to accurately compare the 1949 Ealing Studios comedy with the new version, starring Eddie Izzard, Gregor Fisher, Sean Biggerstaff, James Cosmo, Ellie Kendrick, Kevin Guthrie and Naomi Battrick. All three were inspired by the true story of the cargo ship SS Politician, which ran aground off the coast of Eriskay, an island and community of the Outer Hebrides in northern Scotland, in 1941. Among other things, the ship was carrying 50,000 cases of whiskey, much of which local islanders claimed for their own purposes before it sank. The movie advances the timeline a couple of years, to 1943, when the legal consignment of the “water of life” has run dry and residents are beginning to panic. What the islanders consider to be a godsend is treated as a loss of revenue by government authorities, who send Customs officials to retrieve the untaxed booze. In addition to the amusing game of cat-and-mouse the locals play with the interlopers, the movie adds a romantic angle featuring the fetching daughters of the local shopkeeper. Without the whisky, any plans for a traditional wedding celebration would have to be postponed until after the war. Critics who’ve seen both iterations of Whisky Galore! cite a palpable shortage of “mischief” in the remake. Perhaps, but I found it entertaining enough to recommend for anglophiles and fans of old-fashioned comedies. The Blu-ray includes interviews with the stars and director Gillies MacKinnon (Hideous Kinky).

The Journey
The Settlers
In His Own Home
For most of the second half of the last century, Americans couldn’t help but be perplexed by news of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and the undeclared war between Israelis and Palestinians. Bombings routinely killed civilians and combatants, alike, in both countries, while men wearing balaclavas destroyed any hope for a lasting peace. Even as the Iron Curtain collapsed and apartheid in South Africa disappeared, practically overnight, those conflicts continued to smolder. Then, in 2006, something miraculous happened. In a move almost as unexpected as President Nixon traveling to Red China, as it was then known, sworn enemies in Northern Ireland sat together long enough to find common grounds for disarming their soldiers and declaring peace. The Journey describes what might have happened when diehard British loyalist Ian Paisley (Timothy Spall) shared a limousine with former IRA leader Martin McGuinness (Colm Meaney), during a break in their stalled negotiations in Scotland. It wasn’t their idea, but the ploy worked. So did the clandestine effort by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his MI-5 staff to monitor what transpired during their hourlong ride to the airport, which was interrupted by a strategic detour in the Scottish countryside. Nick Hamm and writer Colin Bateman probably weren’t made privy to what was said in the limo, but in the hands of Spall and Meaney, it doesn’t really matter. They nail the two men’s distinctive mannerisms and speech patterns, without tipping off the happy ending. Also impressive are Freddie Highmore, Toby Stephens, Catherine McCormack and John Hurt, a great actor who died earlier this year, at 77.

It would be nice to report that Shimon Dotan’s insightful and comprehensive documentary, The Settlers, offered even an iota of hope for a break in the stalemate in the Middle East. It doesn’t. Instead, it measures the depth of the divide separating the Israelis and Palestinians, thanks, in large part, to the proliferation of settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. It provides a seemingly impartial historical overview and geopolitical study of the most daunting challenges facing Israel and the international community, as well as introducing viewers to at least two generations of settlers. The film doesn’t discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contributions to this sad state of affairs or belabor the complaints of Palestinians, which have remained consistent ever since Israel was granted statehood. What’s most pronounced here is the hatred, intolerance and implacability in the voices of the newest settlers, whose enemies include “leftists” in the peace movement and foreign nations pressuring Israeli leaders on making compromises. Also telling is a discussion of the separate, but unequal highway system, which allows settlers to make the journey from their homes to Jerusalem in minutes, while the roads reserved for Palestinians are little more than glorified goat paths. If that doesn’t define apartheid, I don’t know what would.

The United States, of course, hasn’t been immune to such dilemmas. In some ways, we wrote the book on them. Our racial divide continues to widen, and its manifestations have only become that much more apparent with the proliferation of cameras on cellphones, police cars and uniforms. In the 25 years since the Rodney King beating was recorded and fed to an L.A. television station, inescapable evidence of police brutality and cover-ups have mounted exponentially. The terrible event described in Malini Schueller’s In My Own House might have been glossed over successfully by University of Florida police, if it weren’t for videotape and 911-recording evidence. It took persistent cajoling on the part of community activists to push the apologists into the media spotlight, however. After a complaint of a disruption in an apartment complex, heavily armed campus police broke into the apartment of disabled and unarmed Ghanaian doctoral student Kofi Adu-Brempong. Within a minute of entry, he was shot in the face. The officer who shot him, who had previously been caught cruising through town, throwing eggs at residents of a black neighborhood, was neither suspended nor fired for excessive use of force. Instead, an elaborate cover-up – contradicted by the recordings – was concocted by the department, which recently had militarized its approach to law enforcement. The case has since been resolved in the favor of Adu-Brempong, with the family agreeing not to disclose terms of a settlement. As such, In My Own House tells only about three-quarters of the story. It should have widened its scope and added more examples of dangers posed by over-militarized and undertrained police units, when dealing with students and teachers from many different countries and racial backgrounds. As it stands, the doc merely adds fuel to the fire was ignited by the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement.

Into the Night: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
It’s too bad that Susan Seidelman Desperately Seeking Susan, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, all released in 1985, aren’t the property of the same distributor. Besides the coincidence of a common birth year, all three of the stranger-in-a-strange-land dramedies showcased stellar casts and an offbeat approach to introducing their square protagonists – Rosanna Arquette, Griffin Dunne and Jeff Goldblum, respectively – to a bracingly dangerous nocturnal world they had no idea existed. The first two titles took advantage of unconventional locations in Soho, Chelsea and Greenwich Village, while Into the Night made stops at such disparate Los Angeles landmarks as LAX, Frederick’s of Hollywood, the Marina, Randy’s Donuts, Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Tommy’s Burgers and Tiffany & Co. Of the three movies, only Seidelman’s resonated with audiences, especially teenage girls attracted by Madonna and fashion designer Santo Loquasto’s hip thrift-shop costumes. In retrospect, Into the Night can enjoyed far more today for its gimmicks and Landis-ian conceits than as an early example of L.A. noir. In fact, the plot can be reduced to a couple of sentences: an aerospace worker suffering from insomnia (Goldblum) has just learned that his wife has been cheating on him. He escapes into the L.A. night, finding shelter in a parking lot at the airport, where he agrees to help a devious prostitute (Michelle Peiffer) escape a group of Iranian gangsters, who believe she’s in possession of gems stolen from the shah’s wife. He chauffeurs her around town in a Cadillac convertible that belongs to her Elvis-impersonator brother. Mayhem ensues.

The best part, though, comes in keeping track of the cameos by 17 directors, including David Cronenberg, Roger Vadim, Daniel Petrie, Jonathan Demme, Richard Franklin, Amy Heckerling, Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Colin Higgins, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Mazursky, Paul Bartel and Don Siegel; cinematographer Robert Paynter; writer Waldo Salt; FX maestro Rick Baker; seven vintage Playboy Playmates; rockers David Bowie and Carl Perkins; actors Clu Gulager, Irene Papas, Richard Farnsworth, Kathryn Harrold, Bruce McGill and Michelle’s sister, Dedee; and car dealer Cal Worthington. If Into the Night is every bit as messy as it sounds, it also remains entirely watchable. The Shout!Factory remaster features lengthy new interviews with Landis and Goldblum, and an upgraded edition of the award-winning documentary, “B.B. King into the Night,” with concert-like performances from the movie.

The Sissi Collection: Blu-ray
I have a feeling that a lot of old-timers, especially those who still speak a little German at home, will be happy to learn that Film Movement Classics has put a fresh new polish on Ernst Marischka’s “Sissi Trilogy,” which, after their initial release in the 1950s, would become a staple of holiday viewing on Austrian, German, Dutch and French television. At a time when Europe was still reeling from the aftershocks of World War II, Sissi, Sissi: The Young Empress and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress, gave those who looked back with fondness on the glamorous trappings and relative calm of the Austro-Hungarian Empire something to anticipate as Christmas approached. Like Marie Antoinette, the former Elisabeth of Bavaria would become a larger-than-life figure, frequently overshadowing the accomplishments and policies of her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph I. In Sissi, Romy Schneider does wonderful job portraying the future empress as a carefree teenager, who wasn’t expected to do much besides having fun, looking grand at formal gatherings and marrying well. The fix was in for her older sister, Helene (“Néné”), to marry Franz Joseph and produce male heirs for the Habsburg ruler. Instead, as often happens, the young emperor and free-spirited Elizabeth became smitten with each other, overruling the demands of his domineering mother, Princess Sophie. The animosity between the two women continues throughout all three chapters of the trilogy, impacting negatively on the emperor’s state of mind. When Sophie arbitrarily decides to take control of her granddaughter’s upbringing and education – even naming the baby after herself – Sissi threatens to abdicate her crown and move back to her dad’s castle. He ordered his mother to back off his wife, but it was an empty threat. The clash would only be the first of many conflicts that occur in the highly romanticized trilogy. Later, Sissi would also emerge as a respected diplomat in tension-filled relations between Austria and the less couth tribes of Hungary. A more accurate portrayal would have taken into account Sissi’s increasingly bizarre behavior, the traumatic deaths of her children, assassination attempts and the cooling of their once passionate marriage. That, however, would have required another chapter, which Schneider refused to do. The trilogy is beloved, however, for its grandeur and nostalgic portrayal of courtly life before the world wars. The package also contains the 1962 English-language condensation of the trilogy, Forever My Love, to which a theme song by Burt Bacharach was added. Other Blu Ray assets include “From Romy to Sissi,” a 20-minute making-of featurette; rare footage of Sissi’s great-grandson at the movies, taken from the documentary, “Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress”; and a 20-page commemorative booklet, with a new essay by film critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Stay Hungry: Blu-ray
Miracle Worker: Blu-ray
Rock-A-Doodle: Blu-ray
Return of the Ape Man: Blu-ray
Vampire’s Ghost: Blu-ray
S.O.S. Tidal Wave: Blu-ray
Flipper: Season Three: Blu-ray
In addition to the aforementioned The Madness of King George, the folks at Olive Films have stayed busy shipping out nicely restored versions of classics, near-classics and curiosities. If I were to guess, I’d say that Stay Hungry is a movie that indie buffs easily recall for being a distinctly quirky product of the mid-1970s, but few paid to see. A lot of people confuse it with Pumping Iron, a documentary about body builders that arrived a year later, in 1977, and likewise featured a compelling performance by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Others remember it as the movie that convinced casting directors that Sally Field could hold her own in feature films and put Gidget and Sister Bertrille behind her. It also cemented Jeff Bridges’ growing reputation as a potential leading man, whose versatility and unforced charisma were unique among actors his age. Co-writer/director Bob Rafelson was coming off a big commercial and critical success, Five Easy Pieces, and a high-profile bust, The King of Marvin Gardens. Adapted from a novel and screenplay by Charles Gaines, Stay Hungry is centered around a small gym in Birmingham, Alabama, which has the distinction of being a mecca for competitive body builders. It also is the only business preventing a corrupt syndicate from completing a shady, if highly lucrative real-estate deal. Bridges plays a wealthy good ol’ boy, who’s brought on board to grease the skids, but falls hard for the gym’s receptionist, played by Field. Schwarzenegger wouldn’t normally be required to stretch very far to play Joe Santo, the reigning Mr. Austria, who’s in Alabama preparing for the Mr. Universe championships. Here, he’s also asked to play a mean bluegrass fiddle in a backwoods combo and share Bridge’s feelings for the receptionist. Rafelson keeps things interesting by continually adding colorful characters to the mix; choreographing a truly frightening fight in the gym, fueled by ’roid rage and poppers; and, while that’s going on, staging a pose-off in the streets of downtown Birmingham. In my opinion, Staying Hungry was among the best films of a decade known for great stuff and it holds up surprisingly well.

Once one of the most frequently produced plays by high-school drama departments, The Miracle Worker also is a movie that lingers in the mind of Boomers and their parents. So do performances by Patty Duke, as the blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller, and Anne Bancroft as the half-blind teacher who broke through her many walls and became her mentor. I don’t know how many of today’s students are aware of Keller’s remarkable story, which has been retold in a couple of made-for-TV movies. In 1957, when William Gibson’s original teleplay was produced by “Playhouse 90,” Keller was still alive and widely recognized as an author, humanitarian and inspiration for people dealing with debilitating afflictions. (She also was an avowed socialist and anti-war activist.) Two years later, Gibson would revise his teleplay for the Broadway stage. The 1962 film reunited Gibson, Bancroft, Duke and director Arthur Penn. The two men would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Bancroft and Duke won Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. (In Bancroft’s absence, Joan Crawford famously accepted her statuette, primarily to piss off Bette Davis, who was nominated in the same category.) The black-and-white presentation may require an adjustment by younger viewers, but Olive’s audio/visual freshening makes the experience easy to take.

Released in 1991, just as Disney was beginning to get its animation mojo back, Rock-a-Doodle is a story within a story about a rooster named Chanticleer who’s conned by the Grand Duke of Owls into believing that he isn’t responsible for the rising of the sun each day. Ridiculed by the other barnyard animals, Chanticleer (Glenn Campbell) escapes to the anonymity of big-city life. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Christopher Plummer) has succeeded in his plan to bring perpetual darkness and rain to the farmlands. He’s also devised a way for the rooster to enjoy some success as an Elvis impersonator. If he’s to return to the barnyard to save his friends, Chanticleer may have to put his career on permanent hold. Former Disney animator Don Bluth co-directed and co-wrote Rock-a-Doodle.

There has to be an interesting story behind Olive’s decision to send out cleaned up versions of Return of the Ape Man (1944), Vampire’s Ghost (1945) and S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939), none of whose virtues can trump their many cheeseball flaws. They’re fun to watch as guilty pleasures, but, like I said, there must be a solid reason for spending good money on reclamation projects of dubious worth to anyone besides fans of Poverty Row products. In the hourlong “Ape Man,” Bela Lugosi and John Carradine play mad scientists who hope to reanimate a primitive man they find frozen in a glacier, using an experimental treatment and long needle. Rather than attempting to teach the humanoid to communicate, Lugosi decides to save time by doing a partial brain transplant from an unwilling human subject. It works, but not in any way that’s particularly interesting.

At first, second and third glance, Vampire’s Ghost appears to be a rip-off of the Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton thriller, I Walked With a Zombie, which debuted two years earlier. The primary differences between them are the settings – a Caribbean Island vs. an African port city – and nature of the antagonist’s curse. Here, instead of a zombie, the villain is a vampire suffering from a severe case of ennui. Based on an original story by Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep) everything leads to a showdown between humans and the undead in a temple hidden in the jungle, to which the vampire/bartender has lured a virginal white woman. Arlyn Roberts performs a seductive dance that wouldn’t have been out of place in Gilda.

S.O.S. Tidal Wave was released a year after Orson Welles demonstrated how effective fake news can be in freaking out the American citizenry, in “War of the Worlds.” Here, instead of a radio broadcast, news of a killer tsunami heading for New York is delivered by a television reporter. The medium was in its infancy in 1939, so it’s conceivable that a few electronics stores had TVs in their windows, I suppose. That’s only half the story, though. The movie opens with the reporter taking on the boss of a corrupt political machine. When he refuses to be deterred by bribes or threats, the villains promise dire consequences for his wife and son. The fake-news footage of Manhattan being destroyed by the tsunami – perhaps, the first of its kind – was borrowed from the 1933 fantasy feature, Deluge.

Also available from Olive is the third and final season of “Flipper,” a show that ran from 1964 to 1967 and was dubbed an “aquatic Lassie.” The series follows a Bottlenose Dolphin named Flipper, who is the wild pet of Porter Ricks, a park warden, and his sons Sandy (15) and Bud (10). Flipper lives in a lagoon near Ricks’ cottage at Coral Key Park and Marine Preserve. With the Ricks family, Flipper helps protect the park and preserve its wild inhabitants. He is also instrumental in apprehending criminals and thugs. For an aquatic mammal, Flipper is one smart cookie.

PBS: L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables: The Good Stars
In the second installment of Breakthrough Entertainment’s series of made-for-TV movies adapted from L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” Anne Shirley (Ella Ballentine) turns 13, facing a host of new milestones. They include first sleepovers, culinary misadventures and shifting relationships with her BFF, Diana (Julia Lalonde), and academic rival, Gilbert Blythe (Drew Haytaoglu). Through all this, Anne strives to strike a balance between becoming an upstanding, sensible young woman, and embracing her inquisitive and free-spirited nature. Life in Avonlea is never simple. “The Good Stars” was shown on Canadian television earlier this year, with an airing on PBS affiliates here scheduled for Thanksgiving.

The DVD Wrapup and Gift Guide I: Fellini, Ernie Kovacs, Green Acres, Carol Burnett, Person-to-Person and more

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Now that Halloween’s in the rear-view mirror, we can focus on giftable movies and boxed sets of interest to buffs, collectors and geeks. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll offer a few suggestions on DVDs, Blu-rays and books that bear special consideration.

The Voice of the Moon: Special Edition: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to imagine discovering a movie by Federico Fellini that lovers of foreign films haven’t seen at least once. In the case of Arrow Academy’s “The Voice of the Moon: Special Edition” Blu-ray, “discovery” might not be the right term. The Maestro’s final feature has been sitting around in plain sight for more than a quarter-century, just waiting for some distributor to give it a whirl. Better late than never. Based on a novel and screenplay by Ermanno Cavazzoni, “La voce della luna” debuted in Italy in January 1991, but failed to find distribution in the English-speaking world after its screening, out of competition, at that year’s Cannes festival. Two years later, Fellini would be dead and his last few releases all but forgotten. If critics were justifiably underwhelmed by The Voice of the Moon then, there are plenty of good reasons to check it out today. It would be a shame to miss this quintessentially Fellini-esque entertainment, which has been reintroduced in Arrow’s lovely 2K restoration from original film elements. It stars Roberto Benigni, who, a few months later would play a manic Roman cabbie in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, and, in 1997, go on to win a Best Actor Oscar for Life Is Beautiful. He plays Ivo Salvini, a free spirit, who, after being released from an asylum, continues to be guided by voices coming from the wells he regularly inspects. He’s even more obsessed with the moon, which becomes an inescapable force in his life. He sees it in the puddles of waters that collect in the streets after a rain and in the face of his would-be lover, Aldini (Nadia Ottaviani).

Ivo and his motley crew of misfits are lunatics, in the classic definition of the word. On full-moon nights, their eccentricities become even more pronounced than usual. The narrative, such as it is, follows Ivo’s pursuit of Aldini through a fantastical landscape that combines poetry, dreams and ordinary madness. If Benigni is the star of the show, Fellini demands that he share the spotlight with Paolo Villagio, who plays Gonnella, a paranoid old man prone to conspiracy theories. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he resembles Fellini here. The Voice of the Moon may not stand up to comparison with his classic titles, but it contains several genuinely magical tableaux his admirers should find absolutely fascinating. The Blu-ray package includes “Towards the Moon With Fellini,” a rarely seen hour-long documentary on the film’s production, featuring interviews with Fellini, Benigni and Villagio; a “Felliniana Archive Gallery,” with images from the collection of Don Young; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Pasquale Iannone.

Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection
Several generations of television viewers have grown up without an appreciation of Ernie Kovacs’ contributions to the medium and how they still influence improvisational comedians and late-night talk-show hosts, today, 55 years after his untimely death in an automobile accident, at 42. This isn’t to say, however, that we haven’t enjoyed watching ideas advanced by Kovacs in his TV shows and commercials. They’ve influenced Dave Garroway, Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Henson, “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company” and “SCTV.” Most have acknowledged the debt they owe the Trenton-born entertainer. Others may not realize who and what inspired their routines. Shout!Factory has already done a terrific job compiling Kovacs’ work for television – not all of which aired during his lifetime – and introducing the uninitiated to recurring characters like besotted poet Percy Dovetonsils, Teutonic DJ Wolfgang von Sauerbraten and the ill-tempered Miklos Molnar, as well as his wife, frequent guest star and collaborator Edie Adams. For the first time, “Ernie Kovacs: Take a Good Look: The Definitive Collection,” offers all 49 existing episodes of his truly offbeat ABC game show, which ran from October 22, 1959, to February 9, 1961. If it aired today, it would still be considered innovative. The show combined the basic elements of “What’s My Line” with the improvisational challenges of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” Kovacs gives his celebrity panel hints about a secret guest’s identity, frequently in the form of surreal sight gags, blackouts and sketches. The clues don’t always make sense to anyone, except Kovacs, who also created the show’s commercials for Dutch Masters cigars. Appearing regularly throughout the run were Edie Adams, Cesar Romero, Hans Conried and Ben Alexander, with infrequent guest panelists Carl Reiner, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jane Wyatt, Mort Sahl, Jack Carson, Tony Randall, Janet Leigh and Jim Backus. Frankly, though, “Take a Good Look” represents only a small fraction of Kovac’s genius.

Green Acres: The Complete Series
Also from the archivists at Shout!Factory comes “Green Acres: The Complete Series,” which, for the first time, compiles all 170 episodes of the “Petticoat Junction” spinoff and country cousin to CBS’ monster hit, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” All would be purged in 1971, along with such heartland mainstays as “Hee-Haw,” “Mayberry R.F.D.,” “Lassie” and “The Jim Nabors Hour” — as part of the network’s strategy to attract younger, more affluent audiences. There’s no question that the gambit succeeded in upgrading CBS’ demographic appeal to advertisers, even if it would open itself to attacks by conservative politicians for abandoning “family friendly” fare. Ironically, in fall 1972, CBS half-heartedly scheduled a rural drama it expected to fail. The success of “The Waltons” would launch a trend for family dramedies: “Little House on the Prairie,” “Apple’s Way,” “Family” and “Eight is Enough.” “Green Acres,” which ran for six seasons, turned “The Beverly Hillbillies” concept inside-out by transplanting sophisticated city-slickers Oliver Wendell and Lisa Douglas (Eddie Albert, Eva Gabor) into the fertile soil of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Among the running gags are Oliver’s inability to demonstrate the patience he would need to survive his agrarian idyll and his glamorous wife’s ability to adjust to country ways. And, while the producers made no attempt to reinvent the network sitcom, they had plenty of fun tweaking genre tropes. The show also featured some cross-over appearances by characters in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction.” The box adds the pilot episode, with commentary by pop-culture historian Russell Dyball; interviews with Albert from “The Dick Cavett Show” (audio only) and “The Danny Kaye Show”; and select material from the radio show, “Granby’s Green Acres,” which inspired the TV series.

Richard Simmons: Sweatin’ to the Oldies: The Complete Collection: 30th Anniversary Edition
In the nearly 40 years that exercise gadfly Richard Simmons has been in the public eye, he’s been admired as an advocate for healthy living and ridiculed as the clown prince of pop culture. As a frequent guest on talk shows, the 69-year-old New Orleans native has shed countless tears over the abuse suffered by severely overweight Americans and pranced around stages as if to acknowledge his calling as the media’s favorite twink. He played a version of himself on “General Hospital,” when it was the hottest soap on TV, and occupied the center seat on “Hollywood Squares.” Two years after Simmons disappeared from public view, in 2014, the entertainment media went into feeding frenzy, speculating on what he was doing instead of appearing on TV and minding to his newly closed health club. Some feared he was being held hostage by his housekeepers, while others guessed that he was undergoing gender reassignment. (Last month, his suit against the National Enquirer, Radar Online and American Media Inc., for libel and false claims, was dismissed and he was ordered to pay legal fees for the defendants.) It is against this background that Time Warner and has been licensed to release “Sweatin’ to the Oldies: 30th Anniversary Edition,” which followed Jane Fonda’s celebrity-workout tapes to the top of the VHS charts. The energetic six-disc set includes the complete collection of Simmons’ platinum-selling “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” workout programs that paired lively classics from the 1950-60s with low-impact routines and the host’s banter, encouragement and trademark tank tops. The package also contains “Love Yourself and Win: Six Steps to Self-Esteem & Permanent Weight Loss” and 100 minutes of bonus material, featuring an exclusive interview with Simmons; testimonials and success stories from his students; and a 20-page album of personally selected personal photos and memories.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Although the holiday celebration that John Candy and Steve Martin are desperately attempting to make throughout Planes, Trains & Automobiles is Thanksgiving – now known as Black Friday Eve — their ordeal could apply to any weather-impacted event, from weddings or baptisms, to Christmas or Passover. It’s one movie that fits all holidays. To summarize: advertising executive Neal Page (Martin) and curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith (Candy) are forced by circumstances join forces to find another way to get to their Chicago homes, after learning that all flights from New York have been grounded. The title only gives away half of the madness in the mission. One look at the cover art tells you everything else all you’ll need to know about how difficult their collaboration will be. Compared to Neal and Del, Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison are identical twins. The conceit wasn’t all that new, even then – think Laurel and Hardy, Mutt & Jeff, Abbott and Costello — and it’s been repeated several times since 1987. Hughes’ inspiration, fully realized by Martin and Candy, derived from a flight he hoped to take from Chicago to New York, but would be diverted backwards to Kansas. “TP&A” would mark Hughes first departure from directing teen-oriented comedies. The antiquated “R” rating accorded the film by the MPAA owes to a minute-long tirade, during which Neal drops 18 F-bombs on an attendant at a car-rental kiosk … nothing else. In fact, Candy’s character was originally conceived as a vampire, until Hughes wisely decided to drop the horror and build “PT&A” on a foundation of reconstructed odd-couple, road-trip and buddy gags. The writer/director was coming off Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while Martin and Candy were at the top of their game. Paramount’s “Those Aren’t Pillows! Edition” adds an in-depth retrospective on Hughes’ career, featuring interviews with those who worked with him; “Getting There Is Half the Fun: The Story of Planes, Trains & Automobiles”; the featurettes, “John Hughes for Adults” and “A Tribute to John Candy”; and a deleted scene. This is an obvious gift for anyone who hasn’t yet seen the movie.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
Dr. Seuss’ beloved holiday classic is no stranger to DVD and Blu-ray, but aficionados will be happy to learn that its latest Blu-ray iteration has been built around the 2015 “Grinchmas” edition, which provided a necessary visual correction to the lambasted 2009 version. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Deluxe Edition loses only a couple bonus features from the 2009 combo pack, but nothing substantial. It arrives in a plush green cover jacket and optional 4K UHD iteration. (Higher-def technology could be a hot item under the tree this year.) It also features High Dynamic Range (HDR) for brighter, deeper, more lifelike color; commentary with director Ron Howard; deleted scenes and outtakes; the Faith Hill music video, “Where Are You Christmas?”; and a half-dozen vintage featurettes.

The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Lost Christmas
This special presentation from Time Life/WEA — “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Lost Christmas” — contains three uncut episodes from the first four seasons of “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran from 1967 to 1978. In the first show, look for a dancing Santa, Christmas carols, yuletide poetry and a visit to a boozing Kris Kringle at the North Pole. The set also brings together classic sketches, “The Old Folks,“ “Carol and Sis,” “V.I.P” and “The Charwoman”; the classic “Mrs. Peter Piper” courtroom sketch, written by Neil Simon; an “Early Early Show” movie parody; old lovebirds Bert and Molly (Harvey and Carol) exchange a few choice words while they slowly rock themselves into the New Year; Carol and Vicki join the Bob Mitchell Singing Boys for a touching performance of “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?”; pitchmen Garry Moore and Durward Kirby reach out and touch the pocketbooks of parents with an array of ridiculous toys for kids; Jonathan Winters plays St. Nick, as he decides who’s been naughty or nice; Carol and her regular cast of Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence and Lyle Waggoner are supplemented, as well, by Barbara Eden and Steve Lawrence.

A Puppy for Christmas
Just because a movie contains the word “Christmas” in its title there’s no reason to think they’re all created equal. For every White Christmas, Christmas Vacation or The Nightmare Before Christmas, there are a dozen or more holiday pictures that appear to have been shaped by the same cookie cutter and sweetened with the same generous quantities of saccharine. Like new releases A Puppy for Christmas, Christmas With the Andersons and Married by Christmas, they debut on obscure cable channels and are promoted as family-family entertainment. No matter how naughty or nice the characters may be, they’ll be required to overcome a crisis before embracing the true meaning of the holiday, with or without any mention of the Baby Jesus. In the former, a young woman’s life and career are upended after she gifts herself with a puppy. Turns out, her boyfriend is allergic to doggy dander and Noelle (Cindy Busby) adopted Buster knowing the risk it carried to their relationship. She decides to accept a co-worker’s offer to spend the holidays on his family’s farm, where Buster can be as mischievous as he wants to be and, of course, a romance develops between Noelle and her unrefined friend, Liam (Greyston Holt). Naturally, too, when her old boyfriend comes to the farm, begging for forgiveness, she’s required to make another decision that carries some risk with it.  If that doesn’t sound much like a holiday movie, it’s worth noting that Liam’s family grows Christmas trees on their farm. Co-director Justin G. Dyck has also helmed Christmas Wedding Planner, 48 Christmas Wishes, A Very Country Christmas, Operation Christmas List and My Dad Is Scrooge.

In Christmas With the Andersons, Mike and Caroline Anderson (George Stults, Christy Carlson Romano) suffer the kind of economic setback that threatens their reputation for throwing their neighborhood’s grandest holiday parties and lavishing their 10-year-old twins, Brendan and Julia, with great gifts. It isn’t until wacky Aunt Katieam (Julie Brown) pays a visit that Mike comes up with way to salvage Christmas and establish a new set of priorities for family celebrations. Co-writer/director/producer Michael Feifer is also responsible for such holiday-themed movies as Merry Kissmas, A Star for Christmas, The Dog Who Saved the Holidays, A Christmas Wedding TailMy Dog’s Christmas Miracle, The Dog Who Saved Christmas and A Christmas Proposal, as well as profiles of notorious serial killers like Ed Gein, Richard Speck, Ted Bundy, the B.T.K. killer, Albert De Salvo and Henry Lee Jackson.

Like Christmas trees, most seasonal romances are evergreens. Letia Clouston’s made-for-UpTV Married by Christmas (a.k.a., The Engagement Clause”) is no exception. Due to an antiquated clause in her grandmother’s will, an ambitious young executive, Carrie Tate (Jes Macallan), faces the prospect of losing her gourmet food-distribution business to her restaurateur sister, Katie (April Bowlby), if she doesn’t beat her to the altar on Christmas Eve. The problem, of course, is that Katie has a fiancé and Carrie doesn’t. Finding a potential husband without conflicting interests proves to be a problem. Clouston has previously given us A Dogwalker’s Christmas Tale. And, you thought Santa’s elves were busy.

Other new releases:

Person to Person
Quirky doesn’t begin to describe Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, an old-fashioned indie seriocomedy about a dozen, or so, characters we wouldn’t notice if we passed them on the street during a stroll through any one of New York’s boroughs. While the same probably could apply to the people in ensemble pieces by Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph, we’re given more than one reason to care about their characters over the next two hours of screen time. Here, not so much. Defa’s characters are interesting only to the extent that they manage to break the wall of anonymity that blocks strangers from noticing each other in everyday meanderings. To this end, Defa’s decision to mix a few known faces with those of amateurs and underemployed pros also maintains our curiosity. Bene Coopersmith, a record-shop owner in Red Hook, reprises his role of the vinyl collector in Defa’s 2014 short film of the same title. We can’t help but be disappointed when sets out to buy a rare Charlie Parker album, only to discover that he’s become the victim of a scam. If it weren’t for the atypically colorful shirt he’s begun to regret wearing, Bene would be as devoid of personality as the sleeves used to protect records from dust and scratches. He wins us over during a humorously conceived bicycle chase through the streets of Brooklyn. More familiar are Michael Cera (“Arrested Development”), Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”), Philip Baker Hall (“The Loop”) and Michaela Watkins (“Casual”), whose storyline involves an unlikely investigation into a suspicious death that hinges on the placement of the hands of a broken watch. George Sample III plays Bene’s best friend, who’s stuck in a deep depression after misjudging the power of the Internet to exact revenge on his girlfriend. Waifish Tavi Gevinson (“Style Rookie”) plays a high school student, who, after skipping classes with her best friend (Olivia Luccardi), is left more conflicted about her emerging sexuality than before the day started.

Kidnap: Blu-ray
In the 2013 kidnapping thriller, The Call, Hallie Berry played a 911 operator who takes it in her hands to rescue a teen, stuck, for most of the film, in the trunk of her abductor’s automobile, armed only with a cellphone. It made some money, thanks mostly to Berry’s tightly controlled performance and charisma. Not long afterwards, Berry was hired to play a divorced mother whose cute-as-a-button son is kidnaped by someone whose motives are unclear … but not for long. Berry’s Karla Dyson is the quintessential mother who will go to the end of the Earth to rescue her son, before she’ll entrust the task to the local police. In this case, however, we understand how contacting the cops might be a problem. While chasing the kidnaper through the park, Karla drops her cellphone. Having made a visual identification of the woman who grabbed Frankie (Sage Correa), she hops in her minivan and chases the beat-up Mustang across southern Louisiana for most of the next 95 minutes. That isn’t an exaggeration. The pursuit is alternately exciting and ridiculous, as it would be given the location and number of vehicles that get in her way. The ridiculous part comes in watching innocent people get mowed down as if they were well-worn bowling pins. But, that’s OK, because in director Luis Prieto and writer Knate Lee’s story, the end justifies the means. The real stars, after all, are the stuntmen and stuntwomen who risked their lives for a movie whose release would postponed for nearly two years – five times, in all — and given a lukewarm sendoff when it finally did make the theatrical circuit. (According to producer Joey Tufaro, the production crashed 85 vehicles, including seven versions of the minivan driven by Berry in the film.) Chase fans won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Age of Kill
In this far-fetched, if well-choreographed tick-tock thriller from England, a former black-ops sniper, Sam Blake (Martin Kemp), is blackmailed by a masked terrorist into killing six unrelated people in six hours… but there is more to the victims than meets the eye. The terrorist is holding Blake’s daughter (Dani Dyer) as collateral, while he’s also playing another assassin, Lexi (April Pearson), against his enemies. The police are represented by D.I. Hannah Siddiq (Anouska Mond), who makes DCI Jane Tennison look like something the cat dragged into the local nick. Her youthful good looks cause government intelligence agents assigned to the case not to take her seriously. This is only their first big mistake. As if Neil Jones and writer Simon Cluett’s story weren’t sufficiently topical, there’s also a subplot involving a closeted right-wing politician organizing violent protests against immigrants. It’s a bit of a mess, but watchable, nonetheless.

L7: Pretend We’re Dead: Blu-ray
If Andy Warhol were still among the living, he might be tempted to update the observation he made in 1968, “In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” to “In the future, everybody will be overexposed for fifteen minutes.” God knows what he might have to say about Facebook, selfies, Twitter and the Kardashians. Warhol deferred credit for popularizing the term “superstar,” crediting a “friend of mine from New Jersey (who) called herself Ingrid Superstar. … The more parties we went to, the more they wrote her name in the papers, Ingrid Superstar, and ‘superstar’ was starting its media run.” By now, the term “superstar” has become so commonplace that’s completely lost its relevance, even as a marketing tool. What’s 15 minutes of fame, when an Internet page is eternal? Every week, it seems, someone sends me a documentary that chronicles the rise and inevitable fall of a rock band that allowed itself to be filmed in and out of concert, ad nauseum, possibly to remind the members’ grandchildren of their 15 minutes in the spotlight. These rockumentaries also describe microtrends with pop genres – death metal, industrial rock, hard-core — or a city’s contribution to rock’s DNA. While almost all the filmmakers take their subjects way too seriously, some strike a balance between adulation and reality. Sarah Price’s L7: Pretend We’re Dead is such a film.

Culled from more than 100 hours of vintage home movies taken by the band, never-before-seen performance footage and candid interviews with band members and peers in the punk/grunge movements. In its 16 years of existence, L7 couldn’t avoid being pigeonholed as a “girl group” or standard bearer for the “riot grrrl” movement. Price (Summer Camp!) makes it clear from the get-go that L7’s bona fides were every bit as legitimate as any band in Los Angeles’ punk scene of the 1980s or Seattle’s 1990s’ grunge firmament. Donita Sparks, Suzi Gardner, Jennifer Finch and Dee Plakas walked the walk politically, forming Rock for Choice, an advocacy group supported by Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine, while also thrilling the same audiences. Alas, no matter how popular the band was in concert, the rock establishment made it difficult for it to be heard on radio and at festivals, where promoters sometimes treated L7 like a novelty act. L7: Pretend We’re Dead follows the band to the point, in 2001, where it couldn’t justify staying together as a commercial entity, finally disappearing for another 15 years. (It reunited in 2015, playing festivals in the U.S. and Europe.) The home-movie material in the film reminded me a bit of the esprit de corps and slapsticky humor that distinguished the Beatles’ movies and Bob Rafelson’s take on the Monkees’ craze, Head. Also included in the package are outtakes and Krist Novoselic’s 1997 documentary, “L7 The Beauty Process.”

Halo: The Complete Video Collection: Blu-ray
One of the most venerable of all video games, “Halo” has thrived for more than 15 years, even surviving the demise of Sega’s Dreamcast console. It’s spawned four direct sequels and a bunch of spin-off games, as well as novels, toys, live-action shows and animated series and films. “Halo: The Complete Video Collection” includes Blu-ray editions of the previously released “Halo Legends,” “Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn,” “Halo Nightfall” and “Halo: The Fall of Reach,” and the bonus features they carried. It adds two discs with video-based extras and four all-new commentary tracks for the four programs included in the set. The voices are provided by Frank O’Connor, Kevin Grace, Bonnie Ross, Kiki Wolfkill, Corrinne Robinson and Jeremy Patenaude.

The DVD Wrapup: Inconvenient Sequel, Good Catholic, Midwife, Old Dark House, Dawn of Dead, and more

Thursday, October 26th, 2017

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power: Blu-ray
It’s worth remembering that the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, fully 19 years before then-Senator Albert Gore questioned the first Bush administration’s commitment to environmental protection. It was on the NPR program “First Mention” that Gore accused the government of tampering with testimony on global warming from a leading scientist. Like the nitwits spouting the same nonsense today in Washington, Bush administration officials defended themselves by saying there was no consensus on the science of global warming. Before he became consumed with avenging the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would not implement the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1997 that would require nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In 2007, it not only was revealed that the Bush White House had pressured American scientists to suppress discussion of global warming, but had worked to undermine state efforts to mitigate it. Specifically targeted were California’s first-in-the-nation limits on greenhouse gases from cars and trucks. A year earlier, Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth had been released to wide acclaim and $41.6 million in box-office revenues, worldwide, not counting the informational screenings held to promote the film’s message. (Some 50,000 copies were given away to teachers in the United States, via the website.) Gore, the subject of Guggenheim’s “first carbon-neutral documentary,” would share the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An Inconvenient Truth won two Oscars – one for Guggenheim and the other for Melissa Etheridge’s original song – and a pair of Humanitas prizes.

In an early indication of Ivanka Trump’s inability to reason with her father, the First Daughter arranged a meeting between Gore and the President-elect to discuss what was said to be one of her signature issues. Gore called the conversation “interesting,” but it clearly had little or no impact on Trump, who once called global warming a “Chinese hoax.” A month later, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power debuted at Sundance, in advance of a screening at Cannes and worldwide release, beginning in August. It received largely favorable reviews, if not the same commercial response. No one could accuse climate-change activists of having forgotten the importance of proselytizing the issue or writing off Gore’s mission as quixotic. Despite Trump’s backwards stance on the subject – supporting the coal industry, over solar and wind-generated sources – governments and corporate entities around the world have picked up the cudgel of progress and run with it. (For example, motorists driving from L.A. to Las Vegas can’t miss the the giant Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, just south of Primm.) An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power delivers a wide-ranging, visually appealing exploration of where, exactly, the planet is now. Gore serves as a scientist, preacher and tour guide through everything from increasingly dramatic weather patterns – even before the current rash of hurricanes, fires and floods — to the changing attitudes among world leaders and the value of photographing the Earth from space. As such, Sequel delivers a slightly more positive and optimistic message. The Blu-ray arrives in “environmentally friendly” packaging, with a list of “10 ways to act on behalf of the climate” printed inside it. Other extras include the backgrounder, “Effecting Change: Speaking Truth to Power”; the Lyric Video, “Truth to Power,” by OneRepublic; and “Truth in Ten,” from Gore’s family farm in Tennessee.

The Good Catholic: Blu-ray
At a time when the title, The Good Catholic, could have a dozen different connotations, it’s comforting to learn that the good Catholic in question is an idealistic priest suffering from nothing more than an old-fashioned crisis in confidence in his ability to perform the tasks assigned him. In his first feature, Zachary Spicer (“All My Children”) is a perfect fit for the part of the young cleric, Daniel, who, at first, is only caught between two different approaches to the same faith. His mentors at the Bloomington, Indiana, church he serves are Father Victor (Danny Glover), a no-nonsense traditionalist, and Father Ollie (John C. McGinley), a chain-smoking, carb-addicted Franciscan, who wears an IU jersey over his friar’s garb on game days. The differences can’t mask their passion for their calling. Then, along comes the gorgeous, if suicidal redhead, Jane (Wrenn Schmidt), whose late-night confessions pluck Daniel’s heartstrings. She’s a musician, who lays out her feelings in song at a local coffeehouse that the priest begins to frequent, absent his collar. At the same time, Victor and Ollie use Daniel’s qualms as learning tool. Wither the young priest will goest is always in question.

The Midwife
If I had received the screener of Martin Provost’s The Midwife two weeks ago, I could have added it to my review of Moka.  It’s not that they simply share a country of origin – France – but for a pairing of great actresses that borders on thrilling. In Moka, Nathalie Baye and Emmanuelle Devos vied for our absolute attention. In The Midwife, it’s Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. How did we get so lucky? Frot, who also starred in Provost’s 2006 biopic Séraphine, plays a Parisian midwife, Claire, who, one day, out of the blue, is asked by her late father’s former mistress, Béatrice, to reconnect. Claire is as tightly wound and reserved as Deneuve’s character is free-spirited and self-destructive. Their reunion is anything but warm. Too many loose ends were left untied when Béatrice split from her father and Claire suspects her motives for the meeting. Turns out, Béatrice has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and is alone in the world. Claire convinces her to seek a second opinion, which leads to the surgery she should have had months or years earlier. As was probably inevitable, the two women will find some common ground, even as Béatrice’s symptoms begin to return. Claire finds some relief in her garden outside the city, where she strikes up an uneasy relationship with the earthy fellow working the plot next-door. If she can get the flowers in her garden to blossom, maybe the same thing will happen with her new truck-driver friend (Olivier Gourmet) and her father’s former lover. Nothing’s a sure bet, however. Provost appears to be in his element here, working with exceptional actresses playing exceptional women. The Music Box DVD adds an interview with Provost and film festival Q&A with Provost, Deneuve and Frot.

Baby Steps
At 129 subtitled minutes, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s debut feature, Heartstone, risks losing its audience – temporarily, at least – in the splendid scenery surrounding a remote fishing village in eastern Iceland. The tendency to wander has nothing to do with the emotionally charged narrative or excellent ensemble cast, however. Coming-of-age stories involving LGBT youth not only have become commonplace, but the quality of such genre-pushing pictures has also raised the bar on entertainment value. As diverting as the topographical grandeur beyond the borders of Reykjavik is, however, it provides the perfect backdrop for the protagonists’ lonely struggle to come to grips with adolescent sexuality and its place in the isolated community. In this way, at least, Heartstone resembles Brokeback Mountain. Thor and Christian are longtime best friends, whose dreams have yet to be crushed by the alcoholism that’s a byproduct of six months of darkness and everyday Nordic fatalism. Under this summer’s Midnight Sun, however, it’s become obvious to the local teenagers that the innocence and comradery they’ve shared for most of their lives has mysteriously changed. While Thor (Baldur Einarsson) tries to win the heart of Beta (Diljá Valsdóttir), who’s a bit more emotionally centered than either of the boys, Christian decides that it’s time to make his closest friend aware of his love for him. Guðmundsson doesn’t rush or force the issue, relying instead on subtle hints and less-than-overt contact between them. Complicating their situation, though, is the homophobia handed down from adults to their children and Thor’s predicament of having to acknowledge Christian’s feelings, without doing permanent harm to their friendship. It can be argued that Guðmundsson’s decision to push the narrative into the realm of near-tragedy only serves to add length to an already compelling drama. Still, it will only feel gratuitous to viewers of reading subtitles.

A few weeks ago, Olive Films re-released Ang Lee’s 1993 The Wedding Banquet, which describes what happens when the parents of an accomplished Chinese immigrant arrive in New York to arrange a marriage for their son and accelerate the process of adding of a male heir to the family. Barney Cheng’s 2015 rom/dram/com Baby Steps appears to have been built from the same template as that groundbreaking film, right down to the appearance of a Taiwanese mom (Grace Guei, a.k.a., Ya-Lei Kuei), who travels to Los Angeles when she hears that her son, Danny (Cheng), intends to become a father through surrogacy. She knows he’s gay, but isn’t aware of his desire to share the chores of parenthood with his non-Chinese partner, Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton). Once in L.A., mom takes over the process of screening potential candidates for motherhood, rejecting most for trivial reasons … or approving a few Danny doesn’t like. It comes as no surprise, then, when her interference begins to have a negative impact on Danny’s relationship with Tate and he must lay down the law with her. Apparently, Baby Steps’ release had a direct impact on the concurrent debate being waged in Taiwan over same-sex marriage. Producer Li-Kong Hsu also collaborated on The Wedding Banquet, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Eat Drink Man Woman.

The Old Dark House: Blu-ray
The parade of pre-Halloween thrillers and horror flicks continues apace, with some terrific releases of restored classics, genre oddities and other blasts from the past. As far as I’m concerned, the pick of this week’s litter is James Whale’s 1932 chamber piece, The Old Dark House. In addition to a chilling performance by Boris Karloff, the Universal picture featured Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and Elspeth Dudgeon, none of whom were household names yet in Hollywood. Neither was Karloff particularly well known here, even though he had appeared in dozens of films by the time Frankenstein was released in 1931, and, there, he simply was credited as “?” Recognizing these fine actors in early roles is only part of the fun in The Old Dark House. Based on the 1927 novel “Benighted,” by J. B. Priestley, it opens in a way that would become familiar to audiences very soon: a car full of big-city swells risks catastrophe by driving through the Welsh mountains in a fierce rainstorm. When the roads become impassable, they seek shelter in a spooky, unlit mansion not far the highway. After banging on the door for a while, they are “greeted” by Morgan (Karloff), the Femm family’s badly scarred and menacing butler. Horace Femm (Thesiger) is receptive to the Waverton party spending the night, even if his deaf sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), is dead set against it. Before long, the arrival of the overbearing Sir William Porterhouse (Laughton) and his companion, Gladys Perkins (Bond), make it impossible for Rebecca to refuse them the comfort of a warm fire, at least. The Femm mansion may not be haunted in the traditional sense, but, in Whale’s hands, its mysteries and secrets serve the same purpose. Morgan’s monstrous behavior, when drunk, is the perfect capper. The Old Dark House was withdrawn from circulation when William Castle Productions’ was released, in 1963. This film was considered lost until director Curtis Harrington discovered a printable negative in the Universal vaults, in 1968. The Cohen Film Collection’s 4K restoration has ported over previous commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis, and an interview with Harrington on the rediscovery of the film. A new interview with Karloff’s daughter, Sara, has been added.

Dawn of the Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Land of the Dead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In the annals of unnecessary remakes, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) will always be listed among the most redundant of all time. Michael Haneke’s 2007 duplication of his terrifying 1997 Funny Games could be justified for translating the dialogue into English and adding actors familiar to fickle American audiences. Zack Snyder’s 1998 remounting of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead wasn’t particularly necessary, either, but, at least, it made good use of the larger budget and made some money for Universal. Neither picture was required to spend much money on screenwriter fees – why tinker with perfection, after all? – but whatever James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) added to or subtracted from Romero’s 1978 screenplay could hardly be noticed. More apparent was the relocation from Pittsburgh to Ontario and the Universal backlot, both of which stood in for Wisconsin. For Snyder, it opened the door to the effects-heavy 300, Watchmen, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Man of Steel. There was nothing wrong with the casting, either. New faces included Ving Rhames, Sarah Polley, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Kelly, Matt Frewer and Ty Burrell. The Blu-ray adds several new features to the original package, including interviews with Burrell, Gunn and Weber, as well as “Killing Time at the Mall: The Special Effects of Dawn of the Dead,” with special makeup effects artists David Anderson and Heather Langenkamp Anderson.

Romero’s Land of the Dead (2005) wasn’t shot in Pittsburgh, either, but for reasons that probably made more sense to the producers than anyone else. The zombie population here was such that it would have been difficult to tell the difference, anyway. The screenplay was partly based on the original, much longer script for Day of the Dead (1985). It takes place in a contemporary world, in which the walking dead roam a vast uninhabited wasteland and the living try to lead “normal” lives behind the walls of a fortified city. Society is divided between the opportunists who reside in the towers of a skyscraper and the regular folks who eke out a hard life on the streets below. With the survival of the city at stake, a group of mercenaries is called into action to protect the living from the evolving army of the dead, waiting outside the city walls. The cast includes Dennis Hopper, Simon Baker, Asia Argento, Robert Joy, Pedro Miguel Arce and John Leguizamo. In addition to previously available bonus material, the Blu-ray adds new interviews with Leguizamo, Joy, Pedro Miguel Arce and actors Eugene Clark, Jennifer Baxter, Boyd Banks and Jasmin Geljo. One of the returning featurettes, “When Shaun Met George,” describes what happened when Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright paid Romero a visit on the set.

The Lift: Limited Edition Blu-ray
Down: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Like Michael Haneke, Dutch genre specialist Dick Maas was entrusted with the 2001 English-language remake of his killer-elevator epic, The Lift (1983). He needn’t have bothered, because neither Down nor The Lift received a theatrical release here and no one paid much attention to the video iterations. Remarkably, Blue Underground has elected to re-release them in special Blu-ray editions, with a bunch of special features added for good measure. Killer-elevator pictures represent a subgenre of the technology-runs-amok and splatter subgenres, all of which fall under the general heading of horror or sci-fi. Buffs might also consider them to be comedic, but that’s another story. In both pictures, a repairman investigates the faulty elevators in what’s become a high-rise deathtrap. Upon further reflection, he determines that something other than malfunctioning machinery is to blame. Some dark, distorted power – possibly developed by the military — has gained control of the elevator for its own evil design. For some reason, the only other person interested in pursuing the investigation is a nosy journalist. The stars of The Lift included Huub Stapel (Amsterdamned) and Willeke van Ammelrooy (Antonia’s Line), while the U.S. remake features what today amounts to an all-star cast: James Marshall (“Twin Peaks”), a pre- Mulholland Drive Naomi Watts, Edward Herrmann (“The Good Wife”), Michael Ironside (“Transformers Prime”), Dan Hedaya (Blood Simple), Eric Thal (The Puppet Masters) and Ron Perlman (“Sons of Anarchy”). The Blu-ray extras include commentaries with Maas; his short film, “Long Distance”; making-of featurettes; and collectible booklets, with essays.

The Corpse Grinders: Blu-ray
Woman’s Torment: Blu-ray
Prime Evil/Lurkers Blu-ray
Demon Wind: Blu-ray
Blood Beat: Blu-ray
Vinegar Syndrome, which specializes in the restoration and distribution of genre and erotic films from the latter half of the 20th Century, has once again lived up to its mission statement by sending out a half-dozen Halloween-ready titles, ranging from obscure to really obscure. The company puts a lot of time, money and effort into restoring its selections, frequently more than was invested in the original production. VS isn’t the only distribution company involved in such seemingly thankless work – except to buffs and collectors – but the new versions are infinitely better than previous iterations released on VHS from screen captures and crappy negatives.

Of the titles released this week, the most recognizable is The Corpse Grinders, whose reputation is several times greater than the amount of money it pulled in at the box office. The premise is pretty simple, really.  The financially troubled Lotus Cat Food Company is on the verge of closing. To prevent bankruptcy, it’s owner decides to forgo paying for top-quality horse meat or tuna scraps – or whatever it is they put in the tins – and pay grave robbers to provide them with freshly buried cadavers. Cemeteries are never in danger of running out of customers, so where’s the harm? In fact, like their more predatory relatives in the feline family, housecats can become as addicted to human flesh as lions and tigers. Once that happens, they never settle for decaying meat, when fresh alternatives are close at hand, er, paw. It doesn’t go unnoticed by friends of the local humane society. It would be nice to be able to recommend Corpse Grinders on its merits, but director Ted V. Mikels is such a notorious hack that it can only be viewed with an uncritical eye. What’s more interesting is the fact that it was co-written by Bryan Cranston’s father, Joseph – also responsible for Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), Erotica (1961) and The Crawling Hand (1963) – and Arch Hall Sr., known for EEGAH and Wild Guitar. Apparently, audiences were ordered to sign waivers before they entered the theater, asserting they were sane and wouldn’t hold the theater owners liable for brain damage. (They affidavits were hardly necessary.) It also was released in the U.S. as the main attraction in a triple-feature package with The Embalmer (1965) and The Undertaker and His Pals (1966). The drive-in mainstay has been freshly restored in 2k, from recently discovered negative elements. It adds a commentary track with Mikels and grindhouse specialist Elijah Drenner; a video featurette, with Mikels; a stills gallery; and reversible cover artwork.

Another exploitation legend, Roberta Findlay, is represented by three pictures that blend blood, gore, horror and nudity, in various measures. They’re all on full display in A Woman’s Torment (1977), which she wrote and directed as Robert W. Norman and she cites as the first “hard-core horror film.” Also included in the VS package is a soft-core alternative, which I can’t imagine would be of value to anyone except scholars at religious institutions. In it, Don (Jeffrey Hurst) and his wife, Frances (Crystal Sync), are finding it difficult to keep their marriage healthy, while also taking care of Frances’s mentally ill sister, Karen (Tara Chung). When Karen overhears them discussing having her committed to an asylum, she runs away, taking refuge in an empty house on a remote beach. In her twisted mind, everyone who crosses paths with her there is either a potential lover or predator, worthy of being murdered. Findlay is said to have been influenced by Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a conceit that someone relatively new to the exploitation game could admit. Considering that it was released before the so-called Golden Age of porn, A Woman’s Torment is pretty good.

Findlay’s other two contribution here are from the very end of her career, when she’d stopped during porn and focused on drive-in and straight-to-video exploitation. The nudity has become more or less perfunctory, while the gore and special-makeup effects are put in the forefront. Prime Evil (1988) takes place largely in a Manhattan monastery, which is home to a group of devil-worshipping monks, whose lineage can be traced to the medieval plague years. The monks, some of whom appear to be ageless, are on the lookout for attractive women who could stand making a confession. Once in the monks’ confidence, the women are putty in the hands of Satan’s earthly agents. Also set in the streets of New York is Lurkers (1988), which Findlay shot and directed, as well. When Cathy (Christine Moore) was a girl, she narrowly escaped with her life after witnessing her deranged mother murder her father. Haunted by memories of her macabre childhood, her nightmares turn into a terrifying reality when she’s lured back to her childhood home, only to be transformed into a “lurker.” They are members of the vengeful dead, who seek to terrorize those who wronged them. Both films have been scanned and restored in 2k from the 35mm original camera negative, and include a commentary track with Findlay, marketing material, isolated soundtracks and reversible cover artwork.

Viewers can sleep through the first half of Demon Wind (1990), without missing anything more than what’s already been summarized on the cover. The expository material is so tedious and poorly rendered that you’ll be tempted to write the whole thing off as a harmless waste of time. Once the ghosts, goblins and zombies are introduced, however, it’s almost as if another director stepped in for Charles Philip Moore and found a way to jump-start the picture. The story is set somewhere in the Midwest farm country, where, several decades earlier, something terrible happened to the owners of the property. For most of his life, Cory (Eric Larson) has been tormented by speculation about what happened to his grandparents. Along with a group of friends from college, he returns to the desolate region where they lived, to try and uncover the mystery. Ignoring warnings from the locals that the area is cursed, Cory and his friends soon realize that the legend is true, as the Demon Wind, possesses and destroys them, one by one. Never released on DVD, the film comes to Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in a brand new 2k restoration of its 35mm camera negative. It adds interviews with executive producer Sandy Horowitz, actor Sherry Bendorf Leigh and cinematographer Thomas L. Callaway.

The oddly titled Blood Beat (1983) is another VS release that starts in one direction, before veering off into a completely different genre. The characters all appear to be possessed by one sort of demon or another, but for no reason or purpose that will be apparent to most viewers. Fabrice Zaphiratos’ overreaching thriller is set in rural Wisconsin, where deer hunting season is worshiped like Holy Week in Rome. Not everyone in the farmhouse is comfortable with the ritual, however. Mom is more interested in her paintings than entertaining her guests, who include a young woman who can’t control her orgasms. Out of nowhere comes a mysterious figure, garbed in an elaborate Samurai outfit, a wielding a sword that might have been stolen from a fallen warrior and now carries his DNA. Who knows? I don’t. Any state capable of producing Ed Gein, Arthur Bremer and Jeffrey Dahmer is capable of anything. The Blu-ray package adds a commentary and interview with Zaphiratos, and an interview with cinematographer Vladimir Van Maule.

Blood Feast/Scum of the Earth: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Nothing says exploitation like a Herschell Gordon Lewis movie … or two. Arrow Video presents one of his earliest gore-fests in a package that almost puts Criterion Collection to shame. Released in 1964, Blood Feast gave Lewis a brief respite between his early “nudie-cutie” and “nudist camp” successes. To save money, he not only wrote and directed the picture, he also composed the musical score. The special effects may have been primitive, but, in color, the blood and gore were almost too much to stomach. The nudity served the plot … not that anyone was keeping score. Blood Feast made a lot of money for Lewis and longtime partner David F. Friedman. As for the story, well, Dorothy Fremont (Lyn Bolton) wants to throw a party unlike any other, so she hires sinister Fuad Ramses to cater the event. Promising to provide her guests with an authentic Egyptian feast, Ramses (Mal Arnold) sets about acquiring the necessary ingredients: the body parts of nubile young women. Scum of the Earth (1963) plays like an expose of the “body modeling” industry, in which pretty girls are lured by the promise of easy money and, then, trapped into revealing more of their bodies than they intended. It’s Lewis’ last black-and-white film. The package adds “Blood Perspectives: Filmmakers Nicholas McCarthy and Rodney Ascher on Blood Feast”; “Herschell’s History,” an archival interview, in which Lewis discusses his entry into the film industry; “How Herschell Found his Niche,” a new interview with Lewis discussing his early work; a lively archival interview with Lewis and Friedman; “Carving Magic,” a vintage 1959 short film, featuring Blood Feast actor Bill Kerwin; outtakes; alternate ”clean” scenes from Scum of the Earth; a promo gallery; commentary featuring Lewis and David F. Friedman, moderated by Mike Grady; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil.

Slaughter High: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Although Slaughter High (1986) is a standard-issue revenge flick, with a few interesting kills and thrills, its backstory is wacky enough to make it stand out from the crowd. For one thing, it took three grown-ups — George Dugdale, Mark Ezra and Peter Mackenzie Litten – to write and direct the 90-minute splatter thriller. It also is the rare American high school picture shot entirely in England, with British actors adopting American accents and some students from back home thrown in for seasoning. Pin-up model and actress Caroline Munro was 35 when hired to play the snooty prom queen. The original title, “April Fool’s Day,” was changed to Slaughter High to avoid clashing with a Paramount project. Otherwise, it’s a revenge-of-the-class-nerd story that plays out at a 5-year reunion. The Lionsgate/Vestron package adds commentary with co-writers/directors George Dugdale and Peter Litten; an interview with composer Harry Manfredini, featuring isolated music and SFX Selections; ”Going to Pieces” featurette, with co-writer/director Mark Ezra; ”My Days at Doddsville,” with Munro; an alternate title sequence; and stills gallery.

Mind Blown
In this Syfy original, a team of telekinetics — code-named Project Mind Blown — has been assembled in a top-secret facility. It was conceived of as a deterrence to Soviet experiments in ESP and mild control. When Cold War ended, the geniuses at the Pentagon decided to retain the program and keep the team handy, just in case it’s needed. The psychics’ may have the power to shake the earth or bring rain to drought-starved areas, but they’ve been assured their abilities will be used to do good for humanity. What fun would that be, though? One day, in Los Angeles, a panic is caused when earthquakes topple buildings and tornadoes fill the sky. When the Special Ops crew flies in to view the damage, it’s as if nothing has happened. Buildings still stand, the ground is whole, but dead bodies litter the streets. It’s like a neutron bomb was dropped. Telekinetic Jennifer Gaines (Jessica Uberuaga) concludes, instead, that a sinister force has stolen the technology and is preparing for an even more cataclysmic event. Like most Syfy movies, Mind Blown is safe viewing for most kids.

Where’s the Money
The University of Southern California is located within a few blocks in any direction from what are purported to be some of Los Angeles’ meanest streets. The campus is buffered somewhat by the Coliseum and several fine museums – as well as the car dealerships and fast-food spots on Figueroa Street – but, every so often, students make the mistake of thinking the area’s safe enough to allow a late-night stroll. News of the sometimes-fatal muggings resonate from USC’s student union and frat row, to the capitals of Asia from which many victims hail. Black-on-black crime in the same neighborhood rarely merits comment in the L.A. Times or TV  news. It isn’t the kind of setting one would normally expect for a comedy, even of the urban persuasion. That didn’t prevent co-writer/director Scott Zabielski (“Tosh.0”) from crafting his debut feature from the juxtaposition of academia and realities of ghetto life. In Where’s the Money, Andrew Bachelor (a.k.a., King Bach) plays a young man from South Central, ordered by his imprisoned father (Method Man) to find the stolen cash he and his brother (Terry Crews) stashed within the walls of what’s now an all-white USC frat house. The only way for Del to accomplish such a feat is to convince the frat boys that they are in dire need of a token black face and he’s the right guy for the task. What he doesn’t expect are the belittling hazing rituals he’s required to undergo to earn their trust. He’s also surprised by the frightening appearance of his thuggish uncle, who demands that Del find the money and turn it over to him, at gunpoint. If that doesn’t sound funny – or remotely plausible – it’s only because it isn’t. The very-decent cast includes Logan Paul (“Foursome”), Kat Graham (“The Vampire Diaries”), Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”), Allen Maldonado (“Black-ish”), Retta (“Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce”) and Devon Werkheiser (“Greek”). If it’s possible for a comedy to be too stupid to be racist, it’s Where’s the Money.

Warrior: Blu-ray, 4K UHD
At the time of Warrior’s release into Blu-ray, I wondered why Lionsgate spent $25 million on a movie set in the world of MMA and UFC fighters, even if the principals were represented by Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte. Typically, such fighting-genre films were made for a fraction of that amount and went straight to DVD, sometimes bypassing Blu-ray altogether. There was nothing wrong with Gavin O’Connor’s merger of unbridled action and family melodrama, but, by then, Nolte had played an alcoholic so often that the novelty had worn off. (O’Connor would go on to make The Accountant.) Edgerton and Hardy play the estranged sons destined to meet in the octagonal ring to settle scores and earn the money they think is due them. Lionsgate has tended, lately, to release 4K editions of movies that wouldn’t seem to warrant such an effort. All of the bonus features from the 2011 Blu-ray appear to have been ported over to the 4K, including commentary, a documentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel, featurettes and “Full Contact: Enhanced Viewing Mode.”

PBS: American Masters: Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive
PBS: Masterpiece: The Durrells in Corfu: The Complete Second Season UK Edition
PBS: Farewell Ferris Wheel
PBS: SAS: Rogue Warriors
PBS: Tolkien & Lewis: Myth, Imagination & the Quest for Meaning
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Pirates of the Caribbean/Saving Private Ryan/Platoon
PBS Kids: Super Why: Sleeping Beauty & Other Fairytale Adventures
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: The Great Snow Rescue
Would Halloween be the same if Edgar Allan Poe never existed? Unlikely. His stories, poetry, art and mystique are so engrained in the American psyche that we’d have to rely on tales of witches, goblins and other leftovers from repressed Puritan superstition. As an editor, author and critic was able to see beyond witch hunts and religious hocus-pocus, to a country frightened over things a satanic messenger couldn’t have imagined. These included overt sexuality, premature death, inexplicable diseases, strained family relations and the many guises of madness. The “American Masters” presentation “Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive” begins its examination of Poe by looking back at his tortured childhood and exploring some of the myths surrounding his literary pursuits, Did he live the kind of life he attributed to others in his books? Was he, in fact, mad … an alcoholic? Perhaps. We do know that, throughout his young life, Poe was surrounded by death and the accoutrements of burial. It was a time when epidemics were commonplace and cemeteries were being reimagined as necropolises … the perfect habitats for ghosts and those souls condemned to walk the Earth forever.  By the time he was heavily in debt. He was expelled from West Point. He admired the work of Lord Byron. In “Buried Alive,” Tony Award-winning actor Denis O’Hare impersonates the author, while historians and literary scholars separate the legends from reality. He shares the reading duties with Chris Sarandon. A making-of featurette and readings are included.

In Season Two of the wonderfully eccentric “Masterpiece” presentation, “The Durrells in Corfu,” sparky English widow Louisa Durrell and her brood continue to put down roots in their dilapidated rented house, alongside an ever-increasing menagerie of animals brought home by youngest son Gerry. Based on Gerald Durrell’s trilogy of Corfu novels, the popular ITV mini-series chronicles the family’s struggle to settle into the community of Greek islanders and pay their aggressive new landlady, Vasilia (Errika Bigiou), who sees Louisa (Keeley Hawes) as a love rival for charming playboy, Hugh (Daniel Lapaine). The Durrells resort to selling typical British produce at the market, but accidentally poisoning the locals isn’t the best way to start a new business. Gerry comes up with a plan to breed otters. Leslie decides to launch his own business after hearing how Pavlos makes his own liquor. Larry leaves home when his novel is published in England. The UK-version includes making-of material and a Series One recap.

Filmed over the span of six years, “Farewell, Ferris Wheel” follows a carnival owner, a labor-recruiter and workers from a small town in Mexico, who join the carnival legally on seasonal visas. It is an honest on-the-ground portrait of the financial, emotional and physical challenges they all face. Increased regulations are compromising this longstanding connection, putting both the industry and its workers in jeopardy.

Journalist and author Ben Macintyre uses the archives of the Special Air Service to examine the history of the famed British Army special forces unit. He combines documents, unseen footage and interviews to tell its story, which began in North Africa, in 1941, when an eccentric young British Army officer had a vision for a new kind of war. “SAS: Rogue Warriors” concludes in 1943, when the service left the deserts of North Africa for mainland Europe, entering a darker and more complex theater of war.

PBS’ “Tolkien & Lewis: Myth, Imagination & the Quest for Meaning” describes a dreary September evening in 1931, when C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their friend and fellow scholar, Hugo Dyson, met for dinner and debate in Lewis’s Magdalen College dormitory in Oxford, England. Lewis’s transformation from atheist to theist to Christian was based on the insights of Tolkien and Dyson, as they engaged in deep conversation about mythology, reality, ritual, imagination and faith. The one-hour documentary explores the fundamental characteristics of myth in a global context, with an emphasis on how it impacts our lives: what traits are common among various cultures and faiths? how does myth inspire the imagination, especially the imaginative process of Tolkien and Lewis? in what ways does faith play into the fantasy and fictional works of Lewis and Tolkien?

PBS has begun distributing select episodes from Smithsonian Channel’s limited series, “The Real Story,” which performs the valuable service of separating fact from fiction in movies “based on true stories.” I say “valuable service” knowing full well that a good many viewers couldn’t care less if what they’re seeing is true or embellished (a.k.a., “poetic license”). The next batch includes
the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Saving Private Ryan and Platoon.

In “PBS Kids: Super Why: Sleeping Beauty & Other Fairytale Adventures,” Sleeping Beauty has decided to lay around and be bored in peace. Super Why and the gang use their literacy powers to encourage her to try new things. Then, the Super Readers help a princess and a frog learn how to compromise and play together. Super Why and his friends also discover the secrets of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” Nickelodeon’s “PAW Patrol: The Great Snow Rescue” follows the gang as it braves snow in an all-new DVD collection. It features seven action-packed adventures.

The DVD Wrapup: Lady Macbeth, Girls Trip, Moka, Chicago, American Gods and more

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Lady Macbeth
If the title of William Oldroyd’s evocative debut feature suggests something Shakespearian, potential viewers should know that the literary inspiration derives from a different corner of Europe entirely, Czarist Russia. Nikolai Leskov’s remarkably durable 1865 novel, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” was introduced in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s magazine, Epoch. In addition to Oldroyd’s variation on the same theme, the book has inspired a “dark and deadly” opera by Dmitri Shostakovich; the ballet, “Katarina Izmailova,” by Yugoslav composer Rudolf Brucci; Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1962 film, Siberian Lady Macbeth; Mikhail Shapiro’s 1967 musical drama, Katerina Izmailova; several stage productions recorded for television; and, in 2016, Oldroyd’s “Victorian noir,” Lady Macbeth. I’d be surprised if Leskov’s novel didn’t inspire some Hollywood screenwriters to borrow some of the story’s proto-feminist themes, as well. In 1865, women from poor families in rural Britain could be sold to landholders to make good their fathers’ debts. They, then, would be held responsible for maintaining the household staff and budgets, making sure chores are completed in proper manner and, of course, producing male heirs. Such was the case of Lady Katherine (Florence Pugh), who had the bad luck of being sold to a brutal colliery magnate, Boris (Christopher Fairbank), who forces her to marry his emotionally challenged son, Alexander (Paul Hilton). Nonetheless, Katherine seems perfectly willing to honor her commitment, even if her new husband is in no mood to consummate the marriage. Father and son both treat her like chattel, constantly reminding her of the debt still owed by her father.

Alexander soon begins taking extended trips outside County Durham, leaving the young and frisky Katherine bored to tears, increasingly bitter and desperate. When the men are away on separate business trips, Katherine embarks on an affair with a handsome groomsman, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), that not only triggers a volcanic desire in her for unbridled sex, but also a willingness to risk a flogging for later displays of insubordination to Boris the staff loyal to him. It’s as if a sympathetic visitor had left a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s recently published “Madame Bovary” within her reach, hoping it would spark Katherine’s desire for something more substantial than practicing her needlepoint and making sure the surfaces are being dusted. When their relationship becomes the subject of village gossip, Katherine concocts plans that would leave her the true head of the estate. Viewers may not be able to precisely identify the peril that looms just over the horizon, but we know it can’t possibly bode well for the weak-willed Sebastian. In an interesting decision, Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch elected to make three key characters of African descent. The story practically ignores their race, leaving the audience to make of the casting what it will. Anyone who’s seen Amma Asante’s Belle, which directly addressed the question of mixed-race children among the landed gentry, will appreciate the conceit. The other surprises to come are best left unspoiled. Although all the actors are good, it’s Florence Pugh – now 21 – who shines brightest. Fans of “Masterpiece” are the target demographic for Lady Macbeth, even if the set design is a tad more austere and the sexuality isn’t shrouded to protect the sensibilities of PBS affiliates here. A making-of featurette is atypically informative.

Girls Trip: Unrated: Blu-ray
These are questions that will keep future generations of film scholars awake at night: if a direct thematic line can be drawn between Neal Israel’s uproarious Bachelor Party (1984) and Todd Phillips’ anarchic blockbuster The Hangover (2009), could a similar connection be made linking Forest Whitaker’s groundbreaking rom/dram/com, Waiting to Exhale (1995) and Malcolm D. Lee’s raunchy girls-gone-wild comedy, Girls Trip, and, if so, did the success of Whittaker’s ensemble take on Terry McMillan’s confessional novel also influence such disparate entertainments as Set It Off (1996), The Best Man (1999), Sex in the City (2008), Bachelorette (2012) and Rough Night (2017)?; and is there an equivalent word for “bromance” to encompass movies about the bonds that connect women? Such questions may sound petty, but they’re no more inconsequential than hundreds of other treatises and dissertations that clog the pipelines of academia. While decidedly different in tone, Girls Trip and Waiting to Exhale both feature ensemble casts of actors popular with so-called urban audiences. Even so, box-office returns suggest they appeal to women across the demographic spectrum. They even found a bit more support overseas than that accorded most other movies with African-American casts.

Girls Trip reportedly is the first film produced, written, directed by and starring African-Americans to cross the $100 million mark. In it, four lifelong friends and sorority sisters (Regina Hall, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah) travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, where one of them will deliver the keynote speech. Problems arise when photos of her husband/partner (Mike Colter), making out with a self-promoting “Instagram skank” (Deborah Ayorinde), surface just hours before a major deal with a corporate entity is to be announced. In the meantime, the ladies hope to take her mind off the dilemma by partying hardy in the French Quarter, which was Las Vegas hundreds of years before Nevada was granted statehood. Fueled on Hurricanes, 200-year-old absinthe and a mutual desire to get laid, they succeed in doing just that. The formula wouldn’t be complete, though, if the raucous set pieces didn’t set up dramatic conflicts and crowd-pleasing displays of empowerment, self-worth and sisterhood later. Even when the gags fizzle, the chemistry between the characters is palpable throughout. The Blu-ray arrives in a theatrical and extended unrated cut, with Lee’s commentary, deleted and extended scenes, outtakes, background and making-of featurettes; a music video; and an extended performance of “Because of You,” by Ne-Yo.

The primary attraction in this slow-burn thriller from France and Switzerland is being able to watch two truly great actresses — Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye – navigate the twists and turns in a mystery as carefully constructed as a French soufflé. Devos is typically convincing as Diane, a woman consumed with grief and a rage over the loss of her teenage son, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Baye, who’s just turned the corner on 69, plays Marlène, the owner of a cosmetics shop in the Swiss spa town of Évian, across Lake Geneva from Diane’s residence. Based on imprecise evidence, she tracks down Marlène and quickly concludes her Mercedes struck her son, causing his death. With the intention of avenging the teenager’s death, she even goes so far as to purchase a gun from a handsome young hoodlum she meets on the ferry from Lausanne to Évian. Once she meets Marlène face-to-face and even allows her the intimacy of applying rehabilitative makeup to her sad face, however, Diane decides to let her investigation take its course. Even as Diane cements her belief in Marlene’s culpability, viewers will begin to sense that something is wrong with her theory. (Watch enough episodes of “Law & Order” and you’ll never approach a movie mystery in the same way.) It’s a joy watching Devos and Baye, who are separated in age by about 16 years, construct their very different characters and milk every bit of suspense from Antonin Martin-Hilbert and Mermoud’s adaptation of Tatiana De Rosnay’s best-selling novel. Francophiles and mystery lovers shouldn’t put off ordering a copy or download of Moka (the color of the hit-and-run vehicle). The Film Movement release adds a revealing interview with Mermoud and, as usual, a fine short, “Le créneau,” also by Mermoud and starring Devos and Hippolyte Girardot.


Shot Caller: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to say how close to reality writer/director Ric Roman Waugh comes in his harrowing prison drama, Shot Caller. In researching the picture, he worked inside a facility very much like the one seen here – the former New Mexico State Prison, outside Santa Fe – and he hired ex-cons for the crowd and riot scenes. So, it looks like the real deal. The head-to-toe tattoos, ever-present shades and slicked-back haircuts favored by the baddest of the bad-asses are pretty scary, too. What bothered me is the characterization of the protagonist, Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), as a onetime Pasadena financial whiz, who had one or two drinks too many at dinner and ended up killing another motorist in a terrible collision. His record was clear, otherwise, and there’s no indication he’s an alcoholic with previous DUI violations. Instead of being sentence to a minimum-security prison with a no-nonsense rehab program and, of course, losing his driver’s license, he’s sent to a gang-infested facility where the concept of rehabilitation went out with rubber bullets and teargas. To survive, Harlan must prove that he can hang with the hard guys. After standing up to a black convict who challenges him, he’s recruited into a whites-only gang whose members are festooned with Nazi symbols tattooed on every bulging muscle of their bodies. (Still, the casting makes it hard to tell the difference between them and the Hispanic homies.)

His baptism by fire comes when ordered to shiv a snitch outside his cell. His subsequent elevation within the gang hierarchy – and accommodations to prison-movie conventions — seem accelerated to fit the film’s parallel storyline, which plays out after he’s paroled. No sooner is Harlon let go than he’s nearly killed in a drive-by shooting and ordered to participate in the transfer of stolen weapons to a Mexican gang. After the attack on his welcome-home party, he drives around L.A. in a borrowed pickup, as if probation comes with a shiny new driver’s license. A brief reunion with his wife (Lake Bell) and teenage son, during which he orders them to forget he ever existed, further tests our empathy. I don’t know if Harlon was modeled after a similarly corrupted convict in real life, but it seems unlikely. Everything else said and done in Shot Caller, however, feels frighteningly real. The causes of recidivism are laid out accurately, as are the reasons some prisoners should never again be allowed to taste freedom. Benjamin Bratt and Omari Hardwick play parole officers who know Harlon is going to wind up back in prison, even before he does. Fans of prison movies should be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to enjoy Shot Caller, which comes with commentary and a decent backgrounder. How it stacks up against S. Craig Zahler’s well-received Brawl in Cell Block 99, I couldn’t say, but comparisons are inevitable.

8 Assassins
Although hundreds of movies have been made in the Kingdom of Morocco, it’s the rare film that features homegrown talent in front of and behind the camera. Audiences around the world are familiar, then, with the country’s topographical diversity, sophisticated resorts, exotic markets and remote villages, but mostly as stopping-off points for actors from different cultures. Morocco’s biggest movie studio is located in Ouarzazate, a longtime crossroads town that sits on a plateau just south of the rugged Atlas Mountains, a frequent stand-in for similar locations in biblical Egypt, Judea and Palestine. Marrakesh native Said C. Naciri, writer/director of 8 Assassins (a.k.a., “KanYaMakan” or “Once Upon a Time”), left Morocco years ago to study at the Los Angeles Film School. He returned to take advantage of the same resources exploited by European and American filmmakers for decades. Naciri describes his sophomore feature as “a mixture of El Mariachi, Indiana Jones and Once Upon a Time in the West,” adding “My film is a bit like a UFO in the Moroccan cinematic universe. … Our goal is to offer an irreverent twist to clichéd views of Moroccan culture and landmarks. It is a mixture of a fable and an action-adventure film, whose primary goal is to entertain.” With a meager $2-million budget, the 100-minute-long production was going to be required to make sacrifices somewhere. The biggest holes I could find were in the narrative, which made me wonder if there was something wrong with my DVD player and it was repeating key scenes over and over, again. I’m not even sure that there were eight, or any, assassins.

8 Assassins tells the story of a bank robbery gone wrong. Amir (Mohamed Elachi) steals the loot from his accomplices and, after a nifty chase through the Kasbah, goes into hiding in a village in the desert. After his requests for refuge are laughingly rejected by the locals, Amir falls into the hands of the tyrannical Sharkan (Affif Ben Badra), who immediately sends him to the jail. It’s here that he meets Shahin (Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni) — head of the oldest and most prestigious local tribe — a wise and cunning man, who may or may not be able to lead Amir to what will be his destiny. After Amir does manage to escape and link up with Shahin’s men – as well as, the gorgeous and chase Aida (Sarah Kazemy) – Shahin bides his time in stir. Can the habitual crook redeem himself and win the hand of the fair maiden? Stay tuned. At the point of Amir’s escape and the introduction of a couple of new characters – possibly for comic relief — the story became unfathomable to me. Fortunately, Vitor Rebelo’s cinematography and Rachid Taha’s music compensate for the lapses. I don’t know if 8 Assassins made a cent outside northern Africa – it debuted at festivals in Tangier and Marrakech – but, all things being equal, its value to the Moroccan film industry might turn out to be immeasurable.

God of War: Blu-ray
In this nearly out of control historical epic, Chinese forces led by General Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) are up to their ears in Japanese samurai pirates and Chinese smugglers. That’s right … samurai pirates. Too bad, the geniuses at Disney didn’t acquire the North American rights for the premise for their latest “POTC” installment, “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which could have used some samurai pirates. The events depicted in Gordan Chan’s God of War actually do have some historical validity. Hung’s character was a respected Chinese general and martial artist during the 16th Century reign of the Jiajing Emperor. He’s best known for countering the wokou pirates along China’s southeastern coast Here, though, the aging Yu has failed for months to defeat the pirates and smugglers, who attack in waves, seemingly out of nowhere. He humbly turns over the reins to the much younger General Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo), who’s something of a tactical genius. The lovely and dangerous Lady Qi (Regina Wan) also contributes to the war effort. Like I said, the action is fast, furious and practically non-stop … even when you wish it would slow down a bit.

Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear: Blu-ray
Red Christmas: Blu-ray
The Atoning: Blu-ray
Lilith’s Hell
Escape Room
Flesh of My Flesh: Limited Collectors Edition
House by the Lake
It’s beginning to look a lot like Halloween, everywhere you go. It explains the lumping together in today’s column of the dozen, or so, horror pictures released this week. “Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear” was made for television here and theaters overseas. Craven was fresh off The Hills Have Eyes and Linda Blair (The Exorcist) was still considered to be a major draw. Based on a book by Lois Duncan, “Summer of Fear” didn’t steer very far from the formula, which required commercial breaks and only permitted modest scares.  Blair plays Rachel, a teenager whose recently orphaned cousin, Julia (Lee Purcell), comes to live with her family. It doesn’t take long before crazy things begin happening to Linda, her horse and people around her. At the same time, Julia gloms unto Rachel’s dad (Jeremy Slate), who doesn’t mind her flirtatious behavior. Rachel comes to suspect that her cousin may be a witch, because she finds some burnt horse’s hair in her cousin’s drawer, a tooth, a photograph with red blotches painted on her face, and a voodoo charm. Of course, Rachel’s fears mostly are ignored. As made-for-TV thrillers go, especially those from the late-1970s, “Summer of Fear” is about as good as it could be. Also on hand are Carol Lawrence, Macdonald Carey and 21-year-old Fran Drescher. As Craven explains in the commentary, he was happy to get the gig, because it elevated him from the depths of indie genre fare and allowed him to join the Directors Guild. It also includes a new interview with Blair, a poster and stills gallery

According to an article published on Slate in January 2014, approximately 515 movies and television shows referenced abortion in their narratives, between 1916 (Where Are My Children?) and 2014 (Wild, among several others). Not surprisingly, the majority of them were released after Roe v. Wade, in 1973. In the decade leading up to that ruling, such notable titles as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Cardinal (1963), Darling (1965), Alfie, Persona and Masculin Féminin (1966), In the Heat of the Night and Valley of the Dolls (1967), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969), Cabaret (1972) and “Maude” in one way or another featured female characters dealing with an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. As reporter Roxanne Khamsi also pointed out, of the 310 movies and TV episodes that featured abortion as a major plotline or an abortion provider as a main character, “a striking 9 percent portrayed the death of a woman after having — or even deciding on — an abortion.” It’s a number, she argues, is way out of whack with real-world statistics. Still, it’s consistent with the Hays Office’s stated view that death – either through suicide or a pre-existing medical condition – was a preferable option to a woman surviving an abortion … of the back-alley variety or performed by a skilled surgeon. All that said, I’ve never seen the subject addressed in quite the same way as it is in the 2016 Ozploitation thriller, Red Christmas. Dee Wallace plays Diane, a woman determined to reunite her feuding family for the holidays. She couldn’t have anticipated the arrival on her doorstep of the hooded figure who claims to be the child she believes was aborted 20 years earlier. Diane had already delivered a baby with Down’s syndrome and didn’t think she could accommodate another one. During the procedure, after she had been sedated, a bomb was detonated at the clinic by an anti-abortion activist, who somehow managed to rescue and raise the seriously deformed child. When Diane refuses to immediately acknowledge Cletus as her child, he turns into an ax-wielding monster obsessed with avenging her denial. If that qualifies as a spoiler, so be it. I wouldn’t want anyone to rent or stream Red Christmas, expecting to see the Dee Wallace they know from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Cujo, 10 or, especially, “The New Lassie.” Writer/director Craig Anderson specializes in inky black humor and satire, some of which is on full display here, in addition to his ability to choreograph gore, suspense and mayhem. The Artsploitation Blu-ray adds commentary; a fresh and funny interview with Wallace, a deleted scene; and bloopers. BTW: at 68, Wallace still looks great, playing a character at least 20 years her junior.

In his sophomore feature, The Atoning, multihyphenate Michael Williams (OzLand) scores points for originality, maintaining a spooky aura and keeping us guessing until the end as to what’s really happening to his characters. At first glance, Vera, Ray and Sam appear to be a perfectly normal family experiencing the kinds of problems other perfectly normal families face from time to time: a seriously bored child, bickering parents, defective plumbing and a house that sometimes seems to have a mind of its own. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that these concerns are anything but normal: no one seems able to leave the house and no one comes to visit; the boy, Sam (Cannon Bosarge), isn’t allowed to partake in outside activities; the father, Ray (Michael LaCour), is at wit’s end about something; Vera (Virginia Newcomb) considers the leaking faucet to be a sign that her marriage has sprung a leak; and the house is either haunted or some kind of bridge to a parallel universe that mirrors their own existence. Once the ghosts begin to manifest themselves, viewers are encouraged to draw conclusions of their own. By the time Williams is required to come up with answers to our questions, however, he decides to take an altogether different tack, merging subgenres likes cars on an on-ramp to the horror highway. If the shift doesn’t entirely spoil the fun, the new arrivals to the party come from way out in left field.

In the found-footage, movie-within-movie thriller Lilith’s Hell, a pair of filmmakers meet in Rome to solicit the wisdom of the legendary exploitation maven, Ruggero Deodato, as they set out to make movie to rival his magnum opus, Cannibal Holocaust. Fat chance of that happening in real life, but it isn’t the worst conceit I’ve heard lately. After taking over one of their producers’ country home and inviting a couple of pasta-fed bimbos to spend the night, they discover to their horror that they didn’t have to work very hard to come up with a gimmick. The house already was haunted beyond their wildest dreams, so, all they had to do, was set up a wall of security cameras and hit the record button. The evil alluded to in the title refers to the curse imposed on Adam’s demonic first wife by God for refusing to submit to him … or be forced to copulate in the missionary position, depending on which version of Genesis one believes. And, once summoned, she a true bitch from hell. Director Vincenzo Petrarolo and writer Davide Chiara have positioned Lilith’s Hell as a mockumentary, but parsing the difference between farce and satire in the subgenre is next to impossible. The DVD adds interviews with the filmmakers and Deodato.

I always have been led to believe that there are people in Hollywood whose job it is to make sure that no two movies carry the exact same title simultaneously. Viewers have a hard enough time trying to keep track of films with Roman numerals in their names, let alone two movies with the same titles, destined for straight-to-video releases in the same season. For the record, the Escape Room being reviewed here is not the one with Sean Young and Skeet Ulrich. In this one, Christen (Elisabeth Hower) gives her turning-30 boyfriend, Tyler (Evan Williams), six tickets for admission to a club tricked out with individual rooms that can only be entered or exited by solving intricate puzzles. It’s a clever idea, even if the owners don’t provide the guests with cocktails. The endgame involves freeing Christen from a cage, in which she’s been locked — naked and alone — in another room. The activities are being monitored by an anonymous fiend, via an elaborate camera network. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that someone could be killed here. The DVD adds commentary, interviews, bloopers and deleted scenes.

There also are two movies called Flesh of My Flesh. One’s apocalyptic and has zombies. The other isn’t dystopian and probably doesn’t feature the undead. This Flesh of My Flesh is described as a psychotropic thriller “set at the tail end of humanity’s last great war of existence.” A helicopter is sent to rescue survivors in far-flung locations and bring them to a makeshift medical facility, where bizarre experiments involving humanoid tapeworms have taken place. Turns out, the rescue team discovers a strain of zombies who are smarter than the average bear and hunt for their food, rather than wait for it to come to them. Writer/director Edward Martin III employs all sorts of video tricks that conceivably became obsolete in the 1970s, when acid trips were supposed to resemble messy video overlaps, jagged edits and audio/visual static. The ghouls are far more straight-forward in their approach to the end times. The signed and numbered collector’s edition contains a 40-minute making-of featurette; official Zombie Hunter ID card; a bonus card for the Hacked Off card game; four bonus short movies: “Animo Korvoj,” “Come to Us,” “Blood” and “Con of the Dead”; commentary tracks; and a music-only track.

The trouble with Adam Gierasch and writer Josh Burnell’s House by the Lake is that the troubled little girl at the center of the mystery is so annoying that we quickly stop caring if she’s carried away by the boogiemen who live in her brain or lured to the home of the nut-job child molester, who lives in a nearby cottage. Even knowing that wee Emma (Amiah Miller) is probably autistic and suffers from night terrors can’t compensate for her unpredictable behavior and blood-curdling screams when touched. Her mother (Anne Dudek) is a control freak, her nanny (Natasha Bassett) is useless, and father (James Callis) is ineffectual. When the shit really comes down, it’s too late to care.

Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit
ReelGore Collection: Blu-ray
The movies in “Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit” aren’t to be entered into lightly or without a good idea of what to expect. They’re as hardcore as anything in the horror genre and his signature titles, Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2, practically define what it means to be “transgressive.” John Waters proclaimed the former, “the first ever erotic film for necrophiliacs.” German film scholar Kris Vander Lugt describes Nekromantik (1987) as “a mix of elements from several genres: splatter, ‘schlock,’ black comedy, exploitation and softcore pornography. The title itself implies a mix of death and romance. It serves as both an ode to necrophilia and an attack on the perceptions of morality of the bourgeoisie.” The collection also includes the suicide anthology Der Todesking: The Death King (1990) and reality-inspired Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993). Anyone willing to sort through the nastier material should have no trouble finding the artistry in Buttgereit’s work. The movies’ cult status was assured as soon as they were banned by several European countries. The nifty Cult Epics package adds a bonus disc, with the “grindhouse version” of Nekromantik; several short films, including “Hot Love” (1983), “Horror Heaven” (1984) and “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein” (2012); interviews and Q&A’s; soundtracks; music videos; commentaries; photo galleries; the documentary, “Corpse Fucking Art” and other goodies. The first 500 copies sold will add an exclusive 40-page booklet.

Cult Epics is also responsible for the “ReelGore Collection,” which is comprised of four recent genre specimens that, while not definitively transgressive, overflow with blood, gore, anti-social behavior, fiendish killers, sharp tools, women in jeopardy and other giallo– and J-horror inspired characters and situations. None of the titles received much, if any distribution in the U.S. and reviews are limited to the genre press. The title of Luigi Pastore’s entry, Violent Shit (2015), pretty much sums up what buffs can expect here. That is, if one doesn’t consider “shit” to be a pejorative term. It is set in Rome and features the heinous serial killer, Karl the Butcher. Andreas Marschall’s Masks (2011) appears to have borrowed some elements of torture from Takashi Miike’s spine-tingler, Audition. It’s set at an acting school that gives new meaning to the Method discipline. Marc Rohnstock’s The Curse of Doctor Wolffenstein (2015) has a more traditional format, in that the titular monster comes back to life after being killed by townsfolks and spending the last 80 years in his grave. Five teenagers on their way to an out-of-town rave are stranded in the same village, just as the decaying Dr. Wolffenstein wakes up from his long slumber. Matt Farnsworth’s The Orphan Killer (2011) is less easy to pin down thematically, but no less violent. A serial murderer is hellbent on teaching his estranged sister what it means to have family loyalty. Throughout her brutal torture, it becomes clear that she’s inherited some of the same violent tendencies as her brother. Each of the entries adds featurettes and/or interviews with cast and crew.

Three O’Clock High: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Phil Joanou, who’s practically made a career churning out music videos for U2, was encouraged to make his feature debut by no less a Hollywood god than executive producer Steven Spielberg, for whom he’d directed a couple of episodes of “Amazing Stories.” If that idea hadn’t worked, Spielberg probably could have turned to DP and “lighting consultant” Barry Sonnenfield, who’d yet to helm his first feature. Three O’Clock High, which borrowed its plot from High Noon, also features other well-known names: executive producer Aaron Spelling, composers Tangerine Dream and adviser Robert Zemeckis. Despite the respective pedigrees, the movie flopped. John Hughes’ films were all the rage in Hollywood and the nod to Fred Zinnemann’s classic Western probably sailed over the heads of its intended audience. Three O’Clock High recently was picked up by the master archivists at Shout!Factory, who worked their magic on the Blu-ray and added fresh bonus features. In it, the school’s new kid, Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), looks as if he just got of the army and is rumored to have a violent history to match. Reporter Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) has been tasked with getting to the bottom of it for the school paper. Instead, he accidentally angers Buddy, who demands relief at exactly 3 p.m., in the school’s parking lot. Jerry spends most of the day wondering if he’ll be alive after the sun sets. The disc arrives with Joanou’s commentary; interviews with the director, screenwriters Richard Christian Matheson and Tom Szollosi (“The A-Team”), and costume designer Jane Ruhm; and a stills gallery.

Meat: Blu-ray
With a population of slightly more than 4.8 million people, and a land mass of approximately 103,483 widely scattered square miles, New Zealand is a country whose economy depends on the food products it exports to countries that can’t sate the appetites of its own consumers. In 2014, agricultural products made up 55 percent of the value of all the country’s exports, with lumber a distant second at 7 percent. The numbers help explain why David White’s informative Meat can’t be viewed in the same light as documentaries made here, rightly condemning the inhumane practices allowed corporate farmers, crowded feed lots and rapid-fire meat packers and processors. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s muck-raking novel, “The Jungle,” exposed exploitative labor and unsanitary conditions in the U.S. meat-packing industry. It caused a public uproar that contributed, in part, to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. As the population migrated from rural America to industrial-based metropolitan areas, those laws and enforcement of consumer-protection legislation was allowed to slide. A spate of films, released in the early-2000s, including Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Food Inc., King Corn, Food Matters, Frankensteer and “Peter Jennings Reporting: How to Get Fat Without Really Trying,” demanded of Americans that they rethink the way they eat. Restaurants made sure diners knew that the chickens on their menus had once enjoyed free-range status – Chipotle offered burritos made of free-range pigs – and the fish caught for their enjoyment were of the sustainable variety. Vegans weren’t buying any of it, of course, vowing never to order anything with a face.

I mention this because Meat is a documentary about a handful of people who supply meat for consumers around the world and a hunter who only eats what he kills. It isn’t meant to counter any of the arguments made in the aforementioned films or make a case for New Zealand exports. If anything, it serves as a reminder of a time when family farms provided everything Americans needed to eat; wildlife wasn’t hunted to the point of extinction; and fishing vessels weren’t large enough to process, freeze and store the fish caught using deep-sea trawls and gill nets. The chicken, pig and sheep farmers we meet don’t rely on volume sales and growth-enhancement devices to make a living, and look the animals in their faces before they’re led to slaughter. As such, Meat reminds me of the school trips that those of us who grew up in the Midwest would make to farms, when cows were milked by hand and chickens weren’t raised in cages. The solitary hunter, who believes everyone needs to be educated about their food, is YouTube and social-media personality Josh James (a.k.a., the Kiwi Bushman). Even if Meat doesn’t sway a single vegan, it’s served its purpose.

Mr. Gaga
It might have been a good idea for Icarus Films, the North American distributors of Mr. Gaga, to consider changing the title of its intriguing documentary, which has nothing to do with Lady Gaga or Queen’s hit song, “Radio Ga Ga.” The closest I could come to a connection between Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, and the silly-sounding word is an Israeli variation on dodgeball, called ga-ga, which is played in a “pit” shaped like an octagon or hexagon. The title derives from a movement language and pedagogy developed by Naharin, during his time with the company. It has defined Batsheva’s training and continues to characterize Israeli contemporary dance. While nearly impossible to define, gaga is as identified with Bathsheba as any visual conceit attributed to Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Bob Fosse or Pilobolus, for that matter. In a 2007 New York Times article, Naharin’s signature style was described as being “distinguished by stunningly flexible limbs and spines, deeply grounded movement, explosive bursts and a vitality that grabs a viewer by the collar.” It can inspire dance that is alternately dramatic, comic, inspirational and patriotic. In Israel, where religious fundamentalists stick their noses into everyone’s business, Naharin’s decisions have also proven to be controversial. Filmed over a period of eight years, Tomer Heymann’s documentary mixes home movies and archival material, with intimate rehearsal footage and concert footage. As pretentious as “gaga” may sound, the dancing itself is accessible to all audiences. The DVD adds extended interviews and scenes.

Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago: Special Edition
Say what you will about the band Chicago, but the truth remains: it’s sold more singles and albums than almost any group in history and has remained viable as a commercial and creative entity for 50 years. The self-described “rock-and-roll band with horns” began as a cover act, before being allowed to perform its own blend of rock, R&B and blue-eyed soul, as Chicago Transit Authority. After moving to L.A., it performed on a regular basis at the Whisky a Go Go and became the opening act for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Its first release, a double album, went platinum, spinning off several enduring hits, and the group was nominated for a Grammy, as 1969 Best New Artist of the Year. So, what in God’s holy name prevented Chicago – the name was changed, so as not to be sued by the city’s archaic mass-transit system – from being voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2016? There really is no good answer to that question, except to point to other essential bands, singers and musicians who’ve been snubbed by the industry goons who control such things. FilmRise’s nearly two-hours-long retrospective, “Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago: Special Edition,” spends most of its time describing – through interviews and concert footage – the group’s incredible rise to the top of the charts and emergence as a stadium attraction. Soon enough, the narrative inevitably turns its view to the band’s Rocky Mountain High period, clash of egos, loss of personnel and inspiration, emergence as a classic-rock staple, and changes in management. The roller-coaster ride wouldn’t end for another 30 years, with the induction ceremony. In all that time, Chicago never stopped selling records and filling venues. It’s all here.

Starz: American Gods: Season 1 Blu-ray
NBC: The Good Place: The Complete First Season
PBS/Amazon: Masterpiece: The Collection: Blu-ray
History: America: Promised Land Blu-ray
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 10, Volume 1
Comedy Central: Lewis Black: Black to the Future
At first, second and, even, third glance, Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel “American Gods” would appear to be as easy to adapt into a mini-series as “Finnegan’s Wake,” “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Absalom, Absalom!” In 2011, a decade after the book was first published in the U.S., by William Morrow, the author was given an opportunity to tweak the original, with a supplementary “author’s preferred text.” It added an additional 12,000 words.  Six years later, the London-based Folio Society published a special collector’s edition of “American Gods,” with corrections to the author’s preferred text version. Morrow published a coloring-book version, to coincide with the launch of the Starz mini-series and, next year, Dark Horse plans to publish a three-part graphic-novel adaptation. No wonder it’s taken so long for the 500-plus-page novel – or, at least, the beginning chapters — to be adapted for the small screen. Even Gaiman was unable to decide how the final version should read … or look. It explains why he gave executive producers Bryan Fuller (“Star Trek: Voyager”) and Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) plenty of latitude to translate “American Gods” into an eight-part mini-series. To take the easy way out and describe it as Lynchian simplifies what Gaiman, Fuller and Green have accomplished in this exceedingly ambitious and undeniably trippy entertainment. (I don’t, however, recommend dropping a hit of acid before checking it out.)

The most succinct summarization I’ve read, describes it thusly: “‘American Gods’ is a place where gods—old and new, good and evil—walk among humans; where magic can revive the dead; and where a storm is brewing … one that threatens to bring about a war for the very soul of America.” Close enough. Each episode opens with a flashback to the period in history when the gods of Europe, Africa and the Middle East – the Queen of Sheba, a leprechaun, Odin, Chernobog, Anubis, Jinn, Jesus — first made their way to North America, in the rucksacks carried by several generations of immigrants. The new gods carry such names as Media, Mr. World, Technical Boy and a updated version of Vulcan. Navigating both the netherworld that separates the gods and material world of contemporary America are the con artist, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane); former convict and Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle); Shadow’s dead wife and revenant, Laura Moon (Emily Browning); and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a leprechaun who loses his powers when Laura ingests his lucky charm. McShane is, as usual, deliciously evil. Here, though, he graciously shares the spotlight with such world-class actors – some appearing in multiple roles — as Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Bruce Langley, Corbin Bernsen, Cloris Leachman, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Dane Cook, Fionnula Flanagan, Kristin Chenoweth and Jeremy Davies. The production values are outstanding, as well. The Blu-ray adds several audio commentaries and short making-of pieces, as well as a third disc dedicated to far longer featurettes on the project’s genesis, production and characters. While it’s not for everyone, adventurous viewers should thoroughly enjoy and savor “American Gods.”  The series has been renewed for a second season.

One of the questions raised in “American Gods” is “What happens when we die?” It’s the same query addressed in the NBC sitcom fantasy, “The Good Place,” starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. By comparison to most network comedies, the series is overpopulated with oddball characters and complicated storylines. Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a perky blond saleswoman from Arizona, who’s killed in a bizarre accident involving shopping carts and a truck. A case of mistaken identity finds her in an exclusive afterlife utopia, the Good Place, which is replete with yogurt shops, weird looking houses and people who, in life, earned admission to the paradisiacal suburb of heaven by being good and doing better. The show was created by Michael Schur, executive producer of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Parks and Recreation.” Danson is well-cast as Michael, the architect of the Good Place and arbiter of taste and behavior among the citizenry. The DVD adds commentaries, a table read and background material. “The Good Place” already has launched its second-season run.

The “Masterpiece” presentation, “The Collection,” is the rare PBS mini-series that doesn’t encourage binging. (It’s a co-production of Amazon Prime Instant Video and BBC Worldwide.) Boiled to its essence, the eight-part mini-series is a family drama, set in a post-war Paris fashion house still trying to recover from the country’s post-WWII economic doldrums. The business is spearheaded by clashing members of the Sabine family – played by Brit actors Tom Riley (“Da Vinci’s Demons”), Richard Coyle (“Coupling”), Frances de la Tour (“Vicious”) and American, Mamie Gummer (Cake) – whose nationalities tend to dilute the Parisian setting, which worked pretty well for two recent films about Coco Chanel. Thrown in as diversions are a murder, a missing infant and saboteur. The fashions represent little more than window dressing. Still, fans of prime-time soaps should find the proceeding sufficiently sinister to keep them interested. And, being a British production, viewers should expect to see some nudity — not all of it female – deemed inappropriate for PBS affiliates.

The history of immigration in the United States extends back tens of thousands of years, to when isolated groups of hunter-gatherers tracked herds of large herbivores from Eurasia to Alaska, over a land and/or ice bridge across the Bering Strait. The Paleo-Indians’ pursuit of tolerable weather and a year-long supply of food eventually led them south, past the receding Ice Age glaciers, into what today is known as the Pacific Northwest. Some of the immigrants would travel further south, all the way to Patagonia, while others sought the American Dream in other directions. History Channel’s comprehensive treatise on immigration, “America: Promised Land,” begins with these Native American explorers and ends with the current flow of Asians and Mexicans across our borders. If I were King of the United States, I’d insist that the three-hour documentary become part of the curriculum of all public and private schools. Anyone running for office not only would be required to watch it, but also tested on its lessons.

A lot of time would pass before the next wave of immigrants arrived from Spain and England, in pursuit of religious freedom, gold, fertile fields and forests, peace and, of course, safe places to raise their children. Contrary to what President Trump would have us believe, nothing has changed in that regard since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. (Unless one throws the Fountain of Youth into the mix.) “America: Promised Land” approaches the subject in chronological order, through enhanced maps and graphics and interviews with the descendants of immigrants who chronicled their experiences in letters. Indeed, in one fascinating section, the producers make the point that the introduction of the adhesive postage stamp, in the 1850s, and creation an international postal network, were as crucial to promoting immigration trends as famines, natural disasters and the discovery of gold. While emphasizing the contributions to their new homes made by immigrants, the producers couldn’t help but explore such deterrents as racism, xenophobia and fear mongering. The Statue of Liberty notwithstanding, the only times that the “huddled masses” were truly welcome here was when we needed them to work our fields and factories, or fight our wars. The families of Chinese laborers who risked their lives for the completion of the transcontinental railroad, were made to feel especially unwelcome afterwards. If the truth sometimes hurts, it also can comfort, invigorate and inspire Americans to recall what brought their ancestors here, in the first place.

On this half-season collection, “Ancient Aliens: Season 10, Volume 1,” the venerable show’s producers expose viewers to even more evidence of extraterrestrial intervention on Earth … as if the takeover of the White House by a giant, carrot-topped mutant weren’t sufficient proof. As near as I can figure, however, the episodes represent the output from the first half of Season 12, which ran from April 27, 2017, to June 16, 2017. Maybe, they’re counting on the fingers of Martians. Among the oddities are an aluminum object that resembles the foot of a lunar lander, but inexplicably dates to over 40,000 years ago; a 1,000-year-old mask, discovered in India, that looks identical to the face of a grey alien; and newly uncovered records, from Russia, that indicate an ancient rocket was discovered in Kiev … in 1948. (Feel free to add your own exclamation points.)

I never tire watching Lewis Black work himself into a frenzy of righteous indignation and outright rage against the political machine. Maybe, that’s because I share the same antagonism toward elected officials intent on maintaining the status quo, while accepting every penny thrown their way by the NRA and other lobbyists, and breaking every promise made in their campaigns. A good tongue-lashing is the least they deserve. “Lewis Black: Black to the Future” was taped for airing on Comedy Central at a time when the presidential primaries were still a target-rich environment for killer commentary and rants. I can only imagine what he has to say about President Trump now that he’s been in office for 10 months. Also included on the DVD is a 50- minute bonus program, “The Rant Is Due: Live From Napa.” In it, Black answers questions from the audiences, as relayed by his friend and fellow comic Kathleen Madigan. The format allows him to relax a bit, while fielding queries about a variety of subjects, not just politics.

The DVD Wrapup: Survivalist, Vampyr, Lure, Giallo, Dreamgirls and More

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

The Survivalist: Blu-ray
At a time when dystopian dramas are a dime a dozen, it bears noting when something out of the ordinary emerges. Filmed entirely in a lush forest, near Antrim, Northern Ireland, The Survivalist is just such a picture. After appearing at prominent festivals to rave reviews, Stephen Fingleton’s directorial debut was accorded only a tentative release before being sent to the video after-marketplace. It isn’t difficult to guess why. Set in an indeterminate time and place, after an unexplained energy-related catastrophe, The Survivalist chronicles one unnamed man’s struggle to survive in an environment devastated by famine, overpopulation and desperation. The survivalist (Martin McCann) appears to have prepared for all possible threats to his security, short of nuclear war. He lives in a ramshackle cottage that’s stocked with tools, seeds, repurposed junk, an indoor shower and not much else. His subsistence garden is tricked out with snares and tin-can alarms, and he gets his waters from a nearby river. Instead of allowing his protagonist a make-believe friend, pet or anthropomorphic toy – a la Swiss Army Man, A Boy and His Dog and Cast Away – Fingleton decided to keep things simple. A largely ambient soundtrack substitutes for dialogue, adding no small degree of tension to the man’s enforced solitude. He never leaves the cabin without a shotgun, pistol or knife, so, when something out of the ordinary does occur, it’s dealt with swiftly and with few wasted movements.

About halfway through The Survivalist, a woman (Olwen Fouere) and her teenage daughter (Mia Goth) cautiously approach the garden, hoping they’ll be offered some scraps, at least. They aren’t. Instead, the pragmatic, white-haired Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) guesses correctly that the man might be open to trading the sexual companionship of her daughter, Milja, for food and shelter. Fingleton seals the deal with appropriate dignity and respect for the characters’ plight. Even so, it will be quite a while before the survivalist is comfortable enough in his guests’ company to put down his weapons, even temporarily, and, by then, his own situation has changed drastically. There are, after all, more than three desperate humans left in this little corner of the world. Revealing anything more of the deceptively simple story wouldn’t be fair to potential viewers, so let’s leave it at that. McCann (“Titanic: Blood and Steel”) delivers the kind of penetratingly austere performance that normally would deserve awards consideration. Based on her performance here and elsewhere, the 23-year-old Goth (Nymphomaniac: Vol. II) shouldn’t have to wait very long between gigs, either. The Survivalist was adapted from Fingleton’s similarly disturbing short, “Magpie,” which is included in the Shout Factory/IFC Films package with two other shorts, and making-of material. It probably should be noted that life is rarely tidy in the post-apocalyptic world, and viewers should brace themselves for scenes containing extreme violence and disturbingly amateur medical procedures.

Vampyr: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Unlike F.W. Murnau Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula, whose narrative roots extended back to Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s take on vampire mythology found inspiration in Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella “Carmilla” and other stories from “In a Glass Darkly.” Among other key differences was the introduction of lesbian vampires. Tod Browning’s interpretation of “Dracula” benefitted from all sorts of things that Dreyer lacked in the creation of Vampyr, including studio support, state-of-the-art makeup effects, elaborate sets, wide distribution and an iconic performance by Bela Lugosi. Dreyer might have resorted to shooting on location and casting amateurs, anyway, but there wasn’t much he could do about a miniscule budget and lack of enthusiasm in the European film community. He would rely on in-camera effects and editing-room gimmicks to create an aura of dread and keep audiences on the edge of their seats. He also was forced to entrust the role of “student of the occult” Allan Gray to his financier, Baron Nicolas “Niki” de Gunzburg, known more for being a fashion-plate aristocrat than as an actor. In his first talkie, the great Danish filmmaker also was required to deal with multiple language concerns and state censors. Even so, like Nostferatu and Dracula, Vampyr is still considered to be one of the landmark achievements in the international cinema.

The story is set in Courtempierre, a village outside Paris, where Gray has found shelter in a local inn. He is awakened from a deep sleep by an elderly gentleman, who enters the locked room to leave a packet on the table. The only hint at what it contains is the notation, “To be opened upon my death.” Now fully awake, Gray grabs the package and walks outside, where shadows guide him to a castle inhabited by an elderly woman, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gerard); the courier and his family; and a weird doctor with an Albert Einstein hairdo. It doesn’t take Gray long to realize that Chopin’s at least partially responsible for the town’s recent series of murders and his arrival there is anything but coincidental. In fact, he’ll be called upon to rescue the Lord of the Manner’s daughters, Léone and Gisèle (Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel), who will become the undead fiend’s latest victims if he fails to drive a stake in her heart before the next day’s sunset. Dreyer’s spare approach to the material contrasts vividly with the elaborately staged encounters between Count Dracula and Van Helsing, in Browning’s movie. Neither do his demons much resemble Max Schreck’s Graf Orlok or Lugosi’s Count Dracula. No one was better able to create something out of next-to-nothing than Dreyer, though, and he would employ techniques mastered in previous films, especially The Passion of Joan of Arc, to ratchet up the tension.

Vampyr was greeted by mixed-to-negative reviews and meager box-office returns. Years later, of course, critics and peers would recognize the film’s greatness – likewise, the work of cinematographer Rudolph Maté and composer Wolfgang Zeller – and its impact on succeeding generations of genre, mainstream and arthouse filmmakers. It would take more than 60 years for restoration efforts to catch up with Vampyr’s reputation, however. In the meantime, its public-domain status assured that carelessly edited prints would dominate the market. Criterion’s new Blu-ray special edition features a high-definition digital transfer of the original German version of the film, from the 1998 restoration by Martin Koerber and the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. It adds an alternate version, with English text; commentary by film scholar Tony Rayns; Jorgen Roos’s 1966 documentary, “Carl Th. Dreyer”; a video essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg, on Dreyer’s influences in creating Vampyr; a 1958 radio broadcast, with Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking; a booklet with essays by critics Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, a piece by Koerber on the restoration, and a 1964 interview with producer and actor Nicolas de Gunzburg; and a 214-page book, featuring Dreyer and Christen Jul’s original screenplay and Le Fanu’s source material, “Carmilla.”

The Lure: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
From Criterion Collection – and Poland — comes Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s exceedingly unusual 2015 freak show, The Lure (a.k.a., “The Daughters of Dance Party”). While it defies easy classification, The Lure may best be described as a mashup of various rock opera, horror and fairytale conceits, all in the service of a distinctly Eastern European re-interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” As such, it has far more in common with Dušan Makavejev’s outrageously dark 1981 comedy, Montenegro, and the nightclub scenes in various David Lynch films, than the Disney version, except for the ability of the mermaids in both pictures to sing … wonderfully.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Here, sibling mermaids are lured ashore by a troupe of musicians frolicking in the moonlight. They obviously share the same tastes in music, so, after revealing their ability to absorb their eel-like tails, agree to join them at the local nightclub. Minus their tails, Golden and Silver take on the appearance of anatomically incorrect Barbie dolls, not shy in the least about exposing their pert little breasts and sealed genitalia. (Their vaginas, clitoris and labia are located near the tips of their tails, when fully extended.) The club’s owner immediately senses the value of such a novelty act and invites them to join the band in their cheesy Socialist-era song-and-dance routines. After winning over the audiences as topless oddities and peerless backup singers, the mermaids are given top billing. The nightly revelation of their tails, while lounging in an oversized martini glass, brings the crowds to their feet.

The unraveling of the fairy tale begins when Silver falls in love with the bassist, Mietek, but he sees her as an amphibious sex object, not a woman. Uninterested in common notions of love, Golden appeases her bloodlust by hooking up with nightclub patrons and devouring them with her hideously spiked teeth. It doesn’t take long for police to put out a bulletin on the freakish murders, which usually occur near the river. Golden then meets Triton, a fellow sea creature and singer in a punk band, who tells her that mermaids can be reduced to sea foam if they pursue love affairs with humans. In her pursuit of the handsome blond guitar player, Silver has already decided to have her tail amputated. When Miatek announces his intention to marry a musician he meets in a recording session, Golden demands that Silver cannibalize him before the couple consummates the marriage. How she’ll deal with her broken heart remains questionable until the closing minute of The Lure. The fairy tale is informed by a catchy synth-fueled soundtrack, sleazy set pieces and décors that stretch the limits of glamour in a post-Stalinist society. Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska are absolutely delightful in the takes on the mermaid sisters. In an interview, Smoczynska says that the story echoes her own youth, hanging out in her mother’s nightclub, where she had her “first shot of vodka, first cigarette, first sexual disappointment and first important feeling for a boy.” Screenwriter Robert Bolesto based parts of the story on two friends who frequented nightclubs like the one here. A fascinating making-of featurette includes Smoczynska, actors Mazurek and Olszanska, writer Bolesto, cinematographer Jakub Kijowski, composers Barbara and Zuzanna Wronski, sound designer Marcin Lenarczyk and choreographer Kaya Kolodziejczyk. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; an essay by writer Angela Lovell; and Smoczynska’s short films, “Aria Diva” (2007) and “Viva Maria!” (2010).

Don’t Torture a Duckling: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Suspicious Death of a Minor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Children of the Corn: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Arrow Video comes through, again, with several classic titles of special interest to lovers of Italian giallo and American horror. Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) is Lucio Fulci’s direct follow-up to A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and companion piece to Dario Argento’s eye-popping debuts, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). Unlike most gialli and procedurals of the time, Don’t Torture a Duckling was set in the rural south of Italy, where outsiders are viewed with suspicion; superstition is rampant; and vigilante justice can be as swift as it is frequently misguided. Accidents aren’t accidental, unless a family member is involved, and priests are revered … until they’re not. Here, when the sleepy village of Accendura is rocked by a series of murders of young boys, the superstitious residents are quick to apportion blame.  The local suspects include the local Gypsy witch, Maciara (Florinda Bolkan); an elderly man who crafts voodoo dolls for her; and a simple-minded peeping Tom. The outsiders are represented by a big-city journalist, Andrea (Tomas Milian), and spoiled rich girl, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), who, when she isn’t seducing pubescent boys, teams up with the reporter to follow leads the locals choose to ignore. If the crimes are exceedingly unpleasant to explore, Fulci offers viewers a full plate of red herrings to savor. And, while “Duckling” was a critical success, the shocking presentation of the crimes and insinuations of hypocrisy within the Church effectively caused censors to blackball it in Italy, much of Europe and the U.S. It wasn’t released here or the U.K. for several decades. The controversy rocked Fulci to the core, relegating his output to television adventures and exploitation fare for theatrical release. The Blu-ray package adds new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; “The Blood of Innocents,” a new video discussion with Mikel J. Koven, author of “La Dolce Morte: Vernacular Cinema and the Italian Giallo Film”; “Every (Wo)man Their Own Hell,” a new video essay by critic Kat Ellinger; interviews with Fulci, actor Bolkan, cinematographer Sergio D Offizi, assistant editor Bruno Micheli and assistant makeup artist Maurizio Trani; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Barry Forshaw and Howard Hughes.

Released in 1975, Sergio Martino’s The Suspicious Death of a Minor Too Young to Die straddles the thin line that sometimes separated gialli and poliziotteschi. While the lurid sexuality and graphic killings argued for it to be pigeonholed as a giallo, the systematic police work pushed the film in the direction of a procedural. The addition of comic sidekicks on both sides of the law not only added some relief to narratives, but also the confusion that comes with not knowing if the director has a firm grip on the material. Claudio Cassinelli (The Devil Is a Woman) stars as Paolo Germi, a creepy undercover cop, on the trail of a Milanese criminal enterprise suspected in the brutal murder of an underage prostitute. Meanwhile, another hitman is bumping off witnesses before they have a chance to talk to police. “Suspicious Death” also stars Mel Ferrer (Nightmare City), Barbara Magnolfi (Suspiria) and Jenny Tamburi (The Psychic), and features a script by veteran giallo writer Ernesto Gastaldi (Death Walks at Midnight). The revealing glimpses into Milan’s underclass is quite compelling, as well. The 2K restoration of the film, from the original camera negative, was produced by Arrow Video exclusively for this release, with original mono Italian and English soundtrack. There’s new commentary by Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films”; interviews with director Sergio Martino and cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Chris Malbon; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing by Barry Forshaw.

Arrow has also accorded Fritz Kiersch’s hugely influential adaptation of Stephen King’s short story, Children of the Corn, with a crisp new look, based on a 2K restoration from the original camera negative … or, depending on which press release one believes, a 4K restoration. By 1984, King was well on his way to becoming a marquee attraction, whose every published word would be scrutinized for how they might translate to the large or small screen. “Children of the Corn” first appeared as a short story in the March 1977, issue of Penthouse, alongside articles “The Breaking of a President,” by Nicholas von Hoffman, and “Power Brokers,” by Charles B. Lipsen; an explicit soft-focus pictorial with Polish model Jolanta Von Zmuda; and an interview with Denis Smith. Readers with an aversion to gynecological portraiture could find the short story a year later, in King’s first collection, “Night Shift.” Set in the fictitious rural town of Gatlin, Nebraska, the movie tells the story of a malevolent entity referred to as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows,” which entices the town’s children to ritually murder all the adults and a couple driving across country, to ensure a successful corn harvest. It stars Linda Hamilton (The Terminator) and Peter Horton (“thirtysomething”), as the unfortunate couple, and John Franklin and Courtney Gains, as the adolescent preachers.

Arrow’s Children of the Corn represents the high point of the nine-feature series – most going straight-to-video — which is still commercially viable, even if the new entries bear little or no resemblance to the source material. Neither did George Goldsmith’s screenplay for the first movie, after King’s script was rejected. The package adds commentaries with horror journalist Justin Beahm and Children of the Corn historian John Sullivan, and director Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby and actors Franklin and Gains; the vintage featurette, “Harvesting Horror: The Making of Children of the Corn”; separate interviews with actors Julie Maddalena and John Philbin, producer Donald Borchers, production designer Craig Stearns, composer Jonathan Elias co-star Linda Hamilton, and writers Goldsmith and King; “Return to Gatlin,” which revisits the film’s original Iowa shooting locations; “Cut from the Cornfield,” a piece on the “infamous” lost “Blue Man” scene; “Disciples of the Crow,” a 1983 short film adaptation of King’s story; a storyboard gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by John Sullivan and Lee Gambin.

The Game Changer: Blu-ray
Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Three
You’d think that the looming Japanese invasion of Shanghai, in the early 1930s, would have prevented rival gangsters from killing each other in the city’s streets, nightclubs, banquets and other places of illicit business. The bunds, as the gangs were known, had already been battling for control of the city’s underworld since the fall of dynastic rule, more than a decade earlier. The sight of heavily armed thugs in fashionably cut suits and leather trench coats, heading for the next massacre, might have caused residents to wonder whether the bunds or Japanese represented the lesser of two evils. In Xixi Gao’s explosive, if occasionally perplexing criminal melodrama, The Game Changer, Peter Ho plays Li Zihao, a member of an underground student organization, the Blue Shirts, who have been publicly protesting against the presence of Japanese diplomats and using violence in a futile attempt to delay the invasion. With the help of local mob boss, Tang Hexuan (Wang Xueqi), the Japanese struck back by forcing Shanghai police to break up the protests and either imprison or execute the ringleaders. In a flashback, we see Zihao’s girlfriend, Lan Ruoyun (Ja-Hyun Choo), being hauled off to face execution. When he isn’t being tortured to extract names of student activists, Zihao hones his skills as a killing machine. In a show of biblical strength, he manages to destroy the chamber in which he’s being grilled and escape. He does so in the company of the baby-faced gangster, Fang Jie (Huang Zitao), who is the adoptive son of Tang Hexuan and the fiancé of his daughter, Qianqian (Coulee Nazha).

After Zihao saves Qianqian from an assassination attempt, Tang offers him a job. Zihao has recognized Tang as the man who organized the slaughter of his comrades and senses an opportunity to exact his revenge. To his great surprise, he discovers that Lan is not only still alive, but also Tang’s concubine. It leads him to wonder if she might blow the whistle on him or, perhaps, still has feeling for him. Luckily for action fans, the whole point of this exercise is to kill a lot of people and blow up a lot of cars. In this way, The Game Changer resembles an early gangster melodrama from Warner Bros. What Western viewers won’t know about The Game Changer is that the same story has already adapted several times for television and features. First came the 1980 television series, “The Bund,” which helped to elevate Chow Yun Fat to the ranks of stardom, and inspired two sequels. “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” (“New Bund”) emerged from the same cauldron 16 years later, as did the feature film, Shanghai Grand, which covered much the same territory. Another TV series, “Shanghai Bund,” came out in 2007, reintroducing some of the same characters and storylines as the original television outing. (There are at least four “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” entries on

The never-ending saga of martial-arts trailblazer Bruce Lee continues apace, with “Legend of Bruce Lee: Volume Three.” Danny Chan returns in the final 10 of 50 episodes from the Chinese television series, which chronicled the life, loves and career of the man formerly known as Lee Jun Fan. If the technical values are what one might expect from the product of an incipient television industry, Chan is the real deal. He played Lee in IP Man 3; Brother Sum, in Kung Fu Hustle; and Lightning Hands, in Shaolin Soccer. The lasted DVD compilation picks up at the point where he catches the eye of a Hollywood producer, George (Hazen MacIntyre), who sees great potential in the skilled young master and wants to make him a movie star. Lee discovers that discrimination in the industry runs deep, and he’ll have to fight to achieve his dreams of becoming the first Chinese martial-arts star to achieve worldwide fame.

Wish Upon: Blu-ray
The Poughkeepsie Tapes: Blu-ray
The blurb above the title of Demonic wants potential DVD viewers to know that what’s contained therein is “From producer James Wan, director of The Conjuring.” In England, the wording was far less precise: “James Wan’s Demonic” and “From producer James Wan, director of The Conjuring, Saw and Insidious.” In fact, Wan shared production duties with several other executives on Demonic, while Will Canon (Brotherhood) sat in the director’s chair and co-wrote the frequently effective paranormal-investigation thriller with first-timer Max La Bella and Doug Simon (Brotherhood). That said, it isn’t likely that Demonic will ever be confused with Wan’s previous work. The protagonist of the film is an old house, believed to be haunted by the victims of a locally infamous crime. Years later, a group of amateur ghost-hunters enters the house to test for paranormal phenomena. Their tortured bodies are found by police detective Mark Lewis (Frank Grillo), whose first instinct is to alert psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Klein (Maria Bello) to the discovery of a single survivor. Together, they will employ found footage and digital implements to re-create the murders and see if ghosts or humans killed the students. Suckers for jump-scares and grainy footage should enjoy it more than other viewers.

After six long years in development hell and 11 months after it opened in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, the first adaptation of a novel in Lauren Kate’s four-book Fallen series has found its way to American screens. After a tentative release last month in an unknown number of theaters here – not enough to register on Box Office Mojo — it has been sent out on DVD. (It’s been available on Blu-ray in China since January). Fallen’s been described as a YA/fantasy/paranormal romance, in which the primary characters are either reincarnated souls or fallen angels, with a few clueless humans on the fringes of the narrative. The setting is Sword & Cross, a reform school for atypically attractive juvenile delinquents. Instead of studying foreign languages or learning a trade, the students, none of whom look like teenagers, attend classes on religion, taught by Joely Richardson. Lucinda “Luce” Price (Addison Timlin) has been sent to S&C after being blamed for a fire in which a boyfriend was accidentally killed. She’s haunted by distant memories of things she can’t seem to place and a feeling of undeniable longing for a past lover. No sooner does Luce arrive at the school than she’s involved in a bewildering love triangle between Daniel (Jeremy Irvine) and Cam (Harrison Gilbertson). Any comparisons to the “Twilight” series would be fatuous. Oscar-winner Scott Hicks (Shine) directed Fallen. A sequel is said to already be in the pre-production process, but there’s no good reason to believe the third and fourth installments will ever see the light of day. The DVD adds three featurettes.

One thing that Wish Upon has over Fallen is Joey King, a terrific young actress who not only looks her age, but that of the character she plays in it. At the ripe old age of 18, King’s already earned 54 credits on, including “Fargo” and “Bent.” Here, she plays the teenage protagonist, Clare, whose age is somewhere between 16 and 18. Not all of the other actors disclose their ages on their resumes, but they all look reasonably young … by Hollywood standards, anyway. Wish Upon has been accurately described as a cross between “The Monkey’s Paw” and “Mean Girls.” Clare has become an easy target for bullies at school, especially the Alpha blond (Josephine Langford). She’s embarrassed by her dad (Ryan Phillippe), who makes extra dough by dumpster diving for discarded treasures. One day, he brings home a dirty Chinese music box and gives it to Clare. It grants her several wishes. Naturally, the first ones turn out fine. Inevitably, though, the wishes turn into curses. If you think that the ending will be obvious, think again. It’s pretty good.

After nearly a decade sitting on the shelves at MGM, with only a brief 2014 VOD release, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, has finally arrived on Blu-ray/DVD from Scream Factory. This, despite the film having been completed and its theatrical trailer attached to several widely-released horror films in 2007. In the interim, John Erick and Drew Dowdle raised their genre profile as the team behind Quarantine (an American remake of Rec) and As Above, So Below. It’s possible that this prime example of torture porn was too spot-on to release into a world freaked out by real-life serial killers. Maybe, The Poughkeepsie Tapes was deemed unmarketable. That would have been my call. In it, the Dowdles merge found-footage conceits with the kind of real-crime documentaries that had, by 2007, become a staple of cable and broadcast networks. The Poughkeepsie Tapes looked just real enough to be dangerous. It purports to chronicle investigations into the torture, rape and murders of dozens of men, women and children attributed to the so-called Waterstreet Butcher, who documented his crimes on hundreds on cassette tapes. They were found in the Hudson River Valley home he abandoned just ahead of the cops. In fact, the Dowdles based their serial killer a number of different such criminals, including one from the titular town, Poughkeepsie. Among the selling points here is the casting of actors who look like normal folks doing their jobs or innocent bystanders. The violence depicted derives from the dozens of grainy VHS cassettes seized by authorities. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the Dowdles and actress Stacy Chbosky, who plays a victim of ritual torture; a making-of featurette; and background material.

Dreamgirls: Director’s Extended Edition: Blu-ray
More than a decade after Dreamgirls’ debut on Blu-ray, Paramount has re-released Bill Condon’s acclaimed musical/drama on the same format. It looks and sounds great, but why not a 4K edition? The enhancements include a new DTS:X Master Audio soundtrack, Digibook packaging and a director’s cut that adds about eight more minutes of material. While the 1080p image has not been remastered, it has been tweaked with a more efficient MPEG-4 encode. New bonus material is limited to footage from Jennifer Hudson’s auditions and screen test. A DVD copy of the film and a voucher for a UV/iTunes digital copy are included with purchase. (Apparently, the exclusive Target release adds vintage featurettes that weren’t ported over to the generally-available extended edition.) Fans of old-school R&B will appreciate the upgrades, as the audio/visual presentation really pops. And, yes, Eddie Murphy still has a legitimate case for feeling ripped off by the academy’s decision to give its Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Alan Arkin, in the mostly forgotten Little Miss Sunshine.

Kick-Ass: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Released in 2010, Kick-Ass inspired a series of independently produced and moderately budgeted action comedies that put a revisionist twist on the studios’ mega-budget superhero fare. Reviews were mostly favorable; it did well at the worldwide box office; and emerged as a cult favorite on DVD/Blu-ray. The sequel didn’t do nearly as well. Matthew Vaughn’s irresistible original has been resubmitted in 4K UHD, enhancing an already very good audio-visual presentation with brighter optics and a Dolby Atmos mix. For the record, Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Dave Lizewski, a comic-book fanboy, who decides to take his obsession as inspiration to become a real-life superhero: Kick-Ass. He assembles a suit and mask to wear while fighting crime, ignoring the fact he has no superpowers. His life is forever changed as he inspires a subculture of copy cats and is hunted by assorted violent and unreasonable characters, including an 11-year-old sword-wielding dynamo, Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). The biggest knock on the movie is the intensity of the comic-book violence, much of which is committed by the girl. It’s a legitimate argument.

Dudes: Collector’s Edition: Bluray
With his shaved head and a more than a few extra pounds, 52-year-old Jon Cryer looks more like a bad-boy rock-’n’-roller than he did 30 years ago, while playing “Duckie,” in Pretty in Pink, and fish-out-of-water, Grant, in Penelope Spheeris and Randall Jahnson’s ill-fated “punk-rock Western,” Dudes. Spheeris had just completed a string of edgy theatrical films and docs — The Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, The Boys Next Door and Hollywood Vice Squad – and clearly knew her way around the edges of the hard-rock scene. In a few more years, she would go on to make Wayne’s World and The Beverly Hillbillies, so comedy shouldn’t have been problem, either. In Dudes, Cryer, Daniel Roebuck and Flea play a trio of New York City punkers making their way to California to ride out the apocalypse in warmth and comfort. Before they can make it through Arizona, though, the boys cross paths with a vicious biker gang and their psycho leader (Lee Ving). Coming to their rescue are a pistol-packin’ mama (Catherine Mary Stewart) and a daredevil Elvis Presley impersonator (Pete Willcox). A Western-style showdown, complete with costumes, ensues. Dudes might have been an appropriate vehicle for the comedic and musical talents of the Monkees, but, promoted as a street-wise dramedy, the stars and director were out of their element. Today, Dudes exists more as a curiosity than a fulfilling entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with Robert Richardson’s cinematography, which takes full advantage of Arizona’s scenic grandeur, and a metal-heavy soundtrack. The Shout!Factory collector’s edition includes a surprisingly generous bonus package, as well: lengthy interviews with Cryer, Flea, Roebuck, Stewart, Jahnson and producer Miguel Tejada-Flores, some conducted by the director; a vintage featurette, “Making of Dudes”; and a stills gallery.

Sex in the Comix
Longtime fans of underground comix and graphic novels aren’t likely to learn anything new in Joëlle Oosterlinck’s 2012 documentary, Sex in the Comix. At 52 minutes in length, however, the subject matter keeps things moving in a brisk, forwardly direction – thanks, in large part, to artist Molly Crabapple’s cheerful narration – and, of course, any film that features interviews with cartoonists Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky is going to be worth a look. The couple has lived in France for more than 25 years and probably didn’t have to travel too far for their enjoyable session. His grossly distorted caricatures of women of all ethnic backgrounds have always been a thorn in the side of feminists. Here, he once again explains that he’s always been attracted to women with pronounced breasts and booties and simply can’t help but feel certain sexual urges when in their company. Fortuitously, Aline confides, she fits his definition of the perfect woman. Artist and historian Bernard Joubert fills in the details Crabapple sometimes misses. The funny thing is, where Crumb’s women are drawn to accommodate the fantasies of only a small percentage of male readers, the other artists represented appeal directly to fetishists of both genders, with more generically erotic characters.

Open Water 3: Cage Dive: Blu-ray
Now that Shark Week is a recognized holiday in the United States, South Africa and Australia – what, it isn’t? – it’s become increasingly difficult for filmmakers to find new ways to frighten jaded viewers. Employing the now-tiresome found-footage gimmick doesn’t help much, either. In Open Water 3: Cage Dive, three knuckleheads from California head to Australia coast for a cage-dive encounter with deadly great whites. After attracting a swarm of vicious sharks, their tour boat is destroyed by a massive rogue wave. (The titular cage makes only a brief appearance.) As clouds gather and darkness descends, the three friends – a whiny blond and the two guys she’s stringing along — find themselves alone and defenseless, afloat in the chilly ocean as the toothy beasts begin to circle. They will, of course, become their own worst enemies. Who’s handling the camera duties is anyone’s guess. The Blue-ray adds commentary with co-writer/director Gerald Rascionato and actors Joel Hogan and Josh Potthoff; a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and outtakes.

Armed Response: Blu-ray
Sniper: Ultimate Kill: Blu-ray
Actor-turned-genre-director John Singleton (Blue Crush) has delivered a supernatural thriller that appears to make a statement about how a badly conceived war corrupts everyone involved in its execution. That would be a good thing. Unfortunately, Armed Response’s first hour begs questions like, “When are the zombies going to show up?” and “When is Stephen Seagal going to show up?” The answer to both is, “never.” Could there be a more generic title for an action picture than “Armed Response”? I think, not. In it, a team of uniformed first-responders – including Ann Heche, Wesley Snipes and Dave Annable – becomes trapped inside an isolated military compound, whose artificial-intelligence technology has gone haywire. For a while, they appear to be playing hide-and-seek with a resident population of ghosts. The ante is raised when they discover the mutilated bodies of security personnel. There are ghosts in Singleton’s supernatural thriller, but not of the variety one would expect in such a dire situation. By the time they get there, however, viewers might be forgiven for not giving a hoot. Here’s one surprise I can spoil, though. The familiar-looking prisoner being interrogated early in the movie is no ordinary grumpy bald geezer. It’s Gene Simmons, minus the KISS makeup and looking all of his 68 years old. I didn’t place the face until he introduced himself in a featurette contained in the bonus package. Turns out, Simmons and WWE Studios partnered on Armed Response under the new Erebus Pictures banner. It’s the first in a three-movie deal. Snipes’ Maandi Films is also attached.

Approaching its 25th anniversary as a genre franchise – six of the seven entries, launching on video, DVD or Blu-ray — Sniper shows no signs of slowing down. Although Billy Zane and Tom Berenger have appeared together or separately in all seven installments, it’s easy to see how the time has come for them to step back from the limelight and let fresh blood, including that of Chad Michael Collins, carry the load. In Sniper: Ultimate Kill, Collins returns for a fourth tour of duty as Brandon Beckett, the Marine Corps’ top gun in operations involving terrorists and drug cartels. He plays the son of Berenger’s Master Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Beckett, who’s coordinating strategies with myriad other agencies from Washington to Bogota. Zane’s Major Richard Miller thought it might be fun to reunite the Becketts in another mission that, even if successful, likely wouldn’t stem the flow of drugs to the U.S. or convince a gringo yuppie from sniffing another line. Still, our government persists in trying to do just that. As do countless cocaine-snorting studio executives. This time around, Colombian drug kingpin Jesús Morales pays for the services of a sniper nicknamed “The Devil” to take out his enemies and competitors. He also appears to be testing Beckett the Younger, with a new laser-guided projectile. Oh, yeah, there’s also plenty of female flesh on display, not including that hidden under the combat fatigues of dogged DEA operative Kate Estrada (Danay Garcia). As formulaic as it is, Claudio Fäh’s follow-up to Sniper: Reloaded (2011) is reasonably entertaining.

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Complete Ninth Season
Julio Soto Gurpide’s animated undersea adventure, Deep, adds a sci-fi twist to the usual shenanigans attendant to such entertainments. In 2100, when humanity has abandoned the planet, a colony of extravagant aquatic creatures still thrives in the deepest abyss of the ocean. I guess they didn’t get the memo about only cockroaches and debt collectors surviving the apocalypse. The title character, Deep, is the last remaining Dumbo octopus. He lives in the deepest recesses of the ocean with his two unconditional friends: Evo, a nerdy and clumsy angler fish, and Alice, a neurotic deep-sea shrimp. When an accident destroys their subterranean home, the guardian of the abyss, Kraken, sends them on a perilous journey to find new digs. After teaming up with Maura, a voracious moray eel, they visit the submerged city of New York, the Titanic and the Arctic, facing all sorts of challenges along the way. Throughout the adventure, Deep and his buddies maintain their cool by laughing, singing and bonding in other diverting ways. Clearly, Deep didn’t benefit from the kinds of budgets afforded the makers of The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo, so it would be a mistake to expect the same results. The PG rating was the result of “some mild rude humor and action/peril,” but, I suspect, some parents might be more uncomfortable discussing with their tykes the notion of the world coming to an end. The DVD adds the karaoke sing-along, ”When Love Shakes You Out of Your Shell.”

I don’t know how the folks at Nickelodeon calculate time, so can’t explain why Season Nine of “SpongeBob SquarePants” ran from July 21, 2012, to February 20, 2017, or 4½ years. It was so long that part of the season was filmed in the original screen aspect, while the rest benefitted from HD-Widescreen. Apparently, production on the show was halted halfway through the season, due to work on The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Among the celebrities adding their voices to the 26 shows are Johnny Knoxville, Ernest Borgnine, Tim Conway, Michael McKean, Biz Markie, Frank Ferrante, Bob Barker, Jeff Bennett, Betty White, Aubrey Plaza, Henry Winkler, Jon Hamm and David Lander. Five “Goodbye, Krabby Patty” shorts are included, as well.

Drawn Together: The Complete Collection
PBS: Richard M. Sherman: Songs of a Lifetime
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Wild Winter Creatures!
Lifetime: Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland
By the time Comedy Central launched its animated parody of reality shows, “Drawn Together,” on October 27, 2004, many industry observers believed the genre had reached critical mass and was on its last legs. If only … Little did we know that the plague years of the Kardashians, “Real Housewives,” “Shahs of Sunset,” “American Pickers” and “Celebrity Rehab” were still ahead of us. By the time “Drawn Together” played itself out, on November 14, 2007, the genre had become a parody of itself. Created by Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein, it purported to tell the “true” story of eight archetypal cartoon characters, picked to live together  in a house to see how they would react to certain absurd situations and sitcom crises. Like “Big Brother,” it was presented as a prime-time staple. The housemates include: Captain Hero, a flawed do-gooder, reminiscent of the Saturday-morning TV superheroes of the 1970s; Princess Clara, a religious and bigoted fairytale princess; Toot Braunstein, a pudgy black-and-white heartthrob from the 1920s; “Foxxy Love,” a sexy mystery-solving musician; “Spanky Ham,” a foul-mouthed Internet download pig; Wooldoor Jebediah Sockbat, drawn in the mold of SpongeBob SquarePants; Xandir P. Wifflebottom, a hypersensitive homosexual from the video-game realm, and “Ling-Ling,” an adorable Asian trading card. The show has cameo appearances by famous characters – or reasonable facsimiles thereof — from across the animated spectrum. The plots and humor of “Drawn Together” are adult-oriented, satirical and full of shock comedy. The new set, “Drawn Together: The Complete Collection,” offers the ribald material uncensored. It adds deleted scenes, audio commentary, karaoke sing-a-longs and interviews.

As important to Walt Disney as any of his company’s animators were songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman. If you’ve watched a Disney movie since the release of The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), you’ve no doubt heard a Sherman Brothers composition. If you’ve visited Fantasyland and listened to “It’s a Small World (After All)” – once or a thousand times – you’ll have experienced the “most performed song of all time.” This Emmy Award-nominated PBS special showcases a landmark solo performance by Sherman – his brother passed away in 2012 – and others performed by a brilliant cast of musicians. They include the star of Broadway’s “Mary Poppins,” Ashley Brown, as well as Juliana Hansen, Wesley Alfvin and the Dapper Dans of Disneyland.

In some parts of the country, it’s never too early to prepare for winter. From the popular PBS Kids’ series “Wild Kratts” comes “Wild Winter Creatures.” It invites kids to join Martin and Chris Kratt as they embark on four adventures designed to remind them of what they’ve been missing since the vernal equinox. When Chris loses his creature souvenir collection in the Arctic, will he be able to get his creature treasures back before the evil Zach Varmitech finds them? Chris and Martin confront Varmitech again, when he kidnaps a polar bear cub and a walrus calf, and when he threatens to use an entire walrus herd to mine precious pearls for Donita Donata’s fashion line.

Based on the best-selling book, “Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days,” the Lifetime Original Movie “Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland” is told through the eyes of the King of Pop’s bodyguards, Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Here, Jackson is played by the single-named tribute artist, Navi, who sometimes served as MJ’s body-double. Chad L. Coleman (“The Walking Dead”) and Sam Adegoke (“Dynasty”) stand in for the bodyguards. The story begins in 2006, with Jackson and his children returning to the U.S. from Bahrain, where they’d been staying following his acquittal from child-molestation charges. They moved to Las Vegas in anticipation of landing a concert residency at a Strip casino, but, when that didn’t materialize, his financial team pushed for a more ambitious tour. In fact, even as MJ was going on shopping sprees for the kids, he didn’t have enough available cash to pay his bodyguards. Perhaps, they intended to recoup the money from advances from the book and movie. Both stop short of dealing with Jackson’s final days, preferring to focus on his family life and attempts to recover from his legal troubles. As such, Dianne Houston and Elizabeth Hunter’s “Searching for Neverland” is of a piece with other recent Lifetime biopics.