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The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Bumblebee: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Fans of the Transformers spinoff, Bumblebee, may not be aware that the film’s transforming mecha protagonist and title character is only now coming of age, 35 years after it was introduced in the original rollout of branded merchandise from the Japanese toy company Takara Tomy and America’s Hasbro label. The popularity of such “Generation 1″ products as Go-Bots, Transformers, the 1984 animated television series and comic books spread to other foreign markets, spawning an animated feature film (1986), video games, books, shirts, costumes and collectibles. It wasn’t until Michael Bay’s live-action adventure Transformers (2007) achieved blockbuster status worldwide – on a production budget of $150 million — that the venerable franchise found new wings. Buoyed once again by huge foreign sales, the six-chapter Paramount/DreamWorks series passed the billion-dollar barrier two times. Budgets would surpass or tease the $200-million threshold four times. In 2017, Transformers: The Last Knight, which cost $217 million to make, grossed a comparatively anemic $605 million, 78.5 percent of those dollars coming from outside the U.S. Clearly, something had to be done to preserve the franchise, before playing the straight-to-video card, anyway. Bumblebee was developed as either a spin-off or prequel, and later declared a reboot. The studio and now-producer Bay decided to downscale the size of the sixth installment, by reducing the budget drastically, bringing in fresh behind-the-camera talent (Travis Knight, Christina Hodson), keeping the running time under 120 minutes for the first time in 12 years, putting the focus on fewer characters and de-emphasizing the brand in the publicity material. It would promote the presence of a formidable teenage heroine (Hailee Steinfeld), alongside the already popular Bumblebee and formidable  Decepticon enemy, and add a malleable American warrior (John Cena). Neither did the atypically favorable reviews hurt Bumblebee’s chances  at the box office. By re-setting the action in 1987, it also serves as an origin story for those fans whose only knowledge of Transformers derives from Bay’s quintet.

On faraway Cybertron, the Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime, is on the verge of losing the civil war against the Decepticons. When a Decepticon force intercepts evacuees, Optimus sends his scout, B-127, to Earth to set up a less vulnerable base of operations. When B-127’s pod crash-lands in California, it disrupts a training exercise by a secret government agency that monitors extraterrestrial activity here. Sector 7 Colonel Jack Burns (Cena) assumes B-127 is a hostile invader and pursues him. To mask his escape, B-127 scans a Willys MB jeep and heads toward a mine. A Decepticon Seeker will ambush the Autobot there and interrogate it. When B-127 refuses to reveal Optimus’ whereabouts, Blitzwing tears out the alien’s  voice box and damages it’s memory core. Despite this, B-127 manages to kill Blitzwing with one of his own missiles. Before collapsing from his injuries, B-127 scans a nearby 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Flash ahead to 1987, when a teenage mechanic, Charlie (Steinfeld), finds a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard. Unaware of the VW’s identity, the  owner gives it to her as an 18th-birthday present. When she attempts to start “Bumblebee,” Charlie unknowingly activates a homing signal that is detected by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, as they interrogate and execute the Autobot, Cliffjumper, on one of Saturn’s moons. The pair heads to Earth, where the shapeshifters pretend to be peacekeepers, so as to convince Sector 7 agents Burns (Cena) and Powell (John Ortiz) to help them capture B-127. Bumblebee concludes with a series of action sequences designed to test the mettle of Charlie and Burns, who’s smelled a rat and joined B-127’s mission to protect Optimus Prime. Together, they will endeavor to keep the planet safe for humans and transformative allies, alike. The Paramount 4K UHD is a treat for the senses, thanks, in large part, to the 2160p/Dolby Vision and Atmos soundtrack. The bonus material contained on the Blu-ray disc includes deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and the featurettes, “Sector 7 Archive,” “Bee Vision: The Transformers Rrobots of Cybertron” and “Bringing Bumblebee to the Big Screen.”

On the Basis of Sex: Blu-ray
While on the subject of superheroes, Mimi Leder’s inspiring bio-drama, On the Basis of Sex, is the origin story of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), who’s maintained he seat on the Supreme Court after surviving several bouts with cancer, broken bones and the 2010 loss of her husband and collaborator, Marty (Armie Hammer). In some circles, the 86-year-old Brooklyn-native is known by her superhero alias, Notorious RBG. On the Basis of Sex recalls Ginsburg’s Harvard education and breakthrough case, which was widely considered to be a non-starter, simply because no one had successfully challenged the legal system’s Good Ol’ Boy cabal at its own game. For as long as anyone could remember, women were forced to accept positions of subservience to their male peers, no matter how qualified and successful they were. Ironically, the case involved the ability of a man to claim tax breaks as the caretaker of his ailing mother. Women caretakers could claim such deductions, but, incredibly, not men. If that sounds like a no-brainer today, no lawyer in the mid-1960s wanted to touch the case. Even the film’s ACLU attorney (Justin Theroux) had to be coaxed into supporting it. If, at times, Jones appears to be channeling Sally Field, in Norma Rae (1979), it doesn’t’ detract from her performance. On the Basis of Sex followed by only a few months the release of Oscar-nominated bio-doc, RBG, into niche theaters. By then, Ginsburg had already become a pop-culture icon, referenced in “SNL,” “New Girl,” The Lego Movie 2, Deadpool 2 and labels of Samuel Adams’s limited-edition beer, “When There Are Nine.” The Blu-ray adds three short production featurettes.

The Charmer
Co-writer/director Milad Alami and Ingeborg Topsoe’s twisty psychological drama, The Charmer, measures the lengths to which some immigrants and guest workers will go to secure citizenship in their adoptive homelands. Although the hurdles facing refugees are very much in the news these days, there’s never been a shortage of movies about immigrants – men, especially – who see marriage as the quickest way to secure green cards and citizenship papers. They practically constitute a subgenre of comedies and dramas of their own. When we meet Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), the young Iranian has already been in Denmark for several years. Despite a history of holding menial pa-time jobs, Esmail appears to have had no trouble hooking up with local ladies of marriageable age, solid finances and open minds. Each time, however, something in Esmail’s standoffish personality queers the deal at the last minute. It isn’t until he befriends a young Iranian woman, whose family has lived in the country long enough to have sunk roots in the soil, that Esmail appears to have hit the jackpot. Although he had no intention of getting involved with an Iranian woman – why, we wonder? – a pair of sexy Persian party animals grab his attention at a club. The less-cynical Sara (Soho Rezanejad) takes an immediate shine to the unpretentious outsider, although primarily  as a companion. Soon enough, however, Sara will use their friendship to avoid meeting her mother’s smothering expectations. It will evolve, as well, from best-buddy status, to friends-with-benefits, to mutually dependent lovers. It’s at precisely this point that Alami and Topsoe pull the rug out from everyone’s feet with one fell swoop, including our own. The twist changes everything, except our appreciation of the filmmakers’ imaginations and the cast’s ability to keep us guessing. Bonus features include Pearl Gluck’s excellent short film, “Summer,” about two teenage girls attending a Hasidic sleepaway camp, where a forbidden book poses questions about sex that the uptight counselors are reluctant to answer.

The Great Buster: A Celebration: Blu-ray
Way back in television’s Pleistocene Age, silent comedies and vintage cartoons often filled the gaps between local news reports and network programming.  There simply wasn’t enough original material available and the syndication market was beginning to blossom. Until the mid-1960s, “Popeye” cartoons, “Three Stooges” shorts, Mickey Mouse and Saturday  morning kiddie fare added words and sound effects to the mix … then, the bottom fell out, entirely, leaving a gap for imported anime. Nothing topped the classics, though. I only mention this here as a way to encourage anyone born after, say, 1980, to check out  Peter Bogdanovich and Cohen Film Classics’ delightful bio-doc The Great Buster: A Celebration, which explains why Buster Keaton – Hollywood’s “Great Stone Face” – Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd, remain only slightly less essential today than before they handed the baton to radio- and stage-based comedians. Unless one lives near a theater specializing in silent entertainment – or watches TCM on “silent nights” – it would be easy to think that physical comedy sprung from the brows of such post-silent comics as Jerry Lewis, John Candy, Jim Carrey and generations of “SNL” cast members. Among the many actors and comics bearing witness in The Great Buster: A Celebration is Johnny Knoxville – co-creator of MTV’s stunt- and prank-heavy “Jackass” – who freely acknowledges the debt he owes Keaton. The “Jackass” crew nearly killed themselves attempting the same gags Keaton invented and made look easy.

The doc is filled with impeccably restored material from the Keaton achieves.  It also delivers a fascinating recounting of Buster’s beginnings on the vaudeville circuit, where his dad used him as a fall guy and punching bag, and development of his trademark physical comedy and deadpan expression. He would struggle with  alcoholism and bad business advice to succeed as a director, writer, producer and star of his own short films and features. The loss of artistic independence and career decline, as the talkies took hold, are also covered by Bogdanovich, before focusing on Keaton’s extraordinary output from 1923 to 1929. It yielded 10 remarkable feature films — including The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) –that are among the greatest of all time. Also shown are snippets from Samuel Beckett’s  Film (1965), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and his final silent short, The Scribe (1966),  Interspersed throughout are interviews with nearly two-dozen collaborators, filmmakers, performers and friends, including Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, Dick van Dyke, Dick Cavett, Bill Irwin, Norman Lloyd  and Carl Reiner. The Blu-ray adds the nearly inaudible post-screening Q&A, “Conversations From the Quad,” an exclusive interview with Bogdanovich, and intro by Charles S. Cohen.

A Silent Voice: Blu-ray
No Alternative: Blu-ray
Bullying in our schools is one of those issues that concerns parents, teachers and children, equally, but won’t be solved until administrators and juvenile authorities are allowed to isolate the perpetrators and deal with them, without fear of being sued or retaliated against by delusional moms and dads. Social media has only exasperated the problem, by making the bullies invisible and the victims more vulnerable. Apparently, the plague knows no boundaries. Director Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice, which was adapted from Yoshitoki Oima’s manga, “Koe no katachi,” bypasses the after-school-special approach by refusing to sugarcoat the issue or find a quick fix in melodrama. Veteran voice actor  Miyu Irino (Spirited Away) plays class-clown Shôya Ishida, who’s fooled himself into believing that he’s popular, just because the cool kids think his antics are funny. When his mocking of a newly arrived deaf girl, which extends to stealing her earplugs, Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami), turns his classmates’ equally cruel laughter to scorn, Shôya begins to understand the meaning of, “what goes around, comes around.” What makes A Silent Voice exceptional, however, is the beautifully rendered animation, poignant narrative and empathetic characters. After Shoko drops out of school and Shôya’s shunning continues apace, he sets out to find her and offer his sincere apology. Yamada doesn’t make it easy for him to find redemption. As if bullying weren’t a serious enough problem to address in an anime, suicide will inevitably compound the narrative. The soft colors and evocative music add to the drama, which is genuine and heartfelt.

No Alternative is another coming-of-age drama that deals with the most serious of teen traumas. It’s set in a middle-class community in Upstate New Yok, in the direct wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, by suicide, in 1994. It struck teenage fans everywhere with the same devastating punch as the untimely deaths of Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and, three years later, Princess Diana. As a historically depressed individual and survivor of previous suicide attempts, Kobain was a tragedy waiting to happen. The lyrics to Nirvana’s songs sometimes read like invitations to oblivion. Writer/director William Dickerson adapted No Alternative from his 2012 debut  novel of the same title. It was informed by his own experiences as a youth and those of his late sister, Briana. “She suffered from borderline personality disorder and used the character of gangster rapper Bri Da B to channel her emotions and get outside of her own turbulent mind. A movie about this preppy white girl, who becomes this gangsta rapper, could have ended up being a broad comedy. I wanted it to show how my sister was suffering and how she dealt with it.” Thomas (Conor Proft) and Bridget Harrison (Michaela Cavazos) are determined to use music to escape the pressure of being lorded over by their politically ambitious father. Thomas wants his band to take a grungier approach to the band’s music. Dickerson allowed Bridget to adopt his sister’s stage name, Bri Da B. The conceit is as ludicrous as it sounds, primarily because she elects to make her debut at a coffeehouse, where the entirely white audience is flummoxed by the act. Blessedly, Dickerson pulls a rabbit out of his hat, with an ending that doesn’t necessarily condemn Bridget to an untimely death.

At the Drive-In
From sleeping under the concession stand, to working for free, the quirky film fanatics (a.k.a., nerds) at the struggling Mahoning Drive-in faced uncertainty when Hollywood distributors announced they would switch to digital projection for all new movies. Unable to purchase an expensive digital projector, the multigenerational gang pins its hopes of survival on showing vintage 35mm prints of their favorite movies on their original 1949 projectors. God bless ’em. At the Drive-In relives the underdog story to save a less-than-iconic Ohio drive-in, old-school exhibition and imaginative programming. More to the point, it is a documentary about the magic of movies and the people who love them … on their own terms. Special features include more than 17 minutes of deleted scenes; three commentaries; and a Q&A from a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers.

Cam Girl
I don’t know enough about the Internet-enabled sex-chat business to say if anything about the enterprise depicted in Cam Girl makes sense financially and operationally. My guess is that it bears some likeness to the billion-dollar industry’s earliest iterations, when all one needed to make money was a Skype connection, a 900-number and prominent position on a powerful search engine, like Google or Yahoo. Early concerns about the legality and ethics of profiting from such sketchy endeavors temporarily provided openings for organized-crime elements from Eastern European – and young exhibitionists who recognized a quick and reasonably anonymous buck when they saw one — to prosper. Now, though, phone- and Internet-sex operations constitute a borderless industry that piggybacks on free- and subscriber-backed sites and offers large and diverse selections of models, kinks and fetishes. By comparison, fledgling companies that continue to rely on magazine ads and search-engine listings can’t remain competitive. What differentiates the models in Cam Girl from those found on a thousand other sites, today, is their extraordinary beauty, poise, naivete and girl-next-door appeal … if one lives next-door to the Playboy Mansion or a haute-couture fashion house in Paris. Neither does their generous sexuality ever wander beyond the bounds of Cinemax T&A.

Desperate after losing her dream job in advertising, Alice (Antonia Liskova) is advised by a fiend, Ross (Alessia Piovan), to consider joining or starting a webcam site. She enlists two other similarly gorgeous friends to take a chance on going broke or getting rich: struggling waitress, Gilda (Sveva Alviti), and aspiring basketball player, Martina (Ilaria Capponi). The business is headquartered in one of the girls’ apartment, which becomes awfully crowded after models from other webcam sites decide to switch teams. And, the business is tremendously successful … until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Now, Alice keeps running out of money to pay the employees or find more comfortable accommodations. It doesn’t take long before the ladies abandon ship. Some even begin to date clients on the side. If there’s a lesson buried under the T&A here, I couldn’t find it. Neither did I miss it.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires: Blu-ray
I’m not going to waste a lot of time trying to sell you on Shout!Factory’s splendidly restored edition of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a 1974 hybrid of Hammer Films trademark  horror and Shaw Brothers martial-arts action. Hammer’s original uncut version is being presented here for the first time in high-definition, 40 years after it was released in the U.S. in an edited version. “The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula.” In the movie’s English-language lifetime, alone, it’s been presented as “Seven Golden Vampires: The Last Warning,” “The Last Warning,” “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” “The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula,” “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” “7 Brothers Versus Dracula” and “7 Brothers and a Sister Meet Dracula.” If that weren’t sufficiently confusing, consider that Peter Cushing’s character in the film is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Professor Lawrence Van Helsing, when he is actually playing a different member of the Van Helsing family. All of Cushing’s scenes take place in 1904, even though Van Helsing was killed in 1872, in a previous edition in the Hammer franchise. After learning about the seven golden vampires of Ping Kuei, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) and Mai Kwei (Szu Shih) offer to guide Van Helsing and his son to the village, where he’s expected to free it from the curse of Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robinson). The group encounters several attackers before arriving at the golden vampires’ derelict temple. Once there, Van Helsing and Count Dracula begin the “ultimate clash between good and evil.” The count had traveled to the remote village, disguised as a warlord, to show his support for the vampires, who’ve been dispirited after the loss of a seventh member of their cult. Coincidentally, Van Helsing is in China on a lecture tour. Let the fun begin. The Shout! package also contains commentary with author/historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck; new interviews with actor David Chiang and Hong Kong film expert Rick Baker; and the alternate U.S. theatrical version, in high-def.

Nazi Junkies
While Adolph Hitler’s addiction to stimulants is common knowledge among historians, war buffs and biker gangs, the extent to which his fellow Germans were similarly hooked on der Führer’s little helpers — methamphetamine, cocaine and muscle relaxers — remains largely unknown. It explains why Hitler sounded so impassioned and inexhaustible  in speeches that seemed to go on forever. Inspired by Norman Ohler’s revelatory book, “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich,” Christian Huleu’s fascinating documentary, Nazi Junkies – sounds like “Nazi Zombies,”  doesn’t’ it? — explains how Pervitin pills put the blitz in blitzkrieg and gave his soldiers and pilots superhuman energy and stamina. Until the negative effects of the meth inevitably took hold, Pervitin served as the Reich’s secret weapon and stimulant of choice for soldiers, warmongers and housewives, alike. (Technically, the use of drugs was anathema to Nazi principles, but so were the opiates given soldiers to relax after combat and living on the down-low.) Hitler’s personal Doctor Feelgood was one of the first to recognize the negative signs of Pervitin abuse and immediately began the search for less-toxic substances to fill his patient’s insatiable hunger. They would include an assortment of medications, including vitamin cocktails, cocaine, opiates and steroids. Like Ohler’s best-selling book, Huleu relied on the secret journals of Hitler’s personal doctor, Théodore Morell, as well as archival documents and testimonies from historians, scientists and World War II experts. The practice didn’t end with pill-popping Nazis, either. Allied troops and pilots in Europe and Korea chowed down on Benzedrine, amphetamines and speed balls,  an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin. Chinese fighters were given an anti-sleep pill, referred to as “Night Eagle,” to enable soldiers to stay awake for up to 72 hours. In Vietnam, it was heroin, marijuana, LSD and alcohol that kept them buzzing. Today, the number of desert-war veterans suffering from an addiction to crystal meth is staggering, too frequently ending in jail sentences or suicide attempts, when they come home. Although there’s some disagreement on the extent to which Japanese combatants used uppers before engaging the enemy or kamikaze missions, having formulated meth in the 1890s, it isn’t likely they would curtail its use in World War II. More recently jihadists have been reported to consume the powerful stimulant  Captagon pervasively, while also taking powerful opioid painkillers and hashish.

The Prisoner: Blu-ray
No sooner were the Nazis defeated in World War II than the Soviet Union began to create a buffer zone between the communist east and democratic west, using Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, as Stalin’s first line of defense against  capitalism. Basically, though, Eastern Europe was handed to him on a platter by two war-weary American presidents, over the objections of Winston Churchill. In most respects, Stalin was just as domineering a presence in Eastern Europe as Adolph Hitler and just as willing to use force and atrocities to put down rebellions there. Puppet governments and kangaroo judiciaries were installed to maintain the status quo. Western democracies did their best to put down left-leaning liberation movements, as well, often bowing to American demands for autocratic, pro-capitalist leaders. Made in 1955, The Prisoner probably was informed by the ordeal of Polish Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, who was a war hero and religious leader of millions of Roman Catholics. Like Alec Guinness’ character in The Prisoner, Wyszynski had made accommodations with the communists, pledging to maintain a balance between Church and state, in return for property seized after the war and the ability to perform religious rites. As pro-democracy protests in Polish cities spread, the government demanded of Guinness’ cardinal that he encourage restraint – perhaps, even, rat out resistance leaders – or risk being arrested, put on trial and, worst case, executed for treason. In prison, his Interrogator (Jack Hawkins) is determined to get a confession from the strong-willed Cardinal and destroy his power over his flock. The verbal and psychological debates are gripping and powerful, even when the Interrogator’s bosses’ demand results, at all costs. When the Interrogator finds his Achilles’ heel, the Cardinal is faced with an even greater challenge. The harsh black-and-white set designs emphasize the barrenness of the ideology on display. It’s interesting that director Peter Glenville and writer Bridget Boland’s The Prisoner — both on stage and screen — was deemed sufficiently controversial to be banned from the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals, for ideologically opposite reasons. The Prisoner would make a terrifying lead-in to a double-feature from political hell, with Orson Welles’ equally disturbing, The Trial (1962). For anyone who’s ever wondered what it takes for a work of art to be considered “Kafkaesque,” the pairing would make the distinction painfully clear. Franz Kafka admitted being heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” The Arrow package adds selected scenes, with Philip Kent’s commentary, and a well-appointed insert booklet.

Terra Formars: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Takashi Miike’s many over-the-top entertainments don’t always arrive on these shores at the same time as they do in foreign markets. It doesn’t look as if his 2016 sci-fi extravaganza, Terra Formars, found a place to land here, even on the festival circuit. It isn’t difficult to see why. Terra Formars is too arthouse for genre buffs and too genre for arthouse habitués. Like Audition, the Dead or Alive trilogy and Blade of the Immortal, which it doesn’t remotely resemble, Terra Formars is a Miike film … plain and simple. Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch come to mind, but not many other filmmakers, even of the auteur persuasion. Like so many other Japanese films, these days, the space adventure is based on a popular manga series of the same title. Terra Formars also is something of a cautionary tale for those who want to colonize Mars in their lifetimes. It opens in the mid-26th Century, 500 years after scientists seeded the planet with algae and cockroaches, to create an atmosphere conducive to habitation by humans. A manned mission has arrived on the red planet with the sole purpose of eliminating the bugs. Turns out, however, la cucarachas are just as difficult to kill on Mars, as they are on Earth. The team of Japanese space explorers finds itself confronted by a horde of huge anthropomorphic cockroaches, capable of wielding weapons and shape-shifting. (All those years away from Raid and the soles of shoes has allowed them to evolve naturally.) Miike must not have had much money to spend on special effects, because the cheapo green-screen work distracts from the action sequences. Everything else is fun, though. The Arrow Blu-ray adds the feature-length “The Making of Terra Formars,extended cast interviews, footage from the 2016 Japanese premiere, outtakes, an image gallery, a reversible sleeve and a fully illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

Mélo: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Alain Resnais’ stagey slow-burn melodrama, Mélo, is typical of the French auteur’s work in his late period, when he began challenging himself and audiences by integrating material from other forms of popular culture into his films, drawing especially on music and the theater. While his work has always been influenced by the theater, Resnais’ adaptation of Henri Bernstein’s 1929 play of the same name – a shortening of “melodrama” – was extremely faithful to the source material. He  emphasized its theatricality by filming in long takes, on sets that could hardly be more artificially designed or lit. As such the narrative is almost entirely driven by dialogue and facial expressions. Like a play, too, the film’s acts are divided by the fall of a curtain and snippets from a playbill. Needless to say, viewers are left at a distinct disadvantage throughout much of Mélo’s first act, at least. It opens in the 1920s, in the courtyard of a home in a posh Paris suburb, where two old fiends are enjoying drinks after dinner. The distinguished soloist, Marcel (André Dussollier), has just returned from a long concert tour, during which he endured a cruel breakup with his lover. In the meantime, his longtime friend, collaborator and host, Pierre (Pierre Arditi) has fallen in love with and married a coquettish younger woman, Romaine (Sabine Azéma), who’s pretty, personable and not outwardly flirtatious. i Marcel s happy for his fiend’s good fortune and seemingly unaffected by Romaine’s charms. That lasts until the next afternoon, when Romaine pays a visit to Marcel’s apartment and lets Bach clear the way for some hanky-panky. The more  Marcel  resists her overture, the deeper the hook is set. Romaine takes his decision to return to touring badly and everyone’s affected by her response. Three years later, Pierre pays Marcel a visit to clarify their friendship and demand the truth. It’s here that the intimacy of the cinema returns to the forefront. Arrow Academy’s restoration adds a newly filmed introduction by critic Jonathan Romney; archived interviews with director Alain Resnais, producer Marin Karmitz, actors Pierre Arditi and André Dussolier, script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, set designer Jacques Saulnier; a reversible sleeve, featuring original artwork; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by Bilge Ebiri.

Iguana With the Tongue of Fire: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1971, the animal-in-the-title trend in giallo films – following Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — was just beginning.   Riccardo Freda (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) decided to further test the newborn genre’s elasticity by staging his thriller in Ireland and raising the ante on fetishized violence inflicted upon women. The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire is a gloriously excessive giallo that boasts a rogues’ gallery of perverse characters of both genders and, of course, a veritable orgy of red herrings and potential killers … probably too many, in fact. “Iguana” opens audaciously with an acid-throwing, razor-wielding maniac brutally slaying a woman in her own home. The victim’s mangled corpse is discovered in a limousine owned by Swiss Ambassador Sobiesky (Anton Diffring) and a police investigation is launched. When the murders continue and the ambassador claims diplomatic immunity, tough ex-cop John Norton (Luigi Pistilli) is brought in to jump-start the investigation. Benefitting from a sumptuous score by Stelvio Cipriani (Death Walks on High Heels) and exuberant supporting performances from Valentina Cortese (The Possessed) and Dagmar Lassander (The Black Cat), “The Iguana”  isn’t for beginners. It adds new commentary by giallo connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; a newly filmed video appreciation by the cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer; “Considering Cipriani,” a new appreciation of the composer by soundtrack collector, Lovely Jon; “The Cutting Game,” a new interview with assistant editor Bruno Micheli; “The Red Queen of Hearts,” a career-spanning interview with actress Dagmar Lassander; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich.

Penny Points to Paradise
There are a couple of very good reasons to check out Penny Points to Paradise, the first in a series of vintage British films from Juno and MVD. It marked the feature-film debut of the stars of “The Goon Show”: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. And, it’s available for the first time, on disc, in North America. It was directed by Tony Young, who later produced “The Telegoons” for BBC Television. After a big gambling win, Harry Flakers and his friend Spike Donnelly decide to go to the same shabby seaside boarding house that they have always patronized for their summer holiday. The other guests include two young women out to marry money, a dodgy investment adviser, a master forger and his assistant. They’re intent on taking the money from the Goonies, one way or another. Also included is the 32-minute short, “Let’s Go Crazy,” also starring Sellers. It’s a “madcap comedy,” set in a nightclub where variety acts are interwoven with comedy sketches. Neither is representative of the group’s later work.

We Die Young: Blu-ray
President Trump deserves partial screenwriter credit for Lior Geller’s hit-and-run gangland drama, We Die Young. Desperate for a quickee campaign issue, POTUS only had to investigate crime in his own backyard, where Mara Salvatrucha (a.k.a., MS-13), a gang of Central American criminals, ruled drug-running and child prostitution along the Eastern Seaboard. He unjustly equated the multi-tattooed hoodlums with immigrants seeking sanctuary and employment here. Naturally, the crisis disappeared, when a different bug crawled up his ass. In We Die Young, Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez) is a 14-year-old boy who was inducted into the gang life in Washington, D.C., but determined to prevent his 10-year-old brother from following the same trap. When a down-and-out Afghanistan war veteran (Jean-Claude Van Damme) comes into the neighborhood to score drugs, an opportunity arises. While We Die Young is loaded with clichés, it accomplishes what the federal government couldn’t, by disrupting a multinational syndicate. Strong performances by Van Damme and villain David Castañeda, who plays the brutal MS-13 gang leader, Rincon, add a few sparks to the proceedings.

Matriarch
Rachel (Charlie Blackwood) and her husband, Matt (Scott Vickers), are on a drive through the Scottish countryside, when Matt hits a tree. The pair decides to get out and walk, despite Rachel being 9-months pregnant. They soon come to a farmhouse owned by the same jerk (Alan Cuthbert),  who refused them a ride earlier.  At first, the farmer, Bob, once again rudely turns them away. When he sees that Rachel is with child, though, he insists that they come into the house.  There, they meet Bob’s wife, Agnes (Julie Hannan), and their sinister sons, David (Thoren Ferguson) and Luke (Martin Murphy).  While the family gives off an odd vibe, Rachel and Matt appreciate their hospitality. Before long, however, Rachel’s intuition tells them to leave, pronto. They also realize their hosts’ daughter was, in fact, abducted and made headlines when she went missing years earlier. In his first feature, writer/director Scott Vickers displays a flare for raising goosebumps.

Enigma: Blu-ray
The cold war was still in full forward gear, when Jeannot Szwarc’s espionage thriller, Enigma, opened, in 1982. From some perspectives, though, it was easy to see that the end was near. If Apocalypse Now (1979) had made Marin Sheen a star, he still wasn’t ready to pull off playing a spy of the caliber  of Harry Palmer  (The Ipcress File), Alec Leamas  (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), James Bond (Dr. No) or George Smiley (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Neither would Vick ever play in the same big leagues as novelists John le Carré, Len Deighton or Ian Fleming. Nobody could. Nonetheless, fans of the genre may want to make room for Enigma, which also features fine performances by Derek Jacobi, Sam Neill, Brigitte Fossey and Michael Lonsdale. In it, the CIA discovers a KGB plot to assassinate five Soviet dissidents on Christmas Day, but it doesn’t’ know their names. East German defector and radio activist Alex Holbeck (Sheen) is recruited in Paris by the CIA and sent to East Berlin to find and warn the intended victims and steal the code-scrambler machine, Enigma, still used by Soviet intelligence for communications. On his arrival, Holbeck discovers that the KGB and the East Germany government know that he’s in town and his contacts have been arrested. Holbeck meets his former lover, the lawyer Karen Reinhardt,  (Fosse), and she gives keys to a safe house to him. The Russian agent Dimitri Vasilikov (Neill) and the East German agent (Limmer) try to find Holbeck, while Karen seduces Dimitri to get the information about the location of the suspects that Holbeck needs. Enigma has is moments – including a clever chase scene and dangerous CIA trick — although no enough of hem.

Jihadists
Banned in France following the 2016 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, Jihadists goes to the dark heart of Islamic extremism, where men with guns, explosives and swords interpret the Koran for everyone else in the world. That includes the tens of millions of Muslims who belong to sects other than the Salafi movement and hundreds of millions of other infidels they’re willing to kill in the name of Allah. A pair of Western filmmakers were granted unparalleled access to fundamentalist Sunni clerics, who proselytize for a purer form of Islam in Mali, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan and the imposition of sharia law. Jihadists paints a stark portrait of everyday life under jihadi rule and the lectures could hardly be more tedious.

TV-to-DVD
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of … Volume 3
BBC: The Highway Rat
PAW Patrol: Ultimate Rescue
Since 1968, Dick Cavett has hosted his own talk show, in a variety of television and radio formats and several different panel configurations. At a time when all such hosts played to a wide cross-section of views – and others began to play to the cheap seats — Cavett wasn’t reluctant to put his IQ and high-end tastes on full display, sometimes to the point of overshadowing his guests’ input. “The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of … Volume 3” contains conversations, with  Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, in which his attempts to be as hip as thou bordered on self-parody. Regardless, enough good stuff sneaks into the chats to make them worthwhile. In addition to individual conversations, Foxx appears on a panel with Patty Duke, Richard Attenborough and James J. Kirkpatrick, from July 14, 1969, and Gregory is part of a panel with Alan Arkin, from May 5, 1972. Murphy sits with Cavett on November 4, 1985, shortly after departing “SNL” and while celebrating the success of Beverly Hills Cop. Already an accomplished multihyphenate, Pryor joins Cavett shortly before the release of his semi-autobiographical ”Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.”

Based on the beloved children’s book, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, the Annie-nominated The Highway Rat tells the tale of a ravenous rat who craves buns, cookies and all sweet things. Tearing along the highway, he searches for sugary treats to steal from the harvests of everyday people he meets on the highway. It’s only a matter of time before his sweet tooth leads him to a sticky end. Previous Magic Light Pictures productions for the BBC include Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo and Revolting Rhymes. Rob Brydon narrates, alongside David Tennant, Frances de la Tour, Tom Hollander, Nina Sosanya and Husaam Kiani. The making-of material is longer than the film itself, but quite worthwhile.

Nick Jr’s “Paw Patrol: Ultimate Rescue” is comprised of Season Five episodes, “Pups Save the Royal Kitties,” with Chase and his Ultimate Police Truck; “Pups Save the Tigers,” with Skye and her Ultimate Helicopter; “Pups Save the Movie Monster,” with Marshall and his Ultimate Fire Truck; “Pups Save a Swamp Monster,” with Zuma and his Ultimate Swamp Vehicle; and “Pups and the Hidden Golden Bones,” with Rocky and his Ultimate Tow Truck.”

The DVD Wrapup: Capernaum, Perfect Blue, Cameron Post, Tyrel, Ailes, Body Snatcher, Sam J. Jones, Sonny Chiba, Phantom Lady, Victoria’s Wedding … More

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Capernaum: Blu-ray
Nominated as one of five candidates for top prize in AMPAS’ Best Foreign Language category, Capernaum deserved consideration for a Best Picture Oscar, alongside Roma. It’s that good. For my money, 12-year-old newcomer, Zain Al Rafeea, deserved to be mentioned with the other Best Lead Actor nominees, as well. Academy voters are rightly cautious when it comes to honoring child actors, especially those with little or no experience or training. That’s because it’s difficult to tell when they’re acting, as defined in the guidelines, or simply behaving instinctively, based on personal history and genetics. There’s no question that Zain’s performance in Capernaum – a word that translates as “chaos” — was informed by incidents in his own life. Al Rafeea was born in Daraa, Syria, in 2004, and moved to Lebanon in 2012 as a refugee. He had lived in Beirut for several years, when he was discovered by co-writer/director Nadine Labaki in the streets of a depressed neighborhood, eating chicken. Like his character, Zain was uneducated, illiterate and genuinely “street smart.” (That’s changed.) In Capernaum, Zain is a victim of a nearly universal legal system that allows unsuitable parents to retain control of their children. Here, Zain helps support the family by hauling goods to costumers in the street market. It’s more than his old man contributes. He becomes incensed when his 11-year-old sister is sold to a man at least twice her age as a potential bride. Zain’s pleading is ignored by both his parents. Instead of risking a beating from his father, Zain runs away from home. He survives on the streets through his wits and wits and courage. Then, he’s taken in by an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil —   played by fellow first-timer, Yordanos Shiferaw – who’s the single mother of a son, Yonas, who’s only a few days away from teaching himself how to walk.

When Rahil is away, working, Zain proves to be a conscientious caretaker. Sadly, after she’s jailed in a roundup of undocumented workers, Zain and Yonas are left to their own devises. (She’s afraid that officials will take the boy away, if they learn of his existence.) When Zain begins to despair of his ability to properly care for the child – diapers pose a constant challenge – he tracks down Rahil’s Lebanese benefactor, who gives him money while hatching a plan to take control of Yonas, before his mother is released or deported, and sell him. In return, he’ll finance Zain’s dream of escaping north. Before that can happens, Zain needs to return home to collect the papers he’ll need to secure forged papers. While there, he learns that his sister died after being impregnated by her husband. His parents shrug off the tragedy as being the will of God – the mother is  already pregnant, again — and no longer any of their business. They also inform Zain of the illegal circumstances of his own birth, which prevented them from securing a birth certificate. Even more incensed than before, the boy picks up a kitchen knife, with the intention of avenging his sister’s death. He willingly takes a five-year sentence at a prison reserved for underage  offenders. Somehow, he comes up with idea of suing his parents for negligence and giving  him life, in the first place. Labaki uses the lawsuit as a framing device, holding Capernaum together. The suit is taken seriously by everyone involved and Al Rafeea makes a sound case for emancipation. Labaki and cinematographer Christopher Aoun (In White) benefitted from such existing settings as the Souk Al Ahad market, Beirut’s Le Cola slum, the Roumieh Prison and Luna Park amusement park with Labaki and  The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and a post-screening Q&A with Labaki, Zain and her husband/producer/composer/co-writer Khaled Mouzanar. BTW: After winning the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes festival, it was revealed that Zain and his family were relocated by the UN Refugee Agency, to Norway, where he’s begun going to school.

Perfect Blue: Blu-ray’s
In a season already overflowing with excellent anime titles, newcomers to the movement – adults, anyway — are encouraged to check out Perfect Blue, a sophisticated psychosexual thriller from the late Japanese director, Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress). Released in 1997, a time when western audiences were becoming attuned to the work of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) and the absence of fantasy superheroes, the R-rated Perfect Blue erased borders separating horror, erotica and suspense. I didn’t know the 81-minute thriller is 22 years old and only found out after reading the press clips. Either way, it holds up remarkably well, today. Mima is an ambitious J-pop superstar, anxious to escape the glare of the spotlight shone on boy and girl groups by rabid fans and an insatiable media. When she announces her retirement and desire to pursue an acting/modeling career, her fans can’t believe it. That includes the stalkers who follow Mima’s every movement. Like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus and other Disney brats gone bad, Mima’s ascendency in the grown-up world of leeches, perverts and corporate weasels doesn’t always go as expected. Not only is she is stalked by a potentially dangerous fan, but violent acts against her managers and backers have begun to occur, as well. Mima then comes to believe that an invisible hand has taken control of her mind and career. It begins when she stumbles upon “Mima’s Room,” a social-media website that purports to be written entirely by her, but publishes intimate details of her thoughts, dreams and desires, much of which are fabricated. It causes Mima to doubt her sanity. Finally, she’s driven to accept a role in a borderline hard-core film, which includes some not-so-borderline violence and rape. Kon’s ability to keep Mima guessing as to the source of her manic behavior is matched by the director’s skill at maintaining the audience’s confusion, too. His detail-rich panels and splashy color scheme works well across the board, in depictions of pop stardom, violence, cartoon nudity and sexuality. As much as Kon admitted to being influenced by novelists Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner) and Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika), and films by Terry Gilliam (Brazil), so, too, were westerners Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Christopher Nolan (Inception) inspired by Kon. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer on August 24, 2010, at 46. For all I knew going into Perfect Blue, adapted from Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel of the same title, it could have been made last year.

The Vault: Blu-ray
King of Thieves: Blu-ray
Released over Labor Day weekend, 2017, Dan Bush’s horror/heist/thriller, The Vault, spent a mere week in 11 theaters, before disappearing until this week, when it popped up again on DVD/Blu-ray. It may not be the greatest representative of it’s subgenre(s), but a cast that includes James “Mr. Everything” Franco, Taryn Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”), Francesca Eastwood (Outlaws and Angels), Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World), Clifton Collins Jr. (“Star Trek”), Scott Haze (Venom) and Jeff Gum (“New Girl”) make things interesting, at least. Bush probably could have used more time and money to recreate the critical success he enjoyed for his dystopian horror, The Signal (2007). For committing the sin of underperforming at the box office, The Vault was sent to purgatory for two years. The story revolves around a pair of estranged sisters, Vee and Leah Dillon, and their brother, Michael – none of whom are terribly bright – who were told that the bank they’re about to rob contains a million dollars in cash. After making a lot of noise and threatening to shoot their hostages, the gang only can locate $70,000. Reacting to the news as Manny’s character in “Orange Is the New Black” might, Vee tells her fellow gang members to keep searching. The only hostage who gives her any hope is the bank manager played by Franco, who, considering the circumstances, seems remarkably cool. After eliciting the sisters’ promise that no one will be hurt, he tells them that there’s a safe in the basement that may contain the rest of the cash. Horror buffs won’t be surprised by Maas’ willingness to give up the goods, because they’ve already guessed that something sinister is lurking in the basement. (The newsreel footage that preceded The Vault was a dead giveaway.) While what happens next is best left to the imagination, viewers already fixated on the zombie apocalypse will find themselves two steps ahead of the narrative. The Vault might have worked, if it weren’t too dark for its audience to clearly recognize the danger presented to bank robbers, hostages and SWAT team when the doors to the basement fly open. The ending is something of a surprise, if only to people who haven’t been paying strict attention to the shadowy details. Franco’s elongated cameo, while essential, might confuse viewers who expect a bit more from the cover blurbs. Manning and Eastwood’s testy relationship is almost reason enough to recommend The Vault.

According to the ticket-counters at Box Office Mojo, James Marsh’s true-crime/heist/drama, King of Thieves, played in 14 U.S. theaters, from January 25 through February 7, 2019. It’s total domestic gross reached $7,518 – about $1,800 more than The Vault – against the $9.55 million it made in foreign sales. It suffered from mostly mediocre reviews, which were influenced negatively from Marsh’s overly deliberate pacing and the dissipation of tension that followed the commission of the movie’s central crime. A gang of elderly crooks, dubbed the Diamond Wheezers, led by lifelong crook Jack Reader (Michael Caine), relieved the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd of £14 million worth of gold, jewels and cash. As much as £10 million from the haul still remains unrecovered. The heist, which occurred over the Easter weekend, 2015, is well-depicted by screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road), who adapted it from a Vanity Fair article by Mark Seal. Caine leads a cast of great British actors, including Jim Broadbent, as Terry Perkins, the uncompromising wannabe leader; Ray Winstone, as the straight-talking heavy, Danny Jones; Tom Courtenay, as the two-faced conniver, Kenny Collins; Paul Whitehouse, as the reluctant sixth man, Carl Wood; Michael Gambon, as the unlikely fence, Billy “The Fish” Lincoln; and Charlie Cox, Reader’s computer-savvy protégé. If none of the characters are as clearly drawn as Reader —  a former associate of the Krays — their roguish behavior and old-fashioned dialogue never gets dull. If Marsh’s name is familiar it’s because he also was at the helm of such fine entertainments as The Theory of Everything (2014), Shadow Dancer (2012), Best Documentary-winner Man on Wire (2008) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999).

Impulso
Dance enthusiasts from around the world travel to southern Spain for one express purpose: to observe flamenco in its purest form. If they’re very lucky, their guidebook will lead them to some out-of-the-way nightclub, where the tourists don’t outnumber the regulars and there isn’t a two-drink minimum. Typically, the amateurs aren’t interested in watching dancers who take liberties with tradition, which can be traced, some say, to the arrival of Romani clans to Andalusia. Other historians associate flamenco with the cross-cultural interchange between native Andalusians, Romani, Castilians, Moors and Sephardic Jews that occurred there. Emilio Belmonte Molina’s Impulso documents the creation of a new piece by avant-garde dancer/choreographer Rocio Molina, intended to debut at Chaillot National Theater in Paris. Her extravagant, mesmerizing and mostly improvised pieces combine traditional Flamenco with modern-dance, theatrics, physical objects, paint and eclectic musical compositions. As intriguing as it is, Impulso isn’t for those who get their kicks from watching “Dancing With the Stars” or study ballroom dancing at an Arthur Murray studio. (Amazingly, there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain.) Molina travels the world to perform her improvised “impulsos” at venues ranging from art museums to prisons. At 32, she’s into her third decade as a performer. Impulso was photographed in a studio with a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower and at her lavish family compound in Andalucia. In addition to Molina and her impassioned musicians, she’s also joined onstage by 67-year-old Antonia Santiago Amador (a.k.a., La Chana), a self-taught Gypsy dancer also known for her innovative approach to the discipline, as well as rhythmic combinations enhanced by atypical speed, expression and power. Lucija Stojevic’s 2016 documentary, La Chana, not only celebrates flamenco, but it also reveals a personal history that’s as dramatic as the dance. As such, it’s a perfect companion to Impulso.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Based on Emily Danforth’s debut novel of the same title, The Miseducation of Cameron Post examines the controversial practice of conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy and de-gaying – that many fundamentalist ministers and parents pushed on teenagers believed to be L, G, B, T or Q, in the 1970-90s. It quickly evolved from a trend, in the 1970s, to a thriving industry, in the 1990s, backed by Christian organizations and con artists, alike. Conversion therapy has since been discredited by psychiatric organizations and banned in 15 states, the District of Columbia, and such major cities as Miami and Cincinnati. In addition to being demonstrably ineffective, the practice has been shown to be harmful to teens whose sexuality may or not be established. Co-writer/director Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele’s adaptation of Danforth’s 2012 book – based on her own experiences growing up in Montana – is set in 1993, a time when dramatizations of kidnappings authorized by parents and deprogrammers had become a Hollywood staple. What makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post different from those movie-of-the-week dramas is its willingness to portray the staff of God’s Promise as something other than monsters, sadists and exploitative. Instead, they’re naïve and dangerously inexperienced in the treatment of standard deviations from normal behavior. The teachers and administrators of God’s Promise don’t realize they’re in over their heads until it’s too late. Neither do the state and federalagencies assigned to monitor them.

Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is caught by her boyfriend having a sexual encounter with another girl, in a parked car, on homecoming night. Cameron’s aunt, Ruth, a devout Christian, sends Cameron to God’s Promise. Cameron may not like it, but she’s willing to go along with Ruth’s demand for the sake of appearances. While Cameron is getting acclimated to guidelines and restrictions at the rural camp, which takes an AA approach to the teens’ witnessing, she befriends fellow “disciples,” Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), who was raised in a hippie commune, and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a Lakota “two-spirit,” whose father turned his back on tradition when he converted to Christianity. Another girl is so addicted to the modern Christian lifestyle that she works out to “Blessercize” videos, while another is obsessed with Christian rock music. The effeminate boy whose problems finally overwhelm councilors played John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle and Marin Ireland was bullied by his father, who expects certain results from the program. The movie’s willingness to treat all the characters with varying degrees of respect is what differentiates it from other, less sensitive dramatizations. The notion of teenage empowerment also is welcome. Some pundits were unhappy that Akhavan didn’t direct the wrath of God at the movie’s antagonists – I was a bit surprised, as well – but the film followed the novel’s blueprint, which the author describes as a story about growing up queer in Montana, in the ’90s. It was thoroughly researched by Danforth, currently an associate professor of English at Rhode Island College. It adds commentary with Akhavan and co-writer/producer Frugiuele.

The protagonist of Amanda Lundquist’s Pinsky is a Jewish out-lesbian adult, Sophia Pinsky – played by impish co-writer Rebecca Karpovsky — whose sexuality is vilified by her recently widowed grandmother, from  whom she’s been estranged for three years. The matriarch is more concerned about her position in Boston’s Russian-Jewish community than Sophia’s soul and happiness Even so, Sophia agrees to return home to sit shiva for her beloved grandfather. As expected, it’s the kind of nightmare that an aspiring standup comedian could mine for laughs in clubs around the country. Unless I missed something, though, Sophia isn’t quite ready for prime time and the film’s humor doesn’t always qualify as a “comedy about finding your chosen family and forgiving the one you’re born into.” Besides the death of her grandfather, Sophia’s misery is compounded by the sudden decision of her live-in lover to leave home, without notice. Being a lesbian doesn’t protect Sophia from the matchmaking that’s a staple of movies set in Jewish households. Despite a lifelong friendship with the likely candidate, their personal time together turns into a disaster, as well. And, then there’s the secret being kept between Granny and their rabbi (Alan Blumenfeld). Oy, vey. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, even for a movie that is only required to  bear the load for 73 minutes. Pinsky potentially could find an audience for the mishigas on display here among Jews living under the same circumstances as the protagonist. Others may fail to find the humor in the constant bickering, put-downs and stereotypes. The DVD contains a “Sitting Down” with Blumenfeld and additional standup comedy, featuring Rebecca Karpovsky.

Director Gene Saks and playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) doesn’t contain any LGBTQ references that I could see, but its depiction of a working-class Jewish family on the eve of World War II probably influenced Pinsky, if only subliminally. The 1982 play may also have informed parts of Woody Allen’s similarly nostalgic Radio Days (1987), as well. All three films are listed as comedies on IMDB.com, but there are plenty of times when the arguments, rivalries and unappetizing ethnic food  — never a problem in movies about Italian families – melt into blob of clichés. Simon’s semi-autographical story begins with a series of events that would test the stability of any family of disparate parts living under the same roof. Jonathan Silverman plays 15-year-old Eugene Jerome, around whom all the bad craziness revolves. During Brighton Beach Memoirs, the Polish/Jewish/American boy will be challenged by puberty, his first sexual cravings and desire to solve all of his family’s myriad problems. They include those faced by his Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) and her two daughters (Lisa Waltz, Stacey Glick), who share the house. His father (Bob Dishy) and older brother (Brian Drillinger) have just lost their jobs and their savings won’t pull them through the Depression. His mother (Blythe Danner) acts as if she has burrs in her foundation garments, while her sister, Blanche, is still traumatized by the loss of her husband. Eugene’s youngest cousin has a serious heart condition and her16-year-old sister desperately wants to take a Broadway producer up on his offer of a job in the chorus line of his new production … wink, wink/nod, nod. Then, there’s the matter of the impending storm in Poland, and their cousins’ efforts to get the papers necessary to leave for England or America, and a debt owed by some local gangsters by his brother. Just as things couldn’t get any less humorous, Eugene’s mother and aunt begin airing out differences that began when they were young. As it turns out, however, the Broadway-perfect ending couldn’t be more uplifting. Brighton Beach Memoirs, it should be noted, was the first installment in Simon’s unintended “Eugene trilogy,” followed by “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

Tyrel: Blu-ray
With such celebrated, if eccentric gems as The Maid (2009), Magic Magic (2013), Crystal Fairy (2013) and Old Cats (2010) on his resume, Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva is among a handful of filmmakers whose every new project is anticipated by critics and arthouse buffs around the world. One never knows what to expect from him. The only thing I knew about Tyrel (2018) was what I gleaned from a casual sampling of the trailer, which promised racially charged drama and, perhaps, a violent confrontation between the sole African-American character and a half-dozen, or so, white guys intent on making this bro’s-will-be-bro’s weekend one for the ages. Tyler (Jason Mitchell) is welcomed with the same gusto as every other new arrival, even if there’s no clear link between him and the other yahoos. When the booze begins to flow freely, references to Tyler’s singular distinction begin to be dropped into the rowdy conversations. Similar observations are made about the sole Hispanic character and anyone else with distinguishing characteristic. At this moment in American history, when every perceived slur is put under a microscope, the jokes carry added significance. Pretty soon, however, the apologies that follow each gag lose their ability soothe ruffled features. When, the next day, Tyler begs off playing a bruising game on a frozen-over pond, it’s impossible not to see it as a slight against the white guys, who, to be fair, don’t seem to be fazed by the rejection. At one point during the next drinking marathon, Tyler’s ability to overcome lack of sleep and a strong headache causes him to put on the nearest parka and escape into the below-zero Catskills night. When the temperatures get to be too much for the young man, he seeks temporary shelter in a lonely cabin. Instead of a family of white supremacists, meth cookers or lizard people, Tyler’s greeted by a friendly white woman (Ann Dowd), who’d helped his group when their car ran out of guess. More surprises come when he’s introduced to her husband (Reg E. Cathey) and their mixed-race son. When Tyler feels ready to return home, he’s greeted on the road by a large and intimidating party animal, who, we assume, has been sent to retrieve him, at all costs. But, no, all he’s being offered is a ride in a warm car. What gives? And, where are the strippers who inevitably show up at the worst possible time, and are either raped, forced to commit unthinkable sex acts or are tossed into the nearest snow bank, naked, and forced to walk home. Nope, nada, nothing like that occurs. Maybe, later. What Silva accomplishes in Tyrel – the spelling is significant – is the creation of a ticking time-bomb of a thriller, whose fuse appears to malfunction whenever the timer hits 0:00:01. By putting ourselves in Tyler’s shoes, so early in the narrative, we mirror how it must feel, every day, when minorities are surrounded by people in red MAGA caps in public. The same qapplies, of course, when a single white man or woman attends a rally, party or sporting event and is lost in a sea of black, brown, yellow faces. That’s where we’re at in America today and Silva has found a neat way to exploit the kind of loneliness that makes people feel trapped, on one side, and, on the other, by rampant paranoia. Michael Cera, who also starred in Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus is the most-recognizable actor here. The Blu-ray adds an interview with the writer/director.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Because I was taught never to speak ill of the dead – unless they’re Adolph Hitler, James Earl Ray, John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald – I’ll let Alexis Bloom’s horrifying documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes do it for me. Before being buried under a mountain of accusations of gender-related crimes and unconscionable behavior, Ailes enjoyed the support and confidence of Rupert Murdoch. He had, after all, managed the campaigns of politicians who shared the Fox head’s politics, policies and line of bullshit, and turned Fox News into a huge force in the American media.  As such, Ailes did more harm to our democracy than any sitting president, congressman or public official in the last 50 years. His preferred title at Fox News and other stops along the way was “king maker.” From the  1960s’ presidential debates onward, Ailes manipulated the broadcast media into serving as vehicles the lies, distortions and slander served up by ultra-conservative candidates. Fox News represented the realization of a lifetime spent destroying the reputations of people outside the 1 percent of American earners. But, you already knew that. The documentary is even more damning when it recalls Ailes’ 60-year history of blackmailing young women into humiliating themselves sexually, in exchange for jobs, raises and promotions. Sometimes, his demands were limited to leg shows and stripteases, but they escalated from there to blow jobs, intercourse and performing for friends. On camera, he demanded that beautiful blond anchors wear spike heels, short skirts and cross their legs while sinking into couches for inane chats. He even put lights under the news desks to prevent male viewers from getting bored by the right-wing propaganda. When an anchorwoman was sitting at the end of a desk, camera operators were told to shot from an angle that captured their every movement. Imagine your daughter, wife or sister working for a pig like Ailes and his minions. And, as long as he was making money for someone, Ailes had been allowed to get away with such behavior since his days as an executive producer for “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he met Richard Nixon for the first time. It wasn’t until settlements in suits filed against Ailes and commentator Bill O’Reilly passed the $100-million mark that Murdoch, his sons and other Fox executive realized that these bozos were greater liabilities than assets. Even then, his good friend, Donald Trump, used Ailes to prepare for debates and anti-Hillary tantrums. He was an evil man and there probably was a place reserved for him in hell when he died on May 18, 2017, at 77. Like I said, though, Bloom’s documentary makes a far better case for eternal damnation than I ever could.

The Body Snatcher: Blu-ray
The Witches: Blu-ray
Just because Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi had left the Universal Classic Monsters barn by the time production began on RKO Radio Pictures’ The Body Snatcher (1945) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t mentioned alongside any of their better-known horror titles. It’s extremely well-made and still a lot of fun to watch. Most of the credit belongs to producer/co-writer Val Lewton – a true genius of genre filmmaking – and his decision to hire promising director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still). British genre novelist/screenwriter Philip MacDonald (Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto) joined Lewton (as Carlos Keith) in adapting Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 short story of the same title, which he based on real-life body snatchers, who turned to murder when teachers, researchers and surgeons faced  a shortage of legally obtained cadavers. Robert Knox, a noted Edinburgh surgeon, anatomist, zoologist, ethologist and physician, was the chief beneficiary of crimes committed by Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare. They were paid handsomely by Knox to deliver more or less fresh bodies to the university. In 1928, after committing at least 16 murders in 10 months, they were captured. At the trial, Hare turned King’s evidence, while Burke was convicted, hanged, dissected and displayed for the amusement of 25,000 Jacobite spectators, some of whom paid handsomely for the privilege. When Knox escaped prosecution on a technicality, a mob comprised of “the lowest rabble of the Old Town” attacked his house. Although disgraced, he would continue working in the field until his death, in 1862. On the plus side, the trial raised public awareness of the need for bodies for medical purposes, and of the trade that doctors had conducted with grave robbers and murderers. After another corpse-selling ring was broken up, this one in London, a bill was quickly introduced into Parliament, and it gained royal assent nine months later as the Anatomy Act of 1832. It authorized dissection on bodies from workhouses, unclaimed after 48 hours, and ended the practice of anatomizing as part of the death sentence for murder. The filmmakers relied on Stevenson’s story for the thoroughly creepy ending to The Body Snatcher, even if the public record would might have been just as effective. have sufficed. It was one of three films – along with Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) – that Karloff made under Lewton’s guidance for RKO Radio Pictures. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Karloff stated that Lewton was the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored his soul. Lugosi’s role is far less pronounced in the story. Lewton, Wise and cinematographer Robert De Grasse made the most of RKO’s budgetary restrictions and it resulted in a picture that won the respect of critics, then and now. The Scream/Shout package benefits from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; the new featurette, “You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher”; commentary with Wise and writer/film-historian Steve Haberman; the documentary, “Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy; stills galleries; and marketing material.

Although Hammer’s The Witches (a.k.a., “The Devil’s Own”) and Dino de Laurentiis’ La Strega (a.k.a., “The Witches”) were produced almost simultaneously in the mid-1960s – released under the same title in some markets – the common elements begin and end there. That is, unless one considers the near coincidence of their Blu-ray release, a year apart. The short films collected in Arrow Video’s anthology all starred Silvana Mangano. The episodes were directed by Mauro Bolognini (Careless), Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Franco Rossi (Nude Odyssey) and Luchino Visconti (The Leopard). Scream/Shout’s Joan Fontaine-vehicle, was directed by journeyman Cyril Frankel, who was making the transition from documentaries and features, to television. Fontaine, who, a quarter-century earlier, captured the Oscar as Best Actress for Suspicion, reportedly purchased the film rights to Norah Lofts’ novel –written under the nom-de-plume of Peter Curtis — and brought the project to Hammer. A box-office and critical bomb, The Witches would be her last feature. The plot, you might ask? Haunted by the terrors of her experience with African witch doctors, teacher Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) accepts an appointment as headmistress at the quiet, rural Haddaby School, run by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) and his sister, Stephanie (Kay Walsh). Soon enough, however, the pastoral English town reveals itself to be an outpost for witches and subscribers to the dark arts. Voodoo dolls link Gwen’s memories of her African ordeal to what’s happening today. If there’s a genuine scare in the entirety of The Witches, I missed it. The Blu-ray adds commentary with filmmaker/historian Ted Newsom; a stills gallery; vintage trailers; and the entertaining “Hammer Glamour: A Featurette on the Women of Hammer,”  with a half-dozen still-fi 1960-70s scream queens.

Life After Flash: Blu-ray
I must have had other things on my mind when Universal launched the sci-fi fantasy, Flash Gordon, into 823 American theaters on December 6, 1980. It was an updated version of the wildly popular 1930s serials, starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers/Carol Hughes and Charles Middleton, and, I probably assumed, a cheap rip-off of Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Even if that was producer Dino De Laurentiis’ intention, Flash Gordon was anything but a cheap rip-off. Many critics lauded its faithful re-adaptation of the original serial, while the presence of director Mike Hodges (Get Carter), writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Pretty Poison), cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Star Wars), production and costume designer Danilo Donati (Amarcord), Queen (Highlander) and such top-shelf actors as Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal), Brian Blessed (“I Claudius”), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton (License to Kill), Ornella Muti (The Last Woman), Peter Wyngarde (“Doctor Who”) and Mariangela Melato (The Seduction of Mimi) should have alerted me to the movie’s blockbuster potential. Like I said, though, I wasn’t paying attention. The only ringers, it turns out, were unknowns Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson, who were chosen to play protagonists Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, and they did a commendable job in the future cult classic.

Lisa Downs’ incisive documentary, Life After Flash (2017), explains what happened to Jones after his career was nearly ruined by a nasty disagreement with De Laurentiis near the end of Flash Gordon’s production. The chisel-chinned actor never stopped working after being replaced during the dubbing process, but superstar status would forever elude him. Nonetheless fans of the actor and movie still turn out for autographs and photos by the dozens at Comic Cons and memorabilia auctions around the world. Still handsome and buff, at 64, the former Marine is a personable guy, who freely admits to his struggles and mistakes as an actor, husband and father. I don’t know how many fans of George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Klinton Spilsbury (The Legend of the Lone Ranger) and “internationally known and acclaimed actress,” Rula Lenska (Alberto VO5 Shampoo), frequent their appearances at conventions … if any. Jones survived his blunders in much the same way as Adam West overcame his close, campy association with “Batman,”  the 1967 TV series on ABC. Downs devotes an equal amount of time to the production of Flash Gordon, itself, through the candid recollections of Hodges, Stan Lee, Queen’s Brian May and Jones’ co-stars, crew members, fans, sci-fi buffs and family members. Among them are Michael Rooker, Robert Rodriguez, Patrick Warburton, musician Paul Oakenfold, Sean Gunn, Richard Donner, Martha De Laurentiis and Jon Heder. An appreciation of Jones’ body of work or Flash Gordon isn’t necessary to get something out Life After Flash, but it certainly helps. Bonus materials include behind-the-scenes footage and extended interviews with cast and crew. (In a cool cross-promotion gimmick, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment once paired the Blu-ray edition of Flash Gordon with Ted and Ted 2, during which Mark Wahlberg and his stuffed-bear buddy, Ted, frequently reference Jones. It includes, as well, the first episode of the 1936 serial.)

Warning Sign: Blu-ray
Made in 1985, a time when no conspiracy theory was too outrageous to dismiss out of hand, Warning Sign is a paranoid thriller too close to reality for comfort. In this way, at least, it resembled The China Syndrome (1979), The Satan Bug (1965), Soylent Green (1975) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). In the film’s opening moments, we watch a crop duster spray an agricultural field with chemicals created to kill pests, weeds and other deterrents to a profitable yield. We’re then transported to the grounds of a nearby chemical plant, BioTek Agronomics, where, we’re led to believe, such products are formulated. The rest of Warning Sign takes place inside the BioTek complex. When a clumsy researcher drops a vial on the floor and one of his cronies steps on it, we instinctively know that things won’t be the same for anyone in the vicinity. Moreover, fans of such cautionary tales know that a greater catastrophe could be triggered if the substance finds its way into the world outside the facility.

When the impacted worker attempts to leave the building for his nightly commute home, a warning sound blares out, prompting a cleansing ritual right out of Silkwood (1983). It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the plant’s primary product is a bio-chemical weapon and the research is backed by the Pentagon. Soon, scabs begin to form on the faces of BioTek scientists and they begin to act like blood-thirsty ghouls. Because this is a side-effect to the toxin no one in the company anticipated, they’ve failed to produce a vaccine to counteract its effects. Conveniently, sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) – who’s not only married to an endangered guard, Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan), but also is a rogue biologist – is emboldened to break into the infected laboratory and whip a remedy together. Can he do it in time to save the planet? You get one guess. All I’ll reveal is the curious fact that at least one of the women trapped inside the building appears to be immune to the virus and, therein, a cure might be discovered. Hal Barwood’s Warning Sign is every bit as cut-and-dried as that summary makes it sound. Early in their careers, co-screenwriters Barwood and Matthew Robbins worked closely with Steven Spielberg on his debut feature, The Sugarland Express (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), as well as John Badham’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Joe Sargent’s MacArthur (1977) and Robbins’ Dragonslayer (1981) and Corvette Summer (1978). It doesn’t show in Warning Sign, which isn’t as claustrophobic or ominous as it should be. Zombie completists may want to add it to their bucket list, though. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Barwood and producer Jim Bloom, and vintage commentary with Barwood.

Nemesis: Sequel Trilogy: Blu-ray
In December, Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) was released on Blu-ray in a surprisingly generous “Collector’s Edition” as part of MVD’s Rewind Collection. Coming so soon after the first re-discovery of Blade Runner’s brilliance, it seemed to be an unofficial, unsanctioned and unequal sequel to Ridley Scott’s futuristic noir. Even given its budgetary limitations, though, Nemesis didn’t dishonor Blade Runner by skimping on the production values or mocking the science behind the fiction. The Blu-ray release begged the question as to when the company would package the three sequels that quickly followed in original’s  wake. Here it is. Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) is set 73 years after the events depicted in Nemesis, during which humans lost the Cyborg Wars and were enslaved to their robotic masters. In the interim, rebel scientists developed a new DNA strain, which presents a direct threat to cyborg rule. The strain is injected it into a pregnant volunteer, who, when discovered, travels back in time with her baby, on a stolen cyborg time machine. Long story short, the child survives the death of her mother, growing into a formidable young cyber-woman, Alex, who not only is beautiful, but also is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. She’s played by professional body builder and model Sue Price, who sports blond dreadlocks and favors skimpy two-piece outfits. Her existence is discovered by a cyborg bounty hunter, Nebula (Chad Stahelski), who travels back in time to terminate her. In Nemesis 3: Time Lapse, which was cobbled together from scraps collected from the first sequel, Alex learns that she has 20 half-sisters, who are waiting for her to return to the year 2077. Before that can happen, though, Central Command wants her to be captured alive and scanned to see if her DNA is a more powerful strain than normal. Tim Thomerson returns to the franchise, playing the second version of his cyborg character from Nemesis. Alex may be too tough for him to handle, though.

In Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels: Alex finally returns to the future, during an uneasy ceasefire between the humans and the cyborgs. Like other such beings, she is earning a living as a cybernetically enhanced assassin for her boss, Bernardo (Andrew Divoff). When Alex accidentally kills the son of a crime-syndicate boss, he puts a price on her head that other assassins can’t ignore.  Here, the story unspools in an urban setting and Alex has changed her look into something cosmopolitan and traditionally feminine. Pyun also convinced Price to give fanboys a thrill, by instructing the character to shed her clothes for the first time. The package adds three lengthy interviews with Pyun. On June 6, MVD is scheduled to release the Pyun-less Nemesis 5: The New Model, which adds a bit more mileage to the franchise, if not a lot of substance. For it, Price returned to acting for the first time in 21 years.

The Street Fighter Collection: Blu-ray
Sister Street Fighter Collection: Blu-ray
In the wake of Bruce Lee’s untimely death on July 20, 1973, and posthumous release of Enter the Dragon, a month later, producers of martial-arts actioners scrambled to find somehow to fill one of his shoes, at least. In Hong Kong, it was easier to stage retrospectives and bio-docs, frequently with lesser actors adopting variations of his name, than to move forward with new ideas and superstars. That would come a bit later. Thai kick-boxing lacked the broader appeal that came with charismatic stars and complex storylines. Such American and European stars as Jim Kelly, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damm emerged from the pack, as did Asian fighters Jackie Chan, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Chia-Hui Liu and Bolo Yeung. Whether he played a hero or antihero, Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba capably shifted the axis of martial-arts domination from Hong Kong to Japan, at least until Chan developed a style and personality to call his own. Unlike Lee, there was nothing balletic, fluid or nuanced in Chiba’s repertoire of karate, judo and kenpo skills. At times, he defined the term, “bull in a china shop.” But, man, he could fight. After a decade spent playing gangsters, undercover cops, bodyguards and soldiers, Shiba broke through the scrum in The Street Fighter (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial-arts actor in international cinema for the next two decades. Produced by Toei Company Ltd and released in the U.S. by fledgling New Line Cinema, it is notable as the first film to receive an X-rating solely for violence. The MPAA ratings board looked askance at Chiba’s character, Tsurugi, castrating a rapist with his bare hands and crushing another henchman’s skull as if it were an ostrich egg. (Today, it would be released with an R or, worst case, NC-17 designation.)

In it, Takuma Tsurugi is a master of martial arts and much-in-demand mercenary. When an important business magnate dies, leaving billions to his daughter, the Mafia and Yakuza try to hire Takuma to kidnap the girl. When the gangsters refuse to meet his admittedly exorbitant price, they try to kill him to protect their interests. He, then, offers his services to keep her out of harm’s way. That’s all the information one needs to complete the summary. Also included in Shout’s “The Street Fighter Collection” are the sequels Toei produced immediately thereafter to cash in on Chiba’s increased marketability: Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. All three were released in Japan in the same year. In the first R-rated sequel, Tsurugi commits his talents to busting up a phony charity put together by the Yakuza. In “Last Revenge,” which took five years to reach the U.S., albeit in abbreviated form, Tsurugi is involved in a scheme to obtain one of two tapes containing a secret recipe that would allow someone to make high-quality synthetic heroin cheaply. When the deal goes wrong, the mobsters cheat Tsurugi out of his money and try to kill him. He also gets mixed up with a corrupt district attorney, who uses an ancient Korean martial-arts technique to beat up Tsurugi, who will go to great lengths to avoid it happening, again. It also turns out that the D.A. and Takuma are sleeping with the same femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to gets what wants. If the story doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, neither will the plots of most other martial-arts flicks of the period. It isn’t what drew paying customers to theaters. (This includes Alabama and Clarence, in True Romance, who meet at a Sonny Chiba triple-feature.) The Shout collection is enhanced by 2K remasters of the films; uncut versions of the films, as well as the U.S. edition of “Last Revenge”; and lively new interviews with Chiba and filmmaker Jack Shoulder (The Hidden).

The four films in Arrow’s  similarly entertaining “Sister Street Fighter Collection,” series, which began that same year with Sister Street Fighter, starring Chiba-protégée Etsuko Shihomi. After writing her hero a few times, the teenager joined his élite Japan Action Club, where students learned martial-arts technique and performed acting exercises. A quick learner, the onetime gymnast made her feature film debut opposite Sonny in 1973’s Bodyguard Kiba and shortly thereafter landed a supporting role in The Street Fighter. She went on to appear in both Street Fighter sequels and star in all three sequels to Sister Street Fighter, changing her character’s name from Li Koryu, in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (1974) and The Return of the Sister Street Fighter (1975), to Kiku Nakagawa, in Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (a.k.a., “Lethal Woman: Fifth Level Fist”), which probably was envisioned as a stand-alone feature, until studio executives decided that there was nothing to be gained by messing with the brand. Neither did they mess with the basic story elements. In all four movies, the title character is a wonderfully gifted martial artist, who volunteers to travel from Hong Kong to Japan to check on the well-being of a family member or friend who’s disappeared from view and is likely involved in a Yakuza enterprise, be it smuggling, cutting gems, drug trafficking, prostitution, blackmail, or combinations thereof. It doesn’t take long for the mob boss to recognize Li or Kiku as an imposter or undercover cop. He’ll pay his minions a small fortune to eliminate her, but her fighting skills keep her alive. What’s interesting is the large number of fighting styles represented in the clashes, which the producers were kind enough to identify by name, country of origin and weapon of choice, from nunchuks and swords, to darts and tanto daggers. Neither are Shihomi’s characters the only women represented in the melees. There’s also a group of female Thai kickboxers, called the Amazon Seven, (In Sister Street Fighter, Chiba appears in a cameo as a fellow karate master who helps Koryu in her mission.) The Arrow collection adds the excellent featurettes, “Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 3”; “Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Kick Ass Sisters,” with the director, who discusses some of his films, which prominently feature women; “Masahiro Kaketuda: Subversive Action,” with the co-screenwriter of the first three Sister Street Fighter films; isolated score highlights; a stills and poster gallery; international versions; and an insert booklet.

Also from Arrow Video
Phantom Lady: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Kolobos: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Strip Nude for Your Killer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Film noir is elastic enough a subgenre to include private detectives who aren’t particularly hardboiled, lighting schemes that aren’t always dark and shadowy, women who would resent being referred to as a dame or doll, and narratives that don’t need a searchlight to follow. Before watching Robert Siodmak’s “lesser noir” drama, Phantom Lady (1944), I recommend checking out “Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir,” an insightful archival documentary, featuring contributions from directors Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk and Bryan Singer, Dennis Hopper, critic B. Ruby Rich and others, who debate the definitions of noir and neo-noir, using lots of samples of movies that qualify and others that don’t. Siodmak was raised and educated in Germany, where he couldn’t help but be influenced by the techniques of Expressionism, which he would incorporate into his Hollywood assignments (The Killers, The Dark Mirror), especially those compartmentalized as noir. Phantom Lady has also been called Hitchcockian, if only because producer Joan Harrison worked closely with him in England and accompanied him to the U.S., in 1939. (With Harriet Parsons and Virginia Van Upp, was one of only three women working as contract producers for major Hollywood studios between 1943 and 1955.) What Phantom Lady lacks in narrative logic is more than made up for in eccentric stylistic conceits that mask the problems. Basically, it’s about businessman Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who’s framed in the murder of his wife, with whom he’s just had an argument. When Scott gets home from a night spent at a cabaret show, with an equally despondent woman (Fay Helm) he’s just met at a bar, he’s greeted by a trio of callous cops. After he recalls for them his movements from the moment he left home to the moment he returned, he’s still considered to be the prime suspect. The lead inspector (Thomas Gomez) willingly tests Henderson’s alibi, but no one he met the night before – bartender, cabbie, cabaret dancer, a drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) – agrees with his version. Worse, his date has vanished from the face of the Earth. Of course, Henderson comes off as a hopeless fantasist to the jury members and judge, who sentences him to death. His only hope lies in his secretary’s belief in his innocence. Carol (Ella Raines) picks up the investigation where the police dropped it. Then, she’s joined by Gomez and Scott’s best friend (Franchot Tone), whose alibi is being on a ship headed to Cuba that night. At 87 minutes, viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief to the limits of their patience. I suspect that Cornell Woolrich’s hit novel left less to the imagination. The package also includes a rare, hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady, by the Lux Radio Theater; a stills and promotional gallery; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by author Alan K. Rode.

In addition to classics, cult favorites and genre fare, Arrow will occasionally release on Blu-ray a pristinely archived edition of a film so obscure that its creators may not remember making it. Kolobos (1999) is just such a flick. Co-writers/co-directors Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk, and co-writer Nne Ebong, don’t appear to have benefitted much from the straight-to-video release, although a few of the actors would enjoy a couple of moments in the sun. It would be difficult not recognize Kolobos’ antecedents: Suspiria (1977), MTV’s “The Real World” (1992), Cube (1997) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), or such coincidental descendants as CBS’ “Big Brother” (2000) and “Survivor” (2000), Saw (2004) and My Little Eye (2002). The film begins with a couple coming across a severely wounded girl, who can only utter the word “kolobos.” It, then, flashes back a few days, to the arrival of an artist named Kyra (Amy Weber) at a house, with several other college-age kids who’ve agreed to take part in an experimental film. It requires them to live together for three months, while cameras record their interactions. Kyra’s artwork, which appears to be inspired by a creepy faceless entity, disturbs her new housemates. Certain members of the group don’t get along so well, but things don’t turn nasty until the house literally shuts itself off from the outside world and a series of deadly traps picks them off one by one. Each murder is ghastly in its own way. Then, of course, the story flashes forward briefly to Kyra’s portentous stay in the hospital. Kolobos doesn’t fit naturally into the haunted-house subgenre. The murders are gory enough to qualify the movie as “torture porn,” while the budget and production values probably fit within the D.I.Y. framework. Completists will certainly want to give Kolobos a peek. (At one point, Kyra observes, “Kolobos means ‘mutilated.’ Some would say it’s what Zeus did when he severed the first creatures who roamed the earth in two, condemning them to wander in search of their better half.”) The Blu-ray features a fresh 2K restoration from the original negative; original stereo and 5.1 audio options; commentary with Liatowitsch and Ocvirk; a new featurette, “Real World Massacre: The Making of Kolobos,” and interviews with actor Ilia Volok, the actor who played “Faceless,” and composer William Kidd; a behind-the-scenes image gallery; a Super 8 short film, by Liatowitsch; and, with the first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Phillip Escott.

Nowhere is the nexus between sex, violence and horror more pronounced than in special Blu-ray editions of “Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz” and Strip Nude for Your Killer. One of the most underrated and oft-neglected genre filmmakers of his generation, Catalonian director José Ramón Larraz finally receives his due in this collection of three creepy/sexy films from the first half of his 32-year cinematic career. Rarely seen, Whirlpool (1970) was his debut feature. It features Vivian Neves, as Tulia, a young model invited to a photographer’s secluded country home for a weekend retreat. A ménage-a-trois develops between Tulia, the decidedly perverse photographer (Karl Lanchbury) and a MILF-y magazine editor (Pia Andersson). Tulia has good reason to become concerned about the arrangement, when a local police detective arrives at the estate to investigate the disappearance of a previous guest, played by another model-turned-actress, Johanna Hegger. Whirlpool contains lots of nudity, feigned sex, a ghost and murder. Vampyres (1974) is the most widely-released of all Larraz’ films, if only because of the irresistible combination of beautiful lesbian vampires (Marianne Morris, Anulka Dziubinska), handsome male victims (Murray Brown, Brian Deacon, Michael Byrne), a busty tourist (Sally Faulkner), beaucoup nudity and gallons of blood. As an additional bonus, Vampyres was shot almost entirely at Oakley Court, a stately mansion also used on Rocky Horror Picture Show. In The Coming of Sin (1978), a superstitious, illiterate gypsy servant girl, Triana (Lidia Zuazo), is invited to move into the rural estate of a solitary female artist, Lorna (Patricia Granada). Triana experiences recurring nightmares of a naked man – a handsome, young gypsy – riding a magnificent steed, bareback. When Lorna meets Chico (Rafael Machado), the man she assumes is from Triana’s dreams, she can’t help but be attracted to him. Lorna will ignore her maid’s warnings about the danger presented by Chico, even going so far as to inviting him into the villa and painting him alongside Triana, in Goya-esque poses. She also encourages Chico to bring his entire family for a party, at which the paintings will be displayed. Trouble ensues. Coming of Sin was distributed around the world, but under different titles and varying degrees of censorship. The limited-edition collection features all three films, newly restored in 2K from original film elements; an extensive menu of newly produced bonus material, including commentaries, interviews and unseen archival content; newly commissioned artwork, by Gilles Vranckx; an 80-page perfect-bound book, with new writing by Jo Botting, Tim Greaves and Vanity Celis; and the frighteningly erotic 27-minute short, “His Last Request” (2005), directed by Simon Birrell and made under the guidance of Larraz.

As the 1970s wore on and audiences began to tire of the tried and tested giallo formula, Italian filmmakers sought to reinvigorate the ailing movement by injecting elements from other genres. Some took inspiration from the then-burgeoning crime/thriller movement, with tales of organized crime and corrupt police officials, while others decided to sex things up by crossing serial-killer thrills with salacious softcore antics. In Andrea Bianchi and co-writer Massimo Felisatti’s Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975), a spate of highly sexualized murders is rocking a prestigious Milanese fashion house. Ambitious photographer Magda (Edwige Fenech) and her boyfriend, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo), team up to crack the case. The common denominator is a leather-clad intruder, who wears a motorcycle helmet and knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. Although there are plenty of suspects, the revelation of the killer’s identity may take many viewers by surprise. Once again, the nudity is plentiful, as are such diversions as kitschy fashion shoots, a back-alley abortion, blow-up sex dolls and bawdy humor. It, too, benefits from a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative; enhanced subtitles; new audio commentary by horrorpedia.com’s Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; “Sex and Death With a Smile,” a fresh video essay by author and critic Kat Ellinger on giallo and sex comedy icon Edwige Fenech; “A Good Man for the Murders,” a newly edited video interview with actor Nino Castelnuovo; “The Blonde Salamander,” with actress Erna Schurer; “The Art of Helping,” with assistant director Daniele Sangiorgi; an interview with actor and production manager Tino Polenghi; two versions of the opening scene, tinted and un-tinted; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collectors’ booklet, with a new essay by critic Rachael Nisbet.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Victoria and Albert: The Wedding
PBS: NOVA: Pluto and Beyond
PBS: Nature: Equus: Story of the Horse
PBS is to Britain’s royal family what the Trumps are to Fox News: gifts that keep on giving. “Victoria and Albert: The Wedding” aired in the runup to the third-season premiere of the network’s much-admired mini-series, “Victoria.” Naturally, when the BBC decided to re-stage the world’s most lavish and expensive wedding to date, it tapped Lucy Worsley, the network’s historian of choice. Her sparkling personality stands in direct contrast to previous BBC presenters, who, by comparison, made Prince Phillip look like Buddy Hackett. In doing so, she scoured archival materials from several museums and libraries, as well Queen Victoria’s diaries. Not all of them had been preserved, but those that were available allowed Worsley to offer guidance and supervision to dozens of artisans hired  for the project. She accomplished this much in the same way that Victoria and her staff had pulled things together for the all-day gala on February 10, 1840. Worsley also delights in recounting the story of Victoria and Albert’s courtship and engagement, and the new king’s efforts to win over detractors of the German invader. More than anything else, however, the two-part mini-series explains how this one extraordinary event helped to invent the modern “white wedding.” The meals are replicated in ways that almost defy the laws of gravity, architecture and economics. We’re taken to the royal archives, where various pieces of wedding attire are stored. Absent wedding photographs, the show’s producers relied on George Hayter’s painting, “The Marriage of Queen Victoria,” which took the artist more than two years to complete. It detailed the placement of the guests and clergy, as well as dresses and military garb of those in attendance.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. For the next 62 years, it was considered the ninth planet in the solar system. Between 1992 and 2006, astronomers with too much time on their hand debated whether  Pluto was, in fact, a planet; a dwarf planet among other dwarves in the Kuiper belt; or a giant snowball. It took the International Astronomical Union all that time to define the term “planet” formally and reclassify Pluto as a dwarf. It pissed off a lot of astronomy buffs, lower-grade researchers and sci-fi enthusiasts. Pluto has five known moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra — but is less massive than Eris, another dwarf in the belt. While the geniuses at the IAU played the name game, NASA went ahead and launched the New Horizons interplanetary space probe and pointed it towards the soon-to-be-disrespected non-planet. It took the spacecraft nine years to accomplish its primary mission — a fly-by study of Pluto’s surface — and begin its secondary objective, which includes flying by and studying one or more other Kuiper belt objects. “NOVA: Pluto and Beyond” tells the amazing story of the mission, so far, through downloaded photographs, data, interviews and speculation. The probe then headed for Ultima Thule, for another flu-by and downlink.

The fascinating two-part “Nature” presentation, “Equus: Story of the Horse” traces the evolution of the horse from its emergence as a small multi-toed creature, Eohippus, into the large, single-toed animal of today. The process has occurred over the past 45 to 55 million years. Humans began domesticating horses around 4000 BC, and their domestication is believed to have been widespread by 3000 BC. Since then, they’ve helped shape the human world, conquering distances and other obstacles to progress, sometimes at full speed and, when necessary, pulling great loads. They’ve lifted countless warriors to victory and died beside less-fortunate riders on the fields of battle. In Part II, we follow the producers as they study the bloodlines of very different breeds of horses around the planet and use modern technology to discover why Thoroughbred racehorses sometimes appear as if they’re taking  flight. With the Kentucky Derby just around the corner the DVD is a perfect way to prepare for the annual display of pageantry, beauty and speed.

The DVD Wrapup: Mary Returns, Becoming Astrid, Quake, Holiday, Vengeance, Out of Love, HoneyGlue, Born in East L.A., Greasy Strangler, Mystery Road … More

Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The release of Mary Poppins Returns, on DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD, provides a great excuse for fans of the 1964  musical/fantasy to re-focus on the story behind the myth. It might not be essential to any enjoyment of Disney’s adaptation of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel – or its 2018 re-adaptation – but it’s always fun to spray graffiti on our landmarks.Many pop-historians thought Saving Mr. Banks (2013) would settle the score on who did what to whom and why Travers was so incensed by the Disney version. What, she was? Yes, but that’s not exactly how John Lee Hancock’s otherwise entertaining biopic, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, saw it. In fact, it echoed so many other Disney fantasies that merged fact with fiction in defense of a happy ending. What it didn’t explain was the mysterious lack of sequels to Mary Poppins, which normally would have spawned adaptations of all eight of the books in the series, which began in 1934 and didn’t end until 1988. It was a big commercial hit, with 13 Oscar nominations – winning five – and nearly unanimous praise from critics. In fact, Uncle Walt was so distressed over the possibility that Travers would spoil the gala opening, he made sure that she wasn’t invited. (She found an executive, who soothed her features by adding her name to the guest list.) In fact, most of Travers’ complaints didn’t hold water, then, and they still don’t. Instead, this wonderfully talented Australian-born writer should have followed the good witch Glinda’s advice to Dorothy, click the heels of her ruby slippers together three and chant, “There’s no place like home.” Or, she might have been better advised to anticipate the advice given to viewers of Last House on the Left (1972): “keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie,’ and a good one, at that.” Still, even with its revisionist take on a historic event, Saving Mr. Banks wasn’t all that far off the mark. There’s no faulting the actors’ portrayal of Disney or Travers, or Hancock’s depiction of the collaborative process that made Mary Poppins such a treat. (A quick perusal of the trivia sections at IMDB.com provides explanations for most of the misrepresentations.) In 2004, a stage musical adaptation opened on London’s West End, and, two years later, on Broadway.

The production defied her wish that no one who worked on the movie be allowed to contribute to any subsequent adaptation. And, Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Misérables”) did agree to her stipulation about only hiring English-born writers and crew. Wisely, though, Mackintosh and the folks at Walt Disney Theatrical chose to include original songs by the Sherman Brothers, with additional material by Brit tunesmiths George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The live musical did very well in both countries. Travers softened her anti-Disney stance in the 1980s, but all sorts of creative differences arose, anyway, delaying its launch until well after her death, in 1996. Flash ahead to Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel in most of the usual ways, it does tweak Julie Andrew’s sunny interpretation of the magical nanny’s personality, making her more outwardly stern and inflexible with Michael Banks’ three children. In Emily Blunt’s talented hands, Poppins is truer to Travers’ original description of the character. The family’s situation is quite a bit more dire, as well. The story is set in Depression-era London, a year after the untimely passing of Michael’s wife and 25 years since the events of Mary Poppins. Older sister Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) has moved into the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, largely to keep Annabel, John and Georgie from tearing the house into pieces and helping longtime housekeeper, Ellen (Emily Walters), feed and clothe them. When Jane isn’t doing that, she is a labor organizer. It’s a career choice that Disney wouldn’t have tolerated. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is preoccupied by threats from his boss, William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth), to foreclose on his home and fire him. As the bank’s deadline approaches, Mary conjures a plan to save the house and give Weatherall his comeuppance, all in one fell swoop.

By now, she’s got the kids working as a unit, alongside cockney lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Admiral Boom (David Warner) and first-mate Mister Binacle (Jim Norton), and Jack’s fellow lamplighter, Angus (Tarik Frimpong). Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameos in smaller, but still crucial scenes. Miranda and Blunt’s acting and singing in new, Broadway-ready production numbers – “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” — energize Mary Poppins Returns, without doing any damage to the Sherman Brothers’ original time-honored soundtrack, which can be heard in the background. Neither are we allowed to forget Mary Poppin’s mission to promote the notion that “everything is possible, even the impossible,” especially if Michael and Jane can rekindle their childhood enthusiasm for discovery and balancing work and play. My only problem with the picture is its length. At 130 minutes, I doubt that most younger viewers possess the stamina to stay with Mary Poppins Returns until the uplifting ending, which transcends the darkness by adding some pixie dust. (It’s correctly rated PG, for “some mild thematic elements and brief action.”) The 4K UHD presentation nicely enhances Marshall’s shifting color palette, depending on the outdoor setting, post-Victorian fashions and the live-action animation. The shimmering cityscape in the opening credits reminded me of Claude Monet’s “London, Houses of Parliament” series and other Impressionist views of urban life.

Bolstered by HDR color enhancements, the 4K produces a mild increase in sharpness over the Blu-ray, offering slightly more clear and nuanced textures across the board. Only audio geeks and purists are likely detect much of a difference between Mary Poppins Returns‘ Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. The bonus material is contained exclusively on the bundled Blu-ray disc. (A commentary track with Marshall and producer John DeLuca is available only with the enclosed digital version.) Also included  are the on-screen “Sing-Along Mode”; “Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns,” in which cast and crew members discuss the impact of the 93-year-old hoofer’s appearance in the film and how it shaped the production by returning an original cast member to the set; “Practically Perfect Bloopers”; “Seeing Things From a Different Point of View,” a collection of making-of shorts that focus on several of the musical numbers; “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” on the song’s importance to the film and how the choreography developed as an homage to the original film (young viewers are allowed to ask the musical question, “What the hell is a light fantastic?”); “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”/”A Cover Is Not the Book,” in which cast and crew discuss the challenges of filming live-action sequences that show up in the animated world; “Turning Turtle” explores set design for the “Topsy Turvy” sequence, with Meryl Streep, and how the musical number came together; “Can You Imagine That?,” a look at creating the magical sequence in the bathtub, including the slide used to move the characters into the underwater world and the rigging used to green-screen the scene before the CGI was added; the deleted song, “The Anthropomorphic Zoo”; the four-part “Practically Perfect Making of Mary Poppins Returns; “Nowhere to Go But Up” highlights Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke’s work and impact on the film; and deleted scenes.

Becoming Astrid
At its core, Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid is a coming-of-age story about a Swedish teenager, Astrid Lindgren, required to clear several hurdles before emerging, years later, as one of the most celebrated authors of children’s literature on the planet. If the name rings a bell, it’s because of her authorship of the Pippi Longstocking stories. The events covered in Becoming Astrid occur almost 20 years before the first of those beloved books was published. Instead of focusing on the development of her most popular character, the movie considers how her ability to overcome the social and religious stigmas of her time informed everything that would happen later. Raised on a modest dairy farm, by simple God-fearing parents, Astrid knew that her horizons expanded further than those typically allowed Scandinavian villagers. After graduating from high school, the whip-smart Astrid (Alba August) jumped at the opportunity to work for the editor of a local newspaper. Reinhold Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen) was several years older than his intern, married and the father of one of her classmates. Because Blomberg was in the process of divorcing his wife, he was vulnerable to the attention of a prime-and-proper teenager, in a hurry to grow up. If Christensen and her co-writer/husband Kim Fupz Aakeson don’t present the characters’ ensuing affair as a prime example of an early #MeToo moment, contemporary viewers won’t miss what’s right before her eyes. That’s because, when Astrid becomes pregnant, she’s the one required to give up a promising career and move out of town. Even though Blomberg promises they will be married, as soon as the divorce is finalized, we know that it’s unlikely to happen. Instead, Mrs. Blomberg sniffs out the situation and threatens her husband with charges of adultery and a never-ending trial. To avoid complications for her parents, who are reliant on the church for their living, Astrid decides to move secretly into a home for unwed mothers in Copenhagen, where she isn’t required to disclose the baby-daddy’s name. Eventually, she gives up on any chance that Blomberg will ever be in a position to acknowledge Lars as his child. Fortuitously, the saint-like woman who agrees to be the child’s foster mom is agreeable to regular visits from Astrid and a co-parenting arrangement. She’s working at the Royal Automobile Club, in Stockholm, and struggling build a nestegg. Lars isn’t quite as accommodating, however, feeling safer around the foster mother, Maria Bonnevie, wonderfully played by Trine Dyrholm (Nico, 1988).

Things come to a head, once again, when Maria is diagnosed with a fatal illness and Astrid must find a way to care for her toddler, while working  at the office as a proofreader. In what appears to be another perfect setting for a #MeToo moment, her new employer recognizes her dilemma and cuts her the slack she needs to attend to her son and still meet her deadlines. Our fears that Sture Lindgren (Björn Gustafsson), who’s married, will attempt to take advantage of Astrid, for once, aren’t realized. Indeed, they will spend the next 20 years together, as a married couple and parents of a daughter, Karin … off-screen. Long before that happens, however, Becoming Astrid ties a bow on the package, by allowing her to return to home town, with Lars in tow, where she’ll enjoy a sincere rapprochement with her parents and a family visit to church. To constantly remind viewers of the reasons we should care about her protagonist – years before Pippi enters Astrid’s life — Christensen creates a framing device build around letters she would receive decades later from young readers, who credit the stories for inspiring them to dream and overcome obstacles to success. Apropos of nothing, Lindgren created the mischievous 9-year-old, whose red hair is woven into braids, to amuse her daughter when she was sick and confined to her bed. Karin even came up with the girl’s delightful name.  The impact of Pippi’s rebellious personality on women born in the wake of World War II and, of course, their own daughters, wouldn’t be felt until the late 1960s, when the Women’s Liberation Movement forever changed male/female dynamic. Pippi also was an early, if subliminal model for women who would lead the charge in the movement to empower women. Stieg Larsson has admitted Pippi’s likeness to Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She could have been the patron saint of women belonging to Wild Grrrl bands of the early 1990s and the SuicideGirls’ online community. Alba August, whose parents are Swedish/Danish filmmakers, Bille and Pernilla August, was an excellent choice to play the girl who traded milking pails for typewriters and printers’ ink. Although I wouldn’t necessarily limit my recommendation of Becoming Astrid to teenage girls and women who grew up on Lindberg’s books, it’s the movie’s natural audience.

The Quake: Blu-ray
Like its 2015 predecessor, The Wave, the disaster depicted in The Quake is based on the laws of scientific probability and the real impact of previous tragedies. Roar Uthaug’s regional blockbuster, The Wave, was inspired by a geological event that occurred on April 7, 1934, in Tafjorden, Norway, when a huge chunk of a steep mountain fell 700 meters, into the fjord, creating a 62-meters-high tsunami. It swept away two villages, killing dozens, and prompted calls for early-warning systems. In the latter, John Andreas Andersen resets much of the calamitous action that made The Wave a hit, back in the partially restored village of Geirangerfjord, which was destroyed in the earlier picture. Also returning in The Quake is Norwegian actor Kristoffer Joner, as geologist Kristian Eikjord, the man credited with saving hundreds of lives in the tsunami. Three years later, Kristian is suffering from a debilitating bout of post-tsunami-stress disorder and depression, sufficiently serious to cause his wife and children to move to a high-rise in the capital. Although he’s still haunted by the faces of victims of the tsunami, he’s become fixated on the possibility of another disaster tearing through a more populated region. In 1904, a 5.4 earthquake shook Oslo, along the Oslo Graben rift, which, like the San Andreas Fault, presents a constant danger to the urban center. When a colleague is killed in a rockslide, inside a closed transit tunnel outside Oslo, Kristian visits the city to discover what the scientist was researching at the time of his death. Mostly, though, he wants to warn officials of the possibility of a similar disaster occurring sometime soon and encourage them to begin preparations for it. Kristian also wants to reconnect with his family and the daughter of his friend. In a Hollywood remake – please Lord, no – Jonas could be replaced by Steve Buscemi, to whom he bears a physical resemblance. Conveniently, just as city officials are preparing to write Kristian off as just another boy crying wolf, a series of electrical blackouts begin to occur. I’ll let you guess what happens next. The narratives of both The Wave and The Quake remain solidly in Syfy Channel territory, until the disasters strike and things get very exciting, indeed. The movies’ techies create a great deal of mayhem on budgets comparable to just over $5 million. In John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake, the anemic budget allows just enough leeway for an exciting escape from a bar/restaurant, teetering precariously at a chillingly high distance from the ground. The luscious scenery looks great on Blu-ray, which also adds an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Holiday
For her freshman feature, Swedish multi-hyphenate Isabella Eklöf wears the influence of Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export) like a tattoo drawn on her chest. That shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It’s also possible that Holiday was inspired by such sun-drenched dramas as Sexy Beast (2000), Sand Dollars (2014), Heading South (2005), Swimming Pool (2003), The Limey (1999) and Seidel’s Paradise Trilogy (2012). If none is a direct match to Holiday, they all feature characters who travel from the dreary climes of northern Europe, to places where an overabundance of sunshine and sex erase well-drawn boundaries separating decorum and risky business. The poster photo showed rising Danish star Victoria Carmen Sonne posing on an idyllic white-sand beach, probably on the Turkish Riviera, where much of Holiday was shot. Indeed, her stance and modest swimsuit wouldn’t have been out of place on the covers of such magazines as Travel, Famous Models and, yes, Holiday, from the 1950s. The appropriately named actress also graces the cover of the DVD. This time, however, Sonne’s balancing her well-toned bottom on a railing over a yacht’s tapered bow. If her character, Sascha, seems a tad more common here, it’s only because she’s looking over her shoulder with an inquisitive stare. Add heart-shaped sunglasses and she’d be the spitting image of Lolita, and just as barely legal. Sascha’s just arrived in Bodrum, on her way to her gangster boyfriend’s mancave and yacht. Once there, Michael (Lai Yde) treats her as if she were an apprentice tart on holiday, enjoying her presence one minute and pummeling her the next. The beatings usually lead to rough sex … the kind even a compliant teenage girlfriend, well on her way to becoming a sex slave, might try to avoid. Even if Michael knows no limits, Sascha understands that the primary benefit of being a modern mobster’s moll is unlimited access to champagne, cocaine, jewelry and expensive modes of transportation. Curiously, Sascha doesn’t even appear to mind being passed along to his cronies. Eklöf doesn’t turn the burners up until the 50-minute mark into her story, co-written by first-timer Johanne Algren. It’s when a vicious sexual assault – the kind that gives some men a kick, but will leave the victim fighting for life — makes something snap inside Sascha, and she knows that she’s reached a point no return. She can either go back home and become a barista, or, she could continue to enjoy the trappings of wealth and power as a sociopathic leach, not unlike Theresa Russell’s character, in Black Widow (1987), or Thomas Ripley, in Patricia Highsmith novels and adaptations.

Vengeance: A Love Story: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, stuntman-turned-director/producer Johnny Martin (Case#13) adapted Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, “Rape: A Love Story,” as Vengeance: A Love Story. It may have been the only sound choice he made in the run-up to the straight-to-VOD thriller. It removes any ambiguity Oates may have built into the title of her story, without forcing writer John Mankiewicz (“House of Cards”) to conjure any more of his own device … or subtlety, for that matter. By comparison, Vengeance: A Love Story makes the Charles Bronson-vehicle Death Wish (1974) and more recent Peppermint (2018), starring Jessica Alba, look nuanced and contemplative. In all three of these revenge-driven films, the vigilante protagonist reacts not only to the murder/rape of loved ones by garden-variety hoodlums, but also the miscarriages of justice that follow. The same pattern was repeated in Oates’ novella. In it, Teena Maguire (Anna Hutchison) and her pre-teen daughter, Bethie (Talitha Eliana Bateman), decide to walk home from a 4th of July party, at midnight, through a wooded area on the fringes of Niagara Falls. Of course, they are attacked by a group of semi-literate hairballs, who remember Teena from high school. They’ve been celebrating our nation’s birthday by drinking cheap liquor and smoking crank. The cheerleader-cute blond is dragged into a remote boathouse and gang-raped, while Bethie is forced to watch, only a few feet away from her sister. It’s one of the most vicious sexual attacks I’ve seen in a TV-MA movie and Teena is given little chance of survival.

Enter John Dromoor (Cage), a Gulf War veteran and police detective, who’s just returned to work after the traumatic loss of his partner in a chase. He finds Bethie, walking in the middle of a road, screaming hysterically, immediately after the attack. It doesn’t take long for Dromoor to track down the rapists, who would be among the usual suspects in any crime committed within earshot of the falls. After Bethie identifies the attackers in a lineup and Teena slowly recovers from her wounds, the young men’s mother forcibly convinces her husband to mortgage their home to afford the best defence lawyer in the region, unctuously played a slick-as-owl-shit Don Johnson. Naturally, he uses the judge’s acquiescence to batter the prosecution witnesses, including Teena and Bethia, guaranteeing a dismissal of charges. Anyone who’s watched similar tales, made in the wake of Death Wish, already knows what happens next and who the avenging angel will be. The only thing left to determine is the meaning of “Love Story” in the titles of the book and movie. It’s not as obvious as one might think. Cage has played any number of cold-blooded killers and sociopaths – on both sides of the law – and, here, he’s spot-on. He even dispenses with most of his trademark theatrics. It’s always nice to find Deborah Kara Unger in a juicy role, this time as Teena and Bethia’s mother. The scenes shot at the rim of the falls are better than anything in the movie’s by-the-numbers script. For those, the production moved to the Atlanta area.

Out of Love: Blu-ray
Filmed and set in the great melting pot that is the Netherlands, sophomore writer/director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s contentious drama, Out of Love, prompts viewers to ask themselves several tough questions: how much leeway should we give lovers, who, after meeting cute, inexplicably turn into monsters; how can characters we start out liking not see the same storm clouds moving in that we do; what are we missing here, anyway; and how many times can a filmmaker pull the rug out from viewers, before we can no longer fight the urge to get up and go home. Varya (Naomi Velissariou) and Nikolai (Daniil Vorobyov) hook up after their eyes meet over the counter in a neighborhood restaurant. He’s in the kitchen, cooking, while she’s at the bar, drinking. Before too long, the Greek woman and Russian man are in bed having great sex. It’s first time we’re allowed to feel good about them, as a couple. The next time comes  when they appear to be testing the Ronettes’ time-honored theorem, “The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up (with me).” At first, we’re willing to consider the possibility that their fights are minor inconveniences. Then, Nikolai’s rage issues begin to surface, triggered, first, by Varya’s cooking, which doesn’t measure up to his. His outbursts are greeted by tantrums of her own, in which dishware and other moveable objects become casualties of war. Still, the makeup sex is pretty good. Jealousy, greed and insecurity push them to the brink of despair and separation, which, as long as they don’t have kids, is OK with us. When they meet again, near the 90-minute mark, we couldn’t care less about what happens to them. In another lifetime, maybe, these inarguably cute kids might have been able to overcome their differences and agree never to cook for each other, again.

Beyond Atlantis: Blu-ray
This low-budget, lower-profile drive-in non-thriller from 1973 combined recognizable elements of South of Pago Pago (1940), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). It did so, without adding anything positive to the time-honored story of beautiful mermaids and amphibious mermen, determined to protect a fortune in pearls from outsiders. The island’s inhabitants believe they’re survivors of the calamity that wiped out Atlantis, as do some Basques, and it’s their duty to honor its legacy. Unlike most other products from Eddie Romero, John Ashley and Sid Haig’s Philippine grindhouse factory –  Black Mama White Mama (1973), Savage Sisters (1974) and The Woman Hunt (1972), come to mind — Beyond Atlantis is an exploitation picture with no exploitable content. That is, unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, whose computer blocks all adult content, and you’ll settle for Amazons in shaggy bikinis. That’s because co-star Patrick Wayne insisted that the film be family friendly and go out PG-rated. Beyond Atlantis has been described by Corman graduate David DeCoteau as “one of the very few family-oriented B movies to come out of the Philippines.” It’s probably the closest thing to a compliment – bank-handed, as it may be – the film received. If Romero and Ashley could have predicted the VHS revolution, they might have gone ahead with plans for the mermaids to go topless and held the footage for an optional director’s-cut edition. The scenes that would have benefited most from the partial nudity are clearly visible in the finished product and any alterations would have been seamless. The cover illustration wouldn’t have to be changed, at all. As it is, Beyond Atlantis probably would have attracted more family audiences if it had been animated. Still, Romero, Ashley and Haig completists will want to take a peek at it. Bonus features include the original theatrical trailer; interviews with Ashley, Haig and actress Leigh Christian; commentary track with makeup-effects specialists Howard S. Berger and Pinoy film historian, Andrew Leavold; the 13-minute “John Ashley Remembered,” which was culled from interviews done for Mark Hartley’s 2010 documentary, “Machete Maidens Unleashed”; a photo and pressbook gallery; Berger also contributes an essay, which is printed on the inside of the cover.

The Greasy Strangler: Special Director’s Edition: Blu-ray
After somehow surviving two separate viewings of Jim Hosking and co-writer Toby Harvard’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) – three years apart – I’m prepared to defend it as the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures released after Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Apart from being a modern gross-out classic, The Greasy Strangler is consistently funny and occasionally hilarious. The humor isn’t “ironic” and the total package is too shrewdly conceived to qualify for “so bad, it’s good” status. It knows how far the envelope can be pushed and tests viewers ability to laugh out loud, while vomiting. In it, extreme social misfits, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and his son, Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), live in a house that’s always on the verge of being condemned, subsisting on food whose expiration dates are long past and probably had been scavenged from dumpsters. No matter how vile it looks and tastes, Daddy Dearest insists on slathering on obscene amounts of grease. No surprise, they’re seriously out of shape, hideously coiffed, dressed in thrift-shop rejects and frequently air out their diseased cocks in public. Even though we know they’re prosthetic, the thought of any woman allowing the men to penetrate their orifices is sickening. And yet, a short, nearly rotund tourist they me       et while conducting one of their bogus Disco Walking Tours falls in love with both the color-coordinated men. Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) may be nearly as out of shape as Big Ronnie and Big Brayden, but she’s exponentially more conscious of personal hygiene and the need for borders. Janet’s willingness to share the attentions of father and son sparks a winner-take-all war between them. It also brings out the beast in Big Ronnie, who, while slathered with grease (tapioca), joins the ranks of sociopathic serial killers. After each murder, he walks through the swirling brushes at the carwash managed by Big Paul (Gil Gex), who’s blind and an easy mark for his friend’s hand-drawn counterfeit bills. It goes on like this until the movie’s slimy ending. The unrated The Greasy Strangler should come with a warning from the surgeon general attached to it, at least. The special Blu-ray edition includes 5.1 Surround Sound stereo and, of course, English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired; cast and crew interviews; commentary with  Hosking, St. Michaels and Elobar, whose careers don’t appear to have been stunted by their participation is The Greasy Strangler.

Born in East L.A.: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump’s immigration policy began to take shape after ordering one of his minions to pick up a VHS cassette of Wall Street (1987) – his favorite movie, despite its fake liberal ending – and finding a cassette of Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (1987), instead. Although it was rented as part of a 2-for-1 Tuesday promotion and intended for the personal enjoyment of his soon-to-be-fired houseboy, the future POTUS mistook it for a documentary and freaked out. When he realized his mistake and re-watched Born in East L.A. to find its deeper meaning, his delusional mind saw it as a work of prophesy. Instead of watching hundreds of illegal immigrants being led into the Promised Land by the wrongly deported Rudy (Marin) and his Salvadoran girlfriend, Dolores (Kamala Lopez), he somehow got it into his orange head that the freedom-seeking throng was comprised entirely of undocumented zombies, hoping to steal American jobs. The horrifying vision never left his mind. As such, Born in East L.A. is several times more relevant today, than it was in 1987, when the men and women were welcomed to the U.S. by farmers in need of pickers, willing to break their backs for sub-minimum-wage pay, and owners of food-processing plants, where it wasn’t uncommon for workers to have parts of their bodies sliced off by razor-sharp tools and thrown into the bologna.

Thirty years later, it’s entirely possibly our president is putting our economy at risk because he still can’t parse the difference between people desperate to escape poverty, gangs and tyranny for flesh-devouring fiends. Born in East L.A. may not feel as madcap as it did 40 years ago, but it’s topicality can’t be ignored. The scenes shot on the Tijuana side of the border, especially those set in the hillsides still used as rallying points for the refugees, take on a fresh aura of poignancy. In an interview included in the Blu-ray, Marin doesn’t make any excuses for the film’s slapdash appearance, except to point out its strictly monitored budget and shooting schedule. Tommy Chong only appears in a stream of cameos, during which Paul Rodriguez mistakes a painting of Jesus on the cross for the real thing. They’re still very funny. The Blu-ray adds Marin’s commentary; a 31-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a telling interview with  Rodriguez; “What Is a Disco Bunnies?,” with Lopez; a stills gallery; and the 93-minute, extended television cut of the movie, which sanitized the R-rated material in the theatrical version, while adding several deleted scenes.

Honeyglue
Then Came You: Blu-ray
The Long Goodbye
These three heart-rending films confront the subject of dying unnaturally young head-on, while also describing how the unfortunate women benefit from the kindness of friends, family members and, of course, strangers. The cancer patients in these modestly budgeted indies lose their hair, along with muscle tone, weight, their appetites and, sometimes, good reasons to fight for their lives. They stand in direct contrast to protagonists in Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), a hugely popular tragedy based on Erich Segal’s best-selling tearjerker and screenplay. Back then, viewers weren’t given a name for Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri’s suddenly devastating illness. Neither was Ali MacGraw required to sacrifice her hair for the role, lose weight or modify her natural beauty. (In Segal’s book, leukemia is mentioned as the disease that claim Jenny’s life, but the producers felt as if the reality of its impact could turn off paying customers.) Today, Jenny and Oliver (Ryan O’Neill) might have been able to survive their ordeal, through chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments unavailable to cancer patients in 1970. No actress would refuse to cut her hair off, if it meant landing a role in a sure-fire blockbuster. Neither would audiences be freaked out by having to witness the slow decline of a character they’d grown to love. Neither do these three new releases attempt to squeeze teardrops from the eyes of viewers, who know when they’re being manipulated into reacting to tragedies as if they hadn’t watched friends or relatives die before their eyes. None of the films is perfect, but all of them possess qualities that are life-affirming and inspirational.

James Bird’s Honeyglue is a prime example of the kind of movie that wouldn’t have found backers in the 1970s.The thoroughly offbeat romantic drama follows Morgan (Adriana Mather), who’s just learned that she has three months to live. Against the wishes of her curiously square and conservative parents, she falls for a cross-dressing cartoonist, Jordan (Zach Villa), who comforts Morgan while encouraging her to cross off as many items on her bucket list as she can. Although Jason doesn’t appear to be saving his money for a gender-reassignment operation, he favors women’s fashions, exotic makeup and fun hairdos. They marry and take a honeymoon, which is interrupted by a serious relapse. One of the things they both enjoy are Jason’s self-illustrated stories, featuring bees capable of turning nectar into gold.

Peter Hutchings and writer Fergal Rock’s Then Came You (2018) also features a terminally ill 19-year-old, Skye (Maisie Williams), who befriends a hypochondriac her age, Calvin (Asa Butterfield), whose every visit to the doctor ends in disappointment over the fact that he’s deemed perfectly healthy. In an odd sort of way, they’re a perfect match. When they finally hook up, Calvin helps Skye fulfill her final wishes, while she provides him with the love and courage he needs to confront and conquer his own fears. She even encourages him to pursue a relationship with an outgoing flight attendant, Izzy (Nina Dobrev), who normally would be way out of his league. Williams (“Game of Thrones”) is a gifted comic actor, who has a big future ahead of her. At the ripe old age of  21, Butterfield has already starred in such high-end projects as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Hugo (2011), Ender’s Game (2013), A Brilliant Young Mind (2014), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) and The Space Between Us (2017). The Bulgarian-Canadian actress, Dobrev (“The Vampire Diaries”), is 30 years old, but she doesn’t look a day over 19 in Then Came You. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hutchings gave all of them a copy of Hal Ashby’s delightfully dark comedy, Harold and Maude (1971), to study before beginning production. Butterfield is practically a dead ringer for that film’s wealthy male protagonist (Bud Cort), who’s obsessed with death,

In Jay Lyons’ heart-breaking documentary, The Long Goodbye (2019), we’re invited to watch middle-aged “normal mom” Kara Tippetts stand up to breast cancer, which has reached the terminal stage by the time we meet her. Kara is blessed with a vivacious personality, a strong family life and wonderful friends. She’s exactly the kind of woman who shouldn’t contact such a terrible disease, but, when she does, shares her recovery efforts with other cancer patients. Anyone who has experienced loss, pain or disappointment will relate to Kara,  who’s quick to smile, even through the pain. My only caveat would involve preparing for the pervasive evangelizing, which propels her struggle. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking solace in prayer and miracles, some viewers may find it difficult to square the witnessing before God and praising His good works, when someone as strong in her beliefs as Kara is in such pain. Bonus features include interviews with the best-selling Christian author Ann Voskamp (“One Thousand Gifts”) and Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian author, radio host and founder of Joni and Friends, an organization “accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community.”

Isiboshwa
Rich Girl
Hostage
In the latest release of long-lost titles from IndiePix’s “Retro Afrika” collection – all made in South Africa, just before the lifting of Apartheid – could be characterized as a tribute to the subgenre’s leading male actor. Although they weren’t made exclusively by black writers, directors and technical specialists, they featured all-black casts and were intended for the consumption of native audiences in strictly segregated townships and theaters. They paid homage to familiar Hollywood genres, with an emphasis on action. The link connecting Isiboshwa (1989), Rich Girl (1990) and Hostage (1986) is the presence in a starring role of Innocent Gumede (a.k.a., Popo Gumede).

In the action/comedy Isiboshwa, three adolescent boys set out on an  adventure in the bush, lured by a tale of missing treasure. Once the booty they seek is found, they’re overcome by gold-fever and turn on one another. Met with a similarly feverish pair of thieves, who attempt to scare the boys off with supernatural illusions, they gather their resources and together to combat the grownup thieves. There’s great scene in which the boys carve sharp points on the ends of bamboo stick and mimic a lion-hunting ritual passed down from generation to generation of tribesmen. They employ it to subdue one of the crooks. Isiboshwa avoids most the genre’s clichés and slapstick, in the service of casual comedy and a personality-driven fable.

In Rich Girl, Gumede plays a highly trained bodyguard for corporate clients, one of whom has a pampered and beautiful daughter who needs  protecting. As is common in such scenarios, the handsome and well-dressed Robert Gambu has his work’s cut out for him. Charlotte (Lungi Mdlala) doesn’t want protection or believe it’s necessary. Enter Hector Methanda, a popular gap-tooth actor, who specializes in tough-guy roles. He and his partner in crime kidnap both the girl and the guard, who may be one more person than they can handle. Being only 70 minutes long, Robert doesn’t waste many precious seconds planning an elaborate escape. It just sort of happens.

In Hostage, Gumede works the other side of the legal divide, as aspiring drug kingpin Bra Jack. His two underlings, Jabu and Thabi, specialize in setting up rich married men and blackmailing them, using photos of them having sex with the female side of the criminal triangle. To secure the cooperation of a stubborn warehouse owner, Bra Jack kidnaps the man’s wife and holds her for ransom. Instead of blindly acquiescing to the demand, the businessman calls in a friend who knows how these things work … or not.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission
PBS: USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter
Acorn: Mystery Road: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: The Simple Heist: Series 1
Acorn: Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 5
Ever since the release of The Right Stuff, Americans have been bombarded with documentaries, docudramas and plain ol’ dramas depicting events from the space race and beyond. Science-fiction writers could barely keep up with developments at NASA, JPL and the Johnson Space Center. When the Space Shuttle program got too boring to draw flies, let alone eyes, Hollywood screenwriters decided to clip the astronauts’ cords to the mother ship, sending the helping guy  spinning into deep space. One of the reasons taxpayers didn’t complain, when funds intended for the use by shuttle teams, were cut off is NASA’s inability to stick with narrative. Space flights lost their luster, except, perhaps, in the classrooms linked to the shuttle via the Internet. NASA probably could have sold millions of tickets for the privilege of watching astronauts copulating, while floating around their sleeping quarters in Zero-g conditions. If the highly educated and rigorously trained astronauts resisted the proposal, a couple of high-profile porn stars – Stormy Daniels and Ron Jeremy, come to mind – might want a slice of the pay-per-view action. Neither did NASA do itself any favors by keeping a tight lid on the really cool stuff going on up there, like eavesdropping on world leaders and celebrities, military research, intercepting UFOs and growing super strains of marijuana in space labs. I only mention this because of the things I learned while watching “NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission.” The PBS presentation tells the inside story of how NASA engineers – inat least one ex-Nazi — did the heavy lifting ahead of the first, now nearly completely forgotten mission to the moon.  Although the headline-making stuff would have to wait another seven months, the Apollo 8 mission laid the foundation for the far sexier Apollo 11. In addition to the risks taken by astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – the first humans to circle the moon – any failure along the way might have given the Soviet program an insurmountable lead in the race, while also dampening the optimism of millions of taxpayers. The story is told by surviving Apollo astronauts and engineers.

One of best scenes in Jaws comes when Robert Shaw describes the lingering tragedy that began with the sinking of USS Indianapolis, after being struck by a pair of torpedoes. It was the first time most Americans learned of the shark attacks on dozens of sailors stranded at sea for five long days and nights, without food, potable water, vests that retained their buoyancy and anything to get the oil off their bodies. We remember the sharks, but the top-secret mission that preceded the ship’s sinking has been largely forgotten. Ditto, the Navy’s rush to blame Captain Charles B. McVay III for its own malfeasance. (His name wouldn’t be cleared until 2000, three decades after he committed suicide.) It wasn’t until 2017 that an expedition financed by philanthropist Paul G. Allen discovered the ship, resting in an impact crater, at a depth of 18,044 feet below the surface of the North Philippine Sea. PBS’s “USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter” successfully reconstructs the ship’s heroic legacy, her dramatic final moments and the discovery of the wreck site. Watching survivors study images of the Indianapolis, transmitted from the submersible, is as emotionally rewarding as anything we’ve witnessed in this era of undersea exploration.

As much as I miss Judy Davis’ presence on the big scream – her last credit was for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (2015) —  it’s great to see the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner in such prestigious mini-series as “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the upcoming Netflix drama, “Ratched,” and Outback thriller, “Mystery Road.” Before jumping feet-first into the latest entry, it’s worth doing some homework first. Although Davis is the marquee attraction here, the show really belongs to Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Aboriginal police detective, whose bristly personality doesn’t always sit well with the non-native ranchers, farmers and traffickers in humans and drugs. Given the vast acreage the police are required to survey, and closed-mouth attitudes of the locals, finding crooks can be as challenging as separating fleas from a kangaroo’s hide. Adding to the degrees of difficulty are the largely hidden network of springs, waterfalls, streams and caverns, known only to Aboriginals, who’ve lived here centuries before the almost simultaneous arrival of the first Commonwealth felons and European rabbits. Ivan Sen’s feature-length Mystery Road (2013) introduced  Swan to crime-hungry Aussies. It was followed three years later by Goldstone (2016), which reset the action hundreds of miles away, in Furnace Creek, where a brothel/bar serves as a destination for girls flown in from Southeast Asia to service miners, in exchange for pay off family debts. For the 2018 mini-series, also called “Mystery Road,” Sen passed the baton to Aboriginal director  Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae). It takes place in linear time between the previous two movies, in a community that time may have forgot, but whose residents remember hundreds of years’ worth of slights and insults, crimes large and small, and incidents fueled by deeply entrenched racism and corruption. Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands on an outback cattle station. Working together with local police sergeant Emma James (Davis), the investigation uncovers drug trafficking in the town, and a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community. They don’t form a natural team, even though she’s part native, but get the work done … as long as she doesn’t expect responses to her questions or smiles to her jokes. It’s available on Acorn’s screening service and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Acorn’s far lighter mini-series “The Simple Heist” describes the two-woman crime spree, conducted by Jenny (Lotta Tejle) and Cecilia (Sissela Kyle), who, at a time when they should planning their retirements, discover that they’ve fallen for a fraudulent scheme involving Chinese securities and a criminally one-sided divorce agreement. Cecilia dreads the day when she’ll be forced to reveal the loss to her husband, who’s been given little cause to mistrust her. Jenny’s account has been frozen since divorce proceedings began. He’s an unlikeable bloke, who only realizes that’s he chosen the wrong woman to cheat when it’s too late.  In a scheme that combines elements of Going in Style (1979) and Small Time Crooks (2000), Jenny and Cecilia – a teacher and a gastroenterologist – take the advice of a dying security guard, who recommends robbing a bank in Stockholm. Even if everything that could go wrong, does, they wind up with containers full of money that they know are booby-trapped. They turn to a pair of ornery bikers who are as trustworthy as bald tires. It’s at this point, that things really start going sideways for the old gals, who’ve already begun to spend their windfall. As old-fashioned as the premise is, the actors make The Simple Heist irresistible.

Like “Midsomer Murders” and other small-town procedurals from foreign sources, New Zealand’s “The Brokenwood Mysteries” succeeds in making the characters’ home communities feel as comfortable and inviting as our own. Even when we begin to feel a fogbank of complacency as it rolls over the fields and quaint homes, something cruel and unexpected happens to get tongues wagging and deadbolts locking. Because each boxed set of “Brokenwood” procedurals contains four stand-alone episodes, the show and its quirky cops and interesting antagonists have been compared to “Columbo” and other entries in NBC’s “Mystery Movie” wheel in the 1970s. In Series 5, Shepherd and his team investigate the death of an amusement park owner killed on his own haunted-house ride; a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong; the systematic targeting of a will’s beneficiaries; and a gruesome electrocution in an abandoned asylum. As usual, New Zealand is one of the best countries on countries to shoot pictures.

The DVD Wrapup: Ritual, She Wolf, Over the Top, Dark River, Man’s Best Friend, Mr & Mrs Adelman, Mad Dog & Glory, A.I. Rising, Deadly Mantis, Watch Over Me … More

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

Ritual: Una storia psicomagica
She Wolf
The words “arthouse” and “horror” aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence. Two that qualify are Let Me In (2010) and its American remake, Let the Right One In (2008), both based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. So do Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ Good Manners (2017) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Add to that list the newly-released-on-DVD She Wolf  (2013) and Ritual: Una storia psicomagica (2013) and you’d have a pretty good head-start on a high-end Empowered Women in Horror festival, perfect for any  upcoming Women’s History Month commemoration. Female characters have played key roles in the horror and sci-fi genres since James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), at least. Here, however, the accent would be on fully realized women protagonists/antagonists, who aren’t merely interchangeable substitutes for archetypal characters previously created for and by men, within genre norms. Any programmers wary of being accused of trivializing women’s history could point out how rare it is to find empowered women in genre films – who don’t resemble Pamela Anderson or Jenna Jameson anyway — especially those driven by arthouse conceits. Or, to appease the doubts, they can add copies of the completely unrelated documentary, RBG, to gift bags handed out at the awards’ ceremony.

From Argentina comes Tamae Garateguy and co-writer Diego Fleischer’s belated arrival, She Wolf (2013), which combines elements from Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Ferrara’s The Addiction. Ms. 45 (1981) and Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987). Without giving too much of the story away, the title character is a drop-dead-sexy serial killer — alternately played by Mónica Lairana, Luján Ariza and Guadalupe Docampo – who stalks the steamy streets and sardine-can subway cars of Buenos Aires, exuding pheromones that confuse men into thinking she’s coming on to them. She is, of course, but her idea of a happy ending won’t correspond to their expectations. Things get sticky when a police detective tracks her down, unaware that witnesses’ descriptions of the killer won’t square with what he sees before his eyes. Each of woman’s individual selves look different from the other two and have different personalities. Neither are they all drawn to the same kind of man. When the reckoning comes, viewers might get the impression that Garateguy chose aura and tone, over narrative closure. Even so, her ability to maintain a shadowy and intensely erotic texture throughout most of She Wolf is commendable. Kudos also apply to Sami Buccella’s original punk-rock soundtrack, Catalina Rincon’s edgy editing and Pigu Gomez’ stark black-and-white photography. If the film dissuaded any Argentine horndogs and low-rent lotharios from hitting on women they encounter in public, Garateguy’s mission was served.

Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi’s Ritual: Una storia psicomagica is another late arrival to these shores – thank you, Film Movement — although it’s difficult to understand why. The chief selling point is spelled out on the jacket: “Inspired by the philosophy of, and featuring an appearance by the father of ‘psychomagic,’ Alejandro Jodorowsky.” The marketing team might just as easily summoned the memory of Luis Bunuel, if only because the movie’s characters and setting – Italy, but it could be Spain or Mexico – are right out of the master surrealist’s  sketchbook. Anyone expecting a reprise of the pyschomagic exhibited in such outrageous entertainments as El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989) might be disappointed, but only mildly so. Fragile Lia (Désirée Giorgetti) and her sadistic boyfriend, Viktor (Ivan Franek) – he recalls Marcel, the twisted antagonist, in Bunuel’s Belle du Jour (1967) – are involved in a long-term relationship that’s equal parts passionate and cruel. It’s sometimes difficult to tell when their sex is consensual and when it fits the legal definition of rape, however. When Lia tells Victor that she’s pregnant, he replies with a straight face that he’ll “take care” of the abortion he’ll force her to undergo. Victor is such a vile person that viewers will want to see him murdered, sooner than later, even if it means that Lia and her supernaturally gifted Aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso) might wind up in jail. Shortly after the procedure, Lia asks Victor to join her in a visit to Veneto, as is recommended by her shrink (Cosimo Cinieri). He turns down the offer and demands she stay at home. Instead, she attempts to kill herself. When Lia sneaks away from home and arrives at her aunt’s 18th Century villa, Agata immediately senses that the abortion caused her to sink deeper into her depression. When Lia begins to imagine hearing crying babies and eerie songs – inexplicably, she even takes a bath in a tub already occupied by a couple dozen goldfish — Agata decides to play her ace in the hole. The widely respected healer encourages Lia to regress into childhood, to the momentary shame and confusion she felt upon her first period, to discover the roots of her depression. This is when the real fun begin, with a pair of neighborhood kids acting as fairy godchildren. A witch will attempt to use a baby – or lifelike doll – to lure Lia into a cave, but Agata steps in before that can happen. Just as it appears as if Lia’s depression is receding into something resembling happiness, Victor shows up to enforce his will on her. One drunken night out, his true colors begin to shine through his faux-pacific exterior. Jodorowsky, as the ghost of Agata’s former Chilean husband, arrives one evening to offer his advice … healer to healer. Part of Ritual’s appeal derives from the petite Milanese actress, Giorgetti, navigate her way through mood swings that range from despondent to sexually compliant. As Agata, Bonasso nearly steals the entire show.

Over the Limit
It will probably be a long time before a Russian sports authority invites another foreign documentary maker to examine the star-making machinery that powers the country’s Olympic teams. As if the scandal over an illegal, state-backed doping operation hadn’t done enough damage to the country’s reputation – causing the IOC to ban its athletes from representing Russia in the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang – along comes Marta Prus’ troubling documentary, Over the Limit, to seal the deal. Filmed during the runup to the 2016 Summer Olympics, held in Rio de Janeiro, it confirms long-spread rumors about other kinds of physical and mental abuses at Russian training camps. Like the subject of Over the Limit, Margarita Mamun, Prus competed as a rhythmic gymnast and her allegiances to the sport and its competitors are clear. Even so, the filmmaker was severely tested by her subject’s sadistic coaches, Irina Viner, and, to a lesser degree, Amina Zaripova. Although Viner’s credentials speak from themselves, she’s a harridan in the same league as Cruella DeVille – whom she resembles – and a foul-mouthed brute, in same coaching category as former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. While it isn’t difficult to respect a coach who’s tough, domineering and strives for the unattainable goal of perfection – Vince Lombardi comes immediately to mind – any coach who publicly belittles her star athlete with profane slurs, icy cold stares and personal insults, as Viner does here, deserves a special place in hell. She’s married to Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in a country whose oligarchs have a hotline to the highest reaches of the Kremlin and, presumably, the White House. Therefore, it’s fair to believe that her behavior, as showcased in Over the Top, won’t cause an alarm to go off at the offices of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Among other things, Usmanov is the president of the FIE, the international governing body of fencing, and a chief backer of the sport worldwide. His mining conglomerate, Metalloinvest also sponsored the soccer club, Dinamo Moscow. Before the Sochi games, Usmanov donated $130 million to the  Olympic Organizational Committee. I can’t remember his name being mentioned in Prus’ doc. Certainly, Viner played a crucial role in Mamun’s development and that of other top rhythmic gymnasts. It does not, however make her behavior in Over the Top any more palatable. If Viner felt comfortable berating her sport’s top competitor – her assistant coach, too – imagine what she gets away with while training lesser lights. Even when Mamun is frustrated and peeved by Viner’s behavior – she tells the gymnast to use her father’s losing battle with cancer as motivation – the 20-year-old Muscovite’s dedication and patience are admirable, and her routines are as beautiful as they get in the niche activity. We also meet some of Mamun’s teammates and are given a glimpse into her personal life, if mostly by eavesdropping on her constant texting and phone calls. Over the Top is a powerful document, whose message probably wouldn’t be lost on aspiring athletes around the world and their parents, especially when compounded by reports of sexual abuse by top gymnastic, tennis and soccer coachess. The Film Movement DVD includes the delightful Chinese short film, “Iron Hands,” directed by Johnson Cheng, about a girl weightlifter attempting to qualify on the boys’ team, and the valuable advice she receives from a surprising source.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman
Despite the best intentions of co-writer/co-star Doria Tillier and co-writer/co-star/director Nicolas Bedos, their debut as multihyphenates is tough sledding for audiences looking for a reason to care about the protagonists. Watching Monsieur & Madame Adelman in one sitting felt a bit like joining warring spouses over dinner and being forced to listen to them cut each other to ribbons for two hours. In this way, viewers serve as surrogates for the contemporary iterations of Nick and Honey, who, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), were treated to a master class in marital discord from George and Martha. Indeed, the same question arises, as to how two highly educated and respected pillars of society – and, of course, alcoholics — could put up with other’s verbal and mental abuse for this length of time. There’s little relief from the palpable aura of unfettered dysfunction and frayed nerve endings. Some marriages thrive on such constant aggravation, while others end with one or both the principles on a slab in the morgue. At its least interesting, Monsieur & Madame Adelman is simply a French adaptation of  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, absent such esteemed actors as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, and a director as perceptive as Mike Nichols. (Can you imagine having to sit through a poorly mounted stage production of Edward Albee’s play at a summer playhouse? That’s kind of what happens here.) I watch movies that most people would consider to be distasteful, highly irritating or amateurish. Typically, though, I rarely feel like asking for my investment in time to be refunded by the film’s producers, but that’s what I wanted to do after watching Monsieur & Madame Adelman. Too much creative talent is on display here to dismiss it out of hand, because the script and direction suck.

I’ve read that Bedos and Tillier are “companions,” at least, and, as multihyphenates, are required to carry the weight of the production on their slender shoulders. The lack of genuine feelings shared by their characters is probably attributable to not being able to see the forest from the trees. A more seasoned director and script doctor might have helped smooth the rough patches and stem the overacting. The couple’s epic depiction of the roller-coaster marriage of Victor de Richemont dit Adelman and Sarah, his wife of 45 years, is told in flashback from the early-1970s forward. It opens during Monsieur Adelman’s outdoor funeral at the family plot, from which Madame Adelman escapes as soon as his friends and admirers begin their testimonials. A journalist approaches her, hoping to secure an interview he hopes will precipitate a biography of her much-honored husband. In the same amount of time it takes for reporter Jerry Thompson, in Citizen Kane, to find someone willing to speculate on the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s  final utterance — “Rosebud” – Madame Adelman begins to chronicle her atrocious marriage. A meet-cute opening is denied viewers by a meet-ugly courtship that threatens to split his haute bourgeois family. Sarah cuts Victor a lot of slack as he struggles to sell his first manuscript. If she is enamored by his artistic potential, Sarah also shares the audience’s abhorrence of his volcanic outbursts, which, like road rage, are triggered by perceived slights, extreme frustration, impatience, misdirected jealousy and bad internal chemistry.

Then, skip ahead a few years, to when Victor’s career begins to skyrocket, while Sarah stays home with the dogs, servants and a developmentally challenged and largely ignored son. When their bright, happy and perfectly “normal” daughter comes into picture, the Adelmans effectively sweep the boy under the carpet and wish him away from the narrative. Not surprisingly, either, Victor’s insatiable appetite for fame and money begins to grate on Sarah. He demands to be worshipped by everyone in his orbit, including his family, and he never allows himself to stop and smell the roses. Although his suspicions aren’t backed by evidence, Victor assumes that Sarah either wants the sleep with his closest friends or already is. When she does take a pleasant and suitably wealthy over, Sarah’s too shell-shocked to distinguish between his kindness and her addiction to fireworks. Monsieur & Madame Adelman is described as comedy/romance, but precious little of either genre is revealed, unless it’s accompanied by pain. Therefore, only dyed-in-the-wool Francophiles are likely to stay with the movie until the end. Tillier, whose character tests the limits of our empathy, makes the most of a desperately unpleasant narrative, growing more beautiful and sage as she begins to reach her MILF-y period. The somewhat surprising climax salvages much of what leads up to it, but not the memory of Victor’s outbursts and insults. Oddly enough, one of the things that bothered me the most was the makeup adjustments made to Victor’s face, as time passed. By the time he entered middle age, his face began to resemble Dustin Hoffman’s elderly Jack Crabb, in Little Big Man.

Dark River: Blu-ray
Although Surrey-native Rita Wilson broke into the acting dodge in 2006, playing Jewel Diamond in Channel 5’s wacky “Suburban Shootout” and Jane Eyre, in in the BBC mini-series, she only broke out of the pack here in the Showtime drama, “The Affair.” I have to believe that viewers had a difficult time deciding whether her sultry, working-class character, Alison Bailey, was a shameless homewrecker and adulterer, or a sucker for the dubious charms of novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West). All could agree that the real victim in “The Affair” was poor little rich girl, Helen Butler (Maura Tierney), if only for two of the show’s four seasons. Seriously depressed since the drowning death of her child — with local hero Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson), in the waters off Montauk — Wilson convincingly conveyed the damage done by Alison’s unending series of emotional upheavals. Wilson’s haunted character in Dark River, Alice Bell, is only a couple of degrees removed from Alison’s tortured demeanor in “The Affair.” Set in the brilliantly green and gently rolling hills of North Yorkshire, Dark River opens in the choppy wake of Alice’s father’s death. She returns home to family farm for the first time in 15 years, to claim the tenancy rights she believes are rightfully hers. Once there, she is confronted by her ill-tempered, hard-drinking brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who insists that the farm already belongs  to him, via his investment in sweat equity. Joe dismisses her compromise offer, by which they would share the farm’s modest assets and labor. If he weren’t such a drunken bastard and bully, it would be easy to sympathize with Joe’s position. As it turns out, Alice has invested her own fair share of blood, sweat and tears into the property. Through a series of inescapably horrific flashbacks, we witness a father/daughter relationship that went several degrees past being merely dysfunctional. Even before Alice could comprehend what was happening to her at night and why it was wrong, her father (Sean Bean) filled the vacuum left by wife with his daughter, as sexual surrogate, whipping girl and household slave. Cruel memories of her nightly hell are as deeply etched in her mind as Joe’s claims of ownership are solidly entrenched in his own. When Joe is awarded tenancy rights, he decides to sell the whole kit and caboodle, starting with the sheep. A violent confrontation with a truck loader is the catalyst for both a terrible accident and a rapprochement, of sorts, between the siblings. Writer/director Clio Barnard (The Arbor) took several great liberties with Rose Tremain’s novel and Lila Rawlings’ original adaptation. If you didn’t read the book, you won’t notice the changes, which would have made Dark River look like a British remake of Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams (2015),  which was about a serious rivalry between elderly brothers on a sheep farm in rural Iceland.

Man’s Best Friend: Blu-ray
Life in the Doghouse: Blu-ray
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my dogs-on-DVD collection has grown to the point where I need a kennel to keep them from cross-fertilizing with every new batch of movies about zombies and comic-book superheroes. Among them are sub-groupings dedicated to service animals, canines trained for military duty, skateboarding bulldogs, lip-syncing chihuahuas and flu-inflicted mixed-breeds exiled to a floating garbage dump (Wes Anderson’s Oscar-nominated Isle of Dogs). Man’s Best Friend (1993) does them all one better. Imagine, if you can, a creature feature in which the top dog is genetically linked to Beethoven, Cujo and The Terminator: cuddly one moment, vicious the next and trained to be an indestructible cyber-assassin. The protagonist/antagonist star of Man’s Best Friend is Max, a product of a mad scientist, Jarret (Lance Henriksen), so incensed by street crime that he’s genetically engineered a Tibetan mastiff to use its superpowers against evil. Among them are superior sight and hearing, robotic strength, uncanny intelligence, blistering speed and an ability to leap over cars and fences. In the right hands and on the correct meds, Max can also be a trusted companion or a faithful watchdog. Ally Sheedy, who looks as if she’s still a dues-paying member of the Hollywood Brat Pack, falls into the latter category. As crusading TV reporter Lori Tanner she breaks into a research facility that she believes is involved in vivisection, just like what happens in The Island of Dr. Moreau. After videotaping the holding cells, containing a diverse collection of wild beasts, she’s confronted by a security guard. While attempting to escape his grip and save her footage, Lori inadvertently frees Max from his cage. To show his appreciation, Max races to her vehicle and hops into the backseat. On the way home, Lori is mugged outside a supermarket by a Hispanic punk straight out of Central Casting. (He could double as poster child for President Trump’s Build the Wall campaign.) It takes Max a few seconds to figure out how to unlock the back door and frighten the thug into running away. A few minutes later, the dog returns to the parking lot with Lori’s purse in his mouth.

What Lori doesn’t know, of course, is that she’s the only adult who Max responds to with affection, and he’s in desperate need of a booster shot of neuropathic drugs to keep him sane. In his hysteria to re-capture his monstrous guinea pig, Jarett reluctantly enlists the police department – including the wonderful character actor, Robert Costanzo – to help him identify and track down Max’s liberator. Sadly, in his decreasingly stable state of mind, Max can’t parse the difference between people in the neighborhood – her too-amorous boyfriend, a paperboy on his bike, a Mace-happy mailman and hissing cats and a collie in heat – and the ones attempting to find Lori and put him back in his cage. Man’s Best Friend didn’t do well with critics in its theatrical release. I suspect that its undeserved R-rating (ostensibly for “terror and violence, involving a household pet”) confused them as to the intended audience demographic and less-than-graphic violence. In fact, it’s one of the few scary movies of the period that kept the attacks off-screen – or clearly were simulated – and was legitimately funny. (Before Max has his way with the collie, the choice in soundtrack material is Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love.”) I don’t know why distributors don’t contest such egregiously out-of-touch ratings for DVD editions. Probably because they want horror fans to think a picture like Man’s Best Friend is gorier and more anti-social than it is. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it, though. It was written/directed by John Lafia, who made his bones on Child’s Play (1988) and Child’s Play 2 (1990).

Dog-rescuers Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta knew that their saintly dedication to rescuing dogs had bared fruit when a breeder of whippets and show dogs admited that he didn’t like them very much. The reason: the men’s ability to find homes for abandoned, mistreated and overbred rescue animals was cutting into his business. Twenty years ago, people looking for canine companions wanted them to come with papers that traced their lineage to the Mayflower, and they were willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for pedigreed pups. Besides being status symbols, owners convinced themselves that purebred AKC dogs would pay for themselves, as show dogs, breeders or studs. Ultimately, the hobby turned out to be more expensive, time-consuming and frustrating than it was worth. At about the same time as this was happening, well-organized greyhound-adoption programs demonstrated that, with a little TLC, many past-their-prime racers made wonderful pets. “The Price Is Right” host Bob Barker also began to cap each show reminding viewers, “To help control the pet population, have your pets spayed or neutered. Life in the Dog House is a documentary that is both uplifting and inspirational.

Although they also maintain a training and coaching facility for show horses and jumpers, Robertshaw and Danta have dedicated themselves to rescuing, healing and preparing for adoption dogs that would otherwise be euthanized, as are millions of other canines each year. Their outreach began in 2005, after watching news reports about family pets left stranded and abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to delivering aid to survivors, they rounded up as many of the dogs as their horse trailer would carry and drove them back to their South Carolina training facility. Since then, they’ve effectively rescued and re-situated more than 11,000 doomed animals. What makes their story unique is the TLC that they bring to their mission. At any one time, as many as 125 dogs might be living under the same roof with Robertshaw and Danta. The free-range critters are taught to behave, outside their pens, and maintain a high standard for personal hygiene and manners. Their staff analyzes every application for adoption and showcases their most likely candidates at contests, fairs and other gatherings around Camden, South Carolina, and Wellington, Florida. The before-and-after footage in Life in the Doghouse is nothing less than remarkable. Anyone who thinks raising AKC-level dogs is difficult and sometimes prohibitively expensive will marvel at the amount of work and money – food, worming, sheltering, daily cleaning – it takes to prepare a mutt for new homes and maintain a heart-tugging website that introduces potential adoptive parents to the latest class of graduates. It helps that the two men treat the animals as if they, themselves, had studied under Fred Rogers, who made every one of his neighbors and fans feel essential. And, of course, part of the message here is the continuing need for funding and grants that also eats up big chunks of the men’s time. Abandoned animals and euthanasian laws are problems that won’t go away any time soon. Director Ron Davis’ previous work includes the well-regarded docs, Harry & Snowman (2015) and Pageant (2008). The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

Mad Dog and Glory: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Speaking of dogs, the only one visible in John McNaughton’s romantic “urban fable,” Mad Dog and Glory (1993), is the ironically nicknamed police photographer, Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie. The second half of the title refers to Uma Thurman’s character, Glory, who’s “given” to the cop by a gangster whose live Dobie saved. When he isn’t imitating Al Capone, Frank Milo (Bill Murray) does comedy spots at the club he bought for just that purpose. They meet in a convenience store that’s being robbed by a suspect in a double-murder. Even though he’s got a gun pointed at his head, Milo berates Dobie for his less-than-forceful negotiating tactics. They work, however, saving both Milo and the killer’s life, if only for a few hours. The only string attached to Milo’s gift is the distinct possibility that Wayne and Glory will find a reason to fall in love before her expiration date requires the gangster to take her out of circulation … or try to, at least. Richard Price’s atypically uplifting script combines sharp dialogue, gritty urban backdrops and natural police/criminal tension in the service of an appealing odd-couple conceit. Casting the lead actors against type was a risk McNaughton was willing to take, even if test audiences wondered why the star of “Raging Bull” allowed himself to be beaten up by Lisa Loopner’s boyfriend, Todd. Murray’s only other more-or-less-straight role, in The Razor’s Edge (1984), flopped at the box office, while De Niro had yet to prove to audiences that he could be funny. Thurman was still just another a pretty Hollywood blond, waiting to be taking seriously. It wouldn’t take long. For Windy City viewers, Mad Dog and Glory plays like a 97-minute edition of “Lost Chicago,” with its many familiar locations and a cast loaded with veterans of the city’s thriving theater and movie scene. They include Tom Toles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer),  J.J. Johnston (Fatal Attraction), Guy Van Swearingen (The Negotiator), Jack Wallace (Homicide), Chuck Parello (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Tony Fitzpatrick (Primal Fear), Bruce Jarchow (“Weird Science”), Kevin Hurley (Henry II: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Paula Killen (Walls in the City), Tony Castillo (“Watch Over Me”), Brian Reed Garvin (Centurion AD) and former CPD cops Anthony Cannata and  John Polce. Also prominent are Mike Starr (Miller’s Crossing), Kathy Baker (Street Smart), Richard Belzer (“Law & Order: SVU”) and David Caruso, who went from “Mad Dog” to “NYPD Blue.” Director and Chicago native John McNaughton, of course, had just survived the ordeal of getting Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer distributed. Special features include fresh commentary with  John McNaughton; a brief making-of featurette; interviews conducted with Murray, De Niro and producer Martin Scorsese, in the latter’s apartment; sound bites with Thurman, McNaughton and  Scorsese explores the “urban fable” tone of “Mad Dog and Glory.”

A.I. Rising
Judging solely from its cover art, marketing pitch and Eastern European roots, Lazar Bodroža’s debut feature, A.I. Rising, belongs on the same web pages Netflix and Amazon Prime reserve for such sci-fi oddities as Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), Dark Star (1974) and Spaceballs (1987). The presence of adult-film goddess, Stoya (a.k.a., Jessica Stoya Stoyadinovich), would argue, as well, for a place alongside Not of This Earth (1988), with Traci Lords in her mainstream debut; ditto, Sasha Grey, in The Girlfriend Experience (2009); Sunny Leone, in Pirate’s Blood (2008); Belladonna, in Inherent Vice (2014); Jenna Jameson, in Zombie Strippers (2008); and Nina Hartley, in Boogie Nights (1997). Feel free to throw in Scott Schwartz, who made the leap from A Christmas Story (1983) to Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure (1996) and, in 1999, returned to the mainstream, and national treasure Ron Jeremy, who received a credit in 52 Pick-Up (1986), along with Tom Byron, Herschel Savage, Amber Lynn and Sharon Mitchell. None of the actors embarrassed themselves – or the movies – and some continue to appear in non-adult roles. It may not sound like much to say that Stoya delivers an excellent portrayal of an android, programed to help and give pleasure to an astronaut making the lonely journey from Earth to Alpha Centauri. And, like the movie itself, the astronaut, Milutin (Sebastian Cavazza) is of Serbian descent, hired from the Yugoslavian space agency – that’s right – by the Ederlezi Corporation of the “Reformed USSR” to “export a non-communist ideology” to its inhabitants. Milutin is an old-school cosmonaut, who’s been around the solar system a time or two, and doesn’t like taking orders from anyone, including robots. Still, it’s a long trip and Nimani (Stoya) is willing to do anything – yes, anything – to make it feel like a walk in the park.

Unfortunately, Nimani is “too compliant” for Milutin’s taste. He’d prefer that she/it pretends to enjoy the sex (like the girls back home), at least, or pretends to resist his advances. Nimani isn’t programmed to do anything, besides give pleasure, keep Milutin healthy, support the mission and abide by Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Eventually, Milutin attempts to rejigger her software to accommodate his wishes. Big mistake. It triggers an alert to company officials, who’ve anticipated such behavior and programmed Nimani to shut down when her circuits are molested. The circuitry built into the android demands answers to some of the same questions asked by HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the cyber-emotions it expressed as it was dying. Of course, if the cosmonaut’s tinkering shuts down Nimani’s software, the entire mission will be threatened, along with Milutin’s longterm sanity. A.I. Rising also examines the importance or lack-thereof of sexual relations on extended space missions. (The issue was given a spin in 2016’s Passenger, when early-risers played by Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are facing 90 years of boredom, until the other passengers are awakened from their deep sleep. In 1981, Gerard Damiano’s sex romp The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue also addressed the question of android/human sex,) If Stanley Kubrick were to arise from his deep sleep, I think he would find nice things to say about Kosta Glusica’s cinematography, Aljosa Spajic’s production design and Nemanja Mosurovic’s music. Despite Stoya’s background in adult films, the sex in A.I. Rising is somewhat less than explicit. There’s plenty of android nudity, but its impact is tempered by the actress’ matter-of-fact demeanor and “boyish” figure. (No offense, intended. It hasn’t hurt Stoya’s career.) The DVD adds several deleted scenes, interviews and making-of featurettes.

The Last Man: Blu-ray
Despite the presence of Harvey Keitel and Hayden Christensen, Rodrigo H. Vila’s The Last Man challenged the few critics who’ve seen it to choose between blowing up their players or watching the movie again, to see if they’d missed something that might redeem it. That’s a courtesy sometimes accorded genre pictures that feature the work of artists they admire, but who must have had a very good reason for signing a contract: medical bills, college costs, their manager’s financial malfeasance or the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in a delightful location, in this case Argentina. Who reads the reviews of direct-to-DVD movies, anyway? Keitel and Christensen’s name on a listing probably carries some weight with genre buffs looking for something to stream late at night. For the record, The Last Man isn’t close to being the worst dystopian thriller I’ve seen lately. The Blade Runner-inspired set designs are appropriately grimy and gritty, while the genuinely menacing neo-Nazis resemble the Alex’s droogs in A Clockwork Orange. The tagline says it all: “Set in a world where climate change has brought about the apocalypse.” That could describe any number of Syfy movies-of-the-week and disaster flicks, from such big-budget mediocracies as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009) and Geostorm (2017), to the hit documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and less-successful, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017). For those still interested, though: Christensen plays Kurt (a.k.a., Tov Matheson), a combat veteran suffering from PTSD, who comes home to a city and civilization in ruins. Local street prophet, Noe (Keitel), says things will get even worse when a catastrophic storm hits. Kurt heeds Noe’s advice, by constructing a secret shelter just below the remains of a mega-store. At approximately the same time, he meets the sultry redhead, Jessica (Liz Solari), with whom he worked at a security firm. Together, they face Noe’s bleak predictions, with some supernatural and arguably Christian stops, along the way.

The Deadly Mantis: Blu-ray
I’ve encountered praying mantises in the wild a couple of times in my life, usually in the woodlands of Wisconsin and, once, chillin’ over the front door of my San Gabriel Valley home. Each time, I was impressed by their impeccable camouflage, deceptive strength and neon-green color. I’m pretty sure that a mantis wouldn’t last two minutes buried inside an iceberg in the Arctic Circle. Periodical cicadas (a.k.a., magicicadas) burrow themselves inside trees, feeding on xylem fluids, returning annoyingly to life in the outside world 13-17 years later. Cicadas are noisy, not frightening or particularly cinematic. As harmless as they look, mantises have heads ad faces that extraterrestrials would envy, are deadly predators and have inspired a Chinese martial art known as the Southern Praying Mantis. Unlike most praying mantises, who usually top out at six inches, the prehistoric monster in Nathan Juran’s beyond-campy creature-feature, The Deadly Mantis (1957), is as big as a house and, for some reason, pissed off as hell. The calving of an Arctic iceberg releases the giant bug, whose hunger causes it to attack an Alaskan outpost of the U.S. Distant Early Warning System, to eat its occupants. The monster, then, finds its way to the Eastern Seaboard, where the weather is more conducive to ravenous feeding. Unfortunately, its size also scares the crap out of residents of one of the most densely populated regions of the country. Paleontologist William Hopper (20 Million Miles to Earth) and voluptuous photographer Alix Talton (“My Favorite Husband”) join forces with the military – in the person of Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) — to render it extinct. End of story … except to mention the 2K remastering of the film; new commentary with McNaughton and film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; the “MST3K” episode, “The Deadly Mantis,” from 1997; and a stills gallery.

Someone to Watch Over Me: Blu-ray
Although Ridley Scott’s highly stylized visual presentation was widely praised by critics, they found Someone to Watch Over Me’s plot and narrative less impressive. The romantic stakeout thriller didn’t make any money in its theatrical release, but, I suspect, it’s done very well in VHS and DVD. Unlike Tom Berenger, who impressed casting directors with performances in Platoon (1986), Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985) and The Big Chill (1993), the delicately-balanced female protagonists, Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, had yet to emerge as stars in their own right. Working from a neo-noir screenplay by Howard Franklin (The Name of the Rose) – and three different renditions of the classic Gershwin title ballad — Scott inserted Berenger’s newly minted NYPD detective, Mike Keegan, smack-dab in the middle of a two-sided love triangle. He’s the only character on the big screen – or viewers, for that matter – who couldn’t anticipate the quandary that would develop when his tough-as-nails wife, Ellie (Bracco), gets winding of the society princess, Claire (Rogers), he’s guarding. Keegan’s been assigned to protect the headstrong socialite, who’s witnessed a murder and is being stalked by the bailed-out suspect (Andreas Katsulas). Naturally, the cop’s devotion to duty evolves into an obsession with the vulnerable witness, while his wife’s jealousy turns out to be entirely justified. Finally, both women are threatened by the same hoodlum, simultaneously, and their protector can’t be in two places at the same time. The tension rises to a violent crescendo that provides two satisfying resolutions. Not surprisingly, Scott’s visual instincts perfectly complement Steven Poster’s camerawork. The brilliantly restored Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with writer Howard Franklin and Poster.

The Craft: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
I don’t know when the never-ending parade of movies featuring teenage witches, vampires and Satanists began, although Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) probably would be a good place to start looking. Heathers (1988) described just how dangerous teenager girls could be when threatened by peer pressure and social conformity. The supernatural aspects of teen angst picked up again a few years later, with the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and, in 1996, the slightly darker television series of the same title. The flood gates really opened with the releases of such kindred fantasies as Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Jawbreaker (1999) and Scary Movie (2000). Newly re-released by Scream Factory in a special Blu-ray collector’s edition is The Craft (1996), one of the most influential entries in the sleepover-cinema sub-subgenre. It opens with the introduction of troubled-teen Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), whose father and stepmother have relocated to L.A., from San Francisco. The parochial school has a strictly enforced social order with cliques, dividing the freaks and geeks from the brainiacs, jocks and “popular” kids. Although she’s hotter than all the cool girls combined, Sarah naturally finds her level among the misfits: Neve Campbell (Wild Things), Fairuza Balk (American History X) and Rachel True (Half Baked). Individually, Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle are the least-empowered girls in the school. As a group, however, they maximize each other’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses. When Sarah exhibits a supernatural power, her new friends believe that she will complete their coven. In fact, she helps turn it into a single-minded entity capable of righting wrongs and punishing perceived slights. The rest of The Craft depicts what happens when the wannabe Wiccans lose control of their newly acquired powers. The bonus material adds new interviews with co-writer/director Andrew Fleming, producer Douglas Wick, co-writer Peter Filard and makeup- effects supervisor Tony Gardner; commentary with Fleming; two making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary.

Showdown: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The stated purpose of the MVD Rewind Collection is to celebrate “cult classics and more from the video store” in special-edition Blu-ray and DVD collector’s sets, loaded with special features. They’re packaged to resemble the original VHS box, minus the scratchy cassette, tracking problems and fees charged for not rewinding. In 1993, the cover of Showdown was dominated by martial-arts superstar Billy Blanks, an African-American gentleman. Here, the cover features the young, white protagonist, Ken (Kenn Scott), and equally white protagonist, Tom (Ken McLeod), although Blanks is the heart and soul of Showdown. Otherwise, it’s The Karate Kid all over, again. Transfer student Ken Marks moves from Kansas to Phoenix, where he’ll enter high school as a second-semester senior. By trying to make friends with a cute classmate, Julie (Christine Taylor), he infuriates her boyfriend, who’s a highly trained kick-boxer. The more often Tom kicks the crap out of Ken, the closer Julie is drawn to the newcomer. This leads to the final showdown, where Tom is encouraged to kill Ken. Between their first encounter and the last one, however, Ken is coached by the school’s janitor, Billy (Blanks), who, as a cop, accidentally killed the brother of the brutal sensei of a local dojo. He immediately quit the force and, seven years later, found work at the school. One of the biggest problems with Showdown is the high school’s student body, whose median age appears to be 30 years old. None of the students appears to be intimated by vice-principal Kowalski, played by veteran hard-ass, Brion James (Blade Runner), who’s one of the scariest actors alive. The fights that aren’t one-sided beatdowns are well choreographed and exciting. As crappy and cliché-ridden as Showdown is, the supplement package is surprisingly generous and informative. The making-of featurette, alone, is 98 minutes long.

TV-to-DVD
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 11, Volume 2
Perry Como’s Music Hall
Pat Boone & Family Springtime & Easter Specials
Nickelodeon: Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The title, “Ancient Aliens: Season 11, Volume 2,” appears not to be completely accurate. According to episode lineup on IMDB.com, it should be “Ancient Aliens: Season 13, Volume 2,” which ran from July 20, 2018, to January 7, 2019. I can’t explain the discrepancy, except to point out the show’s mission, which is to demonstrate how much of an impact that extraterrestrials have had on mankind and its greatest achievements. That could include new math. Among the highlights: in Egypt, new technology has detected a previously unknown void in the Great Pyramid; on the island of Sardinia, ancient statues of giants with robotic faces are being shown to the public for the first time; abduction stories around the world are analyzed; a look at suspicions that the U.S. and Russia have been working together to prepare for an extraterrestrial encounter; ancient cultures believed that meteorites were not merely rocks that fell from the sky, but sacred stones imbued with the power of the gods; in the north of England, scientists claim to have discovered what could be biological evidence of alien life; and, 50 years after the publication of “Chariots of the Gods,” is Erich Von Daniken about to be proven right?

MPI Media Group adds to its collection of easy-listening TV specials from traditional favorites, Perry Como and Pat Boone. In “Perry Como’s Music Hall,” which was broadcast in color in April 1967, the crooner “Perry Como’s Music Hall,” broadcast in color, the crooner welcomed then-rising comic George Carlin, pop-jazz singer Nancy Wilson and young ballerina Joyce Cuoco. In prime form, Perry sings his latest hit, “Stop! And Think It Over,” as well as “A Taste of Honey,” “How Beautiful the World Can Be,” “Dindi,” “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” with Nancy. Carlin performs his fast-spinning disc-jockey routine, and the Ray Charles Singers join Perry and cast for a rousing Tax Day 1967 finale of “The Money Tree,” “Pennies From Heaven” and
“The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

Pat Boone & Family: Springtime Special”  brings together guests Parker Stevenson (“The Hardy Boys Mysteries”), Dick Van Patten (“Eight Is Enough”), The Unknown Comic and cameo appearances by comedians George Burns and Don Rickles. Pat performs a heart-warming “You & Me Against the World to his grandson; Debby and Parker duet on “Love Story”; the Boone sisters hit the dance floor; and the entire family teams up for “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher.” “Pat Boone & Family: Easter Special” celebrates the holiday at home, as the Boones welcome fellow ABC-TV stars Ted Knight (“Too Close for Comfort”) and Katherine Helmond (“Soap”) in addition to comic/impersonator John Byner. Bonus features: “The Boone Girls in Performance,” “Pat Boone: Irish Medleys,” “Pat Boone: Patriotic Songs”; “Debby Boone Promo”; and original TV promos.

Emerging from their hidden lair in the sewers for the very first time, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are ready to explore the hostile streets of New York City. In Nickelodeon’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” fans are invited to join Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo, as they face enemies more dangerous, and taste pizza more delicious, than anything they could have imagined. The seven episodes are “Mystic Mayhem,” “Origami Tsunami,” “Donnie’s Gifts,” “War and Pizza,” “Mascot Melee,” “Shell in a Cell” and “Minotaur Maze.”

 

The DVD Wrapup: Instant Family, Burning, Clovehitch Killer, Vanishing, Marquise, Kalifornia, Donna Haraway, Walking Dead … More

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Instant Family: Blu-ray
Ever since his breakthrough performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), Mark Wahlberg has proven capable of handling a wide variety of roles and making money for everyone around him. He’s done so, because audiences naturally want to like him and go along his characters’ disparate personalities and traits. It’s no small trick. The Boston-native has also found legitimate success as a television producer – the Emmy-nominated series, “Entourage,” “Boardwalk Empire” “Wahlburgers” – and as a force on both sides of the camera in such films as Lone Survivor (2013), Prisoners (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016) and The Gambler (2014). I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a natural comic actor, but he’s more than held his own alongside such scene-stealers as Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home), Anthony Hopkins (Transformers: The Last Knight), Dwayne Johnson (Pain & Gain), Steve Carell (Date Night) and a bad-ass teddy bear (Ted) … all along, looking to be as unaffected by fame as any boy’s band graduate (Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch), underwear model (Calvin Klein) and juvenile delinquent could possibly be. If his infectious smile appears to have been built into his face, it might be related to the good fortune of being one of the few travelers booked on a Flights 11 and 175, leaving Boston for L.A. on 9/11/2001, who made it to 9/12/2001. Instead of being incinerated in one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers that day, he decided a few days earlier to cancel his ticket and travel west on a private plane. Wahlberg went on to become the highest-paid actor of 2017, earning $68 million. Instant Family marks Wahlberg’s third collaboration with co-writer/director Sean Anders – Daddy’s Home (2015) and Daddy’s Home Two (2017) – whose experiences as an adoptive parent of three Hispanic children inform the story. Ultimately, it is saved by Anders’ hopeful message for potential foster parents. His previous stints as writer or co-writer of such middle-brow entertainments as We’re the Millers (2013), Dumb and Dumber To (2014), Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) and She’s Out of My League (2010) weren’t as enlightening, although a few of them made money.

Instant Family splits the difference between comedy and drama right down the middle. When suburbanites Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) choose to start a family, they stumble headfirst into the world of foster-care adoption. While they’re extremely serious about taking on such a responsibility – three siblings of various challenging ages – they are spooked by some of the negative stories they hear. That includes cautious advice from social workers Karen and Sharon (Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro), who guide prospective parents on the joys, hurdles and potential disasters facing them on the way to official adoption. Much of the movie’s humor derives from the interaction between the Wagners and other couples in a workshop environment. (The group’s social and ethnic diversity couldn’t be more politically correct.) Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz do a terrific job portraying kids thrown into foster hell when their drug-addicted mother is incarcerated for putting them at risk of harm. Each one deals with separation anxiety in their own way: little Lita is a screamer, who needs everything to go according to plan, or she freaks out; pre-teen Juan is too clumsy to excel in sports and lacks the self-confidence to move forward socially; teenage Lizzy thinks her mom’s poop doesn’t stink and punishes the Wagners for using them to assuage liberal guilt. By frustrating them, Lizzy hopes to dissuade Pete and Ellie from going ahead with the adoption. Her scheme might have worked, too, if fate hadn’t stepped in at crucial moments to convince the younger siblings, otherwise. Naturally, their mom’s return on parole causes the kind of turmoil – emotional and legal — that nearly destroys everyone involved, including Lizzy when she behaves every bit as callously as audiences have been conditioned to expect from neglectful mothers.

If everything that happens outside the group-therapy sessions plays out according to Hollywood standards, the interaction between the prospective parents and the social workers effectively serves as a counterbalance to the Wagners’ misery. They face challenges, too, but off-screen. This isn’t to say, however, that Anders’ message doesn’t come through, loud and clear: the adoptive process requires patience, courage and fortitude; adoptees don’t come with guarantees or warranties, especially if they’re from dysfunctional backgrounds; good intentions won’t cushion all the blows; and, finally, the rewards truly can be worth the pain absorbed along the way. It helps that Wahlberg and Byrne make a lovely couple, blessed with the patience of saints – almost, anyway — and Spencer and Notaro are allowed to dominate key moments in the show, without overshadowing the stars. The Paramount Blu-ray adds commentary and an introduction with Anders and his frequent co/writer John Morris; a gag reel; deleted and extended scenes; “Mr. and Mrs. Fix-It,” behind the scenes with Wahlberg and Byrne; “Kid Power,” with the talented young cast; “I Need Some Support,” in which Spencer and Notaro guide a group of parents through the emotional roller-coaster of parenting; “Order in the Court,” inside one of the film’s most heartfelt moments; “The Families Behind the Fair,” with actual foster parents and adopted kids; “Crew Inspiration,” crew members share their own foster-care stories; “The Anders Family,” with the real-life inspiration for the film, Isabela Moner; “I’ll Stay,” a promotional music video; and “On Set Proposal,” a surprise wedding proposal from one crew member to another.

Burning: Blu-ray
If  Roma hadn’t raised the Mexican flag over festivals and awards ceremonies around the world, 2018 would be remembered as a banner year for Pacific Rim countries. At Cannes, where Alfonso Cuaron was denied a slot, 4 of the 19 films in contention for the Palme d’Or were from Japan, Korea and China. (Only two, BlackKKKlansman and the as-yet-unreleased Under the Silver Lake, were from the United States.) In addition to Koreeda Hirokazu’s highly regarded Shoplifters and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Killing, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II, Zhangke Jia’s Ash Is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night also did well in international competition. Jon M. Chu’s money-maker, Crazy Rich Asians, gave Hollywood studio executives one fewer excuse for not financing films of interest to Asian-American audiences. (Best Picture-winner Green Room got its fair share of attention in the U.S., Canada and England, but underperformed in foreign markets.) That’s a long of saying that the best Asian releases, last year, were very good, indeed. And, if the cinematic equivalent of soccer’s World Cup  (or Miss Universe) had been conducted after the Oscars, BAFTAs, Césars, Goyas, Globes and festivals – wouldn’t that be fun? — Burning might have finished in a dead heat with Shoplifters and Roma.

Like so many of the best movies from foreign countries, Burning took an emotionally and philosophically literary work and boiled it down to its essence. Working from the story “Barn Burning,” by Haruki Murakami, Lee and co-writer Oh Jung-mi enhanced the story’s fictional narrative with the kind of visually poetic and texturally relatable elements that honor the source material, as well as the filmmakers’ imagination. The acting couldn’t be more naturalistic or compelling. After 148 minutes, viewers inclined to tolerate arthouse conceits will wonder where the time went. The protagonist, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is a recent college graduate and aspiring novelist, who wears his alienation from mainstream society on his sleeve. He keeps one foot in Seoul and the other in his hometown, near the border with North Korea, where he maintains a barn containing a single calf. It’s in the latter, where Jong-su seems happiest and most self-assured. Just after stepping off a train in the capital, he notices something familiar in one of the young women promoting a street raffle, in cheerleader outfits. Turns out, Haemi (Jun Jong-seo) grew up in the same city and remembers Jong-su as a long-ago playmate. Haemi is an effervescent and inquisitive sort, who lives in the moment and isn’t particularly interested in limiting her horizons by taking a mainstream job. Even before they make love, she asks him to housesit and feed her unseen cat while she’s in Africa, studying indigenous culture.

Upon her return several weeks later, Jong-su happily agrees to pick her up at the airport. He is chagrined, however, to find her accompanied by a handsome and refined chap, a bit older than they are. They met during a long layover in Africa, following a terrorist attack, and quickly forged a bond, although it’s difficult to say whether it’s based on love, lust or kismet. Ben (Steven Yeun) is a bit smug, but not at all offended by the presence of Haemi’s previous lover. It doesn’t take long for Ben’s lavish lifestyle to become apparent. (The shiny, new Porsche is a dead giveaway.) By allowing Haemi and Jong-su to share his expensive toys and posh friends – without also revealing the sources of his income and personal history – Ben naturally recalls the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. That, of course, effectively makes Haemi and Jong-su stand-ins for Daisy and Tom Buchanan. While Jong-su recognizes the new dynamic, he can’t help but be intrigued by Ben. He tells them, as well, that he often feels as if he’s a character in a novel by Faulkner — one of Murakami’s primary influences – and recommends his books to Ben. Jong-su is invited to the decidedly modern home Ben now shares with Haemi and where he hosts lavish parties. Neither man feels particularly comfortable – let alone, at home – there, however. Later, at Jong-su’s exceedingly modest country home, Ben describes his secret fetish of burning down abandoned greenhouses, which he doesn’t consider to be particularly harmful or illegal. At the same time as Jong-su agrees to help him scout potential targets to satisfy his addiction to arson, Haemi suddenly disappears. At first, Jong-su is merely confused by his inability to connect with her. As time passes, however, his futile investigation pushes him to the edge of sanity. Among the things he does learn from her relatives is that Haemi’s notorious for embellishing the events in her life – possibly including the nearly fatal fall into an abandoned well that she describes to her old friend – and they’ve given up trying to distinguish between the truth and fibs. Like his mother’s sudden reappearance after 15 years, it’s all part of the “mystery of life.”

Much of the credit for Burning’s velvety look goes to cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo  (Snowpiercer), who was challenged by the country’s everchanging natural light, morning fog, neon-lit urban settings and conventional rural countryside. It’s all of a piece with Chang-Dong’s belief that “a small mystery in a short story can be expanded into a bigger, multilayered mystery in a  cinematic way.” Moreover, “the gaping holes in the chain of events — the missing piece from which we can never know the truth — allude to the mysterious world we live in now … the world in which we sense that something is wrong but cannot quite put a finger on what the problem is.” That, in a philosophical nut shell, is what Burning and so many other Asian movies – French, too, I suppose – are all about. It also describes what’s missing in nearly every Hollywood “product” these days. As complex as Lee’s reasoning may sound, it’s far from unfathomable. Burning unfolds in a natural way, saving its greatest mysteries until nearly the end. I had no trouble re-investing another 148 minutes of my less-than-precious time, re-watching Burning a day later, if only to catch some of the subtleties in the director’s quote. The pristine Well-Go Entertainment Blu-ray adds only a six-minute meet-the-characters featurette.

The Clovehitch Killer
At first glance, frequent collaborators Duncan Skiles and Christopher Ford (“The Fuzz”) have conspired to make a movie that fools potential viewers into thinking The Clovehitch Killer is another addition to J.J. Abrams’ “Cloverfield” franchise. No two of those movies appear to belong in the same series and it took my tired eyes a few moments to distinguish “Clovehitch” from “Cloverfield.” I could be completely wrong about such a manipulative marketing strategy, but, of all the knots in the Boy Scout handbook, why choose the clove hitch, instead of, say, the similarly tied “double half hitch” or “two half hitch” knot? Brevity, I suppose. Even then, why not the bowline or hangman’s knot. As The Clovehitch Killer begins, viewers are told of a serial killer, who terrorized a small Kentucky community 10 years earlier, leaving behind a small piece of rope attached to a nearby object by a clove hitch. Mysteriously, the killer’s disease has lain dormant for an entire decade, giving residents a false sense of security. While the title alludes to the Clovehitch Killer’s return to action, Skiles and Ford are in no hurry to reveal the villain or villains’ identity or modus operandi. As obvious as they may be to seasoned fans of murder mysteries, however, the real action doesn’t occur until well after the halfway point. By that time, we assume that the sociopath probably resembles any other normal, law-abiding citizen and family man, whose trigger point lies deeply hidden within his psyche. That description easily covers Don Burnside (Dylan McDermott), whose passive 16-year-old son, Tyler (Charlie Plummer), is struggling to come of age on his own terms. Don has narrowed Tyler’s horizons to activities pertaining to church, scouting and leadership camp.

On a rare night away from home, his companion, Kassi (Madisen Beaty), finds a disturbing photograph under the front seat of his dad’s pickup truck. The boy has no idea how the picture got there, but he insists that it doesn’t belong to him. Even so, hallway gossips accuse him of being a pervert. Coincidentally, Kassi has spent the last few years studying the Clovehitch murders and recognizes something in the photograph that relates to the killer’s M.O., which includes bondage and a fascination with torture porn. Although he’s perplexed by the unfounded rumors, Tyler decides to do some investigating of his own. After some digging and moving heavy objects around his dad’s workshop, in the backyard, he discovers a trove of S&M magazines. Tyler doesn’t want to believe that someone in his family might be the infamous serial killer and, after Don notices signs of Tyler’s sleuthing, he already has a credible excuse: the cache belonged to his long-dead brother. Kassi isn’t convinced. After she persuades Tyler to continue digging, he discovers a torture dungeon under the garage. At the same time, killer begins to crawl out of his shell, leaving a clove hitch at the home of a perspective victim. Sure enough, the teenagers’ investigation crosses paths with the killer’s stalking. Something ugly is destined to happen, but viewers are never sure how things will play out. The Clovehitch Killer has conveniently been pigeonholed as a horror thriller, even if the gory stuff takes place off screen and the monster isn’t likely to resemble any genre prototype. In fact, the story appears to have been inspired by Dennis Rader (a.k.a., the “BTK killer”), who was a Cub Scout leader, president of the church council, census-compliance supervisor, dog catcher and security-alarm installer. He led a seemingly normal family life, but also created pornographic collages, collected his victims’ driver’s licenses and posed in his victims’ underwear … just like the movie’s antagonist. He eluded capture for 30 years. Even if The Clovehitch Killer may be a tad slow and bloodless for some genre buffs, the gradual uptick in tension and dread is palpable. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

 
The Vanishing: Blu-ray
Any filmmaker obsessed with making claustrophobic thrillers could do a lot worse than setting a movie on a wee island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In director Kristoffer Nyholm’s thrilling The Vanishing (a.k.a., “The Keepers”), a lighthouse atop a steep, 150-foot cliff in the Flannan Isles is as much a character as any of the heroes and villains. With its craggy inlets, forbidding weather and ever-circling seabirds, it provided a perfect starting place for a mystery never destined to be solved. This one came ready-made with an unsolved disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the same group of islands, dating back to 1900. Here, two experienced lantern keepers and an apprentice endure murderous winds, capable of smashing gulls into the tower’s walls; Nordic marauders, searching for a lost cache of gold; hidden jealousies and family secrets; the threat of mercury poisoning; and a broken short-wave radio. Veteran Scottish actors Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen) and Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe) look right at home on the isolated piece of rock, while relative newcomer Connor Swindells (“Sex Education”) appears to feel as out of place as a misguided flamingo. After a storm, Donald (Swindells) discovers a comatose sailor and his battered lifeboat lying at the bottom of a cliff. He’s given the task of inspecting the scene to see if the man’s dead or alive. Once there, he’s attacked by the sailor, who’s been playing possum. A brutal fight ensues, when Donald attempts to abscond with the box.

Once the crate is retrieved, Thomas (Mullan) can’t resist the temptation to open it. No surprise, it contains gold bars of dubious provenance. As if on cue, a trawler carrying nasty-looking sailors arrives, determined to claim their shipmate’s body and the purloined box. While the keepers have a pretty good story prepared – based on legal protocol — it fails to satisfy the intruders (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Gary Lewis). They pretend to leave for the nearest port but are spotted returning to finish the job they started. Like Vikings, from another era, they plan to lay waste to the island. Although they’re visibly tougher and more ruthless than the Scots, it’s two against three and the keepers have movie-luck on their side. Fans of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre will know what to expect next. (On their way to finding pay dirt, Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs asks Tim Holt’s Curtin, “Do you believe that stuff the old man was saying … about gold changin’ a man’s soul so’s he ain’t the same sort of man as he was before findin’ it?” Neither man is willing to imagine how gold would change them, even when the prophesy becomes fact.) At first, the keepers simply disagree as to how to get the gold to the mainland and when to begin spending it. Then, it becomes a matter of the mercury-addled James trusting Thomas, an old salt haunted by memories of previous misdeeds. It’s difficult to predict with any certainty on which of three men, if any, will survive the ordeal. Nyholm (“Taboo”) and writers Joe Bone (“The Alienist”) and Celyn Jones (Set Fire to the  Stars) wisely decided to give The Vanishing as open-ended a climax as the 1900 mystery. Ultimately, learning what happens to the gold hardly serves any useful purpose. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Emerging From the Darkness.”

Marquise: Blu-ray
Lavish historical dramas and comedies never go out style. Among the things that lure fans to such elaborate period pieces as The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots – nominees in the Oscars’ Costume Design category – are the museum-quality fashions and production design, layer-cake hairstyles and bizarre cosmetics applied to the male and female characters, alike. Part of the appeal is to imagine how much research, time and manual labor were invested into scenes, ranging from picnics and croquet, to grand balls and royal receptions. (Typically, the storylines aren’t nearly as compelling as speculation over whether the actors are wearing historically correct underwear.) In Véra Belmont’s tantalizing French-language dramedy, Marquise (1997), viewers are invited along a Grand Tour of 17th Century fashions – the wigs are singularly captivating – ranging from the costumes worn by street performers, to the gowns and foppish finery favored at the court of the Sun King, Louis  X1V (Thierry Lhermitte). Born into poverty, Marquise (Sophie Marceau) is a promiscuous young entertainer, who uses her exquisite beauty and seductive dancing to earn a living … on and off stage. The distinguished, if impoverished playwright and actor, Molière (Bernard Giraudeau), falls under the spell of the sultry dancer and part-time prostitute (a.k.a., Marquise-Thérèse de Gorl and Mlle. Du Parc), even knowing that she turns tricks between acts. Similarly enchanted is the wealthy, if not-remotely-handsome Gros René (Patrick Timsit), who proposes to Marquise while she’s servicing a dreadful old geezer. She agrees, but only if he convinces Molière to take her to Paris and perform legitimate works with his troupe.

Marquise would love to discontinue the hoochie-coochie dancing, along with the hooking, but it attracts the attention of members of the royal court, who recommend her to the Louie XIV. Although she loves her tubby, kind and generous husband, she sees nothing unethical about sleeping her way to the top. This includes an affair with the budding playwright, Jean Racine (Lambert Wilson), who offers her private acting lessons. When the king bans Molière’s “Tartuffe,” for offending the archbishop, Racine is commissioned to write a new tragedy, “Andromaque.” While it made stars of Racine and Marquise, she becomes so exhausted that it ruins her health. It doesn’t help matters, when she jumps into a Versailles fountain (in her britches) to give the king a long-needed bath (in his skivvies). By avoiding discussions of war and politics, Marquise maintains an air of mirth throughout its 122-minute length. Unlike the comparatively drab British royals, who don’t like to be upstaged, the Sun King surrounds himself with colorfully dressed twits and coquettes, whose principal duties include keeping him in good spirits. The hair designs, themselves, are almost worth the price of admission. (When the king takes off his faux-poodle wig, revealing a few unruly strands of hair, it serves the same purpose as a jump-scare in a horror movie.) While all the actors are terrific, Marceau gives the most memorable performance, demonstrating comedic chops and an ability to act while dancing and screwing. Bonus features include an interview with director Belmont and an essay by Laurence Marie-Sacks.

Kalifornia: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The early 1990s dripped with blood and irony, thanks to such offbeat neo-noir thrillers as Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia (1993), Tony Scott’s True Romance (1992), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), and, stretching the time frame, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). It was the decade that changed everything in the crime genre, freeing a generation of film-school misfits to think outside the box and push the limits on MPAA guidelines. It was fun while it lasted, but, like everything else, the subgenre became larded down with copy cats, unhinged violence, slinky molls in black thigh-high stockings and, of course, cocaine. Occasionally, a good one will sneak through, but they’re few, far between, underfinanced and limited to festival exhibition. Kalifornia is best remembered as a launching pad for the still-very-active Michelle Forbes (“Berlin Station”), Juliette Lewis (“Camping”), David Duchovny (“The X-Files”) and Brad Pitt (Deadpool 2), who plays a distant white-trash cousin to the adorable thief and gigolo, J.D., in Thelma and Louise (1991). Brian Kessler (Duchovny) and Carrie Laughlin (Forbes) are artsy-fartsy types, who’ve run out of ways to please their publishers and agents.

Brian comes up with a scheme to embark on a cross-country road trip, during which they’ll visit scenes of notorious murders and interview the locals. Carrie, whose photography is inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe, will capture the scenes of the crimes on black-and-white film. It’s not a bad setup for a book based on a borderline-tasteless subject. Before hitting the road, they hope to find passengers to help them pay for gas, by posting a notice at a local college. Enter, Early Grayce (Pitt) and Adele Corners (Lewis). He sports a shaggy beard, greasy hair and a Make Dixie Great Again cap … OK, it’s simply a rebel-flag patch on a red baseball cap. She’s sweet, loyal, gullible and dumb as a box of rocks. Moreover, Adele’s completely unaware of the fact that she’s fallen  passionately in love with a sociopath. It takes a while for the hipster couple to figure out Early’s  problem, as well. They finally smell a rat when Early’s image is shown on a TV set, walking away from the office of a gasoline station, whose owner he’d just killed for gas money. Because it’s difficult to get rid of passengers in midtrip – especially when one of them is armed – Brian and Carrie are stuck with him until, 1) they reach L.A. or 2) they’re shot and killed en route. Sena effectively maintains a constant aura of dread. The location scenery is interesting, as is most of the pulpy dialogue. The problem for me, anyway, came down to sitting through depictions of horrifying acts of violence –frequently involving innocent bystanders – two decades after they ceased being fashionable. Somehow, whatever message Kalifornia is trying to convey no longer resonates in a society horrified and frightened by random slaughter in schools, federal buildings, synagogues, stadiums and nightclubs, no matter who’s wielding the AK-47. The bonus features include a new interview with Sena; the theatrical and unrated cuts; an original featurette; and cast interviews.

Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival
Before watching Fabrizio Terranova’s lively documentary, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, I was completely unaware of her work and station in the hierarchy of educators and other deep-thinkers. I wondered why she was deemed she worthy of an 81-minute, mostly one-woman show. That’s my problem, however, not her’s. Upon further examination, I learned that she’s previously appeared in a pair of documentaries — The Cyborg Cometh (1994), No Gravity (2011) – but, like most other self-described postmodern feminists, appears not to have received any invitations to be a guest on a late-night talk show. (She’d be considerably more charismatic and entertaining than most celebrities a third her age.) More to the point, Haraway is a Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department and Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That fact, alone, explains why I’ve sailed through my adult life without being exposed to her specialized knowledge and teaching. Of all the schools I might have chosen as a possible setting for her seminars and research, however, among the top two or three would have been U.C.S.C., an institution widely known for the eccentricities of its students, teachers and curriculum. Its outside-the-mainstream reputation has attracted like-minded students and scholars, ever since it was established, in 1965. Haraway’s thoughts on gender, cyborgs, animals and post-colonialism, as well as explorations into her own life, influences and ideas, probably have combined to make her one of the college’s most popular lecturers. Terranova structured his film around a series of discussions on such subjects as capitalism, science fiction, unconventional marital and sexual relationships, the role of Catholicism in her upbringing, dogs, the suppression of women’s writing, the history of orthodontic aesthetics and the need for new post-patriarchal narratives. She is a passionate and discursive storyteller, who reminds me a bit of Mr. Natural and Fred Rogers … and I don’t mean that in a bad way.Terranova’s video effects, including an enormous jellyfish that floats in and out of Haraway’s study, adds another light, if bewildering touch to the proceedings.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Greatest Blessing
Nick Jr: Meet the Baby Animals
Nickelodeon: Top Wing: Eggcellent Missions
Like its companion frachise, “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s super-popular zombies series, “Fear the Walking Dead,” shuffled through its fourth season, with no signs of needing resuscitation or a bullet in the head. The season premiere featured the first crossover between the two shows, setting up Morgan Jones’s move from Virginia to Texas. After ignoring the advice of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the main protagonist of “The Walking Dead,” Jones (Lennie James) connects with John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) in the Lone Star state. The next day, they’re captured by a group of Survivors, but are saved by journalist Althea (Maggie Grace), who drives a SWAT vehicle and wants to tell their stories on camera. John tells Althea that he is on a mission to find his girlfriend, Laura – wait until the new season’s fifth episode — but eventually agrees to participate. Their vehicle stops when they see a woman, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), crawling along the ground. Morgan, John and Althea are then surrounded at gunpoint by Nick, Strand, and Luciana. The season also features new showrunners, Andrew Chambliss and Ian B. Goldberg (“Once Upon a Time”), and a new filming location, Austin. In Season Four, as well, shocking things happen to Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her family. The converging groups find safe haven inside a baseball stadium, but only until they’re threatened by a group of antagonistic Survivors known as the Vultures. Jenna Elfman (“Dharma & Greg”), whose career could really benefit from a hit show, is also among the new cast members. The Blu-ray carries all 16 episodes from the bifurcated season and a few commentary tracks scattered throughout the set.

When Calls the Heart: The Greatest Blessing” aired on Christmas Day, 2018, before an appreciative audience of G-rated families and collectors of Hallmark cards. As usual, it’s well-made and consistantly entertaining, even if it lacks the sort of pleasures that attract R-rated families, like mine. Here, as the holiday approaches in Hope Valley, newly widowed Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) anticipates the birth of her baby, while Abigail (Lori Loughlin) prepares for the town’s Christmas gathering. The town welcomes a group of orphans and their caretakers, who have been stranded on their journey to a new orphanage. All goes charitably, until Bill (Jack Wagner) makes a troubling discovery about the newcomers and is forced to make a difficult decision, which will affect all their lives. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, Abigail and Rosemary (Pascale Hutton) get stuck in a storm and face a Christmas Eve emergency. The episode is the introduction to the series’ spin-off, “When Hope Calls,” premiering in August 2019 on Hallmark Movies Now, the Hallmark Channel’s digital streaming service.

In Nick Jr.’s “Meet the Baby Animals,” preschoolers can meet some adorable cartoon newcomers in episodes of such fan favorites as “PAW Patrol,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Blaze and his Monster Machine” and “Shimmer and Shine.” It features seven episodes from seasons 1-3.

Fans of “Top Wing: Eggcellent Missions” are invited to join the high-flying “Top Wing” cadets on eight egg-citing missions. as they save Sandy Stork’s eggs, recover their vehicles from Cheep and Chirp’s cousins, and help Rod prove he’s a rooster, not a chicken. The DVD includes eight Season One episodes, as well as “Top Wing” stickers.

The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter’s Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

Friday, March 1st, 2019

To Sleep With Anger: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Not to belabor the obvious problems on display in this past weekend’s Oscar-cast, but something really has to be done to correct at least one of the many injustices now committed annually by AMPAS. To appease the ratings-addicted executives at ABC, the academy continues to present its “prestigious” Governors’ Awards off-screen, well away from the spotlight. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and Honorary Awards are handed out in November. The less-prestigious Scientific and Engineering Awards and Technical Achievement Awards are presented earlier in February, while the Student Academy Awards and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are reserved for October. In its wisdom, too, AMPAS only elects to anoint Hersholt and Thalberg recipients in years that it’s located sufficiently worthy candidates. It’s a problem that’s never plagued Major League Baseball, when it comes time to pick winners of the Cy Young Awards and Golden Gloves, or the scholarship-granted at the Miss America contest. Does Hollywood suffer from a lack of noteworthy candidates?

After watching Criterion Collection’s upgraded edition of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger – and being familiar with his other significant works – I wondered if he’d ever been honored by AMPAS or received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The answers: yes and no. Two years ago, the Mississippi-born, Watts-raised multihyphenate was granted an Honorary Award by the organization’s gubernatorial board. As of yet, however, no star. I’d missed the minute or two devoted to such honorees, during the 2018 Academy Awards broadcast ceremony, and incorrectly assumed that he hadn’t made the cut. Good for him and good for the academy. Oscar Micheaux, perhaps the greatest of all African-American filmmakers and producers, was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard, 36 years after his death, and a 44-cent commemorative stamp, in 2010. Nothing from AMPAS, whose members conspired to segregate the motion-picture industry, forcing Micheaux to focus on making “race movies.” It’s still not too late, I suppose. Without Micheaux, there wouldn’t have been a Charles Burnett, and, without Burnett, an entire generation of African-American filmmakers might have had to wait another 10 years for their work to celebrated. If you want to know why Burnett deserved such an honor, you’ll have to pick up a copy of To Sleep With Anger and stay tuned for the splendidly rendered supplementals. To Sleep With Anger was released in 1990, 12 years after Burnett’s UCLA master’s thesis, Killer of Sheep, debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and began a festival tour. Even though the $5,000 film won the FIPRESCI Prize, awarded by critics, at the 1981 Berlin International Film Festival, it was denied distribution. His sin: Burnett couldn’t afford to pay the tariff for proper legal permits, music-rights acquisitions and anything more than 16mm prints. Thirty years later, these hurdles were finally cleared. Rights were secured and a new 35mm print of Killer of Sheep was restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive, clearing it for festivals, retrospectives and video. The Library of Congress has declared Killer of Sheep as a national treasure and one of the first 50 on the National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics selected it as one of the “100 Essential Films” of all time. Among other things, Burnett helped convince a generation of African-American filmmakers – many of them in attendance at last weekend’s Oscars ceremony — they could make the movies they wanted, independently and without studio interference. Ironically, because To Sleep With Anger didn’t contain any of the then-current images of thug life in the ’hood, as exemplified by such surprise hits as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and New Jack City (1991), only the Samuel Goldwyn Company was willing to give it a ride, albeit on a strictly limited marketing budget.

The PG-rated To Sleep With Anger features three of Burnett’s favorite themes: family, community and tradition. It is set in a middle-class section of South-Central L.A., before the Watts riots changed the outside world’s perception of the LAPD and the willingness of residents to stand up for their community. We know from the jump that Gideon and Suzie (Paul Butler, Mary Alice) were raised in the Deep South and are surrounded by many other people who made the same westward  journey to find jobs and dignity. They share certain traditions, beliefs and superstitions that survived the Middle Passage and were passed along by their ancestors, who, of course, were enslaved. Although they live perfectly normal lives, otherwise, Gideon and Suzie made sure their sons respected such traditions. Now fully grown, however, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks) and Junior (Richard Brooks) are as different in temperament as Cain and Able. Out of nowhere, sportin’ man Harry Mention (Danny Glover) arrives at the family abode. It makes everyone happy and ready to pull the “good” corn liquor out of the cupboard. By now, it’s apparent that happy-go-lucky Harry’s presence is likely to precipitate a series of events that aren’t divinely inspired. The centerpiece here is a well-attended welcoming party, during which much soul food is devoured, memories are swapped, blues songs are sung and everyone who hasn’t been “saved” gets drunk. Later, many of the same folks will gather to pray over Gideon, who’s suffered a severe heart attack. Meanwhile, too, Babe Brother and Junior have come to loggerheads over issues that began in childhood. It also affects their wives (Sheryl Lee Ralph, Vonetta McGee), who, being modern Angelinos, recognize the source of the problem and wish Harry would simply go away. By the time the 102-minute story ends, the whole package will be tied together in a neat bow, but not in any predictable way. Naturally, without a link connecting To Sleep With Anger to the gang-banger trend, the distributor couldn’t decide how to market the movie for crossover consumption – it belonged in the mainstream, after all — and, five years later, it finally received a VHS sendoff.

This occurred, despite the fact that the $1.4-million To Sleep With Anger – partially financed by a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant to Burnett — won several awards, including best screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics. It also took home Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, the AFI’s Maya Deren Award, the Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, a special award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and nominations for both Burnett and Glover by the New York Film Critics Association. The Criterion Blu-ray package represents its long-awaited reward from the greater film industry. Special features and technical specs include a 4K digital transfer, approved by Burnett, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a new interview program, with Burnett, Glover, Ralph and associate producer Linda Koulisis; a nearly feature-length, “A Walk With Charles Burnett,” with filmmaker Robert Townsend, revisiting shooting locations; a short video tribute to Burnett, produced for the Governors Awards ceremony; and an essay by critic Ashley Clark.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Little Mermaid: Signature Collection, Blu-ray/4K UHD
Liz and the Blue Bird: Blu-ray
The trio of animated films discussed here represents three different periods in the medium’s evolution. The success of the mostly hand-drawn The Little Mermaid (1989) brought Disney’s animation division, under Jeffrey Katzenberg, a solid victory, after nearly 20 years of miscues. (Two years earlier, Who Framed Roger Rabbit signaled a return to glory, as well.)  Ralph Breaks the Internet shows how far Walt Disney Animation Studios has come, not only from The Little Mermaid, but also in the realm of digital production. Not long after the merger with Pixar, many observers theorized that John Lasseter — chief creative officer and executive producer on most projects – would eliminate the redundancies and pretty much make the then-struggling Animation Studios subservient to the Pixar juggernaut. Today, both subsidiaries have retained their own fingerprints and continue to deliver features that impress audiences, critics and animation buffs. The corporate roots of Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird (2018) extend all the way back to contributions Kyoto Animation made on Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Rosso (1992). In 1996, Ghibli announced a international distribution deal with Disney, covering its films and home-entertainment products. In this way, Disney helped introduce anime and manga to people who’d grown up on Mickey Mouse, who’d long been a superstar in Japan.

Ralph Breaks the Internet follows by six years the mayhem chronicled in Wreck-It Ralph. In the latter, video-game palooka Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and the vexing “glitch,” Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), conspire to raise their profiles in the arcade community by eliminating the nasty Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Here, when Vanellope admits to being bored with the Sugar Rush game’s predictability, Ralph creates a secret bonus track for her confectionary kart races. When Vanellope, being Vanellope, overrides player control to test the track, the resulting conflict causes a crash in which her car’s steering wheel is broken. Since the company that manufactured Sugar Rush is defunct, one of the kids scours the Internet for a used replacement part. It’s found on the bidding site, eBay, ready for auction. If he deems the part to be too expensive, Mr. Litvak (Ed O’Neill) will have no choice but to unplug Sugar Rush, leaving the game’s characters homeless. Instead, Ralph and Vanellope decide to enter the brave new world of the World Wide Web – for them, anyway – and go directly to land of eBay. The problem, of course, is that they lack the basic skills needed to make winning bid. Neither do they understand the difference between a dollar and points. The trouble begins when they begin to outbid each other, even after their nearest competitor dropped out 20,000 cyber-dollars earlier. In Sugar Rush, Vanellope knows that 40,000 points is easily attained. In the real world of eBay transactions, not so much. They’re given 24 hours to find the money, collecting transferable points in all kinds of branded websites. Normally, I can’t stand product placements in movies. Here, however, it’s all done in the name of fun. Adult viewers, especially, will enjoy identifying the various logos of defunct and active companies, as well the lampooning of Internet tropes. The best things about Ralph Breaks the Internet, besides the witty script and voice acting, are the brilliantly vibrant colors on display in the 4K UHD universe. The Blu-ray adds “Surfing for Easter Eggs,” “The Music of Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “BuzzzTube Cats,” the 35-minute “How We Broke the Internet,” deleted scenes and music videos, performed by Imagine Dragons and Julia Michaels.

The first thing to know about the Signature Collection release of The Little Mermaid is that it predates all the straight-to-video prequels and sequels. Neither is it related to last year’s bargain-basement live-action The Little Mermaid or, for that matter, the filmed version of Disney’s theatrical musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008. Rob Marshall’s CGI and live-action remake — with new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda – still awaits a delivery date. Nope, the 30th anniversary Signature Collection edition simply represents the latest iteration of Disney’s beloved classic, which had been on the studio’s to-do list for more than 50 years … same great characters, music and interpretation of the Hans Christian Andersen’s story. That, and a bright, newly upgrade visual and audio presentation. It also adds new featurettes, “Alan Menken and the Leading Ladies,” with Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle, Beauty and the Beast), Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas), Lillias White (Hercules) and Donna Murphy (Tangled); “What I Want From You Is …Your Voice,” with the actors who voiced Sebastian, Scuttle, Urusla and Ariel; “Stories From Walt’s Office: Gadgets and Gizmos,” which takes viewers inside Uncle Walt’s office and explores his various collectibles — mostly miniatures — that people gave to him after it was revealed that he collected them. Six other featurettes have been ported over from previous editions, alongside an exclusive digital extra, “‘Part of Your World’: A Look Back,” in which Menken and Jodi Benson discuss the song’s impact and early plans to cut the song from the film. Missing are “The Little Match Girl,” “John & Ron Make Caricatures of Each Other,“ “Animators Comment on their Characters” and “The Little Mermaid Handshake,” which fans probably have already seen. I’m fortunate to have a combined Blu-ray/4K platform, which allowed me to compare the formats, without having to move any further than the distance from my couch to the TV. If you can remember the difference between the VHS cassette and the first DVD and Blu-ray discs, you might be surprised to learn how much better The Little Mermaid looks and sounds in 4K UHD. Although some of the original analog portions are only noticeably more clear, clean and visually appealing, everything else in HDR is strikingly better, especially the depth-of-color and artistic precision. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also is a welcome addition.

With its wispy, hand-painted texture, Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird will remind anime buffs of early Miyazaki. The look is of a piece with “Sound! Euphonium” (2015-16), the manga and TV series that chronicles the lives and complexities of the students participating in Kitauji High School’s music club. It also resembles “K-On!” (2009-10), which followed five girls, who become friends through the Light Music Club at a fictional Japanese school. These feel-good series were based on popular novels, most likely targeted at girls who grew up obsessed with all-things-“Hello Kitty.” Because Liz and the Blue Bird is a standalone spin-off of Ayano Takeda’s “Sound! Euphonium,” teens and pre-teens are advised not to jump into the feature film cold. (Episodes are available through various streaming platforms.) Here, best friends Mizore and Nozomi prepare to perform a complex musical duet inspired by the fairy tale “Liz und ein Blauer Vogel,” for oboe and flute. Though they play beautifully together and have been friends since childhood, Mizore and Nozomi are having trouble squaring plans for graduation with rehearsals for a difficult duet. Interspersed with their story is a more lushly animated fantasy tale, drawn in the style of a storybook, that contrasts with the crisp, uncomplicated realism of the scholastic storyline. Yamada does a nice job weaving the distinctly different artistic styles into the fabric of the musical presentation. In the TV series, Mizore and Nozomi were background characters. Here, with the spotlight on their endangered friendship, young viewers are encouraged to consider issues relating to connection and loss. Yamada had already proved her skill in depicting young adults in “A Silent Voice” (2016), “Tamako Love Story” (2014) and “K-On! The Movie” (2011).

Jupiter’s Moon
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s supernatural thriller, Jupiter’s Moon, screened in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Three years earlier, he won top prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar for White God, a film in which a city’s canine population rebels against the inhumanity of humans. In 2005, Mundruczó’s musical drama, Johanna, was nominated there, as well. In it, a young drug addict emerges from a deep coma with an ability to miraculously cure patients by offering sexual favors. As offbeat as those premises seem, Jupiter’s Moon tops them, if only because its story is linked inexorably to refugee crises elsewhere. It opens as a young immigrant from Homs, Syria, is shot by border guards while attempting to cross into Hungary with his father. Just as we begin to assume Aryan Dashni (Zsombor Jéger) is dead, his corporeal body levitates above the scene of the mass arrests. Aryan is unable to remain aloft long enough to avoid capture, however. Thrown into the hospital ward of a nearby refugee camp, he is smuggled out by Dr. Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze), whose kindness masks a scheme to sell medical reprieves to immigrants threatened with immediate deportation. Stern needs the money to pay off the family of an aspiring athlete, who, while the surgeon was drunk, died from procedural mistake.

After witnessing Aryan’s extraordinary power,  Gábor comes up with an even more devious plan to bail himself out of charges of medical malpractice. He offers Aryan a deal: in exchange for money and legal papers, Gábor will bring Aryan to Budapest to reunite with his father, who may or may not have survived the border altercation. In fact, the corrupt doctor will present himself as a spiritual healer, using Aryan as an assistant capable of curing  people with terminal diseases. Meanwhile, the same police officer who shot Aryan and, coincidentally, despises Stern for trying to cover-up the athlete’s death, steals the doctor’s cellphone. It contains a video showing Aryan levitating. The brutal cop, László (György Cserhalmi) dedicates himself to unmasking Stern’s scheme and using Aryan’s powers to his own benefit. A terrorist attack at the Budapest train depot opens an entirely new can of worms, again involving stolen papers. In the mayhem that follows the suicide bombing, Aryan takes advantage of his powers to float away, landing on a nearby rooftop. A woman who witnesses the otherworldly event assumes that Aryan is an “angel,” who “flew to the sky,” and is worthy of her prayers. Before the movie concludes, thousands of other people will witness the same miracle and assume that a heavenly superhero is now among them. We’ve all seen enough illusionists pull off the same trick on stage to remain skeptical of the source of Aryan’s powers: heaven, magic or Krypton. Regardless, Mundruczó and cinematographer Marcell Rév (“Paterno”) have created a cinematic world that encourages viewers to suspend their disbelief for the 129 minutes it takes for us to buy into anything they want to sell us. I can easily imagine a scenario, in which an enterprising Hollywood producer invests in an adaptation of Jupiter’s Moon – the title is more metaphorical than indicative of a sci-fi thriller – that switches the location from the Hungarian border to the Rio Grande valley, where some of the same things probably happen on a routine basis, minus the magical realism. Given a bit more editorial guidance, Mundruczó probably could handle the change in scenery.

The Possession of Hannah Grace: Blu-ray
Between Worlds: Blu-ray
In Diederik Van Rooijen’s nearly out-of-control American debut, The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) — written by Brian Sieve (“Scream: The TV Series”) – a demonic presence rises from the seemingly dead, to terrorize a nearly empty Boston medical facility. The devil may possess Hannah Gray’s soul, but her body is residing on a slab in the facility’s morgue. It’s there that former cop Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) is weaning herself from the substances she takes to ease the pain of PTSD and panic attacks. On her first night on the graveyard shift, Hannah’s putrefying corpse is wheeled in on a stretcher. She died in an exorcism that didn’t quite work. No sooner is her cadaver locked inside the stainless-steel refrigerator than the usual array of loud and crazy things begin to happen around her. Not the least of them is the arrival of a disheveled guy at the hospital’s entrance, demanding to be allowed inside the morgue to kill – again? – Hannah, this time for eternity. They almost manage to stuff the body into the crematorium, when Hannah pulls a switcheroo on the invader. Strangely enough, the purification process begins to reverse itself, turning Megan’s first night into a nightmare of biblical proportions. That becomes obvious when Hannah begins stalking the hallways like a contortionist possessing the DNA of a spider. However disappointing the action is, there’s no question of dancer/gymnast Kirby Johnson’s ability to imitate a possessed woman. There’s nothing else in the movie that comes close. The Blu-ray adds on-set interviews.

Maria Pulera’s sophomore thriller, behind Falsely Accused (2016), is an unredeemable mess, except as a direct appeal to Nicolas Cage’s most rabid fans, who might love it. In Between Worlds, he plays a mangy, down-on-his-luck truck driver, who’s haunted by the memory of his recently deceased wife and child. While stranded at a truck stop, Joe rescues a fellow trucker, Julie (Franke Potente), from being strangled by a guy she’s hired to do just that. Apparently, she’s come to believe that the only way to pull her daughter, Billie (Penelope Mitchell), out of a coma is to feign the kind of near-death condition she experienced as a child. Even though Joe’s act of misguided kindness ruined her little scheme, Julie brings him home, as if he were just another abandoned hound to keep her couch warm at night and keep her company. They also engage in some unbridled sexual healing. Apparently, their gyrations woke the genie slumbering  in a magic lamp hidden under Julie’s mattress. Billie miraculously emerges from her coma, catching the adults in the afterglow of orgasmic bliss. Because Joe can’t afford to bail his truck out of hock, he agrees to remain with Julie, making repairs around the house. While Julie’s on the road, however, Billie entices her mother’s lodger into replicating scenes from Poison Ivy. It has less to do with his being unsatisfied or insatiable – in either case, he’s not – than the possibility that the teenager possesses the reincarnated spirit of his ex-wife, Mary (Lydia Hearst), right down to shared memories and personal trivia. Revealing anything more about Between Worlds would only serve to spoil the fun for members of Nic’s fan club. Suffice it to say, the action is as hot, heavy, loud and bizarre as anything he’s been involved in since Wild at Heart. At one point, Joe is even shown reading passages from “Memories by Nicolas Cage” to Billie/Mary. It’s impossible to say whether Pulera came up with the conceit herself or Cage pulled it out of his bag of tricks. Besides that, the highlights are limited to Angelo Badalamenti’s musical score and costume designer Bonnie Stauch’s choice of lingerie for Billie/Mary to seduce the house guest. (Nic’s brief might have come from a Good Will repository.)

The Unseen
Willard: Blu-ray
In his first foray into world of writing and directing feature films, makeup-effects wizard Geoff Redknap (“The X-Files”) puts an inventive twist on the time-honored legend of Universal’s Invisible Man. Instead of being able to turn his invisibility on and off — like Claude Raines, Steve Guttenberg, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Kevin Bacon in similar circumstances – lumber-yard-worker Bob Langmore (Aden Young) is unable to prevent his body from decomposing, piece by gruesome piece. By the end of Redknap’s The Unseen – an example of Canuxploitation creativity at its most Canadian – Langmore is barely there, at all, although his innards are on nearly full display. Bob notices the first manifestations of his unexplained malady while working at a sawmill in northern British Columbia. He’s been battling extreme anxiety and depression caused by rough working conditions at and the residual pain precipitated by his separation from his wife and daughter, eight years earlier. When in public, Bob uses caps and jackets to strategically hide the parts of him that have vanished, adding more layers when needed. After getting a call from his ex-wife (Julia Sarah Stone) about their daughter, Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), Bob decides to visit the girl whose memory of him is no more stable than his visibility. Adding to the intrigue is a contrived arrangement with a local drug dealer, who fixes Bob’s truck in exchange for a bit of smuggling. When the task isn’t performed, as ordered, the gangster begins to threaten Bob’s family. While Redknap’s screenplay may contain as many holes as his protagonist, the special effects are creepy enough to keep most viewers interested.

Like Redknap, Willard’s writer/director/producer Glen Morgan and producer James Wong can credit stints with “The X-Files” for some of their success, at least. Morgan’s re-adaptation of Gilbert Ralston’s 1971 screenplay, was based on Stephen Gilbert’s 1968 novel, “Ratman’s Notebooks,” as was its turnaround sequel, Ben (1972). The original starred Bruce Davison as the protagonist, Willard Stiles, with Ernest Borgnine, Elsa Lanchester and Sondra Locke along for the ride. Framed images of Davison appear throughout the sequel. Willard is credited with launching the 1970s’ creature-feature renaissance. Morgan’s Willard take some liberties with the original, but not many. At its core is a story about a young man (Crispin Glover), who falls in love with the vermin in his basement. What Willard doesn’t take into consideration is the animals’ propensity to reproduce exponentially. He will employ his varmint army to avenge his firing by his boss, Frank, played by R. Lee Ermey in full-tyrant mode. Laura Elena Harring (Mulholland Drive), former adult-movie queen Ashlyn Gere (Body and Soul) and poor old Jackie Burroughs (Avonlea)  also contribute to the fun. More than anything else, however, is the introduction of spanking-new CGI effects into the mix, allowing a few rats to represent a multitude, without any measurable rutting. Despite some good reviews, Willard failed to match the performance of the original, which explains why Ben wasn’t accorded a sequel of its own. That, and the near extinction of drive-in theaters, which, in 1973, were still a force in exhibition. The Scream Factory release adds a 2K remaster of the film; new commentaries with Morgan and DP Robert McLachlan and animal trainers Mark Harden and David Allsberry, of Animals for Hollywood; “The Road to Willard,” a fresh interview with Morgan; “Destination Willard,” a new interview with McLachlan; “The Rat Trainer’s Notebook,” with behind-the-scenes footage from Animals for Hollywood; vintage commentary with Morgan, Wong, Glover and Ermey; “The Year of the Rat,” a making-of documentary; “Rat People: Friends or Foes?,” a documentary on real-life rats; deleted/alternate scenes, with optional commentary; the music video, “Ben,” by Crispin Hellion Glover, with optional commentary; and behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the electronic press kit.

The Mole People: Blu-ray
The Return of the Vampire: Blu-ray
The Vengeance of She: Blu-ray
Scream Factory is also responsible for the Blu-ray release of several other near classics and cheesy cult faves. Like so many other mid-century sci-fi/horror flicks, The Mole People imagines a world so far from anything resembling reality that it might as well be listed at Netflix under comedies. I don’t know if it was inspired by Superman and the Mole-Men (1951), but it could have been. No matter, because director Virgil W. Vogel hired educator/TV-personality Frank C. Baxter to introduce The Mole People with 10 minutes of mumbo-jumbo about the possibility of entire civilizations existing and flourishing underground. Hence, the title. The mole people are only one of several obstacles facing archaeologists John Agar (Attack of the Puppet People), Hugh Beaumont (“Leave It to Beaver”) and Nestor Paiva (Creature From the Black Lagoon), when they come upon an unusual race of albino beings living on the tippy-top of a mountain in the Himalayas, untouched by Noah’s great flood. They shun all forms of light – including “magical cylinders of fire” (a.k.a., flashlights) – and keep mutant mole men as their slaves. The archaeologists are treated like gods, until they try to liberate the mole people. Can they escape this hallowed mountain, with an underground kingdom and sophisticated system of tunnels, or will they live long enough to commit other cinematic crimes? The mind boggles. The Blu-ray offers two presentations of the film: in 1.85:1 and 2.00:1 aspect ratios; new commentary with film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; the featurette, “Of Mushrooms and Madmen: The Making of The Mole People”; the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode, skewering The Mole People, in standard definition; stills galleries; movie stills, posters and lobby cards; and a theatrical trailer. It’s perfect for stoned viewing.

The Scream/Shout catalogue now also includes Columbia’s 1943 cult favorite  The Return of the Vampire and Hammer’s The Vengeance of She, which, even by 1968 standards, feels as if it might have fit a drive-in double bill with The Mole People. In the former, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi) is a 200-year-old Hungarian vampire, who, as is his wont, prowls the English countryside, feeding from the jugulars of the villagers. His reign of terror is interrupted by a pair of scientists, Lady Jane (Frieda Inescort) and Sir John Ainsley (Roland Varno), who drive a railroad spike through his heart and bury him. Flash forward 20 years, to the early days of WWII, when German bombers and blimps were leaving holes throughout the English countryside. Collateral damage includes a casket revealed to a couple of groundskeepers, who don’t see any harm in removing a spike – yes, the very same one – from Tesla’s chest. Along with his werewolf servant, Andreas Obry (Matt Willis), the famished vampire now plots vengeance on the family that put a halt to his earlier nocturnal feasting. At a crisp 69 minutes, there isn’t much more room for an elongated storyline. Special features and technical specs: new audio commentaries with film historian Troy Howarth, author/film-historian Gary Don Rhodes and historian Lee Gambin; a silent and much-abridged 8mm presentation of the film; and a stills gallery.

H. Rider Haggard is the author of the serialized adventure novel, “She: A History of Adventure” (1886), from which The Vengeance of She and a dozen other female-empowerment movies were adapted. They range from Georges Méliès’ 1899 short film, The Pillar of Fire, to Clive Nolan’s rock-opera/musical version of She, which was recorded live in 2007, in Katowice, Poland, and released on DVD a year later. The Vengeance of She is a sequel to She (1965), which benefitted from the pairing of Ursula Andress and stud-muffin John Richardson. No such luck for the sequel, in which Richardson, as King Killikrates, was paired with Olinka Berova, a blond bombshell whose greatest challenge was fitting into her abbreviated Grecian costume. Berova’s Carol appears to be possessed by the spirit of Queen Ayesha. She’s drawn to the lost city of Kuma, where the spirit of Ayesha yearns to be reunited with Killikrates and reclaim her domain. Probably due to the lack of T&A, the movie died a slow, painful death at the box office. The Blu-ray arrives with fresh interviews with assistant director Terence Clegg, visual effects artist Joy Cuff and clapper/loader Trevor Coop; new commentary by the Monster Party podcast hosts, Matt Weinhold, Shawn Sheridan, Larry Strothe and James Gonis; a delightful return to the 1960s, in “World of Hammer: Lands Before Time”; the theatrical trailer; TV spots; and a stills gallery.

Legally Blonde Collection
With the release of Legally Blonde 3 set for Valentine’s Day, 2020, what better way to begin beating the drums than with a fresh re-packaging of the surprisingly successful 2001 original and its 2003 sequel, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Both movies made money, but Legally Blonde received far better reviews. Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Cauffiel are set to return for “LB3.” (There’s still time to retitle it “Legally Blond 3: MILFs on the Move.”) One thing that “LB3” will have going for it that the sequel didn’t claim is the return of writers Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, who also co-wrote Ella Enchanted (2004) and The House Bunny (2008). The director’s name hasn’t been announced yet, but Robert Luketic is probably still available. In “LB1,” SoCal Dreamsicle Elle Woods makes the unprecedented leap from USC sorority queenbee to Harvard Law graduate, shedding her worthless boy-toy for Luke Wilson along the way, In “LB: 2,” the crusading attorney takes Washington by storm in her Jimmy Choo pumps and fashionably square pink and lavender suits. (Pink is red-hot right now.) Her mission is to lobby for  legislation prohibiting the use of animals for testing consumer goods. If the plot feels more than a little bit obvious, the movie benefits from the addition of Sally Field, Regina King, Bruce McGill, Bob Newhart and the retention of Witherspoon, Cauffiel, Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, Alanna Ubach, Bruce Thomas, James Read and Tane McClure. In addition to those features, the Elle Woods saga includes a Reese-free 2009 direct-to-DVD spin-off, Legally Blondes; and “Legally Blonde: The Musical” (2007). The collection’s only new featurettes are fresh interviews with Cauffiel, along with upgraded visuals.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn TV: Bang: Series 1
Acorn TV: Ackley Bridge: Series 2
Acorn TV: 800 Words: Season 3, Part 2
Once again, Acorn Media is sending out sets of popular mini-series from the Commonwealth, or what passes for it these days. “Bang” is a crackerjack police-procedural that arrives in Welsh and English (subtitles recommended). It is set in the smoggy coastal town of Port Talbot, Wales, which is dominated by a steelworks. The police force, whose officers look as if they were recruited from the cast of “Misfits,” is involved with investigations into at least two murders, the disappearance of a stolen gun and drug- and human-trafficking, dating back to 1990s. Romantic entanglements border on the incestuous. At last count, Port Talbot is home to some 37,276 people, a number that wouldn’t fill most soccer stadiums. It stars Jacob Ifan (“Cuffs”) as Sam Jenkins, a loner who becomes entangled in a web of lies after coming into possession of a gun. He barely recalls the murder of his father, years earlier on a local beach favored by surfers, but the scars of growing up without him still show. His sister, Gina, played by Catrin Stewart (“Doctor Who” and, yes, “Misfiits”), works out her separation anxiety as a member of the police force. When a local bigshot is found dead, suffocated with a plastic bag and submerged under his boat, Gina discovers a trail that leads back to her father’s own criminal past. Another storyline involves her mother, Linda (Nia Roberts), and her thuggish second husband, who threatens to evict Sam from his grandmother’s house after she dies. Because the mini-series plays out in eight 60-minute episodes, “Bang” isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The actors are excellent and little time is left between plot points for any paint to dry. Watching “Bang” made me wonder what Dick Wolf might be able to come up with if he were asked to create an eight-hour mini-series, featuring characters from various “Law & Order” series. The Brits have it down to a science. The package comes with a making-of featurette.

The second season of the Channel 4 drama series, “Ackley Bridge,” continues to follow the lives of the staff and pupils at the fictional multi-cultural academy school, Ackley Bridge College, located in the fictitious Yorkshire mill town of Ackley Bridge. It’s grown from six episodes in Season One, to 12 in Season Two, and eight in the upcoming Season Three. In the opening stanza, we watched what happens after budget cuts force the merger of two schools in a racially divided British and Pakistani community. As such, it explores “the turbulent school experience, covering the challenges of prejudice and cultural issues in the school environment, as well as the humor, relationships and conflict had by the pupils, teachers and parents.” With key characters and plotlines already established, the writers were able to dig deeper into issues common to the students, teachers and community. “Ackley Bridge” has been compared favorably to the BBC’s long-running school dramas, “Waterloo Road” and “Grange Hill.”

The Australia/New Zealand co-production, “800 Words,” is a dramedy series about George Turner, a popular newspaper columnist and recent widower, who decides it’s time for a big change in his life. (The title relates to the mandated length of his columns.) After his wife dies, he buys — over the internet and sight unseen – an unfinished home in the wee seaside town of Weld, N.Z. It’s where his parents took him on holiday as a child. The first dilemma he faced came when he had to break the news to his two teenage children, Shay and Arlo. The second involved his new neighbors, who, while colorful, are nosy and disruptive. The soap-opera atmosphere is balanced by situations unique to small towns in exotic locales. The bad news is that “800 Words” – a staple on many PBS affiliates – has been canceled after three seasons.

 

The DVD Wrap: Robin Hood, Overlord, Alexanderplatz, Rodrigo D., Happy Hour, Moko Jumbie, Last Race, Joseph H. Lewis, Backtrace, Backbeat … More

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Robin Hood: Blu-ray/4K UHD
At one time or another, we’ve all been asked to consider the great conundrum of the 20th Century: if you were able to go back in history and kill a tyrant, before he assumed power, would you? The easy answer  is, yes. What, then, if the despot’s replacement turned out to be even worse? The same applies in Hollywood. What if some smart cookie had talked his boss out of investing in a dubious biopic of John Gotti, only for the money to be spent on something demonic, like “Battlefield Earth II” or “The Postman Returns”? Worse things happen all the time, I suppose. I wonder, though, if a soothsayer had warned producer Leonardo DiCaprio against pouring a small fortune into Otto Bathurst and writer Ben Chandler’s Robin Hood, would  his Appian Way Productions have redirected the money into, say, another collaboration with Martin Scorsese, like The Revenant and The Wolf of Wall Street? Universal and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) would have bombed if Russell Crowe weren’t a box-office force around the world. WB and Kevin Reynold’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) did well, too, but, at the time, Kevin Costner was still at the top of his game. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) gave Mel Brooks one last big-screen hurrah, before he turned his comic intentions toward Broadway, voice-overs and television. You’d think, by 2018, that Hollywood would have exhausted any interest in Mr. Hood and his Merry Men. Where was the upside? Not surprisingly, perhaps, the geniuses decided that a Robin Hood that borrowed liberally from the Wachowskis’ V for Vendetta (2005) and Baz Luhrmann and DiCaprio’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) could pump fresh blood into a character whose cinematic career began in 1908, in Percy Stow’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1908)? Talk about re-inventing the wheel. According to the creative folks interviewed in the bonus material: the set and costume designers were instructed to make everything one-third historically correct, one-third contemporary and one-third futuristic. That Columbia Pictures is said to have bought the script for its “universe” of Marvel superheroes also explains why it looks like a movie made for teenage boys with a comic-book fetish. Casting Bono’s 5-foot-1-inch daughter, Eve Hewson, and asking her to spark a revolt in the streets of Nottingham, probably wasn’t a good idea, either.

But, then, Taron Egerton (Robin), Jamie Foxx (John), Ben Mendelsohn (the sheriff) and Tim Minchin (Friar Tuck) don’t always feel comfortable in their tights, either. Worse, Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlett is reimagined as a competitor for Marion’s hand, with Robin, and a potential ally to the evil oligarchs. It all squares with Bathurst’s stated desire to turn Robin Hood into more of a rock ’n’ roll, action flick for a new generation of viewers. (In a gala party scene, the damsels are dressed for a long day’s night in Las Vegas, while their suitors favor “Star Trek” fashions.) The revisions arrive out of nowhere, absent context, and interrupt any flow Bathurst has managed to develop in the opening scenes. Otherwise, stripped of all the nonsensical revisionism and before being drafted into the Third Crusades, Lord Robin of Loxley lives in Nottingham, enjoying a good life with his lover Marian. It’s in the Holy Land that Lord Robin meets, fights and fails to save John the Moor’s son from being executed by his commander, Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Anderson). After four years away from England, Robin is surprised to learn that he’s been declared dead and his property has been seized on the sheriff’s orders, on behalf of the corrupt Cardinal Franklin (F. Murray Abraham). The citizens are being taxed to pay for the Crusades, while the Church is pocketing the tariffs. Robin and his not-so-merry men need only follow the money to plot their insurrection. And, while there’s plenty of explosive action to keep teenagers interested – including some terrific archery effects – it takes viewers far too long to sort long-cherished legend from revisionary text. Most of Robin’s altruistic thievery takes place off-screen, in a Sherwood Forest that is left to the imagine. Mendelsohn’s sheriff may be constructed from pure evil, but his forces are too easily outfoxed by a handful of rag-tag rebels. The climax is left open-ended, of course, but it seems unlikely that there will be many takers for a sequel. The bonus features add the hour-long “Outlaws and Auteurs: Reshaping Robin Hood,” outtakes and a deleted scene. Another plus: the 4K UHD edition is a gem.

Overlord: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
After watching Julius Avery’s Nazi-zombie thriller, Overlord, I thought it might be fun to see if the conceit was a one-off or something more familiar to genre specialists. Sure enough, there were enough titles to constitute a sub-genre of its own: Jesus Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (1982), the video-game-based Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), the Outpost trilogy (2008), Joel Schumacher’s Blood Creek (2009), Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves (1977) and Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow (2009). And, yes, there are several more, all relating to experiments designed to create undead super-soldiers or resurrecting Hitler. In fact, Overlord was released in the same week as Nazi Overlord, a bargain-basement knockoff that starred Tom Sizemore, of course. As their titles imply, both movies are set within hours of the D-Day landings. In Nazi Overlord, a team of soldiers is sent to Romania to rescue an English scientist (Dominque Swain) being used by Nazis for experiments. The better, theatrically released Overlord follows a platoon of U.S. paratroopers, dropped behind enemy lines that morning for the sole purpose of destroying a radio transmitter believed to be hidden in the steeple of a church in an occupied Normandy town. The village is packed with Germans, guarding the church and killing the occasional insubordinate resident. The American soldiers get a boost from a local woman – red-hot newcomer, Mathilde Ollivier — whose only interest is to protect her young brother. It takes a few hours to prepare for the attack and, in the meantime, an SS officer arrives for a forced sexual encounter. So far, viewers have been kept in the dark about the presence of dozens of human guineas pigs in a heavily guarded cavern below the tower. When a couple of GIs discovers them, however, all hell breaks loose. The ensuing standoff is extremely well choreographed, and the zombies are very combative. Overlord is gory, of course, but not without some humor and emotionally charged moments. The fights are loud and exciting, even by zombie standards, and the makeup effects are excellent. For what it’s worth, in Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011), the female vampire, Rayne, is battling her way through Europe in search of Ekart Brand, a Nazi leader who wants to inject Hitler with her blood in order to transform him into a dhampir and attain immortality. Produced by J.J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber (The Cloverfield Paradox), Overlord arrives with about 50 minutes of making-off material.

Happy Hour: Blu-ray
The bad news about Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s epic drama, Happy Hour, is that its running time is 5 hours and 17 minutes, which is extraordinary even by most arthouse standards. The good news comes in knowing that it will be a long time before viewers – those inclined to forgive gifted filmmakers their excesses, at least — are likely to find another 5-hour-plus movie so worthy of their time and patience. (In France, it was released theatrically in three parts, over three weeks, respectively dubbed “1&2,” “3&4″ and “5.”) On Blu-ray, Happy Hour is divided into two discs, separated at a natural break in the narrative. I couldn’t help but watch the whole thing in one sitting. Still, I have no idea why Hamaguchi selected the title, except as an acknowledgement that only about 60 minutes of its runtime qualifies as being particularly happy or light. It only makes sense when the protagonists share a few laughs over drinks and dinner. Otherwise, the overall tone is one of elongated melancholy. Happy Hour follows the emotional journey of four middle-class women, all 37, who live in the misty port city of Kobe and welcome each other’s company. It isn’t until Jun (Rira Kawamura)  reveals that she’s had an affair and is divorcing her inattentive husband that the worm begins to turn. Jun’s decision causes her friends to re-evaluate their feelings about work, friendship, romance, family and identity. Besides these breaks for drinks and conversation, Hamaguchi interrupts the narrative flow with several brilliant set pieces: a leisurely trip, via aerial tramway, to the top of Mount Rokkō; a half-hour self-awareness session at a New Age performance space, managed by Fumi (Maiko Mihara); a divorce hearing for Jun and her husband, Kohei (Yoshitaka Zahana); a reading at the same performance space, by a writer (Reina Shiihashi) who had a romantic encounter at a spa once frequented by the women; a face-saving visit to the parents of a girl impregnated by the son of Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi); and Akiri’s unpleasant encounter with a subordinate nurse, which leaves her with a broken leg. Potentially, any one of the vignettes could have been excised in their entirety by a heavy-handed studio executive to save time. Blessedly, the they remain intact, as intended, serving Hamaguchi and co-writers Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi as connecting tissue to other storylines and characters. If this summary doesn’t make Happy Hour sound all that appealing to viewers who tend to check out after 120 minutes, it’s worth knowing ahead of time that the story’s tightly woven fabric is of a piece with the best Japanese cinema, while cast members – almost all of them rigorously rehearsed first-timers – are superb in difficult roles. (They were chosen from an improvisational workshop conducted Hamaguchi when he was artist-in-residence at KIITO Design and Creative Center Kobe.) The Blu-ray comes with an informative 20-minute making-of featurette.

Berlin Alexanderplatz: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15½-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” based on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same title, began its life on West German television in 1980, as a 14-part mini-series. When it was released theatrically in the U.S., three years later, it would be divided into two or three parts and exhibited as if it were a multi-day movie marathon. It garnered a cult following and eventually was released on VHS and shown on PBS and Bravo. In the select world of hit television mini-series, it’s only rivaled by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” (1989), for Polish television; the BBC’s “I Claudius,” “The Singing Detective,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Jewel in the Crown” and “Downton Abbey”; American television’s “Brothers in Arms,” “Lonesome Dove,” “John Adams,” “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man”; France’s “A French Village”; and Sweden’s “Wallander,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and, with Denmark, “Bron/Broen” (2011). That’s heady company, but “Berlin Alexanderplatz” has not only stood the test of time, but also put a foot in the door of American markets for long-form, foreign-language programming. At 34, Fassbinder had already made more than 30 films, some of them among the most radically conceived of the various international new-wave movements. His immersive epic follows the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to “become an honest soul” amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. With equal parts cynicism and humanity, Fassbinder details a mammoth portrait of a common man struggling to survive in a viciously uncommon time. The Criterion release is highlighted by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and Bavaria Media’s hi-def digital restoration, supervised, and approved by director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger, with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; separate documentaries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz, one with cast/crew interviews and the other on the restoration; Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary, “Notes on the Making of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’”; Phil Jutzi’s 1931 feature-length film of Döblin’s novel, from a screenplay cowritten by the author; a 2007 interview with Peter Jelavich, author of “Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film and the Death of Weimar Culture”; a book featuring an essay by filmmaker Tom Tykwer, reflections on the novel by Fassbinder and author Thomas Steinfeld, and an interview with DP Schwarzenberger.

Rodrigo D.: No Future
Not of This World
A Woman Without Love
The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales
Shelter Song: Art from the Homeless
In the formative years of VHS/Beta, one of the few reliable places to find and rent cassettes from the American underground, foreign distributors of arthouse films and documentaries was Facets Multimedia. Founded in 1975, the non-profit Chicago-based organization and cinematheque has also exhibited obscure and newly restored titles of consequence from Eastern Europe and post-colonial nations. Through  some miracle of word-of-mouth marketing, dogged persistence and innovative programming, it still does. The package of recently released films partially reveals the breadth of Facets’ menu.

From Colombia, Víctor Gaviria’s Rodrigo D: No Future (1990) tells the brutal tale of impoverished teenagers trying to make their way in one of the world’s toughest and most densely populated cities: Medellin. In 1988, it was known as the home of the Medellín Cartel, funded by Pablo Escobar, and was fought over by rival suppliers of cocaine to the world. If any of Escobar’s well-known largesse trickled down to the young people we meet in the city’s high-altitude barrios, it isn’t visible in Rodrigo D: No Future. Rodrigo (Ramiro Meneses) dreams of playing drums in a punk-rock band, whose music would be as angry and violent as the musicians, themselves. His pickup band’s music, which is rarely heard outside the slum, emerges as temporary salvation from a web of violence, fear, aimlessness, drugs, booze and jail. It doesn’t last long, however. Gaviria’s title makes it clear to viewers not to expect a happy ending, and the incessant beat of Rodrigo’s drum sticks – absent a decent set of skins to play – only propels the tension to an inevitable climax. The characters have been compared to those in Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, and desperate youth in City of God and Pixote. In a postscript, we learn that some of the young actors and real-life street toughs in the movie met violent ends before the film was released.

Giuseppe Piccioni’s Not of This World tells the story of a young nun, Caterina (Margherita Buy), who, like most such women in the movies, comes to a point in her life where her faith is tested by God, fate or love. Unlike most nuns and priests in films, however, Caterina’s dilemma comes at a time when she’s well-suited to confronting it and making rational decisions, founded on deep-seated beliefs. Bay’s portrayal is informed by a quiet strength and determination to do the right thing without consulting anyone, except her own conscience. Not that it matters much within the narrative, but Caterina not only is atypically pretty, but her calling came a bit later in life than it did for her fellow novitiates. One even gets the feeling she’s been around the block a time or two. While strolling through a large Milanese park, one day, Caterina is handed a baby swathed in a sweater by a jogger. He found the infant alongside the jogging path and can hardly wait to hand the hot potato to someone else. Caterina takes the baby to a hospital, but she appears to have developed an emotional attachment to the child in the short time he was in her arms. Naturally, viewers are free to assume that the nun’s crisis will come when she’s forced to choose between motherhood and the convent. Instead, Caterina embarks on a mission to pair the foundling with one of his parents, at least. Her first lead comes by tracing the sweater to the owner of a dry-cleaning shop, Ernesto (Silvio Orlando), an unhappy nebbish, who, it turns out, may have slept with the child’s mother. Ernesto is a mess. Although his business is successful, he frets about it continually. The stress has affected his already weak heart and discovering he’s possibly the father could cause him to have another heart attack, this one fatal. It could, but it doesn’t. Instead, he partners with Caterina in her search, even going so far as to participate with her in chores and bingo at the convent. Again, Piccioni invites viewers to anticipate a marriage of convenience between them. Other, less obvious forces are at play here, however. Ludovico Einaudi’s ethereal score adds a touch of magic that complements all of Not of This World’s many twists and turns. A short making-of featurette arrives with the DVD.

Luis Buñuel reportedly dismissed A Woman Without Love (1952) — a Sirkian melodrama from his 18-year, 21-movie creative period in Mexico — as his “worst film.” Even if contemporary critics and historians took Bunuel at his word, however, most other directors would be happy to claim it as their own. Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s “Pierre et Jean,” A Woman Without Love is absent any hint of the director’s trademark surrealism. Intended as a commercial vehicle, it still manages to skewer bourgeois values, with subtle humor and sharply etched characters. Rosario (Rosario Granados) is unhappily married to Don Carlos Montero (Julio Villarreal), an upper-class antiques dealer, who rescued her family from poverty in exchange for her hand. After a theft at school, for which their son, Carlitos, is blamed, the boy reacts to his father’s severe scolding by running away from home. A couple of days later, Carlitos is discovered by a team of foresters and returned to his parents. In addition to being extremely grateful for the supervising engineer’s kindness, Mr. and Mrs. Monteros develop a bond of friendship with Julio (Tito Junco). Rosario’s feelings for Julio extend beyond mere friendship, however. He serves as a receptacle for the younger woman’s pain, which only makes her that much more appealing to him. Julio also helps Carlos through a medical crisis. A visit to Julio’s worksite, absent Carlos for most of the day, provides the couple an opportunity to connect as lovers, although nothing sexual is shown. Just as they’re about to run off to a new life in Brazil, Carlos suffers a severe heart attack. He survives, but it unnerves Rosario to the point where she cancels her plans. The movie flashes forward 20 years, or so, to the point in the story where Carlitos and his younger brother, Miguel, have graduated from medical school and are planning to develop a clinic. One day, a telegram alerts the Monteros to Julio’s death and his desire to leave his fortune to Miguel, who’s never met the man. The mystery deepens considerably from there, even though viewers will have already put all the clues together themselves. Just when it appears as if the Monteros family is about to be torn apart by the ambiguity of the bequest, fate steps in to clarify the situation. Most soap operas take weeks to work out the same number of kinks as Bunuel does in 85 minutes.

Considering how desperate Hollywood studios are for compelling stories, both new and time-honored, it’s odd that so few of Arthur Machen’s works have been adapted. Active between 1888 and 1940, the Welsh writer was consumed with the occult, horror, Christian and Celtic mysticism, fantasy and legends. As such, his works have influenced novelists, ranging from Algernon Blackwood, Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft, to Peter Straub, Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King. Machen’s novel “The Secret Glory” – published in 1922, but completed in 1908 — marked the first use in fiction of the possibility that the Holy Grail survived into modern times in some form. The same idea has informed Charles Williams (“War in Heaven”), Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) and George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Nonetheless, The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960) is one of only five stories adapted into films from Machen’s bibliography. It would have been a perfect match for Roger Corman and Vincent Price, for instance. Instead, the prolific Mexican writer/director Luis Alcoriza (Always Further On) — a frequent collaborator with Buñuel — adapted The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales for director Rogelio A. González (Agony to Be a Mother) from Machen’s “The Islington Mystery.” In it, the quiet, if occasionally soused taxidermist Pablo Morales (Arturo de Córdova) is the long-suffering husband of Gloria (Amparo Rivelles), a prudish hypochondriac who wears her orthodox Catholicism on her sleeve. Finally, when he’s had enough of her sanctimonious behavior and generous contributions to a local priest, Pablo uses his scientific training to concoct a semi-tragic end to his misery and a perpetual place in heaven for his wife, alongside her lord and savior. When Pablo puts a human skeleton on display in the shop’s front window, the priest convinces police that it once belonged to Gloria and he should face the consequences for her death. There’s no need to spoil anyone’s fun, by describing what happens at his trial and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it’s of a piece with the rest of the story and, if you will, comparable literary-based thrillers produced by Corman. Over-the-top performances and an ironic, final twist make this film by Rogelio A. González a timeless satire of weepy melodramas.

Even at 26 minutes, Shelter Song: Art From the Homeless provides a vivid reminder of the artistic talents that lie hidden inside the hearts and souls of people who’ve been relegated to the scrap heaps of society. Documentarian Joan Laskoff disputes the common misconception that art is too intangible or too impractical to create social change, by discovering artists and performers who prove that creativity can exist even in the most dire circumstances. The film explores the work of men, women and children who either are or have been homeless, providing a candid look at their lives and context for their vehicles for expression, from painting to hip hop. Laskoff’s film gives invaluable insight into the therapeutic, empowering and political potential of art, as well as the transformation that comes from peer and tutorial approval and fresh, clean clothes.

Moko Jumbie
Down by Love
Nude Area
Ferahfeza
Blue Movie: Blu-ray
More recent imports than the ones released by Facets are every bit as intriguing and obscure. All involve love and romance in one way or another … sex, too.

Vashti Anderson’s debut film, Moko Jumbie, is a “gothic punk Caribbean love story,” set among the ruins of a coconut plantation in rural Trinidad. An English teenager, Asha (Vanna Girod), has returned to her Indo-Caribbean family home, where, if nothing else, no one dismisses her generically as a “Paki.” Asha is staying with her aunt and uncle (Sharda Maharaj, Dinesh Maharaj), whose ancestors were led to Trinidad by the British to work on the sugar-cane farms after slavery was abolished. When the industry dried up, most of the Indians couldn’t afford the fare to their native home, where they might have faced issues related to their caste. Although Trinidad is generally considered to be multicultural, a longstanding strain between African and Indian populations has persisted. Asha’s uncle says that the Africans and Indians keep fighting each other, while the British get richer. Almost immediately, she’s drawn to Roger (Jeremy Thomas), the Afro-Caribbean boy who lives across the road in a house that’s best described as delightfully ramshackle. The taboo attraction between the two teenagers grows despite family disapproval, political turmoil, a clash between cultures and mysterious hauntings by stick-walkers, representing mythic spirits from the Middle Passage. Tempers flare when auntie’s nest egg  of gold jewelry is stolen from a barely concealed hiding place. Issues pertaining to identity and the desire to connect with one’s roots are interwoven with those pertaining to superstition and spirituality. The musical soundtrack is also worth a visit.

From French director Pierre Godeau (Juliette), Down by Love is driven by an incendiary performance by Adéle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), as Anna, an inmate in a women’s prison. It’s where she meets Jean (Guillame Gallienne), the warden who can’t resist her raw, natural beauty and faux air of vulnerability. Jean is happily married to Elise (Stéphanie Cléau), who also works at the detention center. She’s beautiful and sexy, too, but Jean can’t resist the lure of Anna’s youthful vitality. As he devices more excuses for them to connect, it becomes increasingly obvious to prisoners and staff that he’s developed a taste for forbidden fruit. His superiors have also been made aware of it, along with a discrepancy in the numbers pertaining purchases. (Apparently, he’s saving the prison too much money … a clear indication that he’s either dealing with black-market sources or has blocked an avenue for kickbacks to others.) Viewers will also be asked to judge Anna’s true intentions toward Jean. Based on a true story, Down by Love explores the power of right, wrong and unleashed passion.

Although the title makes Nude Area sound more prurient than it is, the steam that clouds the female-only sauna, where nudity means equality, can be interpreted literally and figuratively. In a series of 15 dialogue-free vignettes, Urszula Antoniak’s third feature tells the sensual and seductive story of forbidden love between two very different girls, living in Amsterdam. Native Dutch teenager Naomi (Sammy Boonstra) hails from posh Amsterdam South, while Fama is a Muslim beauty, Fama (Imaan Hammam), from the poor quarter of Amsterdam East. They meet each other in the spa, where, among other things, fashionable clothes are left inside lockers and head scarfs can’t be worn. Even so, their body language delivers messages that words can’t fully convey. Piotr Sobocinski Jr.’s cinematography and music by Pawel Mykietyn and Ethan Rose amplify what’s happening inside the girl’s hearts and minds.

In Elif Refig’s debut feature, Ferahfeza (a.k.a., “Ships”), Istanbul is as essential a character as the youthful would-be lovers and adventurers, Ali (Ugur Uzunel) and Eda (M. Sitare Akbas). Confined to the ancient, teeming city, which straddles Europe and Asia, they’re mere cogs in a hugely impersonal machine. On its fringes, however, they find room to dream and pursue their own creative avenues. Although he isn’t fond of the work, Ali spends time on the water, servicing ships docked in the bustling port. It’s his father’s business and Ali imagines a world beyond the horizon. At every opportunity, his minds drifts towards thoughts of signs that will guide him to a happier life. One night, Ali climbs up to a billboard platform, and sees a half-finished mural of a ship on the side of an abandoned building. Upon meeting its creator, Ada (M. Sitare Akbas), he is certain she will accompany him to faraway lands. In the port, they search for the ship, “Vamos,” that repeatedly appears in Ali’s dreams and visions.

An early example of European soft-core erotica, Blue Movie (1971) provided a test of the ongoing liberalization of laws and attitudes towards nudity and depictions of sex in movies. A product of Holland, it joined Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969) and The Lickerish Quartet (1970), cleared the way for such X-rated blockbusters as Deep Throat (1972) and Emmanuelle (1974). Unlike their successors, they offered voyeurs – er, viewers – recognizable narrative structure and, in some cases, wonderful scenery, as well as female protagonists. In Blue Movie, however, the central character is a 25-year-old ex-con, Michael (Hugo Metsers), who’s just been released on parole after spending five years in jail for having sex with an underage girl. His parole officer has placed him in a high-rise apartment building, while he looks for work. Not so coincidentally, it’s populated with dozens of gorgeous predatory women – married and otherwise – who love the idea of taking advantage of a handsome guy who’s been celibate for five years. The sexual revolution has been fought in Michael’s absence and won by the libertines, so anything goes. It allows for several amusing meet-and-greets with his neighbors, who couldn’t possibly be more horny. The overriding question, however, is whether Michael can find something resembling normal love and a permanent relationship. Among the actress are Carry Tefsen, Ine Veen, Bruni Heinke, Ursula Blauth and Monique Smal. The controversial release made a small fortune for producer Pim de la Parra and his partner/director Wim Verstappen. (Jan De Bont was the director of photography.) The Blu-ray boasts a fresh HD restoration and transfer by Eye Film Institute; new interviews with Verstappen, De la Parra and Metsers; a featurette on the Eye Film Institute; a poster and photo gallery; and vintage Scorpio Films theatrical trailers.

Skinner: Blu-ray
Some horror movies slip through the cracks, disappearing completely or eventually achieving cult status. Others ooze through the same fissures, biding their time until someone discovers them, lying just below the surface of the floor. Ivan Nagy and writer Paul Hart-Wilden’s 1993 contribution to the miseducation of American youth, Skinner, didn’t make its video debut here until 1995, delayed by one of Cannon Films’ many bankruptcies and legal blockades. Nagy’s involvement in Heidi Fleiss’ prostitution scandal didn’t help Skinner’s chances for finding wide distribution, or that it was barred for release on VHS and DVD in the UK and Australia. From a distance of 25 years, Skinner is as repulsive as it ever was, but the inky black humor is a lot easier to find on Blu-ray. Probably inspired by Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lambs’ Jame Gumb, who, themselves, were patterned after Wisconsin’s most notorious ghoul, Ed Gein, Nagy’s titular antagonist is a serial killer who mostly targets solitary female pedestrians and prostitutes. He flays his victims in an unused backroom of the factory where he works as a janitor, and stitches together pieces of skin, as if he were making a costume for a superhero alter ego. Tired of being hassled at work by a black co-worker, Skinner (Ted Raimi) even goes so far as to murder the bully, relieve him of his skin and repeat his jive dialogue while pursing a prostitute. (This conceit probably wouldn’t pass muster in the Black Lives Matter era.) Skinner lives in a boarding house owned by Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) and her ill-tempered husband, Geoff (David Warshofsky), who also gets on the killer’s last nerve. The beauty part in all this nonsense is the unexpected presence of Heidi (Traci Lords), a vampire with physical deformities, who looks and dresses like Stevie Nicks. Heidi’s become obsessed with avenging an attack by Skinner and stalks him on his nightly creeps. There’s isn’t much more to the story, except for the entertainment value in watching the building supervisor, played by Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”), peep on Heidi without understanding the possible consequences. The uncut Severin package, which benefits from a 4K remaster, features some of the earliest effects work by KNB EFX Group (“The Walking Dead”). The featurettes include “A Touch of Scandal,” an interview with Nagy; “Under His Skin,” with Raimi; “Bargain Bin VHS for a Buck,” with screenwriter Paul Hart-Wilden (“1000 Ways to Die”); “Cutting Skinner,” with editor Jeremy Kasten; and barely watchable out-takes and extended takes from a flaying sequence.

Backtrace: Blu-ray
The greatest amount of noise being generated from this year’s Oscar hoedown derives from debates over the future of Hollywood interests vs.  those of streaming and distribution services provided by Netflix, Amazon and other off-brand companies. The controversy isn’t new or particularly fresh. AMPAS prefers to remain a reactionary force within the greater filmmaking community, protecting well-entrenched and deep-pocketed interests over those representing new schools of thought and technology. In 2017, the Cannes Film Festival decided not to let films done exclusively for Netflix or other streaming services participate in its prestigious soiree, stating that it wants to preserve the traditional way of watching and making films. In 2018, Netflix announced a boycott of the festival, and Roma instead went to the Venice festival. In retaliation, Netflix announced a boycott of the 2018 festival, taking Roma to the Venice festival, instead. If Alfonso Cuarón’s memory play weren’t the Academy Awards’ frontrunner or merely was relegated to the Best Foreign Language category – as is AMPAS’ usual fallback position — the media might have delayed the Great Debate for another year.

None of this is related to any criticism of director Brian A. Miller and Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films’ Backtrace, a fingerpaint-by-numbers genre flick, distinguished solely by the presence of Sylvester Stallone, Matthew Modine and enough firepower to launch a coup in Venezuela. Miller’s directed several of Bruce Willis’ recent actioners, while EFO’s name has been attached to such limited-release and direct-to-PPV/DVD exercises as Gotti, Escape Plan, Acts of Violence, Aftermath, Reprisal, Inconceivable, Exposed and Heist. The common denominator in all of them – apart from certain genre tropes and clichés – is the listless presence of one or two bona-fide stars from a previous era, if only as marketing aids for streaming and foreign revenues. The younger, less universally known cast members do almost all the heavy lifting, which is frequently just as  well. Among the other one-time A-listers in EFO’s stable have been John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Keanu Reeves Mira Sorvino and Gina Gershon.

Now, here’s the rub, EFO has also employed multiple award-winners Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns), Martin Scorsese (The Silence) and Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) in respectable mainstream projects. If, hypothetically, such production and distribution companies as EFO, Grindstone (Affairs of State), thefyzz (A Private War), WWE Studios (The Call) or, for that matter, Troma Entertainment (Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies), should discover a pearl cast into a pigpen of genre muck, they be given demerits by AMPAS for their streaming, direct-to-video and PPV pasts? Roma began its post-festival life with a limited theatrical run here, three weeks before it started streaming on Netflix on December 14, 2018. The same day-and-date distribution strategy is being applied to many high-profile studio releases. Why should Netflix be held to a higher standard at Cannes or by diehard observers of Oscar standards and practices. The ceremony, after all, has become just another  made-for-TV fashion show. By the time the academy’s contract with ABC runs out, it isn’t difficult to imagine the rights being sold to Netflix, HBO or the Food Network, if it’s the highest bidder. How ironic would that be?

Back to Backtrace, though, for a minute. It opens seven years in the past, when Mac (Modine) was part of a well-organized crew that stole $20 million from a Savannah bank. Before being ambushed by the gang’s silent partners, Mac managed to hide the cash. After he’s shot in the head and left for dead by the shortsighted crooks, he slips into a coma and awakens in a state hospital facility. Apparently suffering from retrograde amnesia. he can’t recall where the money is hidden. It not only frustrates the remaining bank robbers, but also police detective Sykes (Stallone) and the FBI. One day, Mac is surprised by a soon-to-be-paroled inmate, Lucas (Ryan Guzman), who offers him a chance to escape, although he’s not sure why, exactly. Joined by nurse Erin (Meadow Willis) and generic hard-ass Farren (Tyler Jon Olson), Lucas forces Mac to take an experimental memory enhancer to help clear his mind. It does appear to work, but only in painful fits and starts. News of Mac’s escape immediately captures the attention of Sykes and FBI Agent Franks (Christopher McDonald), who join forces for one last attempt to clear the case. (Anyone familiar with McDonald’s resume will know that his duplicitous characters tend not to reveal their evil side until they’ve gained the faith of his enemies.) Sadly, Mike Maples’ story never overcomes its Swiss-cheese plot. Even if Stallone, at 72, looks as if he should have retired when he turned 65, Modine picks up some of the slack, with a performance that recalls his character in Alan Parker’s PTSD drama, Birdy (1984).

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
How do parents and teachers in the South explain slavery to students whose knowledge of the abomination may be limited to the most basic excuses employed by generations of historians, economists and partisans? I suspect that most nuanced discussions are left for educators at the college level, where politicians are less likely to censor textbooks. This also includes consideration of the contradictory role played by northern industrialists and planters, who weren’t as offended by slavery as we’ve been let believe. Issues raised in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 still resonate today, more than 150 years after the spilt blood dried. Wait, what, draft riots? How many of us were taught that rich people in the North could pay $300 – or hire a substitute – to avoid the draft, just as hypocritical Southern planters and corrupt officials worked the system in favor of their sons and heirs. Only those who watched Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

Watching Isaac Julien and co-writer Mark Nash’s incisive docudrama, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995), prompted me to wonder how students in countries whose economies thrived under colonialism learn about the black stains in their histories. It’s easy to see how the chickens of colonialism have come home to roost on the walls built to contain immigrants from the lands of their former masters. War- and poverty-ravaged immigrants need only follow the roots of the languages the were required to learn to find refuge from the storm. Just as issues raised by Fanon (Colin Salmon) in such books as “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) raised the political and social consciousness of enslaved people nearly 70 years ago, many of the same theories hold true today. The Martinique-born, Paris-educated author, intellectual, psychiatrist and activist was credited – when he wasn’t being condemned and censored – with pioneering studies of the psychological impact of racism on both colonized and colonizer. Jean-Paul Sartre recognized Fanon as the figure “through whose voice the Third World finds and speaks for itself.” The 70-minute Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask takes an impressionistic, almost poetic approach to his theories of identity and race, as it traces his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, which set the table for liberation movements around the world. Even if Fanon’s posthumous influence on left-wing, anti-war and anti-colonial activists and students probably peaked in 1970s, many of the same issues he raised have remained unresolved since then. Julien is also responsible for such prize-winning films as Derek (2008), Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991). Bonus features include Nash’s short film, “Between Two Worlds” (1992), and essays by the filmmakers.

Docs to DVD
The Last Race
Canine Soldiers
To the Edge of the Sky
PBS: NOVA: Operation Bridge Rescue
PBS: American Masters: Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
Any similarities between Michael Dweck’s elegiac documentary, The Last Race, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show may be coincidental, but the effect is the same.  Even if his choice of classical music to back up the otherwise percussive sounds of a stock-car arena appears to be an ironic conceit, it grows on you. As we’re reminded in a historical prelude, stock-car racing originated on Long Island in 1927, the same year as Charles Lindbergh embarked for France from the same hallowed ground. At its post-WWII heyday, Long Island was home to more than 40 small-track ovals. While NASCAR expanded in the south and west, erasing its good-ol’-boy roots along the way, racetracks in the northeast became victims of suburban sprawl and the malling of America. The focus here is on Riverhead Raceway, in Suffolk County, a quarter-mile track that now stands as the last of the Mohicans. It opened as a dirt track in 1951, before permanently changing over to asphalt in 1955. Although Dweck doesn’t dwell on it, the raceway is also known locally for a towering statue of a Native American warrior, dubbed “Chief Running Fair,” standing at its gates. Both the track and statue are surrounded by megamalls distinguished by, well, large parking lots. Dweck is a photographer, who’s been a fan of stock car racing since childhood. He had been shooting stills at the track for five years when he got the idea for a documentary, and he enlisted Gregory Kershaw as both cinematographer and co-producer. Besides the film’s high-art trappings, it’s distinguished by a grounds-up approach to the sport and its participants, who are blue-collar to their core. It also introduces us to 87-year-old owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, who’ve run the place for 37 years, but are being courted by developers who want to make them multimillionaires. It’s an Oscar-quality documentary that should appeal to any adult or teenagers who’s ever dreamed of taking the family car out for a fast and messy spin. The DVD adds extended interviews.

I’ve seen a dozen documentaries about dogs trained to serve the military in combat and as working pets for wounded and blind veterans and civilians. Like their owners, service dogs now come in a variety of shapes, sizes and breeds, not just shades of German shepherd. Canine Soldiers stands out for its willingness to acknowledge the moral and ethical concerns of putting our best four-footed friends in harm’s way, so their human counterparts can avoid death in the name of someone in Washington’s corrupt political agenda. Moreover, the film answers any questions about whether combat canines are capable of suffering from PTSD – they are – and the same separation anxiety that affects their handlers when they’re sent home. One needn’t be a card-carrying member of PETA see how such issues approximate the same moral equivalencies that apply to captive animals used to test cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and fashion trends. That, however, is only part of what we’re asked to consider in Nancy Schiesari’s 66-minute film. Mostly, it’s dominated by footage showing the dogs in training and at work, where they’re susceptible to the same bullets and bombs as the rest of the men and women in their units. Like them, too, not all dogs are suited to combat and other stressful situations. If they’re accorded the same military rites as those reserved for humans killed in action – as depicted here — it’s only because they deserve it.

Jedd and Todd Wider’s heart-wrenching and provocative documentary, To the Edge of the Sky, accomplishes several important things simultaneously. By chronicling the evolution of four mothers from caregivers to political activists, it demonstrates how far parents will go before giving up on children assumed to be terminally ill. It also describes the commitment by patients, researchers, nurses and volunteers to get over some painfully frustrating obstacles. Even more to the point, we’re given another reason to believe that federal bureaucracies – the FDA, specifically – are more prone to work against the interests of sick people than to risk lawsuits, political blowback and pressure of lobbyists who only answer to corporations.  To the Edge of the Sky follows the battle of four American mothers whose sons are diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, described as the No. 1 genetic killer of boys. They’ve learned of a treatment that shows promise, but whose development and testing have been blocked by the FDA. It’s a common problem, really, and one that could be mitigated by allowing parents to voluntarily enlist their children in trials and experiments that might be their last hope. They would be required to sign away their right to sue the manufacturers of drugs that fail to work, along with the agencies supervising the process, but why not give it a shot? The women’s efforts led to passage of the federal Right to Try Bill —  a.k.a., “Dallas Buyers Club” – and similar legislation in more than 38 states. Of course, such legislation comes with known hazards and limitations. Still, seeing the joy in the faces of parents and children, who once were doomed to an early death, explains why the bill was able to gain bipartisan support in Congress.

Until it was destroyed by Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Old Blenheim Bridge, which spanned Schoharie Creek in North Blenheim, N.Y., was the longest surviving single-span covered bridge in the world. The “NOVA” presentation “Operation Bridge Rescue” follows an elite team of engineers, commissioned to faithfully reproduce the intricate timber structure that characterized the bridge, which opened in 1855. We also witness traditional Chinese artisans restoring ancient covered bridges to ensure their survival.

It’s been almost 29 years since Sammy Davis Jr., one of the greatest entertainers in show-business history, succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 64. After smoking four packs of cigarettes a day for much of his adult life, the doctors’ bad news couldn’t have come as any surprise to Davis. Impressionists, including Billy Crystal, have kept his memory alive for people who were born after his final appearances on stage and on television. So did the recent resurgence in interest in the Rat Pack and mid-century Las Vegas. PBS’ “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me” digs much further back in Davis’ life than that, to his amazing childhood, struggle to attain stardom, survive racism in the army and entertainment industry, and recover from an automobile accident that cost him an eye. Some humiliations hit harder than others: JFK, who benefitted from the Rat Pack’s fund-raising support, canceled Davis’ appearance at the Inauguration, because he recently married a white woman. (A previous affair with Kim Novak nearly prompted Frank Sinatra’s pals in the Mafia, at the behest of a studio executive, to take his one good eye.) For a previous generation of young Americans, Davis’ very public hugging of President Nixon, along with a tour of American bases in Vietnam, wiped out a lifetime of good will and financial support for civil-rights groups and individual activists, without seeking recognition. Each time his career stalled, Davis found ways to return to the spotlight. One of them was a timely ability to pick hit songs – “Mr. Bojangles,” “Candy Man,” “I Gotta Be Me,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?” – and, the other, to never shortchange an audience. The PBS special captures the Davis’ spirit, energy and contradictions in such chapters as Hoofer, Singer, Impressionist, Leading Man, Rebel and Activist. It also includes clips of Davis in performance and interviews with current stars.

So Dark the Night: Special Edition: Blu-ray
My Name Is Julia Ross: Special Edition: Blu-ray
This month, Arrow Academy is celebrating the film noir of Joseph H. Lewis, a Brooklyn-born director of B-movies in several different genres. His reputation among auteur theorists began to grow only after his retirement, in 1966. An earlier heart attack limited his work in movies, but he continued to direct television Westerns. After his retirement, Lewis kept his foot in the door by lecturing at film schools and festivals, while also participating in special screenings and retrospectives in the U.S. and Europe. In 1997, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on him. Along with Gun Crazy (1950), his most memorable noir titles are So Dark the Night (1946) and My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). So Dark the Night is a Hitchcockian tale of mystery and intrigue, in which a renowned Paris detective (Steven Geray) departs to the country for a much-needed break. He falls in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, Nanette (Micheline Cheire, who is already betrothed to a local farmer. On the evening of their engagement party, Nanette and the farmer both disappear. Cassin volunteers to discover what happened to them and who is responsible. Curiously, a sketch of the prime suspect resembles the detective. There’s a very good reason for that, even if he doesn’t understand how such a thing could happen. Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde) effectively used his camera to create a rural noir with Expressionist shadings. The black-and-white Blu-ray adds commentary with critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme; the featurette, “So Dark: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia,” with critic Imogen Sara Smith; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tonci Zonjic; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by critic David Cairns

At 65 minutes, Lewis’ gothic melodrama My Name Is Julia Ross is six minutes shorter than So Dark the Night, which must have pleased exhibitors interested in selling more popcorn and candy between shows. It might not have gone down so well with customers expecting 180 minutes’ worth of entertainment for their investment in a double feature, not counting cartoons, newsreels and trailers. Reportedly, Lewis’ first movie for Columbia was so well-received that it was promoted to A-feature status in mid-run. Nina Foch portrays the title character, who, after a surgical procedure, is in desperate need of work. After answering an ad placed by an employment agency, Julia not only is hired, but also told to report to duty that night in a Cornish mansion resting precariously on a seaside cliff. Viewers have already been shown evidence of a devious scheme, but Julia will have to wait her turn. Soon enough, she learns that she’ll be impersonating the late wife of the mansion’s psychotic owner (George Macready). Fortunately, she’s sent an emergency message about her whereabouts to an anxious suitor (Roland Varno), who already is searching for her. The rest of the movie becomes a race to see if Julia is murdered before she can be rescued. There’s a twist at the ending that most people will have figured out beforehand, but, in 1945, might have fooled audiences. Although My Name Is Julia Ross easily qualifies as time-killing fun, it probably could have used another six minutes – or 20 – of exposition to add some flair. The similarly upgraded Blu-ray adds commentary by noir expert Alan K. Rode; “Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia,” with Nora “Nitrate Diva” Fiore; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Adrian Martin.

Backbeat: Blu-ray
Last month, pop-culture historians commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ final performance, which famously took place on the roof of the band’s multimedia Apple Corps, at 3 Savile Row. That momentous event ended prematurely when London police arrived, ostensibly in response to the noise and traffic issues. Footage from the performance was used in the 1970 rockumentary, Let It Be, which was accompanied by a studio album, produced by Phil Spector, on May 8, 1970. By then, however, the individual Beatles had already embarked on career paths of their own. (The 50th anniversary of the album’s release begs the question as to whether Spector will be made accessible to reporters’ questions, from his current home, the California Health Care Facility, a prison hospital, in Stockton. In September 2014, it was reported that Spector had lost his ability to speak, owing to laryngeal papillomatosis, so the conversations may be limited to e-mail.) Appropriately, Shout Factory didn’t wait for that landmark anniversary to release Iain Softley’s Backbeat in Blu-ray. That’s because the 1994 film recalls the core group’s earlier roots, which extend back another 10 years, to the Beatles’ 3½ -month residency at a club in Hamburg’s red-light district. At the time, John (Ian Hart), Paul (Gary Bakewell) and George (Chris O’Neill) were accompanied by bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and pre-Ringo drummer, Pete Best (Scot Williams). Backbeat effectively chronicles that grungy period in the band’s history, as well as the departure of Sutcliffe  and overall influence of German photographer/muse Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). The rollicking soundtrack is comprised of songs popularized Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the Marvelettes, Barrett Strong and Bo Diddley, performed by such contemporary artists as Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs). There’s even a cameo by a pre-Beatles’ Ringo (Paul Duckworth). Bonus features include a conversation with Kirchherr, deleted scenes, interviews with Softley and Hart, a made-for-TV featurette, casting session and commentary with Softley Hart, and Dorff.

Iceman: The Time Traveler: Blu-ray
Hong Kong-based critics really tore into Wai Man Yip’s Iceman: The Time Traveler, dismissing it as an unnecessary sequel to Iceman (2014), a botched remake of a not terribly coherent 1989 time-travel actioner, Iceman Cometh. I kid you, not. Not having seen the earlier movies, I decided to go into Iceman: The Time Traveler blind and somewhat distracted. And, no, it didn’t make much sense to me, either. The basic premise shared by all three films is the protagonist’s ability to bounce between the grounds of a Ming Dynasty palace and contemporary Hong Kong, while chasing criminals and threats to the  crown. In “Time Traveler,” a few more temporal stops are made, including one in Mao-era Beijing and another on a train carrying people anticipating the ruinous Japanese occupation of China. Between those disparate destinations, He Ying (Donnie Yen) and whichever traitor he’s been ordered to chase through time are frozen in ice, until they’re defrosted by some innocent bystander. Facilitating their migrations is an ancient crystal that serves as a remote control for the Golden Wheel of Time – a gyroscope crossed with a Rubik’s cube – devised by an ancient Buddhist mystic to capture and manipulate time. One new twist here involves a young woman, May (Eva Huang), that He befriends in current-day Hong Kong, where she studied the martial arts. Somehow, she manages to hitch a ride on the Golden Wheel of Time, back to the Ming Dynasty’s royal court, only to discover that He’s fiancé has been waiting 10 years for him to return. Teenagers are likely to get more from “Time Traveler” than adults accustomed to less gimmicky Chinese adventures. For them, the first 10 minutes are used to familiarize viewers with what happened in the first two movies.

The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Shoplifters
No one makes movies about families any better than Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Shoplifters was awarded the 2018 Palme d’Or at Cannes and subsequently was nominated in the Best Foreign Language category at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTA. If Roma had been released a year earlier or later, Shoplifters might have hit the cinematic equivalent of a grand-slam homerun. It’s every bit that good. To characterize it as a story about a family of small-type crooks – shoplifters, mostly – wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it misses what makes the made great. What made Earl Hamner  Jr.’s  “The Waltons” one of television’s most celebrated shows wasn’t its basic setup: “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, during the Great Depression, the Walton family makes its small income from its sawmill on Walton’s Mountain.” It doesn’t explain, for example, how Hamner found enough stories within that rather limited framework to be a household favorite for nine seasons. Each week, there would be a new and different point of entry for viewers in search of the show’s heart and soul. Likewise, Shoplifters’ appeal isn’t limited to a single character’s ability to survive on the fringes of Tokyo in an era when the skyrocketing economy has begun to fizzle and traditional ethics are being adjusted to fit the demands of Japan’s corporate juggernaut. Shoplifters feels very much like a modern-day retelling of “Oliver Twist,” if Fagin were on a daily regimen of sedatives, marijuana and and noodles.

As Shoplifters opens, we watch as Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Jyo Kairi) are in a busy grocery store, exchanging hand signals to coordinate a heist of everyday items. On the way home, they find a 5-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who appears to be locked out, lost or abandoned. Taking into account the frigid temperatures, Osamu decides to take the shivering and clearly famished girl home with them. Because the family of five is sharing – squatting, perhaps – a small two-room apartment, Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), reacts like most would do if their son or daughter brought home a stray puppy or kitten, and they wanted to incorporate it into the family. She tells them to return the girl to where she belongs. When it becomes clear that Yuri’s parents don’t have her best interests in mind – the marks on her arm are another dead giveaway – Nobuyo agrees to open their door to her. This inevitably leads to a beginner’s course in crime and how to escape arrest, with the other kids acting as teaching assistants. Yuri also learns not to take shoplifting as anything more than a means to an end. ( “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone, so we’re not stealing it,” Shota explains, before becoming the first family member to develop a conscience.) Towards the end of the movie, after Shota is injured attempting to divert a shopkeeper’s attention from Yuri, something happens to kindly Grandma Shibata that makes us look at her in a completely different way than we had previously. Shoplifters is of a piece with Koreeda’s previous gems, Like Father, Like Son (2013), Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016), all of which attempt to define “family” in the 21st Century.

The Front Runner
Just before Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart was outed as an adulterer in some of the same publications that ignored the misdeeds of JFK and LBJ, reporters were forced to take off their kid gloves. Political troglodytes U.S. Reps. Wilbur D. Mills and Wayne Hays forced their hand by reports of bartering jobs for sex (Hays) and carousing with a stripper (Mills) … at the time, Congress could have sponsored its own Alcoholics Anonymous  chapter. Hart might have gotten away with his tryst with Donna Rice, if he hadn’t challenged New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne (strangely absent in the film), “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” Even if Bill Clinton escaped impeachment and Donald Trump has been forgiven for justifying sexual assault on women and paying adult-film stars and models for sex, the rules for covering politicians changed with that single quote. As much as the public appears not to care about such shenanigans, the media can’t help itself from acting like America’s conscience. Jason Reitman’s political drama, The Front Runner does a nice job describing how reporters turned into pack animals in pursuit wounded prey. Hart (Hugh Jackman) had already been caught cheating on wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and probably thought she was the only person whose punishment he deserved. By 1988, however, reporters influenced less by H.L. Mencken and Ralph McGill, than Woodward and Bernstein, coveted the fame and money that came with bringing down a corrupt president.

Reitman’s greatest success in The Front Runner comes in his Robert Altman/ensemble approach to depicting the press, which, then, was dominated by newspapers. He’s recruited some of Hollywood’s best and brightest character actors: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”), Alfred Molina (Frida), John Bedford Lloyd (“Ozark”), Kevin Pollak (“Billions”), Ari Graynor (“I’m Dying Up Here”), Toby Huss (“Halt and Catch Fire”), Spencer Garrett (“Survivor’s Remorse”), Courtney Ford (“Dexter”) and Bill Burr (“Kroll Show”). His biggest mistake is not showing the self-incriminating front-page National Enquirer photo – or a replication of it – of Rice (Sara Paxton) sitting on Hart’s lap, because it demonstrated to every supermarket shopper a lapse in the candidate’s judgment that bordered on hubris. It’s unforgettable. The only thing that Jackman lacks in his portrayal of Hart is the dopey joy that can be seen in the smile that comes when 50-plus guy is hooking up with a blond model/actress/pill-pusher 20 years his junior. (Worse, he was wearing a “Monkey Business Crew” shirt.) As Lee Hart, Farmiga is the emotional center of The Front Runner, as she was in the post-tryst coverage. In effect, she became the archetype for every wife who would stand by their celebrity husband after he’s caught with his pants down. (At least once, again, during their two separations.) The Front Runner might also have enjoyed a jolt of electricity, if its writers had figured out a way to inject the conspiracy theory begun by the late Republican prankster Lee Atwater before he died. He said he arranged the whole “affair,” using Hart’s reputation as a womanizer as bait for a ravenous press. Hart and Rice both have denied having sex, so, as unlikely as it sounds, it might have happened that way. (Reporters on a stakeout of Hart’s Washington townhouse were unaware of the back entrance she could have used as an early escape route.) The Blu-ray includes a commentary track, three deleted scenes and the featurette, “The Unmaking of a Candidate.”

Nobody’s Fool: Blu-ray
No filmmaker knows what his audience wants better than Tyler Perry or gets criticized as much for giving it to them. And, not just by white and black critics, either. He’s taken heat from Spike Lee, who, in 2009, described his “stuff” as “coonery buffoonery.” Also, in 2009, journalist and radio executive Jamilah Lemieux thanked Perry for “giving black folks jobs in front of and behind the camera,” while criticizing his sitcoms, “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne,” which, she said, “are marked by old stereotypes of buffoonish, emasculated black men and crass, sassy black women.” That might not have put Perry in the same league as Jerry Lewis, who was roasted for advancing the same sorts of stereotypes. It wasn’t until French critics reminded American critics of Lewis’ ability to make comedies that audiences loved that they started reassessing . Perry’s career began on the stages of the “chitlin’ circuit,” where his self-financed plays combined extremely broad humor, with Christian themes and moralistic narratives. Perry’s earliest movies were little more than plays and musicals captured  on film. They made him very wealthy, as well as a force with which to be reckoned in Hollywood, as well as his home base, Atlanta, whose citizens benefited mightily from his productions. He’s never forgotten the characters – Madea, the Browns, the Paynes — that got his ball rolling, either. In Adam McKay’s multi-nominated political dramedy, Vice, he plays Colin Powell; in Star, he voiced one of the camels belonging to the Maji; a newspaper editor, in Brain on Fire; a mad scientist, TMNT: Out of the Shadows; the titular police detective, in Alex Cross; and an attorney, in Gone Girl. In the same seven-year period, Perry portrayed his bread-and-butter character, Madea, 10 times.

By all the usual standards, Nobody’s Fool isn’t a film that ever was going to compete for top industry awards or impress critics … and, it didn’t. It plays to Perry’s base, even without forcing Madea into places she doesn’t belongs. And, as his third R-rated movie, viewers probably didn’t expect to find much in the way of Christian witnessing or moralizing. Instead, Nobody’s Fool is a romantic urban dramedy about opposites failing to attract and not recognizing the right mate when he’s standing right in front of the protagonist. The biggest laughs derive from the forced reunion between Danica (Tika Sumpter) and Tanya  (Tiffany Haddish), who have nothing in common, besides their mother, Lola (Whoopi Goldberg). Lola still hasn’t reconciled with Tanya, after she stole her toaster and used the money to purchase drugs. She isn’t about to welcome her back home, after she’s released from prison on parole. Danica does very well for herself as a marketing executive. It doesn’t take long for her to figure out that Tanya has spent her time in stir, learning out to be a better gangsta’. She has no more business moving into her sister’s luxurious high-rise apartment than any other ex-con who thinks that the world owes her a living. Perry allows Tanya to overwhelm Danica in every scene they share. And, it’s at this point that Perry decided to throw the kitchen sink into the mix. When Danica describes her love life to Tanya, she immediately raises the possibility that she’s being catfished by an Internet troll, who she’s never met in person. The next morning, Tanya meets the other man in her sister’s life, Frank (Omari Hardwick), a coffee-shop owner who offers her a job based on her ability to fix the cappuccino machine. Frank want Danica to fall in love with him – so do we – but the invisible Charlie always gets in the way. If that weren’t enough, Danica runs into her ex-fiancé, accompanied by new bride-to-be, at the coffee shop, and Tanya has to be restrained from beating the crap out of them. Hadish and Amber Riley, as Danica’s best friend, deliver the laughs to the mess, as does Chris Rock in a delicious cameo. The Blu-ray adds an introduction by Perry and Haddish; 20 minutes of deleted, extended and alternate scenes; a gag reel; nine making-of featurettes; and two faux commercials.

Peppermint Soda: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s seen Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) and Francois Truffaut’s debut, The 400 Blows (1959 ), both classics, will recognize a lot of what happens in them in Diane Kurys and Cohen Media’s disarming Peppermint Soda (1977). I wouldn’t be averse to throwing in Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) or Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955), either, although they might be a stretch. Like these pictures, Peppermint Soda captures particular moments in  the development of young people anxious to enter the world of adults, but reluctant to abandon the absence of responsibility and self-denial that comes with turning 18. In it, Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and Frederique (Odile Michel) are sisters entering a new school year at their strict all-girls high school. They’ve just been put on a train to Paris, after spending the summer on the Normandy coast with their father. The older sibling, Frederique, has used the time learning all the secrets of being a young woman, capable of enjoying sex, cigarettes, boys and adult fashions. She thinks she knows what’s wrong in the world and is willing to be swayed by slightly older kids who are convinced they know how to change it. That usually means being able to shout over anyone whose religion and political views differ from their own. France is still dealing with repercussions from its withdrawal from Algeria and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the ban-the-bomb movement is spreading from its British roots. At 13, Anne knows that this is the year she’ll enter puberty, begin standing up to her mother and that mischievous behavior won’t be tolerated by parents and teachers.

Kurys invested a lot of personal memories into Peppermint Soda (a.k.a., “Diabolo Menthe”), including her difficult relationship with her parents, who divorced when she was a child, and uneasy feelings toward her sister. She returned to the same school she attended in her teens. It’s in these classrooms that we watch sweet young girls behave in the same disorderly way as the boys in The 400 Blows and Zero for Conduct. From Day One, they make life miserable – and teaching impossible – for educators who’ve already dismissed them as incorrigible ingrates. In a hurry to grow up fast, Anne cribs a paper prepared by her sister when she was in the same grade. She also endures the wrath of her mother and sister for the sin of putting pantyhose over her skinny legs after school. Neither does Frederique approve when Anne begins to hang out in her favorite café and drink her trademark beverage, a carbonated “non-potent potable” made using seltzer and peppermint. Kurys doesn’t forget the parents, who are going through changes of their own, while attempting to demonstrate their devotion to the girls in their own ways. By assuming that they’re going to get through high school and college alright – despite Anne’s grades, which have taken a nosedive – Peppermint Soda can be enjoyed as the kind of coming-of-age movie that moms and daughters might want to share. The Cohen Film Collection presentation takes advantage of a new 2K restoration, adding lengthy interviews with Kurys, Eleonore Klairwen and composer Yves Simon, who contributed the movie’s irresistibly poppy theme song, and a scrapbook.

Possum
Audition: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Purgatory Road: Blu-ray
Ever since coming across Sean Harris’ peculiarly spastic portrayal of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, in 24 Hour Party People (2002), I’ve begun thinking of him as the second coming of Anthony Perkins. Although he was best known for his disturbing take on Norman Bates, in Psycho (1960), he continued to give audiences shivers for the next 32 years of his life. And, he didn’t have to rely on much in the way of makeup or other special effects. On screen, at least, Perkins was creepy from the word, “go.” After 24 Hour Party People, Harris was assigned a series of genre flicks, with single-word titles: Trauma, Creep, Asylum, Outlaw, Isolation and Saxon. Beginning in 2009, however, Harris would begin to land such meaty roles as Detective Superintendent Bob Craven, in the “Red Riding Trilogy”; Micheletto Corella, Cesare Borgia’s henchmen in “The Borgia”; and, most prominent of all, Solomon Lane in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation/Fallout. To each character, Harris has added a sharp, perceptible edge. In Matthew Holness’ debut feature, Possum –the title derives from a sinister children’s rhyme – he plays a seriously damaged young man, Philip, who, before trying his luck as puppeteer, lost his parents in a mysterious fire at their isolated rural property. He was handed over to his cruel “uncle,” Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who’s either a retired or active pervert. The old sot enjoys taunting Philip about his failed career and loss of his parents, What’s really scary here, though, is the puppet he carries in a leather satchel and appears to have a mind of its own. The nightmarish creature resembles a long-legged spider, wearing a white death-head mask. As hard as Philip tries to eliminate the puppet from his life, the more difficult it becomes, sometimes returning to his bedroom before he does. Is it a manifestation of a too vivid imagination or something that emerged from one of his dreams and never returned? At the same time, police are searching for a missing boy, last seen in Philip’s vicinity. The puppet may not present a threat to viewers, like some movie monsters, but its relationship to Philip is guaranteed to trigger the heebie-jeebies. At 85 minutes, Possum could have benefitted from another 5-10 minutes of background information. The Blu-ray adds several good interviews with Holness, Harris, Armstrong and the puppeteer.

I’ll admit to being totally creeped out by Audition, Takashi Miike’s calling card to the world outside Japan. I had no idea what to expect, when I discovered a VHS copy of the film in a pile of cassettes in the judges’ room at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, which limited entries to 40 minutes, credits included. At 113 minutes, it couldn’t be shown in competition, so, perhaps, it was left there as a challenge to critics and filmmakers to find their individual breaking points. It wouldn’t be the first time that Audition would be used as a test of courage among horror buffs who thought they’d seen everything. At least, they’d found a point of reference by the time Audition opened in New York, nearly two years after its debut at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Its DVD release came six months later.) American audiences had already embraced such J-horror hits as Ringu (“Ring”), Ringu 2, Tetsuo (“Tetsuo: The Iron Man”) and Sôseiji (“Gemini”). There simply are too many things going on in Audition to craft a spoiler-free encapsulation. Let’s see how this works: recent widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a television producer, who is urged by his son to find happiness with a new wife. Having been out of the dating scene for many years, Aoyama seeks the advice of a colleague, who works at the same production studio. They decide to stage an audition, at which the female candidates will be led to believe that they’re being given a screen test. Instead, Shigeharu is only interested in finding a mate or companion. The woman he selects, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiinahe), isn’t who she appears to be, either. After a satisfying weekend “date” at a seaside hotel, the former ballerina mysteriously disappears into one of her many lies, this one involving a large sack in her apartment that contains … let’s stop there. Audition has been lauded by Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie. Eli Roth was so influenced by it that he invited Miike to make a cameo appearance in Hostel, as a satisfied customer of the kidnappers, who let customers torture their victims. Although Audition has been lumped together with such progenitors of “torture porn” as Saw, The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Baise-moi and Miike’s own, Ichi the Killer, it makes its points by manipulating the audience’s intellectual curiosity and their deepest fears. I won’t say that the violence isn’t off-putting, but viewers already familiar with the film probably can leave their barf bags at home, this time around. Arrow’s “Special Edition” is enhanced by a fresh 2K restoration of original vault elements; commentary with Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan; new commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes, examining the film and its source novel; an introduction by the director and new interview, “Ties That Bind”; interviews with Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Renji Ishibashi and Ren Osugi; “Damaged Romance,” an appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Anton Bitel.

Our February creep-a-thon continues with Mark Savage’s low-budget splatter/thriller, Purgatory Road, whose protagonist is a defrocked Catholic priest. Father Vincent (Gary Cairns) ministers to his backwoods Mississippi flock from a restored food van, equipped with a mobile confessional. (I doubt that many rural Mississippians would allow their taxpayer-funded roads to be used to advance papist propaganda.) As a boy, Vincent stood by helpless as a female burglar stole his father’s life savings from his desk. Neither was he able to prevent his dad from committing suicide, immediately thereafter. Two decades later, he and his brother are still wracked with guilt. Vincent wants everyone to go to heaven with an untarnished soul, and the easiest way for that to happen is to hear the confessions of the lost sheep he lures into the van and kill them, especially if he sensed they were thieves. After killing them, Vincent and his brother would find an out-of-the-way place to slaughter them. Before long, they’re joined by a footloose avenging angel, Mary Francis (Trista Robinson), who’s thirsty for blood and wants to drive a wedge between the brothers. Anyone whose stomach churns at the sight of blood and viscera – however faux it may be – may want to take a pass on Purgatory Road. They certainly won’t see the dark humor hidden in the shadows. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and Savage’s commentary.

Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten: Blu-ray
Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before. A group of vloggers illegally accesses a condemned TB sanitarium for a “Will You Survive the Night” social-media challenge. Equipped with night vision and thermal cameras, the adolescent adrenaline junkies chase rumors of paranormal activity and leftover horrors from the Third Reich, when patients were known to have been tortured. (There’s speculation that Adolph Hitler convalesced at Heilstätten after the end of the first world war.) Naturally, the interlopers will quickly learn that they’re not alone and not at all welcome. There’s only two ways these found-footage thrillers tend to end, one with a surprise and the other with buckets full of blood and gore. Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten splits the difference between them. While the climax isn’t bad, a lot of viewers probably will have been driven away by the clichéd chase through the hospital’s caverns, tunnels and operating rooms, where the ghosts of former patients still linger. Anyone who likes jump scares, accompanied by shockingly loud bursts of noise, probably will enjoy the whole thing. There’s an English-language dub track, but stick to the German.

Valentine: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
After Scream (1996), Scream 2 (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998) effectively resurrected the slasher/horror genre, which wore out its welcome in the late 1980s,  several movies went back to the template created for Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). They  did so, even knowing that Scream had revealed the secret formula that made them popular. Watch Scream Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” of Valentine (2001) today and you might think someone was trying to re-invent the wheel, without knowing what to do with it. Jamie Blanks, who’d already scored with Urban Legend, embedded in Valentine a credible origin story and recognizable antagonist; several beautiful young actresses for a masked killer to pursue; a few interesting ways to kill them; and a “final girl” we don’t want to see die. What his movie lacked, however, was anything new and different. At a Valentine’s Day hop, junior-high dweeb Jeremy (Joel Palmer) asks several girls to dance and is rudely shot down each time, even by the one girl, Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), who agrees to join him. Like an angel of mercy, she even encourages him to sneak around the gym’s bleachers and engage in some light necking. In doing so, she becomes a target for the bullies taunting Jeremy. Instead of ignoring the boys or giving them the finger, Dorothy accuses the outcast of forcing himself on her. That’s all the excuse they need to spill the contents of a punch bowl on him and pummel him with their fists and feet. Flash forward a few years and the “popular” clique no longer has a hold on all the eligible girls, even though they’re still appealing physically. With another Valentine’s Day dance just around the corner, no one in the audience should be surprised when a ninja-like creeper, wearing a doll’s mask, shows up to exact his revenge. Or, does he? When the bodies begin to fall, the no-longer-girls are told by a police detective not to expect the villain to resemble anyone from the pictures in their yearbook. In other words, everyone’s a suspect, even one of the women. This includes characters played by Capshaw, Denise Richards, Jessica Cauffiel, Katherine Heigl, Marley Shelton and Hedy Burress, as well as Daniel Cosgrove, David Boreanaz, Johnny Whitworth and Adam J. Harrington. There’s a trick ending that some viewers will consider worth the wait. As is sometimes the case with Scream and Arrow upgrades, the bonus package is worth the price of an admission. Along with a nice, clean 2K scan of the original film elements — supervised by Blanks and DP Rick Bota – there’s fresh  commentary with Blanks and filmmaker Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), moderated by author Peter Bracke; new interviews with Richards, Shelton, Cauffiel, co-writers Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, editor Steve Mirkovich, composer Don Davis; almost two hours of unseen footage from Blanks’ personal archive; Blanks’ commentary; a vintage making-of featurette, with cast and crew; extended interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from the EPK; deleted scenes, including extended death scenes; music video; stills gallery; and hidden Easter egg.

Horror Express: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In poker terms, the pairings of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas represents a set to draw to … three of a kind that could be converted into a difficult-to-beat full house or four of a kind. Cushing and Lee had already made their bones as staples of Hammer Horror releases, while Savalas was cooling his heels in Europe, with other American character actors, turning spaghetti into gold. A year after he paired with Cushing and Lee on Horror Express, in Madrid, Savalas would become an instant pop-culture icon, with “Kojak.” So, in hindsight, Savalas’ presence as the Cossack officer in Horror Express is even more of a draw today than when it was released. He had worked with director Eugenio Martín on the Spanish spaghetti Western, Pancho Villa, whose train cars were repurposed for Horror Express. (Savalas also sang the title song.) Otherwise, the plot leaves little to the imagination. Renowned anthropologist Saxton (Lee) boards the Trans-Siberian Express with a crate containing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid, which, he discovered in a Manchurian cave. All around the crate, people begin to die in heinous ways. Sci-fi merges with horror when scientists figure out the creature’s alien origins and ability to shift shapes and resurrect the dead, as zombies. If Horror Express sounds confusing, that’s only because it is … in a good way. The claustrophobic setting clearly helps. The Arrow Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K restoration from original film elements; fresh commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman; an introduction to the film by film journalist and Horror Express superfan Chris Alexander; an interview with director Eugenio Martin; notes from blacklisted producer Bernard Gordon, on working in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era; “Telly and Me,” an interview with composer John Cacavas (“Kojak”); reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and, first printing only, a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by Adam Scovell.

American Nightmares
Co-writers/producers/directors Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott have previously collaborated on such movies, TV shows and anthologies as Tales from the Hood 2 (1995), Fear of a Black Hat (1993) and Sprung (1997). Before they decided to stick with the title, American Nightmares, it was known as “Mr. Malevolent” and “Tales of the Crib.”  Once again, Danny Trejo lends his name and probably a day’s worth of his time to a project that wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of breaking through the DVD clutter without them. Along with Nichelle Nichols (“Star Trek”), Trejo’s job here is to introduce seven uneven parables of interest to computer-savvy viewers, who don’t mind a bit of progressive posturing with their horror. Essentially, he plays the Crypt-Keeper role here, as Mr. Malevolent, who torments a pair of webcam hackers by taking over their monitors and forcing them to watch several stories of criminal and supernatural design. Among the other recognizable faces are Clarence Williams III (“Mod Squad”), Eddie Steeples (“My Name Is Earl”), Kate Butler (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Vivica A. Fox (“Empire”), Noel Gugliemi (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Tamala Jones (“Castle”), Jay Mohr (“Suburgatory”) and Chris Kattan (“SNL”). The sketches may not represent the actors’ best work, but the cast’s overall diversity is worth the price of a rental, anyway.

The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead: Blu-ray
Just two weeks ahead of the 30th-anniversary release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, on 4K UHD, comes Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy’s The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead. The only thing connecting the two, however, are the words “The” and “Mermaid.” You guessed that already, however. Moreover, because she doesn’t have a tail or fins – and inhabits a freshwater lake — the titular figure is no more a mermaid than Nemo, even if they both live in water. For the sake of this summary, though, let’s agree that Sofia Shidlovskaya’s character is a mermaid, also known as Lisa Grigorieva, who’s more of a shape-shifting water nymph or succubus. The film’s plot derives from a Russian legend, which stipulates that drowned unwed girls are transformed into evil mermaids lurking in rivers and lakes. At night, they seduce men with their singing, and lure them to the bottom of the lake, where they become guards, protecting the mermaids. As the picture opens, a young couple sits on a pier at their lakeside cottage. When a mermaid summons the husband to her underwater lair, his wife sacrifices her life to save him. Skip forward another 20 years and the man’s son, Roma, has been given the keys to the cottage by his demented father. He agrees to invite a group of friends to the lake for a bachelor party and housewarming. Before the strippers can take off their bras, however, Roma is drawn to the siren’s song and walks toward the lake, where he begins to understand what happened to his mother. I’ll end the encapsulation here, because, 1) the plot is too convoluted to explain, and 2) spoilers await at every turn in the plot. Roma’s fiancé, Marina (Viktoriya Agalakova), puts herself in harm’s way, as well, when she returns to cabin and battles the mermaid for Roma’s heart and soul. The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead is a lot more intense and captivating than most summaries I’ve read make it seem. The underwater scenes are enthralling, and the special makeup effects are genuinely scary. The dubbing didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think of listening to the Russian track, but maybe I’ll go back to the lake and do so.

The Guilty: Blu-ray
In 1958, while working as an advertising copywriter in Chicago, Bob Newhart and a co-worker entertained each other with long telephone chats about absurd scenarios, which they later recorded and sent to radio stations as audition tapes. When his co-worker ended his participation, Newhart continued to record one-sided conversations with unseen characters, ranging from Abraham Lincoln and the Wright Brothers, to a nervous driving instructor. His 1960 comedy album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was the first to make No. 1 on the Billboard charts. (My dad brought home a copy and I wore it out.) On “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” aspiring standup Joel Maisel, steals Newhart’s classic “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” and Lenny Bruce’s delivery, in his comedy debut at the Gaslight. The only similarity between Newhart and the emergency dispatcher in Gustav Möller’s intense debut feature, The Guilty, is the headset worn by the Danish protagonist and cellphones used by a killer’s captives. Near the end of his shift, Jakob Cedergren’s troubled cop, Asger Holm, catches the kind of call that could redeem or destroy him. The ordeal begins with a call from a woman afraid of being kidnapped and slain for reasons unknown. She hangs up just as something significant is about to happen. Soon, Asger will begin playing phone tag with children who’ve either witnessed the brutal murder of a sibling or imagined it. He sticks with the callers well into the next shift, hoping to control the situation from afar, before he faces his own day of reckoning in a Copenhagen courtroom. Part of what makes The Guilty so effective is Möller’s decision to restrict the drama to two rooms in police headquarters, with the thermostat ratcheted to high. The Guilty, which debuted at last year’s Sundance festival, reminded me of such claustrophobic thrillers as Amariah and Obin Olson’s Operator (2015), Steven Knight’s Locke (2013), Halle Berry’s 911 operator in The Call , Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Booth (2005) and Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002).

Among Wolves
As one of the bikers and former paramilitary fighters we meet in Among Wolves reminds viewers, the Bosnian War may have ended nearly 25 years ago, but its horrors continue to reverberate throughout the country’s mountains, canyons, pastures and tiny villages. He could have  been reciting lyrics from “Turn, Turn, Turn”: “To every thing there is a season … A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. …” In other words, if everyone involved in the terrible conflict did terrible things, in defense of their country and homes, when can these men expect to be reimbursed with jobs and gratitude? These veterans continue to serve their communities by doing good deeds and having some fun while they’re at it. This uncommon motorcycle gang, the Wolves, which wouldn’t look out of place cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in Hell’s Angels colors, is committed to non-violence, promoting charities and defending the threatened herd of wild horses they first met on the front lines. It’s only when one of the men reminisces about training his cannon fire on Serbian soldiers, playing soccer, from high atop a craggy peak, that viewers are reminded of the savagery that masqueraded for war. Shawn Convey and Martin Lagner’s cinematography argues against the notion that God was on the side of anyone who would desecrate His splendor with religion-based tyranny.

Narcissister: Organ Player
Against the backdrop of her provocative and inventive performance art, Narcissister reflects on the personal impact of her mother’s illness and death. If she hadn’t appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” it would be difficult to describe how the Brooklyn-based feminist — born of Moroccan Jewish and African-American descent – expresses her opinions on gender, racial identity and sexuality. In Narcissister: Organ Player, the ever-masked, topless and frequently merkined artist uses a gigantic, interactive mannequin to interpret the pain, sloppiness and grandeur of insemination, birth and growing up different in a society that rewards conformity and punishes originality. That said, Narcissister is completely different than anything most viewers have ever seen. Bonus features include two deleted scenes.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
As wonderfully influential as fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez’ work proved to be, at a pivotal point in the transition from haute couture to prêt-à-porter, James Crump’s Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco frequently wallows in the divine decadence that characterized the demi-monde in the heady days before AIDS began to take its toll. The documentary is a veritable time capsule of Paris and New York, between 1969 and 1973. A native of Puerto Rico, raised in the Bronx, Lopez was a seductive arbiter of style and glamour, who was hailed for bridging elements of funky urban street wear and a postwar fashion world desperate for change and diversity. Counted among Antonio’s discoveries were such iconic beauties as Grace Jones, Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall and Warhol superstars Donna Jordan, Jane Forth and Patti D’Arbanville. Antonio’s inner circle was also comprised of his romantic and creative partner, Juan Ramos, makeup artist Corey Tippin, photographer Bill Cunningham and rival designers Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint-Laurent. What some fans of such things might take from the film is the by-now fatuous exaltation of the beautiful people who lived to party and leech off people more wealthy and successful than they were. On the downside, if I see one more fawning film that worships at the altar of Andy Warhol’s Factory, without pointing out the casualties, I think I’ll puke. And, Jerry Hall as a blond angel from Texas … puhleeze. Bonus features include archival footage; excerpts from the Bill Cunningham interview; and the short film, “You Can’t Do Everything at Once, But You Can Leave Everything at Once.”

Four Weddings and a Funeral: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If Richard Curtis was only famous outside the UK for writing The Black Adder, Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, his fame would be well-earned. That he’s created so many other wonderful entertainments is icing on his cake. Like “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “Bonanza,” Love Actually plays on an endless rotation on cable stations around globe. On its silver anniversary, Four Weddings and a Funeral is only slightly less visible. Let’s cut to the chase. This edition’s special features include a 4K remaster struck from the original camera negative; a new interview with DP Michael Coulter, “The Wedding Photographer”; commentary with director Mike Newell, producer Duncan Kenworthy and Curtis; “The Wedding Planners” documentary; featurettes “Four Weddings and a funeral … In the Making” and “Two Actors and a Director”; deleted scenes; and promotional material.

The Poison Ivy Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the #MeToo movement continues to add notches to its pistol, the release of  “The Poison Ivy Collection” reminds us of a series of R-rated films that found something titillating in the seduction of older men by teenage girls. When the four films were released, hardly anyone saw anything wrong with movies whose life spans would include endless airings on Cinemax. The first three entries in the series — Poison Ivy (1992), Poison Ivy 2: Lily (1996), Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997) — deal with the implications of an emotionally neglected, sexually assertive young woman’s fascination with her best friend’s father, and how her desire for him affects multiple individuals who fall under her influence. The fourth made-for-TV film, Poison Ivy:The Secret Society (2008), is only thematically linked to the first three, dealing with a secret society of young women dedicated to obtaining control over powerful men through seduction. Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy received critical acclaim at the Sundance Festival and developed a cult status through word-of-mouth marketing. At 17, Drew Barrymore’s incendiary performance didn’t hurt, either. The next two films were released direct-to-video and received a generally negative reception.

Band vs Brand
I doubt that anyone born after the breakup of the Beatles would be surprised to learn that band logos have a much longer shelf life than the musicians in the groups they represent. Fleetwood Mac is more popular today than when its first album was released in 1968, but only two of its original members remain with the band today. Christine McVie has been on all of Mac’s albums, except the first one. Like the Rolling Stones, the group’s original focus shifted long ago from classic American blues to original material. On its last album, “Blue & Lonesome” (2016), only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts are still around to participate in the band’s return to the Chicago Blues. After the Beatles dissolved, the members carried on separately in differently named ensembles. Jefferson Airplane decided that its fans would get behind Jefferson Starship, no matter the names and lineup changes. This sort of chicanery didn’t begin with the birth of rock ’n’ roll, either. Even if the last original member of the Platters, Herb Reed, died in 2012, you can catch the most recent incarnation this week on its tour through the South. The Glenn Miller Orchestra has outlived its namesake by more than 70 years, after his plane crash landed in the English Channel in WWII. As is frequently pointed out in Bob Nalbandian’s thoroughly researched Band vs Brand, no matter who owns a band name, logo and library, the songs belong to those who love them. The doc explains how these things work, from the point of view of “classic rock” stars of yore — David Ellefson (Megadeth), Jack Russell (Jack Russell’s Great White), Nik Turner (Hawkwind), Nicky Garrett (UK Subs), Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Suicidal Tendencies), Marc Ferrari, Adam Parsons, Frank DiMino (Angel) – and in the digital/streaming era. No one who aspires to rock stardom should miss it.

Norm of the North: Keys to the Kingdom
If the sequel to Norm of the North (2016) looks to parents as if it’s two short animated films stitched together at the middle, they’d be right. Although the entire film is credited as Keys to the Kingdom, it tells two separate stories, both commissioned by Splash Entertainment for distribution by Lionsgate. The second half would have been called “The Arctic All-Stars.” Lionsgate decided to give it a limited theatrical release at the last minute. Norm, the newly crowned king of the North, travels to New York to accept the keys to the city. But Norm goes from hero to villain when he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While he is trying to clear his good name, back in the Arctic a vicious bottled-water company has moved in and is starting to steal the ice. Norm must rely on his friends, both old and new, to clear his good name and help save his kingdom in a winner-take-all hockey match. Co-directors Richard Finn and Tim Maltby, with writer Dean Stefan, are already commissioned to produce the animated feature “Norm of the North: King Sized Adventure.” Anthony Bell (The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania!) is working on “Norm of the North: Family Vacation.” Someone is making money somewhere from the Dove-approved franchise.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Experience: The Swamp
PBS: Frontline: Documenting Hate
PBS: Sesame Street: Celebrate Family
If any further proof were needed to confirm Florida’s status as the greediest and least environmentally concerned state in the union isn’t paying attention. It began when venture capitalists began draining the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee to make room for new farmland and housing, and it continues today as legislators ignore warnings about global warming. PBS’ “American Experience: The Swamp” chronicles how what passes for humanity in Florida has worked feverishly to turn God’s gift to mankind into profit centers. “The Swamp,” told through the lives of a handful of colorful and resolute characters, explores the repeated efforts to reclaim, control and transform what was seen as a vast wasteland into an agricultural and urban paradise, and, ultimately, drive the Seminoles from their homelands. Each time, the native alligators, snakes and occasional hurricane have conspired to reclaim Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ “River of Grass.” At the same time, the film introduces us to several generations of native ecologists, who’ve forced pinhead politicians to create parks and refuges, instead of golf courses.

Far more than vampires and zombies, the rise of extreme right-wing hate groups may turn out to be America’s greatest threat. Thanks, in part, to President Trump’s not-so-tacit endorsement of attacks on Jews, Arabs, blacks and protesters – and the Internet’s coconut telegraph — white supremacists and neo-Nazis have never felt as emboldened as they do today. PBS’ two-pronged “Frontline: Documenting Hate” – “Charlottesville,” “American Nazis” – digs deeper into the subject than most police departments and federal crimefighting agencies. Richard Rowley’s investigations, with ProPublica, expose a neo-Nazi group that has actively recruited inside the U.S. military, as well as how the group’s terrorist objectives helped them gain strength after the 2017 Charlottesville rally.

PBS’ “Sesame Street: Celebrate Family” is comprised of five stories suitable family engagements and party planning. From “Sesame Street! First,” Abby’s family has dinner at Elmo’s house, where she learns that different families can have fun working together to make a meal; then, “Cookie Monster” realizes he’s forgotten a gift for his mommy for Mother’s Day; for “Father’s Day,” Rosita wants to make a video for her dad, but she needs some help from her friends. Next, we meet Rudy, Abby’s new stepbrother, and finally, Hooper’s Store is throwing a special party for kids and their grandparents.

The DVD Wrapup: Spider’s Web, Maquia, Cloverfield, No Date, Free Lunch, Possessed, Road House 2, Dolphins, Poetic Justice, Human 3.0 … More  

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: Blu-ray
If ever a literary franchise looked as if it could equal its success at the international box office, it was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, from which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were created. The Swedish-language series began OK, but it petered out in the second and third installments. David Fincher and Steven Zaillian’s English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might have made a few dollars, as well, but not enough to get Columbia/Sony/MGM to commit another nearly $100 million, each, on sequels that already have failed in the marketplace. Why Larsson’s dark and edgy protagonist, Lisbeth Salander – portrayed equally well by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara – couldn’t sell as many tickets as books is one of those questions without answers that vex box-office prognosticators. Most of them chalked it up to the audience’s unwillingness to embrace a female hero, in general, and a character who didn’t resemble Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson, specifically. In an article for Queen’s Quarterly, Jennie Punter characterized Salander as a “diminutive, flat-chested, chain-smoking, tattoo-adorned, anti-social, bisexual, genius computer hacker,” albeit “one of the most compelling characters in recent popular fiction.” A Bond girl, she’s not. In the only interview he ever gave about the series, Larsson said he based the character on how Pippi Longstocking might have turned out, as an adult. He also credited his rebellious teenage niece, Therese, for Salander’s goth look. She often wore black clothing and dark makeup, and told Larsson several times that she wanted to get a tattoo of a dragon. Apparently, he often e-mailed Therese to ask her about her life and how she would react in certain situations. From small seeds, big things sometimes grow.

After Larsson’s untimely death, in 2004, Swedish author/journalist David Lagercrantz was handed the reins to the Millennium series by the writer’s estate. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” was published in 2015, with “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” following two years later. Although both books did well, I doubt that any studio will ever take a stab at “Millennium 5.” That’s because the fourth installment, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story only recovered $35 million of its production budget of a reported $43 million. In an interview included in the bonus package, producer Elizabeth Cantillon says that the protagonist in her predecessors had targeted the wrong audiences. While readers of crime thrillers had no problem with a female protagonist who was as complex, devious and hard-boiled as any of her male peers. Cantillon believes that audiences wanted Salander to be a female James Bond. The problem here, of course, is that Salander must cross-circuit plans for a global paramilitary conspiracy, based on activating stolen computer software at nuclear bases around the globe, while also escaping several life-threatening situations, based solely on good luck. Salander is hired by computer programmer Frans Balder to retrieve Firefall, the program he developed for the National Security Agency.

After she accomplishes the task, Salander becomes the target for an array of mercenaries, hoping to profit from stealing it back from her. One manages to kidnap the inventor’s super-smart son, who has stored the information on how to open the software in his head. After about 90 minutes of this back-and-forth, one of Salander’s computer-geek pals rides to the rescue, using his security devices to turn the tables on her captors. Add the inclusion of an origin story for Salander and some viewers will require a scorecard to keep track of the players. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did pretty much what the producers wanted of him, but the action frequently overwhelms the story. Otherwise, “Spider’s Web” makes for some entertaining viewing. Claire Foy (First Man) is as convincing as Salander as Rapace and Mara, and the Swedish and German settings maintain the books’ frosty atmosphere. The supporting characters aren’t given much to do, however. One of the fascinating things I learned from a featurette on choreographing the action was that the stunt coordinators used driverless cars to jack up the pace and impact of the chases. Other bonus items include commentaries on the feature and deleted scenes, with Álvarez and screenwriter Jay Basu; and four featurettes: “Claire Foy: Becoming Lisbeth,” “All About the Stunts,” “Secrets of the Salander Sisters” and “Creating the World: The Making Of.”

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms: Blu-ray
Anyone who wants to check how much anime has evolved, as a storytelling medium, anyway, needs only to pick up Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. On its surface, or through the eyes of a child, Maquia may look like just another medieval fantasy that mimics The Hobbit and “Game of Thrones. Just below that surface, however, lies a story that demands to be viewed as a parable about motherhood, aging, loss and coming of age in a cruel world … grown-up stuff. And, coming in at just short of two hours, Maquia easily fits the description of epic fairy tale. Though only 15, the title character knows she will live for centuries without outwardly aging past adolescence. She belongs to the Iorph, a clan of ageless beings whose primary task on Earth is to weave colorful tapestries whose threads anticipate future events. Maquia has been warned against falling in love with anyone outside their realm, which would inevitably lead to the twin tragedies of loss and loneliness, emotions rarely felt by immortals. The Iorph’s realm is turned upside by an attack from the mortal territory of Mesate, whose prince wants to attain immortality for his heir by kidnapping and marrying Leilia, the clan’s eternally radiant elder. As they’re whisked away atop a gigantic dragon – Mesate’s weapons of mass destruction – the prince’s troops ransack the Iorphs’ homes and kill as many of them as possible. Maquia is carried away by a benign, if dying dragon that leads her to a cave in a forest, where she discovers a young warrior and an abandoned baby, who’s handed off to the newcomer to raise. We follow their progress through Ariel’s teenage years, as he grows taller than Maquia and itchy to find his own place in life. It strains their relationship to the point where he wants to serve the prince, effectively siding with the enemy of his adoptive mother’s people. By this time, though, Maquia’s re-connected with fellow survivors, who hope to free their queen – who, by now, is pregnant –and move back to their kingdom. There’s more, but why spoil the drama? The emphasis on  issues pertinent to women is easily traced to writer/director Okada, who has 58 writing credits and four directing nods, three of them shorts. Because women are so rarely chosen to direct anime features, it made headlines when Maquia took first prize for an animation film at the Shanghai International Film Festival. (It also was submitted for Oscar consideration.) The special features add the 25-minute “Making of Maquia.”

The Cloverfield Paradox: Blu-ray
J.J. Abrams is a multihyphenate’s multihyphenate. If he needed a nickname, it could be “Abracadabra,” for his ability to pull rabbits out of his hat wherever he goes. As a writer, producer, director, actor and composer, Abrams has won or been nominated for almost every award  available to multihyphenates, including a Razzie (Armageddon). The exception is any recognition from AMPAS – an Academy Award being the only honor that really counts in Hollywood — and that’s only because of Oscar voters’ prejudice against sci-fi, action and other genre pictures, outside of the technical categories. He’s extended more franchises – Mission:Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, Cloverfield – than anyone not named McDonald. Without question, it’s the latter series that has raised the most eyebrows among sci-fi and horror nerds. With three installments already completed – Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox – and another sequel on the way, it’s difficult to explain, with any certainty, what they all have in common, apart from Godzilla-like monsters, apocalyptic scenarios, everyday characters, extreme secrecy from the get-go and references to something called  Slusho and Abrams’ grandfather, Henry Kelvin. In Cloverfield (2008), a farewell party held by a group of New York yuppies is interrupted by the appearance of a rampaging sea monster. All the action is captured by a hand-held camera, operated by an unseen friend. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) describes what happens to a young woman, when, after a car accident, she finds herself in a bomb shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is infected by a widespread chemical attack. The Cloverfield Paradox takes places almost entirely on a space vehicle, which is orbiting Earth while scientists test a machine – a giant particle accelerator – that could solve a global energy crisis. For a while, the only unusual thing that happens is the crew’s inability to get the damn thing to kick into gear. When it does, however, really strange things begin to happen in the control room. On the down side, the accelerator is capable of interfering with the time-space continuum and creating alternate realities. There’s no reason to spoil any mysteries here, except to suggest that an alien force has taken control of the orbiter and is messing with the astronauts’ heads. It even finds a way to make our world “disappear.” Critics weren’t particularly impressed with The Cloverfield Paradox, which launched on Netflix almost immediately after a preview ad aired during the 2018 Super Bowl broadcast. It’s interesting enough, however, to recommend to sci-fi buffs and completists. The international crew is portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki and Chris O’Dowd. The Blu-ray boasts excellent technical credentials, as well as “Things Are Not as They Appear: The Making of The Cloverfield Paradox” and “Shepard Team: The Cast.”

No Date, No Signature
There are so many things that Iranian filmmakers are forbidden from exploring in their own country, it’s amazing how good the ones that are approved turn out to be. In No Date, No Signature, co-writer/director Vahid Jalilvand (Wednesday, May 9), winner of Best Director prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, takes on a gripping psychological drama about morality and class dynamics in contemporary Iran. It was the official submission of Iran in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. Facing stiff competition, however, it failed to make the list of finalists. In it, forensic pathologist Dr. Kaveh Nariman’s car accidentally injures a motorcyclist’s 8-year-old son. And, yes, it was a clearly an accident. He offers to take the child to a clinic, but the father refuses his help. A few days later, in the hospital where he works, Nariman (Amir Aghaee) learns that the boy has died under suspicious circumstances, which caused him to be infected with botulism. The father, Moosa, had purchased the chicken from a worker at the slaughter house. Too embarrassed to share his encounter with Moosa with colleagues handling the autopsy, he merely acknowledges knowing the father. Even so, the doctor becomes obsessed with the possibility that the boy’s spine might have been damaged in the accident and a sudden awkward movement might have caused his death. Meanwhile, the father (Navid Mohammadzadeh), himself wracked with guilt, goes to the plant to confront the man who sold him the diseased bird. Finding no relief, Moosa gets into a fight that leaves the worker in a coma and him in jail. This pushes the doctor to call for an exhumation of the boy’s body, based on his own belated admission of possible guilt. Anyone expecting a clear-cut Hollywood ending might be disappointed. It’s enough to know that Nariman’s sense of morality and integrity faces the kind of challenge that others would have bypassed when the cause of death, botulism, was rendered. Several critics have remarked on the similarities between No Date, No Signature and the work of Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, Fireworks Wednesday, The Past), who tackles sticky contemporary issues with clarity and dramatic appeal. Zakieh Behbahani and Hediyeh Tehrani deliver compelling portrayals of Iranian women from opposite sides of the country’s economic and cultural divide.

Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen
The more attention paid to Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Corte in the runup to the 2020 elections, the more scrutiny will be given the concept of an unconditional basic wage. If it isn’t the most popular issue to be debated – no one wants to be accused of advocating extreme economic politics or, worse, socialism – it’s certainly the most misunderstood. For one thing, its leading proponents didn’t wake up one morning, thinking they might give UBI a spin. The idea of a state-run Basic Income dates to the early 16th Century, when Sir Thomas More argued in “Utopia” that every person should receive a guaranteed income, and to the late 18th century when English radical Thomas Spence and American revolutionary Thomas Paine both declared their support for a welfare system in which all citizens were guaranteed a certain income. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Canada conducted several experiments with negative income taxation, a related welfare system. Neither is it true that UBI is an idea that sprung from the brow of hippies looking for a handout. Richard Nixon proposed a negative income tax in a bill to the U.S. Congress, which only approved a guaranteed minimum income for the elderly and the disabled. Warren Buffet is a UBI advocate, so was Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, the Permanent Fund of Alaska already provides a kind of basic income to longtime residents – all of them, regardless of other sources of income — based on the oil and gas revenues generated by the oil pipeline. So, there. Christian Tod’s well-reasoned documentary Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen lays out the whys and wherefores of UBI, in addition to responding to criticisms. It does so in ways that go beyond laymen’s terms, without resorting to economics jargon and academics. It explains why America’s middle class has become an endangered species – trickle-down economics got that ball rolling – and how the low unemployment rate is maintained by people who work two or three low-paying jobs. Neither does Tod demand of viewers that they buy into his pitch. It would be enough for the citizenry to be in position to yell, “B.S.,” whenever a politician tries to sell a truckload of snake oil, based solely on such faulty premises that UBI is socialism and recirculating new money through the system won’t raise all boats equally. If citizens had the opportunity to benefit from the Alaska model – or, not – my guess is that they’d take the free money and spend some of it, at least, on American-made products.

All the Devil’s Men: Blu-ray
Movies about mercenaries and former Special Forces fighters have reached dime-a-dozen status, especially those destined for an early reincarnation in DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. If action pictures, such as Matthew Hope’s All the Devil’s Men, enjoy a theatrical run, it’s only to salvage a few quotes from otherwise negative reviews for their release in foreign markets. It may not be a particularly new strategy, but the appetite for product in the streaming marketplace has become voracious. Here, it takes a while before clues emerge, explaining what all the shooting is about. After nearly losing his life in Morocco, on a covert operation financed by the CIA, former Navy SEAL Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is sent by his American handler, Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), to London, where a disavowed CIA operative, McKnight (Elliot Cowan), is about to procure a WMD from Russian gangsters. Where the device’s final destination might be is anyone’s guess. Because Leigh has a personal grudge against McKnight, she teams Collins with two other bounty hunters, Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). When they’re ambushed by ninja-looking thugs, viewers wonder how it could have occurred with such accuracy. The leader of this pack is a former colleague, Deighton (Joseph Millson), who was hired by McKnight as protection, but was willing to make a deal with Leigh, against Collins and McKnight. Because so much of the fighting takes place at night, between men wearing balaclavas and carrying similar weaponry, it’s difficult to tell who’s assaulting whom. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t always wear a mask, and his partner is black, so that much is clear, at least. The other thing at play here is Collins’ disintegrating emotional strength, for which he takes “go pills” to keep him, yes, going. The other interesting thing is the presence of Milo Gibson in the lead role, playing the kind of character his dad, Mel, might have been assigned before he left Australia. All the Devil’s Men’s might have been a better picture if it had focused on our government’s recent practice of outsourcing its dirty work to contractors, with private armies that are only held accountable when they go too far and begin slaughtering civilians. In doing so, the government buys itself “plausible deniability,” when shit happens, and the mercenaries aren’t questioned by congressional committees, the media and representatives of their victims’ families. As long as filmmakers bypass the obvious conflicts in their pictures, for the sake of promoting pure action, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be anything except mediocre genre specimens. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Large-format specialist Stephen Low has been making movies about airplanes for as long as he’s been in the business, almost 40 years. For nearly 35 of those years, the Ottawa-born filmmaker has given managers of IMAX venues reasons to go to work each day, whether they’re located in modern megaplexes or in museums. In addition to creating edutainment products about all manner of aircraft, from biplanes to fighter jets, he’s made several stops along the way to promote advances in corporate aeronautics. He’s also used bulky 65mm cameras to explore oceanic wonders, aboveground transportation and natural splendor. Because the 3DTV format has yet to be embraced by consumers, the full impact of his films must be enjoyed in theaters that cater to large groups of students, seniors and pot smokers. This isn’t to say that very much is lost on large-screen television monitors, especially those set up for 4K UHD playback. Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas not only promotes the capabilities of the modern navy in times of war and peace – remember peace? – but it also marks advances in naval aviation, which is largely dependent on the readiness of crews assigned to such magnificent ships. One of the greatest engineering feats in the history of warfare, the Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan is a masterpiece of technology, and the flagship of the American fleet. The ship also provides a focal point for Low’s coverage of RIMPAC exercises, which take place far from view of curious citizens and prying media. Audiences, however, are whistled aboard the carrier and its 6,000 highly skilled sea and air personnel, amid war games comprised of 22 allied nations and more than 50 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 military personnel. From the air, especially, the fleet is impressive. (I think some of the same aerial footage might have been repurposed in Hunter Killer.) From the viewpoint of an engineer, mechanic or aspiring naval recruit, the dissection of duties and responsibilities, via live-action coverage and engineering visualizations – including a cross-section of the nuclear reactor and power train – should be nothing short of awe-inspiring. It takes viewers from the ship’s bridge to its rudders, with up-close peeks at the F-35C Lightning, the F35A, F-18 Super Hornet and Osprey. And, while a certain amount of patriotic posturing is inevitable, the emphasis is clearly on deterrence. Bonus features include some audience testimonials; speed comparisons between an F-35, Bugatti and human cannonball, and Usain Bolt, giraffe and nuclear carrier; and a F-35 Navy “selects reel.” Someone at the studio should have tried harder on them.

The Possessed: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Fifth Cord: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Another week, another pair of giallo thrillers from Arrow. These, however, are a bit different than the usual fare. The Possessed (a.k.a., “The Lady of the Lake”) is described on the jacket as being an atmospheric proto-giallo,” based on one of Italy’s most notorious crimes, the Alleghe killings, and adapted from the book by Giovanni Comisso. If it’s proto-anything, it’s only because The Possessed was released in 1965, more than a year after Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace merged his brilliantly colorful cinematography with stylized crime stories. It’s entirely possible that co-directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini were more interested in combining traditional American noir with Michelangelo Antonioni’s arthouse appeal and Carol Reed’s deployment of shadows and light. Peter Baldwin (The Weekend Murders) stars as Bernard, a depressed novelist who sets off in search of his old flame, Tilde (Virna Lisi), a beautiful maid who works at a remote lakeside hotel. Bernard is warmly greeted by the hotel owner, Enrico (Salvo Randone), and his daughter, Irma (Valentina Cortese), but Tilde isn’t around, anymore. After some cajoling, he learns that Tilde is deceased and her death has been ruled a suicide. The consternation in the faces of the people with whom he speaks about the case keeps him wondering what really happened to his ex-lover. When he notices a woman in a white coat and scarf, walking along the lakeshore, night after night, Bernard suspects that he’s being tested or it’s an innocent coincidence. Things only get more darkly sinister from there. The Possessed is presented here in a sensational new 2K restoration, from the original camera negative. It also includes newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack; new audio commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas; an appreciation by critic Richard Dyer; “Cat’s Eyes,” a wonderfully wicked interview with the film’s makeup artist, Giannetto De Rossi; “Two Days a Week,” an interview with the film’s award-winning assistant art director Dante Ferretti; “The Legacy of the Bazzoni Brothers,” an interview with actor/director Francesco Barilli, a close friend of Luigi and Camillo Bazzoni; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich, Roberto Curti and original reviews.

There’s no question that Luigi Bazzoni’s brilliantly photographed The Fifth Cord is straight-up, old-school giallo … one of the best. It was released simultaneously with Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy,” which still represents ground zero for giallo. In addition to the many home-grown actors, the cast is enhanced by the presence of such genre-specific hotties as Silvia Monti, Ira von Fürstenberg, Rossella Falk, Agostina Belli and token American Pamela Tiffen (State Fair).Too bad, most of these bodacious ladies don’t survive the movie’s central killing streak or Franco Nero’s investigation into the five pre-ordained crime. Nero plays reporter Andrea Bild, an almost-divorced lush, who drinks whatever is put in front of him. The Fifth Cord opens on New Year’s Eve, at one of the hottest nightclubs in town. Off camera, the murderer tells us that before the new year ends, five people will die at his hands. He’s already scoped out the candidates and all that’s left is the preferred method. At the scene of the first aborted attack, the killer leaves behind a black glove with a fingertip missing. With every new murder, another leather fingertip disappears. When police deduce that Bild not only is in direct contact with the killer, but also is connected to the victims, they make him the prime suspect. Given his propensity to black out when he’s drunk, even Bild isn’t 100 percent sure he’s innocent. He begs the police for one more day to identify the killer or he’ll voluntary come in for booking. The only surprise left is the identity of the killer and his/her motivation. Giallo buffs are encouraged to skip ahead to the bonus features and check out “Lines and Shadows,” a new video essay on DP Vittorio Storaro’s use of architecture, space and reflections; new audio commentary by critic Travis Crawford; “Whisky Giallore,” a new video interview with author and critic Michael Mackenzie; “Black Day for Nero,” an entertaining video interview with actor Franco Nero; “The Rhythm Section,” a new interview with film editor Eugenio Alabiso; a previously unseen deleted sequence, restored from the original negative; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love; and,first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Kat Ellinger and Peter Jilmstad.

1 Billion Orgasms
Although theories about female ejaculation can be traced to the 16th Century, no serious scientific research has been reported, except in brief acknowledgments by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. Typically, the studies have been limited to determining the ejaculate’s chemical composition or the precise location of the G-spot. It wasn’t until 1998 that any new light was shown on the phenomenon, by Helen O’Connell, a urology surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. “There is a lot of erectile tissue down there that is not drawn in any anatomy textbooks, save perhaps a couple of really old dissections in the French and German literature,” O’Connell wrote, at the time. “Just because you can’t see the rest doesn’t mean it is not there.” Some feminists continued to describe it as a male myth. By then, though, “squirting” had already entered the porn lexicon and actresses were showing off their ejaculatory skills in videos. The actress, Fallon, is credited with being the first porn star to perform the act on the small screen, in The Squirt (1989), Squirt Bunny (1989) and Squirt ’em Cowgirl (1990). Today, amateurs and fakers do most of the Internet squirting. Brent Kinetz and Terence Mickey’s very strange documentary, 1 Billion Orgasms, profiles the respected engineer and field-applications engineer Aaron Headley, who, when he wasn’t developing digital filters for space capsules, invented a “wristband movement detector” that, he claims, practically guarantees women an explosive full-squirt orgasm. Also known as the “G-spot Squirt Watch,” it could be used, Headley claims, by the world’s 8 billion women to ensure spectacular orgasms, with ejaculations of whatever it is as a side benefit.

On March 7, 2017, Headley was granted a patent for what was more discreetly described as “Wrist Band Motion Analyzer With Comparison Feedback.” Three years earlier, he’d applied for a patent for the remarkably similar “Squirt Watch.” Headley is portrayed as being a personable Minnesota family man, who grew up in a household that treated sex as a perfectly normal human experience and believes that all 8 billion women on Earth deserve an otherworldly orgasm. We’re even allowed to eavesdrop on his experiments with male and female porn stars. And, heck, the thing seems to work. The second-half of the doc takes place at the storied AVN show, in Las Vegas, where dozens of male and female orgasm-enhancers are on display. There might have been something in the desert air the weekend 8 Billion Orgasms was filmed, as, before our eyes, Headly goes from mild-mannered inventor to sleazy salesman. The first thing he does after his plane arrives is get a shoeshine at the airport, from a gentleman who doesn’t seem to mind having his ears bent by a future Nobel Prize-winner, who sounds as if he’s capable of delivering a good tip. After hooking up with Kat, the same woman who served as his booth assistant (a.k.a., booth babe) a year earlier, Headley turns into a schmoozaholic, who glad-hands everyone who might agree to endorse his product or help him get on Howard Stern’s radio show. (He’s become the Ed Sullivan of adult-toy purveyors.) His encounters with porn superstars appear, at first, to go well, but it’s an illusion. By the end of the first day of business, Headley looks crushed and Kat acts as if the only thing she wants to do is take a shower. He only sells a couple of watches, even when he offers a lucrative cut to wholesalers. One gets the feeling that women aren’t as keen to squirt that he believes they are and would prefer having the kind of orgasms that don’t require toweling off afterwards or wearing a raincoat. If Headley hadn’t been such an insufferable dick on the convention hall’s floor, it would be easy to forgive his resemblance to Willie Loman and file him away as someone dreaming the impossible dream. Even Kat takes an early powder from the show. If humiliating a guy who believes he knows more about a woman’s sexual response than the 8 million women he hopes to serve – or the inventor of the Rabbit, for that matter —  was the co-directors’ goal, they achieved it.

Road House 2: Blu-ray
Greater minds than mine have tried to explain what made Road House (1989) a bigger hit on VHS and cable than it was in theaters. Some pundits have cited the distributors’ dubious decision to emphasize Patrick Swayze’s romantic links to Dirty Dancing – another cult favorite – over the picture’s many fighting scenes and vigilante action. Others think that describing Swayze’s character, Dalton, as a world-class bouncer (a.k.a., cooler) from New York, instead of local tough guy, was too ludicrous a conceit to support. The T&A was more conducive to viewing on VHS, which, for guys, anyway, allowed endless rewinds. After the first bloody fight scene, I’m guessing that a lot of women viewers forgot that Swayze was even in Dirty Dozen. What began as a date movie, quickly devolved into a flick whose appeal was limited to guys looking for 90 minutes of transgressive entertainment. Neither were VHS sales and rentals dampened when Road House was nominated for Razzies  as Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actor (Swayze), and Worst Supporting Actor (Ben Gazzara), winning none. There simply was no interest on the part of women who loved Dirty Dancing in embracing a guy who, while undeniably cute, lacks Swayze’s charisma and sex appeal.

Road House 2: Last Call may be every bit as stupid and nonsensical as the original, but, by bypassing theaters, it could appeal directly to the core audience, with porn-y cover art and the promise of watching major tool, Jake Busey (a.k.a., Wild Bill), get the shit kicked out of him. It takes too long for that to happen, though. Shane Tanner (Johnathon Schaech) is an undercover DEA agent, who left the bayou country to escape the onus of being the only surviving son of a legendary bouncer. When his uncle (Will Patton) is nearly killed by gang of low-lives, Shane takes a leave of absence from the DEA and volunteers to run the joint. He discovers that the Black Pelican is Wild Bill’s bar of choice to conduct drug deals and he’ll stop at nothing in his efforts to buy it. Both men vow to run the other out of town or die trying. Although the movie features more than the usual number of bar fights and shootouts – most of them so obviously choreographed as to be a distraction — the highlight for most guys will be the knife fight between Wild Bill’s right-hand-woman (Marisa Quintanilla) and Shane’s blond girlfriend (Ellen Hollman). It’s right up there with the cat fights in Kill Bill.The MVD Collection release looks great in Blu-ray, but is scarce on bonus material.

Double Dragon: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The 1994 live-action film, Double Dragon, was based on the Technōs Japan arcade game, which was released in 1987 and went on to spawn a video-game franchise across several different platforms and animated television series. Directed by music-video specialist James Yukich (“Jeff Beck: Live at the Hollywood Bowl”), Double Dragon was set in 2007, amid the ruins of Los Angeles – now known as New Angeles — a city ravaged by earthquakes, tidal waves and vicious gangs. The landmark Capitol Records tower has begun to sag; Hollywood Boulevard has become the highly flammable Hollywood River; and curbside oxygen booths provide the only relief from the suffocating smog. Each day’s horrors are reported on television by news anchors Vanna White and George Hamilton. The evil tycoon Koga Shuko (Robert Patrick) is obsessed with joining the two halves of a talisman known as the Double Dragon, which, he believes, possesses mystical powers. Two teenage brothers, Jimmy (Mark Dacascos) and Billy Lee (Scott Wolf) find themselves in possession of the amulet’s other half, leaving them in a precarious position with the ruthless tycoon. With the help of Maria (Alyssa Milano) and her vigilante group, the Power Corps, the boys are required to summon all their courage, resourcefulness and martial-arts skills to stop Koga Shuka’s evil plan. Because of its origins as a fighting game, it should come as no surprise to fans that Double Dragon overflows with non-stop action and imaginative special effects. The problem, of course, is a plot that will only make sense to children well-versed in franchise mythology. The irony of filming so much of the New Angeles scenes in Cleveland won’t be lost on many older viewers. Here, the Cuyahoga River was set ablaze artificially – it caught fire in 1969, due to industrial pollution – to show what the faux Hollywood River would look like in similar circumstances. It caused quite a stir in Cleveland, with 210 phone calls to emergency services reported in 10 minutes. New featurettes include “The Making of Double Dragon,” a full-length documentary, with interviews with Wolf and Dacascos, writers Peter Gould and Michael Davis, and producer Don Murphy; and “Don Murphy: Portrait of a Producer.” Several previously shown featurettes are included, as well.

Poetic Justice: Blu-ray
After his hugely successful debut a year earlier, as writer/director of Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton probably would have made Columbia executives happy by churning out another drama about growing-up-gangsta’ in South-Central L.A. It’s difficult to imagine how they reacted to Singleton’s proposal for a romantic drama, featuring characters who would be recognizable from “Boyz,” but was set largely along the famously scenic coastal highway connecting Los Angeles and Oakland. “Black people take vacations, too,” Singleton recalls telling doubters, in an interview included in the bonus features on Poetic Justice. Not wishing to ruffle the feathers of the goose who laid a golden egg on his freshman project, Columbia only demanded screen tests from prospective leads, Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. If that sounds crazy, today, consider that Jackson had yet to star in a feature film and Shakur’s only other prominent role was in Ernest Dickerson gang-related thriller, Juice. When Jackson’s character, Justice, isn’t working at a hair salon, she’s writing poetry to overcome her depression over witnessing the violent death of a boyfriend (Q-Tip). In a brief early scene, Justice rejects Lucky  (Shakur) by pretending to be in a lesbian relationship with her boss. Lucky, who works at the post office, has his hands full caring for his daughter, after catching her mother having sex with her crack dealer, while the child is only a few feet away from the bedroom. A bit later, Justice’s friend Iesha (Regina King) talks her into taking a road trip to Oakland with her boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry), who works at the post office with Lucky. Justice warily accepts, mainly because she’s expected in Oakland for a hair show and her car broke down at the last minute. Unbeknownst to Justice, Lucky is also on the trip, and she will now be sharing a postal van with him and their two mutual friends.

Initially they argue, but they soften towards each other as they discover their similarities over the course of the film. As Justice and Lucky establish common ground, though, Iesha and Chicago are coming apart at the seams. She’s a flirt and he’s a bully. When the truck reaches Oakland – minus Chicago, who may still be hitchhiking through Big Sur – Lucky arrives at his aunt’s home at the same time as paramedics, who fail to save his cousin from a gunshot wound. Somehow, the incident serves to cause enough tension between Justice and Lucky to cause a fissure to develop between them. Anyone want to guess how this story ends? Too easy. Besides taking his protagonists out of the ’hood, for a few days, anyway, Singleton finds a pastoral setting for a Johnson Family Picnic, at which some of the many relatives trace their ancestry all the way back to Africa. He also breaks the urban-drama mold by creating empowered black female characters. They include Maya Angelo, who supplied Justice’s poetry, Khandi Alexander, Lori Petty, Yvette Wilson, Robi Reed and  Mikki Val. I didn’t recognize all the hip-hop singer/actors, but the soundtrack is terrific. The bonus material includes 10 never-before-seen deleted and extended scenes, a rare look at Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur’s original screen test, and a new retrospective interview with Singleton.

Bernie the Dolphin
Set in St. Augustine, Florida, Bernie the Dolphin is a better-than-average family adventure about a brother and sister, who use their friendship with a pod of dolphins to investigate a well-financed scheme to construct a chemical plant on a stretch of pristine beach. Using the ruse of building a marine amusement park, instead, the contractors’ rep  (Kevin Sorbo) has inadvertently hired the kids’ father (Patrick Muldoon) to purchase land for the factory. When the kids (Lola Sultan, Logan Allen) raise their suspicions to their parents – based on clandestine surveillance of the rep’s meetings with corrupt officials – they are warned about getting their dad fired. While this is going on, the kids volunteer to work at a local dolphin-rescue facility, where a severely sunburnt member of the pod is being nursed back to health after being beached by a reckless boater. If Bernie the Dolphin’s narrative sounds a tad complicated, if not completely inconceivable, it’s worth knowing that the movie is saved by the young actors’ credibility as amateur sleuths/ninjas and their trusting relationship with their somewhat goofy dad and down-to-earth mom (Sam Sorbo). Their mentor at the care facility (Lily Cardone) is realistically drawn, as well. By combining the movie’s strong environmental message with the frequently humorous antics of the siblings, Kirk Harris’s Bernie the Dolphin becomes the rare family film that should appeal to all family members, regardless of age. The lovely St. Augustine locations serve the story well. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. It must have done well in limited release and PPV, because a sequel is already in the works.

TV-to-DVD
AMC/Acorn: Humans 3.0: Uncut UK Edition:  Blu-ray
PBS: NOVA: Last B-24
PBS:  NOVA: Thai Cave Rescue
PBS: Letters From Baghdad
PBS: We’ll Meet Again, Season 2
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Pawsome Collection
Nickelodeon: Peter Rabbit Springtime Collection
Nickelodeon Shimmer and Shine: Flight of the Zahracorns
Nick Jr.: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Robot Riders
Based on the Swedish science-fiction drama “Real Humans,” the Channel 4/AMC Studios co-production, “Humans” (a.k.a., “HUM∀NS”) explores artificial intelligence and robotics, while focusing on the social, cultural and psychological impact of the invention of anthropomorphic robots called “synths.” Frankly, I hadn’t noticed that the show existed, before receiving the “Humans 3.0” package in the mail from Acorn Media. As such, I have no idea how much footage was trimmed from the UK edition to make room for commercials and cuts for content. (I didn’t notice any offensive material.) Synths were created as convenience tools for people who had run out of time to accommodate to their work, social and family obligations. Naturally, many owners treated their synths as slaves. Others developed a more emotional attachment to them. In “2.0.” we learned that some of them, at least, were built with the ability to achieve consciousness embedded deeply in their software. “3.0” opens one year after a devastating event drives a wedge between the synths and humans, who fear they’ve begun to plan a revolt. A large number of synths are confined to an abandoned railyard, where some hone their technological abilities and others develop a conspiracy. At the same time, a human lawyer, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), fights for synth rights at a high-profile government commission. The glamorous Mia (Gemma Chan) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) run a settlement for sentient synths. But Max is torn between his new role as leader and helping his friend, human-synth hybrid Leo (Colin Morgan). When a bomb destroys an integrated pub, Niska (Emily Berrington) searches for the perpetrator, and what she finds will have monumental consequences for humans and synths, alike. Bonus material includes “Behind the Scenes,” during which cast and crew members discuss what to expect in Series Three and how the characters have changed; “Synths,” in which cast and crew go into depth on all things synth; and “New Characters,” about, you guessed it, the new characters introduced in “3.0.”

The “NOVA” presentation “Last B-24” demonstrates how a new generation of forensic scientists is working feverishly to find and identify soldiers and airmen long considered MIA and, by now, deceased. Although the show’s primary focus is on the Tulsamerican, a B-24 bomber that crashed off the coast of Croatia during World War II, parallel searches involve a B-17 Flying Fortress lost in the section of the Adriatic Sea, and a Red Tail fighter plane piloted by a lost Tuskegee Airman. In the search of the B-24, divers create the same kind of grid forensics scientists and archeologists use in terrestrial digs. The degree of difficulty is markedly higher, due mostly to the corrosive effects of sea water, strong currents and silt. When the B-17 is discovered, the plane is nearly intact. Pentagon bureaucracy makes it difficult for the dive teams to explore the plane’s interior, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The Tuskegee Airman’s remains are relatively easy to locate, on a forested hill on the Austrian border, but the story of racism involving those brave African-American volunteers is simultaneously beyond sad and not a bit surprising. Among other things, the pilots were forced to fly many more missions than their white peers, without much recognition in official releases to the media. In “Thai Cave Rescue,” the “NOVA” team chronicles the efforts made to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand. In July 2018, the world held its breath as an international team of scientists and cave divers struggled to come up with answers for problems they’d never before faced. Follow the harrowing operation and discover the scientific ingenuity that made the rescue possible. Hear how rescuers explored every option, from pumping water, to drilling a new exit, to ultimately cave diving with the children through the treacherous, flooded passages.

Sometimes, an online subscription to the New York Times pays unexpected dividends. After watching Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s intriguing documentary, “Letters from Baghdad,” as well as Werner Herzog’s  Queen of the Desert (2015), I dialed up Gertrude Bell’s name on the Times’ search engine, just to see how far back coverage of this largely unsung explorer and diplomat went in the “paper of record.” The headline over her four-column obituary, which ran on July 18, 1926, next to sketched portrait, read, “GERTRUDE BELL A DESERT POWER: Englishwoman Who Died as Her Cherished Dream Was Fulfilled in Middle East Helped Win the Arabs to Britain.” A year later, over a full-front-page review in the Times Book Review, the headline read, “AN UNCROWNED QUEEN OF ARABIA: Gertrude Bell’s Letters Give The Story Of An Amazing Career.” In 1937, a second collection of Bell’s letters was reviewed and, in 1941, Ronald Bodley and Lorna Hearst’s biography, “Gertrude Bell,” was feted in the same section. When Allied forces decided to kick Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, Bell’s diplomatic efforts in the Iraq were recalled, as well. So, no, Times readers would not be surprised by much in the PBS documentary. It’s likely, however, that outlanders didn’t receive much information about shaping British relations with nations demanding independence from the Crown and its broken promises. What “Letters from Baghdad” does add to the mix is a cornucopia of unseen photographs and home-movie footage (with sound) and readings from the letters by Tilda Swinton. Other actors give voice to the recollections of colleagues and friends, including, among others, T.E. Lawrence, Vita Sackville-West, Lady Florence Bell, Fakhry Jamil, Suleiman Faidhi, Winston Churchill and Mme. Jamil Zadeh. It’s a fascinating program. March being Women’s History Month, any teenager scratching for a noteworthy subject to cover could do worse than turning to the New York Times, “Letters From Baghdad” and Queen of the Desert for their audio-visual presentation.

Today, broadcast reporters can barely contain themselves when the parents of a long-missing child or relative of a POW use the “c” word or is prompted into doing so. Before the word became so overused that it lost most of its meaning, “closure” was a precise way of describing the feeling that comes with closing one bleak chapter in life and opening a brighter new one. The PBS presentation, “We’ll Meet Again,” could just as easily be titled, “Closure,” because that’s the gift given the subjects of each episode. The mini-series, hosted by Ann Curry, explores the lives of everyday Americans who survived moments of great personal trauma, thanks to the humanity shown to them by strangers. Season Two includes powerful stories of the Vietnam War, refugees fleeing Cuba, the great Alaskan earthquake, WWII’s Holocaust, the fight for women’s rights, and brothers in arms during the Korean War. (My Season Two DVD held shows from Season One.) Two-thirds of each episode is devoted to the search for the missing person, while the other third focuses on the reunion, which sometimes is limited to the next of kin. There isn’t a dry eye in the house, including those of viewers.

In the runup to spring and Easter, Nickelodeon is pulling out some of its big guns: the extended-length “PAW Patrol: Pawsome Collection” and “Peter Rabbit Springtime Collection.” The former repackages “PAW Patrol: Sports Day,” “PAW Patrol: Meet Everest” and “PAW Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case.” The latter encourages kids to hop
into a modern take on Beatrix Potter’s classic adventure. They’re invited to join Peter, his cousin Benjamin Bunny and his friend Lily Bobtail for eight charming tales in the Lake District. Help them take on adventures big and small, as the bunnies work together to rescue a friend, catch a trout, help a baby bunny who’s afraid of the dark and make time for a yummy radish snack.

Shimmer and Shine: Flight of the Zahracorns represents the popular Nickelodeon characters’ sixth DVD release. In it, the genies-in-training take to Zahramay Skies for a series of adventures through fluffy clouds and over glittering rainbows. From learning about stardust magic, to discovering the enchanting stars of Zahramay Skies, and participating in the Zahracorn race, Shimmer and Shine’s journeys are always filled with magic and valuable lessons for youngsters. In Nick Jr.’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Robot Riders” fans can join the gang on four adrenaline-pumping adventures, as they transform into robots to save Axle City, rescue T-Rex babies and race through wormholes. The episodes are “Robots to the Rescue,” “T-Rex Trouble,” “Meatball Mayhem” and “Robots in Space.”

The DVD Wrapup: Nutcracker, Always Room For Giallo, Mondo, Hunter Killer, Slice, Night Is Short, Suburbia, Masanjia and more

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Like most other people, the only “Nutcracker” of which I was aware, before tackling Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, was the ballet composed in 1892 by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. And, while I knew that it’s become as much a part of the annual Christmas ritual as presentations of “A Christmas Carol,” I didn’t know that it was based on Alexandre Dumas’ revision of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” For some reason, Disney decided that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms had a better ring to it than “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And, perhaps, that’s where the studio’s expectations for the holiday movie first hit a wall. I have no proof as to whether a title can turn a bad movie into a hit, but, I suspect, a good movie can be hindered by a bad title. What if someone at Paramount thought “The Godfather and the Five Families” would sell more tickets than The Godfather, which, before it was a movie, was a best-seller. Mainstream critics found several more reasons why The Nutcracker and the Four Realms might not be the placeholder Disney hoped it would be when it took over the original release date for the live-action Mulan, now set for March 27, 2020, and next December’s launch of Star Wars: Episode IX. None of them mentioned the title. They had more problems with the length of time it took for the heroine, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), to make her way to the Four Realms and figure out why they needed reunification. There was also the challenge of convincing audiences that the story was more interesting than the music and ballet that generations of little girls and their moms had grown to love. And, while Misty Copeland’s beautifully choreographed interludes add more than a mere touch of class to the 99-minute fantasy, they reduce whatever momentum that co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston managed to build.

The Stahlbaum family is facing a dreary Christmas. The matriarch died earlier in the year and Clara, at least, has no interest in going along with the request by her father (Matthew Macfadyen) to fulfill their social obligations. All she wants to do is find the key that unlocks the ornate silver egg left to her by her mother as a present. During the ball, Clara sneaks away to the workspace belonging to her wondrously inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who created the egg. He points her in the direction of the key, which is promptly stolen by a mouse. She’s led to a mysterious fairyland, where she encounters a nutcracker soldier, Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three of the four sectors: Snowflakes, Flowers and Sweets. Together, Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and return harmony to the unstable world, where her mother is favorably remembered. The wild card here is Keira Knightley’s duplicitous Sugar Plum Fairy. Watching The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in 4K UHD convinced me that 99 minutes wasn’t an inordinately long amount of time for viewers to invest in a movie whose imaginatively designed sets – alternately mechanical, floral, ominous and spectacular – probably were worth the studio’s $120-million  investment, as are the wonderful costumes, hairdos and makeup on display. At the beginning of Copeland’s first ballet sequence, which introduces the story of the Four Realms, conductor Gustavo Dudamel mounts a podium in silhouette and conducts the London Philharmonic. Older viewers will recognize the visual reference from Disney’s Fantasia, which included a segment based on “The Nutcracker Suite.” It’s a nice touch. The separate Blu-ray disc adds a rather slim menu of extras: “On Pointe: A Conversation with Misty Copeland”; “Unwrapping The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” in which cast and crew members discuss set designs, the qualities the various sets added to the film’s themes and how the costumes complement the story; deleted scenes; and the music videos, “Fall on Me,” performed by Andrea and Matteo Bocelli and Matteo Bocelli, and “The Nutcracker Suite” performed by Lang Lang.

Suspiria: Blu-ray
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria has frequently been referred to as a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 original, an Italian supernatural horror film that’s easily mistaken for a giallo. At 152 minutes, though, it’s more of a long homage than a remake. Only purists and genre nerds need quibble over the nomenclature. Guadagnino was the recipient of worldwide critical acclaim, as well as Best Picture nominations from AMPAS and BAFTA, for Call Me by Your Name (2017). The Palermo-born filmmaker also made a name for himself on the arthouse circuit with A Bigger Splash (2015), I Am Love (2009), Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory (2002) and The Protagonists (1999). Plans for a Suspiria reboot were announced in 2008, after Guadagnino acquired the option from Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi. He offered the project to director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), who gathered commitments from several A-listers, but it fell victim to financing conflicts. In 2015, Guadagnino confirmed his plans to direct Suspiria, from a new screenplay drafted by David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash). He began filming only four months after finishing work on Call Me by Your Name. The new script transferred the setting from a ballet academy in Freiberg, Germany, to a modern dance troupe in Berlin, circa 1977. Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) stands in for Jessica Harper, who, in the original, played an American transfer student, who figures out there’s something rotten in Freiburg, when she witnesses another student fleeing the school in terror and larvae falling from the ceiling during dinner. Because of the original’s 98-minute length, Argento wasted little time cutting to the chase, by acknowledging that the dance company is a front for an ancient witch coven. Madness ensues.

The reboot differs from the original in several other noticeable ways, besides the additional length, which allowed Guadagnino and Kajganich a great deal more time to escalate the suspense and focus on the dance company’s preparations for a major recital and disappearance of key performers. Susie’s miraculously quick rise to principal dancer suggests that her talent may be inspired less by her admiration for Madame Blanc (Swinton) than demonic guidance. Meanwhile, police and the runaway girl’s elderly psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton, as Lutz Ebersdorf), become suspicious enough about the missing dancers that they visit the school. It’s then that the strength of the “mother witches” begins to manifest itself in some extremely freaky ways. By the time the performance rolls around, viewers should already have braced themselves for an anything-goes horror show, hypnotically choreographed by Damien Jalet, and with special-makeup effects and prosthetics by Mark Coulier (Candyman). Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name) deviated from Argento and Luciano Tovoli’s brilliantly stylized color scheme by depicting Berlin as a fundamentally drab city not only divided by a wall, but also extreme right- and left-wing politics, terrorism and disparities in the distribution of wealth. Appropriately, Mukdeeprom’ reference point was cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ work in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The other nod to Fassbinder reference came in the casting of his wife and collaborator, Ingrid Caven (The American Soldier), as the company’s spooky housemother, Miss Vendegast.

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was the director’s first choice to compose the score, which, he said, was inspired by Blade Runner; musique concrète artists, such as Pierre Henry; modern electronic artists, including James Holden; and 1977-vintage krautrock. Finally, viewers who’ve made it through Suspira’s barrage of blood and gore will be rewarded with a nice cameo by Harper, whose presence ties up one of story’s lingering Nazi-era threads. Unlike most horror and suspense titles, Suspiria is dominated by women and maternal themes. And, in case anyone’s wondering, Johnson holds her own here, opposite Tilden and other excellent actors and dancers. For newcomers to gialli and Euro-horror of the period, I’d suggest starting with the 1977 version of Suspiria, from Synapse Films, and even more representative genre re-releases from Arrow, Scream Factory, Scorpion, Severin and Kino Lorber. The Blu-ray adds a trio of too-short making-of briefs.

All the Colors of Giallo: Blu-ray
All the Colors of the Dark: Blu-ray
Newcomers to giallo, as well as students of the international cinema, should benefit from Severin’s three-disc documentary, All the Colors of Giallo, which provides all the historical  background a master’s-degree candidate would need for their thesis. Watching the movies themselves is, of course, recommended, but that’s the fun part. Newcomers can learn where these frequently odd pictures fit within the context of films typically relegated to sub-genres encompassing crime, thrillers, horror, grindhouse and exploitation fare, and such kindred influences as Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Michael Powell (Peeping Tom), Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les diaboliques), Hammer Films (Paranoiac) and Sigmund Freud. If American audiences didn’t immediately embrace the genre – despite the presence of such familiar actors as Telly Savalas, Cameron Mitchell, Walter Matthau and Caroll Baker – the blame can be laid less on the stories than to the unfamiliar European settings and actors, garish cinematography, poor dubbing and/or subtitles. Feminists wouldn’t have to look very far to find objectionable portrayals of women as sex objects and vixens, easy targets for serial killers and willing victims of male chauvinism. There’s plenty of violence, but the representations are more lurid than graphic. Today, of course, gialli can appreciated for their technical and storytelling merits, as well as the amazing cinematography and color schemes.

All the Colors of Giallo is nothing, if not comprehensive. It recalls the genre’s pulp-fiction roots – the book jackets favored yellow ink – and its evolution into film, which was interrupted by the dictates of fascism, the liberation by Allied forces and rise of neo-realism, and popularity of German krimi flicks in the 1950s. Giallo also had to wait in line behind such fads as Hercules, Mondo and Spaghetti Westerns to run out of steam. In addition to Federico Caddeo’s feature-length documentary, Disc One of All the Colors of Giallo contains “The Giallo Frames,” an interview with John Martin, editor of “The Giallo Pages”; and four hours of trailers, with commentary by with Kat Ellinger, author of “All the Colors of Sergio Martino.” Disc Two includes “The Case of the Krimi,” with film historian Marcus Stiglegger, and another 90 minutes of trailers, including dozens of adaptations of novels by Edgar Wallace and a couple that starred a very young Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee. Disc Three is taken up by “The Strange Sounds of the Bloodstained Film,” a bonus CD of musical themes compiled by Alfonso Carrillo, of the DJ collective Rendezvous, and remastered by Claudio Fuiano.

Severin has released Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972), a movie that fits within the giallo category easier than Suspiria, while also adding full dollops of witchcraft, Satanism, psychedelia and Freudian dream analysis. Otherwise, it’s as representative an example of giallo as anything by such masters as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Dario Lucio Fulci, Antonio Margheriti and Umberto Lenzi. The most impressive aspect of the film, in my opinion, is the amazing use of color to amplify the things going on in the mind of the female protagonist. Some of it reminded me of the cinematography in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Genre favorite Edwige Fenech plays Jane, a bourgeoise “housewife,” who, after a serious auto accident and miscarriage, is plagued by nightmarish visions of her own bloody death. Her husband (George Hilton) attempts to raise her spirits, but they only lead Jane to suspect that he’s having an affair with her similarly gorgeous sister, Barbara (Nieves Navarro), who wants her to see her psychiatrist. Still largely unhinged, Janes is convinced by a sexy neighbor (Marina Malfatti) to attend a black-magic ceremony, organized by a secret sect. The desperate girl foolishly agrees and soon after her life spins out of control. The cult leader and one of his more psychotic followers manage to get far enough inside Jane’s head that they enter her nightmares as prospective killers, along with her partner and sister. As is typical the case in the best thrillers, it doesn’t pay to assume that the obvious suspects will even be alive at the 95-minute mark. For an actress that many people have dismissed as eye candy, Fenech is excellent as a woman whose paranoia is anything but a figment of her imagination. Martino is well known for toying with genre conventions and, here, his instincts nearly always hit the target. The Blu-ray benefits from the new 4K restoration of the film, from the original negative; the alternate, 88-minute U.S. cut; “Color My Nightmare,” an interview with Martino; “Last of the Mohicans,” an interview with ace screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi; “Giallo Is the Color,” interviews with Hilton and Italian horror expert, Antonio Tentori; and commentary with Ellinger.

Mondo Freudo?/Mondo Bizarro: Blu-ray
Ecco/The Forbidden: Blu-ray
Released in 1962, Mondo Cane (a.k.a., “Tales of the Bizarre: Rites, Rituals and Superstitions”) became such an international box-office sensation that it spawned a subgenre of non-fiction films that were equal parts travelogues, shockumentaries and culturally exploitative. Only a small handful of the sequels demonstrated the filmmakers’ attention to accuracy, truth and respect for the people and cultures represented in the original. In fact, most of the spinoffs were cut from whole cloth, inventing rituals and traditions and exploiting racial stereotypes. Because the world has become a much smaller place than it was in the early 1960s, it’s become much easier to spot a ruse or manufactured incident. A spinoff of the Mondo category was the cannibal film, which went to great to demonstrate the unholy rites of native tribes and their insatiable appetite for blonds from the U.S. and Europe. To that end, Severin Films presents Lee Frost and Bob Cresse’s Mondo Freudo (1996) and Mondo Bizarro (1996), shockumentaries that often crossed the line into schlockumentary and mockumentary territory. In addition to depictions of voodoo rituals in the Bahamas and East Harlem, a narrator gleefully expresses his dismay at S&M clubs and massage parlors in Japan; a fakir braving a bed of nails; the mailroom at Frederick’s of Hollywood; blindfolded swordsmen; and various food-preparation practices. Mondo Bizarro opens in lingerie shop’s dressing room, where women are captured trying on bras and panties from behind a two-way mirror. It was a time in America when most men and boys’ access to naked breasts – all pubic hair is scratched out – was limited to National Geographic, Playboy, foreign art films and midway attractions. There are many more of them on display here, although the models’ amateur status was dubious, at best. After a visit to topless bars in Tijuana, an “Arab slave auction” is staged in Griffith Park’s  Bronson Canyon, which is supposed to remind viewers of Lebanon. Both movies, some of whose scenes are interchangeable, are accompanied by commentary with Johnny Legend and Eric Caidin, and the featurette, “The Cadaver Is Infinity: Bob Cresse, Lee Frost and the Birth of American Mondo,” with Temple of Schlock founder Chris Poggiali.

Cresse adds his sleazy commentary to George Sanders’ narration in Gianni Proia’s Ecco (a.k.a., “This Shocking World”), which was shot in 1963, but seems several times more mature than the previous two Mondo titles. This documentary explores assorted “forbidden” topics from all over the world. Among them are a racy TV commercial for a female martial arts school, rowdy teenagers protesting a strict curfew on the Sunset Strip, an underground lesbian club in Geneva, a portable topless bar, and a London strip clubs featuring virgin dancers. The Forbidden is Frost and Cresse’s 1966 fake Mondo, which, when it isn’t visiting nightclubs catering to Swiss lesbians, Parisian tarts and Nazi strippers, visits an early antiwar demonstration on Sunset Boulevard. newly-transferred from the only known 35mm print in existence. The package adds “The Bandit,” in which producer David Goldstein remembers Cresse, and a short film, “I Want More.”

Hunter Killer: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Donovan Marsh’s contemporary submarine thriller, Hunter Killer, took a drubbing  from critics, largely based on circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers. In it, an untested American submarine captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), teams with U.S. Navy Seals, led by Lieutenant Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens), to rescue the Russian president, Nikolai Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who has been kidnapped by rogue defense minister, Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor). Durov wants to garner public support by triggering a war with U.S. naval forces. After a wildly improbable undersea rescue of a Russian submarine captain, Sergei Andropov (Michael Nyqvist), and his crew, Glass is assigned to breach enemy defenses and coordinate with Beaman, whose surveillance of the Russian naval base has confirmed the specifics of the plot to the satisfaction of American leaders – played by Common, Gary Oldman, Caroline Goodall and Linda Cardellini — monitoring the situation inside the president’s war room. If that scenario sounds far-fetched, it’s because Hunter Killer, which was based on the 2012 novel, “Firing Point,” by Don Keith and George Wallace, strains credulity throughout. Production began three months before Donald Trump was elected president, thanks, in no small part, to the interference of Russian hackers, with the blessings of Vladimir Putin. Although the saber-rattling continues, it doesn’t appear likely that Putin will be the target of a coup attempt any time soon. Any resemblance between Zakarin and Putin is strictly limited to their ability to speak Russian. Once one recognizes the improbability of anything in Hunter Killer playing out in real life the way it does on screen, however, the easier it is to sit back and enjoy the tension-filled story. (Was the ending of The Hunt for Red October any more realistic?) The real excitement comes in trying to figure out how the filmmakers are going to pull it off. Or, maybe, I’m just a sucker for submarine movies. Even if the native Scotsman, Butler, is dead-ringer for Mel Gibson facially and vocally, he fits the role of a naval officer who’s never spent a minute at Annapolis, but knows the abilities and limitations of his ship as well as any college-educated captain. There are other inconsistencies, but, even at 122 minutes, Hunter Killer doesn’t feel padded. The 4K UHD and Dolby Vision HDR bring out the nighttime and underwater scenes, while the Dolby Atmos audio track helps with the pings, pongs and silent moments. It adds Marsh’s commentary and the 24-minute featurette, “Surface Tension: Declassifying Hunter Killer.”

The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl: Blu-ray
Lu Over the Wall
Anyone who thinks that animated features from Japan are limited to stories that use children, fairies and forest animals to teach life lessons to adults, or wacky sci-fi adventures, might want to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. Adapted by Makoto Ueda from a popular YA novel by Tomihiko Morimi – the trio previously collaborated on the animated mini-series, The Tatami Galaxy – the coming-of-age story reminds me of something John Hughes might have written for Molly Ringwald, after her graduation from high school. Otome (a.k.a., Girl with Black Hair) is a student at Kyoto University, as is Seipei, a boy who’s determined to profess his love for her … but is having trouble getting near enough to do so, in a “coincidental” way. Like sophomores everywhere, Otome is an adult in most ways that matter, but is waiting to turn 21 for a blowout evening with her friends. On this particular night, however, she commits herself to getting pie-eyed drunk on cocktails with flowery names and boogying until the cows come home. Despite being a novice, Otome can hold her own against the local boozers and eccentrics she encounters, without appearing to be any worse for the wear. Meanwhile, Seipei is experiencing the opposite of fun, as his attempts to court the Girl With Black Har inevitably hit roadblocks. The hand-drawn cells are vividly rendered, reflecting Otome’s moments of joy, exhilaration and lightheadedness. Funny and extremely inventive, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl arrives on Blu-ray with a PG-13 rating intended to keep the kiddies, usually attracted to anime, from any premature lessons in debauchery. It adds an interview with the director.

Yuasa scored an extremely rare double when his second 2018 release, Lu Over the Wall, was submitted alongside The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl for consideration for this year’s Oscar as Best Animated Feature. They were among more than a half-dozen animated titles from Pacific Rim countries included in the list of 25. (Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs was based on a story by Anderson, Kunichi Nomura, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. It is set on an island off the city of Megasaki, Japan.) Last week, Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai was nominated alongside Isle of Dogs, Incredibles 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Ralph Breaks the Internet. It’s a formidable list, dominated by studio products. What makes Yuasa’s accomplishment so special is the time it takes to create one animated feature, from conception to release, let alone two. Although Lu Over the Wall and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl share several visual qualities, as well as fanciful storylines, they’re very different movies. For one thing, there’s nothing in “Lu” that can’t be enjoyed by family members over the age of, say, 8 or 9. The other concerns the musical content in “Lu,” which some might consider to be a rock opera. In it, new-kid Kai is a talented, but almost morbidly shy boy, who spends his days sulking and isolated in the small fishing village to which his parents just moved.  When Kai demonstrates a proficiency at making music on a synthesizer, his classmates invite him to join their nascent garage band. Their sound doesn’t begin to gel, until a young mermaid, Lu, lends her voice and enthusiasm to the compositions. Superstitious locals, including his umbrella-maker grandfather, have had a long, if not always happy relationship with the merfolk in their midst. They’ve even gone so far as to create a wall between the species. In light of Lu’s contributions to the band, it behooves the adults to reconsider their hostility to the merfolk. But, you old prejudices die hard. As in “Night Is Short,” Yuasa isn’t timid when it comes to making dramatic shifts in artistic styles and color palettes in “Lu.” Hayao Miyazaki, who just turned 78, recently came out of retirement for a couple of projects. Any fear that he won’t be able to pass his baton to a new generation of Japanese animators should no longer exist. The bonus features include commentary and an interview with Yuasa.

Slice
Blood Brother: Blu-ray
It wasn’t so long ago that such genre spoofs as The Groove Tube, Police Squad!, Airplane!, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle and Scary Movie ruled the nation’s multiplexes, skewering the kind of clichés and tropes that helped several generations of Hollywood screenwriters overcome writer’s block. The best ones would inspire any number of copycat comedies on television: like “Reno 911!,” “Another Period,” “Party Down,” “Children’s Hospital,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Angie Tribeca.” One of the things that made these shows work was the surplus of actors in L.A., who had honed their craft in such improv troupes as the Groundlings, the State, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City. Moreover, the actors willingly shared their spotlight with other improv veterans and created material for niche websites, including “Funny or Die,” that keep us laughing through our tears at the antics of brain-dead politicians, the media’s obsession with celebrities, overpaid athletes and the banality of everyday life, as reflected in sitcoms, tabloids and the nightly news. I didn’t know what to expect from Austin Vesely’s debut feature, Slice. The prominence of Chance the Rapper’s face on posters for the movie made me think that Slice might be yet another side project for bored hip-hop artists. On closer inspection, however, I was buoyed by the presence of Paul Sheer (“The League”), Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”), Rae Gray (“Fear of the Walking Dead”), Chris Parnell (“Happy Together”), Hannibal Buress (“Broad City”) and Katherine Cunningham  (“Condor”), none of whom could be mistaken for chopped liver. Like Chance the Rapper (a.k.a., Chance Bennett), many of the actors have strong Chicago roots. Beetz and Chance both have worked alongside Donald Glover, on “Atlanta” or one his Childish Gambino projects. Buress appeared in Chance’s music video “NaNa” and Vesely directed several other videos for the artist and philanthropist. Despite his marquee value, Chance spends a lot of screen time wearing a motorcycle helmet with a smoky face shield. As for the story, let’s just say that Mel Brooks probably would have taken a pass on Slice. It’s a faux mystery, in which someone is murdering pizza deliverers in a typical Midwestern town – it was shot in Joliet — where werewolves, ghosts and zombies co-exist with humans and the mayor has reasons of his own to keep the citizenry happy. Slice might have benefitted from one or two fewer subplots, but, at 83 minutes, Vesely’s gags hit pay dirt more often than they fizzle. The DVD adds commentary and deleted scenes.

There are several prominent rappers, singers and wrestlers in WWE Studio’s Blood Brother. None of them emerge from the experience as unscathed as Chance the Rapper, who made it through Slice without being taxed too heavily by Vesely. Unlike 50 Cent, Method Man, Ludacris, Common, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Will Smith and other male rappers, who didn’t miss a beat when they began acting in TV shows and movies, Chance’s biggest contribution to the movie was his name and visage on the marketing material. The same can’t be said for Trey Songz and Fetty Wap, singer/actor China Anne McClain (“Descendants”) and WWE star Ron Killings (a.k.a., R-Truth), all of whom succumb to a half-baked script. The only thing that really matters in Blood Brother is action and badassery, some of which gets lost in the muddled narrative. The movie opens with a quartet of teenage taggers, the Demons, escaping down an alley to avoid an angry business owner. Out of nowhere comes an armored truck and carload of crooks, speeding toward a devastating crash. The only survivor is a black guard, who’s ruthlessly slain by the only white kid, Jake (Jack Kasy), in the gang. The others get away with a small fortune in loot. Flash forward 15 years and Sonny (Songz) is a cop, shown waiting outside of a prison to pick up his old partner-in-crime, Jake, who clearly hasn’t been rehabilitated. During the next 24 hours, Jake murders a half-dozen innocent residents of New Orleans, as well as a few not-so-innocent hoodlums. Jake’s harbored 15 years of resentment for Sonny, his oldest friend and confidante, blaming him for letting him take the fall in the robbery. Somehow, he’d forgotten that he’d murdered a guard in cold blood, with his own service weapon, and deserved a life sentence, without parole. To Jake, it no longer matters that Sonny is perfectly willing to relinquish the money he’s hidden for the last 15 years, only that he be outed as the monster Jake thinks he is. It leads to several aborted head-to-head showdowns between the old friends, who chase each other around the city as if their cars were linked by GPS. Naturally, Jake has also threatened Sonny by making nice to his wife’s teenage sister, Darcy (McClain), and taunting him about his ex-wife (Tanee McCall). No one on the police force is aware of Sonny’s continued link to the Demons, through the hidden money, and why he manages to show up ahead of the cops at murder scenes. Director John Pogue (The Quiet Ones) is left with building to a final showdown – remember, this all takes place over a 24-hour period – that ostensibly is designed to seal Sonny’s fate. On the plus side, Kesy is extremely credible as the psychopathic ex-con with a one-track mind and death wish. (When did crooks become so emotionally attached to their crimes: why not take the money and run?) Their face-to-face confrontations are pretty effective, albeit redundant after the first two.

Suburbia: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Two years after Penelope Spheeris documented the burgeoning Los Angeles punk-rock scene, in The Decline of Western Civilization, producer Roger Corman recruited her for Suburbia, a theatrical movie that frequently looks like a sequel to her documentary. (Eventually, Spheeris would add two more chapters.) In it, she locates a small community of runaways, dopers and anarchists, illegally squatting in houses abandoned ahead of the construction of, what else, a freeway. Although some of the kids aren’t averse to breaking the law to gather food and other essentials, most are too stoned to bother, preferring to contribute in other ways. The living conditions are bared-boned and squalid, but preferable to the tense domestic situations they had escaped. Their dogs are nearly as feral as they are. (A child is killed by a stray in Suburbia’s opening scene.) At night, the kids to whom we’re introduced – not all of whom are actors – work out their frustrations in the mosh pits of punk-rock concerts. Much of drama evolves from a growing hostility between the squatters and a group of crudely drawn rednecks, who fancy themselves to be protectors of middle-class morality and red-white-and-blue values. The most prominent cast members are musicians Chris Pedersen and Flea. Bands include D.I., T.S.O.L. and The Vandals. As usual, the kids will prove to be their own worst enemies. Realistically gritty and frequently uncomfortable to watch, Suburbia is a long way from Spheeris’ teen-culture phenomenon, Wayne’s World (1992). It benefits from a fresh 4K remaster of the film; commentaries with Spheeris, individually, and Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay; and a stills gallery.

Screamers: Blu-ray
When Philip K. Dick died, on March 2, 1982, only two of his short stories had made the journey from page to screen … the small one. When Blade Runner was released, a few months after his passing, only sci-fi buffs recognized the resemblance to the author’s 1968 short novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” despite his name on the credit roll. Another eight years would pass before Total Recall, adapted from his 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” once again raised his profile in Hollywood. Screamers was released in 1995, between Jérôme Boivin’s French-language Confessions d’un Barjo (1992) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). Just before that, audiences and critics helped Dimension Films’ Imposter (2002) lay an extremely expensive egg. Last year, Amazon Prime offered subscribers two separate mini-series, based on Dick’s works: “Electric Dreams” and “The Man in the High Castle.” If more adaptations haven’t been attempted, it’s probably because of the complexity and intellectualism of Dick’s ideas and characters. Nearly 50 years before scientists, futurists and ethicists began debating whether our increased dependence on robotics might soon backfire on humanity, Dick’s books dealt with similarly crucial issues. Studio executives have traditionally shown a reluctance to fund genre movies that put ideas ahead of action. Dan O’Bannon (Alien) had been working on a screenplay for Screamers as early as 1981. When the project fell through, Dick’s estate made it difficult for anyone else to pick it back up. More than a decade would pass before Canadian producer Tom Berry was able to obtain the rights to the 1953 cautionary tale, “Second Variety.” In it, the U.S. and United Nations make a last-ditch stand against Soviet forces from a base on the moon. Outmanned by the Russkies, UN engineers develop weapons and prosthetics that rely on advanced robotic technology. Inevitably, the robots’ artificial intelligence develops the capacity to create weapons of their own, with which they attack humans and other robots.

To save money, Berry rounded up a group of film-school graduates from his alma mater, Montreal’s Concordia College, including director Christian Duguay (Scanners II/III), and acquired funds from Triumph Films, a division of Sony Pictures. The budget would be tight, but manageable in Canada. Miguel Tejada-Flores (The Revenge of the Nerds) revised O’Bannon’s screenplay, by resetting it on a distant planet devastated by a war between an Alliance of scientists and miners, and NEB mercenaries financed by mining companies profiting from a toxic energy source. Although most of the fighting had already taken place, robotic flesh-seeking weapons (Autonomous Mobile Swords) and armed humanoids were left behind, as was a squadron of Alliance soldiers. The AMS weapons are nicknamed “screamers” because of a high-pitched noise they emit as they attack from just below the surface of the land. Screamers track targets by their heartbeats, so Alliance soldiers wear “tabs,” which broadcast a signal canceling out the wearer’s heartbeat and rendering them “invisible” to the “swords.” A message, purportedly from Earth, arrives at Alliance headquarters, alerting the soldiers to a ceasefire and negotiations. The leader is ordered to return to Earth, but, first, he’ll be required to trek to a NEB stronghold, where a rocket transport is located. The problem for Hendricksson (Peter Weller) and his associate comes in knowing which of the enemy’s weapons they can defuse with their tabs and the difference between killer androids and NEB soldiers awaiting war’s end. (Former model Jennifer Rubin plays a soldier who could pass for both.) Duguay does a nice job keeping the guessing game going for most of Screamers’ 108-minute length, thanks in large part to an almost painfully noisy audio track. Wintertime Quebec looked desolate enough to pass for a combat zone on the planet Sirius 6B, circa 2078. If Screamers didn’t make much money in its initial release, it attained cult status on VHS and DVD. As usual, the bonus material produced by Scream Factory is informative and entertaining. It includes separate interviews with Duguay, Berry, Rubin and Tejada-Flores.

Letter From Masanjia
Watching Leon Lee’s disturbing documentary, Letter From Masanjia, I couldn’t help but recall the urban myth about a note purportedly found inside a fortune cookie that says, “Help, I’m trapped inside a Chinese fortune cookie factory!” The reason most such myths, legends and folklore persist is because they’re usually too good not be true and we willingly suspend our disbelief to maintain the delusion. In 2012, a letter, written in English and Chinese, was discovered inside a box of Halloween decorations purchased by Oregon resident Julie Keith from a local Kmart. It said essentially the same thing as the note in the fabled fortune cookie, but in many more words and much greater detail. The message had been clandestinely written two years earlier by an inmate of the notorious Masanjia labor camp, in far northeast China, where the principle of “re-education through labor” was used to punish dissidents, Falun Gong disciples and petty criminals. Their work also paid dividends to the Communist Party functionaries who dealt with foreign companies – including Sears Holdings’ Kmart subsidiary – that had no qualms about profiting from such arrangements. After U.S. news outlets learned about Keith’s discovery, however, it created the kind of firestorm that Chinese authorities abhor. After the story broke on the Internet, reforms in the re-education campaign were announced. The movie vividly describes the punishment received by the letter-writer, Sun Yi, and others caught defying camp rules. It also follows up on his efforts to live a normal life after his release. Despite a poignant reunion with the recipient of the letter, there would be no happy ending for Sun Yi.

TV-to-DVD
Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic: Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Dogs in the Land of Lions
Way back in the early 1950s, studio executives expressed concerns over the possibility their audiences would abandon theaters for the comfort of watching television in their living rooms. For a while, it looked as if they might be right. Their fears dissipated after certain realities became evident. For the most part, early television shows were little more than radio shows with pictures. The scope and grandeur of a Hollywood movie – especially biblical epics — couldn’t be equaled on the small screen. Despite the restrictions imposed by the Hays Office, filmmakers benefitted from certain freedoms that sponsors of television shows prohibited even the best directors. And, apart from guest appearances on variety shows, movie stars shied away from any commitments to television. All of that would change, but not before network execs decided that it would be more economical to produce movies of their own, instead of paying for the privilege of transferring Hollywood products to the small screen and annoying viewers with commercials. Likewise, the cost of rerunning such fare was nil. The so-called movies-of-the-week frequently served as testing grounds for proposed shows and actors not quite ready for prime time.  As a bonus, the writers of these teleplays found ways to address social ills of interest to viewers in the key demographics. Some courted controversy, while disease-of-the-week movies exploited viewer fears of illnesses causing premature death and disfigurement. Newly released on Blu-ray, the 1975 message film, “Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic,” remains one of the most memorable of these pictures. Like the NBC World Premiere Movie, “Born Innocent,” it starred Linda Blair, who, a year earlier, played the possessed daughter of a famous actress, in The Exorcist (1973). In it, Blair’s character is a 14-year-old runaway, who, after getting arrested one too many times, is banished to girls’ juvenile detention center, where she’s raped in a communal shower scene. Before the gruesome depiction of girl-on-girl sexual abuse was excised from future airings, it was loudly criticized by the National Organization for Women, the New York Rape Coalition and numerous gay and lesbian rights organizations. Such was the growing power of television. Also, in 1975, Blair played a semi-literate farm girl kidnapped by a fugitive mental patient, in ABC’s “Sweet Hostage.” Because of her “brainwashing” by her captor, Blair would be credited with introducing the Stockholm Syndrome theory to Americans, along with Patty Hearst and Al Pacino, in Dog Day Afternoon. It wasn’t until she played the lead in 1979’s Roller Boogie that Blair was given a too-rare respite from horror and crime flicks.

As the title character in “Sarah T,” Blair demonstrates how an innocent 15-year-old girl from the suburbs might get to the point in her young life where her only salvation comes at AA meetings. As tawdry as that might sound, “Sarah T” doesn’t pin the blame solely on a desire to fit in with her peers. Her alcoholic father (Larry Hagman) is forced to shoulder much of the responsibility, as are her mother (Verna Bloom) and stepfather (William Daniels), who never met a cocktail they didn’t like. Just as the adults in her life rely on booze to cure their ills and share their happiness with others, Sarah begins to drink to overcome her inferiority complex and raise her comfort level around boys. Before she knows what’s happening to her, Sarah’s stealing alcohol from her parents and those of the kids she babysits. Everything goes downhill from there. “Sarah T” doesn’t offer simple solutions to what, viewers are told, is a growing epidemic among teens. Most of the credit for the non-exploitative approach to the subject matter goes to writers Richard and Esther Shapiro (“Dynasty”) and director Richard Donner, who’d spent the 1960s at the helm of television Westerns and crime dramas. Immediately after “Sarah T,” Donner found big-screen success with The Omen, Superman and their sequels. It’s easy to see his touch allowed “Sarah T” to rise above the made-for-TV pack. The Shout!Factory package is enhanced by a new 2K scan of original film elements; a stills gallery; and lengthy interviews with Blair, and Donner and producer David Levinson.

No one travels all the way to Africa to study the habits of dogs, even those distantly related to the pets they left behind at home. Unless memory fails me, I can’t remember visiting any zoo that exhibits wild dogs captured on the savannah or raised in captivity. Kennels and pet shops, only. No, only the so-called big cats have earned the distinction of being tourist attractions. And, all they had to do was act naturally. PBS’ “Nature: Dogs in the Land of Lions” doesn’t attempt to make a case for the worthiness of African wild dogs – also known as the painted hunting dog – to be mentioned in the same breath as lions, cheetahs and leopards. In fact, it’s quick to point out that the dogs have become endangered, in large part due to their precarious relationship to lions, with whom they compete for prey and habitat in the Zimbabwe bush. Their battle for survival is well-documented by cinematographer Kim Wolhuter (“The Cheetah Children”), who spent two years capturing the habits of a large family of wild dogs, all of whom share a common mother, “Puzzle.” While the pups provide some light-hearted moments, viewers are constantly reminded of their precarious future, as well as their ferocious loyalty to the pack and ability to hunt much larger wildebeest.

The DVD Wrapup: Mikey & Nicky, Apparition, Widowed Witch, Dis, Spiral, Wandering Muse, Jack the Ripper, Howling 3, Eating Animals, Scoundrels, Waterworld … More

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Mikey and Nicky: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Not being well-versed in the way such things work in New York, these days, I can only wonder if Criterion Collection timed the release of Mikey and Nicky with the concurrent salute to writer/director Elaine May, at the Film Forum, and her performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” on Broadway. As coincidences go, anyway, it’s a welcome one. Released in 1976, Mikey and Nicky starred Peter Falk and John Cassavetes – the arthouse equivalent of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin – as a pair of childhood friends, who, as adults, are foot soldiers in the army of a Jewish mobster (Sanford Meisner), based in Philadelphia. They survive by taking orders and playing by the rules, not interpreting them as they see fit. As the picture opens, Nicky (Cassavetes) is holed up in a seedy hotel, deranged by the likelihood that he’s being targeted for assassination for overstepping his bounds in the murder of a bookie. He’s summoned Mikey (Falk) to help him make it through the night. At first, it’s possible to assume that Nicky is suffering from a gunshot or knife wound, even though there’s no evidence of bloodshed. Instead, his ordeal is being complicated by an ulcer. There’s just enough humor in their early exchanges to think that Mikey and Nicky might eventually play out as an improvisational gangland bromance, like Husbands (1970), but without kindred spirit Ben Gazzara. Instead, as the two men venture deeper into the neon-lit night and three decades’ worth of memories, the characters’ shallowness overwhelms any hope for comic relief. Nicky is, indeed, being hunted by a hitman (Ned Beatty), who’s becoming increasingly impatient with his target’s unpredictable antics. How Mikey fits within the big picture hasn’t been made clear, yet. Today, audiences can watch May’s third directorial effort without expecting an offbeat, if frequently dark romcom, as were The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf. In 1976, that wasn’t the case. Two years later, some of the same viewers would wait 90 minutes for the laughs to come in Woody Allen’s Bergman-esque Interiors … to no avail.

Cassavetes and Falk may fit the mold of small-time wise guys, but the characters’ likability factor decreases from the moment May ratchets up the dial on Nicky’s booze-fueled paranoia. It plummets even further during their visits to former wives and girlfriends, who act as if they expect to be slapped around, fucked and forsaken. After two hours, any pent-up sympathy we might have for the actors playing these despicable characters has completely disappeared. It isn’t an accident or a false step on May’s part, however. It’s entirely possible that she intended Mickey and Nicky to be a corrective portrait of the charismatic mobsters depicted in Mean Streets and The Godfather. In fact, May had conceived the story in the mid-1950s, even as she was emerging as one of improvisational comedy’s most talented practitioners, with Mike Nichols and the Compass Players. In their comments in the bonus material, critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey point out how Mikey and Nicky can be seen an example of toxic masculinity and the “seductive power of abusers.” Simply taken as a story about the brotherhood of criminals, it also provides a prime example of the cost of betrayal. It is, of course, the ultimate sin a wise guy can commit, whether it constitutes ratting out an associate or modifying an order to fit one’s own purposes. As impressively constructed as it is, Mickey and Nicky remains difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy. The acting, though, is worth the effort of enduring some visceral discomfort. Also included is an interesting 1976 radio interview with Falk; new chats with distributer Julian Schlossberg and co-star Joyce Van Patten; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by Nathan Rabin.

The Apparition
For me, one of the most endearing aspects of the Roman Catholic Church is its willingness to accept that miracles are a fact of religious culture and demonic possession can be eradicated. The Vatican spends millions of dollars annually to verify the veracity of apparitions reported by members of the flock and attempts to evict the devil from stricken souls through exorcisms. Perhaps, if the Church had allocated a few more millions of dollars into the pursuit and eradication of sexually abusive priests, it might not be in the same sad shape it’s in today. The Apparition is a frequently compelling ecclesiastical thriller about a dedicated French war correspondent, Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon), who is recruited by the Vatican to join in a clerical investigation of a possible miracle. The movie was inspired by the true story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, a 14-year-old girl, who, in the late 1850s, experienced 18 visitations by the Virgin Mary. After a rigorous investigation, Church authorities confirmed the authenticity of the apparitions, as well as dozens of “inexplicable” cures verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau. The faithful still line up to experience the phenomenon. In Xavier Giannoli’s contemporary drama, co-written with Jacques Fieschi (Place Vendôme) and Marcia Romano (Marguerite, with Giannoli), Mayano was chosen by Vatican authorities for his humanitarian dispatches from war zones around the world. He’s been in a state of depression – accompanied by severe ear damage – since the death of his photographer and friend in an explosion. Unlike the other members of the panel, he employs journalistic techniques in his investigation.

Even before the study could begin, tens of thousands of worshippers and curiosity-seekers descended on the rural French village where the sightings reportedly occurred. Vatican officials know that it wouldn’t be the first time a miracle was staged to raise money for a city or church that didn’t particularly care how the funds were derived. Here, an otherwise normal teenager, Anna (Galatéa Bellugi), claims to have been told by the Virgin to build a “home for her son” built on the site, where the faithful could pray for world peace and the power of love and compassion. After keeping the visitations to herself, Anna felt compelled to share them with the local priest, Père Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumçao), who intuitively knew what to do with them and wasn’t beholden to anyone in Rome. Determined to protect her from the outside world, Borrodine accepted Anna as a novitiate. His dodgy associate, Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman), hopes to monetize the miracle through the Internet and social media. As rumors of the miraculous event spread throughout Europe, Borrodine decided to satisfy the growing crowds of worshippers by trotting out Anna for daily processions. For his part, Meyer creates a gift shop, full of trinkets and statuary for the girl to bless, although she resists the request. At one of the services, Anna appears to take a shine to Mayano. She will provide him with additional access for questioning and even sneak out of the convent for more casual discussions. There’s nothing sexual in them, although Borrodine infers that the journalist might be taking advantage of her and, of course, wonder when this shoe may drop. (Cynical viewers might also anticipate a visitation by a monstrous satanic creature, which, blessedly, never materializes.) In his search for Anna’s friends, relatives and fellow witnesses, Jacques comes across a relic from a war zone – a Madonna with her eyes scratched out – that is exactly like one his friend photographed in Syria. Discovering it in the home of one of Anna’s closest friends, who’s since disappeared, makes the reporter shutter at the possibilities of such a discovery. The rest, dear readers, is a path littered with potholes and spoilers. All I can say is that the shift in narrative direction closes one loophole, while opening another. The Apparition is for viewers who don’t mind suspending more than two hours’ worth of disbelief in the service of a story that’s provocative, suspenseful and well-acted.

The Widowed Witch
Last week, in this space, the centerpiece DVD was Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch, a tragi-comic story about the plight of Zambian women and girls convicted of being possessed with supernatural powers. Unlike the 200-plus women and men of Salem, Massachusetts, who faced execution on charges of witchcraft in 1692, the African women are required to live in a virtual purgatory on Earth, tethered to a truck to prevent them from using their powers to “fly away” from work camps. Cai Chengjie’s debut feature, The Widowed Witch, provides yet another example of how ancient superstitions are used to punish women who deviate from the norm. It is set during winter in a desolate corner of Hebei province in northern China. The streams and fields are frozen over and the locals are reduced to huddling in their modest homes, drinking tea and waiting for the first signs of spring to arrive. Until then, gossip is one of the few escapes from reality left to them. Into this bleak portrait of life in a country otherwise known for overcrowded cities, non-stop motion and rationale behavior arrives a woman whose reputation precedes her. Er Hou (Tian Tian) recently emerged from a coma, in the home of a relative who rescued her from the ruins of an illegal fireworks factory she ran with her late husband. After she recovers a bit from injuries sustained in the explosion at the plant, the relative decides that she’s healthy enough to be raped. Because it was an unauthorized factory, Er Hou doesn’t expect protection from police or, for that matter, compensation from the government or subsidized housing. It forces her to seek shelter from less-repulsive family members and relatives of her three deceased husbands. And, aye, there’s the rub. In the minds of the people she encounters, any woman capable of surviving the accidental deaths of three spouses can only be a witch or a shaman … preferably the latter.

Clever enough to exploit an opening when she finds one, Er Hao takes advantage of several coincidental incidents to win the admiration of local men, who agree to share their food and shelter with her. In one instance, Er Hao is assigned the task of tending to an elderly man, who hasn’t left his bed for at least a year. To overcome the stench, she prepares a hot bath for him in a converted oil drum. After accidentally leaving him in boiling water overnight, the old man is relieved of his paralysis. The discovery of a frilly bra among Er Hao’s belonging is deemed sufficient cause for punishment by local women jealous of her hold on their husbands. Knowing that her coat is made of a Kevlar-like material, Er Hao taunts one of the women into shooting her. After recovering from the impact of the bullet, she miraculously recovers before their eyes. Er Hao’s softer side is visible in exchanges with her last husband’s mute 10-year-old brother, Shitao (Wen Xinyu), who’s been handed over to her by her parents. Together, they inhabit a RV that doesn’t provide much protection from the frigid winds. Finally, they find a spot, further in the wilderness, where other shamans gather. Like Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (2017), The Widowed Witch is the rare Chinese film whose use of magical realism and frank examples of the oppression of women was given a pass by normally overbearing censors. Freshman cinematographer Feng Jiao’s depiction of winter in the boonies – black and white, with occasional splashes of color – is appropriately chilling.

Dis: Blu-ray
Adrian Corona’s Dis packs more gratuitous nudity, gore and depravity into its 61-minute length than most movies twice as long. That should come as good news to fans of such things, as well as a warning to viewers drawn to emerging genre icon Bill Oberst Jr. (Circus of the Dead). Anyone uncomfortable in the presence of real horror and torture porn would do well to sit this one out. Oberst plays a former soldier, with a sketchy past, who’s taken refuge from civilization in a dense tropical jungle. He’s lured to the concrete ruins of a building by a topless figure that shifts her shape before his eyes. Inside, the demon has constructed a grimy torture chamber, where naked women are tormented, apparently for the pleasure of Corona’s viewers. Turns out, the monster is in pursuit of the “seed of killers and blood of the damned to feed his mandrake garden.” In today’s Internet biology lesson, I learned that mandrakes display hallucinogenic and narcotic properties, and can cause poisoning when ingested. Because their roots often resemble human figures, they have been associated with a variety of superstitious practices and pagan rituals throughout history. Here, Corona added several gooey gimmicks to the legend, as well as Lori Jo Hendrix’s otherworldly physique. Bonus features include a still gallery, interview with Oberst, an introduction by the director and behind-the-scenes material.

Spiral: Blu-ray
After the conclusion of World War II and liberation of Nazi death camps, it probably felt safe for survivors to imagination a future free of anti-Semitism and genocide. We all know how long that lasted, however. Today, of course, the stain of sectarian violence and religious intolerance covers most of Europe and is spreading through the U.S. While it’s easy to blame some of the hatred on the continuing unrest in Israel and Palestine — including the construction of illegal settlements, the wall, rocket attacks, terrorist activity, poverty and unemployment — anti-Semitism wasn’t invented in the 20th Century and isn’t reserved for Israel. Laura Fairrie’s 79-minute documentary, Spiral, describes how an escalation of physical attacks, verbal assaults and terrorist attacks has prompted tens of thousands of European Jews to emigrate to Israel. That, in turn, complicates the situation in the Holy Land, where expectations of safety and peace can only be realized through measures distasteful to many of them. In portraying the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France, Spiral focuses on the experiences of individuals, including Muslims, on both sides of the conflicts that have fueled the escalation. Needless to say, this approach has had its limitations. Some of the most striking evidence derives from children, who suffer from fears of violence they don’t understand and being uprooted to escape it. Moving to settlements on barren hilltops, surrounded by people you’ve been taught to hate and fear, doesn’t feel like much of a solution. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A.

The Wandering Muse
The title of Tamas Wormser’s musical documentary, The Wandering Muse, could refer to anyone from Alan-a-Dale to Woody Guthrie. The tagline, “From Ram’s Horn to Beatbox, Music of the Jewish Diaspora,” not only ties the documentary to the legend of the wandering Jew, but also the music’s ability to bridge the historical past and contemporary motifs. Unlike modern klezmer music, which has proven flexible enough to incorporate jazz and disparate folk traditions, the musicians represented in The Wandering Muse reflect “the nomadic soul wandering in a borderless world of harmonies.” As the tagline implies, the instruments on display range from the most basic – the ram’s horn – to sounds created digitally in an electronic box. The songs  run the gamut from cantorial and ceremonial, to hip-hop and jazz, with some performed by costumed singers. Neither was Wormser limited to concert stages and synagogues. Like Ry Cooder (Buena Vista Social Club), Les Blank (Hot Pepper) and Bela Fleck (Throw Down Your Heart), Wormser took his cameras to where traditional music is as fresh as anything on the Billboard charts. It took him eight years, but the hard work and travel paid dividends. In constant motion, The Wandering Muse is a series of encounters with Jewish musicians from around the world: an alternative Argentinean bar, where two friends play tango-infused klezmer; in rural Uganda, where villagers chant Hebrew prayers in East African harmonies; at a Montreal party, where an artist mixes hip-hop and jazz with multilingual cantorial singing; and in a Berlin apartment, where an American harmonizes with a Russian friend in a rendition of an anti-Zionist song from the 1920s. One needn’t be Jewish to enjoy The Wandering Jew – the music speaks for itself – but an understanding of the linkage between religious and folk traditions is useful.  If the documentary is difficult to find, try wanderingmuse.net, the “online component of Artesian Films’ multiplatform project that explores the vibrant array of Jewish music.” The DVD adds lots of deleted musical scenes.

Henri
If it weren’t for a near-death cameo by Burt Reynolds, a lazy appearance by Eric Roberts and the prospect of watching the extensively tattooed Robert LaSardo in a lead role, I can’t imagine why any distributor would find a reason to release Henri. Octavian O’s martial-arts romance defines the old phrase, Amateur Night in Dixie. Since the veteran actors are promoted on the DVD’s cover, though, the movie’s fair game. We meet the title character (Eli Zen) as the deer he’s feeding is killed by a group of rednecks who ride roughshod over the town. Turns out, the mild-mannered Henri was raised in a monastery in the Far East and now lives in a swamp in southern Florida. Apart from one family, Henri is alone in the world. Over a dinner, for which the hostess is unprepared for the guest of honor’s distaste for meat, Henri takes a shine to Ashley (Lori Katz). A pretty blond with doe eyes, Ashley works behind the counter at the local convenience mart, where she’s harassed on a daily basis by one of the deer murderers. Humiliated by Ashley’s preference for Henri, the dude retaliates by raping and beating his fantasy girlfriend in the store’s bathroom … blessedly, off-screen. Like Billy Jack before him, Henri decides to break his vow of non-violence by kicking the crap out of the rednecks, who are related by birth to Roberts’ good-ol’-boy character. As sheriff, LaSardo is reluctant to take on the brothers-from-another-mother, for the sole reason that he’s screwing the rapist’s mother. The bottom line here is that no one, with the exception of the aforementioned stars, knows how to act and that includes the guy who plays Henri (Eli Zen). Apparently, Reynolds has at least one more movie in the can. One can only pray he looks healthier in it than he does in Henri.

Jack the Ripper: Blu-ray
10 to Midnight: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Cobra: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Dozens of movies have featured characters inspired directly or indirectly by the killings attributed to Jack the Ripper. Most of them have been made after 1960, when the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho opened the gates for more graphic depictions of violence in the cinema. Less known is Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman’s Jack the Ripper, which opened in London a full year earlier than Psycho was released in the U.S., and was controversial, as well, for its depictions of knifings. After both black-and-white movies cleared the various censorship boards and Psycho, at least, made a ton of money, the floodgates opened for horror flicks whose antagonists also specialized in knife-inflicted wounds. A decade later, the slasher/splatter subgenre, no longer limited to b&w, was born. Upon closer examination, however, Jack the Ripper’s bloody trail can be traced to 1927, when Hitchcock adapted Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 speculative novel, “The Lodger,” and Horace Annesley Vachell’s stage version, “Who Is He?” For The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Hitchcock would borrow ideas gleaned from earlier work by German Expressionists F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. According to Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto, the silent film represented “the first time Hitchcock revealed his psychological attraction to the association between sex and murder, between ecstasy and death.” It also included his first cameo appearance.

Although Jack the Ripper isn’t in the same cinematic league as Psycho, it isn’t bereft of merits. Among them is the atmospheric portrayal of Victorian London, specifically the notorious Whitechapel district, where most of the attacks occurred. The movie skims over the neighborhood’s more fetid features and presents the victims as ordinary women who make the mistake of going out at night, rather than portraying them correctly, as prostitutes. (In 1888, an estimated 1,200 of them worked in an area covering only a few square miles.) Whitechapel also is made to look as if it might have been an entertainment district, where slumming socialites, sailors and crooks could enjoy cabaret-style entertainment and the French cancan. (It’s a highlight of the movie.) As the story goes, police inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) is being deluged with complaints by locals who think catching killers is a piece of cake. He is joined by Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson), a police colleague from America who looks like a cross between James Rockford and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. Lowry becomes attracted to Anne Ford (Betty McDowall), the ward of the respected surgeon, Dr. Tranter (John Le Mesurier), who volunteers at the Whitechapel hospital and frequently is called upon to work on the female victims, pre- and post-mortem. He’s assisted by a mute hunchback (Endre Muller), who, of course, becomes the primary suspect of the local lynch mob. As was typically the case in such potboilers, the filmmakers were compelled by the Production Code and censors to reveal a guilty individual, even though history tells us that the killings remain unsolved. Severin Films’ Blu-ray package contains the original British version; the American edition, re-tailored by legendary showman Joseph E. Levine; commentary with co-director/co-producer/co-cinematographer Robert S. Baker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and AD Peter Manley, moderated By British horror-historian Marcus Hearn; an interview with Denis Meikle, author of “Jack the Ripper: The Murders and the Movies”; the featurette, “Gentleman Jack: The Whitechapel Murders Revisited”; a poster and stills gallery; and, perhaps, best of all, alternate/extended scenes shot for “continental audiences,” accustomed to nudity in exploitation movies. Levine added a new musical score, composed by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo.

Ten years before the term incel was created by Internet grammarians as a portmanteau of “involuntary celibates,” a young man enflamed by rejections from women was written into J. Lee Thompson’s 10 to Midnight (1983), as its antagonist. Since 2014, when self-described incel Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, more than three dozen other murders have been attributed to such misogynistic behavior. Before embarking on his murderous rampage and committing suicide, the Santa Barbara City College dropout wrote a 137-page manifesto and created YouTube videos detailing his involuntary celibacy. In them, he discussed how he wanted revenge for being rejected by women. Since then, Rodger has been mentioned as a source of inspiration by other perpetrators of mass killings. Before his death, in 1997, screenwriter William Roberts (The Last American Hero) couldn’t have known how close he’d come to identifying the incipient form of a new social disease. Neither could Charles Bronson, the film’s marquee attraction. In 10 to Midnight, the veteran hard-guy plays Leo Kessler, a cynical Los Angeles cop tracking Warren Stacy (Gene Davis), a homicidal maniac who turns rejection from beautiful women into the ultimate revenge. Stacy doesn’t try very hard to cover his tracks, as the diary left behind by his first victim provides almost all the evidence necessary to indict him. Almost. When the legal system sets the reasonably handsome dweeb free, Kessler plants evidence to put him behind bars for good. Meanwhile, his partner, Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens) takes a fancy to Laurie Kessler (Lisa Eilbacher), a nursing student and the cop’s daughter, who, he correctly guesses, is the perfect target for Stacy’s attention and, when rejected, wrath. In fact, Stevens does most of the heavy lifting in 10 to Midnight, leaving room for Bronson to put his personal stamp on the picture. Like Jack the Ripper, who easily could have suffered from incel syndrome, Stacey’s weapon of choice is a knife and, in his mind, his victims are whores, not co-workers or students. Because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, it’s difficult to recommend 10 to Midnight to anyone, except Bronson completists. In addition to bonus material ported over from previous editions, the technically upgraded Scream Factory Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Stevens, producer Lance Hool and actors Robert F. Lyons and Jeana Tomasina Keough, and commentary with writer/historian Paul Talbot, author of “Bronson’s Loose!”

For Cobra (1986), George P. Cosmatos was teamed once again with Sylvester Stallone, then the highest paid and arguably the biggest box-office draw on the planet. They’d just completed Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which made a lot of money, especially overseas, and the re-pairing made a lot of sense. If John Rambo had decided to forgo mercenary work and gone into law enforcement, instead, he’d very closely resemble the title character, whose full name is Marion Cobretti. (Reportedly, Stallone has described Cobretti as “Bruce Springsteen with a badge.” In his dreams.)  In Cobra, Stallone plays the police department’s designated vigilante, called in when all other legal measures to take a killer off the street fail. His work isn’t universally admired within the department, but, really, who cares? In the mid-1980s, all that mattered at the box office was a movie’s body count. Here, 41 of the 52 people killed were taken out by Cobra. What does any of this have to do with Jack the Ripper? Well, the knife used by the antagonist was made for the film by designer Herman Schneider, whose only request from Stallone was to “create a knife that audiences would never forget.” Neither could Cobra have been made under restrictions enforced by the Hays Office. As it is, a half-hour of really, really nasty stuff was trimmed to avoid an X-rating. Alas, the missing scenes weren’t added to the bonus supplements, along with lively new interviews with actors Brian Thompson, Marco Rodriguez, Andrew Robinson, Lee Garlington and Art LaFleur.

Howling III: Blu-ray
More successful than it has any right to be, the werewolf-themed “Howling” franchise includes three novels and eight films. It began in 1977 with Gary Brandner’s horror novel, “The Howling,” which, four years later, would be adapted into the film of the same title, by Joe Dante and screenwriters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. Even though the narrative deviated from Brandner’s story, The Howling made some money and received favorable reviews. In 1985, Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf was released to mostly negative reviews and fewer revenues. Critics wondered if what they were watching – much of which was shot in the Czech Republic – was what Brandner had in mind, in the first place, and where the producers saw the franchise heading. No one could have predicted that the series was on its way Down Under. Aussie director Philippe Mora (Mad Dog Morgan), who was at the helm of “Howling II,” took over the chores as director, co-writer and co-producer on Howling III. In a newly recorded interview, Mora explains that he wanted to do a picture that was a sequel in title only and Brandner went along with it. Somewhere along the way, Howling III morphed into Howling III: The Marsupials. By the time it was released in Blu-ray, “The Marsupials” disappeared. I can’t imagine why. It was a quick and easy way to alert potential viewers to the fact that the triquel – the last installment to be released theatrically — was really going to be different. As Howling III opens, anthropologist Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto) obtains film footage, from 1905, showing Australian Aborigines ceremonially sacrificing a wolf-like creature. Alarmed by the reports of a werewolf killing a man in Siberia, Beckmeyer tries to warn the president of the United States about the possibility of widespread werewolf attacks, but, of course, he isn’t interested. Meanwhile, back in Australia, we’re introduced to a young Australian werewolf, Jerboa (Imogen Annesley), as she’s fleeing the Outback and her sexually abusive stepfather, Thylo (Max Fairchild). She doesn’t display any noticeable marsupial properties, but neither do most marsupials. After spending the night on a park bench near the Sydney Opera House, she is spotted by a young American, Donny Martin (Leigh Biolos), who offers her a role in a horror film, “Shape Shifters Part 8.” The hilariously affected director, Jack Citron (Frank Thring), takes a liking to the brash newcomer, even though he’s unaware of her own shape-shifting abilities. Later, Jerboa and Donny attend a movie that depicts a human transforming into a werewolf. In a moment dripping with irony, she reveals her true identity by insisting that “it doesn’t happen like that.” At the wrap party, Jerboa is exposed to strobe lights, which trigger an unexpected transformation of her own. She flees the party and is hit by a car. At the hospital, doctors find she has a marsupial pouch and striped fur on her back like a thylacine, alternately known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. Now extinct, it was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. Turns out, Jerboa is pregnant. The freak-out point in “III” arrives when Jerboa gives birth to a baby werewolf, which, as is customary, crawls from the mother’s vagina to her abdominal pouch, where her nipples are located. While the movie doesn’t get any more shocking that that, it continues to offer more than its fair share of surprises … and some laughs along the way. (A ballet dancer transforms in mid-pas de deux.) As a prime example of Ozploitation, the digital transfer was sponsored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. It adds new commentary with Mora, moderated by filmmaker Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend); a fresh conversation with Mora: and vintage interviews from “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!”

Eating Animals
Far From the Tree
Based on the bestselling book by Jonathan Safran Foer and narrated by co-producer Natalie Portman, Eating Animals is an eye-opening, frequently gut-wrenching examination of the environmental, economic, and public-health consequences of factory farming. In tracing the history of food production in the United States, the film charts how farming has gone from local and sustainable to a corporate Frankenstein monster that offers cheap eggs, meat and dairy at a steep cost to the environment. If you’re thinking that this could describe any number of documentaries about the benefits of veganism and organic farming, and horrors of modern food production and processing, you’d be right. Some of the video footage captured clandestinely inside the hatcheries and rendering plants are little short of sickening. No less tolerable are the scenes showing government and corporate harassment of whistleblowers and reporters, who dare photograph or chronicle conditions at feet lots and hog prisons, where waste ponds are the color of Pepto-Bismol. On the plus side, we meet farmers trying to beat the odds by treating their livestock humanely – even as they’re being prepared for slaughter at home and by consumers – and giving them plenty of room to roam. Sadly, the uplifting parts bookend the sickening stuff. And, of course, Trump administration officials are committed to protecting the polluters, torturers and profiteers, not the people they ostensibly were hired to serve.

How do filmmakers skilled in making hourlong documentaries for television take a 962-page examination of how families accommodate children with physical, mental and social disabilities, and make it fit a 93-minute framework? Gently, of course, but also with compassion and admiration for the people introduced by author in his best-selling and award-winning tome. Andrew Solomon, a prolific writer and professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, handed over the reins of “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” to Rachel Dretzin (“Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media”) and Jamila Ephron (“American Experience: Clinton”). Their mission was to discover and describe the courage of parents on disparate journeys toward acceptance of their one-of-a-kind kids: a mother and son determined to show the world that his Down’s syndrome doesn’t define him; a couple learning to communicate with their bright, but nonverbal autistic son; a young woman dealing with what it means to be the only little person in her family; and parents whose deep love for their son persists even after he committed an unspeakable crime. Far From the Tree traces their joys, challenges, tragedies and triumphs, while asking them to re-examine what it means to be a normal family.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The natural lure for Shout!Factory’s re-release on Blu-ray – the first since 2013 – is the opportunity to watch Michael Caine and Steve Martin, working at the top of their game, under the direction of Frank Oz. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was noteworthy at the time, as well, as Oz’ first directorial effort that did not feature puppets. His previous feature credits included The Dark Crystal (1982), Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). For my money, though, the best reason to watch the re-make of Bedtime Story (1964), which starred David Niven and Marlon Brando, hasn’t anything to do with the leading men. It’s to see Glenn Headley, who passed away in 2017 at the too-early age of 62, in the role originated by Shirley Jones. (I couldn’t locate Bedtime Story on DVD or Blu-ray.) In the early 1980s, it was easy to find Headley performing on various stages in Chicago, but, usually, as a key member of the fledgling Steppenwolf Theater ensemble. As was the case with so many other Chicago actors at the time, Glenn would make her way from the Windy City to New York and Hollywood, where she’d continue to work in movies and television, including Dick Tracy, Lonesome Dove, And the Band Played On, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Bastard Out of Carolina. Headley took most of the 1990s off from the stage to focus on her family, but she returned afterwards. At the time of her death, Glenn was involved in productions on television, film and the theater. Anyway, she was a terrific actor and is greatly missed. Unfortunately, Glenn’s barely mentioned in the otherwise self-serving featurette, newly created for writer Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny). It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that a new remake of Bedtime Story/Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is scheduled for release on May 10, 2019, starring Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson and Tim Blake Nelson.

Waterworld: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Contrary to popular opinion at the time of its release, Waterworld (1995) was not an unqualified bomb. While it underperformed at the domestic box office, foreign ticket sales pumped up the worldwide volume to a then-respectable $264.1 million. The problem, of course, was that the media fixed its gaze on the record-topping $175-million production budget, the massive floating set, the replacement of the film’s director (by Costner), nasty gossip that flew from Hawaii to the mainland in a heartbeat, a 135-minute length and high expectations by Universal. The fact is, however, Waterworld’s problems weren’t visible on the screen and the opinions of mainstream critics were split right down the middle of the spectrum. Moreover, after a while, money from home-video sales, TV broadcast rights and other revenue streams, finally pushed Costner’s “folly” firmly into the black. Today, $175 million is the going rate for most high-profile animated features and comic-book movies. Not factored into the final box-office figures is the money Universal made from licensing the title for video and pinball games, comic books, a novelization and, of course, “Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular,” at Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Japan, and Universal Studios Singapore. In 2020, at the Hollywood venue, the action-packed water-stunt show will turn 25, a landmark few theme-park attractions ever reach.

For the many people who weren’t born by the time Waterworld was released, it’s worth pointing out that it was one of the first disaster thrillers to pin the blame for the apocalypse on global warming. When the polar ice caps melted, flooding set civilization adrift. Survivors cling to life on floating cities, their existence constantly threatened by bands of marauding pirates, known as Smokers. The survivors’ last hope to defeat the Smokers and their ruthless leader, the Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is a solitary figure, Mariner (Costner). His goal is to reach Dryland, if such a place even exists, with Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her ward, Enola (Tina Majorino), who holds the key to humanity’s continuation. The folks at Arrow Video think enough about Waterworld to have compiled a technically upgraded “Limited Edition” package, comprised of three separate versions of the film and new features. The three-disc “keepcase” is housed in a chipboard box which also includes six collector’s postcards, a double-sided fold-out poster and a limited-edition 60-page “perfect bound” book, featuring essays by David J. Moore and Daniel Griffith, along with some archival pictures and writing. There’s also a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper. The first disc holds the original theatrical edition; “Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld,” a feature-length retrospective on the production; the featurettes, “Dancing With Waves” and “Global Warnings”; original marketing material; and image galleries. The second disc contains the nearly three-hour “TV Cut,” which was created for U.S. broadcast television and contains over 40 minutes of additional material, including alternate scenes. On the third disc, the nearly as long “Ulysses Cut” was crafted for European broadcast markets and restores some material excised from the U.S. broadcast version. The total package was accorded highly-recommended status by the folks at Blu-ray.com.

The Revelation of Lee “Scratch” Perry
If all one knows about reggae derives from the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals, you may not have heard much about Lee “Scratch” Perry. Now 82, the Jamaica native began his career in the late 1950s. Like Cliff’s character in The Harder They Come, he peddled records on the street for various producers, while refining his own sound. By the end of the 1960s, he was cranking out hits of own, backed by the studio band, the Upsetters. He’s continued recording his own songs, touring and producing music for other artists ever since then. In 2011, the documentary profile, The Upsetter, narrated by Benicio Del Toro, was released worldwide in theaters. Steve Marshall’s The Revelation of Lee “Scratch” Perry documents the making of his Grammy-nominated album, ”Revelation.” On it, engineer/producer Marshall lays down a digitally rendered reggae beat, while Perry raps a narrative based on his spirituality and today’s global events. The doc, which was filmed at Perry’s mountain-top home and studio in Switzerland, also features behind-the-scenes input by Keith Richards and George Clinton, along with Duncan & Green, Tim Hill, Dr. Sleepy, Alec Hay, elodieO & Abi Browning, and David Stewart Jones. (The studio has since been destroyed in a fire.) The DVD adds excerpts from a free-flowing and revealing interview of Perry, conducted by Marshall and accompanied by a parrot.

TV-to-DVD
Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds Of: Vol. 2
Did you know that fox squirrels can remember the location of 9,000 nuts they’ve stored for a snowy day? I didn’t. I do know that squirrels who live in cities have developed a taste for the insulation on wiring installed by cable companies and cause frequent blackouts. In some suburban areas, they’ve achieved nuisance status, even in the eyes of liberals, who normally wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s why I raised an eyebrow when I saw the title, “Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success.” Squirrels need a guide to success, like cockroaches need maps and blueprints to find dirty sinks. In any case, it’s fun to watch researchers study the critters’ problem-solving abilities and try to figure out how squirrels – of which there are 300 species – have developed the ability to glide through the air, outwit rattlesnakes and survive the coldest temperatures of any mammal. Kids will enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of an orphan red squirrel, Billy.

The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds Of: Vol. 2” picks up where the first compilation of clips left off, only with three comics who display more respect for the host’s format than his previous guests. Maybe, that’s because these episodes were chosen from shows that aired between 1990 through 1995, a period when the art of standup comedy had fully matured and was beginning to pay off in a big way for comedians accustomed to living on the fringes of the entertainment business. George Carlin, Martin Mull and Steve Martin were already seasoned veterans when these shows were taped. Cavett obviously felt more comfortable in their company than with the comics just starting out. Some of the interviews first took place on CNBC and other non-network outlets.

The DVD Wrapup: Not A Witch, Jonathan, The Captain, Speed Kills, Room 304, Hippocrates, The Dark, Crimson Peak, Tea With Dames, Forbidden Photos, Addiction … More

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

I Am Not a Witch
In 1980, Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy became the most commercially successful release in the history of South Africa’s film industry … possibly in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. The movie generated extensive word-of-mouth success in Europe, Japan and North America, with the movie rights initially being sold to 45 countries. Funny, unexpected and exotic, The Gods Must Be Crazy became a huge arthouse hit here. Set in Botswana, it follows the story of Xi, a Saan of the Kalahari Desert — played by Namibian Saan farmer Nǃxau ǂToma — whose tribe has no knowledge of the world beyond its villages. After a Coca-Cola bottle is discarded from a plane flying over the Kalahari Desert, it’s found, intact, by a bushman, who has no idea what it is, what purpose it serves or from whence it came. When Xi brings it to his village, the bottle causes such consternation that tribal officials order the bushman to return it to the gods, who must have sent it in the first place. His journey describes the stark differences between the “primitive” culture of the aboriginal, Xhosa-speaking Saan and the technologically advanced culture of the modern world. By becoming an international sensation, The Gods Must Be Crazy also opened the door for criticism by anti-apartheid activists, who were quick to point out the things Uys omitted from the comedy to assure a government subsidy and release. They included the economic, judicial and cultural realities for tribes under apartheid – the star, Nǃxau initially earned less than $2,000 for his starring role – self-censorship of political issues raised and any mention of restrictions prohibiting blacks from making movies and watching them in theaters, outside of crudely produced genre films made in the 1980s by white producers and featuring  actors of color, for the enjoyment of township audiences. (Some of them are now available through IndiePix Films’ Retro Afrika series.) The Gods Must Be Crazy and its inferior sequel were released on DVD in 2004, but not since in Blu-ray.

I was reminded of Nǃxau while watching I Am Not a Witch, an offbeat dramedy by the Zambian-born, British-raised writer/director Rungano Nyoni. It depicts the ways women convicted of being witches in rural Zambia cope with ignorance, prejudice and forced labor. That cold reality is offset by the comic buffoonery and outright hypocrisy of rural officials, who are swayed by legal statutes, superstition and fear of the unknown when dealing with women accused of being witches. Here, 9-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is exiled to a mobile witch camp after being accused of crimes that wouldn’t even stand up in a kangaroo court.  To prevent the women from “flying away,” they’re required to wear long white ribbons, which connect to spools affixed to rods on a flatbed truck. She’s warned by a corrupt government agent, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), that any attempt to escape could result in her being transformed into a white goat. Before Shula’s actually convicted of witchcraft and given a ribbon to wear, Banda confers with the local tribe’s witch doctor, whose judgements are dictated by what he gleans from the final death throes of beheaded chickens. If Shula doesn’t offer much in the way of a defense, it’s only because the older women are kind to her and benefit from regular meals, shelter and the occasional bottle of gin. It only takes Banda a few hours to figure out how to profit from Shula’s gift, as it were, and use it to maintain his comparatively lavish western lifestyle and the continued adoration of his wife – a pretty woman he rescued from the camp — who believes that she’s protected from bigotry by the ring on her finger. Banda courts celebrityhood by bringing Shula into the nearest city and sitting alongside her while she’s interviewed by a talk-show host. He goes out on a limb by promising the audience that Shula will come up with a way to end the region’s crippling drought. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little girl, but Banda has more to lose than she does, as her worst-case scenario begins and ends with being turned into a goat, able to roam freely and eat what it wants. Nyoni enhances the story with a few dollops of magical realism and her ability to remain as objective as possible under the circumstances. Special features include two of Nyoni’s award-winning shorts and an interview.

If the witch doctor in I Am Not a Witch is less sinister than Banda, the ones to whom we’re exposed in In the Shadow of the Sun (2012), Africa Investigates: Spell of the Albino (2011), White Shadow (2013) and Albino Africa (2014), are nothing less than demonic. These and other recent documentaries, docudramas and dramas describe how albinos in Tanzania – a country considered progressive by African standards – are hunted, maimed and murdered for body parts used by witch doctors in their rituals. While some people believe they bring bad luck and are somehow immortal, witch doctors have convinced bounty hunters that their bones can cure diseases or be used as charms to bring wealth. In Swahili, albinos are called “zeru zeru,” which means “ghosts.” In a country with a high rate of poverty, the prices put on their body parts have encouraged a recent wave of violent crimes against albinos. In Tanzania, the percentage of people born without melanin is said to be eight times higher than anywhere else in the world. There is no scientific explanation for this anomaly and the locals rarely talk about it. To combat the extraordinary cruelty and superstitions, government and relief agencies have created boarding schools and shelters to protect potential victims.

Jonathan
In his directorial debut, Bill Oliver puts a “Twilight Zone” spin on questions raised by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr  Jeckyl and Mr Hyde” and subsequent examinations of the duality of human nature and inner struggle between good and evil. Typically, filmmakers use identical-twin characters as easily recognizable entry points to narratives on schizophrenia and the “evil twin” phenomenon. If viewers are lucky, directors will provide a visual hint to distinguish between the twins. If not, we’re required to guess which of the characters are worthy of our support or empathy. Jonathan bears more than a passing resemblance to David Cronenberg’s simultaneously scary, disturbing and kinky Dead Ringers (1988). Clearly, Oliver hasn’t reached the point in his career where he’s capable of going toe-to-toe on the subject with Cronenberg, Brian De Palma (Sisters), Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Véronique) or François Ozon (Double Lover). It’s a good start, however.

In it, Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) plays two brothers, Jonathan/John, living separate lives inside the same body. While they’ve been cognizant of their otherness for some time, it’s been ascribed it to schizophrenia or some other mental condition that’s more perplexing than overtly painful or dangerous. Their therapist, Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson), made the controversial twin-within-a-twin diagnosis and convinced the brothers to agree on a schedule that allows for each of them to divide their 12-hour days into shifts: sleep, work and free time. Neither of them is aware of the other’s activities while he’s off-the-clock, as it were. Jonathan is rigid, precise and fussy, and takes his work home with him. John has more of a laid-back personality and invested his free time in more leisurely pursuits. Until lately, they’ve lived by a strict set of rules, limiting their exposure to outsiders and avoiding romantic and social entanglements. To make sure they’re on the same wavelength after each of their shifts – inwardly and outwardly – each brother leaves the other a video, describing every detail of their conscious periods, which run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and vice versa. The men will squabble over who’s forgotten to clean up their apartment or neglected other chores, but they know that cooperation is the only option open to them.

It takes a while for Jonathan, an aspiring architect, to notice a change in their respective routines. It presents itself as a lack of sleep or a bruise that wasn’t there when they last exchanged videos. It almost goes without saying that John, who works as a temp at a law firm and is something of a party animal, will eventually breaks the rules by falling in love with  Elena (Suki Waterhouse), a pretty blond who’s unaware of the brothers’ situation. When Jonathan alerts Dr. Nariman to John’s misbehavior, she immediately senses that such risky behavior could affect both of them simultaneously and unfairly impact Elena. She demands that John tell Elena about his double life or, preferably, cut things off completely. Jonathan is so unnerved that he hires a P.I. to dig up the goods on Elena and uses the information to stalk Elena on her daily rounds. He doesn’t ask John’s permission to do so, however. When John decides to break off their relationship, it causes him to fall into a depressive state and become belligerent with strangers. (Johnathan will find the bruises in the morning.) Ironically, the decision also serves to drive Elena into Jonathan’s arms, which isn’t particularly healthy, either. Because Jonathan, the movie, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be – sci-fi, romance, drama, suspense – it has trouble sticking the landing. As the title suggests, the story suffers from an unbalanced presentation of points-of-view, leaving us wondering what going on in John’s half of their brain. The same applies to Elena. It might have been interesting to see what would happen if John and Elena had decided to get married or take a trip to Mexico, without informing Jonathan. He’d wake up the next morning in Cancun, with a ring on his finger and reservations for scuba lessons. Then, what?

The Captain: Blu-ray
Memoir of War
If, going into it, all one knew about the harrowing German wartime drama, The Captain, is that its writer/director previously made Flightplan (2005), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), RED (2010), R.I.P.D. (2013), Insurgent (2015) and Allegiant (2016), the safe assumption would be that it will be a typical Hollywood entertainment, with a couple of marquee actors and lots of CGI-enhanced action. Oh, yeah, the same director is also scheduled to direct a G.I. Joe spin-off, featuring the character Snake Eyes, for release in 2020. That guess would be wrong. Instead, Stuttgart-born writer/director Robert Schwentke — a 1992 graduate of Columbia College Hollywood – has crafted the kind of story that takes risks most studios avoid, unless Steven Spielberg or George Lucas is attached to the project. Although it did well at several international film festivals and received excellent reviews, The Captain was released in only a handful of niche theaters, in advance of what deserves to be a lucrative run on DVD. Schwentke based the movie on the true story of Willi Herold – a.k.a., the Executioner of Emsland – which appears to have only been a footnote in the recorded annals of World War II. As far as I can tell, The Captain grossed $109,226 here and another $191,873 overseas. As Schwentke mentions in an interview included in the bonus package, he wanted to remind viewers – including his fellow countrymen – that some of the atrocities that were committed during the war were caused by everyday soldiers and officers, without any direct link to Adolph Hitler, the Gestapo or death-camp commandoes. The perpetrators weren’t following orders and their victims weren’t always Jews, enemy combatants or POWs protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Most of what happens during the first half of The Captain would naturally lead viewers to believe that it will be as darkly comedic as Catch 22 (1970) or The Good Soldier Schweik (1960). In September 1943, Herold (Max Hubacher), then 18, was called up for military service and fought in battles at Nettuno and Monte Cassino. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and promoted to corporal after destroying two British tanks at Salerno. After being relocated to Germany in early April 1945, Herold became separated from his unit near Bad Bentheim and swallowed up in the chaos of the retreating German army. The Captain opens with Herold wandering through the countryside, scratching for food and behaving strangely in the company of deserters in makeshift shelters. In time, Willie comes across an abandoned limousine, containing the luggage and papers of a Luftwaffe captain. After he puts on the officer’s uniform, Herold metamorphosizes into something he never was and is ill-prepared to be: a leader of men. Hoping simply to find food and the quickest route back to Berlin, he forms a platoon of raggedy soldiers, deserters and escaped criminals, who don’t look any more out of place than the other soldiers they encounter. At first, Willie’s uniform, papers and posturing protect him from possible questions about his actual status and youthful demeanor. He looks the part and effectively mimics the extreme behavior of a SS official. The closer Herold comes to a place where he can ride out the end of the war, however, the more likely it becomes that Wehrmacht officers will demand that he prove his leadership skills. Herold volunteers to shoot anyone acting out of line, while ordering his troops to perform odious tasks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the power goes to his head. At a loosely run prison camp for Nazi riff-raff, he orders guards to execute prisoners for breaking the rules or for simply getting in his way. A comedy presentation and sing-along turn violent and it triggers in him a mad desire to execute dozens of prisoners herded into a trench. When the Allies bomb the camp, Herold decides to get while the gettin’s good, escaping into the forest. He’s arrested and escapes one more time before returning home, where he pursues a career as a chimney sweep. In the epilogue, we learn that Herold was eventually arrested by the Royal Navy for the theft of a loaf of bread, and rightly punished for being a war criminal. Schwentke took some liberties with the details of the case, but not many. Even then, it’s difficult to discern whether Willi’s madness can be written off as the “banality of evil” or was the result of crossed circuitry in the brain of a 19-year-old sociopath unworthy of wearing anyone’s uniform.The Blu-ray adds commentary and a festival Q&A with Schwentke; making-of featurettes; interviews; and deleted scenes.

Also, from Music Box this month, comes a second atypical World War II drama, Memoir of War, from France. Both films are set during the waning months of World War II, albeit from radically different points of view. In Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel, “The War” (1985)  – ostensibly inspired by diaries discovered decades after VE Day — Mélanie Thierry (The Dancer) delivers a haunting portrayal of the author in extremis. Duras’ communist husband, Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), has been captured by French police and deported to a series of German concentration camps. Somehow, other members of their cell have avoided arrest. Naturally, they question Marguerite’s decision to play along with the intelligence officer, Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magim), who nabbed him. He wants to squeeze Duras, whose books he admires, for leads to other Resistance members and an opportunity to exchange information on her husband for sexual favors. Pierre is quite a bit more suave and intellectual than what we’ve come to expect from collaborators in other wartime movies, so Duras doesn’t seem to mind being in his company, as long as the flow of information about Robert continues. Neither gets what they want, even though an awkward friendship develops between them. (It’s difficult to tell what the cell members have accomplished, but, if nothing else, they serve as our conduit to information on the Allied advances and liberation of death camps.) Marguerite’s emotional state is in a steady decline throughout the movie, even when Robert returns home, nearly dead from beatings and malnutrition. Finkiel and his DP, Alexis Kavyrchine (Back to Burgundy), employ all sorts of visual gimmicks to reflect the extremes in Duras’ condition, as described in her diaries. While an affair with their oily friend and comrade, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), is handled with delicacy, viewers are left wondering as to who is taking advantage of whom and why their tryst couldn’t wait a couple more months to begin. Maybe it’s a French thing. The scenes I admire most in Memoir of War derive from Finkiel’s atypical depiction of the Occupation. Usually, the Nazis and Vichy police are shown beating and killing people, almost at random, and SS officers strut around town like malevolent peacocks. Signs of Nazi propaganda and oppression are everywhere, but, apart from the lines of people outside police headquarters, very little appears to be out of the ordinary … everything else considered.  Scenes depicting the return of relieved soldiers, weary POWs and rail-thing camp survivors pack quite a punch. They’re certainly a change of pace from the images we usually see of cheering, flag-waving crowds and pretty girls kissing American soldiers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Room 304
Released in 2011, but only now finding its way to the U.S., Birgitte Stærmose and writer Kim Fupz Aakesonn’s Room 304 borrows a familiar conceit and updates it to mirror contemporary issues and personnel dilemmas. The ensemble drama is set in a small, but classy Copenhagen hotel, where disparate lives intersect by chance or fate. Among the people we meet are a stewardess (Ariadna Gil) desperate for intimacy; an immigrant (Luan Jaha) from a war-torn country, obsessed with revenge; a hotel manager (Magnus Krepper) lost in despair; a wife (Trine Dyrholm) abandoned by her husband; and a receptionist (David Dencik) with blood on his hands … literally. Liberated by the feigned intimacy of hotel rooms, secrets are revealed and unexpected events merge into a dramatic tale of love and longing. One of the best things about Room 304 is the multicultural cast, which reflects the diversity of life – ethnically and economically – in central Europe, along with the upstairs/downstairs intermingling of characters.

Speed Kills: Blu-ray
Nominations for the 39th Golden Raspberry Awards won’t be announced until January 21, but, unless I’m very wrong, John Travolta (Gotti) is a mortal lock for being chosen as a Worst Actor finalist for the first time since 2010. That was the year he lost the Worst Actor of the Decade Razzie to Eddie Murphy and the Worst Actor prize (Old Dogs) to all three of the Jonas Brothers for The 3D Concert Experience. If it was any consolation to him, Battlefield Earth – adapted from L. Ron Hubbard’s eponymous sci-fi novel — was awarded the prize for Worst Picture of the Decade. For his contributions to Roger Christian’s homage to Scientology mythos, Travolta was named Worst Actor at the 2001 ceremony. In between Old Dogs and Gotti, Travolta appeared in eight movies that were elevated – if not very high – by his presence. The highlight, though, was his award-winning portrayal of sleazy “dream team” lawyer Robert Shapiro, in FX Network’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (2016). Whoever convinced the two-time Oscar nominee to follow that masterwork with Gotti and Speed Kills (2018) deserves to lose his talent-agent’s license and donate his or her fee to the Jett Travolta Foundation. In both films, Travolta plays men involved in organized crime: John Gotti was a king, while Ben Aronoff is portrayed as a pawn whose luck ran out in a Miami parking lot, in 1987. In fact, first-time director Jodi Scurfield and a team of screenwriters based Aronoff on Donald Joel Aronow, who, hardly a pawn, was known far and wide as a world-class racer and manufacturer of some of the fastest and most expensive boats ever made. His Rolodex included the names and numbers of kings, shahs, politicians, mobsters and poseurs, including then-Vice President George Bush, who was to Aronow what Richard Nixon was to Bebe Rebozo. That connection is alluded to in Speed Kills, but only during an almost comical boat ride, in which Travolta and Matthew Modine, as Aranoff and Bush, tool around Biscayne Bay. The ride is shown to have inspired Bush, already the proud owner of a Cigarette boat, to invest taxpayer dollars into a small fleet of Blue Thunder catamarans, at $150,000 apiece.

Until the cats were proven to be unequal to the task, they were assigned to the U.S. Customs Service, as substitutes for Cigarettes seized from drug dealers to catch traffickers. Because both the catamarans and Cigarettes were designed and manufactured by Aronow, President Reagan’s point man in the drug war was effectively pimping for a BFF who not only serviced his favorite maritime toy, but who also was selling boats to drug traffickers and laundering money for the Gambino crime family. It’s represented here by Meyer Lansky’s psychotic nephew, Robbie Reemer (Kellan Lutz). In fact, Reemer is based on the mafia accountant’s great-nephew, Ben Kramer, another champion racer, who, in 1989, would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for having imported a half-million pounds of marijuana. (A year later, father Jack and son Ben would be found guilty of 23 and 28 counts of federal money-laundering charges. In 1996, Ben Kramer pled guilty to manslaughter charges for ordering Aronow’s death over a business dispute.) As was the case in Gotti, in which the mob chieftain’s paternal qualities are emphasized, Speed Kills is less concerned with Aronow and the mob’s relationship with Bush and other world leaders than his willingness to puff out his chest and stand up to Lansky and his henchmen … until he became a liability, anyway. As such, Speed Kills isn’t nearly as interesting as the average episode of “Miami Vice,” which frequently served as an unofficial marketing wing for Aronow’s boat-manufacturing concerns. There was a better story to be told about Aronow and his dealings – sketchy, as they are, even today – but asking Travolta to reprise his makeup-intensive Gotti performance distracts from the truth. (Somehow, Scurfield  even manages to make Jennifer Esposito, playing Aronoff’s first wife, Katherine/Shirley Goldin, look frumpy.) If Speed Kills opened theatrically, no one told the ticket counters at Box Office Mojo. That’s what happens, though, when you have three dozen exec-producers on a project, three producers and a freshman director. The real story gets lost in the fog of myth-making. I wonder if they’ll all show up for the Razzies, if their baby is nominated.

The Dark
After Darkness
As much as I tried, I couldn’t find any linkage between these two thrillers, except for the similarity in the titles. Any port in a storm, right? The better movie, The Dark, debuted on the festival circuit, before being made available on streaming outlets. The deeply flawed After Darkness, as far as I can tell, went straight to VOD, before also landing on DVD. And, despite the presence of such recognizable actors as Tim and Sam Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”), John Patrick Amedori (“Dear White People”), Valerie Curry (“The Following”) and Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”), I couldn’t find any reviews for the latter picture. The opposite is the case for The Dark. Let’s start there.

Essentially, The Dark is a don’t-go-into-the-woods drama, with splatter, slasher and buddy elements thrown in for kicks. Viewers should brace themselves for 95 minutes of jump-scares from the minute a convenience-store operator warns a stranger about visiting a mysterious tract of wilderness, known far and wide as Devil’s Den. He describes it as a place where many outsiders have entered, but none has left. When the proprietor notices a photo of the stranger in that day’s newspaper, identifying him as a suspect in a terrible crime, he’s shot and killed by the man asking directions. Naturally, Josef (Karl Markovics) heads immediately for Devil’s Den, thinking it might be the last place anyone dares to look for him. (Turns out, it’s the first place local lawmen go.), Shortly after his car’s tires are destroyed by a spike strip laid across a dirt road leading deeper into the woods, the fugitive makes his way to a decaying house that appears to be abandoned, but we instinctively know is inhabited by a demon of some as-yet-unknown variety. Sure enough, he’s set upon by the creature, who moves too quickly to describe. Even without knowing who or what is responsible for the terrible deed, the killing serves writer/director Justin P. Lange’s purpose of convincing viewers not to get too comfortable in their seats. Just as surprisingly, a grotesquely disfigured boy, Alex, pops his head up from the back of the station wagon, wondering where Josef went. It captures the attention of the certifiably undead killer, Mina (Nadia Alexander), who didn’t know what to expect when she inspected the vehicle. Although we fear that Alex will become Mina’s dessert, nothing of the sort happens. In short order, we learn that the teenage girl is, indeed, the notorious monster of Devil’s Den and, more to the point, an undead reminder of a crime that happened long ago in the same house. Alex not only was blinded by Josef, after an indeterminate amount of time in confinement, but he also acquired Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps sensing the blind boy’s predicament, Mina takes pity on the boy and allows him to tag along on her bloody treks in search of food. Their co-dependency will be sorely tested when a sheriff’s begins looking for Josef, unaware of what else awaits them in the woods. For some reason, the coupling reminded of the scene in Frankenstein (1931), when the Monster (a.k.a., ?) first met Little Maria at the lake and they briefly enjoyed playing a game together. Eventually, Lange paints himself into a narrative corner, with nowhere to logically conclude The Dark. What’s lingers, though, is satisfying enough for a recommendation.

Thematically, at least, After Darkness reminded me of Mike Cahill’s pre-apocalypse rom-dram Another Earth (2011) and Lars von Trier’s chilling sci-fi drama, Melancholia (2011). That’s because all three pictures depict how small groups of endangered humans might deal with impending doom from above. In the first two, humanity is threatened by runaway planets on a collision course with Earth. In After Darkness, Batan Silva’s characters are threatened by our own Sun, which, like a lightbulb on the blink, has begun to show signs of going dark, leaving the world in darkness. Normally, that would be a prospect too horrifying to contemplate. What I found too horrible to imagine was the prospect of spending more than 98 minutes in the company of Tim Daly’s patriarchal brute, Raymond Beaty, a man so irredeemably abusive and selfish that it’s impossible to imagine why his wife and children have agreed to spend their last moments of life in his company. Raymond professes to have discovered a secret location, within a day’s drive, where the Beatys might survive the absence of natural light, for a short while, at least. From the moment the first family members begin to gather, however, the father criticizes their every movement and decision. He demands they remain in the house, at all hours, and obey other rules that make no logical sense in advance of the world’s end. Apparently, though, he’s always been a tyrant and his wife, Georgina, has demonstrated a reluctance to challenge him. So, why not spend their last hours with someone likeable? Maybe, because one of the siblings is hours away from delivering Raymond and Georgina their first grandchild and what better way to welcome it into what’s left of the  solar system’s life span. A couple of outside threats serve to pull the disparate family members together, but they’re no more unnerving than the Beatys’ family dinners. Blessedly, Sedgwick and the younger actors keep hope alive for a miracle that doesn’t include Daly’s character.

Tea With the Dames
In a different era, the title of this delightful chat-umentary would suggest a fish-out-of-water comedy starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, or  musical comedy inspred by the showstopping song from South Pacific, “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” In the UK, however, viewers would know exactly what to expect from Tea With the Dames: nearly 90 minutes of light-hearted banter with Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Joan Plowright. Already familiar to lovers of prestige theater, film and television presentations around the world, these formidable actresses have been honored by the Queen of England for their contributions to drama, although she might have included comedy and romance for good measure. The honorific title of dame is the feminine equivalent of knight and comparable form of address to “sir.” In addition to their many Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and BAFTAs, the longtime friends have logged four lifetimes worth of memories, anecdotes, observations, triumphs and regrets unique to only a handful of other actors, male or female. Before the Oscars, such publications as Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Vogue and the New York Times routinely stage roundtable discussions with nominees and former winners to gain some insight into their careers. None that I’ve read has been as delightfully rendered as Tea With the Dames or produced such candid disclosures. Director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson) benefits mightily from the congenial setting — the country home Plowright shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier – and many circumstances they have in common. In addition to the chat, Michell provides viewers with clips of their work from the beginning of their careers to as late as “Downton Abbey,” which senior  cast member Dame Smith admits not to have seen. Especially poignant are the images captured when the women were “younger than springtime” – to borrow another lyric from “South Pacific” – and enjoyed the spoils of capturing the attention of Swinging London. At 84, dames Dench, Smith and Atkins still look glamorous and remain active in their careers. In 2014, when she was 84, Plowright officially announced her retirement from acting, because she had become completely blind. That doesn’t prevent her from sharing tea, chocolate, champagne and candid memories with her friends here, however. Tea With the Dames is one of those films you wish could last another 90 minutes and, perhaps, be a tad more catty or contemporary, with references to #MeToo and their thoughts on today’s A-list actresses. It’s likely, though, that time-honored discretion would prevent them from sharing their thoughts on such subjects with the camera.

 
A Quest for Meaning
A lot of people make a lot sense in Nathanaël Coste and Marc De La Ménardière’s inspirational documentary, A Quest for Meaning. Unfortunately, none of them are in positions to dictate the kinds of changes we’ll need to save the planet, before the forces of greed, conspicuous consumption and opportunism lose their arguments against the reality of global warming. When, in 2009, French documentarian Nathanael Coste reconnected in New York with his childhood friend, Marc de la Menardiere, the latter was a marketing executive for an international agribusiness conglomerate. A freak accident cleared some time for Marc to watch Nathanael’s cautionary films about environmental issues. They caused him to reflect on a frequently misquoted observation, attributed to Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution or you’re going to be part of the problem.” The accident coincided, as well, with the rapidly expanding global financial crisis, which had taken the wind out of the sails of his generation’s hedonistic juggernaut. Their combined resources allowed the two men the freedom to find and film deep-thinkers who already had decided where they stood on Cleaver’s proposition. They also were introduced to farmers and communards, who are practicing what Mahatma Gandhi preached on questions about post-colonial agrarian reforms. Among other things, Gandhi believed that land, air, water, sunlight and sky are God’s gifts and, under no circumstances, should come under the control of any person, business or industrial group, or any centralized form of power. He didn’t have anymore luck achieving that goal than the hippie farmers in Easy Rider. Today, of course, proponents of organic agriculture and healthy eating have found support among customers of farmers’ markets, high-end restaurants and grocers. At the same time, genetically modified seeds have been pushed on farmers in developing countries, where information on their negative effects on humans and livestock is scarce and consumers aren’t alerted to their presence in food staples.  The things that differentiate A Quest for Meaning from dozens of other, more academic and polemical documentaries on our abuse of the planet are interviews with astrophysicists, clinical psychologists and developmental biologists and spiritualists. Conveniently, the filmmakers’ “quest” took them to splendorous corners of France, the Himalayas, Mexico, Guatemala and the United States. The conversations may be overly familiar to most viewers in the target demographic, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be shown to high school students or 4-H clubs. It’s their world, too, after all.

Hippocrates: Diary of a  French Doctor
Although thousands of medical doctors have served the movie and television industries as consultants, writers and inspirations, the number who’ve taken the next step, by becoming directors, can be counted on one hand. George Miller (Mad Max) is the most prominent exception to the rule, and Michael Crichton (Westworld) dropped out of medical school when his books became best-sellers. British comedian, author, television presenter, filmmaker and former doctor Harry Hill (“TV Burp”) probably wouldn’t be recognized outside the UK. Then, too, there’s French multihyphenate Thomas Lilti, a family doctor who’s written and directed three mainstream films featuring doctors, nurses and patients, as well as co-authoring Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017). Lilti began making short movies at the same time he was studying medicine. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014) and the spinoff series, “Hippocrates” (2018), are informed by his experiences as an intern, while Irreplaceable (2016) describes a changing of the guard at a country hospital and The Freshman explores friendships made during the first year of medical school. Irreplaceable, which starred François Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt, was released on DVD here last spring. Like that picture, the newly available Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor did well at the French box office. It looks at the daily life of a hospital through the eyes of a newly minted intern, Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste), whose father (Jacques Gamblin) just so happens to be the facility’s chief administrator. He’s cocky, but not because he thinks his dad will grease any skids for him. As an intern, Benjamin is assigned one of the least-desirable jobs, caring for terminally ill patients, of which there are many. Without going into detail, corners are cut in the treatment of some of the more needy patients, if only because the hospital’s budget doesn’t allow for reliable equipment. Innocently made mistakes are covered up, to protect the interns and hospital, alike. Benjamin benefits from one of the coverups, but he’s haunted by others. His relationship with his father eventually gets too close for the comfort of fellow staff ministers and administrators. As is usually the case with movies about interns at busy hospitals, we assume that Benjamin will someday become a good, possibly great doctor … but, only if he can survive the long hours, disappointments, politics and, being a French film, beaucoup cigarettes. And, that’s far from a gimme. It’s easy to see how Lilti’s experience and expertise kept the overstuffed narrative from going off the rails and no more than 102 minutes long. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor also benefits from non-stereotypical characters and a set that approximates a facility that’s out of date, out of space and running on empty. I’ve yet to see Canal Plus’ “Hippocrates,” which Lilti also directs and co-wrote, so I can’t say if it swings closer to “ER,” “St. Elsewhere” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” I’m guessing it’s not the latter.

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion: Blu-ray
The parade of exquisitely restored gialli from Arrow Video continues apace with Luciano Ercoli’s genre debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. It opened only a few months after Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and immediately preceded his own Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. Although giallo can be traced a bit further back, to the mid-1960s, these were the titles that captured the attention of European audiences and critics looking for something new and valid. Some historians consider “Forbidden Photos” to be closer to melodrama than giallo, while allowing for its importance as a female-drive story that would “define Ercoli’s style” and feature the recurring theme of “the nightmare of being threatened by one’s own sexual partner.” As sexually charged and borderline kinky as it is, however, the lack of nudity might not sit well with genre buffs. In Ercoli’s triangle of love, sex and, perhaps, murder, Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is newly married to Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi), a businessman who’s gone into debt as he struggles to bring a new product to market. They met through Dominique (Nieves Navarro), Minou’s sexually voracious best friend and Peter’s former lover. While strolling on the beach one night, Minou  is accosted by a leather-clad stranger (Simón Andreu) on a motorcycle. He informs her that Peter has murdered a business associate and may be involved in other crimes. If certain demands aren’t met, the creep threatens to take his evidence to police. Driven by misplaced loyalty to Peter, Minou ends up in bed with the blackmailer, who, naturally, takes photos of their tryst and uses them to escalate the terms of their arrangement. Curiously, Minou accidently discovers pornographic photos of the blackmailer with Dominque, which have made their way from Denmark to Barcelona. WTF, right? When Minou finally approaches the police, they lead her to believe that she’s imagining things and may need a different kind of help. That is pretty much the long and short of screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco’s story. “Forbidden Photos” will be of interest primarily to completists and admirers of Ennio Morricone bossa nova-tinged score and cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa. It further benefits from Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentary by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine; “Private Pictures,” a freshly edited documentary featuring archival interviews with Navarro and Ercoli, and new material with writer Ernesto Gastaldi; “The Forbidden Soundtrack of the Big Three,” an appreciation of the music of 1970s cult cinema by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; a Q&A with Lassander at the 2016 Festival of Fantastic Films; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and a limited-edition booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Michael Mackenzie.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
It’s been less than four years since Crimson Peak opened in theaters around the world and almost three years since Universal’s Blu-ray edition was released. The short window made me wonder why Arrow Video went to the trouble and expense to create a limited-edition set for a high-end genre film that was a box-office disappointment. The package isnn’t being promoted as an uncut, unrated director’s-cut version of the picture or a new, improved edition of the Universal release. Technically, they’re very much the same product, if not identical. Given all the attention paid to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), which made more money and cost less to produce, it’s possible that Arrow wanted to re-market Crimson Peak as a prestige Blu-ray, with a lavishly book-like package and a few new bonus features included in it. As a fan of 4K UHD, I also wondered why it wasn’t  sent out with the latest format upgrade attached. (It’s likely that Uni wanted to save that prestigious event for its own customers.) Even though del Toro admits to being influenced by The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Shining (1980) – as well as Mario Bava’s Technicolor conceits – he emphasizes in the bonus material that he envisioned Crimson Peak primarily as a “Gothic romance,” staged within a decrepit mansion populated by ghosts. Actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain have also said that their portrayals were shaped by those of Winona Ryder and Sadie  Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). You’d think that would be enough to sell a more than a few tickets to a superbly conceived period thriller. Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist haunted by frightening visions that bear an ominous warning about a place called Crimson Peak. She’s the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Jim Beaver), who rudely turns down a proposal by a young English entrepreneur, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), pitching an invention he hopes will facilitate mining red clay. Not only does Sharpe’s sales pitch fall on deaf ears, but his budding romance with Edith is cut short after her father hires a P.I. to dig into his past. Soon thereafter, Edith’s father is murdered. Bereft, but unhappy to learn of her father’s effort to bribe her boyfriend, Edith agrees to marry Sharpe and move with him to a decaying Victorian estate, sitting on a mountain of red clay. The catch comes in having to share their life with Sharpe’s freaky sister, Lucille (Chastain), and endure a nightmare that would intimate both sets of Ghostbusters. The Arrow package ports over the bonus material created for the Uni Blu-ray. It adds the featurettes “The House Is Alive: Constructing Crimson Peak” (50 minutes); “An Interview With Guillermo del Toro” (8:36); “Crimson Peak and the Tradition of Gothic Romance” (7:37), with an assessment of the “genre” proclivities of del Toro; “Violence and Beauty in Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic Fairy Tale Films” (23:37), a visual essay by Kat Ellinger; marketing material; and an image gallery.

The Plague of the Zombies: Blu-ray
Last month, a pair of newly remastered Hammer Films “classics” — Horror of Dracula (1958) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) – were re-released into Blu-ray. The parade continues in the new year with the restoration and release of The Plague of the Zombies (1966), which, absent Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, could get lost in the recent flurry of Hammer products from Scream Factory and Warner Archives. In effect, the period horror anticipated George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which gave the long-dormant, if undead subgenre a contemporary, distinctly American tenor. Even without Lee and Cushing, John Gilling (Blood Beast from Outer Space) and writer Peter Bryan (Trog) deserve to share some of the credit, with Romero, for shaping the ongoing Zombie Apocalypse. Shot back-to-back with Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), Hammer saved money by reusing many of the same sets, most noticeably the main village on the backlot at Bray Studios. Somehow, though, The Plague of the Zombies looks none the worse for the wear. In a remote 19th Century Cornish village, an evil presence lurks within the darkness of the witching hour. A mysterious plague relentlessly consumes lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) enlists the help of his mentor, Sir James Forbes (André Morell). Desperate to find an antidote, they instead encounter inexplicable horror: empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, they discover a deserted tin mine, where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of slaves. The importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean was already banned by law, but it came too late to halt the flow of voodoo rituals from the colonies. Without drawing much, if any undue attention to itself, The Plague of the Zombies, remains terrifically entertaining and as good as any Hammer production of the 1960s. Diane Clare and Jacqueline Pearce were even allowed to keep their clothes on for the full 90 minutes, while being pursued by grabby zombies. The supplemental features include an original theatrical trailer; making-of featurette; restoration comparison; and “Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead,” an episode of the “World of Hammer.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Addiction
PBS: NOVA: Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire/Volcano on the Brink
PBS: Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals
PBS: NOVA: Flying Supersonic
PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis
In the “NOVA” presentation, “Addiction,” viewers can hear first-hand accounts from individuals struggling with addiction and follow the cutting-edge work of doctors and scientists, striving to find cures, treatments and ways to curtail the epidemic. At the same time, the show’s producers investigate the stigma attached to addiction by people who’ve yet to feel the effects of the scourge in their lives. They also ask why such drugs and prescription medications as heroin, fentanyl and OxyContin are as readily available and affordable as they’ve ever been, especially in areas of the country where unemployment is high and hope for a meaningful future is non-existent. While scientists are revealing how addiction affects the brain, other professionals are gathering evidence about how we should address our drug problem, from embracing evidence-based treatments, to rethinking public policies. Forcing our legislators to reign in Big Pharma and its lobbyists would be a place to start, but that would mean refusing to take money from the companies that manufacture the poisons, without following the money back to the sources.

In the two-part “NOVA” presentation, “Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire” and “Volatile Earth: Volcano on the Brink,” an intrepid team of volcanologists embarks on an expedition to explore the Virunga Mountains in east Africa. It’s where two of the world’s most dangerous, spectacular and least understood volcanoes can be found. Viewers are also invited to join a team of scientists exploring another one of the world’s most active and mysterious volcanoes, Nyamuragira, in central Africa. What learn what feeds its frequent eruptions and what it portends for the tens of millions of people living on or near the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire.

For those fans of “Downton Abbey” who’ve already toured the great estates and mansions once inhabited by Britain’s upper crust, PBS now offers “Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals.” The three-disc set explores the ancient cathedrals and abbeys that have dominated the landscape for centuries and reflect the nation’s turbulent history through their architectural grandeur. The 432-minute mini-series features interviews with historians, architects and clergy, as well as footage showing their legendary facades and soaring interior spaces. Among other things, the producers go back to ancient blueprints and manuscripts, while using drones to capture images only available to birds and angels.

How many viewers remember a time when supersonic aircraft – military and commercial – flew across the country, scaring unsuspecting citizens with thunderous “sonic booms.” They became such a nuisance that Congress outlawed such flights over populated areas on the mainland and from landing and taking off from airports in the interior. It effectively killed an industry that catered to the rich and impatient and relied on frequent flights between far-flung countries. “NOVA: Flying Supersonic” recalls the historic international race to develop the first supersonic airliner, Concorde, and the choreographed effort to design and build it in two countries simultaneously. It also interviews pilots and flight crews. Then, it invites us to follow Concorde’s legacy to a new generation of innovators, hoping to revive the dream of supersonic passenger travel.

Now that the third season of PBS’ Victoria has begun airing, the network’s home-video wing is re-releasing “Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season,” in Blu-ray, at the original British-TV length.

From PBS Kids arrives “Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide,” in which the title character and his pals take on their nemesis, Ronald, in four exciting adventures. To win the neighborhood Hide ’N’ Seek Championship of the World, the challengers will have to learn how to master the art of camouflage from wild animals.

Nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis” is comprised of six underwater adventures, featuring Marshall, Chase, Zuma, Skye, Rubble and Rocky. Together, they save Puplantis, rescue a wiggly whale and save the Sea Patroller from pirates.

The DVD Wrapup: Mid90s, Oath, Obamaland, Bad Reputation, Hell Fest, Time Freak, Kusama, Oddsockeaters, Bent, Harry/Sally, Nemesis, Frontline, Cats … More

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

Mid90s: Blu-ray
Olympics purists may be saddened to learn that skateboarding will debut as an officially recognized event at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, alongside surfing, climbing, baseball/softball, karate and the 28 permanent sports. Others, not so much. The world didn’t end when bowling, roller hockey and water skiing became demonstration sports. In proposing the inclusion of the five temporary activities, representing 18 separate events and 474 male and female competitors, IOC President Thomas Bach said, “We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect anymore that they will come automatically to us. … Taken together, the five sports are an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games.” What Bach probably meant to say was, “We want to take the Olympics to the youth,” in the same way that organizers of the Winter Olympics have profited from the recognition of events popularized by the widely televised X Games. In addition to a boost in ticket revenues, the exposure could produce a boom in equipment sales in the host country.

Jonah Hill’s endearing dramedy, Mid90s, is only the latest entry in a long list of movies in which skateboarding plays a key role in the social development of borderline characters looking for a reason to wake up in the morning. For his directorial debut, Hill decided to stick with a subject near and dear to his heart. In the DVD/Blu-ray’s lively commentary track, the Crossroads School graduate and two-time Academy Award nominee – Moneyball (2012), The Wolf of Wall Street (2016) – reminisces about his own boarding experiences as a youth growing up on mean streets of Cheviot Hills, on L.A.’s West Side, and working at Hot Rod Skateboard Shop, on Westwood Boulevard. It’s where he met several of the kids, from diverse backgrounds, who influenced characters in Mid90s. Although Hill doesn’t profess to be an expert skater or ambassador for the sport, the film’s 13-year-old protagonist, Stevie (Sunny Suljic), didn’t fall very far from the tree. Although, at first glance, Stevie doesn’t look much like the kind of kid who would be physically and verbally abused at home by his older brother and alienated from his single mother. He more closely resembles a puppy in the window of a pet shop, begging for a loving family to claim him. That’s pretty much what happens when he begins to hang out at skate shop, where a group of older slackers kill time by smoking cigarettes, riffing on each other with homophobic slurs and bragging about their sexual exploits. After inadvertently becoming the brunt of one of their word games, he’s adopted into the gang as a sidekick. He graduates after attempting a dangerous jump and nearly killing himself in the process.

In addition to providing an outlet for fun, away from home, the older boys serve as surrogate fathers and inadvertent role models. As such, they not only help him to grow as a skater, but mature as a social being, willing to risk the perils of getting high, smoking cigarettes, guzzling booze, dropping pills and being embarrassed during his first encounter with a sexually aggressive girl. As is usually the case in such coming-of-age flicks, Stevie will be required to experience a come-to-Jesus moment as the 85-minute Mid90s nears its conclusion. Hill handles the situation with compassion, as well as concern for his audience’s feelings. Suljic, who’s already appeared in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Unspoken (2015), fulfills the role of Hill’s alter ego here, even if he looks completely out of place as a gang member. Katherine Waterston and Lucas Hedges are fine in roles that are largely overshadowed the wasted wastrels. They’re played by Na-kel Smith, Olan Prenatt,  Gio Galicia and Ryder McLaughlin, all of whom look as if they might have been cast from a lineup at a local skate park. The music, too, reflects an eclectic mix of 1990s’ sounds, ranging from punk and funk, to hard-core hip-hop, grunge and a delightful take on The Mamas & the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love.”

It’s interesting that Hill decided to position Mid90s midway between the Venice Beach scene depicted in Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) and Lords of Dogtown (2005), and the IOC’s overdue decision to exploit boarding’s popularity in the 2020 Gamers. The boys who hang out at the shop aren’t nearly as talented as the skaters introduced to us by Stacy Peralta in those films and The Search for Animal Chin (1987) and Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (2012). Hill acknowledges being influenced more by Kids (1995), This Is England (2006), Ratcatcher (1999) and The Sandlot (1993), in which awkward kids find surrogate families away from home. In 1978, “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf broke into the business as co-writer/producer of Skateboard, which introduced Tony Hawk and Tony Alva to non-skating audiences. It would be followed by such theatrical releases as Thrashin’ (1986), Gleaming the Cube (1989), Grind (2003), Paranoid Park (2007) and Skate Kitchen (2018). Enlightening documentaries have included the cautionary Helen Stickler’s Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (2002), Fruit of the Vine (2002), Who Cares?: The Duane Peters Story (2005), Rising Son: The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi (2006), D.O.P.E., a.k.a. Fallen Idols (2008), All This Mayhem (2014) and Minding the Gap (2018). Mike Hill’s The Man Who Souled the World (2007) was also set during the halcyon days of the 1990s. The international contingent is represented by Skateistan: Four Wheels and a Board in Kabul (Afghanistan, 2011), Wasted Youth (Greece, 2011), This Ain’t California (Germany, 2012), Cruzando el sentido (Spain, 2015), Deckument: od rolke do skejta (Slovenia, 2015) and Nightsession (Germany, 2015). There are several others, of course, ranging from celebratory shorts to the family comedy, Sk8 Dawg (2018). The DVD/Blu-ray of Mid90s adds Hills commentary, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, and deleted scenes.

The Oath
Obamaland
Twenty, even 10 years ago, the premise behind Ike Barinholtz’ “social thriller, The Oath, would be less credible than those informing most zombie flicks. At a time when NFL owners have refused to hire Colin Kaepernick to replace their broken-down quarterbacks, simply because they fear incurring President Trump’s wrath, anything is possible, however. The President’s own hometown team, the Washington Redskins, might have walked into the playoffs if they’d given the former 49ers’ star a chance. The same can be said about two or three other teams. Instead, the owners cheated their fans, players and employees by ensuring early on that the playoffs would have to wait until next year, if then. Although the U.S. Constitution was ratified well before the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “God Bless America” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” many lock-step patriots felt as if they were honor-bound to condemn Kaepernick for exercising his right to protest police brutality and racial oppression.

Ike Barinholtz’ The Oath takes place at a time in contemporary American history when the government has announced plans for enforcing “The Patriot’s Oath,” a document that encourages, but doesn’t require U.S. citizens to endorse. Those who do agree to sign on, however, are offered tax incentives and other privileges not accorded to those who refuse. Because the deadline falls on Black Friday, the decision weighs heavily on families gathered for Thanksgiving. They include the one invited to spend the holiday weekend at the home of Chris and Kai (Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish), a mixed-race couple who have agreed not to sign the pledge. Chris’ father and mother (Chris Ellis, Nora Dunn) are don’t-rock-the-boat types, who prefer to ignore what’s going on around them. His sister and brother-in-law (Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass) are liberals, if not nearly as unwaveringly doctrinaire as Chris, while his right-wing brother and sister-in-law (Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner) accept anything they hear on conservative news outlets as the gospel. Even though they all agree not to bring up politics over the dinner table, news of riots in major cities can’t be ignored by Chris or his polar-opposite sister-in-law, Abbie. As unpleasant as they are, however, their arguments are trifling compared to the unexpected arrival of Peter and Mason (John Cho, Billy Magnussen), agents of the Citizens Protection Unit, which ostensibly targets Chris for preventing someone from signing the oath. Barinholtz’ script remains murky as to the nature of the crime, since no one is obligated to sign the document, or who informed on him. One of the agents meets Chris’ protests with heavy-handed brutality, prompting viewers to foresee a home-invasion drama in which the violence overpowers the dark humor. Instead, The Oath bounces back and forth between the agents holding the stronger hand and the increasingly disturbed family members coming together to defend themselves against the unpredictable enforcer. Even then, however, it’s difficult to empathize with the characters, who are either too strident in their views or aren’t as clearly drawn as Chris and Abbie. Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) is too good a comedian to blow all the opportunities for laughs and the veterans actors make the best of everything handed them. As ruined-Thanksgiving movies go, I prefer  Jodie Foster’s raucous family dramedy, Home for the Holidays (1995). Alan Arkin and Jules Feiffer’s offbeat study of urban paranoia, Little Murders (1971), remains relevant, as well.

Greg Bergman’s scattershot political satire, Obamaland (a.k.a., “Obamaland Part 1: Rise of the Trumpublikans”), takes an even more dubious premise and finds laughs in the possibility of near-term anarchy. If Bergman appears to take political sides, it’s only in defense of a story that could appeal to fanatics on either side of the current political divide … not that many of them go to the movies. The story opens in 2017, after the fictional death of newly elected President Trump in a mysterious fall from Trump Tower, taking VP Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan with him. (A newscaster describes it as one of the “worst luncheon-related tragedies” in history.) Exploiting the political vacuum, Barack Obama declares himself President-for-Life. Flashing forward, to 2040, a godless, gunless America has been renamed Obamaland and divided into curiously drawn states, dictated by political and geographic imperatives. Obama not only has acknowledged his Kenyan roots, but also his commitment to socialism and everything his opponents accused him of being during his first eight years as president. Now that he’s grown too old and goofy to hold together his Rainbow House coalition, a handful of diehard Trump loyalists have decided to overthrow the government from such chain-restaurant outposts as Applecheez, Chilibees, Cracker Garden and Olive Barrel. PBS, which has somehow morphed into the Patriot Broadcasting Service, now serves as the official voice of the rebel factions. Frankly, it’s impossible to fairly describe what happens in Obamaland, without risking misinterpreting Bergman’s intentions. That said, I found plenty of his ideas and gags to be quite funny, especially the ones that pushed the envelope on good taste. The DVD adds deleted scenes.

Time Freak: Blu-ray
Sixteen years ago, multihyphenate filmmaker Andrew Bowler released his first feature, The Descent of Walter McFea, into the purgatory of PPV, VOD and other Internet sources. Such streaming services were still in their infancy and no one could predict how well straight-to-video genre pictures would perform on the new medium. Even if it didn’t generate a lot of waves in the early-aughts, “Walter McFea” still exists on the fringes of the www. He had better luck with his next cinematic venture, “Time Freak,” a 2011 short that did very well on the festival circuit and occasionally is shown on the wonderful ShortsTV network. Shorts, especially those that have done well on the festival circuit, have lately served as calling cards and launching pads for many of today’s youngest and brightest filmmakers and actors. Neither are they routinely dismissed as excess baggage on the Academy Awards broadcast. Indeed, the nominees now are shown before the ceremony in theaters, making it easier for fans to fill out their Oscar pools. Like so many other nominees, Time Freak would be developed into a feature-length film. Both versions of Bronson’s concept are included on the new DVD/Blu-ray from Lionsgate. As far as I can tell, Time Freak would be released theatrically in one or two theaters in the U.S., before hitting the ancillary markets, and a half-dozen foreign countries. (It still has February playdates scheduled in Belgium and the Netherlands.) While it only made $10,000 here, Time Freak recouped $150,000 elsewhere. Those numbers may not sound impressive, but any theatrical exposure helps DVD and PPV sales. If the time-travel conceit sounds as if it’s equal parts Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and (500) Days of Summer, it bears repeating that Time Freak is based mostly on Bowler’s original 10-minute creation and, in any case, Mark Twain’s 1889 novel, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and H.G. Wells’ 1895 “The Time Machine” set the standard before motion pictures captured the nation’s fancy. Here, a teenage math/physics wizard has formulated an algorithm that allows him to travel back in time, using his cellphone. Instead of going back to opening day at Disneyland or the invention of the telephone, Stillman (Asa Butterfield) elects to correct mistakes made during his relationship with a blond bartender/musician, Debbie (Sophie Turner). I probably would have opted to crash Elizabeth Taylor or Natalie Wood’s Sweet 16 parties, instead.

Being something of an egotistical nerd, Stillman continues to repeat mistakes similar to the ones that initiated their breakup a year earlier. A time machine may be able to do a lot of things, but correcting social faux pas isn’t one of them. His many blunders required Bowler to add 94 minutes to the length of the Time Freak short, as well as a separate romantic throughline involving a buddy. Evan (Skyler Gisondo), who accompanies Stillman on his excellent adventure, if you will, falls for a vivacious young woman (Aubrey Reynolds) he meets on one of their trips back in time. Even with the movie’s extra padding, however, Stillman continues to pull dick moves. For example, just as Evan is about to score with his hard-to-get girlfriend, Stillman cock-blocks his digitally linked companion, forcing him to return to the future immediately. (Theoretically, eliminating any opportunity for them to meet again in real time.) As such, I think that Time Freak plays better to teen and YA audiences, looking for an offbeat romance, than to anyone else. The actors should be familiar to them from The Space Between Us (Butterfield), Game of Thrones and X:Men: Apocalypse (Turner), Vacation (Gisondo) and The Outcasts (Will Peltz). The special features include commentary tracks, interviews and the source short.

Bad Reputation
Kusama: Infinity
Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution
Three years after Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Kevin Kerslake’s revelatory rockumentary, Bad Reputation, explains why the honor was so criminally late in coming. In 2014, Krist Novoselic had used the occasion of Nirvana’s induction to decry the historically myopic association’s lack of recognition for the woman alternately credited as the “godmother of punk,” “queen of noise” and “role model for the Riot Grrrl movement.” Jett then joined Novoselic and Dave Grohl in a hard-core rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A year later, when Jett’s turn finally arrived, Miley Cyrus cracked up the crowd by admitting, “I’m going to start off this induction with the first time I wanted to have sex with Joan Jett. … She’s been the first to do many things and not just as a woman, but as a badass babe on the planet.” That classic rock-’n’-roll moment was followed by a kickin’ collaboration on the 1968 Tommy James and the Shondells’ hit, “Crimson and Clover,” which Jett covered in 1982. The academy has famously ignored punk, garage and fringe artists, while celebrating the commercial success of singers who broke little or no new ground. In addition to delivering three albums that have been certified Platinum or Gold, Jett and her various bandmates recorded such anthemic singles as “Cherry Bomb,” “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” “I Hate Myself for Loving You” and “Dirty Deeds.” More than anything else, perhaps, she’s faced and survived four decades’ worth of de facto sexism in the music-recording industry and misogynistic practices of label executives, managers, promoters, club owners and fans. That’s in addition to the garden-variety corruption and thievery attendant to the business. Bad Reputation is far less solemn an exercise than that makes it sound, however. The 90-minute documentary is also funny, inspirational and informed by good music. It chronicles Jett’s roller-coaster life and career, from the rise and collapse of the Runaways; her do-it-yourself rebound; her traumatic attempt to achieve mainstream success on a major label; a near fatal crash-and-burn as a punk rocker; waning popularity in the 1980s; resurgence via early Warped Tour appearances; political and social activism; and attaining rock-icon status as the industry struggled to keep up with technology and indies. Among the people interviewed are Cyrus, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Adam Horovitz, Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill), Michael J. Fox, Kristen Stewart, Billie Joe Armstrong, Iggy Pop, producer Carianne Brinkman (The Runaways), and several other contemporaries. Adding no small amount of humor and insight, however, is Jett’s longtime producer, manager, confidant, “schlepper” and fellow Blackheart, Kenny Laguna, who receives nearly as much face time as Jett. The bonus features include extended interviews and performance footage.

In the music business, at least, women could make a name for themselves as singers, writers or instrumentalists. In the art world, women are even less visible than background singers in a Las Vegas showroom. Visit any major museum and count the names of female artists who are represented on their walls and galleries. It won’t take long. Things have improved in the last 20-30 years, but, as Heather Lenz’ terrific bio-doc, Kusama: Infinity argues, it’s primarily because feminists forcefully demanded seats at the table inside one the world’s most rigidly segregated boys’ clubs. This was especially true, when, in the mid-1950s, avant-garde sculptor and installation artist Yayoi Kusama chose to exit the close-minded art establishment in Japan and try here luck in the United States, beginning in Seattle. Before arriving in New York, a year later, Kusama contacted Georgia O’Keeffe, who had broken the mold created for women in the American art establishment and, for decades, served as the exception that proved the rule. Kusama’s brilliantly colored and fanciful deployments of polka dots, nets and flowers would complement the work of pop artists ranging from Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Her series of Mirror/Infinity rooms also struck a chord, alongside embellishments of everyday items with white phallic protrusions. The counterculture movement of the late 1960s allowed her to expand her vision to include “happenings,” which frequently involved nudity, body painting, music and political activism. In 1966, Kusama participated in her first Venice Biennale, for which she created a Narcissus Garden comprised of hundreds of mirrored spheres. She infuriated organizers by installing her “kinetic carpet” on a lawn outside the Italian pavilion and selling individual orbs for about $2 a piece. It was her way of protesting the commercialization of popular art and artists – not that a few more sales of her own work would have killed Kusama – and willingness of key players to endorse celebrity over content. Kusama: Infinity follows the artist, who was in poor health, back to Japan, where she decided to experiment with writing shockingly visceral and surrealistic novels, short stories and poetry. In 1977, after her attempt to broker art, Kusama checked herself into the Seiwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, where she eventually took up permanent residence. She has been living at the hospital since then, by choice, and is allowed daily visits to a nearby studio, where she continues to churn out pieces in a variety of mediums. Today, it’s safe to say that her sculptures, paintings and installations are more popular than ever. They enchant schoolchildren drawn to the toy-like creations in museums in Tokyo and her hometown of Matsumoto, as much as adults who’ve followed her work to the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York. At 89, Kusama still accepts commissions and remains an outspoken observer of the international art scene. Kusama: Infinity may only be 76 minutes long, but Lenz fills them with wonderfully whimsical visuals and the kind of biographical and critical insight that should have been available to art lovers decades ago.

And, while we’re discussing deeply entrenched sexism in male-dominated institutions, it would be short-sighted of me to ignore the scientific community. Over the span of 144 densely constructed minutes, John Feldman’s Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution explores the life and ideas of a largely unheralded woman, who challenged long-held theories on Darwinism, biology, evolutionary theory and symbiosis, while facing derision, ridicule and staunch opposition from her male peers. Not all of them, of course, just the ones who stood to lose their grants, reputations and federally funded facilities if her theories were confirmed. Margulis’ research transformed current understanding of the evolution of cells, with nuclei, by arguing it was the result of symbiotic mergers of bacteria. Eminent German biologist Ernst Mayr called it “perhaps the most important and dramatic event in the history of life.” I’ll have to take his word for it, because most of what’s discussed in Symbiotic Earth went so far above my head that it might as well be in Earth orbit. Later, in the mid-1970s, she collaborated with British chemist James Lovelock on the Gaia Theory, which proposed that all life in the “biosphere” is interconnected and interdependent. It wasn’t until Margulis turned 60, in 1998, that she was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and awarded a National Medal of Science, by President Clinton. Ironically, these honors were bestowed only after she was elected Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science and the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Outside of scientific circles, Margulis probably was probably known best for her seven-year marriage to astronomer Carl Sagan (1957-64) than anything else. Later in life, her reputation for being a maverick sometimes got the best of her, especially when she was accused of being an “AIDS denialist” and a “9/11 truther.” That part of her life isn’t covered here, however. There’s plenty of high-grade beef to savor in Symbiotic Earth. How much of it lay viewers will be able to digest, however, is debatable.

Hell Fest: Blu-ray/4K UHD
I grew up in a neighborhood where the most daring thing we did on Halloween involved visiting our city’s many working-class taverns to beg the boozehounds for loose change and the occasional pickled egg. The haunted-house phenomenon didn’t erupt for another couple of decades, with theme parks raising the ante for cheap thrills. I don’t know how much money is spent on such seasonal attractions at Universal City, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags and Disneyland each year, but’s possible that the price tags exceed the $5.5 million set aside the budget for Hell Fest, which takes place in just such a place. There’s been no shortage of movies that have been set in fantasy haunted houses. Like Gregory Plotkin’s sophomore feature, these gore-fests usually involve a psycho killer preying on participants who pay to be scared witless, if not actually murdered. Because the killers so closely resemble the costumed characters played by civilians or actors, they tend to blend into the woodwork. The victims, too, look as if they were disemboweled or decapitated solely for the amusement of customers. Naturally, when one of the victims’ friends goes missing and alerts security here, the rent-a-cops chalk it up to being part of the Halloween-night experience. I’ve only seen a few of these movies — Hell House LLC (2015), The Funhouse Massacre (2015), The Devil’s Carnival (2012), among them – but I can’t remember any of them being as elaborately designed or with more background activity.

We learn early on that Stephen Conroy’s psycho-killer, known simply as the Other, has struck before and favors a mask and outerwear favored by any number of monsters from 1980s’ slasher films. While all six of the college-age kids that form the nucleus of Hell Fest’s central cast of characters are young, attractive and horny, the Other marks Natalie (Amy Forsyth) as his primary target. Some of her friends will stumble into harm’s way, but their horrible deaths are shown primarily as testimony to the Other’s cruelty. Not surprisingly, the loathing reserved for Hell Fest by mainstream critics was balanced by the favorable reactions shared by everyday viewers. It probably made a little bit of money for Lionsgate, but not enough to assure a sequel, despite its open-ended conclusion. It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that Plotkin’s list of recent credits includes editing Get Out (2017) and Happy Death Day (2017) and directing Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015). In October, Michael Perry’s production design was replicated at select Six Flags locations, as a cross-promotion between the movie and the theme park’s Halloween activities. The Blu-ray adds “Thrills and Kills: Making Hell Fest,” which includes 16-minutes’ worth of backstage material, including cellphone video of the cast goofing off. The 4K UHD presentation works wonders with the predominantly dark and shadowy interiors, brightly lit exteriors and creepy costumes and makeup.

The Great Battle: Blu-ray
The easiest way to summarize the Korean historical-action drama, The Great Battle, is to compare it to Hollywood epics based on the siege of the Alamo, with the good guys winning … depending on whether the viewer is Korean or Chinese. Critics have also compared Kim Kwang-sik’s war picture to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or mega-assaults in “Game of Thrones.” The Great Battle relates the story of the Siege of the Ansi Fortress, where 150,000 Goguryeo forces held back 500,000 invading Tang soldiers and laborers, in a battle that raged for 88 days, from June 20 and September 18, in 645 A.D. (Goguryeo was one of the three kingdoms of Korea, located in the northern and central parts of the peninsula and the southern and central parts of Manchuria.) The siege was part of first campaign in the Goguryeo-Tang War. In 645, Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong led a military campaign against Goguryeo to protect his allies in the kingdom of Silla and punish Generalissimo Yeon Gaesomun (Yu Oh-seong) for killing King Yeongnyu. Goguryeo commander Yang Man-chun (Jo In-sung) committed his officers and troops to keeping the invaders from pushing toward Silla, even against a superior force and such siege weapons as catapults, battering rams and assault towers. Even if some of the details don’t square with historical theory, the 136-minute movie, at its core, is one long battle, enhanced by tens of thousands of CGI warriors and cavalry; hundreds of archers; and carefully constructed fortifications. The hand-to-hand swordplay is thrilling, as well. The Blu-ray adds a couple of short EPK items, with interviews.

The Oddsockeaters
Pegasus: Pony With a Broken Wing
Based on the best-selling books by Czech writer and translator Pavel Srut, The Oddsockeaters is an animated yarn that can be enjoyed by anyone who’s ever wondered why their socks disappear, one at a time, and can’t be found when a full pair is needed. Because this includes kids, parents and grandparents, Galina Miklínová’s fantasy – winner of the Children’s Jury Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2018 Chicago Children’s Film Festival – practically defines what cross-generational family viewing should be. And, no one will notice the dubbing into English. In it, we’re introduced to the lives of the Oddsockeaters, small bandits who are largely invisible to humans. After the protagonist, Hugo (Krystof Hadek), loses his grandfather, he moves to the house belonging to his uncle, “Big Boss,” and his two nutty cousins. It’s here that he encounters Professor René Kaderábek (Josef Somr), who’s devoted his life to revealing the existence of the elusive creatures to the world. Hugo’s also called upon to rescue one of his cousins from a rival gang. The action is fun to watch and, for those seeking a redemptive lesson, Hugo learns about the limits of greed and true meaning of loyalty.

In Giorgio Serafini’s Dove-approved live-action adventure, Pegasus: Pony With a Broken Wing, a wounded white stallion makes an emergency pitstop on Earth. Fortuitously, the winged steed lands at a horse-rescue ranch in need of some divine financial intervention. Newcomer Eliza Jarrett plays Sydney, a teenager whose family’s business is being threatened by a greedy developer (Tom Arnold, naturally). With time running out, Sydney discovers the not-so-mythical horse, limping around in the forest. His presence prompts the girl’s family to attempt a desperate plan to bail out the ranch. As they do their best to care for the horse, the family comes together to carry out a daring plan to save Pegasus and the ranch. Jonathan Silverman, Charisma Carpenter, Johnny Sinclair and Jennifer Griffin play family members, while Jordan Elsass lends his hunky presence as the teen heartthrob.

Bent: Blu-ray
Adonis
In 1979, when Martin Sherman’s play, “Bent,”  debuted in London, very little was known about Nazi Germany’s persecution of homosexuals. Even less was known about the German Penal Code of 1871’s Paragraph 175, which made homosexual acts between males a crime and effectively allowed Adolph Hitler to incarcerate suspects in concentration camps , where they were identified by a pink triangle. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that the statute was stricken from the legal code. On May 17, 2002, two years after the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s shocking documentary, Paragraph 175, that Nazi-era convictions of homosexuals were annulled, as were those of deserters from the Wehrmacht. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2016 that the German Federal Minister of Justice announced it was investigating the possibility of pardoning and compensating all gay men convicted under Paragraph 175. In June 2017, the law was passed in the Bundestag by an overwhelming majority in all parties. In total, around 140,000 men were convicted under the law, including 50,000 from 1946-69. Only an estimated 10,000 of those imprisoned survived the camps. (More than 12,000 women and men deemed to be asocial — prostitutes, nonconformists and lesbians, among them – were sentenced to hard labor in camps and required to wear an inverted black triangle. An estimated 6,000 of these prisoners would die there. ) “Bent” has been credited with taking this footnote in Holocaust history and giving it a chapter of its own in WWII and LGBTQ studies. The release of Sherman’s 1997 film adaptation and Paragraph 175 would trigger future investigations, legal action and reforms. Until then, it’s likely that audiences outside Germany, at least, were unaware of the statute’s continued existence.

Although Bent, the movie, lost much of its emotional impact in its belated translation to film, it remains a powerfully heart-wrenching drama. Set in the aftermath of the murder of SA leader Ernst Röhm, on the Night of the Long Knives, Bent opens at an open-air bacchanal that picks up where Cabaret’s divine decadence left off. (Mick Jagger entertains the patrons as the transvestite, Greta, while sitting on a swing hanging from a beam in the no-longer-intact building.) One of the men attracted to party-animal Max – Clive Owen, in a role initiated on the West End by Ian McKellen and Richard Gere, on Broadway – is a uniformed Nazi soldier, who’s being followed by Gestapo spies. Before the Night of the Long Knives is over, the soldier will have his throat slit by stormtroopers, while Max and his live-in lover, Rudy (Brian Webber), manage to escape into a largely abandoned factory district. It’s where Greta provides them with men’s clothes he uses to pass, when he’s not singing. After turning down an offer for exit papers from his Uncle Freddie (McKellen), Max elects to hide in a forest with Rudy until his closeted relation can scrape up a second set of papers. In short order, Max and Rudy are captured by police, escorted to a train destined for Dachau and ordered into a box car, already occupied by men and women deemed undesirable. On the way to the camp, Max is forced to complete the torture of his doomed lover, already begun by a masochistic SS officer. It’s here that Max also meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who’s being transported to his second camp and, by now, knows the ropes of confinement. Cocky to the end, Max refuses to believe that he can’t survive the ordeal using his wits. He chooses to wear the yellow triangle, designating him as Jewish, instead of the pink triangle reserved for homosexuals, who are accorded even lower status on the camp’s pecking order. Both men will be assigned chores designed to drive them insane – or make a futile attempt to escape the camp – while also fomenting an illicit romantic relationship in their imaginations, if nowhere else. By the end of the story, Max will be forced to decide whether his love for Horst – a character who’s since emerged as an early martyr in the annals of the gay-liberation movement — is superseded by his natural tendency to survive at all costs, by denying his homosexuality. That he’s likely to die, anyway, as a Jew, is beside the point. Bonus features include cast and crew interviews, a Mick/Greta music video, making-of footage and a new essay, by Steven Alan Carr, author of “Hollywood and Anti-Semitism.”

While the emergence of a thriving LGBTQ cinema is a welcome addition to the menu of choices available to mainstream and arthouse audiences, it’s still difficult to find examples outside the international festival circuit, independent distributors of DVD/Blu-ray titles, and Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. Because even the most deserving of these titles tend to land outside the niche marketplace, however, it’s difficult to accommodate them in theaters. (Dedicated streaming services Dekkoo and Revry have emerged recently as competitors to mainstream outlets.) GLAAD identifies Wolfe Releasing, Strand Releasing, IFC Films and Sundance Selects, Film Movement, Gravitas Ventures, Magnolia Pictures, Open Road Films, Starz Distribution and Breaking Glass Pictures as reliably consistent distributors of LGBTQ films.

This month’s selection from Breaking Glass is noteworthy for Adonis, the seventh feature by writer/director/producer Scud (a.k.a., Danny Cheng Wan-cheung), whose previous titles include Voyage, Utopians, City Without Baseball, Permanent Residence, Amphetamine and Love Actually… Sucks! To paraphrase a time-honored critics’ dodge, “they’re not for everyone.” Because Scud has refused to dilute the more overtly homoerotic imagery in his films, they exist in the nether region separating sensuality and soft-core porn. His latest, Adonis, revolves around Adonis Yang Ke (Adonis He Fei), an actor at the Beijing Opera, who, desperate for money to care for his ailing mother, enters the world of high-end prostitution. For his own selfish reasons, Adonis’ milquetoast manager (Justin Lim) steers him in the direction of extreme modeling, voyeurism, bondage, S&M, body sushi, mass orgies and group sex. He also takes on the occasional well-heeled female client. Within that realm, Adonis finds friends and comradery, while also confronting hypocrisy and avarice. In addition to the frequently poignant character study, Scud provides a visual tour of the haunts of rich and privileged perverts, with stops in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan and Stanley districts; the gambling mecca, Macau; Thailand; Taiwan; and Indonesia’s lush Riau Islands. All are beautifully rendered by cinematographer Nathan Wong (Chasing the Dragon). If some of the sexual material is rough to watch, there’s no doubt that Scud didn’t have to go too far to find source material and gorgeous young men willing to use their bodies to get a leg up in the world. The bonus material includes “Interviewing the 30s,” a making-of featurette and interview session with nude cast members and a primly clothed reporter.

Also, from Breaking Glass comes “Male Shorts: International V2,” the second volume of an international collection of five short films focusing on men, including “Free Fall,” “Enter,” “Sr. Raposo,” “Ocaso,” and “Twice.” The films are presented in their original language (Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian) with English subtitles; and Simon Chung’s I Miss You When I See You, in which a pair of high school  friends’ emotional attachment is interrupted when one them moves to Australia with his mother. The reunite a dozen years later, in Australia, where Jamie and Kevin are reminded of what they saw in each other, in the first place. Inevitably, Jamie must decide between society’s expectations, by marrying his girlfriend, or following his heart back to Hong Kong.

Nemesis: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Albert Pyun’s cyberpunk action thriller, Nemesis, straddles the line dividing cult classics and guilty pleasures. Advancing ideas introduced in Blade Runner, the 1992 release is set in Los Angeles, 2027, when illegal androids and cyber-terrorists have become commonplace and human criminals enhance themselves with mechanical components, making them “more than human.” Alex Raine (Olivier Gruner) is a disillusioned LAPD bounty hunter, who, during a routine mission, is attacked by a group of cyborg freedom fighters, the Red Army Hammerheads. After undergoing months of cybernetic reconstruction, Alex tracks down his female nemesis (Jennifer Gatti) and kills her. Now identified as an out-of-control maverick, he’s hunted by his android handlers on the LAPD, one whom is an ex-lover, Jared (Marjorie Monaghan), reporting to Commissioner Farnsworth (Tim Thomerson). When Jared goes rogue, the commissioner calls in Alex to prevent her from collaborating with the Hammerheads. After 15 minutes of this back-and-forth, I stopped trying to figure what was happening, focusing, instead, on such veteran  hard guys as Thomerson (Trancers), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Rising Sun), Yuji Don Okumoto (The Karate Kid Part II), Brion Howard James (Blade Runner), Jackie Earle Haley (The Bad News Bears) and newcomer, Thomas Jane (“Hung”), as well as such heavenly bodies as Gatti (“Vice Principals), Monaghan (“Babylon 5”), Deborah Shelton (Body Double), Marjean Holden (“BeastMaster”) and the petite bombshell, Merle Kennedy (Bubble Boy). After a while, the foot chases, stunt work and half-assed special effects reframed the picture for me. Even so, it’s difficult to understand why the folks at the increasingly aggressive MVD Rewind Collection invested so much energy into this special collection. It includes four separate feature-length versions of the movie – one in sparkling hi-def, another in Japanese – new interviews, commentary, making-of material, introductions, after-words, a mini-poster, photo gallery and the valuable “Kill-Count” featurette.

Obsession: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
8mm: Blu-ray
Shout and Scream Factories continue to release titles from yesteryear that, in most cases, look better today than they did upon their release. That isn’t to suggest that the critics were wrong when they gave the films mediocre reviews, or worse, just that some vintage studio products stand up to comparison better today than anyone could have expected they would. At the time of Obsession’s release, in 1976, Hollywood was still feeling its way around Brian De Palma and his obsession with Alfred Hitchcock. If the well-received Sisters (1973) reminded everyone who saw it of Rear Window, Obsession would elicit comparisons to Vertigo, even from a none-too-pleased Hitchcock. Today, we’re able to watch the films without trying to figure out if De Palma was a one-trick pony or simply a film-school graduate with delusions of grandeur. Turns out, he was neither. Co-written with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), Obsession opens as New Orleans property developer Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) and his wife, Elizabeth (Geneviève Bujold), are about to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary with a gala party. The next day, Elizabeth and their 9-year-old daughter, Amy, are abducted and held for ransom. The plot begins to thicken as soon as the kidnappers realize that the briefcase delivered to them by Cortland contains stacks of blank paper, instead of money. Just as the police are about to storm the hideout, the kidnapers escape, with Elizabeth and Amy, in a car destined to collide with a tanker carrying gasoline. It explodes into flames, leaving no doubt of the victims’ fates. Courtland’s mourning period lasts for 16 miserable years, during which time his business partner, Robert (John Lithgow), loses several deals due to Michael’s inattention to duty. The two men decide to combine a little business with pleasure on a trip to Florence, where, dig this, Cortland becomes infatuated with a fresco restorer, Sandra Portinari (also Bujold), who not only is the same age his daughter would have been had she survived the crash, but also is a dead-ringer for Elizabeth. There’s no way that I’m going to reveal anything more about Obsession, because everything that follows their meeting qualifies as a spoiler. Suffice it to say, that De Palma and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s makes great use of the Florence and New Orleans’ locations, while Bernard Herrmann’s score is an instant reminder of his work with Hitchcock (Vertigo). Fortunately, De Palma and Schrader’s conceits don’t get in the way of the intrigue – too often, anyway – and Obsession can be enjoyed on its own merits. Leave time for the new and vintage featurettes and commentary, with Douglas Keesey, author of “Brian De Palma’s Split-Screen: A Life in Film”; “Producing Obsession,” an interview with producer George Litto; “Editing Obsession,” with editor Paul Hirsh; and “Obsession Revised,” an older piece, featuring interviews with De Palma, Robertson and Bujold.

Joel Schumacher’s 8mm (1999) is a tad more problematic, if only because its snuff-film throughline too readily recalls Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up (1986), which already had mined similar territory. Neither were 8mm’s chances for success enhanced by Schumacher’s willingness to dig deeper into the porn underground than any of those three pictures. The sleaze is sleazier; the characters are grubbier; and the violence is more graphic. Nicolas Cage delivers an atypically measured portrayal of a private detective, whose obsessive search for the truth surrounding a six-year-old crime involves a wealthy family and teenage runaway. By following a path paved with the deceased patriarch’s cancelled checks, Cage’s Tom Welles invariably winds up in the lowest circles of Dante’s Inferno. His Virgil surrogate, Max California (Joaquin Phoenix), escorts him through the S&M dungeons, basement studios and peep-show palaces of L.A. and New York’s porn underground. It’s where Welles finds an 8mm film that appears to confirm his worst fears, but also produces a sliver of a lead toward to the fiend who produced it. By the time his investigation is put to bed and the blood starts to dry, Welles discovers yet another circle of hell … the one inside his head. Because Schumacher didn’t pull any punches in his literal interpretation of the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), 8mm ran the risk of being tagged with the NC-17 rating it probably deserved. Even so, Sony found it difficult to market the film, without appearing to exploit its sex and violence. It’s all explained in a lively new interview with Schumacher, as well as an archived commentary with the producer. Part of the fun here derives from checking out supporting performances by Phoenix (Walk the Line), James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Anthony Heald (The Silence of the Lambs), Amy Morton (Up in the Air), Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich) and Chris Bauer (“The Deuce”).

When Harry Met Sally: 30th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
I’m going to go out on a very short and wobbly limb by assuming that everyone who’s likely to check out Shout’s commemorative edition of  When Harry Met Sally probably has already watched it several times, albeit with less-than-optimum visuals. It’s one of those comedies that diehard fans check out whenever it’s on cable, even if they own it on VHS and DVD, and some women can quote verbatim … just like guys who’ve memorized every line of The Godfather, Scarface and Joe Pesci’s rants in Goodfellas. Who knows how many otherwise normal couples have visited Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Houston Street, to find the table at which the orgasm scene was filmed and attempt to repeat Sally Albright’s ecstatic soliloquy. (The table now has a plaque on it that reads, “Where Harry met Sally … hope you have what she had!”) Fact is, after 30 years, When Harry Met Sally holds up very well as a romantic comedy for the ages … not simply as a date-night confection, either. Billy Crystal may have been 40 years old when he shared a ride to New York with Meg Ryan, then 27, but he ages well throughout the movie. Director Rob Reiner was still at the top of his game, as was the late Nora Ephron, who practically created the template for such entertainments. Likewise, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby and Estelle Reiner, all of whom look fabulous, here, but are no longer with us. Their deaths are the only thing that lends an air of sadness to the newly recorded “Scenes From a Friendship” gabfest between Reiner and Crystal. If they repeat anecdotes and memories previously recorded for commentaries on earlier Blu-ray editions, chalk it up to old age and going over the same material for the millionth time. Also included are deleted scenes, a Harry Connick video and a trio of archived featurettes.

Willie Dynamite: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Unlike some blaxploitation classics released into Blu-ray recently, Willie Dynamite holds up today as an example of what can be accomplished on a miniscule budget and with a lot of imagination. As we’re told in Sergio Mims’ informed commentary, it was one of last films of its kind made before the studios lost interest in black audiences. Unfortunately, Michael Campus’ pimpin’ classic, The Mack, had been released only a few months earlier, reducing any pent-up interest in the subgenre. Production partners Zanuck/Brown and Universal Pictures were pre-occupied with such lucrative joint ventures as The Sting (1973), Jaws (1975) and The Sugarland Express (1974). The inattention forced director Gilbert Moses (The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh) and his design team to improvise. In doing so, they set the standards for the next 40 years of pimps-and-hoes-ball fashions and transportation. (We can only hope the furs were of the faux persuasion.) When we meet the title character, he’s the flashiest pimp in New York, with a stable of working girls who service only the most desirable clients. He drives a personalized purple-and-gold Cadillac and carries a derringer in a holster that droops to within an inch of his johnson. Somewhere along the way, Willie managed to piss off the cops to the point where they’ve launched an all-out assault on his business and bankroll. Jealous of his access to ready cash and beautiful women, the cops act the way they always  do in blaxploitation pictures. While he’s down, the pimp brotherhood does its best to keep him there. The rest of Willie Dynamite unspools like a morality play designed to discourage youngsters from following him into the game. Beyond that, some lively dialogue, flamboyant acting and vocals by Martha Reeves & the Sweet Things compensate for the lack of nudity and realistic violence. (The lingerie anticipated Victoria’s Secret by several years, though.) Now, here’s the kicker: Willy is played by Roscoe Orman, known for his work on The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999) and Follow That Bird (1985). Besides the commentary tracks, the Arrow Video package adds a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips, and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with writing on the film by Cullen Gallagher.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: The Pension Gamble
PBS: Frontline: The Facebook Dilemma
PBS: Nature: Super Cats
PBS: A Chef’s Life
Garfield: 20 Stories
American states and municipalities are facing so many different financial crises, it’s become impossible for politicians to know which one to take on next. With the disappearance of solid investigative reporting by local newspapers, radio and television stations, most citizens are unaware of impending problems, until it’s too late to fix them. One of the most ominous is the growing inability of states to fill the $4-trillion hole they’ve dug while borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. For many years, major cities, like Chicago, avoided strikes by public workers by promising them retirement benefits that have since become unsustainable. Aftershocks from the 2008 recession have practically ensured that the worst is yet to come. “Frontline: The Pension Gamble” investigates the consequences for teachers, police, firefighters and other public servants in Kentucky, a historically solvent state whose leaders kept the citizenry in the dark about the mismanagement of the futures. In 2000, a series of Kentucky politicians, reluctant to raise taxes, began to divert pension savings to pay their bills and fund other projects.
“The pension was used basically as a piggy bank,” journalist John Cheves tells “Frontline” producers, also comparing it to “a slow-motion car crash.” After the 2008 financial crisis, the geniuses managing Kentucky’s public pensions decided that in order to dig out from under, they would sample some of Wall Street’s more exotic and risky investment vehicles, like hedge funds. Wall Street was only too happy to provide the cars the states would drive over the nearest cliff.

“Frontline” also tackled “The Facebook Dilemma,” which no one knew existed until the Russians used the social-media giant to steal the 2016 election for their good friend, Donald Trump. Depending on where one is sitting on the deck of the Titanic, the election debacle was either the tip or unseen bottom of the iceberg. What began as a matchmaking service for Ivy League horndogs has grown into an amoral beast that sells data gleaned from subscribers to anyone able to afford it. How it’s used is anyone’s guess. Maybe, there’s a market for selfies of subscribers and their babies, cats and vacation destinations. “Frontline” investigates a series of warnings from insiders and outsiders that went unattended by Facebook, as the company grew from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm-room project to a global juggernaut. The promise of Facebook was to create a more open and connected world, but the company’s failure to protect millions of users’ data led to the proliferation of “fake news” and disinformation that Zuckerberg can barely acknowledge, let alone prevent. The two-part report features original interviews and rare footage.

You don’t have to be a cat person to enjoy PBS’ “Nature: Super Cats,” but, if you are, it will provide 160 minutes of memorable entertainment.  Cats of one variety, or another, prowl almost every continent and come in all sizes and personality types. The three-part mini-series was filmed over 600 days, in 14 countries, and features 31 species of cat. It introduces behaviors captured on film for the first time, using the latest camera technology and scientific research. While we expect to see the elusive Himalayan snow tiger in its natural habitat, we’re surprised by scenes featuring the swamp tiger of South Asia; a half-blind California bobcat; a tiny black-footed cat that hunts more in one night than a leopard does in six months;  a mother Pallas’ cat and her kittens; a puma, preying on Magellanic penguins; and a leopard capturing a sea turtle.

After five seasons on PBS affiliates, “A Chef’s Life” served its last hungry diner on October 22, 2018. Vivian Howard hosts “The Final Harvest,” a farewell feast for the ages. The show’s most popular personalities share their favorite moments, along with a series-worth of memorable flashbacks. It’s a fitting sign-off to a series that served as a veritable to eastern North Carolina. The series won a Peabody Award in 2013, “for its refreshingly unsensational depiction of life and work in a modern restaurant, with generous sides of Southern folkways and food lore.”

The animated episodes of “Garfield and Friends” represented in Public Media Distribution’s “Garfield: 20 Stories” have been previously released, recycled and repackaged under different titles, so, as usual, caveat emptor. They first appeared in the show’s Saturday-morning timeslot on CBS, in the season before the network decided the series was too expensive to produce and gave it the old heave-ho. Twenty-five years later, they remain as delightful as they were when Jim Davis’ creation was the fattest of all fat orange cats on television and video, in newspaper funny pages, video games, comics anthologies and all manner of tie-in products. Garfield’s since found homes in features films and the Internet. The 20 stories collected here allow viewers to tag along with the lasagna-loving feline and friends, as they re-imagine his favorite fairy tales, bring history to life and solve crimes big and small. Children can follow Garfield on a tour of a movie museum and learn about famous show-business cats in films. The DVD has a running time of 142 minutes.

The DVD Wrapup: 2018’s Most Memorable Titles, Hobbyhorses, Martyr, CMA Live, Tailspin Tommy, Gilda, Miracle Worker … More

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Last year’s list of best DVD/Blu-rays was headed by Criterion Collection’s “100 Years of Olympic Films.” The company  topped itself in 2018 with the cineaste’s dream compilation “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” which spans six decades of the maestro’s work – 39 films – and includes 11 introductions, 6 commentaries, a pair of rarely seen documentary shorts, more than 5 hours of interviews with Bergman and many of his key collaborators, several featurettes and a lavishly illustrated 248-page retrospective book. Criterion’s other must-own collection is “Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood, 1930-1935,” which focuses on Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, The Devil Is a Woman and other related topics. I’ve tried to group the other top titles by genre.

Action & Adventure
Black Panther: Blu-ray/4K UHD, will Wakanda be represented at Oscars?
Mission:Impossible: Fallout: Blu-ray/4K UHD, Tom Cruise goes to extremes, again.

Animation & Fantasy
The Incredibles 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD, a worthy sequel that only gets better in ultra-high definition.
Coco: Blu-ray/4K, the dancing dead look and sound great in any format.
The Monkey King 3: Blu-ray, the final installment in an ancient trilogy.
Once Upon a Time: Blu-ray; Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings: Blu-ray; and Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days: Blu-ray, exotic blends of Chinese history, mythology and martial arts.

Comedy
The Big Lebowski: 20th Anniversary Limited Edition: 4K UHD, the Dude bowls us over, again.
Sorry to Bother You: Blu-ray, telemarketers from hell and back.
Robin Williams: Comic Genius, 100-plus performances on 22 DVDs.

Crime
American Animals: Blu-ray, a hare-brained scheme to steal Audubon’s “Birds of America.”
68 Kill: Blu-ray, how many ways can a perfect plan go haywire?
Bad Day for the Cut: Blu-ray, a profoundly Irish tale of revenge.
Small Town Crime: Blu-ray, the smaller the town, the bigger the crime.
You Were Never Really Here: Blu-ray, Lynne Ramsey’s assassin with a heart.
The Third Murder: Blu-ray, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s legal prelude to Shoplifters.
In Her Name, in France, justice delayed is (almost) justice denied.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song: Blu-ray, the first blaxploitation gem.

Documentary
Chavela, a great Mexican artist recalled in words and song.
Whitney: Blu-ray, the only documentary on the singer’s life that matters.

Drama
The Insult: Blu-ray, an escalation of words into violence in Beirut.
Novitiate: Blu-ray, a girl struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.
Loveless: Blu-ray, feuding parents lose track of their son in Moscow.
In the Fade: Blu-ray, in wake of tragedy, a German woman seeks revenge.
First Reformed: Blu-ray, Ethan Hawke’s performance makes him awards front-runner.
A Prayer Before Dawn: Blu-ray, fighter faces heavy odds in Thai prison.
The Suffering of Ninko: Blu-ray, a monk confronts his irresistible sexual appeal.

Giallo
Suspiria: Special Edition: Blu-ray, the original, less-messy version of Argento’s masterpiece.
Dario Argento’s Opera: Blu-ray, never trust a psycho-fan.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage: Special Edition: Blu-ray, Dario’s directorial debut.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails: Special Edition: Blu-ray, Malden and James Franciscus, Italian Style.

Horror & Suspense
The ToyBox: Blu-ray, haunted RV turns on its new owners.
A Quiet Place: Blu-ray/4K UHD, Krasinski and Blunt find a quiet place to die.
Hereditary: Blu-ray/4K UHD, can Toni spring an Oscar surprise?
Annihilation: Blu-ray/4K UHD, horror meets sci-fi in dystopian future.

Indie
Skate Kitchen: Blu-ray, coming of age on a skateboard built for one.
Blindspotting: Blu-ray, Oakland gangstas confront gentrification.
Eighth Grade: Blu-ray, 13-year-old finds solution to growing up on social media.

Science-Fiction
2001: A Space Odyssey: 4K UHD, Kubrick’s visionary film looks better than ever on UHD.
The Wild Boys: Blu-ray, ‘Lord of the Flies’ reinvented for a different generation of kids.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn:  Picnic at Hanging Rock: Blu-ray, Aussie mini-series adds intrigue to mystery.
Acorn: Detectorists: Complete Collection: Box Set, off-beat British  comedy finds motherlode.
Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition, more from the man who shaped comedy on TV.
Paramount: Yellowstone: Blu-ray, taking ‘Dallas’ to Big Sky country.

Westerns
Woman Walks Ahead: Blu-ray, finally a feminist, revisionist Western.
The Rider: Blu-ray, injured rodeo star faces life-or-death dilemma.
Lean on Pete: Blu-ray, boy rescues horse, horse rescues boy.
The Hired Hand: Blu-ray, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates’ great Western bromance.
Mohawk: Blu-ray, revenge never goes out of fashion in Old West.
The Ballad of Lefty Brown, a traditional Western for revisionist times.
Hostiles: Blu-ray/4K UHD, a rugged return home for legendary Cheyenne war chief.
Damsel, Mia Wasikowska may be a damsel, but she’s hardly in distress.
Dances With Wolves, Steelbook Edition: Blu-ray, Costner’s extended epic looks gorgeous in Blu-ray.

Books on Film
Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story (Screen Classics), the women who’ve taken bruises for stars.
Native Americans on Film (University of Kentucky), can Hollywood put stereotypes behind it?
Jarmila Novotná: My Life in Song (University of Kentucky), crossing over from opera to the movies.
Buster Keaton in His Own Time (McFarland), what the responses of 1920s critics reveal.

Martyr
In Beirut, a city nearly destroyed by mindless partisan violence and unceasing bloodshed, unexpected deaths once were as common an occurrence as the delivery of milk and bread to the corner market. Although things have calmed down – at least, in comparison to Syria and Iran – the possibility of a young man being gunned down on his way to school or worship still exists. What isn’t expected, though, is the accidental death of a son, friend or lover while participating in an activity typically associated with fun and sport. In Martyr, Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) is one of countless young Lebanese men for whom a college degree is no more useful than a medal earned in a long-ago war. The jobs he’s managed to land have been menial and unfulfilling and his parents have begun to question his desire to put his diploma to work. They’re especially unhappy by his daily trips to Beirut’s rocky shoreline, where a group of friends gather to kill times, get some exercise and, one suspects, flirt. One this particular day, Hassane decides to show off by taking a running leap off a guard rail, into a watery space cluttered with submerged rocks and cement blocks. Although it’s likely that Hassane’s head hit a rock and knocked him unconscious, all writer/director Mazen Khaled wants us to see his body floating in the murky water unable to swim. By the time his friends get to the body, it’s already too late to resuscitate the young man. Because there’s only a trickle of blood on his forehead, we keep waiting for a miracle to happen. When it doesn’t, though, all we can do is stare at Hassane’s nearly pristine body and, like his friends, wonder why his god chose this day for him to die. The only thing left for them to do is rush his body to his parents’ home for prayers and ritual absolution.

His parents and sister are beside themselves with grief, of course. Hassane’s father asks the friends stay for the cleansing of the body, so they can witness for themselves the fragility of life and finality of death. Before that can happen, however, the father and uncle debate the question as to whether Hassane died a martyr and if the mullah will recognize it as such. It’s important because one of the Islamic sects doesn’t consider death outside of war to be worthy of Allah’s mercy, while another defines martyrdom in less absolute terms. It’s complicated. What matters most to the friends is that the ritual is performed with as much sensitivity and precision as possible. Khaled transforms the funeral into a contemplative appreciation of the young     man’s life; the beauty and sensuality of corpse; and youth, friendship, and love, in general. Moreover, he shapes the mourning sequences into modern dance, underwater ballet and tableaux vivant. It’s beautiful, without also being morbid or melodramatic. Knowing that Martyr was nominated for the Queer Art Award and Queer Lion awards at festivals in Lisbon and Venice, it’s natural to wonder if the film’s specifically targeted at the LGBTQ community or its appeal is universal. In this case, it’s the latter. If it weren’t the four shirtless men on the Breaking Glass DVD’s cover, the question may not have arisen. While Martyr certainly can be interpreted as a movie of special interest gay audiences, it also should resonate with Muslim viewers and anyone whose interests aren’t limited to events in their own backyard. The DVD adds Khaled’s well-regarded 2012 short film, “A Very Dangerous Man.”

Hobbyhorse Revolution: Blu-ray
Six years ago, Laurent Malaquais’s Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony (2012) shone a light on a subculture almost no one existed and, once exposed, few could even begin to comprehend. It explored the resurgence of interest in “My Little Pony,” when, in 2010, the “Friendship is Magic” reboot caught fire among girls, their moms and, way behind the scene, a group of adult and teen males known as bronies (“bro” + “pony”). Many of the men interviewed cited the show’s celebration of friendship development in young viewers — from first impressions to true connections – and how the characters accept each other’s differences and work out their small troubles through peaceful means. It’s a swell message and the bronies didn’t seem to care who delivers it. For detractors, however, there was something perverse about men and teenage boys embracing a hobby designed to entertain 5-year-old girls and sell toys and accessories, no matter the ecumenical philosophy. Many adults will find Selma Vilhunen’s Hobbyhorse Revolution off-putting – at first, at least – for similar reasons. Hobby horses have long been associated with equine characters in certain traditional seasonal customs — May Day, Mummers’ plays and the Morris dance in England — and similar processions and observances around the world. The ones in Vilhunen’s documentary refer to the toys made of a broom stick with a small horse’s head (of wood or stuffed fabric) and, perhaps, reins, attached to one end.

Historically, the word, “hobby,” can be traced to the 14th Century Middle English and Old French terms, hobin or haubby, which characterize a “small or middle-sized horse … an ambling or pacing horse … a pony.” According to Scottish author George MacDonald Fraser (“Flashman”), border horses, called hobblers or hobbies, were small and active, and trained to cross the most difficult and boggy country, “and to get over where our footmen could scarce dare to follow.” Here, the use of “hobby” refers more to activities or pastimes that consume the spare time of practitioners, young and old. The film follows three pubescent Finnish girls — Aisku, Elsa and Alisa — whose lives have been transformed by their new obsession: the design, creation, “training” and riding of hobbyhorses in competition. Thanks to the social media, the girls know they aren’t alone in this unlikely hobby, which ostensibly could set them apart from the cool kids and bullies their age. It’s possible, as well, to discern a certain something missing in their lives, whose absence is filled by personalizing the old-fashioned stick toys, making them beautiful and training them to excel in competition. Beats Barbie, anyway.

In addition to designing and producing horses’ heads for themselves, some of the girls make money doing it for other girls, who will add names, personalities and backstories to them … not unlike Cabbage Patch Kids and American Girls dolls. The difference is that many of these horses are deployed in Olympics-style equestrian events, such as dressage and show jumping, where their riders will be judged for poise, execution, precision and presentation. Afterwards, groups of girls will conduct group and drill-team events, on their own. It’s said that the phenomenon now has over 10,000 devotees in Finland, alone, with interest growing in the United States, after it was featured in the Wall Street Journal, ESPN and on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Like other obsessions attributed to so-called nerds, geeks and loners, hobby-horsing is described as an instrument of self-expression and female empowerment. Even so, watching a roomful of girls – as giddy as they are determined to win – jumping, cantering and galloping on a makeshift course, while straddling their show horse, can strain credulity, as if it were an activity invented for a mockumentary. That feeling dissipates after watching the most troubled of the girls – a mixed-race Finn, facing detention in youth facility — finally take charge of her life, by becoming a coach for younger competitors. Her reactions to her girls’ performances wouldn’t be out of place in any “kiss and cry” space reserved for ice-skaters and their coaches in competition. For the first time, perhaps, she can anticipate a meaningful future.

Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery
I haven’t spent as much time watching vintage serials as some folks, so all I can say with any certainty about Universal’s “Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery” is how much it appealed to me as a layman. First, the set up. In the second series of episodes featuring ace airman-for-hire Tailspin Tommy Tompkins (Clark Williams, replacing Maurice Murphy) and his comic wingman, Skeeter Milligan (Noah Beery Jr.), are enlisted by Ned Curtis (Bryant Washburn) to do a survey for an oil pipeline across the mountains of Nazil. Curtis is the wealthy uncle of the lovely and adventurous Betty Lou Barnes (Jean Rogers, replacing Patricia Farr) and Nazil is an imaginary island located somewhere off the coast of California, Mexico or Central America. Arriving late, they miss the departure of the dirigible carrying Curtis, Betty Lou and her friend, Inez Casmetto (Delphine Drew), daughter of Curtis’ partner, Don Alvarado Casmetto (Harry Worth). The dirigible is torn apart in an intense storm, but Tommy and Skeeter are still able to assist the rescue of crew and passengers. They eventually get to Nazil, where Don Alvarado’s no-good brother Manuel (Herbert Heywood) and associate Horace Raymore (Matthew Betz) are plotting to take over the oil fields that would supply the pipeline. For the time being, Tommy and Skeeter hold the advantage over the conspirators. They’re also aided by a mystery flyer (Pat J. O’Brien), known as “El Condor,” who tends to arrive out of nowhere in the nick of time and vanish in a cloud of exhaust smoke. When El Condor is duped into landing his eagle-motif plane to rescue a downed airman, Manuel captures the flier and puts one of his own men – duplicitous Garcia (Paul Ellis) — in the pilot’s seat. In between all the yack-yack-yack and strategizing, there’s plenty of exciting of aerial action, with dogfights, bombing raids and loop-the-loops. Ray Taylor and a half-dozen writers make it stretch for 12 reasonably entertaining episodes, all except one ending in a cliffhanger. The serials were based on the adventure comic strip “Tailspin Tommy,” which was syndicated to newspapers from 1928 to 1942. It was the first aviation-related strip to appear after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. If Skeeter looks familiar, it’s because Beery would go on to play Rocky, in “The Rockford Files.”

Love, Gilda
Lisa D’Apolito’s heart-wrenching bio-doc, Love, Gilda, is a frequently hilarious love letter to the late Gilda Radner, a gifted actor and comedian who died far too prematurely, at 42, in 1989. Although the indefatigable Detroit native may be best remembered today as the first founding member of SNL’s Not Ready for Prime-Time Players, her tenure on the show lasted 99 episodes in five seasons. Radner was a terrific physical comedian, mimic and inventor of unforgettable characters, some drawn from her personal life. She was a natural. After dropping out of the University of Michigan and moving to Toronto, where she made her stage debut in “Godspell.” It starred a rotating group of comic actors who would follow each other to Toronto’s Second City and, then, to “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Some would try their luck on television, either on “SNL” or the similarly groundbreaking “SCTV.” Gilda became famous for her boundless energy, fearless physicality and a smile that wouldn’t quit. Even so, she battled bulimia while working on “Saturday Night Live.” Before leaving the show with the other original cast members, in 1980, Radner realized a personal dream by starring in a one-woman show on Broadway, which allowed her the freedom to stretch out a bit. In 1982, she met and fell in love with Gene Wilder, with whom she would act in three Hollywood movies. In 1986, Radner began her three-year battle with ovarian cancer. Love, Gilda is filled with video clips from her shows, of course, while the personal elements are informed by diaries; her autobiography, “It’s Always Something,” written during a period of remission; home movies; and the recollections of friends and cohorts. In an especially nice touch, cast members from future “SNL” seasons read passages from her autobiography. Finally, we’re reminded of Radner’s posthumous legacy, which includes her standing up to her killer with a sense of humor, courage and grace that inspired countless other cancer patients, and Gilda’s Clubs, a network of affiliate clubhouses, co-founded by Wilder, where people living with cancer, their friends and families can meet to learn how to live with the disease. While extremely poignant, Love, Gilda isn’t nearly as sad or depressing as it could have been, thanks mostly to Radner’s gigantic smile, unruly curls and magnetic personality. The DVD adds more interviews, home movies and a gallery.

Abrazos: Tango in Buenos Aires
With all the attention currently being paid to competitive dancing by television networks, Facets Media has chosen the right moment to resurrect Daniel Rivas’ 2003 documentary, Abrazos: Tango in Buenos Aires. Set during the fifth Buenos Aires Tango Festival, the film celebrates a populist art form that originated here in the 1880s, when natives mixed with slave and European immigrant populations to create something all their own. It’s survived the edicts of Argentine dictators, economic travail and whims of popular culture, while also being embraced by dancers in Europe, the United States and Japan, all of which were represented in the multi-faceted nine-day competition. The musicians and singers we meet are renowned within the borders of Argentina, and sometimes beyond, as they maintain a working-class legacy not unlike that of American blues, Spanish flamenco, Portuguese fado, French bal-musette and Greek rebetiko. (Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis summarized the key elements of rebetiko as love, joy and sorrow, all of which apply to the tango, as well.) Like the singers, dancers in groups and pairs are accompanied at various times by full acoustic orchestras or soloists on bandoneon, a cousin of the concertina. The dancers are judged as much by their appearance – men in formal wear; women in strikingly colorful, form-fitting and sleek dresses, some split up to here — and how they move “as one” with the music. At 85 minutes, however, it’s the dances themselves that give way to the meeting and greeting of competitors from around the world, rehearsals and fine-tuning, and brief profiles of the participants. Another 20 minutes of competitive dancing would have gone a long way. The tango has hardly been a stranger to movies and documentaries. Others that come to mind are, Fernando E. Solanas’ Tangos, the Exile of Gardel (1985), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, German Kral’s Our Last Tango (2015), Lorena Muñoz and Sergio Wolf’s I Don’t Know What Your Eyes Have Done to Me (1997), Robert Duvall’s Assassination Tango (2002) and Carlos Saura’s Argentina (2015).

Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker
On August 31, 2017, I opened my review of Jonathan Baker’s debut feature, Inconceivable, with, “Halfway through the crazy-nanny thriller ‘Inconceivable,’ I got a funny feeling that I’d seen it before, at least once. A bit later, I remembered Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which is memorable in ways that Jonathan Baker’s picture never will be. In fact, the only thing that’s really stayed with me is watching Nicolas Cage play the rock of stability between two hysterical women: the sinister surrogate and babysitter played by Nicky Whelan; and the middle-class suburban mom, desperate to have a second child, portrayed by Gina Gershon.” Inconceivable may have opened in a couple of theaters, but it failed to grab the attention of anyone at Box Office Mojo or more than a handful of critics at Rotten Tomatoes, where it scored 31 percent. The production was “troubled” from Day One and I doubted that Baker deserved all the blame. Well … little did I know at the time that I’d be asked to review a documentary, “Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker,” in which the director/actor describes the movie’s conception as something bordering on immaculate. Having broken into the business in 1987 as exec producer of the video hit, “Dorf on Golf,” Baker’s since become a fixture in reality shows that range from “The Amazing Race” and “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” to “Dr. Phil,” “The Girls Next Door” and “Kendra.” (On the Amazing Race Wiki, he’s described as “annoying, loud, abusive and quite possibly the most hated contestant ever.”) A native New Yorker of indeterminate age, Baker’s a handsome devil, who’s enjoyed success in businesses associated with personal lifestyles and health care. Naturally, all Baker’s really wanted to do is direct.  Mission accomplished.

Although Neal Thibedeau is credited as director of “Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker,” it’s a vanity project from start to finish. Divided roughly into two separate parts, the first chronicles directorial advice he’s received in taped interviews with Jodie Foster, John Badham, Taylor Hackford, Adrian Lynne and presumed BFF Warren Beatty, whose name is dropped at least two dozen times, but is never actually seen, except in photos. (Baker and his wife, Victoria, purchased Beatty’s first house.) The advice is sound and agreeably presented. The second half appears to have been intended as a warts-and-all making-of doc, minus most of the warts associated with Inconceivable. It also goes long on Baker’s youthful obsession with movies and his ability to navigate the mean streets of Manhattan without much parental guidance. He recalls on-set conversations with Nicolas Cage, Gina Gershon and Faye Dunaway, as well as battles with studio executives, who, we’re led to believe, know less about making a low-budget picture than a first-time director and frequent realty-show contestant. In his own defense, however, Bishop has made one more movie than 99.9 percent of everyone else on the planet and has his calls returned by Warren Beatty. He also has a personalized headstone already waiting for him in a Westwood cemetery. How many of us can say that? If nothing else, “Becoming Iconic” would make a great double-feature with The Disaster Artist.

CMA Awards Live: Greatest Moments 1968-2015
Time Life continues to take the lead in compilations made from awards shows, including the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association, and various television specials. “CMA Awards Live: Greatest Moments: 1968-2015” is a three-disc set, taken from the more comprehensive 10-disc compilation of the same title, costing $100 more and containing a 44-page booklet. Both offer five decades’ worth of performances, highlights and memories from country music’s more legitimate awards ceremony. It includes songs performed by Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Kenny Rogers, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton, plus newly produced interviews and featurettes. Then, too, there are collaborations between Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow and Loretta Lynn on “Coal Miner’s Daughter”; George Strait and Alan Jackson, singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Mark Knopf and Ricky Skaggs, performing “Go Rest High on That Mountain”; and Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”

TV-to-DVD
NBC: The Miracle Worker: Blu-ray
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Woman in the Iron Coffin
PBS: NOVA: Transplanting Hope
Smithsonian: The Real Story: Master and Commander
The Dick Cavett Show: And That’s the Way It Is
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Mind Of …
Typically, stunt casting is employed to generate publicity for a project that needs a little bit more attention paid to it. In Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), for example, the casting of Jack Larson and Noel Neill in noticeable cameos effectively reminded older viewers of their characters, Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane, in the original TV series. When, in 1979, NBC decided to re-adapt William Gibson’s Tony Award-winning play, “The Miracle Worker,” for television, Melissa Gilbert, a franchise player on the network’s “Little House on the Prairie,” was a lock to play Helen Keller. There was, however, no shortage of actors available to play Anne Sullivan. At 48, Anne Bancroft was too old to reprise her Tony- and Academy Award-winning portrayal of Keller’s 20-year-old instructor and governess. In a stroke of casting genius, the role went to Patty Duke, who played Keller on Broadway, and, like Bancroft, won an Oscar for Arthur Penn’s film adaptation, in 1962. It would result in her third Primetime Emmy and Gilbert’s first nomination. (Gibson wrote the play, screenplay and teleplay.) Because the play is one of the most frequently revived theatrical works in the English language, it would be difficult to find anyone unfamiliar with Keller and Sullivan’s mutual struggle to communicate in the only way available to them. Often frustrated and desperate, Helen would fly into uncontrollable rages and tantrums that terrified her hopeless family and, initially, Sullivan. Their “Eureka!” moment, at the water pump, retains its power to tug at the heartstrings of audiences. Newcomers might appreciate seeing the TV version over the original, if only because it’s in color. Both filmed adaptations, available on Blu-ray, are worth the viewers’ time.

PBS’ fascinating “Secrets of the Dead: Woman in the Iron Coffin”  describes the arduous task of determining how the title character came to be discovered, in 2011, by construction workers in an abandoned lot in Queens, New York. The show follows forensic archaeologist Scott Warnasch and a team of historians and scientists as they investigate the woman’s story, revealing a vivid picture of what life was like for free African-American women and men in the North, before the Civil War. Even without too much help, it shouldn’t be difficult for followers of the series to speculate correctly on how the woman’s body found its way into an iron casket. Everything else surrounding that central question, however, shines a light on how Americans lived then and how such mysteries are solved on today’s cutting edge of science and technology.

And speaking of being on the cutting edge, PBS’ “NOVA: Transplanting Hope” takes viewers inside the operating room to witness organ-transplant teams transferring organs from donors to recipients.  We’re also introduced to families navigating both sides of a transplant, and researchers working to end the organ shortage. Their efforts to understand organ rejection, discover ways to keep organs alive outside the body, and even grow artificial organs with stem cells, could save countless lives.

Smithsonian Channel’s “The Real Story” not only serves the valuable purpose of sorting out the baloney from the facts in movies “inspired by actual events,” but it also adds context sometimes neglected by the filmmakers constrained by time and money. The latest DVD installment of the series examines Peter Weir’s exciting 2003 historical drama, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Based on the first three novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brien, the $150-million film changed several key elements that inspired the action in the books. O’Brien’s story was set in April 1805, during the Royal Navy’s campaign against French warships during the Napoleonic Wars. In it, the H.M.S. Surprise, a British frigate under the command of Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), is on a mission to track and capture or destroy the French privateer, Acheron. The formidable French war vessel was operating in seas around South America and the Galapagos Islands when confronted by Aubrey. In the Hollywood version, the H.M.S. Surprise was given a fighting chance over the faster, fictional Acheron by modeling it after the USS Constitution, a wooden-hulled, three-masted heavy frigate of the United States Navy. Most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 against the United Kingdom, Old Ironsides captured numerous merchant ships and defeated five British warships. Weir describes how the Surprise was re-imagined to make it as formidable as the Constitution – which is still a commissioned ship and is usually berthed in Boston — primarily by using live-oak planks on its hull, in addition to less-dense white oak. Tests reveal just how much difference live oak makes by firing a cannon round at it. Production designers share their ideas for the movie, with facts presented naval historians and wood workers.

Unlike most of television’s current late-night hosts, whose humor targets a relatively narrow demographic range, Dick Cavett didn’t tailor his interview technique or choice of guests for audiences that cut their teeth on MTV and comic-book movies. He was smart and funny, and he didn’t underestimate his audience’s interest in people he thought they should know, no matter the flavor-of-the-month celebrity. Cavett’s biggest chink, I think, was a tendency to banter as if he were the invited guest, instead of the host, and the audience was there for his amusement.  Some of that self-reverence is on display in the latest releases from S’more Entertainment’s series of themed shows from his golden years.

The title of the two-disc set, “The Dick Cavett Show: And That’s the Way It Is,” derives from Walter Cronkite’s trademark signoff on the “CBS Evening News.” There are two Cronkite shows, from 1974 and 1982, one in Cavett’s ABC studio and another from the veteran newscaster’s New England summer home. Interviews with Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer, range from 1970 to 1991, and were first shown on ABC, PBS or CNBC.  If Cavett’s in his element with the adult newscasters, he’s frequently overwhelmed by the childish antics and schtick of the comedians represented on “The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Mind of …,” especially Bobcat Goldthwait and Gilbert Gottfried. The former standup comedian and writer for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson had better luck with Richard Lewis and Robin Williams. None of them were particularly interested in answering the questions put to them, however, causing Cavett to improvise. Even so, it’s fun to watch comedians at a time in their careers when they’d yet to achieve headliner status.

The DVD Wrapup & Gift Guide III: Venom 4K, The Super, Snowflake, Marie Curie, Gamechangers, Who We Are Now, 40 Guns, De Palma-De Niro,, Starman and more

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

Venom: Blu-ray/4K UHD
There are a couple of different ways to watch superhero movies. One is to approach them with only a basic knowledge of the character and its various alias and origin stories. For example, it’s enough to know that Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the one who wears the red costume, including a full-face mask, and is distinguished by his ability to cling to surfaces, shoot spider-webs from wrist-mounted devices and detect danger with his “spider-sense.” It’s also useful, but not essential to know that Spider-Man inherited his moral and ethical code — “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” – from his guardian, the late Uncle Ben. The other way is to approach every new movie with the passion and curiosity of someone who arranges his/her vacation schedule around the annual San Diego Comic and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of one or more characters and storylines, from inception to screen. For anyone over, say, 15, to fully appreciate Ruben Fleischer’s Venom,  it’s necessary to possess a working knowledge of Eddie Brock/Venom’s origin story and those of several other key characters. If not, it’s just another vehicle to show off cool CGI effects, in the service of a disposal story makes little narrative sense. My ass-backwards approach to Venom’s pleasures only derived from an hour, or so, spent researching what I’d just seen.

As portrayed by the ever-watchable Tom Hardy, Brock is a disgraced San Francisco journalist, who lost his job and fiancé (Michelle Williams) in a scandal involving the evil Life  Foundation CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In his weakened state, Brock provides a perfect host for an alien symbiote. Wait, what the hell is a symbiote? It’s probably enough to know that these alien creatures attach themselves to humans in a manner possibly inspired by William Castle’s The Tingler and uses the host’s oxygen to merge into a single predatory entity, through which it’s able to attack its enemies. Conveniently, Venom and Brock share the same goal. Comic-book geeks can trace Venom’s lineage to a cameo in Web of Spider-Man #18 (September 1986) and a more complete reveal in The Amazing Spider-Man #300 (May 1988). The symbiote, and a few others who arrived with it, have served at various times, as supervillains and antiheros, depending on their various hosts. If the original Spider-Man connection is played down in the movie, fans already know how Venom, Riot, Blue and Carnage related to Peter Parker and other vulnerable hosts in their subsequent comic-book and TV iterations. And, while they might not understand why this Marvel Entertainment product ended up at Sony, instead of Disney or Paramount, they probably assume, correctly, that it’s a subject best left to Wikipedia nerds, like moi.

Although Venom didn’t crack the magic billion-dollar barrier, it broke a couple of box-office records and did well enough to ensure franchise status. In the U.S., where critics were far less than kind, Venom surprised observers by grossing $80.2 million on its opening weekend. A month later, in China, it pulled in the equivalent of $111 million on the opening weekend. But, dig this, Sony’s official Chinese social media marketing campaign portrayed Venom as “a loving and caring boyfriend.” An article on Vox.com on November 26 described an early fan-made meme, facetiously depicting Venom as a socialist hero who just wants everyone to join the Chinese Communist Party. Even though it was a “sardonic take on American movies that make a point to cater to Chinese audiences,” it went viral. The PRC debut ranks ahead of the $75.8 million opening for Ant-Man and the Wasp earlier this year and just behind the $84.4 million opening for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Even though a scene shot in San Francisco’s Chinatown was deemed merely coincidental to Sony’s campaign, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see more Asian-American or Asian-based actors show up in prominent roles in subsequent action epics. By contrast, however, Warners’ “An Unexpected Tale of Picking Gold” (a.k.a., Crazy Rich Asians) tanked miserably at the Chinese box office and with critics, one of whom referred to it as a “Panda Express of Chinese culture.” (It also may have had to do with the focus on materialism; the Mandarin accents; and audiences’ expectations of seeing Chinese actors in more traditional fare.) Audience surveys set Venom’s demographic appeal at 59 percent male and 64 percent under 25 years of age. Those numbers aren’t  necessarily consistent with those registered by other action hits.

Hardy adds welcome sparks of humor to human half of his character, and the CGI half doesn’t disappointment, either. Of the supporting cast, only Woody Harrelson/Carnage stands out, in a performance that mimics Hannibal Lector’s confinement to a cage in The Silence of the Lambs. SPHE’s impressive 4K UHD edition of Venom should be considered by families looking for a stocking stuffer in advance of Santa’s delivery of an ultra-high-definition playback unit. It’s enhanced by Dolby Vision  HDR and a Dolby Atmos audio track. It can be played in Venom Mode,” which allows viewers to engage pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics and other hidden references. Bonus features include deleted and extended scenes; the featurettes, “Ride to Hospital,” “Car Alarm,” “San Quentin,” “From Symbiote to Screen,” “The Lethal Protector in Action,” “Designing Venom” and “Symbiote Secrets”; pre-visualization sequences; “Venom” music video, by Eminem, and “Sunflower,” by Post Malone and Swae Lee; and a sneak preview of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

The Super: Blu-ray
In New York City, at least, building superintendents hold an exalted position among other blue-collar workers. Although they sometimes look as if they might have just finished shoveling coal into the boiler – in movies and television shows, at least – some of them control aspects of their tenants’ lives that border on godlike … or demonic. In the hands of German director Stephan Rick (The Dark Side of the Moon) and John J. McLaughlin (Hitchcock), the haunted-tenement thriller, The Super, makes the man holding the job a little of both. In it, former cop Phil Lodge (Patrick John Flueger) takes a job as a superintendent in a Manhattan apartment building. Joining him are his troubled teenage daughter, Violet (Taylor Richardson), and her younger sibling, Rose (Mattea Marie Conforti), who are forced to bunk together in a storage room. When a teenager goes missing, along with several other tenants, Lodge suspects a sadistic murderer may be roaming the shadowy corridors and that his daughters’ lives are in danger. As bad, the building’s master key has gone missing and everyone is vulnerable to attack. Phil has two colleagues: Julio (Yul Vazquez) and Walter (Val Kilmer), who, when he isn’t fixing things, conjures black-magic spells and wanders through the building looking guilty as hell. (His gaunt demeanor and raspy voice can be attributed to Kilmer’s two-year battle with throat cancer.) As is usual in shows created by producer Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), identifying the guilty party isn’t as simple as picking out the most-likely suspects and prosecuting them in court. In fact, unless they’re that episode’s guest star, the first suspects are typically the first to be cleared of suspicion. Observant viewers should, however, be able to identify the scent of something fishy emanating from the bowels of the building and predict one or more of the final twists. They may not satisfy thrill-seekers, but they’re unexpected, nonetheless. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “He Has Your Keys: Making The Super.”

Snowflake: Blu-ray
It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that justified comparisons to the early work of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and the Coen Brothers. So many offbeat crime thrillers in the late-1990s and early-’00s were directly influenced by the holy trinity, I simply assumed that a generation of film-school graduates were more influenced by Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens than by Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Chabrol and Donald Siegel. Even so, publicity blurbs on posters and DVD covers needlessly continue to point out the obvious the similarities in new releases. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that an incoming class of first-time writers and directors are just as likely to emulate genre specialists in Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. In Snowflake, a completely off-the-wall crime thriller from Germany, the debt to Tarantino, Ritchie and the Coens is simply too obvious to ignore. It’s also one of the things that make it easy to recommend.

Virtual newcomers Adolfo J. Kolmerer and “guest director” William James, working from a screenplay by Arend Remmers, have set Snowflake in a dystopian Berlin, where chaos reigns, but residents go about their business as usual. It opens with a couple of young guys debating the quality of the kebab sandwiches served in a restaurant whose floor is littered with fresh corpses. Guns in hand, Javid (Reza Brojerdi) and Tan (Erkin Acar) stroll out of the joint as if nothing untoward has happened, stealing a car to make their getaway. The next morning, they notice a screenplay in the backseat of their makeshift bedroom and are astonished by the script’s word-for-word duplication of their conversation in the restaurant. Moreover, the stage directions and setting also match the bloodbath there. The further they get into the screenplay, the more they recognize their own words, even as they’re being spoken. They trace the name of the screenwriter to a dentist’s office somewhere in Berlin, where the man holding the drill is an aspiring screenwriter. After some light, but effective torture is applied, Arend (Alexander Schubert), admits to writing the screenplay. What he can’t explain is how he’s been able to anticipate their every move and utterance. Javid and Tan assume he’s a soothsayer, however, and demand that he keeps writing the script. They expect a happy ending –for them, anyway – but don’t understand that Arend’s scenarios are divinely inspired. They take a copy of it along with them in their pursuit of a right-wing prophet they blame for the murders of family members. If nothing else, the screenplay allows them to stay one or two steps ahead of teenage assassin Eliana (Xenia Assenza), whose parents were among the innocent bystanders, killed in the restaurant shootout at the restaurant. She’s seeking revenge, too, but only learns about the fascist connection later.

Along with her friend and bodyguard, Carson (David Masterson), Eli contacts a former cult leader, Caleb (David Grant), who appears to be certifiably crazy, but refers her to several increasingly dangerous bounty hunters. Somewhere along the way, she’s joined by superhero vigilante Hyper Electro Man (Mathis Landwehr), who possesses a powerful gift, but isn’t infallible. Caleb also points Eli in the direction of the dangerous right-wing tele-kook, who resembles Adolf Hitler and has assembled a bunker full of stormtroopers. Before finding the hideout, Eli and the bounty hunters converge on a cabaret, where a winged angel in white is entertaining the audience. Schneeflöckchen (Judith Hoersch), has, like a snowflake, descended from the rafters, as if she were an extra in Wim Wenders’ Berlin-set masterpiece, Wings of Desire. By the end of her performance, her wings will be tainted red with blood. By this point in the narrative, it’s become difficult to say if Snowflake is playing out as dictated by the dentist’s imagination or everyone’s heading in the same direction on their own volition. For anyone who’s gotten this far, however, it doesn’t really matter. One of the ways Snowflake resembles Pulp Fiction, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Fargo is how quickly and unpredictably violence erupts in otherwise quiet settings. Viewers are as surprised by the escalation into violence as the victims. Considering how many years it took to make Snowflake, and on such a miniscule budget, it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers come up with next. The Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette.

Marie Curie
Scarred Hearts
MGM and Mervyn Leroy’s 1943 biopic, Madame Curie, merged science and romance in the service of melodrama that covered only half of her remarkable career and fudged elements of her life deemed controversial. It starred box-office favorites Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, who would be finalists in two of the seven Oscar categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture. (I love the fact that Aldous Huxley and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work on the script was rejected.) Several other biographies have followed Madam Curie, including the bio-comedy, Les palmes de M. Schutz (1997), in which Isabelle Huppert played the Polish/French scientist. Marie Noëlle’s Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge (2016) adds much to a layperson’s understanding of her Nobel Prize-winning accomplishments, as well as those of her husband, Pierre (Charles Berling), who preceded her in death; her married lover, Paul Langevin (Arieh Worthalter); and Marie and Pierre’s similarly gifted daughters. The movie deftly depicts, as well, a European community blessed with great wealth and scientific curiosity, but divided by radical and traditional political notions, ethnocentrism, male chauvinism and anti-Semitism, all of which affected Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Karolina Gruszka). Although she wasn’t Jewish, or particularly religious, any foreigner who rocked the status quo in France faced accusations of being Jewish or agitators. Marie was born in Warsaw, in 1867, when the Kingdom of Poland was part of the Russian Empire, and she was a staunch advocate of a separate Polish state. Even after winning the first of her two Nobel Prizes, Skłodowska-Curie was treated by the scientific establishment as a mere participant in Pierre’s accomplishments and  was denied recognition, access to adequate facilities and prestigious positions in the academies. The headline-making scandal that followed Pierre’s death shown a spotlight on Marie that wouldn’t have been directed at her male peers in the same context. Several years older than Langevin, she was imprecisely tarred as a Jewish adulterer and homewrecker.

Marie’s feminist credentials are cemented in a speech she delivered in 1911, while accepting her history-making second Nobel Prize, an honor delayed by the scandal: “We should be less curious to know people, and more curious to know their thoughts.” Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how overtly Noëlle and cinematographer Michal Englert depict her sexual re-awakening after Pierre’s death in a carriage accident. It  includes several semi-nude sequences, that are posed and shot in a gauzy light that recalls the photography in early issues of Penthouse magazine, although there’s nothing remotely pornographic about them. One of the scenes that didn’t require a gauzy haze takes place in 1922, as members of the League of Nations’ newly created International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation – including Curie and Albert Einstein – stroll along a sun-lit beach. When he praises her as the leading female scientist of their time, she chides him for not including male scientists, as well. Gruszka’s performance, alternately stoic and vulnerable, should serve as a reminder that portrayals of women in the sciences need not be reserved for actresses who moonlight as models for cosmetics companies. Their characters can be every bit as deep, complex and alluring as any male filmmaker’s clichéd notion of how a perfect woman should act. (Having just re-watched Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man, with microbiologists played by Elizabeth Shue, Kim Dickens and Mary Randle, I think it’s a valid observation.) The production design nicely captures the look of the period — from shadowy laboratories, to the gilded hallways of academia – in exacting detail, as well.

Also, from Big World Pictures, comes Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, an absorbing, if grueling drama based on the writings of Max Blecher (a.k.a., M. Blecher), a Romanian Jewish writer who died of bone tuberculosis in 1938. Lucian Teodor Rus plays Emanuel, a patient suffering from the same crippling ailment, also called Pott’s disease, who’s confined to a seaside sanitarium in Berck-sur-Mer, France, where he faces torturous therapy and years of confinement in bed. Although he’s sometimes imprisoned in a full- or half-cast, Emanuel’s mind is free to wander where it will, sometimes in the darkness, but largely in places that lift the human spirit. Title cards, with subtitled passages from Blecher’s meditative writing, separate the scenes and anticipate what’s going on his mind, on- and off-screen. Emanuel’s also adept at reciting lines from his poetry, and by others (Kierkegaard), by memory. As horrifying as the disease is, patients celebrate the absence of doctors, nurses and orderlies by partying, debating the political upheaval in Germany and making love, as best they can. Viewers are encouraged to find their own metaphors for the wave of fascism that’s about to imprison Europe. Also very good are Ivana Mladenović, as a self-assured former patient, and Ilinca Harnut, as a similarly incapacitated woman from a nearby room. Their awkward attempts at shifting from bed-to-bed and making love like armadillos – I’m guessing — offer some comic relief, but, even when they fail, you have to hand it to them for trying. While the 141-minute running time, largely static camera, 1.85:1 academy flat aspect ratio and obscure literary references may not  contribute to a seamless viewing experience, anyone who found inspiration in The Sessions (2012), Rust and Bone (2012) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) should find something in Scarred Hearts to enjoy.

Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon
This somewhat troubling documentary may not be targeted directly at parents of children who spend their every waking moment in front of a video screen — playing loud games and cursing when they’re interrupted — but it could save them from a world of trouble down the road. John Keating’s Gamechangers: Dreams of Blizzcon enters the largely unexplored realm of professional ”eSports,” as told through the eyes of two of the world’s best “StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty” players. Anyone who found “Dungeons & Dragons” to be a disturbing alternative to tagging and shoplifting, back in the day, may see something even more unnerving in the new eSports craze. Unlike graffiti, however, an addiction to eSports could pay off down the road. Introduced a 1998, the real-time-strategy game, “StarCraft,” went on to become the foundation of eSports and the force behind the on-line streaming medium, Twitch. The global phenomenon began in modest South Korean Internet cafés, as PC bangs, and exploded from there. “Gamechangers” follows two of the world’s top professional gamers, “MC” and “MMA,” neither of whom look as if they’ve begun to shave yet but have helped lift their families out of poverty on the way to becoming niche celebrities.

BlizzCon, then, is to eGamers what ComicCon long has been to comic books and cosplay freaks. It’s an annual gaming convention held by Blizzard Entertainment to promote its major franchises: “Warcraft,” “StarCraft,” “Diablo,” “Hearthstone,” “Heroes of the Storm” and “Overwatch.” The first BlizzCon was held in October 2005 and since then all the standing-room-only conventions have been staged at the Anaheim Convention Center, near the company’s corporate headquarters in Irvine. Although Koreans dominate the 2014 championships, shown here, it’s worth knowing that, for the first time in competition history, an outsider — Joona “Serral” Sotala, a soft-spoken Zerg player from Finland — broke through the logjam, by winning the WCS Global Finals. The 20-year-old took home $280,000 from that contest, alone. The documentary probably will remind some older viewers of the World Series of Poker craze, except with better visuals and even more sloppily dressed competitors. It covers the matches, eight months’ worth of preparation and contests, and interviews with parents, who probably hope their sons – no women in sight, except in the crowd and handing out trophies – will consider using their earnings for college.

We, The Marines: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Thanks to the miracle of 4K UHD and large-format theaters, it’s safe to say that MacGillivray Freeman’s We, The Marines is the best-looking recruitment film since Top Gun. Originally created to be shown on the Giant Screen-certified Medal of Honor Theater at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s museum, in Quantico, Virginia, it is now available for home viewing. At 38-minutes, any movie recalling the history of any branch of the military would suffer from extreme brevity and subjective editing and that’s the case here. We, The Marines is short on combat footage and long on the ordeal men and women recruits face when they decide to join the corps. If it omits the dehumanizing profanities, occasional physical abuse and politically incorrect characterizations dished out by Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, in Full Metal Jacket (1987) – and, for that matter, Louis Gossett Jr.’s Sergeant Emil Foley in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) — We, the Marines goes quite a bit further into the intense training all leathernecks undergo at book camps in South Carolina and southern California. As narrated by 88-year-old Gene Hackman, a former Marine who came out of retirement for this assignment, the movie then takes viewers to training facilities in the desert, swamps and mountains that simulate conditions Marines may face in combat, no matter the season or cause.

The most exhilarating 4K footage, perhaps, comes in the air, as already well-conditioned Marines take their first jumps from the rear end of a troop transport. Or, maybe, it’s underwater footage of a large submersible in which they’re taught to evacuate a sinking vehicle, after it flips over and descends into murky water. While not coming out and saying as much, We, the Marines also makes it clear that any debate over unjustified wars and politically motivated missions – the flag-raising at Iwo Jima is rightfully highlighted, while the so-called “victory” at Khe Sanh is ignored — is superseded by the Marines’ do-or-die approach to their jobs and burning desire to make sure everyone comes back alive … which, of course, they don’t. It also shows the pride in the faces of newly minted Marines, as well as those of parents and family members – along  with sighs of relief — when they arrive home safe and sound. The package includes extended interviews and footage.

Who We Are Now: Special Edition: Blu-ray
I’m not sure how the voters for Independent Spirit awards overlooked Julianne Nicholson’s performance in Who We Are Now. Sure, Matthew Newton’s ensemble drama was only accorded a brief release in a handful of theaters in the first weeks of summer. Typically, though, the Indies can sniff out great acting in small movies from any distance and, to qualify, they only need to be shown at a festival, or two, or an abandoned drive-in Texas to qualify. For what it’s worth, critics at the 2017 TIFF were unanimous in their praise and gave good marks to the film, as well. AMPAS voters don’t concern themselves with movies that barely register a blip on the radar screen, so no surprise there. The key characters in Who We Are Now are at a place in their lives where shit happens on a fairly regular basis and there isn’t a thing they can do about it. Recently released from prison, Beth (Nicholson) is working with her public defender, Carl (Jimmy Smits), to get her son back from her sister, who was awarded legal custody while Beth was sent away for 10 years on a manslaughter beef. Gabby (Jess Weixler) and her husband, Sam (Scott Cohen), decided not to tell the boy about his birth mother, however, referring to Beth as an aunt and finally take out a restraining order to prevent her from dropping in unexpectedly. It’s been a year since Beth was released and she’s begun to think that Gabby and Sam will make the order permanent.  She’s working at a nail salon and experiences a #MeToo moment with the manager of a restaurant manager (Jason Biggs) who has no intention of hiring a felon. Carl’s idealistic young protégé, Jess (Emma Roberts), is nearly as much an emotional basket case as Beth, but for very different reasons. When Carl announces his intention to take a job in Washington and give her his job, Jess’ insecurities rise to the surface. After a tough case unexpectedly goes sideways, she’s ready to cash in her chips and go home. It doesn’t help, either, that her mother (Lea Thompson) is a demanding bitch. By the time she crosses paths with Beth, Jess is well on her way to becoming a semi-functional alcoholic. Other plotlines intersect, but Beth and Jess’ stories are the most compelling. Nicholson and Roberts keep viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting for their characters to implode. Who We Are Now may not be a barrel of laughs, but as a showcase for great acting, it’s tough to beat.

Forty Guns: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Panique: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
A Dry White Season: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Topping off a typically eclectic month of new releases from Criterion Collection is a Western unlike any I’ve ever seen. Watch Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957) alongside Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks – a 2018 addition to the National Film Registry – and you’ll understand how the revisionist subgenre evolved from such early classics as Nicolaus Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), George Stevens’ Shane (1953), Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman’s High Noon (1952), and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957). A decade later, the elimination of the Production Code and influence of spaghetti Westerns eliminated any needed to work around earlier taboos. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) opened the door for such bold statements as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand (1971), Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). Forty Guns wasn’t an attempt to reinvent the Western, just personalize it according to Fuller’s own beliefs, ethics and vision. If he wasn’t given much time or money to make it, he was allowed the luxury of CinemaScope, cranes and unusually long tracking shots. Because it’s set in Cochise County, Arizona, it’s possible to see in the Bonnell brothers (Barry Sullivan, Gene Barry, Robert Dix) references to Earp brothers, while Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond is said to represent Ike Clanton, who, unlike his brother, Billy, survived Tombstone’s fabled Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At a mere 5-foot-5, Stanwyck’s character stands toe-to-toe with Sullivan’s 6-foot-2 Griff Bonell, a former gunfighter now serving warrants on criminals, one of whom serves in Drummond’s personal dragoon regiment.

The protagonist and antagonist nearly collide in the famous opening scene in which the Bonnells are nearing town in a buckboard wagon and the dragoons are riding  hell-bent-for-leather in the opposite direction. They’re led by the domineering, corrupt, matriarchal cattle queen, who’s dressed in black and riding a white stallion. Impressive, by any cowgirl standards. No need to spoil anything further, except to say Forty Guns – previously titled, “Woman With a Whip” — tweaks such tropes and clichés as the singing cowboy (Jidge Carroll), western hygiene and, of course, the role of women in the Old West. In addition to Drummond, the town’s leading gunsmith is played by Ziva Rodann, who kind of resembles Sandra Dee, and I didn’t see any prostitutes. (In Johnny Guitar, Joan Crawford played a saloon keeper, who also had imperious ambitions.) If American critics failed to embrace Fuller and Ray’s pictures, they would influence several critics-turned-auteurs in the French New Wave. Even today, however, Forty Guns does take some getting used to. Criterion’s pristine 4K restoration is supplemented by new interviews with Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang-Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller, and critic/author Imogen Sara Smith; the feature-length documentary, A Fuller Life (2013), by Samantha Fuller, featuring admirers of her father’s work and collaborators Wim Wenders, William Friedkin, Mark Hamill, James Franco, Monte Hellman, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke and Constance Towers; a stills gallery; a vintage commentary by Fuller; and an essay by film scholar Lisa Dombrowski and excerpts from Fuller’s 2002 autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.”

Fans of Belgian writer Georges Simenon and his beloved literary creation, the French police detective Jules Maigret, may not be familiar with the protagonist of his 1933 novel, “Les Fiançailles de M. Hire,” from which Panique (1946) was adapted … in French (twice), Spanish and Portuguese. Unlike Maigret, Monsieur Hire’s an unmarried loner, Jewish, a bit of a slob, and a voyeur. He carries a camera, just in case something unusual occurs. That’s exactly what happens when one of Hire’s neighbors is found dead near the town square. He doesn’t let on that he knows who the killer is until a plot to frame him is revealed and his affection for Alice (Viviane Romance), a gorgeous ex-con he spies in a rooming house across the street, turns his mind to mush. By the time he realizes that Alice is in cahoots with the slick conman for whom she took a three-year fall in prison, she’s planted evidence on Hire and Albert (Paul Bernard) has whipped the crowd into a frenzy of hatred toward “the outsider.”  The truth will emerge, but too late to do him any good. Hence, the lack of a sequel or prequel to Julien Duvivier’s heart-breaking post-war drama, other than Patrice Leconte’s fine 1989 remake, Monsieur Hire. Panique was the first movie Duvivier made in France after returning to Europe from a self-imposed wartime hiatus in the United States. Before the war, he developed an international reputation with such award-winning films as Christine (1937), Pépé le Moko (1937), The Great Waltz (1938) and La fin du jour (1939). Like other French filmmakers who spent the war years in the United States, Duvivier was greeted with suspicion and animosity by people who endured the Occupation. He was well-aware of the likelihood that some of them had collaborated with the Nazis and informed on their Jewish neighbors. Duvivier allows viewers a brief respite in the narrative when Hire and Alice appear to come to an arrangement on Albert’s deceit and guilt. It’s short-lived, however, because, well, as they say on the noir blogs, cherchez le femme. And, speaking of noir, Duvivier must have learned something during his time in Hollywood, because Panique is as good an example of the subgenre as has been released in recent months. Simon, who delivered unforgettable performances in Marcel Carné Port of Shadows (1938), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) and Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) is in top form here. The revelation, though, is Valentine, a radiant actress whose smile could lead any man down the wrong — or right — path. The 2K restoration is enhanced by “The Art of Subtitling,” an interesting short doc by Bruce Goldstein, founder and copresident of Rialto Pictures; an interview with author Pierre Simenon, the son of novelist Georges Simenon; a 2015 conversation between critics Guillemette Odicino and Eric Libiot about Duvivier and the film’s production history; and essays by Duvivier expert Lenny Borger and film scholar James Quandt.

Set in 1976, when apartheid in South Africa showed no signs of easing, Euzhan Palcy’s A Dry White Season was released in 1989, a long year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, however, the outcry against apartheid, outside South Africa, was still largely limited to college campuses and left-leaning activist groups. It wouldn’t be until 1986, 14 years after U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums first initiated action on the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, that American legislators formally agreed to impose sanctions on the South African government and international industries that continued to do business there. Hollywood movies that dealt with apartheid in South Africa – as was the case with films about the battle against segregation in the American South – typically found a white actor to serve as co-protagonist. Here, Donald Sutherland plays Johannesburg schoolteacher Ben Du Toit, who, like everyone else in his orbit, believes what he’s told about allegations of atrocities against blacks by the government: that only terrorists and communists are being targeted in the State of Emergency. It isn’t until his black gardener, Gordon (Winston Ntshona) informs Du Toit of beatings inflicted on his son, with whom the teacher’s own boy plays, that he begins to investigate such claims himself. Willing, at first, to believe the lies told him by local authorities, Du Toit doesn’t become convinced of the brutality until he witnesses the effects on the corpse of someone he’s met.

As his involvement grows, so, too, does his estrangement from family members, friends and associates. Although Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley) insisted on using South African actors to play black characters, she knew that money would be scarce, unless prominent American and European actors also committed to the project. Besides Sutherland, she was able to recruit German star Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) to play a vicious cop; Susan Sarandon, as an anti-apartheid activist; Gerard Thoolen, from the Netherlands; Michael Gambon, from Ireland; Brits Susannah Harker, Richard Wilson, Paul Brooke, Ronald Pickup; and South African ex-pat Janet Suzman. It wasn’t until Palcy convinced Marlon Brando to join the the party that the deal was sealed. It required him to emerged from nine years of retirement and work for scale, but he respected the anti-apartheid cause. His portrayal of a civil-rights lawyer, grilling corrupt cops and doctors at an inquest into a black man’s death by torture, is something to behold. Palcy and Colin Welland (Chariots of Fire) adapted A Dry White Season from a novel by André Brink and the director’s own surreptitious research. If it feels a bit dated, well, that’s a small price to pay for freedom. Criterion’s 4K restoration adds a fresh Palcy, conducted by film critic Scott Foundas; a vintage “Today” interview with Sutherland; a 1995 interview Palcy conducted with Nelson Mandela; “Five Scenes,” a new program featuring Palcy’s work; and an essay by filmmaker and scholar Jyoti Mistry (Impunity).

The other December release from Criterion is Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), another a la carte offering from the company’s must-have “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema.”

The Advocates
Lest we forget the true meaning of Christmas and Christianity, Rémi Kessler’s debut documentary, The Advocates, reminds us of the many homeless people in Los Angeles who aren’t likely to find any room at the inn or, for that matter, anywhere else on Christmas Eve. It also introduces us to advocates with three different relief agencies, whose job is to find homes for the homeless, but not before they commit to remaining sober and being cleared by mental-health authorities. While  they occasionally are warmed by the thanks of the people who benefit from their tireless efforts, they’re too often frustrated by the backsliding, bureaucratic regulations and by politicians unwilling to back their promises up with money. The immensity of the job is spelled out in statistics: of the half-million homeless men and women in the U.S., 25 percent of them are in California. In Los Angeles, alone, nearly 54,000 people are missing a roof over their heads on any given night. They live in abandoned cars, under viaducts and on Skid Row sidewalks. The Advocates traces the problem back to Reagan-era cost-cutting and well-meaning human-rights activists, who bought the lies told by legislators who said they’d provide housing and meals for the patients who’d lose their rooms in mental-health facilities. Instead, they were put on buses and given one-way tickets to downtown L.A., San Francisco or San Diego. Since then, however, they’ve been joined by people who lost their jobs and no longer can afford the astronomical rents or get by on minimum-wage gigs. The doc features advocates Claudia Perez, Rudy Salinas and Mel Tillekeratne, and the organizational work of LA on Cloud9, which benefits the homeless and their pets; and Monday Night Mission, which provides food and clothing to residents of Skid Row.

Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia
In the 1946 book, “Confessions of a Story Writer,” Paul Gallico wrote: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” Three years later, when Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith reportedly was asked if turning out a daily column was a chore, he replied, “Why, no, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Although the likelihood of artist Vincent Castiglia having been inspired by either quote is slim, the methodology is the same. The 36-year-old Brooklyn native uses his own blood to create hauntingly surreal images of human bodies in abstract form. Inspired by years of extreme childhood abuse and drug addiction, there are probably a few drops of sweat and tears mixed into the blood, as well. From darkness, however, came light and, eventually, sobriety. The easiest way to characterize Castiglia’s work is to compare it to that of H.R. Giger, whose biomechanical imagery inspired the creatures in Alien, Species and Prometheus. Giger, who also used art as therapy, is well represented in John Borowski’s Bloodlines: The Art and Life of Vincent Castiglia. Although they appear to have channeled each other’s nightmares, Castiglia’s paintings are distinguished by a biological precision that matches that of an anatomical draftsman. Margaret Cho, who commissioned the artist to paint her portrait in her own blood, is interviewed in the film, alongside the late Gregg Allman, Damien Echols, Kerry King and Gary Holt of the heavy metal band Slayer, and record executive Michael Alago.

Stocking stuffers
 
De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films: Blu-ray
Typically, when people consider the careers of Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro, the lists begin with their first big hits or critically lauded indies. De Palma’s big break came with the deliberately Hitchcockian Sisters, which succeeded on its own artistic merits and remains a staple of the evil-twin subgenre. It led directly to Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Obsession (1976) and Carrie (1976). Before De Niro became known for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather: Part II), he turned heads in the baseball-drama, Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971). The rest might have been left to history, as they say, if it weren’t for the reminders of formative work displayed in Arrow Video’s “De Palma & De Niro: The Early Films.” Nearly two decades before they worked together on The Untouchables (1987), their earliest professional work was seen by a relative handful of viewers in the three films showcased here: The Wedding Party (1969), Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970). More interesting as predictors of things to come than fully formed entertainments, all three are easy to watch and present a view of 1960s New York that’s more Midnight Cowboy (1969) than “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” More to the point, they demonstrate how much each man progressed, artistically, in a short period of time. Greetings, which De Palma co-wrote with Charles Hirsch, is an episodic Godardian dramedy, by way of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night), that focuses on a trio of twentysomething male  friends: a conspiracy theorist, a struggling soft-core filmmaker and a chatty voyeur (De Niro). They’ve either dodged the draft or are being coached to avoid it. Once that occurs, they get involved with various  other schemes to make money and/or get laid. For reasons I still don’t completely understand, Greetings was the first American film to receive an X certificate in the new ratings system.

De Palma co-wrote and co-directed The Wedding Party with Wilford Leach and Cynthia Munroe. Shot five years before Greetings was released, it finally made it to the big screen in 1969. It concerns a young man (Charles Pfluger), who proposes to his girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) before he’s considered all the ramifications of such a decision. Because it’s set in on the weekend of the marriage, in a pleasant rural location, The Wedding Party recalls such movies as A Wedding (1978), Cousins (1989) and Margot at the Wedding (2007). Less experimental than Greetings and Hi, Mom, The Wedding Party offers little more to contemporary viewers than early glimpses of Clayburgh and De Niro, neither of whom appear to have completely shed their baby fat. In fact, with his modified flat-top haircut, De Niro is a dead ringer for Billy Gray, of “Father Knows Best.” More familiar is his Jon Rubin, in Hi, Mom! While he’s an extension of his character in Greetings, De Niro appears to be channeling Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets (1973). Here, the just-returned Vietnam veteran rents a Greenwich Village apartment that could charitably described as a slum-within-a-slum. (The landlord is played by an almost unrecognizable Charles Durning.) It’s only advantage, besides a roof, is the clear view it provides of the apartment building across the street, whose tenants aren’t familiar with the concept of curtains. He talks the pornographer he met in Greetings (Allan Garfield) into fronting him the money to buy a camera and, in due time, delivering a hard-core version of Rear Window. While surveying an apartment in which three young women seem  to spend their every waking hour changing their clothes, he notices that one of them (Jennifer Salt) is out of step with her friends. He’s inspired to set up a sexual encounter with her, which he’ll film on automatic pilot from his apartment, using  the ruse of a misdirected computer date. The scheme fails, miserably, but in a way that showcases both actors’ ability to rise above the material and take command of a situation that unexpectedly blossoms into something.

The botched attempt at hard-core porn causes Rubin to change mediums. He joins a confrontational off-off-off-Broadway theater company that specializes in making white, liberal audiences as uncomfortable as possible. I’ve seen my share of these sorts of things and “Be Black, Baby” made me squirm, as well. Viewers should know that “Hi, Mom!” and “Greetings” both reflect the late-1960s’ absence of borders when it came to sexist, racist and homophobic dialogue and insult-trading. The profane dialogue sounds so foreign today that you begin to wonder if that’s the way everyone conversed in the radicalized era. Many did, but not for long. Also, there’s an extremely discomfiting rape that probably wouldn’t get past the ratings board, today. The Arrow package benefits from 2K restorations of all three films; a pair of informative interviews with writer/producer Hirsch; commentary on Greetings by Glenn Kenny, author of “Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor”; an appreciation of De Palma and De Niro’s collaborations by critic and filmmaker Howard S. Berger; interviews with actors Gerrit Graham and Peter Maloney; newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and fresh writing on the films by Brad Stevens, Chris Dumas and Christina Newland, plus an archived interview with Palma and Hirsch.

2018 World Series: Boston Red Sox: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
World Series Champions 2018: Boston Red Sox: Blu-ray
One of the more recent holiday rituals to emerge on DVD/Blu-ray has been the release of recapitulations of the annual Fall Classic. They used to arrive in time for the next baseball season, but, by then, most fans’ thoughts were already on their favorite team’s chance in the coming year. From the point of view of Shout!Factory, the distributor of “2018 World Series: Boston Red Sox: Collector’s Edition” and “World Series Champions 2018: Boston Red Sox,” the preference probably would have been for the Los Angeles Dodgers to upset the highly formidable BoSox. Nothing against the New England faithful, but, when it comes to market share, the only better pairing would have been a Yankees/Dodgers series that went seven games and included a couple of no-hitters. Second choice would have been a Dodgers’ victory over the reigning champs, the Houston Astros, the team that beat them a year earlier. As things went, the series’ highlight was the historic 18-inning Game 3, which ended with a L.A. victory and a record number of East Coast viewers who either dozed off before it ended or skipped work or school the next morning. The “World Series Collector’s Edition” includes all five games of the World Series; the Bosox’s pennant-clinching ALCS Game 5 and a bonus disc of the ALDS-clinching Game 4, versus the Yankees; optional audio feeds, including the national-television feed, home radio, away radio and the Spanish-language broadcast; and a Sleevestats insert, with game trivia and official stats. “World Series Champions 2018” focuses specifically on the final series. Previous year’s editions included full coverage of the playoff series, seasonal highlight and, if memory serves, victory parades.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Despite Scream Factory’s swell 4K restoration of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), the movie remains essential only to genre buffs and Christopher Lee and Hammer Horror completists. Among other things, the vampire makes his first appearance – or, if you will, resurrection – 40 minutes into the narrative and Lee is silent throughout the picture. That said, however, his minute-long manifestation is a thing of pre-CGI beauty. After blood is poured on Dracula’s ashes, a series of 12 locked-down dissolves take him from dust to a fully formed vampire, whose bony hand is the first thing that emerges from the sarcophagus. Dracula: Prince of Darkness takes place in 1895, eight years after the count’s demise in Horror of Dracula (1958). Four English tourists are stranded in the mysterious village of Karlsbad, a sinister and remote place with a deadly, dark legend. Against the advice of Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), they hop into a driverless coach that takes them directly to the not-quite-abandoned castle, where shit happens. The Blu-ray edition includes both the UK and shorter U.S. versions of the film; new commentaries with author Troy Howarth and filmmaker Constantine Nasr and writer/producer Steve Haberman, as well as ported-over commentary with cast members Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley and Lee; a “World of Hammer” episode, “Dracula and the Undead”; “Back to Black: The Making of Dracula: Prince of Darkness”; a stills gallery; and Super 8 behind-the-scenes footage.

Bloody Birthday: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1981, parents groups and critics raised a stink over splatter flicks featuring psycho killers dressed in Santa costumes.  At the same time, the R-rated killer-kid thriller, Bloody Birthday (1981), opened and closed without much controversy attached to it. In an interview included in the bonus features attached to this Arrow Video release, film journalist Chris Alexander accurately describes the antagonists as “the Little Rascals from hell.” In my opinion, exploitation films in which children kill children, as well as parents, cops and neighbors, trump evil Santas every day of the week. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher or expectant parent watching Bloody Birthday – not many did, apparently – and not re-considering their decision to expand the minds of impressionable youngsters and bringing a potential psychopath into the world. Yeah, yeah … I know it’s only movie, but, 37 years later, it still has the capacity to creep out adult viewers. Who knows what makes a kid turn bad … bad genes, abusive parents, an addiction to airplane glue, born under a bad sign? In Bloody Birthday, three children are born almost simultaneously in the same hospital, at the same time as a solar eclipse is occurring outside. Flash-forward 10 years and a pair of teenagers is murdered while making out in an empty grave in the local graveyard. We don’t see the killers, but it doesn’t take long for Hunt to reveal the fact that they’ve yet to reach puberty. At first, the same three kids from the hospital stage murders to look like accidents or the acts of sick adults. It doesn’t take long before they skip the formalities and kill with only the slightest concern for being caught. Even when a friend of the sociopathic trio turns on them, no one over 18 believes him.

Perhaps, you can guess what happens as the movie unspools. It would be difficult, however, to foresee just how devilishly inventive the kids are when it comes to murder. Otherwise, though, Bloody Birthday follows the same slasher blueprint – sex/death/exposition, in 10-minute intervals — popularized by John Carpenter (Halloween) and Bob Clark (Black Christmas). Viewers already were conditioned to fear off-kilter kids from such thrillers as The Bad Seed (1956), Village of the Damned (1960), The Omen (1976) and Halloween (1978), which was Hunt’s primary influence. It probably would be the last time Hunt and Carpenter’s name would be mentioned in the same discussion. Even so, Bloody Birthday managed to hit every beat as written. Much of the credit goes as well to the actors who played parents, siblings, teachers — Lori Lethin, Julie Brown, Joe Penny, Susan Strasberg – and the kids, K.C. Martel, Elizabeth Hoy, Billy Jayne and Andrew Freeman. Arrow accorded Bloody Birthday the kind of sendoff it usually reserves for arthouse classics, with a 2K restoration from original film elements; new commentary tracks with Hunt and the Hysteria Continues; fresh interviews with Lethin and Alexander; an archival interview with producer Max Rosenberg; reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Timothy Pittides; and a booklet, with new writing by Lee Gambin.

Starman: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Considering that John Carpenter’s first big splash in Hollywood came as co-writer/director of the brilliant pre-Star Wars parody, Dark Star (1974), making the leap from horror, back to sci-fi, in Starman (1984), probably wasn’t all that imposing a proposition. Getting the movie from concept to screen would prove to be an infinitely more difficult undertaking. The original Starman  script, by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, was purchased by Columbia shortly before it optioned Steven Spielberg’s “Night Skies,” soon to be known worldwide as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The studio wasn’t interested in making two movies featuring visitors from outer space and took a pass on the one they thought would appeal mostly to children. History reminds us that Universal’s “E.T.” not only beat Columbia’s project to the megaplexes, but it also destroyed the market for mega-budget alien-visitation movies for years. It’s just as well, because Starman was already caught in a thicket, referred to in the business as “development hell.” It meant that the project was tossed around Columbia’s executive offices like a potato made of plutonium. Before it found its way to Carpenter’s lap, ace script doctor Dean Riesner had been rewritten it seven times for six different potential directors. All of them had reasons of their own for turning the project down, including not wanting to be seen as competing with the “E.T.” juggernaut or, for that matter, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). One of them simply didn’t see eye-to-eye with executive producer Michael Douglas. Finally, Riesner was told to leave well enough alone, but, at Carpenter’s request, eliminate its “heavy political implications.” For all his work, the WGA wouldn’t allow Riesner to share the writers’ credit with Evans and Gideon (Stand by Me).

The deceptively simple story begins in northern Wisconsin, where an alien probe vehicle, crash lands in a forest. The pilot, who’s literally a small bundle of energy, is on a mission from the mother ship to acknowledge that his civilization had received transmissions from the gold phonographic disk, carried on Voyager 2, and wanted to contact NASA scientists about the digital entreaty for peaceful relations. As could be predicted by any child with a Luke Skywalker action figure, however, Air Force pilots were instructed to shoot it down, instead. Welcome to Earth, sucker. Starman’s first stop is a nearby cabin, where he/she/it assumes the identity of the owner’s husband, who closely resembles Jeff Bridges. Starman is as clueless about the ways of earthlings as Chauncey Gardiner was of political machinations in Being There. The alien has salvaged seven small silver spheres from the ruined probe. He uses the first to send a message to his cohorts alerting them to the hostility displayed by earthlings. He arranges to rendezvous with them in three days’ time at Meteor Crater, just east of Winslow, Arizona. Carpenter, who was eager to shed his image as a maker of exploitative thrillers, decided to emphasize the cross-country rapport that evolves between Starman and Jenny (Karen Allen), over special effects. (Think, a sci-fi version It Happened One Night.) Their journey takes them from the Land of Cheese, through Tennessee, into American Southwest. To solve a problem caused by Jenny’s missing purse, Carpenter adds an unplanned stop in Las Vegas, where the alien plays the slots like a golden fiddle. Finally, there’s a race to get to the crater before a fleet of U.S. Army helicopters. The climax is both appropriate and heart-wrenching. Bridges, who studied the behavior of birds to prepare for his role, received a Best Actor nomination from AMPAS. The Shout!Factory Blu-ray includes the new featurette, “They Came from Hollywood: Re-Visiting Starman,” with Carpenter, Bridges, Charles Martin Smith and script supervisor Sandy King-Carpenter; an older commentary track with Carpenter and Bridges; and a vintage featurette. Because of a brief scene of sexuality, I think Starman almost certainly would be certified PG-13 today, instead of the PG it’s carried since 1984. There’s no real violence or gore, despite an army officer’s desire to obliterate the alien and Jenny before they reach Meteor Crater.

Sleepover: Special Edition: Blu-ray
One of the things that made mainstream movie reviewers want to slit their wrists in the Golden Age of Criticism was being told by their editors that they had to review films for and about teenagers, starring teenage actors, and made on budgets that ensured fair-to-middlin results, at best. The late, great Roger Ebert, eulogized as being “without question the nation’s most prominent and influential film critic,” was 62 when he reviewed Sleepover, a 2004 comedy for and about 14-year-old girls, one of whom would experience a Cinderella moment before the night was over. Another would find a boyfriend who liked her, even though she was overweight, and the popular clique would take it on the chin after a winner-take-all scavenger hunt with a group of girls only slightly less attractive than they are. Roger didn’t have to allot Sleepover, which he would dismiss with a single star, seven thoughtfully rendered paragraphs of opinion, but he did. Maybe, it was because the movie co-starred Jane Lynch, Jeff Garlin and Steve Carell in substantially longer than cameo roles. Stephen Holden, of the august New York Times, was 63 when he gave Sleepover a similarly negative seven-paragraph review. The only favorable review I found was from the Los Angeles Times, by Kevin Thomas, then 68. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey, who, in 2004 was one of only a few women writing about movies full-time, didn’t think much of it, either.

I’m not trying to say that Sleepover was a great teen comedy – like, say, Clueless (1995) – or even a good one — like Valley Girl (1983) – or that director Joe Nussbaum and writer Elisa Bell were making points that went over the heads of critics old enough to be the characters’ grandparents. It wasn’t. The point I’m trying to make, if any, is that assigning heavyweight critics to review lightweight movies was, and continues to be, a waste of everyone’s time and brain cells. (For the record, I don’t consider myself to be a heavyweight anything.)The criticism added nothing to their own serious discourse on those movies of the same period that demanded to be taken seriously by teens and adults: Thirteen (2003), Juno (2007), Mean Girls (2004), Hard Candy (2005), Brick (2006) and Easy A (2010). In 2018, Sleepover clone probably would open a cable network, as did Disney Channel’s “High School Musical,” or gone straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. And, it probably would find its target audience of pubescent and prepubescent girls, who identified with the bright and youthful characters, and some boys intrigued by the whole sleepover mythos, and they probably would have enjoyed it. If anyone cared to analyze it, the reviews would have contextualized the product and probably given it a passing grade. One of the things about the movie I did find noteworthy was the how far the actors have come in 14 years. In 2004, most of the girls played their age — a rarity in teen movies – and looked like high school freshmen. When they wanted to ditch the sleepover and play grownup, one or two of girls would borrow their mom’s makeup and dress the way Mickey Mouse Club graduates do when they go clubbing in Las Vegas. Today, the no-longer-teenage actors are seasoned veterans, approaching 30. (In 2004, some of them already were veterans of sitcoms and made-for-TV movies.) Brie Larson went on to win an Academy Award for Room (2016); Alexa PenaVega won an ALMA for From Prada to Nada (2011); Mika Boorem recently wrote, directed and starred in Hollywood.com; Sara Paxton plays a pivotal role in The Front Runner (2018); Scout Taylor-Compton has six films in post-production; Summer Glau was honored for her work in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”; and Eileen April Boylan was a featured player on “Greek” and “South of Nowhere.” Some have even earned their own pages on Mr. Skin. The young men have done pretty well, too. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Nussbaum and several of the girls; a making-of featurette; ”A Guide to the Perfect Sleepover”; actress profiles; “Sleepover Confessions”; a gag reel; wrap-party reel; and behind-the-scenes photo gallery.

The Jerk: 40th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
This well-respected 1979 comedy eased Steve Martin’s transition from standup comedy to big-budget movies. The Jerk may not have cost a fortune to produce, but its success opened doors in Hollywood most people didn’t know existed. Martin’s “happy idiot” Navin Johnson combines elements of  Voltaire’s “Candide” with characters created from his off-the-wall standup routines. Here, it’s the bit in which he plays the adopted son of dirt-poor African-American sharecroppers, who grows up blissfully unaware of the fact that his birth parents were dead, and his skin wouldn’t darken when he turned 18.. The dead giveaway was that Navin wasn’t born with a natural sense of rhythm and only learned how to snap his fingers and tap his feet to a song he hears on the radio, Roger Wolfe Kahn Orchestra’s “Crazy Rhythm.” (How far would that gag play today?) Martin’s offbeat sense of humor was an easy match for the comic timing and sensibility brought to the project by director Carl Reiner and writers Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias. The idea was for the screenplay to include one big laugh per page, at least, and, of course, some worked better than others. Navin’s relationship with Bernadette Peters’ non-judgmental beauty, Marie, was informed by their own off-screen relationship, which allowed for some funny extemporaneous moments and unforced romantic interludes. I remember my son loving The Jerk on cassette when he was much younger and I have no reason to believe that, apart from some crude language, it couldn’t be enjoyed by families, today. (Feel free to ignore the absurdly prudish R-rating still attached to the movie.) The remastered Blu-ray adds new conversations with Martin and Reiner, and Elias and Gottlieb; a featurette on learning to play “Tonight You Belong to Me” on ukulele; and a funny outtake, “The Lost Film Strips of Father Carlos Las Vegas de Cordova.”

Pick of the Litter
If there’s one thing that dogs have over cats, it’s their willingness to serve as guides and support-animals for humans with impaired vision and separation anxiety. Although I’ve known a few felines that could be described as supportive, the thought of turning a tabby into a guide cat is worthy of an “SNL” sketch. In Pick of the Litter, we’re introduced to Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and Phil, five spirited puppies, who, from the moment they’re born, begin a strenuous journey to become guide dogs for the blind. A rigorous two-year process takes the pups from the care of selfless foster volunteers, to specialized trainers and, if they make the cut, a lifelong human companion. At every step of the way, the puppies are tested, challenged, and evaluated.

Charlie Steel
Revenge
The Comedians
The second batch of digitally-remastered movies from Indiepix Films’ “Retro Afrika” series couldn’t possibly be more different than A Dry White Season, which was of the same period and, of course, banned from exhibition in South Africa. Their release on DVD, nearly 30 years after they were pulled from circulation, speaks volumes about one of the lesser tolls of apartheid. In the 1970-80s, black African audiences had little or no access to movie theaters. With the approval of the government, a white construction executive began churning out dozens of genre films, starring Zulu actors and shown in the townships, ostensibly to pacify the masses. The ones I’ve seen resemble serials shown in American theaters in the 1930-40s, except without cliffhanger endings. Everything about them spelled c-h-e-a-p, but, given the lack of alternatives, audiences made the most of what they were given. And, of course, they provided jobs for native African actors and crews, when there were none available anywhere else. I doubt that the audiences were offended by them, either.

In Charlie Steel (1984), Sol Rachilo’s renowned P.I. is called upon to rescue a friend’s daughter (Sonto Mazibuko), who’s kidnapped by a gang demanding a stiff ransom. Charlie infiltrates the gang, but he is betrayed before he can complete his mission. The musical score suggests that Rachilo was familiar with American blaxploitation flicks. (For some reason, the dialogue is in English with English subtitles. The next two titles are in Zulu, with English subtitles.) Coenie Dippenaar’s old-fashioned Western, Revenge, follows a gentle homesteader, whose wife is raped and killed by a gang of desperadoes, while he’s away tending his crop. Their son is injured attempting to protect his mother. The aggrieved husband calls on a retired gunfighter, living nearby, to teach him how to exact revenge and come out standing. The action couldn’t be any more phony – and there’s virtually no bloodshed – but Revenge has a recognizable plot and a satisfying ending. In Japie van der Merwe’s The Comedians a slick-talking conman “borrows” a friend’s magic ring with the intention of using it to become wealthy and impress his wife. The plan works, for a few hours, anyway, but goes astray when the gods who control such things get wind of his greedy desires. The comedy is extremely broad, but the music makes up for bad acting.

Forever My Love: Holiday Classic Edition
Romy Schneider made cinematic history in her career-defining role as Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie, the Bavarian-born princess, who, at 16, married Emperor Franz Joseph I and was immediately thrust into a role for which she wasn’t prepared and didn’t particularly enjoy. Neither was Sissi, as she was casually known, prepared for her domineering mother-in-law, Archduchess Sophie, who would assume the task of raising their children and treat her as an unwanted guest in her own home. As she grew into the role of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (and other principalities), though, Sissi led the kind of life that would fill three movies, released a year apart, nearly a century later. Ernst Marischka’s  trilogy was a hit in theaters and became a popular Christmas presentation on television in German-speaking countries. In 1962, the 5½-hour series — Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956) and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957) — was condensed into a single147-minute, English-language release, Forever My Love. If the that sounds familiar, it’s also the title of Burt Bacharach’s original theme song for the movie. Bonus material includes, “From Romy to Sissi,” a 20-minute making-of featurette and rare footage of Sissi’s great-grandson at the movies, in an excerpt from the documentary Elisabeth: Enigma of an Empress.

TV-to-DVD
Comedy Central: Nathan for You: The Complete Series
Perry Como’s Olde English Christmas
Mantovani: The King of Strings
In the frequently hilarious, often informative and sometimes unnerving docu-reality series, “Nathan for You,” Canadian writer and comedian Nathan Fielder uses his business-school education to help owners of struggling businesses find creative ways to turn a profit. They don’t always work, but nothing ventured, nothing gained … right? One of the show’s long-running story arcs concerns Fielder and his social awkwardness, which bears comparison to Woody Allen’s early schtick. The thing is, though, he never breaks character from his deadpan demeanor and rarely seems terribly concerned about embarrassing his guinea pigs for the sake of the show. “Nathan for You” lasted four years on Comedy Central and probably would have been extended, if Fielder didn’t want to move on to other projects. The episodes look extremely labor-intensive and, for them to work, he had to work with the business owners until the schemes panned out or flopped. That’s expensive. Among the highlights of the nine-disc set are his “infamous” gas-rebate excursion, the grand opening of a Dumb Starbucks franchise and the feature-length series finale, “Finding Frances.” In the cringe-inducing episode, Fielder attempts to help Bill Gates impersonator William Heath reunite with his high school sweetheart, who he ditched to try his luck in Hollywood and has, ever since, regretted losing. Their mission required booking thousands of miles of air travel and weeks spent sharing motel rooms. The deeper they get into the search – using social media, yearbooks and, even, setting up a fake reunion — the less trustworthy and likeable Heath became. At the same time, after Fielder hires an escort simply to be nice to the guy, he begins to fall for her friendly, outgoing approach and underplayed Southern charm. Fielder wasn’t accustomed to such a no-frills, if expensive dating system. Being as inept in his pursuit of companionship as the escort is comfortable in her work, the love connection was never a sure thing. The questions left unanswered include why she agreed to out herself as an escort on television and whether they continued to see each on a non-professional basis. The bonus material adds a deleted scene from “Finding Frances” and commentaries on select episodes.

The names, Perry Como and Mantovani, may not mean much to post-Baby Boomers, but, for an older generation of music lovers, they’re still as familiar as yesterday’s news. In a career that spanned more than a half-century, Como sold millions of records – “Hot Diggety,” “Round and Round,” “Catch a Falling Star,” among them — and pioneered a weekly musical/variety show – “Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall” (1946-’67) — which became one of the most successful in television history. Likely many such hosts, Mr. C stepped back from the spotlight to allow his guests to shine, getting the biggest laughs and joining him in duets. His smooth, easy-listening, general-audience, slow-flame ballads characterized popular music in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. After his show left the air, he’d regularly return to TV in seasonal specials that attracted mainstream audiences, not necessarily interested in whoever’s on “The Sonny & Cher Show” or “Laugh-In.” “Perry Como’s Olde English Christmas” represents his 1977 winter showcase. Among the guests are singers Petula Clark and Leo Sayer, Olympic figure skater John Curry and Irish actress Gemma Craven. Naturally, it’s filled with traditional carols and pop-oriented songs. The DVD adds footage from his television appearances, spanning the 1950s through 1980s.

Annunzio Paolo Mantovani was an Anglo-Italian conductor, composer and arranger of light-orchestra music with an emphasis on “cascading strings.” The reference guide, British Hit Singles & Albums, described Mantovani – single name, please — as “Britain’s most successful album act before the Beatles … the first to sell over a million stereo albums and [have] six albums simultaneously in the U.S. Top 30 in 1959.” From the 1950s to the 1970s, alone, he sold 70 million records. This unexpected documentary, Mantovani: The King of Strings, tells the story of the man and his music.

 

 

The DVD Wrapup: Peppermint, Wild Boys, Un Traductor, Await Instructions, Lizzie, Coby, Afghan Love Story, Elizabeth Harvest, Brutal, Holiday Horror, Sound & Fury … More

Friday, December 14th, 2018

Peppermint: Blu-ray
This isn’t Jennifer Garner’s first rodeo, playing an action heroine. Judging from the meager box-office returns for Peppermint, however, the 46-year-old mother of three might not be too anxious to play another one anytime soon. In Pierre Morel’s paint-by-numbers vigilante thriller, Garner plays Riley North, whose husband and young daughter are gunned down in front of her, on the orders of a drug-cartel boss, because he refused to participate in a transaction. After spending time in a drug-induced coma, Riley agrees to testify against the assailants, who she identified from a lineup. Before the case even reaches a jury, the gunmen are inexplicably cleared by the judge. After laying low for several years, preparing to exact her own justice on the people who killed her family, Riley returns to town a trained killer and martial-arts expert. At 5-foot-8, Garner is no less credible a vigilante than Liam Neeson, at 6-4. In no time at all, Riley mows her way through the underbrush of cartel, legal and judicial flunkies she blames for allowing the guilty punks to walk free. A bit more planning will be necessary to eliminate the gang’s top dogs and an unspecified police detective aligned with them. According to the people who keep track of such trivia, Riley kills 43 people in Peppermint, including five more off-screen. Although Morel (Taken) and writer Chad St. John (London Has Fallen) devised some entertaining assassinations for Riley to execute, such over-the-top violence no longer shocks action-genre audiences. The final confrontation is even less surprising. J.J. Abrams, creator of “Alias” (2001), made far better use of Garner’s physical gifts and dance background. Riley also is far less interesting than the neurotic character she plays in the offbeat HBO comedy, “Camping.” I would pay good money, however, to watch the former Mrs. Affleck channel her character in Peppermint and kick the crap out of the paparazzi who constantly dog her family. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Justice,” and commentary by Morel.

The Wild Boys
Bertrand Mandico’s debut feature, The Wild Boys, is the kind of movie that causes a sensation at film festivals – fantasy, underground, LGBTQ – but doesn’t have a prayer of finding distribution beyond the most adventurous of arthouse theaters. Maybe in the late-’60s and early-’70s, but not since then, really. As marketing budgets began to approach those of production costs, the risks required of exhibitors to find audiences for niche titles became prohibitive. Worse, in the ’00s, when newspapers and magazines began laying off serious critics, space once reserved for coverage of indie, foreign and documentary titles disappeared, as well. Today, the good news comes in knowing that the vacuum is being filled by independent distributors and streaming services that have figured out how to sate the appetite of arthouse audiences and not go broke trying … not that several haven’t. The Wild Boys found its way into my mailbox without any fanfare, whatsoever. I knew nothing of Mandico’s previous work and, in any case, I try not to read reviews before I slide a DVD into the slot. I thought I was ready for anything, but I wasn’t prepared for The Wild Boys.

It opens with a flash-forward, on a beach, where a group of debauched sailors attack the first person they see – an androgynous blond boy, who appears to have a single female breast and penis – ravishing him as if he were a piece of meat and they were a pack of feral dogs. The story then takes a step backward in time to an open-air classroom, where five adolescent boys are reciting lines from “Macbeth,” under the watchful eye of their teacher. Curiously, they’re wearing masks reminiscent of those worn by cannibals in Borneo, while attacking a rival tribe. When the boys tire of the exercise, they turn on the teacher (Nathalie Richard), ripping off her expensive clothes and raping her. Finally, they tie her naked body to the back of a white horse and let it wander away. As it turns out, these wild, unrepentant boys are all from good families and acting, they believed, as agents of the deity of chaos, TREVOR, who came to them in the form of a bejeweled skull. They told the court that their teacher had gotten them drunk and enticed them with her beauty, which, of course, is a lie. Nonetheless, they are turned over to the brutal Le Capitaine (Sam Louwyck), skipper of a 19th Century schooner, Cold World. He’s widely known for an ability to pacify disobedient youths and for setting them on the straight-and-narrow path. It’s better for their  parents not to ask too many questions about how he accomplishes it. Their destination is a tropical Arcadia – the coordinates are tattooed on his penis — that, normally, would fit most people’s concept of an island paradise. (It was filmed on Reunion Island.) As the captain leads the boys through the lush, overgrown jungle, past cascading waterfalls and steep cliffs created by volcanic eruptions, it only appears as if their ordeal is ending. The foliage is either distinctly phallic – discharging a milky ambrosia that nourishes and sedates – or it approximates the spread legs of a woman with engorged vulva. Le Capitaine encourages his captives to take advantage of the flora’s properties, while they can. The island’s sensory peculiarities and erotic pleasures disguise the fact that their ordeal is only just beginning.

While the other boys sleep and dream, Hubert (Diane Rouxel) follows Le Capitaine on one of his strolls to a small pond, where he’s greeted by a mysterious scientist, Séverine (Elina Löwensohn), to whom he delivers candidates for her research. When Hubert is caught spying on their violent coupling, he runs into the adhesive webbing of a large plant, not unlike a Venus flytrap, from which he can’t pry himself loose. Séverine explains to Hubert that the island is like a giant oyster, whose reproductive organs contain both eggs and sperm, and she’s the pearl. She will take him under her wing, while the other boys head for the boat for the transformative voyage home. Although they aren’t completely aware of the changes, the boys (all of whom are played by young actress with short hair) are developing breasts and losing their manhood … literally and figuratively. Shortly after leaving the island, a storm nearly causes the ship to capsize. In the turmoil, the boys expend what’s left of their virility to mutiny. Instead of home, however, the storm carries them back to the island, where the truth finally hits them. In the case of Tanguy (Anaël Snoek), the boy on the beach in the opening scene, the metamorphosis is only halfway successful. All along, Mandico and DP Pacale Granel’s palette alternates between black-and-white and color imagery, although I don’t exactly know why one is chosen over the other. The writer/director (“Prehistoric Cabaret”) admits to being an avid student of Polish surrealist Walerian Borowczyk (Goto, Island of Love), which makes sense, and thanks William Burroughs and Jules Verne in the end credits. Mandico’s in-camera effects in b&w will remind cinephiles of Jean Cocteau, while he probably also owes a debt to Alejandro Jodorowsky, Luis Buñuel, André Breton, Guy Maddin, Jean Genet and, of course, William Golding (“Lord of the Flies”). The Wild Boys is decidedly not for everyone, but what is, anymore? The DVD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, fold-out-poster insert and reversible artwork.

Un Traductor
It isn’t often that American audiences are exposed to the everyday lives of middle-class Cubans and issues affecting them, beyond the struggle to find enough decent food to buy in stores and find safe ways to exit the island. Much of what happens in Rodrigo and Sebastián Barriuso’s directorial debut, Un Traductor, from a script by Lindsay Gossling, takes place in a neighborhood that resembles a suburb in the U.S. or Europe. You know it’s Cuba by the ancient American automobiles, held together by duct tapes and dozens of coats of paint. In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Malin (Rodrigo Santoro), a Russian literature professor at the University of Havana, is sent to a respected local hospital to translate between Cuban doctors and children sent from the USSR for medical treatment. Torn from the abstract world of academia and forced into the relentlessly real world of medicine, Malin becomes increasingly depressed. The hours don’t correspond to those when if wife and son are at home, and many of the children suffering from radiation poisoning will die, thousands of miles from home, some without their parents at their side. The hospital, we’re told, is one of the best facilities in the world for such patients to be treated, but the extent of the damage is obvious on their bodies and in their eyes. When Malin’s wife, Isona (Yoandra Suárez), becomes pregnant, against his wishes, a rift between them grows to the breaking point.

It is at about this point in the narrative when Malin discovers something redemptive in his work that benefits himself and the patients, if not Isona directly. By encouraging the kids to record their thoughts and observations in words and art, he’s able to utilize his skills and bring them a modicum of happiness. By this time, however, Isona and their son have moved out of the house. Coincidentally, in eastern Europe, the Iron Curtain is being demolished by proponents of freedom and democracy. This causes a panic in Cuba, whose economy was, for decades, propped up by the Soviet Union. With the Cold War over, it isn’t likely that Moscow will continue its expensive investment in the blockaded isle. Malin uses the lessons he learns at the hospital, working with the children and their parents, to attempt to repair the wounds suffered by his wife and son. It allows for a happy ending. The full story doesn’t end there, however. In the epilogue, viewers are informed of the Barriusos’ familial bonds to Malin and Isona and what happened to them in the years that followed. Also good here is Maricel Álvarez, who plays the Argentine nurse to whom Malin is assigned and sometimes finds it necessary to keep him from wallowing in self-pity. The short subject included on the DVD is Rodrigo Barriuso’s award-winning “For Dorian,” in which a father fearfully anticipates the sexual awakening of his son, a teenager living with Down syndrome, and struggles with the notion of letting him grow up on his own terms.

Await Further Instructions
For as long as television audiences have been required to install a set-top box to receive programming from cable, satellite and streaming services, conspiracy theorists have warned that someday they will be able to spy on us. This, in addition to collecting the usual data gathered for Nielsen ratings and viewer demographics. Theoretically, set-top boxes could just as easily control what channels and commercials we watch, and decide the shows recorded on our VCRs. As far as I know, this dire scenario has yet to materialize, at least to the extent that Facebook and other social-media networks have learned to exploit data-gathering technology. Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared), working from a script by freshman screenwriter Gavin Williams, expands the conspiracy theory to lengths explored previously by David Cronenberg in Videodrome. When the software installed in Big Brother’s delivery system decides to take over the lives of unsuspecting consumers, there will be nothing we can do about it. That’s the basic premise behind Await Further Instructions, but the truly scary stuff doesn’t begin until almost 75 minutes into its 91-minute length. Until then, the characters are required to endure a different, if no less disturbing kind of horror.

With Christmas and Boxing Day right around the corner, Nick Milgram (Sam Gittins) agrees to spend the two-day holiday with his family, for the first time in three years. His Anglo-Indian girlfriend, Annji (Neerja Naik), wants to meet his North Yorkshire family and, against his better judgment, he acquiesces. Nick’s father, grandfather, sister and brother are garden-variety British racists and blame immigrants for all the country’s recent ills. His mom’s just happy her son is home and welcomes Annji to their home. Grandpa (David Bradley) is disgustingly upfront with his prejudices. Sister Kate (Holly Weston), who’s pregnant, isn’t at all reluctant to diss foreign-born doctors and nurses, including those who might help deliver her baby in two weeks. Annji explains that she’s a doctor and as much a British citizen as Kate is, but logic never trumps bigotry. While playing Scrabble, Kate goes so far as to challenge Annji’s choice of words she doesn’t recognize. She considers them to be foreign and against the rules. In both instances, she’s wrong. When Nick asks Kate to stop badgering Annji, things go from bad to worse. Early the next morning, when they attempt to escape the madhouse, they’re blocked by an impenetrable barrier that, they’ll learn, covers every window and door. Before long, notices appear on the television advising viewers not to panic and follow subsequent instructions to the letter. This includes injecting themselves with a substance that arrives in previously used syringes and quarantining anyone who refuses to obey. Being a doctor, Annji advises against using the unsanitary needles to inject an unspecified “vaccine” into the arms.

Nick’s martinet father and doofus brother-in-law (Grant Masters, Kris Saddler) demand that everyone in the family obey the orders, no matter that Grandpa gets sick and dies after being injected. They also blame Annji for entering the house with a slight cold and possibly contaminating the family. She begrudgingly agrees to be quarantined, even though she’s the only one there with  medical training. There will be several more instructions to come. Because everything in Await Further Instructions takes place under one roof, it’s impossible for them to know if anyone else in the neighborhood is being affected in the same way or they’re the only ones. In no time, the tension caused by the claustrophobic surroundings becomes almost unbearable. It’s at this point, that Kevorkian unleashes his nightmare scenario and pulls viewers into  it. You’ll never look at your television in the same way, again. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

An Afghan Love Story
Throughout much of the first half of Barmak Akram’s gripping, anti-romantic drama, An Afghan Love Story (a.k.a., “Wajma”), viewers are given reason to hope that the movie’s central dilemma won’t end tragically or thwarted by morality police assigned to enforce Sharia-law dictates. We watch as 20-year-old student, Wajma, cautiously opens her heart to a gregarious waiter, Mustafa, knowing that even a shared kiss in public is forbidden by law. Wajma wears a headscarf or shayla, at all times, but not a burka, niqab or chador as the Taliban would have insisted during their time in power. She travels around the city by herself and attends social functions without  a male escort. Wajma and Mustafa are happy in each other’s company and, eventually, risk cuddling in the apartment he shares with his brothers and mother. They couldn’t have done this at Wajma’s modest home, where her mother and grandmother are mostly housebound, by choice, and fearful of her newfound freedom. It isn’t until later, when the hummus hits the fan, that we learn just how strict her father (Haji Gul Aser) can be when it comes to adhering to Islamic tenets, which include dominating women in his family. It comes as a surprise for us to learn that at some point, off-screen, Wajma gave in to Mustafa’s incessant pleading and had intercourse with him. We learn the truth after reading the look on her face when she submits to a blood test and learns that she’s pregnant. When the news reaches her father, who’s supervising mine-clearing operations outside Kabul, we’re also given a sliver of hope that he’ll adopt a modern position on the situation and spare Wajma the punishments Sharia law dictate for such infractions. Instead, for the crime of disgracing his good name, he whips her with his belt, threatens to kill her and locks her in a shed. He also berates his wife, for permitting their daughter the freedom to go out at night, alone, and their son, for not guarding her against such temptations.

After scanning her cellphone records, the father learns where to find Wajma’s lover. True to his weaselly nature, Mustafa defends himself by pointing out that she wasn’t a virgin when they met each other and, moreover, she can’t prove that he was the only man with whom she had sex during their time together. Typically, women are held responsible for tempting a man to stray, even when it comes to rape. In any case, Mustafa refuses to marry Wajma and that’s that. Instead of beating the wimp into agreeing to marriage, the father takes his complaint to a prosecutor. Although, under certain circumstance, the law would permit him to kill his daughter for committing adultery and dishonoring him, he could jailed and prosecuted for killing the guitar-playing waiter, without eye-witness evidence of them having sex. At this point in An Afghan Love Story, viewers don’t know whether it will end tragically, as we saw in The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008), or sadly, as in such films as A Separation (2011) and Persepolis (2007). We know that abortion is illegal in Afghanistan, but wonder if a compromise, however unsatisfying, might save Wajma from further harm. By this time, viewers will have taken her dilemma to heart and begun to pray that the movie’s absentee God will return in time to save her. Spoiler alert: the prayers and tears with share with Wajma, as the movies comes to a close, won’t necessarily be those triggered great sadness, except as it pertains to the state of the world in 2018.

Elizabeth Harvest: Blu-ray
It’s a conceit that’s stood the test of time, but never feels old: a wealthy gentleman returns to his mansion from somewhere faraway, with his much younger bride in tow. After she bathes and enjoys a lavish meal, he takes her on a tour of her new home. She marvels at the luxurious quarters and such unexpected pleasures as a swimming pool, spa and magnificent views. Approaching a locked door, the man cautions his precocious wife to mind one order: although she’s been given keys to every door, drawer and safe, the woman must never, ever use them to attempt to gain access to this particular room. She’s given no reason for the edict or hint of the room’s contents, but the husband couldn’t sound more adamant. Given that much information, viewers know exactly what’s going to happen as soon as he leaves town on business and the servants have been sent home. In Sebastian Gutierrez’ sumptuous thriller, Elizabeth Harvest, the title character is a tall, willowy redhead, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), who look like a fashion model who’s just reached the age of consent. Her husband, Henry, a brilliant scientist husband played ominously by Ciarán Hinds – where could they possibly have met? — displays the practiced manners of Count Dracula. The house staff, portrayed by Carla Gugino and Matthew Beard, appear to reserve their opinions of the child bride, as if they’ve witnessed the exact same scenario unfold in the past … which, of course, they have. It should come as no surprise to learn that the forbidden room is where Henry conducts his scientific experiments and there’s a very good reason for wanting to keep them secret from the outside world.

Not only has a security system registered the unlocking of the door, but she’s also left behind evidence of the breach. The twist comes soon thereafter, with the revelation that another young bride, and, perhaps, more than one, opened the same door and paid a steep price for doing so. Why Henry hasn’t devised a better way to secure the room is a question that goes unanswered, except to suggest that the supremely aloof scientist is a sadist with unlimited access to beautiful young redheads. Bingo. Gutierrez and Gugino have collaborated previously on Hotel Noir (2012), Girl Walks into a Bar (2011), Elektra Luxx (2010), Women in Trouble (2009), Rise: Blood Hunter (2007), Judas Kiss (1998) and an episode of “Karen Sisco.” She’s the rare Hollywood actress who alternates between roles in which her characters are sexy, maternal, subservient, heroic, fully clothed throughout and occasionally naked. In Elizabeth Harvest, Gutierrez has reserved most of the scenes requiring graphic nudity and slinky lingerie to Lee, who’s demonstrated her ability to act naked and clothed in Welcome the Stranger (2018) and Neon Demon (2016), and as a road warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). As a vehicle for sci-fi suspense and concrete-and-glass architecture, Elizabeth Harvest reminds me of Ex Machina (2015). Gutierrez has said that he was inspired by the French folktale, “Bluebeard.” The Blu-ray add a making-of featurette.

I Still See You: Blu-ray
Although she’s only recently reached the ripe old age of 21, Bella Thorne already has more than 80 credits listed on the IMDB.com website, dating back to 2003 and not counting the dozens of appearances she’s made as herself in various entertainments. Like so many other graduates of the Disney Channel factory —  she was CeCe Jones on “Shake It Up” – Thorne could hardly wait until she was 18 to cast off her G-rated personae and show off her boobs, piercings, tattoos and lingerie to anyone with an Internet browser. Thorne came out as bisexual in 2015 and, last year, revealed that she was in a relationship with Internet personality Tana Mongeau. Tres, tres naughty. Although she’s blessed with  long red hair, Thorne went Goth in Scott Speer’s supernatural thriller, I Still See You, sporting a spooky black wig, and clothes that are best described as fashionably drab. Adapted from Daniel Waters’ novel “Break My Heart One Thousand Times,” by screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift), I Can Still See You is a ghost story for the YA audience, in which the spirits of people killed in an explosive chemical disaster, 10 years earlier, co-mingle with the living and don’t worry much about being seen by more than one human at a time. Some of the non-sentient “remnants” reappear at specific times each day, repeating patterns engrained in them before they died. Early on, high school student Veronica Calder (Thorne) asks her mother why they don’t acknowledge her dead father’s daily presence at their breakfast table reading the newspaper and minding his own business. Another remnant, Brian (Thomas Elms), takes the liberty of making himself known to Veronica while she’s taking a shower at home. After Thorne befriends local bad boy Kirk (Richard Harmon), they set out to solve a mystery involving the murder of Pastor Greer’s daughter, Mary, for which Brian has long been blamed. The evidence: he’s weird and was found dead, apparently of suicide, on the same day as the girl was killed. Case closed. The teen sleuths enlist Brian’s assistance in figuring out what really happened to Mary and other girls who’ve gone missing. It takes them into a netherworld, between heaven and earth, inhabited by ghosts who’ve yet to come to grips with their own demise. It’s a promising premise, but I think Speer wrestled with staying true to the novel and its many interrelated storylines and it impacted negatively on the sustainability of tension. Because I Still See You lasted little more than a heartbeat in theaters – doing better in foreign markets – it begs the question as to whether the less-than-than dynamic Thorne can open a picture, or she should stick to making music videos, such as “Bella Thorne: Pussy Mine” “Bella Thorne: GOAT” and “Bitch I’m Bella Thorne.” Co-stars also include Dermot Mulroney, Amy Price-Francis and Hugh Dillon. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Speer and Thorne; deleted scenes, with Speer’s optional commentary; and the featurettes, “Remnants: Manifesting I Still See You” and “Break My Heart 1,000 Times: Novel to Screen.”

The Sound and the Fury
Although his artistic ambitious aren’t always rewarded with critical praise, no one should criticize James Franco for going where most Hollywood filmmakers and studio executives fear to tread. No one throws great sums of money at him, or twists his arm, to faithfully adapt novels that most people agree are unfilmable or dramatize the trials and tribulations of poets, such as Hart Crane, Alan Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. Made in 2014 and only now released on DVD here, Franco’s take on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury followed directly in the wake of his As I Lay Dying, with 15 other films, TV shows and shorts falling in between them on his resume. Yet to come are performances in “A Rose for Emily” and “Mississippi Requiem,” a collection of four short films based on Faulkner stories. The Sound and the Fury is set in Jefferson, a town in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. It centers on the Compsons, former Southern aristocrats, struggling to deal with the dissolution of their wealth and family, their tarnished reputation and once-expansive property. The novel and movie reveal the secrets and betrayals that have diminished the family name and continue to haunt the Compson children. Franco plays Benjy, the mentally impaired brother of Jason IV (Scott Haze) and Quentin Compson (Jacob Loeb). No one in the family is particularly normal – unless one considers the family’s longtime servant, Dilsey (Loretta Devine) – and Benjy’s facial deformities and barely existent IQ have must him a pariah within his own family. He has no friends, except for Dilsey’s son, who enjoys taunting and scaring Benjy when he’s unable to follow directions. The story is loosely told from four different points of view, with occasional visits paid by characters played by Tim Blake Nelson, Ahna O’Reilly,  Joey King , Janet Jones, Dwight Henry, Danny McBride and Seth Rogen. The critics weren’t terribly impressed by either adaptation, but most gave Franco for trying, anyway.

Lizzie: Blu-ray
The events leading up to the ax murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, on August 4, 1892, inside the house at 92 Second Street, in Fall River, Massachusetts, have been dramatized and analyzed so often that it hardly seems possible to find anything new there. And, while Craig William Macneill’s historical drama, Lizzie, from a screenplay by Bryce Kass, doesn’t shed much new light on one of this country’s most notorious crimes, it offers plenty to recommend it. In the same way that “Masterpiece” uses superior staging and first-class acting to breathe new life into period dramas, Lizzie benefits most from the performances of Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, as the presumed killer, Lizzie, and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan, respectively. Jamey Sheridan plays the verbally and sexually abusive Andrew Borden, whose wealth can be attributed, in part, to his notoriously extreme thriftiness and greed. Lizzie’s dowdy stepmother, Abby, is played by the formidable Irish actress Fiona Shaw, and her largely absentee sister, Emma, is portrayed by Kim Dickens. Adding to the intrigue is her devious and possibly culpable Uncle John, played by Denis O’Hare. At the narrative’s core is the growing love between Lizzie and Bridget, whose only real connection is their loathing for Andrew. When they’re together, however, sparks fly. One would vouch for the other in court and, according to the epilogue, at least, remain lovers for a short time afterwards. It’s the most theoretical aspect to the story.

New Wave: Dare to Be Different
There was a time, not so long ago, when AM radio ruled the airwaves and FM radio was reserved for pay-for-play shows catering to  ethnic communities, who used it as a combination jukebox and community bulletin board. After the first British Invasion, handfuls of rock-’n’-roll obsessives took over the FM bandwidths to play the music they wanted to hear, without commercial interruptions or concern for the length of an individual cut. It flourished to the point where radio manufacturers found it necessary to add an FM band to the AM stations that once dominated air play. By the mid-1970s, however, corporate interests took control of free-form radio stations and turned them into imitations of the overly formatted AM stations young people rejected a decade earlier. Today, of course, streaming services and Internet stations answer the demands of radio listeners, who turned to tape decks and satellite radio to meet their demands. Ellen Goldfarb’s nostalgia-inducing New Wave: Dare to Be Different documents the rise and fall of one of the most groundbreaking stations of the FM era. In spring of 1970, a couple of aspiring rock deejays on Long Island decided to take a page from Radio Luxembourg and England’s offshore stations, which broke the BBC’s cultural blockade on pop music years earlier. At the time, WLIR-FM served a small audience of classical-music buffs and Broadway-musical lovers. Its range was miniscule by AM standards, but its audience was demographically correct. Throughout the decade, it found an audience playing album-oriented and progressive rock, with laid-back disc jockeys, and live concerts. As the station’s popularity grew, its focus shifted to punk rock and new-wave genres, but it lost talent to larger stations in the metro area.

In August 1982, program director Denis McNamara advanced another format shift, this one conforming to WLIR’s Dare to Be Different campaign. Its flexible playlist added new wave, synthpop, post-punk, early alternative rock acts and novelty records. Once again, the jocks would do an end run around the mega-stations in New York City, their inflexible programmers and label weasels, who released cuts from foreign and regional sensations on their own timetables. It out-hustled the biggies by having records from emerging acts in England flown into the U.S. and picked up at local airports, almost immediately after they broke across the pond. It put LI listeners on the same page as their counterparts in Europe. As WLIR’s profits grew, so did interest in a long-simmering battle with the FCC over its 15-year “temporary” license. In 1987, it became a victim of its own success. Although the story doesn’t end there, New Wave: Dare to Be Different does. Goldfarb rounded up program director Denis McNamara, the ’LIR crew and prominent artists of the period to tell the story of how they battled the FCC, record labels, corporate-radio and all the conventional rules to create a musical movement that brought New Music to Long Island. Among the artists represented in New Wave: Dare to Be Different are Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, U2, Talking Heads, Depeche Mode, Blondie, Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, The Clash and The Cure. The DVD adds extended interviews with musicians, deejays and executives. The problem is that Goldfarb pretty much ignores the station’s decade-earlier success and similar strategies employed by Los Angles’ KROQ and other alternative stations already promoting British groups. It’s not their story, however. In 2009, Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio dramatized the offshore revolution by British deejays, who, in the 1960s, broadcast from derelict ships in the English Channel and North Sea and forced the BBC to recognize rock music and its fans.

Deadman Standing
If, Heaven forfend, CBS Entertainment ever decides to reboot its “Gunsmoke” franchise, it would have to do so without James Arness and Amanda Blake in tow. The producers of Deadman Standing, which arrived on DVD this week, inadvertently pose a solution to that dilemma.  Based on the actual Gunfight at Hyde Park, in 1871, in Newton, Kansas, the straight-to-DVD movie describes a massacre that produced one of the highest casualty counts of any gunfight in the Old West. Newton isn’t all that far from Dodge City, after all, and it’s conceivable that Viva Bianca’s red-haired brothel-owner, Rosie, could be the love child of Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty. Luke Arnold’s staunch lawman, Mike McCluskie (Luke Arnold)   and his tubercular deputy, James Riley (Quinn Lord), who reportedly registered the highest body count, wouldn’t be around to fill Marshall Dillon’s shoes, either. Perhaps, though, a stepchild or nephew could be invented to wear the star and be Rosie’s confidante and secret lover. As it is, however, Deadman Standing presents a reasonably entertaining re-construction of the events that led to the shootout. In it, the burnt-out McCluskie is forced to protect his town as the deepening divide between railroad workers and Texas cattlemen terrorizing the citizens of Hyde Park grows to crisis proportions. McCluskie calls on the support of Rosie and terminally ill Riley, to encourage citizens to rally against the gun-crazy Anderson family, who’ve used the railroad tracks to divide the city in half and can’t stand being told what to do. When one of the sons is humiliated in a standoff and incarcerated, the old man swears to take it out on anyone who stands in his way. Hence, the shootout. As has become the norm in contemporary Westerns, all the male characters look as if they haven’t visited their local barber since they reached puberty or, for that matter, only take baths and change clothes when Rosie’s unusually gorgeous prostitutes insist on it. While it adds an air of verisimilitude to the movie, the characters’ intensely shaggy visages make one feel sorry for the whores, one of whom (Aly Mang) is sliced up by one of the Andersons. One thing leads to another and the sickly deputy – who’s fallen in love with the defiled prostitute – is the last man standing.

Coby
A Moment in the Reeds
My Best Friend
Once again, this week, releases of interest to the LGBTQ community have arrived in DVD, thanks to the efforts of foreign-based filmmakers and niche distributors here. French-based Christian Sonderegger’s Coby chronicles his American half-brother’s transition from Suzanna Hunt to Coby Hunt. It combines excerpts from Coby’s ongoing Internet diary with candid, heartfelt interviews from his closest friends, co-workers and family members. Although Suzanna/Coby’s parents admit to resisting their child’s decision early, their attitudes had changed substantially by the time Sonderegger’s imported production team arrived in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. They still, at first glance, occasionally see the girl in Coby, before they recognize the man he’s become, but, then, so does he. The most surprising moments come when Coby’s girlfriend tells him that any thoughts of their bringing a child into the world would be fulfilled if he agreed to use his still-viable ovaries to carry it, a proposition that he explores. Apart from the divisive debate that our President has injected into the debate, Coby provides a refreshingly intimate and sensitive look at the timely subject. When Coby finally is recognized formally as male, and he’s required to register for the draft, it’s difficult not to see the irony in President Trump’s bigoted decision to reverse past gains in that area. While trans-men and trans-women seemingly are obligated to register for the draft, they could be forbidden from serving if it’s ever re-instituted. The Film Movement DVD includes deleted scenes.

In writer/director Mikko Makela’s feature debut, A Moment in the Reeds, Leevi (Janne Puustinen) takes a break from his Paris studies to help his estranged father renovate the family’s lake house in Savitaipale, Finland. The tension between them is palpable, if understated on Leevi’s part. The largely affectless old man, however, can’t resist taunting his son over his lack of skills, when it comes to carpentry and other manly pursuits. Jouko (Mika Melender) blames Leevi’s inadequacies for having to hire an immigrant Syrian handyman – trained as an architect – to expedite the work. Jouko immediately doubts that Tareq (Boodi Kabbani) is up for the task, simply because of the color of his skin. That opinion will change when Tareq readily agrees to Jouko’s demands for long hours – this far north in the hemisphere, the summer sun tends to linger in the sky —  and meets his specifications for precise measures and carpentry. It will come as no surprise to viewers, when, after Jouko leaves to attend to business in the city, the blond-haired, ivory-skinned Leevi becomes closer-than-close friends with the handsome young handyman. Their graduation into a sexual relationship comes after sharing a sauna, bathing in the lake and listen to Jouko’s old 78s. They discuss what it’s like to be gay in a country whose laws are dedicated by Islamic principles and having fundamentalist parents. No matter how cold it gets in Finland, Tareq is afforded the freedom to live on his terms. He wonders what it’s like to live in Paris, where racism is far less an issue than it is Scandinavia. Jouka’s appreciation of Tareq’s work supersedes his suspicions over their growing friendship and sleeping provisions. When, however, he returns from the city early and notices that some scheduled painting hadn’t been done, the racist and homophobic garbage rises to the surface. Some viewers might attribute Jouko’s slow burn to Finnish cultural norms, and Makela probably would agree that he fits certain stereotypes. That includes firing Tareq on the spot and refusing to pay him for work done and providing him with a reference. Leevi’s reaction to the rant also is predictably sad, as a growing friendship was nipped in the bud and his estrangement from Jouko probably will now be permanent. Whether Tareq will ever be accepted as a hard-working immigrant in his adopted country, or as a homosexual by his family, when and if they survive the refugees’ flight from Syria to Finland, is left open to question. The pastoral setting for romance and drama could hardly be lovelier in this Wild Beast DVD/Blu-ray.

In Martín Deus and Breaking Glass’ My Best Friend, Lorenzo (Angelo Mutti Spinetta) is a quiet teenager living with his family in Argentinian Patagonia, which, while incredibly beautiful, exists at the edge of the known world. One day, Lorenzo’s father announces that a friend’s son, Caíto (Lautaro Rodríguez), will be arriving soon from the north and move in with them while his parents sort out a tricky situation back home. It’s rocky going at first and the boys don’t have much in common, but Lorenzo makes excuses for Caito when his parents try and fail to maintain a curfew and other house rules. As the macho guest lowers his emotional barriers, Lorenzo learns the real reason Caito was forced to leave home and will have a difficult time returning to Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, Caito’s predicament forces Lorenzo’s parents to reopen a dark chapter of their past, which they would rather not remember.

Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days: Blu-ray
As fans of Pacific Rim fantasy epics might already know, Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days is Kim Yong-hwa’s sequel to his hugely popular holiday feature, Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017), which, itself, was adapted from the well-known Korean webtoon, “Along With the Gods.” Being shot back-to-back allowed a quick and profitable turnaround for the follow-up. In the original, firefighter Kim Ja-hong (Cha Tae-Hyun) died heroically while saving a child in a great blaze. After being taken to the afterlife by three guardians, Kim’s still required to pass seven trials necessary to prove he lived a noble life and will he be allowed to reincarnate. Along With the Gods: The Last 49 Days picks up where “The Two Worlds” left off, with several trials still awaiting completion. In doing so, Kim and the guardians come face to face with the buried truth of their tragic time on Earth, a thousand years ago, culminating in a final battle with a rogue deity. We learn more about the past lives of the guardians, while being introduced the new gods, including Ma Dong-seok’s Kitchen God. For the record, the seven trials required of Kim take place in (in order):Hell of Murder, where judges determine if your past actions influenced someone’s death; Hell of Indolence, where judges determine if the noble life given to the subject was wasted; Hell of Deceit, where lies told in one’s life are measured; Hell of Injustice, which investigates a candidate’s refusal to help those in need, especially for selfish gains; Hell of Betrayal, for the cold-hearted souls, who betrayed another’s faith or trust; Hell of Violence, where physical attacks on others are judged; and Hell of Filial Impiety, which determines if the candidate  dishonored or disrespected parents, elders and ancestors. Both films feature extravagant special effects and CGI. Bother are available in DVD/Blu-ray from Well Go USA. The bonus material adds character introductions and a production documentary.

Call of the Undead
Brutal: Blu-ray
Freshman filmmaker Joe Chen’s Call of the Undead, from the always dependable Wild Eye Releasing (Jurassic Shark, Mrs. Claus), easily transcends the so-bad-it’s-good distinction, by being so bad, it’s hysterical … an instant classic. It’s good/bad in the same way that Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966) was good/bad. For those who only know him from allegations of child abuse and other reported indiscretions, Allen made his directorial debut by taking the Japanese action film, Key of Keys (1965), and re-dubbing it to make the plot revolve around a secret egg-salad recipe. I don’t know what Chen had in mind when he made Call of the Undead, but the translation into English provides only half the hilarity. The rest comes in a Zombie Apocalypse non-thriller whose plot required a bevy of hot topless ghouls, a drug-dealing fatso cut from the mold of Gary Oldman’s, Drexl Spivey, in True Romance (1993), and a gigantic SOS formation created from dead bodies. And, that’s only for starters. A virus breaks out in a cartel-controlled city, either in Japan or Taiwan (it’s hard to tell which one), turning its residents into violent, bloodthirsty maniacs. The military teams dispatched to evacuate residents quickly become trapped between the violent criminals and an army of undead. When the obese leader of the cartel, surrounded by cocaine-snorting, barely dressed women, realizes that he can’t stave off the zombies, alone, he offers to lend his soldiers to the army to fight their way through the city before the infected can stop them. If that weren’t enough, several of the heavily armed female soldiers are dressed in uniforms that could double for go-go outfits. The dubbed dialogue is every bit as ludicrous. It’s impossible to say with any certainty whether what’s being said in English mirrors that of what Chinese or Japanese audiences heard in its original state, but I doubt if a different script would have made things that much more coherent. In any case, it’s perfect the way it is.

Far less amusing, but every bit as outrageous is Takashi Hirose’s Brutal, which combines torture-porn aesthetics with grindhouse visuals to create a story that’s shocking, if not terribly disturbing, unless one cares about the future of the horror genre. Gallons of fake blood are spilled in a story about a seriously overweight and antisocial serial killer who toys with the women he captures before bludgeoning and stabbing them to death. Rape isn’t part of the punishment, for reasons that will become obvious later in the 83-minute bloodbath. On the other side of town, a beautiful young woman is doing the same things for disturbingly similar reasons. Naturally, the psychopaths find each other and attempt to work out their problems in the only way they know how. Alas, that’s all Brutal has to offer viewers. Some might think that the big reveal is worth the effort it takes to get there, but … well, I wouldn’t want to share the same Uber with them on the way home. The DVD adds a somewhat useful behind-the-scenes featurette and three music videos.

Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Maniac: 3-Disc Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The Mangler: Blu-ray
Death House
Evil Dead 2: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Christmas may not be the season for movies that are soaked in blood, gore and horror, but that hasn’t stopped distributors of restored classics — I use the word advisedly – from running them up the flag pole and seeing who salutes them. Bored Internet bloggers have even begun sending out their lists of the 10, 17 or 25 Best Christmas Horror Movies, some stretching the premise to include Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, The Gingerdead Man, Die Hard and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Among the titles mentioned most often is Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 (1987), which basically recaps the events of the original and adds hardly anything new of its own. Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) and Black Christmas (1974) are generally credited with inventing the seasonal horror/slasher subgenre, with Halloween (1978), following in their wake. It wasn’t until Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) inspired parents’ groups and feminists to picket theaters showing the film and spark boycotts that a new holiday tradition was born. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who’d previously condemned I Spit on Your Grave, went as far as to read names of the film’s production team on their show. You can’t buy that kind of publicity, at least when it comes to a film’s afterlife in VHS, DVD, Laserdisc and, even today, in Blu-ray and 4K UHD (Halloween). Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 arrived three years after the original caused such a clamor that all the film’s TV ads and trailers, showing Santa Claus carrying an ax, were pulled off the networks. “SN/DN” was yanked from theaters only after it turned a profit in its limited release. The fracas didn’t preclude the producers from turning “SN/DN” into a successful direct-to-video franchise, especially in VHS.

Lee Harry’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, Part 2 was produced for significantly less money than the original and wasn’t even able to recoup its meager nut. That’s probably because opening-night viewers warned friends that “SN/DN2” largely relied on recapping the events depicted in “SN/DN,” recycling entire scenes in the process. The sequel is told through the eyes of the first killer’s brother, Ricky (Eric Freeman), who, after being released from a mental hospital, vows to avenge Billy’s death by settling scores with Mother Superior. Even the sight of someone in a Santa Claus costume is enough to trigger Ricky’s murderous impulses. The new Scream Factory edition, which sports a 2K remaster from an archival theatrical print, adds new commentary with Harry, actors Freeman and James Newman; “Slay Bells Ring Again: The Story of Silent Night, Deadly Night 2,” featuring interviews with cast and crew members; “Garbage Days Are Here Again,” a look at the film’s locations and most quotable line; “Ricky Today,” a short film, featuring a 2018 interview with Freeman; “I Don’t Sleep,” an extended interview with makeup-effects-artist Christopher Biggs; as well as some vintage material.

William Lustig’s ultraviolent, Maniac (1980), caused an even greater disturbance than “SN/DN,” with women’s rights advocates, Siskel and Ebert joining the  protests and calls for boycotts, due to its mass slaughter and scalping of female characters. And, yes, it’s every bit that vile. None of it completely detracted from Joe Spinell’s bravura portrayal of Frank Zito, a deeply disturbed man, haunted by the traumas of unspeakable childhood abuse. When these horrific memories begin to scream inside his mind, Frank prowls the seedy streets of New York City to stalk and slaughter innocent young women. Things begin looking up for Zito, when he hooks up with a beautiful fashion photographer (Caroline Munro), but, as usual, he blows it. There’s no understating the gruesome nature of the atrocities here, even if the protests didn’t prevent Lustig from directing such splatter flicks as Vigilante and a trio of Maniac Cop movies. Blue Underground presents Maniac in a brand-new 4K Restoration, from its recently discovered 16mm original camera negative; an original musical soundtrack CD, with a score by Jay Chattaway; commentaries with Lustig and co-producer Andrew W. Garroni, and Lustig, with special makeup-effects artist Tom Savini, editor Lorenzo Marinelli, and Spinell’s assistant Luke Walter; outtakes; “Returning to the Scene of the Crime,” with Lustig; “Anna and the Killer” interview with Munro; a Maniac 2 promo reel; 49-minute featurette, “The Joe Spinell Story”; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by author Michael Gingold; vintage interviews for TV and radio; and 41-minute, “Maniac Controversay.”

Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation: Collector’s Edition” returns in an 87-minute theatrical cut and 93-minute director’s cut. I missed it the first time around, in 1994, and wasn’t prepared for Matthew McConaughey’s wild portrayal of Vilmer, the crippled psychopath, and Renée Zellweger’s turn as the mousy victim of the demented family.  Like the 1974 original, a shortage of nudity is compensated for by a surfeit of gore and violence, which is rendered in nearly comedic fashion. It adds fresh commentary with writer/director Kim Henkel, on the director’s cut; “The Buzz Is Back,” an interview with DP Levie Isaacks; “Marked for Death,” an interview with actor Tyler Shea Cone; “If Looks Could Kill: The Return of a Chainsaw Massacre,” an interview with special makeup-effects artist J.M. Logan and production designer Deborah Pastor; and a stills gallery.

Tobe Hooper and Anant Singh’s adaptation of a yet-another Stephen King short story, The Mangler, may qualify as the horror genre’s first steampunk thriller, as it largely takes place in an ancient laundry facility, where linens are steamed, pressed and folded by a machine possessed by the devil. A dogged cop (Ted Levine) begins investigating the owner (Robert Englund) after the contraption begins to take hold and mangle the women working on it and everyone else who gets near its gears. The movie’s 106-minute length stretches the conceit way past its ability to maintain viewers’ willingness to sustain disbelief – it laid an egg at the box office – and was widely panned by critics. It definitely plays better on DVD/Blu-ray, but not by much. Scream Factory adds a 4K scan of the original camera negative of the uncut version; fresh commentary with co-writer Stephen David Brooks; “Hell’s Bells,” a comprehensive interview with Englund; and behind-the-scenes footage.

Harrison Smith’s one-trick-pony, Death House, features appearances by such genre stalwarts as Dee Wallace (Critters), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator), Kane Hodder (Hatchet), Sid Haig (The Devil’s Rejects), Adrienne Barbeau (Swamp Thing), Michael Berryman (The Hills Have Eyes), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), Bill Moseley (“TTCM2”), Tony Todd (Candyman), Vernon Wells (100,000 Zombie Heads), Debbie Rochon (Slime City Massacre), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), Tiffany Shepis (Victor Crowley), Troma poohbah Lloyd Kaufman and a dozen other lesser lights. Somewhere along the way to release, however, Smith must have run out of money to fully utilize such talent, because the story substitutes nudity and gore for anything resembling a coherent plot. Billed, early on, an “Expendables of horror,” Death House describes what happens when a power breakdown inside a top-secret, maximum security prison triggers chaos and mayhem throughout the facility. It forces a pair of federal agents (Cody Longo, Cortney Palm) to wend their way through a labyrinth of horrors, while being pursued by a ruthless army of roaming inmates. As they fight to escape, the agents push toward the lowest depths, where a group of supernatural  beings may be their only chance for survival. Smith took over the project from the late Gunnar Hansen (Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre), reportedly as possible extension of the Saw franchise.

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 has been recycled so many times that it begs the question as to what’s new in the handsomely repackaged Blu-ray/4K UHD package from Lionsgate. Besides the much-appreciated audio/video format upgrade — Dolby Vision HDR and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix — not much, besides the French-made featurette, “Bloody and Groovy, Baby: A Tribute to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2,” which features such talking heads as Guillermo del Toro and Roger Corman. The Blu-ray and its bonus features harken back to 2011’s “25th Anniversary Edition,” which were plentiful, but left as is. Anyone who’s come to franchise based on their enjoyment of Starz’ “Ash vs. Evil” should find to “ED2: Dead by Dawn” to be a fitting sequel to the original, which was shot on 16mm and benefitted from the grain. “ED2” received excellent reviews in the mainstream reviews, primarily for its dark sense of humor and gonzo graphics.

Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero
Sk8 Dawg
Pet Shop: Blu-ray
Precocious pups are featured in two of the three children’s pictures available this week. Fun Academy’s Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero is the rare computer-animated feature that is based on real historical material and a non-human protagonist that doesn’t necessarily qualify as anthropomorphic. It tells the story of a mixed-breed terrier, Sergeant Stubby, who became the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment, assigned to the 26th Infantry Division (United_States), 26th (Yankee) Division, in World War I. He served for 18 months and participated in 17 battles on the Western Front. He saved his regiment from surprise mustard-gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and once caught a German soldier by the seat of his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found him. Stubby has been called the most decorated war dog of World War I, and the only dog to be nominated for rank and then promoted to sergeant through combat. As the movie opens, a U.S. Army doughboy, Robert Conroy (voiced by Logan Lerman), has his life forever changed when the little terrier wanders into camp, just as the men of the 102nd Infantry Regiment are training on the parade grounds of Yale University. Conroy gives his new friend a name, a family and a chance to embark on the adventure that would define a century. Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero also features the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Gérard Depardieu and the featurettes, “The Making of a Hero,” “Real to Reel,” “Animating History” and “The Art of Sgt. Stubby,” with a historical-image gallery.

In Lionsgate and Ari Novak’s live-action feature, Sk8 Dawg, features a skate-boarding mutt that comes to the rescue of his adopted family, when a major investment firm threatens to pull the plug on their business, Modern Skate. Fourteen-year-old Tommy Schooner isn’t nearly as gifted – or competitive – as his sister, who’s become the public face of the company. While practicing skating with his dog, Buddy, Tommy accidentally runs into a 17-year-old skater and town bully, who accepts the boy’s ill-advised challenge to a competition, five days down the road. It gives them plenty of time to devise a plan to save Tommy’s butt and keep the company from going broke, at the same time. It helps, of course, that Buddy’s a world-class skater, with impeccable timing.

In the mid-1990s, father/son producers Albert and Charles Band created the Moonbeam Entertainment subsidiary to churn out low-budget horror and sci-fi features for undiscerning children. They reserved their Empire and Full Moon Productions labels for higher-profile series, including Ghoulies, Trancers and Puppetmaster. Typically undernourished, Pet Shop (1994) describes what happens when of a pair of alien creatures, disguised as a drugstore cowboy and cowgirl, who touch down in the Arizona desert town of Cactus Flats and buy a struggling pet store. In doing so, they lure local children to the shop with promises of cuddly companions that, likewise, are aliens in disguise. They’re hungry and have developed a taste for Earth kids. Their schemes are no match for 14-year-old Dena (Leigh Ann Orsi), whose family has moved to town as part of the government’s Witness Protection Program. It not only makes Cactus Flats a destination for famished aliens, but also hapless mob hitmen. Pet Shop is being presented for the first time on DVD and Bluray. Bonus features includes a Moon Beam Videozone behind-the-scenes featurette.

The DVD Wrapup: Support the Girls, M:I Fallout, Gosford Park, Serpent’s Egg. True Stories, School Daze, Candyman, Hanging Rock, Yellowstone … More

Friday, December 7th, 2018

Support the Girls: Blu-ray
There are a couple of things to know about Support the Girls before heading to your favorite streaming service and paying to see it, based solely on the nearly universal acclaim it’s received from critics. The first is that critics don’t frequent sports bars, especially not those that promote their waitress’ physical assets over the food. And, while it has several funny moments, Support the Girls is a dramedy with the accent on drama, meaning that folks expecting a workplace comedy, like “Cheers” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” probably will want their money back. Sports bars habitués might not understand what writer/director Andrew Bujalski was attempting to say about people, like them, who pay good money for the right to eat and drink in the company of attractive waitresses … and tip accordingly. On Rotten Tomatoes, the Tomatometer has awarded the film a 92 percent rating, based on 86 “fresh” reviews and only 7 “rotten” ones. By contrast, the Audience Score registers only 56 percent. Already this month, Regina Hall (Girls Trip) has been nominated for Independent Spirit and Gotham awards, and is the first black woman to win Best Actress in the New York Film Critics Circle’s 83-year history. The praise is based on her inarguably outstanding portrayal of the beleaguered manager of Double Whammies, yes, “a sports bar with curves” (a.k.a., breastaurant). Lisa combines all the attributes of a mother hen, den mother and sympathetic boss, while catering to a “mainstream” family clientele and enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. In her late 40s, Lisa knows that her first obligation is to the owner’s bank account, but her heart is divided between her wait staff and loyal customers. As balancing acts go, it’s a doozy. While sexy, the waitresses’ outfits are about as provocative as the uniforms worn by Hooters’ servers, minus the mandatory pantyhose and white socks. Double Whammies’ servers aren’t exactly encouraged to flirt, but it’s no secret that being extra nice to male customers likely will result in a bigger tip. Lisa does, however, enforce certain limits.

After a biker commits the sin of calling one of the waitresses “fat” – he claims it was in jest – Lisa risks her own well-being by unceremoniously booting the bozo out of the restaurant. Fortunately, a couple of cops are already in the restaurant, investigating an unrelated break-in, and the biker goes quietly … more or less. It’s not funny. The break-in involves a guy who gets stuck in the ventilation system, while either attempting to loot the safe or sneak peeks into the ladies’ changing room. He’s still there when Lisa’s shift begins. It sets the tone for the next 24 hours in her life. In the course of rescuing the intruder, a cable leading to the restaurant’s big-screen televisions is severed. It threatens to disrupt plans for that night’s boxing showcase. The club’s humorless owner, Cubby (James Le Gros), is angry at Lisa, not only for failing to alert him to the break-in, but also for using the parking lot for a benefit car wash to raise money for a troubled employee, Shaina (Jana Kramer), who was arrested after running over the foot of her abusive boyfriend. While dealing with these issues, and, not incidentally, discovering that her husband has packed his suitcase and left home, Lisa’s wait staff does its best to keep customers from shifting their allegiances to the new sports bar, ManCave, just down the road. Bujalski’s “mumblecore” roots are visible in the easy, naturalistic way Lisa and her employees share their joys and pain during their time together, inside and outside the bar. The high point comes when one of the waitresses feels it necessary to perform a Parisian can-can — on the bar — to keep the patrons from rushing over to the ManCave to watch the fight. The low point, for me, comes when Lisa has to discipline a white server for having the visage of NBA superstar Stephen Curry tattooed on an uncovered space on her torso. The waitress suspects that she could have gotten away the offense if the player’s face was white and, therefore, unlikely to offend racially sensitive guests.  (Hooters Girls aren’t allowed any visible tattoos.) The excellent supporting cast includes Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen), Dylan Gelula (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), AJ Michalka (“The Goldbergs”), Jana Kramer (“One Tree Hill”), Shayna “Junglepussy” McHayle and a typically butch Lea DeLaria (“Orange Is the New Black”), who also frequents the bar for the curves.

Mission:Impossible: Fallout: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Tom Cruise may rub a lot of people the wrong way, when it comes to his cheerleading for Scientology and occasionally over-exuberant self-promotion, but he’s one of the few movie stars extant who always gives his fans their money’s worth. It can be argued that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves from his peers, even though his paychecks don’t exactly suck. Cruise has only been nominated for three Academy Awards — Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Jerry Maguire (1996), Magnolia (1999) – that he could have just as easily won. He’s been a finalist for seven Golden Globes – winning three, for the same titles — as well as a single BAFTA, nine MTV and five Razzie awards. Considering how much money Cruise continues to make for Hollywood studios, increasingly from foreign audiences, his best shot for an Oscar might come when AMPAS decides it’s time to accord him one of those ceremonial trophies it reserves for people who deserve something more lasting than a nomination. And, yes, I realize that it’s “an honor simply to be nominated.” There’s nothing much I can add to what’s already been written about Mission:Impossible: Fallout, which did extremely well critically and commercially. Indeed, even at the exhaustive length of 147 minutes, it’s become the highest grossing episode in the franchise’s 22-year history … here and abroad. According to repeat-director Christopher McQuarrie, “Tom is first and foremost an entertainer. Everything he’s doing in the (“M:I”) movies is to take you to places you’ve never been, to show you things you’ve never seen, and to put you in the experience right there with him.” That includes performing stunts no sane actor would agree to do and, even if they did, most insurance companies would agree to underwrite.

In Mission:Impossible: Fallout, Cruise was injured while filming a stunt that required him to jump from one building to another in a chase scene. Although a harness allowed him to grab onto the other building, his ankle fractured upon impact. Even so, Cruise got up and attempted to run off the pain, which was what the scene called for, before reason prevailed and someone yelled, “Cut!” Even though the injury delayed production for eight weeks, footage of the stunt found its way into the finished product and trailers.

The important thing for viewers to know about “Fallout” is that it’s the first legitimate sequel in the series. That’s because it relies on plot devices, characters and antagonists introduced first in Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015). Additionally, McQuarrie and Cruise insisted upon the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and her brother, Zola (Frederick Schmidt), being identified as the children of Vanessa Redgrave’s international arms dealer, Max, from Mission: Impossible (1996). As the story goes, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is attempting to recover a suitcase containing stolen plutonium orbs, when he’s ambushed and forced to decide between saving the mission or saving his teammates (Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames). Choosing the latter meant putting the plutonium cores into the wind and available to the highest bidder. Hunt’s detractors at the CIA consider his decision to have been unconscionable. They suspect that operatives loyal to the White Widow are in possession of the suitcase and plan to sell it to supervillain John Lark during a charity event in Paris. The problem is that no one knows with any certainty what Lark looks like or whether he’ll come to the event in cognito. Theoretically, at least, he could take a page from the IMF playbook and don a latex mask to make him resemble Ethan. Neither are we supposed to know ahead of time whether the White Widow is a force for good or evil. To this end, the CIA insists that Ethan be accompanied by super-agent August Walker (Henry Cavill), who may or may not have his back. Any further summarization would qualify as a spoiler.

The always enthralling set pieces are highlighted by a H.A.L.O skydiving sequence, for which Cruise invested a year’s training. There’s also a helmet-free motorcycle chase through Paris; an extended foot chase across London rooftops; a cliff-hanging scene; and a low-altitude helicopter chase in which Cruise does most of the piloting. The fight scenes are also exquisitely choreographed. Anyone with enough time and technology to compare the Blu-ray and UHD versions probably will find that the 4K holds up better in the faster-paced scenes, thanks to the Dolby Vision HDR presentation, and Dolby Atmos soundtrack remixed specifically for the home-viewing experience. A separate disc holds most of the special features, including a 53-minute “Behind the Fallout” featurette; a deleted-scenes montage, with optional commentary by McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton; a “Foot Chase Musical Breakdown”; “The Ultimate Mission,” in which Cruise discusses his love for the franchise and benefits of practical stunt work; storyboards; commentaries with McQuarrie and Cruise, McQuarrie and Hamilton, and composer Lorne Balfe; and an isolated score track.

The House That Never Dies: Reawakening
Among the things frowned upon by Chinese censors are films they believe promote “cults and superstitions,” specifically phenomena that can’t be explained away as dreams or hallucinations. Although ghosts have historically played key roles in Chinese mythology and folklore, newly conjured apparitions usually don’t make the cut. Somehow, though, Disney/Pixar’s ghost-heavy Coco managed to slip through the filters, while Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters (2016) was denied a pass, even though Sony agreed to rename it, “Super Power Dare-to-Die Team.” Makes one wonder how much clout the Mouse House has in Beijing. Ironically, the lack of an official ratings system might yet cause one to be instituted, after all. Joe Chien’s The House That Never Dies: Reawakening is a sequel to Raymond Yip’s The House That Never Dies (2014), a 3D ghost story that reportedly caused younger viewers to cry out loud during scary scenes. The screams not only bothered older audience members, but they made exhibitors feel guilty about subjecting kids to terrifying images. It prompted some of them to impose a ratings code of their own, inspired by the MPAA’s system. The fact that Yip’s thriller did extremely well at the domestic box office suggests that Chinese audiences no longer want to be coddled by government officials. Even so, some Asian critics suspect that the sequel’s somewhat disjointed script was affected by fears of what censors might have done to it. Both films are set inside “Beijing’s most celebrated haunted house,” which stands at Chaonei No. 81. It’s a three-story French Baroque-style mansion, built in the 1800s by Qing officials. According to popular legend, the it became haunted at the end of the Communist Revolution, in 1949, when the wife of a Kuomintang official who once lived there committed suicide. It is believed that her spirit still haunts the house, turning it into something of an attraction for local tourists, ghost hunters and vagrants willing to put up with a few aggrieved spirits, in exchange for a roof that doesn’t leak.

The House That Never Dies: Reawakening takes liberties with the legend by digging several decades deeper into the house’s history and the mysterious murders of the entire Zhisheng family. In yet another attempt to restore and sell the place to an unsuspecting foreigner, cultural relic specialist Song Teng (Julian Cheung) begins to uncover strange items, left behind by previous tenants. They include skeletons of babies, weird carvings and other artifacts that suggest an intricate weaving of the past and present. Song suspects that a long-suffering spirit remains in the building, still seeking justice from the living world for past affronts. Song’s work has caused him to neglect his physician wife, He (Mei Ting). The couple has grown estranged following the stillbirth of their child five years earlier and her discovery of Song’s growing fondness for his assistant (Gillian Chung). To solidify their marriage, Dr. He agrees to move into the mansion with her husband. She’s soon plagued by visions and nightmares, which harken back to the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s when a general (Julian Cheung), who lived in the house, was forced to marry the daughter (Gillian Chung) of a warlord, to solidify an alliance and to ensure he would have an heir, after his first wife (Mei Ting) failed to produce one. Sadly, his new bride proved barren as well. If the back-and-forth gets confusing, at times, the story is rescued by special effects that probably represent the state-of-the-art in Chinese films. Watch for cameos by Vivian Wu, Joan Chen, Andrew Lin, Jack Kao and Lam Suet.

Viking Destiny: Blu-ray
Anyone looking for old-fashioned action picture that combines aspects of Thor: Ragnarok and “Game of Thrones,” with the History Channel series “Vikings” and the CW’s “Supergirl,” need look any further than David L.G. Hughes’ Viking Destiny. As far as I know, it also features western civilization’s first acknowledgement of a nomadic hippie clan, known as the Travelers. Everything centers around Helle (Anna Demetriou), a true Viking princess born to King Asmund and Queen Alva. Asmund isn’t present at the girl’s birth – a sign of bad luck — and Alva dies while he’s out saving the kingdom of Volsung … again. Because the king doesn’t believe his daughter will someday be qualified to rule the realm, he asks his brother, Prince Bard (Timo Nieminen), for permission to trade his son, Vern (Laurence O’Fuarain), for Helle. The scheming Bard understands how, down the road, this could serve his own interests. Although Vern’s a fine young man, he lacks the talent and taste for fighting that’s normally a prerequisite for sovereignty. Trained to be a warrior and leader, Helle is his opposite in this regard. Bard concocts a plan to kill off the young prince and princess, so, when his brother dies, the throne will be his. It’s at this point that the Norse deity, Odin (Terence Stamp), and the trickster Loki (Murray McArthur), make their presences known to Helle. She avoids assassination by taking to the forest and honing her fighting skills, eventually coming across the band of vegetarian nomads. Despite their tendency to avoid confrontations, the Travelers are perfectly capable of defending themselves – and Helle – when pressed. She also gains the support of a Viking band opposed to Prince Brad. The fighting and swordplay in Viking Destiny aren’t bad, and Demetriou, with her metallic red hair, is a force of nature.  The Northern Ireland locations will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Excalibur and “The Last Kingdom.” Oh, yeah, Hughes has also thrown a Kraken into the mix.

Operation Finale
The capture of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi officer who masterminded the logistics that brought millions of Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, has been dramatized several times in the last 50 years. It has even been re-created in an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” with a boozy Rachel Bloom narrating the story and Weird Al Yankovic playing Eichmann. It isn’t nearly as offensive as it sounds. Operation Finale follows the same basic structure as Operation Eichmann (1961), The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), The Hunt for Adolf Eichmann (1994), The Man Who Captured Eichmann (1996) and a play, “Captors.” Other films and documentaries have tackled Eichmann’s trial and the period between his conviction and execution. Because director Chris Weitz (The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and freshman screenwriter Matthew Orton relied on Peter Malkin’s “Eichmann in My Hands” for most of their source material, Operation Finale focuses primarily on the Israeli spy’s role in the capture and extraction from Argentina of one of the world’s most wanted men. Although Malkin (Oscar Isaac) wasn’t the leader of the operation, his ability to get Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) to sign a key document, while being held in a Buenos Aires safehouse, is the centerpiece of the drama. He also is credited with the physical capture of Eichmann, as he walked home from work. The rest, of course, is history. Even if Operation Finale covers well-trod ground, the movie serves as a reminder of one man’s essential role in the Holocaust, the “banality of evil” and why it was so important to bring him back to Israel alive and put him on trial. At the time, prosecuting individuals for genocide and other crimes against humanity – outside the borders of the losing country – wasn’t considered to be a legal alternative to extradition. That’s all changed.

Lesser known are the German dramas, The People vs. Fritz Bauer (2015) and Labyrinth of Lies (2014), which tell the stories of West German prosecutor-general Fritz Bauer and prosecutor Johann Radmann, who, while sniffing out ex-Nazis still in positions of authority in the 1950s, were the first to locate and identify Eichmann. Bauer decided against revealing his findings to German, American, Argentinian and Interpol authorities, knowing that Eichmann wasn’t likely to be convicted after being extradited to Germany. (Indeed, intelligence agencies were aware of Joseph Mengele’s occasional return visits home and did nothing.) Bauer’s findings led to where punishing Gestapo and SS functionaries no longer was a priority, Bauer felt as if the chances of any Nazi leader being convicted for crimes against humanity were better in Israel. (His research and persistence would lead to the groundbreaking Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, during which 22 individuals were charged under German criminal law for their roles in the Holocaust as mid- to lower-level officials in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.) Even after he passed along his information to the Mossad, however, Bauer was told that he had to come up with a second, more unimpeachable piece of evidence. If he hadn’t, it’s possible that Eichmann, like Mengele, might have dug a deeper hole, somewhere else in South America. Lucía Puenzo’s The German Doctor (2013) tells the true story of a Patagonian family that lived with Mengele without knowing his identity. They’re all good.

[Cargo]
The protagonist of James Dylan’s debut film [Cargo] was created as a showcase for veteran actor Ron Thompson, perhaps best known for his dual lead roles of Pete/Tony in Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop (1981) and as Detective Nopke, in the 1970s TV series “Baretta.” His IMDB.com resume only shows 15 credits between American Pop and [Cargo]. His first paying gig came in 1962, playing a junkie on “Armstrong Circle Theatre.” He would also play “Junkie” in American Me (1992) and “Crisis Center” (1997). Moreover, in 1973, Thompson won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for his lead performance in the play, “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?,” which is set in a drug rehabilitation facility. Here, Thompson plays a corrupt business executive, Anthony Peterson, who awakens one morning to find himself alone, locked inside an empty cargo container. His only prop is a cellphone, through which he communicates with his captors and the people he hits up for $10 million in ransom money. Peterson has 24 hours to reach his goal, run out of juice for his phone or oxygen to breathe, whichever comes first. The exchanges, which run the emotional gamut from sarcastic to deadly serious, tell us everything we need to know about his character, much of which happens to be on the negative side of the ledger. Dylan says that he was inspired to make a trapped-man or enclosed-space thriller after watching such films as Locke, All Is Lost, Castaway, Buried, Brake, Phone Booth, Evil Dead 2 and The Omega Man, some of them more claustrophobic than others. Thompson is fun to watch, even if, at 80 minutes, [Cargo] seems long. Original music by Thorsten Quaeschning, a late addition to the German electronic-music band Tangerine Dream.

God Bless the Broken Road: Blu-ray
In his hit version of Steve Goodman and John Prine’s tongue-in-cheek ballad, “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” David Allan Coe recalls Goodman saying, “it’s the perfect country and western song.” Coe’s reply: there’s no way it could be a successful country song, without any references to “mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk.” Goodman dutifully came up another final verse, “Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/and I went to pick her up in the rain/but before I could get to the station in my pickup truck/she got runned over by a damned old train …” In Coe’s opinion, this made “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” the perfect country-western song.

That’s a long way of getting to the point about Christian filmmaker Harold Cronk’s latest faith-based drama, God Bless the Broken Road, which follows in the wake of God’s Not Dead (2014) and God’s Not Dead 2 (2016). While the former made a whopping $64.6 million worldwide, on an estimated budget of $2 million, the latter grossed nearly $24.5 million, on a budget of $7 million. Even with the steep downward slide, those are the kinds of numbers that make Hollywood executives genuflect at the altar of commerce. By comparison, God Bless the Broken Road tanked, returning a mere $2.8 million in its domestic release. This, despite a story that combines God, the military, small-town life, country music, NASCAR and a troubled soul redeemed from despair. The title is a direct reference to the 2004 Rascal Flatts hit song, “God Bless the Broken Road,” which, itself, was adapted from the 1994 release, “Bless the Open Road,” by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Because of Cronk’s track record within the genre, the fact that he hit so many of the right buttons in a 111-minute span, should have led to much larger numbers.

Shot largely in Michigan, but clearly set in a Bible Belt town, the movie centers on a grieving military widow, Amber Hill – played convincingly by Lindsay Pulsipher (“True Blood”) — who’s struggling to make ends meet and stay connected to her daughter, Bree (Makenzie Moss). Because her husband’s benefits aren’t enough to cover Amber’s expenses, she’s in danger of losing her house and most valued possessions. Her mother-in-law (Kim Delaney) is breathing down her neck concerning Bridgette’s financial well-being and a perceived assumption that her daughter-in-law is losing touch with her son’s legacy. She isn’t, but that’s what mothers-in-law do in movies. Before her husband’s death, Amber was a God-fearing, church-going, choir-singing, small-town Christian wife and mother. And, while Bridgette continues to attend church and Sunday school, Amber has lost her faith. Fortunately, she’s surrounded by friends who’ve never given up on her ability to walk the broken path back to the lord. Now, in real life, her friends and pastor might have launched a GoFundMe campaign to help her clear the hurdles in her life or chained themselves to the doors of the local VA headquarters. Instead, Amber’s helping hand arrives in the form of a cocky, if self-destructive NASCAR driver, Cody Jackson (Andrew W. Walker), who’s in need of some small-town redemption himself. In the purest of all possible ways, Cody and Amber make a love connection, which, itself, is tested by circumstances. Cronk throws in the kitchen sink by adding a crippled war veteran, whose life was saved by Amber’s husband in combat and a divinely inspired go-cart race for kids in the Sunday school. You might be able to guess the rest. God Bless the Broken Road may not insult its audience by saving money on production values, but it probably recouped some of it expenditures with annoying product placements. Also among the admirably diverse cast members are former NFL star LaDainian Tomlinson, actress Robin Givens, prototypical Southerner Gary Grubbs and “American Idol”-winner Jordin Sparks. Bonus features include featurettes, “Delivering God’s Message: Casting God Bless the Broken Road,” “Restoring Faith: Mending the Broken Road” and “Pedals and Prayers: Racing Alongside God.”

Gosford Park: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Serpent’s Egg: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Arrow Academy has outdone itself this month with impeccably restored “special editions” of Robert Altman’s period murder-mystery, Gosford Park (2001) and Ingmar Bergman’s curious pre-Nazi drama, The Serpent’s Egg (1977). Lovers of shows adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey” and “The Grand” may not be aware of Altman’s unexpected foray into the world of post-Victorian aristocracy and the final vestiges of polite society. They definitely should check out this splendidly restored edition, however.  If it immediately reminds Anglophiles of a certain fabulously successful “Masterpiece” series, it’s because Gosford Park was written by Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” from a concept by Altman and actor Bob Balaban. In fact, “Downton Abbey” was originally planned as a spin-off of the film, but, instead, was developed as a stand-alone property and re-set to begin decades earlier. It also might have had something to do with the rather shabby greeting the movie received from British critics, even before its release. American critics loved Gosford Park, though, and, even without a prominent Hollywood star, would become one of Altman’s most commercially successful pictures in the U.S. It takes place over the course of a weekend, inside and on the grounds of a lavish country estate, where a couple of dozen upper-crust twits have gathered for a so-called “shooting party.” Of equal interest to Altman are the assorted maids, butlers, cooks and dressers who slavishly cater to the whims of the guests. When, nearly halfway through the movie, the master of the McCordle household (Michael Gambon) is found dead, with a knife stuck in his chest – uselessly, because he’d already been poisoned – an inept police Inspector Thompson (Stephen Fry) discovers that almost everyone under the house’s several roofs and ceilings should be considered a possible suspect. Among them are characters played by Alan Bates, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Bob Balaban, Richard E. Grant, Helen Mirren, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Emily Watson, Eileen Atkins, Kelly Macdonald and Ryan Phillippe. Altman was smart enough to know how much he needed to learn about the characters and period, and he did extensive research prior to committing film to camera. On set, he also listened to the advice of people who were “born into service” and can remember every misplaced fork and mislaid cufflink. The set includes new commentary with Geoff Andrew and David Thompson, as well as two previous tracks by Altman, production designer Stephen Altman and producer David Levy, and writer-producer Julian Fellowes; fresh interviews with executive producer Jane Barclay and actress Natasha Wightman, who played Lavinia Meredith; deleted scenes, with optional commentary; and archival background and making-of featurettes.

For those who’ve yet to save enough money to afford Criterion Collection’s essential “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema,” it’s worth knowing that one of the maestro’s most atypical works, The Serpent’s Egg, already is available a la carte from Arrow Academy. In 1977, Bergman teamed with Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis (La strada) for the director’s first and only Hollywood-financed feature. It is set in Berlin, 1923, at the height of the country’s post-WWI economic crisis and the dawn of fascism. Out-of-work circus performer Abel Rosenberg (David Carradine) is living in poverty and drowning himself in booze. When his brother commits suicide, he moves into the apartment of his sister-in-law, Manuela (Liv Ullmann), who sings in a cabaret that makes the Kit Kat Klub, in Cabaret, look like a Catskills resort. Abel will soon become embroiled in a murder mystery that requires his presence in the local morgue to identify the bodies of people who’ve died in Manuela’s neighborhood. He assumes that he’s suspected in their deaths because he’s a Jew and, therefore, an easy target for police persecution. Adolph Hitler’s about to be sent to prison for the failed Beer Hall Putsch, and it will give him the time to write “Mein Kampf.” Meanwhile, Abel manages to land a job working as a clerk in a hospital, assisting with the archiving of patient cards, while Manuela finds work in another part of the hospital clinic. One night, in another foreshadowing of the Holocaust, Abel is alerted to files containing detailed reports of graphic and inhumane experiments conducted on patients there in the past few years. Things go further downhill for the Rosenbergs from there.

It’s entirely possible that The Serpent’s Egg would have been easier to embrace if Bergman hadn’t gone into self-imposed exile from Sweden over tax-evasion charges and suffered a nervous breakdown from the humiliation. The charges didn’t amount to anything, but the damage was done. The Serpent’s Egg was filmed on location in West Berlin, in English, with only one performer who had worked with him previously, Ullmann, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. He was overwhelmed by the size of the crew and his inability to maintain logistical control. It’s palpable in the finished product, which was roundly derided by many of the same critics who had previously worshipped nearly everything he’d touched. As is often the case with such perceived failures, The Serpent’s Egg is far more interesting in hindsight than it was in 1977. The city’s Kafkaesque aura of dread is palpable, thanks to the atmospheric production design, and Ullmann is always fun to watch. Carradine was riding high at the time, as well. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Carradine; “Bergman’s Egg,” a newly filmed appreciation by critic and author Barry Forshaw; “Away From Home,” an archival featurette, including interviews with Carradine and Ullmann; “German Expressionism,” an archival interview with author Marc Gervais; a stills gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring two artwork choices; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by author Geoffrey Macnab.

True Stories: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When word got out that David Byrne was making his feature-directing debut with a musical ode to the “extraordinariness of ordinary American life,” most of artsy-fartsy fans probably expected something that could make them feel superior to the folks in flyover country. Byrne has described the film as “a project with songs based on true stories from tabloid newspapers. It’s like ‘60 Minutes’ on acid.” If that was the intention, the LSD must have been cut with something sweet and endearing, because the residents of Virgil, Texas, to whom we’re introduced in True Stories (1986), are only slightly more unusual than the people most of us knew growing up in Anywhere, USA. Not surprisingly, too, the stories Byrne collected from the tabloids were far less exploitative than their headlines would lead readers to believe. Byrne sports a huge 10-gallon hat and rodeo-ready shirt to guide viewers through Virgil, which, like everywhere else in the state, is preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Texas’ independence from Mexico. He approaches the city’s Celebration of Specialness and everyone he meets there with a straight face and abundance of curiosity. Even when John “The Bachelor Cowboy” Goodman begins his showcase song with the lyrics, written by Byrne, “People like us (Who answer the telephone)/People like us (Growing big as a house)/People like us (Gonna make it because)/We don’t want freedom/We don’t want justice/We just want someone to love,” there’s no implied sense of irony or derision. His tabloid-worthy trait derived from his openly soliciting for a wife, through television commercials and newspaper ads. Today, of course, Goodman’s Louis Fyne would be only one of several million other people looking for “someone to love” on the Internet.

Other characters based on tabloid headlines include Swoosie Kurtz, who plays a perfectly healthy woman who hasn’t left her bed in years, preferring to watch the world go by on television. Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe are a married couple, who, for years, have only communicated with each other through their children. Jo Harvey Allen is “The Lying Woman,” who never tells the same lie twice – or the truth, for that matter — about her personal background. When Pops Staples isn’t taking care of the bed-ridden Miss Rollings, he practices Santeria at an altar in a room no larger than a closet. A parade features local groups that seem fictional – Shriners in miniature Mustangs, dozens of babies in strollers, an accordion marching band – but probably aren’t. A fashion show at the local mall mirrored any of the catwalk shows put on by John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana in Paris, with suits constructed from sod and Astroturf and towering ornamental headwear. As shot by cinematographer Ed Lachman, Texas becomes a hyper-realistic landscape of endless vistas, shopping malls and prefab metal buildings. It’s pre-Trumpian in every way possible. True Stories didn’t do well at the box office during its initial release, but it achieved cult status in VHS and DVD. The Talking Heads music holds up wonderfully well, whether it’s the band’s version of the songs or one of the characters is singing. It’s also fun to watch Goodman, Kurtz and Gray, especially, in early performances. The restored 4K digital transfer arrives with a new documentary about the film’s production history; a new program about designer Tibor Kalman; deleted scenes; a separate soundtrack CD; and a “tabloid” booklet, featuring new writings on the film and archival material.

School Daze: 30th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Looking back at the reviews that accompanied the release, 30 years ago, of Spike Lee’s sophomore feature, I was struck by how negative so many of them were. Several compared School Daze unfavorably to Animal House (1978) and Revenge of the Nerds, which, likewise, were set on college campuses and relied on their characters’ antisocial behavior for laughs. While there was no shortage of misbehaving in School Daze, Lee had other things on his mind, as well, something most white critics missed. In the late-1980s, historically black colleges and universities were on the decline and thought, by some, to provide an inferior education to other public and private schools, which benefitted from greater diversity, larger endowments and easier access to graduate schools. Lee enrolled in Morehouse College, where he made his first student film, “Last Hustle in Brooklyn” (1979), and took film courses at Clark Atlanta University, before graduating with a BA in mass communication from Morehouse. Four years later, he submitted “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” as his master’s thesis at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. (Classmates Ang Lee and Ernest R. Dickerson worked on the film as assistant director and cinematographer, respectively.) In 1985, Lee began work on his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, with a budget of $175,000. When the film was released in 1986, it grossed over $7 million at the domestic box office. As usual, that number raised eyebrows in Hollywood. He would need substantially more money to finance the kinds of movies he wanted to make in the future. He’d have to settle for an estimated $6.5 million for School Daze and Do the Right Thing.

School Daze takes place over Homecoming Weekend at historically black Mission College. It’s a big deal for administrators who hope to relieve of returning alumni of money made, in part, because of their college diplomas. It’s an inopportune time for Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) to initiate anti-apartheid demonstrations, encouraging students to boycott classes until the school divests itself from investments in South African companies. It’s an even worse time for fraternities and sororities to rachet up their rivalries to levels that threaten violence and simultaneously confront the anti-apartheid protesters for stealing their thunder. By pledging the absurdly macho Gamma Phi Gamma, Half-Pint (Lee) finds himself in the middle of a feud led by his older cousin, Dap, and Julian Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito), the Dean Big Brother Almighty of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, Incorporated. Additionally, the Gammas’ “women’s auxiliary” — the Gamma Rays – is at war with the non-Greek women over the perceived correctness of their skin tones, body shape, hair and financial backgrounds. Some of the Rays will stop at nothing to meet a Gamma man’s demands, including agreeing to take Half-Point’s virginity at a house party. If nothing else, School Daze demonstrates how students at historically black colleges could be as petty, prejudiced and cruel as their counterparts at historically white school. It also shows how Mission College provided a safe haven for students who might feel overshadowed and lost at larger, more impersonal institutions. That’s one of key points brought up in panel discussions, Q&As and interviews included in the Sony Blu-ray package, which goes deep on Bill Lee’s musical score, individual songs (“Da Butt”) and Otis Sallid’s choreography, all of which are terrific. Besides Fishburne and Esposito, the cast and crew included Ossie Davis, Kadeem Harrison, Branford Marsalis, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, Jasmine Guy, Kasi Lemmons, Samuel L. Jackson, casting director Robi Reed, costume designers Jennifer Ingram and Willi Smith, and musician Terence Blanchard, most whom got their first major exposure on School Daze.

Lucio Fulci’s Zombie: Limited Special Edition: Blu-ray
No Zombie Apocalypse completist should consider their mission complete, without at least one screening of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979), which also has been released under the titles “Zombie Flesh Eaters” and “Zombie 2.” (In Italy, it’s considered the “unofficial sequel” to George A. Romero’s 1978 thriller, Dawn of the Dead, which was shown there as “Zombi.”) It has its detractors, but, considering what’s available today, Zombie benefits from some truly disgusting special-makeup effects, a memorable Fabio Frizzi musical track and an underwater confrontation between a zombie, a topless scuba diver (Auretta Gay) and a tiger shark. Now, that’s entertainment. The picture opens with a ghost ship arriving at the New York harbor, with no one aboard except a hidden undead passenger. A Harbor Patrol officer is killed by the zombie, which, after being shot by another officer, falls overboard and disappears. At the morgue, the cop’s corpse re-animates itself. When public-health authorities find the boat-owner’s daughter, Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow), the only information she can provide is that he’s probably in the Caribbean and she hasn’t been in contact with him in months. On the deserted boat, Anne meets a snooping journalist, Peter West (Ian McCulloch), who suggests they travel to the island of Matul and confront her physician father. To get there, they’re required to hitch a ride on a boat manned by Brian Hull (Al Cliver) and Susan Barrett (Gay), whose holiday sail will take an unexpected turn when they reach Matul. Once there, Anne discovers that her father, Dr. David Menard (Richard Johnson), has been running a hospital and researching voodoo rites. Naturally, as the death toll rises, so, too, does the population of reanimated corpses. Not even the doctor’s wife, Paola (Olga Karlatos), is exempt from the carnage. By the time the 91-minute movie ends, the Zombie Apocalypse is virtually assured, as are several sequels. The three-disc Blue Underground package benefits from a fresh 4K restoration, from the original uncut and uncensored camera negative; a CD of the original motion-picture soundtrack; commentaries with Troy Howarth, author of “Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films,” and McCulloch and Diabolik magazine editor Jason J. Slater; an introduction by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who also supplies an appreciation; dozens of interviews; a collectable booklet, with a new essay by author Stephen Thrower; a poster; and a stills gallery.

The Critters Collection: Blu-ray
Some old movie franchises never die … they fade away for a while, before returning a quarter-century later on cable TV and DVD/Blu-ray packages. Such is the case for the Critters series, which, in addition to being cleaned up and accessorized for Shout!Factory’s The Critters Collection, is springing back to life. On October 22, it was announced that SyFy was in talks to acquire the licensing rights to the Critters franchise, as well as the horror-comedy, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, in order to produce new sequels to both properties. Meanwhile, an animated Internet series, “Critters: A New Binge,” wrapped production in Vancouver during the summer and reportedly will serve as a reboot. First, a recap: the series follows a group of malevolent carnivorous aliens from outer space, Krites, that roll into balls, like hedgehogs, and cause mayhem as they roam the landscape. The small, spiky animals have large mouths and sharp teeth. The spikes on their backs can be launched as projectiles, rendering the victim unconscious. Between the first and second installments, the little boogers lost their ability to grow to a much larger size.

In Critters (1986), the terrified Brown family is trapped in a deadly nightmare and must fight for their lives against a litter of extraterrestrial, bloodthirsty monsters. It appears to be a losing battle, until two intergalactic bounty hunters arrive, determined to eliminate the creatures from Earth. In Critters 2: The Main Course (1988), it turns out that some eggs have survived the purge and are popping open, bringing about another crisis. Brad Brown (Scott Grimes) is required to return to Earth to fight the slightly different looking aliens, along with three bounty hunters. In Critters 3 (1991), 16-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio makes his feature debut as a beleaguered Los Angeles apartment dweller, called upon to lead the fight against an invading force of Krites. (Let’s see if they can afford the rent.) In the final film, Critters 4 (1992), a super strain of genetically engineered monsters is designed to take over the universe from space. This time, Brad Dourif and Angela Bassett must battle the bloodthirsty hairballs. The package comes stuffed with commentaries, feature-length making-of pieces, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes, alternative endings and stills galleries.

Urban Legend: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Urban Legends: The Final Cut: Blu-ray
Candyman: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Shout Factory has gotten into the urban-myth business in a big way by re-packaging and restoring the two theatrical releases in the Urban Legends series: Urban Legend (1998) and Urban Legends: The Final Cut (2000). (The 2005 straight-to-video triquel, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, is only available through streaming outlets.) In the original, a New England college student, Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders, staged to resemble time-honored legends. She resolves to find the truth about her school’s own legend: a 25-year-old story of a student massacre at the hands of an abnormal psych professor. As the school’s fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, Natalie senses that she has become the not-so-mythical killer’s next victim. Other cast members include Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Michael Rosenbaum, Loretta Devine, Tara Reid, John Neville, Robert Englund, Danielle Harris and Natasha Gregson Wagner. In the sequel, Amy Mayfield (Jennifer Morrison), a film student at Alpine University, struggles to complete her thesis project on urban legends, but her crew members are falling prey to fatal “accidents.”  Amy is forced to unmask the killer before she, too, becomes a victim. She’s joined by Matthew Davis, Hart Bochner, Joey Lawrence, Anson Mount, Eva Mendes and Jacinda Barrett. In addition to vintage features, the sets add new commentary, a lengthy making-of documentary, extended interviews and behind-the-scenes material. “Final Cut” adds another making-of doc and interview with actress Jessica Cauffiel.

Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992) is based on a different sort of urban legend. This one, however, impacted Hollywood’s occasionally lucrative urban demographic, which previously supported blaxploitation flicks. Despite the protagonist being is a white woman – Virginia Madsen, fresh off an incendiary performance in The Hot SpotCandyman was set largely in Chicago’s now-demolished Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects. The interracial aspect exploited certain well-established clichés about black men and blond women, while establishing that the projects were an urban jungle, unsuitable for exploration by such fragile flowers of femininity. In fact, as the movie concludes, Chicago’s notoriously segregated projects were as hazardous for occupation by black single mothers as they were for anyone else. On the credit roll, at least, the basis for Candyman was Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” which was set in Liverpool. In fact, Houston serial killer Dean Corll, a white man, already was dubbed Candy Man for giving sweets to his young victims … 28, in all. Atlanta serial killer Wayne Williams is black, as were his young and adult victims. As happens in the movie, an architecture flaw in the Chicago buildings allowed a real-life killer to enter adjacent apartments through medicine cabinet. The swarms of bees and hook came later. Candyman’s other link to urban legend is a game called “Bloody Mary,” in which the player turns off the lights, says the ghost’s name five times into a mirror, and waits to be murdered. Here, graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is researching stories told about Candyman, a slave spirit with a hook on the stub that once had a hand attached to it. (Another urban legend posits that the production company paid off gang members, who also haunted the projects’ hallways, selling drugs and recruiting new hoodlums.) As in real life, Chicago police in the movie are portrayed as having better things to do than encourage the unscientific theories of an attractive student, although Madsen’s blond hair and unmistakably ample bosom get her through the door. They were as wary as anyone else when it came to answering calls at Cabrini-Green, where the gang-bangers held the high ground and carried more powerful weapons. It was safer and simpler for them to pin the death of the grad student’s black roommate on Lyle and leave it at that. The fact is, though, Candyman has retained its ability to unnerve viewers and Tony Todd’s portrayal of the ghostly killer is still capable of raising goosebumps. The theatrical cut is a 2K restoration, from a 4K scan of the original negative. It adds new commentaries with Rose and Todd, with authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman. The second disc contains the similarly restored uncut version of the movie; new interviews with actors Todd, Madsen, Kasi Lemmons and DeJuan Guy, production designer Jane Ann Stewart and special makeup-effects artists Bob Keen, Gary J. Tunnicliffe and Mark Coulier; writer Douglas E. Winter’s take on Barker’s “The Forbidden”; and “Urban Legend: Unwrapping Candyman,” a critical analysis of the film with writers Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. That’s a lot of stuff.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn:  Picnic at Hanging Rock: Blu-ray
Acorn: Jack Irish: Season 2: Blu-ray
Yellowstone: Season 1
Sometimes, a mystery novel will inspire the kind of passionate response from readers that gives characters and plot points lives of their own. A generation, or two, later, the fiction will have evolved into something resembling fact, or, as we’ve seen in Urban Legend and Candyman, an urban legend. Joan Lindsay’s 1967 historical novel, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” followed just such a subliminal progression. A huge hit in Australia, where Hanging Rock is a real place, the novel was adapted eight years later by New Wave director Peter Weir. Picnic at Hanging Rock is considered the country’s first international sensation. Nicolas Roeg’s survival thriller, Walkabout (1971), had already whet the appetites of Up Over audiences for movies depicting Australia’s bicultural malaise and the haunting beauty of its Outback. After “Hanging Rock,” Weir’s similarly eerie The Last Wave (1977) solidified his reputation and opened the door for other Aussie filmmakers, including Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant), George Miller (Mad Max), Paul Cox (Man of Flowers), Phillip Noyce (Heatwave), Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) and Jane Campion (Sweetie). The government, in its lack of foresight, eventually pulled the plug on financing its leading cultural exports, leading to an exodus of actors and directors.

Both the movie and 2016 mini-series, “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” depict the mysterious disappearances of three schoolgirls and a teacher on Valentine’s Day, 1900. The complex, interwoven narratives chart the subsequent investigation and the event’s far-reaching impact on the students, families, and staff of Appleyard College and on the nearby township. At 115 tense and beautifully rendered minutes, Weir’s adaptation was limited to focusing on the event, investigation and some of the aftermath. Fremantle Australia’s twice as long, six-episode adaptation — available through Acorn Media — takes a much deeper look at the events that led to the fateful Valentine’s Day mystery, expanding, as well, on the individual students, teachers, police and the enigmatic Mrs. Hester Appleyard. Although English actress Natalie Dormer (“The Tudors”) looks a tad too young and pretty to play the headmistress and founder of an exclusive and very expensive Victorian finishing school, the extra time allows her to grow into the part. By and large, the pampered students are extremely smart, precocious and curious about their blossoming sexuality. Only a couple of them qualify as shrinking violets. Beatrix Christian and Alice Addison’s screenplay does nothing to dispel the viewers’ curiosity over the validity of the mystery. Neither does it allow for alternate explanations for the disappearances. It adopts Lindsay’s philosophy, as advanced in the forward to her novel: “Whether ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.” It fooled me. Garry Phillips’ evocative cinematography was rewarded with a trophy from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. Special features include 44 minutes of cast-and-crew interviews, and a 37-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Also from Australia and Acorn Media comes “Jack Irish: Season 2,” an excellent crime-investigation series adapted from detective novels by author Peter Temple. Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) plays the title character, a former criminal lawyer turned private investigator and debt collector. It began life as three feature-length made-for-TV movies, before being adapted into an ongoing series, of which two six-episode chunks thus far have been broadcast. Besides Pearce, the mini-series features regular appearances by such Aussie stalwarts as Marta Dusseldorp (“Janet King”), Aaron Pedersen (Goldstone), Shane Jacobson (Kenny), Deborah Mailman (“Mystery Road”) and Kiwi actor Roy Billing (“Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities”). In the second season of the mini-series, Jack’s life has hit a rough patch: his beloved local pub may be sold; his journalist girlfriend, Linda (Dusseldorp), has found a more dependable partner; the horse-racing world is in turmoil; and the suspicious death of an international student, at a dubious Australian college, plunges Jack into a high-stakes investigation. To crack the case, he will need Linda’s help, along with assistance from a beautiful, if conflicted psychiatrist (Danielle Cormack). The package contains a recap of the first season; a behind-the-scenes piece, with the cast and crew, on shooting on location in India, the characters’ wardrobe and what resonates with audiences; tweet readings; and cast interviews.

Kevin Costner assumes the role of high-country J.R. Ewing, in Paramount Network’s prime-time soap, “Yellowstone.” The primary differences between it and the knock-offs that followed in the wake of “Dallas” are the lovely locations — Chief Joseph Ranch in Darby, Montana, and Park City, Utah – and the creative talents of Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Sicario). His writing gives the series its edge, while Costner adds his charisma. Unlike “Dallas,” however, “Yellowstone” also contains brief nudity from Kelly Reilly, Ambyr M. Reyes and Kelsey Asbille, and near-nudity of Barret Swatek, all of whom would give the Ewing gals a run for their money. John Dutton (Costner), who controls the largest contiguous ranch in the U.S., is under the constant threat of land developers, Indian-casino interests, bankers and oil speculators. I can’t recall if President Trump and his flunkies in the Interior Department are mentioned, but they’d almost certainly clear the way for developers, frackers, lumber interests and oil barons to exploit the pristine landscape … as long as they share their profits with Republican fat cats. Costner may be one of the few people with enough clout to stop them. The cast also includes Wes Bentley, Luke Grimes, Cole Hauser, Danny Huston, Gil Birmingham, Brecken Merrill, Jefferson White and David Annable. The set adds all sorts of bonus features, including interviews with the show’s stars, creators and designers and featurettes on the music and special effects.

Also new to Blu-ray

Bright Lights, Big City: Special Edition: Blu-ray
James Bridges’ 1988 adaptation of screenwriter Jay McInerney’s best-selling novel suffered from too much Hollywood studio meddling, including the hiring and firing of directors, actors and writers. Among the concerns were the frequent depictions of cocaine use by the clean-cut yuppie characters. To snare Tom Cruise, one rewrite of McInerney’s script eliminated the substance entirely and Michael J. Fox’s agent feared its use would tarnish his client’s squeaky-clean image. Removing cocaine from Bright Lights, Big City would be like substituting the booze in Days of Wine and Roses with Shirley Temples. Fox plays Jamie Conway, an aspiring writer who abandons the wheat fields of Kansas for the skyline of Manhattan and gets caught up in the city’s very high life. It’s an old story, but, in 1988, not yet overfamiliar. Still, the movie’s a hot mess. It co-stars Kiefer Sutherland, Phoebe Cates, Dianne Wiest, Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Lynch. Donald Fagen’s musical soundtrack and Gordon Willis’ cinematography are almost worth the price of a rental, however. It adds commentaries with McInerney and cinematographer Gordon Willis; a photo gallery, mini-poster and featurettes, ”Jay McInerney’s The Light Within” and ”Big City Lights.”

Basic Instinct 2: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Michael Caton-Jones’s sequel to the steamy hot Basic Instinct suffered from one irrefutable fact. Too much of the original’s popularity, especially in DVD, derived from watching and re-watching Sharon Stone cross her panty-deprived legs to unnerve cops played by Wayne Knight and Michael Douglas. It was the ultimate tough act to follow. Still, the demand for a sequel by Hollywood producers far outweighed the public’s desire to see if Stone could top it, which she didn’t. In Basic Instinct 2, Scotland Yard appoints psychiatrist Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to evaluate Stone’s thriller-writing Catherine Tramell. A man in a car she was driving died when it plunged into a river, and she didn’t look the least bit remorseful. As with Detective Nick Curran in the first film, Glass becomes a victim of Tramell’s seductive games. The Blu-ray package contains both the 114-minute theatrical version and unrated 116-minute extended cut of the film, in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio; Canton-Jones’ commentary on both editions; deleted scenes and an alternate ending, with optional director commentary; and the featurette, ”Between the Sheets: A Look Inside Basic Instinct 2.” Plans for a second sequel died at the box office.

Memories of Me: Blu-ray
In Henry Winkler’s feature debut as a director, Memories of Me (1988), comics Billy Crystal and Alan King pile up the schmaltz to a height even a Sherpa would have a difficult time scaling. After a heart attack, Abbie Polin (Crystal), a New York heart surgeon – ironic, huh? — goes to Los Angeles to reconnect with his estranged father, Abe (King), who’s known in Hollywood as the “king of the extras.” Abbie’s girlfriend, Lisa (JoBeth Williams), comes along for the ride. Soon enough, Abe begins experiencing memory loss and eventually is diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. Can father and son patch their wounds before it’s too late? Duh. The Blu-ray adds a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Streets of Fire: 35th Anniversary Edition: Steelbook: Blu-ray
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: Steelbook Edition: Blu-ray
Steelbook collectors will be happy to learn that Streets of Fire (1984) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) have arrived on Blu-ray, in their preferred packaging option. The only thing that separates the new Streets of Fire edition from last year’s “Collector’s Edition” is a new DTS-HD Master Audio 4.1 soundtrack, created from the 70mm six-track magnetic audio. It enhances the original presentation, which featured original songs written by Jim Steinman, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Ry Cooder and performed by the Blasters and the Fixx. The PG-rated Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey follows its predecessor into steelbook by about six months and “Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection,” in Blu-ray, by only two years. That edition added a pair of new commentaries and a fresh featurette. As usual, superfans should check the details before investing.

The DVD Wrapup: Gauguin, Blindspotting, Skate Kitchen, Wobble Palace, Third Murder, Outrage Coda, Nelly, Luciferina, MDMA, Heavy Trip, Agony, Family I Had … More

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti: Blu-ray
Once again, I caution students considering an advanced degree in Art History against using biopics as study tools when preparing theses and dissertations. Typically, they contain more dubious historical information than your average Hollywood Western, while promoting starving-artist clichés and the allure of figure models. Nonetheless, they also can be tremendously inspirational and entertaining. Any movie that encourages people to visit their local art museum – or library – is OK with me. Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti may not be 100 percent accurate – the only voyage in the movie is the one the artist takes to learn how to fish like a native – it’s certainly capable of encouraging viewers to find the nearest Gauguin exhibition or book a trip to French Polynesia. The wonderful French actor, Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), joins a short list of actors who’ve played the post-Impressionist painter and sculptor at various times in his life. Anthony Quinn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his brash portrayal in Lust for Life (1956); Donald and Kiefer Sutherland both played Gauguin, in Oviri (1986) and Paradise Found (2003); Wladimir Yordanoff followed him to Arles, in Vincent & Theo (1990); and in The Moon and Sixpence (1942), George Sanders played a British composite. None of the them spent much, if any, time in the South Pacific, or captured the artist’s fragile physical and emotional condition as well as Cassel, who spent time in Tahiti’s mountainous backcountry prepping for the portrayal. It’s there that Gauguin discovers Tehura (Tuheï Adams), the beautiful young native girl who would become his wife-away-from home and muse.

The movie sidesteps Gauguin’s assertion in his memoir, “Noa Noa,” that Tehura was 13 years old, not 17, when she was offered to him in marriage. In her first appearance in a movie, Adams isn’t asked to do much more than look exotic, pose well and provide companionship, all of which she does very well. Once again, the screenplay plays fast and loose with the facts of their relationship and demise. Still, she bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose likeness hangs in museums around the world and the paintings included in the final credits. The movie opens in Paris, prior to Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti. He’s grown weary of buttoned-down European culture and its crowded, noisy and uncaring cities. He’s desperately in need of a genuine experience in a remote corner of the planet. (He’d spent time in Peru as a boy, living with relatives.) We’re also introduced to his beleaguered Danish wife, Mette (Pernille Bergendorff), and five children, who expected to travel with him to paradise, but, at the last moment, decided against it. The Blu-ray benefits from the beauty of the island’s remote locations and representations of island life – much of which Gauguin was too sick or broke to enjoy — and featurettes, including “Illustrations,” with behind-the-scenes footage; “Vincent Cassel Is Gauguin,” a brief piece focusing on the character and the actor portraying him; “Life and Painting of Gauguin,” a five-minute piece that offers an overview of the project, including its genesis in the “Noa Noa” diary of the artist; and “Tahiti,” a short study of the island’s exotic locales.

Blindspotting: Blu-ray
Sorry to Bother You: Blu-ray
As coincidences go, the ones linking Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting to Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which I caught on Netflix, are doozies. Both are set in Oakland and were shot there simultaneously in 2017; both debuted last January at Sundance, and did well in limited release, in July; like the city, itself, their casts are extremely diverse; they’re first features for the writers and directors; both received glowing reviews; and they’ll be represented at next year’s Independent Spirits Awards ceremony. It goes without saying, as well, that the filmmakers take risks that pay off in unexpected ways and make the stories that much more entertaining. Sorry to Bother You describes all the bad things that can happen when a young African-American slacker finally lands a job in the only field that’s hiring people desperate for work these days: telemarketing. Unable to connect with customers, at first, Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) is encouraged to use his “white voice” on cold-calls. When the strategy pays off, he’s elevated to the status of “power caller.” It elevates him above his striking co-workers, who are engaged in a work stoppage he helped organize. It also gives Cassius access to the company’s penthouse offices and the boss’ perverse plans for conquering the world. It co-stars Tessa Thompson, Danny Glover, Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover and Armie Hammer.

In Blindspotting, which I received through the usual channels, co-writer Daveed Diggs plays Collin, a young Oakland resident, who we meet as he’s entering his final three days of probation. He’s been living in a halfway house, where, if it weren’t for a lenient supervisor, he’d be sent back to prison for breaking curfew. Collin welcomes this shot at a new beginning in life, but the next 72 hours will provide his toughest test. Collin and his longtime best friend, Miles (Rafael Casal), work as a salt-and-pepper team of movers. Miles acts, talks and dresses as if he were as black as Collin, his girlfriend and most of their neighbors. He even affects a gangsta’-approved silver “grill” on his teeth. Unfortunately, his rage issues threaten to derail Collin’s ambition to go straight. Their anger kicks in whenever they’re in the company of the yuppies, Gen-Xers and millennials who are rapidly gentrifying Oakland. The invasion has caused housing prices to skyrocket and threatened to turn their seedy, if cozy neighborhood into the Bay Area’s newest outpost for bourgeois values and trendy tastes. With Miles unable to control his impulses, Collin is forced to reconsider their relationship, which mirrors the real-life friendship between Diggs and Casal. I don’t think I’m pushing my luck by suggesting that it also mirrors Charlie and Johnny Boy’s relationship in Mean Streets. The Blu-ray adds separate commentaries with Estrada, and Diggs and Casal; and featurettes “Straight From the Town: Making Blindspotting” and “Blindspotting: Director’s Diary”; and deleted scenes.

Skate Kitchen: Blu-ray
Crystal Moselle’s spunky girls-will-be-grrrls drama shares many of the same attributes that link Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, including their Sundance debut; young and diverse casts; urban settings; limited release; positive reviews; and festival awards. (I can’t imagine how the Indie Spirits voters missed it.) The primary difference is their location, which, in Skate Kitchen’s case is Lower Manhattan and Long Island. After Moselle completed her award-winning documentary, The Wolfpack (2015), she was approached by Miu Miu to direct a short for their “Women’s Tales” series, with the only stipulation being that it incorporates the company’s clothing. Moselle, who had already been collaborating with female skateboarders she’d met in a New York park, decided to add them to the short, “That One Day.” It premiered at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. For Skate Kitchen, she recruited many of the same actor/skaters from the short. If nothing else, Mosell wouldn’t have to hire stunt doubles for the skaters. In the short, Rachelle (Rachelle Vinberg) is a newbie skateboarder, who heads to a skate park, where she feels intimidated by the more experienced boys and their bullying. Things change when she’s defended by a group of teenage girls, who don’t take any shit from the boys. In Skate Kitchen, Rachel is already an experienced skater, whose biggest problem is convincing her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) that her daredevil style won’t result in a second dangerous wipeout. When that fails, Rachel does an end run around her mom by hooking up with the Skate Kitchen, a group of girls she discovers on the Internet, who meet regularly in a Chinatown skate park. First, though, she must prove to them that she’s worthy. It helps that Rachel’s reputation has preceded her, in the form of videos she’s shared on social media. As part of the Skate Kitchen crew, Rachel has little to fear from the rude boys and their macho posturing. After her mom embarrasses her by paying an unannounced visit to the park, Rachel finds comfort and camaraderie with her hip new friends and, eventually, the stoner boys in their orbit. The coming-of-age scenes include sexual encounters with girls and boys, alike, as well as dealing with disagreements about territorial rights that don’t come into play in the suburbs. The set adds behind-the-scenes featurettes on the skate Shoots; deleted scenes; and a photo gallery

Wobble Palace
The Boy Downstairs: Special Edition: Blu-ray
For several hours after I watched Eugene Kotlyarenko’s Wobble Palace, I tried to come up with the name of the indie writer/director/actor, who, way back in the mid-1990s, created as offensively narcissistic a character as the film’s protagonist, also named Eugene. My digital head-scratching finally led me to Eric Schaeffer, a New York-based multihyphenate (My Life’s in Turnaround) whose early career was briefly on the same trajectory as that of Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen). Most of Schaeffer’s screenplays recalled his nine-year stint as a cab driver and aspiring screenwriter. The way he told his own story, Schaeffer occasionally was able to convince passengers – attractive women, mostly — that he was on the brink of stardom and worthy of their attention. Apparently, his captive audience included Sarah Jessica Parker, who bought the pitch and agreed to co-star with Schaeffer, alongside Elle MacPherson and Ben Stiller, in If Lucy Fell. Like Woody Allen, he often surrounded his alter-ego characters with tall models and other young women, who pretended, at least, not to mind his stubbly beard and Elmer Fudd hat. After a while, Schaeffer’s conceits simply ran out of gas.

Instead of pre-recession New York, Kotlyarenko’s characters inhabit the hipster haunts on the eastern end of L.A.’s famed Sunset Boulevard, where young people can still find affordable housing. Wobble Palace takes place just days before Halloween and Election Day, 2016. Eugene (Kotlyarenko) and Jane (Dasha Nekrasova) have decided that this might be a good time to attempt a trial separation, if only for the weekend. It involves splitting up their tragically hip residence, which, I think is located somewhere near Old Chinatown, with one day reserved for each of their dalliances. Eugene, whose hairdo makes him look like Ted Nugent after a shower, immediately begins surfing social-media sites for women who might be willing to consider a tryst with a perfect stranger. They pretty much run the gamut of millennial types, from a photographer who splits after taking nude photos of Eugene and posting them on the Internet, to a sexually insatiable urban cowgirl. While Jane is every bit as sexually aggressive as Eugene, she’s also more picky. The guy she identifies as a likely candidate for her intentions bursts her bubble by not pulling out at the appropriate time and declaring his intention to vote for Donald Trump. To Jane’s horror, he uses the morning-after pill as an alternative form of contraception. (His defense of the Republican candidate just as chilling to her.) Kotlyarenko and co-writer Nekrasova clearly have created characters – their own, especially – who represent the self-centered behavior of millennials, who, in L.A., have reached critical mass in some neighborhoods, professions and colleges. With his “floating toupee,” however, Eugene is almost too annoying to watch for more than 15 minutes. Like other directors attempting to encapsulate the millennial moments cinematically, Kotlyarenko relies on the clever use of hand-held vérité footage and social-media inserts. Who knows how many viewers are keeping one eye on their smartphones and the other on the movie playing on their TV monitor? The DVD adds a director’s commentary and deleted scenes, preceded by Kotlyarenko’s introduction. Like Schaeffer, he already has four features – however obscure — under his belt.

Sophie Brooks’ debut feature The Boy Downstairs provides more than ample proof that millennials in Brooklyn can be every bit as boring and annoying as they are in Los Angeles. That’s coming from an old fogey – me — whose children were part of an earlier, seemingly less self-absorbed “generation.” The biggest difference between the characters in The Boy Downstairs and Wobble Palace is the New Yorkers’ ability to go through life without paying constant attention to their handheld devices and social media contacts. The protagonists, Diana and Ben, are convincingly played by Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) and Matthew Shear (“The Alienist”). Once again, viewers are constantly required to guess whether the movie is in flashback mode or unspooling in the present tense. It’s a narrative contrivance that has been beaten to death in rom/com/drams, but refuses to be refined or simply go away. Too often, the characters’ emotional growth is expressed in their clothing, eyeglasses and hair styles, instead of any intellectual progression. Diana and Ben’s romance was interrupted by her decision to study and work in London. Four years later, she returns to New York to start anew. Somehow, she locates a perfectly adorable apartment in the same brownstone in which Ben is living with his new girlfriend (Sarah Ramos). How she can afford such a posh pad is anyone’s guess. Despite the fact it was Diana who initiated the original breakup, and Ben wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a prize catch, the proximity to him completely unnerves her. Brooks provides her with an ideal fallback position, in that Diana is an aspiring novelist, who, when her writer’s block dissolves, may be able to profit from her experiences. Among the women to whom Diana pours out her emotions are Deirdre O’Connell (“The Affair”) and Diana Irvine (“Manson’s Lost Girls”), who get their fair share of funny lines. Ben’s mostly on his own. Although Mamet is a perfect fit for the role, I wouldn’t say that playing Diana required all that much of a stretch for her. After all, Shoshanna Shapiro, Mamet’s character in “Girls,” tore herself away from Hanna, Marnie and Jessa long enough to get a head start on a less-neurotic future. The DVD adds a photo gallery.

The Third Murder: Blu-ray
Outrage Coda: Blu-ray
Orgies of Edo Special Edition: Blu-ray
Lovers of Japanese cinema can thank Film Movement for releasing a pair of 2017 films into DVD/Blu-ray that were only accorded limited exposure here, if that. The timing of Hirokazu Koreeda’s twisty legal drama, The Third Murder, coincides with the limited release of the writer/director’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, which opened in a handful of theaters over the Thanksgiving weekend. It also is a likely candidate for Best Foreign Language Film honors at the 91st Academy Awards. The Third Murder deviates from Koreeda’s more familiar stories about families under various degrees of societal pressure. In it, a prominent Tokyo lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), takes on the defense of murder/robbery/mutilation suspect Misumi (Kôji Yakusho), who’s already served prison time for an earlier murder, 30 years ago, and has confessed to the new charges. No sooner does Shigemori accept what he expects to be a cut-and-dry case than his client begins to change his story for police, the legal team and reporters. This baffles Shigemori, who only anticipated a courtroom battle over the imposition of the death penalty. Relatives of the defendant, the lawyer and the victim – a factory boss, who had just fired Misumi – play important roles in The Third Murder, but Koreeda had other issues in mind. In an interview with Comingsoon.net, the 56-year-old Tokyo native said he was inspired to write a courtroom thriller after conversing with a lawyer friend about the gap between the Japanese public’s perception of the court as a place where people aim for the truth and what happens when lawyers and judges “make adjustments” that serve their own interests. The question then became, “what would happen if a lawyer really started wanting to know the truth?” In a sense, that’s what happens every night in prime-time legal dramas on American television. Viewers don’t have much confidence that the truth will emerge in courtroom settings, unless Perry Mason or one of his direct descendants is on the case. As Shigemori responds to every new claim by Misumi, the distance between them closes to a point where The Third Murder begins to resemble Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). The shifting points of view demand of viewers that they pay close attention to all 124 minutes of the film’s length. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and messages from the cast; an excerpt from an interview with Koreeda and a short film.

Although Outrage Coda may not be the best place for newcomers to enter Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s trilogy on modern yakuza families, fans of the series will be ecstatic to learn that it’s finally reached our shores, albeit on DVD/Blu-ray. As usual, it’s hard enough to keep track of who’s getting killed by whom in Part III, without also having to figure out what inspired the carnage in the first place. Of the dozens of gangsters we meet in the opening minutes of “Coda,” only a small fraction will survive to see the closing credits. Outrage (2010) described a struggle for power among Tokyo’s yakuza clans, which, at the time, were just as likely to be playing the stock market as shaking down pachinko parlors. The chairman of the dominant Sanmo-kai clan is unhappy to learn that his chief henchman, Ikemoto, has entered into an alliance with the drug-dealing Murase family. When Kato, underboss of Sanno-kai, orders Ikemoto to bring the unassociated Murase-gumi gang in line, he passes the task on to his subordinate Otomo (Takeshi), who runs his own crew. Ultimately, Otomo will pay the price for his successful completion of the assignment by being sent to prison, where he’s shanked by one of the survivors of the Murase clan’s slaughter. Beyond Outrage (2012) opens with Otomo still in prison and police officials anxious to use his release as a catalyst for another round of infighting between the yakuza gangs. In the power shift, Otama is able to settle old scores with those who tried to eliminate him. Now, five years after surviving the all-out war between the Sanno and Hanabishi crime families, Otomo works in South Korea for Mr. Chang, a renowned fixer whose influence extends into Japan. A relatively minor incident causes tensions to rise between Chang Enterprises and the faraway powerful Hanabishi. When Chang’s life is endangered, Otomo returns to Japan to put an end to infighting, once and for all. That summary makes what happens in Outrage Coda sound deceptively orderly and logical, which, of course, it’s not. Kitano takes the double-crossing, back-stabbing and score-settling to an entirely new level and you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. Kitano’s intention, all along, has been to fine-tune the violence and make every incredible shootout as technically viable as possible. The production values are, as usual, impeccable. He also wanted to eliminate any possibility that studio executives might demand a fourth installment. Special features include a feature-length making-of documentary and gallery of ‘Beat’ Takeshi trailers.

Arrow Video’s Orgies of Edo (1969) recalls a period in the Japanese cinema, during which filmmakers and studios turned toward exploitation to counter the impact of television on ticket sales. The shelf life for the individual genres was limited to the whims of a public with a growing number of entertainment options. After the sci-fi/monster boom of the 1950-60s petered out, the studios turned to B-movies featuring gangsters, revenge, juvenile delinquents, star-driven idol eiga and pinku eiga, which combined violence and sex. This didn’t preclude such masters as Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, Kenji Mizoguchi and, until 1963, Yasujirō Ozu from holding up the high end of the cinematic art and appealing to western critics and arthouse audiences, but, then and now, festival favorites didn’t pay the bills. Neither did it prevent an exciting New Wave from emerging. Pink flicks (a.k.a., “eroduction” and “pinky violence”) succeeded even in the face of censorship that forced filmmakers from fogging genitalia and pubic hair. (To avoid censorship, Nagisa Oshima was forced to send undeveloped footage of the sexually explicit In the Realm of the Senses to France and present it as a French entity.) These restrictions forced the more creative filmmakers to use sleight-of-hand to maintain quality and remain commercial. In Toei Company’s Orgies of Edo, Ishii tells three stories of “moral sickness,” set during Japan s prosperous Genroku era. It followed in the direct wake of his landmark “erotic grotesque” classic, Shogun’s Joy of Torture, by building moral lessons around tragic heroines caught up in violence, sadomasochism, incest and torture.

Told in anthology style by an impassive physician (Teruo Yoshida), the first story follows Oito (Masumi Tachibana), an innocent young girl deceived by a handsome yakuza and sold into prostitution and eventual ruin. The tale of Ochise (Mitsuko Aoi) features a rich merchant’s daughter, whose “insatiable appetite for filth and perversion” draws her deeper into violence, darkness and betrayal. Finally, the story of Omitsu (Miki Obana) follows a sadistic lord (Asao Koike), whose eye is caught one day by a beautiful, if secretive member of his harem who shares his strange taste for pain and blood. Ishii s erotic films grew increasingly shocking, violent and strange, with Orgies of Edo combining period detail with “carnivalesque grotesquerie” to create his own particular vision of love and sex. The exquisitely upgraded Arrow Blu-ray adds “The Orgies of Ishii,” a newly filmed interview with author Patrick Maccias; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matt Griffin; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

Fireworks: Blu-ray
Within only a few decades of the exploitation period, Japanese animators would set a new standard for excellence outside Burbank, while also churning out easily translatable anime series for kids. Studio Ghibli led the way to international recognition, but other productions have begun to fill the gap left by the temporary retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, in 2013. Fireworks was animated by Studio Shaft, directed by Akiyuki Shinbo and Nobuyuki Takeuchi, from a screenplay written by Hitoshi Ohne. Last year, the unusually complex rom-dram was nominated for Best Animation Film at the Japanese Academy Awards. Based on Shunji Iwai’s live-action film, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1993), Fireworks tells the story of a schoolgirl, Nazuna, who’s about to be uprooted by her thrice-married mother and wants to escape her countryside town before that can happen. She’s admired by two post-pubescent boys, Norimichi and Yusuke, who’ve only recently begun to pay attention to their classmates’ feminine curves. Together, the trio also is obsessed with discovering whether fireworks, when exploded in the sky, are flat or round. On the day she plans to skip town with one of the boys, Nazuna finds a mysterious orb – not unlike a large cat’s-eye marble – that, when thrown, creates flashbacks to previous events. Each new reset results in complications that take them farther from reality. Fireworks probably requires a bit more concentration than viewers usually invest in animated features, but the music and voice actors make the 90-minute fantasy easier to digest. Special features include an interview with the director; a behind-the-scenes pieces with the English cast, including Brooklyn Nelson, Aaron Dalla Villa and Ryan Shanahan; and optional English and Japanese audio tracks.

Nelly
Anne Émond’s smart and sexy bio-drama, Nelly, is based on the semi-autobiographical novels of French-Canadian sex worker, Nelly Arcan. “Putain,” which became an international best-seller in 2001, contains similarities between the protagonist, Cynthia, and Arcan’s own experiences as a prostitute and professional escort. Besides achieving critical and commercial success, “Putain” (“Whore”) was a finalist for both the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina, two of France’s most prestigious literary awards. Arcan was found dead in her Montreal apartment on September 24, 2009. She hanged herself after completing her fourth and last book, “Paradis, Clef en main,” whose narrator is left handicapped after a suicide attempt. Émond (Nuit #1) appears to have followed the blueprint laid out in Arcan’s book faithfully and frequently quotes from the text. In Mylène Mackay (“L’Âge adulte”), Émond found an actress, who, when called upon, can look glamorous and sophisticated, intensely sexy, plain, troubled, totally in control, frightened, younger and older. The production values are fine, and, at 100 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The problem is, of course, that there’s nothing particularly new here. There might have been if Nelly had been released before Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009) or Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz’s guilty-pleasure adaptation, for Starz! HBO’s “The Deuce” covers some of the same territory, as well, if only from a street-level point-of-view. Ditto, Christian Molina’s Diary of a Nymphomaniac (2008) and Showtime’s “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” which also was based on the published memoirs of a onetime British prostitute and research scientist, Dr. Brooke Magnanti. I could go on. That said, Nelly should interest genre completists and those few people here who’ve seen Nuit #1. And, while some of scenes are undeniably hot, there probably isn’t enough skin revealed to attract fans of even soft-core porn. Arcan’s books have been translated into English and are available on Amazon.

Luciferina: Blu-ray
Apart from its intriguing title, Luciferina benefits from being shot in what we’re told is an abandoned convent, deep within an Argentinean jungle. As it turns out, however, the church and convent are inhabited by shamans, long-forgotten nuns and all manner of demonic spirits. The possibility that a divine presence could also be lingering in the shadows also exists, but it seems unlikely. While Gonzalo Calzada has dabbled with supernatural phenomena in previous features, in Luciferina he located Satan’s kitchen sink and threw it into the mix, just to make sure he didn’t miss anything. And, that appears to include references to Kenneth Russell’s less saintly efforts and the “Star Child” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The picture opens in a more traditional convent, where a 19-year-old novice, Natalia (Sofía Del Tuffo), has just been informed of the death of her mother and worsening condition of her father, who’s been made up to resemble Boris Karloff in The Mummy. No matter how you slice it, Natalia’s family is out there where the buses don’t run at night. In Natalia’s absence, her sister was abused by her father and has lost faith in anything spiritual. Along with a couple of other friends, the sisters agree to take a boat to the overgrown church and convent, in search of a shaman conversant in the rites associated with the ayahuasca vine, which induces hallucinations and near-death experiences. That’s just the beginning of Natalia’s ordeal, however. Once the satanic presence slams the doors on the church, the battle royal for her soul begins for real. She assisted by the ancient nuns, who look as if they’ve been performing exorcisms and delivering hideously deformed babies for hundreds of years. The other thing to know is that Natalia’s salvation is complicated by the fact that she was never baptized and has been waiting for Jesus to return to take her virginity. As we approach the 110-minute mark, even that seems possible. Calzada creates an atmosphere of dread early in the proceedings and allows it to build to a crescendo when the shit gets real.

High Voltage: Blu-ray
Alex Keledjian’s been around the business long enough to have created “Project Greenlight,” which made some noise in 2001 for giving aspiring filmmakers a shot at making a real movie and being co-executive produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. I don’t know how long the idea for High Voltage has been gestating inside his brain, but it could be as many years as he’s been listening to rock ’n’ roll. The industry hasn’t evolved that much in the last 50 years, or so, and the possibility that a musician might be possessed by the demon goes back to Robert Johnson. As the picture opens, a completely dissipated band manager, Jimmy Kleen (David Arquette), is celebrating his 50th birthday – for the third time, he says – when he stumbles upon two artists who could help resurrect his career. Scott (Ryan Donowho) is an ambitious songwriter and guitarist from the Dave Matthews school of rock, while Rachel (Allie Gonino) is a promising young singer, afflicted with stage fright. Kleen attempts to interest record executive Rick Roland (Luke Wilson) in the band, Hollow Body, but he’s too high-and-mighty to help a friend. After blowing their first gig, due to Rachel’s phobia, lightning strikes a car carrying the singer and her mother (Perry Reeves). Both seemingly are lying dead in the local morgue, when Rachel is revived by what either is divine or diabolical intervention. Not only does the shock therapy cure her stage fright, but it also adds a range of emotion to her voice that rivals Tina Turner. Moreover, Rachel begins to act like a rock star, wearing hot little outfits and teasing her hair to the sky. Whenever a man attempts to kiss her, though, she zaps them with a charge of electricity that sucks the life out of them. If Keledjian isn’t quite able to use special electrical effects to scare viewers, at least the devil’s music, if you will, is pretty entertaining.

MDMA: Blu-ray
At the same time as crack cocaine was beginning to ravage cities around the United States, a far different kind of drug, ecstasy, was being mass-produced by semi-pro chemists in Europe for the enjoyment of ravers and 24-hour-party people. Both substances were illegally manufactured and distributed, then, and still are. The crack-cocaine epidemic crushed the souls of a generation of impoverished youths and adults, most of them of color, while devastating the economies of cities already crippled by Reaganomics. MDMA wasn’t without its addictive properties and, yes, some users were harmed by misusing what was generally perceived to be strictly a recreational drug, whose desired effects include altered sensations, increased energy, empathy and sensory pleasure. As rave parties and electronic dance music caught on here, so did the demand for E, which had originally been synthesized in 1912 and gained popularity in the 1960s, as MDA. At the time, it was considered a mellower alternative to LSD and amphetamines, and easier to find and afford than psilocybin mushrooms. Like most other drugs in 1970s, it was overshadowed by the widespread use and availability of powdered cocaine. That’s all anyone needs to know before inserting or streaming Angie Wang’s semi-autobiographical debut drama, MDMA (a.k.a., “Cardinal X”), into their home-theater system.

Set in 1984, MDMA describes the rise and inevitable fall of one of the most successful, if unlikely drug queenpins on the west coast. Angie (Annie Q) is a first-generation Chinese-American from a tough urban background, who was raised by her father (Ron Yuan) after her mother split, taking her brother with her. Blessed with a talent for chemistry, Angie is accepted at a prestigious university and awarded financial aid. Her party-hardy roommate, Jeanine (Francesca Eastwood) not only introduces Angie to the school’s social scene, but she also inspires her to exploit the campus’ growing desire for Ecstasy. With the assistance of a fellow Asian-American chemistry nerd (Scott Keiji Takeda) – who has a crush on her – she creates a market and distribution system for the expertly made substance among the Greek-letter set. At the same time, she volunteers as a Big Sister for a local girl, whose mother and brother are abusers of heavier drugs and alcohol. While the experience helps Angie locate her place on the food chain of enablers and profiteers, she rationalizes it as a means to help the girl’s family out financially. Her first cruel awakening comes when she realizes that any money she gives the girl will be stolen by her mother and brother. The second comes when a larger-scale dealer demands that Angie supply him with the MDMA, so that he can control supply-and-demand and gouge her frat and sorority patrons. The third comes when … well, see for yourself. An interview with Wang amplifies on her own involvement in the by-now familiar cautionary tale – not unlike the story told in “Breaking Bad” – as well as her subsequent evolution as a business woman, social activist and filmmaker. As writer/director/actor/producer here, Wang probably bit off more than she could have chewed and digested, but, as a first feature, MDMA neatly fits within the drug-drama subgenre and further increases the visibility of Asian-American actors and filmmakers.

Heavy Trip
In one were able to meld Aki Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap, the result would probably look and sound very much like Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren’s Heavy Trip. Those unfamiliar with Kaurismaki’s award-winning work aren’t able to fully appreciate how much it reflects traits associated with Finnish life and culture. The minimalistic approach allows for long spaces between words and actions, as well as a quiet inner strength – not to be confused with self-confidence — that has allowed the citizenry to endure periods of hardship and adversity … not to mention the annual absence of sunlight. Their humor has been described as dark, dry and subtle, with plenty of sarcasm thrown in for kicks. Heavy Trip follows the rise from anonymity to obscurity of a death-metal band, Impaled Rektum, based in the small Arctic Circle town of Taivalkoski. Turo (Johannes Holopainen) and his bandmates don’t look or dress any different from metal-heads anywhere else on the planet, but, like everyone else in Finland, they favor beer and aquavit over most other mind-altering substances. While a similar ensemble in the U.S. or England might wait until they’ve mastered two or three songs before trying their luck on the nightclub circuit, Impaled Rektum has practiced for 12 years without playing a single gig. The band’s lack of progress has led to Turo becoming the brunt of jokes for people his age and being reticent around women to whom he’s attracted, including the local gendarme’s daughter, Miia (Minka Kuustonen).

Turo’s paying gig is as an orderly at a local mental-health facility, where he cleans up messes and impresses the patients with his ability to use a broom as a make-believe mic stand. The band’s biggest hang-up is an inability to come up with a recognizable sound of its own, which normally wouldn’t be a problem for an aspiring rock group. Every time guitarist Lotvonen (Samuli Jaski) proposes a riff, it reminds bassist, Pasi (Max Ovaska), of a song popularized by another band and is vetoed. Working at his dad’s reindeer-processing business, drummer Jynnky identifies the band’s ultimate sound when a carcass gets stuck in a machine and the grinding reminds him of an industrial-metal motif. The other musicians agree that it could translate into a riff uniquely suited to Impaled Rektum. Soon thereafter, the band is approached by an English-speaking gent – they somehow confuse him for a government meat inspector – who’s promoting a headbanger festival in Norway. Not only does this sudden, unexpected recognition buoy the musicians’ career hopes, but it also makes them heroes in their small town. Suffice it say that nothing, from this point forward, will go precisely as planned for the boys, especially when a local pop star conspires with Miia’s dad to prevent the band from reaching Norway. Heavy Trip hits nearly all the right notes on the way to a (nearly) fairy-tale ending.

Agony
On the 3rd of October (the year doesn’t matter), unfortunate residents of Vienna are shocked to discover body parts belonging to a young woman turning up in dumpsters around the city. Police have no ID on the victim, whose head is missing, let alone suspects or a motive for the murder. Even if the pieces of the puzzle don’t quite fit, viewers have a much better handle on what’s going on than the police. What we don’t know is why David Clay Diaz is describing two men’s malfunctions, side by side, instead of those pertaining to the obvious killer. Maybe he’s setting the stage for something far bloodier and several times more villainous. Or, maybe not. Diaz’ feature debut, Agony, doesn’t fit neatly within usual genre classifications: drama, thriller, slasher, psychodrama. In July 2016, before it pretty much disappeared, Agony screened at Montreal’s genre-heavy Fantasia International Film Festival. Diaz’ split-narrative character study, comparing two millennials from opposite backgrounds, leads us to believe that their stories overlap. The biggest hints come in the way both men the deal with the women in their lives. The 24-year-old law student (Samuel Schneider) is a handsome fellow, who would appear to have everything going for him, except in the sack. That’s where we discover that normal sexual activity provides no thrill for him, at all. For the time being, anyway, his girlfriend willingly plays along with his increasingly kinky fetishes, which began with a slap and now include duct tape and bondage. His boxer/rapper counterpart (Alexander Srtschin) is from the other side of town, where life is hard-scrabble and machismo is enforced by parents and peers. Still, he’s grown tired of being bullied by his father, who calls him a pansy and demands to see his muscles. Neither will his former girlfriend cut him any slack. More telling, his best friend and sparring partner is making advances toward him sexually and he doesn’t quite know how to respond, except with violence. Both of these 24-year-olds are ticking time bombs, but only one is the killer. I wouldn’t have minded another 10 minutes of exposition.

Learning to See: The World of Insects: Blu-ray
Planetary
There are numerous ways to convince reasonably intelligent human beings of the dangers of global warming and its relationship to carbon-based fuels. One is to show them images of melting glaciers and ice packs, blackened skies and starving polar bears. Another is simply to make documentaries about the wondrous creatures – great and small – with whom we share the Earth and are likely to disappear in our children’s lifetimes. It can be presented as a nature film, without emphasizing the threats posed by shrinking habitats and pollutants. Unless the person to whom you’re addressing is a greedy business executive, a Republican politician or base-conscious president of the United States, a brief mention usually will suffice. Jake Oelman’s brilliantly photographed Learning to See: The World of Insects describes his father’s transformational journey from being a Boston psychologist who cared too much about his patients’ pain and his inability to cure all their ills, to someone unafraid to relocate to Colombia and reassess his future as a citizen of the world. Encouraged by something Robert read in Gabriel García Márquez’ “Love in the Time of Cholera,” Oelman the celebrated novel by Colombian Nobel Laureate. He bought a plot of land in the mountains, just outside of drug-ravaged Cali, and restored a finca there. As a born-again artist, Oelman began photographing the life on his land, starting small and getting smaller. He began with the almost impossible task of capturing hummingbirds in midflight and, then, turned to insects, some of them so well-camouflaged that he needed a guide to find them. From the mountains, Oelman journeyed to the Amazon basin, where an entirely new population of critters presented themselves to him. In an area that’s become increasingly dependent of revenues of oil drilling, it wasn’t difficult to see how its inhabitants might be endangered. The Blu-ray includes deleted scenes and making-of material.

Planetary (2015) employs a well-known image of the Earth, shot from the Space Shuttle, to demonstrate how everything on the planet is connected and how easy it is to see how much damage has been done to it since space travel began. It’s a powerful photograph, but no less impressive than the first color image of Earth that was used as the cover image of Whole Earth Catalog’s first edition, in 1968. For some reason, editor Stewart Brand had to repeatedly petition the government for use of a whole-earth photograph, like the composite of images taken in 1967 by the ATS-3 satellite. Neither was Davis Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) – based on Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming – the first shot fired in the war to save the planet. After all, the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and an enhanced photograph of the planet, taken from Apollo 17, was incorporated into John McConnell’s Earth Day flag. Even so, Guy Reid and Steve Watts Kennedy’s Planetary is a welcome addition to the catalogue of documentaries based on the premise that there’s still time to save the planet. It does so by interweaving imagery from NASA Apollo missions with visions of the Milky Way, Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas, and the cacophonous sounds of downtown Tokyo and Manhattan, with intimate interviews from renowned experts including astronauts Ron Garan and Mae Jemison, environmentalist Bill McKibben, National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, anthropologist Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer Elizabeth Lindsey and head of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu school, the 17th Karmapa. It adds an abridged edition of the film, for television, and other making-of material.

My Big Gay Italian Wedding
It’s too bad Nia Vardalos can’t demand royalties on movies that paraphrase her title, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. If she could, perhaps, we’d finally see the last of them. By the time Alessandro Genovesi’s entertaining matrimonial comedy, Puoi baciare lo sposo (“You May Kiss the Groom”) found its way to America, it had exhausted the alternative titles, “Matrimonio italiano” and “My Big Crazy Italian Wedding.” Its newest title, My Big Gay Italian Wedding, corresponds with Anthony J. Wilkinson’s play, which included original music and lyrics written by David James Boyd and premiered off-Broadway on November 14, 2003, and has been re-mounted in various cities and venues ever since then. In it, Antonio (Cristiano Caccamo) and Paolo (Salvatore Esposito) live happily together in Berlin and are finally making plans to get married in Antonio’s lovely hometown, Civita di Bagnoregio. Before than can happen, however, Paolo insists that Antonio come out to his family. Antonio’s mother (Monica Guerritore), who’s never doubted he was gay, has demands of her own: that they hire a famous reality-show wedding planner to make it as grand as possible; that Antonio’s homophobic father (Diego Abatantuono), the town’s image-conscious mayor, officiate; and that Paolo forces his similarly homophobic mother to be there, too. That might be the toughest one to pull off, as they’ve been estranged for the past three years. Ironically, the town’s priest is one of the first to give them his blessing. Optimistic that they can pull it off, Antonio and Paolo head south with flatmates – loudmouth Bernadetta (Diana Del Bufalo) and crossdressing Donato (Dino Abbrescia) — in tow. The screwball silliness doesn’t end there, as one of Antonio’s final one-night-stands (Beatrice Arnera) demands that he admit he’s straight and give her another chance. With all that nonsense to digest in one 90-minute setting, it’s almost a miracle that My Big Gay Italian Wedding turned out as consistently upbeat and enjoyable as it is. Even the Italian cultural clichés work. It helps that, with same-sex marriages already a fait accompli, Genovesi didn’t feel obligated to lard the narrative with any political sidebars, and that the physically mismatched grooms don’t look as if they just fell off the top of a wedding cake.

The Marine 6: Close Quarters: Blu-ray
Last week, I commented on how much influence Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo had on subsequent series fronted by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, Steven Seagal and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The same can be said about the WWE superstars who populate The Marine franchise, many of whose characters’ backgrounds match that of the former Green Beret, who the government turned into a killer and, then, abandoned … until it needed him, again. In his first theatrical picture, John Cena introduced the series in 2006, as a former Marine who used his training to thwart stateside crimes. (Opening footage of the enemy base in the Middle East reportedly was repurposed from Rambo III.) Even factoring in worldwide grosses, The Marine barely broke even on paper. Ted DiBiase Jr. replaced Cena in the lead role of The Marine 2 (2009), which wisely went straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray. In The Marine 3: Homefront (2013), Mike “The Miz” Mizanin began his four-picture run as former Sgt. Jake Carter. The latest installment, The Marine 6: Close Quarters, pairs Carter with another retired jarhead, Luke Trapper (Shawn Michaels), who owes his life to his friend and fellow EMT. (Or, maybe, it’s the other way around.) They’re asked by the VA to extract a homeless veteran from an abandoned brewery. He’s dug in pretty securely, however, and is in no mood to be saved. As luck would have it, Luke and Jake overhear the screams of a teenager, Sarah (Louisa Connolly-Burnham), who’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom there by a gang of heavily armed thugs led by Maddy Hayes (SmackDown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch). She has told the girl’s father that she will be killed if he doesn’t force a mistrial in her father’s trial, on which he’s a jury member. Long story short, when the EMTs separate the hostage from her captors, a long, loud and messy chase ensues. It covers the entire length, breadth and depth of brewery, as well as a grain chute and tunnels leading to the river. As these things go, the ridiculously gratuitous violence is enhanced by the claustrophobic quarters and absence of electricity. If fans of the series are looking for surprises, they’ll have to wait until very close to the ending. It will be worth the wait. I have no idea if these films make money or they’re loss leaders for the WWE brand, which just expanded into Saudi Arabia. I suspect there will be at least one more entry. The Blu-ray adds the featurettes “Making Maddy & The Marines” and “The Breakdown: Epic Fights.”

TV-to-DVD
Discovery ID: The Family I Had: Special Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Left Behind America
PBS: Breaking Big
With all the true-crime shows clogging up the TV dial, you’d think that all the good murder mysteries would have been exhausted, by now. Sadly, in a country where gun lobbyists literally call the shots, new ones come along every day. The case upon which Katie Green and Carlye Rubin based The Family I Had has already been given several once-overs in the media and Internet and the guilt of the killer isn’t in doubt.   The documentary does, however, ask viewers to address questions that weren’t at issue during the trial and would be impossible to answer on film. The biggest among them: what’s the culpability of parents and guardians in a murder that might have been avoided if they’d acted like responsible adults and hadn’t ignored the obvious signs of a teenager’s danger to society? On Superbowl Sunday, Charity Lee was working at a restaurant in Abilene, Texas, when she was informed by police that her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, had been butchered by her 13-year-old half-brother, Paris Bennett. In a call to the 911 operator, he had admitted to “accidentally” killing the girl – who, he said, was possessed by the devil — and asked her what to do next. After pretending to perform CPR, all that was left for Paris to do was await arrest, sentencing and jail. Under Texas law, psychiatrists may have been limited in their ability to diagnose an underage suspect’s mental condition. Paris’ sociopathic tendencies were noted, however. Now 24, he could be eligible for parole in another nine years. It isn’t likely that he would be released, but, in Texas, stranger things happen every day. Other details laid out in The Family I Had make us wonder about what could happen when, and if, Paris is released. For all anyone knows, he could harbor the same grudges held when Charity left for work that day in 2007 and he convinced Ella’s babysitter to leave early. Or, she fears, Paris might decide to punish her further by harming the half-sibling who was born after he was incarcerated. We aren’t told what kind of meds, if any, he’s taking and what could happen if decided not to take them. Moreover, the documentary presents circumstantial evidence that he might have been pre-conditioned to commit such a heinous crime simply by growing up among parental figures who never should have been allowed to raise gerbils, let alone children.

When Charity was only 6, Paris’ rich, vain and oft-married grandmother was charged with hiring a hitman to murder her husband, using a powerful handgun. Although Kyla was acquitted, she admits here to flirting with jury members. Charity was clearly scarred by her father’s death, the effects of the trial and the cruel gossip of people in their hometown. It probably led, in part, at least, to Charity becoming addicted as a teenager to hard drugs and bad boyfriends. She cleaned up, but, after several years of sobriety, relapsed on cocaine when Ella was a toddler. She suspects that Paris, who registered IQ of 141, blamed her for not having a father figure in his life – or Ella’s — and forcing them to move in with Kyla when she relapsed. In the doc, all sorts of people say they began recognizing warning signs in Paris after Ella was born and he was forced to share his mother and grandmother’s attention. Interviews with Paris in prison add to our confusion over whether he’s still unbalanced, sincerely remorseful, getting the right psychiatric treatment and is genuinely thankful for his mother’s continued presence in his life. (As a teenager, he had joined Kyla in a suit requesting that Charity be removed as his legal guardian.) Charity has since moved to Georgia and established a foundation to support and advocate for people impacted by violence. She says that she’s forgiven Paris and visits him regularly in prison. Even so, she fears what might happen if he’s released without receiving the proper treatment. Multiple accounts allow for conflicting points of view, leaving viewers questioning where the ultimate truth and accountability lie. There’s also the whole nature-vs.-nurture debate. The DVD includes deleted scenes.

Over on PBS, the “Frontline” presentation, “Left Behind America,” chronicles how situations beyond the residents’ control conspired to reverse one Rust Belt city’s status, from a showcase to a municipality on the brink of collapse. Well into the country’s post-WWII economic boom, Dayton maintained a balance between white- and blue-collar jobs, decent housing for most people and the promise of upward mobility for people with union jobs, at least. When the American Dream of home ownership in comfortable surroundings drove white families to the suburbs, it became clear to blacks and Hispanics that they weren’t welcome to share in it. Even if good jobs were still available, businesses followed the money to the suburbs. When rising gas prices in the 1970s threatened the county’s once-thriving auto industry – second only to Detroit — it triggered a ripple effect throughout the region’s industrial base. Reaganomics came, but never left. President Clinton’s NAFTA program and China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization greased the skids for American businesses to look elsewhere for cheap labor and fewer regulations, with Wall Street’s blessing. Crack cocaine and opiates filled the void left by jobs no longer there. With a recent influx of refugees from Turkey and other countries, Dayton has shown signs of rebirth. The newcomers identified exploitable niches in the economy and built businesses from the ground up. Some people returned to work, but with substantially lower wages and benefits – or none, at all — that barely lifted families above the poverty level. It’s a fascinating, if depressing documentary, with clearly identified villains and victims.

In the PBS series, “Breaking Big,” some of the world’s most influential artists, innovators, athletes and leaders explain how they’ve pushed, prodded and cajoled the big breaks that would make them successful, frequently against steep odds. The 30-minute episodes feature such interesting and inspirational success stories as those provided by Trevor Noah, Eddie Huang, Danai Gurira, Jason Aldean, Ruth Zukerman, Christian Siriano, Roxane Gay, Michael Strahan, Senator Kristen Gillibrand, Lee Daniels, Gretchen Carlson and Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

DVD Gift Guide II: Bergman@100, 2001 4K, Rambo 4K, Dances With Wolves, Robin Williams, Ernie Kovacs, Detectorists, Frosty, Elf … More

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
I don’t know how Big Kahuna translates into Swedish – in Star Wars’ Galactic Empire, it’s Grand Moff – but, as far as holiday gift-giving goes, it’s “Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: The Criterion Collection.” I will only mention it in passing here, because the boxed set only landed on my doorstep on Tuesday, with a discernible “thud,” and it will require a month’s worth of binging to get a grip on it. In the interest of taking advantage of Black Friday savings, I’d be remiss not to give movie lovers a heads-up here. I’ll simply pass along Criterion’s description and return later with my own thoughts: “In honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday, the Criterion Collection is proud to present the most comprehensive collection of his films ever released on home video. … Arranged as a curated film festival, with ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ nights bookending double features and ‘centerpiece’ programs, this selection spans six decades and thirty-nine films — including such celebrated classics as The Seventh Seal, Persona and Fanny and Alexander, alongside previously unavailable works, like Dreams, The Rite and Brink of Life.” And, before you ask, copyright issues, presumably, caused a small handful of titles — It Rains on Our Love, Music in Darkness, Prison, This Can’t Happen Here, Face to Face, The Blessed Ones and In the Presence of Clowns – to be MIA. I can’t wait to dig into the bonus features, including a 248-page retrospective book, but that will have to wait until I’ve fully digested Thanksgiving dinner.

2001: A Space Odyssey: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Kids aren’t alone in wanting to play with their presents on Christmas morning. If I received a box containing a spanking new 4K UHD player/receiver and already had a fully compatible television or video monitor – and cables, don’t forget the High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) cables – I’d probably want to take it out for a spin. The only way to do that is to link the platform and monitor, using the HDMI cables and designated inputs, usually sold separately, and insert a 4K UHD disc. Most 4K movies come with a separate Blu-ray copy of the movie, as well as a digital link. And, while all Blu-rays and DVDs can be played through a 4K UHD platform, 4K UHD discs won’t work on dedicated Blu-ray/DVD playback units. Some companies add high-dynamic-range capability, as well. In a nutshell, HDR improves the contrast between the darker and brighter parts of a scene. Theoretically, anyway, the more you pay for a TV, the better the viewing experience will be. After three years in the marketplace, however, the price-tags on top- and mid-shelf equipment have become extremely affordable, which is more than can be said for 3D HDTV, with or without 4K UHD recognition.

The first movie I would suggest buying to complete the package would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is newly available on 4K UHD, with HDR. It’s worth remembering, perhaps, that Stanley Kubrick’s visionary masterpiece arrived in theaters around the world a full year before the Apollo 11 mission landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. Although it’s hailed today as one of the greatest visual experiences in cinematic history, it failed to impress all mainstream critics upon its release, and audiences generally took their word for it. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later, when buzz reached more spaced-out audiences, that 2001: A Space Odyssey really began selling popcorn. In an interview, it’s recalled how MGM execs were so concerned about ticket sales that they considered pulling the film from theaters. It wasn’t until small groups of hippies began to show up, taking seats as close to the screen as possible, that light bulbs began going off over the heads of theater owners. Some of the repeat patrons would arrive moments before the “Star Gate” sequence, so as not to lose their high. (It became a rite of passage for stoners.) Co-writer/author Arthur C. Clarke once reportedly said about confusion over certain aspects of the film, “If you understand ‘2001’ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” And, they did. So, why invest in a 4K edition? Anyone who’s only experienced “2001” on cassette or early DVD can’t say that they’ve truly watched it as Kubrick might have intended, if he had lived long enough to supervise the remaster. (It was shot in Cinerama, Todd AO and Super Panavision 70.) Now, it’s almost possible to read the small-print instructions on the zero-gravity toilet. Newcomers may also enjoy seeing how many of the brand-name companies referenced in the lunar-commuter sequence are still around: Pan Am, Bell System, no; Howard Johnson’s and Parker pens, not really; Hilton Hotels and GM, yes. The colors are sharper. The dialogue is crisper. The depth is deeper. The original bonus features have been “ported over,” as well. RIP: Douglas Rain, who voiced the HAL 9000 computer, died last week, at 90.

Stallone: First Blood: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Rambo: First Blood: Part II: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Rambo III: Blu-ray/4K UHD
If your tastes run more toward blood-and-guts action, the folks at Lionsgate have repackaged the first three entries in the saga of Vietnam veteran John Rambo and sent them out in 4K UHD. Initially, in Stallone: First Blood, the former Green Beret was driven to use his combat and survival training to avoid by being pushed around and tortured by a group of redneck sheriffs, who get their kicks out of tormenting hitchhikers and vagrants. In David Morrell’s 1972 novel, Rambo suffers from an extreme case of PTSD, which triggers flashbacks to the time he spent during the war, as an NVA prisoner. After returning to the U.S. and being treated shabbily by “anti-war hippies” and other civilians who’d lost their enthusiasm for the war, Rambo attempts to avoid confrontations by turning his back on civilization. (In my experience, there weren’t many real hippies who would confront anyone in uniform, let alone one as muscular as Sylvester Stallone, and the number of protesters who got close enough to a soldier to spit at them was greatly exaggerated the right-wing media.) By the time “First Blood” made the transition from page to screen, a lot of Rambo’s backstory was compacted and pushed to the end of the movie in a dramatically rendered monologue by the unbeaten, but clearly damaged protagonist. It made sense to lead with the explosive action that followed his escape from the police station in which he’s been beaten, hosed down and almost given a haircut. Embarrassed, the prototypically drawn sheriff (Brian Dennehy) vows to re-capture his prisoner, by any means necessary. In turn, Rambo employs all his skills and experience to avoid the police posse, a helicopter-borne sniper, National Guard troops and an unsuspecting deer hunter, who stumbles into the chase. At a crisp 93-minutes, director Ted Kotcheff didn’t have a lot of time for exposition and contemplation. Instead, Rambo achieved icon status, by looking tres, tres cool, in his wife-beater shirt, bandana and cradling an M-60 machine gun in his arms. Posters carrying this image have been found in the homes of terrorists, freedom fighters, insurgents and vigilantes around the globe, no matter the cause. While it’s easy to consider the sheriff and his deputies to be cut from Hollywood cardboard, at the time of the movie’s release, there were still plenty of reported cases of police harassment of hitchhikers and long-haired Vietnam vets who just wanted to be left alone. I don’t know if the producers foresaw the creation of a franchise series, but it’s true that they shot two endings. In the first one, all the primary characters die. The second option deviates from the book, by leaving the door open for a sequel. It didn’t take long for Rambo to become one of the most recognizable movie characters in the world, as a well a model for action characters played by Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson and Vin Diesel.

The other sequels – discounting the 2008 reboot and a fourth addition, in 2019 – have also been released in 4K UHD.  In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Colonel Samuel Troutman (Richard Crenna) gets Rambo released from prison, so he can go back to Vietnam to find, photograph and take it upon himself to bring back POW’s still held there. In Rambo III (1988), Our Hero mounts a one-man mission to rescue Trautman from the clutches of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. That’s how old the series is. The packages include archived bonus material, including commentaries, interviews, deleted scenes, making-of and background featurettes. The only new featurette is a three-part retrospective, “Rambo Takes the ’80s,” which is spread across the three titles. Look for them on the included Blu-ray editions.

Dances With Wolves: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
It would have been nice to report that Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves was being made available in 4K UHD, but, alas, it’s not. For reasons that are probably too complicated to summarize here, Shout!Factory is releasing the epic Western in a limited-edition “Steelbook Collector’s Edition,” which contains Blu-ray editions of the 181-minute theatrical edition (1990) – apparently for the first time – and nearly four-hour-long extended edition, which was released theatrically after the success of the shorter version. (Some critics have never forgiven “Dances” for defeating Goodfellas, as Best Picture, and Costner for outpolling Scorsese in the director’s race.) Costner has said that he considers both versions to be director’s cuts and, when asked, he prefers the theatrical one. (Another extended version, minus some violence and possibly objectionable scenes, has been shown on network television.) Unlike extended versions of most other films, the additional material here doesn’t merely consist of snippets of footage swept off the cutting-room floor and stored in a desk drawer, somewhere. Much of it truly does amplify the story, which isn’t to say that its inclusion in the theatrical version would have improved it. It’s fun to watch, however, and doesn’t change the ending or character profiles. (Compare them at www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=1186797.)

Both Blu-ray iterations look great on my set, especially the outdoor scenes shot in South Dakota’s Badlands, Black Hills and Fort Pierre. I didn’t know there was that much unspoiled open range left in the United States. For the record, Costner stars as Civil War hero Lieutenant John Dunbar, who befriends a tribe of Lakota Sioux while stationed at a desolate outpost on the frontier. It takes a while for Dunbar to go native, but, when he does, the transformation is handled with attention to cultural detail and respect for the Lakota language, which comprises 25 percent of the dialogue. The romance that blossoms between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell) – a white girl taken captive as a girl by an Indian war party – doesn’t feel forced or fake. In a movie that pays close attention to native clothing and hair styles, however, it’s strange how gnarly and windblown McDonnell’s always is. A separate disc contains the bonus material.

Robin Williams: Comic Genius Deluxe Set
No holiday season would be complete without at least one gotta-have-it collection of comedy or music from Time Life. Its recently released Robin Williams: Comic Genius easily qualifies a boxed set that will keep viewers and listeners entertained until New Year’s Day, if one chooses to binge their week off school or work watching TV. Williams, who died four years ago, at 63, was the kind of nonpareil talent who rarely, if ever disappointed his fans, whether he was appearing as a guest on a late-night talk show, in an HBO standup special, in comedy clubs or USO tours. The adjectives generally attached to any description of Williams’ public face were “indefatigable,” “manic” and “unpredictable.” It seemed as if his brain was operating at speeds that caused his words and thoughts to emerge without a filter, brakes or even a moment’s hesitation. The 22-DVD set features more than 100 performances, including, together for the first time, all five HBO specials, “Off the Wall (1978), “An Evening With Robin Williams” (1983), “An Evening at the MET” (1986), “Live on Broadway” (2002) and “Weapons of Self Destruction” (2009); Robin’s full MGM Grand Garden performance, from 2007, and the Montreal stop on his final tour, in 2012; an on-stage conversation between Williams and comedian David Steinberg.

Unforgettable appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Graham Norton Show” and “Saturday Night Live” appear, along with new interviews with close friends and family, including Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Jay Leno, Eric Idle, David Steinberg, Lewis Black and Zak Williams; 11 episodes of “Mork & Mindy,” including the two-part pilot; James Lipton’s Emmy-nominated interview with Robin on “Inside the Actors Studio,” plus deleted scenes; a comprehensive collection of his USO shows; hours of bonus features, including behind-the-scenes footage, local highlights from tour stops and promos; featurettes “The Early Years,” “San Francisco: Where It All Started,” “Comic Genius” and “TV’s Best Guest”; the 2018 HBO documentary, “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, from Marina Zenovich and Alex Gibney: and “Robin Williams: Uncensored,” a 24-page, full-color memory book featuring rare, archival photos from award-winning photographer Arthur Grace, reminiscences from friends and colleagues and Robin’s personal tour notes.

Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition
There’s been no late-night host or sketch-comedy troupe – including Johnny Carson, “SNL” and “Monty Python” — that doesn’t owe a serious debt of gratitude to Ernie Kovacs. Along with Steve Allen, the Trenton-born author/actor/comedian/ composer/producer/artist not only proved to network executives that Americans from all walks of life would put off going to sleep to be entertained, but he also cut the template for gags still making people laugh today. In anticipation of what would have been his 100th birthday, on January 23, 1919, Shout!Factory has released “Ernie Kovacs: The Centennial Edition.” The new collection combines previously released volumes of charmingly silly comedy by Ernie Kovacs and his co-conspirators. It includes more than 22 hours of offbeat entertainment that couldn’t break any molds, because they didn’t exist in 1950s. The set features episodes from his local and national morning shows; episodes from his NBC prime-time show; “Kovacs on Music”; five ABC specials; the color version of his legendary silent show, “Eugene”; his award-winning commercials for Dutch Masters cigars; short films and tributes; 18 bonus sketches, featuring many of his beloved characters; three episodes of his game show, “Take a Good Look”; “A Pony for Chris”; his rare TV pilot for “Medicine Man,” co-starring Buster Keaton; “The Lively Arts,” featuring the only existing filmed solo interview; and the 2011 American Cinematheque panel discussion. Also available to deep-pocketed fans is the “Ernie Kovacs Limited Edition Set of Ten Lithographs” (framed). These “Illustrated Profuselies” were improvisational sketches that allowed Kovacs to still be himself without worrying about the next day’s scripts for radio or television. The full set goes for $1,000.

TV-on-DVD
The Sound of Music: Live: Blu-ray
Not having watched NBC’s live broadcast of “The Sound of Music,” which attracted an estimated 18 million viewers to the Peacock, in 2013, it’s impossible for me to compare it to the ITV version that aired almost exactly two years later in England and is now available on Blu-ray. It’s release is billed as a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Broadway debut of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical. The math isn’t precise, if you consider that the 2015 broadcast marked a difference of 57 years … but who’s counting. In the NBC version, country-music diva Carrie Underwood and sexy vampire Stephen Moyer (“True Blood”) might not have been the ideal choices to play Maria Rainer and Captain von Trapp, but they were better-known commodities than Tony Award-winning co-stars Laura Benanti, Christian Borle and Audra McDonald. The stars of Coky Giedroyc’s “The Sound of Music: Live” will be familiar, if at all, to fans of imported British television shows: Kara Tointon (“Mr. Selfridge”), Julian Ovenden (“Downton Abbey”), Katherine Kelly (“Mr. Selfridge), Alexander Armstrong (“Danger Mouse”) and Maria Friedman (“EastEnders”). They’re all very good, as are the supporting nuns, children and Nazis. As the comprehensive featurette points out, the show enjoyed a budget of £2 million, while employing more than 400 cast and crew members, and filling 177 individual costumes. It was recorded at Three Mills Studios, on sets built over three different sound stages. Because the cast had to rush between the different sets between scenes, a heavy rain storm might spoiled everything. Beyond that, it’s the same show that’s charmed audiences for 60 years. The Blu-ray also includes a commentary track with Tointon and Ovenden.

Acorn: Detectorists: Complete Collection: Box Set
Acorn: Murdoch Mysteries: Christmas Cases Collection
Acorn: No Offence: Series 2
Acorn Media is no stranger to this column. Along with the newly launched Britbox, Acorn TV is a subscription streaming service that has been making Anglophiles of the American persuasion happy, under various banners, since 2011. Acorn DVD has been around for quite a bit longer. They offer television programming from the United Kingdom, as well as Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, on DVD compilations and via such streaming devices as Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku. Subscriptions make highly affordable and easy-to-connect gifts. Several of the binge-worthy shows, including “Murdoch Mysteries,” will already be familiar to PBS, Ovation and Netflix customers, while others may come as a delightful surprise. BBC Four’s disarming comedy series, “The Detectorists,” easily qualifies as a gift from the TV gods. In it, urban-archeologist Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and forklift-driver Lance (Toby Jones) while away their free time scouring a large Essex field for buried treasures – some dubious, at best – whose metallic properties can be sensed on metal detectors. As solitary pastimes go, it’s almost laughably tranquil, especially considering that the two friends usually return home with antique pop-tops from beer and soda-pop cans, and the odd button. As members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, all discoveries are catalogued and occasionally put on display. In the series’ three-season run, the lads continue to search for what they believe to be a buried Saxon warship and “horde” of gold coins. Instead, they’re forced to negotiate with the loony farmer, who owns the field and possibly buried his murdered wife there; combat rival detectorists, “Simon” and “Garfunkel”; keep their wives and girlfriends from throwing their metal detectors into a dumpster; prevent an energy company from tearing up the field and turning it into a solar farm. There’s also a mischievous magpie that’s always a step ahead of them.  Much of the humor, which would barely register on an American sitcom’s Richter scale, derives from Andy and Lance’s fondness for pop-culture trivia and the “University Challenge” quiz program. The BAFTA-winning series was created by Cook, who fans of the original British version of “The Office” will recognize as the sycophantic paper salesman, Gareth Keenan. Jones has played Alfred Hitchcock, in “The Girl”; Truman Capote, in “Infamous”; and Swifty Lazar, in Frost/Nixon. Rachael Stirling and Diana Rigg, as Andy’s wife and mother-in-law, respectively, are mother and daughter in real life. The set adds interviews and a making-of featurette.

The Ontario-set “Murdoch Mysteries: Christmas Cases Collection” arrives in a ready-for-gifting package that contains three feature-length holiday specials, “A Merry Murdoch Christmas,” “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas” and “Home for the Holidays.” The series takes place in Toronto, starting in 1895, and follows Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) of the Toronto Constabulary, who solves many of his cases using methods of detection that were unusual at the time. Although it frequently feels atypically prim and old-fashioned, by today’s standards, anyway, “Murdoch Mysteries,” involves crimes that are anything but tame. In “A Merry Murdoch Christmas,” for example, participants in a charity gala are stunned to find the host dead from a broken neck, and Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) suspects the culprit is the legendary Christmas monster, Krampus. In “Once Upon a Murdoch Christmas,” Murdoch investigates a daring robbery, in which the culprit seems to possess the same superhuman abilities as the protagonist in a graphic novel created by Constable Crabtree (Jonny Harris). In “Home for the Holidays,” Murdoch and Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy) travel to British Columbia to visit Murdoch’s brother (Dylan Neal), but, instead of a family holiday, they end up investigating a murder at a First Nations archaeological site.

No Offence” is an extremely gritty Channel 4 procedural drama, created by Paul Abbott (“Shameless”), that follows a predominantly female team of detectives from the Friday Street police station, a division of the fictional Manchester Metropolitan Police. In “Series 2,” the precariously overweight DI Vivienne Deering (Joanna Scanlan) – it doesn’t prevent her from being a tenacious and no-nonsense investigator — returns to work from bereavement leave after her husband’s death. In a carryover from Season 1, Viv’s still reeling from revelations about the creep of which only her impulsive subordinate, DC Dinah Kowalska (Elaine Cassidy), is aware. On her first week back, a bomb blast at a funeral plunges Deering and her team headfirst into a gang war inflamed by a crime-family matriarch (Rakie Ayola), who’s as cocky as she is dangerous. The investigation involves several unsavory characters, who take the team – including a tentative DS Joy Freers (Alexandra Roach), fearless PC Tegan Thompson (Saira Choudhry) and officious DCI Christine Lickberg (Sarah Solemani) — into some of Manchester’s darkest corners. Blessedly, “No Offense” isn’t short on dark humor and precarious romance.

PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: Seasons 1 & 2 DVD Set: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece: Little Women: Blu-ray
We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
The folks at PBS would like me to remind you that all sorts of DVD/Blu-ray combo packages are available for popular mini-series that aired early in 2018 and 2017. With Season Three of “Victoria” just around the corner, at least on Britain’s ITV channel, it’s time for “Masterpiece” loyalists to begin getting excited … again. DVD/Blu-ray compilations of the first two seasons, at the UK length, have been available for some time. Now, they can be purchased on the PBS website in combos that include the hard-cover companion book,
“Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen,” which was written by “Victoria” historical consultant, Helen Rappaport, and includes a foreword by novelist/scriptwriter Daisy Goodwin. It details the history behind the show. “Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair” completes the picture … unless you’re looking for some Queen Victoria two-stone stud earrings or Queen Victoria collet earrings. From Focus Films, Stephen Frears’ wonderfully entertaining Victoria & Abdul (2017) stars Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the title roles.

To the basic “Little Women” Blu-ray, gifters can add the companion novel from Penguin Classics. Other permutations include “Little Women”/“American Masters: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”; Harriet Reisen’s soft-cover biography, “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women”; the BBC’s “Little Women” (1970) on DVD; another companion DVD, “Orchard House: Home of Little Women”; and, of course, “Little Women” book totes, “Little Women” infinity book scarves and “Little Women” sticky flags. “The Durrells in Corfu” Blu-ray can be combined with the source book, Gerald Durrell’s “My Family and Other Animals.”

Also available at shop.pbs.org/ is “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” a clever DVD, based on the best-selling children’s book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. It follows siblings Stan, Katie, Rosie and Max, the baby, and Rufus the dog, who decide one day to go on an adventure through whirling snowstorms, oozing mud and dark forests in search of bears. Naturally, when Rosie and Rufus become separated from the rest of the family, it looks like bear hunting might not be quite as fun, after all.

Nickelodeon: Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection
Nickelodeon: Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series
Fans of the original Nickelodeon series, most of whom will be approaching or past their mid-20s, by now, will want to know that the differences between Shout!Factory’s “Hey Arnold! The Complete Series” (2014) and Paramount’s “Hey Arnold! The Ultimate Collection” (2018) amount to the inclusion of the show’s two spinoff features — Hey Arnold! The Movie (2002) and Hey Arnold! The Jungle Movie (2017) – and several bonus elements. If my old-school math hasn’t failed me, they amount to 286 more minutes of fun. Blu-ray would have been too much to expect, I suppose. The boxed set contains all 99 “stories” from the show’s five-season run – 100, if one counts the episode that was divided into two separate halves – and “Hey Arnold! The Pilot”; the original Claymation short, “Arnold Escapes From Church”; “Drawing Arnold”; “The Jungle Movie: Table Read”; and “Unboxing the Original Jungle Movie Development Art.” It doesn’t mention the poster art included in the Amazon-delivered “Complete Series,” four years ago.

I don’t know why Nickelodeon didn’t bestow “Ultimate Collection” status on “Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series.” After all, in the four-plus years that separate the boxed sets, the eight-disc collection has added nearly two hours more material and a new cover. According to the marketing blurb, “For the first time ever, every single episode of one of Nickelodeon’s best animated series is all in one place.” I wouldn’t know. The special features include, the original pilot of “Trash-O-Madness” and four “Behind the Characters” sketches with Joe Murray, co-creator of the series with Mr. Lawrence, of “SpongeBob SquarePants” fame.

Original Christmas Specials Collection: Deluxe Edition: Blu-ray
Blaze and the Monster Machines: Blaze Saves Christmas
What makes one holiday movie a classic and others merely … at best, fondly recalled additions to the genre. Timing, of course, and a mysterious ability to hold up under repeat viewings. The presence of time-honored actors, too. Memorable music, of course, and the ability to enchant kids and adults, alike. The saturation bombing of Christmas-themed cartoons and movies didn’t really begin until the virtual elimination of elaborately staged variety shows on television. Sitcoms and popular dramas, like “The Waltons” and “ER,” picked up the slack, but, too often, the special episodes would be repeated for years to come. In the mid-1960s, Rankin/Bass Productions introduced its highly stylized stop-action animation process, with characters recognizable by their doll-like appearance, spheroid body parts and weirdly static backgrounds. Traditionally drawn snowflakes would be projected over the choppy movements of the characters and animals. No one doubted that the animation was outsourced to Japanese companies, but they succeeded, anyway. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), which featured a recognizable story and more fluid animation – as well as that jazzy Vince Guaraldi score – the R/B films that comprise Universal’s “The Original Christmas Specials Collection,” caught on with networks and in syndication. The deluxe Blu-ray edition includes Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) and The Little Drummer Boy (1968), which feature “Animagic” stop-motion animation, and Frosty the Snowman (1969) and Cricket on the Hearth (1967). The addition of such voice actors as Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Burl Ives and other long-dead stars has had a soothing effect on viewers through last 50 years.

Ironically, television executives didn’t have much hope for A Charlie Brown Christmas. They probably felt the same about R/B’s early work. Unlike the Peanuts creations, the stories that informed the R/B titles were traditional or in the public domain and, therefore, far more economical for networks and independents. The R/B Blu-ray adds a host of bonus features, including commentaries and restoration info. One valid caveat, however, comes in an email to Amazon by historian/biographer Rick Goldschmidt, who offers several pointed complaints about his behind-the-scenes experiences with the production company and decisions affecting the final content. Nonetheless, the animation looks fine in hi-def and kids won’t notice the shortcuts taken. Buffs and collectors use different criteria to judge historic content.

In the world of holiday animation for kids, it would be difficult to find much real progress in the 50 years between the Rankin/Bass quintet, “Charlie Brown” and Blaze and Nickelodeon’s “Monster Machines: Blaze Saves Christmas,” which is a compilation of winter-related episodes. “Monster Machine Christmas” is the only one strictly dedicated to the holiday. In it, Crusher sends Santa’s magic bag of presents flying and must team up with Blaze and AJ to deliver all the presents by Christmas morning; in “Breaking the Ice,” Robot Blaze climbs, grinds and ziplines his way to save a little bunny trapped on top of a melting glacier; “Catch That Cake!” repeats the scenario in “Monster Machine Christmas,” except with Darington’s birthday cake; and in “Ninja Blaze,” martial-arts master Blackbelt is training Blaze and AJ to become powerful ninjas when Crusher and Pickle accidentally launch themselves onto an icy mountain, and require rescuing.

Elf: Buddy’s Sing & Cheer Along Edition: Blu-ray
The many lists of Best Christmas Movies I’ve perused agree on two things, at least: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is numero uno and Christ is absent at his own birthday party. Otherwise, every spot between 2 and 50 is up for grabs. Comedy, romance and drama have been staples for most of the last 100 years. Sci-fi and Westerns, not so much. I was surprised by the number of hard-core horror flicks that have found a consensus: Black Christmas (1974), Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), Christmas Evil (1980), Krampus (2015) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), among them. In my opinion, the biggest ringers were Tangerine (2015), Carol (2015), Tokyo Godfathers (2003) and The Whole Hog: Making Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (2006). The aforementioned A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman did fine, as well. The movie in question here, Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003), held firm in the upper-middle of the lists, alongside Bad Santa (2003, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) and The Santa Claus (1994). Merely being popular doth not a classic make, however.

Elf made more than $173 million domestically and another $47 million overseas. Judging simply from the reissues, repackagings and combos it’s been accorded, Elf probably went on to sell a lot of DVDs and Blu-rays. The latest permutation, I think, is Elf: Buddy’s Sing & Cheer Along Edition, which, on a separate disc, adds lyrics, popups, factoids and gag alerts to the on-screen images. The gimmicks are right out of a music video on MTV in the late-1980s, when the network was trying anything to gain teenage eyes. As these things go, it’s not bad, especially considering that the age of the average viewer is approaching puberty, from the opposite direction. In it, a baby on Santa’s delivery route accidentally crawls into his nearly empty bag of toys and is taken to the North Pole. Buddy (Will Ferrell) is raised by a family of elves, until they break the news to him that he is really a human. With the blessing of Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) and Santa (Ed Asner), the holly-jolly young man heads for New York to find his real family and spread the true meaning of Christmas … whatever that meant, in 2003. James Caan plays his publishing executive father, who is completely dismayed by Buddy’s Pollyannish behavior. He falls for Jovie (Zooey Deschanel), who works at Gimbels as a department-store-Santa’s assistant, for which she dresses as an elf. You can guess the rest. After all these years, I wonder why no one at Warners has taken advantage of Deschanel’s increased visibility in the ensuing 16 years, thanks in large part to her starring role in Fox’s “New Girl,” and added her name to the front of the jacket, alongside that of James Caan. I’m sure it’s due to some arcane contractual arrangement, but she earns it.

Pat Boone & Family: Christmas & Thanksgiving
If moviemakers have decided not to acknowledge the baby Jesus in their Christmas stories, there are a few dependable places on the cable dial to find the newborn king. One sure place to stop is anywhere 1950s pop creation Pat Boone is spreading his family-friendly message. “Pat Boone & Family: Christmas & Thanksgiving” was taped at a time when daughter, Debby, was a hotter commodity on the Contemporary Christian charts and concert circuit than he’d been in years. In addition to a successful singing career, Boone dipped his toes in the waters of Hollywood filmdom. He also became the youngest performer to host his own television variety show (“Pat Boone’s Chevy Showroom,”1957-60) and, in 1978, brought his four singing daughters Debby, Cherry, Lindy and Laurie, along with wife, Shirley, to ABC-TV for a series of seasonal specials. “Pat Boone & Family Christmas Special” presents a celebration of favorite holiday songs (“White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Waltz,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”), with the Hudson Brothers and an array of ABC-TV stars: Norman Fell and Audra Lindley (“Three’s Company”), Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”) and Gavin McLeod (“The Love Boat”), as well as appearances by Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney. “Pat Boone & Family Thanksgiving Special,” opens with a visit from Bob Hope and the return of the Hudson , who join the Boone Girls for a disco showcase. Really. There aren’t many Thanksgiving songs, so the Boones settled for “Can’t Smile Without You,” “You Needed Me,” “Bless This House” and “Love in a Home.” Bonus features include a Pat Boone interview, “The Boone Family: Christmas in Bethlehem,” Christmas carols from Boone’s Chevy showroom, “Jingle Bells” and “Boone Family Lullaby.”

The Ladybug
It’s practically been a lifetime since young viewers were introduced to the world below their feet in A Bug’s Life (1998), Antz (1998) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). Straight-to-DVD animation has advanced a great deal in the meantime, especially in foreign studios affiliated with distributors around the globe. The winning tickets limit the dialogue and hire a few recognizable B-listers to translate it into the local language. If the backgrounds are bright and colorful and the characters are cute and expressive, it’s possible to keep kids interested for 90 minutes. Shi Ding’s The Ladybug has been awarded the Dove Seal of Approval for all ages, In this delightful family adventure, YouTube star Lisa Schwartz plays a plucky ladybug named Ruby. Longing for the beauty and freedom of Golden Canyon, she escapes her laboratory cage and joins forces with Master Dan, a crafty dragonfly. With help from a hungry frog king, an artistic earwig, and a stinky dung beetle, they make their way to this magical land. The featurette, “Giving the Characters a Voice,” finds Schwartz, Jon Heder, Haylie Duf and Norm MacDonald” at the studio.

Detective Dee Trilogy: Three Movie Collection
A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed the third installment in Tsui Hark’s Detective Trilogy, Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings. It is the second prequel in a series that began with Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010) and flashed backwards to Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013). What I forgot to mention is that all three titles are newly available in the aptly titled, “Detective Dee Trilogy: Three Movie Collection,” exclusively at Walmart.

The DVD Wrapup: Owl’s Legacy, Good Manners, Childrens Act, Juliet Naked, Unnamable, Little Italy, Gas Food Lodging, SWF, Detective Dee, Windtalkers … More

Friday, November 16th, 2018

The Owl’s Legacy
In the continuing march of time, empires have come and gone with some regularity. To quote Tears for Fears, “Everybody wants to rule the world.” No one has come close to owning it. Some empires have left their marks behind in architecture and statuary, while others are recalled by unnatural borders, the bastardization of languages and appropriation of cuisine, clothing or music. If it weren’t for DNA testing, we might not be able to recognize the debt we owe a long-forgotten culture, even if it’s limited to the shape of one’s nose or a shared propensity for certain hereditary diseases. When Europeans colonized the New World, Africa and Southeast Asia, they assumed that the differently colored inhabitants had nothing to offer them but gold and silver, rubber, tobacco, cocoa, tea and other commodities. In return, the natives would be given a new language to learn, fabrics to cover their breasts and genitals, foreign diseases and a religion that promised a better life after death than the one they were given at the occasion of their birth. Heaven must have especially appealed to those native peoples who were already enslaved, impoverished, exploited and left with no hope, whatsoever. Chris Marker’s epic 13-episode documentary mini-series, The Owl’s Legacy (1989) was supported by the Onassis Foundation and aired on French public television. When it failed to deliver the expected conclusions about the ancient Athenians’ influence on modern Greece — owls are symbolic of Athens and wisdom — it was shelved and left to gather dust for nearly 30 years. What it did produce was something far more compelling than a testimonial to the current government’s commitment to democracy. It was, after all, a gift from their ancestors, who would have been appalled by the occasional impositions of totalitarian, nationalism and fascist rule that corrupted Athenian democracy in the 150 years since the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Here, Marker employs a casual approach to an otherwise scholarly discussion about the impact of Ancient Greece on modern thinking and European identity. He invited a couple dozen academics, artists and intellectuals to gather around the tables in Paris, Tbilisi, Athens and Berkeley, drink wine and feast on appetizers, while doing so … mostly in French, but in Greek and English, too. To fill in some gaps in the tableside discussions, taped interviews with individual scholars and ex-pat celebrities — including filmmaker Elia Kazan — are sprinkled throughout the series, as are clips from such movies as Costa-Gavras’ Z, which dramatized events that took place early in the junta’s rule. The despotic military cabal had taken “democracy” and ground the word under its heels, until it was rendered meaningless … for the time being, anyway. Although the nearly decade-long nightmare is only discussed at length in a few of the 13 chapters, it hangs like a storm cloud over the entire series, which finds other reasons to hail the Athenian legacy. And, while Alexander the Great and the Trojan wars are mentioned, the emphasis is on other gifts Greeks brought to the world, in addition to democracy, tragedy and philosophy.

Marker’s brain trust also discusses how Greece’s democratic reawakening — after winning its independence from the Turks in the 1820s – was thwarted in the bud by Europe’s Central Powers, who feared that its revolution and an earlier one in Serbia could trigger other uprisings. Instead, Greeks were required to accept a Roman Catholic Bavarian prince as the country’s first modern king. He would be deposed in 1862, but Germans would return 80 years later to complete the conquest Italian forces couldn’t accomplish. After the liberation, Greece once again became a pawn in a much larger game of chess. With the government’s army backed by the United States and United Kingdom, and the Democratic Army of Greece supported by communist Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria, the Greek Civil War became the first proxy war of the post-WWII period. The United States would side with the Greek military junta of 1967–1974, as well. If issues pertaining to the ongoing economic dilemma and influx of refugees cause the current democracy to teeter, the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is waiting in the wings to take control.

The Owl’s Legacy’s true message comes into focus in “Episode 6: Mathematics, or the Realm of Signs” and “Episode 7: Logomachy, or the Roots of Words,” and the introduction of Pythagoras of Samos (570-495 BCE). A Renaissance man a couple of millennia removed from the Renaissance, it’s possible that Pythagoras contributed more to our civilization than any other human not named Jesus, Moses or Muhammad. His interests included philosophy, mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, music, mysticism, politics and religion. He traveled widely and learned from scholars in Egypt, Crete and Persia. Pythagoras would influence Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Socrates and Aristotle, as well as Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Keple and Isaac Newton, among others. Pythagoras believed in a “harmony of the spheres,” which maintained that the planets and stars move according to mathematical equations, which correspond to musical notes and thus produce an inaudible symphony. The Pythagorean theorem, which may have been borrowed from the Babylonians and Indians, allowed Greek mathematicians to construct the first “proof.” There’s plenty more, of course, including a demonstration of how Pythagoras’ ideas were incorporated into the creation of modern computers and, by inference, the Internet. That’s one hell of a legacy for modern Greeks to claim.

So, maybe, restaurateur Gus Portokalos wasn’t too far off base, when, in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), he told everyone who would listen to him for more than five minutes: “Give me a word, any word, and I’ll show you that the root of that word is Greek.” Not all his examples held up to scrutiny, but he was on the right path. In Portokalos had seen The Owl’s Legacy, his Hellenic chauvinism would have driven everyone around him crazy, Further chapters add “Music, or the Inner Space,” “Cosmogony, or the Use of the World,” “Mythology, or the Truth of Lies,” “Misogyny, or Desire’s Traps,” “Tragedy, or the Illusion of Death,” “Philosophy, or the Owl’s Triumph.” Literary critic George Steiner, who condemns mankind’s environmental recklessness, argues at one point that modern Greece bears no relation to the glory of Ancient Greece. Apparently, such observations were met with displeasure by the Onassis Foundation, which had funded Marker’s film and wanted to deliver a far different message. As a result, The Owl’s Legacy was long kept out of circulation in video and left unseen on Greek television. The Owl’s Legacy won’t be for everyone, but anyone fascinated by the machinations of world history will welcome the opportunity to finally see it.

Good Manners
In recent weeks, movies I’ve referenced such off-brand monsters as werecats (Stephen King’s Sleepwalkers) and, maras, wraith-like creatures that strangle people in their sleep. Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ Good Manners is a terrifically bizarre, if overlong thriller from Brazil about the consequences of a human giving birth to a werewolf baby and, after the mother dies, its guardian inviting it to join her non-lycanthropic family. It further ponders the question of whether such a potentially monstrous child can be domesticated and saved from its worst physiological and supernatural instincts. Isabel Zuaa plays Clara, an emotionally fragile nurse from the outskirts Sao Paulo, who’s hired by Ana (Marjorie Estiano) to be the nanny of her soon-to-be-born child. Ana’s a bit of a wild card, in that she’s wealthy, modern and inclined to unexpected behavior. Her refrigerator is stocked with bloody raw meat and she’s a somnambulist. Despite their cultural differences, Clara and Ana develop a strong bond, emotionally and sexually. After Ana dies in childbirth, Clara whisks the hirsute infant away from the hospital and gives it a home, with her family, in the favela. Fast-forward seven years, at least, and Joel (Miguel Lobo) has grown into a seemingly normal boy, who attends school and associates with other kids. Clara has raised Joel as a vegetarian, who, when there’s a full moon, is chained to a wall in the basement. When Clara’s back is turned, however, a well-meaning relative decides that a good rare steak would help bring some color to Joel’s cheeks. What it really brings to his cheeks, though, is something significantly more sinister. I’ll leave it at that. Dutra and Rojas use Good Manners’ 136-minute length to explore the imbalance of life in the “financial capital of Brazil,” but not in any way that interferes with the story. The filmmakers admit to an early fondness for the scarier moments in Walt Disney’s animated features, while referencing An American Werewolf in London. I would imagine, as well, that they’ve been influenced by Guillermo del Toro and other European horrormeisters, whose works have found homes in American arthouses. Rui Poças’ impressionistic cinematography frequently conjures the beauty and sensuality inherent in the best horror pictures.

The Children Act
In this heart-wrenching drama by Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal), adapted from a novel and screenplay by Ian McEwan (Atonement), Emma Thompson delivers a powerhouse portrayal of a Children’s Court judge whose strict adherence to protocol nearly destroys her. The breaking point arrives during one of those cases in which a judge is, in fact, asked to play God, by determining whether a teenager should be forced to adhere to his parents’ religious beliefs and die, or be given a chance to live a healthy life with a blood transfusion. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) portrays 17-year-old Adam, who was raised by parents who devoutly accept the principles of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Accordingly, he believes that it’s God who will decide whether he’ll live or die, not his well-meaning doctors or a judge he’s never met. Before Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) renders her decision, however, she makes the unorthodox decision to visit Adam in his hospital room and get his unforced opinion. Although he corroborates his parents’ wishes, Adam asks “my lady” to stay long enough to hear him play a tune on his guitar. Turns out, Fiona is aware of the song and begins to sing along to its life-affirming lyrics by William Butler Yeats. (She also gently corrects one of the boy’s chord changes.) After Fiona renders her decision, allowing the doctors to transfuse Adam’s blood, he recovers. At home, however, Fiona’s marriage to Jack, a professor played by Stanley Tucci, is crumbling.

For as long as he cares to remember, Jack has been required to play along with his wife’s devotion to duty: long hours, weekends on call, endless homework and fatigue that’s led to a distinct lack of interest in sex. When Jack tells Fiona that he wants to enter into a purely sexual affair with another woman, her response is icy and matter-of-fact. Within hours of his leaving home – temporarily – she changes the locks to the door of their apartment and refuses to speak with him, again, ever. Meanwhile, Adam has decided to pursue an unwelcome relationship with Fiona, based on her life-saving advice andtheir mutual admiration of poetry. Not surprisingly, the judge in her decides this isn’t a good idea and she refuses to return his letters. This leads to Adam stalking Fiona and almost breaking through her icy exterior. Almost. Ditto, Jack. Although viewers will have already drawn their own conclusions on Fiona’s behavior, there’s still plenty of time left in The Children Act for things to come to a fork, or two, in the road. Parents effectively played by Ben Chaplin and Eileen Walsh aren’t treated as villains for their beliefs, even though Jehovah Witnesses tend not to come off well in courtroom dramas. As usual, Tucci is excellent in a role that could be considered in a negative light, as well. It’s Thompson’s movie to carry, though, and her performance deserves to be considered when Best Actress nominations are revealed. Given that The Children Act only played in, at most, 73 theaters here, it will take an active screener campaign for it to be seen in the right households, I’m afraid. It arrives with commentary by Eyre and McEwan.

Juliet, Naked: Blu-ray
As much as I try to avoid generalizations when it comes to characterizing the kinds of people who might enjoy a movie arriving on DVD – those not associated with specific genres, anyway – sometimes there’s simply no way to avoid it. Shorthand references to “chick flicks,” “bromances,” “tweeners” and, even, “arthouse,” simplify things for everyone. The same thing applies to ads for Juliet, Naked, which make it abundantly clear that it’s “from the author of About a Boy and High Fidelity.” It could have further narrowed the appeal by adding, “directed by former Lemonhead and ‘Girls’ helmer Jesse Peretz.” If Hugh Grant had accepted a cameo role, the ad could add, “featuring the star off Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which would have even more precisely nailed the intended audience for Juliet, Naked. In fact, author Nick Hornby is only responsible for supplying the source material from which Peretz’ rom-com, the Weitz Brothers’ About a Boy and Steven Frears’ High Fidelity were adapted. Typically, adaptations bear little resemblance to the books upon which they’re based. In Hornby’s case, however, the screenwriters – here, they’re Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins – aren’t required to do much more than tweak a few plot points. His books are that cinematic. Like John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, Chris O’Dowd’s podcaster Duncan Thomson is obsessed with rock music. More to the point, Duncan’s spent most of his adult life analyzing the lyrics written by Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an enigmatic singer/songwriter who disappeared from the face of the Earth two decades earlier, in mid-concert. When he isn’t teaching at a local college, Duncan shares his fanboy musings with countless other rock obsessives on his podcasts. Unbeknownst to him, Crowe is one his followers.

Because Duncan is convinced that Crowe’s final studio album, “Juliet,” is as important as anything from Van Morrison, Jackson Browne and Morrisey, Crowe has sent him a CD of acoustic outtakes from the session. His longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), isn’t thrilled with Duncan’s hobby, but she tolerates it. When the envelope containing “Juliet, Naked” arrives, Annie can’t resist the temptation to open it and listen to the CD. When Duncan discovers her faux pas, he feels as violated as anyone who’s had their home broken into and underwear drawer ransacked. Worse still, Duncan is horrified to learn that Annie posted an extremely negative review on his website, under a transparent pseudonym. He’s so unnerved that he engages in an affair with a co-worker. It leads to their breakup and Duncan’s banishment from the home they share. To her astonishment, Ann receives an email – or text, I can never tell the difference – from Crowe, agreeing with her opinion of the album. It triggers an exchange of missives that leads to a rendezvous in London, where he’ll be visiting one of his five children from four different women. He’s only recently learned that his daughter, Carly (Lily Newmark), is pregnant and, naturally, her boyfriend is a musician.

The road-trip is a real change of pace for Crowe, who, for the last several years, has been laying low in Pennsylvania, occupying a garage owned by the mother of his youngest son (Azhy Robertson) and basically doing nothing. Jackson is the only sibling who isn’t estranged from Tucker in one way or another. In fact, they’re best buddies. Before Crowe can connect with Carly or Annie, however, he suffers a heart attack in the lobby of the hospital. Annie learns of his hospitalization on the ride back to her coastal hometown and catches the next train back to London. She gets back in time to join an uncomfortable gathering of half-siblings, who’ve never met each other, and a couple of ex-wives who mistakenly thought he was on his death bed. Long story short: Annie invites Tucker to recuperate, with Jackson, in Broadstairs, where Duncan will inevitably be introduced to his idol and not believe it’s him. Neither does Crowe agree with Duncan’s assessment of his music and its relevance in the overall scheme of things. His presence does, however, make him reevaluate his position on Annie, who will have decisions of her own to make. If Juliet, Naked isn’t nearly as endearing as High Fidelity or About a Boy, it’s an easy way to kill 97 minutes of time, and the evocative musical soundtrack contains songs written by Conor Oberst, Robyn Hitchcock, Ryan Adams and Nathan Larson. The Blu-ray adds a 10-minute making-of featurette.

The Unnamable, Special Edition: Blu-ray
Nearly 30 years after the author’s untimely death, at 46, the first of many stories by H.P. Lovecraft was turned into a movie by – you guessed it – Roger Corman. Ironically, Lovecraft shared the writing credit on The Haunted Palace (1963) with Edgar Allan Poe, a mainstay in Corman’s stable of writers … living and dead. He called upon Charles Beaumont, who made his bones on TV anthology series in the 1950s, to marry eight lines from Poe’s eponymous 1839 poem and Lovecraft’s novella, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.” The deluge of Lovecraft-sourced movies wouldn’t begin in earnest until Stuart Gordon’s loose adaptation of “Herbert West: Re-Animator,” in 1985. Three years later, freshman writer/director/producer Jean-Paul Ouellette based his low-budget indie, The Unnamable, on Lovecraft’s 1925 story of the same title. The movie takes some liberties with the source material, but Lovecraft lovers shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing it. The film opens in the early 18th Century, outside the secluded mansion belonging to Joshua Winthrop. Inside the house, some kind of an unseen monster is making a terrible ruckus. When Winthrop unlocks a large door in the attic, the creature reaches out to the old man’s chest and rips his heart out. Three hundred years later, a couple of wiseass college boys decide to test the legend’s veracity by arranging a weekend sleepover – girlfriends in tow — in the ancient mansion. Anyone who’s seen more than three or four modern horror films already knows what happens next: after the couples settle in, and one of the women sheds her blouse, the monster makes her presence known.

The rest of The Unnamable requires the actors to race around the house, trying to avoid be picked apart by the truly bizarre-looking creature, now recognized as Alyda Winthrop.  And, yes, “The Necronomicon” does play a role in the resolution of the exceedingly gory flick. Sounds good, but Lovecraft left enough holes in the original story for future viewers to wonder what exactly is Alyda’s story and how the mansion has managed to remain intact over the last three centuries. Ouellette probably had enough trouble coming up with the money it would take to keep The Unnamable from looking like “Amateur Night in Dixie” to worry much about unanswerable questions. The big reveal doesn’t take place until late into 87-minute movie and, whil