12 Years a Slave: Blu-ray
Remember the brief controversy that arose in late December over an Italian distributor’s decision to market “12 Years a Slave” with one-sheet posters featuring the image of Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender, instead of its black star, Chewitel Ejiofor? A fleeting image of his character appears in the foreground, but almost as an afterthought. The Italian distributors apologized for the faux pas and recalled the posters. How, though, could such a slight occur? For many years, common wisdom has held that European audiences, at least, don’t respond well to movies with casts that are predominantly African-American and distributors have found ways to sidestep the issue whenever possible. For instance, although Michael Mann’s “Ali” ended up doing well at the foreign box office, Sony gave it the slowest possible rollout, relying on any free publicity that derived from awards-season coverage. Because “12 Years a Slave” deals with the issue of slavery in the American South, it was almost predictable that a foreign distributor would attempt an end-run around a studio-based promotion strategy. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were only attempting to avoid a disaster and could point to the fact that “The Best Man Holiday,” which did very well at the domestic box office, pulled in just north of $1 million overseas. Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too?” did even worse, perhaps resulting in “A Madea Christmas” not being given a chance to prove itself. Outside of the art-house crowd, Americans don’t respond to foreign pictures, either.
Here’s the kicker, though, “12 Years a Slave” did far better in the foreign marketplace than it did domestically, as did “Django Unchained,” which also dealt with slavery. Of the $140.1 million “12 Years a Slave” has collected, as of March 2, only $50.3 million, or 38.9 percent, of it has come from U.S. sales. Virtually the same split was accorded “Django Unchained.” On total sales of $425.4 million, more than $262.5 million came from overseas theaters. I suspect that those numbers came as a surprise to the bean-counters in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see if the Oscar for Best Picture gives “12 Years a Slave” a jolt at the box office this week, as well as a jumpstart on DVD/Blu-ray and VOD revenues. It would be a mistake to think that “12 Years a Slave” lost money, based on that deceivingly small $50.3 million return. With a production budget of $20 million, the journey to profitability was much shorter. If you wondered why Brad Pitt was so visible at the Oscar ceremony, it’s because his Plan B Entertainment came to the picture’s rescue by finding the money needed to shoot the picture. Likewise, this year’s winner of the Best Actor prize, Matthew McConaughey, was required to save “Dallas Buyers Club” when the studios balked. (“Gravity” had to be rescued from turnaround at WB, too.)
As brilliantly conceived and rendered as “12 Years a Slave” is, I suspect that mainstream American audiences took critics at their word on the how difficult it was for them to stomach the brutality on display. I know that I was in no hurry to watch defenseless slaves being whipped and beaten by sadistic rednecks and bible-thumping plantation owners. Nor was I anxious to hear the word, “nigger,” repeated as if it was just another bullet in a machine-gun. I’m not unhappy that I waited to watch Steve McQueen’s film, however “important,” on the small screen. It’s difficult to imagine many young adults planning a date night around watching Solomon Northrup — a free negro kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 – having his skin shredded, among other atrocities. Even diehard liberals must have wondered if “Gravity” or “American Hustle” would be a safer choice for a Saturday night out. After watching such emotionally tortuous movies as “Schindler List,” “Django Unchained,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Amistad,” “Beloved,” “Glory,” the ugly debates in “Lincoln,” the beach landing in “Saving Private Ryan” and the hunger strikers in McQueen’s calling-card drama, “Hunger,” it’s fair to wonder how much bigotry and racism we can absorb without becoming numb to it. Horror fans have a name for it, “torture porn,” and it sells like hotcakes on DVD.
In the hands of such substantial actors as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson, the hatred behind the lashings and beatings is exponentially more realistic than it would have been if McQueen had been required to hire the cast of, say, “Saw III,” in their place. Even if viewers aren’t able to put themselves directly in the shoes of the slaves, the acting skills possessed by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o demand we share some of their pain, at least. In his acceptance speech Sunday night, McQueen supplied the best reason I’ve heard for us to engage in debate over something that has been outlawed in this country for 150 years. The London-born filmmaker pointed out that there are 21 million men, women and children currently enslaved in various parts of the world and their only hope for freedom might lie with the people who see his movie. In more practical terms, the fact that “12 Years a Slave” has become an unqualified international sensation should reflect in the budgets he gets for his next projects. After all, the success of “Inglourious Basterds” afforded Tarantino the luxury of a $100 budget for “Django Unchained.” The Blu-ray presentation is first-class all the way, although I suspect that the next edition will arrive with a more complete bonus package. The featurette, “12 Years a Slave: A Historical Portrait,” includes Ejiofor reading from Northup’s book, as well as interviews with various cast and crew members. Making-of pieces, “The Team” and “The Score,” are nothing special and probably won’t make the cut next time around. – Gary Dretzka
The Grandmaster: Blu-ray
Although the great martial-arts teacher Ip Man is justly celebrated throughout China and among Kung Fu practitioners everywhere, he remains most famous for teaching Bruce Lee the Wing Chun discipline. There were others, of course, but Lee is the only student who would be widely known outside the PRC and Hong Kong. Imagine if gunslingers Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickcock had decided to hang up their holsters at some point and mentor a new generation of sharp-shooters and quick-draw artists. Instead of having to prove themselves in every railhead community from Wichita to Yuma, gangs of their disciples would meet occasionally to decide whose master was best teacher. That’s the closest I can come to describing what made Ip Man an object of reverence and a key character of at least eight exciting films in the last dozen years, including Wong Kar Wai’s widely acclaimed, “The Grandmaster.” Because Ip’s story is contained to the period of China’s history between the fall of its last dynasty and martyrdom of Bruce Lee, much is known about the man from Foshan. Conveniently, for screenwriters, anyway, the truth has been manipulated to the point where it’s become impossible to parse the difference between fact and fantasy. Hollywood has spent more than 100 years trying to sell Billy the Kid as, among other things, a misunderstood youth, vicious sociopath or a tragic figure of Shakespearian dimensions. “The Grandmaster” differs from recent biopics starring Donnie Yen, Dennis To and Anthony Wong in that less time is devoted to the technique, itself, than artistically conveying the balance of beauty and power, grace under pressure and technique.
Here, Ip is played by Tony Chiu Wai Leung, an extremely popular actor in China and frequent presence in the films of Wong Kar Wai. If neither Wong nor Leung is known primarily for action flicks, both benefitted from having Yuen Woo-ping on the set coordinating fights and stunts. His techniques have informed the films of Quentin Tarantino, the Wachowskis and countless Hong Kong action specialists. In addition to being exciting, the fight scenes in “The Grandmaster” are every bit as elegant as the dances in “The Turning Point,” which were performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Leslie Browne. (A fight scene involving the radiant Zhang Ziyi, as the daughter of the northern grandmaster, defines the term, “poetry in motion.” Ip’s story is condensed into 108 minutes in the American (a.k.a., Weinstein) cut, with flashbacks employed to fill in most of the deep background material. Otherwise, “Grandmaster” opens in the post-dynastic period, just before the occupation of China by Japanese forces. As the northern masters migrate to safety in the south, it’s inevitable they would test the masters of the south, whose techniques and philosophies were different from their own. Ip is required to prove that Wing Chung is the more effective style. Under Japanese dominance, Ip loses his wife and daughter to starvation. The business of teaching Kung Fu goes belly up and stays that way through the civil war that follows the occupation. With nothing binding him to China, he moves Hong Kong. He’s given a second lease on life when former students help him build a school from scratch. With the infusion of Chinese refugees, Ip is able to teach Wing Chung to a new generation of students, including Bruce Lee. He also reunites with Gong Er, the daughter of the northern grandmaster, who’s matured both as a woman and fighter. Challenged to uphold the honor of the northern tradition, Gong engages in one of the most entertaining fights I’ve seen in a long time. Just how star-crossed the relationship between Ip and Gong turns out to be becomes apparent soon thereafter.
The generous Blu-ray bonus package is a must-watch for those who love Wong’s movie as much as Martin Scorsese, who agreed to “present” the movie to American audiences. It includes the informative featurettes, “The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee,” in which a diverse group of observers commenting on the production and Lee’s impact on the fighting genre; “A Conversation With Shannon Lee,” with the late star’s daughter sharing her father’s history with Ip; “‘The Grandmaster’: Behind the Scenes,” a seven-part piece that spans the film’s agonizing 10-year gestation period; and “‘The Grandmaster’ According to RZA,” in which the rapper/producer shares his thoughts on the film. That the movie was passed over for a Foreign Language nomination speaks volumes about the incompetence of AMPAS and the committee’s continuing resistance to anything that smacks of genre filmmaking. Feel free to ignore any perceived prejudice toward Wong, as well. – Gary Dretzka
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Blu-ray
True movie trilogies face challenges that other franchises don’t encounter on the way to the megaplex. The first, of course, is recognizing the literary properties that warrant such an optimistic approach; second, selling the first episode to a large enough audience to justify an investment in the second and third chapters; third, making the second installment sufficiently entertaining to maintain the momentum created by the first chapter; and fourth, avoiding the problems that come from changing directors in midstream and keeping actors from jumping ship or demanding exponentially more money for the sequels. It isn’t enough to simply hit a home run in the first inning. “The Godfather” wasn’t intended to be a trilogy, but, when Francis Ford Coppola finally acquiesced to popular demand and studio expectations, 16 years had passed and things in Hollywood weren’t quite as wild and woolly as they were in 1974. He lost consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in a contract dispute and actor Winona Ryder, to a change of heart just before production began. (The attention paid to their replacements, George Hamilton and Sophia Coppola, proved unpopular with the media and viewers.) The second installment of “The Matrix” trilogy so turned off fans and critics that it not only could have killed interest in the third, but also made fans re-assess their opinion of the first. (Instead, the much better “Matrix Reloaded” did well at the worldwide box office and with the pundits.) Fortunately, the ever-changing roster of directors for the “Twilight” quartet – Bill Condin’s two-part “Breaking Dawn” counts as a single entry – proved only to be a distraction. Peter Jackson deserved the props he got for going the distance with the “Ring” and “Hobbit” franchises.
The worst case scenario was realized by the producers of “Atlas Shrugged,” one of the hottest literary properties of the 20th Century. No matter how popular Ayn Rand’s novel has proven to be over the last nearly 60 years, the first installment in the trilogy tanked so badly that no one expected a sequel would be attempted. It lacked major stars and the polish necessary to hold its own on the big screen. “Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike” misfired on all cylinders, disappearing altogether in five weeks. Undeterred, the backers launched a Kickstarter campaign – Rand would have been so proud – to finance “Atlas Shrugged: Who Is John Galt?” The real question is, “Who cares?”
By contrast, the first adaptation of a title in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy for young adults was practically assured blockbuster status a month ahead of its release, with advanced ticket sales setting a record. After opening huge, “Hunger Games” went on to amass total revenues of $691 million. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” followed the same trajectory, only, this times, foreign grosses topped domestic sales by 1.8 percent. Not that the opinions of critics matter much to young viewers, but both installments scored impressive numbers at the aggregator sites, Metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes. That certainly bodes well for the bifurcated triquel, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” whose first part opens in time for Thanksgiving. There are teasers to “Mockingjay” throughout “Catching Fire,” as well as a dandy cliffhanger ending, but Francis Lawrence’s sequel stands on its own pretty convincingly.
After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to District 12 for a much-needed rest and reunion with family and friends. Unfortunately, their presence is required by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who senses all may not be well in the kingdom and a celebrity-led victory tour might soothe the masses. Even though Katniss and Peeta are shielded from signs of rebellion, it’s impossible for them to avoid seeing signs of unhappiness over Snow’s repressive regime. When they begin to question why the citizens are so discontented, Snow and gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare a new life-or-death contest, the Quarter Quell. It pits previous winners of the Hunger Games, including Finnick (Sam Claflin), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Johanna (Jena Malone), Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Mags (Lynn Cohen), against each other. All bring different strengths and weaknesses to the competition, but Snow’s primary goals are to distract the public and eliminate its heroine. Other returnees include characters played by Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Willow Shields, Toby Jones and Paula Malcomson. Quarter Quell takes place in a tropical setting, with imaginative, if deadly booby-traps scattered throughout the Blu-ray friendly jungle. (A scene on the beach reminded me of “The Planet of the Apes.”) Other informative bonus material includes the nine-part featurette, “Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire”; commentary with Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson; deleted scenes;and an extensive sneak peek of Neil Burger’s “Divergent,” an action fantasy with Shailene Woodley, Kate Winslet and Theo James. – Gary Dretzka
New World (Shinsekai Story)
I may be the only one on the planet, who, while watching Lim Kah-wai’s “New World: Shinsekai Story,” was reminded of Susan Seidelman and Madonna’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” but that doesn’t mean I’m overestimating its fresh indie flavor and brash take on disaffected young adults in China and Japan. Coco is a modern Beijing girl, born may years after the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and at about the same time as the protests in Tiananmen Square. She takes her fashion cues from MTV and Miley Cyrus, just like so many other girls her age around the world. One day, after being told that he was too busy to go out, she discovers her wealthy boyfriend hanging out in a nightclub with several hotties. Remembering something his limo driver mentioned earlier, Coco decides to go to Osaka to visit friends and see “the world’s largest Christmas tree.” (The kids we meet here celebrate the birthday of Christ in a social way and to promote business with Americans.) She’s picked up at the airport by her friend Ivy’s boyfriend, Masanobu, an innkeeper with a very different concept of luxury accommodations than what Coco is accustomed. Instead of agreeing to stay in what would qualify as a closet back home, she drifts into the Osaka night looking for the bar in which Ivy works as a B-girl. Coco ends up in the city’s rough-and-tumble Shinsekai district, where she is introduced to several unsavory hoodlums who hang out at the bad. Inadvertently, she also comes into contact with the so-called Chinese Mafia, which, among other things, protects Chinese people performing menial labor in the district. There’s quite a few surprises along the way to a Christmas Eve party, where gifts are exchanged. Besides being entertaining, “New World” offers a glimpse into the world of independent filmmaking in Asia. And, even with subtitles, it’s quite accessible to western viewers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and an interview with the director. – Gary Dretzka
Wicked Blood: Blu-ray
Although the cover of “Wicked Blood” has exploitation written all over it, the Southern drug thriller takes a fresh approach to such overfamiliar subjects as meth dealing, biker gangs, trailer trash and gun worship. It accomplishes this by allowing Abigail Breslin to work her considerable charms as a teenager attempting to break the cycle of violence in her family. The visual gag here is that Breslin’s smart and cocky Hannah Lee spends much of her free time playing chess with Uncle Donny (Lew Temple), a meth-cooker with an unhealthy appetite for his own product. Her other “uncle,” Frank, deals the meth that Donny makes and sells it to bikers. When Hannah Lee tells Frank that she needs a job that pays more than the minimum, he uses her as a bicycle-riding conduit for exchanges of cash and product. Meanwhile, Hannah Lee’s sister Amber (Alexa Vega) works for tips at a local diner by day, while spending her nights with Frank’s biker foe, “Wild Bill” (James Purefoy). When one of the players here decides to step on the meth with vitamins, everybody with a gun – including Wild Bill’s demented brother, Bobby (Jake Busey) – prepares to go to war, with Hannah Lee and Donny ending up as pawns in a deadly game of chess. Usually, these sorts of action pictures are defeated by gratuitous sex and violence, lack of finances and underwritten scripts. Here, though, writer/director Mark Young (“The Killing Jar”) has found a way to balance all of the ingredients, without diluting the tough-guy stuff with unlikely romance. Instead, he accentuates the idea that families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, even on the slimy underbelly of Plaquemine, La. The DVD adds short interviews with some of the cast members. – Gary Dretzka
Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme
Dragon City: Punk Rock in China!
It’s been almost a half-century since the word, “rap,” became part of the vernacular, but the art of rhyming spontaneously can be traced all the way back to the griots of West Africa. Any gospel preacher working without script is a rapper in the same way that Muhammad Ali famously “rapped” his challenges to Sonny Liston and other opponents. The roots of hip-hop, however, extend to American blues, gospel, jazz and R&B – “Minnie the Moocher,” for a prime example – in that the lyrics are transcribed and repeated in performance. Being improvisational, no two “freestyle” raps are the same. The MC battles showcased in “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme,” and like those showcased in Eminem’s “Eight Mile,” take place in front of a boisterous audience and are judged according to the verbal damage done to each of the participants. In this way, freestyle resembles the street game, “the dozens,” except minus the accompaniment of “scratchers” and the occasional break-dancer. Not only does Kevin Fitzgerald’s 2000 documentary fully explain the phenomenon to curious rubes, but it also introduces us to 30 years’ worth of rap’s leading practitioners on the street and on stage. Among them are Mos Def, Freestyle Fellowship, Ghostface Killah, KRS-One, Supernatural and the Last Poets. (Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, Kool Moe Dee and, even, John Coltrane are represented in archival footage.) For those so inclined “Freestyle: the Art of Rhyme” is quite a treat. It includes extended interviews and deleted scenes.
The endearing thing about punk rock is that it never really gets old. It began 20 years before the Sex Pistols began making headlines and continues today, not just in the U.S. and U.K., but also in places where young people feel the need to rebel against authoritarian regimes and mean parents. Neither does it go in and out of fashion. Black leather coats, nose rings and combat boots are eternal. Even so, a spikey hairdo, purple dye job and clothes held together by safety pins will draw stares from squares in every small town on the planet. When Miley Cyrus does the same thing, fashionistas around the world pay attention. A good place to look for movies about punk rock – in an out of concert – is MVD Visuals, from whence “Dragon City: Punk Rock in China!” and “Punk in Africa” emerge this month. The former is billed as a “post-apocalyptic punk-rock musical adventure” and the first punk-rock movie ever produced in the PRC. It features the mainland band No Name, as its members wander through the wastelands looking for meaning. It arrives in the form of a hippie dinosaur who closely resembles Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider.” He’s in possession of an assemblage of instruments waiting to be played. Voila! Instant meaning. The DVD includes commentaries; music videos from No Name and other Chinese bands; live performances by No Name; short films by director Darryl Pestilence; and trailers from the Dragon City label. Arriving later this month is “Punk in Africa,” concerning multi-racial punk movements in South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Among other non-MVD titles are “Our Nation: A Korean Punk Rock Community,” No One Knows About Persian Cats” and “Afro-Punk,” which explores racial identity within the punk scene across America and abroad.
Something else that doesn’t get old is the original 1988 version of “Hairspray.” While I can easily do without the Broadway-musical version of “Hairspray” and the movie adapted from it – ditto, “The Producers” – the original remains a true gem. The musical soundtrack, comprised of actual ’50s-era songs, is more memorable than the Broadway version, the hairdos are nastier, the dancing is better and the socio-political context is more pronounced. It’s also much, much funnier. Somehow, Waters was able to pull it off in 92 minutes and with a “PG” attached to it. If all you know about “Hairspray” derives from the Broadway edition, prepare to be happily surprised by the real thing. The vintage bonus features, including reminiscences about Divine and making-of material, retain their interest. I would have loved to have seen a deleted scene mentioned by Ricki Lake in her interview. It was based on a popular urban legend about a girl whose brain is devoured by cockroaches living in her beehive hairdo. There are several references to roaches – even a dance – but, because the scene might have cost the picture its PG rating, it was pulled. – Gary Dretzka
Of all the movies I’ve seen compared to “Brokeback Mountain,” the German export “Free Fall” comes the closest to fulfilling any expectations that follow such praise. Co-writer/director Stephan Lacant’s debut feature introduces us to police cadets, played by Hanno Koffler and Max Riemelt, who engage in a short bromance, which includes rough-housing, jogging, sneaking joints in the woods and an awkward semi-sexual encounter. Marc, who goes home to his pregnant wife each night, is freaked out as much by his response to Kay’s brazen advance as the advance, itself. Shortly thereafter, Marc is dismayed to discover that Kay has been assigned to his permanent unit and is hell-bent to drag him out of the closet. By the time Marc graduates to having sex inside the stalls of gay nightclubs, his inability to hide his newfound joy is misinterpreted by his wife as resulting from the intercession of another woman. If only things were that simple. Marc doesn’t want to lose his family and Kay is unhappy that another obstacle – the baby – has come between him and true love. Things get even crazier when Kay is arrested at a drug bust in a gay bar and their fellow cops, including Marc’s father-in-law, follow the clues to the young men’s affair. A couple of cops ignore their supervisor’s warning about acting on their homophobia and provoke fights. With his life now officially in free fall, Marc can’t decide if he’s gay, bi or straight-with-benefits. The only person who knows where Marc will land is Lacant. – Gary Dretzka
The Agony and the Ecstasy: Blu-ray
Nova: Great Cathedral Mystery
Samson & Delilah: Blu-ray
Last week, I was bemoaning the elimination of Jesus Christ from the many DVDs I’ve gotten recently in anticipation of Easter. The cartoon packages are aimed almost exclusively toward pre-schoolers, who already assume that religious holidays mean the exchange of gifts and sugary treats. Bunnies and eggs have been around for quite a while now, of course, but rarely has the symbolism been so routinely ignored. In the Pleistocene era, when I got too old for Easter baskets, I remember being dropped off at the local Bijou to watch such biblical epics as “The Ten Commandments” and “Ben-Hur.” There usually was enough action to keep us interested. I’m nowhere near old enough to remember the first theatrical run of “Samson & Delilah,” but I do recall some of the hubbub surrounding “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” 16 years later. (Or, maybe, I’m actually recalling the Mad magazine parodies of Charleston Heston in biblical roles.) Michelangelo isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, although he might as well have been. Any human being capable of conceiving the grandeur that is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has to have been imbued with certain divine qualities. Given what we’ve come to know of the early pontiffs, most lay Christians were better qualified to be popes than the incumbent Roman clergy. Based on Irving Stone’s best-seller of the same title, “TA&TE” describes the tug-of-war between Pope Julius ll (Rex Harrison) and the great sculptor Michelangelo (Heston) over everything from costs to the depiction of God as either a merciless or merciful deity. From the perspective of the artist, the balance between agony and ecstasy was weighted far more in the favor of the former. As depicted here, both were formidable men. Julius II was as interested in waging war as dispensing the sacraments. While Michelangelo is agonizing over his creation, Julius II is attempting to hold back the tide of French and German forces determined to loot the Vatican. Philip Dunne ignores several of the pope’s more disagreeable traits, as have most screenwriters assigned such duties. The Legion of Decency made sure of that. In fact, such recent diversions as “The Borgias” and “Borgia” are probably closer to the truth. In director Carol Reed’s hands, however, there’s no diminishment of Michelangelo’s achievement, which, of course, is magnificent. At 138 minutes, however, some viewers will be tempted to hit the pause button more than once.
In 1949, Heston was too young and unknown to play Samson in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic, so the task went to Victor Mature. An actor of similar stature, Mature would be featured in several other historical epics that required brawn and good looks, above other attributes. Those who resisted the temptation to pick up the DVD edition released this time last year will be rewarded with a Blu-ray scanned in 4K and restored to its original Technicolor glory. “Samson & Delilah” did far better at the box office than “The Agony and the Ecstacy,” even though it was the lesser cinematic achievement. I imagine, however, that the costumes worn by Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury and Olive Deering, trumped those provided Diane Cilento in Reed’s film. Or, maybe it was Samson’s barehanded battle with a real, if timid lion.
The construction of the dome of the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, in Florence, is as amazing an achievement in its way as was Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Even today, the architectural effort defies easy explanation. Filippo Brunelleschi engineered the structure based on observation of ancient Roman ruins and how the bricklayer’s art was applied there. From it, Brunelleschi would engineer the largest masonry dome in the world, using 4 million bricks and mortar weighting over 40,000 tons. Trained as a goldsmith, he would invent the compressive techniques that allowed the dome to be free-standing. There was no assurance it would resist storms or earthquakes, or even that the 16-year project wouldn’t claim the lives hundreds of workers. It’s stood 600 years and, as “Great Cathedral Mystery” explains, practically the only thing we can agree on is that it inarguably a work of genius. The producers followed a group of architecture students as they built a smaller, to-scale model of the dome. Even if you haven’t been to Florence, prepare to be left dumbstruck by what’s revealed. – Gary Dretzka
Margin for Error
City of Bad Men
The Pride of St. Louis
The Glory Brigade
Danger: Love at Work
Wild on the Beach
Every so often, Fox opens the doors to its library wide enough to allow several of its largely forgotten “classics” to escape into the DVD marketplace. Although it might be stretching the truth to list all of the selections among the all-time greats, each of the titles offers something special to recommend them. They also demonstrate some of the pluses of working within the old studio system, whereby recognizable actors found themselves in kilts or cowboy boots one week and business suits and evening gowns the next. The projects assigned to great writers and directors were no less unpredictable. My choices from the Fox Cinema Archives arrived in tip-top shape, but absent any of the usual frills. They are available on demand through various Internet sites.
“Danger: Love at Work” (1937), Otto Preminger’s second Hollywood feature, provides a wonderful example of screwball comedy from the 1930s. Jack Haley plays a lawyer assigned to purchase a large patch of property in South Carolina that’s owned by a family of delightfully eccentric characters. On his way south, he meets the pretty blond daughter (Ann Sothern) of one of the owners and her hilariously annoying younger brother. Sothern agrees to help the lawyer in his quest, but is too close to her relatives to understand just how crazy they are. Also in the cast are Edward Everett Horton, John Carradine, Bennie Bartlett and Elisha Cook Jr.
“Margin for Error” (1943) was adapted from a pre-war play by Clair Booth Luce. While its anti-fascist, pro-intervention message was appropriate in 1939, the script was hopelessly dated by the time it hit the screen. Milton Berle (that’s right) plays a New York cop, Moe Finkelstein, assigned to guard the German consul (Preminger), who wears his anti-Semitism on his sleeves. (The consul purposefully mispronounces Finkelstein’s name, until he needs his help.) Another annoyance is a fat spokesman for Nazism in American bunds. Luce’s play added a murder mystery to intrigue involving consulate workers with Jewish relatives still in the Old Country. In the movie, the mystery is terribly mishandled. Throw in the misappropriation of Nazi funds, references to concentration camps and Moe’s attempts to seduce an Aryan maid and you’ve got a 74-minute picture that’s overstuffed with through-lines and can’t decide if it’s a comedy or drama. (It was marketed as both.)
“The Glory Brigade” (1953) is one of the most unusual war stories I’ve ever seen. In it, a Greek-American lieutenant (Victor Mature) is ordered to keep a floating bridge intact until allied trucks can move supplies over it. The constant mortar attacks suggest that the North Koreans have something big to hide on the other side of the river. The lieutenant is assigned to assist a platoon of Greek soldiers, fighting under the UN flag, but not take charge of the operation. “The Glory Brigade” is informed by the fact that many Americans troops were reluctant to take orders from foreign officers and this lack of trust could work in the favor of the enemy. The portrayal of the Greek soldiers is only occasionally marred by ugly ethnic taunting, even as they perform traditional dances common to guerrilla fighters back home. In fact, “The Glory Brigade” gently questions the notion of American infallibility in war. It stars Victor Mature, Alexander Scourby, Richard Egan and a young Lee Marvin.
“City of Bad Men” (1953) is a late-period western that describes what happens when outlaws converge separately on Carson City, intent on looting the strongbox holding the proceeds of a 1897 boxing match, featuring Gentleman Jim Corbett. Just as is the case when there’s a big fight in Las Vegas, this one attracts crooks, hookers, gamblers and gunslingers, in addition to fans. The best thing about Harmon Jones’ movie is a cast that includes Dale Robertson, Jeanne Crain, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Boone, Carl Betz (“The Donna Reed Show”) and several of the great “heavies” in the business, John Doucette, I. Stanford Jolley, James Best and Leo Gordon.
“Pride of St. Louis” (1952) is a better-than-average sports biopic, distinguished by the writing of Herman J. Mankiewicz, Harmon Jones’ direction and a funny portrayal of Hall of Fame pitcher and unforgettable announcer “Dizzy” Dean. For you youngsters, Dean was the Bob Uecker of his day, widely known and briefly condemned for his cornpone vocabulary. Every cliché of the genre can be found here, including an unnecessary romance and narrative enhanced by a parade of newspaper headlines. Richard Crenna plays the brother, Paul “Daffy” Dean.
Of all the beach-party movies made in the 1960s, “Wild on the Beach,” is probably the least representative of the sub-genre. None of the primary characters actually is shown surfing – or pretending to do so, as did Frankie Avalon — and balding men in suits attempt to seduce the beach bunnies over martinis. The conflict here involves a Malibu crash pad that the local university wants to turn into a dorm. Another one of the balding lechers is an old-school record producer who learns to like surf music. Looking completely out of place here are Sonny & Cher, the Astronauts, Sandy Nelson, Frankie Randall, Sandy Nelson and Cindy Malone. “Wild on the Beach” may be best remembered, however, as an infomercial for Frederick’s of Hollywood’s line of torpedo bras. – Gary Dretzka
Boiler Room: Blu-ray
Looking back from a distance of 14 years, one major depression, a couple of recessions and billions of dollars that Americans will never recover, “Boiler Room” reeks of the odor from the decayed carcass of free-market economy and ignored prophesy. Everyone in control of the economy pretended not to notice the first signs of impending disaster, but it was there all along. In 2000, the stock market was booming and no one wanted to be the first person to rock the boat or miss out on the gold rush. To facilitate those who couldn’t detect the odor, “boiler rooms” were set up to reel in the suckers. Guys who couldn’t wait to pay their dues on Wall Street, or had yet to pass the required tests, joined firms that lacked even the ethical fiber of carnival barkers. The idea was to keep the rubes on the phone long enough to whet their interest in investing and refuse to let them off the hook until they said, “Yes.” Boiler-room operations, such as the one in freshman writer/director Ben Younger’s film, weren’t interested in selling blue-chip stocks to long-term investors. Rather, they worked the nether zone between legitimate and corrupt sales practices. They promised to return large profits on companies whose foundations were built of sand. By the time the economy collapsed, the better ones had churned and burned homeowners and developers to the point where no money was left for anyone. Some were fortunate enough to work for companies that received government bailouts, while others were lucky to jobs as greeters at Walmart.
“Boiler Room” tells the story of one such stud, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a kid who dropped out of college to run an underground casino for bored students. One night, a sharply dressed guy dropped by the casino and offered him a job that might be compatible with his energy level. In the boss’ introduction address, which sounds as if it were an outtake from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” fortunes were promised to those who could stand the intense pressure. His trajectory resembles that Bud Fox in “Wall Street.” In fact, “Boiler Room” is “Wall Street,” writ small. That doesn’t make it a rip-off, only familiar. The thing I noticed first was the large number male actors – under 30, at the time – whose careers would explode in the next few years: Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Jamie Kennedy, Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, Taylor Nichols, Tom Everett Scott and Anson Mount, among others. Nia Long plays an assistant at the firm and she is the only woman – only African-American, for that matter — who gets much face time. The Blu-ray add commentaries, deleted scenes and a pretty good alternate ending. – Gary Dretzka
The Great Chicken Wing Hunt
In this big hungry country in which we live, there are gourmets, gourmands, foodies, food fascists and fat guys at the end of the bar who will eat anything, as long as they don’t have to waste a fork on it. Buffalo chicken wings easily qualify as high-end bar food and the people who swear by them, generally speaking, limit their consumption to places where they can be washed down by copious amounts of beer. Napkins are optional, but only if they’re wearing clean T-shirts. In 1980, the esteemed essayist and food writer Calvin Trillin used three pages of valuable space in the New Yorker explaining to his effete readers the brief history of the spicy appetizer and why it’s treated with the same reverence in northwestern New York as pizza in Chicago and oysters in New Orleans. By now, there are as many variations to the hallowed Anchor Bar recipe as there are bars and roadhouses serving the darn things. “The Great Chicken Wing Hunt” follows a group of wing-nuts around the country in pursuit of the perfect Buffalo chicken wing, even if it’s found hundreds of miles from New York. At a time when so many Americans are out of work, I can’t think of a less healthy, if entirely delightful way to kill an unemployment check. Itinerant journalist Matt Reynolds was living in Eastern Europe, with his girlfriend, when he decided to embark on the mission and, from what I can tell, scored a grant or two or do it. He imported his Czech girlfriend and a Slovak film crew to accompany the wandering troupe of domestic wing chompers he’d found on the Internet … where else? Thanks to the amount of beer consumed along the way and folk songs by Al Caster, it’s a blast. The bad news is that it’s currently only available on VOD outlets, including Amazon. – Gary Dretzka
BBC: Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor: Blu-ray
BBC: The Best of Men
Nature: The Funkiest Monkeys
Nova: Alien Planets RevealedCartoon Network: Teen Titans Go: Mission to Misbehave: Season 1, Part 1
Adult Swim: The Venture Bros: The Fantastic Fifth Season
2013 was an epochal year in the history of “Doctor Who” and for its international audience of rabid fans. In addition to marking the 50th anniversary of its birth, the show’s writers, directors and producers were required to create a special episode for the occasion, another one for the 800th individual episode and ease the transition from the 11th to the 12th Doctor. Oh, yeah, the issue of the annual Christmas special would have to be addressed, as well. The first hurdle to clear, of course, was the challenge of finding someone to replace Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. The transition would be as closely watched as the transfer of power from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon, except for the fact that more people in more countries would actually give a crap about the decision. To my mind, at least, Peter Capaldi (“In the Loop”) was an inspired choice. “The Time of the Doctor” is the third installment in a loose trilogy of episodes, following “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor.” It ties together storylines unresolved during Smith’s tenure, including the prophecy of the Silence and the Doctor’s fate on the planet Trenzalore. It also deals with the regeneration limit established in “The Deadly Assassin.” The episode also features Jenna Coleman as the Doctor’s companion, Clara Oswald, and such enemies as the Cybermen, Silence, Daleks and Weeping Angels. Makes you wonder how the BBC would have handled the final episode of “Dallas” or “M*A*S*H.” The Blu-ray package add the featurettes, “Behind the Lens: It’s Christmas!,” when the Doctor comes face to face with the enigmatic Tasha Lem; “Farewell to Matt Smith,” narrated by Alex Kingston; and the golden-anniversary retrospective, “Tales from the TARDIS,” Smith and past Doctors David Tennant, Sylvester McCoy, Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Tom Baker, and companions Jenna Coleman, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill.
Generally speaking, American journalists have little to fear from their pursuit of the news. I’ve only known one reporter who felt it necessary to carry a gun to work and that was in Gary, Indiana, where reporters often arrived at crime scenes ahead of the police. The same can’t be said for those assigned to war zones or places where armed men wouldn’t recognize the First Amendment if it was stapled to their ass. Perhaps, the most dangerous place in the world to practice journalism, though, is within a hundred miles south of the U.S. border with Mexico, where more than 50 journalists have been slain or have vanished since December 2006. That was when President Felipe Calderón came to power and launched a government offensive against the country’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime. Violent crime plagues the U.S., as well, but the situation in Mexico is different, if only because the stakes are so high for the criminals and everyone in the cartels’ food chain. That includes almost everyone in a position of power and influence, including the police, politicians, border guards and judiciary. If they aren’t being paid off, they’re targets. (It explains why the president has only trusted the Mexican Navy and U.S. DEA to make the busts.) Mainstream media outlets are controlled by publishers beholden to the government or a political party, so there’re invested in maintaining the status quo. The PBS documentary “Reportero” describes a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly, Zeta, which isn’t in the pockets of the power brokers or drug cartels. It’s been targeted so many times that much of the production is done on the U.S. side of the border. The filmmakers follow the magazine’s Jesús Blancornelas, who, in 1980, co-founded Zeta with the murdered Héctor Félix Miranda, as he covers scene in Tijuana and works with fellow staff members. In 1997, Blancornelas was ambushed by 10 gunmen working for a cartel that had moved from Sinaloa to Tijuana to traffic shipments of cocaine into the United States. Only a freak accident prevented him from being killed. “Reportero” is as fascinating as it is harrowing.
As far as I can tell, the BBC presentation, “The Best of Men,” didn’t make the make the leap across the pond in the warm afterglow of the Summer Games, held two years ago in London. It’s a pretty good story, with no small amount of relevance today. It describes the efforts of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (Eddie Marsan), to rescue soldiers seriously injured in the war to escape medieval medical practices in British hospitals. On a second front, Guttmann was required to win over hospital staff and patients wary of his thick accent and German background. Once that was accomplished, he was able to convince the men that a terrible spinal injury wasn’t a reason to give up hope. Basically, instead of confining the soldiers to bed and feeding them pills, Guttmann encouraged them to exercise the neglected muscles in their bodies and intellect. He organized sports activities and field trips, including visits to the local pubs, and encouraged staff members to engage the men on a more personal basis. After the war, Ludwig organized athletic competitions for wheelchair-bound vets. They, in turn, would lead to the establishment of the Stokes Mandeville Games and, later, the Paralympics. In 1966, Guttmann was knighted by the Queen of England. “The Best of Men,” which benefits from some melodramatic touches, was shown on the BBC in conjunction with the 2012 Paralympics, which took place two weeks after the Summer Olympics.
For as much joy as PBS’ “Nature” brings to its viewers, all too often the fun is neutralized by reports of man’s cruelty to animals and the steady encroachment on natural habitats. While the title, “The Funkiest Monkeys,” suggests an hourlong romp through the pristine jungles of Indonesia, we know to expect the bad news, as well. Here, Colin Stafford-Johnson (“Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey”) returns to Sulawesi, where he first fell in love with crested black macaques. The title refers to their “funky” punk hairstyle and expressive faces. They only exist on this island and their numbers have diminished since Stafford-Johnson’s last visit. Among the usual things impacting habitat, he is made aware of the illegal trade in macaques at the local market. Local residents have developed a taste for the meat and poachers cater to it. The scenes shot at the outdoor market are tough to watch – the other delicacies are pretty nasty, as well – and far too rough for the kiddies. Stafford-Johnson has dedicated himself to showing his footage of macaques in the wild at local schools and community centers as a way to discourage more carnage.
For millennia, residents of Planet Earth have wondered if life as we know it exists somewhere else in the universe. Such curiosity has divided scientists and theologians for all of that time, with a lack of evidence giving religious leaders and skeptics the edge in the debate. Today, of course, technology has allowed us to peer deeper into space than ever before, revealing countless more solar systems than we could even imagine 50 years ago. The “Nova” episode “Alien Planets Revealed” introduces us to the research gathered by scientists working with NASA’s Kepler space observatory. If counting the number of stars in the heavens is considered to be an impossible task, imagine taking a closer look to determine if planets the size of Earth are orbiting them and, if any, the possibility they could be habitable. The remarkable images served to make me feel very small and insignificant. If there are living beings on other planets, let’s hope they’ve evolved beyond engaging in war to settle political and tribal disputes.
If Cartoon Network’s “Teen Titans Go!” sounds familiar to fans of DC Comics and DC Entertainment, it’s because its short roots go back to the cartoon series, “Teen Titans” and “New Teen Titans,” which found an enthusiastic audience about a dozen years back. The new spinoff has taken liberties with the basic premise, by adding more comedy and following the superhero team to places where they aren’t required to save the world. Unimpeded by adult supervision, the Teen Titans must deal with situations involving pranks, recreational activities and retaking a driver’s test after wrecking the Batmobile. Judging by the lively debate on Internet fan sites, not everyone is pleased with the new direction of the series. But, then, old fans are never satisfied with changes to their favorite shows.
If there’s a more recognizable voice on television than that of Patrick Warburton, I haven’t heard it. Ever since he busted out of obscurity as Puddy, in the “Fusilli Jerry” episode of “Seinfeld,” he’s been the go-to actor for animated characters with gruff voices and deadpan personalities. Naturally, the New Jersey native plays a key role in Adult Swim’s action-comedy “The Venture Bros.,” which resembles a fractured version of “Johnny Quest.” As is the case with most Post-Modern cartoon series, it isn’t easy to jump into the middle of a show and expect to understand what’s going on. It’s better to start at the beginning and become acclimated to the rhythm, rhymes and senses of humor of the creative team. As is the case with “Adventure Time,” the seasons have passed by rather slowly, making it easy to catch up with the 20-minute episodes and short seasons. The sharp Blu-ray package adds uncensored commentaries by creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer for all eight episodes and the “Very Venture Halloween” special; a collection of incomplete deleted scenes; and “Fax My Grandson,” also known as “The Further Audio Adventures of Diamond Backdraft!” – Gary Dretzka
Super Bowl XXLVIII Champions: Seattle Seahawks: Blu-ray
If the National Football League knows how to do anything extremely well, it’s how to milk every penny of potential revenues from the annual Super Bowl circus. By comparison, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a piker. Likewise, NFL Films doesn’t miss a step from Draft Day to the awarding of the Lombardi Trophy. Fortunately, it’s the best at what it does and their products don’t shortchange fans. Still, one caveat always applies to the first DVD/Blu-ray that arrives in the wake of the Super Bowl. “Super Bowl XXLVIII Champions: Seattle Seahawks” may sound as if it includes the championship game, but it doesn’t … not the whole one, anyway. That comes in June, with full coverage of the other playoff games. This title covers every aspect of the game, except the complete game and accompanying play-by-play. It also includes highlights, miked players and coaches, Super Bowl Media Day, post-game ceremonies and player profiles. At 180 minutes, however, it’s a pretty generous package. I’d be surprised, however, if more than a dozen copies are sold in the entire state of Colorado. – Gary Dretzka