Oz the Great and Powerful: Blu-ray
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters: Unrated Cut: Blu-ray
In a Texas Death Match pitting witches and zombies, my money would be on Wiccan Nation every day of the week. With the exception of the amped-up undead in “World War Z,” it takes most zombies an eternity to get from one side of the ring to the other. And, forget about asking one to climb to the top of a turnbuckle or attempt a flying suplex. Witches, by comparison, are able to turn their opponents into a toad or fly circles around them on their broomsticks. Witches are everywhere in “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” … good ones, evil ones … pretty ones and grotesque ones. Unless one considers Lazarus to be the first zombie, witches have been casting spells and avoiding persecution from religious fanatics many centuries before novelist William Seabrook introduced zombies to American readers in 1929 and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston began reporting on vodoupractices in Haiti in the 1930s. Disney’s hugely expensive and often quite spectacular “Oz the Great and Powerful” serves both as a prequel to MGM’s beloved “The Wizard of Oz” and a pastiche of characters and themes from all 12 of the books in L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” series. Sam Raimi’s film takes place 20 years before the events in “The Wizard of Oz,” but the framework is essentially the same. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs, a fast-talking magician, con artist and chronic womanizer in a circus that travels through the Midwest. After seducing the wife of the troupe’s strongman, Diggs hitches a ride on a hot-air balloon to make his escape. Being Kansas, there’s always a tornado looming on the horizon. This one spins the magician to the Land of Oz, which, coincidentally, has been awaiting the arrival of a powerful wizard, as prophesized, in order to vanquish the Wicked Witches of the East and West, Evanora (Rachael Weisz), and Theodora (Mila Kunis).
Here, Diggs is accompanied in his mission by Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (Michelle Williams); aide-de-camp Finley (Zach Braff), a winged monkey; and China Girl (Joey King), a living, if slightly damaged porcelain doll. Not only are all of the primary characters doppelgangers of people we met earlier in sepia-toned Kansas, but, in their Technicolor incarnation, they also are related to characters we fell in love with in “Wizard of Oz.” It’s a neat symmetry that continues through the walk down the Yellow Brick Road and final showdown in Emerald City. What’s really terrific about “Oz the Great and Powerful” is the set design, which hardly could be any more brilliantly colorful and imaginative. In Blu-ray, the oversized flowers, imaginative backgrounds and amazing color palette promise to give anyone’s brand new HD3D a run for their money. The mainstream critics’ biggest complaints about the movie involved the casting of Franco, who didn’t live up to their expectations, and the same abundance of “heart” Judy Garland invested in the original. They may be right, but younger viewers won’t complain about casting decisions once the Wizard begins working his magic. Despite the knocks, the prequel did very well at the domestic and international box-office.
There are several must-see bonus features, including the immersive “Magic of ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ Second Screen Experience” and an app; “The Enchanting Characters and Creatures of Oz,” which describes the creation of the fanciful characters, from Munchkins and Tinkers to the flying baboons; “The Sounds of Magical Oz,” about the many amazing special sound effects; “Sleight of Hand: Zach Braff Puppet Theater,” in which the actor and voice of Finley explains his transformation; a Mariah Carey music video; bloopers; “My Journey in Oz,” a personal story produced and directed by Franco; “Mr. Elfman’s Musical Concoctions,” an interview with composer Danny Elfman; “China Girl and the Suspension of Disbelief,” chronicles the evolution from the initial artwork and character design, to the on-set puppetry and, finally, through each stage of the visual-effects process, and an interview with voice-over actress King; “Before Your Very Eyes: From Kansas to Oz,” with production designer Robert Stromberg; “Mila’s Metamorphosis,” with lead makeup artist Howard Berger; and “Walt Disney and the Road to Oz,” in which Uncle Walt describes his fascination with the Land of Oz. I would also recommend that fans of the original and the prequel also check out Disney and Walter Murch’s 1985 live-action sequel, “Return to Oz,” which was based on the second and third entries in Baum’s series. While credited with being more faithful to the author’s vision than the MGM classic, its special effects were deemed too frightening for younger viewers. In hindsight, “Return to Oz” is a film that any Tim Burton fan could appreciate.
“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” shouldn’t be confused with previous interpretations of the Grimm Brothers’ frightening cautionary tale for children. There’s an element of horror to all of the versions, of course, but the gingerbread flavor ultimately overwhelms the cold reality of death, however justified and welcome. Like most of the Grimms’ stories, “Hansel & Gretel” began as a moralistic folktale and, after publication, would be watered down to protect the vivid imaginations of each new generation of children. Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola, whose best-known credit is the Nazi-zombie epic, “Dead Snow,” decided to dial up the horror and accept an “R” rating to filter out inquisitive youngsters. In fact, “H&G:WH” is a continuation of the original story, with Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton) now 15 years older and self-employed as heavily armed mercenaries. After a quick reminder of how the original folk tale ends, Wirkola locates the siblings in the scenic Bavarian town of Augsburg, where the sheriff (Peter Stormare) is intent on executing a beautiful young redhead, Mina (Pihla Viitala), for witchcraft. Children are being abducted from their homes and, while the sheriff is correct about witches’ involvement in the crimes, he’s about to hang an innocent person. The town’s helpless mayor hires Hansel and Gretel to determine if Mina is a wicked witch and, if not, find the true culprits and bring the missing children back alive. It doesn’t take long before H&G come face to face with the grand witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen), and discover what her coven has in mind for the kids.
For the next hour or so, “H&G:WH” is nothing but action … non-stop, CGI -enhanced, wildly gratuitous violence, and lots of it. The extended version of the movie adds even more of it. Wisely, Wirkola leavens the death and destruction with some inky black comedy. Hansel may be brave and virtuous, but, without insulin, he is no match for the diabetes he developed after being forced to eat the first witch’s candy. (Gretel was supposed to be saddled with an eating disorder, but that gag didn’t make the final cut.) In addition to the witches, who are alternately beautiful and grotesque, the siblings must contend with a hulking troll, who resembles a giant green ogre on DreamWorks’ payroll. Critics weren’t particularly kind to “H&G:WH,” but they were treating it as something it isn’t. Wirkola was using the fairytale as a springboard for horror and violence, not attempting to go all Freudian on the audience. Catherine Hardwicke tried that in the PG-13 “Red Riding Hood,” to no great reward, while Rupert Sanders’ revisionist “Snow White and the Huntsman” barely made back its very large nut. Today’s audiences are sufficiently savvy about the machinations of studio economics to understand what’s lost when movies shot to be enjoyed by people 17 and over are cut for PG-13. The firm “R” accorded “H&G:WH” left little room for confusion on the part of genre buffs as to what to expect. The word, “unrated,” sounds even better to them. One thing not in doubt is the excellent quality of the Blu-ray presentation in 2D and 3D. The supplements add “Reinventing Hansel & Gretel,” a 16-minute backgrounder; “The Witching Hours,” on the expansion of the witches’ roles; and “Meet Edward the Troll.” – Gary Dretzka
The Taste of Money
Anyone who’s seen Im Sang-soo’s erotic psychodrama, “The Housemaid,” will want to pick up a copy of “The Taste of Money,” his kinky melodrama about a Korean family choking on its own wealth. (The movies are subtlely linked by a character who’s grown from traumatized little girl to damaged adult.) The story unfolds largely within the confines of an impeccably designed mansion outside Seoul, where no secret is safe from the prying cameras of the controlling matriarch, Baek Geum-ok. One night she catches her husband, Yoon, having sex with the demure Filipina maid, who’s benefitted greatly from the older woman’s generosity. Geum-ok knows that her husband has been cheating on her for years, but not at home with someone she trusts. She acts out her anger and frustration by forcing Yoon’s private secretary Joo Young-jak to have sex with her immediately and on the spot. The nearly 40-year difference in their ages makes the young man more than a little bit queasy, but he succumbs out of obligation and his desire to keep a well-paying job. Also playing key roles are her daughter Nami, recently divorced because her spouse didn’t want anything to do with her sexually, and her ethically deficient son Chul. The family has been hiding Chul from authorities hoping to prosecute him for an illegal slush fund, at least until his parents can bribe the official in charge of the investigation. Once cleared of the charge, Chul enters into an even more devious scheme with a slick American investor. We hope that Young-jak can escape this nest of vipers alive, but the odds grow longer with every new outrage. The implication, of course, is that Korea’s most prominent families have gotten so rich so fast that they consider themselves to be beyond the laws of God and man. Men and women invited to join the elite crowd through marriage frequently are required to relinquish all pretenses of integrity and dignity. In a very real sense, “Taste of Money” is a cross between Shakespearean tragedy and Cronenbergian kink. It’s not without humor, either, but it’s as black as coal. The DVD comes with a making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Vivan Las Antipodas
If there’s one question shared by all of the world’s children, it’s, “If I keep digging, where will I end up?” The simple answer for parents in North America, at least, was China. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true, because it sounded within the realm of possibility. If it actually were possible to burrow through the Earth’s core to a point diametrically opposed to, say, Los Angeles or New York, chances are that you’d hit water before finding land. In fact, only 4 percent of the planet’s land is directly opposite, or antipodal, to other patches of land. Sorry, kids, but nothing on our side of the Earth is antipodal to China or anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. You’d be better off looking for kangaroos, seals or penguins than pagodas or pandas. Documentarian Victor Kossakovsky has probably been pondering the same nutty concepts since he was a boy growing up in Leningrad. Unlike most other adults, he was able to do something about his curiosity. Beyond learning where he would end up if he actually did own a magical shovel, Kossakovsky wondered if the very few antipodal locations on Earth shared anything beyond the shared curiosity of their residents.
The short answer to his question is “practically nothing.” Knowing this, however, doesn’t make his wholly delightful and extremely beautiful documentary, “Vivan las Antipodas” any less poetic. Kossakovsky (“Russia From My Window”) carries us – occasionally upside-down and inside-out – to such antipodes as Patagonia, Chile, and Russia’s Lake Baikal; an active lava field on the Big Island of Hawaii and Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park; Miraflores, Spain, and Castle Point, New Zealand, which share watery borders, at least; the remote Argentine village of Entre Rios and pollution-choked Shanghai. Imagine a less frenetic “Koyaanisqatsi” and you’ll have an idea of the hypnotic appeal of “Vivan las Antipodas.” If they showed it in high school geography classes, teachers wouldn’t have to spend so much of their time convincing students to stay awake. My only gripe is that it’s not yet available in Blu-ray. – Gary Dretzka
The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg
Reviled and ridiculed for much of his public life by conservatives, gay bashers and intolerant social observers, Allen Ginsberg was a man whose entire existence was informed by a passion for peace, religious and personal freedoms, and outward manifestations of love for people of backgrounds. An inarguably great poet, Ginsberg allowed himself to be used as a lightning rod for controversy and a handy go-to guy for journalists, who, like Dylan’s Mister Jones, could see something was happening, but didn’t know what it was. Actually, it may have been his great bushy beard that scared his detractors as much as his anti-war activism and promotion of eastern religions. At a time when poetry was being de-emphasized and anti-intellectualized in schools and in the media, his works continued to sell and he abashedly recited long passages on talk shows as different in tone as “The Dick Cavett Show” and “Firing Line,” with William F. Buckley Jr. He became the Poet Laureate of Everyone Else and, as such, was responsible for holding the fort until rap music could reignite the flame of verse in the minds of young Americans.
Watch or re-watch Jerry Aronson’s sunny bio-doc, “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg,” and you’ll come away with an even greater appreciation of Ginsberg, not only for his writings, but also as a humanitarian, pop-cultural icon and holy clown. Accused of being a communist by his detractors, his magnetism was feared, as well, by totalitarianism of all stripes. Days after being crowned King of May, in Prague, 1965, he was secreted out of Czechoslovakia and sent to London for, among other things, his “sexual theories.” The new edition of Aronson’s documentary is timed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Howl,” an immensely influential poem that captured the fears and anxieties of a generation about to break out in rebellion. First released in 1993, the documentary includes six hours of still-relevant bonus features, including footage of his memorial and 35 interviews with artists inspired by him. The documentary is broken down by decades and contains candid observations about his tortured family life, acceptance of being gay, role in the Beat and hippie movements, and mellower years spent as an educator and representative of international peace and freedom. It’s a terrific film about a man many of us think we know everything about, but don’t. Besides interviews with such artists as Joan Baez, Beck, William Burroughs, Philip Glass, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Hunter S. Thompson and Andy Warhol, there’s a making-of feature; scenes with Bob Dylan and Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave, Burroughs and Ginsberg at Naropa University and Neal Cassady and Ginsberg at City Lights Bookstore; the making of the music video, “A Ballad of the Skeletons”; a guided tour of an exhibition of his photographs; and excerpts from “Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit,” by Jonas Mekas. – Gary Dretzka
Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. didn’t need to travel all the way to Australia for his role in “Absolute Deception.” He could have phoned in his performance from Los Angeles and no one except the cinematographer would have noticed. But, then, given the material, a hologram could have done just as well as any in-the-flesh actor. Less exciting than most episodes of “Hawaii Five-0,” Brian Trenchard-Smith’s non-thriller follows a dogged FBI agent’s pursuit Down Under of a filthy-rich international criminal, who’s under house arrest, but largely untouchable in his Gold Coast digs. A pinkie finger left behind in a shootout provides the agent with the first big break in his pursuit. It presumably was blown off the hand of an American criminal, declared dead two years earlier, who was swimming with the bigger fish. The person with the missing finger was married to an Australian investigative reporter, who’s stunned to discover not only that he’s alive, but also quite openly married to another woman. The FBI agent (Gooding) gets almost no support from the Aussie cops, so he joins forces with the reporter (Emmanuelle Vaugier), who, of course, could be mistaken for a fashion model. Even though the good guys always seem to be one step behind the criminals — until there’s 10 minutes left in the movie, anyway – it isn’t difficult to figure out why they can’t make any headway in their investigation. Everything from the sound effects to the chase scenes are amateurishly executed, though, so why not the script? Gooding’s become a brand name in straight-to-DVD crime pictures, but a few more stinkers like this could threaten his status with viewers willing to lower their standards for some quick-and-dirty action. – Gary Dretzka
Fred Won’t Move Out
There are few more perplexing decisions for an adult son or daughter to make than determining when, or even if a parent would do better in a facility for assisted living than in their longtime home. It is especially taxing if the parent isn’t already completely helpless or in need of constant care. Richard Ledes’ heart-wrenching family drama, “Fred Won’t Move Out,” tackles a predicament just that difficult. Because the movie was shot in the house in which his own family resided for many years, it’s fair to assume that Ledes drew from memory on a similar decision. Even so, “Fred Won’t Move Out” fails to offer viewers any answers, solutions or insights into how they might benefit from watching the movie. Elliott Gould is fine as the title character, whose intentions are known going into the movie. Fred may not always be “present,” but he is in better shape than his wife, Susan (Judith Roberts), who’s clearly in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. She, at least, would be better off in the kind of nursing home their middle-age children can easily afford. Carol and Bob (Fred Melamed, Stephanie Roth Haberle) are already footing the bill for a full-time guardian and frequent music therapy, but the son, especially, is anxious to put both parents in a facility nearer to him, in Manhattan, on separate floors. Accompanying them Upstate for a brass-tacks meeting with Mom and Dad is the woman’s sweetly precocious pre-teen daughter, cloyingly referred to “Captain” or “The Captain” throughout the movie. The nurse, Victoria (Mfoniso Udofia), seems to have a firm grasp on the situation, but has her hands full caring for two sick people. When Carol and Bob arrive, however, Victoria is treated like a go-fer or maid.
Ledes lays all of the details out in a manner that almost demands that we don’t take sides. It’s easy to appreciate the points being made by all of the characters, including Bob, whose dispassionate manner does nothing for his likability quotient. If he were bullying his sister simply to sell the house and use the proceeds to help his stagnant company, we’d have a villain. That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. The rural house is peaceful and beautiful, and Fred probably could remain there, waiting for “when Susan comes home,” until he, too, descends into dementia. Neither does the film’s climax demand that we take a firm stand. At best, “Fred Won’t Move Out” could serve as an introduction to the kind of dilemma too many of us will face in the near future. Apart from savoring the acting, though, don’t expect to be handed any helpful answers. A far superior movie on roughly the same subject is Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” with superb performances by Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie. – Gary Dretzka
Rob Lowe has played political strategists and candidates so often in the dozen years since he left “West Wing” that it’s almost impossible not to know what’s going on in his character’s head throughout “Knife Fight.” His familiarity in the role does, however, make Bill Guttentag’s indictment of the system a lot easier to take than it might have in the hands of a different actor. Neither as dead-on satiric as any given 15 minutes on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” nor as sharply written as Starz’ “Boss” or George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” “Knife Fight” has made-for-cable written all over it. That doesn’t make it unwatchable, merely undernourished. Here, Lowe plays an experienced strategist in demand for his ability to scrub the dirt off of candidates when they fall into the muck. Fortunately, for his Paul Turner, it’s difficult for opposition candidates to assume the moral high ground, while they’re wallowing in the mud alongside his flawed clients. In real life, a really good scandal typically leads to a resignation and another four years is required for the public to forget what all the fuss was about, especially if the successor is a less gifted public servant. Anthony Weiner, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford are on the comeback trail already. Gary Hart could have been president – and a good one — if he hadn’t dared the press to uncover an affair he was having, but disavowed. The Colorado senator so wanted to be seen as a Kennedy surrogate that he failed to recall how deeply buried were the secrets of JFK and RFK in their lifetimes. His crime was hubris, not a roving eye.
In “Knife Fight,” a different question is asked: all things being roughly equal, should a strategist allow a sinner to sink of his own weight or choose, instead, to spin those defects in a way that the lesser of two evils gets the most votes? That’s what Paul asks his young team of aspiring strategists when they begin to voice their doubts about their personal role in the political charade. The rewards for overcoming bad press and other adversity can be immense, after all. As we see here, the price the media pays for scaring off decent politicians, with the publication of minor indiscretions, is a pool of opportunists too stupid to come in from the rain. Among the well-known names adding their various assets to the project are Jamie Chung, Julie Bowen, Richard Schiff, Eric McCormack, Carrie-Anne Moss, Saffron Burrows and David Harbour. – Gary Dretzka
The Manson Family: Blu-ray
They are the crimes that prevent some Americans from sleeping easily, even four decades after they were committed. It’s been just that difficult to erase the memory of what the followers of Charles Manson did in his name in 1969. If you think coverage of the recent death of Richard Ramirez, responsible for the “Night Stalker” murders, was overblown, wait until the 78-year-old Manson meets his maker. Perhaps, if Charles Manson had died in the gas chamber in the 1970s, as intended, his face wouldn’t still appear on shirts, record jackets, walls and posters seen around the world. His only rival in this regard is Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary whose martyrdom was assured when the CIA helped the Bolivian army capture and murder him. If you don’t believe me, count the number of hitchhikers you see on your next long car trip. In 1968, you would have seen hundreds of young men and women looking for a free ride. Two years later, even on University Avenue in Berkeley, there were virtually none. In neighborhoods where doors had always been left unlocked and windows left unhinged, even at night, dead-bolts were installed by the dozens. Then, just when middle-class homeowners began to feel safe again, the Night Stalker convinced them otherwise.
Jim VanBebber’s hugely transgressive 2003 horror film, “The Manson Family,” has been released into Blu-ray as a reminder of just how ferociously expansive Manson’s anarchic vision actually was. In doing so, the filmmaker recalls him as a vicious state-raised punk who appeared at precisely right time and in exactly the right city to make a mark he wouldn’t otherwise have enjoyed. Without the drugs and large number of runaways attracted to California’s Promised Lands, he might not have found a ready audience for his quasi-religious ramblings and music. Manson may be the central character in the movie, but it’s his acolytes that drive the action. Even as there’s no doubt of his ability to serve as a father figure to the waifs – alternately compassionate and authoritarian — he displays little of the hypnotic charisma widely attributed to him. The family members are portrayed as hyperactive zombies who only come alive in the presence of their master. Add strong doses of LSD and crystal meth to the mix and they were putty in Manson’s hands. The actors playing the Manson women are so convincing, it’s possible they were cast from auditions held at a hospital for the criminally insane. Indeed, for most of the key players, “The Manson Family” would be their only credit.
It can be argued that 44 years later, some of Manson’s family members, at least, have done their time, been satisfactorily rehabilitated and no longer are threats to society. Frightened of repercussions in the media, however, the California parole board has routinely rejected their appeals. Even when Susan Atkins was so wracked with cancer that she couldn’t have harmed a mosquito, the board held course. Tex Watson and Bobby Beausoleil, depicted here as the out-of-control monsters they probably were, have repeatedly been refused parole, as well. Manson has stopped trying, preferring to stay at “home,” in prison, and relish the attention still lavish on him. The Blu-ray edition includes an interview with Manson, deleted scenes, commentary and a making-of featurette that relives the butchery we’ve just watched in the feature. The package also includes the exclusive first release of the director’s similarly transgressive short, “Gator Green”; an interview with Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo, who supplies the voice of Satan in “Manson Family”; and “In the Belly of the Beast,” a documentary on the 1997 Fantasia Film Festival, where the rough cut was first shown. – Gary Dretzka
Even after the U.S. stopped raining rockets on Belgrade and forced the turnover of Kosovo to Albanian nationalists, President Clinton made sure Serbia would be under our yoke by imposing crushing economic sanctions on the country. They would be lifted years later, in 2005, but, in many ways, Serbia has yet to recover. Teenagers raised in the city, especially, have despaired over the possibility of finding meaningful work and careers. Their parents are too busy dealing with their own issues to pay close attention their kids. As we see in Maja Milos’ disturbing debut feature, “Clip,” teens with too much time on their hands and too few prospects will always find ways to make it through the night. In movies from England that looked back on social turmoil caused, in large part, the imposition of Margaret Thatcher’s anti-labor policies, we saw how disaffected youths turned not only to drugs, alcohol and abrasive music, but also political extremism, racism and violent crime. In “Clip,” Milos introduces us to a 14-year-old girl who lives in a crowded apartment with her brother and mother, who’s too preoccupied with the declining health of her husband to notice that her daughter is headed for serious trouble. Besides succumbing to the pleasures of drugs and alcohol, Jasna (Isidora Simijonovic) is well on her way to becoming a sexual anarchist and she’s not alone. Instead of paying attention in school, she and her friends kill time texting notes on their romantic encounters and showing off porn-inspired poses on their cellphones. There is no shortage of boys willing to sneak off to the lavatory for a quickie, either. Mostly apolitical, the teens react to adverse news about Serbia’s standing in the world by throwing desks and books out of the windows and waving the Serbian flag. Why not?
“Clip” reminded me immediately of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s “Kids,” a frequently startling movie in which disaffected New York teens hang out in a park, act out their sexual exploits, recklessly ride skateboards and wait for the next party to begin. The AIDS epidemic is still a concern outside their circle, but these kids act as if they’re immune. One HIV-positive boy, whose stated mission is to deflower virgins, can’t be bothered with observing safe-sex practices. “Clip” is as scary and cautionary, as “Kids” was in 1995 and continues to be today. If anything, economic prospects for teens everywhere are less bright today than they were then. Milos said that she would like “Clip” to serve as a wakeup call for parents whose own despair has blinded them to the problems confronting their children. It’s grim, but not entirely lacking in humanity and humor. Tellingly, when Jasna introduces her mother and aunt to her predatory boyfriend, they surprise him with their knowledge of his family and, even, how he behaved as a little boy. It’s possible that everyone lived in the same village at one time or, at least, the same neighborhood. It must have been a time when the future didn’t look quite so bleak, despite the war in Bosnia, and parents could believe their children would enjoy a better future than their present has turned out to be. Milos never romanticizes Jasna’s nihilistic behavior, but there are times when it looks like she’s having too much fun for someone so young. Dues will have to be paid, however. “Clip” is a remarkable film – perhaps, even, an important one — but it’s clearly not for everyone. The DVD adds an interesting interview with the writer/director. – Gary Dretzka
A Labor of Love
Way back in 1976, before home-video recorders changed the way people watched pornography, a clever little documentary was shot, describing exactly the wrong way to introduce hard-core sex into a low-budget independently made movie. “Deep Throat” had already proven that mainstream audiences would sample, at least, a XXX movie if it contained a linear plot, an identifiable hook and male characters who didn’t wear their socks or a Lone Ranger mask to bed. The in-theater experience would soon lose its luster, but, a few years later, VHS would provide a delivery system for the masses. (Beta refused to license its technology for use by pornographers, thereby adding several nails to its coffin.) In chronicling the creation of “The Last Affair,” a movie artificially larded with gratuitous sex scenes, Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman’s “A Labor of Love” can be seen today as a missing link between “Deep Throat” and the events described in “Boogie Nights.” As written, “The Last Affair” was intended to be a saucy tale of a brothel that specializes in servicing the desires and fetishes of women, exclusively. Before things got rolling, however, investors demanded of writer/director Henri Charr that he include as many sex scenes in the movie as possible. The cast for “The Last Affair” was already in place when the order came down. (It included mostly theater- or Second City-trained Chicagoans, including Jack Wallace, Ron Dean, Del Close, Betty Thomas and William J. Norris.) With extraordinary access to the set and actors, the documentary makes it exceedingly clear how the insistence on hard-core sex threw the cast off its game, practically traumatizing the women for whom “The Last Affair” would be their first and last credit. (Thomas and Close were not among this group, alas.) Neither had Charr, an Assyrian who was born in Iran, any experience making porn. He professed a fascination with prostitutes and brothels, but was a novice when it came to committing sex acts to film.
So unaccustomed to performing in flagrante delicto, as it were, at least one of the male leads remained unable to perform sexually for hours and had to be replaced by a stunt-double. To save money, the son of the man in whose mansion the movie was being shot was recruited for the arduous task. One of the women actors had fallen in love shortly before the movie was about to begin shooting and begged off her sex scenes. Another woman couldn’t stomach making love – however fictional – with her acting partner that she pitched a fit on camera. (The actor wasn’t fond of her, either.) Meanwhile, Charr continued to perform his duties as if he was still making an arthouse attraction. It’s all pretty hilarious and, at 67 minutes, “A Labor of Love” never outstays its welcome. It contains much nudity and simulated sex, neither of which is particularly stimulating, and the filmmakers play it straight, as well. The documentary drew positive reviews before disappearing. The DVD adds a recent Q&A with Flaxman.
As for “The Last Affair,” it would receive a momentary release – sans the sex scenes and with a “R” rating — in a theater purchased by the producers for that purpose. In a review that would far outlive any memory of the movie itself, Roger Ebert called it “an appallingly bad movie – so completely bankrupt in ideas, in characterization, in simple common sense that it’s little wonder its makers bought a theater to get it shown. The movie is barely 90 minutes long, and yet so many of those minutes creep past with such excruciating stupidity that the film seems almost epic in length – an epic of boredom.” Too bad it wasn’t included in the DVD package. Anyone looking for a different take on porn history ought to pick up a DVD copy of John Byrum’s 1974 period dramedy, “Inserts.” In it, Richard Dreyfuss plays a washed-up director of silent films in desperate need of a paycheck in the ear of “talkies.” He finds an opportunity making cheap and dirty sex flicks. “Inserts” also stars Jessica Harper, Bob Hoskins and Veronica Cartwright. It was rated “X,” when the distinction meant something. – Gary Dretzka
Ever since the Internet turned movie criticism into a spectator sport, the value of blurbs on advertising material has decreased to the point where they’re meaningless. Imagine, though, if you were to pick up a DVD copy of “The Monk” and saw quotes from Lord Byron and the Marquis de Sade praising the movie’s source material? While doing some homework on Matthew Lewis’ notorious gothic novel of the same title, those names certainly caught my eye. Published in 1796, it created a stir in its depiction of a pious Capuchin friar’s losing battle with Satan and several of the Church’s top-10 mortal sins. The great French actor Vincent Cassell (“Black Swan”) plays Ambrosio, who, as an infant, was left at the doorstep of a Madrid monastery, to be raised under the strictest of conditions. As an adult, he became known far and wide for his stern and masterfully delivered sermons. One day, while hearing confessions, Ambrosio is confronted by a man whose terrible sins lead one to wonder if he’s possessed by the devil. In their discussion, the man is told that Satan can’t conquer anyone who refuses to listen to him. Apparently, the demon was eavesdropping, because he/she/it planted an orchard as ripe with forbidden fruit as the one in the Garden of Eden and dared the monk to take a bite … figuratively speaking, anyway. As in any good gothic novel, “The Monk” also includes ghosts and other cool supernatural stuff. Co-writer/director Dominik Moll (“With a Friend Like Harry …”) does a nice job re-creating the look of the religious institutions and atmosphere of dread found during the Spanish Inquisition. The novel contained far too many important characters and too much intrigue to contain in a 101-minute movie, so something had to give. “The Monk” probably could have been scarier if a few more spooky gothic touches were added to the story. As it is, though, it isn’t bad. The DVD adds an informative making-of featurette. – Gary Dretzka
Dead Man’s Burden
It is 1870 in the arid high desert of the New Mexico Territory and wounds from the Civil War have yet to heal among the settlers, an inordinate number of whom served the Confederacy at the bloody Battle of Chickamauga. Copper has been discovered in the region and mining interests are attempting to chisel landowners on the value of their property. Into the tinderbox that is “Dead Man’s Burden,” rides a man who folks there believe was a deserter from the army of the South and, therefore, eminently killable. (“I served,” he replies, when asked.) Wade (Barlow Jacobs) has heard rumors of his father being killed under suspicious circumstances and wants to make sure his sister, Martha (Clare Bowen), is safe. Wade fits the stereotype of the slow talking cowboy hero, who sits straight in the saddle and only shoots when provoked. When he does, though, he rarely misses. After being provoked and threatened by a couple of low-life veterans of Chickamauga, Wade dispatches them with swift precision. He finds his sister married to a slimeball opportunist, who brags about killing his father-in-law and other people who got in his way. Martha doesn’t particularly trust Wade, but really is more interested in talking the copper money and running to San Francisco than retying the familial knot. In Jared Moshe’s first stab at writing and directing, he’s created a slightly non-traditional Western in the mold of “Meek’s Turnoff” and “The Ballad of Little Jo.” It’s long on dialogue, as these things go, and takes full advantage of New Mexico locations in the shadow of Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved Cerro Pedernal. Far from being a Western in which a long, tall stranger rides in to save the damsel in distress, “Dead Man’s Burden” is full of secrets and Moshe is judicious in revealing what they are. The revelation here is the 24-year-old Aussie, Clare Bowen (“Nashville”), who looks a lot like Carmen Diaz and is nearly as self-assured. – Gary Dretzka
Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: The Black Kungfu Experience
Ninja III: The Domination: Blu-ray
Although it might be an exaggeration to call “Enter the Dragon” the “Citizen Kane” of martial-arts movies, its place on National Film Registry assures that it will be accorded no small degree of respect for generations to come. At a time when nearly every other such Hong Kong export was dismissed as “chop-socky,” mainstream critics hailed the Warners co-production as both a breakthrough for the action sub-genre and a sad reminder of the lost promise of Bruce Lee, who died before the movie was released. Even before the arrival of home video, “Enter the Dragon” earned a stunning $90 million at the international box-office. Its production budget was an estimated $850,000, a good chunk of which went to Lee and a diverse supporting cast that included John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Bob Wall and Ahna Capri. It was directed by American Robert Clouse and written by Michael Allin. If one knows where and when to look for them, there are fleeting glimpses of future martial-arts superstars Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, alongside Wah Yuen and Fat Chung. After his death, films containing archived images and homages would allow Lee’s legend to grow as large as those of any deceased rock stars. “Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition” may be one of many editions of the kung-fu classic, but, to date, it’s technically the best, even better than the 2007 Blu-ray. The story, of course, remains the same. Lee plays a British agent sent to infiltrate the criminal empire of the evil lord Han (Shih Kien) through his annual international martial arts tournament. Like James Bond, Lee pretends to be doing one thing while accomplishing something else. In today’s parlance, the fight scenes are nothing short of “epic.” Lee takes on the best of the best, individually and by the dozens. In addition to previously released featurettes, the anniversary package contains a new documentary, “Bruce Lee in His Own Words”; an all-new introduction and interview with his wife, Linda Lee Cadwell; and featurettes “The Return to Han’s Island” and “Wing Chun: The Art that Introduced Kung Fu to Bruce Lee.”
“Enter the Dragon” represented Jim Kelly’s second appearance in a feature film. African-American martial-arts practitioners weren’t invisible in kung-fu movies and Blaxploitation flicks often featured fights scenes in which hands, elbows, knees and feet were the primary weapons against guns and knives. Although few in numbers, these actors didn’t emerge from a vacuum and weren’t apparitions within their own communities. “The Black Kungfu Experience” documents how important kung fu had become among urban audiences in the 1970s and how it’s maintained its appeal. The movie locates the junction of African-American and Asian cultures through the testimony of Ron Van Clief, Dennis Brown, Tayari Casel and Don Hamby, and serves as an interesting sidebar to Shout!Factory’s new “Enter the Dragon” package.
When exploitation junkies talk about movies that are so bad that they’re actually kind of fun, they’re referring to such absurdly inept productions as “Ninja III: The Domination.” So devoid of logic is this Golan/Globus production that the number in its title refers to a pair of movies it doesn’t resemble in the least: “Enter the Ninja” and “Revenge of the Ninja.” In it, a ninja warrior practiced in the art of ninjutsu (invisibility) for no apparent reason goes nuts on an American golf course, killing guards armed with 9-irons and a couple of business executives. When a pretty aerobics teacher, who moonlights as a telephone lineman, attempts to rescue him from an attack by trigger-happy police, she becomes possessed with his vengeful spirit. It manifests itself whenever Christie (Lucinda Dickey) comes into contact with one of the cops who pumped volumes of lead into his body. Apart from the scenes featuring Sho Kosugi, the fights are almost as credible as the aerobics scenes, which are mostly shot from behind a phalanx of women’s asses. (Dickey had starred in the “Flashdance” ripoff, “Breakin’.”) At best, it offers a fleeting sense of nostalgia for a time when headbands, tights and ankle warmers could stimulate the male population. Beyond that, “Ninja III” exists solely for its camp value. The Shout!Factory upgrade works pretty well, technically, and adds commentary with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. –Gary Dretzka
National Geographic: Killing Lincoln: Blu-ray
Picking up roughly where Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” ended, while also answering some lingering questions along the way, the National Geographic movie, “Killing Lincoln,” takes the “You Are There” approach to dramatizing history. Here, Tom Hanks assumes the role of narrator previously filled by Walter Cronkite. The research was supplied, in large part, by the best-selling 2011 book written by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Among the producers are Ridley Scott and his brother, Tony, who committed suicide last year while the movie was being developed. It doesn’t look anything like a typical Scott Free Production, however. According to Ridley Scott, what “Killing Lincoln” brings to the table is attention to historical detail, based on extensive research and cross-checking of theories presented as facts. Otherwise, most of what we see here is familiar from previous examinations of the great American tragedy. If not in the same league as Daniel Day-Lewis, Billy Campbell does a credible job as Lincoln. As the rakish fiend, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse Johnson naturally is allowed to monopolize the spotlight, though. Oddly, the only weak spot in his performance occurs while impersonating Booth in “Richard III,” one of the great roles in the theater. O’Reilly appears in one of the featurettes, explaining his rationale for writing the book. The Fox blabbermouth says that he wanted to showcase a time in American history when greatness could come to the fore and politicians came together in furtherance of an important cause. The irony, of course, is that O’Reilly’s angry, confrontational style is one of the primary reasons our political system has ceased to work. — Gary Dretzka
Syfy: The Philadelphia Experiment: Blu-ray
If the title of the latest Syfy epic of destruction sounds familiar, it’s because “The Philadelphia Experiment” was first used in 1979, for a book by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore, and a pair of films in 1984 and 1993. It refers to a secret government project, which, in 1943, attempted to create a cloaking device that would make warships invisible. The Navy denied the existence of any such experiment and, as yet, no one has found evidence to substantiate the rumors. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has a pretty poor record on the dissemination of the truth, even a half-century after the fact, and we now have a fleet of stealth aircraft at our disposal. All of the movies add a time-travel wrinkle that allows for a sailor to escape the USS Eldridge and disturb the time-space continuum by making contact with descendants. The question here is why the ship has reappeared, coincidental to independent of research being conducted by contemporary scientists, including the requisite spike-heeled hottie (Gina Holden). “Philadelphia Experiment” is every bit as credible as dozens of other Syfy originals, which is to say, not at all. Kids just becoming interested in sci-fi will notice the holes far less than adults, who might remember that Michael Pare starred in the 1984 version, as well. – Gary Dretzka
Netflix: House of Cards: Blu-ray
TBS: Wedding Band: The Complete First Season
USA: Burn Notice: Season Six
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Caveman Cold Case/Death on the Railroad
PBS: Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge: Blu-ray
Fox Kids: Digimon Tamers
With the announcement of Emmy nominations right around the corner, it will be interesting to see how many are awarded “House of Cards,” Netflix’s first original series. “House of Cards” is a logically Americanized adaptation of the sporadic British mini-series of the same title. That “House of Cards” served as commentary on the transfer of power from Margaret Thatcher’s conservatives to the Labor party. Here, Kevin Spacey is wonderfully wicked as Majority Whip Francis Underwood. In his position the congressman can be Santa Claus one day and Ebenezer Scrooge the next. He’s prideful, holds grudges and doesn’t mind breaking his rules. This doesn’t mean Underwood isn’t challenged from time to time, only that he possesses the wherewithal to make things difficult for those who stand up to him. He personifies the adage, “Payback is a bitch.” Also in line for nominations are Robin Wright, as the politician’s fed-up wife; Kate Mara, as the reporter Underwood plays like a fiddle; any one of eight top-notch writers; and such directors as David Fincher, Carl Franklin, James Foley and Joel Schumacher. As things unfold in Washington, it’s never clear how or if Underwood is going to survive and, if he fails, how many people he’ll take with him. If you’re going to binge-watch any show this summer, “House of Cards” is it. While you’re at, plan to watch the British original non-stop, as well. You can thank me, later.
TBS’s “Wedding Band” combines elements of “The Wedding Singer,” “Wedding Crashers,” IFC’s “Z Rock” and FX’s “The League” into a pleasing, if lightweight bromance musical. Where “Z Rock” was about a New York band that plays a steady diet of kids parties, while dreaming of heavy-metal stardom, the Seattle musicians in “Wedding Band” are content to play a variety events arranged by a gorgeous party planner (Melora Hardin). Because the parties are attended by drunk and horny adults, it’s a target-rich zone for ill-advised hookups, pissed-off spouses and vulnerable bride’s maids. The musical selections range from not-bad originals to horrifying covers. After an hour of two-fisted drinking, no one except viewers is paying attention, anyway. The musicians are played by Brian Austin Green, Harold Perrineau, Derek Miller and Peter Cambor, with Jenny Wade and Kathryn Fiore added for eye candy. The 10 episodes collected here are the only ones you’ll ever see, because the show didn’t make the cut for a Season Two. Part of the blame belongs to the knucklehead who came up with the band’s name, Mother of the Bride.
The latest season compilation of 18 “Burn Notice” episodes represents what is expected to be the show’s penultimate season. That’s too bad, because it’s one of better shows on or off cable. (It could easily have gotten past broadcast network censors, if the producers had given it a shot.) As Season Six opens, Fiona is in jail and Michael still can’t distinguish between his friends and enemies in the CIA. It kind of ends that way, too. As usual, hard drugs and advanced military weaponry are involved. If much of what happens in “Burn Notice” seems impossible, or simply preposterous, the chemistry between the well-sketched characters saves the day. Look for double-crosses around every corner. The new season on USA has already begun.
Another batch of cold-case mysteries arrived this week from PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead” series, which is like “CSI” with archeologists and paleontologists. One of the new selections, “Caveman Cold Case,” finds Spanish investigators scrubbing and scraping the mud off 49,000-year-old Neanderthal bones that have been discovered in a cave system in the mountains of El Sidron. Markings on the bones suggest that cannibalism could have led to them being left in a chamber in the cave. Typically, new questions pop up as soon as old ones are solved. Neanderthals found a haven in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Basque region to Gibraltar. The researchers want to know if Neanderthals typically engaged in cannibalism and if it might have led somehow to their extinction. “Death on the Railroad” takes on a far more recent mystery. It involves a mass grave site holding the remains of young Irish immigrants who worked on a railroad connecting Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The deaths took place in 1832, so several explanations are possible: 1) an outbreak of cholera, 2) extreme working conditions, or 3) murder, resulting in an official cover-up. There was great prejudice against Irish Catholic newcomers, who were treated as harshly as the Chinese laborers in the west. The results of the investigation, which spans Pennsylvania and Ireland, could bring some solace, at least, to the men’s descendants.
Even as 20th Century doctors were able to eradicate or prevent the spread of such serious diseases as polio, malaria, rinderpest and smallpox, new ones were waiting in the shadows to claim their unfair share of victims. Today, just as one strain of influenza is controlled, another begins its spread from chickens, ducks and pigs to humans. “Rx for Survival: A Global Health Challenge” investigates how people in underdeveloped portions of the world can share the benefits of countless millions of dollars in research and medical discoveries. Brad Pitt narrates the six-part documentary series, which was filmed in more than 20 countries. The series titles are: “Disease Warriors,” “Rise of the Superbugs,” “Delivering the Goods,” “Deadly Messengers,” “Back to the Basics” and “How Safe Are We?”
Outside of Japan, “Digimon Tamers” was presented as the third season of Toei Animation’s popular, if exceedingly complex anime, “Digimon: Digital Monsters.” The large number of characters roughly corresponds to the amount of collectible cards it markets to viewers. The more, the better, for the bean-counters. The Fox Kids series takes a different tack than it had in the first two go-rounds. Takato, Henry and Rika are three normal kids whose obsession with the Digimon game is heightened when the drawings on their cards come to life. The new “tamers” volunteer to save a Digital World plagued by evil Digimon Gods. The eight-disc collectors’ set, which encompasses all 51 episodes, adds a 36-page Character Guide Booklet and a gallery featuring more than 40 Villain Digimon sketches. – Gary Dretzka