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.
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 title — from 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.