What R. Lee Ermey was to Full Metal Jacket, J.K. Simmons is to Whiplash. If Miles Teller’s drumming dynamo, Andrew, more closely resembles Matthew Modine’s “Joker” than Vincent D’Onofrio’s “Private Pyle,” it’s only because he’s cognizant of the fact that a drumstick, however well-aimed, is no match for a M14 when it comes to taking out tyrants. And, while the former drill instructor was denied even so much as a nomination, Simmons was rightly awarded the industry’s top honor for his portrayal of the shockingly homophobic sadist, Fletcher. (If these two characters can be believed, gay men have no place in the Marine Corps or a college jazz orchestra.) Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature hits all of the right notes as a crowd-pleasing demonstration of how obsessive behavior needn’t get in the way of terrifically entertaining drum solos, at least. As Whiplash opens, Fletcher discovers Andrew banging away in a rehearsal room at an elite conservatory in New York. Sensing something special in the Buddy Rich-wannabe, he invites the underclassman to join the band representing the school in tournaments. It doesn’t take long, however, for Fletcher to turn Andrew into his personal punching bag.
Fletcher’s outbursts of rage over the imperceptible imperfection of his hand-picked drummer recall Gunnery Sgt. Hartman’s verbal and physical abuse of the clearly imperfect Pyle, who had no business being drafted in the first place. The ferocity of his final response to Hartman’s training methodology is comparable — in a non-violent way – to that demonstrated in Andrew’s amazing drum solo. Chazelle does manage to sneak in some family drama and romance, but it doesn’t last long enough to drown out the music, uninterrupted by the instructor’s impatience. As high as the compositions soar in concert, viewers are left with the question that crosses all borders of professional pursuit. Can the techniques employed by an instructor committed to keeping his troops alive in combat be justified when dealing with musicians, physicists or athletes? (Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, whose tendency to publicly humiliate his star players finally cost him his job, just as easily could have served as a model for Simmons.) Fletcher was driven to discover and mold the rare student who might, under his tutelage, grow up to become the next Charlie Parker. In Andrew, he found the one drummer in a million willing to go the same distance to achieve something resembling perfection. That so many people have turned away from jazz in the last 50 years may be the saddest irony of all. The Blu-ray presentation does a nice job capturing the excitement of the film’s soundtrack and formidable lighting challenges. It adds a lengthy featurette on the art and eccentricities of drumming, based on testimony from leading rock and R&B drummers; the short film that convinced investors to take a chance on a feature; commentary with Simmons and Chazelle; a revealing deleted scene; and a panel discussion from the Toronto International Film Festival.
In the Land of the Head Hunters: Blu-ray
The Connection: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s perused Edward S. Curtis’ photographs of Native American life and culture at the beginning of the 20th Century already understands the sadness and shame that comes with being an unwitting accomplice to genocide. Curtis’ first portrait of a Native American — Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Sealth of Seattle – was shot in 1895, five years after the Wounded Knee Massacre and end of the 60-year-long American Indian Wars and forced removal of tribes from their longtime homes. Hence, all of the photographs of Indians in warrior dress and paint were necessarily staged, so future generations of Americans could respect the “mode of life of one of the great races of mankind … at once, or the opportunity will be lost.” Blessedly, this harmless ruse allowed him to record traditional customs and rituals that survived the scourge of Manifest Destiny. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that Curtis’ work garnered the respect and praise it so richly deserved. It took the release of Milestone’s impeccably restored The Land of the Head Hunters for me to learn that, beginning in 1906, he also captured aspects of the Indian experience on film. Six years later, Curtis would embark on the creation of a theatrical film to dramatize events that occurred before any Europeans had made their way to the shores of British Columbia. He chose the Kwakiutl tribe of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the province’s Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, to re-create that sliver of aboriginal history. (Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North wouldn’t be released until 1922.) The story is comprised of a melodramatic love triangle; a series of deadly skirmishes between clans; and depictions of Kwakwakawakw ceremonial rituals. The protagonist, Motana, falls in love with the woman of his dreams, Naida, while on a vision quest. Any possible relationship is complicated by the fact that Naida already is committed to a sorcerer. The war for her hand threatens the stability of the coastal region, immediately preceding the advance of a Canadian expeditionary forces from Vancouver. Given the standards and technology of the time, “Headhunters” holds ups as well as any film from 1914 and the restoration is nothing short of remarkable. The two-disc Blu-ray package also includes the original musical score; the less-complete 1973 restoration, In the Land of the War Canoes; making-of documentaries from 1979 and 2014; commentary; post-screening Q&As; a photo gallery; and interviews with descendants of the people who acted, danced, sang and helped shoot the film.
With the release of Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, Milestone belatedly adds Volume One to its five-year Project Shirley series already represented by Portrait of Jason and Ornette: Made in America. Released in 1962, it is an adaptation of Jack Gelber’s stage play, in which a group of junkies wait impatiently in a flophouse/studio for the pusherman to arrive with their “shit.” (It’s that word, used several times, completely within context, which censors originally cited for banning the film from exhibition.) The jazz musicians, at least, have their music to keep them occupied during the seemingly endless wait, during which they jab, parry and exchange pointed observations about their habits, mostly. The hipster vernacular alternates between being amusing, scary and painfully repetitive, just as such dialogue might be in real life. Then, once Cowboy finally arrives, their initial flush of excitement steadily devolves into emotional vacancy. Because the cast of The Connection was augmented by such venerable musicians as Jackie McLean and Freddie Redd — both of whom had lost their cabaret cards due to drug charges – everything here rings sadly true. If it frequently feels claustrophobic, imagine how the characters feel as their pain and anxiety kick into gear. There’s no guarantee that fans of Whiplash will find something valuable here, but, at some point in their careers, the musicians we meet there will be tempted to take chemical shortcuts to creativity. If nothing else, The Connection reminds us of the fragility of life for professional musicians, with or without a college degree. Again, the Milestone restoration is terrific, and the presentation is enhanced by “home movies”; a “conversation” with art director Albert Brenner; a behind-the-scenes featurette; the 27-minute “Connecting with Freddie Redd”; a 1959 radio interview; and a pair of 1964 marketing songs: “Who Killed Cock Robin” and “I’m in Love.”
Set both in Tangier and Ketama, the hashish capital of Morocco, Traitors is one of the most unusual and compelling crime thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. Writer/director Sean Gullette might not agree with my comparison of his multi-faceted story to something as generic as a “crime thriller,” but it shouldn’t be construed as a dismissal. Chaimae Ben Acha (Malak) plays Malika, the leader of an all-woman punk band, Traitors, which immediately recalls Russia’s anti-establishment Pussy Riot. Because Morocco is more secular than other Arab countries, the band members can get away with playing their rebellious music in the streets, thanks to a generator and loudspeaker mounted on their ancient VW bus. Dressing in punk attire, however, will always cause parents and on-lookers to look askance at the notion of such personal freedom. Struggling to pay for the material needed to make a music video and demo tape – as well as help her mother beat an eviction notice – Malika attends to the occasional car in the shop of her gambling-addicted dad. One day, she fixes the Mercedes of a man for whom cost is little object. After a coincidental encounter in the street soon thereafter, the well-dressed man offers her a job that involves driving a nice car from Point A to Point B and back again. Seemingly, the only caveat is that Malika agree to buy some conservative western-style clothes and obey the speed limit. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that her mission to Ketema involves hashish and convincing guards at one or two security points that she’s a mere tourists attracted to the mountain greenery. Unlike so many other young women currently imprisoned in Third World prisons for believing the promises of a persuasive stranger, she’s able to suss out the extent to which she’s already committed from her assigned traveling companion. The conclusion to Gullette’s drama may come off as being too pat or contrived for some viewers, but it didn’t bother me. Even if Traitors is his first venture into feature directing, Gullette’s longtime association with Darren Aronofsky pays dividends here. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and the original short film from which the feature grew.
Like Traitors, Maryna Gorbach and Mehmet Bahadir Er’s Love Me is being distributed by the outstanding DVD-of-the-month service, Film Movement. Set in Istanbul and Kiev, it chronicles what very well be a typical pre-wedding ritual for Turkish men about to be married. Although he seems resigned to follow tradition by marrying a woman he’s never met, Cemal (Ushan Çakir) agrees to travel to the Ukraine, where prostitution and go-go dancing appear to be something of a cottage industry. If Cemal isn’t movie-star handsome by Hollywood standards, he stands out from the pack of horny Turks assembled by his uncle, who organizes such junkets. It partially explains why the drop-dead gorgeous Sasha (Viktoria Spesivtseva) picks him out of the litter to substitute for her Russian sugar daddy. Apparently, Sasha desperately wants a baby, which is the one thing the married prick won’t give her, despite his many promises and excuses. She already has all of the creature comforts a modern woman might need, including a luxury apartment, where she takes Cemal for a quickie. All he understands is that he’s going to get laid, as advertised, so when Sasha’s personal life begins to spin out of control on his nickel, he can’t do much more than jump into the passenger seat of her Land Rover and go along for the ride. As could easily be predicted, the language barrier starts coming down when they have to collaborate on finding Sasha’s easily confused grandmother and he gets hauled into jail for smacking an abusive husband, whose wife doesn’t actually desire his help. Eventually, Cemal will reunite with his traveling companions, but not before he and Sasha develop feelings for each other. You might think you know where this trail is leading, but the filmmakers keep their intentions under wraps to the end. Their relationship reminds me a bit of the one that developed between a Swedish psychiatrist’s American wife (Susan Anspach) and a handsome Yugoslavian laborer in Dusan Makavejev’s Montenegro. The Film Movement package adds biographical information and an 18-minute documentary, “The Queen,” in which a pretty Argentinian girl is caught between her mother and aunt’s desire for her to become a pageant queen and her own ambitions in the world of sports.
Fellini Satyricon: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Every Man for Himself: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
An Autumn Afternoon: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I think it’s accurate to say that Jean-Luc Godard and Federico Fellini both earned the right to be considered cultural icons, way back in the wild and woolly days of 1960s cinema. Fellini began his career as a writer of slight entertainments to avoid the draft in World War II. After the liberation, he would collaborate on the Neorealism classics Rome: Open City and Paisan, with Roberto Rossellini. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that critics would apply the term “Felliniesque” to films that abandoned traditional narrative techniques and replaced them with imagery and characters inspired by dreams, memories, fantasies, desires and the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious.” In 1964, Fellini took LSD under the supervision of a psychoanalyst. That experience, in addition to his approval of the Flower Power and sexual-liberation movements, would directly influence Fellini Satyricon, making it a staple of the midnight-movie circuit for years to come. After watching the new 4K digital restoration of Satyricon from Criterion Collection, I wonder how many bad trips can be attributed to false expectations by hippies anticipating a phantasmagoria of images, colors, sounds and naked boys and girls. What they got, instead, was a frequently violent, sexually licentious and aggressively freakish interpretation of Petronius’ satire, written during the reign of a tyrant who more closely resembled Richard Nixon than the Dalai Lama. And, yet, watching Satyricon in 2015, free of inebriants and hallucinogens, is rewarding in ways unimaginable when reduced to viewing a 16mm copy of the film projected against a white wall in the basement of a dormitory. The Blu-ray’s bonus package is reason enough for taking a trip down memory lane with the dynamic pansexual duo, Encolpius and Ascyltus. It includes a commentary track re-constructed from Eileen Lanouette Hughes’s memoir “On the Set of ‘Fellini Satyricon’: A Behind-the-Scenes Diary”; “Ciao, Federico!,” Gideon Bachmann’s hour-long documentary shot on the set of “Satyricon”; other archival interviews with Fellini; new interviews with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and photographer Mary Ellen Mark; a fresh documentary about Fellini’s adaptation of Petronius’s work, featuring interviews with classicists Luca Canali, a consultant on the film, and Joanna Paul; “Felliniana,” a presentation of “Satyricon” ephemera from the collection of Don Young; and an essay by critic Michael Wood.
The ink had hardly dried on calendars marking the arrival of the 1960s, when Godard’s debut feature, Breathless, effectively rewrote the rules that had governed filmmaking for almost a half-century. For many audience members, too, the experimentation on display in Breathless foreshadowed a long series of liberating experiences to come over the next decade. Now sooner had audiences begun to embrace the ideas forwarded by the French New Wave, however, than Godard began venturing off on tangents that would mystify critics and viewers, alike. That his films espoused radical political views wasn’t especially unusual or disconcerting in the wake of France’s humiliation at Dien Bien Phu and subsequent dismantling of the Geneva Accords, or the country’s pullback from Algeria. Popular resistance movements against colonial rule coincided with the escalation of U.S. influence in Southeast Asia. In Europe, especially, workers and intellectuals formed alliances – temporary, as they might have been – to challenge regimes that protected industrialists and bankers. La Chinoise and Week End not only anticipated the calamitous events of 1968, but they provided rallying cries for students now conditioned to accept radical experimentation in the arts. By 1970, however, Godard was already off and running on a series of experimental films that defied most notions of narrative flow and coherent thought processing. If his politics would continue to confuse and alienate viewers throughout the immediate post-Vietnam era, his tinkering with form and technique had begun to bear fruit. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Every Man for Himself, a 1980 film that signaled to buffs that Godard was willing to harness some of his more radical notions for the sake of telling a straight story. Based on a script by Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and Anne-Marie Miéville (Ici et ailleurs), Every Man for Himself examined the psycho-sexual dynamics of three men and women (Jacques Dutronc, Nathalie Baye, Isabelle Huppert) living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland. The intimacy and intensity of some of their interaction is amplified by the unexpected use of slow motion and seemingly random jumps from indoor to outdoor locations. Even Godard pointed to Every Man for Himself as a being a “second debut.” Thirty-five years later, his Goodbye to Language 3D — that’s right, 3D – would win top honors at Cannes and in the annual vote of the National Society of Film Critics, USA. Besides the high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, the Criterion package adds “Le scenario,” a short video created by Godard to secure financing for Every Man for Himself; a new video essay by critic Colin MacCabe; fresh interviews with Isabelle Huppert and producer Marin Karmitz; archival interviews with Nathalie Baye, cinematographers Renato Berta and William Lubtchansky, and composer Gabriel Yared; two fascinating back-to-back appearances by Godard, in 1980, on “The Dick Cavett Show”; “Godard 1980,” a short film by Jon Jost, Donald Ranvaud, and Peter Wollen; and an essay by critic Amy Taubin
Criterion completes its all-star directorial trifecta with the release of Yasujiro Ozu’s final film, An Autumn Afternon (a.k.a. “The Taste of Sake). Typically, the 1962 drama requires nearly as much patience on the part of viewers to savor as it took Ozu to compose the remarkably compelling static-camera images in the film. The deceptively simple story, which takes place at the beginning of Japan’s post-war boom, examines the subtle changes in middle-class life that were occurring at the same time at home. A World War II veteran and factory boss (Chishu Ryu) lives with his grown daughter and teenage son in the modest house they once shared with his wife. Because Michiko (Shima Iwashita) seems conte to wait patiently for him to stumble home drunk, after work, Shuhei is able to ignore the fact that she yearns for an adult life of her own. The widower has grown so comfortable and complacent that it takes his secretary and a friend with a much-younger wife to remind him that Michiko, should be relieved of her obligations long enough to find a husband. Actually, her father sees it as his duty to find a man worthy of her hand – in his opinion, of course – and negotiate the terms of their marriage. It breaks her heart to learn that he’s spent so much time focusing on his work and carousing that he’s postponed approaching the perfect candidate once too often. She pretends to take it in stride, but it’s obvious that she belongs to the last generation of women likely to stay home and let their parents make important decisions for them. As is the case with most of Ozu’s films, viewers are given plenty of time to soak in the details of his characters’ homes, offices, haunts and, even, their hallways. An Autumn Afternoon might not conform to everyone’s idea of entertainment, but those who value such intricate attention to details should savor Ozu’s swan song. The newly restored Blu-ray adds commentary with film scholar David Bordwell, author of “Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema”; excerpts from “Yasujiro Ozu and ‘The Taste of Sake,’” a 1978 French television program, featuring critics Michel Ciment and Georges Perec; and essays by critic Geoff Andrew and scholar Donald Richie.
Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse: Blu-ray
I wonder how much the success of DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon franchise influenced Universal to order a prequel to the 1996 live-action Dragonheart and 2000 DVD-original Dragonheart: A New Beginning. Fifteen years is a long time for fans to wait for new installments, so someone there must have been paying attention to box-office trends. I don’t suppose that the rise in LARP and “cosplay” activities dissuaded anyone from making the move, either. In Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer’s Curse, aspiring knight Gareth (Julian Morris) goes in search of an expired comet rumored to contain gold. He is shocked to instead find the dragon, Drago (voiced by Ben KIngsley), and a nest of pulsating eggs. The introduction of dragons into the kingdom could upset the balance of power, so, in fact, they are worth their weight in gold. Gareth and Drago’s bond is tested both by an evil sorcerer and a corrupt military leader (Jonjo O’Neill) also covetous of the eggs. In Gareth’s corner is a band of outlaws, led by the strikingly redheaded archer, Rhonu (Tamzin Merchant), who could pass for Jessica Chastain’s feisty younger sister. Despite what must have been a lean budget, the special effects and CGI work should be able to distract viewers from the wobbly aspects of the story. The Blu-ray adds “Bringing Drago to Life,” which focuses on Kingsley’s voice work.
We’re told upfront here that freshman writer/direct/producer/co-star Bryan Bockbrader learned how to turn his ideas into low-budget films from reading Robert Rodriguez’ “Rebel Without a Crew.” In it, the Texas tornado recounts his struggle to make El Mariachi, a film that has inspired aspiring filmmakers now for more than 20 years. VANish, then, is a kidnapping thriller that promises enough violence, bloodshed and sordid humor to satisfy any fanboy. I don’t know if Bockbrader was aware of “The Ransom of Red Chief” before he sat down to write the screenplay, but his troublesome female hostage Emma (Maiara Walsh) shares many qualities with O. Henry’s Andy Dorset. The doofuses who kidnap the adult daughter of a much-feared drug dealer, Carlos (Danny Trejo), haven’t allowed for the possibility that Emma is estranged from her father for a very good reason and it isn’t likely he’d agree with anyone attempting to extort money from him. That the gangster so quickly accedes to the kidnapers’ demands should have raised a red flag that could be seen from anywhere within 50 miles of the Cajon Pass. It allows Emma the time to play games of her own with the men, who are no match for the charms of such a gorgeous femme fatale. If VANish isn’t terribly different from a dozen other movies about kidnappings gone bad – my favorite is Ruthless People – its primary conceit of being shot almost entirely within the confines of the van works very well. The supplements include commentary with Bockbrader and actor Adam Guthrie; alternate endings; and a blooper reel.
Like an extended segment of the HBO documentary series “Real Sex,” Beth B’s Exposed introduces us to eight men and women – not all of whom limit their gender identities to the top two choices – have tailored traditional burlesque to fit their peculiar talents and physical limitations. Although none is likely to make anyone forget Gypsy Rose Lee or, for that matter, Pinky Lee, the expressive freedom provided by burlesque is a perfect fit for today’s underground crowd. The artists represented here – Bunny Love, Dirty Martini, the World Famous *Bob*, Bambi the Mermaid and Tigger!, among them — combine politics, satire and physical comedy to challenge our notions of gender identity, disability and sexuality. New York-based Beth B followed the performers around for several years, employing a “fly on the wall” camera technique. Exposed includes material collected during rehearsals, backstage preparations, private struggles and triumphs, and on stage.
New Year’s Evil: Blu-ray
There’s no horror quite like the horror that was shot on video in the 1980s for distribution on VHS cassettes to genre obsessives. For the most part, these movies were made on the cheap, employing do-it-yourself special effects and actors who owe the director a favor … or four. If most were borderline-hideous, there was no escaping the likelihood that the filmmakers had a blast making them. The less one expected from SOV titles, the more unlikely they were to be disappointed after renting them during two-for-the-price-of-one midweek specials. In an ironic twist to the ongoing digital revolution, several distribution companies have begun to specialize in obscure horror films from the ’80s and ’90s, some of whose directors and stars have achieved a modicum of fame. (Check out the documentaries, SOV: The True Independents and Adjust Your Tracking, for the full breakdown on the creation and collecting of VHS releases.) Niche distributor Massacre Video’s latest offerings could hardly be more representative of the SOV phenomenon. Venus Flytrap has far less to do with murderous vegetation than a confrontation between a trio of 1950s-style party-crashers and a quartet of preppy nerds, who turn the tables on them. In addition to plenty of T&A and gore, T. Michael’s one-and-only picture explores some of the homo-erotic undercurrents in genre fiction. Re-mastered from the video original, it also features interviews with producer Kevin M. Glover and actor Steve Malis; four pages of liner notes; commentary; and irresistibly insane trailers for Mr. No Legs (a.k.a., “The Amazing Mr. No Legs”), Nutbag: 10 Days in the Life of a Serial Killer and Six-Pack That Bitch.
Donald Farmer is an example of a filmmaker who began his career in the SOV arena and has survived long enough to give the world such millennial treats as Red Lips: Eat the Living, Chainsaw Cheerleaders and the upcoming Shark Exorcist. Massacre is also guilty of releasing his debut feature, Demon Queen, a simple tale about a man-eating succubus, who embodies the relationship between sex and violence in such flicks. The demon is played by Mary Fanaro, who would quickly forsake the genre and find steady work as the guest hottie in several popular TV shows. The special features here include a lengthy interview with Farmer, a stills gallery and liner notes.
New Year’s Evil isn’t very exciting, even if it contains all of the elements that worked in other holiday-themed slasher products. Released in 1980, its most compelling asset remains the presence of Roz Kelly — Pinky Tuscadero on “Happy Days” — as Diane “Blaze”, Sullivan, the host of a nationally televised countdown show on New Year’s Eve. As the dropping of the ball in Times Square approaches, Blaze begins receiving calls from a fiend planning to kill someone at midnight in each of America’s time zones. She, of course, will serve as the last victim. The punk-rock soundtrack isn’t bad, even if the story doesn’t measure up to other classics of the subgenre. The Shout Factory Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘New Year’s Evil’,” featuring new interviews with actors Kip Niven, Grant Cramer and Taaffe O’Connell, and director of photography Thomas Ackerman.
Give Me Shelter
It is a sad truth in our society that otherwise educated Americans, at least, will listen to a celebrity’s opinions on a controversial subject before seeking out the facts for themselves from more scholarly sources. It explains why nearly every charitable infomercial on late-night television features a familiar actor (Sally Struthers) or singer (Sarah McLachlan) as the public face of its mission. The same applies for those non-profits fortunate enough to land an A-lister as their spokesperson. The awareness-raising documentary Give Me Shelter overflows will celebrity testimonials, on subjects ranging from puppy mills to the confinement of circus and aquarium animals. Other topics include seal clubbings, fur fashions, the international exotic-animal trade, commercial zoos and hunting reserves, the slaughter of unwanted horses and pets, shark finning and the destruction of wildlife habitats. They are interspersed with the testimony of anti-cruelty activists. It would be difficult to find any meaningful counterpoints to any of the arguments presented in Give Me Shelter, considering that the harm being done to wild and domesticated animals is indefensible. Even so, it should be incumbent on documentary makers to offer an explanation as to why these industries continue to thrive and how their lobbyists are able to convince legislators to enact laws to prevent such questionable practices. The evidence is out there, waiting to be exposed. In addition to stock footage of endangered species and tortured animals, I would have liked to see the names and photos of politicians and corporate executives who enable those profiting from such abusive behavior. Revealing the companies that are the worst offenders for the purposes of boycotts and write-in campaigns would also have been valuable. Write-in campaigns are ignored by politicians and encouraging viewers, who aren’t members of SAG, to invest a fortune on a trip to Africa, instead of a world-class zoo or national park, probably was the least helpful advice provided. Where Give Me Shelter would be most effective, I think, is in screenings before elementary-school students and other groups of young people whose minds need to be opened to uncomfortable truths. The film was produced and co-written by model/actress/activist Katie Cleary, of Peace 4 Animals, and directed by Kristin Rizzo. Among the celebrity spokespeople are Tippi Hedren, Alison Eastwood, Michael Vartan, Esai Morales, Charlotte Ross, Elaine Hendrix, Jill Wagner, Robert Davi, Kristen Renton, Carole Davis and Richard O’Barry.
In Irreplaceable, host Tim Sisarich wanders the world in search of answers to such universal questions as “What is family?” and “Does ‘family’ still matter in today’s society?” Unremarkably, the only people interviewed on screen represent positions largely advocated by spokespersons and academics associated with evangelical Christianity. As former executive director of Focus on the Family New Zealand, Sisarich probably didn’t have to leave Wellington to gather the opinions or address the same half-truths, deliberate misreadings of data, polarized opinions and outright propaganda as he did by traveling the globe. By blaming such conservative bogeymen as feminism, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, liberal education, lack of paternal oversight and China’s one-baby law, Sisarich begs more questions than he answers. The only counterbalance to his remarks is derived from interviews with men and women on the street who see nothing wrong with pre-marital sex, divorce and aborting fetuses with known birth defects. Even Doctor Phil would have been able to present a more authoritative opinion than random pedestrians in Chicago and London or professional right-winger Michael Medved. He might have learned how difficult it is to point fingers at the precise cause of troubled marriages or blame absentee fathers – like his own – for the growing prison population and other societal ills. None of this is to say that the deeply earnest Sisarich doesn’t make indisputably legitimate points in Irreplaceable or is bombastic in his approach to key issues. By all indications, he’s a gentle soul and seeker of embraceable truths. I do think, however, that the Parable of the Prodigal Son isn’t the cure-all lesson he makes it ought to be and, by limiting the definition of “family” to those of the traditional hetero-nuclear variety, he shortchanges Christ’s message in the New Testament. It’s as if Sisarich consciously avoided locating alternative families that work wonderfully. The DVD adds a panel discussion that followed nationwide screening last year.
Gene Autry Movie Collection 9
The latest collection of fully restored movies from Gene Autry’s personal archives contains such Depression-era favorites as Comin’ Round the Mountain (1936), Git Along Little Dogies (1937), Man From Music Mountain (1938) and Mountain Rhythm (1939). As befit their place on the lineups of Saturday-matinee fare, they all roll in at just short of an hour and combined Western action with singing and comedy. Before moving his bedroll and guitar to the wide-open spaces of television, Autry starred in 89 such films, none of which would make anyone forget John Ford or John Wayne, but made a lot of people happy. All of the selections here contain several songs, which, like those in Elvis Presley movies, alternated between being delightful and eminently forgettable. The bonus material includes segments from Autry’s radio shows and interstitial interview sessions from the TV days.
PBS: The Italian Americans
PBS: Shakespeare Uncovered: Series 2
PBS: American Masters: August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand
PBS: Return to the Wild: The True and Iconic Story of Chris McCandless’ Solo Trek to Alaska
Smithsonian: Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink
Hub: My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Adventures of the Cutie Mark Crusaders
Currently playing on a PBS affiliate near you is the four-part mini-series, “The Italian Americans.” As is the current practice at the network, it’s simultaneously being made available on DVD. If the history related here by writer/producer John Maggio and narrator Stanley Tucci falls short of being revelatory, it’s only because so many fine Italian-American filmmakers have already accomplished the same thing in their movies. Even so, the sheer volume of archival photographs, news articles and film clips collected for this project adds a layer of authenticity that would be difficult for Hollywood costume and production designers to re-create. The least known of the stories told here involve the horrifying resistance Italian immigrants faced as they struggled simply to earn their keep and bring their families over from the “old country.” Too many of the descendants of this country’s founding fathers treated immigrants from southern Europe, Mexico and China as if the Bill of Rights only applied to WASPs. Like the Chinese and Irish who were invited the United States to risk their lives building the transcontinental railroad, they all were expected to perform dangerous work for menial wages and smile when their pockets were being picked by their landlords, bosses, bankers and hooligans of their own race. When the laborers decided to protect themselves by organizing unions, the army was called out to break up the demonstrations and protect the scabs and factory owners. Neither was lynching limited to African-Americans. If the rank-and-file eventually came to believe that the Cosa Nostra afforded them more protection than the police, who could blame them? The racism and bigotry that greeted Sicilians, especially, carried over from their experiences back home, where they were treated like second- and third-class citizens in their own country. The other thing made abundantly clear in the documentary series is how successful Italian-Americans were in overcoming bigotry and excelling in business, sports, education and show business. They fought for their new country, even as relatives back home declared war on us. That, however, is the story of America as it pertains to every new immigrant group, unless the newcomers bring enough money with them to do an end run around the bastards who would prefer to keep them down. If the undocumented workers attempting to enter the U.S. today were carrying as much money as those from the Middle East, China and Russia, we’d roll a red carpet over the border crossings, instead building walls. Among those bearing witness in the “The Italian Americans” are Tony Bennett, Nancy Pelosi, Gay Talese and John Turturro.
The working principle informing both seasons of the informative and entertaining BBC/PBS mini-series “Shakespeare Uncovered” is that behind every Shakespeare play is an equally stimulating creation story. University students pay good money to learn the same things taught here by A-list actors, renowned scholars and dramaturges, and those whose career highlights have included performing the Bard’s works. Adding greatly to the appeal of the presentation are film clips from vintage plays, movies and television specials. This season’s lineup includes “Taming of the Shrew, with Morgan Freeman; “Romeo and Juliet,” with Joseph Fiennes; “Othello,” with David Harewood; “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with Hugh Bonneville; “Antony and Cleopatra,” with Kim Cattrall; and “King Lear,” with Christopher Plummer.
August Wilson inarguably was one of the greatest American playwrights of our time. His 10-play cycle, chronicling each decade of the African-American experience in the 20th Century, included the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences” and Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson.” His life story is nearly as fascinating as those told in his theatrical pieces. The “American Masters” presentation, “August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand,” honors the 70th anniversary of Wilson’s birth and the 10th anniversary of his untimely death. The producers enjoyed unprecedented access to Wilson’s theatrical archives and rarely seen interviews. Among the film and theater luminaries who appear in it are Viola Davis, Charles Dutton, Laurence Fishburne, James Earl Jones, Suzan-Lori Parks and Phylicia Rashad.
Seven years after Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book was released, PBS’ “Return to the Wild: The Chris McCandless Story” advances the harrowing story by adding the testimony of the young man’s sisters. After holding back on their recollections of Chris’ troubled upbringing, they finally decided to visit the bus in which he died and indict their parents for the mental and physical cruelty that contributed to his decision to escape society as he knew it. New interviews and never before released letters probe the mystery behind the best-selling book and movie “Into the Wild.”
In the Smithsonian presentation, “Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink,” learned geologists offer new explanations for two of our planet’s mass extinctions of animals and vegetation: the “K/T Extinction,” which wiped out the dinosaurs, and “The Great Dying,” which obliterated nearly 90 percent of all other living things. In addition to the 6-mile-wide asteroid that destroyed the existing ecological balance, there were massive volcanic eruptions that altered the chemistry of the atmosphere and ocean. The experts advance some pretty drastic predictions about how global warming might have a similar impact on our planet
According to Brony lore, the acquisition of a “cutie mark” is an important coming-of-age moment for any Equestrian pony. They’re awarded only after a pony discovers a unique characteristic about themselves, setting them apart from all other steeds. The latest “My Little Pony” compilation “Friendship Is Magic: Adventures of the Cutie Mark Crusaders” features fillies Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, who try to earn their marks through ziplining. The other episodes are “The Cutie Pox,” “Flight to the Finish,” “Twilight Time” and “Pinkie Pride,” with guest star “Weird Al” Yankovic.