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The DVD Wrapup: Crumbs, Meru, Tenderness of Wolves, Living in Oblivion and more

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Forbidden Zone
As tiresome as most movies about our shared dystopian future have become, longtime fans of the increasingly predictable sub-genre shouldn’t give hope of finding something new and different until they’ve seen Crumbs, an instant classic from a place that looks as if it had already experienced the apocalypse and was left standing. Earlier this year, Ethiopia-based Spaniard Miguel Llansó captured the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival and the Imaging the Future Award at the Neuchâtel International Fantasy Film Festival. If it isn’t given serious consideration for a Spirit Award, it’s only because the folks at Film Independent haven’t cast their nets out far enough this season. If it had been made 30 years ago and released here as a midnight movie, Crumbs might be mentioned today in the same breath as El Topo, Eraserhead, Freaks, A Boy and His Dog and Pink Flamingos. It’s that fresh and unique. Crumbs was shot primarily in the far northeastern tip of Ethiopia, in and around the ghost town of Dallol, which is one of the most remote human settlements on Earth. It makes the Salton Sea look like the Garden of Eden.


A tiny malformed scavenger, Candy (Selam Tesfayie), whiles away his daylight hours in the punishing sun, picking through remnants of late twentieth century pop culture. At night, he shares a long-abandoned bowling alley with his artistic lover, Birdy (Daniel Tadesse), who worships the found relics in the same way as religious artifacts, ancient coins and antique jewelry are today. An amulet crafted from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurine is considered to be an especially significant item, as are a vintage copy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” LP and is a framed photograph of Michael Jordan. The only other thing of relevance to the Amharic-speaking survivors – including a witch, gangly old man in a Santa Claus suit and a horseman in Nazi garb – is a mysterious spacecraft that hovers over the planet, like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Silent for generations, Candy senses that the ship is coming back to life – the ball-return machinery starts working again – and he wants to be on it when it makes its next move. Llansó makes full use of the remnants of the mining community that were left behind after its minerals were played out in the 1960s. He and cinematographer Israel Seoane also pay homage to such fantasies as District 9, WALL-E, E.T. and Wizard of Oz along the way, with a special musical nod to Andrei Tarkovsky. If this all sounds suspiciously pretentious, know that Crumbs times in at a comfortable 68 minutes and the surprises along the way make it feel even shorter. The DVD adds “anecdotes” and the short films “Night in the Wild Garden” and “Chigger Ale,” also featuring Tadesse.

If the mere mention of the band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo raises a smile, it isn’t necessarily because you can recall whistling along to the band’s hits, “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science,” or that you were among the few to see Forbidden Zone, upon its release 35 years ago. Relegated to the midnight-movie ghetto, it disappeared completely after politically correctness reared its ugly head and the whistle was blown on some inarguably racist characterizations. Forbidden Zone originally was conceived as a video showcase for the theatrical eccentricities of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s extravagant live performances. Tentatively titled “The Hercules Family,” the 16mm film would consist of 12 musical numbers and bumpers loosely constructed around a family’s unfortunate decision to move into a house whose basement served as a portal to hell. As Richard’s 16mm vision evolved into a 35mm reality, the musical sequences were extended to reflect its completely off-the-wall narrative and the Elfmans’ cinematic aspirations. It now betrayed influences ranging from Spike Jones and the City Slickers; the Three Stooges; Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer’s 200 Motels; Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees’ musical, Head; music videos by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; and Terry Gilliam’s animation on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Among the many surprises in Forbidden Zone, apart from 3-foot-11 Hervé Villechaize’s portrayal of King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension, are delightfully twisted, if questionable homages to Josephine Baker and Cab Calloway. There’s also a human-size dancing frog, jockstrap-clad Kipper Kids, a chicken-boy able to communicate telepathically with his transvestite brother, Joe Spinell as a drunken sailor, classroom violence, a Jewish wrestler fighting a guy in an ape suit, and Danny Elfman playing Satan, while singing “Minnie the Moocher.” The Blu-ray set includes a re-mastered version of the original B&W film, a later colorized edition and interviews with the Elfmans, co-writer Matthew Bright, and co-stars Susan Tyrrell and Marie-Pascale Elfman. Danny Elfman’s next project was composing the theme music for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Meru: Blu-ray
Gringo Trails
Before April 18, 2014, when an avalanche crashed down the slopes of Mount Everest, killing 16 Sherpa guides, climbing the world’s tallest peak was becoming as newsworthy as riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Reports of gridlock on the most direct route were being common, as were issues surrounding decades’ worth of garbage and human waste, and, more recently, how to deal with the growing number of frozen corpses of less-fortunate mountaineers visible to trekkers. Even after Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and Lou Kasischke’s “After the Wind” described the events surrounding the 1996 tragedy, in which eight climbers were killed, the rush to “conquer” Everest continued apace. So did such theatrical films, documentaries and cautionary tales as Touching the Void, The Wildest Dream, The Beckoning Silence, K2: Siren of the Himalayas, The Summit, Messner, Cold, North Face, Dying for Everest, The Climb, Blindsight and Farther Than the Eye Can See. No such traffic jams exist on the trails leading to Meru Peak, a mountain which lies in the Garwhal Himalayas, in the Uttarakhand region of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2001 that Russian climber Valeri Babanov reached the summit of Meru Central, overcoming a 100-meter rock face along the way. It would take another 10 years before the more direct and difficult central route – imagine clinging to the edge of a shark’s fin, 21,000 feet high — was used to reach the top by a team consisting of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. The fabulously thrilling documentary, Meru, is their visual record of the feat, as well as the preparations and setbacks that led up to it. It was co-directed by Chin, who carried a Red Epic digital camera on the climb, and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who chose to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground. Mountain climbing isn’t often lumped together with so-called extreme sports, unless fingernails are used instead of ropes and climbers sleep in portaledges, high above the floor of a canyon below them. There’s almost nothing in Meru, however, that viewers wouldn’t consider to be extreme, in one way or another. The Music Box Blu-ray is excellent, with deleted scenes, commentaries and interview segments.

No matter how spectacular the images in Meru are, it isn’t likely that tourists and amateurs will beat a path to the doors of its permanent residents, including the local fakirs. The peak is far too forbidding for anyone not a world-class climber to attempt. Icarus Films’ provocative documentary, Gringo Trails, raises questions asked previously in films decrying the trashing of Everest. It boils down to  the steep price paid by the native populations when their homeland is “discovered” and revenues from tourism become impossible to resist. The exploitation of each new earthly paradise happens in dozens of different ways, some obvious and other far more subtle. As depicted by director Pegi Vail, associate director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, the examples are all too familiar to what’s happened in and around our national parks, and during spring break in Florida, Texas and Palm Springs. In 1981, Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg survived a month lost in the Amazon, emerging from the jungle nearly as emaciated as a concentration-camp survivor. Rather than frighten tourists away from the Amazon basin, his memoirs resulted in a new cottage industry, with adventurous tourists delivering prosperity to some and new forms of poverty to others. Likewise, an intrepid backpacker’s search for an “unspoiled” island paradise in Thailand has the unintended effect of turning it into a destination for debauched young people from around the world. Another victim of word-of-mouth publicity is the original inhabitant of an island on the Salt Flats of Bolivia, whose kindness to strangers nearly turned his backyard into an eco-tragedy. If all Vail related in her film were horror stories, it would hardly come as news to most enlightened American travelers. (The titular gringos aren’t limited to Yanks, by any means. We’re simply the most desired and despised of tourists.) She finds several examples of local residents taking control of their own tourist industry and limiting our footprints to something manageable and eco-friendly. Several of the experts interviewed are travel journalists whose job it is to discover such destinations and alert well-heeled readers and their backpacking kids to them before they’re spoiled by Euros and other people just like them. Bonus material adds another 45 minutes to the 79-minute film.

Short Skin
When it comes to dealing with sexual maturity, teenagers have a tough enough time without adding rare and potentially embarrassing ailments to the mix. In the sensitively rendered Italian export Short Skin (“I Dolori Del Giovane Edo”), Edoardo is a 17-year-old virgin with an obstacle to manhood most males aren’t even aware exists. While most boys his age routinely fret about the width, length or shape of their penis, even despairing of the appearance of pubic hair, Edoardo (Matteo Creatini) suffers from phimosis: a potentially painful condition, in which the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back to accommodate urination and/or ejaculation. (In women, phimosis prevents the clitoral hood from retracting, limiting the ability to experience orgasm.) Apart from that, Edoardo is every bit the normal teenage boy: gangly, chronically horny and regrettably ill-informed about human physiology. This summer, however, he’s complicated his situation by accepting a wager proposed by his best friend as to which of them will be the first to lose their virginity. Fortuitously, the post-pubescent girls in his neighborhood have begun to see in Edoardo something they could use to cure their strange longings. What they can’t see, of course, can’t freak them out. Sensing future sexual challenges, he reluctantly seeks the advice of his parents and local doctors. It isn’t until he consults a prostitute, though, that he’s made to feel reasonably confident that he’s not a freak. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make it easier for the girls in his life, also virgins, to accept the fact they aren’t causing his pain by doing something “wrong.” As unentertaining as this might sound, first-timer Duccio Chiarini finds ways to mine enough humor from the material to enjoy it as a comedy, in all of the usual ways coming-of-age films are funny. Among other things, Short Skin does for octopi what American Pie did for apple pie. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a pair of short films by the director.

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
While movies and documentaries about noteworthy artists and sculptors can be stimulating, they are rarely, if ever more fulfilling than visits to a museum or in a private collection. Films that dramatize the struggles of women artists — Séraphine, Frida, Artemisia, Camille Claudel – tend to be significantly more interesting than biopics of male artists, struggling or otherwise. Movies in which models, clothed and unclothed, steal the spotlight from famous painters — La belle noiseuse, Renoir, Klimt, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Surviving Picasso, Goya’s Ghosts – are better than those in which artists sit around a table at a Parisian bar sipping absinthe. Mr. Turner and Vincent & Theo succeeded, in part, because they demonstrate how difficult it is to capture the grandeur of nature on canvas and why so few artists are capable of doing so. In terms of sheer entertainment value, however, it’s difficult for biopics to beat stories in which forgers, phonies, thieves and conmen exploit great beauty for their own selfish purposes. Arne Birkenstock’s fascinating documentary, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, many not ask as many penetrating questions as Orson Welles’ F for Fake, but it does a nice job getting inside the head of artists of a more larcenous bent. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger and artist, who has admitted to producing hundreds of fake paintings from the works of about 50 prominent painters. Beltracchi, his wife, and two accomplices sold these as original works by such famous artists as Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Kees van Dongen. Beltracchi’s genius, if you will, involved selling the legitimacy of the forgeries to people whose job it is to protect well-heeled consumers, auction houses and gallery owners from crooks exactly like him. For the police to build their case, though, they not only had to separate the masterpieces from the fakes, but also get Beltracchi’s victims to admit that they were capable of being conned.

If there were a mold, from which forgers and thieves were cut, it probably wouldn’t fit Beltracchi. If anything, he resembles a former hippie who struck it rich somewhere along the way and sees no reason to cut his hair or throw away the jeans he wore to Woodstock. He’s personable, funny and forthcoming, even as he is being interviewed within the lax confines of a minimum-security prison in Germany.  Before their release, Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, even were allowed to take commissions and work together in their home studio during the day, before having to return to their respective cells at night. His six-year sentence, which began in 2011, ended last January with a promise to paint only in his own name and move from Germany to France. There’s no indication in the documentary that Beltracchi suffers from remorse, guilt feelings or poverty. He was charged and found guilty of forgery and corruption related only to 14 works of art, which sold for a combined $45 million.  One of the ways he escaped detection for as long as he did was forging paintings by well-regarded, albeit lesser-known artists, and confusing their provenance through dummy galleries and auction houses. In an overheated marketplace ruled by blind greed, it wasn’t difficult to create and maintain a business creating paintings that few outside the cognoscenti would recognize, let alone sniff out as forgeries. A great Hollywood ending might have come if Beltracchi and his merry band of con artists had sold a piece of art to an investor whose collection was subsequently stolen by thieves whose fence recognized the works as phonies. A similar scenario played out in Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley Under Ground,” in which Tom Ripley is confronted by a collector, who correctly suspects that the paintings sold to him are forgeries. He probably should have left well enough alone.

Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax
Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Gil Scott-Heron didn’t coin the Black Power slogan, “The revolution won’t be televised,” but, by surrounding it with radical poetics, bongos and conga drums, he created an anthem for the movement that had left “We Shall Overcome” behind, in its militant wake. Forty-five years later, the B-side to Heron’s first single, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” has lost none of its ability to stir dissent. Although the Chicago native’s popularity would wane in the years before his death, in 2011, the debt owed to him by two generations of rappers and hip-hop artist is still being paid. In Robert Mugge’s essential 1982 documentary, Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax, the self-described “bluesologist” gave viewers of the UK’s then-brand-new Channel 4 Television a tour of Washington, DC, unseen by tourists. In soft, but authoritative tones, Heron could be mistaken for an afro-coiffed Fred Rogers welcoming guests to his adopted ‘hood, starting with the monuments within walking distance of crime-plagued projects and flop houses. The setting moves to the Wax Museum Nightclub, where Heron stands among frozen-in-time politicians, musicians and celebrities to introduce half-sung/half-spoken renditions of his repertoire, backed by his 10-piece Midnight Band. Although “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” isn’t on the night’s playlist, the doc features full performances of “Winter in America,” “Alien,” “Johannesburg,” “Storm Music,” “Waiting for the Axe to Fall,” “Gun” and “‘B’ Movie,” a scathing analysis of how Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. On his walk-and-talk tour of the capital, Heron recites his poems “Paint it Black,” “Black History,” “Billy Green is Dead,” “The H2O-Gate Blues” and “Whitey on the Moon.” The original 16mm print has been restored to tip-top shape.

Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary may be a long and unwieldy title for a concert Blu-ray/DVD, but it conforms to the truth-in-marketing dictates of the DVD Wrapup. That’s because Martha Davis and the Motels is what remains of groups formerly known as The Motels Featuring Martha Davis, Martha Davis, solo, The Motels, Angels of Mercy and, way back in 1971, the Warfield Foxes. To be completely accurate, please note that it’s the venerable Whisky a Go Go that was marking its 50th year in business, not the group, which, excluding separations, is closer to 27. Of the original members on stage that night, only Davis and sax and keyboard player Marty Jourard performed. Even so, the audience dug watching Davis belt out such hits as “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Only the Lonely,” “Mission of Mercy” and “Total Control.” Being her birthday, Davis was gushingly introduced by Rosanna Arquette and singer-songwriter Linda Perry. The film was shot in hi-def by Roy H. Wagner, and directed by choreographer Denise Faye. It includes a chat with former band members.

Tenderness of the Wolves: Blu-ray
The Voyeur: Blu-ray
Queen of Blood: Blu-ray
Although only partially based on the same serial killer who inspired Peter Lorre’s character in M, Ulli Lommel’s thoroughly disturbing crime drama, Tenderness of the Wolves, is cut from the same torn cloth. As portrayed with nightmarish precision by co-writer Kurt Raab, Fritz Haarmann is within weeks of being arrested, charged and convicted in the sexual assaults, murders, mutilations and dismemberments of at least 24 young men and boys in Hanover, Germany, between 1918 and 1924. Unlike Lorre’s deeply disturbed fiend, Hans Becker, Haarman was a homosexual. (The word, gay, doesn’t quite fit the description, here.) He earned the moniker, Vampire of Hanover, by attempting to rip out the Adam’s apple and trachea of his victims, before strangling them. Shaved bald and bearing a curious resemblance to Lorre and F.W. Murnau s Nosferatu, Raab plays Haarmann as a reasonably social being, with friends in high and low people. They weren’t limited to gay men and he didn’t have to lurk in the shadows to narrow down his choices of victims. Germany was still reeling from the impact of losing World War I – here, updated to World War II — and Hanover bore no resemblance to the divinely decadent Berlin. Lommel does a great shop capturing the menace in the air and desperation in the streets that followed both wars. He experiments with German Expressionist shadings, but a color scheme favored by producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder is especially scary in Blu-ray. Considering the nature of the crimes, Tenderness of the Wolves limits the extreme violence to specific scenes. We’re also spared any questions of guilt or innocence based on mental illness. What’s likely to shock most viewers are the insinuations of non-censual sex between Haarmann and minors, and full-frontal male nudity in more consensual preludes to murder.  The high-definition digital transfer was prepared by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, which is doing a great job restoring his library. Also new are insightful interviews with Lommel and director of photography Jürgen Jürges; an informative appreciation, by film historian and expert on European horror cinema Stephen Thrower; a theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Tony Rayns. If Lommel’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of his mid-career move from Fassbinder’s factory to Andy Warhol’s Factory and such movies as Cocaine Cowboys and The Blank Generation, in which the artist cameoed as himself, and a string of straight-to-video genre flicks universally loathed by critics. (Look for a brief Fassbinder appearance in “Wolves.”)

At a time when American porn specialists were draining the eroticism from soft- and hard-core films, Tinto Brass decided to fill the worldwide vacuum by breathing fresh air into the moribund Euro-porn sub-genre. By 1990, home-grown producers of hard-core movies had fully committed to video and gonzo sex that was completely devoid of a narrative framework. Soft-core films were made to conform to the dictates of late-night cable television, which required of surgically enhanced actresses that they strategically position their hands during sex, so as to avoid any hints of genital-to-genital contact or pubic hair. Brass embraced fables of sexual desire, adding world-class cinematography, lush soundtracks, expensive lingerie, sumptuous locations and performers capable of acting and making love simultaneously. If he too often fell back on the use of mirrors, reflective glass and window frames in his films, and he favored women with large buttocks to those with more average figures, not all of the women required breast implants, at least. And, in another departure, male roles weren’t limited to gym rats under 25. The Voyeur was adapted from the erotic novel, “L’uomo che Guarda,” by Alberto Moravia. It tells the story of “Dodo,” a handsome professor of French literature who fears being cuckolded by his exhibitionist wife and cock-blocked by his father, whose live-in nurse specializes in leaving her clients with blue balls. Even when Dodo allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous mixed-race student, his wife steps in at the last moment to share the experience with him. The Voyeur may look overly familiar to longtime fans, but newcomers and couples should be pleasantly surprised by what they see. The extras include a stills gallery, trailers for the main feature, as well as other Tinto Brass films, and a 25-minute interview with the quintessential dirty ol’ man, himself.

There’s nothing quite so foolhardy for a genre journalist to attempt than make a movie of his or her own and invite criticism from juries of their peers. Chris Alexander is the Toronto-based editor of Fangoria magazine, a critic with the Toronto Film Critics Association and, of late, a multi-hyphenate filmmaker. His 2012 directorial debut, Blood for Irina, won the Best Experimental Feature Film award at the 2013 PollyGrind Film Festival, in Las Vegas, which may offer prizes in more categories than the AVN Awards, which I never thought possible. I don’t often say this, but I doubt there’s any way that someone not familiar with the original can fully appreciate the sequel, Queen of Blood, as they share the same dialogue-free conceit and blood-starved lead character, the vampire Irina (Shauna Henry). In the former, Irina has reached the end of her 100-year run on Earth. By day, she’s living in a run-down motel on the water (probably Lake Ontario), while, at night, she stalks city streets looking for fresh blood. Her desperation is mirrored by the motel manager and a prostitute “living a life on the fringe, trapped in world of literal and figurative decay.” In the latter film, we first encounter Irina slowly emerging from a bog in the middle of a forest, trailing a stream of blood like the umbilical cord it represents. After being rescued by a mysterious fellow who lives in an isolated cabin, she seems to appreciate being cleaned up and given new clothes. Just as we begin to think that pathetic creature might have adopted an ethical code, she uses her razor-sharp fingernails to rip out his throat. And, so it goes, until Irina comes upon a pregnant woman … and, well, you might be able to guess the rest. Queen of Blood benefits from a certifiably Euro-horror look and an evocative soundtrack that almost makes up for the lack of dialogue.

The 9th
Here’s a movie that arrives with almost no advance marketing push or buzz, from a fledgling production company with no track record, except for a single festival appearance, in Europe. The synopsis in the press kit doesn’t appear to have been translated correctly into English and there were no published reviews for The 9th. What the DVD does have going for it, however, is the kind of cover art that draws one into a movie like a magnet, not unlike a classic poster by Saul Bass. The setting for Nathan Codrington’s debut feature, promoted as “a neo-noir psychological drama,” is a cocktail party in the penthouse apartment of what appears to be a swank urban residence. I kept waiting for Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world,” to walk in at any minute, surrounded by young men in tuxes and women in low-cut gowns. Here, though, the drink of choice is champagne and mystery is in the air. In fact, something terribly sinister is happening in a room not far from the gathering. A man in diapers and angels wings is being tortured for reasons unknown by thugs whose faces remain unseen, as directed, perhaps, by the party’s Master of Cermonies (Edward Barry). The 73-minute film clearly is based on two very different entertainment vehicles: the game, Clue (a.k.a., Cluedo) and seminal jazz pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines. (The names of the characters are derived from famous singers and musicians.) Beyond that, I’m not sure of anything, including my interest in discovering who’s doing what to whom and why. The music, as performed Nigel Hart and Dan James, had the desired effect on me, however.

Nightmare Code
3’s a Shroud
Troll/Troll 2: Blu-ray
Listen to enough futurists and you’ll think that day artificial-intelligence technology supplants human intelligence is just around the corner. After watching the Republican debates, however, a robot would make a better alternative to any of the morons hoping to call the White House home. Nightmare Code is a cautionary sci-fi thriller that argues against our current system of checks and balances being able to stand up to a threat built into a computer network by a mad genius. Here, a paranoid nerd goes off his rocker when he comes to believe that he won’t get the credit he deserves for inventing an important new computer program. To avenge the perceived slight, he introduces a virus into the Internet that overrides the software from controls programmed into the system, triggering artificial intelligence at its least benign. Almost everything that happens in Mark Netter’s surprisingly accessible debut feature takes place through the multiple lenses of security cameras monitoring activity in the technology-company’s offices, hallways, computer system and meeting rooms. The government client appears ready to shut down the advanced behavior-recognition project, perhaps causing a key programmer to commit suicide and take a few of his colleagues with him, ostensibly to consult with Steve Jobs in the afterlife. With just a month to finish ROPER and a depleted staff left to do it, a famously brilliant young programmer, Brett Desmond (Andrew J. West), is recruited to burrow his way through the installed software to discover how much damage was done by the paranoid slob before he ate his pistol. As it turns out, more than anyone can imagine. And, beyond that, lie spoilers. Blessedly, the use of a quartered-frame screen doesn’t feel as gimmicky as it usually does, actually complementing the action taking place within the Skype-like system and reading the minds of the characters as they move out of one and into the other. Because Brett brings some emotional baggage of his own to the rescue mission, important things are revealed, as well, in conversations with his wife and daughter, at home. Mei Melançon plays the hot Eurasian programmer who inconveniently and unexpectedly adds her baggage to Brett’s pile. The DVD interviews are helpful.

3’s a Shroud is described as a modern British horror anthology in the tradition of Asylum and Tales From the Crypt. It earned some favorable notices on the festival circuit in 2012, none of which translated into a wide distribution. This hardly qualifies as news to horror aficionados, especially fans of the anthology sub-genre. With the exception of scream queen Suzi Lorraine (Busty Cops), none of the segments writers or directors — Dan Brownlie, David V.G. Davies, Andy Edwards — has yet to make a splash in feature-length films, so name recognition always becomes a problem. The individual shorts aren’t at all bad, however. Randle plays the maughty-nanny babysitter, who’s asked to read three scary stories to the boy and his Teddy before dozing off. None of them can be summarized in a sentence or two, except to suggest they might not be the kind of bedtime stories you’d want a babysitter to tell your children.

Eleven years before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels became a worldwide sensation, Noah Hathaway and Michael Moriarty played Henry Potter Jr. and Harry Potter Sr. in John Carl Buechler 1986’s cult classic, Troll. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The resemblances between Trolls, Ghoulies and Gremlins, however, is much more suspect. Harry Potter Sr. and his wife, Anne (Shelley Hack), are moving into a rented apartment in San Francisco, when Junior and daughter Wendy (Jenny Beck) first encounter the wicked troll, Torok, who uses his magic ring to possess the girl’s body as a host to transform the apartment dwellers into other trolls. When Junior senses that something is wrong with Wendy, he consults upstairs neighbor/witch Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart). If the presence of Lassie’s mom weren’t enough, Troll also represented Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ first film appearance (and nip slip) and one of Sonny Bono’s last, before accidentally becoming mayor of Palm Springs. It adds “The Making of Troll,” with interviews and background material. Also included in the Blu-ray package is Troll 2, a film so onerous that it once maintained a 0-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (That’s improved to 6 percent with “top” critics and a stunning 44 percent audience score.) Apart from not resembling the original in any meaningful way, the sequel is about as frightening as a “Three Little Pigs” cartoon. Actors George Hardy and Deborah Reed provide commentary. A limited number of Blu-ray packages contain a separate disc with the feature-length, “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary that extends making-of memories to include reconnections with cast and crew.

Swim Little Fish Swim
It would be just as unfair to lump every quirky low-budget indie, informed by hyper-chatty dialogue and socially unformed characters, to the Mumblecore subgenre as it is to think that every neurotic New York Jew, wearing nerdy glasses and addicted to psychotherapy, is created by a Woody Allen wannabe. Sometimes, it just seems that way. Still, I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar’s practically weightless rom-com Swim Little Fish Swim than to say it reminds me of films that might have featured the work of Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers. That, or Lena Durham. Set in the New York demi-monde of aspiring artists, musicians and perpetual slackers, Swim Little Fish Swim stars the waifish Bessis as a visual artist, Lilas, desperate to convince immigration officials to renew her visa. One night, after being tossed out of her crash pad by a pervy artist, Lilas finds shelter in the already crowded apartment of  Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Brooke Bloom), a married couple about to discover just how unsuited for marriage they are. While Mary works overtime as a nurse to support their household, Leeward jams with friends who play instruments they might have purchased at a FAO Schwarz toy store. Thoroughly coddled by his anti-capitalist parents, Leeward has convinced Mary that he’s willing to do commercials to help her out financially, but has committed his resources to a CD of songs written for his pre-school daughter, Rainbow/Maggie, depending on which parent you ask. Some of them aren’t bad, while others are aggressively pretentious. Not surprisingly, Lilas and Leeward are two peas in a pod. Her hang-up, though, it being the daughter of a prominent avant-garde artist, who denigrates her multi-media collages whenever she can. In various off-kilter ways, they lift each other’s spirits and even enlist Sunshine/Maggie in their harmless conspiracy. Swim Little Fish Swim ends much better than it begins, I think, even though none of the characters appear able to survive in New York’s artistic community without trust funds or generous grandparents.

Living in Oblivion: 20th Anniversary: Bluray
The great thing about re-watching Living in Oblivion, probably for the third time in the last 20 years, comes in the realization that the more you know about how independent films are made, the funnier it is. In 1995, I’d never been on a set, interviewed a star, attended a festival or covered a Spirit Awards ceremony. As much as Tom DiCillo exaggerates the process in Living in Oblivion, everything about it now rings true to me, especially how many things can go wrong in a short period of time. Then, too, there’s the coddling of fragile egos, the boredom that allows tensions to fester, the obsequious nature of on-set etiquette and the surprises that come with improvisation. While I haven’t witnessed the kinds of outbursts we see in the film, I have seen the happiness on the faces of everyone on the set when things go indisputably right. It also is wonderful to see some of the great actors of our time, at a point in their careers when they were standing on the cusp of crossing over from indie popularity to mainstream stardom. See if you recognize these names: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage. The sad thing is knowing that after making the entertaining, if unprofitable Johnny Suede, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy, Delirious and the Doors documentary, When You’re Strange, has been limited to doing episodic television. It’s better than the alternative, however. The Blu-ray includes a deleted scene, a 2002 Q&A with the DiCillo and Buscemi, and longer interviews with cast and crew.

The Breaking Point
At a brisk 75 minutes, The Breaking Point probably could have been trimmed even more to fit the boundaries of a cops-and-courtroom drama on television. There are several scenes in James C. Hunter’s thugs-in-the-hood drama that wouldn’t missed and room made for commercials, without ruining the flow of the narrative. Does this sound familiar? Three gangbangers with completely different physiques and hairstyles enter a convenience store. Before they can even demand the contents of the cash register or Lottery tickets, one of them pulls out a gun and, instead, points at the angelic white woman we’ve just seen handing out goods to local residents. When she resists, he shoots and kills her. Turns out she’s the wife of a former cop, who vows revenge, knowing the unlikelihood of the store manager going the distance as a witness in a trial. It then becomes a race between the angry widower and the police, as in any procedural. Well, not only is there a trial, but a “Law & Order” trick ending, to boot. While it’s nice seeing this many young African-American actors working a feature film, it’s a shame that The Breaking Point feels as if it were made in 1987.

MHz Networks
The Churchmen: Season 1
Don Matteo: Sets 11/12
Kaboul Kitchen: Season One
Camilla Läckberg’s The Fjällbacka Murders, Set 1/2
A French Village: 1940: Season 1
MHz Networks is a programming service that has begun to provide viewers in the U.S. access to some of the most interesting shows on networks around the world via streaming and over-the-air digital transmission. In this way, it’s similar to Acorn TV, which specializes in English-language programming from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, including series and mini-series previously shown on PBS and BBC America. Both services are well worth the effort it takes to find them on such services as Hulu, Roku, Samsung Smart TV, iPhone, iPad, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For the purposes of DVD Wrapup, however, many of the shows are now being packaged on DVD, as well. The latest MHz titles I’ve seen include:

From France, “The Churchmen” is the most unlikely of mini-series dramas. It follows five young candidates for the priesthood after their arrival at Paris’ Capuchin Seminary. As is usually the case with such ensemble shows, the characters come from wildly different backgrounds, bringing with them very different reasons for setting out on such a difficult path. As they prepare to take their vows, each of the men will be tempted, tested and tormented by forces from outside and within the seminary walls. As, yes, that includes issues of sexual preference of the adult variety, if not pedophilia. They also are required to slog their way through an aging institution fraught with its own weaknesses, not the least of which is a power struggle between seminary head Father Fromenger and the ambitious Bishop Roman. One needn’t be Catholic to become hooked on “The Churchmen” after giving it an episode or two. The intricate drama is complemented by settings that recall an institution that’s withstood countless dilemmas – most of its own making – and hasn’t surrendered to the same trappings of modernity embraced by the American Church.

In the same ballpark are the extremely popular “Don Matteo” mysteries, from Italy, in which Spaghetti Western star Terence Hill (They Call Me Trinity) plays the titular small-town priest with an extraordinary ability to read people and solve crimes. The series has been airing since 2000 on the premier channel of Italian national television. Hill’s cheeky portrayal reminds me a bit of “Columbo.”

I wonder how American audiences would react to “Kaboul Kitchen,” a black comedy set in the embattled Afghan capital, circa 2005, years before the current Taliban offensive and at a point when dollars were flowing through the hands of warlords and profiteers like water. The Kaboul Kitchen is a multipurpose gathering place in the heart of the city, where westerners can enjoy a non-halal meal, a stiff drink and a dip in the pool, surrounded by women in bikinis. As such, much of the show’s intrigue comes from the owner, Jacky (Gilbert Melki), having to negotiate his way through the roadblocks of war, religion, bureaucracy, corruption, espionage and family. After operating his business on a par with Rick Blaine, in Casablanca, Jacky walks into the club one day only to find his long estranged daughter, Sophie (Stéphanie Pasterkamp), who’s taken a job with a humanitarian-aid organization whose most recent charitable contribution was a truckload of skiing equipment. The series is loosely based on the real life experiences of journalist and co-creator of the series, Marc Victor.

The Fjällbacka Murders” is based on the world of Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg’s character, Erica Falck. She’s a successful crime writer and mother of three, who’s moved from the city to her hometown of Fjällbacka, a fishing village on a picturesque island off the coast of Sweden. Her return seems idyllic, but simmering beneath the village’s surface lie hidden secrets, twisted desires and murderous deceit. The chapters are based on the characters from Läckberg’s novels, but the stories are largely new, with actors Claudia Galli and Richard Ulfsäter playing the lead characters. Like most other Swedish exports, this mystery series is quite engrossing.

The ambitious period series ”A French Village” is set in Villeneuve, a fictional town in German-occupied France during World War II. Since 2009, it has dramatized year-by-year accounts of life there, as despair gave way to hope and fascists of both the German and Vichy variety fought for control of the sleepy district with the Resistance and Allied saboteurs. Liberation would come to central France, of course, but for not for five more TV seasons.

Manimal: The Complete Series
Automan: The Complete Series
Sisters: Seasons One & Two
PBS: Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres
PBS: Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration
Comedy Central: Nathan For You: Seasons One & Two
Gene Autry Collection 12
The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Final Season
During his nearly 50-year career in television, Glen A. Larson wrote and produced some of the most memorable series in the history of the medium. Such long-running series as “Knight Rider” (1982), “The Fall Guy” (1981), “Magnum, P.I.” (1980), “Battlestar Galactica” (1978), “Alias Smith and Jones” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979) will find homes on cable-TV outlets for a long time. Others barely lasted half a season. Newly released in complete-series packages are two shows that will live in infamy for as long as historians retain a sense of humor about the 1980s. In his lifetime, Larson frequently was accused of ripping off concepts, characters and storylines from popular movies. It’s possible, then, to imagine that the 1983 sci-fi “Manimal” was inspired by the erotic thriller, “Cat People,” in which a brother and sister shared the ability to shape-shift into black panthers. “Manimal,” which lasted all of eight episodes, told the story of Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), who could turn himself into any animal he chose to fight crime, but preferred being a black panther. Only two people were aware of Jonathan’s secret, his friend Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts) and police detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson). The transformation sequences were designed and created by the Academy Award-winning SFX artist Stan Winston. Sadly, the potential for a bestiality throughline involving Chase and Mackenzie never was fully realized. Otherwise, this one had “cult classic” written all over it from the moment it was canceled on December 17, 1983

The lineage of Larson’s “Automan” was far more obvious, as the sci-fi/cop series shared a producer (Donald Kushner) with Tron, a movie that many considered to be several years ahead of its time, because it took place inside a video game. The brilliant blue outlines for the computer-generated vehicles and uniforms look exactly the same. Desi Arnaz Jr. plays Walter Nebicher, who’s constantly ridiculed for pushing computer-based crime detection on the department’s resident dinosaurs. Their attempts to keep Nebicher rooted at his desk are stymied, however, by an artificially intelligent computer hologram that looks real, sounds real and given enough electrical power can physically exist in the real world. Together, Walter, Automan and Cursor — a small floating droid that creates any object Automan desires — battle crime on city streets. It’s every bit as lame as it sounds. It lasted 13 episodes, before being achieving immediate cult status.

As unfathomable as it sounds today, NBC’s “Sisters” was the first primetime network television drama series to focus specifically on the lives of women and the issues relating to them. “Maude” dealt with many of the same hot-button issues, years earlier, but it typically used caustic humor to make its point, often at the expense of the recurring male characters. The sponsors of

“Sisters” risked losing male viewers to capture women in the key demographic segments. The 1991-96 show succeeded well enough to log a run of 127 episodes, a number that easily cleared it for syndication. “Sisters” follows the trials and triumphs of the four very different Reed sisters, living in the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb, Winnetka. Besides having unique personalities, the characters played by Sela Ward, Swoosie Kurtz, Patricia Kalember and Julianne Phillips looked as if they had either been adopted or had different fathers by the same mother. The poor sap had died a year before the series’ storylines began, causing his wife to bury herself in an alcoholic haze. He left enough secrets behind, however, to inspire several episodes throughout the show’s tenure. The new compilation contains all 29 episodes from the critically acclaimed first and second seasons, The series would go on to receive eight Emmy Award nominations, winning once in 1994 for Ward as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Kurtz was also nominated twice in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category in 1993 and 1994. The package adds lengthy conversations with created by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who also developed the American adaptation of “Queer as Folk.”

Celebrity chef Jose Andres returns to Haiti, once again, after the 2010 earthquake inspired him to found the World Central Kitchen, as a non-profit that fights hunger and poverty in developing nations. He opened a bakery in an orphanage in Haiti that not only feeds the orphans and staff there, but also provides job training for the kids and has become such a successful business that it is bringing in several thousand dollars a month. In “Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres,” he hopes that by boosting the profile of Haitian cuisine, he can inspire more travelers to visit the much-maligned island. The special shows him spending time with local chefs and markets, and sampling island specialties ranging from spicy pikliz sauce to djon-djon rice and akasan, a sweet, thick, milky beverage. In between hunting for crabs, visiting a hilltop fortress and attending a voodoo ceremony, Andres visits with former President Bill Clinton and chef Mario Batali.

She “turned the world on with her smile” on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration” features dozens of classic clips, plus comments from Betty White, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, John Amos, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and the actress, herself. Plus, Oprah Winfrey recounts Mary Tyler Moore’s critical role in inspiring her — and millions of other women — as TV’s first independent career woman.

Nathan Fielder is an “alternative” Canadian writer and comedian, who’s found a niche on cable TV offering off-the-wall business tips to entrepreneurs in desperate need of turning a profit. The fun in “Nathan For You” comes from convincing the business owners to embrace marketing tactics no traditional consultant would dare attempt. He made headlines when one of his clients agreed to create a coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks. He also suggested inventing a poo-flavored yogurt and staging an elaborate viral video, in which a pig saves a goat. While Nathan’s efforts may not always succeed, they always have big results. The package includes all 16 episodes from the first two seasons!

Beside the good ol’ boy joshing around between cowboy hero Gene Autrey and sidekick Pat Buttram, the 12th edition of “The Gene Autry Collection” features The Sagebrush Troubadour (1935), in which Rangers Gene Autry and Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) travel undercover as Western troubadours to find the killer of old, half-blind Frank Martin. Their only clues are a guitar string and a swayback horse that is the key to finding the dead man’s lost goldmine. It’s one of only two whodunits on the singing cowboy’s resume. The other movies in the set are Ride, Ranger, Ride (1936), Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge (1937) and Gold Mine in the Sky (1938).

Shout! Factory brings out farewell packages of “The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two,” in which the protagonist visits his namesake city and has to convince a diehard Confederate loyalist from killing General Grant, and “WKRP In Cincinnati: The Final Season,” which opens with the station getting a terrorist threat and the staff’s attempt to form a union.

The DVD Wrapup: Stations of the Cross, Code Unknown, Julien Duvivier, Eric Rohmer and more

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Stations of the Cross
Marie’s Story
Last awards season, Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s impassioned story about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, walked away with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Agata Trzebuchowska delivered a stunning performance as a young woman who was raised as a devout Roman Catholic, but discovers on the eve of taking her vows that almost everything she’s learned about her parents and religious background is a lie. While providing a not altogether unkind profile of the Church under Nazi and Communist domination, Ida revealed truths about the deeply engrained anti-Semitism of many of the faithful. Stations of the Cross is Dietrich Brüggemann’s tragic depiction of religious fundamentalism at its most destructive and, as such, can be construed as serving as an indictment of one particularly conservative Catholic order. This one is based in southern Germany, an area not immune to fanaticism. Given the Vatican’s current leadership, it’s difficult to believe the cruelty perpetrated here on the 14-year-old protagonist in the name of Christ. American Catholics who came of age in a darker period of Church history shouldn’t have any trouble accepting the film’s premise, though. Bruggemann shares the writing credit with his sister, Anna, who also plays a character in the movie. Like Trzebuchowska, newcomer Lea van Acken is unforgettable as Maria, a 14-year-old German girl about to be confirmed as a soldier of Christ. In many Catholic homes, it is a sacrament that priests and nuns take far more seriously than the parents of the kids forced to endure accelerated catechism lessons. Maria’s mother (Franziska Weisz) takes the rite very seriously, indeed, as do the clergy attached to the real-life Society of St. Pius X. Founded in 1970 by the traditionalist French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, its adherents reject the more secular rulings of the Second Vatican Council, especially changes in the liturgy and revisions to the Roman Missal. While the longing for a return to the Latin mass isn’t particularly unusual among older Catholics, Maria’s treatment is something quite different. She’s been taught that anything that brings pleasure – contemporary music and helping boys with their homework, for example – could lead to promiscuity. Mutter insists that even the most innocent contact with boys her age opens the door for Satan. Because Maria is too isolated too challenge her parents’ beliefs, she maintains a safe distance from temptation. In her mind, disobeying Mutter would be as disrespectful as using a crucifix as a doorstop.

The title, Stations of the Cross, refers to the 14 Stations of the Cross that Jesus endured on his path to Golgotha. Maria’s been taught that the same path not only leads to heaven, but also could cure her younger brother’s autism. Bruggemann tells Maria’s story through 14 fixed-angle, single-shot tableaus. The same ritual was depicted in excruciating detail in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (On the cover, Maria is shown wearing a crown of thorns.) The nearer Bruggemann gets to the 13th and 14th station — Jesus dying on the cross and being laid in his tomb – the closer Maria gets to her personal Calvary. Instead of pulling the girl back from the brink of disaster, Mutter treats Maria’s ordeal as the first step toward beatification. Anyone who grew up Roman Catholic in a predominantly Catholic community, during the 1960-70s, won’t have any trouble recognizing the forces at play in Stations of the Cross. While many priests and parishioners embraced the reforms brought about during the Second Vatican Council, a vocal minority rejected it outright and still prays for a return to fundamentalist values. In their eyes, the pope is anything but infallible. It’s impossible not to equate Maria’s plight with the treatment of Moslem girls — Malala Yousafzai comes to mind — as they approach puberty and the likelihood of enslavement to a man not of their choosing. Certainly, Mutter and the parish priest could give the Taliban a run for their money. Stations of the Cross is powerful film that deserves to be seen and discussed by co-religionists and anyone who thinks Islamists have a monopoly on fanaticism. Bonus features include the director’s commentary and the short film, “One Shot.”

Also from Film Movement comes a more familiar story of Catholic faith and near-saintly charity. This time, the central figure is a French nun who sacrificed her own personal freedom to mentor a deaf and blind girl nearly given up for lost by her helpless parents. The true story of Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré) and Marie Heurtins (deaf actress Ariana Rivoire) unfolded at roughly the same point in the late 1800s as when Annie Sullivan was working her magic with Helen Keller, an ocean away in Massachusetts. Marguerite taught deaf girls to sign at the esteemed Larnay Institute, near Poitiers. In Jean-Pierre Améris’ tremendously moving Marie’s Story, her great challenge comes when a humble artisan brings his deaf and blind daughter to the rural facility in a last-ditch effort to keep her from being sent to an asylum for the mentally ill. When Marie is left at Larnay, the girl acts out her bewilderment, fear and anger in ways that recall Victor, Francois Truffaut’s l’enfant sauvage in The Wild Child. When the mother superior denies Marguerite’s request to tame the feral child, she’s treats the rejection as a direct challenge from God to serves as his miracle worker on Earth. (I wonder if Keller ever learned of Marie’s parallel story.) To accomplish this feat, the nun felt it necessary to distance herself from her other obligations and search for answers in nature. After much tussling, frustration and exploration, Marguerite feels confident of Marie’s ability to return to Larnay, where they can learn out to correspond using hand-to-hand signing techniques. Sadly, the other girls have yet to be taught the meaning of Christian charity, as they torment Marie whenever Marguerite leaves the room. Learning that the nun has been diagnosed with tuberculosis only makes us feel that much more fearful for Maria’s fate. Améris keeps a tight hold on the throttle here, nicely balancing the dramatic throughlines and resisting the temptation to play to the cheap seats. The acting is universally excellent and the lush rural settings open up a story that might have induced claustrophobia if the action remained indoors. Do I need to mention that Marie’s Story easily qualifies as entertainment for the entire family? The bonus features include an informative making-of featurette and the Iranian short film, “Motherly,” in which a blind woman “spies” on her wheelchair-bound son to determine if his girlfriend is marriage material.

Code Unknown: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When Code Unknown debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, the influx of immigrants into Europe was still deemed manageable and writer/director/playwright Michael Haneke was known primarily for his almost unbearably intense home-invasion thriller, Funny Games. Haneke would go on to become a perennial favorite at international festivals and, by 2015, undocumented immigration would reach crisis proportions throughout Europe and North America. If anything, critics then were more impressed by Juliet Binoche’s terrific performance than Haneke’s observations about the growing communications gap between native Parisians and newcomers from Africa, Kosovo and other hotspots. Today, I think, the opposite would be true. We’ve come to expect great acting from Binoche and Haneke’s response to the immigration problem would be considered prescient. The complete title, “Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” sums up the filmmaker’s narrative conceit pretty well. The central event involves the runaway brother of Binoche’s boyfriend, a photographer drawn to war zones around the world. Angry that the actress refuses to accept the boy’s frustration with farm life as seriously as he does, Jean crumples up a bag of pastry and rudely throws it into the lap of a Kosovar woman begging on a curb outside the bakery shop. Disturbed by the show of disrespect, a Malian student confronts the boy and is arrested for being the instigator of a tussle. The beggar is deported and the boy returns to the farm. Haneke revisits these characters throughout the rest of the movie, through vignettes separated by short blackouts. He also bookends the series of vignettes with scenes from a game of charades played by deaf students from several different cultural backgrounds.

In Code Unknown’s most troubling sequence, the actress is confronted on a subway train by an Arab youth, whose idea of fun is intimidating passengers he knows won’t fight back. At the time, at least, such provocations weren’t at all uncommon. Today, of course, the fear would be that the Arab youth would be in possession of a bomb or knife. I suspect some viewers might see the provocations as being too one-side and deduce that Code Unknown is an exercise in politically incorrect stereotyping. It would be difficult, however, to overstate the potential for violence and political extremism in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. Until President Trump clears the street of America of illegal immigrants, it will remain a problem without a solution here, as well. In this regard, even after 15 years, Code Unknown feels fresh and urgent. Haneke’s ability to keep the disparate characters from tripping all over each other is remarkable. Ten years after Funny Games raised his flag at Cannes, Haneke felt compelled to remake it almost verbatim for English-speaking audiences. Is it too much to ask of him to consider revisiting the issues raised in Code Unknown in a contemporary setting? The Criterion Collection upgrade includes a newly restored 2K digital transfer, approved by the director, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a new and vintage interview with Haneke; an introduction by Haneke, from 2001; a 2000 making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Haneke, Binoche and producer Marin Karmitz; a new interview with film scholar Roy Grundmann; and an essay by critic Nick James.

Eclipse Series 44: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
No less an expert than Graham Greene called Julien Duvivier’s Algiers-set crime drama, Pépé le moko, “One of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing. … (It) raises the thriller to a poetic level!” It would serve as inspiration for Greene’s novel, “The Third Man,” and the American remakes, Algiers (1938) and Casbah (1948). As if to demonstrate that Duvivier was no one-hit wonder, Criterion Collection has released a quartet of films he made between the end of the silent era and the release of “Pepe,” in 1937. Though decidedly French in origin, all four films would fit neatly on the nights Turner Classic Movies devotes to film noir classics. David Golder (1931) is Duvivier’s the first sound film and first collaboration with actor Harry Baur, who appears in all four pictures. it brings to life the vivid protagonist of Irène Némirovsky’s novel, an avaricious, self-interested banker whose family life is as tempestuous as his business dealings in inter-war France. Poil De Carotte (“The Red Head”) is Duvivier’s 1932 remake his own silent adaptation of a popular turn-of-the-century novella about a farm boy nicknamed Carrot Top, who desperately wants to connect with his father; 1933’s La tête d’un Homme (a.k.a., “A Man’s Neck”) is one of the first adaptations of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. It stars Baur as a novelist, investigating the odd circumstances surrounding the killing of a wealthy American woman in Paris. Every bit Baur’s equal is the Russian émigré actor Valéry Inkijinoff, cast as a nihilistic, reptilian medical student. Julien Duvivier gives the viewer one evocative image after another, constructing a work of sinister beauty. In Un Carnet De Bal (“Dance Program”), a rich widow, nostalgic for the lavish parties of her youth, sets off across Europe to reconnect with the many suitors who once courted her. In doing so, she embarks on a journey of discovery, both of herself and of how greatly the world has changed in two decades. The set is the 44th entry in Criterion’s valuable Eclipse Series.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
At a time when executions in the U.S. have been postponed in several states, due primarily to questions raised about the legality of the chemical formula used in lethal injections, it may come as a surprise for many Americans to learn that France relied on the guillotine until 1977. Four years after the execution of Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian pimp convicted of torture and murder, the guillotine and death penalty finally were abolished there. Four years before Djandoubi fell victim to the steel blade, a movie written and directed by a former Death Row inmate may have laid the foundation for their abolition. Far from being an emotionally draining drama on the order of Dead Man Walking, however, José Giovanni’s Two Men in Town (a.k.a., “Two Against the Law”) stuck a knife directly into the heart of France’s hypocritical justice system, which promoted punishment over rehabilitation for convicted criminals … much in the same way as American prisons do today. Giovanni (born, Joseph Damiani), knew whereof he spoke. After World War II, he joined the Corsican mob as a petty criminal and was involved in a crime that claimed three lives, including those of his older brother and an uncle. Despite the fact that he wasn’t armed, Giovanni was convicted and sentenced to death. After some political strings were pulled, clemency was granted and he began a more legitimate career, as writer of hard-boiled fiction set in the criminal underworld or prisons. Several would be adapted into excellent movies, starring such high-profile European leading men as Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paul Meurisse, Daniel Auteuil, Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. He would add a couple more hyphens to his title before his death, in 2004. In Two Men in Town, Delon plays a safecracker who’s released from prison early after being vouched for by a social worker and prison reformer, portrayed by Gabin, then 69. Committed to going straight, Gino Strabliggi encounters three huge obstacles in his path: a tragic romance, his former mates and a cop bent on sending him back to the joint. Throughout it all, Gabin’s Germain Cazeneuve remains in his corner. Finally, though, a system that puts its trust in crooked cops, over rehabilitated sinners, causes Gino to make the kind of foolish mistake that results in dates with the guillotine. Although Two Men in Town suffers a bit from a less-than-fluid narrative, it doesn’t soften the power of Giovanni’s message. Last year, his original screenplay would be re-adapted to fit an American setting by Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory), with Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel facing off against each other in comparable roles. Newly restored in 4K, the Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary by Gabin biographer Charles Zigman, as well as the very different original and re-release trailer.

Full Moon in Paris: Blu-ray
The Marquise of O: Blu-ray
Amour Fou: Blu-ray
And, since we’re on the subject of foreign films, here are three more Film Movement releases to consider, all with deep connections to the famously idiosyncratic French auteur, Eric Rohmer. His 1984 romantic drama, Full Moon in Paris, is the fourth in his “Comedies and Proverbs” series, in which he probes the cycles, permutations and mysteries of love and desire. (Who does this kind of cool stuff, anymore?) It stars the dangerously thin and weirdly coiffed Pascale Ogier, who died very soon after winning the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actress prize, at 26. Her flighty interior designer, Louise, personifies the film’s gender-reversed epigram, “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.” Louise lives with her hunky boyfriend, Remi (Tcheky Karyo), in a suburb of Paris. She loves him, but doesn’t dig his possessive nature or the wasting away of her young life in the sleepy town. Plus, Remi doesn’t dance. So, Louise elects to divide her time in a Paris apartment, where she strings along her effete friend, Octave (Fabrice Luchini), a married writer. She doesn’t mind living or sleeping alone, even while retaining strong feelings for both men. It isn’t until Louise lets down her guard to the point where she spends the night at a rock musician’s apartment that she begins to understand the wisdom in the epigram. If Louise looked a bit more like a young Catherine Deneuve or Nathalie Baye, we’d wonder why such a determined female character would care to split her time between such imperfect men. In a Hollywood movie, though, Ogier would be relegated to geeky sidekick roles and settling for scraps left behind by her friends on the cheerleader squad. It’s these kinds of departures from the norm that make Rohmer’s work so diverting.

The natural tendency when first coming across Rohmer’s 1976 period drama, The Marquise of O, is to assume it has something to do with the Marquis de Sade or the S&M classic, “Story of O,” by Anne Desclos (a.k.a., Pauline Reage_. Alas, no. In fact, it was adapted from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella, about a young widow, the Marquise, who places an ad in the local paper seeking the father of the baby she’s carrying, but doesn’t remember conceiving. In flashback, Rohmer recalls an attack by Russian soldiers on a northern Italian town, during the Napoleonic Wars and the attempted rape of Die Marquise by soldiers overrunning the citadel. It is interrupted by the Russian Count F (Bruno Ganz), who returns the unconscious damsel to safety. The Marquise is distraught that her savior had to leave town after it was ransacked and was mistakenly reported dead in the advance. Soon thereafter, however, the count returns to her home and asks Der Vater – who had unsuccessfully defended the town against the Russians — her hand in marriage. Before this can happen, however, the count once again is called back to duty, with the promise that the matter would be revisited upon his return. Soon thereafter, the Marquise will learn she is pregnant and begin the search for the father. Things get considerably more complicated, but in ways that are difficult to predict. Ganz is excellent as the imperious count, as is Edith Clever as the extremely fragile Die Marquise. The film, which is an exhaustive depiction of long-buried manners and protocol, won the Grand Prix Spécial Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.

The connection to Rohmer in Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is the dramatization of the hopelessly romantic Von Kleist’s final weeks of life, which culminated in a double suicide with the similarly minded musician Henriette Vogel, who lived in a grand estate near Potsdam. Greatly impressed by Von Kleist’s poetry, Vogel invites him to spend time with her family, which includes a husband and child. Led to believe that she’s suffering from a terminal illness, Vogel (Birte Schnoeink) allows the writer (Christian Friedel) to talk her into going out in a blaze of romantic glory, according to the lofty dictates of his poetry. This account differs from the historical record, as does the mystery that surrounds Vogel’s illness, but where’s the fun in the truth? While the dialogue leading to the suicide pact borders on crazy-talk, Hausner’s depiction of life among the aristocracy at a time when the clamor for democracy and the potential for taxing the rich were blowing strongly in the wind is captivating. She also does a splendid job depicting the grandiosity of the estates where the bewigged twits frittered away their days. The bonus features include commentary with the director, deleted scenes, “Why We Selected” and the short film, “OIDA.”

Do I Sound Gay?
I wonder if, even 20 years ago, David Thorpe’s insightful documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, would have attracted the number of men willing to be interviewed on a subject that, in other hands, might be considered politically incorrect. It’s also worth considering where such a film might have been exhibited outside of gay and lesbian film festivals. Back then, religious zealots still were able to sell the idea that homosexuality could be reversed or cured. Today, of course, the stigma of speaking in a stereotypically gay voice – or, what once was dismissed as a lisp – has practically disappeared, at least in big cities and campus communities. Not caring how one sounds in social situations, job interviews, on screen or at church is as much a sign of the times as having same-sex marriage announcements published in the New York Times. Thorpe uses the break-up with his boyfriend as an excuse for confronting his anxiety about “sounding gay.” To this end, he solicits the advice of acting coaches, linguists, friends, family, total strangers and celebrities. What starts as a personal journey, though, effortlessly evolves into larger discussions about sexuality, identity, self-esteem and, finally, gay pride. The interesting thing to remember is that actors have been affecting gay voices and mannerisms for a very long time, and not always in cruel parodies. Some have been able to use their normal voice and profit from it. It isn’t likely that Liberace, Paul Lynde and Clifton Webb would have profited from going butch. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is how what’s accepted in entertainers and celebrities can still divide families. Among the more prominent witnesses called to testify here are Tim Gunn, columnist Dan Savage, David Sedaris, George Takei and Margaret Cho.

Bound to Vengeance: Blu-ray
When J.M. Cravioto’s hyper-violent revenge thriller Bound to Vengeance was shown at this year’s Sundance Festival, its title was “Reversal.” There probably was a logical reason for the change, although I can’t think of one right now. The reviews that followed its screening were close enough to the ones that greeted I Spit on Your Grave and its sequels to raise the question as to just how violent a movie has to be these days to offend critics gathered at a festival devoted to indies. While there’s no denying Bound to Vengeance’s exploitative ambitions, such reviews suggest that the bar separating good exploitation from bad exploitation hasn’t moved much in the last 37 years. In Rock Shaink and Keith Kjornes’ story, a young woman, Eve (Tina Ivlev), escapes her psychopathic captor after being chained in a basement and abused for nine months. While attempting to take flight, Eve discovers photos taken of other women whose lives appear still to be in jeopardy. Assuming that her captor knows where the others are imprisoned, she beats him to within an inch of his life and puts him in a metal harness, which can be manipulated to inflict more pain. By promising the fiend (Richard Tyson) medical attention, Eve is able to elicit the location of another victim, who agrees to join her crusade, and, so on and so forth. The further the trail leads into the horror zone, the more resistance they meet … and, yes, reversals. The obvious questions become, why doesn’t Eve call the police and where does vengeance end and sadism begin? Then, too, is a harder line drawn by mainstream critics when an exploitation flick debuts at Sundance, instead of going straight to DVD, where such genre fare can be ignored? Methinks, yes. Critics don’t enjoy wallowing in gore any more than the victims in exploitation movies. I don’t either, but VOD and straight-to-video titles are a large part of my workload. That said, because the violence in Bound to Vengeance is directed far more at the evil male characters than helpless women, the titillation factor associated with I Spit on Your Grave and its ilk isn’t at play here. While far from a home run, the movie is just good enough to raise the profile of its talented Mexican director in his debut feature.

The Aviation Cocktail
Like other first features made on miniscule budgets, David R. Higgins’ The Aviation Cocktail is long on style, but short on follow-through. At its best, the Nebraska-set crime drama represents the kind of rural noir Richard Brooks injected into In Cold Blood. Set in the kind of sleepy Midwestern town profiled in Truman Capote’s account of the Clutter Family murders, Higgins’ film benefits from being shot in, around and above the Sandhills National Natural Landmark, in the north-central part of Nebraska, as well as a snow-covered patch of nothingness in Colorado. There are times when it also resembles the more barren landscapes of Coen Brothers’ Fargo, North Dakota. The movie opens with a shootout between a posse of police sharpshooters and the kidnaper of a girl, who’s already dead when they approach the dilapidated shed. While the wounded suspect is being flown to a hospital in a shiny silver prop plane, the three other passengers conspire to exact their own form of vigilante justice on him. Sheriff Henry Fisher (Beau Kiger), his brother, Jack (Michael Haskins), and friend Bob Halloran (Brandon Eaton) are World War II veterans, not at all averse to keeping the prisoner’s fate secret. Things don’t begin to unravel until the cuckolded sheriff’s unfaithful wife, Alice (Leah Lockhart), begins flashing her boobs to everyone willing – or unwilling – to look at them. Her lovers include the pilot, Bob. Like everyone else in town, Jack is aware of the situation, but doesn’t want his brother to slide completely off, into the deep end. As if to demonstrate how haywire things can go in a small town largely populated with heavily armed alcoholics, Higgins adds the dead girl’s religious-fanatic brother (Connor L. Boyle) to the mix and gives him a handgun. By the time the shit hits the fan between Henry and Alice, though, the story’s gotten bogged down with too many characters and subplots. Even so, it’s difficult not to be impressed with Higgins’ choice of locations and obsession with period accuracy, especially in the vintage vehicles.

Before We Go: Blu-ray
If I were to guess, I’d say that prolific-to-a-fault screenwriter Ron Bass woke up one morning thinking it might not be a bad idea if someone crossed Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and that his assistants might have fun throwing it together. Before We Go reportedly began to take shape in 2008, as “1:30 Train,” and with director Joel Schumacher and Monica Bellucci attached to the project. By the time shooting began, in 2014, the retitled rom-com starred frequent superhero Chris Evans and Reece Witherspoon look-alike Alice Eve, with Evans doubling down as first-time director. Evans has said that he doesn’t want to play Captain America forever, but, even if Before We Go is far from a disaster, he may want to reconsider killing the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. In it, Evans plays a subway busker, Nick Vaughan, who hopes to join an established jazz ensemble after an audition scheduled for the next day. He becomes attracted to Eve’s Brooke Dalton after noticing that she’s missed her train to New Haven and is upset because her expensive purse has been stolen and her phone is broken. Sensing a damsel in distress, Nick volunteers to help her locate her bag and raise the money she needs to get back to her philandering husband. They make a cute couple, traipsing around the Lower East Side, even if there’s no guarantee they’ll still be a twosome by the time sunrise rolls around. The problem is that they don’t look as if they could survive a night in the mean streets of Omaha, let alone Manhattan, especially while attempting to recover a purse worth more empty than Nick’s made in all of his performances at Grand Central Station. We’re left with an urban fairytale as phony as the knock-off accessories sold on street corners by Nigerian conmen.

Charlie’s Farm
Stung: Blu-ray
Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Theatre of the Deranged II: Blu-ray
Symphony in Blood Red Blu-Ray,
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.: Blu-ray
Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween
Bloodsucking Bastards: Blu-ray
If the Aussie export, Charlie’s Farm, is based on an overly familiar trope, writer/director Chris Sun deserves a lot of credit at least for creating a monster that fans of old-fashioned slasher flicks aren’t likely to forget. The story opens with a flashback to the night a vigilante mob confronted the owners of an Outback farm, believed to house a family of serial killers of trespassers and cannibals. The only person who escapes the carnage is the son, Charlie Wilson, who, 20 years later, has grown into a grotesque 6-foot-11, 360-pound killer, who wields handmade weapons of medieval origins. On this particular weekend, a quartet of fearless young suburbanites descends on the vacant farmhouse to test the validity of a horrifying local legend involving Charlie. While it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen to the couples, horror fans should enjoy guessing how they will be dispatched and in what order. It’s all pretty blood-curdling. American viewers may be tempted by the presence of Tara Reid, who hasn’t starred in anything more noteworthy lately than “Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2.”  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that a sequel is already in the works … probably without Reid.

Reportedly, first-time screenwriter Adam Aresty came up with the idea for Stung while working as a caterer at an outdoor party with a severe wasp-infestation problem. Based solely on that much background information, anyone who can’t guess what transpires over the course of the next 87 minutes of Aresty and Benni Diez’ film should be required to take a remedial course in creature features. Although I would have held out for predatory yellowjackets, Diez’s special-effects acumen (Melancholia) worked in the favor of the increasingly large, black wasps. If Stung had been made in the 1960-70s, it might have attracted Roger Corman’s attention and been distributed to drive-ins around the country. As it is, I can’t imagine how Syfy might have passed on it. It stars Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Matt O’Leary (Mother’s Day) and Jessica Cook (Awkward).

Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies isn’t the final movie Rowdy Roddy Piper made before his death this summer, at 61, but he’s the only good reason to check out Cody Knotts’ follow-up to Breeding Farm and Lucifer’s Unholy Desire. Although the title doesn’t need any further explanation, it’s worth noting that the battle royal takes place at night in an abandoned prison, where a troupe of professional wrestlers is booked for a private show. To their great surprise, the grapplers are confronted by a small army of zombies. The wrestlers turn to their weapons of choice – ladders, folding chairs, boards and sleeper holds – to turn back the undead horde, which relies primarily on rotten teeth and decaying fingernails. Besides Piper, the humans include Matt Hardy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Franchise Shane Douglas, Kurt Angle, Reby Sky, Sylvester ‘Bear’ Terkay and associate producer Camera Chatham Bartolotta. The action isn’t any more violent than what one might see at a Wrestlemania. The biggest problem is the under-lit setting, which makes the action tough to dicipher, even in hi-def. It adds commentary by Knotts and an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman.

In the sequel to Troma’s 2012 horror anthology, Theater of the Deranged, Internet freak Damien Shadows takes over the reins as host from Andy the Arsonist. Shadows calls himself a paranormal investigator, a title that’s hardly exclusive to self-promoting young webheads who resemble Alice Cooper. As before, Theater of the Deranged II is comprised of a half-dozen very strange short films, this time directed by James Cullen Bressack (Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys), Shawn Burkett (A Shameless Revenge), Eric Hollerbach (Pets of the Rich and Famous), Christopher Leto (Die Die Delta Pi), Dustin Mills (Kill That Bitch) and Shane Ryan (Amateur Porn Star Killer). And, yes, included in the cast of miscreants is a killer mime. It adds bloopers, commentary and other Troma stuff.

There may very well be more filmmakers imitating Dario Argento, today, than there ever were during the heyday of giallo. And, why not? Those movies were built on a recognizable foundation of violence, sex and vivid imagery and the DVD/Blu-ray revolution works to the advantage of those sick individuals for whom murder, nudity and stylistic cinematography are as vital as mother’s milk. The 2010 Troma import, Symphony in Blood Red, doesn’t bother to conceal its influences, even adding a pair of featurettes in which Argento’s name, spirit and thoughts are invoked. In it, a psychologist unleashes her mysterious patient’s latent madness, by insisting he seek further help in a more specialized institution. Instead, he kills her and becomes his own therapist, recording his feelings in a crazy “crescendo” with a small camera. Somehow, he’s come to belief that he’s emerging from a chrysalis state and the next step is full-blown madness. Symphony in Blood Red was written by Antonio Tentori (Dracula 3D) and Luigi Pastore, who also is the director. The genre-specific score is by Claudio Simonetti. The Blu-ray comes with an intro by Lloyd Kaufman; a documentary with the “best voices of Italian horror,” including Dario Argento; a behind-the-scenes piece; a “Minute With Dario Argento: Make Your Own Damn Movie lesson; highlights from the 16th Tromadance Film Festival; Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner trailer; and a music video, directed by Kaufman.

And, we’re not done with Troma just yet. On the 25th anniversary of Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., Lloyd Kaufman has decided to re-launch the sci-fi cop adventure in Blu-ray. Harry Griswald is a NYPD cop possessed with the spirit of a great Kabuki master. This has made him “the chosen one” to do battle with “the evil one.” Sadly, not everyone in the Big Apple is ready for reform or such superheroics. Among the bonus features are commentary by Lloyd Kaufman, an animated Kabukiman, Kabuki rap, “Sgt. Kabukiman Accused of Sexual Harrassment,” Tromaville Cafe with Rick Gianasi and the ever-popular Troma Trailers.

Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween isn’t from Troma, but it might as well be, I guess. The titular protagonists return to the DVD marketplace to mess with sci-fi and horror conventions and clichés, while also paying homage to classic scenes and characters. Previous chapters have included C&O’s Summer Camp Massacre, C&O’s Deadly Xmas and C&O Meet Dracula’s Lawyer. It helps to have a solid background in horror history.

You know that any improv-comedy group with the chutzpah to name itself Dr. God is going to work extra hard to make people laugh. Anything less would be sacrilege. Dr. God is a Los Angeles-based troupe that develops content for film and television, in addition to performing live all across the country. Besides producing Bloodsucking Bastards, it currently is working on “MOCKpocalypse” for AXS-TV.  It is intended to appeal to fans of such movies as Shaun of the Dead, Office Space and “The Office,” among other influences. The DVD adds a gag reel, a making-of featurette and commentary with Dr. God members, including director Brian James O’Connell, producer/actor Justin Ware, writer/actor Sean Cowhig and actors Neil W. Garguilo and David F. Park.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
Nothing in Jeremiah Zagar’s intriguing documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart leads me to believe that the subject of his inquest was railroaded or deserves a new trial. It does, however, demand of viewers that we question, at least, if any defendant can get a fair hearing after being deemed exploitable by media outlets able to introduce facts, hearsay and outright lies jurors wouldn’t be allow to hear in court. Twenty-five years ago, Pamela Smart’s case made a huge splash when she was charged with encouraging her teenage lover and his slacker buddies to murder her husband. She had met the three teenage boys and a girl at Winnacunnet High School, in Hampton, New Hampshire, where she was employed as a “media coordinator.” Before the seduction and murder occurred, Smart and the students were linked by a mutual interested in heavy-metal music. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because of the intense media coverage of the trial – the first, even before O.J., to be televised from start to finish – and Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel, “To Die For,” which was adapted by Gus Van Sant’s movie of the same title, starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon and Joaquin Phoenix. Smart also was portrayed by Helen Hunt in the CBS movie, “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story,” and she appeared on “Oprah” in 2010 to plead her case for a new trial. It was rejected, despite several inconsistencies in the testimony of her co-conspirators.

Zagar’s most salient point is that, once the media began to exploit the story for all it was worth, it would have been impossible for Smart’s case to be fairly heard by an untainted judge and jury. If a presumption of innocence is the rule of law in any courtroom, a presumption of guilt is what sells papers and pumps up ratings. Among the things working against Smart was a too-pretty face, an expensive hairdo and photos of her in a bikini. How could three boys in their mid-teens resist such a sorceress? Or, so the prosecutor’s argument went. Even if we agree with the guilty verdict and punishment of life without parole, what are we to make of decisions that have already allowed the boys, including the 15-year-old who stabbed Smart’s husband to death, to already be free on parole? Zagar asks other worthwhile questions, while also interviewing Smart in prison. The documentary is informed, as well, by numerous court records, transcripts and fresh interviews with people on both sides of the argument. For those who followed the trial or simply are fans of true-crime stories, “Captivated” should be considered a must-see.

Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar
Although Adam Ant enjoyed a substantial career in the UK, in the post-punk 1980s, I can only recall him having a single memorable hit on the U.S. charts, “Goody Two Shoes.” He found some traction on MTV for his theatrical music videos and quasi-military costume  – he appeared to be channeling Monty Python’s inept highwayman, Dennis Moore – but pretty much disappeared by 1985. Jack Bond’s documentary, Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar, describes the 61-year-old singer/actor’s attempt to relaunch his career after stops along the way doing television, film and theater gigs and dealing with his bipolar condition. This time around, Ant (born, Stuart Leslie Goddard) resembles a cross between Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. He’s still rocking – thanks to a solid band and hyperactive backup singers — but the lyrics to his new songs sound as if they were written during therapy sessions. Even so, the doc should appeal to 1980s’ nostalgists and fans who might have lost track of Ant. Among the more familiar guest stars are Charlotte Rampling (he’s a big fan of The Night Porter), guitarist Mark Ronson, sculptor Allen Jones, John Robb (Goldblade) and Jamie Reynolds (The Klaxons). Bonus features include live performances of “Whip in My Valise” (at The Scala in London), “Deutsche Girls” (at Electric Ballroom), and “Young Parisians” (duet with Boy George of Culture Club). There’s also an extended Q&A with Bond and Robb.

Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series
On Two Fronts Latinos & Vietnam
American Masters: Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey
Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes
The Jewish Journey: America
Nature: Nature’s Miracle Orphans
Cook’s Country: Season 8
It isn’t always easy to keep track of our favorite British series once we’ve fallen in love with them on PBS or BBC America. Few of them can afford the marketing push that alerts us to every new season of “Downton Abbey” and “Dr. Who,” so we’re pretty much left to our own devices. Fortunately, the release of these shows on DVD/Blu-ray has become far more predictable, and at their original UK lengths. (Yes, the U.S. outlets edit for language, nudity and the time necessary for pledge-drive hustles and commercials.) It explains why the arrival of “Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series” will be greeted with joy by fans of British spy stories and Bill Nighy, in particular. As conceived and administered by David Hare, Johnny Worricker is a veteran MI5 officer, whose boss and best friend (Michael Gambon) in the first chapter, “Page Eight,” died unexpectedly, leaving behind a mysteriously encrypted file that threatens the stability of the agency. Meanwhile, a seemingly chance encounter with Johnny’s striking next-door neighbor and political activist (Rachel Weisz) proves too good to be true, forcing Worricker to leave the agency to discover the truth. In the second chapter of the trilogy, “Turks & Caicos,” Worricker is laying low on the titular tax-exile islands, when a CIA agent (Christopher Walken) forces him into the company of some ambiguous American businessmen who claim to be on the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. When one is found dead, the head of the company’s publicity agency (Winona Ryder) leads Worricker in what could be a wild goose chase that leads back to the events described in “Page Eight.” The third episode, “Salting the Battlefield” follows Worricker as he criss-crosses Europe with a former girlfriend (Helena Bonham Carter), attempting to stay one or two steps ahead of MI5 agents pursuing him in the name of the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a terrifically excitin series, with plenty of fresh insights into the game within the game. The casts also include Judy Davis, Olivia Williams, Rupert Graves, Felicity Jones, Dylan Baker, James Naughton and Tom Hughes.

More than any previous conflict involving American soldiers, the Vietnam War was fought by conscripts of working-class and impoverished backgrounds, most of whom had no desire to be there. Meanwhile, college deferments allowed more privileged youths to postpone or entirely avoid their obligation to become cannon fodder for Uncle Sam. When Hollywood finally caught up with Vietnam, it was largely portrayed as a war in which African-American males either were killed or came of age as dope fiends or Black Panthers. The cold facts demonstrated that young working-class Latinos were drafted in similar proportions to black high school graduates and paid the same terrible price. A generation later, Hispanic men and women would comprise an inordinately high percentage of slots in the all-volunteer military. This number included undocumented immigrants who would parley the experience into American citizenship. The PBS documentary, “On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam” frames the documentary within the memoirs of two siblings, Everett and Delia Alvarez, who stood on opposite sides of the Vietnam War, one as a POW and the other protesting at home. Other stories deepen the narrative: in Greenlee County, Arizona, miners’ children fought and died for their country in devastating proportions; sisters and mothers took notice and action; and a farmworker’s son translated his military experience into a career, before resigning in protest from his post on a local draft board.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey,” tells the remarkable story of a Mexican-American native of then-segregated Mesa, Arizona, who developed a love of art, photography and architecture that carried him to the loftiest peaks of his craft. His collaborations with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson have been seen by millions of magazine readers who have no idea who took the photographs or how his cultural background may have influenced his work. He also established an international reputation photographing the mid-century modern houses of such luminaries as Eero Saarinen, Edward Durell Stone, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, John Black Lee and Joseph Salerno. Magazine assignments also took him to Julia Child’s pot-lined kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and to John Huston’s castle in Ireland. For his early opposition to the Vietnam War, however, Guerrero was blacklisted by the same publishers of major shelter magazines who profited from his work. One needn’t be Hispanic or a student of design to enjoy this beautifully composed profile of an important American artist.

Among the historical figures who deserve to be given a temporary rest, at least, by filmmakers and documentarians are the Henry VIII of England and his unfortunate wives. It’s not that we’re not interested in their stories of star-crossed love, just that it’s almost impossible to imagine anything new and compelling to be derived from them. Tell that to historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, who, in “Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History,” puts a tight focus on the heir-obsessed monarch and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In what amounts to a fact-based Harlequin bodice-ripper, Lipscomb illustrates her exhaustive research with sumptuous dramatizations and reconstructions, drawing on first-hand accounts from the time, and visiting the places where Henry and Anne lived. The only thing missing is a cameo appearance by Fabio, as the Lord High Executioner.

At a time when it would seem impossible to discover new accounts of heroism from World War II, here comes “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes,” which adds quite a bit more than a footnote to the story. In it, we’re introduced to dozens of largely unsung protectors of Jewish refugees, including Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali and citizens of a city that risked annihilation for hiding them. The film also offers an alternative take on the Catholic Church’s role in protecting scores of refugees. While not denying the presence of Vatican-endorsed “ratlines,” which allowed countless ex-Nazi leaders to escape Europe, Oren Jacoby’s film chooses to promote the actions of priests and nuns who adopted a more Christian response to Mussolini and Hitler’s insanity. Not all of the accounts have a happy ending, of course, but more than were previously known, at least. The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini.

On a significantly brighter note, “The Jewish Journey: America” traces Jewish immigration to the U.S. from the earliest arrivals in the mid-17th Century through the impact of the Nazi regime in World War II and subsequent breakup of the USSR. It also chronicles the choices made by American-born Jews in the 20th Century, as the religion faced challenges from within. Among those interviewed are two American-born rabbis whose own “Jewish Journey” has taken them from an assimilated household, with no real roots in the rituals of the religion, back to a life of observance. Top scholars, notable writers and immigrants themselves share stories of those who made a leap of faith to escape persecution or pursue opportunity.

There were several times during the two-part “Nature” mini-series, “Nature’s Miracle Orphans,” when I was tempted to put on one of the many recordings I have of the traditional Negro spiritual, “Motherless Child.” There were other times, however, when a happier tune would be a more appropriate accompaniment. As sad as it is to watch baby animals come to the grips with the absence of their parents – especially those of the maternal persuasion – it’s just that uplifting to see them discover ways to survive and prosper independently. While some orphans are taken in by foster parents, others are forced to go it alone or with the help of human volunteers. They include baby koalas, wallabies, kangaroos, sloths and anteaters.

Season Eight of PBS’ mouthwatering “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen” features the usual array of regional specialties prepared by host Christopher Kimball and chefs from America’s Test Kitchen. Among them are Delta Hot Tamales, Smoked Bourbon Chicken, Dakota Peach Kuchen, Latin Fried Chicken, Pork Ragu, Frosted Meatloaf and Barbecued Burnt Ends. It also includes “Tips & Techniques,” food tastings, equipment tests, and printable versions of all 26 recipes.

The Farmer’s Daughter
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13
Watch enough porn and you’ll be surprised at who shows up in one. The late, great monologist and actor Spalding Gray plays a leading role in a nasty little ditty, The Farmer’s Daughter, which has been re-released by Impulse Pictures. It also starred Golden Age favorites Marlene Willoughby, Susan McBain and Gloria Leonard, but it should hardly come as a shock to find them in a 1976 porno. Directed by Zebedy Colt (a.k.a., Edward Earle Marsh), it extended the old joke about the farmer’s daughter by adding a couple siblings, a trio of escaped convicts, a moronic farmhand and trigger-happy farmer, a girl-on-boy gang rape, gender-neutral golden showers, incest and some anal. If it weren’t so rough, The Farmer’s Daughter could pass for comedy. Gray doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as one of the randy convicts … that would come eight years later, when he played the U.S. consul, in The Killing Fields. In 1985, he gained prominence on stage with the autobiographical monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.” Gray also took uncredited roles in a pair of adult classics, Maraschino Cherry and Little Orphan Dusty. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for struggling actors to supplement their income with work in XXX flicks. No one could foresee the introduction of VCRs or that anyone might be able to reference past work in unsung flicks. Some of the then-unknown actors and peep-show veterans, including Leonard, would go on to make very decent money in the genre and never feel the need to apologize for it.

Among the future stars who likewise honed their craft in loops and other grindhouse attractions are Chris Cassidy, Tina Russell, Susan Nero and Sharon Mitchell, who can be found in “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13.” The recently deceased Leonard, who also would serve as publisher of High Society, has appeared in previous editions of the series. As usual, liner notes for both sets are provided by Cinema Sewer publisher, Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: Jurassic World, Back to Future, Inside Out, Toy Story, Benoit Jacquot and more

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Jurassic World: Blu-ray
To paraphrase the Budweiser advertising jingle, “When you’ve collected $1.58 billion at the worldwide box office, you’ve said it all.” No amount of unenthusiastic reviews or over-familiarity with the subject matter could prevent the Jurassic World juggernaut from storming its way up, up, up the charts. Far from being a paint-by-number addition to a beloved franchise, Colin Trevorrow’s second feature – to clever indie debut, Safety Not Guaranteed film – still hones closely to conceits introduced 22 years ago by director Steven Spielberg and writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Even so, Trevorrow doesn’t appear to have been required to recall much from “The Lost World” and “JPIII,” which is just as well. Early on in Jurassic World, uptight theme-park executive Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), quips, “Face it, no one is impressed by a dinosaur, anymore.” A bit later, BD Wong’s Dr. Wu, explains, “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. If the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.” One doesn’t need much more information than that to feel at home here. When the Indominus runs amok in Jurassic World, as we know it will, its capture falls to the likable and brave trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Because the park is overflowing with tourists and men in business suits, who knows how much damage could be done by a crazed automaton. (Nothing short of a nuclear strike could put a dent in the franchise.) While Owen is a true macho man, the script treats the pompous female executive, Claire, as if she had no more business on the island than the Super Mario Bros. Trevorrow requires her to explore the park and escape marauding dinosaurs in the same ludicrously high heels she wore hours earlier, while escorting investors around the attraction. Because no Spielberg-produced movie would be complete without the inclusion of endangered children, Claire’s nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins) just happen to be visiting Jurassic World on this fateful day. All of those clichés aside, Jurassic World is a wonderfully rendered entertainment, with every penny of its $150-million budget visible on the screen. Howard and Pratt make the kind of compelling team we wouldn’t mind seeing again in the sequels already being planned. They get great support from an international cast of familiar actors, including Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee and Katie McGrath. The science isn’t bad, either. Fans of the series will enjoy sorting out the homages and physical references to the three previous “JP” installments. Less entertaining are the myriad product placements, ranging from Mercedes to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant chain. They border on being offensive. If the writers had wanted to make a meaningful statement, they might have linked Indominus’ love of genetically modified grain for its monstrous size and temperament. It almost goes without saying that Universal’s Blu-ray/3D/DVD/UltraViolet audio and visual presentation is excellent, fully complementing the superb special effects and lush tropical settings.

Back to the Future 30th Anniversary Trilogy: Blu-ray
Among the most memorable moments in Back to the Future are the ones in which Marty McFly is required to discourage Lorraine, the woman who would become his mother, from falling in love with him. Besides making tens of thousands of male viewers queasy, the Freudian subtext dissuaded several studios, including Disney, from picking up the picture when the script was passed around Hollywood executive suites. Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, also partners on Jurassic World, will be eternally grateful that they did. Audiences, too, reaped the benefits of a script didn’t back down from a little controversy. The only things truly new in Uni’s comprehensive “30th Anniversary Trilogy” package is a fourth disc dedicated to two hours’ worth of featurettes and additional content. Otherwise, the three Blu-ray presentations, already upgraded once, retain the previously available supplementary material, of which there is plenty.  The set comes housed in a DigiBook-style case, with rigid cardboard sleeves comprising the “pages” and serving as disc holders. For those not keeping score at home, the set was released to coincide with the studio’s celebration of October 21, 2015, a date that figures prominently in Back to the Future mythology. Naturally, the hook-starved media took the bait. Passionate fans, already in possession of the 25th-anniversary package may not want to re-invest their money in the same three pictures, just to pick up some new featurettes. They’ll probably turn up online or at Netflix, anyway, and are well worth checking out. It includes “Doc Brown Saves the World,” an all-new short featuring Christopher Lloyd; “Outatime: Restoring the DeLorean,” an inside look at the extensive 2012 restoration of one of three DeLoreans used in the film, but left for years to deteriorate; “Looking Back to the Future,” a nine-part retrospective documentary, from 2009, on the trilogy’s legacy; two 1991 episodes from “Back to the Future: The Animated Series” (“Brothers” and “Mac the Black”), featuring live-action segments with Lloyd as Doc Brown; and newly minted “commercials” for properties seen in Back to the Future II, including are “Jaws 19” and “Hoverboard.”

Inside Out: Blu-ray
Toy Story That Time Forgot: Blu-ray
A LEGO Brickumentary: Blu-ray
Somehow, I managed to overlook the release of Disney/Pixar’s highly ambitious and thoroughly entertaining Inside Out when it finally dropped domestically on June 19. By that time, though, the $175-million animated feature had already been showcased at festivals in Cannes, Seattle, Sydney, L.A., Taormina and Buenos Aires. It also had opened theatrically in Egypt, the UAE, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and a couple dozen other far-flung places before American audiences got a crack at it. I’m just patriotic enough to be concerned about what Disney’s increasingly erratic distribution patterns have to say, if anything, about serving mainstream audiences at home, as well as the confusion that occurs when reviews are published or aired any time within a nearly month-long window … six months, if you count the Blu-ray/DVD trades. It’s entirely possible that I read the trade reviews from Cannes, published on May 18, and wasn’t paying attention when the glowing opinions of mainstream critics were issued three weeks later. I concur, so anyone looking for a contrary opinion will be disappointed. If Oscar voters don’t give it serious consideration as a Best Picture candidate, they deserve to have their credentials revoked. At first, I thought that Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen and their team were searching for a clever way to create a narrative based on the many different emoticons that are used as shorthand in Internet communication. On closer examination, however, Inside Out is far more complex and challenging for parents who may be required to give their kids a crash course in Psychology 101. The story concerns an 11-year-old Minnesotan, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), who’s devastated by her father’s decision to take a job in San Francisco, which mostly exists as a playground for adults. Things get even worse when she fails to make a smooth transition to her new school. Mirroring Riley’s outer turmoil are anthropomorphized inner Emotions: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Each is represented by different colors, shapes, tones and textures. (The writers considered up to 27 different Emotions, but settled on five to make the story less complicated.) Also impacting Riley’s mood shifts are thousands of memory beads, stored like drops of honey in a giant hive, also controlled by the Emotions. With a bit of assistance from Riley’s understanding parents, she will come to appreciate the things San Francisco has to offer an 11-year-old, but not before attempting a jailbreak. If you’re thinking that her separation from her school’s hockey team might be one of the things the Emotions must overcome, you’d be right … but, stay tuned. The audio/visual presentation on Blu-ray is impeccable. As you can imagine, the richly endowed color palette employed by Inside Out’s artists is more crucial to any appreciation of the movie than most other animated features. I paused the picture several times to study the intricately drawn images. The choice of shapes and colors also was crucial to the depiction of the Emotions. Each of the actors voicing the Emotions — Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black — is given a unique look and hue.  Not surprisingly, Black’s Anger is painted bright red. The bonus material included on the film disc includes; “Lava,” a short, musically centered, volcanic love story; another related short, “Riley’s First Date?”; “Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out,” in which female cast and crew members share stories from their lives, their work on the film, characters with whom they identify, their thoughts on human emotion and how they connect with the film; “Mixed Emotions,” a quick look at character design; and commentary with Docter and Del Carmen. A separate disc adds deleted scenes and several more making-of featurettes.

With at least three years to go before Disney-Pixar delivers “Toy Story 4,” the Blu-ray edition of Toy Story That Time Forgot will have to keep devoted fans satisfied. In fact, the delightful 22-minute short was unveiled on television almost a year ago, as something of a pre-holiday stocking stuffer. It has since been made available through streaming services, legally and surreptitiously, on the Internet. Normally, an already widely available movie wouldn’t be an easy product to recommend for purchase, even considering that voicing superstars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Kristen Schaal, Don Rickles, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn and newcomer Kevin McKidd (“Grey’s Anatomy”) were hired to class up the short film. Here, during one of Bonnie’s post-Christmas playdates, the Toy Story regulars are challenged by a set of action figures that were given to her friend, Mason. His Christmas haul includes a full line of Battlesaur action figures and a new video game system, complete with a virtual-reality headset. As befits their bellicose nature, the Battlesaurs threaten Mason’s old-school guests with extinction. Their only hope for survival is to convince Reptillus Maximus that he’s a toy, not a wartime leader. Writer/director Steve Purcell (Brave) does double-duty here as the cunning Cleric. The big selling point, though, besides the sparkling hi-def presentation, is a bonus package that includes, “Reptillus!,” a catch-all look at the importance of building a detailed backstory for the new characters, through design, digital animation, study in the real world and voice acting; “Toy Story Goes to Comic-Con”; “Karaoke: My Unexpected Friend,” with “Reptillus Sings” and “You Sing”; “Battlesaurs: Animated Opening,” a mock-up opening sequence for the fictitious Battlesaurs TV program; deleted scenes; and audio commentary with Purcell and Head of Story Derek Thompson.

One of the highlights of the 2014 film calendar was the release of The LEGO Movie, a truly inspired entertainment that accomplished with tiny plastic bricks what most studios can’t with nine-figure budgets, marquee actors and the best crews in the business. While nowhere near as surprising, A LEGO Brickumentary complements that accomplishment by showing how real-life Master Builders have expanded on that vision by creating sculptures, toys and artwork that border on the miraculous. They’re also being used in therapy and schools to encourage creativity, individual achievement and teamwork. Like any other geek pursuit, LEGO’s reach is global and “Brickumentary” is as dispassionate a film as its fandom’s zeal is uncontainable. Directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge open with an examination of the company’s surprisingly long roots, before describing how it bounced back from over-exposure in the early 1990s, basically trusting its customers to lead it into new directions. There’s no telling what parents might discover about their kids by watching “Brickumentary” with them. The Blu-ray makes good use of the toys’ bright color scheme, adding lengthy deleted scenes and an obligatory pitch for San Diego’s LEGOLAND amusement park.

The Benoit Jacquot Collection: Blu-ray
There’s no better example of the importance of niche distributors of DVD/Blu-ray titles than Cohen Media Group’s The Benoit Jacquot Collection. It serves as a triple-feature of films made in the 1990s by a veteran French director, only recently risen to prominence in the United States, with Farewell My Queen and Three Hearts (also from Cohen). Those pictures are far more accessible to mainstream American audiences than the decidedly arthouse-oriented The Disenchanted (1990), A Single Girl (1995) and Keep It Quiet (1999), which reflect more of a post-New Wave approach. Born in 1947, Jacquot began his career as an assistant director on Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972) and India Song (1975), and also an actor in India Song and Jean-Claude Biette’s 1973 short film La Sœur du cadre. Duras’ minimalist influence is most apparent in The Disenchanted and A Single Girl, which can be enjoyed as closely observed character studies of young French women whose young lives are very much in flux. Indeed, one of Jacquot’s strengths has been his ability to elicit signature performances from such prominent French actresses, including Virginie Ledoyen, Judith Godrèche, Isabelle Huppert, Vahina Giocante, Sandrine Kiberlain, Isabelle Adjani, Isild Le Besco, Léa Seydoux, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni. In The Disenchanted, Godrèche plays a 17-year-old standing at an unusually messy crossroads of sexual maturity, adult responsibility and youthful curiosity. In A Single Girl, Ledoyen’s curiously vague hotel maid also is required to come to grips with unexpected realities of adult life, after discovering she’s pregnant and, for the most part, alone. Keep It Quiet is an ensemble piece, in which a popular television host (Vincent Lindon) becomes emotionally unglued after his CEO brother (Fabrice Luchini) is released from prison, taking on a persona roughly that of Chance the Gardener, in “Being There.” Huppert and the much younger Giocante find themselves caught in the middle of the sibling drama, but from very different perspectives. All three of the films reward viewers for their patience, as Benoit typically maintains an almost glacial pace. Each is presented for the first time in new high-definition re-masterings, with commentaries by critics Wade Major and Tim Cogshell and insightful discussions between director Benoît Jacquot and the New York Film Festival’s Kent Jones.

In the Grayscale
Liz in September
Dreams from Strangers
Eastsiders: Season 2
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
Set in Santiago, Chile, where being gay probably isn’t as commonly accepted as it is in other countries, movies like In the Grayscale still resonate with young-adult professionals coming to grips with their sexual identity. As such, the emotional tug of freshman director Claudio Marcone and sophomore screenwriter Beppe Norero may be diluted for American audiences by overfamiliarity with the coming-out process. Here, Chilean TV star Francisco Celhay plays an architect, who, in the course of researching a commission, develops passionate feelings for an openly gay history teacher and guide, Fernando (Emilio Edwards), who’s helping with the project. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bruno is married and the father of a son at an impressionable age. After moving out of their home, ostensibly to “find himself,” he realizes that his refusal to commit one way or the other isn’t doing either of the people he loves any good. The pressure builds to the breaking point when his son is teased by a boy whose father witnessed an indiscreet kiss between Bruno and Fer, in public. The boy is so shaken by the revelation, along with Bruno’s absence from home, it causes the adults to finally deal decisively with the dilemma. That Bruno’s wife engaged in a dalliance of her own modulates her desire to punish him unreasonably for hurting the child. As Fer begins to prod the architect into making a commitment to him, Bruno’s work begins to reflect his inner torment, as well. Despite any overfamiliarity, In the Grayscale displays Marcone’s sure hand on the throttle. The Chilean setting is interesting and performances are uniformly solid. I wonder if Celhay risked any career blowback from his fan base, which presumably extends throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Reportedly Venezuela’s first lesbian drama, Liz in September is based on Jane Chambers’ landmark play, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.” In a low-key debut performance, Eloisa Maturen plays an attractive straight woman, Eva, whose car breaks down in a small coastal village. With no room at the local inns, the mechanic points her toward a resort hotel he neglects to tell her has a loyal lesbian clientele. It’s crowded, as well, but a bed is found for her. An annual reunion is being held by a multigenerational group of friends, all of whom appear to have slept with the titular character, Liz, played by Venezuelan actress and supermodel Patricia Velasquez (“The L Word”). Not at all shy about her sexual prowess, Liz bets the other women that she can seduce the newcomer within the three days it probably will take the mechanic to fix the car. It takes a while for us to learn that both women are nursing painful secrets, unrelated to any previous sexual conquest. Indeed, a different sort of relationship develops between Liz and Eva. It will be tested when Eva’s husband arrives to rescue her from the world’s laziest repairman. The wager forgotten, by now, the fate of their relationship rests on Liz’ willingness to fight for Eva’s love and Eva’s ability to live apart from Liz, even for a day or two. Everything that happens from here is patiently rendered by director/writer Fina Torres (Woman on Top). Despite the potential for fireworks and the jerking of tears, Liz in September is neither exploitative nor maudlin. The movie benefits, as well, from the beautiful coastal setting.

Roberto Cuzzillo’s timely Russian drama Dreams from Strangers uses evocative cinematography and poetic words to describe how painful it can be for gay men to connect in a society turned against them by the country’s despotic leader, Vladimir Putin. Italian swimmer Massimo falls in love with the team’s interpreter, Vladimir, while in St. Petersburg for a competition. Besides any natural cultural barriers between the two men, Putin’s virulently anti-gay stance ahead of the Winter Olympics has effectively put a bounty on LGBT people caught expressing their feelings in public. Cuzzillo employs artsy black-and-white photography to reflect the depth of the emotions shared with viewers in these desperate times. The DVD adds Cuzzillo’s short film, “Polaroid.”

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that it took the horrifying murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, in 1998, to awaken Americans to the epidemic of bullying and harassment of LGBT youths that went largely unchallenged by police, lawmakers and opinion makers. Gays and lesbians had been demanding protection from such attacks for almost 30 years before the news broke and, in some cases, policing their own communities. Prosecution of those arrested in such cases remained difficult, however, if only because too many potential jurors bought into the belief that predatory homosexuals were a greater risk to society than hate crimes. The facts in the case against the men charged in the robbery and beating death of Shepard in a field outside Laramie were so ugly that the media picked up on it – after being tortured, the 21-year-old was tied to a fence post and left to die – and spread the news around the world. Benefits would be organized, support groups formed, plays commissioned and legislation proposed … all in Shepard’s name. Freshman documentarian Michele Josue, a close friend of Shepard’s, made Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine to separate the man she knew from the symbol he became. Using personal reminiscences, never-before-seen photos, rare video footage and new revelations about Shepard’s life, it succeeds on all counts. Maybe if Putin could be encouraged to view the documentary, the sad conditions dramatized in Dreams From Strangers might change cease to exist without the interference of martyrdom.

Although Los Angeles’ primary gay ghetto is located in West Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park have emerged as affordable alternatives both for millennials and couples who want to distance themselves from the bar and barbell scene in WeHo. Silver Lake also is home to a large collection of yuppies, hipsters and artists. Eastsiders is a Web-based soap opera that’s recently made the leap into streaming video. Without offering as much gratuitous nudity and lascivious behavior as “Queer as Folk,” its gay, lesbian and semi-straight characters share many attributes. (“The L Word,” set on L.A.’s far west side, always struck me as being more obsessively bourgeois.) Clearly not blessed with a large budget, actor/writer/director Kit Williamson (“Mad Men”) is able to take advantage of such talented actors as Van Hansis (“As the World Turns”), Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Brea Grant (“Heroes”), Brianna Brown (“Devious Maids”), Steven Guarino (“Happy Endings”), Willam Belli (“Rupaul’s Drag Race”), John Halbach (“Such Good People”), Matthew McKelligon (“Interior Leather Bar”) and Vera Miao (“Best Friends Forever”). Anyone who can recall when Traci Lords (Cry Baby) scandalized the porn industry by admitting to being underage when starring in several prominent adult films might be amused to learn that, in Eastsiders, she plays the hard-drinking mother of one of the male characters.

Paulo Coelho’s Best Story
Although I consider myself to be a well-read fellow, I have to admit to not knowing a lot about an author, lyricist, screenwriter and playwright whose international reputation is almost inconceivably grand. The 68-year-old Rio de Janeiro native, Paulo Coelho, is credited with having written 30 books that have sold over 165 million copies in more than 150 countries and been translated in 56 languages. This doesn’t take into account the numbers associated with his musical collaborations, plays and Internet correspondence. Not to belabor the obvious point made by Daniel Augusto in his choice of titles, but Paulo Coelho’s Best Story truly is himself. Coelho’s life could hardly have been more eventful. Like so many children of successful parents, his desire to pursue a literary life as an adult was greeted with disapproval. Unlike most children with such aspirations, however, his dreams prompted his parents to have him committed in a mental institution, from which he escaped three times by the time he reached 20. Coelho’s willingness to appease them resulted in a one-year stint in law school. It was followed by a lifestyle that closely approximated that of millions of hippies around the world. If nothing else, he would learn that he wasn’t alone in his desire to explore the planet, savor different cultures, embrace the occult, partake in various illegal substances and treat the act of making music as if it were a sacrament from God. When he became popular enough for Brazil’s military junta to pay attention to the lyrics to his music, they mistook quasi-religious references for subversion and threw him in prison, where he was tortured. It caused him to move to France, where he began writing novels. His most popular and noteworthy work, the allegorical novel “The Alchemist,” was published in 1988 and is still going strong. The folks who keep track of such things at Guinness World Records, were impressed by the fact that, by 2009, the book had been translated into 67 distinctly different languages. Among his non-literary achievements, Coelho would turn his personal enlightenment on the 500-mile Road of Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, in northwestern Spain, into a destination for spiritual tourists. As is too often the case with literary biopics, however, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story is more reverential than inspirational. Fans of Coelho shouldn’t find that to be a problem, thanks to Julio Andrade’s fine portrayal. They will want to stay put for bonus material, which is more extensive than most making-of featurettes.

Seymour: An Introduction
Giving Up the Ghosts: Closing Time at Doc’s Hall
It’s possible that the word, “genius,” has been applied to classical musicians and composers more often than to any other professional. Count the number of times musicians have been profiled on “60 Minutes,” for example, and you’ll understand the reverence with which these men and women are held by society. Simply put, they’re able to express themselves in ways most of can’t and never will be able to do. It’s a language that knows no borders and affects listeners of all nationalities and backgrounds. A musician’s dedication to his or her art demands discipline rarely found outside of concert stages and rehearsal halls. We’ve bestowed genius on athletes, scientists and the occasional chef, but, somehow, the great musicians respond to a higher calling and greater audience. Even their idiosyncrasies are more interesting and, therefore, tolerable to those of us whose duty it is merely to listen to them. If that makes genius sound like one long cliché, watch Ethan Hawke’s heartfelt documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, and tell me how else to explain the brilliance of its subject, Seymour Bernstein. If his name is less familiar than other prominent classical musicians and composers, it’s probably because there are so few public venues for their genius in the United States, outside of concert halls and a handful of radio stations dedicated to their work. The disappearance of Ed Sullivan’s variety show, which routinely added highbrow music to its mix of vaudeville acts, Broadway stars and comedians, greatly reduced exposure to musicians who consider Carnegie Hall to be a second home. Bernstein, a virtuoso pianist, gave up a successful concert career, at 50 – he turned 88 in April — to teach music and write. These are noble callings, to be sure, and Hawke allows us to eavesdrop on his sessions with students, during which he imparts words of wisdom, as well as insightful reflections on art, creativity and the search for fulfillment. His gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, backed by the authority that comes with age, is infectious. It’s a beautiful documentary that deserves to make the short list of Oscar candidates, at least, when it’s announced. The DVD includes a performance, filmed in what appears to be a street-level Steinway showroom in New York.

Doc’s Music Hall may not resemble Carnegie Hall in any of the usual ways, but, for the jazz and R&B cognoscenti of Muncie, Indiana, they might as well share a post-office box. Muncie is one of those Rust Belt towns whose once-thriving downtown business district took a direct hit in the industrial downturn of the 1980s, leaving plenty of abandoned buildings that could be used for art studios and musical venues, like Doc’s. If nothing else, it attracted folks who hadn’t been downtown since their favorite shoe store years earlier. From 1992 to 2012, things worked out pretty well. Music doc specialist Robert Mugge (Last of the Mississippi Jukes) has made a living discovering hidden treasures in the nooks and crannies of America’s still-vibrant blues, folk and zydeco scene. Giving Up the Ghosts: Closing Time at Doc’s Music Hall feels very much like a valentine sent to an old friend who’s probably spent most of his earnings promoting good music and young talent in what’s affectionately known on the coasts as the boonies. Proprietor John Peterson splits his time between his medical practice, where he merges traditional and alternative medicines, and the club. Before he got the calling, the Iowa native toured the Midwest opening for more prominent acts and scratching for greater recognition. The experience provided the keyboardist with plenty of anecdotes to share with his audience in the club’s final concert, recorded here for posterity. The club also provided a local stage for better known touring acts, whose music sometimes would be channeled into the house band’s improvisational riffs. The film also includes a discussion of the ghosts of long-dead entertainers that many claim to have seen and heard in the building over the years. Anyone who’s experienced the cultural deprivation that comes with life in small-town America will recognize the folks who populate Giving Up the Ghosts.

The Death of April
Completed in 2012, Ruben Rodriguez’ Internet-inspired thriller, The Death of April, is only now finding a home on DVD. The idea of using a video blog to chronicle the descent into madness – and beyond – of 19-year-old Meagan Mullen would have been quite a bit fresher, if it had been released before the tsunami of lost-footage flicks deluged the marketplace in the interim. Katarina Hughes’ portrayal of the unfortunate student is as lackluster as the character, who remains in her bedroom even as the evidence mounts that it’s haunted by a digital poltergeist hidden somewhere in the wireless router, one presumes. The lost-footage element only comes into play after the first false climax, when a police spokesman admits to being flummoxed by what everyone’s witnessed before their eyes. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone lost much time or money in the creation of The Death of April.

Bloody Knuckles: Blu-ray
It’s sick, depraved and disturbing movies like Bloody Knuckles that give the horror genre a bad name … or a good one, depending on one’s ability to endure 85 minutes of unforgiving and largely gratuitous quantities of violence. Or, to wade through piles of gore to find the humor in situations most mainstream critics wouldn’t waste more than 10 minutes of their time watching. And, yes, I made it through the whole thing. Believe me, the bonus short film “Electric Fence” may even be worse. Perth native Adam Boys (Leprechaun: Origins) plays Travis, a boundary-pushing author of an underground comic book, Vulgarian Invasions, that succeeds in its mission to offend anyone not on the same wavelength. When one of the issues insults a Chinatown crime boss, the gangster punishes Travis by chopping off his drawing hand. While Travis drowns his sorrows, the discarded hand prepares for its entrance, stage right. Soon after, the artist and the vengeful hand join forces with a masked S&M superhero to rid the city of evil. Anyone with the stamina to make it this far in the narrative will already have bought into Matt O’Mahoney’s twisted sense of humor and willingness to test the limits of censors, should any make their feelings known. For those looking for romance, there’s a bit of that here, too. In addition to the pair of short films, O’Mahoney is interviewed individually by editors of genre publications.

Mining for Ruby
Without much fanfare, Mischa Barton has managed to resurrect her once-promising career by becoming one of the reigning queens of straight-to-DVD cinema. In the past two years, alone, the former star of “The O.C.” has worked alongside such genre stalwarts as Lorenzo Lamas, Ving Rhames, Michael Pare, Danny Glover, Vinnie Jones, Eric Roberts, Danny Trejo, Andy Dick, Tom Sizemore, Michael Madsen, Daniel Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Kal Penn … some of them, two or three times. If there was a Walk of Fame in Toronto or Vancouver, those names would be embedded in stone. Someone’s got to make ’em, right? Rapidly approaching the ripe old age of 30, Barton is quite good in the title role of Operator. In Amariah and Obin Olson’s police thriller, she plays a 911-line operator trained to guide crime victims through their ordeals. Burdened with family problems, her Pamela Miller is in danger of losing her job, due to tardiness and careless mistakes. On this day, a caller demands she not break contact with him, as he requires her to keep direct police – including her estranged husband – to places in the city where their lives might be endangered. If Pamela disobeys the orders, she risks putting their young daughter further in harm’s way than she already is, after being kidnaped from the school playground. Viewers are encouraged to guess the identity of the all-knowing caller, with just as many clues as those given Pamela. Typical of a DVD original, logic gives way to action at about the halfway point in Operator, but, by then, you’re either willing to cut it some slack or shut it off. Barton plays Pamela with much the same intensity and sense of purpose as Halle Berry’s 911 operator in Brad Anderson’s The Call.

Barton is given much less to do in Zoe Quist’s Alaska-set rom-dram, Mining for Ruby. Mostly, she gives advice by phone to her brother, Jack (Daniel Ponickly), a handsome bloke who’s still despondent over the death of his wife. He doesn’t know if he’s ready to fall in love with the gorgeous graduate student, Ruby (Antoinette Kalaj), he meets as she’s investigating a possible toxic-waste discharge near his cabin outside Fairbanks. In a forced contrivance, Jack is required to prove his manhood against Ruby’s dimwitted ex-boyfriend, while she’s conned into defending data that’s been manipulated by a rival student. Billy Zane, the king of straight-to-DVD movies, plays the students’ largely chair-bound adviser.

PBS: The Great Fire: Blu-ray
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Syfy: Lavalantula
PBS: In Their Own Words: Jim Henson/Queen Elizabeth
PBS: Food Forward
As devastating blazes go, the Great Fire of London still ranks as one of the all-time worst. It began shortly after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, in a London bakery on Pudding Lane, and raged for four days. Although the death toll is believed to have been surprisingly small, the physical damage was huge. The fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Much of what we know about the inferno has been gleaned from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, an obsequious gent who plays a prominent role in the four-part ITV mini-series, “The Great Fire,” which hasn’t been accorded the same exposure as other such period productions of late. Unlike the doubts surrounding the guilt or innocence of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, in the Great Chicago Fire, it’s known exactly where the London conflagration began and almost certainly how. Thanks to Pepys, we also have very good idea as to what was on the minds of Charles II and his brother, James, the Duke of York, who’s portrayed as being a participant in a conspiracy to assassinate the king. Meanwhile, Charles II was encouraged to believe that Roman Catholic terrorists, on the orders of the Pope, were also lying in wait for His Majesty. To dramatize what was happening in the streets, writers Tom Bradley, Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford framed the chaos through the fictionalized perspective of Thomas Farriner, at whose bakery the spark was lit. And, he’s given sufficient reason to be angry with the royals, if not to destroy his business. Pepys intercedes at least once on Farriner’s behalf, but can’t keep the sister-in-law from being a prime suspect in a trumped-up conspiracy. The fun comes in watching the interaction between the royals and residents of the city, several of whom, we’re told, were forced to prostitute themselves to slumming royals to pay the bills. Not surprisingly, the costumes are wonderful, especially the men’s wigs. I couldn’t help but wonder if any American producer might borrow the conceit and build a similarly dramatized mini-series around the Chicago fire.

The second season of Starz’ sexy-pirate adventure, “Black Sails,” not only lived up to the expectations of its first-season critical notices, but also its notoriety on the celebrity-skin websites. It also extended a dandy lost-treasure storyline that kept the attention of viewers who expected a bit more for their premium-cable dollars. Here, the Walrus crew is stranded in Nassau with an army of Spanish soldiers, standing between them and their precious Urca gold. Chained together for earlier sins, former rivals Flint and Silver must join forces in a desperate bid for survival. Meanwhile, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) struggles to maintain her grip on Nassau, as a new breed of pirate arrives in the form of the sadistic Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy). It requires hunky Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) to commit to the powerful blond wench or the respect of his scurvy knaves. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV, with something to please men and women viewers, alike. Shot in South Africa, “Black Sails” looks terrific on Blu-ray.

There’s no mistaking a Syfy-original movie from every other DVD in my ever-lofty stack of screeners. Their titles and cheesy jacket art give them away. And, as if there was any question, a cover line on “Lavalantula” reminds browsers, “From Syfy, the network that brought you “Sharknado.” What better advertising could there be? “Lavalantula” may not measure up to that virtual blockbuster’s exacting standards – What could? – but it follows the recipe pretty well, and that’s usually all that’s necessary. After a dormant volcano erupts in the Santa Monica Mountains, it triggers an onslaught of giant arachnid-like creatures with an obsidian-black exoskeleton. Oh, did I mention that the spiders spew molten lava at their targets? The critters may look goofy as hell, but it explains the title, “Lavalantula” … if the creatures more closely resembled tarantulas, that is. The presence of Steve Guttenberg (“Diner”), playing a washed-up action star, ensures that the comedy in Mike Mendez’ second enormous spider flick in two years (Big Ass Spider!) is genuine. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.

Considering that every man, woman and cartoon character of any stature, whatsoever, has been profiled on the History, Biography, A&E and related cable channels, it’s nice to see that PBS is making the effort to add something new and different to the genre. “In Their Own Words” explores “an elite few of the 20th Century’s greatest figures” through words that “describe the subject creatively and intimately.” The inaugural season features episodes on a diverse trio of extraordinary subjects: Muhammad Ali, Queen Elizabeth II and Muppets creator Jim Henson. While none of these august personages is a mystery to viewers, the graphic presentation and reliance on quotes adds a new spin to the tired formula.

One of the cottage industries in the DVD universe involves promoting current theories in food production and preparation, with an emphasis on how multinational corporations have disrupted God’s original plan. Watch enough of these things and you’ll be tempted to give up eating anything that hasn’t been personally supervised by Anthony Bourdain or Alice Waters. The PBS series “Food Forward” showcases innovators and food rebels who are transforming the way we grow and eat our food. In it, we meet farmers, chefs, teachers, scientists, fishermen and ranchers in more than 50 cities across the country providing new solutions to help combat America’s growing food challenges. To this end, every episode incorporates beautiful cinematography, clever animation, cooking segments and original music videos, blending personal storytelling with a unique educational perspective. The newly released compilation weighs in at 390 reassuring minutes of tasty content.

DVD Wrapup Gift Guide I: W.C. Fields, IndiePix, Grinchmas, Human Centipede, Flowers, Neon God, Home Fires … More

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Now that Halloween is nearly upon us and early birds have begun to camp out in front of Walmart and Toys ‘R’ Us, in anticipation of Black Friday bargains, it’s the time to think about shelling out big bucks on giftable DVD/Blu-ray collections and holiday specialties. New multidisc packages will be released on a fast-and-furious basis – if you get my drift – over the course of the next eight weeks and they will be competing for eyes and shelf space with hundreds of sets already in the marketplace. Price tags can be steep, but terrific bargains can be found on the Internet and stores that handle previously viewed items. Like any serious vinyl collector, buyers for such second-hand stores pay meticulous attention to the condition of items they purchase and, of course, discs resist damage in ways vinyl never could. Most Internet outlets offer free shipping for sales of multiple items or a minimum purchase.  Here are some recent releases that have caught my eye:

W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection
Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection
The Marx Brothers have stood the test of time, delighting every new generation of comedy lovers. I wonder if W.C. Fields has demonstrated the same resilience with kids whose only knowledge of gin blossoms comes from the rock band, not one of the most famous lushes in Hollywood history. From Universal, the W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection serves both as a nostalgic reminder of movies past and an excellent starter kit for uninitiated youths. Serious collectors of vintage comedy will already possess most of the titles here, but certainly not all of them – Million Dollar Legs and Tillie and Gus — on actual DVD, as opposed to DVDr. For movies that are between 70 and 80-plus years old, the audio/visual quality far surpasses anything shown on television sets, dormitory walls and classrooms in the interim. Every one of Field’s sarcastic asides rings perfectly clear, even in DVD. This collection features 18 of his most memorable films, including Alice in Wonderland, If I Had a Million, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Mississippi, International House, It’s a Gift, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, Man on the Flying Trapeze, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, You’re Telling Me!, The Old Fashioned Way and Poppy. It adds the less-well-preserved bio-doc, “Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields.” There is other Fields material extant, but not under the Universal banner.

While Fields tended to reserve his most toxic vitriol for children, dogs, spinsters and fellow boozehounds, “insult comic” Don Rickles adopted a more in-your-face approach. There’s no question both men were cut from the same cloth, however. Arguably at his best when least confined by network censors, “Mr. Warmth: Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection” demonstrates how caustic a comedian could be on prime time and still pass through the medium’s many filters. I would love to see footage of Rickles’ wee-hours’ Las Vegas lounge act, which attracted the Rat Pack and other marquee talent to the Sahara like a magnet, but, alas, evidence of those shows likely is lost to the ages. The Time Life/WEA compilation contains four one-hour network television specials, from the 1970s, and the complete series of “CPO Sharkey” episodes. Bonus features add never-before-seen outtakes and unedited scenes, with new introductions from Rickles; the “Tonight Show” clip with Johnny Carson’s surprise visit to the “CPO Sharkey” set; and the TV Land Awards’ Legend Award presentation by Jimmy Kimmel. Among the stars on display here are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jack Klugman, Bob Newhart, John Wayne, Helen Reddy, Loretta Swift, Rip Taylor, Don Adams, James Caan, Michael Caine, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Godfrey, Elliott Gould, Michele Lee, Larry Linville, Jack Palance, Otto Preminger, Bobby Riggs and Loretta Swit.

IndiePix Mix 10
Parsing the difference between studio and independent films can be a tiresome exercise, even for moviegoers who make it a point to tune into both the Oscar and Indie Spirit Awards ceremonies. More often than not, anymore, the same artists, films and producers are nominated for awards in similar categories, while the budgets for many Spirits candidates match those accorded studio “prestige pictures.” There are strict rules for governing such things, but … well, why bother. One of the nice things about the Spirits has been a willingness on the part of voters to honor movies that have been exhibited on the festival circuit, without the benefit of a theatrical distributor.  Such is the case for several of the movies included in “IndiePix Mix 10,” a virtual grab bag of titles from the company’s decade-plus mission to unearth gems from festivals around the world and offer them to consumers on DVD. It isn’t the only company providing such a service, of course. Viewers’ acceptance of PPV and other streaming services has allowed niche distributors to target audiences for indies, arthouse, foreign, documentary and animated products, without spending a bundle to market them. Heavy on documentaries, the titles include The Axe in the Attic, which focuses on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; Jack Taylor of Beverly Hills, a nostalgic look at the tailor to such stars as Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra; Echotone, a close-up view into the lives and lifestyles of Austin’s young musicians; Frontrunner, set in Afghanistan during its first democratic election, with a tight focus on the country’s first candidates; Shooting Star(s) follows Johnny Nunez as he overcomes the obstacles imposed by his humble upbringing in Brooklyn, to become today’s most prominent hip-hop celebrity photographer; The Devilles, a verite glimpse into the lives of burlesque stripper and Marilyn Monroe lookalike Teri Lee Geary (a.k.a., Kitten DeVille) and her punk-rock-singer husband, Shawn Geary; and Candyman, a documentary recounting the true story of David Klein, the eccentric L.A. candy inventor who came up with the concept of Jelly Belly jellybeans. Dramas include “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” about a fortune teller who lives and works in a haunted house at the edge of the woods; Artois the Goat, about one man’s quest to create the greatest goat cheese the world has ever known; Evergreen, in which a Pacific Northwest teenager yearns to reinvent herself and find something she can be thankful for in the face of poverty. If the list is heavy on non-fiction, it’s only because docs are enjoying a creative renaissance, thanks mainly to advancements in technology. The titles have previously been available on an a la carte basis.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Grinchmas Edition: Blu-ray
I wonder how many people expected Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas to do for Jim Carey what Aladdin did for Robin Williams, which is to say, add an entirely new dimension to a career that desperately needed a jump start. In the Disney animated feature, the directors allowed Williams to hit warp speed and stay there as long as they could stretch the Genie to fit his anarchic improvisation. Something tells me that director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer kept a tighter grip on the controls, allowing Carey less freedom to make gags up as he was going along. Neither was Williams required to act in costume, which required Carey to spend countless hours in the makeup and costume trailers. The physical restrictions imposed by the prize-winning designs, alone, would have been sufficiently stringent to discourage flights of fancy. (The Grinch did bear a fleeting resemblance to the actor’s creepy Fire Marshall Bill character, on “In Living Color,” though.) The movie’s huge budget, especially in circa-2000 dollars, also would have demanded more creative control on Howard and Grazer’s part. When foreign receipts and DVD/Blu-ray sales were added to a very decent domestic return, the folks inside Universal Studio’s hulking Black Tower probably breathed a sigh of relief. Critics, no strangers to Grinch-y behavior, gave the movie mixed reviews, mostly in reaction to the new material that had to be added to the 69-page children’s book – long on pictures, short on words – to fit a 104-minute movie. Kids don’t have much use for numbers, of course, so it’s likely the newly upgraded – mercifully so – edition will retain its ability to enchant the Suessian fan base. Besides the tech facelift, the Blu-ray picks up the features package included in the 2009 hi-def edition, including enhanced commentary with Howard, several making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes and Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?,” as well as BD Live and D Box.

Among the other early holiday releases are “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Christmas,” a themed collection of three vintage episodes: In “The Christmas Aliens” (2004), Michaelangelo runs afoul of a group of criminals hoping to attain a profit from some stolen toys; “The Way of Invisibility” (2003), in which the Turtles are required to deal with Foot Tech Ninjas that raise the bar in the ways of invisibility; and “Fallen Angel,” where Casey Jones tries to stop a young girl from becoming a member of the dangerous Purple Dragon gang. One of the titles sounds seasonal, at least.

Shout! Factory is offering “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour: Christmas Specials,” which packages two holiday shows from 1969 and 1970, late in the era of variety shows on prime-time television. The mix included guest appearances by George Gobel, Jerry Reed, Anne Murray, Shecky Greene, Mel Tillis, Cher, Andy Griffith and Paul Lynde.

Shalom Sesame
Chanukah & Passover on Planet Matzah Ball
There’s no particular reason for those who celebrate Chanukah to feel at a loss for gifts that reflect traditional values, while also taking into account their kids’ tech-savvy craving for at-home entertainment and virtual babysitters. SISU Entertainment, which caters to Jewish viewers of all ages and interests, offer a wide array of titles, most of which you’d be hard-pressed to find in the usual retail outlets. In the latest addition to its “Shalom Sesame” lineup, Grover and celebrity host Anneliese van der Pol (“That’s So Raven”) travel to Israel to discover the vitality of Jewish culture and tradition, as well as the diversity of Israeli life, intended for American children and their families. Each 30-minute episode combines live-action and animated sequences based on themed storylines, highlighting lessons on Hebrew letters and words, and unique sites in Israel. The six-DVD set is co-produced by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street” — and Israel’s Channel HOP! An additional DVD features two programs from the classic “Shalom Sesame” – “Jerusalem” and “People of Israel” – as well as a free 30-day trial download of the program, “Welcome to Israel.”

SISU also has a full line of Chanukah-specific titles. “Chanukah & Passover on Planet Matzah Ball” takes young viewers to a planet partially inhabited by Jews, but absent most Jewish traditions. One day, a menorah traveling through space crash lands on Planet Matzah Ball – I kid you, not — and the furry Jewish aliens don’t know what to make of it. Determined to solve the mystery of the menorah, 9-year-old Oogy uses a super-powered telescope to investigate all possibilities. Finally, he spies four children enjoying a Chanukah party in Cleveland, of all celestial landmarks. As he observes them, a clever Chanukah tale unfolds in his mind. It involves puppets, animation and music, all of which bring the wonderful holiday traditions to life. The DVD features include an interactive menu, karaoke and a guide for parents and teachers, as well as the companion video, “The Seder on Planet Matzah Ball.”

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls (Three Movie Gift Set)
And, what would a holiday gift guide be without something to excite young girls, brony brethren and pegasisters, in almost equal measure. After all, the “My Little Pony” video phenomenon was preceded by the success of an ever-expanding line of toys. The early animated titles weren’t particularly impressive, but they’ve improved markedly in the past five years. The DVD/Blu-ray package, “My Little Pony: Equestria Girls,” contains three feature-length movies – led by the title picture — that received limited runs in theaters before crossing over into DVD. When her crown is stolen from the Crystal Empire, Twilight pursues the thief, Sunset Shimmer, into an alternate world where she finds herself turned into a teenage girl. I couldn’t begin to explain with any accuracy the intricacies and plot twists at play in Equestria Girls, but, of course, I’m not a brony. The new package adds Rainbow Rocks and Friendship Games.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series
Transformers: Robots in Disguise: A New Autobot Mission
While collectors are happy whenever complete-series sets of their favorite shows become available, they get cranky when they sense that distributors are toying with their affections. A quick perusal of retail and fan sites reveals how disappointed are with “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series.” While emphasizing their love for the product, fans who’ve waited for an all-inclusive three-season package have voiced their displeasure with the lack of a Blu-ray option and what they believe to be a missed opportunity to clean up visual problems, especially in Season One. With fans as loyal as those committed to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” it’s dangerous to take shortcuts. Neither am I sure how loyalists will take the sweetheart deal with Amazon. In addition to the complete-series box, its customers will find the book, “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise Part 1,” written by the co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The events described in the 80-page book take place directly following the ending of the series.

Considering that the first season of “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” ended more than a month ago and complete-season sets are what devoted fans are most interested in purchasing, it borders on cruelty for Hasbro Studios to send out “Transformers: Robots in Disguise: A New Autobot Mission” with a grand total of only 5 out of 26 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes featurette. That said, the new Autobot mission begins when a prison ship crashes on Earth, setting hundreds of Cybertron’s most dangerous Decepticons free. Optimus Prime responds by ordering Bumblebee and his new squad — Strongarm, Sideswipe and former Decepticon, Grimlock, and two human allies – to track down and recapture the evil escapees.

The Human Centipede: The Complete Sequence: Blu-ray
Flowers: Limited Edition
The Horror Network
Anyone considering gifting The Human Centipede: The Complete Sequence either has a very twisted sense of humor or a giftee with a peculiar taste in movies. That doesn’t make the three-film compilation a bad present, necessarily, just one that many people might consider to be inappropriate, at best. In the six years since the first installment in the trilogy was released, comedians and sitcom writers have used The Human Centipede as a verbal cue for eliciting disgust and self-conscious laughter among horror and pop-culture cognoscenti. In Tom Mix’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence), a mad scientist (Dieter Laser) kidnaps and mutilates a trio of German tourists, in order to reassemble them by stitching their mouths to another victim’s rectum. It’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed and, apparently, enough people sought it out in DVD to warrant two sequels. To say these films aren’t for everyone is like saying body snatching isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. If the first installment in the series could fairly be judged as an extreme example of inky black humor, the sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), represented more of the same, absent any pretense of humor. In it, Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is a mentally disturbed loner who lives with his mother in a bleak housing project. He works the night shift as a security guard in an equally grim and foreboding underground parking complex. To escape his dreary existence, Martin loses himself in the fantasy world of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), “fetishizing the meticulous surgical skills of the gifted Dr. Heiter, whose knowledge of the human gastrointestinal system inspires Martin to attempt the unthinkable.” Laser and Harvey return in The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence), but as very different characters. Laser plays Billy Boss, the warden of George H.W. Bush State Prison, while Harvey is the troubled facility’s chief financial officer. No amount of torture and degradation of the prison’s worst offenders dissuades the other inmates from misbehaving and rioting. Vexed to the point of considering mass castration, the accountant convinces Boss to borrow from their favorite movie, instead. When the pictures are shown to the prisoners, they react by shouting out actual quotes pulled from reviews written by mainstream critics. Finally, of course, the joke will be on them … unless Texas law-enforcement authorities agree to intercede. “The Complete Sequence” compilation adds the 48-minute featurette, “The Ladies of The Human Centipede,” with new interviews from Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Maddi Black and Kandace Caine, from “First Sequence” (adult star Bree Daniels is the only woman in “III”); the color version of “THC2”; an alternate poster gallery; and Laurence Harvey’s audition tape.

Anyone who can’t make it through even one “sequence” of The Human Centipede saga isn’t likely to make it through 15 minutes of Flowers, an exercise in existential horror so potentially upsetting that it should carry a warning label. Phil Stevens’ debut feature demands of viewers that we empathize with the victims of a serial killer to the point where we might conjure a scenario in which they regained consciousness in their final resting place. Here, Stevens might have been inspired by the young men tortured, murdered and buried in the crawl space of John Wayne Gacy’s suburban Chicago home. In Flowers, the victims are all women … or, perhaps, one woman played by six different “flowers.” They are required to make their way through blood, guts and filth, until they are able to find an entrance to the house. Once inside, they relive the trials and tortures endured before their untimely deaths. Watching Flowers isn’t that far removed from trying to imagine the indignities suffered by women and girls kidnapped by fiends and forced to live in captivity until they can escape or be rescued. Try too hard and your dreams will never be the same. Even buffs, I think, would find Flowers a difficult movie to watch. But, I suppose, people in the 16th Century said the same thing about Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish depictions of hell in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights” … not that I’m making the comparison. The bonus package on the three-disc package adds commentaries with Phil Stevens and editor Ronnie Sortor; an interview with actor Bryant W. Lohr Sr.; Makaria Tsapatoris’ audition tape; a stills gallery; deleted scenes (with optional commentary); a trailer reel; an isolated FX track; featurette “Floravision: The Making of Flowers”; storyboards video gallery (with optional commentary); a CD soundtrack; and two versions of the short, “Kiss Me Whore.” It really will be interesting to see what Stevens comes up with, next.

Sometimes, when researching the work of an interesting actor or filmmaker, I turn to the pages on reserved for such things, only to find several short films listed among their credits. A quick trip to YouTube sometimes will provide an opportunity to see an artist’s earliest work. Occasionally, too, anthologies such as Creepshow, Tales From the Crypt, V/H/S and The ABCs of Death serve the same purpose. The Horror Network combines the efforts of six largely unsung writer/directors for five short films that test the limits of terror experienced by characters unaccustomed to strange noises, creepy neighbors and inanimate objects that unexpectedly become animated. Creators Brian Dorton and Douglas Conner reportedly sampled more than 200 films to get to the five that made the cut in The Horror Network. It succeeds, even absent such frills as a Cryptkeeper or animated interstitials.

Rebels of the Neon God
It took 25 years for Tsai Ming-liang’s excellent debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God, to be accorded a theatrical release in the United States. Since then, the Malaysian-born writer/director has developed an international reputation with such idiosyncratic entertainments as Vive L’Amour (1994), What Time Is It There? (2001), Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) and The Wayward Cloud (2005), all of which showcase minimalist values and atmospheric settings. Most clearly informed by the French New Wave, Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and either James Dean or Nicholas Ray (or both), his disaffected characters frequently seem overwhelmed by the chaos of urban life that surrounds them. Such is the case with Rebels of the Neon God, in which the lives of three aimless Taipei youths intersect in streets teeming with cars, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and an endless parade of pedestrians, all going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. At night, a different population moves at a less impatient pace, seeking refuge from the garishly lit streets in the shadows and behind the doors of skating rinks, video arcades and all-night restaurants … anywhere, but in the tiny apartments they call home. The catalyst for drama is a mindless act of vandalism, committed by Ah-tze and his buddy Ah-ping after a taxi inadvertently cuts off their motorbike. It escalates exponentially when the cabbie’s son, Hsiao-Kang, recognizes the young hoodlums and, for lack of anything better to do, begins to stalk them. Hsiao-kang exacts his revenge in an even greater act of vandalism. To cover the damage, Ah-tze commits a crime that backfires badly on him. A curious romance, involving Ah-tze and a lovesick clerk at the rink, is every bit as hit-and-run as the careless incident in the streets, hours earlier. The characters don’t waste a lot of time exchanging dialogue and, when they do, it mostly serves to add a touch of humor to the drama.  The bustling Taipei setting adds greatly to the overall sense of alienation that permeates the story, just as America’s similarly mean streets informed Martin Scorsese’s early works.

If the name, Tatia Pilieva, sounds familiar it’s because of her short film, “First Kiss,” in which 20 strangers share kisses, to varying results. It caught fire on YouTube last year, registering more than 66 million visits. It isn’t likely that the filmmaker from the Republic of Georgia, now living in Los Angeles, would be known for her first feature, Forever, which found hardly any traction in theaters before being released into DVD.  The uneven drama was co-written with the late Gill Dennis, who previously shared screenwriting credits on Ring of Fire and Return to Oz. “True Blood” alums Deborah Ann Woll and Luke Grimes play Alice and Charlie, who meet very un-cute at a commune full of extremely troubled people, led by a doctor (John Diehl) whose methodology can best be described as curious. Alice is a passionate investigative reporter, who, after the suicide of her boyfriend, takes on an assignment requiring her to check out what’s happening in the compound across the lake from her hometown. Deep in the forest, she discovers what appears to be a multigenerational refuge for men and women who are either contemplating suicide or whose depression has reached an intolerable level. The mystery at the core of Forever requires Alice and viewers, alike, to decide if the doctor is a quack or a genius. And, if it’s the former, can Alice and Charlie escape the compound before the shit hits the fan? Not everything that transpires around the communal dining table translates into heart-tugging drama, but the cast, which also includes, Rhys Coiro, Jill Larson, Ioan Gruffudd, Tom Everett Scott, Shanola Hampton and Seth Gabel, give it their best shot.

PBS: Masterpiece: Home Fires: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Nuclear Meltdown Disaster
No one beats the Brits when it comes to soapy mini-series about life between and during our last two world wars. The UK’s unique perspective on the toll paid by civilians, medical and diplomatic personnel, stationed at home and abroad, is reflected in a continuing parade of movies and television shows. ITV’s fine period melodrama, “Home Fires,” is only the latest example. More gossipy than previous mini-series, it opens in a rural Cheshire village, in 1939, just as Hitler is about to light the fuse on war. Memories of England’s great losses in World War I remain fresh in the minds of older residents, just as the call to duty summons of men too young be intimately familiar with the carnage in the trenches. To fully appreciate “Home Fires,” American viewers need to know a little bit, at least, about the Women’s Institute, around which the story revolves. The community-based organization was founded in Stoney Creek, Ontario, by Adelaide Hoodless in 1897, and expanded to Britain 18 years later. The WI’s wartime mission involved revitalizing rural communities and encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. During World War II, they looked after evacuees, performed tasks normally handled by the men now training for combat and, somewhat famously, running the government-sponsored Preservation Centers, where volunteers canned or made jam from excess produce. The produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations sent to soldiers. It explains why novelist Julie Summers titled the book that inspired the six-part series, “Jambusters.” The emphasis here is less on food production than with the members’ interpersonal relationships and decisions that impacted daily life in the community, at home and in their work. A large ensemble cast is led by Samantha Bond (a.k.a., Miss Moneypenny) and Francesca Annis (“Wives and Daughters”). The first season ends with the harrowing Dunkirk evacuation. The PBS Blu-ray represents the full UK-length edition.

PBS’ “Nova” covers natural and man-made catastrophes with the same intensity – and frequency – as the E! network covers the Kardashians. “Nuclear Meltdown Disaster” takes the tick-tock approach to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, providing details that would have scared the crap out of the Japanese citizenry, if they had only been alerted to the perilously close call at the other Fukushima nuclear plant a few miles away from the meltdowns. The producers were accorded unprecedented access inside both facilities and to workers who there during the first harrowing days. We’re also introduced to an employee who has worked there since Day One and became the unsung hero who kept the disaster from spreading.

The DVD Wrapup: Larry Fessenden, My Favorite Martian, Testament of Youth, A Special Day and more

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

The Larry Fessenden Collection: Blu-ray
Frightmare: The Horror Star:  Blu-ray
Demonoid: Messenger of Death Blu-ray
Like Clint Howard, Larry Fessenden is a seemingly tireless supporting actor whose horror-perfect face is far better known than his name … outside of Hollywood and fan conventions, anyway. If they hadn’t found work in the pictures, both could easily be mistaken for carnies, roustabouts, road-crew workers and reprobates of all stripe. As the son of Rance and Jean Speegle Howard, and brother of Ron, Clint Howard started acting early and hasn’t stopped, yet. Fessenden’s background may smack of East Coast establishment, but he caught exploitation fever in his teens and hasn’t had time to look back since then. At 52, he has more than a dozen credits as an actor (84), director (22), producer (58), writer (13), editor (15) and cinematographer (14). Not all of them have been memorable — Hollow Venus: Diary of a Go-Go Dancer, for one – but it hasn’t slowed him down much. Fessenden has 10 acting performances in post-production. Whether he “deserves” a Blu-ray retrospective at this point in his career is open to debate. Shout! Factory thinks so and that’s all that counts. “The Larry Fessenden Collection” contains four movies representative of various aspects of his career: The Mind’s Eye (acting), No Telling (acting, writing, directing, producing), Wendigo (actor, director, editor, writer) and The Last Winter (co-writer, director, actor, producer, editor). All have been accorded fresh director-approved HD transfers, Fessenden’s commentary and never-before-seen photos, storyboards and sketches, along with a 24-page booklet, with liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold. The compilation also includes several making-of featurettes, interviews, music videos, Glass Eye Pix sizzle reels, music videos for “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped,” “Save You from Yourself” and “Tired of Killing Myself,” and the short films, “White Trash” (1979), “Habit” (1981), “N Is for Nexus” (from Magnet Releasing’s The ABCs of Death 2), “Jebediah,”“Origins” and “Mister.”

Frightmare: The Horror Star borrows its central conceit from one of the greatest of all Hollywood legends. It involves the corpse-napping of Jack Barrymore from a funeral parlor, by director Raoul Walsh, for the purpose of scaring the bejeezus out of mutual friend and fellow alcoholic Errol Flynn. The story may very well be apocryphal, but its sounds good. In Norman Thaddeus Vane’s uneven horror thriller/comedy, legendary genre villain Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne) – a combination of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – dies of a heart attack before he can address a group of college-age buffs. Feeling a tad cheated, the film society members decide to break into Conrad’s crypt and bring the Count Dracula look-alike back to their fraternity house for some drinks and frivolity. Conrad had already ordered funeral parlor management not to cremate his body, insisting that his work on his Earth wasn’t done. And, it isn’t. When Conrad’s widow and her friend Elizabeth (Nita Talbot) get word, they decide to hold a séance to try to contact his spirit and have it tell them where the body is. Instead, they accidentally raise Conrad from the dead. The film society kids are no match for the resurrected spirit of a demon from hell, anxious to wreak havoc on the arrogant students. The cast includes Luca Bercovici, Jennifer Starrett, Alan Stock, Jeffrey Combs and Chuck “Porky” Mitchell. The Blu-ray adds some looking-back material.

Early in Demonoid: Messenger of Death (a.k.a., Macabra), Samantha Eggar ignores the warnings to enter a Mexican mine, believed to be cursed. She wants to track down her husband, who’s seeking a treasure in silver. Naturally, her character is wearing high heels as she walks through the rocky shaft. In due order, she causes a small rockslide, which reveals a hidden chamber containing skeletons with their left hands cut off. It also reveals a silver chest, in which a fleshy hand is contained. Of course, the mine owner removes the chest from its longtime resting place, inadvertently unleashing the curse of the hand on the unwitting citizens of Guanajuato. Apparently, Alfredo Zacarías’ “Demonoid” was made two years before Oliver Stone’s The Hand and shelved until it could piggy-back on the marketing campaign for the WB/Orion release. It isn’t very good, but disembodied-hand completists will watch it, anyway.

I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine: Blu-ray
Although Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert effectively nailed the coffin shut on the budding I Spit on Your Grave franchise, way back in 1978, no guardian of public morality since then has been able to prevent the monster from rising from the grave 32 years later, first, as a direct remake of the original, and, then, in 2013, a rape-revenge sequel to both of its predecessors. In limited release, the 2010 remake actually received some not-entirely-negative reviews, which took note of the heavier emphasis on revenge and the director’s desire to lay guilt trips on viewers drawn to the film for its violence against women. By launching in only a single theater, I Spit on Your Grave 2 was able to avoid mainstream critics entirely. I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine follows a similar pattern, except for the VOD option which won’t come until late next month. The strategy might work, if only because the franchise’s brand identity is strong enough to live or die on its own merits … or lack thereof. The good news for fans is the return of Sarah Butler as Jennifer Hills, the New York novelist who was savagely raped by backwoods sadists in the cabin she used to write. Still traumatized, Jennifer’s psychiatrist (Harley Jane Kozak) recommends that she join a support group for survivors of sexual attacks. Mostly, though, the experience only serves to depress her even further. One night, after hearing yet another horror story, Jennifer joins forces with a woman (Jennifer Landon) who’s actively planning to seek revenge against some of the other victims’ attackers. That she’s killed before they are able to formulate a plan only serves to convince Jennifer of the urgency of the mission. And, that requires Jennifer to set traps for guys who can’t imagine such a pretty little thing being so dangerous. Series followers know to expect violence of the most hideous sort.


My Favorite Martian: The Complete Series
Looking back at Halloweens past, I wonder how many Baby Boomer kids took a cue from their favorite television show and trick-or-treated in a costume that mimicked the one occasionally worn by Ray Walston, in “My Favorite Martian,” which ran from 1963-66. It would be easy to replicate, today, as it resembles the Spandex and Lycra bodysuits worn by serious athletes to cut seconds from their best times. The lime-green suit frequently was worn with a skull-gripping hood and, of course, the character’s retractable antennae. As the story goes, a human-looking extraterrestrial (Walston) crash-lands near Los Angeles in a one-man spaceship. The ship’s pilot, henceforth known as Uncle Martin, is an anthropologist and inventor from Mars. He is rescued by a reporter, Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby), on his way home from Edwards Air Force Base, where he was covering the flight of the experimental X-15 hypersonic research aircraft. Coincidence? I don’t think so. To the delight of viewers, Uncle Martin demonstrated such unusual powers as becoming invisible; reading and influencing minds; levitating objects with the motion of his finger; communicating with animals; freezing people or objects; and speeding up himself (and other people) to do work. Martin’s inventions benefitted the show by allowing time travel, including to such places as medieval England, St. Louis at the opening of the frontier and the early days of Hollywood, and transporting Leonardo da Vinci and Jesse James into the present. You get the gist. In addition to inspiring an animated series, nostalgic feature film, short-lived comic book, plastic model kit and, in 2012, an Uncle Martin bobble-head figure, “My Favorite Martian” created the template for such shows as “Mork & Mindy,” “Alf,” “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “The Neighbors” and, perhaps, the Coneheads on “SNL. In more than half of the 107 unedited episodes collected here, Pamela Britton (D.O.A.) plays their snoopy landlady Lorelei Brown. Part of the fun that derives from watching these retrospective collection is finding still-familiar guest stars in early- or late-career appearances. Here, look for Linda Evans, Gavin Macleod, Marlo Thomas, Jamie Farr, Bernie Kopell, Alan Hale Jr., Butch Patrick, Michael Constantine, Henry Gibson, Frank Devol, Madge Redmond and Shelley Morrison, among many others. The MPI Home Video release adds behind-the-scenes home movies, themed commercials and “bumpers,” special-effects explainers, a photo gallery, interviews with Bixby and Walton from Lucille Ball’s radio show and the original CBS pilot, “The Man in the Square Suit” (a.k.a., “Who Is Benny Goodman” and “Rambling Wreck From the Discotheque”). It starred Paul Dooley, Diane Sherry Case and Michael Blodgett, in a fish-out-of-water setup that differed quite a bit from that of first real episode.

Testament of Youth: Blu-ray
No event in modern history has demonstrated the futility, unfairness and insanity of human nature run amok than the First World War. Even if we’re able, today, to understand the posturing and provocations that led to the multinational conflagration, it’s difficult to understand how what amounted to a bloody stalemate was allowed to continue for as long as it did and for no discernably good reason. The crowned heads of Europe, who so desperately wanted to maintain the status quo, were doomed when the men fighting in their names realized that the emperors had stopped wearing clothes. In the end, World War I would simply be a proving ground for the greater horror to come, 20 years later, and the power of extremists to manipulate the passions of people who came to feel as if the cards would forever be stacked against them. The young British men and women we meet in Testament of Youth could barely wait for war to be declared before answering the patriotic call to duty. Like every other man in uniform, they wanted to believe the lies told by political and military leaders, who assured them that victory was pre-ordained and it would come quickly. It didn’t take long for them to realize that swords, side arms and troops on horsebacks would be no match for machine guns, artillery shells and armored vehicles. Based on the World War I memoirs of Vera Brittain, James Kent’s brilliantly acted film is told from the point of view of a first-year student at an elite college, who learns the truth after volunteering to be a combat nurse at the front lines in France. It this way, at least, Testament of Youth resembles “ANZAC Girls” and “The Crimson Fields,” in which combat nurses played roles as crucial to the Allied cause as the men in the trenches. More than anyone else, perhaps, they understood exactly how much more fearsome this war would be than any other in memory. It soon became apparent that wounded combatants were in far greater need of immediate care than the nurses were ready to provide. They would be required to make the same life-and-death decisions as doctors, who, likewise, were ill-prepared to deal with the sheer numbers of wounded and dying soldiers. The constantly evolving weapons of war — poison gas, warplanes, mortars, hand grenades, field artillery — raised the ante to limits impossible to anticipate when the shooting started. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), as fine a young actor as there is on the planet, plays Brittain, whose brother and three close male friends volunteered almost immediately, sometimes against the wishes of their parents. Believing that their station in life would make them leaders of men, instead of mere trench dwellers, they were smart enough to recognize what was happening very quickly. For the first time in their lives, they were helpless. As was the case in “The Crimson Fields,” the drama is enhanced by the fact that England was close enough to the front lines in France to allow home visits, during which they experienced first-hand the disconnect between what they’d witnessed and the lies told civilians to make them feel better about the sacrifices being made by their sons and daughters, just across the channel. In one excruciatingly poignant scene, Brittain, who’s back home on leave, is left to comfort the parents of a friend who’s been killed. The letter sent by his commanding officer praises the young man’s courage, while insisting that his death was instantaneous and painless. Reading between the lines, she senses that this couldn’t have been the real story. Upon learning the truth, she’s forced to decide between validating the comforting lie and overburdening her friend’s parents with the truth. Upon her return to Somerville College, Oxford, Brittain appears to be too shell-shocked to function, especially in the company of peers unaffected by the carnage. She eventually would find an outlet in writing novels about her experiences and friends who made the ultimate sacrifice. It wasn’t until 1933 that she was able to relive her experiences in “Testament of Youth,” a book that would gain a loyal following among pacifists and feminists. Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Dominic West all are excellent in key supporting roles. As coming-of-age dramas go, it would be difficult to find another one as powerful as Testament of Youth. The bonus package adds deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette and commentary with Harington and Kent.

A Special Day: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There’s certainly no better reason to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Ettore Scola’s A Special Day than to watch Sophia Loren (Marriage Italian Style) and Marcello Mastroianni (La dolce vita) working together at the top of their game. Besides being two of the most popular and instantly recognizable actors of the last half-century – who couldn’t be more representative of the Italian cinema if they came dipped in marinara sauce – Loren and Mastroianni had already worked together several times and anticipated each other’s moves as well as any dance team. The title refers to the fateful day in 1938 when Benito Mussolini and a million Roman citizens welcomed Adolf Hitler to the Eternal City for the first time. These were heady times for Il Duce’s fascisti faithful, who probably felt as if anyone who could get Italian trains to run on time also would be able to win a war. By the time Loren’s harried housewife, Antonietta, gets her husband and six children ready in their black shirts and silly caps, she’s too exhausted to fight the crowds. Instead, she stays in their crowded apartment, exchanging unpleasantries with her pet mynah bird parrot, Rosamunda, who decides that life on the other side of the apartment complex might be more interesting. Rosamunda finds a convenient perch outside the apartment of Mastroianni’s Gabriele, a recently fired announcer on the government-sponsored radio station. Even though Antonietta’s is enough of a fan of Mussolini to collect newspaper clippings and photographs in a scrapbook, she warms to Gabriele’s sensitivity and cultural cultivation. Moreover, he treats her like a woman deserving of respect, instead of a broodmare. Without knowing exactly why Gabriele lost his job and is considered a “degenerate,” Antonietta relishes his little courtesies and kindness toward her. Through newsreel footage taken on that day in history, viewers are far more acutely aware of what an outcast might be facing in the near future. When their friendship takes an unexpected turn, followed by the excited return of her family, we are left to wonder how the war will impact the futures of these two special people. Although Mastroianni is recognizable as the fastidious radio host, Loren interprets her character as being a woman too exhausted to fixate on her wardrobe and makeup. Even then, however, she radiates a natural beauty few women, including actresses, possess. The Blu-ray features a newly restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Scola, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with Scola and Loren; a recent short film, starring Loren and directed by her son; two 1977 episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show,” with Loren and Mastroianni; and an essay by critic Deborah Young.

Northern Limit Line: Blu-ray
On June 29, 2002, North Korean naval forces unleashed a surprise attack on South Korean patrol ship PKM-357. Kim Hak-Soon’s throwback war story, Northern Limit Line, dramatizes the events surrounding the so-called Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, along a disputed maritime boundary near Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. North Korean military leaders timed the confrontation to coincide with the 2002 World Cup consolation match between home team South Korea and Turkey. Before setting out on that night’s mission, officers on the South Korean vessel sensed that the sailors were pre-occupied with the match and voiced their displeasure. Once the fighting began, below the NLL, however, everyone reacted to the escalating situation very quickly. The drama is drawn out further with one sailor’s fight to stay alive in the hospital. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Northern Limit Line carries the distinct odor of partisan political spin, but no more than one expects in any country’s war pictures. If the special effects suffer a bit in comparison to similar Hollywood action dramas, it’s only because the crowd-sourced budget was on the snug side. American audiences, concerned that the South Korean military may not be able to carry its weight in any invasion from the north, should come away from the movie feeling that its forces are ready, willing and able to defend its side of the DMZ and not every confrontation or provocation needs to result in all-out war. The credit roll updates viewers on the fates of some of the actual sailors, whose actions inspired the characters.

#Lucky Number
There came a time, probably after Universal wasted $1 million on Vanilla Ice for Cool as Ice, when casting directors decided that hiring flash-in-the-pan chart-toppers wasn’t worth the trouble of teaching them to act. If, in their dramatic debuts, Mick Jagger and John Lennon couldn’t even approximate the box-office appeal of Elvis Presley, it wasn’t likely that Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees would do any better with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, yet, some studios still tried to buck the trend. The opposite proved to be the case for hip-hop musicians, whose presence in independent movies really hit the target. The posturing required of gangsta’ rappers on stage gave them a leg up when it came to impersonating African-American cops and criminals stories designed to appeal directly to urban audiences. Once they proved their value at the box-office, the roles offered them expanded greatly, into comedy and action pictures intended for crossover appeal. Today, of course, they’ve joined the ranks of behind-the-camera talent and executives on television. The list of rappers who’ve made the transition with seeming ease continues to grow. Will Smith, Ice Cube, Ice-T and LL Cool J opened doors previously closed to black actors. They would be followed by such double-dippers (soundtrack and acting credits) as Queen Latifah, Fredro Starr, Eminem, 50 Cent, Sean Combs, Xzibit, RZA,, Coolio, Eve and Master P, among several others. #Lucky Number co-stars Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man, as a New York basketball star, who, after being forced to get a new number for his cellphone, finds certain aspects of his life being usurped by someone who was given his old number. Tom Pelphrey plays the aspiring sportscaster, whose life takes a dramatic turn for the better, while the superstar’s stock sinks in every possible way. When the white upstart begins to cash in on the player’s lady friends, however, things escalate in a hurry. The movie’s loose and rowdy tone holds up pretty well for the rom-com’s brisk 80-minute length.

Enough Already!
From niche distributor SISU comes Enough Already!, an animated musical based on the Jewish folk tale about a poor farmer, who, on the advice of the town rabbi, brings one animal after another into an already over-crowded house. The result is a clever lesson in being grateful for what we have. It features the voices of Tom Lieberman and Rabbi Joe Black, as well as lively original songs, inspired by traditional klezmer music.

AMC: The Making of the Mob: New York
PBS: The Widower
Syfy: Olympus: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: The Bomb
The Facts Of Life: Season Seven
If there’s any one entity that defines the term, “endlessly fascinating,” it’s the Mafia. How else to describe the proliferation of mini-series, docu-dramas, movies and television shows that began when ABC decided to test the Hollywood Production Code with the violent Prohibition-era series, “The Untouchables.” It drew an unprecedented amount of heat from Italian-American interest groups, anti-violence crusaders and historians who deplored the creative license applied to actual hoodlums and crimes. When sponsors began to kowtow to the protests, the producers made concessions in their portrayal of Italian-American criminals. Still, the show’s popularity allowed networks to expand the limits on violence shows that would debut in the 1960s. On the big screen, the MPAA’s new ratings system helped The Godfather open the floodgates to productions that ran the gamut from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone. When the cable-television industry completed its long march to critical mass, one of the first places to which it turned for original programming was the Mafia … that and Adolph Hitler. Documentary series about organized crime served both as entertainment and correctives for the first 50 years of myth making. When there was nothing more to be said about the New York and Chicago mobs – accurately or inaccurately – creative types looked toward New Jersey, Cuba, Boston, Miami, Las Vegas and L.A, as well as motorcycle and ethnic gangs.  Following on the heels of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” came such presentations as “Public Morals,” “Mob City,” “Magic City,” “Justified” and AMC’s “The Making of the Mob: New York,” which is newly available in DVD/Blu-ray. Narrated by Ray Liotta, it is an eight-part series that begins in 1905 and spans over 50 years to trace the rise of Charles Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, Dutch Schultz and other notorious New York and Chicago gangsters. The dramatizations look as if they were staged on leftover sets from Casino, Goodfellas, The Cotton Club and “Boardwalk Empire.” What the series does best is integrate the dramatizations into a gumbo that also includes archival footage, visual effects and snippets from interviews with such observers as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Meyer Lansky II, Thomas Dewey III, Chazz Palminteri, Drea de Matteo, Joe Mantegna, Vincent Pastore, Frankie Valli, Frank Vincent, attorney and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, and noted author and historian David Pietrusza, among many others. I learned a couple of new things from the series, but nothing most fans of the sub-genre would find earth-shaking. The material is presented in an easy-to-follow format, with interesting visualizations and decent acting. The Blu-ray bonus package includes additional scenes and featurettes “The Real Arnold Rothstein,” “The Secret Life of a Mob Wife,” “The Mob and Mussolini,” “Style,” “Mob Innovations” and “Mob Shrink.”

Anyone missing the estimable presence of Archie Panjabi (a.k.a., Kalinda Sharma) from the continuing saga of CBS’ “The Good Wife” will find her in the Blu-ray iteration of “The Widower,” a 2013 mini-series from the UK now playing on some PBS affiliates.  Panjabi plays one of several lovers and wives of sociopathic hospital worker Malcolm Webster (Reece Shearsmith), who, in the 1990s and 2000s, engaged in a killing spree that moved from the UAE, to Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Paris, New Zealand and back to Scotland. Not all of the women he targeted in his schemes to collect their life-insurance money would die, but they were the lucky ones. In addition to the murder of first wife, Claire Morris Webster (Sheridan Smith), he’s believed to have induced insulin shock to three children in an Abu Dhabi hospital. The other women smelled a rat in their relationships with Webster before he could do his worst. Panjabi’s character, Simone Banerjee, bought into Webster’s claim of having leukemia, until she received an “Osman warning” from authorities spelling out their suspicions and detailing known facts about his personal life. She later said, “He is a very good actor and would give Colin Firth a run for his money. He was charming and that’s what made him so plausible.” He also was a world-class conman, thief and liar. In Shearsmith’s capable hands, Webster couldn’t seem more credible. Anyone looking for a production similar to those regularly featured in PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” series will find one in “The Widower.
As long as television executives are in desperate need of time-honored material, Greek mythology will make their lives easier.

Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have provided more characters and story lines than any source, with the possible exception of the bible. It isn’t often that Homer has received the writer’s credit he’s due, but, the low estimate on is 43 times. The 13-episode Syfy series, “Olympus,” represents a young man’s quest to solve the riddle of the Gods, by unlocking the doors to Olympus and becoming an immortal. Here, Hero is a male character, played by Tom York (“Tyrant”). His epic journey leads him through the darkest realms of ancient Greece, accompanied by the beautiful, but twisted Oracle of Gaia (Sonya Cassidy), the powerful sorceress Medea (Sonita Henry) and genius inventor Daedalus (Matt Frewer). Hero battles trickster gods, vicious monsters, seductive nymphs, kings and despots, as he transforms from a fresh-faced youth into a ruthless, cold-hearted killer, and a match for the gods themselves. As the story goes, when Zeus asked Prometheus to make Man, he buried deep inside the mind of one of his favorites the knowledge that could turn him into a God and translate it into a map that lights the way to Olympus. This knowledge – known as the Lexicon – was passed down from father to son, with Hero being its current host. The Blu-ray edition of “Olympus” adds a brief overview of the show, with interviews; “Creating the World of Olympus,” which focuses on elements like green screen and other VFX; “The Characters of Olympus,” with interviews with cast members; “The Mythology of Olympus,” a sketchy look into this show’s conception of some of its themes; and “The Epic of Olympus,” which celebrates the series’ lofty ambitions. It’s yet to be revealed if the Canadian-British co-production has been renewed for a second season.

PBS has been heavy on in-depth science documentaries lately, from physics, to chemistry, life sciences and space flight. Deciphering the gobbledygook for largely unscientific-minded viewers (a.k.a., taxpayers) has always been one of the channel’s primary missions. On the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, PBS has outdone itself on the subject of nuclear fission. In “The Bomb,” we’re once again told how humans harnessed this incredible power and what challenges we have faced living with it since 1945. Using recently declassified material from the creation of the first atomic bomb and rare footage from bomb tests through the 1950-60s, it demonstrates the deadly power and strangely compelling beauty of nuclear explosions. Providing testimony are historian Richard Rhodes, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of State George Shultz, as well as scientists, weapons designers, pilots, witnesses, and ordinary men and women who have lived and worked with the nuclear bomb.

The a la carte edition of “The Facts Of Life: Season Seven” opens with the girls arriving home from summer vacation, ready for anything except the sight of Edna’s Edibles destroyed by fire. Undaunted, Mrs. Garrett and the girls decide to rebuild their store into an updated version of a 1950s malt shop. Mrs. Garrett hires a good-looking young carpenter, George Burnett, to help out, but it doesn’t takes long before he becomes a distraction. And, yes, he is played by George Clooney, who, at the time, was fresh off of the series, “E/R” – a different one than the NBC drama that would make him a star – and sported a modified mullet hairdo. When the business finally reopens, it will be a novelty shop called “Over Our Heads.”

The DVD Wrapup: Tomorrowland, Aladdin, Dope, Big Eden, Requiescant, Alleluia and ore

Friday, October 16th, 2015

Tomorrowland: Blu-ray
Aladdin: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Despite releasing Tomorrowland and Aladdin on Blu-ray almost simultaneously, Disney may not be asking consumers to draw any conclusions about the company’s past, present and future, but, what the hell, what better time? In effect, Brad Bird’s mystery-adventure Tomorrowland addresses a problem faced by Disneyland executives ever since it became obvious that tomorrow was going to arrive a bit sooner than Uncle Walt expected, way back in 1955. Tomorrowland’s concept of the future was so out of date by the mid-1990s, at least, that it had become quaint. Boomers still love it for its nostalgic references to a future now past, especially since the pandering to such corporate sponsors as Monsanto, American Motors, Richfield Oil and Dutch Boy Paint largely fell by the wayside. With the exception of the Space Mountain ride, however, the appeal to their children and grandchildren will depend largely on the popularity of the new Star Wars cycle and super-heroic contributions from Marvel. Tomorrowland, the movie, is informed throughout by Walt Disney’s true vision of a future in which brilliant scientists, visionary architects, benevolent corporations and an informed citizenry would join in creating a utopian society, not unlike Epcot Center … with a nod, as well, to Jules Verne and other prominent fantasists. Here, a disillusioned genius inventor, Frank Walker (George Clooney), and a teenage science enthusiast, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), form an unlikely alliance in their pursuit of an ambiguous dimension known as, yes, Tomorrowland. With a nod to “The Twilight Zone,” however, they come to understand how anything done today to fix tomorrow could inadvertently spell doom or hope for all of humanity. Walker is old enough to remember attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which served as a proving ground for Disney Imagineers – “It’s a Small World” and “Audio-Animatronics” – and a showcase for NASA. Newton is led to his remote doorstep by the accidental discovery of futuristic artifacts from Cape Canaveral in her possession and a visit to memorabilia shop in Houston, managed by audio-animatronic robots. And, yes, this is where things get really complicated. The trail leads to a much older and completely paranoid Walker, who lives in a New York farmhouse filled with computers and fortified by elaborate security devices.

After an attack by steampunk security forces tipped off by the autobots, Frank and Casey are fast-forwarded to a wheat field within view of the decaying skeleton of an even more futuristic Tomorrowland than the one envisioned by Walt Disney. That’s because the Founding Father wouldn’t live long enough to see the completion of Disney World and Epcot Center, let alone the moon landing and, decades later, government-mandated diminishment of NASA’s space-shuttle program. Other, less benevolent fantasists have relied on very different blueprints for Utopia. In true Disney-movie fashion, Bird offers viewers alternative scenarios, as well as an opportunity for a teenager to repair what her elders nearly destroyed. To accomplish this, though, Frank and Casey must get over themselves long enough to see how salvation can only be achieved through a merger of near-opposites: science and humanity, hardware and software, the wisdom that comes with age and youth exuberance. If this makes Tomorrowland sound as if it owes less to Jules Verne than Philip K. Dick, well, that’s because it probably does. Bird’s The Iron Giant may have promised an old-fashioned Saturday-matinee experience, but kids failed to embrace its metaphysical, philosophic and humanitarian musings. Expecting an Erector Set version of Rodan or Mothra, adults waited until the DVD release to what made critics endorse it. Bird’s Tomorrowland, I suspect, will enjoy a better fate in Blu-ray than at the box office. It’s a serious film that imagines a dystopian future not at all in keeping with the Disney dream. Moreover, co-writer Damon Lindelof’s script isn’t compromised by concessions to those who might be expecting an entertainment on the order of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. It succeeds far more as a conceptual and visual experience. Also good are Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Robinson in key supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds essential making-of and background featurettes; an animated story of how Tomorrowland came to be; Bird’s production diaries and personal recollections; and a couple of bits that kids should enjoy.

By contrast, the splendid “Diamond Edition” of the modern animated classic, Aladdin, offers something for everyone. Kids unfamiliar with the ageless fantasy/adventure will be blown away by Robin Williams’ brilliantly madcap interpretation of an over-caffeinated genie. Besides reacquainting themselves with Aladdin’s strikingly beautiful animation and engrossing story, adults can focus on Williams’ improvisational genius and wonderfully manic approach to the character. It also should be considered required viewing for anyone interested in someday seeing the live-action Broadway musical when it begins touring the hinterlands. Because Disney tends to play fast and loose with source material in the public domain, it would be nice to think that viewers would be drawn, as well, to the books and movies that influenced Aladdin, including “A Thousand and One Nights” and “The Thief of Bagdad.” In the excellent bonus package, producer/directors John Musker and Ron Clements, along with supervising animator Eric Goldberg, discuss what it was like working with Williams, whose voice acting could only be compared to a Force 5 hurricane for sheer improvisational fury. Sadly, there’s no video footage of Williams in action, just storyboards and audio recordings. Also recalled is long and difficult gestation period for the live-action production. It pre-dated the 1991 death of composer Alan Menken’s creative partner, Howard Ashman, and would be delayed to allow for technology to accommodate the artistic vision. The flying-carpet conceit was especially difficult to pull off in the early stages of development.  One of the important things to remember about Aladdin is how the decision to launch its feature-length sequel straight-to-video effectively opened the door to untapped profits, while also legitimizing the format as a creative option. By directly targeting very young audiences, The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves could be produced, marketed and distributed without having to impress adults with sophisticated animation techniques and storytelling. It also laid the groundwork for a television cartoon series. Corporate and artistic synergy would never be the same.

Dope: Blu-ray
Having only becoming aware of Rick Famuyiwa’s urban rom/dram/com, Dope, after it was delivered to my home by mail, I was stunned at how fresh, bright and entertaining it was. Hindsight should have reminded me that I had enjoyed the writer/director’s debut feature, The Wood, but I don’t always check out the credits before watching a movie. Why spoil the surprise? As Dope unfolded, it sometimes appeared – and I use the word, “appeared,” advisedly – to reference themes first explored in American Graffiti, Risky Business and the coming-of-age comedies of John Hughes. The biggest difference is the setting: a dead-end section of Inglewood, known as the Bottoms. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two buddies — lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and mousy Jib (Tony Revolori) – probably wouldn’t be considered geeks in most high schools populated by middle-class kids with aspirations of going to college. But in this gang-infested section of greater Los Angeles, too many teenagers are given one choice in life – Crips or Bloods? – and anyone who doesn’t conform to the conventions of thug life is scorned, ridiculed or bullied. As representatives of African-American geekdom go, however, Malcolm isn’t in the same league as Steve Urkel or Donald Glover’s character in “Community.” His crimes include favoring 1990s hip-hop to anything that’s come after, say, NWA; dressing in clothes even M.C. Hammer wouldn’t have been seen wearing; getting around on a BMX bicycle; using a backpack to tote books, instead of guns and drugs; and committing himself to being accepted to Harvard. Even his school’s guidance teacher finds that dream laughable. Oh, yeah, he’s also a virgin. After sneaking into a party to which Malcom and his friends aren’t invited, a melee leaves them in possession of a fortune in the hot drug, Molly, belonging to a local gang-banger. With the owner in jail and a target put on their heads by rival dealers, the only way to avoid getting killed is to cut up the dope, sell it and return the money to whomever has the most powerful claim to it. Naturally, getting rid of the drugs isn’t as difficult as covering up the money trail. In cahoots with a hippy hacker, they devise a plan only a subscriber to Wired might be capable of pulling off. Famuyiwa’s success here includes making everything that happens to the geeks plausible, while also maintaining a vibe that any fan of Cheech & Chong, Snoop Dogg and Half-Baked can appreciate Also starring in supporting roles are rapper A$AP Rocky, Blake Anderson (“Workaholics”), Rick Fox and Zoë Kravitz. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the soundtrack is a gas.

Tibetan Warrior
When all of the celebrity advocates of the various Free Tibet movements put away their banners and return to work in their chosen artistic disciplines, hard-core activists know that the really hard work required to free a nation won’t bear fruit for many years to come, if ever. In certain parts of the Tibetan diaspora, Indian-born Loten Namling is as big a celebrity as Richard Gere or Steven Seagal. Without discounting any celebrity’s commitment to support the14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, Namling would have to drag his “Free Tibet” coffin from New York to Kim and Kanye’s driveway, somewhere in greater L.A., to assure any coverage from the American news media. It’s what he did three years ago, in Switzerland, attracting attention by pulling a black coffin-like box from the capital of Bern, to UN headquarters in Geneva, chanting prayers and playing the lute at stops along the way. His “Journey for Freedom: One Man, One Path, Free Tibet” excursion is documented in Dodo Hunziker’s feature-length documentary, Tibetan Warrior, which also follows the singer, musician, artist, entertainer and cartoonist on his mission to meet with the Dalai Lama, from whom he only desires “wisdom.” At the time, 45 Tibetans had set themselves on fire in a renewed to protest against the Chinese annexation of the Himalayan nation, in 1951, and long-standing denial of basic human rights to citizens left behind after the Dalai Lama and his inner circle split, in 1959. Born in Dharamsala in 1963, Namling eventually would be granted a meeting with the Dalai Lama, who praised the uncharacteristically humble activist’s passionate contributions to the movement, without offering any more advice than to be patient and try to understand how realpolitik has become the operative philosophy of Free Tibet leadership. Given the PRC’s standing in the worlds of commerce, international politics and military power, Namling was pretty much left holding his lute in one hand and his dick in the other. Even so, one doesn’t leave Tibetan Warrior depressed or pessimistic about Tibet’s future. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of a cause that won’t be forgotten as long as artists are driven to extremes in the pursuit of freedom.

In the Courtyard: Blu-ray
Having already heaped layers of praise on Catherine Deneuve’s recent performances in a half-dozen excellent movies, there really isn’t all that much for me to add that would make American audiences flock to rent In the Courtyard. Besides being extremely moving, I would hope American actresses of a certain age might watch Pierre Salvadori’s bittersweet drama and be encouraged to demand the same opportunities here, as the still radiant Deneuve receives in France. Women directors have begun to cry foul over the lack of respect shown them by Hollywood studios … why not actresses whose only chance to shine comes in “important” movies, released in the holiday rush? Most of the movies in which Deneuve appears these days are intended to be enjoyed for their ability to entertain, not impress César Awards voters (although she’s been nominated four times in the last four years). In the Courtyard is a decidedly offbeat entertainment, in which a man and woman from completely different backgrounds find common ground in the pursuit of a common goal. In a sense, Antoine and Mathilde’s mission amounts to therapy, without the benefit of a shrink or a couch. Antoine is a middle-aged musician whose depression has become so pronounced that he no longer is able to make the journey from dressing room to the stage. Disheveled and absent any recognizable form of ambition, Antoine is further hampered by an inability to perform tasks associated with viable employment. In a Chance the Gardener conceit, possibly inspired by Being There, he is hired as caretaker of a residential building owned by Mathilde and her husband, Serge (Féodor Atkine). Recently retired, Mathilde kills time by fixating on dubious causes and obsessing over a crack she discovers in the wall of her apartment. The crack, which she believes to be the tip of a structural iceberg, so concerns Mathilde that she begins to rally support from neighbors, whose homes could be threatened, as well, if, say, the buildings were built over landfill. While she’s doing this, Antoine not only assumes nursemaid duties for the eccentric tenants, but also covers for Mathilde in her deteriorating relationship with Serge. Complicating things for Antoine is a fondness for crack cocaine and an inability to say “no” to the needier tenants. By this time, viewers may think they know where In the Courtyard is heading, but Salvadori neatly disguises the punch he reserves for the finale. If it comes off as being overly sentimental to some viewers, well, too bad for them. Watch it, anyway, for the acting clinic. The Blu-ray arrives with an interview with the writer/director.

Class Of Nuke ‘Em High III: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid: Blu-ray
Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV: Blu-ray
The Sand
One of the more endearing things about Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman is that he’s rarely at a loss for hyperbole. In his introduction to Madcow, he not only brags about it being the first Troma import from South Africa, but also that it was Nelson Mandela’s favorite film while in prison. I would have guessed Shaft in Africa, but even that presupposes his Afrikaner keepers at Robben Island allowed the future leader of their country a single night’s respite from the hideous conditions of his incarceration and that Mandela had been in jail when Madcow was released in 2010, which, of course, was well after he retired from the presidency. (For several idiotic reasons, the government didn’t even allow the introduction of television until 1976.) That said, Michael Wright and Michael J. Rix’s video original fits neatly within the confines of the Troma asylum, which, this week alone, has added Blu-ray editions of Class Of Nuke ‘Em High III: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV to the cinematic commonweal. In it, a crazed scientist creates a half-man, half-cow creature which goes on chainsaw-wielding rampage at an African game lodge. It’s here that one of the world’s most physically gifted scream queens, Tanya van Graan (Starship Troopers 3: Marauder) stays busy, trying on lingerie and enjoying leisurely showers. Leading the campaign to corral the bovine killer is an investigator, who, in the right light, resembles Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. While every bit as stupid as most Troma releases, Madcow falls short in the areas of technical proficiency and twisted topicality. Even so, it isn’t completely devoid of laughs and good ideas … or zombies.  In true Troma fashion, the principle cast went through “boot camp” at a dairy farm, so that “they could empathize more easily with the titular character.”

The only really positive thing to be gleaned from Class Of Nuke ‘Em High III: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid, which picks up where the first sequel left off, is that the giant mutant squirrel, Tromie, returns for a cameo performance. Also back is former body builder and pro wrestler Brick Bronsky, this time in the multiple roles of Mayor Roger Smith and his good/evil twin sons Adlai and Dick Smith, and Baby Moishe Smith. Kidnapped at birth, Dick Smith becomes a crucial player in a plot devised by the mad Doctor Slag, PhD (John Tallman), and slutty/sexy Professor Holt (Lisa Gaye), first, to destroy his politician brother’s sterling reputation, and, then, turn Tromaville into a toxic wasteland. The Blu-ray arrives with director’s commentary, an interview with the tragically nudity-shy Gaye and trailers from the “Nuke ‘Em High” canon.

Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV opens with the notorious Diaper Mafia taking students of the Tromaville School for the Very Special hostage. After Toxie and his morbidly obese sidekick, Lardass, fail to prevent a powerful bomb from destroying the school, a dimensional portal is opened between Tromaville and its mirror image, Amortville. While father-to-be Toxie is trapped in Amortville, Tromaville comes under the control of his evil doppelganger, the Noxious Offender. Mayhem ensues. “Citizen Toxie” features the most formidable line-up of superheroes ever assembled, including Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Mad Cowboy, Dolphin Man, Master Bator and the Vibrator. Also reunited are Ron Jeremy, Lemmy Kilmister, Julie Strain, Corey Feldman, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, James Gunn and Kinky Finklestein. For truly demented viewers, there’s a topless translator for the deaf and newsreel footage shot at the Playboy Mansion. The Blu-ray adds a new intro by Lloyd Kaufman, from Stan Lee’s Comikaze; commentaries with Kaufman, producer Trent Haaga and actor Michael Budinger, and editors Friedman and Sean McGrath; the 147-minute “Apocalypse Soon” making-of featurette; a montage of Troma achievements, scored to songs by Motorhead; “Troma’s Tribute to Lemmy”’ deleted scenes; outtakes; and an interview with Debbie Rochon. The only thing missing is a scorecard to keep track of the visual references and homages to classic film moments.

Requiescant: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Historians and critics have for years debated on the influence of left-wing philosophy – overt or subliminal – on genre films written and/or directed by filmmakers who would face the HUAC inquisition and be blacklisted for exercising their constitutional right to espouse radical political believes … or simply organize strikes against Hollywood studios. Released in 1967, but rarely distributed outside Europe, Requiescant (a.k.a., “Kill and Pray”) is a Spaghetti Western that wears its Communist Party sympathies on its sleeve for all the world to see. Director Carlo Lizzani (The Violent Four) even had the audacity to cast Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salò) in a rare acting role as a revolutionary priest. While staying within the parameters set aside for genre fare, Requiescant exhibits the same relationship to history accuracy as Quentin Tarantino reserves for his period provocations. Here,

Lou Castel plays a young man, who, after transplanted Confederates massacred his Mexican family and other settlers, was raised to be a pacifist by a travelling preacher. When his stepsister runs away to join a troupe of barroom entertainers, the pursuit reveals his natural talent as a sharp-shooter. After she’s discovered working as a sex slave in a town run by fascist landowners and their puppets, Requiescant not only vows to liberate her from bondage, but lead the oppressed Mexican laborers to the Promised Land. Or, something like that. Reality sets in when the entrenched minority take out their hostility on the most defenseless citizens. Even without the political messaging, Requiescant stands as a hugely entertaining and completely viable genre specimen, with a very cool backstory. The Blu-ray package adds plenty of background.

The Sand may not bear the Troma brand, but it plays in the same ballpark. The franchise it most closely resembles, though, Tremors. The movie opens during a beach party being held on an early-summer night, just as the booze is beginning to flow and bikini tops are disappearing like the ebb tide. Flash ahead a few hours and the kids are spread out in a tight circle around a lifeguard stand. As soon as the first topless bimbo puts her feet in the sand to find her swimsuit’s other half, she realizes that she’s stuck and can’t move. Others become trapped, as well, before being devoured by the creature or creatures living underneath the sand. And, so it goes. Isaac Gabaeff’s conceit doesn’t require punishing young people for exercising their rights as sexual beings, but to see if the can survive using their wits … or half-wits, as the case may be. For so familiar a premise, The Sand is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Credit for that probably belongs to writers Alex Greenfield (“WWE Smackdown!”) and Ben Powell (The Aggression Scale).

The Raid
The Avenging Fist
Fans of Chinese action director Tsui Hark will want to check out Go USA’s upgraded edition of The Raid, the wartime comedy/adventure he made in 1991 with Ching Siu-Tung (Chinese Ghost Story). As far as I can tell, it wasn’t accorded a release here, but follows quickly on the heels of the company’s Blu-ray of The Taking of Tiger Mountain, which it resembles in certain key ways. While “Tiger Mountain” is based on Qu Bo’s 1957 novel “Tracks in the Snowy Forest,” The Raid was inspired by the Hong Kong manhua (a.k.a., manga) “Uncle Choy,” published by Michael Hui since 1958. Hark uses art from the comic book in his opening credits and transitions. The story is set in 1930s China, after Japanese occupation forces installed the dethroned Emperor Pu-Yi (The Last Emperor) as the symbolic leader of the Manchurian puppet state of Manchukuo. He is portrayed as being complicit in the testing of poisonous gas as a weapon by the Japanese, against Republican-era resistance forces. After their leader is killed in the attack, he is replaced by Lieutenant Mang Tai-Hoi (Paul Chun), who considers Uncle Choy to be too old to help the movement with his ever-present wooden box, containing garlic, red pepper and dynamite for emergencies. Left behind when Mang launches his search for the Japanese armaments factory, Uncle Choy discovers a dao sword and heads for the front lines. He isn’t aware that his niece is hot on his heels, wielding a qiang sword she fully intends to use against the Chinese. If this description doesn’t sounds particularly comedic, it’s only because the slapsticky brawls, missed connections and close brushes with disaster are yet to come. Uncle Choy may look like a harmless old codger, but he’s a hardened veteran of post-dynastic battles and a brilliant swordsman. Just as “Tiger Mountain” occasionally played to the cheap seats, The Raid was designed for consumption by mainstream Chinese and Hong Kong audiences. A scene in which Chinese soldiers infiltrate the kitchen at a banquet honoring the emperor runs the emotional gamut from hilarity to horror, when the faux chefs screw up the preparation of delicacies none of them could have mastered in time for the meal. The interaction between Pu Yi, Japanese commander Masa (Tony Ka Fai Leung) and the treasonous movie star Kim Pak-fai (Joyce Godenzi) similarly confuses love, obligation and deceit. When necessary, Hark doesn’t hesitate playing the kung fu card, though.

Andrew Lau has been a major force in the Hong Kong action scene for nearly as long as Sark. The Avenging Fist, released a year before the highly regarded Infernal Affairs trilogy cemented his reputation as both a director and cinematographer, is a film that crosses so many genre and demographic borders that it could have required passports, as well as tickets. We’re reminded upfront that the human brain rarely uses more than 20 percent of its intellectual potential and, within the remaining 80 percent of capacity could lie answers to questions we’ve yet to ponder. The Avenging Fist plays out against a sci-fi background, likely influenced by Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, while everything in the foreground appears to have been borrowed from video games, wuxia fantasies, graphic novels and billboard ads for nightclub apparel. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Power Gloves not only will hold the key to tapping into the 80 percent of unused brain power, but they will also enable the wearer to take over the minds of other people, presumably of the criminal persuasion. Dark, Thunder and War 21 are the names of three young police officers who volunteer to test the program. War 21 uses a glove to capture Thunder and disappear into the void for the next 20 years. They return to the scene of the experiment to attempt another coup, this time with a small army behind them. Realizing that he can’t take on the forces of evil himself, Dark (Sammo Hung) discovers a fighter 20 years his junior, Meganova (Wang Lee Hom), who appears to possess Thunder’s fighting DNA, but mistrusts everyone older than he is. Dark is forced to go to great lengths to convince Meganova that his power should be used for good. Only some decent action sequences prevent the story from imploding any further than it does.

Skin Traffik
For a hundred different reasons, making movies in Hollywood for American audiences has become an unattainable dream for most homebred filmmakers. Just as the major studios have come to depend on the international box-office for the bulk of their box-office returns, direct-to-video specialists know that their search for profits lies abroad, as well. Unlike the studios, however, high-profile franchises don’t grow on trees. Fortunately, audiences around the world also respond well to genres that A-listers feel are beneath them. If there’s still a stigma attached to features made specifically for the DVD, Blu-ray and PPV market, it hasn’t diminished the aspirations of a new generation of filmmakers who’ve learned how the play  the angles. Skin Traffik is a perfect example of this growing trend. By all of the usual standards, even those once used to judge drive-in and grindhouse fare, it isn’t very good. What multi-hyphenate filmmaker Ara Paiaya’s movie lacks in critical praise and mall appeal, though, it more than makes up for in action. Made at a fraction of the budget expended on each installment of The Expendables, Skin Traffik delivers wall-to-wall action and a list of stars who, while they may have lost their luster here, are remembered fondly for blasts from the past. It explains why the film’s hero, portrayed by the prolific Brit B-movie star, Gary Daniels, plays second fiddle in the marketing materials to such war horses as Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts and Daryl Hannah – last seen together 30 years ago in The Pope of Greenwich Village – Dominique Swain, Michael Madsen and Jeff Fahey. With a cast like that, there’s hardly any need for a screenplay … which, perhaps, is why Paiaya handled that chore, too. For the record, Daniels plays a hitman who retired after blowing an assignment in the worst possible way. Living in a tough section of a big city, Bradley decides that enough is enough after witnessing a prostitute being beaten by a pimp three times her size. Sensing that the prostitute’s partner will face a similar fate, simply for witnessing the thumping, Bradley takes her under his wings. This makes him a target for the pimp’s bosses and the Executive, who control the importation and exploitation of women smuggled into the city for one purpose, only. It’s on the higher branches of this twisted tree that Bradley locates Skin Traffik’s marquee attractions. If all that weren’t sufficiently crazy, Rourke reportedly gained 50 pounds for his role.

Sodoma: The Dark Side of Gomorrah
Gommorah, Matteo Garrone’s agonizingly realistic dissection of life among young aspirants to Naple’s vicious Camorra crime won the highest praise from American film critics when it opened here in 2008. Far less forgiving than such American gangland dramas as The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface, which romanticized certain aspects of organized crime, Gommorah proved to be too much for audiences here to handle. It was a huge success in Europe, however, where mob chieftains tend to maintain a lower profile than their American counterparts. Although it inspired an Italian TV mini-series, Gommorah was an unlikely candidate for parody. And, yet, that’s what Vincenzo Pirozzi and Corrado Ardone do in Sodoma: The Dark Side of Gomorrah, in which three guys named Ciro, Marco and Ettore attempt to land steady employment in the more quasi-legitimate areas controlled by the Camorra. Unfortunately, they hitch their wagon to a gangster who none of his peers takes seriously, but is dangerous enough to get them killed. One of his schemes is to dispose of toxic waste in the fires of Mount Vesuvius, which, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad idea. Although Al Pacino permitted the filmmakers to use several scenes from ”Scarface” to be inserted, free of charge, and it was named Best Comedy at the 2012 New York City International Film Festival, Sodoma: The Dark Side of Gomorrah’s reach isn’t likely to extend past hard-core fans of Italian genre movies and Gomorrah, in particular.

Big Eden: 15th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, Thomas Bezucha’s fairytale rom-dram Big Eden was released at a time when gay-themed movies were beginning to find acceptance here, if not in the mainstream, exactly, but as a commercial alternative to pictures in which LGBT characters were marginal players, at best. Its distributor, Wolfe Video, hadn’t waited for the term New Queer Cinema to be introduced by critic B. Ruby Rich, in 1992, to establish itself as a purveyor of videos to the emerging niche audience, largely through mail-order sales. By the time Big Eden made its way from the festival circuit to VHS and DVD, most independent video stores (remember them?) had reserved several shelves for gay and lesbian titles, not all of which maintained a tight focus on issues related to HIV/AIDS and exiting the closet. It would take the popular and artistic success of Brokeback Mountain and Milk for Hollywood to slowly open its door to LGBT-themed dramas. As appealing as it is, watching Big Eden today is a slightly disorienting experience. When New York artist Henry Hart (Arye Gross) learns that his grandfather has had a stroke, he rushes back to his wonderfully scenic Montana hometown, leaving his sales agent to oversee an important gallery opening. Just when we begin to gird ourselves for an onslaught of homophobic dialogue and the sound of closets being reopened, Bezucha reveals a Rocky Mountains Brigadoon that might have been founded by retirees from the Castro District. Not only is he welcomed with open arms by his grandfather and old friends, but he’s embraced by the preacher and local lay-abouts who might have been charter subscribers to Bear magazine. The principle issues faced by Henry involve determining how he will be welcomed by his childhood friend and first lover, Dean (Tim DeKay), now a father with two kids. He also must learn how to interpret the mixed signals sent to him by a handsome Native American, who cooks gourmet-style meals for his grandfather and him, but is too shy to admit his culinary interests to the guys who hang around the general store and post office. It’s harder for him to come out as gourmand than a gay man. Apart from a few tender kisses and a couple of gender-neutral waltzes, Big Eden would easily qualify for a “PG” rating. As Bezucha recalls in a newly recorded interview, the big achievement here was demonstrating that such a non-exploitative entertainment could exist alongside sexually explicit material and serious drama, without watering down the narrative.

Alleluia: Blu-ray
Angst: Blu-ray
Loosely based on the story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, already dramatized in Leonard Kastle’s disturbingly twisted 1969 romance, The Honeymoon Killers,  Fabrice Du Welz’ artistically gruesome Alleluia instead restages the crimes in Belgium and France. The couple’s victims are located through postings on social media. That’s how the desperately lonely corpse washer, Gloria (Lola Dueñas), connects with the candle-worshipping shoe salesman, Michel (Laurent Lucas), for a first date that goes as well as anyone could have hoped. When the morning comes, however, it’s clear that the single mother of a pre-teen daughter probably has bitten off more than she can chew. After Gloria agrees to cut Michel a check to cover a phony debt, we’re not surprised when the cad takes a powder. Not about to take this affront lying down, Gloria decides to track Michel down and demand retribution. Instead, they enter into an arrangement that includes working more elaborate cons on even more gullible women. When Michel is asked to move in with the women, he insists that his “sister,” Gloria, be given a room of her own, from which she’s driven mad with jealousy over the loud love-making taking place next-door. It’s enough to drive a proud woman to consider, well, murder. And, so it goes, until their path leads the Big Score: a magnificent farm owned by another single mother, who also makes the mistake of making too much noise during sex. Although the killings are quite graphic, Manu Dacosse’s exquisite cinematography allows Du Welz to juxtapose sex and violence in a way that demands we consider the killers’ point of view before our revulsion over their actions.The superb Cantalonian actress, Dueñas (Falling Star, Volver) contributes to our confusion by almost making her monstrous character sympathetic. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Du Welz; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; cast and crew interviews; and a short film film by Du Welz.

Gerald Kargl’s newly uncut and uncensored Angst also is based on an actual crime spree, this one perpetrated by Austrian mass murderer Werner Kniesek, in 1980. With slight variations on Kniesek’s spree, Erwin Leder (Das Boot) plays a maniacal killer, Psychopath, who, after being released from prison, feels driven to commit the same sort of crimes that put him there in the first place. He simply feels more comfortable behind bars than anywhere else. After one unsuccessful attempt to strangle a cab driver, Psychopath picks a random house to invade and slaughter everyone who makes the mistake of coming home before he changes his mind. Like Alleluia, Angst is so compellingly shot and composed that its artistry momentarily disguises the carnage taking place on screen. As if to argue that slasher films shouldn’t be able to get away with such diabolical tricks, Angst was effectively banned from view for three decades … everywhere. Fully restored, after 30 years, it hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock. As such, the natural audience for Angst probably will be limited to serious fans of John McNaughton’s unforgettable Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Kargl shares the spotlight here with the Oscar-winning Polish animator/cinematographer Zbig Rybczynski (“Tango”) and onetime Tangerine Dreamer Klaus Schulze. The Blu-ray package borders on the epic, requiring an appreciation of central European psycho-horror most humans simply don’t possess. For those who do, however, it includes a new Interview with Leder; less recent ones with Rybzcynski and Kargl, by Jorg Buttgereit (Nekromantik); commentary by Kargl and film critic Marcus Stiglegger; and an introduction by Gasper Noé (Irreversible).

The Jail: The Women’s Hell
Blue Rita
Hyde’s Secret Nightmare
Day 6
If there’s one thing more exploitative than a women-in-prison movie made in the Philippines during the 1970s, it’s a women-in-prison movie, made 30 years past the sub-genre’s Golden Age by the “Ed Wood of Italian filmmaking,” without Pam Grier. At the time The Jail: The Women’s Hell was filmed, writer/director Bruno Mattei probably already was being tormented by an undetected brain tumor. In the interviews included in the bonus package, one of the common recollections is a temper that erupted like storm clouds during the monsoons. When Mattei wasn’t screaming at cast and crew, however, he was as sweet and supportive as could be. Made in 2006, “The Jail” looks as if it were shot 35 years earlier, on a budget that made Roger Corman seem generous, by comparison. If the great 2-foot-9 Filipino actor and martial artist Weng Weng hadn’t died in 1992, he almost certainly would have been recruited for a cameo, at least. Otherwise, every women-in-prison trope and cliché found in such immortal titles as The Big Doll House, Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage and Black Mama White Mama is repeated in “The Jail,” only several times cruder and without a hint of irony. In other words, it stinks … and not in a good way. The only actor resembling a star is Yvette Yzon, who, while not nearly as statuesque as Grier, probably logged more minutes of nudity in one film than the African-American dream-girl did in all four of her Philippine-made nightmares. Here, the jungle hellhole to which naughty women are sentenced is known as the House of Lost Souls. If anything, the warden is even more sadistic than earlier incarnations and the violence is significantly more offensive. Featurettes include “Acting for Bruno,” with Yzon and Alvin Anson, and “Prison Inferno,” with producer Giovanni Paolucci and screenwriter Antonio Tentori.

Spanish exploitation king Jess Franco made his share of women-in-prison epics during a career that spanned nearly 50 years and included more than 200 directorial credits. In fact, it would be difficult to name a subgenre of films that Franco didn’t exploit to varying degrees of artistic clarity. Blue Rita stands today as a prime example of soft-core Euro-porn from its mid-1970s heyday. Despite a plot that borders on the ridiculous, it excels in most of the areas that distinguished the category – including the early “Emmanuelle” chapters and films of Radley Metzger – from comparable American fare, which frequently amounted to nothing more than hard-core films edited to eliminate penetration and close-ups of genitalia. Blue Rita is set in a swinging strip nightclub, awash in psychedelic colors and featuring truly gorgeous dancers, who perform as if Twyla Tharp and Bob Fosse were taking notes in the audience,. When she isn’t dancing or diddling her dollies, the titular owner of the Parisian nightclub, Blue Rita (Martine Flety), is an operative for a Soviet spy ring. The club’s basement doubles as a dressing room for the dancers and a torture chamber for prisoners of interest to her handlers. To make the men talk, Rita doses them with a slimy green liquid that causes them to go into sexual withdrawal. Taunted with the promise of unlimited pussy, the prisoners inevitably spill the beans. Rita’s getting too old and tired for the game, so her bosses send in hot lesbian operatives to keep her from flaking out on them. Meanwhile, Interpol agents are anxious to infiltrate the operation. As these things go, Blue Rita is more erotic than most specimens in the subgenre. The musical score and cinematography are also good.

Domiziano Cristopharo dedicated his creepy 2011 psycho-thriller, Hyde’s Secret Nightmare, to Italian filmmaker Joe D’Amato, who was every bit as prolific as Franco and worked in as many different sub-genres. Inspired, as well, by the giallo movement, Hyde’s Secret Nightmare falls neatly in the same erotic-horror niche filled by D’Amato’s more popular offerings. At first, I was working from an assumption that the title was steering fans of the Jeckyll & Hyde legend to yet another entry in the repertoire. Instead, it refers to one Eva Hyde, who, as portrayed by the astonishing Roberta Gemma, embodies the film’s dark world of crumbling and corrupt institutions. Sadly, the horrors visited in actual nightmares rarely are relieved by dramatizations of sexual ecstasy, experienced by a woman who easily qualifies as one of the sexiest women on planet. Not all of the eroticism is limited to the female form, but the men are just plain weird. As nightmares go, however, Cristopharo’s doesn’t make much more sense than the ones we endure nightly, which too often are devoid of nudity. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery, bloopers, a DVD-ROM comic and the “confessions” of Cristopharo and Gemma.

Also from Italy comes Day 6, in which writer/director Varo Venturi goes deep on the subject of alien abductions. I might have suggested keeping “Alien Exorcism” as the final title for this extremely complex exploration of the subject, but, having never seen a UFO or met an alien, what do I know? Massimo Poggio is reasonably convincing as Dr. Davide Piso, a scientist who uses hypnosis to get into the heads of thousands of people who claim to have been abducted. He’s come to the conclusion that some extraterrestrial races have been installing their active memories into the brains of humans they’ve abducted. It allows them to “live” through the victims in this dimension, while also tapping a uniquely human energy source: the soul. As if that weren’t nutty enough, after 18-year-old Saturnia insists on being hypnotized by the scientists, she assumes the personality of Hexabor of Ur. This alien entity traces his roots to Mesopotamia and considers himself a demi-god. Saturnia also appears to belong to a family of wealthy black aristocrats. The flakey stuff appears to be verified by new data and theories that push the boundaries of our belief system. The producers want us to believe that this merger of horror and sci-fi represents a new sub-genre: “sci-real.” A lengthy featurette uses scientists, theologians and scholars to further explain the points being made in Day 6. It’s more interesting than the movie, itself.

Mosquito: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Manos: The Hands of Fate: Blu-ray
The Return of Count Yorga: Blu-ray
When it comes to killer critter movies, I’ve always been of the opinion that mosquitos had a leg up on the myriad bugs, fish, mammals and other mutated and irradiated species enlisted for the sake of a few minutes entertainment on drive-in screens around North America. (Have they caught on anywhere else?) Through tens of millions of years, mosquitos have evolved into the prototype of the ideal movie monster. They have a history of transporting murderous diseases and possess stealth-like qualities that would be the envy of any military aircraft. Even when they’re easy to squash, the droplet of blood left behind tells us that much of the damage already has been done. A couple of nights ago, after watching Synapse Films’s Mosquito: 20th Anniversary Edition, I dreamt about mosquitos for the first time, maybe ever. The movie, itself, wasn’t particularly scary – only marginally better than the above-average Syfy thriller – but that’s how the power of suggestion works. Here, an alien space craft drops its waste into a lake in a national park that is popular with campers and chainsaw-wielding survivalists. The interstellar toxins are absorbed into the eggs distributed by motherly mosquitos, causing mutations in their larvae. The alien mosquitos, which, of course, feed on human blood, now are the size of drones capable of delivering packages for Amazon. In addition to not being particularly fussy about the orifices from which they draw blood or inject semen, the alien mosquitos truly are a force with which to be reckoned. The final showdown is about as frantic as one might expect, with Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface) reprising his iconic talent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Pop-culture fiends also might recognize Ron Asheton – a founding member of the Stooges – as Hendricks the Park Ranger. The Blu-ray adds audio commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, a stills gallery and “Bugging Out!: The Making of Mosquito.”

If Peter Bogdanovich hadn’t chosen Red River as the last movie to be shown in the Anarene theater featured in The Last Picture Show, he might have turned to Manos: The Hands of Fate, which was shot in nearby El Paso. As bad as any movie ever committed to film by Edward Wood Jr., “Manos” has at least as many legends attached to it as any film made by Orson Welles. The biggest whopper involves writer/director/producer/co-star Harold P. Warren, who is commonly dismissed as a west Texas fertilizer salesman on an ego trip the size of the Lone Star state, itself. In fact, Warren was manager of the American Founder’s Life Insurance Co., in El Paso, as well as an inventor and supporter of the local theater community. If he sold fertilizer, he was very good at his job. “Manos” was the result of a bet Warren made with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who was in the neighborhood during a “Route 66” shoot. He felt as if he was eminently qualified to make a horror film and could do it on a budget of approximately $20,000 in 1966 currency. Of course, it would require skimping on everything from production values to using IOUs to pay the cast, but he did it. After debuting in El Paso and playing a handful of theaters in west Texas and New Mexico, “Manos” pretty much disappeared from the face of the planet. It would be re-discovered 20 years later and handed over to the geniuses behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” on which Joel and the ’bots included it among the worst movies they’d ever seen and accused Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV’s Frank of purposefully setting out to torture them. Thus, a cult classic was born. Not that it matters much, but the story involves an innocent family that becomes lost on a road trip through Texas and finds shelter at a remote farmhouse. The only apparent resident of the property is a strangely deformed man named Torgo, who insists he is watching the place for “The Master.” Turns out, the Master has lured the mother and daughter to the house to be used as sacrificial vessels for his harem of demon-worshipping wives in diaphanous gowns. The rest is sheer madness. Nearly lost, the original 16mm Ektachrome film elements have finally been unearthed and restored by Florida State graduate Ben Solovey, financed by a Kickstarter campaign. The Blu-ray adds commentary with actors Tom Neyman and Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones; the unrestored “grindhouse edition”; and featurettes “Hands: The Fate of ‘Manos,’” “Restoring the ‘Hands of Fate’” and “Felt: The Puppet ‘Hands of Fate’.”

While not in the same category of badness of “Manos,” horror-specialist Bob Kelljan’s The Return of Count Yorga demonstrates just how little creative effort is required in the creation of a sequel to an AIP flick, Count Yorga, Vampire, that became a surprise hit in 1970. In the original, a dashing vampire takes up residence in a mansion in a contemporary L.A. setting. As played with great gusto by Robert Quarry, the count has no trouble finding acolytes and nubile victims, in quarters of sunny Los Angeles no one could imagine being called home by a vampire lord. For the quick-turn-around sequel, Kelljan relies on the curative powers of the Santa Ana winds – huh? – to bring Yorga back to life and encourage him to return to L.A., this time in a rundown orphanage. Of all the women available to him as bridal material, Yorga chooses future Polaroid pitchwoman Mariette Hartley as being the most worthy. It also stars George Macready, Roger Perry and Craig T. Nelson in his screen debut. The Scream Factory Blu-ray adds commentary with film historian Steve Haberman and actor Rudy De Luca; a photo gallery; and marketing material.

Delusions of Guinevere
In her feature debut as writer/director/producer/actor, Joanna Bowzer sketches a sympathetic if darkly realistic profile of a former child star, Guinevere James, who, at 29, can’t deal with the fact that she is no longer a valuable commodity to casting directors. Hint: seriously overweight, she isn’t particularly adorable or talented, anymore. When Guinevere (co-writer Ariana Bernstein) receives an invitation to a 20th-anniversary special for her signature Gelee commercials, she is forced to deal with the conflicting feelings that come with reuniting with old friends and realizing that some, but not all of them have enjoyed successful professional afterlives. Despite her bad luck at auditions for which she arrives alarmingly unprepared, Guinevere thinks that enough people will remember her from her glory years to still be considered valuable to potential employers. It isn’t until Guinevere takes her geeky neuroses to You Tube that she begins to feel comfortable before an audience of her peers. The videos become so popular that social-media critics dub them, “Breakfast at Guinevere’s.” Attracted to her newfound fame, the same casting directors who couldn’t find a way to resuscitate her career begin to sense that they can parlay her Internet persona into something bigger. Maybe, maybe not, but it’s the first encouraging news Guinevere has heard in many years. As is suggested by the title, Delusions of Guinevere, the semi-talented actress will be given every chance to ignore the solid advice of friends and her former agent, now retired, and blow the opportunities presented her. Bowzer’s observant direction helps the movie maintain an even keel, even when some of the characters’ actions throw logic to the wind.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gone With the Wind
Despite repeated efforts to limit Lynyrd Skynyrd’s reputation to the Southern bands that followed in the enormous wake of the Allman Brothers, its songs continue to be played repeatedly on classic-rock stations and streamed to playlists assembled by three generations of fans. It almost doesn’t matter that most listeners are unaware of the plane crash that decimated the core of the band in 1977 or which incarnation of the unit is reprising the stirring rock anthem, “Free Bird.” I may not be anxious to ever hear “Sweet Home Alabama” again in my lifetime – ditto, Neil Young’s “Southern Man” – but I’ve never tired of hearing “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special,” “I Know A Little,” “You Got That Right” and “That Smell.” If “Free Bird” pops up on one of my satellite-radio stations, I’ll sing along to it, again, for the thousandth time. It may not be my favorite band of all time, but their music makes me smile. In Sexy Intellectual’s Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gone With the Wind, rock historian Tom O’Dell puts the group under the same microscope he used the analyze the careers of musicians ranging from Lennon, McCartney, Jagger and Richards, to Sandy Denny, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Queen. Rather than rely exclusively on his own opinions, O’Dell has always used multiple sources and archival material to tell the story. Here, he’s accumulated seldom-seen film, new and vintage interviews, contributions from an esteemed panel of members past and present, location shoots, rare photographs, news reports and harrowing first-hand descriptions of the fateful plane crash. He reserves the tight focus for founding member, Ronnie Van Zant, which is as it should be. At 163 minutes, though, “Gone With the Mind” may be too long a slog for those whose only recollection of Lynyrd Skynyrd is the abbreviated version of “Free Bird,” used on AM stations, and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

PBS: Indian Summers: Blu-ray
Danny Kaye: Legends
The Saint: Seasons 1 & 2
PBS: Frontline: Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty
When Calls the Heart: Year Two: The Television Movie Collection
Any faithful viewer of “Masterpiece Theater” probably could write a passable term paper on the tumultuous periods of time described in such British mini-series as “The Jewel in the Crown” and “Indian Summers.” Throw in such movies as Before the Rains, Sharpe’s Challenge/Peril, Staying On, A Passage to India, Gandhi, Water and Earth and you could probably fake a pretty good master’s thesis … unless, of course, your professor has seen the same movies and TV shows. Americans have left it to Hollywood to describe how the Southern aristocracy and their slaves functioned in anticipation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. For the time being, at least, Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave will have to stand as legitimate attempts to explain how things went so wrong for so long in the Land of the Free. The 10-part “Masterpiece” series “Indian Summers” is set against the sweeping grandeur of the Himalayas and tea plantations of Northern India, in the summer of 1932. Gandhi is once again in jail, but such an inconvenience isn’t enough to prevent representatives of the British Empire from pretending they’re in the Scottish Highlands on holiday. They gather once or twice a day at an exclusive club, where “dogs and Indians” are specifically excluded. Nonetheless, the stirrings of rebellion can be felt throughout the Raj, both on an empirical and personal basis. American audiences will be happy to learn that the history lessons are kept in the margins of the narrative, which seems more interested in reminding us of its kinship to “Downton Abbey” (in a good way). Julie Walters could hardly be more despicable as the manager of the club and puppet master pulling the strings on romances, affairs, scandals and exclusionary politics. Also good are Chloe Webster, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Rick Warden. The Blu-ray set adds an interesting making-of featurette.

MVD Visual’s second compilations of highlights from “The Danny Kaye Show” — “Danny Kaye: Legends” — brings together six classic episodes of the high-profile variety show, which ran from 1963-67 on CBS. Among the A-listers whose talents are on display here are Louis Armstrong, Lucille Ball, Tony Bennett, George Burns, Shirley Jones and Liberace. The collection also features performances by the Righteous Brothers, French songstress Mireille Mathieu, Vikki Carr, John Gary, Imogene Coca and series regulars Harvey Korman, Joyce Van Patten and orchestra leader Paul Weston. Even allowing for the 20/20 hindsight provided by nostalgia, “Legends” is an entertaining package.

When Shout! Factory/Timeless Media released “The Saint: The Complete Series” – all 5,560 minutes of it – patient fans knew that it would be available within a few months at more affordable prices, in seasonal installments. In something of an unusual move, “The Saint: Seasons 1 & 2” contains all 39 episodes from the first two stanzas. A timeless figure of intrigue and adventure since his creation by Leslie Charteris in 1928, Simon Templar has thrilled adventure aficionados with his exploits in a variety of media, including novels, movies, radio and TV, starring Roger Moore in the title role. Guest stars include Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Honor Blackman and Shirley Eaton. Almost 50 years later, they hold up very well.

While Mexican law-enforcement officials and DEA agents worked feverishly to locate and arrest the most-wanted outlaw in North America –or, said they did — filmmakers Guillermo Galdos and Angus Macqueen got as close as anyone’s come to Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as “El Chapo.” The “Frontline” presentation, “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty” touches all of the usual bases, speaking with key U.S. and Mexican officials tasked with finding Guzmán, while also landing rare interviews with his mother, senior members of his Sinaloa cartel and traffickers who operate by sea, air, land and underground tunnels. At one point in their search, the filmmakers found themselves locked up in a garage with a trafficker and hundreds of bricks of methamphetamine, ready to shipped to addicts across the border.

It seems as if I receive DVDs from Hallmark’s period series, “When Calls the Heart,” every other week. “When Calls the Heart: Year Two: The Television Movie Collection” is comprised of second-season titles “Trials of the Heart,” “Heart and Soul,” “Heart’s Desire,” “Awakenings & Revelations,” “Heart and Home,” “Coming Together, Coming Apart” and “With All My Heart.” Exclusive featurettes include behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. “When Calls The Heart: Follow Your Heart” represents the beginning of new season. While Jack and Elizabeth’s relationship has cooled following their arguments in Hamilton, Jack is hot on the trail of a counterfeiter in Hope Valley.

Also new this week are “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete First and Second Seasons” and two sets from the “My Little Pony” family: “Equestria Girls” and “Equestria Girls: Friendship Games.” Both contain feature-length movies and bonus goodies.

The DVD Wrapup: Escobar, Manglehorn, People Places Things, Pee-wee… and more

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Escobar: Paradise Lost: Blu-ray
The reputation of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar – killed in a shootout with police almost 23 years ago – hardly needs any further mythologizing. Depending upon whom one asks, he either was a servant of Satan or a modern-day Robin Hood. Even though he once supplied about 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. and was worth at some $50 billion at the time of his death — taking into account money and gems that were hidden away before his death – Escobar courted loyalty by spreading his wealth to people who desperately needed financial help.  There seems to be no end to the movies, songs, books and television series based on a man whose legend also includes introducing stray hippos – escapees from his private menagerie – into Colombia’s delicate eco-system and possibly murdering a member of his soccer club, who made a costly mistake in a key match. In Andrea Di Stefano’s intense revisionist biopic, Escobar: Paradise Lost, we’re also led to believe that his generosity toward the citizens of Medellin didn’t necessarily extend to a Canadian surfer dude who couldn’t help himself from falling in love with Escobar’s niece. At the time, Nick (Josh Hutcherson) could be forgiven for not knowing the extent of Escobar’s control of the cocaine trade. Before meeting Maria (Claudia Trasiac), Nick’s interest in Colombia to his brother’s idyllic surf camp, built against a backdrop of blue lagoons and white beaches. Neither, though, is Maria fully aware of her kindly Uncle Pablo’s lucrative vocation or infamous reputation. It isn’t until Escobar makes a problem disappear for the campers – quietly, but with deadly efficiency – that Nick begins to fear it might be too late to avoid real trouble.

Benicio Del Toro is exceedingly credible as a man who has fulfilled his wildest dreams many times over, yet is willing to destroy everything and everyone he loves to remain unencumbered by shackles and bars. As agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration belong to close in on him, alongside the handful of Colombian officials he couldn’t control with bribes, the security blanket afforded him by hypocritical clergy, subservient politicians and overmatched local police would begin to shred. By injecting two naïve lovebirds into this story of monumental hubris gone awry, Di Stefano adds a layer of melodramatic fiction that, while cinematically valid, distracts us from the true nature of the beast. Romance is fine, in its place, but not when it’s used to manipulate emotions that have nothing to do with events already fully documented. What next, a telenovela? A better source for gut-wrenching drama would have been “The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel,” written by Roberto Escobar, who kept the books for his brother and was imprisoned for 10 years. Despite being extremely well crafted, I was left with the feeling that, at its core, Escobar: Paradise Lost is simply a story about star-crossed lovers and, as such, could apply as well to Al Capone as Escobar. The making-of featurette is well worth a perusal, as it explains both the film’s conceit and the difficulty of the producing a movie in the Panamanian jungle. It should be noted, for the record, at least, that Escobar’s death had almost no effect on the amount of cocaine entering the U.S., just the direction from which it came.

Manglehorn: Blu-ray
At 75, Al Pacino continues to deliver dynamic performances in movies – Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill and HBO’s Phil Spector and You Don’t Know Jack, notwithstanding — almost no one is going to pay to see, in theaters, at home or on airplanes. It isn’t that such recent pictures as Danny Collins, The Humbling, Salomé and The Son of No One can’t stand up to scrutiny or don’t show the actor in a positive light. For the most part, they have been positively reviewed. If anything the blame lies in extremely limited releases, ahead of lightly promoted send-offs in the after-market. If I were asked to guess, I’d say that Pacino’s appearance on posters and box covers is so intimidating that it frightens off casual browsers. (I wonder if they fare better in POV, where all of the selections are given equal weight.) In Manglehorn, as in other recent assignments, Pacino looks as if he’d just returned from an audition for a pirate movie and couldn’t be bothered with wigs or makeup. With his, by now, trademark modified Van Dyke, earring and a veritable forest of slicked-back hair he could pass for Keith Richard’s wingman. The look is less convincing on A.J. Manglehorn, a locksmith in a small Texas town who doesn’t go into work every day, but is always on call. Critics have described the character as being reclusive, but he gets around, usually with his fluffy-white cat in tow. Bank employees greet him with kindness when he pays them his weekly visit and he argues with friends over lunch at the local luncheonette. He also can be found some nights playing the slots at the local casino. It’s here that we learn that Manglehorn coached baseball as a younger man and favored more athletic boys over his son, whose interests were directed elsewhere. In fact, he still doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in the company of the seemingly well-off Jacob (Chris Messina) and his bourgeois trappings. The really troubling thing about Manglehorn, though, is his obsession with an old flame – the one who got away – with whom he carries on an unrequited correspondence. Jacob reminds him too much of his ex-wife and an unfulfilled expectations. On the occasion of his first official date with a friendly bank teller, wonderfully played by Holly Hunter, Manglehorn spends the entire dinner proclaiming his love for the long-gone Clara. Her disappointment is painful to watch. Director David Gordon Green (George Washington) uses it to demonstrate the old-man’s lack of compassion for anyone who isn’t feline or, possibly, no longer alive. Is his rudeness a functional of a debilitating illness or largely unchecked bad behavior? Whether we like Manglehorn or not, by the end of the movie Pacino has revealed as many facets of the man as he is likely to possess. Also good is Harmony Korine, who credits his former coach for teaching him everything he needed to know as he grew into manhood. Now a massage-club owner and part-time pimp, Manglehorn apparently once saw him as the son he wished he had. That chicken will come home roost as the movie progresses, as well. The movie’s eccentricity makes it difficult to recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Pacino’s work since, say, Ocean’s Thirteen.

The eccentricities of elderly people are explored yet again in Diane Crespo and Paul Marcarelli’s thoroughly offbeat study of a family on the brink of chaos. In Clutter, Carol Kane plays the matriarch of a Queens family that’s literally chocking amid piles of souvenirs, tchotchkes, unworn clothes, unusable appliances and just plain crap, which she began accumulating before her husband abandoned the family, citing lack of space. There’s a huge difference between being a hobbyist, who collects stuff that someday might be catalogued or traded, and a hoarder. Somewhere between those two points often can be found a pretty good story. Here, Crespo seems content to showcase an American family in extremis. Kane has made a long and successful career playing women, like Linda Bradford, whose emotional stability is frequently in doubt. Here, the evidence includes a water stain on the garage door, which she allows her neighbors to believe is the visage of the Blessed Virgin. Despite the miraculous apparition, the Bradford house has been cited by city officials as being a potential hazard to public health. The thought of parting with a single item makes her so apoplectic that her family doesn’t feel comfortable cleaning it up until she’s hospitalized for exhaustion. It’s there that she is visited by the specter of her husband, who offers some timely advice. Not surprisingly, the children have inherited the crazy gene from their mother. Charlie Bradford (Joshua Leonard) is an unemployed filmmaker, who began making home movies of his parents arguing over Linda’s then-hobby. Lisa (Natasha Lyonne) is a home health-care aide, who writes bad checks, shoplifts and wears a patch over one eye. Penny (Halley Feiffer) is trying to overcome her agonizing shyness by decorating homes in the precise and orderly fashion missing from her mother’s home. All of them must come to grips with the fact it’s now or never for them to clear the clutter from their own life or risk having it collapse on them. Also appearing are Dan Hedaya, Kathy Najimy and Maria Dizzia.

When Marnie Was There: Blu-ray
If, as speculated, When Marnie Was There turns out to be the final feature produced by Studio Ghibli, at least it means that the great Japanese animation factory went out on top of its artistic game. Based on a YA novel by Joan G. Robinson, it’s the first feature produced without the involvement of either Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises) or Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), which is the cinematic equivalent of fielding a Yankee lineup without Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig: formidable, but not invincible. Although Hiromasa Yonebayashi had hit a home run in his first at-bat with The Secret World of Arrietty, his name carries far less weight at the international box office. In the hugely expensive world of feature animation, it’s likely the loss of such marquee talent and lukewarm response to When Marnie Was There prompted studio investors to re-think its plans for the future. Theoretically, anyway, none of that should discourage viewers from sampling Yonebayashi’s excellent solo effort, which, if anything, skews younger than previous Ghibli releases. The protagonist, Anna, is a foster child whose asthma has contributed to a significant loss of self-confidence.  In her 12-year-old mind, she’s one of those unfortunate people who live outside the invisible magic circle to which most people belong and it’s caused her to withdraw into her art. Desperate for answers, her guardians are told that Anna might benefit from spending summer in a place with cleaner air and more open space than is available in Sapporo. Such conditions are readily available at the northern tip of Hokkaido, where relatives of her guardian reside. She naturally retreats to the marshes, where she can draw in seclusion. It’s there that Anna becomes attracted to an abandoned mansion — accessible when the tide is out – and makes friends with the decidedly western-looking blond girl, Marnie. Because she is the first person who accepts Anna on her own terms, Marnie represents the breath of fresh air her doctor has said she needs. Their friendship would be less problematic for the family entrusted with her well-being, however, if they could meet Marnie, in the flesh. It’s the kind of story to which ‘tweeners can easily relate, but may be a hard sell in animated form. The naturalistic artistry on display in When Marnie Was There is simply gorgeous, especially in hi-def. The English-language voicing talent includes Hailee Steinfeld, Kathy Bates, Ellen Burstyn, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly and Vanessa Williams. As is typical of Ghibli Blu-ray releases, the bonus package adds a pair of comprehensive making-of featurettes, storyboard re-creations, a behind-the-scenes look at the English voice cast and a selection of international marketing material.

People Places Things
Jemaine Clement has joined fast-frozen lamb chops, hobbits and frightening face tattoos and war chants as New Zealand’s most popular contributions to world culture. The gangly 6-foot-1 musician/actor, whose mother is Maori, was first brought to the attention of U.S. audiences as half of the quirky folk-comedy duo, Flight of the Conchord, and the HBO sitcom based on their attempt to crack the New York market. He’s since added his distinctive Kiwi-tinged voice to several animated features and appeared in supporting roles in Muppets Most Wanted, Men in Black 3 and Dinner for Schmucks. For the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, he shared directing, writing and acting duties with frequent collaborator Taika Waititi. If anyone had demonstrated the chutzpah to put James C. Strouse’s crowd-pleasing rom-com, People Places Things, into theatrical release after its festival run, Clement might have proven himself to be a box-office favorite, too. He plays Will Henry, an expatriate graphic-novelist, living in New York, whose world has begun to come apart at the seams like a bargain-basement hardball. Although Will would never be confused for fellow countrymen Russell Crowe or Sam Neill in the looks department, it defies logic that his wife, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), would dump him for his even more unkempt and overweight pal, Gary (Michael Chernus), and that they would allow themselves to be caught having sex during their twin daughters’ birthday party. But, that’s the kind of humor on display here. Ever the sad sack, Will uses the incident to inform Strouse’s largely autobiographical work. He’s in such bad shape, actually, that one of his brighter students, the hugely dreadlocked Kat (Jessica Williams), tries to set him up with her mom, Diane (Regina Hall). Not at all a bad match, Will clearly is carrying a torch for his ex-, if only for the sake of the almost impossibly cute twins. Like one of those British rom-coms starring Hugh Grant, People Places Things puts its characters through their paces before devising an ending sure to satisfy everyone, including its audience. Anyone already familiar with Strouse’s previous work – Lonesome Jim, Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season – knows that it sometimes takes patience to get comfortable with his sense of humor.

Apartment Troubles
The more indie an indie gets, the more likely it is that one or more of the primary characters is certifiably crazy. In Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler’s Apartment Troubles, both of the protagonists display all the grace and finesse of baby birds forced to leave the nest before they’re able to fly. Clearly from upper middle-class backgrounds, Olivia (Prediger) and Nicole (Weixler) are profoundly co-dependent roommates in a Manhattan flat, whose electricity has been turned off for failing to pay the bills. They’ve also neglected to pay the rent and their landlord (Jeffrey Tambor) is no longer willing to accept free showers and implied sexual favors in lieu of monthly payments. Apparently, the young women are artists of one stripe or another, but business is too slow even to pay for cat food. When the poor thing keels over after digesting some poorly stored painting supplies, Olivia goes completely bananas. She convinces Nicole to call in a favor from her filthy rich father, who makes a private jet available to them for a cross-country flight home. (Why she simply didn’t ask for enough bread to cover expenses is a question left unanswered.) The only person waiting for them in Beverly Hills – after they accept a ride from a dangerously inebriated maniac (Will Forte) – is Nicole’s wildly eccentric aunt (Megan Mullally), who, when she isn’t producing shows like “American Idol,” is a practicing wino and sexual predator. After Olivia joins her in a show tune, she convinces the visitors to audition for her show. Instead of performing a number recognizable to most viewers, they come up with something so profoundly avant-garde that it wouldn’t last 10 seconds on “The Gong Show.” If the majority of the gags in Apartment Troubles are more disturbing than funny, the filmmakers were able to create characters that demonstrate genuine sisterly solidarity and unspoken communication. If only they had handed the characters over to someone who knew how to direct them, Apartment Troubles might have amounted to something greater than a Rorschach Test.

The Anomaly: Blu-ray
After failing to scare up any real interest at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Noel Clarke’s complex sci-fi thriller The Anomaly finally arrives here in a Blu-ray package that is several times more enticing than anything in the movie … unless one discounts the presence of model-turned-actress Alexis Knapp. Her conflicted prostitute, Dana, isn’t always naked, but, even when fully clothed, she’s the most interesting thing on the screen. Dana’s just one of several characters trapped in an overly complicated narrative that could have benefitted from a thorough rewrite. Clarke doubles as former soldier and PTSD patient Ryan Reeve, whose reward for his service to queen and country is a debilitating case of blackout amnesia. When Reeve regains consciousness, it’s only for 9 minutes and 47 seconds at a time – days or weeks apart – which doesn’t leave much time to figure out what in God’s name is happening to him. After determining that he’s been programmed to serve as a lethal operative for a mysterious organization, Reeve also must come to grips with the fact that he’s being targeted, as well. Because he doesn’t know what’s transpired during the blackouts, he isn’t always sure who’s on his side and who isn’t, when, and how to recognize them. As director, Clarke doesn’t make it any easier for us to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, either. The Anomaly aspires to be mentioned in the same breath as such brain-burners as The Matrix, Inception, Crank and Memento. Fat chance of that happening. Luke Hemsworth and Brian Cox also make their presences felt at various times in the narrative.

Road Hard: Blu-ray
Call Me Lucky: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about comedians of the standup persuasion, it’s that life on the road is a living hell to be avoided at all possible costs, even if it means taking such stay-at-home gigs as talk- and game-show hosting, podcasting and appearing in really lousy sitcoms. On the other hand, finding regular work in a popular, well-written series is the comedy equivalent of stumbling upon the Holy Grail on a hike through the Santa Monica Mountains. In his nearly 20-year career, loose-cannon comic and social provocateur Adam Corolla has done everything worth doing as a professional comedian, as well as some things that are meant to be funny, like busting crooked builders on Spike TV’s “Catch a Contractor.”  His new film, Road Hard, appears to have been informed by every high and low point he’s experienced in the last two decades.  In it, he plays middle-age entertainer Bruce Madsen, whose ability to attain gainful work as an actor or TV host is fading rapidly. His reputation as a one-time bigshot still attracts customers to the Podunk comedy clubs into which he’s booked by his hideously bewigged agent, Barry “Baby Doll” Weissman (Larry Miller). Baby Doll tries to find satisfying work in Hollywood for Bruce, who’s still nursing the wounds of an ugly and tortuously embarrassing divorce and needs the bread for their daughter’s college tuition. Sadly, he’s too vain to be satisfied warming up talk-show audiences for his famous pal (Jay Mohr) or performing at corporate gatherings, without insulting audience members accidentally or intentionally. Corolla’s fans should be able to get past his character’s abrasive, self-pitying approach to underemployment long enough to enjoy watching Bruce endure the budget-chain hotels, broken contracts, coach seats on a puddle-jumpers and subsisting on junk food. Others, not so much. It’s easier to take when Bruce kvetches over breakfast with friends played by David Alan Grier and Philip Rosenthal, who are experiencing the same career doldrums. What’s that about misery loving company? Just when some viewers would voluntarily donate the money it would cost Bruce to buy the rope necessary to hang himself, the screenplay provides a new lease on life. Some viewers will see the solution coming from a mile away, but welcome it, nonetheless. Corolla’s faithful might find it to be too schmaltzy for their acid tastes or, worse, Disneyesque. The credit for pulling it off belongs to Diana Farr, an actress who’s always been equal parts fire and ice, and does a nice job here as the woman who comes into the comic’s life from out of the blue. Wisely, she makes Bruce makes him work very hard for her acceptance of him. Also adding some sparks to the proceedings are Howie Mandel, Illeana Douglas, Larry Clarke, Windell Middlebrooks, David Koechner, Christopher Douglas Reed, Dana Gould, Sam McMurray, Brad Williams and other familiar funny-faces. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and bits with Bryan Cranston. Because Road Hard was financed through crowd-sourcing, the closing credits are almost ridiculously long … longer, in fact, than most comics are ever allowed on the late-night talk shows.

Plenty of well-known comedians are featured in Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldwaithe’s sometimes funny, more frequently heart-breaking profile of Boston comedian and club owner Barry Crimmins. A product of the 1960s counterculture, he’s continually channeled his anger at government-sanctioned hypocrisy and lack of positive social change into an extremely angry satirical voice, more strident even than Lewis Black. His passion and fire often is directed at child abusers and institutions that inadvertently save them from prosecution. Even with his generally churlish and self-destructive demeanor, Crimmins has influenced an entire generation of Boston-area comedians. It wasn’t until he revealed himself to be a victim of terrible childhood abuse that they understood one of the reasons, at least, that their mentor was so obsessed with the Roman Catholic Church, which has protected countless pedophiles from prosecution. Crimmins found a national platform in Congress at the dawn of the Internet age, when he confronted the leader of AOL on the company’s complicity in providing space in unmonitored chatrooms for pedophiles and purveyors of pornography involving children. The more the AOL executive denied his claims, the more vigorous and pointed Crimmins’ attack became. While not admitting culpability, the company would change its self-policing policies dramatically after the hearing. Among the comics testifying in his defense are Margaret Cho, Lenny Clarke, David Cross, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Rooney Jr., Jimmy Tingle and Steven Wright.

The Only Real Game
Golden Shoes
With the baseball playoffs in full gear, might I suggest something entertaining to kill time during a long rain delay, besides the usual videos of bloopers and miraculous plays? Mirra Bank’s fascinating documentary, The Only Real Game, takes viewers to roughly the same unlikely region as Disney’s 2014 fact-based sports drama, Million Dollar Arm, in which agent J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) stages a contest for Indian cricket players interested in trying out for a Major Leagues baseball team. Here, the remote Indian state of Manipur has a longer, if slightly more obscure relationship with the sport Babe Ruth called “the only real game in the world.” In fact, Manipur may be best known to trivia nuts as the place where polo was introduced to British colonialists. World War II buffs should have no trouble locating the former autonomous kingdom – one of many in the region – and immediately recognizing how it might have played a key role in the Allies push to deprive the Japanese of their foothold in Burma, as well as a staging area for flights over the Himalayas to China. As you might already have guessed, American soldiers and pilots stationed there spent much of their free time playing baseball, frequently with makeshift equipment. When local men, women and children weren’t providing necessary services to the GIs, British and Indian troops, they studied the game with rapt attention. The equipment left behind by the soldiers would require almost constant repair or replacement by reasonable facsimiles thereof. A couple of decades later, the story of baseball in Manipur reached the New York-based non-profit venture, First Pitch, which, in turn, contacted Major League Baseball International and Spalding Baseball. They not only provided new equipment, but also a pair of former players to coach current players and encourage new ones. They also attempted to explain the many nuances of the game and its rules to people whose native tongue would be foreign even to fellow Indians. Among the surprising things we learn about baseball in Manipur is that women play a central role in the organization and training of teams. The film doesn’t ignore a political situation that is as ugly as anywhere else in the world, where separatist groups long to control their own destinies. In Manipur, several such groups are fighting government troops, police and each other for control of the state, which the king annexed to India after the war. Since then, martial law has been a fact of life for citizens, as have unfettered police brutality and unusually high rates of HIV/AIDS and unemployment. Then, there is the occasional sacred cow that decides to take a nap in the outfield.

By now, it takes a lot for a sports-inspired fairytale to break away from the pack and make an impression on critics, let alone audiences with plenty of other things to do with their money. Lance Kawas’ family-friendly Golden Shoes starts in the usual way, with an undersized 8-year-old, Christian Larou (Christian Koza), who’s coming to grips with the fact that he isn’t likely to realize his dream of making the national soccer team. His father is a soldier, who recently went MIA in Afghanistan, and his mother soon will become incapacitated in an automobile accident. While she’s recuperating, Christian is taken in by their Jekyll/Hyde neighbor, Frank (Eric Roberts), who has a financial interest in seeing the soccer team do poorly. Against all odds, the coach (David DeLuise) shows his sympathy by letting Christian play every so often, sometimes at the expense of Frank’s son. Pretending to be nice to Christian, as a way to insinuate himself into the heart of the boy’s lonely mom (Dana Meyer), he takes him to a shoe store, where he asks the clerk to show him the cheapest possible soccer cleats. Of course, the crappy-looking shoes possess just enough magic to turn Christian into the second coming of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. Kawas does a nice job navigating the story around all the usual clichés associated with such underdog tales. He couldn’t avoid all of them, but our enjoyment of Golden Shoes doesn’t depend on huge surprises. If a few tears are jerked, they flow naturally.

Blunt Force Trauma: Blu-ray
Westerns don’t come any more revisionist than Blunt Force Trauma, a contemporary tale of a gunslinger, John (Ryan Kwanten), who may or may not push his luck too far by the time the final credits roll. Cop-turned-filmmaker Ken Sanzel combines elements of Fight Club, Cockfighter and the Wii game, “Fast Draw Showdown” to form a conceit that only makes sense to a lawman who’s had their life saved by a bullet-proof vest. Yeah, it’s that simple and that dumb. Duelists wearing Kevlar vests stand in opposing circles in a ring or a long pit once used for changing oil. At the clank of a metal bolt on the concrete floor, they will open fire on each other, aiming strictly at the Kevlar vests on their chests. The idea, then, is to force an opponent into submission, simply through the powerful impact of the bullets, one of which normally is enough to knock a normal-sized police officer on his butt. Here, it sometimes takes more than the allotted six bullets to keep the loser from returning to the circle and firing back at his foe. Money is wagered on the outcome, of course, and anyone accidentally shot outside the Kevlar shield is either declared winner or dead. John is on a winning streak that he expects will lead him to the reigning champion, Zorringer, who lives on a hilltop somewhere in South America and is played by Mickey Rourke … naturally. The closest thing resembling a plot here is John’s largely professional relationship with a steaming hot shootist, played by normally dainty Frida Pinto, who’s seeking revenge for the death of her brother. Maybe, for a sequel, the participants can trade their six-guns for Tasers or bean-bag guns. Fact is, though, Blunt Force Trauma is an extremely well made movie that looks better than it has any right to be.

White Shadow
Nothing I’ve seen in genre fiction comes close to equaling the unspeakable horrors perpetrated in the name of religion, superstition and tribal custom in real life. As hard as it must be for documentarians to confront such significant issues as female genital mutilation and excision, honor killings, ritual executions by torture, the scourge of HIV/AIDS and Ebola, genocidal wars and the violent persecution of LGBT citizens, it’s just that difficult for audiences to watch them play out on screen as fact or fiction. Noaz Deshe’s excruciating drama, White Shadow, depicts yet another unspeakable practice, this one perpetrated by unconscionable ignorance, greed and bigotry. It is the story of Alias, one of many Africans with albinism who’ve been hunted from birth, like so many elephants and rhinos, because of bounties put on naturally occurring physical characteristics. In Tanzania, where the movie is shot, witch doctors have been known to pay as much as $75,000 for an entire corpse and $6,000 for individual body parts hacked from the bodies of murdered albinos. The “conjure men” use them to make potions they insist will bring wealth and good luck to their customers. A U.S. survey conducted in 2010 found that, while most people in Tanzania are Christian or Muslim, 93 percent said they believed in witchcraft. At least 74 people with albinism have reportedly been murdered in the east African country since 2000. In the same time period, only 10 people have been convicted of murder. Earlier this year, Tanzania banned witch doctors from practicing their juju. For White Shadow, Deshe was able to recruit first-timer Hamisi Bazili, whose albinism ostensibly has put a target on his back, as well. After witnessing the brutal murder of his father, Alias is sent by his mother to the nearest large city. Although largely protected from persecution there, Alias finds it difficult to survive doing odd jobs. After he visits a shelter for young people with albinism, he returns to the bush with a younger boy, with ambitions of becoming a witch doctor, himself. The competition for customers is intense, however. Along with Bazili’s hauntingly realistic performance, White Shadow’s impact is enhanced by Deshe’s near-documentary approach to the material. The DVD adds valuable interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers
In an experiment that harkens back to Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” reports for CBS News, college students Greg Grano and Sarah Sellman hit the road in American Bear to test the hospitality of average American citizens, who they had never met and, by Hollywood standards, anyway, are decidedly unremarkable. The idea was to approach complete strangers and, after a bit of conversation, ask if they knew where they could bum a place to sleep that night. The reception was generally cordial, even if the person being interviewed couldn’t personally accommodate them. It helped, of course, that Greg and Sarah had a concept to sell – the route was based on visiting disparate towns named Bear – and a camera that suggested that 15 minutes of fame was just around the corner. The countryside is beautiful and most of the people we meet have stories of their own to tell. I wasn’t terribly surprised by the results, if only because the towns visited aren’t beaten down by crime news every night on the local news, as viewers are in most large cities. The findings would be even more credible if one or both of the travelers was African-American, Hispanic or a hippie. The DVD adds material trimmed for length.

The Timber: Blu-ray
Anyone who ranks Jerimiah Johnson among their favorite movies should find something to like in The Timber, a Western that captures what it must have been like to spend a winter in the upper elevations of the continent, without such amenities as indoor plumbing, forced-air heating, hot-water heaters and satellite dishes. After being left high and dry by their psychopath father – a miner, who, when he ran out of luck and money, killed his laborers – two brothers resort to bounty hunting to save their property from being foreclosed by the bank. It’s the dead of winter in Alaska (a.k.a., Romania) and the women folk have been left behind to fend for themselves. The lads are plenty game, but the woods are full of men wearing head-to-toe animal skins and wielding Bowie knives longer than a baby’s arm. After being ripped off repeatedly by the banker, they’re offered the bounty that’s been put on their father’s head. Apart from being an exquisitely shot movie, there’s more than enough blood-soaked action in The Timber to keep hard-core Western fans from getting bored. I wouldn’t vouch for its accuracy, but, what co-writer/director Anthony O’Brien’s story lacks in narrative skill, he more than makes up for in atmosphere. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director, interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Beyond the Mask
Burns Family Studios, the company behind Beyond the Mask and Pendragon: Sword of His Father, bills itself as being committed to producing “quality, Christ-centered action-adventure films, because we believe stories can touch hearts, and Christ can change lives.” This, alone, wouldn’t make it unique among producers of faith-based material. What sets it apart, so far, is that the action doesn’t support dystopian or apocalyptic themes, related to end-times prophesy.  “Pendragon,” was set at the end of the Roman period in Britain, circa 411 AD, while Beyond the Mask takes place in Philadelphia, immediately before the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. In a wild historical contrivance, the potential for widespread rebellion prompts the head of the East India Company, Charles Kemp (John Rhys-Davies), to develop an elaborate plan to sabotage the Second Continental Congress, using barrels full of gunpowder and electronic detonators that Benjamin Franklin (Alan Madlane) might already have patented. Hoping to thwart the plan is a former assassin for the company, William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney), who’s only recently turned to God for redemption. Things get complicated for the swashbuckling Reynolds when he falls for Kemp’s alluring blond niece, Charlotte (Kara Killmer), who can’t imagine her uncle to be such a dastardly fellow. Considering that most of director Chad Burns’ budget probably was invested in costumes and casting, Beyond the Mask, offers a solid 103 minutes’ worth of “family” entertainment, and it demonstrates marked improvement from the 2008 “Pendragon,” which was more of a DIY affair. While some in the Christian film-production community might slight Burns’ films for not banging the bible as loudly as possible, it would be difficult for members of the target audience to mistake the message or not be entertained. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

We Are Still Here: Blu-ray
Eli Roth Presents The Stranger: Blu-ray
Nocturna: Blu-ray
Navy SEALs vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Tremors 5: Bloodlines
Anyone feeling nostalgic for such funkadelic cannibal flicks as Eating RaoulParents, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 and such grotesque Italianate fare as Cannibal Holocaust should run, don’t walk, to find a copy of Gravy for their Halloween viewing pleasure. Those with weaker stomachs for such fare probably will want to steer clear of this slice of hipster horror from James Roday and Todd Harthan (“Psyche”). Supposedly influenced by an incident that took place at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, co-writer/director Roday imagines a scenario in which a trio of costumed flesh-eaters (Jimmi Simpson, Michael Weston, Lily Cole) blockade themselves inside a nearly closed taco emporium, ahead of a trick-or-eat banquet whose menu is comprised of the owner, chef and wait staff. The “tricks” involve playing such games as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and a William Tell archery contest. The meal’s ingredients are to be provided by Paul Rodriguez, Gabourey Sidibe, Gabriel Luna, Lothaire Bluteau, Molly Ephraim and Sutton Foster. If the humor ranges from darkly macabre to infantile, at least the actors seems to be having fun chewing the scenery, as well as the prosthetic limbs. Also making an appearance is Sarah Silverman, as a bunny-eared convenience-store clerk who develops a crush on the cannibal in a Robin Hood costume. As they say in the funnies: It is what it is.

Far more conventional an entertainment is We Are Still Here, a haunted-house mystery with several tantalizing trope-twisters. Revealing almost anything that happens after the first 15 minutes of expository material would spoil everything that follows. It’s safe to say, however, that a couple still traumatized by the death of their teenage son in a car crash decides to move to the New England countryside to try to start a new life. It doesn’t take long for Paul and Anne (Andrew Sensenig, Barbara Crampton) to learn that their new home comes with a history that their real-estate agent neglected to mention. In fact, it once served as a funeral home. When they visit a local pub for dinner with friends, they’re greeted with the same warmth accorded Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper when they stopped for breakfast in a redneck café, during Easy Rider. Unlike most other genre flicks these days, the cast of We Are Still Here is comprised primarily of adults, who’ve been around the block a couple of times before the events described in the film transpire. The Blu-ray package adds an informative commentary with writer/director Ted Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens, and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Eli Roth lends his formidable brand to The Stranger, a revisionist vampire flick written and directed by rising horror star Guillermo Amoedo, with whom he partnered on The Green Inferno and Aftershock. Cristobal Tapia Montt plays the mysterious Martin, who, one day, arrives in a small town to kill his wife, Ana (Lorenza Izzo), with whom he shares an unfortunate blood malady that makes them thirsty for blood. Unlike most other such creatures of the night, whatever serum that passes for blood in his body also has the capacity to heal. Before he gets an opportunity to find Ana, though, he’s set upon by a trio of local punks, one of whom is the son of a corrupt cop. Beaten to a pulp after he challenges the thugs to do their worst to him, Martin finds shelter in the home of teenage graffiti artist and his freaked out mom, who informs Martin that Ana has died and is buried in a nearby cemetery. Believing his only release from the horror to come is to commit suicide — easier said than done for the undead – doesn’t appreciate it when the bad cop comes after him, thinking he’ll squeal on his son. Is it relevant that Ana was pregnant the last time Martin found her noshing on a still-warm human corpse? Perhaps. While The Stranger isn’t particularly scary, the gore factor should satisfy some genre enthusiasts. In an interview in the Blu-ray package, Amoedo has some fun explaining his rationale for casting English-speaking Chileans to play Canadians here. South America is ripe for exploitation by American producers seeking fresh talent. The Stranger is far from perfect, but, at least, it’s different.

In Nocturna, first-timer Buz Alexander takes full advantage of southern Louisiana’s abundant supply of empty mansions, rotting fishing shacks and hoodoo-on-the-bayou vibes, some of which have already proven their value to producers of horror flicks anxious to take advantage of Louisiana’s generous post-Katrina tax breaks. Although it more closely resembles a pilot for a television series than a theatrical film, Nocturna is stylishly made and the characters are creatively drawn. While investigating the disappearances of dozens of kids, NOPD detectives Harry Ganet and Roy Cody are led by a survivor to the hideout of the Molderos, a group of merciless vampires who feed on young blood. The detectives’ lives are rescued from the Molderos by a more benevolent trio of ancient vampires, who despise the fiends but require something of a quid pro quo for further considerations. Only in New Orleans, right? Blond bombshells Mariana Paola Vicente and Estella Warren add to the intrigue, when Harry develops a taste for some strange and ancient fruit.

Is there a greater sin than wasting a perfectly good title and concept? Not in Hollywood, there isn’t. In fact, it should be illegal. In Navy SEALS vs. Zombies, an elite team of battle-hardened warriors is summoned to Louisiana – this time, to Baton Rouge — when the Secret Service loses contact with the Vice President, who’s in town for a campaign stop. Besides having more resources available to them than local police and National Guard troops, the SEAL team members are significantly more buff, photogenic and capable of dealing with roving gangs of zombies. You can guess the rest. How cool would it have been if the zombies were comprised of undead Al Qaeda fighters, led by a seriously decomposed Osama Bin Laden, who avoided capture as they shuffled their way across the Rio Grande? Border Patrol agents could have been pre-occupied that day with protecting Republican presidential candidates posing for photo ops on its muddy banks. It took a while for the Islamic commandoes to make their way from Nuevo Laredo to Big Easy, of course, but Bin Laden would be determined to avenge his assassination by SEAL Team 6. And, besides, he had already grown bored sampling the virgins assigned to him in heaven. Given that several of the cast members actually are former SEALs, both sides would be highly motivated foes. Also along for the ride are Ed Quinn (“Eureka”), Michael Dudikoff (“American Ninja”), pro wrestler Chad “Gunner” Lail, Molly Hagan (“iZombie”), Olympian Lolo Jones and former NBA star, Rick Fox. It marks the directorial debut of Stanton Barrett, a former NASCAR driver and still-active stuntman.

After receiving a M.F.A. from Yale’s esteemed School of Drama and appearing in 171 episodes of “Family Ties,” as ex-hippie dad Steven Keaton, Michael Gross probably couldn’t imagine a time in the future when his name would be just as associated with survivalist Burt Gummer in the 25-year “Tremors” movie and TV franchise. (He also played mine owner, Hiram Gummer, in the 2004 prequel, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins.) But, hey, that’s show biz. In the fifth edition, Gummer’s hired to capture a deadly AssBlaster — the third and final stage of the Graboid life-cycle – now known to be terrorizing the deserts of South Africa. Gummer and his new sidekick, Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), don’t always agree on the tactics, but Welker manages to negotiate a sizable bit of funding for Burt’s TV show in exchange for dealing with the infestation. Burt probably didn’t need much convincing, however. Tremors 5: Bloodlines continues the tradition of combining action with humor, which has pulled the series through the doldrums when the giant worms didn’t do the trick. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and “Tremors 5: Behind the Bloodlines.”

Earthfall is a standard-issue SyFy product, with death and destruction following in the wake of a catastrophic intergalactic event no one could have possibly anticipated. It takes a small army of gallant teens and C-list actors to prevent our beloved planet from being dragged into the void by the magnetic pull of a rogue planet, which tears through our solar system carrying killer meteors in its wake. Kids just discovering sci-fi are likely to enjoy Earthfall more than anyone else. It teams freshman filmmakers Steven Daniels and Colin Reese, and a no-star cast that includes Joe Lando, Michelle Stafford, Denyse Tontz, Pressly Coker and Lou Ferrigno Jr.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Out of the Vault Christmas Collection
Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)
PBS: Particle Fever
PBS: Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail
PBS: Earth: The Inside Story
While it isn’t common, anymore, to hear Pee-wee Herman’s name mentioned in the same breath as “great family entertainment,” there’s no question in my mind that the Blu-ray edition of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special” deserves a place on the same shelf as holiday specials hosted by dozens of other pop-cultural icons. (In the early days of television, holiday variety shows hosted by big stars were more prevalent than Westerns.) More so, even, than Pee-wee’s weekly show, the 1988 Christmas show can be enjoyed by anyone able to recognize such time-honored performers as Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Charo, The Del Rubio Triplets, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Magic Johnson, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Little Richard, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore and Oprah Winfrey in themed cameos. If Pee-wee isn’t always the perfect host, it’s only because his creator, Paul Reubens, has allowed him enough leeway to play little pranks on his friends and break the “fourth wall” with snarky in-jokes. As always, the delightfully cluttered and warmly colorful playhouse, itself, is as much a part of the fun as anything else. The running gag involves Pee-wee miscalculating of the number of gifts he’ll need to cover everyone on his Christmas list. It’s so long that, if fulfilled, there won’t be enough presents for all the other kids in the world. When Santa Claus pleads for help, Pee-wee reluctantly learns a lesson about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s the one that doesn’t include the preparation of lists, trips to the mall, threatening kids with chunks of coal or camping outside the nearest big-box store on Thanksgiving and fighting for bargains. Another bit of misdirection occurs when a choir of uniformed Marines is revealed, in the bonus interviews, to be the Men’s Choir of UCLA, which stood in for the servicemen, who were otherwise engaged. Also lending a hand are such regular “friends” as Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), the King of Cartoons (William Marshall), Reba the Mail Woman (S. Epatha Merkerson), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and Mrs. Rene (Suzanne Kent). The terrifically entertaining package adds commentary, several interviews and making-of featurettes.

The archivists at Shout! Factory and Nickelodeon were asked to work overtime for “Out of the Vault Christmas Collection,” which arrives with 16 cartoon episodes, instead of the usual 10 for previous “Out of the Vault” compilations. A big selling point here is the ability of parents of young children to share the Nicktoons shows and characters they loved with their kids, who may have grown accustomed to the more digital look of current fare. The collection contains holiday favorites from such shows as “Hey Arnold!,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” “The Angry Beavers,” “Rocko’s Modern Life,” and “CatDog.”

There’s only one more month left to wait for The Peanuts Movie, the first theatrical presentation featuring the Peanuts gang in 35 years and the first since the death of Charles M. Schulz, in 2000. The last full-length feature to hit theaters was Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!), which has been made available this week. In it, Charlie Brown and Linus are invited to be part of a student-exchange program that will take them to Europe, with Snoopy and Woodstock in tow. At another nearby school, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are participating in the same program. While the girls are welcomed in the home of a little farm boy named Pierre, Linus and Charlie Brown are surprised to find their destination, the Chateau of the Mal Voisin, deserted. Charlie is disturbed because he expected to be welcomed by the mysterious French girl who sent him the invitation to visit her in France. These and other questions will be answered in the next 75 minutes. It’s interesting to learn that the château is based on the one in which Schulz was billeted at for six weeks in World War II. “Bon Voyage” is the only Peanuts feature film to include adults on-screen with speaking parts, rather than the usual “wa-wa-wa” trombone sound. Kids can’t help but notice how the animation here differs from the CGI style in the new movie.

This week’s selection of documentaries from PBS is heavy on science and none of the three DVDs qualifies as kid’s stuff. Among them, “Particle Fever” is especially timely. This week, scientists from Japan and Canada won the Nobel Prize in physics for key discoveries about cosmic particles that whiz through space at nearly the speed of light, passing easily through Earth and even our bodies. They showed that these tiny particles, called neutrinos, have mass. “Particle Fever” follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation.

The title, “Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” was inspired by the Australian Aborigine legend that posits there’s a world beneath this one, where the Dragon sleeps … warm, coiled and ready to spring. It even goes on to advise against waking the Dragon. Without knowing its name or scientific number, the native people had long ago identified properties that make uranium different from other elements and used pictographs to locate it for future generations. That’s the starting point for a scientific journey that leads to Los Alamos, Hiroshima, Ukraine and beyond. Host physicist Dr. Derek Muller, the creator of the YouTube channel, Veritasium, goes to great lengths to demystify uranium for us, even using a soccer ball left behind at a deserted playground in Chernobyl. When he accepts an invitation to tour the underground hospital in which the first-responders died – and their clothes still register high levels of radiation – we’re able to share his anxiety over the highly dangerous assignment.

Do kids still believe it’s possible to dig a hole to China and walk out the other side? I did, although the closest I ever got before giving up was two feet. The PBS documentary, “Earth: The Inside Story,” explains, in ways even a child might grasp, why such an experiment would yield nothing more than a backache. Cameras take us as close to the center as anyone as gone, revealing volcanic vents, which ultimately could reveal the origins of earthly life. Adults, too, will gain a greater appreciation of the forces that continue to shape our planet, imperceptibly and violently. Drawing on the latest scientific research, the doc features the geologic forces that built our planet, from its sun-hot core to its life-sustaining atmosphere. It also lends scientific perspective to a question raised in light of recent earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and extreme weather: Is Earth undergoing a period of increased geological upheaval, in addition to global warming?

The DVD Wrapup: The Connection, Aloft, Duke of Burgundy, Patricio Guzman and more

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

The Connection: Blu-ray
It probably would have been impossible for Cédric Jimenez and his writing partner, Audrey Diwan, to duplicate in The Connection all of the thrills and heart-pounding intrigue William Friedkin built into his groundbreaking police thriller, The French Connection, even though they’re based on the same series of events. Instead, they succeeded in telling the story of a major heroin bust, this time from the perspective of the French police and heroin traffickers. There was no reason to correct the record or re-write history, either. Instead of the characters played so well by Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey, Jimenez and Diwan focused their attention on the deadly game of cat-and-mouse played in Marseille, by the port city’s dogged magistrate, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), and the charismatic Corsican drug kingpin, Gatean “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). If the names don’t ring a bell, American moviegoers should have no trouble remembering Dujardin’s Oscar-winning performance in The Artist, while arthouse buffs might recall Lellouche from Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One and Little White Lies. Neither is there an extended, pedal-to-the-metal chase scene here. Instead, we’re rewarded with plenty of gangland violence, outstanding police work, political corruption and millions of very real dollars at stake.  Present-day Malta makes a reasonable facsimile for Marseille, which, in the early 1970s, was the place where a highly organized network of criminals collected opium from Turkey and turned it into heroin, destined for New York. The smack was hidden in what appeared to be cans of French food products and loaded into a van, which made the trans-Atlantic journey in the cargo hold of a freighter, before being snuck past Customs agents, into the waiting hands of New York mobsters and veins of American junkies. Michel is as determined to put an end to the French connection, on his end, as Doyle and Grosso were on their turf. The biggest difference in the two movies’ takes on the same crime is Jimenez’ decision to make Michel’s family an integral part of the drama, which, of course, it was. His wife, Jacqueline (Céline Sallette), is, at first, deprived of her husband’s attention at home and, then, threatened by some very serious Corsican thugs. Eventually, the long hours and pressure on his family took its toll on Michel. It wasn’t until New York police intercepted one of the trucks and they invited him to participate in the interrogation that Michel was able to exploit the weakest links in the chain of command. It allowed him to intimidate the politicians and police officials who were protected the mobsters and tipping them off to raids. What Michel didn’t know was how much pressure was being exerted on Gatean by his customers in the U.S., who were being wooed by traffickers from Southeast Asia and Latin America with lower prices for heroin. At the same time, pressure was put on Turkish leaders to reduce or eliminate their production of morphine, ostensibly used for medicinal purposes. It raised the ante on Michel and his family, without him even knowing it. For viewers, the suspense is palpable. The stylish Blu-ray presentation adds a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

Aloft: Blu-ray
I would have been attracted to Aloft, simply for the presence of Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy and Mélanie Laurent, a French actress of astounding beauty who made a big impression in Inglourious Basterds. Even without their participation, however, I would have rented Aloft just to see how Peruvian writer/director Claudia Llosa would follow up her stunning debut features, Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow. It didn’t long for me to figure out Aloft wasn’t going to be me my cup of tea, however. Even by all of the usual arthouse standards, it soon become apparent to me that this was a movie, or should I say, film, that was going to demand more of my attention than I was prepared to give it. The last things that left me as far out at sea from Minute One were the bewildering HBO series “John From Cincinnati” and “The Leftovers.” Nearing its second season, “The Leftovers” began Season One three years after 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared, leaving survivors and viewers to wonder what could have precipitated such a cataclysmic event. The revelation, several episodes later, of a Lynchian cult named the Guilty Remnant, whose followers wear white, take vows of silence and chain-smoke cigarettes, added little to my comprehension of its creators’ intentions. The opening scene in Aloft reveals a line of cars and trucks, some of whose passengers, we’ll learn, hope to hear their names announced as winners of a lottery conducted by an enigmatic healer, known as “The Architect.” Connelly plays the mother of two boys, one of whom carries a falcon that crashes into a structure made of sticks when it senses that the boy is in danger, thus disrupting the ritual. Sacrilege. On the way back home, the bird is shot in flight by a random jerk, again for no good reason. Sometime soon, the Architect informs Connelly’s Nana Kunning that she’s the real healer, even she’s unable to prevent her youngest son from drowning in a tragic accident. Despondent, Nana blames the older boy, Ivan, effectively banishing him from her life.

Twenty years later, Nana is a renowned artist and healer, while her estranged son has grown into a falconer of some distinction. Jannia, a journalist, insinuates herself into the lives of Nana and Ivan, for no apparent reason than to facilitate an ending that some viewers will consider to have been worth their investment in time and patience. The amazing thing about Aloft is the stark environment in which it’s set. Like the similarly chilly The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm and Affliction, most of the movie takes place in late fall or the dead of a Manitoba winter, on and around a large frozen lake, where global warming is nothing more than a cruel joke. Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc makes the conditions look every bit as forbidding as they probably were during the location shoot. I imagine that the frigid environs hold some deeper meaning as to the tortuous feeling of abandonment Ivan feels toward Nana and the grief left over from the death of his brother. I don’t recommend tackling Aloft without first becoming acquainted with Llosa through Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow, movies whose strange magic feels as indigenous to the Andes as llamas and coca leaves. An interview with the filmmaker would have been a nice addition to the Blu-ray package, but, I’m afraid, the producers decided to cut their losses by leaving us in the dark.

Famous Nathan
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Cohen Media’s delicious documentary, Deli Man, and Film Movement’s mouth-watering Famous Nathan, or, for that matter, the even more obscure If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent. Those who aren’t, however, might require a translator to savor the films’ full flavor. Deli Man uses the rise and gradual decline of delicatessen dining to comment on the spread of Jewish culture in 20th Century America. Famous Nathan puts a tight focus on a single Jewish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, whose single-minded resolve turned a Coney Island hot-dog stand into a New York landmark and model for fast-food restaurants everywhere. He did it so future generations of Handwerkers – whose thick accents might require a screening of If These Knishes Could Talk to understand – would have a place of their own to go to work. Or, not, as the case might be. Nathan’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, appears to have created Famous Nathan as much to get a handle on the complexities of his cantankerous family as to memorialize the man who made it all possible. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the story of how Nathan made his way from Eastern Europe to Brooklyn is as interesting as how the restaurant that bears his name became as familiar a destination as Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden. The archival material that informs Famous Nathan necessarily describes what Coney Island meant to the millions of New Yorkers who flocked to it on hot days and weekends, when it served the city as a natural air-conditioning system. Less interesting is the discussion about the business’ evolution from a single dining institution to a brand, struggling to keep pace with dozens of other chains not as closely identified with a single product or location. Neither does the revelation of family secrets and other spilt milk add much to our enjoyment of the documentary. It’s the interviews with former employees and longtime denizens of Coney Island – now a far cry from the attraction it was in its heyday – that enliven the proceedings and paint a more essential portrait of a quintessential New York character.

Zipper: Blu-ray
One of the dubious things about movies in which prominent people are brought down by their own sexual malfeasance is that they assume viewers share the same disdain for the characters’ frailties as the filmmakers. The same goes for the media, which want us to be appalled by their reports of misbehavior by politicians and celebrities and revelations about escort services that would be legal in many parts of the world and a few counties in Nevada. Unless the accusations involve rape, sex slavery or children, generally speaking, the titillation dissipates after a few hours and is gone. Hypocrisy is something else entirely. It’s as good a subject for exploitation in the movies as any, but rarely dealt with the precision it requires. In Zipper, Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson) is an ambitious Louisiana prosecutor, who finds himself turned on by an attractive blond intern (Dianna Agron). The pope would have trouble resisting the young woman’s advances, but Sam manages to avoid anything more provocative than a mushy kiss. Not only are workplace dalliances taboo, but, if caught, his political career would die a quick death. Still, he was tempted. A few days later, he appears at a deposition where an even more stunning woman – this time, a high-price escort – makes googly-eyes at him. Despite the fact that he’s married to a woman, Jeannie (Lena Headey), who’s every bit as hot as the escort and dotes on him, personally, professionally and sexually, Sam decides that he can’t live another minute without making an appointment at the same service as is being investigated by the feds. His first date with a pro goes well enough, we’re led to believe, to rate liaisons with as many different women as he can afford. As addictions go, heroin is nothing compared to strange pussy in anonymous rendezvous … at least, for this poor sap. Sam tries to jog away his cold sweats, but can’t shake the need for sweet young things. Things begin to go south for him when he grows paranoid over the possibility that he’s being spied upon – he is, but not for the same reasons he imagines them to be – and he makes the mistake of rushing into oncoming traffic, where he’s hit by a car. While he’s still in a haze from pain-killers, Jeannie, already knowing the answer, asks why he was carrying an envelope containing hundred-dollar bills, while outside a hotel in the middle of the afternoon. Busted, but to what end? Cognizant of the disappearing act that occurs when the wives of prominent philanderers seek a divorce, Jeannie is forced to weigh the options open to her. Should she risk the loss of access and prestige that comes with being a politician’s wife – Sam’s being groomed to fill a vacancy in Congress – or seek a new life, somewhere out of the spotlight? Maybe, too, Jeannie can use jiu-jitsu to spin the situation to her advantage. Meanwhile, Sam is still not sure if he’s being followed, who may have hired the tails and what they’re trying to discover about him. If he guesses wrong, it could be as hazardous to his career as being caught in a twin spin with Heidi Fleiss and the Mayflower Madam. Despite some fine acting and a plausible narrative, Zipper left me with the feeling that Sam was being set up for a fall more by co-writer/director Mora Stephens than, say, the pair of FBI investigators, grubby reporter (Ray Winstone), political fixer (Richard Dreyfuss) and father-in-law who have a stake in his career. In her commentary, Stephens says that her story was informed by her fascination with addictive behavior and how Bill Clinton’s self-destructive tendencies may have impacted Hillary’s personal and political aspirations. That’s fair, as far as it goes. However, it ignores the fact that Jeannie and Hillary are portrayed as being two very different people and none of the former president’s “bimbo eruptions” were triggered by a woman who looked like Dianna Agron. The great unsolved mystery of Bill Clinton remains why he would risk everything (allegedly) for Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Kathleen Willey. JFK, at least, shot for the stars with Marilyn Monroe. Rounding out the cast are Christopher McDonald, John Cho, Alexandra Breckenridge, Elena Satine and Penelope Mitchell. Besides commentary, the disc adds deleted scenes.

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron: Blu-ray
With a global box-office haul of a staggering $1.40 billion Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t need any further endorsement from me. Joss Whedon’s juggernaut enters the DVD/Blu-ray market on Friday – the day typically reserved for theatrical openings – for an assault on the autumnal marketplace. With the recent release of Furious Seven still setting records, video retailers and VOD outlets should be all smiles these days. My only recommendation is for consumers not to expect the overall experience to fit comfortably on their itty-bitty cellphone screens. This time around, things go horribly wrong when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron. It takes the combined talents of Earth’s mightiest superheroes to stop the A.I. monster – played by added starter, James Spader — from enacting his terrible plans. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and meet an old friend, Vision (Paul). Special features include commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes. Bettany Viewers new to the franchise may need a scorecard to keep track of the many new and old players.

Unexpected: Blu-ray
Fans of “How I Met Your Mother” are the target audience for Cobie Smulders’ portrayal of a pregnant high school science teacher in Kris Swanberg’s Mumblecorian melodrama, Unexpected. Since leaving the long-running show, last year, she’s also carried the lead in Andrew Bujalski’s barely released Results, and appeared as Maria Hill in Avengers: Age of Ultron,Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Smulder’s Samantha Abbott teaches at an inner-city school in Chicago that’s scheduled to be closed in the summer. The discovery of her unplanned pregnancy fills Samantha with the usual range of feelings experienced by working women who have yet to fulfill their career dreams, but aren’t necessarily averse to becoming a mom at 30. Once her husband, John (Anders Holm), gets used to the possibility of having to support a family on a single income, he turns into the kind of guy who embraces traditional expectations of how their child should be raised. His disappointment at Samantha’s decision to pursue a museum job that would begin a month after her delivery date both surprises and disappoints her. Neither is her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) very sympathetic to her concerns. Meanwhile, at school, her only prize student, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is pregnant and in dire need of solid advice. She’s decided to carry the child to term, based mostly on a promise from her marginally employed boyfriend to remain with her through thick and thin. Yeah, right. On the plus side, Samantha thinks she has arranged for Jasmine to attend the University of Illinois and live in family housing. Alas, that idea doesn’t work out so well, either. What Jasmine considers to be a broken promise splits the two women at the worst possible time. Unexpected received mostly positive reviews in its limited release, with the exception of a few critics who felt as if Jasmine’s plight was framed to fit the perspective of white screenwriters Megan Mercier and Swanberg, upon whose own life the picture is loosely based. As sympatico as they are with both their characters, it does occasionally feel as if they’ve stacked the deck against Jasmine, in order to goose the narrative.

Miles to Go
The West Side of Los Angeles is lousy with the children and grandchildren of well-known entertainers and industry executives. Most manage not to embarrass their elders, but few can say they didn’t find the leg up to be helpful. Some seem to go out of their way not promote the fact that they’re related to someone – the Gummer sisters, for example – while others count on their publicists to help audiences and critics make the connection for them. Such is the case with Quincy Rose, the author, director and star of the micro-budget rom-com, Miles to Go. In it, the beyond-neurotic protagonist, Miles, has decided that he’s a failure at romance and compensates for it through masturbation and regular massage-parlor visits. He’s a mess, but in the recognizably comic mold of characters created by Albert Brooks and Woody Allen. At 6-foot-2 and covered with tattoos, Miles is a frustrated writer who doesn’t easily fit the classic definition of a nebbish, even if that is how he’s been drawn. He also is surrounded by friends, a therapist and a sister whose advice ranges from supportive to crudely inappropriate. The central dilemma here, however, is his on-again/off-again relationship with Julia (Jen McPherson), who can’t seem to decide if she’s repulsed or attracted by Miles. That she seems to enjoy teasing him with regular booty-calls, before pulling the rug out from under him in the morning, only adds confusion to his neuroses. As perplexing as Julia is, however, in McPherson’s capable hands, she’s the only multidimensional character in the movie. In his portrayal of Miles, Rose demands that we recognize the creative debt he owes his father, Mickey, and “godfather,” Woody Allen,” who grew up together and collaborated on What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run and Bananas. Moreover, as we’re informed on, his mother and Woody’s sister, Letty Aronson, are best friends. At a formative age, Miles played small parts (“Guy on Bench” and “2d AD”) in Allen’s Whatever Works and Melinda and Melinda. If that ain’t nepotism, then Mayor Richard J. Daley didn’t say, “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons and help them, then, what’s the world coming to?” This isn’t to suggest Miles to Go is devoid of humor, only that Rose might want to shelf the nebbish routine for a while.

9 Full Moons
There’s almost nothing less interesting for audiences not comprised of angst-ridden hipsters than movies that are full of them. Although the characters’ woes seem important to them in the moment, to paraphrase Rick Blain, in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a couple little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The tragically hip characters in Tomer Almagor’s brooding rom-dram 9 Full Moons can’t seem to get their acts together, even if they have enough money to live in Los Angeles’ coolest neighborhood and can afford endless supplies of booze, drugs and ironic headwear. Frankie (Amy Seimetz) is a longtime alcoholic and emotional basket case, who hangs out among the indie-music crowd in Silver Lake and frequently accepts rides home with the wrong men. Lev (Bret Roberts) is a self-tortured hunk, who aspires to becoming the kind of uncompromising sound engineer who rejects demands for commercial appeal. They meet very un-cutely at a neighborhood bar and, after a rocky start, decide to see if opposites really do attract. It will take a substantial jolt of reality to get Lev and Frankie thinking of something greater than themselves, however. Just when it seems as if they might be growing up, Almagor pulls the rug out from under them. Even so, Silver Lake is the kind of place where everything is possible, so it pays never to give up on love. There’s nothing wrong with the performances here, especially a guest appearance by Donal Logue as a belligerent outlaw country star. Cameos by Pamela Adlon and Harry Dean Stanton don’t hurt, either.

Eaten Alive: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Death’s Door
A Plague So Pleasant
Queen Crab
Deadly Revisions
Following in the crimson wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s fact-based creature feature Eaten Alive couldn’t avoid the intense scrutiny of horror fans and critics. It box-office performance suffered from unrealistic expectations and spotty distribution. Forty years later, though, Eaten Alive remains as entertaining as any genre picture of the period. In addition to being inspired by the story of Joe Ball — the Alligator Man from Elmendorf, Texas – it has everything one would expect from a Southern Gothic chiller: killer reptiles and rats, a demented innkeeper, moon-illuminated swamps, sharply honed garden tools, a brothel with an African-American hostess, children in danger, lots of nudity and a rogue’s gallery of dubious characters, played by Neville Brand, Carolyn Jones, William Farley, Stuart Whitman, Mel Ferrer and a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Among the drive-in dollies and alligator bait are Janus Blythe, Marilyn Burns, Crystin Sinclaire and Roberta Collins. After Collins’ hideously wigged strumpet is drummed out of her job at the local whorehouse – she refuses to submit to demands for anal sex by Englund’s redneck douchebag – she seeks refuge in a spooky hotel run by a scythe-wielding freak (Brand), whose pet gator (or crocodile, depending on whom one asks) resides in a small pond on the side of the ramshackle building. The proprietor doesn’t cotton to prostitutes, so, after interrupting her bath, makes her his first victim of the evening. Despite its remote location in the boonies, the hotel also is found by the slain prostitute’s father and a woman who’s traveling with her cute and surprisingly fearless 6-year-old daughter. Because the entire film was shot on a soundstage at Hollywood’s Raleigh Studios, most of the action in Eaten Alive takes place in a relatively claustrophobic environment. For my money, the mechanical alligator deployed here is more realistic than the dozens of others that have followed in its wake. If the title, Eaten Alive, doesn’t ring a bell, older viewers might remember it as “Horror Hotel,” “Horror Hotel Massacre,” “Legend of the Bayou,” “Murder on the Bayou” or “Starlight Slaughter.” Ownership changed hands several times and, apparently, every new distributor thought its title held the key to success. They were wrong. Arrow Video’s 2K transfer cuts through the darkness of the Gothic conceits and the musical and dialogue tracks have also been given a fresh polish. The Blu-ray bonus package adds commentary with co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, stars Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon; interviews with Hooper, Janus, Reardon, Englund and Burns; vintage marketing material; a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Steven; and very entertaining chat with a close relative of the South Texas bar owner on whom Eaten Alive is loosely based.

From the ever-adventurous Wild Eye Releasing, A Plague So Pleasant is a zombie movie that owes almost everything to a close study of George Romero’s ground-breaking “Night of the Living Dead.” What separates Benjamin Roberds and Jordan Reyes’ debut feature from the pack, however, are a couple of interesting conceits that advance the sub-genre in unexpected ways. A cease-fire in the apocalyptic war between zombies and humans, which Romeo first chronicled in 1968, has been declared and appears to be holding. The undead shuffle their way through town, seemingly oblivious to the humans among whom they circulate. For their part, the living are legally obligated to tolerate the presence of the zombies in their midst. Anything to avoid another costly war. Because the corpses of dead combatants have become so prevalent, cemeteries have been turned into free-range preserves, surrounded by high fences. Relatives can visit their deteriorating loved ones, but shouldn’t expect their affection to be returned. Of course, not everyone is satisfied with the new status quo. Clay Marshall (David Chandler) has grown tired of taking his sister Mia (Eva Boehnke) to visit her dead boyfriend Gerry, for whom she’s even knit a new wool cap. His roommate Todd (Maxwell Moody) would like to hook up with Mia, but it’s difficult to compete with an undead memory. Clay knows that anything he does to eliminate the corpse from the equation theoretically would break the ceasefire and start a new war. How far is Clay willing to go to straighten out his delusional sister? It’s at this point that filmmakers elect to change the color palette entirely, shifting out of the black-and-white mode to something different. While it’s an interesting decision, they lacked the budget to avoid all of the clichés as they approached the climax. It’s amazing, though, how far they were able to stretch the $3,000 they reportedly had to make A Plague So Pleasant, especially in the special makeup effects, some of which are truly grotesque.

The easiest way to explain Crab Queen to anyone who hasn’t seen its cheesy cover is to suggest that it’s a made-for-Syfy movie that wasn’t made for Syfy. It opens on a serene lake, where a cabin doubles as a laboratory for a mad scientist working on a growth serum. His precocious daughter, Melissa, steals samples from her dad’s experiment to feeds it to her “best friend,” a fresh-water crab, which resembles a Potamon ibericum, several thousand miles away from its natural habitat. Twenty years after an accident destroys the lab, spewing chemicals into the lake, Melissa still resides on the property, protecting its secrets with a gun and riot grrrl attitude. One night, a childhood friend chances upon Melissa (Michelle Miller) in the woods, dancing in the moonlight, either nude or in a gauzy nightgown. (It’s shot from a distance, unfortunately.) Now a Hollywood movie star, Jennifer Kane (Kathryn Metz) not only is the closest thing Melissa has for a friend, but she also enjoys cock-teasing the local rednecks. Jennifer convinces Melissa to come out of her shell long enough to visit a nearby honky-tonk. Sensing her discomfort, Goliath the gigantic crab makes its presence known by doing what monster critters do in movies like Crab Queen. Given the creature’s gender, it should come as no surprise when iridescent eggs begin to litter the landscape, promising even more mayhem to come. There’s nothing in the movie to suggest that writer/director Brett Piper (Bacterium) has ever watched a genre flick enhanced by CGI technology that he’s wanted to copy. Because Crab Queen is old-school all the way, it can be enjoyed for its camp value, if nothing else. Bonus features include a pair of making-featurettes, a blooper reel, commentary with Piper and producer Mark Polonia and trailers for some of Piper’s previous films, all of which fall into the same category as the semi-legendary Birdemic.

There is a certain subgenre of horror that covers movies that describe what happens when writers and filmmakers find themselves stuck in the same nightmare worlds inhabited by their characters. Typically, they are severely blocked or depressed to the point where schizophrenia rules their waking life. In freshman filmmaker Gregory Blair’s Deadly Revisions, genre favorite Bill Oberst Jr. plays novelist and filmmaker Grafton Torn, who awakens from a coma with large chunks of his internal data base missing. In an effort to recoup his memories, he accepts a friend’s invitation to hole up in his remote lakeside cabin. Even under the supervision of a psychotherapist, this strategy never seems to turn out right. This is especially true when dealing with the kind of artists whose best dreams are everyone else’s nightmares. Not surprisingly, either, the writer’s imagination dredges up images of horrors he’s created, but buried deeply within his subconscious mind. Among them are a hooded figure, a possessed doll, a zombie and hangman’s noose. It would be difficult for a sane person, living in a noisy household, to handle, but the setting only amplifies the sound of things that go bump in the night. Oberst’s presence, alone, makes everything better. Bonus features include trailers and a blooper reel.

And, speaking of faces that go bump in the night, there’s the frightening visage of one Tommy “Tiny” Lister. At a muscular 6-foot-5, the former pro wrestler and basketball player would only be a slight underdog in a fistfight with King Kong and, in Death’s Door, he’s been given facial makeup that would scare the grin off of the Joker. He plays the doorman at a haunted mansion, where a dozen young men and women have been invited to boogey until the cows come home. Like the Hotel California, however, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” It seems to have been modeled after Hollywood’s Magic Castle, where there’s a secret behind every door and hallways that lead to unexpected places. Here, you can substitute “unexpected” for “horrifying.” The gag here is that the guests all have connections that date back to an ill-fated performance by a magician named Mesmer (Obba Babatundé). It would be a stretch to say that Kennedy Goldsby’s Death’s Door breaks any new ground in the haunted-house sub-genre, but the jolts are reasonably unpredictable and the actors are enthusiastic enough. Bonus features include a “Shorty Wassup” music video, by Sizzol Pop with Sean Samar; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and the personal accounts by cast and crew members of ghostly encounters on the set of Death’s Door, reputed to be a haunted house.

The Duke of Burgundy: Blu-ray
Anyone who believes that a work of cinematic erotica requires nudity to be truly sexy hasn’t seen Peter Strickland’s sensually riveting, The Duke of Burgandy, which relies on delicate lingerie, experimental music, subtle visual effects, intricate set designs and superb acting to accomplish in 15 minutes what 50 Shades of Grey and 9½ Weeks couldn’t pull off in four hours of combined running times. Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) and Chiara D’Anna (Berberian Sound Studio) hardly seem to be acting, as they take their bourgeois characters, Cynthia and Evelyn, to places most actors wouldn’t go, even if the nudity is limited to a fleeting glimpse of a nipple escaping a silky nightgown. It doesn’t take long to see that writer/director Peter Strickland is playing games with our first impressions. Evelyn is a maid in the ivy-covered estate owned by Cynthia, a widely respected butterfly researcher. Evelyn is completely subservient to her mistress, who demands she repeat simple chores – scrubbing her dainty britches by hand, always missing one frilly panty — and refrain from speaking. We aren’t really all that surprised when Cynthia finally opens herself to her servant’s caresses and careful massaging of legs in shiny black stockings. As time goes on and chores are repeated in the precise order that they’ve been performed previously, we see that Cynthia is following a script written by her submissive lover. The interplay between the two women truly is hypnotic, enhanced, as it is, by a lingerie wardrobe that makes the Victoria’s Secret collection look like a pre-Valentine’s Day sale at Sears. When Evelyn decides that she trade the plush comfort of Cynthia’s bed for an antique wooden box only a few feet away from where her mistress sleeps, it’s impossible not to wonder where pleasure ends and pain begins … and vice versa. Unlike the butterflies in their collection, neither woman seems pinned to or by their fetish of choice. Strickland intentionally has left open the question as to whether Cynthia and Evelyn relate exclusively to women. By focusing on the dynamics and details of their relationship – and excluding male characters, entirely – Strickland allows viewers to focus entirely on what’s happening to them on screen and not what might happen when things get too weird for the apprentice, as was the case in both 50 Shades of Grey and 9½ Weeks. It’s the sensuality that exists in the moment — like the fleeting beauty of a butterfly or moth in flight — that transcends the medium. Strickland accomplished something similar with the amazing audio palette in Berberian Sound Studio. The attention to sensual detail even extends to the conceit of adding a perfume credit (Je Suis Gizella) alongside that for lingerie designer (Andrea Flesch) and ethereal musical contributions by Cat’s Eye. If the film harkens back to 1970s European erotica, with its gauzy cinematography and soft-core sex, well, it’s almost certainly intentional.

The sensuality in Philippe Audi-Dor’s Wasp is provided primarily by the spectacularly beautiful scenery of Gordes, Provence, in southeastern France. To call it idyllic is to understate the obvious. Olivier (Simon Haycock) and his lover, James (Hugo Bolton), are staying in a family estate overlooking the valley for the summer, essentially doing nothing except luxuriating in the sun. Both men seem comfortable with their sexuality and, therefore, viewers don’t sense impending danger when the recently dumped redhead, Caroline (Elly Condron), is invited to join them for a while. Seemingly, without raising a finger, Caroline’s mere presence causes a rift between the two men, however. The first fissure becomes visible when Olivier becomes upset with all the attention paid to their guest by James, who seems only to feel sorry for her. The dynamic reverses itself when James becomes concerned with Olivier’s obsession over Caroline’s presence and subsequent rapprochement. He even goes so far as to demand of Olivier that he define what being gay means to him. Although she looks as if she would burn to a crisp if she stayed in the sun more than two minutes without a hat, Caroline isn’t nearly as harmless as she appears to be. Bored to the point where she prefers being mischievous to reading and swimming all day, she decides to take out her unhappiness with men, in general, by gently flirting with Olivier. At one point, Caroline reveals her unsupported breasts to him by changing her shirt in front of him. It’s a game intended to test the gay man’s response to a sight that technically shouldn’t have any effect on him, and it doesn’t. It’s when James walks in on them, clearly uptight, Caroline knows that she’s set the hook. The tension that grows out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness is palpable and not at all fun to watch. As drama, though, it works pretty well. Audi-Dor’s script sometimes sputters as it struggles to convince us that James and Olivier’s relationship is sufficiently fragile that wee ginger lass could come between them. In only her first feature, Condron looks as if she has a long career ahead of her in British rom-coms and BBC mini-series. The DVD adds several interviews with the actors and director, as well as a commentary track with Audi-Dor.

37: A Final Promise
Adam Webb is a successful goth-rocker, living in a spectacular Malibu aerie overlooking the ocean. Almost by definition, goth-rockers shouldn’t feel comfortable in such splendid surroundings, but Webb is only killing time until his 37th birthday, when he expects to commit suicide. He’s been tortured by the untimely death of his brother for many years and the number, 37, hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles. Before that can happen, though, Webb wants to deliver one last album. Instead, Adam falls in love with an ethereally beautiful woman, Jemma Johnstone (Scottie Thompson), he meets after a show, but is warned against pursuing by her sister, Christina (Tricia Helfer). Although Christina comes across as a groupie, she doesn’t trust the heavily tattooed musician to be anything but trouble for the fragile Jemma. As it turns out, Jemma is slowly dying from an unusually early onset of ALS. In true Hollywood fashion, Jemma’s plight reveals something bright and hopeful in Adam. As Jemma’s candle begins to burn out, 37: A Final Promise demands of Adam that he consider the ramifications not only of his own suicide, but also Jemma’s plea for an assisted death. It is a subject very much in the news these days, of course, and co-writer/director/Randall Batinkoff handles it with appropriate sensitivity. Batinkoff was inspired by the true story of Guy Blews, as described in his autobiographical, “How Angels Die.” Before becoming a lifestyle adviser, Blews was lead singer for the band, Monrow.  He backs up Adam in the band Wendigo on lead guitar. “37” isn’t particularly credible as drama, as it too frequently comes off as disease-of-the-week movie on MTV. Bruce Davison isn’t bad as a psychic, who sees the kinds of things his customers might not want to know. Also prominent are Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”), Kate Nauta (“Transporter 2”), Leon Robinson (“Cool Runnings”) and the rocker, Shavo (System of a Down). The DVD adds the music video, “No Answer,” by Dark Chapter. Cinematographer Wes Cardino does a particularly nice job capturing the natural beauty of Malibu, when the local surfers aren’t beating up outsiders and owners of beachfront property aren’t allowed to prohibit visitors from the sand owned by taxpayers.

Five Films by Patricio Guzman
Meeting ISIS
Souvenirs of Bucovina: A Romanian Survival Guide
A Murder in the Park
Few genres have benefitted as much from advances in filmmaking technology than documentaries. The smaller the camera and less obtrusive the sound equipment, the purer the product … or so the theory goes. Certainly, we’ve seen the benefits of digital cameras in covering such historical events as the resistance movements in Burma (They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain) and China (Disorder), which were shot by citizen documentarians using handheld equipment and smartcards. The introduction of lightweight 16mm cameras, in the 1960s, had a similar effect on independent filmmakers pursuing the cinéma vérité approach to non-fiction cinema. No greater demonstration of the possibilities afforded by 16mm cameras could be found than in the films of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who almost single-handedly delivered both the truth behind his homeland’s peaceful socialist revolution and of the violent, CIA-sponsored counter-revolution against it in 1973. As proof of the impact his films had on the military regime, Guzmán was rounded up with thousands of other suspected radicals and held in a soccer stadium. Upon his release, he left for Europe and didn’t return to Chile until General Augusto Pinochet was rendered powerless, 25 years later. It was during this period that Guzmán created his three-part The Battle of Chile, which, last year, was ranked 19th Sight & Sound’s list of Greatest Documentaries of All Time. It’s included in Icarus Films’ essential collection, “Five Films by Patricio Guzmán,” which also includes, Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case(2001), Salvador Allende (2004) and Nostalgia for the Light (2011), an almost impossibly beautiful and meditative essay on the nexus of astronomy, archaeology and Chilean politics in the Atacama Desert. “Nostalgia” was ranked No. 12 in the Sight & Sound poll. The collection adds a 24-page booklet, with a new essay written by José Miguel Palacios, and exclusive feature-length profile, “Filming Obstinately, Meeting Patricio Guzmán” (2014) by Boris Nicot.

Most of what we know about ISIS (a.k.a., Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) derives from propaganda supplied by the terrorist organization, itself, and whatever information the U.S. government cares to share with us, which isn’t much. The rest comes from Internet-delivered footage of mass murders committed in the name of a God who knows no shame or pity. The new Disinformation documentary, Meeting ISIS, only scratches the surface on the political and tactical blunders that led to emergence of an alternate Islamic universe equipped with like-new American equipment and populated by religious fanatics from around the world. The camera crew that was allowed access to extreme Takfiri ideologues came back with footage loaded with rhetoric, but blessedly short on actual atrocities. (A warning appears before the more grisly stuff is shown.) Their aim is said to be the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, absent any Shias, Christians, Sunnis, Yazidies, and any other group that dares question their distorted version of Islamic Sharia. The villagers we meet tend to go along with the program, if only to avoid being shot or deprived of staples. We also meet militants who’ve left ISIS and become affiliated with other organizations fighting the Syrian government. And, of course, women associated with ISIS are nowhere to be seen, as are those who were kidnapped, raped and forced to serve as sex slaves.

Souvenirs of Bucovina: A Romanian Survival Guide, directed by rock-doc specialist Robert Mugge, is a two-hour historical documentary masquerading as a travelogue. Bucovina is located on the northern slopes of the central Eastern Carpathians and adjoining plains, which means it’s been coveted for the last 2,000 years by the Romans, Goths, Huns, Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Nazis, Soviets and Soviet puppets. Since World War II, it has been split between Northern Romania and Southern Ukraine. In typical fashion, Mugge opens the film with performances by a traditional band and folk dancers. It sets up a discussion of the rich ethnic history of the region, which was re-populated by people from surrounding areas seeking a haven from religious prosecution and prohibitive taxing bodies. The film is divided into six parts: the first examines such enduring treasures of the Bucovina region as its pottery, its native dances, and the Eastern Orthodox monasteries built in the 16th Century by Moldavian princes and decorated with colorful exterior frescoes; the second introduces multiple generations of a unique Bucovinan family; the third explores some of the last remaining synagogues and cemeteries of the once-dominant Jewish population, which was largely killed off or deported during and after World War II; the fourth explores the Roma (gypsy) population, which was enslaved for 500 years and, like the Jewish population, transported to death camps by Nazis and their sympathizers; the fifth compares life under Communism from the 1940s through the 1980s, with life under Capitalism and democracy today; and the sixth explores the outbreak of color in Romanian society since the democratic revolution of 1989. Interviewees include the Mayor of Radauti, a local historian, an Eastern Orthodox archbishop, a Ukrainian rabbi, a cemetery caretaker, the president of a local Jewish Federation and a wide variety of musicians.

A Murder in the Park is an investigative documentary that completely demolishes one of the most controversial murder acquittals in Chicago legal history. The acquittal came several years after Anthony Porter was sentenced to death for the murders of teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green, on a hot night in Chicago’s Washington Park. In 1998, a group of university students re-investigated the case, and seemingly found the real killer, Alstory Simon. Simon confessed to the crimes, and Porter was released and pardoned after his harrowing ordeal shook the public’s confidence in the justice system and led to then-Governor George Ryan to vacate the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates. Soon after his confession, Simon accepted a plea bargain and began serving a 37 year sentence for the killings. He later claimed that he was coerced into the confession by overzealous journalists, students and lawyers who sought to use him simply as a tool in order to achieve their true goal of abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. From where I sit, though, Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber weren’t determined to bring the death penalty back to Illinois, but to prove that police investigators had arrested the right guy and the wrong guy was a victim of overzealous prosecution by the state and an ego-driven journalism professor, who fell in love with his own headlines. In fact, there’s no end in sight to the case’s fallout, which now includes against Northwest University. It’s also an indictment of a legal system that treats minority suspects and witnesses as if they’re either lying or blind.

Dog Years
If you can imagine an estranged sibling version of Lost in Translation, it might look something like Dog Years. Brent Ellis plays an emotionally withdrawn Japanese-American accountant, who isn’t at all pleased about being sent to Tokyo by his employer. He likes it even less when he’s immediately contacted by his half-brother, Ben (Warren Sroka), who teaches English to Japanese kids that already know the language. He’s so good-natured that he doesn’t seem to mind the fact that their father split for Thailand with his secretary almost immediately after he landed at Narita. Brent clearly is still smarting from the loss of his mother at an early stage in his development and no sooner does he check into his hotel than he begins seeing her ghost riding a bicycle through the busy streets. Ben really wants to show Brent a good time, but he’s determined to be miserable. A bad case of insomnia doesn’t help lighten his mood and neither does bad romantic news from home. In typical boys-will-be-boys fashion, Ben finally wears down his brother enough to convince him to join him on a road trip to the countryside. It’s no sure thing that their truce will continue after they get back to Tokyo, but, by this time, we’re willing to hang in there a while more. Sroka and Willis’ script offers a bit of levity, in the form of a classroom flirtation for Ben, but it also comes at some emotional cost to Ben. Dog Years may not be in the same league as Sofia Coppola’s film – how could it, without Bill Murray? – but it takes us to places we wouldn’t have gone, otherwise, and got better as it went along. How many first features can say that?

The Crazy Kids of the War
Leave it to Cheezy Flicks to unearth a 1967 World War II comedy that makes “Hogan’s Heroes” look like Stalag 17 and the creative team is identified only by half of their real names: director Steno and co-writers Castellano and Pipolo. The Crazy Kids of the War is a wildly madcap affair, in which funny Nazis demonstrate once again just how entertaining it can be to be occupied by SS officers with death’s-head buttons on their hats. Italy is still occupied by Germans, most of whom fit the mold cast for the Three Stooges and Katzenjammer Kids, when a buffoonish American pilot crash lands in a lovely little town, populated by people who are more loyal to Uncle Sam than Il Duce. The rest of the movie is spent keeping the Nazi from discovering the pilot, who’s assumed the identity of a priest. Along with a fat cleric, a deaf rocketeer and pixie-ish waitress, the Yank tooks around the countryside in a stolen motorcycle and sidecar. They also are required to impersonate Nazi officers after finding themselves trapped in a commandeered mansion. It is at this point in the story when tiny pop star Rita Pavone is required to add a Hitler mustache to her SS uniform and dance with a much larger German woman who thinks she’s cute. It’s likely that Italian audiences were attracted more by Pavone than the comedy, as she performs several lively song-and-dance numbers. As crazy as all of this sounds, it harkens back to a time when anything was fair game for slapstick, even Nazis. Still, I can’t imagine Mel Brooks being inspired by these crazy kids.

SWAT: Unit 887
Ever since the existence of Special Weapons and Tactics teams was made known to the public, in the 1960s, Hollywood has struggled to stay ahead of the curve in depicting their heroics … rarely, their debacles. The one-sided SLA “shootout,” in 1974, was broadcast live to millions of viewers who probably didn’t know that the teams were created years earlier to more efficiently snuff out militant groups, like the Black Panthers. Because no one bothered to copyright SWAT as a brand name, movie and television producers have been free to throw it on their products, willy-nilly, whether or not it fit properly. In the straight-to-DVD SWAT: Unit 887 (a.k.a., “24 Hours”) the only resemblance between a real SWAT unit and the characters in the blue windbreakers are the fake weapons carried by the fake cops. That’s not even the biggest whopper contained therein, however. That one can be credited to whoever was responsible for casting 29-year-old Mischa Barton, formerly of “The O.C.,” as FBI Agent Melanie Hamlin. It’s not that she doesn’t look great in a windbreaker, because she does. It’s just that she’s at least 10 years and 20 pounds shy of being credible as someone allowed to bark orders to the head of Los Angeles’ SWAT teams. Tom Sizemore, as usual, called in his role as the head of paramilitary team assigned to kidnap a sultry VIP bio-chemist (Emilie Jo Tisdale) during a political fundraiser for a senator (Said Faraj) with a thick Lebanese accent. The howlers don’t end there, either. This mess was directed by Timothy Woodward Jr. (Throwdown), who plays one of the cops assigned to the party. He reports directly to Michael Pare.

The Bear: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1981, Jean-Jacques Annaud made a big splash with a wildly inventive movie that approximated our distant ancestors’ search for that most valuable of commodities: fire. It was set 80,000 years ago, in Paleolithic Europe, even before the formation of a recognizable language. Not everyone embraced Quest for Fire, which some saw merely as a 100-minute extension of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and others took for comedy. A lot more viewers, however, appreciated Annaud’s chutzpah, which extended to hiring authors Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”) and Desmond Morris (“The Naked Ape”) to add their expertise to the proceedings. Not for nothing, but Quest for Fire also introduced Ron Perlman – whose skull may someday be mistaken for the missing link in human evolution – to international movie audiences. Seven years later, immediately after The Name of the Rose, Annaud took another audacious stab at presenting nature on its own terms. From Shout! Factory comes “The Bear: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” which, in Blu-ray, looks nothing short of spectacular. Once again, minimal dialogue was required to tell the coming-of-age story of an orphan bear cub that endears itself to a much larger bruin, by giving him some TLC after being wounded by a hunter. The giant grizzly gets its revenge by going medieval on the hunter’s camp, horses and pack mules. His partner will return after a trip downstream, with a pack of dogs and provisions for the long haul. In between, we’re treated to some wonderful play acting by the bears in the pristine meadows and river beds. If the scenery doesn’t quite resemble what most moviegoers, by now, recognize as British Columbia, it’s because Annaud decided to shoot The Bear high in Italy’s uniquely shaped, but equally rugged Dolomites. It would be another 10 years or so before the use of animatronic animals, enhanced by CGI technology, would become a reliable shortcut for directors of animal pictures. Reportedly, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was hired to make five animatronic bears to act as stand-ins for the real ones and avoid anything that might be considered cruel. In the bright light of day, however, none of them looked quite as realistic as the cubs already enlisted for their individual talents, as explained in one of the Blu-ray featurettes. The Bear is based on a novel written in 1916 by American naturalist James Oliver Curwood, but some sequences are right out of the Walt Disney playbook. And, yes, any child who survived their first viewing of Bambi or Old Yeller isn’t likely to be freaked out by what happens in The Bear, which can be enjoyed by grown-ups, as well.

Soul Boys of the Western World
Unless one is familiar with the British rock band Spandau Ballet, George Hencken’s Soul Boys of the Western World is going to look a lot like a million other rock-u-mentaries currently in circulation. I can’t remember the band making much of a stir on this side of Atlantic, but, in the UK, it scored 10 Top 10 hits, including a No. 1 single “True”; a No. 2 single, “Gold”; and two No. 3 singles, “Chant No. 1″ and “Only When You Leave.” Additionally, the group has had 8 UK Top 10 albums, including three “greatest hits” compilations and an album of re-recorded material. What’s interesting about Spandau Ballet, though, is its place in British pop-music history as a leading proponent of the New Romantic movement, along with Duran Duran, Visage and Culture Club, bands known for their smooth, soulful style and anti-punk fashion sense. For the kids who frequented Covent Gardens’ Blitz club, New Romanticism freed them to dress as if every night was Halloween at fashion school. Likewise, the members of Spandau Ballet never went on stage unless their clothes and hairdos were as close to perfect as possible and the requisite accessories were in order. Later, as the drugs and booze began to corrode longtime friendships, squabbles over royalties led to lawsuits and a nasty breakup. Gary and Martin Kemp won critical accolades, for George Hencken their portrayal of the infamous twin gangsters, Ronald and Reginald Kray, in Peter Medak’s The Krays. George Hencken’s film winds up as the lads have re-formed for the inevitable reunion tour.

Outlander: Season One, Volume Two: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: Great Performances: Driving Miss Daisy
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger-tastic 3 Pack
I’m not sure what constitutes a surprise hit on premium-cable television these days, but I’m pretty sure that the Starz series, “Outlander,” easily qualifies as one. The time-travel romance follows the recent programming trend of dividing individual seasons in half, with a longer-than-usual hiatus period that reflects the demand for higher production values and tight storylines. Instead of waiting to compile full-season boxed sets, studios have begun to send out half-season DVD packages. Despite pricing considerations, it’s likely that fans of the show and people without cable prefer not to wait to re-savor individual episodes or sample the featurettes. The ability to endlessly replay the torrid sex scenes, featuring Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe), is worth the price of admission alone. The new compilation opens with even greater threats to the newlyweds by the sadistic Black Jack Randall. Soon, too, Claire’s knowledge of medicine will make her a target for those who equate healing outside the church as witchcraft. The real capper comes in the last two episodes after Jamie is re-captured and put into a cell that makes him easy prey for Black Jack. It’s as profoundly troubling a sequence as I’ve seen on television in a long time. The sparkling Blu-ray package adds 3D cover artwork; a 32-page book with photographs, excerpts from the scripts and an introduction from exec-producer Ronald D. Moore; podcasts; a gag reel; several lengthy making-of featurettes; deleted scenes with introduction by Ronald D. Moore; an extended version of “The Reckoning,” with Introduction by Moore; a cast and crew table read; and tour of the set with author Diana Gabaldon.

At a time when race relations in this country appear to have sunk to new lows, PBS is releasing its version of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” which has provided audiences with rays of hope for 30 years on stage, at the movies and on television. The pairing of Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones makes this edition must-viewing even for fans of the 1987 off-Broadway staging and Hollywood adaptation with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines reprises his Broadway role as Daisy’s son Boolie Werthan. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work was recorded in Melbourne, Australia, at the Comedy Theater. For those unfamiliar with the story, when Daisy Werthan, a widowed, 72-year-old Jewish woman living in mid-century Atlanta, is deemed too old to drive, her son hires Hoke Colburn, an African-American man, to serve as her chauffeur. What begins as a troubled and hostile pairing, soon blossoms into a profound, life-altering friendship that transcends all the societal boundaries placed between them.

The new “Tiger-tastic” collection of episodes from “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” includes 26 stories produced by the Fred Rogers Company. In them, Daniel learns to navigate social situations, while discovering skills that parents and their children can practice together. In “Life’s Little Lessons,” Daniel even uncovers interesting ways to deal with visiting his doctor, managing the “potty” issue and mastering the responsibility of time-management. In “Daniel’s Big Feelings,” he discovers that talking about his feelings makes it easier to deal with being sad, jealous and frustrated. And, in “Daniel Tries Something New,” Daniel and his parents discuss what to expect when doing something for the very first time.

The DVD Wrapup: Beresford, Saint Laurent, Techine, Red Road, Dennis Hopper and more

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Breaker Morant: Blu-ray
Mister Johnson: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Turkey Shoot:  Blu-ray
In 1980, when Bruce Beresford’s court-martial drama Breaker Morant was released around the world, Americans could be forgiven if they’d never heard of the Boer War. If a historical event hadn’t occurred in the northern hemisphere, after all, our textbooks hardly bothered to mention it. A similar case of benign xenophobia would apply a year later, when Peter Weir’s Gallipoli was greeted here as if the World War I battle had taken place in a corner of the world that time forgot. Both of these fine dramas described tragedies related to Australia’s willingness to sacrifice its most gallant fighting men for the greater glory of the British Empire. Aussies and Kiwis rallied to the commonwealth’s call after Hitler’s forces steamrolled their way through Poland, but troops in the Mediterranean would return home after 242 Japanese planes attacked Darwin, two months after Pearl Harbor. Those Americans drawn to Breaker Morant by its performance at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival probably were surprised to learn how closely the 1902 court-martial of Bushveldt Carboniers Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton mirrored the 1970 trial of Lt. William Laws Calley Jr., the U.S. Army officer deemed most responsible for the My Lai Massacre. While the defendants in both trials were guilty of serious crimes, the officers who demanded such terrible behavior of their subordinates escaped with the reputations largely intact. In 1901, several Boer prisoners-of-war were murdered in retaliation for the death of Captain Simon Hunt. Shortly thereafter, a German Lutheran missionary, Rev. Daniel Heese, was shot and killed by a long-range sniper, ostensibly because he was on way his way to Pietersburg to report the slaughter to British high command. Fearing German intervention in the war, British officials demanded a quick legal response to the incidents and a resolution that would satisfy the Kaiser. As was the case in the Calley trial, it was argued by the defense attorney – accorded a single day to prepare for his first court-martial — the soldiers had been given direct orders to reduce the number of prisoners taken to Pietersburg by summarily executing them, which was exactly what happened to POWs after an ambush of the Carboniers at a farmhouse reported to be a safe harbor for the Boers. After the bloody skirmish, the wounded Captain Hunt was brutalized and killed. One of the Boers arrested by British troops was wearing Hunt’s jacket, the sight of which enraged Morant when he came upon the column. The British officers conducting the court martial made sure that attorney Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) was completely hamstrung in his defense of the three Aussies and the execution of two of them took place less than 24 hours after they were found guilty.

Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald are terrifically effective in their portrayal of the defendants, never overplaying the hands dealt their characters or wringing unwarranted sympathy for them out of viewers. Thompson, one of the most popular of all Australian actors, was awarded the Best Supporting Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Thomas, whose frustration is palpable from the time his motion requesting more time to prepare his case is quashed. Beresford’s greatest achievement, however, was opening up Kenneth G. Ross’ play, “Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts,” as a way of putting the defendants’ actions into the larger context of a long, brutal and imperialistic war. The immensity of the remote and rugged Northern Transvaal is depicted in a way that helps viewers understand what happened in that then-remote corner of the planet, much in the same way as camera teams recorded the difficulties of fighting a war against a highly motivated and firmly entrenched enemy in Southeast Asia. In an interview included in the Criterion Collection edition, Beresford says that his intention wasn’t to make us feel undue sympathy for the defendants, but to ask “why men in war would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives.” This, of course, is the same question that troubles Americans whenever their men and women misbehave in combat. The supplemental features include commentary with Beresford; new interviews with Beresford, Brown and cinematographer Donald McAlpine; an archived interview with Thompson; a backgrounder on the Boer War, with historian Stephen Miller; Frank Shields’ 55-minute documentary, “The Breaker,” and the subsequent corrective, “The Myth Exploded”; and an illustrated leaflet, with an essay by Neil Sinyard.

Beresford would return to colonial Africa a decade later for Mister Johnson, a bittersweet drama based on Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel. Cary had joined the British colonial civil service in 1913 as someone dedicated to the idea that its colonies would be better served if their native populations adopted certain European ways of life. Cary’s opinions on the benefits of colonialism would change significantly during the more than two decades he spent in Africa. Set in British Colonial Nigeria, circa 1923, Mister Johnson tells the story of an educated black man with one foot in the European world and other in his homeland, where tribal leaders and Islamic clerics are vying with the Brits for control of the poor and illiterate natives. As portrayed with immense relish by first-timer Maynard Eziashi, the humorously Anglophilic Mr. Johnson plays a clerk who has ingratiated himself with the British district officer, Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), and merchants in a tiny village in the interior. The villagers take him seriously, but only as long as he provides them with incomes – however meager — and protection from the cruelty of the elders. What Johnson can’t do, however, is protect himself from being exploited by white men who consider him to be only a step or two removed from the bush, no matter the fancy store-bought clothes and pith helmet. As trained by missionaries, Johnson is clever enough to help the white men achieve their goals, among them the construction of a road connecting the village to the country’s primary highway. What he isn’t able to recognize, until it’s too late, are the ramifications of being over-confident in his ability to manipulate numbers and pushing a personal agenda. Bereford’s primary objective in Mister Johnson is to demonstrate what happens to a simple community when forced to adapt to outside rule, whether it’s from imams, missionaries or colonists. The director encountered problems of his own, filming in a post-colonial Nigeria that clearly wasn’t ready to embrace what many considered to be cultural exploitation. If it weren’t for the casting of an influential shaman, the production almost certainly would have become mired in such modern traditions as bribery, extortion, hostility and bad juju. As it is, though, the portrayal of traditional village at a pivotal juncture in the nation’s history seems hugely credible and respectful of cultural values. Mister Johnson apparently fell victim to skittish distributors, who feared that African-American audiences would consider the protagonist to be cartoonish. Eziashi’s portrayal is far more nuanced than one might expect, however. There are times when you can almost see the gears inside Johnson’s brain spinning feverishly to stay one foot ahead of his superiors and detractors. Brosnan keeps a tight rein on his portrayal of a civil servant, who benefits from his clerk’s machinations, but doesn’t want to be considered soft on the “nigs” when they take advantage of his humanity. The Blu-ray adds new interviews with Beresford, Brosnan, Eziashi and producer Michael Fitzgerald, and an illustrated leaflet, featuring critic Neil Sinyard’s essay “Off the Beaten Track.”

It’s with no small degree of trepidation that I make the leap from the sublime to the ridiculous, by grouping Turkey Shoot (a.k.a., “Escape 2000″ and “Blood Camp Thatcher”) together with the work of such a brilliant Australian artist as Beresford. Indeed, the newly upgraded edition of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s widely disowned grindhouse extravaganza is so deliciously vile that it makes such Ozploitation classics as Mad Max, The Cars That Ate Paris, Howling III: The Marsupials, Razorback, Mad Dog Morgan and Dead-End Drive-In seem tame.  Made smack dab in the middle of the sub-genre’s golden age, Turkey Shoot is set in a post-apocalyptic “re-education” camp for hippies, radicals and “deviants” of all stripes. As was the case in all of the then-current women-in-prison flicks, the guards and warden are sadistic monsters, quick with the whip and never reluctant to slap the sass out of recalcitrant prisoners. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in the movie’s 80-minute length, which culminates in a terribly lopsided human turkey shoot. Turkey Shoot is every bit as gnarly as it sounds. What distinguishes it from such kindred flicks as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, Women in Cages and Black Mama, White Mama is a production history that almost defies description and the presence of Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man) and Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet). Unlike some of the actors, who probably were pleased to work with exploitation specialist Trenchard-Smith (Day of the Assassin), the non-Aussie stars always look as if they signed on to the project while strung out on heroin. In a story oft-repeated in the bonus interviews, the production lost about $700,000 of its $3.2-million budget two weeks before its start date, causing Trenchard-Smith to eliminate the first 15 pages of the approved script, a four-page helicopter chase scene and two weeks of its original 44-day schedule. Overnight, what began in the director’s mind as a gritty homage to “1984” became something else entirely. Depending on who’s telling the story, the $700,000 either was pulled back by a skittish investors or wagered on horses that might have keeled over before reaching the finish line. Recollections of Railsback and Hussey’s idiosyncratic behavior and demands, alone, are worth the price of a rental. The Severin restoration is far better than the movie deserves, but, that said, the bonus package is exemplary. It includes extended interviews with Trenchard-Smith, Railsback, Antony I. Ginnane, Lynda Stoner, Roger Ward, Gus Mercurio and Bob McCarron, taken from the Ozploitation documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood”; “The Ozploitation Renaissance,” a roundtable discussion with Trenchard-Smith, producer Antony I. Ginnane, and Ozploitation cinematographer Vincent Monton; the featurette,  “Turkey Shoot: Blood & Thunder Memories”; commentary with Trenchard-Smith; an original trailer; and alternate title sequences from the “Escape 2000” and “Blood Camp Thatcher” editions.

Saint Laurent: Blu-ray
The way these things go, there soon could be as many documentaries and theatrical films about fashion designers as there are based on conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 and the Kennedy assassinations. In the last five years, alone, there have been three movies about Yves Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, at 71, in Paris. By then, his name had become his brand and his brand was as famous as any in the world of commerce. Less known, of course, was his personal story, which would have been difficult to invent, even out of whole cloth. Perhaps, as a concession to the times, Bertrand Bonello’s lush and colorful Saint Laurent – like Pierre Thoretton’s L’Amour Fou and Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent – goes beyond the runway and red carpets to document his personal and business relationships with his friends, business partners, employees and lovers. Foremost among them is Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent Couture House and, despite a rupture in their romantic relationship, longtime business associate. A few days before Saint Laurent died, of brain cancer, he and Bergé were joined in a civil union.  Bonello has consistently demonstrated a high comfort level for sexually explicit subject matter — The Pornographer, House of Tolerance, Tiresi – and, without being particularly lurid or graphic, the same is true in Saint Laurent. At the height of his career, there was no more decadent environment in which to work and play than fashion design. And, of course, wherever celebrities partied, drug dealers and trend-obsessed freeloaders hovered like flies at a picnic. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in one movie or another, but Saint Laurent’s inability to cope with the clamor for his attention is compellingly presented here. At 150 minutes, though, anyone whose attention to fashion is limited to QVC and HSN, might want to take a pass on Saint Laurent. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background material.

In the Name of My Daughter: Blu-ray
At an age, 71, when her American peers have begun to pray for sitcom assignments, Catherine Deneuve continues to star in quality pictures made by influential directors. And, not just occasionally, either. Still one of the world’s great beauties, Deneuve has played prominent roles in a half-dozen movies in the past two years. The latest to reach our shores via Cohen Media Group is Andre Techine’s legal thriller, In the Name of My Daughter. The company imports more fresh and vintage products from Europe – at least four starring Deneuve, in the same period — than any company not involved with cheese or wine. In this fact-based story, she delivers a totally believable portrayal of Renée Le Roux, the très élégant owner of the Palais de La Mediterranée casino, in Nice. It is 1976 and her newly separated daughter, Agnès (Adèle Haenel), has returned from Africa to live at home. At the same time, Renee has begun to receive threats from the Corsican mafia, whose interest in casinos apparently has to do with laundering money. Meanwhile, Agnès has fallen in love with Maurice (Guillaume Canet), a lawyer who also serves as Renee’s business advisor. Maurice hopes to use the turmoil in Renee’s business to be promoted to the prestigious position of casino manager. Adding to her mother’s anxiety, Agnes demands access to her inheritance, which includes shares in the casino. After being passed over for the promotion, the très ambitious lawyer abandons Renee and conspires with Fratoni, the owner of a rival casino, to use Agnes’ financial interest in the Palais to topple her mother. Once the coup is complete, Agnes becomes estranged from her mother, who is humiliated in the press for the betrayal. When the already married philanderer, Maurice, loses interest in her clinging personality, it causes the insecure young woman to attempt suicide. None of this information should spoil anyone’s interest in In the Name of My Daughter, though, because it all leads to a mystery that, in real life, took 30 more years to unravel. It’s pretty solid stuff from Techine, one of France’s most versatile filmmakers (Unforgivable, The Girl on the Train). Among the movie’s considerable treats is Julien Hirsch’s splendid cinematography, which neatly captures the beauty of the Cote d’Azur and privileged lifestyles of its corrupted citizenry. The Blu-ray adds an interview with Guillaume Canet, whose slick interpretation of Harlan Coben’s best-selling mystery, “Tell No One,” became a sleeper hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The American Dreamer: Dennis Hopper Documentary: Blu-ray
After appearing alongside kindred spirit James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, Dennis Hopper might have been expected to enjoy a long career in feature films, if not as leading man, then in highly visible supporting roles. Instead, for the next dozen years, he kicked around Hollywood doing guest spots in TV shows, ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “Petticoat Junction,” and only the occasional feature film. Hopper had been branded an “enfant terrible” — French for “more trouble than he’s worth” – and it never completely disappears. A temporary reprieve was granted in 1969, after Easy Rider tapped into a vein in the counter-cultural audience that studio executives had previously found impossible to raise. Finally allowed to write his own ticket, Hopper decided it might be fun to cash a million-dollar check from Universal to make a cocaine-fueled Western in Peru, which, at the time, was between contested by communist rebels and a military-led government. The Last Movie describes what happens after a tragic accident causes an interruption in a film shoot in a remote village and the natives decide to continue on with the Western, despite the absence of an American cast and crew, comprised largely of Hopper’s pals. They used sticks and other artificial material to create reasonable facsimiles of cameras and sound equipment. out of. Hopper’s stunt coordinator character, Kansas, had by then moved in with a local prostitute, but was summoned back to the faux set to explain the difference between the firearms used by actors and the real ones being shot by the villagers. Although Hopper’s edit of The Last Movie won the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival and the premise was sound, Universal executives demanded a rewrite to eliminate the arthouse conceits they believed would confound American genre fans. When he refused, Hopper and his pet project were effectively blackballed by studio brass for another 10 years, at least. Apart from a handful of interesting assignments in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan and a couple other foreign projects, the 1970s were a wash. While Hopper’s show-stopping portrayal of a stoned photographer in Apocalypse Now was unjustifiably ignored by Oscar voters, it effectively jump-started his career, allowing him to bounce between indie and mainstream pictures for most of the next 30 years. His atmospheric directorial adaptation of Charles Williams’ pulp-noir The Hot Spot received some excellent reviews and remains a popular distraction on premium cable networks.

Newly founded Etiquette Pictures, in collaboration with Vinegar Syndrome and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is making its presence known with a fully restored Blu-ray edition of The American Dream, Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s absorbing profile of an artist in extremis. Rarely seen since 1971, the quasi-documentary chronicles Hopper’s attempts to reshape The Last Movie, while living at his creative retreat in Taos, New Mexico. His marriage to the Mamas and the Papas’ thrush Michelle Phillips had just ended after eight halcyon days and he was free to indulge his passion for filmmaking, booze, pot, cocaine, groupies, assault rifles and powerful handguns – not necessarily in that order – in the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. The Taoes landmark once provided a haven for such writers and artists as D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Robinson and Una Jeffers, Florence McClung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Hunter Austin, Frank Waters and Jaime de Angulo. Based on the vérité evidence presented in The American Dreamer, the roomy estate might as well have been located in the Haight-Ashbury, across the street from Golden Gate Park, or re-dedicated Dennis’ Psychedelic Playhouse. Hopper is given plenty of time here to expand on his artistic principles, which don’t include reading books of any kind or adhering to adhere to commercially proven cinematic conventions. If one takes into account that he was stewed to the gills most of the time, the discourses can be enjoyed as a novelty, if nothing else. Within the context of the times, one can also forgive the groupies and hangers-on for being attracted to the historic setting, spectacular landscape, hot- and cold-running inebriants and proximity to stardom. How Hopper survived long enough to enjoy a second career resurgence, 10 years later, is a mystery that remains unanswered in the film. This home-video edition is enhanced by a new, director-approved 2K restoration, reconstructed from four 16mm prints housed in the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, as well as “Fighting Against the Wind,” a 30-minute making-of featurette; “A Long Way Home,” a seven-minute preservation featurette; an extensive photograph gallery; a booklet and essay by Chris Poggiali; and a reversible cover. (BTW: Carson would go on to write Paris, Texas, Breathless and, yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, while Schiller directed such fact-based films as The Executioner’s Song, The Plot to Kill Hitler and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenét and the City of Boulder.

We Are Kings
Theresa Is a Mother

Discovering the occasional gem stone in a fully mined quarry is roughly the equivalent of finding cinematic treasures in the forbiddingly large pile of movies mailed to critics every week. They’re there, but who has the time and patience to dig through all of them to find a keeper? When confronted with a similar mountain of entries, festival judges might give a movie 15 minutes to capture their fancy or be tossed out like a ringer on “The Gong Show.” (The academy’s documentary nominators used the same process, including a bell, until they were exposed in the “Hoop Dreams” scandal.) Sending out screeners can be an expensive gamble for distributors, so it isn’t unreasonable to ask editors of niche websites, at least, to assign genre specialists the task of sniffing out a potential sleeper. The ones that do have proven to be essential resources for fans and filmmakers, alike. As a generalist, I don’t consider myself to be an expert in anything, in particular, but I occasionally enjoy digging below the surface to find treasure among the dregs. If I enjoy a niche film, maybe someone else will, too.

To that end, anyone who’s spent any time in Chicago or Mississippi will understand the appeal of We Are Kings and how its message might resonate beyond the festival circuit. In Toby Hubner’s sophomore feature (Deep Toad), an elderly bluesman and his chanteuse wife are in serious danger of having the local bank foreclose on their blues bar in a small Mississippi Delta town. When the pressure builds to the breaking point, Lilly (Rita Graham), who’s also chief cook and bottle-washer, suffers a near-catastrophic heart attack that leaves her in a coma. Her guitarist husband, I.B. King (Sammy Blue) decides that their only hope lies in him hopping in their RV for a trip to Chicago, where he hopes to secure a record contract. Alas, because Chicago may be the only place on Earth where aspiring blues musicians outnumber Republican presidential candidates, his journey fails to bear fruit. What does occur along the way, however, are serendipitous meetings with three teenage musicians, who have been driven from their homes by parents and stepparents who lack the patience to subsidize their dreams of stardom any farther. King may be a cantankerous old sot, but he doesn’t mind the company and enjoys jamming with the kids, who demonstrate real talent. On the way back from the Windy City, I.B. lacks even the money necessary  to pay for fuel, so they use the van’s loudspeaker to drum up business in small towns along the way. It isn’t easy, especially when police are put on the lookout for the runaways. Instead, Lilly offers supernatural guidance to I.B. and the teens from her hospital bed, allowing for a potential last-minute miracle. We Are Kings may push the limits of credulity, at times, but never past the breaking point. The musical interludes are delightfully lively and frequent enough to keep the plot from getting caught in a rut. I most enjoyed the respect shown to a musical genre that has been in danger of extinction for more than 50 years, but survives on the enthusiasm of musicians exactly like those we meet here. The Midwestern and Deep South landscapes also add to the fun.

I will admit to almost giving up on Theresa Is a Mother after the first 20 minutes, if only because the protagonist’s determination to become a punk-rock queen is based on an assumption of facts not in evidence. While it’s sometimes difficult to discern good punk-rock singing from bad, Theresa McDermott’s caterwauling wouldn’t be mistaken for singing in a Humane Society shelter. Neither would she ever be considered a candidate for mother-of-the-year honors, attempting to raise three young girls in a flophouse apartment in New York City. Out of money, Theresa (C. Fraser Press) reluctantly decides to move Upstate, into the house in which she was raised by a pair of truly kooky parents (Edie McClurg, Richard Poe). The arrangement is far from perfect, even if the parents cut Theresa plenty of slack for the sake of the children. Things come to a head, when a money-making scheme impacts the 13-year-son of a local banker. Naturally, Theresa calls on her eldest daughter to come to her rescue. It works, but in a way that couldn’t possibly have been expected. By pulling the boy out of his shell, the girl finds a reason not to give up hope for her own future. And, yes, the solution involves music. Blessedly, it is as far distant from punk, as Sardi’s was from CBGB. In addition to writing, co-directing (with her husband) and starring in Theresa Is a Mother, I have to assume that Press created the songs, as well. She deserves a lot of credit for convincing us – me, anyway – to hang in there with her characters.

Nightmare Weekend: Blu-ray
The Sentinel: Blu-ray
I’ve seen a lot of bad feature films in my time, some of them so bad that they’re a blast to watch. Released by Troma in 1986 after several rewrites, Nightmare Weekend is so appallingly bad that it redefines how crummy a movie can be and still rate as watchable, at least. (The aforementioned Turkey Shoot barely qualifies.) The antagonist of this incoherent mess, originally distributed by Troma, is the demented colleague of a “brilliant” scientist, who has created a super-computer with the ability of transforming juvenile delinquents into model citizens. The sorcerer’s apprentice, Julie (Debbie Laster) has plans of her own for the computer, which is controlled externally by a clairvoyant hand puppet named George. (Think, a malevolent escapee from “Mrs. Roger’s Neighborhood.”) In addition to allowing George to take control of moving vehicles – it borrows the screen imagery from ColecoVision’s home version of the Sega arcade classic, “Turbo” – the computer permits Julie to direct explosive spheroids at promiscuous teens and monitor the disastrous results using equipment that wouldn’t have been out of place in a “Flash Gordon” serial. Beyond that, I have no idea what we’re supposed to take away from Nightmare Weekend. As we learn in the bonus material, the film was shot in Florida by an international crew unfamiliar with the English language, under the direction of French soft-core specialist Henri Sala. All of the dialogue is dubbed, even the English spoken by American actors, and, judging from the rawness of their performances, the casting could have been conducted at Ocala-area biker bars and strip clubs. Of the women, only Andrea Thompson would enjoy an acting career beyond Nightmare Weekend … the highlights being a three-season stint on “NYPD Blue” and a short-lived job reading copy on “CNN Headline News.” If the movie was intended to be campy or hilariously rotten, none of the actors appear to have been in on the joke. On the plus side, few movies as incompetently made as Nightmare Weekend have been accorded the same kid-glove treatment as Vinegar Syndrome’s extreme makeover here. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes the uncut and R-rated versions — restored in 2k from original 35mm negatives – as well as nostalgic interviews with special-effects artist Dean Gates and producer Marc Gottlieb, and material edited to get a R rating.

Looking back on the pre-tentpole mid-1970s, the popular cinema is noteworthy primarily as the golden age of “spawn of Satan” thrillers. The trend probably began in 1968, with the commercial and critical success of Rosemary’s Baby, but really kicked into gear with The Exorcist, The Omen. Burnt Offerings and Carrie. By the time The Sentinel and The Legacy rolled out, the subgenre had pretty much played itself out, trumped by killer sharks and space cowboys. The Legacy was released into Blu-ray last week, mostly for the edification of buffs and completists. The Sentinel owes far more to Rosemary’s Baby, than to any of the other movies in which Satan was the incognito antagonist. Here, a model played by real-life supermodel Cristina Raines (Nashville) moves into a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that serves as the portal to hell. She doesn’t realize that anything is amiss, beyond the usual New York weirdness, until she is informed that the neighbors she meets at a party don’t actually exist. In fact, apart from a blind priest (John Carradine), the ghostly guests represent the souls of long-dead killers and other miscreants. Actually, the party scene remains a favorite of subscribers to Mr. Skin, for nude appearances by Raines, Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo, who are surrounded by various freaks and goons. Only the priest understands the horrors awaiting the model. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Raines, director Michael Winner (Death Wish) and writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz; an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton; and vintage marketing material. Look for cameos by Ava Gardner, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Arthur Kennedy, Deborah Raffin, José Ferrer, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, William Hickey and Jerry Orbach.

Secrets in the Fall
Beginner’s Bible: Volume 4
Searching for background information on Brittany Goodwin, writer and director of Secrets in the Fall and 2012’s Secrets in the Snow, I came across an interview in which the Raleigh-based filmmaker and musician cited the movies of John Hughes as a primary  influence on her work. While Goodwin wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to be inspired by Hughes’ teen-themed comedies, she might be the only one to have made faith-based odes to The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Uncle Buck. Not having seen her first directorial effort, I can’t say one way or the other if Goodwin was successful in finding a creative link between “Breakfast Club” and her story about a group of students trapped inside of their school during a blizzard. It certainly wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, even if the boys and girls weren’t likely to share anything that would cross the boundaries separating family-friendly films with clear Christian messages and strictly secular entertainment. Secrets in the Fall was shot on location in a gorgeous mountain campground, near Hendersonville, N.C. The young campers participating in the weekend retreat at Camp Pinnacle may all be Christians – as strictly defined by those of the evangelical persuasion, at least – but some are more committed to the Lord than others. When a boy with identity issues runs away from the group, the campers band together not only to find him and keep him from harm, but also to help him find answers to his personal questions. And, he isn’t the only camper who needs to get right with Jesus. I can’t imagine Goodwin being too directly influenced here by Meatballs or Friday the 13th, all that’s really required of a movie set at a mountain retreat is a lake and campfire, both of which are prominently on display here. The Dove-approved Secrets in the Fall may not fit the tastes of all American teens, but, based solely on the recent success of the bible-thumping War Room, the audience for faith-based entertainment is willing to support movies that reflect their world view.

And, speaking of bibles, the fourth installment of Time Life’s animated series, “The Beginner’s Bible,” is newly available to parents interested in introducing their preschoolers to the events described in the Good Book. The producers have taken a simple, non-denominational approach to stories that someday may shape the way the kids live their lives. Besides full animation, the collections feature original music and the theme song by Kathie Lee Gifford. The new chapters are “Joseph & His Brothers,” “Daniel & the Lion’s Den,” “The Battle of Jericho” and “Jonah & the Whale.” The Old Testament overflows with blood, gore and righteous indignation, none of which find their way into “The Beginner’s Bible.”

Sundance: The Red Road: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Growing Up Trans
PBS: The Mystery of Matter: Search For the Elements
PBS: Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise
CPO Sharkey: Season 2
The Nanny: Season Four
Nickelodeon: The Adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants
Television can be a cruel medium, both for the producers of ongoing series and fans of shows that straddle the razor-thin line separating success and failure. There’s always a certain amount of suspense that begins to build as the end of every season approaches. While audiences prepare for the cliffhangers designed to keep them guessing over the summer, producers and actors sweat the very real possibility that their show might be canceled. Now that dozens of cable networks have begun to showcase original programming of their own, some of the more interesting borderline shows have successfully made the transition from airing on broadcast networks to being shown via cable, satellite and streaming outlets. Because “The Red Road” began its life on the niche-cable network SundanceTV, it isn’t likely that anyone else will pick it up, now that it’s been cancelled. This is bad news for lovers of off-the-beaten-track dramas that have opened doors for minority actors – in this case, Native Americans – to be cast in non-traditional roles. After a New Jersey tribe wins recognition from the federal government, it begins making plans to take possession and control of a lushly forested mountain, not all that far from New York City. To no one’s surprise, the white residents of Walpole, New Jersey — the nearest midsize town — aren’t anxious to relinquish land they’ve always used for hunting, fishing and other recreational purposes … and some nefarious ones, as well. For its part, the small, but tight-knit Ramapough Lunaape Nation now faces such challenges as policing its own people, dealing with extreme poverty and chronic illness, and deciding whether its leaders should listen to overtures about building a casino. Complicating things even further are the interpersonal relationships that are of soap-opera proportions. And, yes, there were plenty of cliffhangers left hanging when the show was cancelled. Who, then, should be interested in checking out the second-season compilation? Well, for one, any viewers who enjoyed Season One, but missed the final six episodes. Then, there’s anyone anxious to do some binging on two seasons’ worth of high-quality programming, with enough closure at the end of the second stanza to satisfy most folks. The bonus material includes two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

There could hardly be a timelier subject for exploration in a “Frontline” episode than the “new frontier” facing transgender youths. Observing the transition that Bruce Jenner so publicly underwent while becoming Caitlyn Jenner might lead one to assume that the issues probed in “Growing Up Trans” are trivial. Among the wealthiest and widely admired of people who’ve addressed the issue head-on, Jenner may not be the most relatable of role models, although his willingness to represent his/her LGBT peers certainly is admirable. It’s worth remembering that he’s far being the first high-profile person to have transitioned from one gender assignment to the other, just the most recent. Renee Richards took her fight for transsexual rights to the New York Supreme Court, in 1976, finally winning the right to play tennis professionally on the women’s tour. And, this was well before Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova decided that it was safe to exit the closet. Today, it’s difficult to find a television drama or sitcom that hasn’t added a transgender character or storyline. Kids in the same position face even greater obstacles than adults, however. They range from being disowned by church and family, to being tortured at school by fellow students and administrators who can’t even decide which bathrooms should be open to them. “Growing Up Trans” is told from the perspective of parents, doctors and eight transgender kids, ranging in age from 9 to 19. It was given extraordinary access to the gender program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where filmmakers Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor examined the complicated and often controversial treatments now available to gender non-conforming and transgender kids.

PBS’ “The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements” revisits a subject that many of us slept through in high school chemistry and physics lessons. The three-part mini-series employs dramatizations, backed by extensive scientific and historic research, to describe how alchemists stumbled upon methodology that would lead succeeding generations of scientists to identify, understand and organize the basic building blocks of matter. Actors impersonate such key players as Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, whose discovery of oxygen and radical interpretation of it led to the modern science of chemistry; Humphry Davy, who made electricity a powerful new tool in the search for elements; Dmitri Mendeleev, whose Periodic Table brought order to the growing gaggle of elements; Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking research on radioactivity cracked open a window into the atom; Harry Moseley, whose discovery of atomic number redefined the Periodic Table; and Glenn Seaborg, whose recovery of plutonium opened up a whole new realm of elements, still being explored today. None of this would be meaningful if viewers couldn’t stay awake past the opening credits. Host Michael Emerson, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor, helps us makes sense of the otherwise mystifying science.

Mozambique’s million-acre Gorongosa National Park may not be as widely recognized as the major safari destinations in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, but it’s not because government officials had much choice in the matter. A cruel civil war was fought from 1977 to 1992, ravaging the countryside and preventing the nation from experiencing any kind of growth. To keep from starving, along with countless other citizens caught in the crossfire, rebels treated the animals in the park as if they were livestock waiting to be devoured. Recovery efforts have been slow and uncertain, leaving the inventory of animals depleted and not always anxious to stop on the annual migrations or maintain historic breeding patterns. In PBS’ six-part “Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise,” American-born, African-raised cameraman Bob Poole chronicles the two years he spent living in the park, joining scientists and conservationists in the battle to “re-wild this once-legendary nature preserve.” Besides keeping an extensive film record of the existing wildlife population, Poole is shown here helping scientists dart and track the park’s elusive lions; decoding the behavior of the park’s often fickle elephants; studying massive crocodiles, which thrived due to the rebels’ aversion to their meat and sharp teeth; and helping transport herds of animals to replace the ones lost during the war. The cinematography is truly magnificent and it’s thrilling to watch Poole work his way into and out of harm’s way.

The archivists at Time Life begin their month-long celebration of Don Rickles’ contributions to televised entertainment with Season Two of the NBC sitcom, “CPO Sharkey,” in which Mister Warmth plays a chief petty officer stationed at the San Diego Naval Base, where he has been assigned the task of leading a group of raw recruits. In the second go-round, the show added two new characters. Captain Quinlan has been replaced by Captain Buck Buckner (Richard X. Slattery), a by-the-book former submarine captain; and recruit Apadoca (Phillip Simms). Buckner cringes at the thought of Sharkey hosting a Japanese CPO, and almost blows a gasket when a child is born in the barracks while crusading Congresswoman Bagley inspects the base. His girlfriend gives him an ultimatum. He deals with a bout of Russian flu. He trains Rocky-style for a boxing match with a rival Marine lunkhead. Sharkey gleefully bails out his guys by foiling a crooked used-car salesman.  In October, look for “The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1” and “Mr. Warmth: The Ultimate Don Rickles TV Collection.”

In “The Nanny: Season Four,” Fran Drescher welcomes such guest stars as Bette Midler, Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson, Celine Dion, Jon Stewart, Jason Alexander and Joan Collins.

From Nickelodeon, “The Adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants” is distinguished by the complete collection of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episodes, available together for the first time.

The DVD Wrapup: Blind Chance, Furious 7, Monkey Kingdom, Borowczyk and more

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Blind Chance: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At the time of his death in 1996, at the far-too-young age of 54, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski had become one of the most widely admired writer/directors on the planet. His name might not have meant much to mainstream audiences in Western Europe and United States, but, among critics and arthouse denizens, Kieslowski’s living-legend status had already been established. This was based primarily on the Polish television miniseries, “The Decalogue,” The Double Life of Véronique and his “Three Colors Trilogy”: Blue, White and Red, for which he received two Oscar nominations. The majority of his documentaries and feature films were made at the height of the Cold War – and occasional thaw, however brief – which meant that hardly any were seen here outside festivals. Blind Chance, for example, was made in 1981, a year after the Solidarity movement raised hopes for freedom among millions of Poles and anti-Communists in the Eastern bloc. That optimism was put on hold for such kindred filmmakers as Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland after the government, citing the possibility/likelihood of Soviet intervention, cracked down on dissidents and other free-thinkers. Blind Chance, would be kept on ice for six years, when a much censored version was allowed to debut at Cannes. The new Criterion Collection edition of the film – whose template was borrowed for Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors – is complete, except for a short segment that couldn’t be found. If there’s no question that Blind Chance is a product of its time and political environment, it also is informed by events recalled from his personal life and the loss of family members.

The protagonist of Blind Chance is a Lodz medical student, Witek (Bogusław Linda), about to lose his father to a serious illness. Although he isn’t able to make it home in time to comfort his father, he is left with a final message that frees the young man from fulfilling his dad’s directive to become a doctor.   What happens to him next will depend on whether or not he catches a train about to pull out of the station. In the first of three parallel story threads, Witek is able to grab hold of the door handle on the final car and climb aboard. Once inside, he chances on a fellow passenger who convinces him that the Communist Party needs some fresh thinking and he’s just the sort of positive fellow who could be valuable in the wake of Solidarity. Once he climbs the first few rungs of the party ladder, however, Witek realizes that the old guard is deeply entrenched and afraid of anything resembling change. In the second scenario, Witek is blocked from reaching the train by a security guard, beaten and arrested. The experience leads him to groups of idealistic men and women, who base their anti-Communist stance on Christian ideals and socialistic reform. In the third thread, he not only makes the train, but is allowed to complete medical school and maintain principles that include a non-partisan ethical code. These scenarios include alternative romantic and family lives, as well. Not willing to let well enough alone, Kieslowski reserves one last surprise for Witek and audiences members. He would reprise the conceit years later, in The Double Life of Véronique, and segments of the trilogy. One needn’t have grown up behind the Iron Curtain to see the relevance in Witek’s chance encounters … blind and otherwise. The film has been restored in 4K by TOR Film Studio in Warsaw. The Blu-ray package is further enhanced by a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski; an archival video interview with writer-irector Agnieszka Holland; a side-by-side comparison of scenes that were censored in its 1987 release and those recently restored; an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim and a 1993 interview with Kieslowski.

Furious 7: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
After Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident on November 30, 2013, it put the future of the entire Universal Fast and the Furious franchise in doubt. Absent only from the third installment, “Tokyo Drift,” Walker co-anchored a series that began as a mid-budget hot-rod flick, but, after abandoning the street-racing conceit, grow’d like Topsy into a “Mission: Impossible”-on-wheels. (Vin Diesel skipped the first sequel, but made an uncredited teaser cameo in “Tokyo Drift.”) Indeed, of the $1.51 billion Furious 7 amassed at the worldwide box office, only $351 million represented domestic U.S. sales. The 14-year-old franchise’s consistently greater success abroad mirrored Hollywood’s growing dependence on the international audience’s love of CGI-driven action flicks. Walker’s disappearance will continue to haunt any new sequels, of course, but, with Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham already scheduled to appear in 2017’s Furious 8, there’s no reason to think interest in it will flag. Before Furious 7’s belated global release last April 1, the second question on the minds of fans and industry observers was what horror specialist James Wan (Saw) would bring to the table as Justin Lin’s successor in the director’s chair. Short answer: plenty. Having already trounced Ghost Protocol, it will be interesting to see if Furious 7’s numbers hold up against the upcoming 007 sequel, Spectre, whose budget will trump it by $100-150 million. While it lags behind Jurassic World by $100 million in overall worldwide grosses for 2015, Furious 7 has managed to overcome Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lead in domestic revenues by beating it $1,160.7 billion to $943.8 million, again, with a substantial smaller production budget. Those numbers wouldn’t mean anything to anyone outside Universal City, however, if the “Furious” franchise wasn’t keeping its fans begging for more on the screen.

Series newcomer Jason Statham plays rough, tough and canny Deckard Shaw, whose brother Owen was left lying in a British hospital, seriously burned and in a coma, at the end Fast & Furious 6. Shaw has sworn to avenge Owen’s likely death, by destroying Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew. Shaw scores a tactical edge by putting DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) in the hospital for most of the picture, albeit in far less serious shape than Owen. Meanwhile, Dominic is attempting to nurse the amnesia-stricken Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) back to the same shape she was in after her reintroduction in Fast & Furious (“4”). The news of Han’s suspicious death, in Japan, causes him to call on Brian O’Conner (Walker), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Taj (Ludacris) back from semi-retirement. O’Conner packs his partner, Mia (Jordana Brewster) to a relative’s gilded fortress in the D.R. As much as Shaw is obsessed with making Toretto and his “family” pay for his loss, Dom is committed to avoiding anymore funerals. He finds an unlikely ally in the form of a CIA-style spook (Kurt Russell), who’s been on Shaw’s trail since he joined forces with Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of a mysterious pack of well-equipped cyber-mercenaries, headquartered in Azerbaijan. They’ve kidnapped a stunning computer geek, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who’s invented an insanely precise global positioning system, known as “God’s Eye,” which could tip the balance of power in the intelligence game.

In one of the most entertaining chase scenes I’ve seen in a long time, Toretto & Co. ambush the gang’s motorcade in the Carpathians, attacking it from above. After a fierce chase on a twisting mountain highway, the good guys are able to free capture. The sense of victory is short-lived, though, because, before being captured, Ramsey mailed the chip to a contact in Abu Dubai. Another spectacular chase ensues, because the chip is hidden in a rare Lykan Hypersport, on display in a party-central penthouse in the upper reaches of a shiny new skyscraper. After the hard drive changes hands twice more, Chris Morgan’s script demands that Toretto, Shaw, Jakande and stealth helicopter run roughshod through downtown L.A. The plot may have been rendered completely nonsensical by this time, but, throughout Furious 7, Wan proves every bit as adept as Lin at translating pointless action into splendidly choreographed chases and set pieces. Also nice is the inclusion in the cast, if only in cameos, of a dozen characters/actors who’ve appeared in previous “TF&TF” chapters. Not that it matters, but I have no idea where the three minutes of “extended” material was added to the theatrical release. Fans will find the Blu-ray package to be must-viewing, as the featurettes do an excellent job explaining how everything — except the shooting around Walker’s death — came together. Besides deleted scenes, there are pieces on every aspect of the production, especially the choice of vehicles and green-screen elements. The sadly nostalgic music video, “See You Again,” is the only one that directly recalls how Walker’s death impacted the cast and crew.

The Seven Five
If Sidney Lumet had lived long enough to see Tiller Russell’s startling documentation of police corruption in the Big Apple, he might have considered adapting it, if only to complete a rare superfecta that began with Serpico, Prince of the City and Night Falls on Manhattan. In street-level NYPD officer Michael Dowd, Lumet would have recognized many of the same character traits embodied by Al Pacino’s Frank Serpico, Treat Williams’ Detective Daniel Ciello, Andy Garcia’s Sean Casey and, for that matter, Vin Diesel’s turncoat mobster in Find Me Guilty, Nick Nolte’s racist cop in Q&A and Melanie Griffith’s undercover Detective Emily Eden in A Stranger Among Us. As The Seven Five almost mournfully suggests, the code of misplaced entitlement found in the DNA of New York City cops exists, as well, in its mobsters, druglords, Wall Street bankers, slumlords, media chieftains, religious authorities and the immigrants whose first job in this country is selling bogus designer goods in the subway. The risks run by police officers who put their pensions on the line every time they shake down a drug dealer or torture a “perp” are equal only to risks taken by whistleblowers. In The Seven Five, we witness how the code of dishonor infected an entire precinct, leading its most notorious criminals to assume that they deserved greater access to NYPD services than citizens who work 9-to-5 and are afraid to leave their homes at night. The widespread abuses of power and outright criminality described in The Seven Five first came light with Dowd’s arrest in 1992 and were subsequently substantiated with the release of the Mollen Commission report. Its findings demonstrated how, according to the New York Times, the “New York City Police Department had failed at every level to uproot corruption and had instead tolerated a culture that fostered misconduct and concealed lawlessness by police officers.” Today’s corruption, the report said, “is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.”

Dowd was assigned to the city’s far less than posh 75th Precinct during the heyday of the crack-cocaine explosion of the late 1980s and early ’90s. When he decided to go over to the dark side, the Long Island resident didn’t have to look very hard for drug dealers interested in buying their own personal cop. Indeed, when the first dealer he approached balked at the terms, he was introduced to an even larger fish in the sea, one who knew the value of someone who didn’t have to hide his gun under his shirt tails. The amount of money dangled in front of underpaid police officers at the height of the cocaine epidemic represented the greatest temptation to God’s humble creations since the snake tempted Eve with an apple from Tree of Knowledge. As easy as it was for bulk dealers to create a network of sales reps that mimicked the distribution of Amway and Mary Kay products, it was almost as simple to buy protection from a cop who had a network of his own to support. It began with convincing his partner to share in the booty and ended with the arrests of a half-dozen other cops. Dowd would go so far as to advertise his prosperity by occasionally driving to work in a bright red Corvette and hiring a limousine to pick him up at the station house for gambling trips to Atlantic City. If Dowd and his partner hadn’t gotten so greedy, selling the cocaine they received from their benefactor and setting up a direct-sales operation of their own in Long Island, who knows how long the business might have prospered. Besides the usual array of newspaper headlines and TV news video The Seven Five was provided with video recordings of Dowd’s testimony before the Mollen panel. Also fascinating are the interviews conducted recently with Dowd – who served 11½ years in prison – and his partner, who risked his life by agreeing to wear a wire, rather than spend any real time behind bars. Also recently interviewed are his partner’s wife, internal-affairs investigators, prosecutors, the Suffolk County cops who finally busted Dowd’s Long Island operation and Adam Diaz, the Dominican drug kingpin whose headquarters was an ordinary looking bodega. After serving his time, Diaz was shipped back to the island, none the worse for the wear. If plans for a theatrical adaptation of The Seven Five are ever realized, Diaz still looks young enough to play himself. Unlike Dowd, he hasn’t lost an ounce of his swagger.

Disneynature: Monkey Kingdom: Blu-ray
Cinderella: Blu-ray
Disney has been shooting live-action nature documentaries for more nearly 70 years, all of them designed to appeal as much to adults as kids. The studio’s “True-Life Adventures” series, which began in 1948 with the two-reel “Seal Island” short, evolved five years later into feature-length presentations, stretching from The Living Desert to 1960’s Jungle Cat. Each of the longer movies would subsequently be cannibalized to make education films under different titles. The Disneynature label was launched in 2007, with a 90-minute re-tweaking of the esteemed BBC series, “Planet Earth.” The new banner’s first all-new feature, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, was released a year later. The newest title, Monkey Kingdom, will be followed next year by “Born in China.” Unlike other such endeavors, the Disneynature installments are typically co-produced with outside companies and sent out across numerous platforms. Apart from that, Disneynature is a chip off of the old block. Amusing anthropomorphic touches are added to the narrative storyline – here, provided by Tina Faye – which is, at once, educational and entertaining. Monkey Kingdom’s paradisiacal setting is the sacred city of Pollonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, which is characterized by vast forests and the ancient stupas, Kiri Vehera, Menik Vehera and Rankoth Veher. The toque macaques that inhabit the temples, which overlook the vast forest, maintain a strict caste system. The macaques that live closer the forest floor exist primarily on leftovers and harder-to-reach resources, while their superiors dine on fruit, nuts, berries, flowers and first choice of the annual bloom of flying termites. As is typical of most Disney nature films and animated fairy tales, there is a fair amount of turmoil and tragedy for sensitive audiences to endure. There’s nothing more unnerving than a fight between gangs of screaming simians, who no longer seem so cute and cuddly in their natural habitat. When one tribe of macaques Is toppled from their penthouse, it finds refuge in a nearby city, where their maneuverability and cunning allows them to plunder the kiosks of merchants selling fresh fruit, vegetables and potato chips. When the exposure becomes too risky, they return to the forest to strategize against the macaques who took their temple. In the meantime, they’re required to keep an eye out for monitor lizards, sloth bears, mongeese and other rivals. One area in which Disneynature titles are superior to those in the “True-Life Adventures” series is their ability to tap into the extraordinary advances in cameras, lenses and the camouflage that allows for close observation at short range. Miniature cameras hidden in nooks and crannies of temples and caves can be manipulated from remote locations. The quality of high-definition presentation borders on the spectacular. You practically can count the hairs on a monkey’s chinny-chin-chin. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes, as well as a music video.

High-definition camera work also favors the dazzling set pieces in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a story that doesn’t exactly cry out to be remade every six months, or so. The lush ballroom sequence is so robustly enhanced by the Blu-ray presentation that some pre-teen girls might come to prefer it to Disney’s animated version or, even, the one in Beauty and the Beast. Also outstanding are Sandy Powell’s colorful costumes, Dante Ferretti’s elaborate production design, Haris Zambarloukos’ imaginative cinematography and Patrick Doyle’s lovely original music. Director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz’ story remains reasonably true to the 1950 version, which, itself, was inspired by Charles Perrault’s concept of the fairy tale. As far as I can tell, no expense was spared on any aspect of the product, including a largely Brit cast that includes Lily James and Richard Madden as the blessed couple; Cate Blanchett, Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as the wicked stepmother and her defective daughters; Helena Bonham-Carter, as Fairy Godmother; and, in shorter supporting roles, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Ben Chaplin, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon and Hayley Atwell. That’s a lot of firepower for an oft-told tale. The Blu-ray adds the theatrical short “Frozen Fever” and other Disney-esque featurettes, deleted scenes and an alternate opening. It will be interesting to see if Bill Condon’s live-action take on Beauty and the Beast, set for a 2017 release, can top Disney’s recent re-adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella. (Oh, yeah, sit patiently through the closing credit roll and you’ll rewarded with new versions of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” performed by Lily James and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively.)

Closer to the Moon
Anyone who believes that anti-Semitism disappeared from Europe after the existence of Nazi death camps was revealed at the end of World War II probably also believes that FDR and Winston Churchill didn’t know that Stalin was going to devour Eastern Europe as soon as the ink dried on the Yalta agreements. Anti-Semitism never really went away, even in the countries in which Jews played a vital role in resistance movements and post-war Communist governments. It was simply hibernating until the rest of world stopped paying attention to the poor souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In May, Criterion Collection released its edition of Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, in which Yves Montand portrays Artur London, the high-ranking Czechoslovak Communist Party leader, who, in 1952, narrowly missed a date with a hangman’s noose. Along with 13 other leading party members, 11 of whom were Jewish, London had been found guilty of participating in a phony “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist” conspiracy. Eleven were hanged and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Bad news didn’t travel fast in the Eastern bloc in the 1950s, so it’s possible that the real-life characters in Nae Caranfil’s Closer to the Moon hadn’t heard about the Stalin-directed purge of Jews from the leadership of Communist parties throughout Central and Eastern Europe. By 1959, it had reached the point where Romanian Jews in positions open only to top Communist Party stalwarts were beginning to feel the heat. Like London, the character’s we meet here fought the good fight against the Nazi occupation and helped organize the CP infrastructure. A dozen years later, dreams of a Marxist republic were replaced by the reality of Communist-style totalitarianism, even in the post-Stalin era.

Vera Farmiga and Mark Strong play two of the five disillusioned Jewish Communists who decided that it might be good idea to rob the National Bank of Romania, thus embarrassing the country’s iron-fisted leaders. In the mostly accurate Closer to the Moon, the four men and a woman who comprised the Ioanid Gang convinced the driver and guard of an armored car that they’d interrupted the production of a movie, but should pretend they belong in the scene. Having no idea how movies are made, the two bozos handed over several bags full of currency that, in any case, would have been worthless outside of Romania. Naturally, after several weeks had passed, they were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Before that could happen, however, the gang members would be required to re-create the crime for an actual government film crew, ostensibly in return for a reduced sentence. Caranfil tells this story from the perspective of a young man, Virgil (Harry Lloyd), who just happened to be sitting in a cafe across the street from the faux bank robbery and is asked to stand in for the alcoholic cameraman. He hits it off romantically with the doomed Alice, who’s playing herself in the movie and confides in Virgil as to how the real heist was planned and her accidental participation in the crime. If that sounds confusing, it’s only because bizarre stuff like that happen all the time in totalitarian states. My confusion was exasperated by the filmmakers’ decision to have all of the characters speak perfect English in a setting that otherwise resembles post-war Bucharest. To make this bizarre incident more entertaining, presumably for western audiences, Caranfil also decided to emphasize what he considered to be the darkly comic aspects of the story. Frankly, they eluded me. Snippets from the long-secreted movie can be seen at the end of Closer to the Moon.

Heaven Knows What: Blu-ray
If told without any punches pulled, stories about heroin addiction and the day-to-day struggle of junkies to stay high should be as difficult to watch as any film with graphic depictions of self-destruction and death. Fixing can be depicted as a near-sacramental ritual or an act of violence committed against one’s own body. Portrayed accurately, it’s the one sure way to force viewers to cover their eyes or turn their heads from the screen in unison. Unless the character overdoses within seconds of the fix, some curious viewers are likely to wonder how exhilarating a high must be to justify playing Russian roulette with a needle, instead of a gun. Seemingly, it’s a blast … until someone turns blue and dies. Ben and Joshua Safdie’s excruciatingly raw Heaven Knows What most closely resembles Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 The Panic in Needle Park, which starred Al Pacino and Kitty Winn as a pair of junkies desperate for a fix during a serious drought. In most ways, Pacino’s electrifying performance was the equal of Robert De Niro’s interpretation of Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets, and duly noted by casting directors. (Pacino’s next assignment would be The Godfather, while The Godfather II awaited De Niro.) Winn took the Best Actress prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. If there were any justice in the world of movie distribution, Heaven Knows What would have been shown in more theaters than 11 non-festival venues and be mentioned in the same breath as Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, Sid and Nancy, The Connection and High Art. If Arielle Holmes, who plays the film’s pathetic protagonist, Harley, hasn’t been more widely recognized for her performance, it’s probably because she was 19, homeless and an addict when she was discovered by Josh Safdie in a New York subway. He encouraged her to write down her personal story, parts of which were adapted into the script by Joshua Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs). If there’s hardly a sliver of difference between Harley and Holmes, it would be difficult, as well, for viewers to parse the real actors from the homeless recruits who act alongside her. Naturally, most of Harley’s time is spent panhandling for money to cop heroin or in relishing the high. You wouldn’t wish her male friends on your worst enemy’s daughter. One of the street “tramps” (Caleb Landry Jones) convinces her to slit her wrists, simply to prove her love for him. Moreover, Safdie’s vision of Manhattan harkens back to the hell on Earth it was in the 1970s, well before the Disneyfication of Times Square. Adventurous indie buffs are strongly encouraged to find Heaven Knows What, a movie that will stay with you long after you’ve savored the deleted scenes, making-of featurette and music video by Ariel Pink. A date for the publication of Holmes’ memoir, “Mad Love in New York City” has yet to be announced.


Immoral Tales: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Beast: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Walerian Borowczyk was a Pole of an entirely different stripe from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Born nearly 20 years apart, the only things they shared was a Polish arts education and the need, at different points in their careers, to move to Paris. More difficult to define is an intellectual commonality shared by Eastern European artists, whose formative years were spent in the watchful eyes of totalitarian governments. A graduate of Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts, Borowczyk’s early career evolved from painting and lithography, to the creation of movie posters and surreal animations. After leaving for Paris in 1959 and working with Chris Marker, he moved into stop-motion and live-action films. The stop-motion shorts included in these Blu-ray packages suggest that he was a major influence on Terry Gilliam, one of the founding members of Monty Python. To make a living from his art, however, Borowczyk was convinced to turn his filmmaking talent to erotica and literary-based pornography. Not as inelegantly formulaic as the hard-core films that followed in the wake of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, the 1974 erotic anthology Immoral Tales more closely resembles the classy soft-core movies produced by Randall Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet, The Image) at the same time. The film, as released, is split into four erotic-themed stories that involve the loss of virginity, masturbation, bloodlust and incest. The latter two sections were riffs on the Erzsébet Báthory and Lucrezia Borgia legends. A fifth chapter in Immoral Tales was originally planned, but removed and developed into the feature film La Bête. It has been restored in one of the “IT” discs included here, but clearly is no match for the separate full-length iteration. With that exception, the sexual encounters in “IT” are handled in as classy a manner as these things got in the 1970s. After portraying the young man who claimed the innocence of a 16-year-old nymphet, Fabrice Luchini would quickly become one of the most respected actors in France.

Before and after the release of La Bête/The Beast, comparisons inevitably were made to “La Belle et la Bête,” the 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont that inspired Jean Cocteau’s 1946 surrealist fantasy and, 45 years later, Disney’s animated musical of the same title. In fact, though, Borowczyk’s The Beast was informed by Prosper Mérimée’s 1869 horror/fantasy novella, “Lokis.” In it, wealthy American businessman Philip Broadhurst has died and left his entire estate to his daughter, Lucy. The stipulations require of Lucy that, within six months of his death, she marry Mathurin, the son of his best friend, the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance. They are required, as well, to be married by Cardinal Joseph do Balo, the brother of Pierre’s uncle, the crippled Duc Rammaendelo de Balo. That’s easier said than done, because the dim-witted Mathurin has a deformity that prevented him from being baptized and his only interest in life is the family’s horse-breeding business. Pierre bribes a local priest, a pederast, to allow him to perform the baptism behind a closed door, leaving only the arrival of the incommunicado cardinal to overcome. While Mathurin is ambivalent toward marriage, Lucy becomes obsessed with the estate’s hidden history of bestiality, as well as the violent coupling of a well-hung stallion to a broodmare, literally dripping with desire. The legend of bestiality that dominates Lucy’s subconscious derives from the story of an 18th Century ancestor, Romilda (Sirpa Lane), who was raped and impregnated by a bear-like creature. The Beast is every bit as grotesque as it sounds, but not without large dollops of inky-black humor. A hit in Europe, the film’s notoriety caused it to be heavily censored and banned in other markets.

As has been the case with most of Arrow’s intricately conceived rehabilitation projects, the bonus features are as interesting as the cult-classics being shown. The nicely upgraded edition of Immoral Tales includes an introduction by Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird; “Love Reveals Itself: Making Immoral Tales,” with production manager Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and cinematographer Noël Véry; “Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk,” a newly edited archival interview in which the filmmaker discusses painting, cinema and sex; two versions of “A Private Collection,” Borowczyk’s documentary about a truly remarkable collection of erotic memorabilia; and a reversible sleeve cover. The Blu-ray edition of The Beast adds an introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw; “The Making of the Beast,” camera operator Noel Very; “Frenzy of Ecstasy,” a visual essay on the evolution of Borowczyk’s beast; “The Profligate Door,” a documentary about Borowczyk’s sound sculptures, featuring curator Maurice Corbet; “Boro Brunch,” a reunion meal recorded in February, 2014; a trio of mid-‘60s commercials by Borowczyk; “Gunpoint,” a documentary short by Peter Graham produced and edited by Borowczyk; a reversible sleeve featuring Borowczyk’s own original poster design; an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and an archive piece by David Thompson, illustrated with original stills.

Francesco: Blu-ray
It’s only fitting that Liliana Cavani’s second of three biographies of St. Francis of Assisi should arrive in DVD/Blu-ray as preparations for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States draws nigh. I don’t know if the pontiff caught Francesco, when it opened in Argentina in 1994 and he was Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, but, if so, it’s entirely possible that he asked the same question raised by Italian critics and other observers, myself included: what, in God’s name, prompted Cavani to cast Mickey Rourke against type in the lead role? In the seven years after his breakthrough performances in Body Heat and Diner, Rourke had become an international star for such gritty films as The Pope of Greenwich Village, Year of the Dragon, 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart, A Prayer for the Dying and Barfly, in which he portrayed the notorious writer, alcoholic and horserace handicapper Charles Bukowski. With that image still fresh in viewers’ minds, it was virtually impossible to imagine how his hard-ass persona could meld with that of the popular, if not entirely accurate image of St. Francis. Over the years, the Vatican marketing department has convinced Catholics that he more closely resembles a patron saint of the Haight-Ashbury than a warrior for Christ. That’s based on his belief that all of God’s creations – animals, as well as the poorest of the poor – are equal in the eyes of the Lord. He’s been depicted in art as a Donovan-like flower child, surrounded by birds, bunnies and good vibes. That was only one aspect of his mostly tortured ministry, however. In Francesco, which is said to have been based on a Herman Hesse monograph, he’s drawn more accurately as a child of wealthy parents, who, after seeing the light, traded his silk garments for beggars’ rags. Pope Francis described his namesake as, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.” It explains why the Holy Father has been so outspoken on such issues as global warming, capitalistic greed and closing borders to political and economic refugees.

Although Rourke doesn’t embarrass himself or tarnish anyone’s pacifistic pre-conception of Saint Francis – even after being held for ransom as a Perugian POW, he enlisted in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne – the actor frequently seems as out of place in Francesco as Bukowski would have been reading his poetry at the Louvre. Neither did Cavani insist on her protagonist being shorn in the traditional manner of a friar. Instead, Francis is made to look as if he traveled to Rome every two weeks for a razor-cut hairdo. That image changes dramatically as Francis’s order of friars expanded and leadership became an unwieldy responsibility. Rourke is most convincing in the final segment, when Francis became more isolated and his spirituality took a decided turn toward Christian mysticism and extreme sacrifice. Finally, during a 40-day fast at the La Verna retreat on Monta Penna, it’s said that he was approached by a six-winged angel on a cross and presented with the stigmata of Jesus Christ. As the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history, Francis become the subject of great adoration. Some wags believe that Rourke has been carrying the stigmata ever since that performance. Still, Cavani (The Night Porter, Ripley’s Game) does an excellent job balancing the beauty of the Abruzzo countryside with the cruelty of poverty and war in 13th Century Italy. It’s almost possible to feel the weight of Christ’s cross on Rourke’s shoulders in his imitation of Francis of Assisi. The rest of the cast is comprised mostly of Italian actors, who fit right into the story, as does Helena Bonham Carter as, Clare, the earliest follower and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies (a.k.a., Poor Clares), a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. Greek composer, Vangelis, provided the musical score. The only bonus feature is a snippet from a press conference at Cannes.

All American High: Revisited
The timing of the release of two long-lost documentaries on DVD, both about high school life the early 1980s, practically tests the limits of coincidence. Last month, we welcomed the arrival of Seventeen, the chapter in PBS’ “Middletown” series that was banned outright from being broadcast and, apart from a couple of festival showings, was put on a shelf to gather dust for the next 25 years. PBS said that the filmmakers had exploited its key subjects, leaving them open to shame and condemnation for their extreme behavior. I’ve seen worse, but it probably would have shocked the socks off of the good citizens of Muncie, Indiana – dubbed Middletown, in an early study – with its harsh language, disrespect for parents and teachers, drugging and drinking, and testy interracial relationships. There’s no reason to think, however, that PBS viewers in larger ’burgs would have been disturbed by this coldly accurate portrayal of several at-risk teenagers in the American heartland. By contrast, Keva Rosenfeld’s All American High, surveyed a year in the lives of a broader cross-section of Torrance High School’s senior class, through the eyes of Finnish exchange student, “Rikki” Rauhala. Given the close proximity of the high school to everything a teenager might consider to be worth doing in Los Angeles, the students were far more cosmopolitan than their counterparts in Indiana and substantially more laid back about their lifestyle choices and plans for the future. They misbehaved, as well, but a certain amount of it was expected of them, it seems. In 1984, at least, Torrance High seemed to be a pretty decent place to go to school. The teachers are conscientious and the kids seemingly less likely to sass or disrespect them. Where Muncie was beginning to shiver in the first cold winds of dire economic change, Torrance’s multicultural, middle-class community enjoyed far more options. The doc received several positive reviews, but not enough to ensure distribution beyond the festival circuit. After 30 years of obscurity, All American High: Revisited benefits greatly from Rosenfeld’s decision to find and re-interview quite a few of the primary figures, most of whom appear to have followed separate paths in life. In an ironic twist, for example, one of the leading party animals became a cop, responsible for busting up the same kinds of beer bashes from which he once prospered. Another compared his high school tenure to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and admits to not recalling being interviewed by Rosenfeld. Seventeen should have attempted the same thing.

Little Glory
There is a particular kind of coming-of-age drama in which an older sibling takes charge of the affairs of his younger brothers and sisters after the loss of their parents. Typically, the elder orphan is required to overcome several seemingly insurmountable hurdles before demonstrating that the newly re-invigorated family unit would prevail. The scenery may change, but these stories tend to write themselves. Little Glory is a horse of a slightly different color. That this extremely worthwhile story has gone largely unseen here since 2011, on both large and small screens, says everything one needs to know about fissures in the distribution business. Within a very short period of time, the parents of 19-year-old Shawn (Cameron Bright) and his 9-year-old sister, Julie (Isabella Blake-Thomas), disappear from their lives. The death of his mother was a crushing blow to Shawn, leaving him at crossroads where one path leads to a better-than-nothing job in Nowhere, USA, while the other points to a time-share in a penal facility. With the family’s anchor gone, his boozy father uses Shawn as an easy target for his rage and inability to balance expenses. He treats Julie like a barmaid, whose only mission in life is to ferry bottles of beer from the refrigerator to the kitchen table. In return for Julie’s obedience, the old man made her the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy. After the ogre’s work-related death, the possibility of deciding how his sister might spend the $100,000 windfall prompts Shawn to battle his Aunt Monica (Astrid Whettnal) for her custody. Even a blind social worker could see that Shawn is uniquely unqualified to raise a 9-year-old girl, but he’s determined to prove everyone wrong, even if it means stealing the money they need to keep up appearances for the court. Although his mercenary approach to child-rearing softens over time, Belgian director Vincent Lannoo (Vampires) and freshman writers John Engel and François Verjans can’t resist testing our natural sympathy for Shawn, who probably mlbwould benefit from moving into Aunt Monica’s house more than Julie. To compensate, they find extra room in his life for a slightly more grounded girlfriend, nicely played by Hannah Murray (“Skins”). Little Glory’s ending may not satisfy all viewers, but it’s far from cliché, at least. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade
Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC: 1980-90
At a time when tickets for any performance by Van Morrison would sell out with an hour of being put on sale, it’s difficult to imagine how his career came to a virtual stop in the late 1970s. Van the Man wasn’t the only future hall-of-famer whose music would be eclipsed by purveyors of punk, progressive, glam, heavy metal and stadium rock, but the rare artist who refused to pander to trends, critics and audiences, demanding something he had no intention of giving them. The Sexy Intellectual/MVD bio-doc, Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade, puts on tight focus Morrison’s musical output in the 1980s, after he’d become a teetotaler and disillusioned with the entirety of the industry. Fiercely independent, the Belfast Cowboy simply began to record only what obsessed him at any given moment in time, whether or not it sold albums. Famously prickly with the rock press, Morrison was his own worst enemy when it came to pitching his products. As his preferences bounced between rock, jazz, R&B, folk spiritual and meditative idioms, it would have been nice if he didn’t of his music that it speak for itself. It’s fun to know what motivates genius. We asked the same of Bob Dylan, who, much to the detriment of record sales, was going through similarly radical changes. Back then, all it took was one great song or album to bring fans back to the flock and convince them to keep the faith for a while longer. With the release of “The Best of Van Morrison,” compiled by artist himself, that the doldrums of the 1980s ended and fans agreed to let Van be Van, as long as he threw them the occasional bone and embarked on a concert tour. Director Tom O’Dell is to be commended for pulling together enough concert footage, interviews and learned opinion for fans to understand what actually was going on in his head during this difficult period. The featurette included in the bonus package is devoted to the reporters and critics whose job it was to interpret the whims and wisdom of a popular artist, who considered them to be little more than pests.

If any large American city could have benefitted from a punk-rock insurgency, it was Washington, D.C., during the Reagan years, An angry surge of electronic noise might have drowned out all of the nonsense emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill about free-market and trickle-down economics, whose birds finally came home to roost in the 2008 recession. Apparently, there were enough punk musicians in the District to form a quorum, at least, and a handful of rock-docs, 30 years later. “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90)” follows in the short wake of “Positive Force: More Than a Witness” and a recent episode of the HBO documentary series, “Sonic Highways.” Still to come are “Finding Joseph I” and “Punk the Capital: Straight from Washington, D.C.” The only things that linked the hard-core scenes in Washington and England, besides the booger-buddy relationship between Maggie Thatcher and President Reagan, was that they were sown from seeds planted in the ruins of economically ruined cities. Crack cocaine, unemployment and systemic government neglect had devastated the majority African-American community, leaving plenty of vacant space for white musicians from the suburbs to rehearse and play. One of the most influential bands of the period was fronted by punk-rock/reggae singer, Paul “HR” Hudson – subject of the 2012 film, Bad Brains: A Band in DC — but the dominant sound emanating from car radios and boom boxes was hip-hop. Some rock musicians affiliated themselves with progressive social movements and activist groups, including Positive Force, but audience members were more interested in moshing than organizing around lyrics rendered indecipherable by the extreme volume of the music. Among the usual suspects rounded up for interviews here are Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and actor Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”). The target audience for “Salad Days” are people who’ve ever bought a ticket to see Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man or Fugazi. There are several dozen other docs about local punk scenes from which to choose, however. The DVD adds extended interviews and 10 live performances from D.C. bands.

I’m No Dummy
Am I the only dummy out here who isn’t familiar with the term, “venting,” when used to describe what happens on stage between a ventriloquist and a puppeteer’s “dummy”? I’ve heard it referred to as “throwing a voice,” of course, and recently learned that diviners in Ancient Greece somehow convinced wealthy patrons that the sounds emanating from his digestive track were, in fact, messages to them from the dearly departed. The talent was called “gastromancy” and its practitioners included the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle. This most primitive form of ventriloquism served spiritualists until the Middle Ages, when it was equated with witchcraft. By adding the carved likeness of a curious looking human being to the act, ventriloquists effectively turned gastromancy into entertainment. If I were forced to guess, I would say the addition of “vent” to the show-biz lexicon was an attempt to re-brand ventriloquism to a new generation of ticket buyers. Ever since Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and other host of variety shows disappeared from the television landscape, ventriloquists have found it difficult to showcase their art outside Las Vegas, cruise-ship stages and the talent portion of the Miss America broadcast. Bryan W. Simon’s delightful and informative documentary, “I’m No Dummy,” has been re-released six years after its original debut, with the addition of two hours of fresh material. The first disc contains the complete 2009 film, a director’s commentary, two Q&A’s with the filmmakers from the Seattle International Film Festival and a special interview with Jeff Dunham and his vintage figure, Skinny Duggan. The second disc adds previously unseen outtakes and interview material; additional comic performances; an interview with Las Vegas headliner Terry Fator; and a tour of the Vent Haven Museum, the only such facility dedicated to the art of ventriloquism. It’s another film that can enjoyed as much by parents and grandparents, as kids who wouldn’t know Mortimer Snerd from Donald Trump. Last year’s live-performance DVD, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” is also a lot of fun.

The Legacy: Blu-ray
By the time Katherine Ross agreed to star in the Hammer-esque horror thriller, The Legacy, such early successes as The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Stepford Wife had practically disappeared from the rear-view mirror of her career. Meanwhile, the career trajectory of her co-star (and future husband) Sam Elliot was in its ascendency, thanks to a breakthrough performance in Lifeguard, the kind of guilty-pleasure rom-dram that no one east of Southern California would admit to enjoying. (I did.) Here, they play a pair of L.A.-based decorators, Margaret and Pete, hired to work their magic on a mansion smack dab in the middle of a sprawling English estate. Before they can get there, however, their motorcycle collides with a truck piloted by a suspiciously careless driver. Once they arrive at the mansion, they’re surprised to find several other invited guests, including rocker Roger Daltrey, who exude wealth, but aren’t long for this world. The story is far too convoluted to synopsize here, but no one should be surprised to learn that satanic forces will soon make their presence known. To what end remains a reasonably well-kept secret throughout most of the movie, which was directed by Richard Marquand, whose more noteworthy credits (The Jagged Edge, Star Wars: Episode VI) were still ahead of him, and written by frequent Hammer Films collaborator Jimmy Sangster. The Blu-ray upgrade adds to the total experience, which would have benefitted from fresh interviews with Ross and Elliott, in addition to editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) and effects artist Robin Grantham, and a photo gallery.

Pretty Rosebud
Looks are deceiving here, from a cover that suggests that what’s contained inside is soft-core porn, to a plot that advances as many stereotypes as it seeks to deflate. The husband-wife team of Oscar Torre and Chuti Tiu directed, wrote and star in Pretty Rosebud, about an Asian-American “career woman” caught between her parents’ old-country beliefs and the same desire for independence shared by most women who’ve decided not to follow in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers. Tiu further burdens her character, Cecilia “Cissy” Santos, with an unemployed husband (Kipp Shiotani), who refuses to respond to her sexual advances – the most unlikely of the film’s conceits – and a mother-in-law who demands she mass produce children in her son’s broke-ass name. Frustrated, Cissy turns to recreational boxing and hit-and-run trysts with a veritable rainbow coalition of lovers. As if she weren’t confused enough, she also decides to confide in a friendly priest, who hopes to convince her to return to the flock. Cissy’s brother (James Kyson-Lee) is similarly alienated from their parents, because of his decision to marry a non-Asian woman and poor attendance at church. The only thing that saves Pretty Rosebud from drowning in its own freshman-filmmaker clutter is an appealing performance by the gorgeous Ms. Tiu. As problematic as the picture is, it’s great to see a movie populated with seasoned minority actors who rarely are accorded an opportunity to shine.

Aquarius: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
The Bold Ones: The Protectors: The Complete Series
The Hee Haw Collection 3 DVD Set        
The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes
Portlandia: Season Five
While binging on NBC’s curiously addictive “Aquarius: The Complete First Season” on Blu-ray, I frequently wondered if the officials at Corcoran State Prison – Charles Manson’s longtime home — had allowed inmates to watch the show when it aired this summer. The opportunity to see how the facility’s most notorious resident ended up in stir probably would have kept the inmates quiet for an hour or so each week, at least. Now that’s it’s available in an uncensored version, with extended episodes, it’s a question that begs to be asked once again. (Unlike the vast majority of “uncensored” TV series transferred to video, “Aquarius” walks the walk with partial, unblurred nudity and coarse language. None of it is any more gratuitous than the average episode of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime, though.) The first-season episodes follow Manson and his Family members as they begin to lay down their roots in Los Angeles, circa 1967, two years before the killing spree that led to life sentences for several of the characters we meet here. The hyper-charismatic career criminal has already accumulated a harem of starry-eyed flower children and a posse of violence-prone men. The show also posits that Manson had extended his grasp into the corporate offices of L.A., by doing dirty work for hypocritical executives, some of whom are linked to Richard Nixon’s comeback campaign. Manson, who started his criminal life as a pimp, traded the sexual favors of his followers for entrée into the city’s pop-music establishment. He was every bit as obsessed with becoming a rock superstar as the Family members are devoted to helping Manson succeed. If that was all “Aquarius” was about, however, it would have become tiresome after the first episode. Instead, writer John McNamara (“In Plain Sight”) hooks us by showing how the daughter of wealthy Republican parents. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), allows herself to become one of Charlie’s most fervent devotees. Frantic, Emma’s mother calls on an old lover, homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), to help track her down. In turn, Hodiak is allowed to recruit a shaggy undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to shine light into corners unavailable to the flat-topped detective. Through Hodiak and Shafe, viewers are provided a first-hand look at a LAPD that, at the time, was a proto-fascist force of militaristic bigots. Shafe is far more liberal on most issues than Hodiak, who’s only slightly more progressive than the rest of force. Of course, he’s also a borderline alcoholic. In 1967, Los Angeles was a metropolis coming apart at its seams, with its segregated police force the largest target available to activists. The storylines also work in well-considered looks at the Vietnam War, the peace movement and Black Panthers. Not all of it will ring true to Boomers who witnessed the turmoil at ground level, but, by and large, the clichés, archetypes and stereotypical portrayals are close enough to pass muster. The summer startup series already has been renewed for a second season. The Blu-ray adds the backgrounder, “First Look: Aquarius,” and webisodes.

Leslie Nielsen enjoyed one of the most remarkable careers of any actor who straddled the worlds of television and movies in second half of the 20th Century. The first of 150 credits for his television work were recorded in 1950, at the dawn of the medium’s first Golden Age. His 100-title big-screen career began auspiciously enough with a turn as Commander Adams in the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet. For the next 50 years, the Saskatchewan native would bounce frequently between the different entertainment mediums. It was in 1980, however, that Nielsen experienced the kind of revitalization most veteran actors can only dream of having, and it only required that he put a 180-degree spin on characters he’d played for the past 30 years. In Airplane!, Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves were asked to play against type, spoofing then-popular disaster films with a straight face. Two years later, he was recruited once again by Paramount and satire specialists Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker (The Kentucky Fried Movie) for “Police Squad!” As hilarious as the show was, it only lasted six episodes on ABC. Nielsen’s Detective Frank Drebin was accorded a second lease on life in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and its sequels. As the average age of his fan base dropped by 40 years, Robert Ebert dubbed him, “the Laurence Olivier of spoofs.” A dozen years before Drebin was immortalized on “Police Squad!,” Nielsen portrayed a very different sort of cop in NBC’s “The Bold Ones: The Protectors,” a short-lived series that played in rotation with “The New Doctors” and “The Lawyers.” Newly released on DVD in a complete-series package, “The Protectors” starred Nielsen, as the newly installed deputy chief of police in a racially divided California city, and Hari Rhodes as the progressive African-American district attorney. They were required to put aside their political differences to prevent San Sebastian from going up in flames or be dominated by career criminals. Unlike other series, “The Protectors” wasn’t laughably clueless about the black liberation and anti-war movements and other topical social concerns. Guest stars included such still-recognizable actors as Edmond O’Brien, Edward Andrews James Broderick, John Rubinstein, Robert Drivas, Fred Williamson, Aldo Ray, Joe Besser, Ruby Dee, Max Julien, Lorraine Gary, Billy Gray and Louise Sorel. Writer/producer William Sackheim (“The Flying Nun,” “Gidget”), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Close Encounters of the Third”), director Lamont Johnson (The Last American Hero, “That Certain Summer”) and composer Tom Scott (“Baretta,” “Stir Crazy“) were among the prominent behind-the-camera talents.

As guilty pleasures go, there are many far less entertaining diversions than watching reruns of “Hee Haw.” The show was positioned by CBS as a hayseed alternative to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for 23 years – 21 of them in syndication, after the network failed to renew it — lived up to that billing.  Hosted by country artists Buck Owens and Roy Clark, it combined old-school country music with unapologetically cornball humor for millions of viewers who might otherwise be tuned in to broadcasts emanating from the Grand Ole Opry. In fact, when the recurring cast of musicians and comedians weren’t taping segments for the coming weeks’ shows, they might very well have hopped into their pickup trucks for that evening’s performance at the Ryman Auditorium, as many of the regulars were permanent members of the Opry. In its sole concession to the nascent sexual revolution, which informed much of the humor on “Laugh-In,” there were the “Hee Haw Honeys.” Their risqué outfits were inspired after the wardrobe favored by buxom blond Daisy Mae Yokum, in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip, who might have been kin to Daisy Mae Duke, of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Although the recording industry has labored long and hard to distance itself from the archetypal characters and traditional country and bluegrass music that attracted millions of viewers to the show each week, its track record speaks for itself. While the house band was comprised of Nashville’s top studio musicians — Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, Charlie McCoy, Danny Davis, Jethro Burns and Johnny Gimble – the guest stars included such then-current chart-toppers as Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Jr., Dottie West, Charlie Rich and Donna Fargo. The only drawbacks in these appearances came when the lip-synching became too obvious and in the ridiculously chaste dresses worn by the women headliners, who were further burdened with hideous bouffant wigs. This would change as years went by, but any resemblance between the Lynn and Wynette we see in these compilations and today’s crop of hooker-chic songbirds is limited is to their sterling voices. By comparison, the male stars either looked as if they had just finished milking the cows or left a fitting at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. The DVDs add fresh interviews and vintage comedy routines.

The archivists at TimeLife have also expanded on their inventory of treasures from “The Carol Burnett Show” and its various spinoffs. “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes” adds material for the first five seasons, some of it not seen for more than 40 years. Among the gems are the show’s debut episode; the first performances of “As the Stomach Turns,” “The Old Folks & Carol & Sis” and “Gone With the Breeze”/“Went With the Wind”; on-set pranks and bloopers; and fresh chats with Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, Tina Fey, Jim Nabors, Jimmy Fallon, Jack Jones, Steve Carell, Vicki Lawrence and Bob Newhart. Newcomers to vintage television variety shows probably will be appalled by the elaborate song-and-dance numbers and peculiar deployment of Vegas-style showgirls, which made viewers pray for commercials to arrive. They stand in direct contrast to everything being embraced by the counterculture in the late-1960s.

If “Portlandia” aired on HBO, Comedy Central or FX, instead of the sometimes difficult to find IFC, it would be hailed in the same breathe as such fringe comedies as “Louie,” “Veep,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Girls.” Like Amazon’s even more obscure “Transparent,” it is a show that owes its popularity to word-of-mouth and appearances by its stars on talk shows that skew to young audiences. The sketch-comedy series is an outgrowth of Internet and video collaborations between “SNL” alum Fred Armisen and musician/writer/actor Carrie Brownstein. If Portland were a person, instead of a city, it would fit the description of someone criticized for being “tragically hip.” As desirable a place to settle as it is, Portland is a magnet for an idiosyncratic collection of college-educated dweebs whose tolerance for anyone who strays from their politically correct agenda is roughly zero and defines liberal fascism. It’s entirely possible that the only constituency that doesn’t find “Portlandia” to be particularly funny are residents of the Rose City, who don’t think anything pertaining to them is amusing. Among the highlights of the show’s fifth season are “The Story of Toni & Candace,” which traces the corporate roots of the uber-feminist Women and Women First Bookstore; the double-barreled “Fashion,” during which Portland’s Dollar Store recruits Quinn (Brownstein) as the face for their rebranding campaign and Spyke (Armisen) faces trial for making unlicensed Bart Simpson merchandise; “4th of July,” in which Kath and Dave hire  a party planner (Jane Lynch) to organize an alternative Independence Day celebration and the mayor (Kyle MacLachlin) searches the “deep web” for alternative fireworks; and the self-explanatory, “Doug Becomes a Feminist,” during which Sandra also discovers the horrors of ride sharing.  Among the guest stars are Ed Begley Jr., Matt Groening, Oscar the Grouch, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Goldblum, Anna Gunn, Paul Simon, Paul Reubens, Olivia Wilde and Natasha Lyonne. The DVD adds deleted material from the ride-searching sketch.

American Experience: Walt Disney: He Made Believe
Masterpiece: Arthur & George
JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness
Frontline: Rape on the Night Shift
American Experience: Blackout
Counting on Birds: Tales of Migration
Seven Wonders of Brazil
Game Play
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show
Although some viewers will consider the two-part “American Experience” bio-doc, “Walt Disney: He Made Believe,” to be a warts-and-all profile of a true visionary and creative genius, others might wonder why the producers stopped short of isolating the virus that caused the warts in the first place. Executive Producer Mark Samels and the “AE” team received extraordinary access to the Disney archives, which hitherto have been protected from outside surveillance as if it were the vault at Fort Knox. It adds video evidence to previous print biographies that dared to dig below the surface of the great man’s legacy. His testy relationship with his father is recalled alongside the importance of his brief, idyllic stay with relatives in rural Kansas as a boy. The film also gives proper credit to Roy Disney, who kept the wolves away from the studio gates long enough for Walt to realize artistic dreams that tended to go over budget. In fact, it wasn’t until the success of Disneyland was assured, thanks to a helping hand from fledgling ABC, that the wildly inventive showman was able to work his magic without fear of being foreclosed. He also owed a great debt of gratitude to the children who so loved his movies and cartoons that they demanded of their parents that they buy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of coonskin caps, toys, trading cards, records, comic books, wands, tiaras and other branded products that paid the bills when ticket sales lagged. It isn’t until the end of the first half of the documentary, when studio employees, including several of his most loyal artists, decided that Uncle Walt’s concept of “family” didn’t square with the financial realities of raising families of their own that our perceptions of life the Mouse House change. Disney blamed their decision to form unions on communists in their midst and refused to negotiate a settlement in an ugly strike. It wasn’t until he split for a tour of South America that Roy was able to achieve a settlement. Six years later, Disney would get his revenge by appearing as a “friendly witness” before the HUAC panel investigating the influence of communism in Hollywood.

It wasn’t until 1950, after “Cinderella” became a gamble that paid off big for the studio, that Disney was able to finance an ambitious slate of animated- and live-action projects, establish his own distribution company, enter television production and begin building Disneyland without looking over his shoulder for the nearest creditor. It also allowed him to further distance himself from those employees who could remember a time before he decided to take away such luxuries as rugs, comfortable chairs, adequate lighting, affordable cafeteria food and other things employees valued. Instead, he took time away from the studio to construct a narrow-gauge railroad at his home and form a splinter company to avoid the concerns of bean-counters. The bio-doc ends with the success of “Mary Poppins” and plans for Disney World, whose completion he wouldn’t live to see. Unlike the compact Anaheim facility, where growth was extremely limited, Disney bought enough land – surreptitiously, as possible — to control everything from who could build hotels and gas stations on roads leading to the property, to largely avoiding state, county and city interference. Where “He Made Believe” falls a tiny bit short, however, is in its seeming unwillingness to explore the root causes of his rabidly anti-labor stance – apart from being a control freak — and inability to see how some constituencies might feel left out of the overall Disney picture. A good deal of time is devoted to the controversy over “Song of the South,” which he considered to be a celebration of folklore, but African-Americans considered to be little more than an extension of the South’s ante-bellum plantation mentality. Although the movie was put on the shelf to avoid further protests here, it wasn’t pulled from overseas circulation and feelers about its re-release are sent out on a semi-regular basis. Criticism over images of racial minorities and non-European characters have always been a thorn in the studios side. The same is true of the 800-pound gorilla in Disney’s legacy: accusations of anti-Semitism. The doc’s producers argue that such charges couldn’t be verified in their research and, therefore, didn’t make the cut. It’s difficult, though, to separate Disney’s outrage toward union leadership and his lone-wolf stance among other Hollywood studio chiefs from suspicions that some deeply held bigotry from his formative years might have avoided extinction. Should such things matter in 2015? It’s hard to say.

Some PBS affiliates are in the midst of an Arthur Conan Doyle revival with a terrific adaptation of Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel, “Arthur & George,” and reruns of the Season Three episodes of BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, forming a double-feature, of sorts. (The UK-approved compilation is already available on Blu-ray/DVD. A fourth season is expected in 2017.)  On July 4, 1906, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lost his first wife, Mary Louise, to tuberculosis. In his despondent state, he was left unable to write or do much of anything else. It wasn’t until his secretary, Woodie, presented him with a possible case of institutionally condoned injustice that he could be roused to action. It was a bizarre situation, to be sure, involving mutilated farm animals in rural South Staffordshire and obscene threats to a half-Indian/half-British solicitor. George Edalji has already been tried, convicted and released from prison for the crimes, but there’s ample reason to believe he received a fair trial. After serving three years of a six-year sentence, George needs help to clear his name, so he can get on with his chosen life. Conan Doyle isn’t absolutely convinced of his innocence until he comes face to face with the local constabulary, who can’t disguise their contempt for anyone a shade or two darker than the average Midlands farmer, even the son of a minister. It’s an actual case, which had serious ramifications in British law. It’s also a grand entertainment, during which Conan Doyle uses methodology whose validity Holmes would be would be ashamed to admit.

The PBS documentary, “JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness,” not only goes a long way toward correcting misconceptions about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s record on civil rights – advanced in last year’s historical drama, Selma – but it also pinpoints exactly what’s wrong with politics-as-usual in today’s Congress. Although unfairly lumped together with the Southern voting bloc by liberals who couldn’t see beyond his Texas drawl, Johnson had been a lifelong opponent of racially based injustice, especially as it was applied to Mexican-Americans in his home state.  After the assassination of President Kennedy, in 1963, Cabinet holdovers fretted over what they assumed would be the vice-president’s lack of enthusiasm for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, advanced by the previous administration. Even with Kennedy’s sponsorship, the legislation was no sure bet for passage on the Hill. Fortunately, that era in politics was marked by a bipartisan desire to get some important things accomplished, even if it required compromise. LBJ knew that he couldn’t rely on Southern Democrats for support, as they were dyed-in-the-wool segregationists. Instead, he worked directly with Republican leadership – this was before the GOP had committed to flat-Earth beliefs and governance by fear – to get the job done. They understood that compromise was as much a part of American politics as being corrupted by lobbyists would become, 20 years later. Unfortunately, for Johnson and the American people, he also was stuck with Kennedy’s war in Southeast Asia, which the Pentagon and CIA still felt could be won by putting more American boots on the ground. He left office, a shattered man, only three years later.

In “Rape on the Night Shift,” the producers of “Frontline” return to an issue thoroughly investigated and uncovered two years ago in “Rape in the Fields.” Instead of blowing the whistle on the “open secret” of violent sexual harassment, including rape, of undocumented agricultural workers, the reporters tackled sexual abuse of undocumented women in the service industry. The film examines allegations of abuse across the janitorial industry – especially those subcontractors hired by building managers – and how the government, law enforcement and companies fall short in dealing with the problem. Contrary to everything Donald Trump has to say on the subject of immigration, the crimes are largely perpetrated against hard-working, poorly paid women by American citizens, who knew they controlled the fate of the undocumented workers.

The “American Experience” chapter, “Blackout,” revisits the events of July 13, 1977, when New Yorkers lost their electricity for more than a day and thousands of them used the cover of darkness to riot, start fires and confront police and firefighters. While millions of other citizens found non-violent ways to beat the heat, humidity and outage by grinning and bearing this inconvenience of city life, they were excluded from the headlines. Compounding the problem was high unemployment, the layoffs of police and firefighters, cuts in municipal services and the Son of Sam killings. Anyone who’s seen Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam already knows what to expect in “Blackout,” writ large. And, although the root cause of the disaster was an electrical storm, it was the lack of anticipatory preparations that kept the lights from coming back on any time soon.

Also new to the lineup of PBS-sourced DVDs, are the two-disc compilation “Counting on Birds: Tales of Migration,” in which host Willem Lange explores the migratory patterns and documentation of birds native to New England, including the broad-winged hawk; “Seven Wonders of Brazil,” a journey into the heart of the South American behemoth to explore the incredible spiritual diversity of Brazilian Christianity; the feature documentary, “Game Play,” traces the history of video games from Pong and Pac Man, to Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, with an eye toward the future; and “Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show,” an exploration of the world of U.S. television showrunners and the creative forces aligned around them, with Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and other successful producers.

The DVD Wrapup: Boulevard, D Train, Gemma Bovary, Good Kill, Felt, Aquarius, Haven and more

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Boulevard: Blu-ray
The D Train: Blu-ray
For most of the last 20 years of Robin Williams’ life and career, his most objective fans came to agree with critics that his best work could be found in dramas and comedies in which he wasn’t required to act like a tragic clown or impersonate a cocaine-fueled Mork From Ork on talk shows. The Academy Award Williams received for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting was as much an acknowledgment of his ability to play against type as it was a reward for legitimately excellent work. (Burt Reynolds’ nomination for Boogie Nights, also in 1998, was considered in much the same light.) It would be followed by a series of roles in the movies and on television in which he played sociopaths and loners we couldn’t help but pity. With the exception of the Night at the Museum installments, few of his later movies attracted large audiences. Although serious personal problems and depression would finally take their toll on Williams, he was always a welcome guest on talk shows and supporting actor in other actors’ star vehicles. Depending on whom one believes, Boulevard was Williams’ final film. In it, he plays 60-year-old bank employee, Nolan Mack, whose low-key attention to detail at work belies an extremely messy private life. Just as Nolan’s about to be promoted to the position he probably deserved 20 years earlier, he finds himself in the kind of situation that could nullify all of the respect he’d earned in the interim, and possibly destroy his sexless marriage to Joy (Kathy Baker). One night, after making an excuse for leaving home, Nolan finds himself on a street where elderly johns cruise for barely legal male prostitutes. Accidentally on purpose, he picks up a handsome trick and takes him to a no-tell motel. Instead of having sex, Nolan only asks of Leo (Roberto Aguire) that he take off a few articles of clothing and share some therapeutic small talk. It’s at this moment that the closet in which he’s been living for an undetermined amount of time crashes in on the unprepossessing loan officer, threatening to crush Joy and alienate him from his closest friend (Bob Odenkirk). Although we’re given hope that Nolan’s fatherly advice and kindness will sink in, it’s likely that Leo will amount to a lost cause. Still, even in an 88-minute drama, there’s usually room for a miracle. In a very real sense, director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) and writer Douglas Soesbe (The Wrong Woman) have created a story whose closet-case dynamic lost its currency years ago, thanks to the evolution of Queer Cinema and the persistence of such indie distributors as Wolfe. Joy certainly suspected that her husband’s emotional absence at home was caused by something resembling a confusion of sexual identity and not from a lack of love for her. His closest male friend, a professor, is an understanding fellow, who wouldn’t have cared if Nolan had suddenly announced that he was grandmaster of this year’s Gay Pride Parade on Ork. Given time, the bank executive who recommended him for promotion, no matter his engrained mid-South prejudices, probably would have found more important things to worry about, as well. These glaring miscues, aside, Williams delivers an emotionally charged performance that nearly overcomes the anachronisms.

Ever since Jack Black broke into the spotlight some 15 years ago in HBO’s “Tenacious D: The Complete Master Works,” High Fidelity and Shallow Hal, the likable musician/actor has worked feverishly to remain in its direct glare. At 5-foot-6, it hasn’t always been easy to remain visible, but, in Hollywood, being short isn’t always the liability it is in, say, the NBA. Based on his oversized screen persona, alone, however, Black might have found a way to play in the same backcourt as “Spud” Webb or “Muggsy” Bogues, who are as short or shorter. Even without taking his lucrative voiceover work into consideration, it’s possible that, by now, he may have reached the point of overexposure and it’s beginning to backfire on him. His work alongside old pal Tim Robbins in HBO’s diplomatic sitcom, “The Brink,” demonstrates just how good he can be when the comic load is distributed equally. Robin Williams, Jim Carey and Bill Murray discovered at crucial turning points in their careers how difficult it can be to break out of the class-clown mold when your fans aren’t ready for it. Like Boulevard, the creation and release of The D Train might have made sense in the early- to mid-1990s, when Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck shocked moviegoers with a surprise kiss, in In & Out. Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick’s comedy was targeted for consumption by mainstream audiences who weren’t used to seeing gay characters that weren’t sexual predators, closet cases or AIDS casualties. It struck a chord with gay and straight audiences, in the same way as Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul’s The D Train might have, if it had come out in 1997. As it is, it grossed a pathetic $447,524 when it opened on last May on 1,009 screens. Black plays Daniel Landsman, the chairman of his high school class’ 20th reunion; husband to Stacey (the similarly ubiquitous Kathryn Hahn); and father to a teenage son who’s confused by the first unmistakable pangs of post-pubescent lust. In a truly unbelievable setup, Daniel convinces his boss (Jeffrey Tambor) at a computer business to take him along to Los Angeles on a sales trip, during which he hopes to convince a popular former classmate, Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), to come home for the reunion.

Having seen him on a national commercial as a spokes-model for a sunscreen manufacturer, Daniel assumes incorrectly that Oliver is swimming in money and will only need a bit of coaxing to be the reunion’s star attraction. Although they exist on opposite ends of the charisma spectrum, Oliver agrees to let Daniel’s company bankroll a night on the town. After experiencing Hollywood night life at its most decadent, he remains sufficiently star struck to readily accept the non-star’s hotel room overture. When morning arrives, they agree to treat the incident as if it were something as common as visit to the Chinese Theater and Walk of Fame. It begs a couple of questions that won’t be answered conclusively until moments before the closing credits roll and we’ve already endured the sight of Daniel making a complete fool of himself in spasms of unrequited jealousy. As great a comic actor as he is, though, Black is only able to keep the gag funny for a couple of minutes, before it collapses of its own weight. Except for a wickedly funny scene in which Oliver gives Daniel’s 14-year-son hideously bad advice on dating protocol, the cast of very good actor could sue Mogel and Paul for lack of creative support.

Gemma Bovery: Blu-ray
It seems like only yesterday when I reviewed the latest film adaptation of “Madame Bovary,” and, yet, it’s almost been a full month. Fortunately, almost all of the movies made from the malleable Flaubert classic have been extremely easy on the eyes, lush with beautiful French scenery and attractive actors playing interesting characters. Based on a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, Gemma Bovary takes an altogether different approach to the same time-honored material. Set in a quaint village in Normandy, Anne Fontaine’s adaptation opens by introducing us to Martin, an obsessive Flaubert reader who left Paris seven years earlier with his wife to take over his father’s bakery. The hangdog romantic, Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini), can’t believe his good fortune when an English couple, Charlie and Gemma Bovery (Jason Flemyng, Gemma Arterton), moves into the vacant yuppie-bait property across the street from him. More closely resembling Roberto Benigni than Marcello Mastroianni, Jobert hopes to enchant Gemma with the heavenly aroma of baked goods. In his mind, it would make good on prophesy that he’s chosen to read into “Madame Bovary.” Every bit the friendly neighbor, Gemma allows Martin to get close enough to her to become intoxicated with her femininity, without also encouraging him to act on it. Like Emma, Gemma eases her boredom with her husband’s mundane pursuit of antiquities repair by entering into liaisons with younger, more delicious looking locals. Martin observes her pursuits from afar, knowing that something untoward is going to happen to someone very soon. Gemma Bovary may end in tragedy, but it retains enough of its graphic-novel edge to also provide some laughs and erotic sparks before the story is wrapped up in a satisfyingly literary fashion. The handsome Blu-ray presentation adds “In the Footsteps of Emma: The Making of ‘Gemma Bovery’”; “Master Class With Director Anne Fontaine”; and “From Page to Screen Graphic Novel Gallery.”

Good Kill: Blu-ray
The greatest philosophical debate of the 20th  Century involved the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when it might have been possible to negotiate a solution that didn’t require an invasion of the Japanese mainland, conceivably resulting in even more deaths, including those of Allied troops. From what we know now about the resolve of Japanese leaders to commit their countrymen to mass hara-kiri, rather than submit to unconditional surrender, that theory probably was accurate. It was the simultaneous invasion of Manchuria by 1.6 million Soviet troops and legitimate fear of a divided Japan that more likely sealed deal for the Allies. Then, too, evidence of the bombs’ ferocity might have convinced Stalin not risk a third world war by taking advantage of an Allied invasion of Japan to claim disputed territory nearer its borders. The term “collateral damage” wouldn’t come into favor militarily until the Vietnam War, when the Pentagon was required by the media to address criticism of the inordinate number of deaths and injuries to non-combatant adults and children. Publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death,” and its subsequent adaptation into film, provided a disturbing reminder to Americans that the mass slaughter of innocents wasn’t limited to Hiroshima and Nagasaki or, for that matter, to German death camps and Japanese P.O.W. facilities. After limiting media access to the front lines of the first Gulf War, Pentagon spokesmen tantalized reporters and producers with images of precision-guided munitions getting the job done without endangering civilians. By buying into the concept of a “The Nintendo War,” the media was conned into ignoring collateral damage caused to people who had the misfortune of living near targets deemed strategic by the architects of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. In fact, the number of pin-point attacks was dwarfed by the use of traditional “dumb bombs,” cluster bombs and daisy-cutters. The use of combat drones in our continuing “war on terrorism” once again demands that we question why advanced weaponry hasn’t been able to reduce collateral damage and the accidental targeting of innocents. Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill penetrating drama does exact that.

By setting his vastly under-distributed film in Nevada, thousands of miles from the killing fields of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, Niccol demands of viewers that they consider aspects of the war left untouched in American Sniper, Lone Survivor and the post-torture sequences in Zero Dark Thirty. Those more or less conventional boots-on-the-ground thrillers did well at the box office, unlike Good Kill, whose paltry $316,472 return from 143 screens came despite excellent reviews and similar number of confirmed kills to enemy combatants. Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan, an Air Force fighter pilot assigned to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle duty when demand for manned-aircraft missions dropped. Along with his veteran commander (Bruce Greenwood) and three other “pilots” – recruited because of their joystick skills, playing video games – Egan’s base of operation is an air-conditioned railroad freight container, filled with high-tech communications equipment and video monitors carrying images captured in real time by armed drones. The first kills we witness are of known terrorists, either outside buildings or in vehicles. None of the pilots are portrayed as being particularly bloodthirsty, even with their high-fives and “good kill” salutations. They try to avoid collateral damage and sound the alarm if a civilian enters the picture in the 8-10 seconds it takes to squeeze the trigger and observe the explosion caused by a precisely aimed missile. Forsaking their own comfort and sleep, the team provides cover for a patrol of soldiers in dire need of some shuteye halfway around the world. As soon as each shift is over, Egan hops into his muscle car and heads into Las Vegas for a beer or two. Rarely does he head straight home to his wife (January Jones) and kids. We’re given no reason to question the team’s devotion to duty or ethical integrity.

Niccol does a nice job establishing the juxtaposition between what the pilots do all day – or, to be more specific, where their attention is focused – and everyday life in a city, state and country whose citizens may assume that drones are controlled from ships or bases closer to the action. The media seems to pay attention only reporting the assassination of a U.S.-raised terrorist leader or the collateral damage includes children. It isn’t until the unit’s command is transferred to the CIA, in the form of the disembodied voice of Peter Coyote. Langley, as he’s known to unit members, demands in no uncertain terms that they now locate the targets he identifies and eliminate them with extreme prejudice. If non-combatants are in the vicinity when the terrorist is incinerated, it will be left to Allah to sort out the bodies. Neither is he concerned about how such an escalation might impact the team’s morale, religious beliefs and ethical code. It gets worse when Langley decides to borrow a page from the Iraqi insurgents’ handbook by ordering second attacks on targets where bodies are still being pulled from the rubble. While this goes against everything Egan and Airman Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) entered the program to accomplish, their partners take the time-honored just-following-orders approach to collateral damage. Not surprisingly, by the time the movie’s dramatic ending rolls around, the collateral damage will include team members and their loved ones. Finally, the drone jockeys of Good Kill and Chris Kyle, in American Sniper, ask the same questions of themselves about their role in the war and the toll they’ve paid in a war that no longer has much to do with the events of 9/11. The Blu-ray includes “‘Good Kill’: Behind the Scenes.” Given recent events in ISIS-controlled Syria, I was left wondering why a well-directed drone – or three – couldn’t have prevented the destruction of ancient ruins at Palmyra.

Broken Horses
It isn’t often that a filmmaker as esteemed as Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) turns up in a trailer to introduce a picture made by a virtually unknown writer-director representing a cinema as foreign to Americans as Bollywood. Her he is, however, on one of the promotional pieces that pops up on the page for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s contemporary noir Western, Broken Horses. And, while the sub-genre’s trademark singing and dancing are nowhere to be found, the multilayered storytelling and fantasy elements are there in abundance. So, too, are the parched landscapes and otherworldly vistas that so distinguished the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s. What’s missing in Chopra’s first English-language, quasi-Hollywood venture is the narrative logic that American audiences come to expect from traditional Westerns and, therein, lies the rub. Anton Yelchin plays Jacob, a cherubic young man who left the badlands along the lawless U.S./Mexican border years earlier to pursue a career as a classical violinist in New York City. Now, Jacob has returned to his hometown to alert his simple-minded brother, Buddy (Chris Marquette), of his impending marriage, an event the younger sibling has anticipated in his mind since they were separated. The difference between the two brothers is as ludicrous as it profound. Ever since he was conned into settling a score for a local crime boss, Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), Buddy has been intermittently employed as an assassin for cross-border entrepreneurs. No sooner does Jacob show up at the house built for him by his brother than Julius devises a scheme to dispose of a powerful Mexican rival. And, yes, it requires Buddy’s assistance. A seemingly simple executive gets infinitely more complicated by the unexpected appearance of Jacob’s porcelain-doll fiancé, Vittoria (María Valverde), who hasn’t heard from him about an important job offer for several days. Besides making Buddy giddy with happiness, Vittoria’s surprise visit gives the ruthless Julius a bit more leverage to use against the brothers if they decide to split for New York. Broken Horses is best when Chopra focuses on the atmospherics, attitude and bad-ass action. I still don’t completely understand what compelled Cuaron to testify in behalf of Broken Horses, but neither do I have any reason to doubt his sincerity. A making-of featurette explains how Chopra was able add a taste of Bollywood to the production, without spoiling the neo-Western broth. If nothing else, it’s nice to watch D’Onofrio chewing up the scenery, again.

The Chambermaid
The Lesson
Film Movement delivers again, with a pair of obscure new releases from Europe that showcase independent filmmaking at its most inventive and unexpected. Typically, any film with “chambermaid” in the title is going to be full of kinky sex involving women in sexy uniforms, not at all suited for household chores, and the occasional whip. There’s some of that in Ingo Haeb’s inventively kinky, if inarguably strange The Chambermaid (a.k.a., “The Chambermaid Lynn”), in which Vicky Krieps plays a decidedly plain-looking and excruciatingly shy maid in a German hotel frequented by business travelers. Lynn has mental problems of undetermined origin that prevented her from working for a while. She owes her return to the job to a supervisor, who only expects the occasional snog. In return, he gets the services of one of the most thorough and competent maids imaginable. Lynn even has time left over from her chores to try on the lingerie of female guests and hide under the beds of gentlemen when one returns earlier than expected. It’s a habit she adopts for personal amusement during her free time, as well. One day, while prone under king-size mattress, a male guest returns with a dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis). Her androgynous look, even in the reflection provided by a mirror, so enchants the maid that she calls a number left behind in the room and books a date. The bond that develops between these two very different women is based on mutual need, as well as the emptiness at the core of their respective professions. Needless to say, The Chambermaid isn’t for everyone, if only because the pacing is resolutely patient and the sexuality isn’t intended for the titillation of male viewers. As gimmicks go, however, it’s not bad. As usual, the Film Movement package includes an interesting short film.

From Bulgaria comes Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s fable about what happens when a corrupted seed is planted in fertile ground and it grows into a tree that’s never as sturdy as it seems. In The Lesson, an extremely fragile looking teacher, Nadezhda (Margita Gosheva), starts her day with one small problem to mend, but, by its end, her dilemma has become something far more vexing. One of her pupils has stolen money from the knapsack of another child, but no one will ‘fess up to it. Nade will continue to test the students’ integrity, even as she’s required to deal with a financial mess of great significance caused by her irresponsible husband. Without her knowledge, he’s used money intended to pay the mortgage to buy and repair a bus he hopes to turn over for quick cash, if only he weren’t such a lousy mechanic. In fact, he’s missed enough payments to put the house in immediate risk of foreclosure. To come up with the money, Nade eventually will be reduced to begging, borrowing and, if necessary, stealing it. Meanwhile, a trap she’s set to reveal the thief among her students backfires on her, just as her plans to save her home begins to crumble at the most inconvenient time possible. It is well worth the investment in time it takes to discover if justice is served, in both cases, without thoroughly corrupting Neda.

Wolf Warrior: Blu-ray
Redeemer: Blu-ray
It takes a while before Wolf Warrior reveals itself to be the kind of post-Rambo recruitment tool for Special Forces wannabes as such film franchises as Delta Force, Sniper and Missing in Action. The rub here, however, comes in knowing that any recruiting to be done after watching Wolf Warrior will already have been done in China, where it was a big hit. American audiences must decide how good they’ll feel after cheering on a crack unit of People’s Liberation Army commandoes as they defend the PRC against a team of foreign mercenaries, led by a Brit with the unlikely name of Tom Cat. In his second test as a director, Beijing-born action star Wu Jing (Legendary Assassin) has assigned himself to the role of marksman Sergeant Leng Feng. Feng was jailed for disobeying an order in an operation designed to eliminate a drug lord hiding in a Southeast Asian jungle. While the mission was successful, Feng was thrown in jail for disobeying an order. When the drug lord’s successors unwisely decide to take their revenge during a training exercise, Feng is freed from prison to join the elite Wolf Warriors, a unit even CGI-animated wolves are given reason to dread. In an interesting twist, Yu Nan (The Expendables 2) plays the formidable female captain of the unit, who corresponds with her fighters via headphones from her all-seeing monitors at headquarters. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with modern Chinese cinema that there’s action aplenty – choreographed by Nicky Li Chung Chi (Rush Hour) – mostly of the jungle warfare variety, yet little need to justify narrative inconsistencies. Also noteworthy is the show of force put on by the Chinese military in support of the production. The Blu-ray offers the usual array of making-of assets.

From Chile, the 88-minute-long action flick Redeemer took me back to the early days of the Hong Kong martial-arts boom, when all an audience required of a movie was a hero, an evil crimelord and a small army of nunchaku-waving stiffs for the protagonist to destroy before eliminating the threat to mankind. In a sense, that’s all that has ever been required of a chop-socky picture in the post-Bruce Lee era. Somewhere along the way, however, audiences began to demand higher production values and technological proficiency, recognizable storylines, more charismatic protagonists and contemporary settings. Co-written and directed by genre specialist Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (Mandrill), all we’re given in the no-budget Redeemer is a human killing machine turned God-fearing vigilante, Pardo (Marko Zaror); a ruthless gringo druglord (Noah Segan); and a dozen or so cartel stooges for Pardo to demolish before eliminating the threat to mankind. The sole concession to plot embellishment is Pardo’s demand that his potential victims seek redemption before the lord to prevent their demise. They never do, though. That’s it. On the plus side, Zaror (Machete Kills) performs as advertised and the action is non-stop. There also are a few deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

Unless one is familiar with performance art as a medium for self-expression, most of what passes for it in Felt will look pretty ridiculous. Inspired by the costume art and personal experiences of Amy Everson, Jason Banker’s follow-up to the award-winning Toad Road decries the horror genre’s “rape culture” and reliance on rape/revenge flicks. Playing a version of herself, Everson is struggling to cope not only with past sexual trauma, but also what she considers to be the daily aggressions of a male-dominated society. Amy wears a felt costume that makes her look like a robot in pajamas and a hoodie, except for the exaggerated male genitalia protruding from its fly. (There are other, less bizarre costumes, but none so on-the-nose as a militantly “feminist” statement.) Even Amy’s friends recognize how close to the edge she’s come, as she seeks shelter in the forest and appears to have found companionship with someone (Kentucker Audley), who theoretically, at least, represents the rape culture. Even as we wish them both the best, Amy goes off the deep end for good. Felt is as disturbing a movie as I’ve come across in a long time and I’ve seen a lot of straight-to-DVD, do-it-yourself genre flicks. This one, however, is informed by the personal life of a well-regarded experimental artist and up-and-coming writer/director. It’s possible that Felt was a homework assignment from Everson’s shrink.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World   
The name, H.R. Giger, might not ring a bell for newcomers to the horror/sci-fi genre, but it’s the rare buff who hasn’t come face-to-face with one or more of his horror-erotic nightmares. Before his death last year, at 74, the Swiss artist was known in and outside the genre for his surrealistic paintings, censored album covers and the creatures borrowed by Ridley Scott for the Alien franchise. His self-described “biomechanical” style often merged guns and other weaponry with the sex/birth/death cycle of humans and other of his humanoid creatures. Although he fits squarely within the borders of 20th Century surrealism, Belinda Sallin’s terrific documentary portrait, Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, explores the influence this one-off artist had on rock musicians, production designers, sculptors, interior decorators, video game creators and tattoo artists throughout a career that rocked the counterculture in the same way that Ralph Steadman’s ink-blotch sketches did through exposure in Rolling Stone magazine. Because he suffered from night terrors, he kept an artist’s pad near his bed to illustrate his nightmares, at least one of which is said to have influenced the monsters in Aliens. Giger wasn’t strictly a recluse, but he feared flying and rarely left Switzerland. Sallin was able to spend a considerable amount of time inside Giger’s home, which could fill a season’s worth “Hoarders” episodes, and his fanciful mountain retreat. We meet friends, lovers and curators, along with the occasional death-metal musician whose body has been transformed into a living canvas for Giger’s art.

The Editor: Blu-ray
Morituris: Legions of the Dead: Blu-ray
Army of Frankensteins
Lost After Dark: Blu-ray
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume 1
It isn’t as easy to parody a genre of films that so frequently appeared to be playing fast and loose with its own tropes and conventions. At first glance, the giallo titles exported from Italy in the 1970-80s would seem to be as easy to tweak as American beach-party and creature features from the 1960s. The degree of difficulty associated with sending up such grandmasters as Dario Bava and Dario Argento has kept a flood of imitators from inundating the straight-to-DVD market. It takes real skill to keep a gag fresh for a minimum of 90 minutes. Even then, a working knowledge of giallo – now made easier to achieve through streaming sites – is required to recognize the references when they appear on screen. Even though Astron-6’s latest “homage to obscure VHS movies of the ’80s” tais one of the few I’ve seen that accurately captures the full flavor, as well as the nuances, of giallo, I think that The Editor can stand on its own merits as a horror flick not limited to one subgenre. There are enough nods to memorable horror movies (“The Crawling Hand”) and episodes of classic TV anthology series – “Night Gallery,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Boris Karloff’s Thriller,” “The Outer Limits” – to keep American buffs happy. Here, co-writer/director Adam Brooks plays Rey Ciso, once acknowledged to be the greatest film editor in the business. Since a terrible accident left him with four wooden fingers on his right hand, Ciso’s been reduced to cutting bottom-of-the-barrel genre fare. The real fun for viewers involves separating the grisly murders that occur on screen, with those that happen off screen, and others perpetrated in classic giallos. The list of likely culprits begins with the bitter wooden-fingered editor, but includes nearly everyone who could be seen in a frame from the movies he cut. In addition to the members of the Astron-6 repertory company, The Editor features dead-on performances by Udu Kier (Blood for Dracula), Paz de la Huerta (Nurse 3D), Laurence R. Harvey (The Human Centipede II: Full Sequence) Tristan Risk (House of Manson), Samantha Hill (Bad Meat) and Brent Neale (Father’s Day). The Blu-ray adds commentary with Brooks and fellow Astron-6 stalwarts Connor Sweeney and Matt Kennedy; deleted scenes; the “Making Movies Used to Be Fun” featurette, with some funny interviews with the stars; music and poster featurettes; and an Astron-6 film festival introduction.

Even if Raffaele Picchio’s morbidly audacious Morituris: Legions of the Dead isn’t a homage to giallo, or a parody, it owes its very being to such past masters of extreme Italian horror and violent crime as Lucio Fulci and Fernando Di Leo. Based on a horrifying rape, torture and murder (dubbed “Massacro del Circeo”) that stunned the nation in 1975, Morituris describes what happens when two pretty Romanian girls accept a ride to a rave from three charming sociopaths. They think nothing of stopping in the dead of night for pit stop in a forest, where the guys immediately begin to torture and rape them. It is the same place where, years earlier, a family stopped for a picnic – observed through found film footage shown in the opening scene – but, instead, became the victims of a mysterious slaughter. If they had been able to read the Latin etchings on the stones scattered around the picnic ground, they might have realized they were trespassing on an ancient grave yard and split immediately thereafter. Arriving at night, the trio of sadists couldn’t see the stones scattered around them. Such trespassing pisses off the zombie gladiators who also inhabit the dense forest. What follows is as nasty a depiction of ritualistic carnage as I’ve seen in a long time and it’s guaranteed to offend a large percentage of its target audience. Anyone not disturbed by the final scene ought to check himself into a facility for mental health before he hurts someone. Think I’m kidding? Check out the trailers on the Internet.

Miguel Ángel Vivas’s Extinction puts an entirely different spin on the zombie-apocalypse genre, by staging it somewhere in the land of the frozen tundra, where the undead have adapted to the environment in the same way as Arctic foxes and polar bears. Somehow, they’re also several times more active than their counterparts in more temperate climes. Patrick (Matthew Fox), Jack (Jeffrey Donovan) and his daughter Lu (Quinn McColgan) have outlasted the first zombie takeover by shutting themselves off in the snowbound town of Harmony. The two men have maintained a serious grudge against each other for nine years, so their homes are separated by tall chain fences and a road to nowhere. The fences are designed to keep the zombies from climbing over or digging under them. After an absence of several years of activity, during which the creatures evolved at an abnormally rapid pace, they’ve returned to Harmony to finish the job. And, yes, I know that zombies aren’t known for their evolutionary capabilities. Neither are the undead known for adapting to the dominant hue of their environment, unless there are chameleon zombies. For the most part, though. Because their eyesight hasn’t kept up with their senses of touch and sound, the humans have at least one chink in their armor to exploit. Alerted to other survivors by short-wave radio, they discover a young woman (Clara Lago) who’s been hiding out for years, as well. Her appearance encourages them to break free from Harmony and explore the southern regions. It’s easier said than done.

Ryan Bellgardt’s truly crazy Army of Frankensteins also an adds an interesting new twist to an ancient trope, by pitting squadrons of the mad doctor’s monsters against each other in the American Civil War.  Given that the first edition of Mary Shelley’s incredibly influential novel was published in 1818, anonymously, I suppose it might have been possible for Victor Frankenstein to have mass produced a sufficient number of his “modern Prometheus” to fill a battlefield an ocean’s distance from his German laboratory. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Anticipating skepticism on the part of viewers, Bellgardt conceived a scenario in which his 21st Century protagonist, Alan Jones (Jordan Farris), finds himself in the laboratory of a mad scientist attempting to re-animate the original creature. This time, though, the experimentation creates a hole in the time/space continuum, through which “an army’s worth of the infamous creatures from hundreds of parallel universes” converge on opposite sides a Civil War battlefield. Jones’ excellent adventure isn’t confined to the frontlines, though, and room is made for more melodramatic material on the fringes. I wondering if Bellgardt was thinking of Back to the Future when he sat down to write Army of Frankensteins. If so, he succeeds in re-creating a similar story without the advantage of a studio budget and fully equipped makeup-effects department.

Lost After Dark is for diehard fans of 1970-80s slasher films in which a reasonably diverse group of teenagers is preyed upon by a depraved freak of nature. The cast of characters here includes Adrienne (Kendra Timmins), a straight-A student; her quarterback crush, Sean (Justin Kelly); her all-American best friend, Jamier (Elise Gatien); Goth girl, Marilyn (Eve Harlow); bitchy blond, Heather (Lanie McAuley) and her douche-y boyfriend, Johnny (Alexander Calvert); token black dude, Wes (Stephan James); sex-starved fatso stoner, Tobe (Jesse Camacho); the ex-marine vice principal, Mr. C (Robert Patrick); and cannibal hillbilly killer, Junior Joad (Mark Wiebe). Anything I missed? Oh, yeah, in order to fumble their way into the legendary fiend’s killing ground, one of the teens hotwires a school bus. I don’t know if cinematographer Curtis Petersen was required to use a camera that hasn’t been cleaned since 1984 – the year Lost After Dark is set — but much of what happens in it is too dark to discern, even on Blu-ray. The smaller the screen, the less likely it will be to see. So, I don’t advise downloading it to one’s iPhone or Android.

Some collectors of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” compilations will have their prayers answered with the re-release of the turkeys and bonus material contained in “Volume 1.” The movies embody the spirit of the original “MST3K” mission, which was to determine the feasibility of using really bad B-movies against an enemy force. To do so, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt, launch Joel Robinson, a janitor working for Gizmonic Institute, into space and force him to watch such movies as Catalina Caper, The Creeping Terror, Bloodlust and The Skydivers. None of the titles has any redeeming social or artistic value, except for showcasing some momentarily popular dances performed by young adult women in bikinis. While the movies and interstitial entertainment in “Volume 1” aren’t connected in linear order, they all come from the archives of Crown International Pictures, whose story is told in the bonus material. The only title here that comes close to having historical value is Catalina Caper, in which some college guys, including Tommy Kirk (The Shaggy Dog), set off from San Pedro to enjoy a bit of island sunshine, scuba diving, and beach “bunnies,” while another boy’s con-artist parents scheme to sell a stolen scroll. Lyle Waggoner also plays a prominent role, as do Little Richard, The Cascades, and Carol Connors, who provide musical diversions.

The Harvest: Blu-ray
Backcountry: Blu-ray
It’s been a long time between feature films for John McNaughton, who, 30 years ago, made one of the most notorious movies in the history of any genre. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is still a movie that, once seen, could influence a young filmmaker’s career. He’s directed some excellent films and television shows since then — Mad Dog and Glory, Normal Life, Wild Things, five episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Street” – but, somewhere along the line, he must have stepped on someone’s toes. As is amply demonstrated in The Harvest, McNaughton still knows how to make a movie that keeps audiences on the edge of their collective seats. And, he manages to do so based on a slow-burn formula that puts a great deal of weight on the actors to keep viewers hanging on for the big reveal. Here, that responsibility falls largely on the broad shoulders of Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, with an assist from Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles. Morton and Shannon portray the parents of Andy, a bed-ridden boy who dreams of someday being able to play baseball. His mother maintains a nearly constant vigil to ensure Andy has no contact with the outside world, no matter if it’s in the human or bacterial form. Along comes a slightly older new neighbor, Maryann, who lives with her grandparents and feels as trapped in her loneliness as Andy is in his. After secretly insinuating herself into the boy’s life and opening up his horizons a bit, his mother forbids her to come in contact with him. What could possibly be the reason for smothering her son to such a degree? All is revealed in the final reel, when everything we think we know about the family is turned upside down. The Harvest may not equal “Henry” as stomach-churning entertainment, but it would be difficult to find parents as creepy as those played by Morton and Shannon. Commentary is provided by McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones

Adam MacDonald’s debut feature, Backcountry, keeps viewers waiting for nearly 50 of its 92 minutes to reveal the catalyst for the encroaching dread felt by a pair of weekend campers who think they know where they’re going, but are actually quite lost in the Canadian wilderness. Of course, a quick glance at the cover will reveal the nature of the beast stalking Alex (Jeff Roop) and Jenn (Missy Peregrym). Wisely, though, MacDonald wastes little time convincing us that dangers of a more human variety lurk in the darkness. There’s no need to betray any more of the plot, which picks up a lot of steam in a short time. The Scream Factory Blu-ray adds commentary with MacDonald, Peregrym and Roop; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and stills gallery.

The Dempsey Sisters
Urban rom/dram/com specialist Roger Melvin’s latest feel-good movie for African-American audiences – mostly of the female persuasion – is the Dove-approved Dempsey Sisters. It tells the story of a group talented siblings (and an in-law) who share the same dream of success, but lack the confidence to pull it off. Denyce Lawton, Teairra Mari and Cymphonique Miller play Deena, Sheena and Tina, singing sisters who are pushed by circumstances to finally stop sweating the small stuff and get their act together, literally. Fortuitously, older brother Thad (Antwon Tanner) returns to the familial fold in time to supply the push. First, though, he must find a way to convince the ladies that his new wife (Valarie Pettiford) isn’t trying to get between them and Thad. By the time the melodrama begins to get too thick, the movie’s musical motor kicks in.

7 Minutes: Blu-ray
There’s an entire sub-genre of crime pictures dedicated to thrillers in which wannabe outlaws are so inept that you wonder how they found their way out of their mother’s birth canal, without choking on the crack smoke or drowning in spilled vodka. There’s no reason to trace the lineage beyond Reservoir Dogs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, because Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie practically wrote the book on wildly dysfunctional criminals. The art of merging comedy, drama, music and time-shifting was something new in the 1990s, but its freshness wouldn’t last for long. When the formula works, however, as it almost does in 7 Minutes, it’s possible to enjoy even the dumbest of dumb-criminal flicks, despite themselves. First-time writer/director Jay Martin appears to have been blessed with an innate sense of pacing, because 7 Minutes never stops moving. It may not always know where it’s going, but, because we already know that the heist is going to end badly, the details don’t much matter. It doesn’t take long for a twentysomething ex-con to be talked into joining his high school buddies in a get-rich-quick drug deal. The trouble begins when the driver mistakes the patrol car in his rear-view mirror for a clear-and-present danger, instead of a mode of transportation for a cop looking for a place to eat. Fearing that the bag full of MDHD they’re carrying would buy him a one-way ticket back to prison, he decides to flush it down a toilet. Knowing that the drug dealer isn’t likely to forgive a $48,000 debt, they now must figure out a way to come up with the bread in 72 hours. We know from Minute One that the place they pick to rob is a bank whose manager will almost immediately recognize the face behind one of the masks. Luke Mitchell, Jason Ritter and Zane Holtz are credible as the would-be robbers, as is a double-crosser played by Kevin Gage. Kris Kristofferson is mentioned in the list of credits, even though his contribution amounts to about three minutes of hard glaring at the released con.

It took three first-time writers to device a script that overflows with ambition, but lacks anything resembling a coherent plot. Checkmate is the kind action-for-action’s-sake thriller that inspires viewers to believe they could write and direct a better version of the same movie with their hands tied behind their backs. Only one in 10,000 probably could accomplish such a thing, but most amateur critics would have no trouble spotting the holes through which they could drive a fleet of trucks. Because Checkmate isn’t the first rodeo for director Timothy Bass Woodward Jr. (SWAT: Unit 887), we can only guess at the reasons he didn’t spot them, himself. All of the characters are linked in one way or another to a bank heist taking place in an enormous bank in downtown Somewhere USA. As near as I can figure, two separate gangs have descended on the bank at precisely the same time. One of the gang leaders is a loudmouthed bigot, who appears to be overdosing on steroids before our eyes, while the other is a black guy who thinks his ass is being covered by a van full of doofuses with automatic weapons. (One stands on top of a building, shooting at police, without even once seeking cover.) His treatment of the hostages, including a pregnant Mischa Barton, would embarrass even Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who ran with Ma Barker and, while in prison, taught Charles Manson how to play the guitar. The cops are alerted to the robbery almost before the crooks can figure out what the other gang is doing there. Meanwhile, what’s happening downtown appears to have some strategic relationship to a chess game being played in a nearby vault between Lucifer (Vinnie Jones) and the Hebrew God, Elohim (Danny Glover), who’s accompanied by a hot female samurai. I kid you, not. Also participating are Sean Astin, Michael Pare, Johnny Messner, Katrina Law, Willa Ford, Antwon Tanner and David Chisum.

NBC: Aquarius: Blu-ray
Spike TV: I Am Dale Earnhardt
BBC: Atlantis: Season Two Part Two: Blu-ray
Haven: Season 5, Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Hallmark: When Calls The Heart: Heart And Home
Hill Street Blues: Season Six
Nickelodeon: Out of the Vault Halloween Collection
While binging on NBC’s curiously addictive “Aquarius: The Complete First Season” on Blu-ray, I frequently wondered if the officials at Corcoran State Prison – Charles Manson’s longtime home — had allowed inmates to watch the show when it aired this summer. The opportunity to see how the facility’s most notorious resident ended up in stir probably would have kept the inmates quiet for an hour or so. Now that’s it’s available in an uncensored version, with extended episodes, it’s a question that begs to be asked once again. (Unlike the vast majority of “uncensored” TV series transferred to video, “Aquarius” adds partial, unblurred nudity and coarse language. None of it is any more gratuitous than the average episode of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime.) The first-season episodes follow Manson and his Family members as they begin to lay down their roots in Los Angeles, circa 1967, two years before the killing spree that led to life sentences for several of the characters we meet here. The hyper-charismatic career criminal has already accumulated a harem of starry-eyed flower children and posse of violence-prone men. The show also posits that Manson had extended his grasp into the corporate offices of L.A., by doing dirty work for hypocritical executives, some of whom are linked to Richard Nixon’s comeback campaign. Manson, who started his criminal life as a pimp, traded the sexual favors of his followers for entrée into the city’s pop-music establishment. He was every bit as obsessed with becoming a rock superstar as the Family members are devoted to helping Manson succeed. If that was all “Aquarius” was about, it would have become tiresome after the first episode. Instead, writer John McNamara (“In Plain Sight”) hooks us by showing us how the daughter of wealthy Republican parents. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), allows herself to become one of Charlie’s most fervent devotees. Frantic, Emma’s mother calls on an old lover, homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), to help track her down. In turn, Hodiak is allowed to recruit a shaggy undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to shine light into corners unavailable to the flat-topped detective. Through Hodiak and Shafe, viewers are provided a first-hand look at a LAPD, which, at the time, was a proto-fascist force of militaristic bigots. Shafe is far more liberal on most issues than Hodiak, who’s only slightly more progressive than the rest of force. Of course, he’s also a borderline alcoholic. In 1967, Los Angeles was a metropolis coming apart at its seams, with its segregated police force the largest target available to activists. The storylines also work in well-considered looks at the Vietnam War, the peace movement and Black Panthers. Not all of it will ring true to Boomers who witnessed the turmoil at ground level, but, by and large, the clichés, archetypes and stereotypical portrayals are close enough to pass muster. The summer startup series already has been renewed for a second season. The Blu-ray adds the backgrounder, “First Look: Aquarius,” and webisodes.

The Spike TV bio-doc, “I Am Dale Earnhardt” may not qualify as a warts-and-all portrait of a man who truly was a racing legend, but it digs far enough below the surface of that legend to demonstrate what made him someone NASCAR fans either loved or loathed. Not only was he the son of one of the original good-ol’-boy drivers, but he left behind a son to carry on the racing line. Known as the

“The Intimidator” for reasons even a Prius owner could understand, it was just this all-or-nothing attitude that made a valuable commodity for sponsors and souvenir hawkers, alike. That fact that Earnhardt died with his boots on, as it were, on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 seemed only appropriate for some who lived so close to the edge. The DVD adds plenty of short featurettes culled from the NASCAR-produced film.

I don’t know how the BBC determined it would divide the second season of its popular fantasy/adventure series into two parts and not consider the second half of the second season worthy of being designated Season Three. The halves were separated by four months, while the 13 episodes that comprised Season One of “Atlantis” were shown back-to-back. So it is that “Atlantis: Season Two Part Two” contains the same number of episodes – six – in “Atlantis: Season Two Part One.” The pricing doesn’t favor the consumer, but what else is new? As the stanza begins, Pasiphae is determined to stop Jason’s wedding to Ariadne, no matter the cost. With Jason’s execution imminent, Hercules mounts an escape attempt, which, itself, is less than successful. Can Atlantis be saved? Probably not, because a Season Three isn’t likely to be green-lit.

Likewise, for no discernable reason, Season Five of Syfy’s supernatural soap opera, “Haven,” has been divided into two separate halves. The second and probably final series of episodes begins in October. Inspired by one of the million stories written by Stephen King, “Haven” is populated with characters who either struggle with supernatural afflictions or protect the town from the effects of those afflictions. Like “Dallas,” “Beverly Hills 90210” and every other prime-time soap worth its salt, the complexity of the storylines grows exponentially with each successive year. The supernatural elements, when combined with traditional issues involving relationships, crime, personal conflicts and health, almost demand binge viewing of previous seasons. Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour lead an attractive cast.

The latest episode culled from Hallmark’s frontier drama, “When Calls the Heart,” is “Heart and Home.” In it, Jack and Elizabeth rush back to Hamilton after learning that his brother, Tom, was involved in an automobile accident, with sister, Julie. Hidden details of that relationship put Jack and Elizabeth at odds with their families and with each other. Their trip is further complicated when Tom and Julie attempt to run off together (via train this time) and Elizabeth’s father asks the Mountie to find Julie.

In the sixth season of “Hill Street Blues,” Patsy Mayo (Mimi Kuzyk), Det. Harry Garibaldi (Ken Olin), Lt. Ray Calletano (René Enríquez), Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) and Officer Leo Schnitz (Robert Hirschfeld) were all phased out at the start of the season, and Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) left near the end. The sole addition was Lt. Norman Buntz, played Dennis Franz, who had played a different character, Det. Sal Benedetto, in several episodes of Season Three. Peter Jurasik played a new recurring character, Sid the Snitch, who was often teamed with Buntz. Careful observers might notice the impact of new show-runners.

Ready or not, the Halloween DVD season has begun in earnest, with Nickelodeon’s “Out of the Vault: Halloween” the first collection of themed content out of the gate. It features 16 vintage Nicktoons episodes, pulled from five different series. The running time is a generous 3½ hours.

Sexual Assault at a Hotel
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 12
The latest package of vintage porn from Image includes the latest installment in a series of 8mm shorts, re-mastered from original film prints, and featuring such rising stars as Desiree Cousteau, Amber Hunt, Sharon Kane and Hershel Savage. 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 12 adds several color loops, bringing us to the point where features are eclipsing the peep shows for business. Liner notes are provided by  Cinema Sewer editor Robin Bougie.

As more women and coupes became drawn to adult films, rape fantasies quickly disappeared from the menu of themes being rented at the local video store. Movies that would be considered degrading to American women remained a staple of Japanese erotica for a much longer time. Sexual Assault at a Hotel is representative of the subgenre in that painfully shy college student is sexually awakened through a series of assaults with the kind of men who grope women on crowded Tokyo subway trains and get their kicks sneaking up on women and pulling up their skirts. Liner notes from Japanese film scholar Jasper Sharp attempt to explain the fetish for Western audiences.

The DVD Wrapup: Welcome to NYC, Falling Star, Elena, Riot Club, Runner, Citizenfour, Clive Barker, Walking Dead, Gene Autry … More

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Welcome to New York: Blu-ray
The ancient Greeks had a word for the willingness of some men to risk everything for the momentary pleasure that comes with testing the limits of their influence: hubris. Today, the same condition is usually attributed to powerful men in far less literary terms. When Bill Clinton tempted fate by allowing himself to be fellated by an intern in the Oval Office, then lied about it in a statement read to the American public, he tarnished his reputation, ruined that of a short-sighted young woman, helped George W. Bush defeat Al Gore and, likewise, may have ruined any chance for his wife to succeed him in the White House. If that’s a staggering price to pay for momentary release, there still are few Democrats around who believe that Clinton was set up by a right-wing temptress and merely acted as any man would in similar circumstances. Men born with the hubris gene, maybe. The same blindness toward foreseeable consequences certainly applied to former IMF chief and presumptive French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was arrested in the sexual assault of a maid in a pricy Manhattan hotel. Although the case would be dismissed for lack of credible evidence, the man labeled “le grand séducteur” by a Gallic newspaper would resign from his post, lose his wealthy and influential wife to divorce, and be accused of rape and “aggravated pimping” in unrelated investigations. In what might be considered a happy ending by some observers, the chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo, agreed to a nearly $1.5 million settlement in the case. She used it to open an African-cuisine restaurant in the Bronx, while the so-called “Metternich with a BlackBerry” returned to corporate banking, advising countries on financial strategies and appearing on TV as an expert on various subjects. He may never become president of France, but neither is he reluctant to appear in public with his latest conquest in tow.


One thing DSK almost certainly won’t be able to live down is the damning portrayal of his behavior in Abel Ferrara’s caustic dramatization of the same sad event, Welcome to New York. Although the character’s name has been changed simply to Devereaux, there’s no mistaking who Gérard Depardieu is channeling. The great French actor and onetime Oscar nominee (Cyrano de Bergerac) has come under heavy criticism of late for renouncing his citizenship and cozying up to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Still, there’s no denying the sheer audacity of his performance here. DSK may never be mistaken for Arnold Schwarzenegger, another politician who couldn’t control his impulses, but even he must have been embarrassed by the sight of an actor who looks as if he’d been mainlining foie gras and guzzling Big Gulps to bring up his weight. My first thought, upon seeing Devereaux naked among a bevy of clearly expensive prostitutes, is that Depardieu had modeled the character after Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now or a sumo wrestler, one. The scene begs the question as to how much money a beautiful woman – any woman – might require to pull back the rolls of fat hiding his penis and servicing him to the best of her ability. Clearly, a lot. It’s also possible that such a man might resort to overpowering a woman who refused to warm to his advances, especially if she was in no position to defend herself physically or legally. (DSK admits only to have pleasured himself, allegedly with the maid’s approval, and leaving semen on her uniform.) We’ll never the truth, even if Welcome to New York makes a logical case for a forced attack having taken place that day.

Jacqueline Bisset is excellent as Simone, an elegant, long-suffering wife clearly modeled after French journalist and heiress Anne Sinclair. Her tolerance of DSK’s dalliances is explained by her now-dashed expectation of becoming the First Lady of France. It’s a wonderful supporting performance that shouldn’t be forgotten in the year-end awards voting. Also worth noting is Ferrara’s attention to the trappings both of great wealth and the humiliation that derives from a vain man having to share a holding cell with less fortunate souls at Rikers Island.  Ferrara has always had a firm handle on stories set in New York and “Welcome” is no different. Here, though, we see the city through a prism of unlimited wealth, privilege and pro-rated justice. It isn’t any prettier than the one we visited in Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45 and King of New York, just substantially slicker.

Falling Star
In the days before the trans-Atlantic telegraphic cable was laid, it must have been hell for State Department employees to keep track of the affairs of European royalty and their plans for mischief. Even the most buzz-worthy court gossip took nearly two weeks to make it from Europe to the United States. By the time a rumor found its way into the New York Times or Washington Post, it may already have been proven false or tarnished the reputation of a highly placed ally. Falling Star (“Stella Cadente”) takes place at about the same time as a second trans-Atlantic cable was approaching the shores of Portugal. The reign in Spain was being contested by various factions and all bets were off as to how long any successor to the crown would be able to hold power. After the abdication of Isabella II, in 1870, the Turin-born Amadeo of Savoy was elected king by the legislative court. No sooner had he been crowned, however, than Amadeo I lost his most powerful backer and, with him, any hope of resolving the problems caused by growing republicanism, Carlist rebellions in the north, the Cuban independence movement, interparty disputes, the interference of fugitive governments and various assassination attempts. Instead of bucking the rising tide of discontent, Amadeo abdicated his position only three years after reluctantly accepting the crown, declaring that the Spanish people were ungovernable. The First Spanish Republic was declared and abandoned in an even shorter period of time.

Luis Miñarro’s Falling Star accomplishes something remarkable by turning three years of one man’s boredom and ineffective rule into a strangely entertaining and borderline surrealistic period dramedy. Although far from being as nutty as the George III described in The Madness of King George, Amadeo I apparently had more than his fair share of idiosyncrasies and unfulfilled desires. Safely ensconced in a bunker-like compound in the countryside (Castel del Monte, in Italy’s Apulia region), he occupies his time with the pursuit of wine, fruit, sex and beauty. Without the distractions afforded by sycophantic courtiers, Amadeo I gets involved in the affairs of his servants. When the Queen Consort finally arrives from Italy, she finds the atmosphere to be even more oppressive than he did. After his abdication, they return to Italy, where he resumed the title of Duke of Acosta and became a footnote in European history. So, how does a filmmaker take three years of futility and mold it into something entertaining, at least for Spanish and Italian audiences? Miñarro patiently paints a portrait of an educated aristocrat imprisoned through an accident of birthright. Once we’re able to accept Amadeo as a human being more interested in music, food, art and education, than power and war, it’s easier to empathize with his peculiar position. The second half of Falling Star is enlivened by the relief that comes with a complete surrender to reality, peacefully erotic interludes and unexpected flashes of surrealistic comedy. Falling Star benefits, as well, from spectacular production values and lush period flourishes, as well as some wonderful work by the relatively unknown Catalonian actor, Àlex Brendemühl. It’s an eccentric movie, to be sure, but it should appeal to adventurous viewers.

The Riot Club
After leaving the Dogme95 movement behind for less structured pastures, Copenhagen native Lone Scherfig took on several well-regarded English-language projects, including Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, An Education, One Day and, her latest, The Riot Club. (The popular romantic dramedy, Italian for Beginners, was made in Denmark, partially according to Dogme guidelines.) Although her name may not be well-known yet in Hollywood circles – she directed a couple of episodes of ABC’s “The Astronaut Wives Club” — Scherfig definitely has a strong grasp on British society. Based on the stage play “Posh,” The Riot Club is a seriocomic indictment of the all-male dining societies at Oxford and other restrictive educational institutions in England. The one dissected by Scherfig and playwright/screenwriter Laura Wade is inspired by Oxford’s Bullingdon Club, which dates back to the late 1700s and is well known for its wealthy membership, raucous traditions and powerful alumni. The faux Riot Club probably bears resemblance to Yale’s Skull and Bones society, but is less secretive and protective of its public image. After informing us of the club’s origins, we are fast-forwarded to the present-day, as classes are about to begin and incoming freshman are scouted for the various clubs and organizations. At first, the Riot Club resembles any number of fraternities that discourage studying when so much fun can be had getting drunk, taking advantage of easily impressed women and flaunting their families’ wealth. Even the hazing of new recruits doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy, at a time when pledges risk their lives drinking to excess and being shackled to trees, naked, in the dead of winter. Most telling is the annual dinner at a local pub where run-of-the-mill debauchery is superseded by the club’s tradition of “posh hooliganism,” sense of entitlement and misogyny.

Apparently, the proud proprietors of the establishments chosen for the ritual trashing are expected to accept sums of money above remuneration for damages, so they won’t call for the prosecution of the students. Here, though, a senior member’s ego is damaged when the chef’s coup de grace – a ten-bird roast – is discovered to contain only nine winged fowls. Insult is added to injury when a local prostitute refuses to service the whole club on the dining table and disrespects them for being mere twits and perverts. Things go bonkers from there for everyone whose parents can’t be counted on to pay for repairs or bribe the local constabulary. It’s an ugly scene, even by the standards established in Animal House, where, at least, the bad boys were caricatures of familiar archetypes and no one got hurt. As such, some American viewers will miss the boys-will-be-boys bravado of homegrown frat-party fare, no matter the cold reality of the rash of hazing accidents. The Riot Club carries with it the queasiness that comes with knowing that privilege is power, especially as it radiates from elite institutions in western democracies. If anything, the ensemble cast too effectively portrays the onerous nature of some exclusive eating and social clubs. And, Wade’s final appraisal of the situation is depressingly ironic, considering that current leaders of Britain were revealed as Bullingdom alums. Actual British aristocracy is served here by the presence of Max Irons, son of Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack; Harry Lloyd, great-great-great-grandson of author Charles Dickens; Freddie Fox, son of Edward Fox and Joanna David; and Ben Schnetzer, Son of actors Stephen Schnetzer and Nancy Snyder.

Elena: Blu-ray
Inspired, perhaps, by the attention paid to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated drama, Leviathan, Zeitgeist Films has re-released the Russian filmmaker’s previous widely lauded, Elena, in Blu-ray. Although the crime at the heart of the story knows no boundaries, Zvyagintsev and his frequent co-writer Oleg Negin found a distinctly Russian way to tell it. The country still hasn’t come to grips with the economic disparity that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, so the characters here seem to be highly credible representatives of the new society. Remarried spouses Vladimir and Elena live in a posh neighborhood in central Moscow. From opposite ends of the economic spectrum, they met when she was hired to nurse him back to health from a heart attack. In or near their 60s, it isn’t clear how Vladimir amassed his money, but it probably isn’t from organized crime or oligarchical corruption. Her son is an unemployed lay-about with a teenage bonehead of his own, a newborn child and another on the way. The family lives in a cramped Soviet-era apartment, surviving largely on leftovers and spare change delivered on a regular basis by Elena. Vladimir not only opposes his wife’s unconditional charity, but he remains estranged from his own daughter for reasons pertaining to her free-wheeling lifestyle. When Vladimir suffers another heart attack, while swimming at his health club, Elena arranges for a father-daughter reunion. To her great surprise, the rapprochement results in her husband deciding to give the young woman the bulk of his estate. Disappointed that she won’t be able to pull her son out of the depths of his unforced despair, Elena decides to act before the die is cast. Again, the crime she plots isn’t particularly Russian in design – no toxic borsht or vodka, for example – but her mindset is born of an economic reality specific to Eastern bloc states. As is made readily apparent in the interviews that accompany Elena and Leviathan, Zvyagintsev is an extremely cerebral filmmaker and no detail is too small for him to take for granted. It gives his movies a distinctly literary tone increasingly absent in similarly designed dramas made in the U.S. The Philip Glass soundtrack and atmospheric cinematography add to the story’s air of impending menace. Besides a 30-minute interview with Zvyagintsev, the Blu-ray package adds a 39-minute making-of featurette; a video on the poster-printing process; and 20-page booklet.

After the Ball
A contemporized amalgam of “Cinderella,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Twelfth Night,” the Montreal-set fairy tale, After the Ball, is a not-bad idea that might have been wonderful if it had been appropriated by the folks at the Disney Channel. And, that shouldn’t be taken as a knock on director Sean Garrity (My Awkward Sexual Adventure) or writers Jason Sherman (“The Best Laid Plans”) and Kate Melville (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”), because what’s missing is the verve, musicality and frills that can only be afforded on budgets that make room for them. What distinguishes After the Ball from such Disney products as “High School Musical” and “Descendant,” though, is a willingness to bend gender borders and allow for several openly gay characters, without also calling attention to their presence. Portia Doubleday, who could be Amanda Seyfried’s slightly younger sister, plays the dual role of aspiring designer Kate/Nate. After returning to Canada from fashion school, the daughter of fading fashion magnate Lee Kassell (Chris Noth), she takes him up on his offer to join the family business. Alas, Kate is given the Cinderella treatment by her evil stepmother (Lauren Holly) and sinister stepsisters (Natalie Krill, Anna Hopkins), who have other plans for the business.

Forced out of her rightful spot in her father’s factory, Kate is encouraged by her aunt and partner at their second-hand boutique (Mimy Kuzyk, Carlo Rota) to infiltrate Kassell under the guise of the up-and-coming designer, Nate, and impress the tuxedo slippers off of her dad incognito. Everything works according to plan until the grand ball at which Nate’s fashions are to be showcased and the stepsisters revealed as frauds. Sadly, fate intervenes as it did in “Cinderella.” Enter Prince Charming, in the form of Kassell’s shoe specialist, Daniel (Marc-Andre Grondin), who had fallen for Kate before she disappeared, but now is intrigued by Nate. It’s a mess of Shakespearian proportions, crossed with some Grimms-ian wickedness thrown in for good measure. While After the Ball received a G-rating from the Canadian ratings board, its American distributors elected to release it on DVD unrated. If there’s nothing here a preteen girl isn’t used to seeing every day on cable television, the homophobia of MPAA censors is legendary … so, why take on a chance? The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette that should appeal to teen viewers drawn to the fashion backdrop.

The Runner
In his debut as writer/director, veteran producer Austin Stark has created a political drama set against a backdrop supplied by the horrific 2010 BP oil spill and informed by several decades’ worth of inventively crooked elected officials in Louisiana. When it comes to corruption and greed, Louisiana politicians make the Chicago Democratic machine look like a toy truck. For all of the time he’s spent in New Orleans, Nicolas Cage was an appropriate choice to play an ambitious U.S. representative from the City That Care Forgot. Corruption is woven into the fabric of city every bit as prominently as threads connecting food, music and voodoo. In the wake of the gulf oil spill, Cage’s Colin Price has become an advocate for the men and women who subsequently lost their jobs, homes or way of life to the disaster. They’ve yet to be made whole again through financial settlements negotiated with the companies responsible for the disaster. When news of his affair with the African-American wife of an out-of-work fisherman is leaked to the press, Price’s reputation and career are thrown into a seemingly irreversible tailspin. Besides threatening his marriage to a beautiful, politically savvy wife (Connie Nielsen), it causes him to cash in his AA chip.

Meanwhile, Price’s famously crooked father (Peter Fonda) is dying a slow painful death before his eyes. Before they became estranged, Rayne Price taught his son everything he needed to know about old-school Louisiana politics and the best places in New Orleans to get blind drunk and avoid the scourge of moralistic reporters. While resisting most of the temptations his father embraced, Colin’s succumbed a few of his own making.  Just as his career has begun to circle the bowl, however, the leading Senate candidate is caught on camera doing something even Big Easy voters find more reprehensible than stealing from the kitty or common adultery. While reconsidering his decision to drop out of the race for the Senate seat, Colin enters into another liaison with a married woman, this one a political aide (Sarah Paulson) who is every bit as reckless as he is. Through his now-estranged wife, he’s also presented with an offer from a moneybags lobbyist (Bryan Batt) that could put him back on his feet politically, but make him beholden to Satan’s business interests on Earth. Runner, so named because Price also enjoys jogging, falls just short of capturing the same tantalizing flavors of New Orleans life that informed Jim McBride’s gumbo-infused 1986 crime story, The Big Easy. Moreover, Stark plays the ending with such a straight face, it’s difficult to discern with any precision the degree to which his protagonist has compromised his integrity, or if he’s merely in it for the long con.

Citizenfour: Blu-ray
It’s been more than two years since government intelligence analyst Edward Snowden decided to blow the whistle on the National Security Agency, by stealing reams of classified data, splitting for Hong Kong and handing the documents over to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Ewen MacAskill. After stories based on the material began to appear in the Guardian, Washington Post, Der Spiegel and the New York Times and his cover was blown, Snowden was charged with espionage by the U.S. Department of Justice. Because he could only find refuge in Moscow, Snowden remains Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of many Americans, including the President of the United States. While it’s possible that just as many people consider his whistle-blowing to be an act of courage and heroism, the debate over the government’s intelligence-gathering procedures has become a campaign issue. So have calls for clemency and demands that Snowden be tried for treason. What we do know is NSA secrets contained in the stolen documents continue to make headlines – AT&T’s cozy deal with the agency — and Oliver Stone’s dramatization of the same events documented in Poitras’ Citizenfour will reignite the controversy in the weeks leading to its Christmas Day release. Citizenfour, which was deservedly honored with an Academy Award as Best Documentary/Feature, arrives in DVD/Blu-ray nearly a year after it debuted at the New York Film Festival and six months after it was shown on HBO. In April, Snowden was grilled by satirist John Oliver, again for HBO. Although Poitras’ tick-tock doc has already proven that the facts could very well be as thrilling as Stone’s dramatization, I wonder how much more of Snowden viewers will pay to see. As spies go, the 32-year-old North Carolina native is less charismatic even than Boris Badenov. What elevates the Blu-ray edition are three deleted scenes; a “TimesTalks” sit-down with Poitras, Greenwald, Snowden (via live video) and media reporter David Carr, who died shortly after the discussion; a Film Society of Lincoln Center Q&A with Poitras and film journalist Dennis Lim; and “The Program,” a short op-ed documentary concerning government spying with former U.S. intelligence officer William Binney.

Clive Barker’s Origins: Salome/The Forbidden
Clive Barker Presents Jojo Baby: Without the Mask
There’s a very good reason why the earliest works of accomplished artists, writers and filmmakers are relegated to garages, attics and storage lockers. Some reveal flashes of genius to come, but, like correspondence, require context, patience and the occasional footnote to understand. Still, obsessive fans rarely object to wading through piles of dross to discover the occasional glint of gold. “Clive Barker’s Origins,” from Seraphim/MVD, offers two interesting samples of the Liverpool-native’s work more than a decade removed from the publication of his 1986 novella, “The Hellbound Heart,” and his 1987 feature adaptation of it, ”Hellraiser.” The 20-minute “Salome” (1973) re-creates the dance performed by the biblical seductress – as interpreted in Oscar Wilde’s play — but in negative black-and-white and with the addition of a naked male. At 36 minutes, “The Forbidden” (1978) far more clearly reveals Barker’s horror roots, including the origins of Pinhead’s frightening facial ornamentation. Indeed, friend and frequent collaborator Doug Bradley appears in both shorts and the Hellraiser series, as Pinhead. Vintage interviews complete the package.

Also on tap this week is Clive Barker Presents: Jojo Baby, a fascinating documentary on the life, lifestyle and work of Chicago outsider artist, costume designer and doll maker, Jojo Baby. Directed by Dana Buning and Mark Danforth, but co-executive produced by Barker, Jojo Baby: Without the Mask introduces us to the veteran Chicago scenester and local gay icon, whose personal story is as emotionally compelling as his art is fun to survey. Jojo’s love for dolls and makeup design began as a child, inspired by his aunt’s collection and eavesdropping on his mother’s Avon parties. This did not play well with his macho father, who made it clear that homosexuals weren’t welcome in his house. His brothers were much kinder and supportive of him. His most direct influence was Greer Lankton, the late transsexual artist who worked in Andy Warhol’s Factory and for Jim Henson and the Muppets, creating Big Bird in the movie Follow That Bird. As it is, Jojo’s creations wouldn’t be out of place in the planned sequel to Beetlejuice, if Tim Burton runs out of ideas. The filmmakers take full advantage of the beyond-cramped apartment that doubles as Jojo’s bedroom, museum and workspace.

Art = (Love)²
The jacket blurb alerts us to filmmaker’s presumption that Dean and Isabella are the quintessential New York City couple, if only because he’s a promising abstractionist painter who resembles Nick Cave on a bad hair day, while she’s a brilliant, if manic-depressive mathematician who’s given up taking her meds. From the middle distance, both would seem to qualify as the kind of insufferable hipsters who purchase their clothes at vintage clothes stores and save their trust-fund allowances for overpriced cocktails in trendy bars in the Meatpacking District. I jest … Dean and Isabella probably could maintain their chosen personae in any big city with a prominent university and affordable lofts, but New York is as good a setting as any for a hipster murder mystery … or was it suicide? As Mumtaz Hussain’s debut feature opens, Dean (Nate Dushku) is pinned against the wall of his loft, still nearly comatose over the recent death of his girlfriend. Despite being impossibly smart, cute and effervescent, Isabella (Lindsay Goranson) – think Zooey Deschanel, on a much smaller budget – appears to have been driven to suicide by a chemical imbalance in her system. Dean is the only person who doesn’t buy the suicide verdict, insisting that she’d been in unusually good spirits lately, in anticipation of a major breakthrough on a perplexing math equation. Indeed, Isabella would use math equations to keep Dean focused on improving his work. Hence, the unusual title, Art = (Love)².  Dean decides to launch his own investigation of her untimely death after receiving what he believes to be artistic math equations from beyond the grave. The clues lead from the Soho gallery district to the ivy-covered walls of Columbia. Actually, Hussain and Monica Mehta’s story isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds and the paintings on display –influenced by slain Pakistani artist Zahoor ul Akhlaq — are more accomplished than the art we see in most movies.

Clean Break
What happens when stereotypes collide? It depends on who’s setting the wheels in motion. In this case, it’s promising Canadian newcomers, director Tricia Lee and her writing partner, Corey Brown (Silent Retreat). In one corner of the quasi-horror cautionary tale, Clean Break, are handsome party animals Cam Dawson (Samy Osman) and his two roommates, Scott and Dan. In the other stands the prim-and-proper Tracy (Tianna Nori), a blond who is immediately remindful of a knife-wielding Amy Schumer. The guys’ love-’em-and-leave-’em approach to dating is anathema to the psycho bitch, who thinks one-night stands criminally exploit women. Tired of playing wingman for his more sexist friends, Cam is happy to hook up with the refreshingly upfront and resolute Tracy. Push comes to shove, however, when Scott and Dan attempt to assert their boorish behavior and chauvinistic guidelines on their new den mother. Having already witnessed Tracy in vigilante action, we are far less surprised by her reaction to her new roommates’ edicts than they’re likely to be, once she starts imposing her will on the boys. Although watching Schumer take them to the woodshed would have been a real treat, Nori is plenty scary.

Female Pervert
Caveat emptor: any similarities between Jiyoung Lee’s mumblecore-y Female Pervert and Susan Streitfeld’s aggressively perverse Female Perversions begins and ends with the fact that the protagonists are female. The cover art might suggest otherwise, but it isn’t likely audiences for the two indies could mistake Jennifer Kim’s sexually curious video-game designer, Phoebe, for Tilda Swinton’s almost feral lawyer, Eve Stephens. Phoebe has the unfortunate tendency to date men (OK, nerds) who are easily intimidated by a woman who is several times more adventurous and knowledgeable about sex than they are at this stage in their adulthoods. She seeks the advice of a therapist and joins a Haruki Murakami book club, if only to meet men and women whose IQs are within spitting distance of her own. They are, but, at a time when everyone’s boundaries are blurred to some degree, it’s still difficult finding a guy who won’t be offended by being encouraged to use a dildo to play a solo on her Theremin … or laugh off the occasional fart while giving Phoebe a massage. And, it should be noted, that’s the extent of her perversity, although who knows what could have grown from a simpatico relationship? There’s isn’t any nudity, either. It’s a character study not unlike the one that plays out on “Girls,” or in any movie starring Greta Gerwig, when things get messy and no one is quite sure how to handle it.

Metamorphosis/Beyond Darkness: Blu-ray
Easy Money/Men at Work: Blu-ray
At first glance, the only tissue connecting this double-feature from Scream Factory is that belonging to Gene Lebrock, an actor who, from a distance of 25 years, could pass for Tom Cruise, Christian Bale or Peter Facinelli. His film career may not have been long or particularly distinguished, but he’ll always have this upgraded Blu-ray package to remind him of his glory days. At second and third glance, however, horror buffs will realize that these seemingly American products are the work of Italians in American clothing and some of the cheesier giallo traits apply. On the plus side, soft-core sex symbol Laura M. Gemser appears in distinctly different capacities in both pictures. In George Eastman/Luigi Montefiori’s Metamorphosis Lebrock plays a mad geneticist whose search for anti-aging serum goes completely haywire. After becoming a target for ridicule by his tenured peers, the scientist turns on them in the most peculiar way. Some viewers will find the highlight of Metamorphosis to be the skin-tastic presence of redheaded beauty Catherine Baranov — in her first and only film role – and Gemser’s turn as a prostitute. In a surprise turn, she is awarded credit for being costume designer in both Metamorphosis and the markedly more coherent thriller, Beyond Darkness. In Clyde Anderson/Claudio Fragasso’s portal-to-hell freak-out, Lebrock (as LeBrock) plays Father Peter, a priest who can’t seem to decide whether he’s Roman Catholic or Episcopalian. If Catholic, Father Peter is the rare priest who has a family and chooses not to live among his peers in a rectory. The house to which his family is drawn is inconveniently situated on an off-ramp from the highway to hell, assuring that they won’t get a moment’s peace until an exorcism is completed. Maybe Father Peter wasn’t paying attention when his real-estate agent was laying out the pluses and minuses of home ownership. Anyway, it’s probably worth noting that Fragasso, as Drake Floyd this time, wrote and directed Troll 2.

This week’s other double-feature package from Shout Factory combines two gimmicky comedies that demand very little from viewers, except about 95 minutes of their time. Released three years after Rodney Dangerfield’s unforgettable feature debut in Caddyshack, Easy Money imagines the constantly disrespected comedian as a baby photographer addicted to most of the vices available to a middle-age schlub in the early 1980s. When his mother-in-law (Geraldine Fitzgerald) passes away, Monty stands to inherit several million dollars, but only if can refrain from his bad habits for a year. Naturally, temptation looms around every corner. The stellar supporting cast includes Joe Pesci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan, Taylor Negron and Jeffrey Jones. The gag behind Men at Work is the casting of Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez as slacker garbage collectors with more on their minds than sanitation engineering. The discovery of a familiar-looking corpse on their route has them scrambling for their lives. Estevez wrote and directed the movie. Also on hand are Leslie Hope and Keith David.

The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season: Blu-ray
Gene Autry Collection 11
PBS: American Masters: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women
PBS: Operation Wild
CW: Teen Titans Go! Season Two Part Two
Nickelodeon Favorites: Puppy Palooza
Apparently there’s no shortage of zombies these days, because, in addition to the debut of “Fear the Living Dead,” the second season of “From Dusk till Dawn: The Series” begins this week on Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey network, and the “Maron”  episode, “Talking Dead,” was shown Sunday night of FX. The CW’s “iZombie,” is between seasons, but in reruns. And, if that abundance of riches weren’t sufficient cause for undead joy, BBC America counterprogrammed with Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. There’s probably more, but who’s counting … right? I am, I guess. So, let’s not forget the release of “The Walking Dead: The Complete Fifth Season” on Blu-ray/DVD, ahead of its season debut, October 11, on AMC. Fans of the series who haven’t already copied the episodes for further perusal probably await these expanded seasonal recaps as much for their convenience as the generous menu of bonus material. Audio commentaries on select episodes appear on four of the five discs, with the fifth one adding featurettes and deleted scenes. Among those participating in the discussions are executive producers Scott M. Gimple, Gale Anne Hurd, Greg Nicotero and Tom Luse,; actors Melissa McBride, Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Michael Cudlitz, Norman Redus, Sonequa Martin-Green, Danai Gurira, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos and Alanna Masterson; and director Julius Ramsay. “Inside ‘The Walking Dead’” is comprised of detailed plot recaps and character explorations for each episode, while “The Making of ‘The Walking Dead’” offers a more technical look at the making of each episode. “The Making of Alexandria” provides a closer look at building the location and its purpose in the season. There are “Journey” sketches for Beth, Bob, Noah and Tyrese, and “Day in the Life” segments on Michael Cudlit and Josh McDermitt; “Rotters in the Flesh” examines some of the nastiest practical effects seen in season five; several deleted scenes; and UV digital capability.

If Western gunslingers measured success by the notches on the handles of their guns, singing cowboys tend to be gauged by the number of stars they have on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gene Autry is the only entertainer with stars representing all five categories honored by the presenters. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans have five between them, with Dick Foran, Rex Allen, Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter, the Sons of the Pioneers, one each. John Wayne, who began his career as Singin’ Sandy Saunders, is included, but not in the musician’s category. (It should be noted that these stars were bestowed before every Tom, Dick and Mary could afford to buy one, which is how it’s currently done.)  I mention this because it’s time for “Gene Autry Collection 11,” from Shout! Factory/Timeless Media, to be released. As the star of 89 feature films, Gene brought music, comedy and action to each of his roles. All of the movies in the collections have been fully restored, uncut, from Autry’s personal archives. The new additions are “The Singing Cowboy” (1936), “Guns and Guitars” (1936), “Round-Up Time in Texas” (1937) and “Springtime in the Rockies” (1937). Special features include excerpts from “The Gene Autry Melody Ranch Radio Show”; a photo gallery, with publicity stills, poster art and lobby cards; trivia and movie facts; and, my favorite, interstitial chats between Gene Autry and Pat Buttram, at the Melody Ranch Theater.

PBS is re-releasing its DVD of the popular “American Masters” chapter, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women,” which originally was shown on PBS affiliates in 2009. As the first film biography of the beloved author of what have been widely dismissed as children’s novels, it surprised many viewers with its forthright account of a life and career that was far more multi-faceted than could be surmised by her public image as a New England spinster. Director Nancy Porter worked off a script based on Harriet Reisen’s acclaimed biography of the same title. In large part, it was crafted from quotes found in the writings of Alcott and others. The author is played by Elizabeth Marvel (“House of Cards”) and Emily Sarah Stikeman, and Jane Alexander also appears.

Besides demonstrating how some large animals are accorded better health care than most human beings under similar circumstances, the three-part PBS series “Operation Wild” describes the heroic efforts made by veterinary teams as they undertake groundbreaking medical rescues around the globe. We already know how newspapers and local TV news shows salivate over dental procedures performed on zoo animals with cavities or in need of a root canal, but these procedures are far more complex and extraordinary. Among other operations shown here are the application of a prosthetic tail on a dolphin, a new technique to deter poachers from attacking rhinos, brain surgery on a moon bear, restoration of the eyesight of a blind orangutan and giving an X-ray to a wounded elephant.

For the kids, new DVD packages include, the second part of the second season of The CW’s “Teen Titans Go! House Pests,” during which our “hyperactive heroes are back for another round of mischief, mayhem and messy food adventures.” Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Starfire and Beast Boy save the world without disrupting their pizza eating, videogame playing and watching TV. The latest compilation of themed entertainment from “Nickelodeon Favorites” is “Puppy Palooza.” The canine-centric selections are from “PAW Patrol,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Blue’s Clues” and

“Mutt & Stuff.” The third volume of fables from “The Beginner’s Bible” series is enhanced by full animation, original songs and a theme song by Kathie Lee Gifford. The non-denominational stories this time are “The Story of Jesus and His Miracles,” “The Story of the Good Samaritan” and “The Story of the Prodigal Son.”

The DVD Wrapup: 100-Year-Old Man, Strangerland, La Grande Bouffe, Troma’s War, Hackers, The Rebel, 17 and more

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared: Blu-ray
If Forrest Gump had an uncle living in Sweden, he might have provided the inspiration for novelist Jonas Jonasson and filmmaker Felix Herngren’s hilarious geezer comedy, The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. The similarities between the film’s titular protagonist, a half-wit pyromaniac named Allan (Robert Gustafsson), and Tom Hanks’ most beloved character can hardly be disputed. That he also bears certain cursory resemblances to Leonard Zelig only adds to the fun. Allan is about to celebrate his 100th birthday when he takes his revenge against a fox that’s raided his henhouse and killed his beloved cat, Molotov. For reverting to his deterrent of choice, dynamite, Allan has been sentenced to live out his days in a retirement home. Sufficiently cogent to understand the ramifications of such confinement – however mild and well-intentioned it may be – Allan slips out of a window, while the attendants are planning his birthday party, and disappears. At the town’s bus station, an outlaw biker asks the old man to watch his suitcase while he uses the severely cramped men’s room. Instead, the thoroughly confused centenarian walks off with it, along with the fortune in currency being smuggled inside, and takes it on a magical mystery tour. Because all of this takes place in movie’s first 15 minutes, the summation shouldn’t be construed as a spoiler.

As the felonious owners of the suitcase continue their search throughout Scandinavia, co-writer/director Herngren employs flashbacks to fill us in on Allan’s Gump-ian odyssey. We learn that his love of explosives carried him from various childhood mishaps to the Spanish Civil War, where he accidentally saved the life of Generalissimo Franco; the Manhattan Project and a fortuitous meeting with Robert Oppenheimer; lunch with Vice President Harry S Truman on the day FDR died; a post-war sit-down with Stalin; an escape from the Gulag in the company of Albert Einstein’s brother, Herbert; and to Ronald Reagan, whose declining condition has made him as intellectually befuddled as Allan. Believe me, there’s plenty more to enjoy, even knowing these events ahead of time. Swedes may not be known for their uproarious senses of humor, but it’s worth knowing that Herngren also co-created, with John Nordling, the TV comedy, “Ulveson & Herngren.” After it became a hit in Europe, FX adapted the nutty buddy comedy for consumption by American audiences, as “The Comedians,” starring Billy Crystal and Josh Gad, who combined to make it one of the must-see shows of the spring. Although “The 100 Year-Old Man …” arrives with a R rating, it can safely be ignored by parents with kids who can’t recognize cuss words in Swedish. Censors in most other countries found it sufficiently tame for pre-teen viewers. The Blu-ray arrives with a lengthy making-of featurette and interviews.

Strangerland: Blu-ray
I wonder if any travel agency in Australia has come up with an itinerary for tourists interested in personally reliving scenes from their favorite Aussie thrillers. The locations might include Lake Jindabyne and the Snowy Mountains, Alice Springs, Kangaroo Island, Kakadu National Park, the Kimberly Ranges, Kununarra, Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, the actual rabbit-proof fence, Hanging Rock, Avalon and Bondi beaches, Uluru/Ayres Rock, Sydney’s King’s Cross red-light district or, for the kiddies, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary and Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure. In person, they must be even more unnerving than they are in the movies. Australian filmmakers maintain a special relationship to the continent’s wildly diverse landscapes and freely exploit the settings as if they were characters, not merely backdrops. I don’t know if John Ford ever visited Australia, but some of the locations might have reminded him favorably of Monument Valley. Kim Farrant’s debut feature, Strangerland, stars Nicole Kidman and Joseph Fiennes as a middle-class couple forced to move to the Outback for an unspecified sexual indiscretion on the part of Matthew’s wife, Catherine. Their children are supremely unimpressed by the diversions provided by the sleepy town of Nathgari, whose primary attractions include the occasion sandstorm and some starkly beautiful wastelands. Their teenage son Tommy goes on nightly walkabouts, while, at 15, Lily has decided that promiscuity might be her only option to boredom. One night, with a towering red-dust cloud approaching, both of the kids simply vanish into the bush. Recriminations fly, but, as one Aboriginal woman observes, “Sometimes, people just disappear.” The locals, a naturally suspicious lot, put aside their gossip and Foster’s cans long enough to conduct a manhunt, but, it isn’t until a few days later that Tommy’s reappearance adds even more mystery to the skepticism. His refusal to talk doesn’t help the search for his sister, either. While Matthew treats the disappearance as only one more nail in the cross he’s been forced to bear, Catherine goes bat-shit crazy, as if the ghosts of the ancient desert took over her fragile psyche and refused to let her go. Caught in the middle of the fray is the local sheriff, David (Hugo Weaving), who appears to be stuck in Nathgari, paying penance for sins of his own making. While Kidman is excellent as the beyond-frazzled Catherine, it’s the unforgiving desert and hypnotic sunsets that make Strangerland special.

La Grande Bouffe: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Released several years after the Beatles included “Piggies” on “The White Album,” yet only a few months ahead of Mel Brooks’ famously scatological Blazing Saddles, the existential French-Italian comedy, La Grande Bouffe, probably would seem out of place in any other time period in recent history. Since then, only Monty Python has used bodily functions and gluttony as effectively in the pursuit of laughs and social commentary. Just as George Harrison skewered conspicuous consumption in “Piggies,” Marco Ferreri uses La Grande Bouffe to comment on the ennui experienced by successful bourgeois males after reaching the pinnacle of their professions at an early age and alienation that can only be trumped by bonding sessions with the best friends. It stars Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret as an Alitalia pilot, restaurateur, television producer and judge, respectively. By all outward appearances, they’re living the good life, but the thrill is gone. They gather in a splendid, if largely unused Paris home for a bacchanal of truly epic proportions. The menu could hardly be more mouth-watering or rich in artery-clogging products. Each plateful equals the annual caloric intake of a small country and those plates keep coming throughout their stay.

It doesn’t take long before Marcello, the increasingly impotent aviator, suggests that the weekend’s missing ingredient is female companionship … the most convivial that money can buy. Also joining them is a somewhat plump school teacher (Andréa Ferréol), whose classes frequently use the unoccupied backyard of the mansion for poetry lessons. For a while, at least, Andrea stands in direct contrast to the prostitutes, who look as if they just returned from Frederic’s of Hollywood fire sale, and a surrogate mother for the men. As the glutinous orgy of suicidal behavior escalates, however, she decides to indulge vices of her own. When the three prostitutes decide that too much is more than enough for them, Andrea is flattered by Ugo’s proposal of marriage – he’s still living his horny nanny – and his willingness to share her motherly love with them. After gorging on such irresistible gastronomic treats, of course, even the strongest constitutions have to be relieved and the men are more than willing to come to aid of a constipated friend. The audible passing of gas will reach operatic proportions, while other involuntary digestive functions veer toward the explosive. It makes the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles look like an Emily Post etiquette seminar. Although most of Ferreri’s cinematic provocations are available in DVD, it does take a bit of work to find them. The only other one I’ve seen is Tales of Ordinary Madness, an excellent interpretation of stories written by Charles Bukowski, starring Ben Gazzara, Susan Tyrell and Ornella Muti. Arrow Video’s expansive Blu-ray package adds several vintage featurettes here, including enlightening interviews with Ferreri, who counts among his influences Tex Avery, Luis Buñuel and Tod Browning, and the key actors; a visual essay by Italian film scholar Pasquale Iannone; select scene commentary by Iannone; and extracts from the television series “Couleurs autour d’un festival.”

5 to 7
Sometimes, there’s only a very thin line separating “chick flicks” from the cinematic wet dreams of male screenwriters. Typically, it manifests itself in romantic fantasies in which as yet fully formed young men are allowed the privilege of sharing time with women so far out of their league they don’t even play in the same ball parks. Such unlikely liaisons aren’t to be confused with cheerleaders and wealthy women falling for bad boys or Cinderellas escaping their dust bins to find Prince Charming. Victor Levin’s lushly mounted romantic drama, 5 to 7, describes a scenario in which a struggling young writer, Brian (Anton Yelchin), hooks up with a glamorous French woman, Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), who, while 10 years older than he is, looks as if she was still getting carded at wine bars. Smokers at a time when such species are endangered, Brian and Arielle meet cute in the streets of Manhattan when she’s in need of a light. He enchants her with his glib anecdotes and bon mots, while she’s drop dead gorgeous and hungry for the attention of someone resembling a slobbering puppy dog. The one condition she sets is that their trysts can only take place between the hours of 5 and 7 p.m., in a hotel room he wouldn’t be able to afford for another 10 years, at least. The story might have been slightly more plausible if Arielle were more obviously needy and her husband, Valery (Lambert Wilson), was more of a dick. Yes, he’s having an affair with his assistant, Jane (Olivia Thirlby), but it’s the kind of thing we’re told a French wife expects of her husband. That Brian and Jane would make a far more appropriate couple is almost too obvious to mention. Naturally, things gets complicated when the young writer begins to get greedy for Arielle’s time. At one point, Levin actually expects us to believe that the privileged mother of two would consider giving it all up for an unproven quantity who lives in a crummy studio apartment. A cottage in Nyack, maybe, but obviously not a dump with a mattress on the floor. Even so, Levin’s experience as a writer and producer on such smart television shows as “Mad Men,” “Mad About You,” “Devious Maids” and “Survivor’s Remorse” helps add a reasonably credible ending to a writer’s wet dream. New York looks great and the addition of Glenn Close and Frank Langella in crucial supporting roles keeps the story from collapsing like a soufflé.

Lambert & Stamp: Blu-ray
Revenge of the Mekons
Rockumentaries have come dime-a-dozen for a long time, now. The truly revelatory ones, however, are worth their weight in gold records. Although you might not recognize the names in the title,Lambert & Stamp, there’s no mistaking the marquee attraction here: The Who. Sure, it’s one of those bands that needs no introduction, but what James D. Cooper’s film does so well is dig up the roots and expose them for all the world to see. Unlike Mick and Keith, the band members weren’t childhood friends who reunited at a Dartford railway station and formed a blues band, nor did they cut their teeth in the rough-and-ready bars in Hamburg’s red-light districts. Closer to Svengali than Brian Epstein, Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert literally created the Who out of a desire to make a movie about a rock-‘n’-roll band they discovered and managed to success. This wasn’t an early attempt to invent an earlier pre-fab Monkees, but an electric light that went on over the heads of two unlikely entrepreneurs. Their talent was knowing when to talk and when to listen, to both their instincts and other people’s opinions. Even when the Who was struggling to release a hit, they were savvy enough to build an independent label around such unsigned acts as Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Brown and Thunderclap Newman. The sensation that became “Tommy” proved to be a turning point for the parallel marriages between the Who and Lambert and Stamp and the team of Lambert & Stamp. Cooper’s years-long quest for answers bore fruit in the form of fresh and vintage interviews, archival clips and photos, terrific anecdotes and other evidence of a band’s evolution. With their background in film, Lambert and Stamp’s personal library was a great source of material, as well. Lambert & Stamp will satisfy the appetite of Who fans, while also providing a great deal of enjoyment for anyone still interested enough in the 1960s to devote 117 more minutes of their time – not counting bonus features – to relive the decade.

The Mekons hasn’t been around nearly as long as the Who, but, with nearly 40 years of rocking good music under its collective belts, the art/punk/country ensemble deserves our respect simply for hanging in there. Born amid the angry anti-Thatcher labor turmoil, in Leeds, the Mekons embodies the old cliché of being “the best band no one has heard of.” That’s because the raucous group of socially and politically astute musicians/artists has been uncompromising in its approach to business, marketing and its public image. This stance may have endeared the group to critics and loyalists, but it didn’t sell many records. If I were to compare the Mekons to any band young people might recognize today, I’d cite the indie sensation, Arcade Fire. Looking back to the 1960s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the members were influenced, themselves, by the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Holy Modal Rounders. Critics, some of whom appear in Joe Angio’s lively Revenge of the Mekons, were the band’s earliest champions, and fans always flocked to their live performances, as well. A peculiar inability to sell records has haunted the Mekons for most of the last 40 years, however. Angio paints a complete portrait of the men and women who’ve persevered, through interviews and testimonials from such longtime fans as author Jonathan Franzen, film director Mary Harron, comedian/musician Fred Armisen and critics/authors Greg Kot and Greil Marcus. The highly entertaining  DVD adds performance footage, interviews and backgrounders.

Blood Cells
Until I sampled Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore’s dour Blood Cells and read some of the reaction to it, I hadn’t found a reason to add the word, “miserabilism,” to my personal lexicon. Apparently, one of its definitions pertains to a particularly gloomy British film sub-set, which approximates spending a rainy fall fortnight in a Midlands bar full of unemployed coal miners. Blood Cells opens with a scene straight out of Hud. A family farmer has been forced to eliminate his cows, because of the discovery of hoof-and-mouth disease in the herd. He has elected to personally shoot the last cow, after leading it to a burning pit, and his despondency can’t be disguised. Flash to a young man, whose relationship to the tragic event has yet to be made clear. All we know about Adam (Barry Ward) is that he’s been ordered to return home for the baptism of his brother’s child. If he doesn’t, after 10 years absence, he’ll finally be persona non grata at any family function. This warning appears to be taken seriously by Adam, who has been drifting aimlessly around England and Scotland, getting drunk and living off the fat of the land. His journey home allows him to revisit old friends, some of whom aren’t all that keen to see him. Adam doesn’t look any worse for the wear of being on the road, but it’s clear that he’s as drawn to booze as a moth to flame. As we continue to learn more about his grief, we begin to doubt whether he’ll make it to the baptism and in what shape he’ll be in when he gets there. Because the filmmakers don’t rely on dialogue to tell their story, much is required of viewers in terms of patience and empathy. It may not be an easy movie to watch, but art house audiences should find it worth the effort of finding.

Troma’s War: Blu-ray
Extreme Jukebox: Blu-ray
Kung-Fu & Titties
Flesh and Bullets
Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things
As co-director Lloyd Kaufman explains in his commentary, Troma’s War was made in response to then-President Reagan’s fondness for using the military to solve problems that might otherwise be negotiated through diplomacy. The production company Kaufman co-founded with Michael Herz (co-director here, as well) has never been reluctant to comment on political and environmental issues from the corroded points of view of the citizens and mutants of Tromaville. This film would be a departure, in terms of scope and budget, however. Moreover, its logistics appear to have been mapped out well in advance of the start of production and the screenplay wasn’t written in crayon. In fact, it almost makes complete narrative sense. Made in 1988, five years after Reagan’s invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada, Troma’s War today resembles a nutty merger of Platoon, Rambo and the TV series, Lost. It opens in the immediate aftermath of plane crash on an island, somewhere near Cuba. The surviving passengers resemble a broad cross-section of Tromaville residents, all of whose mettle will be tested when confronted by heavily armed militias of terrorists secretly preparing for an invasion of the United States. The Kaufman-esque twist comes in the revelation that the invasion is being funded by wealthy American capitalists in need of an excuse for declaring martial law and taking over the government. Amazingly, the passengers are well up to the task of defending themselves against the terrorists. Apart from the occasional grotesque terrorist, the characters are deceptively ordinary, even by the Troma standards. As such, the hand-to-hand combat is as ridiculously hilarious as it is merely ridiculous. Kaufman alludes to the possibility that several gratuitous touches were edited from Troma’s War, simply to appease the bluenoses of the MPAA ratings board. He acknowledges that some of the trims may have been warranted, while others cost the production dearly. It seems OK to me, fitting somewhere between such Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker parodies as Police Squad! and Airplane!, and any one of a dozen comedies starring Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jonah Hill. Besides commentary, the Blu-ray package adds several fan-friendly making-of featurettes, a kill-o-meter, interviews and reunion footage.

Recently imported from Italy by Troma Entertainment, Alberto Bogo and Andrea Lionetti’s Extreme Jukebox fits easily among the company’s list of domestic titles. Billed as the “First Horror Rock-Metal Comedy in the World,” it combines elements of traditional giallo with such America genre fare as Class of Nuke ‘Em High, Rock and Roll High School and The Lords of Salem. Although the story defies easy synopsis, Extreme Jukebox is set in the Italian rock-’n’-roll mecca of Nova Springs, where glam-rocker Jessie Cake and his groupie girlfriend, Chloe, discover a mysterious LP in the abandoned estate of legendary 1980s superstar David Crystal. The album unleashes the bloodthirsty spirit of the Killer of the Woods and flesh-and-blood maniac Naughty Rocky Boy, whose weapon of choice is his six-string ax. Look for Italian heavy-metal pioneer Pino Scotto, as Father Zappa. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes documentary, a slide show and other featurettes.

Any movie that dares brand itself Kung-Fu & Titties – no matter how blatantly exploitative and accurate must live up/down to that billing or forever rest in obscurity. Joseph McConnell’s action comedy is just sleazy enough to qualify as low camp and, well, the titties speak for themselves. Sean Monlar plays Richard Titties, an inept martial-arts enthusiast who couldn’t fight his way out of paper bag, even if a hole had been torn into the middle of it. One day, he’s transported to a planet in an alternate dimension, where his girlfriend, Cynthia (Seregon O’Dassey), is being held by a breast-obsessed madman, Zeefros (John Archer Lundgren), who believes that he’s captured Richard’s B-movie-star sister, Raine (Raine Brown). Richard’s mission to rescue his girlfriend includes Raine, a guy in a gorilla suit and other bizarre characters. Anyone not expecting miracles might get a kick out of McConnell’s bosomy comedy.

Flesh and Bullets may sound like just another way of saying Kung-Fu & Titties, but, in this case, anyway, it’s skin-meister Carlos Tobalina’s way of saying Strangers on a Train. The only similarity between Tobablina and Alfred Hitchcock, however, is that they both made a movie in which two strangers agree to solve each other’s most nagging problem by eliminating it. Instead of the lounge car on a train, the encounter between hoodlums in Flesh and Bullets takes place in a Las Vegas bar. After singing the blues over cocktails, they agree to kill each other’s ex-wives. Maybe you can guess the rest. The only thing that distinguishes Flesh and Bullets from hundreds of other crummy B- and C-movies whose best-laid plans go astray is a cast that includes Yvonne De Carlo, Aldo Ray, Cesar Romero and Cornel Wilde in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em roles. The presence of porn stars Mai Lin, Sharon Kelly and Bill Margold suggests that Tobalina had other plans for the movie, but, for some reason, most of the skin was left on the cutting-room floor.

It’s the rare film whose commentary is as devoid of praise or historical background as the track that accompanies Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things. In it, cult filmmaker David DeCoteau and film historian Nathaniel Thompson appear to be guessing in the dark as to the film’s origins, distribution and subsequent disappearance. Fortunately, the movie is so uniquely strange and disturbing that it’s possible to simply make things up and sound convincing. That’s largely because writer/director Thomas Casey accomplished precious little before “Sometimes …” and nothing after its release in 1971. It’s almost as if Edward D. Wood Jr. had decided to re-emerge from retirement to anonymously produce a sequel to Glen and Glenda. Here, two criminals who bear a striking resemblance to Andy Kaufman are on the lam in southern Florida, after committing a dastardly crime in Baltimore. The ringleader, Paul (Abe Zwick), pretends to be his child-like accomplice Stanley’s estranged Aunt Martha. Although neighbors are willing to buy into Paul’s matronly drag disguise, Stanley (Wayne Crawford) can’t reconcile his attraction to girls his age with a revulsion for heterosexual foreplay. Whenever a hottie begins to rub his junk, Stanley cries out for Aunt Martha, who quickly dispatches the temptress with a sharp or blunt instrument. Typically, this is followed by Stanley crawling into bed with Paul. Not surprisingly, there’s nothing remotely erotic in these homoerotic interludes. With a new 2K scan and restoration from a rare 35mm theatrical print, Vinegar Syndrome lavished more TLC on “Sometimes … “ than anyone involved in its production.

Uncertain Terms
When a 30-year-old handyman from Brooklyn volunteers to move into his aunt’s group home for pregnant teenagers for a couple of weeks’ worth of repair work, it’s amazing how little time it takes for the girls to sense his distress over a failing marriage. Newcomer David Dahlbom plays Robbie, who, after learning that his wife has been cheating on him, travels south for some emotional rehab. The furthest thing from his mind is getting involved in a potentially reckless relationship. Between his wife’s incessant phone calls, demanding that he return to her clutches, and the hormonal magnetism of the girls, however, Robbie can’t help but melt into the arms of the damsel in most dire distress. The waif-like redhead Nina (India Menuez) doesn’t pursue Robbie as aggressively as some of the other girls, but neither does she discourage him from rescuing her from her undependable boyfriend, Chase (Casey Drogin), whose demands are become increasingly annoying. Although things are never easy for Aunt Clara, as she attempts to instill adult values into their unformed heads, Robbie’s obvious concern for Nina’s dilemma throws the house’s delicate balance out of whack. Unlike viewers, however, Clara’s the last person to notice it. Uncertain Terms is a sharply observed indie drama that never condescends to viewers or the teenage characters, some of whom may never recover from the first great mistake they’ve made in life. Nonetheless, the rural setting allows them a few months of peace to contemplate their futures and all of the men, like Chase and Robbie, who’ll cause tremors in their lives. Besides Menuez, the actors I expect to see in bigger roles down the road are Tallie Medel, Hannah Gross, Gina Piersanti and Adinah Dancyger.

Z-Storm: Blu-ray
As Americans have learned to their dismay in the nearly eight years since the collapse of this country’s economy, it’s far easier to detect corruption, greed and ineptitude in our financial institutions than to do anything about it legally. The Wall Street establishment has so intimidated the power elite in Washington that it’s decided to do nothing to prevent another calamity or punish those responsible for the first one. The same thing has been said about the military-industrial complex and organized crime, however, and what do we have to show for it: fictional dramas, in which the villains lose and the good guys win. David Lam and Wong Ho Wa’s slick procedural, Z-Storm, may take place in Hong Kong, but Americans can watch it and wish it applied to Wall Street, where organized crime is as entrenched as it is in Sicily. Here, Independent Commission Against Corruption agent William Luk (Louis Koo) has been given less than a week to prove that a large multinational corporation has been involved in a series of illegal operations. The corruption extends beyond the glass towers of the financial district and into the hallways of government and investigative units of the police department. In addition to powerful friends in official capacities, the crooks have expensive prostitutes and families that expect to enjoy comfortable lifestyles. Because Hong Kong is a wired society, the investigators are able to exploit their network of computers, cameras and surveillance equipment to find cracks in the system. When muscle comes into play, as it must in all Hong Kong action flicks, it’s there, too. The Blu-ray adds an extensive making-of featurette.

No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie
Sir Ivan: I Am Peaceman
I’ve seen enough movies about average citizens who’ve deluded themselves into thinking they’re superheroes to expect different endings from new ones in the multiplexes. Wear a hood, go to jail, is what I say. So, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached these two films in which men don capes to do good deeds. I was pleasantly surprised by No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie and Sir Ivan: I Am Peaceman, for very different reasons. In the former, John Maucere plays a caped character of his own creation, SuperDeafy, whose television show is targeted directly at hearing-impaired kids in need of a role model. The show is full of slapstick humor and life lessons designed to empower kids who might feel out of place at school or have been bullied by fully able peers. Unlike Maucere and co-star Marlee Matlin, Tony Kane continues to struggle as an actor when he takes off his SuperDeafy outfit. Even so, he’s a hero to 8-year-old Jacob (Zane Hencker) who’s caught in a tug of war between his father, who wants him to learn lip-reading exclusively, and his mother, who favors early instruction in American Sign Language. And, while the school he attends provides special classes for deaf students, Jacob’s father wants him to remain in a class full of unimpaired students. It’s a dilemma for all parents faced with making the same choice, but, here, director Troy Kotsur makes it clear that Jacob isn’t benefitting a fig by being in the class with hearing kids. Ultimately, SuperDeafy does ride to Jacob’s rescue, but not before learning things about himself with which he hadn’t previously reckoned. What’s unique about “SuperDeafy” is the distinction it holds as the first SAG commercial feature film executive produced by deaf filmmakers and helmed by a deaf director. Many of the actors are hearing impaired and the film will be 100 percent open-captioned at every screening. One of its delights derives from the eclectic visual presentation, which includes comic-book graphics and brilliant colors. The package adds informative background information.

At first glance, Sir Ivan: I Am Peaceman introduces viewers to a far more problematic superhero, Peaceman, a character who combines the sartorial eccentricities of Liberace and Tony Manero, with the singing chops of William Shatner. After leaving the banking business established by his late father, a Holocaust survivor, Sir Ivan (a.k.a., Ivan L. Wilzig) was left with more than enough money to pursue his dreams of becoming a recording artist, philanthropist, peace activist and world-class party monster. He’s appeared as himself on several reality and lifestyle shows, but, unlike Donald Trump, hasn’t used his wealth and outsized personality as a battering ram against regular folks. Jim Brown’s bio-doc takes Sir Ivan at face value, allowing him to demonstrate limited skills as a singer and greater appeal as a person who puts his money where his mouth is by creating a non-profit organization that targets hatred, violence, bullying and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s enough to make us forgive him his 15,000-square-foot medieval-style estate and party palace in the Hamptons. The documentary alludes to kinkier pursuits, but puts them aside after introducing us to his mother, Naomi Wilzig, and her World Erotic Art Museum, in Miami’s South Beach. The DVD adds more interviews and several music videos.

Hackers: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Nomads: Blu-ray
Ejecta: Blu-ray
Twenty years may not seem like a long time in the realm of collector’s edition DVDs, but, in Internet years, it might as well be an eternity. Iain Softley’s Hackers, like Steven Lisberger’s even earlier TRON, dealt with issues that have always defied easy interpretation on film. In the 1980-90s, they pertained largely to recreational hackers and cyberpunks and were far easier to visualize than explain. Absent advanced CGI technology, however, filmmakers lagged behind the ability of game designers to share their ideas. Critics weren’t especially kind to either picture, but, fact is, many of them had yet to make the transition from typewriter to home computer or play Nintendo games with their kids. While TRON was several years ahead of its time and Jeff Bridges already was an established star, Hackers’ leads Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller were practically unknown and, as yet, unmarried. The rest of the cast was similarly fresh-faced, radically groomed and propelled by skateboards. At 11, Miller’s Dade “Zero Cool” Murphy was arrested and charged with crashing 1,507 computer systems in a single day and causing a huge drop in the New York Stock Exchange. Once he turned 18, Murphy was free to return to his PC and focus on cutting-edge cyber-technology. After impressing fellow computer-club students at his New York high school, he competes against Jolie’s Kate “Acid Burn” Libby on her favorite video game. After she finally forgives him, the gang will unknowingly tap into a high-tech embezzling scheme, masked by a computer virus with the potential to destroy the world’s ecosystem. Attacked from both sides of the law, they must scramble to save themselves and the world. The Blu-ray includes “The Keyboard Cowboys: A Look Back at ‘Hackers,’” an hour-long retrospective that details not just the background of the film but also the hacker culture of the 1990s. Among the interview subjects are Matthew Lillard, Fisher Stevens, Penn Jillette and Softley.

From 1986 (and Shout Factory) comes Nomads, a convoluted sci-fi horror flick about a mysterious bug carried to Los Angeles by French anthropologist Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), after he discovered evidence of an ancient nomadic tribe. As if that weren’t enough of a burden for one man to carry, Pommier and his stunning wife (Anna Maria Monticelli) move into a house in which a murder recently occurred and has become a playhouse for a Manson-like gang of freaks (Adam Ant, Mary Woronov). The even more stunning Lesley-Anne Down plays the ridiculously named emergency-room doctor Eileen Flax who is attacked by being attacked by Pommier after he’s brought into the ER, frothing from the mouth. But, wait, there’s more. This is a very silly movie, co-written and directed by John McTiernan, whose next three projects would be Predator, Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October. If nothing else, he keeps the story from petering-out before hitting the 90-minute barrier. It adds interviews with Down and composer Bill Conti.

Julian Richings, who might be familiar from appearances on “Supernatural” and “Orphan Black,” has one of those faces that could raise goose pimples on a statue. It is the single best thing in Ejecta, a 2014 alien-invasion thriller that demands of Richings that he look completely freaked out for long periods of time. His character, William Cassidy, has experienced decades of frightening extraterrestrial encounters, but the latest one is a real doozy. On the evening of a massive solar flare, Cassidy invites paranormal researcher Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) to his secluded home in the woods for the big show. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine as to what Ejecta is about.

The Rebel: The Complete Series: The Collector’s Edition
Hell on Wheels: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Secrets & Politics & Torture
GMC TV: The Love Letter
Welcome Back, Kotter: The Final Season
Rookie Blue: Season 5-Volume 1
Lovers of classic TV Westerns will be ecstatic to learn of the release of “The Rebel: The Complete Series,” on DVD, from Timeless Media Group. Like so many of the other shows on ABC, it featured a charismatic protagonist with a backstory as interesting as any of the occasional characters written into the show. As portrayed by Nick Adams, Johnny Yuma is a former Confederate soldier haunted by what he saw in the war and in constant search of inner peace and justice. A native Texan, Yuma continues to wear his rebel cap and is armed with both a revolver and sawed-off shotgun. It’s instantly memorable theme song was sung and recorded by Johnny Cash. If “The Rebel” has gotten lost in the sands of time, it’s only because of Adams’ resemblance to Steve McQueen, who played an ex-Confederate bounty hunter in the post-war west on CBS’ “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” His Josh Randall carried a shortened Winchester Model 1892 carbine — the “Mare’s Leg” — in a holster patterned after “gunslinger” rigs then popular in movies and television. The shows ran nearly concurrently for three years, from 1959-1961. Where Steve McQueen’s career skyrocketed after his show ended, however, Adams’ lapsed into a series of failed projects and goofy genre flicks. After running around Hollywood with best friends James Dean, Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper, Adams would be required to stand up to rumors about his sexuality and choice of inebriants. His death, in 1968, would be ruled an accidental suicide, caused by a lethal pharmaceutical cocktail, by coroner to the stars Dr. Thomas Noguchi. Regardless of Adams’ personal drama, “The Rebel” holds up as well as any of the classic Westerns on DVD. The storylines deal with issues related to the war and settlement of the west, in part, by mindless bigots, greedy ranchers and robber barons, and corrupt politicians and sheriffs. If it weren’t for guys like Johnny Yuma and Josh Randall, the homesteaders and immigrants wouldn’t have stood a chance of survival. Typically, the episodes featured guest stars whose careers as supporting actors were already established or soon would blossom on the large and small screens. Among them are Jack Elam, Agnes Moorehead, Dan Blocker, Soupy Sales, Robert Vaughn and Leonard Nimoy. The generous boxed set includes “Looking Back at ‘The Rebel,’” with series writer and producer A.J. Fenady; “Nick Adams Remembered,” an interview with his children, Allyson and Jeb Stuart Adams; the pilot for A.J. Fenady’s proposed companion series, “The Yank”; commercials featuring Adams; and a production-stills gallery.

There is a point in most documentaries focusing on different aspects of the American Dream when viewers are required to accept some ugly truths about themselves or accuse the filmmakers of distorting their concept of reality. Because of its increasing reliance of contributions by corporate donations, PBS has become surprisingly cautious in its final approval of documentaries that could offend conservative supporters, including conservative firebrand David Koch. Peter Davis’ idea for a series of six films to be shown under the collective title of ”Middletown” was conceived at about the same time that President Reagan was slashing the federal government’s contributions to public television. In addition to viewer annoyance over incessant begathons, during “pledge months,” the network was forced to enter into what some pundits considered to be pacts with corporate devils. The controversy has never been resolved, despite the furor that erupts whenever claims of censorship are raised. In the case of “Middletown,” five of the six documentaries aired on PBS affiliates in 1982. Set in Muncie, Indiana, the series was divided into segments meant to demonstrate how the times had or hadn’t changed since the city was labelled Middletown in a 1920s’ survey, as well as the challenges Muncie was facing as it looked into the future. The episodes examined a mayoral campaign; a prominent high school basketball rivalry; local religious activities; the struggles of a large family in operating the local Shakey’s pizza parlor; remarriage between divorcees; and the everyday lives of high school students. It was the latter segment, “Seventeen,” that stuck in the craw of programming executives who decided not to air it. Shot in the cinéma vérité format, Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ contribution was subsequently shown at a handful of festivals before being shelved for some 30 years. Frankly, I was surprised by how much of “Seventeen” could still be considered shocking, especially to parents of kids in public high schools. The film’s focus on an interracial group of students whose classroom demeanor may best be described as surly and spend most of their time outside of school smoking, doping, drinking, flirting and busting their parents’ balls. These are the children of a society starting to turn to seed, thanks to the migration of jobs out of Muncie and overall coarsening of discourse in America. And, some of the parents were as much to blame for the bad behavior as the kids themselves. I can’t tell if the kids we meet in “Seventeen” actually were representative of the student body – they likely weren’t the worst of the lot – and the school was made to look like a prison or dungeon. It could have stood as a call to action, then, if aired, and remains so today.

If “The Rebel” stands as a prime example of a classic TV Western, AMC’s popular Western saga, “Hell on Wheels,” is fully representative of today’s expansive oaters. With the series’ fifth and final season in full gear, there isn’t much to add on the subject, except to say that there’s never a bad time to begin binging on good shows. In the fourth stanza, conflict arises between the government and businesses, ranchers, homesteaders and the railroad, as all of those interests compete with one another for control of Cheyenne, Wyoming. In 1867, it was the most important railroad hub for builders and investors and, where there was money to be made on rails, there was corruption and crime. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific Railroad continues its expansion westward apace and series protagonist Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) is adjusting to being a husband and new father. The Blu-ray offers several good making-of featurettes and interviews.

Reverberations from the release last December of the Senate’s bipartisan Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program can still be felt around Washington, and well they should be. The “Frontline” investigation, “Secrets & Politics & Torture,” not only examines the findings of the study, but it also questions why the intelligence community wanted to suppress its release. It opens with a look at how the CIA sold a bill of goods to the filmmakers responsible for Zero Dark Thirty, promoting its own version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and attack on his Pakistani hideout. Believing they had been handed a scoop, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal took the bait, by creating a scenario that appears to support the agency’s use of torture to collect evidence on his whereabouts. Left undiscussed was how little credence was given the information collected through clearly illegal methodology – outside the White House, anyway – and the lengths it went to hide the truth from lawmakers, media and the public. It’s a shocking tale, but not one unfamiliar to people who read newspapers and keep abreast of such things. How odious the public and politicians still consider torture and subterfuge to be remains another question altogether.

The made-for-GMC movie, “The Love Letter,” would fit neatly on Lifetime, if it had decided to cater to African-American women, instead of women at large. It’s a pleasant enough diversion, but is so familiar as to be completely predictable and irrelevant. The very good looking Parker (Keshia Knight Pulliam) and Aaron (Romeo Miller) have been inseparable since childhood and, perhaps, really are too close to each other to each other to consider marriage. On the other hand, it isn’t likely that either of them will find someone better suited for a walk to the altar. To Parker’s quiet dismay, Aaron has decided to marry a woman with whom he appears to be perfectly compatible, even if she’s portrayed as being a tad materialistic. She suspects that Aaron’s heart isn’t completely invested in the marriage, but doesn’t know what to do with her doubts. Parker decides to pen an anonymous letter to her own advice column, asking readers for advice. There’s no need to waste much time guessing.

In the fourth and final season of ABC’s “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Gabe’s promotion to the vice-principal’s office gives the Sweathogs false hope that they’ll be able to escalate their misadventures and get away with them. Disappointed by their new reality, Horshack, Epstein and Washington drop out of school. The VP then asks Barbarino, now working as an orderly, to convince them to go back to school. Buchanan High gets a new student from New Orleans, Beau DeLabarre, who uses his southern charm to hit on several girls, including Juan’s girlfriend, who feels obligated to seek revenge in kind. Rumors of marriage swirl throughout the season. The rest, for John Travolta, at least, is history.

ABC’s surprise summertime mainstay, “Rookie Blue,” entered Season Five with officers Sam Swarek and Chloe Price in the hospital, having been shot in the line of duty. Meanwhile, new cops are put through their paces and criminals continue to test the efficacy of their training. It would be a police show on ABC if there weren’t strained and steamy romantic entanglements, blown covers and life-and-death situations. Be aware that the DVD has been broken into “volumes.” FYI: Season Six is already in the books.

The Seventh Dwarf
It’s incredible what one can learn by simply paying attention to the details. For instance, I’ve been completely unaware of the fact that the Seven Dwarfs haven’t always gone by the monikers, Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy and Dopey. Because the story’s in the public domain, screenwriters can call them whatever they want and the characters will have to answer to their new names, like puppies with amnesia. In The Seventh Dwarf, the latest animated feature imported by Shout Factory, the youngest dwarf is named Bobo and he’s responsible for pricking Princess Rose with a cursed needle and sending the kingdom into a century-long bummer. It happens on the eve of Rose’s 18th birthday, when several legendary fairytale characters have gathered at Fantabularasa Castle. The dwarfs must rectify the mistake by standing up to a fiery dragon and outwit the jealous, scheming and evil witch, Dellamorta.

The DVD Wrapup: Chris Farley, Match, Treatment, Blues Cruise, Reminiscence, Soaked in Bleach, Police Story 6, Fury, Israeli Passion … More  

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

I Am Chris Farley: Blu-ray
A more appropriate title for Brent Hodge, Derik Murray and writer Steve Burgess’ sadly nostalgic bio-doc, I Am Chris Farley, might have been, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Goofball,” as it precisely describes the rise and fall of an attention-starved child of the American Midwest. The Madison, Wisconsin, native somehow knew from an early age that being fat, reckless and funny opened doors closed to kids who merely were overweight and willing to make themselves the butt of other people’s jokes. As the middle child in a large family, he had to earn the attention given him at the dinner table – or in the backyard, playground or football field – if he was going to ever find a stage large enough to fit his giant talent. It’s not an unusual story, really … Bill Murray grew up similarly, in the Chicago suburbs, for example. Murray, like Farley’s idol, John Belushi, laid a path for guys like him – including several brothers — to follow to stardom. Psychiatrists may have a word for such traditions, but I don’t know what it is. I Am Chris Farley offers a congenial forum for dozens of friends, family members and peers to testify on what it was like to grow up and work alongside this human dynamo for as long as he was put upon this Earth to entertain us. Growing up in comfortable surroundings in a leafy Madison neighborhood in the 1970s meant that there would be no shortage of photographs and home movies available to the filmmakers or, for that matter, archival material from school plays, amateur groups, Second City and “Saturday Night Live.” Farley was the kind of natural-born ham, who, when a laugh was needed, would “drop trou” or run around naked to lighten the mood, and his brothers often followed suit. Although it hardly seemed possible at the time, he possessed the capacity for out-Belushi-ing Belushi in skits that required volcanic bursts of energy and great athleticism. Even so, Farley is remembered here as much for his humility, loyalty to friends, dedication to his craft and outsized personality as his notoriously self-destructive tendencies. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were warned by the witnesses that they wouldn’t participate if they delved too deeply into Farley’s worst trait, even 17 years after he died.

Left unanswered are such questions as how Farley could have been allowed to die in nearly the same way as his hero, Belushi? We know that friends cared enough about him to make sure he attempted to clean up in several prominent rehab facilities and they encouraged him to lose some of the weight he carried like a ticking time bomb. Given these warning signs, though, how could Farley ever be left alone long enough to call his drug dealer, hire a prostitute or order a tub full of ribs and chicken? On the night he died, a buddy hired an “exotic dancer,” Heidi Hauser, to keep him company in his final hours. Instead of calling paramedics when he passed out from a lethal cocktail that included morphine and cocaine, Hauser reportedly took his picture and split the scene. Those ghastly images are still floating around the Internet. There are tasteful ways to deal with such negative aspects of a celebrity’s life and remain true to the spirit of the filmmakers’ approach to the subject. Fellow recovering addicts, including his drug counselor Dallas Taylor (who died in L.A. last January, at 66), have already gone on record about Farley’s inability to deal with his demons. In I Am Chris Farley, however, these cautionary touches sit there like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the living room. Nonetheless, everything else about the comedian’s life is fully and fairly represented, as are his uproarious appearances on “SNL,” the Letterman show and his movies. Among those contributing anecdotes and observations are Christina Applegate, Tom Arnold, Dan Aykroyd, Bo Derek, Pat Finn, Jon Lovitz, Lorne Michaels, Jay Mohr, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Bob Saget, Adam Sandler, Will Sasso, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Brian Stack and Fred Wolf. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews with family members.

American playwright, screenwriter and film director Stephen Belber has adapted his Tony Award-nominated play, Match, into a dramatic comedy that doesn’t benefit a bit from being opened up for the big screen. Patrick Stewart is excellent as a Manhattan ballet instructor, who has agreed to be interviewed by Seattle graduate student (Carla Gugino) about his life in dance. A child of the 1960s, Tobi has spent most of the last 40-plus years on the road, touring with the Caracas Ballet and teaching gifted students at Julliard. He has plenty of amusing tales to tell about the good old days and his role in them. Gugino’s Lisa Davis isn’t terribly convincing as a PhD candidate, but she’s a good listener and wholly sympathetic character, largely because her homophobic cop husband, Mike (Matthew Lillard), is such a homophobic jerk. Since his primary function in the film’s early stages is holding a tape recorder for Lisa and occasionally interrupting the flow of the interview, his rude behavior makes us wonder what purpose he’s supposed to serve. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Mike has an ulterior motive for his presence and Lisa is enabling his bad behavior by asking questions that have little to do with her stated purpose. Viewers won’t have any trouble guessing what the couple is attempting to discover and why Mike, at least, is being such a prick. It isn’t until Tobi demands that he leave the apartment that Stewart and Gugino can get down to the serious business of entertaining us with a conversation that elicits a wide range of emotions. A trick ending helps get us past the homophobic slurs and bitterness aimed at Tobi, but, I wonder, how many viewers will make it past the first 45 minutes of vitriol.

The Treatment: Blu-ray
Americans who bemoan the violence that’s made some parts of our great cities as dangerous as Kabul and Baghdad often cite more favorable crime statistics in Japan and Europe to make their case for tougher gun laws. These comparisons are fairly made, even if they don’t necessarily apply to the movies imported here from around the world. Finding handguns doesn’t appear to be any problem for hoodlums in even the most desirous of tourist destinations and organized crime knows no borders. And, when it comes to sexual offenses, it seems as if the smaller the country, the more hideous the crime. Stockholm might as well be Prohibition-era Chicago for all of the murders that have occurred there in movies and television series over the last 10 years or so.  As adapted by Belgian director Hans Herbots, Mo Hayder’s 2001 novel, The Treatment is as dark and nasty as Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Its protagonist, Police Inspector Nick Cafmeyer, is investigating a case involving a mother and father who have been bound and beaten and had their young son taken from them. He discovers that there have been similar cases, which remain open. Other parents have been forced by a psychopath to harm their own children, who then vanish. Cafmeyer’s fever-pitch police work is informed by the unsolved disappearance, many years earlier, of his 9-year old bother. The false leads and dead ends are as creepy as the trail that ultimately leads to the final solution.

Deep Sea Blues: Blu-ray
I don’t know if the number of jazz, folk and blues festivals now equals that of film festivals, but it has to be close. Cannes, Locarno, Venice and Berlin opened the flood gates for hundreds of others around the world. Before Woodstock, Monterey and Newport, you could count the number of popular and niche music festivals on one hand. Only a few years later … the deluge. I don’t know how entertainment bookers feel about having to compete with other cities to fill their bills, but audiences and musicians aren’t complaining. The latest twist on the theme is re-creating the atmosphere of such star-studded festivals on board tourist vessels. There also are themed cruises to accommodate classic-movie buffs, mystery lovers, bikers, nudists, gamers and, of course, singles. Cruise ships have always provided entertainment for their passengers, whether it’s comedians, bands, jugglers or full-blown revues. The idea behind blues cruises is to attract as many fans of the genre as possible and giving them exactly what they want to see and hear for several days at a time. (Polka, classical, rock, oldies and reggae tours are also available.) If things work out as planned, the passengers and musicians share an experience that can’t be duplicated on land. Even when director Robert Mugge drifts dangerously close to the shoals of infomercial territory, Deep Sea Blues provides two hours of terrific R&B and blues performances and jams on several different stages, during the 2007 Caribbean cruise. Also offered are pro-am jams, workshops, autograph sessions, industry panels, theme nights and culinary events. As enormous as the cruise ships are, they frequently are completely sold out. Now, I can see why. The bonus material adds “All Jams on Deck” skips the hard sell to focus on acts that performed on the 2010 Blues Cruise to the Mexican Riviera, featuring Elvin Bishop, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro, Johnny & Edgar Winter, Kim Wilson, Lee Oskar, Commander Cody, Coco Montoya, Lowrider Band, Larry McCray, Rick Estrin, Jimmy Thackery and Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, among others.

From MVD Visual come performance-oriented DVDs, “Club Millennium,” “R&B Special Edition” and “Yelawolf & DJ Paul,” shot in and around clubs in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to the musicians on stage, the cameras capture audience members shaking their tail feathers, popping their bottles and engaging in the occasional gang fight.

Soaked In Bleach
If there’s one thing made clear in this investigative documentary, it’s that next-of-kin should be very careful about the private dicks they hire to search for clues in the disappearance of a loved one. Courtney Love’s choice of Los Angeles P.I. Tom Grant mere hours before Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body was found in the greenhouse of their Seattle home has, 20 years later, resulted in Benjamin Statler’s Soaked in Bleach, a documentary that implicates the Hole founder in his death. More to the point, Grant indicts the Seattle Police Department for rushing to its judgment of suicide and not pursing leads that might have led to a reopening of the case in the years since April 5, 1994. The entertainment media relied on single-source gossip for their coverage of Cobain’s demise, only adding to the confusion surrounding the events that led to it. Once suicide has officially been named as the cause of death, apparently, police investigators in Seattle waste little time closing their books on a case, especially when the involve a 27-year-old rocker with track marks on his arm. And, while Grant’s largely circumstantial argument sounds compelling enough on film, his assertion that the Nirvana frontman had turned a corner on his depression would hardly be sufficient cause for reopening the case. Statler has rounded up a convincing number of police and forensics experts to back up Grant’s concerns and utilizes dramatizations to amplify their concerns. Cobain’s alleged suicide note and correspondence with Love and close friends also is scrutinized. Rumors about Love’s involvement in her husband’s death have been floating around for most of the last 20 years, without finding much traction. She doesn’t have many allies among Nirvana fans, but that, in itself, isn’t something prosecutors tend to take into account, these days, either.

Reminiscence: The Beginning
The People Under the Stairs: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At their core, Christopher Nolan’s mega-budget sci-fi adventure, Interstellar, and Akçay Karaazmak’s micro-budget sci-fi/horror thriller, Reminiscence: The Beginning, concern the same things: the vagaries of time and space. Because the former is set largely in an unexplored recess of our solar system and the latter takes place on a deserted beach in Turkey’s Cesme Peninsula, you’d think the two movies would be worlds apart. Here, though, a Slovakian physicist, Miska (Michaela Rexova), has travelled to the rocky shore of the Aegean Sea with her boyfriend to determine if her calculations have led them to exact place, where, every six years, intersections in planetary coordinates create the conditions necessary for temporary gravity fields to open a gateway to a black hole. It sounds complicated, but Miska is able to explain it to Akcay (Karaazmak) using sand, a stick and several small stones. If her theory still doesn’t appear to hold water, viewers can simply sit back and wait for the interstellar bogeymen to appear to them as “shadows” in time. The same thing happens to clueless Americans, whenever they pitch their tents on ancient Native American burial grounds or buy a house built over the portals of hell. No sooner do Miska and Akcay settle in than very strange things begin to happen around and to them. Doppelgangers appear out of thin air to menace the couple, then vanish as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived. Some resemble Death, in The Seventh Seal, while other appear to have escaped from a splatter flick. While not terribly frightening or gory, Reminiscence: The Beginning is undeniably creepy. There isn’t a single aspect of the production upon which Karaazmak’s fingerprints can’t be found and the cast is comprised exclusively of beginners. His score and cinematography, especially, appear to have been informed by multiple trips on psilocybin mushrooms, whose hallucinatory properties can produce dramatic sensory effects. The visual effect is almost impossible to describe precisely, but anyone who’s opened those particular doors of perception will recognize the territory. Karaazmak’s gift is being able to re-create the experience, without attempting to make those scenes resemble an acid test. The things that go bump in the night also are pretty scary.

Even if mainstream and genre critics weren’t terribly impressed by Wes Craven’s 1991 freak show, The People Under the Stairs, it paid handsome returns for Universal in its theatrical run, while performing extremely well in VHS. I’m not sure what demographic Craven was targeting with this fairly tame genre flick, whose protagonist is a 13-year-old African-American boy. Because I don’t think the R rating would hold up under scrutiny today, it’s possible that Craven’s original intention was for The People Under the Stairs to be something of a starter kit for teens and pre-teens just beginning to taste the pleasures of horror. (A freakier version of The Borrowers, perhaps.) In a scenario that fits our time all too well, a mystery surrounds a tightly locked house owned by the Robesons, landlords who aren’t at all disturbed by their reputation for cheating their renters. Facing eviction, tenants Leroy (Ving Rhames), Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) and the boy, Fool (Brandon Adams), break into the house, quickly learning some of its secrets. The larger mystery, as the title suggests, lies under the floorboards and within its walls. Of the three, only Fool survives the first break-in, returning home with several gold coins that might be part of a greater fortune hidden in the basement, along with the Robesons’ prisoners. Some of them are children and teenagers (A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen), while others appear to have been locked up since the house was built. (Craven based the story on an actual break-in and similar discovery of captives.) Everett McGill and Wendy Robie are the personification of evil, itself, as the seriously twisted Robesons. In addition to the excellently choreographed action scenes, Craven lightens the moods every so often with his own brand of dark humor. The special Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory adds plenty of bonus features sure to be of interest to Craven loyalists. They include separate commentary tracks with Craven and actors Brandon Adams, A.J. Langer, Sean Whalen and Yan Burg; revealing interviews with Wendy Robie, special make-up effects artists Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, director of photography Sandi Sissel, and composer Don Peake; behind-the-scenes footage; a vintage making-of featurette; and stills galleries.

Police Story: Lockdown: Blu-ray
Fans of Jackie Chan who’ve already enjoyed five previous iterations of the “Police Story” series will be the ones most drawn to Police Story: Lockdown, in which the Hong Kong superstar, now 61, plays one of his trademark characters, perhaps for the final time. As happens to many movie cops as they reach retirement age, Police Captain Zhong Wen (Chan) has become estranged from his daughter, Miao (Jing Tian). For most of her life, Miao has played second fiddle to his dedication to police work. On this night, Zhong hopes to rekindle their relationship, while also meeting her fiancé, nightclub owner Wu Jiang (Liu Ye). His club is a splashy joint that comes complete with go-go dancers, fancy lighting and furniture, expensive drinks and a cross-section of the city’s rich, corrupt and trendy elite. Wu has other things on his mind than getting acquainted with his future father-in-law, however. They share a bit of ancient history, which has been festering within the young man for years. After some light fish-out-of-water levity, Zhong and Miao are among a crowd of club patrons rounded up and held captive by Wu and his fellow gangsters. One of their demands is to have an elderly crime boss (Zhou Xiaoou) released from prison and brought to the nightclub to face the music. “Lockdown” ends with an extended chase and shootout scene that should satisfy old and young fans of Chan, alike. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, cast interviews and an English-dub track.

Pre-Code Double Feature: Secret Sinners/Beauty Parlor
Every so often, TCM devotes an evening’s entertainment to movies made before the Production Code was instituted to pre-empt plans by puritanical lawmakers to impose censorial restrictions on Hollywood studios. The titles programmed by the cable network tend to feature well-known stars – John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, Pat O’Brien, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, among them – while such outlets as Alpha Home Entertainment package films in the public domain. If the technical presentation sometimes isn’t up to par, at least the price is right. The Hays Office originally was originally created to alleviate concerns over violence in the first wave of gangster movies, but it also eliminated storylines in which premarital sex, prostitution, infidelity, suicide and bedroom etiquette were prominent. It worked swell, didn’t it? Whatever sinful behavior is on display in Alpha’s “Pre-Code Double Feature: Secret Sinners/Beauty Parlor” is so slight as to be invisible to modern eyes. Still, after 1934, it’s likely that these movies wouldn’t pass muster in Hollywood. In Secret Sinners, an innocent young woman, Sue (Sue Carol), loses her job as a maid for socializing while at work. A more worldly acquaintance (Cecilia Parker) is able to find her a job as a chorus girl in burlesque. By then-current standards, she might as well have taken up residence in a brothel. The poor girl is snatched from the line by the club’s playboy owner (Jack Mulhall), who neglects to tell her that he’s already married. When his wife figures out what’s going on behind her back, she raises her price for a divorce from $500,000 to everything he owns. More to the point, however, is the devastating impact the ruse has on the defenseless chorus girl and her self-respect. Feeling tainted and depressed, she decides to run away and find a sugar daddy. With its nightclub setting, Secret Sinners offers some diverting music and dance interludes.

In Beauty Parlor, sexy manicurists are confronted daily by elderly male customers, all of whom look as if they might have been the inspiration for Mr. Monopoly. The lechers may lack the qualities the women normally look for in a husband, but, at the time, good-looking young men with money were tough to find. It was also possible that the geezers would expire before the end of the Depression and they’d be left with sufficient money to afford the guy of their dreams. To this end, some of the women also agree to serve as paid escorts, while off the job. When one of them (Joyce Compton) is arrested on an extortion beef, her roommate (Barbara Kent) raises the bail by agreeing to marry a client, who has more integrity than anyone gives him credit for having. A more age-appropriate suitor (John Harron) hangs around, just in case the opportunity arises to ruin the old-timer’s fun. Beauty Parlor offers plenty of sharp dialogue, especially from the manicurists, and no small amount of humor. This can be attributed to director Richard Thorpe, whose career extended from 1923 to 1967, and writer Guy Trosper. They would team again 25 years later on Jailhouse Rock.

Israeli Passion/Nights of Tel Aviv
Because most of the news reports out of Israel concern war, terrorism and a national  psyche scarred by violence, it’s possible for American audiences to imagine a cinema obsessed with the same terrible things. The good folks from Sisu Home Entertainment have worked hard to dispel us of that notion, by distributing DVDs that reflect a broad variety of interests and themes. The names of the principle actors may not ring a bell, but some of them will be familiar from their work in American and European movies. The “Israeli Passion” collection contains four recent movies that merge comedy and drama, while commenting on modern love, jealousy, religion and crime: Belly Dancer (2006); Zur Hadasim (1999); Jewish Vendetta (1997); and Avanim (2004). The compilation, Nights of Tel Aviv, should be of special interest to crime buffs, no matter their native tongue. It is comprised of three detective stories wholly or partially set in Tel Aviv. The noir-tinged dramas are The Investigation Must Go On (2000), The 5-Minute Walk (2001) and Sherman in Winter (2001).

Fury, Volumes 1-5
WE: Kendra on Top: The Explosive Third Season
Maude: The Complete Second Season
The Jeffersons: Season Eight
Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: High-Speed Adventures
PBS: Super Why: Cinderella & Other Fairytale Adventures
Ask any Baby Boomer boy to name the TV shows that influenced him as a child and he’s likely to include the Saturday-morning standby, “Fury,” which followed “Howdy Doody” and “Andy’s Gang” on NBC. As “the story of a horse … and a boy who loves him,” it was a contemporary Western that gave kids credit for being able to learn valuable life lessons from non-animated parents, strangers and pets. Occasionally, they would bring desperadoes to justice, as well. These were live-action shows, shot on location, and featuring adult characters who served as mentors, role models and pals. “Fury” resembled “Lassie” and “Rin-Tin-Tin,” in that the animal protagonist collaborated with the adult and child stars to solve problems and risk their necks for those in need of assistance. In the pilot episode, we’re introduced to the orphan, Joey (Bobby Diamond), who is taken in by recent widower, Jim Newton (Peter Graves), after an altercation with another boy in a nearby city. Fury is the wild black stallion on Jim’s ranch that none of his wranglers can tame. When Fury is injured by another rancher, Joey runs away to help the wounded stallion. Jim and his friend, Helen (Ann Robinson,) find them in the nick of time to save Fury’s life. Jim adopts Joey as his son, and so begins a lifetime of adventure for Fury at the Broken Wheel Ranch. Also prominent in the show were William Fawcett, as ranch hand Pete Wilkey, and Roger Mobley as Homer “Packy” Lambert. The show ran from 1955 to 1960, the same year “Howdy Doody” was canceled.

If any human being was destined to live out her natural life in front of a television camera, it’s Kendra Wilkinson. Apparently born without the gene that controls one’s sense of shame, Kendra is still known best as one of three twentysomething concubines, who lived with octogenarian Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion and made E’s “The Girls Next Door” a huge hit. As sordid as the arrangement seemed at the time, anyone who’s had the privilege of attending a party at the Holmby Hills pleasure palace might have accepted the same invitation as Holly, Bridget and Kendra. All of the “girls” benefited from the popularity of that show in the furtherance of their careers, but it was Wilkinson who completely sold out to the gods of reality television. After successfully launching several reality shows of her own and appearing on other people’s programs, Wilkinson moved to WE TV’s “Kendra on Top,” which resembles a 1960s sitcom, as conceived by the Marquis de Sade. In it, she is the mother of two small children and wife to former NFL player Hank Baskett, a nice enough fellow who always seems intimidated by his loud and brassy wife. Season Three opens only days before Kendra will deliver her second child, a daughter, Alijah Mary Baskett, and news of the most unsettling variety reaches her via the tabloid press. Hank is being accused of escaping the show’s omnipresent cameras in the clutches of transsexual model, Ava Sabrina London. Naturally, she’s devastated by the accusations. Worse, Baskett is laying low in New Mexico with Hank Jr., seemingly with no intention of explaining himself to her. Just as Kendra’s wounds appear to be healing, however, the meathead decides to confide in his male friends, rather than open up to her. In most ways, these episodes are like watching a train wreck in a nudist colony … as uncomfortable as the damage makes us, it’s impossible to take our eyes off of it. The only truly poignant moment in a season full of embarrassing moments comes when Kendra returns to the Playboy Mansion to visit Hef, who’s wearing his trademark captain’s cap and pajamas. His advice about second chances gives Kendra the courage not only to reconsider her feelings for Hank, but to find her long-estranged father and ask him why he deserted his family. A new season begins in two weeks.

Among the things that set Norman Lear’s sitcoms apart from most others was his refusal to fall back on the tropes and conventions that have fueled the genre since the 1950s. A simple perusal of episode synopses reveals a wide and varied array of conflicts and gags. As Season Two of “Maude” opens, Walter (Bill Macy) is forced to deal with his growing problems with alcohol and violence toward his wife (Bea Arthur). Other storylines involve the departure of Maude’s housekeeper, Florida (Esther Rolle), her decision to get a face-lift; Vivian’s divorce and subsequent manhunt; Carol’s attitudes toward dating test her mother’s liberality; Maude takes a job in real estate; and the lead-up to Viv and Arthur’s nuptials. By Season Eight, “The Jeffersons” had grown into a juggernaut that showed no sign of slowing down. This time around, George’s misadventures include facing off with a street gang, taking charm lessons, erecting a museum to himself and attempting to fix Lionel and Jenny’s marriage. The search for a maid to replace Florence keeps Louise busy, as do reports that indicate her father may not be dead, after all. The ensemble cast, led by Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover, remains as sharp as ever.

Nickelodeon’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: High-Speed Adventures” contains four episodes from the first season, “Bouncy Tires,” “Stuntmania,” ”Epic Sail” and “Team Truck Challenge.” Sometimes, it’s difficult to discern whether this show is more interested in telling CGI-enhanced stories or selling monster-truck toys. Another DVD aimed at the youngest of viewers is PBS’ “Super Why: Cinderella & Other Fairytale Adventures.” “Super Why” introduces letters, spelling and reading to children whose interest in such things is beginning to emerge. In addition to the stories, the DVD provides interactive material for kids who want to extend the experience.

The DVD Wrapup: Madame Bovary, Adult Beginners, Descendants, Salvation, Wyrmwood, Seashore, Snow Girl, Flamenco, Bilko … More

Friday, August 7th, 2015

Madame Bovary: Blu-ray
Among the distinguished women who’ve portrayed Emma Bovary on film over the last 80 years are Isabelle Huppert, Frances O’Connor, Carla Gravina, Jennifer Jones, Pola Negri, Lila Lee and, if you count David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, Sarah, Miles. There have been more, of course, but these are the most recognizable actresses. Like the Olympics and presidential elections, a new adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel comes around every four years, or so, whether the public is clamoring for one, or not. In Sophie Barthes’ lushly mounted Madame Bovery, 25-year-old Aussie Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right) convincingly plays the disillusioned wife of a country doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) whose unmet expectations and boredom are sated by material pleasures they can’t afford. If there isn’t anything wrong with the approach taken by Barthes (Cold Souls), its bourgeois trappings and rural splendor are all too familiar in a marketplace filled with period adaptations of classic novels, however tragic and sexy. What could be more contemporary than a story about a woman so disgusted by her husband’s lack of financial drive that she decides to take matters into her own hands … and his credit cards? Given the media’s obsession with celebrities and their closets full of designer fashions, how could a modern Emma Bovary resist the temptation of looking, acting and partying like a Kardashian? Greedy enablers, like Rhys Ifans’ unctuous Monsieur Lheureux in Madame Bovary, can found everywhere these days, especially on such fashion-lust shows as “Project Runway,” “The Rachel Zoe Project” and red-carpet coverage leading to the Oscars, Emmys and Grammy awards ceremonies. (Or, the Home Shopping Network and QVC for a low-rent remake of “Madame Bovary” for shut-ins.) It wouldn’t take long for a spouse – gay, straight or indifferent – to drive a successful lawyer, doctor or athlete into bankruptcy these days. A fresh take on the story wouldn’t have hurt. Also on hand in Barthes’ Madame Bovary are Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Laura Carmichael (“Downton Abbey”), Logan Marshall-Greenand (“Dark Blue”) Paul Giamatti (Sideways).

Adult Beginners: Blu-ray
Like so many other comedies featuring actors, writers and directors who’ve graduated from such sketch-comedy mills as National Lampoon, Second City, the Groundlings, “SNL” and Upright Citizens Brigade, Ross Katz’ intermittently funny,  yet heart-warming Adult Beginners appears to have been inspired by an existing character or improvisational conceit. It worked in such extended-skit movies as The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, but fell flat in a dozen other “SNL” offshoots. The Nick Kroll we meet at the beginning of Adult Beginners isn’t at all dissimilar to the characters he’s invented previously in “The League,” “Kroll Show” and “Parks and Recreation.” Kroll’s Jake is an arrogant hipster entrepreneur accustomed to living large and partying like it was still 1999. When the bottom falls out of one of his investment schemes, he becomes persona non grata with everyone who put money into it. Jake has nowhere to turn, except the sister he hasn’t seen in three years. Justine (Rose Byrne), Danny (Bobby Cannavale) and their 3-year-old son, Teddy, live in the suburbs in a too-small home and with another baby in the oven. After a few months of lounging around on the couch and feeling sorry for himself, Jake is asked to act as a nanny for Teddy. He’s a handful, but no worse than most of the other kids left in the hands of male adults in such comedies. And, of course, Jake quickly learns the benefits of showing up at the local playground with child in tow and a tale of woe to tell the husband-less mommies. Writers Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive do a reasonably good job avoiding most time-worn clichés of the sub-genre, so Jake’s maturation process isn’t as predictable as it could have been. Credit, there, belongs to the seasoned supporting cast and such occasional drop-ins as Joel McHale, Paula Garcés, Caitlin FitzGerald, Mike Birbiglia, Jason Mantzoukas and Bobby Moynihan. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Every Secret Thing
Sometimes, even the certified best novels fail to make the transition from page to screen. Of all the hundreds of mysteries published each year and dozens optioned for possible production, only a handful are fully adapted and made available for viewing. Best-selling author Laura Lippman has written dozens of novels and short stories. I don’t know how many have been optioned, but only one has been successfully translated into a feature film, Every Secret Thing. Besides making book-sellers and critics happy, the 2004 novel was accorded top honors in genre competition. Its success allowed Lippman to quit her day job at the Baltimore Sun. Alas, the difficulties inherent in attempting to stuff 400-plus pages of a novel into a 93-minute R-rated thriller are readily apparent in Every Secret Thing. Although the story’s skeleton holds up pretty well, a whole lot of good stuff gets lost along the way, including the original scene of the crimes, Baltimore. In Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg’s first feature film, the action has been transferred to a more generic city in Upstate New York. Two creepy 11-year-old girls are convicted of kidnapping and murdering an infant they’d snatched from a stroller on a porch. Seven years later, skinny blond Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) and seriously overweight Alice (Danielle Macdonald) are released from their juvenile-detention facilities, far from rehabilitated and wholly unprepared for a world full of harmful temptations. Sure enough, not long after the girls, now 18, get back home, a child goes missing. Based on similarities in the kidnappings, Ronnie and Alice are quickly visited by dogged police detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks). As drawn by screenwriter Nicole Holofcenor, both of them are potentially guilty and wholly unworthy of our sympathy. As portrayed by Diane Lane, Alice’s crazy mother could be every bit as guilty of something, anything, as her daughter. The boyfriend of the newly kidnapped girl’s mother (Common) also is grilled by the cops, but, because we already know he’s only guilty of being a belligerent jerk, his presence mostly is a diversion. Even so, Every Secret Thing can be recommended for the quality of the acting and sustained aura of menace. Banks’ character, especially, would be a welcome addition to a series of her own.

Hot on the heels of Disney Channel’s vibrant time-travel musical, “Teen Beach 2,” comes “Descendants,” a clever merger of classic fairytale characters and the cable network’s fabulously successful “High School Musical” franchise, right down to director/choreographer Kenny Ortega. Here, the live-action offspring of several famous Disney villains, including Maleficent (Kristen Chenoweth), Evil Queen, Jafar and Cruella De Vil, are cleared to leave Isle of the Lost for the first time, to attend prep school in idyllic Auradon, with the children of beloved Disney heroes. Their parents include Belle, Beast, Snow White and Prince Charming. While the kids from Isle of the Lost have been instructed to corrupt the squeaky-clean preppies in Auradon, it’s likely that good ultimately will triumph over evil, as it always does in suburbs of the Magic Kingdom. After watching a few of these extravaganzas, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the production values invested by the studio into what’s basically a made-for-TV (and DVD) project and the stunning level of teen talent on display. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Disney has a robotics factory hidden somewhere in the swamps of Orlando, where fresh-faced actors are created to fit the needs of the Disney Channel. Before they leave the plant, the singing and dancing cyborgs are programed to smile, even under duress, and sublimate their natural sexual urges, lest they follow in the tarnished footsteps of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, Vanessa Hudgens and Lindsay Lohan. The stars here include Dove Cameron, Booboo Stewart, Cameron Boyce and Sofia Carson. The DVD adds a backstage featurette, bloopers and “eMal.”

Brother’s Keeper
Any Day
Just when you think that faith-based filmmakers have begun to treat their audiences with the same level of respect as their mainstream peers, along comes a Brother’s Keeper to dissuade you of that notion. I’ve rarely encountered a movie that plays as fast and loose with internal logic and narrative integrity as co-directors T.J. Amato and Josh Mills and writer Briana Hartman’s debut feature. What seems to have been ignored by the filmmakers is that Christian audiences occasionally turn off Pat Robertson long enough to watch the many legal shows on networks programmed by unsaved TV executives. A casual perusal of “Perry Mason” reruns should have told them that our legal system, while imperfect, doesn’t work the way it does in Brother’s Keeper, even to accommodate the lesson in John 15:13 and Ephesians 4:32 . (That last bit constitutes a spoiler, if such things matter to you.) Identical blond twins Andy and Pete Goodwynn (Alex and Graham Miller) have been dealt a really crappy hand in life, losing their mother and father to violence at an early age. One walked the straight-and-narrow path in 1950s Georgia, while the other has yet to find one he cared to follow. With high school graduation near, Pete plans to marry the love of his life, Maggie (Mackenzie Mauzy), and head off to the seminary to become a preacher. Alex is the quintessential greaser, right down to his leather jacket and cigarettes. On prom night, the son of the town’s most prominent asshole, er, citizen (Ray Wise), rapes and murders Maggie in the bathroom of the high school. Only minutes later, Pete is seen running from the bathroom after Gordon (Daniel Samonas), who viewers know is responsible for the killing.

During the chase, the guilty teen trips and hits his head on a log. Knowing that Pete looks dirty as sin in the killing, Andy demands that he be allowed to take the rap until the truth is discovered by police and the court. Instead of going along with the ruse, Pete later feels compelled to confess to the thoroughly corrupt police chief (Michael Rooker) and city officials, including the part about who really belongs in jail. So, while Pete changes places with his brother, Gordon’s powerful father conspires with the judge and sheriff to make sure the jury only hears perjured testimony from unreliable witnesses. While Pete is being railroaded to the electric chair, apparently minus appeals to higher courts, Andy decides to find Jesus for himself in the seminary and Gordon stews in his own juices, afraid to defy his father by admitting his guilt. Anyone who’s managed to stay with Brother’s Keeper this long wouldn’t have to be a bible scholar – or  the world’s worst lawyer – to guess what happens in the next hour, or so. Having already suspended my disbelief to its maximum level, I was surprised to find myself as moved by the overall experience as I was. I do know it had more to do with the ability of the Miller twins to make the plight of the Goodwyn twins credible than any sudden concession to logic. Maybe I just needed to be reminded that it takes more than a bad script to ruin good Scripture.

The similarly faith-based Any Day borrows from the familiar story of an ex-boxer struggling for redemption after being imprisoned for killing a man with his fists. Although a manslaughter plea probably could have saved Vian McLean (Sean Bean) several of the 12 years he spent in jail, he probably needed the time to dry out from a severe alcohol problem. Upon his return to civilization, Vian is reluctantly given shelter by his sister, Bethley (Kate Walsh), who demands he remain sober while he’s under her roof. His case is helped by the immediate bond he establishes with his nephew, Jimmy, who’s not only missing a father figure in his life, but also is tired of getting bullied at school. The only place in town that Vian can find work is in a restaurant run by a guy (Tom Arnold) who’s faced many of the same hurdles, before turning to AA. After a few weeks of good behavior, Tommy helps Vian strike up a conversation with a pretty woman, Jolene (Eva Longoria), he meets in a supermarket. After much coaxing, they begin dating. The problem, of course, is that Vian exaggerates the minimum-wage position he holds at the restaurant, while leaving out his place of residence for the last dozen years. This is only one of the roadblocks he will face before something resembling a true miracle occurs. That it is revealed in a scenario that might have been borrowed from a dime-store religious calendar is one of things for which critics blasted Any Day upon its limited release. Working in its favor are the fine performances writer/director Rustam Branaman elicits from his cast, especially Walsh, who’s already proven that she’s as comfortable playing working stiffs as more glamorous types.

The Salvation: Blu-ray
It probably wouldn’t be fair to describe Kristian Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen’s The Salvation as a modern spaghetti Western, made in South Africa by Danes, but, really, therein lies its considerable charm. The presence of Mads Mikkelsen (“Hannibal”) and Eva Green (“Penny Dreadful”), alone, would be enough to recommend a movie, let alone one that should also remind viewers of any number of Clint Eastwood’s Westerns. As a conscious throwback to the dawn of the “existential Western,” Levring has added more than 60 genre references – ranging from the obvious to the obscure — to The Salvation. Going back and finding them is almost as diverting as it was attempting to figure out where the movie had been shot, during the first time through it. If not Andalusia or Monument Valley, where? Mikkelson plays Jon Jensen, a former soldier, who, after fighting in the German-Danish conflict, travelled to America with his brother, Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), to find peace and prosperity. Typically, Scandinavian immigrants in movies never make it past Minnesota, but, here, Jon and Peter scratch out a meager living by hunting and farming. As the movie opens, Jon has come to town to pick up his wife and young son, who he hasn’t seen for several years. Not unexpectedly, tragedy strikes on the stagecoach ride back home. The rest of The Salvation plays out as two-pronged search for revenge. After Jon tracks down the men who killed his family, the brother of one of the killers holds the residents of a small town hostage until they turn the Dane over to him.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a nice job as Henry Delarue, the truly evil leader of a band of outlaws hired to scare off the settlers. Not anticipating that anyone would miss the men he killed, Jon rides into town with his brother on their way to a new start, further west. Even after listening to Jon’s story, the residents don’t hesitate turning him over to the man who’s been terrorizing them. There’s no reason to spoil the rest of the story, so let’s leave it at that. Even if little new ground is broken in The Salvation, Levring, a veteran of the Dogme95 movement, is able to draw on his lifelong love of the genre to make it look like the real deal and keep the action fast-paced. His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Jens Schlosser, also has an excellent handle on what the American west is supposed to look like, no matter where it isn’t. So, where does Green fit in all of this? After being kidnapped by Indians and having her tongue cut out – a grotesque Western cliche, if there ever was one – she marries the sleazebag killed by Jon in the first reel. With his brother dead, Delarue considers his sister-in-law to be fair game as a lover, partner in the land scheme and punching bag. The Blu-ray adds copious interviews and a making-of featurette.

Inner Demons
Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead: Blu-ray
The Last Survivors: Blu-ray
In a rare example of shoo-what-you-know, the director of Inner Demons borrows here from his experience in the reality-television game to make a thriller that exploits well-worn genre tropes and conventions. Seth Grossman uses what he learned producing three episodes of “Intervention” and a few more of “Hollywood Hillbillies,” “On the Rocks” and “Kiss & Tell,” to make a thriller about the demonic possession of a teenager featured in a rehab show.  When the daughter of religious parents transforms from straight-A student into heroin addict almost overnight, they agree to allow a reality TV show crew to stage an intervention and document her recovery. Newcomer Lara Vosburgh delivers a credible performance who self-medicates her inner pain with hard drugs and, at the same time, affects the look and behavior of an aggressively unpleasant Goth girl. Apparently, the demon that’s invaded Carson’s body isn’t at all pleased about being revealed as the kind of monster who picks on little girls, simply because they study the bible, so it takes every opportunity to ruin the show and her family. Things get pretty crazy, but most of the scary stuff gets diluted along the way by our overexposure to found-footage flicks and “reality” shows that require a couple dozen writers to invent the truthful encounters, as is the case with “Intervention.” If nothing else, though, Inner Demons demonstrates how little progress has been made in the exorcism business in the 43 years since a mere mortal was able to free little Regan from her demons in The Exorcist with little more than a crucifix and holy water. Still, fans of the demonic-possession subgenre should find something here to enjoy.

It shouldn’t have taken two directors four years to make what essentially is “Mad Max vs. the Zombies.” The long-awaited fourth chapter in that franchise cost 10 times as much money to make as the first three chapters, combined, and, while fun to watch, “Fury Road” barely carried its weight at the international box office. Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner’s Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead is a throwback to the glory days of Ozploitation in all of the best ways possible, including a miniscule budget pushed to the limit to produce maximum results. If, at times, it sometimes resembles a parody or homage to the current zombie-apocalypse craze, all the better. Barry (Jay Gallagher) is a talented mechanic and family man whose life is torn apart after his sister, Brooke (Bianca Bradey), is kidnapped by a team of gas-mask wearing soldiers. She’s taken to a warehouse and experimented on by a psychotic, disco-dancing doctor. Also imprisoned are zombies captured to determine if their high-octane emissions can be refined, like gasoline, to service a fuel-starved nation. The costumes and vehicles look as if cut from the same templates as the ones used for “Beyond Thunderdome.” Fans of ultraviolence and gory makeup effects won’t be disappointed. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette, which explains how a genre flick can take four years to make … and not look like crap.

It’s possible that Thomas S. Hammock and Jacob Forman’s intention in making The Last Survivors (a.k.a., “The Well”) was to exploit the current drought impacting the Southwest for the purpose of creating a dystopian thriller. The setting is near-future Oregon, which usually is swimming in water, but, in 10 years, conceivably could resemble Mojave Desert. Indeed, that’s where The Last Survivors was shot by Seamus Tierney (The Narrows), who deserves kudos for capturing both the harsh reality of a rain-starved terrain and the stark beauty of the California desert. The conceit here is that 17-year-old Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) is waiting out the apocalypse in the ruins of the same juvenile facility she was raised. It is the site of one of the few wells containing a smidgen of potable water and it’s supporting a small community of survivors. When a greedy water baron lays claim to what little of the precious resource remains underground, Kendal must decide whether to run and hide or resist the corporate takeover. The Last Survivors can be recommended for its unique look, if not the improbable teenager-saves-the-world angle.

Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon’s coming-of-sexual-age drama is so subtle that’s difficult to tell what we’re supposed to make of it. Knowing that Seashore is based on memories shared by  the filmmakers when they were in their teens helps viewers understand why emotional fireworks are less essential to the story than quiet reflections on a time when everyone’s confused about everything. Martin and Tomaz (Mateus Almada, Maurício Barcellos) rekindle their childhood friendship on a weekend trip to the seaside town in southern Brazil where they were raised. Martin is expected to sort out a family inheritance matter, but the filmmakers’ are more focused on how sexuality inserts itself into the lives of teenagers, when left to their own devices and confronted with having to choose between same- and opposite-sex romances. In lieu of action sequences and raw sexual encounters, Seashore is carried on the backs of young actors whose lack of professional experience is more of an asset than a detriment to the proceedings. The temperamental skies of winter on the shore also contribute to the movie’s tone.

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal: Blu-ray
Black & White: The Dawn of Assault: Blu-ray
It’s difficult to determine how much a movie that required an estimated $30 million to make in China would cost if it had been produced by a Hollywood studio. My guess: a lot. Co-directed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Tianyu Zhao (The Law of Attraction), the CGI-enhanced romantic fantasy adventure Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal may, indeed, be a harbinger of expensive things to come from mainland studios. Shown in 3D and released in time for Chinese New Year, the movie reportedly pulled in more than $53 million in the first two weeks of its domestic release, a number that reflects a growing acceptance of home-made entertainments for mixed-age audiences. The goal, I imagine, is to eventually churn out the kind of non-political pictures that can compete in the international marketplace, if only in the potentially lucrative Asian diaspora. As the legend goes, once every millennium – on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month — it becomes possible for beings from Heaven, Earth and Hell to cross between the realms. Without going into too great detail, an emissary from the Jade Emperor sends his disciple, Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), a former scholar turned demon hunter, on a mission to hell. He is able to steal the Dark Crystal, a powerful force that acts as a safeguard for the integrity of the realms. Enraged, the Demon King sends Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) to Earth to get it back. She arrives with a group of other demons, masquerading as a female entertainment troupe visiting the city of Hu. It doesn’t take long for Zhong Kui to recognize Snow Girl as the mysterious woman with whom he had an intense love story three years earlier. It sets off a battle royal for control of the realms, as well as hope for renewed, if unnatural love between a demon and demon hunter. Although the filmmakers sometimes fail to maintain the equilibrium between action and romance, fantasy and reality, the problem isn’t one that prevents viewers from enjoying the spectacle. The excellent Blu-ray presentation adds a making-of featurette, along with pieces on musical soundtrack and visual effects.

The impact of American blockbusters on the Chinese/Taiwanese cinema is obvious, as well, in Black & White: The Dawn of Assault, an urban buddy film so packed with action that it’s hardly worth the effort it would take to find a coherent story within its 142-minute length. If Bruce Willis popped up somewhere in the middle of a car chase or helicopter gag, it would have come as almost no surprise to me. Released in 2012, “Black & White” actually serves as a feature-length prequel to a Taiwanese television series of the same title and sub-genre. It only lasted a single 24-episode season, but has inspired not only this prequel, but a sequel, to boot. Western audiences can jump into it without fear of having to do any homework on the series. In it, daredevil cop Ying Xiong (Mark Chao) is on the outs with his superiors for participating in yet another dangerous high-speed chase through Harbor City that ends in explosive fashion. So frequent are these occurrences that Xiong is suspended and ordered to undergo psychological evaluations. When he’s implicated in an unsuccessful diamond deal with a terrorist cell, Xiong is required to team with ready-to-retire gangster, Xu, played by popular mainland character actor Huang Bo. They find an ally in the mysterious hacker, Ning Feng (Angelababy) and are chased by a government agent (Alex To). Co-writer/director Tsai Yueh-Hsun also adds an appealing group of oddball characters to supplement the many lavish set pieces.

Flamenco, Flamenco
I Dream of Wires
Before the demise of variety shows on network television, it wasn’t unusual to turn on “Ed Sullivan,”  “The Tonight Show” or any number of entertainment specials and find a tango or flamenco artist, such as Jose Greco or Juan Carlos Copes on the night’s bill. In 1969, Greco opened for Frank Sinatra at Caesars Palace, while Copes was featured in a Broadway dance revue in the early 1960s. In his 1980s’ “Flamenco Trilogy” (Blood Wedding, Carmen, El Amor Brujo), Carlos Saura provided audiences here with examples of a dance form not limited to clicking heels and clapped hands. Shortly thereafter, the Gipsy Kings introduced the rumba/salsa/flamenco hybrid, popular in Catalonia, to American audiences who enjoyed the offshoot’s pop flavor. Tango got a boost in 1985 when the French dance show “Tango Argentino” transferred to Broadway, revealing its many artistic facets and musical influences. Such films as Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997), Saura’s Tango (1998) and Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2002) kept the flame burning here by adding dramatic narratives to what already was a sexually charged and borderline violent atmosphere. The travel industry has since made it easy for aficionados to chase their passion for tango and flamenco to Argentina and Spain, without going broke. Beginners need look any further than Saura’s beautifully mounted odes to the countries’ native dance, art and music, Tango and Flamenco, Flamenco. Unabashedly sensual, flamenco has never looked as compelling as it does in Saura’s cross-generational exploration of the dance form’s evolution, influences, tradition and future. Exquisitely photographed by three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now), the 21 short musical and dance numbers were shot at the Seville Expo ’92 pavilion against a lush background of paintings by such artists as Picasso, Goya and Klimt. The performers range in age from pre-teen to 79-year-old singing legend, Maria Bala. Saura and Storaro even find new ways to make dueling pianos exciting. The sparkling DVD adds a worthwhile background featurette.

I think it’s safe to assume that, at 107 minutes, I Dream of Wires, will be at least 47 minutes too long, even for fans of electronic dance music and other synthesized sounds. Narrated as if it were an AT&T infomercial, Robert Fantinatto’s exhaustively researched documentary chronicles the rise, fall and return to popularity of a musical genre that requires copious amounts of Ecstasy to enjoy. That isn’t to say, however, that techies won’t get hard listening to the engineers rhapsodize over the relative merits analog and digital equipment and resurgence of high-end modular synthesizers favor by a new generation of plugged-in musicians. Fantinatto’s gathered an impressive list of witnesses on the subject, including Trent Reznor, Gary Numan, Flood, Carl Craig, Morton Subotnick, John Foxx, Vincent Clarke, James Holden and Factory Floor. Prohibitive licensing fees probably prevented the filmmaker from adding more melodious examples of genre fare, which is a shame.

She Loves Me Not
In Brian Jun and Jack Sanderson’s underwhelming three-chapter drama, She Loves Me Not, Cary Elwes plays an novelist whose acute alcoholism is complicated by a severe case of narcissism. Through most of the movie, it’s a near-lethal combination for the writer and viewers, alike. We meet Elwes’ Brady Olinson as he’s bouncing along the rock bottom of his career. He’s living with one of his students (Briana Evigan), an aspiring novelist who puts up with Olinson’s self-destructive behavior because he allows her to sleep around, a bit, and it might pay off in the form of blurb on the jacket of her first novel. The sting that comes with knowing Olinson’s been in no hurry to read the manuscript is mollified by sharing his mansion, which overlooks the Mississippi River. Because Brady tends to pass out before climbing the stairs to bed, their sex life isn’t anything to write a novel about. More frustrated than cruel, Charlotte finally decides to push Olinson toward some kind of recovery by inviting her current lover home and doing the deed upstairs, while he’s stewing in his own juices. In the second chapter, Charlotte is long gone, but not at all forgotten. If Brady’s still a bad drunk, at least he can fall back on the profits from his new book, which his publisher is sure will be a best-seller. To that end, he’s been assigned a publicist (Caitlin Keats) who’s also expected to keep him sober long enough to make it through each day’s cycle of interviews. In the final vignette, Olinson’s been clean for several years, but is no less obnoxious to the women in his life. Here, they’re represented by his real estate agent (Joey Lauren Adams) and a potential buyer (Lisa Edelman), with whom he’s more interested in seducing than forging a deal. She Loves Me Not’s two biggest problems are that it’s defeated by its own conceit and we’re aren’t given an opportunity to know the writer before we’re expected to dislike him. The late, great and eternally spooky Karen Black shows up in the center segment completely without warning or any reason to be there, except to work her Karen Black magic. By trimming some fat and adding some narrative muscle, the filmmakers could have done away with the forced chapter format and strung together a more coherent story.

PBS: Frontline: Outbreak
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Heart of the Family
BET: Chocolate City
Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show: The Third Season
BBC: Last Tango in Halifax Season 3
Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures
In a tidy coincidence, the release of the “Frontline” report “Outbreak” on DVD coincides with news out of Africa that a potentially “game-changing” vaccine has been successfully tested in Guinea and its use could soon be expanded to Ebola patients in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Although the number of newly reported cases has decreased to nearly zero in these countries, medical teams on the ground know that “nearly zero” isn’t good enough, when dealing with a disease than can spread like wildfire if unchecked. Not only does “Outbreak” trace the spread of Ebola from its origin in a bat-infested tree, but it also exposes tragic missteps in the response to the epidemic. Because the sick and dying weren’t as visible from Day One as the victims of a giant tsunami or earthquake, local and national officials had virtually no idea how to handle one case, let alone hundreds at a time, and the World Health Organization dragged its feet in declaring an international health emergency. It allowed time for uninformed residents to fall back on witchcraft and mob rule. President Obama’s decision to send American troops to help contain the mobility of victims and establish clinics proved to be a turning point in the crusade, but, by then, thousands of people had died and no vaccine was in sight. It’s a scary report, but one that needs to be heeded at a time when news of potential epidemics has begun to arrive at regular intervals.

I don’t know about you, but every time a uniformed member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police appears in a movie or television show, my mind flashes back to Dudley Do-Right on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” The ever-upright nimrod is in constant pursuit of his nemesis, Snidely Whiplash, and hyper-alert to the perils of his personal damsel in distress, Nell Fenwick. Not that I’m the target viewer for Hallmark’s Dove-approved series, “When Calls the Heart,” I still can’t help but be taken aback whenever Daniel Lissing arrives in Hope Valley, as Jack Thornton, in his blazing red jacket. That’s just me, however. In “Heart of the Family,” Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) returns home and immediately volunteers to look after a neighbor’s rural homestead and his two children. After Jack agrees to lend a hand, they wind up chatting by the fire, which is as close to sex as anything that transpires on Hallmark. Meanwhile, in Hamilton, Bill Avery (Jack Wagner) sets about busting a counterfeiting ring wide, an endeavor that surprisingly leads him to Hope Valley. Elizabeth is even more surprised to see her former suitor, Charles Kensington.

If there’s a harder working multi-hyphenate in the urban-entertainment scene than Jean-Claude La Marre, I haven’t found one. He makes Tyler Perry look lazy. He didn’t have to look very far to find the inspiration for Chocolate City, which has been airing on BET lately. Allusions to Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike are made loud and clear throughout the movie, which is also about the trials, tribulations and reward that derive from well-endowed males sticking their junk in the faces of women with dollar bills in their hands. La Marre needn’t have been so persistent. Anyone who subscribed to HBO in the late-1990s could watch black male strippers strut their stuff before a crowd of rabid women, in its “Real Sex” documentary series. It was a wild scene, natural for exploitation as a feature film. Besides a bigger budget and more familiar stars, the difference between Magic Mike and Chocolate City is the amount of time spent in church. Afro-centric genre films almost always make room for faith-based storylines and, here, a cash-strapped college student (Robert Ri’chard) is forced to choose between hurting the feelings of his religious mother (Vivica A. Fox) and girlfriend (Imani Hakim) or making the money needed to dig his mom out of hock and getting married. His dilemma is compounded when other dancers at the club get jealous of his money-making prowess. The dancing is good, anyway, and, for what it’s worth, Carmen Electra plays the club’s DJ.

I’m already on record as saying that “Sgt. Bilko: The Phil Silvers Show,” which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1959, remains one of the four or five funniest and most influential comedies in the history of television. It captured three straight Emmy Awards as Best Comedy series, with Silvers winning one Best Actor trophy out of four nominations. The setting for Bilko’s schemes has yet to shift from Fort Baxter to Camp Fremont in California, but, otherwise, things remain largely the same. Guest stars in Season Three include Dick Van Dyke, Margaret Hamilton, Kay Kendall, George Kennedy, Gretchen Wyler, Barbara Barrie, Phil Rizzuto, Gil McDougald, Yogi Berra, Red Barber and Whitey Ford.

Proof that elderly Americans have yet to give up on broadcast television can be found television can be found in the surprising success of the BBC export, “Last Tango in Halifax,” which airs here on PBS affiliates. Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid play widowed septuagenarians, Alan and Celia, childhood sweethearts who have been apart for 60 years. After being reunited via Facebook by their grandchildren, they meet, fall in love and plan to marry. Reid and Jacobi enjoyed having the chance to play out a love story between older people. As delightful as their relationship is, there’s plenty of room left over for drama within the extended family. Loyal followers of BBC dramas and prime-time soaps also will recognize such recurring stars as Sarah Lancashire, Nicola Walker, Nina Sosanya, Tony Gardner, Ronni Ancona, Dean Andrews, Sacha Dhawan and Josh Bolt. A fourth season is in the works.

New from Nickelodeon, “Dora the Explorer: Dora’s Double Length Adventures” features three double-length episodes, focusing on Dora and Boots as they encounter pirates, fairytale characters and a dancing elf. The three-disc set includes more than four hours of adventures and special features. In “Dora & Friends: Doggie Day,” Dora and her friends have committed themselves to helping their puppy friend Cusco reunite with his brothers before Doggie Adoption Day. The DVD adds three bonus episodes, representing Dora’s journeys to Magic Land, Opera Land and Fairytale Puppet World.

Sweet Trash/The Hang Up
My Sinful Life/Las Vegas Girls
Avon Triple Feature: Savage Sadists/Den of Dominance/Daughters of Discipline
As we occasionally make the trek down Mammary Lane – last week we focused on a DVD release of stag films and a series of Japanese “pink” flicks from the 1960s –invariably arriving at the point where the full impact of Deep Throat’s release becomes even more apparent than it already is. I don’t know where Vinegar Syndrome dug up the latest additions to its Drive-In Collection — Sweet Trash and The Hang Up, both from 1970 – but they appear to provide a missing link between early Russ Meyer and narrative soft-core porn. Their director, John Hayes, was a writer, director, editor, producer and occasional actor, whose 1958 short, “The Kiss,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. He would soon become a prolific purveyor of exploitation fare, occasionally starring his then girlfriend, Rue McClanahan, before she was discovered by sitcom pioneer Norman Lear, in the 1970s. Sweet Trash and The Hang Up featured full-frontal female nudity and simulated sex to attract grindhouse audiences and plots that may have been rejected by the Mickey Spillane School of Fiction. In Sweet Trash, an alcoholic longshoreman, deep in debt to the mob, is forced into an increasingly debauched nightmare as he tries to avoid the thugs out to get him. The Hang Up opens with a bust at an L.A. drag bar, complete with brawny cops in drag. The actors might very well have been recruited from a local burlesque house.

My Sinful Life and Las Vegas Girls are noteworthy, if at all, as twin 1983 releases by porn auteur Carlos Tobalina, although they look as if they were shot in the same warehouse as the previous two VS releases from 1970. In the former, Danielle plays a young woman who learns the sensual arts from her adopted parents and takes the knowledge to college, where she finds work in a brothel. Las Vegas Girls follows private eyes Karen Hall and Dan Boulder, as they search for a runaway teen from Texas who left her oil baron father and gold digger mother to turn tricks. William Margold hosts a swingers party in a casino penthouse that might as well be in Boise. Vinegar Syndrome has given both sets 2k restorations, sourced from original 35mm camera negatives.

Another porn auteur, Phil Prince (a.k.a. Phil Prinz), labored primarily for New York underground studio, Avon Productions. Newly restored by VS from rare 16mm vault materials and collected on DVD for the first time are Savage Sadists, Den of Dominance and Daughters of Discipline. They’re strictly for collectors of hard-to-find films of the whips/chains/leather persuasion.

The DVD Wrapup: Unfriended, Water Diviner, Reckless, Life on the Reef, Lost Soul and more

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Unfriended: Blu-ray
Facebook has become such an unavoidable force in our culture that the mere threat of being “unfriended” by a fellow user now carries the same stigma as a church member being shunned for breaking a commandment. The act of eliminating a relative or acquaintance from one’s list of “friends” is not undertaken lightly. The finality, alone, can be deeply traumatic. With that in mind, it’s worth knowing that Levan Gabriadze’s clever thriller, Unfriended, originally was titled “Cybernatural,” which isn’t nearly as to-the-point. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram represent different things to different people, especially teens trying to out-hip their computer-savvy parents. Beyond the hundreds of millions of cutesy-poo photographs of children, cats and dogs that clog social media are the occasional attacks on individuals deemed worthy of being harassed by pinhead bullies. And, as we’ve learned to our collective shame, with bullying comes the occasional suicide. If the chatroom and webcam users in Unfriended belong to a more generic Internet community than Facebook, there are more similarities here than differences. In it, a typical group of young computer-literate pals is interacting in a chatroom, when their conversation is interrupted by the supernatural presence of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman), who committed suicide after being cyber-bullied. No one knows how or why their chat is being disrupted or who else might have something to gain from taunting the others. Before long, however, dark secrets are revealed and actual friendships are being pushed to the breaking point. But Unfriended isn’t for the casual users of the Internet. The multi-image presentation, which is extremely sophisticated, requires far more work on the part of the viewer than the typical narrative feature. The more experience one has in the world of cyber-communication, the scarier Unfriended will be.

The Water Diviner: Blu-ray
No fan of historically based movies needs to be reminded of the debates that typically follow the first screenings of films that dare play fast-and-loose with the facts. Typically, a very good story is capable of overcoming the negative effects of creative license, but not always. What solid narratives and good intentions can’t do, however, is make survivors of wartime tragedies ignore the reality of battles fought in vain. Neither can they appease viewers whose contrarian interpretations of historical events are dismissed as irrelevant to the story. Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner is precisely the kind of film that opened itself up to criticism for reasons other than its ability to entertain. As formulated by veteran Aussie television writer/producer Andrew Knight and scholar Andrew Anastasios, the movie basically picks up where Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli ended, with the Ottoman defenders celebrating the retreat of Anzac troops after eight months of carnage. Flash back a bit to pre-war Australia, where hard-scrabble farmer Joshua Conner (Crowe) has divined the presence of water below the surface of an arid patch of unpromising land. The discovery allows Conner and his wife, Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie), to carve a successful living from an unlikely corner of the country, while raising three rough-and-tumble sons. When the lads hear the call of duty from war-torn Europe, they, in concert with thousands of other young Aussie and Kiwi males, volunteer to assist the Brits in eliminating Johnny Turk and his German friends from the equation. Their ill-advised mission was to take the beach at Gallipoli and advance on the ridges above, where the Ottomans could survey their every move. The Anzac troops fought valiantly, but, as we’re reminded in the movie by an enemy officer, would come up just short of victory. What they didn’t know was the defenders had been reduced to bayonets and had been ordered to die, rather than surrender or fall back from their trenches.  One more thrust might have sealed the deal for the allies.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. When the smoke cleared at Lone Pine, all three of Connor and Eliza’s inseparable sons would be declared missing and presumed dead. In all, more than 10,000 in the Anzac units, 56,000-68,000 Turks and 43,000 British and French troops were slaughtered. Tens of thousands more men, on both sides, would succumb to disease. Back on the farm, four years later, Eliza dealt with her grief by committing suicide. Conner vowed to honor her wish that the boys’ remains be returned home to lie beside her on consecrated ground. He’s convinced himself that his skills as a diviner will be welcomed by the British forces attempting to find and identify the long-buried corpses, so they can be laid in a common grave. After the armistice, Turkish officers were required to join the effort by pointing out the exact positions where the fighting took place. It’s at this point where fact forms an uneasy alliance with fiction. In Anastasios’ research of the Imperial War Graves unit, he came upon this brief notation in a soldier’s diary, “One old chap managed to get here from Australia, looking for his son’s grave. We did what we could for him and sent him on his way.” Unable to trace the background of the “old chap,” the co-writers based Crowe’s farmer on a relative with a talent for divining. From there, they added a friendship based on mutual respect between Connor and the Turkish Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and, after he returns to Istanbul, a complicated relationship between a beautiful Turkish war widow, Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and her precocious pre-teen son. Connor’s friendship with the Turk officer leads to him joining Hasan in the burgeoning nationalist movement and adventures fighting Greek insurgents. An even more unlikely, if emotionally compelling scenario develops when Connor’s “visions” lead him to a Sufi monastery that once had served as POW facility. Sure, it sounds preposterous, but no more so than a hundred other wartime dramas we’ve all seen.

What the filmmakers failed to take into account, however, is historical context and the unfortunate timing of the U.S. and European release on April 24, 2015. Apart from insinuating that Greek guerrilla fighters are little more than a fictional hybrid of the Taliban and the James-Younger Gang – instead of longtime victims of Ottoman repression and brutality – there’s the omission of any mention of the Armenian Genocide. While it can be argued the systematic murder of 1.5 million people had next to nothing to do with Gallipoli – except for some Turks’ specious assertion that Armenians spied for the allies — there’s no ignoring the fact that the centennial of the failed invasion coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. By extension, it’s possible to believe that some of the same nationalist characters befriended by Connor participated in the slaughter. Worse, the arrival of The Water Diviner coincided, as well, with well-attended demonstrations across the country, marking that anniversary. Activists didn’t waste any time making the connection for anyone unaware of the significance of the date for Armenians, Australians and New Zealanders, alike, as well as those countries forced to fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Water Diviner was condemned for “whitewashing” Turkey’s role in this horrifying series of events, but I see it more as an oversight typical of a commercial imperative that doesn’t allow for details that get in the way of narrative flow. If only the histories of wars and genocide were sufficiently elastic to accommodate ignorance and lack of foresight. In its favor, The Water Diviner recently won three Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Erdogan) and Best Costume Design. It had received five additional nominations, for Best Lead Actor (Crowe), Best Supporting Actress (McKenzie), Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design and Best Editing. Featurettes include “The Making of ‘The Water Diviner’” and “The Battle of Gallipoli.”

House on the Hill
The first thing to know about Joram Lürsen’s claustrophobic Dutch thriller, Reckless, is that it is nearly a direct remake of the well-received 2009 British export, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was given a limited release in the U.S. before finding its natural audience on DVD. The second thing to know is that both are worth the effort of finding. Like J Blakeson’s original, Reckless describes what happens when the adult daughter of a rich industrialist is kidnapped and held for ransom in a sound-insulated room in a high-rise apartment whose only amenity is a new bed and mattress. Thrown on the bed and forcibly stripped naked, before being given new coveralls, Laura Temming (Sarah Chronis) is blindfolded, handcuffed to the frame and required to relieve herself in plastic bottles in her captors’ presence. It’s nasty, alright, but secrets lie behind the men’s ski masks that separate this kidnapping from the one chronicled recently in the not completely dissimilar Kidnapping Mr. Heineken and The Heineken Kidnapping.

By contrast, Jeff Frentzen’s directorial debut, House on the Hill, amounts to nothing more than a series of re-creations of kidnappings, robberies, rapes, mutilations and murders that were recorded in northern California in the early-1980s. Ex-Marines Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were responsible for the deaths of between 11 to 25 men, women and children in a non-descript cottage and unattached torture chamber in the Sierra Nevada foothills. While Lake was able to avoid prosecution by ingesting cyanide pills after being arrested on an unrelated charge, in 1985, Ng has remained on Death Row at San Quentin since 1999. Because House on the Hill offers little in the way of new information on this case or serial killers in general – except, perhaps, maddening video clips of Lake explaining his motivations – it is nothing more than torture porn in docu-drama disguise.

The Color Out of Space: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
First released in Europe in 2010, Huan Vu’s adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s popular 1927 short story, “The Color Out of Space” is finally being made available to sci-fi/horror enthusiasts here in Blu-ray/DVD. Previously interpreted as Die, Monster, Die! (1965) and The Curse (1987), the German-language The Color Out of Space benefits from being shot in ominous shades of black, white, gray and, finally, lavender. The story involves an American man’s search for his father, 30 years after he disappeared in the Swabian-Franconian Forest in immediate aftermath of World War II. Before the war, a meteorite had crashed near the remote farm of the Gärtener family. Scientists came and went, stymied by the rock’s ability to retain intense heat while also shrinking. No sooner was a specimen collected than it disappeared. The first manifestation of something weird occurring at the farm came in the form of larger-than-normal fruit – tasteless to the point of being inedible – and gigantic flying insects. Then, individual members of the Gärtener family began to go mad or decompose prematurely. With nothing left to study, the scientists disappeared, leaving behind a mystery and a legend that endured after the war and to the 1970s, when the flooding of the valley began behind the creation of a dam. It is at this point in the narrative that Jonathan Davis (Ingo Heise) begins gathering the clues that could lead to discovering the fate of his father (Patrick Pierce). Although only one of the locals is particularly interested in helping Jonathan, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. A possible answer blossoms before our eyes. The Blu-ray adds a variety of Lovecraft audiobooks, limited-edition newspaper reproduction, a “lost” scene” and three featurettes.

3 Hearts: Blu-ray
Among the more timeless properties in the Hollywood repertoire is Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, which, since its debut in 1939, has been translated in full or in part into McCarey’s own re-do, An Affair to Remember (1957), Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Glenn Gordon Caron’s Love Affair (1994), the Bollywood remake, Mann (1999), a pair of “Lux Radio Theater” broadcasts, with Irene Dunne, and last year’s melancholic French twist, 3 Hearts. In the Gallic version, director/co-writer Benoît Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen) adds a new player to the game, stretching the time-lapse romance to form a triangle. In a town outside Lyons, Marc (Benoît Poelvoorde) misses his train back to Paris, allowing a chance meeting with a fellow chain-smoker, Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s one of those chance encounters we all wish would happen to us on a rainy night in a strange town. The next morning, Marc and Sylvie make plans to meet a week later at the Tuileries Gardens. Naturally, fate intervenes … this time in the form of an anxiety attack disguised as a stroke. Lacking the foresight to have exchanged e-mails, our star-crossed lovers miss what could be their last opportunity for eternal bliss. But, wait, there’s more. A couple of years later, Marc meets and falls in love with Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni), who, unbeknownst to him, is Sylvie’s needy sister. At this point in the story, it’s only logical to foresee an awkward reunion at Marc and Sophie’s nuptials, but Jacquot finds convenient ways to postpone the inevitable. Even then, Jacquot manages to keep us guessing, if not laughing. His ace in the hole is Catherine Deneuve, who, as usual, shines in the role of Sophie and Sylvie’s nurturing mother, adding something warm and wonderful to every scene in which she appears.

And, while we’re on the subject of star-crossed lovers, fans of rom/dram/coms might consider Justin Long and Emmy Rossum’s affair to remember in Comet.  They meet while waiting in line for the gates of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to open in anticipation of a late-night viewing of a meteor shower. (It’s actually a popular spot for Angelenos to gather for open-air screenings of classic movies.) Long’s character, Sam, takes the opportunity to hit on Rossum’s Kimberley, even though she’s in the company of a hunky guy capable of snapping him in two with his thighs. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Esmail flashes backwards and forward several times to show difficult it will be for Sam and Kimberley to maintain anything resembling a meaningful longterm relationship. The only problem that viewers familiar with Long and Rossum’s work are likely to have with Comet is a script that fails to add punctuation marks to Sam’s endless self-absorbed chatter. Otherwise, it’s cute enough to sustain the interest of romantically inclined renters.

Ghost Town: Blu-ray
Future Justice
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau: Blu-ray
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXIII
More an example of what can happen when genres collide than a movie that can stand on its own merits after a 25-year absence, Ghost Town begs the question as to how John Wayne might have fared in a horror movie directed by John Ford or Sergio Leone. This isn’t to suggest that the low-budget Empire Pictures production has anything in common with those giants than a southwestern setting, only that it made me wonder how they would have prevented the zombie apocalypse. Here, a beautiful blond bride (Catherine Hickland) avoids lifelong commitment by escaping into the desert in her convertible and disappearing into a cloud of dust. When hunky Deputy Sheriff Langley (Franc Luz) follows her tracks into the desert, he encounters a phantom horseman (Jimmie F. Skaggs) who lures him into a ghost town, populated by real ghosts. It’s an idea, like so many others, that would have fit more appropriately in an hour-long episode of “The Twilight Zone,” but, at 85 minutes, is stretched to its breaking point. Nonetheless, genre completists and Empire buffs should be able to find something here to justify their interest.

Not to be outdone by tales of the Himalayan Yeti, North American Sasquatch, Scotland’s Nessie and Mexican Chupacabra, Australia’s Aboriginals came up with a famously elusive cryptid of their own, naming it Yowie. It is this hairy beast that in Travis Bain’s Throwback attacks separate pairs of treasure hunters, a couple hundred years apart, when they drift into its densely forested habitat in far northern Queensland. And, as if Yowie weren’t a sufficiently ominous predator, the writer/director has added a park ranger named Rhiannon (Melanie Serafin) and a wild-eyed ex-homicide detective, McNab, played by action veteran Vernon Wells (The Road Warrior). Reportedly made on a budget of only $200,000, Throwback easily earns its Ozploitation stripes.

Richard Griffin, who’s given us such unforgettable horror films as Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, Accidental Incest and The Disco Exorcist, enters the world of post-apocalyptic sci-fi with Future Justice. It is a movie that borrows from Escape From New York, The Chronicles of Riddick and a half-dozen cheapo exploitation flicks from the 1980s. Here, intergalactic super-villain Python Diamond is being transported to Earth from Saturn’s prison moon, Titan, under the watch of an inept quintet of police escorts. What the flight crew doesn’t learn until it’s too late is that Earth has been decimated by a cataclysmic nuclear war. Conveniently, not everyone on Earth has been killed. Their search for survivors leads to a group of scientists hiding in a warehouse and several gangs of marauding thugs, fully capable of wreaking havoc over the provisions contained in the bunker. Also troublesome is the faceless monster lurking in the shadows. It’s pretty goofy, but in a fun, bargain-basement, DIY sort of way. The DVD adds a commentary track and the short film, “Mutants of the Apocalypse.”

Once upon a time in Hollywood, an overoptimistic studio executive gave the green light to yet another adaptation of H.G. Wells’ visionary novel “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” which used vivisection as a launching pad for a condemnation of unchecked scientific experimentation and cruelty to animals. Advances in special makeup effects would allow for hybrid beasts more closely resembling those envisioned by Wells and the production wouldn’t be limited to a soundstage. In South African writer/director Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil), New Line executives felt as if they had the right man in place to create a wildly imaginative picture and bring it in on budget, even with the participation of such notoriously difficult actors as Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer in tow. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Everything that could go wrong with the movie actually did go wrong, and it was going wrong half a world away from southern California. Released 20 years after the fact, David Gregory’s Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau makes Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse look like a behind-the-scenes featurette for HBO. The often inadvertently hilarious documentary features never-before-seen footage, new interviews with actors Fairuza Balk and Rob Morrow, studio executives, crew members and recollections of the famously reclusive and roundly vilified Stanley. Gregory also takes a film crew and survivor of the production to the location, which has nearly returned to its original rain-forest roots.

The latest compilation of cinematic atrocities from the annals of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – numero XXXIII – is comprised of Daddy-O (1958), with future gangster auteur Dick Contino; Bert I. Gordon’s creature-feature Earth vs. the Spider (1958); the juvenile-delinquent non-epic Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955); and Agent for H.A.R.M., with the odd couple of Wendell Corey and international sex star Barbara Bouchet. Beyond the informed commentary of the Satellite of Love crew, the set includes the featurettes “Beatnick Blues: Investigating Daddy-O,” “This Movie Has Legs: Looking Back at ‘Earth vs. the Spider’,” “Film It Again, Sam: The Katzman Chronicles,” “Tommy Cook: From Jungle Boy to Teenage Jungle” and “Peter Mark Richman: In H.A.R.M.’s Way”; MST Hour Wraps; theatrical trailers; and four mini-posters by Steve Vance.

Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland
Built on Narrow Land
Nice Bombs
Our Daily Poison
Anyone familiar with the archetypal weirdos created by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein for their dead-on IFC satire, “Portlandia,” will recognize all of the people we meet in Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, except the neo-fascist cops who equate riding bicycles to promoting Bolshevism. An exaggeration? Not according to the evidence presented in Joe Biel’s curious documentary, which chronicles the rise of “bicycle culture” from the early 1970s to the late 1990s and resistance to it by the right-wing police department. I remember visiting Portland during this period and enjoying the overriding sense of liberation and personal freedom I experienced there. The city reflected through Biel’s lens more closely resembles East Berlin or Warsaw, during the Cold War. “Aftermass” is described as being the first feature documentary to explore the events, people, politics and social changes that led to Portland becoming the first major bicycle city in the United States. It accomplishes this by putting a tight focus on the then-grassroots movement Critical Mass, whose membership does, indeed, resemble the characters in “Portlandia,” right down to a bike-riding mayor and annoying anarchists. The organization was the subject of illegal spying by the police Red Squad and citations registered against its members ranged from expensive traffic citations to busted heads and confiscated equipment. Once the number of dedicated bicyclists actually did reach critical mass, however, they were able to take control of the ballot box and force city officials – many of whom rode bicycles to work or for recreation – to stop kowtowing to the ridiculously powerful police hierarchy. Today, Portland is a bikers’ paradise, with hundreds of miles of paths and roadways dedicated to commuters and other enthusiasts. Bonus features include 21 additional short bicycle films, 18 deleted scenes, 1,000 legal documents to peruse and a downloadable soundtrack.

I doubt that many Americans would mind terribly if Cape Cod were to be cleared of its semi-permanent residents and their land was returned to its original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Indians. In exchange for helping the Pilgrims, whose arrival pre-dated that of the Kennedys by roughly 300 years, the Native American tribe was given a steady diet of small pox and other diseases, enslavement and expulsion, anti-colonial wars and crappy land deals. Today, it’s known primarily as a playground for the rich and famous and mecca for Jaws fanatics. Malachi Connolly’s debut documentary, Built on Narrow Land, is a film that looks at a moment in Cape Cod history when the spirit of European modern architecture inspired a group of bohemian designers — professionals and amateurs both–to build houses that married principles of the Bauhaus to the centuries-old local architecture of seaside New England. As long as eastern Cape Cod was largely free of tourists and developers, the homes existed as fully functional seasonal dwellings that confused Modernist ideas with those of trailer-park designers. Not all of the homes held up in the punishing Cape Cod winters, but others have supported tourism and semi-permanent residency until today. In 1961, President Kennedy signed legislation establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore, which gave National Park Service jurisdiction over the fate of the remaining landmark houses. Besides offering a fascinating discussion on the history and cultural importance of the homes, Connolly interviews relatives of the Bauhaus crowd, temporary residents of the homes and people who understand the politics and peccadilloes of Cape Code’s permanent residents. The musical score is provided by Josephine Wiggs, of the Breeders.

Released tentatively into theaters and festivals in 2007, Nice Bombs offers a slightly dated, but still relevant look at post-invasion Baghdad, this time through the eyes of men, women and children who lived through the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Baathist Party. Chicago-based filmmaker and newly naturalized American citizen Usama Alshaibi (Profane, American Arab) used the occasion of the newly elected government to return to Iraq with his father and American wife. The family had left the country after his educator father refused to join the Baathist party and his mother settled in Iowa. They had plenty of relatives left in the capital, so an open-arms welcome was guaranteed. What wasn’t known ahead of time was how they would be greeted by folks in the street, who, by now, had gotten tired of the continued American presence and resultant insurgency. Alshaibi borrowed the title from something his cousin said after hearing an explosion outside the home. “It’s a bomb. A ‘nice bomb,’” he enigmatically explains. In 2003, any bomb or missile that didn’t hit one’s own home could be considered to be a “nice bomb.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the people we meet here are the ones caught between the occupation forces and the insurgents, who aren’t clearly identified. One relative complains that an American patrol wouldn’t allow him to return home, even though he was standing 30 meters from his front door. At the same time, Alshaibi also reminds us of the toll paid by innocent victims of the mosque and market bombings. We meet relatives, friends and American contractors, all of whom have weapons secreted in their homes, and children with firm opinions on who’s to blame for their continued misery. By the time Alshaibi has returned to Iraq’s border with Jordan, we’ve been introduced to enough perfectly hospitable, if completely disillusioned Iraqis to wince when an American border guard asks the filmmaker why the citizenry isn’t more appreciative of this country’s sacrifices and continuing occupation. (Someone was buying the Cheney-Bush propaganda, anyway.) The DVD adds several deleted scenes, three of Alshaibi’s shorts and commentary.

Our Daily Poison is a cautionary documentary about food sourcing that would be far more alarming if we hadn’t heard it all before now. Produced by the French investigative documentarian Marie-Monique Robin, it describes how several already notorious multinational agricultural interests have been allowed to “poison” the European food chain in the name of increased production and higher profits. To make her case, Robin points to World Health Organization data that shows the incidence of cancer in developed countries has doubled over the last 30 years, with the increase in leukemia and brain tumors in children up around 2 percent per year. Similar trends for neurological diseases, auto-immune disorders and reproduction dysfunctions have also been recorded. Robin has scoured the archives of the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, and talked her way into secret meetings, to show how little oversight is provided by the agencies assigned to regulate abusers of our trust. Indeed, she argues, some 100,000 chemical molecules have invaded our environment, primarily our food, since the end of the Second World War.

PBS: Life on the Reef: Blu-ray
Syfy: Helix: Season 2: Blu-ray
Justice League: Gods and Monsters: Blu-ray
Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 6
Currently playing on PBS affiliates, the Blu-ray iteration of “Life on the Reef” examines life on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef over the course of a year. Where previous documentaries have focused on environmental issues and sharks, the three hours allotted “Life on the Reef” allows for a comprehensive study of the ebb and flow of events that impact life on and around Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a rigidly protected region east of Queensland. A year on the reef covers myriad reproduction cycles, migrations, meteorological events and prime scientific opportunities. Also covered are the impact of shipping routes on the reef, poaching and interaction between human residents and sea life. Not surprisingly, the Blu-ray presentation is consistently spectacular.

The Syfy series “Helix” lasted all of two seasons, which, in hindsight, is a year longer than most new shows are accorded, even on cable. A stylish hybrid of The Thing and any number of rampant-virus thrillers, it probably did well enough for first-timer Cameron Porsandeh to expect another assignment in the near future. Season One kept the CDC crew in “Thing” territory for all 13 episodes, so a thaw was in order. This time around, Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell) and his team travel to the mysterious and remote wooded island of St. Germain, where a deadly new virus presents a different sort of threat, as do members of a well-entrenched religious community. When Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky) travels to the same island, she is captured by a stranger who repeatedly asks her, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” Later it is revealed that Julia is on St. Germain 30 years in the future, and she is shown Farragut’s grave near the ruins of the base.  The Blu-ray adds several deleted scenes and outtakes.

Released as a direct-to-video and digital-download project from Warner Home Video, Justice League: Gods and Monsters is an animated superhero film that appears to have been influenced greatly by the popularity of DC Comics’ occasional Bizarro World storylines. Here, though, Superman is the son of Zod, not Jor-El; Batman is Kirk Langstrom, a genetically altered vampire-like creature with super strength and a thirst for blood; Wonder Woman is scorned Princess Bekka, granddaughter of New God Highfather; and the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter are nowhere to be found. Justice League fans should appreciate the break from form and bright animation.

The new Star Vista/Time collection, “Mama’s Family: Mama’s Favorites: Season 6,” includes such episodes such as “Mama Fights Back,” as she chews out K-Ray radio’s consumer watchdog on the air and promptly gets hired as his replacement. In “The Big Nap,” after watching TV detective movies for a week, Mama dreams she’s a film-noir private eye. In “Pinup Mama,” Bubba creates a flier for a senior mixer using a photo of mama’s head on a young model’s bikini-clad body. In the series finale, “Bye Bye Baby,” Vint and Naomi move from Mama’s basement with their new addition.

Sleazy Stags, American Style
The difference between a stag film and a loop, as pertains to the underground porn industry pre-“Deep Throat,” was largely a function of exhibition opportunities. Generally speaking, loops were single-reel productions that could be appreciated by patrons of adult bookstores and peep shows on a pay-per-minute basis, one movie per booth. Once they were purchased under-the-counter or through mail-order sources, the films could be shown on 8mm projectors – typically reserved for home movies of the period – or commercial 16mm machines at “smokers,” stag and bachelor parties, garages and basements. By the 1970s, the “stags” no longer featured men in masks giving lonely women what they wanted sexually, but dared not admit desiring. Male actors no longer kept their socks on during sex, although garter belts and stocking were optional for women. With the advent of home-video players and late-night “skinemax” offerings on cable TV, the stags and loops became obsolete and were discarded, put into storage or lost. Sleazy Stags, American Style, from After Hours Cinema, contains more than three hours of these films – which make the Bettie Page fetish flicks look like Boogie Nights — many available for the first time on home video. They’ve been restored as well as possible, but are of mostly historical interest to collectors. There aren’t as many still-familiar actors anonymously participating in these films, either, as has been the case with loop collections from Impulse Pictures. Still, the mostly generic faces of hippies in need of fast cash weren’t the drawing card, anyway. The trailer reel is almost as good as the stags, themselves.

The DVD Wrapup: What We Do In Shadows, Resnaisx2, Marfa Girl, and more

Friday, July 24th, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows: Blu-ray
Mockumentaries and genre spoofs come and go, these days. Such hit-and-run parodies as Vampires Suck, Date Movie, The Starving Games and Meet the Spartans take the scattershot approach, riding the success of one hit picture to take none-too-subtle potshots at a dozen other movies. The best, including Airplane!, This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show, are in no hurry to tip the gag to viewers who aren’t in on the gag from the get-go. Zombie, vampire and alien-intruder movies rely so heavily on genre tropes, conventions and clichés that it’s sometimes difficult to discern the line separating satire from homage. The sub-genre can be traced all the way back to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, in 1948, or, perhaps, seven years earlier, in Hold That Ghost. Among the luminaries who milked mirth from monsters in the 1960-70s were Roman Polanski (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein) and Stan Dragoti (Love at First Bite). Cult favorite Udo Kier, who’d already played Count Dracula and Baron Frankenstein under Andy Warhol’s banner, added a certain amount of credibility to Charles Matton’s 1976 curiosity, Spermula. A couple of decades later, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright would kick off another round of genre parodies, with the smart and wickedly funny Shaun of the Dead. Jonathan Levine would allow for the possibility of romance and redemption among the undead, in Warm Bodies, while Cockneys vs. Zombies added a unique regional flare to the splatter-fest trend. Otherwise, a lot of very amusing titles have been wasted on comedies that would have benefitted from more money and more laughs.

One needn’t have been a zealous fan of “Flight of the Conchords” and Eagle vs Shark, or even a vampire completist, to be drawn to What We Do in the Shadows. Those who are, however, probably will get a real kick out of this razor-sharp genre parody from New Zealand. The largely improvised mockumentary defies the odds by doing an end-run around the Scary Movie and Scream franchises and adding a supernatural spin to such bros-will-be-bros pictures as Swingers and Saturday Night Fever. It is the conceit of co-writers-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi that a group of vampire roommates in contemporary Wellington permit a camera crew full access to their weeks-long preparation for the annual Unholy Masquerade. It is a formal bash, where the vampires party with the city’s zombies, banshees and other mutants. Like an upside-down version of MTV’s “The Real World,” the apartment they share is an unholy mess, with dirty dishes filling every flat surface and dried-up blood soiling the pots and pans in the kitchen. They might have acquired their fashion sense directly from George Bryan “Beau” Brummel or Oscar Wilde. The bloodshed, of which there’s plenty, is at once delightfully gratuitous and borderline gut-churning. More than anything else, however, What We Do in the Shadows provides lots of good R-rated fun for genre nuts. Rhys Darby, who played the singers’ hapless agent in “Flight of the Conchords,” is a key part of the cast, as are as several Kiwi actors from Eagle vs. Shark. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Clement and Waititi, promo clips, deleted scenes, in-character interviews and clips, a background featurette and poster gallery.

Love Unto Death/Life Is a Bed of Roses: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s taken an Introduction to European Cinema course in college can attest to the head-scratching that followed screenings of Alain Resnais’ arthouse classics, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, as well as the anxiety caused by having to write papers on them. Some of the confusion came from Resnais’ work being lumped together with other examples of the French New Wave, which emerged coincidental to his move from documentaries (Night and Fog) to fiction. In exploring the relationship between consciousness, memory and the imagination, Resnais frequently disregarded conventional notions of narrative and story development. The elliptical framing could be as perplexing and inexplicable as any viewer’s personal recollection of a dream or nightmare. Because Resnais frequently collaborated with such accomplished French authors and left-wing scenarists as Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Gruault, Henri Laboritand, David Mercer, Jean Cayrol, Jorge Semprún, Jacques Sternberg and Chris Marker, it was particularly difficult for Americans to determine where the writers’ contributions ended and the director’s began. Even those early arthouse buffs who fell in love with Breathless and The 400 Blows felt intimated by the intellectualism that informed Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad.  I wonder how many of the students who gave up on Resnais in college have returned to those films in retrospectives or on Blu-ray and attempted to reinterpret them from the point of view of an adult. With all of the informative bonus features and first-person recollections now available to viewers, there’s no telling what they might take from these beautifully crafted landmark films. I’m happy that I made the effort, even if some of the mysteries remain unsolved, and have gone to tackle works from later creative periods.

Cohen Media’s winning streak continues with remastered editions of films Resnais directed back-to-back in the mid-1980s, featuring popular European actors who appear in both pictures. Released in 1983, Life Is a Bed of Roses could hardly be more French and, therefore, more foreign to American eyes … although a Wes Anderson remake wouldn’t be completely out of the question. As such, brushing up on the intellectual fantasy before diving into the deep end only makes sense and shouldn’t be construed as cheating. In it, Resnais and Gruault (The Story of Adele H, My American Uncle) pay tribute to three important French filmmakers — Georges Méliès, Marcel L’Herbier and Eric Rohmer – by interweaving three stories from different eras around a cotton-candy castle in the Ardennes. In an extended period of peace before the outbreak of World War I, the fabulously wealthy Count Michel Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi) announces plans to build a Disneyland-like complex for the exclusive pleasure of his family and friends. What doesn’t go according to this powerful man’s plans are the decision by his intended queen of the realm (Fanny Ardant) to marry another of their friends (Pierre Arditi). If that rejection wasn’t enough to dissuade Forbek, the Kaiser’s intentions to invade France were. Years later, the count invites friends who survived the war to the castle for a utopian interlude complete with flowing robes, love potions and pre-hippy philosophy. That it stands alone on the property doesn’t make the castle any less interesting. Skipping ahead, once again, this time to the 1980s, the castle has been converted to a school dedicated to the theory that children can learn everything they’ll need to know in life through free play and curiosity. A conference of progressive educators has been convened to toss around ideas, but none of the guests are willing to concede that their ideas are anything but sacrosanct. Educators are like that. Other bonds are established, however, through the promise of romance and Philippe-Gérard’s evocative soundtrack.

Resnais and Gruault find an interesting way to use the music of composer Hans Werner Henze, as well, in Love Unto Death, a drama as emotionally wrenching as its companion piece is fantastical. In what is essentially a four-character chamber piece, Henze’s music serves as fifth voice. Simon, an archaeologist, and Elisabeth, a botanist, are deeply in love, despite being together only a short time. Out of the blue, Simon suffers a heart attack and is declared dead. Just as the doctor is about to leave the home they share, Simon rallies to the point where he refuses further treatment. As it turns out, their closest friends, Judith (Ardant) and Jerome (Andre Dussolier), are Lutheran clerics. They respond to their friend’s near-death with compassion, of course, but also great curiosity. He remembers key elements of his aborted journey to the afterlife, after all, and, even though he’s an atheist, was profoundly moved by the experience. Judith and Jerome had recently lost a parishioner to suicide and had yet to come to grips with their inability to prevent it. Naturally, much soul-searching follows their discussions over the dinner table and in private. Simon, whose career-long obsession has been the disposal of refuse in primitive communities, rightly wonders if anyone will give a damn about the subject when he dies. And, if not, what then was the point of being alive? Elisabeth refuses to listen to any of this post-traumatic philosophizing. She can’t imagine living without her lover and a visit to the archeological dig only adds to their confusion about how Simon ought to proceed, given the fragility of his heart. The snowy interstitials and musical interludes give viewers something else to consider. Clearly, Love Unto Death is the furthest thing from a comedy. Still, the subject is something familiar to all of us, in one way or another, and the occasion of a short-lived miracle offers a perfect forum for such exchanges of thoughts and fears. Commentary is provided on both films by Wade Major and Andy Klein.

Marfa Girl
A couple of years ago, “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer paid a visit to tiny Marfa, Texas, which inexplicably has become a mecca for artists and other hipster visionaries, despite being located in the middle of cow country, 200 miles away from the nearest airport. In his introduction, Safer surmised, “Marfa lives on, is even thriving: its renaissance spurred by the arrival of a host of young, cutting edge artists. Mixing cowboys and culture might seem like a bad idea, but it’s made Marfa a capital of quirkiness … and it’s produced a harmony as sweet as the country music that fills the air.” When cutting-edge filmmaker Larry Clark traveled deep into the heart of Texas to make Marfa Girl, he probably ate in the same restaurants as Safer mentioned and, perhaps, visited a gallery or two. You won’t find them in his film. Although one of the young women we meet is a promising artist, she largely functions here as an extreme example of an innocent child corrupted by her hippie parents’ radical incorporation of free love into their child-rearing regimen. For decades, now, Clark has specialized in photographing and filming teenagers and young adults who live on the fringes of mainstream society. His first movie, Kids, documented a day in the life of a group of aimless New York City teenagers, with nothing better to do than cop drugs, skate, drink, smoke and have unprotected sex. The difference between the kids in Marfa Girl and those in Kids is that, no matter how burned out the New York teens were at such an early point in their lives, they were surrounded by people who had overcome similar circumstances and succeeded on their own terms. The list includes writer Harmony Korine, who was a 19-year-old street kid when he met Clark. In Marfa, the characters might never have met anyone who achieved anything greater than landing a job at the local diner and made a career of it … that, or the military.

We’re introduced to Adam (Adam Mediano) on the eve of his 16th birthday, as he’s being picked up on curfew violation by a brutal Border Patrol agent. (The city doesn’t appear to have a police force of its own and isn’t close to the nearest border.) The cop has it out for Adam, in large part because any infraction gives him an excuse for returning the boy home to his parrot-obsessed mother, who brings out the most vile sexual fantasies in him. Adam’s birthday gifts arrive in the form of an erotic paddling from a hugely pregnant teacher, several joints and sex with a neighbor who aspires to be a stripper. His more age-appropriate girlfriend gives him the same present. If this is an unusual coming-of-age ritual for Lone Star teens, no one in Adam’s crowd seems surprised by it. In a funny exchange, the boy and the slightly older artist (Drake Burnette) are strolling along a dusty path when she asks if he is aware of the sexual properties of the clitoris. He responds, “Only from what I’ve seen on ‘South Park.’” This leads to a rather detailed explanation of how the female sex organ works and ought to be pleasured. Any modicum of blissful sexual innocence remaining in the teens is lost within the next several hours by the actions of the porn-addicted patrolman. If viewers already familiar with such Clark works as Bully, Ken Park, Wassup Rockers and the The Smell of Us aren’t shocked by the ending of Marfa Girl, it’s only because it’s of a piece with those titles. And, where Kids was correctly perceived to be a cautionary tale, Marfa Girl’s power to shock will likely be limited to the parents of children approaching high school age. As usual, the most powerful performances are delivered by first-time actors. Clearly, this is not Morley Safer’s Marfa, Texas.

Red Knot
Not long after the introduction of the birth-control pill and publication of Masters and Johnson’s “Human Sexual Response,” it stopped being unusual for men and women to cohabitate before entering into marriage. Such arrangements allowed them time to check each other out before committing to matrimony, one way or the other. Parents raised their eyebrows, but it was difficult to argue the logic of sampling the goods before making a commitment. The widespread availability of contraception devices allowed couples the time to get to know each other, before having to focus all of their attention on a third member of the family. If the divorce rate continued to rise into the early 1980s, it was for reasons unrelated to shacking up ahead of nuptials. Many analysts are convinced that the overall rate has declined since its high and it may now be below 50 percent, if not by much. I don’t know if the couple we meet in Scott Cohen’s tense relationship drama, Red Knot, lived together before getting married and setting off on a disastrous honeymoon excursion, literally to the end of the earth. The characters played by Olivia Thirlby (Just Before I Go) and Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) seem very happy to be together in the opening minutes of Cohen’s debut film. If Chloe would have preferred a cruise to Tahiti or the Cayman Islands, instead of Peter’s destination of choice, Antarctica, she tries her best not to let her disappointment show. The tiny cabins and bunk beds afforded passengers on the Red Knot may not have been measured with the needs of honeymooners in mind, but they give it the old college try, anyway.

Even before they reach Antarctica, though, Olivia begins to feel as if Peter is paying more attention to the scientists aboard the ship than to her. It’s so subtle that Peter, like many men in the same position, is unable to notice any changes in his behavior or any of the fissures growing between them. Neither do we, really. A professional decision impulsively made by Peter causes Olivia to go off like an M-80 in the hands of a careless teenage boy. Within moments, it seems, she’s flirted her way into the good graces of the handsome Captain Emerson (Billy Campbell), who finds her a more accommodating cabin. If Emerson has reasons of his own for spending months at a time at sea, Cohen wisely avoids the temptation to turn Red Knot into an R-rated episode of “The Love Boat.” The truly big chill is felt every time the Red Knot cuts through the ice pack and passages between the snow-covered mountains that tower over the ship.  Cohen and cinematographer Michael Simmonds (The Lunchbox) capture aspects of the continent I haven’t seen in the many recent documentaries about penguins and the year-round population of scientists and support crews. The scenery is utterly spectacular and the skies above couldn’t be more ominous. Blessedly free of clichés and easy answers, Red Knot describes exactly what can happen when a marriage hits an iceberg.

Cemetery Without Crosses: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Two-thirds Spaghetti Western and a third Escargot Western, Cemetery Without Crosses (a.k.a., “The Rope and the Colt”) is that rare blend of French and Italian sensitivities that honors the mythology of American West without also smearing the boot prints of Sergio Leone or John Ford. Multi-hyphenate filmmaker and star Robert Hossein gives credit where it’s due, however, by dedicating his terrifically entertaining Western to Leone, under whom he served in Once Upon a Time in the West. Favorable comparisons to the “Dollars Trilogy” can be made, though, in the majestic Andalusian exteriors, spare sets and costume designs, and no-nonsense protagonist. Those distinctively haunting Ennio Morricone musical cues may be missing in Cemetery Without Crosses, but Andre Hossein’s score and Scott Walker’s theme song easily bridge the gap. Although not quite as menacing as the anti-heroes and villains in Leone’s films, Bob Hussein is very good as the gun-slinger, Manuel, whose good friend is hung at the gate of his modest homestead after being caught in the middle of a feud between two rival families. (I can’t understand why anyone would choose to farm patches of desert that even cacti avoid for lack of water, but it didn’t seem to bother Ford or Leone.) The man’s stunningly beautiful widow, Maria (Michèle Mercier), finds Manuel in a creaky ghost town not far from the homestead. She pleads with him to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of the Rogers clan, but he is non-committal in the kind of way that tells us he’s already bought into it. After gunning down a bunch of Caine family ruffians in the saloon/brothel, Manuel is able to insinuate himself into the good graces of the Rogers clan, where his plan includes kidnaping Old Man Rogers’ daughter and turning her over to Maria for nefarious purposes of her own. The French touches can be found in Hossein’s treatment of the female characters, who are given more to do here than in most oaters. The action in Cemetery Without Crosses isn’t of the non-stop variety, but, when it erupts, it’s pretty entertaining. Hossein shares writing credit for the film with Claude Desailly and Dario Argento, although the extent of the giallo specialist’s contributions are in doubt. Arrow Video’s 2K restoration is typically first-rate, adding the all-new featurette “Remembering Sergio,” vintage interviews with cast and crew and Hossein, trailers, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by James Flames, and an illustrated collector’s booklet containing new writing by Ginette Vincendeau and Rob Young.

Beyond Zero: 1914-1918
In last week’s column, I looked at the mini-series “Crimson Field” and 1979 remake of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison’s Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 is the third winner in this World War I trifecta. Like his Decasia, The Great Flood and Just Ancient Loops, Beyond Zero combines rare archival material and contemporary music. In this case, the seriously distressed 35mm nitrate footage was shot on and around battlefields of the First World War. It is accompanied by the Kronos Quartet, performing a score created by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. For those unfamiliar with Morrison’s work, watching largely eroded film stock accompanied by music can have the same effect as a good old-fashioned light show at the Fillmore in the 1960s. The images that find their way through the damage often takes the form of ghosts from the far past. Here, they include recruiting rallies, planes flying in formation, tanks crushing everything in their path, troops advancing from the trenches and, my favorite, a dog standing guard over a dead or wounded soldier lying in a farm field, barking to alert stretcher bearers of his master’s location. It’s a truly remarkable document and, at 39 minutes, not at all taxing on the eye. The DVD adds footage of the Kronos Quartet performing in front of a large screen showing the film.

Gangs of Wasseypur: Blu-ray
The easiest way to describe Anurag Kashyap’s gangland saga, Gangs of Wasseypur, is to boil it down to a cross between The Godfather trilogy and an atypically violent Bollywood movie. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia epic, Gangs Of Wasseypur chronicles the a multigenerational rivalry between two families whose mafia lineage begins with the divvying of spoils at the end of British rule in India’s coal-rich Dhanbad district and extends to the bloody settling of long-held debts in 2009. The influence of Bollywood can be seen in the complicated romantic entanglements and a soundtrack that includes 25 popular and traditional songs. One family is controlled by the cunning politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), who exploits his constituents while also promising them protection from the descendants of the notorious train robber, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat). Singh’s muscle is provided by the city’s Qureshi Muslims, a sub-caste of animal butchers known to punish their enemies in the same manner as they prepare meat for their customers. The patriarch of the Khan family went from robbing trains to taking over the coal mines handed over to rich Indian businessman by the British, before leaving Dodge. From there, corruption would flow through his son, Shahid Khan (Manoj Bajpai) and his five sons from two concurrent wives. If Shahid’s son had been a Corleone, he’d be Sonny, while Singh’s son more closely resembles Fredo. The wives may know what’s expected of them in such a male-dominated environment, but they can be as cold and calculating as Connie Corleone Rizzi in Godfather III. Culled from the ranks of supermodels and stars of regional Indian cinemas, Huma Qureshi, Richa Chadda, Reema Sen and Anurita Jha are as talented as they ethereally beautiful in the Bollywood tradition. The biggest drawback for American viewers will be the film’s five-hour length. Naturally divided into two parts of equal lengths, it can be further subdivided by viewers, as if it were a mini-series. Kashyap is also responsible for the gritty coming-of-age story, That Girl in Yellow Boots, in which a half-Indian Brit is lured to the less glamorous precincts of Mumbai by a letter sent by her estranged father. It’s considered to be a prime example of the burgeoning Indian indie movement.

The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie: Blu-ray
Anyone privy to the press releases sent out regularly by Troma Entertainment’s marketing staff knows that company co-founder Lloyd Kaufman has kept busy over the past few years basking in the glory of finally being recognized as one of the most distinctive and influential filmmakers in the horror genre and a true pop-cultural icon. Like John Waters, he travels around the world accepting lifetime achievement awards, holding seminars and retrospectives, and conducting master classes. He also finds the time to direct or co-direct a picture each year, make cameos in other people’s movies, write the occasional book and oversee the distribution of non-Troma originals. Shot and released almost concurrently, in 1989, with The Toxic Avenger Part II, Toxic Avenger III: The Last Temptation of Toxie finds Our Hero back in Tromaville, after his sojourn to Japan. He returns to a town virtually free of crime. So, after taking on the censorial owners of chain video stores, he has next to nothing to do. Desperate to raise money for the experimental surgery that could restore his blind fiancée’s eyesight (Phoebe Legere), Toxie accepts a lucrative job with the evil multinational conglomerate, Apocalypse Inc. (a.k.a., the Devil). His greatest challenge, though, may be avoiding being called “yuppie scum” by Tromaville hipsters. Blu-ray exclusives add a new Introduction by Kaufman; “American Cinematheque Honors 40 Years of Troma” and “TroMoMA”; “Make Your Own Damn Horror Film!,” featuring Kane Hodder and Bill Mosley; “Rabid Grannies! The Informercial!”; LK “Pests” promo video; Troma YouTube “Halloween” and Troma trailers.The vintage DVD material adds commentaries by Kaufman and actor Joe Flieshaker; “Satanic Memories”; interviews; “Confessions of a Snake Lady”; a Toxic posters compilation; and “Lord Fartacus Cult.”

Lost for Words
Although almost nothing rings true in Stanley J. Orzel’s cross-cultural romance, the contemporary Hong Kong setting comes close to making Lost for Words recommendable to fans of star-crossed love stories. An American IT specialist, Michael (Sean Faris), fresh from an eventful stint in the Marines and bad breakup with his girlfriend back in the states, falls in love with an up-and-coming ballerina, Anna (Grace Huang), from mainland China. After a couple of chance encounters, they agree to meet for impromptu language lessons. These lead to sight-seeing dates, during which they discuss their impressions on the shape of clouds and exchange other tentative pre-sex chatter. One cliché follows another – a harpsichord even accompanies a rainy-night stroll on the waterfront – until they hit something resembling an insurmountable roadblock. It would be easy enough to pick apart Orzel’s unabashedly old-fashioned depiction of modern romance, if that’s all there was to Lost for Words. Instead, he takes us to places in Hong Kong, far from the hustle and bustle of the markets, street vendors and bars already surveyed by John Woo and Tsui Hark, among others. As for being an ex-Marine, there are times when Faris barely looks old enough to have gotten out of high school. It might have made more sense if Michael’s background was something substantially less butch. But, since I’m not the intended audience for Lost for Words, I probably should remain neutral on the casting. I will say, though, that Anna’s sarcastic roommate, Mei Mei (Joman Chiang) adds some much-need spice to the dialogue.

Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: Kindness
PBS: Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue
Good manners, forgiveness, friendship and teamwork are the lessons being taught in Nickelodeon’s newest DVD, “Let’s Learn: Kindness.” It features six “super-polite episodes” of the network’s popular franchises, “Wallykazam!,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Blue’s Clues” and “Ni Hao, Kai-lan.” It contains 140 minutes of social-skills fun, plus a bonus educational worksheet for on-the-go learning.

The CGI-animated “Mia & Me: Friends to the Rescue” follows 12-year-old orphan Mia, as she discovers a portal to the magical land of Centopia, where teamwork is required to save it from the evil Queen Panthea.  In this three stories the fantasy world’s unicorns require the help of Mia and her friends among the flying elves, dragons, and other amazing creatures. The stories are “Trumptus Lost,” “The Golden Sun” and “Onchao’s Oasis.”

The DVD Wrapup: Salt of the Earth, Ex Machina, It Follows, Goodbye to All That, Black Stallion and more

Friday, July 17th, 2015

The Salt of the Earth: Blug-ray
Dozens of compelling stories are told in Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated documentary, The Salt of the Earth, which chronicles the life and career of “social photographer” and environmentalist Sebastiao Salgado. Arguably, his most famous photo was taken at the site of Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold rush, which occurred in the early-1980s and petered out pretty quickly after that. From a distance, the open-pit mine resembles a giant toy ant farm carved into a hillside, revealing terraces, tunnels and precarious paths crawling with activity. Look closer and you’ll see that, instead of ants, tens of thousands of mud-covered human beings are clinging to hundreds of crudely made wooden ladders, carrying packs on their backs filled with what they hope and pray to be paydirt. Anyone unfamiliar with the Serra Pelada lode might assume that the photograph had been taken in the late 1800s and the men with packs on their backs were slaves. In fact, they were prospectors from all walks of life, driven by news that gold-yielding ore was being extracted from the pit without the benefit of tools or heavy equipment. If the gravel in any of those backpacks contained gold, a percentage of its value would go to the miner who carried it all the way to the surface. If the California and Klondike gold rushes could have been reduced to a single hole in the ground, it might have resembled the chaos generated by the discovery of a 6-gram nugget on the banks of the river on Genésio Ferreira da Silva’s remote farm, 270 miles south of the mouth of the Amazon River. Once seen, these photographs can never be forgotten. The same can be said of the hundreds of black-and-white images Salgado brought back from forced migrations of refugees in war zones around the world. These displaced men, women and children knew the closest thing to a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow would be relief from carnage, drought, hunger, cholera, brutality and despair.

For more than two decades, Salgado found subjects for his photojournalism all over South and Central America; Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mali, Congo and the Sudan; the Krajina region of Croatia and into Bosnia; among the impoverished ship dissemblers in India and Bangladesh; the victims of land mines in Cambodia; the sabotaged oil fields of Kuwait; and Third World nations supplying tea leaves and other commodities to First World consumers. After witnessing the horrors perpetrated on non-combatants in central Africa by machete-wielding tribesmen and soldiers armed with automatic weapons, Salgado arrived at his breaking point. He returned to his homes in Paris and Brazil, determined to devote a far greater amount of his personal time to wife/editor Laila and his sons, to whom he was a stranger. By this time, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado was old enough to accompany his father on his journeys to record the lives of lost tribes in New Guinea and deeper into the Brazilian rain forest than the gold mine. Juliano and Wenders had planned to make separate documentaries on Salgado’s career, but, after much disagreement and rancor, settled on a single format in which both men provided narration. In addition to the dozens of black-and-white photographs, Salt of the Earth contains color film footage taken during Salgado’s shoots.

The color cinematography is especially effective in the final third of the film, which documents the family’s remarkable success in breathing no life into the blighted farm of his grandfather where Salgado spent much of his childhood. The farm had once been a part of the Atlantic rain-forest system, but, after the trees were cut and sold, erosion turned the property into a death zone. Laila suggested they attempt to reclaim the land by planting indigenous trees and finding ways to conserve what little water found there. After several re-plantings, the roots took hold and a thriving forest was reborn. Thus began the Instituto Terra, which is dedicated to a mission of reforestation, conservation and environmental education. The Blu-ray presentation often borders on the spectacular, with every shade of black, white, silver and gray strikingly represented in hi-def. Also included are commentary with Wenders and Julian Ribeiro Salgado; a recollection of the highs and lows of their collaboration; and deleted scenes. A similar pose is struck in Salt of the Earth, Herbert J. Biberman’s 1954 dramatization of the 1951 strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in Grant County, New Mexico. In docu-drama fashion, it deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses. It also emphasized the strength of the women in the community, who may have been even more committed to the strike than their husbands, brothers and fathers. Salt of the Earth was made by filmmakers blacklisted in Hollywood – the director served six months in prison for refusing to testify before the HUAC inquisitors – and predictably condemned as left-wing propaganda by right-wing politicians and commentators, and many weak-kneed liberals, as well. It wasn’t made by Salgado, but the depictions of mistreatment, manipulation and racial prejudice would have been in his strike zone. It’s well worth finding.

Ex Machina: Blu-ray
It is a function of the male computer geek’s discomfort in the company of strong and sexually affirmative women that so many sci-fi movies depict the search for a sexually compliant, anatomically correct and subtlely subservient female android, instead of a more gender-neutral robot design. Male screenwriters are fond of fembots, as well, but most would settle for a life-size sex doll or Fleshlight that was cast from the naughty bits of their favorite porn star. The theme can be traced at least as far back as the “Twilight Zone” episodes “I Sing the Body Electric” and “The Lonely”; the “Star Trek” episode, “Requiem for Methuselah”; TV’s “Bionic Woman”; the replicant babes in Blade Runner; the cyber-actress protagonist of S1m0ne; and the Japanese porn anime, Imma Youjo: The Erotic Temptress 2: The Perfect Love Doll. There are others, but you get the picture. There isn’t a less-than-gorgeous female character in any of them. The same holds true for Alex Garland’s highly ambitious digital wet dream, Ex Machina, which advances the sub-genre by setting it in an idyllic retreat, owned by a reclusive cyber-billionaire, and infusing his megalomaniacal vision with ideas inspired by Greek and Roman tragedies and mythology, the Old Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Titian, Mary Shelly, crappy 1970s disco and Depeche Mode. Ex Machina is the kind of super-smart movie that should carry footnotes at the bottom of the screen. In it, a 26-year-old coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a competition to spend a week with his company’s CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who spends his free time punching a heavy bag, drinking vodka and harassing his super-sexy cyber-maid. It’s the kind of macho activity one has come to expect from the Silicon Valley billionaires who’ve overcome years of bullying by purchasing sports franchises and raising the price of beer and nachos to unconscionable levels. It doesn’t take Caleb very long to realize that he could have left the sun screen at home, because his room is a concrete-and-glass cell monitored by cameras and absent windows to enjoy the scenery.

Although it’s never made precisely clear as to what Caleb has been brought to the compound to do, in lieu of enjoying the scenery and stroke his boss’ ego. If the earlier model cyborg, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), resembles every yuppie male’s idea of how an Asian girlfriend should look and behave, the more fully evolved fembot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), is such a dish that she looks great, even with her mechanical skeleton in full view. Vikander is 26, but, in a pinch, could pass for 14. It begs the question as to whether Nathan might be considered flaunting the laws governing sex with minors, simply by making Ava an android. Ava and Caleb hit it off immediately, despite being separated by a wall of glass. She becomes his sole confidante when he begins to doubt Nathan’s motivations and sanity. Her reasoned responses reveal evidence of artificial intelligence and a desire for independence. So far, at least, Nathan has been cunning enough to keep his guests under permanent lockdown. Part of his reason for bringing Caleb to the compound, I suspect, is to see if his programming expertise can detect holes in the system. His endgame remains murky throughout most of Ex Machina, though. Garland’s philosophical conceits should play better with hard-core sci-fi fans than those attracted to shape-shifting aliens and Nazis from outer space. There’s some relatively artistic nudity, but nothing that can’t be enjoyed out of context at Mr. Skin. More compelling, I think, is the Norwegian setting, which comes complete with cascading waterfalls, placid meadows and plush valleys. The Blu-ray package adds a 40-minute making-of featurette, post-screening Q&A and background vignettes.

Goodbye to All That
Anyone attracted to the offbeat relationship drama, Goodbye to All That, by Paul Schneider’s name on the DVD jacket probably won’t be surprised when the “Parks and Recreation” semi-regular steals their hearts. What’s unusual is how far first-time director Angus MacLachlan requires Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”) to play against type in her portrayal of a stone-cold bitch, who demands a divorce but refuses to tell her perplexed husband, Otto, what he did wrong or what she wants, instead of him. Lynskey has previously portrayed women who’ve begun to question their marriages – most recently, “Together” – but we have a pretty good idea of makes them tick. Here, she’s a real shrew, whose screen time is pretty much limited to chilly handoffs of their daughter, Edie (Audrey P. Scott), on the custody shifts. Otto is a perfectly average suburban guy, who loves to jog and occasionally pushes the limits of personal safety in his outdoors activities. After he breaks his leg in an accident while speeding through the woods in an ATV, Otto also is required to find a new home for himself and enough space for Edie to pretend she’s a queen of the realm. One Sunday, out of the blue, Edie demands that her still-despondent dad take her to church. It marks a turning point in the narrative that changes almost everything that’s come before and gives meaning to the title, Goodbye to All That, if not in the way some church visits change people. Almost immediately, divorced women in the congregation begin contacting him to see if he’s ready to start dating again. What they’re really asking is if he’s willing to sate their appetites for sex. Thus inspired, Otto also tries his luck with an Internet dating service and an invitation to a reunion of summer-camp pals. Everywhere he turns, he’s greeted by women with minds of their own when it comes to sex and personal fulfilment. They know what they want from him and aren’t afraid to take it in ways that range from romantic to hilarious. In this area, Lynskey’s sour personality is easily compensated for by the lively performances of Anna Camp, Heather Graham, Heather Lawless, Ashley Hinshaw and Amy Sedaris. This entirely satisfying turn of events is in line with what we liked in MacLachlan’s 20005 Junebug, a fish-out-of-water comedy that opened many academy members’ eyes to the emerging talent that was Amy Adams. Goodbye to All That was launched on the festival circuit and VOD outlets, but deserves a better shot on DVD.

It Follows: Blu-ray
If you want to know what gets the juices of horror buffs flowing, check out David Robert Mitchell’s demonic-possession thriller, It Follows, which arrives on Blu-ray in the wake of his previous well-respected indie, The Myth of the American Sleepover. These days, it’s rare to find a low-budget picture that’s capable of breaking through the pack and impressing critics who can be brutal to newcomers. Besides the almost universally laudatory reviews, It Follows may be the only DVD/Blu-ray whose commentary track is supplied entirely by Internet opinion-makers capable of making or breaking a new release. For 100 minutes, these bloggers mostly geek out on a movie that satisfies their passion for a picture that offers substantially more than one-dimensional monsters, serial slashers, special makeup effects and gratuitous gore. (Gratuitous nudity is always welcome, though.) Mitchell also provides plenty of references to past genre classics, without beating audiences over the head with stale tropes, clichés and stereotypes. In fact, the demon in It Follows is more of a specter than a tangible threat to the residents of a quiet town in suburban Detroit. Mitchell took a chance by basing the picture’s central conceit – when teenagers lose their virginity, it opens the door for all sorts of monstrous possibilities, even death – that was put on the shelf after the Scream and Scary Movie franchises batted it around like a ping-pong ball. Here, the punishment for taking advantage of free love is less tangible than a masked fiend with a butcher knife in Lovers Lane. While 19-year-old Jay (Maika Monroe) is home from college, she caps a date by having sex with a young man who passes along a STD that can’t be cured with a shot of penicillin. It is a hand-me-down curse that unleashes a shape-shifting stalker on whoever is the current carrier. The demon is invisible to all of Jay’s friends, even as it brushes against them on its way to the pretty blond. Jay knows what has to be done to get rid of the curse, but doesn’t want to put any of her male friends in harm’s way. Things get really weird when the demon takes the form of her late father, who throws electric appliances at her when she’s in a public swimming pool … and, no, he isn’t trying to electrocute her. It was at this point that things stopped making sense to me. Even so, Mitchell’s patience keeps the pacing tight throughout the story and a palpable degree of tension is added by the eccentric musical soundtrack provided by the composer Disasterpeace, who is interviewed in the bonus package.

An Honest Liar
In the 1990s, after over-exposure on cable television killed the comedy-club boom, magicians, escape artists and illusionists picked up the baton and ran with it for a while. Soon, nearly resort in Las Vegas featured an in-house magician and magic shop. Entire multimillion-dollar shows – EFX at the MGM Grand, for example – combined magic, music and dance. It was a heady time for the artists, but, again, television helped kill the goose that laid the golden egg. One controversial Fox show even went so far as to hire the Masked Magician to reveal the secrets behind the classic tricks and illusions. Again, however, it was over-exposure that spoiled the game for everyone else. If one magician was going to make an elephant/helicopter/truck disappear into thin air, someone else was going to upstage him the next week by making the Statue of Liberty vanish or by appearing to be cut in half by a “death saw.” Today, about a dozen magicians, illusionists and mentalists are capable of headlining their own shows in Las Vegas, with Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, Mac King and Criss Angel being the most prominent. In the fascinating documentary, An Honest Liar, we’re re-introduced to Randall James Hamilton Zwinge (a.k.a., The Amazing Randi), who’s spent most of his retirement challenging psychics, faith healers and occultists to come clean or be revealed as frauds out to extract donations from gullible believers. By portraying themselves as the real deal, instead of as fellow magicians or illusionists, Randi deemed them worthy of exposure. Offended by the popularity and public effrontery of Uri Geller, he even went so far as to arrange for one of his mind-bending gags to be debunked before millions of viewers on “The Tonight Show.” Geller was baffled when the objects that typically moved at his command didn’t behave as planned. Amateur magician Johnny Carson was so impressed that he made Randi a frequent guest. In the 1980s, Randi took on such faith healers as Peter Popoff and João Teixeira de Faria (a.k.a., João de Deus). At the ripe old age of 86, Randi isn’t at all reluctant to open up the books on his own accomplishments and reveal such personal details as his marriage to ex-con painter Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (a.k.a., José Alvarez), after exiting the closet in 2010. An Honest Liar includes testimonials by Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Bill Nye, Alice Cooper, Banachek and Jamy Ian Swiss. The DVD adds deleted scenes and extended interviews.

Dawn Patrol
Watching Rita Wilson guzzle beer, chain-smoke marijuana and slander Mexican immigrants in Dawn Patrol, I experienced the same hollow feeling as when I first saw Katey Sagal play the white-trash biker moll in “Sons of Anarchy.” After a couple of episodes of the long-running series, though, Sagal’s presence made sense within the context of the narrative and her anti-heroic character. As matriarch of a clan of SoCal surf Nazis, Wilson simply looks as if she stepped into the wrong movie and wasn’t about to turn down a payday. Surf movies come and go, of course, but only a few have stuck to the wall. Big Wednesday, Break Point, Blue Crush and Chasing Mavericks extended the Endless Summer mythos to include coming-of-age dramas, existentialist quandaries, serious criminality and romantic melodramas. Working from a screenplay by Rachel Long and Brian Pittman (A Haunting at Silver Falls), Daniel Petrie Jr. has crafted a story of revenge, misplaced clan loyalties and good-old-fashioned bigotry from an ugly incident in which a sun-bathing beach bimbo deliberately sets off a race war that’s supposed to link metaphorically to the war in Afghanistan, but doesn’t. The story is told from the point of view of John (Scott Eastwood), a surfer who comes unglued after his headstrong brother is killed by someone everyone assumes to be the Mexican who diddled his slutty girlfriend … and, no, there’s really not a better way to describe the character played by Kim Matula (“The Bold and the Beautiful”). Tensions between various ethnic groups began to rise when speculators and developers deemed the Ventura County beach communities to be ripe for exploitation. Until then, they had provided the foundation for working-class homeowners to feel as good about themselves as the millionaires who call Malibu home. But, contractors looking to boost profit margins by hiring undocumented workers and laid-off residents found it impossible to maintain their way of life. Property values skyrocketed, even as some neighborhoods began to look like beach-adjacent slums. About to have their home foreclosed on, John is taunted into retaliating against the Mexican interlopers by his embittered parents, played with no degree of subtlety of finesse by Wilson and Jeff Fahey. Assumptions that seemed sound one minute were turned inside-out the next by the facts. It’s all supposed to remind us of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, but it’s buried so deep in the sand that it gets bogged down in melodrama. Petrie’s first two writing credits were The Big Easy and Beverly Hills Cop, both home runs. Dawn Patrol is his first feature as a director since 1994, when he gave us In the Army Now, with Pauly Shore and Andy Dick. Hollywood’s a bitch.

Here Is Your Life: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
The Black Stallion Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Anyone as impressed by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the folks who helped it secure six Academy Award nominations and a Supporting Actress statuette for Patricia Arquette might consider extending the experience by picking up Jan Troell’s debut feature, Here Is Your Life. Based on a series of semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winner Eyvind Johnson, it describes a teenager’s coming-of-age at a pivotal time in the history of Sweden and Europe. While the rest of the continent was engaged in a horrific conflagration, Sweden remained neutral. It explains how 14-year-old Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) wasn’t sent to the front after being forced to leave his impoverished foster family and fend for himself. He could have returned home to his natural parents, but the burden of having another mouth to feed would have made things tougher for his siblings. Unlike Mason, the young protagonist of Boyhood, Olof can’t afford the luxury of attending school or partaking in extracurricular activities. He understands his lot in life and, for now, anyway, it means taking jobs intended for grown men and learning by doing. He finds one in the remote northern part of the country as a logger, risking his life as part of a gang whose duties include breaking up logjams on a roiling river. Because the men share a secluded shack, Olof is privy to the stories laborers swap after a hard day of work and several shots of vodka. Not at all cocky, Olof is as attentive to his co-workers’ eccentricities as he is to the rigors of logging. Next, he finds slightly less dangerous work in a sawmill and brick kiln.

His first job in a community setting comes when he’s hired by the owner of a primitive theater that offers silent movies and concert recitals. When he isn’t posting announcements on the sides of buildings, selling tickets and hawking candy, Olof uses the time left over to flirt with local girls and read books. It is here, as well, that he’s introduced to the differences between working stiffs and white-collar businessmen and entrepreneurs. The disparities are such that he’s inspired to consider joining the burgeoning international worker’s movement. When Olof gets hired away from the theater by a traveling projectionist, who works the carnival circuit, he is introduced to entirely different class of people. Better yet, he’s introduced to the joys of sex by a fortune-teller, who treats him like a boy toy. At 169 minutes, Here Is Your Life is only slightly longer than Boyhood. It provides plenty of space for the vignettes to play out naturally and take full advantage of the film’s historically accurate settings and Sweden’s natural beauty, very little of which is lost in Troell’s evocative cinematography. Given that this was his first theatrical venture, it isn’t surprising to discern the influence of Ingmar Bergman. By the end of the first half of the film, however, what we’re watching is all Troell.  He would go on to make such period gems as Everlasting Moments, Hamsun, Zandy’s Bride, The New Land and The Emigrants. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; an introduction by filmmaker Mike Leigh; a new conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie; interviews with actor Eddie Axberg and producer/screenwriter Bengt Forslund; the short film, “Interlude in Marshland,” which preceded Here Is Your Life, starring Max von Sydow; and an essay by film scholar Mark Le Fanu.

Carroll Ballard’s wonderful family adventure, The Black Stallion, is often included in lists of the most beautifully photographed movies ever made. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, to learn that Caleb Deschanel’s work was ignored when the Oscar nominations were announced in the Best Cinematography category, ahead of the 1980 awards ceremony. Back then, being snubbed by your peers was part of the hazing ritual for freshmen in the tech categories. The Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital transfer, supervised by Deschanel, attests to the film’s rich cinematic legacy. (In 2002, The Black Stallion was accorded the honor of being named to the National Film Registry.) In Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel, a determined American boy and magnificent Arabian horse survive a disaster at sea, only to be tested once again after washing ashore a deserted island off North Africa. The only way to get through their mutual ordeal is by learning to trust each other. Once they’re rescued and returned to Alec’s hometown, a dilemma arises as to where one puts a magnificent steed accustomed to roaming freely and answering only to single voice. It comes to a head after the Black stallion bolts from the house’s backyard and is almost killed in a frantic tour of the city. It ends at farm owned by a former jockey, expertly played by Mickey Rooney. The film’s basic color scheme and visual context has changed dramatically by now, allowing for a dramatic test of equine heroism and stamina in a championship race. Hollywood legend has it that, upon viewing The Black Stallion for the first time, a studio executive asked rhetorically, “What is this, some kind of an art film for kids?” The easy answer to that question was then and still is, “Yes.” Ballard’s masterpiece would go unreleased for two years, until executive producer Francis Ford Coppola made sure that justice was served. Sadly, it’s a common tale, oft told. The Blu-ray adds a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; five career-making short films by Ballard, with introductions by the director; a conversation between Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas; a new interview with Deschanel; a piece featuring photographer Mary Ellen Mark, discussing her images from the film’s set; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

Some Call It Loving: Blu-ray
Scratch the surface of an interesting, if long-neglected picture newly re-released on Blu-ray/DVD and you’re likely to uncover a story that puts a completely new spin on what you’ve just seen. Such is the case with the Vinegar Syndrome/Etiquette Pictures’ oddity, Some Call It Loving, a kinky soft-core fantasy made a year before Emmanuelle tested the limits of the old X-rating. In an unusual twist of fate, the actor who played the protagonist of James B. Harris’ film – Zalman King – would, 20 years later, successfully test the limits of cable television, with Showtime’s couples-friendly, “Red Shoes Diary.” He also collaborated with director Adrian Lyne on the S&M-lite feature, 9½ Weeks. Here, King plays a handsome jazz musician, who impulsively decides to buy the Sleeping Beauty attraction from a traveling carnival. Somehow, Robert senses correctly that the beautiful young woman, Jennifer (Tisa Farrow), really is in a deep trance and isn’t faking it for the rubes. He brings her comatose body to the secluded mansion he shares with a pair of women (Carol White, Veronica Anderson), who, likewise, get their kicks from role-playing games and other fetishes. Robert is able to awaken his new playmate with a kiss and taste of the potion given him by the sideshow barker. At first, he attempts to isolate Jennifer from the sex play, but, like the perfect fembot in Ex Machina, she develops a mind of her own.

In a completely detached sidebar, Richard performs at a nearly empty jazz club with his band. One of the habitués is a strung-out junkie and alcoholic played by Richard Pryor, who was nearly penniless at the time, but would soon emerge as an A-list actor, as well as a star comedian. The character presages the introduction of Mudbone in his albums and standup routines, a year later. Although the story, inspired by John Collier’s short story “Sleeping Beauty,” is more of a curiosity than anything else, the movie is enhanced by Mario Tosi’s gorgeous cinematography, sumptuous art direction of Rodger Maus and Ray Storey, and eerie score by Richard Hazard. Because Harris produced Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory,” “Lolita” and “The Killing,” some critics have suggested that Some Call It Loving may have influenced the look of Eyes Wide Shut. It’s more likely that Harris borrowed ideas generated by Radley Metzger in such arthouse erotica as The Lickerish Quartet and Camille 2000. The dandy Etiquette Pictures Blu-ray benefits from a 2K restoration from the 35mm camera negative; a six-page booklet, with an essay by Kevin John Bozelka; commentary by Harris and Sam Prime; “Some Call It History,” in which Harris recounts his early years in the Korean War, where he met Kubrick; “A Dream So Real,” a conversation with Tosi, who shares his thoughts on career choices; and outtakes, with commentary.

Singularity Principle
Of all the fascinating ideas put forward in Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic, Interstellar, the most complex and compelling was the concept of a parallel universe, accessible through wormholes discovered in our solar system. Not having a degree in the sciences, that’s as far as I’m willing to go when attempting to synopsize movies whose plots are based on astrophysics. If anything, the pure science and mathematics that inform the low-budget sci-fi thriller, Singularity Principle, are even more intricate and, therefore, far more baffling than anything in most genre titles. This likely is because it was co-written, co-produced and co-directed (all with Austin Hines) by physicist Dr. David Robert Deranian and no one falls more in love with their chalk work than an academic. As such, Deranian boasts of “paying particular attention to accurate scientific detail and using the fascinating science of parallel universes to bring audiences a story that will both illuminate and entertain.” Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Singularity Principle opens with the disappearance of a noted scientist, Professor Jack Brenner (John Diehl), during an unauthorized parallel-universe experiment. It sets off all sorts of bells and whistles at a “clandestine black-ops agency,” which, of course, is anxious to learn how it might be able to exploit the data or fears that Brenner’s parallel universe might be found in Russia or China. Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with emphasizing science over fiction in these sorts of movies, there’s something to be said for fudging the details to expand the audience. Science nerds should be able to find something in Singularity Principle to stimulate their intellects and imagination, though.

The Stray Cat Rock Collection: Blu-ray
The Outing/The Godsend: Blu-ray
Cellar Dweller/Catacombs: Blu-ray
Japanese exploitation movies of the 1950-70s frequently borrowed from conventions and tropes established by filmmakers toiling in the fields that belonged to Samuel Z. Arkoff and Roger Corman. Pick a subgenre that drew crowds here and Japanese filmmakers paid homage to it by copying its conceits and putting them through a blender of home-grown eccentricities. The five films in the Stray Cat Rock series, newly collected by Arrow Films, merge several themes crucial to post-war B-movies in the United States, along with stylized violence, gratuitous nudity, psychedelic rock music and fetishized vehicles, ranging from rice-burner motorcycles (no Harleys to be seen) and Jeeps leftover from the occupation, to gas-guzzling Detroit products, dune buggies and the occasional bicycle. The Japanese were especially fixated on juvenile delinquents, most of whom appear to have taken their cues from Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One and West Side Story. In the Stray Cat Rock pictures, though, most of the girls look as if they were just as influenced sartorially by Sandra Dee and Annette Funicello, even when waving knives at each other. There’s also room for a butch gang-banger to kick ass and take names when the boys join the fray. Among the constants are the lovely-but-deadly Meiko Kaji, Tatsuya Fuji and Bunjaku Han. The limited Blu-ray set from Arrow contains upgraded versions of Delinquent Girl Boss, Wild Jumbo, Sex Hunter, Machine Animal and Beat ’71; new English subtitle translations; interviews with director Yasuharu Hasebe and actors Tatsuya Fuji and Yoshio Harada, star of Beat ’71; original trailers; a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the films by Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp; and original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays).

Unlike other double-features released by Scream Factory, this week’s offerings likely will be of interest specifically to 1980s completists and other people with niche tastes. Otherwise, the only things they have in common are a few momentary thrills and short titles. The Outing combines two time-honored tropes: the evil genie released from his lamp and the frightful night spent in a haunted museum. Even Ben Stiller wouldn’t have been able to save this one, though. In The Godsend, a very strange woman with alabaster skin leaves her newborn baby with an unsuspecting family that’s kind enough to take the wee lass in. Before long, she’s proven herself to be quite the little vixen.

Cellar Dweller’s crime is that it takes a perfectly good idea for a short film and almost ruins it by stretching it to a turgid 77 minutes. Twenty-five years after a comic-book artist is killed by one of the monsters he’s created on paper, a fan (Debrah Farantino) returns to the scene of the crime to investigate what happened and what can be salvaged from the panels he left behind in the basement. With the punchline revealed in the first five minutes, all that’s left is the blood-letting. There are two things to recommend Catacombs to horror fans, 1) the exterior scenes were shot at a historic monastery in the mountains surrounding Terni, Umbria, and 2) a scene in which a life-size Christ literally comes down from a cross, pulls a stake from his foot and attacks a priest. Actually, it’s the work of a satanic spirit imprisoned in the catacombs of the church since the Inquisition.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger: Blu-ray
All Quiet on the Western Front: The Uncut Edition: Blu-ray
Released 35 years before Donald Trump and other Republican nitwits declared illegal immigration to be the greatest threat to our democracy since the War of 1812, Hollywood tackled the problem with compassion, without also minimizing of the scale of the situation. Sadly, though, we no longer can count on the services of Charles Bronson (Borderline) and Telly Savalas (Border Cop) to jump in and solve the current quagmire. The latter was committed to DVD in 2003, while the former is new to disc this week. Bronson stars as Jeb Maynard, a steely U.S. Border Patrol officer stationed between San Diego and Calexico. Things heat up fast after his friend and partner (Wilford Brimley) is murdered by a vicious “coyote” – a white one, this time, played by Ed Harris, in his first credited role in a feature – along with a child who’s just made the crossing. An investigation takes Maynard to Tijuana, with the mother of the dead boy, so he can make the trek through the border as if he were sneaking into the country. The trail leads to a major grower in the Imperial Valley and a corrupt businessman in San Diego. I doubt that a border agent would be allowed to show as much compassion as Maynard, today, because of the political ramifications of being such behavior. Borderline may have its limitations as a product of its time and a rather obvious vehicle for Bronson, who was a huge star in 1980, but it’s well made and the based-on-fact story is reasonably entertaining.

After watching the 1981 box-office bomb The Legend of the Lone Ranger, it was only natural that I would compare it not only to the original TV show, but also to the 2013 box-office bomb, which starred Johnny Depp and someone named Armie Hammer. While neither measures up to the hit Western series, I enjoyed the earlier adaptation quite a bit more than the $216-million The Lone Ranger, which took huge liberties with the mythology. The biggest problem with “The Legend” wasn’t what ended up on the screen, but how it got there. For one thing, Klinton Spilsbury apparently was chosen to appeal to the teenage-girl demographic, not fans of classic oaters. Besides looking like a refugee from a boy band, Spilsbury wasn’t much of an actor. Compounding the problem was the treatment shown to Clayton Moore – the much-loved creator of the character on television – by one of the producers, who also owned the rights to the Lone Ranger brand. Moore was prohibited from appearing in public in costume, so he elected, instead, to wear oversized sunglasses. All that aside, “The Legend” stuck far closer to the origin story, with a surprisingly dapper Christopher Lloyd as the head of the treasonous Cavendish Gang and Jason Robards having a whale of a time as Ulysses S. Grant. Plus, Merle Haggard provides the original songs.

Forty-nine years and three major wars passed between Louis Milestone’s Academy Award-winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s great anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the 1979 made-for-television remake, starring Richard Thomas, Ian Holm and Ernest Borgnine. The new Blu-ray iteration of the latter adds nearly a half-hour to the original running time. There’s no need to compare the two versions too closely, as they’re both products of their time and medium of choice. The Delbert Mann-directed production had to accommodate commercial breaks and more expository narration than was required in the early talkie. There’s also the matter of the flat American and English accents of the German soldiers. It’s difficult to ignore completely, but, given time, other things vie for our attention, including the emphatic anti-war message. The timing is interesting, though, as it arrives on the heels of the Criterion Collection edition of The Bridge, Bernhard Wicki’s semi-autobiographical drama about a close-knit group of German teenagers drafted into the German army in the closing weeks of World War II. The young men in both movies are, at first, buoyed by patriotism sparked by misleading government propaganda and love of the Fatherland. No sooner do they leave basic training than they’re thrown into the hellfire of a conflagration for which there’s no chance for victory and leaders who should have been sent to the frontlines before anyone else.

BBC/PBS: The Crimson Field: Blu-ray
PlayStation: Powers: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History
BBC/PBS: Tales From the Royal Wardrobe
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC
It’s probably unfair to compare the compelling BBC/PBS mini-series “The Crimson Field” to a “M*A*S*H” without the laughs, but, then, how better to describe a wartime drama that combines testy nurse/doctor relationships with realistic portrayals of operating-theater horrors and triumphs. If World War I failed miserably as a “war to end all wars,” it helped improve the care and treatment of wounded and traumatized soldiers in future wars. The unprecedented volume of incoming patients and increased degree of difficulty in treating wounds, toxic gases and emotional disorders forced caregivers to rethink their approaches to healing. The International Red Cross had been founded only 50 years before the start of the war and nothing that had come before had prepared Red Cross workers and volunteers for the sheer enormity of their mission. In previous wars, the same wounds might have gone untreated except for the application of a surgical saw and unsanitary rags. In the “crimson fields” of France, the agency also was responsible for POWs and mail delivery, as well as other services. The mini-series’ soap-opera through-lines emerged from the close proximity of doctors, nurses and patients and intensity of the shared experience in a post-Victorian environment. In the absence of a steady rain of bullets and mortars, hospital personnel face were required to navigate divisions related to class distinctions, religious conventions and reservations concerning advanced treatments. Because the tented field hospital in “The Crimson Field” serves as a buffer between the battlefield and homefront, relatives of the wounded men were allowed to visit them. For those unprepared to deal with the severity of the wounds suffered by their loved ones, the shock of recognition could be frightening. Just as the unlikely hit series “Call the Midwife” took a while for Americans to embrace, “The Crimson Field” grows on you. That can be credited to the excellent writing and such familiar actors as Oona Chaplin, Hermione Norris, Suranne Jones, Kevin Doyle, Kerry Fox, Jeremy Swift and Alex Wyndham. The BBC cut of the series allows for a bit more realistic approach to the material than that allowed by PBS censors.

Even those viewers who can’t get enough of shows about superheroes and other supernatural shenanigans may be unaware of “Powers,” an original series available only via PlayStation platforms. Based on the graphic novel by Michael Avon Oeming and Brian Michael Bendis, it demands that we consider the ramifications of a world in which superheroes, supervillains and uniquely gifted mutants are as prevalent as, say, Starbucks. Powers-deficient humans would be defenseless against the bad apples, if it weren’t for the brave men and women of the Powers Division. It is represented primarily by homicide detectives Christian Walker (Sharlto Copley) and Deena Pilgrim (Susan Heyward). Not being an aficionado, much of the mythology flew right over my head. Still, it’s the gamers who subscribe to the PlayStation Network who will make the final determination on “Powers” when it comes to ratings and renewals. There’s no reason to think it won’t have a bright future in the niche market.

Except for the occasional defection, hit movie revealing backstage intrigue or Kirov sighting, news from the world of ballet is practically non-existent in the mainstream media. That changed recently when Misty Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theater’s 75-year history. Her personal story is so compelling that “60 Minutes” devoted an entire segment to it. While she’s a prominent dancer in Ric Burns’ “American Masters: American Ballet Theatre: A History,” her appearances and opinions are threads in a tapestry whose creation began in pre-Soviet Russia and is still being woven. Anyone who thinks that Burns’ documentaries begin to look the same after a while should be surprised by what they see here. In addition to the archival material and talking heads, the show features some of the most elegantly photographed dance scenes and intimate interactions between performers I’ve ever seen. Burns was accorded unprecedented access to the company, including dramatic live performances, grueling rehearsals and tight focuses on Copeland, Gillian Murphy and other young stars following in the footsteps of Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In BBC/PBS’ “Tales From the Royal Wardrobe,” the affable British historian and TV host, Dr. Lucy Worsley, is in fine form as she explores the sartorial tastes of kings and queens from Elizabeth I to the present Queen Elizabeth II. Rather than simply precede over a series of photographs, sketches and newsreel footage, Worsley explains how the royal wardrobe is a carefully orchestrated piece of theater, managed by the royals themselves to control the right image and project the right message to their subjects. This extends to a time when wealth dictated what courtiers could and couldn’t wear to events and actual documents that laid out the guideline. She also models the extravagant fashions worn by queens and princesses, with special attention paid to the impracticality of their architecture. Fans of period programming on the BBC will find the show to be particularly entertaining and informative.

Also available from the same source are “Doctor Who: The Daleks,” which recalls the many the confrontations between the mutant creatures and the Doctor and his companions. The three-part documentary series, “BBC’s Shark,” goes up-close-and-personal with 30 species of the legendary predator, with footage from dozens of habitats worldwide, There is even a shark that walks on land.

From Shout comes “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Third Season,” a compilation of all 22 episodes from the show’s penultimate season. It was at this point of its run that CBS began to treat the series like a pawn on its chessboard, by moving it around the schedule without concern for viewers or narrative continuity. Even the actors were at a loss as to when it would air. Most of original musical licenses have been renewed for DVD, but not all of them.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Return to NYC” is a single–disc release from Nickelodeon, comprised of seven “central” episodes from Season Three. The Turtles’ mission is to retake New York, save their Sensei, search for Karai and team–up with the Mighty Mutanimals for a rescue mission into Dimension X.

The DVD Wrapup: Woman in Gold, Clouds of Sils Maria, Human Capital, House of Cards and more

Friday, July 10th, 2015

Woman in Gold: Blu-ray
Shortly after Iraqi troops were driven from Kuwait in 1991, then-Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz announced that hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of looted property would be returned to the emirate. The plunder included civilian jetliners, gold and currency taken from a Central Bank vault, computers, furniture and priceless museum pieces. Restitution for property stolen from private citizens and businesses, including dealers of luxury cars, wasn’t directly addressed in announcement, but several billion dollars in reparations have reportedly been paid. Although required to pay reparations for the destruction it caused in World War II, Germany has largely been allowed to weasel out of repaying its debts to countries it once occupied. That includes Greece, whose crippled economy could benefit from having its IOU honored by the same country that’s demanding it now repay money owed to the European Union. Germany paid considerable reparations to Israel and World Jewish Congress in the name of the millions of Jews murdered, displaced, plundered and forced into slave labor before and during the war. Decades would pass, however, before life-insurance companies agreed that policies written for people who would die in the death camp were valid and payments should be made to their heirs. Whether it’s great works of art extorted as part of the early immigration process or gold teeth yanked from the mouths of doomed prisoners, the Gestapo and its minions were crooks before they became war criminals. And, while it’s impossible to precisely identify the owners of the silver and gold items melted down to support the war effort, determining the provenance of paintings, sculptures and other object art would seem to be a far easier task. It came down to a question of how one lawyer defined theft and what his opponent described as barter.

The David vs. Goliath legal struggle dramatized in Woman in Gold should disabuse viewers of any notion that the war in Europe ended with Adolph and Eva’s suicide in the bunker. The bloodletting may have stopped, but some parties refuse to admit defeat. When it comes to reuniting survivors with treasures stolen or extorted from family members, the battles being fought are deeply personal and the good guys don’t always win. Fifty years after VE day, the full scope of this particular debate was revealed in Lynn H. Nicholas’s “The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War” and revisited a dozen years later in Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham’s documentary adaptation, The Rape of Europa. In Woman in Gold, director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) and freshman writer Alexi Kaye Campbell move from the general to the specific, focusing on one elderly woman’s effort to recover what everyone outside Austria felt she was owed. Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) had convinced L.A. shopkeeper Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany/Helen Mirren) to stake her claim to one of the most celebrated paintings of all time, the famously gold-leafed portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. It was the more famous of Gustav Klimt’s two portraits of the Viennese heiress and patron of the arts that had been hanging in the state-owned Belvedere Palace gallery since the end of the war. It and other family treasures had been confiscated when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. No fan of what he termed “degenerate art,” Hitler allowed Austrian Gallery officials to take possession of the family’s Klimt paintings, which, otherwise, might have become kindling in a Nazi bonfire. As a concession to home-grown anti-Semitism, the curators changed “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) to “Woman in Gold,” in order to disguise its provenance and mask the fact that the model was a prominent Viennese Jew.

Curtis uses flashbacks to depict Altmann’s vivid recollections of family life before and directly after the Anschluss, and the difference couldn’t be more striking. Even 50 years later, when Altmann reluctantly returns to Vienna with Schoenberg for court hearing, it’s clear that modern Austrian officials are far more willing to fight attempts to surrender the paintings than their ancestors were in protecting their borders and Jewish residents from the Gestapo and Wehrmacht. Indeed, as the legal process evolves, Altmann’s tentative resolve in pursuing Schoenberg’s faltering case – inspired by the investigative reporting of Viennese journalist and editor Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) — is continually renewed by the dismissive attitude displayed by the museum officials and the lack of remorse or guilt feelings shown her by almost everybody she meets in Vienna. For his part, Schoenberg’s determination is re-enforced by what he learns about his composer grandfather’s close relationship with his client’s parents and aunt, and how his own life was changed by the Holocaust. (In fact, he is the grandson of two Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, both of whom successfully immigrated to the United States, escaping almost certain death.) Mirren, as usual, is spell-binding as Altmann. If there are times when Reynolds comes across as being too young for the part of Schoenberg, the facts validate his characterization. Campbell’s screenplay could be nitpicked for certain concessions to poetic license, but, if anything, the larger story could never fit within a 109-minute format. For example, Altmann’s status as a simple Los Angeles shopkeeper doesn’t begin to describe her post-war life in America. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘Woman in Gold’”; feature commentary with Curtis and producer David M. Thompson; a trailer for the documentary, “Stealing Klimt”; and press conference at New York’s Neue Galerie, after the painting was purchased by Ronald Lauder and put on display there.

Clouds of Sils Maria
I wonder if Meryl Streep gets depressed when she isn’t nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Maybe she feels relieved, knowing that she can avoid the annual crush of parties, press conferences and all of the ass kissing that comes with each and every nomination. Maybe, someday, Streep will be allowed the privilege of being chosen alongside one or both of her acting daughters, Grace and Mamie Gummer, or simply cheer them on from the sidelines. Streep doesn’t appear in Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’ brilliant drama about actors and acting. If any actress deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Streep, it’s Juliet Binoche, who not only stars in Clouds of Sils Maria, but also delivers one of the great performances of her career. It’s entirely possible that more people witnessed her work in last year’s international blockbuster, Godzilla, than in all of the nine films for which she received Cesar nominations, combined. You can probably add the box-office tallies from her English-language successes, Chocolat and The English Patient. In an interview, Binoche said that she agreed to co-star alongside the giant fire-breathing dragon to believably deliver a line from the Clouds of Sils Maria about acting in blockbusters. Binoche was the perfect choice to play an English-speaking actress, Maria Enders, who, almost by chance, finds herself in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier. It was written by a famously elusive playwright, for whom she’s traveling to Zurich to accept an award as the movie opens. Not at all sure that she wants to perform a task even the playwright has refused to do, Maria finds herself enmeshed in an even greater drama when she’s told on the train that he’s died. Naturally, the news causes a flood of memories to come crushing down on her.

At the ceremony, Maria is paired with the same pompous actor (Hanns Zischler) who had sweet-talked her into bed during run of the play and would love to stage a romantic encore in Zurich. Maria knows that if she accepts the role of the older woman in the play, it will mean acknowledging that, henceforth, her characters will always be women of a certain age. Stepping into her previous role in the play is a young American actress (Chloë Grace Moretz), possibly modeled after Britney Spears at her most reckless. In a shattering scene near the end of the film, Maria suggests a slight change in the brat’s portrayal of her character, but is rebuffed. You can almost feel the air escaping from the hole in Maria’s ego as she realizes that she’s about to pass the torch to a younger and, perhaps, less capable generation of actors. In a very real sense, she represents every living actor who has or is about to pass the same threshold, feeling they still can get away with playing Hamlet and Ophelia, instead of Claudius and Gertrude. Also very good here is Kristen Stewart, as Maria’s loyal personal assistant and trusted confidante. The generation-gap isn’t nearly as noticeable in their relationship, until she begins revealing personal tastes that are more pop-cultural than sophisticated. Stewart renders the ambiguity stamped on her character’s personality so well that she was honored with a César, making her the first American actress to win one. (Adrien Brody is still the only American male to win one, for his work in The Pianist.) Sadly, the DVD doesn’t contain any bonus features.

Human Capital  
Although there’s nothing insignificant about the accident that kicks things off in Paolo Virzì’s constantly evolving drama, Human Capital, it mostly serves as the point around which more interesting things revolve. In fact, viewers are encouraged to hold the collision between a bicycle and SUV, on a winding downhill road on an inclement Christmas Eve, in abeyance until we get a better handle on the kind of people we’re dealing with here. The family that lives on the top of the hill, overlooking the Lombardy countryside, imaginations itself to be above the laws of man and economics. Already wealthy by anyone’s standards, hedge-fund magnate Giovanni Bernaschi (Fabrizio Gifuni) can’t pass up a dishonest deal when it presents itself to him. In a boastful mood, Bernaschi might even tip a less fortunate tennis partner to a deal from which he could benefit … or not, depending on how the cards fall. The one thing the two men have in common, besides tennis, are a son and daughter who are dating each other. Massimiliano Bernaschi (Guglielmo Pinelli) is a bright and handsome young man who appears ready to step into his father’s shoes as a world-class prick, but uses alcohol as a crutch to get there. Massimiliano’s girlfriend, Serena (Matilde Gioli) has been severely damaged by the loss of her mother and what she inaccurately perceives to be the encroachment of her pregnant stepmother, a genuinely nice doctor (Valeria Golino). Her father, Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), is the poor sap who believes he can buy a ticket to financial independence by playing tennis with his filthy-rich friend. Clouding Serena’s crystal ball is the sudden arrival of a bad-boy classmate, Luca (Giovanni Anzaldo), who attracts her attention with his sketches and hard-luck story.

By far the most interesting character here is Giovanni’s wife and Massimiliano’s mother, Carla, played by the always watchable Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, whose sister, Carla Bruni, is married to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Once an aspiring actor, she sold her creative soul for a luxurious, if totally compromised life in the mansion on the hill. With Massimiliano ready to leave home for college and Giovanni willing to reward her for 18 years of never appearing or acting less than the perfect upper-class wife, she asks him to buy her an abandoned entertainment complex that would otherwise be turned into a shopping mall. It isn’t until she discovers that the other man she needs to complete her dream of owning a theater is as big a piece of crap as every other male who’s feigned interest in her ambitions, but only to get into her knickers. It’s at this point that Virzi decides to deploy a dogged cop to re-emphasize the bicycle accident and challenge his characters to rise above the messes in which he’s put them. Or, rather, the dilemmas to which they were led in the Connecticut-set novel by Stephen Amidon. The adaptation by Virzì, Francesco Bruni and Francesco Piccolo (The First Beautiful Thing) makes it feel if Amidon intended for his story to be transplanted to Italy in the first place. Human Capital should appeal to arthouse audiences who don’t mind a little class-conscious intrigue with their whodunit. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a music video.

Deli Man: Blu-ray
Anyone who watches Erik Anjou’s mouth-watering documentary Deli Man and feels inclined to board the next plane to New York City, just to savor a mountainous pastrami sandwich at the Carnegie Deli, probably ought to check out the restaurant’s website before booking a flight. Tempted thusly, I was disheartened to learn that the Midtown landmark is, as of this writing, closed temporarily for repairs, possibly related to legal problems caused by the discovery of a tapped gas line. The Carnegie is far from the only deli worth sampling while in New York, but, as is emphasized in the film, it represents a dying breed of restaurants that reflect nearly 130 years of Jewish culture in America. By the time this culinary theme park opened in 1937 – a half-century after Katz’s Delicatessen was founded on the Lower East Side – there were more than 1,500 kosher delis in New York, alone. Competition from supermarkets, specialty shops and changing urban tastes have reduced that number significantly, even as the search for the perfect pastrami sandwich has expanded to include Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and Houston, of all places. Among the restaurateurs we meet in Deli Man is Ziggy Gruber, a third-generation New York “deliman,” who began learning the business as a boy from his Hungarian-immigrant grandfather and brought authentic New York deli to Texas, across the street from Houston’s Galleria, in 1999. Consistently rated one of the top dining destinations in the city, Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen, resembles a museum exhibit as much as it does a restaurant. According to Gruber, the number of delis has plummeted from a high of 2,000 in New York, alone, to 120 in North America, although that figure may not include all of the deli food trucks that have begun to attract customers in urban areas. Among the other people Anjou calls as witnesses are entertainers and lifelong deli habitués as Larry King, Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Freddie Roman and Alan Dershowitz, who add some spice to the testimony. The Blu-ray adds extended interviews.

Goldberg & Eisenberg
Holocaust Genocide & Survival
Stories of a Young Nation
Israeli writer/director Oren Carmi’s debut feature, Goldberg & Eisenberg, may sound like a sequel to Deli Man, but the only thing the two films share are kosher roots. It is, in fact, the rare Israeli export: a horror film … and a good one, at that. Set in Tel Aviv, “G&E” is built around an antagonist who should be as familiar to American audiences as the dangerously loud and angry guy next-door, who can’t be bothered with shushing his incessantly barking dog or the crazy panhandler who decides that you’re his new best friend and imminently worth stalking. Most of us would consider such plagues to be part and parcel of living in a big city and dismiss them as a momentary nuisance. When condensed into 90 minutes of paranoid psychodrama, however, these annoyances open the door to a Son of Sam scenario. Goldberg (Yitzhak Laor) is a desperately lonely computer programmer, who spends his free time scouring the Internet for potential girlfriends. One night, while walking his dog in the park, the harmless nebbish encounters the slovenly piece of human garbage, Eisenberg (Yahav Gal), who insinuates himself into Goldberg’s life with dirty jokes and feeble attempts at conversation. Naturally, what begins as an uncomfortable encounter in a dark and largely unpopulated park, evolves into a serious introduction to pure evil. It spills over into Goldberg’s private life, to the point where Eisenberg demands to be included in his dates as a spectator and is willing to torture animals to demonstrate how far he’ll go to maintain his enemy’s attention. As if Eisenberg weren’t sufficiently grating, Carmi allows unseen dogs to bark continually through the Tel Aviv night and give one of his characters a cellphone with barking ringtone. Neither does Carmi feel it necessary to explain the presence of Eisenberg’s occasional neo-Nazi companions and police completely unsympathetic to Goldberg’s plight. Far from perfect, “G&E” takes a while to catch hold, but, once it does, you’re hooked. Israelis generally have more horrifying things to consider than things that go bump in the night on the big screen, but, “G&E” and such genre pieces as Big Bad Wolves, Rabies and the first Israeli zombie flick, Cannon Fodder, have added something new to the menu.

Horror may have taken a while to reach Israel, but the national cinema began in Palestine during the silent era and got a boost in 1954 when the Knesset passed the Law for the Encouragement of Israeli Films. Since then, Israel has been nominated for more Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category than any other country in the Middle East, which may or may not constitute a big deal. Sisu Home Entertainment offers an expanding catalog of features, documentaries and cultural films that speak to the Jewish experience in Israeli and abroad. The first new compilation, “Stories of a Young Nation,” includes four surprisingly entertaining films – Newland, Over the Ocean, There Was No War in ’72 and The Flying Camel – that tell the personal stories of individuals and families sharing the growth pangs of a country that had yet to come of age. Made in the 1990s, all of these films have a distinct period feel and merge drama, comedy and romance. The second collection, “Holocaust: Genocide & Survival,” offers three very different documentaries about pretty much the same thing. Produced by MTV, I’m Still Here employs an emotional montage of sound and images, with music by Moby and readings by celebrities, from the diaries of young people who lived during the holocaust. Out of Europe: Escaping The Holocaust follows one fortunate family’s survival route from Belgium to America. Last Stop Kew Gardens: You Can Go Home Again tells the story of a post-Holocaust “immigrant village” in New York that gave birth to stars of film, TV, and comedy, as well as prominent members of the philanthropic, business and literary communities.

The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe: Blu-ray
In 1973, the notion of Americans embracing a French comedy was pretty far-fetched. That Man From Rio and Up to His Ears had already revealed the funny side of Jean-Paul Belmondo, while King of Hearts demonstrated that college audiences could fall just as much in love with a quietly subversive Gallic comedy as more intellectual works by Godard, Truffaut and Resnais. The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe’s arrival on these shores signaled a couple of positive things: 1) That French filmmakers had actually learned something about story telling from watching all of those Jerry Lewis movies, and 2) someone other than Philippe de Broca could make Americans laugh. Yves Robert earned the director’s credit on “Tall Blond Man,” sharing the writing honors with Francis Veber, whose influence on Hollywood was a story yet to be written. In it, Pierre Richard plays a gawky concert violinist, randomly selected by a French secret-service agent to play the decoy in a plot to expose a double-crosser within the agency. When he’s “tagged” by the agent at Orly Airport, François Perrin is inexplicably wearing one black shoe and one brown one. If it isn’t terribly relevant to the narrative, the gag makes a terrific title. What Francois doesn’t know is that the duped agents will be following his every step, bugging his apartment, listening to his phone calls and attempting to steal what they believe to be foreign intelligence. In his case, at least, ignorance is bliss, especially when a blond bombshell (Mireille Darc) hired by Francois’ pursuers pretends to fall in love with him.  As silly as the setup is, the Cohen Media Blu-ray edition of “Tall Blond Man” also serves as an easy way to kill a couple of hours in front of the tube. Two years later, Robert and Veber would reteam on The Return of the Tall Blond Man. In 1985, Tom Hanks starred as the peculiarly shoed violinist in the Americanized, The Man with One Red Shoe. Veber’s work would further inspire Hollywood remakes in the form of The Toy, with Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor; The Birdcage, from La Cage aux Folles; Billy Wilder’s final picture, Buddy, Buddy, from A Pain in the Ass; Three Fugitives, from The Fugitives; Pure Luck, from La Chevre; Father’s Day, with Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, from Les Compères; and Dinner for Schmucks, from Le Diner de Cons. His other, strictly American titles include My Father the Hero, The Valet and Partners, a gay buddy-cop film starring Ryan O’Neal and John Hurt. If very few of these Hollywood remakes – some re-written and directed by Veber, himself – could hold a candle to the originals, the filmmaker cashed the studio checks, anyway. By the way, the stunning Guy Laroche “ass-crack” dress in “Tall Blond Man” was re-worn by Lori Singer in the remake and, since then, dozens of actresses – including Hilary Swank at the 2005 Academy Awards — hoping to make a lasting impression on the red carpet. Now, that’s entertainment.

Belle and Sebastian
Underdog Kids
As long as someone, somewhere is producing movies as spectacularly beautiful and terrifically entertaining as Belle & Sebastian, no one can say that the family audience is being ignored. And, by family, I mean everyone from grade-schoolers to grandparents. Kids can enjoy it as a boy-and-his-dog buddy adventure, while older viewers will recognize elements of “Heidi” and Jack London’s “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild.” If Lassie were a Great Pyrenees, instead of a collie, her adventures could be factored into the equation, as well. Based on characters from a French TV series in the late 1960s, created by Cecile Aubry, “B&S” is set high the French Alps, on the border of Switzerland, in World War II. The landscape is foreboding enough to discourage the Nazi occupation force from drifting too far from the villages below. If nothing else, it gives hope to Jewish refugees and French resistance fighters that they might be able to avoid capture, if and when they decide to risk their lives on a perpetually snow-covered pass. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. When we meet him, Sebastian (Félix Bossuetis) is a 6-year-old on a mission. Hunters and herders have determined that Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Belle, is a demon determined to deny them of their livelihoods. Sebastian knows that the gigantic white dog is innocent of the crimes attributed to it, but can’t prove that wolves or poachers are responsible for killing the sheep and goats. Sebastian has convinced himself that America lies over the highest pass, because that’s where his mother was heading when she left the village. As unlikely as that may be, it gives the boy hope for his own future, away from his aged grandfather. He knows, however, that, before he can escape to America, he has to clear Belle’s name and prevent the Germans from learning their plans. This, of course, is easier said than done. Writer/director Nicolas Vanier has worked the terrain previously, in the documentaries The Last Trapper, L’enfant des neiges and Siberian Odyssey, and the wolf vs. reindeer drama, Loup. Clearly, French cinematographer Eric Guichard is comfortable at high altitudes, as well. The DVD adds an interesting, if chilly making-of featurette.

Phillip Rhee’s awkwardly titled Underdog Kids may not be able to boast of having the same universal appeal as “B&S,” but, considering the growing number of young Americans enrolled in karate classes at the local strip mall, there’s no reason it shouldn’t find an enthusiastic audience. Writer/director/producer Rhee plays Jimmy “The Lightning Bolt” Lee, a former MMA champion whose career suddenly ended when a car crash caused serious damage to his body. Still widely respected in the sport and his old stomping grounds, Lee reluctantly agrees to do a favor for his mentor (Max Gail), whose inner-city dojo is populated with youngsters who make the Little Rascals look like model citizens. They’ve already driven off several less patient teachers, but are won over by Lee’s reputation, patience and willingness to meet them half-way. Lee’s goal is to have the kids ready in time for a citywide competition against far more experienced and sartorially advantaged teams. The group from Beverly Hills, of course, takes Lee’s team the least seriously of all the competitors. It’s led by an old rival
(Patrick Fabian), anxious to humiliate Lee. Rhee is well-known in martial-arts circles as the producer/director/star of Best of the Best franchise and, although his resume has a 17-year hole in it, adds an air of authority to the over-familiar proceedings. His screenplay contains more than enough humor to keep young viewers interested between the fight segments. I wonder, though, if Rhee might be working towards a black belt in fart jokes. If so, he’s got a ways to go.

Merchants of Doubt: Blu-ray
The Drop Box
As Abraham Lincoln reputedly once opined, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” And, yet, that’s exactly what every one of the 717 Republican candidates for the presidency are attempting to do as the primary season kicks into high gear. Democrats aren’t immune to exaggerating the truth, but there aren’t nearly as many liberal candidates to fact-check the things that come out of their mouths. Neither, can they afford to hire the same professional liars, think-tank charlatans and right-wing flunkies (a.k.a., spin-doctors) provided the GOP by the Koch brothers and special-interest groups financed by major conglomerates and their lobbyists. Robert Kenner’s depressingly astute documentary, Merchants of Doubt, based on Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book of the same title, describes just how easy it’s become to hijack the facts behind such scientifically verified threats as toxic waste, pollution, genetically modified food products, climate change and second-hand smoke from cigarettes. Essentially, their job is to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of chronically skeptical Americans every time a piece of progressive legislation is proposed in Congress or state legislatures.  They, then, are able to offer the services of well-coached “experts” to Fox News, talk-show hosts and assemblages of paranoid citizens, willing accuse everyone not in favor of poisoning our planet in the name of predatory capitalism of being a communist or un-American. These personable conmen, whose credentials are easily impeachable, also delight in ridiculing high-profile environmental advocates — including Al Gore and, now, Pope Francis – and shifting the argument away from the facts. Wisconsin, once one of the most environmentally secure states in the union, currently is being sold piecemeal to corporate interests aligned with the Kochs, who invested mightily in Governor Scott Walker’s recall and re-election races. His entire presidential campaign strategy has been built around lies, half-truths and demonstrable inaccuracies. The rest of the field isn’t much better. But, if you don’t believe me, lesson to the testimony of such conservative free thinkers as Matthew Crawford, Michael Shermer and former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, who put their careers at risk when they questioned right-wing doctrine. Kenner is able to keep the discussion lively by comparing the doubt-meisters to magicians and other purveyors of hocus-pocus. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Kenner; a post-screening Q&A at the TIFF; and the featurette, “Unlikely Voices,” in which conservative leaders, Debbie Dooley, George Shultz and Swiss Re, promote environmental causes.

Images of newborn babies being abandoned in the dead of night at the doorsteps of convents, churches, nursing homes, orphanages and, perhaps, even the odd brothel, have been repeated countless times over the last 100-plus years of movie making. For a while there in the 1980-90s, depictions of high school girls leaving unwanted or already dead babies in dumpsters became prevalent in the media. It’s nothing new … Moses was a foundling, too. Brian Ivie’s inspirational documentary, The Drop Box, describes how South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak became a guardian and surrogate father to hundreds of disabled, discarded and unloved children left at his residence by a parent who had run out of the time, money or ability to care for them. Women who had babies out of wedlock faced social stigmas, as well. After word spread about Lee and his wife’s acts of Christian generosity — “every human life is sacred and worthy of love,” he explains – they were flooded with children left at Seoul’s Joosarang church, sometimes without the protection necessary to survive the night. To prevent such tragedies, Lee devised a sturdy “baby box,” with a light, padding and a doorbell to announce the arrival of another wee newcomer. Without making the Lees look like saints or zealots, The Drop Box explains how they have been able to accommodate the influx of babies, which increased significantly after South Korea instituted its new Special Adoption Law, in 2012. It stipulates that infants can’t be put up for adoption without their births being registered with the government. It also requires that mothers remain with their newborns for a minimum of seven days before putting them up for adoption. This was done, in large part, to stem the flow of newborns to adoptive parents overseas. (Abortions are illegal in South Korea, but readily available if certain conditions are met.) I should be noted that The Drop Box is being distributed by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, which has never been reluctant to solicit donations to support its ultra-conservative agenda, which doesn’t include non-traditional families and adoptions by opposite-sex couples. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, post-screening interviews and some faith-based promotional material.

The Lovers: Blu-ray
In 1985 and 1987, Roland Joffé was justifiably nominated for Academy Awards as Best Director for The Killing Fields and still vastly underseen The Mission. Depending on one’s point of view, the native Londoner has either been paying for that temerity ever since or has been waiting for an equivalent screenplay to prove the nominations weren’t flukes. Every subsequent Joffe production has been measured against those two fine films and, for a hundred different reasons, has failed to meet the test. The Lovers, a time-traveler romance, was greeted by critics with sharpened knives and practically no expectations of brilliance. And, it didn’t disappoint. Josh Hartnett (“Penny Dreadful”) stars as present-day marine archaeologist Jay Fennel, who, following a diving accident while rescuing his wife, is left in a deep coma. While unconscious, his imagination takes him back to colonial India, where he’s a Scotsman fighting to preserve British rule. In this previous incarnation, James Stewart is a Scotsman in the British army, assigned to protect a local warrior queen, Tulaja (Bipasha Basu). The object that connects Jay to James is an enchanted ring, created centuries earlier in India and discovered in the wreck of the ship that trapped his wife, Laura (Tamsin Egerton). So, the question we’re left to ponder is whether Jay/James will return to the present and return to the sea or remain hooked to a breathing apparatus and live in the past. The other option, of course, is that Laura pulls the plug and Jay gets a one-way ticket to purgatory. Apart from some lovely cinematography, the time spent in India mostly serves to bog down the narrative, which possibly could have benefited from the erotic vision of Mira Nair (Kama Sutra). It was an R-rated picture already, so a little skin wouldn’t have hurt anything. As it is, Basu’s Bollywood roots too clearly show through the beautiful costumes and gold jewelry. Nonetheless, fans of epic romances may find something here to like.

All American Bully
Tiger Orange
The change in title from “The Innocent,” back in 2011, to the more topical, All American Bully, tells me that this indie message film went through some serious changes from inception to its straight-to-DVD release. So do the cast members in the dust-covered interviews contained in the bonus package and misleading image on the cover. It suggests that the movie contained therein is about an attack on a school by a pistol-packing mass murderer, instead of the bullying of three geeky teenagers by the same armed assailant. I only mention this because bullies are more often the targets of crazed mass-murders than the perpetrators, who prefer to pick on people half their size and unable to defend themselves. The point lost in the cover and change in title is that the damage done by bullies can sometimes by negated by the same geeks, who can turn the tables on their tormentors by deploying social media and other computer-generated weaponry from the comfort of their laptops. It’s a risky business, to be sure, but revenge movies are all about taking chances. Here a gang of bullies, led by a Fonzie clone (Daren Ackerman), delight in torturing three students who couldn’t do any harm to them if they were armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs. For kicks, they force one on the teens to admit to being a “fag” before they kick the crap out of him, for reasons known only to bullies. A film of the so-called confession is uploaded to social media, giving the other students something to giggle over the next day in school. The humiliated boy, who can barely walk from bruises inflicted on him during the beating, has no choice but to consider suicide. Or, does he? What happens next will make fans of such things feel sorry for the bully and reconsider their attitude toward cyber-revenge. It doesn’t take long for writer/director Jason Hawkins to redirect or sympathies, again, in a narrative meltdown that defines the word, “overwrought,” and really only serves to put an end to the madness. There’s a rather extensive interview session included in the bonus, in which cast members are asked to relate their experiences with bullying (mostly, none) and what lessons are to be taken from All American Bully. Sadly, they aren’t asked about the most interesting questions raised by Hawkins in his screenplay: What happens when the bullied become the bullies? Is turn-about fair play or just another moral quagmire? Can the people who monitor social networks be charged with aiding and abetting criminal acts if they don’t treat bullying in the same way as ludicrously banned images of mothers nursing their babies?

Reunions of estranged siblings rarely fail to produce emotional fireworks, especially when one of them was left behind to mind the store or care for a loved one. Once the hugging ends, the recriminations begin … that sort of thing. In Wade Gasque’s debut feature, Tiger Orange, that scenario is complicated by the fact that brothers Chet (Mark Strano) and Todd (Frankie Valenti, a.k.a. Johnny Hazzard) are gay, one overtly so and the other still with one leg in the closet. Todd decided to escape small-town boredom and bullies by splitting for L.A. the minute he turned 18, while Chet stayed behind to run the family store and savor the simple pleasures rejected by his brother. The fact that Todd didn’t bother to attend their dad’s funeral becomes a sticking point when he comes home from Los Angeles with no job, no money and his bad-boy attitude intact. The rest of Tiger Orange plays out according to mainstream form and with more talk about sex than depictions of it. Despite its familiarity, the film is easy to enjoy and the production values are well above average.

All the Wrong Reasons
There are a couple of good reasons to pick up All the Wrong Reasons, but fans of “Glee” won’t be required to look for anything beyond the presence of Cory Montieth, who died of a drug overdose before the film could find distribution in the U.S. While it found some traction in the Great White North, most stateside companies are reluctant to send out a marginal product starring a recently deceased star, lest they be accused of exploiting that actor’s fame. Montieth’s name did nothing to boast sales of McCanick, a police drama that debuted at the same 2013 Toronto International Film Festival before a limited release into theaters here six months later and unceremonious dumping into the DVD/Blu-ray marketplace two months after that. Montieth doesn’t enjoy the support of David Morse and Ciaran Hinds in Gia Milani’s debut feature, All the Wrong Reasons, but, at least, he is far more visible in it. His character, James Ascher, manages a discount department store well enough to qualify for a transfer to the company’s Toronto headquarters. His wife, Kate (Karine Vanasse), plays close attention to the security cameras, albeit primarily as a form of therapy to take her mind off her sister’s suicide and her near-paralyzing battle with PTSD. Unfortunately, for James, her ailment prevents her from engaging in physical contact with other human beings, including sexual contact with him. After a year, Kate’s condition has finally touched his last nerve, leaving him vulnerable to the advances of an opportunistic single mother, Nicole (Emily Hampshire), who sees in her boss an answer to her financial problems. Also thrown into the mix is a disabled firefighter, Simon (Kevin Zegers), who takes a security job at the store while waiting to be re-qualified for work in the department.  Like Kate, Simon has become dependent on prescription drugs. Given just that much information, most viewers could correctly predict what transpires in the ensuing 118 minutes of screen time. Of these characters, Montieth’s probably is the most underwritten and, as such, least credible. The others are much more interesting, if only because they’re able to pull off the comic elements with less visible sweat.

Der Todesking (The Death King): Blu-ray
The Pact 2: Blu-ray
Alien Outpost: Blu-ray
Dark Summer: Blu-ray
When critics conclude their review of a particularly offensive or disturbing movie by pointing out that it isn’t for everyone, it’s something like saying, “enter at your own risk.” Let’s skip the niceties by cautioning, up-front, that Jorg Buttgereit’s Der Todesking (“The Death King”) may not be for anyone, let alone everyone, not even those hard-core horror buffs who made it through Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 and, yes, even Cannibal Holocaust unscathed. Cult Epics is presenting Der Todesking as the third release in its Corpse Fucking Art series. Sandwiched between the Nekromantik duo, it is a seven-story anthology in which all of the stories are connected by a chain letter sent to unrelated people who either are contemplating suicide or have become obsessed with death. The letter serves as a catalyst for whatever atrocity is likely to follow and the interstitial image separating the chapters is a gradually decaying corpse. Buttgereit doesn’t take the gag so far as to insinuate that the body is real, but try telling that to your stomach. That said, however, anyone who did make it through the Nekromantiks without serious brain damage probably won’t be able to resist picking up this almost ridiculously complete Blu-ray package. If Germany had the won the war, films like these would be packaged in double features with Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda classic, Triumph of the Will. Available for the first time in hi-def, Der Todesking goes out uncut and uncensored in a new HD transfer (taken from the original 16mm negative) and with the filmmaker’s making-of “shockumentary,” “Corpse Fucking Art”; a new introduction by Jorg Buttgereit; audio commentary by Buttgereit and co-author Franz Rodenkirchen; another making-of featurette; a still photo gallery; the original musical soundtrack; trailers; and a silver-embossed 25th Anniversary slipcover and “Corpse Fucking Art” postcard.

Just because a no-budget genre flick makes a ton of money on its own merits doesn’t mean that its sequel will work as well, given a similar budget, creative team and largely new cast. All it really means is that you might be able to fool enough fans of the earlier picture in its first week of release to turn a profit, before genre completists spread the word of the sequels’ inadequacies. That used to work better when distributors were able to hide a movie from critics until opening weekend, knowing that few people bothered to pick up the Monday papers. Today, of course, it’s impossible to hide a movie for more than a few hours, even if it’s released straight into video, thanks to the immediacy of the blogosphere and irrelevancy of mainstream critics when it comes to genre pictures. In the case of The Pact 2, returnees include Caity Lotz, Haley Hudson and Mark Steger. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy is gone entirely, replaced by the unheralded tag team of Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath serving in both capacities. New to the cast are Camilla Luddington (“Grey’s Anatomy”), who cleans up crime scenes for a living; Scott Michael Foster, as her cop boyfriend; Patrick Fischler (“Once Upon a Time”), as an FBI profiler; and Amy Pietz (“Caroline in the City”). The primary question to be answered is whether the Judas Killer has returned or a copycat is following in his bloody footsteps. After a few early scares, Pact 2 resorts to being a slasher flick, which completely defeats the purpose of a sequel to a movie that worked so well as a supernatural thriller.

Alien Outpost (a.k.a., “Outpost 37”) is a very bizarre, if not particularly successful attempt to merge such modern war documentaries as Restrepo and Occupation: Dreamland with Transformers: Dark of the Moon and War of the Worlds. Ten years after an alien invasion is thwarted, robotic survivors join Taliban fighters in an attack on the remote Outpost 37, where an international team of elite warriors may be the only thing keeping Earth from being recaptured by the aliens. We witness the action and casual interplay between the soldiers through the lens of a camera wielded by embedded documentarians. It’s not the worst idea in the world, but the presence of Islamic insurgents within the context of a nearly inexplicable alien attack is jarring.  Alien Outpost was co-written and directed by Jabbar Raisani, whose list of credits is topped by “Game of Thrones,” for which he toiled as visual-effects supervisor.

It would be difficult for anyone who’s seen Disturbia not to flash back to that suburban thriller while watching Dark Summer, if only because teenage protagonist Daniel Williamson (Keir Gilchrist) is under house arrest for cyber-stalking a classmate, Mona (Grace Phipps), but can’t resist the temptation to cause further mischief. The always wonderful Peter Stormare plays the probation officer who warns the boy against using his computer, inviting friends to the house and testing the limits of his ankle bracelet. Naturally, Daniel ignores all three orders. Long story short, he’s contacted by Mona through some kind of haunted social medium and the house becomes a cage, allowing ghosts and other demons to terrorize the kids, who, by now, include Maestro Harrell (“Suburgatory”) and Stella Maeve (“Chicago P.D.”). Things get pretty messy.  The Blu-ray adds commentary with director Paul Solet; several making-of featurettes; interviews; and a long and entertaining conversation with Stormare. Among the things I learned was that the native Swede was discovered by Ingmar Bergman and has a list of stage, TV and theater credits longer than most actors’ right arms.

PBS: Poldark: Blu-ray
Netflix: House of Cards: Volume Three: Blu-ray
Syfy: Bitten: The Complete Second Season
Disney Channel: Teen Beach 2
Barney Miller: The Final Season
Nature: Animal Childhood
Nickelodeon: Bunch of Playdates
Given the need for the BBC and “Masterpiece Theater” to have a ready alternative for “Downton Abbey” when it finishes its next and final season – and something for its mammoth fan base to savor until then, as well – it probably was inevitable that comparisons to “Poldark” would be encouraged, if only as a marketing gimmick. The 1975-77 adaptation of Winston Graham’s 12 novels had provided a huge boost for public television at a time when it was emerging from its “educational TV” pigeonhole, so it wouldn’t require much of a learning curve on the audience’s part. Instead of the more than 25 hours of precious airtime required to absorb the original series, the new one would only take eight hours to cover the first two books. “Poldark” must have done well enough in its British run, at least, because it’s already been renewed for a second stanza. Not having seen the original adaptation or particularly interested in making comparisons to “Downton Abbey,” I went into Season One without prejudice. Being a sucker for spectacular hi-def cinematography, “Poldark” made a quick positive impression with its sparkling shots of the Cornwall coastline and the lush green blanket of grass and crops that extends from its majestic cliffs to the terraced hills. The series’ titular protagonist (hunky Aidan Turner) returns to Cornwell after being wounded in a guerrilla ambush in the American Revolution. A nobleman before leaving for the war, Poldark became increasingly dubious of his country’s colonial policy while being shot at by the highly motivated Yanks. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out that he’s come back to a changed country. His father died in the interim, penniless, and his stingy uncle, Charles (the late Warren Clarke), has no interest in releasing Poldark from debts left behind in his wake. The family home has nearly been destroyed by neglect and their mine presumably has been played out. The servants are surly and the mineworkers are famished. Worse, considering the story’s soapy foundation, his onetime lover Elizabeth (Heida Reed) accepted rumors of his death as fact and agreed to marry his twit cousin, Francis (Kyle Soller). Elizabeth claims to be happy with Francis, but has reserved her right to flirt with her devilishly handsome old flame. Into this emotional quagmire arrives the redheaded runaway Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), who he accepts as a servant and his personal Eliza Doolittle reclamation project. And, that’s only in the first episode. There’s plenty more intrigue, back-stabbing and scurrilous gossip to come. I don’t think many fans of “Masterpiece” will be disappointed by “Poldark,” which is related to “Downton Abbey” only by English blood. The Blu-ray adds three featurettes of varying value.

When Emmy nominations are announced next week, Netflix’s superb political thriller “House of Cards” is lead-pipe cinch to walk away with a whole bunch of them. Predicting whether any of the finalists will come out on top on September 20 is a far more difficult assignment, but I’d be surprised and disappointed if Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright weren’t nominated, at least.  Frankly, I’m not sure if episodes representing Season Two or Season Three were eligible for consideration – Emmy guidelines are only slightly less Byzantine than those governing induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame – and it probably wouldn’t matter either way. The Blu-ray/DVD release of “House of Cards: Volume Three” should provide all the evidence anyone needs to how far the producers and writers are willing to push the dramatic envelope. Unlike the original British series from which it was adapted, the Netflix series threw in some subplots this year that are on a par with Joseph Kennedy conspiring with the Mafia to get his son elected president or candidates Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan collaborating with the governments of North Vietnam and Iran to defeat Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, respectively. Strange, but true. Season Three picks up with President Francis Underwood’s loyal aide Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) awakening from the coma into which he slipped after being hit over the head by a rock wielded by Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan), the sex worker who could bring down Underwood’s fledgling administration. Meanwhile, Francis’ plummeting popularity is threatening his first official run for the office and his enemies are taking their animus out on the world’s sexiest First Lady, who is anxious to become our ambassador to the UN. Also threatening to upend the president are a truly evil Putin clone (Lars Mikkelsen) and computer hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson), who is beginning to resemble fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden. And, that’s just for starters. The Blu-ray adds a comprehensive behind-the-scenes featurette and a closer look at the shocking goings-on later in the season in New Mexico. This is can’t-miss stuff, folks.

Syfy has gained a great deal of notoriety lately for its roster of original sci-fi/horror flicks, which range from cultishly laughable to just plain laughable. If they’re the public face of the cable network, it’s the company’s ability to cherry-pick highly entertaining, millennial-skewing co-productions from Canada and England that is getting serious attention from adult viewers and critics. Based on Kelley Armstrong’s “Women of the Otherworld” series of novels, “Bitten” straddles a line that roughly divides “Twilight” and “True Blood.” Filmed in the lush Ontario countryside, “Bitten” isn’t solely targeted at teenagers with a taste for forbidden love. The witches and werewolves are slightly older, just as beautiful, but reveal a tad more skin and skivvies by Victoria’s Secret. Not being a premium cable network, however, Syfy is unable to go toe-to-toe with HBO’s “True Blood,” when it comes to nudity and supernatural sex. Still, “Bitten” is extremely well made and there’s no scrimping on the story-telling. Laura Vandervoort plays the ass-kicking Elena Michaels, presumably the world’s only female werewolf, She/it has a human boyfriend, but can’t resist the pull of the “pack” and her ex-finance, who is responsible for sharpening her fangs. A third season of episodes begins shooting this summer.

The Disney Channel’s original movies Teen Beach Movie and Teen Beach 2 are a throwback to the beach-blanket movies that practically defined 1960s youth culture before Brian Wilson discovered acid and hot rods gave way to VW vans with “Flower Power” decals. Sad to say, however, they made me wonder how many of these kids are going to end up scandalized by their own inability to handle success. The mere thought of Annette Funicello sending out a nude selfie of herself on the Internet – however appealing that might be to a generation of Boomer males – made me consider going to confession. The fact is, however, Annette was 21 when Beach Party was released, and Frankie Avalon was 24. Sandra Dee was 17 when she became Moondoggy’s groupie, four years earlier, in the first Gidget. I don’t remember much singing and dancing in the fact-based story. ”Teen Beach 2” is set at the end of summer, just in time for one more beach bash before school starts and some of the kids, at least, have to start thinking about college. The producers must have really loved the “West Side Story” time-warp theme in the first movie, because the process is reversed in the sequel. The music and dancing infinitely more polished than in the days of Beach Blanket Bingo, when a bunch of guys with bushy blond hairdos played songs that made the dudes and dudettes twist the night away.

The Shout! Factory compilation, “Barney Miller: The Final Season,” wraps up eight seasons in the sitcom-y lives and exploits of everyone’s favorite Greenwich Village police squad. Characters played by  Hal Linden, Max Gail, Ron Glass, Steve Landesberg, Ron Carey, and James Gregory made it all the way to the 22nd episode finale, along with several of the more popular miscreants who shared space in the decrepit squad room. (Jack Soo died after the fifth season, while Abe Vigoda’s “Fish” retired as of the fourth season.) Naturally, the final episodes played to the tear ducts of loyal viewers. The show’s serio-comic approach to police work and insistence on character diversity would be emulated in such influential shows as “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue,” which advanced the genre by leaving the squad rooms for location shoots.

For parents who worry about the entertainment choices they make for their toddlers, pre-schoolers and kindergarteners, and don’t use DVDs solely as unpaid babysitters, it’s never easy to determine precisely when a child is ready to leave behind such compilations as Nickelodeon’s animated “Bunch of Playdates” and pick up a live-action title like Nature’s “Animal Childhood.” Nickelodeon’s three-disc collection offers seven hours of educational and musical fun, in 18 hours of material from “Dora the Explorer,” “Team Umizoomi,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Go, Diego, Go!,” “The Wonder Pets!,” “Ni Hao, Kai-Lan,” “The Fresh Beat Band” and “Blue’s Room.” The cover of the “Nature” presentation promises all sorts of cute-and-cuddly stories about how baby animals make their presences known in the world for the first time and either learn from their parents how to survive in the cold, cruel world or evolve in non-nuclear arrangements. It’s a wonderfully conceived and produced show that parents can enjoy with their kids. As is the case in such cherished Disney movies as Bambi and Old Yeller, however, there are moments when baby animals are shown struggling for their lives in what might otherwise be considered to be learning situations. Here, in addition to the usual stragglers targeted by predatory lions, hyenas and wolves, there’s a wee elephant whose mother can’t prevent him from being swept away in a rain-swollen river. It might be too much for a sensitive child to bear … or parent.

The DVD Wrapup: Danny Collins, Get Hard, Decline of Western Civilization, Downtown 81 and more

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Danny Collins: Blu-ray
There are moments in Dan Fogelman’s wildly uneven rock-‘n’-roll fantasy, Danny Collins, that suggest the author was raised on classic-rock radio and his titular protagonist (Al Pacino) was modeled less after Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger or Rod Steward, than Neil Diamond, Billy Joel or a post-Wings Paul McCartney. That much is clear when Collins arrives on stage for the first time, looking as if he might rip into “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Katmandu” or “Maggie May,” but, instead, delivers what amounts to Diamond’s between-innings anthem, “Sweet Caroline.” Not that there’s anything wrong with the Fenway Park favorite. It just sounds out of place when sung by a wrung-out, blurry-eyed geezer, whose “Elvis scarves” are older than everyone in his band. Collins has been so strung out for so long that he hasn’t written a new song in 30 years and can’t readily recall the details of two of his marriages. As the inspired-by-a-true-story story goes, Collins’ longtime manager (Christopher Plummer) uncovers a 40-year-old letter written to his client by John Lennon, but intercepted by the Rolling Stone reporter who conducted the interview that caught the Beatle’s eye. In it, Collins was given some positive career advice and invited to visit him and Yoko when he was in the neighborhood. Being a huge fan of Lennon, there’s no telling how Collins’ career path might have changed had he been aware of the letter. (In fact, throughout much of the 1970s, the drunk-and-disorderly Lennon was in no shape to offer advice – solid or otherwise – to any up-and-coming musician.) Like Scrooge, after his cathartic journey into the future with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Collins is inspired by the letter not only to clean up his act, but also make a pilgrimage to New Jersey to make nice with his bitterly estranged son, Tom Donnelly (Bobby Cannavale), incredulous daughter-in-law, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), and super-cute granddaughter, Hope (Giselle Eisenberg).

Even if Tom and Samantha want nothing to do with the genuinely repentant Collins, he eventually weasels his way into the family’s good graces by enlisting Hope in his campaign. Not surprisingly, the toddler reacts favorably to a tour bus full of toys and some playful piano tickling. At the same time, Collins is wooing the manager of the mid-range motel in which he’s staying. Annette Bening is uncharacteristically schoolmarish as the no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone Mary Sinclair, who, at first, easily resists the Pacino-ish charms of the reformed musician, but eventually succumbs to his charms. As the author of Last Vegas, The Guilt Trip and Tangled, Fogelman knows exactly which buttons to push to keep the emotional roller-coaster rolling for 106 minutes. All of the actors, especially Pacino, deliver performances sufficiently likeable to bridge the gaps between fantasy, reality and schmaltz. His appearances in such largely unseen indies as Manglehorn, The Humbling, Salome, Stand Up Guys and The Son of No One Pacino have given DVD renters a great return on their investment. But, they mostly reminded us of earlier work and such memorable characters as Sonny (Dog Day Afternoon), John Milton (The Devil’s Advocate) and Lefty (Donnie Brasco). As long as his hair doesn’t fall out completely, he’ll always look younger than his 75 years and still make a credible date for female characters a decade or two younger than him. Bening may even remind some viewers here of Diane Keaton’s Kay, in the Godfather trilogy. A couple other things should be mentioned in any discussion of Danny Collins: 1) The Lennon-dominated soundtrack is so appealing that it completely overshadows the original music by Ryan Adam and Theodore Shapiro, and 2) onerously obtrusive product placement disturbs the rhythm of nearly every scene in which a name brand is dropped or logo added in the background. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette and gallery of faux “Danny Collins album covers” through the years.

Get Hard: Unrated: Blu-ray
Far be it from me to recommend marketing strategy to a major studio, but the next time Will Ferrell is cast in an odd-couple, Mutt-and-Jeff or fish-out-of-water comedy, some thought should be given to the less-is-more theory as it pertains to publicity. Whether he’s promoting a Major League Baseball tie-in or sequel to an earlier blockbuster, Ferrell defines the word, “overexposed,” and like Sasha Baron Cohen, he tends to appear in character. Talk-show hosts and their audiences eat it up, as do the entertainment “news” shows, but it’s only fun in small does. More problematic, however, is the over-familiarity that comes with oft-repeated production anecdotes, video clips and character sketches, leaving practically nothing to the imagination. His many cameo appearances in the movies, television shows and websites of fellow comedians – along with such vanity projects as the Lifetime movie, “A Deadly Adoption,” with Kristen Wiig – have made him a ubiquitous media personality. Like a good soldier, Ferrell pulled out all of the stops for Get Hard, as did his nearly inescapable co-star Kevin Hart. Considering his long and arduous trek to the A-list, no one can blame Hart for milking his 15 minutes of fame. By contrast, Ferrell has been in the spotlight for so long, he’d probably go through withdrawal if denied it.

Because Hart and Ferrell are two of the most popular actors on the planet right now, I would think that Warner Bros. expected more than $105 million in worldwide box-office revenues. (The marketing campaign, alone, probably cost WB more than the estimated production budget of $40 million.) Get Hard was funny enough to please fans of both actors, but not nearly enough to ignite the same kind of cross-over business as such kindred comedies as Trading Places and Stir Crazy, which it resembles. Outside of England and Canada, however, I doubt that many overseas viewers fully grasped the central gag. Here, Ferrell plays a successful hedge-fund manager, James King, who’s been set up as the patsy by his future father-in-law (Craig T. Nelson) to take the fall for a highly lucrative, if thoroughly illegal investment scheme. In a true stretch of current reality, James is put on trial and convicted of fraud. Sentenced to several years at San Quentin, James has been allowed 30 days to get his affairs in order before surrendering to prison officials. This scenario is so preposterous as to beg unintentional laughter. After all, how many financiers have been found guilty of anything since 2008 and, of that handful, how many were required to do hard time? For all of his crimes, Bernie Madoff is being allowed to spend the rest of days in a medium-security prison.

James’ fear of being beaten, killed or raped by hardened San Quentin cons, who can smell a fresh fish from across the San Francisco Bay, isn’t really all that preposterous. In Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a convicted coke dealer played by Ed Norton voluntarily takes a beating from a pal, so as to make himself less susceptible to rape in prison. Unwilling to take such drastic measures, James recruits the only African-American he knows, Darnell (Kevin Hart), to prepare him for the experience. What he doesn’t know is that Darnell has always been an upstanding, law-abiding citizen and doesn’t know any more about how to survive prison than Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run. Not wishing to disappoint a valuable customer in his car-wash customer, Darnell makes a futile attempt to toughen James up by enlisting some local hoodlums to give James a tutorial in survival. In an effort to play to the cheap seats, co-writer/director Etan Cohen has Darnell take James to a restaurant popular with gay men for brunch. He reacts accordingly, even if the paying customers don’t. This may be Cohen’s first directorial credit, but he’s collaborated on such features as Men in Black 3, Idiocracy, Tropic Thunder and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, so he knows how to use broad material to make people laugh. Ferrell and Hart’s fans should enjoy the seven minutes of fresh material added to what already was a R-rated picture. The Blu-ray package includes both versions of Get Hard; deleted scenes and gag reel; and several comic featurettes, including “The Kevin Hart Workout,” “A Date with John Mayer,” “Will Ferrell, Gangsta” and “Twerking 101.”

The Decline Of Western Civilization Collection: Blu-ray
Downtown 81
At a time when punk and heavy metal were being dismissed as the bastard stepchildren of rock ’n’ roll, Penelope Spheeris took the music seriously enough to showcase them as evolving art forms and accord the musicians the same respect shown any other chart-topping performer. The rock-media mainstream had yet to embrace the artists and record labels weren’t anxious to back unproven commodities whose uncouth manners and angry lyrics could backfire on them. Released in 1981, The Decline of Western Civilization focused on the burgeoning punk-rock scene in Los Angeles, especially as it migrated from temporary homes on the Sunset Strip, Chinatown and concrete bunkers in the beach communities. The American punk crowd had never been beholden on British acts, except for fashion tips, so it didn’t miss a beat when Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in February, 1979.  Spheeris’ ability to locate its beating heart was, perhaps, its greatest accomplishment. A minimalist affair from Day One, she captured the organic, if frequently mock-violent relationship between the musicians and fans, for whom safety pin jewelry and Mohawk hairdos weren’t reserved for special occasions. Like punk, heavy metal music existed as an identifiable subgenre for nearly 20 years before Spheeris made The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5 and hundreds of garage-rock aficionados had opened the door for Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, T-Rex and, by extension, the Sex Pistols. They’ve never really gone away, either.

One thing that Spheeris was able to discern rather quickly was how punks and metal musicians defined success and accepted their place as outsiders and provocateurs. By this time, of course, most mainstream bands and performers had been seduced by gigantic contracts and the mountains of cocaine that were delivered to their homes whenever they were running low. The desperation voiced by X in early songs “The Unheard Music,” “The New World” and “I Must Think Bad Thoughts” lamented the status of L.A. punk bands, while refusing to give an inch to convention or cooptation. You could ride skateboards or mosh to punk and metal, but the likelihood of Michelob or Coors licensing a song for a commercial was nil. This, of course, made it easy to spit on the trappings of lifestyle conformity and adopt a nihilistic stance. By contrast, the heavy-metal musicians we meet in the sequel are direct descendants of the glam-rock pioneers, right down to the high-heel boots, makeup and bouffant hair styles for men. That much would disappear, at least, as the Beavis and Butt-heads of the world embraced a decidedly more proletarian vibe to the movement. In 1987, though, the androgynous look still appealed to groupies – it even survived the satirical lashing administered by This Is Spinal Tap – and, without them, the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll would be meaningless. A few years later, “The Osbournes” and Ozzfest would bring heavy metal into the mainstream, but not nearly to the same extent as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. Among the still-popular musicians we meet as hairy young adults in “The Metal Years” are Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Lemmy, Bret Michaels and several other unabashedly hedonistic musicians and groupies.

Judged solely as documentaries, the first two segments of The Decline of Western Civilization hold up very well as windows into a world that was far more shocking three decades ago than it is now. They have inspired scores of filmmakers to follow suit. That isn’t the case with The Decline of Western Civilization Part III, a disturbing film in which you can actually watch the chickens of a crippled society come home to roost. It is much less about the evolution of hard-corps music and rabid fan base, circa 1998, than a delayed sequel to Spheeris’ 1983 culture-clash drama, Suburbia. In 1998, the streets, alleys and abandoned houses of Hollywood were home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless youth commonly dismissed as “gutter punks.” Their self-destructive nihilism echoes the nearly indecipherable lyrics hurled at us in “Part I” by the Germs, Black Flag, X, Fear and Circle Jerks. In 1998 and, maybe, still today, these kids had to panhandle, steal or sell their blood to purchase tickets to see their favorite bands in a club. Mostly, though, if they couldn’t sneak into a club, why bother? In the absence of their parents and siblings, the teenagers we meet have formed families of their own, but without any of the safety nets provided by society or relatives. Just as Hollywood has changed in the interim, we’re left to wonder how these young people have fared since then. All three films are collected in this long-awaited Shout Factory box, which is enhanced by new 2K scans supervised by Spheeris; commentary by Dave Grohl; vintage interviews with the director; never-before-seen original footage of performances and interviews; theatrical trailers; and a 40-page booklet, featuring rare stills and text by Domenic Priore.

At the exact same time as Spheeris was surveying the L.A. punk scene for the first installment of “TDOWC,” Edo Bertoglio and Glenn O’Brien collected snapshots of Manhattan’s East Village and Lower East Side for Downtown 81 (originally, “New York Beat Movie”). Although these neighborhoods resembled “Dresden after the war,” a closer examination of the shaded corners, blank walls, basements, studios and dive bars revealed a veritable ant hill of cultural activity by artists and musicians of all stripe. O’Brien recalls how Downtown 81 was first envisioned as a New Wave fairytale, but exists today more as a documentary about a city and scene that no longer exist. In it, the camera follows then-undiscovered street-artist Jean Michel Basquiat from a hospital bed, to his locked apartment, to underground recording studios and fashion fittings, CBGB and the Mudd Club and other landmarks of the hipster diaspora. He’s in a desperate search for the $500 required to reclaim access to his studio/home. Although Basquiat had yet to become a cause célèbre in the art world, he was already known in some quarters as a graffiti artist and scenester. O’Brien had served as the first editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, before launching the public-access sensation, “TV Party,” which was to the New York underground scene what “Soul Train” was to R&B and hip-hop.

Among the people who make cameos or perform here are Debbie Harry, Eszter Balint (Stranger Than Paradise), James White and the Blacks, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Plastics, Fab 5 Freddy, Vincent Gallo, Maripol, Debi Mazar, Coati Mundi, Chris Stein and Elliott Murphy. They all fit into the underground scene organically, but aren’t asked to impersonate themselves. Basquiat’s desperate search for bread adds an urgent pace and tempo that would have been missing in a documentary. Today, however, Downtown 81 can be viewed as a funky travelogue of a section of New York absent AIDS, gentrification, drug rehab, crack, media vultures and inflated egos spawned by fame. That’s all gone now. By contrast, Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard have remained pretty much the same, although noticeably cleaner and safer. Production hassles resulted in Downtown 81 being held captive in an Italian warehouse for 20 years before its limited debut in 2001. Despite the fact that the dialogue track was lost, the restored edition looks and sounds better than ever. A second disc adds fresh interviews and the recollections of O’Brien, Maripol and Fab Five Freddy; vintage video clips; and a gallery.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter: Blu-ray
If the Coen Brothers had made a feature-length sequel to Fargo, instead of merely lending their names and suggestions to the creators of the FX series, “Fargo,” as executive-producers, it might have looked a lot like Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Just as Fargo had convinced viewers that the inspiration for the movie came from an actual event in the criminal history of Nordic Minnesota, David and Nathan Zellner based their film on an urban legend – or, in this case, a North Woods legend – that proved too good to be completely accurate. In it, a young Japanese office worker, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), discovers a VHS cassette of Fargo hidden under a rock, while on dreamlike stroll on a misty beach. The tape has been degraded to the point where the video images appear scrambled and barely intelligible. The one thing Kumiko is able to discern is the scene in which a battered and bloody Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) buries a suitcase full of money in the snow, along a long fence line that parallels the wind-swept highway. Already emotionally damaged by the barely veiled threats of her horny boss, Kumiko imagines the video images to be gifts from God, directing her to an actual hidden treasure. After measuring the distances between the fence posts that lead invariably to Fargo, North Dakota – actually, Bemidji, Minnesota, home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox – she hops on a plane to the Twin Cities, absent any of the provisions one would need to spend more than 10 minutes outside in the middle of winter.  And, that includes enough money to afford lunch, a motel room, parka or translation app for a cellphone.

Despite looking like a discarded piece of Kleenex on the side of the road, Kumiko gets rides, food and unheeded advice from cops and other strangers. In an effort to convince her that Fargo is a work of fiction, a policeman who shares several Minnesota-nice traits with Marge Gunderson, searches high and wide for a sushi restaurant, where the owners might be able to serve as interpreters. The closest they come is an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. After mistaking the cop’s kindness for love, Kumiko begins to lose hope of locating her treasure. The Zellners are content here to follow the same roadmap laid by north-country mythologists intent on expanding the tourist trade already generated by the many quirky events described in Coens’ fish story. Since the ending is essentially the same, viewers should resist the temptation to conduct an Internet search for the woman who inspired the story, Takako Konishi. It can wait. Kikuchi’s portrayal of the painfully withdrawn and utterly colorless Kumiko stands out from everything else in Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, except an evocative score by the Octopus Project and the brilliant cinematography by Sean Porter (It Felt Like Love), which makes the forbidding Minnesota winter look every bit as cold as it is, but more beautiful than anyone living south of the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport could ever imagine. The DVD adds commentary with writer/director David Zellner, writer/producer Nathan Zellner and producer Chris Ohlson, as well as deleted and alternate scenes.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Of Girls and Horses
If the name of Czech filmmaker Jaromil Jireš doesn’t ring a bell, it’s probably because he elected to continue working in the nation of his birth after the Warsaw Pact nations crushed the reforms brought about by Prague Spring, as well as the spirit of filmmakers associated with the Czechoslovak New Wave. He wasn’t soft on communism, by any means, but, by choosing not to follow Miloš Forman, Ján Kadár, Vojtěch Jasný and Jan Němec into self-exile in the West, he was required to abide by government censorship and soften his political edge. It’s difficult to imagine how the delightfully surrealistic and overtly erotic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders slipped past the eyes of humorless censors long enough to be shown in a handful of foreign venues. Between the late 1970s and its release on DVD in 2004, however, the movie mostly disappeared from view anywhere. And, yet, its influence likely extended to English writer Angela Carter, whose screenplay for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (1984) echoed similar themes. It’s also possible that “Valerie” caught the eye of Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose surrealistic The Holy Mountain and El Topo captured the imagination of arthouse audiences and acid heads in the 1970s. “Valerie” is a period piece based on a Gothic fantasy by Vítezslav Nezval. In it, the first period of a charming 13-year-old (Jaroslava Schallerova) triggers a series of hallucinatory events that mirror the sexual confusion and disturbing urges that are synonymous with the arrival of puberty in many unsuspecting girls and boys. In Valerie’s case, the passage is tipped when earrings left to her by her mother are stolen while she’s sleeping in a gazebo — either by the malevolent Weasel or benevolent Eagle — and replaced the next morning while lounging in a pool with three giddy blonds. The arrival of a carnival only serves to confuse an already bewildering situation, complicated by the appearance of vampires, witches, wicked priests and twisted relatives. As perplexing as these daydreams and nightmares may be, Jireš (The Joke) cloaks them in a phantasmagoria of colors and distinct cinematic textures. At a brisk 73 minutes, “Valerie” comes and goes like a fractured dream on a restless night. Anyone in the mood for more New Wave challenges ought to check out Vera Chytilová’s Daisies “Criterion’s Eclipse Series 32: Pearls of the Czech New Wave.” The Blu-ray features a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; three of JIres’ early shorts, “Uncle,” “Footprints” and “The Hall of Lost Steps”; a new interview with Czechoslovak film scholar Peter Hames; earlier interviews with actors Jaroslava Schallerová and Jan Klusák; an alternate 2007 psych-folk soundtrack by the Valerie Project; and an essay by critic Jana Prikryl.

With a title that will come dangerously close to being misunderstood by people with porn on their brains, Monika Treut’s Of Girls and Horses reminds me more of a Germanic The Horse Whisperer than the lesbian coming-of-age drama it also resembles. In fact, the attachment between girls and horses here closely corresponds to the opinion shared by Peggy Orenstein, author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” that women “identify with their strength … and are a source of power and motion and transformation.” I wouldn’t know, but it makes sense within the context of the movie. Alex (Ceci Chuh) is a self-destructive 16-year-old, who has finally gotten on the last nerve of her adoptive mother and is sent to a farm in northern Germany to work with horses as an intern. Given her pissy moods and generally downbeat attitude toward life, we aren’t given much reason to hope for Alex’s reform. If she rebels against the entry-level chores she’s assigned, her next step is reform school or prison. Like Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer, the farm’s resident trainer, Tina (Vanida Karun), senses an immediate attraction between the city girl and horses. Even so, Alex is always one step away from messing up. Her biggest challenge comes when an upper-class girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), arrives with her magnificent Thoroughbred and practically lives in the same stall with him. In a departure from form, Treut doesn’t require her characters to become mortal enemies, whose differences suddenly narrow after a cathartic event. Their differences do narrow, but naturally and over time. Most of the tension comes when Tina’s relationship with her lover in Hamburg (Ellen Grell) becomes complicated and she begins to take it out on Alex. Instead, that tension brings the teenagers together amid the gorgeous rolling hills of northern Germany.

Soldate Jeanette
Chantal Akerman, From Here
Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais
It isn’t often these days that one comes across such an unrepentant art film as Austrian writer/director Daniel Hoesl’s debut feature, Soldate Jeannette (“Soldier Jane”). Appealing primarily to the nichiest of niche audiences, it wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Palm Spring for distribution outside the festival circuit or feminist film clubs. That it is the product of something called the European Film Conspiracy recalls a time when radicalism in film mirrored the rebellions in the streets. Jean-Luc Godard led the way in Europe, making movies that no longer told stories but embraced political movements for which creative freedom was anathema. In the U.S., John Cassavetes experimented with form and function, limiting politics to the diplomacy practiced by men and women over the kitchen table and in bed. These films weren’t made for those people who frequented the local Bijou to be entertained or relieved of their cares for 90-plus minutes. They were intended to challenge, provoke and enflame us. The best were puzzles for the mind, while the worst were masturbatory wastes of our times. Soldate Jeannette seems to combine elements of Godard’s work with the spirit Cassavetes’ collaborations with Gena Rowlands. Johanna Orsini-Rosenberg is the woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown here, a middle-age Viennese resident of haute-bourgeois persuasion. Jane’s boredom with her lifestyle is manifested by her refusal to pay rent, embezzle money from her family’s trust fund and discard expensive clothing she’d purchased only moments earlier. When she finally decides to forgo her yoga and self-defense classes, Jane buys fancy boots and camping equipment and heads for the Alps. To keep her warm the first night, Jane burns thousands of dollars’ worth of Euros. After sharing her body with strangers for a place to sleep, she takes up residence in a communal farm and slaughter house that might have seemed ideal in the 1960s, but, today, remains a bastion for male entitlement. Newly emboldened by her own quest for freedom, Jane takes it upon herself to rescue a younger woman of less privileged background. Nothing is resolved, but, as a character study, it held my attention. The DVD adds interviews with Orsini-Rosenberg and Hoesl, as well as a couple of shorts.

In a bit of a coincidence, Godard and Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman are referenced in Soldate Jeanette in the same week as films about them are being released by Icarus. Both will be of interest almost exclusively to arthouse buffs and Francophiles. Chantal Akerman, From Here is a wide-ranging interview rendered almost useless by a gimmick employed by the filmmaker to re-create one of Akerman’s artistic conceits. A stationary camera points into a boardroom or dining room, from outside a door in the hallway, allowing for a view of a seated Ackerman and whoever else might pass before the lens. The anonymous interviewer is hidden behind a wall thick enough to muffle his questions and push some of her answers well out of context. It helps, somewhat, that the discussion is primarily in English.

The title, Marcel Ophuls & Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais, makes the event related here sound as if it might have been a championship fight promoted by Don King. Instead, this too-brief meeting of the minds, recorded in 2009, only skims the surface of careers that literally changed the face of the international cinema. Neither Godard, 79, nor Ophuls, 82, was ready to retire, even if both men would have been put out to pasture long ago in Hollywood. The conversation, which took place before a small audience of admirers, is lively and the recollections are frequently profound. Especially compelling are the directors’ recollections of growing up under the cloud of World War II.

The best reason for picking up Simon Blake’s slow-burn thriller, Still, is an electrifying performance by Aiden Gillen, a Dublin-born actor who specializes in mesmerizing performances. If his face is familiar, it’s because he played an ambitious Baltimore politician in “The Wire” and Lord Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones.” No one does intense with more intensity than Gillen. Here, he plays a London photographer who’s yet to recover from the death of his teenage son in a hit-and-run accident a year earlier and divorce from a wife who once properly fit him like a glove. For no good reason, Tom Carver has become the target of teenage punks, who object to his kindness to a boy too weak to protect himself against the bullies. It takes a long time for Carver to turn into Charles Bronson in Death Wish, but, once he’s pushed beyond his limit, the explosion can be heard from miles away. Anyone anticipating a clichéd ending, though, will be pleasantly surprised. Gillen gets more than ample support from tough-as-nails Sonny Green, Jonathan Slinger, Elodie Yung and Amanda Mealing.

Charlie Levi’s first and only feature, Childless, deals with the grief associated with the unexpected loss of a child, as well, but in very different ways. Having sat on a shelf gathering dust since at least 2009, the intense drama practically dares us to empathize with the four adults closest to the teenage girl, who’s probably getting far more attention in death than she ever did while alive. As played very well by Barbara Hershey, Joe Mantegna, Diane Venora and James Naughton, the middle-class Angelinos prepare for the funeral by wallowing in self-pity and hurling accusations and recriminations at each other and the camera, not only for the conditions that prompted Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss) to take her life, but also the fissures in their own marriages and those of peripheral relations. If Levi leaves the door open for reconciliation, it’s only over Katherine’s cold dead body. Edward Albee might have been able to make these people interesting, if not exactly sympathetic, but Childless could never be mistaken for a sequel to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Even so, it’s always fun to watch actors of this stature at work in something other than TV crime series and horror flicks. The DVD adds a not particularly enlightening making-of featurette.

I Am Evel Knievel: Blu-ray
As difficult as it is to believe in 2015, there was a time not so long ago when a daredevil with the unlikely name of Evel Knievel held the world in the palm in his hand, simply for his willingness to risk life and limb by jumping his Harley-Davidson over several dozen automobiles, buses, tanks filled with shark and crates containing snakes. Mostly, though, Kneivel is remembered for crashing his bike in ways that can be only described as spectacular. It begged the question as to whether fans paid to see him complete the jumps or die trying. Knievel was a master showman in an era when simply showing up wasn’t enough to please an audience. By the time he announced his intentions to jump the Grand Canyon, but had to settle for a failed attempt to bridge the Snake River, there was nowhere to go but Hollywood. That proved to be as big a flop as the Snake River debacle. Among those testifying in Knievel’s defense are celebrities Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Rodriguez, Kid Rock, Guy Fieri, Robbie Maddison; daredevils Spanky Spangler and Mike Vallely; Willie G. Davidson, of Harley-Davidson; comedian Bob Einstein (a.k.a., Super Dave Osborne); racing promoters Chris and J.C. Agajanian; and family members, including sons Kelly and Robbie, and former wives Linda Knievel and Krystal Kennedy-Knievel. Not surprisingly, footage of his successful jumps isn’t nearly as captivating as the film taken of Kneivel hideously rolling head over heels on the forgiving concrete, breaking a new bone with each bounce. Derik Murray and David Ray’s I Am Evel Knievel exceeded my meager expectations, at least, reminding me of a time when a man could become a hero simply by putting on a red, white and blue jump suit and putting his reputation on the line for a few thousand paying customers. Or, was that Elvis? The Blu-ray adds plenty of like-minded bonus features.

Contamination: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Jester’s Supper
Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back
Ghosthouse/Witchery: Blu-ray
If genre buffs have learned anything from the ongoing digital revolution, it’s that you can’t keep a good “video nasty” down … or any other long-buried exploitation flick, for that matter. Contamination, newly re-released into Blu-ray by Arrow Films, is a perfect example of the zombie-fication of sleazeball cinema. The video-nasty designation was applied to DVDs of questionable taste by Britain’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association and endorsed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, which released a list of 72 films the office believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. For it to be enforceable, the legislation needed to be updated to take into account then-current technology. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 didn’t prevent these films from being shown elsewhere or to re-edited and re-submitted. It did, however, serve to elevate the value of bootleg copies in Britain and raise the profile of movies otherwise destined for drive-ins and grindhouses. Noteworthy primarily as a late example of Euro-horror, Contamination borrows key elements from Alien — football-sized eggs and alien “chest bursters” — and relocates them to a ghost steamer speeding toward the docks of New York. No stranger to the international exploitation game, Luigi Cozzi (a.k.a., Lewis Coates) decided that the easiest way to distinguish his film from Ridley Scott’s landmark thriller was to raise the ante on gore, while the cheapest way was to eliminate the spaceship and hire a lower-profile star than Sigourney Weaver. Here, police investigators led by Lieutenant Tony Aris (Marino Mase) are startled to find a cargo containing strange, oversized eggs and the bloody remains of the humans on board. It doesn’t take long before some of the government inspectors to become infected and, when the eggs explode inside the victims’ Hazmat gear, it approximates what might happen if a turtle was cooked in a microwave oven. The investigation leads military personnel headed by Colonel Stella Holmes (Louise Marleau) and former astronaut Ian Hubbard (Ian McCulloch) to a Colombian coffee farm, where the eggs are being manufactured by a one-eyed Martian brought back by a space mission. I kid you, not. If Contamination isn’t a world-beater cinematically, Arrow’s hi-def restoration makes the 95 minutes pass by quickly. It includes an amusing Q&A session with Cozzi and McCulloch and separate interview with the director; an archive making-of documentary with behind-the-scenes footage; a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; a collector’s booklet with new writing on the film, illustrations and original stills and posters; “Sound of the Cyclops,” in which Goblin keyboardist Maurizio Guarini discusses the creation of the score; and commentary with Fangoria editor Chris Alexander.

It’s impossible to predict what a package from One 7 Movies might contain when it arrives in the mail, as the films in its catalog range from vintage porn to obscure foreign horror titles. Made in 1942, in Mussolini-controlled Italy, The Jester’s Supper (a.k.a., “The Dinner of Practical Jokes”) is a rather primitive period piece set in Florence at the time of Lorenzo de Medici. The city is run by a ruthless pair of aristocrat brothers who specialize in playing cruel pranks on their enemies. When one of the victims decides to retaliate, things escalate in unexpected ways. One of them involves the sexual attack on a young woman favored in the Chiaramantesi household by street rabble. None of this would be of current interest if it weren’t for the fact that leading lady Clara Calamai made history by allowing her blouse to be ripped off, revealing the first naked breasts in the Italian sound cinema. The Jester’s Supper isn’t likely to be shown on TMC, but it’s readily available on the Internet.

It isn’t likely that Lilith, a Vampire Who Comes Back will log much air time here, either, but, as curiosities go, it isn’t bad. The conceit, which begins on the jacket of the DVD, requires horror fans to buy into a movie made in 2008 to look and sound like Nosferatu, Vampyr or Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. And, that it does. The difference between “Lilith” and Shadow of the Vampire, the 2000 John Malkovich vehicle, is that its historically based story is far more interesting. Gianni Virgadaula’s original intention with “Lilith “was to make a 17-minute short that combined elements of the vampire, werewolf and haunted castle subgenres. At 81 minutes, the only thing missing is a compelling story.

The latest double-feature from Scream Factory would be noteworthy mostly for the pairing of David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair in Witchery, virtually guaranteeing a celebration of cheesy cinema. Ghosthouse, which offers no such star power, was made specifically to fool Italian audiences into thinking they were watching a Sam Raimi movie. Doesn’t sound promising, but, guess what, they’re both pretty good. The credit belongs to directors Fabrizio Laurenti and Umberto Lenzi, respectively, embellishing American drive-in tropes with the garish gore-for-gore’s-sake excesses of Euro-horror. There’s isn’t much more to say about movies, except that one features an evil clown doll and the other … well, when you say, Hasseloff and Blair, you’ve said it all.

Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline
Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9
BBC: Planet Ant
1913: Seeds of Conflict
If the only thing aspiring mystery buffs know about Scandinavian writers is Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium trilogy,” which opened with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” they owe it to themselves to widen their horizons with the many fine crime novels exported to the U.S. before and after that media sensation crashed upon our shores. For those of us allergic to ink and paper, however, the good news is that many of the best series have been translated into movies and television shows, now available here on Blu-ray and DVD. And, yes, they’re imminently binge-worthy. They include, of course, the Swedish/Danish- and English-language translation of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series; Nicholas Winding Refn’s “The Pusher Trilogy”; “The Bridge,” which made the transition from Copenhagen/Malmo to Juarez/El Paso; the Martin Beck mystery series, adapted from the novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo; the “Easy Money Trilogy,” inspired by the novels of Jens Lapidus; and, from Norway, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” with Stellan Skarsgård. The unsinkable Netflix/AMC series, “The Killing,” is a direct translation of the popular Scandinavian series “Forbrydelsen” (a.k.a., “The Crime”).

American crime series require of their women protagonists that they be drop-dead gorgeous, sexually active or sexually ambiguous, sharpshooters, feisty and either constantly worried about their children or worried that the expiration date on their eggs is drawing near. As compelling as some of the characters have become, it’s the rare female cop, medical examiner, judge or legislator who isn’t required to defer to a male superior. In the episodic Danish political drama, “Borgen,” currently shown on PBS outlets, Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) unexpectedly becomes the first woman Prime Minister of Denmark. The job comes with a target on her back for all manner of corrupt politicians, business executives and special interests to take aim, while also worrying about a distressed daughter and failed marriage.  Newly available through MHz Newtorks are chapters from the excellent Swedish series, “Annika Bengtzon Crime Reporter: Paradise & Deadline” and “Maria Wern: Episodes 8 & 9,” neither of which, as far as I can tell, have appeared on America television. Helena Bergström stars as crime reporter Bengtzon in two feature-length films, adapted from Liza Marklund’s best-selling literary series. The abrasive Bengtzon not only is required to investigate crimes, but combat virulent strains of male chauvinism rarely seen any more in films. In “Paradise,” a murder in Stockholm’s harbor leads her to widespread conspiracy involving a government-funded women’s shelter. In “Deadline,” she leads her paper’s investigation into a series of bombings, apparently targeting organizers of the country’s Olympics committee. Eva Röse returns as police inspector Maria Wern in two new movies based on the crime novels by Swedish author Anna Jansson. After the death of her husband, Maria moves to the picturesque Swedish island of Gotland with her two children. Wern is more agreeable than Bengtzon, but no less dedicated to solving crimes, especially the kind of murders one wouldn’t think possible in such an ideal location.

Perhaps you’ve heard a variation of the time-honored riddle, “What are the only things that would survive a nuclear bomb?” One answer suggests, “Cockroaches and a fruit cake. And the cockroaches would starve.” After watching the BBC’s amazing scientific report, “Planet Ant,” I’d be willing to wager that ants not only would be able to survive the blast, but they’d also figure out what to do with the leftover fruit cakes. We’ve all owned an Ant Farm, accidentally disturbed a colony of red ants or been tested on the information gleaned from an educational documentary in school. “Planet Ant” uses state-of-the-art technology to delve even deeper into the miracles of the ant realm, including how they appear to solve mathematical problems that defeat modern computers.

Given the likelihood that war is a more likely prospect in the Middle East than peace and cooler heads will never prevail, now would be a good time to take a step backward, back to a time when a palpable degree of harmony did exist in the region. PBS’ eye-opening “1913: Seeds of Conflict” examines a critical yet overlooked moment of transformation in Palestine, long before the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate, which was never going to work as intended. That’s because no one anticipated how events in other parts of the world, as well as intra-faith divisions, would impact the Jews, Arabs and Christians already co-existing at the fragile crossroads of three of the world’s great religions.