While any new movie by Pedro Almodóvar is cause for celebration, Julieta stands out for several reasons. Upon its screening at Cannes, critics were quick to point out that it not only marked a return to the women-centric dramas for which he’s been associated for the entirety of his 40-year, 20-feature career. It’s also one of only a very few titles that he’s adapted from a literary source or shared a writing credit. Based on three stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro — “Chance,” “Soon” and “Silence,” from her 2004 collection “Runaway” – Almodóvar originally planned to adapt them as his first English-language screenplay, possibly starring Meryl Streep. He didn’t feel comfortable pursuing that, and re-set the film for locations in Spain. If reviewers missed the director’s outrageous comedy and other trademark touches, loyalists savored his insider riffs on Spanish telenovelas, Hitchcockian tropes and film noir, as well as Julieta’s distinct visual style and complementary color palette. To this end, Almodóvar re-teamed with production designer Antxón Gómez, costume designer Sonia Grande, composer Alberto Iglesias and set designer Federico García Cambero. French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu capably filled in for José Luis Alcaine. His muse, Rossy de Palma, also plays a prominent role. Emma Suárez won several Best Actress awards in Europe for her portrayal of the adult Julieta, a woman who experiences great romance and great despair in her lifetime, but not for reasons usually associated with such upheavals. Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta, an aspiring teacher whose steamy encounter with a married fisherman, Xoan (Daniel Grao), on an overnight train to their homes, opened the door for the next 30 years of fate-driven events.
For example, coincidental to learning she’s pregnant from her one-night-stand, Julieta receives a letter from Xoan, who’s managed to track her to the address of her former school. Taking it for an invitation, she arrives at his bayside home in Galicia, within days of his long-suffering wife’s funeral. They have no problem rekindling their romance, even though Xoan’s former lover and confidante, Ava (Inma Cuesta), is still in the picture. Their daughter, Antia (Priscilla Delgado), will grow into her teens as a true daddy’s girl, but one with a curiosity about life outside the fishing village. Mother and daughter are devastated by news that Xoan has died in a terrible storm, possibly after a squabble over the continuing presence of Ava in his life. Years later, Antia is given reason to believe that the squabble – along with her being away from home, at camp – caused Xoan’s death and not his disregard for the power of the storm. While on a religious retreat in the Pyrenees, she decides to turn her back on her past and reject any contact with her mother, now living in Madrid. If the decision seems awfully rash, it sets up the emotionally charged second half of the story. Once again, as fate would have it, Julieta finally falls in love with another man, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti), she meets at Ava’s funeral. They even make plans to move to Portugal, which she abandons after running into Antia’s childhood friend, Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), who delivers some alarming news to her. Not only does it cause Julieta to remain in Madrid, but also sink into a debilitating depression over feelings of guilt and abandonment. The tantalizingly ambiguous ending probably will encourage some viewers, at least, to refer to Munro’s stories. In this case, though, that’s a good thing. The lovely Blu-ray adds featurettes “Portrait of Julieta” and “Celebrating Director Pedro Almodóvar,” from a retrospective of his works at MoMA.
Sing: Special Edition: Blu-ray/UHD/3D/DVD
In their seven-year partnership, Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures have already launched four legitimate franchises in the highly competitive animated-features arena: Despicable Me, Minions, The Secret Life of Pets and, now, Sing. Feature-length sequels and triquels to these hit flicks have already been scheduled, as well as several related or stand-alone shorts (a.k.a., cartoons). They also appear to be moving ahead on a series of Dr. Seuss adaptations that began with The Lorax (2012). Made from a relatively modest $75-million production budget, Sing did very well both domestically and worldwide. The easiest way to describe the tuneful movie is to compare it to an “American Idol” for anthropomorphic animals. Matthew McConaughey voices Buster Moon, an eternally optimistic koala – more Mickey Rooney than Ryan Seacrest — who stages an elaborate singing competition to save his crumbling theater. To cover rent and utilities, Buster resorts to several funny, if less-than-honest schemes. The cast also includes fellow Academy Award-winners Reese Witherspoon, as Rosita, an overworked and underappreciated mother of 25 piglets; Scarlett Johansson, as Ash, a punk-rock porcupine with a beautiful voice behind her prickly exterior; Seth MacFarlane, as a small, suave mouse named Mike; Taron Egerton, as Johnny, a young gorilla hoping to break free from his gangster family; and, among other artists, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, the Jennifers Saunders and Hudson, the Nicks Kroll and Offerman, Leslie Jones, Rhea Perlman and Laraine Newman. While kids should enjoy watching the animals perform, parents can sing along to the brief snippets from 85-plus hit songs, from the 1940s to 2016, performed by the voice actors or cover groups. (Songs performed by the original artists, at longer than abbreviated lengths, would have cost a fortune in licensing fees.) Co-director Garth Jennings previously directed the quirky comedy Son of Rambow and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, while first-time helmsman Christophe Lourdelet has worked on Minions, The Lorax and French-language delights The Rabbi’s Cat and A Monster in Paris. The Blu-ray edition adds character profiles; making-of and background featurettes; several music videos; and three entertaining mini-movies.
A Kind of Murder: Blu-ray
Adapted rather loosely from Patricia Highsmith’s third of 22 novels, “The Blunderer,” A Kind of Murder would have benefited greatly from sticking to the details of the 1954 thriller and resisting the temptation to tweak them for reasons known only to director Andy Goddard (Set Fire to the Stars) and first-time screenwriter Susan Boyd. They did a nice job changing the time frame to the early 1960s and even made Cincinnati environs look like New York. The costumes are appropriate for the period – JFK had yet to take possession of the White House – and a scene set precariously in a Greenwich Village bar avoids insulting the “beatnik” patrons and viewers’ intelligence. The problem is that the plot twists invented to make the movie more appealing to modern audiences don’t hold up to scrutiny by mystery buffs, who, ostensibly, are the target audience. Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel play an unhappily married suburban couple, living in an almost oppressively modern house he designed not far from the city. In “The Blunderer,” Walter Stackhouse is a mild-mannered lawyer condemned to constantly adjusting to the whims of an overreaching shrew, Clara (Biel). In the movie, Walter is an architect and aspiring writer of crime fiction and Clara doesn’t become insufferable until she conjures a sexual dalliance between Walter and a sexy cabaret singer, Ellie Briess (Haley Bennett), who’s brought to a party at their home as a guest.
Clara makes him so miserable with her accusations of infidelity that he finally decides to confirm her fears by succumbing to Ellie’s not-at-all subtle advances. Clara’s failed suicide attempt puts a wrinkle in Walter’s plans to divorce her, but not before she’s found dead on a bus trip to visit her dying mother. In the mind of a single-minded police detective (Vincent Kartheiser), her death too closely resembles an unsolved murder he believes was committed by the wonderfully named, if oily bookshop manager, Melchior J. Kimmel (Eddie Marsan). After reading about the Kimmel murder in the newspaper, he clips the item as reference for a future novel. Its discovery by the detective effectively gives him all the evidence he needs to make his suspects’ lives miserable. While not terribly far from capturing the gist of “The Blunderer,” Boyd’s script forces her protagonist to make the kinds of mistakes that no mystery writer – even a novice – would commit. These include repeatedly allowing himself to be caught in lies any rookie flatfoot could detect and trusting too many people to make alibis for him. A deliberately noir-ish conclusion also begs credulity. Even so, A Kind of Murder is well-acted and sufficiently atmospheric to be recommendable as a rainy-day diversion. But, then, so would picking up any Highsmith book from the library or downloading it to a hand-held device. The bonus material includes interviews with the director and cast, as well as featurettes on capturing the right period feel.
The Nightless City
Here’s an interesting movie that came out of nowhere, absent any release information or reviews. Even now, all I know about The Nightless City is that its studio is listed as the eclectic Shami Media Group and that it’s available through MVD Visual. Sometimes, its reps know what I’ll enjoy watching before I do. That’s certainly the case here. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear incident, a hypersensitive photographer (Maya Murofushi) is so haunted by the surrealistic manifestations of the nuclear disaster and subsequent tsunami that she’s unable to sleep. Mariko decides to move to Sicily, the current home of a former lover (Giovanni Calcagno), Rocco, who might provide her the space she needs to her reset her inner alarm clock. If anything, her insomnia gets worse. By chance, Mariko discovers that she’s able to sleep at night whenever Rocco agrees to drive her around the city, which I assume to be Palermo. Refreshed, she picks up her camera and begins a series of photos relating to her dreams and memories of the disaster, as well as hyper-realistic photos of Rocco in bed, which she blows up to fill the apartment’s walls. I don’t know who shot the photographs, but they’re truly amazing. The thing is, just as Mariko’s life begins to return to normal, his gets turned upside-down, due to her need to be chauffeured around the city until the wee hours. Finally, his devotion is rewarded with the loss of his own job, if not his sanity. What I really liked in The Nightless City is the merging of art mediums – including Massimo Foletti’s cinematography and Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari and Lorenzo Feliciati’s music – to reveal the disassociation experienced by Mariko from the disaster. In this way, it reminded me of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 arthouse thriller, Diva, which blended several disparate artistic impulses in the service of wonderfully complex and super-hip crime story. If you loved Diva, or only remember it for Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez’ performance of the first-act aria from the opera “La Wally,” you may want to take a chance with The Nightless City.
Ali & Nino
Anyone who’s able to find Baku on a map, without consulting Google, already is part of the target audience for Asif Kapadia’s Ali & Nino, an epic romance based on Kurban Said’s 1937 novel. Those of us who couldn’t pinpoint Azerbaijan on a map, let alone Baku, might need more convincing. For the record, the Republic of Azerbaijan is a crossroads nation in the South Caucasus, situated at the borders of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe. Rich with oil, it is bound by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west and Iran to the south. Baku is its capital. In 1918, multicultural Azerbaijan was under the control of czarist Russia, and mostly content with its wealth and religious diversity. That situation would dramatically change, twice, in the next two years. After the collapse of the Russian Empire and end of World War I, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic became the first modern parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Twenty-three months later, after Vladimir Lenin declared that Soviet Russia could not survive without Baku’s oil, Red Army troops invaded the country. And, that was all she wrote for the next 70 years, when the dissolution of the USSR opened the door for another shot at independence. That’s all the information a non-Azerbaijani viewer needs to enjoy Ali & Nino on its merits. Those more familiar with the country’s history probably will find in undernourished, though.
Adam Bakri and María Valverde play star-crossed lovers, Ali Khan Shirvanshir and Nino Kipiani, a Muslim boy and Orthodox girl, who defy their parents’ wishes by deciding to marry. Ali killed a wealthy suitor after he attempted to kidnap Nino and marry her in Moscow. For this, a price was put on his head by the victim’s family. For once, then, religion isn’t the determining factor causing them to run off to mountains to begin their life together and raise a family. His Muslim relatives there like Nino and she adapts to their customs. It’s a lovely setup for a far more explosive second half, when Ali’s patriotism trumps Nino’s desire to stay in the mountains until the smoke clears. Once they reach Baku, again, it becomes clear that it will be impossible for them to live together in peace. Ali sends Nino to then-Persia, to live in a harem until their baby arrives and he’s able to contribute to the new government. The primary question then becomes whether they’ll ever be able to celebrate their belated honeymoon in Paris, as promised. Shot in Azerbaijan and Turkey, Ali & Nino is easy on the eyes. What’s missing is the passion that’s informed other romantic epics, including Doctor Zhivago, which the marketing team wants us to think it resembles. The political throughline, while historically accurate, feels too cut-an-dried, as well. The international cast includes Mandy Patinkin, Connie Nielsen, Homayoun Ershadi and Halit Ergenç, indicating that the producers thought they could draw an international audience. (Exec-producer Leyla Aliyeva is the daughter of Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan.)
Multiple Maniacs: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
In an interview conducted with John Waters for the release of this welcome special edition, which bears both the Criterion and Janus logos, the Pope of Trash recalls how almost all the art films he obsessed over as a teenage buff were released by Janus. To see it attached to one of his most scandalous entertainments, he offers, means that his career has truly come full circle. I don’t know if Waters has hung up his director’s megaphone just yet – he’s declared that “irony ruined everything” and it’s no longer possible to make independent films that cost $5 million – but he’s spent most of his time lately writing, lecturing and playing guest roles in other people’s projects. While the commentary track here argues against Waters having been totally defanged by time and competition, his nostalgic memories of the creation of his second feature, Multiple Maniacs, occasionally border on the sentimental. Delightfully blasphemous, it scores directs hits on the norms of life in suburban Baltimore and the rise of the politically correct left at the end of the 1960s. The centerpiece depravity in Multiple Maniacs is the Cavalcade of Perversion, a mobile midway attraction mounted by a troupe of misfits organized by Lady Divine (Pink Flamingos). Then and now, her presence mocked everything held sacred by the Hollywood studios and fashion-magazine editors. According to ringmaster Mr. David, the freaks include “assorted sluts, fags, dykes and pimps (who) know no bounds! They have committed acts against God and nature, acts that by their mere existence would make any decent person recoil in disgust!” They re-enact the Stations of the Cross, while Lady Divine goes on a rampage after being raped by a 15-foot lobster. Divine would famously trump this outrage a year later in Pink Flamingos, of course, but not before Canadian censors burned their print of Multiple Maniacs, rather than validate it with public condemnation. The restoration team offered to retain the period blemishes, artifacts and scratches, but Waters asked them give it the first-class sheen it wasn’t accorded on 16mm stock. The 4K digital upgrade, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack, was supervised by Waters. The Blu-ray also adds entertaining interviews with cast and crew members Pat Moran, Vincent Peranio, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe and George Figgs, as well as an essay by critic Linda Yablonsky.
Juli Jackson’s debut feature, 45RPM, debuted as a work-in-progress at the 2012 Ozark Film Festival and, again, a year later, at the Little Rock Film Festival, before hitting the circuit for another two. I have no idea what distributors didn’t see in the delightfully unprepossessing rock-’n’-roll fantasy. In my opinion, someone really missed the boat. In spirit, at least, the micro-budget indie reminded me favorably of High Fidelity and Empire Records, both largely set in a record store, but mostly of Ace Atkins’ first novel, “Crossroads Blues.” In it, an ex-New Orleans Saint turned Tulane University blues historian searches for the fabled lost recordings of Robert Johnson — and a missing colleague – and, as they say, finds trouble at every turn. In 45RPM, Charlie (Liza Burns), an artist who seeks a connection between her work and her deceased father’s music, teams up with Louie (Jason Thompson), an obsessive record collector from Memphis. All they have to go on are a few vague memories of a record she listened to as a child and his extensive knowledge of obscure 1960s garage-rock. After a false start caused by Charlie misremembering the name of her dad’s band – Five Man Trip, not Five Man Trio – they visit every used-record store, small-town radio station and swap meet in central Arkansas looking for clues. The thrill of the hunt invigorates Louie, while a deadline back home causes Charlie to take out her frustration on him. If it feels forced on her part, the financial pressure is really the only source of drama throughout 45RPM, which was OK with me. Somewhere along the way, we’d also expect them to realize their mutual love/lust for each other and hit the nearest rest stop for sex. Instead, Charlie and Louis stick to the task at hand, which, again, is OK. The scenes and stops along the road are enhanced by a soundtrack full of songs by what I assume are active Southern blues/rockabilly/garage bands. The ending satisfies, even without Jackson having to add some fireworks to spice it up. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and uncompleted short film that inspired the feature.
The Creature Below
The cover art for direct-to-videos is notoriously derivative, often ripping off marketing campaigns for infinitely better and demonstrably more successful movies. Rarely, though, have two genre pictures that are so similar been released in the same month than Wild Eye Releasing’s Creature Lake and Breaking Glass’ The Creature Below. One each, a woman in a bikini is shown emerging from a body of water, with tentacles protruding behind her back. On closer examination, the woman on the cover of the former wears a demonic grin beneath glowing eyeballs, while the woman on the latter appears to be standing on the lower jaw of a sea monster. The images are quite striking, if inarguably generic. Only one of them reflects what happens in the movie, however. That would be Drazen Baric and Damien Slevin’s debut feature, Creature Lake (a.k.a., “Gitaskog”), whose bathing beauty is, in reality, demonic and naked. If it is a hybrid of exploitation flicks that emerged from the found-footage and cabin-in-the-woods subgenres, it also owes something to The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Deliverance. Here, a bunch of urban bozos repairs to a remote Canadian lake for a weekend “sausage party.” A member of a First Nations tribe warns them against disrespecting the sacred waters, which are protected by a powerful spirit. Naturally, one of the men mistakes the naked woman beckoning him into the lake for an Indian maiden or garden-variety nymphomaniac, who must have been enjoying a swim when she chanced upon this bevy of horny hunks. Imagine their surprise when the fellow who jumped into the water first is sucked into the depths, never to be seen again. Somehow, they fail to put two and two together, until it’s too late. Creature Lake is just goofy enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure, which is more than can be said about most post-“Blair Witch” and -“Cabin Fever” efforts.
The Creature Below isn’t as easy to categorize, although parts of it resemble other sci-fi/horror pictures in which humans conduct experiments on sea creatures without regard to the ramifications of messing with Mother Nature. Anna Dawson plays Olive, an expert deep-sea diver and marine biologist who’s on a mission to research theories of the seaborne origins of life. The dive that opens the picture is interrupted by something that nearly kills her. Before Olive’s rescued, though, she grabs an egg. After being berated by her sponsor (Zacharee Lee) for destroying a precious piece of equipment, Olive smuggles the egg home with her, stashing it in the basement of the house she shares with her boyfriend, Matt (Daniel Thrace), and her nosy sister, Ellie (Michaela Longden). As the creature emerges from the egg and begins to grow, Olive forms an oddly symbiotic relationship with it. She discovers the creature’s bloodlust at about the same time the scientist realizes that Olive may have stolen evidence to prove his thesis. Ellie also becomes curious about what was growing in the aquarium downstairs. Olive’s experiencing horrific nightmares, as well. The trick becomes keeping her sister out of a danger, while protecting herself from her sponsor’s wrath. To this end, she receives help from an unexpected ally. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a Frightfest Q&A and director Stewart Sparke’s very short short, “Rats,” about a young woman who finds her home plagued by mutant rats from outer space.
Sisters of the Plague
Death Walks on High Heels: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Death Walks at Midnight: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Anyone who can’t find atmosphere in New Orleans isn’t breathing and Jorge Torres-Torres’ supernatural thriller nearly drowns in it. Josephine Decker, an impossible-to-pigeonhole actress with roots in the Mumblecore discipline, plays a seemingly sane woman who makes a tentative living leading tourists on haunted-house tours around the French Quarter. It isn’t until Jo’s desperately alcoholic father (Thomas Francis Murphy) moves into the house she shares with her girlfriend (Isolde Chae-Lawrence) that things really begin to get weird. The old man probably is hiding his culpability in the death of Jo’s mother and, in turn, her increasingly disturbing nightmares and hallucinations. She seeks the help of a medium, of which there’s a surplus in the Crescent City, who warns her to prepare for something beyond her control. It turns Sisters of the Plague into the kind of possession drama that could play in arthouses, but has trouble exiting the LGBT festival circuit. Torres-Torres (Shadow Zombie) and co-writer Jason Banker (Toad Road) leave a lot to the imagination, but the atmosphere is thick enough to hold it together for 80 minutes.
Ireland isn’t a bad place to look for atmosphere, either. Dáire McNab’s modern giallo, 3 Sisters, shifts the points-of-view with a frequency that makes it difficult to tell where his camera is pointing at any given time and why. (The police investigation, autopsy and burial of the first victim is shown from the POV of the corpse.) The one thing we know for sure is that someone is murdering the members of a Dublin family, one by one, and without waiting for the blood to dry between killings. In addition to the POV tricks, the camera bounces from intimate, in-your-face close-ups, to shots captured on security cameras. It takes a while to get fully adjusted, but adventurous viewers will find value in the effort. No sooner is the uncle of the title characters found in a pool of his own blood – possibly from a self-inflicted wound — than one of the sisters is brutally murdered in her home. The victim’s sister/housemate Sarah (Gillian Walsh) discovers the body and, unable to face staying the night there, seeks refuge with her ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Elliott Moriarty). As they tentatively rekindle their extinguished romance, the killer lurks menacingly in the background, targeting the third sister. As it also turns out, the patriarch of the family is dying of cancer. Sarah, Dylan and an almost comically brusque police detective discover almost simultaneously that she stands to inherit a small fortune when the father dies. As the 87-minute mark approaches, it’s difficult to say how much satisfaction McNab is going to give his viewers when/if he reveals the killer and what will happen to him. We miss the gaudy colors associated with giallo, but everything else is there, including Italian cult favorite Giovanni Lombardo Radice (Cannibal Ferox, House on the Edge of the Park). The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.
For a more traditional giallo experience, a good place to start would be Luciano Ercoli’s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, from the early 1970s. Less known than Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Sergio Martino, Ercoli only directed a handful of films before retiring on a substantial inheritance, or so the legend goes. He lived another 38 years without making another one. There’s nothing wrong with his “Death Walks” duo, though. We reviewed them here last year, when Arrow bundled immaculately restored versions of them as “Death Walks Twice.” Both star Spanish-born model/actress/bombshell Nieves Navarro, who embodied all the traits with female giallo superstars. In “High Heels,” she plays an exotic dancer terrorized by a black-clad assailant determined to steal her murdered father’s already purloined gems. She flees Paris to evade her knife-wielding pursuer, but England offers only temporary refuge. In “Midnight,” Navarro portrays Valentina, a model who, during a drug-fueled photoshoot, witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. Naturally, the police fail to find anything amiss, forcing her to play amateur sleuth to unravel the mystery. The separately sold discs carry over featurettes and interviews that were included in the boxed set.
Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Sometimes, good things do get better. The hyper-eclectic MVD Entertainment Group has just added Arrow Academy to its roster of companies whose products it distributes in the U.S. It is a division the U.K.’s Arrow Films, which does such a nice job with restorations of specialty and genre titles, including the aforementioned Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. The new imprint will release “definitive and prestige-edition films by revered maestros of cinema from across the globe, including filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Fritz Lang, R.W. Fassbinder, Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard.” Typically, the digitally upgraded titles will come loaded with newly produced commentary, featurettes and interviews. Its “Cinema Paradiso: Special Edition” and “The Creeping Garden: Limited Edition” packages are a very good start. One of the most honored films of the last 50 years – foreign language or otherwise – Cinema Paradiso (1988) has only been available in stripped-down versions of the theatrical cut or bonus-free DVD editions of the extended director’s cut. Writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore initially said that his intention for the picture was to serve as an obituary for traditional movie theatres and the movie industry in general, in the post-war era. If, upon completion, that was all Cinema Paradiso turned out to be, it might have branded as an Italian version of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Instead, especially at the 174-minute length, it stands as a loving homage to the cinema, as told through the eyes of Salvatore “Totò” Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio/Marco Leonardi/Jacques Perrin), now a successful film director, but, as a boy, an apprentice to the projectionist, Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), at the local cinema. When Toto, whose father was killed in the war, returns home for Alfredo’s funeral, he’s flooded with memories filled with love and regret. Noiret’s performance was worth the price of admission, as was Ben Johnson’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Sam the Lion, The Last Picture Show. The Arrow package includes the 124-minute Cannes Festival theatrical version, as well 174-minute Director’s Cut, which incorporates more of Salvatore s backstory. Restored from the original camera negative, it’s further enhanced by uncompressed original stereo 2.0 Audio and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio options; commentary with Tornatore and Italian cinema expert, Millicent Marcus; “A Dream of Sicily,” a 52-minute documentary profile of the director, featuring interviews and extracts from his early home movies, and set to music by the Ennio Morricone; “A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise,” a 27-minute documentary on the genesis of Cinema Paradiso, featuring interviews with the actors who play Toto and Noiret; a discussion of the emotionally charged “kissing scenes” sequence; a 25th-anniversary re-release trailer; and collector’s booklet, by Pasquale Iannone, illustrated with archive stills, behind-the-scenes images and posters.
And, now, for something completely different from the same place: The Creeping Garden is a visually stunning documentary that explores the extraordinary world of, believe it or not, “plasmodial slime mold,” as revealed through the eyes of the fringe scientists, mycologists and the artists who work with them. In recent years, this curious organism has become the focus of much research in such areas as biological-inspired design, emergence theory, unconventional computing and robotics. Like so many other scientific endeavors, much of the research shown on film borders on science fiction. In fact, as I began watching The Creeping Garden, I thought it was a genre flick, with actors in lab coats describing yet another pre-apocalyptic threat to humanity. Soon enough, though, the film transports us from the laboratory into the primitive lifeform’s natural habitat, studying them using amazing time-lapse macro-cinematography to reveal hidden facets of the world around us. As fascinating as the science can be, what sells The Creeping Garden are the images that come alive before our eyes. It was co-directed by the artist/filmmaker Tim Grabham and author/critic Jasper Sharp, with an original soundtrack composed by Jim O Rourke (Sonic Youth). The package adds commentary with the directors; a short film on biocomputer music, which allows a two-way musical dialogue between man and slime mold; “Return to the Fungarium,” a featurette revealing further treasures of the facilities at Kew Gardens; “Feeding Habits of Physarum,” a featurette on the feeding preferences and dislikes of slime molds; three Cinema Iloobia shorts: Angela Mele’s animated slime molds; a separate soundtrack disc,
rearranged by O’Rourke; and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing writing on the film by Jasper Sharp. As usual with Arrow packages, be aware that some features are limited to the first-edition pressings.
The Quiet Hour
Even if Lloyd Kaufman is given an extended cameo in Apocalypse Kiss, as POTUS, Troma isn’t distributing Christian Jude Grillo’s pre-apocalyptic genre-bender. Michael Berryman makes a brief appearance as an evil corporate mogul, as well, but that doesn’t mean Apocalypse Kiss resembles The Hills Have Eyes, either. The critics seem to agree that it bears a surface resemblance, at least, to a cut-rate version of Blade Runner. If only. Besides directing “AK,” which apparently has been sitting on a shelf for three years, Grillo (Booley) also is credited as writer, composer, editor, production designer, set decorator, VFX coordinator, camera operator and part of the casting team. Far more prominent than Kaufman and Berryman are aspiring scream queens Carmela Hayslett and Tammy Jean, as lesbian lovers who murder horny rich guys by luring them into sure-fire sex traps; D.C. Douglas, as Adrian, the Red Harvest Killer, who’s jealous of the newcomers; and Tom Detrik, as government security agent Jerry Hipple, who blames Adrian for the death of his wife, but accepts his assistance against the lesbians. All the while, killers and victims, alike, are unaware the world is about to reach an abrupt catastrophic ending. This allows for generous helpings of gratuitous T&A and dystopian violence. The DVD adds the featurettes, “The Making of Apocalypse Kiss” and “Make Your Own Damn Space Station,” with Lloyd Kaufman; commentary with cast and crew; and fake commercials from the future.
Here’s another sci-fi drama in which the vehicles that bring aliens to Earth hover in the clouds, this time looking like wasp or hornets’ nests hanging on the branch of a tree. They’re here to harvest the planet’s resources and kill anyone who gets in the way. In her first feature, Stéphanie Joalland borrows a conceit from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” that allows her to forgo giving her aliens a physical presence. It’s enough that we know they’re there and are slowly sucking the life out of Earth. Survivors are allowed to leave their homes for two hours each day, during which the farmers we meet can tend to their crops, livestock and the solar panels that keep them safe. It also gives marauding bands of cannibals time to attack the survivors. The action here centers around an Irish family stranded in a farmhouse in County Tipperary. Nineteen-year-old Sarah (Dakota Blue Richards) and her nearly blind brother have just buried their father in the front garden. The loss leaves them vulnerable to attack, at least until Sarah can master the finer points of self-control. When a stranger named Jude (Karl Davies) appears from the wilderness, dressed like a soldier and hobbled by a bullet in his leg, she’s forced to decide if she can trust the outsider or assume he’s a cannibal and put another round in him. Because the story is less sci-fi than narrative drama, viewers are encouraged to wonder how they’d perform under similar circumstances. And that, after all, is what genre fiction is all about, anyway.
In this urban-legend thriller from Down Under, American backpackers Maya, Amelia and Toby meet a pair of Aussie rascals at the beach. A bonfire provides the setting for a retelling of the local legend of Lemon Tree Passage – Death Passage’s original title — where the ghost of a motorcyclist warns young drivers to slow down … or else. Naturally, the visitors want to experience such an amazing supernatural phenomenon for themselves. After witnessing the ghost firsthand, they realize that they’ve been caught in the clutches of a malevolent force that possesses the area and threatens to turn the final days of their vacation into a living nightmare. Part of the suspense comes from knowing that the Americans are isolated and in danger, 10,000 miles from home, and the ghost may be the least of their problems. Australian horror flicks tend to take place on lonely roads in rural locations, where things have plenty of space to go bump in the night. The DVD package adds behind-the-scenes material, blooper footage and an alternate ending.
The last time most of heard anything about Deborah Kampmeier was 10 years ago, when, in her second film, Hounddog, she directed 12-year-old Dakota Fanning in a scene that involved a rape. Nothing unsavory was shown, but the possibility that her parents and Hollywood heathens would allow an America’s princess to be on the same set as a fictional rapist precipitated a feeding frenzy among bluenose politicians and other would-be censors. The furor killed the picture, months before critics could sink their teeth into it and may have done irreparable harm to her career. It certainly didn’t hinder Dakota. In her first film, Virgin (2004), a precocious Baptist teenager (Elizabeth Moss) finds herself pregnant, with no memory of having had sex, and determines that she is carrying the child of God. It received several favorable reviews and showed promise for Kampmeier’s future. Split’s opening has been reserved for VOD outlets and DVD, but she’s already in pre-production on another 2017 release, so, maybe she’s on the comeback trail. Split is an intensely dramatic, decidedly feminist story about a young actress and exotic dancer, Inanna (Amy Ferguson), who attempts to expand her horizons by joining an all-woman acting troupe. It’s about to stage an emotionally grueling indictment, in the Athenian tradition, of the violence perpetrated on women by men. At first, Inanna is overwhelmed by the outpouring of pain by the other women, whose inhibitions clearly disappeared years earlier. Very quickly, Inanna falls in love with and marries the womanizing artist who’s creating the masks the actors will wear during the play. In short order, though, she discovers to her horror that practically everything she loved in Derek (Morgan Spector) disappeared on their wedding night, including the desire to have sex. Instead, he becomes secretive and abusive. Finally, after much trepidation, Inanna finds the strength to claim her independence and sense of self-worth by accepting the play’s theme and support of the other actresses. While it makes a very strong statement on an issue that couldn’t be more topical, Split could be accused of sending a mixed message about victims of abuse enabling their attackers. It should be noted, as well, that Split contains a lot of nudity – full-frontal and otherwise – but almost none of it could be considered gratuitous within the context of the story. Neither is it reserved for women of a single Hollywood-approved shape, size or color. In several ways, Split reminds me of Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996) and specific storylines in the HBO mini-series “Big Little Lies.”
Ascent to Hell: Blu-ray
Co-writer/director Dena Hysell sets the stage for the horror to come in Ascent to Hell by flashing through photos of victims of industrial fires, including the ones involving sweat shops with locked staircases and exits. I suspect that most, if not all of them were taken at the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno, which, in 1911, claimed the lives of 146 garment workers. Is it sacrilegious to build a horror film on the ruins of such a tragedy? Maybe so, but, as the closing credits roll, we’re encouraged to cut the producers of Ascent to Hell a break through reminders of more contemporary disasters. In it, Kate (Azura Skye) is a residential real estate agent told by her boss to sell a commercial property with a shocking history. It might as well have been named after the Asch Building – now Brown Building — still standing at 23-29 Washington Place, in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred. By 1916, New York University had taken over 8th Floor, where so many people died or leaped to their deaths. Today, tourists are directed to the building’s top floors as part of sightseeing excursions targeted at fans of haunted houses and ghosts. Hysell makes sure we know whose side he’s on, by characterizing potential developers as heartless yuppies who couldn’t care less about the building’s legacy. Neither are they impressed by Kate’s disclosure of the community’s efforts to create green zones around it. Yes, these are bad people, who deserve everything they’re about to receive as they survey the uppermost floors, where reminders of the long-ago tragedy are still there to be seen. Genre buffs don’t need a spoiler alert to know what’s going to happen to them on the least-renovated floor. Hysell pulls it off pretty well, I thought.
RoboCop 2/3: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Battle of the Worlds: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Night of the Living Dead: Comic Book Collectors Edition
Few filmmakers have done more with less than writer/director Richard Griffin — Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon, Pretty Dead Things, Necroville, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead – one of the true auteurs of extreme exploitation. It’s fair to wonder what he might be able to accomplish with even a Corman-sized budget and support team. Released in 2007, Splatter Disco is said to have had a more sustainable budget than usual, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where the money went. I suspect that it was invested in a cast that includes exploitation specialists Lynn Lowry (Model Hunger), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Trent Haaga (Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula), Sarah Nicklin (A Darker Fifty Shades: The Fetish Set) and Debbie Rochon (Killer Rack). The acting is several notches above what’s evidenced in most of Griffin’s pictures, including The Disco Exorcist, which came later, but isn’t a sequel. On the cover of the After Hours re-release, a blurb declares that Splatter Disco is “The First Splatter Musical,” which would come as news to the producers of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Here, the owner of the fetish club Den O’ Iniquity has his hands full dealing with an unhappy wife, dying father, censorious citizenry and a psycho killer targeting his staff and clientele. As abhorrent behavior goes, Splatter Disco falls short of John Waters’ 2004 fetish-fest, A Dirty Shame. Most the club’s patrons resemble squirrels in pajamas. It arrives with commentary with Griffin, behind-the-scenes featurette, an alternate scene and “trailer vault.”
What is it they say about not missing your water …? Watching bad public-domain movies absent the commentary provided by the orbiting critics of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” can be a real drag. Even movies that are so bad they’re good require some witty repartee to break up the monotony occasionally. The only thing new about the Comic Book Collectors Editions of Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, Battle of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead, which still holds up on its own merits, is the cover art. It made me think that there might be a graphic-novel adaptation of the movie inside, along with the movie. But, nooo. The gimmick isn’t bad, but collectors should consider if the reasonable $9.99 price tag warrants a second or third purchase of a movie already in their collection. Maybe, but only if they were available exclusively in a limited-edition series.
RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3 are perfect examples of what can happen to the legacy of a genuinely entertaining and completely original movie when a studio is bleeding red ink and desperately needs a hit. After three years and a successful release into video, RoboCop was still a hot property. Sequels hadn’t worn out its welcome, yet, and special effects were only getting better. RoboCop 2 suffered immediately from the exit of director Paul Verhoeven and addition of Hollywood veteran Irvin Kershner. Frank Miller’s original version of the script was deemed unworkable and everyone with an opinion to spare felt it necessary to chip another two cents into the mix. Along the way, much of the humor that informed the original was lost, as well as the fresh take on a venerable genre. The half-man/half-robot conceit remained valid, but the MegaCop vs. MegaCorp theme wasn’t as relevant to post-Reagan audiences. Even so, there’s plenty of action to be enjoyed and the “Thank you, for not smoking” gag still works. The second sequel transplanted Detroit to Atlanta, which looked even less Midwestern than the Dallas locations in the first two chapters. The widely rumored game of musical chairs – including the addition of director Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad) and John Burke in the title role — failed to spark any interest in younger audiences and it tanked. Here, Our Hero was forced to decide, once and for all, if he was on the side of the corporation or the people being rousted by OCP. It might have worked better if RoboCop was sent to Kuwait, instead. The Collector’s Editions do add value in the form of fresh 2K polishes and new commentary tracks, interviews, making-of featurettes and galleries. Shout!Factory, as usual, takes its job of giving new life to old product very seriously here and delivers accordingly.
SpacePOP: Princess Power
The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover
The latest animated series to make the leap from the Internet to DVD is “SpacePOP,” which, according to Andy Heyward, CEO of Genius Brands, “is like Spice Girls meets Star Wars.” Ask any parent of a pre-teen girl and they’ll tell you that any movie with a princess in it is going to attract their attention, whether it’s Disney’s Moana, Tangled and Frozen, or such kindred royals as Princess Barbie, Anne Hathaway’s Princess Amelia “Mia” Thermopolis Renaldi, Princess Leia, Princess Mononoke, Kristin Chenoweth’s Princess Skystar (in this fall’s “My Little Pony: The Movie”) and Princess Alise, in The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover. A kids’ sensation on YouTube, SpacePOP: Princess Power extends the brand from three-minute webisodes to a 72-minute feature. It describes what happens when the evil Empress Geela takes over the Planets of the Pentangle and five teen princesses disguise themselves as pop-music musicians. Their band, SpacePOP, may remind some parents of the animated TV series “JEM and the Holograms.” Their mission is to spread the message of freedom, friendship, joy beauty and fashion through music … kind of like Kanye and Kim. In doing so, they join the resistance to take down the Geela, free their parents and liberate the people of the Pentangle.
The Swan Princess: Royally Undercover is the seventh addition to a franchise that began in 1994 with an animated musical fantasy, based on the ballet “Swan Lake.” It featured the voice talents of Jack Palance, John Cleese, Steven Wright and Sandy Duncan, and was directed by a former Disney animation director, Richard Rich. It didn’t do very well at the domestic box office, for several pretty good reasons, but rallied to spawn six direct-to-video features. Here, when mysterious visitors arrive in the Kingdom, Lucas, Princess Alise and their friends go undercover on a secret spy adventure to see if they can be trusted. They will need all their superior detective skills, as well as some cool gadgets, to solve the royal mystery and save the Kingdom. Both films are being distributed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Smithsonian: Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series
Smithsonian: Polar Bear Town: Season One
PBS: Nature: Snowbound: Animals of Winter
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear
PBS: American Masters: Mike Nichols
PBS: Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field
Nickelodeon: Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Heart of Faith
In the not-so-distant past, newspapers supplied all of the information TV viewers needed to choose the shows they wanted to watch and the times they would be broadcast. The popular acceptance of cable television forced newspaper to expand their grids and listings to the bursting point. Today, schedules for original programming on dozens of legitimate cable, satellite and streaming services are largely relegated to the scrolls and grids provided to subscribers. The problem for viewers and critics, alike, is all the work it takes to separate the wheat from the chaff, making sure the best are seen and the worst ignored. I’m fortunate to receive boxed sets of DVDs carrying entire seasons’ worth of programming. It wasn’t until I received the Smithsonian Channel’s multipart, “Million Dollar American Princesses: The Complete Series” – distributed through PBS — that I became aware of a show that extended the “Downton Abbey” experience, without endlessly repeating favorite scenes, interviews and BBC spinoff shows. Elizabeth McGovern, who played the American heiress married to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, whose estate was in desperate need of the money provided by her dowry. Who better, then, to introduce us to some of the American women who, in effect, traded their inheritances for titles and, sometimes, love. Who knew, right? The seven-part series takes us from the late 1800s, when daughters of America’s new industrial millionaires marry into the money-strapped British aristocracy, to the 20th Century, when a new kind of American Princess wields power not through wealth, but through character, style, wit and sexuality. Through the decades, these women bring dramatic change to the European aristocracy and eventually the world. The series also tells the stories of such headline-making women as Peggy Guggenheim, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jennie Jerome, Grace Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Winnaretta Singer, Rita Hayworth, Clara Ward, Barbara Hutton, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy and Nancy Astor. Each is different and singularly interesting.
Another Smithsonian offering, the Season One package of “Polar Bear Town,” describes what happens every fall in Churchill, Manitoba, when a thousand bears migrate directly through town on their way to Hudson Bay. Tourists from all over the world come to see it for themselves and it’s up to veteran guides and conservation officers to protect the bears and the people.
Winter’s hard on everyone, especially animals stuck in places where the only relief available is what they create for themselves. In the “Nature” presentation, “Snowbound: Animals of Winter,” wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan introduces us to some of the world’s most iconic snow animals, from the penguins of Antarctica, to the bison of Yellowstone, polar bears and the Arctic fox. He also burrows beneath the ice to show us how some animals are able to survive months of hibernation and other adapt in ways unfamiliar to us.
Too many times, Hollywood’s version of the truth doesn’t come close to squaring with the truth presented as evidence by prosecutors, defense attorneys and forensics experts. This notion was summed up best, of course, in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, when Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) advised Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It isn’t a particularly novel concept in Europe, either. For most Americans, including those of us who would fly to Amsterdam on a whim, just to visit the Van Gogh Museum, Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the artist in Lust for Life is close enough to pass for fact. In 1991, Maurice Pialat’s beautifully rendered Van Gogh confounded some audience members by suggesting that the artist did not cut his ear entirely off, but, instead, took some nasty swipes at it. It wouldn’t be Pialat’s only debatable decision. Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo was more interested in drawing a psychological portrait of Van Gogh, as he stared into a shattered mirror. So, the argument leading into PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: Van Gogh’s Ear” not only was how much of his ear was lopped off, but also what happened between that moment and his arrival at Dr. Felix Rey’s office for treatment. The accepted scenario argues that he walked into Arles’ red-light district, where he delivered a portion of his ear –or lobe — to a prostitute named Rachel, probably nicknamed Gaby, in a handkerchief. Narrator Jeremy Paxman joins Provence-based “art sleuth” Bernadette Murphy as she nears the end of her career-long mission to solve the mystery of what happened on that fateful night of December 23, 1888. What she discovers is no less exciting than anything described in the movies.
The most overworked word in the Hollywood vernacular, by far, is “genius.” Anyone with more than one blockbuster movie or hit TV series is a borderline genius, at least, while a franchise or spin-off ensures genius, especially for producers and directors. Very few of them are, however, even if they have the papers to prove it. Mike Nichols was a genius. As a third cousin, twice removed, of Albert Einstein, he had the pedigree to prove it. In April 1939, when the Nazis were arresting Jews in Berlin, 7-year-old Mikhail and his 3-year-old brother, Robert, were sent, alone, to the United States to join their father, who had fled Germany months earlier. His mother eventually joined the family, escaping through Italy, in 1940. Thirteen years later, as a student in Chicago, he became an announcer for classical music station WFMT-FM, where he would launch the pioneering folk-music program, “The Midnight Special.” It’s still on the air. In some sections of the city, Nichols’ greatest accomplish might still be his work with Compass Players, the predecessor to Chicago’s legendary improvisational troupe, the Second City, whose members included Elaine May, Shelley Berman, Del Close, Nancy Ponder and director by Paul Sills. In 1958, the comedy duo, Nichols and May, took New York by storm. As we are reminded in PBS’ “American Masters: Mike Nichols” – directed by May — his trajectory never stopped rising. He excelled as a director, actor, writer and producer, winning an Oscar, a Grammy, four Emmys, nine Tonys and three BAFTAs. On each step of the ladder, Nichols changed the way things were done before him. Among those interviewed are Renata Adler, Bob Balaban, Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Tony Kushner, Dustin Hoffman, Neil and Paul Simon (separately), Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Robin Williams. Mostly, though, it’s Nichols’ alone, on a stool, reminiscing.
Until wars are fought by robots, drones and malware, soldiers’ wounds will continue to be treated by doctors, surgeons, nurses and therapists whose abilities may always be two or three steps behind an enemy’s demonic desire to kill, maim and otherwise neutralize their opponents. One of the fascinating things about PBS’ “Mercy Street” is learning how the art of healing and treating wounded Civil War soldiers advanced, if ever so slowly, to the point where significant numbers survived amputations and prosthetics were introduced in the recovery process. Just as World War I was a proving ground for the weapons that would be commonly used in World War II, and the Korean War opened doors to the horrors of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, each new conflagration presented unique challenges to medical professional on the ground and in hospitals back home. The most diabolically effective weapon used against coalition troops in Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq became armor-piercing IEDs – Improvised Explosive Device – which were as simple to construct and detonate as they were harmful to those riding in convoys. The same applied to easily portable RPGs — rocket-propelled grenades – which could take out tanks and helicopters with equal ferocity. The only good news came in the ability of doctors and medics to stabilize the wounds long enough for casualties to be rapidly transported to well-equipped Combat Support Hospitals, which, in 2006, replaced the Korean War MASH units that played an important role in the development of the triage system. From there, survivors could be quickly transferred to hospitals in Germany and the U.S. for intensive care. In PBS’ “Military Medicine: Beyond the Battle Field,” ABC newsman Bob Woodruff traces the stories of veterans, surgeons, researchers, rehab experts and families, from battlefield to military hospitals, from hi-tech research centers to rehab facilities, to homes and workplaces, where a new generation of wounded warriors are given a chance to live a productive, if vastly different life, away from combat. In January, 2006, while covering the ongoing insurrection in Iraq as co-anchor ABC’s “World News Tonight,” of Woodruff was critically wounded by a roadside bomb. The documentary is informed, as well, by Woodruff’s remarkable recovery. It also allows him to pass along what he learned about treatments for traumatic brain injuries, which not only afflict wounded soldiers, but also athletes and victims of car accidents.
In Nickelodeon’s “Super Shredder: Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo are pitted against “their strongest, most dangerous, most deadliest enemy ever,” the Super Shredder. After recovering from wounds inflicted in a fight with Master Splinter – and being injected with mutagen — the metallic fiend has bowed vengeance against Splinter and the Turtles. To protect their beloved sensai, the Turtles prepare for a final showdown by enlisting the help of April O’Neil, Casey Jones, Karai, Shinigami and the Mighty Mutanimals. If successful, they could put an end to Oroku Saki’s reign of terror forever. The episodes span Season Four’s “The Super Shredder” and Season Five’s “End Times.”
Hallmark has never made it easy for fans of “When Calls the Heart” to easily tell the difference between the episodes shown and television and those sent out on DVD. Don’t bother looking for “The Heart of Faith” in the synopses provided by various Internet sites, because you aren’t likely to find it. A perusal of the small print of the back of the package informs anyone who takes the time to look for it that “Heart of Faith” originally was shown last November, as “The Heart of Christmas.” In fact, the title PPV subscribers should look for is, “When Calls the Heart Christmas.” It’s a subtle change, but enough to confuse search engines. I suspect that “Heart of Faith” was attached to encourage faith-obsessed newcomers to buy a Christmas special in spring, without reading the synopsis or noticing the wee decorated tree in a photo on the box’s bottom-right corner. The story opens with Rosemary and Lee’s return from their honeymoon and completion of their new row house. It’s next to Elizabeth, who’s busy helping her students mount a nativity play. A traveling peddler, Sam, is mistaken for Santa by the kids and, by Jack, for a thief. Meanwhile, the pageant is threatened when word arrives that the supply train has derailed. Without costumes for the play, food for the feast and presents for the kids, Christmas will be just another day in December. It takes a lot of faith, spirit and cooperation to show Hope Valley what the holiday is all about.
Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box
What could be more fun for admirers of the soft-core erotica that’s made Skinemax a late-night pastime for insomniacs and post-pubescent boys than a collection of 12 sci-fi flicks from Surrender Cinema’s heyday. Unlike such original Cinemax series as “Erotic Confessions,” “Hot Line,” “Passion Cove,” “Lingerie” and “Co-Ed Confidential,” now being repeated ad nausea on the network, the films included in the “Surrender Cinema: Ultimate Pleasure Box” probably would have opened on the drive-in circuit, before going straight-to-DVD or premium cable. With that option closed to distributors by the mid-1990s, they became a staple of late-night cable in the U.S. and Canada. Typically, the skin was limited to T&A, but the occasional limp penis and bush would slip through. Now, of course, actresses have their pubes lasered to extinction at puberty or are allowed the slightest of landing strips. Some of them even were allowed to leave their original breasts unenhanced. Thus, such easily forgettable movies as The Exotic Time Machine, Femalien and their inevitable sequels and trailers qualify as nostalgia. There’s also The Exotic House of Wax, Hidden Beauties: The Awakening, Lolida 2000, Dungeon of Desire, Virtual Encounters, Pleasurecraft and Virgins of Sherwood Forest, featuring such immortal stars as Jacqueline Lovell, Holly Sampson, Regina Russell, Brandy Davis, Gabriella Hall and Nikki Fritz. Long may they wave.