Author Archive

The DVD Wrapup: Only Lovers Left Alive, Spider-Man 2, Fading Gigolo and more

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive
If you plan to watch only one more vampire movie this year, make it Only Lovers Left Behind. Like Tomas Alfredson and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In and Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, Jim Jarmusch’s dreamy undead romance stands apart from the crowd of horror pictures whose sole intention is to make audiences cringe. (Teens probably would include the Twilight series among the aforementioned titles, but its freshness wore out quickly after Episode One. Let the Right One In did pretty well here, especially considering its characters only spoke Swedish, even spawning a very good English-language spinoff, Let Me In. As good as it is, the sexy and violent Byzantium only found an audience in the U.S. in its release on premium-cable outlets. After playing in festivals and arthouses around the globe, Only Lovers Left Behind suffered the same disappointing fate as most other Jarmusch films in their commercial release. It’s possible that potential viewers were scared off by the inscrutability of his last picture, The Limits of Control, but five years is a long time to hold a grudge. It would be too easy to describe Only Lovers Left Behind as a vampire movie for people who hate vampire movies, because, like Let the Right One In and Byzantium, it isn’t beyond any movie lover’s grasp. Even if Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are several times more sensitive and cultured than other movies vampires, they require the same quantities of human blood to survive as everyone else. (They also look as if they’ve lived in the shadows for several centuries.)

Already married three times in their long lives, Adam and Eve’s love has survived innumerable crises, cultural upheavals and witch hunts. Eve currently is living in Tangiers, near her longtime friend and confidante Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and his steady supply of super-pure plasma. Bored and lazy, Adam is wasting away among the ruins of Detroit, where he spends most of his time recording freaky electronic music on classic guitars. His manager, Ian (Anton Yelchin), services Adam’s every need, even going so far as to hire a craftsman to create a single mahogany bullet for his client, so, when the mood strokes, he can commit suicide. Sensing imminent danger, Eve flies by night to Detroit to comfort her lover, who lives in a landmark Victorian mansion that is surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned cars. The interior is cluttered with photographs of famous artists, musicians and writers; antique furniture and appliances (imagine Skyping via an ancient Philco TV set); and old-fashioned analog recording equipment. In a typically Jarmuschian touch, Adam invites Eve to take a moonlit tour of the city. Instead of stopping by the Motown museum, which she deems to be a ho-hum experience, both vampires welcome the opportunity to visit the house in which rocker Jack White was raised, as well as the graffiti-scarred ruins of a once-grand theater. Time passes elliptically until Eve’s little sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), drops by uninvited. In the course of a few short hours, the wild-child does something so unspeakable it forces Adam to flee Detroit. The sequence is the only thing that passes for action in Only Lovers Left Alive, whose technical and musical credits are so outstanding you don’t miss the gore and violence that mark other vampire movies. As such, it is a movie that demands to be seen in Blu-ray. Also included is “Traveling at Night With Jim Jarmusch,” a making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and the Yasmine Hamdan music video, “Hal.” Only Lovers Left Behind

 
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Combo Pack
Batman: Assault on Arkham: Blu-ray
As cool and enduring a character as Spider-Man is, I’m willing to argue that he’s become something of a one-trick pony in the hands of Hollywood mythmakers. Other superheroes have been required to share the spotlight with ever-more spectacular set pieces, but, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the CGI tail really is wagging the dog. The story-telling legacy of such great comic-book pioneers as Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster is being ignored, if favor of awe-inspiring acrobatics and destruction. In this regard, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has fared better than every other comic-book franchise series. The narrative is as crucial to our enjoyment of the movies as the circus tricks. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the second installment in the second Peter Parker trilogy of the 21st Century. In the James Bond pictures, at least, the signature set pieces open each episode, leaving the adventure, witty dialogue, exotic locations and Bond Girls to carry the load for the rest of the way. In “AS-M2,” the chases and street fights practically carry the whole movie, with the strong emotional climax squeezed between false endings. It’s already been suggested that the best part of the movie is hidden in the bonus features. We already know that Peter suffers a debilitating crisis in conscience and confidence near the end of the movie, which is resolved in satisfactory fashion. In a strange twist, however, director Marc Webb teases fans with an alternate ending that borders on the supernatural. Is it better than the one that made the cut? Until Part 3 arrives in a couple of years, the debate will take place in chatrooms. Among the other supplemental material are commentary with writers Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner and producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad; several other deleted and alternate scenes, with optional commentary from Webb; the six-part, 103-minute “The Wages of Heroism: Making the ‘Amazing Spider-Man 2’”; and a music video, “It’s On Again,” by Alicia Keys.

Speaking of the Caped Crusader, Batman: Assault on Arkham demonstrates once again that some of the best story-telling in the superhero genre is taking place right now in animated features and animated comics, where the stories have to stand or fall on their own merits. Typically, they offer a stage for ancillary characters who deserve more exposure and token appearances by the brand-name stars. Here, the government forces a group of supervillains with the code name Suicide Squad to break into Arkham Asylum – a spinoff from the video-game series — to bring back top-secret information the Riddler has stolen. Batman gets involved when one member of the Squad frees the Joker, whose desire for revenge is no joke.

Fading Gigolo
Just because Fading Gigolo walks like a duck and talks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s a Woody Allen movie. Even knowing going into it that the romantic comedy was written and directed by John Turturro may not be enough to convince some viewers that Allen isn’t behind the screen pulling the strings. Even if he contributed something more than his trademark alter-ego to the mix, what would be the harm? Can you think of a New York-based director or screenwriter – with the exception of Sidney Lumet — who hasn’t been influenced by the Woodman, one way or the other? Turturro has already written and directed several films that don’t carry Allen’s fingerprints, so there’s no reason for anyone to think he’s just another Woody wanna-be. Nevertheless, some people insist “Fading Gigolo” is the best movie Allen’s made in a good while. Here, he plays a third-generation New York bookseller, Murray, who’s just been forced to close his business. His longtime friend, Fioravante (John Turturro), is quite a bit younger, but still cut from the same cloth. After listening to his dermatologist, Dr. Parker (Sharon Stone), muse about her desire to engage in a three-way before she gets too old to enjoy it, Murray makes her a proposition too delicious for her to refuse. For a cool $1,000, including his commission, he’s willing to set Parker up with Fioravante, who he describes as being nothing short of a Renaissance man. (In Manhattan, that means he’s equal parts plumber, carpenter, floral arranger, gourmand and raconteur.) Almost simultaneously, Murray convinces a long-grieving Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis) to see Fioravante for some massage therapy, which brings her as close to orgasm as at any time since her marriage. Throw in Sofia Vergara, as the doctor’s dance-crazy Latin friend, and Liev Schreiber, as the custodian of the widow’s virtue, and you’ve got the makings of a sexual farce on the order of Mighty Aphrodite, only sweeter and less raunchy. Mature audiences don’t get many opportunities to see romantic comedies like Fading Gigolo anymore, so it’s a good idea to catch the good ones when they come along.

Live Nude Girls
I recognized the premise to the new, direct-to-DVD Live Nude Girls – not to be confused with the 1995 chick flick of the same titlefrom a venerable late-night Skinemax movie, in which a pair of buxom young women inherit a relative’s strip club and are required to keep it from going bankrupt. Standing in their way are all the usual suspects: corrupt cops, mobsters, jealous dancers and their own naiveté. Here, two bozos from Wisconsin inherit a club in L.A. – maybe the same one – from an uncle who invested his profits in the sexual favors provided by his own employees. As nice as the place is, the clientele resembles an AA meeting at the local Comedy Club. A bunch of unkempt and disreputable guys inhabit the place, in all likelihood driving away all of the paying customers. Like most strippers on cable TV, however, the dancers here are almost freakishly gorgeous. They could be making exponentially more bread dancing in any other club in southern California, but they prefer to work at the one where no one makes any money and the corrupt officials demand free blow jobs. Things begin to change when a naïve blond gymnast (Bree Olson) arrives at the club, looking for a job as a cocktail waitress. When she demonstrates what she can do on the pole, however, all of the employees begin seeing hope on the horizon. Olson is joined by several other soft- and hard-core actresses, including Tera Patrick, Annemarie Pazmino, Asa Akira, Mindy Robinson and Rachel Alig. Dave Foley is wasted as the drunken club manager and Andy Dick supposedly makes an appearance, somewhere. Live Nude Girls was co-written and directed by the late Jay Leggett (“In Living Color”), an actor and producer who died last year in his hometown of Tomahawk, Wisconsin.

Jarhead 2: Field of Fire: Unrated Edition: Blu-ray
In the world of direct-to-DVD movies, it almost always pays to add a number after a familiar title, even if the newer movie has next to nothing in common with the original. Slap “Gone With the Wind II” and a Confederate flag on any movie set in the South and someone’s going to fall for the ruse. Jarhead 2: Field of Fire isn’t nearly as misleading as “Gone With the Wind II,” certainly. Like the 2005 “Jarhead,” it deals with marines in combat in a Middle Eastern shithole, where even a scorecard wouldn’t help distinguish friends from foes and the potential for a life-ending incident lies around every corner. With a cast that included Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard and Lucas Black, Jarhead was directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”) and adapted for the screen from the best-selling book by former Marine Anthony Swafford by Oscar-nominee William Broyles Jr. (“Apollo 13”). The only names that might ring a bell in “J2” are veteran actors Cole Hauser, Stephen Lang and Esai Morales. The absence of familiar stars doesn’t hurt the movie one bit. It describes a routine supply operation that goes terribly wrong as it crosses through some of the most dangerous territory on the planet, the Taliban-controlled Helmond River Valley in Afghanistan. The unit is required to stop for hours in a canyon, while awaiting a team of explosives experts called in to defuse an IED. Instead, the Taliban arrive first, maintaining the high ground and killing several marines. The insurgents have been tracking a pair of Navy SEALs and their “package,” an Afghan woman famous for her defiance of the Taliban. The marines’ numbers diminished, radios and vehicles destroyed, the surviving SEAL leads the unit to a possibly friendly village several miles away. In advancing the narrative, “J2” plays things pretty straight down the middle. The marines are far more dedicated to each other than any policy dictated in Washington and the Taliban aren’t portrayed as being stupid or incompetent. The SEAL, on the other hand, is focused exclusively on getting the woman out of the danger zone. The action sequences are every bit as convincing as those in Lone Survivor. It might represent one mission in many, but it should be enough for most of us back home. The Blu-ray offers rated and unrated versions, as well as deleted scenes.

Worm 
Leviathon: Blu-ray
P-51 Dragon Fighter
Although pretty rough around the edges, the low-budget Worm finds all sorts of amusing ways to stretch an 8-minute short into a 93-minute psycho-thriller. Doug Mallette’s freshman feature opens with a TV news reporter from Central Casting explaining to viewers that a cure has been found to a 30-year plague that deprives people of the ability to dream. Fantasites are genetically engineered parasites that look very much like earthworms and probably taste like Gummi worms. Instead, when the parasitic worms are dropped into the ear canal, they induce deep sleep and wonderfully stimulating dreams. The Fantasites can be purchased in different colors, representing the different levels of dream state. Mallette’s socially and mechanically inept protagonist, Charles (John Ferguson), is a maintenance man in a complex inhabited by renters who can afford the cream of the parasites. One of them introduces Charles to Fantasites, but only those from the bottom of the barrel. Soon enough, however, he figures out a way to switch packages with his new “best friend” and his girlfriend, keeping the most powerful for himself. As news of the miracle sleep aid spreads through the land, so, too, do reports of serious physical and mental problems. When the government bans the product, an underground industry blossoms, causing even greater problems with junkies and crime. A subplot involving Charles and his tenant’s worm-addicted girlfriend helps keep the largely improvised story moving forward. The DVD adds the short film, Worm, originally conceived as a short for Nashville’s 48-Hour Film Project; deleted scenes; and commentary.

1989 was a good year for sci-fi thrillers set thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean. Of George Cosmatos’ “Leviathan,” Sean S. Cunningham’s DeepStar Six and James Cameron’s The Abyss, guess which one nearly drowned the other two at the box office. That’s right. Even though The Abyss sold more tickets, though, the revenues only managed to match its production costs, which were amplified by the use of state-of-the-art computer software. Because Leviathan and DeepStar Six played as well at the drive-in as in theaters, their producers might even have been able to claim victory. Cosmatos’ picture doesn’t deviate much from the formula invented in 1951 by The Thing From Another World. In it, a diverse group of undersea miners can hardly wait to be relieved by another company crew. Before they can begin packing their duffel bags, however, one of the miners stumbles upon a sunken Soviet freighter. He manages to drag the ship’s safe to the base camp, where they make the mistake of divvying up the spoils. When the diver (Daniel Stern) who claimed a flask of vodka begins to display a serious rash, the team’s doctor (Richard Crenna) fears there might have been something in the safe, besides Stolichnaya. Even if he can’t identify the virus with any precision, Doc knows it’s not curable with aspirin. After the first two victims die, the corpses begin to metamorphose into creatures that might have been left behind when Alien wrapped.  Soon enough, others come up with the same symptoms and the threat of something much greater looms. The battle for survival is pretty exciting, as these things go, feverishly paced and well-conceived. Along for the ride are Peter Weller, Amanda Pays and Ernie Hudson. The Blu-ray features include “Leviathan: Monster Melting Pot,” with plenty of entertaining interviews about working under Cosmatos and special-makeup-effects wizard Stan Winston; “Dissecting Cobb With Hector Elizondo,” with his reminiscences about the shoot; and “Surviving Leviathan With Ernie Hudson.”

P-51 Dragon Fighter looks as if it might have been written and shot in the 1950s, instead of last year. Even the cover is a throwback to cheesier times. Just as the Allies are about to send the Germans packing from North Africa, the Nazis pull out their wild card. They’ve been cultivating the eggs of flying, fire-breathing dragons and now are ready to mobilize them. If the Allies’ P-51 pilots weren’t able to eliminate the menace, WWII could very well have ended differently. Maybe, like me, you’ve forgotten how that part of the war turned out.

Magnificent Doll
Although there’s nothing at all wrong with the performances of Burgess Meredith and David Niven in Frank Borzage’s almost completely bogus 1946 bio-pic of Dolley Madison, only a guess appearance by Fred Astaire would have prevented Ginger Rogers’ star turn from being relegated to the dust bin of cinematic history. Astaire could have made a cameo performance as Alexander Hamilton to Niven’s Aaron Burr and Meredith’s James Madison and another ballroom scene could have been written into the script, allowing Rogers and Astaire to perform a token minuet or reel. As it is, Magnificent Doll made no one happy and quickly disappeared in the post-WWII mist. Author Irving Stone’s original story and screenplay focuses largely on a non-existent love triangle between Madison, Hamilton and Burr, with Dolley baling on Aaron when he begins to explain his delusions of dynastic grandeur to her. It shows her cutting the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame, as the British advanced on Washington in the War of 1812, even though she probably ordered it done by servants, instead. Dolley’s contributions to the restoration of the nation’s capital and defense of her husband’s fragile presidency are overlooked in favor of her desire to warn President Jefferson about Burr’s mutinous plans and, later, travel to the site of his trial for treason to prevent a mob angry at his acquittal from lynching her former beau. Her service to presidents Jefferson and Madison as virtual First Lady and actual First Lady is minimized in favor of romantic folderol and a timeline that skews the order of historical events for as many as 10 years. Unless one is a student basing a paper on Dolley Madison, it’s pretty easy to dismiss “Magnificent Doll” as just another Hollywood costume drama. Madison’s own post-White House story, including her fall from financial grace after the death of her husband – not a particularly glamorous assignment given what we’ve already seen from a leading lady of Rogers’ stature — was as dramatic as anything cut from whole cloth by Stone. One interesting thing that went unpursued was the lively debate over women’s rights and the emancipation of slaves that began almost immediately began after the Revolutionary War. Despite his megalomaniacal plans to create a new American government, there was a time when Burr was as progressive a politician as Barak Obama once purported to be.

Swelter: Blu-ray
As much as one tries, it’s impossible not to invoke Quentin Tarantino’s name when reviewing movies that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day if Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction hadn’t preceded them. Keith Parmer’s sophomore feature, Swelter, is one of those pictures. Set in an imaginary patch of the Mojave Desert that we’re told is the border town of Baker, it offers all of the slam-bang action, brash dialogue, seedy locations and flashbacks favored by Tarantino and Richard Rodriguez, minus the narrative flow and interior logic. (And, yes, I’m aware that Baker isn’t a border town. Neither is there a Mad Greek restaurant or giant thermometer in the movie.) Swelter opens with a flashback to an inelegant $100-million heist at a Las Vegas casino. Much blood was shed; several of the crooks were arrested; and the loot seemingly vanished into thin air. When the gang is reunited 10 years later, the bad guys get wind of the fact that one of their own currently is serving as sheriff of the desert community. He prefers not to carry a gun and can’t remember participating in the holdup, let alone where he hid the money. It’s not the worst setup for a new-age Western, really. The trouble is that Parmer quickly makes it impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys and inconveniently forgets to draw a line between bloodlust and the common sense needed to recover the $100 million. On the other side of the coin, Parmer was able to wrangle Jean-Claude Van Damme and Alfred Molina into his stable of actors and their performances, alone, almost make us forgive him the holes in his story. The desert scenery looks pretty swell in hi-def, as well. It adds interviews with all of the key hombres.

Kilimanjaro
If no mountains actually are climbed in Walter Stafford’s debut feature, Kilimanjaro, it’s not for lack of trying. Mostly, the millennial yuppies we meet here have come to a point in their lives where they’ve hit a wall and must decide if reaching the summit of their professions and relationships is worth the effort it will take to continue the climb. If that metaphor weren’t made sufficiently clear, however, there would still be all of those sleek Manhattan skyscrapers looming in the background, reminding them of the verticality of life in the corporate jungle. At 29, Doug (Brian Geraghty) has already passed several rungs on the ladder of success. Easy-going to a fault, he willingly plays the go-along/get-along game at a job that isn’t sufficiently onerous to quit before reaping some rewards. Doug’s even willing to the roll with the punch he receives from his live-in girlfriend, when she decides to try something or someone more exciting. In fact, it prompts him to make plans to reach a somewhat loftier summit … if only on a well-deserved vacation. The true breaking point comes when his boss (Jim Gaffigan) decides that his presence is needed in the office during the period he and a pal had made plans to travel to Africa. When the bozo refuses to budge on the dates, Doug gets up the courage to call his bluff and quit. Now, it would be nice to report that, henceforth, everything went swimmingly in Doug’s life. And, maybe it did. For the purposes of this interview, however, suffice it to say that things don’t quite work out as any of us thought they might. Kilimanjaro is too small and personal to have made the leap from the festival circuit to theaters. On home screens, however, it’s a pretty good fit. Co-stars Abigail Spencer, Alexia Rasmussen and Chris Marquette are perfectly cast as Geraghty’s similarly inclined pals.

Redemption Trail
In this uneven, but mostly laudable feminist drama, two women from completely different worlds attempt to find peace and redemption after suffering great traumas in their lives. The wealthy white liberal is happily married and engaged in an occupation that brings her great satisfaction. The middle-age black woman watched from under a bed while her Black Panther father was murdered by a racist cop. Her memory of his death caused her to commit crimes that led to a prison sentence. After being paroled, Tess landed a job managing the vineyards owned by a friend who lives in New York. Anna, a pediatrician, deals with the completely unexpected death of her daughter by splitting from her husband and attempting to commit suicide on the land worked by Tess. The last thing Tess wants to do is taken a needy person, who could threaten her life of splendid isolation. Anna (Lily Rabe), doesn’t want much to do with Tess (LisaGay Hamilton), either, but their shared interests result in an uneasy friendship. If the women had met under similar circumstances somewhere other than the mist-covered hills of Napa/Sonoma, it’s possible that their separate journeys along the Redemption Trail might have gotten sidetracked by other distractions. Writer/director Britta Sjogren decided, instead, to place them in one of the most serene and beautiful spots on Earth, ideal both for healing and growth. It’s about an hour’s drive north from the Bay Area, close enough for her husband (Hamish Linklater) to have finally located her after a six-month search. When Tess’ boss and sometime lover (Jake Weber) arrives with his young daughter, it sets up a dynamic that demands of the women that they come to grips with their feelings about men in positions of authority. That would be fine, if Sjogren had the time and inclination to tell us why Anna had cut her husband out of her life entirely and Tess hasn’t been able to move on from her ordeals. The director also adds a subplot that involves an immigrant family and the pot-growing cholos who terrorize them. It tells us that no one can avoid interaction with punks and hoodlums, even in paradise, and the price of redemption can sometimes be steep. Despite the holes in the story, “Redemption Trail” is very easy on the eyes and a reminder that not everyone has put the era of radical politics and women’s liberation behind them.

Every Everything: The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart
One of the most active sub-genres of documentary film is the one devoted to the punk and post-punk musical scene of the late-1970s and ’80s. I’ve reviewed at least a dozen such rock-docs in the last months, alone. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that video cameras and camcorders became far more accessible during this period and no band could succeed unless it had some documentation of its music and stage presence. An offshoot of the sub-genre is the nightclub profile, in which venues important to the punk scene – from New York’s Bowery to Spokane and Orange County – are saluted for providing a stage upon which incredibly loud and violent music kept the mosh pits roiling. The Twin Cities ensemble Hüsker Dü was particularly loud and aggressive. Famous in some quarters for being the “fastest band in the world,” it followed in the wake of the Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop, while competing for exposure with such SoCal-based groups as Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., the Minneapolis-based Replacements and dozens of heavy-metal bands. By the time Husker Du began to experiment with melody and lyrics that demanded to be heard and understood, the musicians were hooked on drugs and uninterested in communicating with each other. (That part, of course, isn’t unique to punk groups.) Director Gorman Bechard, who’d profiled the Replacements in “Color Me Obsessed,” probably was never going to get guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould, bassist Greg Norton and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart together in the same room at the same time, so he decided to focus on the one whose career has posted the most creative mileage. Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart us devoted entirely to the thoughts, music, memories and opinions of the musician referred to as the “wild one.” Now approaching his dotage, the famously red-booted drummer has no trouble filling the 97-minute film with stuff only an avid Husker Du fan could absorb in one sitting. Hart’s an interesting guy, alright, but too much of the material is repetitive and of interest to only a small circle of fans and friends. Neither is his personal history that much different than dozens of other rockers. Unlike “Color Me Obsessed,” which offered no musical soundtrack, “Every Everything” contains plenty of concert footage of the band, Hart’s solo projects and other ephemera.

William Shatner’s Get a Life!
If there’s one actor who doesn’t need another documentary made about him, it’s William Shatner. Still, they keep coming, almost with the same frequency as Star Trek conventions. Nevertheless, at 83, it’s hard to begrudge the old coot another opportunity to make nice with the same fans, he was once famously advised, Get a Life! The EPIX documentary is a follow-up to his revealing 2011 feature film, “The Captains,” during which he interviewed the various captains of the Enterprise in its many iterations. Here, he toured the floor of Creation Entertainment’s Official Star Trek Convention, in Las Vegas, where he spoke with fans and official guests, alike, about their obsession with the multiplatform franchise. He also uses the occasion to come to grips with his past, his fans, their love and his own intergalactic legacy. As familiar as his shtick is by now, Shatner has no problem raising a smile and challenging viewers with his opinions.

The Marx Brothers TV Collection
As popular as the Marx Brothers continue to be, they’re still best known for a handful of timeless comedies and their unmistakable on-screen likenesses. Groucho extended his show-biz career by hosting game shows, hitting the lecture circuit, appearing as a guest on talk shows and writing books. When collected and published, his correspondence with such luminaries as T.S. Elliott proved to be a big hit. Shout!Factory’s The Marx Brothers TV Collection provides a wonderful introduction – for post-Boomers, anyway – to the brothers’ versatility, even in the autumn of their years. For most of the medium’s first dozen years, television was little more than radio with pictures and the entertainers who excelled on one broadcast platform simply exported their gags, skits and characters to the other. Anthology shows offered glimpses into TV’s future by telling dramatic and comedic stories in short form, hosted by familiar Hollywood stars and featuring a rotating roster of old pros and up-and-coming actors. Watching Groucho exchange lines with a young Dennis Hopper in a rare straight role is practically worth the entire price of the package, alone. Ditto, Harpo and Chico in a cops-and-robbers comedy, introduced by Ronald Reagan for “GE Theater.” When they weren’t playing cards and schmoozing at the Hillcrest Country Club, the brothers sometimes could be found on sitcoms, game shows and variety shows hosted by June Allyson, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore, Red Skelton and Perry Como. Also represented are such oddities as “The Arthur Murray Party,” “Championship Bridge,” “Celebrity Golf,” “Celebrity Billiards” and Groucho’s London-based game show. Much of the material here was collected from family archives. The entries are in remarkably good shape, considering they probably were taken from old kinescope recordings and put on a shelf for eternity. And, yes, “The Marx Brothers TV Collection” would be a can’t-miss gift for the older folks on your list.

The Blacklist: The Complete First Season
Low Winter Sun: The Complete Series
It would be difficult to find two shows on television that are darker and more consciously amoral than NBC’s “The Blacklist” and AMC’s “Low Winter Sun,” unless you’re looking for them at HBO, Showtime  and other premium-cable services. Once again, James Spader (“Boston Legal”) turns a potentially onerous character into someone we can’t live without seeing each week. In “The Blacklist,” he’s perfectly cast as Raymond “Red” Reddington, a fugitive “fixer” who’s worked both sides of the legal fence for years. In Season One, the “concierge of crime” mysteriously surrendered to the FBI, offering them an opportunity to capture the world’s most elusive criminals with his assistance. Red insists, however, on speaking only to Elizabeth “Liz” Keen (Megan Boone), an FBI profiler fresh out of Quantico. (Shades of Hannibal Lector’s relationship with Clarice Starling.) Some early proponents of the show recognized signs of fatigue as the season wore on, but not so much that it would deter them from anticipating the Year Two.

AMC’s “Low Winter Sun, which is based on a 2006 British mini-series of the same title, also is blessed with actors uniquely suited to the role of cops whose flirtation with dark side has come back to haunt them. The Detroit detectives, played with palpable menace by Mark Strong and Lennie James, don’t waste any time making us uneasy in their presence. One convinces the other to participate in a crime so heinous – even by Detroit standards – that their case load will play second fiddle to covering their tracks. It isn’t easy, especially with a rabid “rat squad” investigator (David Costabile) anxious to discover who would dare mess up their investigation of a dirty cop by eliminating him. As lead investigators in the case, they’re able to play both sides against the middle, by looking as if they’re working hard to crack the case, while also tampering with evidence and discouraging potential witnesses. In doing so, they join the CID’s list of prime suspects. Meanwhile, other DPD detectives set themselves up as drug kingpins by eliminating the competition. Amid all of the bad craziness, some excellent police work takes place and there are family dilemmas to solve, as well. Like “True Detective, “Low Winter Sun” never begs us to like the cops or see them in the same light as tragic heroes. It’s enough to appreciate that they’re human and, like the city of Detroit, itself, in a general state of physical and moral decay.

A Brony Tale
Circle The Wagen
When the documentary A Brony Tale arrived in the mail, I wondered if it might be old wine in a new bottle. I had recently reviewed Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of ‘My Little Pony’ and couldn’t imagine two such films being released on the same unusual topic. Six months from now, there could very well be two competing documentaries on the participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge, only one of which will be authorized by the ALS Association, Apart from some strictly technical considerations, both docs are essentially the same. After introducing viewers to the phenomenon, the filmmakers interview dozens of older boys and men who qualify as being obsessive fans of “My Little Pony.” Young girls comprised the first target audience for the series, but, today, it’s been embraced by men and boys who dig its message of overcoming trauma through friendship. As odd as the craze may be, the filmmakers go out of their way to assure viewers that Bronies aren’t dangerous. If some are, you won’t meet them here. Vancouver-based voice-over artist Ashleigh Ball (a.k.a., Applejack, Rainbow Dash) is star of A Brony Tale, while Toronto-native Tara Strong (Twilight Sparkle) is the centerpiece actor in “Bronies.” Both are attractive blonds, with voice-over work and interests outside the Equestrian World, as it’s known. The movies’ other key message, I think, is that none of the fans are begging for anyone’s acceptance. They’re happy the way they are and aren’t any more or less obsessive than the average, say, Cubs fan.

Just as “A Brony Tale followed Bronies into the DVD marketplace, Circle the Wagen is competing with Damon Ristau’s recently released and reviewed The Bus for the hearts and eyes of car nuts addicted to Volkswagen vans. This is, we’re invited to follow Dave and Charlie has they traverse the nation in a baby blue 1972 VW bus. Nowhere near prime condition, the vehicle becomes a magnet for vintage VW enthusiasts who seemingly live for the moments when they can help a fellow camper in need of assistance. Using the Internet and coconut telegraph, no part is too obscure for a cult-wide scavenger hunt. If The Bus was more universal in scope, Circle the Wagen defines a community that, despite its German roots, could hardly be more American.

The DVD Wrapup: Railway Man, Boredom, Cold Lands and more

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

The Railway Man: Blu-ray
In Washington, our so-called leaders have been debating how much of the Senate report on the interrogation methods used by the CIA after September 11, 2001, should be made public. Many believe that the secrets contained therein would, if declassified, shake the foundation of our democracy. The same resistance to news coverage already applies to conditions at Guantanamo Bay, where, we know, some unindicted terrorists have complained of being tortured. It’s not that Americans don’t already assume the worst about the CIA and mostly don’t care about the techniques used to glean useful intelligence, with much disinformation thrown in to save another beating. Fact is, our elected officials simply don’t want their constituents to know how little control they had over what happened in the execution of the war on terrorism. If folks inside the Beltway weren’t aware of the extent of the torture and degradation, it was only because they were playing the game of the three wise monkeys who saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil” I was reminded of this by Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, which graphically describes the application of torture on British P.O.W.s in World War II by Japanese soldiers and officers. In a very real sense, it serves as a companion piece to The Bridge on the River Kwai, because it explains what was happening to the men forced to construct the railroad leading to and away from the bridge. Nagisa Ôshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence also dealt vividly with conditions in a prisoner-of-war camp in Southeast Asia. Based on the memoirs of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man features heartwrenching performances by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, Magic In The Moonlight) and Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), portraying the protagonist as a young and old man. Even sixty years after Old Eric was liberated by Allied troops, he continues to suffer terrifying nightmares and hallucinatory flashbacks. At the core of his trauma are recurring visions of the Japanese translator who either participated in the beatings or was a silent witness.

A railroad buff, Eric meets the love of his life, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on one of his many journeys through the U.K. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that Eric is a deeply troubled man, as are the other survivors she meets. One day, an ex-POW friend shows Eric a newspaper clipping in which the translator, Takeshi (Tanroh Ishida), is shown giving tours at the site of the encampment. He had escaped being arrested and executed, like other officers, by insisting he was only used as an intermediary. It would perform the same task for British prosecutors of war crimes. Patti convinces Eric to travel to Thailand to confront his nemesis and, quite possibly, exact his own punishment. It would be perfectly understandable if Eric reciprocated in kind, but what kind of man would that make him and what would have been gained? Takeshi also is an old man, after all, and appears to be serving out a form of penance conducting tours and decrying Japan’s complicity in the process. Some Americans, at least, must be asking themselves similar questions, in regards the war on terror. The Japanese interrogators didn’t invent water-boarding and other techniques subsequently borrowed by their CIA counterparts, after all. Teplitzky effectively conveys the nature of the horror, both during the war and, afterwards, for survivors with PTSD. The acting is solid and the jungle settings reek of dread. The Blu-ray adds an excellent making-of featurette, which includes interviews with Eric and Patti; discussions with cast and crew; and commentary with Teplitzky and co-writer-producer Andy Paterson.

The Cold Lands
In only his second feature as a writer-director, veteran actor Tom Gilroy (whose first film was Spring Forward) wonders how a pre-teen boy might survive in the sudden absence of a self-reliant mother who preferred living deep in the woods to having anything to do with the outside world. In The Cold Lands, a perfectly cast Lili Taylor defines the type of person – an ex-hippie or survivalist – who would want her child to follow her lead and prepare for the day when city folk are threatened with extinction and the supermarkets run out of food. Atticus (Silas Yelich) doesn’t know that his mother is seriously ill and could die at any moment. Maybe, Nicole believes that she had given Atticus all the tools he needed to make it on his own and it was time to give up the ghost. Or, she was simply in a state of denial. Rather than become a ward of the state or be handed over to unfamiliar relatives, Atticus takes what he was given by Nicole and attempts to fend for himself in the woods. For a while, anyway, he does pretty well. After a while, though, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. After nearly getting his butt shot off by a pair of meth-cookers, the boy is rescued by an itinerant pot peddler and part-time jewelry maker, Carter (Peter Scanavino). They form an uneasy alliance, based as much on companionship as any father-son dynamic that might have kicked into gear. Gilroy gives Carter the choice of turning Atticus for reward money or treat him the way he would want to be treated, in the same circumstances. Given another five minutes’ worth of screen time, Gilroy might have answered his own question. As it is, we’re left with a perplexing mystery and memories of much spectacular Catskills scenery

Boredom
Director Albert Nerenberg makes several interesting, if not earthshaking points in his latest offbeat documentary, Boredom. The most important, I think, is that chronic ennui among today’s kids has reached epidemic levels and it’s too often misdiagnosed by teachers who aren’t doing nearly as good a job as they think they are doing. Just as psychiatrists and educators underestimated the extent to which ADHD and depression impacted children in post-World War II America, boredom in the classroom generally is treated either as a disciplinary problem or a sign that kids are spending too much time outside of school doing things other than homework. Moreover, the film argues persuasively that we not only can be bored to tears, but also to death. Recent studies show that people who lead sedentary lives are more susceptible to cancer and other serious conditions. To counteract the effects of boredom, many sufferers turn to recreational pursuits that are far more dangerous than wasting an afternoon on the couch, watching TV. When the thrills derived from one such activity begin to dissipate, however, adrenaline junkies invariably will turn to even more exciting pastimes. Nerenberg’s team of experts also point to boredom among unemployed and politically disenfranchised youth as a root cause for turning peaceful protests in riots. Unlike ADHD and depression, which can be treated with pharmaceuticals and therapy, the easiest cures for boredom require finding a source for cocaine and speed, which make everything fun and interesting … for a while, anyway. The other way is to make school and work more stimulating for individuals, who, in some cases, feel as if they’re not being sufficiently challenged. Nerenberg argues that too much time spent sitting at a desk can induce boredom in students and white-collar employees, just as working on an assembly line can turn human beings into automatons. Because even the simplest solutions cost money, however, nothing is likely to improve any time soon. Indeed, even a documentary about boredom can prove debilitating after a while. Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Richard Linklater’s Slacker avoided that by being consistently entertaining and full of endearing characters. Documentarians don’t have the same luxury. “Boredom” at least attempts to balance stimulating material with scientific data. As the director of such nonfiction films as Laughology, Let’s All Hate Toronto, Stupidity” and Invasion of the Beer People, Nerenberg understands the importance of pacing, balance and humor in the creation of feature-length films. In Boredom, as founder of the Boredom Institute, he even appears to be channeling Orson Welles in one of those 1970s commercials for Paul Masson wine.

Favorites of the Moon: Blu-ray
Anyone in the mood for a silly French farce ought to consider picking up Otar Iosseliani’s 1984 comedy, Favorites of the Moon, which has been freshened up by the folks at Cohen Media and eOne. Rendered as a roundelay of familiar Gallic types from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it opens with the smashing of a piece of hand-painted Limoges china and the re-hanging of a wispy portrait of a French aristocrat on the wall of a grand chateau. The link between the two isn’t made clear until Iosseliani flash-forwards to present-day Paris, where they become the objects of attraction of an art dealer, thief, police inspector, gun dealer, inventor, beautician, a homeless man, anarchist, prostitutes and a couple of bourgeois families. As the antiques pass from one hand to another, more Limoges china is accidentally broken and the painting gets smaller every time it’s cut from its frame. In the meantime, the disparate characters whose lives intersect in the inner city arrondissement reference the experiences of men and women who may have admired the finery the first time around. Not everything comes together as the director planned, but, once you get into the movie’s offbeat rhythm, Favorites of the Moon is enjoyable. Look for a 19-year-old Mathieu Amalric among the gang of thieves. The Blu-ray adds commentary by critic Phillip Lopate and an essay.

Breathe In: Blu-ray
Hateship Loveship
Any film in which a teenage girl and an unrelated older man succumb to the temptations that derive from living in too close proximity to each other – however consensually — is a land mine waiting to explode. Such May-to-September romances probably happen more often than we care to imagine, but it’s the rare director who can turn them into something that doesn’t feel cheap or exploitive. Well before Woody Allen’s career became embroiled in scandal, he mined the taboo subject for all of the humor and humanity it was worth. In time, watching Woody cavort with much younger women, both on the big screen and in newspaper headlines, became indefensible. Notes on a Scandal, P.S. and A Teacher were able to strike an acceptable balance between crime and punishment, but, in those pictures, the teachers are women. In real life, if caught, they would be pilloried by the media before being found guilty by a jury that doesn’t allow for sentiment. In Breathe In, Drake Doremus (Crazy Love) benefits from some superb acting in telling a story of infidelity and seduction. And, he does it without appealing to the prurient interests of viewers who dig this sort of thing.

Felicity Jones fairly smolders as Sophie, a foreign-exchange student from England who moves into the Upstate New York home of a music teacher, Keith (Guy Pearce), his exceedingly normal wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and 18-year-old daughter, Lauren (MacKenzie Davis). Keith is an ex-rocker, now devoted to classical music. Teaching is a fine job, but, he wants to have his life’s work validated as a soloist in a respected orchestra. For all we know, Megan may have had similar ambitions of her own before settling down to raise Lauren and master the art of cookie-jar making. Sophie and MacKenzie appear to hit it off, but they operate on separate wavelengths. When it appears as if Sophie is attempting to steal her boyfriend, whose talents include date rape, Lauren becomes susceptible to the not particularly accurate gossip of classmates. She needn’t have worried. As a fellow musician, Sophie has found her kindred spirit in Keith. For his part, Keith sees in the teenager someone he can mentor and share deep thoughts on something other than cookie jars. In other words, he’s a sitting duck for a girl looking for a daddy figure and confidante. If things really get sloppy towards the end, it’s only because there are only a couple of ways these things can go and one of them involves weaponry. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interview with the director.

Pearce plays a very different variety of father in the little-seen Hateship Loveship, based on an even more awkwardly titled story by Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.” He’s excellent, as usual, but the real story here is Kristen Wiig, for whom Liza Johnson’s drama represents a marked departure from the roles expected of her by fans from her “Saturday Night Live” days. I mention that only because Hateship Loveship enjoyed only the most limited of limited releases earlier this year, after its debut at the 2013 TIFF, as if its distributor accepted the futility of selling drama to comedy nuts. Fact is, though, Wiig’s chronically delusional Johanna Parry is only one or two shades removed from the borderline deranged characters she introduced on “SNL” (Dooneese, Gilly and Penelope, among them). Her great talent was making viewers squirm and laugh simultaneously. When we meet her, Johanna seems to be destined for a life of serving other people at the expense of her happiness. Mousy and sheltered, her career as care-giver tends to take her from one hospice situation to another, for indeterminate periods of time.

Her latest assignment turns out very differently, however. It requires her to supervise an unruly teenager, whose father, Ken (Pearce), is a ne’er-do-well drug addict and ex-con. Her elderly employer (Nick Nolte) has been burned too many times by Ken’s schemes, yet feels a responsibility toward his granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfield). As formidable as he looks, however, he’s no match for a teenage girl in heat. Neither is Johanna. After receiving a short, innocuous note of gratitude from Ken, she begins to fantasize a scenario in which he’s a knight in shining armor and he’s Lancelot. Having intercepted the note, Sabitha and her demonic friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), think it might be fun to pull a prank on both Ken and Johanna, by writing a note inviting her to Chicago and fulfilling their destiny, together. Turns out, he lives in near-squalor with his junkie lover (Jennifer Jason Leigh). You’ll either have to guess what happens in the next half-hour or rent the movie, which I recommend. Christine Lahti also co-stars in Hateship Loveship, in a role that may be the most satisfying of them all. Johnson directed Linda Cardellini to great effect in Return, a drama about a National Guard soldier and mother attempting to readjust to life in the U.S., after a long deployment in Iraq.

Disneynature: Bears: Blu-ray
Disney Special Editions: Blu-ray
There’s nothing like a new Disneynature installment to make one feel good about purchasing an HDTV and Blu-ray player. They’re as close to being outdoors as is permitted while lounging around in your underwear. Bears is the latest in a series of movies that began in 1948 with True-Live Adventure: Seal Island. Walt Disney wasn’t interested in showing animals in nature simply to amuse viewers who may never to make it to Alaska or Africa. He wanted to build fanciful stories around the footage brought back by his intrepid team of cinematographers. The first such journey took them to Alaska’s Pribilof Islands. Almost 70 years later, the studio’s Disneynature team returned to Alaska – now, of course, a state – and its brown bear refuge at Katmai National Park. It goes without saying, by now, that this tale of a mother, Sky, and her two frisky cubs, Amber and Scout, is visually spectacular, educational and highly entertaining. Bears opens in Sky’s hibernation den, just as the cubs are making their presence known to mom. Once out of their cave, the hungry trio hightails it from a snowy mountain plateau to Kamishak Bay, seeking salmon. It helps that narrator John C. Reilly sounds like a bear might sound, if it understood English. He moves easily from the light-hearted moments, when the cubs are learning the ropes; to foreboding, as other adult bears mark their territory; and, finally, the life-and-death struggle for the salmon Sky would need to sustain the family through a second winter. The camerawork involved in capturing the salmon run is nothing short of amazing. The Blu-ray presentation is terrific. The bonus package adds several making-of featurettes, an environmental message and music video.

Looking and sounding no less gorgeous in hi-def are these vintage animated titles – some being more vintage than others — newly available on Blu-ray in “Special Edition” form. They include Tarzan and Hercules, from Disney’s heroic period of the late 1990s; a welcome double-feature, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947); the live-action Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in its original 117-minute version; and The Three Musketeers, in a “10th Anniversary Edition.” These titles may not qualify as classics, in the Disney tradition, anyway, but each has its particular charms. The bonus packages accentuate the bright and lively original songs, some of which are accorded the sing-along treatment. There also are plenty of deleted scenes and commentaries.

Elvis: That’s the Way It Is 2001: Blu-ray
Viva Las Vegas 50th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Anyone who was born after Elvis Presley’s tragic, if self-inflicted death, 37 years ago, in Memphis, might not understand what’s all the fuss about the universally acknowledged King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Images of the grotesquely bloated entertainer linger in the mind as much as the many great photographs of the young Prince of Rock ’n’ Roll, when he was undisputedly the coolest cat on Earth. After Elvis served his time in the U.S. Army, megalo-manager Colonel Tom Parker decided that his client should demonstrate his maturity by forsaking hard-core rock and churning out soundtrack albums from his cookie-cutter movies of the 1960s. Almost all of the movies he made during that period were successful, if entirely forgettable. They take place in exotic locations, such as Hawaii and Acapulco; feature plenty of inorganic singing, dancing and fist-fighting; and the protagonists was given such generic names as Rusty Wells, Charlie Rogers, Rick Richards and Mike Edwards. The closest they came to revealing an ethnic background were Mike McCoy and Joe Lightcloud. They resemble such pre-army movies as Jailhouse Rock and King Creole the way his homogenized version of “Hound Dog” resembled Big Mama Thornton’s far earthier version of the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller hit. Viva Las Vegas was, by far, the best of the “Elvis movies” made during his middle period, after the Don Siegel Western, Flaming Star. The difference can be summed up in one hyphenated word, Ann-Margret. Hired over the objections of the colonel, the stunning hoofer/singer was every bit the equal of Elvis in the charisma department and was given nearly equal screen time by George Sidney, who had directed her in Bye Bye Birdie. Moreover, songs other than the title cut were memorable beyond the opening weekend. And, although he had bombed in his first Las Vegas engagement, Elvis looked as if he owned the part of town not already claimed by the Rat Pack. It all adds up to brainless fun, which is all the public demanded of him at the time. The only new bonus featurette is the Digibook package, which adds more photos and marketing material to the commentary by Steve Pond and a 2007 making-of presentation.

Elvis: That’s the Way It Is documents the King’s preparations for his triumphant 1970 return to the Las Vegas stage, as well as the concert performance that demonstrated how ready he was to take care of business (with a lightning bolt medallion, of course) as a touring superstar. Elvis is in top form physically and vocally and in complete control of everything he surveys. He’s a blast to be around and wonderfully charming. The excitement in the audience was palpable, as well, with such stars as Sammy Davis Jr., Xavier Cugat and Charo, Juliet Prowse, Cary Grant and George Hamilton in attendance. The band was comprised of some of the best session musicians and backup singers in the business, with a playlist that included new and old material, including “All Shook Up,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Love Me Tender,” “Polk Salad Annie,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Suspicious Minds.” What’s interesting to recall is how bland most concerts were at the time. While the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd soon would change how stadium shows would look for the next 40 years, Elvis’ International Hotel visually stunning engagement influenced everyone from Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand to Beyoncé and Britney Spears. The Digibook contains both the original and re-edited 2001 versions of the documentary. Only the latter is offered in Blu-ray. The outtakes and restoration featurette have been shipped over from the 2007 double volume.

Turtle Power: Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
With the Michael Bay-produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles riding high atop the box-office charts for a second weekend, what better time could there be to recall the origins of the fantasy-adventure franchise and re-discover how it’s evolved from a black-and-white comic book to $125-million CGI-impacted extravaganza in just over 30 years. Randall Lobb’s self-financed Turtle Power is a 98-minute labor of love, in which many of the key players are represented. It shouldn’t be confused with the awful electronic press kit featurettes that accompany newly released DVDs or appear on HBO and Showtime between movies. Featured participants include co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird; animation producer Fred Wold; head writer-developer David Wise; Mirage Studio comic artists; the 1987 voice actors; and merchandising executives. It’s the kind of film that first-, second- and third-generation fans can enjoy and discuss with equal fervor.

God’s Not Dead
Mercy Rule, By Kirk and Chelsea Cameron
Camp
Anyone who still wonders why Hollywood continues to court Christian audiences, while routinely running afoul of theologians – Noah, serving as only the latest and most expensive example – should check out the performance of independently produced, God’s Not Dead. Made for a mere $2 million, the faith-based and university-set melodrama finished its domestic theatrical run $60 million in the black. Marketing costs were alleviated by focusing on niche outlets and word-of-mouth in the evangelical community. Even if box-office observers declared “God’s Not Dead” a “surprise hit,” other pundits might have considered its success to be pre-ordained. While most faith-based films are focused on “spreading the good news of Jesus Christ,” Harold Cronk’s story takes a decidedly different tack by pitting student believers against atheist educators in a generic campus setting. Several public universities have been sued recently by Christian students who believe their rights have been usurped by administrators going overboard to maintain a separation between church and state, science and scripture. God’s Not Dead stacks the deck by making the defender of the faith a game freshman against a tenured philosophy professor who insists that his students declare, “God is dead,” on Day One of classes. Otherwise, he claims, too much time is wasted in discussions about the teachings of the great atheist thinkers. When Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) refuses to comply, Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) demands that he prove the existence of the deity in debate or leave the class. Although his girlfriend threatens to leave him if he continues to devote his time to such folly, Josh does what Christians have done for 2,000 years when challenged.

As preposterous as that premise might sound, the debate actually is well-conceived and entertaining. It’s when the story travels beyond the classroom, however, that the debate is diminished by evangelical overkill. Believers and non-believers, alike, are made to ponder how a just God could allow people to endure slow, painful deaths or simply turn their loved ones against them. Finally, everything and everyone come together at a packed-to-the-rafters Christian-rock show … or on the way to it, anyway. The scriptwriters’ foremost miscalculation, here, is playing to the cheap seats by adding subplots involving a Moslem student, whose father beats and disowns her when she turns to Christ, and a student from China so inspired by Josh’s argument that he denounces state-sponsored atheism in a text to his father. Even more insulting are the cameos made by one of the “Duck Dynasty” goofs and his slinky wife. It’s all kind of silly, but audiences in theaters full of believers probably ate it up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, music videos and a discussion about the legal struggles of Christian students.

In other God-is-alive news, “Growing Pains” star Kirk Cameron is all grown up now and making faith-based movies with his wife, Chelsea Noble. Their latest, “Mercy Rules,” uses baseball to teach and re-enforce Christian values. It’s not the most original idea, but baseball can represent all things to all people, even Satanic umpires.

Summer camps are a natural place for teaching life lessons, as well as learning all of the gross-out skills they’ll need when attending college. Jacob Roebuck’s Camp (2013) is set at Christian camp in the Sierra Nevada, where kids who’ve suffered years of neglect and abuse can get a second chance on childhood. Ten-year-old Eli has been scarred by his experiences as a foster child, but it’s his adult counselor, Ken, who may need the most help. The egocentric financial adviser has only taken the position to impress a potential client. Eli, on the other hand, needs to learn how to control his emotions, so he’ll be able to join a family that accepts him for who he is.

Proxy: Blu-ray
The Midnight Game
Agency of Vengeance: Dark Rising 
Motel Hell: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
People who prefer watching movies at home on DVD and Blu-ray have the benefit of reading dozens of reviews before having to choose a night’s entertainment. The Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes sites are reliable, unless one considers the subjectivity involved in giving numerical values to opinions, while those found on Amazon and IMDB’s fan sites are about as trustworthy as a car dealer’s opinions on the cars in his showroom. It’s almost impossible to parse fact from fiction, honest opinion from self-interested deception. On the front cover of the Blu-ray package containing Proxy, the quote, “A worthy successor to Rosemary’s Baby,” is prominently displayed. Supposedly, it’s taken from a review that appeared in the Los Angeles Times. The piece I saw at the paper’s website made no mention of Roman Polanski’s 1968 thriller and, indeed, the devil’s spawn doesn’t make an appearance in Proxy. Being gullible, I spent the first half-hour of my time with Zack Parker’s film looking for it. Instead, the jolts in Proxy”derive from the terrible things that happen when tragedy strikes and a parent loses a child. Here, the mugging of a woman about to deliver leads to a miscarriage, which causes the victim to join a group populated with other grieving parents, one of whom is a phony. Any more information than that would spoil a series of surprises and plot twists which continue for the next 90-plus minutes. What Parker’s techniques lack in fluidity are largely overcome by the unpredictable narrative.

With the creepy campus ghost story House of Dust already in release, A.D. Calvo could be in the process of becoming one of the writer-directors that teens and young adults turn to for spooky fun. The Midnight Game manages to wring a few fresh twists to the subgenre in which clueless teenagers do dumb things in haunted houses. Here, instead of an Ouija board, the half-dozen teens use an incantation, a few drops of blood, candles and burned note cards to play a pagan game handed down after the first ghost took up residence in the first abandoned cave. Here, though, the house has been recently purchased by a single parent required to travel to the far corners of the Earth. It takes about five minutes for her daughter to break her promise about allowing boys and booze into the house and another five for things to start going sideways. Midnight Game works in fits and starts, but the ending is worth the wait, at least. Among the stars are Shelby Young (“American Horror Story”), Guy Wilson (“Days of Our Lives”), Valentina de Angelis (“Gossip Girl”) and Spencer Daniels (“Mom”).

There’s something to be said about sci-fi fantasies in which the most prominent characters are extremely well-endowed women in lingerie, carrying big guns. There are some male characters in Agency of Vengeance: Dark Rising, as well, but, for the life of me, I can’t remember who they were or what they did in the movie. If there’s any good reason for women to pick up a copy of the DVD, I couldn’t say with any certainty what it might be. The Rising Dark Agency is a black-ops division of the intergalactic government headed by Colonel Haggerd (Michael Ironside). When he suspects that a sudden surge of supernatural activity on Earth is the work of an evil Demon-God, he calls on Summer Vale (Brigitte Kingsley) to prevent the coming apocalypse. Yeah, and I’m the king of Spain. The Dark Rising franchise appears to be a Canadian sensation, targeted at viewers who spend most of their free time on the Internet or imagining extremely well-endowed women in lingerie, carrying big guns. They’ll find the nerd humor, fantasy violence and cosplay in Agency of Vengeance much to their liking. And, no, there isn’t any nudity or realistic violence.

There are many good reasons to pick up the collector’s edition of Motel Hell, but I’ll limit mine to just two: 1) ex-con and onetime leading man, Rory Calhoun, and 2) a pig-mask-wearing antagonist, wielding a chainsaw. Calhoun’s Farmer Vincent captures unsuspecting tourists, plants them in his garden heads-up and feeds them until they’re ready for butchering. Think of it as a hillbilly Sweeney Todd, and Motel Hell will begin to make sense. Made in 1980, at the dawn of the slasher/splatter era in Hollywood, it works equally well as a parody of the genre and over-the-top horror flick. The Scream Factory edition adds the irreverent “It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell; “Shooting Old School With Thomas Del Ruth,” in which the cinematographer discusses the differences between shooting a picture, then and now; “Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear,” on what constitutes a good female villain; “From Glamour to Gore: Roseanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell” with the former Playboy Playmate of the Month; “Another Head on the Chopping Block: An Interview With Paul Linke,” who played the film’s hapless cop; and commentary with director Kevin Connor.

The DVD Wrapup: Finding Vivian Maier, Around the Block, Ping Pong Summer, L’amore in Citta, Without Warning, Need for Speed, I’ll Follow You Down, Bitten … More

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Finding Vivian Maier
In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter
More Than the Rainbow
In movies purporting to be made from “found” video footage, an unseen character is assigned the task of walking behind everyone else in the movie, filming everything they do and occasionally directing them. I’ve never encountered such a person in real life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Far more common are the many amateur and semi-pro photographers who wouldn’t dream of leaving home without their cameras. The world is their studio and everyone in it potentially is a model. It isn’t difficult to find things to shoot, of course. Anyone with a sharp eye can frame a scene, even accidentally, in a way that makes even the most mundane moments in life look interesting. The art of the street photographer is recognized in the museum-quality work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz, Garry Winogrand and many other shooters. Although cellphone cameras are threatening to change the standard methodology of street photography, their use is still pretty much limited to recording the damage done in car accidents, for selfies and updating Facebook portraits. These three fine documentaries, released nearly simultaneously through different distributors, testify to the viability of the time-honored discipline.

Of the three, “Finding Vivian Maier” should appeal to the widest cross-section of viewers, whether or not they’ve picked up a camera since the industry went digital. That’s because the story behind the photographs is so doggone fascinating it practically demands to be seen. After spending her formative years in New York and her mother’s Alpine hometown of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur, she moved to Chicago and spent the next 40 years working as a nanny on the city’s tony North Shore. She spent her free time, as well as improvised field trips with her young charges, shooting tens of thousands of photographs on her medium-format Rolleiflex. It wasn’t until the 1970s, that Maier switched to a 35mm camera and Ektachrome film. Her passion, which she kept secret from employers, included home movies and audio tapes with people she photographed. Two years before her death in 2009, Maier’s entire trove was sold at auction to help the storage facility recover her debt. One of the three successful bidders posted some of the images on the Internet, but failed to attract much attention to them. Amateur historian John Maloof had far greater luck with the photos he posted, prompting something of a “viral” response to them. Before long, Maier’s status would grow from anonymous amateur to worldwide sensation. Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s “Finding Vivan Maier” expands on this thumbnail biography, by adding dozens of photographs, movies, interviews with the grown-up children left to her attention, critics, fellow photographers and her remaining French relatives in Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur. The thing to remember about Maier is that, while something of a hoarder, she wasn’t a recluse. Not only was Chicago her oyster, but she also travelled internationally and recorded the habits and fashions of people representing all social classes.

The subject of Tomas Leach’s “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter” may have enjoyed far greater visibility in his lifetime than Maier, but he, too, felt no great urgency to share his work with outsiders. Leiter’s rarely left his Lower East Side apartment, which looks as if it might collapse at any given moment from the sheer weight of his chaotically preserved collections. Unlike Maier, though, Leiter accepted assignments from Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire and favored color photography throughout most of his career. The camera he received from his mother at age 12 pretty much ended his father’s plan for him to become a rabbi. After leaving theology school, he moved to New York to paint. Abstract Expressionist Richard Pousette-Dart and photojournalist W. Eugene Smith both encouraged Leiter to pursue photography. Blessed with a painterly eye, he experimented with the way photographers composed their shots and distorted visual reality through the application of colors and textures.  Along with Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, he contributed to what became known as the New York School of photographers. Leiter didn’t exactly open his arms to Leach, insisting that his output wasn’t worthy of such regard and his personal story wasn’t that interesting. Everything in “In No Great Hurry” contradicts that opinion. He constantly warns the filmmaker about the possibility of pulling his consent from the project if the intrusion on his privacy offended him. That modesty, alone, made him a rare bird in Manhattan. Leiter died last November, a week before his 90th birthday, but in time to see a rough cut of the documentary. Before passing on, he also had given up his resolve not to spend time cataloguing and editing his “stuff,” by allowing assistant Margit Erb to ease the ordeal. The film is broken down into 13 chapters, or “lessons,” which could apply to life as much as photography.

I’m pretty sure that Dan Wechsler hadn’t intended on begging comparisons of his documentary, “More Than the Rainbow,” to “Taxi Driver.” Nonetheless, they’re inevitable. His subject, street photographer Matt Weber, once made his living driving a cab through the same mean streets as Travis Bickle, and both shared an eye for the sordid: prostitutes on the stroll, knife fights on the sidewalks and almost comically attired pedestrians everywhere from Times Square to Coney Island. At least one street scene does bear the unmistakable fingerprints of Martin Scorsese, as Weber’s hack is driven through a cloud of steam. When he saw something he wanted to shoot, Wells simply pointed his camera out of the cab from his seat or got out and framed the image. (It’s left unclear as to whether he made his passengers wait, while he fed his addiction. Seems a bit tricky, tip-wise). Like other street photographers, he might also stand and wait for hours for the pictures to come to him. The title, “More Than the Rainbow,” refers to one of his more well-known photos, in which lakeside cottages and a sign offering Depression-era rates, are practically eclipsed by a rainbow. Weber knew that the rainbow would immediately draw the attention of viewers, even though it was more of a lucky coincidence than anything else. It probably can be argued that street photography in New York City is the artistic equivalent of fishing with hand grenades. Point your camera in any direction and you’ll stumble upon something that looks remarkable after being cropped and edited. Still, serendipity is as necessary a component of the art as a light meter. “More Than the Rainbow” differs from the other two docs in that the participants are asked to weigh in on aesthetics, technology, ethics and the relative merits of color and black-and-white film. Not all street photography is intrusive, but, in New York, the temptation to invade a subject’s privacy often is too compelling to resist. Among the witnesses are Ralph Gibson, Zoe Strauss, Eric Kroll, Todd Oldham, Ben Lifson, Jeff Mermelstein and David Beckerman. All three films offer bonus gallery material. “More Than the Rainbow” also benefits from a soundtrack filled with the music of Thelonious Monk.

Around the Block
I don’t know if “Blackboard Jungle” is the first movie in which a dedicated outsider uses the arts to change the fortunes of disadvantaged teenagers and outright hoodlums, but the scenario has yet to wear out its welcome. From Australia, “Around the Block” finds guest-American Christina Ricci employs Shakespeare to reach Aboriginal students, living in one of Sydney’s tougher neighborhoods. The teacher, Dino Chalmers, had attended college in Australia a few years earlier and was returning to be with her boyfriend after having taught drama on the Navajo Nation. Already sensitive to the racism that subjugates native populations, Chalmers is shocked by insensitivity of her boyfriend and his cronies toward the plight of the Aboriginals, who they consider incapable of anything besides committing crimes and public inebriation. Chalmers’ students are surprisingly pleased by being given the opportunity to perform “Hamlet.” She takes on resident bad boy Liam Wood (Hunter Page-Lochard) as the titular character, even though he appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his back. Liam would love to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who, before being killed by police, had been a star of the world-renowned National Black Theater. His father, who was arrested and incarcerated in the same incident, prods both of the boys to kill the drug dealer who set them up. Instead, Liam desires to break the cycle of violence and hate by playing a slightly Aboriginal version of Hamlet. First-time writer/director Sarah Spillane appears to have anticipated all of the clichés attendant to such stories and has either found ways to avoid them or add clever local twists to the proceedings. Ricci does a nice job, as usual, as do the aspiring thespians. The only jarring element comes in the girl-girl subplot, during which Chalmers turns to female companionship immediately after giving her lunkhead boyfriend the heave-ho. We will soon enough learn that, while in college, she had broken the heart of her lesbian lover and was now back to mend it. Problem is, the change in direction comes completely out of left field and raises more questions than it answers. Otherwise, “Around the Block” is a refreshing take on an old story.

Ping Pong Summer: Blu-ray
Last week in this space, while reviewing a new DVD from France, I mentioned how comforting it is that Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon are still accepting roles in movies that don’t assure Oscar nominations or, even, a theatrical release. This, at a time when more and more actresses of a certain age are relegated to cable mini-series and sitcoms. Sarandon’s turn in “Ping Pong Summer” isn’t nearly as substantial as Deneuve’s in “On My Way,” but it’s by far the best thing in Michael Tully’s quaint coming-of-age comedy. I say “quaint” because almost everything seems out-of-place by 20 years, at least. In one of the hoariest of coming-of-age clichés, the Miracle family is returning to Ocean City, Maryland, for their annual summer vacation by the beach. This one promises to be a real hum-dinger, in that 13-year-old Rad (Marcello Conte) has finally reached puberty and is handsome enough to do something about it. Curiously, though, he has no idea how to respond to the things his body is telling him to do. By comparison, his older sister, Michelle (Helena May Seabrook), is a Goth nihilist with no desire to spend time shaking sand out of her shoes.

As Mrs. Miracle, Lea Thompson could very well be channeling the 1985 iteration of Lorraine Baines in “Back to the Future,” a casting decision that hardly seems coincidental. For no good reason, other than John Hannah is Scottish, Mr. Miracle is a cop with a thick brogue. No sooner does Rad unpack his suitcase than he’s in trouble with a couple of local bullies who seem to think it’s cool to beat up on out-of-town geeks unable to fight back when pushed. Rad shares this misfortune with his new best friend, Teddy (Myles Massey), who acts as if he may be related to Steve Urkel and is an easy target for the townies’ prehistoric attitudes toward race. They bond over ping-pong, hip-hop and breakdancing. Remarkably, the bullies also have a thing for ping-pong, as do the local bathing beauties. Naturally, Rad is challenged by one of the boys to a duel, designed to humiliate him in front of the girls. The problem for viewers old enough to remember President Nixon’s use of “ping-pong diplomacy” to build a bridge with then-Red China is that the quality of table tennis on display in the teen arcade here is abysmal. Anticipating being slaughtered at the local arcade’s green plywood table, Rad consults the one person who might help him avoid eternal humiliation in Ocean City. Sarandon plays the town’s foremost eccentric, Randi Jammer, who, among other skills, once was a champion swatter. Not having been a teenager in the mid-1980s, I couldn’t attest to the nostalgia value of “Ping Pong Summer.” I remember parents being more concerned over sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll than paddle-wielding thugs threatening their kids. The actors never give their performances less than their all, though, and the period look is realistically rendered. Commentary is provided by Tully and producer George Rush. The package also includes a humorous making-of feature.

Without Warning: Bluray
How this barely seen homage to 1950s’ sci-fi managed to avoid being skewered by the robotic critics of the Satellite of Love – the orbiting screening room on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — is anyone’s guess. It certainly is no less worthy than the 198 entries in the series. My guess is that its absence can be attributed to the same rights issues that kept it from being released on any video format, until Scream Factory picked it up and gave it a full digital makeover. As bad as it is, however, “Without Warning” has a few things going for it and all of them appear in the list of credits. How bad could a movie starring Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Neville Brand, Cameron Mitchell, Sue Ann Langdon, Ralph Meeker, Larry Storch and newcomer David Caruso be? As directed by schlockmeister Greydon Clark (“Black Shampoo,” “Satan’s Cheerleaders”), bad enough to qualify as must-see cinema. Filmed in the mountains around Los Angeles, “Without Warning” is the story of an alien whose thirst for human blood is quenched through the deployment of nasty little creatures that look and fly like Frisbees, but are lethal to humans. It resembles a deflated cow pie, from which the poisonous tentacles of a Portuguese man o’ war protrude. Not even a pack of Cub Scouts is safe from the damn things. Landau and Palance appear to hold the only keys to unlock the mystery and destroy the alien. Typically, though, they’re too busy drinking in a local pub to do anything but give lip-service to the solution. Frankly, I can’t blame them. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clark; new interviews with cinematographer Dean Cundey, co-writer/co-producer Daniel Grodnik; special make-up effects creator Greg Cannom; actors Christopher S. Nelson and Tarah Nutter; original theatrical trailer; and stills gallery.

Raro Video
L’amore in Citta: Blu-ray
I Vinti: Blu-ray
The Bankers of God: The Calvi Affair: Blu-ray
Blue Movie
Most of what Americans know about post-WWII Italian cinema can be summed up in one word, “Neorealism.” The movement was so dynamic a cinematic force that it influenced nearly all other films made in Italy in its immediate wake and impacted on how European and American directors approached dramatic projects. In Italy, these included movies made for the consumption of audiences tiring of reliving the horrors of the Nazi occupation and watching stories about heroic priests (for several years, a subgenre of its own). Italo-centric Raro Video is in the business of introducing Americans to impeccably restored movies that weren’t deemed sufficiently commercial to make the leap over the pond in the early 1950s, as well as genre classics and exploitation pictures by artists both well-known and obscure. One of the most striking visual aspects common to post-war movies from Europe and Japan are the many artifacts of WWII seen in location shoots. Shantytowns, bombed-out structures and piles of bricks continue to haunt the horizons, alongside newly constructed housing projects or the odd modern building. The so-called economic miracles were years away from pushing back the rising tide of poverty and unemployment. Women, especially, bore the burden of the post-war Baby Boom. (Many of southern European men and teenage boys sought work in places where the economy had slowly begun to improve.) In America, by contrast, blue- and white-collar workers had already found meaningful work and were banking their salaries in hopes of buying into the American Dream … with some help from the G.I. Bill.

Made in 1953, “L’amore in Citta” is something of a revelation. Borrowing Neorealist conceits, the anthology explores some of the ways contemporary citizens of Rome were dealing with the vagaries of love, romance, sex, divorce, despair, abandonment and parenthood. If that sounds unwieldy, the contributors weren’t yet required to include radical departures from tradition, brought about by the Pill and the freedoms allowed owners of motorized beds … er, cars. Most young men and women lived with their parents until marriage, chaperons and curfews had yet to disappear, and the long shadow of the Catholic Church kept teenagers in the dark about sex. Even so, by 1953, people too young to have fought in the war were bursting at the seams to enjoy freedom before it was taken away from them again. The “60 Minutes”-like omnibus opens with Carlo Lizzani’s “L’Amore che si paga” (“Paid Love), which shines an unbiased light into the shadows of the buyer’s market that was prostitution in Rome; Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Attempted Suicide,” provides an open mike for men and women who had attempted or seriously considered suicide as a cure for despair; Dino Risi’s absolutely delightful “Paradise for Four Hours” spends an evening in a dance hall, where jazz, R&B and rock bring men and women together, if only for a few minutes at a time; Federico Fellini’s “Marriage Agency” enlists a reporter to pose as a perspective husband to investigate the match-making business; Cesara Zavattini and Umberto Maselli’s “Story of Caterina” dramatizes the true story of an impoverished unwed mother who agonizes between doing what’s best for her child and what’s best for her; and Alberto Lattuada’s “Italians Stare,” in which large-breasted women in radically aerodynamic bras pretend not to notice the reactions – only some of them cautiously disguised — of men already predisposed to act like swine in their midst. Among the actors are Ugo Tognazzi, Maressa Gallo, and Caterina Riogoglioso, but, I swear, I saw someone who could have been Roberto Benigni’s father. The Blu-ray is accompanied by commentaries and interviews with learned scholars and filmmakers, as well as a booklet with 20 pages devoted to essays, appreciations and restoration notes.

Two years before “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Rock Around the Clock,” Antonioni’s “I Vinti” (“The Vanquished”) tapped squarely into the international youthquake about to rattle to walls of polite society. In an interesting coincidence, “The Wild One” forced American audiences to recognize how post-war anxiety and non-conformist behavior were combining organically into a cocktail of violence and hate. I don’t know when the term, “juvenile delinquency,” came into vogue in the U.S., but Antonioni identified the same symptoms spreading throughout the major population centers in Italy. “I Vinti” is divided into three parts, each one dramatizing the events surrounding a murder perpetrated by middle-class or affluent youths in Italy, France and England. Antonioni isn’t so much interested in creating a mystery and solving it, then to survey the cultural landscape and get inside the heads of the killers before and after the crime. To accomplish this, he fell back on his experience as documentary maker and disciple of Neorealism. Look closely and you’ll find moments that anticipate themes he would return to in “Blow-Up” and “Zabriskie Point.” The Blu-ray adds an eight-page booklet featuring an essay by Stefania Parigi; an interview with actor Franco Interlenghi (star of “Italy”); an interview with writer/producer Turi Vasile, on post-war Italian cinema and his assertion that “The Vanquished” was a turning point for the industry; “Tentato Suicidio,” Antonioni’s segment from “Love in the City”; and the original, uncut version of the “Italy,” which created a controversy because of its political undertones.

Remember the scenes in “Godfather III” that described how Michael Corleone had invested his crime family’s revenues in Vatican interests, only to be stabbed in the back by priests and bankers who treated him like a rube from the New Country? I found most of the wheeling and dealing lacking in logic and too fantastic to waste much time deciphering. Giuseppe Ferrara’s 2002 true-crime melodrama, “The Bankers of God: The Calvi Affair,” goes a long way toward explaining how Francis Ford Coppola might have, if anything, under-estimated the complexity of the scandal. Al Pacino doesn’t appear in “The Bankers of God,” but I would have loved to see what Coppola or Costa-Gavras could have done with the raw material here. While Michael Corleone was interested in global power and immense profits, the Vatican was using its banks treasury to finance the Solidarity movement in Poland and fascists in Central America. Roberto Calvi was one of several influential bankers who greased the wheels for such investments, while also finding new suckers anxious to launder their ill-gotten gains through God’s network of banks and sham companies. Among the more tasty things in “Bankers of God” are the sight of a frail Pope John Paul II in sweats on an exercise bike; a spooky gathering of Freemasons in velvet robes and pointed hoods; and Cardinal Marcinkus (Rutger Hauer) in civilian drag, golfing with his “nieces” in tow. As scandals go, this one makes Watergate look like a convenience-store stickup.

Blue Movie,” Alberto Cavallone’s 1978 exercise in stomach-churning sexploitation opens auspiciously with a chase and attempted rape in the woods. The good news is that the victim escapes the violent attack; the bad news is that she’s picked up at the side of a rural road by a sado-masochistic photographer, Claudio. Before she succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, Silvia (Dirce Funari) is fed a steady diet of war images that tell of death, devastation and pain. Another supermodel is asked to join in the sado-masochistic fun, as well. There’s enough nudity and perversion here to keep things moving, if not much of a story.

Need for Speed: Blu-ray
Are muscle cars making a comeback? In the fiscally indefensible, if occasionally quite entertaining “Need for Speed,” stuntman-turned-director Scott Waugh gives us some reason to hope that such a blast from America’s technological past is theoretically possible, at least. Fans of the “The Fast and the Furious” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” already know that street racing and high-octane chases have never gone out of style. The refreshing difference between those hit pictures and “Need for Speed” is Waugh’s and writers George and John Gatins’ nostalgia for the days of yesteryear, when gasoline cost no more than 30-40 cents a gallon, V-8 engines churned out in excess of 500 horsepower, no two automakers wanted their products to look the same, the Beach Boys dedicated entire albums to hot rods and street racing took place in a straight quarter-mile-long line. The oil crises of the 1970s effectively ended the production of muscle cars in Detroit and, by extension, the world. While “Need for Speed” borrows certain stylistic conceits from “F&F” and the popular “Need for Speed” video-game series, the movie’s spirit can be traced to such movies as “The Gumball Rally,” “Cannonball,” “Cannonball Run” and “Two-Lane Blacktop.” All except the latter title owe their existence to the highly illegal Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, created by automotive journalist Brock Yates. Two-time Emmy-winner Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) fills the lead role of Tobey Marshall, an ace mechanic newly released from prison for crime he didn’t commit in a previous year’s running of the marathon event. Therefore, he has a rather large ax to grind on the head of one of this year’s participants. This time, he’s teamed with a pretty blond Brit (Imogen Poots), on whose Ford Shelby Mustang he worked. “Need for Speed” won’t make anyone forget any of the aforementioned movies, or throw away their video-game platform, but the racing scenes are well-imagined and the cars look great. The stunning Blu-ray presentation adds commentary with Waugh and Paul; deleted scenes; outtakes; a promo for the “Need for Speed: Rivals” games; and a couple of background featurettes.

I’ll Follow You Down
Not so long ago, the pairing of Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) and Haley Joel Osment (“The Sixth Sense”) would have caused significantly more hubbub than the brief ripple of excitement raised in anticipation of “I’ll Follow You Down.” Although neither actor has completely disappeared from sight in the last dozen years, or so, the world doesn’t seem to have missed them in the interim. Anderson’s kept busy working in films, on stage and television, primarily in England. Osment’s dramatic descent from Hollywood’s A-list began after his terrific performance as a little robot boy in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” In a very real sense, Osment put his career on hold after “A.I.,” to attend a local high school and become a real boy. If he hasn’t be accorded much respect as an adult actor, it’s probably because, at 26, he doesn’t look a day over 17. His only concession to aging are the extra pounds of flesh on his face. None of this has anything to do with the issue at hand, of course, which is Richie Mehta’s movie. The central characters, Marika and Erol, are left behind at home when physicist Gabe Whyte (Rufus Sewell) ostensibly disappears while attending a scientific conference in New Jersey. His absence remains a perplexing mystery to the boy, even as he’s demonstrating his own proficiency in astrophysics. Ultimately, it drives Marika to commit suicide. In the wake of this tragedy, Erol’s grandfather (Victor Garber) pulls out Gabe’s sketches and notes, on the off-chance that the young man will see something in them that no one else has. From the research, Grandpa Sal has come to believe that Gabe had built a stable wormhole, which allowed him to travel back in time to 1947. Traumatized by his mother’s death and still wounded by his father’s disappearance, Erol picks up the challenge laid down by Sal. At the same time, he finds a photographic clue that suggests to him that his father rode his wormhole to Albert Einstein’s adoptive home in Princeton, N.J. This means, of course, that Erol will attempt to return to a place he’d never been, at a time 40 years before his birth. Before he leaves, Sal lectures his grandson on the possible ramifications of a successful journey. For viewers, “I’ll Follow You Down” is two-thirds setup and exposition and one-third “Twilight Zone” homage. On the plus side, the actors do a nice job keeping the weight of the narrative from dragging down the entire picture and Rod Serling’s legacy includes dozens of adaptations of individual episodes, done right the first time.

The Phantom of the Paradise: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Sex Pistols on TV
Devo: Men Who Make the Music/Butch Devo & the Sundance Gig
In the mid-1970s, even mainstream lovers of rock ’n’ roll still refused to give in entirely to the demands of record-label weasels, programmers of classic-rock radio and the extortionist policies of Ticketmaster. Fans went to great lengths to convince themselves of the purity of rock music and musicians, but only the Grateful Dead could be said to have held the line against promoters of stadium tours and wildly escalating ticket prices. The Dead refused to ban its followers from recording the concerts, even with sophisticated equipment. Ken Russell’s over-the-top visualization of the Who’s already 6-year-old “rock opera” “Tommy” benefitted greatly from the familiarity of the music and presence of genuine movie stars. At about the same time, “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” would struggle to find their audience and bridge the worlds of pop music and musical theater. “Rocky Horror” succeeded almost by accident, while “Phantom” only became a bona-fide hit in Winnipeg. Everything looks and sounds swell on this excellent Scream Factory Blu-ray release, but, in 1974, writer/director Brian de Palma had yet to prove himself as an interpreter of countercultural tropes and the marketing campaign behind “Phantom” reeked of being too slick by half. At the time, Alice Cooper and Kiss likewise were viewed with suspicion by the “Woodstock über alles” crowd. As gimmicks go, however, both “Phantom” and “Rocky Horror” can still stand on their own merits. Credit for that belongs to De Palma’s great cinematic eye, Paul Williams’ catchy songs and the enduring validity of the “Phantom of the Opera” legend. Instead of being required to deliver a message about the perils of celebrity and Satanic influences in the music industry, it can be watched or re-watched strictly for fun, of which there’s plenty. When the impish Williams makes his presence known, as the corrupt promoter, it almost feels like a Muppet movie.  The Blu-ray package adds new commentaries and interviews with Jessica Harper and Gerrit Graham and the Juicy Fruits band, and production designer Jack Fisk; new interviews with DePalma, Williams and make-up effects wizard Tom Burman; and making-of material. Vintage bonus features on a second disc include a documentary on the making of the film; an interview with Williamsm, moderated by Guillermo Del Toro; an interview with costume designer Rosanna Norton; and a gallery of neon art created for the picture. The featurettes are unusually long and informative.

Britain’s Sex Pistols was formed in reaction to such things as rock operas, parody musicals, stadium tours and the excesses of glam rock. Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten cried “Bollocks” to the whole notion that rock music could be mainstreamed or cynically manipulated by new iterations of old-school shysters. In their own anti-social way, they took what began with Britain’s fixation with rockabilly and routed it through such punk pioneers as Iggy Pop, the MC5 and Ramones. Under the tutelage of trend-setters Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, the Pistols not only turned the music industry on its ear, but also created a fashion look that endures 40 years later … safety pins and Mohawk hairdos, who knew? “Sex Pistols on TV” tells the story of the lads, from 1976 to the present day — including the death of Sid Vicious, the split and recent reforming of the band — pretty much in their own words and on their own terms. What looked and sounded so outrageous 40 years ago in the rare and forgotten archive footage included here, today almost seems original and refreshing.

Also born in the mid-1970s, Devo found success defying conventions and adding the word “ironic” to the rock lexicon. A cross between the Cars and Kraftwerk, Devo’s music reworked basic rock and pop rhythms into something both robotic and self-consciously hip. Undeniably catchy, the songs gave nerds a reason to turn on their car radios. “Men Who Make the Music” and “Butch Devo & the Sundance Gig” find Devo nearly at opposite ends of their active career. The former combines concert footage from Devo’s 1978 tour with music videos and interstitials featuring a vague story about the group’s “rocky relationship with Big Entertainment.” Jerry Casale describes the latter film thusly, “In January of ’96, we closed Sundance Film Festival. We wore ’20s’ style prison suits and dished out classic Devo songs to an unsuspecting audience of Hollywood elite.” I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed with the results.

Pot Zombies 2
As a slightly more expensive sequel to the 2006 underground hit, “Pot Zombies,” couldn’t be better timed. Eight years ago, even the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes seemed too much to ask of American voters and lawmakers. Today, it’s a reality in many states. Even if more than the original $900 was spent on “Pot Zombies 2,” it retains the same super-cheap, do-it-yourself texture. The synopsis is the same, as well: “Pot smokers turn into zombies with the ‘munchies’ for human flesh, when a strain of radioactive pot infects the stoners of America.” Hey, it could happen. The only thing that’s markedly different here, then, is the sequel’s subtitle – “More pot, less plot” – which is better than anything in the screenplay.

TV on DVD
Syfy: Bitten: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
IFC: The Birthday Boys: The Complete First Season
NBC: Community: The Complete Fifth Season
PBS: American Experience: The Wild West
PBS: Italy’s Mystery Mountains
If there’s anything the western world doesn’t need any more of these days, it’s another teen-oriented TV series populated with werewolves and other fashionable creatures of the night. Thanks to “True Blood” and the “Twilight” series, we may never see another actor – male or female – who’s old enough to remember the debut of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” That won’t prevent the pretend undead from playing a doctor, lawyer or anything else that requires a post-graduate degree, however. Based on Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” novels, “Bitten” tells the story of blond bombshell Elena (Laura Vandervoort), who’s attempting to lead a normal life in Toronto after being bitten and turned into werewolf by her studly ex-fiance, Clayton (Greyston Holt). Elena’s human boyfriend, Philip (Paul Greene) is clueless to her alter ego, even when she scurries from their bed to quench her insatiable sexual appetite in city’s forested parkways. When she’s summoned to her pack’s Upstate New York mansion to combat a threat from a rival werewolf family, she reluctantly agrees to return to the site of her “de-flowering.” Once there, it’s tough for viewers to determine if the greatest threat to her well-being is from the rival wolfpack or Clayton. After 13 episodes, we’ll learn her decision. As cliché as that description makes “Bitten” sound, its production values are well above-par as these things go and the many fight scenes are quite good, as well. The Blu-ray package includes episodes from the Canadian edition, which appears to have been more than a little bit racier than the one shown here on Syfy. It adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, split-screen examples of stunt choreography and commentary with the producers and Vandervoort.

Bob Odenkirk may or may not be the hardest-working man on television right now, but he’s certainly among the funniest. Between finishing off his stint on “Breaking Bad” and reprising his character in the upcoming prequel, “Better Call Saul,” Odenkirk teamed with the Los Angeles comedy group, the Birthday Boys, for a sketch show exec-produced by Ben Stiller. IFC’s “The Birthday Boys’” approach to comedy basically ranges from stupid and juvenile, to smart and savagely anarchic. In this way, it resembles “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” “The Kids in the Hall,” “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and, going back a few years, “SCTV” and “Monty Python.” There are short bits and others that run through an episode like a thread. Odenkirk’s contributions frequently border on the surrealistic. The Season One package adds audio commentaries, “The Making of Season One,” “From Stage to Screen,” bonus Videos and promos.

There’s nothing more to say about the wildly eccentric NBC sitcom “Community” that hasn’t already been written by the nation’s corps of critics. As a series that actively set out to break the rules and stretch the established limits of network programming – without using the twin crutches of sex and language – it clearly succeeded, remaining on the air for five tortured seasons. If it never found the audience it deserved, well, I suspect that very few people realistically thought it would. Now, given an opportunity to push the envelope even further on Netflix, the real test begins in the eternal struggle between “smart” and “commercial.” The episodes in the final-season package are representative of those from the last three, at least, in that they are altogether inventive, kooky and demanding of one’s complete attention. It can be argued, as well, that the themes and gags frequently give off an air of being exhaustively hipper-than-thou, but so what? The set adds a few entertaining bonus features.

For most of the 20th Century, kids addicted to stories about cowboys, Indians, outlaws and lawmen were required to rely on myths, legends and lies perpetrated by writers who knew that the truth rarely sold as well as cleverly crafted exaggerations. It’s as if the working principle in Hollywood, all along, has been, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Today, audiences have an opportunity to choose between buying into the legend, learning the truth or picking and choosing between the two. And, yes, the truth is frequently more entertaining than the fiction. As proof, PBS’ “American Experience” offers “The Wild West,” which does the scud work that screenwriters were rarely required to do in the 100 years since “The Great Train Robbery.” The hour-long episodes collected here included biographies of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, General George Custer, Geronimo, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Kit Carson.  They aren’t intended to burst anyone’s bubbles about the American West, just explain how the legends came to be.

The title of PBS’ “Italy’s Mystery Mountains” probably overstates its case for being of interest to a wide spectrum of viewers. So, too, does the cover, which suggests that an encounter with Vlad Tepes might not be out of the questions. A closer examination reveals the sub-title, “The Fascinating Geologic Story of Italy.” Well, that certainly applies to the destruction of Pompeii, about which movies are still being made, but what about everything that’s gone on below eye level at speeds measured in millennia? Two teams of scientists have been studying just that in an attempt to determine if the great mountain ranges are still “alive” and growing, or have stabilized. Besides a discussion of volcanoes, the most accessible part of the documentary describes how the mountains that produced Michelangelo’s famous marbles were created. Most the material presented in “Mystery Mountains” is in a form of English we can all understand.

The DVD Wrapup

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Noah: Blu-ray
Cross a few short chapters from Genesis with Classics Illustrated, Marvel and DC comics and it’s likely that it will look something like Darren Aronofsky’s epic biblical adventure, “Noah.” The Old Testament is full of whopping yarns written to explain how God came to favor one ethnic group over another. Was the sea artificially parted by the deity to allow for Jewish slaves to escape tyranny in Egypt or did Exodus coincide with the eruption of a giant volcano in the Mediterranean Sea, which caused a tsunami that not only opened a temporary path to Israel, but also drowned the Egyptian pursuers when it closed? If nothing else, Aronofsky’s version of the story explains, however fancifully, how all of those animals managed to coexist on the Ark without becoming part of the food chain. Even so, Paramount was so afraid of a fundamentalist backlash that it agreed to add a disclaimer to the marketing material for the $125-million picture, ensuring them that the great flood could have happened exactly as they were taught. It also test-marketed different endings, without the approval of Aronofsky, so as to avoid protests. (Paramount ended up going with the original ending, anyway.) The bible-bangers’ time may have been put to greater use attempting to figure out how the three sons of Noah and Naameh were able to repopulate the Earth after the waters receded. And, where did all of that water go? And, for that matter, how was Noah able to live for more 900 years and only father three sons? Given these and other difficult questions raised in the bible, why begrudge Aronofsky – as imaginative a filmmaker as labors in Hollywood – the occasional leap of faith or fancy, especially if it encourages young people to pick up the Good Book. Frankly, I don’t know which of the filmmaker’s conceits put a bee in the fundamentalists’ bonnets, unless it was the depiction of the fallen angels as craggy construction workers; the evil Tubal-cain’s ability to hitch a ride on the Ark; or Noah’s willingness to kill his granddaughters in the name of the Lord. Absent such embellishments, however, “Noah” may have lasted all of about 25 minutes. There’s probably a good reason the bible left unclear the details of Noah’s excellent adventure. Perhaps, it was left for Hollywood to fill in the blanks.

The truth remains, God’s fingerprints are all over “Noah.” If anyone has reason to question motives here, it’s the atheists. Filmed largely amidst the volcanic wastelands of Iceland, it isn’t difficult to imagine that He/She might have been appalled by humankind’s tendency to violence and blasphemy. Unlike Steve Carell’s impersonation of Noah as a white-bearded Mr. Natural, Russell Crowe’s creation looks 50 years old, instead of 600, and could assume command of the H.M.S. Bounty after the Ark landed on Mount Ararat. Moreover, his Noah is absolutely ferocious in his literal translation of God’s words, and, if Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) doesn’t like his stance on their granddaughters’ fate, she can take a long walk off of a short plank. I don’t think that part was in the bible, either. According to the book, though, Noah finally was no more infallible than anyone else in his family. He became addicted to the fruit of the vine and made a fool of himself. One thing “Noah” doesn’t do is cheat audiences out of their hard-earned dollars. Technically, it’s as impeccable an entertainment as one is going to find. The construction of the Ark, enactment of battle scenes and CGI-enhanced flooding would be worth the price of a rental, no matter one’s religious beliefs … or suspended disbeliefs. Fundamentalists typically don’t relish the idea of debating anything they consider to be the direct word of God, written in the blood of the lamb and sanctioned by the Southern Baptist Convention. Recently, though, I’ve read the opinions of several distinguished theologians and pundits, who’ve looked beyond the hype and venom and found ways to use “Noah” as a teaching tool and entry point for debate about Old Testament themes and phenomenology. As such, it’s easy to recommend. The Blu-ray adds three worthwhile featurettes, “Iceland: Extreme Beauty,” a discussion of the benefits to the story of shooting in Iceland, the land’s natural beauty, difficult terrain access, meteorological challenges and working in the cave, where Anthony Hopkins’ cagey portrayal of Methuselah begins. – Gary Dretzka

 
Herzog: The Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Of all the filmmakers who’ve had the word, “genius,” attached to the names, Werner Herzog is only one of a precious few who actually deserve the honor. The titles included in Shout! Factory’s “Herzog: The Collection,” represent work from 1970 to 1999, or, to be precise, from “Even Dwarfs Started Small” to “My Best Friend,” on his relationship with the brilliant, if wildly tempestuous Klaus Kinski. Herzog’s output since 1999 is arguably even more remarkable. As one of the leading lights of the New German Cinema, the now 71-year-old Herzog continues to make documentaries that feel like dramas and dramas that could easily be mistaken for documentaries. As if to demonstrate just how thin the line between fact and fiction can in his work, Herzog remade his 1997 documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” into the exciting 2007 action-adventure, “Rescue Dawn.” In it, Christian Bale plays the German-born fighter pilot, who, after joining the U.S. Navy, was shot down by the Pathet Lao and escaped from captivity in a bamboo cage. Les Blank’s BAFTA-winning documentary, “Burden of Dreams” not only chronicles the difficulties faced by Herzog while making “Fitzcarraldo,” but it also makes the argument for obsessive behavior being an asset for any aspiring filmmaker. The proof can be found in this essential collection of Herzog’s movies. In addition to the four aforementioned titles, the set includes “Fata Morgana,” “Land of Silence and Darkness,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” “Where the Green Ants Dream,” “Ballad of the Little Soldier,” “Lessons of Darkness,” “Heart of Glass,” “Strozek,” “Woyzeck” and “Cobra Verde.” The quality of the AV presentation varies according to the age and original source of the films, some of which were made for European television. Footage shot after the battle for Kuwait offers a vision of earthly hell that’s accentuated by the Blu-ray presentation and brilliant choice of music. For Herzog, all life on Earth is accompanied by an operatic soundtrack. Seven of the films arrive with English commentaries, while three others have German tracks. The featurettes include “In Conversation: Werner Herzog and (his distributor) Laurens Straub,” “The Making of ‘Nosferatu the Vampyre,’” “Portrait: Werner Herzog,” “Herzog in Africa” and theatrical trailers. Herzog is also a terrific raconteur, as is evident especially in the anecdotes he shares about his personal and professional relationship with Kinski, whose reputation as a loose cannon is amply demonstrated here. The limited-edition “Herzog: The Collection” also features a 40-page booklet, which includes photos, an essay by award-winning author Stephen J. Smith and in-depth film synopses by Herzog scholars Brad Prager and Chris Wahl. – Gary Dretzka

Grace Kelly Collection
Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Revisited: The Director’s Cut: Blu-ray
If aspiring actors were required to pass a test before being allowed to appear in movies budgeted at something north of $10 million, they could use the movies in “Grace Kelly Collection” as study guides. Although she only starred in 10 feature films and a bunch of TV anthologies before ascending to royalty, Kelly exuded class, integrity and classic feminine beauty in ways few women would again in Hollywood. If she spent any of her remaining 26 years on Earth pretending to enjoy being married to Prince Rainier of Monaco, Kelly never revealed it in public. Neither does she suggest as much in her final television interview, with journalist Pierre Salinger (and included here), less than two months before her death. If little girls still dream of growing up to become a princess and/or an Academy Award-winning actress, it’s because of Grace Kelly, not Madonna or Beyoncé. Although the Warner Home Video release doesn’t include “Rear Window” or “High Noon,” both readily available in DVD/Blu-ray, what’s here represents the “American princess” in all her regal glory. It is comprised of John Ford’s Kenya-set rom-dram, “Mogambo” (1953), which also starred Clark Gable and Ava Gardner; Alfred Hitchcock’s very British murder mystery, “Dial M for Murder” (1954), with Robert Cummings and Ray Milland; “The Country Girl” (1954), for which she was awarded a Best Picture Oscar;  the wartime drama, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954), with William Holden and Mickey Rooney; Hitchcock’s suspenseful “To Catch a Thief” (1995), during which Kelly and Cary Grant play a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse in the French Riviera; and her swan song, “High Society” (1956), featuring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and the songs of Cole Porter. Among the entertaining featurettes are “Hitchcock and Dial M and 3D: A Brief History,” about the filmmaker’s flirtation with stereoscopic technology; several pieces and commentary on the making of “Thief”; “Cole Porter in Hollywood: True Love”; the 1956 MGM cartoon, “Millionaire Droopy”; newsreel from the gala premiere for “High Society”; vintage marketing material; and Salinger’s interview.

As far as I can tell, there have been nearly as many video, DVD and Blu-ray iterations of Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music” as there now are people claiming to have been at the epochal event. Far more former hippies now insist they made the trek to rural Bethel that weekend than could fit in all of the town’s cow pastures put together. Sometimes, hallucinating does make it so. Fortunately for consumers, new advances in AV technology continually add something new to the experience. Given the primitive nature of portable cameras and recording equipment 45 years ago, it’s interesting to see how much better the presentation is in hi-def. In addition to the 224-minute “Director’s Cut,” the new three-disc release offers such “collectibles” as an iron-on patch, three single-day ticket reproductions, a Life magazine excerpt reproduction and reproductions of 1969 newspaper clippings. The items are housed in a small paper box that slides into an outer slip-box, alongside a standard Blu-ray case. Not all of the bonus material from previous additions has been transferred over to the “Revised Edition,” but they’re easy enough to find elsewhere. The 77-minute making-of doc, “Woodstock: From Festival to Feature,” has been upgraded to high def. It is joined here by “Woodstock: From Festival to Feature Revisited,” representing 32 minutes of additional behind-the-scenes on the festival’s legacy, documentary restoration and historical material. Better yet, 73 more minutes of “Untold Stories” – a.k.a., musical performances – have been added to the previously offered 142 minutes of bonus concert material. “The Museum at Bethel Woods” is here to remind us of the one or two opportunities for tourism near the hallowed ground of Woodstock. – Gary Dretzka

Cuban Fury: Blu-ray
1 Chance 2 Dance
Anytime you put Cuban heels on a fat guy, someone is going to laugh. That’s basically the idea behind “Cuban Fury,” a quintessentially British rom-com about a one-time salsa protégé who’s gone to seed, but retains just enough muscle memory to shoot for the stars one more time. In accentuating the redemptive qualities of dance, it should appeal to the same viewers who enjoyed “Strictly Ballroom,” “The Full Monty,” “Billy Elliot” and “Silver Linings Playbook.” Here, Nick Frost (“Shaun of the Dead”) stars as the older, heavier iteration of Bruce, the boy who hung up his heels after bullies made him eat sequins off of his shirt. Not anxious to relive the experience, Bruce has steadfastly refused to get back on anyone’s dance floor. That is, until he develops a crush on the new American supervisor at work, Julia (Rashida Jones), who just happens to love salsa. Bruce’s best pal, Drew (Chris O’Dowd), shares an interest in Julia, but for reasons that are entirely different and far more predictable. The movie’s true saving grace is Ian McShane, the dark force behind Bruce’s rise to near teen stardom. Apparently, he’s never recovered from Bruce’s desertion, either, and is reluctant to invest any more of his own Cuban fury into him. For my money, too much attention is paid to the office romance and not enough to the dancing. That fat jokes also get tiresome after a while. Still, when “Cuban Fire” gets down to the business at hand, it can be quite charming. The Blu-ray offers four behind-the-scenes featurettes and “How to Dance Salsa With Nick Frost.”

Launched first on the Internet, “1 Chance 2 Dance” tells the even more familiar story of a 17-year-old aspiring dancer, who suffers one of the cruelest fates any teenager can endure when she’s sent to a new high school at mid-semester of her senior year. Children have sued their parents for less … and won. Anyway, it doesn’t take long for young Gabby Colussi (Lexi Giovagnoli) to go all “Glee” on us. She must balance her new-found love life with her last shot at making her dream of becoming a dancer a reality. – Gary Dretzka

On My Way: Blu-ray
The French Minister
It’s impossible to miss awards season in Hollywood. It’s when actresses of a certain age and beyond are allowed to demonstrate what’s missing throughout the rest of the year in American movies: themselves, in lead roles. Who knew, when “The Hunger” was released in 1983, that 30 years later, its already middle-age stars, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, would be among the very few actresses of their generation still routinely being handed key roles in movies great, small and indifferent? At 67, Sarandon remains as active and alluring as most of the ingénues being mass-produced for media exploitation. The same can be said of Deneuve, who, despite adding a few pounds over the last several years, looks as fabulous as when her image was used to represent Marianne, the national symbol of France. Of course, both women are exceptional talents, on and off the screen, and the roles they accept are anything but generic. Yes, in “On My Way,” Deneuve plays a grandmother, but, ooh-la-la, what a grandmother. As we meet the struggling Breton restaurateur and onetime beauty queen, Bettie, she’s just learned that her married lover has ditched her for a much-younger beautician’s assistant. Fed up with the whole deal, Bettie leaves her still spry mother behind to take care of the business and heads out for a weekend reunion of Miss France candidates, circa 1969. On her way to the swank Hotel Palace de Menthon, in Annecy, she allows herself to be picked up by a flirtatious doofus in a bar that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Thelma & Louise.” Before she can get very far, however, Bettie also agrees to mind her gratingly disrespectful grandson, Charly, for her estranged daughter. For most of the rest of the picture, it’s “Thelma & Charly.” After some early fireworks, co-writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot (“Jailbait”) surrounds them with fellow contestants from the Class of 1969, most of whom aren’t very much worse for the wear and retain the same positive and negative personality traits they demonstrated in competition. There’s no use spoiling what happens during the rest of “On My Way,” except to say that most of it is unpredictable. Bercot’s rom-dram-com hits a couple of sizable potholes on its way to a resolution, but none so large that it spoils the fun of a multi-generational entertainment that hardly ever resorts to clichés, when something fresh will do just as well.

It’s been almost 20 years since Bertrand Tavernier made a film, “’Round Midnight,” that demanded the attention of anyone outside of the arthouse circuit. They play at festivals or in New York, before disappearing in the ancillary market, primarily in Europe. Blessedly, it’s become far easier to find Tavernier’s titles in DVD and Blu-ray than it ever was in VHS, so fans haven’t had to miss any of his more recent releases. Anyone’s who’s watched and enjoyed the satires “Veep,” “In the Loop” and “The Thick of It,” will wonder why Tavernier’s comedy of political manners, “The French Minister,” so rarely goes for the jugular. Indeed, it’s more of farce than a takedown of a system that apparently is no more efficient than governments in the U.S. and U.K. Based on a graphic novel by former government speechwriter Abel Lanzac, the primary focus is on Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandre Taillard de Vorms (Thierry Lhermitte), who’s something of a space cadet. He’s expected to comment and speechify on world events, as if anyone outside France actually considers it to be a player on the world stage. The problem is, the minister is so scatter-brained that his instructions routinely baffle the staffers assigned to write his speeches. One new hire, Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) is thrown into the deep end on his first day and spends most of his time trying not to drown. He gets conflicting advice from his fellow staffers, who’ve become accustomed to their boss’ many idiosyncracies and want Arthur to learn from the mistakes he’s bound to make. The only person who plays it straight with the lad is veteran diplomat Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup), who doesn’t let his jaded demeanor get in the way of being an effective statesman. Freshmen writers Christophe Blain and Abel Lanzac allow Maupas to save De Vorms’ ass too many times to generate any real satirical heat. In this way, “The French Minister” borders on the patriotic. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Den
As a higher-tech corollary of the found-footage subgenre, chat-room horror is a tougher act to pull off on the big screen. That’s the perspective to which we’ve become accustomed and we know that almost everything of consequence happens behind the protagonist’s back. When he or she turns away from the screen, however, the threat has disappeared or already is hiding in the wings. Normally, being in a chat room allows warnings to be exchanged in real time, but only if someone remembers to turn on the sound.  In “The Den,” aspiring sociologist Elizabeth (Melanie Papalia) is required to spend all of her waking hours on a Chatroulette-style social network. Recording her interactions with all manner of Internet habitués may not sound scientifically enlightening, but Elizabeth manages to find several users who aren’t perverts or otherwise damaged. One night, she makes the mistake of not logging off the site and allowing hackers to record her having sex with her part-time boyfriend. Once that door is opened, it isn’t difficult for the hackers to torture Elizabeth in ways she hadn’t anticipated, going into project. Besides having to be reminded of her mistake with repeat showings of her sexual prowess, she must deal with images of chat-buddies being slaughtered before her helpless eyes. Naturally, the police are skeptical when asked to investigate the cyber-murders. They get downright hostile with every new false alarm. For a while, viewers feel as if they’re being duped, as well. Director Zachary Donohue and co-writer Lauren Thompson do a nice job fixing the action within the digital realm of the film’s computerized context. It’s likely that they understood going into the project that the intended audience for such a picture is tech-savvy and is conversant with social-network protocols. Papalia does seem a bit too pretty and self-confident to get caught up in the hackers’ game, but stranger things probably happen on the Internet every millisecond or two. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Curtains: Blu-ray
Aloha, Bobby and Rose
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX
The most overused word in the jargon of marketing mavens is “classic.” Simply being older than the buyers and renters staring at a cover blurb does not automatically make a movie a classic. And, just because a reviewer on an obscure website or weekly suburban newspaper uses the term to describe a movie, it should be illegal to lift the word and slap it on an ad. I don’t mind a particularly interesting or imaginative genre being labeled a “cult classic,” but certain guidelines and standards should be met before calling every financially successful movie a classic. While almost completely unknown south of the Great White North, Richard Ciupka’s “Curtains” can easily carry the weight of being designated a classic of Canuxploitation, a legitimate sub-sub-genre of mainstream horror. Besides being a memorably bloody slasher flick, it is both genuinely scary and far better made than it has any right to be, considering the budget. I wouldn’t go so far as to compare “Curtains” to the works of Jean Renoir, as did Dave Alexander at www.canuxploitation.com – OK, he had his reasons — but it’s as good as anything else that was released in 1983. At its icy core, “Curtains” is an Agatha Christie mystery with sharp tools and a guest appearance by body-double Shannon Tweed and her Newfoundlandian boobs. Ciupka’s gift here is being able to pull the rug out from under the feet of viewers, whenever they begin to feel comfortable. The switcheroo conceit doesn’t merely work once or twice, but throughout the course of the movie. As it opens, the celebrated director of film and theater Jonathan Stryker – played by veteran villain John Vernon, best known as Dean Vernon Wormer in “Animal House” – is rehearsing a scene in the psychodrama “Audra” with longtime collaborator, Samantha Sherwood (Samantha Egger). Unsatisfied with her performance, Stryker insists she be committed to a mental-health facility to better understand her character. The way the scene is plays out, however, it isn’t clear whether Samantha truly freaked out during the rehearsal and actually did require a little R&R, or if it’s a gag that will pay off later. Either way, her absence frees Stryker to invite a half-dozen young actresses to a lodge on a frozen Ontario lake and audition them for the same role. The women not only are required to endure the slimy advances of the director, but also are murdered in “10 Little Indians” fashion by someone wearing the sea-hag mask. The culprit remains a mystery until the last few minutes of the movie. “Curtains” has been re-mastered in 2K resolution from original vault materials virtually untouched for over 30 years and accorded a 5.1 Surround remix. Synapse Films probably spent more on the process than the entire budget in 1983. Special features include “The Ultimate Nightmare: The Making of Curtains,” an all-new retrospective featuring interviews with Ciupka, stars Lesleh Donaldson and Lynne Griffin, editor Michael MacLaverty, special makeup effects creator Greg Cannom and composer Paul Zaza; commentary with stars Griffin and Lesleh Donaldson; and interviews with producer Peter R. Simpson and Samantha Eggar.

Few actors have enjoyed as auspicious a beginning in the movie industry as Paul LeMat. As long as “American Graffiti” remains essential viewing for teenagers approaching their senior year in high school, LeMat will be recalled with great fondness as hot-rodder John Milner. As such, it also means that he’ll be able to make some spare cash signing autographs at car shows. He would reprise the role in “More American Graffiti,” which, despite its story outline from Lucas, fared far less well. LaMat survived that embarrassment by being cast in Johnathan Demme’s vastly underappreciated “Handle With Care” (a.k.a., “Citizens Band”) and in the critically acclaimed “Melvin and Howard,” as the hapless milkman denied his right to Howard Hughes’ fortune. After that, not so swell. In 1975, he pretty much played to type in Floyd Mutrux’s “Aloha, Bobby and Rose,” an appealing, if derivative action/romance that reminded everyone who saw it of “American Graffiti,” “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” It used popular rock songs to comment on and anticipate things happening on the screen. Visually, “Aloha, Bobby and Rose” adopted many of the action-first, skin-second, music-third techniques favored by the directors in Roger Corman’s stable. LeMat plays a ne’er-do-well San Diego greaser, who digs himself a hole from which he can’t escape a local gang-banger (Edward James Olmos) to whom he owes a great deal of money. While attempting to come to grips with that dilemma, Bobby picks up teen waif Rose and convinces her to share his criminal pipedream. After a clerk is accidentally killed during a fake holdup at a liquor store, Bobby and Rose join the same ranks of doomed lovers on the lam. They decide to make themselves scarce by hiding out in Mexico, where they meet another renegade couple, this one hell-bent for fun. “Aloha, Bobby and Rose” may never have been a great film, but, on any given weekend night, it would have been the best movie on a triple-bill at the local drive-in theater.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXX” demonstrates once again just how thin the line between homage and ridicule can be, especially when adjudicated by beings whose intelligence is artificial at best. The running commentary provided by Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo and Gypsy is designed to make the best out of a bad interstellar situation and not destroy the reputations of the guilty parties, such as they may be. To suggest that their opinions are more entertaining than the movies themselves is only to state the obvious. There aren’t many surprises in “MST3K: XXX,” unless the appearances of Jack Palance and Oliver Reed in the 1987 sci-fi/fantasy dud “Gor” qualifies as one. (His career resurrection wouldn’t take full effect for another couple of years with appearances in “Batman,” “Tango and Cash” and “City Slickers.”) If you didn’t see it upon its original release, it’s probably because the movie, here referred to as “Outlaw of Gor,” was shot in South Africa when it wasn’t cool to do so. No great loss, there. The other titles are “The Black Scorpion” (1957), a hecho en Mexico thriller with giant bugs; “The Projected Man” (1966), about a deranged scientist; and “It Lives by Night” (1974), also known as “The Bat People.” The package includes “Stinger of Death: Making the Black Scorpion”; “Writer of Gor: The Novels of John Norman,” “Director of Gor: On Set With John Bud Cardos” and “Producer of Gor: Adventures With Harry Alan Towers”; “Shock to the System: Creating The Projected Man”; an extended trailer for “The Frank” music video; and four exclusive mini-posters by artist Steve Vance. – Gary Dretzka

Dragonwolf: Blu-ray
The Thai movie industry has been moving forward by fits and starts, mostly with high-energy martial-arts pictures and freaky-deaky thrillers based on traditional ghost stories. When Americans and Europeans dip their toes in Thai water, very little time or money is wasted on finesse and subtleties. If nothing else, the teeming streets and exotic locations, in and around Bangkok, provide foreign viewers with a pleasant change in scenery. Made by Raimund Huber (“Bangkok Adrenaline”), “Dragonwolf” is a non-stop action flick in which the solidarity of sibling assassins is tested by a conniving young woman, cognizant of the buttons that turn the brothers against each other. That accomplished, the hyper-violent town of Devil’s Cauldron goes up for grabs. The fighting sequences, as directed by star Kazu Patrick Tang (stuntman on “District B13”), are pretty entertaining, but two hours is a lot of time to kill with moves most genre buffs have already seen. – Gary Dretzka

Half of a Yellow Sun
As difficult as Europe’s colonial powers made it for Africans to taste freedom after centuries of exploitation and repression, stripping them of their control would prove to be the easiest part of Africa’s struggle for true freedom. If the United States and USSR had minded their own business and refused to take sides, the lack of state-of-the-war weaponry might have spared the lives of tens of thousands of innocent Africans. Instead, while the world’s superpowers obsessed over whether the newly independent states would go red or red, white and blue, the more corruptible militants played both sides against the middle. Why do your own fighting, after all, when you could farm it out to mercenaries and Cuban expeditionaries? Others used the chaos to push for re-drawn borders, according to pre-colonial guidelines. Colonial armies were able to keep the lid on for many years, simply by maintaining a greater arsenal. After the wars of liberation were won or lost, and everyone was armed, ancient prejudices and antagonism returned to the fore. Within artificial borders established by foreign interests, tribal minorities lived in constant fear of genocide. Unprecedented levels of corruption and repression became the legacy of colonial rule. The people we meet first in “Half of a Yellow Sun” are intellectuals and other Nigerians whose dreams of an independent country have finally been realized. Educated in England, some of them believe that ancient grievances could be solved through the use of logic, pan-African pride and expansion of economic opportunities for everyone. They were wrong. Nigeria, a country blessed with bountiful national resources, would be torn by economic imbalance, tribalism and Cold War politics. Today, it’s torn by corruption at every level of society, insane militia leaders, religious rancor and unbelievable poverty. (They do control the market on Internet scams, however.) The fire shown by the intellectuals in the first is doused in the lead-up to the Biafran War, which set a new standard for mindless brutality. “Half of a Yellow Sun” examines all if these disparate issues, but through the eyes of a family directly impacted by the evolution of conflict. Their roots extend back to the villages in which they were born and forward to the First World ideals espoused by John F. Kennedy and other world leaders. The film is based upon the novel by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and stars Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”), BAFTA-winner Thandie Newton (“Crash”), Anika Noni Rose (“The Good Wife”) and John Boyega (“24: Live Another Day”). The delicate balance between the war, politics and individual love stories isn’t maintained throughout “Yellow Sun” and most Americans likely would go into it without a full working knowledge of the events that led to such a blood bath. There’s no denying the emotional punch delivered by the actors and many unknown faces employed as machete-wielding extras in the fighting scenes. What happened to Africa in the 1960s and continues to erupt today is horrible. The DVD arrives with making-of and background featurettes, as well as deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Frontline: United States of Secrets
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: Princess Day
Geronimo Stilton: Going Down to Chinatown
Babar & the Adventures of Badou: Gone Wild
Bubble Guppies: Get Ready for School
Sesame Street: Learning Rocks
The alarming two-part “Frontline” documentary, “United States of Secrets,” details how the National Security Agency managed to squander most, if not all of the respect it was accorded in the wake of 9/11 and the intelligence community’s necessary search for terrorists in our midst. Hubris may be too literary a term for the motivation that led to a shocking international scandal, but, when accorded unprecedented license to break the law, the agency experienced an institutional orgasm that shook their worlds to the core. The “Frontline” crew used the trove of documents leaked by freelance analyst Edward Snowden as a jumping off point for a discussion of motivations, skewed mission statements and what happens when the borders we’ve drawn for each other are breeched. If terrorists were always the target, what could be gained by studying the private communications of average citizens? We know what was lost by the NSA operation – our leaders’ moral high-ground, for one thing – but we may never learn what was gained, if anything. It’s important to know, going into the documentary, don’t pile the blame for widespread snooping on former President Bush and his evil henchman, Vice President Cheney. True, they delivered the no-holds-barred mandate to the NSA, even before the dust settled on the site of the World Trade Center. By now, we expect such disregard for basic human rights from Republicans. It was President Obama, however, who decided to break his campaign pledge by allowing NSA snoops to maintain and expand the program. His inability to get a firm hold on the situation and force the issue on his terms made him look like a country bumpkin on his first trip to the big city. I think that most of us would agree that identifying patterns in communication between people suspected of being terrorists is a necessary step in defending our freedom. If the CIA hadn’t been feuding with the FBI and NSA before the attacks, they couldn’t have missed the connection between the terrorist cells and Al Qaeda. What caused Snowden to break the silence on his discoveries, however, was the agency’s decision to gather information on everyone who picked up a telephone or sent an e-mail over the Internet. He got especially peeved when Obama openly lied to citizens about the program and its reach and unloaded even more classified documents on the media. (Ironically, Snowden escaped from a worldwide dragnet designed America’s top spies to keep him from reaching a safe haven in Russia, where Vladimir Putin doesn’t even bother to deny the country’s disregard for privacy.) The second half of the documentary describes how the government bullied telecom executives into cooperating with the NSA. Afraid of coming out on the short end of regulatory debates, the cyber-honchos caved in to coercion. It took the open hostility of their customers to open their eyes to the hypocrisy of promoting iron-clad security in their advertising and the sieve-like practices demanded by federal agents. Truly frightening, the “Frontline” presentation also demonstrate how information could be sold to non-government interests, the IRS and police agencies searching for pot dealers.

Almost all of this week’s TV-to-DVD releases are limited to compilations of episodes from popular animated shows. “Adventure Time” with its new compilation DVD “Princess Day,” leads the way. Instead of the usual grab-bag approach to its collections, “Adventure Time: Princess Day” features 16 episodes primarily based on the princesses of the Land of Ooo, including Princess Bubblegum and Lumpy Space Princess. The box’s highlight is the “Princess Day,” which actually debuted in this collection ahead of its television run. Special features are limited to another “Little Did You Know” character gallery, focusing on five of the show’s princesses.

The animated series “Geronimo Stilton” chronicles the life and adventures of the famous Italian mouse and his nephew Benjamin Stilton. As a media mogul, Geronimo finds himself involved in crimes and capers in exotic locales around the world. It is based on the hit Scholastic book series. The compilation “Geronimo Stilton: Going Down to Chinatown” includes four episodes from the cartoon series, weighing in at 90 minutes.

In “Babar & the Adventures of Badou: Gone Wild,” we follow Babar’s energetic grandson, Badou, as he and his friends and family solve numerous mysteries and puzzles in Celesteville. King Babar is never far when his grandson needs guidance. The series is based on the classic characters created by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff. Also newly released are “Bubble Guppies: Get Ready for School” and “Sesame Street: Learning Rocks.” – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Report

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Transcendence: Blu-Ray
If any actors should have been able to interest audiences in the concept of artificial intelligence forwarded in “Transcendence,” it was Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. Depp has made us fall in love with some of the cinema’s most unlikely characters, while Freeman is on top of every casting director’s list when the role of God or president comes up. Truth is, though, even their estimable presence couldn’t save “Transcendence” from stinking up the box office. For a nation of people who still can’t understand why the government forced them to throw away their analog television sets, the notion of a movie about a scientist who has his consciousness uploaded to a supercomputer must have seemed unfathomable. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, the world’s foremost researcher in the field of AI. Before an anti-technology extremist leaves him critically wounded in an assassination attempt, Caster was working to create a sentient machine that would combine the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. The closer he comes to death, the more desperate Caster is to complete the transcendence experiment. Caster’s shocking digital re-emergence caused me to wonder if first-time director Wally Pfister and freshman writer Jack Paglen had been inspired by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and best friend, Max (Paul Bettany), react in the same way as, we’re told, Christ’s apostles and Mary Magdalene did to their savior’s return. If only the filmmakers had stuck with the New Testament, instead of going all Syfy Channel on us, they might have hooked more viewers. Instead, when Caster’s hunger for knowledge begins to threaten the ability of the Internet’s broadband capabilities, the powers-that-be decide to eliminate the computer laboratory built by his disciples. (Wouldn’t want to choke the flow of porn and cute Facebook kittens.) It borders on the pathetic to watch soldiers armed with mortars and machine guns attempt to obliterate an entity that theoretically could program every computer at the Pentagon to protect it from destruction. If they didn’t work against Godzilla, there’s no reason to think they could kill off Caster. “Transcendence” isn’t without a few truly magical moments, though, especially as Caster’s plans for domination become apparent. For $100 million, you’d expect nothing less. The movie should find a more appreciative audience on DVD/Blu-ray than those drawn to theaters based on a marketing campaign that promised more than it could deliver. The feature package is limited to short featurettes of the EPK variety. – Gary Dretzka

Blue Ruin: Blu-ray
Although this crackling low-budget thriller received something resembling a limited release in U.S. theaters, it might as well have gone straight-to-DVD for all the attention it attracted. Those critics who were fortunate enough to catch “Blue Ruin” on the festival circuit gave Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore feature the kind of reviews that open doors in Hollywood. It opens as a disheveled bum, Dwight (Macon Blair), goes about his daily routine in an oceanside town in Virginia: dumpster diving, begging for food and money, and scaring kids. Early on, Dwight is stopped by a cop, who, we suspect, is about to take him to jail for one or more of his petty crimes. (His scraggly beard would turn a Taliban fighter green with envy.) Instead, she informs him that the man who killed his father is getting out of prison on parole and warns him against doing anything crazy. Dwight doesn’t look as if he has the strength to seek revenge, even if he wanted to, or the wherewithal to afford even a bus ticket. His passion for vengeance runs deep, however, and he makes it to the prison in time to see the punk climb into the limousine rented by his friends. So far, so routine, for a low-budget genre picture. What differentiates “Blue Ruin” from most other thrillers, though, is Saulnier’s willingness to tweak the genre convention that requires a protagonist to be sufficiently qualified to get the first killing done right, at least. But nooooo. His inability to execute a clean kill sets off a chain of events that would be darkly comic if they weren’t so darned sinister. An exceedingly violent movie, “Blue Ruin” walks the thin line between being credible and absurd. And, for the most part, it succeeds brilliantly. More than anything else, Saulnier’s film reminds me of recent Australian crime thrillers that refuse to pull punches, while taking full advantage of the foreboding natural settings and ugliest quirks of the characters. “Blue Ruin” is the kind of movie that will stick with you like a bad dream, and that’s a good thing. – Gary Dretzka

Documentaries:
Propaganda
GMO OMG
The Bus
Next Goal Wins
Anyone not yet conversant with YouTube and its one-thing-leads-to-another appeal probably hasn’t heard of “Propaganda,” a documentary that not only became an Internet sensation but also something of an international mystery. The less one knows about various conspiracy theories and speculation surrounding the film’s murky origins, the more you’re likely to enjoy and profit from it. So, first, here’s the company line. Two years ago, a group of New Zealand-based filmmakers distributed on YouTube a documentary purported to have been smuggled out of North Korea, where it was an integral part of the military government’s anti-capitalist propaganda machine. Most of what we know about North Korea comes either from the loony ravings of “supreme leader,” Kim Jong Un,” or hysterical speculation on WMDs filtered through the mainstream media. All we really know is that North Korea is not a country most Americans would consider for a retirement haven, unless one doesn’t mind the occasional famine. So, going into “Propaganda,” I had no idea what to expect from it. Using footage freely available to anyone with a television or cellphone camera, the documentary examines western society with a tight focus on consumer culture and dog-eat-dog capitalist imperatives. It would be difficult for any American or European citizen to have gone through life without being made aware of the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in all of the western democracies. Since the economic collapse of 2008, the discrepancy has only gotten more pronounced. Today, 1 percent of all Americans reaps the bounty once reserved for anyone able to work and expect annual raises. That’s no longer the case. And, yet, the media continues to paint a portrait of a country so blissfully unconcerned about their tenuous hold on financial security that it is united in its admiration for the Kardashians and the fate of Honey Boo Boo. “Propaganda” argues persuasively that we’re as enslaved by false expectations and corrupt legislators as the stagnating masses in North Korea are purported to be. Only, our chains are far more comfortable. Watch the movie and decide for yourself if the North Korean propaganda machine – known more for spitting out misinformation – could be capable of creating a film that so neatly sums up everything the Occupy movement tried and failed to sell to the American public a few years ago.

If the producers of “Propaganda” had lacked for ammunition, they could have added material on the enslavement of American consumers by the agribusiness moguls and the politicians who consider their lobbyists to be the next best thing to ATMs. No one knows for sure if genetically modified organisms someday could cause a plague of biblical proportions or if they merely will make the food we eat taste even duller than the chemically treated produce available today. Either way, the public isn’t likely to have much of a say in the future of what is served on tables around the world. As described in Jeremy Seifert’s alarming “GMO OMG,” such agribusiness conglomerates as Monsanto have spent tens of millions of dollars twisting the arguments of environmentalists and intimating legislators from passing laws limiting the spread of genetically engineered seeds. Monsanto has even threatened to sue states that allow truth-in-labelling referendums to be put in front of voters. Moreover, the companies insist that planters who do agree to use their products purchase new quantities annually, instead recycling seeds from the previous year, as usual. It explains why impoverished farmers in Haiti burned the seeds sent to them, rather than becoming economically addicted to them. So far, the Haitians have raised more of a stink over being treated like guinea pigs than almost anyone in America.

Damon Ristau’s delightful documentary, “The Bus,” tells the story of how a post-war German notion evolved into something that became as synonymous with the American counterculture as the Grateful Dead and hitchhiking. At first designed as a highly versatile and extremely practical utility vehicle for use in Europe’s economic recovery, it’s since come to symbolize the freedom of the open road and ability to have a roof over one’s head wherever they go. Here, Ristau goes to great lengths to introduce viewers to a cross-section of VW owners, many of whom began their love affair with the Bus in the 1960s and continue to drive them today. Of course, we visit full-time and part-times hippies whose lives have revolved around their vehicles for decades. We also meet owners who overhaul the vans for competition or commemorate past glories by turning rusted-out bodies into works of art or chicken coops. Not surprisingly, the doc ends at Burning Man, where radically customized vehicles compete for attention with all of the free-spirits and semi-pro nudists.

Next Goal Wins” tells the kind of uplifting, against-the-odds story that fans of “60 Minutes” eat up when the investigative reporting gets too heavy and celebrity interviews too soft. Almost two years after the television newsmagazine traveled to American Samoa to ask why so many of the island’s young men end up in the National Football League, documentarians Mike Brett and Steve Jamison went there to make a film about what might have been the worst soccer team vying a spot in the 2014 World Cup. Not only had they failed to win a match in recent memory, but they also had been shut out. The squad hit rock bottom in 2001, when it lost to Australia 31–0 in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match. Because Samoans have demonstrated time and again that there’s no quit in them, it should come as no surprise to learn that the team continues to dream. Here, even the occasion of scoring on an opponent would be considered a major accomplishment. Dutch-born coach Thomas Rongen was enlisted to see what a former professional player might be able to do with the team, which includes Jaiyah Saelua, possibly “the first transgender player to compete on a World Cup stage.” The players are far from inept and work extremely hard under the tutelage of Rongen. They may not have made it to Brazil, but everyone on the island was given a reason to be proud of the squad’s accomplishments. – Gary Dretzka

Lunch
Remember the framing device in Woody Allen’s wonderfully evocative comedy, “Broadway Danny Rose”? A group of comedians regularly gets together at the Carnegie Deli to reminisce, gossip, swap stories and see which rising star is the latest to be honored with a sandwich in his name. Finally, someone asks about the hapless talent agent Danny Rose (Allen), whose client list could hardly be more pitifully eccentric. Donna Kanter’s documentary, “Lunch,” is a non-fiction version of the same thing, minus the Allen. Here, the alter kockers are represented by such comedians, writers, producers and directors as Sid Caesar, Hal Kanter, Carl Reiner, Monty Hall, Arthur Marx, Arthur Hiller, Matty Simmons, Rocky Kalish, Gary Owens, Ben Starr and John Rappaport. If some of those names are unfamiliar, a visit to IMDB.com or the Paley Center for Media might provide an enlightening addendum to the film. You’ll surely recognize the shows to which they contributed. The biweekly get-togethers over deli began decades ago at the L.A. branch of the Friars Club. When that landmark closed, the lunch bunch took its act to a more public establishment. Instead of allowing the gathering to become a victim of attrition, the participants occasionally approve the addition of another show-biz legend. The foremost qualification for entry is an ability to tell stories and jokes in a loud enough voice to be heard over the routine kibitzing. “Lunch” isn’t as uproariously funny as some potential viewers might expect, given the talent involved, but there are plenty of reasons to smile. – Gary Dretzka

The Suspect
Anyone who can’t wait for the next addition to the “Jason Bourne” or “Mission:Impossible” series really ought to check out recent espionage thrillers from South Korea. That’s where the action is these days. North Korea and South Korea are separated by a heavily guarded, if invisible line on a map, and surrounded by water that could very well double as a highway for spies. The antagonists share the same language and families separated by a long-ago war. The damage that could be done by a single agent is immense, so the effort it takes to neutralize him is commiserate with the threat. Won Shin-yeon’s “The Suspect” is typical in that it treats the North Korean infiltrator with the same respect it gives agents representing the south.  Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) had been the best field agent in North Korea, until he was abandoned during a mission and his wife and daughter were murdered. After defecting, he was required to take a job as a night driver for the CEO of a powerful corporation. The chairman is brutally murdered, but not before giving Dong-chul a pair of glasses that hold some significance to him. When South Korean agents, who still hold a grudge against Dong-chul over a botched mission in Hong Kong, learn about the glasses, they make every effort to confiscate them. This results in several long chases and exciting shootouts, and no one pulls these things off anymore quite like Korean filmmakers. Even when the plot gets bogged down in the agendas of too many secret agents, the action sequences make “The Suspect” a worthwhile experience. – Gary Dretzka

The Wind Will Carry Us: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Insomnia: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The movies of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami move at a pace that encourages quiet contemplation and rewards the observant eye. There’s so much to be seen, heard and understood in “The Wind Will Carry Us” that viewers of the arthouse persuasion will want re-watch the picture, simply to study what they might have missed while focusing on something else. Or, simply to have the experts on the commentary track point them out to them. “The Wind Will Carry Us” is a story about contrasts and the reliability of first impressions. It’s set entirely in an isolated village in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan, far from the teeming metropolis of Tehran. A team of engineers from city travel to Siah Dareh, where life goes on much in the same ways as it has for centuries. Apart from the occasional tractor and motor bike, no one there seems to be in any hurry to enter the 21st Century. The engineers, only one of whom we meet, have been assigned a task known only to them and of likely value only to people far away from Kurdistan. The residents endure an uneasy relationship with the Islamic Republic, but politics don’t play much of a role in “The Wind Will Carry Us.” Siah Dareh appears to be a self-sustaining entity in a region that only rewards hard work and perseverance. It reminded me of the Taos Pueblo, where newer adobe homes are built on top of existing structures and residents use ladders to make their way from rooftop to rooftop. The spectacular scenic beauty of the mountains also make the comparison apt. (I didn’t see a casino in Siah Dareh, however.) An elderly woman is dying in one of those homes and, yet, we aren’t informed of the significance her illness has to the engineer, who seems to care very much about her. He also is very much concerned with a young boy, who’s extremely curious about everything but is focused on an important test being conducted in the local school or madrasa. The women probably didn’t need modesty cop to tell them how to dress or behave, either. One of the more playful gags that Kiarostami uses to contrast the gap between the present and past is to show how the engineer reacts when he’s in the village and his cellphone rings. To get proper reception, he must hop into his SUV and rush to the highest point in the region. Even so, the calls invariably prove to be of no importance to anyone. While he’s on top of the mountain, however, he engages in conservations with a man digging a deep hole with a shovel. He’s never seen and we aren’t quite sure how the holes will be utilized, either. No matter, because life in Siah Dareh likely will go on as usual, even in the absence of the crew from Tehran. Something profound already has changed in the engineer. Like Kiarostami, he has a genuine love for poetry and Siah Dareh may be the only place he’s been where even the humblest of residents are conversant in the words of the Iran’s greatest poets. Moreover, the poems he recites speak to the region’s great physical beauty and emotional tug the land has on those who live there. The poetry rises organically from the screenplay, never feeling out of place within the context of the narrative. It’s a splendid movie, effortlessly beautiful and full of surprises. The Cohen Media Blu-ray essential commentary by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and scholar Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa; a new essay by critic Peter Tonguette; and a lengthy interview and Q&A with the director.

Even someone who’s never set foot in a classroom where film history or criticism is being taught can benefit from an intellectual exercise in which students frequently engage. Pick up the new Criterion Collection edition of Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius’ “Insomnia,” along with the American adaptation by Christopher Nolan. Then, explain what makes one film distinctly European and the other unmistakably American, if not precisely a product of the Hollywood dream machine. Both are excellent entertainments, accessible to mainstream and arthouse audiences, alike, and true to all the right crime-movie conventions. The differences, though, almost speak for themselves. In the 1997 original, Stellan Skarsgard plays a Swedish police detective called to a city on the Arctic Circle to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. The cop, Jonas Engström, drags his past with him like a ball and chain and his burden isn’t lightened any in Norway, where ghosts, real and imagined, still manage to find him. Summer has come to the region and Engstrom finds the endless light to be tortuous. Engstrom’s clearly an emotional wreck, but the hotel places him in a room without blackout curtains or duct tape to cover the holes that allow light to stream into the room. Sleep never comes and cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen expertly captures Engstrom’s feeling of being lost in a timeless fog. The landscapes are more clearly pronounced in Nolan’s version of the story, which was shot by Wally Pfister (“Transcendence”) in Alaska and B.C. Like Skarsgard, Al Pacino’s police detective finds the perpetual lightness to be completely disconcerting and irksome. They both carry lots of baggage, but of different shapes and weights. The biggest difference is the addition of a cat-and-mouse game between two high-profile Hollywood actors – Robin Williams plays the antagonist – who must maintain enough of their personal screen persona to put butts in the seats. Both movies scored equally high in the Rotten Tomatoes survey, as well. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition features a new 4K digital restoration, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a fresh conversation between Skjoldbjærg and Skarsgård; and a booklet with an essay by critic Jonathan Romney. – Gary Dretzka

Appleseed: Alpha: Blu-ray
World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies
For lovers of manga and animated science-fiction from Japan, simply knowing that “Appleseed: Alpha” was created by the same man who gave them “Ghost in the Shell” and, in 1985, the original version of “Appleseed,” will mean more than the opinions of a thousand critics. What may even confuse them, however, is where the new addition fits within the canon of works by writer/illustrator Masamune Shirow (a.k.a., Masanori Ota) and writer Marianne Krawczyk (“God of War”). “Appleseed: Alpha” is a prequel to the 2004 “Appleseed” and 2007 “Appleseed Ex Machina,” which were based on Shirow’s original series, released between 1985 and 1989, and other cross-platform products. The “Ghost in the Shell” franchise was birthed not long thereafter. Fans of both series tend to be extremely loyal and highly protective of the conceits set forth in the source manga. Here, two mercenary soldiers, Deunan and her cyborg partner Briareos – survivors of a terrible war – leave the dystopian ruins of New York City, in search of the utopian city of Olympus. On the way, they meet two Olympian citizens, Iris and Olson, who let them in on a plan to save the world from the ruthless Talos and warlord Two Horns. Like nearly all post-apocalyptic visions that spring from the brow of ambitious young screenwriters, “Appleseed: Alpha” sounds pretty absurd, at least in the abstract. In the distance between one’s sofa and video monitor, though, such a world looks a lot more interesting. Credit for that belongs to a creative team that appears to have a personal affinity with the project and wants to heighten the story’s appeal with top-shelf CGI and hi-def polish. The Blu-ray bonus package adds commentary with director Shinji Aramaki, producer Joseph Chouand, and Sony Pictures’ Shigeki Ishizuka; and “The Making of Appleseed,” an 11-part featurette that covers every aspect of the film’s production. – Gary Dretzka

Unlike most other genres and sub-genres, the one encompassing apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies is only as old as such landmark titles as “The Road Warrior,” “Escape From New York” and “The Terminator.” Today, according to “World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies,” it’s grown to include over 800 movies and more than a few television series. David J. Moore’s encyclopedic overview of the species accounts for all but the newest of pictures. (It does include three of the “Appleseed” entries, but not “Alpha.”) Divided alphabetically by reviews, interviews, essays and marketing material, the 400-plus-page book is a hundred times more entertaining than the majority of films mentioned. With the amount of studio money being poured into such movies as “The Hunger Games,” “I Am Legend,” “Oblivion” and “World War Z,” however, “World Gone Wild” could hardly be more timely. I’m of the opinion that no zombie movie should cost more than $10 million or $20 million to make, but that threshold has been breached many times in the last few years. Why should I care, anyway? The best thing about Moore’s tome, perhaps, is that it contains many different entry points. It can perused front-to-back in the usual fashion or by jumping from title-to-title, regardless of alphabetical precision. Some of the material is best considered during lulls in the action in the movies being watched on DVD, while other chapters are better sampled when in a contemplative mood … in the privacy of one’s bathroom, perhaps. It’s an easy book to recommend to buffs and beginners, alike. (Schiffer Publishing, $34.99)– Gary Dretzka

Box of Rock ’n’ Roll: Triple Feature
The titles included in the “Box of Rock ’n’ Roll: Triple Feature” truly run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Released in 1956, when the music was in its infancy and Hollywood hadn’t the faintest clue how to make it look interesting as a plot device, “Rock, Rock, Rock” is distinguished by performances by such all-time greats as Chuck Berry, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, the Johnny Burnette Trio, La Vern Baker and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. On the flip side, “The Beatniks” is a no-budget pot-boiler that has absolutely nothing to do with beatniks, bongos, beards or berets, while “Wild Guitar” fails miserably as a parody of Elvis Presley’s relationship with Colonel Tom Parker … or, at least, that’s what I got out of it. None of the three qualifies as being completely unwatchable, but the latter two titles serve best as comic reminders of a time when teenagers and young adults were beginning to take over the country and there wasn’t a damn thing anyone over 30 could do about it. “Rock, Rock, Rock” attempts to build a narrative around a spoiled high school girl’s inability to afford a dress for the prom. Although first-timer Tuesday Weld exudes genuine star quality as the unfortunate teen, Connie Francis was asked to supply the voice for her songs. She does look great, however. The real stars of the movie are the musicians who were brought to the production by the legendary deejay Alan Freed and inorganically inserted into the narrative. (Freed attempts to sing, as well, but it’s a fool’s errand.)

That “The Beatniks” is more about juvenile delinquency than rock ’n’ roll shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who lived through the period. Why the producers decided on the title is a mystery, considering both the absence of hipsters in the movie and the fact that the only true beatnik left in the U.S. in 1960 was the fictional Maynard G. Krebs. After robbing a liquor store, a gang of hoodlums stops at a roadhouse, where they terrorize the owner and patrons. One of the punks is encouraged to sing along to a selection on the jukebox, which he does to great effect. It just so happens that one of the customers is an agent on his way back to Hollywood and he cares more about signing the kid to a record contract than turning him in to the police for busting up his car. The rest of the movie becomes a tug-of-war between the forces of evil (the juvenile delinquents) and the forces of good (the agent who stands by the singer and his buxom blond secretary). “Wild Guitar” tells the age-old story of a clueless, if talented rube who arrives in Hollywood with only 15 cents and a guitar. After he’s “discovered” in the most unlikely of circumstances, the white-haired rocker turns his back on the cute go-go dancer who paid for his meal and found him the gig on a variety show. Not possessing even an ounce of show-biz savvy, he allows himself to be seduced by the shadiest of show-business weasels and blocked from dating the dancer. The singer is played by Arch Hall Jr., a silly-looking chap whose father, Arch Sr., wrote the screenplay. This one has to be seen to be believed. Considering their age, though, the movies are in pretty good condition. – Gary Dretzka

Horror roundup:
Cell 213
Ginger Snaps: Collector’s Edition: Bluray
The Perfect House
100 Tears: Director’s Cut
Blood Suckers From Outer Space: 30th Anniversary Edition
Haunted Trailer
Made in 2010 and released briefly in Canada a year later, “Cell 213” is one of those genre flicks that demonstrate just how thin the line is between irredeemably bad and almost good. That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but, in the overcrowded world of low-budget horror, such things matter. Stephen Kay and Maninder Chana’s prison thriller borrows freely from several obvious sources, including “The Devil’s Advocate,” but stops short of being a rip-off or genre cliché. That’s because of the performances turned in by Eric Balfour and Michael Rooker, who’ve made a career out of playing archetypal characters. Like Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” Balfour (“Haven”) plays a defense attorney whose many courtroom victories suggest that he’s made a bargain with Satan. While visiting his onerous client in prison, Gray involuntary contributes to his suicide by making the mistake of allowing his pen to come within his grasp. Inexplicably, the lawyer is convicted of the fiend’s murder and placed in the same cell as his former client. It means that Gray will be under the constant surveillance of a sadistic prison guard, Ray Clement, played with great intensity by Michael Rooker (“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”). Clement hates lawyers, especially those who find ways to free obvious criminals. The give-and-take between the two characters – one meek and afraid, the other brutish and vindictive – is sufficient reason to check out the “Cell 213.” (Clement even manages to get Gray assigned to the prison morgue, where the lawyer is forced to perform autopsies.) Bruce Greenwood plays the warden, who’d rather not know that his prison has been possessed by the devil, while Deborah Valente is a do-gooder assigned to check out the high number of injuries and suicides committed inside the facility. Neither role is fully developed, beyond certain expository necessities.

Another Canadian export, “Ginger Snaps,” fared much better than “Cell 213,” even if financial success had to wait until its video afterlife. As conceived by John Fawcett and Karen Walton, the 2000 gore-fest is a teenage-werewolf movie with a sharp feminist edge. By that, I mean that the action is driven by 15-year-old Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) and her sister Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), who’s nearly 16. The Goth girls enjoy a strong sisterly bond that allows them to get past the trite bullshit encountered by outcasts in suburban high schools. One night, Ginger is attacked by the same large beast that’s killing pet dogs in the neighborhood. When the wounds heal with unusual speed, Brigitte comes to believe that Ginger has become possessed with the curse of the lycanthrope. That it coincides with the older sister’s first period – an event their mother (Mimi Rogers) considers worthy of celebration – was thought by some critics to be too obvious a metaphor to be taken seriously. Given the amount of blood shed in “Ginger Snaps,” viewers with delicate stomachs can ignore that conceit and not miss anything important. It was the shocking nature of the murders, as well as much supernatural hocus-pocus, that would finally ensure its cult status. A hard sell from the get-go, “Ginger Snaps” also would be required to overcome by parallels made to massacres at Columbine and W. R. Myers High School, in Taber, Alberta. A pair of sequels, filmed back-to-back in 2003, wouldn’t do nearly as well in theaters and video. The Blu-ray package includes new interviews with Fawcett, Walton, Perkins, Moss, producer Steve Hoban, make-up-effects artist Paul Jones, composer Mike Shields and editor Brett Sullivan; commentary by the filmmakers; rehearsals and auditions; footage from a “Women in Horror” panel discussion; making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes.

Kris Hulbert and Randy Kent’s horror anthology, “The Perfect House,” tells the story of a haunted domicile through the eyes of an unsuspecting family of potential buyers. The world’s sexiest real-estate agent (Monique Parent) struggles mightily to keep the home’s many ghosts from spoiling the deal, but even a cursory inspection reveals some troubling quirks. The film is divided into three segments – a la “The House That Dripped Blood,” which had four — all of them as gory as they are disturbing: “The Storm,” “Chic-ken” and “Dinner Guest.” Each is built on a familiar horror trope, with more than smidgen of torture-porn added for those sadists out there. Buffs will recognize Felissa Rose and Jonathan Thiersten, of “Sleepaway Camp”; John Philbin, from “The Return of the Living Dead”; and Parent, from a thousand Skinemax movies. The most noteworthy thing about “Perfect House,” perhaps, is its distinction of being the first independent feature film to be released and distributed on Facebook’s Flicklaunch, before moving to its permanent home on the Milyoni’s Social Theater and, now, DVD.

Movies with killer clowns and demented little people hold a special place in the hearts of horror fans. Joe Davison’s mostly pitiful “100 Tears” has both of those elements going for it, but precious little else. Here, the scuzzy Gurdy the Clown (Jack Amos) is accused of crimes he did not commit and, to prove he’s not a bad guy, goes on a killing spree with a giant meat cleaver. A pair of tabloid journalists on the trail of the Tear Drop Killer require the assistance of the porn-addicted Drago the Midget to find Gurdy, who knows the whole story. “100 Tears,” made in 2007, is a grisly piece of work and, therefore, not for the majority of viewers, even those who consider themselves to be connoisseurs of micro-budget trash. Only eye-candy Georgia Chris and Raine Brown stand out from the crowd and that’s because they not only know how to act but also how to play the genre game.

If Helen of Troy possessed a face capable of launching a thousand ships, “Blood Suckers From Outer Space” single-handedly launched a thousand jokes about sci-fi exploitation flick. Ed Wood started the trend with the enigmatic “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Besides, “Blood Sucker” the “outer space” visitors now include “Morons From Outer Space,” “Grave Robbers …,” “Killer Klowns …,” “Teenagers …,” “Night Caller” and “Blood Beasts.” Potentially, the list could be endless. Even 30 years removed from its last billing at the tail end of a drive-in triple feature, the mere thought of watching “Blood Suckers From Outer Space” raises a smile. As a parody of its namesake “Plan 9,” as well as such venerable thrillers as “Psycho,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Night of the Living Dead” and one scene, at least, from “Dr. Strangelove,” Glen Coburn’s send-up was released at exactly the right time to exploit the excesses of the emerging slasher and splatter sub-genres, as well. It also appears to have been inspired by then-current tabloid reports of alien attacks on the dairy industry. The DVD adds a cast-reunion featurette.

If Ron Jeremy ever were to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, to go with the stars on the various Porn Walks of Fame, it won’t be for his work in “Haunted Trailer.” Like everything and everyone else in Chuck Norfolk’s debut feature, Jeremy’s performance stinks … literally. He plays a demonic genie – or, perhaps, the corporeal spirit of Montezuma’s Revenge – whose magic lantern just happens to be in the toilet of a trailer home, occupied by a no-count family of hicks. Unless brothers Elvis and Aaron, sister Prissy and their Momma can exorcise the demon from their shit-stained trailer, the Mayan prediction of global disaster will soon come true. A comically drawn TV evangelist named Reverend Wiggems stands between them and the devil. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: My Wild Affair
The titles of family-oriented shows on PBS tend to avoid titillation whenever possible, so I was a bit taken aback by “My Wild Affair,” which has pictures of humans and animal babies on the jacket. Talk about forbidden fruit. Once I got my mind out of the gutter, I discovered that the network’s new mini-series describes what happens when wild animals join the households of otherwise normal adults. Celebrities, drug kingpins, publishing magnates and other potentates have been known to keep the occasional lion, monkey, zebra or peacock around the mansion to remind visitors of their financial standing in the world. What’s far less common are stories about people who raise wounded or abandoned animals in their homes and develop a bond that ultimately isn’t very healthy for either party. The four hour-long episodes included in the DVD are, “The Elephant Who Found a Mom,” “The Ape Who Went to College,” “The Rhino Who Joined the Family” and “The Seal Who Came Home.” The filmmakers, who worked from home movies and interviews with family members, naturally emphasize how cool it is to have baby around the house. What they don’t do is sugarcoat the hazards of becoming so close to an animal that the borders separating the natural tendencies of wildlife and human beings vanish. For every triumph in “My Wild Affair,” there’s a tragedy waiting to happen. Still, these are important lessons to learn. – Gary Dretzka

Pawnz
Within the first 10 or 15 minutes of the execrable comedy “Pawnz,” a homeless man denied the use of a pawn shop’s facilities takes an on-screen dump outside the store. Although clearly not the highlight of Nicholas Naylor’s film, sadly it’s the sole image that viewers will take away from it. As we’ve learned from “Tosh 1.0,” some sights simply are impossible to un-see. There are so many things wrong with this story about a dysfunctional pawn shop and its romantically challenged owner that it seems only fair to begin this review with the deal-breaker up-front. Just for the record, though, most of “Pawnz” is set in a pawn shop that looks more like a Radio Shack store preparing for a going-out-of-business sale. The salesmen openly insult potential customers, some of whom bring in items so filthy they might be toxic. Lido Capogrosso plays the shop’s owner, Will, a hapless young man obsessed with maintaining a relationship with his skank girlfriend, Vanessa (Gabriela Ortiz), even after catching her in bed with another man. This would make some narrative sense if Vanessa had something to offer him that was nearly as good as the smart and pretty Melissa (Lauren Leech) who visits him at the shop and communicates in body language a blind person could read. Besides Leech, “Pawnz” displays no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The DVD adds deleted scenes, interviews and a making-of piece.

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Like Father, Like Son
Among the many storylines designed to tug at the heartstrings of adult audiences, it’s tough to beat the old switched-at-birth gambit. It works as well on the big screen as on television and transcends all cultural barriers. Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Nobody Knows,” “Still Walking”) has taken the drama inherent in all switched-at-birth dramas and added a subplot specific to contemporary Japanese culture. In “Like Father, Like Son,” parents Ryota and Midori Nonomiya and Yukari and Yudai Saiki are stunned to learn that the boys they’ve been raising for the past six years, indeed, were switched while the mothers were recovering from giving birth. This, of course, sets up the classic dilemma over whether blood ties are stronger than emotional bonds. Because Japan remains a largely patriarchal society, Koreeda holds a tight focus on how the news directly impacts Ryota and Yukari. Without giving too much of the story away, the biggest differences between the two men come from their respective lifestyles and the things they’ve handed down to their sons, Nobuko and Ryusei, respectively. Ryota is as dedicated to his company and career as Yukari is committed to keeping his wife and son happy and upbeat. Nobuko has been raised to reflect his father’s obsession with money and material possessions. As expected, the boy excels at the piano and in school, even if their face-time is limited to what Ryota spares from work. Ryusei is a fun-loving boy, doted on by his parents, but not much of a student. Ryota’s immediate solution to the dilemma is simply to accept his birth-child and purchase or lease the one raised under his roof. Yukari feels insulted by the offer, even if, at first, he seemed more interested in pursuing a lawsuit against the hospital than getting his real son back. Instead, the families agree to slowly wean the boys from the lives they’ve known for so long and reduce the effects of traumatic withdrawal. Koreeda does a really nice job maintaining the suspense throughout “Like Father, Like Son,” without appearing to take sides. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it takes a bit longer while for the women to step out of the shadows, but, when they do, they shine. The surprises Koreeda plants along the way make the journey that much more enjoyable. – Gary Dretzka

The Face of Love
As great as it is to see Ed Harris and Annette Bening in the same movie, undisguised by layers of makeup and wrinkle tape, it’s every bit that depressing to see them in a rom-drama as criminally maudlin as “The Face of Love.” It’s almost as if co-writer/director Arie Posin (“The Chumscrubber”) set out to make the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, but neglected to do his homework on what made the classics gel and the characters memorable. None of the blame can be placed on the back of Harris and Bening, however. They exude copious amounts of “chemistry” and keep us interested, even when the characters they play stop making sense. Fonda plays an upscale SoCal widow, Nikki, whose husband, Garrett, died six years before she meets Harris’ Tom, who is 10 years removed from being jilted by his wife. Garrett drowned at a Mexican resort, while taking a midnight swim, and, even absent any extenuating circumstances or intrigue, Nikki’s never attempted to fill the void in the company of another man. Mind you, Nikki has an interesting job, a supportive daughter (Jess Weixler) and a close male friend and neighbor, Roger (Robin Williams), who’s been waiting five years for the right time to ask her out on a date.  One day, after a visit to an art museum, she encounters a man who’s a dead-ringer for her husband. After assuring herself that the man isn’t an apparition. Nikki even manages to joke about it with Roger. Once she picks up his scent, again, Nikki begins to act crazier than a whole flock of lonely loons. Learning that he’s an artist and teacher, she shows up in class one day and asks him to tutor her at home, which he does. As soon as Tom begins to show signs of falling in love with her, however, Nikki appears to change her mind about him. All along, she refuses to tell him the truth about his likeness to Garrett and that he drowned, creating a mystery where one needn’t exist. Neither does she reveal the source of her newfound happiness to her daughter and Roger, who might have conspired to have her committed.

It isn’t difficult to imagine what Alfred Hitchcock or, even, Brian DePalma, might have done with such a juicy setup and A-list cast. “The Face of Love” does gives off the occasional “Vertigo” vibe. It could even work as a comedy, playing off the idea that neither Garrett nor Tom knew he was a twin, and Nikki decides to turn the surviving brother into a virtual clone. Or, the “Heaven Can Wait” conceit could be pulled off the shelf and tweaked to fit Posin’s story. Instead, Posin does none of these things. The cop-out ending could actually have been borrowed from a tragic Harlequin romance. We want to like Bening/Nikki, but lose all sympathy for her as she continues to torture Tom with her neuroses. Posin simply skips the part when viewers are told why Garrett was worthy of a six-year mourning period – Jackie Kennedy only lasted five years before remarrying – and how a smart woman wouldn’t be able to see the problems in falling in love with a doppelganger. Our frustration with Nikki translates into something resembling anger and pity. To be fair, the movie has received some positive reviews in mainstream publications. Even so, the modestly budgeted movie only played in a few dozen theaters and didn’t come close to recovering its nut. That I can’t remember seeing a single ad for “Face of Love,” suggests to me that the distributors couldn’t wait to get the picture into the DVD and VOD pipeline, where the presence of big-name stars does help business. The DVD adds interviews, making-of material and deleted scenes. Sadly, “Face of Love” may be the last movie we see in which prominent actors – including Amy Brenneman, as Tom’s still supportive ex-wife – look and act their age. -– Gary Dretzka

Vinyl: Blu-ray
Over the past 60 years, rock ’n’ roll has lent itself so well to parody (“This Is Spinal Tap”), satire (“The Rutles”) and outright ridicule (“Bye, Bye Birdie”) that the line separating fact and fantasy has blurred to the point of non-existence. Now that Kiss has joined Alice Cooper in the Hall of Fame, it’s conceivable that the Insane Clown Posse could be only two or three gold records away from someday making the same leap. Knowing that Sara Sugarman’s entertaining, if lightweight British comedy, “Vinyl,” is based on an actual “rock-’n’-roll swindle,” perpetrated in 2004 by the Alarm’s Mike Peters, gives us hope that there’s still room for fun in the music industry. And, wouldn’t it be hilarious for a Juggalo festival to break out at the induction ceremony? You bet. Here, after a booze-fuelled post-funeral jam session, Johnny Jones (Phil Daniels) and his old band-mates from Weapons of Happiness roll tape on a pop-punk single. Considering the condition their conditions were in, the song’s surprisingly catchy. When Jones shops it around to A&R executives and radio DJs, however, he’s basically told that no one under 21 wants to watch old folks boogie. In a rare moment of lucidity, Jones erases “Weapons of Happiness” from the label of the cassette and replaces it with the name of an imaginary band, “The Single Shots.” When he’s contacted about the tape’s origin, Jones explains that it’s from a band comprised of Welsh newcomers, who had come to him for advice and tutelage. As was the case with Peters’ 2004 hit single “45 RPM,” performed under the pseudonym, the Poppy Fields, the Single Shots’ “Free Rock ’N’ Roll” climbs rapidly up the charts.

While Jones’ mates can’t understand why being over the hill is considered to be such a crime, they agree to help in the search for teenagers willing to go along with the ruse. Once assembled, the nascent musicians will be trained in the ancient art of conning gullible teenagers. The Shots’ lead singer and guitar player is a brash busker who goes by the name, Drainpipe (Jamie Blackley). He actually possesses some genuine musical chops, none of which he’s encouraged to demonstrate. As is all too common in the rock game, jealousy and egos rise to the surface just as the Shots are on the brink of stardom. In one clever sidebar, Jones comes to believe that Drainpipe is the son he can’t remember conceiving one night, after a concert, with a groupie, who, long ago, stopped keeping track of her conquests. “Vinyl” won’t make anyone forget “Spinal Tap” or, even, “The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch.” It does, however, provide 85 minutes of non-taxing entertainment. If only Sugarman had resisted the urge to play “Free Rock ’N’ Roll” ad nausea and added a couple of more songs to the soundtrack. The Blu-ray adds a short behind-the-scenes featurette, a music video of “Free Rock ‘n’ Roll” and photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

The Last Days
Deadly Eyes: Blu-ray
These days, you’ve got to hand it to any filmmaker willing to make a dystopian thriller without also adding zombies, vampires or virus-carrying werewolves to the mix. As used to the undead as we’ve become, it’s kind of nice to be threatened by something other than a shuffling freak. In “The Last Days,” we’re in Barcelona and the world has been plunged into chaos by an agoraphobia-inducing force, known as “The Panic.” Besides bouncing into an invisible psychological shield when venturing outdoors, those who dare go further afield soon have oxygen crushed from their lungs. Marc is in a high-rise office building when the Panic takes hold, presumably waiting to be laid off by a senior executive, Enrique, also known as the Terminator. Instead, they’re required to work together to rescue loved ones they have reason to believe might still be alive in other buildings or shelters. The trick, of course, is to accomplish this task without exposing themselves to the plague. All I’ll reveal here is that a tunnel in the office building parallels the city’s subway system, where thousands of people now live. A GPS app on Enrique’s phone could hold the key to survival, but, first, they are required to protect it from gangs of robbers. While brothers David and Alex Pastor (“Carriers”) were able to create a credibly impenetrable aura to the outdoors scenes, the limits of a $5-million budget are visible in the panoramic views of a wasted city as seen from the upper floors of the skyscraper. Everything else is fine.

Released in 1982, “Deadly Eyes” resembles dozens of other sci-fi and creature-feature flicks in which mammals, bugs and fish are mutated into monsters after being contaminated by pollutants, toxins or radiation. The modern era began in Japan, with such irradiated monsters as Rodan and Godzilla, and soon would flourish under the watchful eyes of Roger Corman. A half-century later his fingerprints can be found all over such modern Syfy hybrids as Sharktopus, Piranhaconda and Camel Spiders. Like “Willard,” “Ben” and “The Food of the Gods,” “Deadly Eyes” is infested with vermin. It was adapted from a James Herbert novel, “The Rats,” and directed by Robert Clouse, who also helmed the kung-fu classic “Enter the Dragon.” After a shipment of genetically enhanced corn is prevented from leaving a Toronto port, the local rat population feasts on it. The more they eat, the bigger and more vicious they become. Pretty soon, the rats’ hunger can’t be sated by the meager rations provided by other sewer dwellers. Humans become the next likely target. You know the rest. The creepiest scene by far takes place in a movie theater showing “Enter the Dragon,” also produced by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest. Just as Bruce Lee is getting the best of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, rats the size of small dogs begin attacking patrons reaching for popcorn boxes on the floor. “Deadly Eyes” is a million miles from being a masterpiece, but any movie with Scatman Crothers is automatically better than most others. The making-of featurette is a hoot, as well, especially the description of how dachshunds respond to having rat costumes put on them. – Gary Dretzka

Sx_Tape: Blu-ray
By now, it’s become axiomatic: add any variation of the word, “sex,” to the title of a movie or DVD and it’s going to capture someone’s attention, resulting, perhaps, in a few more ticket sales and rentals. Other than the coincidence of nearly simultaneous release dates, Bernard Rose’s occasionally steamy “sx_tape” and Jake Kasdan’s yet-to-be screened “Sex Tape” could hardly be more different. Rose’s thriller uses the implied promise of sex to lure horror buffs who’ve run out of patience with found-footage flicks, while, according to early reports, Kasdan hopes to attract viewers who’ve yet to see Cameron Diaz’ boobies on film. I have no way of knowing if Kasdan, Diaz and Jason Segel can repeat the commercial success they enjoyed with “Bad Teacher” – skin or no skin – but, having watched “sx_tape,” it’s easy to see why the producers felt as if they might have needed a crutch to sell their movie. Caitlyn Folley plays Jill, a free-spirited artist who favors micro-miniskirts and other aggressively slutty attire. Her videographer boyfriend, Adam (Ian Duncan), is one of those pathetic geeks who films his every move, if for no better reason than that he owns a camera. One day, while driving around a parched section of Los Angeles, they pass an abandoned building that once served as a hospital and residence for “wayward” girls. Jill talks Adam into joining her on a walking tour of the facility, which is only slightly less secure than your average highway rest station.

Although reluctant to invade the presumably haunted hospital, Adam does see how it might be used as a gallery for Jill’s next showing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the discovery of a mattress with leather bindings sets her libido racing. Unfortunately, her lust also manages to summon the ghost of a former resident, who sees in Jill an opportunity to settle some old scores. Rose employs some rapid-fire-editing tricks to raise goosebumps as the two women merge spirits and Jill begins to suffer the same nosebleeds a patient might have experienced after a lobotomy. Things really begin to go haywire, though, after the panicked couple escape the hospital, just as Jill’s car is being towed to a city lot. As freaked out as they are, Jill and Adam are hornswoggled into giving the friends who come to their rescue a guided tour of the joint. Why? Just because. This time, of course, even crazier things happen inside the facility. Some of it even passes for being logical. Genre buffs may remember Rose as the creator of the well-regard 1992 hit “Candyman,” which was partially set in the Cabrini-Green housing projects. Since then, he’s collaborated with Danny Huston on several interesting arthouse dramas adapted from the works of Leo Tolstoy. Although Folley shows some promise as a sexy scream queen, even fans of found-footage pictures probably would find something substantial lacking in “sx_tape.” It includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Southern Comfort: Blu-ray
Director Walter Hill contends that “Southern Comfort” wasn’t intended to be a metaphor or allegory for the American debacle in Vietnam. In 1981, however, that conflict still weighed on the American psyche like a yoke made of lead and metaphors were easier to market than outright indictments of U.S. policy. If the war had never occurred, it would have been much easier to see “Southern Comfort” as a Cajon-flavored sequel to Hill’s 1979 cult hit, “The Warriors.” In both pictures, an authority figure is killed early on in the proceedings and his underlings are required to fend for themselves as they make their way home. In “The Warriors,” the gang framed in the death of the charismatic leader is challenged by dozens of other New York street units, one more outrageously drawn than next. In “Southern Comfort,” Peter Coyote plays the leader of a squad of National Guardsman on a training mission in Louisiana’s bayou country. After the knuckleheads in his unit steal the pirogues belonging to a group of Cajun hunters, one of them fires off a clip of blanks at the men. It would have been impossible for the hunters to know that the shots were harmless, so they respond in kind. This time, however, a bullet takes out Coyote, leaving the soldiers without an experienced guide, compass, map or mediator for petty disputes. In retaliation, they kidnap another Cajun hunter and destroy his cabin. Knowing the swamp like the back of their hands, the hunters have no trouble picking off the weekend warriors. Powers Booth and Keith Carradine play the only two soldiers who survive the massacre, only to be trapped in a backwater village during a fais-do-do and pig slaughter. Filmed on location in the Louisiana backcountry, during winter, the actors’ ordeal was as arduous as it might have been for actual guardsmen. “Southern Comfort” holds up very well as an action-adventure and, yes, metaphor for Vietnam. The interviews shot for the Blu-ray release are entertaining and informative, as well. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
How the West Was Won: Season 2
The Big Valley: Season 3
AMC: Hell on Wheels: Season 3
PBS: America’s Test Kitchen: Season 14
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when elaborate family dramas challenged nomadic Western heroes, gunslingers and dedicated lawmen for the hearts and minds of television viewers. “Bonanza” had already demonstrated how a family’s worth of storylines could provide exponentially more variety and opportunities for action, melodrama, comedy and fan appeal. “Dallas” would pick up where such series as “The Big Valley” left off, less than a decade earlier, with oil barons overcoming the cattle barons of yore and adulterers replacing horse thieves as the scourges of the west. In several ways, the matriarchal character played by “Miss Barbara Stanwyck” was modeled after Ben Cartwright and a prototype for Miss Ellie in “Dallas.” As the first female lead in a TV Western, Stanwyck was only slightly less formidable a presence than she had been in such movies as “Double Indemnity” and “Stella Dallas.” After her husband’s death, Victoria Barkley assumed command of the sprawling Barkley Ranch in California’s Central Valley. It wasn’t a figurehead position and Victoria frequently dressed as if she were about to join her sons — Richard Long, Peter Breck, Lee Majors — and cowpokes branding cattle. Despite being noticeably more fashion conscious, her daughter, Audra (Linda Evans), didn’t mind getting her hands dirty, either. The series was set, if not filmed, near Stockton in late 1800s, so all mother and daughter had to do to find couture clothing was make the short haul to pre-earthquake San Francisco. (Fact is, though, Audra’s taste in hats and bonnets can only be described as laughable.) “The Big Valley” remained popular, even as ABC executives felt the urge to sell their souls for younger demographics. It remains a terrific entertainment.

How the West Was Won” borrowed its title from MGM’s 1963 Cinerama blockbuster, which told an epic story of conflict and conquest through the experiences of four generations of the Prescott family, circa 1839-89. The Macahans’ plans to make the cross-country trek to Oregon were interrupted by the Civil War and, in the interim, the clan is homesteading half-way between Virginia and the West Coast. Season Two begins with simultaneous crises involving widespread hostility toward the Mormon migration, a bounty hunter hot on the heels of Luke (Bruce Boxleitner) and the slaughter of buffalo on Sioux land by Russian royalty. The show’s greatest selling point, of course, is James Arness’ portrayal of mountain man Zebulon “Zeb” Macahan, who serves as the conscience of the plains. Not all of the scenarios are supported by actual logistics or historical records – the Russians did embark on a hunting party in the Dakotas, but with the approval of the Sioux and cavalry – but such details have rarely confounded Hollywood screenwriters. Fionnula Flanagan also has been recruited to substitute as family matriarch for Eva Marie Saint, who was unceremoniously killed off between seasons. The series nicely captured the grandeur of the American West, as well as such unsavory traits as bigotry, racism, corruption and a lust for vigilante justice.

Mormons also take it on the chin in Season Three of “Hell on Wheels.” Set primarily on the eastern portion of the first transcontinental railroad, its hero is a former Confederate soldier, Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) still haunted by his past. The story, so far, has followed the portable town of Hell on Wheels as it makes its way west to Promontory Point, Utah. The greatest enemy to progress has been Colm Meaney’s hideously evil financier, Thomas “Doc” Durant. As the season opens, Bohannon is snowbound and nearly frozen in the ruins of the village destroyed in an Indian raid, last season. Durant has been ousted from his position with the railroad and imprisoned for his role in an embezzlement scheme. Needless to say, they both find their natural footing in due time. This stanza, Bohannon is control of the railroad’s progress, while Durant conspires to return to his position of financial power. The producers have done a terrific job integrating a half-dozen parallel storylines over 10 episodes, while maintaining the heated pace of the railroad construction itself. Filmed in Alberta, “Hell on Wheels” looks as good as it plays.

Years before the Food Channel was added to the cable-TV universe, PBS was the only network that foodies could turn to for lessons in French cooking and how to pronounce terms associated with haute cuisine. PBS has since dialed up its own food lineup to include niche shows and value-added traditional cooking. “America’s Test Kitchen” It offers quality information to pros and amateurs, alike, with advice on cookware, trends, quality issues and the dissection of recipes. Season 14’s offerings range from “grown-up grilled-cheese sandwiches” and chicken parmesan to an “updated” versions of Julia Child’s stuffed turkey and Florentine lace cookies. – Gary Dretzka

World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection
PBS: The Wipers Times
D-Day 360
Nova: D-Day’s Sunken Secrets
Day of Days: June 6 1944: American Soldiers Remember D-Day
This summer marks the centennial of the start of World War I and 60th anniversary of D-Day, two events that shaped our world at a time when it was threatening to come apart at its seams. The United States came late to the party that was WWI, so, too often, filmed representations are limited to airborne dogfights and trench warfare. Only a fool or documentarian with the gift of time on his side would attempt to make sense of the whys and wherefores of the fully global war, which ended with a treaty that lead directly to World War II. Even so, several of the movies that attempted to depict the horrors and heroism of WWI, without the benefit of sophisticated special effects, remain among the most compelling of all Hollywood pictures. Four of them are represented in Warner Bros.’ “World War I Centennial Commemorative Collection.” They are “The Big Parade,” “Wings,” “The Dawn Patrol” and “Sergeant York.” In 1927, King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” became the highest-grossing silent film of all time, as well as the first realistic war drama; also from 1927, “Wings” is the story of two men who have gone to war to become fighter pilot — one rich, and one poor — and are in love with the same woman; in 1938’s “The Dawn Patrol,” Errol Flynn and David Niven starred as roustabout French Corp fighter pilots, who come face-to-face with the harsh realities of war; and two-time Academy Award-winner “Sergeant York,” the story of a backwoods boy (Gary Cooper) who became one of WWI’s greatest heroes.

If any war would appear to be bereft of humor, it’s World War I. In WWII, at least, it was possible to poke fun at Hitler’s mustache, Mussolini’s ham-shaped chin and Hirohito’s circular glasses. All WWI had going for it was mud, trenches, mustard gas and officers who kept their distance from the front. The absurd command decisions made by absentee brass provided all the ammunition a group of British soldiers would need to create a satirical magazine, The Wipers Times, printed on a press left abandoned in a bombed-out building in Ypres, Belgium. The Brits pronounced the name of the hotly contested city in such a way that it rhymed with “wipers,” ostensibly providing the sanitized title of their publication. Of course, after it had been passed around the trenches, the paper also served a quite different purpose, also associated with the word “wipe.” And, yes, caricatures of officers and spoofs of their decisions filled the pages that served double-duty as toilet paper. Ben Chaplin is quite good as the amateur journalist who saw Wipers’ Times as a combination of Punch and the British Music Hall performances. Michael Palin keeps things light as a general who correctly saw the role of such gallows humor in war and refused to censure the editors when they were identified by twit subordinates. I don’t think that “The Wipers Times” was shown here, if only because the U.S. had yet to enter the war and television programmers are reluctant to test American viewers’ ability to grasp British humor. They needn’t have worried. The show translates well into our own peculiar notion of the English language.

With all due respect for the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who sacrificed their lives on D-Day, it’s possible that decisions made by top brass leading up to the invasion resulted in more needless deaths than we’ll ever know. Although no one comes right out and says it during the course of these fine 50th-anniversary documentaries, there are indications mistakes were made solely based on overinflated egos, nationalistic pride and incomplete intelligence. Blessed with a half-century’s worth of scientific hind-sight, of course, it’s now possible to come to conclusions that may, for all we know, already be stashed away in the Pentagon archives and unpublished memoirs of people who were there. The sheer enormity of the mission and huge toll paid by American, British and Canadian personnel – along with the significance of the victory — has led to a largely unquestioned acceptance of the official D-Day line. While there’s no question it was a magnificent effort on everyone’s part, these docs provide WWII buffs with some ammunition, at least, to play Monday-morning quarterback.

D-Day 360” uses data gathered though forensic laser scanning, 3D computer modeling, light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR) and eye-witness accounts to deconstruct the battle for Omaha Beach. Produced by Glenn Swift and directed by Ian Duncan for Windfall Films, “D-Day 360” locates all of the German positions – some buried in sand and vegetation – and demonstrates how miraculous it was that anyone survived the punishing cross-fire defense that left no inch of the beach unprotected and precisely targeted artillery fire from concrete bunkers that withstood the morning’s bombardment from above. The presentation begs the question as to how much stronger were the defenses at Calais, if the Allied leaders chose to attack Normandy, instead. What the show doesn’t do is describe what happened inside those bunkers that allowed the amphibious landing to succeed, against all true odds. We’ve been led to believe that these were elite troops dedicated to Nazi principles, when it’s possible that the soldiers manning the machine guns and cannons had replaced more-seasoned troops sent to the Eastern front. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Someday, I’d like to see a documentary in which modern military experts give their unbiased impressions, one way or the other, on the preparations for D-Day.

In a similar vein, “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets” combines highly sophisticated technology with the accounts of veterans to reveal the extent of the carnage perpetrated even before the landing craft reached Omaha Beach. In launching the largest armada in history to invade the Normandy beaches, Allied brass may or may not have anticipated the threat to ships from submerged mines and other obstacles designed to puncture landing craft. In less than 24 hours, more than 5,000 ships crossed the English Channel, along with thousands of tanks and nearly 200,000 men. When some of those tanks sank, instead of “swimming” to the beach, as planned, their absence made the soldiers that much more vulnerable to machine-gun fire. Small surveillance subs responsible for clearing a path through enemy minefields performed as designed, but, given the need for secrecy, it would have been impossible to get rid of them completely without alerting the Germans. “Nova” producers were given exclusive access to a unique collaboration between military historians, archaeologists and specialist divers to carry out the most extensive survey ever done of the seabed bordering the beachheads. Dive teams, submersibles, underwater robots and ships equipped with top-end sonar scanners were able to create a map, locating the final resting place for our ships and identifying many of them by number. The heart-wrenching testimony of survivors is further intensified when some of them are invited to board a submersible and survey the damage at close range. It’s only fitting that British engineers are given the credit due them for creating vehicles that took out mines and barbed wire, while also advancing the assault. (General Eisenhower and his associates decided to go it alone, without the benefit of advanced British armor.) “D-Day’s Sunken Secret” is a fascinating account of a largely forgotten aspect of the invasion and reminder of the unseen graveyard at the bottom of the ocean.

Day of Days: June 6, 1944” takes a more traditional approach to PBS’ commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Normandy. It brings together American D-Day veterans, who comment on their experiences for the benefit of an audience whose knowledge of the fateful event may be limited to what they’ve seen in movies. As is generally the case with WWII veterans, these men have lived with the painful memories submerged within them for most of the last 70 years. They recount their transformations from boys to men, reveal their uneasiness with the term “hero” and grapple with why they survived when so many others did not. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Jodorowsky’s Dune: Blu-ray
Almost everything any young film buff needs to know about the last 40-plus years in the American film industry can be summed up in two books, both by Peter Biskind, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood” and “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film.” Some prominent filmmakers interviewed for the books have challenged Biskind’s methodology, but history has validated most of the author’s key points. Although Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky is 20 years younger than the Baby Boomers who emerged from USC, UCLA and NYU in the 1960s and spent most of his formative years in Paris and Mexico City, his influence on American filmmakers of the Golden Decade remains undeniable. If nothing else, he taught them how to make legitimately trippy movies that wouldn’t be laughed off the screen by anyone younger than 30 … or starred Peter Fonda. When Jodorowsky’s 1970 “acid Western,” El Topo,” failed to gain traction with mainstream distributors, the midnight-movie circuit was invented to accommodate underground movies by Kenneth Anger and John Waters, as well as such kindred flicks as “Freaks,” “Targets,” “The Harder They Come,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Reefer Madness,” “Alice’s Restaurant” and Disney’s 1951 “Alice in Wonderland.” They would pave the way for the grand success of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and, of course, the rest is history. John Lennon was so impressed by “El Topo” that he convinced Allen Klein, president of Apple Corps, to raise money for Jodorowsky’s subsequent, quasi-religious sensation, “The Holy Mountain.” Although its distribution, too, would be limited to the underground circuit, it made him the obvious candidate to direct the film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi adventure, “Dune.” Written in 1965, the Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning novel transcended genre boundaries, giving readers a vision of the universe far more interesting than the geeks at NASA would come up with in the subsequent half-century. Alas, Jodorowsky’s vision was so great that it overwhelmed his backers’ ability to make the darn thing. Frank Pavich’s truly fascinating documentary, “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” chronicles the project’s rise and fall, but also teases us with what might have been, if “the greatest film never made” had actually been completed.

When a group of French investors purchased the rights to “Dune” and handed the reins to Jodorowsky, they probably saw an opportunity to merge the cult and college crowd with audiences newly turned on to the works of such brash young American filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese. And, it might have worked, too, if Jodorowsky hadn’t approached the project as if his backers wanted something that could be displayed in the Louvre, next to the “Mona Lisa.” As conceived by Herbert, “Dune” and its sequels would constitute a separate universe of its own. The settings and characters more closely resembled those found in the alternate worlds created for fans of fantasy role-playing games, from the tabletop-based “Dungeons & Dragons” to today’s interactive, multiplayer RPG games that are devouring bandwidth on the Internet. It was science-fiction for those whose imaginations weren’t limited to rocket ships, black holes and robots. While the narrative defies easy encapsulation, Jodorowsky’s head must have spun with ideas for turning spectacular locations into interplanetary empires, with creatures and costumes that would dazzle audiences in the same way as “Avatar” did, three decades later. To this end, he lured such wildly inventive illustrators and artists as Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Jean “Moebius” Giraud to create the film’s phantasmagorical look and costumes; Dan O’Bannon, fresh off “Dark Star,” was to head the special-effects department; and the cast would include Orson Welles, David Carradine, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, Geraldine Chaplin, Alain Delon, Hervé Villechaize and the director’s 12-year-old son, Brontis, to play Paul Atreides. Dalí agreed to participate only after being told that his salary would be $100,000 per hour, without knowing that Jodorowsky could only afford one hour of his time. Welles was lured with the promise of daily on-set meals prepared by one Paris’ elite chefs. Jodorowsky flew to London to personally woo Pink Floyd, which was recording “Wish You Were Here” at Abbey Road Studios. With only slightly more than $7.5 million left to actually make the picture and 14 hours’ worth of storyboards already drawn, Jodorowsky tried desperately to raise more money. Knowing that $5 million would only prove to be a drop in the bucket, the producers slammed the brakes on “Dune.” Producer Raffaella De Laurentiis would hand the project to David Lynch, whose adaptation of the novel – which he never read, apparently – would be released and largely forgotten in 1984.

At one point in “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” he concedes that the only way his vision of “Dune” could be made today would be as an animated epic. Modern CGI and digital technology could make the madness affordable and audiences have bought into the 3D and large-format conceit. In fact, half of the grunt work already has been done for anyone willing to share Jodorowsky’s vision. To lure studio support, Jodorowsky and his artistic team had created what essentially was a book of the movie, comprised of wonderfully drawn storyboards. Now collectors’ items, they were the size of the Los Angeles phone book and quite spectacular. Pavich’s film tells the story of this debacle in a lively and easily accessible manner, with a dozens of original illustrations and interviews with most of the key players. Jodorowsky is in top form, as well, especially considering the bitter feelings with which he was left in the aftermath of the collapse. The film can easily stand alongside “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” and “Down and Dirty Pictures” as examples of how movies are made and unmade, and the passions that drive the industry’s dare-devils. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Kid Cannabis: Blu-ray
Movies in which a drug dealer is the likeable protagonist tend follow a similar trajectory. Everyone’s having fun and making money, until any one of three things happens: a friend dies of an overdose, a sleazy rival puts a contract out on the dealer or he graduates from selling pot to pushing crack or heroin. The surprisingly benign “Kid Cannabis” is no different from the rest in this regard. Where it does differ, however, says a lot about how far audiences have come around on the subject of marijuana, at least. For more than 30 years, the patently dishonest and ludicrously inflammatory “Reefer Madness” provided the blueprint for how Hollywood would handle drugs in movies produced under the Production Code. Death was the price one paid for getting high and enjoying it. In “Easy Rider,” Wyatt and Billy were punished for financing their journey on the wages of sin, not unlike the teens in slasher movies who were slaughtered for having sex on Lovers Lane. Still, the characters were credibly drawn and smoking pot had nothing to do with their demise. Released in 1972, “Cisco Pike” and Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues” offered an even more contemporary look at the business, which sometimes did pit “righteous” dealers against corrupt cops, mobsters, pissed-off competitors and their own self-destructive habits. “Kid Cannabis” reflects the new reality of marijuana usage in North America. The growers are harmless and the traffickers don’t belong to a cartel. You can credit that to the setting, which is a remote town along the U.S./Canadian border, where smoking pot is no more controversial than choosing to put cheese curds or gravy on your French fries, instead of ketchup.

Jonathan Daniel Brown plays Nate, your standard-issue high school dweeb who is stunned to discover how porous our border with Canada really is and how easy it is to purchase high-quality bud from the local hippie farmers. John C. McGinley’s presence as one of the growers provides several delightfully ditzy moments, especially as he explains the economics of the trade. After smuggling his first bricks into the U.S., Nate and his friend, Topher (Kenny Wormald), set up a distribution network among a diverse group of friends deemed impeccably trustworthy. Even when Nate turns to an Israeli gangster (Ron Perlman) for money to invest in larger purchases, nothing goes significantly wrong in the business relationship. Neither does Nate’s mother, an innocent victim of America’s economic doldrums, try very hard to discover where he’s gotten the money to put her back on her feet. Because “Kid Cannabis” is based on a real story, writer/director John Stockwell (“Turistas,” “Blue Crush”) didn’t have to stretch too far to find the holes in Nate’s strategy and create a scenario in which hubris and gluttony takes him down. In doing so, he pits Nate and his pals against a fellow dealer, who supplies the locals with harder drugs and doesn’t cotton to competitors. Anyone who can easily recall Joe G.M. Chan’s portrayal of Alfred Molina’s firecracker-tossing “boy,” in “Boogie Nights,” will find something of him in Nate’s Asian-American nemesis.

Finally, though, the American side of the business is brought down by Nate’s decision to take his eyes off of the day-to-day details of the operation and fall in love with his own product. When the real deal comes down, his associates are so sick of his antics that they happily rat him out for more lenient treatment and we don’t blame them for doing so. Stockwell has a way of portraying the antics and aspirations of young people that rarely feels forced, even when he’s applying dramatic license or playing for laughs. He makes full use of the beautiful British Columbia locations, as well. According to the bean-counters at IMDB.com, “Kid Cannabis” was shown at a single festival and exactly one domestic theater. Once the stoner crowd discovers the movie on DVD or on cable, it should enjoy a successful afterlife. I would hate to think that mainstream distributors are still afraid of releasing a picture, however low-profile, that makes it appear as if marijuana may not be as diabolical as the DEA would have us believe. – Gary Dretzka

Le Week-End: Blu-ray
Watching Jim Broadbent (“Topsy-Turvy”) and Lindsay Duncan (“Rome”) impersonate an increasingly unmatched pair of 60-something academics, who are attempting to breathe some life into their marriage, renews hopes that the cinema hasn’t completely surrendered to the comic-book crowd. Targeted specifically at graying Baby Boomers, the Paris-set dramedy is a British import and technically doesn’t qualify as a game-changer. Still, discovering “Le Week-End” in this week’s pile of new releases was kind of like finding an abandoned Crystal Geyser delivery truck in the middle of Death Valley: nothing less than refreshing. The couple, Nick and Meg, are in Paris revisiting landmarks from their honeymoon 30 years earlier. Clearly, they’ve spent more than a few of those years bouncing between extended periods of marital bliss, pointless bickering and romanticizing the 1960s. In the three days they’ve allotted for this second honeymoon, Nick and Meg will condense all of those highs and lows into one package and see what’s left on Monday morning. Neither is entering the weekend under ideal circumstances. Nick has just been fired from his teaching post for committing some breach of politically correct etiquette, while Meg seems to have lost interest in any further intimate contact with him. In fact, before Nick broke his sad news, Meg was planning to burst his bubble by announcing that she was leaving him.

Things don’t always work out as planned, however. While exchanging a passionate kiss on a Paris sidewalk, they’re recognized by one of Nick’s ex-patriot friends, Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who’s just published a book and is riding high in the saddle. Morgan believes that he owes a great debt of gratitude to Nick and invites them to a celebratory party, where long-hidden truths will be revealed and fissures in their relationship will become visible. Even so, director Roger Michell and Hanif Kureishi, who previously collaborated on “Venus,” “The Mother” and “The Buddha of Suburbia,” convince us not to give up on them. The dialogue exchanged by Nick and Meg alternates between being bitterly acerbic and warmly nostalgic, with surprises scattered throughout the narrative. Goldblum, who seems to be spending more and more time on his music these days, delivers a highly caffeinated performance as the harmlessly verbose Yank.  Paris, as usual, is grand. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Michell and producer Kevin Loader; a behind-the-scenes featurette with Michell, Kureishi, Broadbent, Duncan and Goldblum; an illustration gallery; and tutorial video, “How to Dance ‘The Madison.’” – Gary Dretzka

Rigor Mortis: Blu-ray
Hong Kong multi-hyphenate Juno Mak’s directorial debut, “Rigor Mortis,” is set in a grimly austere tenement that appears to serve as a magnet for suicidal types, vampires, zombies and strange children. The building more closely resembles an abandoned warehouse, which someone converted to a cold-storage facility, than a place intended for habitation by humans. Given how few of them are in residence, though, it definitely fits the clientele’s needs. A displaced actor and onetime vampire hunter, Chin (Chin Siu-ho), moves into the building for the express purpose of killing himself. Before he takes his last breath, however, a wraith-like Taoist exorcist, Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan), slips into the room to spoil his plan. Although not normally pre-disposed to disapprove of unnatural death, Chin’s neighbors go out of their way to make him feel welcome. Not being creations of American filmmakers, the undead among them aren’t required to resemble fanged teenagers or shuffling ghouls. They’re considerably more imaginatively conceived and executed. Unlike Asian audiences already familiar with the odd rhythms, genre tropes and jarring subplots in J-, K- and HK-horror flicks, American viewers are urged to go with the slower, more deliberate narrative flow. Asian-American audiences may recognize some of the actors, some of whom were original cast members of the classic “Mr. Vampire” series. – Gary Dretzka

The Pretty One
The easiest, if not the most precise way to describe Zoe Kazan to anyone unfamiliar with her work is to compare her to a pre-sitcom Zooey Deschanel, with most of her rough edges still intact. Both women carry the DNA of Hollywood royalty in their blood, but only Deschanel has been able to land roles that make money and careers. Kazan’s breakthrough should have come in the self-penned rom-com “Ruby Sparks,” in which she played the kooky muse to a seriously blocked novelist (Paul Dano), who’s drowning in neuroses. Despite excellent reviews, it was never accorded the exposure it deserved. If it had, “Ruby Sparks” could have provided Kazan the same springboard as “(500) Days of Summer” gave Deschanel. Jenée LaMarque’s only occasionally compelling character study, “The Pretty One,” received even less respect than “Ruby Sparks.” I wonder, though, if Kazan hasn’t already decided to save her best work for the stage and page. In “The Pretty One,” she plays physically identical twins, Audrey and Laurel, who couldn’t have personalities that are more different. Laurel is an archetypal wallflower, who rarely leaves the house and has the fashion sense of a woman who hasn’t picked up a copy of Vogue since 1956. Audrey is a successful big-city business woman with an outgoing personality and no scarcity of suitors. When Audrey returns home for a visit, Audrey begins the process of pulling her sister out of her shell. It’s aborted, however, when she’s killed in an automobile accident and Laurel assumes her identity as “the pretty one.” What Laurel finds most disturbing is how little love and respect she’s accorded by those people, including her widowed father, who come to mourn her passing. Laurel also allows herself to consider the possibility of accepting love, in the form of Audrey’s married lover (Ron Livingston) and a free-spirited local (Jake Johnson). It’s in her lively exchanges with Johnson’s character that Kazan is at her best. Naturally, the truth will come out eventually and, with it, the heartache of learning that no one is happy that she’s the one who came back from the dead. The actors all work hard to sell LaMarque’s conceit, but “The Pretty One” simply can’t overcome the gimmickry of having a single actor play twins. That one hasn’t worked in a non-Disney movie since David Cronenberg’s truly creepy “Dead Ringers.” It is being released on a manufactured-on-demand basis, through Amazon.com and other retail outlets. – Gary Dretzka

Ragamuffin: Blu-Ray
Instead of “The True Story of Rich Mullins,” “Even Bible Bangers Get the Blues,” might be a more appropriate subtitle for the compelling faith-based bio-pic, “Ragamuffin.” At a time when right-wing evangelicals are attempting to rewrite the Constitution to fit their limited points-of-view, it comes as something of a surprise to meet an unabashedly Christian musician, who saw the rebel in Jesus Christ and whose mind isn’t shackled to Old Testament prohibitions. Rich Mullins was an extremely gifted singer-songwriter who recognized his calling early in life – his mother was a Quaker — and became his father’s punching bag because he focused more on his music than the proper way to care for a tractor. Instead of putting up with the abuse, he walked away from his family’s Indiana tree farm and headed directly for Cincinnati Bible College, where he found other people who loved music and God in equal measure. An iconoclast in a world over-populated with dyed-in-the-wool conformists, Mullins wore his hair and beard shaggy and favored jeans and white t-shirts. Instead of sticking to the music, Rich would deliver short sermons between songs, thus infuriating the preachers who resented him encroaching on their territory. Moreover, they rejected some of his notions of Christ’s teachings, which didn’t square with their fire-and-brimstone approach to homosexuality, alcohol and salvation. He was a sinner and wasn’t afraid to admit his shortcomings to his audiences. The title of this movie derives from a series of discussions he had with the controversial Christian speaker and adviser, Brennan Manning, who shared many of Rich’s same vices. He also believed that Jesus would have felt significantly more comfortable sitting at a table with a bunch of open-minded “ragamuffins” than trying to convince a lecture hall full of conservative pastors that the scriptures weren’t recipes for bigotry, prejudice and intolerance.

In Michael Koch’s capable hands, Mullins is a man who wears his emotional turmoil on his sleeve and had little patience for self-righteous Christians who feel that the gates of heaven should be open to them, simply because they show up at church every Sunday. He never truly got over the pain of being dumped betrayed by the only woman he truly loved and it was reflected in the songs he wrote and performed. Amy Grant was the first Nashville star to give him a break by recording his words (“Sing Your Praise to the Lord”). Eventually, he would begin to feel hamstrung by uptight, hits-oriented producers who wanted to add a happy face to what they saw as odes to melancholy. His biggest solo hits, “Awesome God” and “”Sometimes by Step,” became anthems for the burgeoning Christian-music community of the 1980s, even as he was becoming increasingly influenced the Catholic liturgy and the lifestyle espoused by St. Francis of Assisi. As such, Mullins gave far more than his fair share of his earnings to charity – he never knew much he actually made – insisting to his managers that he keep only what the average American worker earned. He hopped off the concert circuit to teach music to kids living on the Navajo reservation and died in a car crash on his way to a charity event. Not having heard of Mullins before watching “Ragamuffin,” it’s difficult for me to say whether or not Koch and David Schultz’ interpretation of Mullins’ life and faith is accurate. That said, however, “Ragamuffin” isn’t a particularly easy movie to watch. The hard-core pastors are a drag and Mullins’ prickly personality sometimes is hard to buy. The bonus features add much background material on Mullins, the movie and his music. – Gary Dretzka

Watermark: Blu-ray
Here’s a documentary for folks who’ve ever questioned the wisdom in William Bell’s hit song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (‘Til the Well Runs Dry).” Although “Watermark” isn’t specifically about global warming, it reminds us in the most persuasive way possible of the danger in messing with the world’s most accessible miracle. From the team behind the award-winning “Manufactured Landscapes” — Jennifer Baichwal, Nick de Pencier and cinematographer Edward Burtynsky – “Watermark” contrasts the immense grandeur of water in motion, with the vast emptiness of regions that have dried up and are in the process of being blown away. The emphasis here is on man’s relationship with water: how it shapes people’s lives, as well as how humanity affects this precious resource. In doing so, the filmmakers traveled to various locations around the world – from great rivers and deserts, to the biggest dams in the world and most toxic factories — to create a compelling global portrait of growth, restoration and destruction. The filmmakers take full advantage of 5K ultra-HD cinematography and highly portable cameras. Indeed, one of the film’s most striking images comes from a digital camera attached to a concrete hopper as it’s lowered from a crane, from hundreds of feet above the floor of a construction site. Special features include, “The Making of Watermark,” a discussion with Burtynsky and Baichwal, deleted scenes and a photo gallery narrated by Burtynsky. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Prisoners of War: Season 1
Fans of Showtime’s acclaimed series, “Homeland,” can do themselves a favor by picking up a copy of the Israeli mini-series, “Prisoners of War,” upon which it’s based. Here, a pair of Israeli soldiers have finally been released from captivity after 17 years of mental and physical torture. A third is being shipped home from Syria in a box. As one might expect, the P.O.W.’s are totally discombobulated after their ordeal. Sadly, their return home is no picnic holds no escape from pain. The men’s families have changed in unexpected ways and their dreams are haunted by visions of what happened since their capture. Worse, perhaps, is the treatment they receive from representatives of their own government. After one night of less-than-blissful reunion, the men are hauled into a facility where they’re poked, prodded, debriefed and monitored by camera as they sleep. When one of the agents detects the prisoners using a crude form of Morse code, they assume that the men are hiding something sinister, not unlike Nicholas Brody in “Homeland.” Meanwhile, the ghost of the third soldier has found his way back to the home he shared with his sister, back in the day. If the adjustment period is painful for the men, it’s equally difficult for the families. While one of the wives is viewed as a hero for being out front in support of the P.O.W.’s for all those years, the other is widely condemned for falling in love, marrying and having a son with her brother-in-law. In neither case is the situation quite as cut-and-dried as it seems, for the wives, children and siblings. Things begin to get really interesting when a phone number handed to one of the men before leaving Syria is traced to a mechanic’s garage in the West Bank. Producer/director Gideon Raff has said that he was inspired by the lack of attention paid to former P.O.W.’s and their bouts with PTSD. As we see here, one is even made to feel guilty when a traded Palestinian prisoner commits a murderous crime. Just as “Prisoners of War” has been adapted to fit the demands of an American audience, different versions have been created for several other countries. The features include “An Open Wound: Making Prisoners of War,” including interviews with cast and crew, and episode commentaries with Raff and director of photography Itai Neeman. – Gary Dretzka

PBS: Vicious
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: Endeavour Series 2
PBS: Nature: The Gathering Swarms
PBS: Locked Up in America
PBS: Time Scanners: St Paul’s Cathedral/Egyptian Pyramids/Petra
PBS: Cool Spaces: The Best New Architecture
Rockers TV: Dennis Brown: Live
The latest British import on PBS features two of the world’s greatest dramatic actors — Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi – in a traditional sitcom about a pair of elderly queens, Freddie and Stuart, who have lived together in their Covent Garden flat for nearly 50 years. Freddie is a retired actor and Stuart once managed a swank bar. For all of their time together, the two men have argued about everything from who’s going to answer the doorbell, to their careers and long-ago boyfriends. The show’s other regular characters are a classy old dame, Violet (Frances de la Tour), who, like Freddie and Stuart, can’t keep her eyes off the dreamy young man, Ash (Iwan Rheon), who’s just moved in upstairs. As such, the only thing differentiating “Vicious” from dozens of other sitcoms driven by double-entendres and bitchy repartee are the stars. In this case, at least, it’s worth the effort it takes to sit through the show’s annoying laugh track to watch great actors hitting softballs out of the park. And, yes, McKellen and Jacobi are gay and haven’t cared who knows it for a long time.

Season Two of the “Inspector Morris” prequel, “Endeavour,” opens with the young detective of the same name (Shaun Evans) still feeling the effects of his father’s death and other traumatic events that occurred during the first go-round. DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) urges patience, but Endeavour is ready to jump back in the saddle on simultaneous investigations into a suspicious suicide, the disappearance of a teenage girl and missing artifacts from an Oxford museum. Thursday and Superintendent Bright don’t buy Morse’s conspiracy theory, arguing that he may have come back to work too soon. As the four episodes unwind, we learn a lot more about Thursday and just how corrupt even a classy college town, like Oxford, can be. Morse, in his own fractured way, even manages to blow a sure thing with his agreeably nice and pretty next-door neighbor. “Endeavour” has been a huge success, so far, and perfectly complements the on-going “Inspector Lewis” saga. The production values and setting are of the highest standards, as well.

A staple of most nature shows are the scenes in which large groups of fish, birds, bats and wildebeest come together in packs so thick they’re practically impenetrable. They move together as one fluid unit, never once stumbling of the heels of the beasts in front of them or leaving themselves open to invasion by predators, large and small. The closest humans come to mimicking such behavior is when they exit subway cars in Tokyo or attempt to avoid gunshots in Chicago. The “Nature” presentation, “The Gathering Swarms,” sees the sardines, starlings, bats and wildebeest and raises them with millions of cicadas, grunion, carp, locusts, ants, monarch butterflies, parakeets, penguins and mayflies. Frankly, I’m not sure I learned anything remotely scientific from the presentations, but they’re definitely fun to watch.

The two “Frontline” episodes included in “Locked Up in America” cover very different aspects of the prison system and the depressing lack of answers for serious problems. “Prison State” examines a relatively new Kentucky program designed to give youthful and elderly offenders, accused of “crimes” ranging from assault to truancy, every opportunity to avoid serious jail time. The kids we meet live in a housing project within a long stone’s throw of the local police lockup; the older men have been in and out prison dozens of times, mostly because they can’t resist yielding to bad habits. Too often, repeat offenders come to believe that they belong in jail and these rehabilitation periods are mere vacations from reality. It’s one thing to recognize that degree of resignation in an old man with few friends or relatives on the outside, but quite another to see it take hold in a teenager for whom recidivism might as well be her middle name. If the show is depressing, it comes as a relief to know that lots of people we don’t meet benefit from the program. “Solitary Nation” offers almost no room at all for hope. The residents of the solitary unit in a Maine prison to whom we’re introduced are angry they’ve been removed from the rest of the population, but do nothing at all to warrant being spared the punishment. Some of them register their displeasure by slitting their wrists and smearing the blood on the two windows available to them, or by stuffing up their toilets to flood the hallways with fetid water. Some also collect feces to smear on the walls. Muscle-bound and tattoo-laden, the inmates leave no doubt as to their anti-social tendencies, thus begging the question as to whether they ever can be released and, if not, what to do with them. Neither show is easy to watch, but both deal with important issues facing all Americans, especially those who advocate putting everyone from pot smokers to jaywalkers in jail.

The occasional PBS series, “Time Scanners,” explores another mystery frequently addressed in network shows: how is it that the pyramids and other ancient structures have held together so well, while the house we just built already has a leaky roof and a cracked driveway? Here, modern laser and CGI techniques are used to strip the structures to their bare bones and examine the skeleton, without removing a single stone. Host Dallas Campbell and structural engineer Steve Burrows take us to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Petra and Egyptian pyramids built before the ones at Luxor and Giza. It’s fun and viewers don’t require a graduate degree in architecture to understand most of it.

The PBS series “Cool Spaces!” also attempts to make architecture accessible to civilians. Here, though, architect/teacher/host Stephen Chung opens the doors to contemporary structures that look great today, but probably won’t be around in 50 years, let alone several millennia. That isn’t to suggest that Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center couldn’t last more than a century or two, only that their owners wouldn’t hesitate to tear them down to accommodate a larger scoreboard or higher-definition Jumbotron. Season One is divided into segments exploring performance spaces, healing spaces, libraries and art spaces.

For more than a quarter-century, New York deejay and TV host Earl “Rootsman” Chin has served as Jamaica’s musical ambassador to the U.S. His “Rocker TV” series, which mixes interviews and music, occasionally is shown on one of our local PBS affiliates. Among the many musicians who’ve appeared on the show was the prolific and highly popular Dennis Brown, who died in 1998 of pneumonia, possibly aggravated by crack and ganja. The interview and concert segments on this DVD were recorded shortly before that happened. – Gary Dretzka

Runaway Nightmare: Blu-ray
Lake Placid: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Usually, the rewards that derive from finding a DVD that’s so bad it’s good are so miniscule as to be invisible. Watch a 100 straight-to-video titles and only one or two might qualify for such a distinction, so, maybe you can see where a reviewer might go insane before a really good bad movie surfaces. “Runaway Nightmare” is being touted as just such a treasure by Vinegar Syndrome, a company that, like Shout!Factory, knows a bad movie when it sees one. Moreover, when it does finds one, VS tends to spend more money upgrading the product and adding bonus materials than the movie made in theaters the first time around. Here, two Death Valley worm farmers – worm farmers! Death Valley! – discover a woman being buried alive in a patch of ground usually reserved for tube-shaped invertebrates. The men are, then, kidnapped by an all-female cult of drug runners, who, after making them their slaves, force them to assist in a plan to steal a suitcase full of platinum from the mob. I kid you not. A sure sign that a movie is being held together with duct tape and staples is the number of times someone’s name shows up on the credit roll. Mike Cartel is listed as director, writer, producer, editor, stuntman, star and husband of one of the femme fatales, Mari Cartel. There’s violence aplenty, but most of the nudity is reserved for an alternate VHS segment, featuring topless women doing the boogaloo. The uncut and authorized edition of “Runaway Nightmare” has been fully restored in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative. It includes commentary with the Cartels.

Lake Placid” was released in 1999, two decades after “Piranha,” but minus a director as inventive as Joe Dante and screenwriter as hip as John Sayles. David E. Kelley may be responsible for some of the television medium’s best series, but, clearly, he was out of his element when it came to writing a creature feature. Instead of a man-eating fish from the Amazon, the killer residing in the body of Canadian water posing as Lake Placid is a crocodile capable of wholly digesting a live cow, donated for the purpose by a local nutcase played wonderfully by Bette White. The reason “Lake Placid” isn’t close to being in the so-bad-it’s-good category is because its stars are far too prominent and Kelley gave them a few too many good lines. Otherwise, while obviously fake, the monster isn’t nearly as cheesy as those in the average Syfy flick. The blood-letting is messy but not realistic enough to induce vomiting in queasy viewers. The toothy beast might as well be a hippopotamus for all of the stealth it displays while approaching its prey. If “Lake Placid” were a bicycle, it would come with training wheels. The scenery’s nice, but I can’t imagine anyone over 16 being particularly challenged by this one. The Blu-ray extras include new interviews with director Steve Miner, actor Bill Pullman, director of photography Daryn Okada, editor Marshall Harvey, production designer John Willett, effects supervisor Nick Marra and puppeteer Toby Lindala; a vintage featurette with Miner, White, Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt and Brendon Gleason; a behind-the-scenes still gallery; animatronic “Croc Test” footage; and original marketing material. – Gary Dretzka

How It All Began: Origins of Master Mantak Chia
Although this bio-doc too often feels like an infomercial for Grand Master Mantak Chia and his international chain of healing centers, there’s enough interest in yoga these days to mention it alongside movies about killer crocodiles and worm farmers in the desert. After all, just because I’ve never heard of Mantak Chia doesn’t mean others won’t value from his teachings. Born to Chinese parents in occupied Thailand, Chia climbed the ladder from Thai boxing, to Tai Chi Chuan, Aikido, yoga and broader levels of Tai Chi. He would combine disciplines from various masters, forming his system that merged Thai boxing, Kung Fu, Taoist, Buddhist and Zen teachings. He brought the Universal Healing Tao System with him when he eventually moved to New York’s Chinatown and steadily built his business. He has since returned to Thailand, where he has created a posh Tao Garden Health Resort and Universal Tao Training Center for the benefit of his many New Age disciples and newbies. There’s no reason to think that his followers wouldn’t find “How It All Began: Origins of Master Mantak Chia” to be entertaining and enlightening. – Gary Dretzka

Erotic Adventures of Candy/Candy Goes to Hollywood
All Night Long/Tapestry of Passion
Vintage Erotica: Anno 1970
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 3
The latest double-features in Vinegar Syndrome’s “Peekarama” series harken back to a time when porn directors still thought in terms of narrative content and providing entertaining content for couples, in addition to vigorous hard-core sex. In the mid-1970s, Gail Palmer was one of only a very few women directors/writers/producers and very good one, at that. Her best-known titles, “Erotic Adventures of Candy” (1978) and “Candy Goes to Hollywood,” appear to have been based as much on Terry Southern’s “Candy” as Voltaire’s “Candide.” “Deep Throat” co-star Carol Connor plays the bubble-headed bleach blond who loses her virginity to the handsome young Mexican gardener her father warned her against befriending. The sex was disappointing, to say the least, so she tries to find love in places besides her back yard. In the second chapter of the saga, Candy finds a predatory talent agent, Johnny Dooropener (John Leslie), who introduces her to more celebrated sex fiends in Hollywood, including Johnny Carson and Chuck Barris look-alikes. In one of her attempts to find straight work after “Deep Throat,” Connors landed a gig on “The Gong Show” as a buxom introducer of “talent.” Palmer satirizes the experience in “Candy Goes to Hollywood.” There’s also a surprise appearance by the power-saw-wielding punk-rocker, Wendy O. Williams.

The second “Peekarama” collection is right out of “Boogie Nights.” “Tapestry of Passion” is a chapter in the series of hard-core adventures featuring John C. Holmes’ recurring Johnny Wadd character, immortalized by Mark Wahlberg in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Bob Chinn, who was portrayed by Burt Reynolds in the same movie, is credited as co-screenwriter with director Alan Colberg. Private detective Wadd is hot on the case of a woman known as “The Black Widow.” Colberg also directs Holmes in “All Night Long.” In it, characters played by Holmes and Rick Lutze embark on a competition to see who can sleep with the greatest number of women over the course of a night. It’s not as easy as they think it will be. All of these films have been restored in 2K from the 35mm camera negatives and add vintage trailers.

Vintage Erotica: Anno 1970” offers prime examples of how the ’70s’ “porno chic” phenomenon was interpreted in Europe, where anti-pornography laws were falling much faster than they were in the U.S. Here, court cases still awaited the stars of “Deep Throat” and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. For one thing, the 14 short films are more risqué than hard-core and not nearly as aggressively in-your-face as the loops that preceded “Deep Throat.” For examples of those nasty little boogers, check out Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 3.” It is the latest compilation of 8mm shorts from Impulse Pictures, re-mastered from original film prints. This collection features 15 classic loops, with such future stars as Annie Sprinkle, Susan Nero, Bobby Astyr and Jamie Gillis. Liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie also are included. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

The Unknown Known: Blu-ray
The timing of Errol Morris’s perversely revealing portrait of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could hardly be more appropriate. The documentarian couldn’t possibly have known that his film’s afterlife on DVD/Blu-ray would coincide with the takeover of northern Iraq by Sunni jihadists and likely collapse of the country’s government over issues left unresolved when American troops left the country on a timetable established by President George W. Bush. Arriving, as it does, three days before the Fourth of July only makes what Rumsfeld says in “The Unknown Known” that much more wrong-headed and cruelly arrogant. Any Iraq vet planning on marching in a parade or visiting a cemetery this weekend probably already is questioning what in Bush’s name we were doing there, anyway, considering what’s been happening throughout the blood-soaked north in the name of one sect’s interpretation of the Koran. In addition to being one of the architects of our response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, he also was partially responsible, at least, for leaving a backdoor open for Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora and going to war in Iraq on almost zero evidence of WMDs. An even bigger question, asked rhetorically by Rumsfeld, is why he would agree to be interviewed by the same brilliant filmmaker who gave us “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. Arrogance, chutzpah and belligerence are the only answers for that one. Rumsfeld was an obsessive writer of memos to those with whom he served during the course of five Republican administrations, sending out an estimated 20,000 “snowflakes,” as they became known. Their availability meant Morris wouldn’t have to rely on rumors, innuendo and other peoples’ memories for his research. Both men, then, approached the interview fully prepared for the task and aware of the other’s techniques. To me, anyway, Morris’ questions seemed fair, balanced and informed, and Rumsfeld appeared to enjoy the thrust and parry with him. Like Richard Nixon, after his first televised with John Kennedy, he probably walked away from the interview thinking that he scored at least as many points as Morris.

Too often, though, Rumsfeld falls back on such non-partisan Washington excuses as, “We based our decisions on the best evidence available to us at the time,” “We were acting to protect American interests in the region” and “We couldn’t have known what would happen after the government was toppled.” (That last point was fully explored in Charles Ferguson’s more relevant than ever, “No End in Sight.”) The film’s enigmatic title refers to Rumsfeld’s own response to reporters’ questions about the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein and the transfer of WMDs to terrorists: “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because, as we know, there are known knowns (and) there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns, which is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” That search for the “unknown unknown” resulted the deaths of nearly 5,000 men and women associated with the Iraq Coalition force. Israel is no safer today than it was 12 years ago; Iraq is far worse off; the Taliban is as strong as it ever was; unindicted prisoners are still being held in Guantanamo; and Barack Obama is lost at sea. “Would it have been better not to have gone there at all?” Morris asks. “I guess time will tell,” replies Rumsfeld. And, that’s exactly what’s happening today in Iraq. “Unkown Known” is a fascinating film, no matter on which side of the fence one stands. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a “conversation” with Morris; his four-part “op-ed,” “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld”; and a videotape of a panel discussion at the Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense conference, in 1989. In it, more than a half-dozen former secretaries were asked about the collapse of the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall, as well as the future of the Soviet Union. For the most part, they were every bit as clueless about what it all meant as any half-soused knucklehead, spouting off in a tavern in Milwaukee. – Gary Dretzka

The Lunchbox: Blu-ray
The Mumbai we visit in freshman writer/director Ritesh Batra’s bittersweet romance exists somewhere between the slums of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the soundstages of Bollywood. The people we meet in its teeming streets work hard to make ends meet and are neither starving nor prospering. One or two of them might even aspire to a job answering questions from Americans who can’t get their computer to work or understand their credit-card bills. “The Lunchbox” describes what happens when serendipity calls on a lonely office worker, Saajan (Irrfan Khan), on the verge of retirement, and a younger woman, Ila (Nimrat Kaur), whose husband couldn’t be more distant if he lived in Calcutta. Neither of them would be aware of the other’s existence, if it weren’t for a mistake made in the otherwise efficient food-delivery system unique to Mumbai. Each mid-morning of the workweek, dabbawalas collect hot food in compactly stacked tiffin boxes (dabbas), prepared by restaurants and the residences of semi-pro chefs, for delivery to workplaces around the metropolitan area. The dabbawalas use bicycles and carts to get the boxes to the primary sorting areas, where they’re transferred to trains or other vehicles. At each stop, a new group of dabbas is waiting to relay the boxes to customers anticipating genuine home-cooked meals. After lunch, the process is reversed. As Batra’s story goes, a chink in the system results in Ila’s lunchbox landing on Saajan’s desk, instead of the one belong to her husband. The quality of Ila’s meals inspires him to leave a note in the box, suggesting various modifications to fit his personal tastes. Eventually, these notes escalate to something resembling mash notes. After proving, once and for all, that the shortest way to a Mumbai man’s heart is through his stomach, Batra was left with the decision of how to end the story: happy, sad or somewhere in between. Khan and Kaur don’t share much screen time, but, emotionally, the distance between them is very small. The larger presence, of course, is that of Mumbai. Within a metropolitan area populated by some 18 million people, the protagonists may as well be as removed from each other as the would-be lovers in “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” which, finally, are the movies that “The Lunchbox” reminds us of most. It’s accompanied by commentary with Batra. – Gary Dretzka

Cannibal Holocaust: Blu-ray
Infliction
Afflicted: Blu-ray
The Jungle
A “listicle” published in Entertainment Weekly in June, 2006, credited “Cannibal Holocaust” with being only the 19th most controversial movie of all time. What the editors really meant to say is: here are the 25 most controversial movies that we could think of over lunch, minus titles that most of our lowbrow readers might not recognize. When EW decides to pull one of these meaningless lists out of their collective butts, all the reporters have to do is round up the usual suspects and concoct a paragraph that makes them sound witty. Any such list that doesn’t put “Cannibal Holocaust” in the top two or three positions, however, probably wasn’t conceived by writers who actually saw the movie, at least in its uncensored and unedited form. Yes, most the 25 titles included the EW list were controversial, but only for the news cycle of the average weekly magazine. Six months later, almost no one cared, except for the publicists promoting the DVD release. Of them, only “Freaks” (17), “Triumph of the Will” (15), “The Message” (11), “Baby Doll” (10), “Natural Born Killers” (8), “The Birth of a Nation” (7) and “Deep Throat” (4), resonated beyond the pages of Variety and the easily shocked New York Times. And, while advertised screenings of “Birth of a Nation” can still raise the hackles of civil-rights activists, few of the others would generate the heat today that “Cannibal Holocaust” still can. Anyone who’s ever wanted to clear a room full of vegans, PETA members and feminists would need only slip this baby onto the DVD player and let it run for about 10 minutes. If anyone saw you do it, though, you’d be hung from the rafters and your estate would be sued for emotional reparations.

Released in 1980, “Cannibal Holocaust” is an extension of “Mondo Cane” and other reality-based shockumentaries popular in the 1960s. As such, it relied far less on special effects scenes than the traditional practices and rituals of the native Amazonian tribes the filmmakers encountered. Italian director Ruggero Deodato learned his craft from working alongside neo-realist pioneer Roberto Rossellini (“Open City”) and spaghetti-western specialist Sergio Corbucci (“Dango”). Before “Cannibal Holocaust,” Deodato made a splash with the still-enjoyable Italian polizieschi “Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man”; the officially designated “video nasty,” “House on the Edge of the Park”; and virtual prequel, “Last Cannibal World.”  As nasty as “Cannibal Holocaust” is, then, Deodato couldn’t be accused of being a genre hack. Indeed, frequent collaborator Gianfranco Clerici was better known for exploitation fare, with writer’s credit on “Nazi Love Camp 27,” “Confessions of Emanuelle” and “Murder-Rock: Dancing Death.” Together, they found an angle for “Cannibal Holocaust” that allegedly commented on the wave of terrorist kidnappings in Europe and reporters who poured gasoline on fiery situations to heat up a controversy. Consequently, more than a few critics argued that the merits of the story outweighed the horrors on display. The story opens with New York University anthropologist Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) returns from a rescue mission to the Amazon rainforest with footage shot by a lost team of filmmakers and evidence they were murdered. They were in the thoroughly untamed wilderness to make a documentary about tribes known to enhance their diets of monkeys, snakes, rodents and other critters with human flesh. When Monroe showed the footage to a network news producer, she became so excited by the first couple of reels that a special report was scheduled. It wasn’t until the rest of the footage was screened that the truth about the reporters’ methodology was revealed.

What was shocking then and remains disturbing today are scenes in which a coatimundi, large turtle, gigantic spider, snake, a squirrel monkey and wild pig are killed, slaughtered and devoured before our eyes. Although such things happen every day in the rainforest – none of the meat actually went to waste – the processing of the animals is almost unbearable to watch. (The animals didn’t appear to be enjoying their role in the film, either.) Moreover, the film also includes scenes of violent death and rape that were so realistic that Deodato was, in fact, put on trial for making a snuff film. (The charges were dropped when a couple of the “slain” actors testified in his defense, but he was still forced to pay fines for obscenity.) Prominent in the marketing material are images of a native woman impaled on a 10-foot stake and put on display on the shore of a river as a warning to adulterers. The controversy caused “Cannibal Holocaust” to be banned in several countries, censored and pulled from circulation for years. Abridged versions have surfaced occasionally on video, but not in such a masterfully restored and remixed Blu-ray edition as is now available from Grindhouse Releasing. The company has essentially added a Criterion Collection sheen to the movie, which arrives in three-disc (two in hi-def and a remixed CD of Riz Ortolani’s musical score); feature-length commentary tracks, with  with Deodato and actors Robert Kerman (a.k.a., then-porn star R. Bolla), Carl Yorke and Francesca Ciardi; new interviews with Deodato, Ciardi, assistant director/co-star Salvo Basile and cameraman Roberto Forges Davazati; vintage interviews with Kerman, Yorke and Ortolani; still galleries and theatrical trailers from around the world; a glossy 24-page booklet containing liner notes by director Eli Roth, horror journalist Chas. Balun, Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai and Italian exploitation film authority Martin Biene; a reversible cover with original art by illustrator Rick Melton; and nine Easter eggs, including the Grindhouse theatrical re-release premiere and Necrophagia music video directed by Jim VanBebber. The interviews are unusually candid, especially in discussions about the killing of animals and the actors’ passionately negative reactions to them. A cruelty-free version of the movie is available in the package, which also contains a separate version of the film-within-the-film, “Last Road to Hell.”

The three other found-footage films that arrived this week are nowhere near as well-made and horrific as “Last Road to Hell,” even if every bit as much blood and gore are on display. Jack Thomas Smith’s “Infliction” purports to use actual assembled footage taken during a murder spree three years ago in North Carolina. How much, if any, is hard to determine, since the credits list the usual number of actors next to the names of the characters. Smith’s conceit is to bear witness in excruciating detail to the series of seemingly inexplicable attacks perpetrated by brothers wielding sharp objects and a video camera. Just as one begins to entertain thoughts about hitting the “stop” button, however, the roots of the spree are revealed and we’re asked to decide who the real villains are here. In my opinion, it comes too late to erase the bad taste left by exceedingly graphic violence.

The found-footage material in “Afflicted” derives from a planned Internet travel show, in which a bunch of cool dudes visit traditional destinations and do the things that cool dudes do when confronted by great natural beauty, babes in bikinis and discos. (Much of the film appears to take place in and around Dubrovnik.) When one of the hosts is diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, he decides to go on with the journey, anyway. On one of the stops, he meets a gorgeous local lady who appears to have put a curse on him … not that he needs another one. It manifests itself in the projectile vomiting of large volumes of blood and, yes, it’s every bit as sickening to watch after the first 10 times as it sounds. The poor schlub also develops an overwhelming taste for the blood of other people, pigs or anything else with a working heart. It’s when he discovers that he’s not alone that “Afflicted” begins to get interesting, but, at 85 minutes, it comes a tad on the late side.

Anyone who’s seen Andrew Traucki’s “Black Water” and “The Jungle” already knows that the writer/director enjoys finding his brand of horror in nature, rather than haunted houses and boarded up sanitariums. In “The Jungle,” conservationist Larry Black (Rupert Reid) travels to the jungle of Indonesia to see if he can find the endangered Javanese leopard in its natural habitat. Because this is a found-footage flick, we already know what happened to Larry and his cohorts and it ain’t pretty. By wading through the film left behind – mostly uneventful hikes through the jungles at night — we eventually get a short, belated peek at the critters that ended his expedition. Once again, great patience is need to get to that point. – Gary Dretzka

Scavenger Killers
Some straight-to-DVD movies are so strange that they defy description. “Scavenger Killers” tells us what happens when a perverted judge and a sex-addict defense attorney join forces to kill clients, defendants, plaintiffs and anyone else who makes the mistake of getting in their way. The judge is played by onetime “Guiding Light” regular Robert Bogue, while the role of blond-bombshell lawyer is filled by Rachel Robbins, whose immortal credits include “Bikini Bloodbath Christmas,” “Bikini Bloodbath Car Wash,” “Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers” and “Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots.” “Scavenger Killers” might also be notable for having been written by prolific hack Ken Del Vecchio, himself a novelist, lawyer and onetime judge. On Del Vecchio’s Facebook page, he’s also credited as publisher of the New Jersey newspaper, Garden State Journal and chairman of the Hoboken International Film Festival. These are significant only because, according to IMDB.com, “Scavenger Killers” has only been shown publically at that event and Garden State’s movie critic described it thusly. “This is a movie that, if you have the stomach for it, you have to see. It will go down as one of the best in horror-movie history.” Most of the other critics represented on the site shared the opposite opinion. If all of these considerations weren’t sufficiently bizarre, however, it’s worth pondering how Del Vecchio managed to lure Eric Roberts, Charles Durning, Robert Loggia and Dustin Diamond to the project. True, Diamond probably would have paid Del Vecchio to be included in the cast and it’s likely that Roberts required his paycheck up front, but the presence of Loggia and Durning remains puzzling. On closer inspection, however, it appears as if both of those fine actors augmented their Social Security checks by accepting work in such cheesy projects. (Durning’s final two credits before his death last year, at 89, were in Del Vecchio movies.)  None of this is to suggest that “Scavenger Killers” is so bad it’s worth seeing, because it’s not. Only that bad movies sometimes make strange bedfellows. – Gary Dretzka

The Final Terror: Blu-ray
Unlike “Scavenger Killers,” a case can easily be made for “The Final Terror” being essential viewing for fans of movies lambasted in equal measure by critics, producers and fans. In fact, the monster-in-the-rainforest thriller was deemed so unwatchable after it was made, in 1981, that it sat forgotten on a shelf until someone recalled that its stars were becoming famous. They included Rachel Ward (“The Thorn Birds”), Daryl Hannah (“Blade Runner”), Adrian Zmed (“Grease 2”), Mark Metcalf (“Hill Street Blues”), Ernest Harden Jr. (“The Jeffersons”) and Joe Pantoliano (“Risky Business”). Director Andrew Davis had attracted a bit of attention in 1978 for “Stony Island,” his story about a group of young musicians coming of age simultaneously in the streets of Chicago, but was stymied by budget considerations and a tortured screenplay while surrounded by the Redwoods of southern Oregon. He would go on to make “Code of Silence,” “Above the Law” and “The Fugitive.” None the worse for the wear, producer Joe Roth eventually would become chairman of Walt Disney Studios and, last week, sold his long-dormant Revolution Studios for $250 million to Fortress Investment Group. That’s a remarkably impressive legacy for an inconsequential slasher flick, but such thing happen every day in Hollywood, or so we’ve been led to believe.

According to the folks at Scream Factory, “This release was a challenge for us to execute. All of the original film elements (negative and inter-positive) were lost and we searched for them for months. In order to create this new HD transfer, we sourced five film prints from collectors and used the best reels.” (Collectors?) “Final Terror” looks pretty good in Blu-ray, considering how neglected it’s been over the past 30 years. Unfortunately, the appearances of the boogeymen and women is pretty anticlimactic. Their makeup and costumes appear to have been something of an afterthought, as well, possibly victims of budget restraints. It adds new audio commentary with Davis and new interviews with actors Zmed and Lewis Smith, post- production supervisor Allan Holzman and composer Susan Justin. – Gary Dretzka

Operation Petticoat: Blu-ray
It wasn’t until “Operation Petticoat,” I’m guessing, that most of the elements of what would become known as a Blake Edwards’ film began to coalesce. By 1959, he’d already written and/or directed a few not-terribly-memorable features, but what he did best was create entertaining television series featuring manly-men protagonists and sexy babes. Even in DVD, “Peter Gunn” remains one of the great P.I. entertainments of our time. Everything seemed to come together for him, though, on this occasionally raucous, irreverent and frequently ribald wartime comedy. Edwards had already demonstrated a rapport with co-lead Tony Curtis and writer Stanley Shapiro, so having an old pro like Cary Grant aboard the pink submarine could only help smooth the road to theaters. Neither did it hurt the odds for success that sailors aboard the decrepit USS Sea Tiger would be surrounded by a half-dozen gorgeous army nurses, rescued from a precariously held island in the Pacific island. At a time in Hollywood history when actresses were valued as much for their figures as their ability to read dialogue, I can only imagine what the casting sessions for “Operation Petticoat” might have been like. By then, Dina Merrill may have had the clout to avoid the shenanigans, but there was never a shortage of bosomy beauties in a Blake Edwards comedy. Here, at least, large breasts were an integral part of the gag. Maneuvering the tight spaces on a WWII submarine was difficult enough, without also having to squeeze past a set of 38-double-Ds or dance the limbo under a clothes line with stockings and girdles hanging from it.

In 1959, the Production Code was still diligently enforced by blue-nosed censors. The lengths to which Edwards and Shapiro went to keep the dialogue from being completely diluted often are as hilariously ridiculous as anything that might have passed muster, even 10 years later. (Legend has it that Tina Louise turned down the role of Nurse Crandall, which went to Joan O’Brien, because she didn’t like the abundant boob jokes directed at the character.) The script also benefitted from the fact that some of the best bits were inspired by actual incidents that took place in WWII, including the pink paint job on the Sea Tiger and the torpedoing of a Japanese truck on the beach of an occupied island. TV junkies will enjoy seeing younger versions of Gavin MacLeod (“The Love Boat”), Marion Ross (“Happy Days”) and Dick Sargent (“Bewitched”). – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Syfy: Helix: Season 1: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Good, the Bad and Casey Jones
Nickelodeon: Legend of Korra: Book Two: Spirits: Blu-ray
Directly inspired by John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” which, itself, was directly influenced by Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ classic 1951 thriller, “The Thing From Another World,” the Syfy mini-series “Helix” takes 13 episodes to do what those two pictures did in a little more than three hours. It does so with all of the benefits of CGI and other digital chicanery unavailable, even in 1981, to the filmmakers. If Season One of “Helix” would have benefitted from being six or seven hours shorter, it can’t be said that it didn’t give the Syfy audience its money’s worth of entertainment. That isn’t always the case at Syfy. Here, once again, the overwhelming sense of isolation and dread among scientists stationed in an Arctic research facility becomes palpable early in the 90-minute pilot episode. A team of specialists from the Centers for Disease Control is called to the Army-backed station when terrible things begin to happen to a small core of researchers working on a virus-related project. Among them is the brother of the leader of the CDC unit. The immediate recommendation to quarantine the possibly infected researchers doesn’t sit well with the rambunctious assemblage of people who should know better than to risk spreading the disease in a closed environment. The mice and monkeys can be excused from understanding the ramifications, however, and pay the price when they attempt to escape into the frigid Arctic night … poor things. The six episodes’ worth of padding takes the form of exceedingly hyperbolic dialogue, useless squabbling, an ever-shifting gallery of suspects and, of course, romantic intrigue between the buff guys and uniformly stacked women. The nerd-to-fox ratio is completely out of whack for a sci-fi series. On the other hand, it’s always a good sign when Jeri Ryan is brought in from the bullpen to provide midseason relief for a series that needs a good jolt of fresh air. The DVD/Blu-ray contains commentaries, deleted scenes and four featurettes: “Dissecting the Characters,” “The Art of Isolation,” “The Future of Disease” and “Ronald D. Moore: The Outlier of Science Fiction.”

Pop quiz: which character doesn’t belong in the same sentence as Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, A) The Shredder, B) Dogpound, C) Fishface, D) Casey Jones, E) None of the above? Devout fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles need not bother to answer the question, which most of them would deem to be ridiculously easy. Here, “None of the above” not only is the safe answer, but the correct one, as well. Not being someone who follows “TMNT” as religiously as my favorite sports teams, I would have guessed Casey Jones. That was before I received the latest Paramount/Nickelodeon release, “The Good, the Bad and Casey Jones,” in which the titular teen vigilante plays a prominent role. The venerable human-vigilante character dates back to 1990, when, in the original live-action movies, he was portrayed by Elias Koteas. Today, in Nickelodeon’s animated version, the hockey-stick wielding character is voiced by Josh Peck (“Ice Age”). The new set is comprised of six episodes from the current season: “Slash and Destroy,” with Corey Feldman, the original voice of Donatello, returning as the voice of Slash; “The Kraang Conspiracy,” in which we finally discover what the aliens want with April (Mae Whitman); “The Good, the Bad and Casey Jones”; “Fungus Humungous,” during which hallucinogenic mushrooms begin growing in the sewers; “Metalhead Rewired,” featuring Donatello and his robotic creation; “Of Rats and Men,” with a newly fortified Rat King.”

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s critically singed “The Last Airbender,” “The Legend of Korra,” is a sequel to the popular animated series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which was shown on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. At the time, I had no idea what being an air-bender entailed and the overwhelming negative reviews discouraged me from pursuing the subject, until now. It did OK at the international box-office, anyway. Both TV series were created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, who discovered interesting ways to merge Japanimation and traditional American animation into a story heavily influenced by pan-Asian fantasy, mythology and martial arts, of which air-bending is a fictional discipline. Here, people can manipulate, or “bend,” the elements of water, earth, fire and air, but only one person, the “Avatar,” can bend all four elements. That person is responsible for maintaining balance in the world. In “Book Two: Spirits,” a young woman named Koora has been chosen to advance the tradition, which has begun to fray on the edges of society. She volunteers to travel to the home of the Southern Water Tribes, where she’ll be able to jump-start her spiritual quest. The Blu-ray captures the soft color palette very well, even if it doesn’t always look as sharp and persuasive as the “TMNT” DVD. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire: Blu-ray
When a picture grosses just north of $331 million in total revenues, it should at least be able to cover production and marketing costs, which probably were in the vicinity of $200 million. In the case of “300: Rise of an Empire,” Warners’ follow-up to “300,” though, any deals cut between exhibitors and distributors would determine where the extra shekels go, if any. As impressive as that number sounds in the abstract, it has to be weighed against a production budget that ballooned from $65 million to $110 million in seven years and, all-in, a reduction of ticket revenues of $125 million. The studio probably didn’t expect to inspire the same shock and awe in audiences that accompanied the release of Zack Snyder’s blockbuster account of King Leonidas’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. His hyper-realistic animation technique is no longer novel, after all, and there was exponentially greater risk in offering action junkies a substantially more complex history of ancient Greece. Given the positive response to mega-budget Hollywood movies in foreign markets lately, however, a return of $224.5 million from non-domestic theaters – down from $245.5, in 2007 – had to be more puzzling than the comparatively meager $106.6 million haul from U.S. megaplexes. Enough with the numbers, already. Was the movie any good and what does it look like in Blu-ray? In brief: pretty darn entertaining and terrific.

“300: Rise of an Empire” focuses on the Athenian general, Themistocles, and his confrontations at sea with the brilliant Greek-born naval commander Artemisia, widow of King Darius I and mother-in-law of Xerxes. (Here, anyway.) In a flashback, we are shown the retreat of Persian ships from the Greek victory at Marathon and death of Darius by Themistocles’ arrow. Years later, Xerxes would return to Greece and defeat the 300. By then, he had declared himself to be a god and rival for power with Artemisia. She would attempt to avenge her husband’s death at the Battle of Salamis, while Xerxes was stalled in his advance south at Thermopylae. Themistocles and Artemisia would engage in a series of mutually destructive battles and, in a brief love-hate hookup, fall into something resembling lust. Meanwhile, Xerxes had reached Athens and Leonidas’ distraught wife, Queen Gorgo of Sparta, agrees to contribute ships and men to Themistocles. The title, “300: Rise of an Empire” refers to the unification of Greek city-states into a single entity after the Persian army under Mardonius is repulsed. Once again, I caution students, who might someday be tested on these same historical events, against taking co-writer Snyder and director Noam Murro’s depiction of them as gospel. Although the characters are based on actual Greeks and Persians, it isn’t likely that much in the sequel happened in the way it’s presented here. Nor, is it likely that “Rise of an Empire” will resemble Frank Miller’s as-yet-unpublished graphic novel “Xerxes,” even though it’s noted in the writing credits.

Even so, there’s no reason that I can see that fans of “300” shouldn’t also get a kick out of “Rise of an Empire.” There’s plenty of blood and gore to savor and the sea battles resemble a nautical demolition derby, complete with Persian suicide bombers and tar-spewing warships. Anyone who really, really dug the “six-pack abs” digitally molded on the Spartans, should know that the “farmers, poets and craftsmen” of Athens are pretty fit, as well, and can kick major Persian ass. Something in the retsina, perhaps. If were to guess, however, more tickets sales could be attributed to the presence of the beyond-buff Eva Green, Sullivan Stapleton, Rodrigo Santoro and Lena Headey in the lead roles. The technically excellent  Blu-ray adds the 30-minute “Behind the Scenes: The 300 Effect,” broken into “3 Days in Hell,” “Brutal Artistry,” “A New Breed of Hero” and “Taking the Battle to Sea.”; the 23-minute “Real Leaders & Legends,” which acknowledges the film’s loose representation of history and allows historians to add their opinions; “Women Warriors,” with Eva Green and Lena Headey discussing their characters’ reputation as empowered women, warriors and leaders; “Savage Warships,” on the ships and strategies of the Greek navy; and “Becoming a Warrior,” in which we watch cast members training for their roles. – Gary Dretzka

Winter’s Tale: Blu-ray
Not having read the best-selling novel from which “Winter’s Tale” was adapted, it would be impossible for me to explain why Mark Helprin’s novel was cherished and writer/director Akiva Goldsman’s adaptation barely put a dent in the Valentine’s Day box-office. I can’t remember seeing much in the way of pre-release publicity, which usually doesn’t bode well for a picture, or hear any buzz, one way or the other. It’s even more difficult to explain how any movie starring Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint and Will Smith couldn’t even score more than a weekend’s worth of good business. True, it wasn’t welcomed with much warmth from mainland critics, but how many young women trust mainstream critics for advice on romantic fantasies anymore, anyway? “Winter’s Tale” definitely qualifies as a chick flick, if not a sure-fire date movie. The presence of Crowe, Farrell and Smith, at least, should have suggested to guys that it wouldn’t be that much of a chore to sit through on a Saturday night, but my guess is that they’d rather play computer solitaire. I certainly didn’t hate the movie, which contains some legitimately magical moments. Still, I can see how a lot of young people might be scared off by its literary pretentions or confuse it with being yet another slick adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Then, too, there are times when the wonderfully delicate aspects of the story are overwhelmed by the roughness of the bad-boy elements, pitting Crowe against Farrell. Goldsman also waits too long for the star-crossed lovers to meet and start raising goosebumps on viewers’ arms.

Farrell plays a gang member, Peter Lake, who, as an infant, was given up by his parents when they were ordered to return to Ireland as possible carriers of TB. They placed him in a model sailboat, named “City of Justice,” and gave it a shove from Ellis Island toward the marshes of New Jersey. Later, he’s adopted into a crew of street urchins led by a Fagin-like demon posing as the gangster Pearly Soames (Crowe). Pearly’s boss, Judge (Smith), is none other than Lucifer, who has monitored Peter’s evolution from innocent to full-fledged criminal. As he nears adulthood, Peter decides to leave the gang and set out on his own. Judge, who measures the balance of good and evil on Earth, demands that Pearly get him back in the fold before a “miracle” happens. Surrounded by members of the gang, Peter climbs on the back of a white horse that just happens to be in the neighborhood. Just before they capture him, the Andalusian stallion displays its gossamer wings and speeds both of them away from danger. It isn’t long before the flying horse is revealed to be Peter’s guardian angel and partner in crime. Unbeknownst to Peter, it leads him to a mansion with a vulnerable safe and doomed young woman (Findley) waiting to die and become a star in the heavens. By this time, “Winter’s Tale” is less than halfway through and the magical realism and other fairytale conceits are only now beginning to kick into gear. It’s also becoming apparent that Academy Award-winning writer Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind”) is having trouble maintaining his directorial grip on the controls. The book contains 700-plus pages worth of fantastical ideas, and the two-hour movie only has room for a few of them. Once those threads are allowed to reveal themselves, patient viewers will be rewarded with some thoughtful storytelling, as well as the fine cinematography of Caleb Deschanel and music of co-composer Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams. The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and a pair of background featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

Rob the Mob: Blu-ray
Here’s a prime example of an entertaining indie dramedy that would have gone straight-to-DVD, if it weren’t for a brief stop at the Miami International Film Festival and no more than 30 theaters at any one time. The protagonists of Raymond De Felitta’s “Rob the Mob” have been compared to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barker, in that the Queens couple who targeted Mafia social clubs is finally brought down by their own hubris and false sense of immortality. Their lightly fictionalized story is based on a real-life crime spree, perpetrated in 1992 by Thomas Uva and Rosemarie De Toma, that couldn’t possibly have ended happily for anyone involved. For sheer chutzpah, though, it would have been difficult to top. The brains of the outfit, as it were, is the ex-con underachiever Tommy (Michael Pitt). Rosie, almost a dead-ringer for Jennifer Lawrence’s ditzy Rosalyn Rosenfeld in “American Hustle,” is Tommy’s willing moll and getaway driver. She’s delightfully portrayed by 29-year-old Tony-winner Nina Arianda, whose Queens’ accent rivals that of Fran Drescher. Rose gets Tommy a job at the same bill-collection agency she joined after her stint in stir.

He prefers, however, to attend the trial of mob boss John Gotti and listen to the testimony of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.” What Tommy hears convinces him that the social clubs, where the goombahs carry wads of cash instead of guns, would be an easy touch. He doubts that the victims would report the holdups to the police, especially the part where they were made to disrobe. What Tommy should have considered, though, was the fact that mobsters tend to do their own police work, with the incentive of cashing in on an “open contract.” When he stumbles on a list of contact names and numbers in one of the stolen wallets, Tommy foolishly comes to believe that it can be used as leverage against any bounty hunters. If Tommy is too stupid to inspire much sympathy in viewers, Jonathan Fernandez’ sharp script makes it easy for us to fully enjoy Arianda’s amazing performance. Also good in smaller parts are Andy Garcia, Ray Romano, Griffin Dunne, Burt Young, Frank Whaley and Cathy Moriarty. “Rob the Mob” won’t ever be confused with “The Godfather,” but it’s probably better than what’s on TV on any given night. – Gary Dretzka

Redwood Highway
The number of roles available to older actors has become so small that an age-discrimination lawsuit against the major studios probably would be greeted with a great deal of sympathy both by SAG and viewers. If an elderly character isn’t cranky, abusive, senile or bed-ridden, they simply don’t exist. Of course, as long as Meryl Streep (65), Susan Sarandon (67) and Harrison Ford (71) are still working, proving what constitutes being elderly in Hollywood might be problematic for plaintiffs. In “Redwood Highway,” 77-year-old Shirley Knight delivers the kind of performance for which she’s been known since the early 1960s, when she was Oscar-nominated for “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” and countless TV and stage appearances. It’s likely that Knight has been waiting for a long time to play a character as substantial as Marie, in Gary Lundgren’s prickly character study. At her son’s insistence, Marie is living in what appears to be a comfortable retirement facility in southern Oregon, from which she’s made a habit of escaping. Normally, such an assertion of personal liberty would be applauded by audience members. In Marie’s case, however, it’s clear that she’s probably better off under the supervision of caring staff and friendly residents, who aren’t taken aback by her occasional flashbacks to happier times. We’re not surprised by Marie’s hostility to her son (James Le Gros), but are taken aback by her aggressively adamant refusal to attend her granddaughter’s wedding. She doesn’t approve of Naomi’s decision to relinquish her freedom so early in her life and ignoring statistics that suggest modern marriage only causes pain. That Naomi and her fiancé are also living in a dome home, along a river, probably doesn’t please her, either. After Naomi leaves a stinging message on her phone, Marie decides to compromise. She’ll attend the ocean-side ceremony, but insists on making the 80-mile journey by foot. Oregon’s Redwood Highway is wonderfully scenic, but not always wide enough to accommodate trucks and hikers. Marie is too obstinate to accept rides from friendly strangers or succumb to the sores on her feet. It’s only when her ability to complete her mission on her own terms is put in severe jeopardy that she begrudgingly accepts some help. Among the kind souls are Tom Skerritt, a fine actor approximately the same age as Knight. He’s fared a bit better at getting substantial film roles, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when he pops up unannounced.  Although the film’s ending is predictable, there are moments that precede it when Marie’s sanity remains open to question. Cinematographer Patrick Neary takes full advantage of the spectacular Oregon scenery, as well. The0 DVD adds an interesting interview with Knight, in which she discusses her work on stage, screen and television. – Gary Dretzka

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Broadway legend Elaine Stritch has been entertaining people for even longer than Shirley Knight and is only now beginning to show signs of slowing down. Her toxic turns as Jack Donaghy’s mother, Colleen, on “30 Rock,” provided some of the show’s most memorable moments, as well as a prime-time Emmy. In 2004, the one-woman revue, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” scored two Primetime Emmys to go along with Tony and Drama Desk awards. There are only a couple of ways to take the woman we see in Chiemi Karasawa’s almost too intimate documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.” The first is as a famously eccentric and frequently disagreeable artist whose best qualities are admired and worst tendencies are forgiven. The second is to watch about an hour of the film and decide that Stritch’s massive ego and savage outbursts are far too uncomfortable to put up with, even for another 20 minutes. Fortunately, none of it comes as a great surprise, as anecdotes about the great actresses’ professional and personal behavior are passed from one generation of actors to another. “Shoot Me” has been described as cinema vérité, but I doubt that Stritich has ever passed a camera with acknowledging it in some small way or another. She’s clearly a narcissist, prancing around Manhattan in her trademark black leggings, a man’s dress shirt, a top hat and Capezio heels, and someone who circles the spotlight like a moth. To her credit, though, she opens herself up to Karasawa’s camera in some extremely candid and uncomfortable situations, including a stay in the hospital and lying to herself about the effects on a recovering alcoholic from imbibing only one cocktail a day. Testifying in her favor are Stephen Sondheim, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, the late James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, John Turturro, Tracy Morgan and George C. Wolfe. Karasawa also was given great access to rehearsals for her cabaret show. The DVD add making-of material, a deleted scene and interview outtakes. – Gary Dretzka

Two Lives
The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel: Blu-ray
Just when we begin to think that new revelations from World War II have begun to exhaust themselves, a book or movie will be released to disabuse us of that notion. Here are two films that, in very different ways, re-open the files on horrifying chapters in the disposition of the long cruel conflagration. Both describe events that aren’t generally known to Americans without a degree in 20th Century history. “Two Lives” explores how the consequences of Henrich Himmler’s Lebensborn pipedream reverberated throughout Germany and Norway throughout the rest of the century. The idea was to engineer an Aryan super-race by commandeering the offspring of blond, blue-eyed Germans and their counterparts in Nazi-occupied countries. If the war had ended differently, these children eventually would have been required to breed baby Aryans of their own. Inspired by a novel by Hannelore Hippe, Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann have constructed a historical thriller, complete with falling walls, deeply embedded spies, murder, intrigue and seriously blemished reputations. “Two Lives” opens in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain, when clandestine operations and facilities were being rapidly shuttered and abandoned throughout Eastern Europe. We watch as Katrine Evensen (Juliane Koehler) calmly enters the East German orphanage in which she was raised and is directed to the archives in Leipzig, which, too, are easily accessed. Katrine removes a section of a page with her name on it and returns to her Norwegian home. Not long thereafter, Katrine and her mother are approached by a lawyer who asks them to testify in a trial against the Norwegian state on behalf of the children kidnaped for Lebensborn and their parents who were never informed of their children’s post-war fate. Katrine is the illegitimate daughter of Ase Evensen (Liv Ullmann) and a German occupation soldier and, as such, was hustled out of Norway with her blond hair and blue eyes. As the story went, teenage Katrine had escaped from the now-East German orphanage and made the arduous journey back to Norway and her mother at the height of the Cold War. The intrigue kicks into high gear when Katrine adamantly refuses to participate in the reparation hearings, mystifying Ase, the lawyer and viewers. Maas and Kaufmann take their time getting to the truth, but, when they do, much room is left for additional shocks. Although adapted from the novel “Eiszeiten,” we’re told in the end credits that the story’s central conceit is based on actual events. The actors, especially Ullmann, make it easy for us to buy into the tautly bound narrative, as well. Fans of political thrillers ought not pass up “Two Lives.”

Americans know so little about WWII resistance movements in countries other than France and Italy that almost any fact-based story is going to be of interest not only to history buffs, but also martial-arts and action fans looking for something different. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” opened the door for such wartime movies, including “The Chef, the Actor and the Scoundrel” and recently reviewed “Eastern Bandits,” that successfully merge action, comedy and thrills. World War II was no laughing matter, of course, but such films as “Kelly’s Heroes,” “The Dirty Dozen,” “Catch-22,” “How I Won the War”  and “Mr. Roberts” walked the thin lines separating comedy, drama and action. In China, where atrocities occurred on a daily basis, the truth is still too ghastly to be approached straight-on. Japanese occupying forces were no less cruel than the Nazis, whose Final Solution wasn’t limited to Jews. Hu Guan’s hybrid is set in 1941 Beijing, a city under quarantine by a cholera epidemic and with a 6 p.m. curfew imposed on it. It is insinuated that the epidemic was triggered by a botched experiment at the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731. Located in Pinfang, it was created to develop biological and chemical weapons and test them on Chinese, Russian, Southeast Asian and Allied prisoners. (After the war, U.S. officials allowed leaders of the unit to go free, in return for information that might otherwise have been taken by the Soviets. Moscow chose to prosecute captured officers from such testing sites, while also developing weapons from information in confiscated documents.) How does one milk laughs from germ warfare and government subterfuge?

Here, a crack team of Chinese intelligence agents – one disguised as a cowboy – hijack a wagon carrying a Japanese general, biochemist and bodyguard, sending it careening into a Beijing restaurant/brothel. They discover a canister hidden on one of their prisoners, but don’t know how to extract information on what it contains. Sensing some kind of windfall, however, the owners and patrons of the restaurant hope to hold whatever it is they’re carrying for ransom. The humor derives from the crazy ways employed to get them to talk. They include staging a Chinese Opera and posing as fellow guests to trick their captives into revealing the truth before time runs out. It stars Liu Ye (“Curse of the Golden Flower”) as the Chef, Zhang Han Yu (“Special ID”) as the Actor and Huang Bo (“Lost in Thailand”) as the Scoundrel. The Blu-ray contains a blooper reel and making-of featurette, with interviews. – Gary Dretzka

Deadly Revenge
Watching this strangely transparent psycho-thriller, I began to wonder who in the world it was intended to impress. Because of the lack of nudity, I assumed “Deadly Revenge” was made for one of the off-brand cable channels dedicated to specific genres. Female lead Alicia Ziegler may look fab in a bikini, but her inability to figure out what’s happening to her pretty quickly neutralizes that virtue. The way things are set up by director Michael Feifer and writer Jenna Mattison, her character, Cate, is in L.A. to work on a project for a prominent architectural firm.  On her first day there, she’s paired with Harrison (Mark Hapka), a handsome lunk with whom she’d already had one brief encounter. On the night Cate’s booked on a flight to New York for a job interview, the couple find themselves locked in the office, which is in a hi-rise. After some squabbling, Cate and Harrison do exactly what we’ve been expecting them to do from Minute One. The PG-rated hookup quickly evolves into a full-blown romance, which only seems natural. When Harrison introduces Cate to his clinging mother, played by a still remarkably hot Donna Mills, the rest of the movie’s trajectory becomes only too obvious. It’s possible that newcomers to the psycho-thriller genre won’t be able to detect the movie’s key switchback moments, so, for them, I’ll refrain from revealing any more of the story … except to say that Harrison’s still traumatized by the death of his high-school sweetheart. The thing is, with just a little more imagination and effort, the filmmakers might have been able to save “Deadly Revenge” from irrelevance.  – Gary Dretzka

Fox Archives
The Cisco Kid
Girl Trouble
Woman’s World
Here Comes Trouble
Chad Hanna
The latest releases from Fox’s Cinema Archives represent a typically diverse and eclectic selection of 15 titles from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. If they aren’t what most scholars would consider to be classics, the films do offer something of value to buffs, collectors and nostalgists, alike. To save money on marketing and production, each film is manufactured on demand, using DVD-R recordable media. Hardly any extras are added and the technical quality, while greatly enhanced, varies considerably by title and choice of aspect ratio. The titles I chose to look at are “The Cisco Kid” (1931), the second talkie version of the saga, with Warner Baxter as O. Henry’s “romantic bad man”; “Girl Trouble” (1942), a screwball comedy with Don Ameche playing  a Venezuelan tycoon, with Joan Bennett, Billie Burke and, yes, Dale Evans; Chad Hanna” (1940), a period circus-based melodrama with Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamoure and Linda Darnell; “Woman’s World” (1954), tests the theory “behind every successful man is a great woman,” with Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Van Heflin and Lauren Bacall; and “Here Comes Trouble,” (1936) about a jewel heist on an cruise ship, starring Paul Kelly, Arline Judge, Mona Barrie and Gregory Ratoff. Also newly available through on-line retailers are “Springtime in the Rockies” (1942); “The Bottom of the Bottle” (1956); “Maryland” (1940); “Blood and Steel” (1959); “Hold That Co-Ed” (1938); “Crack-Up” (1936); “The Cowboy and the Blonde” (1941); “I Was an Adventuress” (1940); “Everybody’s Baby” (1939); and “The Escape” (1939). – Gary Dretzka

I Spy: The Complete Series
Any resemblance between the original NBC series “I Spy” and the 2002 theatrical re-imagining –starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson — begins and ends with the names of the protagonists, which, for some reason, were reversed. The only way the movie could have been a bigger bomb was if it were titled, “Little Boy and Fat Man Redux.” The original “I Spy” ran for three seasons, from 1965 to 1968, on the Peacock Network. Like the spy-vs.-spy comedy, “Get Smart,” “I Spy” attempted to ride the same wave into shore as Sean Connery, whose interpretation of Ian Fleming’s secret-agent, James Bond, was being copied and parodied by actors around the world. The TV show’s success could be attributed as much to the easy rapport and Rat Pack-inspired insouciance between Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as any residual popularity from the 007 craze. “I Spy” also benefited from being partially shot, at least, in some of the most exciting cities in the world. The locations allowed for a greater diversity in the scripts and an earnest attempt on the part of the producers to confront global issues. The then-revolutionary decision to cast an African-American as a co-equal character to the white protagonist was of concern primarily to journalists and executives at four recalcitrant NBC affiliates in the South. Cosby and Culp demanded that the color of their skin not be exploited in storylines and that tired racial stereotypes weren’t to be used as plot devices. It was OK for the writers to recognize the elephant in the room occasionally, but not to kick it to see what happens.

The spies, Alexander Scott (Cosby) and Kelly Robinson (Culp) are able to travel to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rome, Mexico City, Las Vegas, Madrid and Morocco under the guise of Robinson being an international tennis hustler and Scott his trainer and translator. It doesn’t take their communist counterparts long to see through the disguises, however. Sadly, far less imagination was expended on the action scenes than in the witty dialogue and location scouting. It’s easy to predict when a bad guy is going to burst into a room uninvited, holding a pistol and acting tough. Fistfights settle old scores and eliminate enemies. With too few exceptions, the women characters are limited to damsels in distress, bikini models and “hostesses.” But, that’s how things went in the 1960s, before teens and young adults tired of being fed stereotypes and preposterous plot devices. “I Spy,” at least, offered something beyond its badly staged fights, breakaway, sudden distractions and thinly disguised prostitutes. The interesting backdrops for intrigue and hip dialogue – much of it improvised – more than make up for such lapses. The diversity in guest starsq also is unusual for the period: Eartha Kitt, Leslie Uggams, Cicely Tyson, Philip Ahn, Jim Brown, James Hong, Ricardo Montalban, Gloria Foster, Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman, Gene Hackman, Carol O’Connor, Joey Heatherton, Jim Backus, Ron Howard, Peter Lawford, Norman Fell, Vincent Gardenia, Don Rickles, Wally Cox, Richard Kiel and Michael Rennie and future “Trekkers,” George Takei, Walter Koenig, Diana Muldaur and Roger Carmel. The new package from Shout!Factory and Timeless Media offers 4,100 minutes of entertainment and a booklet with essays and photos. What it doesn’t provide are bonus features, commentaries, re-mastered images and subtitles. Rights issues being what they are, this should come as no surprise to consumers, either. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD    
Showtime: Masters of Sex: Season One: Blu-ray
FX: The Bridge: The Complete First Season
Lifetime: Witches of East End: Complete First Season
IFC: Comedy Bang! Bang! The Complete Second Season
The Boondocks: Uncut and Uncensored: Season 4
Mama’s Family: Complete Fourth Season
NYPD Blue: Season 6
Nickelodeon:  Dora’s Magical Sleepover
Whenever Showtime and HBO announce the details of another new mini-series, subscribers to the premium cable services wonder how they’re going to pull this one off. That’s how wacky they sound in the abstract. It began in earnest in the early 1970s on cable, with some original programming beginning to show up in the 1980s and beyond. It wasn’t until the arrival of “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “The Wire” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” however, that HBO began to put serious dents into the networks’ prime-time schedules and tarnish their prestige. Showtime, which launched in 1976, took a bit longer to commit to original programming, apart from comedy specials and T&A. Until the launch of “Soul Food,” “Queer as Folk” and “The Chris Isaak Show,” Showtime seemed content to play second fiddle. In 2004, “The L Word” demonstrated just how far a network could push the limits of premium cable and grab an audience that wasn’t limited to, well, lesbians. “Dexter” kicked off a run of unexpected success that continues today. Anyone who can predict what will become the next big show on HBO or Showtime has a clearer crystal ball than mine.

Last year, “Masters of Sex” came out of the gate fast and kept on getting better. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan could hardly have done better portraying the real-life pioneers of the science of human sexuality, Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the charisma meter, Masters would barely register a 1. And, while Sheen milks Masters’ square approach to a hot topic for all it’s worth, it’s Caplan who forces him to develop a personality not dictated by the demands of Eisenhower-era conformity and university politics. Before joining Masters, Johnson was a twice-married single mother of two children. More to the point, she didn’t consider sex to be something reserved for those married people anticipating parenthood. She knew more about orgasms than the man entrusted with writing scholarly papers about how they’re achieved. There’s plenty of nudity, of course, but it doesn’t get in the way of the storytelling and parallel storylines involving Caitlin FitzGerald, Nicholas D’Agosto, Beau Bridges, Julianne Nicholson and Allison Janney, all of whom could be in the running for Emmy noms in supporting categories. In addition to the sexual research and soap-opera sidebars, “Masters of Sex” takes a sharp knife to the hypocrisy of academia and its almighty pursuit of funding. This is one very binge-worthy series.

The same apples for “The Bridge,” a mini-series that I watched twice in extended bursts. The first time, it was the FX version of the story, which is set in the border towns of El Paso and Juarez, and the second time, the original version set in Malmo, Sweden, and Copenhagen. Although the mini-series mirror each other in the key story elements, the settings are polar opposites of each other. The titular structures couldn’t be more different, either. Anyone with a strong arm probably could fling a baseball across the bridge spanning the U.S. and Mexico. It’s heavily fortified to prevent unauthorized crossings – most take place below it – and make it a tad less difficult to smuggle drugs across it. In the original mini-series, the nearly 5-mile-long Öresund Bridge separates Denmark and Sweden, which, unlike Juarez, aren’t famous for their staggering murder rates, smugglers’ tunnels or unchecked illegal immigration. Both series open with an electrical outage on the bridge, followed by the disposing of a dead body at its center. In fact, the body belongs to two separate people, one recently killed and the other frozen and cut in half. Because the parts straddle the border, police from both sides are required to cooperate with other in the investigation. The male cops are hard-boiled, but willing to bend the rules when they feel it’s necessary. Danish actor Kim Bodnia is practically a dead-ringer for James Gandolfini, while Mexico City-native Demian Bichir is a bit more lean and wiry. (The latter was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his emotionally charged performance in “A Better Life.”) Carbon copies Diane Kruger and Sofia Helin play detectives Sonya Cross and Saga Norén, both of whom are obsessive, by-the-book cops and, in conversation, blunt to a fault. As different as the two investigations are, they follow the same trajectory. The Nordic and Southwestern backgrounds more than compensate for the repetitive elements that might otherwise discourage repeat viewers. The only problem I had with the FX version was the pacing, which forced what should have been the season-ending episode to arrive three shows too soon. That’s probably because the original was comprised of 10 episodes, while the re-make went into overtime to tie up the loose ends of the subplots. Interesting things happened in the longer series, but I felt drained by what happened in the 10th of 13 episodes. The second season of the Scandinavian iteration is already on Hulu Plus. The American “Bridge” returns on July 9.

The Witches of East End” is the other half of Lifetime’s current prime-time one-two punch, with “Devious Maids.” In the past two or three years, the network has come a long way toward erasing its reputation for airing laughably bland and easily predictable original movies, targeted at women who enjoy disease-of-the-week fare and true-crime stories about notorious housewives. That strategy worked very well in the beginning, raising the network’s profile in the cable world and reaping a harvest in tear-stained dollars. No, Lifetime executives haven’t decided to steal male viewers from “Duck Dynasty” or “Top Gear,” although they’d probably take welcome them in a pinch. They’re almost certainly aiming for the same audience attracted to “Real Housewives of Orange County,” whose stars are spookier than the Long Island brujas on display here, The witches originally created by novelist Melissa de la Cruz for her Beauchamp Family series are also far better dressed and less needy than the phony housewives. Capturing the young-adult readers drawn to the ridiculously prolific author’s Au Pairs, Blue Bloods, Ashleys and Angels on Sunset Boulevard series, before they pledge allegiance to other shows, would be a big plug for Lifetime. “East End” follows the adventures of a family of witches, mother Joanna Beauchamp  (Julia Ormond), her two adult daughters (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Rachel Boston), and their aunt (Madchen Amick), as they navigate the shoals of the Hamptons’ social scene. The girls have been raised blissfully unaware of their exalted status within the witch hierarchy. It isn’t until one of them becomes engaged to a wealthy newcomer that they’re made aware of their inheritance. Among those conspiring against the Beauchamps is the always sultry Virginia Madsen. The show returns for a second season on July 6.

IFC’s wacky talk-show parody, “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” began its life as a podcast on the Internet’s Earwolf network. It plays back-to-back with “Maron,” a similarly anarchic comedy that was inspired by a podcast, “WTF With Marc Maron.” “CBB” is far more deadpan and self-consciously hip than “Fernwood Tonight,” the 1977 talk-show parody against which all others would be measured. It starred Martin Mull and Fred Willard, as a pair of wise-cracking hosts whose guest list is pretty much limited to residents of the Ohio town, who somehow are convinced that they possess talent. Frank De Vol, in real life a composer and arranger of show music, parodied aspects of his own career as bandleader Happy Kyne. Scott Aukerman and his musical sidekick Reggie Watts perform similar duties on “CBB,” which, again, like “Maron,” looks as if it takes place in a garage or basement. Its guest list is largely comprised of comedians and actors who are friends of Aukerman. As the show picked up steam, appearing on “CBB” and going along with the skits and sendups was a sure way of gaining street cred within L.A.’s creative and hipster scene. Many of the same guests would appear on mainstream talk shows, whenever they had something to pimp, and seeing them perform without a leash on “CBB” could either be a jarring or refreshing experience for their fans. Among the guest stars represented in the Season Two package are

Zach Galifianakis, Jessica Alba, Aziz Ansari, David Cross, Jim Gaffigan, Bill Hader, Pee-wee Herman, Gillian Jacobs, Rashida Jones, Anna Kendrick, Andy Richter, Zoe Saldana, Andy Samberg, Jason Schwartzman and Sarah Silverman. That should tell you all you need to know about what “CBB” is all about. The DVD package adds full-episode commentaries; deleted/bonus scenes and interviews; “Reggie Makes Music” and “Reggie’s Season 2 Music Supercut”; VFX tests; “CBB Crew Dance Party” and “Meet the Crew”; and “An Acting Lesson with Herb Roost.”

Season Four of the adult animated sitcom, “The Boondocks,” is distinguished primarily for being the show’s final stanza and the departure as executive producer of creator Aaron McGruder. It debuted on Cartoon Network’s late-night programming block, Adult Swim, where McGruder was accorded more the freedom to spread his wings and make his frequently twisted views on contemporary American culture take flight. Like McGruder’s newspaper comic strip of the same name, the show focuses on the Freemans, a black family that’s moved into a mostly white suburb south of Chicago. The Freemans aren’t likely to be confused with the Huxtables or Banks of Bel-Aire. Huey Freeman isn’t at all shy about espousing his left-wing beliefs, while brother Riley is a troublemaker with a taste for gangsta rap. Granddad is an incorrigible coot who easily could have been modeled after Redd Foxx’s character in “Sanford and Son.” Their white neighbors have some bizarre idiosyncracies, as well. “Boondocks” has occasionally raised the hackles on special-interest groups who object to the blunt language and riffs on such noted figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and, even, Tyler Perry. Frankly, I don’t know how different Season Four would have been with McGruder’s participation. I do wonder, however, if “Boondocks” would have been better placed on one of the premium cable channels, where the censors don’t always show up for work.

Mama’s Family: Complete Fourth Season” represents shows produced for its second highly popular year in syndication. Regular cast members Ken Berry, Dorothy Lyman and Allan Kayser stayed on the ship after it left NBC and experienced a brief hiatus, during which other cast members committed to other projects. Among the season highlights are Bubba’s dilemma over having two dates for the prom, a flashback episode to Mama and the family in their early years and Mama’s visit to Alex Trebek on “Jeopardy!” The DVD adds “Mama’s Family Tree: The Neighbors,” an interview with Beverly Archer (Iola) and “Under One Roof: A ‘Mama’s Family’ Cast Reunion.”

The sixth season of “NYPD Blue” is distinguished by the addition of Ricky Schroder to the ever-changing ensemble cast. This year, it included Kim Delaney, Jimmy Smits, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp and Andrea Thompson, who would go on to become a CNN newscaster. By this time in the series, Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) had gone over to the light side and the behavior of Sorenson’s character even made his eyebrows rise. Among the guest stars are Terrence Howard, Daniel Benzali, Mos Def, Kevin Dillon and Emile Hirsch. The package contains 22 episodes on DVD for the first time.

Nickelodeon’s latest collection of Dora adventures, “Magical Sleepover,” invites your kids to a night of fun with Dora, Diego, and Boots at an art museum, where they’ll “journey into a painting to break the spell that turned Prince Miguel into a lion.” She also travels to Brazil to help Dora’s team win the Big Cup Soccer Tournament. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

The LEGO Movie: Everything Is Awesome Edition: Blu-ray/DVD/3D
When, in February, “The LEGO Movie” opened huge and kept right on growing, there must have been a lot of folks at Warner Bros. willing to take credit for its shocking commercial success, if not the nearly unanimous positive reviews. They’d taken a risk by launching an original animated movie in February, typically a weak month for family films, and it paid off big. It out-performed the month’s next four releases combined. As if to prove the numbers were no fluke, foreign markets followed a similar trajectory and produced similar numbers. A boffo marketing campaign, big stars, favorable reviews and brand recognition may be able to pull a picture through its first weekend, but only ecstatic word-of-mouth can keep the turnstiles spinning. That’s what happened here. The buzz not only spread among children, all of whom probably were given LEGOs at some time in their young lives, but also among grown-ups and, not incidentally, older teens attracted to the smart dialogue and clever action sequences. I won’t go as far as to say that liberalized marijuana laws had anything to do with its success among young adults, except to suggest “TLM” might eventually stand as this generation’s “Yellow Submarine.” Anyone who thinks I might be exaggerating the movie’s appeal need only rent a copy and sample it, stoned or straight, and see if you disagree. Better yet, it does so without banging viewers over the head with LEGO plugs and other product placement. I hope that the brothers Warner are already preparing for an award campaign in the Best Picture category, not just Best Animated Feature, which is the category into which animated pictures are usually discarded. If there are 10 better movies released in the next six months, 2014 will go down as an extraordinary year for the American cinema.

Somehow, the CGI animation team assembled by writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“21 Jump Street,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) was able to manipulate the basic LEGOs conceit – toys that are created using interlocking bricks of various geometric shapes, sizes and basic colors – to add fluidity, texture and non-robotic movement to the mix. Everything in the movie, including water, fire, laser bolts, explosions and smoke, was designed to look as if built out of LEGO pieces. Parents who’ve patiently helped their kids construct LEGO buildings and vehicles won’t believe how simple everything looks in 2D and 3D. In addition to the traditional LEGO characters, the cast is augmented by such guest stars as Johnny Thunder, Green Lantern, C-3PO, Han Solo, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Shaquille O’Neal, Abraham Lincoln, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Shakespeare and pieces from the Minifigures series. If it seems as if I’m avoiding the movie’s plot, well, I am. There are simply too many potential spoilers sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative and too few reasons to reveal them, except to suggest that Karl Marx’s estate could have petitioned the WGA for an “inspired by” credit. The class struggle has rarely been as concisely encapsulated as it is in “TLM,” although I’m guessing that the studio would prefer it to be seen as a struggle between good and evil or David and Goliath.

The bourgeois are represented here by the egomaniacal President Business (a.k.a., Lord Business) the despotic president of the conglomerate, Octan, which induces complacency in LEGO Land workers using generic pop-songs and rigid manuals for team-based LEGO construction. The proletariat is led by the completely unremarkable construction worker Emmet Brickowoski (they’re always Polish, aren’t they?), who discovers the fabled Pièce de résistance on a building site and is henceforth treated as the “Special one,” prophesized by Vitruvius. Emmet is brought before the Master Builders assemblage, which is comprised of toy superheroes and whose mission it is to prevent Lord Business from unleashing his grand weapon, the Kragle. Its strength resembles that of Batman nemesis Mr. Freeze. I was completely surprised and delighted by what happens in the climactic third act. I expect that other viewers will be as well. Besides Will Ferrell and Chris Pratt, the voicing cast includes such actors as Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman.

As wildly imaginative as “TLM” is, it wouldn’t be quite so spectacular if audio/visual presentation had under-performed. I wasn’t able to catch the 3D version, but, in Blu-ray 2D, it is nothing short of spectacular. The aptly titled “Everything Is Awesome Edition” combines 3D, 2D, DVD and UltraViolet Digital HD, adding a Vitruvius mini-figure and 3D photo of Emmet. The amusing and informative commentary is provided by Miller and Lord, as well as actors Pratt, Arnett, Day and Brie. Most of the featurettes are short and targeted primarily at those kids who may watch the movie surrounded by their own LEGO collection. – Gary Dretzka

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Blu-ray
While not exactly an example of shrewd cross-marketing strategizing and cooperation among major studios, it difficult not to think that Fox’s publicity team decided to piggyback on all of the attention being accorded “The LEGO Movie” with a stunt that could benefit everyone involved. As if to take full advantage of the same-day release into DVD/Blu-ray of “TLM” and Wes Anderson’s fanciful confection, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” by commissioning a replica of the movie’s centerpiece location, constructed entirely with LEGO pieces. A time-lapse video of the project was shot and offered to reporters, via YouTube video, as a link to incorporate in their reviews and stories. Normally, I have a low-tolerance for publicity stunts. This one, however, serves to honor the creative process, while harkening to a time when publicity wasn’t limited to press junkets and the oversaturation of stars on TV talk shows. (Check it out at http://youtu.be/oJ2ezbi3ZCc.) Although “Grand Budapest Hotel” reaped a very respectful $58 million at the domestic box-office and another $104 million overseas in its theatrical run, it could probably use a little extra help on DVD/Blu-ray. Anderson’s films are acquired taste, after all, and this one seemed to benefit from a gradual rollout designed to build word-of-mouth. In selling a DVD/Blu-ray, however, it’s important to play off of the publicity and buzz generated in the film’s theatrical run, without spending another small fortune in marketing to people who may not have had an opportunity (or interest) to see it on the big screen.

“Grand Budapest Hotel” practically defines what it means for a movie to be “quirky,” “offbeat” and “wildly inventive,” hackneyed terms used by critics to describe films – indies, in particular – that don’t fall into the usual Hollywood pigeonholes. All of Anderson’s movies are like that. “GBH” harkens back to a time between the wars, when aristocrats and potentates of all stripe expected to be pampered, primped and slobbered over by the peons whose livelihoods depend on tips. I don’t know how many times Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Royal Tenenbaums”) has seen Edmund Goulding’s star-studded 1932 classic, “Grand Hotel,” but my guess would be more than two or three. His greatest inspiration came from the life and works of the popular Viennese writer and journalist Stefan Zweig (“Beware of Pity,” “The Post-Office Girl”), upon whom the characters played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson are based. Although constructed like frosting-covered layer cake, the story’s darker elements can be directly linked to Zweig’s experiences in pre-World War II Europe, as the fascist tide began washing into neighboring countries from Germany. (Zweig escaped the Nazis, but couldn’t outrun his demons. Depressed over intolerance and the spread of fascism, he and his wife committed suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil, in 1942.)

Otherwise, “Grand Budapest Hotel” chronicles the life of concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), famous near and far for his unimpeachable civility and ability to accommodate his guests’ most-difficult requests, including those of sex-starved dowagers. After one of the elderly women (Tilda Swinton) dies, her family is stunned to learn that she bequeathed a priceless Renaissance painting to him. The greediest among them successfully frame him for her murder. In prison, he endears himself to fellow prisoners by his ability to smuggle in delicious pastry and generally upgrade the facility’s food service. He’s rewarded by being invited to join a motley crew of convicts planning to break out of the ancient facility. Even in prison, Gustave has managed to remain in contact with his devoted “lobby boy” and confidant, Zero Moustafa – played wonderfully as a young man by Tony Revolori — whose devotion to duty goes well beyond what anyone, except the concierge would expect from him. No need to reveal anything more, except to mention that the settings, backdrops and Alpine locations often look as if they were created by pastry chefs or Santa’s elves. It’s also fun to anticipate the appearances by Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric and Harvey Keitel. The excellent Blu-ray presentation is a bit weak on bonus features. The best wisely exploit Murray’s popularity, especially the amusing, if far too short, “Bill Murray Tours the Town.” The eclectic musical soundtrack was composed by frequent collaborator, Alexandre Desplat, with an assist by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra.

Oh, yeah, if you suspect that your video monitor is playing tricks on you, the real culprit is Anderson. He deliberately changes aspect ratios for the years 1932, 1968 and 1985. – Gary Dretzka

Judex: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
L’eclisse: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Even film buffs who consider themselves to be experts in the post-nouvelle vague French cinema are unlikely to have seen Georges Franju’s “Judex.” As far as I can tell, it only was shown in New York, circa 1966, and its first video appearance here was in 2008. Known primarily as co-founder, with Henri Langlois, of the French Cinematheque and director of the 1960 plastic-surgery horror film, “Eyes Without a Face.” “Judex” is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 masked-avenger serial. That series of pulpy shorts was highly popular among pre-war audiences and a marked contrast to the spooky “I, Fantômas” and “Les Vampires,” which, while admired by the surrealists, were accused by French authorities of being anti-patriotic and demoralizing. By creating a charismatic vigilante hero, Feuillade bought some time with the censors. Franju admired Feuillade’s shadowy tone and incorporation of magic into the story. Unlike most of the movies making noise in France in the 1960s, “Judex” was a throwback to the days of cliffhangers and pushing cameras to see what they could do. His Judex would borrow from German expressionism, film noir and fantasies of Jean Cocteau. If the Zorro-like protagonist seemed out-of-place at time, “Judex” was a movie that required little more than the viewers’ attention.

In it, the fabulously wealthy and famously corrupt banker, Favraux (Michel Vitold), receives a letter demanding that he return money stolen from poor and working-class investors. After Favraux rejects the command, signed by the mysterious Judex (Channing Pollock), he suffers a heart attack while giving a toast at a masked ball. In fact, though, his champagne was spiked with a drug that merely approximated the effects of a heart attack. The banker’s body is hustled out of the party and taken to an underground bunker, where he can be monitored by a TV camera. (Remarkably, the 1916 version of “Judex” used the same device.) The only people truly disturbed by Favraux’s disappearance are his naïve adult daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) and her cunning former governess, Diana (Francine Berge), to whom he recently proposed. Unaware that Jacqueline doesn’t intend to accept her father’s tarnished inheritance, Diana and her crew kidnap her. Impressed by Jacqueline’s ethical stand, Judex’s takes it upon himself to free Jacqueline and punish Diana. In addition to his team of black-draped ninjas, Judex requires the assistance of the owner of a traveling circus (Sylva Koscina) to do so. It adds yet another layer of magic to what already has been a delightfully enchanting tale. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital film restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, as well as a 2007 interview with co-writer and Feuillade’s grandson, Jacques Champreux; a 2012 interview with actor Francine Bergé; “Franju le visionnaire,” a 50-minute program from 1998 on Franju’s career and imagination; a new English subtitle translation; a DVD copy, with all content available in both formats; and a booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Geoffrey O’Brien, along with reprinted writings by and excerpted interviews with Franju.

Unlike “Judex,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’eclisse” is a film that no self-professed cineaste would admit to not having seen. Simply put, it’s an essential work by a singular director, whose movies have been shown in U.S. theaters since the 1960s and are widely available on DVD and Blu-ray. “Blow-Up” was nominated for a pair of Oscars and, in 1995, the academy honored Antonioni with an award for the body of his work. As the final part of the “Alienation Trilogy,” with L’Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), “L’eclisse” (“Eclipse”) was a work of art-for-art’s sake that tested its audience’s willingness to go along with Antonioni’s modernist ideas and narrative conceits. Anyone who’s ever bragged that they “got” any one of these three films on first viewing didn’t get anything, at all. It’s worth the effort, then, to listen to the scholarly commentary here on the second or third time through it. The Blu-ray release may not add any features that weren’t already available on the 2005 DVD, but the newly restored high-definition digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, may be enough to recommend it to connoisseurs, as well as newcomers. The same could be said about the mere presence of Monica Vitti as the alienated female lead. The supplemental material retains commentary with Richard Pena, former program director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and professor at Columbia University; Sandro Lai’s documentary, “The Eye That Changed Cinema”; “Elements of Landscape,” featuring Italian critic and film scholar Adriano Apra and longtime Antonioni friend, Carlo di Carlo; and an illustrated booklet featuring essays by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez, as well as excerpts from Antonioni’s writing about his work. – Gary Dretzka

The Odd Way Home
As far as I can tell, former Miss Golden Globe Rumer Willis’ film career hasn’t profited all that much from being the daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, although she’s certainly enjoyed access to casting directors and record producers that other women would pay to have. Contrary to common belief, the only times when a Golden Child is guaranteed a gig is when their name on a poster directly impacts tickets sales or a parent is doing the hiring. Otherwise, a familiar last name can only get one to the front of the line. Although I felt pity for her when mom Demi decided to marry her teenage crush object, Ashton Kutcher, I really hadn’t paid much attention to her career. (She was closer in age to her stepfather than her was mother was … poor girl.) I doubt that her road/message movie “The Odd Way Home” will get her any closer to whatever it is her ultimate acting goal may be, it certainly won’t hurt her chances, either. In it, she plays a woman, who, after one too many beatings, hops in her truck and heads due east to Middle of Nowhere, N.M. (It’s right around the corner to co-writer/director Rajeev Nirmalakhandan’s home town of Las Cruces.) Experiencing car trouble in L.A. can be a real bitch, but having one break down in Middle of Nowhere can spell disaster. Fortunately, she arrives at the home of an elderly woman, who, only minutes earlier, died while watching television. Once bad-ass Maya determines that the woman isn’t sleeping, she goes through her purse and medicine cabinet, before stealing the delivery van in the back-40.

What Maya doesn’t realize until later is that the van doubles as a bedroom on wheels for a young man, Duncan, who is autistic in the same way as Raymond Babbitt is in “Rain Man.” Duncan (Chris Marquette) has a job behind the counter at a local mini-mart, but uses flash cards to read the faces of the patrons. His gift appears to be drawing maps on sections of paper toweling from the rest rooms. He has a couple of other useful talents, but an obsession with time, cleanliness and diet work against him. Even so, Maya reluctantly decides to help him find the father who selfishly gave him up when he became a burden. Along the way, of course, Duncan teaches Maya a few much-needed lessons in tolerance, patience and sobriety. When she left L.A., Maya had a massive chip on shoulder toward everyone, including her own, differently estranged, mother (Veronica Cartwright), who has the personality of a wounded rattlesnake. “The Odd Way Home” benefits mostly from the chemistry between the lead actors and nicely photographed New Mexico locations, which range from the dunes at White Sands, to the state’s mountains, forests, gorges and high desert. Nirmalakhandan’s directorial ambitions aren’t quite ready for prime time, as he tends to rely on clichés and improbable narrative leaps to cover for lapses in the script. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and short film, in which stars Willis and cleverly makes sound points about autism. I’m pretty sure that Willis is performing songs of her own creation in the barroom scenes, and she’s not bad. – Gary Dretzka

BB King: The Life of Riley: Blu-ray
Too many years ago than I care to count, I attended a BB King concert at the University of Wisconsin. I didn’t know it at the time, but, as is recalled in this fine bio-doc, King was only then beginning to play auditoriums and other venues not limited to the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit. Playing before predominantly white audiences not only meant wider exposure and greater financial opportunities, but also that King and other top blues musicians were finally being recognized by a broad cross-section of U.S. audiences for their contributions to American culture and rock ’n’ roll, itself. Ironically, British bands had been paying homage to the artists in their music for years and it was only through such acts as the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds that white audiences here finally figured out what they were missing. After soaking in our welcoming applause that night, BB struck a single note on Lucille and held it for what seemed like an eternity, before exploding into “Every Day I Have the Blues.” A couple of dozen white musicians are interviewed in Jon Brewer’s comprehensive “BB King: The Life of Riley” and most of them recall experiencing the very same sensation listening to master for the first time in concert. Besides these musicians, Brewer was able to gather friends, relatives, business associates and fellow bluesmen to add their stories to those told by BB — then 85, now nearly 90 – about how a Mississippi sharecroppers’ son became King of the Blues. Unlike so many other Delta blues guitarists, King’s migration north ended in Memphis. It was from there that the name Riley B. King was changed to Beale Street Blues Boy, Blues Boy and, finally, BB, and his style solidified into something distinctly different than what was being heard in Chicago, New Orleans, Texas and Detroit. BB’s sound was influenced by Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker, Bukka White and Sonny Boy Williamson, from whose West Memphis radio program King’s early fame would emerge. He would get a radio show of his own, before hitting the Chitlin’ Circuit and playing as many as 350 gigs a year.

His fame would grow as his records began being played in the South, but, as was so often the case in the 1960s for black entertainers, King wouldn’t realize anything resembling a sustainable income from music, alone, until it was validated by British invaders John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles, all of whom repay the favor by appearing here in one form or another. King’s influence on more contemporary artists is reflected in interviews with Bono, Carlos Santana, Susan Tedeschi, Slash, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and several other blues-rockers. Even if the documentary overflows with adoration for King, it’s fairly candid about the hazards faced by wives of musicians who thrive on the road and the deal-making that too often ignores the people who helped an artist get to the point where it behooves him to turn to more powerful management. The challenges of trying to make a living – in the cotton fields or in nightclubs – under the dark clouds of segregation also are recounted. If it’s about 20 minutes too long, well, BB deserves our indulgence. Otherwise, the portrait painted of King in “Life of Riley,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is that of a genuinely nice guy, who’s universally admired by his peers, many of whom have benefited from his generosity and wisdom. Moreover, he can still bring it. The strikingly presented Blu-ray disc adds extended interviews and selections from a command performance at the Royal Albert Hall. – Gary Dretzka

Jimmy P.
European filmmakers have always looked at the American West through different eyes than their Hollywood counterparts. As colonialists, themselves, they understood how American writers and directors helped mask what had really happened in the American Indian Wars in the name of Manifest Destiny, corporate imperialism, Jesus Christ and racial segregation. By appropriating the ancestral lands of native tribesmen and profiting from the slave trade in Africa, while also exploiting nature’s bounty in countless other countries, Europeans had shown their American offspring how it’s done and justify it to their God. After World War II, it was only a matter of time before European leaders would have deal with the chickens that came home to roost in such places as Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam. Perhaps, if they had John Wayne on their side in the wars for liberation, instead of the French Foreign Legion, the colonial powers would have been able to prolong the agony for a couple more years. As much as foreign filmmakers admired the cowboy heroes and such directors as John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, they deplored the horrifying conditions Native American were required to endure in times of peace. As long as genocide sold tickets, there wasn’t a heck of a lot they could do about it, though.

While Arnaud Desplechin’s highly compelling drama, “Jimmy P.” – released theatrically as “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian” – isn’t intended to stand as an indictment of American colonialism, it could easily have been sentimentalized or played as tragedy. After all, Jimmy Picard’s story does bear a certain resemblance to that of U.S. Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, the Pima who helped raise the flag over Iwo Jima, only to die drunk and alone outside an abandoned adobe hut in Arizona. Jimmy Picard is a Blackfoot war veteran, who, after suffering severe headaches, hearing loss, dizzy spells and catatonia, is sent to a VA hospital in Kansas that specializes in psychiatric therapy. It wasn’t at all clear what caused Picard’s problems, but noted clinic director, Dr. Karl Menninger, sensed that they might be related to the patient’s cultural background, somehow, and exasperated by what once was called “shell shock.” He turns to the man, Georges Devereux, who would author the book on which this movie is based. The therapist is a Hungarian Jewish émigré to France, born Gyorgy Dobo, who converted there to Catholicism and spent two years among the Mojave tribe as ethno-psychiatrist. Combining the work of a therapist with that of an anthropologist wasn’t recognized by the analytical establishment, so he was between gigs at the time of the call. While not conversant in the languages of the Plains tribes, Devereux knew enough Mojave to understand the nuances and rhythms of Indian dialects, which, in the past, had sometimes been considered symptoms of mental retardation.

Deveraux’s first question to Picard — “In your dreams, do you speak English or Blackfoot” — immediately establishes a rapport between the two very different outsiders. They are played with great empathy by the always wonderful Mathieu Amalric and Benicio del Toro, an actor whose speech patterns have also been misconstrued. Not being the kind of Freudian disciple who requires a couch or one-sided discussions, Deveraux encourages an on-going dialogue between them. Eventually, Picard begins to remember things that happen in his dreams and flash back to incidents that shaped him as a youth. Deveraux asks him what the imagery might portend in the Native American tradition and how it might relate to the events that play out in the flashbacks. The question then becomes one of determining how much having a foot in two worlds, especially under wartime conditions, may have contributed to his current condition. In Devereux’s opinion, Pickard isn’t suffering from schizophrenia and such treatments as shock therapy and psychotropic drugs would do nothing but exasperate the symptoms. What’s wonderful, then, are interchanges between patient and therapist, most of which Desplechin captures in tight focus or two-shots. It’s a talky movie, then, but the excitement that comes with watching two first-rate actors working at the top of the game is palpable. Desplechin (“A Christmas Tale”) takes us out of the clinic often enough to understand how Picard’s roots were split between growing up poor and parentless on the reservation, the natural magnificence of the Montana landscape and perils of life in white America. The supporting cast includes Native American actors Misty Upham, Gary Farmer, Michelle Thrush, A Martinez and Michael Greyeyes, as well as Brit Lisa McKee and Larry Pine. – Gary Dretzka

No Clue
So many great Canadian comedians have taken their acts to Los Angeles, it’s a wonder that the country has any left to populate their own televisions and improv revues. There must something funny in the nation’s water, because, like last winter’s icy Alberta Clippers, the laughs just keep coming. Carl Bessai and Brent Butt’s sendup of film noir, “No Clue,” may rely on too thin a premise to be uproariously funny, but it should keep Canada-philes in the U.S. satisfied until “Trailer Park Boys: Don’t Legalize It” arrives, most likely in VOD and DVD. Some folks might recall Butt as the creator of the comedy series “Hiccups” and “Corner Gas,” as well as his standup routines. In “No Clue,” his character gives new meaning to the word, “nebbish.” As the picture opens, a beautiful blond dame (Amy Smart) mistakes a purveyor of key chains, matchbooks and other brand-ready trinkets for the PI down the hall. Butt’s Leo Falloon is well aware of the fact that he knows next to nothing about investigative work, but is intrigued by the per diem and possibility of scoring with the hot chick … a frequent reward in geek mythology. Smart’s femme fatale, Kyra, hires Falloon to find her brother, a software genius who appears to have vanished in advance of the launch of his new computer-gaming company. He turns to his best and seemingly only friend, Ernie (David Koechner), for help in finding the missing man. Being a gaming nerd, Ernie knows immediately what’s at stake, even if his advice is suspect. Hereafter, the laughs come from watching Falloon stumbling his way through the investigation and continuing to come out smelling like a rose. “No Clue” is set in Vancouver, although the locations are pretty generic. The DVD adds making-of material. – Gary Dretzka

The Attorney
From a distance, South Korea seems to be a country of uncommon financial stability and sanity, at least when compared to its neighbor to the north. It wasn’t until the late-1980s, however, that its repressive governments relaxed the iron fist it held over the populace and admitted to torturing students and human-rights advocates to the left of Attila the Hun. Yang Woo-seok’s “The Attorney” examines one of the most intense standoffs between activists and police officials, who, in the 1980s, did the dirty work for the authoritarian regime. Although only loosely based on actual events, it’s been a huge success at the South Korean box office. That’s because “The Attorney” appears to dramatize the rise to power of Roh Moo-Hyun, a reformist lawyer who would be elected president in 2002. Like Roh, Song Woo-seok becomes a lawyer without the benefit of a law degree. Unlike the reformer, Song uses loopholes in the tax and real-estate laws to cut through the bureaucracy and make lots of money from grateful clients. Jealous, his peers dismiss and ridicule for essentially for being an under-educated hack and ambulance chaser. Song doesn’t care, because his only loyalty is to his family. Fully aware of his limits, Song reluctantly agrees to defend the teenage son of the woman who runs his favorite restaurant. He’s been arrested for belonging to a book club accused of being a front for pro-communist activity, so the fix, as usual, is already in place. Song had once engaged in a debate with the young man, so it wouldn’t have surprised him if the club really was sympathetic to North Korean interests. After seeing for himself what the students looked like after being tortured, he began to rethink his position. He might have gone along with other defense attorneys, who were attempting to accept a plea deal, if the judge and prosecutors hadn’t denied his client basic rights guaranteed in the constitution. It was a document so poorly vetted by the militarist leaders that it provided Song the ammunition he needed to turn the courtroom into a battleground for human rights. Newly radicalized, Song, like Roh, would go on to become an advocate for Koreans who took to the streets to demand reforms and true democracy. Sang Kang-ho does a nice job portraying his character’s evolution from joke to hero. – Gary Dretzka

The Angela Mao Ying Collection
I don’t think that Hollywood has produced a female action star comparable to the Taiwan-born martial-arts “whirlwind” Angela Mao Ying, who rose to prominence in the 1970s and starred in several dozen martial-arts flicks made in Hong Kong. Michelle Rodriguez, Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Alba, Carrie-Anne Moss,  Lucy Lawless, Lucy Liu, Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton and, of course, Pam Grier spring immediately to mind. With the possible exception of Grier, they’d probably slit their wrists if forced to make a career out of being manipulated by wires and pulleys. Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano, former Israeli soldier Gal Gadot and onetime stuntwoman Zoë Bell appear to be ready for genre stardom, along with new faces from China. As a teenager, Mao Ying trained in ballet and enjoyed a successful career as an actress in the Chinese Opera. Her flexibility gave her an edge when she began learning hapkido, the discipline then in favor with Hong Kong producers. She later would adopt several other forms. In 1969, she was spotted by director Huang Feng and signed to a contract at Golden Harvest, the studio responsible for all of the titles in “The Angela Yao Mao Ying Collection,” from Shout!Factory. Her greatest international exposure came when the rising star was paid $100 for a guest appearance as Bruce Lee’s sister in “Enter the Dragon.” She left Golden Harvest in the late 1970s, worked in a few more Taiwanese productions, married and retired to raise a family. The compilation contains “When Taekwondo Strikes” (1973), “The Tournament” (1974), “Stoner” (1974), “The Himalayan” (1976), “A Queen’s Ransom” (1976) and “Broken Oath” (1977). None found wide release in the U.S. and Mao Ying’s reputation may be greater now, because of recent DVD/Blu-ray releases from Shout!, than during her heyday. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the movies themselves vary in quality from pretty good to goofy. Unlike most other kung fu exports to the U.S., most of these include some nudity to complement the violence. The cast lists also include such popular stars as Bolo Yueng, Jimmy Wang Yu, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Yuen Biao, Betty Ting Pei and Carter Huang. The most curious choice of actors was George Lazenby, who, in 1969, had starred in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as James Bond. In “A Queen’s Ransom” and “Stoner,” he bears an uncanny resemblance to porn star John Holmes. – Gary Dretzka

Once Upon a Time in Dublin
A Fighting Man
Even after watching this hyper-violent revenge picture, it isn’t clear to me why its name was changed to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” from “3 Crosses,” which, itself, was adapted from a graphic novel, “The Altar Boys.” The story has only a peripheral relationship to the Irish capital and parts of it were shot in London and Vermont. I wonder what James Joyce might have said if his publisher had suggested changing “Finnegans Wake” to “Once Upon a Time in Dublin.” Seemingly, though, every director since Sergio Leone has considered a variation of “Once Upon a Time in the West” for the title of their movie. Writer/director Jason Figgis, perhaps best known for the fitfully chilling dystopian thriller, “Children of a Darker Dawn,” has created what one Irish critic described as “future noir.” That’s because almost everything takes place in corners, basements, shadows and a disorienting variety of scrims, scratches and artifacts. It is the story of Jay (Karl Hayden) and Jonnie Linski (Emmett Scanlan), two Polish-Irish brothers who use violence to gain clues in the brutal murder of their youngest sibling, Danny (Stephen Wilson). Both men look as if they could take on the world by themselves, but, right now, they’ll settle for channeling their anger into personally punishing the people responsible for the crime. Not surprisingly, no one in Danny’s circle is forthcoming as to the identity of the culprit, dirty businessman Neville Jessoppe (Bill Fellows). Being a bare-knuckles fighter of some distinction, Jonnie uses his fists to get answers, while Jay prefers sharper-edged objects. Besides beatings, Figgis throws in some hallucinatory fragments of similarly rough sexual encounters and flashbacks to brighter days. “Once Upon a Time in Dublin” isn’t easy to watch, even for those of us who know how the makeup effects are created. The inventively frenetic cinematography isn’t a picnic, either.

If “A Fighting Man” had been released in 1994, instead of straight-to-DVD in 2014, a cast that includes James Caan, Louis Gossett Jr., Famke Jannsen and Michael Ironside might have attracted a bit more attention from viewers than it has, 20 years hence. The boxing clichés wouldn’t have been any fresher or less visible, but the actors would have been closer to their prime. Dramas in which boxing serves as a metaphor for one thing or another haven’t delivered the same punch since the first “Rocky” gave us all something to cheer. Occasionally, a really good one, such as “Million Dollar Baby,” sneaks through, but the sport has lost its sparkle in these days of $50 pay-per-view fees. “A Fighting Man” is a bit of a throwback, in that its protagonist is an over-the-hill palooka whose only claim to fame is not ever having tasted the canvas. Like the former heavyweight punching bag, Chuck Wepner, Sailor O’Connor (Dominic Purcell) has the remarkable ability to remain on his feet as the rest of his body is being beaten into a bloody pulp. Against everyone’s better judgment, he decides to come out of retirement for one last time to finance a trip to Ireland for his mother, before she dies of cancer. His opponent is a cocky up-and-comer with something to prove of his own, although it’s difficult to see how beating the crap out of an old man could work to his favor. Apparently, the prize money accumulated by a blood-thirsty promoter, played by Adam Beach, was enough to tempt the soon-to-be father. The beating Sailor endures in the ring truly is excruciating to watch. Because of this, I think that the only viewers who will find something worthwhile in low-budget specialist Damian Lee’s picture are boxing completests. A mysterious parallel storyline, involving Sailor and Janssen’s ex-con character, is left unresolved until the very end of “A Fighting Man.” By then, however, it feels superfluous to the central drama and hardly worth the effort necessary to guess what’s causing all the pain.  – Gary Dretzka

That Awkward Moment: Blu-ray
When the makers of big-screen rom-coms begin to take their cues from overworked sitcom tropes, it’s a sure sign that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Tom Gormican’s first film, “That Awkward Moment,” does borrow from several very good shows – “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “New Girl” – but ultimately falls back on conventions and clichés. At times, the only thing missing is a laugh track. I won’t argue that every action in the movie is predictable from minute-one, although most of them are. Instead, I can easily say that once a plot twist or conceit is revealed – even the clever ones — everything that follows is familiar, including the bloopers in the credit roll.  Here, we’re asked to watch a mixed group of Big Apple yuppies meet-up, hook-up, goof-up, break-up, wise-up, ’fess-up to their hang-ups and realize it’s time to grow-up before hooking-up again for the inevitable happy ending. Gormican’s stated aim here was to make a rom-com in which most of men are dumb as dirt and the one who isn’t is being is cuckolded. On the other hand, the women are drop-dead gorgeous, smart, vulnerable and patiently willingly to wait for these dopes to grow up. The movie’s central conceit, however, appears to have been lifted from the “Seinfeld” episode in which the gang wagers that he or she will be able to go the longest without masturbating. Here, after experiencing one relationship trauma or another, three best friends pledge to stay single for as long as is humanly possible. One-night stands are OK in this three-way bromance, but commitments are forbidden. If you’ve seen “The Contest,” you already know how long it will take for them to cease being master of their domains. Zach Efron, Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan display a decent rapport, but aren’t asked to extend themselves much in the acting department. Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas and Addison Timlin aren’t required to stretch much, either. Even so, they outclass the guys at every turn, which, I suppose, is one of the points Gormican is trying to make. The Gramercy Park locations are pretty easy on the eyes, though. The Blu-ray adds a second blooper reel, interviews and some idle chat. – Gary Dretzka

Joy Ride 3: Roadkill: Blu-ray
Blood Soaked
13 Sins: Blu-ray
The Monkey’s Paw: Blu-ray
You’d think that drivers of teeny-tiny automobiles would know by now how dangerous it can be to piss off an over-the-road trucker. Besides the possibility of startling a driver trying to take a cat nap between 48-hour shifts, they risk spoiling his view of a mini-skirt-wearing passenger in the next lane or, yes, tempt fate by cutting him off. Although we know that the vast majority of all truckers are law-abiding citizens, who everyday risk OD’ing on caffeine, country music and Preparation H, a few bad apples spoil the bunch. Like its predecessors, “Joy Ride 3” reminds us that there are sadistic bastards out there who enjoy nothing more than chaining bad boys and girls to various parts of their rig, just to see what happens when a link or two gets caught in the drive shaft or they can squeeze their bodies into the shape of a pancake to avoid being torn in half by low bridges. And, if you were hear the name “Rusty Nail” over the CB radio, don’t pass any trucks or stop … not even for gas or a flat tire. The original “Joy Ride,” directed by John Dahl (“Rounders”), received sensational reviews and did better in DVD than at the theatrical box office. “Joy Ride 2” went straight-to-DVD, while “Joy Ride 3” is nothing more than a splatter-fest. That would be OK, if there was a story to support the blood-letting. Instead, it’s almost impossible to tell whether the characters are driving east, west, south or north, and why their super-duper drag-racer can’t outrun an 18-wheeler. In any case, all the action takes place on a little-traveled highway, somewhere south of the Canadian border, where harvesting roadkill is a cottage industry. “Joy Ride 3” is very much what fans of the series might expect it to be, only less thrilling. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette, interviews and special-effects explainer.

Blood Soaked” is a nasty piece of business about an incoming college freshman, who reluctantly allows herself to be seduced by a lesbian upper-classman at a campfire in the New Mexico desert. Still glowing from their encounter, they make the mistake of stopping their car in the vicinity of a pair of orphaned sisters, who kidnap strangers, torture them and turn them into zombies in their underground bunker. If that weren’t sufficiently sordid, the sisters foresee a time when they’ll have enough zombies to create a Fourth Reich. Can the young lovers escape before being fitted for a Gestapo uniform? Blessedly, perhaps, someone forgot to pay the electrical bill in the bunker, because most of the movie looks as if it were shot through a day-for-night filter and the color of blood is muted. The biggest selling point is the music by Eternal West Coast Killa Beez.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before … or the next one. In “13 Sins,” a pathetic salesman gets canned within days of being married. Elliot (Mark Webber) is desperate, so, when he receives a phone call offering a fortune if he passes 13 tests, he’s both suspicious and intrigued. Typically, they start out easy and get weirder as they go along, just like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Unlike the game show, though, no money is returned when the contestant decides to quit. The punchline arrives when Elliott discovers that he’s not the only participant and there’s only one winner. It’s pretty hard-core, but good old Ron Perlman plays a New Orleans cop, so maybe there’s hope for justice, after all. The Blu-ray adds making-of material, a deleted scene and short film of the writer going nuclear about it.

The Monkey’s Paw,” also set in New Orleans, offers a gory take on “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp.” Whoever is in possession of a dried-up monkey’s hand is given three wishes, if not a full explanation of how they’ll actually play out. After a stressed-out factory worker (C.J. Thomason) cashes in his first wish on a hot car, the even more messed-up guy sitting next to him on a test drive goes through the windshield when the vehicle dodges an alligator and hits a tree. Should he use the second wish to save his friend’s life? “Monkey’s Paw” may not be very original, but the bayous of southern Louisiana, as usual, make a terrific background for bizarro criminality. – Gary Dretzka

Invasion of the Scream Queens: 20th Anniversary Special Edition
In the 1980-90s, the standard-issue exploitation flick featured violence, nudity, black humor, a cool villain, a generic hero and a skeleton of a story that could accommodate all of these elements. The most popular of these movies – good or bad — featured one or more women who not only could supply the skin, but scream to high heaven. If these “scream queens” were good enough, the male heroes needed only to be handsome and slightly smarter than a box of rocks. Besides a variety of sharp cooking implements and a dark and remote kill zone, the story only required a beginning, middle and end. The breast moments were reserved for such women as Michelle Bauer, Brinke Stevens, Marya Gant, Katina Garner, Monique Gabrielle, Martine Beswick, Janus Blythe and Mary Woronov, all of whom were given an opportunity to speak in normal tones in “Invasion of the Scream Queens.” The 20-year-old documentary, which remains essential viewing for genre buffs and curious newcomers, combines interviews and film clips to very good effect. The DVD adds extended interviews and background from Donald Farmer, director of “Demon Queen” and “Savage Vengeance.” – Gary Dretzka

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?
I’ve never been able to understand dialectics well enough to take one side of a political or philosophical argument against the other. What I do know is that listening to Marxists debate anything is about as much fun as watching politicians use C-SPAN to speechify in front of an empty Congress. In the same way as Woody Allen turned a really bad Japanese pot-boiler into the hilariously dubbed, “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?,” French filmmaker Rene Vienet chopped and channeled a Hong Kong martial-arts movie, “The Crush,” into the Marxist action-melodrama “Can Dialectics Break Bricks?” In it, the combatants attack each other with fists of fury and political dogma. Only a small fraction of the people who loved Allen’s comedy could find 10 minutes of “Dialectics” entertaining or meaningful, though. Those who do understand the very smart exchange of political rhetoric, however, will find it to be a hoot. It looks even more comical after having being “aged” in film-to-video and color-to-black-and-white transfer. If movies like this had been shown in my political sciences courses, I might have been able to stay awake for the whole period. – Gary Dretzka

Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII: Blu-ray
The suspense should have been over for Seattle Seahawks’ fans at halftime, when the score of the Super Bowl was 22-0 against the favored Denver Broncos. Instead, while viewers outside the Pacific Northwest tuned to HBO to see what was on, it took Seahawk loyalists another quarter and the lone Broncos’ touchdown to pay more attention to the buffet counter than the TV. The two-point conversion made the score 36-8, but it hardly mattered to anyone who hadn’t placed a bet on the over/under. The newly released “Seattle Seahawks’ Road to XLVIII,” then, is primarily for Hawks fans who couldn’t believe their eyes and those who decided not to watch what might have been the dullest quarter in Super Bowl history. Like the Denver defense, the long-predicted frigid weather was a no-show for the game. SBXLVIII may have been the first NFL championship game to be held at an open-air stadium in a “cold-weather” city, but the temperature at kickoff was a boring 49 degrees. Can you spell A-N-T-I-C-L-I-M-A-C-T-I-C? Far more exciting were the playoff games versus the Saints and 49ers, which provided the stepping stones to the Super Bowl and are here, as well. And, while there’s plenty of room for nitpicking the fleeting moments NFL Films chose to excise, in addition to hours of ridiculously overproduced commercials, the high-definition video presentation is probably sharper than what was transmitted by Fox, and that’s not to suggest that the original broadcast was all that shabby. Now, however, people who invested in a Blu-ray player after the playoffs can watch the games with new eyes. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC/PBS: Masterpiece Mystery: The Escape Artist: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Why Sharks Attack
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: The Complete Third Season
MTV: Teen Wolf: Season 3 Part 2
Usually, mini-series under the “Masterpiece Mystery” banner are distinctly British in their mannered tone and deliberate pacing. Even when one resembles an elongated episode of “Law & Order” or “CSI,” the multi-dimensional portrayals of key characters and attention to detail distinguish them from American shows, in which, typically, cases are opened and closed within 60 minutes, including 15 minutes of commercials. That’s not a knock on the best hour-long dramas on network television here, just reality. The BBC’s fine three-part mini-series “The Escape Artist” possesses all of the best qualities of a typical “Masterpiece Mystery” presentation, while also adding plot points familiar from such movies as “The Devil’s Advocate.” David Tennant is, as usual, excellent as junior barrister Will Burton, who, like Keanu Reeves in “Devil’s Advocate,” has become well known in British legal circles for having never lost a criminal defense case. Al Pacino doesn’t appear here as Satan, but the point being made by director Brian Welsh and writer David Wolstencroft doesn’t require his presence: even in Her Majesty’s halls of justice, what goes around comes around. No sooner does Burton successfully defend suspected rapist and murderer Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) than the fiend inexplicably decides to torture his defender, by killing his wife and making it look as if the lawyer did it. Naturally, he denies it, pointing to his former client as the killer. By now, the prosecutor Burton had just humiliated on the previous case, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo), has gone over to the dark side of the law and been assigned by her new firm to defend Foyle. The real kicker to the mini-series, which I won’t reveal, comes after the disgraced Burton attempts to find a job away from the city and spots Foyle coming out of a pub, ostensibly on a hunting trip. Although the story might have been compressed into two unabridged episodes and still worked, I don’t think many fans of Brit legal dramas will mind the padding.

The “Nova” presentation, “Why Sharks Attack,” attempts to answer a question most of us would dismiss with, “because they’re hungry,” or by recalling the parable of the scorpion and the frog (“It’s my nature …”). Scientists rarely accept such pat answers, even though one needs only to look elsewhere in the Animal Kingdom to understand that humans represent the only species that has mastered the art of having food delivered to one’s home or driving to a restaurant for takeout. It’s our never-ending fascination with sharks that compels us to go beyond the obvious, however, and wonder what it means when great whites begin attacking swimmers, surfers and waders in increasing numbers. To “separate fact from fear,” “Nova” has teamed with leading experts in Australia and the United States to trace the great white’s movements and match them with possible changes in their habitats. GPS, satellite and other high-end technology allows scientists to widen their horizons when it comes to establishing migratory patterns and re-adaptation to meteorological conditions, including global warming.

The third and longest season of “Regular Show” rolled out between September 19, 2011, and September 3, 2012. It opened with Benson disposing of Mordecai and Rigby’s stick-hockey table and culminated with the heartbreak of halitosis, which resulted in Mordecai’s recent kiss-fail. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for the compilation to go on sale and only in DVD, but, I suspect, it has something to do with the show’s ready availability on PPV and streaming outlets, including episodes from Season 7. Bonus material adds episode commentaries, “Four Things You Didn’t Know About J.G.,” “J.G. Answers Why” and a live episode read.

If it seems odd that the third-season packages of “Teen Wolf” would be broken into two parts, it can be explained by the simple fact that the third stanza was comprised of 24 episodes instead of 12, as were the first two go-rounds. It arrives just in time for the start of Season 4, with Scott attempting to deal with the loss of two close friends in the desperate showdown that closed Season 3. The show’s roots extend all the way back to the AIP classic, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” in which a letter-jacket-wearing Michael Landon transformed into a hairy rage-oholic. Along with several cheapo “I Was a Teenage …” sequels, it would inspire a “Teen Wolf” featuring Michael J. Fox and two “Teen Wolf” series. The success of “Buffy” and “Twilight Trilogy” also influenced the latest iteration. The DVD, which has been “musically edited,” adds a fan art collection and fan video. — Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit: Blu-ray
Although I didn’t think much of “The Sum of All Fears,” the fourth film adapted from a Tom Clancy novel, my feelings couldn’t prevent me from anticipating the new “reboot” of the franchise, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Unlike the others, it was merely “inspired by characters” in a story created by the author before his untimely death last year. Clancy’s readers already were conditioned to expect occasional reboots in the series, just as movie audiences had to adjust to three, now four different actors in the lead role. What I couldn’t predict, however, was how viewers would react to a Jack Ryan who was born at approximately the same instant as the same Jack Ryan was saving the world in “The Hunt for Red October.” Neither prequel nor sequel, “Shadow Recruit” appears to exist outside of the Jack Ryan universe, altogether. It probably would have been easier to adapt the books in Clancy’s “Jack Ryan Jr.,” with Chris Pine at the helm, but that might have required paying steeper options fees or jumping through a different kind of hoop.  Instead, viewers were left jumping through hoops. The fourth Ryan, Pine, understood the dynamics of making such a midcourse correction. After all, he had already assumed the role of Kirk the Younger in the “Star Trek” movie franchise. He’s passed that test easy enough, but the jury remains out on Pine as Ryan. While Kenneth Branagh’s “Shadow Recruit” underperformed at the U.S. box office, it did OK overseas … and that’s where the action is for Hollywood studios, these days.

The story follows the basic Ryan blueprint previously laid out by Clancy. As in previous iterations, he is shot down and seriously injured in the crash of a marine helicopter. He uses the recuperation process to acquire the skills necessary to become a successful Wall Street trader and analyst. One of the things he discovers is a Kremlin-generated plot to crush the economies of the U.S. economies, triggered under the cover of a terrorist attack by a domestic sleeper cell. To prevent such a scenario from playing out, Ryan travels to Moscow as a representative for his brokerage firm and a covert CIA operative. What happens next could have been borrowed from the “Mission:Impossible” playbook. Inexplicably, Ryan is greeted at the airport by a very large thug posing as his security guard. He discovers the ruse after reaching his modern hotel suite, where the guy attempts to kill him. It results in an exciting, if messy fight to the finish. Sensing that the guy was on assignment for his company’s man in Moscow, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), Ryan nonetheless goes through the motions of feigning ignorance. Curiously, too, the plotter invites Jack and his jealous girlfriend, Cathy Muller (Kiera Knightley) – thought to still be in New York — to dinner at Moscow’s trendiest restaurant. As predicted in his CIA dossier, Viktor becomes pre-occupied with romancing Cathy. It leaves time for Ryan to sneak out and perform a “M:I”-style miracle. Just in case the young analyst screws up, though, the lad’s CIA handler (Kevin Costner) is in Moscow, as well, riding around town in a van full of computers.

As unlikely as all of this nonsense may be, “Shadow Recruit” isn’t without its guilty pleasures. Branagh maintains a lively pace throughout and it is extremely well-shot by Haris Zambarloukos. The exterior shots of central Moscow, alongside some fab nighttime landmarks, make the movie look delicious in Blu-ray. Instead of seeming cold and foreboding, Zambarloukos makes it look like a little like Disneyland.  The feature package offers plenty to do for fans of the movie and series. Informative audio commentary is provided by director Branagh and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura; self-explanatory featurettes “Jack Ryan: The Smartest Guy in the Room,” “Sir Kenneth Branagh: The Tsar of Shadow Recruit,” “Jack Ryan: A Thinking Man of Action” and “Old Enemies Return,” a 20-minute-plus look at the use of Russians as enduring villains in the cinema; and deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary. If there’s a sequel, it will be interesting to see which direction in time and place the producers choose to take. At the moment, at least, Clancy’s legacy still appears to be most formidable in sales of video games and books. – Gary Dretzka

Non-Stop: Blu-ray
I stopped attempting to guess the identity of the murderous blackmailers in “Non-Stop,” – Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra’s mid-air thriller — after being slapped in the face with numerous red herrings. It’s pretty difficult to remain involved in a movie’s story flow when nearly everyone we meet could be the antagonist and even suspects who have been cleared are allowed to re-emerge as possible culprits, only to be cleared once again. An ability to suspend disbelief and ignore narrative blunders shouldn’t be made part of the movie-going experience, but, here, it’s imperative. Anyone who hasn’t flown since 9/11 certainly will have an advantage over those of us who experienced the changes initiated by the TSA. So, sit back and watch as 63-year-old Liam Neeson turns impossible plot devices into action gold. Here, he’s been allowed to maintain a noticeable trace of his native Irish accent, in his portrayal of alcoholic U.S. Air Marshal Bill Marks. A litany of personal crises have turned the onetime New York cop into an emotional wreck and potential liability in the skies between New York and Europe. When sober, Marks probably is as good at his job as anyone else in law enforcement could be. Drunk, he’s only as competent as his tolerance to alcohol allows him to be. Fortunately, on this trip, Marks is only working on a good buzz. Still, Neeson does a good job convincing us that his flaws are exploitable by anyone who knows where they are.

No sooner does the flight to Paris take off than Marks begins to receive text messages warning that someone will be killed in 20 minutes if a ransom of $150 million isn’t delivered to an offshore account. Because the messages become increasingly taunting in nature, it’s safe to assume that the sender knows that Marks’ is an air marshal and vulnerable. When the pilot describes the threat to the authorities back home, the disembodied voice at the other end of the phone treats it as if the veteran lawman might be experiencing the first stages of the DTs, which, we know, he isn’t. Even so, writers John W. Richardson and Christopher Roach insist on planting a seed of doubt in captain, crew and passengers. Theoretically, all the pilot would need to do to confound the blackmailers would be to turn off the wireless-broadband service available to passengers and identify those who purchased it. Flights originating in the U.S. don’t offer the option of in-flight phone calls or text messages and, in any case, a passenger would be required to purchase access. The first red herring thrown at us comes in the form of a fellow air marshal and former friend of Marks, who appears to be monitoring his performance. Why, then, is he sweating profusely and carrying a bag full of cocaine? Thinking he’s solved the mystery. Marks is dismayed when he receives another test message and reports of his dismissal from the NYPD begin popping up on the TV monitors in the cabin. That’s pretty fast work for an eight-hour flight, even by CNN’s standards. As the implausibilities add up, the filmmakers attempt to divert our attention from them by spicing the script with dark humor. Very few actors could sell such nonsense to audiences – Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson come to mind — but audiences will forgive Neeson of almost anything today. Of the nearly $200 million that “Non-Stop” has collected worldwide (46.2 percent domestically) it’s likely that Neeson’s presence is responsible for 90 percent of it. There’s nothing wrong with the rest of the cast members, though. Adding to the movie’s credibility are co-stars Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”), Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) and several actors familiar primarily to TV audiences. If the Blu-ray looks and sounds fine, the extras are pretty generic. – Gary Dretzka

Capital: Blu-ray
Amen: Blu-ray
There was a time when the Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras could do no wrong. Today, at 81, he’s easy pickings for critics who long for the days of “Z” and other films that took on the powers that be in countries where labor unions, intellectuals and students have been targeted for persecution. His first great success, “Z,” remains a tense political thriller about the rape of Greece’s democracy by a murderous military junta propped up by the U.S. government and outside corporate interests. Just as relevant, but less relatable to American audiences were “The Confession,” “State of Siege” and “Special Section.” His first Hollywood-backed movie was “Missing,” an indictment of this country’s role in the overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected government and murder of Salvador Allende. Even after being condemned by White House official Alexander Haig, one of the architects of the coup, the presence of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek helped “Missing” find an audience here. Among the actors who would appear in his next few movies were Jill Clayburgh (“Hannah K”), Debra Winger (“Betrayed”) and Jessica Lange (“Music Box”). Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta starred in “Mad City,” a critical and commercial disaster that combined elements “Ace in the Hole” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” without delivering anything close to a knockout punch. Money would get tight after that failure.

Five years went by before the release of his next, relatively low-profile film, “Amen.” Based on “The Deputy,” a controversial 1963 play by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, it tells the true story of chemist Kurt Gerstein, who, while employed at the Hygiene Institute of the Waffen SS, discovered to his dismay that the pesticide, Zyklon B, which he was testing as a potential cure for typhus, was being used, instead, for killing Jews and Poles. Until witnessing the deaths, himself, Gerstein and most other German citizens chose to believe the lie about where uprooted Jews were being taken in train cars and for what purpose. He attempted to use his position in the army to convince leaders of the Roman Catholic Church to take a public stand on the persecution of Jews, just as they had against the Nazis’ Euthanasia Program. A young Jesuit priest, Riccardo Fontana, whose father was influential within the highest circle of the Vatican hierarchy, was the only clergyman to agree to push the matter up the ladder. After finally reporting to Pope Pius XII, to no avail, Fontana boarded a freight car carrying dozens of Jews to the death camps. He was recognized at a transfer point and detained, but none of the other passengers was spared. The play caused a huge uproar in Germany, as well as public debate elsewhere about the Church’s role in the Holocaust. In the play, the pontiff appears content to support the Jews and German resistance in his own way, without a public denunciation of Hitler or openly providing sanctuary. Other clerics felt as if the Nazis provided a barrier against communism and atheism, and they shouldn’t be denounced publically. At the time, Pius’ role was defended by Catholic and Jewish authorities, alike, who claimed his actions saved hundreds of thousands of lives. I found “Amen” to be extremely well-produced, thought-provoking and often quite exciting. It’s no less provocative today than in 1963 and its arguments remain open to debate. Gurstein’s motives for cooperating with the Allies in the closing days of the war are still questioned, as well. Although, at 132 minutes, “Amen” overextends its welcome, there’s no question that Costa-Gavras hadn’t lost much of his ability to tell a story during his hiatus.

Also newly released into Blu-ray by Cohen Media Group is his most recent production, “Capital.” Ever since the international economic collapse, Costa-Gavras had wanted to say something about the absolute corruptibility of money and how our relationship to it has changed so hideously since the 1980s, at least. “Capital” straddles a very thin line separating drama and farce – he calls it a parable – although I doubt that comedy was what he had in mind. Popular French monologist Gad Elmaleh plays the brilliant assistant to the CEO of the large and profitable Phenix Bank. When the old man collapses on the golf course – from the pain of testicular cancer, of all things – he decides to hand over the reins to the Machiavellian Marc Tourneuil. The board of directors believe that this was done to ensure the boss’ ideas would be funneled through the younger executive. The most aggressive member of the cabal, hedge-fund manager Dittmar Rigule (Gabriel Byrne), has other plans for the company’s and expects Tourneuil to do the dirty work for him. Tourneuil agrees to fire hundreds of the bank’s employees, if not as many as Rigule demands. Along with other reforms, the layoffs serve to boost the stock price and keep the cabal’s wolves from his door. Even so, Rigule continue to demand initiatives that would make the bank ripe for a takeover. It makes no sense to Tourneuil, until a sharp and idealistic British analyst (Céline Sallette) explains it to him. It’s at this point in the story that Tourneuil, who’s already been tempted to stray by a sizzling hot, if poorly drawn supermodel, that he finds himself at the proverbial fork in the road and Costa-Gavras asks us to guess which path he’ll take. Unfortunately, the verdict is based on facts not in evidence. Like “Amen,” “Capital” is technically proficient and well-acted. Released in 2012, four years after most Earthlings determined that bankers serve no useful purpose, except to propagate the ruling class, it seems a very minor and obvious effort. Both movies arrive with interesting interviews with the director. – Gary Dretzka

Adult World
You wouldn’t know it from the tactically misleading jacket photo, but “Adult World” is a surprisingly sweet and genuinely entertaining coming-of-age story, which deserves a better reception in DVD than it received in its too-limited theatrical run. I don’t blame the distributors for trying to attract customers with a titillating title and lurid neon highlights that suggest something naughty might be contained therein. The presence of John Cusack, who’s played some decidedly wicked characters lately, only seems to add to the potential for menace. Instead, everyone keeps their clothes on and the sexuality is implied. Bubbly Emma Roberts plays a recent college graduate who’s convinced herself that she’s on the brink of becoming the first poet since Rod McKuen to make money from her poetry. She successfully avoids finding paying work, until she’s forced to leave home by her parents. Needless to say, a degree in poetry doesn’t cut much ice with potential employers in a Rust Belt city devastated by factory closings and chronic unemployment. Finally, she finds a job at a local porn emporium, which looks as ragged as any other business in the struggling Upstate New York town. Although thankful for the pay check, Amy spends most of her time brushing up on her poetry and explaining to customers why porn is insulting to women. Neither is she much good at preventing shoplifting. Fortunately, the store’s young manager (Chris Riggi) takes a shine to Amy, as does the town’s resident transvestite (Armando Riesco), who provides her with a place to crash.

When Amy discovers that her all-time favorite poet, Rat Billings (Cusack), is in residence at the college, she decides to honor him by becoming his personal stalker. Billings is far too burned out to find the adoration flattering or reciprocate with helpful advice. The closest Amy comes to connecting with him is volunteering to serve as his much needed cleaning woman, in exchange for him critiquing her writing. Instead of giving her false hope, Billings is brutally honest about her poetry, which he finds shrill and hyperbolic. His being cruel to be kind only endears him to Amy, at least until he takes the one step too far that causes her to come to grips with her situation. Director Scott Coffey acted in several David Lynch pictures before taking the helm of the interesting indie character study, “Ellie Parker,” with Naomi Watts. Here, he capably massaged the script by freshman screenwriter Andy Cochran and coaxed a terrifically obsessive performance from 22-year-old Emma Roberts – son of Eric and niece of Julia, with whom she is extremely close – an actor who appears to be standing on the brink of stardom for her ability to move from drama to comedy with seemingly little effort. As geeky as Amy is, Roberts also is able to find the raw sexuality hidden deep within the aspiring poet. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the R-rating, even if it seems to mirror the context suggested on the cover art. The camera never lingers on the material being sold and Amy’s yearnings are strictly PG. I don’t see any reason why viewers in their middle- to late-teens, along with young adults, shouldn’t take a shot at “Adult World,” instead of the latest boys-will-be-boys or comic-book flick. – Gary Dretzka

Bible Quiz
One of the teenagers we follow in Nicole Teeny’s low-key and frequently surprising “Bible Quiz,” asks the most obvious question even before we get an opportunity to do so ourselves. Why, asks 17-year-old Mikayla Irle, is she involved so deeply in an activity that all of her friends at school consider to be hopelessly geeky and boring? Mikayla may not get around to answering her own question, but anyone who’s watched one of the many documentaries about young people striving for excellence through games or artistic pursuits already knows what it is. She is a member of an award-winning team of Tacoma bible students on their way to the national championships in Green Bay, Wisconsin, commonly referred to as Title Town. Having grown up in a bible-quizzing family, Teeny understands what’s at stake for the competitors she’s chosen to follow. Teeny also knows a thing or two about being a teenage girl at the cusp of womanhood. By all outward appearances, Mikalya is one of, perhaps, millions of young people who’ve devoted their lives to God and spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ to anyone who will listen and some who won’t. While many of the nation’s generic Jesus freaks are robotic and single-minded, when they aren’t being thoroughly annoying, at least, others are in it for the same reasons that teenagers join athletic teams, glee clubs and student councils. Besides enjoying the companionship and buzz that comes with being really good at something – she knows Scripture inside-out — Mikalya has an innocent crush on the team’s star, J.P. O’Connor. It also relieves some of the pressure of having an alcoholic, largely absentee mother.

Teeny’s camera follows the team from qualifying rounds in Washington to Wisconsin, without condescending to the teens or making the quiz sound more important than it is. She also understands that memorizing and reciting Scripture – in competition with other sharp teens and a 30-second clock – is a significantly different thing than comprehending their meaning. Some will get to that point at a later date, others might find different ways to incorporate Christ into their lives or stray from the flock. Most of the kids we meet here have yet to come to grips with the stirrings inside their bodies they’ve been taught to fear, ignore or put on the back burner until their wedding night. Indeed, Mikalya is steal wrestling with the idea that Jesus might not approve of her submitting to a kiss or, at one significant point in “Bible Quiz,” initiating a congratulatory hug. The thought of putting on makeup and a shoulder-revealing dress for the awards ceremony almost makes her apoplectic. In a pre-coming-of-age documentary that very easily could have turned ugly with condescension and disapproval, these are moments for viewers to savor. Being a cheesehead, I found it amusing that anyone would see Green Bay in the same light as Sodom and Gomorrah. The parents and pastors we do meet are kept mostly in the background, unless they’re running the contest or there to support the team. One dad doesn’t pretend to understand what his kid is doing and why, but doesn’t want to spoil the fun. “Bible Quiz” grows on you to the point where it matters who wins the contest, even if the answers are delivered at 78 r.p.m.– Gary Dretzka

The Spike Lee Joint Collection, Volumes 1 & 2: Blu-ray
Far less than the career-encompassing collection Spike Lee deserves and his fans desire, the three “Spike Lee Joint” packages extant – one from Universal, two now from Touchstone – represent bargains for collectors and handy introductions to those new to his work. Perhaps, this week’s release of “Volume 1” and “Volume 2” will prompt Universal to re-release its five-title box on Blu-ray. Although Touchstone’s compilations basically amount to double-features, at least the films are now available in hi-def and with new commentary tracks. The first volume includes “25th Hour” and “He Got Game,” while the second adds “Summer of Sam” and “Miracle at St. Anna.” Edward Norton” gives a bravura performance in “25th Hour,” which chronicles the last 24 hours of freedom for convicted drug dealer Monty Brogan. The most significant thing one learns listening to the commentary is how much Lee wanted to pay homage to pre-9/11 New York and salute those who gave their lives attempting to rescue others trapped in the Twin Towers. One scene primarily dominated by dialogue is shot with cleanup operations at Ground Zero visible in the background.

The other masterpiece here is “Summer of Sam,” another portrait of New York, only this one sweats and shouts back at the viewer. At the same time as dweeb killer David Berkowitz is raising the temperature of the already sweltering melting pot, the Yankees’ are uniting the citizenry with another pennant run. Lee is a master at getting audience members to feel as if they’re as integral a part of the story as any of the characters and, here, there’s almost no line separating those hunting the killer and those whose appearance and idiosyncracies make them suspects. As such, “Summer of Sam” is one of the most visceral movies of all time.

Apart from being an indictment of the corruption in the college-recruiting game, “He Got Game” cuts to the heart of a father-son relationship poisoned by distance, bitterness and jealousy. Denzel Washington plays Jake, the father of a high coveted prep basketball star, Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen). Jake was convicted of murdering his wife and is serving time in Attica. The governor allows him to leave prison for a week, during which he’s expected to convince the teenager to commit to the state university. If he does, Jake could be released on parole. Trouble is, he hates his father and blames him for his mother’s death, however accidental it was. Jake also plays a key role in a subplot, involving a prostitute played by Milla Jovovich. The epic World War II drama, “Miracle at St. Anna,” describes how four members of the U.S. Army’s all-black 92nd Infantry Division — Buffalo Soldiers — are trapped behind enemy lines after one of them risks his life to save a traumatized Italian boy. Although it attempts to do too many big things at once, “Miracle” does most of them right.

The Blu-ray bonus package adds, on “25th Hour,” commentaries by Lee and Norton, Lee alone, and screenwriter David Benioff ; deleted scenes; “The Evolution of an American Filmmaker; and “Ground Zero: A Tribute.” “He Got Game” includes commentary by Lee and actor/NBA star Ray Allen; “Summer of Sam” has commentary by Lee and actor John Leguizamo; and “Miracle at St. Anna,” adds commentary by Lee and screenwriter James McBride, deleted scenes and featurettes “Deeds Not Words” and “The Buffalo Soldier Experience.” The commentaries may be a tad chatty and unfocused for some tastes. – Gary Dretzka

Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between “Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles” and the Seven Labors of Hercules may be purely coincidental, but what better inspiration could there be for martial-arts movie? Instead of having to battle dangerous beasts and mythic creatures as penance for his sins, the martial-arts master Toramaru is required to prove himself to his sensei, Gensai, by traveling throughout Japan and Okinawa and defeating the masters of seven separate disciplines. After a year on the road, Toramaru returns to his dojo with seven scrolls containing secrets and techniques of kung-fu, stick fighting, sword fighting, nunchaku, yakuza, gun-slinging and samurai skills. When integrated with traditional Bushido values, the combined disciple is mugen-ga-ryu. Gensai’s advice to Toramaru is to pay attention to regional cuisines and duplicate his opponent’s diet as a way to get to inside his head. “Bushido Man,” then, is little more than a series of exciting fights and quiet discussions between sensei and student. There’s no reason to ruin the surprise ending, but hardly anyone is likely to go away disappointed by Takanori Tsujimoto’s follow-up to “Monster Killer.” For western viewers, “Bushido Man” can be enjoyed almost as much as a travelogue as an action picture, with no small amount of humor. The Blu-ray extras consist of Q&A’s conducted at festival screenings. – Gary Dretzka

Kill Zombie!: Blu-ray
Haunt
Almost Human
Fans of “Shaun of the Dead” and other zombie comedies should find a lot to like in the Dutch zombie-apocalypse farce, “Kill Zombie!” Martijn Smits and Erwin van den Eshof may not be emphatically satirical or as genre-bending as some recent efforts, but its cartoonish approach to the eradication of humans and zombies is surprisingly effective. “Kill Zombie!” also is informed by the diverse cultures of Amsterdam, which somehow has managed to balance a welcoming persona to outsiders with the country’s distinctly conservative core. Here, a motley crew of stoners, straights, immigrants from two or three different continents, femme fatales, a gun-toting blond cop and Russian mercenary all come together to battle zombies contaminated by an oozy green substance released when a space vehicle crash lands into a skyscraper in Amsterdam-West. The undead act in ways familiar to all of us, but the weaponry collected by our merry band of survivors ranges from the completely ineffectual to devastating. The less logic one applies to the story, the easier it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief necessary to follow who’s still among the living. It’s a lot of fun.

In only five years, IFC Midnight has established itself as a destination for browsers seeking innovative horror flicks, most of which are made on a limited budget and using unknown actors or cult favorites. Among its successes are Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede,” Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” and Brandon Cronenberg’s “Antiviral.” Even if mainstream critics don’t pay much attention to such movies – until they become cult sensations, anyway – the genre-centric websites tend to give them a fair shake. Its catalogue is also a good place to find young talents and trending ideas.

Working off of a script by fellow-freshman Andrew Barrer, Mac Carter deftly integrates a compelling teen romance into the haunted-house thriller, “Haunt,” saving it from being just another horror wannabe. When a spooky pediatrician, Dr. Janet Morello (two-time Oscar nominee, Jacki Weaver), finally decides to sell her rural home to the Ashers, she reluctantly leaves behind a family of distinctly grotesque ghosts. Teenage son, Evan (Harrison Gilbertson), may sense there’s something fishy about the place, but his parents are in no mood to buy into what they see as his fantasies. While walking through the woods one night, he meets Samantha (Liana Liberato), the sadly abused daughter of the Ashers’ alcoholic neighbor. They hit it off to the point where Mrs. Asher (Ione Skye) allows her to move into the house and tastefully enjoy the first fruits of young love with Evan. It’s convenient, because both share a fascination with the supernatural and can’t wait to test a transmitter box left behind by the doctor. Not surprisingly, they bite off more than they can chew with their investigation into the ghosts’ origins. Besides the romantic subplot, “Haunt” benefits from the enthusiastic performances of the young actors and some nifty special-makeup effects.

For his feature debut, “Almost Human,” writer/director Joe Begos borrows liberally from John Carpenter and other masters of sci-fi/horror genre, circa the 1980s. What begins as an alien-abduction mystery turns quickly into a grisly splatter film, when a Maine redneck returns after two years from a sojourn in space. Mark (Josh Ethier) makes loud screechy noises when he really wants to scare people or suck things from their bodies through the long Pocket Hose Penis protruding from his mouth. It appears as if Mark has returned to reclaim his girlfriend (Vanessa Leigh) from another suitor. Meanwhile, their best friend Seth (Graham Skipper) is inexplicably experiencing nosebleeds and other premonitions of doom. Depending on one’s ability to withstand numerous images of gore and an ear-splitting soundtrack, the reasonably novel ending either will make up for the incomprehensible middle third or be just another thing that life was too short to waste time waiting to see. “Almost Human” may be far too excruciating an experience for most viewers to watch, but it’s short and the best gags may be indicative of a bright future for Begos. Don’t forget to fast-forward through the eight-minute credits crawl to find a brief closing scene. The DVD adds a couple of featurettes, interviews and the short film, “Toxin.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Fox: Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey: Blu-ray
The Chisholms: Complete TV Series
The Adventures of Batman
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Gardens of Babylon
PBS Kids/
The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm
Thirty-four years ago, when Carl Sagan’s landmark series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” first aired on PBS, Pluto was still a planet, the Hubble Space Telescope had yet to wow us with remarkable images from deep space, high-definition television monitors weren’t close to being affordable and the colony of unreformed Nazis living on the dark side of the moon had yet to reveal itself. That last one wasn’t known until the Finnish film “Iron Sky” was released in 2012. If “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey” didn’t make quite the same splash when it was simulcast earlier this year across all 10 Fox broadcast and cable outlets, it’s only because Sagan had already become a genuine media celebrity. He had already made several appearances on the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where the host, an amateur astronomer, had made him feel as welcome as any movie star. The similarly ambitious “A SpaceTime Odyssey” follows the blueprint laid out in 1980. This time, though, digital technology, computer-generated animation and high-resolution video monitors have raised the ante on science programming. Among other things, the visual presentation is exponentially sharper, deeper and immersive. The 13-episode series is presented by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who learned more than a few lessons from his idol, Sagan. Among the executive producers are Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, a co-creator of the original series. Astronomer and writer Steven Soter returns to share scripting duties with Dryun. As family-oriented entertainment and explanatory science, “A SpaceTime Odyssey” isn’t likely to be topped, until home theaters become totally immersive and everyone can afford an IMAX screen in their living room. By then, too, we’ll probably be receiving YouTube videos from Mars. The 662-minute Blu-ray experience includes audio commentary; the Library of Congress dedication; deleted scenes; “‘Cosmos’: A Vision Reborn”; “‘Cosmos’ at Comic-Con”; and an interactive “cosmic calendar.”

The Chisholms” began its life on CBS as a 1979 mini-series, before being spun-off as a short-lived series the next year. That was pretty late in the game for TV Westerns, but “Little House on the Prairie” still had some a few years life in it and a cast that included Robert Preston, Brian Keith, Rosemarie Harris, Ben Murphy, Brian Kerwin and Donald Moffat, in addition to interesting guest stars, still should have been able to find an audience. Moreover, it was executive produced by David Dortort, who had written, produced and exec-produced dozens of episodes of “Bonanza,” which “The Chilsholms” kind of, sort of resembled. Swindled out of their Virginia property, the Chisholm family, led by proud patriarch Hadley (Preston) and his wife, Minerva (Harris), make the trek westward in order to build a new life for themselves in the Oregon Territory. Along the trail, the Chisholm clan encounters challenges that threaten not only their safety, but the very fabric of their familial bonds. It helped, as well, that the shooting locations looked as if they’re nowhere near SoCal or British Columbia. If nothing else, it’s great to see the lead stars in action, again.

Slugterra: Ghoul From Beyond” is a feature-length extension of the Nerd Corps’ sci-fi/fantasy series, “Slugterra,” which defies synopsis, easy or otherwise. The story takes place in a deep, underground realm in which magical garden slugs are treated like commodities to be collected, trained and shot from guns. Topsider Eli Shane is determined to be the greatest slug-slinger since his legendary father disappeared in one of the many caverns of the underworld. A villain known as Dr. Blakk is seeking to “ghoul” the slugs, transforming them into feral mindless weapons. As was the case with gunfighters in Old West, every time one goes down, someone bigger and badder comes along to take his place. The movie is only slightly less complicated than the series.

The Adventures of Batman” is the companion package to “The New Adventures of Superman, Seasons 2 & 3,” released last week. Produced by Filmation, the show aired on CBS in 1968. It featured the voices of Olan Soule, as the original voice of Batman; Casey Kasem, as Robin, Jane Webb as Batgirl and Catwoman; Ted Knight, as Commissioner Gordon, Penguin, Riddler and Mr. Freeze; and Larry Storch, as The Joker. The two-disc set contains all 34 episodes.

It’s the rare episode of PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” that doesn’t hold one’s interest for its entire 60-minute length. Some reveal secrets buried in the recent past, while other episodes take viewers back to antiquity. One of the most interesting things about “The Lost Gardens of Babylon” is learning how much evidence is still available today, 3,000 years since the gardens are believed to have been built. Satellite photography and advanced imaging technology reveal things that have been hidden in plain sight all along. Dr. Stephanie Dalley, of Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, has been searching for the exact location of the gardens for most of her career. Now that the imagery has pointed her in a direction different than she was looking, the war in Iraq has made it impossible to complete her research. When guards prevent her from getting too close to ground zero, she equips Iraqis known to them to film the area with handheld cameras. Even we miss the “Eureka” moment, what Dalley is able to describe is pretty fascinating.

The latest package from the “PBS Kids” block includes, “Dinosaur Train: Adventure Camp,” “Wild Kratts: Tiny Trouble” and “Word Girl: Monkey Business.” Lifelong Who fans who want their kids to follow in their footsteps can give them a headstart with the “The Wheels on the Bus: A Day at the Farm.” Roger Daltrey provides the voice of Argon the Dragon, one of several animal characters — Papaya, the fun-loving monkey, and his toucan friend, Mango – who are transported to adventures on a musical bus. The episodes included here are “Fill it Up!,” “A Trip to the Market,” “Guide Dogs” and “A Visit to the Circus.” – Gary Dretzka

Unacceptable Levels
It may come as a shock to anyone born after the nearly universal push for concise labelling of food products and easy availability of healthy meals that there was time when the names of chemicals weren’t listed on every package or can containing edibles. Generally speaking, it wasn’t until after World War II that giant agricultural interests began to use chemicals to rush seasons and create produce that lasts longer on shelves and doesn’t taste nearly as fresh as it did only a few years earlier. Americans took it for granted that those chemicals were safe, because, well, why would anyone want to poison us? Now, with genetically modified produce, the battle over labelling is being fought once again, with giant agri-business concerns once again arguing that the products are so safe that identification isn’t necessary, let alone warnings. Ed Brown’s “Unacceptable Levels” tells us that, on average, we all have more than 232 industrial chemicals floating around in our bodies, with more to come. The science behind the prevention of chemically spurred diseases has, until now, lagged behind the creation of new preservatives and growth hormones. Brown believes that there are ways to reverse the trend. The film is sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council, whose stated mission it is to advance “public policies that foster a vibrant, just and sustainable economy.” – Gary Dretzka

Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again
The Hilltops
Established in 1988, SISU Home Entertainment Inc. markets and distributes Israeli and Jewish videos, audio, books and multimedia properties. The company’s wide variety of products is primarily made available through the SISU/Kol Ami websites or at Judaica shops, major retail stores and websites. In addition to films concerning current events, religion, the Holocaust and other Jewish history, SISU also distributes such titles as “Shalom Sesame,” “Operation Grandma” and “Schmelvis.” Among the titles released this month are “Auf Wiedersehen: ’Til We Meet Again” and “The Hilltops.” The former was inspired by the attacks of 9/11, when the family of Linda G. Mills was threatened by the debris falling from one of the planes that struck the WTC. The experience caused her to plan a trip to Vienna, from which her mother and her parents were forced to leave in 1939. It wasn’t a journey her mother was looking forward to, especially, but Mills felt it was important to revisit events of the past and give her 10-year-old son an opportunity to connect to his roots. While she accomplished those things in the usual way, Mills also learned a great deal about the Anschluss and the relationship between Jewish officials and the Nazi government, none of which was common knowledge. They also met with historians who located records clarifying family history and its ability to escape to the United States, before Hitler ended the extortionist pay-to-flee visa program. Not surprisingly, the 10-year-old got antsy after a couple of days, but even he admitted that he’ll likely see the trip through different eyes as an adult. The extremely well made DVD adds deleted scenes and a seminar held in New York.

I found “The Hilltops” to be a bit more problematic, but only because I’m one of those people who think that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict won’t end until concessions are made by the settlers who’ve illegally taken over hilltops on the West Bank and have no intentions on leaving. The only attempt to balance the discussion is the inclusion of sound bites from a liberal Israeli legislator, who opposes the spread. The cause of her frustration can be easily seen in the hardline tactics of the settlers and rhetoric that practically compares President Obama to Yasser Arafat. I suspect that director Igal Hecht knew better than to play devil’s advocate to the adamantly Zionist settlers, who insist they have God on their side and don’t need anyone else’s permission. So, he didn’t try. The best part of the documentary is the physical perspective we gain by seeing how rugged and otherwise useless the land may be without expensive irrigation systems and an almost constant police presence. It is in direct contrast to other settlements we’ve seen in other parts of Israel, which, by comparison, look downright suburban. I doubt that “The Hilltops” will change anyone’s point of view, one way or the other. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

RoboCop: Blu-ray I wondered if the folks who decided to return to Detroit for the re-staging of “RoboCop,” circa 2028, considered the possibility that Motown may not exist in any recognizable form by then. It barely exists, today. Unless it is declared a welfare state and put under the control of a conservatorship – not unlike our nation’s capital, which benefits from the self-sustaining windbag industry – there will be nothing left to steal or protect, nowhere left to live and nothing left to do. As if to give credence to just such a scenario, Jose Padilha’s futuristic remake of the 1987 sci-fi classic – even then, shot largely in Texas and Pennsylvania — was made entirely in Canada, which, perhaps, could benefit from annexing Detroit as a suburb of Windsor. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, though, that there’s enough left of the city for a cyborgian lawman to save. How, then, does Padilha’s “RoboCop” stand up to Paul Verhoeven’s far more nuanced original? Well, like most other things in life and the cinema, it depends on the beholder. If the storyline doesn’t deviate much from the framework built by writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the script devised by Padilha (“Elite Squad”) and freshman writer Joshua Zetumer substitutes hard-core action and menace for the dark humor and old-fashioned humanity that distinguished Verhoeven’s picture. It doesn’t lack for violence, certainly, even if Padilha was required, against his will, to cut the film for a PG-13 release. Here, Samuel L. Jackson plays a rabble-rousing talk-show blowhard, who shills for OmniCorp, the company financing the RoboCop project. It has been supplying mechanical soldiers to the U.S. military, for its overseas wars, but CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) believes that the future lies in the domestic market. Sellars knows that the populace won’t feel secure, however, unless the computerized cops display human sensitivities. Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman) finds just the right fit in a seriously damaged good-guy cop, Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), who’s none too thrilled to wake up to find himself under the control of the ruthless Sellars. Nonetheless, it’s a human face. The change allowed Padilha to reposition Murphy’s suburban family (Abbie Cornish, John Paul Ruttan) in the narrative, from background to forefront. It probably didn’t matter that critics were split down the middle on the 2014 release, which cost more than $100 million to make and market. (The 1987 model made do on a $13 million budget, returning four times that much to MGM.) What I found interesting, though, was how international audiences saved “RoboCop” from tanking, cornering 75 percent of total revenues of $243 million. Even without counting for inflation, domestic revenues for both the original and remake were practically the same, $53.4 million vs. $58.6 million, making a sequel an iffy proposition. I see no reason why it shouldn’t do just fine in the after-market, though. Jay Baruchel, Jackie Earle Haley and Marianne Jean-Baptiste also play key roles. The Blu-ray offers a superior audio/visual presentation, as well as several deleted scenes and extensive making-of and background material. – Gary Dretzka Lone Survivor: Blu-ray Ride for Lance Ask a firefighter, cop or soldier what prompted him or her to act heroically in a life-or-death situation and the answer almost always will be something like, “I was just doing my job” or “I just did what I was trained to do.” Perhaps, knowing that most Medal of Honor recipients have been killed in the line of duty, they’re content to leave the anointing of heroes to their superiors and politicians. Heroism, itself, is far easier to define and recognize. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about America’s Special Forces, in the last 15 years, at least, it is that the units don’t go into battle anticipating anything beyond what might happen in the next few minutes or hours. Having undergone such an extremely demanding training regimen, practically nothing is left to chance… even while under fire. Typically, too, while the successes of Special Forces teams go unreported, the failures often make headlines. The mission to kill Osama Bin Laden was weighted with such political significance that it became the exception that proved the rule. In 1980, the deaths of eight Americans in the failed attempt to rescue hostages held in the U.S. Embassy by Iranian radicals quickly was overshadowed by finger-pointing and political rhetoric. The first news reports on Operation Red Wings — the failed mission that inspired “Lone Survivor” — focused necessarily on the helicopter being shot down and the deaths of the rescue-team members. More than two years later, after sole survivor Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling account of the mission was published, President Bush posthumously awarded Lt. Michael Murphy the Medal of Honor and the author was given the Navy Cross. Peter Berg’s heart-wrenching film sticks pretty close to Luttrell’s recollection of the doomed mission to eliminate a pro-Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan. I doubt that I’m giving away anything that isn’t already known about “Lone Survivor” by pointing out that Occupation Red Wings was compromised by one of the goatherds whose life was spared in a vote among the SEALs. No sooner was the youngest let go than he scampered down the mountain side to alert the insurgents. If they had killed him or tied him to a tree until the action was completed, it’s possible that the team could have called off the mission and been safely extracted from the landing zone. Even though it takes place less than half-way through the picture, the vote sets up the story’s central moral dilemma: are this country’s rules of engagement realistic in a war such as the one we’re fighting in the mountains of a largely hostile region. Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) has since said that his vote to release the boy was influenced by premonitions of how the “liberal media” would have played imposing on a death sentence on the goatherds. I would think that the prospect of a court-martial would be more frightening, but that’s what happens to your moral compass when you watch too much Fox News. Once the Taliban attack the four-man team, it becomes a moot point. Berg’s dramatization of the combat that quickly follows the identification of the Americans is as exciting as anything I’ve witnessed since “Saving Private Ryan.” It feels as if the confrontation is happening in real time and we can reach out and touch the SEALs, not that it would do anyone any good. After the smoke clears on the mountain, Berg introduces another profile in courage in the person of the Pashtun leader who stood his ground against the insurgents. Relying on centuries of tribal tradition, he risked his life by refusing to hand the American over to them. In such pictures as “The Kingdom” and “Battleship,” Berg has demonstrated that he can create and direct credibly violent and exciting war scenarios. His desire to remain faithful to the book gives us an opportunity to meet the SEAL team members before the action and understand what makes a Special Forces unit tick. By the time the operation begins, we’ve bought in to their devotion to duty and each other. Berg also makes sure we understand that the insurgent leader, Ahmad Shah, is a dangerously violent man, capable of killing innocent villagers to make a point. Unlike other post-Vietnam war movies, “Lone Survivor” doesn’t make a case for the futility of war or challenge the reasons we were in Afghanistan. It’s 2005, after all, and the characters here are doing what needed to be done when the rest of the world was still on our side in the war on terror. If this were a movie set in Iraq, instead, viewers might rightly question whether the life of even one American soldier was worth the entirety of the embattled country and the president’s personal crusade against Saddam Hussein. Politics aren’t discussed much in “Lone Survivor” and that’s a big point in its favor. In a profile included in the Blu-ray package, Luttrell doesn’t point to patriotism as being the key reason for wanting to be a Navy SEAL. He’s always considered himself to be a warrior and that’s what attracted him to Special Forces. Berg personally convinced him of his desire to honor Luddell’s brothers-in-arms. In “The Pashtun Code of Life,” we’re introduced to another real-life hero, Mohamad Gulab, who may have signed his own death warrant by obeying traditional Pashtun principles and saving Luttrell’s life. His ordeal is far from over. Last year, producer and Navy veteran Scott Mactavish released the practically DIY documentary, “Murph: The Protector” to honor Lieutenant Murphy. His act of valor came when he decided to climb back up to the ridge, unprotected, to find reception for the team’s satellite phone. He and Luttrell both knew it was a suicide mission, but kept on picking off as many enemy fighters as possible. The movie relied solely on interviews, re-creations and personal memorabilia to describe the Medal of Honor recipient and act of courage. Mactavish has followed up on that effort with the similarly low-budget, “Ride for Lance,” which describes a 31-day, 12,000-mile motorcycle excursion undertaken by friends and comrades of Chief Petty Officer Lance Vaccaro, a decorated SEAL, killed in a 2008 training exercise. Four riders and a support team made the trek from Virginia Beach to Alaska, all the way accepting donations for the Navy SEAL Foundation. The scenery may be the best thing about “Ride for Lance,” but easily the most heart-warming is the response accorded the riders along the way by vets, average citizens and police and fire officials. If any of them had to pay for a drink or lodging during the trip, I didn’t notice it. – Gary Dretzka Alexander: The Ultimate Cut: 10th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray Riddle me this, Batman: when is the “final cut” version of a DVD not, in fact, the final cut? When Oliver Stone says it isn’t. In addition to the theatrical-, director’s- and final-cut editions of his grand historical epic, we now have the “Ultimate” 10th-anniversary package of “Alexander.” It’s even been collected on Blu-ray alongside “300” and “Troy.” A few studios, notably Disney, routinely send out different editions of the same movie, adding a feature or two to entice fans. Depending on whose article one reads, “Alexander” has been released at lengths of 167, 175, 206, 213 and 220 minutes, although only three of those appear to be valid. It’s no secret that Stone felt rushed by studio demands for the picture and a firm deadline or that he couldn’t wait to add to re-edit it to his own specifications for DVD. Curiously, though, the original director’s-cut edition came in eight minutes shorter than the theatrical release. Likewise, the 2007 “Final Cut” is about six minutes longer than the new “Ultimate” set. But, who’s counting, right? Suffice it to say that Stone appears to be satisfied at its current length, which restores some philosophical discussion with Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) and additional homo-erotic references. Three-and-a-half hours spent in anyone’s company can prove taxing and Alexander the Great is no exception. What was good-to-great in the theatrical version remains the same today and the new stuff looks OK, too. Even so, the restored material is likely to be best appreciated by fresher eyes than mine. I kept looking for the changes and it made a long movie longer. There’s nothing wrong with the Blu-ray presentation and that should come as good news to people who need an excuse for revisiting “Alexander.” Also included are an introduction by Stone; 40-page booklet with concept drawings, storyboards and behind-the-scenes photos; collectible packaging; correspondence memos between Stone and the cast and crew; a new documentary, “The Real Alexander and the World He Made”; commentaries by Oliver Stone and historian Robin Lane Fox; the original theatrical version and commentary; Sean Stone’s feature-length making-of documentary, “Fight Against Time: Oliver Stone’s ‘Alexander’”; and “Vangelis Scores ‘Alexander’.” – Gary Dretzka Black Out: Blu-ray Anyone able to erase the memory of 15 years’ worth of Guy Ritchie miscues, along with dozens of anemic attempts to copy “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch” by lesser directors, might find something fresh and exotic in “Black Out.” (Just try to forget he was married to Madonna and directed her in the “Swept Away” remake.) Everyone else, I’m afraid, will see it as just another apple that fell too close to the tree. Don’t get me wrong, though, the Rotterdam-set crime story has many redeeming qualities. In his first feature for mature audiences, Dutch director Arne Toonen used a novel by fellow countryman Gerben Hellinga as the foundation for “Black Out.” So it’s possible, I suppose, that the novelist owes more to Ritchie than does Toonen. How does one say, “moot point,” in Dutch? The basic story involves an amnesic crook, Jos, who can’t remember picking up 20 kilos of cocaine from a smuggler, let alone how he could have paid for it or delivering it to someone other than an octogenarian crime boss, who’s near death and confined to a wheelchair. There’s also the matter of a fortune in Eurodollars that’s missing and presumed forgotten by Jos, as well. To avoid being killed on the eve of his wedding, Jos and a burly buddy pay call on all of the unusual suspects in the port city to pick their brains and pockets. Besides Grandpa, they include a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet turned kick-boxer, a bowling center operator, a woman who’s adept at guessing the purity of cocaine by touch, a Surinamese dog groomer, his finance’s corrupt father, the operator of the Cowboy Disco and, best of all, sexy female ninjas Petra and Charity. As imagined by Katja ad Birgit Schuurman, the tattooed enforcers need wield only a fireman’s ax and cricket bat to make their points. Otherwise, “Black Out” overflows with Ritchie-esque ultra-violence, cleverly rendered profanity, loud music and enough backstabbing and double-crosses to fill a dozen homages to “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” The Blu-ray adds a blooper reel, photo gallery and comic short, “Oh, Deer,” also by Toonen. As ragged as “Black Out” is, I’d watch it again just to see Petra and Charity. – Gary Dretzka Clockwork Orange County Of all the places in America for a virulent strain of punk rock to take root in the late-1970s, SoCal’s Orange County was one of the least likely. Former President Richard Nixon still lived on its southern tip and the residents’ dedication to suburban values was unequaled in the U.S. If the Flower Power and antiwar movements failed to make a dent in Orange County complacency, a different kind of youth-quake was on the horizon in the mid-1970s. Kids who were bullied for their non-conformist ideas and unconventional appearance began to find each other in school, at the beach and other places that they could drink, smoke, show off their tattoos and get pierced in peace. The “skate punk” movement was already in full swing and the increasingly violent “surf Nazi” crowd was threatening to turn public beaches into war zones. Mostly, though, kids just wanted to have fun and there was only one place that allowed them to head-bang to songs that matched their outsider attitudes. Appropriately, it was a Costa Mesa nightclub, the Cuckoo’s Nest, that booked the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, T.S.O.L and didn’t mind taking money from kids who preferred slam-dancing and stage-diving to whatever was being shown on “Soul Train.” The exposure that bands received at the Cuckoo’s Nest sometimes put them on a fast track to national attention, even if the money didn’t always match the energy exerted on the dance floor. The more popular the club got, however, the more it became infested with addicts, overly aggressive lunatics and tailgaters, hoping to save some money by getting drunk in the parking lot. This led to all sorts of problems, including fights between the punks and patrons of the “cowboy” bar, down the road. Not surprisingly, then, “Clockwork Orange County” will be of interest primarily to those who still enjoy the music or remember the nightclub. It features interviews, then and now, with many of the musicians and fans who put the place on the map. – Gary Dretzka Ravenous: Blu-ray Parts Per Billion: Blu-ray Death Bed: The Bed That Eats: Blu-ray How many times have you been warned about eating a big meal before watching a particularly gory movie? Typically, such talk only enhances our appetites for mayhem that rarely lives up to the hype. “Ravenous” is the only movie I can recall where the admonishment actually holds water. And, yes, we’re talking about cannibalism here. As unappetizing as it might be, Antonia Bird’s quasi-Western is set among some of the most beautiful scenery that Slovakia and Durango have to offer. It also features a cast that, in 1999, was built to sell tickets. It included Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, John Spencer and Neal McDonough. Pearce plays an army officer who experienced a spot of bother in our war with Mexico and developed a nasty habit. Somehow, though, he managed to capture a Mexican command post, for which he was given a promotion. His reward was being posted in a fort high in the Sierra Nevada range, which for several winter months is impassable. Pearce’s Captain John Boyd may look as if he’s just gone 10 rounds with a rabid bear, but he’s Robert Redford in “Jerimiah Johnson” compared with the rest of the soldiers stationed there. Carlyle plays a Scottish stranger, who after being treated for frostbite, tells a story about the leader of a group of settlers who lured members of his party into caves when the snows came. When the soldiers investigate the claim, they get a lesson in extreme dining. By now, though, “Ravenous” still has a long way to go. In addition to cannibalism, screenwriter Ted Griffin borrows from the Wendigo legend to give a spiritual twist to the proceedings. Despite the excellent cast, the movie didn’t make a lot of money at the box office. Perhaps, if the producers built an outdoor theater and showed it to tourists at the Donner Summit campground, they’d have made a fortune. The Blu-ray includes a new interview with actor Jeffrey Jones; commentaries with Bird and composer Damon Albarn, Griffin and Jones, and Carlyle; deleted scenes with Bird’s commentary; and two still galleries of the costume and production design. Brian Horiuchi’s freshman feature, “Parts Per Billion,” is another picture whose cast couldn’t save it from straight-to-PPV oblivion. The “On the Beach” approach to apocalyptical drama doesn’t quite work here, as airborne biological toxins slowly make their way from the Middle East to Michigan and a bunch of people who can only sit and wait for the curtain to drop on their lives. Among actors involved here are Josh Hartnett, Teresa Palmer, Alexis Bledel, Rosario Dawson, Penn Badgley, Hill Harper and the always welcome Gena Rowlands and Frank Langella. The deeper drama involves three couples desperate to keep love alive, even under such extreme conditions. I hate to say it, but this is one post-apocalypse movie that could use some zombies. Also set in Detroit, well before the economic collapse, is George Barry’s one and only gift to the cinematic gods. “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats” is so unbelievably strange and poorly made that it cries out to be seen by cultists, if no one else. And, yet, here “Death Bed” is, 37 years later and in Blu-ray, no less. Actually, it might be even older than that. Legend has it that Barry’s film was shot in 1972, but the answer print wasn’t struck until six years later. Barry had pretty much forgotten he’d made the movie until 2003, when he discovered that bootleg copies of “Death Bed” had been circulating and it had developed a fan base. He then decided to put it out officially on DVD, with a bonus package that rivals any assembled by Criterion Collection. The story is set in a stone outbuilding of a crumbling estate outside Detroit. The only piece of furniture is a large four-post bed with a crimson cover. There’s also an Aubrey Beardsley painting that carries a supernatural charge. As the title suggests, anyone who sits on the bed gets devoured by it, especially if they’re partially naked actresses. It’s nuts … truly nuts … but in a good way. Inexplicably, independent distributors Cult Epics and Olive Films have decided to invest even more money into “Death Bed,” in the form of a new HD transfer; introductions and commentaries by Stephen Thrower, author of “Nightmare USA,” and Barry; a conversation between Thrower and Barry on horror films of the 1970s and 1980s; a new behind-the-scenes featurette; and original “Death Bed” music track. – Gary Dretzka We Always Lie to Strangers: The Incredible True Story of Branson, Missouri When I saw the title to this documentary about a town that could only exist in America, I expected an expose of the family-values dodge or a snotty putdown of an entertainment mecca that caters to men and women who haven’t boogied since Lawrence Welk died. They used to say the same thing about Las Vegas, too, but, this time, it’s true. Instead, A.J. Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s “We Always Lie to Strangers” examines how a remote Ozark Mountain town prospers by providing stages for entertainers too old to draw flies in Las Vegas or, even, Nashville. More than 7.5 million tourists visit Branson a year, generating some $3 billion in annual tourism revenue. Unlike Las Vegas and Nashville, however, the year-round population is just north of 10,000 people, almost all of whom owe their living to the entertainment and tourism industries. Besides such well-known performers as Andy Williams, Tony Orlando and Yakov Smirnoff, who have permanent theaters in town, Branson is home to more than 100 song-and-dance stages. (There’s small cemetery’s worth of tribute shows dedicated to departed country legends.) It almost goes without saying that none of the productions dare allow naughty language, nudity, gambling or political jokes that might alternately offend Republicans and Democrats. It isn’t unusual for a show to end with a gospel medley or salute to our armed forces. Not everyone comes to Branson for the shows or even the family values. It’s located in a beautiful corner of the country, where outdoors sports, zip lines, mini-golf, fishing and other more-or-less healthy activities can be enjoyed. There are a lot worse places to be stuck than Branson, even if one isn’t yet eligible for Social Security. That’s the good news, though. The bad news is that family values, alone, can’t keep Branson safe from the economic realities of the rest of the world. Again, like Vegas, it has been hit hard by the cutback in tourism by financially endangered Americans. Unlike Vegas, though, I doubt it has much of an international audience to compensate for the losses. It’s the trickle-down effect of a crippled economy that impacts the people we meet here most. “We Always Lie to Strangers” introduces us to the Presley and Lennon families, whose must-see productions embody everything there is to like in Branson … if you like that kind of stuff. As popular as their shows have been, the entertainers can’t escape the slow economy and drop in state support for tourism. It isn’t unusual to find performers, in costume, hustling coupons to tourists. Still, like troupers everywhere, they go on with the shows. I wondered if the filmmakers were going to address the elephant in the room, which is the town’s disproportionately large gay population. As is pointed out by one of the male dancers in a popular show, Branson probably is the most gay-friendly place of its size and location in the country. Take away the gays and no one would be left to entertain the paying customers. As long as couples don’t flaunt their affection on Main Street, everything’s copacetic. Their everyday problems, however, are only slightly more pronounced than others interviewed. “We Always Lie to Strangers” has a pleasant home-spun quality to it and the people chosen to represent the town and cross-section of its residents have plenty of worthwhile things to say. One divorced dancer with an unreliable baby-sitter even allows herself to cuss when shit happens, but only off-stage. – Gary Dretzka Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton Breaking Through As an admirer of the Beat writers and many experimental filmmakers, I suppose that I should have heard about James Broughton before watching “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” the celebratory bio-doc produced by Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon. A square peg almost from birth, the Modesto-born poet and filmmaker was a poet and filmmaker (a.k.a., “father of West Coast independent cinema”) whose ecstatic approach to life and the arts was as infectious as it was entertaining. His influence can be traced back to the post-WWII San Francisco renaissance, which, in turn, directly influenced the Beats and hippies, the gay-liberation movement and Radical Faeries (a group that rejects assimilation into mainstream society by gays and lesbians). He also was a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an activist and social-welfare organization comprised of “queer nuns.” Not one to limit his choices, Broughton once lived with Berkeley film critic and future New Yorker writer Pauline Kael and, in 1962, married artist and designer Suzanna Hart, with whom he brought two children onto this Earth. He considered himself to be married to one of his male partners, at least. Broughton’s poetry celebrated his expansive views on sexuality and life, in general. The poems we remember are playful and display a child-like quality in the manipulation of words and phrases. The film’s title defines his approach to life, which he synopsized as being, “follow your own weird.” “Big Joy” features interviews with colleagues, friends, relatives and lovers, plus images from his films. I don’t know if anyone’s dedicated a street in Broughton’s name, but it’s entirely possible that, without his presence, San Francisco might not have become the wildly diverse and hugely entertaining city that it is today. The DVD adds more interviews and background material. At 85 minutes, “Breaking Through” overplays its hand by a good half-hour. This isn’t to infer that its message wears thin over time or the un-closeted politicians Cindy Abel interviews here are dull, only that watching and listening to anyone discuss themselves in mostly static poses can grow tiresome. Even so, an hour spent in the company of openly LGBT elected officials – from the first openly gay U.S. senator, Tammy Baldwin, to local officials in unlikely districts – is an hour well-spent. These are men and women, who, after all, were required to convince voters and themselves that sexual preference should be an irrelevant consideration in politics and public service. In fact, self-doubt was the toughest barrier to be overcome by LGBT candidates. And, yes, in addition to “L” and “G” office-holders, we also meet those of the “B” and “T” persuasion. While dry, Abel’s first feature-length documentary is uplifting and encouraging as it pertains to acceptance at the polls. It was shot before things got really ugly in the wake of Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, so we miss some perspective there. – Gary Dretzka Son of God: Blu-ray It’s always fun to watch mainstream critics tie themselves in knots when putting a beat-down on movies that deal with issues near and dear to the hearts of many readers or demand a politically correct approach to the subject matter. This certainly applies to movies that depict accepted religious beliefs and revered historical figures, ranging from Mother Teresa and Jesus Christ to the prophet Muhammad and Moses. In the first century of cinema, studios have been every bit as circumspect in their portrayals and interpretations of Hebrew and Christian bibles and the Koran. I mean, why bother? While historical and literary purists have been known to angrily criticize Hollywood revisionism, it’s the devotedly religious constituency that can kill a movie’s box-office potential. The Monty Python gang milked the controversy surrounding “Life of Brian” for all it was worth, while Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” took its message directly to the demographic group most likely to create buzz for a religious movie. In both cases, the strategy worked. Despite some heated discussions about what some critics saw as gratuitously torturous material and anti-Semitic propaganda, Gibson basically trumped the reviewers. On the flip side, Martin Scorsese’s critically lauded “The Last Temptation of Christ” became as controversial as the book upon it was based. Nikos Kazantzakis’ intensely thoughtful novel was loudly condemned as blasphemous by religious leaders and pundits, who, of course, hadn’t read the book or conferred with its defenders. Universal didn’t accede to demands that the movie be pulled from circulation, but threats of violence and government action in some countries gave the studio pause when it came to marketing the picture, which it tagged with a lame cautionary note. Potential audiences also were intimidated by the protests. It’s been reported that Universal agreed to finance the project as long Scorsese agreed to make “Cape Fear,” in return. In this case, the victory went to those who prefer the Jesus-on-black-velvet approach to the crucifixion. In February, Christopher Spencer’s “Son of God” made a substantial return on investment by sticking to the least controversial interpretation of the New Testament possible. The feature-length film, Spencer’s first, was cobbled together from material included in or deleted from the hit History Channel mini-series, “The Bible.” Even playing it safe proved risky for the producers, however. During mini-series’ run, some viewers took to the Internet to question why Satan bore a distinct resemblance to President Obama. Exec-producers Mark Burnett and Rona Downey, who presumably would have no reason to add such a contentious element to their highly anticipated project, emphatically denied the charge. By this time, however, right-wing radio nuts picked up on the rumors and decided there was mileage there to be gained. By the time “Son of God” was released into DVD/Blu-ray, however, Satan had been “cast out” of the movie. Downey said it was done to put the focus on Jesus. This, of course, prompted no-nothing pundits to suggest that Obama, himself, forced the excision. “Son of God” received reviews that largely argued that, despite the earnestness of everyone involved, the movie … well … sort of … sucked. I didn’t think it was as bad as all that, really. My primary objection derives from the casting of Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado as the leading man. In their effort to make Jesus more “human,” for contemporary audiences, the producers cast someone who could be a mid-fielder for a Lisbon soccer team or Brad Pitt’s body-double. His turning out of the tax collectors in the temple had all the gravity of a player disputing a yellow-card penalty. For those who prefer their Jesus Lite, however, “Son of God” seems perfectly agreeable. Still, I wondered how it managed to gross $60 million, against a production budget of $22 million, when most of the material was already available via History Channel sources. An answer may have been revealed in the making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes in the Blu-ray package. Powerful church leaders Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., among them, show up in set visits or singing the movie’s praises in interviews. They and other “megachurch” founders subsequently vowed to take over the nation’s megaplexes upon its opening on February 28, purchasing tickets and gobbling down popcorn. Beyond that, who knows? – Gary Dretzka Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time: Blu-ray If anyone could make the genesis of a 50-year-old television show entertaining, it’s the BBC. Of course, “Doctor Who” isn’t just any BBC series. What began as an experiment rapidly evolved into a national phenomenon and, eventually, a worldwide cult sensation. It has survived several hiatuses and cast upheavals and may, today, be enjoying its highest level of popularity. 2013 was filled with programming related to the remarkable longevity of the show and hubbub surrounding the abdication of Matt Smith, as the 11th Doctor, and coronation of his successor, Peter Capaldi. Among the other goodies included in the celebration was the 90-minute “Doctor Who: An Adventure in Space & Time,” which aired near the end of November around the globe. It describes how, in 1963, the BBC’s then-head of drama, Sydney Newman (Brian Cox) was assigned the task of coming up with a show that would carry viewers from earlier day parts to the older-skewing portion of the schedule, without losing most of its younger audience. Newman decided to attempt a sci-fi series, but absent most of the clichés of the genre. He took another risk by asking Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) to be his producer. Both choices were greeted with disdain by BBC veterans, who resisted taking orders from a woman and wasting their precious brain cells on fantasy. Her biggest challenge, though, turned out to be the casting of the first Doctor, whose personality and cleverness would go a long way toward dictating the show’s success. In the cranky veteran thespian William Hartnell (David Bradley), they felt as if they had made the right choice. He had his doubts, of course, but raised them mostly to his wife, who was quite used to such anguished self-examination. On the set, his near-tyrannical behavior made him few friends. It wasn’t until after Opening Night, when the boffo ratings were revealed, that everyone could breathe easily. What’s remarkable about this production is how it reflects the complete change of attitude in everyone involved, when their worst fears weren’t realized. Overnight, cast and crew became a team. Hartnell, for one, can’t believe that children come up to him in public, asking for autographs. Three years later, he will have to come to grips with the serious disease that is ruining his memory and complicating his performance. Bradley is terrific in demonstrating Hartnell’s emotional roller-coaster ride. The Blu-ray package is worth the price of admission, alone, as it includes the first “Doctor Who” serial and pilot, “An Unearthly Child”; “The Making of an Adventure in Space and Time”; “William Hartnell: The Original”; “Regeneration: Doctors 1, 2 and 3,” re-cast; “Reconstruction: Four Sequences”; David Bradley’s “Farewell” and “Christmas Greeting”; a titles sequence; and deleted scene, “Delia Derbyshire.” – Gary Dretzka TV-to-DVD USA: Graceland: The Complete First Season TNT: Falling Skies: The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray ABC Family: Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season New Adventures of Superman/JLA Adventures PBS: Nova: Inside Animal Minds PBS: Nature: Snow Monkeys PBS: Nature: My Bionic Pet PBS: Frontline: TB Silent Killer If, like me, you were turned off by the idea of watching another TV series set in Memphis or involving a P.I. who wears a jump suit with a large thunderbird embroidered on it in sequins, you might have bailed on the latest USA Network series, “Graceland.” (I mourned the cancellation of “Memphis Beat,” but one was enough.) Instead, “Graceland” is set in an expensive beachfront house, within a short drive to LAX. It was confiscated from a drug kingpin and repurposed as a co-habitual residence for undercover agents of DEA, FBI and U.S. Customs Agency. Naturally, extremely attractive men and women share the plush crash pad, setting up myriad possible story arcs and potentially lethal relationships. And, yes, surfing is an integral part of the bonding process. Among the criminal activities to be eradicated are drug smuggling, parrot smuggling and Levis smuggling, street gangs, cartels, Russian gangsters, pot farmers and a possible turncoat in their midst. You know, the usual stuff. Heading into Season One, the best thing going for “Graceland” was the participation of Jeff Eastin, who wrote and exec-produced “White Collar.” In my opinion, “Graceland” doesn’t measure up to “White Collar,” which benefitted from its sly humor, compelling characters and interesting crime-solving. The cable-ready hotness of the actors, including Aaron Tveit, Daniel Sunjata, Manny Montana, Vanessa Ferlito and Serinda Swan, is an asset. Once one gets past the missing-Elvis thing, it’s much easier to enjoy “Graceland,” which benefits greatly from some L.A. locations we haven’t seen for a while. Season Two begins next week. In the weekly battle between apocalypse survivors and giant metallic space invaders on “Falling Skies,” the storylines have begun to crash into each other and it’s gotten far more difficult to take sides. If it weren’t for the presence of Noah Wylie – all “ER” vets get the benefit of the doubt in this column – I still wouldn’t be able to discern the protagonist from the antagonist. The same confusion now occurs when I watch shows and movies about zombies. They’re only doing what comes naturally, after all. In Season Three, the Second Mass of aliens has taken root in Charleston and the survivors’ newly elected president, Tom (Wylie), would like nothing more than to spoil the upcoming anniversary of aliens’ arrival. One way of doing it is to shut down the power source that allows the “skitters,” “mechs” and “Espheni” to counter the human resistance. Meanwhile, power struggles continue to threaten the coalition and some begin to mistrust the Volms’ motives. Paying attention to detail is definitely a pre-requisite for enjoying “Falling Skies.” A scorecard would be even more helpful. The thing I appreciate most about the new “Pretty Little Liars: The Complete Fourth Season” DVD is the featurette in which all of the storylines and mysteries are traced back to Day One. It allowed me to understand what all the fuss is about surrounding the red coat and snail-paced progress in the murder investigation, among other things. Although the show is adapted from Sara Shepard’s series of YA novels, it is better described as “Desperate Housewives” for teenage girls, as one critic put it. There’s a major twist in the murder storyline at midseason that puts everything that’s gone before it into question and adds several new suspects to the mix, including MILF moms and other adults. Blessedly, the girls still look good doing whatever they’re doing, instead of studying, and they never have to worry about wearing the same outfit twice. Another thing I don’t understand is how a kissy-face lesbian relationship got past the censors at ABC Family. Either someone is asleep at the switch or no one cares, which is OK with me. They can scrap the whole TV-ratings charade, for all I care. The extras include featurettes, “Unhooding Red Coat: Alison Is Alive!,” “Confessions of ‘A’ Liar” and “Pretty Little Scenes,” the bonus-recap episode and deleted scenes. In 2007, the first season of “The New Adventures of Superman” was released on DVD by Warner Home Video and, ever since, fans of the animated series from 1966-69 have anxiously awaited the release of the next two seasons of the Filmation series. The segments were excised from the Saturday-morning shows the Man of Steel shared with Aquaman, Batman and Superboy, Game-show veteran Bud Collyer supplied his voice, if not the likeness, while Ted Knight provided the narration. If the animation looks primitive, well, everything did in 1966. Compare it to “JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time,” which is “2001: A Space Odyssey” compared to “New Adventures of Superman.” It’s also a million times more complex. The 52-minute feature is as much about Lex Luthor as the Justice League, in that he plans to take over the world by expanding the polar ice caps (which should really confuse the deniers of global warming). Incredibly, Luther turns up a thousand years later in the Legion of Superheroes’ Museum, where he’s privy to all of the secrets of 21st Century superheroes. After being accidentally sprung, he time-travels back to the present, ready and able to destroy Our Hero. This week’s package from PBS is heavy on animal-related shows. “Inside Animal Minds” is a three-part, 180-minute documentary that explores how animals understand the world around them and learn to react to things that happen in certain patterns, shapes and speeds in common ways. It employs dogs, birds and dolphins to make some fascinating points. The “Nature” presentation “Snow Monkeys” takes us to Japan’s Shiga Highlands, where a troop of snow monkeys – yes, the ones that bask contentedly in the hot springs in frigid weather – is learning to adjust to the complex society of rank and privilege under a relatively new boss monkey. Also from “Nature,” “My Bionic Pet” describes how modern prosthetics, some developed to assist wounded soldiers, are being used to put injured animals back on their feet, fins, flippers, tails and beaks. Cures thought impossible only a few years ago soon could be commonplace. From “Frontline” comes “TB Silent Killer,” documents how tuberculosis has returned with a vengeance in countries already ravaged by disease. The virulent strains now emerging are drug-resistant and spread without warning. We meet some of the victims. – Gary Dretzka Kissing Jessica Stein: Blu-ray The Birdcage: Blu-ray The Ringer: Blu-ray These very different comedies arrive on Blu-ray alongside a wave of other Fox anniversary titles. Released in 2001, “Kissing Jessica Stein” became a surprise indie hit, opening the door to other movies that treated lesbians as something other than deviants and/or victims of abusive relatives. Light and up-to-date, it told the story of New York journalist Jessica (Jennifer Westfeldt), who grows weary of trying to find “Mr. Right” through the usual channels and decides to answer an ad for a roommate-with-benefits from the far more worldly Helen (Heather Juergensen), who’s recently made it known that she’s strictly clitly. They become fast friends and almost lovers, but Jessica has a difficult time cutting the cord from her suburban Jewish family. “Kissing Jessica Stein” was very well received, even from those feminists and lesbians who would have preferred a less traditional ending. In my opinion, I think that the movie may inadvertently have unlocked the door for dozens of closeted actors, executives and writers in Hollywood, as well as characters languishing in unmade screenplays. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes; commentaries by director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld and Lawrence Sher, and Juergensen and Westfeldt; outtakes and original ending; and a behind-the-scenes featurette. I wonder if RuPaul would have become an international superstar if it weren’t for the success of “The Birdcage” and the French movie from which it was adapted, “La Cage aux Folles.” Drag queens now seem to be as hard to miss on cable TV as any of the Kardashians. Like “Kissing Jessica Stein,” after it, “The Birdcage” probably opened the door to a better understanding of divergent lifestyles for mainstream audiences. It’s pretty hard to hate on cross-dressers and same-sex marriages when you’re rolling on the floor laughing at Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. Mike Nichols’ version of the story played for the big laughs more than Édouard Molinaro’s original, but that certainly didn’t bother American audiences. There are no bonus features included on the Blu-ray. Although the fingerprints of Peter and Bobby Farrelly are all over “The Ringer,” their role is officially listed as producers only. Who else, after a seven-year search, could find financing for a movie about a plot to fix the Special Olympics? (It sounds funnier on paper than what appears on screen.) The gag here involves Johnnie Knoxville’s character, who, after some bizarre complications, agrees to help himself and his mobbed-up uncle (Brian Cox) raise money to pay off heavy debts. Instead of scamming the Special Olympics contestants into gold medals and glory, the athletes upstage him at every turn. I’m not sure how many of the characters were played by special-needs actors, but I recognized several that weren’t. Given the Farrellys’ well-earned reputation, “The Ringer” could have been a lot crueler toward the Special Olympics, but the movie’s mushy center rescues it. – Gary Dretzka Sugar Cookies: Blu-ray Baby Rosemary/Hot Lunch 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Volume 2 Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle/Office Love: Behind Closed Doors Written and produced by a pre-Troma Lloyd Kaufman and starring cult favorites Lynn Lowry and Mary Woronov, “Sugar Cookies” is one of the soft-core classics from the early-1970s. Lowry, who, a decade later, would be mauled and jizzed upon by a black panther in “Cat People,” plays the dual role of seriously endangered actresses, Alta and Lowry. No longer in the Andy Warhol repertory company, Woronov plays the corrupt manager who shills for a sleazy sex-film producer. Kaufman and director Theodore Gershuny (Woronov’s then-husband) were shooting for something that might remind grindhouse audiences of a Hitchcock thriller. On a budget that might have maxxed-out at $10,000, in 1973 dollars, it couldn’t have afforded Hitch’s monthly cigar allotment. Nonetheless for really cheap skin-tacular thrills, it’s hard to beat. Look for guest appearances by Ondine, Monique van Vooren and porn superstar Jennifer Welles. Vinegar Syndrome sends it out with a fresh 4K polish, interviews with Kaufman, Lowry and Woronov, and vintage trailers. Also from Vinegar Syndrome comes the “Peekarama” double-feature, “Baby Rosemary” (1976) and “Hot Lunch” (1978), vintage titles that are far more interesting for who’s in them than any story that director John Hayes was trying to tell. “Baby Rosemary,” a supernatural romp in which “no” never means “no,” future Hall of Fame porn star John Leslie is still going by John Leslie Dupré. He’s joined by Sharon Thorpe and newcomers Candida Royalle (then Royale) and Leslie Bovee. In “Hot Lunch,” the name game is even crazier. Male lead Jon Martin goes by Jerry Heath; Sharon Kane is Sheri Vaughan; Juliet “Aunt Peg” Anderson is Alice Rigby; and Desiree Cousteau is Desirée Costeau. For these future headliners, “Hot Lunch” was only their second porn credit. Both titles have been restored in 2k from the camera negative, original theatrical trailers, and alternate scenes from “Hot Lunch.” The second release in Impulse’s “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” clocks in at an impressive 129 minutes of pure raunch, with a heavier emphasis on girl-girl action than in “Volume 1.”  Among the 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, are some featuring uncredited performances by Desiree Cousteau, Candida Royalle, Chris Cassidy and John Holmes. Liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie are included in the package. The latest entries from the Nikkatsu Erotic Films Collection feature women who use their wiles to get ahead in their chosen fields, yet pine for the men who ushered them into womanhood. Although there are nods to feminism here and there, none would have been strong enough to give the average Japanese perv in the early- to mid-1980s pause. In “Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle,” Junko Asahina plays Kei, the captain of the Kara Cosmetics Company’s rhythmic gymnastics team, which is about to compete in an important corporate tournament. When Aoki (Funasaku Sasairi) is brought in as their new coach and is required to work alongside his former lover, Kei, he turns into an impotent wreck. The last time Aoki slept with Kei before a competition, she lost, and that’s not an acceptable option at this level. When the corporate executives suspect he may be gay, they treat him with the same courtesy as they show to their female employees, which is to say, none. In “Office Love: Behind Closed Doors,” an old lover also returns to haunt up-and-coming travel executive Reiko (Akasaka Rei), who’s given the key to her Tokyo apartment to the three men she calls boss. Things get really weird when her now-married ex-boyfriend tries to insinuate himself back into her life and a subordinate takes a shine to her, as well. (Oh, yeah, Reiko also does a bit of escorting on the side, but with western businessmen.) When her bosses figure out that they’re being used by Reiko, she uses her humiliation to destroy two other men in her circle, while also getting her rocks off. The Impulse DVDs contain essays on the individual filmmakers and actors. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

The People vs Paul Crump
Back in 1962, when William Friedkin completed his searing indictment of the death penalty, “The People vs. Paul Crump,” few people believed that police routinely used brutality and torture to coerce confessions from possibly innocent men. When the issue was raised in Chicago, anyway, citizens and journalists, alike, chose to believe police spokesmen and the State’s Attorney Office as to the veracity of the claims. To do otherwise would have eroded the citizenry’s faith in the democratic systems, while making all public institutions suspect. In Chicago, where corrupt and power-made politicians have always enjoyed the benefit of a doubt, mainstream voters (a.k.a., white) only began to doubt the invincibility of the mayor and police after the Walker Report declared the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention a “police riot.” Even if they’d witnessed it for itself on television, or knew young people bludgeoned in Lincoln and Grant Park, doubters could be swayed into believing that “outside agitators” were to blame for their city’s black eye. A year after the convention, Chicagoans allowed themselves to accept reports that Illinois Black Panther Party members Fred Hampton and Mark Clark Less were killed by police acting in self-defense during an early-morning raid. That claim proved not to be true, as well. It was officially sanctioned murder, pure and simple. It took another 20-plus years for a case to come along that proved inconclusively what community activists, lawyers and victims had been arguing all along. In 1993, police detective Jon Graham Burge would be fired after the Police Department Review Board ruled that he had used torture to force confessions from as many as 200 criminal suspects, between 1972 and 1991. In the past, such charges were ignored by people who argued “they must have been guilty of something.” Here, though, the fallout eventually led to tens of millions of tax dollars in legal fees and settlements; dozens of new trials and reversed decisions; and, finally, concern over the very real possibility that innocent men were sitting on Death Row. By 2003, so many flaws in the system were discovered that outgoing Republican Governor George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 prisoners … just in case. It wasn’t until January, 2011, however, that Burge – now a pensioner, living in Florida – was sentenced to 4½ years in federal prison on two counts of obstruction of justice and one count of perjury. The statute of limitations on the brutality charges had long expired.

In “The People vs. Paul Crump,” future Academy Award-winning director Friedkin (“French Connection”) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bill Butler (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) made a strong case for the possibility that a man on who already had been sitting on Death Row for the last nine years was convicted based on a confession had come after being beaten and tortured for several days. We learn that Crump unsuccessfully contended that he had been sleeping with a woman not his wife at the same time as a security guard was killed in the armed robbery of a Chicago meatpacking plant. Four men known to have been involved in the crime were given prison sentences, perhaps for implicating Crump in the shooting. Fifteen dates with Old Sparky would come and go by the time Crump’s sentence was commuted to 199 years by Governor Otto Kerner. He would be paroled in 1993 and imprisoned once again in an unrelated case. He died of cancer in 2002. “People vs. Crump” was deemed too controversial to air on Chicago television and has been shown only a handful of times since 1962. It was credited, along with Crump’s autobiographical novel (“Burn, Killer, Burn”) and a Life magazine article, for convincing Kerner that there was at least a reasonable doubt as to his guilt and the confession might have been forcibly obtained. After watching the nicely upgraded DVD from Facets, I think that most viewers would come away with the same conclusion. In his interviews with Friedkin, Crump is most eloquent in his description of what life is like for a doomed prisoner, especially those who have come within minutes of having the switch to the electric charge pulled on them. The robbery, arrests and beatings were dramatized in ways that purists argue aren’t kosher, but no one can dispute the diversity of sources questioned by the Chicago Daily News-columnist John Justin Smith. Based on cinematic values, alone, it isn’t at all difficult to believe that Friedkin and Butler might someday create stylish thrillers and procedurals. It moves with same urgency and purpose of a good crime novel. The film is part of the Reel Chicago series of Chicago-based documentaries restored and released through Facets Video. A booklet expands on the principles’ lives after 1962. – Gary Dretzka

Claire Is Dead
Dan Ast’s first feature combines mystery and melodrama to demonstrate just how wrong things can go when teenagers play with fire before learning that it can burn their fingers and singe their heart. It’s something everyone figures out, at one time or another, usually too late. Being young only makes the lesson that much more painful or confusing, as the case may be. In “Claire Is Dead,” there’s no question that the titular protagonist is dead or, even, how it happened. Indeed, it occurred in the most despicable of all possible ways. Claire, a junior in high school, was killed by a drunk driver minutes before the flower of her womanhood was about to blossom. To make matters worse, the jerk attempts to crash the funeral and continues to drink and drive. But, that’s not what makes “Claire Is Dead” tick. Not long after her death, the school’s Golden Boy begins to sense that Claire’s trying to reach out to them from the grave. Although they had never really met and Jack couldn’t pick her picture out from a yearbook, he noticed that someone named Claire signed his cast after he was seriously injured in a football game. Her name also appears on a get-well card. The more curious Jack becomes about her identity, the more he comes to believe that she was, at the very least, stalking him. These clues lead to others that not only seem to confirm that theory, but also suggest that someone is covering up something that might explain how Claire came to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. His investigation takes a hard right turn into the existential when Jack’s obsession begins to impact people in his and Claire’s social circle. Writer/director Ast keeps us guessing throughout “Claire Is Dead,” revealing only what we need to know to get sucked deeper into the mystery. Nor has he torn a page from Rian Johnson’s highly entertaining high-school noir, “Brick,” turning Jack into a mini-Sam Spade. The young cast is very good, even if the actors look as if they haven’t stepped into a high school since their 10-year reunion. It stars Aidan Bristow, Cory Driscoll, Avital Ash, Jennifer Baule, Landon Ashworth, Tybee Diskin, Carolina Castro and Corsica Wilson. They should be with us a long while. – Gary Dretzka

Broken Side of Time
24 Exposures
Among the things in porn that haven’t gone south in the last few years – financially, anyway – is fetish-specific modeling. That’s what I’m told, anyway. The more specific the kink, the less likely it is to be available for free and without a password on the many video-sharing sites. Fetish art probably can be traced back to Pompeii, if not Paleolithic cave drawings. The roots of model Jane/Dolce (Lynn Mancinelli), the protagonist in “Broken Side of Time,” need only be traced to Bettie Page, who specialized in soft-core posing and light bondage. Page began her career modeling for amateur photographers, who formed clubs and chipped in to pay the models. She barely profited from her work for professionals, some of whom still make money off of the images she provided. (Bunny Yeager, who first sold her photos to Playboy, passed last week at 85.) The publicity blurb on the DVD box refers to Jane as one of a million women who have modeling portfolios online. The difference is that she’s been able to make a career of it, albeit one without benefits and a pension, for more than a decade. Co-writer/director Gorman Bechard’s conceit here, then, is to turn up the volume on the footsteps Jane is hearing from younger models, some of whom studied her work before committing to the profession. Without slobbering all over the keyboard, I can attest to the fact that Jane doesn’t look old enough to consider retiring from any profession, let alone modeling. It’s the bullshit that comes with the territory — separating the phonies and pervs from the professionals – that’s causing her to feel older and more hopeless than she is. Her concession to growing older is picking up a camera and joining the game from the other side of the lens. On a long-delayed trip home, Jane attempts to shed the bad habits and other crutches used by models – runway and erotic – to get through the day. Like all bad habits, though, they refuse to go easy. Finally, “Broken Side of Time” is more a character study than a story that ends with a resolution. It could also be described as a tonal piece, in which Bechard (“Friends With Benefit”) uses sound, light and color to make us understand what Jane is experiencing. In an interview, he admits to being surprised by how readily his digital camera interpreted his intentions and accentuated his vision. As good a model as Jane/Dolce is, Bechard is every bit as solid a photographer of nudes. I imagine that he spent a good deal of prep time studying the work of Edward Steichen and Imogen Cunningham. The DVD features unedited photo shoots, extended scenes, a blooper reel and a featurette on how they achieved the look and feel on a budget of merely $15,000, raised on Kickstarter.

Joe Swanberg’s “24 Exposures” also focuses on a photographer, but, this time, one with a too cozy relationship with his models, all of whom look as if they’re sorority sisters slumming over summer break from a good school. Billy (Adam Wingard) doesn’t care as much about how the models look alive, as they do dead. That, and their willingness to shed their tops and play along with kinky stuff, whether or not they’re being photographed. The fetish he exploits is the simulation of death scenes, in which the models pose broken, bloody and partially nude. If the critic viewing the photograph is a cop, as two of them are here, it would be difficult for them to tell if it was art or murder. And, I suppose that’s the point. The first thing to know about the hyper-prolific Swanberg is that he’s one of the founding fathers of mumblecore, a movement that rewards naturalism and improvisation. The characters tend to have such an easy rapport with each other that viewers can be excused for confusing acting with living. And, I suppose that, too, is a point being made. Like Lars von Trier and fellow proponents of Dogma 95, Swanberg doesn’t seem wed to mumblecore techniques. They have, however, allowed him to shoot professional-looking films on a super-tight budget, using a repertoire company – Greta Gerwig among them – of actors so accustomed to his style that no time is wasted getting accustomed to it. In “24 Exposures,” a young model appears to have been murdered and left to rot in a pose that looks as if it could have been staged by the photographer or is really a crime scene. It’s only when the film crew breaks up laughing that we realize Swanberg has played his first trick on us, but it was close. We aren’t given much reason to sympathize with Billy, who frequently seems intent on using and abusing models for his own amusement, not just his art. One of the detectives (Michael Bamfeaux) investigating an actual look-alike death, nearby, becomes obsessed with Billy’s setup. He’s being tortured by his estranged wife and develops a nonprofessional curiosity with women who do such work. A couple of other characters are thrown in to the mix, as suspects, but none is as fleshed out as Billy. Where “24 Exposures” works best is as sexploitation … a rough blend of arthouse and grindhouse. It’s too loosey-goosey to qualify as a mystery and the acting is a bit chummy for drama. That said, it can easily stand alongside “Broken Side of Time” as a legitimately erotic time-killer for adults of both genders. The DVD adds commentary and a photo gallery. – Gary Dretzka

Run & Jump
Anyone who was pleasantly surprised by “SNL” veteran Will Forte’s performance in “Nebraska” ought to check out the smallish indie drama, “Run & Jump.” He plays Ted Fielding, an American psychologist in Ireland to document on film the complicated recovery of Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) from a stroke and serious brain trauma. Before the stroke, Conor, Vanetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids enjoyed a free-wheeling Bohemian lifestyle outside the lovely town of Dingle. When Conor returns home, however, he’s completely self-contained and withdrawn from the outside world. He isn’t completely non-communicative, but nowhere near the same person as before the stroke. Like tens of thousands of other women and men attempting to deal with a spouse’s personality upheaval, Vanetia is finding it difficult to adjust to Conor’s almost complete lack of interest in dancing and other things – excluding woodworking and watching Animal Planet – about which he once cared very much. If Ted weren’t a complete research nerd and his camera as intrusive as it is, we’d expect Venetia to react favorably to having someone in the house with something resembling a sense of humor and normal human emotions. Instead, it simply adds an additional layer of aggravation to her life. That changes when Vanetia discovers a lid of grass among Ted’s belongings and demands he share a joint with her that night. Naturally, it loosens both of them up to the point that most moviegoers would expect the housemates to do something they’ll regret later. Maybe, maybe not. Their newfound closeness does, however, cause Vanetia’s uptight in-laws and temperamental teen son to imagine that Ted might be attempting to insinuate himself into the family as a father figure. When things come to a head in the last reel, we still don’t know where our affections should lie. It would be different if we knew for sure that Conor could someday be capable of making Vanetia happy, again. If there’s a big payoff coming, we can’t see it from here. In her freshman debut as co-writer/director, Steph Green has pulled together a remarkable cast – also including Sharon Horgan, Edward MacLiam, Ciara Gallagher, Brendan Morris – and the result is a movie that deals with an issue only now coming to the fore. The Dingle Peninsula setting may inspire some viewers to purchase tickets to Ireland within minutes of viewing “Run & Jump.” The DVD adds a couple of making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Color of Lies: Blu-ray
This Blu-ray upgrade of Claude Chabrol’s little-seen 1999 psychodrama, “The Color of Lies,” follows on the heels of Cohen Media Group’s “The Inspector Lavardin Collection,” which brought us four of the master’s made-for-television films from the 1980s. After making the leap from criticism, in the 1950s, the man often cited as the father of France’s of “nouvelle vague” turned to writing, directing and acting in movies, primarily mysteries and thrillers. He continued doing so, right up to his death, at 80, almost four years ago. “The Color of Lies” is set in the kind of small Breton fishing village where everyone knows each other’s business and has an opinion on everything that happens. When something really big happens, the gossip mongers compete to ruin the lives – if inadvertently – of everyone who might be considered a target. That’s certainly the case here, when a 10-year-old girl is raped and murdered on her way home from the ocean-side home of her art teacher. René (Jacques Gamblin) has been laboring to overcome a painter’s block he’s had since he nearly lost a leg to a terrorist bomb in Paris. No sooner do the gossips learn that René is the leading suspect in the girl’s death – even if there’s no other evidence suggesting he might be the killer – than he begins to lose the students he needs to pay bills. His wife, Vivianne, a rural medical practitioner played by Sandrine Bonnaire, assertively rejects the theories of the lead detective, Frederique (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), who doesn’t seem to mind that she’s scarred the reputation of a possibly innocent man. Even so, Chabrol has planted the seed of doubt not only in Rene’s neighbors, but also Vivianne and his audience. Tired of dealing with her husband’s despondency, Vivianne falls very easily into an affair with the worldly, self-absorbed Parisian writer who keeps a home nearby and exploits both that doubt and her pain. Conveniently, Chabrol has added a messy subplot involving stolen jewels, pieces of art and the same gossips. When the writer is found dead outside the seawall of his home, it’s even easier for us to buy into the idea that Rene might be guilty of both murders. Chabrol didn’t often do pure “whodunits,” but “The Color of Lies” easily qualifies as one of the better ones in memory. The 1080p transfer adds to the pleasure of looking at the charming Ille-et-Vilaine settings. Commentary is provided by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein. Fans of crime flicks who’ve run out of things to watch in English are encouraged to begin binging on Chabrol. – Gary Dretzka

How to Train Your Dragon: Blu-ray
I find it interesting that the much-anticipated sequel to “How to Train Your Dragon” was shown at the just-completed Cannes Film Festival – who knew, right? — where it received raves from the assembled Academy Award prognosticators. That’s good for two reasons: 1) Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation need hit, and 2) the fans who contributed $500 million to the international box-office, in 2010, deserve another good run for their money. It will be shown at film festivals in L.A., Sydney and Seattle before opening really, really wide in mid-June. In the meantime, DreamWorks has gotten the juices flowing with its Blu-ray re-release of the original. Even if there are only a couple of new features added from previous editions, as well as a more robust 7.1 soundtrack, kids who’ve lately developed a love for dragons should dig it. The hi-def animated short “Frozen” – no relation to Disney’s “Frozen” – is billed as an “exclusive episode” of the TV show “Dragons: Defenders of Berk” and “Book of Dragons,” which adds to what we know about the fire-breathing creatures, and “Ultimate Book of Dragons,” an interactive feature that allows the viewer to investigate the “book” for themselves. The disc retains “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon,” deleted scenes and commentary. The Blu-ray presentation didn’t require much in the way of visual improvement, so the best reason to pick up the new package is for those few who are desperate to see the sequel, but don’t want to go into it blind. That, and the UltraViolet copy and free ticket to “2.” – Gary Dretzka

Eastern Bandits: Blu-ray
The second Sino-Japanese War has inspired several intriguing movies, told from such diverse perspectives as the martial-arts community (“The Grandmaster”), underground resistance groups (“Lust, Caution”) and a Japanese pacifist (“The Human Condition”) forced to fight. Lu Chuan’s “City Of Life and Death” (2009) and Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War” (2011) depict the horrors of the Nanking Massacre, joining several foreign-made pictures about that atrocity’s German-born hero John Rabe. “Eastern Bandits” (“An Inaccurate Memoir”) addresses the occupation in a way that mixes humor, revenge, action and drama. It’s unusual, but fans of contemporary mainland cinema should have no problem with it. Here, a Chinese soldier seeks to avenge his father’s death by kidnapping the Japanese emperor’s brother, who’s in the country to commemorate the raising of a Buddhist monument at a remote military base. To accomplish this, Gao must prove his courage and loyalty to the resistance to a gang of notorious bandits, known for wearing baby-face masks to bank jobs. He does this by helping the gang’s leader escape from jail and withstanding an extreme torture test. If he passes, Gao will get a crack at the Japanese prince, while the bandits will feast on the spoils. It mostly requires digging a network of tunnels and picking off the Japanese soldiers who fall into them. As unconventional as “Eastern Bandits” is, it rarely lacks for martial-arts action and adventure. Cao Yu’s cinematography nicely captures the wide open spaces of the Chinese frontier. There’s a bit of romance between bandit Lady Dagger and Gao, but it’s pretty tame. – Gary Dretzka

Buttwhistle
Naming a movie “Buttwhistle,” no matter how quirky it may be, is either a curious marketing ploy or a desperate cry for help … or both. Among the many screeners that pass my way every week, it certainly managed to catch my attention, anyway. The title refers to a nickname bestowed upon the male protagonist, Ogden Confer (Trevor Morgan), a Minneapolis community-college student who also answers to the blast of an air horn. There’s no good reason for this to happen, except to establish Ogden as an idiosyncratic character. Filmmakers have been creating such desperately confused young men ever since Benjamin Braddock descended, in full scuba gear, to the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. Ogden was dealt a rough hand when his best friend, Rose (Analeigh Tipton), died on him. She does visit him occasionally, however, either to prolong his agony or lift his spirits, since she’s become something of a masturbatory fantasy. He’s conversing with Rose when he prevents a young woman, Beth (Elizabeth Rice), from committing suicide by gravity. Beth is neither happy about having her leap interrupted, nor is she pleased that the boy with the funny name won’t accept her offer of sex as a reward. Now, in hindsight, that appears to be an offer any straight male of college age couldn’t refuse. At the time, however, it’s easy to see how somehow sensitive enough to be named Buttwhistle might be intimidated by a cute girl who disrupts his conversation with a ghost by dropping from the sky. As if to punish him for having the temerity to foil her suicide and refuse the gift of her tight, white body, Beth uses her wiles to cause trouble for him around the neighborhood. Actually, almost all of the characters here are tragically hip and gifted with the ability to quip at the drop of a hat. For that reason, alone, writer/director Tenney Fairchild (“The Good Humor Man”) appears to have deliberately targeted his dark rom/com/dram directly at those hipsters and wannabes who prefer podcasts and webisodes over any form of mainstream entertainment. The entertaining parkout sequence that plays behind the opening credits offers more promise than the movie can deliver to anyone else. – Gary Dretzka

Rock & Rule: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
For various reasons, none of them good, this animated rock-’n’-roll fantasy made almost no dent at the box office after it was accorded a hyper-limited release in 1983. The loud and lively take on the Faust legend got caught in an executive shuffle at the producing studio and a crunch in the numbers that might have gone to a targeted marketing campaign. It arrived at a time when Don Bluth (“The Secret of NIMH”) and Ralph Bakshi (“Fritz the Cat”) were still active, after all, and the stoner demographic was still expanding. Instead, “Rock & Rule” was pulled from circulation before it could find traction, even in college towns. It enjoyed a semblance of cult popularity when it found its way to late nights on HBO and Showtime. For some reason, the Blu-ray “25th Anniversary Edition” is being re-released in time for its 31st birthday. Presumably, its reappearance will remind people of the unlikely participation in the project of the late Lou Reed, who’s in fine vocal form. The story is set in a post-apocalypse Nuke York, where punk-rocker Angel (Deborah Harry, singing voice), is kidnapped by an aging heavy-metal legend, Mok (Reed), obsessed with summoning a demon from another dimension. In addition to Harry and Reed, the film also features entries from Iggy Pop, Cheap Trick and Earth, Wind & Fire. As far as the rocku-fantasies usually go, the musical contributions are surprisingly appealing. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director Clive Smith; an alternate version, representing the original Canadian release, with Gregory Salata’s voice, instead of Paul Le Mat; a 25-minute making-of featurette and interviews with the singers; “The Devil and Daniel Mouse,” the 22-minute animated short that inspired the feature-length film; a making-of featurette with, “The Devil and Daniel Mouse”; a work-print title sequence;    and work-print “Drats” ending sequence. – Gary Dretzka

American Made Movie
PBS: Craft in America: Industry: Season 5
One of the things that documentaries do is reinforce things we already believe to be true. If, for instance, we already sense that far too many manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas — to the benefit of far too few average Americans – then, the makers of “American Made Movie” have fulfilled at least part of their mission. Even Republicans would find it difficult to argue against that premise, not that they’ve offered any solutions to the problem. To make their case, the filmmakers don’t need to pull out a bunch of Commerce Department charts and numbers that, out of context, would be meaningless. Instead, we’re taken out to the old ball game to see for ourselves just how much baseball owes to products made overseas, sometimes by workers paid slave wages. If it weren’t for the bats, everything in the park would have arrived by boat in a cargo container. The point being made is that, at its peak, manufacturing employed over 19 million American workers. Between 1979 and 2009, 7 million jobs in the sector were lost, matching its lowest numbers since before World War II. Those lost jobs cost the economy far more than just the wages paid those workers, though. Recycled currency is what makes a nation’s economy grow and that’s no longer happening. “American Made Movie” attempts to tell a more positive story than that, however. It goes to places around the country where companies, including suppliers of baseball bats, are fighting the good fight to keep jobs and revenues in the U.S. If the uplifting reports don’t quite compensate for the scenes of Rust Belt decay, at least the movie leaves us with a morsel of optimism. At 82 minutes, it’s a tad long for general consumption, but civic organizations probably find it worth the effort.

In Season 5 of the PBS series “Craft in America,” the producers demonstrate how American craftsmen and small manufacturers have learned to play nice with technology, instead of fearing it. It hasn’t been an easy marriage, but we all need help sometime. The examples include dorry-making in Massachusetts, quilt-stitching in Alabama and weaving in North Carolina. – Gary Dretzka

House in the Alley
Death Spa: Blu-ray
Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dan Curtis’ Dracula: Blu-ray
Some very good films have emerged from Vietnam since the end of the war and stabilization of the economy. Typically, though, their natural home was the arthouse. “House in the Alley” is the first I’ve seen that fits easily within the parameters of the contemporary horror genre. Like similar movies we’ve seen from Thailand, South Korea and Japan, writer/director Le-Van Kiet’s picture is essentially a ghost story. It has nothing to do with the war of liberation and everything to do with how the spirit world informs the national psyche. In it, a young couple has moved to Ho Chi Minh City, where the husband, Thanh, has been assigned an important job at his mother’s firm. Sadly, his wife Thao suffers an extremely painful and messy miscarriage, essentially turning her into a basket case. Rarely has post-partum depression been portrayed with such raw emotion. It takes a few weeks before Thanh’s job performance draws the attention of his shrewish mother, who, contrary to everything Ho Chi Minh espoused, has an insane preoccupation with money. Thanh, on the other hand, is too busy keeping Thao from burning down the house and the ghosts from breaking every bone in his body to worry about the family business. There’s a very good reason why all hell is breaking loose in their home in the alley and genre audiences should be able to figure it out long before the tortured couple picks up on it. Even as a novelty, though, “House in the Alley” should keep horror fans interested for most of its 93-minute length.

Few of the many vintage horror titles being shipped out on Blu-ray these days represent the decade in which they were made quite so well as “Death Spa,” a guilty pleasure if there ever was one. Made in 1989, Michael Fischa’s gore-fest was informed by “Flashdance,” “Perfect,” Jane Fonda’s exercise videos, programmable workout machines, the Memphis design movement, legwarmers and Polyester. Like other memorable genre sensations, “Death Spa” exploited shower scenes and computer Nazis playing God. Here, the health club is possessed by the evil spirit of the owner’s dead wife, or so it seems. Every machine appears to have a mind of its own and the steam-room scenes not only ensure nudity, but the promise of death by locked door. It’s so goofy, it’s fun. Special features include commentary, an extensive making-of featurette and interviews with surviving actors.

I wondered two things about the “Sleepaway Camp: Collector’s Edition” release: 1) why anyone would collect any edition of the 1983 splatter flick, and 2) why the actors look as if they had recently graduated from middle school. Although it’s considered to be a classic in some corners, only the surprise ending seems to differentiate the plot from a dozen others. The answer to the second question can be attributed to Robert Hiltzik’s very sound decision to only cast actors that are the same age as the characters. I’m so used to watching actors approaching 30 play teenagers that it took me completely by surprise. Too much information here wouldn’t be helpful to viewers new to the franchise. Suffice it to say that “Sleepaway Camp” grows on you and, yes, the ending is still capable of shocking viewers. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K scan of the original camera negative and features that include new commentary with actors Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; new commentary with Hiltzik, moderated by webmaster Jeff Hayes; the original commentary with Hiltzik and Rose; new interviews with Hiltzik, Rose, Tiersten, Paul DeAngelo, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould, Frank Saladino and make-up FX artist Ed French; “Judy,” a short film by Jeff Hayes, starring Fields; “Princess,” a music video by Jonathan Tiersten; and a Camp Arawak Scrapbook.

Among the many things the world probably can do without this week is yet another Blu-ray revival of a movie based on the “Dracula” legend. I say that as someone who last week praised the Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski remake of “Nosferatu” and reviewed several other “classic” vampire pictures in the past six months. Although there’s nothing at all wrong with “Dan Curtis’ Dracula” (a.k.a., “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”) especially in Blu-ray, I suspect it will get lost in the deluge of titles. (Curtis created television’s horror soap opera, “Dark Shadows.”) The interpretation, which runs pretty true to form plot-wise, benefits most from the presence of Jack Palance, who, in 1973, had yet to have his career revived by doing push-ups on the Oscar-cast with Billy Crystal. The movie is enhanced by being shot in English and Yugoslavian locations, befitting a Hammer Studio production. It was made for theatrical release overseas, but as a made-for-TV presentation in the U.S. Its first airing was pre-empted by a news conference announcing the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, so it was postponed until February, 1974. It holds up better than Agnew ever did. In fact, as TV movies go, “Dracula” is extremely well made and quite effective in scares department. It has been transferred and restored in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative. Other Blu-ray features add an interviews with Palance and Curtis; outtakes and alternative takes; and editorial cuts to comply with TV censors. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Cimarron Strip: Complete Series
PBS: The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy
PBS: Pioneers of Television: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer
Syfy: Independence Daysaster
The deeper one digs into the history of Westerns on television, the more interesting it is. In its heyday, the “oaters” could do no wrong, even when pitted against each other on the prime-time grid. Of course, when I say “do no wrong,” I’m not implying that Native Americans were slighted on a weekly basis and the feats of characters based on actual people weren’t embellished beyond recognition. They were. The writers and producers of some shows, however, did attempt to level the playing field by casting Indians to play Indians and accurately depicting their culture and tribal identity. Given only 30 minutes or an hour, including commercials, their ability do so was sorely limited. “Cimarron Strip,” “The Virginian” and “Wagon Train” all briefly toyed with the 90-minute format, which roughly boiled down to a solid 75 minutes of entertainment each week. “Cimarron Strip” was canceled after one year, while “Wagon Train” dropped the idea after the 1963-64 season. “The Virginian” lasted nine years at the extended length. Airing on CBS from September, 1967, to March, 1968, “Cimarron Strip,” starred Stuart Whitman as Marshal Jim Crown. It was produced by the creators of “Gunsmoke,” if not blessed by the brilliant supporting cast backing Marshall Matt Dillon. The title located the show in three counties of the Oklahoma Panhandle, which, in 1888, separated Indian Territory from Kansas Territory. It included the last free homestead land in America and served as a battle ground for ranchers and newly arrived farmers. (The mountains and badlands in the background betray the fact that the show was shot near Lone Pine and Bishop, California; Kanab, Utah; and Tucson, Arizona.) Crown probably could have used some help in policing the nearly lawless region, but he worked without the benefit of a sheriff or support from the Army. The series was well made and, each week, featured a raft of guest stars. Even so, diehard bingers might find a marathon viewing session too exhausting to contemplate.

PBS’ “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is for those of us, who, like Rip Van Winkle, woke up after a long nap on January 1, 2014, with no memory of media overload that accompanied ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Since our modern-day Van Winkle probably remembers the 25th anniversary commemoration, as if it were yesterday, almost nothing new will be new to him here. The mystery surrounding the assassination has yet to be solved and JFK’s legacy as a philanderer was well known. He probably would be surprised to learn that Teddy Kennedy never was elected president and John-John was killed in an unfortunate, if possibly avoidable plane crash. At 310-minutes, “The Kennedys: Triumph & Tragedy” is comprised of two feature-length DVDs — the two-part “American Experience: The Kennedys” and “Oswald’s Ghost” — and a printed set of rare replica memorabilia, with accompanying booklet.

Currently wrapping up its fourth season, PBS’ informative and highly entertaining limited series, “Pioneers of Television,” probably could have been several hours longer and contained dozens more interviews and it would still be a quick trip down Memory Lane. It also would be every bit as nitpick-able. That’s the way it is with a medium that has influenced everything that’s happened in the last 60 years, everywhere. The emphasis this season is entertainment. Two of the episodes focus on comedy, one on race and the other on medical shows. The recollections of more than 200 influential stars complement footage from hit shows, old and new. The episodes: “Standup to Sitcom,” in which top comedians describe how they made the transition from stage to such shows as “Seinfeld,” “Home Improvement,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Roseanne”; “Acting Funny” feels like an extension of “Standup to Sitcom,” in its descriptions of the sitcom stars’ methodology; the self-explanatory “Doctors and Nurses,” featuring such vintage stars as Richard Chamberlain (“Dr. Kildare”) and Chad Everett (“Medical Center”), and actors in the breakthrough entertainments “St. Elsewhere” and “ER”; and “Breaking Barriers,” about race and the industry’s pitiful record on diversity, with Diahann Carroll (“Julia”), Bill Cosby (“I Spy”), Edward James Olmos (“Miami Vice”), George Takei (“Star Trek”) and Margaret Cho (“All American Girl”).

The “Nature” presentation, “Touching the Wild: Living With Mule Deer,” extends a well-worn theme of animal-centric series on PBS. It involves documenting the interaction between humans and the animals that, in effect, adopt them into their families. Naturalist Joe Hutto, who previously chronicled his life among wild turkeys, took his act to the mountains near his home in Wyoming, where the mule deer and antelope play. Hutto points to genetic studies that suggest that mule deer may have developed relatively recently through the interbreeding of white-tailed and black-tailed deer and, therefore, might be less skittish around humans. By loitering in areas that deer are known to frequent, Hutto wore down their resistance to newcomers. The seven-year study included spending time with the herd every day, for over two years. Frankly, I found Hutto’s mannerisms and techniques to be border-line creepy, in ways that differed from his approach in “My Life as a Turkey.” Still, there’s no denying how such ambition benefits us all.

As notoriously cheesy as most made-for-Syfy movies tend to be, their ability to survive the slings and arrows of outraged criticism is admirable. Fans continue to overlook the bargain-basement effects, anemic storylines and nearly amateur-level acting, if only for their value as freakish curiosities.  I doubt that younger teenagers aren’t nearly as picky as older kids and genre buffs. How’s this for a cheap shot?: “Independence Daysaster” was shot in 15 days … and looks like it. The cover image apes marketing material for “Independence Day,” without actually taking place anywhere near the White House. All of the elements of a Syfy sci-fi thriller – as opposed to the Syfy creature feature — are evident here. The opening credits have barely stopped rolling before things start falling from the sky and explode as they hit the ground. The aliens’ warships resemble Battlebots crossed with the drill bits employed by Roto Rooter repairmen. While adults are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, geeky teens and conspiracy theorists come to mankind’s defense, using computers found in bedrooms and barns. The Apocalypse is averted at the 88-minute mark of the movie’s 90-minute length. Here, the president’s helicopter is blasted out of the sky, while on his way to a hometown picnic, and his son is on some kind of rural expedition. Both miraculously manage to find each and other survive the attacks. You can guess the rest. Syfy obsessives should love it. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

The Monuments Men: Blu-ray
The amazing story of how an elite team of Allied soldiers won a race against time to prevent Nazis from destroying some of the world’s greatest art isn’t exactly new to moviegoers. Even 70 years after the fact, however, their heroics, as related in “The Monuments Men,” remain fascinating. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller, “The Train,” tells essentially the same tale, but gathers speed like a runaway locomotive as the rescue effort plays out. Rene Clement’s “Is Paris Burning?” describes how the City of Light, itself, was saved at the last moment from Hitler’s wrath. In 2006, Lynn H. Nicholas’ book “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” was turned into a fascinating two-hour documentary. Nicholas’ research led directly to an acceleration in legal cases against people, galleries and museums in possession art confiscated by the Nazis in World War II. Although George Clooney’s film is a co-production between German and American interests, there’s no attempt made to sidestep the Third Reich’s culpability in any of the thefts or to suggest that Hitler and Herman Goering bullied every other Nazi official into buying into plans for the Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria. If anything, the Red Army takes it on the chin here for its part in confiscating art treasures, as reparation for the high cost the Soviets paid in defending their country and defeating Hitler on the Eastern Front. Our stated goal was to return the treasures to their rightful owners, even if so many of them failed to survive the death camps or sold the objects to afford passage to freedom. In those cases, the art was transferred to museums and other institutions, some of which sold individual items to dealers or private interests.

As for the movie, I think that too much of Clooney’s character’s time is spent away from the Western Front, in Washington, convincing politicians and military officials of the importance of the mission. The opposition argues that anything that impedes the race to Berlin is a potential threat to the fighting men. The question that weighs heavy over the entire movie – “Is a work of art worth the life of a single soldier”? – is most profoundly debated only two memorable scenes. In the first, one of the Monument Men begs advancing artillerymen not to destroy a historic church steeple. Clooney stacks the deck here by planting a machine-gun nest in its steeple. The other comes at the very end, when a old man we assume to be Clooney, circa 2014, shows his grandson one of the magnificent pieces that was saved during the operation, along with other rescued treasures. One answer seems to contradict the other, while also pointing out the futility and complexity of waging war, even one deemed inarguably just. The ending isn’t so much a cop-out as much as it is the ribbon that completes the package. A similar argument was posed in “Saving Private Ryan,” where the seeming absurdity of risking the lives of many soldiers, in order to save just one, was justified during a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville-sur-mer. Because the cathartic ending played even better with overseas audiences, than ticket-buyers here, the combination of an all-star cast and Hollywood ending was guaranteed for “Monuments Men.” The A-list stars here included Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Clooney. (It would gross $77 million in both markets, on a production budget of about $70 million.) The downside of having too many stars in a movie, of course, is having to find enough time to satisfy the actors and accommodate their characters. There were times when “Monuments Men” felt so top-heavy that it was in danger of becoming “Ocean’s 14.” In “The Train,” at least, Burt Lancaster didn’t have to worry about finding the art, just how to keep it from reaching Germany. Still, not a bad way to spend two hours in front of the TV. The Blu-ray package contains deleted scenes, and several featurettes of the EPK variety, “In Their Own Words,” “The Real Monuments Men,” “George Clooney’s Mission,” “Marshalling the Troops” and “A Woman Amongst the Monuments Men.” They aren’t nearly as informative as they ought to have been. – Gary Dretzka

3 Days to Kill: Blu-ray
There are basically two kinds of tick-tock thrillers: one is a race against a frequently seen clock or digital timer, while the other is more biological in nature. Once the threat to the protagonist has been revealed, however, a desperate search for antivenin to heal a snake-bite victim pretty much equals the hunt for terrorists sitting on a dirty bomb hidden in a suitcase. More often than not, the difference between a threat and gimmick is the ability of a director to stack the deck against the audience. McG and Luc Besson set up “3 Days to Kill” in a way that worked pretty well in the first “Taken.” In both movies, a government-trained assassin is deemed expendable by his employer and required to re-introduce himself to his estranged wife and children. Because most of their heroics remain classified or are simply too repugnant for tender ears to hear, he’s forced to pussyfoot around the truth about what he’s been doing for the last 20 years, or so. Inevitably, though, he will be put in a position to use things he learned on the job to save their lives. It doesn’t always work, but, if we like the character, there’s a good chance the clock will take care of the rest. The presence of children and spouses in danger cuts both ways. James Bond wasn’t required to consider the feelings of his wife and kids before jumping off a cliff with a Union Jack parachute on his back. In FX’s fine spy-vs.-spy series, “The Americans,” the teenage children of the KGB agents are a constant weight on their minds. With Liam Neeson, in “Taken,” and Kevin Costner, here, the endangered families are their characters’ sole motivations.

In “3 Days to Kill,” Ethan (Costner) discovers early-on that brain cancer has already spread to his lungs and it’s impairing his ability to perform. On what should have been his final victory lap, Ethan’s steady cough and lack of breath contribute to a blown assignment. His partner, Viva (Amber Heard), a world-class beauty who looks as if she just graduated from high school, let both of their targets escape from a Belgrade hotel before their bombs explode. Knowing that he’s about to be forced into retirement, Viva makes Ethan an offer he can’t refuse. In return for shots of an as-yet-approved cancer drug and enough money to keep his family (Connie Nielsen, Hailee Steinfeld) afloat for years, he must agree to continue the men peddling a dirty bomb. When he arrives at his wife and daughter’s Paris suite for the first time in years, Ethan is about as welcome a pimple on prom night. Except for the details, Zoey knows that she has been lied to all her life and doesn’t dig it. She’s more than a little bit reluctant to accept daddy-dearest back into her life, especially if he’s going to deny her such pleasures as boogying the night away with decadent Parisians, anxious to take advantage of her blooming sexuality.

As generic bad guys, “The Albino” (Tomas Lemarquis) and “The Wolf” (Richard Sammel) aren’t sufficiently frightful to hold Oddjob’s chapeau. Even so, we’re given no reason to believe they wouldn’t sell a nuclear device to any nutter with enough cash to pay for one. They’re no less credible than comic subplots involving the Malian squatters in Ethan’s Paris apartment and the purple bicycle he bought Zoey as a peace offering. As hard as they try to stand out, Nielsen and Steinfeld can’t compete for our attention with Heard’s black-leather outfits and micro-minis. The good news is that, even as Ethan begins coughing out his lungs, Costner keeps the character something more than a liability to the mission. His unique blend of vulnerability and machismo saves the day, giving us hope there is a miracle cure for cancer, after all. McG and Besson must have begged on their knees and begged for their star to repeat the best known image from “The Bodyguard.” Knowing that Neeson is almost three years older than Costner, I suppose that fans could someday hope to see a combined sequel or prequel to “3 Days to Kill” and “Taken.” If it would end up looking anything like “RED 2,” however, I’d recommend forgetting the whole thing. The Blu-ray extras add a 10-minute making-of EPK, shot largely in Paris; a short profile of the McG; and “Concert Operation,” a piece featuring a former CIA agent. The difference between the theatrical and extended versions is five minutes, although nothing jumps out at me as to what it might be. – Gary Dretzka

Like Someone in Love: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
If Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami plays poker, he probably is the kind of guy who holds his cards close to the vest and whose “tells,” if any, are imperceptible. There are moments in “Like Someone in Love” when the film stands at the crossroads of comedy and drama, romance and terror. A step or gesture one way or the other would reveal his hand, allow us to settle back in our seats and let the movie wash over us, as it should. Eventually, we’re given hints as to what the characters can expect, even if we have no way of knowing how much faith we should put in them. “Patience, grasshopper,” he might as well be saying to us. Even so, observant viewers will find surprises around every corner. The opening sequence is set in a busy Tokyo bar, where several conversations are taking place at once, but only one is distinctly heard. An attractive young woman moves from one table to the next, as if to advance the dialogue. Instead, Kiarostami reveals how easy it is for a filmmaker to play sensory tricks on an audience, by introducing us to the person actually on the phone. Borderline funny, the gimmick opens the door to the character and affairs of co-protagonist Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a call girl who looks very much like the college student she is in daylight hours. She’s carrying on a conversation with her off-screen boyfriend, whose jealousy can be read in her responses. Her elderly pimp refuses to allow her a night off in order to prepare for a test and meet her grandmother at the train station. Instead, Akiko is ordered to hop in a cab and high-tail it to the suburbs to meet with a client who’s simply described as being distinguished. What could that possibly mean? The professor, Takashi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno), looks as if he might have been sent over from Central Casting to audition for the part of Generic Japanese Grandfather. That is, if the average Japanese grandpa has a taste for girls a third his age and, probably, in possession of their first “Hello Kitty” book bag. Once again, as soon as we think we’ve got a peg on it, the story takes a quick left turn.

After a brief nap in the cab, Akiko meets the professor outside the local noodle shop. Once upstairs, she can’t stop inquiring about the books and art in his modest apartment, including a painting that hung in her grandmother’s home. For his part, Takashi turns out not to be a sweaty old perv with a thing for school girls, but an educator and writer partially retired from the same university at which Akiko is enrolled. It’s entirely possible that he really did hire her for her company and to share a late dinner from her home province. Without specifying sleeping arrangements, Takashi agrees to take the still-groggy student to the university. As he waits for her to reach the building, Akiko is accosted by her fiancé and berated for something we can’t hear. The next thing we know, Noriaki (Ryo Kase) is begging a light from Takashi and confiding in him as if he were Akiko’s grandfather. This is where Kiarostami decides to give us a chance to make an educated guess as to the direction “Like Someone in Love” might ultimately take. A comedy of errors, perhaps … a horrible tragedy? You won’t get the answer from me, even if it would be safe to assume that the professor’s view of life outside academia never will be the same. The writer/director, who’s only once before worked outside Iran – on “Certified Copy” — seems perfectly comfortable in the home of minimalist Yasujiro Ozu,  a place where infinite patience and attention to detail are valued and rewarded.

Kiarostami has said that he got the idea for this story after driving around Tokyo one night and glimpsing a young girl on the side of the road, dressed as a bride. In subsequent visits to Japan, he would look for her, even knowing that he couldn’t possibly recognize the girl without the gown. Even so, she’s as much a part of him as any acquaintance. “Like Someone in Love” is an excellent addition to the Kiarostami canon, which demands to be seen by everyone who considers themselves to be a buff. Outside of the arthouse crowd, however, it qualifies as a tough sell. The Criterion Blu-ray adds an informative 47-minute making-of featurette and an illustrated booklet, featuring an essay by film scholar and critic Nico Baumbach. – Gary Dretzka

House of Dust
In horror as in life, itself, it’s almost impossible to deny one’s natural curiosity and avoid temptation, however dangerous. If it’s out there to tickle our sensory impulses, the odds are good that we’re going to sample it. In A.D. Calvo’s uneven ghost story, “House of Dust,” a long-shut insane asylum on a college campus proves to be far too irresistible a temptation for a group of party-hardy freshman to avoid. Based on that much information, alone, it wouldn’t be too difficult to guess the rest of the story … but why spoil a good gimmick? Turns out, 60 years earlier, the doctors treating seriously ill mental patients there had come up with a cruel new way to lobotomize them. When one of the patients managed to break free from his restraints and kill a doctor, it put an end to any future experimentation. Administrators were left no choice but to burn the human evidence in their crematorium and shut the place down for good. Now, in any other universe than the one populated by straight-to-DVD screenwriters, the university would have torn down the property and buried the incriminating ashes. Here, though, the ashes of the criminally insane were swept into jars and left on a shelf for the next six decades. How they weren’t disturbed by other generations of nosey students is anyone’s guess, but they’re weren’t. The kids we meet are representative of most college classes, I suppose, except for one pretty girl (Inbar Lavi) who’s had mental issues in the past. The real fun begins when the kids decide that it might be a blast to break into the deserted and unlit facility. While exploring, they open the door to the oven, knock over a couple of ash-filled jars and snort up the equivalent of two lines of once-human dust. If you still can’t guess the rest, you probably should stick with Caspar the Ghost. Even so, for teens and beginners, many of whom will recognize the cast members from television, “House of Dust” should provide ample entertainment and more than a few jump scares, at least. It doesn’t surprise me that the movie’s based on experimentation that routinely went on in the United States – lobotomies, especially — before drugs were available to treat patients. – Gary Dretzka

McCanick: Blu-ray
Raze
With only two features under his belt, ex-marine Josh C, Waller has recorded an unusually high body count. “McCanick” and “Raze” are very different films, but they demonstrate a willingness on the filmmaker’s part to push the limits on violence and dissection of raw emotion. If neither title is particularly easy to watch — unless you’re a sadist — it’s Waller’s ability to keep us emotionally involved in the characters’ fates that makes it difficult to tune out. “McCanick” benefits greatly from the presence of David Morse, one of the great character actors of the last 40 years. No one plays severely damaged cops and innocent victims of life’s random miscues better than Morse. His portrayal of the chronically over-compassionate Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison, in the 1980s medical series “St. Elsewhere, remains unforgettable to this day. Here, he plays the title character, Eugene “Mack” McCanick, a Philadelphia narcotics detective, who becomes on unhinged when he learns that a low-life he’d put behind bars has been released from prison. The late “Glee” heartthrob Cory Monteith, in his last film role, plays a former junkie who believes that he’s paid his debt to society and wants to stay on the straight-and-narrow path. For reasons of his own, McCanick refuses to let him off the hook. The collateral damage from his pursuit borders on the staggering. Considering his own demise to heroin, Monteith probably was playing a bit too close to type as an addict, and is performance couldn’t possibly stand up alongside that of Morse. Philadelphia proves to be an excellent setting for the depravity unleashed by Waller, though. Unfortunately, he keeps viewers in the dark too long as to what’s been eating at the cop for so long. Ciaran Hinds adds a touch of class to the proceedings as McCanick’s overly tolerant boss. Bonus materials includes a making-of featurette, deleted and extended scenes.

Although virtually impossible to recommend to anyone with a weak stomach or a pronounced sensitivity to depictions of violence against women, “Raze” does offer viewers a bit more than gratuitous blood and gore. In it, several dozen physically fit young women are abducted and forced to live in an underground bunker, until it’s their turn to engage in mortal combat with another prisoner. In fact, in these mano a mano exchanges, “Raze” reminds me very much of the “Mortal Kombat” video-game franchise, as crossed with “Fight Club” and “Spartacus: War of the Damned.” What makes Waller’s story different than a dozen other “Mortal Kombat” adaptations is the fact that all of the combatants are women, who fight to prevent the organizers from killing their loved ones. It doesn’t take viewers long to discover that the matches are organized to entertain rich-looking men and women, who don’t seem to mind a little death with their dinners. Although none of the prisoners are unattractive, they’ve ostensibly been chosen for their fitness and athleticism. The one we learn to care the most about is played by Zoe Bell, a world-renowned stunt woman and martial-arts expert. The fights are staged well, if nothing else, and Doug Jones (“Hellboy”) and Sherilyn Fenn (“Twin Peaks”) are credible as the evil organizers. Fans of Rachel Nichols may be interested in knowing that she appears in both of these movies. – Gary Dretzka

Nosferatu: The Vampyre: Blu-ray
To describe the pairing of director Werner Herzog and fellow German actor Klaus Kinski as a match made in heaven would be to miss the entire point of “Nosferatu: The Vampyre.” Rarely have two obsessive personalities come together so naturally on a project that demanded a certain degree of madness to create. It was Herzog’s intention to use contemporary tools to remake F.W. Murnau’s 1922 “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror,” which he considered to be Germany’s greatest film. Kinski, who didn’t need makeup to be scary, modeled his Count Dracula after Max Schreck’s unforgettable Count Orlov. (Copyright laws forced Murnau to change the characters’ names from those in Bram Stoker’s novel.) Even on a tight budget, Herzog sought to make his “Nosferatu” as realistic to the period as possible. Much of the movie was shot on location in the Carpathian Mountains, Germany and Holland, where the architecture matched that of 1850 Wismar. In a decision that continues to defy logic, the writer/director also sought verisimilitude by importing thousands of white laboratory rats into Holland, from Hungary, and dying their fur black. The result was a PETA member’s worst nightmare, in that the ravenous rats began to cannibalize each other and the dye harmed the rodents when they tried to lick it off. Apart from that fiasco, Herzog’s version retains its ability to frighten the tar out of modern audiences, as can Murnau’s classic. The scenery is beautifully shot and attention to period detail is impressive. Knowing that American audiences no longer had the patience to read subtitles, the actors were required to shoot their scenes twice, once in English and, again, in German (both included here). “Nosferatu” also stars Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz and Roland Topor. The new Blu-ray version adds commentary tracks in English and German, an original making-of featurette, stills gallery and reversible wrap. – Gary Dretzka

Weekend of a Champion
I don’t know how someone forgets or ignores the fact that they made a film, years earlier, which deserved to seen by every new generation of buffs, since then. That, however, was the case in 1971, when Roman Polanski shared a few days with the great Formula I driver Jackie Stewart, who was preparing for the Grand Prix of Monaco and another possible driving championship. It spawned the documentary, “Weekend of a Champion,” which captures a moment in time specific to the period. Even if their fates and fortunes would diverge dramatically in a few short years, both men were at the top of their professions. Before the Manson Family murders put him in a deep freeze, in 1969, the Polish director stunned American audiences with “Rosemary’s Baby.” Six years later, Polanski would return to the screen with one of the greatest P.I. movies ever made, “Chinatown.” Steward would, indeed, go on that year to win his second of three Formula I titles. At the time, the Grand Prix circuit more closely resembled a war of attrition – practically a blood sport — than an orderly competition among privileged gearheads. It was simultaneously the most dangerous and glamorous sport in the world, commanding the same attention as World Cup soccer. Even in the wake of his wife’s murder, Polanski remained a high-profile celebrity and world-class party boy. It wasn’t until he was arrested in Los Angeles for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl and jumped bail before sentencing that he became something of an international pariah. Those events must now seem as if they happened a million years ago, even if he’s still a wanted man.

As captured by co-director Frank Simon, the only things on both men’s minds on that weekend were the race, itself, and very distinct possibility that persistent rain would turn the most celebrated of all Grand Prix event into a death trap. If its grandeur and appeal to a vast cross-section of rabid European fans couldn’t help but dominate the hours not spent on the track, it merely served as a backdrop for the interviews, whose subjects ranged from mundane to the meditative. And, yet, “Weekend of a Champion” disappeared almost immediately after its debut at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Golden Bear and went away with a “special recognition” prize. Apparently, for the next 40 years, the negative gathered dust in the vaults of London’s Technicolor lab. When Polanski was contacted as to his desires for its disposition, he and producer Brett Ratner agreed to clean it up, re-edit it to some degree and add a new ending. In it, Polanski and Stewart returned to Monte Carlo to engage in lively conversation about changes made to the sport, racetrack, principality and themselves. (Most about hairstyles and their health.) There are two times in “Weekend of a Champion” when Stewart focuses so intensely that he almost transcends the medium. The first comes as the “Flying Scot” attempts to answer Polanski’s questions about things a driver does instinctually, almost subconsciously’ during the course of a race. The second comes when Stewart brags about the physical changes made to Formula I track after the drivers unionized and demanded changes in the infrastructure, on-track medical facilities and technical issues. In 1971, he points out, even the world’s best drivers faced a one-in-three chance of retiring intact from the sport. At the time of their most recent conversation, no deaths had been recorded in Formula I for nearly two decades. “Weekend of a Champion” nicely complements such excellent racing flicks as “Senna,” “Rush,” “1,” “Hunt vs Lauda,” “Grand Prix” and “Le Mans.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
LA Law: Season Two
CW: Nikita: Season 4: Blu-ray
BBC: Waking the Dead: Season 9
BBC: Dalziel & Pascoe: Season 9
BBC: Call the Midwife: Season 3
Like “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere” and “Miami Vice” before it and “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Boston Public” and “Ally McBeal” after it, “L.A. Law” was a prime-time series that broke the mold by freely borrowing story ideas from news headlines, addressing social issues and contemporizing the fashions and attitudes of the characters. Instead of treating doctors, lawyers, cops and other professionals as if they were infallible demi-gods, the updated characters ranged from highly professional to wildly eccentric. Old fogies and fuddy-duddies criticized the shows for exaggerating how business was done in our corridors of prestige and power, and it sometimes took months for the ratings to stabilize. Even so, younger viewers in the same professionals watched what the characters were wearing and how they behaved on the job. Indeed, “L.A. Law” became so much a part of America’s colorful pop-cultural fabric that the characters’ ethical behavior was discussed as part of law-school curricula. At McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak, the polar opposites were represented on one side by old-school attorneys Leland McKenzie (Richard Dysart) and Douglas Brackman Jr. (Alan Rachins), while the other end was held up by the sexually insatiable Arnie Becker (Corbin Bernsen) and the frosty feminist Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry). None of the lawyers who passed through the firm’s doors during its eight-season run were completely free of kinks and hang-ups, however, and each one would eventually inform one story arc or running gag, at least. Unlike previous legal dramas, the cases in “L.A. Law” weren’t solved over the course of a single episode and, unlike Perry Mason, the lawyers weren’t required to do the police department’s job for it. Every once and a while, the attorneys would cheat to get the desired outcome for their clients … just like almost every other professional in a show created by Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. In Season 2, the team fills voids on the staff with a much-coveted African-American lawyer, Jonathan Rollins (Blair Underwood), and Benny Stulwicz (Larry Drake), as a developmentally disabled clerk. There also was a preoccupation with nuptials of Stuart Markowitz and Kelsey and how such a union would impact the other partners. It should be noted that a very good show could have been made about the back-stabbing, scandals and poor decision-making that went on behind-the-scenes on prime-time television, when the broadcast networks were kings of their fiefdoms and Fox was still considered to be an upstart.

Maggie Q, the almost impossibly hot Honolulu native and actress, hasn’t let much grass grow below her feet since “Nikita” ended its run on the CW Network. Besides portraying Tori Wu in the film adaption of Veronica Roth’s bestselling novel, “Divergent,” she’s set to star in Kevin Williamson’s “Stalker,” for CBS, this fall. The titular character of “Nikita” was created in 1990, when Luc Besson introduced her in the French action-thriller “Le Femme Nikita.” Bridget Fonda would take over for Anne Parillaud as the onetime Death Row resident, turned government assassin, in the English-language remake, “Point of No Return.” Peta Wilson starred in the USA Network’s television adaptation, “La Femme Nikita,” which ran from 1997-2001. Q’s tenure on the girls-with-guns thriller ran from 2010-2013 on the CW Network. As we enter the fourth and final season on Blu-ray/DVD, Nikita’s on the run from every law-enforcement official in the world – and amateur bounty hunter – as a suspect in the assassination of the President. Even when cornered by a pair of two-bit cops in the first episode, Nikita proves to be a very naughty girl, indeed. Everything in the six-episode season builds toward the wild finale, in which she tempts fate and escapes death. The show appears to have existed on a planet where none of the women characters were over 30 and less than an “8.” The men look a bit more seasoned, but are no match for Nikita or, for that matter, any of the other women. “Nikita” may only qualify as a guilty pleasure, but, as long as there are leggy actresses begging for jobs in Hollywood and automatic weapons to put in their hands, the possibility of a “Nikita” revival will exist.

The premise of the BBC’s advanced-forensics series, “Waking the Dead,” will be familiar to anyone hooked on cold-case and missing-person investigations, including CBS’ late, lamented “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case.” (It isn’t related to a feature film of the same title from the same year, directed by Keith Gordon.) “Waking the Dead” enjoyed a nine-year run on the BBC and BBC America, ending on April 11, 2011. It spun off an unsuccessful series, “The Body Farm,” which only lasted a season. Unlike such shows here, each new “Waking the Dead” episode is shown in two hour-long parts. The added time makes a big difference in the development of characters and pace of the investigations. The Cold Case Unit here is comprised of a pair of CID officers, a psychological profiler, a forensic scientist and former blond anti-terrorist fighter. Her stiff ethical stance and shortsighted behavior contribute as exciting a season finale as one could possibly hope. The cases handled, personnel and interdivisional intrigues reminds a lot of the excellent BBC series, “MI-5.”

Dalziel and Pascoe” is another long-running British crime drama, whose hook will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a movie or TV show in the last 50 years. Primarily set in Yorkshire, the title characters are polar opposites when it comes to their methodology in solving crimes. Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel (Warren Clarke) is a rough-hewn throwback to the days when cops were allowed to cross all sorts of lines and embrace political and social philosophies that would cost them their shields here. Detective Inspector Peter Pascoe (Colin Buchanan), then, would be his university-trained and well-mannered opposite. Both men look the part, but Dalziel’s leathery mug and English-bulldog demeanor are what sell the character. In the first two-part episode of Season 9, body parts and other medical waste have begun to wash up on the shores of a local lake and it appears as if they are related to plans to turn the region’s only public hospital into a private, for-profit facility. Pascoe is involved in a collision that puts him in the hospital with severe head trauma. The differences between them don’t look quite so imposing as Pascoe struggles for his life and Dalziel tries new tricks to arrest the killer. Eventually, though, when he’s nursed back to something resembling health by an adoring nurse, he finds ways to help his partner.

Currently in its third season on the BBC and PBS, “Call the Midwife” is a series whose popularity almost begs credulity. In Europe, at least, midwifery and in-home obstetrics has always been more common a medical practice than it’s been here for most of the last 100 years. Indeed, the American Medical Association has done everything in its power to end the role of the midwife, by exaggerating the risks of childbirth to healthy mothers-to-be and promoting techniques based on eliminating pain and unnaturally speeding the delivery process. This made sense at a time when Americans, especially, were led to believe that hospital administrators, medical associations and insurance providers had the best interests of patients in mind, all of the time. When the business of childbirth was exposed for the racket it had become by the 1960-70s, more and more women began challenging AMA propaganda and promoting midwifery as an option to spending three or four days in a hospital and forking over $20 for a box of Q-tips when only one or two might have been used. Recent history in England suggested the same thing was beginning to happen there. That’s a long way of saying that “Call the Midwife” was probably too obscure a title to attract an audience. What some of us didn’t take into account was the Brits’ insatiable appetite for stories about their parents’ and grandparents’ ability to survive both the war and the next 10-15 years of poverty and sacrifice. The series follows newly qualified midwife Jenny Lee, as well as the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House. It is an Anglican nursing convent, dedicated to helping residents of the Poplar district of London’s desperately poor East End. After three seasons, the overworked women are given more to do than deliver the 80-100 babies born each month in Poplar. – Gary Dretzka

Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure: Blu-ray
Anyone who regularly watches “The Ellen Show” already knows that it’s the closest one can get to a little girl’s sleepover party and still be on national TV. Everybody from the host and guest stars, to audience members and viewers at home, kicks up their heels and dances when the spirit moves them. They scream whenever Ellen introduces a celebrity, no matter how obscure. Lately, Ellen appears to have adopted a pair of British tots with as much pep as a kitten that’s overdosed on caffeine. Welcome to the wonderful world of Sophia Grace & Rosie, who made a name for themselves by singing disco songs in high-pitched voices on YouTube. They favor pink tutus and tiaras and appear to have ants in their pants. If that sounds even a little bit insufferable, then, “Sophia Grace & Rosie’s Royal Adventure” probably isn’t for you. Don’t completely dismiss it, though, until you’ve consulted with any 10-year-olds in your home. In it, Sophia Grace and her younger, less speedy cousin, Rosie, travel to Switzelvania as correspondents for “The Ellen Show.” They’re there to report on the coronation of a new queen, but insinuate themselves into a competition between three feuding princesses. The Blu-ray adds “Pink! Pink! Pink! The Story of Pink”; “The Royal Music Jam: Laying Down the Beats With Sophia Grace & Rosie”; “Ellen’s Favorite Tea Times Moments”; outtakes; and bloopers. – Gary Dretzka

Martial Arts Movie Marathon
Out of the dozens of martial-arts movies produced and released in the mid-1970s by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Co., I wonder how Shout!Factory decides which ones will be included in its newly released double-feature and movie-marathon packages. Given the state of deterioration already noticeable on most films from the period, it’s likely that many titles simply are impossible or too difficult to rehab. Sending out scratched and sloppy-looking products is one of the things that killed VHS. “The Skyhawk” is interesting primarily because it features the late work of 70-year-old Kwan Tak-Hing and early appearances by actor/instructor Sammo Hung, Carter Wong and Nora Miao. Set in Thailand, it was a showcase for the boxing kung fu style popularized by Bruce Lee. The production values look prehistoric, especially when compared to the genre products of today, but, as entertainment, millions of people around the world swore by them.

Hung gets top billing in “The Manchu Boxer,” if not the lead male role, exactly. Made on the cheap in South Korea, it follows a roaming fighter who enters a boxing tournament to thwart an evil warlord. A similar theme plays out in “The Dragon Fighters,” which is noteworthy primarily as John Woo’s second film. Woo had yet to formulate his singular style, but he was able to churn out product with the best of them. It stars Carter Wong, James Tien and Ji Han Jae and contains a bit of toplessness for foreign consumption. There’s even more sexuality in “The Association,” although it’s of the grindhouse/drive-in variety. That’s represented in one scene by a juicy free-for-all in a shower. It stars Yu Byong, Tien Nei, Angela Mao Ying and Carter Wong. Too bad, there’s no bonus material. – Gary Dretzka

DIY-to-DVD
Bloodmarsh Krackoon
Kill the Scream Queen
Blackwater
God Thinks You’re a Loser
In the 20th Century, browsing joined loitering as a pastime available to Americans of all walks of life, no matter if they were rich or poor. Credit goes to the relaxation of vagrancy statutes, which prohibited bored cops from punishing transients – often defined as unemployed minorities, hippies and protestors – or simply transporting them to the nearest border and demanding they leave town, pronto. In the mid-1980s, the sudden proliferation of video stores provided new options for those of us who had hours of free time on our hands and virtually nothing constructive to do with it after exhausting the inventories of local libraries, magazine, book and record shops, shopping malls and supermarkets. Through “Clerks” and “Mallrats,” Kevin Smith gave this unsung minority a voice and presence in society. Less than two decades later, that voice would be largely silenced. Surfing the Internet replaced browsing as way to avoid work and amuse one’s self, while occasionally absorbing something worthwhile in the process. It’s easy enough to do, but, as is the case with Google and Costco, unless one knows where to look beforehand, it isn’t difficult to get lost. In the specific case of straight-to-DVD movies, the art of separating wheat from chaff was facilitated by simply being within arm’s length of a cool-looking cover, juicy blurbs and a MPAA ratings sticker that assured graphic nudity and violence therein. By contrast, even today, a perusal of Amazon is an exercise in frustration. The vast majority of all reviews are phony or written by semi-literates and, more often than not, there’s no mention of bonus features. In the case of movies in the do-it-yourself sub-genre, even less information is available to browsers.

Take the urban-horror tale, “Bloodmarsh Krackoon,” for example. While taking a virtual stroll through the MVD Visual catalogue – something I do once every six weeks, at least – I was stopped cold by the title of Jerry Landi’s offering. Not even the image of a rabid-looking varmint, with the New York skyline in the background, was as convincing as the title or brief description, “Urban legend claims a vicious crack-addicted raccoon, nicknamed ‘Red Eye,’ was behind a series of gruesome murders in the Bronx neighborhood Locust Point.” The word, “krackoon,” had already sold me on it. The only surprise, I suppose, came in learning that the cast of characters was predominantly Italian-American and they might best be described as Tony and Carmela Soprano’s retarded kinfolk. “Bloodmarsh Krackoon” is as goofy as it sounds, but not without its humorous depictions of Bronx trailer-trash.

With all due respect for John Waters and other indie pioneers, Montclair State University’s contribution to the cinematic art, “Bill Zebub,” could easily be considered the D.W. Griffith of the DIY-horror movement. With such immortal titles as “Antfarm Dickhole,” “Forgive Me for Raping You” and “Jesus, the Total Douchbag,” hardly anyone else is playing in the same league with him. Made in 2004, “Kill the Scream Queen” has been re-edited and re-released as the only “director-approved” version. It contains “never-before-seen footage in a much creepier edit.” In it, several legitimate actresses respond to an Internet ad seeking participants in a make-believe snuff filmsq. During their screen tests, the women ask the director why there’s no crew or why no script was made available to them. Desperate for work, they convince themselves of the director’s credibility and artistic mission. Instead, he punishes their gullibility by raping and murdering them. In an interview, Zebub suggests that such a scenario not only is valid, but also inevitable. Uncharacteristically, the film adds a behind-the-scenes chapter in which the actors break character, as well as the illusion of suffering. The interview, with the owner of something called Rough Pictures, also reveals some of secrets of the torture-porn subgenre. It’s a vile way to make a point about something Zebub’s loyal fans already take for granted, but that’s DIY. The DVD also adds “Ravage the Scream     Queen,” a harder take on the theme. Most of the actors are from Zebub’s repertoire company and the music is strictly death- and industrial-metal.

As far as high-concept ideas go, “Blackwater” takes this week’s top prize. Three words sum it up: “Deliverance”/Everglades/MILFs. I could have added rape/arrows/canoes/in-breds, but you knew that already. As derivative as it might be, a woman’s take on “Deliverance” really isn’t a bad idea for a movie. An entire industry has blossomed in the 42 years since Burt Reynolds led his ill-fated mission down the Cahulawassee River, providing women with opportunities to travel together to the world’s most scenic and potentially hazardous locations. No men are allowed, either … except, perhaps, for a buff young guide to cook the meals and take his shirt off when framed by the campfire. Problem is, here, that the acting is at the level required by community theater troupes and, while the swamp is easy on the eyes. I got the impression that everything was shot within a half-mile radius of the craft-services truck. Considering that none of the four writers and directors has worked previously on a feature film, it’s surprising that “Blackwater” turned out to be as watchable as it is.

Having begun his filmmaking career in 1970, with a small part in Robert Altman’s “Brewster McCloud,” Gary Chason also has a dozen directing titles on resume, most of them shorts. Knowing this, it would be a tad disingenuous to put “God Thinks You’re a Loser” alongside do-it-yourself pictures by less-experienced folks. The Austin resident is, however, is listed as writer/director/producer and that’s good enough for me to lump it together with the movies in this list. Described as a supernatural black comedy, “GTYAL” bounces between heaven and hell in telling its parable about oil-industry executives and strippers in boomtown Houston in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the women who are more interesting than the men, who are, by profession and personality, jerks. In death, they revisit each other. The reason I was attracted to the movie in the first place is its cover, upon which a cartoonish drawing of a suicide victim concludes on her way to the pavement, “… I changed my mind!!” Like the doomed stripper, I fell for it. – Gary Dretzka

Viva Max!
Angered by his girlfriend saying he’s so ineffectual that his men wouldn’t follow him to a brothel, Brigadier General Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos (Peter Ustinov) of the Mexican army hops on his white horse and orders his men to join him in a mission to re-capture the Alamo. They do, but only being threatened at gunpoint by his loyal aide-de-camp (John Astin). After crossing into the United States at a sleepy border crossing, Max sneaks into downtown San Antonio in tourist garb to scope out the historic monument. He does this by joining a tour group and chatting with a guard old enough to have participated in the attack. Sure, enough, the plan works, without a shot being fired. The chief of police (Harry Morgan) needs to be convinced that anyone would have the temerity to actually pull off such stunts – usually a subject of prank calls – but draws his own line in the sand at raising the flag of a foreign nation over the shrine on his watch. Before he’ll release his hostages and surrender, however, Max demands to negotiate with someone of equal standing at the Pentagon. Instead, he gets General Billy Joe Hallson of the Texas National Guard (Jonathan Winters) and a staunch anti-communist crackpot (Keenan Wynn), who insists that Max is Chinese. Blessedly, the men on both sides carry unloaded weapons and an embarrassing bloodbath inside the Alamo is avoided. “Viva Max!” is typical of absurdist Cold War comedies of the late 1960s, including “The Russians Are Coming/The Russians Are Coming” and Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22.” Enough San Antonio residents complained about what they perceived to be a desecration of the Alamo that production was asked to leave town. It’s interesting that “Viva Max!” was based on a novel by journalist Jim Lehrer and directed by Jerry Paris, best known for his work on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “Happy Days.” Alas, Cheezy Flicks didn’t waste much time or money cleaning up the movie for its first appearance in DVD. – Gary Dretzka

The King Family: Classic Television Specials Collection, Volume One
It’s easy to forget how weird things got in the mid-1960-70s, when the Republican Party and corporate interests attempted to counter the counterculture with music-based propaganda of their own. It began with Sing Out shows of the Moral Re-Armament organization and Up With People, a large song-and-dance ensemble of teens and young adults who never stopped smiling and looking wholesome. But, then, neither did the Osmond Family, Anita Bryant and the King Family Singers. The movement’s crowning moment came on March 23, 1969, when Bryant joined Jackie Gleason, the Lettermen and Kate Smith at Miami’s Rose Bowl, in a Rally for Decency to protest the sexually suggestive antics of Jim Morrison during a Doors concert there. More than 30,000 people might have attended the rally, if the organizers hadn’t forbidden admittance to “longhairs and weird dressers.” Pat Buchanan, then an aide to the president, encouraged Nixon to exploit “the pollution of young minds,” calling it “an extremely popular issue.” Up With People, marching bands and other acts deemed clean and patriotic would famously dominate half-time entertainment at the Orange Bowl and Super Bowl for years to come. I wonder how many corpses were spinning in their graves when the NFL began inviting such entertainers as Madonna, Prince, U2, Beyonce, the Rolling Stones and, lest we forget, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake to its party.

The King Family Show” featured The King Sisters and their extended musical family, which, at times, numbered as many 75 people. The first ABC show aired from January, 1965, to January, 1966. The series was revived in 1969, airing from March to September, 1969. Although, the Kings mostly eschewed hot-button issues and interpreted pop hits in their own harmonic way, their non-network specials didn’t hesitate to mix church and state or exploit a King in military uniform. MVD Visual is distributing the first two-disc volume of the Kings’ “Classic Television Specials Collection,” celebrating Easter, Mother’s Day, June and Back to School themes. The women, especially, take full advantage of the expanding popularity of color television by wearing matching pastel outfits – and white go-go boots for the whole family – and colors that match the touristy outdoors settings. The Kings continued to produce syndicated specials until things got a bit unwieldy, but still get together special occasions and King Cousins tours. The package, which, everything considered, looks and sounds pretty good, adds such bonus material as the “lost” Valentine’s special, on-set home movies, performances from the “Graduation Day” special and an eight-page booklet. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Her: Blu-ray
Deux ex machine is the plot device that came to mind about halfway through Spike Jonze’s wildly inventive and quite possibly prescient romance, “Her.” Instead of “god from the machine,” however, deux ex machine translates here as “goddess from the machine.” In the not-so-distant future, Jonze speculates, some otherwise stable human beings will be so overwhelmed by feelings of alienation, despair and loneliness that they’ll turn to artificially intelligent operating systems to ease their misery. Here, voices attached to the highly efficient OS1s are soothing and, if anything, overly empathetic. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a professional letter-writer in the final stages of an extremely painful divorce. He’s not without friends, but they are overmatched when it comes to making him feel better. Like any good personal assistant, the deux ex machina – lovingly voiced by Scarlett Johansson – not only services his every need, but also anticipates them. Samantha appears to have been programmed by code jockeys proficient in psychology and advice to the lovelorn. It doesn’t take long for Theodore to fall head over heels with Samantha and vice-versa. She guides him through his masturbatory fantasies, seemingly getting herself off by making him happy.

If he grows into someone who’s astonishingly happy, Theodore still retains a distinctly human measure of shame over having to admit to friends that he’s in love with an operating system. His friends, however, aren’t particularly judgmental when it comes to Theodore’s newfound bliss. After all, his letters are only slightly any less synthetic than the words emanating from the OS1. They seem to understand his attraction to Samantha and prefer it to the blow-up sex dolls of yesteryear. Indeed, Theodore has changed his demeanor to the point where his soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) almost doesn’t recognize him. It’s at this point in the story that Jonze demands of his protagonist that he question his good luck and put artificial obstacles between himself and Samantha. The atmosphere gets pretty thick with existential debate between the star-crossed lovers, but it’s of a piece with everything that’s transpired in the previous 110 minutes, or so. “Her” may take place in the foreseeable future, but, thematically, it could have been co-written by Shakespeare. If a guy can fall in love with a blow-up doll today, why not the voice of Johannson, tomorrow. The Blu-ray package adds a trio of typically vague Jonzean featurettes: “The Untitled Rick Howard Project,” “How Do You Share Your Life With Somebody” and “Her: Love in the Modern Age.” “Her” may be a tad far out to suit everyone’s tastes, but the pursuit of love often makes strange bedfellows. – Gary Dretzka

Overlord: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Big Red One: Blu-ray
Generation War
The First World War: Complete Series
Home of the Brave: Blu-ray
Flying Tigers: Blu-ray
Memphis Belle: Blu-ray
PBS: Coming Back With Wes Moore
With Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of D-Day coming up, several excellent films have been re-released into Blu-ray. Other, previously uncirculated pictures have been introduced for consideration by history buffs, as well. Made in Britain by American director Stuart Cooper, “Overlord” describes one 18-year-old conscript’s terrifying introduction to war on D-Day, but not before recalling the intense – if occasionally humorous – training he received at boot camp and jn preparation specifically for the invasion. When it isn’t dealing with the matter-of-factness of life for the private, Tom (Brian Stirner), “Overlord” offers dreamlike meditations on death and loss. Tom’s private thoughts probably aren’t strikingly different than those of any other soldier pondering the uncertainties of war, but Cooper renders them as dreamlike premonitions. And, on D-Day, the men on the landing crafts had to know that the odds of never coming home again were not in their favor. Knowing that “Overlord” was shot by Stanley Kubrick’s longtime cinematographer, John Alcott, I conjured textual parallels between it and “Full Metal Jacket.” Alcott didn’t work with Kubrick on “Full Metal Jacket,” but Tom’s journey through the training camps presaged some of Private Joker’s experiences 12 years later, when he prepared for Vietnam. What’s truly special about “Overload,” however, is the marriage of rarely scene archival footage – much of it truly amazing — and material newly shot with actors. Most Americans have been led to believe that U.S. troops shouldered most of the load on June 6, 1944, even though Brits and Canadians suffered huge losses and scored similar victories. I doubt that the American writer/director, Cooper, intended “Overlord” to be corrective in this regard. It’s likely that he saw a different way of telling a monumental, if familiar story, using background material that had previously been deemed classified or was buried in the Imperial War Museum. As far as I know, it wasn’t seen here until being screened at the 2004 Telluride Film Festival. It’s definitely worth the effort to find.

In Samuel Fuller’s now-epic war story, “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction,” the truly legendary writer/director recalls his own experiences in the celebrated fighting unit during World War II. It participated in D-Days in northern Africa and Italy, before joining the crowd in the invasion of France. Landing on beaches is only part of what the Red One was required to do in the war, though, even if Normandy proved the deadliest. This undoubtedly made “The Big Red One” the most personal of all of Fuller’s movies and, in it, he’s represented by the cigar-chomping Private Zab (Robert Carradine). The 1980 version of “TBRO” was butchered to fit a running time of less than two hours. It was watchable, but special only because it bore Fuller’s name, “The Reconstruction” weighs in at 163 minutes, and it’s terrific. Besides improving the continuity, the added length adds depth to the characters and their relationships on and off the battlefields. As “The Sergeant,” Lee Marvin is the thread that runs through “TBRO:TR.” It opens in France on the Armistice Day that brought World War I to a close. The battle-weary Sergeant wasn’t aware that the war had ended and it caused him to kill a mud-covered German soldier moving toward him in a way he judged to be menacing. Flash ahead some 25 years later and the professional soldier is preparing his wet-behind-the-ears underlings to land on an African beach held by French soldiers led by a Vichy loyalist. The movie will end 2½ hours later in Czechoslovakia, with the liberation of a concentration camp and a parallel encounter with a post-Armistice German “professional.” At the extended length, Fuller fully captures the plodding pace of war as experienced by infantrymen, along with the outbursts of terrifying action that come out of nowhere and without warning. The “Reconstruction” is enhanced by the commentary of restorer/critic Richard Schickel, even more deleted scenes and background featurettes. Anyone who purchased “TBRO:TR” in 2004 should be careful to examine the specifications listed on the box, to avoid purchasing something they already own.

Even 70 years after its defeat in World War II, Germany has yet to get a handle on how to deal with its role in the conflagration. Images of Adolph Hitler are banned, as are displays of Nazi iconography and collectibles. With few exceptions – “Das Boot” and, now, “Generation War,” among them – movies and television have avoided depicting German soldiers in a natural light. In its scope and ambition, “GW” compares favorably to the best mini-series made in the U.S. during the 1970-80s. By tightening the focus on a vow made by five 20-year-old friends on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, it keeps the narrative from having to serve as a history lesson on the length and breadth of German domination. The characters include a young Wehrmacht officer and his younger brother, who serve in the same platoon on the Eastern Front; a woman who volunteers as a nurse and is sent east; another woman, an aspiring chanteuse, who sleeps with a Gestapo officer to advance her career; and the singer’s actual boyfriend, a Jew, who is denounced by his father for lecturing them about the country’s growing threat to even the most loyal of Jewish citizens. No one is opposed to the war, itself, just the possibility that extremists will take Hitler’s condemnations too literally. They were particularly confused about the ban on American swing music that was sweeping through Europe. They vow to reunite seven or eight months later, for a Christmas party. It was a promise that would never be kept, although their paths would briefly cross throughout the 4½-hour mini-series. Little effort was spared in replicating the settings in which the real action took place and the country’s role in atrocities, anti-Semitism and causing widespread pain throughout Europe isn’t ignored, either. Critics have pointed out that the story paints Poles in an unfairly ugly light, possibly in an attempt to distance average German citizens and soldiers from the horrors visited by Nazi Party members and the Gestapo. There were many anti-Semites in Poland, sure, but little mercy was spared on them by Germany or the Red Army. More importantly, “GW” accomplished its primary mission of getting Germans to confront their past, by encouraging younger viewers to openly discuss the period with their parents and grandparents. Such a dialogue is something that has been avoided since the war ended and the death camps were liberated. The series, which was well-received throughout Europe and Israel, should be easily relatable to American audiences, too.

Lest we forget, 2014 marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I, at least for the countries that didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. As far as most Americans know, it didn’t begin in earnest until 1917, when Congress declared war and we swooped in to save the day, like Mighty Mouse. I, for one, didn’t fully understand how WWI qualified as a worldwide conflagration until watching “The First World War,” and I’m no spring chicken. Based on the book by Hew Strachan and clocking in at 500 minutes, the BBC series is able to go beyond what most of us already know about the origins and disposition of the war, by adding a global dimension that carries us to China and Japan, colonial Africa and North America. I, for one, wasn’t aware of Germany’s plans to attack New York from the sea and its overtures to Mexico to shape an anti-U.S. offensive. Likewise, it traces the formation of formal and informal alliances around the world, pitting neighboring countries against each other for reasons that border on the inexplicable. Much time, of course, is devoted to the execution of the absurd war fought on both sides of No Man’s Land, which nearly chewed up an entire generation of young men. Neither was I aware of how fed up the soldiers would become over risking their lives in the name of imperialism, capitalism and monarchy, instead of national security, individual liberty and patriotism. Also discussed at length is how everything that happened in World War I would be revisited 20 years later in the Second World War, including genocide and the pursuit of ultimate weapons. The sheer volume of archival material and visual evidence used to amplify the points being made is staggering.

Based on a 1946 Broadway play by Arthur Laurents, “Home of the Brave” deals with racial prejudice among U.S. soldiers in World War II. While the protagonist of the play was Jewish, the movie presents a scenario in which an accomplished African-American topography specialist, Peter Moss (James Edwards), is ordered to accompany a group of white marines to a Japanese-held island in advance of an invasion. Somehow, studio executives felt as if the subject of anti-Semitism had already been exhausted on film and decided to make a “Negro problem picture,” instead. Prejudice in the ranks of the military was accepted as a necessary evil by many Americans – including those in the military and political establishment — so the message of the play remained intact. Once on the island, the reconnaissance team performs its duties as assigned, while also engaging in informal discussions about the black man’s experiences in life. Only one of them is overtly, almost cartoonishly racist, but everyone is aware of the potential for trouble. Nonetheless, when the Japanese finally discover the intruders, a cartographer played by Lloyd Bridges is seriously wounded. This causes Moss to choose between attempting to rescue his longtime friend – the pairing was coincidental – or simply assuming that he’s goner and ensuring the maps’ safety by immediately heading back to a rendezvous with a waiting PT boat. The total experience traumatizes Moss to the point where he can’t wait walk or respond to the questions of a military psychiatrist (Jeff Corey). After administering some kind of truth potion, the doctor engages Moss in a forced confrontation over the mission and race. Although “Home of the Brave” feels more than a little bit stage-bound, director Mark Robson makes us forget that the team landed on a beach in Malibu and the jungle was created on a soundstage, with a voice actor filling in for the annoying tropical birds. Apparently, the movie did well at the box office, including in the South. Even so, Hollywood executives were in no hurry to revisit the question of race in the military, government or corporate America.

Other worthwhile films being released in advance of the anniversary of D-Day are “Flying Tigers” and “Memphis Belle.” In the former, John Wayne plays the leader of a unit of ace mercenary fliers who are paid by the Chinese to bring down Japanese fighters patrolling the skies of their occupied nation. Plans for Pearl Harbor were already on the drawing boards, in Tokyo, but very few people in the U.S. concerned themselves with the terrible things happening in China. The movies format is similar to other war movies of the period, in which a diverse group of American fighters put aside their personal disagreements and prejudices to vanquish a common enemy. Of course, the men squabble over who’s the top gun and there’s a competition for the hand of a pretty blond nurse (Anna Lee) between Wayne’s no-nonsense pilot and a slick newcomer (John Carroll). Released only weeks after the U.S. declared war on Japan and Germany, “Flying Tigers” was used to promote the war effort and raise spirits of Americans still stunned by Pearl Harbor. Fifty years later, “Memphis Belle” not only demonstrated just how far movies about wartime aviation had come since “Flying Tigers,” technically, but also how certain clichés have endured. It describes how the various members of the Memphis Belle flight crew react to the arrival of public-relations specialist (John Lithgow), assigned to publicize the 25th successful mission flown by the bomber crew. Unlike the airmen we met in “Catch 22,” those on the Memphis Belle will be able to return home after the promised 25 missions. The rub, of course, is this could possibly be their last, given the fortifications of the target and the Germans’ determination to protect it. Sure enough, director Michael Caton-Jones is required to juice the action to raise the question as to the mission’s fate. He also creates an atmosphere of tension in the relationship between the writer and the base commander (David Straithairn). The Blu-ray includes “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” the William Wyler documentary that inspired the 1990 movie.

As prepared as this country is when it comes to waging war, that’s as unprepared it is to deal with problems that bedevil our veterans when they return and find it difficult to fit back into society. It’s nothing new, of course. What’s different today, perhaps, is the sheer number of troubled veterans who need help – VA hospitals are still treating WWII and Korean vets, after all — and the complexity of the diagnoses. Neither is the government holding up its end by continuing to trim budgets and veto programs designed to get patients healthy and put them back to work at a living wage. The PBS documentary, “Coming Back With Wes Moore,” follows several veterans and family members as they attempt to ease the transition from war zone to home, sometimes within a few hours of each other. It is broken into three parts: “Coming Back,” “Fitting In” and “Moving Forward.” Moore is an author, combat veteran and host of “Beyond Belief” on the Oprah Winfrey Network. – Gary Dretzka

Generation Iron
A few months before Arnold Schwarzenegger made a name for himself in the body-building documentary “Pumping Iron,” the future “Governator” made his dramatic debut in a terrifically entertaining hybrid from Bob Rafelson, “Stay Hungry.” Both pictures served to enhance the image of competitive body builders, who, up until then, were known mostly for amusing tourists drawn to the daily freak show that is Venice Beach. Both films portrayed the weight lifters as having more on their minds than chiseling their abs and preparing for pose-offs. Nearly 40 years later, Vlad Yudin decided to remake “Pumping Iron” for an audience that no longer considers body-building to be a freakish waste of time and cry for attention. Two of the key participants in “Pumping Iron” and “Generation Iron” are better known today as actors than body builders. No one has been able to pigeon-hole Lou Ferrigno as a single-character actor and Schwarzenegger was elected governor without once dismissing his pursuit of seven Mr. Olympia titles. Narrated by Mickey Rourke, “GI” follows the seven top competitors in the 2012 contest, which came down to a one-point decision between rivals Phil Heath and Kai Greene. While the film is short on details of the daily regimen of bodybuilders, it fully exploits the excitement of fans and drama of competition. As such, it’s a worthy successor to “Pumping Iron.” I also encourage people who haven’t seen “Stay Hungry,” which also stars Jeff Bridges and Sally Field, to make the effort to find copy of the DVD. – Gary Dretzka

Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Shelter Island
The idea is simple enough: put two very smart and inventive men in the same room and record what they have to say to each other. The concept worked so well in “My Dinner With Andre” that, even today, a goodly number of viewers still aren’t aware that it was scripted. “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” works on the same principle, minus the food and tableware. Director, animator, musician and video artiste Michel Gondry sits down here with the brilliant MIT professor emeritus, philosopher, linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky to discuss issues of interest to both men. Although the conversation could easily have been weighted on the side of Chomsky’s views on human rights, war or his support of the Occupy movement, Gondry was more interested in drawing out his subject on less controversial issues. The first question he asks of the so-called father of modern linguistics is about his earliest memory. This extends into an exploration of his theories on the emergence of language and how our perceptions of objects are formed. All the while, Gondry sketches his impressions of Chomsky’s points of view, which are later brilliantly colored and animated. They tell us as much about Gondry as Chomsky’s theories do about him. The professor doesn’t hesitate to bluntly reject the much younger filmmaker’s opinions on what’s being discussed, but the brush-offs are almost amusing in their absence of elitism. The marriage of art and thought makes “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” a treat for fans of the creator of such offbeat fare as “The Science of Sleep” and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Those who aren’t the least bit curious about the title probably will want to take a pass on it.

The art that Gondry creates to illustrate points made by Chomsky in “ITMWITH?” could be described in many ways: explosive, cartoonish, child-like, psychedelic and impressionistic. It would never be considered “outsider,” if only because of his economic background and education. Nonetheless, if the same sketches could only be found leaning against a picket fence, outside a gas station in a rural community, “outsider” probably would be among the kinder things they were labeled. They would be sold, if at all, at a huge discount to what they could receive in a gallery in New York or Paris with Gondry’s name attached to them.

The same scenario plays out in Michael Canzoniero’s compelling documentary, “Shelter Island,” which focuses on abstract-expressionist Harald Olson, whose work was, in fact, sold from a roadside picket fence and tiny gas-station gallery, on an island off the eastern tip of Long Island. Olson only uses found materials, gathered from a local recycling yard or the side of a highway. “Shelter Island” describes how Olson and his friend and patron Jimmy Olinkiewicz — a onetime developer and single parent of a functionally autistic son — made the journey from his gas station to a prestigious Manhattan gallery. It occurred shortly after David Rankin, a sculptor who also resides on Shelter Island, noticed Olson’s art and helped to secure a showing for him. Potential buyers already were well versed in the nuances of “outsider” and abstract art, so no one needed much convincing as to its genuineness. At one point a collector describes to Olson how and why his work measures up to that of other better-known abstract expressionists, although I’m not sure it mattered much to the artist. With the paintings framed and hung on white walls, under direct lighting, they looked significantly more impressive than at the Shelter Island garage. Canzoniero divides the focus on the wonderfully open-hearted Olinkiewicz and his engaging son, who, in a short film included in the package, describes himself as being half-autistic, half-Asperger and 100 percent satisfied with his station in life. We’re never fully enlightened on the artist’s background, except that he isn’t comfortable around people other than the Olinkiewiczs and prefers to live alone and paint to the accompaniment of the Doors and other classic rockers. Olson has quirks, but nothing particularly strange or off-putting. In context or without any, his amazing work speaks for itself. – Gary Dretzka

 
American Jesus
At first glance, the image on the cover of “American Jesus” made me think that the movie was just another straight-to-DVD slasher picture. In fact, it’s the face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin juxtaposed on a black, red and blue American flag. It’s downright scary and not at all representative of the documentary contained therein. A more accurate title would have been “Christianity: American Style,” but who would pay to see that? Aram Garriga’s film is informed by the curious belief held by American fundamentalists that one isn’t truly a Christian, unless a cornpone reverend dips them in a vat of water behind a rural church. This misreading of scripture would be harmless, if it weren’t for the fact that the Evangelical movement wasn’t so intolerant of anyone who doesn’t practice the same brand of Christianity as they do. It became offensive when, during the Reagan administration, the born-again lobby openly bullied American politicians who didn’t toe their line and reward those who buckled to their demands. The holier-than-thou contingent doesn’t have a major presence in “American Jesus.” Garriga doesn’t seem to think that the many off-brand ministries he’s encountered in his travels in the U.S. present a threat to our democracy or might be planted on foreign soil. Instead, he gives the ordained snake handlers, cowboys, bikers, musicians, comedians, ex-cons, surfers and cage-fighters he meet the benefit of a very large doubt. They’re kooky, sure, but as dedicated to the Lord’s work as any other clergy. In fact, they’re downright American in their ability to work the system to their favor and score the same tax benefits accorded priests, rabbis and televangelists. If “American Jesus” doesn’t take on such powerful frauds as Pat Robertson, Rick Warren and James Dobson, it still makes for an interesting look at Christianity: American Style. – Gary Dretzka

Special ID
What Clarence Fok Yiu-leung’s hyper-active “Special ID” lacks in logic and comprehensibility, it more than makes up for in brilliantly choreographed fighting action. Donnie Yen plays police detective Chen Zilong, whose undercover alias in the criminal underground is Dragon Chen. Borrowing a cliché from a hundred other movies, Chen gets in so deep with the mob that he develops too close a friendship with his primary target, for whom he serves as chief negotiator and enforcer. After a series of failed negotiations, the boss begins to doubt his loyalty and effectiveness. When an old enemy arrives on the scene, threatening to blow his cover, things begin to get very dangerous for the cop. Instead of being pulled out, his police supervisor simply assigns him a new partner, played by the pretty and formidable Jing Tian. Together, they are required to deal with several different weapons and fighting styles, including MMA. One major plus is the integration of Chen’s precious mother (Hee Ching Paw) into the plot. In what some women would perceive to be torture, the woman is ordered by a mob boss to sit still for a haircut, while her son is being berated and threatened. The Blu-ray adds a typically extensive making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Evilspeak: Blu-ray
Final Exam: Blu-ray
Daddy’s Little Girl
Clint Howard’s been in more movies and television shows than anyone in Hollywood, besides Mickey Mouse and the MGM lion. Although he rarely plays the protagonist or antagonist, Howard’s appearance in a genre picture is always cause for appreciative murmuring and celebration in the audience, and not for his kinship to his older brother, Ron. If anyone deserves a star on the Walk of Fame or AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s him. In Eric Weston’s 1981 gore-fest “Evilspeak,” Howard was given the rare opportunity to be the leading man. He plays a continually harassed cadet, Stanley Coppersmith, at a military school over-populated with bullies, and that includes teachers and administrators. He isn’t so pathetic that he doesn’t have friends, but everything he touches tends to turn to shit. It’s no secret that “Evilspeak” will have a pronounced Satanic element to it, but it doesn’t reveal itself until Coppersmith is assigned to clean out the basement of the school’s chapel. While snooping around, he discovers the crypt of a 16th Century Satanist priest and a book of potions and incantations. Although 1981 was still at the dawn of the computer age, Coppersmith manages to program a Black Mass that unleashes a series of very grim reprisals from the Satanist (Richard Moll). What makes “Evilspeak” stand out from the crowd is its status as one of the movies included in Britain’s list of “video nasties,” along with the heavy editing it endured to gain distribution and avoid an X-rating from the MPAA. Among the affected scenes was one in which a naked secretary in possession of the book (Lynn Hancock) is attacked by feral pigs while in the shower. It isn’t clear if the pigs are raping her or merely trying to feast on her innards, which happens anyway. That scene and others have been restored in the Blu-ray edition, which includes new commentary and interviews with cast and crew, including Howard. Did I mention that Luca Brasi (a.k.a., Lenny Montana) also plays a key supporting role?

Also from Shout!Factory and 1981 comes the far less interesting – and substantially less gory – slasher flick, “Final Exam.” Jimmy Huston’s college-set picture takes place during final exams, duh, when most students have other things on their mind than death. When one frat boy needs help cheating on his test, his brothers stage a terror attack to divert the proctor’s attention. It would be funny if it didn’t recall so many such attacks by armed morons since Columbine. What the fake terrorists can’t know is that a real serial killer is tracing the footsteps of the frat boys and doing the dirty deed for real. “Final Exam” is surprisingly bloodless as these things went in the 1980s. There’s a flurry of legitimate action in its last half-hour, but too little, too late, for most genre freaks. The restored Blu-ray adds commentary and interviews.

Daddy’s Little Girl” is what happens Ozploitation meets torture porn. If that makes your mouth water … find help, immediately. If you’re simply a sub-genre completest or curious, it’s probably a good idea to steel one’s self, anyway. Here, the precious blond daughter of divorced parents is kidnaped, tortured, raped and murdered on a beach in a tight-knit community on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. Blessedly, we’re spared this nasty piece of business by writer/director Chris Sun. It isn’t until five or six frustrating months later that the girl’s father locates a piece of evidence that the police overlooked and decides to takes justice into his own hands and, by justice, I mean torturing the guy to the point where he couldn’t confess if he wanted to do so. What Sun has done here is conjure the kind of punishment that arguably fits the crime and demands of us that we either sit still for it or hit the stop button early. The same thing could have been accomplished, I suppose, by re-creating the botched execution in Oklahoma and asking viewers if they thought that the Founding Fathers had this kind of justice in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights. No matter what one thinks of the graphic depiction of torture and the mechanics of death, it’s possible that scales will be tipped when the murdered child appears and gives her father a sign of approval. If that constitutes a spoiler, it was intentional. – Gary Dretzka

Marvel Knights: Wolverine Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today
One of the cool things about superheroes and supervillains in comic books is that they can be revived in different forms and aliases whenever a story arc needs to be revived. Indeed, the recurring character can be a superhero in one iteration and a supervillain the next. Marvel keeps the cyborg Deathlok on the shelf for such occasions. Deathlok the Destroyer first appeared in 1974 and has been resurrected in different forms several times since then. The new Marvel Knights action comic, “Wolverine Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today,” debuts an “all-new, all-different” Deathlok on the occasion of killer cyborgs returning to Earth from the future to kill the heroes of today. Among them are Wolverine and Captain America, who are coming off a bender. Eventually, they will be joined by characters from Agents of SHIELD, Avengers and X-Men. I prefer the action-comic format to the blockbuster format, especially because each one costs 100 million fewer dollars to produce than a summer tent-pole movie. The comics tend to be grittier than the film adaptations and the characterizations ring truer. This one adds the featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Tomorrow Dies Today,’” with illustrator Ron Garney. – Gary Dretzka

7 Boxes
Very few movies make their way north from South American theaters, anymore. In the 1970-80s, there was a brief flurry of attention paid to sexy romantic comedies from Brazil and then came several intense dramas from Argentina, Brazil and Chile, concerning the “disappeared” students and leftists under the right-wing regimes. Twenty years later, a few good crime thrillers have arrived, but mostly at niche festivals. There’s simply no place to put them, except art houses, and art houses are overstocked with English-language indies. It took the general acceptance of DVDs, with multiple dialogue tracks, and such outlets as Facets, Netflix and Movies Unlimited, to service this niche audience. Movies from Paraguay were practically invisible, unless at least one of the characters was Joseph Mengele. Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori’s nifty thriller, “7 Boxes,” is devoid of ex-Nazis, but definitely worth a close look by fans of caper flicks with wild chases.

Victor (Celso Franco) is a 17-year-old street hustler, who delivers packages to customers of a teeming Asunción market. Given the lack of opportunities available to teenagers his age, Victor values the work and takes the responsibility seriously. One day, he’s entrusted with the delivery of seven wooden boxes only to a warehouse only eight blocks away. If he is successful, he’ll received the half of a $100 bill retained by his employer. The one condition is that he not open any of the boxes and look inside of them. This would be a simple enough task if the boy usually entrusted with such missions wasn’t so miffed over blowing the gig that he took his anger out on him. One thing leads to another and “7 Boxes” quickly evolves into one long chase through the marketplace, mostly with wheelbarrow-toting street urchins, sleazy criminals and overweight cops. When we find out what’s in the boxes, it’s easy to see why the criminals are so anxious to get their hands on them. The characters chasing each other around the marketplace with wheelbarrows are desperately trying to make ends meet by selling stolen cellphones, laboring thanklessly in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants and working cheap hustles. The filmmakers even give Victor’s worst nemesis a sound reason – medicine for his sick children – for being a jerk. More than anything else, though, “7 Boxes” is a great deal of fun to watch. It moves like a well-oiled machine and shortcuts aren’t used to advance. – Gary Dretzka

The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection: Blu-ray
Fox Cinema Archives
Notes on a Scandal: Blu-ray
Twentieth Century Fox’s lavish “The Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” was released in time for Mother’s Day, but could just as easily please dads and granddads of a certain age. Put the discs on the Blu-ray player usually reserved for kids’ stuff and you might be surprised to see who sits down to watch them with the old folks. At a time when a trip to New York was prohibitively expensive for most folks, fans of Broadway musicals had to wait impatiently for traveling productions to arrive, and that usually took years. Extravagant song-and-dance productions, displayed on wide screens in old-fashioned movies palaces, would begin to fill the gap almost as soon as talkies were introduced. What was lost in personal intimacy was replaced by appearances by the biggest stars of the day and cinematography that couldn’t be reproduced on stage. The lyrics, books and music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein ruled the box offices in the period covered by this fine collection, which spans 1945-65. The festivities kick off with “State Fair” (1945), their only collaboration made specifically for a movie. It was adapted as a musical from 1933 movie, starring Will Rogers, of the same title. It’s a cornpone romance, to be sure, but studio executives figured that the country would enjoy something light as the war was coming to an end. The fantasies of the Fracke family, as they prepared for the annual Iowa State Fair, would fill the bill nicely. While Mom and Pop (Charles Winninger, Fay Bainter) put the finishing touches on their pies, pickles and pig in competition, daughter Margy (Jeanne Crain) and son Wayne (Dick Haymes) are trying to deal with the prospect of getting married and stuck in Iowa forever. They’ll get their first taste of what life might be like outside Iowa at the fair, when she meets a big-city reporter and he falls for a big-band singer. Even if there’s reason to doubt that R&H had ever attended a state fair before collaborating on the movie, or driven cross-country to get from New York to L.A., the songs speak of old-fashioned values and the optimism bred in the bone of hard-working Americans. Like the other movies in the package, “State Fair” contains commentary, sing-alongs, a video jukebox, making-of featurettes, original marketing material and stills galleries, all of which greatly enhance the experience. The other titles new to Blu-ray are “Carousel,” “The King and I” and “Oklahoma!” (in Todd-AO and Cinemascope versions). “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” have already appeared in hi-def, with the former arriving in its theatrical and extended roadshow versions. Sticklers for Blu-ray perfection may have room to quibble about the video and audio transfers – the vibrancy and intensity of the colors, for example – but the average viewer is only likely to see the palpable improvement over previous platforms. At the moment, the eight-disc “Rodgers & Hammerstein Collection” is available only through Amazon. That should change soon enough, however.

Meanwhile, the latest selection of manufactured-on-demand DVDs from Fox Cinema Archives has arrived with 18 fresh titles. Not all, or even most of the movies would easily pass the sniff test as a true “classic,” but each has a good reason for being included here. Among them are “Esther and the King” (1960), “Dante’s Inferno” (1935), “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain” (1951), “The Gay Deception” (1935), “Bachelor Flat” (1961), “The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker” (1971), “Footlight Serenade” (1942), “Marry the Boss’s Daughter” (1941), “Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!” (1948), “That Other Woman” (1942) “Star Dust” (1940), “Good Morning, Miss Dove” (1955) and “Kentucky” (1938). The pictures I requested for a closer look are “Decline and Fall of a Bird Watcher” (1968), a very British comedy based on Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel; “Forever Amber” (1947), a period drama deemed “objectionable” by the Legion of Decency; the elaborately staged period melodrama, “Cardinal Richelieu” (1935); the sword-and-sandal epic, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1962); and “The Pleasure Seekers” (1964), in which Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin are overshadowed by the scenic wonders of Spain … even in bikinis.

Twenty years ago, Fox Searchlight Pictures was launched by the venerable studio to handle prestige indies and foreign-language titles that benefitted from the kind of TLC generally reserved for potential awards candidates. Miramax had just taken the arthouse world by storm and all of the studios scrambled to catch the same lightning in a bottle. In celebration of its success, the company is sending out some of its most popular releases in Blu-ray and planning events for those already in hi-def. Among those making their Blu-ray debut are “Johnson Family Vacation,” “Garden State,” “Once,” “The Deep End” and “Notes on a Scandal” already out and “The Ringer,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “The Full Monty” coming in the summer. “Notes on a Scandal” is an extremely well-cast psychodrama about an aging teacher, Barbara (Judi Dench), at a state-run high school, who becomes dangerously obsessed with a younger art instructor. Sheba (Cate Blanchett), it turns out, is simultaneously enjoying an affair with her most-gifted student. When Barbara witnesses Sheba and the boy in flagrante delicto, the delusional crone sees a way to insinuate herself into the younger woman’s personal life. The whole thing turns sordid very quickly, as the toxins written into Zoe Heller’s 2003 novel begin to spread through the body of the story, which is told through notations in Barbara’s diary. Those wacky boys and girls at the MPAA ratings board gave Richard Eyre’s movie an “R” for language and “some aberrant sexual content.” That’s right, “aberrant.” Actually, I’m surprised Dench and Blanchett’s ferocious performance hasn’t already inspired some clever playwright to adapt “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” using gays or lesbians as the feuding couples. Although both women were nominated for Oscars and other important awards, it’s Dench who created a monster for the ages. Also excellent in this Amazon exclusive are Bill Nighy, Juno Temple, Philip Davis and Andrew Simpson. The score was composed by Philip Glass.   – Gary Dretzka

Countess Dracula: Blu-ray
The Chambermaids
Honey Buns
As near as I can tell, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Elizabeth Bathory legend found a foothold in the movies. Count Dracula had been around, in one form or another, for decades before the countess made her debut. This, despite the fact that she’s arguably as compelling a character. Released in 1971, Hammer Films’ “Countess Dracula” was only the second movie in which she represents both the protagonist and antagonist. It is based on an actual Hungarian aristocrat, who preserved her youth by washing in the blood of murdered virgins … hundreds of them. Here Bathory goes by her maiden name, Elisabeth Nádasdy, which is only one of several aliases. She is played by Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt, an impressive actor by anyone’s standards and a Holocaust survivor. A very good movie could still be made about her life. Peter Sasdy’s film gives a pretty account of the legend, adding a touch of horror when Nadasdy sheds her youthful visage and devolves into an old hag. After being washed in the blood of the lambs gathered by her younger suitors, Nadasdy easily passes for a daughter.  Otherwise, the movie is representative of its time and limitations posed by budget constraints and the modest expectations of its audience. The re-mastered Blu-ray arrives with commentary from Pitt, Sasdy, screenwriter Jeremy Paul and author Jonathan Sothcott; “Immortal Countess: The Cinematic Life of Ingrid Pitt” featurette; an audio interview with Pitt, a still gallery and reversible cover artwork.

Also from the early 1970s, the XXX-rated “The Chambermaids” and “Honey Buns” – both from the archivists at Impulse Pictures – are quite a bit worse for the wear. There are only so many things a company can do to eliminate 40 years’ worth of scratches, scars and artifacts. As such, they’re pretty much of interest only to collectors and nostalgia freaks. Both reveal an effort to tell stories, albeit mundane fantasies, and experiment with cinematography that a couple of stages evolved from what’s expected in loops. Basically, this mean tight close-ups on everything … everything. “The Chambermaids” is an exaggerated description for a couple of maids at a hotel, who are so bored with their jobs that provides guests with service above and beyond the call of duty. Other folks come and go before the maids head home.

The best reasons to pick up “Honey Buns” (a.k.a., “Heads or Tails”) are the semi-legendary Uschi Digard and Rene Bond. The Swedish-born Digard wasn’t exactly discovered by Russ Meyer, but he helped make her famous in the U.S. From there, she took off on her own in soft- and hard-corn porn. Bond was one of the early stars of the L.A. adult scene, when cast in this story about a schlub whose dreams come true, for a while, anyway. – Gary Dretzka

TV to DVD
Netflix: Orange Is the New Black: Season One: Blu-ray
BBC: Afterlife: Series One`
A&E: Longmire: The Complete Second Season
WE: Kendra on Top: Season 2
Nearly lost in all the hubbub surrounding Netflix’s emergence as a producer of such noteworthy original programming as “House of Cards” and the fourth season of “Arrested Development” were several other excellent series, including “Orange Is the New Black” and “Lilyhammer.” The latter imagined a mobster very much like Silvio Dante of “The Sopranos” being voluntarily sent to rural Norway, as part of the feds’ witness-protection program. It took the fish-out-of-water conceit to another level entirely. “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan used Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” as the basis for the rough-and-ready series. It was immediately compared to a female version of the HBO series “Oz,” with a splash of Fox’s “Prison Break” added for additional color. Even so, it would be difficult not to recognize the genetic code of dozens of other women-in-prison exploitation flicks in “Orange Is the New Black.” Ten years after she was involved in an elaborate drug-smuggling scheme, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is living a relatively normal middle-class life, with a straight-arrow fiancé and fading memories of her lesbian relationship with her partner-in-crime, Alex (Laura Pepron). Despite the lapse in time, Piper is convicted and sent to prison for her crime. It’s a transition that she will find difficult to accommodate. Naturally, the hardened cons take advantage of her naiveté by bullying her and playing drop-the-soap in the showers. Before long, Piper’s life is further complicated by the arrival of Alex, who sees no reason why they can’t pick up where they left off. The other inmates have stories to tell, as well, and they play out in flashbacks. Meanwhile, the fiancé finds a way to turn Piper’s agony into his ticket to journalistic fame. As is usually the case with shows of this caliber, I heartily recommend beginning at the beginning, before jumping into the story in Season 2, which begins very soon. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background featurettes “New Kid on the Cell Block,”  ”Mother Hen: Red Runs the Coup,” “It’s Tribal” and “Prison Rules,” as well as commentary on two episodes.

TV shows in which one of the key characters is a psychic, medium or clairvoyant have been a longtime staple of the industry. For them to work, the protagonists must be charismatic, persuasive and correct. Too often, though, episodes are interchangeable with countless other crime-fighter series, in which the lead characters are blessed simply with uncanny intelligence. The British shows that make their way to the U.S. tend to require a bit more than pat answers to satisfy viewers. In “Afterlife,” Lesley Sharp plays the character who sees dead people, while Andrew Lincoln was given the obligatory role of the learned skeptic. In addition to having to solve crimes, both remain haunted by ghosts of their own. Lincoln has been a mainstay of British mini-series for many years and does anguish as well as anyone. Sharp has starred in her share of mini-series, but also is familiar from “Vera Drake,” “From Hell,” “Naked” and “The Full Monty.” Anyone who enjoys “The Mentalist,” “Criminal Minds” and “Lie to Me” should love “Afterlife.”

Soon to enter its third stanza, “Longmire” is a crime-solving series in the Western tradition. Apart from the sports-utility-vehicles and cellphones, it could sit very easily alongside “Gunsmoke” and other genre series. That’s because the show takes full advantage of locations in northern New Mexico, where things haven’t changed much over the last 100 years and the scenery recalls the Wyoming setting favored by the author of “Walt Longmire” mysteries, Craig Johnson. In Season 2, the sheriff continues to fight a four-front war against unscrupulous developers, their puppet candidate to replace him, common riff-raff and the as-yet-unpunished killer of his wife. His grown daughter is also obsessed with discovering the truth about the circumstances of her mother’s death. The three-disc set includes an extended director’s-cut version of the seventh episode, “Sound and Fury,” and season finale, “Bad Medicine.” There will also be a bonus featurette, “Testing Courage: The Storm Defines the Man.”

As difficult as it is to understand the appeal of “The Girls Next Door,” it’s just that baffling to get a handle on Kendra Wilkinson’s follow-up series, “Kendra,” and the sequel to that mess, “Kendra on Top.” Although it continued to be one of those reality shows about nothing, Season 2, at least, captured enough unexpected moments to justify its existence on the obscure WE tv network (formerly Romance Classics and WE: Women’s Entertainment). Among the unscripted things that happen to Kendra and Hank are a nearly disastrous stint on the show “Splash,” a serious car accident, early warning about a stroke, a family trip to Big Bear, the removal of her IUD and hosting the World’s Largest Bachelorette Party. – Gary Dretzka

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron: Blu-ray
From DreamWorks Animation, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002) attempted to swim against the cartoon current with its emphasis on naturalism and western grandeur over talking horses and other anthropomorphic gimmicks. Spirit is a young Kiger mustang stallion slowly learning that the West his ancestors knew is being threatened by a parade of expansionist settlers, soldiers and unscrupulous invaders willing to destroy the land to make a buck. It’s fitting, then, that his best friend is a Lakota brave, whose people are threatened by the same forces. As all animated animals must in such features, Spirit is given something else for which to fight when he falls for a beautiful paint mare named Rain. To assure accuracy in the depictions of horses and territory, a Kiger stallion was purchased and brought to the studio to pose for the DreamWorks artists. The team also was invited to a tour of the national parks and natural landmarks of the West, which would be incorporated and merged into the scenic backgrounds. Instead of words, the horses communicated through gestures and whinnies. Prominent in the voicing cast are Matt Damon as the narrator and James Cromwell as the Colonel. The Blu-ray extras add commentary, a drawing tutorial and multiple behind-the-scenes featurettes. Arriving on the heels of “Shrek,” “Spirit” probably was considered to be something of an under-achiever, even though it nearly broke even at the box office. For what it attempted, it probably did OK for itself.

Among the other titles geared toward younger audiences, there are collections of episodes from “Poppy Cat: Birthday Treasure,” “Dinosaur Train: Big City/Dinosaurs A to Z,” “Arthur Makes a Movie,” “Dora the Explorer: Dora & Boots Best Friends” and “PAW Patrol.” Here, though, animals are encouraged to talk, tantalize and teach. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Veronica Mars: Blu-ray
When the folks behind “Veronica Mars” decided to finance the reunion project through Kickstarter, they basically put its fate on the shoulders of the fans who’ve been begging for closure since the show went off the air in 2007. It had ended in a cliffhanger, after all, and nothing disturbs a diehard fan as much as uncertainty. The producers must also have been encouraged by the broadening of Kristen Bell’s already broad popularity base, which not only includes “marshmallows” once obsessed with the show, but also fans of Showtime’s very adult sitcom, “House of Lies.” She also provided the voice for Anna in Disney’s animated blockbuster, “Frozen.” The crowd-sourcing campaign, itself, was a huge success, recording unprecedented numbers for a movie launch. Somewhere between idea and conception, however, something about “Veronica Mars” simply didn’t translate to the big screen. For one thing, the series about a teen crime-fighter was a hit only within the demographic served by the old UPN and CW networks, not a CBS or HBO. Critics also enjoyed it, but mostly because it took teenagers seriously and was different.  (Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, notwithstanding.) The larger reason, I think, is that creator/director/co-writer Rob Thomas is a creature of prime-time television and failed to take into account the differences between the two mediums. While “Veronica Mars” does a nice job of tying up loose ends left behind from the show’s three-year run, it feels very much like one of those “very special episodes” pitched with deep sincerity during sweeps periods. Even though the movie cost a modest $6 million to make, it struggled to make back $4 million of that total, including overseas revenues. This, despite reviews from mainstream critics that were overwhelmingly positive.

Almost all of the key characters from the original show have returned to Neptune for the reunion, along with the sex tape that caused Veronica a great deal of anguish in Season Three. There also are cameos by famous friends of the series and Easter eggs. Among the newcomers are Jerry O’Connell and Gaby Hoffman, an actor who plays nutzo as well as anyone these days. Now a law-school graduate living in New York, Mars decides to make the trek back to Neptune after receiving a call for help from her ex-boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who is accused of murdering his pop-star girlfriend. There’s also some unfinished business with her father, the former sheriff of Neptune (a job now performed by O’Connell). I think that Turner and Diane Ruggiero’s script will play well with the one or two marshmallows who haven’t seen it, already. The tickets and computer codes handed out to Kickstarter contributors probably cut into box-office revenues, although it’s possible that they’ll want to own the movie on DVD/Blu-ray. Bell, not surprisingly, remains the star of the show here. She’s matured, but not to the point where she’s unrecognizable. Viewers who only know her from “House of Lies” or “The Lifeguard,” however, might not be able to square the Bell they know with the peppy PG-13 do-gooder in “VM.” One reviewer advised first-timers to watch a season’s worth of “VM” before taking on the movie, which, I guess, is just another way of encouraging audiences to the read the book before judging the film adaptation too harshly. Fans certainly will delight in learning about the proposed spinoff series of webisodes from CW Seed, which supposedly are on the drawing board. The Blu-ray adds “By the Fans: The Making of the ‘Veronica Mars’ Movie”; “More On-Set Fun,” with Bell, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield and cast members; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Art of the Steal: Blu-ray
Jonathan Sobol’s art-heist thriller, “The Art of the Steal,” may not break any new ground on the sub-genre, but it has so much fun tweaking the clichés and conventions that it easy qualifies as a guilty pleasure. The less one tries to figure out precisely what the thieves are doing – I lost track about halfway through – the more entertaining it will be for viewers attracted to the stars. If the movie’s twists and turns recall a bargain-basement “Ocean’s Eleven,” then, so much the better. “Art of the Steal” benefits most from an instantly recognizable cast of old pros – Kurt Russell, Matt Dillon, Kenneth Welsh, Terence Stamp – as well as an eager group of up-and-comers, including Jay Baruchel, Chris Diamantopoulos, Katheryn Winnick and Jason Jones. Russell and Dillon play feuding brothers, whose paths diverged after their last heist landed one of them in a Polish prison. The lure of a monster haul causes them to reunite with other members of the old gang. This time, however, everyone in international law-enforcement – specifically, Stamp and Jones — has their eyes squarely on the gang and seems cognizant of the treasures about to be moved from Europe to North America. None of the crooks is especially trustworthy, though, so we’re constantly aware of the possibility that a con game is being played on the crooks, cops and us. Sobol makes very good use of locations in Canada and Romania, while also adding a neat animated sequence illustrating how an Italian maintenance worker, in 1911, stole the “Mona Lisa” and keep it from view for two years. (Anyone who’s seen “The Freshman” is welcome to put two and two together at this point in the movie.) The Blu-ray arrives with a pair of interesting making-of featurettes and commentary. – Gary Dretzka

Mr. Jones: Blu-ray
Despite all of the found-footage conceits and limitations of a seemingly forced PG-13 rating, “Mr. Jones” has enough going for it to satisfy most fans of direct-to-DVD horror flicks. Here, a foray into the world of art scholars and anthropologists, adds an intellectual subtext to the proceedings, broadening the story’s scope and appeal beyond genre borders. Scott (Jon Foster) and Penny (Sarah Jones) are indie filmmakers who’ve decided to breathe fresh air into their personal and professional relationship by moving to the American Southwest, where supernatural vibes come with the territory. If their remote cabin is an unholy a mess, they quickly discover that they’re living in the shadow of a famously enigmatic sculptor, whose work suggests he’s possessed by the devil. While exploring their new neighborhood, Scott and Penny discover several “scarecrows” – made from materials found in nature – strewn along paths around the property. If anything, they resemble the fetishistic appendages and “birds’ nests” found during the investigation of a serial killer in “True Detective.” Stumbling upon one of them, while on a hunger-induced vision quest, would give anyone the creeps. They appear to have been constructed by a artist known simply as Mr. Jones, who, if agreeable, would make a terrific subject for a documentary. His Southwestern-style home is surrounded by sagebrush and offers a panoramic view of a vast arid valley. At night, the artist wanders around the property, wearing a hoodie made of burlap and hanging new scarecrows. Mr. Jones, it seems, doesn’t like having neighbors, nosy or otherwise. When Scott and Penny sense Mr. Jones’ absence from the house, they can’t help but go snooping through its nooks and crannies. Writer/director Karl Mueller uses found-footage to tell his story, but far more sparingly than other filmmakers. Despite the artsy-fartsy and anthropological stuff, the accent is on cheap thrills of the more generic sort. It’s here that I think Mueller was hand-cuffed by someone’s decision to go out PG-13. Why bother? An unrated director’s cut could easily have been stitched together for less timid distributors. That’s easy for me to say, though. (I wonder if I’m the only viewer who would freely associate the scarecrows in “Mr. Jones” with the Counting Crows’ song, “Mr. Jones”?) – Gary Dretzka

Desert Riders
Normally, when documentaries are made about child labor and parents willing to sell their children for ridiculously small amounts of money, the filmmakers describe crimes so hideous as to bring tears to a Death Row resident. And, yet, people around the world continue to buy clothes, toys and computers made in countries that turn a blind eye to such abusive practices, and “sexual tourists” continue to flock to Thailand to taste the forbidden fruit of enslaved boys and girls. “Desert Riders” tells a slightly less nauseating, if similarly heart-breaking story. The problem of importing children to provide entertainment for rich punters has yet to be eradicated, even after legislation was passed to prevent it. As clichéd as it might sound, one of the leading spectator sports in the Middle East is camel racing. In some quarters, it’s held in the same esteem as Thoroughbred and greyhound racing are here. While Dubai, too, has become a major center for horse racing, camel racing remains a popular draw. It also draws crowds in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Australia, and Mongolia, where races have traditionally been staged for weddings and other special ceremonies. Vic Sarin and Noemi Weis’ documentary describes a racing establishment that has benefitted financially from importing young boys from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mauritania and Sudan to train and race camels. Chosen for their small size and lack of options in life, the boys run the risk of grave injury every time they climb aboard such large and unwieldy beasts. With a seemingly unlimited supply of sellers and buyers, an injured boy is as expendable as a camel with a broken leg. The filmmakers not only spent time in the Emirates, but they also traveled to the places where parents have been told that their sons will never have a better opportunity to earn money, be educated and provided with the finest medical care. These proved to be false promises for most of the boys. When the situation became known outside the racing community in the UAE and Qatar, the practice of using jockeys under 15 was banned and compensation was ordered for former riders. In Qatar, owners have been required to use robotic jockeys. “Desert Riders” tells us that the practice has yet to be universally eradicated and injured jockeys are still waiting for restitution. The ugliness of abuse stands in stark contrast to the beautiful desert backdrops and excitement that comes with racing. – Gary Dretzka

Josh (Against the Grain)
In some countries, all an aspiring filmmaker needs to produce a first feature today is an idea, a digital camera, a friend with editing equipment and, lately, either a credit card or crowd-sourcing. A film-school education is optional. In a country as tightly wound as Pakistan, even an idea can get a filmmaker killed. Portraying women in ways that run counter to someone else’s interpretation of the Koran can also be dangerous to one’s health. The route Iram Parveen Bilal, writer/director of “Josh (Against the Grain),” took to the release of her first feature was different than most folks. Before serving as an assistant editor on the documentaries “West of Memphis” and “Bhutto,” Bilal paid her dues on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” an abomination that couldn’t be more different than her intense village-based drama. Aamina Sheikh, who could be Mariska Hargitay’s younger sister, plays a teacher enjoying a cosmopolitan existence in Karachi. Fatima returns to her non-descript village after learning of the disappearance and presumed death of her childhood nanny, Nusrat, a woman who dared challenge the way food is distributed to peasants by the preposterously greedy feudal chief. When it becomes clear that Nusrat was murdered for threatening to cut into the fiend’s revenues, Fatima vows to pick up where she left off, organizing a food coop. No fool, Fatima enlists the help of several of her highly placed Karachi friends, whose influence, she hopes, reaches beyond the potentate’s fiefdom. At first, the villagers aren’t at all keen to join Nusrat in the parched, rock-strewn cemetery. Another complicating factor arrives in the form of Islamic fundamentalists, just beginning to flex their muscles in the village. For the villagers to mobilize against tyranny and stand up for the most basic of their human rights would require no small measure of courage. Finally, though, Fatima’s conviction proves infectious. At a time in Pakistan when the Taliban and fanatical forces are dictating terms among peasants and government officials, alike, and local strongmen remain active, Bilal’s call for self-determination borders on the incendiary. The traditional narrative format saves “Josh” from teetering into agitprop, however. The cinematography is exceptional, as are the performances by the amateur and professional actors. – Gary Dretzka

A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert
Suzanne Vega: Solitude Standing
The Republican Party, at large, and the Bush administrations, in particular, could never be accused of being hip. It’s possible that “W” is a closet head-banger, based solely on what appears to have been a wasted youth, but his tastes as president reflected a preference for classic rock and traditional country. “A Celebration of Blues and Soul: The 1989 Presidential Inaugural Concert” is so uncharacteristically cool that it can only be considered a historical anomaly or aberration. The event being celebrated on January 21, 1989, was the inauguration of the first President Bush, who considered it a compliment to be called “square” … as in “far and square.” The campaign against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had been nastier than anything pundits had seen in their lifetimes and everyone, I think, was greatly relieved that it was over. How bad was it? RNC chairman Lee Atwater, architect of a dirty-tricks campaign unprecedented in its overtly racist tone, would be moved before his death four years later to apologize for its “naked cruelty.” It probably didn’t provide much solace to the unsuccessful Democrat. I had no idea that the footage shown in “A Celebration of Blues and Soul” existed. This leads me to believe that it was sealed inside a vault, probably to avoid being shown to the big-money bigots who deliver bushel baskets full of Franklins to party headquarters every day. Indeed, one of the scenes missing from this wonderful document is the arrival of the President and First Lady, accompanied by Booker T & MGs. The irony, of course, is that the affair was organized by Atwater, who might have been the only man in America capable of running such an overtly racist operation and, two months later, jam with some of greatest soul, blues and R&B artists of our time. He loved the music and was, himself, an accomplished guitarist. In his greeting to the large crowd of rabid Republican attendees, Atwater asked that politics not be made part of the evening’s festivities. As if …

The result is one of most entertaining concert films of the last 40 years. No expense was spared in the 24-track recording of the music and multi-camera visual presentation. That it would sit unnoticed in an office for 20 years, awaiting rediscovery and re-mastering, is both a mystery and a sin. The new DVD from Shout!Factory adds an hour’s worth of music to the abridged documentary shown recently on PBS outlets. It adds a booklet, with an essay by music historian Peter Guralnick, comprehensive liner notes by former Washington Post music writer Richard Harrington and an extensive photo gallery of never-before-published photos from the event. Dig this lineup of talent from Chicago, Memphis and New Orleans: Bo Diddley, Dr. John, Sam Moore, Billy Preston, Albert Collins, Percy Sledge, Chuck Jackson, Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Carla Thomas, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, Joe Louis Walker, Ronnie Wood, Jimmie Vaughan, Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Cash McCall and a whole lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. It’s a remarkable gathering of musicians. Frankly, I would have expected the Blues Brothers and Osmonds.

Shout!Factory and Wienerworld have a lot in common when it comes to producing concert DVDs. Represented here by MVD Visuals, the former is the UK’s leading independent music publisher and distributor. Its concert series features well-known groups, entertaining in some of Europe’s most prestigious venues. The crowds are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Suzanne Vega has always enjoyed great support on the continent — for her songs and poetry, both — so she was a natural candidate for inclusion in the Weinerworld series. “Suzanne Vega: Solitude Standing” bears the name of the artist’s second and most-popular album, from which derived “Luka” and “Tom’s Diner.” It was filmed at the Rome Auditorium in July, 2003, and features hits from the preceding 20 years of her career and more contemporary songs. She’s accompanied onstage by singer/songwriter Valerio Piccolo, who also translates her poetry for the audience and conducts an interview contained in the bonus package, along with a photo gallery. It is being released to coincide with Vega’s new studio album, “Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama
PBS: Your Inner Fish
Frontline: Secrets of the Vatican
Secrets of the Dead: Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone/Carthage’s Lost Warriors
China Beach: Season 3
Rookie Blue: The Complete Fourth Season
Adventure Time: The Suitor
As if to prove how difficult it is to cram 3,000 years of Jewish history into five hours of television, historian Simon Schama will need about a thousand pages to complete his two-volume book of the same title and subject matter. The first volume was accorded ecstatic reviews upon its release earlier in 2014 and, when it arrives later this year or next, one hopes the second will elaborate on issues that didn’t fit the epic documentary. The BBC/PBS version of “The Story of the Jews” carries us away to places only our imaginations are able to take us in a book, which begins and ends within a relative stone’s throw of each other. No story of the Jewish people could be complete, however, without stops in dozens of world capitals, shtetls that once flourished in Eastern Europe, the catacombs of Rome, the parched sands of the Middle East and palm-stitched boulevards of Hollywood. Even if those journeys represent 2,000 of the 3,000-miles traveled in the documentary, one can imagine how much history might be lost along the way. It’s Schama’s contention that what’s unified Jews are the words on paper and parchment they’ve carried with them everywhere they’ve gone and, when need be, were memorized to be put down later. Even when Torahs have been destroyed by tyrants seeking to eradicate any furtherance of the faith, the words have continued to live and inform generations to come: one history, common to all Jews. The other key point he makes involves the common misapprehension about Jews’ unwillingness to assimilate or share their knowledge. Instead, he argues, history shows that Jews have, more often than not, worked toward common goals with their Gentile neighbors. Such attempts at integration – while maintaining a tight hold on their religion — have almost always have resulted in disaster. Entire populations of Jews were expelled from Spain and England, when their contributions were no longer deemed necessary; pogroms in Russia cleared the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement; Jews who fought for Germany in World War I were slaughtered in the Holocaust. Everywhere, cruel stereotypes and slander followed the survivors. It explains why all roads lead back to Israel in this exhaustive documentary. Shama isn’t reluctant to share his opinions, not all of which won’t be shared by his audience. His narrative style is accommodating and sometimes deceptively jovial. Not all of the questions we might have are addressed, let alone answered, especially those pertaining to the schisms dividing Jews in Israel and America. Still, Shamas makes it easy for Jews and non-Jews to make it through the entire mini-series, with intriguing anecdotes and stops in places that help make history come alive for people whose appreciation for the Old Testament may never include a visit to the Holy Lands.

Those of us unwilling to buy into the bible’s take on Genesis and claims that the universe is as old as the life span of the average Twinkie aren’t terribly disturbed by the likelihood that are forebears may have had tails and walked on all four limbs. You’ve got to start somewhere and it might as well be the Ethiopian Rift Valley. Even after watching the three-part PBS presentation “Your Inner Fish,” however, I might draw the line at the contention that humans evolved from fish that more closely resemble smashed Play-Doh creations than Nemo or Willy. Here, the time span covered is 3.5 billion years, give or take a million. Through extremely well made CGI re-enactments, we’re able to imagine, if not necessarily accept how such a transition might have occurred. The mini-series is narrated by the noted paleobiologist and anatomist, Neil Shubin, who, in 2006, introduced the world to the likely culprit, Tiktaalik roseae. The lobe-finned fish from the late Devonian period shared features of tetrapods (four-legged animals) and represented the evolutionary transition from fish to amphibians. The Tiktaalik’s natural habitat was in the shallow, oxygen-poor waters that lapped mud flats along the shores of ancient oceans. Once Shubin confirmed its existence through fossils discovered in the Canadian Arctic, he traveled around the world in his search for fossils that would provide links to other stops on the evolutionary train. Talk about looking for needles in haystacks. “Your Inner Fish” is followed by the more familiar creatures in “Your Inner Lizard” and “Your Inner Monkey,” which gets us caught up to the present. All along, he presents evidence that physically connects Tiktaaliks to homo sapiens.

The “Frontline” presentation, “Secrets of the Vatican,” revisits the Catholic Church’s ongoing child-abuse scandal, this time following the evidence to the inner sanctums of the Vatican. Knowing that Pope Francis has already begun the process of weeding out the really bad apples among the clergy, as well as the crooks in the Vatican-controlled bank, softens the blow of new accusations. These lead straight to the closest advisers of Francis’ predecessors, many of whom have avoided prosecution because of the Vatican’s sovereign status in Italy. Among the heroes here are Pope Benedict XVI’s butler, who stood trial for stealing documents and leaking them to the press, and victims of abuse who risked everything by coming forward to tell their stories. The priests’ most powerful weapon against exposure appears to have been threatening the victims with eternal damnation. How the Church has managed to survive this horrible scandal, more or less intact, is one of the great mysteries of our time. If God truly does exist, he must have run out of tears long ago.

PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” can’t help but fascinate us with revelations about mysteries that, until now, resisted easy solutions. In “Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone,” we follow the British explorer’s footprints throughout Africa, as he searches for the source of the Nile. The path stops in a village, which, for Livingston, represented a crossroads where the past and future of slavery met. A firm abolitionist, he was so desperate to realize his lifelong dream that he entered into a devil’s bargain with guides who also worked in the slave trade. While recovering from a serious disease, he witnessed a terrible massacre of villagers by slave-traders who were from a different tribe. Desperate to record and report what he’s just witnessed, Livingston’s only option was to write his story over an article in an old newspaper. It was difficult to decipher the report, but a Scottish newspaper managed to piece enough of it together for publication, alongside an illustration. Many years later, a forensics historian was able to use advanced computer equipment to lift Livingston’s words from those on the newspaper, giving a different perspective on the explorer’s interpretation of what happened that day. “Carthage’s Lost Warriors” is interesting for providing evidence – however circumstantial — to support a new theory about which Europeans discovered the Americas first. Is it possible that defeated Carthaginian seamen found refuge on the Iberian Peninsula and, from there, sailed and rowed to Brazil with experienced Celtic sailors? Once there, they journeyed to the Andes, via the Amazon River, where they were allowed to join a tribe that lived a few mountaintops away from Machu Picchu. Architecture bearing symbols common to Iberia structures, a sling weapon and axe head support the theory, as well as native Peruvian children whose European traits are far more prevalent than anything Indian.

Last week, the folks at Starvista Entertainment/Time Life sent out releases crowing about winning a pair of prizes at the fourth annual Home Media Magazine Awards. As is the company’s practice, complete-series collections of “China Beach” and “The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” – Best Vintage TV Series and Best Comedy Disc, respectively — had been introduced in 2013, months ahead of their release in annual collections. “China Beach: Season 3” arrives this week in a six-disc set, which features all 22 uncut episodes from 1989-90 and bonus programming. This season was marked by the unlikely relationship between nurse Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany) and “entrepreneur” K.C. Kolowski (Marg Helgenberger). It began after the women were held hostage in one of the enemy’s notorious tunnel systems. Among the new arrivals is Holly Pelegrino (Ricki Lake).

None of the broadcast networks care much for launching new shows during the summer months … too expensive, too few viewers. That’s the excuse, anyway. “Rookie Blue,” approaching its fifth-season debut, has been the rare exception to the rule. Produced in Canada, where it’s known as “Coppers,” the show long ago ceased chronicling the trials and tribulations of mere rookies. The fourth season begins with Andy and Nick returning from an undercover mission and ends with a noisy shootout. Who knew Canada was so violent?

The latest compilation of “Adventure Time” episodes from Cartoon Network bears the title of one of its show’s most-discussed episodes, “The Suitor.” As is frequently the case when attempting to synopsize a single entry in the series, describing what happens on screen in 11 minutes requires twice that much time to explain. Here, Peppermint Butler thinks Princess Bubblegum is spending too much time in her lab and decides she needs a suitor. After an extensive search, he picks a PB devotee named Braco. Too busy to pay much attention to her suitor, PB satisfies his lust in a less personal way. The set adds 15 more episodes from the fifth and previous seasons. – Gary Dretzka

New to Blu
Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Bachelor Party: Blu-ray
The Terminal: Blu-ray
Weekend at Bernie’s: Blu-ray
It seems like only yesterday that Mel Brooks broke the fart barrier in movies and risked the ire of animal-rights activists by ordering a future Hall of Fame football player to punch out a horse. I can’t say that “Blazing Saddles” feels as fresh as it did 40 years ago, although the new Blu-ray version is top-drawer — but it’s still hilarious and a must-see for every new generation of comedy lovers. Nothing like “Blazing Saddles” had been shown to American audiences. It satirized most Western clichés and conventions, while chipping away at such cowboy icons as Randolph Scott. More to the point, Brooks used the n-word and cocky black sheriff as a battering ram against racism, not just in Hollywood, but also across the country. Forty years later, however, the word still hasn’t lost any of its power to sting. The almost constant use of the word in “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” was as off-putting as the whippings endured by the slaves. Brooks’ subversive streak didn’t end with racist epithets and parodies of Western clichés. Brooks recalls anticipating a negative response from studio executives by adding Richard Pryor – who had yet to swear off using the n-word in his act — to his writing team and getting his reaction to its use in various situations. Finally, even after a howlingly positive test screening, one of the suits demanded that Brooks edit out everything that might be considered offensive by any customer. (Imagine the airline-approved version of the movie.) With the power of final-cut approval behind him, he refused to cut anything and it has since gone on to be one Warner Bros.’ greatest hits and most influential comedies. It has proven so, as well, in every subsequent playback format. “Blazing Saddles: 40th Anniversary” retains most of the features and commentary from the 30th anniversary edition, adding only a new background featurette with Brooks and souvenir lobby cards. The most unusual among them is “Black Bart: 1975 Pilot Episode of the Proposed TV Series Spin-off,” complete with a wholly unnecessary laugh track.

“Blazing Saddles” and other of Brooks’ pictures would usher in a golden age of parody on the big screen. The much celebrated beans-and-farts scene certainly influenced the creators of “Animal House” and the many gross-out and frat-boy comedies that followed in its wake. Among the best was “Bachelor Party,” a raunchy comedy that may have been responsible for resuscitating the bachelor- and bachelorette-party industry in America. Except for the silly TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies” and a star turn in “Splash,” Tom Hanks was a relatively unknown player. Just as his wildly exuberant performance in “Animal House” caused John Belushi’s stock to rise in Hollywood, Tom Hanks’ take on a soon-to-be married rascal in “Bachelor Party” put him on the fast track. In it, he’s engaged to a woman (Tawny Kitaen) so far out of his league that he’s afraid she’ll wake up one morning and wonder what drug she had ingested before agreeing to marry him. Of course, the bride-to-be warns her fiancé about inviting prostitutes to the party … or else. The challenge gives her disapproving father and former boyfriend a reason to hope they can stop the wedding. The ensuing anarchy is tightly controlled by writer/director Neal Israel, who takes every opportunity to focus on the sparkle in Hanks’ eye. The other thing that drew young males to the movie were the many topless women, ranging from pros to nuns. After 30 years, the familiarity of the gags in “Bachelor Party” has caused it to lose some, but not all of its zip.

Twenty years later, a far more subdued and physically mature Tom Hanks starred in Steven Spielberg’s smallish comedy/drama, “The Terminal.” It tells the Capra-esque story of an Eastern European man, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), who gets stranded at JFK airport after his papers are deemed defective, due to situations out of his control. Given the rigid post-9/11 restrictions on travel, it isn’t surprising that airport officials might want to err on the side of caution, not generosity. He’s given an opportunity to return home, but prefers to wait at JFK until the bureaucrats sort things out for him. He takes up unofficial residence there, making friends and demonstrating something irresistible about the human spirit. The presence of Catherine Zeta-Jones likely had something to do with that. The Blu-ray recycles several informative featurettes from the previous standard-definition release, adding a photo gallery and trailers in HD.

Released in 1989, “Weekend at Bernie’s” wore its negative reviews like badges of honor. With movie-going demographics skewing younger and decidedly more male, a critic’s outrage at tasteless material meant next to nothing at the box office. This phenomenon began when viewers defied the critics by flocking to see slasher and splatter flicks. After the success of the much-reviled “Porky’s” franchise, they pundits might as well have been spitting into the wind. Ads for such movies suggested, “You’ll hate yourself for laughing so hard …” and “The funniest movie you’ll love to hate.” The presence of teen heartthrobs Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman helped convince teenagers and young women to spend date-nights in the company of their Neanderthal boyfriends. And, in truth, only a corpse as stiff as Bernie could sit through the movie without cracking a smile, at least. McCarthy and Silverman work at a life-insurance company in Manhattan, which is withering in one of its more miserable heat waves. Almost by accident, they discover some questionable bookkeeping. When they inform Bernie of their discovery, the notorious party animal rewards them with a weekend at his summer home in the Hamptons. What we know and the lads have yet to learn is that Bernie is in league with the mafia and, because he’s also sleeping with the boss’ girlfriend, they would far prefer seeing him dead than the innocent young men. When they arrive at Party Central, they can’t help but notice that Bernie is dead. Afraid they’ll be blamed for the death, they decide to pose Bernie in ways that won’t be detectable to the drunks who fill the house each weekend. Bernie’s apparent resurrection confuses the hitman, who dedicates himself to re-killing the corpse. While the slapstick does wear thin after a while, it’s Terry Kiser’s ability to look alive, while demonstrably dead, that makes us laugh. – Gary Dretzka

 
Amistad: Blu-ray
The Bridges of Madison County: Blu-ray
The Women: Blu-ray
The Blu-ray release of “Amistad” should benefit from marketing campaigns designed to help “12 Years a Slave” win Oscars in 3 of the 12 categories in which it was nominated. Steven Spielberg’s courtroom drama chronicles the trial that followed the 1839 slave uprising on the Spanish slave ship, La Amistad. When the ship was confiscated after reaching American waters, lawyers representing the ship owner, the Queen of Spain and other interested parties argued that the Africans were legally defined as “cargo” and should be returned to their clients or tried for murder. The opposing lawyers argued that Africans, represented by Cinque, revolted in self-defense and should be free to return to Africa. The debate is riveting and the re-creations of brutality are heart-wrenching. Historical accuracy was questioned, but not the ability of the all-star cast to move us. It includes Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Djimon Hounsou, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anna Paquin, David Paymer, Pete Postlethwaite, Stellan Skarsgard and Matthew McConaughey, in a performance that signaled what might come later (after his career got mired in bad rom-coms). The Blu-ray contains the making-of piece added previously to the DVD.

Based on Robert James Waller’s weepie best-seller, “The Bridges of Madison County” tells the story of forbidden love in the wilds of Iowa. Well, not exactly. How else, though, to sell the movie to men of a certain age who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of the 1992 novel on their nightstand, even if it were the last book on Earth? It’s sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide, all of them to women. Even if those 50 million women only manage to drag 10 percent of their husbands to the megaplex, you’ve sold a lot of tickets. As such, it became one of those literary properties that attract the attention of Hollywood’s top actors, writers and directors. Finally, Clint Eastwood was hired to star in and direct the unlikely romance between middle-age characters who’d given up on ever again falling intensely in love with someone, let alone a person they’ve just met and, given the circumstances, probably can’t have. Once the 65-year-old Eastwood agreed to join the project, to which Robert Redford originally was attached, he had a surprisingly large choice of excellent middle-age actresses from which to choose. It’s said that Clint’s mother convinced him to choose 45-year-old Meryl Streep, even when studio geeks were pushing for someone younger. In hindsight, the match seems perfect. Streep plays Italian “war bride” Francesca Johnson, who runs into photographer Robert Kincaid while he’s in rural Iowa photographing the endangered wooden bridges of Madison County. Cupid smacks both of them upside the head, leaving Francesca, especially, with the choice of ditching her husband and children for what could be the love of her life. We know this because, after her untimely death, her children discover letters and journals left behind for them to understand this unknown part of her. (They can even pinpoint in their minds the four-day span during which the affair took place.) Finally, their reactions are as important to us as the revelation, itself. The Blu-ray does a nice job picking up the summer colors, without attempting to make anyone look artificially younger in the process. The featurettes have been recycled from previous DVD editions.

In the opening credits to George Cukor’s screen adaptation of Claire Boothe Luce’s Broadway hit, “The Women,” he teases us with photos of the key actors underneath clips of the animals their characters’ behavior most closely resembles. If some of the depictions seem impertinent or cruel … well, watch the movie. In dialogue commonly referred to as “toxic,” Luce’s characters conspire to ruin each other’s marriages and position in society. When a salon worker overhears the wealthy, beautiful and blissfully idle friends of socialite Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) gossip about her husband’s affair with a sales clerk, she accidentally conveys that information to an unsuspecting Haines while getting her nails done. It takes Mary only a little while longer to discover who’s enjoying her husband’s sexual companionship, but the likely suspects include Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and Phyllis Povah. We know that Mr. Haines isn’t a closet case, because there are no men in the movie and, after all, it’s 1939. The set design changes from Park Avenue chic to Reno rustic when Mary stops beating herself up and accepts the fact that her husband’s a dick and she needs to get divorced asap. Like so many other women in the same position, she books a short stay at a dude ranch for divorcees, run by the great butch character actor, Marjorie Main. I don’t think that Luce or Cukor could get away with the same code-approved “happy” ending today, but divorce wasn’t rewarded in those days. The Blu-ray comes with the documentaries “From the Ends of the Earth” and “Hollywood: Style Center of the World”; an alternate black-and-white fashion-show sequence; music cues; and trailers from the movie and its 1956 musical remake, “The Opposite Sex.” Feel free to ignore Diane English’s 2008 remake, which starred/wasted Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen. – Gary Dretzka

The Real Decameron
Jungle Blue
Deep Tango/Young Secretaries
Pretty Peaches 2/Pretty Peaches 3
This month’s selection of adult reissues takes us back to the dawn of the modern age of porn with titles collectors will appreciate far more than casual fans and viewers looking for a gonzo fun. Like nearly a dozen other copycat movies, “The Real Decameron” (“The Sexbury Tales”) followed hot on the heels of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ribald 1971 hit, “The Decameron.” That film was comprised of adaptations of nine stories from Bocaccio’s “Decameron.” Like most Italian sex comedies of the period, it featured busty innocents of almost indescribable beauty required to put up with suitors, priests and perverts who more closely resemble toads and tree stumps than the handsome young men who populated Pasolini’s movies. “The Real Decameron” doesn’t measure up to Pasolini’s work – what could? – but the sketches are amusing in the same way as the jokes and cartoons in Playbook are amusing to college freshmen. The stories are introduced by a group of prostitutes, gossiping as they wash their clothes at a village well. Among the stars are Rosalba Neri and Christa Linder.

Jungle Blue” (“Rey del Amazonas”) combines the myths of Tarzan and Bigfoot, in the service of a nearly incomprehensible story about lost treasures, missing explorers and loose hippies. The only thing that separates this silly wet dream from a million other such flicks are early appearances by Annette Haven and Candida Royalle, in spliced-in group gropes, and locations I have no reason to believe aren’t actually in the Peruvian rain forest, as advertised.

Annette Haven turns up, as well, in the 1973 “Deep Tango.” The quickie sex satire borrows elements of “Deep Throat” and “Last Tango in Paris,” although none was likely to have gotten anyone in trouble with the copyright office. The second half of the double-feature is “Young Secretaries,” a 1974 office comedy in which secretaries impress their bosses in ways other than taking shorthand, while their wives are serviced by guys in line for their husbands’ job.

A far better double-feature experience is provided by the second and third installments in Alex de Renzy’s “Pretty Peaches” series. Sitting in for Desiree Cousteau are Siobhan Hunter and Keisha. Both films are representative of the Golden Age of Porn. – Gary Dretzka

Hot Guys With Guns
Truth
Mystery fans have been following gay and lesbian private eyes for almost two decades, now. Some of the characters have even broken through the niche barrier, attracting crossover readers more interested in crime solving than sexual interludes. I don’t know if there are any equivalent series on the fringes of cable television, but the time is probably right to give one a shot. Given a more generous budget, “Hot Guys With Guns” would be a good place to start. Veteran actor Doug Spearman (“Noah’s Arc”) moved behind the camera as writer, director and executive producer of the interracial beefcake detective story, which is an appealing blend of comedy, action, drama, romance and sharp dialogue. Marc Anthony Samuel (“General Hospital”) and newcomer Brian McArdle play Danny and “Pip,” ex-boyfriends on a mission to solve a series of robberies whose common denominator is that they take place at wild sex parties and involve “roofies.” The victims aren’t keen on seeing their names appear on a Beverly Hills police blotter. Coincidentally, Danny is enrolled in a class designed for actors wanting to look legitimate when auditioning for roles in cops-and-robbers movies. He practices his skills by spying on Pip, an attractive ornament on the party scene. When Pip is robbed, Danny volunteers to help him recover his goods. Also important to the story are Danny’s gruff teacher (Alan Blumenfeld), and Pip’s sex-starved mother (Joan Ryan). Given the limitations imposed on it, “Hot Guys With Guns” is more entertaining than it has any right to be. As it is, the clever James Bond-inspired opening probably used up half the budget.

The jarring musical score, alone, tells us that writer/director/actor Rob Moretti is no stranger to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the methods he deployed to build suspense and tension. It wouldn’t be fair to Hitch or Moretti to belabor the comparison any further, if only because “Truth” isn’t playing in the same league or arena as most Hollywood thrillers. It’s targeted at gay viewers and, as such, suffers from miniscule budgets and limited resources. The story is told through prison interviews and the flashbacks of Caleb (Sean Paul Lockhart), a young man whose hellish childhood put him on direct path to incarceration. When Caleb connects with the older Jeremy (Moretti) on the Internet, an escape route from pain opens up to him. Can it last? Well, we already know that the protagonist is in prison. The real question is how Caleb got there. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

The Best Offer
Movies about art and the intricacies of profiting from it frequently turn on some brainy crime, usually involving forgery or theft. The egos of the players are ripe to be picked in elaborate cons and schemes, which, as per “The Thomas Crown Affair,” always require the casting of actors who look fabulous in formal wear. “The Best Offer” is no different, really, except for the inclusion of a romance that’s as seductive as it is improbable. If Giuseppe Tornatore’s wickedly rendered mystery is more than a tad long and complicated for mainstream consumption, fans of the art-scam subgenre should find plenty here to admire. Geoffrey Rush fits perfectly as the well regarded, if selectively bent art appraiser and auctioneer Virgil Oldman. In league with a devious con artist, Billy Whistler, deliciously played by Donald Sutherland, they’ve been able to make a very nice living slipping high-quality fakes and undervalued gems past the bidders at some of Europe’s most prestigious auction houses. Oldman’s ability to find and appraise both is unquestioned. As the film opens, Whistler misreads a cue from the lectern and blows a scam, which causes Oldham to blow a gasket. It serves to demonstrate how the scheme works, as well as how quickly things can go sideways. One morning, Oldham receives a phoned inquiry from an heiress, Claire Ibettson (Sylvia Hoeks), whose vague responses to his questions and demands for anonymity pique his curiosity. Even though she’s the one who initiated contact, Claire makes it very difficult for Oldman to appraise the antiques she’s inherited and facilitate an auction. Just as he’s about to thrown in the towel, however, Claire explains that her reclusive nature is the result of illness and a traumatic experience in her teens. She communicates with him from behind the elegantly painted walls that have shielded her from the outside world for all of her adult life.

Having already completed a cursory evaluation of the items inside the mansion, Virgil can’t help but desire to learn more about Claire. After one of their conversations, he hides among the statues in the cavernous ballroom outside her living quarters, hoping to catch a glimpse of his elusive client. When she does appear, sniffing the air like a mouse daring to leave its hole, he’s hooked and so are we. It takes a bit more coaxing from Oldman – who tempts her with gourmet food and other provisions — for Claire to feel comfortable outside her room. Finally, their business relationship evolves into one that’s equal parts paternal and potentially romantic. As if this prelude to a con weren’t sufficiently intricate, another degree of difficulty is added by Oldman’s discovery of a discarded set of gears that could very well be part of a long-forgotten mechanical treasure. To this end, he employs a young tinkerer (Jim Sturgess), whose ability to restore objects brought into his store borders on the miraculous. Oldman’s continued search of the premises reveals even more pieces of something resembling a 19th Century automaton. At this point, I was reminded of the oft-covered theme from “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “The Windmills of Your Mind,” which begins, “Round, like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/ …” Even at 131 minutes, “The Best Offer” fairly bursts at the seams with subplots and invisible threads. Impatient viewers may give up on it early, assuming that at least part of the ending might elude them and prove unsatisfying. And, in fact, it probably would. Those already familiar with Tornatore’s body of work, which includes “Cinema Paradiso,” “Malena,” “The Legend of 1900,” “Baaria,” “The Star Maker” and “The Unknown Woman,” know that their perseverance will be repaid in Hitchcockian suspense and Italianate eroticism. The art objects aren’t bad, either.  – Gary Dretzka

The Selfish Giant
No one puts a keener focus on the plight of men and women marginalized by the depressed worldwide economy than filmmakers from the U.K. The “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1950-60s stirred the conscience of audiences who may have assumed that citizens of post-war England were better off than those in the countries that were defeated. Thirty years later, after Ronald Reagan had canonized Margaret Thatcher, movies revealed the truth about the devastation her policies brought to the north. Even the laughs in “The Full Monty” were born of despair. Today’s social-realists need not look any further than the children and grandchildren of the people portrayed in the kitchen-sink and post-Thatcher dramas for inspiration. If anything, the victims of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, alcoholism, racism and drug abuse have grown even more pessimistic about their futures. If there’s a common denominator here, it’s the continued presence of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as chroniclers of hard times in the U.K. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both men have had their new films selected for competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Although the decreasingly working-class north of England continues to provide much fodder for socially realistic stories, young filmmakers from Scotland and Ireland have nobly carried on the tradition, as well. (The Irish economic revival has gone bust in the last few years.) Among the most impressive is Clio Barnard, whose experimental documentary about the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar caused a sensation on the 2010 festival circuit. “The Arbor” describes the hellish conditions in which Dunbar was raised in the Brafferton Arbor estate, where drugs, alcoholism and single parenthood compete for the title of most-corruptive influence on young women. “The Selfish Giant” is set, as well, in the hardscrabble projects of Bradford, West Yorkshire. This time, however, writer/director’s protagonists are 13-year-old Swifty and Arbor, boys so disaffected that they can hardly express their appreciation for being expelled from school. Among other things, it provides them an opportunity to get an early start on a life of improvisational crime. Like many other boys in the northern communities, they endeavor to make a living as scrap gatherers, under the tutelage of a grown-up misfit, Kitten (Sean Gilder), raised in the same projects.

In no other world would Kitten qualify as a role model, but anyone who makes money in such a dysfunctional environment is to be admired. The boys quickly learn that the most exploitable source for profitable material can be found at construction sites and anywhere copper wiring and cable for television reception are laid. This includes railroads and the nuclear facility that dominates the skyline. It’s theft, pure and simple, but their age precludes them from serving hard time. It also protects the yard owners, who can always claim ignorance if caught recycling stolen goods. Kitten may cut corners with the boys whenever possible, but he bonds with them over a mutual interest in work horses and buggy racing. A shady businessman can’t protect boys from taking risks an experienced thief wouldn’t attempt, however, and they’ve begun to tread in some very dangerous waters on their way to becoming career criminals. When tragedy strikes, it hits us especially hard. We know that Arbor and Swifty are sharing most of their ill-gotten gains with their mothers, who always seem to be on the brink of being evicted or abused by their brutal alcoholic mates. Barnard frames her story within the context of a “fable” by Oscar Wilde. She based Arbor and Swifty on two scrappers she met while filming “The Arbor.” Like so many other child actors cast in these sorts of movies, Shaun Thomas and Conner Chapman – only 12, when cast – fully embody the characters they play. The DVD includes interesting interviews and background material with Barnard and cast members. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
Hill Street Blues: The Complete Series
Masterpiece: Mr. Selfridge Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS: Super Skyscrapers: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Spongebob, You’re Fired
Binge alert! Finally, every episode of the most influential police drama in the history of the medium is available for viewing, once a week or all at once. Either way, you’ll thank yourself for making the effort to catch up with the men and women of “Hill Street Blues,” a show that caused a paradigm shift in the way police work and other workplace-based shows are depicted. At a time when network television had run out of ideas as to how it should respond to rampant crime, gangs and drug abuse in the streets of our cities, MTM Enterprises assigned little-known writers Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll to create a show that would mirror that chaos, without ending each episode with an unlikely act of heroism or pat solutions. No one, including the people in charge, knew the answer to the questions raised by the victims of crime, gang violence and neglect. In fact, the presumptive protagonist of “Hill Street Blues,” Captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti), rarely left the station during work hours and served more as a ring master than a crime fighter. As someone who worked his way up through the ranks, Furillo was neither a reformer nor by-the-book hard-ass. He maintained an open-door policy with the troops and provided a buffer between the station house and police headquarters. Whenever it seemed as if the train was coming off its rails, he’d go home and share a bubble bath with public defender Joyce Davenport, with whom he frequently locked horns during the day. Together, they may have done more for bathtub sales than anyone since the inventor of the hot tub. If any group of fictional characters defined the term, “motley crew,” it was the cops who gathered each morning in Hill Street’s squad room. Women and minorities were fairly represented, perhaps for the first time in TV history, and the normally minor role of briefing sergeant was immortalized byveteran cop Phil Esterhaus, who famously ended the introductory roll call each week with, “Let’s be careful out there.” He won two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor, before succumbing to cancer in 1983.

After the unforgettable opening credits and Mike Post theme song, the cops would filter into the streets according to previously introduced story threads or through-lines previewed at the roll-call. Hand-held cameras were extensively deployed to capture the intimacy and drama of face-to-face police work, while portable units allowed viewers an opportunity to appreciate the series’ physical context. As is sometimes the case with ensemble shows, few of the actors would go on to became breakout stars in their own right. The rare exception was Dennis Franz, who played two different cops in the show’s six-year run. One of them would be spun off to create “Beverly Hills Buntz.” He worked again with Bochco on the failed “Bay City Blues” and monster hit, “NYPD Blue.” Betty Thomas would go on to become a major behind-the-camera force in Hollywood. Lest we forget, however, NBC chief Fred Silverman stayed with the low-rated, oft-moved series long after the bean-counters had given up on it. (The same would happen in the first season of “Seinfelf.”) Besides looking and sounding good, the complete-set DVD box adds interviews and discussions with cast members James B. Sikking, Dennis Franz, Bruce Weitz, Charles Haid, director Dennis Dugan, writers Bochco, Robert Craise, Jeffrey Lewis and Alan Rachins; commentaries with Bochco, Sikking, Weitz, Haid, Dugan, Lewis, Crais and Joe Spano; a gag reel; featurettes “The History of Hill Street” and “Roll Call”; and a commemorative 24-page book.

Mr. Selfridge,” as unlikely a hit on both sides of the pond as I could have imagined, opened its new season this month, five years having passed from the events of Season One. The store has established a prominent position in the firmament of London society, while also keeping its doors revolving for more moderately budgeted customers. The biggest difference between the 2013 and 2014 iterations is the lord and master’s attitude toward his personal life. Selfridge’s wife has returned from the United States in time for the store’s anniversary ceremony, but in no mood to let bygones be bygones. He’s turned over a completely new leaf when it comes to drinking, carousing and philandering, and by mid-season, at least, has proven to be a good boy. With rumors of war emanating daily from Europe, Selfridge has committed his American know-how and the store’s resources to the effort. He has promised the male employees that their jobs would be kept open until they return victorious and has asked the women to fill important positions throughout the store, including those on the delivery dock. Selfridge also is interested in using his resources to acquire uniforms and other provisions – forgoing commissions – but finds himself in competition with the unctuous Lord Loxley (Aiden McCardle). Loxley, who has a talent for finding the right palms to grease, has returned to England with his bride, Lady Mae, with whom Selfridge shares some baggage. Despite the show’s success, I still have a difficult time completely buying into Jeremy Piven as the lead character. He has a 21st Century sheen about him that’s difficult to square with an actor still best known as a smarmy Hollywood talent manager. Nonetheless, Piven appears to enjoy what he’s doing and his enthusiasm enhances his performance. Anyone who’s taken a peek ahead, at the actual history of Selfridge and his store, knows not expect the happy façade to last. Otherwise, all of the other characters who made Season One such a delight have returned, even from hiatuses abroad.

There’s something about living in a post-9/11 world that begs the question as to why really, really tall buildings – a.k.a., targets — need to be built, anymore. Is there a shortage of office space in the world or are the host countries in dire need of tourist attractions? It would be interesting to learn how many people have actually booked travel to Dubai, simply to ride the elevators of the Burg Khalifa tower or imagine themselves swinging at top the pinnacle, like Tom Cruise in “Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” I’d add a “LOL” here, if I thought there was anything funny about the money being spent on such edifices. The producers of the PBS mini-series “Super Skyscrapers” aren’t nearly as cynical about really, really tall buildings as those of us who may never have the opportunity to purchase a luxury condominium at the top of the world. I’m also afraid of heights and refuse to stand on a slab of Plexiglass, just to look past my shoes to the ground below me. What else is there to do up there, though? “Super Skyscrapers” opens at One World Trade Center, which absolutely had to be built at Ground Zero at the conveniently symbolic height of 1,776 feet. Now in its final year of exterior construction, OWTC has been engineered to be the safest and strongest skyscraper possible. If that sounds too much like a dare aimed directly at the heart of every wannabe terrorist on the planet, let’s hope that it’s never accepted. The next stops are London’s Leadenhall Building (a.k.a., “the cheese grater”), Shanghai’s multi-use “vertical city”; and, back to NYC, for the One57 “billionaire building,” which, we’re told, will redefine luxury living in the big city. There’s no denying the mini-series’ more awe-inspiring aspects and the undeniable fear-factor of looking down on the less fortunate among us. They also provide jobs for thousands of ironworkers, carpet weavers, quarrymen, janitors and the occasional architect. Anyone interested in modern architecture and construction technology should love it.

It’s the rare episode of an animated children’s program that gets the right-wing goons at the New York Post and Fox News salivating, as well as liberal do-gooders rushing to defend the food-stamp program against the pronouncements of a cartoon character. Such, though, is the power of Nickelodeon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” to dictate the issues of most importance to the American punditocracy. Amid the national debate on the Affordable Care Act, the show’s writers created the special episode, “Spongebob, You’re Fired,” in which Mr. Krabs boots SpongeBob from the Krusty Krab, where he was a fry cook. Krabs did this after learning he could save a nickel by eliminating the position. As topical as the episode might have been, commentators found ways to indict the kids’ show for comments made by Patrick the Starfish, extolling the virtues of unemployment. Al Sharpton couldn’t resist rising to the conservatives’ bait by “standing up for poor people” on his MSNBC forum. Not surprisingly, this tempest in a teapot helped the episode garner the show’s highest ratings in two years. So, everything’s groovy in Bikini Bottom, again. The special double-episode is accompanied by 14 other work-centric tales. – Gary Dretzka

Peter Simon’s Through the Lens
Photographer Peter Simon, who’s shot some of the most celebrated men, women and events of the Baby Boomer era, should have known better than to entrust his creative legacy to a format that makes infomercials look exciting. Sitting in his photo-filled Martha’s Vineyard gallery, covering his nearly bald pate with a knit Rasta cap, Simon narrates the story of his life in a monotone as flat as the table at which he’s hawking his coffeetable book, “I and Eye.” Yawn. Unless one already were aware of Simon’s fine body of work and fascinating backstory, the two-disc DVD, “Peter Simon’s Through the Lens: Celebrating 50 Years of Personalized Photojournalism,” might come off as world-class ego trip and excuse for name-dropping. The first thing to know about Simon is that his father — who died early, but not before he introduced his son to photography — co-founded the book publishing firm, Simon & Schuster. His position and connections ensured a life of privilege, culture and access for siblings Peter, Lucy, Joanna and, as is evidenced here, the highly photogenic Carly Simon. Portraits of Carly and then-husband James Taylor are sprinkled through the presentation. At the same time as Simon was attending East Coast prep schools and photographing antiwar activists at Boston University, he also was opening doors to people who would allow to shoot photos for fun and profit. These included editors at Rolling Stone magazine, who provided access to artists that had yet to reach their commercial zenith. There’s hardly a Boomer icon that Simon didn’t shoot in the mid-1960s, often while sharing the stage with them. While some of these early photographs are still in demand, Simon continues to make money by capturing some of the same performers in their dotage. Anyone who’s followed the popular-music scene over the last 50 years will recognize many of the 300 photographs included in “Through the Lens.”

Simon didn’t limit himself to photographing the leading lights of the ’60s. When he went through his changes, the pictures did, too. For years, he lived among other rich hippies on communes throughout New England, favoring those with a clothing-optional policy. From here, he would seek enlightenment in the company of spiritual leader Ram Dass, a former Harvard prof who famously dropped acid with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, Simon used his art successfully to promote Jamaican reggae and its leading practitioners in the U.S. As anyone born after the nation’s bicentennial can attest, there’s nothing quite so tedious as listening to their parents and friends describe how they lived in the ’60s and how cool it was to starve on communes or panhandle for money to buy inebriants. “Through the Lens” suffers from Simon’s many anecdotes of the period and photos of naked hippies with goats. The first disc ends with more anecdotes about life on the Vineyard and rubbing shoulders with its celebrity community, from the Kennedys, Clintons and Walter Cronkite, to John Belushi, Larry David and Mia Farrow. The second disc is far less celebrity-centric and, by extension, more compelling. Instead, the photos and narration are more issue-oriented and journalistic, with stops in Jamaica, the Occupy protests, Shea Stadium and places where the disparity between wealth and poverty, blight and beauty, collide. Much of the scenic photography is nothing short of spectacular. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, “Through the Lens” suffers from name-dropping, celebrity worship and Simon’s own charisma deficiency. The photos, though, are well worth the effort it might take to peruse them. – Gary Dretzka

Devil’s Due: Blu-ray
Having watched dozens of found-footage and P.O.V. thrillers in the last few years, I’ve become immune to the charms and failures others see in them. I simply can’t tell the difference between the stories, anymore, and don’t particularly care. This isn’t to say that I don’t experience the occasional chill or continue to relish unexpected surprises. What reviewer doesn’t? It’s just that each new one looks – to my eyes, anyway – almost exactly the same as the previous one. If only the proprietor of a Voyeur Dorm site would collaborate with a found-footage specialist, adding ghosts and demons to the shower scenes, the genre might survive. The makers of “Devil’s Due” comprise a filmmaking collective known as Radio Silence — directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, cinematographer Justin Martinez and visual-effects supervisor Chad Villella – which previously contributed a segment to the low-budget horror anthology “V/H/S,” titled “10/31/98.” Judging from the group interview contained in the bonus package, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Radio Silence caught a little studio static before it was released. Apparently, the filmmakers thought they were making a “creepy thriller” or “unsettling love story,” instead of the studio’s desire for something more generically horrific. There is an outdoors scene that comes out of nowhere, towards the end of the picture, which suggests what the boys had in mind before compromising their vision with jump scares and gore. That’s simply my guess, however.

As it is, “Devil’s Due” opens on the eve of the wedding of the exceedingly cute Samantha (Allison Miller) and her betrothed, Zach (Zach Gilford), whose head appears to be attached to a video camera. Instead of being feted by friends at a bachelor party, Zach gets his kicks on the eve of his wedding by sneaking up to Samantha, while she’s exiting from a shower, covering herself with a non-revealing towel. The fake-out device is pretty effective for starters and it gives viewers reason for hope. Zach and Sam honeymoon in Santa Domingo, where everything goes well until she insists on visiting a local fortune-teller. The elderly woman correctly guesses that Sam survived a terrible event as an infant and should expect something similarly unpleasant to happen in the near future. Completely unsettled, she drags Zach out of the shop and into a conveniently placed taxi. The driver talks them into visiting a local disco for some fun. Sam has a bit too much fun, however, passing out on the dance floor and waking up the next morning with no memory of what happened. Shortly thereafter, she learns that she’s pregnant and has been for some time. If the words, “Rosemary’s Baby,” don’t immediately spring to mind, you may want to pause “Devil’s Due” and find a service streaming the Roman Polanski classic. Apart from the one outdoors scene, involving a ravenous vegetarian and Bambi, the rest of the movie is completely predictable … not awful, but predictable. Another thing that could make genre purists frown is the frequent shifts from hand-held or eyeglass cameras to security tapes and motion-triggered devices within their homes.  There are other times when a camera appears to have been inserted into Zach’s eye socket, which hardly qualifies as kosher. The filmmakers argue that the movie is “told through cameras that exist in the world of the characters,” so pretty much anything goes. Or, not. The Blu-ray features also include deleted scenes and shorts produced by the collective. – Gary Dretzka

Dead Shadows: Blu-ray
Imported from France by the adventurous folks at Shout!Factory, “Dead Shadows” is a movie that merges specific elements of John Carpenter and H.P. Lovecraft, with the nuttiness of such mid-’80s drive-in fare as “Night of the Comet” and “Lifeforce.” Weighing in at a mere 75 minutes, including crawls, the story by first-timers David Cholewa and Vincent Julé describes what happens when a comet passes over Paris and a citywide “apocalypse party” turns frighteningly real, with the arrival of tentacled creatures of varying sizes and temperaments. The one person not anxious to celebrate the Earth’s demise is Chris (Fabian Wolfrom), whose parents were killed 11 years earlier, while Halley’s Comet could be seen from Earth. The only thing he wants to do is get out of Dodge, but, as his friends and neighbors get contaminated with space dust, it becomes impossible to avoid the tentacles. And, believe me, there’s no hole too tight to keep a long tongue-like appendage from piercing it. If “Dead Shadows” doesn’t tell much of a story, it’s still fun to guess from which orifice the next tentacle will appear. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, an interview with director Cholewa and a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Bucksville
With the subject of anti-government militias back in the news, “Bucksville” takes on a relevancy it may have lacked even three weeks before the standoff in Nevada. Set in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, Chel White and Laura McGie’s family drama describes what happens when the son of the recently deceased founder of a small-town militia decides that the group has become as evil as the system it professes to abhor. It takes a while for Presley (Thomas Stroppel) to get to that point, however. The vigilante group, the Lodge, was organized after the killer of a girl escaped justice, and local law-enforcement types banded together to avenge the murder. They found so much satisfaction in the act that Lodge members decided to remain on the path of self-righteousness. Presley stayed on after the old man tormented his wife to the point that she split town with the girls and was forbidden to maintain contact with the boy. He interpreted this as abandonment and refused to forgive her. When the father died, Presley was handed over to his uncle, the chief of police, who kept him on the straight-and-narrow path toward fascism. When the Lodge becomes affiliated with a larger, more extreme faction, its wealthy leader tests its loyalty by demanding it take on a personal vendetta. When Presley begins to show signs of backsliding, his reluctance to abide by the rules presents the Lodge with another test. As vigilante movies go, “Bucksville” is borderline existential. The rabble-rousing is held to a minimum and the beautiful outdoors setting provides a stark contrast to the insanity of the Lodge members. I’ve seen Stroppel in a couple of other low-budget indies and I wouldn’t be surprised if he landed some larger parts soon. – Gary Dretzka

Prince Killian and the Holy Grail
As coincidences (a.k.a., publicity stunts) go, last week’s revelation about the Holy Grail residing in the San Isidro basilica in the Spanish city of Leon is far better than the shark sightings that would coincide with any new “Jaws” sequel. Not surprisingly, then, comes the new DVD from Spain, “Prince Killian and the Holy Grail,” retitled from the less specific, “Captain Thunder.” Based on Victor Mora’s popular action-comic, “El Capitan Trueno,” Antonio Hernandez’ adaptation finds the heroic knight-errand in the Holy Land, during the Third Crusade. Killian has been assigned the task of recovering the cup, from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and bringing it back to Spain to be protected for time eternal. The easy part is gaining custody of the cup, itself. All he has to do is liberate a prison full of Christians from Muslim hands and, then, be identified as a worthy bearer of the treasure. Getting the Holy Grail back to Spain is complicated by obstacles of both the military and supernatural variety. Fortunately, he’s accompanied by sidekicks Crispin, Goliath, and the beautiful Viking princess, Sigrid of Thule. As much as Captain Thunder wants to return the Holy Land to Christian hands, he much appreciates Saladin’s decision not to kill him in close combat after recognizing some God-given skin branding. Filmed in some of the same scenic locations that provided backdrops for the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, “Prince Killian” has enough action to satisfy older boys, I think. If it doesn’t match Ridley Scott’s $130-million “Kingdom of Heaven” for grandeur, the Spanish product never looks undernourished or cheesy. – Gary Dretzka

Lady Peacock
Fans of drag entertainment probably will enjoy this wildly uneven romantic dramedy from genre specialist Jana Mattioli (“The Coffee Shop”) more than other viewers in the ever-expanding niche. In “Lady Peacock,” the Calais Nightclub is a moonlight mecca for gay men and a tableful of lesbians, at least, attracted primarily to the Puerto Rican drag queen Adora, who does a very good Carmen Miranda. When Adora’s offstage, the preening young men spend their time playing musical boyfriends with anyone who will buy them a drink. This gets complicated when a “newbie” attracts the attention of Adora’s boyfriend and egos are bruised. Finally, the only solution to the problem is found — where else? — in a thrilling lip-synch duel. “Lady Peacock” is a million light years from “Cabaret,” but the original music is pretty good. You don’t often find movies with 18 producers, either. – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Bettie Page Reveals All: Blu-ray
For the first time in memory, the post offices in our area refused to do taxpayers the kindness of extending drive-through service on the evening of April 15, the deadline for tax returns. Considering how commercially oriented the USPS has become, I wonder if anyone there has considered issuing a sure-fire commemorative stamp of history’s greatest pin-up model and born-again Christian, Bettie Page. If the USPS can justify printing stamps honoring the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and “Global Forever: Sea Surface Temperatures” – alongside such recent honorees Jimi Hendrix, Charlton Heston and Harvey Milk – why not try to suck a few bucks from fetishistic philatelists, as well? After all, among the many things the USPS counts on from its customers is that a goodly number of commemorative stamps will never be attached to envelopes. Page stamps would be treasured, not canceled. After watching Mark Mori s frequently fascinating “Bettie Page Reveals All,” I’m positive that such a stamp would sell like hot cakes, even if the photograph didn’t reveal anything more suggestive than her trademark smile and bangs. Even in her most risqué poses, of which there are several new ones in the documentary, Page exuded the kind of innocence that Doris Day was going for in her wink-wink/nod-nod “Pillow Talk” period. And because of this, perhaps, she continues to influence fashion and popular culture as much as when she first appeared in Playboy in January, 1955. Likewise, many of the same people who exploited Page’s popularity while she was alive continue to profit from her image six years after her death, in 2008, at 85.

Mori’s documentary doesn’t merely pick up where “The Notorious Bettie Page” left off in 2005. That movie, which starred a very game Gretchen Moll, was labeled “a lie” by Page during a screening. It ended at the peak of her career with the political witch hunt led by Tennessee’s publicity-hound senator, Estes Kefauver, and her moonlight conversion to born-again Christianity in Key West. “Bettie Page Reveals All” extends her story another 50 years, few of which were pleasant. Instead of using her notoriety to advance her career, as did stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Page largely disappeared into the cut-throat world of trailer-park evangelism and schizophrenia. While the sexual revolutionists of the 1960s battled first-generation feminists for philosophical dominance of the New Left, Page was fighting her own demons. Neither was she aware of the post- and post-post-feminists who considered her to be a pioneer for taking charge of her own sexuality, using her femininity to carve a career out of the male-dominated sex industry and being a role model for sexual-positivity. For most of the 1980s and early ’90s, however, her diminished mental condition required she live under state supervision. Once she became aware of her cult following, Page began to allow the occasional interview, but only if it was taped and didn’t reveal her face or figure. Although she had long ago relinquished her rights to profit from her photos, she finally found representation that would lead to a steady stream of income from people wishing to use her likeness for other commercial purposes. In 2012, she was ranked by Forbes as one of the top 10 posthumous celebrity earners.

In Mori’s recorded interviews, Page sounds strong and confident in her memory of the events that shaped her life, including an abusive father and gang-rape after moving to New York. Her words are accompanied here by many films and photographs, some long unseen and more intimate than previously made available. The film is also informed by recent interviews with such admirers as Dita Von Teese, Hugh M. Hefner, Rebecca Romijn, Tempest Storm, Bunny Yeager, Paula Klaw, Mamie Van Doren, Todd Oldham, Naomi Campbell and camera-club member Dick Heinlein. Among those seen in archival footage are photographers Irving Claw and Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, cinematographer James Wong Howe, Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner) and various pop icons who’ve affected her look, including Katy Perry, Madonna and Beyonce. While not perfect, Mori’s film is as definitive as any we’re likely to see. The Blu-ray package adds “Filth and Obscenity,” a “warning film” from the days when sex was dirty and the environment was clean; more from “The Early Years” audio interview, with leftover photographs; an unreleased phone conversation between Bettie and Paula Klaw; several restored versions of Irving Klaw’s “Wiggle Movies”; the “Bettie Page” music video, by Buzz Campbell; an expanded pin-up gallery; and footage from Bettie’s funeral, presided over by the Rev. Robert Schuller and attended by Hugh Hefner. – Gary Dretzka

The Inspector Lavardin Collection: Blu-ray
I think it’s fair to suggest that the Inspector Lavardin we meet in these four delightful mysteries by Claude Chabrol is the French answer to LAPD Lt. Columbo, if not quite so rumpled. The stories themselves, however, are right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook … no surprise, given Chabrol’s admiration for the master’s work. As shaped by novelist Dominique Roulet and portrayed by Jean Poiret, Lavardin is a somewhat acerbic provincial police detective who appears to arrive at crime scenes out of nowhere and immediately size up the key circumstances surrounding a murder. The rest of the movie, then, is spent confounding the suspects to the point where they reveal themselves, by mistake or simply to get the detective out of their hair. And, while Lavardin clearly isn’t stupid or incompetent, he frequently does things and asks the kinds of questions that make people think they’re smarter than he is. Unlike Columbo, however, there are times when his temper gets the best of him and he lashes out at a suspect. If his interrogation techniques wouldn’t pass muster before even the most conservative judge, it’s easy to forgive him his trespasses. It’s a neat balancing act, but Poiret pulls it off well. It’s what makes “The Inspector Lavardin Collection” so interesting to watch. We know that the detective is going get his man – or woman – but we don’t know how. Typically, too, Chabrol creates antagonists that, in someone else’s movie, would be considered to be pillars of society. Of the titles collected here, “Chicken With Vinegar” (1985) and “Inspector Lavardin” (“1986”) were made for theatrical distribution, while “The Black Snail” (1988) and “Danger in the Words” (1989) were taken from “The Secret Files of Inspector Lavardin” television series. In the U.S., I think, all four would have been positioned for television, as part of a thematic wheel. Cohen Media Group’s nicely restored theatrical features include commentary by critics Wade Major and Andy Klein – Gary Dretzka

Riot in Cell Block 11: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Master of the House: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Because America’s prison systems continue to operate in an atmosphere of mutual loathing, dictated decades ago by the terrible riots at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility and New Mexico State Penitentiary, almost no efforts are being made anymore to rehabilitate prisoners or prepare them for life on the streets. (A government report issued this week points to a dramatic increase in recidivism among former prisoners in 30 state facilities during the first year after their release.) Since the launch of the War on Drugs and imposition of mandatory-minimum sentences, the prison population not only has exploded, but the racial demographics have been turned on their heads. Moreover, the privatization and corporatization of state facilities have allowed politicians to promote an attitude resembling “out of sight, out of mind.” Even as strict sentencing guidelines are being re-evaluated, the owners of private, for-profit prisons have joined guards’ unions in demanding occupancy quotas and additional fees for empty prison cells. All those things ran through my mind while watching Don Siegel’s 1954 prison thriller, “Riot in Cell Block 11,” beneficiary of another sterling 2K restoration by the folks at Criterion Collection. Instead of depending solely on exterior shots of an ancient prison or abandoned facilities for atmosphere, the producers of “Riot in Cell Block 11” were allowed to shoot inside California’s Folsum State Prison, using actual prisoners and guides as extras and technical advisers. The neo-realistic approach looked extremely credible, saved a lot of money and played right into producer Walter Wanger’s desire to showcase the inadequacies of contemporary prisons. Wanger, who had been incarcerated for several months at a Los Angeles County honor farm in the shooting of his wife’s lover, was so disgusted by the conditions that he came up with $10,000 to make “Cell Block 11.”

Fed up with guard brutality, overcrowding, terrible food and the lack of protection from violent and mentally disturbed inmates, the hard-core prisoners in Cell Block 11 lure a guard into a trap and take over the unit. Coincidentally, the prisoner’s demands mirror the complaints made earlier by the warden to the state prison board. Typically, the administrators and politicians in charge are in no mood to make concessions to inmates holding hostages. They aren’t enthusiastic about making any concessions, period. One thing leads to another and other issues begin to cloud the negotiations, inside and outside the block. Can a more violent confrontation be avoided? Stay tuned. It’s worth knowing going into “Cell Block 11” that it was released at a time when such riots were becoming an epidemic around the country and the convicts, many of whom fought in World War II, were housed in prisons built in the 19th Century. The actors and extras in “Cell Block 11” are predominantly, but not exclusively white. I don’t know if segregation by color was enforced in the 1950s – outside the South, anyway – but that problem would be left as a ticking time bomb, set to explode two decades later. Another interesting thing about the movie is the casting of veteran characters actors whose faces were familiar primarily to fans of gangster movies and Westerns. They included such professional hard guys as Neville Brand, Don Gordon and Robert Osterloh. Criterion’s almost spooky black-and-white restoration really adds a sense of menace to the proceedings. The bonus package contains commentary with film scholar Matthew H. Bernstein; the NBC radio documentary series, “The Challenge of Our Prisons,” which originally aired in March, 1953; Kristoffer Tabori, Don Siegel’s son, reads excerpts from the chapter on “Riot in Cell Block 11,” from Stuart Kaminsky’s “Don Siegel: Director,” and a chapter from his dad’s autobiography, “A Siegel Film”; and an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara, a 1954 article by co-producer Walter Wanger and a 1974 tribute to Don Siegel by Sam Peckinpah.

Criterion’s other black-and-white gem this month is “Master of the House,” by the great Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer and co-writer/playwright Svend Rindom. Made in 1925, the silent parable preceded Dreyer’s unforgettable “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and “Vampyr.” It tells the strangely contemporary story of a middle-class housewife, whose husband is taking out his frustrations over losing his job on her. Even though Ida already is overworked with domestic chores and child care, Victor complains about every missed detail of his daily routine. Apart from being completely unreasonable, Victor is too much of a coward to admit the gravity of his circumstances and his time away from home is idly spent. When things get too much for Ida to bear, the other women in Victor’s life – his onetime nanny and Ida’s mother – conspire to teach him a thing or two about compassion and hard work. This is one silent movie that doesn’t require title boards to express what’s happening on screen. It can be read in the eyes and facial expressions of the actors, especially leads Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm. The restoration is impeccable, naturally, and the bonus materials include a recent score by Gillian Anderson, presented in uncompressed stereo; a new interview with Dreyer historian Casper Tybjerg; a new visual essay on Dreyer’s camera work and editing by David Bordwell; new English inter-title translations; and a booklet featuring an essay by Mark Le Fanu. – Gary Dretzka

Sorcerer: Blu-ray
The Pawnbroker: Blu-ray
Once: Blu-ray
Garden State: Blu-ray
Adding to April’s rich bounty of hi-def re-issues are William Friedkin’s suspenseful “Sorcerer,” an adaptation of the same Georges Arnaud novel that inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953), and Sidney Lumet’s riveting post-Holocaust drama, “The Pawnbroker.” In its initial 1977 release, “Sorcerer” was so poorly timed and marketed that audiences somehow failed to make the connection between it and Friedkin’s hugely successful “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.” Although it had everything a fan of action/adventures could want, “Sorcerer” couldn’t compete against the halo effect of “Star Wars” and “tent pole” marketing strategy introduced by “Jaws.” In hindsight, it can be argued that “Sorcerer” resembled an arthouse version of “Indiana Jones.” That might have made a nice blurb, but “Indiana Jones” was years away from being launched and “Jaws” had scared as many mainstream viewers away from art houses as it did beaches. In short order, “Sorcerer” was put on shelf and forgotten, even in the run-up to the VHS revolution. Rights would transferred, lost and only recently recovered. Perhaps, finally rescued from the “cult” curse, enough fans of explosive thrillers will discover how great “Sorcerer” looks in Blu-ray and how exciting even the simplest of stories can be. In it, Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, and Amidou play desperadoes on the run not only from the authorities back home, but also hitmen hired to track and kill them, no questions asked. The man have come to the end of their respective trails in a South American shithole town, surrounded by rain forest, corrupt cops, guerrilla fighters, government troops and oilmen with a problem on their hands. A blowout continues to rage at a drilling site deep in the jungle and the only hope for putting it out quickly can be found in a decaying pile of TNT in a warehouse in the town. The four desperadoes are given little choice but to attempt to drive the explosives to the site, over about 200 miles of extremely bad road, without blowing themselves into tiny pieces. Any survivors of such a mission have been promised $10,000 dollars apiece and legal citizenship papers. That’s it, really, but nothing more is needed. It’s a barely-there road leading from decaying bridges over troubled waters, to eroding hillsides and barren mountain passes where guerrillas collect the toll. The settings are spectacular and, because of the movie’s age, we know that Freidkin didn’t have CGI technology to fall back on for special effects.  This is one Blu-ray that cries out for a making-of featurette, but the only extra is DigiBook packaging and photos.

A backgrounder would have been welcome, as well, as part of a bonus package on “The Pawnbroker.” Alas, there’s none. Upon its release, in 1964, movies with explicit Holocaust imagery were few and far between. Only a shot of the tattooed number on the arm of a prominent character was used to explain why that person was constantly depressed, angry or reclusive. Here, we learn of the pawnbroker’s European roots in flashbacks of the last happy day he shared with his family and horrifying images of his experiences in a concentration camp. They go a long way to explain why Rod Steiger’s character, Sol Nazerman – the only member of his family to survive the death camp – is so consumed with survivor’s remorse. His face shows displays no sign of life or desire to have one. He supports the sister of his dead wife through the money he makes from a Harlem pawnshop, where, it seems, everyone’s selling and no one is buying. Knowing that the old man isn’t likely to pay them anywhere near what they want for an item, the customers always arrive with a sad tale to tell. Sol’s Puerto Rican assistant, Jesus, sees something good in the old man and desperately wants to learn the pawn business. Once in a while, Sol will begrudgingly agree to teach him something valuable. Fact is, though, the only reason the pawn shop isn’t shut down or robbed is because it launders money for the local rackets boss (Brock Peters). Lumet also courted controversy by including a scene in which Jesus’ prostitute girlfriend attempts to help him by tempting Sol with her bare breasts. Instead, they trigger a flashback in which Sol recalls Gestapo officers raping his wife and other Jewish women. Geraldine Fitzgerald plays a neighborhood do-gooder who tries, but fails to get close to Sol. The topless scene caused such a furor in Hollywood that its inclusion had to be negotiated between the film’s producers and the MPAA appeals board to secure a Production Code Seal. The precedent would lead eventually to the introduction of the ratings system. Even after 50 years, watching “The Pawbroker” can be a depressing experience. Steiger’s Oscar-nominated performance is every bit that powerful. Lumet’s dark representation of life in Harlem is enhanced by the stunning B&W cinematography of Boris Kaufman and Quincy Jones score.

Ever since it broke through the pack as the surprise hit of 2007, “Once” has served as one of the exceptions that proves the rule of what it takes to become a hit. Despite a cast of amateurs and unknowns, the deeply moving story of an unlikely romance between an Irish busker and an immigrant street vendor, came out of nowhere and didn’t stop until Oscar night. Although it deserved to be nominated in the Best Picture category, it settled for a trophy in the Best Original Song category. If stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová have only appeared together again as voice actors on “The Simpsons,” it isn’t because no one has tried to re-team them. They’ve simply decided to focus on their own music, instead. Good for them.

Another small movie that became a big hit is Zach Braff’s thoroughly offbeat romantic comedy, “Garden State.” It describes what happens when a New Jersey lad returns home for his mother’s funeral from Los Angeles, where he is a semi-recognizable actor. He has been away from his family for 10 years, primarily over the guilt trip laid on him by his father. Once home, he reconnects with similarly quirky characters played by Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard. – Gary Dretzka

A Farewell to Fools
Despite their appearances in several recent duds, any movie that stars Gerard Depardieu and Harvey Keitel in nearly co-equal lead roles is bound to be anticipated in some quarters with great relish. Set near the end of World War II in occupied Romania “A Farewell to Fools” offers both men plenty of opportunities to shine and neither of them phones in their performances. What’s problematic in Bogdan Dreyer’s debut film is a story that makes relevant points about humanity, but delivers a distinctly mixed message on how a besieged citizenry deals with pure evil, even in a fictional format. As the movie opens, a Romanian boy is playing in a large, open field, when a soldier approaches him on a motorcycle with a side car. Instead of bullying the boy, the friendly German gets off his machine and encourages the completely agreeable youngster to give it a go. Off-camera, an unseen assassin uses the motorcycle’s roar to sneak up to the soldier and slit his throat. Almost blissfully unaware of the consequences, the boy hops back on the bike and rides into his village. The adults, of course, know exactly what’s going happen next. Once the Nazis learn what happened, the leader of a nearby regiment would ride into town and demand the handover of the anonymous assailant. If not, 10 prominent citizens would be killed the next morning. Of all the possible solutions to the dilemma, the otherwise amiable Father Johanis (Keitel) joins other town leaders in a scheme to convince Ipu (Depardieu), the village idiot, to sacrifice himself for the common good. Ipu fancies himself to be a French loyalist, left behind after the previous war and adopted by the community. At what is intended to a lavish last supper, a doctor convinces the light-hearted simpleton that he’s suffering from a grave illness, while the priest promises a funeral service worthy of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ipu is game, but asks Johanis to deliver an early eulogy and demands that the town’s elite set aside prime real estate for his equally feeble, if nearly invisible beneficiaries. Depardieu steals the show from this point forward, turning a dark comedy into a conundrum for the villagers and audiences, alike. If Dreyer and Anusavan Salamanian have devised a clever ending to the parable, it’s more likely true that the Nazis would have mowed down a large fraction of the population, figuring that the assassin almost certainly was among the victims, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with the acting and the setting is wonderfully pastoral. “A Farewell to Fools” also makes its overall point quite clearly. Finally, though, I was left with the same feeling I had upon first seeing the famous National Lampoon cover, showing a frightened-looking mutt with a gun being held against its head, alongside the admonishment, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.” – Gary Dretzka

Tin Can Man
Gila!/The Lost Empire
Scream Park
Dark Satanic Magick
Empire of the Apes
Pete is having a helluva bad day. His girlfriend dumped him for another man and his boss is threatening to fire him from a job he hates and isn’t competent to perform. Finally, safe and secure in the sanctity of his apartment, Pete makes the mistake of opening his door to a man, Dave, professing to be his next-door neighbor. All at once, the day he thought couldn’t get any worse turns from bad to disastrous. After pretending to use the telephone to report an accident, the stranger gets right up into Pete’s face and begins to taunt, humiliate and intimidate him. Dave then insists that Pete accompany him on what a publicist might term, a terrifying journey into one of David Lynch’s darker nightmares. Only Dave knows where we’re going and he isn’t saying. Only a flashlight lights the way through pitch-black hallways, backyards and trailer parks. The flashlight also illuminates the faces of Dave and Pete, which appear to be no more than a foot away from the camera lens. The title, “Tin Can Man,” becomes relevant when Dave introduces Pete – after a fashion – to another man, this one held captive on a bed, his head covered with a burlap sack and his body festooned with tin cans. When Dave whistles a carnival melody, the captive dances to his tune. Their next stop is at a trailer in which Dave’s purported family – thinner versions of Dean Stockwell’s female cronies — taunt, humiliate and intimate Pete. “Tin Can Man” is one scary movie, largely because we’re completely lacking in context. Only rarely are we allowed to see anything beyond the black borders and, even then, we have no real idea what Pete did to deserve such treatment. In some ways, it’s resembles “Blair Witch” in a fish bowl. Kavanagh first shopped “Tin Can Man” in 2007. Two years ago, he sent out a re-edited and refurbished cut to festivals, including the Jameson Dublin, where it won a Special Jury Award.

Given Jim Wynorski’s reputation for being the leading vivisectionist in Hollywood, it’s a bit of a surprise that his period-faithful remake of Ray Kellogg’s 1959 creature-feature, “The Giant Gila Monster,” doesn’t feature a giant lizard crossed with a crocodile, shark, hippopotamus or dinosaur. In fact, although he lightens up the atmosphere at tad, Wynorski’s film could easily be mistaken by anyone with an old analog TV set as the real deal. Turns out, a seriously mutated Gila monster is terrorizing residents of a rural community, effectively erasing hot-rodders, drive-in sex and rock ’n’ roll as the greatest threat to the peace. You can guess the rest. What’s nice about “Gila!” is that it takes the genre seriously enough to make it look authentic, but not so seriously that contemporary viewers will be bored by it. There’s something here for the whole. Released in 1985, “The Lost Empire” represents Corman-graduate Wynorski’s debut as a director/writer/producer. It’s watchable today only for the camp value of watching buxom babes’ in skin-tight costumes and Farrah Fawcett hairdos battle masked ninjas from another planet under the control of the mysterious Dr. Sin Do and the undead wizard Lee Chuck. The action takes place in a fortress on a secret island, resembling the temple in “Enter the Dragon.” The chief redeeming factor here is the presence of co-star/co-producer Raven De La Croix as an enchanted Indian maiden in a white buckskin outfit. There are plenty of amusing bonus features in both packages.

Scream Park” may not be based on the freshest of ideas, but, at least, it shows what can be accomplished by a freshman filmmaker on a nearly non-existent budget. The result is a 1980s-vintage slasher movie, unencumbered by modern special-effects technology or anything else that brings it into the 21st Century. The Fright Land amusement park is on the brink of bankruptcy and needs a dramatic surge in attendance to prevent immediate closure. The park’s owner (Doug Bradley, from “Hellraiser,” in a cameo), decides that what Fright Land needs is something truly frightening. He decides to hire a couple of yokels to terrorize the staff’s after-hours party. Naturally, things don’t go quite the way the owner planned.

Dark Satanic Magick” promises a lot more than it delivers and what’s missing mostly is horror. A semi-attractive woman wakes up in a nearly empty cellar, not knowing how she got there or what’s in store for her. Apparently, her captor fancies himself to be a practitioner of dark arts, which, here, include rape and ritualized torture. Although some of it is highly tasteless, what the captive (Melanie Denholme) mostly does is the hootchie-koo in her skivvies and semi-nude. Somehow, her dancing reverses the flow of energy from the magician to the captive, allowing her to exercise her “free will.” The trailers included on the disc are more interesting.

Any similarity between “Empire of the Apes” and any of the titles in the “Planet of the Apes” is strictly simian, in nature. The story takes place on a planet populated by a dying race of apes. Three female convicts find themselves on the same planet after they escape from a spacecraft taking them to a prison planet. After the pod carrying the women crash lands, the apes see an opportunity to use them as breeding stock to replenish their numbers … in a PG sort of way. The ante is raised when the warden of the prison arrives on the planet and is required to deal with both the women and the gorillas. The special effects are laughable and the monkey suits are worse. – Gary Dretzka

Junction
Here’s a low-budget hostage drama from a first-time filmmaker that succeeds where most other freshman products fail. “Junction” does so, by stripping away the extraneous elements and relying on the lean screenplay to deliver the goods. Four lowlifes, desperate for crank, try to score some drugs from their favorite supplier. Sadly, the dealer doesn’t work on credit, so the tweakers are required to accept the challenge of stealing a flat-screen TV for his mother’s birthday. Unfortunately, the quartet is far less adept at robbery than getting high and screwing up their complexions. The house they pick has just such a television, alright, but it also contains a box full of kiddy-porn cassettes. This causes one of the thieves to freak out, slowing their getaway until the home’s owner arrives. The aggrieved meth-head uses the opportunity to kick the crap out of the guy, assuming the tapes belong to him. The delay gives the man’s wife and young daughter time to get home and the cops to be made aware of the break-in. Everything that transpires from this point on can be considered spoiler-bait and worth keeping secret. Suffice it to say, “Junction” offers lots of down-and-dirty entertainment – if not fun, exactly – and edgy exchanges between the perps, cops and victims. For low-budget thrills, Tony Glazer’s debut feature is hard to beat. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

The Hooping Life
Like yo-yos, hula hoops have been going in and out of style ever since they were invented, in 1958. Blessedly, Amy Goldstein’s documentary, “The Hooping Life,” wastes very little on the history of the toy, itself, or even the craze it inspired. Instead, she makes a case for it being a combination crime-stopper, body-shaper, time-waster and art form. It stops just short of being an infomercial by including interviews with people who have taught inner-city youth to master the activity and used it themselves as therapy. Apparently, the current fascination with hula hoops was spurred by fans of String Cheese Incident, a rock band that encouraged expert hoopers to join it on stage. This was followed by a wave of onetime aerobics addicts picking up a hoop and turning the activity into something resembling a religion, not unlike skateboarding. Others added flare and color to hooping. Tournaments and concerts were staged, as well as mass migrations to Burning Man and other gatherings of post-hippie tribes. The people we meet here are very good at what they do, of course, and some of their stories are quite compelling. Guest appearances are made by Shaquille O’Neal and the long-dead Art Linkletter, an early shill for the product. “This Hooping Life” may be a niche entertainment, but it well serves the intended market. – Gary Dretzka

Lady Whirlwind/Hapkido
Seven Warriors: Blu-ray
Even before Angela Mao Ying appeared alongside Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon,” as a guest star, she was a hot property in the burgeoning Hong Kong martial-arts industry. Once a dancer and acrobat in the Peking Opera, the Taiwan-born actor was a quick study when it came to kung fu. Being attractive and seemingly vulnerable, Mao provided a surprise element to the mostly male genre. “Lady Whirlwind” and “Hapkido” also feature future industry heavyweight – literally and figuratively — Sammo Hung Kam-Bo as an actor and stunt coordinator. Both titles have been included in this “Martial Arts Double Feature” from Shout! They are of interest mostly as historical relics from the period before “wire fu” elevated the art to another level entirely. In “Lady Whirlwind” (1972), Mao plays a young woman seeking to avenge the death by suicide of her sister. In the meantime, she takes on the manager of a crooked casino (Sammo Hung) and his sister, the female crime boss Tiao Ta-Niang (Anna Liu), who runs the local syndicate. Her partner introduces a parallel storyline involving another fighter (Yi Chang). Eventually a Japanese Tai Chi enthusiast joins the circus, during Mao kicks the crap out of gangs of thugs. “Lady Whirlwind” was shown here as “Deep Thrust: The Hand of Death,” to exploit the then-current “Deep Throat” craze.

In “Hapkido,” Mao plays one of three Chinese students studying kung fu in Japanese-occupied Korea, circa 1934. At the time, rival schools fought openly in streets and marketplaces, even knowing that Japanese held all of the trump cards. After one particularly messy confrontation, the Chinese students are sent home for sticking up for the local shopkeepers. In China, they start their own school and set out on good-will visits to the other martial-arts schools. Eventually, they’ll have to stand up to the invaders, but not before Mao’s brother returns to take on the toughest of the tough.

Sammo Hung figures prominently the 1989 wuxia drama “Seven Warriors,” as co-star, co-director and co-producer. As the title suggests, it is a Chinese remake Akira Kurosawa’s classic, “The Seven Samurai,” this time set in Warlord Era of the 1920s. Once again, citizens of a beleaguered village, Guangxi, hire seven paladin expert in seven different disciplines to beat back the warlord’s armies and return peace and tranquility to the area. Besides action, “Seven Warriors” adds some humor and drama. Among the movie’s other stars are a 27-year-old Tony Leung, Chen Jing, Adam Cheng and Jacky Cheung. It isn’t likely that anyone will confuse “Seven Warriors” with “Seven Samurai” or “The Magnificent Seven.” – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
American Masters: Billie Jean King
Nova: Killer Typhoon
Ken Burns: The Address
Among the many things today’s young athletes take for granted is the appearance, at least, of gender equality in sports. Title IX assures a semblance of balance in high school and collegiate athletics, even if revenues in the professional arena for women’s sports is based on free-market forces. When Billy Jean King was breaking into high-end tennis competition, women players were paid under the table for their participation in tournaments and always played second-fiddle to the men. That wouldn’t begin to change until King and other competitors banded together to form their own organization and, soon thereafter, the Virginia Slims circuit. As freakish as the event was, the match game between former No. 1 men’s player Bobby Riggs and King, who was at the top of her game and leading advocate for equal rights among all Americans. At 55, Riggs was mostly known as a gambler and hustler, still capable of making a living on side bets. The feminist movement had made significant gains by 1973, when he challenged King to a Battle of the Sexes. When King refused, current top female player Margaret Court took up the challenge, losing miserably. When King did agree to it, if only to avenge Court’s loss, she breezed past Riggs, shutting him up for good on the subject of on-court equality. The positive media reaction went a long way toward pushing the agenda for greater equity in women’s professional sports. When King was blackmailed by her former lover into admitting their sexual relationship, its aftershocks would negatively impact her career, but help legitimize the incipient gay and lesbian rights movement. The “American Masters” special “Billy Jean King” is almost equal parts bio-doc and testimonial. Among those sharing their thoughts are Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Ilana Kloss, Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, members of the Virginia Slims Circuit Original 9 and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had plenty of nice things to say about King’s influence on her.

PBS’ “Nova” offers a scientific post-mortem on Typhon Haiyan, which, last fall, slammed into densely populated parts of the Philippines with 200 mph winds and a two-story storm surge. It left an estimated 5,000 people dead and countless millions homeless. In addition to tracking the storm from inception and warning as many residents as possible, “Killer Typhoon” describes how meteorological, geological and societal forces combined to create the conditions that led to such devastation. Given that this corner of the world has never been a stranger to typhoons and tsunamis, easier access to data could help save lives in the future. This is especially the case in the era of climate change and global warming.

Ken Burns’ “The Address” takes a relatively common learning exercise – memorizing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address – and adds significantly to its degree of difficulty by handing the assignment over to 50 boys with learning disabilities. Using only 272 words, the President was able to express everything he wanted to say about the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality. By coming in at about two minutes, Lincoln surprised reporters expecting the usual pre-speech posturing and bloviating. It’s well worth memorizing by any and all Americans. Burns’ team embedded cameras at the school, so that the process could be observed as unobtrusively as possible. On film, it’s an extremely inspirational experience. – Gary Dretzka

Lingerie Fighting Championships: Lace vs Leather
Organized women’s wrestling has been around since 1937, at least, crowning champions and promoting the most beautiful of the competitors as superstars. Like roller-derby, it attracts a certain kind of fan and promotes certain images over others. Today, the female wrestlers are required to wear costumes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Victoria’s Secret runway and be at least as photogenic as the average Playboy model, which many of them become. Already in excellent shape from daily workouts, weight lifting and cosmetic surgery, all the most athletic specimens have to learn is how to stomp their feet very loudly and take falls. Some of them have even been given their own phony-reality show, “Total Divas,” on E! Then, there’s the trailer-park answer to the “Divas” franchise, “Lingerie Fighting Championships: Lace vs. Leather,” which takes the lingerie-sports fad and turns it into “Amateur Night in Dixie.” I can’t fault the women for trying to better themselves and make a few bucks, but the attempts to mimic the conventions of such reality shows as “Real World” and “Bad Girls” – confessional interviews, faux feuds, hyperbolic drama – would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. The show aired as PPV special last fall. Anyone interested in a far more historically based and entertaining study of the subject, there’s “Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling.” – Gary Dretzka 

The DVD Wrapup

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

Ride Along: Blu-ray
In 1965, “I Spy” broke television’s color line for buddy teams, by pairing Bill Cosby and Robert Culp in co-equal lead roles. Three years later, however, in “Salt and Pepper,” Richard Donner paired Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. in a London-based buddy film that did nothing to advance the conceit. Donner would hit pay dirt two decades later with the first of several “Lethal Weapon” movies, but not before “48 HRS.,” “Silver Streak” and “Miami Vice” successfully re-introduced the salt-and-pepper concept. Ironically, perhaps, Betty Thomas’ 2002 re-imagining of “I Spy” and Michael Mann’s updating of his hit TV series, “Miami Vice,” would very publicly underperform, as would “MIB III,” whose revenues have always depended on overseas revenues. This year’s hit buddy movie, “Ride Along,” originally was intended for the salt-and-pepper pairing of Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, and the final pairing of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart only afforded director Tim Story a budget of $25 million. “Ride Along” would return $150 million, only 10.2 percent of which came from the foreign market. A pepper/pepper sequel is already in the works. (I wonder how Story’s 2004 pairing of Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon is doing in DVD/Blu-ray, considering their raised profiles on television.)

What’s changed in the last decade or so, I think, is the emergence of hip-hop as a crossover medium and a newfound willingness by young adults and teenagers to ignore casting decisions based strictly on demographics. When Ice Cube took the leap from rapping to acting, he was known primarily for his participation in one of the most hard-core hip-hop groups of all time. It was almost to be expected, then, that he would be pigeon-holed in the slot reserved for “gangsta” title. No matter the quality or message, these down-and-dirty pictures were targeted at urban-male audiences who’d been underserved since the Blaxploitation era. The media had a field day after gang-related violence broke out sporadically on opening weekends, causing theater owners to demand added security. A funny thing happened to Ice Cube’s career in 1997, however, when he accepted a key role in “Anaconda,” a silly creature-feature that also starred Jennifer Lopez, and it outperformed its expectations. His crossover bona fides were solidified with “Three Kings,” “Barbershop” and “Are We There Yet?” At about the same time, the public image of firebrand rapper, Ice-T – whose song, “Cop Killer,” became a cause célèbre among conservative politicians and talk-show hosts — evolved from provocateur to unlikely hero, playing NYPD detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” Today, dozens of hip-hop artists work alongside classically trained actors in films and on television. If Johnson and Reynolds had remained with the project, “Ride Along” probably would have ended up being just another so-so salt-and-pepper flick.

The story doesn’t break any new ground and the action sequences are standard-issue. It’s the chemistry between the two actors – one established, the other red hot — that sells the movie. Without compromising his public image, Ice Cube’s presence in a cops-and-robbers picture no longer automatically narrows its crossover potential. The profile of journeyman comedian Hart benefitted mightily from being named host of the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards. Since then, Hart has appeared “Think Like a Man,” “Grudge Match,” “This Is the End” and “About Last Night,” as well as the performance film, “Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain.” His character in “Ride Along,” Ben, is a self-assured security guard at an Atlanta high school, waiting for an opportunity to impress his fiance (Tika Sumpter) and her skeptical brother, James (Ice Cube), an undercover cop. James is far less than thrilled when Ben wins the equivalent of the lottery, by being accepted into police academy. He considers his future brother-in-law to be little more than a brash motor-mouth and video-game junkie. He invites Ben on a potentially dangerous ride-along, designed to scare the bejeezus out of him. Instead, the action emboldens Ben by allowing him to use the skills he mastered as video-game nut. That mild spoiler may reveal the movie’s most appealing narrative conceit, but it wouldn’t surprise any viewer under 30, anyway. In fact, it adds a “48 HRS.” touch to the proceedings. As formulaic as it is, “Ride Along” should please fans of the cast members, who also include John Leguizamo, Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Callen and Bruce McGill. The Blu-ray adds feature commentary with director Tim Story (“Barbershop,” “Taxi”), an alternate ending, deleted scenes, gag reel and several behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes. – Gary Dretzka

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Blu-ray
Very casually adapted from the influential 1939 James Thurber short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has been made into a feature film twice and part of a Broadway musical inspired by the author’s work. So popular was Thurber’s story that its protagonist’s name became part of the vernacular, describing job-trapped white-collar workers who daydream about performing heroic acts. In a more symbolic sense, Mitty continues to represent that part of the American Dream imprisoned by dullard bureaucrats and dim-witted company men. The 1947 version of “Walter Mitty,” newly available in DVD, was overhauled to take advantage of Danny Kaye’s physical and facial dexterity. Director/star Ben Stiller has taken even more liberties with Thurber’s story, adding such contemporary elements as online dating sites and product placement. (Papa John’s pizza, which threatened to fire employees rather than accept provisions of the Affordable Care Act, being the most prominent.) Stiller’s film has many nice things going for it – Kristen Wiig and some spectacular wilderness photography – but seems to rely too much on the viewers’ perceived nostalgia for days gone-by, when plane travel, itself, was an adventure and Life magazine’s photographers frequently provided the stuff of which dreams are made. Here, Mitty doesn’t so much daydream at his desk, than space-out whenever he’s confronted with situations beyond his control. In his capacity as photo manager at the doomed magazine, Mitty is required to guard the safety of a photo negative sent to it by an eccentric photographer (Sean Penn) for the cover of its final edition. (Digital tracking, anyone?) When a search reveals that the negative is missing, Mitty takes it upon himself to find its creator. An extended daydream (or is it?) leads him from Greenland and Iceland, to the Himalayas, where the photographer is hunting the elusive “ghost leopard.” The addition of romantic storylines involving the dating site and Wiig’s little boy only add clutter to the adventure. At a time when so many middle-class people can rely on their wherewithal to realize their dreams, “Walter Mitty” feels more than a tad anachronistic. The Blu-ray adds several deleted/extended/alternate scenes; a dozen making-of vignettes; a photo gallery; and the music video, “Stay Alive,” by Jose Gonzales. – Gary Dretzka

Labor Day: Blu-ray
Joyce Maynard’s 2009 coming-of-age novel “Labor Day,” was described by reviewers as a story about a lonely 13-year-old boy whose world is changed forever over the course of a summer-ending holiday weekend. An escaped prisoner, desperate for freedom, insinuates himself into the lives of the young New Englander, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and his divorced mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), a victim of agoraphobia, until the dust of his flight settles around them. Although Henry does, indeed, mature dramatically during those few days in the company of the almost freakishly handy fugitive, Frank (James Brolin), Jason Reitman’s adaptation emphasizes the curative powers of love and redemption. Reitman uses the memories of a grown-up Henry as a touchstone for the narrative, but doesn’t let them intrude on its momentum. In this way, “Labor Day” might have more in common with adult romances by Danielle Steel and Nicholas Sparks than any of Maynard’s books or newspaper work. Winslet, who can do frumpy as well as anyone, looks as if she hasn’t read a fashion magazine since she discovered her husband’s affair with his secretary. Henry’s bond with his father and his new family is tenuous, at best. For fun, Adele teaches her son to appreciate ballroom dance, an activity that concerns her ex-husband for all of the usual homophobic reasons.

It is during one of their rare shopping excursions that Frank approaches Henry and Adele, quietly demanding that he be given salve for his wound and a night’s refuge, at least. Once home, Frank asks Adele and Henry to ignore the negative reports they’ll soon hear on the local news outlets. “There are two sides to every story,” he argues, and his is the side not being told. Frank isn’t armed, but he’s a big boy and can take care of himself. While protective of her son’s well-being, Adele almost immediately feels comfortable in the intruder’s presence. Their sympatico vibes work to comfort Henry, too. Their positivity grows when Frank begins to perform household chores, unasked, and he plays catch with the boy in the backyard. As time passes and Henry’s first day of school approaches, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep friends and neighbors from learning the truth. The solution to the problem, while not entirely unpredictable, should satisfy most fans of the genre. Most importantly, we don’t doubt the chemistry between the characters or ascribe Adele and Henry’s feelings to Stockholm syndrome. The commentary is provided by Reitman, director of photography Eric Steelberg and first assistant director/co-producer Jason Blumenfeld, while Maynard appears in the featurette, “End of Summer: Making Labor Day,” and there are some deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

The Invisible Woman: Blu-ray
From a distance of 160 years, it’s possible to ignore the less charming aspects of a famous man’s life and reduce his sins to peccadillos. If Charles Dickens were alive today, however, he’d probably be deflecting the same slings and arrows currently being directed at Woody Allen. Their individual cases are different, but, until it can be proven that the filmmaker actually sexually abused his children, not by much. The title, “The Invisible Woman,” refers to Ellen “Nelly” Ternan, his much-younger mistress. For reasons of his own, Dickens was obsessed with keeping Ternan’s longtime role in his life secret. Even in the aftermath of a terrible train accident, Dickens would disavow any relationship with his 27-years-younger traveling companion, who he met when she was appearing in the play “The Frozen Deep” with her mother and sister. (According to legend, Ternan was the least blessed actor in the family.) Without diminishing Dickens’ literary and charitable legacy, “The Invisible Woman” paints an extremely ugly portrait of a man who let one marriage collapse, while not allowing the woman he does love to acknowledge their partnership publically. Rumors of the affair had already been published and denied, so, one wonders, how much his reputation would have been damaged by admitting the truth, anyway. Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn survived an avalanche of bad press, barely, but, if proven, the latest rumors probably would had proven too devastating to overcome.

The whole sordid tale is told through the sad flashbacks of the 44-year-old Ternan, who, still wearing widow’s weeds, is staging one of her ex-lover’s plays, “No Thoroughfare.” (Dickens had died 13 years earlier, in 1870, at 58.) In this way, the movie is framed by theatrical devices. Ralph Fiennes directs “The Invisible Woman,” as well as playing Dickens, and he does a terrific job on both counts. “Nelly,” as she was known, is played by the lovely and talented Felicity Jones. At 30, the Birmingham native is credible playing 18, 30 and 44. We’re allowed to reserve most of our pity, however, for Catherine Thomson Hogarth Dickens (Joanna Scanlan), a decidedly portly woman who was blamed by her husband for every wifely misdemeanor possible. She ended their 22-year marriage after intercepting a gift of jewelry intended for Nelly. So, what makes “The Invisible Woman” even remotely appetizing? Well, like Allen, Dickens is an important artist whose contradictions are as enlightening about the human condition as his work. More to the point, though, it’s real. Few liberties were taken with history and the craftsmanship on display is impeccable. Watch the bonus features and you’ll be impressed with just how much was accomplished with so little money. – Gary Dretzka

Bastards
French writer/director Claire Denis doesn’t make it easy for us to love her movies, which are challenging even by the standards usually reserved for arthouse titles. Viewers willing to go along with Denis’ conceits, however, are rewarded with stories influenced by her experiences in Africa and directing alongside such talents as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Dušan Makavejev, Costa Gavras and Jacques Rivette. She’s never shied away from revealing the dark side of human relationships in her films or mapping the scarred intersection of wealth, power and decadence. “Bastards” is no different. Viewers are encouraged to pay attention to what’s said and done in the film’s early moments, because things do tend to get complicated later on. So much of what happens in “Bastards” takes place in the shadows that it easily qualifies as an exercise in film noir. The central mystery is posed by a pretty young woman – or girl in her late teens – who we meet wandering through the streets of Paris, naked except for high heels. We’ll learn soon enough that she’s been severely abused sexually and is seriously traumatized by the experience. Ruggedly handsome Vincent Lindon plays the girl’s uncle, Marco, a sea captain who abandoned his tanker to investigate his brother-in-law’s suicide and calm his disconsolate sister. He immediately senses that the suicide somehow involves his brother-in-law’s smarmy partner, Edouard (Michel Subor). By coincidence, Marco takes an apartment in a building where Edouard has stashed his lover, Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), and their son. After Marco helps the boy fix his bicycle, it isn’t long before Raphaelle returns the favors by cuddling up to her friendly neighbor. Marco has other problems on his plate, besides bedding the wealthy man’s mistress, but nothing compares to the horrors that put his niece (Lola Creton) in the hospital. This is some sick shit we’re dealing with here, folks. Apparently, Denis and frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau were inspired by recent sex-ring scandals involving influential men and young prostitutes. Denis is known for her meticulous post-production routine, which might have rubbed a couple of the connections right off the finished product. Agnès Godard, another longtime associate, helps fill in the holes with cinematography that takes full advantage of the inky dark environment. (The City of Lights has never looked as dark and sinister.) Needless to say, perhaps, “Bastards” isn’t for the easily shocked. – Gary Dretzka

Everyday
Ask an adult how their day went and, more often than not, the reply will be something resembling a grunted, “Nothing.” Ask a child the same question, and you might get more than you bargained for … lots more. To a grown-up, the daily routine of life and work may have become so repetitive as to be meaningless. For some children, everything is new and every new thing carries with it the possibility of being scary, dangerous, fun or enlightening. The uncertainty is what gives kids an edge when it comes to savoring every opportunity given them. As long as someone older is watching over them, kids will occasionally test the limits of safety nets stretched around them. Michael Winterbottom’s exquisite family drama, “Everyday,” is all about feeling secure in life and coping with the anomalies of distance. In some ways, it resembles the documentaries in Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, which has followed the development of the same children we met in 1963, in seven-year intervals. Besides being a work of fiction, “Everyday” is far less chronologically ambitious in scope. It loosely chronicles five years in the life of a working-class family, living in rural Norfolk on the eastern coast of England. Wee Shirley Henderson is terrific as the mother of four small children – apparently conceived within 9 months and 9 minutes of each other – and wife of an unassuming bloke (John Simm) in prison for drug trafficking. All of the child actors are members of the same family, which explains their nearly identical looks and easy rapport with each other. To maintain a naturalistic look, Winterbottom would revisit the Kirks intermittently during the five-year production schedule.

We have come to expect the unexpected from Winterbottom, whose films run the full gamut from comedies (“Tristram Shandy,” “The Trip”) and pop-cultural portraits (“24 Hour Party People”), to current events (“A Mighty Heart,” “The Road to Guantanamo”) and edgier stuff (“9 Songs,” “Code 46,” “The Killer Inside Me”). If his experiments rarely pay off at the box office, they’re widely admired for the courage and ability to keep other filmmakers honest. “Everyday” simply describes how a closely knit family manages its affairs when one of its key elements is removed and the rest of them are required to muddle through without him. It’s divided into loosely defined chapters, bracketed by visits to and away from the prison. At first, mom and the kids visit dad in jail. Then, dad is allowed to come home on a day pass. Later, dad comes home for a longer stretch and blows it by smuggling “just a tiny piece of hashish” into prison. The longer he’s away from home, the more independent must the family become. Seeing how well they meet the challenges is what “Everyday” is all about. For the mother, a year apart from her husband means having to provide for the family, keep the home from falling apart and providing the occasional escape for the children. She’s kept busy, but unfulfilled. For the kids, however, a year might as well be an eternity. Winterbottom neatly captures the family’s uncertainty and sense of relief from small victories, while also maintaining narrative consistency throughout the five-year production. As usual, Henderson can do no wrong here. Simm is good, as well, as a guy who squandered the freedom he enjoyed as a young man and, when he’s most needed at home, has no freedom left to waste. – Gary Dretzka

Black Nativity: Blu-ray
Most people would need a magnifying glass to find the name, Langston Hughes, on the jacket of the DVD/Blu-ray of Kasi Lemmons’ rousing adaptation of the playwright’s “Black Nativity.” First mounted off-Broadway in 1961, productions of Hughes’ “gospel-song-play” have become a traditional holiday treat, not unlike “A Christmas Carol.” Here, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett) are about to stage their Harlem church’s annual presentation, when the grandson they’ve never met literally shows up at their doorstep. The teenage boy’s mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is estranged from her parents, but needs to find a temporary home for Langston (Jacob Latimore) while she deals with being evicted from their Baltimore row house. No sooner does Langston reach the Port Authority than he’s robbed of his backpack and left to his own devices. He’s arrested in a misunderstanding about a misplaced wallet, but is rescued after being recognized as the minister’s relative. Nonetheless, Langston not only is bitter over being sent away from home, but also because Naima appears to be getting a raw deal. Almost immediately, Langston takes advantage of his grandfather’s kindness by attempting to pawn a family heirloom. Before he can get into any real trouble, though, he’s seized by the power of the Lord and rescued by gospel music. On paper, the story behind “Black Nativity” sounds far too pat and borderline corny. Dropping the weight of the message on the shoulders of a 17-year-old actors seems, at first, to be a miscalculation of Lemmons’ part. On film, however, the blend of original and traditional music, the pastor’s redemptive words and the good intentions of everyone involved in the project is infectious. Raphael Saadiq, Taura Stinson and Laura Karpman are primarily responsible for arranging music, which complements the choreography of Otis Sallid. For me, though, watching the full cast and chorus performing Stevie Wonder’s “As” was the musical highlight. Also contributing to the fun are Mary J. Blige, Nas, Tyrese Gibson, Grace Gibson, Luke James, Blondelle and the Gospeldelic Choir. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and short making-of segments. – Gary Dretzka

Death Do Us Part
The fingerprints of Julia and Peter Benson are all over this problematic pairing of 1980s splatter and Canuxploitation. Besides playing the soon-to-be-married/dead couple at the core of the story, they co-wrote and co-produced “Death Do Us Part,” which was directed by Nicholas Humphries. Apparently, all of the actors had worked together previously in the Great White North and thought the project would be a blast. Personally, I think they had a bit too much fun stabbing each other and screaming at the top of their lungs into the B.C. night to see the holes in the clichés. Set in and around an oceanfront cabin, deep in the woods, “Death Do Us Part” opens promisingly with a woman – or is it? – wandering along a rural road, wearing a bloodied wedding dress. As the woman relates to a sheriff what brought her to this cruel juncture in life, the film’s clock is turned back about 24 hours. Instead of following the crowds to Las Vegas for a “Jack and Jill” bachelor/bachelorette party, a half-dozen friends and relatives of the lucky couple decided to rent the cabin for a weekend of games, booze and skull-bashing, intended to bring them all together before the blessed event. Even before the SUV reaches the rusting gate of the cabin’s driveway, however, it’s clear that the guys are jackasses and the women probably will spend the next 48 hours trying to avoid their groping fingers, including those of the swinish groom-to-be. And, yes, the property’s janitor could very well have escaped from the local loony bin that morning. By the time the killing starts, it’s difficult to figure out if “Death Do Us Part” is intended to be a parody or thriller. Worse news for anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of Julia Benson’s truly amazing body, everyone in the movie remains clothed. On the plus side, the cast members all look as if they actually were having fun. Too bad, it isn’t contagious. The DVD includes a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka

Confession of Murder
In South Korea, unlike the United States, murder carries with it a statute of limitations. It sounds crazy, but affords filmmakers an opportunity unavailable to their counterparts here. If Korean cops were allowed to investigate crimes involving murders, a smart and nasty thriller like “Confession of Murder” never could have been made. Fifteen years after 10 women were killed in series of attacks that shocked the nation, the perpetrator has decided to profit from his infamous acts by writing a book. Among those sickened by this affront, is Detective Choi (Jae-yeong Jeong), who lost his wife to the killer and had his face slashed by him as he was about to make an arrest. With no small amount of fanfare, Lee Du-seok (Park Si-hoo) appears on television, claiming that he was the killer and is seeking forgiveness, as well as attention. Naturally, Lee’s confession results in a media circus, even over the loud protestations of the victims’ relatives. As if to deflect the spotlight from Lee, another person confesses to the crimes. The media insist that Choi confront the two men in a public hearing, but, to what end, we won’t know until near the movie’s climax. Writer/director Jeong Byeong-gil deftly keeps the action flowing throughout
“Confession of Murder,” with chases and bursts of violence. We should be able to predict the twist he adds near the end, but are distracted by other things happening on-screen. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and interviews with cast and crew. – Gary Dretzka

Trap for Cinderella
By far the most compelling thing about Iain Softley’s erotic thriller, “Trap for Cinderella,” is the exotic cover photo, in which the British seductress Tuppence Middleton strikes an enticingly languid pose reminiscent of Louise Brooks at her most incendiary. It’s the kind of photograph that demands a browser’s attention, even if nothing else is known about the movie it begs us to consider. If only the movie, itself, lived up to the promise of Middleton’s gaze. Adapted from a novel by the French author Sébastien Japrisot (“A Very Long Engagement”), “Trap for Cinderella” opens with an explosion that sets the stage for everything else to come. We watch as Middleton’s party-girl heiress, Mickey, is slowly nursed back to health, her memory of what came before the fire still a work in progress. It isn’t long before Softley shifts into flashback mode, first taking viewers back to a traumatic event in Mickey’s childhood and, then, 10 years later, to the reunion with a near-lookalike friend, Do (Alexandra Roach). The reunion escalates very quickly into a relationship that could be bi-, straight or gay, depending on the drugs being consumed on any given night. It gets even more complicated when money from a generous inheritance is thrown into the equation, along with Mickey’s jealous boyfriend (Aneurin Barnard), her dead aunt’s overly protective assistant (Kerry Fox) and a sleazy bartender (Stanley Weber).

After some loud arguments, backstabbing and a fair amount of topless sunbathing, we’re back at the scene of the original crime. Softley’s screenplay makes better use of its primary settings — London and the south of France, where Mickey and Do spent their summers – than the intricacies of Japrisot’s novel. Miss a key detail and you’ll find yourself in the same quandary as Mickey, trying to piece back her memory on a hospital bed. – Gary Dretzka

Wrong Cops
These days, if a group of friends or classmates wants to get together to make a movie, there’s almost nothing stopping them from doing so. The same is true for actors who enjoy each other’s company so much that they get together in their spare time to take advantage of the Internet and other platforms. The better ones complete the circle by winding up on television or the big screen. It helps greatly, of course, if the actors and comedians work for fair less than scale and don’t demand star billing. Graduates of such improv troupes as the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City are fixtures on network and cable television, where they can’t spread their improvisational wings. You can find them, as well, on YouTube, Adult Swim, HBO and Showtime. They populate such off-the-wall shows as “Reno 911!,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” “Children’s Hospital” and “Funny or Die Presents.” There are plenty of familiar faces in Quentin Dupieux’s thoroughly undisciplined “Wrong Cops,” a nutty-cops comedy that makes “Reno 911!” and “Police Squad!” look like “Homicide: Life on the Street.” The few legit critics who commented on it weren’t kind to “Wrong Cops,” but the further off the mainstream one got, the better it looked. Burly Mark Burnham plays Officer Duke, a cop so dirty he sees nothing wrong with selling bags of marijuana stuffed in rat carcasses to kids. Another one is obsessed with creating electronic music that borders on the unlistenable. Then, there’s the patrolman whose past comes back to haunt him when an incriminating photo shows up in an ancient gay-porn magazine. “Wrong Cops” plays out in a loosely strung series of vignettes, starring, among others, Eric Judor, Steve Little, Grace Zabriskie, Arden Myrin, Eric Roberts, Eric Wareheim, Ray Wise and, best of all, Marilyn Manson. This isn’t a movie one recommends to the easily offended, but those so inclined should find plenty here to enjoy. The higher one gets, the funnier it is. – Gary Dretzka

Being Ginger
Until I heard red-haired Austalian singer/comedian Tim Minchin perform “Taboo” on his Showtime special, I had no idea that being labeled “ginger” could be as traumatic for a young man as being born with a clubfoot, webbed toes or cleft palette. In some parts of northern Europe, especially, gingers frequently are taunted, bullied and ridiculed. Why, I don’t know. Like Minchin, who plays a debauched rock star on “Californication,” filmmaker Scott P. Harris decided that the best way to attack the prejudice was with humor. “Being Ginger” is an extension of a school project undertaken by the red-headed Texan while at the University of Edinburgh. Through interviews and anecdotes, Harris describes what it’s like to be treated as a freak, simply for the color of his hair, especially in delicate matters of the heart. Backed by a Kickstarter campaign, “Being Ginger” works best as a teaching tool. Any kid capable of putting himself in the shoes of a persecuted redhead, should be able to figure out what makes other forms of bigotry so terrible. – Gary Dretzka

Tentacle 8
If we’ve learned anything from the ongoing NSA scandal, it’s that paranoia not only is a reasonable response to the revelations, but it also may be the one that makes the most practical sense. How else to react to a system that’s paid to break the law with both impunity and immunity, and about which the truth likely will never be revealed. We’ve been asked to trust that government safeguards put into effect since the beans were spilled can protect us from rogue spies and professional eavesdroppers who presumably are being paid to prevent the next terrorist attack, but probably are too busy checking on their credit scores and monitoring their girlfriend’s Facebook account to make that call. When the producers of “Tentacle 8” attempted to find distributors for the film, it probably sounded far too far-fetched, even to Americans born in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. After striking out in their attempts to court film festivals, John Chi’s failed thriller now looks more prescient than paranoid. Does that make “Tentacle 8” worth the cost of a rental or download, though? For fans of “All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View” and “The X-Files,” the answer is probably, yes.  In it, career character actor Brett Rickaby plays a NSA analyst who’s being framed for a massive computer virus that’s wiped out classified personnel files at the agency. He’s smart, though, and the things he knows about the computer system are of great value to the men and women on his trail. They’re all contained in codes indecipherable to everyone but him. Oh, yeah, one of the people he hopes to protect is his girlfriend (Amy Motta), who’s in cahoots with the CIA.

Chi doesn’t hesitate to telegraph the aura of fear and mass confusion running throughout “Tentacle 8.” The musical soundtrack, which alternates between ominous rumble and funereal, tell us all we need to know about what’s happening on screen. I’m not at all sure that I was left with a firm grasp of what’s at stake in the movie. Part of what makes this sort of thriller paranoid is the protagonist’s inability to completely separate facts from fiction and identify friends from foes. Even so, the picture’s relevance has risen several notches in the last six months, without its creators moving a finger to help it. “Tentacle 8” may have micro-budget feel to it, but someone invested the money necessary to film a few scenes away from L.A., in Mumbai. The technical credits are pretty solid, as well, despite the limitations. The DVD offers no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Copperhead: Blu-ray
Although Ronald F. Maxwell’s career has spanned nearly 40 years, his list of credits is limited to about a dozen films, ranging from such teen favorites as “Little Darlings and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” to his Civil War trilogy of “Gettysburg,” “Gods and Generals” and, now, “Copperhead.” The first two historical epics were financed in large part by Ted Turner’s production company – he made cameo appearances in both – and featured A-list actors in elaborate battle scenes. While Turner is physically and financially missing from the far more modest “Copperhead,” his former brother-in-law, Peter Fonda, does play a supporting role. Based on an 1893 novel by Harold Frederic, the title refers to a slur aimed at northern Democrats opposed to the Civil War. Here, a community in rural Upstate New York is forced to consider the objections of a prominent citizen, dairy farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), based on moral and political beliefs. The man’s family also is divided on the issue, which doesn’t sway on the question of slavery as much as how life-and-death decisions were made in the run-up to the war. (He believes, for example, that the Emancipation Proclamation, one of Lincoln’s bravest actions, should have been decided by Congress or voters.) It’s an interesting story, largely ignored in previous films on the subject. The beautiful New Brunswick location allows for an accurate replication of the close-knit community and its daily routines. Maxwell also does a nice job setting up the climatic confrontation between the mostly pro-war community, led by a holier-than-thou abolitionist (Angus Macfadyen), and the Copperhead in its midst. The story’s melodramatic through-line derives from the decision by Beech’s son (Casey Thomas Brown) to join the union army, seemingly influenced by his love for the abolitionist’s daughter. Although no battle scenes were shot for “Copperhead,” the ugliness of the conflagration is addressed in first-hand reports from the front. It doesn’t quite make up for the limitations posed by a limited budget, but Civil War buffs should applaud the attention paid to this little-known aspect of the war at home. – Gary Dretzka

Lifetime: The Gabby Douglas Story
Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer
One of the great stories to emerge from the Summer Olympics, in London, was that of gymnast Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas. It also produced one of the most memorable photographs of 2012, as it was taken of the future champion in mid-leap, legs parallel to the balance beam and her torso at a 90-degree angle, allowing her head to face the heavens. Much was made, of course, of Gabby being the first African-American to win an individual all-around event and being a member of our gold-medal gymnastics team. That she overcame an illness at an early age and a humble financial background to get to London would have provided enough grist for reporters. Being African-American in a sport dominated by tiny Americans, Eastern Europeans and Asians made her an instant star and role model. The Lifetime movie, “The Gabby Douglas Story,” follows her from her Virginia Beach home, where her cheerleader sister funneled the girl’s energy into perfecting cartwheels and flips, to coach Liang Chow’s training facility in Iowa. The movie adds homesickness and a serious training injury to the list obstacles laid in her path. How much of her story is exaggerated for dramatic impact, I couldn’t say. Gabby’s accomplishments, of course, are indisputable. So, too, is the appeal of “The Gabby Douglas Story” to young athletes and their parents.

Fox’s “Cowgirls ‘n Angels 2: Dakota’s Summer” targets almost exactly the same demographic as the made-for-Lifetime picture, but it takes place in a very different arena. It describes the transformation of an angry teenager from hellion to model daughter. Seventeen-year-old Dakota Rose lives in a part of the country where routinely girls participate in competitive trick riding and barrel racing, while their male counterparts accept the rougher challenges of the rodeo game. One day, when her parents admit to her that she was adopted, she comes apart at the seams. She condemns them for hiding the truth and preventing her from finding her true parents. Uncontrollable, Dakota agrees to spend the summer with her rodeo-legend grandfather (Keith Carradine), who, she quickly discovers, will only put up with so much of her crap before going all cowboy on her. It happens when the girl stumbles upon the identity of her birth mother and sneaks around to make her acquaintance. What happens next in “Dakota’s Summer” has already played out in dozens of other movies about adopted kids seeking out their birth parents, so no spoiler alerts are necessary. Even so, writer/director Timothy Armstrong keeps the pace lively and the moralizing to a minimum, when a couple of buff guys enter the picture. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC: Ripper Street: Season 2: Blu-ray
PBS/BBC: The Bletchley Circle: Season 2
PBS: The Making of a Lady
PBS: Murder on the Home Front
PBS: Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin
PBS: The Hidden Art of Islam
ToonsTV: Angry Birds Toons: Season 01 Volume 02
PBS Kids: Between the Lions: Vowel Power
Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Up
When referring to depictions of the lives, crimes and accomplishments of larger-than-life human beings, two adages come immediately to mind: “Truth is stranger than fiction” and “If so-and-so didn’t exist, Hollywood would have had to invent him.” Of course, Hollywood has never been satisfied merely stating the facts about history’s larger-than-life figures. Embellishing fact with fiction has always been standard operating procedure, especially when a handsomer leading man, prettier leading lady and more exciting acts of heroism can be conjured. The only people who seem to mind are historians, a handful of critics and those who’ve lived long enough to know the truth. In the U.S., Hollywood will continue to churn out fantasies about Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charles Manson, as long as there’s an audience for such entertainments. In England, the same holds true when considering King Arthur and his knights, Robin Hood and, of course, Jack the Ripper. One need look no further than BBC America for proof that the search for the identity of the man also known as the Whitechapel Murderer and Leather Apron still fascinates viewers. Richard Warlow’s mini-series for the BBC, “Ripper Street,” is set in the crime- and poverty-ridden district of Whitechapel in the wake of the Ripper’s last-known murder. The villain’s crimes previously informed “Whitechapel,” a contemporary BBC series in which a special police unit investigates look-alike murders; the Johnny Depp vehicle, “From Hell”; and a couple dozen true-crime documentaries made for cable television.  Throw in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, the BBC’s 2007 mini-series “Jekyll” and Syfy’s “Sanctuary,” and it’s clear Victorian-era depravity has been well-represented lately. In the second season of “Ripper Street,” the direct memory of the show’s namesake has faded, but other epidemics have kept Whitechapel H Division investigators busy. Among the issues covered are Chinese immigration and the importation of opium, the London match-girls strike of 1888, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse’s War of Currents, occultists’ Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Baring economic crisis. The period-perfect UK-version of the series oozes with atmosphere, especially the stench of corruption and exploitation of women and children.

Currently airing on American PBS outlets is the most unlikely of hit shows, “The Bletchley Circle,” whose heroines are former World War II code-breakers, now serving England as voluntary crime-fighters. A valuable cog in the Allies’ war machine, seven years later they’ve effectively been put out to pasture to make room for male veterans. Given the women’s innate ability to discover clues where none appear to exist, they are able to remain one step ahead of Scotland Yard and military police who no longer feel it necessary to pay any attention to the whims of their womenfolk. In the first season, our heroines patched together seemingly random clues left behind by a murderer. Series Two is comprised of a pair of two-episode stories, loosely connected by a new character and different circumstances. In the first, a top-secret military experiment causes great harm to British soldiers who were misled by their superiors. When a scientist involved in the experiment is murdered, one of the Bletchley ladies is framed for his death. A greater mystery involves her refusal to defend her innocence in court, even though she faces the gallows. In the second chapter, one of the women’s involvement in a Black Market scheme leads to another killing and the revelation of a ring of foreigners smuggling Eastern bloc refugees into England and forcing them into prostitution. “The Bletchley Circle” is an impeccably constructed mystery that captures the aura of Cold War intrigue and paranoia. The acting is excellent and there’s plenty of humor to keep the pace moving forwardly.

The Making of a Lady” is another wonderfully compelling Victorian thriller from Britain. Adapted from a 1901 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, it begins as a romantic drama, but grows gradually darker as time passes. Lydia Wilson plays Emily, a hard-working domestic who lives in a decrepit boarding house, but aspires to become the secretary for her boss, Lady Maria (Joanne Lumley). Smart, pretty and outgoing, Emily catches the eye of Lady Maria’s widowed nephew, Lord James Walderhurst (Linus Roache, of “Law & Order”), who, he’s told, is in desperate need of a wife and heir. So far, the women trotted out for his approval have disappointed him. Almost by accident, he recognizes Emily’s well-sublimated charms and admits his intentions to his aunt, who immediately fires the girl. Lord James retrieves her from the boarding house and marries her. She agrees, but primarily to suit his practical needs. Just as they begin to come together as partners and lovers, however, he’s called to India to join his regiment. It opens the door for Lord James’ cousin (James D’Arcy), his Anglo-Indian wife and sorcerer mother-in-law to conspire against Emily and claim the estate as his by birthright. The longer Emily is left alone, the easier it is for the cousin to plot her doom. Once we know how deep the conspiracy goes, the suspense comes from waiting for James to return home, on time or too late. “Making of a Lady” is really quite exciting. It helps that the action could just as well be happening down the road a bit, at Downton Abbey.

Murder on the Home Front” represents another ITV/PBS-exchange project. If this stylish wartime mystery seems slightly more confusing than most other British imports, it’s because it so willingly crosses lines separating sub-genres. Among other things, there’s the unreasonably vivacious cub reporter who desperately wants to be a crime writer. This not-unreasonable dream leads, however, to Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant) accepting a position as assistant to the handsome pathologist Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) she meets at a crime scene. A dogged sort, Molly begins to help Lennox with a case involving a woman found strangled with a swastika carved on her tongue. Their search for more substantial clues is complicated by the devastation caused in the blitz and discovery of more bodies. Taken from the memoirs of Molly Lefebure, director Geoffrey Sax drops more red herrings here than there are silver ones in the Baltic Seas. Plus, no one in the government seems worried that the prime suspect may be convicted and hung before the crime is even solved.

Russia’s Open Book: Writing in the Age of Putin” is an intriguing investigation into the question of whether Russia’s great literary legacy of the 19th and 20th centuries is as dead as freedom in Crimea or the seeds for 21st Century masterpieces have yet to germinate. Comparing the translated works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Solzhenitsyn, and their counterparts in other countries or languages, seems to me to be an excuse merely to introduce to us to the cream of Russia’s contemporary writing crop. Given the interruption of intellectual curiosity caused by the failed Soviet experiment, gulags and three wars, at least, served to destroy the will of many potential authors. It’s also likely that two or three generations of aspiring novelists simply disappeared, with their songs unsung. How many of today’s American authors can be considered to be the equal of their forebears and how much of that is to blame for forays into rock ’n’ roll and screenplays? Still, hosts Stephen Fry and Juliet Stephenson do a commendable job introducing us to such formidable modern writers as Dmitry Bykov, Mariam Petrosyan, Zakhar Prilepin, Anna Starobinets, Vladimir Sorokin and Lyudmila Ultiskaya through their words and those of their characters. They are supplemented by animated sequences and interviews with critics, publishers and other tastemakers. Something tells me that Mr. Putin wouldn’t be unhappy if all of them were arrested and put in cells next to members of Pussy Riot.

For the occasion of an exhibition of Islamic art and calligraphy at the British Museum, the BBC produced “The Hidden Art of Islam.” It is an illuminating documentary on the fissures within the religion which have confused scholars and stifled the creativity of untold thousands of artists, since the first mullah prohibited depictions of humans, religious figures and images of religious rites. At the same time, other interpreters of the Koran have taken a more accommodating stand on the subject. We’re shown examples of both, along with competing interpretations of the Book. The discussion is entirely mindful of the sometimes violent divisions between Shiites, Sunnis and other sects. Instead of arguing one point over the other, the producers provide us examples of commonly accepted works of great value. The most common combine some of civilization’s most beautiful calligraphy with borders comprised of geometrically precise and painstakingly drawn patterns. They’re nothing short of spectacular. Host Rageh Omaar also attempts to determine what forms of art are acceptable for a Muslim and how this artistic tradition has thrived in the hidden art of the Muslim world.

In their brevity, anarchic spirit and debts owed to pioneers of the animation art, the “Angry Birds Toons” remind me of the Steven Spielberg-produced “Animaniacs” and Klasky-Csupo’s “Rugrats.” Although I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in them, the individual three-minute cartoons harken back to a time when no double-feature was complete with a cartoon featuring the Looney Tune gang, Mickey or Donald, or Tom Jerry. They’re fun, if completely meaningless. “Angry Birds Toons” was spun off of the Finnish animated TV series, which, itself, was spun off Rovio’s video-game sensation. This series provides explanations for the rivalry between the birds and the pigs.

Between the Lions: Vowel Power” is another fine example of the growing edu-tainment subgenre of children’s DVDs. From PBS Kids, “Vowel Power” targets children 3-7 who want to have a bit of fun while mastering their vowels. The puppet, animated and live-action show is curriculum based, “a lively, educational blend of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and other teaching methods for preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students.

Much of the material contained in “The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack-Ups” and other recent compilations derives from the mega-collection. As most shrewd collectors know by now, though, the producers hold back certain treasures for later boxes, no matter how complete the marketing drones say it is. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” is so-titled because each of the episode contains a bit that made the participant break down in laughter. Instead of editing out the imperfections, Burnett made sure they stayed in the shows as something of a brand-identifier. Such was the case on Dean Martin’s shows, as well. Unlike most bloopers, these were treats shared with the audience. “Carol’s Crack-Ups” includes 17 uncut episodes on six discs; specially-produced featurettes, “Almost Live,” “Breaking Up Is Hard … Not to Do,” “We Love You, Harvey,” “Tim Conway: Chief Cracker-Upper” and “Tim on the Street”; bonus sketches, “As the Stomach Turns,” “Two-Man Sub,” “The Interrogator” and “The Oldest Man: Fireman”; and an exclusive interview with Tim Conway. Some of the guest stars are Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Gloria Swanson, Helen Reddy, John Byner, Petula Clark, Richard Crenna, Roddy McDowall, Ruth Buzzi, and Steve Lawrence.  – Gary Dretzka

Streaming:
Black Water Creek Sasquatch
Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast
Alien Encounter at Loch Ness
The Ghostkeepers
Anna: Scream Queen Killer
Sinister Visions
The next time you’re in desperate need of a low-budget movie that combines horror, gore, violence and tits into one scalding package of perversity, don’t look any further than the website for Chemical Entertainment. The same is true for the documentaries that erupt from the depths of the Reality Entertainment, where one can expect to find images of Jesus Christ sandwiched between the Loch Ness Monster and the monster from “13th China: Jersey Devil.” Because I’m on the mailing lists of such companies, finding grindhouse and other exploitation films is a breeze. Niche blogs, some with names too juvenile to mention, also provide clearinghouses for upcoming products. Impulse buying is one area where streaming has a decided edge on the old-fashioned methods of delivery. When one gets a craving for “Black Water Creek Sasquatch” or “Anna: Scream Queen Killer,” having to wait more than two minutes could mean the difference between satisfaction and starvation. These are only two of the companies’ top-shelf movies I found haunting my mail box this month. The others are “Aleister Crowley: Legend of the Beast,” “Alien Encounter at Loch Ness,” “The Ghostkeepers” and “Sinister Visions.” Instead of measuring the ethnic breakdown and median age of Americans, I’d like for the Census Department to ask questions about how many of us believe in the existence of Nessie and Bigfoot. Ditto, the number of verified ghost sightings it would take for the average American to flee his or her home in terror. Knowing ahead of time what gives us the heebie-jeebies could provide a great service for filmmakers and film schools that need to anticipate trends. Why waste good money on zombie flicks, if the public already is losing interest in them? – Gary Dretzka

The DVD Wrapup

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Blu-ray
It says a lot about the Hollywood establishment that one of the most entertaining, commercially successful, technically advanced and critically lauded movies of at least the last 10 years failed to be accorded an Academy Award nomination for something other than sound mixing, visual effects and sound editing. I don’t know what else a movie needs to do to be recognized by such an august body of self-satisfied dweebs, but, perhaps, the members drew the line at the bushel bucket full of Oscars thrown at “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2004. Or, perhaps, members of the actors’ branch were attempting to encourage their peers to drop the fantasy routine and get back to performing serious roles. Like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, a little bit of Gandalf goes a long way. While I’ll admit to harboring some of the same sentiments, I still can’t understand why the Academy, in its collective wisdom, couldn’t make a case for “The Desolation of Smaug” being honored as the tenth nominee for Best Motion Picture, if not one of the nine that did make the cut. Off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen equally deserving titles as “Philomena,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and, for that matter, Peter Jackson’s mega-epic, so no offense intended, I’m sure. Granted, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is the second entry in a trilogy, which, itself, is a prequel to the”LOTR” trilogy. It can stand on its own merits easily enough, however. If Best Character in an Animated or CGI Picture had been added to the list of categories – along with Best Voice Actor — the Smaug dragon and Benedict Cumberbatch might have won the Daily Double.

Just for the record, “The Desolation of Smaug” finds Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield and a dozen dwarves advancing on Lonely Mountain to retrieve their kingdom and the stolen treasure contained therein. That they meet resistance from all quarters – perhaps, even, an auroch or two from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – is only to be expected. These are some bad-ass dwarves, however, and Smaug will prove the greatest obstacle of all. The battle royal that consumes most of the movie’s final scene is a real hum-dinger. Even at 161 minutes, the story’s pace never seems forced or the story padded. Not being a Tolkien scholar, it would be difficult for me to say if Jackson’s narrative tweaks detract from or complement the author’s vision. Likewise, I can only speculate as to how “H2” looks in Blu-ray 3D. Given the attention paid to all other details, though, I suspect that it looks terrific. The Blu-ray adds a salute to New Zealand and an entire second disc devoted to bonus material, which will impress buffs but feel redundant to more casual fans. – Gary Dretzka

I Am Divine
My Fair Lidy
Although Divine (a.k.a., Harris Glenn Milstead) was a full-fledged celebrity by the time of his death in 1988, his sole exposure on mainstream American talk shows consisted of single appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman” and “Thicke of the Night.” For those of you born after 1988, Letterman was still at NBC at the time and Alan Thicke’s pop-star son, Robin, was only 7 years old. Today, of course, Divine would have a talk show of his own. The wonderfully nostalgic “I Am Divine” was made by the prolific show-biz documentarian Jeffrey Schwarz, who understands exactly how much contemporary pop culture owes to the dangerously overweight drag superstar, with or without John Waters. (If nothing else, he was posthumously recognized as the inspiration for Ursula the Sea-Witch in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”) The frequently bullied Milstead and Waters, Baltimore’s future “queen and king of bad taste” met during high school and began making no-budget underground films soon thereafter. It wasn’t until the 1972 release of “Pink Flamingos” that they became known outside the Baltimore demi-monde. (Thanks primarily to the infamous poop-eating scene, which still is capable inducing projectile vomiting.) Sixteen years later, “Hairspray” would endear Divine to mainstream audiences. In it, he played the twin roles of the protagonist’s mom, Edna Turnblad, and the segregationist media mogul Arvin Hodgepile. In the Broadway and Hollywood musical adaptations of “Hairspray,” Turnblad would be played by Harvey Fierstein, Michael Kean, Bruce Vilanch, John Pinette, George Wendt and, most famously, John Travolta. Just as the 42-year-old Divine/Milstead had reached the pinnacle of his success, however, even establishing a burgeoning cabaret act, he died of sleep apnea, complicated by obesity. Among the many celebrities and friends paying tribute to the Man Who Would Be Elizabeth Taylor are Waters, Vilanch, Ricki Lake (“he taught me how to walk in high heels”), Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Michael Musto and his mother, Frances. The DVD arrives with commentary by Schwarz, producer Lotti Phariss Knowles and Mink Stole, as well as 30 minutes of deleted scenes.

Anyone who doubts Divine’s lasting pop-cultural legacy need look no further than Ralph Clemente’s “My Fair Lidy,” in which a working-class Florida youth embraces his feminine side to the consternation of his wife and redneck buddies. Desperate to raise the $400 needed to afford a dental procedure to fix his wife’s “snaggletooth,” the handsome young mechanic, Lidy, exploits his resemblance to Marlene Dietrich to win a prize at a local drag bar. He even learns to approximate her distinctive voice. While the drag performers support his new career choice, Craig Liderman-Lidy’s grease-monkey pals and intolerant wife are far less accommodating. When he finally figures out that his only true friends and family members are his fellow performers at the club, a giant weight is lifted off of his back. If the story is entirely predictable, it’s also easy to enjoy the drag acts and judge them on their merits. Christopher Backus, a dead ringer for Guy Pearce, is appealing as the Lidy/Dietrich, while the real-life female-impersonator Leigh Shannon makes the most out of the supportive Miss Sal. – Gary Dretzka

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones: Blu-ray
Only 31, native Texan Katie Featherston has made a career playing Katie in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. You could say that she owns the part. With the new-to-DVD “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” and set-for-October “Paranormal Activity 5,” Featherston will have appeared in all six “PA” titles. Only soap-opera actors enjoy such longevity. Enough about Katie/Katie, though, because any more info would require a massive spoiler alert and she isn’t the key figure here. “The Marked Ones” diverts from the usual haunted-house format by going all Mexican-American on us. Here, the primary villain is a “bruja” – Spanish for witch – who does awful things in the first-floor apartment of an Oxnard duplex. When upstairs neighbor and recent high school graduate, Jesse, begins to investigate the strange goings-on … well, let’s not spoil anyone’s fun. Apparently, “The Marked Ones” was specifically made to take advantage of the franchise’s loyal Hispanic following. It isn’t so Hispanic – Latino, take your pick – that subtitles are required for gringo audiences, however. Neither does it exploit the target audience by throwing in tired clichés every 10 minutes, or so. As someone who’s gotten weary of the found-footage format, I found “The Marked Ones” to be reasonably chilling and acceptably surprising in its hauntings. On a cost-per-customer basis, it did OK in its theatrical release. Whether it can sustain a parallel “Marked Ones” franchise depends on how it does in its video afterlife, however. The Blu-ray adds only a handful of deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Cavemen: Blu-ray
What happens when a first-time director and second-time writer combines the clichés of bromances and sitcoms into one vapid package? Herschel Faber’s “Cavemen.” The only things keeping it from drowning are the setting – L.A.’s increasingly lively Arts District – and the exotic Camille Belle, whose visual appeal is magnetic. As one might guess from the title, “Cavemen,” the story involves a loft inhabited by a small army of single guys and the occasional overnight visitor of the female persuasion. An eviction notice prompts the boys to think about giving up the singles game and settling down, but not without one last party. Among other things, it provides the terminally non-committal Dean (Skylar Astin) his final opportunity to seal the deal with his longtime “best friend” and confidant, Tess (Belle). She’s grown tired of playing second-fiddle to the aspiring screenwriter’s romantic writer’s block. If “Cavemen” hadn’t found a theatrical distributor, it could have been submitted to a network for consideration as a sitcom pilot. It’s that inconsequential. To be fair, however, the young and attractive cast tries very hard to keep the story from going belly up in the first half-hour. The nightlife and downtown scenes are well-rendered, as well. If better parts don’t start coming her way, my fear is that movie audiences could soon lose Belle (“The Ballad of Jack and Rose”) to a television series, not unlike “New Girl” and the eternally quirky Zooey Deschanel. There are no bonus features. – Gary Dretzka

Grudge Match
This completely unnecessary boxing movie stars Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, as a pair of over-the-hill fighters desperate to settle an old score. Essentially, Henry “Razor” Sharpe and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen are stand-ins for Rocky Balboa and Jake La Motta. The premise resembles the plot of 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” in which the former champ comes out of retirement to fight a far younger Mason “The Line” Dixon. Rocky overheard some boxing experts argue about a video game, featuring the two men, and wanted to prove them wrong. In “Grudge Match,” the Kid remains pissed off that he wasn’t given a rematch in what was supposed to be a best-of-three series and still thinks he can beat Razor. He’s also upset that his foe stole his girlfriend (Kim Basinger). For his part, Razor sees the whole thing as an annoyance. Red-hot Kevin Hart plays the son of a Don King-like promoter, attempting to get Razor and the Kid to put on motion-capture gear for a video game pitting the two. One thing leads to another and they reluctantly agree to a main event. Adding to the appeal to younger audiences is the inclusion of the Kid’s estranged son B.J. (Jon Bernthal), whose mother jilted the boxer to go with Razor. If everything else rings hollow, the fighting scenes are convincingly staged by director Peter Segal. Also making her debut appearance is Basinger and Alec Baldwin’s daughter, Ireland Basinger Baldwin, as Young Sally. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a pretty good making-of featurette, backgrounders, one of which stars Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfeld, and alternate endings and beginning scenes. – Gary Dretzka

Bayou Blue
Anyone who was completely bowled over by HBO’s “True Detective” already understands the power of the environmental ambience of southern Louisiana’s bayou country. Like so many other wilderness areas, the natural beauty frequently masks the most heinous of man-made crimes. I don’t know if those responsible for the HBO mini-series had seen “Bayou Blue” before setting out on their not dissimilar journeys – the serial killer in each story is deranged in his own unique way – but it’s entirely possible that they had. Where “True Detective” is a work fiction informed both by a case of so-called Satanic possession, revealed in 2005, and an 1895 anthology of horror stories about a fictional play, “The King in Yellow,” “Bayou Blue” is a documentary based on a very real criminal investigation. From 1997 to 2006, self-admitted serial killer Ronald Dominique raped and killed between 8-23 men in poverty-stricken Southeastern Louisiana. The case was broken after an intended victim escaped Dominique’s control and his identity was confirmed through DNA evidence. He is serving eight consecutive life sentences, which, we’re reminded, means that Dominique will never be eligible for parole. That much, at least, is indisputable and little pity need be reserved for the killer. One of the most salient points made by Alix Lambert (“The Mark of Cain”) and David McMahon (“Skanks”) is the lack of interest in the case shown by the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets, even after being alerted to its immensity. According to a local reporter, the Times dismissed it as being of “regional interest.” Even so, much of the film’s power derives from Lambert and McMahon’s willingness to locate the scenes of the crimes and describe how such evil could impact a community whose primary kinship is poverty. Dominique refused requests for an interview, but his recorded voice from police interviews couldn’t be more haunting. The scenes filmed at night, retracing the steps of the killer and his victims, could have come from outtakes of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” – Gary Dretzka

Black Jack: 35th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Watching Ken Loach’s rollicking picaresque, “Black Jack,” I was reminded of the live-action yarns Disney has been churning out since 1950’s imagination-expanding adventure, “Treasure Island,” and continues to do so today with every new “Pirates of the Caribbean” installment. Adapted from the classic children’s novel by Leon Garfield, “Black Jack” looks far more formidable than it is. The thick Yorkshire accents, which frequently require subtitles, would challenge an adult, let alone a child, but the story compares to the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The most memorable involve children, forced by circumstances to navigate their way through a world complicated by scoundrels, villains, insurmountable physical obstacles, bigotry and elitism. More than anything else, however, these are stories that stir the imaginations of young people looking for ways to break the chains of conformity. A decade after the triumphs of “Kes” and “Poor Cow,” Loach’s career was stuck in the doldrums. Forced to confine himself to documentaries and TV series, he was given a too-small budget and too-short schedule to make “Black Jack.” Nevertheless, even after severe editing, it was awarded the first of many prizes the writer/director would carry home from Cannes. It also was nominated for top honors at the Chicago International Film Festival.

The story’s protagonist, Tolly, is a poor boy lacking the wherewithal to refuse the orders of his elders or to strike out on his own in a countryside still plagued by highwaymen, rebels and rogues. His first encounter with the notorious outlaw Black Jack comes when he ordered to keep watch on the coffin to which he’s recently by confined. Before being escorted to the gallows, the doomed man had inserted a spoon or pipe into his throat to prevent the rope from snapping his neck. He’s arranged for the undertaker to have his body placed in a coffin, from which he can escape when the timing is right. Of course, Tolly was as shocked by the man’s resurrection as anyone would be. Jack (Jean Franval) enlists the unwilling Tolly (Stephen Hirst) to act as his voice and errand boy, In turn, Tolly and Jack rescue a rambunctious girl from the privileged family that wants to commit her to Bedlam, so she won’t be around when her sister begins receiving suitors. Together, they survive the Dickensian streets of London and join a traveling circus, which takes them to other places where corruption, danger and highway robbery await them. Thanks to Loach’s obsessive attention to 18th Century detail, “Black Jack” is a lot of fun for pre-teens and parents, alike. The interesting thing about this Cohen Media Blu-ray is its status as a “director’s cut” version of the original. Financed in 2010 with a grant from the British Film Institute, actually shortened the movie by about 10 minutes. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Loach and scenes deleted in the re-mastering process. – Gary Dretzka

Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour
One of the more entertaining things about being a lifelong fan of rock ’n’ roll is reading the many lists of top albums and arguing about them afterward. Limiting such lists to 100 titles or even 500 is something of a fool’s errand. Although it isn’t difficult to find a consensus about the top 20 in any given decade or genre, there simply have been too many excellent-to-great releases over the last 60 years for such surveys to be meaningful. Then, too, far too many post-WWII African-American artists are routinely relegated to the R&B category, when, if fact, they had already invented rock ’n’ roll. I bring this up because the British rock ensemble and blue-eyed-soul specialists Graham Parker and the Rumour have done far better on polls than in sales. Their 1976 breakthrough album, “Howlin’ Wind,” and balls-out 1979 release “Squeezing Out Sparks” both made the cut in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 100 Albums From 1967-1987. In 2003, “Squeezing Out Sparks” landed at No. 335 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Those are no small feats. Sadly, though, such recognition failed to make Parker a superstar at the only place they really matter. It also explains the title of the new video bio-disc, “Don’t Ask Me Questions: The Unsung Life of Graham Parker and the Rumour.” Parker’s biggest hurdle was debuting at a time when punk was about to explode, as were the better-marketed Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. The description, “uncompromising,” did him no favors, either. For the next 40 years, Parker (mostly minus the Rumour) kept on keepin’ on during concert tours and the occasional album, both supported by an enthusiastic Boomer following. Indeed, in the Judd Apatow film, “This Is 40,” Parker and Rumour played themselves as a touchstone memory for the characters. Michael Gramaglia’s affectionate rock-doc introduces newcomers to the songs that made Parker famous and fills in the gaps in time for his loyal following. It features interviews with Parker, various members of the Rumour, Apatow, Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen, among other recognizable names. – Gary Dretzka

Henry Jaglom Collection Volume 3: The Women’s Quartet
Some idiosyncratic movie buffs can measure their love affair with the cinema from their first encounter with a Henry Jaglom picture. They might have observed, “Well, that’s different … I’ll need some time to figure it out.” For almost all of his 40-plus years as an auteur, Jaglom has made a science of confounding, confusing and riling viewers. Critics, too, seemed to be divided on the value of such naturalistic portraits of the artist’s friends, collaborators and relatives. Having amassed a sizable “cult following,” Jaglom demanded their attention, whether or not they wanted to give it to him. No one put a gun to their head, forcing them to watch or comment on movies that, frankly, baffled them. If Jaglom seemed obsessed with Orson Welles, well, he was a better choice than most others he could have adopted as muse. Over time, however, the mountain would meet Mohammad half-way and the gap between viewers and the filmmaker would narrow dramatically. Because his movies are less concerned with plots and narrative, than, say, ideas and themes, it’s been easy for Rainbow Releasing and Breaking Glass Pictures to create individual packages based on them. “Henry Jaglom Collection Volume 3: The Women’s Quartet,” follows on the heels of “Volume 1: Love and Romance” and “Volume 2: The Comedies.” None of his films are completely devoid of love, romance, comedy or drama, but some fit more easily into certain categories. He doesn’t appear on screen in “Eating” (1990), “Babyfever” (1994), “Going Shopping” (2007), and “Irene in Time” (2009), but, because of his affection for the women cast in them, these titles are certainly among his most personal. They include a who’s who of actresses who’ve fallen off Hollywood’s radar screen, as well as some feisty newcomers. Tanna Frederick is Jaglom’s current muse, but also represented are Frances Fisher, Mary Crosby, Victoria Foyt, Mae Whitman, Frances Bergen, Victoria Tennant, Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Lee Grant and Toni Basil. All still have/had things to offer the industry and audiences, but, today, it’s the rare filmmaker who asks them to share it with us. – Gary Dretzka

Marilyn & the Senator
Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio/A Clockwork Blue: Blu-ray
Lust for Freedom
There are a couple of things to know about Carlos Tobalina’s 1975 porn epic, “Marilyn & the Senator,” before investing too much money and 121 minutes of time into it. One, anyone who thinks that the title refers to any of the brothers Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe will be disappointed. The movie’s original title was “Swinging Senators,” but unauthorized shots of the Watergate Hotel suggest later scandals, involving congressmen Wayne Hays and Wilbur Mills; Hays’ clerk/secretary/escort Elizabeth Ray, who bore a likeness to Monroe and leading lady Nina Fause; and Mills’ stripper/mistress, Fanne Foxe, who more resembled porn star Vanessa del Rio. The other important thing to know going into “Marilyn & the Senator” is that co-star William Margold’s hilariously candid commentary track is far more entertaining than anything in the movie. He holds nothing back on his opinions of the actors, directors and how he looks having sex. He even points out how Tobalina managed to get shots of the Watergate and an NFL game, which might have landed the production in a heap of trouble at the time. The plot, such as it is, involves a beautiful blond CIA agent, Marilyn, who wants to pay a married senator $10,000 to impregnate her … as if. Without the advantage of Viagra or Cialis, that’s no small trick. Arriving at the dawn of the Golden Age of Porn, filmmakers were still interested in giving their customers stories made within a traditional narrative framework. Fans would have to wait another couple of years, though, for actresses who actually knew how to act. “Marilyn & the Senator” arrives in home video for the first time in its full-length director’s cut, scanned from the 35mm camera negatives and restored in 2K.

Also from cult-film-preservationist Vinegar Syndrome comes “Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio” and “A Clockwork Blue,” both of which predate “Deep Throat” by a few minutes. They’re being presented as part of the company’s “Drive-In Double-Feature Collection,” as a salute to the less-than-prolific director, Eric Jeffrey Haims. While the former bears a passable resemblance to the source material, the latter should remind exactly no one of Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” “Jekyll & Hyde Portfolio” looks vaguely like a Hammer gore-fest, with some T&A and sadism thrown in for kicks and giggles. The print is way below par, which means it must have been unwatchable when picked up by VS for re-mastering. Somehow, by contrast, “A Clockwork Blue” looks fresh as a daisy. In it, a hippie-dippy researcher, Homer, travels through history, discovering the erotic secrets of the past. The sex is predominantly of the soft-core variety.

A 1986 Troma Entertainment pickup, “Lust for Freedom” was written, produced and directed by Eric Louzil, who would go on to make two sequels to “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” and “Bikini Beach Race,” best-known for a cast that includes Dana Plato, Ron Jeremy and Edgar Allan Poe IV. In her sole acting credit, the gorgeous undercover cop Gillian Kaites is implicated in the slaying of her boyfriend during a sting operation and is sentenced to prison. While in stir, she discovers a system that’s completely corrupt and brutal to the inmates, who seem to take an inordinate number of showers. “Lust for Freedom,” which also features the music of Grim Reaper, will be of interest primarily to women-in-prison completests. It comes with an interview with producer Lloyd Kaufman, conducted by Louzil. – Gary Dretzka

TV-to-DVD
BBC/Discovery: Earthflight: The Complete Series
Winged Planet: An Earthflight Film
Nature: Ireland’s Wild River: Blu-ray
So many outstanding nature documentaries have been made for television in the last 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine how a new mini-series could be any more spectacular than the one that preceded it. Shown here originally on the Discovery Channel, “Earthflight” is going to be a tough one to beat, in that viewers are literally invited to share the same airspace with the bids. Narrated by David Tennant (“Doctor Who”), it is so brilliantly photographed, there are times when the images of birds in flight look as if they might have been rendered by the CGI jockeys at Pixar. Instead, individual birds have been outfitted with mini-cameras both for extreme close-ups and spectacular long-distance images. Easier to control are the drones, light aircraft and life-like dummies that capture the birds as they interact with other species on their pit stops. One dramatic example demonstrates how birds benefit from observing the hunting and feeding patterns of sharks, dolphins and whales, and benefit from their leftovers. The same thing happens when African vultures spot herds of migrating wildebeest and wait for the laggards to be killed by predators or break their legs attempting to escape them. It’s absolutely spectacular. “Earthflight” is divided into six equal parts: North America, Africa, Europe, South America, Asia and Australia, and “Flying High,” about the creation of the series and training of some of the birds. Parents will be every bit as impressed by the material as their kids, who will forever look at birds from a different perspective. “Winged Planet: An Earthflight Film” is a 90-minute condensation of the 360 minute series.

Ireland’s Wild River” is a presentation of the PBS series, “Nature,” shot in hi-def and detailing only one small part of our eco-sphere. Host and cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson spent a year living on the Shannon River and tributaries, at eye-level with its particular flora and fauna. His explorations are undertaken in a traditional canoe, so as to make the fewest possible ripples and get as close to the shore as possible. Each new season brings different discoveries and the arrivals and departures of migratory wildlife. The photography, which isn’t limited to what can be seen above the surface of the water, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. It’s almost as if the animals got so used to sharing their habitat with Stafford-Johnson that they forgot he was there. – Gary Dretzka

Mayberry R.F.D: Complete First Season
I live in one of many communities across the country that are referred to by residents as Mayberry. Even though our Mayberry is 25 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, it has no streetlights, parking meters, drive-through restaurants or malls. We live in the shadow of a mountain, occasionally are visited by bears and cougars, and there’s a park where concerts and socials occur in the summer. Like the TV series that bears the name “Mayberry R.F.D.” – a.k.a., Mount Airy, N.C. – next to nothing happens here and that’s the way the residents like it. The last time there was a hullaballoo, a developer had convinced a number of council members to break their pledge to constituents by approving a multi-level parking lot and mixed-use building on a vacant corner of the town square. The voters simultaneously vetoed the proposal and voted the bums out of office. In the otherwise tumultuous 1960s, American viewers invited “The Andy Griffith Show” and spinoff series “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “Mayberry R.F.D.” into their homes each week. The possibility that there was a place in this agitated nation, where nothing happened that couldn’t be fixed in 24 minutes, was tremendously appealing. “Mayberry,” which effectively replaced Opie and Andy, got a huge boost when it was announced that Sheriff Andy Taylor and Helen Crump would be married on the first episode. Griffith would make occasional return appearances, but none that directed attention away from star Ken Berry. His character, too, is raising an orphan son, and hires Aunt Bee to make life easier for them on the farm. Berry’s Sam Jones is so exceedingly nice and reasonable that Aunt Bee immediately becomes the show’s Eddie Haskell to Buddy Foster’s Beaver Cleaver. (He’s the older brother of Jodie Foster.) The 26 color episodes in the new “Complete First Season” collection have been given a fresh polish and, for a 45-year-old product, look very good. I think that “Mayberry R.F.D.,” even more so than “The Andy Griffith Show,” is what Republicans mean when they emphasize the “family values” idyll: no crime, no minorities, no rock ’n’ roll and nothing to do. – Gary Dretzka

Tracie Long’s Longevity: Staying Power
I find it remarkable that one of the things that’s survived the seismic transition from VHS to DVD is the “workout tape.” But, why not? If Jane Fonda’s still churning them out, some folks must still be exercising at home. Long associated with the exercise regimen, the Firm, whose sales reportedly have exceeded 100 million units worldwide, Tracie Long recently set out on her own. Her DVDs are targeted to women and moms, over 35, who share certain physical limitations and scheduling issues. In the almost immediate wake of Long’s “Focus Series” comes “The Tracie Long Longevity Series,” which is broken up into 50- minute workouts. “Defining Shape” is designed to increase lean-muscle mass, focusing on the lower body and shoulders. “Staying Power” is an “interval style” discipline that delivers a balanced total-body challenge, concentrating on overall cardiovascular performance. “Step Forward” targets women’s legs with a range of motions and tempos. The workouts are intended to “ignite” a participant’s calorie-burning power and define shape, using high-energy, total-body-strength workouts and training exercises that combine upper and lower body movement to increase strength, create lean muscles and burn more calories than isolated muscle training, alone. I’m exhausted just writing this. – Gary Dretzka