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DVD Gift Guide II: Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Years, Jacques Tati, Spielberg, Red Skelton and More

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: 3D/2D Blu-ray
Although technically not a season-specific package or special compilation, the highly anticipated release of Guardians of the Galaxy should prove to be a welcome discovery under the Christmas tree of any multiplex habitué. By expanding Marvel’s Cinematic Universe to Deep Space, James Gunn’s surprise summer blockbuster captivated superhero junkies in what typically is the slowest month of summer. It also caught the fancy of critics and international audiences, thus assuring a sequel and animated series for television. Unless one already is conversant in Marvel mythology, it would take a doctorate in advanced comic-book studies to fully grasp what happens in Guardians of the Galaxy. Indeed, the film’s trivia page on IMDB.com is among its longest and most complex on the site. But, what sold audiences on the $177-million film in the first place? Could it simply come down to the presence of rootin’-tootin’ Rocket Raccoon and his kinship to the Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon? (Bradley Cooper based his CGI-enhanced characterization on Joe Pesci, in Goodfellas.) What Guardians of the Galaxy does very well is tell a smart and amusing sci-fi story, while pushing the limits of existing technology. Gun, who cut his teeth as a writer in the toxin-spewing factories of Tromaville, further displayed his talent for creating wacky characters in Super, The Specials and Scooby-Doo. Even so, handing him the keys to such an expensive ship couldn’t have been an easy decision. Among other things, Guardians of the Galaxy begs the question as to what J.J. Abrams and James Cameron might have up their sleeves in Star Wars VII and Avatar 2 to advance the state of the art.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is a half-human/half-alien bad boy, who after being orphaned and kidnaped as a youth by space outlaws, gets his revenge as an adult by stealing a widely coveted orb from his captors. It sets off a high-risk game of hot potato, with the fate of the cosmos left in the hands of the winner. Quill loses the orb to a green-skinned assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and the tree-like humanoid, Groot (Vin Diesel), who will pool their talents as the Guardians. The rest of the story plays out in helter-skelter fashion against a cosmic backdrop that should remind viewers of the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland. Curiously, the action is frequently interrupted, none too elegantly, by pop songs that were popular in the 1970-80s, such as “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Go All the Way” and “Spirit in the Sky.” These are the songs that would have remained fresh in Quill’s memory, even after growing up in a distant galaxy. Inexplicably, the soundtrack albums spun off Guardians of the Galaxy quickly soared to No. 1. Also adding to the picture’s heart, humor and humanity are performances by Glenn Close, Michael Rooker, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro. I haven’t seen the 3D edition of “GOTG,” but others have vouched for its excellence. The overall color scheme is dark and ominous, with occasional flashes of brilliant colors in the battle scenes. The larger the viewing monitor, I suspect, the better the visual experience. Cheesy pop tunes aside, the audio presentation demands to be cranked up to the max. The bonus package adds a pretty good commentary, with Gunn; “Guide to the Galaxy With James Gunn,” in which the director and his 8-bit avatar break down key scenes; four minutes’ worth of deleted and extended scenes; a gag reel of equal length; a brief special-effects explainer; and a sneak preview of Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Wonder Years: Complete Series Collection: Metal Locker Box Set
Midnight Special: The Complete Collector’s Edition
Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
The folks at StarVista/Time Life tend not to wait for the holidays to fire their big guns. If the direct-marketing approach to sales isn’t conducive to haggling or deep discounting, several packaging options are available to buyers at various price points. Needless to say, some homework is necessary to determine what already may be readily available, uncollected, and which box gives you the best bang for your bucks. For collectors of such specialty collections as “The Wonder Years: Complete Series Collection: Metal Locker Box Set,” for example, there’s a huge difference what’s first and what’s best. Several video iterations of the show have been made available over the years since it left the air in 1993, even on VHS. Fans quickly would discover, however, that packages were incomplete in key ways. Instead of paying expensive license fees for songs on the original musical soundtracks, distributors replaced them with generic selections or copy-cat versions. Casual fans and those too young to have watched the show in the 1980s wouldn’t have noticed the substitutions, but viewers who grew up on the show recognized the missing ingredient immediately. The good news here comes in knowing that StarVista/Time Life was able to secure the rights to roughly 95 percent of the more than 300 songs featured in the original broadcasts. A couple of no-frills versions of the complete DVD set were released in October and duly noted in this space. We waited to discuss the “Metal Locker Box Set,” because, at $249.95, it seemed more appropriate as a gift idea. Besides containing the115 episodes on 26 DVDs, the miniature locker is crammed with a pair of “notebooks” with detailed episode information, production photos and 15 hours of bonus features on the discs. For $299.95, however, fans not only get the miniature locker and its contents, but also “The Wonder Years’ Experience,” with a Kennedy Junior High gym bag, Wildcats T-shirt and tube socks, pennant and patch, buttons and soundtrack CD. Add another $150, or so, and you’ll get the limited “Signature Edition,” for which Fred Savage, Danica McKellar, Olivia d’Abo and Alley Mills autographed a yearbook

The elaborate television special, “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” debuted on NBC on May 16, 1983, providing music lovers an opportunity to relive the Detroit label’s glory years and get a preview of things to come, including 24-year-old Michael Jackson’s world premiere of the moonwalk. Beyond that, the show featured reunions by the Miracles, the Supremes and the Jackson 5; the first battle of the bands between the Temptations and Four Tops; and an appearance by Richard Pryor. The six-disc set features a version of the “Motown 25” concert that adds 20 minutes of material not seen in the original broadcast. In addition, a bonus package adds never-before-seen rehearsal footage with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder; roundtable discussions with Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams (Temptations) and Duke Fakir (Four Tops); more than 25 exclusive interviews with key production members and performers; newly-produced featurettes; a “Motown 25” program; and an exclusive booklet about the show and artists. But, wait, there’s more! For another $80, you can purchase the same package, plus eight CDs from the “Motown Collection.”

There’s been no scarcity of DVDs dedicated to “The Midnight Special,” one of the shows that revolutionized the way music was presented on television in the early 1970s. While “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train” catered to teenage audiences, Burt Sugarman’s “Midnight Special” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” played to the late-night, early-adult demographic that was turned off by lip-synching to pre-recorded songs and dance contests. Neither were these shows limited to the rock or pop acts favored by white, suburban listeners. They represented a cross-section of the music industry, which had yet to be completely coopted by greedy label executives and cocaine cowboys. This purity of vision wouldn’t, couldn’t last, of course, but, for a few years, at least, it was worth the effort to come home early from the bars. One of the things that distinguished “Midnight Special” from “Rock Concert” was the considerable presence of Wolfman Jack, the legendary border-radio DJ who had recently been immortalized in American Graffiti. After a few years, even his act would be diluted by the mainstream instincts of the producers. Watch these DVDs chronologically and it’s easy to see how the marketing strategy evolved from one in which the labels had no interest in showcasing their acts for free, to one that allowed them to dictate terms and access. When the producers decided to give up on their edict forbidding singers to lip-synch their songs, it was a clear sign that the show had lost its edge. Still, there are plenty of things here worth watching. “The Midnight Special Collector’s Edition” comes in two different editions. For $119.96, you get 16 hours of music on 11 DVDs, including a collector’s box, 32-page booklet and bonus comedy disc. For another $100, the package grows to 36 hours of music and interviews, on 20 DVDs. You can do the math as well as I can. Here’s a pretty representative selection of artists who appeared between 1973 and 1981: AC/DC, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, The Bee Gees, The Kinks, Earth, Wind & Fire, Electric Light Orchestra, The Cars, Fleetwood Mac, Gordon Lightfoot, Heart, Sammy Hagar, Helen Reddy, Jim Croce, John Denver, Golden Earring, KC and the Sunshine Band, Ted Nugent, Linda Ronstadt, Marvin Gaye, Robert Palmer, Captain & Tennille, Peter Frampton, REO Speedwagon, Steely Dan, The Doobie Brothers, The Hollies, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, The Village People and Eddie Money.

The Complete Jacques Tati: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Steven Spielberg: Director’s Collection
La dolce vita: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
As difficult as it might be to imagine gifting a fan of mainstream films with a collection of comedies by a French filmmaker and actor, I have no qualms about suggesting you stock up on Criterion Collection’s The Complete Jacques Tati for stocking stuffing. Funny is funny and one needn’t be fluent in French – or a film scholar — to dig Tati’s many talents. He can be fairly compared to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and other great Hollywood actors of the silent era, as well as Marcel Marceau and, yes, Jerry Lewis. His alter ego, Monsieur Hulot, with his trademark raincoat, umbrella and pipe, is simply one of the most recognizable comic characters in the world. As nimble as a dancer and blessed with an ability to communicate through the most subtle gestures and sound effects, Tati used Hulot to comment on such broad topics as Western society’s obsession with material goods and gadgets, the dehumanization of French workers by big business and modern architecture, conformist trends, France’s caste system and the tyranny of space-age technology and design. And, viewers didn’t need a billboard or subtitles to guess what was on Hulot’s mind. Tati’s influence on such terrific physical actors as Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Steve Martin, Robin Williams and, perhaps, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, can’t be denied. The generous “Complete Jacques Tati” includes digitally restored editions of all six of Tati’s feature films: Jour de fête, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Mon oncle, Trafic, his masterpiece, PlayTime and Parade, and all seven of his short films. Among the other delicious treats are two alternate versions of Jour de fête (“The School for Postmen”); original 1953 theatrical-release version of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday; the version of Mon oncle that Tati created for English-language audiences; comedian Terry Jones’ introductions to three of the films; archival interviews with Tati; a booklet featuring essays by critics David Cairns, James Quandt, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Kristin Rossand; and “In the Footsteps of Monsieur Hulot,” a 1989 documentary about the universally loved character. There are several more featurettes, but you get the picture.

Because Universal released Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection in October and most collectors already own half of the titles included therein on Blu-ray, great discounts are available on the set. Needless to say, newcomers to Blu-ray will benefit most from upgrading to Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park, while more ardent fans will appreciate the opportunity to finally get hi-def versions of the made-for-TV Duel, Spielberg’s first theatrical release The Sugarland Express, his nostalgic Always and much-maligned 1941, which, at its best, compares favorably to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Any glaring omissions are the result of distribution and production deals with studios other than Universal. I suspect that Schindler’s List’s absence can be explained by the set’s tone, which emphasizes entertainment over heart-wrenching drama. The still-exciting Duel is represented here by the 89-minute, 1.85:1 aspect ratio version intended for theatrical release and it includes several must-watch background featurettes. Sugarland Express established Spielberg as an up-and-coming master of action and Goldie Hawn as a versatile lead actress. (Ben Johnson’s presence helped lend an air of Lone Star authenticity to the 27-year-old director’s feature debut.)  The outrageous based-on-actual-paranoia comedy, 1941, is included on Blu-ray in both its 119-minute theatrical version and the 146-minute extended cut, which first appeared on Universal’s 1996 Signature Laserdisc. The essential featurette, “The Making of 1941,” is only five minutes shorter than the extended cut and is nearly as entertaining. Always is Spielberg’s remake of Victor Fleming’s 1943 wartime rom/com/dram, A Guy Named Joe, updated with a group of contemporary daredevil pilots called “Fire Eaters.” It stars Richard Dreyfuss, John Goodman and Holly Hunter.

At first glance, Criterion Collection’s 4K digital restoration of La dolce vita may seem to be too obvious a gift for the film buff in your family. Fact is, though, every repeat viewing of Federico Fellini’s masterpiece reveals something new and wonderful about the film and its influence on every subsequent generation of directors. By introducing the as-yet-unnamed phenomenon, paparazzo, to the popular culture – the word, Fellini said, “suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging” – while also decrying the vacuity of celebrity worship, La dolce vita many be more relevant today than it was in 1960. Fellini favorite Marcello Mastroianni is our guide to this world, as well as the wonders of the Eternal City as a whole. His dispassionate portrayal of a reporter who chronicled the empty pursuits of the international haute bourgeoisie – a.k.a., jet set – made him an international star and sex symbol. (The same thing happened to Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose breakthrough role in Breathless also came in 1960.) The Blu-ray upgrade wouldn’t be nearly as valuable if it weren’t for Criterion’s typically excellent package of supplemental features. Among them are “The Eye & the Beholder,” a visual essay that focuses on the framing and camera movement in La Dolce Vita, with visual comparisons between different sequences from it and similarly framed sequences from such classics as The 400 Blows and Breathless; a 1965 interview, conducted by Irving R. Levine for NBC News, in which Fellini explains what inspired him to become a director and discusses his experience as a journalist; a video interview with film scholar David Forgacs, who discusses the socio-political climate in Italy in 1960; an interview with Lina Wertmuller (All Screwed Up, Swept Away), who began her career as an assistant director on , talks about Fellini’s relationship with actors Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina and Anita Ekberg; and an archival audio interview with Mastroianni.

With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies about to complete Peter Jackson’s association/obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien, there’s still time to catch up with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Extended Edition. As is typically the case with modern epics, it extends the action and story that was so judiciously edited by Jackson and Jabez Olssen to fit the confines of the theatrical release. In addition to 25 minutes of new footage, the extended package adds more than 13 hours of extensive special features, without sacrificing any of the original’s audio/visual clarity. It’s worth debating the legitimacy of such extended editions when looking at a film’s place in history. Would there be any value in having a director’s cut of Gone With the Wind or Casablanca extant … or an extended “Mona Lisa,” on a larger canvas? What does it say about the editing process that a director now knows that he’s not necessarily constrained by the usual deadlines and can save some of the best stuff for later? Moreover, have directors begun to look at their pictures through the same lens as those double-dipping executives responsible for marketing a picture … not once, but twice? These considerations shouldn’t dissuade anyone from enjoying these “extended editions.” Right now, consumers are the only ones who seem to care about such questions.

TV-to-DVD
Secret Agent a.k.a. Danger Man: The Complete Series
The Red Skeleton Show: The Early Years: 1951-1955
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series
The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series
The Jeffersons: The Complete Series
Mister Ed: The Complete Series
Reno 911!: The Complete Series
Danny Phantom: The Complete Series
PBS: Secrets of Iconic British Estates
BBC: Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Season: Blu-ray
Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection
In the prologue to each episode of the Cold War espionage series, “Secret Agent”/“Danger Man,” Patrick McGoohan explains: “Every government has its secret service branch. America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5; NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well, that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh, yes, my name is Drake … John Drake.” If it makes you think immediately of James Bond, it’s no accident or rip-off. Ian Fleming’s greatest literary creation was on everyone’s lips in the early 1960s and the author was involved in the early discussions about the storylines and character. Like Bond, Drake seemed more comfortable in a tuxedo than trench coat and frequently could be found in the most exotic locations on the planet. Because the original batch of 39 episodes were limited to a half-hour, little time is wasted on anything except action and resolution. Drake displays only a passing interest in the women he rescues from danger or is assigned to eliminate, and gadgets are introduced more or less organically during the course of the narrative. If the shows look primitive today, or even by the standards established, six years later, by “Mission: Impossible,” they’re still fun to watch, especially while binging. The series began on British television, before being picked up here in 1961 by CBS. The first two seasons would be followed by a two-year hiatus, after which an hour-long iteration was introduced. The extra time allowed for more of everything, including plot and character development and endings that weren’t tailored to accommodate time constraints. The series still had some gas in the tank when it ended abruptly in 1967, with two color episodes, but McGoohan decided to redirect his focus on “The Prisoner.” The box includes all 86 episodes, which have held up pretty well in the interim, and an interview with the star’s daughter.

Among the many remarkable things about the great comic actor Red Skelton was a resume that read like a history of American entertainment in the 20th Century. Even before breaking into burlesque and vaudeville, the son of a onetime circus clown had performed in a medicine show and on a riverboat. He would remain active long enough to make several HBO specials in the early 1980s, including “Freddie the Freeloader’s Christmas Dinner.” In between, the Vincennes, Indiana, native became one of the consummate stars of stage, screen, nightclubs, radio and television, all at times when those mediums were becoming dominant platforms for entertainment. He also painted well enough to sell his portraits of clowns at prices into the six figures. His unequaled skill at creating memorable characters – often with the mere flick of his hat — are on full display in the 11-disc, 2,400-minute Shout! Factory/Timeless Media package, The Red Skelton Show: The Early Years: 1951-1955. Also evident in each show is a talent for mime that put him in the same company of his friend Marcel Marceau and Jacques Tati. He would work regularly on television until 1971, when the geniuses at CBS deemed him to be too square for their target demographic, and a series of half-hour shows for NBC proved short-lived. (CBS mainstays Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan were also axed, along with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” “Green Acres” and “Mayberry RFD.”) Technically, the shows included in the boxed set reflect the period of their creation in a medium still in its infancy. The dancing and singing are super corny, and the star’s tendency to crack up at his own jokes are as much a part of the fun as anything else. His weekly pledges to maintain a wholesome product, at a time when other nightclub comics were making their livings working “blue,” seem especially quaint. The material, while not exactly fresh, remains delightful. The 90-episode collection is a perfect showcase for such classic characters as Clem Kadiddlehopper, Cauliflower McPugg, Willie Lump Lump and Freddie the Freeloader. Due to the fact that Skelton refused to have any of his shows put into syndication – even threatening to have them burned after his death — most of the episodes have gone unseen since their original air date. Among the bonus features are “America’s Clown: An Intimate Biography of Red Skelton,” a dress rehearsal and special bonus episode of “Deadeye From Mars” and “The Look Magazine Movie Awards.”

No matter how many times I watch the episodes contained in “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series,” I can’t help but break out in laughter, frequently at gags I’ve enjoyed previously. Even though it ran from 1955-1959, these reruns could be shown in prime-time today and still draw more laughs than 90 percent of all network sitcoms. Running the motor pool at Fort Baxter, the cagey Bilko always had an ace up his sleeve and a scheme in his head. Silvers’ oversize personality dominated each episode, of course, but plenty of good material was left for the wonderful supporting cast. The Shout! package adds the “lost” audition show, original network opening and cast commercials, a photo gallery, commentaries with Allan Melvin, George Kennedy, Mickey Freeman, Larry Storch and Dick Van Dyke, “Lucy and the Efficiency Expert” (from “The Lucy Show”), episode introductions by Allan Melvin (Cpl. Henshaw), a promo for “The New Phil Silvers Show,” “Harry, the Good Neighbor” from “The New Phil Silvers Show,” interviews with Silvers, footage from the 1959 TV special “Keep in Step,” the cast of the show on Broadway, Phil Silvers and Jack Benny on “The Dick Cavett Show” and new interviews with Cathy, Tracey and Nancey Silvers

As is amply demonstrated in Shout! Factory’s The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series,” CBS wasn’t entirely misguided in its decision to jettison its top-rated variety shows. In a couple of years, the network would dominate Saturday nights, with such game-changing sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Maude” and, later, spinoffs of those shows. “The Bob Newhart Show,” which ran from 1972-78, centers around Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley, both in his office and high-rise apartment building. Each week, Hartley traded deadpan jabs with one of the most superb supporting casts in the history of the medium: sexy Suzanne Pleshette played his often sarcastic wife, Emily; Bill Daily’s inept neighbor, airline navigator Howard Borden, dropped in on the couple like Kramer did, in “Seinfeld”; wise-cracking orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz), shared the office suite with Hartley, as well as a joke-loving receptionist, Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace); and, as his regular patients, there were mean-spirited and neurotic Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley), the milquetoast Marine veteran Emil Peterson (John Fiedler) and shy, reserved Lillian Bakerman (Florida Friebus), an elderly lady who spends most of her sessions knitting. Through great writing, each of these characters gave Hartley/Newhart a run for his money as protagonist of his own show. The casting and writing process is described in one of the 19-disc set’s excellent bonus featurettes, “Group Therapy,” with Bonerz, Jack Riley, Bill Daily and director/producer Michael Zinberg. Also included are “P.I.L.O.T. #1,” the unaired version of show’s very different pilot episode; “The Bob Newhart Show 19th Anniversary” special; audio commentaries with Peter Bonerz, Fred Willard, Jim Burrows, Suzanne Pleshette, Tom Poston and Jack Riley; a gag reel; and a 40-page collectible booklet.

Television was extremely incestuous in the 1970s. Like the characters on “Maude,” those on “The Jeffersons” began life on “All in the Family” … or, at least, in the fertile mind of developer/writer Norman Lear. (“Maude,” in turn, introduced characters that would populate “Good Times.”) As evidenced in the 33-disc, 4,400 minute set from Shout!, “The Jeffersons,” was one of the most successful series of all time, not just of the spinoff variety. Until they moved on up to the East Side, George and “Weezy” Jefferson were the mirror image of Archie and Edith Bunker, in nearly every way possible. If Archie had struck gold as a dry-cleaning magnate, instead of his Queens neighbor, he’d probably have remained the same irascible bigot as George. Even so, the primary difference between the two sitcoms is the reduction in emphasis on politics and other topical issues in “The Jeffersons.” The boxed set includes “Movin’ On Up: The Jeffersons Featurette”; the “All in the Family” episode in which the Jeffersons depart for Manhattan; “Whose Side Are You On?,” a never-before-released episode of Marla Gibbs’ spinoff series, “Checking In”; the first episode of the 1984 TV series, “E/R,” starring Elliott Gould and featuring Sherman Hemsley; and a 48-page booklet, with an essay from Tom Shales.

Here’s something that’s only taken me a half-century to learn. The famously ridiculous CBS comedy, “Mr. Ed,” was inspired by children’s author Walter R. Brooks and his short story, “The Talking Horse,” in the September 18, 1937, issue of Liberty magazine. Like almost everyone else on the planet, I assumed it was an adaptation of “Francis the Talking Mule,” which, itself, may have been influenced as much by the talking animals in Brooks’ “Freddy the Pig,” as David Stern III’s experiences in the army. In fact, “Mr. Ed” producer/director Arthur Lubin had helmed a half-dozen “Francis” movies, before being introduced to Brooks’ books by his secretary. Or, so the story goes. “Mister Ed: The Complete Series” presents all 6 seasons and 143 episodes of the beloved show, which, the jacket blurb argues, “remains as hilarious and socially relevant today as it did in its original airing.” OK. Kids should like it, though.

For my money, Comedy Central’s “Reno 911!” was one of the most hilarious, irreverent and politically incorrect television shows of the last 20 years. Blessed with a stellar cast of improvisational actors from MTV’s sketch-comedy show, “The State,” “Reno 911!” lampooned the long-running Fox series, “Cops,” and any number of self-righteous shows, like “Dragnet” and “CHiPs.” It overflows with jokes about race, sexual orientation, substance abuse, rape, pedophilia and mental disorders. Moreover, the deputies were singularly unable to prevent crimes from happening or arrest perpetrators at any point in the process. Although it may not seem so funny, now that the schism between police and minorities has broken wide open, binge-viewing “Reno 911!” may actually serve as a tension reliever.

Danny Phantom: The Complete Series” contains all 52 episodes from the hit Nickelodeon series, which ran from April 3, 2004, to August 24, 2007. Creator Butch Hartman also developed “The Fairly OddParents” and “T.U.F.F. Puppy” for the cable network. In the tradition of other deceptively cool animated series targeted at kids but embraced by hipsters, “Danny Phantom” starred an otherwise ordinary 14-year-old with extraordinary powers inherited from his eccentric ghost-hunting parents. After an accident with an unpredictable portal between the human world and the supernatural “Ghost Zone,” he becomes half-ghost and half-mortal … not that he wants anyone to know what happened.

Now that all of the hullaballoo over the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who” has dissipated into the ozone and the baton has been handed off to Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, fans can get back to the business of enjoying one of the most inventive shows on the air. They can do so by picking up all 602 minutes of BBC Home Entertainment’s “Doctor Who: The Complete Eighth Season.” Capaldi didn’t waste any time establishing his presence as the protagonist, while, simultaneously, imbuing the character with qualities and frailties handed down from all of his predecessors. Special features include exclusive footage from London post-premiere Q&A with Capaldi, Jenna Coleman and Steven Moffat; commentaries on “Into the Dalek,” “Robot of Sherwood,” “The Caretaker” and “Kill the Moon”; 12 behind-the-scenes featurettes; specials “The Ultimate Time Lord” and “The Ultimate Companion” (with Fifth Doctor Peter Davison) and Doctor Who: Earth Conquest,” chronicling the worldwide tour; a tour of the TARDIS; “Doctor Who: Deep Breath Live Pre-Show” and “After Who Live,” hosted by comedian/superfan Chris Hardwick; and the music video, “Don’t Stop Me Now.”

With the fifth season of “Downton Abbey” looming on the horizon and reruns from previous stanzas in heavy rotation on PBS affiliates, what could be a better time to gift a DVD that provides “an intimate guide to several of Britain’s most stunning historic houses.” “Secrets of Iconic British Estates” is a compilation of four separate PBS specials. Highclere Castle is not only is the setting for “Downton Abbey,” but a direct link to the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Hampton Court Palace is famous as a King Henry VIII’s party palace. Althorp is both the childhood home and final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Chatsworth recalls the scandalous behavior of 18th Century duchess, Georgiana Cavendish. “Secrets of the Manor House” explores the realities of “upstairs-downstairs” life and what it was like behind the “green baize door” in Britain’s grandest estates. The package adds a fully illustrated hardcover book.

The 53 animated shorts that comprise “Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection” were produced for theaters, from 1949-1959, but most ended up on television, anyway. By the mid-1970s, exhibitors had stopped showing cartoons ahead of features and they were relegated to endless reruns on television or matinee marathons. Made-for-television cartoons would lack the same production values as those created for the big screen. A fourth disc here is devoted to the feature-length “1001 Arabian Nights.” Not included, thank goodness, is the 1997 live-action feature starring Leslie Nielsen as McGoo. It probably would have flopped, even if it hadn’t been the target of protests by the National Federation of the Blind and other humorless support groups. Quincy Magoo’s gift was being able to avoid disaster while resolutely refusing to admit his profound nearsightedness. The bonus materials add an interview with Leonard Maltin; a Magoo documentary, featuring historians Gerry Beck and Darrel Van Citters; “A Princess for Magoo,” an early black-and-white TV teaser for the upcoming film with Jim Backus, voice of Mr. Magoo, as host.

James Brown: Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968: Extended Edition
Footage from this amazing concert, staged at the height of discontent over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., hasn’t been difficult to find on the Internet, on a previous Shout Factory disc or as part of the WGBH documentary, “The Politics of Soul.” The event has deservedly earned a place in the history of the civil-rights movement and biography of a quintessentially American entertainer. Even within the R&B Pantheon of the post-WWII era, Brown stands out as a uniquely talented performer. On the night after MLK’s death, Brown was scheduled to perform a concert at the Boston Garden. After much debate, city officials decided that more damage could result in canceling the sold-out event than in letting it continue as planned and arranging for concert footage to be repeatedly shown during the night on WGBH. Despite being one of the nation’s most racially divided cities, the arrangement was partially responsible, at least, for preventing Boston from being torn in half by violence. Knowing precisely what was at stake, Brown gave the performance of anyone’s lifetime, while also serving as a disciple of the kind of non-violent activism as the slain civil-rights leader. Don’t believe me? Watch what happens in the extended edition of James Brown: Live at the Boston Garden: April 5, 1968 when a large group of concertgoers storms the stage and is quickly confronted by Brown’s bodyguards and Boston police.

Instead of allowing the club-wielding cops to begin busting heads, the Godfather of Soul quietly motions for them to hold still as he successfully convinces the youths to return to their seats. What could have become an incredibly ugly incident, with ramifications beyond the walls of the Garden, was quelled without violence. When a similar disruption occurred at Altamont, a year later, no amount of pleading by Mick Jagger or Marty Balin could prevent Hell’s Angels thugs from beating up hippies and killing a young black man, who foolishly pulled a knife within a few feet of the stage. I’ve never seen Brown perform better on film and for as long a period a time. (His T.A.M.I. Show performance was far shorter, though no less electric.) The new DVD from Shout Factory is interesting, as well, for showing the entire concert, including supporting entertainers who performed as part of the revue, including Famous Flames co-founder Bobby Byrd. The acoustic quality isn’t up to par, but it’s compensated for by some spectacular black-and-white cinematography. This would make a great double-feature with “Talk to Me,” in which Washington, D.C., disc jockey Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) personally convinced thousands of rioting listeners to return home.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection: XXXI
As is often the case in this space, the distance separating the sublime and the ridiculous can be very small, indeed. I missed the holiday Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Turkey Day Collection was intended to commemorate, but, since almost all of the movies shown in these re-releases are turkeys, time was hardly of the essence. The connective tissue in XXXI is represented by the supplementary material that accompanied the annual MST3K Thanksgiving marathons served up on Comedy Central. Because the show debuted on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1988, the extended programming effectively killed three Butterballs with one stone: celebrate an anniversary and holiday, while also eating up broadcast time on a day better known for its football games and parades. In addition to the vintage holiday material, the “limited-edition collector’s tin” includes lobby cards and newly shot Thanksgiving intros by Joel Hodgson. Not that it matters all that much, but the movies contained therein are Jungle Goddess, with George Reeves, Wanda McKay and Smoki Whitfield, as Oolonga the witch doctor; The Painted Hills, in which Lassie plays Shep; The Screaming Skull, in which a mentally retarded gardener is suspected of siccing demons from hell on the emotionally fragile second wife of his employer; and the killer-worm thriller Squirm, also recently given a facelift by Scream Factory.

Dolphin Tale 3D/Dolphin Tale 2: Blu-Ray
As an actor (Never Cry Wolf), writer (The Snow Walker) and director (Dolphin Tale), Charles Martin Smith has proven himself to be a filmmaker who understands how to make crowd-pleasing movies about survival in nature and man’s relationship to animals. Anyone who loves outdoor adventures and hasn’t seen Carroll Ballard’s 1983 adaptation of Farley Mowat’s book, in which Martin starred and wrote the narrative, really owes it to themselves to check out the chillingly beautiful Never Cry Wolf. You won’t have keep a sweater handy while watching the excellent Blu-ray editions of Dolphin Tale 3D or Dolphin Tale 2, as both are set at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, an animal-rescue facility in Clearwater, Florida. The sequel, which just as easily could be titled, “Dolphin Tale 2: Winter Sing the Blues,” describes what happens when the prosthetically enhanced dolphin seemingly loses the will to live after the death of his surrogate mother. No one, including youthful caretakers Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), are able to lift his spirits. Meanwhile, marine biologist/administrator Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) is being pressured to comply with regulations requiring dolphins to be paired or returned to the wild. Also returning for the sequel are Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson and Ashley Judd. There are no bogeymen or bad guys in the Dolphin Tale duo. Haskett doesn’t dispute the regulations and none of the animals are mistreated. With the filmmakers’ emphasis on education and rehabilitation, both easily qualify as movies suitable for family viewing. Dolphin Tale 3D picks up the bonus package from the original Blu-ray release, while the sequel adds eight new featurettes.

The DVD Wrapup: Penance, 100 Foot Walk, Copenhagen and more

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Penance: Blu-ray
Anyone who simply can’t wait for every new season of shows like “True Detective,” “American Horror Story” and “The Killing” ought to check out the sensational Japanese mini-series, “Penance,” which has finally arrived here on DVD/Blu-ray. Shown in New York last spring as a single five-hour movie, it is best suited for the small screen in series form. Easily translatable, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it adapted for American television someday, just as the creepy French mini-series “Les revenants” was shown intact on Sundance and re-imagined for American audiences by ABC as “The Returned.” (An A&E version, “They Came Back,” may also be in the works.) In the hands of Japanese master of menace Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Pulse), “Penance” spreads its quietly ominous narrative over 15 years and 5 chapters, each representing a specific player in the mystery surrounding the brutal murder of a schoolgirl. Even though four friends were with the victim, Emili, when she volunteered to help a stranger on a job site, each professes that they are too traumatized to remember his face or any other evidence that could lead police to a suspect. After several months pass, Emili’s mother, Asako (Kyoko Koizumi), invites the girls to what would have been a birthday party for their friend. Instead, Asako lays a massive guilt trip on each one of them, demanding that they continue to search their minds or suffer the consequences of her curse, re-defined here as a “penance.” Indistinguishable from each other as children, the girls grow up to become unique individuals, who lost their small-town innocence long ago. Today, there only common trait is a seriously damaged psyche. The final wrap-up episode came as a disappointment to some critics, but I didn’t have any problems with it. On American television, it would have ended with a cliffhanger, in anticipation of a second season. In Japan, however, where so many people had already read Kanae Minato’s novel, a resolution was essential. As the primary character not required to age dramatically over a 15-year period, Koizumi’s Asako easily makes the girls – and viewers – believe that they are truly cursed and likely doomed. Although her emotional evolution is muted throughout most of the first four episodes, the volcano we always know is there finally explodes in the finale, revealing secrets that make the girls’ forgetfulness seem insignificant. As much of cliché as it is to compare Kurosawa’s style to Hitchcock, there’s no mistaking the sense of dread that rumbles just below the surface of the story. Akiko Ashizawa’s alternately bland and bright cinematography, in conjunction with Yusuke Hayashi’s eclectic choice of musical cues, also alert viewers to changes in the film’s climate. The Blu-ray adds interviews of a promotional nature with cast and director.

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Blu-ray
If a movie in which food preparation plays a prominent role in the narrative fails to make viewers hungry for something more substantial than popcorn, no amount of romantic and dramatic angles are going to make it work, either. The Hundred-Foot Journey excels not only as movie that will whet the appetites of foodies, it also tells a story that will leave many viewers smiling through their tears. Released quietly during the doldrums of August, Lasse Hallstrom and Steven Knight’s adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ book takes a familiar premise – two very different restaurants, 100 feet apart, compete for dominance and prestige in a mecca for sophisticated dining – and turns it into something fresh and delicious. It also leaves room for commentary on two of today’s most universally contentious social issues: unfettered immigration and racial intolerance. Even in a cast largely populated with appealing young actors, veterans Helen Mirren and Om Puri dominate this tale of two cuisines. Puri plays restaurateur Papa, the patriarch of a family that barely escaped mindless political violence in India, only to confront it once again in the French countryside. Mirren’s Madame Mallory represents everything that makes France, at once, the world’s most fascinating and oppressively self-centered culture. A curious twist of fate inspires Papa to open an Indian restaurant across the street from Mallory’s temple of haute cuisine in a quaint village in southern France. Apart from the unexpected competition, Mallory objects to the loud Indian music, garish lighting and pungent aromas that distract her customers as soon as they park their cars for the evening. Not surprisingly, their relationship will evolve for the better over the course of the movie. Less certain is the budding cross-cultural romance between Papa’s gastronomically gifted son, Hassan (Manish Dayal), and a pretty young trainee in Mallory’s kitchen, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon). Things get especially interesting when Hassan develops a talent for French cooking that even cuts through Mallory’s prejudices. And, yes, it will cause her to readjust her attitude to fusion cooking and spices foreign to her kitchen. As Hallstrom demonstrated in Chocolat, which, in 2001, was nominated for five Academy Awards, he is comfortable around food and romance. As it turns out, Steven Speilberg, Oprah Winfrey and longtime documentarian Julia Blake also were in his corner. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle) does a nice job capturing both the beauty of the French countryside and intricacies of kitchens representing opposite cultures. The Blu-ray bonus package is best when it focuses on the food preparation and less good when Oprah and Steven go all gooey on us about re-teaming on The Hundred-Foot Journey.

Copenhagen
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Mark Raso’s Copenhagen is an easy film to admire but much more difficult to enjoy. That’s because it forces viewers to confront a societal taboo so engrained in us that our discomfort constantly is at war with the pleasure of watching a young filmmaker succeed so well in his first feature. There’s no way to avoid spoilers in any review of Copenhagen, as an acceptance of its primary conceit is necessary to dilute the shock and indignation it carries. In his late 20s, immature William (Gethin Anthony) is traveling through Europe with a couple of friends who barely tolerate his wisecracks and shitty attitude, which includes pretending to be Canadian to avoid being treated like an American by haters. (Back in my hitchhiking days, I would meet Yanks who sewed red maple leaf patches on their backpacks to catch rides from motorists who likely would bypass Americans.) No sooner do they arrive at their primary destination of Copenhagen than William’s juvenile attitude causes his friends to split to London, leaving him without an interpreter or bedmate. He needs help to locate his paternal grandfather and deliver a letter written in Danish by his father before his recent death. After fruitless efforts to find an interpreter, William manages to find assistance from a waitress who he’d earlier insulted. Apart from bearing a remarkable resemblance to Emily Van Camp, Effy (Frederikke Dahl Hansen) is so forgiving and helpful that William’s obnoxious exterior begins to melt before our eyes. Effy’s funny, informed and flirty in a city that rewards all three traits. Their neuroses complement each other, as well. It isn’t easy tracing the grandfather’s location – he was ostracized for being Nazi sympathizer – but she manages to accomplish the task in an afternoon. When William asks her how she became so adept at tracing roots, Effy says that she learned it as part of a class project. Clearly smitten, William is stunned to discover that she’s “almost 15” and not the college-age student she led him to believe she was. Viewers will already have sensed that she’s not old enough to be a graduate student, but we’re nearly as caught off-guard by the reality of the true age gap. Indeed, we began to hope they would hook up and take us on lovely tour through Copenhagen and share their experiences with us. Instead, as Effy continues to pursue a relationship with William, we naturally become concerned that we’re going to become accomplices in a criminal act. Blessedly, though, Raso steers the drama straight down the middle of the ethical highway and, even after causing us to question the right of minors to ruin their lives, frees us from any culpability in the matter. There’s plenty more to Copenhagen than Effy and William’s forbidden love, including the unfinished business with his grandfather. Raso handles this essential aspect of the story very well, too.

Apaches
To Kill a Man
In one very specific way, Thierry de Peretti’s debut feature, Apaches, reminds me of Peter Yates and Steve Tesich’s Oscar-winning Breaking Away, a terrifically entertaining slice of Americana set around the Little 500 bicycle race held annually in Bloomington, Indiana. As screenwriter and IU graduate, Tesich built his story about non-violent class warfare around his own observations of how townies (“cutters”) were looked down upon by college students, while a visiting team of Italian racers did its best to humiliate a local rider (Dennis Christopher) who worshipped all things Italian. To make his point even clearer, Tesich conjured a doomed romance between the ambitious townie and a sorority girl, who believed his lies about being European and punished him with a slap when she finally tumbled to the truth. The locals get even with everyone by winning the Little 500 against racers with far more sophisticated equipment and financial backing. While nothing as melodramatic happens in Apaches, Peretti’s description of a similar class struggle in his native Corsica should resonate with anyone who’s been bullied or made to feel inferior by people with more wealth and power. His Corsica is divided into three groups: permanent residents of the island, who trace their European roots back hundreds of years; working-class Arabs, attempting to eke out a living performing manual labor sustained by the tourist economy; and thousands of seasonal residents and tourists, who lay out in the sun all day and hit the discos at night. Even the dreaded Corsican mafia comes into play in Apaches. When they aren’t working at construction sites owned by a local mobster, Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi) and his father tend to the vacant homes of part-time residents, mostly from France. Before the season officially begins, Aziz invites some friends to enjoy the pool at one of the nicer houses. Unbeknownst to him, the girl he’s trying to impress has invited male friends of her own to the impromptu party. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they run roughshod over the property and steal personal items belonging to the owners. Not wanting to look cowardly in front of the fickle Jezebel, Aziz grabs a beat-up old hi-fi and a few albums she fancies. It doesn’t take long for the owners and Aziz’ father to size up the situation and threaten their jobs. The boy cops to the petty theft and returns the less expensive items to the owners. Sensing that this will put an end to the incident, Aziz is surprised to learn that an expensive shotgun also remains missing and the Corsican developer is embarrassed by the theft of such a valuable item. It’s likely that an Arab friend and his Corsican pals have already determined the gun’s value and aren’t likely to release it to save the ass of the lowest man on the island’s totem pole. Things reach a boiling point when rumors begin to fly about the mob inciting violence among the guest workers. The rest of Apaches is taken up with the eternal question of whether the guilty party will do the right thing and help pull Aziz and his father out of their jam or they’ll turn them into convenient scapegoats. De Peretti does a nice job building the tension to a fever pitch and clearly delineating the forces at play here. More than anything else, though, he succeeds at his stated mission of showcasing Corsica as a multifaceted and attractive place to stage a movie. The bonus features include a short film a young Gypsy musician facing an ethical dilemma, a director’s statement and biography.

Also from Film Movement comes To Kill a Man, a story about a hard-working Chilean groundskeeper, Jorge (Daniel Candia), whose family has become the primary target for a neighborhood bully and his Neanderthal friends. Stationing themselves at a neighborhood crossroads, the gang members make it impossible for Jorge to avoid confrontations. Unwilling to settle for cash, they even steal his diabetes-testing equipment. When Jorge’s son confronts the ringleader at home, he is made to pay for his effrontery by being shot. When Jorge decides to take his complaints to the local constabulary, he’s greeted with the usual litany of platitudes and delayed justice. Even after Kalule (Daniel Antivilo) is convicted of attempted murder, he’s given less than a two-year sentence and a free pass to begin menacing the neighbors while on parole. After his daughter is attacked by the gang, Jorge is once again rebuffed by authorities. It’s at this point that the mild-mannered laborer decides to exact his own justice. Instead of bringing relief, Jorge’s actions cause him great emotional distress. It’s a feeling hardened criminals and lazy bureaucrats hardly ever experience. Alejandro Fernández Almendras is one of several young Chilean filmmakers who’ve begun to make their presence known on the international stage. The country’s blend of cultures and topography informs their movies in ways that defy easy description. In To Kill a Man, Almendras makes it easy for us to empathize with Jorge’s dilemma, while also knowing that there’s no way for him to avoid prosecution. The contrast between the forests, gardens and coastline that Jorge tends every day and the dreary blue-collar neighborhood to which he returns each night is depicted in painterly shades and colors by cinematographer Inti Briones (The Loneliest Planet), who also frames his subject to accentuate an absolute sense of isolation. The DVD adds the short film, “Our Blood” and a discussion with the filmmaker.

Docs on DVD
Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes
There’s No Place Like Utopia
Fifi Howls From Happiness
Sand Wars
The Dark Matter of Love
Kids for Cash
Fagbug Nation
Three theories persist as to why Americans don’t practice what they preach when it comes to democracy: 1) the one-person/one-vote system works so well that no amount of absenteeism at the polls could screw it up, 2) the system is so hopelessly broken that a single vote couldn’t possibly fix it, and 3) Democrat or Republican, the candidates feed from the same trough laid out by corporate lobbyists and, a half-hour after they settle into their offices, they’re too compromised to act independently. Even if there’s at least a smidgen of truth in all three excuses, it’s no reason for any American to ignore the one duty we share as citizens. John Ennis’ alarming documentary, Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes, can be interpreted as both an excuse for never again voting in state and national elections and a call to arms for reform. Ennis says that it was his intention to use the film to make the world a better place for his newborn daughter to live. Clearly, the pay-to-play system rewards the candidate with the most financial backing. A majority of Supreme Court justices saw nothing wrong with this practice and cleared the way for even more abuses by political PACs. As soon as they got the green light, the nation’s wealthiest citizens raced to pour money into races whose outcome could benefit them financially, no matter the state they live. Ennis isn’t the only journalist or filmmaker to blow the whistle on the pay-to-play system, of course, but his documentary lays it out in terms that should make all Americans angry enough to vote. Besides breaking down several individual contests and chronicling the rise of the People Power movement, Ennis uses the “secret history” of Monopoly to demonstrate how Rich Uncle Pennybags and his billionaire buddies fixed the game. Such devices, alongside interviews with familiar observers and participants, make the political-science lesson easy to digest. Pay-2-Play could easily be accused of being biased against conservatives, PAC organizers and incumbents, but how many outlaws have ever stepped up to justify their crimes?

Never one to turn down an opportunity to play the devil’s advocate, literally, Joel Gilbert’s films reside on the other end of the political spectrum. It’s where President Obama is viewed as the Antichrist’s handmaiden and the twin boogeymen of communism and socialism continue to present a greater threat to freedom than any terrorist organization or greedy banker. Essentially, There’s No Place Like Utopia equates Obama’s campaign promises to the rhetoric of Stalin, Castro, Chairman Mao, Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn. Jesse Jackson and the Wizard of Oz, all of whom promised things they couldn’t deliver and brainwashed poor folks into believing paradise was right around the corner. It’s a legitimate complaint, but since when has any politician of either party made good on their promises? When he isn’t making documentaries about music icons Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Gilbert panders to American right-wingers willing to buy tickets to such fantasies as Dreams from My Real Father, Atomic Jihad: Ahmadinejad’s Coming War and Obama’s Politics of Defeat and Farewell Israel: Bush, Iran, and the Revolt of Islam. (Yes, the film declares, President W was duped into fighting the wrong war after 9/11.) In There’s No Place Like Utopia, Gilbert even goes so far as to introduce us to a rabid right-wing veteran of the Vietnam fracas, so unhappy with Obama that he flies the American flies upside-down outside his Denver home. As evidence that the country is in distress, he argues that the high school he attended is now predominantly Hispanic and, as such, they’re the future of the Democratic Party. He further indicts illegal immigrants, African-American welfare mothers and potheads who voted to legalize marijuana in his beloved Colorado. Gilbert fails to quiz the pinhead on the percentage of Hispanic men and women – some admittedly fighting in return for citizenship – are in the Middle East defending his First Amendment right to slander other Americans, or what his neighbors think of his show of defiance. The filmmaker, of course, is entitled to his views, as are the unvarnished racists and political opportunists he uses to counter the Obama supporters we meet who believe they were sold a bill of goods. He blames Obama and other Democrats – a.k.a., socialists – for the destruction of Detroit neighborhoods that have been slums since Americans wised up and started buying Japanese and German cars that resisted the scourge of planned obsolescence … another corporate mandate endorsed by Wall Street, not the Kremlin. What he also fails to mention is that international communism has been totally rejected by all but a tiny segment of the American left and no one has tried to deny the horror perpetrated on the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution. Unless I missed it, Gilbert doesn’t mention the Republican-led stalemate in Congress, the Koch brothers’ purchase of the Supreme Court majority, the predatory capitalists who brought the world’s economy to its knees and escaped prosecution. Nor does he find room to applaud Obama’s rescue of the auto industry, which was opposed by Mitt Romney, or interview liberals and leftists angered by the President’s reluctance to delivery on such promises as the lifting of our embargo on Cuba, the closing of our Guantanamo gulag and curbing domestic intelligence gathering. The question that There’s No Place Like Utopia truly begs, however, is, If the Democrats lose the White House in 2016, how long will it take Republicans to blame Obama for their failure to fix the country by 2020? To be fair, I did enjoy Gilbert’s mockumentary, Elvis Found Alive.

Fifi Howls From Happiness is a fascinating title for a bio-doc about an important 20th Century artist whose name might even elude scholars who’ve memorized the floor plans of the MOCA, Louvre, Prado and Rijksmuseum. An openly gay man at a time and in places that were resolutely intolerant of sexual diversity, Bahman Mohassess was a Modernist painter, sculptor, translator, theatre director and translator of literary works. The turmoil that consumed Iran throughout most of the second half of the 20th Century overshadowed the attention finally being paid to his work by fellow artists and critics. Certainly, he’s the rare artist to have had commissioned work rejected by the Shah and Islamic censors. It also led to Mohassess’ decision to leave the country twice, for the intellectual sanctuary provided by Rome’s Hotel Sacconi. Mitra Farahani’s heartfelt and consistently entertaining film captures the outspoken and occasionally dictatorial artist during the last two years of his life, balancing strongly held convictions with dissections of his distinctively abstract work. (“I will tell you my life story, so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says, after telling Farahani what to shoot and how to do it.)  If Mohassess’ work isn’t as familiar to us as Iranian writers and filmmakers who faced similarly harsh restrictions under the Shah and his fundamentalist successors, it’s because the media has given itself over to moving images and pop music. The Impressionists still draw crowds, but only if they’ve achieved celebrity status. Mohassess’ paintings and sculptures are outwardly aggressive and genuinely disturbing. With their faceless heads and bodies missing limbs, feet and hands, they convey a dystopian vision of life in a world devoid of beauty and emotional release. (“But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert,” he argues. “It will make no difference.”) Not only was his work banned from display by the ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard, and frequently destroyed, Mohassess limited his own reach by ruining his painting before censors or sympathetic collectors could get to them. Also intriguing are the director’s exchanges with her subject, who often was as prickly as a porcupine. The DVD also includes footage from Ahmad Faroughi’s 1967 documentary, The Eye That Hears, which found him at work in his studio.

As if environmentalists needed another rallying cry, Sand Wars provides them with one that no one saw coming. Apparently, the demand for one of the world’s most prevalent resources, sand, has reached the point where three-quarters of all beaches are in decline and could disappear as victims of erosion or “sand mafia” groups that plunder shores and rivers for this highly prized commodity. Who knew? Among other places writer/director Denis Delestrac visits is Dubai, where hundreds of tons of imported sand has been used to build foundations for decorative islands and housing projects, as well as its growing inventory of thoroughfares, luxury hotels and shopping malls. Wait, what? At first, second and third glance, exporting sand to Dubai has to be the 2014 version of bringing coal to Newcastle, except for the fact that drifting desert sand isn’t of the same consistency – too smooth and circular — of ordinary grains of sand, which, under a microscope more closely resemble kidney stones. This, of course, raises the question as to what could happen to plundered shores and dredged rivers that now lack the protections required to withstand storms. If nothing else, Sand Wars should give viewers ample time to begin hoarding the stuff.

As states struggle to make ends meet, many have turned to for-profit prisons as a way to cut costs and relieve themselves of the burden of housing prisoners and funding pension funds for guards. In solving one problem, though, they’ve created an industry that is far less interested in rehabilitation and cutting recidivism than simply warehousing human beings for profit. Robert Mays’ sobering Kids for Cash dissects one horrendous case of injustice and corruption triggered by greed and readily available candidates for incarceration. In the wake of the shootings at Columbine High School, a small town in Pennsylvania elected a judge who pledged to throw the book at first-time offenders for crimes that normally would call for a few hours of public service. Naturally, a dangerously distressed electorate embraced the candidate and his hang-’em-high approach to reform, at least until their own kids were squeezed through the judicial sausage maker. In all, more than 3,000 juveniles were ripped from their families and imprisoned, sometimes for years over, what many people believed to be petty crimes. It wasn’t until a single parent sought justice outside the county that the extent of the corruption was revealed. Besides forcing defendants to waive their right to legal representation and open themselves to summary justice, the judge and his pimp received millions of dollars in payments from privately owned juvenile detention centers that profited from keeping their cells occupied. May interviews several of the youths whose lives were unalterably changed by being confined as if they were hardened criminals. Tough love is one thing, fascism-for-profit is quite another. May’s exhaustive report also includes interviews with the judges involved, child advocates, parents and local residents. The only thing missing is a clear and decisive indictment of the for-profit prison system, itself, and investors whose tacit support of such corruption encouraged bad behavior from judges who absolutely knew that what they were doing was wrong. I can’t imagine that the two judges, well into their 60s, thrown into prison for long periods of time, were alone or unique. It’s a system that encourages and rewards bad judgment, but rarely pays the price for its crimes. That’s because conservative politicians that have taken money and generic legislation from the powerful, if secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – partially funded by the Koch brothers – have committed themselves to privatizing state prison space and keeping them filled with third-strike and non-violent offenders.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, many childless American couples took advantage of the chaos by hiring insiders to arrange adoptions. Streamlining the process appeared to be – and, in many cases, has been – a win/win/win situation for the kids, adoptive parents and cost-conscious bureaucrats, alike. Given that most of the adoption agencies in Eastern Europe were hell holes of Dickensian proportion, few of us looked beyond the kindness and generosity of men and women willing to pay untold thousands of dollars for the opportunity to be parents. A closer look revealed such abuses as Romanian adoption agencies clearing their dormitories of children who inherited AIDS from their birth parents and adoptive parents who had similarly sinister agendas of their own. That not much has been reported on the fate of children raised an ocean away from their homelands leads me to believe that the adoptions worked more often than they failed. The three orphans we meet in The Dark Matter of Love are among the last group awarded to American couples before Vladimir Putin outlawed the practice, in reaction to travel and financial restrictions imposed by President Obama. Sarah McCarthy’s occasionally agonizing documentary follows the upper-middle-class Diaz family—mother Cheryl, father Claudio and 14-year-old Cami—to Russia to pick up 11-year-old Masha and 5-year-old twins, Marcel and Vadim. If such a decision has an ominous ring to it, especially since none of the Diazes spoke Russian, it will only take a few weeks of filming for McCarthy to demonstrate how short-sided they were. Anyone who’s raised twins or triplets probably would have advised against it. Based solely on their behavior in front of the camera, Marcel and Vadim appear to have spent their time in the orphanage studying the antics of the Katzenjammer Kids, Dennis the Menace and Pippi Longstocking. Masha’s moods change from light to dark in an instant and Cami begins to feel as if she’s an outsider in her own home. Neither does it help matters when the parents insist upon changing their given forenames to ones that begin with a “C,” so that everyone in the Diaz family can share the same monogrammed towel or enforce some goofball tradition. The kids probably would have been a bit easier to handle on an individual basis and someone had bothered to learn some rudimentary Russian. Even so, Cheryl and Claudio clearly went into this thing with the best of intentions and can be forgiven for calling in the Marines. Conveniently, a pair of developmental psychologists have been researching scientific ways to instill love into children who may never have experienced such feelings. Mostly, this involves studying tapes of the Diaz’ group dynamics; coaxing responses from the parents, whose marriage is endangered; and comparing the kids’ behavior to previously recorded experiments, including those with monkeys and owls. Just as the Mom, Dad and Babs are about to reach wits’ end, Masha discovers something within herself that positively affects all of the Diazes. If The Dark Matter of Love leaves more than a few questions unanswered, it also succeeds in shining a light on a difficult situation faced by thousands of American couples.

If homophobic vandals hadn’t defaced Erin Davies’ VW Beetle with anti-gay slurs, she probably wouldn’t have thought to tour North America in an effort to shine a light on the harassment experienced everyday by people whose most grievous sin may have been putting a rainbow sticker on their car, as she had just done. That tour resulted in the 2009 documentary, Fagbug, inspired by one of the epithets scribbled on the car. The sequel, Fagbug Nation, adds two more states to the ledger: Hawaii and Alaska. This time, instead of keeping the toxic graffiti intact, Davies decided to turn her vehicle into one large rainbow sticker, with “fagbug” and a now-mandatory Web address stenciled on its side. It isn’t intended as a provocation, as much as it is a statement that approximates the old battle cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” As such, the film is loaded with testimonials from fellow travelers, as to how they view such issues as same-sex marriage and sharing sleeping bags. To get back and forth from the 49th and 50th states, Davies was required to put her car on 5 boats and fly on 14 planes. Viewers already sold on the notion of gender equality and tired of rhetoric, however low key, may find Fagbug Nation to be more entertaining as a travelogue than an issue-oriented doc. Everyone, though, can enjoy the beautiful scenery, interesting layovers and examples of how much has changed between tours.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Masters: Bing Crosby: Rediscovered
PBS: Robin Williams Remembered: A Pioneers of Television Special
PBS: Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Resurrecting Richard III
FX: Justified: Season 5: Blu-ray
NBC: Quincy, M.E.: Season 7
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Television Movie Collection
Hallmark: Oh Christmas Tree!
For the greater part of the 20th Century, Bing Crosby was one of the most popular, innovative and commercially successful entertainers in the world. His work crossed platforms that weren’t even invented when he began his professional career in Spokane and quickly earned a place behind the microphone of Paul Whiteman’s dance band, in Chicago. A half-billion records later, Crosby would be recognized not only for his distinctive bass-baritone voice and jazzy vocal mannerisms, but also for countless appearances on radio, television, stages and in films that ranged from slapstick comedy to award-winning dramas. He logged more miles on USO tours than any entertainer, with the possible exception of Bob Hope. His version of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” has sold more than 50 copies, making it the best-selling single of all time and forever providing atheists with a vehicle to celebrate the season, if not the holiday. It was especially popular among soldiers and support personnel stationed overseas in World War II. And, yet, in its wisdom, PBS decided to title this “American Masters” episode, “Bing Crosby: Rediscovered.” How can someone whose great body of work has never disappeared be in need of rediscovery? I think it can be fairly argued that, by the time of his death in 1977, the American entertainment industry had successfully cleansed the airwaves and movie theaters of anything it deemed to be from a previous geologic age. The old-timers would show up on “The Tonight Show” occasionally to swap stories with Johnny Carson, or sponsor a golf tournament, but Crosby seemed satisfied to spend his time attending to his almost shockingly young wife and second-generation family, and golfing. Even so, television had an insatiable appetite for comedies and Baby Boomers were fed a steady diet of Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures. Thanks to cable’s TMC channel and the almost constant re-release of re-mastered CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays, featuring more than a half-century’s worth of standards, Crosby is less in need of resurrection today than any time in the last 40 years.  If anyone under, say, 50 does want to learn more about Der Bingle’s life and times, “Rediscovered” would be a very good place to start. The producers appear to have been able to raid the vaults belonging to Hollywood studios, record labels and entertainment-industry archivists at will and tap the memories of dozens of family members, musicians and historians. And as is typical of the “American Masters” series, no one pretends that the subject went through life without acquiring unattractive blemishes and hitting some potholes along the way. Among the contributors are Tony Bennett and Michael Feinstein, record producer Ken Barnes and biographer Gary Giddins. Writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman share the story behind Crosby’s Christmas special duet with David Bowie. Previously recorded interviews also add to the fun. The show’s soundtrack album features songs heard in the documentary, including 16 previously unreleased recordings.

Once again, I’m not sure that the title of PBS’ “Robin Williams Remembered: A Pioneers of Television Special” quite fits the package. Williams’ contributions to television were dwarfed by his accomplishments in movies and comedy venues. Before his death, Williams had been interviewed at length by producers of PBS’ “Pioneers of Television” for use in several different themed episodes. In them, he recalled the comedians who influenced his work and how sitcoms have evolved over the course of the last half-century. With that wide-ranging interview in hand, it wasn’t difficult for the producers of “Remembered” to collect clips from his many movies, television and stage appearances to accompany the unseen material. In the month between Williams’ suicide and the show’s airing, they also collected old and new interviews with his “Mork & Mindy” co-star Pam Dawber, Penny Marshall, Jonathan Winters, Henry Winkler, Yakov Smirnoff, Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmie Walker, Louie Anderson, Paul Rodriguez, Rick Overton, Blake Clark, Pauly Shore and comedy producer George Schlatter. Williams had already spilled the beans on his own missteps in life, so there aren’t many surprises here. Still, the show’s reaction to sad news – it aired a month after his death — doesn’t ever look rushed, forced or exploitative.

Forty years ago, a camera-shy Willie Nelson agreed to perform live for the pilot episode of “Austin City Limits.” He appears again in PBS’ “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years,” alongside a dozen or so artists who hadn’t born when “Phases and Stages” and “Red-Haired Stranger” blew a hole in the wall separating country music from the rock establishment, as well as the one between Outlaw Country and the Nashville plutocrats. When “ACL” was picked up by PBS and its affiliates, two years later, the show favored the music and artists specific to Texas. It has since opened its gates to a wide cross-section of musical acts, sometimes quite a distance from the limits of Austin. Hosted by Oscar-winning actor/musician Jeff Bridges and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, the show features performances by Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely, Lyle Lovett, Foo Fighters, Jimmie Vaughan, Alabama Shakes, Buddy Guy, Kris Kristofferson, Lyle Lovett and names known only in households of the Texas capital. The DVD adds bonus tracks from the concert.

So much history has been made in England that it isn’t difficult to find human remains and artifacts associated with great conquering forces within a few scratches of the earth’s surface. In 2011, a group of amateur historians discovered the skeletal remains of King Richard III buried under a parking lot in Leicester. The “Secrets of the Dead” episode, “Resurrecting Richard III,” describes what happened after the remarkable discovery was made. After assuring themselves that the bones were, indeed, of royal lineage, researchers reassembled the loose bones to conduct a forensics autopsy, with special attention paid to the extreme curvature of his spine. The foremost question in their minds was how effective a warrior could the king have been with such a deformity. Pretty well, apparently.

As longtime fans of FX’s critically acclaimed “Justified” await its sixth and final season, the release of the collection of Season Five episodes provides distracted viewers with a last chance to catch up to the storyline, which extends from Detroit to Mexico. This go-round, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is confronted by the extended family of Crowes and criminals in cahoots with Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), who’s also pre-occupied with efforts to free his imprisoned fiancée, Ava (Joelle Carter). The season is dedicated to the memory of novelist Elmore Leonard, who died August 20, 2013, and whose short story “Fire in the Hole” inspired the television adaptation. “Justified” has produced some the most memorably grotesque criminals in television history and, this season, added a wonderful turn by sexy Alicia Witt as the Crowe family’s brightest light … and, yes, I realize this isn’t saying much. The set adds making-of material and deleted scenes.

If there’s one thing that forensics examiners have going for them in the furtherance of their craft, it’s the unquenchable need for some Americans to commit murder. On television, the men and women who pursue the truth in such matters enjoy the benefit of their audience’s insatiable curiosity about how one might commit the perfect crime and get away with it. Fortunately, today, state-of-the-art forensics technology allows human investigators to discover clues that would have gone unnoticed by their predecessors. Watch “Quincy, M.E.,” back-to-back with episodes of “CSI,” “NCIS” and “L&O” and it’s easy to see how much progress has been made. I wonder how many of people were influenced to join the profession, by watching Jack Klugman and absorbing some of the passion demonstrated by Quincy in his weekly quest for the truth. The new collection of shows on DVD represents Season Seven, which began to air in October, 1981. Some of the cases involved such evergreen murders as fraternity hazing, toxic waste, gun control, drunk driving, refinery emissions and lack of access to trauma centers. Guest appearances by Mimi Rogers, Tyne Daly, Jonathan Frakes, Dixie Carter, Conchata Ferrell, Clu Gulager, Colleen Dewhurst, Michael Constantine, Diana Muldaur and Anita Gillette

Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart” tells the story of Elizabeth Thatcher, played by several different actresses, a cultured young teacher from the city who receives her first classroom assignment in a small coal-mining town in the Canadian boonies, circa 1910. Her arrival is complicated by a recent mining disaster, during which Abigail Stanton (Lori Loughlin) and a dozen other women lost their husbands. As much as this tests their faith, the women must go on with their lives, if only for the sake of the children. The made-for-TV movies collected in the new compilation were adapted from Janette Oke’s “Canadian West Book Series.” The titles in the four-disc set are “Lost & Found,” “A Telling Silence,” “The Dance,” “Second Chances,” “Change of Heart” and “Rules of Engagement,” plus the original 2013 made-for-TV movie “When Calls The Heart.”

In the Hallmark film, “Oh Christmas Tree!” (a.k.a., “Fir Crazy”), the newly unemployed Elise (Sarah Lancaster) is forced to return home to work on the family tree farm in the run-up to Christmas. She thought that part of her life was over and isn’t looking forward to another working holiday. Things get even more complicated when a local Scrooge conspires with city officials to close the farm and develop the property. One of the farm’s repeat customers, Darren (Eric Johnson), convinces Elise to fight the power and save the family business.

Tales From the Crypt/Vault of Horror: Blu-ray
Martial Arts Double Feature: Kung Fu Girl/Whiplash
Legacy of Rage
Both of these wrap-around anthologies are based on stories culled from comic books published in the early 1950s by EC Comics. The company’s place in history was assured when its anthologies came under attack from parents, clergy, schoolteachers and politicians who blamed them for contributing to illiteracy and juvenile delinquency. This led directly to congressional hearings and the imposition of a highly restrictive Comics Code. Rather than buck the tide of conservative hysteria, publisher William Gaines chose to focus, instead, on his truly subversive and wonderfully funny Mad magazine. Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror were only two of EC’s extremely popular horror titles. (Weird Science, which focused on science-fiction stories, also was adapted for film and television.)  In Freddie Francis’ 1972 Tales From the Crypt, five unrelated travelers find themselves trapped in a series of catacombs, which lead to the lair of the crypt-keeper, Sir Ralph Richardson. From him, black-hearted characters played by Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Ian Hendry and Barbara Murray, among others, have their worst aspects exposed before their date with destiny. In the still-terrifying “Blind Alley” segment, Magee rallies a group of sightless men against the despotic supervisor of their residence (Nigel Patrick), who’s been summoned by the crypt-keeper.

Roy Ward Baker’s even more graphic sequel, Vault of Horror, is presented by Scream Factory with and without the trims that allowed it to be released PG. Here, five hotel guests step into an elevator, which leads them into an inescapable underground vault. Each guest is required to share a gruesome tale of an encounter with death and how their actions may have precipitated the outcomes. The A-list case of British actors includes Tom Baker (the fourth Doctor Who), Denholm Elliott, Curt Jurgens, Terry-Thomas, Daniel and Anna Massey, Glynis Johns and Michael Craig.

Shout Factory’s new martial-arts double-feature, Whiplash/Kung Fu Girl, takes us back to the glory years of Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest production company. Both pictures feature outstanding fighting action by Pei-Pei Cheng. I don’t think the plots would mean anything to anyone outside of the screenwriters’ immediate families, but the movies have been restored to the point where they can be enjoyed without experiencing terminal eyestrain. Pei-Pei’s career highlight may have been appearing in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in 2000, but she’s hardly had any time off since beginning her movie career in 1964.

Bruce Lee’s only son, Brandon, gets top billing in this uncharacteristically dull martial-arts picture from 1986. He was 21 at time and clearly not ready for prime time. Eight years later, just as he was approaching stardom, Lee would be killed in a freak on-set accident. In Legacy of Rage, his character is framed in the murder of a cop and forced to spend the next eight years in jail. As the title suggests, Lee’s Brandon spent most of his time in stir planning his revenge. There’s only one good fighting scene in the whole movie, so anyone not a Lee completist is advised to use caution.

The DVD Wrapup: Monte Hellman, Les Blank, Dirty Movies, Lines of Wellington, Drunk History and more

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The Shooting/Ride in the Whirlwind: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Traditionally, the one sure way to kill a genre film’s commercial appeal is for a critic to label it “existential” or “experimental” or compare it to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and the novels of Albert Camus. This was especially true in the 1960s. No matter how much a Western or road picture was embraced by intellectuals, if it didn’t draw a crowd to the drive-in or local Bijou, no amount of arthouse revenues could save it or advance the career of the artiste. Monte Hellman broke into the movie business in 1959 with a string of genre films made under the Corman banner: Beast From Haunted Cave, The Terror and a pair of back-to-back collaborations with Jack Nicholson, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury and The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind. Five years would pass before Universal attempted to tap into the counterculture market with his “existential road movie,” Two-Lane Blacktop – also available on Blu-ray through Criterion – which featured curiously blank performances by musicians Dennis Wilson and James Taylor and a truly great one by Warren Oates, which would be honored by the New York Film Critics Circle. Forty years later, this unqualified financial disaster would enter the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, where The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind someday may find themselves, as well.

In The Shooting, Nicholson and Oates play prominent roles, alongside Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank) and Will Hutchins (“Sugarfoot”). Oates and Hutchins play a couple of likeable saddle tramps who get roped into a revenge scheme by a mysterious dark-eyed stranger (Perkins) and a slick gunfighter (Nicholson). Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. In an even less complicated setup, “Whirlwind” chronicles what happens when three decent cowboys are mistaken for members of an outlaw gang and pursued by a rope-happy posse, unlikely to parse the difference. Neither of the movies fit the Western template created decades earlier by Hollywood myth mongers, even if there’s plenty of shooting and the scenery wouldn’t be out of place in a John Ford classic. Besides Nicholson and Perkins, “Whirlwind” stars Cameron Mitchell and Harry Dean Stanton, in his first credited movie role. His presence, as “Blind Dick,” is worth the price of admission, alone. The Blu-ray package features new 4K digital restorations of both films, supervised by Hellman, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks; commentaries on both films, featuring Hellman and film historians Bill Krohn and Blake Lucas; conversations between Hellman and actors John Hackett, B. J. Merholz, Perkins and Stanton, assistant director Gary Kurtz and chief wrangler Calvin Johnson; a new conversation between Hutchins and film programmer Jake Perlin; a new video essay on Oates, by critic Kim Morgan; and a print essay by critic Michael Atkinson.

Like most people who cherish movies that challenge the imagination, I’ve spent several hours watching and re-watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and Les Blank’s companion documentary, Burden of Dreams, both filmed under the most arduous of conditions in the Amazon rainforest.  Watch them alongside of Apocalypse Now and you may not step foot in another boat. It took me a while to catch up with Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which the German filmmaker makes good on a bet he made with then-upcoming documentarian Erol Morris. But, once again, worth the effort. Criterion’s three-disc collection, Les Blank: Always for Pleasure, couldn’t be more fun to watch. I’d call it “binge-worthy,” except for the fact that viewers will want to linger over the short films and sample the featurettes that accompany them. Blank’s documentaries may have been the first to routinely merge regional pastimes and tastes, while telling stories that celebrated distinctly American culture. Several of the titles here are set in and around the bayous that extend from Texas to New Orleans. At the time these films were made, Cajon country may as well have existed on the moon. What’s remarkable about them is the purity of Blank’s vision. Just as Alan Lomax’s field recordings captured the music of Southern blues and folk music, at the source, Blank’s films introduced the rest of America to Cajun and Creole culture, 20 years before they were discovered by Paul Simon and the producers of The Big Easy. America was a much smaller place before satellite dishes turned our nation into one large shopping mall and the blackened-redfish craze nearly made the once-multitudinous specious extinct. Like a good gumbo, Blank’s films merged what he considered to be the essentials of any culture — food, music and dance – into something uniquely appealing and completely irresistible. Among the subjects covered here are bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb, cowboy artists, polka fanaticism, hillbilly pickers, Clifton Chernier, flower power, gap-toothed women and Afro-Cuban drummers. The Blu-ray package adds new 2K digital restorations of all 14 films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks; an excerpt from Les Blank: A Quiet Revelation, an upcoming documentary by Gina Leibrecht; new interviews with Blank’s sons, Harrod and Beau, documentary subject Gerald Gaxiola, filmmakers Skip Gerson, Maureen Gosling, Taylor Hackford, Tom Luddy, and Chris Simon and chef Alice Waters; several additional shorter short films; and an essay by film scholar Andrew Horton.

The Giver: Blu-Ray
Compared to what we see every day on the evening news reports, the totalitarian post-apocalyptical society imagined in The Giver doesn’t look half-bad. In a world where cops are given free license to murder unarmed teenagers, Ebola claims the poorest of the poor and fundamentalist Muslims behead harmless aid workers for no comprehensible reason, it’s difficult to get too worked up about a group of survivors who prefer colorlessly obedient lifestyle to barely contained chaos. If I didn’t know better, I’d think author Lois Lowry modeled her 1994 Newbery Medal-winning novel on what America might be like under a Mormon dictatorship: incredibly boring and colorless, but more or less peaceful. Anyone who didn’t dig it, could find refuge in Canada or Mexico. As in Divergent, all the young people we meet in The Giver are required to accept pre-ordained career postings and raise their own children to be obedient citizens of the state. Once again, given the choice between accepting such strictly enforced restrictions and living in fear of chronic unemployment and unaffordable health care, how many Americans would raise an objection? If it weren’t for the vows of pre-marital chastity that come with the territory, the choice would be a no-brainer. There’s always a rub, isn’t there? In fact, though, by medically inducing memory loss, the Council of Elders of the Communities – a blandly designed city/state built on a mesa, not unlike the Hopi pueblos of northeastern Arizona – have diluted post-pubescent “stirrings” to near non-existence. In the two decades since “The Given” became a best-seller, the possibility that teen libidos could be controlled by an authoritarian government probably gave its young-adult readers the best of all possible reasons to question authority. Their parents and grandparents were taught similar lessons in “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

Upon his coming-of-age, the story’s protagonist, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), is assigned the responsibility of being the community’s one and only Receiver of Memory. Although it contradicts the whole point of maintaining a memory-starved society, Jonas is thus required to absorb the knowledge of things past as interpreted by the incumbent Giver (Jeff Bridges). This not only includes everything that led to “The Ruin,” but also the subversive powers associated with kissing and falling in love. Meryl Streep’s imperious Chief Elder has already seen one Receiver of Memory fly the coop after studying under the Giver, so she wants him to keep Jason on a tighter leash. The curious thing about knowledge, of course, is that a little bit only makes one hungry for more. In The Giver, the only place to find such truths is in the land beyond the mesa, from which no one returns. To its credit, the movie isn’t nearly as violent as Divergent, The Hunger Games and other dystopian thrillers. In its absence, director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) is able to demonstrate how Jason’s inability to limit his gift of curiosity to conversations with his mentor causes seeds of dissent to grow, even in the infertile imaginations of his friends. Bridges, who’s nurtured this project for almost 20 years, is always a joy to watch on screen. As Chief Elder, Streep is only asked to look alternately stern and distressed, and she does it well. Scientology survivor Katie Holmes plays Jason’s mom, while, as his dad, Alexander Skarsgård is given a bit more substantial to do. The Blu-ray adds footage from an elaborate press conference, staged for foreign reporters; highlights from the original script reading, 20 years ago, featuring Lloyd Bridges and other family members; “Making ‘The Giver’: From Page to Screen,” which chronicles the challenges of getting the story made into a movie; an extended take on “Jonas’ harrowing journey”; “Ordinary Human,” with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, on his contributions to the soundtrack; author Lois Lowry discusses life events that shaped the story and things she would have changed in the original work; and a “Study Guide,” for viewers who want to experience the film interactively.

What If: Blu-ray
If there’s nothing new about the romantic entanglements in Michael Dowse’s adaptation of the play, “Toothpaste and Cigars,” the chemistry between actors Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan makes it fresh enough to savor. Free to portray contemporary adults after a decade working on Harry Potter’s farm, Radcliffe plays a medical school dropout, Wallace, broken-hearted over the loss of his girlfriend to an anatomy teacher. No sooner does he vow to swear off dating for a year than he meets a woman, Chantry, at a party that bores the hell out of both of them. In movie shorthand, that’s equivalent of saying they’re perfect for each other and, by all rights, should find someplace close to talk and have sex. Because What If is only 10 minutes old at this point, however, something immediately comes between them to squeeze another hour-and-a-half out of the proceedings. In this case, Chantry already has a live-in boyfriend, Ben (Rafe Spall), who’s kind of a dick but too familiar to take a chance on leaving for an unemployed guy she met at a party. Now, one thing leads to another and Wallace and Chantry become best friends and confidantes. When his goofball roommate, Allan (Adam Driver), decides that it’s time settle down with his similarly eccentric girlfriend, Nicole (Mackenzie Davis), they commit themselves to making Wallace and Chantry grasp what’s already obvious to everyone else around them. Things get even more complicated when Ben takes a job in Ireland and Chantry decides to give the benefit of a doubt. Being a Canadian/Irish co-production, What If doesn’t always play out as expected. Even so, no one should expect the same sort of fully developed British rom-coms as Love Actually and Notting Hill. Some folks might recognize Dowse’s name from such offbeat indies as It’s All Gone Pete Tong, Fubar and Goon. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and several making-of and background featurettes.

A Free Bird
All slacker comedies share certain attributes and archetypes, not the least of which are the consumption of vast quantities of marijuana and beer and minute amount of time reserved for finding jobs or cleaning the basement. The characters we’ve met in such movies as Up in Smoke, Half-Baked, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Pineapple Express, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Friday have come in all shapes, sizes and ethnic backgrounds. If any single group is underrepresented, however, it’s rednecks and hillbillies. Brad Pitt, James Franco and Nicolas Cage have all portrayed lower-caste characters, who might have been raised in a trailer courts by alcoholic parents, but, generally speaking, they’re reserved for the kinds of horror flicks in which tourists are turned into sausage or threatened with power tools. Independently made on what must have been a miniscule budget, A Free Bird is a comedy made by rednecks, about rednecks, for the amusement of rednecks and set on Florida’s Redneck Riviera. J.T. Broadrick (Russell Durham Comegys) is a rock-star handsome slacker, who’s dumb as bag of rocks and can’t hold on to even the simplest of jobs. Before being fired for stealing eggs from the salad bar at the Panama City Steak House, he somehow managed to set fire to the cigarette shack at which he worked. When asked to fill out a form listing his skills for job placement, J.T. can’t come up with anything. An ex-con buddy suggests that they break into the steakhouse at night and raid the meat locker. If the four men enlisted for the job pooled all of their brain cells, the collective intelligence wouldn’t amount to that of one chipmunk collecting acorns for winter. How dumb are they? Well, how about storing all of the boxes of stolen meat in an unrefrigerated van and, instead of handing it off immediately to a fence, getting blind drunk in a strip club? They’re awakened the next day by the sound of dogs barking wildly outside the van, where the blood leaking from the boxes is dripping through the rear doors and onto the pavement. Despite the fact that J.T. is cheating on his endlessly patient girlfriend, Tammy (Karen-Eileen Gordon), with a waitress named Ladonna, she adheres to the advice of her namesake, Tammy Wynette, by standing by her man. In only his first film, writer/director/editor/producer Gregg Russell somehow manages to maintain a firm grasp on the frequently flimsy narrative and imbue A Free Bird – a reference to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s redneck anthem – with a professional sheen most freshman projects can’t afford.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls
I thought about including Jeff Barnaby’s impressive debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, on the list of slacker and stoner movies representing different ethnic backgrounds, but what began as a comedy soon evolved into a creepy First Nation revenge/horror flick. This isn’t to suggest that it is devoid of humor or that the characters aren’t in the same league as Bill & Ted, Harold & Kumar and Jay & Silent Bob, because most of the Red Crow Mi’gMaqs we meet are world-class stoners. In fact, the funniest line of dialogue hat I’ve heard this month belongs to Aila (Devery Jacobs), the pot-dealing protagonist, when addressing two of her flunky couriers: “You’re the two dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress.” In fact, though, Barnaby’s story plays out against the background of a 1976 Canadian-government edict requiring Aboriginal children under the age of 16 to attend residential schools, where they’re force-fed the ways, language and distorted history of what they consider to be a foreign nation. This wouldn’t be so completely onerous if it weren’t for the fact that native children weren’t allowed to speak to each in their native tongue, given Anglicized names, forcibly shorn of their long hair and braids, required to embrace Christianity and deny their own religious rituals. Cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse at the boarding houses in Canada, the U.S. and Australia have been well documented and subsequently elicited the apologies of government and church leaders.

In “Rhymes,” a brutal and corrupt Indian agent, Popper (Mark Antony Krupa), makes life miserable for everyone on the rez, especially the kids forcibly removed from their modest homes. When Aila’s father, Joseph (Glen Gould) is released from prison, Popper recognizes him as a potential threat to his authority. This includes extracting bribes from Aila and administering regular beat-downs on anyone he thinks deserves one. He refuses to believe that Joseph saw the light in stir and is as disturbed by the rampant drug dealing and alcoholism ravaging the community as anyone else. What he can’t abide, however, is the routine harassment, brutality and payoffs demanded by the agent. Joseph’s return sets up an inevitable series of showdowns with Popper, as well as an uprising by the young people still carrying the scars of institutionalized torture at the school. What makes “Rhymes” especially interesting is the integration of Aboriginal mysticism into the story, including the occasional resurrection of unsettled spirits of ancestors, who, having been buried in a mass grave, wander the reservation at night like so many zombies. It was well-received on the festival circuit, but, as far as I can tell, received no distribution in the U.S., even in communities with significant Native American populations. It’s definitely worth finding. The Blu-ray adds a very good making-of featurette.

A Life in Dirty Movies
When the history of 42nd Street and the sexploitation industry is finally written, Joe Sarno’s name will stand tall as an example of a filmmaker who, for years, bucked the tides of convention and sleaze, but finally succumbed to the realities of the marketplace. Throughout the 1960s, Sarno produced dozens of pulpy features that bridged the gap between Russ Meyer’s nudie-cuties and the soft-corn porn of Radley Metzger. In such pre-porn classics as Sin in the Suburbs (1964), Moonlighting Wives (1966), The Bed and How to Make It! (1966) and Inga (1968), he employed psycho-sexual dramatics to sell stories that addressed the erosion of sexual mores and taboos of the times. While these films clearly exploited the female form, Sarno was practically alone in his insistence that women are capable of enjoying sex every bit as much as his male characters. It seems to be a rather obvious point, a half-century after the fact, but it was the rare filmmaker who treated female orgasms as something other than a rumor. As difficult as it might be to imagine, then and now, some people mentioned Sarno’s name in the same breath as Ingmar Bergman and other Euros. After all, Swedish audiences had fallen in love with newly legitimized sex films and actors didn’t seem to mind taking off their clothes. One of things we learn in Wiktor Ericsson’s admiring bio-doc, A Life in Dirty Movies, is that Bergman once toyed with the idea of collaborating on an adult picture with Sarno, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. Even if only half-true, it makes for a delightful anecdote. The documentary also succeeds as a more or less traditional love story. Sarno and Peggy Steffans, his wife and collaborator, maintained a marriage of 40 years amidst countless distractions, temptations and obstacles. Among the roadblocks was Peggy’s wealthy, if imperious mother, who disapproved of Sarno’s business, personality, age difference and previous marriage. One way they overcame mom’s resistance was to spend extended vacations each year in Sweden and cultivate friendships with artists who didn’t equate sex with scandal. It’s appears to have been one of those unlikely couplings, in which the words “husband” and “wife” couldn’t adequately characterize their relationship. Sarno’s greatest challenge would come when audiences abandoned soft-core and sexploitation films for those that left nothing to the imagination. Running out of money finally convinced him to push his qualms aside and make hard-core films under assumed names. Some of them were quite good, in fact. Except in discussions in featurettes included in the bonus package, A Life in Dirty Movies doesn’t linger very long on this phase of Sarno’s career. Because Ericsson was accorded extensive access to the couple in the last years of his life together, the Swedish filmmaker was able to capture the delight in Joe and Peggy’s faces in advance of career retrospectives at the New York Underground Film Festival, the Torino Film Festival, Cinémathèque Française and the Andy Warhol Museum. It also chronicles his failed efforts to complete one last film before his death, at 89, in 2010. The DVD adds additional interview material and sequences from Fabodjantan and Young Playthings.

Touch of the Light
If this uplifting Taiwanese drama about a blind piano prodigy isn’t as rousing a success as Taylor Hackford’s Ray, the story it tells offers many subtle charms of its own. Touch of the Light extends director Chang Jung-chi and writer Nyssa Li’s 2008 award-winning short film on the same musician, Huang Yu-Siang, who plays himself here, as well. It’s a simple story, really. Siang was born to a rural family that found it extremely difficult to raise a handicapped son on the parents’ meager earnings. Even so, the boy’s natural curiosity and latent talent pulled him along, until he was able to attend a university dedicated to the arts. Other challenges would await him in the sighted world, but, again, his determination to succeed made his musicianship the least of his problems. Indeed, once Siang finds his footing among his fellow students, Li’s story expands to take on the issues facing a young working-class woman, Jie (Sandrine Pinna), who desperately wants to become a dancer, but is held back by her own lack of self-confidence, resources and personal issues. After a chance meeting, Jie follows Siang around the city on his daily rounds, which includes instilling a love of music among blind children. By this time, viewers will begin to wonder if their mutual admiration society allows for romance. They won’t find it overly taxing to stick around to discover what happens in that department.

Lines of Wellington
Americans have enough trouble keeping track of their own wars, without also having to recall the details of the conflicts that have enflamed Europe throughout its post-Roman history. If it weren’t for HBO and Showtime, we’d be hard-pressed to understand the forces that shaped the continent going into the world wars, upon which most of us have a pretty good handle. The Napoleonic Wars ring a bell, but only to the extent that they informed the phrase, “met his Waterloo” (also a song by Abba), and gave us the “1812 Overture,” which Americans have appropriated to commemorate our own War of 1812. It explains why stateside distributors gave a pass to the epic historical drama, Lines of Wellington, which was begun by Chilean director Raúl Ruiz and completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento. The star-studded Franco/Portuguese production, also cut for use as a television mini-series in some markets, opens with the Battle of Bussaco and extends through the retreat of French Marshal Masséna from the Lines of Torres Vedras, thus relieving Portugal from the threat of occupation. The title refers to the line of defense built by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, whose brilliant strategizing confounded the larger French force and assured his place in British military history. While most of Lines of Wellington’s accurate, it includes several historical groaners. Among them, it repeats the likely apocryphal story of the creation of the first Beef Wellington. That duty fell to John Malkovich, an internationally renowned American actor who seemingly was born to mock the massive pomposity of European aristocracy. While there are several battle scenes shown in the film, the emphasis is on the toll paid by the poor folks caught between the constantly changing front lines, along with various camp followers, ordinary soldiers and royals too lazy to get out of their own way. Refugees streamed toward Lisbon as the sides advanced or they were displaced by Wellington’s scorched-earth policy in his strategic retreats. Fans of historical epics should find plenty to enjoy throughout the 152-minute length of Lines of Wellington. Others, not so much. The Portuguese locations add to the fun, as do virtual cameos by such prominent European actors as Mathieu Amalric, Elsa Zylberstein, Vincent Perez, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Michel Piccoli and Chiara Mastroianni. The DVD arrives with a separate disc dedicated to a making-of featurette.

Twink
What’s the T?
Snails in the Rain
The Third One
Before some people hit rock bottom, they’re given an opportunity to tell their stories. These usually take the form of cautionary tales, but, sometimes, the forums provide one last opportunity to show off before an audience. In Twink, washed-up gay-porn star Kayden Daydream (a.k.a., Quinn) is motivated chiefly to give the middle finger to the world one last time. Before he does so, however, Kayden describes the highs and lows of the skin trade in frightening detail. He gleefully pushed the limits of debauchery and unnecessary risk. The arena in which he practiced his craft was one that fetishized youth and discarded its stars when they passed a certain age or lost their looks. Not one to be easily dismissed, Kayden greased his slide by allowing drugs and alcohol to numb his mind and body to physical and emotional pain. In his painfully transgressive and confrontational interview with the unseen documentarian, Kayden demands of the audience that it wallow in the muck of his life and listen to the contradictions and lies he’s told himself hundreds of times. His slovenly existence tells us that the presence of the filmmaker has only forestalled the inevitable for a little while. It’s a harrowing thing to watch, but I think Twink probably would work better on stage, where its rawness could have more direct impact on the audience. It’s hard to fault Wade Radford’s interpretation of such an unpleasant character, though, because Kayden truly is repelling. Co-director Jason Impey has collaborated with Radford on such micro-budgeted gay-punk films as Boys Behind Bars, Lustful Desires, Tub Boy and Sex, Lies & Depravity and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a loyal following.

The sight of transgender actors and characters on television is becoming less of a novelty – or provocation — with every new cable-TV series intent on pushing the envelope or drawing attention to itself. Laverne Cox plays Sophia on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Chaz Bono strutted his stuff on “Dancing With the Stars.” “Ru Paul’s Drag Race” is practically mainstream. ABC’s “Ugly Betty” and “Dirty Sexy Money” featured transgender actors in the same season. And, Unique Adams joined the “Glee” club. They’re not alone. Cecilio Asuncion’s 2012 documentary, What’s the T?, explores the challenges, successes and daily lives of five attractive trans-gender women who represent the “new normality,” of LGBT life in some parts of the U.S. By now, it almost seems boring.

After watching documentaries and contemporary dramas about how swell it is to be gay and Israeli in Tel Aviv – gay and Palestinian is a different story – I found Snails in the Rain to be oddly anachronistic. But, then, I missed the part where viewers are made aware of the 1989 setting. That we’re still getting stories about how difficult it is to come out of the closet, especially in one of the world’s most un-closeted cities, also was disconcerting. Boaz (Yoav Reuveni) is a linguistics student awaiting word on a grant that would allow him and his girlfriend Noa (Moran Rosenblatt) to move to Jerusalem, where his cloying mother would find it more difficult to hassle them. It isn’t until Boaz begins getting unsigned mash notes from another man that he begins to question how straight and dedicated to Noa he really is. It also reminds him of his time in the army, which, according to some movies I’ve seen, may be the single most inclusive gay bar in Israel. This new-found uncertainty bothers Boaz so terribly that he begins to turn his angst on Noa, who doesn’t deserve his shit. When we finally arrive at an answer as to who’s sending the letters, even more questions are raised. But, that’s 1989 for you.

At 70 minutes, The Third One barely has enough time to tell a story worth hearing. As it is, though, I don’t think Argentinian writer/director Rodrigo Guerrero had much of an idea where he wanted to go with his sophomore film, anyway. It opens with 22-year-old Fede (Emiliano Dionisi) cruising various Internet chatrooms to find an interesting hookup. He accepts an invitation from a gay couple, presumably in their 40s, for dinner at their nicely appointed pad. Once dinner is cleared, the trio spends the next half-hour getting even better acquainted. The next morning finds Fede in his class at the university daydreaming about night things. That’s it. This one is only for people who enjoy eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: Drunk History Seasons 1 & 2
PBS: Rise of the Black Pharaohs
PBS: Nova: First Air War
PBS: Nova: Ben Franklin’s Balloon
If there weren’t so darn many channels on TV and the Internet had yet to been invented, some people might consider a show such as Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” to be a sinfully frivolous waste of time … or whisky. As it is, the “Funny or Die” offshoot has developed a loyal audience of viewers in the key demographic that the broadcast networks might envy. If “Dancing With the Stars” can thrive, after all, why not “Drinking With the Stars.” The web series, which was created by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner in 2007, features well-known actors re-enacting various historical events as related by a guest narrator, who’s several sheets to wind. No matter how badly the narrators misconstrue the anecdotes they’ve been asked to interpret, the actors are obliged to repeat them verbatim – slurred words, cussing, burps and all — often to hilarious effect. You can even try it at home, like Mad-libs. Typically, the chapters focus on cities where auspicious events have taken place or such broad topics as “American Music,” “First Ladies” and “Sports Heroes.” Among the celebrities on display are Jenny Slate, Luke and Owen Wilson, Alfred Molina, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Connie Britton, Winona Ryder, Bob Odenkirk, Juno Temple, Paget Brewster, John Lithgow and Emily Deschanel.

It’s a function of institutional racism that the accomplishments of non-white cultures have, until lately, been minimalized or doubted by archeologists and historians. Certainly, that’s the case in pre-colonization Africa, where great tribes ruled vast sections of the continent and the victors of terrible wars drew borders that reflected reality on the ground, not European politics. Around 800 BC, Kush, a little-known subject state of Egypt, rose up and conquered the Egyptians, enthroned its own pharaohs and ruled over the empire of King Tut for nearly 100 years. Even when surrounded by evidence, archaeologists refused to believe that dark-skinned Africans could have risen so high. Today, in the heart of Sudan, archeologists Geoff Emberling and Tim Kendall are bringing the truth about the “black pharaohs” to life. In PBS’ “Rise of the Black Pharaohs” viewers are invited to investigate a royal tomb located beneath an ancient Kush pyramid and climb a stone pillar sacred to both Kushites and Egyptians. It’s an amazing story.

Far better known, but no less interesting, is the “Nova” presentation, “First Air War,” which not only dramatizes the rise of the biplane as a crucial element to modern warfare, but also employs history re-creators to demonstrate how the machines evolved to reflect the lessons learned in battle. When World War I began, in 1914, the air forces of the opposing nations consisted of handfuls of rickety biplanes from which pilots occasionally took pot shots at one another with rifles. By the war’s end, the essential blueprint of the modern fighter had emerged. “Nova” producers join members of New Zealand’s Vintage Aviator club, as they reveal the secrets of classic World War I fighters, such as the SE5A and Albatros DV.

Also from “Nova,” “Ben Franklin’s Balloon” corrects the notion that human flight first became a reality when the Wright brothers lifted off at Kitty Hawk. In fact, 120 years earlier, the Montgolfier brothers built a hot-air balloon that thrilled French witnesses with its ability to soar 3,000 feet into the clouds. If it weren’t for Benjamin Franklin, who was serving in Paris as our ambassador to France, Americans might still believe that the first such balloon trip here was the first one anywhere. Instead, Franklin’s dispatches piqued the imaginations of his readers across the Atlantic. “Nova” re-creates key flights of manned and unmanned vessels, which were constructed of cotton and paper and propelled by the gases released by burning hay. Joining the team is a descendant of the Montgolfiers.

The DVD Wrapup: Into the Storm, Automata, Wind Rises, Summer’s Tale, Brazilian Western, Alive Within, I Am Ali, Worricker, Monkey Shines and more

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Into the Storm: Blu-ray
I can’t remember when storm chasing became a staple of reality television, but, just as miniature cameras have allowed NASCAR fans up-close-and-personal views of violent crashes, the prospect of watching daredevil scientists getting devoured by an EF5 tornado was a guaranteed hit. While we were blessedly spared slo-mo footage of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s death-by-stingray, photos of the research vehicle crushed by powerful tornados, last year, told us all needed to know about the final moments of veteran chasers Carl Young, Tim Samaras and his son, Jim. For those unable to visualize the potential consequences of pitting technological prowess against Mother Nature’s fury, I suggest picking up a copy of Into the Storm. I wonder what the ratings for Syfy’s Sharknado were in Tornado Alley. I can’t imagine anyone who’s lost a home to a twister seeing anything funny in it, but that’s just me. Anthony C. Ferrante and John Swetnam’s mega-disaster thriller isn’t devoid of some whoppers of its own. The genre lends itself to hyperbole and wild sight gags. I recall interviewing director Jan de Bont before the 1996 release of Twister and the excitement caused by the inclusion of a befuddled cow sucked into the vortex, accompanied by the digitally distorted sounds of lions and camels. Four years later, I was able to eavesdrop on the CGI wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, as they were putting the finishing touches on The Perfect Storm, and visit the giant tank at Warner Bros. where some of the more intimate scenes were shot. News footage from actual Nor’easters wasn’t sufficiently frightening, so computer graphics were added to jack up the intensity to nightmarish proportions. I don’t think anyone minded. Much has happened in the ensuing 13 years to raise the bar on the replication of meteorological carnage. Many of the images included in Into the Storm came from material captured by storm chasers and news reports, including coverage of the EF5 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, only 10 days before the deaths of Young and the Samaras. Other images were digitally integrated into scenes of powerful multi-vortex tornados and a “fire whirl” threatening the citizens of fictional Silverton. If some of those images force viewers to suspend their disbelief to record levels, it’s only because mind-blowing storm footage is readily available on the Internet and it’s free. What the estimated $50-million budget couldn’t sustain, however, was an A-list cast and a story that doesn’t borrow from nearly every other disaster movie ever made. Although not made for cable, Into the Storm occasionally looks as if it were. The first cliché requires there to be a clash between a daredevil storm chaser (Matt Walsh) and a data-obsessed, if beautiful scientist (Sarah Wayne Callies), who bears the brunt of the team’s yearlong drought in recordable storms. When their Moby Dick arrives in the form of an off-the charts tornado cluster, the team must choose between keeping the cameras rolling from the safety of their heavily fortified vehicle or sounding the alarm in Silverton, whose citizens have gotten accustomed to withstanding lesser storms. In a convenient win-win solution to their dilemma, the pros are able to collaborate with local amateurs, who, of course, have been risking their own lives to capture potentially valuable footage on their cellphones. When a teacher at the town’s endangered high school learns that his son, with whom he’s just argued, natch, and his hottie girlfriend, might be playing hooky in an abandoned warehouse, another improbable obstacle is added. Again, it’s nothing anyone hasn’t seen before, but the race against time adds a tick-tock element one expects from these things. The Perfect Storm’s screenwriter William D. Wittliff, working from Sebastian Junger’s book, couldn’t have invented anything more dramatic than what happened to those fishermen that day and the A-list cast did the rest. The Blu-ray package adds such interesting background featurettes as “Into the Storm: Tornado Files,” “Titus: The Ultimate Storm-Chasing Vehicle” and “Fake Storms: Real Conditions,” which demonstrates how the real and digital images were merged.

Automata: Blu-ray
Everywhen
In a movie that suffers by comparison to Blade Runner, Antonio Banderas plays a character who too closely resembles Harrison Ford’s replicant hunter, Rick Deckard. Where Ridley Scott used constant rain to emphasize how shitty things had become in Philip K. Dick’s toxic vision of noir L.A., Gabe Ibáñez’ Automata maintains its prevailing climate of dread by visualizing a planet scorched by endless radioactive sunshine. Given all the fear-mongering surrounding the climate-change debate, it’s easy to buy into cinematographer Alejandro Martínez’ hellishly unsparing landscape. Unfortunately, it’s the only aspect of Automata that really feels new and different. As such, it will be of more interest to post-apocalyptic completists than the mainstream critics who were almost unanimously unimpressed by it. They didn’t hate it, exactly, but neither did they find anything in it to love, as some niche bloggers did. Banderas may be more convincing than Tom Cruise in these sorts of futuristic thrillers, but, having enjoyed so much of his work with Pedro Almodóvar, I couldn’t avoid the feeling he would be better served elsewhere. Fellow Almodovar favorite Javier Bardem also lent his disembodied voice to Automata’s Blue Robot, so, if nothing else, Ibáñez must have felt buoyed by the support of his fellow Spaniards in only his second feature. The brief presence of Banderas’ wife, Melanie Griffith, as a “sexbot” tech and voice of one of her creations, Cleo Robot, is easier to explain. In 2044, the Earth’s surface is so radioactive that 99.7 percent of the population has been wiped out and most of the survivors exist behind walls built by robot drones. Banderas plays Jacq Vaucan, an agent for ROC Robotics, which has been entrusted with the responsibility of preventing the increasingly devious cyborgs from abusing the three protocols carved in stone by Isaac Asimov: 1) a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. They also appear to be breaking the protocols by altering and repairing themselves. It had to happen sooner or later, so ROC Robotics pays dearly to eliminate any threats to humans. Unlike too many of his fellow “insurance agents” and police, Vaucan exhibits more than an ounce of sympathy for those robots talented enough to improve their lot on Earth. It makes him a target for destruction, as well. When Vaucan disappears into the desert with Cleo, his supervisors kidnap his wife and newborn child. Incredibly, they run him down at a factory/hospital run by rogue robots. The ensuing standoff feels rushed and unnecessarily illogical. Robert Forster and Dylan McDermott add a touch of class in supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds a short making-of piece.

Norwegian import Everywhen is set 30 more years into the future than Automata, in a country where the threat to humanity doesn’t involve robots or radioactive sand. Somehow, though, another 3 billion people have suddenly disappeared from the face of the Earth. At a time when teleporting is a common means of transportation, 17-year-old Ian Finch (Harald Evjan Furuholmen) wills himself into the alternative universe he believes his missing brother, Dylan, can be found. The problem for Ian is that no one there wants Dylan to be found. Like his protagonist, co-writer/director Jarand Breian Herdal is a mere lad of 17. The movie, itself, isn’t all that exciting, but it did get some play in Norway. Considering Herdal had only about $10,000 to spend – maybe, he stole his parents’ credit cards – it doesn’t look bad, either. A short making-of film accompanies this DVD, as well.

The Wind Rises: Blu-ray
Princess Mononoke: Blu-ray
Kiki’s Delivery Service: Blu-ray
Ever since Western film critics and animation buffs helped convince Walt Disney Company to showcase the work of Hayao Miyazaki, by distributing titles from Studio Ghibli outside Japan, niche audiences here have applauded his takes on mankind’s struggle to balance nature and technology, the strength and wisdom of his female characters, and maintaining a pacifist stance in world enamored of war. They also have admired the ways fantasy and supernatural themes are integrated into manga-influenced stories of almost breathtaking visual beauty. Knowing Americans’ genetic predisposition to not reward movies that carry subtitles, Disney has arranged for casts of prominent voice actors to mute any objections to them. (It does the same thing in other markets.) Last year, Miyazaki stunned the industry by announcing his retirement after the completion of The Wind Rises, newly released here in Blu-ray alongside previous masterworks Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service. If all one knew about The Wind Rises before watching it at home or in a theater is that it either won or was nominated Best Animated Feature in every major critics’ poll or awards competition in which it was represented, they’re likely to be nonplussed by its subject matter. Although hugely popular in Japan, the film was the subject of political debate from both ends of the spectrum. If Miyazaki were more widely recognized in the U.S., The Wind Rises may have sparked an even greater controversy here. That’s because Miyazaki chose to illustrate the life story of Jiro Horikoshi, a man most Americans wouldn’t recognize as being Japan’s most prominent designer of military aircraft. His most notorious creation was the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, which, of course, inflicted the greatest amount of death and destruction during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hardly a subject to keep turnstiles spinning at U.S. multiplexes. Even those familiar with Horikoshi and his seemingly contradictory lack of sympathy for Japanese imperialism, however, might look askance at a screenplay that completely misrepresents his marriage and pre-war timeline, invents characters out of whole cloth, and even imagines a cigarette habit that didn’t exist.

What is indisputable is the engineer’s lifelong passion for flight and ability to see beauty in machines that almost surely would be used in war. As if to counter potential controversy, Miyazaki imbues his protagonist with the gift of visual prophesy. The widespread flames caused by a large earthquake pre-sage the firebombing of Tokyo, while, later, in a dream, Horikoshi and his imaginary Italian mentor, stroll through a field littered with the metal carcasses of Zeros. Even so, Horikoshi clearly compromises his repugnance for the Japanese cause by accepting the challenge of designing something that combines form and function in a way that corrupts artistic vision. “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful,” he says. It’s a trade-off too few designers and artists of all backgrounds have been able to resist. Even so, unless one has skipped ahead to the interviews contained in the bonus package, it would be difficult to understand precisely what the filmmaker is trying to say about Horikoshi’s dreams and capitulation. If I’ve thrown in a few too many spoilers here, it’s only because this wonderful film can be interpreted in so many different ways, not all of them entirely accurate. The splendid Blu-ray package, which Americans can enjoy with or without subtitles, includes the making-of featurette “The Wind Rises: Behind the Microphone,” storyboards, Japanese trailers and TV spots and lengthy Q&A press conference that accompanied the announcement of the completion of the film.

While viewers interested enough in Miyazaki’s career to seek out The Wind Rises in its Blu-ray debut likely already have enjoyed DVD versions of Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service, most will want to compare them to the hi-def experience, anyway. They won’t be disappointed. I would caution newcomers against starting at the end of the master’s list of credits, though, as his best-known films are significantly different in tone and style than The Wind Rises. Released in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong in 1997, American audiences didn’t get a look at Princess Mononoke until two years later, after Disney/Miramax was able to add an all-star English-language soundtrack and arrange for the filmmaker’s first press tour here. In it, Miyazaki pits Lady Eboshi’s expansionist clan of humans against the forest’s animal spirits led by Princess Mononoke, who was raised by wolves. The film wasn’t nearly as big a hit on this side of the Pacific as it was elsewhere, but its spectacular beauty, complex anime and engrossing narrative got the ball rolling for the release of previously undistributed titles and re-release of movies butchered by less conscientious handlers. The bonus material includes “Princess Mononoke in the USA,” on Miyazaki’s promotional tour; voice actors Jada Pinkett Smith, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson and Billy Crudup discuss their contributions; original Japanese storyboards; and marketing material.

Shown in Japan in 1989, Kiki’s Delivery Service arrived here on video in 1998 through Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The first attempt at dubbing English dialogue, employing American idioms and sound effects, disappointed many viewers who were already aware of Miyazaki’s work. It was given a second vocal makeover five years later on DVD. In it, Kiki is a 13-year-old apprentice witch on a worldwide mission to prove herself worthy of promotion to full-time status. Along with her black cat, Jiji, Kiki creates a successful high-flying delivery service, via broomstick. In addition to 10 carryover featurettes, the Blu-ray add “Ursula’s Painting,” a musical montage of images created by junior high school students and used by Director Miyazaki for the film.

A Five Star Life
It’s no secret anymore that women executives attempting to break through the glass ceiling are being asked to make sacrifices and lifestyle compromises that men in the same positions either take for granted or don’t have to sweat. Among them are traveling to places that make them feel uneasy and putting off having a family. Neither do indiscretions caused by loneliness necessarily cause men to be categorized as promiscuous or soiled, merely horny or desperate. If the hospitality industry has finally come to its senses and begun catering to single business travelers – some of the best hotels in Las Vegas no longer require guests to walk through casinos to get to their elevator or breathe air polluted by cigarette smoke and crude language – it’s because making such concessions pays off in repeat visits and referrals. In Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life, we’re introduced to a woman of a certain age who’s been able to navigate those shoals and come out the other end mostly unscathed. Margherita Buy was a natural choice to play Irene, an impeccably fashionable and dedicated executive at a company that owns some of the most prestigious hotels in the world. If Irene were working at a newspaper, her title would be “hotel critic.” Because she reports to men responsible for maintaining the company’s value to shareholders, instead of a crusty editor, her opinions carry much weight within the chain, from top to bottom.

If anything, Irene is far pickier than any critic. She checks in under assumed names and carries a corporate credit card not in her real name. She grades every person with whom she comes in contact, from concierge to pool attendants, and doesn’t eat anything she won’t critique when she gets back to her room. Irene puts on white gloves to check for dust on ledges and shelves, then sticks a thermometer into a bottle of room-service wine to make sure it’s ready to serve. Fortunately for Irene and viewers, the hotels she’s assigned to survey are in such places as Gstaad, Paris, Tuscany, Brindisi, Marrakech, Berlin and Shanghai. It’s an amazing job, even if it does keep her away from home for weeks at a time. Once there, she spends almost all of her time with her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi), two lively young nieces, and occasional lover, Andrea (Stefano Accorsi), who’s recently impregnated a woman who works for both of them. (It’s possible he’s more of a sperm donor than live-at-home dad.) Like many other overworked executives, regardless of gender or ethnicity, Irene doesn’t waste a great deal of time worrying about what might have been. That is, until she chances upon a woman (Lesley Manville) whose take on life prompts her to do just that. This turning point is handled by Tognazzi with great skill, without polemics, recriminations or cliché. Minus the fireworks, A Five Star Life may be too restrained and subtle to suit general audiences, but there’s no denying the integrity of Buy’s performance and relevance of the message.

A Summer’s Tale
In Bloom
It’s always a thrill when a new distributor joins the marketplace, pledging to bring “the best in world cinema to film enthusiasts across the United States,” and then delivers on that promise. Considering how few of the world’s great movies find their way into theaters here, the addition of one more company serving the arthouse crowd is welcome news, indeed. Founded in 2013 as an expansion of its short-film distribution wing, The World According to Shorts, Big World Pictures has just released into DVD Eric Rohmer’s 1996 romantic comedy, A Summer’s Tale, and Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’ intense Georgian coming-of-age drama, In Bloom. Originally premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, A Summer’s Tale is the third film in his Four Seasons film cycle and the only one to never before receive U.S. theatrical distribution, until this past summer. This typically light entertainment follows a young college graduate, Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud), who plans to meet his girlfriend for a three-week vacation in a lovely seaside town in Bretagne. Instead, he’s left to his own devices while she cruelly keeps him hanging. Not long after his arrival, Gaspard makes the acquaintance of Margot (Amanda Langlet, who, 13 years earlier, starred in Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach), a waitress at a restaurant owned by her mother. Like Gaspard, Margot is a recent college graduate waiting for her boyfriend to arrive. A frisky young woman, she recognizes something in him the audience has yet to perceive. He’s naïve to the point of being clueless when it comes to women and prefers to memorize sea shanties than try to figure out his feelings toward Margot, her friend, Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon) and his absurdly flighty girlfriend. Rohmer doesn’t mind that we fall in love with Margot, who seems so naturally right for Gaspard, but he prefers to treat as a best friend. Finally, we don’t know if we should feel sympathy for the young man or frustrated to the point of exhaustion by him. It’s not an atypical reaction to characters drawn by Rohmer, whose movies read more like novellas than romantic comedies. Naturally, he and cinematographer Diane Baratier takes great advantage of the wonderful seaside setting.

The Soviet Union may have collapsed a quarter-century ago, but it remains unclear if the early promise caused by the raising of the Iron Curtain was a mirage or if the new democracies can withstand the forces of repression and toxic nationalism. The strife-torn Georgia of 1992 described in In Bloom reminds us of the recent horror in Ukraine, especially in the lives of people caught in the crossfire between loyalist forces and rebels supported by Vladimir Putin’s neo-fascist regime in Russia. No sooner had Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union than people throughout the embattled region found themselves immersed in a war on the Black Sea coast in Abkhazia and widespread vigilantism. In Bloom is set in the capital city of Tbilisi, while, relatively distant from the war, nonetheless was impacted by food shortages, sectarian violence and crime. We’re introduced to 14-year-old Eka and Natia, inseparable friends who might not look out of place hanging out at a mall anywhere in the world. They love music, steal cigarettes from their parents, flirt with cute guys and aren’t keen on doing homework. What we’ll learn about them, as well, is how their futures are clouded by being raised in dysfunctional families in a dysfunctional country. At a time when girls their age should be preparing for college or careers, Eka and Natia must deal with deeply entrenched male chauvinism, the scourge of alcoholism among loved ones, thuggish behavior by their peers and the ever-present danger of rape and “bride-nappings.” At a certain point in the narrative, a gun is given to one of the girls by a would-be boyfriend who fears that she may soon need it to fend off unwanted suitors or her abusive father. When she decides that her friend may need the gun more than she does, the film’s dynamic changes dramatically. Can seemingly hopeless situations be improved through violence, however justified, or must it always makes things worse? The answer to this question will determine if Eka and Natia’s coming of age will bring something besides more misery.

Brazilian Western: Blu-ray
If you can, imagine how a merging of the Jamaican gangsta’ classic The Harder They Come and the Beatles’ folk-rock ballad “Rocky Raccoon” might come off on the big screen. I’m pretty sure it would look very much like Brazilian Western, a terrific Third World oater that has been shamefully ignored by U.S. distributors. Similarly overlooked upon its release in 1972, The Harder They Come’s infectious blend of music, romance and outlaw heroics eventually turned Perry Henzell’s film into a midnight-movie sensation. Its soundtrack album became a starter-kit for newcomers to reggae, as well. Paul McCartney has characterized “Rocky Raccoon” as being a tongue-in-cheek spoof of the folk/troubadour tradition and a “freewheeling ramble” about a hopelessly overmatched gunfighter in the Old West. It was recorded in 1968, almost as an afterthought for inclusion on the Beatles’ White Album. Like Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” “Rocky Raccoon” remains one of the most memorable songs of the period. René Sampaio’s Brazilian Western was adapted directly from a catchy nine-minute-long heroic ballad, “Faroeste Caboclo,” written by the late Renato Russo in 1979 and recorded by the folk-rock group Legiao Urbana in 1987. Just as the song anticipated the period of social and political upheaval that followed the end of the dictatorship, in 1985, Brazilian Western looks back at the same period and, beyond that, to the creation of the country’s ultra-modern capital of Brasilia.

Like Cliff’s Ivanhoe Martin, Joao de Santo Cristo (Fabrício Boliveira) was born in the backcountry and moved to the capital as an adult looking for work and recognition. Unlike Ivan, Joao arrived in Brasilia an already fully blown outlaw. He had bided his time until his impoverished mother died, before confronting the military policeman who murdered his father in cold blood. By the time he got out of prison, the dictators were gone and Brasilia was a hotbed of activity, both for the well-off children of the new ruling class and the noticeably poorer and blacker children of the laborers who built the city’s space-age buildings. Not able to make a decent living as a carpenter, he turns to a cousin, Pablo (César Troncoso), who controls the vice in shantytown and wants his cousin to sell marijuana to the rich kids across town. What Pedro neglects to mention is that his territory already is serviced by a “playboy” hoodlum, Jeremias (César Troncoso), who has bought off the local police for protection. No sooner has Joao set up shop in his new territory than he is rousted by the cops. He makes his escape by climbing into the second-story window of the daughter of a state senator. It doesn’t take much convincing for Maria Lúcia (Isis Valverde) to provide shelter for the intruder. An architectural student at the university, she’s bored and a bit self-conscious about her station in life. Intrigued, Isis offers to introduce Joao to her friends, who are impressed by the quality of his weed. Not surprisingly, the rest of the movie is taken up with Jeremias’ obsession with getting rid of Joao and Pablo and re-connecting with Maria Lucia. If you are conversant in Portuguese, it’s all there in the song. If not, you won’t regret sticking with Brazilian Western to its exciting end. You’ll want to check out the making-of featurette, too.

Docs on DVD
Alive Inside: Blu-ray
I Am Ali: Blu-ray
Legends of the Knight
Freeload
Master of the Universe
Slow Food Story
Although billions of dollars have been raised in the search for a cure – or, even, a few solid clues – for memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and certain other neurological ailments, it wasn’t until early last month that the success of a non-drug program was reported. The study, a joint project between the Easton Center at UCLA and Buck Institute for Research on Aging, claims that 9 out of 10 volunteer patients had their symptoms reversed after participating in a 36-point program. If the report didn’t set off fireworks at the Alzheimer Association, it’s because of the small number of patients involved. Still, as it pertains to progressive memory loss and dementia, the report represented the first positive step forward in years. Michael Rossato-Bennett’s uplifting documentary on the illness, Alive Inside, has been on the festival hustings ever since winning the prestigious Audience Award at this year’s Sundance soiree, so it doesn’t include any information from the UCLA study. What it does offer in the way of good news is physical evidence of the curative powers of music. Since daily brain stimulation is among the suggested activities in UCLA’s 36-point program, the therapy supported by Dan Cohen’s non-profit organization, Music & Memory, already is in line with those findings. And, a great number of success stories have been recorded. M&M teaches elder-care professionals how to set up personalized music playlists, delivered on iPods and other digital devices, for those in their care. These musical favorites tap deep memories not lost to dementia and can enable residents to feel like themselves again, to converse, socialize and stay in the present. That’s the sales pitch, anyway. What’s remarkable about Alive Inside are the clips of patients literally “coming alive” when the music begins to flow through the headphones. One man’s eyes nearly pop out their sockets, while other patients begin discussing their memories of hearing a song for the first time or moving their feet to the beat. The only thing I’ve seen that’s comparable is footage of the re-awakened patients of neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose work and book inspired the movie Awakenings. As the author of “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” Sack appears as a witness here alongside musician Bobby McFerrin. Among Cohen’s concerns is the industry’s reliance on mind-numbing pharmaceuticals to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, in lieu of a cure. He also points out the need for volunteers and contributions to expand M&M’s reach. If he’s looking for used iPods and MP3 players, he should screen Alive Inside at high schools across the country. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kids ripped the headphones from their ears and lobbed their players toward the stage.

There came a point in Clare Lewins’ extremely compelling bio-doc I Am Ali when I thought I might not have tuned into the Internet on the day that Muhammad Ali died and missed the flood of eulogies and tributes that would surely follow such a sad event. It is exactly the kind of documentary everyone of great substance should be rewarded with before they die and are unable to appreciate the sincerity of the kind thoughts shared with viewers. The great heavyweight boxer is not lacking in filmed testimonials and considerations on his impact on the sport and history. Footage from his fights is available for purchase, rental and downloads, as are several excellent feature films and documentaries. What makes I Am Ali different from those properties is its tight focus on how his life affected those of friends, family members, opponents and complete strangers. Especially touching are the taped recordings of phone calls and other conversations he had with his young children and, later, their recollections of those conversations and what kind of father he was to them. As loved as Ali is around the world, there were times in his life and marriages when he was less than a perfect role model. Those moments aren’t examined in any depth, but neither are they ignored. I Am Ali is informed, as well, by home movies, musical selections and archival footage of training sessions, fights and public appearances. What’s revealed is a portrait of Ali as a fighter, lover, brother, father and friend.

At about this time, last year, San Francisco caught Batman fever and it quickly spread through the media across the country and world. When the Make a Wish Foundation asked the city to allow a 5-year-old boy with leukemia to play the Caped Crusader for a day, Bay Area residents did everything in their power to make it happen. In doing so, they also brought smiles to the faces of people whose only recollection of the character may be that of Adam West in a gray or lavender body suit, depending on their TVs. Christian Bale, who’s played the last three big-screen Batmans, has also gone out of his way to make the dreams of kids with terminal diseases come true. Other aspiring superheroes have been accorded similar treatment in other cities. Brett Culp’s Legends of the Knight was completed before San Francisco opened its Golden Gate to Batkid Miles Scott – currently in remission — but it was able to include footage of a Maryland Batman imitator getting a pass from a traffic cop, so he could be on time for a visit to Georgetown Hospital. It didn’t stop them from asking him to pose for pictures in his Lamborghini Batmobile. Everyone needs a hero … super or otherwise. That’s pretty much the point of Culp’s documentary, which interviews everyone from lifelong fans and comic-book artists, to kids who’ve been bullied and others with birth defects. We meet Batman imitators who spend their weekends brightening the days of sick children and give crime-stopper advice at schools. While not the most polished doc you’ll see this year, Legends of the Knight makes up for it by being inspirational and entertaining.

Although the number of genuine hobos presumably gets smaller every year, the annual National Hobo Convention took place last August, as usual, in Britt, Iowa. It would have been a perfect place to screen Freeload, but apparently there wasn’t any room left between the Toilet Bowl Races, Cow Chip Chucking Contest and Hobo Cemetery Tour. Basically, Daniel Skaggs’ provocative film asks us to consider what it means to be a hobo at a time when such words as freeloader, bum, tramp, vagabond, slacker and homeless person have been accorded new politically correct meanings. Skaggs spent 18 months documenting how contemporary hobos survive, look, dress, find food to eat, places to bathe and escape being arrested for vagrancy, theft and trespassing. None of the young people we meet bear any resemblance to Red Skelton’s Freddy the Freeloader or legendary circus clown Emmit Kelly; warble “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Hobo Bill” over campfires in the “jungle”; leave visible signs behind to alert fellow bindle-stiffs; live by any set ethical code; or use the boxcars to commute to labor camps. Not surprisingly, perhaps, all of the guys have odd nicknames, crudely drawn tattoos and clothing so dirty it could test the limits of a commercial washer and dryer. In these ways, of course, they could just as easily pass for rock stars or skateboarding champions. Some of the hobos we meet have tried and failed to meet the standards of square society, while others have decided that encumbrances of any kind are out of the question. When one of the guys earns an actual paycheck, he shows it off as if it were a four-leaf clover on St. Patrick’s Day. Another highlight comes when one young man panhandles enough money to buy a live lobster, which his dog almost immediately steals and tries unsuccessfully to devour. Most potential viewers, I think, would find Freeload far more aggravating than energizing or educational. The music fits the theme, however.

In Marc Bauder’s Master of the Universe (“Der Banker: Master of the Universe”), a leading German investment banker, Rainer Voss, spends a lot of time standing alone in an abandoned office suite overlooking Frankfurt’s financial district of Frankfurt. When he isn’t pointing out the headquarters of companies that didn’t survive the economic collapse, Voss directs our attention to the logos of international conglomerates most viewers wouldn’t recognize, even if they were German. The deserted meeting room serves both as metaphor and warning to those who don’t listen carefully to Voss’ advice and repeat the same sins that caused the depression. He spends a great deal of time repeating things we’ve already heard about financial instruments, regulatory agencies that don’t regulate and the psychology of corporate executives too caught up in the game to realize they’ve sold their souls to the devil. When they’re gone, he argues, their replacements will likely steer their companies on same course. What Voss doesn’t do is offer a convincing argument as to why those responsible for the collapse – himself included – shouldn’t be sent to prison and forced to work in the laundry for an eternity.

Stefano Sardo’s Slow Food Story describes what happens when a bunch of Italian leftists tire of living like the proletariat and jump head first into a movement that allows them to eat really good food, drink expensive wine and share them in convivial surroundings with former comrades. It puts a tight focus on Carlo Petrini, a charismatic fellow who’s managed to franchise his anti-fast-food movement — the ArciGola Gastronomic Association, later shortened to Slow Food – to like-minded gourmands around the planet. I’m not sure how it warrants a feature-length documentary, in that Petrini is preaching to a choir that began turning to organic, vegan and other healthy foods in the 1960s and continues to do so, today. Likewise, its message isn’t likely to reach people who can’t or won’t afford anything but processed goods and products that hide the bad ingredients in small type in the box containing nutritional information. His followers readily acknowledge that artisanal and naturally grown food isn’t cheap, only that the people who grow it deserve the additional bread. With McDonald’s and other fast-food chains racing around like free-range chickens with their heads cut off to create new products for health-conscious patrons to embrace, maybe the Slow Food movement is an idea whose time has come. As long as Honey Boo Boo and Mama June are rewarded handsomely for eating like pigs at a trough, however, it’s unlikely that American tummies will be ready for reform.

As the Light Goes Out: Blu-ray
Knowing that Kwok Chi-kin’s As the Light Goes Out is an action movie from Hong Kong won’t help western fans of the subgenre make the right decisionwhen it pops up on their list of suggested titles from Netflix or Amazon. That’s because the movie harkens more to Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno and Ron Howard’s Backdraft than anything associated with John Woo or Chow Yun-Fat. And, I suppose, there are plenty of folks out there who’ve been longing to see a good movie, however soapy about firefighters. It’s Christmas Eve in Hong Kong, and while the residents prepare to celebrate, the firefighters of Pillar Point Division (Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Andy On) are dispatched to a warehouse fire. Next thing they know, a larger section of the city is plunged into darkness and flames are nearing a power plant supplying natural gas. It raises the overall degree of difficulty to unprecedented levels. The action scenes are both terrifically entertaining and serve to dilute the melodrama. The Towering Inferno had plenty of action, too, but what really sold the picture was an all-star cast that included Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones and, wait for it, O.J. Simpson. As the Light Goes Out suffers a bit by featuring a roster of actors with which most of us are unfamiliar. Those who are should have a good time, though. Pay attention for a cameo by Jackie Chan, as himself.

Not Another Celebrity Movie
Emilio Ferrari isn’t a name that immediately comes up when you plug “quality cinema” into a search engine. It’s also true, however, that he’s written, directed and produced far more movies than any critic I know, so it’s fair to ask who’s more deserving of your trust when it comes to evaluating cheap-and-dirty comedies. The only way I can answer that question is by suggesting that Not Another Celebrity Movie isn’t nearly as bad a parody as it could be and, in some quarters, might actually qualify as a guilty pleasure. Its conceit, as spelled out on the DVD cover, involved hiring a couple of dozen celebrity look-alikes and inserting them into a spoof of both iterations of Ocean’s Eleven. If he’s thrown in a few ringers – Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Donald Trump, Usher, Johnny Depp and Paris Hilton, among them – well, as the argument goes, the more the merrier. The story, which is absurdly convoluted, boils down to Sheen (Dave Burleigh) being so addled that he becomes convinced that his DNA is running through the veins of Justin Bieber (Dannielle Owens-Reid). The only way he can be sure he’s Bieb’s daddy, however, is to meet face-to-face with the ill-mannered entertainer and trace their respective roots. Because none of the people minding Bieber’s affairs want that to happen, Sheen is required to pull together a team of rascals like those in  “Ocean’s” series and stage a kidnapping in Las Vegas. I’ve seen worse look-alikes than the ones gathered here, but the only person who comes closest is former porn star Bree Olson, who plays herself as one Sheen’s former live-in “angels.”

Horror roundup
Monkey Shines/The Dark Half: Blu-ray
Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings: Blu-ray
Rise of the Black Bat
The Thing on the Door Step
The best of this week’s bunch of horror flicks fall into the category of golden oldies. It is the Shout Factory double-feature, Monkey Shines and The Dark Half, both of which are zombie-free adaptations of novels by master of the undead, George A. Romero. Based on a scary little story by Michael Stewart, the 1988 Monkey Shines demonstrates what can happen when a service animal gets too attached to its quadriplegic owner and becomes jealous of anyone who comes between them. In this case, it’s a very clever and possibly telepathic primate named Ella (Boo). The monkey and the onetime athlete she serves, Alan (Jason Beghe), become fast friends, which can’t be said of Ella’s relationship with his former girlfriend and doctor, her trainer and Alan’s lover, his speed-freak brother and busybody mother and another doctor, who sees a cure where others don’t. At some point, Alan comes to understand that Ella’s a very naughty and destructive little helper, but is physically unable to put an end to her game. Butchered by the studio and panned by critics, Romero’s first commercial endeavor was a huge disappointment to him and horror buffs. Today, by comparison to most other horror flicks, Monkey Shines holds up very well. So does The Dark Half, which, four years later, was similarly manhandled by the financially troubled Orion Pictures. It was adapted from a Stephen King novel that eerily reflected the writer’s own tortured state of mind in the early-1990s. Timothy Hutton plays King’s surrogate in the story, the novelist Thad Beaumont. As a boy, after suffering seizures, an operation on Thad’s brain revealed traces of a growth that proved to be a twin brother that never developed. As a seizure-free adult, Thad has become a novelist who writes serious books in his own name and pulp fiction under a pseudonym, George Stark. Guess which books sell better. King’s personal demons manifest themselves through Stark, both in the book and movie. Don’t worry, it’s all explained in the almost feature-length interviews with Romero in the bonus package. Like Ella, Stark is a truly nasty fellow who, like Ella, starts killing people when he feels threatened. Then, there’s the matter of a mega-flock of sparrows that began to appear during Thad’s brain surgery and return with his doppelganger. Once again, Romero was disappointed with the final product, but, in fact, it’s pretty good. The Blu-ray package adds making-of featurettes with both movies, deleted scenes, alternate endings, behind-the-scenes footage and other treats.

Also returning from the same period is the direct-to-video Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, which bears almost no qualitative resemblance to the 1988 Pumpkinhead, which served as Stan Winston’s directorial debut. Where the original was conceived as an inky-black fairytale, the “sequel” might as well have been written by crayon and directed with boxing gloves affixed to director Jeff Burr’s hands. Moreover, where Pumpkinhead was distinguished by another fine performance by Lance Henriksen, “Blood Wings” scrounged a few cheap headlines by hiring President Clinton’s doofus brother, Roger, to play Mayor Bubba. Otherwise, it’s just another revenge picture in which teens get their comeuppance for testing the credibility of rural mythology. The Blu-ray adds commentary and a lengthy interview with Burr; “Recreating the Monster,” with special-effects specialists Greg Nicotero, Gino Crognale and Mark McCracken; and behind-the-scenes footage.

Under-baked to the point of being inedible, Rise of the Black Bat (“The Black Bat Rises”) would have no reason to exist if it weren’t for the very interesting story that inspired it. In 1933, the short-lived Black Bat Detective Mysteries introduced a crime-fighting superhero, who, six years later, would be fleshed out in Black Book Detective as a cowled crusader, not unlike the Bat-man, who also was introduced to comic-book readers in 1939. Apart from the color of their respective outfits, the characters could be mistaken for brothers. The second incarnation of Black Bat appeared in print intermittently from 1939 to 1953. His alter ego is District Attorney Anthony Quinn, who was blinded by acid thrown at him by a gangster’s henchman. A cornea-grafting procedure restores his eyesight, while also heightening other senses, but it leave him unable to operate freely in the light of day. Sometime in the next dozen years, the publishers of Black Bat and Batman came to an agreement that clearly benefitted the latter. Quinn would be killed off in 2011, so that a third series, Legacy of the Black Bat, could begin. For better or worse, Scott Patrick and Trevor Payor’s Rise of the Black Bat resuscitates Tony Quinn in the person of Jody Haucke (Thunderstorm: The Return of Thor). The narrative approximates the second series’ origin story. Even at 80 minutes, though, the film contains more padding than a Miss America pageant and a credits list that reportedly includes fake names — jumbled references to DC superheroes – to make the crew appear to be larger than it was.

Hardly any other authors have had their work translated into film more times than H.P. Lovecraft. Ironically, when the Providence native died in 1937, he was virtually unknown and penniless. If he had lived to the ripe old age of 124, Lovecraft would probably be as rich and famous as Steven King, who considers him to be “the 20th Century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” In a bizarre corollary, it seems that the best adaptations have been created by filmmakers of limited means and an absent a great deal of studio interference. Released originally in 2003, but displaying a fresh polish by Leomark Studios, The Thing on the Doorstep benefits from imaginatively stylish video cinematography and loving treatment of the source material by director Eric Morgret and writer K.L.Young. It is the story of mysterious hypnotist Asenath Waite and the young man she enchants, Edward Derby, as well as the friend who has to kill him after unspeakable things happen. The film won Best Feature at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and the prestigious H.P. Lovecraft Award at the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival.

The volume of new horror releases really picked up after Halloween. Most of them, however, clearly have been undone by miniscule budgets, inexperienced actors and ineffective special effects. All deliver buckets of blood and gore, gratuitous nudity and violence against women, and lighting effects some might find irritating.

Isis Rising: Curse of the Lady Mummy employs the myth of Isis and Osiris as a starting point for a silly story about what happens when a six college students are assigned the task of deciphering hieroglyphics on a slab of stone acquired by a local museum. In their curiosity, they awaken the ancient spirit of Isis and her wrath is unleashed on the group.

In Collar, a disheveled derelict with a reputation of satanic violence tortures women, including a cop, who he restrains with a dog leash and bludgeons. Other things happen, but most of the film takes place in places yet to be hooked up to the electrical grid.

Skinless becomes a race against time for a terminally ill medical researcher, who formulates what could be a cure for cancer but may not live to participate in clinical trials. After he decides to make himself a human guinea pig, things get really strange. Tumors mutate into monstrous forms and cause the researcher to go violently mad.

The Killer 4 Pack is grab bag of stomach-churning films that, for all I know, might have been entered into a student film festival and compiled for a song. The best of the quartet is The Day of the Dead, which links Mexican religious rituals to a series of gruesome murders in Chicago. In Jezebeth, a Goth gal discovers a 19th Century diary that provides her with all the information she needs to summon a demon. Once again, in Carnage: The Legend of Quiltface, students accidentally put themselves in harm’s way by wandering into the desert for a photography assignment. In it, the skin on the head of psycho-killer, Quiltface, has been stitched together from parts of several other faces. In Hellweek: Grindhouse Edition, rush week is ruined when students decide to stage a hazing ritual in an abandoned warehouse that serves as a flophouse for a band of homicidal maniacs.

PBS: Masterpiece: Worricker: Turks & Caicos/Salting the Battlefield/Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Animal Misfits

When last we saw British secret agent Johnny Worricker (Bill Nighy) in November, 2011, on “Masterpiece Contemporary,” writer/director David Hare was still hoping that ratings for “Page Eight” would allow for two more installments of a planned trilogy. And, here they are, back-to-back … not exactly like clockwork, but welcome nonetheless. As a rule, whenever a BBC spy thriller arrives on our shores for airing on PBS, I wait for the UK version to arrive almost simultaneously on DVD/Blu-ray. Too often, they’re trimmed to make room for Pledge Month (Pledge Year?) pitches. “Turks & Caicos” and “Salting the Battlefield” tie up loose strings from “Page Eight,” at the end of which Worricker went on the lam with top-secret information about Britain’s tacit approval of CIA rendition centers and the torture of prisoners. The mini-series catches up with him as he’s laying low in Turks & Caicos, celebrating each new dawn that he’s still alive. In “Part Two,” he’s recognized by a CIA operative played very coolly by    Christopher Walken, who claims to be in the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. Of course, they’re not. In fact, their business ties in with Johnny’s last case and both MI5 and the CIA want to keep things from leaking to the press. Rachel Weisz no longer is in the picture, but a very adult looking Winona Ryder does a nice job as someone who could break the case wide open. Walken and Nighy are terrific in a game of Spy vs. Spy that sees them working together and against each other, almost simultaneously. “Salting the Battlefield” opens with Johnny and ex-lover Margot Tyrell (Helena Bonham Carter) bouncing around Germany, attempting to avoid capture by MI5 operatives. But Worricker knows his only chance of resolving his problems is to return home and confront his nemesis, Prime Minister, Alec Beasley (Ralph Fiennes), before going to the press. As is usually the case, nothing is what it appears to be and the spooks threaten to kill Johnny’s adult daughter (Felicity Jones). Fiennes could hardly be more convincing as a world leader on the hot seat and, therefore, extremely dangerous. A backgrounder is included in the Blu-ray.

The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Animal Misfits,” provides great fun for the whole family, by spotlighting animals that appear to have defied the laws of evolution and creationism by surviving extinction, despite themselves. Or, to put it another way: they zigged, when the rest of their species zagged. Some are thriving, while others are endangered. Among the oddball subjects are
the giant panda, mudskipper, big-headed mole and woolly bear caterpillar.

Billy Joel: Live at Shea Stadium: Blu-ray
Built in 1964, Shea Stadium was the home of the New York Mets for 45 years … most of them near the bottom of the National League. In some circles, then, it might be best remembered for staging the Beatles’ first stadium concert, on August 15, 1965. It was a show that lots of people attended, but no one heard, because of the screaming fans. Since then, the multiuse facility has provided a stage for most of the major bands while on tour. Oh, yeah, the Mets also won two World Series there. “The Last Play at Shea,” was staged on July 16 and July 18, 2008, before a combined 110,000 fans. Besides Billy Joel, who many consider to be the house act at the venue, it contains 150 minutes of his biggest hits and performances with special guests Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks, John Mayer, John Mellencamp, Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey. The final section of Shea Stadium was torn down in 2009.

The DVD Wrapup: Mood Indigo, Jersey Boys, Tammy, Happy Christmas, Land Ho!, I Am Yours, Demons, Ornette/Jason, S.O.B., Compleat and more

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Mood Indigo: Blu-ray

Imagine a collaboration between Jacques Tati, Pee-wee Herman and Giacomo Puccini and it might resemble Michel Gondry’s newest romantic fantasy, Mood Indigo, not that he needs much help in that department. Based on French novelist Boris Vian’s 1947 cult novel, “Froth on the Daydream” (L’Écume des jours), Gondry’s wholly inventive and almost overwhelmingly whimsical film is largely set in the custom-made home of a rich young man, whose every wish can be afforded by money and an abundance of imagination. If “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” were to return to television tomorrow, it might look very much like the domicile shared by Colin (Romain Duris) and his magician-chef, Nicolas (Omar Sy). A piano is mechanized to create cocktails (pianocktails), according to the music being made on it; when a door needs to be opened, a cockroach-shaped doorbell crawls from its post on the wall, ringing madly, until it’s smashed to smithereens by whatever blunt instrument is handy; Nicolas’ fanciful dishes are created with the consul of his mentor, who appears to live inside a television monitor; and a mousy humanoid happily performs countless chores only someone his size can accomplish. It isn’t until Colin’s best friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a zealous admirers of the incomprehensible existentialist Jean-Sol Partre, reveals his devotion to a new American girlfriend that Colin realizes how starved for love he is. For the first time in a long while, he allows himself to attend a party seemingly populated with women invited for his consideration.
After stumbling over his jokey introduction to Chloé (Audrey Tautou), they connect while dancing rubber-leggedly to the music of Duke Ellington … hence the title. They soon fall deeply in love and, a few months later, enjoy as romantic a honeymoon as anyone could imagination, The spell is broken when Chloe develops a persistent cough, amazingly caused by the spore of a waterlily that’s begun to grow in one of her lungs and is expanding with cancerous dispatch. Her doctor recommends suffocating the waterlily with less-invasive flowers and swallowing chromium BBs that are as animated as Mexican jumping beans. Nothing works, however. As her body weakens, Colin’s once-endless supply of cash is exhausted by medical expenses and his support of Chick’s’s addiction to Parte’s books and memorabilia. Even more tellingly, the movie’s color scheme has begun to devolve from nearly psychedelic brilliance to funereal monochromatic hues. The magic has disappeared and what’s left is our anticipation of a “La Boheme” ending. A 94-minute version of Mood Indigo, which was released into U. S. festivals and theaters, was greeted with a small handful of awards but decidedly mixed reviews. The art direction was praised for its imaginative approach to the assignment, while also being slammed for overshadowing the actors and story with gimmickry. I beg to differ. Drafthouse has included the original 125-minute version of the movie, as well as the theatrical cut. Adventurous viewers, who don’t mind lumped together as cultists, should fall in love with the longer version, especially in Blu-ray.
 
Jersey Boys: Blu-ray
As often as the children of Baby Boomers have heard the tedious story of how the British Invasion changed the American musical scene in the mid-1960s, it’s impossible for them to fully appreciate how quickly the revolution for the ears of teenage listeners had been fought, won and ultimately coopted. Everyone knows about the radical de-greasing of hairdos and how the British bands effectively reintroduced American R&B and blues to white Americans. Long forgotten, I think, is how dramatically “Meet the Beatles” caused the industry to grow from a singles-based, radio- and jukebox-driven business to one in which every song on an album could become a hit and royalties would no longer be shared with music publishers representing as many as a dozen different songwriters. David Chase’s autobiographical Not Fade Away nicely captured the transition period, when smoky mob-run nightclubs gave way to stadium concerts and the Rolling Stones would trump the Beatles by convincing young musicians that they could wear whatever the hell they wanted on stage and, while they’re at it, forgo matching haircuts and suits. The Beach Boys, Four Seasons and soul groups based in Detroit, Philadelphia and Memphis would survive the barrage by producing singles people wanted to here on radio, record and on “American Bandstand.” If the Beach Boys would soon begin challenging the Beatles on their own terms, the Four Seasons remained essentially what they were, all along: a doo-op ensemble blessed with exceedingly lyrics and instrumentation. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s long-lasting smash “jukebox musical” dramatizes aspects of the band’s history that mostly serve as background for the unspooling of individual songs in the live show.
In the film, the songs are subordinate to the band’s messy history, which largely pertains to internecine conflicts and the role played by the New Jersey mob in its evolution. Eastwood does what he can to make it interesting, but, when it comes to organized crime, Martin Scorsese manages to say the same thing in far less time. (The Copacabana scene in Goodfellas reveals as much about the ties that link the Mafia and show business as anything in Jersey Boys… and Joe Pesci figures in both movies.) Anyone who loves the stage musical is likely to miss the intimacy that comes with experiencing the almost spiritual interaction between actors and a live audience predisposed to love a show. On the plus side, most of the primary actors here also starred in productions of the 10-year-old musical and they bring similar intensity to their roles. The last five minutes of the movie and first five minutes of the closing credits, actually do replicate the theatrical experience, and are well worth the wait. Christopher Walken, as mob patron Gyp DeCarlo, is always fun to watch. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, both from a visual and aural standpoint, and adds featurettes, “From Broadway to the Big Screen,” “Too Good To Be True” and “‘Oh, What a Night’ to Remember.”
 
Tammy: Extended Cut: Blu-ray
I think that true-blue fans of Melissa McCarthy will cut Tammy much more slack than it deserves, which, I suppose, is as it should be. Those unfamiliar with McCarthy’s likeable TV persona and key roles in The HeatIdentity Thief and Bridesmaids likely will be left wondering what all the fuss is about, however. It’s as if Tammy’s director-co-writer-co-producer-husband Ben Falcone encouraged her to channel Roseanne at her most self-indulgent and chew as much scenery as should could stomach, in lieu of craft-services fare. As first-time writer-directors, McCarthy and Falcone bit off way more than they could chew and it appears there was no one in a position of authority to tell them when something wasn’t funny. Admittedly, Tammy appears to have made some money for its investors, if not nearly as much as recent pictures in which she and Falcone weren’t required to carry the load all by themselves. As we meet McCarthy’s character, she’s about to crash her car into a very belligerent deer and after being roughed up by the bruised beast, lose her job at a fast-food dump for being even later and more disheveled than usual. Upon arriving home early, Tammy interrupts her husband (Nat Faxon) enjoying a romantic meal with their neighbor (Toni Collette). Thinking that a change of scenery might help, Tammy unsuccessfully attempts to borrow her mom’s car for a trip to Niagara Falls. Instead, she gets her diabetic, booze-hound grandmother (Susan Sarandon) to accompany her on the road trip. Naturally, it’s impossible not to flash back to Thelma and Louise, especially when Grandma Pearl’s antics land her in jail and Tammy is required to rob a pie shop to come up with the bail money.
As is too often the case, anyone who’s seen commercials or trailers for the movie already knows what happens. Blessedly, things pick up when they pay a visit to Cousin Lenore (Kathy Bates) and her longtime lover, Susanne (Sandra Oh), at their beautiful lake home. It gives Tammy an opportunity to inject some homophobic shtick into the narrative, even if it’s not remotely amusing. As the interaction between Bates, Sarandon and Oh takes center stage, McCarthy is allowed to share the spotlight and make Tammy less of a gargoyle. It also allows room for the some romantic subplots to blossom. Like Collette and Faxon, such fine actors as Allison Janney, Mark Duplass, Dan Aykroyd and Gary Cole are pretty much limited to extended cameos. Even so, I’m anxious to see how McCarthy fares alongside Bill Murray, Naomi Watts and Terrence Howard in Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Tammy’s Road Trip Checklist,” which is mostly comprised of vacation footage; a gag reel; deleted scenes; alternate takes; and an extended cut with four more minutes of what I imagine to be more vulgar language and coarse material than that already contained in the R-rated theatrical edition.

The One I Love: Blu-ray
Happy Christmas
Even if Mark Duplass has finally managed to escape the mumblecore pigeonhole, I’ve lumped The One I Love together with Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas because they probably share a fan base interested in all of the films and TV shows in which they’re involved. While very different, both of these dramedies are typically offbeat and feature excellent performances by familiar actors. In director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader’s feature debut, The One I Love, Duplass plays Ethan, whose marriage to Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) has pretty much run its course and all that’s left is the bickering. Even so, they agree to meet with a therapist whose methodology is unconventional, as best. (McDowell’s stepfather, Ted Danson, lent his name and body to the project as the couple’s therapist.) Ethan and Sophie agree to take him up on his offer of a free weekend at his country cottage, in exchange for their best efforts to solve their festering antagonism. And, thanks to some fine wine and pot, things do work out well on their first night away from home. No sooner does the sun come up on Day 2, however, than the couple is thrust into a scenario one can only get to by taking the off-ramp to “The Twilight Zone.” It takes us by surprise as much as it does Ethan and Sophie. I won’t spoil the surprise any more than I already have, except to say that Duplass and Moss pull it off with aplomb and viewers are advised to pay close attention to their every move.

By contrast, Happy Christmas rips an entire chapter from the mumblecore playbook and it, too, should make Swanberg’s followers happy. As usual, the actors appear to be working more from an outline than a script and their motivation derives from shared memories of hanging out with close friends before they were kind of rich and almost famous. Anna Kendrick, the Millennial Generation’s Sandra Bullock, plays Swanberg’s younger sister, Jenny, who, after ending a relationship, comes to Chicago to live with Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) and Jeff (Swanberg) to help take care of their child, Jude. It doesn’t take long before it becomes clear that Jenny and her best friend, Carson (Lena Dunham), need a babysitter as much as Jude. One of the distinguishing characteristics of mumblecore is dialogue that takes us in different directions than we think things are headed. Jenny is irresponsible to the point of being a potential hazard to the family’s well-being and Kelly always seems on the verge of throwing her out on her ear. Jenny, though, is able to endear herself to Kelly by insisting that she join the girls in a toke or sip … ditto, with brother Jeff, who’s even more malleable than his wife. With the incredibly cute and animated Jude already walking, Kelly has begun to feel uneasy about staying home and “only” being a mom. Apparently, before becoming pregnant, she had written a best-selling book and it is about to be made into a movie. Jenny and Carson convince Kelly of therapeutic value of writing a romance novel at the film’s unoccupied production office and getting back in the saddle. To save time, everyone will contribute story ideas and share in the writing process. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this gives the gals a legitimate reason to get wasted in the afternoon, a condition that also leads to complications. It’s all very loosey-goosey. My biggest problem with Happy Christmas came in Kendrick’s seeming inability to improvise without adding one “like” and “you know,” at least, to virtually every sentence of dialogue. Even if it was intentional, it’s annoying as hell. Otherwise, fans of the subgenre will want to add it to their collection.

Tru Love
Although there’s plenty enough going on between the three troubled women at the center of Kate Johnston and Shauna MacDonald’s romantic drama, Tru Love, the city of Toronto and its bitter winter cold nearly steal the show from them. Normally, movies set in big American cities during January and February are shot somewhere else, using snow-making machines and CGI “breath fog” to create the illusion of discomfort. Canadian filmmakers, though, don’t seem to mind shooting during the harsh winters in the Great White NorthThe Sweet HereafterAway From Her and Affliction all benefited by conditions that tested the actors as much as the characters they portrayed. If Tru Love isn’t in the same league as those fine movies, its wintery setting accurately conveys the chilly vibes shared by the women at the corners of the film’s stormy triangle. Co-writer/co-director MacDonald plays Tru, a 37-year-old lesbian who’s notorious for her flighty approach to relationships and can’t seem to keep a job, either. She has plenty of time on her hands, then, when her busy friend Suzanne (Christine Horne) asks her to entertain her 60-year-old mother, Alice (Kate Trotter), while she’s in town. Given only that much information and a screen capture of the still-vivacious Trotter, most people familiar with queer cinema should be able to figure out what’s going to happen during the picture’s 94-minute length and why. And, yes, that familiarity is Tru Love’s greatest flaw. The whole MILF, FILF and gender-neutral cougar thing has nearly eliminated the whole May-December stigma. What is surprising is the filmmaker’s decision to keep almost all of the sex – graphic and implied — behind closed doors. The screenwriters and actors have no trouble convincing us that none of the characters are celibate, however, and the visual abstinence saves Tru Love from overstaying its welcome. As Tru and Alice’s friendship evolves, they’re also required to deal with Suzanne’s toxic attitude toward their friendship. And, of course, many of the movie’s happiest and most emotionally draining moments play out in sub-freezing conditions outdoors. The abrupt ending may not sit well with all viewers, but it’s probably the only way the filmmakers could go without turning Tru Love into a mini-series on the Logo TV network.

Land Ho!: Blu-ray
The performances in this quirky buddy/road picture are so naturalistic that there were times when I thought Land Ho! might be some sort of docu-drama or parody of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s “Trip” movies … not that they were sufficiently popular in the U.S. to spoof. Aussie transplant Paul Eenhoorn plays the low-key Colin, who’s living the suddenly-single life in rural Kentucky. His traveling companion, Mitch, is portrayed with bombastic good-ol’-boy charm by Earl Lynn Nelson, an actual oculoplastic surgeon who’s only appeared in two movies, both directed by his cousin Martha Stephens. Eenhoorn has the kind of face that could belong to a friendly neighbor or the star of an indie film you might have seen at a festival, but can’t remember where or when. (He was terrific as a Christian social worker in This Is Martin Bonner, by the way.) Judging from interviews included in the Blu-ray, it’s possible that Nelson simply was encouraged to stand in front of a camera and act as if it wasn’t there. As such, his Mitch is a loud, profane and unreconstructed male chauvinist, who’s never encountered a woman he hasn’t mentally undressed and graded on a 1-to-10 scale. It takes a while to get used to such old-school sexism, but Mitch is pretty harmless.

Colin and Mitch, who, in real life, might only have met in line at the DMV, were married to sisters who’ve long since have gone their separate ways from them. One day, Mitch shows up on Colin’s doorstep, demanding that he accept his offer of a free ticket to Iceland for an excellent adventure. Iceland is a country of great natural beauty and they can only be fully appreciated four or five months of the year. Otherwise, the country’s residents mostly spend their time canning fish, lounging in the thermal baths and getting drunk. (I spent a couple of days there in February and didn’t see the sun, let alone a dormant volcano.) Mitch and Colin must have been real rascals when they were young, because they still enjoy the occasional joint, wallowing in hot springs and hitting on women old enough to be their granddaughters. They must represent a rare species in Iceland, because no one seems to mind their mid-20th Century manners and leering eyes. After exhausting the tourist attractions in Reykjavik, Mitch rents a tricked-out SUV for a road trip along Iceland’s scenic Golden Circle Route. It provides plenty of opportunities to reflect on their lives, but even more to flake off and have a good time. Co-written and co-directed by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, Land Ho! is the perfect movie to show anyone who believes that life as they know it will end when their first Social Security check is electronically deposited in their bank account. The Reykjavik Tourist Bureau owes them a debt of gratitude, as well.

I Am Yours
At 5-foot-2, Amrita Acharia seems too delicate to carry the burdens placed on her character’s shoulders in the emotionally draining Norwegian export, I Am Yours. And, yes, that’s exactly what she’s required to do in actor-turned-writer/director Iram Haq’s debut feature, which was Norway’s official entry in the 2014 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language category. She plays Mina, the single mother of 6-year-old Felix, an extremely affectionate boy who shares time with his father and mother, both of whom are on cordial terms and deeply love him. The product of a traditional Pakistani immigrant family, Mina is an aspiring actress who enjoys a good time and is no rush to get re-married simply to please her parents and their conservative friends. It isn’t until she meets Jesper, a seemingly together Swedish film director, that she begins to think that she might be ready to settle down again. Jesper invites Mina to join him for an extended stay in Stockholm, during which Felix manages to inadvertently extinguish all of the flames of desire that spontaneously erupt between them. He’s a nice guy, but not nearly as ready to balance his burgeoning career with a passionate girlfriend and her love-starved child as he thought. No sooner does Jesper distance himself from their long-distance relationship than Mina’s parents accuse of her prostituting herself in the eyes the Pakistani community and causing them to be shunned. More a character portrait than narrative drama, I Am Yours compels us to invest our sympathies with a woman who could easily be dismissed as someone who made her bed and now must sleep in it. Acharia demands that we consider Mina on her own terms, as a free-spirited woman trapped between disparate cultures, yet willing to sacrifice everything for Felix. Forceful, yet completely realistic, her performance is as powerful as any I’ve seen in a long time. (If the producers of “The Good Wife” need a replacement for Archie Panjabi next season, they need look no further than Acharia.) As usual, the Film Movement package includes a bonus short film, “The Amber Amulet.”

S.O.B.: Summer of Blood
Neither parody nor thriller, S.O.B.: Summer of Blood is a frequently hilarious comedy in which the primary characters just happen to be vampires. Chief among them is Erik Sparrow, a slovenly 40-year-old windbag who is every woman’s worst fear when set up on a blind date. Self-centered, misogynistic, racist, commitment-phobic and inarguably stupid, Erik is played with extraordinary self-restraint by writer/director/editor/producer Onur Tukel (Ding-a-ling-Less), who looks as if he came in last place in a Jerry Garcia look-alike contest. In Tukel’s most outlandish conceit, Erik turns down a proposal of marriage from his girlfriend, Jody (Anna Margaret Hollyman), a perfectly normal young woman who’s inexplicably put up with his baloney for several years. His response to her offer is so thoughtlessly distasteful that it breaks whatever spell she’s been under since meeting him. Erik’s luck finally runs out at work, as well. Here, at least, his boorish behavior probably would have been tolerated by his superiors, if he wasn’t also the company’s worst sales rep. You get the picture. He tries to get back on track by joining a dating service, but his mojo only goes so far with the potential candidates. One night, while walking around Brooklyn’s desolate warehouse district a handsome young man, Gavin (Dustin Guy Defa), comes out of nowhere to strike up a conversation with him. Instead of being solicited for a blow job, Erik is bitten on the neck and turned into a vampire. Not everyone is cut out to be a member of the undead fraternity, but Eric takes to it like a duck to water.

All of a sudden, the same women who ridiculed Erik’s lack of sexual prowess – not to mention his stupid observations about life — can’t get enough of his ferocious libido. He’s still full of b.s. and deficient in penile department, but somehow it no longer matters. The only problem for Erik is the intense pain he feels when he’s in need of fresh human blood. Eventually, though, even Jody comes around. On another one of his midnight creeps, Erik encounters Gavin while he’s draining the blood from some other unsuspecting guy. After taking up Gavin’s offer to share his meal, Erik gets to ask him some questions about the vampire life. Tukel takes a bit of risk here by introducing discussions about God and the power of prayer. It comes up again later, when Jody decides that she doesn’t want Erik catting around after she dies and demands he give her eternal life. If that qualifies as too much information, it’s worth noting that a dozen spoilers wouldn’t ruin this surprise indie comedy. Genre buffs won’t be disappointed by any lack of blood and gore, as there’s plenty of that, too. The DVD adds a few deleted scenes, commentary and a short making-of featurette.

Post-Halloween Horror
Demons/Demons 2: Blu-ray
Dolls: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Nekromantik: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Crimson Winter: Blu-ray
The Doctor and the Devils: Blu-ray
The House at the End of Time
Like fine wine, Italian genre flicks, tend to get better with age. It took a while for American audiences to warm to what were then considered to be cheesy odes to classic Hollywood drive-in and matinee fare. Even after the cognoscenti put their seal of approval on “spaghetti” Westerns, however, there was no guarantee anyone would take a shine to Italy’s horror, crime and splatter thrillers. Indeed, in the 1990s, Italians gave up on them completely. VHS and, later, DVD and Blu-ray allowed us to take a closer look at what made them special to such advocates as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and the editors of niche magazines – now, websites – targeted at buffs. In Synapse’s welcome re-introduction of Demons and Demons 2, we’re given an opportunity to see what maestros Dario Argento, Dardano Sacchetti and third-generation director Lamberto Bava could do when provided access to some of most popular heavy-metal music and special-effects wizardry on the planet. The only real difference between the two films is the setting. The former takes place almost entirely in a cursed movie theater in then-West Berlin, while the latter was filmed largely in a cursed apartment building in Hamburg and Rome. Playing somewhere in the background of both pictures is a black-and-white horror movie, in which a group of juvenile delinquents raid Nostradamus’s long-sealed tomb, thereby opening the gates of hell for demons to escape. One of the people invited to the Metropole screening in Demons is infected with the same plague when she brushes against a prop used in the movie being shown. In Demons 2, the curse is passed along to guests at a birthday party through a television showing the same picture. One bite leads to another and, before long, panic ensues within the closed spaces, as the uninfected rush to escape. If Luis Bunuel had remade The Exterminating Angel as a giallo, it might look something like Demons and Demons 2. If neither movie is considered to be among Bava, Argento and Sacchetti’s best, they both remain fun to watch. The soundtracks include songs by Billy Idol, Scorpions, Motley Crue, Accept, Saxon, the Smiths, The Cult, Dead Can Dance, Art of Noise and Peter Murphy, as well as music composed by Brazilian composer and Argento favorite Claudio Simonetti. The sequel also boasts 11-year-old Asia Argento in her first film appearance.

Two years before Child’s Play would do for dolls what Magic did for ventriloquist dummies, Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) had already created his nightmare version of “The Nutcracker,” in which dozens of dolls and puppets run amok on unsuspecting houseguests. Scream Factory has released Dolls in a “Collector’s Edition,” which possibly is more entertaining to watch today than it was in 1986. The story itself is almost as old as time. One stormy night in the moors of England, the car rented by three American tourists breaks down outside a house that, in another tale, might have been built from gingerbread. A cute little girl is trapped in the vehicle along with her neglectful father and evil stepmother, when a giant toy bear makes a hallucinatory appearance before her eyes. The trio and three other stranded Americans are offered shelter in the house, which is owned by an outwardly friendly toymaker and his wife. The girl takes an immediate liking to the man and woman, who give her a jester doll to carry around with her. Her parents and two of the other American girls aren’t nearly as congenial. Sure enough, at the appointed hour, their lack of proper gratitude is met with the enmity of dozens of creatively murderous toys. Gordon probably could have done a lot more interesting things with Dolls, had he been accorded a larger budget and more time. As it is, however, the attack of the killer dolls is worth the price of a rental, alone. The nicely re-mastered Blu-ray adds commentary tracks Gordon and writer Ed Maha, and cast members Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Stephen Lee, Carrie Lorraine and Ian Patrick Williams; the excellent 38-minute “Toys of Terror: The Making of Dolls”; a film-to-storyboard comparison; and a stills gallery.

Even 27 years after it was banned in its home country of Germany, Jorg Buttgereit’s scabrous Nekromantik retains its ability to shock and offend. Look up “not for the faint of heart” in certain dictionaries and you might find a link to the page on Amazon on which the Blu-ray edition is being hawked. Bernd Daktari Lorenz (Bikes & Bras) plays a street-cleaner working with a team that goes around mopping up scenes of vehicular carnage. Occasionally, Robert will bring home souvenirs from his day on the job to share with his girlfriend, Betty (Beatrice Manowski). She’s one person who isn’t afraid to demonstrate her necrophilic proclivities on a partially eroded corpse. And, yes, you have to see it to believe it. After Betty leaves Robert for greener graveyards, the poor sap’s condition deteriorates to the point where he’ll shtup anything that once possessed a pulse. For her part, Betty can’t help but wonder how she’ll satisfy her perverse desires after she wears out her current skeletal flame. Along with the visual atrocities, Nekromantik also provides several good laughs. I doubt very much that Buttgereit could ever have imagined seeing his bad-taste epic transferred from its original Super 8mm to high definition and accompanied by a half-dozen bonus features, including his debut short film, “Hot Love.” Other material includes a 2013 Q&A with Buttgereit at the American Cinematheque; commentary with co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; a making-of featurette; stills gallery; and original trailers.

Bryan Ferriter’s very curious vampire adventure/romance, Crimson Winter, appears to have borrowed liberally from “Romeo & Juliet,” LARP and cosplay re-creations. Ferriter serves double-duty as Elric, a centuries-old British vampire who falls in love with a human (Kailey Michael Portsmouth), thereby turning against his own family and causing him to be banished to a cave in Montana or thereabouts. A couple of centuries later, Elric and his loyalists have raised an undead army capable of taking on the ruling family. To sustain themselves, the vampires drain the blood of animals inhabiting the northern Rockies. A research team of students goes into the mountains to evaluate the complaints of local sportsmen, discovering evidence of an ancient curse and putting themselves between the hunters and the feuding vampires. Except for a few instances of medieval combat, hardly anyone in the movie seems to be in any hurry to accomplish anything. William Piotrowski’s symphonic orchestrations and ambient soundscapes add a touch of class to the proceedings.

Despite its all-star roster, The Doctor and the Devils takes a tantalizing story of Gothic madness and turns it into a series of character sketches, none of which are as horrifying as the historical figures who perpetrated the crimes on which the movie is based. Notorious throughout the UK, the Burke and Hare murders (a.k.a., West Port murders) took place in Edinburgh, in 1828. When anatomy professor Doctor Robert Knox ran out of fresh bodies for dissection during his lectures – it was a bad year for hangings, apparently — Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare decided to dig up already buried corpses to see if they could make a living wage off them. Knox’s rejection prompted the sots to bring in the freshest possible cadavers the only way they could … killing specimens, themselves. Historians put the actual toll at 17, before they were arrested and one of four co-conspirators was convicted, hung and handed over to the college for dissection. Knox wasn’t put on trial, except in the form of an official inquiry by his peers. The crimes, first described in Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story “The Body Snatcher,” have been dramatized in a couple dozen movies, including The Body SnatcherMystery and Imagination: The Body SnatcherEl quinto jinete: El ladrón de cadavers, the 2004 “Doctor Who” audio drama “Medicinal Purposes” and John Landis’ Burke and Hare. Ronald Harwood re-wrote Dylan Thomas’ 1953 screenplay for The Doctor and the Devils, which would star Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Twiggy, Julian Sands, Stephen Rea and Patrick Stewart. The Blu-ray adds commentary with author and film historian Steve Haberman and interviews with executive producer Mel Brooks, producers Jonathan Sanger and Randy Auerbach.

When it comes to tailoring a punishment to fit the crime, Alejandro Hidalgo’s The House at the End of Time may have just set a new standard. As the story goes, Venezuelan mom Dulce is accused of murdering her husband and two children in their home. We already know that she’s probably innocent of any crime, but the evidence pointed in her direction, nonetheless. Thirty years later, a condition of her parole demands she return to the scene of the murders and confront the demons that almost surely remain in residence therein. Hidalgo flashes backward and forward to establish the circumstances that led to broader horrors of the day, focusing on the children and their playmates. By taking us out of the house, the Venezuelan filmmaker risks distracting us from what’s happened there in the past or soon will happen. It doesn’t always work, but film’s foundation, like that of the house, is solid.

Nothing Bad Can Happen: Blu-ray
Katrin Gebbe’s extremely disturbing and excruciatingly brutal Nothing Bad Can Happen would be unbearable to sit through if it weren’t for the fact that it’s supposedly based on an actual event and less directly inspired by Dostoyefsky’s “The Idiot.” In a very real sense, it describes what might happen when New Testament beliefs clash with traditional psycho-sexual German fascism. A cherubic blond stranger, Tore (Julius Feldmeier), arrives in Hamburg with a desire to become part of a family of committed Christian youths, the Jesus Freaks. They celebrate Christ not only in words and deeds, but also aggressive faith-based rock ’n’ roll. During one of the group’s raves, Tore falls to the floor writhing either from the Holy Ghost or epilepsy, depending on where one stands on Christian phenomenon. After “healing” a stalled pickup truck belonging to a local family, Tore is invited to join them as a permanent guest. It doesn’t take long for the father, Benno, to show his true colors and those of his equally cruel wife. Once they realize that Tore actually subscribes to Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek philosophy they test the young man’s faith with alarming resolve. In turn, Tore has committed himself to the belief that his mission on Earth is to save this family from itself, employing Christian values. If it weren’t for his close relationship with teenage Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof), Tore probably wouldn’t have survived past the second reel. It would be difficult to come up with a more unrelievedly forceful feature debut than Nothing Bad Can Happen. Gebbe elicits amazing performances from actors who probably weren’t completely comfortable in their portrayals of extreme behavior and injects mercifully kind and gentle moments amongst the horror. The DVD adds a pair of interesting background featurettes.

Documentaries-to-DVD
Ornette: Made in America: Project Shirley, Volume Three: Blu-ray
Portrait of Jason: Project Shirley, Volume Two: Blu Ray
Part of what made the 1960s so special, even before the tumult of the anti-war movement and countercultural revolution, was the experimental imperative that informed the arts in the first half of the decade. No two artists were more representative of the period than avant-garde jazz musician and composer Ornette Coleman and independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke. Ornette: Made in America represents a collaboration that took nearly 20 years to finish and waited another 30 years for it to be properly revived and appreciated. Clarke’s background as a modern dancer has served her well in projects involving jazz musicians, the drug subculture, beat writers and outsiders of various stripes. It comes in especially handy in the bio-doc of a musician who literally threw out the rulebook in composition and free musical expression. When the filming began, in the late 1960s, it featured Ornette, his then-young son, Denardo, and frequent collaborator, Charlie Haden. It was picked up, again, years later, with Coleman’s performance of “Skies of America,” with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at his hometown’s Convention Center. It’s an unlikely partnership, but one that works wonderfully for both the artist and the orchestra. In between, Clarke emulates his freeform style by mixing excerpts from performances, interviews, experimental music videos and re-enactments of Coleman’s childhood. The witness list includes original footage of William S. Burroughs, Buckminster Fuller, Ed Blackwell, Robert Palmer, George Russell, John Rockwell, Don Cherry and a much older Denardo Coleman. It’s worth noting that, while Clarke and most of Coleman’s contemporaries are no longer with us, the 84-year-old multi-instrumentalist is still making music … fully 45 years after he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. The Blu-ray adds two lengthy interviews with Clarke and a chat with Denardo.

Also from Milestone’s Project Shirley series is Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s interview with a black homosexual hepcat and “stone whore” in pre-Stonewall America, when everything and everyone was on the down-low. Filmed in one 12-hour stretch in a room at the Chelsea Hotel, it’s a 90-minute monologue fueled by alcohol and marijuana by Jason Holliday (né Aron Payne), who appears to be rehearsing for the one-man cabaret show he’s always intended to do. He’s hip, funny, a natural raconteur and not remotely modest or reserved. The longer the film shoot extends, however, the drunker he gets. The inebriants allow Holliday to cut through the layers of his outwardly tough hide, revealing emotions that aren’t always that amusing. Clarke and her then-boyfriend Carl Lee prod their subject with questions about race, hustling and family background they know will elicit such raw responses. They also call him on some of his exaggerations and inconsistencies. By this time in her career, Clarke had cultivated a self-image of being an outsider to mainstream culture, but an insider to the underground subculture. Here, though, she sometimes doesn’t fight fair. The problem is, no one born into vast wealth in New York is a complete outsider. As long as the silver spoon with which they born remains handy, it doesn’t matter how many drugs one has done, the number of jazz musicians they know and protest rallies they attend. The stench of entitlement is always palpable. (This aspect of Clarke’s personality is far more evident in the bonus films, interviews and featurettes, and doesn’t make her docs any less worthwhile.) Nonetheless, anyone willing to share anecdotes about his friendships with Miles Davis, Carmen McRae and other artists, as does Jason, is someone worth watching on film. Among the bonus features are discussions of the discovery and restoration process undertaken by Milestone. It’s truly remarkable.

Tosca’s Kiss
In 2012, Dustin Hoffman directed Quartet, a comedy adapted by Ronald Harwood from his own stageplay. It was set in a retirement home for retired opera singers and musicians. Every year, they celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday by performing a concert to raise funds for their home. This year’s concert is threatened, however, by the arrival of a diva (Maggie Smith) who plays the diva card when asked to reprise her role in a once-popular quartet. It’s a cool premise and modestly budgeted movies aimed at the oldest and most intellectually curious demographic, such as QuartetThe Best Exotic Marigold HotelCalendar Girls and Saving Grace, tend to make lots of money when worldwide revenues are combined. Based on the similarities between Quartet and the 1984 documentary Tosca’s Kiss, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Harwood borrowed the idea from Daniel Schmid’s film, especially since the DVD re-release from Icarus is being “presented” by Hoffman. For those keeping score at home, both are wonderful films. In 1896, the great Italian composer founded Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, saying, “Of all my works, that which pleases me the most is the Casa that I had built in Milan to shelter elderly singers who have not been favored by fortune or who, when they were young, did not have the virtue of saving their money.” I don’t know exactly how many people were living there when Schmid was shooting there, but the ones we meet are in pretty good shape, considering; impeccably dressed; feisty, especially when upstaged; frequently playful; blessed with surprisingly sound memories; and immensely appreciative of the man whose music they once made a living performing. It’s a treat watching Sara Scuderi re-enact Tosca’s deadly kiss-off of Scarpia on a chance meeting with heroic tenor Leonida Bellon outside a phone booth in the hotel, then perform “’O sole mio” with the same world-class ham. Likewise, when we eavesdrop on 80-year-old Giuseppe Manacchini as he reminisces with his wife, who played opposite him a half-century ago in ”La Traviata” and ”La Forza del Destino,” over a trunk full of costumes he once took to Rio de Janeiro, where he sang “Rigoletto.” Verdi’s copyrights expired in the early 1960s, but the passion for beautiful on display in Tosca’s Kiss is eternal.

The Magic of Heineken
As authorized corporate biographies go, The Magic of Heineken is better than most. It helps, of course, that the subject matter – the last 150 years in the life of one the world’s great brands – is familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed the product or pondered which imported beer to buy at a fancy bar or restaurant. The Heineken story is told in fresh and vintage film clips, interviews, tours of family breweries in 13 different countries and visualizations staged with stop-action puppetry. And, while it doesn’t appear to whitewash any corporate blemishes, the film clearly is friendly to family members and current executives. Especially interesting is the material regarding Freddy Heineken, who, apart from being kidnapped by amateur criminals, managed to regain family ownership of the company after it was sold in the wake of World War II. He also engineered the company’s international expansion. It currently owns a worldwide portfolio of over 170 beer brands, mainly pale lager, and is the third largest brewing conglomerate.

Scarred But Smarter: The Life ’N’ Times of Drivin’’N’ Cryin’
By now, documentaries about rock bands are about as unusual as flies at a picnic and some have been every bit as annoying. Lately, though, I’ve come across dozens of films – most from England, for some reason – that expand upon everything we’ve come to know about our favorite bands and contextualize their importance within various trends and genres. For the most part, they’re of the unauthorized variety. This means that the primary musicians don’t participate in interviews and the musical clips are limited to public-record and fair-use performances and music videos. Scarred But Smarter: The Life ’N’ Times of Drivin’’N’ Cryin’ is different in that the individual band members have been making music for 30 years, under one banner or another, and aren’t reluctant to dish. Since emerging from Georgia’s rich musical soil, D’N’C has entertained tens of thousands of fans drawn to its unvarnished hard-rocking Southern sound. Director Eric Von Haessler has been one of those who’s occasionally wondered why the band hasn’t been able to parlay that loyalty into stadium tours and villas in France. The answer hardly qualifies as a mystery. Like too many other groups, their road was littered with bad business decisions, studio weasels, personal squabbles and, of course, drugs and booze. Among the musicians who contribute their opinions are fellow fans Peter Buck, Darius Rucker, Ed Roland, Ty Pennington and Jason Isbell, alongside those of past and present band members. Besides serving as cautionary tale, the documentary is informed by music that’s loud, kickin’, has stood the test of time and, in my opinion, sounds better in bars than large venues.

James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge: Special Collector’s Edition: 3D Blu-ray
In the 19th Century, the huge disparity in wealth and poverty allowed for the privileged members of society to explore unknown – to western interests, of course – parts of our world, usually under the auspices of geographic organizations, commercial interests and governments interests. It led to the accumulation of colonies and creation of highly accurate maps for navigation, exploitation and war. Blessedly, men of science and academia were encouraged to tag alone to record natural phenomena and collect specimens of animals and plants. If the explorers also plundered the occasional archeological or geological treasure, well, so be it. How else to convince the public to purchase newspapers, fund museums and beg for more adventures that ultimately would benefit the captains of industry? After World War II, such explorations became too expensive to mount. Instead, the U.S. and Soviet Union took up the slack by competing against each other for military supremacy on Earth and in space. As far as I know, NASA was the only entity to also be interested in supporting commercial and academic research. Today, we may have come full circle on the question of who should support costly scientific expeditions once deemed essential for national pride, if nothing else. Last week’s crash of the Virgin Galactic may have pushed back the deadline for Richard Branson’s first attempt at space tourism another couple of years, at least. This week’s release of James Cameron Deepsea Challenge on Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD offers another example of how rich people can do things our government no longer is capable of supporting, without offending taxpayers and contrarian legislators. If Branson, Cameron and Oprah Winfrey were ever to pool their money to finance a personal excursion to Mars, they’d be there in time for next November’s sweeps period. Subscribers to National Geographic and the OWN network probably wouldn’t mind throwing in a few bucks or contribute to a Kickstarter campaign. In a very real sense, the huge international success enjoyed by Cameron’s Titanic and Avatar has allowed him to visit the actual site of the Titanic’s final resting place, as well as that of the German battleship Bismarck and, now, the deepest point on Earth. The documentary chronicles Cameron’s solo dive to the depths of the Mariana Trench, nearly seven miles beneath the ocean’s surface, piloting a submersible he designed in collaboration with his team of technicians and scientists. Built in Sydney by the research and design company Acheron Project, the Deepsea Challenger carried scientific sampling equipment and high-definition 3-D cameras. Remarkably, such an expedition hasn’t been attempted since 1960, when the Bathyscaphe Trieste accomplished the same feat, but without the advanced technology available to Cameron. (Don Walsh, who co-piloted the Trieste, was on board the support vessel when the dive occurred.) The equipment trove includes the Rolex watch, “worn” on the submersible’s robotic arm, which measured the length of the dive and is given a prominent cameo in the film. What Cameron was able to photograph on the ocean’s floor might remind viewers of the desolate moonscape that greeted our astronauts on their missions. He did bring back images of a new species of sea cucumber, squid worm and giant single-celled amoeba, as well as some shrimp-like critters caught in a trip while devouring a baited chicken. Cameron is a gracious host throughout James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, even as he approaches what unquestionably is an incredibly dangerous series of dives in the unproven submersible. I can’t imagine what the movie looks like in high-def 3D, but if anyone can make it work, it’s Cameron. The set includes a couple of short featurettes.

Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story
One of the things we learn in Lady Valor is that 13 nations not named the United States of America allow transgender women or men serve their country in their armed forces. Not knowingly, anyway. Although the documentary maintains a tight focus on former U.S. Navy SEAL Christopher Beck – or as Beck currently prefers, Kristin – Lady Valor also introduces us to a couple dozen other trans-women who’ve worn the uniform of their chosen branch of the military as men. Beck served for 20 years in the U.S. Navy SEALs before her transition, and took part in 13 deployments, including seven involving combat. Beck was a member of the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), a special counter-terrorism unit popularly called SEAL Team Six. You know, the same guys who took out Osama Bin Laden. He received multiple military awards and decorations, including a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. A year and a half after retirement, in 2011, Beck came out publicly through LinkedIn and confirmed her true identity on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360.” In what she now considers to be an ill-advised decision, Beck once wore a dress to her job at the Pentagon. She desperately wanted to be recognized not only as a trans-woman, but as a warrior who could hold her own in combat with anyone else on Earth. Regretfully, her decision caught many friends and family member by surprise. As the documentary demonstrates, not everyone took the news as graciously as other people, including his former wife and two sons. Still, Beck is no shrinking violet in her private or professional life. She’s still a crack shot, even in modest heels, and enjoys killing clay pigeons with his dad and siblings. She’s still called upon to train security personnel and shows up at reunions. Beck says that she was able to camouflage her true sexual identity in the service, primarily because she was stationed half a world away from home and was preoccupied with other matters. Once home, Beck was stunned by the ferocity of the anti-LGBT vitriol being spewed in the debate over same-sex marriage, as well as the lack of follow-through on hate crimes and bullying. Beck’s CNN appearance received plenty of attention throughout the media and LGBT community – as did the release of his book, “Warrior Princess,” co-written with Anne Speckhard, a psychologist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine. It arrived at a time, we’re told, that some people in the Pentagon are re-considering its policy toward trans-gender men and women willing to die for a country, which, in large part, despises them.

I Am Santa Claus
The photo of wild-man pro wrestler Mick Foley that dominates the cover of I Am Santa Claus would lead one to believe that the movie contained inside the box is strictly of the horror persuasion. Although there are moments when Tommy Avallone’s documentary on the nation’s “Christmas community” that qualify as cringe-worthy, most of it is strangely uplifting. The original one-sheet poster that accompanied I Am Santa Claus featured a white-haired and -bearded geezer with a pot belly looking into a mirror and the image of a proper Saint Nick reflecting back at him. That is what the film is all about, really. In it, five men who live their lives as if every day were Christmas are profiled both as Santas and seemingly normal human beings. Besides co-producer Foley, there’s a gay “bear” Santa, BBQ-king Santa, trailer-park Santa and a full-time, mall-hopping Santa. As members of Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas, Fraternal Order of Real-Bearded Santas or International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, they believe themselves to be trustees of the Christmas spirit year-round and preservation of the character’s traditional image. A sidebar featurette displays a different side of the bearded brotherhood, however, showing the organized Santas to be every bit as petty and power-crazed as anyone else. Morgan Spurlock’s imprimatur on the DVD as presenter serves the same purpose as the old Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

TV-to-DVD
Disney Channel: Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Lost Missions: Blu-ray
Disney Channel/XD: Phineas & Ferb: Star Wars
PBS: Mystery of Agatha Christie With David Suchet
PBS: Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey
PBS: Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century: Season 7
ION: A Star for Christmas
Two years ago, when Walt Disney Co. purchased Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, it didn’t take an MBA to understand what synergies and efficiencies could be expected from the new enterprise or its kinship to the earlier $4 billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment. If anything, the nearly endless possibilities for crossover projects and merchandising scared the crap out of fundamentalist fans of all three entities. Those not nearly as concerned by the partnerships can now point to two new DVD/Blu-rays as proof that nothing truly awful will come of them. All eyes will be on next year’s release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first entry in a new trilogy. The made-for-cable “Star Wars: The Clone Wars: The Lost Missions” is the by-product of the Lucasfilm acquisition, in that the titles pick up where previous Cartoon Network installments ended. Although I’m no expert on the subject, the 13 new episodes – already shown on Netflix — amplify on events that occurred between “Episode II” and “Episode III.” The biggest plus, perhaps, is the clarity and pop of the Blu-ray presentation in 1080p HD with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Also fresh is a 16-minute documentary celebrating the entire “Clone Wars” series.

The hour-long crossover episode, “Phineas & Ferb: Star Wars,” was shown on Disney Channel and sister network Disney XD in July and represents a clearer vision of the company’s synergistic future, as did last summer’s “Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel.” What some might consider to be sacrilege, others will see as harmless fun. While playing fast and loose with some “Star Wars” iconography – “A couple of summers ago in a galaxy far, far away, Phineas and Ferb are happily basking in the glow of Tatooine’s twin suns …” – the themes and characterizations remain faithful to Lucasfilm mythology. Gags have been written to entertain both P&F fans and longtime “Star Wars” addicts. Here, plans for the Death Star accidentally fall into their hands, thrusting them (and Agent P) into a galactic rebellion and an epic struggle of good vs. evil. The rest of the package is taken up with episodes from Season 4.

In the 1985 made-for-TV movie, “Thirteen at Dinner,” David Suchet played Inspector Japp to Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot. Four years later, Suchet would be handed the keys to Agatha Christie’s first and, perhaps, most enduring protagonist, for the next 25 years on ITV and PBS’ “Mystery!” The first thing he did was dismiss any thought of portraying the Belgian detective as being anything different than what’s described in her novels and short stories. “All I did was to start to read Agatha Christie’s novels,” Suchet has explained. “I wanted to be the Poirot that she would be proud of. So, out went the funny costume designs and the huge moustaches, and in went everything that she had written: the morning suits, the little gifts of vases of flowers … the perfect moustache.” In “Mystery of Agatha Christie With David Suchet,” the 68-year-old Londoner returns the favor by setting the record straight on the author’s fascinating personal and literary history. Instead of simply serving as narrator, he travels throughout England and on to Istanbul touring her home; interviewing descendants, scholars and historians; and reading from original source material not available to the public. The bio-doc also recalls how the death of her beloved mother, when combined with fatigue and her husband’s infidelity, may have led to her greatest work of non-fiction: the mystery of her staged disappearance in 1926. A visit to a garden dedicated to toxic plants and flowers leads to a discussion of how she turned a WWI stint as an apothecary’s assistant into as passion for poison as a literary device.

I’ve seen plenty of documentaries about the inspirational struggles of athletes with physical and mental disabilities. In 2005, Murderball opened my eyes to the ferocity of sports played by wheelchair-borne rugby players. PBS’ “Team Ice Warriors: USA Sled Hockey” chronicles the journey taken by the U.S. Paralympic sled-hockey team in their pursuit of gold at the Sochi Paralympics. The sport actually has been referred to as “Murderball on blades.” The participants sit low on sharp metal runners and small saddle-like seats. Their balance is further tested by having to move the puck with their sticks and propel themselves with serrated ice picks. Military veterans play alongside teenagers, with experienced players guiding the rookies. Also showcased are their emotional stories of injury and resilience, their hard work in training camps and elite international competitions, and their personal challenges on the ice and at home. The game, itself, isn’t for the faint of heart. Close relatives and friends, especially, cringe every time they hear the sound of metal hitting metal, knowing that another injury could cost them another limb or cause a concussion.

In the seventh season of PBS’ Peabody Award-winning series “Art 21: Art in the Twenty-First Century,” we’re once again taken behind the scenes of 12 artists’ studios, homes and communities to provide intimate access to their lives, creative processes and sources of inspiration. As such, we follow the international roster of artists to such locations as diverse as a New York City public housing development, a military testing facility in the Nevada desert, a jazz festival in Sweden, a ceramics factory in Germany and an activist neighborhood in Mexico. Among other things, the provocative discussions demand we consider the profound relevance of art to our everyday lives and role of museums in society, besides as places with walls upon which paintings are hung. The featured artists are Thomas Hirschhorn, Graciela Iturbide, Leonardo Drew, Elliott Hundley, Arlene Shechet, Trevor Paglen, Wolfgang Laib, Tania Bruguera, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Katharina Grosse, Joan Jonas and Omer Fast.

A couple of weeks ago, we watched “A Belle for Christmas,” in which the title character is a fluffy white puppy, In the 2012 made-for-cable holiday movie, “A Star for Christmas,” that person literally is a star of the Hollywood variety. Alex (Corey Sevier) is in a small town prepping for an “action” version of “The Christmas Carol,” when he meets and falls in love with the owner of a cupcake shop, Cassie (Briana Evigan), who’s oblivious to his fame. Chaos ensues when their respective exes get wind of their budding relationship. They must be running out of ideas for seasonal movies.

The Compleat Al
UHF: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
It says a lot about the nature of pop and rock music that in the nearly 40 years Weird Al Yankovic has been recording song parodies, he’s never run out of source material or inspiration. It says a lot about Yankovic that every five years, or so, his act attracts a new sub-generation of fans, without losing their parents’ loyalty in the process. The songs may not remain the same, but the laughter does. Weird Al’s every bit as busy today as he’s been since making his presence known via “The Dr. Demento’s Radio Show” in 1976 and, unlike his heroes Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Allan Sherman, Shel Silverstein, Frank Zappa and Frankie Yankovic (no relation), he even has a bobble-head doll. The good news this week is the first release into DVD of The Compleat Al, a semi-autobiographical mockumentary that follows Yankovic’s roots back from childhood to 1985, and the arrival on Blu-ray of the feature-length video, UHF: 25th Anniversary Edition. The former contains bits from “AL-TV,” footage from his trip to Japan and a funny take on his mission to receive permission from Michael Jackson for “Eat It.” And, what Weird Al collection would be “compleat” without such music videos as “Ricky,” “I Love Rocky Road,” “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “This Is the Life,” “Like a Surgeon,” “One More Minute” and “Dare to Be Stupid.” The very goofy 1989 comedy UHF holds up pretty well, considering how many of the topical references border on the prehistoric. Among the movies and TV shows that might have inspired Yankovic here are Network, FM, WKRP in Cincinnati and NewsRadio, even though the influence of Mad magazine, Monty Python and the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker parodies is traceable, as well. Yankovic plays George Newman, a daydreaming doofus who stumbles into a job as manager of a small TV station that’s losing money and routinely posts negative ratings numbers. Much to the irritation of a rival programmers, such shows as “Stanley Spadowski’s Clubhouse,” “The Wonderful World of Phlegm,” “Wheel of Fish” and “Raul’s Wild Kingdom” put Channel 62 back on the map. Ample support is provided by Michael Richards, Kevin McCarthy, Fran Drescher, Gedde Watanabe, Victoria Jackson, Billy Barty, David Proval, Anthony Geary, Trinidad Silva and Emo Philips.

The Slave: Blu-ray
Red Nights
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 5
With the film adaptation of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey lurking just around the corner – Valentine’s Day, indeed! – it’s no wonder that specialty distributor Mondo Macabro decided to get out ahead of the bondage craze with its re-release of the Pasquale Festa Campanile’s 1969 soft-core semi-classic, The Slave (a.k.a., “Check to the Queen”). Not having read the novel, I can’t imagine “Fifty Shades” turning out any more prurient than “,” which promised a lot more S&M than it actually delivered. A stroll down mammary lane, as gossip columnist Earl Wilson once referred to these sorts of teasers, might be in order. Among the off-mainstream places to stop would be Just Jaeckin’s Story of O, Radley Metzger’s The Image, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Takashi Ishii’s Flower & Snake, Louis Buneul’s Belle de Jour, various adaptations of the novel “Venus in Furs,” Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. They feature beautiful women, handsome men, grand homes and lots of leather accessories. The Slave pre-dates all of these, except “Belle de Jour.” It stars the Gina Lollobrigida look-alike Rosanna Schiaffino and lovely French actress Haydee Politoff, whose career swiftly went from starring in Eric Rohmer’s The Collector to key roles in such exploitation flicks as Count Dracula’s Great Love and The Virgin of Bali. Here, Politoff is the rich, young countess, Silvia, who’s so bored with her life that she agrees to become a human house pet for the star actress, Margaret, played by Schiaffino. As such, Silvia is required to call the older woman, Mistress, and obey her every whim without question. Except for the countess’ lurid daydreams, the sex is tame even by the standards of the day. Typically, though, the Italian crew invested the film in a delicious array of high-fashion costumes, expensive sets and a then-groovy score by Piero Piccioni. The Blu-ray features a shiny new transfer from the original negative, interviews with critic Roberto Curti and Justin Harries, interactive filmographies, deleted scenes and the always wonderful Mondo Macabro previews.

There’s more than a little bit of S&M in Red Nights, an erotic thriller that will remind buffs of Italian giallo, with its eye-piercing color scheme and assortment of femme fatales and damsels in distress. Set in Hong Kong, it opens with a startling display of shrink-wrap asphyxiation that is, at once, hyper-sexy and all too realistic. Carrie Ng returned from a layoff of seven years to play Carrie Chan, who, when she isn’t suffocating her girlfriends, is a death-dealing collector of ancient Chinese art. Here, she has her eye on a jade skull that once belonged to an emperor reputed to be a master of torture. An elixir contained in the skull is said to paralyze its victim’s limbs, while increasing the sensitivity of their nerve endings tenfold. In the right hands, it can heighten sexual arousal to a fever pitch. An overdose can result in an unbearably slow and painful death. And, yes, whoever possesses the elixir – now hidden within a large imperial seal – also is in possession of the curse that comes with it. Here, that would be a lethal French courier, Catherine (Frédérique Bel), who constantly is being tested by Chan and emissaries of other collectors, perhaps because she’s blond. All of this death and deception plays out against a backdrop provided by the always photogenic Hong Kong streets and skyline. The DVD includes the featurette, “The Making of Red Nights: Carrie’s Story”; co-writers/directors Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud’s short film, “Betrayal: The Prequel to Red Nights”; and a photo gallery.

The fifth entry in Impulse Pictures’ “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection” brings the series closer to day when feature-length porn flicks would render quick-and-dirty loops superfluous. They contain a tad more narrative than previous specimens and the actors are becoming more familiar. Among the stars of these 15 loops are Susan Nero, Lili Marlene, Lisa DeLeeuw, and Annie Sprinkle. It adds liner notes by Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: Maleficent, Planes 2, Hercules, Franco X 2, Begin Again, LFO, Vanishing, Coffee in Berlin, Miss Marple, Pemberley, Running From Crazy … More

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Maleficent: Blu-ray
Planes: Fire & Rescue: Blu-ray
The great thing about owning the rights to one of the American cinema’s most cherished works is the ability to borrow from it to the point of re-invention. The privilege can be abused, of course, especially if the re-adaptation is made by lesser talents than those responsible for the original. Maleficent, Disney’s decidedly revisionist take on its 1959 animated classic, Sleeping Beauty, and, by extension, Charles Perrault’s 1697 “La Belle au bois dormant,” demonstrates how to honor the original by giving audiences something fresh and tasty on which to chew. Angelina Jolie was the only viable choice to play the woman considered to be Disney’s most enchantingly wicked character. The media has worked long and hard to turn Jolie into real-life version of Maleficent, simply for stealing the oh-so-vulnerable Brad Pitt from Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows, Jennifer Aniston, and creating the kind of atypical family unit that reporters have always been too square to understand. Here, Maleficent is given a personality makeover matched only by Ebenezer Scrooge after his come-to-Jesus moment in “A Christmas Carol.” The origin story written for her by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) offers several very good reasons for the character to make the leap from being a pixie with a decidedly sunny disposition to the evil fairy godmother who places an ill-considered curse on Aurora (Elle Fanning). She is driven to cruelty by a king’s greedy desire to control the enchanted forest beyond the moors and painful amputation of her wings. Even after the curse is placed, Maleficent discovers her love for Aurora and conspires to negate it by bringing her “one true love” to her bedside. Neither is Aurora’s father, King Stefan (Sharlto Copley), absolved of his role in Maleficent’s fall from grace. As portrayed here, he’s a power-mad son of a bitch, who, after the death of his wife, grows more paranoid with each passing day. If the story deviates from the Disney original thematically, it faithfully replicates some of Snow White’s most exciting and beautiful set pieces, using advanced CGI technology. The dragon battle, which was scary enough the first time, is even more convincing in enhanced live-action cinematography. That’s one very good reason why parents shouldn’t consider Maleficent to be a harmless substitute for a babysitter. Like the fight in the animated original, it could put toddlers off their feed for days. Otherwise, freshman director Robert Stromberg hasn’t left much room for crusty old purist to complain. It’s likely, though, that most viewers will be disappointed by the undernourished bonus package, which includes deleted scenes and only a few short background pieces. I’m even more surprised by the absence of a music video of Lana Del Rey’s moody re-interpretation of “”Once Upon a Dream,” which accompanies the closing credits.

Although Cars was made by Disney/Pixar and Planes by second-string DisneyToon/Prana Studios, the animated features bore a distinctly familial resemblance to each other. Both were inspired by an original story by John Lasseter and populated with motorized vehicles of the anthropomorphic persuasion. Their sequels were released theatrically, as well. Tellingly, though, it took an additional five years for Cars 2 to open, in 2011, while only a year passed between Planes: Fire & Rescue and its predecessor. Cars 2 reportedly benefitted from a borderline-obscene $200-million budget — $80 million more than that reserved for the original – while each of the movies in the Planes series had to make do on $50 million. From a kid’s point-of-view, I think, the differences can only be seen in the details and scope of the story. The world-famous air racer Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) returns here, but for a much different purpose. When Dusty’s equipment fails to live up to the standards of more modern racers, he makes an equally risky career choice. This time, it involves using his speed and maneuverability in the service of aerial firefighting, a cause that becomes more important with every passing year of our current drought. Naturally, Dusty’s self-confidence exceeds his ability to perform at the level required of his peers in the Piston Peak National Park fire-fighting squad. (We’re reminded of the recent fires in Yosemite by the flames and smoke rising from the background drawings.) The comeuppance he receives at the wings of his elders in the corps is a common occurrence in Disney movies, as is the willingness of the upstart to put his pride aside long enough to learn from his mistakes. The Blu-ray package adds three animated shorts, “Vitaminamulch: Air Spectacular,” “Dipper” and “Smoke Jumpers”; deleted scenes; the featurettes “Air Attack: Firefighters From the Sky” and “Welcome to Piston Peak!”; the music video, “Still I Fly,” by Spencer Lee; and “CHoPs TV Promo,” a TV commercial for the “CHiPs” parody “CHoPs.” (Erik Estrada provides the voice for Nick ‘Loop’n’ Lopez.)  Due to a lack of proper equipment, I wasn’t able to review the 3D edition.

Hercules: Extended Version: Blu-ray
In a very real sense, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was born to someday play Hercules. He admits as much in his introductory comments included in the Blu-ray bonus package to Brett Ratner’s Hercules. For his part, Ratner recalls creating a sword-and-sandals “Hercules vs. Superman” comic book when he was a kid. As such, their version of the Hercules legend owes more to Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Mickey Hargitay, Reg Park, Alan Steel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Sorbo – lest we forget, Tiny Sandford, Samson Burker and Rock Stevens – than Greek and Roman mythology. It was adapted from Radical Studios’ “Hercules: Thracian Wars,” a comics series by writer Scott Moore and illustrator Admira Wijaya. After Hercules completed his 12 labors, he had plenty of time on his hands to begin a second career as a mercenary. The Thracian King (John Hurt) summons the son of Zeus and his six battle-worn companions – think, the X-Men in leather skivvies — to mold the Thracian army into a “kick-ass” (Ratner’s words) killing machine. Unfortunately, the muscle-bound demi-god is unable to see the deception through the glare of Cotys’ gold. After Hercules successfully tests his Thracian charges in battle against an army of truly grotesque barbarians, Cotys and his devious henchman Sitacles (Peter Mullan) demand they help take on a larger force from Thebes. Once that’s accomplished, Hercules and his gang of outcast soldiers-of-fortune are taken captive by their employers. Not for long, however.

No one’s ever accused Ratner of skimping on his production values and gotten away with it. Between production costs and marketing expenses, Hercules probably cost more than all of the other Hercules movies combined. That list includes Renny Harlin’s quick-and-dirty Legend of Hercules, which opened in January, immediately flopped and possibly poisoned the well for Ratner’s far more entertaining version. Although Hercules underperformed here, foreign audiences may have pumped enough money into the overall gross to get it close to even. There’s no reason to think that Johnson’s many fans and action junkies won’t embrace the unrated “extended” version, which offers an extra four minutes of mayhem that might have been trimmed to ensure a PG-13 rating. The Blu-ray package adds Ratner and producer Beau Flynn’s observations on sword-and-sandal epics and previous “Hercules” pictures; the introduction by Ratner and Johnson, several worthwhile, if short making-of featurettes; and additional material deleted from the theatrical cut. Due to lack of equipment, I wasn’t able to review the 3D edition.

 
Child of God: Blu-ray
Good People: Blu-ray
If James Franco had grown up in New York, instead of Palo Alto, and looked more like John Turturro (no offense intended) than James Dean, he might be taken more serious as an artist than he sometimes is. If he cared about his image in certain quarters, he might also have resisted the temptation to appear in soap operas, stoner comedies and action epics at the same time as he was turning in award-quality performances in both high- and low-profile indies. Somehow, too, Franco has found the time to attend prestigious graduate schools, teach, write prose and poetry, draw and sculpt, direct and produce films, long and short. It’s as if he were gunning for the Renaissance Man of the Year award. Still, I can’t think of a single actor of his generation who’s displayed more range, courage and ambition than Franco has since unceremoniously breaking into the business in 1997. Actually, it was only when Franco, now 36, agreed to co-host the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, with Anne Hathaway, that he met the limits of his ambition. That debacle was soon forgotten, however. Child of God and Good People provide good examples of projects that might never have been noticed if it weren’t for his participation in them. His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grisly 1973 novel is cut from the same cloth as Franco’s previous literary adaptations:  Howl (Allen Ginsberg), Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner), and The Broken Tower (Hart Crane). Set in rural Tennessee in the 1960s, Child of God describes one dangerously violent hillbilly’s descent into hell after his home and property are repossessed and put up for auction. Now homeless and clearly insane, Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) goes completely feral. He wanders around the countryside, looking for opportunities to avenge the perceived injustice, and sleeps in the same cave in which he stashes the victims of his bloodlust. Tim Blake Nelson and Jim Parrack play the good-ol’-boy lawmen who cut Ballard the slack he needed to haunt the local lovers’ lane and claim more victims, while Franco has a small role as the leader of a vigilante mob. Child of God is not an easy movie to digest, as much for stomach-churning depictions of Ballard’s animal instincts as any acts of violence perpetrated by him. As co-writer/director, Franco keeps a firm grip on the throttle of what could easily have been a runaway train. Haze’s performance could hardly be more convincingly ferocious. That he wasn’t nominated for an Indie Spirit Award, at least, is a mystery. The same goes for frequent Franco collaborator Christina Voros’ splendid cinematography.

Franco plays a decidedly different character in this all-too-familiar British crime thriller, this time by the promising Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz (Terribly Happy). Good People pairs Franco and Kate Hudson as a young American couple, Tom and Anna Wright, living in a decrepit London flat for no discernable reason, except that they’re short of cash while he’s renovating a home outside London. After their downstairs neighbor dies, Tom discovers a cache of pound notes – he misses the briefcase with the morphine ampoules – stashed above the false ceiling. News of the man’s death travels quickly beyond the walls of the basement, bringing the Wrights’ moment of bliss to an abrupt conclusion. In short order, they’re visited separately by two vicious hoodlums laying claim to the money and a cop fixated on closing the books on the unsolved heist of a drug lord’s stash. The only way the Wrights are going to avoid torture and a slow, painful death is by handing over the money to someone and getting out of the way when the bullets start flying. The overriding question, of course, is which of the competing tough guys they should trust most with their fates. Even if the climatic confrontation in Tom’s booby-trapped construction site is well choreographed and fun to watch, I couldn’t help flashing on other movies that ended in the same way. Fans of the Franco and Hudson shouldn’t mind the familiarity, though. Also prominent in the picture are Anna Friel, Tom Sizemore, Omar Sy, Diarmaid Murtagh and Sam Spruell.

Deliver Us From Evil: Blu-ray
The Taking of Deborah Logan
When I say that the closing credits are the best part of Deliver Us From Evil, I’m not being facetious or attempting to condemn it with faint praise. If anything, they’re too short. As strange as it sounds, director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) has crafted a based-on-a-true-story thriller that manages to merge the police-procedural and demon-possession subgenres. If it’s more intriguing than frightening, well, at least it looks good and the special effects are pretty decent. Deliver Us From Evil combines several cases investigated by NYPD detective Ralph Sarchie – portrayed here by Eric Bana – when he was assigned to a notoriously rough precinct in the South Bronx. While there, Sarchie came to believe that the brutality of the crimes he witnessed and depravity of the perpetrators could only be caused by demonic possession. To get to the root cause of the crimes, he decided to work alongside priests trained in the rite of exorcism, even after he left the department. The composite priest who collaborates with Sarchie here is played with credible spiritual intensity by Edgar Ramirez. The devil finds its way to the South Bronx in the flesh-and-blood vessel provided by a marine who was among a three-man team ordered to search for insurgents in an ancient tomb. Instead of WMDs or Saddam Hussein, they opened the door for a spirit that had been entombed inside for centuries. Once home, the cursed jarhead (Sean Harris) can’t help but terrorize the families of his fellow marines, first, and then anyone who gets in his way. The final showdown between the priest and devil won’t make anyone forget The Exorcist, but it’s pretty good. The aforementioned closing credits combine images ripped the film with a driving rendition of the Doors’ “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” effectively creating an audio/visual tone that suggests Hieronymus Bosch.  A deeply earnest Sarchie figures prominently in the featurettes included in the bonus package. Olivia Munn play’s the cop’s freaked-out wife to no great affect, while comedian Joel McHale adds a diverting twist to what could have been a stereotypically subordinate role as his partner.

As if Alzheimer s Disease weren’t bad enough, the titular protagonist of The Taking of Deborah Logan is required to cope with demonic possession, as well. Veteran soap-opera star Jill Larson (“All My Children”) effectively portrays a woman who’s naturally confused by her increasingly noticeable loss of memory and inability to perform simple tasks. She’s even better when the real shit comes down, causing her to act like a madwoman with super strength and a terrible self-destructive streak. The story is framed by the activities of a film crew documenting her decline and how it affects members of her family. Anne Ramsay, who’s been around the block a few times herself, plays Deborah’s adult daughter and target for most of her mother’s anger and frustration. There’s no telling how long she will have absorb the abuse, before making the difficult choice between moving in with mom or finding a comfortable place for her to live out her days. Finally, though, whatever it is that’s causing her mom’s condition to metastasize into something far more ugly than Alzheimer’s makes that decision for her. As unlikely as the source of her troubles might sound, it makes perfect sense within the context of the film within a film. There’s even something of a happy ending. As first features tend to go, Adam Robitel has outdone himself on what must have been a miniscule budget.

Begin Again: Blu-ray
Even if the only thing one knew about Begin Again before renting the offbeat romantic comedy was that it starred Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine, it wouldn’t take fans of Once more than a half-hour to figure out that it was written and directed by John Carrey. While far from being a carbon copy of that delightful sleeper hit, Begin Again captures the same casually romantic vibe and music-conquers-all credo. Knightley plays the mousy English girlfriend of a groovy singer-songwriter about to sell his soul to the devil for a shot at rock stardom. Gretta becomes expendable when Dave (Levine) falls for an Asian-American hottie he meets at the introductory meeting with executives of his new label. It shouldn’t have come as a great shock to anyone who’s grown up on MTV, but Getta is nonetheless devastated. In a flash back to Once, she runs into an old friend (James Corden) busking in the park and he invites her to crash at his pad. To help chase away her blues, Steve asks Gretta to join him on stage at a local club on open-mic night. Coincidentally, it’s the same night that a failed record producer is drinking himself into oblivion at the bar. Despite her less than dynamic stage presence, Dan (Mark Ruffalo) recognizes something in Gretta’s lyrics that makes him think she can rescue his career. So, while Dave is on the road becoming the next John Mayer, Gretta is allowing herself to be molded into something resembling Fionna Apple or Aimee Mann. Dan comes up with the idea of saving money he doesn’t have by bringing in student musicians and recording her songs in distinctly New York locations, hoping they might provide unique aural ambiences. To this pull off the conceit, he solicits the help of characters played be Mos Def and CeeLo Green. Another evolving storyline involves Dan’s former wife (Catherine Keener) and their rebellious teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who still aren’t sure he’s worthy of their trust. What’s nice about Carrey’s approach to storytelling is that it ignores the kind of clichés that could have turned Begin Again into just another movie with music. He doesn’t artificially inject turmoil or boogeymen into places where genuine emotions work just as well. Nor does he feel obligated to tie up the loose ends in brightly colored bows. The cast cooperates by turning in naturally understated performances. The music isn’t bad, either.

LFO
A post-graduate degree from MIT or Cal Tech isn’t necessary to fully enjoy LFO, a darkly funny mad-scientist thriller from Sweden, but those who’ve earned one likely would enjoy it more than those of us whose knowledge of sonic theory is limited to turning on a radio. Knowing the difference between analog and digital technology – traditional television vs. HDTV, for example – would probably suffice, however. Writer/director/composer Antonio Tublen tapped Patrik Karlson to play the nerdy protagonist, Robert Nord, a disheveled fellow who works out his many frustrations by fiddling with old-fashioned audio equipment in the basement of his non-descript suburban home. We learn soon enough that Robert is pre-occupied with the death of his unfaithful wife and young son in a suspicious automobile accident. In fact, the only thing accidental about the crash was the child unexpectedly being in the car with his mother. Her very lifelike ghost haunts him to the point where he’s forced to experiment with “low frequency oscillation,” hoping to come up with a sound or rhythmic pulse that might allow him to remain refreshed, even without much sleep. With the help of some Internet buddies, he does just that. Further experimentation reveals a frequency that allows him to hypnotize people and control their behavior. Robert tests his discovery on his new neighbors, a young couple having marital problems. The more successful he is – he wears noise-baffling earphones – the greater his curiosity becomes. When his experimentation takes a turn for the perverse, it’s easy to see how this mild-mannered geek could easily evolve into a monster with his fingers on the button of a terrible psychological weapon. LFO doesn’t have to beat us over the head with images of mass destruction, triggered, in part, by someone’s benign ingenuity. The people who invented the Mac and PC may not have foreseen the dangers posed today by hackers, perverts and government intelligence agencies, either, but such abuses were inevitable. When Robert goes bad, we can’t say that we didn’t know it what was coming. If you dig LFO, check out Peter Strickland’s much creepier Berberian Sound System.

Moebius: Blu-ray
When talented directors really want their audience to pay attention to their message – whatever it might be – the most direct route is through violence that borders on the unbearable. Sex that some people consider to be unspeakably perverse works as well, but the titillation factor is always there to distract us from the terror. Likewise, many viewers found the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan to be too horrifying to endure, even if its depiction of the D-Day invasion was completely accurate and essential to Steven Spielberg’s vision. For male viewers, at least, nothing is quite as terrifying as watching an enraged spouse, holding a razor-sharp knife within six inches of the protagonist’s scrotum. Korean writer/director Kim Ki-duk, whose resume includes such challenging dramas as Bad Boy, 3-Iron, The Bow and Pieta hasn’t won the admiration of critics and festivals audiences by pulling his punches. In Moebius, Kim comes close to delivering a knock-out blow before 10 minutes have elapsed. It isn’t until the closing credits roll that he stops battering us with images of extreme behavior. Having learned of her husband’s infidelity in a misdirected phone call, Lee Eun-woo’s unnamed character attempts to rob her husband of his masculinity. When he deflects the attack, she inexplicably castrates their son and disappears from the narrative for a while. Lee returns in the double-role of her husband’s mistress – yes, it helps to pay strict attention to what’s happening here – a shopkeeper who has troubles of her own with local street punks. Most of the movie is taken up with how the father and son cope with the terrible act. The boy’s shame is compounded by the bullying he endures from the same gang members, while the father’s guilt feelings from escaping the attack repulse his son. The only thing that brings them together is the father’s discovery of a technique that uses extreme self-abuse to induce sexual gratification. (“Cutters” are wimps, by comparison.) Things get even weirder from there. If any of this sounds enticing, you should know that Moebius is an extremely well made film and several critics were able to find inky-black comedy in it. I’m sure that Kim’s intentions can best be measured by considering the different definitions of the title, although I felt a bit too used up to try.

The Vanishing: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Siddharth
Whenever the parents of a missing child are interviewed on television, viewers share their horror by trying to imagine the worst of all possible resolutions. Has this example of extreme empathy always been the case or did the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby forever eliminate our ability to be optimistic about such disappearances? Or, perhaps, is it that every newly reported case and attendant prayer vigil are accorded wall-to-wall coverage on the all-news networks and we’re hypnotized by the mass sharing of hope and dread. The Vanishing and Siddharth are movies from two very different parts of the world that demonstrate how a talented filmmaker can turn any notions of hope into horror. Based on a novel Tim Krabbé, The Vanishing describes what happens when a squabbling Dutch couple’s vacation is ruined by the disappearance and presumed kidnaping of the sexy Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) from a rest stop in France. After finally coming to the conclusion that his companion isn’t coming back with snacks, Rex (Gene Bervoets) immediately makes all of the Stations of the Cross in his search for clues and possible witnesses. The police don’t think he’s crazy, but the passage of time makes it increasingly less likely that something will materialize. It’s no mystery to us who abducted Saskia, but director George Sluizer is in no hurry to enlighten us as to the fiend’s motivations or if she’s dead or alive. It isn’t until three years later that the kidnapper, Ray (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), begins to taunt her still-obsessed and desperately searching boyfriend by inviting him to meet in villages not far from the highway. As The Vanishing evolves, it becomes clear that Ray is a sociopath incapable of empathy or anything else resembling genuine emotion. His blank personality becomes the most troubling aspect of the movie. Unlike a psychopath who get his kicks from dressing up like clown and luring his victims to a place where they can be tortured, killed and buried – and, when caught, insist that he’s innocent – the sociopathic is only interested in keeping the victims in play. He knows that Rex can’t be free of anxiety until he learns the truth about Saskia’s disappearance and the perpetrator derives his kicks by revealing only one harrowing detail at a time. We can’t turn away from the truth any more than Rex can stop asking questions. The supplemental features on the digitally restored disc include an original trailer for the film; new video interviews with the Dutch director, who died last month, and Johanna ter Steege; and a leaflet with an essay by critic Scott Foundas. Left pretty much unmentioned is Sluizer’s regrettable American remake, which was released four years later and starred Jeff Bridges, Keifer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock. The same critics who loved the original hated the remake.

If Siddharth is more terrifying than The Vanishing, it’s because the missing character is a child and the terrible things that can happen to a young boy in India seem even crueler to us than death. It became impossible for me to keep the awful cliché about the cheapness of life in impoverished countries from popping into my head while watching Richie Mehta’s heartbreaking drama. But, in effect, that’s exactly what the father, Mehendra (Rajesh Tailang) is told by almost everyone he meets on his search for 12-year-old Siddharth. Against his wife’s wishes for the boy to attend school, Mehendra had allowed the boy to work in a factory in a faraway town where children with small fingers apparently are in high demand. Halfway through his temporary assignment, Siddharth leaves the factory to collect food and vanishes into thin air. His parents aren’t informed of his disappearance until a week later and all inquiries by phone are greeted with an annoyed dismissal of what might have happened to him. Mehendra barely makes a living as a “chain-wallah” – a zipper repairman — soliciting business in the teeming streets of Delhi with a megaphone. It ain’t much, but having a job that’s slightly better than nothing is a better option than watching your family starve to death. The local police do their best to help Mehendra, but, absent any photograph of Siddharth, their task is virtually impossible. Friends and in-laws happily lend him the money to travel to the city where he is son was working, but the owner’s best advice is “have another son and leave me alone.” A fellow worker points him to a place called Dongril, where runaways are sent, but no one he meets has heard of it. At a children’s shelter, he’s matter-of-factly told, “There are so many missing children this time of year. It’s a big business. It feeds the organ trade, sex trade, child labor.” No one even bothers with the useless platitude, “Don’t worry, he’ll turn up sooner or later.” Not being conversant with the Internet, it isn’t until he reaches Mumbai that a woman he meets pulls out her cellphone and does a Google search for him. Yup, there it is. Mehta shot Siddharth on location in Dehli and Mumbai, using “real” people as background characters and places not on the tourist map for scenery. It’s a remarkable movie, accessible to anyone with a heart. The DVD includes a lengthy making-of featurette, as well as piece on the creation of the musical soundtrack.

The Reckoning
Apparently, the first place Australian politicians look when they need to make budget cuts is its film industry, which lives and dies by the generosity of taxpayers. That it took another big hit recently comes as especially bad news for fans of crime thrillers and horror, for which the resident filmmakers excel. The most remarkable thing about The Reckoning for non-Aussies is a cast that includes Jonathan LaPaglia and Luke Hemsworth, whose brothers Anthony and Chris are far better known to American audiences. LaPaglia plays a Perth police detective whose partner has been killed and the only clue to the assailant is contained on video chip he snatches from the cop’s coat. It appears to link the victim to an unsolved hit-and-run case a year earlier that left a young woman dead. Several more people die in the course of the investigation, each crime scene producing another video chip. In the meantime, the teenagers who made the videos have disappeared, as well. John V. Soto’s film combines elements of both the police-procedural and found-footage subgenres to good, if not surprising effect. Fans of Australian movies might also find it noteworthy that The Reckoning is the third project in which top-shelf actresses Viva Bianca and Hannah Mangan Lawrence have been paired. Anyone who has enjoyed their work in X: Night of Vengeance and Spartacus isn’t likely to forget them.

Free Fall: Blu-ray
Tacoma-native Jenny Butler has come a relatively long way since starring in the 2010 remake of I Spit on Your Grave and 2008 Syfy epic Flu Bird Horror (a.k.a., “Flu Birds”). She did a nice job in the Majorca-set psycho-thriller, The Stranger Within, opposite William Baldwin and Estella Warren, so, someday, one of her movies might go straight-to-theaters, instead of straight-to-DVD. In Free Fall, she plays a lithe and athletic corporate executive who gets ready for a hard 10 or 11 hours at work by practicing her kick-boxing skills at the gym … you know the type. Upon arriving at work, Jane learns that her mentor just committed suicide by jumping out of a window in the high-rise building. Without missing a beat, her boss (Malcolm McDowell) anoints Jane the man’s successor, complete with a corner office. While boxing up his property, she discovers a thumb drive containing enough evidence of corruption to send her boss to prison. Her naiveté prompts her to confide in the nervous fellow in another glass-walled office. He feigns interests, even as he alerts the boss’ ruthless henchman, Frank (D.B. Sweeney), of Jane’s discovery. As night falls on the nearly empty office building, Frank arrives to collect the evidence or, failing that, throw her out of the same window as her mentor. The game of cat-and-mouse game that follows mostly takes place in an elevator shaft, where Jane is stuck between floors inside the car and Frank is trying to shoot her from above. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but watching Jane writhe around the compartment in a tight, nearly-inappropriate-for-work skirt – dodging bullets and climbing the walls – is worth the price of rental. After doing this for about 45-minutes, she manages to escape from the hatch and battle her assailant on his own turf and her own terms. Conveniently, she’s better with her fists and feet, than he is with a handgun and silencer. How McDowell is roped into appearing in so many straight-to-DVD movies is a bigger mystery than anything in Free Fall.

A Coffee in Berlin: Blu-ray
Whoever coined the phrase, “Momma said there’d be days like this,” couldn’t possibly have anticipated Jan-Ole Gerster’s freshman feature, A Coffee in Berlin. In it, everything that could go wrong in the daily routine of an unambitious law-school dropout goes delightfully haywire. It begins for Niko (Tom Schilling) when his inability to commit to anything finally convinces his girlfriend that their relationship has hit a dead end. Everything he does from that point on, including ordering an ordinary cup of black coffee, ends in some kind of mini-disaster. His father has chosen this particular day to cut him off from the family teat and an encounter with a formerly fat high-school classmate turns into nightmare. Because Gerster’s approach is more Woody Allen than Three Stooges, his breezy depiction of Niko’s misfortunes frequently borders on the whimsical. As the nearly affectless young man slowly but surely comes to the realization that he’s lost control of his life, we weigh our sympathy with antipathy for such an unmotivated waste of God-given talent. Even better is the filmmaker’s willingness to take us along on Niko’s veritable tour of Berlin, which remains one the most diverse and intriguing places on the planet. No city looks more natural in black-and-white than Berlin, which probably continues to be a world capital for political and artistic extremism. When Niko comes to the conclusion of his day in a tavern that wouldn’t be out of place in a novel by Charles Bukowski, we feel the weight of a century of bad Germanic mojo crashing down on his shoulders. A lively jazz soundtrack by the Major Minors is another highlight of A Coffee in Berlin (a.k.a., “Oh Boy”). Comedies from Germany don’t come along all that often, so you have to grab the good ones when you can.

One Day Pina Asked …
Shown on Belgian television in 1983 as “On Tour With Pina Bausch,” this tantalizing meeting of exceedingly innovative and experimental minds didn’t find its way to New York until 1989, before disappearing into the ether. Chantal Akerman had followed choreographer Pina Bausch and her Tanzteater Wuppertal around Europe for five weeks and One Day Pina Asked … captures her approach to dance not only on stage but also in intimidate glances behind the curtain and interviews. Contemporary dance has never been everyone’s cup of tea, but its devotees are loyal and enthusiastic. This performance film serves as a wonderful celebration of the creative process in two collaborative arts and artists who prefer to work outside the mainstream. In 2009, Bausch would begin working with German filmmaker Wim Wenders on the 3D documentary, Pina. Distraught after Bausch’s death early in the production process, Wenders had to be coaxed into completing the project by her dancers. The film, which debuted at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, did surprisingly well in its U.S. run. Among the works represented in One Day Pina Asked … are excerpts from “Come Dance with Me,” “Carnations,” “Walzer” and “1980.”

Satellite
Like a lightweight version of Breathless or Badlands, Jeff Winner’s Satellite follows a pair of New York yuppies as they extend their meet-cute moment into a long weekend of committing several petty crimes and, later, one serious theft that provides the story’s narrative backbone. Possibly made as long ago as 2003, but only shown three years later at a film festival, Satellite wasn’t able to able to parley positive reviews in the New York Times and Slant into a limited or straight-to-DVD release. Or, maybe it was the scathing Village Voice review that sealed its fate. In any case, Karl Geary and Stephanie Szostak play Kevin and Ro, successful young urban professionals who, bump into each other in a bar and immediately fall in love. After staring at the stars from a rooftop for a couple of hours, they simultaneously reveal a desire for doing something more dramatic in life than getting an annual 4 percent raise. After taking an early powder from an important meeting at his marketing firm, Kevin decides to act out a fantasy that might have originated at a revival-house showing of the aforementioned films by Terrence Malick and Jean-Luc Godard. After rushing to rescue Ro from a really bad morning at her advertising agency, the couple hops a train for Upstate New York, where his relatives live. Among other things, they steal a motorcycle and go on spree that results in Ro actualizing a latent shoplifting fetish. A fit of jealousy on Ro’s part nearly derails the whole adventure, but they end up quitting their jobs and sampling the kind of Bohemian lifestyle that rarely works without patrons, trust funds or health insurance, none of which they possess. The greater crime, which shall remain unspoiled, provides Satellite with a neatly contrived ending. On the plus side, Winner’s film makes terrific use of its New York settings and a budget that probably was afforded by maxed-out credit cards. I’m surprised that the French-born Szostak, especially, hasn’t enjoyed a more fulfilling career than bit parts in movies and a lead role in a failed USA sitcom. Ditto, the Dublin native, Geary. Despite his early promise, Winner hasn’t done anything IMDB-worthy in the meantime.

The Last Sentence
The recent death of the Washington Post’s longtime newsroom leader, Ben Bradlee, prompted some of us in the newspaper game to wonder if the era of the uncompromising and occasionally even heroic editor-in-chief had come and gone in his lifetime. Before World War II, newspapers were frequently looked upon as ancillary wings of a political party or philosophy. When the scourge of segregation and Jim Crow politics could no longer be ignored, some editors realized that the time to speak out had come and pushed not only for expanded coverage of the civil-rights protests, but also editorialize against institutional racism. The practice of “speaking truth to power” was extended to include impartial coverage of the anti-war, women’s liberation and black-power movements, and the writing of forceful editorials defending human rights and protecting the Constitution from corruption and overreaching public officials. Today, of course, only a small handful of American newspapers take stands on anything more controversial than urging people to vote every so often. There’s no reason for anyone outside of Europe to recognize the name, Torgny Segerstedt, but neither is there a good reason for allowing that unfamiliarity to prevent film and history buffs from seeing Jan Troell’s moving tribute to the Swedish journalist, The Last Sentence.

The editor of the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT) was one of very few people in power, who, in 1933, took Adolf Hitler seriously enough to consider how his political ascension might impact Europe and its people. The Nazi Party had just become the largest elected party in the German Reichstag and Hitler was duly appointed chancellor. Rather than dismiss this funny-looking man as a tinhorn, single-term politician, Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) understood Hitler’s potential for becoming a threat not only to German Jews and the country’s democracy, but also to countries that couldn’t defend themselves against a superior military force or then-popular fascist beliefs. He knew that his editorials had ruffled feathers in Germany when Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering sent a telegram to the Swedish prime minister declaring that any more such editorials would upend Germany’s “good will” toward Sweden. The newspaper, including Norwegian illustrator Ragnvald Blix, would continue beating the anti-Nazi drum for the next 12 years, even after Sweden officially declared its neutrality and Germany honored it, very conditionally. If government censors demanded the removal of an article or editorial, the space was simply left blank. The message wasn’t lost on readers.

Troell is something of a one-man band, in that he frequently serves as director, cinematographer, editor and writer. He specializes in historical dramas, such as The Emigrants, The New Land, Zandy’s Bride and, most recently, Everlasting Moments. Working from a biography by Kenne Fant and screenplay by Klaus Rifbjerg, Troell was able to add two other significant through-lines in his profile of the crusading editor. The most prominent chronicles Segerstedt’s marriage to Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Skoog) and their less-than-secret relationship with close friends Maja and Axel Forssman (Pernilla August, Bjorn Granath), who, respectively, were his mistress and publisher. As difficult as the affair was to pull off logistically, it was further complicated by Segerstedt’s deep theological roots, which caused him great emotional turmoil, even to the point of being visited by ghosts. Throw in the period-evoking black-and-white images and protagonist’s ever-dour demeanor and there are times in The Last Sentence when I thought I might have stepped into an Ingmar Bergman retrospective. At 126 minutes, the Swedish-language picture won’t be many Americans’ cup of tea. For those whose curiosity is piqued by the description here, however, The Last Sentence should prove extremely satisfying. The DVD includes an interesting making-of featurette by Troell’s daughter, Johanna.

Premature
If Paul and Chris Weitz had come up with idea that led to Groundhog Day, instead of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, American Pie might have looked a lot like Premature … only funnier. It’s possible that writer/director Dan Beers (FCU: Fact Checkers Unit) hadn’t seen those pictures before sitting down to pen Premature, but only if he’d been in a North Korea prison for the last 20 years. Given only this much information about Beers’ debut feature, most regular filmgoers could figure out that a high school boy about to lose his virginity is forced to relive the portion of his day that doesn’t include sealing the deal, over and over and over, again. Once the initial shock over his daily predicament wears off, Rob (John Karna), takes a page from Bill Murray’s book by slowly, but surely working out a strategy that will satisfy his carnal urges and put an end to his problems. Complicating Rob’s dilemma is the appointment he needs to keep with the recruiter from his parents’ alma mater and a jones he has for one of his teachers, who is far too sexy to be teaching post-pubescent children. But, that’s off the point. Unlike Murray’s weatherman and his alarm clock, Rob’s day begins with his mom walking in on him immediately after he experiences a wet dream. Eventually, he figures out that when things begin to go sideways in his day, all he has to do come within a few short strokes of ejaculating and a new one begins. Fortunately, too, Rob’s parents are as understanding of their son’s need to “relieve” himself occasionally as was Jim’s dad, immortalized by Eugene Levy, in American Pie. Beers isn’t yet in the same league as Ramis or the Weitzes, and may never be, so viewers shouldn’t be too disappointed if Premature falls short of their films. What it does have going for it is a cast whose enthusiasm, across the board, radiates from the screen. Stereotypical teen characters don’t get in the way of the kids we’re encouraged to like and the adults aren’t cut from cardboard. The DVD adds several interviews, an alternate ending and commentary.

Real Heroes
Parodies of reality-television shows are about as common these days as found-footage thrillers and Groundhog Day clones (see Premature review, above). Most will be of interest only to friends and families of the cast and crew. Some, however, are spunky enough to fight their way through the crowd and find an audience drawn to campy low-budget comedies. If Keith Hartman’s Real Heroes is guilty of anything, it’s stealing the template previously cut for “Big Brother,” “The Real World” and “Bad Girls Club,” all of which have become parodies of themselves, by now. I’m not sure if Hartman is as interested in skewering the reality genre here, as he is commenting on a culture that’s more obsessed with comic-book superheroes than fighting for affordable health care or putting crooked bankers and politicians in jail. With all of the Marvel and DC characters already booked for projects of their own, Real Heroes arranged an open call for Los Angeles-area residents who have convinced themselves that they’re superheroes and embody noble characteristics 24/7. The producers of the show hope to enlist a cross-section of “actors,” so as to attract an audience not limited to straight white men and women, between 24 and 45. Among the finalists are Sable, a single mom trying to juggle crime fighting, a moody teenage daughter and a waitressing job; Big Shot and Blue Arrow, macho marksmen struggling with their recent breakup; Malibu Action Girl, a spoiled African-American whose Daddy buys her all the weapons and action figures she wants; Psychic Sam, who somehow knows exactly when to dodge bullets and arrows; Water Warrior, a buff beach boy who’s rarely without his tiny goldfish bowl; and Rick & Josh, former teen superheroes trying to put their past behind them. To help entice viewers, Sable’s daughter is reluctantly recruited to play a superhero named Vixen, who fights evil alongside her mom but is more interested sparking with a female fan. The longer the characters remain in the headquarters dormitory, the more entertaining they become. Their superpowers are tested when a Nazi SS zombie and his truly bizarre female posse invade the property, revealing a spinoff project, “Real Villains.” Yes, Real Heroes is every bit as silly and anarchic as it sounds, but in a way that only low-budget DIY flicks can be. The inclusion of comic-book bumpers between scenes helps take the pressure off of the characters and there are plenty of bonus features to keep fans happy.

Documentaries
Mona Lisa Is Missing
OK, students, raise your hand if you can tell me who, in 1911, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. No one. OK, how many of you know that it was stolen? (Hint: it wasn’t Marlon Brandon’s mob boss, Carmine Sabatini, as alleged in The Freshman.) No problem. Until he was 25, neither did the writer/director of the delightful investigative documentary, Mona Lisa Is Missing. Joe Medeiros, a comedy writer on Jay Leno’s staff, knew a good story when he heard one, though, and began to research what might have been the crime of the century, if it weren’t for Bruno Richard Hauptmann and O.J. Simpson. Then, as now, the Mona Lisa (a.k.a., La Gioconda) was the most famous painting in the world and likely the most valuable. The theft made headlines around the planet and gargantuan rewards were offered … no questions asked. Because they were known to have purchased artifacts stolen from the museum by a friend, artist Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire were, briefly, considered prime suspects. As became clear two years later, the real culprit was quite a bit less interesting than Apollinaire, Picasso or Brando. After learning of the theft, Madeiros decided to learn as much as he could about Vincenzo Peruggia, the Italian immigrant who was responsible for the heist. He was working inside the Louvre as a laborer at the time and simply took advantage of a scarcity of staff on the museum’s closed day. Rather than lay out the entire caper here, I recommend taking advantage of Medeiros’ thorough research and pick up a copy of Mona Lisa Is Missing. He was even able to enlist Peruggia’s daughter, Celestina, and grandchildren Silvio and Graziella, in his quest. The documentary benefits mightily from the filmmaker’s visits to Paris, Florence and Peruggia’s quaint hometown of Dumenza, as well as court transcripts and competing theories on the theft. The DVD adds deleted scenes, outtakes, commentary and a dozen featurettes, which, in all, are longer than the film, itself.

Who Shot My Father?
Zubin and I
One reason that political and military thrillers are so popular, I think, is a shared belief that almost nothing our government tells us about affairs of state is completely true … truthy, maybe, but not the truth. Aaron Sorkin pretty much nailed it in his screenplay for A Few Good Men, when Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan R. Jessup tells Tom Cruise’s Lt. Daniel Kaffee, “You can’t handle the truth!” Forty-one years after Israeli Air Force Attaché Colonel Joe Alon was murdered on the driveway of his suburban Maryland home, his orphaned daughters have yet to be told the truth about the case, which was pretty much closed before it even began, here and in Israel, Frustrated, angry and disillusioned, they finally decided to collect as much information as is currently available and interview as many people who might know something pertinent to the aborted investigation for the emotionally charged documentary, Who Shot My Father? Alon was a true Israeli hero who helped write the playbook on desert aerial warfare. If he had a noticeable fault, it was that he drank too much and it loosened his lips. Among the likely suspects are Black October operatives, Israeli or American intelligence agents, a jealous husband and organized crime under the auspices of any of the above interests. No murder weapon was left behind and no one took credit for the attack. Key evidence disappeared from FBI files and records made available to the women under the FOIA were redacted to the point of being worthless. Henry Kissinger’s fingerprints are all over place, as well. That theory is almost too far out to believe, unless one recalls other horrors he perpetrated in the name of freedom and democracy. An American investigator has offered a counter-theory to the murder, involving an unnamed Palestinian assassin, but Alon’s daughters don’t give it much credence here. After 40 years, it’s time for the game of spy-versus-spy to end and the truth to be revealed. I think we can handle it.

Also from niche distributor SISU Home Entertainment comes Zubin Mehta: Zubin and I, Ori Sevan’s labor-of-love profile of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s widely acclaimed Music Director for Life. Sevan is best known here as co-creator of the original Israeli version of “In Treatment” and as a witness, if you will, in the animated post-war documentary Waltz With Bashir. “In Treatment” was the first original TV drama series from Israel to ever be sold for re-make in the U.S. – HBO – and it’s since been re-made in more than 20 countries. Zubin and I was made in 2010 as part of the HOT cable network’s “Israeli Culture Heroes” series, whose mission it is to examine its prominent subjects from a fresh angle. Mehta has conducted and performed with some of the world’s most renowned orchestras and served as music director for both the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra appointed Mehta its music advisor, in 1969; music director, in 1977; and Music Director for Life, in 1981. Sivan’s 2001 “Behind the Strings” was based on interviews with his grandmother, Klari Sarvash, the first and longtime harpist of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Although Mehta took over after she retired, Sarvash is an influential presence in Zubin and I. In it, Sevan spends time with the maestro driving around Tel Aviv and chatting before rehearsals. He also joins the orchestra on a tour of his hometown of Mumbai – then, Bombay — and sits with Mehta for two more formal interviews, during which he discusses his musical roots and his deep connection to Israel.

Running From Crazy
In 1988, a smallish independent drama, The Suicide Club, snuck in and out of theaters, without making much of an impression on audiences or critics. That it starred Mariel Hemingway, whose grandfather had famously killed himself two decades earlier, was an irony not lost on those who may have considered seeing the movie. At the time, six members of the Hemingway clan had taken their own lives. Margaux, would die soon thereafter from a drug overdose and their oldest sister, Joan “Muffet” Hemingway, still live in a group home near the family compound in Idaho. Unlike the so-called Kennedy curse, which is a media fabrication but mentioned here, anyway, the Hemingway curse is traceable to a propensity for mental illness and alcoholism, either one of which could lead to severe depression and suicide. Coping with the family curse, while working hard to keep herself and her daughters from becoming its next victim, is the subject of Mariel’s punishingly reflective, Running From Crazy. At 100 minutes, Running From Crazy naturally spends a great deal of time examining the highs and lows of growing up among people who knew something was wrong with them, but might not have wanted or been able to change the direction of their lives. She’s candid about her personal issues and downright bubbly about her efforts to educate people suffering from similar problems and promoting a pro-active approach to physical and mental health. It was directed by two-time Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple, with Oprah Winfrey serving as the executive producer and audience wrangler.

Bound by Flesh
Modern medicine and the widespread availability of abortions have combined to nearly eliminate the supply of talent to midway attractions and niche “museums” that once flourished by showcasing freaks of nature. Even well into the last century, however, these shows remained extremely popular. Some of the unfortunate performers, at least, became rich and famous, while those who didn’t prosper helped make a fortune for someone else. Had they been born 100 years later than they were, conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton would not have been sold to an abusive tavern owner for exhibition in a back room or be forced to sit back and watch as the only career they ever had went out of vogue. Because they shared no major organs, it’s likely that they would have undergone a relatively safe procedure to separate them soon after birth. Of course, had the girls survived the then-risky operation, they wouldn’t have performed alongside such major stars as Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin; made and blown a fortune while touring the globe; appeared in Todd Browning’s cult classic, Freaks, in non-exploitative roles; or had their stories told on screen and stage. Indeed, as we learn in Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating bio-doc, Bound by Flesh, when Daisy and Violet were offered an opportunity to be separated under safe conditions, they turned it down. There’s much more to Zemeckis’ impeccably researched film, including how their real or bogus attempts to be legitimately married were thwarted by self-righteous officials, and how a North Carolina town came to adopt the sisters when they were ripped off and abandoned by their tour manager. The film is informed by much archival material, interviews and newsreel footage that demonstrates some of the talents they acquired along the way. As such, Bound by Flesh also stands as a modern history of traveling carnivals, sideshows, burlesque, vaudeville and American attitudes toward people with serious birth defects. (One thing for sure, the era of the sideshow “tattooed lady” is long gone. You can find as many outrageously inked women in a Hollywood supermarket today than there were in the entire history of freak shows.)

TV-to-DVD
BBC/A&E: Miss Marple: Volume One: Blu-ray
Masterpiece Mystery: Death Comes to Pemberley: Blu-ray
PBS: How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson
(Impractical) Jokers: The Complete Second Season
The Exes: Seasons 1 & 2
In 1986, when British audiences tuned into the BBC to watch “Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple,” starring the estimable Joan Hickson, they were well aware of two things. One, that the author had once personally encouraged the actor to pursue playing “my dear Miss Marple.” And, second, that fellow fan Queen Elizabeth II would almost certainly be watching the same episode of the mystery series as they were. (In 1987, HRM would award Hixson the Order of the British Empire.) The newly re-mastered Blu-ray collection is comprised of “Murder at the Vicarage,” “The Body in the Library,” “The Moving Finger” and “A Murder is Announced.” All four stories were shot entirely on location and feature appearances by Cheryl Campbell, Samantha Bond, Sylvia Syms and Ralph Michael. This being the first volume, viewers can expect several more hi-def collections to pop up in the foreseeable future.

Currently showing on many PBS affiliates is the “Masterpiece Mystery” production of “Death Comes to Pemberley,” based on P.D. James’ sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved “Pride and Prejudice.” The sparkling new Blu-ray disc contains the original UK cut of the three-part series, which makes good use of several Yorkshire landmarks, including Castle Howard, Hardcastle Crags, Chatsworth House, Stang End Cottage, St. William’s College and Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House. The story picks up six years after Austen’s novel left off. Not everything is copacetic in the opulent estate of Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy (Matthew Rhys, Anna Maxwell Martin), but an uneasy peace pervades on the eve of the family’s annual Lady Anne ball. Early arriving guests are relaxing after dinner when a carriage comes rushing up the entrance to the mansion with a hysterical Lydia Bennett screaming all the way. The best friend of Fitzwilliam’s nemesis, George Wickham (Matthew Goode), was shot and killed when an argument spilled from the carriage into the woods, but it isn’t clear if the handsome rogue was responsible for it. In addition to this mystery, we’re also treated to one of a marital variety when Georgiana Darcy is ordered by her brother to choose between love and family obligation on the way to the altar. It’s a lot of fun, but anyone unfamiliar with “Pride and Prejudice” is strongly advised to watch one of the many film adaptations or spend a couple of days reading the novel before jumping head-first into it.

The conceit behind PBS’s enlightening “How We Got to Now With Steven Johnson” is that ideas, discoveries and happy accidents, no matter how seemingly insignificant at the time of their appearance, are like acorns that grow into mighty oaks and are recycled throughout the greater eco-system by researchers and consumers, alike. The titles of the first six hour-long episodes – “Clean,” “Time,” “Glass,” “Light,” “Cold,” “Sound” — only tease what will be revealed by the host. Unlike almost everyone else in PBS’ educational series, Johnson is an American author who focuses on popular science and media theory. The series is adapted from his ninth book, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World.” Employing a casual homespun approach to complex subject matter, Johnson pretty much serves the show as a human Internet search engine. In effect, all he does is put a concept into the subject line and hits enter. Then, he sorts through myriad links and finds the ones that will take him from Point A to Point Z, with stops on every letter in between. For instance, “Clean” takes us from the creation of Chicago’s sewer system, the first urban system in America, to the growth of household cleaning products like Clorox and the hyper-sanitized plants where microchips are made. In some parts of the world, water remains as hazardous to drink as it was in the Windy City, when raw sewage clogged the Chicago River and flowed into Lake Michigan. Reversing the river’s eastward flow would inevitably lead to the massive Deep Tunnel project, which effectively does the same thing, except at a far greater volume. Among PBS’s other DVD offerings this week are “Cook’s Country: Season 7,” with terrific new takes on time-tested recipes and tips from host Christopher Kimball and the chefs from America’s Test Kitchen, and “Craft in America: Service.” Now in its sixth season, it is the story of craft and the military, from the origins of the Army Arts and Crafts Program and the G.I. Bill to contemporary soldiers and veterans. Among other things, it demonstrates how a no-nonsense approach to cooking the American repertoire has turned bad grub into great food.

For some reason, “(Impractical) Jokers: The Complete Second Season” appears on the heels of last month’s third-season finale, instead of as a teaser for a new stanza of fresh programming. The popular Tru TV show combines traditional hidden-camera conceits with practical jokes of a most sophomoric variety, in that they’re intended to embarrass the perpetrator as much as the victims. Here, however, the prankster is at the mercy of pals, who are gathered behind the hidden camera pulling his strings. Each cast-member is given a shot at getting his target to participate in the gag before he breaks character with hysterical laughter. If you’ve ever enjoyed watching an innocent bystander slipping on a banana peel or attempting to pick up a dollar bill affixed to a sidewalk, this is the show for you. While some of the reactions to the gags are undeniably humorous, the effect is overwhelmed by the braying laughter of the three guys feeding lines to their friend via microphone (with an earpiece).

Until 2010, the folks at TV Land appeared content to repackage repeats of classic and far-less-than-classic shows from the annals of television history. Many of the titles had been shown so often that it was the rare viewer who hadn’t already memorized the dialogue. As the TV-to-DVD business began to hit its stride, with complete-series packages, the need for such a cable service diminished greatly. When its first

foray into original scripted programming struck gold with “Hot in Cleveland,” its formula was borrowed to create other new shows. All feature stars from a landmark series, who appeal most to Baby Boomer audiences and are paired with attractive unknowns. Among the re-tread actors are Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Betty White, Fran Drescher, George Segal, Jessica Walter, Rhea Perlman, Kirstie Alley, Michael Richards and Cedric the Entertainer. Not all of the shows found an audience, but several are enjoying long runs. “The Exes was built around such known factors as Kristen Johnston (“3d Rock From the Sun”), Wayne Knight (“Seinfeld”) and Donald Faison (“Scrubs”) and relative unknowns David Alan Basche and Kelly Stables. In it, a divorce attorney (Johnston) allows three of her male clients to share a large apartment in the New York flat that she owns. They, of course, possess wildly divergent personalities and quirks, but share an interest in getting back into the dating game. Their attorney is so busy with her work that she neglects her sex life. When this happens, she remedies the situation by binging with her perky blond assistant (Stables), who is 4-11 to her boss’ 6-foot, out of heels. Besides this running sight gag, a steady stream of one-show bimbettes flows through the guys’ apartment, where the men continually display the deficiencies that led to their divorces in the first place. Frankly, I was surprised by how entertaining it is. NBC should be so lucky to have TV Land’s lineup.

Holiday TV-to-DVD
A Belle for Christmas
Cartoon Network: Holiday Collection
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition
A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume 2
Coincidentally or otherwise, Dean Cain and Kristy Swanson have appeared together recently in several made-for-TV and direct-to-DVD movies, usually of the PG, family-friendly variety. Swanson has also co-starred with Charlie Sheen three times, although I don’t see any connection there with Cain, whose fans include followers of “Lois & Clark,” “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!,” “Bloopers” and the faith-based blockbuster, God’s Not Dead. A Belle for Christmas is the latest in a series of canine-centric movies in which Cain has appeared, sometimes with Swanson. Here, he plays a recent widower and father of two precocious pre-teens, who fall in love with the idea of adopting a puppy for Christmas. Swanson plays the woman, a voluptuous baker, who wants to fill his ex-wife’s shoes – and steal her jewelry – for the holidays. Her Achilles heel is being allergic to dogs, especially this one. Her true colors are revealed when she dog-naps Belle and makes up a story for the man who runs the local dog pound. Needless to say, the kids stay two steps ahead of their dad throughout most of A Belle for Christmas and a merry one is had by all … except the woman who would have been the wicked stepmother. That’s one stereotype, at least, that will never disappear. Haylie Duff also plays a strategic role in the story, as the manager of a dog-rescue shelter and a potential love interest to Cain if there’s a sequel.

Anyone who cares to measure the distance between holiday specials, then and now, can do so in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” and “Cartoon Network: Holiday Collection.” Although it may look primitive to older viewers, even in its Blu-ray iteration, it’s worth remembering that the stop-motion animation on display in the former set the standard for an entire generation of filmmakers to come. Burl Ives narrates as Sam the Snowman, telling and singing the story of a rejected reindeer who overcomes prejudice and, once again, saves Christmas. Even if the hi-def presentation reveals some of the seams in the creation process, it isn’t likely that kids will notice anything but the time-honored characters. The Cartoon Network package advances the clock on the evolution of animation 50 years forward, with shows and characters that are on the cutting edge of hip family entertainment. The DVD is comprised of two “Adventure Time” episodes and an episode each of “Regular Show” and “The Amazing World of Gumball.” The bonus material adds the non-holiday-specific “Money Broom Wizard” episode of “Clarence” and a “Steven Universe” episode called “Together Breakfast.”

Just as telling are the holiday presentations resurrected for “A King Family Christmas: Classic Television Specials, Volume 2.” The two-DVD set contains their syndicated Thanksgiving and Christmas specials from 1967; a reunion Christmas special in 1974; and a sentimental retrospective made for PBS in 2009. For better or worse, the King clan and Up With People pretty much represented the kind of super-sanitized fare that passed for family entertainment in the 1960-70s. Eventually, Up With People would be unmasked for its cult-like practices, but the King Family and its occasional spinoff acts still attract viewers. Except for the Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS, there’s nothing quite like the spirited musical performances and dance routines contributed to the popular culture by the Kings. The DVD adds two bonus Christmas episodes from the 1965 series, “The King Family Show.”

Halloween Gift guide: Universal Monsters, Vincent Price, Pee-wee, Nightbreed and More

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Between concern over the spread of Ebola and renewed Pumpkin Festival violence — inspired by the riots at Keane State College, only a week ago — who really needs another excuse to avoid Halloween parties and trick-or-treating this weekend? Even Charlie Brown couldn’t have imagined the extent of the violence caused by pumpkin fanatics in New Hampshire and, traditionally, by students in Madison and Carbondale. I can think of several better ways to kill time while waiting for dawn to rise on All Saints Day or, if you prefer, Día de Muertos. It is in this spirit that DVD Wrapup presents the first of its annual gift guides.

The two most obvious gifts for your Halloween-obsessed friends and relatives are new collections – Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, 1931-1956 and The Vincent Price Collection II, 1959-1972 – both of which are appropriately rated for family viewing, despite the goose bumps they may have raised back in the day. What makes these compilations more compelling today than in previous video incarnations is both the superb technical rejuvenation the movies have undergone and the eclectic nature of the selections. Still great fun to watch, they look and sound as if they were finished last week for release this Friday.

While it’s fair to ask why the 21-disc “Universal Classic Monsters” wasn’t released in Blu-ray, the digital facelifts have added new sparkle to films that were superbly shot in black-and-white. The scratches and other artifacts that have cursed versions of the films in their television and VHS incarnations are gone and the sound mix is crystal clear. For easy categorization, the set is divided among the immortal characters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Invisible Man, Wolf Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon, with a separate disc reserved for the 1943 Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Claude Raines, Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. Once such a character proved successful, Universal didn’t hesitate to exploit it with such myriad sequels as Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, The Invisible Woman, The Mummy’s Hand, Revenge of the Creature and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as well as several in which monsters play straight men for Abbott & Costello. The rarely seen and genuinely spooky1931Spanish-language version of Drácula, starring Carlos Villarías, also is here. It was filmed on the same sets and at the same time as the Bela Lugosi version of the story, but at night. The bonus package adds 13 commentaries, several behind-the-scenes documentaries, actor profiles, archival footage, a 48-page booklet and vintage marketing material. If it had wanted to, Universal might have added another separate package devoted to its classic adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, some of which have previously been released on video.

For Baby Boomer audiences, no one said horror as melodiously and with as much erudite authority as Vincent Price. And, for that matter, no single person was more responsible for bringing American school children to Poe’s works than the St. Louis-born actor, narrator and, later in life, gourmet chef. In addition to a gift for the macabre, Price had a wicked sense of humor. It can be witnessed in such movies as The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors, which both co-starred Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre and are included in “Volume II.” (Jack Nicholson appeared in the former, while Jacques Tourneur directed the latter.) The other selections are House on Haunted Hill, The Return of the Fly, The Last Man on Earth, Tomb of Ligeia and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Among the bonus material is “Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Last Man on Earth,” in which the author of “I Am Legend,” discusses his original novel and his part in adapting it; Price’s introductions to the films; commentaries by the likes of Roger Corman and actress Elizabeth Shepherd; marketing material; still galleries; and featurettes, “Vincent Price: Renaissance Man,” “Working with Vincent Price” and “Vincent Price Trailer Collection.” The Blu-ray upgrades are good, as well. Last year’s Halloween gift to horror fans from Shout!Factory was “The Vincent Price Collection, with  Fall of the House of Usher, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, Witchfinder General and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

In one of the interviews conducted for the Blu-ray edition of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series,” a former participant in the groundbreaking show for children of all ages recalled being surprised at seeing kids dressed in Halloween costumes inspired by it. When Paul Reubens created his trademark character, though, he might very well have had Halloween in mind. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was populated with people and props that looked as if they’d just fallen off the shelves of a toy store. Reubens created Pee-wee Herman when still a member of Los Angeles’ influential comedy troupe, the Groundlings. The master of mischief was a grown-up child, inspired, in large part, by the silly antics and garish wardrobe of vaudevillian Pinky Lee, whose TV show preceded “The Howdy Doody Show” on Saturday mornings in the mid-1950s. Pee-wee Herman, though, was developed strictly for the Groundlings’ adult audience. It spawned a stage show, HBO special, in-costume talk-show appearances and the 1985 comedy feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which was directed by Tim Burton and introduced the character to kids, who immediately bought into the conceit. CBS, which needed a show to anchor its Saturday-morning lineup, offered Reubens an unusually large budget to create something specifically for children attracted to Pee-wee’s anarchic sense-of-humor and mischievous behavior. The Playhouse, itself, was an art designer’s wet dream, as it merged Dada, surrealism, psychedelia, camp and comic-book art. An immediate hit with kids, its popularity quickly spread to hipsters and other adults who’d get up early – or stay up late – to watch it. The Shout!Factory collection is wonderful. The Blu-ray easily captures the show’s brilliant color palette and crazy audio cues. It includes all 45 re-mastered episodes, plus “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special”; more than four hours of brand-new interviews with the cast and crew; fresh behind-the-scenes footage; and appearances by such familiar faces as Laurence Fishburne (Cowboy Curtis), S. Epatha Merkerson (Reba the Mail Lady), Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne), John Paragon (Jambi the Genie), musicians Mark Mothersbaugh and Danny Elfman, designers Gary Panter, Wayne White and Ric Heitzman, and animation supervisor Prudence Fenton (Liquid Television), as well as writers, puppeteers and makeup artists.

Until the arrival of two curious documentaries earlier this year on DVD, I thought it safe to assume that My Little Pony’s vast fandom was limited to preteen girls, closer to kindergarten than junior high. A Brony Tales or Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony relieved me of that quaint notion, however. While it’s likely that little girls will continue to trick-or-treat in costumes inspired by the 2010 “My Little Pony” reboot, “Friendship Is Magic,” I suspect that some Bronies will attempt to infiltrate Halloween parties from West Hollywood to Lower Manhattan. No one takes the “friendship is magic” credo more seriously than people who’ve have spent their lives being bullied or in search of like-minded friends. For the true target demographic, however, Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks fulfills the promise of last year’s feature-length My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, which re-locates the ponies-turned-teenagers from Ponyville to Canterlot High School. In the mirror universe populated by the ponies’ human counterparts, the Rainbooms are forced to confront the evil Dazzlings in a Battle of the Bands that could determine the fate of the known world. Can the good gals pull this off without the help of Twilight Sparkle, who’s laying low in the pony realm of Equestria? You tell me. The original music, yes, rocks, while the animation pops with a hot hi-def color scheme. The Blu-ray arrives with commentary, eight prequel shorts and sing-alongs.

It would be interesting to learn how sales of costumes representing various superheroes and villains wax and wane whenever a new movie is released. I wonder, as well, how many of their fans have crossed over to the motion-comic world of the Marvel Knights. Wolverine, the mutant with bones of steel, last appeared in the worldwide box-office hit, X-Men: Days of Future Past. His presence doesn’t stop there, however. Besides the various TV series, video games, comic books and who knows what else, there are the motion-comic titles included in Marvel Knights: The Wolverine Collection: “Wolverine: Origin,” “Ultimate Wolverine Versus Hulk,” “Wolverine: Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today,” “Wolverine Versus Sabretooth” and “Wolverine Versus Sabretooth: Reborn.” There’s a world of difference between the formats, as Marvel and its partners attempt to seduce viewers and readers of all ages. The motion-comics are distinguished by a darkly sinister quality that differentiates them from the other platforms. The DVD adds interviews with Paul Jenkins, Joe Quesada, Bill Jemas, Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove, Leinil Francis Yu, Ron Garney, Jeph Loeb and Simone Bianchi.

It isn’t often that a director is able to re-embrace a movie he disowned a quarter-century earlier and make it resemble his original vision of the work. That’s exactly what’s on view in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut, which is 20 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but contains over 40 minutes of new and altered footage. It’s also different than the 155-minute “Cabal Cut” that was reconstituted from missing footage located in 2009. Indeed, prior to the new “Director’s Cut,” the most authentic adaptation of Barker’s source novel came in the early 1990s with a comic-book series. As he explains in a new introduction with restoration producer Mark Alan Miller, while it contains those 40 minutes of fresh material, it is only 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version. Once the scenes were reordered and the original film footage restored, he says, the entire film received a brand new sound mix and color pass. Whatever was done to it worked magnificently. At 140 minutes, the story no longer is just another slasher movie. It more closely resembles the fantasy world of Guillermo del Toro, circa Pan’s Labyrinth, in that the freaks and monsters exist for reasons beyond serving as killing machines. The ones holed up under the Midian cemetery are as afraid of humans as we are of them. And, what an imaginative group of misfit characters they are. Craig Sheffer plays Boone, a troubled young human who can’t figure out if he’s a serial killer or he’s being set up as the fall guy in a string of slasher murders. Tipped off to Midian while stashed in a psychiatric hospital, he’s shot to pieces by cops alerted to his whereabouts by his shrink (David Cronenberg, of all people). His “death” gains him entry to the subterranean realm of the monsters. Sadly, it also leads a militia of blood-crazed rednecks to the spot. The ensuing battle is as unusual as it spectacular. Finally, too, Barker has added a “Romeo & Juliet” climax to the festivities.  It’s really quite unexpectedly special. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Barker and Miller; the fascinating 72-minute “Tribes of the Moon: The Making of Nightbreed,” featuring new interviews with Sheffer, Anne Bobby, Doug Bradley and other actors; the 42-minute “Making Monsters,” with makeup-effects artists Bob Keen, Martin Mercer and Paul Jones; and “Fire! Fights! Stunts! 2nd Unit Shooting,” a 20-minute interview with Andy Armstrong.

My sainted mother loved to garden, but absolutely dreaded the likelihood of confronting an earthworm of any size. Growing up, that was my job. Even those folks used to baiting hooks with night-crawlers should find something disconcerting in the “Collector’s Edition” of Jeff Lieberman’s icky creature feature Squirm. Released in 1976, the premise is pretty simple. During a furious storm one night in rural Georgia, the small town of Fly Creek is cut off from the rest of the world by downed electrical wires and flooded roads. At first, it doesn’t seem as if anything more than the usual amount of damage has occurred. Soon, however, people begin finding worms in their food, descending from their shower heads and scouring the remains of storm victims. Naturally, instead of an electrical surge, the good-ol’-boys immediately blame the recent arrival of the Yankee boyfriend (Don Scardino) of a local Georgia peach (Patricia Pearcy). Complicating things for the interloper even more is a handsome, if slightly demented worm farmer, who also has had his eyes on the girl. As low-budget drive-in fare goes, Squirm isn’t bad, at all. The hundreds of thousands of Glycera bloodworms deployed by Lieberman’s wranglers are several times scarier than your run-of-the-mill earthworms and the fake ones were animated in unique ways described in the bonus material. The Blu-ray adds commentary (Lieberman says he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds), fresh interviews with cast and crew, a tour of the original locations and still gallery.

What begins as a rather typical UK gangster thriller evolves, over the course of 69 minutes, into a very different film, one that invokes the titular antagonist, himself. The Devil’s Business opens with a pair of hitmen breaking into the country cottage of their target, who’s at the opera and due home after midnight. As they wait for his arrival, the old pro coaches his young charge in the intricacies of the game and begins a story that viewers would do well to remember as Sean Hogan’s movie progresses. It is interrupted by a sharp sound outside the house, which inevitably leads to a test of wills between Satan and the assassin. No more needs be revealed here, except that Pinner (Billy Clarke) and Cully (Jack Gordon) are given a harsh lesson in the true nature of the profession. The Devil’s Business will remind more literary-minded viewers of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” before it gets down to, well, the devil’s business. The Blu-ray adds production-oriented commentary, several interviews, music videos, outtakes, a behind-the-scenes piece and a really wild extended screener reel of Mondo Macabro titles.

And, what says Halloween more than coal mining and zombies? Unless they are conceived as a documentary or movie-of-the-week about an actual event – such as the astonishing rescue of the miners in Chile – movies in the mining-disaster subgenre tend to tell stories that can end one of two ways. The buried men could find themselves visited by creatures distantly related to those that escaped the caves of Japan a decade after atomic bombs rained on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or, like Beneath, the doomed miners could meet the ghosts of dearly departed forebears, whose bodies couldn’t be retrieved when rescue efforts failed. Ben Ketai’s palpably claustrophobic thriller is different only in the presence of a young woman (Kelly Noonan) back home to attend the forced retirement of her father (Jeff Fahey), due to a diagnosis of black-lung disease. Because Samantha aspires to join the EPA as an environmental lawyer, she’d be considered persona non grata on almost any other day of the year. Almost on a dare, she agrees to take a close look at the place her dad’s labored for his entire life. And, after an interesting tour of the subterranean site, guess what happens. Beneath may be a tad on the obvious side, but it holds one’s interest until the principle gag becomes clear, at least. It adds a commentary, making-of featurette and several more pieces than you’d think would be appropriate for such an iffy low-budget flick.

The DVD Wrapup: Le Chef, For a Woman, Canopy, Snowpiercer, Sexina, Sleeping With Fishes, Johnny Thunders, Dorothea Lange … More

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Le Chef: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s recently fallen in love with the DVD edition of Chef, Jon Favreau’s delightful ode to curbside cooking, may want to sample Daniel Cohen’s puffy French soufflé, Le Chef, for dessert, as well. Released in Europe in 2012, but only now finding its way to American foodies, it does for haute cuisine what Favreau did for blue-collar grub in his vastly under-distributed comedy. In both movies, perfectionist chefs are forced by impatient restaurant owners and food-Nazi critics to reconsider their options in the ludicrously pretentious world of high-end eating. Where Favreau’s Carl Casper found redemption in the slow-lane of the highway, Jean Reno’s old-school chef, Alexandre Lagarde, is rescued by an amateur who grew up watching him prepare classic French meals on television. Michaël Youn’s brash newcomer, Jacky Bonnot, has adopted some of Lagarde’s less appealing characteristics, including a refusal to compromise his culinary vision. Fortunately, Bonno has also mastered some of the techniques favored by proponents of minimalist and molecular cuisine. These would include Lagarde’s new boss, who demands he not only reduce the amount of food on each diner’s plate, but increase what the restaurant charges for it, as well. According to Lagarde’s contract, the only way that he can be fired is by losing a star in the Michelin guide and this is something Bonnot simply won’t let happen to his mentor. As was the case in Chef, Le Chef is open to criticism that its subsidiary blend of romantic and melodramatic ingredients is too rich. In French comedies, though, a bit of slapstick almost always comes with the meal, gratis. You either dig it or you don’t. As it is, Le Chef does a nice job lampooning the ever-more-competitive restaurant industry and celebrity chef craze. As a French production, it also takes a playful shot at Spain’s “culinary revolution.” The Blu-rays a making-of featurette, interviews, bloopers and deleted scenes.

For A Woman
Cannibal: A Love Story
How many of us, while digging through the photos and mementos collected by our parents when they were young, have discovered something that completely changes our impressions of them? That wonderful French actor, Sylvie Testud, plays just such a woman in Diane Kurys’ semi-autobiographical drama, For a Woman. In researching a film about how her parents met and, through coincidence, were rescued from Hitler’s gas chambers, Anne finds evidence of a completely different love story, which played out before she was born. This revelation frames Kurys’ own examination of her parents’ early years together in post-war Lyons. It was a time when French communists were still free to believe that Stalin wasn’t as great an enemy to freedom as any other world leader and revolution could be achieved through rhetoric and democracy. Anne’s father, Michel (Benoît Magimel) is a Russian Jew, whose parents emigrated from the USSR when he was a boy. Before the war, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, mostly out of boredom, and, during the occupation, was rounded up by collaborators as a Jew and potential enemy of the Vichy regime. It was during Michel’s stay in a detention camp that he was recognized by a fellow legionnaire, who gave him a pass to freedom. He had convinced the official that he was about to married and wouldn’t leave without his fiancé. In fact, Michel had never met the beautiful blond, Lena (Mélanie Thierry). He fell in love with her from afar and, knowing it probably was the only way to survive, she agreed to become his bride. Given time, however, their romance would blossom. Michel would become a master tailor and she would focus on raising the first of their two daughters.

If Kurys’ story had ended in 1947, instead of 30 years later, it still would be pretty compelling. Instead, Michel and Lena would soon be joined by his brother, Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who had miraculously survived the war and was in France on a mission that he can’t even reveal to his brother. The only clues we’re given lead us to believe that Jean is deeply involved in the black market and he may have participated in the murder of an innocent man. While perusing family photographs after the death of her mother, Anne discovers what she considers to be the tip of the iceberg kept hidden from her and her sister for all this time. Further research suggests that a forbidden romance might have come between the brothers and threatened the future stability of the family. Even on his deathbed, Michel refuses to answer his daughters’ questions, preferring, instead, to recall the early, happier days in his marriage. Kurys’ other narrative conceit, which could only come from personal memories, involves Michel’s lifelong commitment to Mother Russia and the Communist Party. His myopic passion, as lovingly recalled by Anne and her sister at his funeral, provide the film’s only light-hearted through-line. Likewise, it helps us overlook some of the more awkward transitions between past and present, which beg more questions than they answer. Otherwise, For a Woman delivers a convincing period feel, fine acting and lovely footage shot in the Rhône-Alpes, The Film Movement package, as usual, adds a very compelling short film, Sylvain Bressollette’s Le ballon de rouge.

Also from Film Movement comes the decidedly different story of a European tailor with a secret to hide. As the title, Cannibal: A Love Story, points out ever so accurately, it is a movie that could just as easily fit on the shelves reserved for horror DVDs as those holding romantic dramas, which is how it is described in a cover blurb. Spanish director Manuel Martín Cuenca (Malas temporadas) based his creepy arthouse thriller on a novel by Cuban writer Humberto Arenal. The titular character, Carlos (Antonio de la Torre), is a mild-mannered tailor in Granada, where he blends into the woodwork as easily as a tourist at the Alhambra. Like his father, Carlos is known for his impeccable attention to detail, so much so that the archdiocese entrusts him with its most valuable fabrics. If it comes as no secret to us that Carlos not only is a serial killer, but also someone who eats what he murders, what Cuenca does hold back from us are the root causes of his madness or even a solid reason to forsake any hope of his redemption. As precisely drawn as he is, Carlos remains an enigma throughout the film. He doesn’t stalk the Andalusian streets at night, looking for victims to satisfy his hunger, nor does he drool in the company of the attractive young women he savors. He chooses his victims carefully and seems motivated as much by love as a hunger only he understands. If anything, Carlos fears getting too close to the women destined to tempt his thinly sublimated desires.

The first living woman to whom we’re introduced is a flirty Romanian masseuse, Alexandre (Olimpia Melinte), who makes the mistake of banging on Carlos’ door after a very loud argument in the next-door apartment. He begs her to leave him out of the dispute, but she insists on using his phone to call police. She, then, disappears. A couple of days later, her sister, Nina (also Melinte) shows up at his door asking if he’s seen her lately. Although he clearly fears the police, who will come to suspect Nina of killing her sister, Carlos agrees to help her in any way possible. This includes protecting her against the Eastern European thug to whom both women owe money. The tension builds to a fever pitch when Nina takes Carlos up on his offer to lay low in the cabin he owns high in the Sierra Nevada range. We already know that this is where the tailor butchers his victims, but not before lingering over their naked bodies as if he were studying an expensive swath of cloth. There’s no need to spoil the ending, except to say that it’s of a piece with everything that’s come before it. If Cannibal doesn’t sound sufficiently grisly for genre enthusiasts, they should know that Carlos shares with Hannibal Lector a credible sense of dignity and purpose, without also being a show-off. Much of the movie takes place as Granada prepares for the annual religious procession that caps the Fiesta de Nuestra Senora de las Angustias. It’s beautiful, but the scenes shot in the mountains are nothing short of breathtaking. It is accompanied by a complementary short film, Ogre.

Canopy
The Squad: Blu-ray
While watching this World War II drama from Aussie writer/director Aaron Wilson – making the transition from shorts to feature films – most viewers will find it difficult to avoid comparing it stylistically to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and thematically to John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific. Filmed on location in Singapore’s verdant Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Canopy describes an incident that very easily could have taken place there during the Japanese invasion in February, 1942. An Australian fighter plane is shot down, leaving its unconscious pilot suspended from a tree branch on the cords of his parachute. After assessing his condition and taking into account the likelihood of enemy ground troops in the area, Jim (Khan Chittenden) risks alerting them to his position by cutting himself free and dropping to the soggy ground. Grabbing a first-aid kit, but not much more, Jim begins his battle for survival among the mangroves, swamps and thick brush. Not long after starting out, he comes across another endangered soldier, this one a wounded member of Singapore’s Chinese resistance. (Thousands of Chinese nationals were slaughtered in the occupation.) Although surrounded by the enemy, they manage to avoid capture for a short time, at least. The Malick touch can be seen in the extreme close ups of vegetation, water and insects with which they must contend. The streams of light pouring through the forest canopy also are reminder of the debt owed cinematographer John Toll by Stefan Duscio in only his third and most ambitious feature. The other noteworthy thing about Canopy is its ability to tell a story that’s compelling – however austere – with virtually no dialogue and a soundtrack comprised of ambient noise: birds, bombs exploding in the distance, the slush of boots in mud. The DVD includes an interesting making-of featurette, which makes the location shoot seem like something less than a picnic.

In The Squad, all communication with a remote Colombian military base has been lost and it is feared that rebels have taken control of the strategic outpost in the nearly vertical terrain of the Parque de los Nevados. An elite nine-man squad has been sent to investigate the situation and retake the base, if possible. No sooner are the men dropped off by helicopter than co-writer/director Jaime Osorio Marquez envelops them in fog and an eerie silence that is more ominous than gunfire would have been. As the soldiers get to the bunker-like structure, the lack of resistance is both a relief and a concern. Once inside, it becomes clear that some form of slaughter has taken place, but, in the absence of corpses and discovery of warnings etched onto the walls, the team is left to wonder if some supernatural force might be at work. And, lo and behold, a disheveled woman is found behind a newly created wall, surrounded by objects associated with witchcraft. Soon, the soldiers are fighting among themselves and Marquez has ratcheted the level of tension to a fever pitch. It continues to build until the closing credits are scheduled to roll and hope for a final resolution is waning. It comes in the blink of an eye that had me hitting my remote’s rewind button several times. The conclusion may divide viewers who’ve been waiting 100 minutes for answers, but I’m not sure there was a better way of doing so and maintaining Marquez’ eerie vision. The Blu-ray adds a making-of feature that describes the difficulties of shooting a film at an altitude of 14,000 feet.

Snowpiercer: Blu-ray
From Inside
It isn’t every day that two movies about post-apocalyptic train rides, both based on graphic novels, arrive in the mail. That’s exactly what happened ahead of Snowpiercer and From Inside’s release this week on DVD/Blu-ray. Co-written and directed by the brilliant Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host), Snowpiercer was greeted by some of the most positive reviews of any of the summer action pictures. Its cast includes Chris Evans, Ed Harris, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (channeling Eleanor Roosevelt), Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and actors more familiar to audiences in Pacific Rim and European countries. The set designs, which border on steampunk, are sufficiently dystopian; there’s plenty of action; and the Ice Age special effects are dandy. It doesn’t lack humor, either. What Snowpiercer didn’t have in its corner were a marketing budget and distribution plan that would allow it to compete against its direct competitors, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Deliver Us From Evil and Tammy. As a last-minute corrective, Weinstein Co. decided to almost simultaneously test the VOD market. Normally, this would be considered a sign of desperation. Increasingly, though, the pay-for-view biz has been kind to genre pictures and Snowpiercer doubled it theatrical take. There’s no reason at all to think that it can’t attract an even larger audience in DVD/Blu-ray. In a setup that could have been written by climate-change deniers, the movie describes what happens after an untested cooling agent – think, Ice-nine from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” – is introduced into the upper atmosphere. In 20 years, it turns what might have been an inconvenient loss of beachfront property into a global catastrophe. Survivors of the freeze-out have been packed on a very special “miracle” train, in which passengers are divided into haves and have-nots, and frozen seas allow access to global destinations. Those in the rear half of the train look has if they had been shoved aboard the 1:10 to Siberia, while the passenger in front enjoy privileges commonly reserved for the ruling elite. (Snowpiercer’s color palette changes radically after the passengers in steerage revolt, violently invading the first-class section.) The movie gets better the closer the rebels get to the engine, which is the only thing separating life and death for all of the passengers. The two-disc Blu-ray, which nicely captures the contrasts in tone, arrives loaded with bonus features, including geek-friendly commentary; the hour-long “’Transperceneige’: From the Blank Page to the Black Screen,” a documentary that focuses on the graphic novel’s transition to the screen; “The Birth of ‘Snowpiercer,’” a more basic making-of piece that examines the story and its history; profiles of the key individual characters; an animated prologue; Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton’s takes on the movie; a quick look at the promotional tour through Texas and interview with Bong Joon-Ho; and concept-art galleries.

John Bergin is a writer, artist, filmmaker and musician, who, like so many other graphic novelists, has an extremely bleak view of mankind’s future. In 2008, he adapted, directed and animated the grimly dystopian From Inside, which had done well in paper and ink form. It played the fantasy-festival circuit for a couple of years, without finding distribution, and now has been released in a “Gary Numan Special Edition,” showcasing a new musical score by the influential pioneer in electronic and industrial music (“Cars”) and DJ/producer Ade Fenton. The soundtrack adds a foreboding tone to what already is a pretty dark affair. In it, a pregnant woman, Cee, awakens in a train literally bound for nowhere. It, too, carries survivors of a horrific war, plague or series of fiery catastrophes. Cee has no memory of getting on the train or the particulars of her pregnancy. Neither does she know why she warrants the courtesy of a separate Pullman compartment, with mysterious gifts of food left for her every day and a toilet of her own to facilitate morning sickness. We’re left to speculate as to whether she’s being treated, as was the case in Children of Men, as if she were the last pregnant woman on Earth. It’s also possible that the baby might be thrown into the furnace of the monstrous locomotive, as Cee witnessed while sneaking around the train. When the ever-present storm clouds belch out a blood-red rainstorm, Cee and others jump aboard a rowboat to tour an abandoned town that could possibly be used for re-settlement. What they find there, however, is less than welcoming. The train continues its inexorable journey across what appears to be endless tundra, with nothing to guide them or warn the engineer of potential dangers. At 71 minutes, From Inside is just long enough to gain an appreciation of Bergin’s artistry and vision, but too short to answer the questions raised during the course of the narrative. Indeed, few post-apocalyptic movies and books are able to address such issues satisfactorily, except through special visual effects.

Sexina
Crazysexycool: The TLC Story
Super Babes
With a few small narrative tweaks and different actors, Sexina (a.k.a.,”Sexina: Popstar P.I.”) could have been released any time from the mid-1960s to today. Its blond protagonist appears to have been modeled after Peggy Lipton’s undercover cop, Julie, in the original “Mod Squad,” while the evil music-industry “Boss” is played by Adam West (“Batman”), who, at 86, remains surprisingly busy, and the James Bond-influenced theme song is sung by the late ex-Monkee, Davy Jones. More recognizable by face than by name, co-star Annie Golden’s career has spanned Milos Forman’s Hair and the Netflix mini-series, “Orange Is the New Black.” The school some of the characters attend, Britney High, is populated by the same collection of jocks, greasers and misfits as in Rock ’n’ Roll High School or Rydell High in Grease. Curiously, Lauren D’Avella, who plays the title character, has only appeared in two movies in the last 20 years: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993), as a soldier, and Sexina, which began making the festival circuit in 2007. Not only is Sexina the world’s hottest teen pop star, but she also moonlights as a private investigator, digging into corruption in the music industry. The Boss’ minions have kidnapped a scientist with a knack for merging pop music and high-end technology. He’s ordered to create a cyborg boy band, capable of bumping Sexina and her nemesis, Lance Canyon (Luis Jose Lopez) off the charts. Meanwhile, the singer is enlisted in one sad girl’s campaign to eliminate bullying at Britney High. If Sexina isn’t nearly as messy as this synopsis makes it sound, it’s only because writer/director Erik Sharkey appears to have understood his own limitations and kept things pretty simple. Despite the title, the movie isn’t at all prurient and the dialogue isn’t dumbed down to appeal to any particular demographic. In any case, the music industry is so twisted that it almost defies exaggeration and parody. The DVD adds a deleted scene, gag reel, making-of featurette, a music video and nice chat with Davy Jones, who died in February, 2012, at 66.

There’s nothing remotely robotic about the girl group profiled in the VH1 original movie CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, or most other such R&B and hip-hop ensembles. Unlike the teeny-boppers who flock to see One Direction and Justin Bieber, their audience simply wouldn’t stand for it. For those not paying attention to such things in the 1990s, TLC owned the part of the decade not dominated by En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. As CrazySexyCool demonstrates the ladies from Atlanta didn’t need a publicist to make headlines, either. Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes are played, respectively, by Drew Sidora, Keke Palmer and Niatia “Lil’ Mama” Kirkland. The movie drew a huge audience in its initial airing on the cable channel, but, given the behind-the-camera talent, CrazySexyCool is only as good it had to be to satisfy the group’s fanbase. It hits all of the high spots, without neglecting the low ones. These include Lopes’ infamous setting fire of NFL star Andre Rison’s house, thus re-setting the bar for dissed girlfriends everywhere in hip-hop nation. The movie was directed by Charles Stone III (Drumline, Mr. 3000) and written by Kate Lanier (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Set It Off), so it’s easy to watch. Music videos have been lovingly re-created and singing is pretty good, as well.

As much as I try to find something positive in every movie I review, some simply aren’t worth the effort it would take to scratch out faint praise. (It didn’t waste too much money that, otherwise, could have gone to Ebola relief, for example.) Super Babes is beyond cheesy, from its amateurish cover art to previews of coming attractions that more closely resemble deleted scenes than trailers. So, strictly for those who might be related to someone involved in the production, here’s a brief summary. An aspiring filmmaker is inspired by a comic book, in which several female superheroes are captured by the promoter of a “meta-human fight club” and forced to battle a series of hulking lugs who try to spank them into submission. Inexplicably, the Super Babes find their powers neutralized at odd times during the course of these fights. The highlight comes when the costumes are torn in a way that reveals their nipples and glutes, which, out of context, are about as stimulating as Vanilla Wafers.

Play Hooky
Tormented Female Hostages
Hillbilly Horror Show: Volume 1
Alluring cover art, like minds, is a terrible thing to waste. The image of cotton panties, embroidered with the title, Play Hooky, squeezed into fishnets, hovering over a sharp-edged tool and a stream of blood leading to a drain, pretty much screams “horror” these days. If only the movie inside the jacket came close to matching it. Alas, there isn’t anything in Play Hooky that any aspiring horror director over 18 hasn’t already seen, done better and with far more polish and flair. The naughty cover art promises far more than it delivers and the found-footage angle only works in the last reel. That’s when the psycho-villain grabs the hat in which a hooky-playing teenager has hidden a camera, thereby completely changing the point-of-view for the remainder of the movie. I’m not sure if I’ve seen that gimmick before, but, as these things go, it’s not bad. Co-writer/director Frank S. Petrilli didn’t have to reach very far for the conceit behind his freshman feature. In it, a half-dozen high school seniors decide to skip school for a day of partying, fueled by marijuana, booze and raging hormones. Naturally, when all else fails, the teens decide to break into an abandoned psychiatric institution and risk the wrath of the ghosts, goblins and serial killers who invariably haunt such places. I’m pretty sure that my choice of places to hang out and get ripped wouldn’t include a spooky building almost certainly inhabited, if not by monsters, then plague-carrying vermin. And, sure enough, just as everyone’s begun to get their buzz going, the kids start dying. While hardly original, Play Hooky is a blessedly short 74 minutes. Normally, all that wouldn’t be enough to warrant distribution, let alone a sequel, “Play Hooky: Innocence Lost.” Reportedly made for a pittance, the film won a couple of awards at the 2012 PollyGrind Underground Film Festival of Las Vegas. Quite a few films shown at the festival have found distribution, but Play Hooky is the first to be picked up by its sponsors for distribution through Wild Eye Releasing. That’s all explained in the DVD bonus package, along with some interviews and background material.

“Tormented” may not have been the word I would have used to describe what happens to the female hostages in Tormented Female Hostages. The two short films contained in the DVD both involve women who are grabbed and tortured by overweight bozos who resemble the original Curly in the Three Stooges. In the first entry, the hostage finds herself tied to a chair outfitted with the same plastic shower curtains used by Dexter Morgan in his kills. She apparently had snubbed the fellow who’s about to kill her while they were in high school and he wants his revenge, but not before he rapes her. Let’s just say that the young woman is tormented to the point where she decides to fight back. Will she succeed? Stay tuned. In the second film, two escaped convicts grab a different young woman with intentions of using her as a hostage to cross the border. The woman isn’t about to give in without a fight here, either. This time, though, she’s able to pit the two goons against each other, before a final showdown. Somewhere along the way, a barrel of radioactive material and zombies enter the fray. I may have just imagined that part of the story, though.

The first thing that comes to mind while watching Hillbilly Horror Show is Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, the character created by Cassandra Peterson for her hosting duties on “Movie Macabre.” Here, a couple of beer-guzzlin’ hillbillies – Bo and Cephus – introduce short films from the comfort of their trashy trailer. Their cousin, Lulu, strolls around in the background in bikini. The set-up is as cheesy as you can imagine it to be, but, for the purposes of an Internet anthology show, I’ve seen worse. In fact, the films are pretty darn good. Any exposure for short films is better than none, so I can’t imagine anyone minding such a silly forum for their work. The selections in the hour-long “Volume 1” include Billy Hayes’ festival favorite, “Franky and the Ant”; Cuyle Carvin’s “Amused”; “Doppelganger,” a clever stop-action salute to Ray Harryhausen; and “The Nest,” about killer bees that produce killer honey. Here’s proof that length doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of a film.

Kundo: Age of the Rampant: Blu-ray
If you ever cared to know what kind of movie it would take to knock a blockbuster like Transformers: Dark of the Moon from its perch as the top opening-day box-office star in South Korea, all you have to do is check out Kundo: Age of the Rampant. The historical action epic is set in 1859, during the waning days of the five-century Joseon Dynasty. Chinese, Japanese and Western interests threatened to invade the Hermit Kingdom — as it was then known, for its isolationist policies – and peasants rallied against the corruption of landlords and royalty. It is against this backdrop that director Yoon Jong-bin (The Unforgiven) and writer Jeon Cheol-Hong (Crying Fist) have set their story of an outlaw militia and cleaver-wielding assassin. A ruthless aristocrat fears that he’ll lose his place in the royal lineage if a son is born to the legitimate heir to his father’s fortune, so he hires the court’s butcher to kill his step-sister. The hapless fellow, Dolmuchi (Ha Jung-woo), is unable to actually murder a human being, so the prince orders that his family be slaughtered. The now ex-butcher dedicates himself to avenging the horrible act, but has a lot to learn before taking on the prince, who, with his martial-arts expertise, appears to be invincible. Kundo is loaded with action of both the one-to-one variety and full-blown encounters between the militia and troops loyal to their master. The final showdown is totally unexpected. The other thing I didn’t expect was a musical soundtrack that immediately recalls the theme song to “Bonanza” and, later, the Ennio Morricone’s harmonicas in spaghetti Westerns. Quentin Tarantino’s influence can be seen in the comic-book influenced chapter introductions. One thing viewers should know before jumping head-first in Kundo is that the body count is extreme, even by the usual standards of Asian martial-arts fare, and the disposal of the bodies is horrific.

Snap
Most people go to the movies to be entertained. Fewer are willing to subject themselves to a great deal of emotional pain to experience a work of art that demands to be seen. A large part of what makes independent filmmakers essential is their willingness to take risks that almost certainly won’t pay off at the box office, if their cinematic visions even make it that far. Irish playwright Carmel Winters’ debut feature, Snap, is the kind of film that puts you through a wringer and hangs you out to dry. It cuts to the bone and draws blood. The family drama/tragedy opens with a documentary crew preparing to interview a woman, Sandra (Aisling O’Sullivan), we soon will learn is the mother of a teenager, Stephen (Stephen Moran), who, three years earlier, had kidnapped a toddler and kept him in the home of his hospitalized grandfather. After enduring near-constant harassment and taunting from anonymous busybodies and reporters from the tabloid press, Sandra has decided to clear up what she considers to be misapprehensions about the incident and state her case on the subject. The first thing the clearly agitated Sandra volunteers is that she was never cut out to be a mother. It’s a self-assessment that becomes increasingly inarguable as the movie unspools. Neither does she appear to be a monster.

If anything, Sandra is one of thousands of good-time girls (and boys), whose party ended when they became pregnant and, in due time, single parents and followers of 12-step programs. Stephen, at least, had his grandfather to turn to when he needed to be tucked in at night and lose the training wheels on his bicycle. What he didn’t have was a father or brother, from whom he could learn to be a man, and that’s pretty much what he wanted to be to the wee, unfortunate Adam. At this, however, he isn’t any more skilled than his mother. Like the documentarian in the film, Winters employs all manner of narrative tricks to tell Sandra and Stephen’s stories. Anyone looking for the obligatory happy ending, though, is going to be disappointed. What makes Snap eminently recommendable are performances that are nothing short of brilliant … and incredibly brave. O’Sullivan deploys more shades of rage in her portrayal than I even knew existed. On the flip side, Moran turns Stephen into the cipher Winters clearly wants him to be. As for Adam, there isn’t a moment that we don’t fear for his life. Even if Stephen isn’t capable of harming the child on purpose, there are a dozen other ways he could come to harm in an unattended two-story home. Snap requires its audience to look behind the shocking headlines and photographs on the covers of tabloid magazines and decide for themselves what lies behind them. The DVD adds a pretty solid making-of featurette.

My Straight Son
An ocean may separate Venezuela and Spain, but that distance couldn’t prevent critics from making easy comparisons between Miguel Ferrari’s My Straight Son and the films of Pedro Almodovar. The amalgam of LGBT & S(traight) characters, storylines and a vibrant color scheme pretty much assured that would happen. The multi-family film focuses tightly on Diego (Guillermo García), a successful fashion photographer, who lives large in the fast lane with his partner, Fabrizio (Sócrates Serrano), until two things happen. First, Diego’s estranged teenage son, Armando (Ignacio Montes), comes to live with them, and, second, Fabrizio is beaten to within an inch of his life by bigoted thugs. Armando represents rampant homophobia in Venezuela and everywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world. He grew up among relatives, in Spain, whose intolerance was built into their genetic code and Fabrizio’s parents blame Diego for turning their son into a homosexual, thus, in their mind, making him responsible for the beating. It takes a while before Armando begins to accept his father for who he is and warm to friends who perform in transvestite clubs. When the painfully shy boy develops a Skype crush on a girl, however, they teach him to dance and relate to women romantically. If that sounds a bit obvious, in a “La cage aux folles” sort of way, the rest of My Straight Son plays out in a more unpredictable fashion.

The Search for Simon
Writer/director Martin Gooch’s films invariably are compared to such quintessentially British entertainments as “Doctor Who,” “Monty Python” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.” Like his first feature film, After Death, The Search for Simon plumbs the depths of “kitchen sink weirdness” by combining science fiction, comedy, drama and extreme tabloid-ready behavior. Here, David Jones is the kind of UFO obsessive, who, on a first date, will pitch a tent in the middle of a crop circle without telling his companion that she might encounter other nut jobs when she leaves their tent in the morning in her pajamas. David is absolutely convinced that his younger brother, Simon, was abducted by aliens and he’s spent the last 30 years searching for him. That’s how his father explained Simon’s death and nothing is going to shake David’s belief he’s been wandering the universe ever since, waiting for an opportunity to reconnect. He’s also sure that UFOs are hiding on Earth, disguised as giant mushrooms. In his research, David has spent a fortune in his considerable Lottery winnings traveling to such places as Roswell, New Mexico, and paying for tips from crooked conspiracy theorists. When his cronies begin to turn their backs on him, we can’t help but sympathize with the poor sap’s quixotic quest. The truth makes us feel even worse. It’s an extremely odd movie, but adventurous viewers might find it very moving.

Sleeping With the Fishes
Nicole Gomez Fisher, a founding member of the Latina comedy troupe Hot Tamales Live!, is a very funny woman and it’s reflected in her debut rom-com, Sleeping With the Fishes. How much of the movie is autobiographical is impossible for me to say, but if, like her protagonist, she grew up in a slightly nutty multi-ethnic household, it certainly rubbed off here. As for the title, Alexis Fish (Gina Rodriguez) is a recently widowed actress – half Latina, half Jewish — with a gift for party planning. She isn’t terribly upset that her philandering husband is no longer in the picture, but it’s left her high and dry in Los Angeles, laboring as a phone-sex operator and a costumed sidewalk pitchwoman. When forced to return to her Brooklyn nest for a funeral, Alexis’ overbearing mother (Priscilla Lopez) is quick to confront her daughter with her perceived failures. Her over-amped sister, Kayla (Ana Ortiz), on the other hand, encourages her to forget her troubles by getting back in the dating game. Kayla’s inability to hold her liquor provides the hook for Alexis to find a potential boyfriend and a possible new career planning bat mitzvahs for pre-teens with similarly overbearing moms. Although Sleeping With the Fishes occasionally strays into sitcom territory, with stereotypical portrayals and double-entendres, Fisher usually manages to pull her story back from the brink before it reaches quicksand. Best of all, though, is seeing so many talented Latino – and Asian – actors in one place. The bonus features are limited to a gag reel.

Documentaries
Tony Palmer’s 1973 Film About Hugh Hefner
Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders
On Strike! Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group
Where’s the Fair?
Today, so much is known about Playboy founder and Viagra enthusiast Hugh M. Hefner that it’s almost impossible to think of something that would surprise us about the man, his accomplishments, his shortcomings and love life. Indeed, such television shows as “The Girls Next Door” and incessant paparazzi stakeouts at L.A. and Las Vegas nightclubs have made him the most overexposed octogenarian on the planet. In 1973, however, when Tony Palmer’s Hugh Hefner: Founder and Editor of Playboy was filmed, he still retained an air of mystery around him. If nothing else, people wanted to know how a man who lounged around a mansion in his pajamas, day and night, could command a publishing empire that was expanding into clubs, resorts, casinos, merchandising and philanthropy. And, what was the deal with the rotating circular bed, anyway? Palmer, who had already established himself as a leading chronicler of pop culture, presents Hef as a man who loves toys, games, planes, animals, his magazine and, most of all, women, around whom he was surrounded. He had yet to commit his time fully to the Holmby Hills mansion and SoCal lifestyle, splitting his time between there and company headquarters in Chicago. While the introduction of pubic hair in Penthouse would push Playboy to finally go-frontal in 1972, Hustler wouldn’t enter the fray until a year later. The persecution and crushing suicide of personal secretary Bobbie Arnstein was still two years away and the witch-hunt atmosphere surrounding the Meese Commission was waiting in the distant future. In 1973, then, Hefner was a rich, happy and single man, and this is reflected in Palmer’s documentary. As if to add a touch of drama where there was only fun, the filmmaker decided to add a bit of Copland, Ravel and Wagner to the mix.

Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders is another extensively researched and meticulously reported bio-doc about a rock-’n’-rock musician whose star burned bright for a while, but died out all too quickly, leaving a vacuum others are still trying to fill. Born John Anthony Genzale Jr., guitar wizard Johnny Thunders had a name that assured some attention, at least, would be paid to whichever group he was currently involved. It also helped that he was devilishly handsome and his hair was consciously styled to resemble that of Keith Richards. As an integral ingredient the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers, his raw and raunchy guitar style would directly influence incipient punk rockers from New York’s Bowery to London. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Thunders was plagued by a career-long substance-abuse problem and it played a large part in his death in New Orleans in 1991. Because the city performed what can only be described as a kiss-off autopsy, it isn’t clear if he died of a drug overdose or something else. He was suffering from an advanced case of leukemia and earlier signs of cirrhosis of the liver, but robbery might have played a role, as well. The 90-minute rock-doc is loaded with music, archival footage and interviews conducted with more than the usual number of first-hand witnesses to Thunders’ rise and demise. Looking for Johnny is the creation of Danny Garcia, a Spanish writer and filmmaker writer, who became curious about Thunders while making The Rise and Fall of the Clash, a group influenced by the Dolls. He spent 18 months travelling across the USA and Europe, filming interviews with 50 people who were close to Johnny and could help him construct a harrowing portrait of what the music and drug scene was like in New York and London in the mid-1970s. If the Hall of Fame in Cleveland doesn’t have a theater devoted to films that take a warts-and-all approach to rock music – as well as vintage concert material – what good is the place?

In 1967, radical documentarians Chris Marker and Mario Marret — under the aegis of the SLON film collective — produced À Bientôt J’espère (“Be Seeing You”), which documented a strike and factory occupation by textile workers at the Rhodiaceta textile plant in Besançon. It was the first in France since 1936 and its goals went beyond salary demands to include quality-of-life reforms that would come to define the street protests of May, 1968. When some of the Rhodiaceta workers who had collaborated with Marker and Marret on the film stated their unhappiness over the finished product – as seen, but mostly heard in La Charniere — Marker and other SLON filmmakers reorganized their efforts to begin training workers to collaboratively produce their own films under the name, Medvedkin Group. Class of Struggle, also included in Icarus Films’ On Strike! Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group, picks up in Besançon a year later, with protests launched by workers at the Yema Watch Factory. Its focus is on one recently radicalized employee, Suzanne Zedet, from the initial collection of left-wing filmmakers. These films reflect the optimism generated in 1968 before the Gaullist government was able to split the nationwide coalition of workers and students, by dissolving the National Assembly and ordering new elections. That the strikers ultimately had too few interests in common to maintain the coalition didn’t prevent Marker from keeping up the good fight, through film.

One the great things about documentaries is their ability to remind us of things that once piqued our interest, but no longer register in the list of things we consider to be important. When, for example, was the last time anyone thought about booking a trip to a World’s Fair or would even know where to find one to attend? Jeffrey Ford and Brad Bear’s distinctly low-tech Where’s the Fair? answers that question – next year, BTW, it will be in Milan – and raises plenty of others. The first World’s Fair that I can remember with any accuracy is Expo 67, in Montreal. If nothing else, it would be memorialized two years later when the city’s expansion Major League Baseball team was curiously named, the Expos. In the 1930s, alone, expositions were held in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. The first fair to be held after World War was in Brussels, in 1958, and plans for our participation were handed to the USIA, which treated it as way to spread anti-communist propaganda to the world … in a fun way. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, all official interest in supporting a World’s Fair collapsed. No one in Washington wanted to be accused of using taxpayer money to join the international community at the exposition. Pre-Tea Party xenophobes in Congress argued that their constituents simply weren’t interested in traveling overseas and, therefore, no other Americans should be, either. Organizers in Hannover, Aichi, Zaragoza, Shanghai were stunned to be informed of our decision to cancel plans for exhibits there. Japan and China, at least, were able to make end runs around Congress to secure a U.S. presence. It’s as if someone at Disney had convinced naysayers that the only true World’s Fair is already available to tourists at its Epcot Center. If we aren’t aware of upcoming fairs in Milan, Kazakhstan and Dubai, it’s only because their promoters have given up trying to sell tickets to Americans.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Masters: Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning
PBS: Nova: The Rise of the Hackers
PBS: American Experience: America & the Holocaust
PBS: The Secret Files of the Inquisition
BBC: Silent Witness: Seasons 1, 17
TV Land: The Soul Man: The Complete Second Season
Of her most widely reproduced and imitated photograph, “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange said, “It doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the public, really.” Today, the amazing photograph of a Dust Bowl refugee and her ragtag children might simply be described as “iconic” and, for once, the word would be used correctly. It is one of thousands Lange took that captured the toll paid by America’s working poor simply for the privilege of breathing clean air and holding on to the faint hope of finding a job. Lange, who died in 1965, is recalled in the “American Masters” presentation, “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning,” in a lively series of interviews for filmmaker Phil Greene and with family members, friends and historians. It is credited to her granddaughter, the cinematographer Dyanna Taylor. Moving on from the Dust Bowl and Depression, Lange would record for a largely unaware nation the shame of the Japanese internment camps in World War II and re-enslavement of black sharecroppers through debts to a plantation owner’s store. You know her work touched a nerve in Washington when her Manzanar photographs were impounded and she was fired, once again, by her government sponsors. The film doesn’t ignore Lange’s sometimes sticky romantic life, domineering personality and health problems, but neatly fits them into the context of her professional accomplishments. Aspiring artists, especially, should consider “Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning” to be required viewing.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans refused to provide private financial information to commercial Internet sites in the course of doing everyday business. Trust had to be earned, not assumed, and too many people feared that cyber-bandits would clean out their accounts. Thanks, in large part, to the success of commerce through Internet porn and gambling sites, many adults learned to trust encryption and love the efficiency with which it could be conducted. That trust is being sorely tested today by almost weekly reports of hacking, whether it involves celebrity “selfies” or government-sanctioned eavesdropping and espionage. Sometimes, we don’t know who’s collecting stolen data and for what reason they’re doing it. The “Nova” presentation The Rise of the Hackers chronicles the efforts of mathematicians, physicists and computer jockeys to report the introduction of malware and other plagues into the Internet and the urgency behind the efforts to identify and eradicate the hackers’ tools … unless, of course, they turn out to be American allies. Much of the show is devoted to research involving unbreakable codes and bionic passwords. It’s heady stuff, but not impossible to understand.

PBS: American Experience: America and the Holocaust” was first released on DVD in 2005, but it’s every bit as shocking today as it was then. Strangely enough, the primary difference between the two – and the original 1995 VHS edition – is the placement of the yellow “Jude” star on the cover. The first version found the star between the torch and crown of the Statue of Liberty. The first DVD edition affixed the star directly over the breast of Our Lady of the Harbor, while, today, it appears directly under her raised elbow. I won’t hazard a guess to the reasons behind the move, but, it’s possible, possible, that it simply differentiates the editions, not that someone might consider Ms. Liberty to be a French Jew. No matter, the same harrowing story of American and British “deceit and indifference” to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany remains as stinging as it was 20 years ago. For several decades after World War II, American schoolchildren were taught that Allied governments were just as shocked by the discovery of death camps as the soldiers who liberated them. It’s a nice story, but tragically far from the truth. Even when news of Kristallnacht broke in the United States, in 1938, the question of accepting Jewish refugees here was being debated and argued against by politicians, religious leaders and anti-Semites of all stripe. Government records testify to the fact that high-ranking officials in the FDR administration not only were aware of the “disappearance” of Jews relocated to Eastern Europe, early on, but also kept proof of the Holocaust classified until it could not be denied. “America and the Holocaust” documents this shameful chapter in WWII history through one man’s unsuccessful efforts to bring his parents from Germany to the U.S., as well as interviews with government officials and former legislators who were first-party witnesses to the role anti-Semitism and politics played in the turning away of refugees. And, yes, Middle Eastern, British and Americans oil interests played a role in the deceit.

Also newly re-released from PBS is its harrowing mini-series, The Secret Files of the Inquisition, which doesn’t draw any direct parallels between the Holy Roman Church and the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Isis, but fairly well could have. At a time when European royalty no longer bowed and scraped toward the Vatican several times a day, the Pope and his advisers decided to keep the Catholic rabble in line by ordering tests of faith and the quashing of dissent among the flock. Finally, it became a witch hunt and orgy of mass murder, torture and intimidation that might have informed Adolf Hitler’s plans to expel Jews from Germany and, later, exterminate them. Vatican archivists kept careful records of the toll paid by those perceived to be heretics, bigamists, blasphemers, sodomites, heathens, Free Masons, Protestants and falsely converted Jews and Muslims. Less dutifully recorded were the destinations of Jewish children kidnapped by priests, baptized and raised as Catholics. The “secret files” have been open to authorized researchers for some time now, but the records are so voluminous that it’s taken years to make hard and fast conclusions. Much of it has been collected in this 240-minute Inquisition-specific mini-series.

Shows that focus on the work of coroners, forensic pathologists and forensic anthropologists have become such a staple of television that it’s easy to forget how infrequently the profession has been fairly portrayed in the entertainment media. Ten years after the CBC’s “Wojeck” became a short-lived hit in Canada, a chief medical examiner played by Jack Klugman would borrow loosely from the files of L.A. “coroner to the stars” Thomas Noguchi for ABC’s eight-season-long “Quincy.” It would be another 20 years before the BBC’s “Silent Witness” debuted, with Amanda Burton as a self-assured forensic pathologist who frequently clashes with Cambridge police on details of high-profile crimes. Besides analyzing evidence and helping close cases, Burton’s Professor Sam Ryan is required to referee squabbles between her belligerent sister and her testy teenage son. Their mother has been playing with an incomplete deck ever since her husband, a cop, was killed by an IRA bomb, for which Sam is held partially accountable by her sister. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, even in four-hour installments, and the series would be relocated to London in its fourth year. Dr. Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) was introduced as her replacement in the series’ eighth season. She has fewer personal issues with which to deal, but, as a forensics pathologists, may be second-guessed more often than her predecessor. For some reason I don’t quite understand, DVD collections of “Silent Witness” are only available for seasons 1 and 17, which actually bookend the show’s run. It’s an excellent program, easily accessible to fans of “CSI,” “NCIS” and “L&O.”

Cedric the Entertainer, who honed his sitcom chops on “The Steve Harvey Show,” looks as if he found another long-runner in the TV Land original series, “The Soul Man.” Spun off from an episode of “Hot in Cleveland,” the series focuses on an R&B superstar based in Las Vegas, who, after hearing the calling, relocates to St. Louis, where he takes over his father’s church. There isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between a R&B performance and a gospel rave-up, so Reverend Boyce “The Voice” Ballentine has little difficult making the transition. It took a season for his wife, Lolli (Niecy Nash), and daughter, Lyric (Jazz Raycole), to condition themselves to life in the slow lane, but, by now, they’ve become accustomed to it. The only thing wrong with “Soul Man” is a laugh track that contradicts the admonition at each episode’s start that it’s been filmed before a live audience. What audiences know and TV executives don’t is that there’s nothing quite so unfunny as canned laughter and “Soul Man” can live without it. Although “Soul Man” is intended for a mixed TV Land audience, the show’s “urban” flavor has yet to be diluted by the suburban setting. The church gags are pretty good, as well.

The DVD Wrapup: Venus in Fur, Witching & Bitching, Chinese Puzzle, Persecuted, Bill Morrison, Kingpin, Courage the Cowardly Dog … More

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Venus in Fur
Say what you will about Roman Polanski–now 81, believe it or not–the man still knows how to make a movie. Even if Venus in Fur may never be confused with Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby, it’s an entirely satisfying adaptation of David Ives’ Tony-nominated play-within-a-play, which, itself, is based on the 1870 novel “Venus in Furs,” by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The Velvet Underground’s song of the same title is referenced in the movie, but, sad to report, isn’t included in the soundtrack. That honor belongs to the French composer, Alexandre Desplat, who, last year, added the diametrically opposed Grand Budapest Hotel and Godzilla to his resume. Set in a nearly empty theater, Venus in Fur opens with playwright/director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) on the phone with his fiancé, bemoaning the lack of talent on display during the day’s auditions. Just as he’s about to hit the road, an extremely tardy Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) arrives, begging for a chance to impress him. Although Vanda is dressed to impress in black leather, whip and silk hose, Thomas is able to resist her pleading … for about three minutes. There’s something about her rather transparent dumb-blond routine that attracts the woman to him. As the audition continues, it’s clear that Vanda’s not only done her homework on the script, but also on Thomas and Sacher-Masoch’s enchanting dominatrix, Wanda von Dunajew. By convincing him to read the part of Severin von Kusiemski opposite her, she’s already begun the process of trapping him in her web. And, that is what makes Venus in Fur so much fun. Thomas may be a celebrated writer, but he’s less sure of his footing as a director. Vanda may come across as a ditz, but, in Seigner’s hands, she’s able to seduce Thomas and viewers in equal measure. By reversing the balance of power in her favor, she freed the character from the restraints of the stage. People familiar with the play might be concerned that Seigner and Amalric are noticeably older than the off-Broadway and Broadway stars Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley/Hugh Dancy. They needn’t worry, though. As interesting as it might have been to see how Polanski would have directed the rising superstar, Arianda, he really dials it up for two of France’s great performers, one of whom happens to be his wife. Incidentally, Venus in Fur is Polanski’s first non-English-language feature in 51 years. The DVD adds interviews with the director and his stars.

Witching & Bitching
Álex de la Iglesia’s latest exercise in surrealistic fantasy, Witching & Bitching, opens in one genre and crosses at least two other thematic boundaries before settling on something that might have been concocted over drinks with John Landis, Terry Gilliam and the creators of Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. While easily qualifying as horror, it’s balanced with heavy doses of dark humor, slapstick and car chases. Based simply on the evidence provided in Witching & Bitching, I’d love to see what De la Iglesia could do with a remake of Disney’s scary-funny Darby O’Gill & the Little People. Witching & Bitching opens with the comically botched holdup of a gold exchange in the town of Zugarramurdi, which is to northern Spain what Salem is to Massachusetts. To blend in with the holiday crowd of tourists, the robbers are dressed like the costumed characters who hustle tourists on Hollywood Boulevard and Times Square. Incredibly, the one who’s impersonating Jesus Christ on his forced march to Golgotha decided to bring his precocious 8-year-old son along for the fun. Before the alarm sounds, the robbers are able to grab a bag full of gold rings that might otherwise be destined for the smelter. Unfortunately, their getaway car is snatched by the girlfriend of one of the crooks, who has an extra set of keys and doesn’t want to wait for a bus. Left to their own devices, they hijack an occupied cab and order the driver engage in a wild chase with police. After shaking the cops, they make a beeline for the French border, but not before making a stop at an inn owned and operated by a coven of witches and warlocks. Before the day is over, they will be offered for sacrifice during the annual gathering of witches at La Cuevas de las Brujas. Just for kicks, De la Iglesia (The Last Circus) also enlists the boy’s crazed mother, a pair of very determined detectives, a loose-cannon warlock imprisoned under the hole in the tavern’s squat toilet and a S&M witch who develops a crush for the boy’s father. Co-written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría (Live Flesh, Cell 211), Witching & Bitching is in constant danger of bursting apart at the seams with crazy notions. That it hangs together as well as it does is nearly miraculous … and hilarious. This would be my first-choice recommendation to anyone looking for a pre-Halloween diversion. The DVD includes background and making-of featurettes.

Chinese Puzzle: Blu-ray
Unlike their counterparts in Hollywood, some French filmmakers still know how to make romantic comedies that don’t insult their audience with one-size-fits-all storylines or Motown sing-alongs in lieu of compelling dialogue. Some may come off as being too, well, French, for American tastes, but, at least, the directors aren’t limited to actors that appeal to a single demographic group or forced to conform to the MPAA’s idea of how lovers can show their appreciation of each other’s bodies and maintain a PG-13 rating. Cedric Klapisch’s sweetly appealing rom-com, Chinese Puzzle, doesn’t require artificial sweeteners to get laughs. Nor, is a working knowledge of the filmmaker’s first two episodes in the trilogy, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls, necessary to enjoy the third installment. (In this way, it resembles Richard Linklater’s “Before …” trilogy.) Characters played by Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France and Kelly Reilly – Xavier, Martine, Isabelle and Wendy – are reunited here, 12 years older, but not much wiser than they were in that crowded Barcelona apartment in 2002. This time around, the action moves rather quickly from Paris to Lower Manhattan, where Wendy has decided to move with the children she had with Xavier. She’s tired of waiting for him to ask for her hand in marriage and has found an American man who’s quite a bit more rooted than the frequently blocked novelist. Conveniently, Xavier’s lesbian best friend, Isabelle (Cecile de France), is living there, as well, with a beautiful American woman (Sandrine Holt) and, soon, the child for whom Xavier agreed to supply sperm. Things start to get crazy when the writer decides that he can’t live with an ocean separating him from his kids. To remain in the United States, Klapisch contrives an outlandish coincidence that provides Xavier with a green-card bride, the thoroughly assimilated Nancy (Li Jun Li). When Martine shows up in the Apple, as well, for a business meeting with Chinese tea executives, Xavier’s show of support inevitably leads back to his squalid Chinatown apartment. As complicated as all of this sounds, Klapisch isn’t required to create additional problems, where none exist, or force characters to become uncharacteristically nasty, simply so Xavier can look good, by comparison. Teeming Lower Manhattan may come off at its multicultural best, as well, but nothing is added to make New York look better or worse than it already is. We’re left wondering if we’ll ever see these characters again or, like Linklater’s Jesse and Celine, they’ll disappear forever at midnight.

Persecuted: Blu-ray
While I believe that Christians are being persecuted in parts of the world where religious tolerance and ethnic diversity aren’t protected by a constitution or traditional philosophical beliefs – and it’s underreported in the U.S. media — I don’t think Daniel Lusko’s paranoid thriller makes a case for the same thing happening here. At a time when the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have souls that need protecting from heathen liberals, and the Christian right continues to bog down the nation’s judiciary with lawsuits based on fundamentalist dogma, the United States is in no danger of embracing atheism as the national religion. And, yet, that’s the hogwash being promulgated in Persecuted, a movie specifically targeted to, if not commercially embraced by the same audience that made God’s Not Dead a surprise hit. In it, the powerful evangelical leader John Luther (James Remar) has refused to endorse a piece of legislation that would assure equal standing under the law for all people of faith and favoritism toward none. While this basic right already is built into the Constitution, Luther stands by the word of God as asserted in the both testaments of the bible. Luther isn’t portrayed as a fire-breathing orator or someone who automatically dismisses anyone hasn’t been washed in the blood of the lamb. He’s cut from the same cloth as the Rev. Billy Graham, not a preacher who believes that Christian theme parks and pay-to-pray televangelists hold the key to heaven. For some reason, this stance has pissed off the President of the United States, a Jimmy Swaggart clone (James R. Higgins); his Machiavellian right-hand man in the Senate (Bruce Davison); and several of Luther’s easily bought-off staffers. To silence him, a team of covert agents is assigned to kidnap Luther, drug him, take photographs of him in compromising photos and frame him in the prostitute’s murder. Can he survive in the wilderness as a desperately wanted fugitive and not lose his grip on the Good Book?  Does the Pope poop on the Pampas? By the end of the movie, it’s impossible to discern who’s shooting at whom and for what reason. Made for what I imagine was a tight budget, the production values aren’t bad and Lusko was able to fill out the cast with such recognizable names as Dean Stockwell, Fred Dalton Thompson, David House, “clean comic” Brad Stine and Fox News-blond Gretchen Carlson. The Blu-ray adds interviews, commentary and a featurette.

Bill Morrison: Collected Works: 1996 – 2013
The psychic distance between the multiplex and arthouse once was a great smaller than it is today. It even left enough room for the occasional exhibition of avant-garde or experimental film outside Lower Manhattan and college film societies. Certainly, no one prospered from the creation of films that challenged patience as much as they did the intellect. Andy Warhol might have come the closest to breaking even, at least, but that’s only because they cost so little make and the actors would have paid him for their 15 minutes of fame. Indeed, even today, funding is the one sure way of parsing the difference between the works of experimental filmmakers and those capable of testing the limits of even the most open-minded of indie lovers. The films collected in Bill Morrison: Collected Works: 1996-2013 have been commissioned, supported by foundations and fellowships, or shot in collaboration with artists in other disciplines. They’re screened at festivals, museums, universities and concert halls, where tickets sales go mostly to keep the electricity flowing. But, then, making money or catching the eye of Hollywood producers was never really the point. Most of the films in “Collected Works” fall into the category of “found footage,” although any similarities between the feature-length Decasia and The Blair Witch Project is … well, there aren’t any. Morrison’s ideas are informed by material found, re-discovered, saved or salvaged in exhaustive searches of archives, libraries and estate collections. In fact, the film clips repurposed for Decasia (Decay + Fantasia = Decasia), and accompanied by Michael Gordon’s hauntingly minimalist score — are literally in a state of decomposition. Like thousands of movies made before 1950, the footage had been damaged due to poor storage and neglect or ravaged by time and instability of nitrate stock. In Morrison’s hands, the juxtaposition of ravaged images, evocative music and once-vibrant subject matter is nothing short of symphonic. Decasia is his masterpiece, but the other, lesser-known titles here are noteworthy for reasons of their own. Vintage documentary footage shot during and after the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 play against a free-jazz soundtrack provided by Bill Frisell. Other artists with whom Morrison has collaborated are John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Gavin Bryars, Dave Douglas, Richard Einhorn, Henryk Gorecki, Vijay Iyer, Jóhann Jóhannsson, David Lang, Harry Partch, Steve Reich and Julia Wolfe. If images of decay aren’t your cup of tea, it’s worth noting that the people and places we see behind the scratches, burns and blotches once were as healthy and vibrant as most of us. The point I think Morrison is making is that in film, as in life, things change right before our eyes and, if we look close enough, we can measure the distance between beauty and ruin and appreciate them for what they are.

Victim: Blu-ray
The cover art for Victim isn’t as much deceptive as it is misleading. Posing in front of a Union Jack is a young black hoodlum wearing a black balaclava and black jacket, showing off a black semi-automatic handgun. So far, so cliché. What the photograph doesn’t convey is the movie’s redemptive subtext, which could be mistaken for the plot of an old “ABC Afterschool Special.” Ashley Chin plays Tyson, a tough East Londoner required to look after his teenage sister after they were abandoned by their worthless parents. Tyson uses the proceeds of crime to pay off their debt to a local shylock and afford the girl’s education at a quality school. His mixed-race crew includes several sexy girlfriends, who troll the nightclubs for rich yuppies who make easy marks for armed break-ins. The robberies are followed by wild parties, fueled by Jamaican weed, mountains of cocaine and expensive champagne. Not long after the first violent heist, the cousin of Tyson’s closest playmate arrives in town to attend college. Tia (Ashley Madekwe) is from a wealthy background, but, like her relative, enjoys the fast life. When she discovers Tyson’s suppressed artistic talent, however, Tia encourages him to quit the thug life and join her at school. After carrying out “one last job,” that’s exactly what Tyson plans to do. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, his sister’s hormones are leading her in the direction of becoming a hoochie-momma. It isn’t until a motivational teacher (Dave Harwood) encourages her to join a citywide poetry contest that she finds an emotional outlet for her frustrations and rage. Needless to say, Tyson’s “one last job” – which is telegraphed early in the story — doesn’t quite work out as planned. Working off of Chin’s semi-autobiographical screenplay, director Alex Pillai nicely captures the dead-end existence for the children of immigrant youths in the projects, as well as the lure of easy money and good times. Victim’s message may be too moralistic for viewers looking purely for action and violence – although there’s plenty of that – but teens may find it inspirational. The Blu-ray adds interviews with the actors, whose enthusiasm is contagious.

The Last Supper: Blu-ray
From a strictly western point of view, Lu Chuan’s The Last Supper is just another entry in the growing list of terrifically entertaining historical epics from China. Our Westerns might resemble them, too, if our history stretched millennia, instead of a few centuries. Perhaps, if Native Americans hadn’t relied solely on their oral tradition, true Westerns might not be limited to the karmic damage done to our country’s heritage by mad-dog cavalry officers, robber barons and prospectors.  Scratch the surface of The Last Supper a bit and you’ll find a story that borrows a page or two from William Shakespeare’s playbook. Set in the last days of the Qin Dynasty, roughly 2,300 years ago, it employs flashbacks, flash-forwards and dramatic set pieces to tell the story of Liu Bang’s rise from peasant warrior to leader of great armies, to becoming founder and first emperor of the Han dynasty. The Last Supper opens with Liu on his death bed, haunted in his dreams by his two mortal enemies, Han Xia and Xiang Yu. The Emperor may look harmless lying there, but the potential for instigating great strife surrounds him. The flashbacks take us back to Liu’s beginnings as a much-feared fighter and outlaw, with a hunger for deposing the despotic Qin government and replacing it with one more in touch with the common people. The quest for power, itself, turns onetime allies into foes and idealism into paranoid delusions. Such was the background for the famous Hong Gate banquet, where Liu would be tested by fellow warlords and their assassins. By all accounts, Liu was a ruthless fellow who prided himself in being able to become a great leader with no more than a sword at his disposable. As such, anyone hoping to take him on, at any age, would have to be nearly as powerful. Although Lu Chuan’s esteem has grown in and outside of China, censors decided that his portrayal of Liu’s rise to absolute power too closely matched that of Mao Zedong and demanded changes. As usual, the set and costume design, along with the elaborately choreographed battle scenes, are worth the price of a rental, alone.

Kingpin: Blu-ray
Raw Force: Blu-ray
With next month’s release of Dumb and Dumber To, we’ll learn, once and for all, if Bobby and Peter Farrelly can suck it up one more time and make people laugh out loud, as they did two decades ago with Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and the new-to-Blu-ray Kingpin. With Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels once again at the wheel of Lloyd and Harry’s 1984 Sheepdog van, the triquel has a better-than-average shot at succeeding. But, then, there’s no such thing as a sure bet in Hollywood, anywhere. Thanks to Paramount’s excellent hi-def transfer, we’ll always have Kingpin, which did for bowling what The Hustler did for pocket billiards. (It also references Indecent Proposal, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Witness, The Seven Year Itch, Psycho and a half-dozen other pop-cultural touchstones.) Woody Harrelson is hilarious as the Pennsylvania lad, Roy Munson, who would grow up to become one of the fastest-rising stars in bowling. His career would be put on ice, however, after hooking up with the delightfully duplicitous hustler Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), who sets up a high-stakes match with some unsuspecting hotshots, but leaves Roy behind to pay the consequences for swindling the locals. Twenty years after having his mangled hand replaced with a rubber prosthetic device, Roy discovers Amish prodigy, Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who needs a quick million dollars to save the farm from being repossessed. Almost the only way to come up with that much money in a hurry – a rich dude played by Chris Elliott does offer them a fortune, if only he can watch them have sex – is to participate in a winner-takes-all showdown at Reno’s National Bowling Stadium. They are joined in their endeavor, which ends in a showdown with McCracken, by a beautiful blond con artist and bowling groupie, Claudia (Vanessa Angel, not to be confused with Vanessa Paradis). Those not easily offended by scatological and other gross-out humor should find Kingpin to be almost as laugh-out-loud crazy as it was upon its release in 1996. Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan were given sole credit for writing honors, but, as we learn in the new commentary and featurette, Murray improvised most, if not all of his dialogue, while the Farrelly stamp can be seen on all of the broader gags and set pieces. Bowlers aren’t widely known for their senses of humor, but there’s no question that Kingpin and The Big Lebowski gave the sport a much needed shot in the arm. Indeed, the rise in popularity of “cosmic bowling” and the Lucky Strike disco/bowling chain among urban hipsters can probably be traced directly to McCracken’s Lucite “Rose Red” ball. The Blu-ray adds 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, both the theatrical and R-Rated versions in hi-def, the Farrelly’s commentary and “Kingpins: Extra Frames With the Farrelly Brothers.”

Mere words can’t do justice to the depravity on display in Edward D. Murphy’s freshman exploitation mini-epic, Raw Force (a.k.a., “Kung Fu Cannibals”). It has everything one could hope for in a cheesy grindhouse flick, including topless women in bamboo cages; gratuitous sex and mindless violence; a mysterious island inhabited by corrupt monks, their naked slaves and ninja zombies; kick-ass babes; a rusting freighter; a fortune in contraband jade; strippers and go-go dancers; a crossed-eyed Hitler wannabe; dislocated piranha; evil hippies; a freshman writer/director; and Cameron Mitchell and Vic Diaz. Not for nothing, it also was filmed in the Philippines. The plot is almost impossible to synthesize here, except to say that it pits a group of martial-arts students from Burbank against jade smugglers, white slavers and the aforementioned ninja zombies, who are controlled by the madly sinister monks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the acting is borderline abysmal, the fighting scenes couldn’t be less convincing, the special effects are lousy and the sets flimsy. On the plus side, Raw Force is the rare film that delivers on the promise of being “so bad, it’s good.” At a brisk 86 minutes, it won’t seem as if you’ve wasted much time, at all. I think it’s safe to say that the Vinegar Syndrome 2K restoration had a larger amount of money allotted to it, than Murphy had in his production budget. It looks far better than it has any right to be 32 years after it was first released. The package also includes the featurette, “Destination: Warriors Island (The Making of Raw Force)” and an audio interview with finishing editor Jim Wynorski.

Documentaries
Mobilize
Boobs
The Equation of Life
Ballin’ at the Graveyard
Unlike the FDA, which is often criticized for delaying the release of drugs already available to patients elsewhere, some federal regulatory agencies are all too anxious to push untested products unto the marketplace. Once there, it’s exceedingly difficult – and wildly expensive – to remove the unsafe ones from the shelves. Through their lobbyists and umbrella organizations, corporations have become proficient in knocking down the arguments of consumer groups and scientific entities, even those simply attempting to add warning labels to packaging or minimum sales requirements. Kevin Kunze’s disturbing documentary, Mobilize, describes how the cellphone industry not only has ignored research that links radiation to brain cancer and infertility, but it uses the chilling effects of lawsuits to curb debate in cities and states where the concern is highest. Even as the data is still being collected, circumstantial evidence seems to warrant the inclusion of a prominent warning on all devices, cautioning against holding a phone against one’s ear or carrying it in a pants pockets or tucked in a bra. The locations of tumors found in people with no other genetic or physical markers tend to correspondent with the places where cellphones are most frequently found. Statistics show, as well, that the further away a phone is held or placed from the ear canal– using headphones, for example – the less likely it is for certain tumors to form. Industry groups and lobbyists have fought against the prominent inclusion of warning labels, simply because they might impact sales. The most troubling case being made in the film is the one lacking the most evidence, one way or the other. Cellphone use among children has evolved from simply being “cute” to its current status as a rite of passage. If, God forbid, the negative data proves accurate, an entire generation of kids could already be doomed to spend their lives thinking that every headache is being caused by tumor. Mobilize isn’t particularly alarmist in its presentation of data and statistics, but it leaves plenty of room for concern.

Technically, The Equation of Life isn’t a documentary. It might as well be, though. Its release timed to coincide with National Bullying Prevention Month, Gerry Orz’s film is sandwiches a short anti-bullying film, shown on YouTube, within a slightly longer short film about the need for victims to speak out and parents and school administrators to listen. Anyone who doesn’t believe that bullying (a.k.a., hazing and taunting) has reached epidemic status in the U.S. simply isn’t paying attention. Horrifying incidents no longer are limited to fraternity initiation ceremonies. They have found their way into a mass culture that takes its cues from gross-out movies and parents who consider bullying to be a natural part of growing up, mostly because they were bullies or survived it largely intact. Equation of Life is unique in that it was made by a boy, now 12, who was bullied and wanted to bring the plague to the attention of legislators. Here, a new boy in school becomes the punching bag for an older boy, who, himself, is being bullied at home by his harridan mother. His depression leads him to berate the younger boy, Adam, who’s small for his age, for having two “moms” and, by extension, being a “fag.” If Adam’s moms weren’t having problems of their, he might take his sister’s advice and reveal why his grades are bad and he’s unhappy. Instead, he takes matters into his own hands and pays the price. It’s not the most elegant of productions, but, hey, what did you accomplish at 12? Also included in the package are pieces shot at the California statehouse, where he successfully lobbied for an awareness campaign and anti-bullying initiatives.

Documentaries about the breast-augmentation process and the women who undergo such procedures are a staple of reality shows on cable television. The various housewives of Orange County, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Atlanta and Miami appear to undergo cosmetic surgery before and, sometimes, during every new season and don’t look any more appealing than they did when we met them. Segments of some shows are dedicated to the Top 10 worst makeovers. Boobs doesn’t reveal anything new, except the ambitions of one Precious Muir, a British-born model of Jamaican and Portuguese background. Precious, whose mother encouraged her daughter in this area, made a face for herself as a child model. As she grew into adulthood, she decided that her breasts simply weren’t adequate for procuring work in the today’s world of high and low fashion. Indeed, no sooner did Precious endure the painful process of breast-augmentation than she hired a photographer to take pictures of her new boobs and sent them off to Playboy. To this end, she won a contest that brought her to Los Angeles and a gig as hostess of a Playboy-sponsored golf tournament. She also attended a party at the mansion, but nothing Hefner-related since then. The problem with the subject of the documentary is that she, herself, is no prize. She insults everyone in her surgeon’s office and treats her soon-to-be husband – now, ex-spouse – like a lapdog. The surgery is suitably graphic to make women considering such work think twice about the procedure and, I suppose, that’s a good thing.

Ballin’ at the Graveyard may be a bit too far on the do-it-yourself side to find wide distribution in theaters and TV, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t gain an audience among sports lovers, especially those who retain fond memories of Hoop Dreams. Set in Albany, N.Y., Basil Anastassiou and Paul Kentoffio’s labor of love describes a weekly game of pickup basketball at a park that once was used as a graveyard for the city’s African-American population. It’s a wonder that none of the participants have died, themselves, from bumps and bruises sustained during the rough-and-tumble gathering of old-school ballers. Some of the guys played college and semi-pro ball, while others found other pursuits after high school. The filmmakers would like us to believe that the game is a ritualistic experience unique to Albany, I think. I’d be surprised if it were. What Ballin’ at the Graveyard does nicely, though, is show how basketball has affected the men’s lives and continues to do so. Off the court, they hold positions that wouldn’t tolerate the kind of behavior on exhibit at the Graveyard. As such, the game offers them an opportunity to be themselves, within a community of their own choosing. Nothing they do at work can compare to the intensity and camaraderie required each week on the court.

Floating Skyscrapers
What differentiates Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers from the many other LGBT dramas in circulation through such outlets as TLA Releasing, Film Movement and Wolfe Video is its country of origin, Poland. That it was released nearly simultaneously there last year with In the Name Of was a big enough deal to have been mentioned in several of the reviews I read from its theatrical and festival release. I don’t know if the shortage of such titles has something to do with the influence of the country’s powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy or if the doors to the closet are stickier in Eastern Europe than elsewhere. It explains, at least, why Floating Skyscrapers and other gay films I’ve seen lately are more angst-ridden than similar material here. Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk) is a handsome competitive swimmer, who lives with his slightly overbearing mother and devoted girlfriend. It doesn’t seem to matter to him much that the reason he’s too tuckered to satisfy the pretty blond Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz) is that he’s already exhausted from the hummers he gets in the shower room at the swimming club. It’s a conflict, but one with which he can live. It isn’t until Kuba meets and falls head-over-heels with the far more outgoing Michael (Bartosz Gelner) that things get complicated for him and Slywia, who he keeps around like a spare tire. The first manifestation comes when he loses interest in training for meets he normally would be anxious to win. The movie ends in a way that doesn’t require Kuba to make any hard-and-fast decisions on his sexuality, but likely will disappoint American viewers.

TV-to-DVD
Courage the Cowardly Dog: Season 2
2 Broke Girls: The Complete Third Season
Created by John R. Dilworth in 1999, “Courage the Cowardly Dog” was the sixth series to fall under the Cartoon Network and Hanna-Barbera’s Cartoon Cartoons label, which also spawned “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Johnny Bravo,” “Cow and Chicken,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Sheep in the Big City” and other wacky shows. The series was inspired by the Oscar-nominated animated short, “The Chicken from Outer Space.” The titular protagonist is an anthropomorphic dog, Courage, who lives in Nowhere, Kansas, with his owners, the kind and ditzy Muriel and the cranky tightwad farmer, Eustace Bagge. If things weren’t sufficiently nutty in the Bagge residence, their lives are routinely turned upside-down by the regular visits from monsters, aliens, demons, mad scientists, zombies and other supernatural perils. Normally, it takes more than a 15-year-old cartoon to make me laugh out loud, but I’ll admit to doing so while watching the “Season 2” collection. In addition to being funny, however, “Courage the Cowardly Dog” is hip, smart, surreal and just a wee bit old-fashioned. Previous entries in CN’s “Hall of Fame” series are “Johnny Bravo,” “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Ed, Edd n Eddy.”

Co-written by former “Sex and the City” show-runner Michael Patrick King and raunchy comedian Whitney Cummings, “2 Broke Girls” could just as accurately been titled, “2 Broke Sluts.” The sitcom describes how two seemingly penniless waitresses are able to survive in Brooklyn on the tips they earn at a diner populated with zany characters and even wackier drop-ins. The Mutt & Jeff pairing of Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs extends to their characters’ backgrounds and personalities. Max Black is a short and buxom brunette, raised by her mother and no stranger to working hard. Long, lean and blond, Caroline comes from a wealthy family that was devastated financially by the imprisonment of the father in a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. Their shared dream is to open a bakery that specializes in cupcakes. That’s not an unusual setup for a sitcom, but they also share a penchant for sexually leading double-entendres (followed by burst of recorded laughter) and thoughts the Roman Catholic catechism would describe as “impure.” I’m assuming that most of the naughty dialogue is written by Cummings, who may be best known for hurling smutty insults at celebrities on the Comedy Central “Roasts” and appearances on “Chelsea Lately.” The Third Season of “2 Broke Girls” is noteworthy primarily for the addition of several new characters and more scenes outside the restaurant. Anyone allergic to dopey ethnic jokes and horndog dialogue may want to give this show a pass. Judging from the fact that “2 Broke Girls” has just entered its fourth season, however, you’d probably be in the minority.

It’s easy for me to tell when the holiday season has begun, because the rumble of the annual avalanche of stocking-stuffer cartoon collections can be heard whenever the mail deliverer arrives at my front door. Already, I’ve received Tickety Toc: Christmas Present Time, Chuggington: Chuggineers Ready to Build, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Tiger’s Happy Holidays, Paw Patrol: Winter Rescues and When Santa Fell to Earth. All are appropriate for very young video enthusiasts. Older kids, especially those who’ve followed the extensive “Dragon Ball Z” series of Japanimanga titles, once shown on Cartoon Network. Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods is a feature-length edition that is also available in Blu-ray. Here, Goku is humanity’s last hope to ascend to the level of a legendary Super Saiyan God and stop Beerus from destroying Earth.

The DVD Wrapup: Million Dollar Arm, Edge of Tomorrow, Million Ways to Die, Sleeping Beauty, To Be Takei, Zappa, Dusk Till Dawn, Hemlock Grove, Houdini … More

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

Million Dollar Arm: Blu-ray
With the playoffs in full swing and the World Series right around the corner, there’s probably no better time than October to launch a feel-good movie about America’s pastime. Even more than spring training and Opening Day, autumn is the time when the eyes of the world truly are on baseball. Instead, Disney, which has knocked several sports movies out of the park, decided to send out Million Dollar Arm in mid-May against the reptilian juggernaut, Godzilla, and the still potent Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Neighbors. Although Million Dollar Arm didn’t do all that well in competition with the Babe Ruth of movie monsters, it would show its legs in the next few weeks, posting box-office grosses that finally topped the studio’s production costs. Disney poured a lot of money into marketing the movie to family audiences, so it’s conceivable that director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy’s very likable picture could benefit from delayed word-of-mouth. In it, the similarly likable Jon Hamm plays real-life sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who staged a contest to determine if India could produce Major League-caliber athletes, like Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Korea and at least a dozen other countries have done. With a potential market in the hundreds of millions of sports fans, India would be great place for the marketing geniuses at MLB to exploit. The commercial aspect of the creation of the first the Million Dollar Arm competition in India isn’t ignored in the movie, but it does play second fiddle to the discovery of two young men — Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) – who would beat the odds by signing sports contracts with U.S. pro teams. They became the first Indian athletes to do so in any sport.

Because of baseball’s unique learning curve, Million Dollar Arm probably could have been set in any country where cricket, soccer or, even, camel racing are king. The only thing known about baseball by the boys who participated in the contest is that it requires a player to throw an orb covered in horsehide toward an opponent with a bat in his hand, pretty much like cricket. In that game, however, the leather-clad ball is of a similar consistency as the one used in baseball, but the pitcher is referred to as a “bowler.” A batsman’s job is to protect the wickets behind him with his flat-bladed bat and/or strike the ball, run between the wickets and score points. From here, most of the rules and fine points of cricket would be incomprehensible to most Americans. India, once part of the British Commonwealth, has consistently produced some of the best players in the game. While the bowling motion isn’t the same as that of a baseball pitcher – there’s a run-up, bounce and follow-through, but no mound – it is close enough to have convinced Bernstein that a 90-miles-per-hour fastball could be achieved by a champion “spinner” with accuracy. (Speeds of more than 160kmph have been registered among the top bowlers.) As is the case in most sports movies, much dramatic license has been taken in Million Dollar Arm.  For one thing, Bernstein’s firm was in no danger of collapsing if the Indian experiment failed. He’s handled some of the biggest names in the business, from athletes to brands. Still, the factual foundation is solid. The movie also benefits from the exotic Indian locations, including a decidedly different physical view of the Taj Mahal; the excellent support of Alan Arkin, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi and Bill Paxton; and an upbeat ending that also happens to be factual. The Blu-ray introduces us to the actual Rinku, Dinesh and Bernstein, while adding a humorous piece on training the actors to play baseball; a featurette on the east-meets-west soundtrack by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire); deleted scenes; and an alternate ending.

Edge of Tomorrow: Blu-ray
Dwarfed on the cover of the DVD/Blu-ray by the words “Live/Die/Repeat” is the actual title of Doug Liman’s non-stop sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow. The words appear on the movie poster, as well, but smaller. It’s as if studio executives gave the green light to the marketing and publicity material without paying much attention to what the title suggested: soap-opera melodrama. “Live/Die/Repeat” far more accurately anticipates the Groundhog Day through-line. Several feature films have exploited the time-loop theme since 1993, when Bill Murray was put through the wringer every morning. If one can get beyond that fondly that recalled rom-com, however, Edge of Tomorrow can easily exist as a stand-alone vehicle for entertainment, especially suited for diehard fans of Tom Cruise. In it, he plays Major William Cage, a public-relations specialist who is bushwhacked into taking part of a D-Day-like invasion of Europe, where robotic alien warriors have replicated Adolph Hitler’s advances in World War II. Cage is sent to the staging area, where he’s treated as if he were a traitor, and put in a helicopter landing craft without even knowing how to release the safety on the gun embedded in his body harness. Not surprisingly, he only is able to survive a few minutes before being “killed.” After a few moments, however, he awakens at the same base from which the helicopter took off, suffering the same treatment from officers and soldiers who pummel him with verbal abuse.

With every new awakening, though, he’s able to put his memory of what’s just transpired to better use, eventually winning over some of his fellow soldiers. One of them is a killer queen played with great relish by Emily Blunt, whose Rita Vrataski quickly realizes that she shares a time-loop pattern with Cage and this familiarity can be used to strategize against the alien hordes. Once this happens, Liman ratchets up the action to a fever pitch. With the beachhead finally taken, Cage and Vrataski are able to live, die and repeat their way toward Paris and a final confrontation with the invaders. Because every penny of the $180-million production budget appears on the screen in one form or the other, the meager domestic return of $100.2 million must have sent Warners Bros. executives into crisis mode. It would add another $269 million at the foreign box office, but that, too, was a disappointment when compared to other action pictures. Monday-morning quarterbacks wanted to blame Cruise’s public-relations woes for Edge of Tomorrow’s poor showing, but several other variables were at play, including its outward resemblance to the actor’s 2013 sci-fi adventure Oblivion; audience fatigue for alien-invasion and superhero flicks; the crowded June lineup of potential blockbusters; and unexpected competition for the hearts of young-adult women from The Fault in our Stars. It should do well in WBHE’s excellent Blu-ray presentation, which adds the comprehensive making-of featurettes “Storming the Beach,” “Weapons of the Future,” “Creatures Not of This World” and “On the Edge With Doug Liman,” as well as seven deleted scenes.

A Million Ways to Die in the West: Unrated: Blu-ray
Any resemblance between A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s self-aggrandizing and largely unfunny parody of Hollywood Westerns, and Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ truly hilarious sendup of genre tropes, begins and ends with the first few fart jokes. In fact, MacFarlane’s second feature is little more than two-hour exercise in scatological humor, which would have been fine if it were animated and starred Beavis, Butt-head or any one of a dozen of MacFarlane’s cartoon characters. How he managed to talk Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris and Wes Studi into going along with the gag can be attributed to a desire to put on costumes and get paid to pretend it is Halloween. (Cameos by Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, Bill Maher, Ryan Reynolds and Patrick Stewart’s disembodied voice are easier explained.)  Besides performing almost every other behind-the-camera task in the movie, MacFarlane stars as a sheep rancher whose jokey approach to self-defense only makes local cowboys hate him more. After Albert backs out of a gunfight, his fickle girlfriend (Seyfried) leaves him for another man. It isn’t until an outlaw’s disenchanted moll (Theron) rides into town and takes Albert under his wing that he begins to grow a pair of his own. That newfound courage will be sorely tested when the gunslinger (Neeson) arrives to terrorize the frontier outpost.

MacFarlane fills in the narrative blanks with a series of gags that range from funny – Silverman and Ribisi play a wildly mismatched pair of lovers – to downright unappetizing (Harris shitting in his hat). The movie’s greatest obstacle is MacFarlane, himself. He’s so in love with his character and script that he’s unable to step back and remember that Brooks gave his Blazing Saddles co-stars the funniest lines, while limiting his presence to Governor William J. Lepetomane and a Jewish Indian chief. In his blockbuster debut, Ted, MacFarlane left the heavy lifting to Mark Wahlberg, while supplying the voice for the animated teddy bear. He’s a very talented fellow, but can’t act his way out of a 10-gallon hat. Even worse, most of the sight gags are telegraphed in the dialogue that immediately precedes them. Consequently, perhaps, A Million Ways to Die in the West underperformed Ted by more than $450 million in worldwide box-office returns. Teenage boys may be happy to know that the unrated version contains even more fart and diarrhea jokes. On the plus side, the scenic homages paid to John Ford and Howard Hawks by cinematographer Michael Barrett are nothing short of splendid in the Blu-ray presentation. It adds an alternate opening and ending; deleted, extended and alternate scenes; a gag reel; the making-of featurette, “Once Upon a Time, in a Different West”; and commentary with MacFarlane, Theron and co-writers and executive producers Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild.

Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart: Blu-ray
As is the case with all of the Blu-ray products accorded “Diamond Edition” status by the folks at Walt Disney Home Entertainment, Sleeping Beauty needs no formal introduction or hyperbolic raves for product’s audio/visual properties. Simply put, these animated gems are as good as Blu-ray gets. Disney’s adaptation can be traced back to Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” one of the tales published in his 1697 book “Les Contes de ma mère l’Oie,” (“The Tales of My Mother Goose”). His fairy tales would pre-date by more than a century Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collected stories, which, of course, would provide the inspiration for the bulk of Disney’s library of animated features (conveniently consigned to the public domain). According to the techno-critics who study these things, “Sleeping Beauty: Diamond Edition” doesn’t advance by much the Blu-ray presentation already provided by the 2008 upgrade. Both are excellent, of course, but collectors should be aware of the absence of 18 bonus features from the two-disc “50th Anniversary Platinum Edition.” Its timing anticipates the studio’s Blu-ray/DVD release of the live-action Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie, by a month.  The carry-over bonus material includes commentary with critic Leonard Maltin, supervising animator Andreas Deja and Pixar/Disney big-shot John Lasseter; the featurettes “The Sound of Beauty: Restoring a Classic,” “Picture Perfect: The Making of Sleeping Beauty” and “Eyvind Earle: A Man and His Art.” The new “Diamond” extras add three storyboarded scenes that were deleted from the original; the sing-along, “Beauty-Oke: Once Upon a Dream”; featurettes “DisneyAnimation: Artists in Motion” and “The Art of Evil: Generations of Disney Villains”; and promotional fairytale “Once Upon a Parade,” with Sarah Hyland of ABC/Disney’s “Modern Family.”

The AMPAS members who nominate films in Oscar’s animation categories occasionally throw in a surprise candidate, often from France or Japan. Earlier this year, Ernest & Celestine and Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song, The Wind Rises, made the final cut over several excellent American entries. It leads me to believe that Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu’s Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart might be just quirky enough to attract the attention of voters later this year. Animation lovers here can get an early look at it in a sterling Blu-ray edition from Shout!Factory. It might take them a few minutes to adjust to the decidedly French approach to the CGI characterizations and visuals, but patience will be rewarded in the form of a charming story that integrates pathos, tragedy and romance in a rock-opera format. (Anyone familiar with Gallic rock-’n’-roll already knows how weird it can sound to American ears.) The story opens in Edinburgh, in 1874, on the coldest day in the history of the world, when boy named Jack is born with his heart frozen solid. A quick-thinking midwife saves his life by inserting a cuckoo-clock in his chest as a makeshift pacemaker. It requires Jack to diligently observe three iron-clad rules: he must never touch the hands of the clock; he must master his anger; and he must never fall in love. As cautious as he is, Jack will develop feelings for a be-spectacled street performer, Miss Acacia, whose haunting voice causes him to risk a stoppage of the clock and sudden death. Once again, however, his guardians manage to save him from disaster. Not surprisingly, Jack will tempt fate once again by tracking Miss Acacia from Edinburgh and Paris to her home in Andalusia, where love’s ability to conquer all is sorely challenged. As he did in Hugo, a character based on pioneer French filmmaker Georges Méliès plays a supporting role in Jack’s journey, which is further supported by the heavy-metal soundtrack of Malzieu’s band, Dionysos. Malzieu also wrote the book from which the movie was adapted. The Blu-ray presentation is sharp and colorful. The bonus features include “From Book to Screen,” which documents the adaptation process, with glimpses of the 3D rendering process and concert footage with Dionysos; and character studies with the actors who play them.

Cold in July: Blu-ray
Based simply on the previews included on other MPI Media Group releases, I went into Cold in July anticipating to see one of those revenge pictures in which a family is emotionally and physically tormented by a sadist with a chip on his shoulder. It was clear from the trailers that the no-count son of a hardened ex-con is killed trying to rob the house of a typical American family in a typical America suburb. Not caring to take self-defense into account, the old man decides to avenge the young man’s death in ways designed to scare the crap out of viewers. A cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Dan Johnson did suggest that Jim Mickle’s thriller would be about something more entertaining than menace, torture and gun porn, but that’s all we get in the tease. And, in fact, that’s exactly what viewers are given in the first third of Cold in July. It is at this point, however, that something unexpected happens. The movie described in the trailer turns into something far more satisfying. Mickle and his frequent writing partner, Nick Damici (Stake Land, We Are What We Are), turn the tables on their audience by veering completely away from psycho-horror to something more closely resembling the work of the wildly prolific Joe R. Lansdale, from whose novel the movie was adapted. Although his books can usually be found in the library among mysteries and thrillers, the native Texan crosses genres as often as some people cross the street to get the nearest Starbuck’s. Readers have grown accustomed to his ability to quickly shift narrative gears, moving smoothly from action, thrills, drama and humor, while introducing characters with whom we want to spend time. That’s certainly the case in Cold in July, whose tone and rhythm literally do an about-face when its protagonist, Richard Dane (Hall), is forced to choose between doing the right thing and eliminating the threat against his family once and for all.

After Dane shoots the intruder, he goes through all of the emotional changes one would expect of a normally peaceful person forced to use violence to solve a problem. He rejects the praise of the good-ol’-boys who’ve previously treated the frame-store owner as if he were a harmless pansy. Shepard plays Russel, an ex-con who lives by the Old West code of revenge for revenge’s sake. He has no trouble accessing the Danes’ well-guarded home, just to demonstrate how easy it would be to strike them at will, and, after hiding in a crawl space, frightening viewers by sneaking into the bedroom of their toddler son. The movie’s central conceit requires Dane not to take things at face value, including the identity of the man he’s shot. It allows the unlikely alliance that develops between the two men and, not long thereafter, a colorful P.I./pig farmer from Houston, Jim Bob (Johnson), who tools around in a red Cadillac convertible with a longhorn rack mounted on the hood. Did I mention that the book and movie are set in the 1980s? Together, they ride into East Texas’ heart of darkness, where the Dixie Mafia controls the underworld and it’s impossible to distinguish the good and bad guys from the color of their hats. Cold in July should remind some viewers of another terrific Texas noir in which Johnson starred, The Hot Spot. The Blu-ray adds commentaries, deleted scenes, pre-visualization tests and a post-screening Q&A with Mickle and Lansdale.

The List
For many years, the Village Voice routinely published the names of New York’s 10 Worst Landlords, along with detailed reports on the housing atrocities they were committing against largely defenseless tenants. Besides being a popular annual feature, the articles served to alert city officials to the worst offenders and push them toward attacking the problem. They also served to shame those rich bastards still capable of being embarrassment by the public tarring. I wonder if writer/director Klaus Hüttmann was inspired by the Village Voice in the creation of The List. In it, a small-time businessman is soundly defeated when he dares take on an advertising conglomerate, which he had little chance of beating, in court. Hugely disappointed by the injustices perpetrated against him, Christopher Corwin (Anthony Flanagan) turns to the World Wide Web, where, theoretically, everyone can get a fair hearing on a grievance. This wouldn’t be the same thing as having a guilty judgment rendered against a crooked company or corrupt politician, of course, but a whiff of justice is all most people get for their troubles. Corwin decides to create a whistle-blower website, the List, where citizens can add the names and crimes of evil business executives and other public figures to those of his nemesis. Then, participants vote on which of the perpetrators deserve to climb in the rankings or fall. Corwin hoped that the exposure would inspire a change of heart in the bastards … fat chance of that happening. Just as the List is getting noticed outside the parameters of the Internet, someone kidnaps the No. 1 offender and offs him in a live video stream. Being a solid citizen and family man, Corwin is stunned by this distortion of his goals. The killer’s identity isn’t immediately known, of course, so his motives could be strictly extralegal or designed to turn public opinion against the List. And, in fact, it doesn’t take long for Corwin to be considered a prime suspect by police and a fraud by visitors to the website. The frame-up works so well that his name is added to the List, where it inevitably rises to the top position and his assassination is virtually assured. At the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Huttmann’s “Der Schwimmer” was nominated for a Palme d’Or as Best Short Film. It’s taken most of the last 10 years for The List to find enough money to be produced, probably with the assistance of a crowd-funding service. While sufficiently dark and moody to qualify as a paranoid thriller, the movie occasionally feels undernourished and forced to take shortcuts. Still, not a bad idea.

See You Next Tuesday
When a filmmaker doesn’t give his audience someone with whom it can identify, viewers will seek out a character to pity. In his debut feature, See You Next Tuesday, Drew Tobia doesn’t even give us that much comfort. The small collection of Brooklyn misfits to whom we’re introduced is so aggressively abrasive that the only person left to pity is the protagonist’s as-yet-unborn child, who, baring a tragedy, would be required to live amongst these penniless freaks. As portrayed by fellow newcomer Eleanore Pienta, Mona is fully nine months pregnant and almost certainly suffering from bi-polar disorder. For all we know, her problems began while she was still waiting to pop out of her alcoholic mother’s womb. Mona is the kind of person who, while seeming normal, will go off at a moment’s notice and begin verbally abusing everyone within the sound of her voice. Or, she may begin spouting off opinions that sound eloquent in her head, but tend to frighten those few people who care about her. When she almost simultaneously loses her job and tenement apartment, Mona decides to move in with her “artistic” sister, Jordan (Molly Plunk), who’s already mooching off of her lesbian lover, Sylve (Keisha Zollar). Jordan attempts to get their self-absorbed mother to come to her rescue, but May (Dana Eskelson) is too busy courting men on an Internet dating site to be of much help. Indeed, when push comes to shove in this extended family of troubled women, their collective response is, “Suck my dick.” Out of context, none of this sounds very appetizing, but Tobia is able to mine a surprising amount of inky black humor from the scenario before Mona’s water breaks and all we’re left with is the thin hope the baby will be put up for adoption. After watching the movie a second time with the borderline-frivolous commentary turned on, I got the distinct impression that the filmmaker and actors were familiar with people exactly like the ones we meet in See You Next Tuesday and aren’t at all out of place in some parts of New York City.

Documentaries
To Be Takei
Rude Dude
Kehinde Wiley: Economy of Space
Roger & Me: Blu-ray
PBS: Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall & the NAACP
PBS: Frontline: Losing Iraq
PBS: Operation Maneater
I don’t know if anyone’s had an unkind word to say about Japanese/American actor George Takei, but you won’t hear any in To Be Takei. Jennifer M. Kroot’s adoring bio-doc draws a complete portrait of a man who’s never stopped growing or pursuing his passions. Besides playing Hikaru Sulu in the elongated “Star Trek” series, he’s stayed busy teaching children about the internment of his family during World War II and the reaping the rewards of his human-rights activism, by finally being allowed to legally marry his longtime lover, Brad Takei (née, Altman). Kroot didn’t have to put much pressure on her subject to expound on the highlights his own life story or share his disappointments, even if we’re given the impression that he’s done it hundreds, maybe thousands of times in the past. At 77, he retains his broad trademark smile and deep bass voice. What sets To Be Takei apart from other celebrity bio-docs is the access Kroot was allowed in recording the personal time shared by George and Brad. If the actor carries the Energizer Bunny gene, Brad spends most of his time making sure that George doesn’t overextend or overcommit himself at home and on the road. We’re allowed to eavesdrop on their minor bickering, as well as share their expressions of love and devotion. While George plays to the crowds and fans who line up for autographs, Brad counts the cash and hovers in the background as he speaks. Outside the marriage, we meet cast members of the USS Enterprise, including a prickly William Shatner; young Asian/American actors whose careers he influenced; legislators who shared desire to pay reparations to people who lost everything when they were unjustly sent to internment camps; and various friends and relatives. The DVD includes extended interviews and footage.

It’s the rare comic-book artist who can use himself as a model for a new superhero. Most of them more closely resemble Popeye’s straightman, J. Wellington Wimpy, than Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. At an athletic 6-foot-6, Steve “The Dude” Rude already knew how the world looks from a position of strength and power. Ian Fischer’s compelling bio-doc, Rude Dude, chronicles the Wisconsin native’s lifelong passion for comics and storytelling. With a great deal of luck, perseverance and chutzpah working in his favor, Rude quickly put himself on the fast track to fame in the competitive world of comics and superheroes. After reaching a professional pinnacle at Marvel, Rude’s inability/refusal to meet deadlines led him to the self-publishing segment of the marketplace with his longtime pet project, Nexus, which didn’t work out, either. In a chapter of his own story that could have been titled, “Even Superheroes Get the Blues,” Rude ran into a brick wall of clinical depression and melancholy. It was an obstacle that he couldn’t get past until he conquered or, at least, learned to cope with his inner demons. He’s attempting to get over by accepting commissions on comic-book arts and attempting to break into the fine-art game, which is even tougher if your vision isn’t in vogue. Meanwhile, as is always the case in such situations, friends and loved ones are left to wait patiently for a light bulb to go off over the depression sufferer’s head or even take his meds as directed. The film’s post script leaves room for optimism and sometimes that’s all we can hope in cases of bi-polar disease.

Economy of Space introduces us to an artist on the opposite end of the spectrum from Steve Rude. Kehinde Wiley has become a sensation inside and outside the African-American community, employing a technique that, if it weren’t so appealing, might raise the hackles of critics and purists. Working directly off of photographs taken of young men and women he encounters in the streets of Harlem and other cities, Wiley uses them to replicate paintings hanging in the world’s great museums. They stand in stark contrast to the brilliantly colored and intricately patterned backgrounds that have become the artist’s trademark. The immediate impression is that the large-format canvases are backlit and his subjects are synthetically reproduced. We’re disabused of that notion while watching Wiley work his photo-realistic magic on canvases so large that the subjects can be perceived as gods and goddesses. When told of the prices big-name celebrities will pay for the paintings, the subjects could be forgiven for feeling a bit god-like, themselves. In the world of galleries and museums, where blacks and other minorities are rarely represented, this is an uncommonly big deal. While the men in his paintings tend to be reproduced in street garb, the women featured in his current project were fitted by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci for couture gowns befitting the paintings that inspired Wiley and wigs created by one of Manhattan’s foremost stylists.

Even from a distance of a quarter-century, Michael Moore’s freshman documentary Roger & Me holds up pretty well. In fact, in describing the economic devastation that crippled his hometown of Flint, Michigan, after GM began laying off tens of thousands of autoworkers, the film is downright prophetic. Thanks to the shortsightedness of Ronald Reagan and subsequent inhabitants of the White House, hundreds of Rust Belt cities have suffered the same cruel fate and millions of Americans have seen their hope of joining the country’s once-vast middle class crushed. At the time Roger & Me was made, Moore had no training as a documentarian and this allowed him to break almost every rule that traditional filmmakers observed. His approach has been criticized by critics and old-school types who aren’t impressed by tendency to interject so much of himself into the flow of his docs, but the amazing popular and financial success they’ve enjoyed has inspired an entire generation of do-it-yourself documentary makers. The Blu-ray has been given a nice hi-def facelift and fresh commentary by Moore, who points out that almost everything he shot ended up in the film, thus precluding the possibility a sequence of deleted scenes.

Too often, the men and women who shaped America through their deeds and words are recalled on film as museum pieces, best observed through a plate-glass scrim. As the decades pass since their deaths, the dust that gathers on their memories covers the path they took to greatness. Like Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall is hardly an unknown quantity in the history of the struggle for civil rights. Both are known best, however, by headline-making events in the second-half of their personal journeys. It took Idris Elba’s unforgettable portrayal of Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom to flesh out the great man’s story. Judging from the PBS bio-doc, Mr. Civil Rights: Thurgood Marshall & the NAACP, any dramatization of the longtime Supreme Court justice’s biography could be every bit as compelling. In his tireless campaign to eradicate Jim Crow practices, he logged hundreds of thousands of miles of travel through hostile territory, fighting segregation case by case, building the foundation that would lead to monumental courtroom decisions of the 1950-60s. In doing so, he avoided being shot by a Dallas sheriff, was pursued by the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island, hid in bushes from a violent mob in Detroit, and even survived his own lynching. Before joining the boy’s club in 1967, Marshall won more Supreme Court cases than any lawyer in American history. The DVD adds conversations with Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and John Paul Stevens.

In PBS’ Losing Iraq, “Frontline” producers explain what went wrong in the early stages of America’s occupation of Iraq and how those mistakes inevitably created the on-going quagmire playing out today with Isis. Much of the territory here already has been covered in theatrical documentaries, but this one puts the bow on the box. PBS’ Operation Maneater describes how naturalists are using modern technology to maintain a balance between sharks, polar bears and crocodiles and the humans with whom they’re required to share traditional habitats. The easy answer is, of course, to eliminate the predators before they strike. The sensible answer, we learn, is create a balance – as well as an early-warning system – to restore the balance between man and nature.

Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video
Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Freak Mothers: Frank Zappa 1969-1973
Contrary to popular perception, music videos didn’t begin with the launch of MTV on August 1, 1981, and they didn’t stop being made when the network decided to focus on revenue-producing reality-based shows. Short performance films had been a staple of the record-promotion business for decades, sometimes excised from longer movies and occasionally inserted into them. In the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester was able to capture the group’s personality and music in equal, complementary measure. The visual set pieces that accompanied the Beatles’ songs could be extracted as if they were mini-movies. When Bob Dylan discarded cue cards with phrases from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in the opening scene of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, it built a foundation upon which all future music videos would be constructed. By the late 1960s, some of Frank Zappa’s music was conceived as a soundtrack to movies in his head. Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees, picked up the video gauntlet, as well. MTV didn’t burst out of the gate in a big hurry, if only because less visual oriented artists weren’t convinced that money could be made from the new network. Adapted from a book written and updated by Saul Austerlitz, Music for Nothing: A History of the Music Video takes an almost academic approach to the subject, with Michael Charles Roman’s bone-dry narration over snippets from dozens of familiar music video. First-time director Jamin Bricker takes time to focus on the network’s early reluctance to feature black artists and women. That would change when hip-hop crossed over to white middle-class audiences and the number of women viewers reached the point where sponsors took notice. Today, MTV no longer serves the exclusive interests of artists and very few bands are spending lots of money on music videos, anymore, and YouTube has become a more economical and efficient way of promoting bands. But, you already know that.

Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Freak Mothers: Frank Zappa 1969-1973 provides a far more comprehensive, informative and entertaining examination of a time when the first Mothers of Invention was disbanded and Zappa was free to focus on his own brand of rock, fusion, funk and free jazz, as well as ventures into film and video. The move split early fans drawn to the Mothers’ ability to blend rock with social commentary, while finding fresh ears in Europe and places where listeners didn’t know that Flo & Eddie had a hugely successful career with the Turtles before lending their harmonies to Zappa. The musicians assembled for the Hot Rats albums and tours impressed critics and paying customers, but were unrecognizable from the Mothers of yore. The Sexy Intellectual presentation truly is a warts-and-all documentary, with the ratio between them almost 50/50. At 157 minutes, it’s as much a portrait of an unpredictable and uncompromising genius at work as it is a celebration of music produced by a group of musicians assembled for their virtuosity. Although unauthorized by the Zappa estate, there’s more than enough vintage concert footage, archival photos and clips, and interviews to fill the entire package. Among the assembled witnesses are band members George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Don Preston, Jeff Simmons, Mark Volman, Max Bennett, Sal Marquez and Ian Underwood; 200 Motels director Tony Palmer; biographers Ben Watson and Billy James; and Mojo Magazine’s Mark Paytress.

TV-to-DVD
Netflix: Hemlock Grove: Season 1
Syfy: The Almighty Johnsons: Unedited Version: Season 1
From Dusk Till Dawn: Season One: Blu-ray
History Channel: Houdini: Blu-Ray
The Best of the Danny Kaye Show
The Wonder Years: Season One
Cartoon Network: Adventure Time: The Complete Fourth Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete 1st Season: The Beginning
In one of those unlikely coincidences that occur every so often in the entertainment dodge, the release of Scream Factory’s compilation of episodes from the first season of Netflix’s “Hemlock Grove” coincides with David Lynch’s Twitter confirmation that he will collaborate on a nine-episode return to “Twin Peaks” with Mark Frost, this time for Showtime. For those of us who lived through the “Twin Peaks” craze, it would be impossible not to recall that groundbreaking series while watching Eli Roth’s adaptation of Brian McGreevy’s novel. That’s not a knock against the show, just a way to describe it in TV shorthand for those non-subscribers to Netflix. Once again, the body of a brutally slain teenage girl is discovered on the fringes of rural community. When local law-enforcement proves inadequate in the pursuit of the killer, an expert is brought in to add her expertise, whether it’s wanted or not. As other victims are found, the possibility that a supernatural beast is involved increases with each new clue. The fine cast includes Famke Janssen (X-Men) Bill Skarsgård (Anna Karenina), Landon Liboiron (Altitude), Penelope Mitchell (The Vampire Diaries), Lily Taylor (“Six Feet Under”), Madeleine Martin (“Californication”) and Dougray Scott (“Desperate Housewives”). The bonus features include new vignettes and Roth’s commentary. Despite the show’s relatively short reach, it was nominated for two Emmys. Netflix has already renewed “Hemlock Grove” for a third and final season.

I haven’t seen the version of “The Almighty Johnsons” mini-series that was picked up by Syfy from New Zealand’s South Pacific Pictures. The unedited edition of Season One episodes contains nudity and language that likely is blurred and bleeped to meet the basic-cable standards, but shouldn’t bother teens and young-adult viewers already accustomed to such mild censorship. Billed as a dramedy, “The Almighty Johnsons” plays like a supernatural soap opera. The titular family is comprised of four seemingly mortal brothers, who, on their 21st birthday, are ushered into the Pantheon of Norse immortals by their eternally youthful grandfather, the oracle Olaf. The youngest, Axl, is the reincarnation of Odin and, as such, is required to ensure the family’s survival by hooking up with the reincarnation of Odin’s wife, Frigg. Conspiring to prevent such a wedding is a cabal of Norse goddesses, who would see their power diminished if it would come to pass. Now, as silly as all of this sounds, “The Almighty Johnsons” works. Because the mortals who mingle among the gods and goddess are obsessed with role-playing fantasies, there’s virtually no disconnect between the disparate constituencies. Everyone looks as if they just stepped out of a prime-time soap on the WB. The show’s meager budget is reflected in a decided scarcity of action sequences and special effects. It relies, instead, on clever writing and appealing actors. The new season begins on Syfy in November.

Not being a subscriber to DirecTV, Comcast or Time Warner, I had no idea that Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network even exists, let alone carries a mini-series adaptation of his 1996 cult favorite, From Dusk Till Dawn. I’d be very surprised if many other fans of grindhouse horror and action are aware of its existence, either, but that’s the genre to which the network is committed. So, for those who missed it, Entertainment One has released a collection of first-season episodes. Rodriguez doesn’t deviate all that much from the basic storyline established in the theatrical version of From Dusk Till Dawn, preferring to flesh out the characters drawn by Quentin Tarantino in the movie and fill in the gaps in their storylines. After an aborted bank heist and bloody convenience-store robbery, Seth and Richie Gecko (D.J. Cotrona, Zane Holtz) need to split for Mexico, pronto. After wandering around South Texas for several episodes, looking for an escape route, the desperados steal an RV from a defrocked pastor and his family. After a wild standoff on the border, the brothers make a beeline for the world’s coolest strip club. Filled to overflowing with bikers, Mayan vampires and spectacularly beautiful dancers — Eiza González’s lithe and toxic Santanico Pandemonium rivals Salma Hayek’s interpretation — are forced to fight until sunrise for survival. The Mayan temple set has also been expanded, so as to take advantage of its maze of tunnels and secret rooms. Because of the attention paid to detail, macabre humor and precisely choreographed ultra-violence, “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series” could easily have found a home on other premium-cable network and lured a substantial weekly audience. It remains to be seen if the El Rey Network will survive, but it’s off to a good start.The Blu-ray adds commentaries on several episodes, a “best kills” clip and several short background pieces. Longer and better are a Q&A recorded after its Alamo Drafthouse premiere in Austin, with Robert Rodriguez and cast, and “On Set: The Making of ‘From Dusk Till Dawn.’”

In telling the life story of Harry Houdini for the broadest possible cable audience, director Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex) and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) attempt to juggle two nearly contradictory conceits simultaneously. The History Channel mini-series Houdini is first a chapter-and-verse recounting of the great illusionist’s biography, absent the flourishes that might have been added to a theatrical film with a larger budget. Instead, the movie uses Freudian theory to shrink Houdini’s head, while diminishing the seemingly magical allure of his art. Even when Houdini’s devotion to his mother is fully demonstrated and acknowledged by viewers, her physical and spectral presence haunts him (and his wife, Bess) throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, the filmmakers reveal the secrets behind all but one of his amazing escapes and illusions. I suppose that solutions to all of the tricks, including the disappearing-elephant gag, can be found in any library or magic shop. Still, it borders on the sacrilegious to so coldly dilute the mystery. Adrien Brody, himself an amateur magician, does a nice job as the enigmatic Houdini. The divertingly cute showgirl, Bess, who was disowned by her family for marrying a Jew, is played by the divertingly cute Kristen Connolly. Houdini benefits, as well, from being shot in and around Budapest, where the illusionist came into the world as Erik Weisz on March 24, 1874. Meyer based the more clinical aspects of his script on “Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait,” written by his father, Dr. Bernard C. Meyer. The Blu-ray arrives in the original 107-minute version and a theatrical cut at 127 minutes. Four short featurettes don’t add much to the package.

Danny Kaye’s reputation as a consummate showman and tireless entertainer is backed up in MVD Visual’s wonderfully entertaining, “The Best of the Danny Kaye Show.” The variety series aired on CBS for 1963 to 1967, as the transition from black-and-white to color was accelerating and the old-fashioned formula of combing song, dance and comedic skits was about to give way to more topical stuff, including “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Johnny Cash Show.” In hindsight, the show may have been square, but the same could be said about almost everything else on TV in 1964. In the shows collected here, Kaye mugs, clowns, sings and dances with such legendary stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Nana Mouskouri, Harry Belafonte, Liza Minnelli, Gene Kelly, Art Carney, Rod Serling, Jackie Cooper, Michelle Lee, Buddy Greco, John Gary, Joe & Eddie, Lovelady Powell and Alan Young. Series regulars Harvey Korman, Jamie Farr, Joyce Van Patten and orchestra leader Paul Weston also participate in the fun. Neither did Kaye hesitate when it came time for a dramatic reading or schmaltzy solo ballad.

For all of the progressive work turned in by such producers as Norman Lear, Steven Bochco, Stephen J. Cannell, James L. Brooks and other forward-thinking show-runners, television remained a wasteland for teenagers and their younger siblings until the late 1980s, when ABC’s “The Wonder Years” began its six-year run. Originally intended for Boomer audiences nostalgic for their suburban upbringing in the 1960s, the dramedy struck a chord with Boomer babies, as well. It would open the door for “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “My So-Called Life” and other shows in which the younger characters don’t talk as if they were expecting a response from a laugh track. Along with joy and elation, the kids were allowed to experience pain in grief. The second episode of Season One opens at a cemetery, where Winnie Cooper’s brother is being buried after his death in Vietnam. As Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) offers his shoulder for his pretty neighbor (Danica McKellar) to cry on, they experience the first symptoms of something stronger than puppy love. Moments later, the tension is broken by a study session Kevin shares with his brother, Wayne (Jason Hervey), and friend, Paul (Josh Saviano), for a sex-education class. The Season One package is being offered separately from the super-duper complete-series edition, packaged in a miniature school locker and containing a treasure trove of memorabilia. It also includes most of the original songs missing from episodes streamed over the Internet. The Season One set adds highlights from the cast reunion, May 28, 2014; the featurette, “With a Little Help from My Friends: The Early Days of The Wonder Years”; and interviews with creators Neal Marlens and Carol Black, Savage, McKellar and Saviano.

Season Four of the Comedy Network’s “Adventure Time” picks up where the third stanza left off, with the introduction of Flame Princess. Refusing to believe that she is evil, Finn tries to win over his new crush. The rest of the series plays out according to form with plotlines almost too crazy to encapsulate. For fans keeping score at home, “AT” has just completed its sixth season and is prepping for a seventh. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries on all 26 episodes and the featurette, “Distant Bands: The Music of Adventure Time.”

Although the entire freshman season of the 2012 Nickelodeon show is already on DVD in separate volumes, fans pushed Nickelodeon to skip the a la carte and give them something more comprehensive and cost-efficient. The result is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete 1st Season: The Beginning, which contains all 26 episodes and bonus content from” Rise of the Turtles,” “Enter Shredder” and “Ultimate Showdown”; six making-of animatics, “Theme Song: Karaoke Music Video” and Baxter’s Gambit Gift Set with a sample of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Ultimate Visual History” coffee table book and 10 min of additional bonus content accessed online.

The DVD Wrapup: Transformers, Are You Here, Sordid Lives, American Muscle, Last of the Unjust, Ida, Lucky Them, Hellion, Wolf, Ivory Tower … More

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction: Blu-ray
I’ll admit to being one of those fair-weather fans of the extended “Transformers” franchise – theatrical and animated – who doesn’t rush to see them on IMAX or 3D, but routinely catches the latest installments on DVD/Blu-ray. My adult son, who once collected the toys, probably remains conversant in the mythology, but I still can’t tell the difference, if any, between the Autobots and Decepticons. Just as Michael Bay’s true-blue fans don’t wait to read a reviewer’s opinion before laying down their money for a ticket, mainstream critics get paid whether audiences agree with them or not. Most wouldn’t invest five minutes of their precious time researching ’Bot history before watching a new episode. It’s what makes to the screen that matters, not the health of the franchise. That said, however, the fourth installment of the theatrical series, Transformers: Age of Extinction, represents a much needed changing of the guard, Shia LaBeouf had finally worn out his welcome and was replaced by Hollywood’s always-welcome Excitable Boy, Mark Wahlberg. Most of the series’ other human regulars were jettisoned, along with Autobots and Decepticons destroyed in the Battle for Chicago. In several obvious ways, however, “Age of Extinction” serves mostly as a longer, louder and more conclusive sequel to Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Despite their heroics in the Windy City, Optimus Prime and the remaining Autobots have been forced into hiding to avoid being destroyed by a special-forces team comprised of anti-robot bigots. Wahlberg discovers Optimus Prime in an abandoned Texas theater, disguised as a rusty White Freightliner. A tinkerer and robotics nut, his Cade Yeager tows the truck to his farm, where he lovingly restores it for Prime-time. When Yeager’s goofball partner, T.J. (Lucas Flannery), discovers that there’s a reward on the heads of the hidden robots, he tries to make some quick cash by ratting them out.

The arrival of a heavily armed team of government eradicators signals the beginning of an orgy of mechanized death and destruction that dominates most of the movie’s 260-minute length. If that sounds like an inordinately long period of time for any movie not based on a Russian novel, you should know by now that Bay’s international legion of fans would hardly settle for anything less. He rewards their loyalty here with a titanic display of non-stop CGI magic and in-your-face effects. Heavy objects fall from the sky, not unlike the frogs in the rainstorm scene in Magnolia. In this way, Age of Extinction is the cinematic equivalent of a really explosive fireworks display on the 4th of July. Lots of things sparkle and go “boom,” but nothing lingers for very long. In addition to returning to Chicago for a while, Bay takes us to Hong Kong, Beijing, Monument Valley, Iceland and Detroit, which was redressed to fill in for other locations. China’s willingness to accommodate Michael Bay’s Flying Circus has paid off in record box-office receipts there. Also new to “Age of Extinction” are Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Thomas Lennon, Nicola Peltz, Sophia Myles and the radiant Chinese superstar Li Bingbing. The Blu-ray bonus package includes a separate disc, containing several Bay-heavy featurettes. Among them are an eight-part making-of supplement, a piece showcasing on-sets antics, a visit to the Rhode Island Hasbro headquarters and “T.J. Miller: Farm Hippie,” in which the actor pays humorous home visits to his co-stars. In case you’re wondering, yes, three-time writer Ehren Kruger is already at work on “Transformers 5.”

Are You Here: Blu-ray
It’s only natural that admirers of AMC’s brilliant drama series, “Mad Men,” would want to check out Matthew Weiner’s first feature film, Are You Here. After a brief flurry of advance publicity, however, it crashed and burned without anyone noticing it had been let out of the barn. Take a look at the cover of the newly released DVD/Blu-ray package and you’ll wonder how any movie starring Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler could be kept from view, with or without Weiner’s name on the jacket. Judging simply by the presence of those fine actors, most people would assume that the film contained therein would be a comedy. The two men are sitting on a scruffy couch that’s been placed on a grassy hillside, overlooking a neighboring farm. A free-ranging chicken stands like a sentry on one side of the couch, while Poehler stares into the middle-distance from behind it. It may not be “American Gothic,” but some room is left there for a chuckle, or two. In fact, while the characters played by Wilson and Galifianakis, if not by Poehler, exactly, look as if they might have been borrowed from the set of Wedding Crashers or The Hangover, they occupy very different roles. Wilson plays a womanizing TV weatherman, Steve Dallas, whose idea of a good time is going on date (or hiring a prostitute) and convincing her that he’s destitute and can’t pay the bill. His best friend from childhood, Ben Baker (Galifianakis), is, of course, a stoner who somewhere along the way lost a few of his marbles. When his estranged father dies, Ben is stunned to learn that he’s inherited the bulk of his old man’s estate. Even more surprised is his sister, Terri (Poehler), who expected far more consideration from him. Left with even less inheritance is their father’s flower-child wife, Angela (Laura Ramsey), who doesn’t appear to be flustered about anything, despite the real possibility she’ll be evicted from her own home. Believing that Ben can’t possibly handle the responsibility that comes with running a farm, his humorless sister naturally attempts to invalidate the will. Nothing that happens from this point forward should surprise anyone, except possibly the lack of humor Weiner is able to wring from the situation. Finally, even at 112 minutes, we’re left with characters with whom we have no emotional ties and no questions that we care to see answered. Are You Here has a few good moments, but not enough to please fans of the actors or “Mad Men.”

Sordid Lives: Blu-ray
Like Rocky Horror Picture Show, Del Shores’ wildly eccentric Sordid Lives began its life on stage as a campy crowd-pleaser. Both enjoyed an afterlife on screen, attracting fans who frequently dressed like their favorite characters and memorized their every line. Unlike “Rocky Horror,” however, Sordid Lives’ greatest success was pretty much limited to Palm Springs, where it played for 96 weeks, and LGBT audiences in the South, which is where the play and movie are set. Shores’ semi-autobiographical story follows two basic storylines. The titular narrative describes an extended family of archetypal Southern gargoyles, who spend most of their time gossiping, drinking and either ignoring or wallowing in their prejudices. The second features a closeted gay actor, Ty, who left Texas as soon as he could afford a ticket on the Greyhound and may still be too traumatized to return home for his grandmother’s funeral. Peggy died after she tripped over the unattached wooden legs of her much younger lover, G.W. (Beau Bridges), and cracked her head on a piece of furniture in a no-tell motel. Peggy’s low-rent rendezvous with the husband of her daughter’s best friend would be the talk of the town, if it weren’t for all of the other crazy stuff happening in advance of the funeral. By far the nuttiest character is Ty’s uncle, “Brother Boy” (Leslie Jordan), who has been institutionalized for 23 years for being a cross-dressing homosexual and Tammy Wynette impersonator. Not everything said by the other cast members is as hysterical as the material the impish Jordan was handed, but all of the characters have their moments. Best known for writing Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got the Will?, as well as several episodes of “Queer as Folk” and “Dharma & Greg,” Shores was able to recruit former cast members of the play and other friends, including Bridges, Bonnie Bedelia, Delta Burke and Olivia Newton-John, who sings a few songs. Eight years later, in 2008, the Logo Network would spin off “Sordid Lives: The Series,” but it lasted only one season. The DVD adds new interviews with Shores, Bedelia, Jordan, Bridges, Kirk Geiger, Sarah Hunley, Ann Walker, Newell Alexander, Rosemary Alexander and Beth Grant, along with vintage audio commentary

American Muscle: Blu-ray
Sniper: Legacy
Too often, revenge movies get caught up in sentimentality, a protagonist’s pursuit of redemption or the sapping of strength that comes with finding love at a most inconvenient time. They sometimes get tripped up, as well, by making the kind of factual mistakes that are caused by cutting corners and distract viewers from the narrative flow. Ravi Dahr’s unrelenting American Muscle wastes no time whatsoever getting to the point and staying there for its entire 90-minute length. The movie opens with a flashback to a violent crime that occurred 10 years earlier, then quickly takes us inside a prison where, presumably, one of the participants is about to be released. As played by veteran hard guy Nick Principe, John Falcon resembles a walking tattoo parlor. His muscular frame attests to a decade spent in the prison yard lifting weights and consuming steroids smuggled into the facility with marijuana, heroin and cellphones by guards and guests. It doesn’t take long to realize that Falcon is a man on a violent mission. After catching a ride with a woman who happily quenches all 10 years’ worth of his sublimated lust, Falcon is asked if he’d like to have her phone number. No, he replies, “I’ll probably be dead in 24 hours.” Indeed, every hour of the next 24 is spent tracking down his brother, who betrayed him, and the wife he left behind when he was captured and went to prison. Falcon’s also vowed to kill the other gang members who avoided arrest and split up his spoils. He wastes no time doing just that. Writer John Fallon adds several more expository flashbacks and a few scenes in which crank whores are required to go topless, but, again, they don’t impede the forward trajectory of the story or keep Falcon from a final reunion with his brother. I’m usually not overly impressed by revenge pictures, especially those so obviously made on a limited budget. American Muscle managed to hold my interest, however, despite a deluge of wholly gratuitous bloodshed. (Gratuitous nudity is something else entirely.) It helps greatly that Dahr took advantage of the beauty and desolation of the desert near 29 Palms. Nothing says “meth labs” and “psycho-bikers” quite as eloquently as a drive through the giant “wind farms” outside Palm Springs.

Unlike American Muscle, Sniper: Legacy combines revenge with several other excuses for the exploitation of extreme military-grade violence. Here, they include unbounded patriotism, PTSD, devotion to military tradition, the seduction of sacrificing one’s life for his country and outright bloodlust. For the past 20-plus years, viewers have been attracted to the direct-to-video series for the vicarious thrill that comes with watching the head of a perceived enemy explode like a watermelon in a microwave oven and no actor does it better than Tom Berenger. (Fellow video Hall of Famer Billy Zane has also played prominent roles in the series.) Throw in the occasional a hot babe with a big gun and some splendid scenery and it becomes irresistible. In one of the worst-kept spoilers of all time, the cover photograph of legendary Marine sharpshooter Thomas Beckett (Berenger) alerts viewers to the fact that the character is not, in fact, killed in the opening sequence by a disillusioned American sniper, as suggested. The cover art also hints at a father/son with ace marksman Brendan Beckett (Chad Michael Collins), who was introduced in the fourth installment, Sniper: Reloaded, in which Berenger was AWOL. The Becketts’ genetic code dictates that their devotion to duty can’t be shaken by mere terrorists and other enemies of the United States. They are not at all reluctant, though, to make an end run around a commanding officer who orders them to do something with which they disagree. Here, Brendan disobeys a direct order to stay put in the sniper squad’s base camp, while his fellow Marine assassins set a trap for the man who purportedly killed Thomas Beckett and other officers who ordered his team to participate in a suicide mission.

To no one’s surprise, however, Brendan makes his way to the scene of a firefight between terrorists and two squadrons of Marines. One is targeting a heroin transaction between terrorists, while the other expects the rogue assassin to claim another victim at the drop-off point. All too conveniently, perhaps, the reunion takes place at precisely the moment Brendan is in the most danger of being killed by the rouge sniper. (Anyone allergic to plot twists based solely on coincidence may want to avoid “Legacy.”) The trail now leads to the spectacularly beautiful Greek island of Santorini, where their shady Colonel (Dennis Haysbert) has set up shop in a cliff-top villa. As illogical and contradictory as much of the storyline is, director Don Michael Paul keeps things moving in a forwardly direction throughout, frequently adding victims of head-shots to the body count. Although the interaction between the Becketts doesn’t always ring true, I doubt very much that fans of the series will complain about the sentimentality. They might also be happy to learn that a shapely sniper played by Mercedes Mason goes mano-a-mano with a similarly stunning look-alike terrorism, who, for some reason, goes unnamed in the list of credits.

The Last of the Unjust: Blu-ray
Ida: Blu-ray
Sundays and Cybèle: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Nightcap (Merci Pour le Chocolat): Blu-ray
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
September was a very good month for classy European imports from Criterion, Cohen Media and Music Box. Although nowhere near as emotionally draining as Sophie’s Choice, Claude Lanzmann’ virtual postscript to his definitive Holocaust documentary, Shoah, introduces us to a prominent Holocaust survivor who also was required to make the kind of decisions no human should be forced to do. Benjamin Murmelstein was the last president of the Jewish Council in the Theresienstadt camp in Czechoslovakia, a showcase ghetto used to masquerade the reality of Nazi policy. By the war’s end, he was the only Elder of the Jews not to have been murdered for doing something that upset the wrong people. The ghetto was initially populated with older, high-profile Jews from Eastern Europe and marketed as a place where influential co-religionists could sit out the war. Later, its mission would change drastically for the worst. Lanzmann interviewed Murmelstein in 1975, 10 years before the release of Shoah, but held on to the tapes until well after the rabbi’s death, in 1989. Like all Jews who were required to work with Final Solution architect Adolf Eichmann, he would be accused of collaboration with the Nazi government. Because of this, he lived in exile in Rome for the rest of his life. He wrote a book about Eichmann and Theresienstadt, and says he was willing to testify at the monster’s trial, but was never subpoenaed. Israeli prosecutors likely determined that his presence would have resulted in a sideshow of recriminations that could distract from the serious business of making an iron-clad legal case against Eichmann. Lanzmann doesn’t doubt Murmelstein was able to save thousands of Jews from death and gave up several opportunities to emigrate before the war, choosing, instead, to hand his emigration papers over to other people. That he was used by the Germans, one way or another, to push their agenda also is acknowledged. Instead of being constructed as a debate or apologia, however, Lanzmann edited the 3½-hour Last of the Unjust to allow his subject ample space to describe life in the ghetto, the masking of Nazi policy and how it devolved from deportation to extermination. The rabbi’s rhetorical gift is amply demonstrated in the interviews. At this time in his life he was as interested in shining light into the shadows of history as simply recording his place in it. It’s at once fascinating and horrifying. The Blu-ray adds a stills gallery and interview with the director.

Shooting in his native Poland for the first time, Pawel Pawlikowski explores one of the many untold stories of World War II’s lingering effect on survivors and descendants of victims. Ida describes what happens when a young woman learns, just as she’s about to take her final vows to be a nun, that she was born to Jewish parents who were killed in the Nazi occupation of Poland. She is informed of this by her aunt Wanda, who one day shows up at the convent in which she was raised and asks her to share a visit to the village in which they were raised. At this point in the 1960s, Poland is hopelessly frozen in a Cold War glacier and memories of the atrocities committed by the Gestapo and citizenry, alike, sit painfully close to the surface. The prospect of Poles being required to relinquish property confiscated from Jewish farmers hangs over the people to whom she’ll be introduced, as well. Wanda was able to survive the war by aligning herself with the Red Army and, as a hard-core Communist Party member, was eventually elevated to a judgeship. As such, she was responsible for the incarcerations and deaths of many people deemed enemies of the state. Neither has she any use for the Catholic Church or its rituals. If she ever smiled, it might have cracked the lines in her face. Wanda doesn’t attempt to brainwash her niece, but she does offer advice as to what she can do with her life and vocation. What Ida does with the advice is what makes this austere black-and-white drama so fascinating. Pawlikowski’s study in post-war guilt and paranoia among Poles who benefitted from the disappearance of Jewish neighbors – even as they risked death, themselves, by protecting them — raises the tension level to the boiling point. Ultimately, though, Ida poignantly demonstrates how one virtual innocent responds to an unexpected test of faith versus facts. Almost as a bonus, Pawlikowski paints an engrossing portrait of an imprisoned society and how some young Poles searched for freedom through music, dance and sex. The package includes an interesting background featurette and post-screening Q&A.

Sundays and Cybèle is Serge Bourguignon’s haunting story – based on a novel by Bernard Eschassériaux — of how a psychologically damaged war veteran and a deserted child form an almost shockingly intimate friendship, again, in a post-war environment. As the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture of 1960, it is graced by brilliantly evocative performances by Hardy Krüger, as the pilot traumatized by the death of an innocent child in the Indochinese campaign, and Patricia Gozzi, as the girl who takes her place in the man’s subconscious. After briefly meeting the girl at a railroad depot and witnessing her abandonment at the gates of a convent, Pierre takes it upon himself to rescue her from further pain as a combination surrogate father, guardian angel and, in her mind, at least, a future husband. Their weekly visits to a beautifully landscaped park in the suburbs of Paris are interpreted in different ways by everyone who witness the pair, including viewers. They’re handled with great sensitivity, as well as a palpable undercurrent of mystery, by co-writer/director Bourguignon, cinematographer Henri Decaë and composer Maurice Jarre. Anyone without a tear in their eyes at the picture’s end simply is missing a heart. The Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with Bourguignon and Gozzi; Bourguignon’s amazing Palme d’Or–winning short documentary, Le sourire; and an essay by critic Ginette Vincendeau.

No one plays inscrutable French women quite as convincingly as Isabelle Huppert and, in Claude Chabrol’s Nightcap (Merci pour le Chocolat), she’s been assigned a real doozy. Her character, Mika, is chief heir to a famous Swiss chocolate maker and a respected member of Lausanne society. Her husband, Andre (Jacques Dutronc), is a celebrated concert pianist, with a son from his second marriage and a performance block caused by depression. Technically, Mika is both the first and third wife of Andre, whose second wife died under mysterious circumstances in a suspicious car accident. One day, out of the blue, a pretty young woman, Jeanne, appears at their doorstep, reminding Pierre that she and his son were born on the same day and in the same hospital. A confused nurse had introduced Jeanne to Andre as his natural offspring and, for a moment, at least, he thought he might be the father of a girl, instead of boy. Jeanne, who’s grown up to be a talented piano student, had only recently heard the story from her mother and decided to check out the man who, she would like to believe, handed down his musical genes to her. Having a competitor for his father’s already limited attention bothers Andre’s son, Guillaume, more than it does Mika, who we suspect isn’t anxious to share the time she reserves for her adopted family, either. Nevertheless, Mika is pleased that Jeanne’s presence has renewed his interest in teaching and playing the piano. Even before Chabrol reveals details of the accident that claimed Andre’s second wife, viewers will have begun to assume that things won’t end well in Nightcap. They don’t, of course, but that’s not really the point here. As usual, Chabrol is far more interested in dissecting the curious habits of France’s haute bourgeois than exposing a beguiling serial killer.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unusually accessible 1974 melodrama, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, takes Douglas Sirk’s indictment of middle-class conformity and intolerance, All That Heaven Allows, and turns it inside out for followers of the German New Wave cinema. Instead of setting his film in a well-off American suburb, Fassbinder arranges a forbidden romance between a handsome Moroccan immigrant laborer in his mid-30s and a frumpy, 60-something German cleaning lady in a blue-collar neighborhood in Munich. Of course, their decision to marry isn’t greeted with good will from her family members, neighbors and co-workers, whose prejudices aren’t reserved solely for people of color. By the time the couple returns home from their honeymoon, however, opinions have changed drastically in both camps. It sets up a dilemma unforeseen in Sirk’s movie. The Criterion edition offers a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; vintage interviews with actor Brigitte Mira, editor Thea Eymesz and American filmmaker Todd Haynes, whose much lauded Far From Heaven was built on the same Sirkian foundation; Shahbaz Noshir’s 2002 short, “Angst isst Seele auf,” which reunites Mira, Eymèsz, and cinematographer Jürgen Jürges to tell the story, based on real events, of an attack by neo-Nazis on a foreign actor while on his way to a stage performance of Fassbinder’s screenplay; “Signs of Vigorous Life: New German Cinema,” a 1976 BBC program about the national film movement of which Fassbinder was a part; a scene from Fassbinder’s 1970 film, The American Soldier that inspired Ali; and an essay by critic Chris Fujiwara.

Lucky Them
With a cast that includes such actors of a certain age as Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp, there was no way Lucky Them was going to be a bust. Even if the appeal of Megan Griffith’s low-key dramedy involving a middle-age rock critic would appear to be limited to people old enough to remember when Rolling Stone magazine was still relevant, you’d think it warranted something larger than a nine-screen opening. If Depp’s name had appeared on the publicity material for the theatrical release – essentially a cameo role – it probably would have enhanced the chances for a wider release. It would have spoiled any chance for a surprise, however. Considering that he’s only on screen for a few minutes, this is one example of truth-in-marketing working against the filmmakers. Collette is close to perfect as the veteran journalist, Ellie Klug, who might have covered the same tours as Patrick Fugit’s character in Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical Almost Famous. Unlike Crowe, however, Ellie continues to churn out articles on musicians half her age and sleep with a goodly number of them. Platt plays her editor, Giles, who understands only too well that his magazine’s days are numbered, but can’t quite bring himself to admit that rock-’n-roll has passed him by, along with the print medium. In a final futile effort to win back some of the Boomers who’ve deserted the publication, he assigns Ellie to track down her long-lost ex-boyfriend, Matthew Smith, and determine once and for all if he truly did commit suicide or he’s been laying low in anticipation of a comeback album. The article would commemorate the release 10 years earlier of a collection of songs admired in equal measure by fans, critics and fellow musicians. Not surprisingly, Ellie resists accepting the assignment, knowing that either version of the truth she uncovers could break her heart … again.

After losing an envelope full of expense money during a chat with her busker boy-toy, Ellie reluctantly accepts the help of a directionless multimillionaire – yet another person she can barely recall dating – who lends her the money, but only if he can come along and document the experience with his old-fashioned camcorder. To demonstrate his sincerity and largess, Charlie (Church) rents a motorhome for their travels through the Pacific Northwest. Church is as likeable here as he was in Sideways, in which he played a reluctant groom-to-be and best friend of a Merlot-hating wine snob immortalized by Paul Giamatti. As was the case in that film, Church’s performance here nicely complements the one turned in by Collette. It wouldn’t be fair to disclose what they discover as the movie draws to a close, but it will strike a chord with anyone who’s turned to Facebook or Google to reconnect with “the one who got away.” Apparently, Lucky Them was inspired by the real-world experiences of co-screenwriter Emily Wachtel, one of those self-absorbed overachievers one finds in the indie game. In Griffith, the producers found a late-blooming director (The Off Hours, Eden) able to build stories around offbeat characters with over-sized personalities, without allowing them to blow everyone else off the screen. Movies, such as Lucky Them, that appeal primarily to middle-age adults, are few and far between these days. Increasingly, after being introduced on the festival circuit, they’re required to find their audience in DVD/Blu-ray. This one deserves to be discovered. The DVD package includes a decent making-of featurette.

Hellion
Fueled by testosterone and heavy-metal music, Hellion, describes what can happen to boys left to their own devices by a single parent who has lost control of his own life. Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) is terrific as Hollis, the father of a teenager, Jacob, who may already be too damaged to save, and a younger boy, Wes, who, for lack of proper supervision, appears to be following in his brother’s footsteps. The situation at home was forever complicated by the death of the wife/mother who provided the glue that kept the family together. It resulted directly in Hollis’ three-week drinking binge, during which the boys were abandoned; a court’s decision to put Wes in the care of his aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis), who sees in the boy an excuse for accepting adulthood; and Jacob’s obsessive approach to motocross racing, arson and “rescuing” Wes from a conventional lifestyle. When Hollis isn’t working long hours at an oil refinery, he’s rushing to finish construction of his family’s unfinished dream house before it’s foreclosed upon a bank. Likewise, when Jacob’s antics don’t require his attention, Hollis is fighting to retain custody of Wes. Unlike viewers, Hollis and Jacob are convinced that maintaining the family unit is more important than giving the boy a fair shot at normalcy with Pam. It’s an impossible situation for everyone involved, but one that’s become far less uncommon in today’s bankrupt economy. It only seems that much uglier when set against the hard-scrabble background of blue-collar life in southeast Texas. Kat Candler’s film doesn’t pretend to have any answers for the family’s dilemma, but it’s finally made clear that the only way Jacob is likely to avoid ending up in prison is to be scared straight. As writer/director, she puts him smack-dab in a situation that will test his will to make something of himself. The DVD includes the short film, Hellion, from which the feature was adapted. The effect is the same, even if some of the emphasis on Wes is somewhat more comical. It also adds a making-of piece and material from Sundance 2013.

Leprechaun Origins: Blu-ray
Grave Halloween
Any resemblance between the titular boogeyman in Leprechaun Origins and any other such character you’ve seen in a book, TV show, Disney movie, cereal box, St. Patrick’s Day parade or Notre Dame football game is purely coincidental. It also might be cause for having your eyesight examined. Neither does the antagonist her look like the vindictive villain immortalized by the British dwarf superstar Warwick Davis (Star Wars, Willow) in the 1993 original (with Jennifer Aniston) and subsequent straight-to-video franchise. The leprechaun in “Origins” resembles one of those slimy, hairless beasts introduced in the 1980s by visual-effects wizards Stan Winston and Rick Baker. This time, the creature is physically animated by the American dwarf actor/wrestler Dylan Postl (a.k.a., Hornswoggle), who’s mostly invisible in his icky prosthetic disguise. If anything, the WWE-produced “Origins” resembles the revisionist Irish critter in the 2012 made-for-Syfy movie, “Leprechaun’s Revenge.” Apart from not being very scary, Zach Lipovsky and Harris Wilkinson’s movie repeats one of the most conventional of all horror tropes. After stopping in a remote pub, four Americans are offered a cabin in which they can spend a night or two in the lovely Irish countryside. What’s left unsaid is that a “leprechaun” also uses the cabin occasionally, stashing the artifacts of slain tourists in the basement. To avoid being slaughtered themselves, the locals offer up outsiders to the demon as sacrificial lambs, locking the cabin behind them and stealing their gold to further appease it. Can these fresh-faced collegians end the leprechaun’s lucky streak, by escaping from his clutches? Stay tuned. Ultimately, though, it hardly matters. The Blu-ray adds a making-of piece and interviews, in which even the filmmakers are unable to justify desecrating a venerable franchise.

Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, on the northwest base of Mount Fuji, is well-known as the final resting place for people who decide that committing suicide in such a hallowed environment is a better option than living in pain at home or becoming a burden on loved ones. Halloween isn’t traditionally celebrated in Japan – except at Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan – but the Aokigahara Forest is an inarguably cool place to stage a horror movie, such as the weirdly titled Grave Halloween, which actually was shot in the rain forests of British Columbia. A documentary crew from an international university in Tokyo decides to visit the Suicide Forest after being told that a classmate, Maiko (Kaitlyn Leeb), was orphaned after her mother died there. Raised in America, Maiko feels as if she’s being drawn to the Sea of Trees by a supernatural force, possibly related to her mother. And, sure enough, no sooner do the filmmakers begin to explore the woods than they start seeing the ghosts of fitfully dead suicide victims. Naturally, when confronted by a seemingly human stranger and park police, the students are ordered not to disrespect the dead by filming in the forest and cautioned to be very careful where they stepped. A separate group of knuckleheads from the college arrives after the admonishments are rendered and commits every possible discretion possible, including stealing a Rolex from a corpse. The spirits aren’t remotely pleased by the intrusion. As made-for-cable movies go, Grave Halloween is very good, indeed. Considering that it debuted on Syfy makes it even that much more of a surprise. Steven R. Monroe (I Spit on Your Grave) and writer Ryan W. Smith (“Untold Stories of the ER”) probably were asked to pull a few punches, given the number of Syfy viewers still in their teens, so it’s fair to wonder how Grave Halloween might have looked if tackled first by a master of J-horror or someone not limited by the standards of basic-cable. Shot largely in heavily shrouded daylight, Canada’s Suicide Forest is plenty scary. I wonder how much more frightening it would be if shot in the real Aokigahara, which is treated with considerably more respect by Japanese officials.

Wolf
When this unrelenting Dutch crime drama was shown at handful of festivals here, critics were quick to point out its debt to Raging Bull and dismiss it for being derivative. Yes, the protagonist of this eloquently shot black-and-white film is a prize fighter and brawler, with a hair-trigger temper. Stylistically, too, the mixed-martial-arts scenes probably were influenced by Martin Scorsese’s powerful profile of boxer Jake LaMotta. Writer/director Jim Taihuttu (Rabat) wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to borrow from that masterpiece, and he certainly won’t be the last. I would argue, though, that Wolf owes less to any film about a troubled soul seeking glory and redemption in the ring than it does to the deeply entrenched criminal elements terrorizing the immigrant ghettos of northern Europe. In this way, it’s thematically related to Nicolas Winding Refn’s grueling Pusher trilogy, Mathieu Kassovitz’ La Haine, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money and the Dardenne Brothers’ The Silence of Lorna. In his depiction of Marwen Kenzari’s rage-filled Moroccan fighter, Majid, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Taihuttu was directly influenced by Tom Hardy, in Bronson; Matthias Schoenaerts, in Bullhead; and Vincent Cassel in Mesrine: Killer Instinct. The desperation of legal and illegal immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa has created a surge in criminality and violence unequaled, even in the days when the Sicilian and Corsican Mafia controlled the drug trade there. The gangs recognize no borders and are every bit a vicious as the Mexican cartels and American street gangs that sell their products. Drawing from the surpluses of civil wars and black-market profiteers from the former Soviet Union, the immigrant gangsters’ access to automatic weapons and explosives has never been greater. The burgeoning subgenre of European gangster movies might also remind American audiences of Hollywood’s fascination with Prohibition-era hoodlums. Today, of course, there’s no Hays Office to tell filmmakers to tone down the graphic violence.

Kenzari’s performance in Wolf is downright frightening. His character, Majid, has recently been paroled from prison and isn’t looking forward to working in the same factory at which his father labored obediently for some 30 years. Blessed with natural fighting skills, Majid is given an opportunity to be handled professionally by Turkish gangsters, who also want him to provide muscle for their dealers, rob the occasional armored truck and fix fights. Unfortunately, his allegiances are split between his new benefactors and Dutch-Moroccan pals who also want a piece of his action. Like LaMotta, Majid’s fatal flaw is his inability to control his pent-up rage and jealousy issues. If his temper serves him well in the ring, it’s a hindrance in a world that demands a modicum of discipline, at least. As such, Wolf isn’t for the squeamish. The DVD package adds an amusing making-of featurette, a piece on Kenzari’s training regimen, a music video and discussion of eardrum-pounding soundtrack.

Thunder and the House of Magic Blu-ray
Just as the overseas markets have exploded for big-budget Hollywood exports, audiences there apparently have begun to embrace modestly produced animated features for youngsters. Shout!Factory’s adorable, if thin 3D release Thunder and the House of Magic was barely released in the U.S., before being shuttled into the theatrical aftermarket. The story of an abandoned kitten, who finds shelter in an old mansion owned by an eccentric magician/inventor, reaped a respectable $33 million in foreign sales. In France, South Korea, Belgium, Singapore and Ukraine, it was released in time for Christmas, before receiving a wider rollout throughout 2014. Although the frightened cat seems helpless, Thunder isn’t welcomed by everyone. A devious rabbit and mouse don’t care to share the magician’s attention, which is already sorely tested by a raucous “family” of toys, animals, music makers and gizmos. A greater threat is posed by the old man’s nephew, who wants to put him in a nursing home and sell the mansion.  Thunder must figure out a way to prevent that from happening. The movie’s production values are surprisingly high and it features a soundtrack that includes “the music of Selena Gomez,” as well as a making-of featurette.

Ivory Tower
Andrew Rossi’s documentary, Ivory Tower, asks viewers a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds lately, “Is a college education today worth the amount of time and money invested in it by students, parents and high school guidance teachers.” Things have changed greatly since the 1960s, when, in some social strata, at least, colleges were viewed as a necessary extension of high school and, if necessary, a way to postpone being drafted. This was a time when jobs were plentiful for college graduates and a degree opened doors closed to those who decided to skip that stage in their development. The student rebellions of the time would caution employers against hiring longhairs and potential rabble-rousers, but, still, the collegiate experience, itself, was deemed valuable enough to encourage for most high school graduates, minorities and returning veterans. Then, a couple decades later, the roof of academia caved in on the student body. Rising costs and short-sighted legislators forced tuitions to soar, while the job pool, even for people with post-graduate degrees, evaporated before our eyes. Evens so, student loans became as accessible as low-interest loans would become for first-time homebuyers with no collateral. Thanks to Congress’ IOU to banking lobbyists, these loans were as iron-clad as tax liens and as difficult to erase. Moreover, questions began to be raised about the quality of the education, including why professors are allowed to hand off their duties to teaching assistants and whether extracurricular activities are given priority over scholastics. Rossi found other holes in the system – all legitimate – but few concrete answers. That’s probably because there aren’t any good ones. Social Darwinism is threatening to put college educations out of reach for low income families, while such alternatives as online degrees and for-profit programs have revealed themselves to be even riskier investments. Ivory Tower delivers an important message none of us should ignore.

In short, the latest additions to the TV-to-DVD shelves include, from CBS’ hot crime-drama lineup, “The Mentalist: The Complete Sixth Season,” in which the saga of Patrick Jane’s nemesis, Red John, is concluded,  and from the PBS vaults, “Vaccines: Calling the Shots,” which points out the risks of following the anti-vaccination trend; Al Capone: Icon,” yet another recounting of the mobster’s rise and fall; the archeological game show,  Time Team America: Seasons 1 & 2,”;  “Mind of a Chef: Ed Lee: Season 3,” which takes a look behind the menus of celebrated chef and contextualizes their creations; and another little-known story from the annals of WWII British intelligence agencies, “Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story.”

The DVD Wrapup: Godzilla, Girl in Yellow Boots, Last Passenger, My Name Is A, Calling, Come Morning, Reign, Hillbilly Butcher … More

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

Godzilla: Blu-ray
To paraphrase a much tortured aphorism from the Savoyard intellectual Joseph de Maistre, “Every generation has the Godzilla it deserves.” In fact, every new generation since 1954 has gotten several new fire-breathing lizards, however, whether we deserved one or not. First introduced in post-WWII Japan as the King of the Monsters, the daikaiju and other giant monsters were Japan’s metaphorical response to America’s war-ending bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even then, the gargantuan creature looked as if it had escaped from a toy factory. And, yet, Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and other irradiated critters captured the fancy of movie audiences around the world. Not all iterations of Godzilla have gone on to make a lot of money, but there’s always been a few geniuses in Hollywood and Tokyo who think they can milk a few more dollars from the franchise. The last version I reviewed was the 1998 Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin turkey, which laid a giant egg with critics and underperformed on the world stage. It was easy to believe that everyone involved in the enterprise had phoned in their assignment and relied on the special-effects wizards to carry the load. Sixteen years later, this generation’s Godzilla is a marked improvement on that movie and everybody involved appears to have earned their pay. Even though it cost a bloody fortune to make and market, Gareth Edwards and Max Borenstein’s reptilian thriller probably made someone some money, somewhere. Most critics gave it a passing grade, as well. If the special effects occasionally overshadowed the acting and dialogue, they never made the characters look superfluous or out of scale to the monsters. It helped that this Godzilla reserved an ounce or two of compassion for those wee humans, as well at its feet. When confronted with an equally dangerous threat from another mutated killer, the King is forced to choose between saving mankind or his own substantial backside. Or, perhaps, he just dug San Francisco too much to watch it be destroyed by giant bat creatures.

I was surprised to find Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) and Oscar-nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) among the cast members, alongside Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), who becomes the lead human by default. Neither of these esteemed actresses were given much more to do than look as if they had stepped on a landmine and knew they were going to die. Still, who knows, their presence may have added a few more Euros to the box-office total. Obviously, the last several Godzillas were designed to be seen on very large screens, with dangerously loud sound systems … in 3D, too, when possible. Warner’s Blu-ray edition does a nice job replicating the experience, sonically and visually. Much of the movie was shot at night, with flashes of brilliant colors from explosives, industrial lighting and the monster’s fiery breath. The contrasts hold true throughout, as do the dark edges of machinery, infrastructure and vegetation. I can’t vouch for the 3D presentation, but, I imagine, it provides a fair test for anyone’s expensive home-theater system. The Blu-ray bonus package isn’t all that extensive, with two sections of making-of and background featurettes, representing less than an hour’s worth of material.

That Girl in Yellow Boots
So much attention is paid to the romantic musicals churned out by Bollywood that India’s regional and independent cinemas are almost completely ignored outside the subcontinent. That hasn’t always been the case and, so long as TMC shows the occasional masterpiece by Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor, there’s always the hope that American viewers will grow to love something other than Bollywood’s elaborately choreographed dance scenes, irresistible music and almost comically chaste love scenes. Lately, though, we’ve been introduced to some exciting independent titles, representing various regions, genres and economic classes, primarily on DVD. Most of them are very good, indeed. Even better than very good is Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots, which debuted at the 2010 TIFF, but only now is getting a wide release in home video. It chronicles a harrowing journey of discovery undertaken by an emotionally fragile, mixed-race Brit, Ruth Edscer (Kalki Koechlin). The recent passing of her British mother and earlier death by suicide of her 15-year-old sister has left her alone in the world. She was raised to believe that her father, Arjun Patel, deserted the family after her sister’s death and returned to India, where he simply disappeared. One day, out of the blue, Ruth receives a letter from her father, inviting her to drop by if she’s ever passing through India. That’s it … no address, no phone, no update on his life away from England. Sensing that he may have gotten a raw deal back home, Ruth wants nothing more than to be reunited with him.

The only thing Ruth has going for her, though, is the belief that he’s still working as a photographer and is likely to be living in Mumbai. It’s the Indian equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack. Spunky to the point of being foolhardy, Ruth decides to move to teeming Mumbai to begin her desperate search. Although she’s not legally allowed to work, the morally vague young woman – perfectly described as “Bugs Bunny crossed with Julia Roberts” – takes a job at a massage joint, where a “happy ending” only costs an additional 1,000 rupees. Ruth’s investigation exposes her to a seedy cross-section of Mumbai’s male population, including corrupt bureaucrats, extortionist landlords, a junkie boyfriend and his thieving cronies. Her loyal customers run the gamut from helpful older men, who welcome the opportunity to spend a few minutes with a much younger woman, to those who simply want to enjoy their “handshake” in silence. It isn’t made clear how Ruth hooked up with her useless, cocaine-addicted boyfriend, Prashant (Prashant Prakash), but he helps open our eyes to how a country dominated by men literally allows the worst of them to get away with rape and murder in their dealings with women. There’s no way to explain what happens in the final reel without revealing the story’s soul-crushing ending. Koechlin, who co-wrote That Girl in Yellow Boots with her husband, Kashyup, grew up in an Indian ashram with her French hippy parents, and understands the rhythms of Mumbai street life. Her character shouldn’t last a minute in Mumbai – not to be confused with the glitter and glamour of Bollywood – but she possesses an inner strength that trumps her vulnerability at almost every turn. The DVD adds a Q&A from a festival panel discussion.

Last Passenger: Blu-ray
Not all movies about runaway or otherwise doomed trains are exactly the same, but they share enough qualities to justify a stand-alone sub-genre of their own. Typically, the only question that requires an answer at the end of the day concerns the number of people left alive by the time the tick-tock clock hits strikes midnight. If our favorite characters are very lucky, they’ll get off the speeding train before it crashes through an unstable bridge or hits a dead-end. Agatha Christie’s many fans might not approve of such blunt story-telling, but not everyone can afford a ticket on the Orient Express. Last Passenger is a surprisingly good thriller about a runaway train, despite the absence of a known antagonist or payload of inestimable value. Not that it matters all that much where the movie is set, but almost all of the key actors are from the UK, as is co-writer/director Omid Nooshin. Nothing seems out of the ordinary when a doctor (Dougray Scott) and his young son hop a late-night commuter train, along with a stunningly beautiful blond (Kara Tointon); pain-in-the-ass Polish immigrant (Iddo Goldberg); a standoffish businessman (David Schofield); and angelic grandmother (Lindsay Duncan). There’s also an unseen engineer and ticket-taker, whose disappearance signals the first indication that something is out of whack. The second is the driver’s refusal to slow down at terminals to allow passengers to disembark. When the emergency brake fails to stop the train and calls to the engineer go unanswered, drastic action needs to be taken before it crashes. This, of course, requires one or more of the characters to risk death by separating the passenger cars from the engine. The last-ditch suicide mission never grows old. Without relying too heavily on CGI, Nooshin somehow manages to convince us of two things, 1) that the passengers are, indeed, in serious danger, and 2) that we’ll enjoy coming along for the ride. For any director, let alone a first-timer, that’s no small trick. Featurettes in the Blu-ray bonus package help explain how he pulls it off.

Hangmen Also Die: Blu-ray
Made at a time when the future of Europe was still very much in doubt, Hangmen Also Die is a broad dramatization of the manhunt that followed the assassination of SS second-in-command Reinhard Heydrich in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. The bombing of the black-hearted fiend’s open-top Mercedes was executed in May, 1942, by Czech guerrilla fighters trained in Britain. Because it took another two weeks for Heydrich to succumb to injuries and other complications, the brazen attack wasn’t widely publicized outside Czechoslovakia. That would change in 1943, when three movies were made on the subject. Among other things, the movies demonstrated that resistance fighters were in place throughout occupied Europe and no one was too powerful to be targeted for extinction. The cold reality, also exposed in the movie, was that Hitler’s Gestapo was perfectly willing to eliminate exponentially more Czechs in response to Heydrich’s assassination and their lack of cooperation in the investigation. Hundreds of men, women and children were executed on the spot or sent to death camps, in lieu of prison. Such reprisals caused Allied plotters and governments-in-exile to reconsider plans for future actions of the sort. Co-writer/director Fritz Lang and playwright Bertolt Brecht, both living in Hollywood to escape the war, combined their considerable talents on the story of assassin Dr. Franticek Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) and people of Czechoslovakia who risked their lives to support the resistance. They also devised a crowd-pleasing twist at the end, which is pure Hollywood. Among the other stars of the noir-tinged drama are Anna Lee, Gene Lockhart, Lionel Stander and an almost unrecognizable Walter Brennan. Hollywood executives were so buffaloed by Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC witch hunt that they agreed to blacklist Hangmen Also Die, because of Brecht’s participation and some dialogue believed to be pro-communist. It wouldn’t be seen again in the United States until the mid-1970s. The Cohen Media presentation restores the last few minutes of a closing montage, which was crudely deleted in some theatrical prints and many previous home video releases. The Blu-ray also adds the half-hour doc, “Story of a Hangman: Robert Gerwath on Reinhard Heydrich”; a 1942 German newsreel; a comparison of scenes before-and-after restoration; the 2014 theatrical re-release trailer; and commentary by Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival.

My Name Is A By Anonymous
One of the most frightening films of the 1980s was River’s Edge, a true-life horror story starring Keanu Reeves, Crispin Glover, Ione Skye and Dennis Hopper. In it, the body of a girl is killed by her dimwitted boyfriend is left to decay near the spot local misfits gather to smoke pot and drink beer. None of the teens considers it their duty to report the death, or even the location of the corpse, which is an open secret among a growing number of their friends. Once seen, it’s impossible not to recall River’s Edge whenever one reads a news article about a particularly grisly crime committed by kids willing to trade their freedom for whatever thrill derives from murder. Shane Ryan’s similarly disturbing My Name Is A By Anonymous likewise is based on shockingly mindless murder, this one being the Alyssa Bustamante case, which took place in 2009, in Cole County, Missouri. Apparently, the 17-year-old killer took the life of her much younger neighbor, simply to experience what if felt like to watch someone die. Ryan takes a slightly different tack, by examining the killing of a cheerful 9-year-old girl through the eyes and backgrounds of four California girls trapped in a teenage wasteland of their own device. Outside of their homes, the girls don’t look any more alienated or depressed than the average SoCal Goth wannabe. The biggest negative influence in their lives could be the cold reality of having next to nothing to do in dusty Saugus, except throw rocks in a dry river bed and use the cameras on their cellphones to document their every move. Positive role models are nowhere to be seen and any aspirations they might have for the future don’t extend much further than the restaurant franchises and discount outlets that line the Interstate. That could all change if one of their videos went viral on YouTube, but even the least of them knows the odds against that happening.

It’s inside their threadbare homes, however, where the girls encourage their inner demons to come out to play. When they look in the mirror, all they see is their pain and emotional insecurity staring back at them. All of the teens are self-destructive in one way or another. They cut themselves and feign suicide by putting their fingers to their head and cocking their thumbs. Two, at least, have been abused sexually by the men to whom their mothers are currently married. One is so severely bulimic that she has begun to enjoy the pain that comes from regurgitating what little food she eats. They distort their pretty young faces with grotesque makeup, which becomes smeared when their tears begin to flow. Nothing suggests to viewers that any of them would find relief, catharsis or anything else in the murder of a beautiful and trusting child. It could be that they resent her as-yet-unspoiled happiness or, knowing she’ll probably end up like them, want to spare her their agony. Ryan doesn’t attempt to make excuses for the girls’ actions or suggest they might have turned out differently if they’d grown up in Boulder or Milwaukee. The only real hint comes in the title of one of two full-length re-edits included in the DVD package — “The Columbine Effect” – and, even then, there is no stockpiling of weapons or conspiratorial activities. As was the case in the actual Bustamante killing, the older girls didn’t look ahead to weigh their options or consider what life might be like for as a child in a prison built to house adults. Ryan leaves those questions for us to answer. In a very real sense, My Name Is A By Anonymous is about the horror of everyday life in a America that no longer works and rewards corruption as much as it punishes unfounded optimism. Stylistically, everything from co-star Teona Dolnikova’s atonal musical score and Arturo Guerrero’s ominously bleak cinematography, to Ryan’s razor-sharp editing, contribute to the palpable sense of dread that covers the movie like a sheet. The fact that the movie is going out straight-to-DVD has nothing to do with its quality and everything to do with its bleak subject matter. The set includes the alternate version, a deleted scene and a pair of interesting shorts.

After
If a student in a screenwriting class were asked to graft elements of Eugene O’Neill’s harrowing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” onto a network family drama, such as “Brothers & Sisters,” the result might approximate what happens in After. I’d be very surprised to learn that director Pieter Gaspersz and writer Sabrina Gennarino had O’Neill in mind when they embarked on their story of an abjectly dysfunctional family in Upstate New York, let alone a series starring Sally Field, but there’s no ignoring the common elements, however tangential. At the core of After is the working-class Valentino family, which, when we meet them, is coming apart at its emotional seams. The patriarch, Mitch (John Doman), is a grumpy old shit who barks out orders and insults his children every time he opens his mouth. Matriarch Nora (Kathleen Quinlan) is a fragile flower to whom everyone defers and could very well have been modeled after one of Field’s many characters. The adult siblings don’t resemble each other one bit, except in their unwillingness to upset the delicate balance of their parents’ relationship. The oldest son, Christian (Pablo Schreiber), has been put in charge of the family stone-cutting business, but is paralyzed to act on its impending bankruptcy by Mitch’s refusal to answer his son’s questions. A younger son, Nicky (Adam Scarimbolo), is persona non grata in his father’s eyes for his unwillingness to play along with the family charade or aspire to anything more than being a tattoo artist and barroom brawler. Daughter Maxine (Gennarino) hopes to marry her African-American boyfriend (Darrin Dewitt Henson), but, likewise, is afraid how her father might react. While the young man is welcome to join the family at dinner, his still unsettled career path somehow brings out dad’s racism. Diane Neal plays a woman of undetermined relationship to the Valentinos – Nora’s sister, perhaps – who tends bar with Maxine, but, otherwise, serves as window dressing. I hesitate to add anything more to the synopsis, because it would necessarily add information that could spoil the next few unexpected twists, as well as a spectacularly contrived ending. It’s true, of course, that many people don’t object a whit to contrived climaxes, so far be it for me to discourage from enjoying this one, which also is loaded with more than a few ounces of familial redemption.

The Calling
As Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef, Susan Sarandon rescues this reasonably chilling, if predictable serial-killer drama from being just another hecho-en-Canada thriller with quasi-religious overtones. Micalleff is a recovering alcoholic and pill-popper, who seems perfectly placed in a small town where almost nothing of any consequence happens. Nothing, that is, until an elderly woman is found nearly behead in her home and, not far away, a wealthy horse trainer has been disemboweled in his stable. The department isn’t blessed with the latest in forensics technology, but, along a fellow detective (Gil Bellows) and a transfer cop (Topher Grace), the team’s able to connect the dots to a series of similar killings across the country. One set of clues leads them to a country priest (Donald Sutherland), who gives them a crash course in pre-Vatican mysticism and other things the Church generally keeps hidden from parishioners. Without spoiling too much of the fun in The Calling, however, let’s just say that the plot owes as much to Dr. Kevorkian as it does to the apostles of Christ. Because of this, we occasionally feel nearly as sympathetic to the killer as his victims, who aren’t innocent bystanders, exactly. In his first feature, director Jason Stone maintains a steady pace and only occasionally relies on a jump-scare to keep viewers interested. By bouncing between town and country, he’s also able to prevent our eyes from getting fixated on one or two shades of gray in the Ontario winter. Without the sterling cast – Ellen Burstyn adds her calming presence as Micallef’s mom, a retired judge – The Calling might have been forced to rely on it popularity as a mystery novel by Inger Ash Wolfe (a.k.a., Michael Redhill). The DVD adds interviews and making-of material.

Julius Caesar Against the Pirates
Heavily influenced by Hollywood’s sword-and-sandal and biblical epics of the 1950s, the ever-inventive Italian film industry churned out dozens of similarly themed action pictures that honored the the heroics of its own historical and mythological figures. The movies were made at a fraction of the cost of the American productions and sometimes on sets repurposed from earlier designs. Today, the best remembered of these redubbed Saturday-matinee flicks are those in which Steve Reeves’ Hercules met the challenges posed by men and monsters. The inclusion of prominent American, British and French actors in these costume dramas, spaghetti Westerns and gialllos looked good on the posters and added some credibility to the low-budget projects. Although a knowledge of Roman history wasn’t required to enjoy S&S movies (a.k.a., pepla), a cursory interest in the period works to the benefit of viewers. This isn’t to suggest that such whoppers as Sergio Grieco’s 1962 Julius Caesar Against the Pirates were particularly accurate, only that the characters were based on real people and events. Julius Caesar did, indeed, cross paths with the esteemed Roman general and dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and a gaggle of Cilician pirates, led here by Gordon Mitchell, had the temerity to kidnap him. His task here, though, requires J.C. mostly to save a few damsels in distress, including Abbe Lane and Franca Paris, not all of Rome. Neither is the time frame remotely accurate. All things considered, Julius Caesar Against the Pirates is primarily for hard-core fans of pepla, sword fights and busty, if thoroughly clothed dancing girls. Anyone expecting the sex and violence of “Rome” and “Spartacus” will be disappointed. Given the movie’s age and humble budget, the Cheezy Flicks DVD is remarkably free of gunk and scratches.

The Perfect Wave: Blu-ray
Rise Up Black Man
Bruce Macdonald’s faith-based drama The Perfect Wave recounts the true story of an adventurous New Zealand surfer who left home an atheist and came home a born-again Christian … literally. Unlike most other films that deliver an evangelical message, the blurbs on the DVD/Blu-ray only hint at the film’s spiritual payoff: “A surfer’s glimpse into eternity.” There are several seals of approval on the jacket, including one from the Dove Foundation, but you practically need a magnifying glass to identify them. It would be a mistake, however, to accuse The Perfect Wave’s backers of attempting to pull off a bait-and-switch scam. Imagine, if you can, a hybrid of Endless Summer and 127 Hours, with a late cameo by Jesus Christ, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens in the 94 minutes it’s is on the screen. Like many other Kiwis, McCormack (Scott Eastwood) decides to see the world before settling down and raising a family. He and a buddy had grown up on tales told by older surfers of the perpetual search for the perfect wave and decide to try their luck. Their excursion takes them to Australia, Southeast Asia, Africa and several exotic islands in between. The waves are spectacular, the wahines are beautiful and the good times go round-the-clock. McCormack was turned off by religion at an early age and has no moral qualms about partying hardy. In any case, his mother (Cheryl Ladd) would do enough praying for both of them. He falls in love with a mysterious young woman (Rachel Hendrix), whose list of former boyfriends is as long as the board that is never far from his reach. McCormack is on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, when he agrees to join an acquaintance on a nighttime lobster dive. After being stung five times by a box jellyfish, he’s dragged to a hospital and pronounced dead. In the 15 minutes it takes to wheel him to the morgue, McCormack is invited to a come-to-Jesus meeting, at which he’s given the choice of coming clean or extending his big sleep. As incredible as this sounds, McCormack firmly insists it’s the gospel truth and the basis for a ministry of his own. Somehow, Macdonald manages to keep the character’s rebirth as low-key as possible. Those of us who believe that miracles do occasionally occur – Johnny Cash recounted a similar visitation — will appreciate the straight-forward approach, just as it is. The bonus package adds several decent featurettes, some of which more directly address the 800-pound Christian in the movie’s living room.

Whoever talked freshman writer/director Kendall Irvin out of cutting at least 46 minutes from the 2½-hour Rise Up Black Man shouldn’t be allowed to offer advice to any aspiring filmmaker ever again. The trims might not have been enough to rescue Irvin’s bloated salt-and-pepper story of two recent college graduates, who independently struggle to find the path to righteousness, but it would have saved viewers the agony of watching his worst instincts play out on the screen. Ostensibly a faith-based drama with a sharp urban edge, Rise Up Black Man, delivers its inspirational messages with a sledge hammer and telegraphs the blows with an airhorn. Will and Gary have spent most of their post-college years killing time in bars and chasing women. This ends when Will decides to hitch his star to a slick-talking African-American minister, who extorts money from white-owned businesses and outright steals it from his inner-city parishioners. Nonetheless, he talks a good game and convinces Will that he’s traveling with God. For his part, Gary is pushing his luck on every front. He’s a borderline alcoholic and world-class slacker. His soul finally opens up to a boy in desperate need of a father figure, big brother and mentor rolled into one jumbo-sized package. If Will is able to see the error in his ways and accept that discarded friends are more valuable than phony ministers, Gary is required to accept the reality that shit happens and no one should expect God to intervene. I doubt that this is the message Irvin wants to impart to Christian audiences, but I couldn’t find anything else to take from it.

Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher
Sanctuary: Quite a Conundrum
Hellinger/Holy Terror: Drive-In Double Feature
Telephone World
Released in 2012, Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher looks as if it could have been made any time in the last 50 years and shown as the third attraction on a triple-bill at the local drive-in. The grainy texture of the film stock suggests that it might have been shot on Super 8 and blown up to 35mm, while the actors appear to have been chosen from a Hell’s Angels yearbook. And, for once, the five-word title leaves no question as to what to expect from the DVD’s contents. A pissed-off hillbilly, Carl, kills anyone who dares trespass, take a dump or fornicate on his land and turns them into sausages. You simply can’t get any more succinct than that and have a movie that still begs to be watched. A separate narrative thread involves Carl’s blood pact with a demon, Sam Bakoo, in which he offers his soul in exchange for the full-fledged reanimation of his parents’ rotting corpses. Joaquin Montalvan’s film may be a throwback to such classics as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Deliverance, but it blends the elements into something that feels fresh and almost contemporary. Cannibal hillbillies are as timeless as zombies and vampires, after all. Almost as interesting as the movie, itself, is the making-up featurette in which Montalvan and other participants describe the movie was made on a shoestring, substituting Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco parkway for Appalachia. (The early Tarzan movies were shot in the same area.) Also included in the DVD are the short film, “The Razor,” and interviews.

From its incomprehensible title to an inexplicable suicide that triggers the horror, Sanctuary: Quite a Conundrum is as confounding a genre picture as I’ve seen in a long time. Even after re-watching it with the commentary track engaged, I was unable to tell with any certainty what writer/director Thomas L. Phillips was attempting to accomplish here. It opens with an overweight biker-type geezer having sex with a thoroughly bored young woman barely out of her teens. She disses his performance and, in return, he throws his used condom in her face. (That’s entertainment, folks.) I’m guessing that this is what Phillips consideres to a comic turn in comedy/horror/thriller, as described in his commentary. It doesn’t take long for Mimi (Sasha Ramos) to shake off the insult and enlist her equally frivolous best friend, Tabitha (Erin Cline), in her plan to throw a party, during which her 18-year-old sister, Kylene (Emily Rogers), can finally hook up with one of their male friends. There’s a good reason Kylene has maintained a virginal visage throughout her teen years and, alas, it resides in spoiler territory. It doesn’t make much sense, either, though. No sooner does the party begin to get going than the offended old fart returns, with a gun, and shoots himself in the head. His bloody corpse will remain floating in the swimming pool for the rest of the picture, but he’ll have company soon enough.

The “Drive-In Double Feature” of Hellinger and Holy Terror – both from the twisted mind of cult favorite, Massimiliano Cerchis — provides an intentional reminder of the days when movies that went straight-to-video were the ugly stepchildren of the home-entertainment industry. The economics of digital filmmaking had yet to work in the favor of aspiring filmmakers, with big ideas and very little money. To make any money at all, these genre flicks had to be made cheap and dirty, with the emphasis on cheap. These two bargain-basement thrillers share Roman Catholic antagonists – a priest and a nun — who gave up their souls to Satan, only to return to this mortal coil to torment evil doers and horny yuppies. The unholy creatures look as if they were made from sock puppets and leftover Halloween costumes. To keep things interesting for male viewers – do women ever watch these things? – some of the female characters pull off their tops and simulate sex with a guy whose face no one will recognize the next day. In this case, the movies are just goofy enough to be fun to watch stoned.

Ramzi Abed’s Telephone World is a gimmicky thriller whose horror comes in the dramatization of one young actress’ best and worst experiences, all of which occur in the same afternoon. After Rachel Plasky (Elissa Dowling) learns that she’s scored the lead part in a new TV show called “Fairfax Girls,” she returns to her apartment and hears from a voice message on the phone that her boyfriend is breaking up with her. We know this because Abed has planted a camera in her home and it follows her for the next 80 minutes as she responds to both revelations, in a single continuous shot. I may have missed something, but the unassuming Rachel devolves from typical Hollywood wannabe to Sara Goldfarb, at her most self-destructive, in Requiem for a Dream. Dowling does a terrific job, even if it’s difficult to understand what motivates her character.

Come Morning
On its surface, Derrick Sims’ impressive debut feature, Come Morning, describes a country boy’s coming-of-age in the most punishing way possible. Scratch the surface and you’ll discover a story that’s almost as old as time and shows no sign of losing its relevance. In it, an old man and his grandson wander into the woods one afternoon to repeat a ritual some people consider to be a passing of the torch, while others treat as a crime against nature. After spending a number of hours in the family stand, the pre-teen boy, D (Thor Wahlestedt), takes aims at what he believes to be a deer, but is, in fact, a neighbor trespassing on their land. He isn’t wearing an orange vest and, in the late-afternoon haze, could understandably be mistaken for a four-legged meal ticket. Even though D already knows that such things happen in the woods, the man’s death shakes him to his core. He wants to report the accident to the police, but Frank convinces him that doing the right thing could turn out worse than putting the body in a wheelbarrow and finding a place to bury it. By doing so, Frank has introduced D to a cycle of violence that has gone on for a couple of generations, at least, and whose list of victims includes the boy’s father. Unlike the gentle Frank and D’s pensive mother, the family’s next-door neighbors are hillbilly trash hell-bent on continuing the feud, choosing their spots to provoke Frank and D’s Uncle Charlie into a confrontation. They do this mostly by poaching deer on Frank’s land and leaving behind the innards after stripping the deer of their hides and meat.

During the nighttime trek to dispose of the trespasser’s body, the angel of vengeance comes to claim Frank and provide D with an excuse for continuing the feud or ending it, once and for all. Or, like I said, it’s also possible that Sims simply intended Come Morning to be an achingly poignant coming-of-story, set in a corner of Bill Clinton’s Arkansas he still recognizes and loves. Although set in the 1970s, there’s a timeless quality to it that is only disrupted by noticing the ages of the pickup trucks. What I saw, as well, were parallels to the tragic tale chronicled in the documentary Kanun: The Law of Honour, which describes how families in mountainous northern Albania have come to be haunted by a strictly enforced code of vendetta that’s existed since the 15th Century. Fearful of revenge attacks, thousands of men, women and children dare not leave their homes, because, once they do, the code allows for them to be murdered. Kanun introduces us to a nun attempting to end this hideous practice. By extension, the vendetta mentality explains why Frank forbids D from calling police – thus abiding by an unwritten code of hill-country justice – and leads us to wonder if the bullet that killed the man might not have come from the boy’s rifle, after all. Either way, during the course of single night, D’s life is forever changed, while those of Frank, Charlie and the neighbors have simply added another tragic chapter to the legacy of hate. The DVD adds several deleted scenes and an excellent making-of featurette, during which Sims explains his one-man-band production methodology, the Kickstarter campaign and his desire to slow down the action, so as to reflect a feel for the South he knows but hasn’t seen in other movies.

Fort McCoy
Even 70 years after the end of World War II, it still might surprise some Americans to learn that 425,000 German POWs lived in 700 camps throughout the United States during World War II. Early in the conflict, Wisconsin’s Fort McCoy first was used as a detention center for approximately 170 Japanese- and 120 German- and Italian-American civilians arrested as potentially dangerous “enemy aliens.” It later would hold 4,000 Japanese and German POWs. Fort McCoy is situated in the rolling farmlands of central Wisconsin, where cows probably still outnumber people and prisoners once tilled the fertile soil for corn and other crops. Despite the brutal winters, serving time in America’s heartland was a million times easier for the POWs than an uncertain future in a Red Army camp. That’s the historical backdrop for Fort McCoy, a labor of love for multi-hyphenate filmmaker and actress Kate Connor, who based her story on the experiences of her family during the war. Connor not only was inspired to play her grandmother, Ruby Stirn, but also produce, direct and write the movie. In it, the family of Frank and Ruby Stirn moves to a cozy cottage situated between camps populated with soldiers and POWs. The German-American barber (Eric Stoltz) had been rejected from serving his country and, in 1944, volunteered to cut the hair of men from both sectors. His wife and sister-in-law (Lyndsy Fonseca) would find work at the camp, as well, while the children enjoyed the Wisconsin summer and asked their parents difficult questions about man’s inhumanity to man.

Besides the drama inherent in such a scenario, Connor adds subplots involving Frank’s feelings of guilt over being rejected and jealousy over a GI’s perceived overture to Ruby; her uneasiness with living so close to laxly policed prisoners; their daughter’s befriending of a prisoner young enough to be in 4th Grade; a perverted SS officer who preys on the weakest of POWs; and the Catholic sister-in-law’s decision to marry a wounded Jewish soldier. The irony there being that the soldier had been wounded in the service of a country that assured religious freedom, but allowed church leaders to push their prejudicial rules and beliefs on worshippers. The soldier also voiced his disappointment with the U.S. for virtually ignoring reports of the mass slaughter of European Jews. That’s a lot of baggage for a 100-minute movie to carry and not all of the storylines are neatly exploited. Still, Fort McCoy benefits greatly from a solid narrative, heartfelt acting, the Wisconsin landscape and the camp’s little-known wartime history.

TV-to-DVD
The CW: Reign: The Complete First Season
LA Law: Season 3
PBS: Secrets of Westminster/Her Majesty’s Secret Service
PBS: James Mcneill Whistler & the Case for Beauty
PBS: Royal Paintbox
While it’s highly unlikely that The CW conspired with Scottish separatists to stage the recent referendum to decide whether or not Scotland should declare its independence from the UK, the timing couldn’t be better for the second-second season debut of its royal soap-opera, “Reign.” The historical fantasy finds 15-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots in France, where she’s been awaiting her long-planned marriage to the future Francis II of France for nine years. The wedding would theoretically align predominantly France and Scotland against the Protestant British monarchy. Not everyone is awaiting Mary Stuart’s return to her homeland with optimism, but “Reign” is most interested in establishing Mary and her handmaidens as hotties ready to be plucked by the most eligible of bachelors at court. Not everything was smooth-sailing for Mary in France, either. Palace intrigue and family rivalries threatened to disrupt her wedding to the dauphin, while Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici, secretly schemes to prevent the marriage following Nostradamus’ confidential prediction that the marriage will lead to Francis’ death. Hey, and that’s just Season One. The temptation, of course, is to compare “Reign” to HBO’s “The Tudors,” Showtime’s “The Borgias” and Starz’ “The White Queen.” The CW’s target market, though, is teenagers and young adults who might not miss the nudity, sex and violence allowed on premium-cable outlets. It’s here, but packaged to fit the demands of network censors and, presumably, parents. Otherwise, the production values are comparable and settings lovely. Once again, students are cautioned against using anything gleaned from “Reign” as fact when preparing essays or taking tests. My guess is, however, that American kids aren’t taught anything about British history that comes before World War II and the births of the Fab Four. Almost no one from the primary cast will be recognizable to CW audiences, except for Aussie Adelaide Kane, who once had a role on “Teen Wolf” and hasn’t been a teenager for seven years, at least. The DVD set adds a pair of making-of featurettes and deleted scenes.

Season Three of the groundbreaking legal series “L.A. Law” found the relay team of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak running at full speed, with a mix of cases that ran the gamut from ludicrous to deadly serious and internecine warfare that ranged from trivial to treasonous. The strike-shortened season introduced such defendants as a mentally disturbed ventriloquist, a cop-killing gang member, ear-lickers, the leader of a nudist colony and a gay Olympian from an endorsement deal after exiting the closet. Meanwhile, Stuart and Ann continue their struggle to have children; Abby leaves the firm; Kuzak endures a losing strike; Grace shoots an attacker; and Becker dates a judge. The 1988-89 go-round saw nine members of the show’s cast nominated for Emmy awards and its second of four victories as Outstanding Drama Series.

PBS’ entertaining and informative “Secrets of …” series provides viewers with the kind of guided tours usually only available to VIPs and historians. This month’s offerings on DVD include visits to Westminster and the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the former, we’re taken behind the velvet ropes of London’s House of Commons, House of Lords and Westminster Abbey that separate the tourists from the treasures. There’s probably enough history here for a year’s worth of episodes, but some secrets will have to keep until the next time around. The same is true for the spy agency known as

MI6, whose headquarters is hidden in plain sight in the center of London on the River Thames. Among other things, we learn what it takes to become a British secret agent – besides a tuxedo and taste for martinis – and the truth behind the fiction in the James Bond books and movies.

PBS’s “James McNeill Whistler & the Case for Beauty” introduces us to a painter whose mother is almost as famous a model as Lisa del Giocondo, whose face is believed to have inspired Leonardo da Vinci and the “Mona Lisa.” The American-born Whistler is portrayed as a world-class dandy, whose artistic talent was equaled only by his showmanship. Although he followed in his father’s footsteps at the United States Military Academy at West Point, Whistler was more at home in St. Petersburg, Paris and London. The producers take us beyond “Whistler’s Mother,” to a gallery’s worth of paintings, etching and sketches with which many viewers won’t be familiar. In a similar vein, the network’s “Royal Paintbox” provides a platform for HRH: The Prince of Wales to reveal a trove of rarely seen art by members of the Royal Family, past and present. It was filmed at Balmoral, Highgrove, Windsor Castle, Frogmore, and Osborne House and includes some of Prince Charles’ own watercolors.

Ghost in the Shell: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Cartoon Network: Ben 10 Omniverse: Volume 5: Galactic Monsters
Slugterra: Return of the Elementals
Fans of Japanese anime will already know how a movie first released in 1995 can be celebrating its 25th anniversary in a special Blu-ray edition. In fact, the landmark date being referenced is the 25th anniversary of the publication of Masamune Shirow’s original manga, “Ghost in the Shell.” Anchor Bay Entertainment has taken the same opportunity to release Mamoru Oshii’s theatrical adaptation, Ghost in the Shell, almost as an early apology for the much-reviled “2.0” edition released five years ago in hi-def. That iteration of the story took the liberty of eliminating key scenes, revising others and messing with the color scheme and soundtrack. The “25th Anniversary” version replicates the 1995 original, only in Blu-ray, and the freshly re-mastered film looks terrific. Upon its international theatrical release, manga and anime had yet to catch fire beyond Japan. The formats had yet to prove themselves at feature length or as vehicles for sophisticated sci-fi concepts. Ghost in the Shell demonstrated just how sophisticated anime had become and that adult tastes – an anatomically correct and frequently unclothed female cyber agent as protagonist – could be served. In Oshii’s noir-ish universe, cyborgs and humans exist on an equal basis and occasionally are stymied by existential quandaries. Here, government agents are hot on the trail of the Puppet Master: a computer virus capable of invading cybernetic brains and altering its victim’s memory. Created by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and codenamed Project 2501, this hacker is actually a prototype virtual agent which has now defied its makers by seeking asylum within a new host body outside of the omnipotent electronic net. As much as Ghost in the Shell likely was influenced by Blade Runner, Oshii’s vision would impress James Cameron and the Wachowskis. The so-called cyberpunk thriller enjoyed both critical and popular success at the U.S. box office and was the first Japanese animated film to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Top Video Sales Chart. Its success would spawn several sequels, spinoffs, novelizations, games and toys.

The same degree of commercialization has followed in the wake of Ben 10 Omniverse’s success. This time around, Ben is required to fight fire with fire, by transforming into monster heroes — Frankenstrike and Whampire, among them — capable of turning back such evil forces as Zs’Skayr and Lord Transyl of Monster Planet. Bonus episodes include “Something Zombozo This Way Comes” and “Mystery, Incorporeal.”

Slugterra: Return of the Elementals is the second feature-length spinoff of the DisneyXD series, which is set in an underground world overrun by slugs. Some of them can be used for good, while others are bad. Eli Shane is a teenager determined to be the greatest slug-slinging hero of them all. He can do this only by collecting, training, and dueling the little creatures. In the movie, a new member joins the Shane Gang. Junjie is a master of the mysterious slug-slinging art of Slug Fu. But even with the power of five slug-slingers working together, the Shane Gang finds itself in over their heads as they race to protect the ancient Elemental Slugs from an evil alliance set on using them to destroy the 99 caverns. A bonus slugisode, “Noodle Strikes Back,” is included.

I’m a Porn Star
Fall Away
1 Last Chance at Paradise
Charlie David’s breezy primer on the gay-porn industry is broken into two parts. The first is a history lesson, beginning with the gift of projection that the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison’s gave to the movie industry. Not surprisingly, there wasn’t much lag time recorded between the advent of gender-specific eroticism on film. At one point, David recalls the point in time – before the popularization of Playboy and body-building mags – when straight and gay men turned to the underwear pages of the Sears catalogue for their masturbatory stimuli. Next would come the 8mm and 16mm loops, video and digital formats. The parallels continue from there, with stops at the AIDS crisis, the transition from film to tape, the burgeoning fetish market, the Internet and legislation to prevent bare-backing. In the second and longer section of the frequently explicit I’m a Porn Star, we’re introduced to a half-dozen of the today’s more prominent actors, who discuss these issues and how it is that so many of the stars are bisexual or gay-for-pay. David contends that the industry has grown so large and lucrative, with millions of pro and amateur websites, fans shouldn’t be surprised if a friend, relative or neighbor pops up. With the porn stigma still prevalent in most parts of the U.S., such a theory would only hold water in the San Fernando Valley, the Castro or Lower Manhattan.

Julian Grant’s wildly uneven story about the painfully conflicted singer/songwriter of a dysfunctional Americana band has its moments, but most of them come when the musicians are singing instead of exchanging dialogue. In Fall Away, Grant Stokes gives an annoyingly stylized portrayal of “Handsome Jake,” another one of those archetypal rock/country fuck-ups who represent Nashville in the movies. No sooner does the band 65 Home catch the break it’s been struggling to get than Jake’s prima donna side come to the fore. A male lover re-enters his life, while a recently thrown-aside girlfriend breaks the news that she’s pregnant. Other members of the band question his authority and sudden decisions about writer’s credit and personnel. It’s enough to drive an artiste to drink, which he does. His comeuppance comes in the ugliest way possible, but not before he sings some very decent songs. Grant’s moody cinematography nicely captures the grime and grit of Chicago and Nashville’s smoke-filled clubs and dank alleyways.

In Jason Impey’s exceedingly talky 1 Last Chance at Paradise, two young lovers, Kai and Tobi, share intimate memories of a wonderful weekend away from Tobi’s aggressively homophobic mother, before their world crashes in on them. The overall tone shifts from romantic to sad, poignant to confrontational. The narrative experiment is based on an original concept by co-star Wade Radford. It was filmed in one day, live, ad lib and with no script. It repeats the same style employed by Radford and Impey for Boys Behind Bars. 1980s’ punk goddess, Honey Bane, plays the mother as if she were medieval gargoyle.

Prisoner of Paradise
I’m not sure when exactly Nazisploitation established itself as viable subgenre in arthouse, grindhouse and drive-in fare. It was clearly in vogue by the mid-1970s, after Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned washed up on these shores, to be joined in short order by Hitler’s Harlot, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell and other such Italian-made atrocities. Bob Chinn and Gail Palmer’s hard-core Prisoner of Paradise simultaneously parodies Naziploitation and wallows in its tropes. In it, John C. Holmes plays an American sailor marooned on a seemingly deserted tropical isle. After surveying the island for food and shelter, the sailor comes across a Nazi compound in which an American nurse is being held as a sexual plaything for the fat kraut and his henchwomen Ilsa (Seka), Greta (Sue Carol) and Suke (Jade Wong). Ever the gallant gentleman, Holmes attempts to rescue the nurse (Nikki Anderson), but fails. Instead, his tool is used as an implement of torture/pleasure when captured. Future hall-of-famer Mai Lai makes an early appearance as one of Holmes’ conquests. It’s a very goofy picture, but hotter than 90 percent of the gonzo stuff out there. It’s been newly restored in 2K from Caribbean Films’ 35mm negative.

Also from the Vinegar Syndrome stable comes the Carlos Tobalina’s double-feature, Mai Lin vs. Serena/Oriental Hawaii, once again featuring Mai and Jade, and the Anthony Spinelli triple-bill, Cry for Cindy, Touch Me and the nunsploitation rarity, Act of Confession. All have been restored to the extent that it’s possible to do so.

The DVD Wrapup: Think Like a Man Too, Richard Lewis, Battery, Eraserhead, Chain Saw, Spartacus, Roosevelts, POWs … More

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Think Like a Man Too
Not having seen the original, I’m not qualified to draw comparisons to the two Think Like a Man comedies directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four) and adapted by Keith Merryman and David A. Newman from the Steve Harvey book, “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” Many of the critics who liked the first movie attacked Think Like a Man Too for drifting too far from the mothership and borrowing more from The Hangover and Bridesmaids than anything by Harvey. I didn’t recognize anything particularly Harvey-esque in the sequel either, but enjoyed it more than The Hangover, Part III, which may be one of the laziest big-budget efforts in modern cinema history. In “TLAM2,” the almost identical cast of characters is reunited in Las Vegas for the wedding of Michael (Terrence Jenkins) and Candace (Regina Hall). Just as in The Hangover, Caesars Palace serves as the headquarters for the wedding and the guests. The story mines all of the usual Vegas touchstones – reckless gambling, male and female strippers, a night in jail, a party van, a crowded swimming pool, a token pugilist – but is driven by a simple challenge: who will have a wilder night, the bachelors or bachelorettes? You can probably imagine 90 percent of what’s going to happen in the ensuing 90 minutes, but so what? Two things keep “TLAM2” from sequel-itis: the parallel storylines, which take full advantage of the attractive mixed-race cast, and Kevin Hart’s over-the-top performance as Michael’s best man. His frenetic approach to the material elevates every scene in which he appears, without dominating or overwhelming the other cast members. Without him, there’d be no movie. It’s tough for Las Vegas to look anything but glorious in hi-def and that’s another major selling point here. The package adds a gag reel, deleted scenes and four uninspired making-of featurettes,

Out of the Clear Blue Sky
Every September, it is demanded by the mass media that Americans relive the tragedy of 9/11 in agonizing detail, even though there’s next to nothing new to report or answers forthcoming to questions that have lingered since the attacks. The same could be said about annual commemorations of Pearl Harbor. The difference, of course, is the concept of closure provided by the complete and utter defeat of Japan in World War II and Americanization of its ancient culture. Conspiracy theorists will continue to debate the root causes of these events, even as they ignore the government-sanctioned genocide of Native Americans in the “taming” of the West. (Would a Native American History Month commemoration be too much to ask?) In the case of 9/11, however, the media insist that we remember something we’ll never forget and recall people who will forever live in our hearts. How many more times do we have to watch those airplanes crash into the Twin Towers before we can erase those terrible images from our minds? (We’ve been protected from the worst of them.) Closure didn’t come with the capture of Saddam Hussein – someone who may have learned about the attacks at the same moment we did – or death of Osama Bin Laden … or, for that matter, the much-delayed completion of the 9/11Memorial Museum in Lower Manhattan. If Congress and White House can’t even agree on where and how to try the unindicted prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, or a timetable for our armed forces to exit Iraq and Afghanistan, how can the victims and survivors possibly complete the healing process? The media can’t help themselves, of course. Commemorating important events is the easiest and least expensive way to fill news holes and attract attention to news divisions that have given up covering anything but car chases, fires, celebrities and royal births.

Occasionally, though, a documentary will be released that advances the story in a way that honors the victims and treats survivors and next of kin as something other than fodder for sound bites and tear-jerking video. Out of the Clear Blue Sky is interesting because of its tight focus on a single corporate entity devastated in the attacks on the Twin Towers and its ability to survive and fulfill its promise to families of “missing” employees. Cantor Fitzgerald, a powerful financial-services company, occupied five floors directly above the impact zone of one of the hijacked airplanes. Within seconds, the firm lost 658 members of its New York-based staff – two-thirds of its total work force – and, possibly, its ability to continue operating on Wall Street. In the immediate wake of the disaster, television outlets made CEO Howard Lutnick the go-to executive for tearful interviews and bold promises for supporting family members of the missing. Known for his ruthless business tactics, Lutnick’s first challenge was convincing a seemingly heartless Wall Street bank that the company could honor its financial commitments in the few days allowed them by the shutdown of market activity. Otherwise, it would foreclose on the company and conceivably ignore Lutnick’s commitments to the families. His makeshift team met that goal, but, a few weeks later, the media would join some family members in questioning whether the CEO was doing enough to make them whole. Once again, the company’s honor was at stack, even to the point that donors to a relief fund were demanding explanations or reimbursement. Director Danielle Gardner, who lost a brother in the attacks, is most interested here in documenting the healing process over the next 10 years than taking on government miscues, the health concerns of first-responders, the effects of the economic collapse on relief efforts or anything to do with the terrorists. As such, Out of the Clear Blue Sky occasionally feels as if its release might have been financed by Cantor Fitzgerald. The overriding story of how one company fought back through the tears to create an extended family of survivors and employees is compelling on the face of it, though. Subsequent news reports on the company’s progress and its considerable charitable commitments reflect that reality, as well.

Richard Lewis: Bundle of Nerves
Watching comedian Richard Lewis in Bundle of Nerves, I naturally flashed back to a night, more than 25 years ago, when I first saw him perform live. It was in an intimate room in a Chicago hotel famous for the many legendary comics and musicians who had previously stayed there and whose ghosts may still be haunting the stage and lobby. What I remember most was laughing non-stop throughout the show and, at one point, almost falling on the floor. I’d seen Lewis on the late-night talk shows and he was even funnier in person. The only one of four segments that’s intended to be drop-dead funny on Bundle of Nerves is the HBO “Magical Misery Tour” special recorded in 1997, at New York’s Bottom Line. While Lewis didn’t dwell on the subject of his recent efforts to clean up from a dependency on drugs and alcohol, he clearly was testing his ability to work straight. He needn’t have worried. Lewis was able to fall back into a familiar groove, reciting his litany of neuroses and exploiting chronic hypochondria and overbearing Jewish relatives. In this way, he recalled the famously neurotic musician and wit, Oscar Levant, as well as Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Sarah Bernhardt and, by extension, Jonathan Winters, with whom Lewis shared an alcohol addiction. Their standup routines could be so revealing that we sometimes felt as if we were in the same room with them during a therapy session. On stage and in talk-show appearances Lewis wore black from wing-tipped tuxedo collar to trademark Converse sneakers. He paced the stage like Groucho Marx on speed or Chuck Berry in full duck-walk. He once described his long dark hair, which he constantly combed with his hands, as “like two beavers standing up and having a fistfight.” The other three sections of Bundle of Nerves reveal very different sides of the comedian.

First shown in 1977, as a summer fill-in for “Saturday Night Life,” Diary of a Young Comic describes how an aspiring standup comedian, very much like himself, unsuccessfully experimented with a dozen different formats before latching on to one that worked. The credit actually goes to his girlfriend, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, who simply advises him to repeat for audiences his nightly harangues about himself and his family. The most interesting part of the movie, today, is being reminded of how the world looked to struggling comedians in the period immediately before the club and sitcom boom of the 1980s. In 1995, the freshly sober Lewis appeared in two very good movies about alcoholics, Leaving Las Vegas and the barely released Drunks, which is included here. In it, Lewis plays an AA regular who’s about to break his sobriety streak by going on a bender. During the course of a long night, we listen to harrowing stories told in his absence by other people in recovery. House of a Lifetime is a new documentary, in which Lewis leads us on a tour of his Hollywood Hills home, then overflowing with paintings, photographs, posters, objects d’art and tchotckes collected by Lewis over the course of his career. Many of the names and faces will be familiar to fellow Boomers and someday will be of substantial value to other collectors and fans. The collection includes gifts from fellow comedians, famous rock stars, actors and photographers. When, after a long and angst-filled gestation period, Lewis and Joyce Lapinsky decided that the time was right to get married – and his shrink gave his blessing – she ordered him to cull through his “museum” and make some hard decisions about what stays and what goes. His loss is our gain.

The Battery: Blu-ray
The Dead 2: Blu-ray
In baseball parlance, the “battery” commonly refers to the pitcher and the catcher of a specific game. Apparently, the term harkens back to the Civil War, when the firepower of a team’s pitching staff reminded one wag of artillery batteries. It would evolve to denote game-day pitchers and catchers. In Jeremy Gardner’s strangely affecting The Battery, two former baseball players, catcher Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and pitcher Mickey (Adam Cronheim), escape the zombie apocalypse by setting out for the New England countryside, where, they suspect, only the least aggressive of undead fiends might reside. Just in case, however, Ben carries a handgun and baseball bat, neither of which he isn’t at all reluctant to use on the occasional zombie in their path. Mickey’s the opposite of Ben. He tunes out the horror by wearing headphones and listening to music, while also recalling when life wasn’t an endless struggle. One day, Mickey intercepts a radio signal from the Orchard, an anonymous group of survivors who could be 100 miles away or right around the corner. He falls in love with the ethereal voice of the woman on the other end of the transmission, but is cautioned against attempting to find the group’s camp. By this time, though, Mickey is already hooked. Because comparatively few zombies are killed in The Battery, genre purists may not be happy with the return on their investment of time and money. Fans of “The Walking Dead,” however, should appreciate the break from tradition and cliché provided by Mickey and Ben’s bromance and road-trip elements. Reportedly made for $6,000, the only real zombie trope missing from The Battery is a post-apocalyptic cityscape, which would have cost too much to replicate and no one would miss, anyway. The actors’ lack of polish works to the film’s advantage, as do the folk-rocky songs that comment on what’s happening on the screen. The movie made the rounds of the international film-festival circuit, winning several awards before debuting on the Internet. The DVD/Blu-ray adds commentary with Gardner, Cronheim and producer/DP Christian Stella; the surprisingly entertaining 90-minute making-of documentary “Tools of Ignorance” (another baseball reference); “Rock Plaza Central at the Parlor: The Music of ‘The Battery’”; and an outtake reel.

For those who absolutely, positively require massive doses of blood-drenched action to enjoy a zombie movies, there’s Howard and Jonathan Ford’s The Dead II. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of zombies are blown to smithereens in their sequel to The Dead, while more than a few humans have chunks of skin and musculature torn from their bodies. Essentially, both movies are the same. Here, an infectious epidemic spreads from Africa to an arid region of India, where an American engineer (Joseph Millson) just happens to be working. When Nicholas learns that his pregnant girlfriend, Ishani (Meenu Mishra), is trapped near the slums of Mumbai, he must battle his way across a 300-mile desert wasteland, mostly populated with tall, gaunt and ravenous undead natives. During the course of this odyssey, Nicholas picks up a precocious 9-year-old boy with the intention of carrying him to safety. Both films were shot on location and take advantage of scenery and architecture unique to the rural countryside. Local zombie mythology also is integrated into the story. The Ford Brothers really know what they’re doing, zombie-wise, and both pictures are genre-toppers. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a half-hour interview with the filmmakers, conducted by genre critic Billy Chainsaw. In it, they discuss the film’s unique setting, the underlying themes, process of making the new film, role of fan support, and several of the more unusual challenges of working with locals. Throughout the movie and interview, it’s almost impossible not to flash on Liberia’s current ebola apocalypse and how it could play out, if ignored by international health and medical authorities.

Friend 2: The Legacy
Fans of Asian gangster films will want to check out Friend 2: The Legacy, if only because they’ve already seen its 2001 predecessor, Friend, and want to complete the experience. I haven’t had the pleasure, but gather from critics on genre websites that Friend 2’s a worthy, if noticeably different successor to the monster hit. Kwak Kyung-taek’s sequel picks up 16 years after the events of the operation, only months before the jailed gangster Joon-seak is to be discharged from prison in the killing of his childhood friend and adult rival Dong-soo. Now, the murdered gangster’s hoodlum son, Sung-hoon, is residing in the same prison and his mother begs Joon-seak to keep an eye on him. (In this regard, it helps to have seen Friend.) They hit it off to the point where the elder man asks the younger one to join forces when both are released from stir. Of course, Joon-seak neglects to inform Sung-hoon of their connection by spilled blood. In Joon-seak’s absence, his gang has grown in his size and dominance of the Busan underworld. The aging chairman is on his last legs, however, and Joon-seak’s former underling is clearly in charge. He offers Joon-seak a small fortune to take a permanent vacation in Thailand, or some other pleasant outpost far from Busan, but Joon-seak’s honor and pride are too invested in the gang to surrender. While Sung-hoon agrees to enlist younger troops for Joon-seak’s gangster army, the secret relationship threatens to burst wide open at inopportune times. In bonus interviews, Kyung-seak credits Godfather II as the inspiration for Friend II, but his explanation only amounts to something ridiculously macho like, “to be a man, one must fulfill his destiny by acting manly at all times.” In Friend II, that pretty much translates to, “some men are destined to be gangsters and, therefore, the right thing to do is be an honorable one.” The extras add making-of material and character profiles.

Eraserhead: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Graduation Day: Blu-ray
Prom Night: Blu-ray
If all one remembers about their initial encounter with David Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, is being thoroughly grossed out and more than a little bit frightened, it might be time to revisit the experience. The movie may not be any less punishing to watch after nearly 40 years — when it became a staple on the fledgling midnight-movie circuit – the sparkling Criterion edition reveals facets that have long been relegated to the film’s shadows. The temporal distance not only allows us to watch the startlingly ambitious movie with fresh eyes, but also recall how much of an unknown quantity Lynch was in 1977.  He wouldn’t get another opportunity to work his magic until 1980, when, as producer of Elephant Man, Mel Brooks hired him to direct and co-write the story of the grotesquely deformed John Merrick. In 1984, Lynch was handed the reins to the oft-delayed and ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Finally, two years later, the overwhelmingly positive response to Blue Velvet would cause critics to add “Lynchian” to their lexicon. If anything, it gave mainstream and arthouse audiences a reason to seek out a VHS copy of Eraserhead, so as to determine if Blue Velvet was just a fluke or the true artist had re-emerged in the kinky mystery. Other filmmakers would attempt to tap into Lynch’s imagination, but, finally, they gave up. The filmmaker is here to offer a hints, at least, as to what was going on in his mind when he committed Eraserhead to film. True, he doesn’t reveal any deep, dark secrets in the bonus package. What he does allow, though, is a glimpse into how the excruciatingly long and difficult gestation period might have influenced certain decisions, including the maintenance of Jack Nance’s hairdo. Nance, of course, plays Henry Spencer, the Lynch surrogate whose living nightmare involves the care and feeding of a freakishly demanding infant, who bears a resemblance to the monster in Alien. As is the case with most dreams and nightmares, the story progresses erratically with sharp, unexpected turns into the horror that is the Spencer/Lynch’s subconscious. (And, yes, fans will recognize tropes and behaviors that will be repeated in Lynch’s subsequent work.)

What’s especially noteworthy in this exquisitely upgraded Criterion edition is the black-and-white cinematography, which, along with the hauntingly atmospheric music, was meticulously choreographed by Lynch, Herbert Cardwell and Frederick Elmes. Today, the set design might be described as post-industrial or dystopian. Thirty-seven years ago, though, it was simply off-putting and creepy, as were most of the peripheral characters. In addition to vintage and fresh interviews with director’s assistant Catherine Coulson, actors Charlotte Stewart and Judith Anna Roberts, and Elmes, the bonus package includes TV-calibration instructions by Lynch; six newly restored short films, from 1967 to 1995, with introductions by the filmmaker; featurettes and trailers from 1977, 1979, 1982, 1988, 1997, 2001 and 2014; and an illustrated booklet, featuring an interview with Lynch from filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s 1997 book “Lynch on Lynch.” If some of the material is repetitive, all of it is fascinating.

Like Eraserhead, Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a bona-fide game-changer in the horror genre and is nearly as disturbing today as it was 40 years ago, when it was banned outright and condemned by church leaders in several countries. Clearly influenced by Psycho, Night of the Living Dead and Last House on the Left, it would go on to inspire at least two generations of masked freaks, toolbox killers, backwoods psychopaths and talisman worshippers, including those in HBO’s genuinely frightening “True Detective.” Loosely based on the saga of Wisconsin serial killer and ghoul Ed Gein, Texas Chainsaw Massacre describes what happens when a van full of college students confronts the reality of true evil after paying a visit to a graveyard vandalized by body snatchers. On the way, they pick up a seemingly demented hitchhiker, who, feeling dissed, puts a curse on them. After stopping at a gas station with no fuel to sell, only worms, the students find a desolate-looking farmhouse that could easily serve as the gateway to hell. Eventually, three generations of very sick men – The Cook, Leatherface, Grandfather, the Hitchhiker – reveal themselves to the audience, along with a basement full of meat hooks, saws and power tools. The rest, of course, is history. Now, 40 years later, MPI Media Group has released Texas Chain Saw Massacre into Blu-ray in a four-disc anniversary set. Originally shot on 16mm film stock, it has been re-mastered in 4K and presented in 1080p with an all-new 7.1 channel lossless soundtrack. (The necessary lack of technical polish is retained.) It arrives with four audio commentaries on disc one and a separate disc dedicated to bonus features, most of which are carry-overs in 480i. New deleted scenes and outtakes are presented silently, due to missing production audio. Also new are “Grandpa’s Tales: An Interview with John Dugan” and “Cutting Chain Saw: An Interview with Editor J. Larry Carroll.” The cast and crew’s harrowing recollections of the shoot, which took place at the height of a brutal Texas summer, compare with those in Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.

Made in 1981, in the first wave of truly cheesy rip-offs of Halloween, Prom Night, Friday the 13th and other early slasher hits, Graduation Day is unremarkable except for the presence of a pre-“Wheel of Fortune” Vanna White. Spoiler alert: her most memorable scene merely requires her to lean on a piano with two other high school girls, admiring the music of a horny Marvin Hamlisch look-alike. Some might consider the appearance of scream-queen Linnea Quigley to be a plus, as well, except for the fact she was hired in mid-picture after another actress decided that she didn’t want to fulfill the nudity clause in her contract. She hardly makes any impression, at all. The story opens as a track coach pushes his star runner to the point where she has a heart attack after crossing the finish line. Needless to say, this causes the girl’s team members, boyfriend, school administrators and relatives to want to pay him back in kind. The girl’s sister (Patch Mackenzie), an ensign in the navy, returns to their hometown to stand in for her during the school’s honors’ presentation. This, of course, makes her one of a half-dozen suspects in an inexplicable series of murders also involving her teammates and friends. Graduation Day suffers most for the long stretches of time in which nothing that happens makes any sense – logically or otherwise – and the killer literally appears out of nowhere to perform his/her evil deeds. It’s difficult to imagine why anyone would spend the kind of money it takes to restore such a turkey, but that’s never stopped the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome from attempting to make cultists happy. Its Blu-ray edition is newly restored from the camera negative in 4K and, for the first time, presented in its original aspect ratio. It adds fresh interviews with Mackenzie, producer David Baughn, editor Martin Sadoff and director Herb Freed.

No sooner had I typed the title, Prom Night, on the previous item, than a copy of the newly released Blu-ray edition was delivered to our doorstep. It describes how a traumatic incident comes back to haunt a group of high school girls, who mistakenly believe the misadventure is well behind them. Six years earlier, a younger girl, Robin, had died in an accidental fall while playing hide-and-seek in an abandoned building. Deciding she wasn’t sufficiently cool the older girls and taunted her, until she was backed into a precarious window ledge. The girls vow never to reveal the true circumstances of the accident, which was attributed to an unidentified prowler. The chicken comes home to roost six years later, on the occasion of the now-teenagers’ disco-themed prom night, which also coincides with the anniversary of the incident. The central mystery not only involves the identity of the soon-to-be slasher, but also whether the killings will be gory enough to satisfy teen audiences who presumably had already survived Halloween and Friday the 13th. Despite the estimable presence of Jamie Lee Curtis, who was just emerging as a bona-fide scream queen and sex goddess, Prom Night failed to go down in genre annals as a classic. It did well enough at the box office, especially in Canada, to inspire three sequels, though. Synapse Films is sending the movie out in a new 2K high-definition transfer from the original 35mm camera negative and a 5.1 Surround remix specifically created for this release. (The original 2.0 Mono track is included, as well.) The package adds a bunch of bonus features, but only a stills gallery and outtakes are new to the Blu-ray.

 
Willow Creek
What two genre clichés could possibly be more tiresome right now than movies involving found-footage and Bigfoot? They thrill is gone and has been for a long time. By combining the two elements, writer/director Bob Goldthwait risked alienating those adventurous viewers who’ve stuck with him since 1991, when Shakes the Clown was released, and through Sleeping Dogs Lie, God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad, none of which could be accused of being conventional. If I didn’t already know Goldthwait’s role in the production of Willow Creek, I wouldn’t have guessed that he had anything to do with it. I’ve seen other movies in which found-footage was employed strategically in the pursuit of one elusive critter or another. The last one, I think, was set in the jungles of Indonesia and involved a killer monkey demon, or some such thing. Because it only struck at night, the whole point of the movie was to build the viewers’ anticipation and fear of the unseen to a point where it’s practically intolerable and spring the trap as the final credit roll is about to unwind. Another such thriller may have involved a tiger hunt in India, but that memory could have been derived from watching a National Geographic adventure after a few drinks. Here, Goldthwait takes us to the mountains surrounding Willow Creek, California, a small town that prides itself as being the Bigfoot Capital of the World, because it’s near the river bed where the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was shot in 1967. It’s also a headquarters for Humboldt County’s marijuana-growing community, but that’s only hinted at in the movie. Willow Creek is far better made than most of the found-footage flicks I’ve seen … the nights are darker, the silence more profound and noises more ominous. Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), have committed their resources to making a film about the Bigfoot legend, how local residents deal with the phenomenon and their own pursuit of the truth. Instead of commuting 17 miles to the Bluff Creek site on a rugged logging road, the researchers chose to pitch their tent in the woods. Instead of turning off the camera’s light to sleep, Jim insists on documenting the escalation of their anxiety. Goldthwait makes it easy for us to buy into the conceit and rewards our patience with a pretty cool reveal. You may need to hit the rewind button a couple of times before you realize what you’ve just seen, however. Spoiler: it’s not zombie Bigfoot. The Blu-ray adds commentary, a deleted scene and making-of featurette from Bryce’s perspective.

TV-to-DVD
Spartacus: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Prisoners of War: Season 2
Arrow: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Hannibal: Season 2: Blu-ray
Awkward: Season 3
South Park: Season 17: Blu-ray
One way to tell that the holiday gift-giving season is upon us is the sudden availability of elaborately conceived and ghastly expensive DVD/Blu-ray collections. Movies and TV shows previously released on a seasonal or a la carte basis are re-packaged with a mix of old and new bonus features and the occasional high-gloss finish. Some, including Spartacus: The Complete Series, are tweaked even further with “collectible” toys, booklets and packages. The pricing seems extreme, until one realizes that only chumps pay MSRP rates and deep discounting has become the industry norm. Even the websites operated by individual studios, networks and producers, where MSRP is the norm, have gotten into the game. “Spartacus” arrives in two complete-series sets: the one listed at $150 is thick enough to contain 13 discs and 2,136 minutes of content; and the second, priced at a hair south of $200, comes in a box more suited to table games, so as to accommodate a souvenir Spartacus figurine and display case. Beyond that, they’re virtually the same. The convenience of having all four seasons of the hit Starz series in one handy package – one truncated as a prequel, after the death of Andy Whitfield – is the drawing card here, after all. (Apart from the buff slave warriors, naked Roman damsels and bloody battles in the arena, anyway.) The supplemental material new to “Complete Series” includes three new commentaries for “Blood and Sand”; “Fan Favorites With Liam McIntyre,” in which the actor counts down the top-10 fan-favorite moments from the series; “Scoring a Hit,” with composer Joseph LoDuca discussing the details of his work on the show; “An Eye Full,” with prosthetic and prop supervisor Roger Murray; a short interview with second-unit director Paul Grinder; and “The Last Word,” with John Hannah, who played the loathsome Quintus Lentulus Batiatus. Those unfamiliar with Spartacus should know that it employed the stylized visual look of “300,” in the service of a story set largely at House of Batiatus. It is where gladiators are trained to win or die, their owners partake in orgies and a slave revolt is led by the Thracian slave called Spartacus. The action is never short of exciting and the blood-letting can be shocking. The routine nudity, sexual liaisons, rapes and fertilization rituals raised the bar on depravity set decades earlier by “Caligula” … all in the name of historical accuracy, we’re assured.

Season two of the penetrating Israeli mini-series, “Prisoners of War” – the inspiration for Showtime’s “Homefront” – picks up at the cliffhanger left behind after the first stanza, but takes its time solving the mystery left behind. The story focuses on two of three POWs captured in Lebanon and held in Syria for 17 years. They’re released after a lopsided prisoner exchange, but not before a third Israeli was beaten and left for dead in the terrorist stronghold. In addition to the trauma they experienced as hostages, the two men would find their return home to be anything but a picnic. Their families had changed dramatically in the men’s absence and they couldn’t get over the feeling that their friend had died for something they’d done. The cliffhanger disabused us of that notion, at least, but left us with the greater mysteries of why he had been spared and his apparent conversion to Islam. It will take all of Season Two to answer those questions and tie up loose ends from Season One. In addition, Israeli intelligence agencies compete against each other to complete a top-secret mission that, if successful, could only raise more troubling questions for everyone involved. It’s a terrific series, well worth the effort of finding and binging on.

It’s gotten to the point where you can’t tell the television superheroes and their superpowers without a scorecard. For the last two years, I’ve been blissfully unaware of the existence of a CW show, “Arrow,” based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. Now, I’ve learned, that the hit show has spun off yet another character from same universe, “The Flash,” to debut next month on the same network. Today’s generation of superheroes, starting, perhaps, with “Smallville,” features impossibly good-looking young people who look as if they just stepped out of Michelob commercial. Stephen Amell portrays Oliver Queen, a billionaire playboy turned hooded vigilante, who is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow. After surviving a ship wreck on an isolated island for five years, Oliver returns to his home city with a mission to right the wrongs of his father and save the city from the crime that has grown in his absence. If Season One was dedicated to establishing Queen’s backstory and Arrow’s return from the island, Season Two allowed the show’s writer’s to expand the mythology beyond the pages of the comic book. Among the Blu-ray extras are commentaries on select episodes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and the featurettes, “From Vigilante to Green Arrow,” “How Did They Do That?!” and “Wirework: The Impossible Moves of Arrow.”

If television is overstocked with comic-book superheroes and glamour-puss protagonists, it isn’t often that a bona-fide psychopath and serial killer gets his props. The idea is so far-fetched, it’s difficult to imagine anyone less fiendishly charismatic than Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson) and his arch-enemy FBI agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) who could pull off such a conceit. Fortunately, author Thomas Harris created a character sufficiently flexible that he can be a monster one moment and anti-hero the next. Lecter, himself, was in no need of reinvention, but it would take someone else’s imagination to keep the series fresh and surprising for more than a season, and that required a closer look at secondary characters. The show’s production values helped keep it afloat, as well. They’re on full display in the Blu-ray edition of “Hannibal: Season 2.” It adds a season overview, with spoilers; eight commentaries, with creator Bryan Fuller and cast members; the making-of featurettes, “The Style of a Killer,” “Bodies of Lies” and the feature-length “This Is My Design”; after-show post-mortems; a gag reel; and deleted scenes.

The third season of the teen soap opera, “Awkward,” continued to remind us of how much fun high school could have been if it had been scripted by MTV writers and populated by highly attractive twenty-somethings. Jenna “The Invisible Girl” Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) still controls the spotlight, with a love life that would be the envy of most prom queens, despite the occasional, er, awkward moment. The new DVD includes webisodes, cast interviews, a photo shoot, after-show material, casting tips, “Tegan and Sara: Guest Music Supervision,” campaign videos, “Most Awkward Moments” and “Who Do I Want to Be?”

Alongside such topical comedians as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher and the occasional Morgan Spurlock documentary, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone represent the voice of America’s political left in the media. Unlike the namby-pamby liberals found on the op-ed pages of newspapers and Sunday-morning news shows, they’ve shown an ability to stand up for their beliefs without being buffaloed by the Fox News rabble, Republicans who’ve caved in to the Tea Party and would-be censors at their own networks. Instead of being fed a steady diet of gutless politicians on the news programs, wouldn’t it be interesting to hear Parker and Stone et al. comment on social and political issues, instead of Joe Biden, John McCain and Dianne Feinstein? Or, include Stewart, Colbert, Oliver or Maher on a panel of journalists asked to question candidates in a debate? It usually doesn’t take long for hot-button issues to find their way into the storylines on “South Park,” where Stan, Kyle, Eric and Kenny can take a whack at them. In the Season 17 opener, Cartman infiltrates the National Security Agency, which had angered him by spying on social-media accounts. Before the uncharacteristically short 10-episode season was over, the lads would take on true-crime shows on TV, Minecraft, emo and Goth kids, the Trayvon Martin trial, biblical prophecy, “Game of Thrones,” Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. The coup de grâce, however, came with the three-part “Black Friday” trilogy, in which world peace is threatened by a fissure splitting South Park kids over the collective purchase of online gaming platforms. Among the new writers added in Season 17 is former “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader, The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes; “#SocialCommentry,” a “trivia track”  with pop-up comments in the form of tweets; and mini-commentaries.

PBS: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History: Blu-ray
History Channel: The World Wars: Blu-ray
BBC: 14 War Stories
BBC: Churchill’s First World War
Some of us are old enough to remember how long it took for Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” to arrive on VHS after it aired on PBS in 1990? A limited-edition set was promptly rolled out at a cool $299, but it would take a couple more years before more-affordable packages to arrive. Followers who missed an episode were required to wait for the re-broadcast or borrow a cassette tape recorded by a friend. After more than 20 years, I’m still waiting for my VHS copies of “Lonesome Dove” to be returned. By contrast, anyone lacking the time to watch or space on their DVR to record PBS’ riveting14-hour “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History” needn’t lift more than a finger to catch up with it via PBS.org, iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, Roku, Blu-ray or DVD. Buy a copy of the boxed set from PBS, with or without the companion book by Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, and, in addition to a sizeable discount, it will throw in a free tote. While on the site, you might consider picking up Teddy Roosevelt or FDR bobble-head figurines, 500-piece puzzles or copies of the “American Experience” profiles. I mention this for no other reason than to marvel at how much faster the world is turning than in the Pleistocene Era of home electronics.

Fact is, “The Roosevelts” can stand alongside Burns’ “Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The West,” “Jazz,” “The War,” “The National Parks” and “The Dust Bowl” as essential viewing for history buffs or anyone desirous of some brain candy after dinner. They’ll be treated with many delicious surprises about these three remarkable Americans and their families. In this case, what we don’t know about the Roosevelts fills a boxed set the size of a doorstop. Obviously, most of us were taught to associate FDR with the economic recovery after the Depression and shepherding us through World War II. Teddy is remembered as great outdoorsman who advised us to walk softly, but carry a big stick, and Eleanor as a standard-bearer for liberal principles. Fewer of us learned exactly how closely knits the Roosevelts were. Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt may have been related by blood, but their roots anchored them in separate wings of the family. Teddy’s niece and FDR’s wife and fifth cousin, Eleanor Roosevelt, bridged the two camps while maintaining a distance caused by her early separation from a misfit father and by becoming the butt of jokes by her patrician aunts and cousins. Simply knowing how these three fascinating people are related is one thing. Understanding the significance of such an unusual relationship, especially within the context of a much greater family drama, is quite another. All three were to the manor born and great things were expected of them by their parents, siblings, cousins and the political establishment of New York. As American royalty goes, the primary difference between the Roosevelts and the Kennedys, whose paths began to cross during FDR’s stint as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was that one family’s blood ran blue and the other’s was tainted by bootleg whiskey. (The Kennedy patriarch was introduced on this week’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire.”) The similarities, though, are uncanny.

Technically, the documentary starts at Theodore’s birth in 1858 and ends with the 1962 death of Eleanor. It would be impossible, though, to tell any of the Roosevelts’ stories without digging a bit further back into family history, which is exactly what Burns does. In a very real sense, as well, the Roosevelt legacy extends as far forward as the current political aspirations of Hillary Clinton, who, like Eleanor, pragmatically stood by her man when he was cheating on her. “All of the Roosevelts were wounded people with something to overcome,” explains historian Geoffrey C. Ward at one point in this warts-and-all presentation. For his part, Teddy was obsessed with meeting his father’s expectation or attempting to compensate for a single act of perceived cowardice in the Civil War. “The Roosevelts” could never be mistaken for anyone else’s film, besides Burns. The archival photographs and period music are interwoven with the observations of such Burns regulars as David McCullough, George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin and narration of Paul Giamatti, Meryl Streep and Edward Herrmann. The years-long research pays off in some remarkable revelations and photographic finds, including one of Teddy’s son, Quentin, immediately after he was killed in an aerial dogfight over France and film from a harrowing expedition in Brazil, with son Kermit. Pictures of FDR, before and after he was stricken with polio, also add to what we know about the man’s courage and stamina. The Blu-ray includes bonus segments, including a peek at the interior of Sagamore Hill, a look at Roosevelt home movies and an overview of the musical efforts provided by composer David Cieri; a making-of featurette on Burns’ determination to create a documentary solely about the Roosevelts after touching on their accomplishments in previous productions; and deleted scenes from all episodes, including a deeper understanding of Theodore’s childhood, the creation of John Singer Sargent’s White House portrait of Theodore, and Eleanor’s interaction with the Tuskegee Airmen.

History Channel’s “The World Wars” uses dramatizations to explain how, in reality, the global conflagrations of the 20th Century were inextricably bound together and not separate events, as we’ve been taught. Actors looking very much like FDR, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler take us from the closing days of World War I through the negotiations that divvied up the world at Yalta. If the producers had pushed the argument, they would have been able to argue that today’s geo-political world is shaping up a great deal like it was before 1914. Not a great deal of new information is shared in “World Wars,” but the actors do a decent job impersonating these formidable figures and adding a different dimension to the historical discussion.

The BBC’s “14 War Stories” offers a tremendously compelling view of World War I, from the direct point of view of average people through their observations in letters, postcards, telegrams and diaries. The producers assume we already know enough about the war to override any need to delve too deeply into the common wisdom. What’s important here is how the fighting impacted people from several different countries, economic backgrounds and ages. Among those we meet are soldiers from both sides of the lines that divided Europe; children caught in the middle of the fray; a teenage girl who can’t bear to live apart from her Cossack father, so she follows him into the war; a German mother who encourages her son to enlist, but is devastated by his death after only four days on the front; soldiers condemned to man the trenches for four awful years, most without advancing more than a few feet; victims of severe battle fatigue and poison gas; and nurses as damaged by the war as their patients. In all storylines, the dramatizations are interlaced with actual newsreel footage and photographs. (A character in a train might look out a window and see archived images taken a century ago.) The one thing I didn’t expect was the amount of time devoted to the political and social turmoil that dominated the closing days and weeks of the war. Frustrated, disillusioned, exhausted and angry, Allied and Axis soldiers universally were inspired by the overthrow of Russia’s royal family and the Bolsheviks’ declaration of peace to stage mutinies of their own. By the time soldiers and citizens realized that their patriotism was being exploited to maintain the obscenely lavish lifestyles of crowned heads and war profiteers, though, millions of them had already been slaughtered or starved to death. The very real fear of western Europeans joining the Bolshevik tide nearly paralyzed Allied leaders and, 20 years later, would make decisions that led to the Cold War.

Churchill’s First World War” demonstrates how decisions made as Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty shaped Winston Churchill when he was required to lead his country into war. The disastrous Battle of Gallipoli weighed heavy on him for the next 20 years and influenced how he would direct forces in the early years of World War II. Part of what we learn here is revealed through Churchill’s intimate letters to Clementine.

Also from BBC Home Entertainment are several other titles related to the centennial of the start of World War I. Among them are “Royal Cousins at War,” which tells the story of the three monarchs who reigned over Europe’s greatest powers at the outbreak of the war –Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V – and the public’s revulsion with the monarchies at its end. In “37 Days,” a cast led by Ian McDiarmid and Tim Piggott-Smith chronicles the chain of events that led from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, to the declaration of war between Britain and Germany 37 days later. In “My Boy Jack,” Rudyard Kipling’s son is swept up in the enthusiasm to fight the Germans, a mood stoked vigorously by his father. He has, however, been rejected twice for being terribly short-sighted. Even so, Rudyard is determined that his son should go to the front and finds a way to get him accepted by the Irish guards, where he was made an officer. Carey Mulligan, Daniel Radcliffe, David Haig and Kim Cattrall star in this story about a famous father’s misplaced loyalties.

The DVD Wrapup: God’s Pocket, Captain America, For No Good Reason, Pumpkinhead, Fed Up, Midnight Special, Goldbergs, New Who … More

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

God’s Pocket: Blu-ray
Anyone who may have wondered what was lost with the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman – last February, at 46, to a drug overdose – shouldn’t have to look very far to study his impressive body of work. Once a prince of the indie realm, Hoffman more recently balanced his schedule with key supporting roles in such studio blockbusters as Mission:Impossible III and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as well as dramatic turns on Broadway. Never someone who could be mistaken for a classic Hollywood leading man, Hoffman’s presence was felt in every scene in which he appeared. In the almost-unseen God’s Pocket, which debuted at Sundance 2014, he plays small-time crook and mob-sanctioned truck driver Mickey Scarpato, who delivers hot meat to Philadelphia butchers. Mickey’s been blessed with a gorgeous wife, Jeanie (Christina Hendricks), but cursed to live in her low-end God’s Pocket neighborhood with a ne’er-do-well stepson, Leon, and shrewish sisters-in-law. As described by journalist-novelist-screenwriter Pete Dexter (Paris Trout), the Pocket is the kind of big-city neighborhood populated by poor white trash who’ve always taken their lowly place in life for granted and reject any helping hand that reaches out to them. Teenage boys settle for lives of crime, while teenage girls brace themselves for marriages filled with verbal and physical abuse. Adults of both genders can generally be found in the corner tavern, blowing their unemployment and disability checks pickling their livers and preying their lottery tickets pay off. The same uninviting neighborhoods can be found in Dennis Lehane’s Boston-set novels and the Hell’s Kitchen of State of Grace.  God’s Pocket chronicles the four days leading up to the funeral of Mickey’s stepson, who was killed at work in what police describe as an industrial accident, but we know to be justifiable homicide. Jeanie and her sisters order Mickey to investigate the young punk’s death, even though he assumes, like everyone else, that Leon probably had only himself to blame for his violent demise. For Mickey, the timing couldn’t be worse. His truck is loaded with stolen meat that no one is willing to buy and his pockets are filled with IOUs. Meanwhile, the Pocket’s resident undertaker, Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan), is pressuring Mickey to waste money he doesn’t have on the first-class funeral Jeanie demands of him.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman God's PocketIt’s at this point, that Jeanie convinces a washed-up, if still respected newspaper columnist to enter the fray. Like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko and Dexter, himself, Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) has committed his career to giving a voice to the hard-working, blue-collar residents of a city that only pretends to care about them. That, however, was before he devoted most of his waking hours to the pursuit of cirrhosis of the liver. Once he puts his eyes on the angelic Jeanie, however, he dedicates himself to wooing her away from her husband, who’s busy coming up with the dough to pay Smilin’ Jack’s ransom. If they make an odd couple, it’s only because they’re both looking for redemption on a dead-end street. Everyone in the Pocket, it seems, owes money to someone else, more often than not a bartender, bookie, shylock or Smilin’ Jack. As depressing as this scenario might sound, first-time feature director and co-writer John Slattery (“Mad Men”) relieves the blues with some inky-black comedy, frequently provided by Mickey’s best friend and partner-in-crime, Arthur “Bird” Capezio (John Turturro).  God’s Pocket doesn’t always work as designed, but fans of such gritty urban dramedies shouldn’t mind the out-of-balance moments. More to the point, the acting is so uniformly outstanding that it begs to be seen by anyone who appreciates watching actors cut loose and take chances. The Blu-ray adds commentary and deleted scenes.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Blu-ray
I’m not remotely qualified to say whether the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is true to its comic-book roots or plays fast-and-loose with the established mythology. From where I sit, however, Captain America: The Winter Soldier feels substantially more cohesive and evolved than most other films in the canon. There’s more than enough over-the-top fights, exciting chases and explosions to satisfy action nerds, but they’re there to support the story, rather than the other way around. The appearance of ancillary superhero characters – Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) – advances previous storylines, while anticipating future adventures. I wasn’t overly impressed with the protagonist’s 2011 re-introduction in Captain America: The First Avenger. In my opinion, it didn’t add anything to what was accomplished in the 1990 Captain America, which didn’t even enjoy the benefits of CGI or an obscenely large budget. Here, Captain America (Chris Evans) is required to deal with threats and dangers unimaginable when he entered an icy state of suspended animation in World War II. SHIELD has been subverted by fascists — led by Robert Redford, of all people — and his former running mate, Bucky, has returned as the amnesiac super-villain, Winter Soldier. I wonder what television-sitcom veterans and co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo (“Community,” “Up All Night”) thought when they were handed $170 million and a franchise that didn’t do particularly well at the worldwide box office in its first iteration. To their great credit, the Russos’ efforts more than doubled the take from The First Avenger, here and abroad. Keeping the action at a human scale, while maintaining a real sense of narrative drama, might have been their greatest accomplishment. The Russos discuss their strategies and intentions on the Blu-ray’s excellent commentary track, with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The rest of the making-of and background featurettes, deleted scenes and gag reel are pretty routine, however. There’s a 3D edition, but I don’t know what it adds, if anything to the experience.

For No Good Reason: Blu-ray
If there’s ever been an artist whose work is so unmistakably his own that no one even bothers to attempt copying it, it’s the uniquely blotchy and undeniably disturbing portraits of madmen and fools created by Ralph Steadman. Renowned for his “gonzo” contributions to the hallucinatory ramblings of Hunter S. Thompson in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and other essays, the British cartoonist and illustrator we meet in For No Good Reason truly is a nonpareil. The rare person who could match Thompson in the consumption of inebriants and anti-social behavior, Steadman’s work was equally fueled by a lifelong commitment to “change the world” and show no mercy to oppressors, crooked politicians and greed-mongers. First-time documentarian Charlie Paul deserves kudos for giving the Thompson/Steadman collaboration its due, but not ignoring the artist’s similarly impressive stand-alone projects, including “Treasure Island,” Withnail and I, “I, Leonardo,” “Animal Farm,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “America,”  “Sigmund Freud,” “The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary”; illustrated books on dogs, cats, wine, extinct “boids” and whisky; and experiments with Polaroid photographs. Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is our guide through Steadman’s admittedly twisted mind. Much of the time they spend together is in the artist’s studio, where, among other things, he demonstrates how easy it is for him to paint while being interviewed. Besides his sometimes rocky relationship with Thompson, Steadman opens up on his artistic methodology and such inspirations as Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Picasso and Francis Bacon. Among those testifying in his defense are Terry Gilliam, Jann Wenner, Richard E. Grant, Tim Robbins, Bruce Robinson and Hal Willner. The musical accompaniment is supplied by Slash, All American Rejects, Jason Mraz, James Blake, Ed Harcourt and Crystal Castles. The Blu-ray presentation enhances the animated material and painting, while also offering commentary with director Charlie Paul and producer Lucy Paul; a panel discussion from last year’s Toronto Film Festival with Paul and Steadman; a reading of “Cherrywood Cannon,” accompanied by animation; extended interviews; and some very worthwhile deleted scenes.

Born to Race: Fast Track: Blu-ray
As developed by racing enthusiasts Steve Sarno, Ali Afshar and director Alex Ranarivelo, the Born to Race franchise is intended to be a corrective to the high-octane films in the Fast & Furious series. Afshar is the founder and president of a racing team and has driven for Subaru. A street racer as a kid, Ranarivelo had collaborated with Sarno on a short film partly based on his experiences. Together, the trio expressly wanted to make a racing movie featuring real machines performing actual feats of precision driving, but Hollywood wasn’t buying. It took them eight years to find the money to finance, film and release the original Born to Race (a.k.a., “Born 2 Race”) into the straight-to-DVD marketplace. It borrowed the evergreen theme of a new kid in school having to prove himself to the in crowd, this time as a drag racer. The boy, Danny Krueger, had gotten in trouble for illegal street racing and was transferred to the small-town high school to learn how to cool his jets. To prove himself to his fellow students and estranged father, Danny decided to enter the completely legitimate NHRA High School Drags. That movie did well enough in the secondary market to encourage its producers to risk a sequel, whose gestation period was a mere three years. Born to Race: Fast Track tweaks the original to the point where Danny (Brett Davern) has graduated from the quarter-mile straightaway to a school for wannabe road-course drivers. Once again, he’s required to prove himself to a bunch of hotshots, all of whom believe they know everything there is to know about racing and have only enrolled in the school to win a place on a sponsored team. Needless to say, the young men and women drive their instructors nuts with their oversized egos and reckless behavior. The fevered competition adds a must-needed edge to a story that has been rated PG, even with an extremely tame shower scene. Besides some flashy racing and dangerous stunts, Fast Track is a testament to teamwork and absorbing the wisdom of one’s mentors. If that makes the movie sound namby-pamby, potential viewers should know that the racing is fun to watch and the rivalries feel legitimate. Fans of MTV will recognize Davern and Beau Mirchoff from “Awkward” and Tiffany Dupont from ABC Family’s “Greek.” Their parents might still recognize Corbin Bernsen (“L.A. Law”), Grant Show (“Devious Maids”) and Sharon Lawrence (“NYPD Blue”). The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Pumpkinhead: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Dead Within
Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
A Clown’s Recovery
Monkey Boy
Makeup effects pioneer Stan Winston must not have enjoyed the experience of directing Pumpkinhead, because he would only sit at the helm of one more movie before returning to the shop where all the magic is created. I’ve seen a lot worse pictures than Pumpkinhead, by directors who should have quit when they were ahead as DPs, ADs or writers. Winston was fortunate in that he had something more important to contribute to the cinematic world than shouting “action” and “cut,” every so often. Winston’s talent was creating monsters that looked as if they could be real. There was nothing cheap or cheesy about them. In Pumpkinhead, a group of insensitive city slickers seal their doom by accidentally killing the son of the owner of a country store. Instead of sticking around to comfort the boy or calling for an ambulance, the careless motorcycle driver splits the scene, hoping to avoid triggering a probation violation. Lance Henriksen plays Ed Harley, the dead boy’s distraught father and generally a nice guy. Here, though, he visits the widow Haggis, a woman with a direct psychic link to the netherworld. Unable to bring the boy back from the dead, Haggis beckons the skeletal beast Pumpkinhead from its grave and sics him on the interlopers. By the time Harley realizes what his desire for revenge has wrought, however, he attempts to clear his conscience by neutralizing the creature. Sadly, having let the genie out of the bottle, there is nothing he can do to stop the slaughter. It’s a pretty basic story, really, and, once the monster is revealed, Winston’s options were limited considerably. If the jumps-scares don’t work so well, though, the creepy backwoods atmosphere and portentous lighting schemes do. The Blu-ray does a nice job capturing the mood changes, eerie mountain fog and the interior of Haggis’ fire-lit cabin. Pumpkinhead, itself, stops being scary after its fourth or fifth appearance. Also included are Scream Factory’s fine hour-long featurette, “Pumpkinhead Unearthed”; 50-minute “Remembering the Monster Kid: A Tribute to Stan Winston,” with new interviews with actors Lance Henriksen and Brian Bremer, special effects artists Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Shannon Shea; commentary by co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and Creature & FX Creators Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis; and other behind-the-scenes material.

Among the existential questions that have arisen since the onslaught of movies about the zombie apocalypse is the one that demands we speculate on whether suicide would be a smarter way to die than being bitten by an undead assailant and resurrected as a monster. If survival requires engaging in non-stop war against an ever-growing army of shuffling ghouls, what’s the point of delaying the inevitable? Most of the unaffected people we meet in zombie movies prefer to “rage against the dying of the light,” refusing to “go gentle into that good night,” as Dylan Thomas demanded of his gravely ill father. Why bother? The question is raised once again in Ben Wagner’s claustrophobic thriller, Dead Within, which opens in the happy hours before an unanticipated calamity occurs, but quickly leaps forward to a period six months later when nearly all hope for survival is lost. When disaster struck, Mike (Dean Chekvala) and Kim (Amy Cale Peterson) were enjoying a weekend visit to a secluded cabin, where they’ve been joined by a pair of friends and their newborn baby. A voice on the radio advises them of an impending disaster and cautions listeners about engaging with strangers displaying symptoms of infection. Somewhere along the way, the other couple and their child are killed off, but what we know of their demise is transmitted mostly through Kim’s fever dreams. Her paranoia is increased by Mike’s insistence that she never leave the cabin, even to join him on his forays to replenish their stock of food staples and batteries for the radio. As such, Kim can only guess at the shape, size and ferocity of the monsters waiting to break into the cabin. With no food left to eat and her only contact with the outside world the disembodied voice of an increasingly perverted “Ranger Mark,” however, Kim’s paranoia leads her to believe that Mike has been infected and needs to be destroyed. Dead Within tests our resolve by refusing to leave the confines of the cabin and demanding of the actors that they improvise their lines. Somehow, though, Peterson and Chekvala manage to rivet our attention for most of the film’s 91 minutes without the assistance of other actors or visible tormenters. The DVD adds some deleted scenes.

Fans of the rambunctious Internet series, “Angry Video Game Nerd,” will be happy to learn that Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie has begun airing on various VOD outlets. In the crowd-funded adventure, psycho-critic James Rolfe goes in search of the Holy Grail of video games: Atari’s infamous 1982 “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.” With all copies extant believed to be buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Rolling Rock-swilling Nerd attempts to bring a copy back alive for review. (The actual landfill was located earlier this year and excavation reportedly began shortly thereafter.) Not having seen the bonus features, I’ll review the Blu-ray when it’s released in November.

One never knows what to expect when a package of screeners from Chemical Burn Entertainment arrives in the mail. It’s one of the leading purveyors of extreme exploitation, practically guaranteed to induce nightmares and the occasional case of projectile vomiting. The titles originated in a myriad of countries and tend to reflect prevailing cultural superstitions and themes. Some are better than others, but most contain the germ of an idea, anyway. Among this month’s pile:

I can’t do any better than this CBE description of the truly bizarre Italian export, Monkey Boy, “Once upon a time, a freak was born and then hidden for decades in a lonely cellar, deep within the countryside of rural Italy. The freak had a ‘keeper’ for most of his life; she was a lonely old woman who cared for Monkey Boy even though she herself was a troubled individual. One day, the old lady died and Monkey Boy was forced to explore the world outside … alone. In the span of one night, he learns much about life and finds Agata, an autistic girl who appears to be the only person who Monkey Boy can communicate with and understand. In the darkness of the night, they share an adventure filled with strange discoveries and unhappy creatures called human beings.” It’s all of that and a box of popcorn.

A Clown’s Recovery is a documentary that chronicles the remarkable struggle waged by sword-swallower and sideshow entertainer Jelly Boy the Clown, who, in 2011, was rescued by firefighters in a devastating apartment fire unrelated to his act. Images from the uninsured entertainer’s long and painful recovery were captured daily by Matthew Broomfield, who had directed Jelly Boy in Freakshow Apocalypse: The Unholy Sideshow (also available from CBE). Jelly Boy is a founding partner, with his brother Matterz Squidling, of the Squidling Bros. Circus Sideshow, a troupe of modern sideshow freaks who perform in New York venues, including a Coney Island bar, and tour the world. Not surprisingly, his recovery was eased through the support of his natural and circus families.

In the giallo-influenced Slasher House, a young woman with shockingly red hair awakens in a green-tinged cell, naked and absent any recollection of how she got there. Prodded by post-it notes to wander away from her cell, Red quickly determines that her neighbors in the ancient facility are criminally insane serial killers and she’s being used as bait in someone’s deadly game of tag. Naturally, one of the most notorious inmates is a child-murdering clown, Cleaver. What stands out here, besides British scream queen Eleanor James, is the garish lighting scheme, which changes depending on Red’s location in the prison. For horror/splatter buffs, “Slasher House” is worth the effort of finding.

Fed Up
Bee People
A Doula Story
Do No Harm
The sad thing about documentaries like Fed Up is knowing that, no matter how well-intended and factual, the only people likely to watch them are those already committed to the cause being espoused. If true, though, what possible use are they to anyone, except fans of Doctor Oz, Oprah or, in this case, Katie Couric. Any high school teacher who dared show a film with such an anti-corporate message to a classroom full of impressionable teens, almost certainly would be run out of town by the local Tea Party cabal. Fed Up explains once again why the food most of us eat is either killing us or turning our kids into blimps, sloths and diabetics. But, we know that already, don’t we? We also know all too well that it’s the right of every American to ignore the research of distinguished scientists and eat whatever we damn well please, no matter how harmful it is to us and how much it will someday cost taxpayers. As presented by producer Laurie David and (An Inconvenient Truth) and director Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped), Fed Up convincingly argues that government warnings about sugar and fat intake and lack of exercise address only part of the problem. It does so by interviewing kids who have attempted to lose weight by strictly following the guidelines, but can’t seem to lose weight. Their parents, too, are stymied. Neither can they figure out why drinking diet beverages and fat-free food doesn’t help shed pounds. In fact, while the food industry pays lip service to such warnings, it also keeps busy finding ways to circumvent them. Meanwhile, its lobbyists hand out bushel baskets full of money to legislators willing to be compromised by special interests. Much is made of First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fix school-lunch menus, which were larded with processed foods and selections artificially sweetened by high fructose corn syrup, in lieu of sugar. Couric explains how food manufacturers gave their support in public, while, behind the scenes, worked to subvert it. Any chance that it would succeed have been reduced, as well, by parents who kowtow to their kids’ whining about the tastelessness of healthy food and the elimination of school kitchens due to budget cuts. There’s much good advice here, but, again, none of it will do any good if parents and educators don’t buy into it and our congressional leaders ignore it. The Blu-ray comes with deleted scenes and a one-year subscription to Eating Well magazine.

That honey bees are disappearing from places in which they once thrived has been demonstrated incontrovertibly in several disturbing documentaries. Because only a true fiend would speak ill of bees, it is a crisis we can all agree is worth fixing. David G. Knappe’s doc debut, Bee People, is different in that it offers hope in the form of beekeepers and rescuers who have found ways to replenish the population, even as researchers study the invisible plague’s root cause. Through Gregg “The Bee Guru” McMahan, we meet several men and women with sweet-and-gooey nicknames — Bee Medic, Tony “Bees” Planakis, Bee Mistress, Johnny Bee Good, Beeliever, Beedazzled and Beeatrice – who have taken their campaign to the bees we can find in abundance, including dilapidated barns whose wooden skeletons are dripping with honey. One suggestion encourages average homeowners to add hives to their backyards, patios and rooftops, while another offers compelling reasons to “marry” bees of one hive to those in another and relocate them to place where they might flourish.

Like midwives, doulas have been around almost as long as women have been having babies. Just as the American medical establishment nearly legislated midwives out of existence, the use of doulas fell out of fashion and its practitioners became too expensive for low-income women too afford. A Doula Story documents the efforts of one Chicago woman to help pregnant teens prepare for the delivery of their babies and teach them how to nurture those children as they grow. A doula will stay with the woman during delivery, but not participate in the birthing process. She may also counsel the young women as to the efficacy of breast feeding and ways to deal with baby daddies who need attitude adjustments. The subject of Daniel Alpert’s inspirational documentary, Loretha Weisinger, had her first baby as a teenager and struggle with many of the same issues as the women she mentors. In 2005, when the documentary was made, her unpaid mission was included in a teenage parenting program at Marrillac House, a community center in Chicago’s largely African-American neighborhood of East Garfield Park. Eventually, Weisinger would be accorded a salary of $20,000 a year. Similar Doula programs have since been adopted by hospitals and community centers around the country.

Alpert also executive produced Rebecca Schanberg’s Do No Harm, a film that effectively argues that there’s no such thing as a non-profit hospital. Somewhere, someone is making a lot of money and someone else is getting screwed. In this case, the former is represented by executives of and investors in the Phoebe Putney Hospital of Albany, Ga., while the latter category holds the facility’s uninsured and under-insured patients, many of whose lives were ruined by excessive billing practices. Taxpayers also have been stuck with millions of dollars in doctored fees and exorbitant costs. To make Albany citizens and decision-makers aware of what they considered to be unethical behavior on the southwest Georgia health system, accountant Charles Rehberg and surgeon John Bagnato began to send out anonymous newsletters, Phoebe Factoids, that described the hospital system’s generous executive salary structure, extensive political and business connections, and its financial holdings, which included a Cayman Islands account. The publishers argued that the factoids were intended to expose a hospital system that wasn’t fulfilling its charitable obligations as a tax-exempt entity. Phoebe Putney fought back by hiring former FBI agents to intimidate and threaten the whistle-blowers and filing a civil suit alleging defamation, fraud and racketeering. A sleazy local district attorney fed the company with information that led to indictments and criminal charges of harassment, aggravated assault and burglary, along with a $66-million lawsuit, all of which were later dismissed. Do No Harm recalls the theatrical film, The Informer, in several key ways, including the participation of lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who had previously represented the state of Mississippi in the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

TV-to-DVD
The Midnight Special
In early 1973, the co-option of rock-’n’-roll by the mass media had yet to become a fait accompli. Evidence of that was provided by two late-night variety shows, during which the most popular top-40 and album-rock artists performed live – as opposed to lip-synching to recorded versions of their hits – in front of an audience of enthusiastic fans. The acts played for scale and the labels were, at first, were reluctant to provide their talent, not sure they’d remember to show up at all  “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” competed with Burt Sugarman’s “The Midnight Special” for the eyes and ears of record buyers long before the invention of VCRs, MTV and YouTube, sometimes simultaneously on weekend nights. “Rock Concert” may be best remembered for Kirshner’s tone-deaf introductions to performances, famously parodied by band leader Paul Schaffer on “Saturday Night Live.” Both shows were recorded in stereophonic sound and simulcast over FM Stereo radio stations and early Cable TV. Even if the selections only scratched the surface of an artist’s repertoire, it was fun to put a face to the music and watch as they re-created their in-concert routines. The list of individual performances is too long to repeat here, except to say they ranged from Ted Nugent to Helen Reddy, Joan Baez to KC and the Sunshine Band. Among the things that separated the shows were the introductions provided by the truly legendary disc jockey, Wolfman Jack, on “Midnight Special,” alongside a rotation of celebrity hosts. Nothing good lasted forever in the 1970s and “Midnight Special,” at least, began gearing down when disco and middle-of-the-road radio began calling the tunes. Artists were required to lip-synch their songs and Wolfman Jack’s beloved shtick was reduced to hucksterism. Nevertheless, this six-disc retail DVD set from StarVista/Time Life – not to be confused with the nine-disc direct-response “Collector’s Edition” or single-disc set – is great fun to watch, if only for the fashions, hairstyles and then-wrinkle-free faces of the artists. For that reason, easily humiliated Boomers may want to avoid watching “Midnight Special” with their kids and grandkids. It includes fresh interviews and tributes.

ABC: The Goldbergs: The Complete First Season
BBC: Doctor Who: Deep Breath
Showtime: Years of Living Dangerously: The Complete Showtime Series
Cartoon Network: Regular Show: Rigby Pack
Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: Patterns & Shapes
After learning that ABC green-lit a series titled “The Goldbergs,” I wondered how much it might resemble the original “Goldbergs,” which starred Gertrude Berg and was a staple of the American entertainment scene, on and off, from 1929 to 1956. Berg defined what it meant to be a Jewish mother for a generation of Gentiles, although she shared many of the same characteristics as mothers who were immigrant Irish, Greek, Pakistani, Chinese or Indian. The ABC sitcom, going into its second season, carries the Goldberg name because the show’s creator, Adam F. Goldberg, based it on his experiences growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia. Jeff Garlin’s character is modeled after Goldberg’s own father, Murray, who apparently had a hair-trigger temper and routinely referred to his kids as “morons,” because that’s how Sitcom Murray acts in the show. Goldberg’s pre-teen alter ego, Adam Goldberg, walks around the house with a camcorder affixed to his hand, just as Producer Adam did when he was a wee tadpole. (Clips from actual home movies are scattered throughout the show.) The way we know the family is Jewish, besides the title, are occasional references to tushes “like two scoops of ice cream,” shiksas and a smothering mom (Wendi McLendon-Covey) known far and wide for her match-making skills. Otherwise, “The Goldbergs” might as well be entitled, “That ’80s Show,” “The Wonder Years II” or “The O’Briens.” The family is supplemented by smarty-pants sister Erica (Hayley Orrantia), horndog brother Barry (Troy Gentile) and randy grandfather Albert “Pops” Solomon (George Segal), who imparts useless dating advice to Barry and Adam when he isn’t hitting on girls their age. All of that said, “The Goldbergs” is elevated by the high quality of acting on display, its clever writing, several non-cliché storylines and recognizable characters. My guess is that the Goldbergs will be freed from assimilation prison sometime in its second or third seasons, as Adam approaches his bar mitzvah deadline or Barry is forced to choose between playing basketball at Villanova or Brandeis universities.

When the accomplished Scottish character actor Peter Capaldi was announced as the 12th Doctor in the 51-year history of “Doctor Who,” his picture graced the cover of every newspaper in London. The media anticipation leading to the season opener has been palpable, as well. There are so many things to keep in mind when considering every new Doctor, sidekick, threat and story arc that covering the show in newspapers, magazines and blogs has practically has become an industry in its own right. As befits the attention paid to last year’s regeneration episodes, golden anniversary hoopla and 3D holiday presentation, the producers decided to showcase the first episode of the eighth season, “Deep Breath,” in theaters, accompanied by the same special featurettes included in the new Blu-ray edition. It opens in Victorian London, where a really huge tyrannosaurus rex seems as out-of-place as the Tardis. (There’s a very good reason for the timing of its arrival.) The city is also being plagued by spontaneous combustions and clockwork robots. Capaldi adds an abrasive edge to the character, as well as a thick brogue and significant acting chops. Jenna Coleman, who returns as the Doctor’s intrepid companion, Clara, remains as cute as a button, but wary of the changes imposed on her. Like viewers, it takes a cameo appearance by a former Doctor for Clara to warm to Capaldi. The transition is likewise facilitated by Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her wife Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and their trusty butler, the squat Sontaran warrior Strax (Dan Starkey). From the point-of-view of this relative newcomer to the franchise, “Deep Breath” seemed an appropriate way to kick off a new series and decidedly different protagonist. Technically, too, it looked a bit more cinematic than usual. The featurettes include a prequel scene introduced by Strax; a behind-the-scenes piece shown only in theaters; “Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor,” the television special in which Capaldi was revealed as Matt Smith’s successor; and the episode of “The Real History of Science Fiction” that focuses on time travel. There’s also a tease to this season’s second episode, “Into the Dalek.”

Showtime’s Emmy-winning nine-part documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” approaches the divisive debate over climate change by giving in to the hideous reality that Americans won’t take a scientific or medical issue seriously unless a celebrity is attached to it in one way or another … the more, the better. Of the 24 executive/associate/co-/supervising/senior producers named in the list of credits, the only ones who seemed to matter in the marketing buildup were James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The celebrity hosts and interviewers include Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Ian Somerhalder, Jessica Alba, Don Cheadle, America Ferrera, Michael C. Hall, Olivia Munn and Schwarzenegger. Lesley Stahl and Thomas Friedman are among the superstar journalists. President Obama is interviewed by Friedman in the series’ final episode. Normally, such a lineup would cause my cynicism meter to register off the charts. This time, however, the celebrity presence almost certainly pushed ratings to a level that could be measured by the folks at the Nielsen Corporation. As it is, once viewers figured out that “Years of Living Dangerously” wasn’t a companion piece to “Homeland” or “Masters of Sex,” what ratings it was accorded for Sunday-evening airings took a nose dive. (It also could be accessed on-demand, YouTube and ancillary Showtime outlets.) None of this should detract from the importance and high production values associated with the series. The presentations are anything but dry and the celebrities’ roles aren’t limited to reading Teleprompters or standing in front of melting glaciers.

As is its custom, Cartoon Network has released its newest installment of cartoons in the “The Regular Show” in a themed DVD package. The “Rigby Pack” features 16 raccoon-centric episodes, handpicked by show creator J.G. Quintel. The running time is 176 minutes.

Included in Nickelodeon’s latest DVD collection, “Let’s Learn: Patterns and Shapes,” are the edu-cartoons “Team Umizoomi: Team Umizoomi vs. the Shape Bandit,” “Dora the Explorer: Catch the Shape Train!,” “Ni Hao Kai-lan: The Dinosaur Balloon,” “Blue’s Clues: Shape Searchers” and “Blue’s Room: Shape Detectives.”

Roundups
Children Without a Shadow
I Was There in Color
Jews of Iran
Fringes: New Adventures in Jewish Living
Who Killed Walter Benjamin
My Herzl
Eyes Wide Open
It’s been a couple of months since we checked in with SISU Home Entertainment/Kol Ami and, in the meantime, a bunch of titles documenting the Jewish/Israeli experience have been released on DVD. Some of them are so obscure, they’ve yet to register on IMDB.com: A quick roundup is in order:

Bernard Balteau’s 2009 Holocaust documentary, Children Without a Shadow, is a “story of the resilience of the spirit” of Belgian Jews, as recalled by Shaul Harel, one of the “hidden children” protected from the Nazis by Mademoiselle Andrée Geulen. … I Was There in Color is comprised of rare color footage of events shot at the “birth of Israel” by Fred Monosson, a Jewish-American businessman who left the treasure trove behind when he died in 1972. … Although Jewish roots run deep throughout the history Persia/Iran, it’s difficult to imagine what life might be like for those who still call it home. Ramin Farahani’s Jews of Iran describes their support system and respose to a painful espionage case against a Jewish community there.

In Fringes: New Adventures in Jewish Living, Paula Weiman-Kelman visits  Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem, the Ghetto Shul in Montreal and Stony Lonesome Organic Farm in Virginia, where “cutting-edge Judaism” is being taught and put into practice. … The death of a prominent German-Jewish intellectual in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi takeover of France is the subject of David Mauas’ Who Killed Walter Benjamin …, a documentary that challenges the common wisdom on what long has been accepted as a suicide to escape capture by German sympathizers in Spain. … In the intimate bio-doc, My Herzl, two brothers-in-law explore the legacy of Theodor Herzl, an early proponent of the Jewish state of Israel. ‘s life and career. … In Eyes Wide Open, Paula Weiman-Kelman uses the slogan, “Once you visit Israel, everything looks different,” as a stepping-off point for a discussion of what the country and its politics mean to American Jews in Israel for the first time.

Tennessee Queer
Getting Go: The Go Doc Project
Man at Bath
Love or Whatever
Eroddity(s)
In Tennessee Queer, Jason Potts is summoned back to his conservative hometown from New York for an intervention, ostensibly to save his brother from demon rum. Instead, it’s to cure him of his homosexuality. Somehow, it doesn’t surprise him that they would try something so lame. While in Smyth, Jason is bullied by the same homophobes who tormented him in high school and stymied by the stupidity of classmates now in control of the town. Knowing that conditions haven’t improved for today’s LGBT kids, Jason agrees to put together a gay-pride parade to smooth the road for a stroll out of the closet. To pull it off, however, he’ll need some help from the gay community of Memphis, Nashville and beyond. Almost everything in Tennessee Queer is predictable, but in a perfectly harmless and occasionally quite funny way.

For his directorial debut, screenwriter Cory Krueckeberg (Mariachi Gringo) conjured a title with a built-in redundancy and a premise that is more than a little bit contrived. If the actors playing Doc and Go weren’t so proficient, Getting Go: The Go Doc Project may have been required to add a couple more steamy sex scenes and go for the porn crowd. Tanner Cohen (Were The World Mine) plays Doc, a Columbia student who has yet to acknowledge the obvious fact that he’s gay, but is sufficiently attracted to an Internet stud, Go (Matthew Camp), that he conjures an elaborate scheme to meet him. Doc has convinced himself that Go’s dance card is so full that he won’t get close enough to him to test his own sexuality. Instead, the bar dancer agrees not only to allow a camera to follow him on his daily rounds, but also to demonstrate that buff guys aren’t just sexual playthings. This isn’t to say that the sex isn’t hot, just that it’s integrated organically into the story. Krueckeberg’s directorial skills may not be on a par with his writing chops, yet, but Getting Go shows promise for the future.

Apart from the estimable presence of a frequently nude Lindsay Lohan, the most noteworthy thing about The Canyons was the casting of porn superstar James Deen in a more-or-less commercial picture. The quality of his performance didn’t matter as much as his ability to attract attention to the movie. Still, he wasn’t bad. Despite taking prominent roles in Saw VI and L.A. Zombie, the muscular French gay-porn star François Sagat proves in Man at Bath that he can handle something more than genre fare. While cast according to type as a gay hustler in the sexual melodrama by director Christophe Honoré (Ma Mère, Love Songs), Sagat can be proud of his performance in a film intended for arthouse audiences.  After a quarrel between Emmanuel (Sagat) and his lover, Omar (Omar Ben Sellem), the brokenhearted hunk is left to his own devices in the streets of Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris. Meanwhile, Omar is off to New York, where the filmmaker will attend a festival with the real-life actress, Chiara Mastroianni, playing herself. The only question remaining is what will happen when Omar gets to Paris.

Love or Whatever is a romantic comedy in which the partner of a guy who seems to have it all reacts to the possibility of getting married by cheating on him with a woman, who also happens to be his soon-to-be ex-lover’s client. One way to tell it’s a comedy is the presence of a lesbian sister who gets the best lines.

Steven Vasquez’ Eroddity(s) is an anthology comprised of four stories in which 10 gay youths straddle the border between the erotic, the supernatural and the merely odd. In this way, it serves two genre constituencies.

The DVD Wrapup: Draft Day, Jackpot, Queen Margot, Tinto Brass, Love Streams and more

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Draft Day: Blu-ray
Once upon a time, the NFL draft was treated by most Americans as if it were just another day or two on the nation’s sports calendar. Interesting from a fans’ point of view, but nothing over which to lose any sleep. Likewise, the first two Super Bowls were more of a novelty for fans of the National Football League than the national holiday it’s become. By guaranteeing a victory for the old American Football League, superstar QB Joe Namath almost single-handedly turned the almost superfluous post-season game into an event. Pro football wouldn’t become a commercial behemoth, however, until the arrival and convergence of the 24-hour sports-news cycle on TV, all-sports talk radio, the ready availability of parley wagering, fantasy football leagues and prime-time coverage of regular-season games. It wasn’t an overnight process, to be sure. Finally, when the media caught wind of the NFL Scouting Combine and its importance to the annual collegiate draft – newly open to underclassman, in 1989 – the football season was extended an additional four months. Among other things, the frenzy allowed teams to charge season-ticket holders full price for lousy pre-season games, corner the market on sports memorabilia and break the million-dollar barrier for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. The Internet added several additional wrinkles, including easy access to the opinions of thousands of Monday-morning quarterbacks, many of whom blog mostly to have something to do between cashing unemployment checks.

And, so, the DVD/Blu-ray editions of Draft Day arrive two days before the start of the regular season – Thursday night, for some ungodly reason – and the usual attention it commands. As dramatic as the draft can be on TV, the excitement has been difficult to replicate in theaters. High grades at the Combine don’t always translate to performance on the field, certainly, but it isn’t difficult to predict which college standouts are likely to be picked in the first round. Director Ivan Reitman and Kevin Costner combined their considerable talents to make Draft Day something greater than the sum of its individual parts, which include an unlikely last-minute battle of wits and an even more improbable romance between its 59-year-old protagonist and the still hot and youthful Jennifer Garner. Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., who’s recently taken over the reins of the Cleveland Browns as general manager. Sonny knows that the ghost of his late father has yet to exit the building and he’s expected to immediately produce draft-day miracles by rapid Dog Pound fans, a skeptical head coach (Dennis Leary), an egomaniacal owner (Frank Langella) and his despotic mother, Mrs. Sonny Sr. (Ellen Burstyn). With the Browns on the clock, Sonny decides to make a trade for the No. 1 pick in the draft, presumably a “can’t miss” quarterback from Wisconsin. Although, under normal circumstances, the choice would be considered to be a no-brainer, Sonny develops a severe case of buyer’s remorse almost immediately after closing the deal. He allows himself to be talked into believing the QB may have a chink in his armor and decides to make the choice based on what his heart tells him to do, not common wisdom. Wisely, Reitman decided to make the decision as unpopular as it could possibly be with the greatest number of people, forcing Sonny to come up with a strategy that would make his detractors eat crow.

The tick-tock nature of the draft-day drama helps drive the story’s momentum, even as it’s being bogged down by clichés. When the Hail Mary solution to his problem arrives from left field, it really doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility, at all. Indeed, after Mike Ditka gave up all of New Orleans’ 1999 picks, as well as a first- and third-rounder in 2000, just for the rights to draft Ricky Williams, nothing would be out of the realm of possibility ever again. Costner’s ability to make Sonny’s maneuvering credible once again demonstrates how well he fits any sports-oriented role he’s given, while, I suppose, helping attract women who might otherwise be bored by the inside-football stuff.  (Jerry Maguire’s box-office momentum was sustained by women impressed by the romance … and bromance.) Those interested in inside-Hollywood gossip probably already know that Draft Day has the distinction of being rescued from the industry’s “black list” of unproduced scripts. It’s explained in the Blu-ray package, which adds the hour-long “On the Clock: The Making of Draft Day”; “Welcome to Primetime,” with some background on the draft; commentary with writers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman, who really got lucky when Reitman and Costner came aboard; and deleted scenes.

Jackpot: Blu-ray
Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas
Queen Margot: Blu-ray
Just as fans of crime fiction have enjoyed discovering the works of such Scandinavian authors as Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Peter Hoeg, Anne Holt and Stieg Larsson, lovers of screen mysteries are benefitting from the rising number of adaptations by highly qualified American directors. Jackpot is based on a story by Norway’s Jo Nesbø, whose Headhunters was turned into a dandy thriller in 2011. Clearly influenced by the The Big Lebowski, Jackpot describes what can happen when too much money falls into the laps of people incapable of harnessing their greed. The film opens with the slaughter of customers, owners and employees of a strip joint near a border crossing separating Sweden and southeastern Norway. Oscar, the only survivor of the attack, was left for dead after a rather large dancer, also attempting to escape the carnage, falls on him. While being interrogated by a wise-ass police detective, he re-creates in flashbacks the events that led to the last of several bloody crimes. Oscar is a supervisor at a small factory that recycles discarded plastics into miniature Christmas trees. The work force is comprised mostly of ex-cons, three of whom talk him into buying a ticket for the national soccer pool, which requires picking the winners of all 12 games. With the help of a great deal of luck, they are able to claim the $1.7 million first prize. True to their nature, they almost immediately begin plotting ways to increase their share of the pot by eliminating the competition. Viewers who may not have seen the humor in the wood-chipper scene in Fargo might want to skip Jackpot, which adds a Christmas twist to the Coens’ conceit. If that makes the movie sound too derivative, there are plenty of other entertaining touches here to satisfy American audiences. The solution to the mystery surrounding the attack at the strip club is especially difficult to predict. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Also from Music Box Films, which released Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” comes the very different historical drama, “Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas.” It is based on Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 novella, which anticipated several twentieth-century literary conceits and influenced such writers as Franz Kafka and E.L. Doctorow (the character Coalhouse Walker, in “Ragtime”) and filmmakers Volker Schlöndorff and John Badham (“The Jack Bull”). In turn, co-writer/director Arnaud des Pallières has molded Kleist’s story to fit the traditional ethical parameters of an American Western. The titular protagonist, Michael Kohlhaas, as played by the perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen, could have emerged from the same gene pool that produced Clint Eastwood. The gorgeous mountain settings – shot in France’s Cévennes region – add similar flavor to the narrative. Although re-set from 18th Century Saxony to 16th Century France, the parable opens the same way. Kohlhaas, a happy farmer and horse trader, is returning home through territory owned by the royal family, when he is stopped by a self-proclaimed toll taker and ordered to hand over two recently purchased steeds. By the time he discovers that the baron had forbidden the collecting of tolls, the once-healthy horses have been worked nearly to death and his servant tortured at the palace’s stables. Kohlhaas hires a lawyer to plead his case, but the jurors’ allegiance to the royal family proves too much to overcome. His wife, too, is beaten to death when she attempts to plead their case to the Princess. Seeking justice and revenge, Kohlhaas mounts a peasant rebellion. It is successful to the point where the Princess agrees to have the case re-tried and the rebels given amnesty. Naturally, a cruel twist is added to the agreement, designed to satisfy both parties’ sense of justice and discourage anyone from thinking that it doesn’t come with a stiff price. Des Pallières stops well short of turning Age of Uprising into a celebration of Medieval bloodlust, preferring to accentuate Kohlhaas’ existential dilemma and relationship with his young daughter. (Eastwood’s anti-heroes have existential moments, too.)  In its defense, however, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and did well at other festivals. It also looks splendid in Blu-ray, which adds interviews with Mikkelsen and Des Pallieres.

Anyone looking for the graphic 16th Century violence missing from Age of Uprising can find it Cohen Media’s superb 4K restoration of co-writer/director Patrice Chéreau’s 159-minute version of Queen Margot. It also offers as much sex and nudity – gratuitous and otherwise — as “The Game of Thrones” and “Borgias.” Released in 1994, Queen Margot opens with the forced marriage of 18-year-old Catholic Princess Margot de Valois (Isabelle Adjani) to the Huguenot King Henri of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil). Ostensibly, the loveless wedding was staged to mark the end of fighting between France’s Catholics and Protestants, which had divided the country along religious lines. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), mother of the bride and ineffectual King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade), had plans of her own for the wedding reception. They included the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, in which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered, including many of the invited wedding guests. Chereau’s depiction of the massacre was deemed to be too violent by its American distributor, Miramax, which trimmed 20 minutes from the picture. Restored, here, the scene demonstrates the director’s ability to orchestrate and sustain the horror of a holy war in miniature. It also paints a portrait of Margot as a woman with an insatiable appetite for sex with almost anyone, except her new husband. Even as the blood was flowing in the streets, Margot and the equally randy Henriette de Nevers sneak out of the palace to find a man to satisfy her carnal urges. It turns out to be La Môle (Vincent Perez), a handsome Huguenot stud who will shortly thereafter be attacked by Catholic thugs and seek refuge in the queen’s quarters. They will continue to see each other in secret, even as Catherine and her other sons devise ways to kill off Henri, Charles and anyone else who gets in their way. As historical costume dramas go, the only thing “Queen Margot” lacks is a scorecard to explain to those of us who didn’t major in French history what’s happening and why. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Richard Peña, director emeritus of the New York Film Festival.

L: Blu-ray
Attempting to describe an absurdist comedy – or absurdist anything — to someone whose tastes run toward the mainstream usually is an exercise in futility. Besides running the risk of misinterpreting the filmmaker’s intentions, it’s the cinematic equivalent of explaining baseball to a Martian. Directed by the Greek first-timer Babis Makridis, from a script co-written with Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth), L is the story of a 40-year-old Man (Aris Servetalis), whose life has spun so far out of control that he has chosen to live in his car. By all indications, Man once drove professionally and still delivers honey to an older gentleman obsessed with deadlines and the precise reading of code phrases. When he isn’t doing that, Man frequently will engage with family members in a vacant parking lot and teach the kids how to drive. He leaves his car only after losing his job delivering honey to someone a few seconds more prompt than he was. He finds kinship in a gang of motorcyclists, who despise and fear automobiles and never remove their helmets, and a fellow his age that thinks he’s a bear. My guess is that Man probably was a victim of Greece’s failed economy and is clinging to the one thing that he can control. When he becomes convinced of the motorcyclists’ position on cars, he adopts that form of transportation but parks on the same vacant chunk of concrete. Similar losses of identity must be affecting tens of thousands of other young and middle-age men in Greece. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Like most absurdist films, L requires a great deal of patience and fortitude to enjoy. Neither is the comedy of the ha-ha variety that American audiences appreciate most. If nothing else, movies like L force us to shift the gears of our brains out of “park” and “neutral,” every so often.

Trust Me
Judging simply by the cast assembled by Clark Gregg for his sophomore effort as director/writer/star — after Choke, a well-regarded dark comedy from 2008 – the veteran actor is either one of the best-liked men in Hollywood or he called in some serious I.O.U.’s for the project. Gregg will be instantly recognizable to anyone who tuned into “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” or “The New Adventures of Old Christine” for more than one episode. He’s also played prominent roles in such pictures as The Avengers, State and Main and (500) Days of Summer. In Trust Me, he plays that most unlikely of Hollywood characters: an honest and honorable talent agent. A former child star, himself Howard Holloway represents kids whose talent makes them a target for unscrupulous 10-percenters. In fact, though, Holloway hasn’t had much success as an adult in Hollywood. He’s reminded of this when he “discovers” a 13-year-old acting prodigy (Saxon Sharbino) and attempts to rescue her from an overbearing “stage father.” Also vying for Lydia’s attention are a prototypically sleazy agent (Sam Rockwell) and a predatory producer (Felicity Huffman), both of whom know the right buttons to push with the girl’s greedy dad (Paul Sparks). The only person in Holloway’s corner is a neighborly single mother (Amanda Peet), who supports her child as an exotic dancer. As easy as it is to pull for Holloway, we continue to wonder how such a nebbish – we know that by the rust-ravaged car he drives – could last a week as an agent. We also wish that Gregg’s script might have spared us one or two unlikely plot twists. Otherwise, “Touch Me” is an entirely watchable dramedy – made on a shoestring – that’s also blessed with appearances by Allison Janney, William H. Macy, Molly Shannon and Niecy Nash. Or, it can be enjoyed simply for the presence of rising star, Sharbino.

Love Streams: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Vengeance Is Mine: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Watching John Cassavetes’ brilliant 1984 essay on extraordinary madness, Love Streams, is like opening a time capsule on a certain type of American male that doesn’t exist anymore. The character played by his real-life wife, Gena Rowlands, probably does, but, instead of being “crazy as a bedbug,” her malady would be recognized for what it is, bipolar disorder. Cassavetes’ Robert Harmon is a throwback to the days when the Rat Pack ruled the popular media; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy dictated behavior for a generation of men and post-pubescent teens; men wore tuxedoes for no apparent reason; cigarettes were peddled as if they were candy; and booze was the acceptable social lubricant. There weren’t many of these guys still around in 1984, but Cassavetes probably knew most several of the survivors. Harmon is a successful author of pulpy fiction, with a home in the Hollywood Hills that has more than enough bedrooms for his many live-in concubines, empty cigarette packs, unwashed dishes and liquor bottles. We’re introduced to Rowlands’ Sarah Lawson between breakdowns, as she’s about to lose custody of her pre-teen daughter to her philandering soon-to-be-ex-husband (Seymour Cassel). Their daughter is tired of being dragged around the country by Lawson, attending funerals for unknown relatives and acquaintances, so requests that she be allowed to stay with her dad. Stunned, Lawson decides to tour Europe, dragging behind her a wagonload of baggage and clutching an expensive coat made from the pelts of unfortunate animals. At the same time, Harmon is about to be re-introduced to the son he abandoned as an infant. The boy’s immediate discomfort around his father’s harem causes Harmon to pay off the women and send them off to their next sexual adventure. The boy is appreciative of the gesture, but less thrilled when he’s swept off to Las Vegas and plunked down in a hotel room, while dad drinks, gambles and chases tail for a night or two. Needless to say, the kid is so freaked out that he pretty much disappears from the film.

In his place arrives Lawson, who is ecstatic to be in the company of someone willing to accommodate her eccentricities and forgive her excesses. This is demonstrated after Lawson comes home from an outdoor pet menagerie with a pair of miniature horses, goats, ducks, chickens and a giant dog, presented to her brother as gifts to overcome his doldrums. A violent storm opens the doors to madness and/or catharsis for Harmon and Lawson. Love Streams was adapted from a play and screenplay by Ted Allan (Lies My Father Told Me), but what ended up on the screen is 100 percent Cassavetes and Rowlands. It is last film for which he served as director, co-writer and star – “Big Trouble” was a pick-up job – as he had already been diagnosed with the cirrhosis of the liver and given six months to live by his doctor. Instead, he stayed with us another five years. Ignored by an indie-phobic academy, Love Streams won the Golden Bear Award and FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film at the 1984 Berlin International Film Festival. The supplemental features on the Criterion disc include an original trailer for the film; exclusive new video interviews with executive producer Al Ruban and actress Diahnne Abbott; Michael Ventura’s documentary “I’m Almost Not Crazy … John Cassavetes: The Man and His Work”; an archival interview with Seymor Cassel; and a 30-page illustrated booklet, with “A Fitful Flow” by Denis Lim,” Cassavetes’ “How Love and Life Mingle on Film” and technical notes.

Also from Criterion comes Vengeance Is Mine, Shohei Imamura’s 1979 study of sociopathic serial killer told largely in flashback form, as he relates his crimes to the detectives interrogating him after his strangely anti-climatic capture. It is based on a murder spree perpetrated in the early 1960s by con artist Akira Nishiguchi. Ken Ogata is cold as ice as Iwao Enokizu, whose only apparent motivation is having watched his father being forced to hand over his fishing boats to the Imperial Navy in World War II. The incident caused him to lose all respect for his father, whose Roman Catholic faith comes between them in various ways for the next 20-plus years. After serving time in prison for fraud, Enokizu supports himself by taking money from the people he murders. He sets up shop in a Tokyo brothel, where everyone is led to believe that he’s a college professor and an extraordinarily generous one at that. Although Enokizu doesn’t appear to have been afflicted with a death wish, he makes very little effort to hide his identity from the prostitutes who surely would have seen the wanted posters in shop windows or on television. Simple carelessness eventually sealed his doom. If such portraits of serial killers aren’t all that rare in American movies – In Cold Blood preceded Vengeance Is Mine by 12 years – Imamura’s genius was turning one of only about 13 such cases in Japan into a masterpiece, absent any undo moralizing or rubbing our faces in gore. Without forgiving his antagonist a single drop of blood, Imamura also contextualizes Enokizu’s actions alongside other examples of double standards and corruption prevalent in pre-boom Japan. The sparkling hi-def restoration is accompanied by commentary with critic and filmmaker Tony Rayns; an excerpt from an archival interview with Imamura, conducted for the Directors Guild of Japan, with frequent collaborators Kenichi Benitani and Kunio Takeshige; and a 32-page illustrated booklet featuring Imamura’s “On Vengeance Is Mine,” Michael Atkinson’s “Civilization and Its Discontents,” “To and From Fiction: An Interview with Shohei Imamura” and “My Approach to Filmmaking.”

Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema
Peekarama: Tropic of Desire/Fantasy World
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 4
Drive-In Collection: Cry Wilderness/In Search of Bigfoot
Leading the list of erotic titles released on DVD/Blu-ray in the last couple of weeks is “Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica,” a collection of films made between 2000 and 2006. The selection includes Cheeky!, Black Angel, Private, Monamour and the feature-length documentary Tinto Brass: Maestro of Erotica Cinema, featuring an in-depth interview with Brass and rare footage. While it’s easy to compare the Milanese auteur to American soft-core pioneer Russ Meyer – one favored butts, the other, boobs – they came up through very different ranks. Meyer practically invented the nudie-cutie sub-genre, which provided a bridge between the “naturalist” films of the 1950s and soft-core arthouse fare of Radley Metzger and the first couple chapters in the Emmanuelle series. King Leer’s low-budget pictures pushed the limits on bras, raunchy humor and violence, but couldn’t compete with the explicit sexuality of Deep Throat and other XXX extravaganzas. Brass, who was born into an artistic family, cut his teeth by working with such giants as Federico Fellini and Roberto Rossellini. Attraction and I Am What I Am came reasonably close to capturing the prevailing hippy-dippy zeitgeist of Swinging London and joys of the sexual revolution Salon Kitty, as perverse a film that has ever found its way to American arthouses, located the nexus connecting Nazi brutality and twisted sexuality. Unlike most other overtly provocative movies of the mid-1970s, its technical credits were impeccable and it delivered something resembling an anti-fascist message. In 1979, Bob Guccione hired Brass to direct Caligula — his big-budget adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel – but dropped out when the Penthouse publisher insisted on adding hard-core scenes to what already was a pretty hot picture. For the next 25 years, Brass focused his attention on elegantly produced and located erotica that straddled the line separating soft- and hard-core cinema. The actors who agreed to disrobe before Brass’ camera were uncommonly beautiful or handsome, with bodies that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo. The sex itself was far less memorable than the men and women hired to simulate it. More to the point of his popularity, Brass included the female characters in the decision-making, allowing them to exploit their fantasies and insist upon orgasmic equality. While hardly feminist tracts, such late-career titles as Cheeky, Black Angel, Monamour and the anthology, Private, almost certainly raised temperatures in bedrooms throughout Italy and the rest of Europe. The making-of featurette included with Private, is almost as entertaining as the vignettes themselves. Besides revealing the strategic uses of dildos and artificial phalluses, Brass comes across as a dirty old man in the same league with Meyer and Charles Bukowski. Despite the director’s groping, the actresses, too, appear to be enjoying every minute of the production process. All of the films have been accorded a brilliant hi-def transfer, which takes full advantage of the Blu-ray presentation. Also added are photo galleries and a 40-page booklet.

Vinegar Syndrome’s “Peekarama” series of double-features from the Essex catalogue continues apace with Bob Chinn’s Tropic of Desire/Fantasy World, both of which features sailors on the town and such future stars as Jesie St. James, Sharon Kane, Georgina Spelvin, Dorothy LeMay and Susan Nero; Purely Physical/Cathouse Fever, from mainstream actor Chris Warfield, who directed porn under the pseudonym, Billy Thornberg; and Carlos Tobalina’s offbeat Ultimate Pleasure/I Am Always Ready, in which John Holmes is the answer to every unsatisfied woman’s most vexing question.

Impulse Pictures is represented once again by 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection. It’s the fourth compilation of 8mm loops, re-mastered from original film prints. This collection appears to concentrate on close-up footage, with the balance tilted toward girl-girl action. Among the very young principles are Erica Boyer, Linda Shaw, Sharon Kane and Annie Sprinkle, with liner notes from Cinema Sewer editor, Robin Bougie.

The Bigfoot phenomenon, based primarily on Native American legend, didn’t really take off in earnest until the 1972 release of Bigfoot: Man or Beast? The same folks responsible for that quasi-documentary knocked on the same door four years later, with In Search of Bigfoot. That latter film is included in the latest entry into Vinegar Syndrome’s “Drive-In Collection,” with Cry Wilderness, a 1987 theatrical release in which a young boy befriends the Sasquatch, who instructs the boy to venture into the wilderness in order to save his father from impending danger. Both pictures look better than ever after being accorded new 2K scans from the 35mm camera negatives.

14 Blades: Blu-ray
Triad
The Eastern Western concept appears to have taken hold in China, with more and more historical dramas being set in the vast plains, deserts and mountain ranges of the western provinces. 14 Blades was shot in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in the far northwest corner of the PRC, where the ancient   Zhenbei Castle has served foreign filmmakers in search of exotic locations since the 1920s. It’s appropriate, then, that this story of Ming Dynasty intrigue and action would take place in and around a military fortress constructed in the same period (1368-1644). I don’t know when Islam took hold there, but the religion’s influence on the desert architecture is pretty hard to miss. That’s not what drives the action in 14 Blades, however. Here, Donnie Yen plays Qinglong, a prominent royal guard trained from childhood in a clandestine form of combat requiring prowess in swordplay and the creation of weapons – 14, to be precise – designed for specific occasions. When Qinglong is betrayed by an evil traitor, Jia (Law Kar-Ying), he’s required to assemble an army of resistance and restore the emperor to his rightful throne. If the story is overly familiar, the swordplay and scenery easily pick up the slack. It’s interesting that two of the most proficient warriors are women. Unusual outside China, Korea and Japan, the inclusion of female characters for non-romantic purposes has become commonplace in the wuxia genre.

Triad doesn’t break any new ground in its story of three childhood friends who join the Hong Kong triads after witnessing a rare act of kindness, bravery and generosity on the part of a local boss. Figuring that such things happen all the time and the marketplace Brother Patrick controls values his protection, the teenagers decide to follow in his violent footsteps. After clashing with one of Patrick’s rivals, however, one of them is sent away to Taiwan to lay low and concentrate on getting a law degree. Upon his return to Hong Kong, though, the young man finds other ways to serve the gang. Control of the island will soon revert back to the PRC and the triad bosses don’t want to be hung out to dry. While the Young Turks attack each other with knives and fists of fury, nary a single cop attempts to enforce the law. Not surprisingly, in the pursuit of power, the three friends come to loggerheads over priorities and tactics. In addition to re-introducing the gang movie to the repertoire of contemporary Hong Kong cinema, Triad’s primary reason for being appears to be adding fresh young faces to the mix, such as those belonging to William Chan, Edward Tsui, Derek Tsang and Michelle Wai.

The Legend of Hell House: Blu-ray
R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend?
When it comes to horror, the learning curve is very short. You either dig it, or you don’t. Some of us got hooked immediately upon being introduced to the great Universal characters of the 1930s. Others picked up on it during the 1950-60s, when the gap between sci-fi and horror narrowed to near invisibility. Teenagers flooded to the genre when the slasher/splatter films began to kill off their peers in staggering numbers. I paired the otherwise unrelated The Legend of Hell House and R.L. Stine’s Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend? because, today, both can be seen as stepping stones to more frightening stuff down the road. If, for example, a child is turned on by Stine’s writings and adaptations of them on film, their next stop might be toward books and movies with Stephen King’s imprint on them, or Kevin Williamson’s teen thrillers. New to Blu-ray, Legend of Hell House may look a bit old-fashioned after 40 years in circulation, but it remains the quintessential haunted-house flick of the last 50 years. The tension builds naturally and the shocks aren’t artificially induced through use of CGI or special makeup effects. It pays homage to the Hammer Studio classics, while anticipating the movement toward recognizing parapsychology as something other than a hoax or hobby. Roddy McDowall plays one of four psychic investigators who descend upon an abandoned English manor known as the Mt. Everest of haunted houses. McDowell’s character is the sole survivor of a previous expedition and he’s convinced that the evil forces inhabiting Hell House are capable of murder. The hi-def restoration accentuates the scary color scheme of the original, which captured the estate’s dark shadows and dusty atmosphere. It adds a new interview with director John Hough and commentary with actress Pamela Franklin.

Teen favorites Bella Thorne, Madison Pettis and Ryan Ochoa star in Mostly Ghostly: Have You Met My Ghoulfriend?, which takes a more family-friendly approach to ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. Evil spirits are hell-bent on ruining Max’s big Halloween-night date with Cammy, the smart and popular redhead at school. To combat them, Max calls on his ghostly pals, Tara and Nicky, who’ve lost contact with their parents. Given Stine’s constituency, the story forgoes the religious aspects of parapsychology, which inform the Hell House investigation and debate. The only extras are a digital copy of the 91-minute movie and UltraViolet capability.

President Wolfman
PMS Cop
Baby Blues: Blu-ray
Closed Circuit Extreme
Sonno Profondo: Limited Edition
Lowlife
After Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter produced a ripple of excitement in movie circles last year, the odds in favor of having a Wolfman as our next president became prohibitive. The first surprise comes in knowing that anyone with a digital editing bank and photographic memory of crappy B-movies could have made the same movie as Mike Davis, who splices-and-dices tape with the best of them. President Wolfman is comprised of a reported 112 different clips from movies in the public domain and stock footage, as well as some grainy government instructional shorts, classroom-education movies and vintage stag reels. It’s a bizarre amalgam of material, but the sum of its parts, when redubbed dialogue is added, sometimes is very funny, indeed. The second surprise arrives in the form of Dean Stockwell, whose visage was lifted from some long-forgotten movie and, through the art of voice acting, is President Wolfman. The werewolf-in-chief is required here to balance a schedule that includes preventing his congressional opponents from selling the U.S. to China; keeping his vice-president from killing his 8-year-old son; and investigating a series of gory murders in the nation’s capital. Because President Wolfman is every bit as nutso as it sounds, it’s definitely not for everyone. The special features add short films by Davis, outtakes, a music video and highlight reel.

As high concepts go, PMS Cop, could hardly be more succinct. In two words, the title not only tells viewers exactly what to expect from the movie, but it also baits a hook to tantalize tens of thousands of B-movie lovers. In a wonderful opening sequence, patrol officer Mary Collins (Heather Hall) subdues an evil clown with what her commanding officer decides is excessive force. Considering that the perp was caught in the act of raping a young woman in a home invasion and exhibited a willingness to use violence to avoid arrest, Collins’ response was entirely justified. Nevertheless, the department’s psychiatrist determines that she suffers from extreme PMS and ought to take part in a drug experiment designed to find a cure. Needless to say, the therapist stands to benefit financially if the drug proves to be marketable to women who seek relief from the problem. In the pharmaceutical company’s rush to complete the tests, however, they neglected to study the effects of the menstrual drug on women with rage issues unrelated to PMS or cops pushed to the boiling point by people they suspect of breaking the law. Despite the “progress” displayed by Collins, the drug has the opposite effect when memories of watching her partner die in the pursuit of a criminal come to the fore. When a traffic stop threatens to go sideways, Collins rips the jaw from the skull of a guy who questions her judgment and authority. The incident is captured by a video camera in the grill of her patrol car. Oops. It’s at this point that Mary’s character evolves into PMS Cop (now played by Cindy Means) and the question then becomes one of how to use the drug to create an army of super-powerful women warriors. Bryon Blakey only spent about $30,000 on PMS Cop, but the finished product is far more satisfying than movies whose budgets are 10 times that amount and are still considered to be shoestring projects.

Baby Blues strings together a half-dozen horror tropes — mostly to positive effect — to create a film that is genuinely creepy, if not particularly scary. Like clowns and ventriloquists’ dummies, the presence of dolls with lifelike eyes in the first reel almost always signals what’s going to happen in the next 90 minutes. Child’s Play, of course, is evil-doll movie against which all other such movies have been measured, at least during the course of the last 26 years. The dolls in Baby Blues possess telekinetic powers that reach out and touch everyone in the orbit of newlyweds Hao (Raymond Lam) and Tian Qing (Janelle Sing). Hao is a songwriter for several of the top pop acts in China, while his wife writes a blog about celebrities and the entertainment. (We don’t actually see Tian Qing at work, which is par for the course in these movies.) When they purchase a lovely new home, the couple can’t possibly imagine what the leftover doll might have in mind for them. Among other things, though, it will become for Tian Qing a surrogate sibling for the twin son she lost immediately after giving birth. Unbeknownst to the hugely depressed woman, her “son” Jimmy is making life miserable for her husband and his pop-star clients. The couple can’t say they weren’t warned, however. A homeless man who haunts their neighborhood had seen what happened to the previous owners and suggested that they, too, take a powder. Despite its Chinese roots, Baby Blues was designed to look as if it could be taking place in any suburban neighborhood in the world, a device that somehow makes it less scary.

Closed Circuit Extreme is a yet another found-footage thriller that is neither thrilling nor logically plotted. For one thing, it’s almost impossible to tell with any certainty if Giorgio Amato’s freshman feature takes place in Italy or the United States, as the characters speak broken English throughout the film and the antagonist’s home looks as if it belonged in Anywhere USA. It’s also possible that Amato borrowed the plot of Disturbia and, instead of binoculars, had his amateur sleuths use modern surveillance equipment to spy on suspected serial killer. After a female friend vanishes, a young man and woman sneak into the culprit’s home and plant cameras throughout the house. For most of the first half of Closed Circuit Extreme, the constant tinkering with the equipment and shots of the fat slob in his underwear are the cinematic equivalent of a root canal. When he finally does reveal his true colors, the spies aren’t even in position to watch the violence he perpetrates against the women he lures to his home under false pretenses. Nor do they review the day’s tapes to see how the creep might have spent his day. The attacks on the captive women border on the unwatchable, which is probably as they should be viewed. What’s missing is any reason to hope that they’ll be rescued before being killed or evidence that the spies know what to do with any incriminating video. As such, Closed Circuit Extreme is little more than a voyeuristic exercise.

One needn’t be addicted to Italian giallo films to enjoy Luciano Onetti’s visually disturbing thriller, Sonno Profondo (“Deep Sleep”), but a working familiarity with the subgenre’s conceits will make the neo-giallo experience that much more comprehensible. For beginners, Italian mysteries of the 1960-70s turned American film noir inside-out by adding garish color schemes, a disturbing musical soundtrack, hyper-violent crimes, various degrees of nudity and a playful approach to point-of-view. At the time, American audiences found them to be too far over the top to be taken seriously. That impression began to change when buffs acknowledged the legitimacy of the form and its many pleasures. Sonno Profondo uses modern technology to tinker with the subgenre’s many tropes and push the accelerator on the visual narrative. The film opens with the silhouette of woman – a prostitute, but we don’t know that yet – getting herself together, ostensibly for a night of hot sex. As she applies her makeup, a man with a very sharp knife approaches the woman and eliminates her from the cast of characters. Unbeknownst to the killer, though, he’s being followed by an anonymous stalkers, who will photograph the attack and slide the pictures under his door the next day. It triggers sublimated childhood memories in the fiend and raises the movie’s paranoia quotient to the breaking point. If the story eventually gets lost in Onetti’s stylistic experimentation, at least something different is being attempted here.

Judging from the surrealism at work in Seth Smith’s feature debut, Lowlife, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that he feasted on the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch as a boy and, therefore, developed a very different concept of horror than his peers. In it, a musician becomes addicted to a substance secreted from a form of starfish he pulls out of puddles in the forests of Halifax. The psychotropic drug is accessed by chewing the starfish, which appears to be very much alive. He convinces a similarly disaffected young woman to join him on his trips and the experience proves to be enlightening for her. Before long, the drug takes them over, body and soul, causing ever more desperate foraging in the marshy wilderness. Lowlife is a very strange movie and definitely not one for the squeamish. Anyone who got through Naked Lunch or Dune shouldn’t have much problem with it, though.

Animal House of Blues
After surviving the Merry Prankster era, the green revolution and some of the most garish uniforms in collegiate sports, you’d think that Eugene, Oregon, would be blasé about its place in Hollywood history. You’d be wrong. If old hippies and drunken UofO fraternity boys can agree on one thing, it’s that hosting the production of Animal House sure was a super-cool, awesome-to-the-max, impossible-to-forget experience for everyone involved. Eugene was still mourning the untimely death of now-legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine when John Landis’ flying circus came to town in 1977. No one, let alone Universal Pictures executives, could have imagined just how popular Animal House would turn out to be at the box office or that it would spawn an entirely new subgenre: the gross-out comedy. The winsome do-it-yourself documentary, Animal House of Blues, not only describes how the production has continued to impact the community, but also credits local musicians for inspiring the Blues Brothers phenomenon and, by extension, the House of Blues franchise. Katherine Wilson, who served as a location scout for the project, is the driving force behind the documentary. The Klamath Falls native got the call after Animal House’s resident scouts were rejected by every eastern college they had contacted. (The movie’s Delta House was inspired by one writer’s experiences as an Alpha Delta at Dartmouth.) The university and its environs opened their arms to John Belushi & Co., and the rest is history. The most interesting thing about the documentary, besides Kim Plant’s recollection of disrobing in front of a leering Belushi in the sorority house scene, is the story of how local blues musicians Curtis Salgado and Robert Cray inspired Belushi to debut the Blues Brothers routine on “Saturday Night Live,” giving full credit to Salgado. (Landis’ next movie would be an extension of that short-lived sensation.) Animal House of Blues isn’t the most polished documentary you’re likely to see this year, but what it lacks in technical proficiency it makes up for in heart and the warm glow of nostalgia. If nothing else, it’s a must-see for Animal House fanatics.

Revelation Trail
The Walking Dead: Season 4
If all a critic reviews are previously released movies as they make the transition from multiplexes to DVD/Blu-ray, that person is bound to miss some hidden gems in the straight-to-DVD pile. Considering the largely pathetic state of Hollywood products for 11 months of the calendar year, it serves almost no one to ignore the low-budget indies in favor of already reviewed studio fare. It’s important, then, for genre enthusiasts to pay attention to bloggers and websites dedicated to horror, sci-fi, fantasy and, for all I know, Westerns and gangster flicks. Revelation Trail is a perfect example of a movie that could have been lost in the crowd, if it weren’t championed by writers who make it their job to separate the wheat from the chaff. As entertaining as it is, John P. Gibson’s merger of Western and horror tropes likely was deemed too bizarre for distribution or even much festival exposure. Certainly, the market for zombie-apocalypse movies is oversaturated and it’s impossible to predict how a Western might perform. After the expensive disaster that was Cowboys & Aliens, one could hardly imagine any studio taking a chance on another genre mosh-up. Unlike that movie, however, Revelation Trail plays things very much down the middle. Yes, it’s crazy to think zombies roamed the west like deer and antelopes at play. But, whoever thought they would show up in Pittsburgh, of all undead places, for George A. Romeo to exploit in Night of the Living Dead? The Civil War has finally ended and frontier families are attempting to get their lives back together. A man known only as the Preacher watches helplessly as his wife and son are infected by drifters who spent the night in his barn. Soon, the countryside is awash in the walking and running dead. Preacher and the Marshal Edwards know what they must do to impede the individual zombies, but they disagree on whether they deserve a proper Christian burial and a prayer for the dead. I’m serious. As the two men head further west, other challenges await them, including a shortage of bullets. Even though the producers had very little money to invest in props and other luxuries, Revelation Trail looks as authentic as any other Western I’ve seen in the past few years. Likewise, Daniel Van Thomas and Daniel Britt are completely credible as denizens of the Old West … and sharpshooters. The bonus featurette is well worth the effort of checking out, especially for aspiring filmmakers who want to learn how to make good movies without the benefit of a generous budget.

As if Rick Grimes and the rest of the prison dwellers didn’t have enough to worry about after three seasons of struggle against the walkers, Season Four of “The Walking Dead” added yet another dilemma to the survivors. The year opens with the introduction of a fast-moving virus that shows no mercy and leaves them to deal with the reality of new zombies. Moreover, the Governor is threatening to storm the prison and take what he wants from the survivors. All the while, the characters and loyal viewers are left to wonder if there’s any real point in struggling to stay alive, when the reward for survival is more struggle. Pick up the DVD/Blu-ray now and straggles will have plenty of time to catch up with the story, as well as wade through the copious bonus material, including commentaries, character studies, deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Citizen Koch
A very different kind of horror is at play in the shocking political documentary Citizen Koch. It describes how two extremely wealthy businessmen – David and Charles Koch — have used their vast resources to convince American conservatives, traditionalists and brain-dead Tea Party fanatics that President Obama, trade unions and anyone to the left of Arnold Schwarzenegger are greater threats to our way of life than al Qaeda, the Taliban and Isis combined. They’ve already purchased the U.S. Supreme Court and a couple of dozen statehouses, but seem to have their sights set on eliminating every impediment to unbridled corporate greed voted into law since FDR. The Koch brothers don’t appear to have an opinion on issues related to anything other than reducing taxes, eliminating regulatory agencies and balancing budgets, but that doesn’t mean their followers aren’t obsessed with the ages-old Negro problem, unfettered gun ownership and undocumented communist immigrants from Guatemala. Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) trace the Koch brothers’ cannibalization of democracy to the rise of the Tea Party and acceptance of Fox News as a beacon of truth; the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision to remove limits on corporate political donations; and the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, after he successfully diluted the rights of union workers. The Kochs financed the Tea Party-aligned Americans for Prosperity, whose positions parrot those of the lobbying organizations that now set the Republican agenda and even write legislation sponsored by easily steered politicians. Citizen Koch isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the direction in which this country is headed, if only because debate and compromise no longer exist in this country and political opinions are etched in stone. If only carefully considered documentaries from the left or right could be spoon-fed to dedicated non-voters, there might be some hope for the future. It’s worth noting that Walker, who ran on a platform promising new jobs for state workers, has yet to create any in Wisconsin. Instead, he has funneled state funds to projects of interest to his out-of-state backers. The DVD adds interviews and a panel discussion hosted by Michael Moore.

TV-to-DVD
Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series
Hey Arnold! The Complete Series Box Set
The CW: The Originals: The Complete First Season
PBS:Masterpiece Mystery!: Breathless: Season One
PBS: Nature: Fabulous Frog: Blu-ray
PBS: History Detectives: Special Investigations
Syfy: Haven: Complete Fourth Season [Blu-ray]
PBS KidsL: Arthur Goes Back to School
Available for the first time in DVD, the complete four-season run of “Welcome Back, Kotter” – one of the most fondly remembered sitcoms of the 1970s – has finally been released through Shout! Factory. Set in an urban high school, not unlike the one in Blackboard Jungle, the show described the antics of a group of unruly students, the Sweathogs, and one dedicated teachers efforts to prevent them from matriculating directly to Attica or Sing-Sing. Standup comedian Gabe Kaplan had attended just such a school and based his characters and their names on his own experiences and acquaintances. When it came to exchanging barbs with the kids, Kotter gave as good as he got, He also shared their attitude toward authority figures. (Like Major Major in “Catch-22,” the school’s principal was perpetually absent.) Compared to the hoodlums in Glenn Ford’s classroom in Blackboard Jungle, however, Kotter’s students were pushovers to his methodology. Kaplan made sure that audience members could identify with one or two of the characters, at least, and Kotter’s long-suffering wife, Julie (Marcia Strassman), wasn’t overwhelmed by his devotion to duty or the student’s impromptu visits to their apartment. Of course, a student body that included John Travolta, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes (a Puerto Rican Jew) and Debralee Scott – all in their 20s – kept viewers coming back for more. They also kept Kaplan in poker chips for the next 30-plus years. The DVD package adds “Only a Few Degrees From a Sweathog “ and the actors’ original screen tests.

You’ll have to go to Wal-mart, at least for the time being, to pick up Shout!’s complete-series box of the delightful Nickelodeon series, “Hey Arnold!”  Ninety-nine episodes have been loaded onto 16 discs, totaling 38 hours of classic cartoon fun. The show, which aired on Nickelodeon from 1996-2001 and “Nick on CBS from 2002-04, was part of a wave of animated shows that toyed with cartoon conventions at the time, giving kids something other than clichés to savor. Arnold’s football-shaped head sat on the body of a normal body, which wasn’t at all strange on Nickelodeon. Arnold lives with his grandparents, who run the Sunset Arms boarding house, but spends most of his time hanging out on the roof with an unusual menagerie of pals. The voicing cast included Dan Castellaneta, Francesca Smith, Toran Caudell and Jamil Walker Smith.

The Originals” is a spin-off series from the CW’s supernatural prime-time soap opera, “The Vampire Diaries.” It centers around the Mikaelson siblings — Klaus, Elijah and Rebekah – and the werewolf, Hayley, who is pregnant with Klaus’ child. Of course, they all look as if they just stepped off the set of a MTV reality. As the series opens, the original siblings have returned to New Orleans for the first time since 1919, when their vengeful father sent them packing. In their absence, Klaus’ protégé, Marcel, took charge of the city, which always looks as if it has been taken over by over-served ghouls, vampires and witches. The Blu-ray package adds commentary on the pilot episode; panel discussions from ComicCon and PaleyFest; making-of and background pieces; and unaired scenes.

Breathless,” the latest “Masterpiece Mystery!” import from Britain’s ITV Studios, should appeal to fans of “Mad Men” and “Masters of Sex,” in that it captures moments in time from a male-dominated world on the brink of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, In 1961, doctors would soon be allowed to dispense birth-control pills, but were still prohibited from performing abortions. Surgeon Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) presides over a busy hospital gynecology ward, while also counseling women too ashamed, afraid or damaged to seek help in public facilities, Meanwhile, Powell’s own shadowy past is about to be brought into the light by a mysterious police investigator. It took me a longer time than usual to pick up the rhythm of the narrative of the “Masterpiece” presentation. After a couple of episodes, though, I was hooked, more by the acting and soap-opera aspects of the story than the mystery.

Left to their own devices, easily bored boys can be exceedingly cruel to small animals. Frogs make especially easy targets for their curiosity, restlessness and malevolent moods. It’s why I suggest that parents, camp counselors and Boy Scout leaders expose kids to PBS’ amazing “Nature” installment,

Fabulous Frog,” before being allowed to get anywhere near a lake, marsh or pond during summer vacation. Once again, host David Attenborough introduces us to animals – amphibians, in this case – we only know from pictures and might never encounter in their natural habitats. What we discover are frogs that come in a myriad of colors, shapes, sizes, mating habits, toxicity and carefully evolved behavior. Attenborough clearly is as astonished as viewers will be by what he sees, but once again is able to hold our attention without compromising the science. The frogs look spectacular in Blu-ray, as well.

The hosts of PBS’ “History Detective: Specials Investigations” tries his very best to turn already fascinating stories into something bordering on the mythical. Wes Cowan, Kaiama Glover and Tukufu Zuberi appear to have been mentored by Howard Cosell’s acting coach. In attempting to solve mysteries that have stumped historians for decades, they add a layer of breathless prose more suited to basic cable than PBS. The stories they tell sell themselves, however, and by the end of each episode the hosts let the facts speak for themselves. The new DVD compilation contains investigations into the disappearances of bandleader Glenn Miller, during World War II, and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa; the “Texas Servant Girl Murders”; and the cause of a steamboat disaster in which hundreds of furloughed Union soldiers were killed.

The Troubles returned to Haven, Maine, during the fourth season of Syfy Channel’s supernatural series, “Haven.” It stars Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour, whose characters struggle to help townspeople with bizarre ailments and protect the town from the effects of those afflictions. When FBI Agent Audrey Parker (Rose) arrives in Haven, she quickly realizes that this seemingly routine case is anything but. The series is based on Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid.” The Season Four collection includes over 2½ hours of bonus features and an exclusive 16-page comic book.

PBS Kids’ “Arthur Goes Back to School” finds the 8-year-old aardvark and friends preparing to return to classes .  The latest compilation of adventures  includes “To Eat or Not to Eat,” ”S.W.E.A.T”; “Baseball Blues” and “Brain’s Biggest Blunder.”

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

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Wrapup

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The DVD Report

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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