Le Chef: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s recently fallen in love with the DVD edition of Chef, Jon Favreau’s delightful ode to curbside cooking, may want to sample Daniel Cohen’s puffy French soufflé, Le Chef, for dessert, as well. Released in Europe in 2012, but only now finding its way to American foodies, it does for haute cuisine what Favreau did for blue-collar grub in his vastly under-distributed comedy. In both movies, perfectionist chefs are forced by impatient restaurant owners and food-Nazi critics to reconsider their options in the ludicrously pretentious world of high-end eating. Where Favreau’s Carl Casper found redemption in the slow-lane of the highway, Jean Reno’s old-school chef, Alexandre Lagarde, is rescued by an amateur who grew up watching him prepare classic French meals on television. Michaël Youn’s brash newcomer, Jacky Bonnot, has adopted some of Lagarde’s less appealing characteristics, including a refusal to compromise his culinary vision. Fortunately, Bonno has also mastered some of the techniques favored by proponents of minimalist and molecular cuisine. These would include Lagarde’s new boss, who demands he not only reduce the amount of food on each diner’s plate, but increase what the restaurant charges for it, as well. According to Lagarde’s contract, the only way that he can be fired is by losing a star in the Michelin guide and this is something Bonnot simply won’t let happen to his mentor. As was the case in Chef, Le Chef is open to criticism that its subsidiary blend of romantic and melodramatic ingredients is too rich. In French comedies, though, a bit of slapstick almost always comes with the meal, gratis. You either dig it or you don’t. As it is, Le Chef does a nice job lampooning the ever-more-competitive restaurant industry and celebrity chef craze. As a French production, it also takes a playful shot at Spain’s “culinary revolution.” The Blu-rays a making-of featurette, interviews, bloopers and deleted scenes.
For A Woman
Cannibal: A Love Story
How many of us, while digging through the photos and mementos collected by our parents when they were young, have discovered something that completely changes our impressions of them? That wonderful French actor, Sylvie Testud, plays just such a woman in Diane Kurys’ semi-autobiographical drama, For a Woman. In researching a film about how her parents met and, through coincidence, were rescued from Hitler’s gas chambers, Anne finds evidence of a completely different love story, which played out before she was born. This revelation frames Kurys’ own examination of her parents’ early years together in post-war Lyons. It was a time when French communists were still free to believe that Stalin wasn’t as great an enemy to freedom as any other world leader and revolution could be achieved through rhetoric and democracy. Anne’s father, Michel (Benoît Magimel) is a Russian Jew, whose parents emigrated from the USSR when he was a boy. Before the war, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, mostly out of boredom, and, during the occupation, was rounded up by collaborators as a Jew and potential enemy of the Vichy regime. It was during Michel’s stay in a detention camp that he was recognized by a fellow legionnaire, who gave him a pass to freedom. He had convinced the official that he was about to married and wouldn’t leave without his fiancé. In fact, Michel had never met the beautiful blond, Lena (Mélanie Thierry). He fell in love with her from afar and, knowing it probably was the only way to survive, she agreed to become his bride. Given time, however, their romance would blossom. Michel would become a master tailor and she would focus on raising the first of their two daughters.
If Kurys’ story had ended in 1947, instead of 30 years later, it still would be pretty compelling. Instead, Michel and Lena would soon be joined by his brother, Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who had miraculously survived the war and was in France on a mission that he can’t even reveal to his brother. The only clues we’re given lead us to believe that Jean is deeply involved in the black market and he may have participated in the murder of an innocent man. While perusing family photographs after the death of her mother, Anne discovers what she considers to be the tip of the iceberg kept hidden from her and her sister for all this time. Further research suggests that a forbidden romance might have come between the brothers and threatened the future stability of the family. Even on his deathbed, Michel refuses to answer his daughters’ questions, preferring, instead, to recall the early, happier days in his marriage. Kurys’ other narrative conceit, which could only come from personal memories, involves Michel’s lifelong commitment to Mother Russia and the Communist Party. His myopic passion, as lovingly recalled by Anne and her sister at his funeral, provide the film’s only light-hearted through-line. Likewise, it helps us overlook some of the more awkward transitions between past and present, which beg more questions than they answer. Otherwise, For a Woman delivers a convincing period feel, fine acting and lovely footage shot in the Rhône-Alpes, The Film Movement package, as usual, adds a very compelling short film, Sylvain Bressollette’s Le ballon de rouge.
Also from Film Movement comes the decidedly different story of a European tailor with a secret to hide. As the title, Cannibal: A Love Story, points out ever so accurately, it is a movie that could just as easily fit on the shelves reserved for horror DVDs as those holding romantic dramas, which is how it is described in a cover blurb. Spanish director Manuel Martín Cuenca (Malas temporadas) based his creepy arthouse thriller on a novel by Cuban writer Humberto Arenal. The titular character, Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), is a mild-mannered tailor in Granada, where he blends into the woodwork as easily as a tourist at the Alhambra. Like his father, Carlos is known for his impeccable attention to detail, so much so that the archdiocese entrusts him with its most valuable fabrics. If it comes as no secret to us that Carlos not only is a serial killer, but also someone who eats what he murders, what Cuenca does hold back from us are the root causes of his madness or even a solid reason to forsake any hope of his redemption. As precisely drawn as he is, Carlos remains an enigma throughout the film. He doesn’t stalk the Andalusian streets at night, looking for victims to satisfy his hunger, nor does he drool in the company of the attractive young women he savors. He chooses his victims carefully and seems motivated as much by love as a hunger only he understands. If anything, Carlos fears getting too close to the women destined to tempt his thinly sublimated desires.
The first living woman to whom we’re introduced is a flirty Romanian masseuse, Alexandre (Olimpia Melinte), who makes the mistake of banging on Carlos’ door after a very loud argument in the next-door apartment. He begs her to leave him out of the dispute, but she insists on using his phone to call police. She, then, disappears. A couple of days later, her sister, Nina (also Melinte) shows up at his door asking if he’s seen her lately. Although he clearly fears the police, who will come to suspect Nina of killing her sister, Carlos agrees to help her in any way possible. This includes protecting her against the Eastern European thug to whom both women owe money. The tension builds to a fever pitch when Nina takes Carlos up on his offer to lay low in the cabin he owns high in the Sierra Nevada range. We already know that this is where the tailor butchers his victims, but not before lingering over their naked bodies as if he were studying an expensive swath of cloth. There’s no need to spoil the ending, except to say that it’s of a piece with everything that’s come before it. If Cannibal doesn’t sound sufficiently grisly for genre enthusiasts, they should know that Carlos shares with Hannibal Lector a credible sense of dignity and purpose, without also being a show-off. Much of the movie takes place as Granada prepares for the annual religious procession that caps the Fiesta de Nuestra Senora de las Angustias. It’s beautiful, but the scenes shot in the mountains are nothing short of breathtaking. It is accompanied by a complementary short film, Ogre.
The Squad: Blu-ray
While watching this World War II drama from Aussie writer/director Aaron Wilson – making the transition from shorts to feature films – most viewers will find it difficult to avoid comparing it stylistically to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and thematically to John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific. Filmed on location in Singapore’s verdant Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Canopy describes an incident that very easily could have taken place there during the Japanese invasion in February, 1942. An Australian fighter plane is shot down, leaving its unconscious pilot suspended from a tree branch on the cords of his parachute. After assessing his condition and taking into account the likelihood of enemy ground troops in the area, Jim (Khan Chittenden) risks alerting them to his position by cutting himself free and dropping to the soggy ground. Grabbing a first-aid kit, but not much more, Jim begins his battle for survival among the mangroves, swamps and thick brush. Not long after starting out, he comes across another endangered soldier, this one a wounded member of Singapore’s Chinese resistance. (Thousands of Chinese nationals were slaughtered in the occupation.) Although surrounded by the enemy, they manage to avoid capture for a short time, at least. The Malick touch can be seen in the extreme close ups of vegetation, water and insects with which they must contend. The streams of light pouring through the forest canopy also are reminder of the debt owed cinematographer John Toll by Stefan Duscio in only his third and most ambitious feature. The other noteworthy thing about Canopy is its ability to tell a story that’s compelling – however austere – with virtually no dialogue and a soundtrack comprised of ambient noise: birds, bombs exploding in the distance, the slush of boots in mud. The DVD includes an interesting making-of featurette, which makes the location shoot seem like something less than a picnic.
In The Squad, all communication with a remote Colombian military base has been lost and it is feared that rebels have taken control of the strategic outpost in the nearly vertical terrain of the Parque de los Nevados. An elite nine-man squad has been sent to investigate the situation and retake the base, if possible. No sooner are the men dropped off by helicopter than co-writer/director Jaime Osorio Marquez envelops them in fog and an eerie silence that is more ominous than gunfire would have been. As the soldiers get to the bunker-like structure, the lack of resistance is both a relief and a concern. Once inside, it becomes clear that some form of slaughter has taken place, but, in the absence of corpses and discovery of warnings etched onto the walls, the team is left to wonder if some supernatural force might be at work. And, lo and behold, a disheveled woman is found behind a newly created wall, surrounded by objects associated with witchcraft. Soon, the soldiers are fighting among themselves and Marquez has ratcheted the level of tension to a fever pitch. It continues to build until the closing credits are scheduled to roll and hope for a final resolution is waning. It comes in the blink of an eye that had me hitting my remote’s rewind button several times. The conclusion may divide viewers who’ve been waiting 100 minutes for answers, but I’m not sure there was a better way of doing so and maintaining Marquez’ eerie vision. The Blu-ray adds a making-of feature that describes the difficulties of shooting a film at an altitude of 14,000 feet.
It isn’t every day that two movies about post-apocalyptic train rides, both based on graphic novels, arrive in the mail. That’s exactly what happened ahead of Snowpiercer and From Inside’s release this week on DVD/Blu-ray. Co-written and directed by the brilliant Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), Snowpiercer was greeted by some of the most positive reviews of any of the summer action pictures. Its cast includes Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (channeling Eleanor Roosevelt), Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and actors more familiar to audiences in Pacific Rim and European countries. The set designs, which border on steampunk, are sufficiently dystopian; there’s plenty of action; and the Ice Age special effects are dandy. It doesn’t lack humor, either. What Snowpiercer didn’t have in its corner were a marketing budget and distribution plan that would allow it to compete against its direct competitors, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Deliver Us From Evil and Tammy. As a last-minute corrective, Weinstein Co. decided to almost simultaneously test the VOD market. Normally, this would be considered a sign of desperation. Increasingly, though, the pay-for-view biz has been kind to genre pictures and Snowpiercer doubled it theatrical take. There’s no reason at all to think that it can’t attract an even larger audience in DVD/Blu-ray. In a setup that could have been written by climate-change deniers, the movie describes what happens after an untested cooling agent – think, Ice-nine from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” – is introduced into the upper atmosphere. In 20 years, it turns what might have been an inconvenient loss of beachfront property into a global catastrophe. Survivors of the freeze-out have been packed on a very special “miracle” train, in which passengers are divided into haves and have-nots, and frozen seas allow access to global destinations. Those in the rear half of the train look has if they had been shoved aboard the 1:10 to Siberia, while the passenger in front enjoy privileges commonly reserved for the ruling elite. (Snowpiercer’s color palette changes radically after the passengers in steerage revolt, violently invading the first-class section.) The movie gets better the closer the rebels get to the engine, which is the only thing separating life and death for all of the passengers. The two-disc Blu-ray, which nicely captures the contrasts in tone, arrives loaded with bonus features, including geek-friendly commentary; the hour-long “’Transperceneige’: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen,” a documentary that focuses on the graphic novel’s transition to the screen; “The Birth of ‘Snowpiercer,’” a more basic making-of piece that examines the story and its history; profiles of the key individual characters; an animated prologue; Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton’s takes on the movie; a quick look at the promotional tour through Texas and interview with Bong Joon-Ho; and concept-art galleries.
John Bergin is a writer, artist, filmmaker and musician, who, like so many other graphic novelists, has an extremely bleak view of mankind’s future. In 2008, he adapted, directed and animated the grimly dystopian From Inside, which had done well in paper and ink form. It played the fantasy-festival circuit for a couple of years, without finding distribution, and now has been released in a “Gary Numan Special Edition,” showcasing a new musical score by the influential pioneer in electronic and industrial music (“Cars”) and DJ/producer Ade Fenton. The soundtrack adds a foreboding tone to what already is a pretty dark affair. In it, a pregnant woman, Cee, awakens in a train literally bound for nowhere. It, too, carries survivors of a horrific war, plague or series of fiery catastrophes. Cee has no memory of getting on the train or the particulars of her pregnancy. Neither does she know why she warrants the courtesy of a separate Pullman compartment, with mysterious gifts of food left for her every day and a toilet of her own to facilitate morning sickness. We’re left to speculate as to whether she’s being treated, as was the case in Children of Men, as if she were the last pregnant woman on Earth. It’s also possible that the baby might be thrown into the furnace of the monstrous locomotive, as Cee witnessed while sneaking around the train. When the ever-present storm clouds belch out a blood-red rainstorm, Cee and others jump aboard a rowboat to tour an abandoned town that could possibly be used for re-settlement. What they find there, however, is less than welcoming. The train continues its inexorable journey across what appears to be endless tundra, with nothing to guide them or warn the engineer of potential dangers. At 71 minutes, From Inside is just long enough to gain an appreciation of Bergin’s artistry and vision, but too short to answer the questions raised during the course of the narrative. Indeed, few post-apocalyptic movies and books are able to address such issues satisfactorily, except through special visual effects.
Crazysexycool: The TLC Story
With a few small narrative tweaks and different actors, Sexina (a.k.a.,”Sexina: Popstar P.I.”) could have been released any time from the mid-1960s to today. Its blond protagonist appears to have been modeled after Peggy Lipton’s undercover cop, Julie, in the original “Mod Squad,” while the evil music-industry “Boss” is played by Adam West (“Batman”), who, at 86, remains surprisingly busy, and the James Bond-influenced theme song is sung by the late ex-Monkee, Davy Jones. More recognizable by face than by name, co-star Annie Golden’s career has spanned Milos Forman’s Hair and the Netflix mini-series, “Orange Is the New Black.” The school some of the characters attend, Britney High, is populated by the same collection of jocks, greasers and misfits as in Rock ’n’ Roll High School or Rydell High in Grease. Curiously, Lauren D’Avella, who plays the title character, has only appeared in two movies in the last 20 years: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993), as a soldier, and Sexina, which began making the festival circuit in 2007. Not only is Sexina the world’s hottest teen pop star, but she also moonlights as a private investigator, digging into corruption in the music industry. The Boss’ minions have kidnapped a scientist with a knack for merging pop music and high-end technology. He’s ordered to create a cyborg boy band, capable of bumping Sexina and her nemesis, Lance Canyon (Luis Jose Lopez) off the charts. Meanwhile, the singer is enlisted in one sad girl’s campaign to eliminate bullying at Britney High. If Sexina isn’t nearly as messy as this synopsis makes it sound, it’s only because writer/director Erik Sharkey appears to have understood his own limitations and kept things pretty simple. Despite the title, the movie isn’t at all prurient and the dialogue isn’t dumbed down to appeal to any particular demographic. In any case, the music industry is so twisted that it almost defies exaggeration and parody. The DVD adds a deleted scene, gag reel, making-of featurette, a music video and nice chat with Davy Jones, who died in February, 2012, at 66.
There’s nothing remotely robotic about the girl group profiled in the VH1 original movie CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, or most other such R&B and hip-hop ensembles. Unlike the teeny-boppers who flock to see One Direction and Justin Bieber, their audience simply wouldn’t stand for it. For those not paying attention to such things in the 1990s, TLC owned the part of the decade not dominated by En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. As CrazySexyCool demonstrates the ladies from Atlanta didn’t need a publicist to make headlines, either. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes are played, respectively, by Drew Sidora, Keke Palmer and Niatia “Lil’ Mama” Kirkland. The movie drew a huge audience in its initial airing on the cable channel, but, given the behind-the-camera talent, CrazySexyCool is only as good it had to be to satisfy the group’s fanbase. It hits all of the high spots, without neglecting the low ones. These include Lopes’ infamous setting fire of NFL star Andre Rison’s house, thus re-setting the bar for dissed girlfriends everywhere in hip-hop nation. The movie was directed by Charles Stone III (Drumline, Mr. 3000) and written by Kate Lanier (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Set It Off), so it’s easy to watch. Music videos have been lovingly re-created and singing is pretty good, as well.
As much as I try to find something positive in every movie I review, some simply aren’t worth the effort it would take to scratch out faint praise. (It didn’t waste too much money that, otherwise, could have gone to Ebola relief, for example.) Super Babes is beyond cheesy, from its amateurish cover art to previews of coming attractions that more closely resemble deleted scenes than trailers. So, strictly for those who might be related to someone involved in the production, here’s a brief summary. An aspiring filmmaker is inspired by a comic book, in which several female superheroes are captured by the promoter of a “meta-human fight club” and forced to battle a series of hulking lugs who try to spank them into submission. Inexplicably, the Super Babes find their powers neutralized at odd times during the course of these fights. The highlight comes when the costumes are torn in a way that reveals their nipples and glutes, which, out of context, are about as stimulating as Vanilla Wafers.
Tormented Female Hostages
Hillbilly Horror Show: Volume 1
Alluring cover art, like minds, is a terrible thing to waste. The image of cotton panties, embroidered with the title, Play Hooky, squeezed into fishnets, hovering over a sharp-edged tool and a stream of blood leading to a drain, pretty much screams “horror” these days. If only the movie inside the jacket came close to matching it. Alas, there isn’t anything in Play Hooky that any aspiring horror director over 18 hasn’t already seen, done better and with far more polish and flair. The naughty cover art promises far more than it delivers and the found-footage angle only works in the last reel. That’s when the psycho-villain grabs the hat in which a hooky-playing teenager has hidden a camera, thereby completely changing the point-of-view for the remainder of the movie. I’m not sure if I’ve seen that gimmick before, but, as these things go, it’s not bad. Co-writer/director Frank S. Petrilli didn’t have to reach very far for the conceit behind his freshman feature. In it, a half-dozen high school seniors decide to skip school for a day of partying, fueled by marijuana, booze and raging hormones. Naturally, when all else fails, the teens decide to break into an abandoned psychiatric institution and risk the wrath of the ghosts, goblins and serial killers who invariably haunt such places. I’m pretty sure that my choice of places to hang out and get ripped wouldn’t include a spooky building almost certainly inhabited, if not by monsters, then plague-carrying vermin. And, sure enough, just as everyone’s begun to get their buzz going, the kids start dying. While hardly original, Play Hooky is a blessedly short 74 minutes. Normally, all that wouldn’t be enough to warrant distribution, let alone a sequel, “Play Hooky: Innocence Lost.” Reportedly made for a pittance, the film won a couple of awards at the 2012 PollyGrind Underground Film Festival of Las Vegas. Quite a few films shown at the festival have found distribution, but Play Hooky is the first to be picked up by its sponsors for distribution through Wild Eye Releasing. That’s all explained in the DVD bonus package, along with some interviews and background material.
“Tormented” may not have been the word I would have used to describe what happens to the female hostages in Tormented Female Hostages. The two short films contained in the DVD both involve women who are grabbed and tortured by overweight bozos who resemble the original Curly in the Three Stooges. In the first entry, the hostage finds herself tied to a chair outfitted with the same plastic shower curtains used by Dexter Morgan in his kills. She apparently had snubbed the fellow who’s about to kill her while they were in high school and he wants his revenge, but not before he rapes her. Let’s just say that the young woman is tormented to the point where she decides to fight back. Will she succeed? Stay tuned. In the second film, two escaped convicts grab a different young woman with intentions of using her as a hostage to cross the border. The woman isn’t about to give in without a fight here, either. This time, though, she’s able to pit the two goons against each other, before a final showdown. Somewhere along the way, a barrel of radioactive material and zombies enter the fray. I may have just imagined that part of the story, though.
The first thing that comes to mind while watching Hillbilly Horror Show is Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the character created by Cassandra Peterson for her hosting duties on “Movie Macabre.” Here, a couple of beer-guzzlin’ hillbillies – Bo and Cephus – introduce short films from the comfort of their trashy trailer. Their cousin, Lulu, strolls around in the background in bikini. The set-up is as cheesy as you can imagine it to be, but, for the purposes of an Internet anthology show, I’ve seen worse. In fact, the films are pretty darn good. Any exposure for short films is better than none, so I can’t imagine anyone minding such a silly forum for their work. The selections in the hour-long “Volume 1” include Billy Hayes’ festival favorite, “Franky and the Ant”; Cuyle Carvin’s “Amused”; “Doppelganger,” a clever stop-action salute to Ray Harryhausen; and “The Nest,” about killer bees that produce killer honey. Here’s proof that length doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of a film.
Kundo: Age of the Rampant: Blu-ray
If you ever cared to know what kind of movie it would take to knock a blockbuster like Transformers: Dark of the Moon from its perch as the top opening-day box-office star in South Korea, all you have to do is check out Kundo: Age of the Rampant. The historical action epic is set in 1859, during the waning days of the five-century Joseon Dynasty. Chinese, Japanese and Western interests threatened to invade the Hermit Kingdom — as it was then known, for its isolationist policies – and peasants rallied against the corruption of landlords and royalty. It is against this backdrop that director Yoon Jong-bin (The Unforgiven) and writer Jeon Cheol-Hong (Crying Fist) have set their story of an outlaw militia and cleaver-wielding assassin. A ruthless aristocrat fears that he’ll lose his place in the royal lineage if a son is born to the legitimate heir to his father’s fortune, so he hires the court’s butcher to kill his step-sister. The hapless fellow, Dolmuchi (Ha Jung-woo), is unable to actually murder a human being, so the prince orders that his family be slaughtered. The now ex-butcher dedicates himself to avenging the horrible act, but has a lot to learn before taking on the prince, who, with his martial-arts expertise, appears to be invincible. Kundo is loaded with action of both the one-to-one variety and full-blown encounters between the militia and troops loyal to their master. The final showdown is totally unexpected. The other thing I didn’t expect was a musical soundtrack that immediately recalls the theme song to “Bonanza” and, later, the Ennio Morricone’s harmonicas in spaghetti Westerns. Quentin Tarantino’s influence can be seen in the comic-book influenced chapter introductions. One thing viewers should know before jumping head-first in Kundo is that the body count is extreme, even by the usual standards of Asian martial-arts fare, and the disposal of the bodies is horrific.
Most people go to the movies to be entertained. Fewer are willing to subject themselves to a great deal of emotional pain to experience a work of art that demands to be seen. A large part of what makes independent filmmakers essential is their willingness to take risks that almost certainly won’t pay off at the box office, if their cinematic visions even make it that far. Irish playwright Carmel Winters’ debut feature, Snap, is the kind of film that puts you through a wringer and hangs you out to dry. It cuts to the bone and draws blood. The family drama/tragedy opens with a documentary crew preparing to interview a woman, Sandra (Aisling O’Sullivan), we soon will learn is the mother of a teenager, Stephen (Stephen Moran), who, three years earlier, had kidnapped a toddler and kept him in the home of his hospitalized grandfather. After enduring near-constant harassment and taunting from anonymous busybodies and reporters from the tabloid press, Sandra has decided to clear up what she considers to be misapprehensions about the incident and state her case on the subject. The first thing the clearly agitated Sandra volunteers is that she was never cut out to be a mother. It’s a self-assessment that becomes increasingly inarguable as the movie unspools. Neither does she appear to be a monster.
If anything, Sandra is one of thousands of good-time girls (and boys), whose party ended when they became pregnant and, in due time, single parents and followers of 12-step programs. Stephen, at least, had his grandfather to turn to when he needed to be tucked in at night and lose the training wheels on his bicycle. What he didn’t have was a father or brother, from whom he could learn to be a man, and that’s pretty much what he wanted to be to the wee, unfortunate Adam. At this, however, he isn’t any more skilled than his mother. Like the documentarian in the film, Winters employs all manner of narrative tricks to tell Sandra and Stephen’s stories. Anyone looking for the obligatory happy ending, though, is going to be disappointed. What makes Snap eminently recommendable are performances that are nothing short of brilliant … and incredibly brave. O’Sullivan deploys more shades of rage in her portrayal than I even knew existed. On the flip side, Moran turns Stephen into the cipher Winters clearly wants him to be. As for Adam, there isn’t a moment that we don’t fear for his life. Even if Stephen isn’t capable of harming the child on purpose, there are a dozen other ways he could come to harm in an unattended two-story home. Snap requires its audience to look behind the shocking headlines and photographs on the covers of tabloid magazines and decide for themselves what lies behind them. The DVD adds a pretty solid making-of featurette.
My Straight Son
An ocean may separate Venezuela and Spain, but that distance couldn’t prevent critics from making easy comparisons between Miguel Ferrari’s My Straight Son and the films of Pedro Almodovar. The amalgam of LGBT & S(traight) characters, storylines and a vibrant color scheme pretty much assured that would happen. The multi-family film focuses tightly on Diego (Guillermo García), a successful fashion photographer, who lives large in the fast lane with his partner, Fabrizio (Sócrates Serrano), until two things happen. First, Diego’s estranged teenage son, Armando (Ignacio Montes), comes to live with them, and, second, Fabrizio is beaten to within an inch of his life by bigoted thugs. Armando represents rampant homophobia in Venezuela and everywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world. He grew up among relatives, in Spain, whose intolerance was built into their genetic code and Fabrizio’s parents blame Diego for turning their son into a homosexual, thus, in their mind, making him responsible for the beating. It takes a while before Armando begins to accept his father for who he is and warm to friends who perform in transvestite clubs. When the painfully shy boy develops a Skype crush on a girl, however, they teach him to dance and relate to women romantically. If that sounds a bit obvious, in a “La cage aux folles” sort of way, the rest of My Straight Son plays out in a more unpredictable fashion.
The Search for Simon
Writer/director Martin Gooch’s films invariably are compared to such quintessentially British entertainments as “Doctor Who,” “Monty Python” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.” Like his first feature film, After Death, The Search for Simon plumbs the depths of “kitchen sink weirdness” by combining science fiction, comedy, drama and extreme tabloid-ready behavior. Here, David Jones is the kind of UFO obsessive, who, on a first date, will pitch a tent in the middle of a crop circle without telling his companion that she might encounter other nut jobs when she leaves their tent in the morning in her pajamas. David is absolutely convinced that his younger brother, Simon, was abducted by aliens and he’s spent the last 30 years searching for him. That’s how his father explained Simon’s death and nothing is going to shake David’s belief he’s been wandering the universe ever since, waiting for an opportunity to reconnect. He’s also sure that UFOs are hiding on Earth, disguised as giant mushrooms. In his research, David has spent a fortune in his considerable Lottery winnings traveling to such places as Roswell, New Mexico, and paying for tips from crooked conspiracy theorists. When his cronies begin to turn their backs on him, we can’t help but sympathize with the poor sap’s quixotic quest. The truth makes us feel even worse. It’s an extremely odd movie, but adventurous viewers might find it very moving.
Sleeping With the Fishes
Nicole Gomez Fisher, a founding member of the Latina comedy troupe Hot Tamales Live!, is a very funny woman and it’s reflected in her debut rom-com, Sleeping With the Fishes. How much of the movie is autobiographical is impossible for me to say, but if, like her protagonist, she grew up in a slightly nutty multi-ethnic household, it certainly rubbed off here. As for the title, Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez) is a recently widowed actress – half Latina, half Jewish — with a gift for party planning. She isn’t terribly upset that her philandering husband is no longer in the picture, but it’s left her high and dry in Los Angeles, laboring as a phone-sex operator and a costumed sidewalk pitchwoman. When forced to return to her Brooklyn nest for a funeral, Alexis’ overbearing mother (Priscilla Lopez) is quick to confront her daughter with her perceived failures. Her over-amped sister, Kayla (Ana Ortiz), on the other hand, encourages her to forget her troubles by getting back in the dating game. Kayla’s inability to hold her liquor provides the hook for Alexis to find a potential boyfriend and a possible new career planning bat mitzvahs for pre-teens with similarly overbearing moms. Although Sleeping With the Fishes occasionally strays into sitcom territory, with stereotypical portrayals and double-entendres, Fisher usually manages to pull her story back from the brink before it reaches quicksand. Best of all, though, is seeing so many talented Latino – and Asian – actors in one place. The bonus features are limited to a gag reel.
Tony Palmer’s 1973 Film About Hugh Hefner
Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders
On Strike! Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group
Where’s the Fair?
Today, so much is known about Playboy founder and Viagra enthusiast Hugh M. Hefner that it’s almost impossible to think of something that would surprise us about the man, his accomplishments, his shortcomings and love life. Indeed, such television shows as “The Girls Next Door” and incessant paparazzi stakeouts at L.A. and Las Vegas nightclubs have made him the most overexposed octogenarian on the planet. In 1973, however, when Tony Palmer’s Hugh Hefner: Founder and Editor of Playboy was filmed, he still retained an air of mystery around him. If nothing else, people wanted to know how a man who lounged around a mansion in his pajamas, day and night, could command a publishing empire that was expanding into clubs, resorts, casinos, merchandising and philanthropy. And, what was the deal with the rotating circular bed, anyway? Palmer, who had already established himself as a leading chronicler of pop culture, presents Hef as a man who loves toys, games, planes, animals, his magazine and, most of all, women, around whom he was surrounded. He had yet to commit his time fully to the Holmby Hills mansion and SoCal lifestyle, splitting his time between there and company headquarters in Chicago. While the introduction of pubic hair in Penthouse would push Playboy to finally go-frontal in 1972, Hustler wouldn’t enter the fray until a year later. The persecution and crushing suicide of personal secretary Bobbie Arnstein was still two years away and the witch-hunt atmosphere surrounding the Meese Commission was waiting in the distant future. In 1973, then, Hefner was a rich, happy and single man, and this is reflected in Palmer’s documentary. As if to add a touch of drama where there was only fun, the filmmaker decided to add a bit of Copland, Ravel and Wagner to the mix.
Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders is another extensively researched and meticulously reported bio-doc about a rock-’n’-rock musician whose star burned bright for a while, but died out all too quickly, leaving a vacuum others are still trying to fill. Born John Anthony Genzale Jr., guitar wizard Johnny Thunders had a name that assured some attention, at least, would be paid to whichever group he was currently involved. It also helped that he was devilishly handsome and his hair was consciously styled to resemble that of Keith Richards. As an integral ingredient the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers, his raw and raunchy guitar style would directly influence incipient punk rockers from New York’s Bowery to London. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Thunders was plagued by a career-long substance-abuse problem and it played a large part in his death in New Orleans in 1991. Because the city performed what can only be described as a kiss-off autopsy, it isn’t clear if he died of a drug overdose or something else. He was suffering from an advanced case of leukemia and earlier signs of cirrhosis of the liver, but robbery might have played a role, as well. The 90-minute rock-doc is loaded with music, archival footage and interviews conducted with more than the usual number of first-hand witnesses to Thunders’ rise and demise. Looking for Johnny is the creation of Danny Garcia, a Spanish writer and filmmaker writer, who became curious about Thunders while making The Rise and Fall of the Clash, a group influenced by the Dolls. He spent 18 months travelling across the USA and Europe, filming interviews with 50 people who were close to Johnny and could help him construct a harrowing portrait of what the music and drug scene was like in New York and London in the mid-1970s. If the Hall of Fame in Cleveland doesn’t have a theater devoted to films that take a warts-and-all approach to rock music – as well as vintage concert material – what good is the place?
In 1967, radical documentarians Chris Marker and Mario Marret — under the aegis of the SLON film collective — produced À Bientôt J’espère (“Be Seeing You”), which documented a strike and factory occupation by textile workers at the Rhodiaceta textile plant in Besançon. It was the first in France since 1936 and its goals went beyond salary demands to include quality-of-life reforms that would come to define the street protests of May, 1968. When some of the Rhodiaceta workers who had collaborated with Marker and Marret on the film stated their unhappiness over the finished product – as seen, but mostly heard in La Charniere — Marker and other SLON filmmakers reorganized their efforts to begin training workers to collaboratively produce their own films under the name, Medvedkin Group. Class of Struggle, also included in Icarus Films’ On Strike! Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group, picks up in Besançon a year later, with protests launched by workers at the Yema Watch Factory. Its focus is on one recently radicalized employee, Suzanne Zedet, from the initial collection of left-wing filmmakers. These films reflect the optimism generated in 1968 before the Gaullist government was able to split the nationwide coalition of workers and students, by dissolving the National Assembly and ordering new elections. That the strikers ultimately had too few interests in common to maintain the coalition didn’t prevent Marker from keeping up the good fight, through film.
One the great things about documentaries is their ability to remind us of things that once piqued our interest, but no longer register in the list of things we consider to be important. When, for example, was the last time anyone thought about booking a trip to a World’s Fair or would even know where to find one to attend? Jeffrey Ford and Brad Bear’s distinctly low-tech Where’s the Fair? answers that question – next year, BTW, it will be in Milan – and raises plenty of others. The first World’s Fair that I can remember with any accuracy is Expo 67, in Montreal. If nothing else, it would be memorialized two years later when the city’s expansion Major League Baseball team was curiously named, the Expos. In the 1930s, alone, expositions were held in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The first fair to be held after World War was in Brussels, in 1958, and plans for our participation were handed to the USIA, which treated it as way to spread anti-communist propaganda to the world … in a fun way. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, all official interest in supporting a World’s Fair collapsed. No one in Washington wanted to be accused of using taxpayer money to join the international community at the exposition. Pre-Tea Party xenophobes in Congress argued that their constituents simply weren’t interested in traveling overseas and, therefore, no other Americans should be, either. Organizers in Hannover, Aichi, Zaragoza, Shanghai were stunned to be informed of our decision to cancel plans for exhibits there. Japan and China, at least, were able to make end runs around Congress to secure a U.S. presence. It’s as if someone at Disney had convinced naysayers that the only true World’s Fair is already available to tourists at its Epcot Center. If we aren’t aware of upcoming fairs in Milan, Kazakhstan and Dubai, it’s only because their promoters have given up trying to sell tickets to Americans.
PBS: American Masters: Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning
PBS: Nova: The Rise of the Hackers
PBS: American Experience: America & the Holocaust
PBS: The Secret Files of the Inquisition
BBC: Silent Witness: Seasons 1, 17
TV Land: The Soul Man: The Complete Second Season
Of her most widely reproduced and imitated photograph, “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange said, “It doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the public, really.” Today, the amazing photograph of a Dust Bowl refugee and her ragtag children might simply be described as “iconic” and, for once, the word would be used correctly. It is one of thousands Lange took that captured the toll paid by America’s working poor simply for the privilege of breathing clean air and holding on to the faint hope of finding a job. Lange, who died in 1965, is recalled in the “American Masters” presentation, “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” in a lively series of interviews for filmmaker Phil Greene and with family members, friends and historians. It is credited to her granddaughter, the cinematographer Dyanna Taylor. Moving on from the Dust Bowl and Depression, Lange would record for a largely unaware nation the shame of the Japanese internment camps in World War II and re-enslavement of black sharecroppers through debts to a plantation owner’s store. You know her work touched a nerve in Washington when her Manzanar photographs were impounded and she was fired, once again, by her government sponsors. The film doesn’t ignore Lange’s sometimes sticky romantic life, domineering personality and health problems, but neatly fits them into the context of her professional accomplishments. Aspiring artists, especially, should consider “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning” to be required viewing.
There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans refused to provide private financial information to commercial Internet sites in the course of doing everyday business. Trust had to be earned, not assumed, and too many people feared that cyber-bandits would clean out their accounts. Thanks, in large part, to the success of commerce through Internet porn and gambling sites, many adults learned to trust encryption and love the efficiency with which it could be conducted. That trust is being sorely tested today by almost weekly reports of hacking, whether it involves celebrity “selfies” or government-sanctioned eavesdropping and espionage. Sometimes, we don’t know who’s collecting stolen data and for what reason they’re doing it. The “Nova” presentation The Rise of the Hackers chronicles the efforts of mathematicians, physicists and computer jockeys to report the introduction of malware and other plagues into the Internet and the urgency behind the efforts to identify and eradicate the hackers’ tools … unless, of course, they turn out to be American allies. Much of the show is devoted to research involving unbreakable codes and bionic passwords. It’s heady stuff, but not impossible to understand.
“PBS: American Experience: America and the Holocaust” was first released on DVD in 2005, but it’s every bit as shocking today as it was then. Strangely enough, the primary difference between the two – and the original 1995 VHS edition – is the placement of the yellow “Jude” star on the cover. The first version found the star between the torch and crown of the Statue of Liberty. The first DVD edition affixed the star directly over the breast of Our Lady of the Harbor, while, today, it appears directly under her raised elbow. I won’t hazard a guess to the reasons behind the move, but, it’s possible, possible, that it simply differentiates the editions, not that someone might consider Ms. Liberty to be a French Jew. No matter, the same harrowing story of American and British “deceit and indifference” to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany remains as stinging as it was 20 years ago. For several decades after World War II, American schoolchildren were taught that Allied governments were just as shocked by the discovery of death camps as the soldiers who liberated them. It’s a nice story, but tragically far from the truth. Even when news of Kristallnacht broke in the United States, in 1938, the question of accepting Jewish refugees here was being debated and argued against by politicians, religious leaders and anti-Semites of all stripe. Government records testify to the fact that high-ranking officials in the FDR administration not only were aware of the “disappearance” of Jews relocated to Eastern Europe, early on, but also kept proof of the Holocaust classified until it could not be denied. “America and the Holocaust” documents this shameful chapter in WWII history through one man’s unsuccessful efforts to bring his parents from Germany to the U.S., as well as interviews with government officials and former legislators who were first-party witnesses to the role anti-Semitism and politics played in the turning away of refugees. And, yes, Middle Eastern, British and Americans oil interests played a role in the deceit.
Also newly re-released from PBS is its harrowing mini-series, The Secret Files of the Inquisition, which doesn’t draw any direct parallels between the Holy Roman Church and the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Isis, but fairly well could have. At a time when European royalty no longer bowed and scraped toward the Vatican several times a day, the Pope and his advisers decided to keep the Catholic rabble in line by ordering tests of faith and the quashing of dissent among the flock. Finally, it became a witch hunt and orgy of mass murder, torture and intimidation that might have informed Adolf Hitler’s plans to expel Jews from Germany and, later, exterminate them. Vatican archivists kept careful records of the toll paid by those perceived to be heretics, bigamists, blasphemers, sodomites, heathens, Free Masons, Protestants and falsely converted Jews and Muslims. Less dutifully recorded were the destinations of Jewish children kidnapped by priests, baptized and raised as Catholics. The “secret files” have been open to authorized researchers for some time now, but the records are so voluminous that it’s taken years to make hard and fast conclusions. Much of it has been collected in this 240-minute Inquisition-specific mini-series.
Shows that focus on the work of coroners, forensic pathologists and forensic anthropologists have become such a staple of television that it’s easy to forget how infrequently the profession has been fairly portrayed in the entertainment media. Ten years after the CBC’s “Wojeck” became a short-lived hit in Canada, a chief medical examiner played by Jack Klugman would borrow loosely from the files of L.A. “coroner to the stars” Thomas Noguchi for ABC’s eight-season-long “Quincy.” It would be another 20 years before the BBC’s “Silent Witness” debuted, with Amanda Burton as a self-assured forensic pathologist who frequently clashes with Cambridge police on details of high-profile crimes. Besides analyzing evidence and helping close cases, Burton’s Professor Sam Ryan is required to referee squabbles between her belligerent sister and her testy teenage son. Their mother has been playing with an incomplete deck ever since her husband, a cop, was killed by an IRA bomb, for which Sam is held partially accountable by her sister. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, even in four-hour installments, and the series would be relocated to London in its fourth year. Dr. Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) was introduced as her replacement in the series’ eighth season. She has fewer personal issues with which to deal, but, as a forensics pathologists, may be second-guessed more often than her predecessor. For some reason I don’t quite understand, DVD collections of “Silent Witness” are only available for seasons 1 and 17, which actually bookend the show’s run. It’s an excellent program, easily accessible to fans of “CSI,” “NCIS” and “L&O.”
Cedric the Entertainer, who honed his sitcom chops on “The Steve Harvey Show,” looks as if he found another long-runner in the TV Land original series, “The Soul Man.” Spun off from an episode of “Hot in Cleveland,” the series focuses on an R&B superstar based in Las Vegas, who, after hearing the calling, relocates to St. Louis, where he takes over his father’s church. There isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between a R&B performance and a gospel rave-up, so Reverend Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine has little difficult making the transition. It took a season for his wife, Lolli (Niecy Nash), and daughter, Lyric (Jazz Raycole), to condition themselves to life in the slow lane, but, by now, they’ve become accustomed to it. The only thing wrong with “Soul Man” is a laugh track that contradicts the admonition at each episode’s start that it’s been filmed before a live audience. What audiences know and TV executives don’t is that there’s nothing quite so unfunny as canned laughter and “Soul Man” can live without it. Although “Soul Man” is intended for a mixed TV Land audience, the show’s “urban” flavor has yet to be diluted by the suburban setting. The church gags are pretty good, as well.