Fast & Furious 6: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
In a perfect world, Paul Walker would have walked away from last Sunday’s fatal accident with a broken bone and a few scrapes, but otherwise fully intact, just like the stunt drivers he worked beside in “Fast & Furious 6.” Cynics would have suggested that the crash was simply a publicity stunt staged to promote the release of the latest DVD/Blu-ray. Walker would deny the accusation, but, in Hollywood, there’s no such thing as coincidence. Sadly, though, Walker was killed in the crash, alongside his friend, business partner, financial adviser and fellow racing enthusiast, Roger Rodas. By all accounts, Rodas was an exemplary fellow and supporter of many charities, including Walker’s Reach Out Worldwide. A professional driver, he knew how to control a fast car and had survived crashes on racetracks. In their ads for the DVD/Blu-ray, Universal is introducing consumers to Reach Out Worldwide and asking them to consider contributing to it. The studio has announced that a portion of the proceeds from sales will go to the charity, as well. Plans for a seventh edition of “F&F” have been put on hold, if only temporarily. Both men will be missed.
“Fast & Furious” is one of those franchises that practically re-writes itself with each new sequel. I don’t say that in a negative way, because it’s pretty tough to fool audiences six times in a row. Most franchises go straight-to-DVD after the fourth installment. “F&F6” has already grossed $788.7 in the international marketplace. Anyone’s who’s seen more than one of the installments probably doesn’t need a refresher course in what it’s all about, so there’s no need to amplify here, except to say: same stars and creative team, different cars. This time, however, Agent Hobbs asks outlaw drivers Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) to put their team back together and meet him in London, where they can devise a plan to shut down another team of mercenary drivers. This one has eyes on a bigger prize, however, and Hobbs dangles the prospect of pardons to get the good guys to sign on with him. When they come in contact with their competitors, they’re shocked to discover the presence of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) on the other side. She was presumed dead on a previous job, but, in fact, only lost her memory. This, plus parenthood, have raised the stakes for Toretto and O’Conner. It’s fun in the same way that all of the movies in the series have been entertaining. The formula works.
Just for the record, the unrated “Extended Edition” adds a minute or two of action, but nothing obvious. The bonus material includes director Justin Lin’s point-by-point commentary; three deleted scenes; 20 minutes of interviews; a four-part production documentary; a four-part dissection of the major set pieces, “Planes, Tanks and Automobiles”; the ride-along “It’s All About the Cars”; a look at the fight scenes, “Hand to Hand Fury”; and a short preview of “F&F7.”
By now, Hugh Jackman is as identified with the Logan/Wolverine character as he is with being Australian. By my count, he’s played the “X-Men” bad boy five times, with a cameo in one other live-action episode and another one already on the boards for 2014. He’s also voiced of a couple of video games. Although I’m not an expert on the subject, the 2013 “Wolverine” is a semi-continuation of the 2009 franchise prequel, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and, with its flashbacks to Jean Grey/Phoenix, a sequel to “X-Men: The Last Stand.” In 2014, there will be another sequel, entitled “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” (As far as I know, the Moody Blues haven’t been asked to perform on the soundtrack.) The character, itself, has also been the subject of countless comic books, graphic novels and cartoon series. When he isn’t slashing his enemies with those razor-sharp appendages, Jackman has been known to sing and dance a bit. I found it interesting that “Wolverine” inadvertently makes a sideways connection between Wolverine’s origins and those of Japanese monsters Rodan, Godzilla and Mothra.
As the movie opens, Logan is being held captive by Japanese troops in what appears to be a well. As he scans the skies through a metal grate, he spots American bombers on a mission over Japan. In what could be the single act of mercy shown a POW in World War II — in the movies, anyway — a Japanese guard begins to unlock the cells, allowing the prisoners to escape. Before Logan can get out of his pit, the guard is ordered by officers to join them in ritual suicide. Just as he’s about to do the same, a mushroom cloud appears in the distant background, causing a radioactive tsunami to barrel toward the prison camp. Logan grabs the soldier and sprints back to the well with him. Before the storm of flames can fill the well, Logan grabs a metal slab to cover the soldier from most harm. In doing so, he’s burned to a crisp. Within seconds, the soldier, Shingen Yashida, is privileged to watch Logan regenerate before his eyes. Most of a lifetime later, the now extremely wealthy Japanese industrialist sends a pretty young assistant, Yukio – herself, a mutant with the precognitive ability to foresee other people’s deaths – to the Yukon to find Logan and bring him back to Tokyo. Yashida is dying from cancer, possibly from exposure to radiation, and wants to ask Logan for a third lease on life. Because Logan has voiced his distaste with eternal life and a desire to lead a normal life, Yashida considers his request to be something of a win-win proposition for both men. He dies before any transference of powers can begin.
Yashida’s death sets off a chain of events that affects all of Yashida’s family members and heirs, forcing Logan to choose sides. A provision in his will effectively bypasses a generation of ambitious men, leaving his holdings in the hands of his shy and dedicated daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Already in Japan, Logan is involuntarily put in a position where he must pick sides. As Mariko’s bodyguard, he is once again forced to unleash his Wolverine persona and protect her from all of the samurai, cops and yakuza saboteurs that money can buy. They’re nothing compared to the reptilian mutant Viper/Dr. Green (Svetlana Viktorovna), and a monstrous mecha killing machine. If there are points in the narrative where it becomes impossible to tell who’s trying to kill whom and why, the one constant is the action. It’s almost nonstop and extremely well-conceived. The Blu-ray package includes “The Path of a Ronin,” explores the samurai-ninja aspect of the story, including its roots in the Marvel comic books; interviews with the principal cast and crew; behind-the-scenes footage, with a tight focus on Yoshida’s way-beyond-Posturepedic bed; an alternate ending; a visit to the set of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”; and a second-screen app with additional bonus content, accessible through either IOS or Android mobile devices.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones: Blu-ray
Based, as it is, on the first installment in a popular series of young-adult novels by Cassandra Clara, great things were expected of Harald Zwart’s adaptation, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.” Indeed, what wasn’t to like about an “urban fantasy” that promised tragic romance, hot young actors, splendid Gothic locations, wall-to-wall action and a mélange of avenging angels, vampires, werewolves and witches. That the film failed to spark domestic or overseas revenues – from my uneducated perspective, anyway — remains something of a mystery. If “City of Bones” had opened big and quickly sank like a rock, the blame could be laid on execution. A production budget estimated at $60 million, argues otherwise. Critics are non-factors when it comes to evaluating teen fantasies, so they’re not guilty, either. In the face of a marketing expenditure also in the $60-million range, grosses for the three-day opening weekend failed to top $9.3 million, even though it opened on more than 3,000 large and traditional-size screens. Total revenues amounted to an underwhelming $80.2 million, of which $49 million flew in from overseas. Not being an exact science, it’s almost impossible to tell why one marketing campaign works and another doesn’t. To be fair, none of the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” wannabes, have done particularly well, either. Still, there should have been some red flags. For one, the presence of B-listers Lily Collins, Lena Heady, Jamie Campbell Bower, Robert Sheehan and Jonathan Rhys Meyers wasn’t likely to set many young-adult hearts racing. (The same thing could be said of the largely unknown casts of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games,” however.) My guess is that the kitchen-sink approach to storytelling, along with a bewildering number of supernatural characters, was a far safer bet on paper than on the screen. I stopped keeping score after the first half-hour. (Both the Blu-ray package and full-page pop-up ads offer a “character lineage” to minimize confusion.) It’s also possible that girls and young women were turned off by teasers and trailers that promised too much action and not enough romance, even with all the dreamy men on display. Conversely, teenage boys may have anticipated more romance than bloodshed. Both groups would be right in their own way.
In Blu-ray, where the investment in time and money is far less, the risk factor to distributors is exponentially lower. Expectations still matter, of course, but not as much. “City of Bones” looks and sounds excellent in high-def. The set designs are imaginative and the actors are easy on the eyes. Newcomers to the franchise should know that, at first glance, Clary Fray (Collins) seems to be a perfectly normal 15-year-old Brooklynite, who still favors jeans and T-shirts over little black dresses and stiletto-heel shoes. One day, though, she begins scrawling a unique design on notepads and seeing it on signs. This greatly bothers her single mother, Joselyn (Headey), who has been hiding a great secret from her own past. Mom wants to explain her background to Clary, but she’s attacked by vicious shape-changing thugs and kidnaped before their talk could happen. It would have foreshadowed Clary’s evolution toward womanhood and the presence of Shadowhunters — half-angels who have been locked in a holy war with demons since the Crusades – in their ransacked apartment. In fact, Jocelyn holds the key to everything that’s about to take place in New York’s Downworld, as well as the ancient chalice that everyone’s seeking. Clary’s only hope is to pick the brain of the witch next-door (C.C.H. Pounder) and join forces with the Shadowhunters. It doesn’t take very long for Clary – and increasingly befuddled viewers – to realize that no one and nothing is what it appears to be in the Downworld. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes, making-of featurettes, interviews, a music video of “Almost Is Never Enough” and an “interactive lineage tracker,” for those keeping score at home. Remarkably, perhaps, plans for a 2014 sequel, “City of Ashes,” are going forward.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane: Blu-ray
Despite the tantalizing title, “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” has had more false starts than a junior-high swimming meet. Introduced first at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and released theatrically on a country-by-country basis ever since, the teen gore-fest finally is being given a fair shot on DVD and Blu-ray. Before writer/director Jonathan Levine’s kooky zombie romance, “Warm Bodies,” became a sleeper hit, last February, the primary reason for guys to see “Mandy Lane” – directed by Levine and written by Jacob Forman — was the likelihood Amber Heard or, in a pinch, Whitney Able might go topless. (One does, the other doesn’t.) Why any teenage girl would want to subject herself to the many gruesome killings is now a moot point, because hardly anyone went to see it in theaters, male or female. Like a million other thrillers aimed at the teen market, this one involves a mixed group of Texas high school pals who think it might be fun to spend a weekend at ranch house in redneck country. Although the kids seem to be paired off pretty neatly, virginal 16-year-old tease, Mandy, is the wild card all of the boys and, perhaps, one or two of the girls, want to hold. In fact, she’s a magnet for trouble. What the teens don’t take into account are the snakes that inhabit the swimming hole and the psychopath bent on slaughtering anyone who comes within 10 feet of Mandy. Fans of splatter flicks should find enough inventively rendered violence here to satisfy their appetite. Otherwise, I can easily recommend Levine’s other features, “Warm Bodies,” “50/50” and “The Wackness.”
Casting Me …
I don’t know if there are more dweebs per square inch in the movie business than in other pursuits, but judging simply by the films they make for and about each other, it sure seems like it. Apart from collecting ironic t-shirts and pretending they’re too busy to lose their virginity, the aspiring filmmakers we meet in such no-budget character studies as “Casting Me” constantly kvetch about having jobs most other folks would kill to do. Take Paul Johnson (Paul Snodgrass), a casting director who’s tired of photographing beautiful young models in their underwear posing for a lead role in toothpaste commercial … or something he considers to be similarly demeaning. Pretty girls flatter Paul by flirting with him, but he knows all too well that, outside the walls of his office, they’d have nothing to do with him. So, after a very long day’s work, Paul can’t wait to get home and smoke a joint or three, before diving into a pizza or share a double-double with his like-minded roommates. In what qualifies as a small miracle, he meets a truly nice young woman, Chloe Willow (Roxanne Prentice), who “likes” several of the same things he admits to liking on his Internet profile, and is willing to put up with the awkward lulls in their conversations. Even as Paul fears their romance can’t last, he wills it to happen by putting his job over their relationship. Once he realizes what he’s lost in Chloe, Paul commits himself to winning her back in the only way he knows how. He makes a film intended to explain to Chloe how difficult it is to balance his passion for the cinema with his love for her. It’s sufficiently smart and funny to convince her – and us – that he might not be as unredeemable as we were led to believe. Like Paul, Quentin Laverty’s “Casting Me,” grows on you. That’s not a bad endorsement for a first feature from South Africa.
Much the same can be said about another first feature from IndiePix, Eric Trenkamp’s “American Bomber.” Michael C. Freeland is terrific as John Hidell, a disgraced ex-soldier, whose brother was killed in the war, leaving him with very little reason to live and even less cause for loyalty to the flag. His mission, if not his motivations, has been tipped to the FBI, but, for now, agents are maintaining their surveillance from a distance. They not only need to keep a well-hidden bomb from exploding somewhere in New York, but also discover who’s calling the shots. The John Hidell we meet is the classic loner, with a chip on his shoulder. Although we aren’t encouraged to like or empathize with him, exactly, Trenkamp wants us to see him as a human capable of feeling something beyond hate and despair. He gives Hidell an option to carnage in the form of Amy (Rebekah Nelson), a divorced bartender at a dive bar. She’s fun to be with and pretty lonely, herself. Hidell’s connection senses his change in attitude and gives him an out. It would require him to disclose the location of the bomb, something he’s reluctant to do. Complicating the issue for us, however, is the lack of clear motivation, beyond simply being pissed off at the army and wanting to take out as many people when he presses the button. He doesn’t read the Koran in his spare time or tote a prayer rug with him. It isn’t until the very end of “American Bomber” that the target is revealed. It surprised me, at least. Credit goes to Trenkamp for fleshing out a character, Amy, we care about as much as the protagonist does. Simply by being herself, she could get sucked into someone else’s nightmare. It will be interesting to see what Freeland and Nelson could do in a more traditional movie.
Chloe (Evelyne Brochu) is a young Canadian doctor working in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, where she treats pregnant women at a rundown, always packed clinic. Each day, she’s required to pass through the concrete “fence,” separating the citizens of Jerusalem from “the terrorists,” as Palestinians are generically referred to by Israeli politicians. Sometimes, Chloe is accompanied to the checkpoint by her only close Israeli friend, Ava (Sivan Levy), a member of the security forces who carries a machine-gun to work. Chloe’s closest friend on the Palestinian side is Rand (Sabrina Ouazani), a woman she’s met and treated at the clinic. The closer she gets to both women, the more she realizes how difficult it is to live in such different worlds. In Jerusalem, Chloe and Ava are free to boogy the night away in skimpy outfits and drink or smoke whatever she has a taste for, while Rand’s world is distinguished by modest clothing, chadors and blind subservience to the men in her life, all of whom appear to be linked to one militant group or another. A turning point for Chloe comes when a boy with whom she had just engaged in horseplay is killed by the driver of an armored personnel vehicle, simply for hanging on to the truck’s windshield grill and making faces at him. Although she’s been warned to stay neutral in dealings with people on both sides of the fence, witnessing the boy’s death first-hand causes her to go native. In the company of Rand’s older brother, Chloe even agrees to paste propaganda posters, containing the boy’s image and a radical statement, on walls of the camp. Quebecois director Anais Barbeau-Lavalette really does a nice job dramatizing the schism that slowly begins to divide Chloe’s world. “Inch’Allah” was largely shot in Jordan, but one never feels very far removed from the shadow of the concrete barrier. Indeed, even when Chloe’s personal ordeal eventually begins to defy credulity, we’re left with the heartbreaking image of little Palestinian boy in a Superman outfit, chipping away at the wall, just to get a glimpse of what’s on the other side. Bonus material adds deleted scenes and “Nous Sommes,” a short film by cinematographer Kevin Papatie.
Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story
In this rough-hewn bio-doc, Gardner Doolittle adds several new dimensions to the story of a true American hero and patriot, Jimmy Doolittle, aviation pioneer and Congressional Medal of Honor winner. Besides being his cousin’s greatest fan, Gardner produced, wrote, directed and served as on-camera narrator of “Wings of a Warrior: The Jimmy Doolittle Story.” Known primarily for commanding the April 18, 1942, raid on Japan, Doolittle spent his entire adult life flying prototypes and engineering safer, faster and more efficient airplanes. Many Pentagon officials believed that it would be suicidal to launch 16 B-25s from the deck of a USS Hornet on the edge of Japan’s security zone and not running out of gas before accomplishing the mission or getting shot down. If it weren’t for cooperative Chinese soldiers and citizens, it’s likely that far more than three crew members would have died and another eight captured by Japanese soldiers stationed in China. (Three of them executed as war criminals.) In the search for missing American airmen, including Doolittle, the Japanese killed some 250,000 Chinese, both as a reprisal for helping us out and a warning to others.
Initially, Doolittle saw the mission as a failure, because none of the 16 B-52s would ever make the trip back to the U.S. Unknown to him, shell-shocked American citizens and media hailed the heroic raid as payback for Pearl Harbor and the first good news to emerge from the Pacific Theater. Damage to Japanese military and industry targets may have been minimal, but it caused the country’s top brass to pull back ships from Southeast Asia to defend the country and prepare for the Battle of Midway, which resulted in a decisive early defeat for Admiral Yamamoto. The documentary covers the raid in some detail, while only touching lightly on the less-positive results. What it does best is fill in the blanks in the Doolittle story ignored in other movies. They go back to 1917, when he took a leave of absence from UC-Berkeley to enlist in the Signal Corps Reserve. Despite the many deaths of pilots in test flights, in anticipation of WWI. Doolittle garnered a reputation as being reckless to the point of being suicidal. Not only did he possess the “right stuff,” however, he practically invented it. What “Wings of a Warrior” lacks in polish, pizazz and freshly sourced material, it more than makes up for in facts, anecdotes and archival photos and newsreel footage. Doolittle retired from Air Force duty in 1959, but served the country in various ways for many years thereafter.
Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers
There was nothing elegant or sophisticated about the thieves dubbed “The Pink Panthers” by international police agencies after a series of heists that netted tens of millions of dollars in diamonds and jewelry. None of the men we meet in “Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers” resemble David Niven or Cary Grant, even if the women in the gang were expected to look and act like movie stars on scouting missions. Gang members were recruited from the ranks of soldiers who fought in the nationalistic wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. They operated with military-like precision, only staying long enough in a shop to smash a few display counters and open a safe they already knew could be cracked in a jiffy. They also knew that the safest place for them to retreat was back home in a region dominated by smugglers, black marketeers and corrupt officials. No job was too remote from their Montenegro base and finding someone to forge documents was child’s play. They made big hauls from jewelers in London, Cannes, Tokyo and other world capitals, then disappear. The security-camera footage that opens “Smash & Grab” was taken at a swank mall in Dubai, where the thieves rammed a nearly matched pair of BMWs through two sets of doors, including the one ostensibly protecting the store from break-ins. After a couple of minutes, the drivers blew the cars’ horn and the inside-men responded as coached, escaping through the same mangled doorways. The footage is as exciting to watch as most Hollywood movies in which such crimes are re-created and the characters shoot everything in sight. Director Havana Marking (“Afghan Star”) employs several different techniques here, including animation, media coverage, disguised criminals, actor voiceovers and security footage. Although several of the thieves were rounded up after the Dubai job and extradited to the cities hit previously, many more Panthers are believed to remain at large. There’s always time to face charges in the Emirates. Meanwhile, the stolen jewels can be found on the fingers, arms and necks of some of the world’s most pampered women. It’s really quite a yarn and as good as any Hollywood heist picture in a long time.
This fascinating examination of a 2,000-year-old enterprise, suddenly gone mad, is as entertaining as it is informative. As the title suggests in more than one way, “Red Obsession” tells the story of Bordeaux wine and how, for centuries, it has played a role in determining a vintner’s place in the oenological universe. Ironically, possession of boxes of the best bottles, determine the status of Chinese billionaires no longer strapped to the yoke of communism. Apparently, Chairman Mao’s ideas for a workers’ state and status-free society no longer count for much. Among the big spenders we meet here are the world’s leading supplier of sex toys and a hugely successful manufacturer of toy dolls. The filmmakers didn’t ask if any of their sweatshop employees will ever be able to afford a case of MD 20/20, let alone a sip of Château Lafite Rothschild, but we know the answer to that one already. In the time it took David Roach and Warwick Ross to complete their film, the Bordeaux vintners experienced two seasons of unprecedented good fortune and the Chinese gobbled up the inventory as if it were on sale at Trader Joe’s. Two years later, almost like clockwork, the bubble in Chinese sales burst, leaving a lot of people in a quandary about what to do next. In between boom and bust, planting vineyards had become a cottage industry in China and high prices had driven Americans and Brit investors out of the Bordeaux game. Along the way, “Red Obsession” takes us behind the scenes at crucial grading events, to historic chateaux and the homes of several of the world’s wealthiest men, the cellars of the finest restaurants and along a search for the site of the next Napa Valley. The anecdotes told about what a desperate host or restaurateur might do to score a bottle of Lafite border on the hair-raising.
Saturn 3: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for such marquee attractions as Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, writer Martin Amis, composer Elmer Bernstein and director Stanley Donen — who took over after co-writer/director John Barry either fell seriously ill, quit or was fired — “Saturn 3” might have found its way to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” by now, if not forever forgotten. Instead, more than three decades later, it’s been given a nice Blu-ray polish by Shout!Factory and spiced up with bonus featurettes. Although Barry had served as production designer on “Superman,” “A Clockwork Orange” and the first “Star Wars,” he was in over his head as a director of actors. Neither, though, was Donen conversant with sci-fi conventions. If “Saturn 3” had been a musical, the director of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Damn Yankees!” and “The Pajama Game” might have had a fighting chance with the flimsy script. Even so, “Saturn 3” is far from unwatchable.
Keitel plays a deranged astronaut, who, upon failing a mental-fitness test, kills a more stable astronaut and steals his spacecraft. He flies it to the Saturn 3 moon base, where Douglas and Fawcett have been left alone to frolic like sex-starved rabbits among the gardens grown to feed an overpopulated Earth. It isn’t clear what the astronaut has in mind for the outpost on the ringed planet, but it has to be something diabolical. From the first moment he locks eyes with Fawcett, Keitel becomes obsessed with stealing her from Douglas. When the astronaut isn’t hitting on her, he’s working on an 8-foot-tall robot that resembles Crow T. Robot on “MST3K.” Let’s assume the robot is being built to make life easier for Keitel on Saturn 3, in whatever it is he’s doing, but there’s a problem. Keitel has programmed it to mimic everything going on in his mind and perform any task he can imagine. The more Keitel obsesses over Fawcett, the faster the robot’s metallic heart beats for her. Likewise, when Keitel’s thoughts turn to killing Douglas, so, too, does the robot’s computerized brain plot his demise. At the point where Keitel begins to fear the robot, and imagine how it could be neutralized, the robot follows suit. Once we understand what’s going on between Keitel and the robot, the easy to see how “Saturn 3” could possibly work as a closed-door thriller, with the colonizers attempting to outwit the astronaut and its maker through non-verbal communication. Amis’ script falls way short of being that profound.
At the time of production, Douglas was a still buff 64, while the 33-year-old Fawcett looked as insanely hot as she did when she rocked the red bathing suit in her career-making cheesecake poster. To witness them simulate sex, half-nude, in their comfortably appointed space bedroom, isn’t nearly as nausea-inducing as it was watching Woody Allen romance Mira Sorvino in “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan.” When they decide to drop a fantasy-enhancement pill — not unlike Ecstasy and a staple of any astronaut’s survival it – “Saturn 3” begins to border on the surreal. (A more trippy version of the scene appears in the bonus package.) Given Barry’s resume, it’s no surprise that the Saturn setting is extremely well rendered and loaded with space tchotchkes, ducts and cables that go nowhere, computer banks and metal corridors. In 1989, Fawcett still had a way to go before mastering her craft, but, here, all that matters is her hair, which deserved an Academy Award as a supporting character. Keitel looks as uncomfortable as Douglas seems happy just to be on the same lunar outpost as Fawcett. I couldn’t recommend “Saturn 3” as anything more than an oddity for sci-fi cultists. Pretending that you’re stuck on the Satellite of Love, sitting alongside the “MST3K” critics, is probably the easiest way to weather the experience and having a good time doing it. Audio Commentary is provided by Greg Moss and moderator Dave Bradley, whose claim to fame is the “Something is Wrong on Saturn 3″ website.
PBS: Secrets of the Tower of London/Scotland Yard/Selfridge’s
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: Season 2: Sean Brock
No matter how much the sophisticated travelers among us disparage tourist traps, most offer something worth experiencing at least once in a lifetime. Unlike celebrities, who receive special access to attractions ranging from blockbuster art exhibits to Disneyland, the average tourist frequently is required to wait hours in line for the privilege of sharing an exhibit with several hundred other mere mortals. There’s no sense complaining about the injustice, because the Kardashians of the world are always going to be treated better than the Smiths and the Jones. Fortunately, the creators of institutional and educational Blu-rays and DVDs have begun to exploit their technological advantage over VHS cassettes, souvenir catalogs and picture postcards, with visuals as sharp as tacks and more space for precious information. PBS’ “Secrets of the Tower of London,” along with the upcoming “Secrets of Scotland Yard” and “Secrets of Selfridge’s,” can’t take the place of an in-person visit to London, but an advanced preview could save you some time and energy on vacation. Unlike most souvenir-shop guidebooks, DVDs offer the kind of backstage access usually reserved for employees and researchers. I’ve stood in line to survey the wonders of the 1,000-year-old Tower of London, but, until watching the comprehensive “Secrets” tour, I was missing crucial context. In addition to the usual stops – the royal quarters and mint, armory, torture chamber, chopping block and ravens — the producers take us to exhibits-in-progress, the Beefeaters’ haunts, gargoyles that guard the tower from intruders and places we wouldn’t notice without a guide. The DVD also updates viewers on the historical significance of the landmark at different historical junctures, including World War II, when gardens grown in the empty moats helped feed Londoners and the buildings withstood the Blitz. Fans of the mini-series, “Mr Selfridge,” should enjoy adding the visual evidence of his department store’s grandeur found in “Secrets of Selfridge’s.” Ditto, “Secrets of Scotland Yard,” which opens the files of famous cases, as well as investigative technique that pre-dated Sherlock Holmes.
In the second season of “The Mind of the Chef,” James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock took on a culinary tour of the South. Instead of focusing on the tried-and-true stops covered in the tourist guides and culinary magazines, Brock is interested here in promoting traditional Southern food preparation, especially untold varieties of rice, beans and grains. Like host Anthony Bourdain, Brock enjoys his visits with every-day cooks as much as the time he spends with celebrity chefs. To merely suggest that “The Mind of the Chef” is a mouth-watering treat is to sell it short.
The Perfect Wedding
One byproduct of the legalization of same-sex marriages is likely to be a tsunami of rom/com/dram movies that’s sure to follow in its wake. Inevitably, too large a number of them will resemble the vast majority of Hollywood movies about weddings and, more specifically, the craziness that is necessarily a part of the planning process. As well-meaning and competently made as Scott Gabriel’s “The Perfect Wedding” may be, it mostly serves as a reminder of how un-shaped the sub-genre still is. It was created as a personal project of romance novelist Suzanne Brockmann and mystery writer Ed Gaffney, along with their their son, Jason Gaffney. At first glance, everything about “The Perfect Wedding” – except, perhaps, its minute budget – smacks of Hollywood wannabe. Far more mainstream than anything found under the “queer cinema” banner, it’s a film that probably wouldn’t be considered controversial in the Cheney household. That’s intentional, though. Gay or straight, there’s always been a ready market for movies that wrings laughs and tears from viewers familiar with the kind of tumultuous situations that threaten to ruin everyone’s wedding. “The Perfect Wedding” is meant to be inclusive in its reach, not limited by niche or demographic. Here, all of the crazy stuff takes place in advance of the decidedly hetero wedding of an attractive interracial couple with many close gay friends in common. When some of those friends and family members are asked to gather at the bride-to-be’s lovely oceanfront home, they carry with them several unresolved entanglements and concerns about such clouds on the horizon as a parent’s impending battle with Alzheimer’s, an overreaching wedding planner, the ghosts of alcoholism and past romantic entanglements. When “The Perfect Wedding” teeters on the brink of falling into a morass of maudlin melodrama, it’s usually saved by script that successfully avoids stereotypes. It simply treats all of the characters as equals. The Alzheimer’s angle is essential to the story, but not in an exploitative way. The presence of such veteran actors as James Rebhorn and Kristine Sutherland, among a cast of largely unknown actors, may be the biggest plus of all. I only wish that the filmmakers hadn’t gone to the lengths they do to tug our heartstrings The DVD adds a behind-the-scenes featurette, interviews and brief shout-out to the state of Florida.
Even in the LGBT community, Buck Angel is something of an anomaly. Born a biological female in 1972, Angel grew up in the San Fernando Valley with all of the usual characteristics ascribed to tomboys. Although there was more than enough testosterone to go around the household growing up, Angel couldn’t help but envy the leather outfits sported by his motorcycle-riding father. Once she reached puberty, however, it became increasingly difficult to lead a double-life at home, church and at school. While Angel continued to live out her teenage years as a girl, it was tortuous to the point of considering suicide. Instead of taking the kinds of drugs, she might have been prescribed in hormone replacement therapy, Angel decided to self-medicate with cocaine, alcohol and lascivious behavior. Because she retained all of her original parts, Angel was able to find work as a niche porn actor and fem fashion model. Finally, after nearly losing hope, she decided that by becoming a full-time he, life might be worth living, after all. When Buck decided that he was at his most confident as a “man with a pussy,” he had a double-mastectomy and began taking the hormone treatments that would allow him to grow facial hair and an enviable male physique. He continued to make and win awards for his performances in porn movies, but, this time around, Angel espoused “a message of empowerment through self-acceptance and being sexually comfortable in your skin.” In 2005, he performed in “Allanah Starr’s Big Boob Adventures,” directed by transsexual Gia Darling. It included a scene in which a “trans” couple has on-screen sex. It served as a launch point for Angel’s career as a transgender advocate, educator, lecturer, writer and talk-show guest. Largely covered with tattoos himself, Angel married professional body piercer and body modification enthusiast Elayne (Steinberg) Angel. For “Mr. Angel,” Dan Hunt followed Buck around for six years. It is greatly enhanced by the subject’s engaging, no-bullshit personality and the inclusion of scenes in which Angel and his parents sit around the kitchen table critiquing his appearance on talk shows and discussing things none of them would have been comfortable sharing in Buck’s teens.
Bunnies and twinks and bears … oh, my. Set largely in and around a cabin in the Catskills, Patrick McGuinn’s “Leather” is the queer-cinema equivalent of a Lifetime movie that can’t decide if it’s a rom-com or rom-dram. The movie’s set-up is far too unwieldy to summarize here, but, it involves two childhood friends — city-boy Andrew and country-boy Birch – who reunite after the death of Andrew’s father, Walter. After Walt kicked Andrew out of the house for being “queer,” he, in effect, adopted Birch as his son and, perhaps, lover. Together, they enjoyed a successful carpentry business and Birch learned how to make leather sandals. A true Nature’s Child, Birch is an unrepentant hippie and all-around nice guy. Andrew and his stereotypically effeminate lover, Kyle – as attached to a brown bunny rabbit as Andrew – assume that their weekend getaway will involve some garbage-clearing to get the place ready to sell. Instead, the cabin is clean and tiny and Birch is in possession of Walt’s will, leaving the property to him. The more Andrew learns about Birch’s relationship with Walt, the more he resents the presence of his old buddy. Birch truly believes that the acrimony between them can be diluted by an injection of peace, love and good vibes supplied by a lesbian puppeteer and some good mountain marijuana. You can probably guess the rest. As silly as it sounds, “Leather” is a harmless exercise in personal wish-fulfillment on McGuinn’s part. Moreover, the scenery is easy on the eyes and there’s a happy ending for everyone involved, including the bunny. The most annoying thing about “Leather” is musical soundtrack full of preachy folk songs that would have been booed off the stage at any 1960s hootenanny.
Dick Figures: The Movie
Sometimes, while watching Internet-born cartoon series, I feel as if I’ve been transported back to the early days of alternative animation, when such shows as “Ren & Stimpy,” “Beavis and Butt-head,” “The Simpsons,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Rugrats” turned the cable-television industry on its collective ears. Some of us geezers can remember, too, the sense of discovery we had when introduced to “Gerald McBoing-Boing,” “Rocky and His Friends” and “Fritz the Cat.” YouTube and other such Internet delivery systems have provided a platform the producers of those shows could only dream of having. Budgets remain high in relation to what “Jackass” imitators can do with the toys in their digital toy boxes. Still, when doled out in four-minute episodes on a loosy-goosey schedule, even production expenditures can be favorably monetized on cost-per-hit basis. Censorship and other interference remains practically nil on some outlets. “Dick Figures: The Movie” began life in Internet webisodes, but has grown to the point where its multitude of fans financed a feature-length product in a record-setting Kickstarter campaign. According to an iTunes blurb, “‘Dick Figures: The Movie’ tells the story of Red and Blue, best friends turned enemies, who hunt for the Great Sword of Destiny in order to save the world … and their friendship.” Red and Blue exist in world in which backgrounds are static and its stick-figure inhabitants are in identified by colors. Otherwise, everything that happens borders on the anarchic, just as does its kindred web-toon series, “Happy Tree Friends.” Equally mysterious is the presence of Red Raccoon, a photo-realistic representative of “nature’s ninja.” Not all of “Dick Figures” works, but, the same probably could be said about any entertainment vehicle.
Stone Roses: Made Of Stone: Blu-ray
Black Lips: Kids Like You & Me
US Festival 1983: Days 1-3
Rock bands, even the best of them, come and go with great regularity. I couldn’t name more than one song (“I Want to Be Adored”) made famous by Manchester’s Stone Roses, but somewhere between the early 1980s and now, its reputation reached mythic proportions across the pond. Even rumors of a reunion would cause a great stir among fans, promoters and members the rock press, who seemed more keen on a tour than the lads, themselves. Shane Meadow’s unusually concise rock-umentary, “Stone Roses: Made of Stone,” examines the band’s Manchester roots, influences, squabbling, breakups, resurrections and lavish reunion concerts. Clearly, if they hadn’t gotten caught up in the absurd ego trips and contract disputes that come with the territory, Stone Roses could have been a formidable unit. Just as the Madchester scene was distinguished by “acid-house” music best savored with Ecstasy kickers, the group’s blend of influences includes garage/punk/pop rock, Northern soul, the Beatles, Stones, Jimi, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Jesus and Mary Chain, Sonic Youth, Sex Pistols and the Clash. Meadows, whose credits include “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “This Is England,” has a writer’s eye for details not limited to what happens during rehearsal and on stage. The laser-enhanced images of one of the Roses’ triumphant homecoming gigs, before 220,000 people in two specific demographic groups, is really quite wonderful.
Likewise, I know next to nothing about the Atlanta-based blues-punk group Black Lips, who may be solely responsible for introducing mosh pits to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. In a region generally bypassed by rock’s top attractions, the band is the closest thing to western superstardom seen there since the Grateful Dead played the Pyramids. That’s because the fans we meet in “Black Lips: Kids Like You & Me,” have been deprived of performances by artists that have appeared in Israel. There’s also the constant threat of terrorism, censorship, fundamentalist reprisals, revolution and errant Scud missiles. I mean, why bother. It took three years, from conceptualization to actuality, for the Black Lips to make good on their plans for touring the region and, even then, they faced constant roadblocks. Neither did the musicians know what to expect when the doors of the nightclubs opened. Although much has been made about the inability of young people to express themselves, Black Lips fans turned out in bunches and ready to party. Outside of some anachronistic messaging on T-shirts, the crowds would have fit right in at every nightclub on the Sunset Strip. They also found a complementary opening act in Lebanese indie rockers, Lazzy Lung. Director Bill Cody does a nice job of contextualizing “Kids Like You & Me” by following the rockers to radio interviews, skate parks, restaurants and shops, and places where the events of the Arab spring were still reverberating.
Two of the major concert events of the early 1980s that I somehow managed to ignore – or simply forget – were the US Festivals, held outside San Bernardino, on Labor Day weekend 1982 and Memorial Day weekend 1983. They were sponsored by Steve Wozniak, who conceived of the festivals as both a big party and a showcase for new Apple products and other computer technology. Because of the lingering effects on pop culture from Altamont, non-charity festivals were few and far between. US demonstrated that large numbers of music lovers could come together in blistering hot conditions and not riot between acts or cannibalize each other for provisions. It looked like fun. Each day of the festivals, the bands were grouped by genre, from heavy metal to country. Three deaths were recorded in the six days of festivities, but, apparently, they weren’t associated with the music, itself. Very little recorded music or video footage from the festivals has been exploited commercially. The acts on the inelegantly titled “US Festival 1983: Days 1-3” include U2, the Clash, Judas Priest, Stevie Nicks, Scorpions, INXS, Men at Work, Stray Cats, Triumph, Missing Persons, Scorpians, Berlin and Quiet Riot, which is represented with more songs than any other group. The acts that didn’t make the cut could fill a wing of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Former MTV veejay Mark Goodman looks back on US, but offers very little in the way of insight beyond calling it cool and awesome, a lot.
Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters: Season Three
Another chapter in the history of mankind closes with the completion of the final season of “Transformers Prime: Beast Hunters,” which aired here on the CW and Hub networks. If nothing else, it will keep fans busy until the hype leading to next spring’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” begins. Here, the Autobots and their human comrades have been separated, following the destruction of their headquarters and neutralizing of Optimus Prime and his team. Making things difficult for the good guys is the arrival of Decepticon Shockwave and his newest weapon a clone of Cybertron’s Predaking. The voice cast includes Peter Cullen, Jeffrey Combs, Kevin Michael Richardson, Ernie Hudson, Clancy Brown, Frank Welker, Michael Ironside, George Takei, Gina Torres, Peter Mensah and Will Friedle.
Fox ‘Voice Your Choice’ winners
Last January, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Home Theater Forum gave Blu-ray owners and classic-movie buffs an opportunity to select the next wave of titles the studio would digitally restore and send out in hi-def. The response, Fox reps declare, was “overwhelming.” In what sounds like an election in Chicago, where dead people are allowed to vote twice, more than 42,000 participants cast 80,000 votes. Originally, the goal was to release the winning title from each of four decades, but Fox decided, instead, to release both the winning and runner-up film. All titles will be available for purchase on www.foxconnect.com, including “Cavalcade,” the film that received the most write-in votes and was sent out in August.
“Jesse James” (1939) is a revisionist look back at the infamous James Gang, starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. As entertaining as it is historically inaccurate, the blockbuster was shot in an old Technicolor process. “Call of the Wild” (1935) is a loose adaptation of Jack London’s classic adventure, this time with Buck, the sled dog, required to share Clark Gable’s affections with Loretta Young. (The stars were carrying on an affair at the time and it kind of shows.) Jake Oakie and Reginald Owen are wonderful in key supporting roles.
“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947): Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ fantasy romance pairs a lonely widow (Gene Tierney) with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison) she meets in the seaside home of her daughter (Natalie Wood). George Sanders is the living, breathing human who threatens to come between them. Swashbuckling Tyrone Power and tempestuous Maureen O’Hara provide the romantic spark in “The Black Swan” (1942), which otherwise is known for its elaborate sea battles and buccaneer backstabbing. The script was written by Ben Hecht and the color by Technicolor.
For her smoking-hot performance in “Carmen Jones” (1954), Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actress in a Leading Role. The all-black cast also included Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Harry Belafonte, Brock Peters and Marilyn Horne, as Ms. Jones’ singing voice. The credit for the wonderful music goes to Georges Bizet and Oscar Hammerstein. “Desk Set” (1957) finds Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy at odds, once again, this time at a major television network about to be computerized. The movie was adapted from William Merchant’s play by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, parents of Nora, Delia, Amy and Hallie Ephron.
In the rousing comedy-adventure, “North to Alaska” (1960), John Wayne and Stewart Granger bring us back to the Great White North, this time, in the form of the Alaskan gold rush. Also along for the ride are Fabian, Capucine and Ernie Kovacs. Some might recall Johnny Horton’s big hit of the same title. Wayne is back in “The Undefeated” (1969), a post-Civil War Western drama largely set in Mexico. His rival-turned-ally is played by Rock Hudson. Together they must attempt to avoid getting caught between Mexican revolutionaries and government forces. Among the supporting cast are L.A. Rams stars Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen.