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The DVD Wrapup: A Perfect Day, Daughter of Dawn, Bridgend, Kill Zone 2, Muriel, Crimes of Passion, Bad Moon and more

Wednesday, July 20th, 2016

A Perfect Day: Blu-ray

I don’t know if Joseph Heller’s great wartime satire “Catch-22” was translated into Serbo-Croatian, then passed around by a future generation of filmmakers in former Yugoslavia under Tito’s nose. It seems that it was, since so much of Heller wrote about the futility of dictating the terms of waging war would be repeated in movie after movie in the wake of the thoroughly illogical Bosnian conflagration. They would include such absurdist depictions of the conflict as Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land, Pjer Žalica’s Fuse and Srdan Dragojevic’s Pretty Village, Pretty Flame. (Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo told a similar story, but from the perspective of several battle-hardened journalists.) In his theatrical films and documentaries, Spanish writer-director Fernando León de Aranoa directly addresses issues – unemployment, prostitution, shattered dreams, refugees, solidary deaths – usually reserved for low-budget indies here. He’s been nominated for some of the top awards the cinematic world has to offer, but has yet to make a dent in Hollywood. His Balkans-set black comedy, A Perfect Day, is based on a novel by Paula Fariasa, a writer and doctor who’s worked for Doctors Without Borders and witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. It should have been León de Aranoa’s ticket to acclaim beyond the Spanish-speaking world, but, after making the nearly year-round circuit of festivals, A Perfect Day opened in a handful of U.S. theaters to almost no business. This, despite a cast that includes Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, Melanie Thierry, Olga Kurylenko – all working at the top of their game – and several actors known primarily in eastern and southern Europe. The setting is 1995, presumably in Bosnia-Herzegovina, over the course of 24 hours. A truce has been called, but no one on the need-to-know list – the combatants – is prepared to honor it. Knowing that cease-fires can be as dangerous as periods of full-out war, an international team of relief workers makes its appointed rounds with an eye out for such potential hazards as the carcass of a booby-trapped cow in the middle of a road and insurgents who were more interested in settling scores than laying down their guns.

The picture opens with veteran aid workers Mambrú (Del Toro) and B (Robbins) riding in separate vehicles to the site of a possibly poisoned well, on a desolate mountain top location in a still-contested territory. In their radio exchanges, the two men engage in the type of gallows humor usually reserved for crime scenes, executions and natural disasters. Here, it’s also employed to test the mettle of newcomer Sophie (Thierry), whose specialties include water systems and sanitation. They are joined by a savvy Bosnian interpreter Damir, (Fedja Štukan), and, later, Mambrú’s former girlfriend Katya, a war correspondent. The team is responding to a report of a dead body found in a well. Its presence could very soon contaminate the water supply for everyone living in the area, no matter their nationality. Just as the body is about to be extracted from the well, the rope bringing it to the surface breaks. Nobody in the immediate vicinity is willing give the aid workers a hand by offering them even a worn stretch of rope or admitting that such a thing is available anywhere in the area. The belligerent proprietor of a general store, located several arduous miles away, refuse to admit that they have rope to sell, even as several coils are pointed out to him. Rope will become available soon enough, but under circumstances any sane person would have avoided. By this time, the team has been joined by a boy, Nikola, that Mambrú saves from bullies who’ve stolen his soccer ball. Upon their return, the team is greeted by peacekeeping forces who forbid them from using the rope to recover the body. The corpse, they explain, may carry a bomb and, if so, it would have to be defused first by a completely different set of experts, who would need to be dispatched by a higher-ranking team of UN officials. In any case, aid workers aren’t allowed to touch dead bodies.

 

Using logic that might have made Heller wince, the soldiers reject Sophie’s argument that, by the time such authorization could come, the well would be forever contaminated. And, so it goes. A simple act of humanitarian aid becomes so snarled in bureaucratic gobbledy-goop that it’s possible nothing good ever will come from the volunteers’ best intentions. Even so, León de Aranoa really does a nice job keeping the narrative from bogging down in bureaucratic banter and despair. In the hours that follow the confrontation, he’s able to round off the drama with a similarly surreal negotiation between the boy and his antagonists and a night’s-long standoff with another possibly mined cow on a lonely mountain road. The restless natives are keenly rendered by the supporting characters and extras, who look as if they might have lived through the same war being depicted. Alex Catalán’s frequently spectacular cinematography captures the starkly majestic mountain terrain, which, apart from its beauty, shouldn’t have been worth the loss of a single life. The final irony comes in knowing that in war, especially, no good deed goes unpunished. The Blu-ray adds some worthwhile making-of material and interviews.

 

The Daughter of Dawn: Blu-ray

Last year, Milestone Films released on Blu-ray Edward S. Curtis’ remarkable 100-year-old drama, In the Land of the Head Hunters, the first feature-length film created with and starring members of the Kwakiutl tribe of British Columbia. (Still, one of a small handful of movies so produced.) Its story, set before Europeans arrived on the North Pacific Coast, described a warrior’s spiritual journey of love won and lost, and of a battle between tribes to save his bride. Considering that the film was largely unknown outside academia and film-restoration community, its unveiling was considered to be quite an event. Seventeen months later, Milestone has pulled a second rabbit out of its hat, this time with the feature-length Western, The Daughter of Dawn, a rediscovered 1920 film shot in Oklahoma entirely with members of the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. It was lovingly restored at UCLA’s film lab for the Oklahoma Historical Society, which negotiated for years with a private detective who had accepted it in return for services rendered and finally settled for a few thousand dollars and a substantial tax break. In addition to the visual facelift, a new score was composed and recorded by the student orchestra at the Oklahoma City University School of Music. Unlike most Westerns, which focus on the interests, history and crimes of white settlers and outlaws, The Daughter of Dawn, features an all-Native American cast of 300 Kiowas and Comanches. Set in the surprisingly scenic Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma, it showcases a romantic rivalry for the hand of the title character (Esther LeBarre, in her first and only role), a buffalo hunt, hand-to-hand combat, horsemanship, dances, deceit, courageous acts and scenes from everyday life. The Native American actors, who in 1920 had been living on reservations for less than fifty years, brought with them their own tipis, horses, clothing and memories. The story was directed by a young director, Norbert Myles and written by Richard E. Banks, who had spent 25 years living with various tribes and may have been influenced by an actual incident concerning the daughter of a great chief, whose hand in marriage was coveted and fought over by the greatest warriors of two tribes. The Blu-ray package includes interviews with restorers, historians and Native American women who recall aspects of the shoot. There also are featurettes on the music composed for the restoration.

 

Bridgend

Every so often, the American media will glom onto a subject like teen suicide and milk from it as much misery, dubious meaning and genuine compassion as they can, before moving on to the next headline-making tragedy. The teen-suicide epidemic of recent years has been blamed on bullying, especially on Internet networks, and such things as peer pressure, social rejection, drugs, body shaming and abusive parents. Celebrities have been enlisted for public-service announcements and awareness campaigns targeted specifically at at-risk teenagers and bullying has been condemned in numerous movies and TV shows. In the May 14, 2012, edition of People magazine, a couple of dozen photos of young suicide victims accompanied the article, “A Tragedy in Wales: A Small Town Mystery.” It would be followed a year later by John Michael Williams’ little-seen documentary, Bridgend, and, two years later, Jeppe Rønde’s hair-raising dramatization of the same title. For his first fictional work, Rønde spent six years traveling between Denmark and South Wales, where, by February, 2012, 79 people between the ages of 13 and 41 had committed suicide by hanging. The UK press didn’t wait for People magazine to declare the suicide cluster a disaster of unforeseen magnitude. Indeed, the parents of one of the dead teens accused the media of “glamorizing ways of taking one’s life to young people,” while MP Madeleine Moon said that the media were “now part of the problem.” Any way you look at it, the Bridgend suicides made for a hell of a story. That, and the fact that no one could figure out why so many kids and young adults were killing themselves in a serene borough with a population of just over 100,000. Rønde’s Bridgent describes what happens when teenage Sara (Hannah Murray) arrives in the town with her policeman dad, Dave (Steven Waddington), who’s been sent there to investigate the situation. At first, Sara has as much trouble adjusting to the small-town environment as her father finds gaining the confidence of the locals. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Sara finds comfort in a defiant young tough who introduces her to the ritual outdoor wakes that follow each new hanging. The more Dave tries to keep Sara from seeing the young man, the more entwined she becomes with the kids in the creepy cult. Rønde appears to be more interested in atmosphere than answers in Bridgent and, to this end, it succeeds as drama and speculative fiction. Hannah Murray, who fans of “Skins” will remember as Cassie, steals the show as the impressionable Sara. (Murray has also been good in “Game of Thrones” and the underseen musical drama, God Help the Girl.)

 

The Perfect Match: Blu-ray

After directing music videos for Britney Spears, Celine Dion, R. Kelly, Tony Braxton and Luther Vandross, Bill Woodruff carved a niche for himself making rom-coms and comedies, including Honey and Beautyshop, targeted at so-called urban audiences. He’s since bounced between TV and theatrical projects, with a second sequel in the “Honey” series scheduled for later this year. What his latest romantic dramedy, The Perfect Match, lacks in originality and logic, it makes up for in a sexy cast of familiar African-American actors. Terrence Jenkins (Think Like a Man) portrays Charlie, a playboy, music agent and Internet photographer (isn’t everyone?), who lives on the beach and has recently discovered that his circle of friends has tightened with every new marriage. He doesn’t see himself as marriage material, so his friends Rick (Donald Faison) and Victor (Robert Christopher Riley) challenge him to date only one woman for the weeks leading up to Victor’s approaching wedding. This doesn’t seem likely, either, until he meets the exotic beauty, Eva (Cassie Ventura), who turns the tables on him by insisting that she’ only interested casual sex. Normally, this would be like Christmas in July for such a world-class playa like Charlie. Because it’s the woman who prefers sex over substance, however, the playboy magically changes his tune about commitment. If it weren’t for the instant analysis provided by Charlie’s shrink sister, Sherry (Paula Patton), his dilemma could have been overshadowed by a series of melodramatic turns staged for his other coupled friends (Dascha Polanco, Lauren London, Brandy Norwood, Kali Hawk) and a business relationship with the real-life rapper French Montana and his boss (Joey Pantoliano). If the characters are so universally young, good-looking and successful here that it defies our ability to suspend disbelief, well, check out the last 30-40 years of Hollywood produced rom-coms. Neither has that’s ever stopped anyone from watching other made-for-Lifetime or -BET movies or reading romance novels. Meanwhile, Woodruff has sufficiently mastered the formula to ensure fans of the subgenre a swell time.

 

Kill Zone 2: Blu-ray

It isn’t often that a balls-to-the-wall action picture from China, with a stopover in Thailand, wins the widespread applause of mainstream critics. John Woo, Zhang Yimou and Tsui Hark have done pretty well in that regard, as did Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, which made numerous year-end Top 10 lists. Unlike Kill Zone 2 (a.k.a., “SPL II: A Time For Consequences”), however, those pictures told actual stories and weren’t required to rely on martial arts to advance them. To impress American critics, even those second-stringers relegated to reviewing genre flicks, the fight scenes really have to rock and that’s exactly what “KZ2” offers. Contrary to what its title suggests, it is related to Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s 2005 SPL: Kill Zone strictly by inference and the return of Hong Kong actor Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior), albeit playing a different character. He’s joined on the marquee here with Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), a ferocious multidiscipline fighter from Thailand and son of elephant herders. He plays a principled Thai cop, Chatchai, who moonlights as a prison guard after learning that his daughter needs a bone-marrow transplant. Wu plays an undercover Hong Kong cop and potential marrow donor, Kit, who, after his cover is blown, somehow lands in Chatchai’s facility. After they nearly destroy each other in a jailhouse fight, the two men form an alliance against crime boss Mr. Hung (Louis Koo), who’s running a kidnapping and organ-theft ring. While Chai is determined to keep Kit alive for the sake of his daughter’s health, the warden, Ko (Jin Zhang), wants him dead to ensure the smooth operation of the prison. The facility turns out to be a front for Mr. Hung’s organ-trafficking business, which is run from a building next-door to the prison. The only reason we care about the story at all is the presence of Chatchai’s daughter, who, despite battling leukemia, keeps all of the kids and nurses in the ward smiling. It’s the balletic fighting and stunt work that counts most of all. Credit for that goes to Chung Chi Li (Rush Hour), Ken Lo (The Legend of Drunken Master) and Jack Wai-Leung Wong (Four Assassins). “KZ2” may not always make sense, but it’s all in fun. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

 

Muriel, or The Time of Return: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

There are foreign-film buffs among us who will insist they understand the films of French director Alain Resnais and can tell you exactly what they mean … if you have a few hours or days to spare listening to theories as abstract as the movies themselves. Last Year in Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour have baffled American audiences and film-school students for more than a half-century with their unconventional narrative techniques and themes addressing consciousness, memory and the imagination. He would tackle more accessible topics in the political drama La guerre est finie, but not before delivering a similarly difficult intellectual exercise in the less widely distributed, Muriel, or the Time of Return, a film that demanded a working knowledge of recent French history, as well as an appreciation for Resnais’ elliptical style. In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther opened by saying, “Perhaps there are those who can follow the scattered clues in the devious mystery that Alain Resnais has thrown together in his new French film. … But, I am not one.” He didn’t dismiss “Muriel” out of hand, or try to convince readers to save their money. Crowley simply advised caution, by waving a white flag. Other critics, though, have admitted to admiring “Muriel” more than Resnais’ more recognized titles. His first film in color, “Muriel” can most easily be described as the story of some emotionally damaged people — former lovers and men who returned home scarred from very different wars — set in a city being rebuilt after being destroyed during World War II. At its heart is a terrific performance by Delphine Seyrig, who also played “the woman” in “Marienbad” and widowed housewife, part-time prostitute in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. As proprietor of a high-end antiques shop in the seacoast town of Boulogne, Hélène is surrounded by other people’s memories during the day and, at night, those of her own creation. Are they reliable? Maybe, maybe not. Resnais’ style allows for both options. The Criterion package, representing the first upgrade in many years, adds 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; excerpts from the 1980 documentary “Une approche d’Alain Resnais révolutionnaire discret” and a 1969 interview with Seyrig; 1963 interview with composer Hans Werner Henze; new interview with film scholar François Thomas, author of “L’atelier d’Alain Resnais”; a new English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar James Quandt.

 

COMIX: Beyond the Comic Book Pages

OUTATIME: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine

I can’t think of any major Hollywood figure as generous with his time as pop-cultural pioneer Stan Lee, who, at 93, readily consents to interviews with reporters, while also mentoring aspiring comic-book writers, attending countless conventions and fan events, and making cameo appearances in live-action pictures. Given Hollywood’s current dependency on comic-book characters for box-office fodder, it’s safe to say that his presence will be felt in the entertainment industry long after he’s gone to that big Comic-Con in the sky. For the time being, however, Lee continues to pop up with regularity on the documentaries churned out with regularity on the art of creating, drawing, writing, selling comic books and exploiting superheroes for fun and profit. It wasn’t always such a walk in the park for Lee, as the industry has experienced more than its fair share of upheavals and legal battles, but, right now, he’s sitting on top of his worlds. The documentary Comix: Beyond the Comic Book Pages is Michael Valentine’s first film and, while the subject is overfamiliar, by now, it doesn’t feel derivative or terribly redundant. Besides rounding up the usual gang of artists and writers – easily available at conventions – Valentine consults collectors and other passionate fans, cosplayers and geeks. Bonus features include extended scenes and outtakes and a second disc devoted to hour-long interviews with Lee and Frank Miller.

 

Sometime during the run-up to Universal’s 30th-anniversary salute to its Back to the Future franchise, co-creator/co-writer/co-producer Bob Gale noticed, or was made aware of the fact, that the story’s entire reason for existing was literally gathering dust in the Universal backlot and slowly being stripped of its parts by souvenir scavengers. The original DeLorean Time Machine not only was showing its age, but it also was disappearing before the eyes of fans, executives and backlot security officials. Studios have made a science out of recycling costumes, props, wigs, vehicles and backdrops, but the idea of preserving this singular automobile probably wasn’t on the top of anyone’s mind back in the 1980s and early-1990s. It probably was a hundred times cheaper to fabricate a DeLorean than to invest in restoring one. Steve Concotelli’s OUTATIME: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine chronicles every step in the restoration process, from convincing Universal it would be a cool thing to do as part of the festivities, to hire a crew, sweat out a tight deadline and get Shaw’s thumbs’-up if they meet it. The team compiled by Joe Walser committed itself to restoring the Time Traveler with 100 percent accuracy and attention to detail. Replacing the stolen parts would be the hardest part of the job. As impressive as the yearlong process is, however, there are times when viewers will feel as if they’ve tapped into a cabal of “BTTF” nerds, who nearly pee in their pants with every new discovery and step forward. If that sounds cruel, you’ve probably never been to a Comic-Con, where you’re surrounded by geeks committed to making you to feel out of place for not wearing a costume or taking selfies in front of posters and memorabilia displays. The package adds material from the unveiling of the finished product at the Petersen Automotive Museum, where it currently sits.

 

Crimes of Passion: Special Edition: Blu-ray

In the 1970-80s, no director’s name was as synonymous with movies that challenged the status quo as Ken Russell. After specializing in documentaries about music and dance for the BBC, he joined the on-going sexual revolution with an erotically charged adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Woman in Love. For the next two decades, he made deliberately provocative films that combined artistic disciplines and could hardly be more visually arresting. He pulled out all the stops for an over-the-top adaptation of the Who’s “Tommy,” with some of the most popular actors and rock singers on the planet, and sandwiched it between eyebrow-raising biopics of Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Gustav Mahler, Franz Liszt and Rudolph Valentino, which merged lurid sexuality with music, art and splendid set and costume designs. I don’t think any of them, except Tommy, were profitable, but some of us enjoyed the spectacle, anyway. The 1980s began with Paddy Chayefsky (Network) being so unhappy with Russell’s treatment of his screenplay for Altered States that he demanded his name be taken off the finished project. The zeitgeist-capturing psycho-thriller played into the period’s obsession with finding keys to self-awareness through pseudo-scientific and quasi-religious treatments, including sensory-deprivation chambers and hallucinogens. Despite the bad vibes, it received some very positive reviews, probably made some money and went on to become something of a cult hit. Next would come Russell’s thinly disguised satire of American sexual mores, Crimes of Passion, in which Kathleen Turner played Joanna, a strait-laced sportswear designer by day and $50-a-trick streetwalker by night. China’s well-known on the stroll for her long blond wig and willingness to entertain the occasional freak, including a demented street preacher played with gusto by Anthony Perkins.

 

Private dick Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) is hired by Joanna’s employer to investigate whether she’s selling designs to a competitor, but all he turns up is a desire to sleep with China. After 12 years of marriage to a woman (Annie Potts) who’s lost her interest in sex, Bobby’s ready to try something new. It turns out that China/Joanna is, as well, but Perkins’ Rev. Peter Shayne wants to redeem her soul before she meets her maker. It’s absurd, made worse by the studio’s insistence that Crimes of Passion be edited to support a R-rating. (You can find some of the deleted material in Arrow Film’s bonus package.) Most interesting to me, however, is composer Rick Wakeman’s soundtrack, which is based entirely on Antonín Dvorák’s “From the New World” Symphony and takes repeated liberties with its familiar refrains. It would be a long time between plum assignments from there on in for the director, although his completely freaky The Lair of the White Worm, based on a Bram Stoker story, also became a bona-fide cult classic. In 1991, he revisited street-level prostitution in L.A. with Whore, starring Theresa Russell (Black Widow). Some believe that he made it in response to Pretty Woman, a modern fairytale about a struggling Beverly Hills working girl for which the studio demanded a happy ending. The crisp Crimes of Passion Blu-ray has been accorded a new 2K restoration, which benefits Russell’s sometimes garish color scheme, and commentary with the director and producer-screenwriter Barry Sandler; seven deleted/extended scenes with optional commentary by Sandler; a new interview with Sandler, recorded especially for this release; home-movie footage of Russell visiting Florida for a retrospective screening at the 2009 Orlando Film Festival; reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and an illustrated booklet containing new writing by Russell’s biographer, Paul Sutton, correspondence between Russell and Kathleen Turner, and an on-set interview with Russell. The package contains, as well, high-definition and standard-definition presentations of the director’s cut and unrated versions of the film.

 

Bad Moon: Blu-ray

While watching the Scream Factory re-release of Eric Red’s werewolf thriller, Bad Moon, I thought that it was a pretty good example of a mid-1980s monster-as-slasher picture. If it weren’t for a scene with partial nudity and some gory lupine attack footage, it seemed consistent with a lot of PG-13 pictures in the genre. It wasn’t until later, watching the bonus material, that I figured out that Bad Moon actually was released in 1996 – well after the start of the CGI revolution — and cuts were made to prevent it from being branded NC-17. A few more trims probably would have brought the R down to PG-13, but, what would be the point? The distributor wasn’t going to spend much money on promoting the release, anyway, and extended displays of boobies and blood played well in the cassette after-market. And, as sometimes happens, Bad Moon actually did find new life in VHS and DVD. The Blu-ray goes one better by restoring the cuts made for the original release, while offering even longer versions of the same scenes presented separately in footage that looks as if it might have been copied from material that’s sat on a shelf too long. Of course, a copy of the original theatrical edition also is included in hi-def, in addition to the director’s cut. The offending scene takes place early, when photojournalist Ted Harrison (Michael Pare) is shown taking a break from his work, making out with his girlfriend in a canvas tent. We’re made aware of the presence of an evil being when the horses begin to freak out and natives get restless. Soon enough, a werewolf slashes its way into the tent, assaulting the topless babe (Johanna Marlowe Lebovitz) with grievous intent. The monster is shot by one of the less fearful guides, but not before the woman is killed and the photographer is infected with the monster’s saliva. Flash forward a couple of years and Ted is back in the U.S.A., camped alongside a pristine lake in Oregon taking pictures. Someone had just been murdered in the vicinity, but he invites his sister (Mariel Hemmingway), her young son (Mason Gamble) and the family German shepherd to visit him, anyway. In anticipation of a full moon, Ted takes the precaution of chaining himself to a redwood. It doesn’t fool the family dog, upon whom the sight of a helpless monster leaves a lasting impression. Timing in at a brisk 80 minutes, Bad Moon adds one or two neat twists before leaving room for a sequel at the end, if it had done any business … which it didn’t. The 35-minute making-of featurette, “Nature of the Beast: Making of Bad Moon,” offers new interviews with Red, Pare, Gamble and special effects wiz, Steve Johnson; a couple of commentary tracks; the unrated opening scene from the Red’s first cut, sourced from VHS; and three storyboard sequences.

 

Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise

Ruben Blades: The Return of Ruben Blades: Blu-ray

For those who think reggae became an irrelevant musical genre after the death Bob Marley, and weren’t willing to sample the work of his talented children and grandchildren, Volker Schaner’s head-bobbing documentary, Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise, will come as a revelation. Loyal fans already aware of reggae and dub’s continued vitality should have a ball becoming reacquainted with Perry, one of the singular and influential forces in the history of popular music. Schaner has spent the last 13 years attempting to get a handle on the eccentric 80-year-old’s philosophies, theories, beliefs, art, politics and music. It took the filmmaker not only to Kingston, the fire-scarred Black Ark studio and his ancient mother’s country home, but also stopovers in England (a.k.a., Babylon), Switzerland and Ethiopia, where Perry traces the roots of the Rastafarian religion and explains his ongoing battle to rid the world of Satanic influences. Here and there, Schaner illustrates Perry’s testimony with cartoonish depictions of the devil, animated interstitials and short films possibly inspired by Yellow Submarine. Jamaica, from the mountains to coast, looks great and Perry’s religious art is fascinating. (It could be dismissed as wonderfully fanciful if the artist wasn’t there to explain its significance and meaning to those who believe that the world can be saved through music and the sacramental use of ganja.) Casual fans of reggae and Jamaican culture will almost certainly find much of “Vision of Paradise” to be several million miles too far out for their tastes. Others will think it makes perfect sense, especially when accompanied by the music. Also sprinkled throughout the film are interviews with musicians and fellow producers, black and white, who attest to Perry’s non-mystical talents. It would be interesting to discover what happens when Perry and Sun Ra meet in heaven … or some other celestial body. The DVD arrives inside a 24-page book, with a 30-minute making-of documentary, director’s comments and over two hours of additional unseen scenes.

 

Just as salsa and other Afro-Cuban music goes in and out of style with fickle non-Latin audiences here, interest in the whereabouts of singer/musician/actor/activist/politician Rubén Blades tends to rise or fade depending on how visible he is in the mainstream media. Until the nearly concurrent releases of the Grammy-winning “Buscando América” and Leon Ichaso’s indie hit, Crossover Dreams, Blades was known primarily for his work with the New York-based salsa ensemble, Fania All-Stars. Robert Mugge’s music-filled documentary, The Return of Ruben Blades, also shot in 1985, followed the baby-faced 36-year-old home, after earning a master’s degree in international law from Harvard Law School. His dance card would be filled with assignments from Hollywood, recording and touring for most of the next 30 years. In 2015, Blades’ album “Tangos” won a Grammy award for Best Latin Pop Album and he’s currently a cast member of “Fear the Walking Dead.” Like most of Mugge’s other films, “The Return” is equal parts history, biography and performance. An aspiring politician, Blades also used the film to discuss politics and Yankee cultural imperialism, without taking any direct shots at General Manuel Noriega’s corrupt regime. (He would also be profiled on “60 Minutes,” by Morley Safer.) The soundtrack is heavy on songs from “Buscando América” and includes a discussion of the origins of “Pedro Navaja,” inspired by “Mack the Knife,” his socially conscious song about the life and death of a murderous street hustler.

 

The Bible Stories: Jacob

The Bible Stories: Joseph

The latest installments in Shout! Factory’s reintroduction of executive producer Gerald Rafshoon’s “The Bible Stories” series are “Jacob” and “Joseph.” Once again, the productions benefit from attention to period details, decent budgets, big-name actors and Saharan locations. In the Book of Genesis story of family treachery and reconciliation, “Jacob,” directed by Peter Hall, the cast includes Matthew Modine, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sean Bean, Irene Papas, Christoph Waltz, Giancarlo Giannini and Joss Ackland. The musical score was composed by Ennio Morricone and Marco Frisina. Academy Award winners Ben Kingsley and Martin Landau top the cast of “Joseph,” with support from Paul Mercurio, Lesley Ann Warren, Dominique Sanda, Alice Krige and Monica Bellucci.

 

TV-to-DVD

Daniel Boone: Collector’s Edition: Season One

Bitten: The Final Season

Secrets of the Dead: Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings

America’s Test Kitchen: Season 16

Caillou: Caillou Goes for the Gold

Collected episodes from the long-running NBC series, “Daniel Boone,” have appeared in DVD previously, but weren’t nearly as easy to find and enjoy as TMG/Shout’s upgraded release, “Daniel Boone: Collector’s Edition: Season One,” which includes all 29 episodes in glorious black-and-white. (The second and subsequent seasons were shot in color.) By this time, Fess Parker had earned the right to wear a coonskin cap wherever and whenever he wanted by playing Davy Crockett in the eponymous 1950s’ Disney mini-series. Parker would once again don the racoon-skin chapeau for the NBC series, which ran from September 24, 1964, to September 10, 1970, accumulating 165 total episodes. Shot in Kanab, Utah, and several different California locations, “Daniel Boone” portrayed the Kentucky frontiersman as a family man, first, and only then a surveyor, farmer, trapper, statesman and militia leader. Season One takes places in the years before the Revolutionary War, when British officers negotiated with Native American tribes to take sides against the colonials. Ed Ames famously played Mingo — Boone’s half-Cherokee Oxford-educated friend and ally – who could fling a tomahawk as well as he could sing opera (except on the “Tonight” show). Boone’s wife, Rebecca (Patricia Blair), son Israel (Darby Hinton) and daughter Jemima (Veronica Cartwright), often were asked to behave as if they were modern-day sitcom characters, helping dad welcome visitors to Boonesborough and fretting when he didn’t come home on time for dinner. Despite the absence of Indians in most roles, the storylines tried to do some justice to Native American history and customs, even if they couldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Antiquated as it is, “Daniel Boone” remains reasonably entertaining and, for kids, an introduction to early American pseudo-history.

 

The third and final season of the Canadian-made werewolf drama, “Bitten,” took the storyline into very strange places, indeed. To keep the narrative moving forwardly, Elena, the world’s only female werewolf, was introduced to a father and half-siblings she never knew existed. While consumed with investigating the veracity of their claims, Elena and her pack were forced to deal with a merciless pack of Russian werewolves, anxious to do what their forebears couldn’t accomplish during the Cold War. As such, Season Three deviated from the direction taken in the first two stanzas, by adapting a duty-vs.-family, Alpha-vs.-Alpha theme. “Bitten” was based on the “Women of the Otherworld” series of books, by author Kelley Armstrong. It was produced as an original series for the Space network and picked up here by Syfy. The extras include the featurette, “A Look at the Final Season,” as well as deleted and extended scenes.

PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” always takes viewers to places they didn’t know they wanted go, like catacombs, tombs and ancient burial grounds. In “Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings,” the producers address a mystery that’s bugged archeologists for a long time: the location of the final resting place for the greatest of Aztec kings. The show follows a team of international scientists documenting their exploration of royal tombs far beneath the surface of the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán. When archeologists discover evidence of a sacrificial chamber beneath the famous Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, they find the clues that may finally reveal a secret society of executioners.

 

PBS’ “The Great Polar Bear Feast” provides an extraordinary example of neighborly cooperation, as well as more alarming evidence of the effects of global warming on two endangered populations. Every year, normally solitary polar bears gather in large numbers of 80 or more at Kaktovic, Alaska. The polar bears are waiting for the feast left for them by Inupiat residents who’ve just bagged one of the three bowhead whales they’re entitled to harvest each year. After they pick the carcass clean of edible meat, the residents haul the skeleton to a pile of weathered bones on the shore, where the bears and their cubs will feast on the leftovers. It’s quite a sight.

 

Caillou, the PBS Kids’ series by way of Canada’s Treehouse TV, is based on the books by Hélène Desputeaux. It centers on a 4-year-old boy who is fascinated by the world around him. In “Caillou: Caillou Goes for the Gold,” Caillou and his friends appear to be getting a head start on the Olympics, as they participate in such activities as soccer, running, karate, baseball and swimming. With patience and practice, Caillou becomes more confident as he gets better and stronger.

The DVD Wrapup: Everybody Wants Some!!, Allegiant, Belladonna, Van Gogh, Mecanix, Green Room, With Child, Dark Horse and more

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!: Blu-ray

Best viewed as either an extension or follow-up to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! once again explores the rites of passage attendant to post-Vietnam American youth. It describes how teenage boys, specifically those raised in Texas, take their first giant steps into manhood, demanding their independence from parental authority, while trading one nest for another, all to a soundtrack of whatever rock music was on the radio at the time. That so many of us recognize ourselves in Linklater’s characters and depictions of the coming-of-age process – mostly told from a young white male point of view — speaks to the commonality of experience in a nation homogenized by stimuli provided by the mass media. The stoners and slackers in Austin, circa May 1976, were then and still are interchangeable with those in Madison or Spokane, while Mason’s boyhood journey resonated with anyone who grew up outside major cities at a time when divorce was commonplace and adults couldn’t be counted upon to serve as role models. Typical of Linklater’s stories, a girl or young woman will emerge as a catalyst for change in the life of the male protagonist, but, by and large, he keeps them in the background. At best, it’s a way to demonstrate how females mature faster than males, but are no match for their aggressively stupid behavior in testosterone-heavy settings. The focus in Everybody Wants Some!! is on a houseful of college athletes – ranging from incoming freshmen to out-going seniors — left to their own devices over the course of a long weekend before the first day of classes. The adult supervision is provided by a coach who briefly visits the house and warns them against dissipating their energy before realizing the glory of a team championship. It’s 1980 at a generic college in south Texas, four years before President Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Everyone is free to drink until they puke or ruin someone else’s life in a traffic accident. Drugs are every bit as prevalent as they were in “D&C.” Even though some of the ballplayers will be drafted by a Major Leagues team and given an opportunity to excel at the next level – under stricter adult supervision – others will enter adulthood as alcoholics and might-have-beens. It’s easy to imagine the characters we meet in Everybody Wants Some!! reuniting in an Austin bar, five years later, singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” while soon-to-be wealthy computer geeks and other onetime outcasts try desperately to ignore their caterwauling.

The protagonist here is Jake, an incoming freshman pitcher, who arrives on campus with the Knack’s “My Sharona” blasting away in his car. Like most freshmen, Jake probably would have benefitted from spending a semester or two in an on-campus dormitory, but, at the school’s Baseball House, he’s surrounded by guys destined to owe more to Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson, in “D&S,” than Derek Jeter. Jake, who one girl immediately pegs as “the quiet guy in the back seat,” quickly falls into line with the upperclassmen in their unsupervised revelry, demented hazing rituals and pursuit of mindless sex. School is still 48 hours away, so it’s easy to cut them some slack. Linklater wants us to see in Jake the kid who conceivably could rise above the hijinks and carve a path for himself on or off the diamond. Fortunately, he’s sufficiently self-aware to realize that college life might offer slightly more than one-night stands and baseball. He succeeds in re-connecting with Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the theater major who picked up on his quiet demeanor and may actually be as talented in her chosen discipline as he is in sports. Jake allows her to open his eyes to things he might have completely missed – including a party at which Beverly’s classmates act out their personal eccentricities while in “Alice in Wonderland” drag — if he had limited his horizons to the make-out room on the second floor of the Baseball House. If Beverly seems a bit too perfect a fit for Jake at this juncture in his life, it fits with the role played by other women in Linklater’s films. After a night fully spent getting to know each other, Beverly makes sure Jake makes it to his first lecture, during which he succumbs to exhaustion and falls asleep alongside a fellow team member. The unusually eclectic mix of male characters in Everybody Wants Some!! reminded me of the soldiers we meet in World War II movies, with each platoon member representing a different nationality, regional background, religion and personality. (Tellingly, only one African-American player, one Hispanic and no Native American are on the Cherokees’ roster.) The ensemble work is excellent, whether the characters are partying, sharing insights on life or preparing for the coming season. Some of the actors are seasoned, while others were handpicked during auditions for their athletic skills and potential as fictional teammates. The 1980s fashions and mustaches are appropriately grotesque. All caveats aside, Everybody Wants Some!! should provide a couple hours of boisterous fun for anyone who survived the 1980s with wits and livers intact. The Blu-ray adds “Everybody Wants Some!! More Stuff That’s Not in the Movie”; “Rickipedia,” on the writer/director’s verbal quirks; “Baseball Players Can Dance”; “Skills Videos,” taken during the auditions; and “History 101: Stylin’ the ’80s,” on the various steps taken to assure the film’s period look.

The Divergent Series: Allegiant: Blu-ray

Fans of the first two installments of “The Divergent Series” need to know that the anemic performance of Allegiant won’t prevent the final chapter to be released next year. This time, however, it is scheduled to open on June 9, 2017, a date that affords the studio two additional months to make sure Ascendant doesn’t look as rushed into theaters as Allegiant did. Blessed with 20/20 hindsight, Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer admits that the studio wanted to hit nearly the same March release date that he believes benefitted Insurgent and Divergent, even though the second didn’t do as well as the first. Allegiant would clock in a year later with half the domestic take as Divergent, a sum that might have killed a less visible franchise. Because overseas sales have remained reasonably consistent throughout, Lionsgate pushed its luck by bifurcating the finale of Veronica Roth’s bestselling YP trilogy. It worked for The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga, so why not? Such cynically conceived financial ploys are rarely rewarded with enthusiastic reviews or audience support. That’s because the semi-sequels mostly repeat information and characters from the previous chapters and substitute chases, pyrotechnics and set pieces for story refinement. Returning director Robert Schwentke doesn’t waste any time putting the film’s best foot forward, in the form of an escape from dystopian Chicago over an electrified wall the scale of which Donald Trump has pledged for our border with Mexico. When Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), Tori (Maggie Q) and a few other militants reach the top of the barrier, it becomes clear that the wall and Bureau of Genetic Welfare (housed within the ruins of O’Hare Airport) are separated by a lifeless toxic wasteland. (Forget for a minute that the airport actually is part of Chicago and a mere 18-mile train ride connects the Loop to the massive facility.) They are rescued from their pursuers and the poisonous terrain by transports that offer maximum protection from the elements. Once ensconced, Tris and Fore soon learn that residents – under the command of Jeff Daniels – are just as hung up on factional purity as everyone else. Even at two hours, Allegiant feels like nothing more than a prelude to Ascendant. The basic Blu-ray package adds commentary with Producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher; and featurettes “Allegiant: Book to Film,” which briefly discusses the adaptive process and decision to split the book into two films (described by a crew member as “treading water”), “Battle in the Bullfrog,” “Finding the Future: Effects and Technology,” “Characters in Conflict,” “The Next Chapter: Cast and Characters” and “Building the Bureau,” a look at how O’Hare was supposedly retooled for a new purpose. It’s also being released in a 4K edition; a Target exclusive DigiBook, with bonus disc; and Best Buy exclusive SteelBook.

Belladonna of Sadness: Blu-ray

Nominated for the Golden Bear Award at the 1973 Berlin International Film Festival, its taken 42 years for Eiichi Yamamoto’s lushly illustrated and graphically erotic Belladonna of Sadness to arrive in the United States. Audiences here weren’t sheltered from X-rated animation at the time, or such midnight-movie head trips as Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet and Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, Fritz the Cat, The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat and Coonskin. Osamu Tezuka and Eiichi Yamamoto’s Cleopatra: Queen of Sex made a brief landing in the U.S. in 1972, but Yamato’s One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Hiroshi Harada’s Midori didn’t even warrant that much attention here. Yamamoto, whose early credits also include Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion, based Belladonna of Sadness on Jules Michelet’s theoretical 1862 text, “Satanism and Witchcraft,” which remains notable for being one of the first sympathetic histories of witchcraft and the secret religion inspired by paganism and fairy beliefs. The illustrations unfold as a series of psychedelic watercolor paintings, which bleed, twist together and are informed by Tarot cards, paintings by Klimt, Delacroix, Degas and Kandinsky, John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” and J.R.R. Tolkien fantasies. In it, Jeanne and Jean are happy newlyweds in a rural village. Their idyll is shattered, when, on their wedding night, Jeanne is raped in a ritual deflowering by the local baron and his lackeys. Although Jean attempts to assure her of his unconditional love — “Let us forget everything in the past” — she begins to see visions of a phallic-headed spirit encouraging her to use newly acquired black powers to take revenge on the baron. As the couple’s fortunes improve, the baron raises taxes to fund his war effort. Jean is made tax collector and the baron cuts off his hand as punishment when he cannot extract enough money from the village. After another visit from the spirit, Jeanne takes out a large loan from a usurer and sets herself up in the same trade, eventually parlaying it into becoming the true power in the village. When the baron returns victorious from his war, and his wife, envious of the respect and admiration accorded Jeanne, calls her a witch and has her driven out. She finally makes a pact with the spirit, who reveals himself to be the devil, from whom she is granted considerable magical powers, and uses them to lead a rebellion in the village. On its Japanese release, Belladonna of Sadness made so little money, it took down its production company. Rape, mutilation and other transgressive sexual behavior weren’t at all uncommon in Japanese art disciplines in the 1970s – Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses would provide further evidence of that – but, even so, some of it is still difficult to take. The restored Blu-ray edition includes original trailers, new interviews with director Eiichi Yamamoto, art director Kuni Fukai and composer Masahiko Satoh and a 16-page illustrated booklet featuring Dennis Bartok’s essay “Belladonna of Sadness: Lost & Found.”

Van Gogh: Blu-ray

In 1992, Maurice Pialat’s revisionist take on the last 60 days of Vincent Van Gogh’s life had the distinct commercial misfortune of being released less than two years after Robert Altman’s splendid Vincent &Theo. That both of these critically acclaimed art films timed in at well over two hours might have something to do with the lukewarm response at the box office. It’s more likely that the collective memory of Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn’s star turns in Vincente Minnelli’s brilliantly photographed Lust for Life, 25 years earlier, trumped a very good performance by Tim Roth, still a year away from his breakthrough performance in Reservoir Dogs. If each of the three films offers a different take on the artist and his various conditions, the paintings exist in a world of their own. Pialat, himself a skilled painter, elected to offer a more contextual approach to artist’s final weeks. After leaving the asylum in Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh (Jacques Dutronc) settles in Auvers-sur-Oise, a quiet and pretty little village north of Paris. It allows him to be near the summer home of Doctor Gachet, an art lover and patron recommended by his brother. For the most part, Vincent seems downright happy to be there and shows it by being extremely productive. It takes a little time getting used to a convivial Van Gogh. Pialat does an especially nice job matching various scenes to such easily recallable paintings as “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” “Wheatfield with Crows,” “Woman in the Cafe Tambourin’,” “Marguerite Gachet in the Garden” and “Marguerite Gachet at the Piano.” The last two are significant because of Pialat’s contention that the artist and Gachet’s daughter (Alexandra London) – likely in her late teens – consummated an affair that other historians argue was merely wishful thinking on her part. Despair over her father’s reaction to their affair, along with Van Gogh’s growing mistrust of his brother, Theo, may have led directly to the artist’s nearly botched suicide. Something else viewers will notice is the presence of both ears attached on Vincent’s head. Pialat believes, with some historical backing, that he didn’t actually sever the appendage, but merely took swipes at it with a razor. Among the wonderful set pieces are revelries with prostitutes at a riverside picnic and inside the Café Tambourin. The working girls appear to enjoy his presence and he certainly appreciates their hospitality. Once again, the scenery couldn’t be any lovelier. Van Gogh was nominated for 12 César awards, taking home one for Dutronc’s performance in the lead role. The excellent Cohen Media Blu-ray adds interviews with Dutronc, once referred to as “a dilettante of music,” actor Bernard Le Coq and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; deleted scenes; and original and re-release trailers.

The Preppie Connection

There are several good reasons for teen scholars not of the manor born to look beyond the elite prep schools of New England and settle for something just as good nearer to home. They’re made perfectly clear in Joseph Castelo’s old-fashioned cautionary tale, The Preppie Connection. No matter how much an outsider brings to the table, the insatiable greed and bred-in-the-bone sense of entitlement displayed by the legacy students will always trump good grades, hard work and a winning personality. Here, the lamb being led to slaughter is blue-collar scholarship student, Tobias Hammel (Thomas Mann), who makes the mistake of falling for the resident WASP princess, Alexis Hayes (Lucy Fry). In a desperate attempt to impress her, he smuggles $300,000 of uncut cocaine into the dormitories of Choate Rosemary Hall School, in his Connecticut hometown, to be carved into lines and hoovered up the nostrils of the elite school’s leading clique of trust-fund babies. Toby began to be noticed when he supplied some killer pot to his classmates, who were afraid to approach street dealers on their own. He really caught their attention when he offered invest their allowances into a trip to Colombia with a fellow student – the son of a diplomat — and return with a fake Inca figurine loaded with primo flake. Toby even had money left over to help his parents save their house from foreclosure. One trip led to another, until Alexis traded her arrogant boyfriend, Ellis Tynes (Logan Huffman), for a round-trip ticket to Colombia with Toby. (The cartel era had yet to take over the international cocaine trade, leaving it to foolhardy freelance traffickers.) You can probably guess what happens next. It’s too bad Toby wasn’t paying attention when hubris was being taught in English lit, because Lady Alexis’ presence would inspire his suppliers to raise the ante by adding kidnapping to their criminal resumes. Although they managed to avoid being held for ransom by the skin of their teeth, they aren’t able to dodge the DEA agents waiting for them at JFK, after being ratted out by a petulant Ellis.

While Castelo doesn’t demand that we sympathize with Toby, he does make a solid case against poor and working-class kids entering into temporary alliances with more privileged classmates, unless a get-out-of-jail-free card is part of the deal. The person who inspired The Preppie Connection, which takes great liberties with the truth, survived the ordeal largely intact. Derek Oatis was interviewed on “60 Minutes” by Ed Bradley, before being sentenced to five years’ probation and 5,000 hours of community service. (His real-life ex-girlfriend received three years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.) If he had been tried before a judge in a New York court, the penalty for selling two ounces or more of heroin, morphine, opium, cocaine or cannabis was a minimum of 15 years to life in prison. Oatis and his girlfriend were both expelled from Choate, along with the 12 students who gave them money for cocaine. (It would be interesting to learn those names.) Instead of being warehoused behind bars, alongside other poor and minority convicts, Oatis now practices criminal law in Connecticut and is a prominent animal-rights activist. Thirty-plus years after Scarface and “Miami Vice” forever changed the faces of drug kingpins to a deeper shade of brown, hundreds of smuggling-themed movies have come and gone, making the events described in The Preppie Connection seem like an inconsequential fraternity prank. (Contemporary George Jung, portrayed by Johnny Depp in Blow, finished a 20-year bit in prison only two years ago. The subject of Mr. Nice, Welsh cannabis trafficker Howard Marks, was sentenced to 25 years in jail and given a $50,000 fine, ultimately serving seven in a federal prison.) It makes me wonder why Castelo even bothered to revisit a comparatively ancient scandal that was forgotten almost as soon as it began. The Preppie Connection does have its moments, though, including a narrow escape from kidnappers anxious to tap into Alexis’ inheritance and capturing the stench of entitlement that permeates such institutions.

Gorilla Bathes at Noon

No one captured the absurdities of life behind the Iron Curtain with more precision than filmmakers based in Yugoslavia. The Czech New Wave enjoyed its moments in the sun, but, when the government cracked down on free expression, the light wouldn’t return for decades to come. Under Tito, the forced integration of ethnic cultures ensured creative diversity, while repressive and often contradictory government policies forced artists to develop a thick skin and sense of humor that camouflaged their bitterness over being treated like children one minute and political prisoners the next. Filmmakers shared ideas with their Western European counterparts and Americans working in Yugoslavia on projects affordable only by combining cast and crews. This wasn’t yet the norm in countries that reported directly to Moscow. Along with Emir Kusturica (When Father Was Away on Business), Goran Paskaljević (Cabaret Balkan) and Srđan Dragojević (Pretty Village, Pretty Flame), Dušan Makavejev found audiences for their work outside Europe. The ferocity of the wars that followed in the wake of the Yugoslavia’s disintegration prompted filmmakers to respond to the insanity with inky black comedies that reflected how strange it was for longtime friends, neighbors and in-laws to suddenly become bloodthirsty enemies. The only thing these people had in common was a dependency on the black-market economy and disdain for the blue-helmeted peacekeepers who weren’t up to the task of restoring harmony or maintaining ceasefires. Makavejev emerged years earlier from the Black Wave movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Widely admired outside Eastern Europe, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism was banned in Yugoslavia due to its exploration of the relationship between communist politics and sexuality, as seen through a prism of theories advanced by controversial Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. (In 1956, FDA officials demanded the destruction of Reich’s “orgone accumulators,” even going so far as to incinerate his private library.) After a seven-year hiatus, he tackled more conventionally black comedy in Montenegro and The Coca-Cola Kid. Another lengthy break from filmmaking would lead to the thoroughly offbeat 1993 comedy, Gorilla Bathes at Noon, newly revived by Facets Video. Critics saw it as a welcome return to form for Makavejev, primarily because it spoke directly to the uncertainty of life for Eastern Europeans forced to adjust to capitalist economics and democratic politics after a nearly a half-century of Soviet-style communism. Their newfound freedom wasn’t turning out quite the way it was depicted in the western media.

The protagonist of “Gorilla” is a Soviet army major, Lazutkin (Svetozar Cvetkovic), who missed the train that hauled his Red Army comrades back to Moscow. He exists in the temporary no-man’s land separating the soon-to-be-unified East and West Berlin. When Lazutkin tries to reach his wife, back home, he discovers that she’s deserted him and relinquished their apartment to a stranger. In a very real sense, the penniless and inadvertently decommissioned officer is a self-imposed exile, waiting to discover if he’ll turn west or east when the merger of opposing cultures begins. Characteristically, Makavejev intercuts the removal of a long-standing statue of Lenin with clips from the 1945 Soviet combat film “Fall of Berlin,” a patriotic dramatization of the Red Army’s capture of the Reichstag on May 2, 1945, and the celebration that followed the last traces of resistance. Stalin, who appears to be made of wax, arrives to salute the victory and diversity of the soldiers who participated in it. Back to the present, Lazutkin surveys the still largely desolate eastern landscape on a white two-wheeler bicycle, from which the now-meaningless flag of the USSR hangs limply. Sometimes he dons his military uniform for trips through the city. At other times, he adopts the casual look of an American tourist, perhaps to see if Berliners will react to his choice of clothing, one way or another. He doesn’t mind being busted for vagrancy, because considers the food in the West Berlin jails to be better than anything in Moscow. Lazutkin also makes friends with a zookeeper, who allows him to hang around while he tends to the needs of the big cats and apes. They, too, are served better food than what he could expect in post-war Moscow. He steals as much fruit and raw meat as he can carry, while riding his bike, and shares with his cronies in a makeshift camp where the black market thrives. While engaging in a stare-down with a caged tiger, Lazutkin asks himself, “Am I dreaming of him or is he dreaming of me.” He mimics the gestures, eating habits and facial tics of a great ape and, when necessary, scales the side of a skyscraper for a good night’s rest. In this way, Gorilla Bathes at Noon reminds me of Karel Reisz’s 1966 absurdist comedy, Morgan, in which a working-class British artist (David Warner) has an emotional breakdown after his upper-crust wife, Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), leaves him for a bourgeois art dealer (Charles Napier). To compensate, the wildly eccentric Morgan dons a gorilla outfit and stalks Leonie as if he were King Kong in Manhattan. Makavejev allows us to form our own opinions about Lazutkin’s dilemma and where he might belong after the last chunk of the concrete wall that once divided Berlin is broken into small pieces to be sold as souvenirs.

Marguerite & Julien

Every so often, a beautifully rendered film reaches these shores, almost daring American audiences to look sympathetically at a subject they might otherwise avoid like the plague or turn away from in disgust. The 1960s arthouse favorite, Elvira Madigan, for example, was partially marketed as the most gorgeous movie ever made about doomed romance and shared suicide. Incest isn’t as taboo a subject as it probably once was, especially during era of the Production Code, but rarely is love between siblings accorded the picture-postcard treatment it receives in Valérie Donzelli’s Marguerite & Julien. Working from a script originally written by Jean Gruault (Jules and Jim, Wild Child) for François Truffaut, a narrator relates their story to a group of orphans as if it were a dark and tragic fairytale … once upon a time, a brother and sister fell in love, but were prohibited from living happily ever after … that sort of thing. Gruault’s screenplay was, in turn, based on the true story of Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet (Anais Demoustier, Jeremie Elkaim), the son and daughter of the Lord of Tourlaville, who tested the limits of what 17th Century society would accept and were executed on charges of incest and adultery. Early on, their elders recognize the siblings’ unusually close relationship and do what they can to interrupt its progress. Distance doesn’t staunch their love, however, and neither do time and fear of punishment. Indeed, absence only makes their reunion more passionate. The fairytale setting derives from being shot in in Ile-de-France and at the Ravalet Castle on the Cotentin Peninsula. As if to appeal to the same crowd that embraced Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Donzelli throws in some anachronistic visuals and music.

Mecanix

Originally shown in 2003 at the Lausanne Underground Film Festival and rarely seen since then, Mecanix is definitely the product of a troubled mind. If dreams could talk, this one would scream. Single-time filmmaker Rémy M. Larochelle, a product of French-speaking Quebec, has created in Mecanix a cluttered stop-motion environment in which skeletal, clay and mechanical beings dwell within the cadavers of dead animals and the “last freeborn human.” To me, anyway, the tiny critters mimic what scientists must see through their electron microscopes during biopsies and extreme virology experiments … or the films of the Brothers Quay, E. Elias Merhige and Shin’ya Tsukamoto. The story, such as it, describes what happened when the last human beings were enslaved by these strange creatures and it was determined that within one of them dwells the “embryo of the universe” or, if you will, the seed of life. Somehow, the embryo is found inside a strange bird, instead, creating panic among the “mechanics.” Don’t ask. Not all of the underlying metaphysics and symbolism make a great deal of sense. At times, real actors appear against a backdrop of precisely animated clay figures and drawings. More than anything else, however, Mecanix exists as a visual and sonic experience. Casual fans of sci-fi and horror probably won’t take away much from it, while those attuned to avant-garde and experimental cinema very well might.

Model Hunger

Hand the reigning straight-to-video scream queen a camera, script, miniscule budget and access to an all-star cast of C- and D-list actors and the end-product might look something like Debbie Rochon’s grisly freshman feature, Model Hunger. With an on-screen resume that’s approaching 250 roles, Rochon has endured practically every exploitative abuse imaginable, outside of the various hard-core fetish categories, anyway. This includes starring roles in several Troma classics. Wisely, she doesn’t let the apple fall far from the tree in her first stab (pun intended) at the genre that made her famous. Rochon’s first good decision was to hire Lynn Lowry (The Crazies, Cat People), who’s been in the business 12 years longer than her. Her character, Ginny (Lowry), remains bitter over a modelling career that ended prematurely when photographers and their clients decided that normal-sized women no longer were capable of persuading consumers to buy cosmetics and expensive clothes. Ever since, the deeply embittered and insecure suburbanite has preyed on neighborhood girls – cheerleaders, included – who have shown up at her doorstep. Adding fuel to her fire, Ginny is addicted to “Suzi’s Secret,” a shopping- network show hosted by Suzi Lorraine (House of Manson) that condemns body-shaming, while promoting products that add tonnage. Despite the rising body count, no one suspects Ginny until Tiffany Shepis (Sharknado 2: The Second One) and her husband Carmine Capobianco (Bikini Bloodbath) move next-door and smell a rat … or something. Model Hunger has done very well critically within the genre media and at fan festivals. Curiously, most of the nudity is limited to scanty underwear and very brief T&A. Maybe, Rochon was hoping to attract more women to the extreme-gore niche. The bonus material adds commentary; a music video; a self-interview by co-star Aurelio Voltaire; a Babette Bombshell video, “Nasty Nibblin'”; deleted scenes with Rochon and Troma honcho Lloyd Kaufman; and an Easter egg, featuring an isolated music track by Harry Manfredini (Friday the 13th).

Green Room: Blu-ray

We’ll never know how many box-office dollars can be attributed to the presence of Anton Yelchin in the indie thriller, Green Room, or what his recent death could mean for sales in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD. It did reasonably well in theaters and received some positive critical buzz, as well, so anything’s possible. Yelchin’s boyish charm is on full display here, as bassist in a dime-a-dozen punk ensemble, the Ain’t Rights, so desperate for gigs they accept a sketchy last-minute gig at a decrepit Oregon roadhouse. They probably should have called it quits when the bassist, Pat (Yelchin), was forced to siphon gas from a car to get there, but their devotion to their art demanded they persevere. Ironically, the Ain’t Rights find themselves in front of a dance floor filled with skinheads and neo-Nazis. In true punk form, they open with the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” It might not have been the most prudent way to get the rough-and-ready audience pogo-ing, but they eventually warmed to the transgressive sound. After making it off the stage in one piece, the Ain’t Rights take a break in a room in which a young skinhead girl has just been brutally murdered. Oops. Imogen Poots plays the victim’s friend, Amber, who, likewise gets trapped inside the green-painted room and is threatened by the club owners. The rest of Jeremy Saulnier’s 95-minute third feature, following the very promising Murder Party and Blue Ruin, involves the band members’ attempts to escape the nightclub before the heavily armed and tattooed white supremacists can eliminate them as witnesses. Timing is everything in these sorts of adventures and Saulnier manages to ratchet up the tension without giving short shrift to any of the key cast members or disturbing the balance between cunning and violence. Also good here are Patrick Stewart, Eric Edelstein (Jurassic World), Joe Cole (“Peaky Blinders”), Callum Turner (“War & Peace”) and Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”). Lest we forget, Yelchin and Sir Patrick Stewart are veterans of the “Star Trek” series, playing Pavel Chekov and Jean-Luc Picard, respectively, while Poots and Yelchin appeared together in Fright Night. The bonus features were completed before the rising star’s death.

Stressed to Kill

It would be safe to assume that any director with the courage to take credit for a movie titled, The Masturbating Gunman (a.k.a., “Masked Avenger Versus Ultra-Villain in the Lair of the Naked Bikini”) is either beyond shame or suffering from an Ozploitation overdose. The statute of limitations having run out on that stinker, I decided to take a chance on Stressed to Kill, which the Melbourne native directed and co-wrote with first-time Tom Parnell. While, at first glance, it would be easy to dismiss the revenge thriller as a poor man’s remake of Taxi Driver or Falling Down, it wouldn’t be an accurate summation of what happens here. For two things, it starred cult-favorite Bill Oberst Jr. and a still appealing, if decidedly out of shape Armand Assante. While Oberst always sneaks up on audiences unfamiliar with his work, his 66-year-old co-star knows when to share the spotlight and when to pick up the ball and run with it. As a seen-it-all Florida police detective, Assante’s Paul Jordan is tasked with stopping a series of murders caused by poisoned blow darts – that’s right – and bring the perpetrator to justice. The movie really belongs to Oberst, who, you could say, plays the title character. His Everyman character, Bill Johnson, can’t seem to make it through a full day at work without encountering someone or something that triggers his anger issues. With his blood pressure at the boiling point, Johnson is a walking, talking, ticking time bomb of rage. The fuse is lit whenever he encounters the kind of nincompoops who can’t make up their minds after finally making it to the front of a long line; refuse to quit texting in a darkened movie theater; block his driveway and refuse to move; and extend his work day with illogical demands. In 2016 Florida, such abhorrent behavior not only is commonplace, but tolerated in fear of being murdered by the offender. The hook here comes when Johnson shares his feelings with a sympathetic friend, who suggests the primitive weaponry. At first, it would be difficult for viewers not to sympathize with Johnson, so heinous are the irritants. When Stressed to Kill gets really nasty, though, we realize that Savage has stacked the deck against two or three of the victims by overstating their offensive behavior. Nonethless, most viewers won’t mourn their passing. For his part, Assante’s detective surprises us with his questionable methodology. Anyone who enjoyed Wayne Brady’s image-reversing payback-is-a-bitch sketch on “Chappelle’s Show” will dig it.

With Child

No Men Beyond This Point

After 50 years, it’s amazing to me that so many people still don’t get such basic tenets of the women’s movement as levelling the playing field by eliminating gender-based hiring, promoting equal pay for equal work, shattering the glass ceiling and protecting a woman’s right to choose. Women may be as underrepresented on corporate boards today as they’ve ever been. Lumpen celebrity journalists still are compelled to criticize an actress, based solely on the results of elective cosmetic surgery or willingness to speak out after discovering that they aren’t as overpaid to make crappy movies as their male counterparts. If Donald Trump is elected president, women being considered for Cabinet posts or federal judgeships might be required to appear before him in a bathing suit. Pundits and politicians see nothing wrong with criticizing the appearance of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, while Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz and Harry Reid get a free pass. You get the picture … according to me. I only bring this up after watching the clever role-reversal dramedy, With Child, and over-the-top mockumentary, No Men Beyond This Point, both directed by men. Although they don’t hit the nail directly on the head, the films are thought-provoking, each in its own way.

Based on a true story, With Child asks that we consider whether a widower with limited means should be entrusted with the welfare of an infant, when an in-law, relative or close friend has offered to temporarily, at least, carry the load and change the diapers. If the answer seems obvious, first-time writer/director Titus Heckel throws all sorts of curves into the argument, starting with his beyond-stubborn protagonist, Auden Price (Kerry van der Griend). The first twist comes when the construction worker’s request to bring his four-month-old daughter to the worksite each day in a car seat is denied. Auden is offered plenty of work by other contractors, but not with child in tow. No kidding. Auden adamantly refuses to allow his sister-in-law, a judge, to mind the baby, along with her other children, until he recovers from his loss. We agree with the sister-in-law that a baby deserves a better shot at happiness than being assaulted by pounding hammers, whining saws and possibly toxic dust while confined to a tiny chair. Just when it appears as if Auden’s about to give in to such logic, he’s hired by a local woman, Petra (Leslie Lewis), a respected scientist, who’s as neurotic as he is stubborn. As a child, Petra’s hippy parents abandoned her to the care of her agoraphobic and seriously over-protective grandmother. Petra was raised as a recluse, never allowed to climb a tree or learn to swim. Although we can see how two quirky people could fall in love and get over themselves long enough to attend to the needs of baby, Auden begins to Petra as if she had joined the enemy camp. Things come to a head when the sister-in-law files a custody order and Auden, who actually is making progress as a father, must decide to fight or let go. It’s here, again, that Heckel places unforeseen roadblocks in his path. The good news is that they aren’t so far out of line that they become contrivances, alien to the spirit of the story so far and characters. Just when With Child appears to be headed toward a male-power, “Defending the Caveman” conclusion, it changes directions on us by addressing serious issues – not involving taking infants to construction sites — with a balanced blend of humor and drama.

Mark Sawers’ mockumentary No Men Beyond This Point asks questions that were raised 45 years ago, after Gloria Steinhem antagonized male chauvinists everywhere by positing, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” It wasn’t the first time the idea of a male-free environment had been addressed, even by Hollywood mythmakers. They had frequently toyed with just such a notion in depictions of Amazon culture, ranging from dramatizations of Greek mythology to sci-fi fantasies. Men simply couldn’t understand how humanity could proceed without their precious semen. Then, too, there was Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men), which, in 1968, advocated overthrowing mainstream society and eliminating the male sex. Although considered by many to be satirical, Solanas began the revolution prematurely by attempting to assassinate Andy Warhol. In No Men Beyond This Point, though, science provided the means for mid-century women to eliminate the need for men entirely. Reports of virgin births weren’t uncommon. Neither was parthenogenesis, as an excuse for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, necessary. By the careful weeding out of male DNA, giving birth to a male child was as unusual as watching a fish ride a bike. At 37, an unassuming housekeeper named Andrew Myers (Patrick Gilmore) is believed to be the youngest man and, as such, has become a reluctant spokesman for a movement to prevent the extinction of men. As a combination housekeeper/nanny, Andrew is loved by the children, driven hard by the matriarch of the family and the object of curiously romantic stirrings by her lover/wife. Sawers uses interviews, news footage and other documentary conceits to give an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings, although, as noted, its filled with outdated notions.

The Dark Horse

Everything I said two weeks ago about Carmen Marron’s uplifting chess drama, Endgame, I could repeat here today about The Dark Horse, an even grittier story about disadvantaged youth and redemption through competition. Instead of Mexican-American students in a Texas high school, the kids in James Napier Robertson’s excellent sophomore feature are impoverished Maori youths given few choices in life except gangbanging and motherhood. The inspirational coach, Genesis, played by Cliff Curtis (“Fear the Walking Dead”), is battling bipolar disorder with a fistful of pills every day and a desire to steer kids in the right direction, even as the Maori continue to be victimized by racism and unemployment. Genesis is well aware of the lure of gangs and need for youths to find comfort in numbers. Despite being homeless, he uses Maori tradition to attract kids to the program. That includes his soon-to-be-18 nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), whose father, Ariki (Wayne Hapi), wants nothing more for his son than to be “patched” and someday take over the violent Vagrants. The brothers are heading for showdown, because Mana’s birthday and “patching” falls on the same day as the New Zealand championship. Despite its genre familiarity, The Dark Horse is a wonderful picture – kindred to Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors – that isn’t overly predictable and respects the traditions and recent plight of the urban Maori. The acting and cinematography also are commendable.

IMAX: Flight of the Butterflies: 4K UHD/3D Blu-ray

IMAX: Rocky Mountain Express: 4K UHD/Blu-ray

If you’re one of the very few people with a home-theater system that can accommodate 4K ultra-high-definition 3D Blu-ray programming, well, good for you. At the moment, anyway, such technology is more of an expensive novelty than anything else. Even when manufacturers agree on technological standards, entertainment providers have been slow to warm to providing consumers with content that’s affordable, plentiful and compatible with other systems. In the case of 3D, there’s still the matter of offering glasses that work across the entire spectrum of brands. But, you knew that already. Shout! Factory is one of the companies that’s shown a willingness to test/whet consumer appetites. Instead of limiting buyers to one format, it’s offering its latest IMAX titles in multiple formats in a single package. Originally shot to accommodate the high-tech standards of large-format theaters, Flight of the Butterflies and Rocky Mountain Express look pretty good on small screens, as well, even on 2D Blu-ray. The former is presented as a detective story, prompted by one Canadian scientist’s curiosity over the migratory habits of the might monarch butterfly, a critter with an appetite for leaves other animals consider to be inedible and the strength to travel thousands of miles for a winter’s rest. After tagging and tracking the butterflies to determine the routes, the clues petered out somewhere near the Rio Grande River. Further research by more hardy researchers located a secret hideaway in the mountains north of Mexico City where millions of monarchs covered the pines like a flocked Christmas tree. I can only imagine how this looks in 3D, but it looked swell on my 4K-ready screen. It adds an interesting making-of featurette and visit to the refuge by the aging scientist.

Available only in 4K, 2D Blu-ray and a digital copy, Rocky Mountain Express chronicles the building of Canada’s first transcontinental railway, a task every bit as formidable as the race to the middle of the intercontinental railroad that connected the east and west coasts of the United States. It doesn’t speculate as to the degrees of difficulty associated with both engineering feats, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Canadian mountain ranges were even more challenging than those in California, Utah and Wyoming. Director Stephen Low follows the route on a train powered by a refurbished steam engine, which is really a sight to see these days. Low mixes newly shot footage with vintage photographs and other archival accounts of the laborers’ ordeals. Overhead tracking, plus point-of-view shots, serve two purposes: present visual testimony as to the remarkable victory over nature’s roadblocks and encourage viewers to share the pride of the Canadian people, who, invite everyone to partake in the scenic glory offered by the transcontinental trip. The package also includes two vintage featurettes on the development off the country’s transportation system.

Sons of Ben

Major League Soccer competition began in 1996, with 10 teams spread across the U.S. After a rocky financial start, it’s since doubled in size and expanded into Canada. Despite being a city that supports its professional teams – sometimes with a ferocity that inspires criminality — it would take 14 years before Philadelphia was granted a franchise. The documentary, Sons of Ben, recalls the efforts of a small, but fully engaged booster club the tirelessly lobbied the league and city officials in Philadelphia and nearby Chester to build a soccer-only stadium worthy of hosting big-time competition. At first, fans of the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers and Flyers showed no interest in helping the Sons of Ben (as in Franklin) raise funds or lend their names to petitions. Their persistence would pay off when economically depressed Chester decided to take a chance, by coming up with a riverside site and plan to develop the area. Sons of Ben chronicles the grassroots group’s many high and lows, both as cheerleaders for a team and family men and women. As the film was wrapping up production, the team – now, the Philadelphia Union – was doing better than the plans for development.

Sex Roulette

The Little Blue Box

The word, “classic,” is tossed around a lot in the marketing of vintage titles newly re-released into DVD/Blu-ray and fully remastered in from original 35mm vault materials. Sometimes the designation is used correctly, but, more often than not, it qualifies as hype. No genre is more guilty of this misdemeanor than porn from the Golden Age. That said, however, I think these Synapse/Impulse titles qualify, if only because they have something to offer than straight sex, of which there is plenty. The 1978 European export, Sex Roulette, differentiates itself from its American counterparts for several reasons: elderly, not particularly handsome men enjoy sexual trysts with younger women more often than in any non-fetish movie I’ve seen; a pregnant woman and black little person (a.k.a., midget) are featured; the Monte Carlo scenery is lovely; and the orgy scenes include one staged in a pig sty. None of the scenes come off as any more exploitative then those in comparably kinky fare. In it, Vanessa Melville (a.k.a., Veronique Maugarski) plays a blond bombshell travelling with her uncle and butler to various casinos on the French Riviera. While they’re having a blast bed-hopping, Veronique is compensating for an inability to climax by blowing lots of her uncle’s money on games of chance. Naturally, things balance out after a while, but not before the grownups have had their fun. It was directed by Czech émigré Alan Vydra.

In 1979, Americans in the porn game still harbored hopes of finding audiences interested in pictures that merged hard-core sex with narrative storytelling and comedy. Ultimately, the fledgling industry would rely almost exclusively on personality-driven frolics that were heavy on sex and light on everything else. Anything more demanded budget expenditures few producers were willing to make. John Leslie stars in Arlo Schiffen’s second and presumably last movie under that name: The Little Blue Box. As was the case in Schiffin’s Little Orphan Sammy, Jennifer Welles assumed the lead role, this time in the dual role of a door-to-door salesman of pirate-cable boxes and John’s workaholic wife. The box allows access to an interactive network of adult films, which partially compensate for the absence of sex in his life. While his wife is away, John and Welles’ Ms. Azure play, often in tandem with such future hall-of-famers as Gloria Leonard, Jamie Gillis, Leslie Bovee and Sharon Mitchell. What presented itself as futuristic in 1970s today qualifies as nostalgic.

TV-to-DVD

Starz/BBC: The Dresser

PBS/ITV: Vicious: The Finale

Discovery: Naked and Afraid XL: Season 1

PBS: NOVA: Wild Ways

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb

PBS: Independent Lens: Adjust Your Color: The Truth About Petey Greenwald

PBS Kids: Dinosaur Train: Under the Volcano

Nickelodeon: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Fired Up!

At a time when some of our greatest living actors are best known for playing larger-than-life characters in comic-book pictures, it’s a comfort to know that someone, at least, understands how best to utilize their talents. In the second film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s brilliant off-stage drama, The Dresser, Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen deliver performances that are the theatrical equivalent of a heavyweight championship fight. At 77 and 78, respectively, Sir Ian and Sir Anthony have stayed busy – and, one hopes, wealthy — playing such mythical figures as Gandalf, Magneto, an over-the-hill Sherlock Holmes, Methuselah, Odin and King Hrothgar. Their presence is always welcome, but one is always left wondering if they’d rather be doing “King Lear.” That’s exactly what Hopkins is doing in The Dresser, as the distinguished, if completely addled British actor, Sir. His every need and whim are administered to by Sir’s longtime, long-suffering and extremely loyal dresser and aide-de-camp, Norman (McKellen), himself well beyond retirement age. As the movie opens, Norman and everyone else in the travelling production company are nearly frantic with despair over Sir’s disappearance from a hospital, where’s he’s been treated for a breakdown of some sort. Because The Dresser unfolds in a small English regional theater, during the Blitz, audience members and company members are literally risking their lives waiting patiently in their seats for the legendary star to appear. Sir arrives in the nick of time, of course, wondering what all the fuss is about, while Norman springs into action. Anything else would be unprofessional. Also relieved are Her Ladyship (Emily Watson), who’s put up with his antics – on and off stage – for more years than anyone dare count; Madge (Sarah Lancashire), the stage manager who wonders if this show is really going to go on; and star-struck ingénue, Irene (Vanessa Kirby). The other players and technical-crew members shiver with each new report of a bomb landing somewhere in the mid-distance. Meanwhile, viewers at home, wonder exactly how long Sir will be able to make his way up the stairs to perform one of the most taxing roles in the repertoire. For his part, Norman is racing against the hands of an invisible clock as he fortifies himself with either cheap liquor or cough syrup. The interaction and verbal sparring between the two old pros – characters and actors, alike – is a true joy to behold. Watson, too, gives as well as Her Ladyship is forced to take in their incessant behind-the-scenes squabbling. The bittersweet ending succeeds, as well. The DVD adds entertaining interviews and background material.

In the contagiously funny British sitcom, “Vicious,” McKellen teams with another giant of the British stage, Derek Jacobi, also 77. They play an elderly pair of self-described queens, Freddie and Stuart, who’ve lived together for nearly 50 years, in a tidy Covent Garden flat with their comatose dog, Balthazar. Freddie was a struggling actor – his last bit role was on “Downton Abbey” — and Stuart worked in the bar in which they first met. Their barbed dialogue isn’t strictly reserved for each other, of course. In true sitcom fashion, the doorbell rings every few minutes as another member of their extended family arrives for his or her fair share of abuse. Frances de la Tour plays the constantly horny Violet Crosby, a close friend of Freddie and Stuart, who has designs on their young and handsome upstairs neighbor, Ash (Iwan Rheon). Marcia Warren is Penelope, another old friend, who often becomes confused over the simplest things, and Philip Voss plays Mason Thornhill, Freddie’s opinionated brother. The story occasionally leaves the confines of their sitting room, but not often. Knowing that Jacobi and McKellen were openly gay before being openly gay was cool provides the honey that allows some viewers to swallow some of the more stereotypical gags and asides, of which there are many. “The Finale,” which has yet to air in England, chronicles a year in the newly married couple’s life. Freddie and Stuart enjoy their inheritance and a birthday; Violet moves on from her divorce; and Ash must decide whether he should accept a scholarship to attend school in New York or remain in New York, collecting ex-girlfriends.

If I were a board member of the FCC, one of the first things I’d do is outlaw so-called reality shows that hire writers to put ideas and words into the heads of their seemingly real and unscripted participants – a.k.a., actors – and shows with the word, “Naked,” in their title that deliver blurred images as irritating as burlap diapers in a nursery. For all the audience knows, the 12 contestants on “Naked and Afraid XL,” who’ve previously appeared on “Naked and Afraid,” are wearing nipple patches, pasties and jock straps under those pixelated clouds. On the spinoff series, the survivalists are tasked with surviving in the Colombian wilderness for 40 days, with only one or two helpful items of his or her choosing. We’re told they aren’t given any other items, clothing, food or liquids – c’mon, how can the water possibly be safe to drink? – and the camera crews are not allowed to intervene, except for medical emergencies. The contestants hunt, trap and gather their food in the wild and build shelters with their own hands and material found in nature. At the end of the 40 days, the remaining survivalist(s) must arrive at the designated extraction point. Frankly, apart from unblurring the contestants, the only way I’d become a regular viewer is if Discovery Channel added a celebrity edition of the show, featuring the Kardashians and stars of the various housewife series.

As mankind has encroached on the natural habitats of our animal neighbors, we’ve inadvertently created dozens of new ways for them to die unnatural deaths. From PBS, “NOVA: Wild Ways” how engineers and environmentalists are working together to allow wildlife access to places where they can hunt, breed and migrate without fear of becoming roadkill or target practice for landowners. While national parks and preserves offer some protection to wildlife, even the Serengeti and Yellowstone parks are too small to sustain healthy populations over generations. “Connectivity conservation” allows some of the world’s most beloved endangered species — lions, bears, antelope, elephants – to move safely between refuges, via tunnels, overpasses and protected land corridors. The show visits Yellowstone, the Canadian Yukon and Southern Africa’s elephant highways, stretching across five nations.

In the “Secrets of the Dead” episode “Cleopatra’s Lost Tomb,” Dominican lawyer-turned-archeologist Kathleen Martinez may be on the verge of accomplishing a feat none of her professional peers have managed to do: discover the tomb of Egypt’s last queen. Working on the barest of clues, Martinez has identified the temple Taposiris Magna, located in Alexandria, Egypt, as the most likely spot. Her unorthodox methodology has already paid dividend, but there’s plenty of digging left to do.

The centerpiece event of Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons’ excellent 2007 biopic of Washington, D.C., radio host Petey Greene, comes when he uses his electronic podium to calm listeners caught in the maelstrom of hatred, fear and violence that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Without Greene’s non-stop filibuster on the need for a non-violent response to the tragedy, the rioting could have been much worse, extending beyond a James Brown concert designed to bring people together in peace. It turned the strictly local on-air personality – an ex-con and man about town with a gift for ghetto gab – into an activist whose words carried weight in a troubled city with an overwhelmingly African-American population. Loren Mendell’s 2008 documentary, Adjust Your Color: The Truth About Petey Green, amplifies on the portrait drawn by Lemmons, while providing visual proof of what made Greene such an alluring draw for radio and TV audiences. Don Cheadle, who made Greene come to life in the movie, narrates the documentary, which was aired as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series. The newly released DVD misconstrues Greene’s outspoken approach to his job as being a precursor of the “shock jock” trend, without also acknowledging the role played by highly charismatic African-American media personalities in other urban centers. The difference, of course, was that Greene was a high-profile African-American radio host in a city whose predominantly black population was unrepresented in Congress and whose many deeply engrained problems were routinely ignored by the federal officials assigned to govern it. That he also could be extremely funny and outrageously attired gave him star quality. The most shocking segment of the film features Greene grilling a very young Howard Stern, in blackface, on being a “cracker” who exploits his black staff, including Robin Quivers, who’s in the TV-studio audience.

PBS Kids’ Emmy-nominated “Dinosaur Train,” from the Jim Henson Company, leads its latest collection of episodes with “Under the Volcano,” which shouldn’t be confused with Malcolm Lowry’s harrowing novel about a day in the life of an alcoholic Brit diplomat in Mexico. Instead, join Buddy and family as they watch Old Smoky erupt. It provides a non-lethal lesson in lava and geysers. Other episodes in the set teach ways to use a pile of leaves, petals, wood and shells from the family nest.

Nickelodeon’s four-episode collection, “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Fired Up!,” follows Blaze, AJ and their friends as they embark on slippery adventures to save a truck wash, race to deliver medicine to cure sick trucks and put out fires wherever they arise. Kids can learn how to use science, technology, engineering and math to solve problems.

The DVD Wrapup: Hank Williams, Adderall Diaries, 6, Francofonia, Mad Tiger, Suture, Blood & Black Lace and more

Friday, July 8th, 2016

I Saw the Light
Hank Williams: The Complete Mother’s Best Collection … Plus

Country-music singers have been trying to find the bottle in which Hank Williams captured his lightning for most of the last 65 years, with only a handful even coming close to locating the darkness in his soul or the poetic wellspring that inspired his most memorable songs. That’s why I don’t take much stock in the complaints of mainstream critics who voiced their disapproval of Tom Hiddleston’s interpretation of Williams’ vocalizing and stage presence in Marc Abraham’s biopic I Saw the Light. The actor moved into singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell’s Nashville home for five months for a crash course in singing, guitar playing and yodeling. If Crowell felt that the Brit entertainer was ready for prime time, that’s good enough for me. That’s not the part of the movie that bothered me, anyway. What I missed most were the early chapters in Hank’s life, during which Williams’ own roots were planted, thanks, in large part, to a black street performer, Rufus Payne, who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for meals or money. A similar debt to black musicians was owed by A.P. Carter, Jimmie Rogers, Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley. While lying awake at night in northern Minnesota, Bob Dylan would listen to hardcore R&B and country radio stations from the Deep South. Abraham elected to focus on Williams’ tortured relationship with his first wife, Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen), who so desperately wanted to share the limelight with him, and overbearing manager/mother, Lillie (Cherry Jones). It also lacked the down-home Southern flavor that animated James Mangold’s Walk the Line and Jim McBride’s Great Balls of Fire!, as well as any indication of Williams’ expanding popularity outside the South and Canada. Even so, Hiddleston frequently is able to mine the emotional core of musician whose physical pain drove him to seek relief in booze and pills. The most telling moment comes when a reporter attempts to break through the artist’s cool exterior, between sips of whiskey, and finally is told, “Everybody has a little darkness in them. I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame. I show it to them, and they don’t have to take it home. They expect I can help their troubles.” In another scene, Williams reverts to his “Luke the Drifter” persona, which he employed in his religious-themed recordings and recitations, for some stage preaching. He didn’t feel like performing that day, but gave the crowd its money’s worth, anyway. Abraham’s source material was provided by Colin Escott’s 1994 book, “Hank Williams: The Biography.” It arrives with deleted scenes; the featurettes “A Night in Nashville,” from the premiere and musical performance by Hiddleston, “Illuminating A Legend: Inside ‘I Saw the Light’” and “Talking Hank,” with Crowell and Hiddleston; and audio commentary with Abraham.

 

Where If I Saw the Light focuses on Williams’ dark side and decline, “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” reveals qualities in him that endeared him to radio listeners by bringing a little lightness into the days of men and women on their way to work or toiling in the kitchen. In 1951, it wasn’t unusual to hear the biggest stars in the country and blues arenas using their music to sell products in sponsored radio shows. “King Biscuit Hour,” which featured African-American blues artists Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) and Robert Lockwood Jr., could be heard throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas deltas. Nashville’s 50,000-watt WSM-AM lured Williams to do some pickin’, grinnin’ and singin’ in support of Mother’s Best Flour. As befit the early-morning timeslot, he kept things on the sunny side, often exchanging banter with the host. (At various times in his short career, he also promoted the Hadacol patent medicine, Naughton Farms plant nursery and the Health & Happiness Show.) If the Drifting Cowboys were going to be on the road, Williams would pre-record the 15-minute segments. Re-released by Time Life to coincide with the theatrical and DVD/Blu-ray release of I Saw the Light. “The Complete Mother’s Best Recordings … Plus!” is comprised of 15 CDs, containing 143 songs, interstitials and casual chat. A 16th DVD disc features daughter Jett Williams, who didn’t learn she was Hank’s kin until the early 1980s, interviewing surviving members of his band. The recordings provide listeners a deeper insight into Williams’ life and music, revealing a personality that might have influenced Garrison Keillor. The recordings, including previously unrecorded material, are in surprisingly pristine condition and his voice is in tip-top shape. The set adds a 32-page booklet, with vintage photos and full discography. You may want to skip ahead to the 15th CD, which includes an audition for Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix and a truly amazing story-song warning young lovers against the scourge of syphilis.

 

The Adderall Diaries: Blu-ray

Another week, another James France performance to check out. And, just in case you’re beginning to think that the hyper-productive actor, poet, teacher and seeker of post-graduate degrees has begun to make things up as he goes his merry way through life, it’s worth knowing that his character in The Adderall Diaries is based on someone other than him or one of his myriad personae. Franco plays Stephen Elliot, a delinquent-turned-novelist modelled after Stephen Elliot, who wrote the best-selling memoir from which the movie was adapted (and directed Franco in About Cherry). Although severely blocked, Franco’s Elliot maintains a relatively high profile in literary circles by reading from his memoirs, which deal directly with his extremely troubled past and abusive relationship with his father. (It squares with known facts about Elliot’s life as a street urchin, drug addict and ward of the state, while growing up on Chicago’s North Side.) He’s been contracted to write a true-crime book on the murder trial of Hans Reiser (Christian Slater), a sociopathic fellow who’s been accused of killing his wife and making her body disappear. While covering the trial, he befriends New York Times reporter Lana Edmond (Amber Heard), who enables all of Elliot’s bad habits and picks some up for herself. The turning point of the story comes when the author’s father (Ed Harris), presumed dead, shows up at one of his readings and basically disavows everything he’s been accused of doing. Neil Elliot turns the tables on his son by suggesting that he refused all attempts to reconcile their differences or control his worst impulses. Being accused of lying in front of an influential group of readers at a book-signing party is a career altering experience, of course, and it not only impacts the publisher’s marketing campaign, but also Elliot’s fragile hold on reality. It won’t be the last time Neil Elliot figures into the narrative, but what finally brings the pot to a boil is an encounter between the author and newly convicted Reiser. The Adderall Diaries represents the feature debut of Pamela Romanowsky, who previously participated in The Color of Time, an expressionistic appreciation of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams, written and directed by a dozen different NYU students and produced by their instructor, you guessed it, Franco. The embellishments Romanowsky added to make Elliot’s story – including a BDSM subplot — more cinematic mostly serve to distract viewers from what is a promising essay on how we select, edit and repress our memories to conform to a more appealing version of ourselves. The Blu-ray adds Romanowsky’s commentary, the featurette, “The Adderall Diaries: A Director’s Perspective,” and deleted scenes.

 

600 Miles

The films that have emerged from the on-going drug war in Mexico, informed either by unspeakable brutality or deeply engrained corruption, would be difficult to believe if it weren’t for the cartels’ willingness to blow their own horns and the ease with which journalists are able identify the kingpins and trace the trail of Yankee dollars from Sinaloa and Mexico City to Switzerland. From what I can tell, the traffickers see themselves as protagonists in movies that exist mostly in their heads, as well as the heroes of narcocorridos whose lyrics refer to specific illegal activities and include real dates and places. It explains why Denis Villeneuve’s otherwise excellent cross-border thriller Sicario failed to fully emerge from the shadow cast by Gianfranco Rosi’s 2010 documentary, El Sicario, Room 164, in which a cartel assassin recalls his greatest hits. Matthew Heineman’s intricately designed Cartel Land practically exists as a sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s fictional thriller Traffic. Gregory Nava’s fictional Bordertown, about a journalist (Jennifer Lopez) investigating a series of murders near American-owned factories on the border of Juarez and El Paso, echoed material in the documentaries Maquilopolis and Señorita Extraviada. In Mexico, the truth almost always is stranger and more compelling than fiction. At first, Gabriel Ripstein’s deliberately paced 600 Miles feels very much like a documentary. Two teenagers, a gringo and Mexican-American, take advantage of lax gun laws in Arizona to purchase firearms to be smuggled across the border to Mexican criminals, for fun and profit. They drive expensive SUVs and only occasionally are quizzed by dealers about their intentions. Unless you’re a NRA supporter or Republican, the ease with which these knuckleheads legally acquire assault weapons and handguns, using cartel-supplied money, might come as a shock.

 

It takes a while to realize that they’re being loosely tailed by ATF agent Hank Harris (Tim Roth), who’s awaiting the go-ahead to pounce on them. In what turns out to be a major miscalculation, Harris decides to confront Arnulfo (Kristyan Ferrer) in a parking lot behind some stores in a Tucson shopping district. He doesn’t realize that the boy’s partner, Carson (Harrison Thomas), is within striking distance when Harris pulls out his gun. Carson knocks him out from behind and helps Arnulfo stuff him into a compartment normally reserved for contraband. Naturally panicked, Arnulfo volunteers to transport the agent’s handcuffed body 600 miles into the Mexican interior, where he’ll offer Harris up as tribute to his bosses. Once roused, Harris takes his time surveying the situation and attempting to guess how much danger he’s in. It doesn’t take long for him to ascertain that the kid only has the vaguest idea of what’s at stake for both of them. At a roadblock manned by cartel soldiers, Harris decides to impress Arnulfo by saving his life. He does this by telling him exactly what to say when confronted by the armed highwayman, including the name of a trafficker the guard should call to ascertain the agent’s identity. As he explains to the boy, sometimes the opposing forces in the drug war do favors for each other and this was one of them. 600 Miles will evolve from here into a taut thriller with sporadic bursts of intense action. Ripstein does a nice job keeping us guessing what will happen to Harris and Arnulfo and when. The ending should take most viewers by surprise. Roth is very good as the lone-wolf lawmen, as is Ferrer (Sin Nombre) as the wet-behind-the-ears cartel wannabe.

 

Electra Woman & Dyna Girl

Not having seen the original live-action version of “Electra Woman & Dyna Girl,” which aired only 16 episodes in a single season as part of the umbrella series, “The Krofft Supershow,” I would have no way of comparing it to the recent re-boot, which stars the slightly off-kilter YouTube sensations Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart, respectively. The original early-’70s sci-fi series, starring Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis, was targeted primarily at kids who were beginning to warm to the burgeoning superhero craze. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the new Electra Woman & Dyna Girl is aimed at the gender-neutral world of cosplay nerds and fans of alternative content. Helbig, especially, is an aggressively comedic actress, who knows precisely how to twist the dials of computer geeks. That she gets to do it here in head-to-toe Spandex alone is worth the price of a rental. Hart comes off more as a naughty pixie. In a world overpopulated with superheroes and archenemies, no city is large enough to accommodate all of them. EW&DG are relegated to the Rust Belt crime capital of Akron, Ohio, until being asked to relocate to L.A. by a mega-agent who specializes in branding and promoting superheroes. The degree of competition for the attention of the local media is fierce and DG soon feels as if she’s been relegated to “sidekick” status. When push comes to shove and an even more fabulous superbabe arrives on the scene, it probably won’t be long before old wounds are healed. The film was released as a series of eight 11-minute webisodes on April 26, 2016, through Fullscreen’s digital streaming platform. It looks pretty seamless here. The bonus features interviews at fan gatherings and background material.

 

Imber’s Left Hand

Anyone with a handheld camera and lots of patience is capable of transforming historical footnotes and also-rans into subjects worthy of a documentary to call their own. If they’re fortunate, a grant or two will miraculously become available or fans will contribute to a crowd-sourcing campaign to cover incalculable amounts of time and effort. A friend or relative might even consider crafting a Wikipedia page for posterity. It’s cheaper than buying a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, anyway. Before watching Imber’s Left Hand, I wasn’t aware of painter Jon Imber or what it meant to be considered a leading representative of the Boston Figurative Expressionism movement, which, itself, was an integral part of American modernism bracketing the Second World War. According to art historian Judith Bookbinder, “(It) expressed the anxiety of the modern age with the particular accent of the city…Boston figurative expressionism was both a humanist philosophy – that is, a human-centered and rationalist or classically oriented philosophy – and a formal approach to the handling of paint and space.” I’ll take her word for it. What made Imber a perfect candidate for a documentary profile is, sadly, the very thing that makes some little-known artists more interesting than other. At some point in late-middle-age, Imber contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and was told it ultimately was be a death sentence for his life and career. Director Richard Kane traveled to the artist’s summer home in Maine to chronicle his increasingly labored efforts to continue his work as a credible artist, despite his condition. Thanks in large part to the support of his wife, painter Jill Hoy, Imber learns to paint with his left hand and eventually with both hands held together at his waist. His remarkable resolve leads to the creation of more than 100 delightfully stylized portraits in a four-month span. As the disease begins to take its toll, Jon and Jill remain extremely personable and outgoing to longtime friends and neighbors. The summer is capped with gallery opening, where the portraits are displayed. Imber’s Left Hand is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking. The praise for his work seems justified and the testimonies run far short of becoming maudlin. The package includes an uncut interview with the artist.

 

Francofonia: Blu-ray

The story of the looting of French art galleries, museums and estates by Nazi officers during the German Occupation is pretty familiar to Americans, thanks to such movies as John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn’s The Train, René Clément’s Is Paris Burning? and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men. If the facts weren’t always strictly observed, they captured what was at stake when German troops exited Paris and some officers took a stand against the cultural genocide demanded from Berlin. A catastrophe of incalculable scope was barely averted in a real-life drama that had its roots in actions begun years earlier by prescient curators and far-flung art lovers. In Francofonia, the same Russian filmmaker whose Russian Ark famously captured the soul of the State Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, in a single 99-minute take, not only describes how the Louvre was saved from disaster years, but also what was at stake. Alexander Sokurov explains how the deputy head of the Louvre, Jacques Jaujard, anticipated the looting of the museum and ordered its treasures be shipped to chateaus and castles around the country, well before the invasion. Moreover, he credits a German officer with inventing ways to keep Hitler and Goering’s thugs from running roughshod through what was left of the collection. On August 16, 1940, Jaujard was introduced to Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, who had been appointed by his Führer to oversee France’s art collection, not just those works once housed in the Louvre. In effect, this forced marriage meant that Jaujard’s decisions could be second-guessed by Hitler and his Vichy puppet, Marshall Philippe Pétain. One of Wolff-Metternich’s greatest services to world culture was to honor his conscience by serving as a buffer between both monsters. The heroic role played by Rose Valland, one of Jaujard’s employees, is explored in greater depth in Illustre et inconnu (a.k.a., “The Man Who Saved the Louvre”), the superb feature-length documentary that accompanies Francofonia. While documenting their contributions, Sokurov also waxes philosophic on the Louvre’s hold on French culture, pride and identity. He does this by using actors to portray Napoleon Bonaparte and Marianne, national symbol of the French Republic, as they survey the empty hallways and galleries of the wartime Louvre. It was Napoleon, after all, who brought so many of the treasures displayed there to France as the cost of doing business in times of conflict and conquest. Marianne flits around the same spaces, reciting the national motto, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” It takes a bit of time to become accustomed to the conceit, but what could be more French? At 57 minutes, Illustre et inconnu is able to expand on the tight focus afforded Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich in Francofonia, explaining what happened after the German was called back to Berlin for disobeying orders, and expanding on how Jaujard, Valland and French actress Jeanne Boitel, worked with Resistance fighters and American intelligence to avoid the bombing of chateaus sheltering art and preventing Hitler’s mandate to destroy Paris. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and collector’s booklet.

 

Dear Eleanor

Emma’s Chance

Endgame

I would hate to think that any teen-oriented dramedy in which Eleanor Roosevelt plays a key role – visible or otherwise – is doomed to failure. Add a character based on one of the three men who may or may not have escaped from Alcatraz in June, 1962, and you wonder how such a quaint notion was green-lit. The fact is, though, it didn’t take much effort for Dear Eleanor to make me to suspend my disbelief long enough to share an unlikely cross-country ride with two runaway girls. Set in 1962, as the Cuban Missile Crisis loomed, the coming-of-age story stars Isabelle Fuhrman (“Master of Sex”) and Liana Liberato (“If I Stay”) as a pair of friends who drive the length of the nation to realize one of their mothers’ dream of offering her opinions to the famously liberal Roosevelt. The woman wouldn’t live long enough to accomplish this personal goal, but her daughter Ellie feels obligated to go in her place. Naturally, her father (Luke Wilson) attempts to dissuade her from such folly and, just as naturally, her cocky friend talks her into hopping into the vintage family convertible for the trip east. Adventures await them, of course, in ways Thelma and Louise might themselves have envisioned several years later. Josh Lucas plays the escaped convict Frank Morris, a roguish fellow who imposes himself on their excellent adventure, while Jessica Alba plays a fairy-godmother stripper who hitches a ride to New York for an audition being conducted by the producers of “Gypsy.” The ending probably will seem sappy to some viewers, but it’s of a piece with what happens before it. Oh, yeah, an actor name Patrick Schwarzenegger also makes an appearance some teens in the audience will find appealing. Dear Eleanor was directed capably by Kevin Connolly (“Entourage”) and written by first-timers Amy Garcia and Cecilia Contreras. The DVD includes two commentary tracks.

Also flying under the radar this week is Emma’s Chance, an overly familiar story about a troubled teen, Emma (Greer Grammer), who finds redemption in the care and feeding – mucking the stall, too – of an abused animal. Chance is an ornery show horse quartered at an animal-rescue ranch to which Emma has been assigned by a juvenile court. Emma, who’s been bullied herself, forms an unlikely bond with the jumper, who won’t let just anyone ride him. After warming to each other, Emma hatches a plan to use Chance to save the financially strapped facility from an evil dude who wants to sell the horses to Mexican meat-packing interests. The story was inspired by the good work done at Chino Hill’s Red Bucket Equine Rescue and its president and founder Susan Pierce (Missi Pyle). Joey Lawrence plays a devoted wrangler.

 

Carmen Marron’s Endgame is another movie that succeeds, despite a fact-based plot that has been revisited a couple dozen times since Stand and Deliver re-wrote the rules on David-vs.-Goliath stories in 1988. Here, Efren Ramirez (Napoleon Dynamite) plays the chess coach at a school in Brownsville, Texas, where his brother was a star athlete before his untimely death. Jose’s always been required to live under the shadow of his brother and, now, their mother doesn’t seem to want anything to do with him. When he was 5 years old, Jose’s abuelita taught him to play chess like his grandfather, who was a champion in Mexico. It’s an unorthodox style, but Jose’s bigger problem has always been a lack of self-confidence. That changes, as well, when he begins defeating opponents in support of the school’s team on its way to the state championships. Lots of lessons are learned here, but they’re petty painless. It a perfect companion piece to Niki Caro and Kevin Costner’s McFarland, USA, in which a team comprised of the sons of poor farm laborers stuns California’s cross-country elite. It did well enough for Disney that, you’d think, someone would take a chance on giving Endgame a theatrical release, especially in markets with a large Mexican-American audience. Instead, it faces heavy competition in DVD and VOD.

 

Cabin Fever: Blu-ray

The Levenger Tapes

The Pack: Blu-ray

When Gus Van Sant produced his shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Psycho, nearly 40 years separated their release dates. The addition of color was the sole concession to the passage of cinematic time. The direct translation of Michael Haneke’s shocking Funny Games into English, 10 years later, could be justified as a concession to American audiences’ profound resistance to subtitles and unfamiliar stars with French accents. What possible excuse could Eli Roth have had for hiring Travis “Z” Zariwny to perform the same non-surgical procedure on his breakthrough hit, Cabin Fever, only 13 years removed from the original? Vanity? Not good enough … especially given the easy availability of the franchise entries on DVD/Blu-ray. In both, a band of college kids heads to the woods, where they plan on spending their spring break getting drunk and having sex. The first ominous note is struck when they pull into a gas station and are confronted by a garden-variety redneck and his possibly rabid son. The second comes when one of the young men uses a tricked-out assault rifle to shoot at something in the woods that takes him by surprise. Could the stranger’s odd behavior have anything to do with the sudden outbreak of a flesh-eating virus among the frisky spring-breakers? Of course, it could. The cast of largely unknown actors assembled here, led by Gage Golightly, Matthew Daddario, Samuel Davis and Nadine Crocker, isn’t required to stretch beyond their known limits or be any more naked than their predecessors. The real problem, I think, comes in the great number of nearly identical horror/slasher movies that have been released in the interim, mostly straight to DVD or VOD. So many clueless vacationers and horny teenagers have been slaughtered in the last 13 years – 30, really, for those keeping score – that a few more would hardly be noticed. Considering that the fleshing-eating virus isn’t the only terrifying disease afflicting innocent tourists and outdoors types, however, it can still provide a few chills. A movie about an attack of giant Zika-carrying mosquitos and/or their zombie victims, at the Summer Olympics, probably is already on the drawing boards. The Blu-ray adds some interviews and background material.

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And, while we’re on the topic of familiar genre tropes, when was the last time you saw a found-footage thriller? Not long, I’ll bet. Once again, in Mark Edwin Robinson’s The Levenger Tapes, college students Amanda (Johanna Brady), Kim (Lili Mirojnick), and Chase (Morgan Krantz) are traveling to Chase’s family mountain retreat for a Spring Break getaway. They stop at a liquor store, where Chase decides to steal a bottle of rum. During the ill-advised getaway, their car is involved in a fender-bender with a truck. Upon their arrival, the students drink, converse and swim in their undies, before spotting a campfire in the distance. After ascertaining that it belongs to the man from the truck, they decide to walk over to deliver an in-person apology. Along the way, they develop a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. Meanwhile, one of them is capturing what passes for action on a video tape, which later is pored over by local police. On it, the students come upon the bloody dress of an 8-year-old girl, which may or may not be involved in the trio’s disappearance. There were times when I had trouble differentiating between the found footage and that captured during the normal course of the narrative. It all seemed to have been taken by the same camera used by cinematographer Magdalena Górka, without consistent allowance for the distressed images usually associated with home movies.

 

For a debut feature, director Nick Robertson and writer Evan Randall Green have fashioned a terrifically atmospheric and reasonably exciting siege thriller, involving a pack of wild dogs – thus, the title, The Pack — determined to kill every living thing on an Australian sheep ranch. Naturally, that includes the residents of the isolated farmhouse. Most of the action takes place over the course of a single night, with canine eyes sparkling in the brush and tree line, and the rancher running out of bullets for his rifle. Can the small family last the night, before the dark black dogs invade the house and have them for a late snack? Veteran Aussie actors Jack Campbell and Anna Lise Phillips take the threat with appropriate seriousness. The Blu-ray adds some interesting making-of material, focusing on the creation of the wild look-alike dogs … not to be mistaken for werewolves.

 

Mad Tiger

As previously noted here, the production of feature-length rockumentaries has reached the saturation point in the DVD marketplace, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. To break through the pack, the subject of any new film must have something going for it, besides the music and fans. Otherwise, all you have is a long rock video. Michael Haertlein and Jonathan Yi’s Mad Tiger easily qualifies as something different … at least, for those of us new to the wacky world of Japanese pop culture. It follows the relationship of two Japanese musicians, Yellow and Red, who have been best friends, band mates and business partners for more than 15 years, while touring the U.S. in the performance-art punk band, Peelander-Z. Based in New York, its on-stage persona merges elements of Mexican lucha libre wrestling, the live-action Power Rangers, Sun Ra and the American heavy-metal band GWAR. Or, as the group bills itself, “a Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander.” The costumes range from sentai style suits, to kimono, to rubber Playmobil style wigs. There is also a tiger costume and a squid/guitar costume, designed to coincide with the song “Mad Tiger.” The band employs such on-stage antics as human bowling, pretending to hit each other with chairs in imitation of pro-wrestlers and mid-performance piggyback rides. Apart from the performance footage, which borders on insanity, Mad Tiger chronicles the aftermath of Red’s departure from the band and Yellow’s attempts to replace him. (Other members include Peelanders Pink, Purple, Green, Black and formerly Blue.) It’s pretty wild stuff, so I recommend being in the right mood to absorb the act properly. The bonus package adds seven deleted scenes, two Peelander-Z music videos and a directors’ statement.

 

Search Party: Blu-ray

Scot Armstrong, co-writer/director of the anemic boys-will-be-boors comedy, Search Party, can boast of a resume that includes such not-bad/not-great entertainments as Road Trip, Old School, Starsky & Hutch, School for Scoundrels, Hangover II and Showtime’s “Dice.” Somehow, he figured out a way to sweep up all of the jokes that fell on the cutting-room floor of those movies and make a nearly complete feature out of them. That’s not to say any of the gags were worth saving, only that they finally added up to about 90 minutes, with credits. Neither were they sufficiently funny to keep Search Party from sitting on a shelf for two years, despite a comically gifted cast that includes Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”), T.J. Miller and Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), Shannon Woodward (“Raising Hope”), Alison Brie (“Community”), J.B. Smoove (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”), Lance Reddick (“The Wire”), Krysten Ritter (“Jessica Jones”), Jason Mantzoukas (“The League”), Horatio Sanz (“SNL”), Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci (“Garfunkel and Oates”) and Rosa Salazar (“Man Seeking Woman”). When the love of his life (Woodward) jilts him at the altar, thanks to his hard partying pals Jason (Miller) and Evan (Pally), Nardo (Middleditch) follows her down to Mexico, where he’s carjacked and left naked in the middle of nowhere. At this point, viewers are assaulted with the kind of racist gross-out humor that would make Donald Trump blush. The rest of the out-of-control road-trip humor isn’t much better. Only fans of the actors will be able to digest Search Party, without a great deal of pot and beer for chasers.

 

Code of Honor: Blu-ray

For a while there, I actually thought I was watching an action epic from Steven Seagal’s vintage years. That’s because Code of Honor features wall-to-wall gunplay, pyrotechnics, knife duels and strippers … all of it gratuitous. It’s pretty much in the same vein as the dozens of other straight-to-video (or close to it) titles that Seagal’s been churning out for the last 25 years. (He knows his audience and what it wants.) The only concession to age displayed by Seagal is a weirdly geometric hairdo and facial makeup/camouflage borrowed from a mortuary. Code of Honor is as resistant to mainstream criticism as almost everything as he’s done in the same period. Here, he plays Colonel Robert Sikes, a special-forces lifer who lost his family to gangs while he was overseas. It’s prompted him to return home and go all Charles Bronson on any ’banger or pimp working the streets with the intent of committing felonies. The local constabulary doesn’t appreciate the help from Sikes or his former protégé (Craig Sheffer), who’s stalking him and itching for a showdown. In another familiar urban-action trope, writer/director Michael Winnick balances the black and Latino criminals with crooked white politicians and cops, as well as a bogus news team acting as a Greek chorus. Action junkies, at least, won’t be disappointed.

 

Suture: Special Edition: Blu-ray

To fully appreciate this experiment neo-noir, viewers are required to buy into a conceit most won’t recognize or completely understand until they check out the bonus material provided by Arrow Video in its fully restored special edition. It explains why Suture found so little traction after its festival release, in 1994, despite gathering some indie cred at Sundance and encouraging reviews. Those who come to Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s mystery within a mystery with an open mind and close attention to detail, even 22 years later, will be rewarded with a uniquely intriguing cinematic experience. Miss a clue along the way and you might come away from Suture shaking your head. Given that introduction, maybe you’ll forgive me for not ruining the fun with too many spoilers. The story opens immediately after the funeral of a wealthy Phoenix businessman, who fathered almost identical half-brothers, but afforded them very different lots in life. It’s where Needles construction worker Clay Arlington meets his half-brother, Vincent Towers, who grew up in the lap of luxury in Scottsdale. Vincent immediately recognizes in Clay an opportunity to wipe clean a slate that includes being the prime suspect in the old man’s suspicious death. No sooner does Clay arrive in Scottsdale to solidify his newfound bond with Vincent than his half-brother exchanges IDs and clothes with his guest. Vincent also asks Clay to drive him to the airport to catch a flight for an unexpected business trip, with instructions on how to answer the new-fangled car phone – it’s 1993, you’ll recall – in case something comes up. Few viewers will be surprised, then, when the phone rings in the luxury convertible and Vincent hits a button on a pay phone at the airport and the tone detonates a bomb planted underneath the vehicle. While Clay miraculously survives the blast, he’ll awaken with a serious case of amnesia and a face requires extensive plastic surgery. The rest of the 96-minute film chronicles Clay’s recovery from the surgery, including an amnesiac’s attempts to clear his name in a murder he didn’t commit, a therapeutic return to a desert hellhole he can’t remember leaving and another trap set by Vincent. That’s only the skeleton of the story, however. At the time of Suture’s debut, the cast was largely unknown. Dennis Haysbert had just broken through with a key role in Love Field; Mel Harris had just completed a four-season run on “thirtysomething”; Michael Harris was struggling to make a living as an actor; Dina Merrill, at 71, was still gorgeous and active; and Sab Shimono was scrambling for the few acting jobs available to Asian-Americans. To introduce their characters would ruin the gag. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ll want to check out the fresh interviews and background featurettes.

 

Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan: Special Edition: Blu-ray

For most of the 20th Century, Ray Harryhausen’s name was synonymous with special visual effects and stop-motion animation. In biblical terms, the pioneering effects supervisor of King Kong, Willis H. O’Brien, begat Harryhausen, who begat Peter Jackson (The Hobbit), Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit), Terry Gilliam (Brazil), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy), James Cameron (Avatar), Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park), Tim Burton (Mars Attacks!), Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), Dennis Muren (Star Wars), Joe Dante (Gremlins), John Lasseter (Toy Story), Phil Tippet (Jurassic Park), Greg Broadmore (District 9) and Randy Cook (The Amazing Spider-Man), among the third- and fourth-generation filmmakers interviewed in this highly entertaining testimonial. Not only do these disciples praise the master, but they also explain exactly how Harryhausen’s contributions raised the state of the art, well into the digital era. Gilles Penso’s definitive documentary, Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan, was accorded remarkable access to clips from such wonderful fantasies as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Those titles may not mean much to viewers born during the era of computer animation, virtual reality and 3D modeling, but they spelled m-a-g-i-c to their parents and grandparents. Harryhausen lived long enough to be interviewed for the documentary and narrate parts of it. So did, his longtime friend and partner in sci-fi exploration, Ray Bradbury. Rounding out the celebrity parade are daughter Vanessa Harryhausen, historian Tony Dalton, actors John Cairney, Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro and composers Christopher Young and Robert Townson. At 90 minutes, there isn’t a wasted moment. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and interviews; home movies on the set of Sinbad; Q&A sessions at the Paris Cinematheque and London Gate Theater; commentary with the filmmakers; and a Ray Harryhausen trailer reel.

 

Blood and Black Lace: Special Edition: Blu-ray

If a newcomer to giallo asked me to recommend a title to use as a starting point in any exploration of the genre, it would be Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace. By breaking from established conventions of whodunits and horror, Bava anticipated the golden era of giallo by six years. He did so by locating the nexus of terror, criminal pathology and sex, then lighting the scenes in garish primary colors and backing them with a creepy soundtrack. Even though nudity wasn’t a part of the recipe in the early to mid-1960s, what was left to the imagination carried viewers’ imaginations a long way. “B&BL” may not have made a lot of money, but it influenced a generation of Italian filmmakers and inspired the Americans who would launch the slasher sub-genre, a decade later. Set largely inside a couture fashion house, the still extremely watchable picture chronicles a series of murders involving beautiful models at the hands of what appears to be a masked mannequin. Police Inspector Sylvester (Thomas Reiner) is assigned to investigate the murder, beginning with salon managers Max Marian (Cameron Mitchell) and his lover, the recently widowed Countess Cristina Como (Eva Bartok). When it’s revealed that the first victim, Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), had kept a diary, almost everyone involved in the operation attempts to locate and burn it. With each subsequent murder, the litany of vices grows to include corruption, then-outlawed abortions, blackmail, backstabbing and drug addiction. The deaths also serve to reduce the long list of potential suspects, without diminishing the mystery or tension. It helps, as well, that the salon is housed, in typical Bava style, in a creaky old building that once probably served as a villa for Italian aristocrats. Hence, the high ceilings, hidden stairways and numerous bedrooms.

 

The Arrow Video package arrives with a new 2K restoration of the film, from the original camera negative, as well as well as optional Italian and English soundtracks, presented in original uncompressed mono PCM audio. The highlight of the bonus package is “Psycho Analysis,” a comprehensive new documentary on Blood and Black Lace and the origins of the giallo genre, featuring interviews with directors Dario Argento (Suspiria) and Lamberto Bava (Demons), screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi (All the Colors of the Dark) critics Roberto Curti and Steve Della Casa, and crime novelists Sandrone Dazieri and Carlo Lucarelli. Add to it a new audio commentary by Mario Bava’s biographer, Tim Lucas; an appreciation by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, the creative duo behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears; “Yellow,” the acclaimed neo-giallo short by Ryan Haysom and Jon Britt; “Gender and Giallo,” a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the genre’s relationship with the social upheavals of the 1960-70s; a panel discussion on Mario Bava, featuring Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Steve Della Casa, recorded at the 2014 Courmayeur Film Festival; “The Sinister Image: Cameron Mitchell,” an episode of David Del Valle’s television series, devoted to the star of “B&BL”; the alternative U.S. opening titles, sourced from Joe Dante’s private print and scanned in 2K especially for this release; the original theatrical trailer; a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a collector s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Howard Hughes, author of “Cinema Italiano” and “Mario Bava: Destination Terror,” an interview with Dante and Del Valle on Mitchell, illustrated with archive stills and posters.

 

The Swinging Cheerleaders: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Return of the Killer Tomatoes: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Teenage Swinger: Grindhouse Double Feature

Arrow Video prides itself in having an eclectic catalogue of obscure or forgotten titles, a few restored well beyond what their place in cinema history would suggest. Such is the case with Jack Hill’s The Swinging Cheerleaders and John De Bello’s almost indescribably rancid, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! Arrow’s inventory of Hill’s work includes the far more defensible Spider Baby, Pit Stop, Blood Bath, Coffy and Friday Foster, all prime examples of mid-century exploitation flicks. Also released under the titles “Locker Room Girls” and “H.O.T.S. II,” The Swinging Cheerleaders was selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest, in Austin, Texas, 1996, and featured in the Satan’s Cheerleader Camp Film Fest, also in Austin in 2000. Jo Johnston plays Kate, a j-school student at Mesa University, who goes undercover as a cheerleader for her college newspaper to expose female exploitation on campus. Instead of feeling oppressed, Kate kind of digs the spotlight provided pretty girls with pompons. What she doesn’t like is a plot involving school administrators, the football coach, backers and a local bookie to fix the big game in favor of the heavy underdog rival. The Swinging Cheerleaders reveals a total ignorance of the feminist movement, investigative journalism, the rules of football and the general erosion of school spirit. Instead, it offers some topless interludes with Johnston, Rosanne Katon and an obviously pregnant Rainbeaux Smith, and an opportunity for the captain of the football team to beat up a “hippie.” (Apparently, the crowd at a Texas preview reacted very favorably to the scene.) The package’s best moments are reserved for the bonus package in a newly recorded commentary and fresh interview with Hill; archived interviews with cinematographer Alfred Taylor, Hill and rockabilly musician, wrestling manager, film producer and actor Johnny Legend (My Breakfast with Blassie); a Q&A with Hill, and actors Colleen Camp and Rosanne Katon, recorded at the New Beverly Cinema in 2012; and reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys.

 

Ten years after the horrors unleashed in the 1978 cult sensation, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, tomatoes have been outlawed, making criminals of anyone who loves pizza, pasta sauce and salad bars. Rather than attempting a spoof of a spoof, De Bello extended the conceit in Return of the Killer Tomatoes! in the hope of finding an even younger audience than the one that greeted the original. To accomplish this feat, he recruited fresh faces Anthony Starke and George Clooney … yes, that George Clooney. Not surprisingly, he plays the womanizing buddy of Chad Finlander, whose Uncle Wilbur was the hero of the Great Tomato War and inventor of the tomato-less pizza. The always-welcome John Astin plays the evil Professor Gangreen, who’s developed a way to transform tomatoes into human facsimiles trained to conquer the world. Clooney, who’s mostly there to attract teenage girls, is given far more to do in the sexploitation department than the overly chaste Karen Mistal and future Playboy Playmate and pre-porn Teri Weigel. As bad as it is, “ROTKT!” would spawn two more sequels, two TV series and a video game. The Blu-ray package adds an interview with Anthony Starke, a stills gallery, commentary with De Bello, hosted by Michael Felsher, a reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin and fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by critic James Oliver.

 

The latest “Grindhouse Double Feature” release from After Hours Cinema features a pair of unremarkable titles from 1975 that probably were exhibited in more sheltered drive-ins and hard-tops unashamed of their sticky floors and torn seats. There’s plenty of skin, but the money shots begin off-screen or have been so reduced by scratches and grime that they’ve disappeared entirely. I’d hate to see what the prints looked like before they received their digital polish. In “Teenage Swingers,” Pete and his live-in girlfriend are forced to end their arrangement when his puritanical dad moves in to their crowded apartment. This forces the couple to save their together time for visits to a friend’s apartment, where they discover the joys of swinging. Will Daddy Dearest get hip and join the party? Probably. In “My Daughter’s Babysitter,” the nubile girl-next-door, hired to watch a couple’s kid, becomes distracted by mom’s treasure trove of glossy mags and marital aids. Will the parents object when they come home and find their toy box disturbed? Probably not.

 

TV-to-DVD

MHz Networks: The Young Montalbano

MHz Networks: Detective Montalbano

PBS Kids: Roald Dahl’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)

PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: Out of This World

American prime-time television once was the bastion of idiosyncratic police detectives and lone-wolf private eyes, whose charisma, cunning and cocksure approach to crime fighting attracted a loyal audience base. If their heyday on the broadcast networks is long past, the premium cable and streaming networks have begun to pick up the slack with such shows as “Bosch,” “Longmire,” “The Red Road” and “Justified.” Anyone looking for characters like Kojak, Columbo, Sam McCloud or Robert T. Ironside may want to check out such foreign-language streaming services as MHz and Acorn (the queen’s English being foreign to most Americans). It’s on the former streaming network that I found Italy’s “Detective Montalbano” and “The Young Montalbano” (also newly available on DVD), as well as “Don Matteo,” “Detective De Luca,” “Inspector Manara,” “Inspector Nardone” and “Inspector Vivaldi Mysteries.” Produced and broadcast by Italy’s RAI since 1999, “Detective Montalbano” and its 2012 prequel series, “The Young Montalbano
are based on the internationally popular mysteries of Andrea Camilleri. Salvo Montalbano is chief inspector of the police department in Vigàta, a scenic seaside town in Sicily, where mafia-related crime competes for the cops’ attention with normal criminal activity. He is a gruff character, responsible and serious at work, but also open and friendly with people he knows he can trust. Montalbano uses his superior intelligence and patience to reconstruct the details and personalities behind violent crimes. Among his colleagues are his slightly buffoonish best friend and deputy, Mimi Augello; the dogged inspector Giuseppe Fazio; his sensitive, name-mangling subordinate Agatino Catarella; his current girlfriend, Ingrid Sjostrom; journalist and ally, Niccolò Zito; and Livia Burlando, with whom he has a sometimes tempestuous, long-distance relationship spanning both series. All of these characters appear, as well, in “The Young Montalbano,” with habits and personalities still in their developmental stage. While veteran stage, screen and television actor Luca Zingaretti plays the elder Montalbano, William Petersen look-alike Michele Riondino plays Salvo as the newly appointed police chief of Vigata. He’s surrounded by younger versions of the same characters in the earlier series. Salvo, an avid swimmer, lives in an apartment whose terrace overlooks the town’s beach. Both series take full advantage of the magnificent Sicilian countryside and holiday traditions in ancient mountaintop villages. The producers also find ways to introduce voluptuous Italian actresses into Salvo’s cases, as femme fatales or red herrings. The two new “Young Montalbano” DVDs cover the series’ six-episode second season. The “Detective Montalbano” release covers Episodes 27 and 28 and includes Teresa Mannino’s flirtatious feature-length profile of the author, “Montalbano and Me: Andrea Camilleri.” Each episode runs about two hours in length, which, however entertaining, is about 20 minutes too long.

 

Although Steven Spielberg’s tres, tres expensive adaptation of Roald Dahl’s source novel The BFG failed to set the box office on fire over the long holiday weekend, it’s yet to open in several key foreign markets and Finding Dory has to run out of steam eventually … right? It will be interesting to see how the 1989 animated version, created for television and video, will fare at a price less than the cost of an individual ticket at the multiplex. Younger viewers won’t be able to tell the difference. First published in 1982, “The BFG” takes places on a moonlit night, when little Sophie is snatched from her orphanage bed by a giant who whisks her away on a magical, thrilling and funny adventure. Unlike the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater and the Bonecruncher, the Big Friendly Giant is a good fellow who blows sweet dreams into the bedroom windows of children as they slumber. When Sophie learns that the monstrous crew of meanies is off to England to gobble up innocent boys and girls, she sets out to stop them once and for all, with the help of her new, rather large friend. Producer Kathleen Kennedy first acquired the rights to the literary property in 1991 and it’s taken all these many years for frequent partner, Spielberg, to make it a reality. The animated musical feature was produced by the award-winning Cosgrove Hall Studio, makers of “DangerMouse” and “The Wind in the Willows.” The DVD arrives with a new documentary on Dahl.

 

PBS Kids’ takes problem solving to an entirely new level in “Peg + Cat: Out of This World.” In the compilation DVD, Peg and Cat must put their heads together to fix their spaceship, outsmart Big Mouth (a crafty space alien who loves to dance), and win a cosmic T-ball competition. It helps immensely that they’re great at spotting patterns and working together as a team. The hourlong set is comprised of “The Doohickey Problem,” “The Long Line Problem,” “Richard the Third” and “The T-Ball Problem.”

 

The DVD Wrapup: Aferim!, WTF, Rams, Family Fang and more

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Aferim!

Although slavery hasn’t been a taboo subject for exploitation by Hollywood filmmakers, it took Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to fully dramatize the brutality and dehumanization inherent in the long-accepted practice for a new generation of viewers. The recent retelling of the “Roots” saga may not have been greeted with the same excitement as the original, but both versions of the mini-series should enjoy a long life in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD. The recent resurgence of gladiator movies and mini-series also called attention to slavery in the ancient world. From Romania, Aferim! tells a completely unexpected story about slavery, this time as practiced against Gypsies, Tartars, Jews and Muslims in Eastern Europe from the mid-1300s to the mid-1800s. You can count the number of films that address that horrifying chapter in history on the fingers of a single hand. The title of Radu Jude’s wide-screen, black-and-white dramedy Aferim! comes from the Ottoman Turkish expression, meaning “Bravo!,” or, if you will, “Give me five.” It is set in 1835 in the Wallachia region of eastern Romania, where a slave-hunting constable and his young-adult son have been handed the papers allowing them to search for a runaway Roma slave accused of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. Costandin is played by Teodor Corban, who some buffs might remember from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and 12:08 East of Bucharest. The bounty hunter would have been a perfect fit for either Django Unchained or 12 Years a Slave, as he delivers a non-stop commentary on slavery, priests, Gypsies, whores, gambling and anything else he needs his son to hear on his way to manhood. On their odyssey, they encounter people of several different nationalities, religions and ethnic groups, each of whom harbor prejudices of their own. Many still do. When the slave, Carfin, is caught, halfway through Aferim!, the dialogue between captor and caught could have been borrowed from a dozen different Westerns or, for that matter, The Last Detail. It’s an amazing picture that deserves to find a wide audience here. Special features include Jude’s excellent, Sundance-winning 2006 short, “The Tube with a Hat.”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Blu-ray

In a strange case of art resembling book reviews, it was Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’ chief book critic, who inadvertently sold the idea of casting Tina Fey as the protagonist in Paramount’s dark wartime comedy, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. In her review of journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Kakutani observed, the author “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” If she had recommended, say, Sandra Bullock or Anna Kendrick, they probably would have gotten serious consideration, as well. Fey’s inclusion was assured when Loren Michael’s Broadway Video and Fey’s Little Stranger Inc. joined Paramount as co-producers. Broadway Video benefits from sweetheart deals cut – enforced may be a more appropriate term — with former and existing members of the “Saturday Night Live” casts. BV has repurposed hundreds of “SNL” re-run packages, including those for individual performers, holiday and themed sets. If Broadway Video, Broadway Movies and SNL Studios have injected the show’s alumni into such unqualified theatrical turkeys as MacGruber, Superstar and Stuart Saves His Family, they’ve also nurtured “30 Rock,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Documentary Now!” and “Portlandia,” while continuing to believe in Kristin Wiig, Seth Meyers, Will Forte, Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen and Rachel Dratch, whose post-“SNL” careers needed the occasional jump start. Barker’s memoir barely made a dent in the best-sellers’ lists until Fey embraced the film adaptation and the book, like the movie, suddenly became “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” (The same sleight-of-hand occurred when Elmore Leonard’s “Rum Punch” became “Jackie Brown,” even if the book’s original protagonist was a white woman named Jackie Burke, living in Miami.)

Just as Kakutani predicted, Fey proved to be a natural choice to play the novice foreign correspondent assigned to a seemingly endless conflict – as Kim Baker – which, in the minds of editors and readers, had become a sideshow to the war in Iraq and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. (In the movie, the character works for a TV network, while, in real life, Barker, was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.) As a novice, Baker is taken aback by the gallows humor that informs all interaction between embedded journalists and the debauched nightlife that makes such assignments tolerable. Correspondents go to extreme lengths to score the kinds of scoops worthy of breaking through the clutter on network news shows. Here, this includes putting their sources at risk of retaliation by their superiors and playing footsie with swinish Afghan dignitaries. Even so, the longer Baker remains in Afghanistan, the more likely it becomes that she will push the limits of personal safety and sanity. To this end, screenwriter Robert Carlock (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, I Love You Phillip Morris), added melodramatic and rom-com elements to a story someone felt wouldn’t succeed at the box office without concessions to popular tastes. Unless one reads the book, however, it would be difficult to parse the fact from the invention. An almost farcical scene in which she learns to fire an automatic weapon with the same horny Afghan official was taken right from the book, while less realistic events were cut from whole cloth. After Margot Robbie’s hard-drinking correspondent, Tanya Vanderpoel, asks Kim’s permission to make herself available sexually to the newcomer’s stud security guards, she’s given a lesson in war-zone sexism. Tanya explains to the baffled Kim that women who would be rated a “4” or a “6” back home are often upgraded to a “9” or “10” in Kabul. (The obviously fallacy here, of course, is that both women would qualify for the higher grades anywhere on the planet – check out Robbie in “The World of Wall Street” –even in combat fatigues and head scarves.) Basically, though, “WTF” doesn’t stray too egregiously far from the parameters laid down in the book.

As is the norm with most movies set in Afghanistan and Iraq, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot failed to attract the same hordes of viewers who turned American Sniper and Lone Survivor – the exceptions that prove the rule – into certified hits at the box office. It did much better than the abysmal Rock the Kasbah, which was built from a similar foundation and starred “SNL” veteran Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Kate Hudson, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride and Scott Caan. There’s no reason “WTF” shouldn’t do better in DVD/Blu-ray/VOD, if only because Fey’s profile still fits better on the small screen. The best scenes in the movie, in my opinion, feature Baker donning a burka to capture video images in a Taliban stronghold and meet in secret with Afghan women repressed by fundamentalists in their “liberated” village. These scenes reminded me of Erik Poppe’s 1,000 Times Good Night, in which Juliet Binoche does an amazing job as a photojournalist torn between her family in Europe and the Adrenalin flow that comes with risking one’s life to relay cold, hard facts to people who aren’t interested in the truth. The nightclub scenes recalled those in Canal+ mini-series, “Kaboul Kitchen,” which was set in the only French restaurant in the capital and provided a DMZ for politicians, journalists, thieves, prostitutes and other miscreants. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, shown at the Toronto Film Festival during the same week as the attacks of 9/11, describes the brutal conditions faced by women in Taliban-run Afghanistan. (Some critics have also made comparisons to the Goldie Hawn dramedy, Private Benjamin.) The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes; an extended scene; the featurettes, “All In: The Making of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”; “War Reporter: The Real Kim”; “Embedded in Reality,” which explains how the military played a pivotal role in bringing the movie to life; “Wedding Party,” a tight focus on the joyous wedding celebration from the film; and “Laughing Matters,” which describes how the characters relied on drinking, partying and other vices to cope with the constant threat of danger.

Rams: Blu-ray

While international filmmakers continue to discover the benefits of making movies in the otherworldly settings provided by Iceland, non-Nordic audiences have yet to embrace the country’s homegrown cinema. The exceptions are such early films of Baltasar Kormákur as 101 Reykjavík, The Sea, A Little Trip to Heaven, Jar City and The Deep, which have since led to such off-island projects as 2 Guns, Contraband and the brilliantly dramatized Everest. Grímur Hákonarson’s quirky sibling drama Rams takes place a little further off the beaten path than most Icelandic exports. Instead of easily reached locations along the coastal Ring Road, Rams takes place in a secluded valley in the mountainous interior, where modified snowmobiles and other all-terrain vehicles do the work no car could attempt and where roads are a seasonal luxury. It’s in such isolated locations that hatchets remain unburied for decades at a time. Estranged brothers Gummi and Kiddi have lived side by side for 40 years, tending to their sheep, without speaking a word to each other. The lineage of their prized rams extends back to the arrival of the Vikings and is unique to the valley. After Kiddi wins the annual contest, Gummi suspects there might be something drastically wrong with the winning ram. The lethal degenerative “scrapie” may be nearly invisible in its early stages, but it can travel through an agricultural region like wildfire. The farmers not only are ordered to decimate their flocks, but destroy their stalls and any tools used to tend the sheep. The condition takes at least two years to eradicate, during which the farmers are compensated for their loss by the government. The greatest dilemma for the brothers, though, comes in knowing that the mass slaughter could put an end to the lineage and no imported variety could produce the same quality wool. Gummi understands the consequences and agrees to go along with the agricultural authority’s demands, just as Homer Bannon did in Hud when foot-and-mouth disease was discovered in his herd. The surly alcoholic, Kiddi, holds out until the very end, blaming his brother for alerting the government to the problem and everything else that’s gone wrong with his life. Hákonarson leaves room for an ending that should satisfy most viewers, even as it conforms to Iceland’s famously fickle and brutal weather conditions, captured superbly by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria). Hákonarson was accorded the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds an interview with the director and award-winning 2007 short, Wrestling, a love story about two gay wrestlers, living in rural Iceland, who must keep their relationship a secret from the inner world of the sport, which, in its Icelandic mode, is strangely homoerotic.

Margarita, With a Straw

Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar’s consistently surprising Margarita, With a Straw describes the journey of self-discovery taken by an precocious Indian teen who refuses to allow conditions beyond her control to keep her from achieving her goals. Born with cerebral palsy, Laila (Kalki Koechlin) has gone through life as if the disease was something happening to other people in her orbit, affecting them more than it does her. Her slurred speech is only a minor impediment to communication, just as her wheelchair doesn’t preclude acting on her whims, including making out with her boyfriend or reacting to sexual stimuli on the Internet. If the emotional crises that impact other teenagers appear to have a greater effect on Laila, it’s only because her options are so much more limited. After being humiliated at an awards ceremony for her rock-music compositions – and patronized by a judge – she succeeds in winning a writing scholarship from a school in New York. Her working-class father isn’t thrilled by the prospect of sending his daughter halfway around the world to realize a dream, but her mother wouldn’t have it any other way. Mom even agrees to accompany her to the U.S. Even so, Laila quickly finds her footing socially and in the classroom. Her naiveté continues to work against her romantically, but it doesn’t prevent her from allowing herself to be comforted by a blind Pakistani/Indian student and lesbian, Khanum (Sayani Gupta), after being trapped in a street protest. Their affection for each other grows naturally and without limits based on perceived physical handicaps. Faced by the prospect of unfettered happiness, however, Laila is forced to deal with someone else’s debilitating illness and her own cluelessness when it comes to matters of the heart. In Margarita, With a Straw, Bose and Maniyar have created an all-inclusive study in acceptance that could hardly be easier to digest. The DVD adds worthwhile interviews and background material.

Precious Cargo: Blu-ray

Mark-Paul Gosselaar has one of those faces that are immediately recognizable, if not for any particular role or series. That is, of course, for those of us who’ve never watched “Saved by the Bell” or its various spinoffs and immediately recognize him as Zack Morris. After checking out his resume on IMDB.com, it was easy to recall Gosselaar’s grown-up turns as Detective John Clark Jr. on “NYPD Blue” and Franklin Bash on “Franklin & Bash.” At 42, he’d love nothing more than to be recognized as an actor as comfortable in action features as he was in sitcoms and genre series. In soldier-turned-filmmaker Max Adams’ directorial debut, Precious Cargo, Gosselaar plays a crook with a talent for ripping off criminals unlikely to file a complaint with local authorities or Interpol. Jack’s team includes a punky sharpshooter (Jenna B. Kelly), his veterinarian girlfriend (Lydia Hull) and pregnant former lover (Claire Forlani), who’s on the run from a crime lord played by Bruce Willis. The scheme requires of Jack’s team that it collects a safe full of stolen diamonds and hand it over to Willis’ crew in return for not being killed on the spot. If the plot isn’t all that distinctive, action fans can enjoy the film’s many explosions, car chases, airborne escapes and a nifty boat chase, staged somewhere in the vicinity of Gulfport, Mississippi. Gosselaar and Kelly display a pleasant rapport in their post-combat exchanges, while Willis once again pretty much phones in his performance, which probably only required one or two days of his time. At 45, Forlani probably wasn’t the best choice to play a visibly pregnant crook, on the run from the law and her former boss in stiletto heels. Although she remains one of great beauties to appear on big and small screens, the hi-def camera reveals far too much of the cosmetics used to make her look 30. With 4K-resolution right around the corner, makeup artists are going to have to work harder to make middle-age actors of both genres look natural. (By contrast, Willis is lit in one scene to resemble Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.) The Blu-ray adds “The Making of Precious Cargo” featurette and cast/crew interviews.

Back in the Day

Blessed with a cast of highly recognizable actors, but cursed by what I suspect was a budget best described as “micro,” Back in the Day will go over best with boxing and Mafia completists who tend to find positive things to say about the frequently interrelated subjects. Here, however, the mobsters don’t seem to be particularly interested in fixing the fights of local favorite, Anthony Rodriguez (William DeMeo), an Italian/Puerto Rican hybrid growing up on the streets of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. They exist on the same plane as the wise guys who hang around the social club run by Paulie and Tuddy Cicero, in Goodfellas, who don’t seem to work but always have money for shiny clothes. During the 1980s, when much of Paul Borghese’s drama is set, the mobsters pay lip service, at least, to keeping the neighborhood safe for women, children and shopkeepers, as long as they’re of the white persuasion. Gentrification and an influx of nationalities other than Italian wouldn’t begin in earnest until the new millennium. Growing up, Anthony was burdened by an abusive, alcoholic father, who somehow got lucky by marrying a hard-working Italian woman (Annabella Sciorra) from the neighborhood. After tiring of being called “spic” by every two-bit Joe Pesci-wannabe in Bensonhurst, Anthony decides to take out his anger on the heavy bag installed in the basement by his father, when he still gave a shit about his family. His newfound boxing skills come to the attention of local mob bosses Enzo DeVino (Michael Madsen) Gino Fratelli (Alec Baldwin) after he vents his frustrations over the hit-and-run death of his mother on the butcher who once tried to molest him. As time goes by, Anthony will be paid to vent his leftover frustrations on other professional boxers, while the mobsters continue to play their dangerous games with guns in the old neighborhood. Because Back in the Day opens with what could be Anthony’s final championship fight, we already know how half the movie, at least, is going to play out. His past is related to boxing writer Larry Merchant in flashback form over lunch in a venerable Bensonhurst restaurant. (Former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson appears in an off-the-wall cameo.) Almost everything that takes place in the movie suffers from the bare-bones budget, including the boxing scenes, which could have been staged in a convenience store. Even so, the appearance of big-name stars – including Danny Glover, Joseph D’Onofrio, Shannen Doherty – keep things moving for most of the overlong two-hour length.

The Steps

The Family Fang

As the children of Baby Boomers grow older and realize their dreams of making movies about their brilliantly tortured lives, we’re going to see a lot more like The Steps, One More Time (reviewed here three weeks ago) and The Family Fang. Digital technology now allows for relatively inexpensive filmmaking and Kickstarter campaigns sometimes succeed in supplementing credit-card budgets and the occasional AFI or Sundance grant. The more stars one can round up by begging, pleading and calling in favors, the better. The presence of one or two stars once guaranteed distribution, but, now, a half-dozen might not be enough. Early positive reviews don’t always work, either. Just as a tortured family reunion provided the foundation for One More Time, which stars Christopher Walken, Amber Heard, Hamish Linklater, Oliver Platt and Ann Magnuson, a gathering of two soon-to-be-united tribes is in the forefront of The Steps. The former is staged in a beautiful home at the tip of Long Island, while the latter unspools in a splendid lakeside home in Ontario. It would be too easy to dismiss the family dynamics as “dysfunctional” – a catch-all term popularized in the 1980-90s — although they are. These nearing retirement Boomer parents are wealthy and successful in their own ways, and the kids, apart from being neglected at various times in their lives, have been spoiled and given every opportunity to succeed. They resent having to live in the shadow of one or both parents, but are too messed up to carve a niche of their own. I also doubt that these families are representative of those found outside major urban centers. In One More Time, Walken’s character is an out-of-the-limelight music star from the days of Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow and Billy Joel. In Andrew Currie and Robyn Harding’s The Steps, James Brolin portrays a wealthy money manager whose wheelings and dealings provided ample opportunities for him to enjoy the fat life of an absentee parent. Now that he’s met another woman (Christine Lahti) with whom to share his perfect life, Ed wants his children to embrace Sherry’s brood as half-siblings, anyway. Ed’s American children (Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jason Ritter) are neurotic and self-absorbed in a New York sort of way, while Sherry’s kids and kids-in-law (Kate Corbett, Vinay Virmani, Steven McCarthy, Benjamin Arthur) are screwed up in ways more closely associated with growing up with a free-spirited single mom in Canada. It isn’t a perfect match. The poop really hits the fan, however, when Ed and Sherry announce they’re adopting a child – Chinese, natch — to bring the family together. There are some decent ideas at play in both films, but none that cry to be seen on a big screen at a multiplex for $11 a ticket.

 

Walken is an even greater joy to watch in The Family Fang, an adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s best-selling novel that received an “excuse me” release before disappearing into VOD limbo last month. Here, he plays the male half of a controversial husband-and-wife conceptual-art team famous for the kind of cruel and macabre public performances that are easily confused with pranks. Michelle Kidman and director Jason Bateman play the adult versions of Annie and Baxter – a.k.a., Child A and Child B – who never got over being used by their parents as props in the often faux-gory and disturbing public performances. As a narrator explains, “The Fangs simply throw themselves into a space, as if they were hand grenades, and wait for the disruption to occur.” For their parts, the elder Fangs (Walken, Maryann Plunkett) never got over their children’s decision to pursue disciplines – writing, acting – that didn’t test the limits of decorum and normalcy. After Baxter is hospitalized in a freak accident, the family comes together for the first time in a long while. It’s an uneasy reunion, but things don’t get truly weird until Caleb and Camille take off on a ride through the Massachusetts countryside and simple disappear. Naturally, Annie and Baxter’s first thought is that it’s yet another performance, intended to draw attention to themselves. The police aren’t so sure. I don’t know how the movie squares with the novel, but, as it is, The Family Fang does a nice job asking provocative questions about what children and parents owe each other and what happens when the debt comes due. The damage done can be read on the faces of Kidman and Bateman, who can’t escape Caleb and Camille’s shadow, no matter how hard they try. Admirers of such offbeat dysfunctional-family flicks as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Squid and the Whale, The Family Stone and Running with Scissors really should take a chance on The Family Fang.

 

Docs-to DVD

Elstree 1976

George Crumb: Voice of the Whale

Weaving The Past: Journey of Discovery

Scary Man

Here’s another documentary that might have attracted a niche audience, if only members of the target demographic knew it actually existed. The title probably could have been a little less vague, but Star Wars buffs would have caught the reference and flocked to the film as if it were a memorabilia convention. Elstree 1976 refers to the British production facility where four episodes of George Lucas’ juggernaut were filmed, including the first one, whose huge success assured that the studio wouldn’t be repurposed as condominiums. Jon Spira’s film explores the lives of the largely unheralded actors and extras who helped create one of the most celebrated franchises in cinematic history, but weren’t named Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher or Mark Hamill. Instead, Spira found and interviewed such actors as Dave Prowse, who wore the Darth Vader suit and acted out a performance that James Earl Jones’ voice would make famous; Paul Blake, who played Greedo, the guy Han Solo shoots in the cantina bar; Pam Rose, given an addition to her noggin to play barmaid Leesub Sirln; and Jeremy Bulloch, whose character, Boba Fett, would achieve a degree of infamy unparalleled in sci-fi history. Almost everyone interviewed was a working actor before Star Wars and remained one afterwards, some reprising their characters in later episodes. Forty years later, they continue to attend fan conventions and collect money for autographs. Their stories are quite delightful.

 

Shuffle through any pile of 33rpm albums left behind by reformed hippies, after they left home in anticipation of careers in the straight world, and there’s a very good chance you’ll find a tattered copy of “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” a 1970 album produced by bio-acoustician Roger Payne. By the standards of the day, it was a huge hit. By demonstrating how whales communicated through a sonic vocabulary that resembles music, Payne gave environmentalists a weapon in the incipient battle to save whales from extinction. It was about this time, as well, that Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning composer George Crumb used man-made instruments to re-create the sounds of whales in “Vox Balaenae for Three Masked Players,” a decidedly avant-garde work for electric flute, cello and amplified piano. He is noted as an explorer of unusual timbres, alternative forms of notation and extended instrumental and vocal techniques. Examples include the seagull effect for the cello, metallic vibrato for the piano and using a mallet to play the strings of a contrabass. Crumb defines music as “a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse” … the “first cell from which language, science and religion originated.” In 1976, fledgling documentarian Robert Mugge created the first of what would become dozens of music-related films, “George Crumb: Voice of the Whale.” The 54-minute doc was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. A native of West Virginia, Crumb also was greatly influenced by the raw-sounding gospel music he heard in the churches of the poor, God-fearing mountain folk. In the segments recorded in his home, Crumb discusses his influences and techniques with fellow composer Richard Wernick, while his musician wife, Elizabeth, offers her own version of their eccentric lifestyle. As heady as the discussions sometimes get, musicologists should find them fascinating. I couldn’t find a link between George Crumb and artist R. Crumb, apart from an uncanny resemblance to each other.

 

What Donald Trump doesn’t know about the history of Mexico and the root causes of the poverty that continues to inspire illegal immigration could fill all of his skyscrapers and villas. The less his supporters understand about this and other key issues, the freer their candidate is to exploit such ignorance for his own personal and political gain. Conversely, the more Americans learn about the struggles of the working poor in Mexico and Central America, the more sympathy we’ll have when confronted with the faces of people driven to give up everything they know for a small piece of the pie. Walter Dominguez’ heart-wrenching documentary, Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery, was born from a desperate desire to fulfill his grandfather’s dying wish to locate his long lost family and re-connect ties severed when he escaped north for a new lease on life. Dominguez, who had drifted away from a filmmaking career in the mid-1970s, was driven to resume it after sinking into a deep depression in the wake of 9/11. By electing to fulfill the promise to his saintly Mexican-born grandfather, Reverend Emilio Hernandez, he was able to lift the fog of despair through hard work and intense research. He wasn’t given many clues as to where to begin his “journey of discovery,” but he eventually was led to led to people in Mexico who knew where to start. “Tata” Hernandez had been part of a social movement, one that strove to end oppression of Native Americans and impoverished Mexicans and exploded into a bloody revolution that touched both sides of the border. Like many people of Mexican background, Dominguez is part Native American, meaning that he has roots that extend further into the history of North America than most. While the Spanish and well-to-do Mexicans oppressed the Native Americans, on the other side of the border, white Americans exploited both the Mexicans and the Native Americans. Inspired, as well, by a promise made to his own dying father, Dominguez finally was able to locate elderly relatives and friends of his grandfather and learn about those uncles and aunts who decided not to make the trip north. His research also revealed a history of dictatorship and genocide neglected in American classrooms. How many American descendants of immigrants would benefit from tracing their roots to the Old Country and learning the conditions that led to their decision to leave home? The commonality of such experience is part of the fabric of America now being threatened by xenophobes, nationalists and outright bigots.

 

There was a time, not so long ago, when people who lived in close vicinity to the flyways of migratory birds could set their watches to the sight of the first V-shaped formations of Canada geese heading south for the winter. It was exciting to watch them pass overhead, knowing they’d escaped extinction for one more year and future generations might be able to enjoy the same sight. Little did we know, then, that these magnificent long-necked creatures would adjust so well to changing conditions on the ground that they would skip the arduous flight to their nesting grounds and find ways to survive the brutal winters of the Midwest. At first, it was believed that the geese were attracted solely to the cooling ponds outside nuclear plants. Before long, however, semi-flightless flocks of geese took control of golf course, public parks, corporate lawns, airports and sanctuaries, where food was easy to find and no one shot at them. It was novel, at first, but soon became a nuisance when the birds’ droppings made leisurely walks impossible and chemical imbalances polluted ponds. Dutch directors Eugenie Jansen and Albert Elings noticed how farmers and health officials there not only were dealing with over-populations of geese, but also a year-round surplus of starlings, sparrows and pigeons. Recognizing the regulations introduced to protect endangered species, Scary Man (a.k.a., “Vogelvrij” or “Outlawed”) attempts to take as objective a view of the problem as is possible. Winner of multiple international awards, including the Earth Watch Film Award from the National Geographic Society, Scary Man explores how the Dutch cope with the competition for space and resources between too many birds and too many people living in a small country. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it didn’t take long for the birds to become immune to the usual human measures – loud noises, sparkling ribbons, decoys of predators – and begin to ignore them.

 

Made in Cleveland

Until two weeks ago, Cleveland was a city known primarily as a city so polluted its river caught fire and as the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and losing sports teams … literally losing its longtime NFL franchise in 1995, when the owner decided to move his team lock, stock and barrel to Baltimore, where it became the Ravens. While the Indians occasionally show signs of life, it took the NBA’s Cavaliers to break the spell by bringing home the first major professional sports championship since the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship. (Someday, perhaps, the annual concert honoring new Hall of Fame inductees will be staged on the shores of Lake Erie, instead of Madison Square Garden.) The 2013 anthology film, Made in Cleveland, consists of nearly a dozen short films featuring the work of seven different directors, five screenwriters and a myriad collection of widely known and local actors (news anchors Robin Swoboda and Leon Bibb, among the latter). And, while the vignettes probably could have been staged in almost any big urban center, the backdrops, landmarks and locations will be immediately recognizable to anyone who’s spent time in Cleveland. The film didn’t receive any distribution outside northern Ohio, but few of these sorts of hit-and-miss things do. Among the more recognizable cast members are Busy Philipps, Gillian Jacobs, Patrick Antone, Jeffrey Grover and Robbie Barnes. The bonus package adds a deleted piece.

 

TV-to-DVD

Disney Channel: Adventures in Babysitting

PBS: Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King

PBS: NOVA: Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?

PBS Kids: Odd Squad: The O Games

PBS: Nature: Jungle Animal Hospital

Disney Channel no longer lets any grass grow under the feet of its original movies. Its updating of Adventures in Babysitting hits the streets almost simultaneously with its release on Disney’s various cable outlets. The special attention accorded the nearly 30th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ classic urban misadventure, which provided an early platform for Elizabeth Shue, Penelope Ann Miller, Vincent D’Onofrio and Bradley Whitford, among others, derives from it being the 100th Disney Channel Original Movies. That number includes “Descendants,” “Teen Beach Movie,” “High School Musical” and their various sequels. Here, Sofia Carson (“Descendants”) and Sabrina Carpenter (“Girl Meets World”) assume the roles once destined for Raven-Symoné and Miley Cyrus in an aborted 2009 remake. That might have been fun, especially considering how Miley has grown up in the interim, flashing her boobs to anyone with a camera. John Schultz’ adaptation follows the same basic blueprint from the original, which Disney originally allowed to go out with a PG-13 rating through Touchstone. A mismatched pair of babysitters find themselves in a bit of bother when their cellphones are mistakenly exchanged, causing them to be put in charge of two very different sets of children. Naturally, the kids have agendas of their own to pursue while the parents attend the same fancy party. Eventually, they attract a pair of comical lowlifes who are after a treasure the kids have in their possession. Mayhem, of course, ensues. Even lacking a PG-13 edge, this “Adventures in Babysitting” should please ’tweens and Disney Channel fans in their early teens who’ll buy into the whole kids-take-charge vibe. The DVD adds a short “Adventures in Outtakes” and a magnetic photo frame, whose removable center supplies some babysitting rules and ideas.

 

Viewed from this side of the pond, Prince Philip has always been something of an enigma. Condemned to forever walk two steps behind his wife, Queen Elizabeth II, the former heir to the abandoned Greek crown must enjoy the benefits of his regal station. Like his son, Prince Charles, however, he probably thought he’d be doing something else to earn his keep, by now. There was a time when Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh, a member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg and the royal families of Greece and Denmark, was far more than the emotionally challenged cypher he would become. The excellent PBS bio-doc, “Prince Philip: The Plot to Make a King,” describes how the once-dashing naval officer stole/won the heart of the woman who would be queen and, in doing so, scared the crap of Winston Churchill and other British politicians who feared he might be a Nazi sympathizer or pawn of his ever-scheming uncle, Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten, a British statesman and naval officer killed in an IRA bombing in 1979. Nothing came of all the rumors, behind-the-scenes machinations and political paranoia, and little was ever revealed to the public. With a few minor plot twists and storyline that included Princess Diana, “The Plot to Make a King” would make a terrific novel.

 

Among the many ways our tax dollars could be better spent than financing two increasingly ludicrous wars in the Middle East would be a frontal attack on Alzheimers disease, which ravages the minds of more than 40 million victims worldwide and, as such, poses a greater threat than Al Qaeda and ISIS put together. While the cause of Alzheimers remains a mystery and a cure seems almost impossibly elusive, advanced medical technology has given researchers some reasons to feel cautiously optimistic. The “NOVA” presentation “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped?” allows viewers to join investigators as they gather clues and attempt to reconstruct the molecular chain of events that ultimately leads to dementia. Along the way, we meet individuals from all walks of life who reveal what it’s like to struggle with Alzheimer’s, as well as members of a unique Colombian family who have learned that their genetic predisposition all but guarantees an early-onset of the disease. These courageous patients are participating in clinical trials and drug tests that may or may not bear fruit in their lifetimes. Genentech Inc. is mentioned more often than other companies, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing.

 

PBS Kids’ “Odd Squad: The O Games” gets into the spirit of Olympics-year competition with a series of crazy math challenges. The winner gets to be Ms. O for a day and run Odd Squad. Agent Otto is chosen to compete against the villainous Odd Todd, who is Agent Olives’ former partner. If Odd Todd comes out on top, he could shut down Odd Squad forever. The series features young agents who use indirect reasoning and math to solve and investigate strange happenings in their town. Satire and comedic archetypes are used to teach the audience math and math-related topics.

 

PBS’s “Nature: Jungle Animal Hospital” takes viewers deep into the Guatemalan jungle to observe the work of an organization whose staff works around the clock to care for injured, orphaned and endangered animals brought to its facility from all over the country. The rescue center, known as ARCAS, is at full capacity with over 700 boarders of all shapes and sizes, chiefly victims of the illegal pet trade. Filmmakers spent a year documenting the work being done at the country’s busiest rescue center, including Anna Bryant’s efforts to make sure a troop of spider monkeys would finally be ready to go back to the wild after several years of rehabilitation. The vets also work with authorities at checkpoints on roads leading out of the jungle to locate newly-hatched baby parrots being smuggled out on buses by the hundreds. The program also documents the first time that captive-bred scarlet macaws are released into the wild in Guatemala. Jaguars, armadillos, crocs and gray foxes also make cameo appearances.

 

 

The DVD Wrapup: Knight of Cups, Greek Wedding 2, Wondrous Boccaccio, Anesthesia and more

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

Knight of Cups: Blu-ray

Anyone whose idea of brilliant filmmaking includes Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, but found Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically flawless cinematography no match for the writer-director’s meandering metaphysics in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, is likely to be disappointed once again by Knight of Cups. Don’t get me wrong: Lubezki’s visual interpretations of Malick’s wispy meditations on one Pilgrim’s Progress through sin, suffering and sensory overload on his way to John Bunyan’s Celestial City are easily worth the price of this technically splendid Blu-ray from Broad Green Pictures. Christian Bale plays a presumably successful screenwriter, Rick, who, after being shaken awake one morning by an earthquake, comes to the realization that all of the pleasures of life aren’t worth a plugged nickel if they don’t contribute to redemption on the way to heaven. (The leading byproduct of strong temblors are epiphanies, at least on the West Side of L.A.) Rick also represents the character in a deck of tarot cards, the titular Knight of Cups, who, while artistic, refined and full of high principles, also is easily bored, desirous of constant stimulation and, when viewed upside-down, unreliable, reckless and delusional. That’s a lot of weight for a Hollywood Everyman to bear, especially one as handsome and prone to debauchery as Rick. Here, the road to his redemption begins in the City of Destruction – or, if you will, the Big Rock Candy Mountain by the Sea — with its ready supply of cocaine, boutique liquors, convertibles and million-dollar views. When Rick isn’t partaking in pillow fights with wannabe starlets in their designer britches, he’s wandering aimlessly through decadent parties; attending mass at strip clubs, where at least some of the dancers have PhD’s in philosophy; taking spontaneous road trips to Las Vegas and Death Valley; and strolling down the beach with someone else’s wife. Rick is allowed the luxury, as well, of commiserating with a half-dozen of the City of Angels’ loveliest diversions: Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Isabel Lucas. More sobering detours take him to Skid Row, the burn unit of a hospital and a hair-raising encounter with his imperious father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). With so many options open to him, besides actually writing screenplays, it’s no wonder Rick is so confused. We should all be so confused.

Knight of Cups couldn’t have been made by anyone less contemplative or obsessed with the dialectics of beauty than Malick. Before capturing the attention of the film world with the visually stunning and deeply moving Badlands and Days of Heaven, he apprenticed under some of the industry’s savviest professionals. His stellar education in the humanities would only come to the fore, however, after three individual hiatuses, totaling 32 years. Since his spellbinding historic drama, The New World, was released, in 2005, Malick has completed five films, only three of which have been seen by the public. The metaphysical themes of those three pictures suggest he might have immersed himself in the philosophical and religious teachings to which he was first introduced in college. Still, if he had one eye focused on the heavens during this 40-year period, his other was pinned on the people and things that attract and repulse serious artists to Hollywood in nearly equal measure.Knight of Cups may not fit the dictionary definition of aroman à clef, but it’s close. The most obvious of several Malickian conceits manifested here is the recruitment of dozens of real-life celebrities – actors, writers, agents, producers – who play themselves or cynical representations of themselves during the course of the two-hour story. (The more venal among them should go back and listen to Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Movie’s About You”) Many are easy to recognize, while others are known only to their children, ex-wives, lawyers and maître d’s of the West Side’s toniest restaurants. Typically, Malik required of the primary cast members that they improvise their dialogue, based on character descriptions and outlines. Occasionally, too, Malick would “torpedo” an actor into a scene, just to see how the others reacted. The effect is less than organic.

Knight of Cups reminds me a great deal of Robert Altman’s The Player, which included many high-profile cameos and spoofed the archetypal characters. (Others have compared it to Paolo Sorrentino’s Fellini-esque The Great Beauty.) Rick and Tim Robbins’ aggressively ambitious studio executive could be cousins, working different sides of the same studio lot. Because The Player was framed within the context of a murder mystery, however, it didn’t really matter if viewers recognized any of the celebrities Robbins glad-handed before ordering his first bottle of boutique spring water for the day. In Knight of Cups, the cameos frequently auger mystery and dread. Antonio Banderas’ zany antics during the big party scene last for only a few minutes, but are far more memorable than anything Rick does and says in his voice-over narration. It’s almost as if Banderas is the film’s court jester and everything he surveys is fool’s gold, which, of course, it is. If Malick wants us to view Los Angeles as Bunyan’s City of Destruction, however, Lubezki’s ability to capture its bewildering mélange of architecture, vegetation, natural wonders and light suggests that no one be condemned for mistaking it for heaven … until the bills come due, of course. I’m not sure how Knight of Cups will fare come awards season. The critics were decidedly mixed and the domestic box office bordered on nil. No one should be surprised, however, if Lubeski wins his fourth Oscar in a row – after The Revenant, Birdman and Gravity – for his work here. It’s that amazing. The Blu-ray adds interesting and informative interviews with cast and crew members. Malick, as usual, is a no-show.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2: Blu-ray

In some corners of the Hellenic diaspora, Nia Vardalos’ surprise comedy hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding is regarded in the same light as others see “Roots” … minus, of course, the scourge of racism and slavery. No matter how many times my relatives watch it, they recognize people and situations from their own upbringing, including a patriarch’s insistence that all words somehow derive from ancient Greek or his insistence that there’s no legitimate excuse for not cleaning a grease pit in the family restaurant on a sunny weekend or holiday. Diehard fans have waited 14 years forMy Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, which Vardalos insists she couldn’t have written until she experienced parenthood first-hand. (Vardalos and movie husband, John Corbett, shared the screen in 2009’s disappointing I Hate Valentine’s Day, which she co-wrote and directed, but was otherwise unrelated to the MBFGW franchise.) Most of the actors who starred in the original reprise their roles in My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. They look 14 years older, but in a perfectly organic way. Toula and Ian’s child, Paris (Elena Kampouris), isn’t old enough to have a big fat wedding of her own, so Vardalos conceived a scenario in which Mom and Dad Portokalos discover they weren’t officially married and they’ll be required to repeat their vows to remain in the church’s good graces. Recognizing that Gus (Michael Constantine) isn’t the same romantic dude she wed decades earlier, Marie (Lainie Kazan) plays hard to get. Meanwhile, the rest of the family is ganging up on the grumpy goth Paris to pick a college close to home and accept their help in the match-making department. Like Grandma Marie, Paris resists the advice of four generations of Portokalos meddlers, but for how long? The sequel didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as the original – how could it? – but it made some money, I think. While critics duly noted the formulaic plotting and the occasional overreaching for laughs, it would be difficult for viewers of any ethnic persuasion not to find things they’ll recognize. After all, that’s what struck the chord that made the original a hit. The Blu-ray adds a cast reunion, gag reel and making-of featurette.

Wondrous Boccaccio

When the 14th Century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote “The Decameron,” he couldn’t have imagined the influence it would have on the next 650 years’ worth of novelists, short-story writers, playwrights, film and television producers. It would have been tough enough to imagine a magic box with tiny electronic people inside it. “The Decameron” and its many derivatives are set against the backdrop of the Black Death epidemic that struck Florence in 1348, forcing a group of 10 well-heeled young men and women to seek refuge in a secluded villa just outside the city. To while away the time, they swap tales of love and courtship … 100 in all. Some had been picked up from travelers and storytellers from all points of the compass and brought to Italy, where Boccaccio made them his own. They, in turn, would form the basis for works by Chaucer, Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Molière, John Keats, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe. There have been several big-screen adaptations, including Pier Paolo Pasolini’s outrageously ribald, The Decameron, which set the bar almost impossibly high. Forty-five years later, though, the esteemed Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars, Padre Padrone) gave it a shot in Wondrous Boccaccio. They needn’t have bothered. The licentious spark that ignited Pasolini’s adaptation is missing and the lovely Tuscan scenery, pretty boys and girls, and splendid period costumes fall just short of compensating for it. On the other hand, this unrated release will be better suited to viewers whose tolerance for perversity kept them from Pasolini’s classic, which, was immediately followed by the kindred Canterbury Tales, Bawdy Tales (as writer) andArabian Nights. The Film Movement package includes a directors’ statement and the animated short film, “Ground Floor,” by Asya Aizen.

Anesthesia: Blu-ray

Tim Blake Nelson’s tightly interwoven drama, Anesthesia,makes a very sound argument for the theory that casting decisions can make the difference between success and failure, commercially and artistically. That’s because almost all of his characters here are disagreeable in one way or another and it’s only the stellar cast that keeps their bitterness from overwhelming what they have to say. Like Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a distinctly New York accent, everything that happens in Anesthesia is a thread in the fabric of a much larger tapestry. Because we’re first introduced to Sam Waterson’s retiring philosophy professor, Walter Zarrow, his storyline is – forgive the mixing of metaphors — the river into which all tributaries flow. All we know about Zarrow as he stops at a street-corner flower stand after work is that he’s on his way to a pre-arranged rendezvous with a woman, Marcia (Glenn Close), we soon will learn is his wife. Within minutes, Zarrow’s either being mugged or having a heart attack on the stoop of an apartment building. With his last ounce of strength, the mild-mannered professor manages to ring the doorbells of everyone inside it. We half-expect a repeat of the Kitty Genovese incident, but, instead, Zarrow is attended to by one of the residents. Before he slips into unconsciousness, he whispers something into his rescuer’s ear, intended only for Marcia. That snippet of wisdom won’t be revealed for another 90 minutes, however, along with the Zarrows’ connection to a self-destructive junky (K. Todd Freeman) and his lawyer brother (Michael Kenneth Williams); a couple (Jessica Hecht, Nelson) experiencing the twin traumas of cancer and sordid revelations about their stoner kids; and a professionally unfulfilled woman (Gretchen Mol), whose husband’s infidelity has driven her to drink. Zarrow is the most compelling character, if only because Nelson has given him the most interesting things to say. He’s retiring after 30-some years of selling the same old baloney to easily impressed students and we’re invited to observe him delivering a fresh load to another graduating class. Then, it’s on to the flower stand. Yul Vazquez plays a shrink who’s seen one too many young men and women trapped in the revolving door of addiction, while Kristen Stewart portrays a suicidal cutter and burner; Lisa Benavides-Nelson plays her shrink; and Mickey Sumner is the lovely young blond about to be dumped by the cheating husband (Corey Stoll). If Nelson ties everything up a bit too neatly at about the 85-minute mark, the actors are well up to the challenge of making it look deceptively easy.

Going Away

Sometimes, there’s no getting around the fact that there are some things the French make better than anyone. Escargot is certainly one of them, as are certain varieties of wine and cheese. For the purposes of this review, anyway, let’s say that romantic dramas featuring attractive, if inexplicably miserable young people is another. Not so much, French comedies and movie musicals, although the best of them betray a certain charm, as well. Nicole Garcia’s Going Away describes the difficult coming together of two people who are running away from things they’ve given up trying to fix and now require space to regroup before the next wave of punishment. Baptiste Cambière (Pierre Rochefort) is a teacher living in the south of France, where the average length of a school placement is limited to one term. He’s a loner with a troubled past, so we’re never quite sure if a more permanent situation would be more to his liking, Just before summer break, Baptiste is left unwittingly in charge of a young student, Mathias, whose bozo father wants to spend the weekend with his trashy lover and needs to have the boy delivered to his mother. Sandra (Louise Bourgoin) works in beachside restaurant in the resort town of Palavas-les-Flots, near Montpellier. She is drop-dead gorgeous, but has trouble tattooed all over her. She’s accrued serious debts, ranging from Hawaii to the south of France, and it’s only a matter of time before the thugs on her trail catch up to her. Baptiste is reluctant to leave Mathias at her home alone, while she works, so they take advantage of the seaside amenities. More prone to violence than seems possible for a teacher, he rescues Sandra from one predicament after another before taking off for the spectacularly scenic Midi-Pyrénées region. It’s here that we’ll learn Baptiste’s deeply held secrets. Suffice to say that, as the black-sheep son in ahaute bourgeoise family, he was ostracized and driven to extreme measures to find a niche for himself. When we meet the icy family matriarch, Liliane (Dominique Sanda), and the rest of her heartless brood, Baptiste’s past and future come to a head simultaneously. How that knowledge will impact the future his traveling companions is the next question left for Garcia to answer.  Bourgoin’s already made a name for herself in such first-rate entertainments as The Girl from Monaco and The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, while Rochefort, the son of actor Jean Rochefort and the director, Garcia, is only now being noticed on his own merits. Sanda’s return after two long layoffs is especially welcome.

King Georges

As we’ve witnessed in Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares,” “Hell’s Kitchen” and certain other foodie shows, society will forgive all manner of abusive behavior from chefs, as long as the food meets expectations and service is impeccable. Try hurling a frying pan and f-bombs at your co-workers in the office as see if you’re rewarded with a show on Fox Business or CNBC. Erika Frankel’s documentary debut as a director, King Georges, is a portrait of the widely esteemed chef Georges Perrier, longtime owner of Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin, one of the country’s premier destination restaurants. Frankel caught up with Perrier around the time he announced he was closing the restaurant for the first time, in 2010. The overwhelmingly negative response to the announcement allowed Perrier to remain in business another couple of years. Frankel spent most her time in the cramped kitchen, overseeing the production of the night’s meals. The rest is spent in the front of the house and in Perrier’s home, where he spent very few hours in a day. Not surprisingly, the dishes are every bit as mouth-watering as one would expect from a chef of Perrier’s reputation. The problem I had is his inability to keep a civil tongue in his mouth when he observes a faux pas made by an assistant. Naturally, the eruption passes quickly, but the effect on viewers doesn’t dissipate until makes nice with staff members or is able to mellow out after the rush. It only when the restaurant closes for good and the equipment and furnishings are put up for sale that Frankel is able to capture a side of Perrier not frequently seen in the film’s first hour. No longer the workaholic or perfectionist, he’s able to dispense his accumulated knowledge to students and occasionally serve as a senior apprentice in the restaurants of friends and former colleagues, including “Top Chef” winner and former protégé, Nicholas Elmi. The film is spiced with archival footage and interviews from world-renowned chefs, such as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert.

The Black Jacket

At a time when gang-related bloodshed in South Central Los Angeles was rising at an alarming pace, a former Black Panther, community activist and martial-arts aficionado decided to encourage ’bangers and police to consider a strategy based on cooperation, communication and trust. Instead of giving in to the perpetrators of violence or encouraging police to react first and talk later, Aquil Basheer took the initiative in the crisis, by calling on concerned citizens to merge their strengths and adopt intervention and negotiation techniques in first-call situations. As CEO/president of Maximum Force Enterprises, Basheer developed the Crisis Survival Training Institute and its 16-week course, during which volunteers are constantly challenged by those with street-level experience. If they pass their tests, graduates are awarded black windbreakers with the association’s logo on it. By changing the violent mindsets of influential gang members, one person at a time, hundreds fewer murders have been recorded since its implementation. In Los Angeles, 87 neighborhoods once at war with each other now co-exist in something resembling peace, employing cease-fires and widespread communication before tempers boil over. Since its inception, Basheer’s teaching method and course have been adopted by the Los Angeles City and those in other cities throughout the world. My only quibble with director Ryan Simon’s verite-style approach is that viewer spend too much in classrooms and awards ceremonies and not enough in the streets, where the action is.

 

Peace After Marriage

Born in Jordan, raised in Brooklyn, comedian Ghazi Albuliwi puts a fresh twist on the old green-card marriage ruse in Peace After Marriage by having an Israeli woman and Palestinian-American man enter into a sham relationship, so she can stay in this country and be near here Israeli boyfriend, who’s also gaming this system. Of course, as anyone attempting to pull off the scam already knows, an immigration official will make every effort to confirm the legality of such an arrangement through unannounced home visits and asking personal questions. The parents of Albuliwi’s character, Arafat, have failed miserably – and comically – to arrange a “suitable” marriage for their son. Arafat may not be much of a catch, but his new Israeli wife, Miki (Einat Tubi), would pass anyone’s test … except Arafat’s deeply embarrassed Palestinian parents and their imam. When her boyfriend dumps Miki, after all, she decides to cut Arafat a break by agreeing to go to a Halloween party at the home of one of his slacker friends. To demonstrate his affection for her, he poses as a Hasidic Jew. (It’s one of several gags that push the limits of taste.) Produced in the spirit of ecumenism, Peace After Marriage, approaches the characters’ individual dilemmas with all the grace and dignity of a bulldozer in Gaza. There are plenty of funny moments, but merely having one’s heart in the right place is insufficient cause for celebration. As Arafat’s mother, the great Middle Eastern actress Hiam Abbass so clearly outclasses everyone else here that it’s possible to wonder if she’s related to someone in the production team.

All American Bikini Car Wash

Is there a school where film students are taught that adding the word, “bikini,” to any title ensures untold riches at the box office? The word was coined in 1946, after the atomic bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, and the Vatican might have given the two-piece swimsuit its greatest publicity boost when it declared the bikini sinful. At first, Hollywood studios allowed themselves to be buffaloed by the morality police, insisting on one-piece outfits for their female stars. Brian Hyland’s novelty hit “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” along with Ursula Andress’ famously skimpy two-piecer in Dr. No, forced Hollywood to take a stand … at the box office. In Beach Party, Annette Funicello’s briefs were cut so high, they argued against her being born with a navel. (It was revealed for the world to see in Muscle Beach Party.) Even so, the American public ate up these displays of flesh, making them huge hits. Ever since then, movies with the word in the title – even if the tops, at least, are removed quickly after they appear on screen – have a better-than-average chance of landing a late-night spot on Cinemax. This is a long way of pointing out that the latest example is Nimrod “Call Me Rod” Zalmanowitz’ debut feature, All American Bikini Car Wash, merely transfers the conceit to Las Vegas and beats it to death with a flock of silicone-enhanced bimbos willing to shed their tops for tips. In it, a dimwit college student agrees to run his professor’s Las Vegas car wash to avoid flunking out of business school. Naturally, he gets in trouble with local loan sharks and needs to be rescued by one of the shim-sham-chamois girls. With fewer production values on display than in any of the beach-blanket movies, it could find its natural audience among teenage boys, too timid to sample porn. Some pretty hot sports cars are featured in the car-wash scenes, including some top-down convertibles that don’t appear to be any worse for the wear usually associated with being submerged in suds and recycled water.

Crackerjack

In his very first motion picture, writer/director/editor/producer Bryan Coley has rendered a movie so thematically incomprehensible that it confuses Christian values with redneck idiocy. (Something it shares with Donald Trump’s evangelical base.) That this self-described Southern fairytale is narrated by Jeff Foxworthy is only likely to attract fans who won’t be able to find a review on the Internet. The product of a broken home, he recognized things in the lead character that applied to him and other victims of disappearing-daddy syndrome. In Crackerjack, Wes Murphy plays Bill “Crackerjack” Bailey IV, a sports junkie who inadvertently commits himself to a men’s softball ministry after learning that his girlfriend (Bethany Anne Lind) is pregnant and expects him to grow up and accept parenthood. Apparently, this isn’t a family value that runs in the DNA of Bailey men. CJ’s redneck credentials are further demonstrated by his residence of choice – a double-wide trailer — and entrepreneurial endeavors that include collecting Dinky Baby Dolls to sell online and collecting quarters and bottling them by state. (His behavior appears to have been influenced by the targets of Foxworthy’s many “You might be a redneck …” jokes.) The closer Sherry comes to her due date, the more likely it becomes that he’ll blow town, even after being tutored by his Christian teammates. The best thing Coley could have done with his script would have been handing it off to someone who might actually have already made a movie and knows what to do when things go sideways. The faith-based community deserves better options than Crackerjack.

The Crush: Blu-ray

Three years before Alicia Silverstone set box offices on fire in Amy Heckerling’s wonderfully au currant Jane Austen-inspired, Clueless, she played a 14-year-old Lolita act-alike in her feature debut, The Crush. Although Adrian’s failed seduction of her parents’ back-yard tenant, Nick (Cary Elwes), progresses a bit too hastily, Silverstone’s overnight evolution from adorable teen to femme fatale is pretty scary. Not only is she able to come within a false eyelash of leading Nick into statutory-rape beef, but she also nearly eliminates her competition, an all-grown-up photographer (Jennifer Rubin) with whom he works at a gossip magazine. Just for kicks, Adrian’s dad (Kurtwood Smith) has even rebuilt a carnival merry-go-round in the attic. And, yes, it figures into the creepy climax of The Crush. Special Blu-ray features include commentary with writer/director Alan Shapiro; “The Doting Father” interview with Kurtwood Smith; and “Stung by Love,” an interview with Jennifer Rubin.

No Way Out: Blu-ray

Roger Donaldson’s still thrilling remake of the 1948 noir classic, The Big Clock, is noteworthy for several reasons. Foremost, No Way Out confirmed the as-yet-untested theory that Kevin Costner was a triple-threat leading man, who could handle complex action roles, melt women’s hearts and deploy his natural charisma to prompt laughs and tears. Although he had already broken through in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, as Treasury agent Elliot Ness, Costner fought for screen time with Robert De Niro and Sean Connery. Here, he plays Navy intelligence officer Tom Farrell, who’s been assigned to investigate the murder of a call girl, whose affections he shared with a powerful Washington politician (Gene Hackman). If Tom isn’t guilty of one serious crime, however, the secret he’s hiding from police might implicate in something equally as bad. No Way Out also marked the emergence of Sean Young as a bona fide Hollywood sex symbol. Besides being entirely credible as a high-priced escort, Young possessed a sense of humor, passion for sex and openly flirtatious appeal that most big-screen prostitutes either were denied or were required to act out in code. Tom and Susan’s early love scene, which includes a striptease in the back of a moving limousine, would only be eclipsed by Sharon Stone’s white-hot sexuality in Basic Instinct, five years later.      Then, too, Donaldson made full use of its Washington setting, visually and as a backdrop for intrigue, corruption and lust for power. The wheelchair-bound computer geek played by George Dzundza and Will Patton’s closeted aide-de-camp are terrific, as well, as opposite sides of the same bureaucratic coin. No Way Out may not have won any awards in 1987, but its success changed the way things were done in the thriller genre for years to come. It was released into Blu-ray last February, but somehow only reached my mailbox last week, making it fair game.

Great American Frontier Double Feature: Grayeagle/Winterhawk: Blu-ray

Credit Shout! Factory for resurrecting two of the most compelling, if hugely underappreciated Westerns in recent Hollywood history: Grayeagle (1977) and Winterhawk(1975). Like the more expensive Little Big Man, before them, the gorgeously shot pictures gave the rare fair shake to Native Americans in the movies, without also portraying white settlers and trappers in a completely negative light. Arriving at a time when Westerns were losing their appeal at the box office, however, they were butchered by AIP editors hoping to cut them for release in TV packages and PG ratings. The damage appears to have been repaired in this Blu-ray double feature, which also restores James W. Roberson’s elegiac cinematography. Grayeagle plays like a poor man’s version of John Ford’s The Searchers, only from the Cheyenne point of view. The great cowboy actor Ben Johnson plays trapper John Coulter, whose life is thrown into upheaval when his daughter, Beth (Lana Wood), is kidnapped by the seemingly invincible warrior Grayeagle (Alex Cord). Coulter sets out on the plains with his friend Standing Bear (Iron Eyes Cody) to rescue Beth, who is coveted for reasons not readily apparent to viewers, with an assist from Jack Elam. (Lana’s sister, Natalie, played a similar role in The Searchers.) In Winterhawk, Blackfoot chief Winterhawk (Michael Dante) is double-crossed in a trade for much-needed medicine for his tribe. They were given smallpox-infected blankets from U.S. soldiers, but were denied treatment. After the chief’s companion is killed by trappers, he kidnaps a white woman (Dawn Wells, of “Gilligan’s Island” fame), sparking a range war. Besides some spectacular scenic vistas, enjoy the performances of Western veterans Leif Erickson,    Elisha Cook Jr., Woody Strode, L.Q. Jones, Arthur Hunnicutt, and Denver Pyle.Sacheen Littlefeather, Hollywood’s most famous Native American for 15 minutes, after refusing Marlin Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather, also has a prominent role. Writer/director Charles B. Pierce is noteworthy as a director, screenwriter, producer, set decorator, cinematographer, actor and one of the first modern independent filmmakers. His reputation will be partially restored with the release of these upgraded Westerns, but his primary claims to fame are his cult hits The Legend of Boggy Creek (1973), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) and suggesting the phrase, “Go ahead, make my day,” to Clint Eastwood in Sudden Impact.

TV-to-DVD

Fox: The X-Files: The Event Series: Blu-ray

Comedy Central: Workaholics: Season Six

Baa Baa Black Sheep: Black Sheep Squadron: The Final Season

Discovery Family: Transformers Rescue Bots: Heroes of Tech

ABC Kids: Power Rangers Ninja Storm: The Complete Series

PBS Kids: Super WHY!: Goldilocks and The Three Bears and Other Fairytale Adventures

Not having been a devoted follower of “The X-Files” in its original television incarnation, I’ve always faced the prospect of reviewing full-season packages – some originally in cassette form — and the hyphen-less stand-alone features, The X Files: Fight the Future and The X Files: I Want to Believe, with no small degree of trepidation. The complexity of the myriad storylines and menagerie of finely drawn characters required footnotes I didn’t possess. And, frankly, binging has never seemed to be a viable option. The 1998 movie felt forced and overly reliant on special effects to me. It underperformed at the domestic box office, while doing very well globally. The second edition underperformed everywhere. The 2001 spin-off series, “The Lone Gunmen,” opened big, before quickly losing steam and being canceled. The final season of “X-Files” in its original run may have been overshadowed by the very real events of 9/11, which couldn’t be blamed on aliens or the other usual suspects. It went out with a whimper. Even so, even mediocre “X-Files” episodes would prove to be infinitely more interesting than most of the other non-animated content on Fox, in the ensuing 13 years. “The X-Files: The Event Series,” newly packaged in a bonus-laden Blu-ray set, opened on January 24, 2016, to numbers that recalled ratings for the eighth-season episode “This Is Not Happening.” When DVR and streaming figures were taken into account, the Season 10 opener, “My Struggle” was seen by 21.4 million viewers, scoring a 7.1 Nielsen rating. The season ended six weeks later with “My Struggle II,” which was viewed by 7.60 million viewers. In total, the season was viewed by an average of 13.6 million viewers, making it the seventh most-watched television series of the 2015-16 year. As difficult as it would seem to top the cataclysmic events and frightening revelations in the mini-series, the desperation of broadcast executives suggests that nothing is impossible. Everything that happens in the “event series” qualifies as a spoiler, so let’s just say that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are back, as agents Mulder and Scully, whose personal relationship dissolved in the interim, but retain fondness for each other. Once again, the X-Files detail has been disbanded, leaving Mulder with only one place to go with new evidence that alien abductions have been faked. Or, have they? Mitch Pileggi also returns as FBI assistant director Walter Skinner, while new blood is represented by agents Einstein (Lauren Ambrose) and Miller (Robbie Amell), who might as well be clones of the protagonists. What really recommends the new Blu-ray set is the bounty of bonus features, including three commentaries; deleted and extended scenes; the mandatory gag reel; lengthy making-of and background pieces; interviews; Karen Nielsen’s short film, “Grace”; a gag reel; and “Monsters of the Week,” a recap of the wildest and scariest antagonists from the original series. I’m sure that longtime fans will be pleased.

Imagine arriving at work on what promises to be another typically boring day at your telemarketing-company office, only to discover that your boss has filled three open positions with young men, who appear to be the useless offspring of the Three Stooges or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. That, essentially is the concept behind Comedy Central’s “Workaholics,” a thoroughly goofy workplace sitcom whose sixth season is now available on DVD. Co-creators/co-writers/co-stars Adam Devine, Blake Anderson, Anders Holm and Kyle Newacheck emerged from a YouTube Channel entity, “Mail Order Comedy,” and mini-web-series “5th Year.” The protagonists, who share a cubicle at work and are roommates at home, met in college. They dropped out or were asked to leave, primarily over lack of interest and partying way too hardy. After scoring the jobs, their first test obviously was passing the drug test. It’s a cliché, by now, but some actors do it better than others. Also good are Maribeth Monroe’s no-nonsense boss and Jillian Bell’s obsessive cat lover and fellow office drone. They all have extensive backgrounds in improv comedy and it shows.

One of the first shows created and executive-produced by the hyper-prolific Stephen J. Cannell, “Black Sheep Squadron” was loosely based on a portion of the real-life military career of USMC aviator Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, commanding officer of a group of fighter pilots based in the Solomon Islands during World War II. The squadron was so named because its pilots formed “a collection of misfits and screwballs who became the terrors of the South Pacific.” Like almost every such unit in a wartime fighting unit, the crazy stuff ended when the first bullets began to fly. The NBC series ran from 1976-78, for a total of 36 episodes, only 13 of which comprised the second season. Arriving in the immediate wake of the Vietnam debacle, it’s likely that American audiences weren’t in the mood for an old-fashioned action dramedy. Competition from the more timely Korean War comedy, “M*A*S*H,” didn’t do the show any favors. Even so, Robert Conrad’s manly man presence assured NBC that audiences would tune in, if only to see what attracted him to the role. It also benefitted from the casting of such up-and-comers as John Larroquette, Dirk Blocker, Larry Manetti, Robert Ginty, Joey Aresco and James Whitmore Jr., as well as the occasional hot nurse. For the moment, at least, “Baa Baa Black Sheep: Black Sheep Squadron: The Final Season” is a Walmart exclusive.

Transformers: Rescue Bots: Heroes of Tech” follows Chase, Heatwave, Blades, Boulder and a family of first responders as they do whatever it takes to protect both their home and the world. They learn that new technology can assist them in wondrous ways, but it can also have consequences if misused. Among other things, experimental technology turns Cody into an adult, a space elevator strands Doc and Graham in orbit and a new invention causes the entire town to sing, instead of talk.

Shout!’s “Power Rangers Ninja Storm: The Complete Series” is a compilation of 38 episodes from the mother ship’s 11th season. It was the first to air on ABC in its entirety and be filmed in New Zealand.  In it, Tori, Shane and Dustin lead typical teenage lives in Blue Bay Harbor, while also studying at a secret ninja school under the teachings of a wise sensei. Their world changes when Lothor, a ninja master banished to space for his evil deeds, returns to Earth bent on revenge. Sensei gives Wind Morphers to the three kids that will transform them into Power Rangers to compete in this ultimate battle.

The two-hour PBS Kids’ package, “Super WHY!: Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Other Fairytale Adventures” opens with a “Super WHY!” take on the classic fairy tale. Whyatt finds himself in big trouble when he accidentally messes up the room belonging to his older brother, Jack. When the Super Readers visit Goldilocks, they encounter a similarly messy situation, caused by the inconsiderate bears. Together they figure out how to solve Goldilocks’ problem and Whyatt learns how to make a clean sweep of his mess, too.

The DVD Wrapup: 45 Years, 10 Cloverfield Lane, London Has Fallen, Wenders/Franco, La chienne and more

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

45 Years: Blu-ray
I, Anna

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movies that featured elderly characters played by venerable stars could be counted on to attract a decent-sized slice of the box-office pie and command the attention of awards voters. The Shootist, On Golden Pond, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy and Grumpy Old Men come immediately to mind, of course, but they were made at a time when a John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau also could pop up unexpectedly on a late-night talk show whenever they felt like it and not merely as an excuse to pimp their new movie. When Johnny Carson left “The Tonight Show,” in 1992, the talent bookers for Jay Leno and David Letterman’s shows targeted a radically younger demographic with actors whose publicists insisted they stay on-message and didn’t stray too far into unknown territory. Ever since then, it seems, while a major studio might consider distributing a movie that targets “mature” viewers, it’s far less likely to finance one. If an Ian McKellen, Michael Caine, Clint Eastwood, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins or Jane Fonda finds high-profile work in a studio project, it’s a comic-book fantasy or action picture alongside actors who may never have performed a Shakespeare play on stage and may never will. RED, RED 2, The Expendables and The Expendables 2 would appear to be exceptions to the rule, but their appeal to star-crazy overseas audiences can’t be denied. Thank goodness for the tax- or lottery-supported European producers, indie studios and mini-majors that still take chances on age-neutral productions.

Charlotte Rampling, still radiant at 70, was a finalist in the Best Leading Actress category in this year’s Oscar race for her performance in 45 Years, opposite Tom Courtenay, 79. Financed in large part by public money, the independently made British drama features a cast dominated by actors who probably have never stayed up to watch Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel, let alone been asked to appear on their shows. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rampling was profiled earlier this year on the much-older-skewing “CBS News Sunday Morning.”) Written and directed by Andrew Haigh (“Looking”), 45 Years bears comparison to Away from Her (2006) and Amour (2012), but not in ways you might expect. Although the story hinges on memories, its focus isn’t on a partner with Alzheimer’s disease or a life-threatening medical condition. It’s in a different genre altogether from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet and Calendar Girls, which were dominated by veteran actors and appealed to roughly the same audiences. (Made for around $10 million, they averaged about $30 million in worldwide receipts.) Based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” 45 Years is set Norfolk County, England, a lovely rural community whose infrastructure dates back to Roman times. Geoff and Kate Mercer are on the brink of their 45th  anniversary, which is to be celebrated with friends and neighbors in a historic hall in the village. In lieu of children, they’ve enjoyed the company of dogs for all these years. If Geoff is a bit fragile in his dotage, Kate has no trouble picking up the slack. That is, until a letter arrives alerting him to the shocking revelation that a slowly receding glacier in the Swiss Alps has revealed the long-frozen corpse of a lover who died decades earlier in a fall. In some ways, the revelation hits the couple as if it actually were a doctor’s diagnose of a disease that may or may not prove fatal. Although Kate was aware of the fate of her husband’s ex-lover, she isn’t ready to deal with Geoff’s reaction to the news. She deduces correctly that he’s been silently carrying at torch for her throughout their seemingly idyllic marriage. Even as they’re approaching a happy milestone, however contrived – Geoff was too ill to celebrate their 40th with a party – Kate struggles to make sense of what’s just happened to her. To his credit, Haigh doesn’t require of Courtenay and Rampling that they break down in tears or argue bitterly as the story evolves. Instead, every minute emotional tug and tear can be read in the actors’ faces and physicality. The gorgeous English countryside, which allows for agricultural, industrial and tourism components in the economy, is vividly captured by Lol Crawley’s camera.

It’s taken four years for I, Anna to makes its debut here on DVD, this despite another terrific performance by Rampling, whose face and body have never betrayed much, if any evidence of cosmetic manipulation. This time, she plays Anna/Allegra, a lonely divorcee living in a London high-rise with her daughter and young grandchild. Sixty-something Anna has begun to frequent singles mixers and speed-dating events, after which she might go home with the occasional bachelor. Here, one of them ends up dead. Another after-hours companion is insomniac police inspector Bernie Reed (Gabriel Byrne), who, at first, masquerades as just another lonely heart, but can’t help being attracted by her mysteriously vulnerable persona. Anna doesn’t recall the brief encounter she had with the detective, in an elevator, after she returned to the victim’s building to retrieve an umbrella she misplaced. This, combined with the testimony of the hostess at the mixer, make her the prime suspect in the murder. There are others, including a stepson and his drug dealer, but none so well-suited for the role of femme fatale than Anna. If she doesn’t exactly seduce Bernie, we’re aren’t surprised by their attraction to each other. I don’t know how it is in real life, but, in the movies, detectives are suckers for attractive suspects, often risking their investigation by corrupting evidence. As adapted from Elsa Lewin’s novel by Rampling’s son Barnaby Southcombe, who’s sitting in the driver’s seat of his first feature, the increasingly creepy story is told largely in flashbacks. Deeply disturbed, Anna is a perfect match for Rampling’s famously steely approach to her assignments. Whenever I, Anna runs the risk of being too contrived, the two veteran leads – at 66, Byrne is no spring chicken, either—make it easy for viewers to hang with it. Southcombe also does a nice job capturing high-altitude views of London we don’t always see.

10 Cloverfield Lane: Blu-ray

If the title of this claustrophobic thriller from producer J.J. Abrams—Hollywood’s reigning master of disaster—sounds familiar, it’s because it refers ever so obliquely to the surprise international hit, Cloverfield, which used found footage to document the destruction of New York City by aliens. Made for a paltry $15 million, 10 Cloverfield Lane was similarly profitable – if studio accountants would ever admit that such a thing exists – in its domestic release last March. This, despite the fact that it contains no found footage and was shot by a standard, decidedly non-“shaky” camera. The threat to humanity here is largely dubious and the setting can fairly be described as the middle of nowhere … or somewhere, like rural Louisiana, where the tax breaks are beneficial to cost-conscious producers. References to the slushie brand “Slusho,” from the original Cloverfield, can be found if fans look real hard. The inspiration for a memorable incident at the end of the movie can be traced to star Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character in The Thing, while a central conceit appears to have been borrowed from the second season of Abrams’ “Lost.” If that makes 10 Cloverfield Lane sound too much like just another cynically conceived sequel to an unexpected sensation, it’s worth noting that the movie more closely resembles Room, albeit with a sci-fi twist, than the original. That, folks, is the movie’s greatest asset. After gathering her suitcases and hurriedly leaving her apartment for no apparent reason, Winstead’s character, Michelle, is involved in a serious accident on a lonely country road. After waking up, she quickly realizes that she’s shackled to a wall in a bunker-like cell, with an IV attached to her arm. Haven’t we seen this before, it’s fair to ask. Well, yes and no.

After a few moments of confusion, brought upon the realization that she immobile, a survivalist named Howard (John Goodman) comes through the locked door, insisting that he rescued her with all the best of intentions in mind and the restraint is to prevent her from re-damaging her leg. Indeed, after he frees Michelle from her restraints, Howard brings her food and water. (“You must stay hydrated,” he demands.) He then explains how they may be the only survivors of a devastating attack of unknown origins and it’s unsafe to leave the bunker under any circumstances. At this point, the odds are about 50/50 that Howard’s either completely crazy or actually telling the truth. Michelle and a bunker mate, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), have a difficult choice to make, in either case. I suppose there are viewers who are capable of guessing what happens in the last reel, but it would be of the wild variety. The movie’s unpredictability is what endeared 10 Cloverfield Lane to critics and audiences in its theatrical run. Hint: sci-fi fans shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand as an entertainment option. Goodman and Winstead work very well together, both as adversaries and potential allies. Commentary is provided by Abrams and freshman director Dan Trachtenberg. Also good is the behind-the-scenes footage, in which cast and crew revisit the legacy of 2008’s Cloverfield; discuss how 10 Cloverfield Lane went from script to production; tour Howard’s extremely elaborate mega-bunker; see how the costume designers were challenged to create a homemade Hazmat suit; and follow the production team and sound designers as they work on the movie’s epic finale.

London Has Fallen: Blu-ray

Of the two nearly identical POTUS-in-jeopardy movies released in 2013 – Roland Emmerich’s White House Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen – it’s difficult to say which one deserved a sequel more … or less. Saving the world’s most prestigious residence from destruction would seem to be the kind of act that’s too tough to follow. If I were the president, I’d lock myself in the Situation Room and not come out until the end of my term and wait until Morgan Freeman was ready to relieve me of my duties. Besides playing God twice, Freeman has portrayed a sitting President in Deep Impact; the Speaker of the House, in Olympus Has Fallen; Chief Justice, in “Madam Secretary”; a senator, in Momentum; a general, in Outbreak; Nelson Mandela, in Invictus; Frederick Douglas, in “Freedom: A History of Us” and “The Civil War”; and Malcolm X, in Death of a Prophet. Here, in London Has Fallen, three years have passed since North Korea devised a plot to kidnap President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), and Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) has earned his way back into his confidence. Freeman returns, as well, this time as VP, along with Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo and Radha Mitchell, whose talents aren’t exactly tested in the sequel. In fact, no one’s talents are particularly challenged here. In the original, Fuqua reportedly balked at having Middle Eastern terrorists attack the White House, if for no other reason than it would have been just another cliché waiting to happen. By setting the action in London, this time, and hiring Iranian-born Babak Najafi to direct, the threat against President Asher and other world leaders by Arab revolutionaries is more legitimate. The difference between legitimate and credible, however, is huge.

Returning writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt have conjured a device by which heads of state from around the globe will descend on London at the same time. The British Prime Minister has died and a state funeral is planned. Audience members will smell a rat long before the Secret Service and a British Special Air Service team are forced into action to counter what amounts to an elaborate Trojan-horse infiltration of the city by a horde of Arab militants. In an operation that must have taken years to plan, but only a few minutes of screen time to execute, terrorists disguised as police and other security personnel attack the procession of arriving dignitaries. At same time, bombs are detonated on bridges across the Thames and in every landmark building in the city. It’s all being orchestrated by men we see narrowly escaping a drone strike in the first few minutes of the movie. They plan to blow up Asher’s limousine or, failing that, taking out the presidential helicopter on the escape route with strategically located Stinger missile slingers. Failing that, the insurgents will settle for kidnaping him and cutting off his head on the Internet for everyone to see. It’s preposterous, of course, but no more so than the Die Hard movies that London Has Fallen and Olympus Has Fallen resemble. Gerard Butler may not be as effortlessly funny as Bruce Willis, but he can stab a terrorist in the eye with a Ka-Bar knife as well as any handsome galoot making his living as an action star. The featurettes include “The Making of London Has Fallen,” which explains how a backlot in Bulgaria was transformed into central London, and “Guns, Knives & Explosives.”

Every Thing Will Be Fine: Blu-ray

Another week, another film starring James Franco. Wim Wenders is once again represented, as well, a mere two weeks after “The Road Trilogy” was released by Criterion Collection. For Wenders, at least, Every Thing Will Be Fine marks a return to narrative drama, after 10 years of focusing on such documentaries as The Salt of the Earth, Pina and Cathedrals of Culture. It was during this period that Wenders fully embraced 3D, vowing not to make any more films in the 2D format. While it’s one thing to make action and horror pictures that use the format to elicit screams or laughter from audiences between mouthfuls of popcorn, it’s quite another to employ 3D in a film doesn’t require jump-scares to entertain viewers. Not having seen Every Thing Will Be Fine in 3D, I can’t say whether he succeeded in creating a more satisfying visual environment for drama. In mainstream films and porn, even, it’s easy to see where a director inserted a scene or series of shots for the purpose of titillating or shocking viewers. Here, the consistency of the multidimensional look, not to mention the stereoscopic glasses, could work against a filmmaker’s intentions. If Wenders’ visually spectacular dance-performance film, Pina, was perfectly suited to 3D, it’s possible that it appeared superfluous in Every Thing Will Be Fine. It’s unlikely, though, that home viewers will get the opportunity to check it out as Wenders intended it to be seen. Financial and technical considerations aside, it took a critical drubbing and failed miserably at the box office. It’s possible that Wenders was too pre-occupied with the visual presentation to focus on the story, which suffers from a lack of narrative flow and fully developed characters. The opening scene, filmed on a frozen lake in Quebec, is indicative of what appears to be a desire on Wenders’ part to impress viewers with the format’s potential. It’s here we’re introduced to the protagonist, struggling novelist Tomas Eldan (Franco), as he awakens from a nap in an unheated fishy shanty, surrounded by folks who actually are there to catch fish or get drunk, one. If it isn’t the first place I’d expect to find a blocked writer, I’ll bet the brilliantly white icescape looked terrific in 3D.

As Eldan, Franco reminded me a lot of the shell-shocked drifter, Travis Henderson, portrayed so eloquently by Harry Dean Stanton, in Paris, Texas. Besides being hamstrung by a debilitating writer’s block, Eldan is troubled by his fractured relationship with his father and his longtime girlfriend’s increasing unwillingness to put up with his detached personality and ugly moods. One day, after a quarrel, he decides to take a drive in the country, which, being winter, is white with driven snow. Through no fault of his own, Eldan’s car collides with a sled recklessly ridden down a hill by a young boy and his brother. It takes a while for him to figure out that only one of the children survived the accident, but, when he does, the realization hits him like a sledgehammer. The boy’s mother, Kate (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is, of course, similarly devastated – and not completely blameless for permitting such dangerous play—but knows she must hold things together for the sake of the boy who survived the accident. In the days and weeks to come, Kate and Eldan develop a peculiar rapport, based, possibly, on survivor’s remorse. Ultimately, the aftershocks from the accident flatten out, allowing the writer to create something meaningful based on the experience. He will find commercial success from his writing and happiness in a loving relationship with a fan of his work and her precocious daughter. Kate isn’t nearly as fortunate. Years later, the accident comes back to haunt Eldan in the form of an out-of-the-blue letter from the surviving boy. Now approaching adulthood, his desire to connect with writer emotionally threatens to once again push everything out of balance. It isn’t easy to discern how much of the alienation and angst displayed by Eldan derives from Franco’s interpretation of the character or Wenders’ instructions. Rachel McAdams, Marie-Josee Croze, Julia Sarah Stone and Gainsbourg provide excellent counterpoints to Eldan, who, at times, can be insufferable. The Blu-ray adds several informative interviews and background on Wenders’ techniques and choices.

Those People

I don’t know if writer-director Joey Kuhn was inspired by Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan when he began work on his debut feature, Those People, but I’d be very surprised if he hadn’t checked it on Netflix, once or twice. As an American Graffiti for privileged Upper East Side youths, it’s aged pretty well in the 26 years since it was released on the arthouse circuit. Apparently, the sons and daughters of extremely wealthy New Yorkers still feel as comfortable in formal wear as the rest of us do in Levis and resent their parents in direct proportion to the amount of money they mooch off them for champagne, cocaine and dry cleaning. What makes Those People different than other films clearly influenced by Metropolitan and Cruel Intentions is a central storyline involving two gay men in a mixed group of art-school graduates and the handsome newcomer, who threatens to upset the established order of things within the clique. For years, Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and his manipulative best friend, Sebastian (Jason Ralph), have maintained a relationship that’s fitfully romantic. Sebastian’s world has been rocked by the arrest and conviction of his father in a financial scheme similar to the one concocted by Bernie Madoff. The world outside their socially isolated group considers Sebastian to be as toxic as his dad and mom, who’s tried to distance herself from both of them. As cocky and promiscuous as he is, however, Sebastian relies on Charlie for unconditional emotional support. When Charlie falls for a handsome Lebanese pianist, Tim (Haaz Sleiman), Sebastian considers it to be a personal betrayal. While their other friends take the introduction of an outsider in stride, they’re afraid that Sebastian will attempt to steal the spotlight from Tim by harming himself. If that were the only angle being worked by Kuhn, Those People wouldn’t be nearly as impressive a freshman effort. He has two other cards, at least, up his sleeves. For a first feature in a niche genre, Those People, is a remarkably polished entertainment. The acting is completely natural and the technical work is well above par. Until recently, the film has been displayed predominantly in gay-and-lesbian film festivals. There’s no reason Those People can’t be enjoyed by straight audiences as well.

Rabid Dogs: Blu-ray

Apart from some lovely old buildings and signs written in French, Montreal could easily pass for any Canadian city trying to pass for American in the movies. True, the city’s young adults are exceptionally attractive and prefer French to English, but, outside Old Montreal and Old Port, it might as well be Cincinnati. And, while some genuinely fine movies have been produced in Quebec, economic necessity demands they look beyond the St. Lawrence River to fickle French audiences, arthouses in the United States and, only then, to English-speaking Canadians and the straight-to-video market here. I don’t know if the reverse is true, but Montreal’s filmmakers and distributors have their work cut out for them. Rabid Dogs is exactly the kind of hyperviolent and chase-heavy crime thriller you’d expect from film students who grew up on Quentin Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Guy Ritchie, Clint Eastwood and Robert Rodriguez, all of whom owe a debt of gratitude to such post-Code rabble-rousers as Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, John Boorman, Peter Yates and Walter Hill. It’s safe to say that freshman co-writer-director Éric Hannezo has studied the masters, as well. The remake of Mario and Lamberto Bava’s thriller of the same title – finished in 1974, but not released in the U.S. until 1998, as Kidnapped—opens with an explosion and bank heist in central Montreal. Three masked robbers rush through a cloud of blue smoke toward a getaway car, manned by a driver with an itchy trigger finger. They’ve come away with at least two big sacks full of cash, but are followed almost immediately by police. Before long, the brain of the operation is killed in a collision with a large chunk of concrete, leaving the others on foot and virtually clueless. The first vehicle they carjack belongs to a pretty newlywed (Virginie Ledoyen), who is forced to share the back seat with a horndog creep. They also will steal the station wagon of a guy (Lambert Wilson) who says he’s transporting his comatose daughter to a hospital for a transplant.

The gang’s driver promises the newcomer that he won’t let the girl die and assigns the female hostage to comfort her. Their presence allows the robbers to con the police at roadblock stops, but, otherwise, they’re burdens. By hanging on to them for so long, viewers are tipped to the likelihood of an ending that either going to be extremely messy or loaded with gimmicks. In fact, it’s a little bit of both. Without giving anything away, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the movie’s most entertaining set piece. After finally managing to get the police off their tail, the road leads directly into a tiny village, where heavily armed bear worshippers have gathered to sacrifice an ursine effigy that sits in the middle of their escape route. The celebration forces the equally well-armed bad guys to mingle with the quintessentially Canadian animists. At the same time, a local woman insists that the still-unconscious little girl be brought into her home to be comforted when she awakens. When photographs of the fugitives are shown on TV, the situation escalates from crazy to insane. To his credit, Hannezo has an ace up in his sleeve in the form of a narrative twists few viewers will see coming. I enjoyed Rabid Dogs, even though I was put off by the studly crooks, all of whom appear better suited to modelling jock straps than threatening innocents in hoser French. Usually, it’s the female actors whose beauty tests the boundaries of credibility. If one of the male characters, at least, resembled Jean-Paul Belmondo, Warren Oates or Steve Buscemi, it would have been easier to buy into Rabid Dogs. Even so, rabid fans of action pictures and shoot-’em-ups should find plenty to enjoy here. The Blu-ray adds one of the longest making-of featurettes I’ve ever seen and several decent interviews.

La chienne: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Le amiche: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

This month’s selection of films from Criterion Collection includes two interesting, if largely unsung titles from a pair of European masters who had yet to hit their stride. Released in Paris in 1931, La chienne is Jean Renoir’s second picture using the new synchronized sound technique. Based on a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, it describes the kind of love triangle that confounds kind-hearted, if sometimes tragically gullible older men when a pretty young thing promises to deliver kindnesses their wives no longer provide. Such is the case with the sad-sack cashier, Maurice Legrand, played by Michel Simon. (In the next three years, the great comic actor would star in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante.) After rescuing the pretty blond prostitute, Lulu (Janie Marèse), from a public beating by her pimp and lover, Dédé (Georges Flamant), Legrand returns home to his shrewish wife, Adele (Magdeleine Bérubet), who treats him as if he personally killed her late husband in the Great War. When Adele threatens to destroy the canvases he paints on his day off, Maurice finds a way to solve two problems at once. By leasing an apartment for the visibly bereft Lulu, he not only can dream of being admired by a gorgeous dame, but he’ll also have what amounts to a faux gallery for his paintings. What he fails to recognize, however, is Lulu’s unchecked passion for the deadbeat pimp, who she continues to support. Even though he wouldn’t recognize a valuable work of art from a black-velvet painting of Maurice Chevalier, Dédé is able to find a dealer as unscrupulous as he is. It isn’t until Maurice leaves Adele, in a hilarious scheme involving her not-so-late husband, that Maurice discovers the full extent of Lulu’s deceit. Such love triangles are doomed to collapse, of course, but Renoir has other points to make about the human comedy. Despite La chienne’s age, its message is as relevant today as it was both in 1931 and when it was re-introduced in 1945 in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. Likewise, Michel Simon is still able to bring tears and laughter to the eyes of contemporary viewers. La chienne has been newly restored in a 4K digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The Criterion package also adds an introduction to the film from 1961 by Renoir; a new interview with Renoir scholar Christopher Faulkner; a fresh restoration of On purge bébé (1931), Renoir’s first sound film, also starring Simon; a 95-minute French television program, from 1967, featuring a lively conversation between Renoir and Simon, directed by Jacques Rivette; an updated English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau.

When Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche finally made its American debut in 1963, eight years after its initial release overseas, many critics made the mistake of comparing it to L’Avventura, an unqualified masterpiece that had shared the Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival (with Kon Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession). By not viewing the earlier picture within the context of Antonioni’s creative evolution, they had expected things from Le Amiche it couldn’t possibly have delivered. What was relevant in 1963 and remains interesting today is how the many of the film’s themes and visuals techniques would be refined in such 1960s’ triumphs as L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, Il Deserto Rosso and Blow-Up. Set in Turin and based on a short novel by Cesare Pavese, Le Amiche explores the complicated social milieu of women – and, not incidentally, a few of their men – finally released from the sacrifices required of them by the post-war economy and free to enjoy the finer things in life offered by Italian designers, craftsmen and chefs. Although the excesses of the country’s “la dolce vita” period wouldn’t emerge for another five years, the “modern women” we meet here have already gotten a head start. Among them is fashion designer Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), who’s returned to her hometown of Turin, from Rome, to oversee the opening of a boutique. She is drawn into the tumultuous lives of a group of bourgeois women (potential customers, all) when one of them, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), risks internal damnation – a very real fear in 1950s Italy—by attempting suicide in the hotel Clelia is staying. They are exactly the kind of ridiculously frivolous women who, today, populate the various “Real Housewives” series on cable. (One woman interviewed in the bonus package also makes comparisons to the characters in HBO’s “Girls,” although I think that might be a stretch.) If nothing else, these self-indulgent women contribute to the common good by supporting artisans, cosmetic surgeons, psychiatrists and designers, who, one supposes, pay taxes on their earnings. I wouldn’t want that comparison to diminish anyone’s interest in watching Le Amiche, because, in every other way possible, it is an accomplished work of art. The Criterion Blu-ray offers a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; a conversation with scholars David Forgacs and Karen Pinkus on the film’s themes; a new interview with scholar Eugenia Paulicelli on the importance of fashion in Antonioni’s work; a new English subtitle translation; and an essay by film scholar Tony Pipolo.

The Best Intentions: Blu-ray

At just a shade over three hours, Bille August’s The Best Intentions easily qualifies as an epic romance. What makes it extraordinary is a screenplay written Ingmar Bergman based somewhat loosely on the difficult courtship and turbulent early years of the marriage of his parents, Erik Bergman and Karin Åkerbloom (a.k.a., here, Henrik and Anna). The maestro had retired from making feature films 10 years earlier, but still wrote screen- and teleplays and directed television and stage productions. Private Confessions and Sunday’s Children would form a trilogy of life in the Bergman family. Only in Sweden, perhaps, could so much be wrung from the marriage of a Lutheran minister and his aristocratic life partner, but, in a sense, most of Bergman’s films were informed by things he experienced in life, especially religious matters. The Best Intentions opens in 1909, with the poor, idealistic theology student Henrik meeting the strong-minded and educated daughter of a rich family in Uppsala. At the time, he was engaged to a slightly older woman (Lena Endre), who allowed the future servant of God to share her bed in an otherwise unheated room. That Anna’s parents (Max von Sydow, Ghita Nørby) so vehemently attempted to douse the sparks between Henrik and Anna (Samuel Fröler, Pernilla August) only served to bring them closer together. Henrik’s widowed mother disapproved, as well, but far less openly. Immediately after their wedding, Henrik and Anna travel to the north of Sweden, where he’s accepted a position in a community controlled by a brutal factory owner. While extremely beautiful throughout the year, the town’s closed-minded citizens and virulent gossip-mongering eventually would drive Anna up the wall. Henrik’s offered a lucrative position in Stockholm, but disappoints Anna by turning it down for curiously altruistic reasons. (Erik Bergman would serve as chaplain to the King of Sweden.) Their return to the northern town will bring even greater challenges. It’s an amazing film, splendidly shot by Jörgen Persson and wonderfully acted by Sweden’s finest actors. Jurors at Cannes set a precedent by awarding August the Palme d’Or for best film and his wife, Pernilla, the Best Actress prize. The Blu-ray adds Ingmar Bergman’s rarely seen short film “Karin’s Face,” which is comprised of artfully composed photographs of his mother taken at different stages of her life, and a collector’s booklet with an essay by Peter Cowie.

The Films of Maurice Pialat, Volume 2: Under the Sun of Satan: Blu-ray

The second installment in Cohen Media’s “The Films of Maurice Pialat” series is 1987 Palme d’Or winner Under the Sun of Satan. The choice was unanimous. In it, Gerard Depardieu plays Father Donissan, a mediocre seminarian who’s haunted by evil and the failure of his divine mission. He practices self-flagellation before going to bed and is constantly challenged by his superior (Pialet) to engage parishioners, even though he freaks them out. Donissan counters, “With you, everything looks easy. Alone, I’m useless. I’m like the zero, only useful next to other numbers. Priests are so miserable.” On a long walk through absolutely gorgeous farmlands to hear confessions at a different church, Donissan is joined by a stranger we soon recognize to be Satan. Like Christ in the desert, the priest is tempted by pleasures of the flesh and promises of untold powers. Shaken, Donissan will nonetheless pass the test. He then is confronted by a young woman, Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), who appears to be on her way to setting a local record for committing mortal sins, and parishioners who challenge him to bring a dead boy to life. Under the Sun of Satan is based on Georges Bernanos’ novel “Diary of a Country Priest.” And, while Depardieu has become a large shadow of his former self, his performance here is nothing short of remarkable. Bonus features include interviews, conducted in 2012, with Depardieu, cinematographer Willy Kurant and production designer Katia Wyszkop; nearly an hour’s worth of deleted Scenes, introduced by members of Pialet’s crew; behind-the-scenes footage; and the original trailer. All spend considerable time describing how difficult it could be to work with man who clearly considered himself to be a genius.

 

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 2: Blu-ray

Because Arrow Video’s first “Nikkatsu Diamond Guys” collection delivered a trio of eccentric, if not completely off-the-wall crime flicks, I expected more of the same from Volume Two. But, boy, was I in for a surprise. In fact, Tokyo Mighty Guy, Danger Pays and Murder Unincorporated are parodies, spoofs and farces that could have been concocted by Jerry Lewis and Pee-wee Herman on an acid trip to Japan. They’re every bit that strange … in a delightfully childish sort of way. “Diamond Guys” refers to a star system employed by Nikkatsu studios in the late-1950s that promoted its marquee actors in various genre modes. In Buichi Saito’s Tokyo Mighty Guy, Akira Kobayashi stars as Jiro, a chef who defies the Yakuza by opening a French restaurant in the busy Ginza district. They had previously collaborated on The Rambling Guitarist – included in Volume One – a genre-bending action picture that may have inadvertently laid the foundation for every cheeseball movie musical Elvis Presley made after he was directed by Don Siegel in Flaming Star. Jiro not only is able to convert a leading gangland functionary into being a sushi chef, but he also is able to save the bathhouse owned by the parents of the perky girl-next-door (Ruriko Asaoka) and a brothel coveted by the mob. This might sound like a straight crime story, but the Crayola-colored opening, all-punches-pulled fights and silly musical interludes clearly are targeted at a much younger audience. Chipmunk-cheeked Jô Shishido stars in Kô Nakahira’s Danger Pays and Haruyasu Noguchi’s screwball Murder Unincorporated, one of which deals with a billion-dollar counterfeiting ring and the other a comically inventive hit squad. As silly as the movies are, the Arrow Video package treats them with utmost seriousness with beaucoup interviews, trailers and image galleries, as well as another sit-down with Nikkatsu expert Jasper Sharp and a booklet with new writing from Stuart Galbraith IV, Tom Mes and Mark Schilling.

 

Jeepers Creepers/Jeepers Creepers 2: Blu-ray

Judged solely on its own merits, the Jeepers Creepers franchise remains a legitimately scary and largely original entertainment to be enjoyed primarily by teen audiences. The Creeper (Jonathan Breck) kills people in ways that most other movie monsters and serial killers couldn’t possibly accomplish and, if he isn’t strictly original, name me one that is. Likely inspired by legends of the flying biped creatures Spring-Heeled Jack and the Jersey Devil, the Creeper hunts every twenty-third spring for twenty-three days, feasting on pre-selected body parts, before making like a cicada. If a limb or eyeball is damaged in an encounter with a human, the Creeper will compensate for it by expropriating the same body part in a later attack. It’s attracted, as well, by the smell of fear in its victims. When challenged, the Creeper is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, not unlike Superman. In the 2001original, executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, homeward-bound teen siblings (Gina Philips, Justin Long) are terrorized on a Florida highway by a maniac in a beat-up truck. Sometime later, they spot the same vehicle in the yard of an abandoned church and recognize the driver dropping something vaguely human into a waste barrel. Naturally, their curiosity gets the best them. On closer inspection, Darry discovers that the bottomless barrel opens into a shaft that leads to a cavern strewn with mutilated bodies. Avoiding detection in the hellhole, Darry convinces Trish to alert local authorities. The only reason they buy into the outrageous story is because of the unusual number of unsolved murders in the county. The title derives from a warning issued to Darry by a local psychic, who draws a parallel to the attacks and 1938 novelty song, “Jeepers Creepers.” Mayhem ensues.

 

The sequel, Jeepers Creepers 2, picks up a few days after the original ends, when a scarecrow abducts a boy and whisks him away into the heavens. Still hungry with only a few hours left in his 23-day eating spree, the Creeper attacks a target-rich school bus carrying teens home from a track meet. Conveniently, the bus has stalled on a desolate stretch of highway outside the usual range of two-way radios. The missing boy’s father (Ray Wise) and brother, whose farm isn’t that far away from the bus, hightail it to the site with a harpoon-like device attached to the back of their pickup truck. Once again, mayhem ensues. This time, however, the teens have already deduced that the Creeper is selective in its pursuit of prey and susceptible to being punctured by javelins and other makeshift weapons. With the clock ticking, the monster is at a slight disadvantage to the kids and farmer. We know it survived, barely, because a Jeepers Creepers 3 is on the drawing board for 2017, with Victor Salva back at the helm, Breck returning as the Creeper and the hope that Philips and Ray Wise will return as their 23-years-older characters. The Scream Factory package contains more bonus features than would seem humanly possible for such genre fare. Now, caveat emptor, it should be noted the Salva still carries the brand burned into the hides of convicted child molesters, alerting those around him to what many would consider to be an unforgiveable crime. For sexually abusing the underage star of Clownhouse, then in production, Salva served 15 months of a 3-year-prison term, before being released on parole. The actor came forward again in 1995, before Salva’s film Powder was released. Not surprisingly, the controversy negatively impacted box-office results for the Disney fantasy drama.

 

Bad, Bad, Gang!

Released in the same year as Deep Throat, John Donne’s Bad, Bad, Gang! is far more a curiosity than a landmark in the history of the adult-film industry. Significant, if at all, as a “roughie” that blends the kidnapped-by-bikers subgenre with hard-core sex in an outdoors setting, it features uncredited performances by future stars Rene Bond, Nancy Martin and Suzanne Fields – reunited, two years later, in Flesh Gordon – in then-uncredited roles. Four civilians, given the tangentially biblical names of Kane, Able, Eve and Jane are harassed by members of the Vipers motorcycle gang on their way to the Garden of Eden campground. By this time, the hoodlums have added a pair of horny hitchhikers to the entourage and will soon kidnap Eve from the trailer. That’s the end of the biblical references, thank all that’s good. After some sexual hijinks of their own, Kane, Able and Jane will form a posse to rescue Eve, who, by this time, appears to enjoy being cuffed, in the spread-eagle position, to the side of a cliff and toyed with by her greaseball captors and, of course, hitchhikers Satin and Blackie. None of this amounts to good, clean fun, except, perhaps, for a skinny-dip in a nearby pond. But, you get the picture. The 480p Impulse Pictures presentation is as good as it ever was, maybe better. Collectors of edgy grindhouse fare will find Bad, Bad Gang to be of far greater interest than casual fans of vintage porn.

 

Quackerz: Blu-ray 3D

Shaun the Sheep: The Farmer’s Llamas

Fishtales

It appears as if Shout! Factory is doing OK with the animated features it picks up from all corners of the map and adds the talents of familiar American voice actors. Quackerz was written and directed by Kazakhstani special-effects specialist Viktor Lakisov and distributed first to countries in that region. If I’m not mistaken, the 3D effects were added later by Montreal’s Mokko Studio. It is set on an island, populated with peaceful Mandarin ducks, that is mistakenly invaded by militaristic mallards. As if their stars were aligned against them by Shakespeare, Longway, the son of the Mandarin emperor, and Erica, the daughter of the mallard commander, meet and fall for each other. Meanwhile, the wicked Ms. Knout is conspiring to blot out the sun. Can the opposing forces agree to settle their differences in time to save the planet from extinction? Probably. Quackerz probably won’t win any Annie Awards, but young viewers won’t notice the difference in quality from those that do contend for such prizes. The cast includes Mark DeCarlo, Michael Gross, Jessi Corti, Robbie Daymond, Andrea Becker and Bruce Nozick.

 

At a brisk 28 minutes, parents and older kids won’t have any problem sitting through and enjoying Aardman’s “Shaun the Sheep” spinoff “The Farmer’s Llamas.” It’s that funny and well done. When the farmer and Bitzer go to a country fair, Shaun steals away with them intent on causing mischief. He talks the unwitting farmer into purchasing a trio of llamas at the auction and bringing them back to Mossy Bottom Farm. The other sheep aren’t convinced that the zany foreigners will find farm life to be compatible with their overreaching ways. They’re right, of course, so Shaun is required to devise a way to bring tranquility back to the farm. The DVD package includes several making-of featurettes and bonus cartoons.

 

I don’t know if the folks at Ruthless Studios were anticipating the release of Pixar/Disney’s Finding Dory this week and intended Fishtales to feed off the marketing campaign, like a remora attaches itself to a shark, or if it’s strictly coincidental. After a shark attack causes Angie the anglerfish and Puffy the puffer’s octopus friend, Ollie, to get lost in the vast ocean, fun-loving Ray the manta ray helps them scour the depths for the eight-legged creature. The animated characters stand out from the live-action backgrounds containing actual sea life. If Fishtales isn’t the most sophisticated animation you’ll ever see, there’s something soothing about the aquarium-like environments. I kept waiting for something strange to happen, but it didn’t.

 

TV-to-DVD

Discovery: Alaskan Bush People: The Compete Seasons 1 & 2

PBS/ITV: Grantchester: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray

PBS: Nature: Animal Reunions

Discovery Family: Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends

Lifetime: Toni Braxton: The Movie Event

Discovery’s “Alaskan Bush People” is one of the most disturbing reality-based series I’ve yet experienced. And, yes, that includes all of the Kardashian spinoffs, “Armed & Famous,” “The Swan” and “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” which it resembles. The living-off-the-beaten-track conceit isn’t all that weird, really – disenchanted ex-hippies from Texas attempt to survive in the Alaskan wilderness, with their large brood, by the sheer force of will – but it’s Billy Browns’ bald-faced arrogance and half-baked solutions that are so appalling. For one thing, because the show largely consists of re-creations of events culled from the father of seven’s 2009 book, “One Wave at a Time,” it’s impossible to discern what’s real and what’s been embellished. For another, the clumsy old man constantly puts his family in jeopardy by stumbling over inert objects and not avoiding serious illnesses. Worst, though, is the notion that anyone with a high school education is capable of home-schooling children, including two teenage girls, so isolated from humanity that they’ve developed accents unheard anywhere else in North America. Neither are there textbooks or teaching implements to be found. Brown’s idea of proper living quarters are, first, a makeshift hunter’s shelter and, then, a one-room cabin that wouldn’t have been completed if it weren’t for the help of neighbors concerned about the kids’ health. As it is, the only source of heat is the combined warmth produced by nine bodies in insufficient sleeping bags. The five boys, none of whom resemble each other, are fully grown adults who fetishize their guns – not uncommon in Alaska – but probably could have benefitted from remedial shop courses provided in a real high school. Mama Ami Brown seems overwhelmed by her husband’s grandiose plans and usually looks as if she’s just along for the ride. The other troubling thing about Brown is an attitude that allows him to believe he’s entitled to homestead in places where it’s long been forbidden and that his family has greater rights to the vast wilderness than the animals who’ve forever considered it to be their natural habitat. As far as I can recall, none of the challenges in the American “Survivor” series have been staged in locations nearly as potentially life-threatening – certainly nowhere near as cold—as Alaska’s Copper River Valley in the dead of winter. The production unions wouldn’t allow such a thing.

 

The lowlight of Season One comes when unidentified locals attack the uncompleted cabin at night, with guns blazing for no apparent reason. Things got so dangerous, production had to be curtailed. Viewers had to wait until the opening of Season Two to learn that some of the notoriously private Alaskans had tired of serving as colorful background elements for no compensation. There was also the very real possibility their faces would be exposed to skip tracers, debt collectors and ex-wives in the Lower 48. Undaunted, Brown buys a decrepit fishing boat and heads for an island with one of the largest populations of bears in the world. That experiment didn’t last long, either. “Alaskan Bush People” might be considered a comedy of errors, if it weren’t for the lack of anything funny, except, perhaps, the Brown boys’ ideas on dating etiquette. The third season just ended.

 

Pick a profession, proclivity or fetish and someone in England will build a perfectly agreeable murder-mystery series around it. “Grandchester,” which just completed its second season, is a perfect example of that theory. Although priests, nuns and vicars have contributed to the genre in many different iterations, it took crime novelist James Runcie to come up with Anglican priest and former Scots Guards officer Sidney Chambers (James Norton), who investigates crimes with the far more pragmatic Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Keating is gruff and methodical, where Chambers is more intuitive and forgiving of mankind’s foibles. Among the vicar’s idiosyncrasies is a love for whiskey, jazz and the occasional buxom brunette. “Grandchester” may not the most unusual or sexy shows on the “Masterpiece Mystery” lineup, but it’s well produced and lots of fun. Guest stars for Season Two include Neil Morrissey, Claudie Blakley, Nigel Planer, Andrew Knott, Nicky Henson and Oliver Dinsdale.

 

In the “Nature” episode, “Animal Reunions,” we witness what happens when humans are reunited with the wild animals—gorillas, elephants, cheetahs, chimpanzees—with which they forged deep bonds, years earlier. Will they still recognize their human caregivers and how will they react? The broader question, perhaps, is whether wild creatures can experience such emotions as joy, devotion and love. Pet owners have never doubted the possibility, but scientists demand more proof than a bark, slobber or hug. Narrated by Richard Thomas, “Animal Reunions” contains interviews with scientists, authors and caregivers, in addition to scenes of their journeys to reconnect with their former charges.

 

No such questions concern the characters on Discovery Family’s “Littlest Pet Shop: Making Friends.” Blythe and the non-human residents of the Littlest Pet Shop love making new friends of all shapes, sizes and species. In the 110-minute compilation, they babysit a curious kitten, befriend a genial spider and meet another fashion-minded girl. The adventures wind up with a two-part special, during which Blythe’s dream of holding a Pet Fest finally comes true. Parents need to know that “Littlest Pet Shop” is produced by Hasbro Studios and DHX Media, which means children will be exposed to product placement for an extensive line of toys, a mobile game and comic-book adaptation.

 

In a career that’s spanned more than a quarter-century, R&B singer Toni Braxton has experienced more than any singer’s fair share of ups and downs. Throughout her career, the Maryland native has sold more than 67 million records, including 41 million albums, worldwide. She’s won seven Grammy Awards, nine Billboard Music Awards and seven American Music Awards. Braxton has become a television executive producer and personality, thanks to stints on “Dancing with the Stars” and the reality series, “Braxton Family Values,” with her mother and sisters Traci, Towanda, Trina and Tamar. On the downside, Braxton has spent far too much time in courtrooms, defending her career decisions and spoiled business relations. The made-for-Lifetime biopic, “Toni Braxton: The Movie Event,” based on her memoir “Unbreak My Heart,” follows her career from her discovery, in 1990, by L.A. Reid (Greg Davis, Jr.) and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (Gavin Houston), to her public battle with lupus and divorce, her son’s autism and other family struggles. What’s glossed over could probably fill another 90-minute biopic, however. It’s directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and stars       Lex Scott Davis as the singer.

 

DVD Wrapup: Zootopia, Hail Caesar, 13 Hours, Anomalisa, The Confirmation, Touched With Fire, One More Time, Tom Waits and more

Friday, June 10th, 2016

Zootopia: Blu-ray

The messages in Disney’s new animated gem, Zootopia, are so overtly liberal, I’m surprised none of the Republican candidates for president didn’t it condemn it during their debates for being subversive. Of course, there’s still time for Donald Trump to propose constructing a wall around the Burbank studios, lest undocumented-alien bunnies, sheep and foxes attempt to enter the country illegally. On that count, anyway, politicians who choke on words like inclusivity, empowerment, diversity and co-existence are several days late and at least a billion dollars short.  . (In 2005, evangelicals ended an eight-year boycott of Walt Disney products, ostensibly for lack of interest.) This past weekend, in only its seventeenth week of release, Zootopia hit the landmark billion-dollar barrier, grossing $337.2 million domestically and $662.8 million internationally. Where it will end up when the closely guarded Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray 2D, DVD, Digital HD and PPV numbers finally are recorded is anyone’s guess.

Another strong release from Walt Disney Animation Studios (FrozenBig Hero 6) – decidedly not Pixar, although John Lasseter oversees both departments — Zootopia imagines a metropolis in which humans are replaced by anthropomorphic biped mammals. They range in size from elephants to shrews, all drawn in perfect proportion to each other, and go about their business like humans in any American city. This means business is conducted with drone-like efficiency; burly police patrol the streets, looking for conmen and crooks; the meek fear those with greater cunning and few scruples; corrupt politicians prey on the prejudices of their constituents; and females of the species needn’t apply for jobs generally allotted males. Like Disneyland and Disney World, Zootropia is divided into quadrants corresponding to the prevailing climates of their inhabitants’ natural habitats. Bunny Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is the wee daughter of carrot farmers in the agricultural zone, where residents carry fox repellant to ward off the famously sly predators. Despite her size, Judy is determined to attend the police academy and become a big-city cop. Although the physical tests are skewed against smaller species, Judy graduates at the top of her class. None of her new co-workers in the ZPD, including Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), believe in her abilities, so she’s relegated to meter maid duty. Committed to making a difference, nonetheless, she goes about her duties with determination and diligence. It doesn’t take long, however, for Judy to fall for a con being pulled on an ice-cream vendor by Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and his “son.” Because the owner discriminates against species of whom he doesn’t approve, especially foxes, the eminently fair bunny threatens him with arrest. Naturally, the fox finds a way to turn her kindness into a profitable scam. Long story short, Judy and Nick find a way to exploit each other’s strengths in the service of a missing-persons’ case that’s baffled the chief and threatens to upend the delicate balance between predator and prey animals. If Judy can’t find the victims in 48 hours, Bogo has threatened to fire her.

It’s a longshot, of course, but never doubt the tenacity of an underdog when it comes to evening the odds in a movie made by Disney or directed by Frank Capra, which Zootopia easily could have been. In Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush’s easily digested ethical tale, however, the story is only half the fun. The verisimilitude of the all-mammal environment is true to any city in the Disney universe, with dozens of only slightly camouflaged references to studio and non-studio classics, characters and insider gags. (Yes, there’s at least one “hidden Mickey”) As such, adults will feel at home in Zootopia, too. The animal characters take on the behavioral traits of humans, in mostly comic ways, and no single animal is above corruption or beyond redemption. A hilariously constructed scene at Zootopia’s DMV, where the sloth bureaucrats work at their usual pace, is the closest thing to a cheap shot. Among the standouts in the voicing cast are Jenny Slate, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J.K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer and Chakira. Among the mid-length featurettes are “Research: A True-Life Adventure,” in which the filmmakers immerse themselves in the real world’s animal kingdom in order to better construct the movie’s characters and world; “The Origin of an Animal Tale,” on the development, inspirations, story themes, the film’s evolution in main character focus and final film themes; “Zoology: The Roundtables,” in which Ginnifer Goodwin leads discussions on the characters, environments and animation; “Scoretopia,” on the movie’s unique music; “Z.P.D. Forensic Files,” a quick look through some of the Disney-related Easter eggs scattered throughout the movie; the music video, “Try Everything,” by Shakira; deleted character sketches; and deleted scenes.

Hail, Caesar!: Blu-ray

A TCM-level knowledge of mid-20th Century Hollywood history is all one needs to enjoy Hail, Caesar!, a story that covers 24 eventful hours in the life of nearly over-the-hill contract star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) in 1951. To love it, though, most viewers would have to be diehard fans of Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old MenFargo), who wrote and directed the closing-of-an-era comedy, with enough familiar faces to satisfy curious fans and buffs, alike. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, a studio fixer whose hands are kept full by stars in constant need of supervision and protection from the cops and gossip columnists. Eddie’s also commissioned here to keep budgets from overflowing and religious leaders from questioning the theology in his latest bible epic, starring Whitlock as a Roman centurion on Good Friday. Before the climactic crucifixion scene, Whitlock is kidnaped from his trailer, in full period regalia, and taken to a beachside home in Malibu frequented by commie sympathizers. At the same time, Eddie is required to prevent his bathing-beauty headliner (Scarlett Johansson) from being exposed for having an out-of-wedlock baby and keep his cowboy star (Alden Ehrenreich) from being outed in an affair with a big-shot director.

As frazzled as he is, though, Eddie is taking an inordinate amount of time responding to a headhunter from Lockheed, offering a far more stable job away from the circus. If the storylines don’t actually connect in any noticeable way, the set pieces keep things moving briskly throughout the film’s 104-minute length. There’s a supremely well-choreographed swimming pool ballet, featuring Johansson and a bevy of mermaids; a period party scene in which the cowboy ambles into the ballroom like John Wayne with a hangnail; a homoerotic dance routine, with Channing Tatum standing in for Gene Kelly as a hoofing sailor on leave; and Tilda Swinton, as identical-twin gossip mongers. Then, too, there’s Whitlock waking up from a serious hangover and wandering into a cell meeting in the living room of the Malibu cottage, where, in his naiveté, the centurion-suited star is impressed with the logic of boilerplate Soviet rhetoric. As the story goes, Clooney forced the Coens’ hand by telling reporters that his next project would be the brothers’ decade-old idea, Hail Caesar!, which had yet to take on a life of its own.  If the finished product looks a bit half-baked, that’s probably why. The sterling Blu-ray includes backgrounders, “Directing Hollywood,” “The Stars Align,” “An Era of Glamour” and “Magic of a Bygone Era.”

Anomalisa: Blu-ray

Although Charlie Kaufman has only directed two feature films and written seven, since leaving TV sitcoms for 1999’s Being John Malkovich, his name is synonymous with movies that test the imaginations of viewers and critics, alike. It’s been eight years since Kaufman wrote and directed Synecdoche, New York, a portrait of an artist so complex and challenging that even the positive reviews it received scared the want-to-see from audiences. Roger Ebert opened his glowing four-star review by revealing that “Synecdoche” required at least two viewings to fully absorb. Then, he absolves himself for not writing a conventional review, because, “There is no need to name the characters, name the actors, assign adjectives to their acting,” because his faithful readers will understand what he’s trying to say. Some did, most didn’t. Personally, I found “Synecdoche” to be a worthwhile, if taxing cinematic experience. I was moved by its artistic vision and ability to encapsulate a lifetime of work into a play within a movie (or a movie within a play within a movie.) Among other things, Kaufman required of viewers that they learn the meaning of the word, “synecdoche,” and rare mental illness, the Cotard delusion, after which the protagonist is named. The title, Anomalisa, has no meaning beyond the place it holds in the hearts of the man and woman at the story’s core. To grasp its relevance, though, it’s important to understand the reference made to another syndrome, the Fregoli delusion, which provides the name for Cincinnati’s fictional Hotel Fregoli. It is a belief, exemplified by the insecure self-help author, Michael Stone, that different people are, in fact, a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. All of the characters in Anomalisa are puppets whose movements are coordinated through stop-motion animation – co-directed by Duke Johnson — and, yes, the faces of the vast majority look exactly alike.

After checking into the hotel, where he’ll address a convention of customer-service professionals, Michael gets into an ugly argument with an old flame he hasn’t seen in years. He soon will meet Lisa Hesselman, a woman as vulnerable as he is insecure. A huge fan of his work, Lisa is attending the convention with a friend who she considers to be far prettier and socially evolved.  Far from unattractive, Lisa constantly apologizes for insignificant missteps, faux pas and factual errors. She does, however, succeed in breaking the ice by appealing to his ego. They enjoy anatomically correct puppet sex and discuss the kind of personal things Michael stopped exchanging with his wife years earlier. She captivates him by singing Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in two languages. They end up making promises to each other that may or may not be kept. Back in L.A., he’s greeted by look-alike friends invited by his wife for a surprise party and a son who immediately asks what he brought back from Ohio with him. The bust of an animatronic Japanese woman he picked up in a store for “adult toys” only serves to freak out the kid. Anomalisa began its life in 2005 as a “sound play” for the Los Angeles run of “Theater of the New Ear.” In the performance, David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh played Michael and Lisa, with Tom Noonan sitting between them voicing all of the other characters and creating atmospheric sounds (the “cacophonous drone of humanity”). Carter Burwell conducted the Parabola Ensemble and a foley artist added sound effects. The only way Anomalisa was able to be translated into film — considering the financial bath taken by “Synecdoche” – was through a successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s well worth checking out the bonus material, which explains everything and adds interesting making-of featurettes.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi: Blu-ray

Last January, a lot of fuss was made over the timing of the release Michael Bay’s undeniably exciting 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, on more than 2,300 screens. It was based on first-person accounts of the October 11, 2012, assaults on American compounds in Libya’s second largest city, related in Mitchell Zuckoff’s book, “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” by surviving members of the Annex Security Team stationed there. The small, but select unit was comprised of contracted ex-military personnel, who were highly paid to risk their live once again to protect unspecified U.S “interests.” Paramount made the strategic decision to pre-screen the film for the GOP hopefuls then harassing the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire and stage a hyper-political mega-premiere – 30,000 tickets were handed out — at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. At the time, Republicans were attempting to tar former Hillary Clinton as a co-conspirator to the Islamist militants who stormed the gates of the facilities, leaving U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty dead. The candidates promised that a stash of Clinton’s private e-mails would reveal the “truth” about her complicity in a whitewash protecting Obama administration officials from blame. In fact, “13 Hours” took no position in the non-scandal, except to point out that U.S. outposts around the world were woefully unprepared for such attacks on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy and the CIA agent in charge put too much faith in members of a Libyan militia, hired at $28 a day. One of the team members had accused the bureau chief of ordering a 20-minute delay in sending the security team to the compound, thus stalling armed retaliation to the first wave of attacks. Others disputed the account. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time CIA put too much faith in fighters it had insufficiently vetted. Neither could the huge high-definition screen at the home of the Dallas Cowboys handle the audio demands, causing fans in the upper tech to leave early.

Working from a screenplay by Chuck Hogan (The Town), as well as the guidance of the security contractors and an estimated $50 million of studio money (peanuts, compared to any of the “Transformers” installments), Bay was able to fashion a fact-based thriller that put viewers directly in the line of fire and wasn’t required to embellish the heroism of the team with CGI effects … OK, maybe one or two. He built precise replicas of the compounds in Malta, an island only 207 miles north of Libya, and had an arsenal of advanced, if temporarily non-lethal weaponry at his disposal. The mostly anonymous militants look as if they mean business and were willing to turn post Gaddafi Libya inside-out to install a government favorable to their fundamentalist beliefs. The tension and anti-American sentiment in the streets of faux-Benghazi are palpable, as well. Bay allows plenty of time to humanize the characters played by James Badge Dale, John Krasinski, Max Martini, Toby Stephens, Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa and Freddie Stroma. They occupy their off-time playing video games, lifting weights and Skyping family members. (Significantly, one is reading Joseph Campbell’s “The Power of Myth.”) Apart from a panicked driver who can’t tell right from left, the only person who is made to look like an unforgivably shortsighted boob is the composite CIA chief, Bob (David Constabile). The actual agent in charge that day denies ordering the contractors to “stand down.” The claim was backed up by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee’s finding that there was “no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the Chief of Base or any other party.” Unlike American Sniper, which opened huge and ballooned to a global take of $547.4 million, “13 Hours” ended up underperforming, with a worldwide haul of $69.4 million. (In 2001, Black Hawk down scored $172.3 million.) If I were to guess, I’d say that the studio’s blatant campaign to attract blindly conservative audiences only served to convince mainstream and liberal viewers to take a pass on what must have sounded to them like an exercise in right-wing propaganda. It’s entirely possible, though, that Paramount’s excellent Blu-ray presentation — a separate disc devoted to background and making-of featurettes — could win back viewers looking for what essentially is a gripping war story.

The ConfirmationBlu-ray

Riddle: when is a faith-based movie not promoted as being faith-based or family friendly? Answer: when the faith in question doesn’t wear its “evangelical” message on its sleeve. Released on the same date in March, Sony’s inspirational memoir Miracles From Heaven, starring Jennifer Garner as the mother of boy in desperate of divine intervention, was released on 3,047 screens on its way to a formidable $72.6-million worldwide gross. By comparison, Lighthouse Pictures’ The Confirmation, with Clive Owen as the alcoholic father of an 8-year-old boy is in need of divine intervention, was accorded a release so limited that it hasn’t registered in Box Office Mojo or IMDB.com’s box-office tallies. I haven’t seen the former title, which won’t hit DVD for another month, but can attest to the entertainment value provided by The Confirmation. I shouldn’t have been caught off-guard by its worthiness, as it was written and directed by Bob Nelson, author of the widely acclaimed and Oscar-nominated drama, Nebraska. I was immediately attracted, instead, by the presence of Owen (Croupier), Maria Bello (History of Violence), Patton Oswald (Young Adult), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) and Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket). That’s a lot of star power for a movie that couldn’t have cost more than $10,000 to produce. It’s a simple story, really. Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) does a wonderful job as Anthony, a boy so effortlessly virtuous that his parish priest (Stephen Tobolowsky) has to prod him to come up with a sin worthy of single Hail Mary or Our Father penance.

The boy isn’t a Little Goody Two-Shoes clone, just someone for whom misbehaving isn’t an option worth pursuing. Father Lyons actually encourages Anthony to live a little, if only because it will make his next confession – timed to coincide with his Confirmation ceremony – a bit more interesting. The opportunity arrives when his mother, Bonnie (Bello), hands him off for a weekend stay with his alcoholic, seriously underemployed and lapsed Catholic father, Walt (Owen). Bonnie will be spending the time away from home on a church-sponsored retreat with her new husband (Modine). The unease between father and son is palpable, especially when Walt tells Anthony to stay in the truck while he ducks into a bar for a pick-me-up. After a bit of time passes, Anthony decides to confront his pop in the tavern. With the truck unguarded, a petty thief takes advantage of an unlocked security box to steal Walt’s tools, which are a custom-made to facilitate custom woodwork finishing. With a rare job awaiting him on Monday, Walt becomes desperate to locate the box, which is probably already gathering dust in a local pawnshop. As if his luck weren’t sufficiently disastrous, his landlord has padlocked the house and the misbehaving pickup finally gives up the ghost. His only option is to sneak into his ex-wife’s home and drag Anthony along with him as he scours the town for lowlifes capable of ripping off the keys to a man’s livelihood. To this end, he’s assisted by fellow down-and-outers, played by Oswald and Nelson.

Without giving anything else away, it’s safe to assume that this exercise in male bonding will be provide Anthony with every opportunity to fill Father Lyons’ scorecard in the confessional. If that scenario reminds you of Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, it should. In an interview included in the bonus material, Nelson fully acknowledges borrowing from the classic of Italian neo-realism. Its post-WWII setting is a perfect parallel for the economically depressed Pacific Northwest town in The Confirmation, as well as its quietly redemptive message. Special features include “A Father-Son Story: Inside the Characters of ‘The Confirmation’” and “The Performances of ‘The Confirmation’.”

Touched With Fire: Blu-ray

If it had been released in more than a few dozen theaters last February, Paul Dalio’s highly personal drama, Touched With Fire (a.k.a., “Mania Days”), might have benefitted from comparisons to Frank and Eleanor Perry’s 1962 campus favorite, David and Lisa, in addition to the presence of Katie Holmes. Sent out on the eve of the youth quake that forever changed America, “D&L” dared deal with serious mental health issues faced by teenagers basking in the false promise of JFK’s Camelot and Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Parents couldn’t accept that life in this best of all possible worlds wasn’t perfect, as advertised, and psychiatric treatment might benefit kids from middle-class families. Times have changed to the point where parents no longer hesitate to seek the advice of trained medical personnel and teens aren’t stigmatized by regular visits to their shrink. If anything, they’re overmedicated and too easily diagnosed with serious emotional maladies, once reserved for stressed-out adults. Like David and Lisa, unforgettably played by Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin, the central characters in Touched With Fire meet while at a treatment facility for bipolar disorder. Carla and Marco, portrayed by Holmes and Luke Kirby, are older than the protagonists of “D&L,” but not so much that teenagers can’t relate to them. They’re both obsessed with artistic pursuits – poetry, prose, painting, sketching whatever comes to mind –and the power of the sun, moon and stars to control their moods and creativity.

As long as they stay on their meds, Carla and Marco are fully capable of functioning within a dysfunctional society. Marco, especially, feels as if the medication impacts negatively on his creativity and relationship with Carla, who isn’t thrilled with the effects of drugs designed to flatten her moods. They wonder if Vincent Van Gogh’s gifts, and those of a couple dozen other suffering artists, would have emerged if they had been prescribed anti-depressive and anti-psychotic drugs. They’re especially drawn to Van Gogh’s wondrously complex and visually stunning “The Starry Night,” which represents the artist’s view of the pre-dawn sky from the asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Writer/director/composer Dalio based Touched With Fire on his own struggles with bipolar disorder and what he learned from Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.” (She makes a cameo here, as well.)  The 1993 book examines the relationship between the syndrome and artistic creativity, using extensive case studies of historic writers, artists, and composers assessed as probably having suffered with cyclothymia, major depressive disorder, or manic-depressive/bipolar disorder. Dalio encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions about whether the toll paid by troubled artists for their gifts is worth the pain that comes with it. Holmes and Kirby deliver highly compelling performances, as they dramatize the full emotional spectrum experienced by their characters. The Blu-ray adds necessary background material in the featurettes.

One More Time

Have you ever heard someone say they’d pay to watch their favorite actor read the telephone book? I’ve said it a time or two, myself, probably about Christopher Walker, who could tap dance his way through the Yellow Pages. Robert Edwards’ One More Time tests the theory. In it, Walken plays Paul Lombard, the kind of old-school entertainer who used to pop up on “The Tonight Show” occasionally, without notice, holding a coffee cup filled with booze, and dropping names to beat the band. Although only a half-generation removed from Barry Manilow and Billy Joel, the calendar has finally caught up with him. As comfortable as he appears to be in his jewel-box home in the Hamptons, where an unseen mistress competes for his attention with a sixth wife (Ann Magnuson) and pliant maid, he’d kill for one last chance to get on the road with a new hit song. So far, so good. The problems with the picture start when Lombard’s punky daughter, Jude (Amber Heard), is forced to relocate to the Hamptons from Brooklyn, when she runs out of money. She’s a frustrated singer, whose only recent gigs are singing backup on commercial jingles. Jude is having an affair with her married shrink and carries a chip on her shoulder the size of the Montauk lighthouse. Also leaching on the old man are a condescending sister and brother-in-law (Kelli Garner, Hamish Linklater), who’s still carrying a torch for Jude. They’re all insufferably self-absorbed and contemptuous of anyone and anything they can’t control. Even when Lombard does come up with a song worth selling — Edwards and Joe McGinty’s “When I Live My Life Over Again” – the ramifications of its possible success send shock waves through the family. It’s only when Lombard’s level-headed agent (Oliver Platt) shows up from out of nowhere that things pick up, again. It’s movies like One More Time that make us understand why some animal species eat their young.

Kill Your Friends: Blu-ray

Anyone as disappointed by the HBO mini-series “Vinyl” as I was probably will want to take a pass on Kill Your Friends, which does for 1990s London what producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger did for 1960s New York. Based on a novel by former record-industry insider John Niven, Owen Harris’ debut feature makes the same mistake as too many other show-biz tell-alls: it doesn’t give us a reason to care about the protagonist, 27-year-old A&R man Steven Stelfox (Nicholas Hoult). As long as the Britpop format is topping the music charts, Stelfox has carte blanche to discover new acts and trip their greed reflex with unholy amounts of booze, cocaine and “birds,” as the Beatles used to call their camp followers. Even though he’s developed a tin ear, Stelfox appears oblivious to the notion that the party’s going to end someday and all the cocaine in the world won’t put Humpty Dumpty together again. Even so, any director who can’t find a few good yucks in such meaty material as that found in Niven’s novel shouldn’t have been handed the project in the first place. The filmmakers also borrow a page or two from Bret Easton Ellis’ inky-black satire, “American Psycho,” and Mary Harron’s cinematic depiction of a world in which greed not only is good, but mandatory for success. It’s a lifestyle worth killing to maintain. The nice thing about movies like Kill Your FriendsAmerican Psycho and “Vinyl” is that they tend to come with superlative soundtracks. Here, such Cool Britannia bands as Blur, Bastille, the Chemical Brothers, Oasis, Radiohead, Prodigy, Doof (“Suck My Dick”), ODB and Echo and the Bunnymen pick up the slack when necessary. James Corden and Georgia King do nice jobs in key supporting roles. The DVD adds interviews with cast, director, and writer.

No Home Movie

I’ve written so often in the last year about DVD releases of films by the late Chantal Akerman that I’ve pretty much run out of words to say on the subject. As most of her admirers already know, No Home Movie was made while her beloved mother – a Holocaust survivor, living in Belgium – was in the final stages of her life. It was first shown at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, two weeks before Akerman’s self-inflicted death, on October 5. (It would be put on display at the New York Film Festival on October 7.) Critics would get another opportunity to share their feelings on the movie and loss of such an influential artist when No Home Movie went into limited release here on April 1. Before she died and was treated for depression, Akerman said: “This film is about my mother … my mother, who is no longer with us … about this woman who came to Belgium in 1938, fleeing from Poland, the pogroms and violence … this woman who we only see inside her apartment … an apartment in Brussels. (It is) a film about a world in motion that my mother does not see.” Akerman allows us to eavesdrop on their final conversations, via Skype, or in the Brussels apartment, sometimes with sister Sylvaine and her maid. As was her wont, Akerman rarely spent much time in any one place for very long. Her work frequently took her to far-flung corners of the world, so the idea that Brussels might be “home” was a bit of stretch for her.  Her mother does live in an airy middle-class apartment in Brussels, but, for those who lost almost everything in the war, home must seem like a relative concept. Those unfamiliar with Akerman’s work probably wouldn’t benefit much from starting with No Home Movie, even if it shares familiar cinematic architecture with previous films. Even longtime fans may find the intimacy too much to bear.

Mr. Right: Blu-ray

Get a Job: Blu-ray

In another one of those matches made in Hollywood heaven, Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell easily steal the show in Mr. Right, a story about assassins in love and hate. Rockwell plays an A-list hitman, Francis, who’s every bit as adept at avoiding getting killed as he is fulfilling contracts. In the latest in a long line of disappointments, Martha has just caught her boyfriend cheating on her. Just as she’s almost conceded the game, however, Martha bumps into Francis while shopping and, yes, it’s kismet. Instead of being repulsed by his profession, she decides that Mr. Right only comes around once in a lifetime … in her case, at least. Turns out, she’s a natural born killer. When Francis’ former employer (Tim Roth) begins to close in on him, Martha becomes his right-hand gal. Her training sessions are nicely staged, with the final test being a juggling act with razor-sharp knives. If Paco Cabezas’ follow-up to the Nic Cage revenge vehicle, Rage, won’t make anyone forget Grosse Pointe Blank or Prizzi’s Honor, it is entertaining enough to recommend to fans of the stars and dark action comedies. It comes with the featurette, “A Sweet Couple.”

In 2002, Dylan Kidd made a sweet and sexy coming-of-age comedy, Roger Dodger, that quickly became one of my favorites of the new millennium. I still love it. In his feature debut, Jesse Eisenberg plays a geeky Midwestern high school student, who travels to New York to ask his playboy uncle (Campbell Scott) to teach him how impress girls out of their panties. Kidd followed up that critical success two years later with the fantasy romance, P.S. In it, Laura Linney plays a divorced woman of a certain age given the opportunity to relive her past when she meets a young man (Topher Grace) who appears to be her long-dead high school sweetheart. It garnered some favorable reviews, but made no money in very limited release. Since then, Kidd is credited with directing a TV movie and two episodes of the Adult Swim comedy, “Children’s Hospital.” I won’t hazard a guess as to what might have derailed Kidd’s career, but, if not making money were a crime, only a half-dozen directors in Hollywood would be working. Which brings us to Get a Job, a comedy that hasn’t seen the light of a projector or Blu-ray beam since it was completed in 2012. With a cast that includes the aforementioned Ms. Kendrick, Alison Brie, Marcia Gay Harden, Greg Germann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Bryan Cranston, how is such a thing even possible? Get a Job, which qualifies as a stoner and slacker flick, as well as a workplace comedy on the order of Office Space, isn’t the least funny movie I’ve ever seen, as some pundits would have you believe. It’s just not anywhere near as funny as it ought to have been, given the talent involved. The story, by freshman writers Kyle Pennekamp and Scott Turpel, follows several recent college graduates as they try to find meaningful work in the cold-blooded world of corporate America. If not meaningful, then, something north of the minimum wage. If not, can they carve a niche in the emerging techno-economy? Special features include “Video Résumé Outtakes” and “Where it All Began: The Cast of ‘Get a Job’.”

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Director’s Cut: Blu-ray 4K

Star Trek/Star Trek Into Darkness: Blu-ray 4K

IMAX: Journey to Space: Blu-ray 4K

As many times as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has been released into its various video and digital iterations, I can’t remember where I first saw the picture many still consider to be the best of all the “Trek” features. For all the sturm und drang that surrounded its creation, including the unseating of creator Gene Roddenberry from the bridge of the franchise, the sequel kick-started Paramount’s floundering “ST” universe, outperforming everyone’s expectations and improving the odds for everything that would follow it. After enjoying cult status for so many years, “ST” became an all-encompassing commercial juggernaut. The secret sauce included such ingredients as a commitment to returning to the show’s roots, with original crew members and a familiar villain (Ricardo Montalban); an eye to the future, as represented by newcomers Kirstie Allie, Paul Winfield and a bunch of trainees anxious to prove their mettle; an air-tight budget that demanded a return to fundamentals; no-nonsense producer Harve Bennett; outsider director Nicholas Meyer; and early buzz about a final “death scene” that would leave audiences in tears. Decades after the “Genesis Device” conceit was forgotten, Spock’s final speech continues to tear the heart out of viewers. It’s also interesting to see how easy it is to re-adjust to the analog, pre-CGI sci-fi world. “Wrath of Khan” arrives in Blu-ray with all previous bonus features intact, including three minutes of re-cut material and a 30-minute featurette, “The Genesis Effect: Engineering the Wrath of Khan.” In it, Meyer, producers Robert Sallin and Ralph Winter, and journalists Mark Altman and Larry Nemecek, walk viewers through a condensed version of how the second film in the series was made. The informative featurette was produced last year, after both Bennett and Leonard Nimoy passed away, leaving Adam Nimoy to briefly fill in for his father and Sallin to give Bennett his due.

But wait, there’s more. Those Trekkies fortunate enough to have both a 4K-equipped HDTV screen and 4K Blu-ray playback unit can be the first on their blocks to enjoy the rebooted 2009 Star Trek iteration and Star Trek Into Darkness in the newest technology extant. The key players will be seen in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond and something called Star Trek 14. There are plenty of mostly vintage bonus features, but the price tag has risen to around $50. I haven’t seen anything on 4K, so you’re on your own here.

“Star Trek” and NASA have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for more than 40 years, even extending to Paramount providing DVDs for the International Space Station astronauts to enjoy. It’s appropriate, then, that Patrick Stewart (a.k.a., Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise-D) was enlisted to narrate K2 and Giant Screen Films’ Journey to Space, an “event” picture designed to re-ignite America’s passion for space exploration. That it’s being “presented” by Toyota and Boeing makes one wonder if the producers have an ulterior motive for going to trouble of cobbling together existing hi-def footage and rounding up veteran astronauts to gush over their personal experiences. (It’s tough to afford an ambitious space program and the Pentagon’s appetite for war toys simultaneously.) Even so, it’s difficult to grow weary of the spectacular images of Mars, the ISS and deep space, captured by the rovers and Hubble Space Telescope. Shout! Factory is releasing Journey to Space in both a two-disc version, which includes the 4K UHD iteration and a combo Blu-ray 2D/3D disc, and a standalone 1080p Blu-ray 2D version. The higher the def, the greater the experience.

The Funhouse Massacre: Blu-ray

At one time or another, most of us have asked ourselves the rhetorical question, “How hard could it be to write a movie like that?” A lot harder than you’d think it is. One way to come up with an idea for a horror picture, for example, is to take any conceivable circumstance or daily occurrence and tack a worst-case scenario to it. Some movies, even the good ones, almost seem to write themselves. I would guess, for example, that the premise behind The Funhouse Massacre would have exhausted itself years ago. I’m no expert on horror tropes, but Andy Palmer appears, at least, to have come up with a new twist on an old subgenre. As the story goes, it’s Halloween and six of the world’s scariest psychopaths escape from a secret facility for the criminally insane, run by a warden played by Robert Eglund. Like moths to a flame, they are attracted to a holiday-themed fun house, whose mazes are inspired by the same murderers’ various reigns of terror. Not only do the patrons assume that the resulting carnage on display is all in fun, but they’re completely unaware, as well, of the fact that they’re about to become part of the act. Neither do the local police have a reason to believe anything is amiss inside the walls of the funhouse, even if one of the deputies (co-writer Ben Begley) has a special affiliation with escapee “Mental Manny” (Jere Burns). The others are Animal the Cannibal (E.E. Bell), Dr. Suave (Sebastian Siegel), the Taxidermist (Clint Howard), Rocco the Clown (Mars Crain) and Dollface (Candice De Visser). The Funhouse Massacre couldn’t have cost a fortune to make, so the availability of space at Land of Illusion Haunted Scream Park, outside Middletown, Ohio, must have helped keep expenses down. The Blu-ray package includes commentary with director Andy Palmer, producer Warner Davis and actors Clint Howard and Courtney Gains; Popcorn Talk’s video commentary with Palmer and co-writers/co-stars Ben Begley and Renee Dorian; “A Day on the Set”; and production diaries.

Altered Minds

How does one follow gigs directing such reality shows as “Samantha Brown’s Great Weekends,” “Guide to Style,” “One Week to Save Your Marriage” and “What Not to Wear”? In Michael Z. Wechsler’s case, you turn to the dark side of life, in a family psychodrama, Altered Minds (a.k.a., “The Red Robin”), with shades of dysfunction, horror and CIA torture. Judd Hirsch plays world-renowned psychiatrist and Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Nathaniel Shellner, who, dying of cancer, has gathered his adult children to the old homestead to celebrate what could be his last birthday. Of the four children, three were adopted in Shellner’s time visiting orphanages in war-torn countries. Things begin to go off the rails when the oldest son, Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), accuses his father of arranging the adoptions to facilitate psychological experimentation. Haunted by some recent discoveries, he wants to unlock closely held secrets before it’s too late. The wheelchair-bound scientist would like to resolve the issues plaguing his son’s mind, as well, but doesn’t always realize when he’s being played by Tommy, a writer of horror fiction. It’s only a matter of time before Shellner’s experience in the CIA’s Project MKUltra mind-control program will kick in and tip the balance of power within the family. The DVD adds deleted scenes, two commentary tracks, Wechsler’s video logs and material from rehearsals and screenings.

Tom Waits: Out of the Box/Down & Dirty

Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story

East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem

Way back at the beginning of his career, Tom Waits would slither up to the stage of a theater — relying on the wall to keep him erect – stagger to the microphone, as if drunk on sweet wine and cheap beer, a cigarette hanging loosely from lips and his eyes staring at a point three inches in front of his pointy-toe brogues. His Froggy the Gremlin voice betrayed the combined effects of whiskey, smoke and sandpaper. The lyrics, when they could be discerned, recalled American musicians and poets as diverse as Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk, Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart and, of course, Charles Bukowski. We hadn’t seen anything like him and none of the imitators lasted very long. If it was an act, it was a good one. The material couldn’t sound less commercial, but the gems included in such appropriately titled albums as “Closing Time” (1973), “The Heart of Saturday Night” (1974), “Nighthawks at the Diner” (1975), “Heartattack and Vine” (1980) produced FM-ready gems for himself, the Eagles (“Ol’ ’55”), Tim Buckley (“Martha”), Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”) and Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”), among other artists. No one has a larger catalogue of unauthorized Waits DVDs than MVD Visual, with the latest titles, “Out of the Box” and “Down & Dirty,” providing fresh meat to hungry fans. The evolution and maturation of the artist are visible in both selections. At 66, the star of stage, screen, vinyl and television has stopped smoking cigarettes and drinking hard liquor – thank goodness – but he’s still a terrific raconteur. They contain interviews from every period in his career, analysis by domestic and English critics, as well as snippets from music videos and talk shows. (Be aware that “Down & Dirty” is included in “Out of the Box” and can be purchased separately.)

The history of music wouldn’t be complete without mention of the famous venues in which it was performed or staged. In this regard, at least, La Scala, Vienna Staatsoper, Carnegie Hall and Paris Opéra can be fairly mentioned in the same breath with the Ryman Auditorium, the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms, Village Vanguard, CBGB, Troubadour and Nippon Budokan. Tony D’Annunzio and Karl Rausch’s almost tearfully nostalgic Louder Than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story makes a convincing case for Detroit’s venerable showcase to be included in any such list of platforms for noteworthy music, as do such first-hand witnesses as Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, the surviving members of the MC5, Grand Funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, Henry Rollins, the Who’s Roger Daltrey and Stooges guitar player James Williamson. Although the Grande provided a stage for acts that catered to other Motor City constituencies, it will go down in rock history as the true birthplace of punk. Without the Stooges, MC5 and Alice Cooper, it would have taken a bit longer for Britain’s Clash and Sex Pistols, New York’s Ramones and Dolls and the West Coast noise bands to find their groove. In turn, if the 1960s’ counterculture hadn’t emerged at the same time as the civil rights and anti-war movements exploded, the Grande might not have become a home away from home for such popular attractions as Led Zeppelin, Cream, B.B. King, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd and the Who. This was back in the day when a ticket to see a three-headliner show might top out a $5. The DVD adds vintage home-movie footage, archival photographs and other reminders of a Detroit that no longer exists and a grass-roots music scene that eventually would be gobbled up by rapacious record labels and promoters.

At a time when it seems impossible to imagine peace in the Mideast, it’s nice to know that some Israelis and Palestinians, at least, have reached out to each other in the name of peace, love and understanding, through music. The setting for this experiment in unforced harmony is Jerusalem, which is divided into the Arab East and Israeli West. The occasion is the recording of David Broza’s new album and documentary, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, a non-partisan collection of songs chosen specifically to be shared by musicians, singers and school children from opposite sides of the contested divide. Not all of them sound like the flipside of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” thank goodness. The traditional rhythms of Israeli and Palestinian folk music add a necessary buoyancy and sense of place to the songs. Steve Earle was brought in as producer to stretch the roots of the music even further. In between rehearsals, co-directors Henrique Cymerman and Erez Miller tour the holy city with the musicians, offering their own feelings about what makes the place special and the pain of permanent relocation and division. Bonus features, include behind-the-scenes footage of David Broza in the studio and three music videos featuring David Broza and Steve Earle.

Stardust Stricken: Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait

Although this documentary looks as if it might have been shot any time in the last hundred years, depending on the technology on hand, it’s actually focused on the period almost immediately prior to and after the Islamist revolution in Iran. It’s jarring, especially when compared to films made by Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Leila Hatami, Samira Makhmalbaf and other participants in the Iranian New Wave from the same period. It speaks to the drama inherent in the upheaval that accompanied the abrupt transition from the modern, if frequently cruel monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the fanatically repressive government of Ayatollah Kohmeini and his Koran-waving minions. Filmmakers, especially, have found it difficult to straddle the thin line drawn by censors who couldn’t possibly care less about what the judges at Cannes, Venice and Berlin think. Made in 1996, Stardust Stricken: Mohsen Makhmalbaf: A Portrait pairs two of the most important participants of the Iranian New Wave: journalist/critic/translator Houshang Golmakani and filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The documentary provides an introduction into the early life and works of Makhmalbaf, who, after being released from prison in 1979 for political activism and stabbing a cop, embraced literature and the cinema, while also finding peace in the Koran. In addition to revisiting formative locations in Makhmalbaf’s early life, Golmakani inserts footage taken during the costly eight-war between Iran and Ba’athist Iraq. Even his advocacy for the Islamic arts in Tehran couldn’t prevent five of his films from being banned in his home country. In 2001, his mostly widely known film, Kandahar, won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes. It brought him his second Palme d’Or nomination. (The first was in 1999 for Ghessé hayé kish, which he co-wrote and co-directed with Abolfazl Jalili, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Naser Taghvai.) In another classic example of the adage, “be careful what you wish for,” Makhmalbaf felt it necessary to leave the Islamic Republic in 2005, shortly after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sixth President of Iran, and has lived in Paris since then. If any documentary cried out for a sequel, it would be “Stardust Stricken.”

TV-to-DVD

IFC: The Spoils Before Dying, Season 2

PBS: The Secrets of Saint John Paul

PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape

PBS: Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

PBS: David Holt’s State of Music

Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Heart of a Hero

In 1992, Bruce Springsteen recorded “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On),” lamenting the dearth of quality programming on his newly purchased satellite dish. It was the closest he’s ever come to a novelty song and I doubt if he can remember the lyrics, let alone perform it in concerts. Today, consumers have more genuinely entertaining choices available to them then at any time in history, often more than 57 in the same timeslot. Independent programmers, podcasters and Internet-based artists have usurped the responsibility once reserved for the three broadcast networks and PBS. IFC’s “The Spoils Before Dying,” an extension of its “The Spoils of Babylon,” is a series that wouldn’t have seen the light of prime-time in 1992, except, perhaps, as a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” Produced by Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele for Funny or Die, the shows seemed to be little more than an after-school project for Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kristen Wiig, Steve Tom, Haley Joel Osment, Michael Sheen and their funny friends. They attracted what even a cable network would consider to be a loyal niche audience of college-educated and comedy-savvy viewers. They are presented as comedy mini-series that parody classic entertainment tropes, introduced by the pompous “author, producer, actor, writer, director, raconteur, bon vivant, legend and fabulist” clone of late-career Orson Welles, Eric Jonrosh (Ferrell). “Babylon” spoofed such epic-scale “TV event” miniseries as “The Thorn Birds” and “Rich Man, Poor Man,” once-popular shows most viewers would be too young to have seen. The noir-soaked “Spoils Before Dying,” a “lost film” based on Jonrosh’s 1958 novel, follows 1950s jazz pianist-turned-private eye Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams) as he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation that hits too close to home. Banyon is given three days to clear his name in the murder of his colleague and lover, Fresno Foxglove (Maya Rudolph). It’s a lot of fun.

Catholics tend to revere the men who have been elected to shepherd their flock, while merely tolerating the cardinals who elected them and live in luxury at the expense of parishioners burdened by medieval dictates and criminal clergy. Like Pope John XXIII before him, Pope John Paul II was admired, as well, for advancing inclusive reforms that actually made Catholics feel good about their faith. The fascinating PBS/BBC documentary, “The Secrets of Saint John Paul,” made me wonder how Catholics would react to the very real possibility that the first non-Italian pontiff in more than 400 years had a romantic relationship with a married woman –Anna-Theresa Tymieniecka – who studied in Poland, before moving to the United States. Unlike the priests who prey on parishioners of both sexes, then-Archbishop of Kraków Karol Józef Wojtyla and Tymieniecka maintained a 30-year friendship, based, at the very least, on mutual intellectual curiosity and scholarship. Even when he was elevated to the papacy, Tymieniecka remained in contact with John Paul II as friend, adviser, translator and confidante. We know this only because their two-sided correspondence is part of a collection of documents sold by Tymieniecka’s estate in 2008 to the National Library of Poland. According to the BBC, the library had initially kept the letters from public view, partly to clear John Paul’s path to sainthood, but a library official announced in February the letters would be made public. BBC reporter Edward Stourton was the first to gain full, if guarded access. Veteran investigative journalist Carl Bernstein and Vatican expert Marco Politi were the first journalists to talk to Tymieniecka, in the 1990s, about her importance in John Paul’s life. They dedicated 20 pages to her in their 1996 book “His Holiness.” At the time, she denied having developed any romantic relationship with John Paul II/Wojtyla, “however one-sided it might have been.” If the recently disclosed letters and photographs suggest otherwise, I doubt that most rank-and-file Catholics would demand a retraction of his sainthood. Stourton’s research also reveals how the blatant misogyny of Vatican officials nearly forced an end to the friendship, causing the Pope to surreptitiously post letters from outside Rome. In retrospect, such revelations only make JPII more human.

In the PBS presentation, “Secrets of the Dead: The Alcatraz Escape,” three Dutch scientists use 3D modelling technology to speculate on the possibility that, in 1962, bank robbers Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin could have launched a patchwork raft into the waters surrounding Alcatraz Prison and survived. The men disappeared, leaving behind a cold case that has mystified law enforcement for over a half-century. The new technology is bolstered by elaborate data collected on the tidal patterns of San Francisco Bay at a to-scale model of the region, as the waters pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the mixed results of their investigation beg more questions than they answer.

The new 90-minute public-television special “Ode to Joy: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9” showcases the triumphant musical masterpiece in a rare full-length television recording by the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, with the Westminster Symphonic Choir, under the direction of conductor Mark Laycock. The orchestra and choir are joined by soprano Ah Young Hong, mezzo-soprano Leah Wool, tenor William Burden and bass-baritone Mark S. Doss. Technically exquisite, the symphony is performed in historic Alexander Hall on the campus of Princeton University, in honor of American scholar, philanthropist and human rights advocate William H. Scheide on the occasion of his 100th birthday celebration. The program also takes viewers to Vienna, where historical background is added.

Also from PBS, “David Holt’s State of Music” takes a reading on the health of American mountain music, as it’s been practiced for hundreds of years, from the most remote coves of southern Appalachia to the bright lights of Asheville’s public-TV studios and the Grand Old Opry stage. Grammy Award-winning performer David Holt has spent his life learning and performing traditional American music. Here, he introduces viewers to modern masters of traditional music.

 

In Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart: Heart of a Hero,” Abigail and Frank pursue a romance before the town of Hope Valley is tested by the threat of a gang of outlaws and Elizabeth and Jack’s relationship is touched by jealousy, when a woman from his past unexpectedly arrives in town. While Bill grows overprotective of Abigail’s safety, Jack refuses to let the residents give in to their fears. It leads to a dramatic conclusion in which an unlikely ally joins the cause.

The DVD Wrapup: Janis, Triple 9, Princess, Wim Wenders, City of Women, Blood Bath, Human Tornado and more

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue

GG Allin: Carnival of Excess

For as long as I can remember, someone has been trying to make a biopic about Janis Joplin. The closest anyone has come is Mark Rydell’s 1979 The Rose, which was loosely based on the Texas songbird’s troubled life, career and premature death to a heroin overdose nine years earlier. Because Joplin’s family wasn’t yet ready to commit to a specific Hollywood suitor, The Rose could only tease audiences with allusions to known facts. Since then, Lili Taylor, Pink, Zooey Deschanel, Brittany Murphy, Renée Zellweger, Amy Adams and Nina Arianda have had their names attached to film and theatrical projects that hit roadblocks along the way for similar reasons. The wait, in large part is over. Amy Berg’s comprehensive and legitimately affecting documentary, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, succeeds because she was granted the access the other hopefuls were denied. Still, it took eight years to complete. In addition to the rights to Joplin’s music and image, Berg gained access to friends, family members and music-industry sources who previously were limited as to what they could reveal to journalists and filmmakers. (Berg benefitted from cooperation with producer Peter Newman, who, for nearly 20 years, has held the rights to a treasure trove of Joplin material and still plans to make his own “Janis.”) Berg’s greatest coup, perhaps, was identifying musician Cat Power (as Chan Marshall) as the perfect person to read from the sadly revealing letters Joplin wrote home to her parents. On-screen interview subjects include her sister Laura, brother Michael, high school girlfriend Karleen Bennett, Kris Kristofferson (author of “Me and Bobbie McGee”), surviving bandmates from Joplin’s three bands, manager Julius Karpen, music mogul Clive Davis, D.A. Pennebaker (Monterey Pop), onetime boyfriend David Niehaus, hippie entrepreneur Chet Helms, talk-show host and friend Dick Cavett, and musicians “Country” Joe McDonald, Pink, Powell St. John (Mother Earth), Bob Weir, Melissa Etheridge and actress Juliette Lewis. That her singing style evolved through the years is evidenced in wonderful footage from shows in San Francisco, Monterey, Woodstock, Europe and Canada. And, of course, no bio-doc would be complete, or accurate, without a good deal of reflection on Joplin’s tortuous adolescence in Port Arthur, Texas, and lifetime obsession with pleasing her parents and convincing them of her success. Comparisons with Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy, on the similarly tragic circumstances surrounding Amy Winehouse’s life and death, aren’t out of the question, either. The DVD adds featurettes “Big Brother Acapella,” “Avalon vs. the Fillmore,” “Influences” and “Walk of Fame Ceremony.”

Fans of the late punk provocateur GG Allin – and you know who you are – will relish the release of GG Allin: Carnival of Excess, a no-frills documentary filmed two years before his 1993 death to, guess what, heroin. If anyone was born behind the 8-ball, it was Allin. Named Jesus Christ Allin at birth by his screw-loose father, Merle, he was raised in rural New Hampshire, in a cabin with no electricity or running water. He lived under the constant threat of being killed by the joyless coot in a murder/suicide pact and buried underneath the floor boards. Finally realizing that she had married a dangerous lunatic, Arleta Allin took her two school-age boys to Vermont to recover some semblance of normality. To avert further damage, Arleta changed JCA’s legal name to Kevin Michael Allin. (GG became his nickname after older brother, Merle Jr., was unable to pronounce “Jesus” properly and called him “Jeje.”) Carrying that kind of baggage, it could hardly come as a surprise to his elders that their boy would turn to punk rock for refuge. His early influences included Aerosmith, KISS, the Stooges and New York Dolls, from whom he acquired an appreciation for cross-dressing. Later, GG’s stage act would become synonymous with violent self-abuse, transgressive music, scatological behavior and confrontation with spectators and police. In “Carnival of Excess,” GG performs proto-country songs on an acoustic guitar, sitting on the floor behind a coffeetable crowded with bottles of booze and beer, ashtrays and drug paraphernalia. The self-anointed Godfather of Scum Rock is surrounded by two women in stripper garb, gyrating to whatever it was that appealed to them about GG’s music. In between songs, some of which are pretty good, GG offers his opinions on a myriad of subjects, including life, death, touring and jail.

Triple 9: Blu-ray

Set in Atlanta, Triple 9 is a hyperviolent crime thriller cut from the same template as Michael Mann’s Heat. Where Mann’s L.A.-set drama combined narrative logic with explosive action, though, Triple 9 only offers superbly choreographed gunplay and chases. The lack of balance is likely the result of requiring proven Aussie director John Hillcoat – The Proposition, The Road, Lawless – to make do with a half-baked script by newcomer Matt Cook. In it, a gang of career criminals and corrupt cops is hired by Irina (Kate Winslet), the wife of an imprisoned Russian mobster, to break into a bank and steal a safe-deposit box that contains information that could overturn his conviction. Instead of paying the thieves, she gives their leader, Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), another mission. This time, it involves breaking into an even less-accessible government office and stealing more data on her husband. An ill-conceived assassination of a crew member upends plans for the new job, providing a lead for boozy investigator Woody Harrelson to pursue. The title refers to the police code, 999, for an officer-down situation, requiring all available units to respond. The diversionary tactic doesn’t exactly work as planned, but only because the screenplay allows for such illogical developments to get in the way of the effective set pieces. If Triple 9 isn’t wholly successful, it’s not for any lack of star power supplied by supporting-cast members Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams and Gal Gadot. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a pair of short making-of featurettes.

Princess

From Israel, Tali Shalom-Ezer’s unflinching debut feature chronicles a disaster waiting to happen. That Princess plays out in an environment associated with academic and professional achievement — not, say, in a trailer park on the outskirts of Little Rock – begs questions that only occasionally are addressed in films outside the festival circuit. Still sexy and flirtatious at fortysomething, Alma (Keren Moris) is a nurse who shares an apartment with her unemployed teacher boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), and a 12-year-old daughter, Adar (Shira Haas), from a previous marriage to a seemingly more grounded man, possibly a kibbutz worker. Adar is enrolled in a school for gifted students, probably in Tel Aviv, but rarely attends or does her homework. When confronted by the school’s principal, Alma is able to avert Adar’s expulsion by openly flirting with the defenseless administrator. When chastised by her noticeably embarrassed daughter, Alma defends her MILF-y behavior as an essential tool in fixing problems faced by modern moms. Neither does she hide her sensual impulses off-duty, at home, with the only too agreeable Michael. On the cusp of womanhood, Adar can’t help but be affected by their canoodling. Clearly needy, though, she even climbs in bed next to them when she can’t sleep. With nothing but time on their hands when Alma is at work, Adar and Michael engage in activities that would be considered to be playful if she was 5 and he was her father. Instead, before our eyes, their relationship crosses the border from questionable and ill-advised to creepy and potentially criminal. One afternoon, in order to escape Michael’s attention, Adar uses the time away from school to set out on a walkabout through the city’s teenage wasteland. It’s here she befriends an aimless 17-year-old boy, Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who, while noticeably taller, could be her twin. They even dress alike. Adar not only convinces her mother to allow the homeless youth to spend a few nights in their already cramped apartment, but also to share her bed in a non-sexual way. Even so, curiosity leads to some mild petting and limit testing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Alan and Adar’s resemblance to each other – could he be her doppelganger, instead of merely a look-alike? — trips a switch in Michael’s hair-trigger libido. Can this childhood be saved? Stay tuned. Shalom-Ezer does a nice job keeping this potentially messy drama from spinning out of control and keeping her own opinions of her characters in check. The acting is terrific, especially Haas in her debut performance. It arrives with a making-of featurette.

 

City of Women: Blu-ray

By 1980, radical feminism had been eclipsed by the desire of young women to carve their own paths through life, unburdened by the demands of unenlightened men and stale political imperatives imposed on them by the editors of Ms. Magazine and women who still refused to shave their body hair. The thought of Federico Fellini revisiting the subject at this late date through the still-lascivious eyes of his cinematic alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni, probably was greeted with the degree of indifference usually reserved for over-the-hill artists, athletes and actors in other disciplines. Curiosity, nostalgia and fan loyalty would be the likely deciding factors in determining the commercial fate of Fellini’s City of Women, at least outside Italy. Critics were mixed on its artistic merit and audiences indifferent. Thirty-five years later, divorced of lowered expectations and the landmines of politically correct thought, it’s possible to see the wildly extravagant fantasy in a different light. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed City of Women, which could be considered a delayed sequel to . It opens in a crowded train, where Mastroianni’s Snaporaz will be lured into the tiny washroom by a woman (Bernice Stegers) whose physical attributes match those associated with the stereotypical Italian bombshells of the 1960s and giallo. Before Snaporaz can seal the deal, the train makes an abrupt stop, alerting the woman to its arrival at her appointed destination, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. His enflamed libido demands that Snaporaz follow the unnamed woman through a meadow and into a forest, where a feminist convention is underway at a luxury hotel. Instead of minding his own business and returning to the train depot, Snaporaz decides to follow the scent of his seducer through a ballroom full of women of every known feminist variety, from lipstick lesbians and diesel dykes, to snuggle bunnies and commandoes in the battle of the sexes. Stumbling through the assemblage like Mr. Magoo at a strip club, Snaporaz finally comes to the conclusion that he’s been directed to the convention either for the amusement of the participants or to be devoured as the main course at a banquet. He accepts a ride from the hotel’s stout furnace tender, who takes him to a farm field with rape on her mind. After being interrupted, this time by the woman’s elderly mother, he connects with a car full of stoned teenage girls headed to a party at the estate of Dr. Xavier Katzone (Ettore Manni), a crazy libertine celebrating the occasion of his 10,000th sexual conquest. While wandering around the elaborately accessorized estate, Snaporaz meets his slightly inebriated ex-wife (Anna Prucnal) and a voluptuous woman (Donatella Damiani) he met roller-skating at the hotel. Things really get Fellini-esque, if you will, when Snaporaz discovers a portal into another fantasy world controlled by women, where his masculinity is judged. No need to reveal what happens next, but, be assured, it’s of a part with what’s preceded it. More than anything else, City of Women serves as a reminder of Fellini’s halcyon days, when a visit to his world was like a day at Disneyland on LSD. It arrives on Blu-ray with vintage French and Italian theatrical trailers; an interview with production designer Dante Ferretti; a new documentary film featuring producer Renzo Rossellini, film historian Aldo Tassone, producer and film historian Carlo Lizzani, and Federico Fellini’s assistant Dominique Delouche; and an entertaining interview with Italian director Tinto Brass, who compares his tastes in women with those of his friend, Fellini.

 

Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Although the origin of the road movie genre generally is traced back no further than Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Two-Lane Blacktop and Badlands, its roots can be said to extend to Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and TV’s “Route 66.” Admirers of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s “Road” pictures may object, but, except for The Road to Hong Kong, production was largely limited to the Paramount Studios lot. In less location-specific road and buddy flicks, the potential for adventure, romance, tragedy and a few good laughs existed around every curve on the road. Every stopover presented existential challenges to individual freedom. When the journey was over, some kind of emotional or intellectual growth could be expected of the protagonists. Looking back at the films included in the constantly surprising, “Wim Wenders: The Road Trilogy” – made back-to-back in the mid-1970s, Wenders says, “The genre doesn’t quite have the same appeal anymore, mainly because everybody travels now. Traveling was once a privilege, and being on the road was a state of grace, and not that many people dared to take that liberty. But today, anybody can book a flight to the U.S. and rent a car or bike and go down Route 66 or feel like in Easy Rider.” That sentiment became especially cogent with the completion, in 1992, of the original Interstate Highway System, as envisioned 35 years earlier by President Eisenhower’s dream team. In many ways, today’s federal expressways are rivers of conformity, dictated by expediency and cookie-cutter chains of hotels, gas stations and restaurants. That wasn’t yet the case when Wenders brought his no-frills production crew to the United States to make the perfectly delightful Alice in the Cities, in which a German photojournalist is saddled with the supervision of a precocious 9-year-old girl after encountering her mother at a New York airport. In the U.S. to capture the “real America” on film, Philip Winter (Rüdiger Vogler) has decided to return to Germany to clear the writer’s block in his head caused by the disappointment of seeing how ghastly a vision that turned out to be. While trying to book a flight, he encounters a German woman (Lisa Kreuzer) and her daughter Alice (Yella Rottländer) doing the same thing. During the wait for their flight, which has been delayed by a strike, the three foreigners pool their assets for a hotel room and tour of the rapidly changing Manhattan. The next morning, mom hops in a cab and disappears into thin air. After returning to Europe, via Amsterdam, the innocent friendship between Winter and Alice grows as they travel together through various European cities on a quest for Alice’s grandmother. As is the case with most good road movies, their journey becomes one of growth and discovery. For audiences here, it opened our eyes to America as others saw us and a Europe that was still coming to grips with its own post-war visions. If viewers are reminded of similarly black-and-white buddy film, Paper Moon, starring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal, then 9, you wouldn’t be alone. Wenders nearly killed his own fully funded project after seeing Peter Bogdanovich’s film, but was talked into continuing with strategic alternations by Nicholas Ray, who couldn’t see the point of letting an approved budget go to waste.

 

Vogler returned a year later as the director’s alter ego in Wrong Move, a road picture that largely takes place on German rails and waterways. It is as dour as Alice in the Cities was bright. It chronicles six days in the life of Wilhelm, an aspiring novelist encouraged to discover what’s happening in his country by his mother, who gives him a ticket to Bonn. On the way, he becomes enchanted with the fleeting visage of an actress (Hanna Schygulla) staring back at him from a train running parallel to his. He’s shares his compartment with a pair of stowaways — an athlete in the 1936 Olympics (Hans Christian Blech) and his mute teen companion, Mignon (14-year-old Natasha Kinski, in her first screen role) – and a plump poet (Peter Kern) who insinuates himself into their conversation. Once off the train, Mignon performs acrobatics for loose change, while the older man – like the train conductor, a former death-camp guard — plays harmonica. In a serendipitous encounter, Wilhelm reconnects with the actress after interrupting a film crew shooting a scene nearby. The poet encourages the whole group to join him at a house owned by his uncle, situated on a bluff high above the Rhine. As beautiful as the location is, it’s mostly populated with ghosts representing the last 50 years of German angst. Adapted from a late-18th Century novel by Goethe, Wrong Move eventually finds Wilhelm on the Zugspitze, the highest mountain peak in Germany, to ruminate on where he’s been and where he might go. The same could be said of Wenders’ Germany.

 

In the nearly three-hour Kings of the Road, Vogler plays a traveling projection-equipment mechanic, Bruno, whose work takes him to villages along the East German border. Early on, he connects with a depressed young man, Robert (Hanns Zischler), whose Volkswagen had just disproved the theory that bugs float. Bruno’s circuit appears to allow for a day or two in each small town, as well as the occasional romantic encounter, which is more than enough for his needs. It also allows him to gain insights on life from the masters of American cinema, which Wenders injects into the narrative at strategic points. The two men don’t spend a lot of time conversing, but, when they do, its largely spent on their inability to form and maintain relations with women. There are several wonderful set pieces here, including one in which the two travelers entertain a group of impatient kids with shadow acting, as well as one of the most famously disgusting displays of a bodily function ever committed to film. There were other points in all three of these movies when I was struck by visual images that reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s work, 10 years down the road. The common denominator being Robby Müller’s brilliant black-and-white cinematography. In addition to presenting upgraded versions of all three films, the bonus package includes the short films “Same Player Shoots Again” (1967) and “Silver City Revisited” (1968); archival audio commentary with Wenders and actors Vogler and Rottlander; discussions about Muller, author Peter Handtke and other influences; outtakes; Super 8 Footage; and a 48-page illustrated book featuring Michael Almereyda’s essay, “Between Me and the World”; Allison Anders’ essay, “A Girl’s Story”; James Robinson’s essay, “Utter Detachment, Utter Truth”; Nick Roddick’s essay, “Keep on Truckin'”; and technical credits.

 

The Abandoned: Blu-ray

I hope director Eytan Rockaway and writer Ido Fluk don’t get discouraged by the negative reviews in mainstream outlets for their debut feature, The Abandoned (a.k.a., “The Confines”). The genre press was far more forgiving and helpful in their criticism. Desperate to get her life back on track, the unstable Streak (Louisa Kraus) takes a job as a security guard, working the graveyard shift at a once upscale, now abandoned apartment complex, the lobby of which resembles Grand Central Station in the wee small hours. On her first night on duty, however, she discovers a horrifying presence lurking deep within the bowels of the decaying building. The entire security staff is comprised of Streak, who walks through the hallways every two hours, and the surly, wheelchair-bound Cooper (Jason Patric), who monitors the same territory from a deck of security cameras. Streak hasn’t even made it to lunch break when the heebie-jeebies set in and she begins hearing mysterious noises. The picture’s greatest asset is the labyrinthine network of hallways and seemingly empty rooms. Cooper has warned Streak to stay within her appointed rounds and not stray into areas that might contain secrets pertaining to previous tenants. Not only does Streak ignore Cooper’s warnings, but she also disobeys his order not to open the lobby door to a homeless man (Mark Margolis) and his dog, in dire need of shelter in a storm. It probably wasn’t a good idea on her part. If the building’s infrastructure wasn’t sufficiently creepy, Rockaway adds a faulty electrical system into the mix and enough jump-scares for a decade’s worth of Halloween haunted houses. Once the building’s deepest secret is revealed, however, the cheap thrills no longer retain the same ability to jolt viewers. Streak’s mission then becomes one of saving souls, including her own. The Abandoned could have benefitted from a bit more patience in the introduction of things that go bump in the night and some background on the building. Most critics were unhappy with the ending, but that’s almost par for the course for first-timers. It demonstrates the kind of promise that looks good on a resume. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

 

Blood Bath: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Psychic Killer: Blu-ray

There’s no better example of repurposing Hollywood film stock than Blood Bath, a movie that began its life as a highly stylized product of the mid-1960s Yugoslavian cinema – such as Tito allowed it to be – but ended it, several iterations later, as a cult classic with the indispensable Sid Haig playing a beatnik named Abdul the Arab. (Where’s Haig’s star on the Walk of Fame? Good question.) Naturally, Roger Corman, a filmmaker who actually could squeeze blood out of a turnip, is at the center of the story. Fifty years later, Arrow Video has released into Blu-ray all four versions of the movie in a single package, demonstrating what a determined producer can do when challenged by mediocrity. In 1963, while on vacation in Europe, Corman made a deal to distribute an unproduced Yugoslavian espionage thriller, “Operacija Ticijan.” For his $20,000 investment, he was able to insist that Operation Titian be custom-tailored for exhibition back home. Corman provided two cast members, William Campbell and Patrick Magee, who had appeared together for him in The Young Racers and protégé Francis Coppola’s Dementia 13. In addition, Coppola (not yet, Francis Ford Coppola) was installed as the production’s uncredited script supervisor. Corman deemed Operation Titian unreleasable, but not so bad that it couldn’t be redubbed, slightly re-edited and released to drive-ins as Portrait in Terror. (The names of the largely Yugo cast and crew were anglicized, as well.) Set entirely in then-exotic Dubrovnik, Operation Titian can be viewed as a strangely entertaining example of the German kriminalfilm subgenre of crime thrillers. Popular at the time, krimis were distinguished by almost accidentally arty production values, gothic settings and masked or obscured antagonists. Many of the films were based on the early-20th Century work of the prolific British journalist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter Edgar Wallace. In Operation Titian, Campbell plays a Dubrovnik-based artist who resembles Liberace and wields a spear-fishing gun. Patrick Magee plays a shadowy Italian art thief visiting the medieval seaport in pursuit of a Titian painting, also coveted by the artist. Also figuring into the plot are a blond American tourist (Anna Pavone), with earlier ties to the artist, and a Yugoslavian stripper (Linda Moreno). If the story makes almost no logical sense, it’s distinguished by Rados Novakovic’s (a.k.a., Michael Roy) decision to light the city’s ancient streets and buildings as if he were attempting to re-create Carol Reed’s The Third Man, substituting ageless Dubrovnik for post-war Vienna. No kidding … the city lends itself to just such an audacious conceit.

 

Audacious conceits aren’t what made Corman successful, however. To American-ize Operation Titian even further, he handed the picture over to Coppola classmate and rising exploitation specialist Jack Hill (Spider Baby) and fellow Corman protégé Stephanie Rothman (Terminal Island), who would turn it into the slasher picture with fangs, Blood Bath, and, later, the TV-ready Track of the Vampire. Hill filmed additional sequences in Venice, California, in order to match the original movie’s European look, and turned the former krimi into a horror movie about a crazed madman who kills his models and makes sculptures out of their dead bodies. Hill borrowed the bohemian milieu from the Corman-directed A Bucket of Blood (1959), which, itself, would lend sets to The Little Shop of Horrors, adding American actors Sid Haig, Jonathan Haze, Marissa Mathes, Lori Saunders, Sandra Knight and Biff Elliot. Blood Bath would strip much of the music and action from Operation Titian – including an international fishing competition – while maintaining many of the atmospheric, scenic and character-establishing elements. In doing so, it lost quite a bit of the original’s running time, which would then have to be replaced for the TV version in the form of exceedingly long chases and inexplicable dances. In doing so, Track of the Vampire imagines an undead artist (Campbell) who somehow is immune to bright sunshine and is capable of swimming underwater in a trench coat. It also adds a surrealistic beach scene, a chase with the vampire and beach bunny and an unintentionally hilarious confrontation between the beatniks and the vampire. Not surprisingly, then, the featurettes, essays and interviews that comprise Arrow Video’s extensive bonus package tell a story far more compelling than any in the four newly restored into 1080p versions of Blood Bath, Operation Titian, Portrait in Terror and Track of the Vampire. Among them are “The Trouble with Titian Revisited,” a new visual essay in which Tim Lucas returns to (and updates) his three-part Video Watchdog feature to examine the films’ convoluted production history; “Bathing in Blood with Sid Haig,” a new interview with the still-active actor; outtakes from Track of the Vampire, scanned from original film materials; double-sided fold-out poster, featuring original and newly commissioned artworks; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Dan Mumford; limited-edition booklet containing new writing on the film and its cast by Peter Stanfield, Anthony Nield, Vic Pratt and Cullen Gallagher.

 

When Jim Hutton’s movie career began to sputter after co-starring in Walk Don’t Run, the 6-foot-5 actor turned to guest-starring roles in popular television series and MOTW’s. In 1975, Hutton returned to the big screen in Psychic Killer, a bargain-basement supernatural thriller destined for exhibition in drive-in theaters, where his name still meant something. In it, he plays the mentally unstable Arnold Masters, implicated in a murder he didn’t commit. While incarcerated in a mental facility, a fellow patient teaches him the tech niques of astral projection, which allows those who possess psychic powers to use their minds to control events far from where they are, seemingly unconscious. Before his fellow patient and mentor commits suicide, the older man clears the name of his protégé. Masters is bequeathed the amulet that triggers the effect and provides the perfect alibi he sets out to avenge his incarceration and death of his mother. Even when the police (Paul Burke, Aldo Ray), his shrink (Julie Adams) and a parapsychologist (Nehemiah Persoff) figure out how Masters’ enemies are winding up dead, they’re hard-pressed to make a case against a man under constant surveillance. Still, it’s inevitable. The most interesting thing about Psychic Killer, perhaps, is the PG rating it received, despite an amusing striptease, a nude shower scene (Mary Charlotte Wilcox) and the truly grisly death of a butcher (Neville Brand) after being attacked by a side of lamb hanging from a hook on an overhead conveyor … really. Today, it would be accorded an automatic R rating, but, back then, the board was far more lenient. Curiously, the geniuses at the MPAA never reconsider such clearly misguided ratings – one way or the other – when they’re attached to DVDs. Its concern for protecting family values and parental choice ends as soon as a movie opens and the tickets are counted. Psychic Killer was directed by character actor Ray Danton, whose sons and ex-wife appear in the featurette, “The Danton Force.” Other bonus material includes “The Psychic Killer Inside Me” featurette, with actor Greydon Clark; “The Aura of Horror,” with produce Mardi Rustam; marketing material; and reversible cover artwork. Look for a cameo by Della Reese.

 

The Human Tornado: Blu-ray

Hot on the heels of Vinegar Syndrome’s recent Blu-ray release of Dolemite comes Rudy Ray Moore’s follow-up, The Human Tornado. Of all the Blaxploitation titles, these might have been the most ghetto fabulous. The Dolemite character was an extension of Moore’s nightclub act, which rivaled Redd Foxx for its earthy qualities. The movies are set in the same sort of clubs, which feature a variety of acts designed to attracts pimps and their “bottom bitches” on their nights out on the town. In other words, the real show was in the audience. In The Human Tornado, a cartoonishly racist cop chases the entertainer out of his domain and back to L.A., where Queen Bee’s (Lady Reed) club has once again been taken over by the mafia. On top of that, the honkies have also kidnapped two of Queen Bee’s dancers. Dolemite rounds up the toughest kung-fu fighters in L.A. to take on Queen Bee’s enemies. As ludicrous and lopsided as the speeded-up confrontations are, they benefit from the loosey-goosey atmosphere that allows the background characters to maintain smiles and grins throughout the action. There’s plenty of skin and sloppy sex on display this time around, too. I don’t know how many more of Moore’s pictures VS intends to restore and release, but the character would re-appear in various iterations until just before his death, in 2008, at 81. Among the supporting-cast members are Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) and world karate champion Howard Jackson. The Blu-ray package adds “I, Dolemite II,” making-of documentary; “Der Bastard,” German dubbed version; a commentary track, with Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray and co-star Jimmy Lynch; an audio interview with director Cliff Roquemore and martial arts champion Howard Johnson; original theatrical trailers for both Dolomite pictures; and original cover artwork by Jay Shaw.

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: Frontline: Saudi Arabia Uncovered

Of all the things we associate with life in Saudi Arabia, poverty isn’t one of them. We know that foreign laborers don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges accorded citizens, but it isn’t a problem unique to one country in the region. For as long as western democracies have allowed themselves to be dependent on an uninterrupted flow of oil to fuel their factories, automobiles and economies, the royal family and its inner circle have treated the world outside Saudi Arabia as its own private shopping mall and playground. The same government turned a blind eye toward the human rights abuses committed by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which patrols streets and malls to enforce a strict form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism, now, along with oil, one of the country’s leading exports. Among other things, children are taught in Wahhabi schools that Christians, Jews and Shia Muslims are their enemies. Based on undercover video footage shot throughout the kingdom, the “Frontline” presentation “Saudi Arabia Uncovered” reveals truths about Saudi Arabia that should make viewers question the hidden costs of affordable oil and gasoline. When the royal family began to feel the pinch of reduced revenue from oil exports and the cost of battling insurgents in Yemen, they took it out on the people who were most likely to bring the Arab Spring to the Shia-dominated east of the country. On a single day at the start of 2016, the government executed 47 people, including a leading cleric, on all-encompassing terror charges. With clandestine footage, on-the-ground reporting and unique access to the cleric’s family (his 21-year-old nephew Ali is now on death row, sentenced to beheading and crucifixion), the documentary shows a side of Saudi Arabia rarely seen by the outside world. Along the way, the film follows key figures leading efforts to make change in Saudi Arabia: Raif Badawi, a blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1,000 lashes for posts critical of the government and Islam; and Loujain Hathloul, a prominent women’s rights activist who filmed herself driving in defiance of the kingdom’s laws and was arrested for the effrontery. “Saudi Arabia Uncovered” raises disturbing questions, most of which lack satisfactory answers, especially considering how badly we’ve blown previous attempts at sorting out divisions in the region.

The DVD Wrapup: Zoolander 2, Finest Hours, A Married Woman, Manhunter, The Damned and more

Friday, May 27th, 2016

Zoolander No. 2: The Magnum Edition: Blu-ray

In the opening moments of Zoolander 2, Justin Bieber is machine-gunned to death in an international conspiracy to rid the world of beautiful celebrities, a crime to which the self-absorbed and ridiculously coddled Canadian pop singer could only plead guilty. With his last dying breath, the Bieb summons the strength to post an Instagram picture of himself sucking in his cheeks and puckering his lips in a Blue Steel pout fans of the first Zoolander might recognize. With approximately 100 minutes to go, co-writer-director-star Ben Stiller will be required to recycle gags from the original, coordinate the many cameo appearances of well-known stars and fashionistas, preen in character for the camera and hope that viewers have forgotten that Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter did a far better job skewering the industry seven years before Z1 was unleashed in 2001. Both Zoolanders satirize a multibillion-dollar business that’s beyond shame or any ability to contextualize itself within real-world problems and achievements. True, at the retail level, the industry contributes to the economies of some of the world’s poorest and most depressed countries, but only because subcontractors are allowed to hire cutters and seamstresses at sweatshop wages. The very real problem is alluded to here, but only as a convoluted plot device involving Zoolander’s ridiculous antagonist Jacobim Mugatu (Will Ferrell). Never mind. Here, supermodels Derek Zoolander and Hansel are lured out of self-imposed exile by Billy Zane, a courier for the marble-mouthed body-care gargoyle Alexanya Atoz, wonderfully portrayed by an unrecognizable Kristen Wiig. Derek is still despondent over losing his wife and custody of their son in a devastating fire at his highly flammable academy at the Port of New York. Interpol fashion division chief Valentina Valencia (Penelope Cruz) identifies Bieber’s farewell pout as one of Zoolander’s classic looks, linking the death to a serial killer. She helps him locate Derek Jr. in an orphanage, but the boy’s plus-size physique disappoints him. Mugatu has other plans for Junior and his precious DNA. Admirers of Zoolander should enjoy the occasionally funny moment, if only to count the number of celebrities they recognize in cameos. Everyone else, I think, will wonder what all the fuss was about, in the first place. The Blu-ray’s special features include “The Zoolander Legacy,” “Go Big or Go Rome,” “Drake Sather: The Man Who Created Zoolander” and “Youth Milk.”

Memoria

Is it possible that this is James Franco’s world and the rest of us are merely being allowed to purchase tickets to live in it? How many actors have the money, interest and opportunity to continually shift gears in pursuit of a meaningful and interesting career? Bill Murray’s upward trajectory almost didn’t survive the tailspin caused by his decision to go dramatic in The Razor’s Edge. If it weren’t for his acerbically comic turns in Analyze This and Meet the Parents, as well as David O. Russell’s spot-on casting in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy, Robert De Niro might not be remembered for anything he’s done since 1997’s Wag the Dog and Jackie Brown. At 38, Franco’s career highlights include an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours, an Emmy nomination for “James Dean” and Independent Spirit trophies for Milk and 127 Hours. I suspect that he values the nomination he received for the 2013 Un Certain Regard Award, for his adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying — a fine movie that went virtually unseen in the U.S. — as much or more than any of those honors. He would return to Mississippi for The Sound and the Fury a year later and, once again, for the upcoming Mississippi Requiem collection of four Faulkner-inspired short films. He’s played poets CK Williams, Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg, as well as publisher Hugh Hefner and journalistic imposter Christian Longo. Moreover, Franco’s comedic chops were established in “Freaks and Geeks,” Pineapple Express, Date Night, Your Highness, This Is the End, The Night Before and Spring Break, in which he was scary and funny in equal measure. Without missing too many beats, he re-entered UCLA in 2006 to continue his search for a degree that was interrupted in the mid-1990s. Franco has two MFA degrees, both in writing, from Columbia and Brooklyn College, and a third, in film, from New York University. He paints, teaches, lectures, sings, blogs, writes and has a recurring role on the soap opera, “General Hospital.” It would be logical to think that anyone who divides his time so thinly would someday have to fail miserably or burn out, but, even in the face of much commercial indifference, Franco has shown no interest in slowing down. He’ll sleep when he’s dead.

Like Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto and Gabrielle Demeestere’s Yosemite, Nina Ljeti and Vladimir de Fontenay’s observant teen drama Memoria is the third film based on Franco’s short stories “Palo Alto Stories” and events recalled in “A California Childhood.” It’s where he grew up and, last year, taught an eight-part film class to students at Palo Alto High School. By all outward appearances, kids who grow up in the shadow of Stanford University should be living the digital dream and some of them do. The problem, of course, is that the kids who can afford to accept invitations to attend school at Stanford aren’t the same ones who are educated in tax-supported high schools in and around the Silicon Valley. The ones we meet in Memoria smoke, drink, exaggerate their sexual prowess and skate their boards until the cows come home. They’re also largely oblivious to the damage they’re doing to Ivan (Sam Dillon), a socially awkward 17-year-old whose stepfather is a bully and mother is preoccupied with her own problems. At home, he retreats to a realm of military combat within the confines of his bedroom, struggling to carve a niche in the world and dreaming of the father who left before he was born. A bit gawky in appearance, Ivan is exactly the kind of kid who could find refuge at school or, failing that, use automatic weapons to relief his frustrations. Franco plays Mr. Wyckoff (James Franco), the English teacher who sees a spark of life beyond Ivan’s pain and chronic tardiness. He encourages him to deal with his demons directly, through prose. At a shade under 70 minutes, Memoria leaves little time to waste on other high school hijinks and salvation strategies. The filmmakers hint at Ivan’s only real options through his strained attempts at writing and foggy views of the Golden Gate Bridge’s most likely spots for suicide leaps. A hunting rifle is injected into the narrative early on, as well, but for entirely different reasons. De Fontenay and Ljeti are solely credited with writing Memoria, although it wouldn’t exist without Franco’s source material. I sense that they also were inspired by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – in which Dillon appeared — and other of his portrayals of teenage wastelands.

The Finest Hours: Blu-ray

I wouldn’t so far as to describe the Coast Guard as the Rodney Dangerfield of U.S. military branches, but it’s rarely seen on film unless its services are needed to mop up a drug bust on the high seas or keep a makeshift raft full of Haitians from dropping off its human cargo on the beaches of southern Florida. Before Disney committed Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue” to film, the most prominent were The Guardian (2006), with Kevin Costner as Ashton Kutcher; The Perfect Storm (2000); The White Squall (1996); Onionhead, Andy Griffith’s follow-up to No Time for Sergeants; Sea of Lost Ships (1953), with John Derek; The Woman on the Beach (1947), with Rex Ryan, Charles Bickford and Joan Bennet; Dog of the Seven Seas (1946), Coast Guard canine Sinbad; the RKO serial and subsequent feature, SOS Coast Guard (1942); Sea Devils (1937) with Preston Foster, Victor McLaglen and Ida Lupino; Border Flight (1936), filmed at the Coast Guard Air Base in San Diego; and, yes, John Wayne in The Sea Spoilers (1936), during which he’s pitted against Alaskan smugglers and seal poachers. Numerous cameo appearances as participants in sea and air-borne rescues should also be noted. The Finest Hours may be the most triumphant of them all, as it describes a feat still considered to be the greatest small-boat rescue in history. Filmed largely on location at Station Chatham, Massachusetts, where the event took place on February 18, 1952, it describes the heroism of two seamen: Petty Officer Bernard C. Webber (Chris Pine) and tanker captain Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck). Fate, in the form of a powerful nor’easter, would bring the two men together in a way neither could have predicted, even after years of training for just such a potential tragedy. The oil tanker SS Pendleton had broken in two off Cape Cod, leaving only the stern section and 33 crewman struggling to stay afloat. After much rancorous debate, Sybert decides that the only way to survive is to allow the stern to drift toward shore, where it could get hung up on a sand bar or shoal and wait out the storm. Or, it could continue to be pummeled by 70-foot waves and sink.

At the Coast Guard station, where another rescue mission is being coordinated, several older guardsmen treat any attempt to find and make contact with the Pendleton as a suicide mission and advise against taking any unnecessary chances. Instead, Webber and his crew of three steer the motorized lifeboat according to the currents and wind conditions to an unlikely rendezvous, nearly being capsized by the same huge waves. Even though, the title of the book gives away the likely end to the saga, director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) commands our attention throughout the film with an orgy of CGI tumult. Neither was it a given that the 36-foot Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG 36500 designed to carry seven passengers safely – now berthed at Rock Harbor in Orleans, Massachusetts — could handle 32, plus the three guardsmen. Despite its many exciting moments and excellent acting, The Finest Hours didn’t do very well at the box office, even as exhibited in Disney Digital 3-D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D. In fact, Disney CEO Robert Iger recently told investors the company expects to take a loss of $75 million on it. This was acknowledged before the movie was sent out in Blu-ray/DVD/VOD. If I had to guess, I’d say that the narrative bounced too frequently between the drama of the rescue mission and a melodramatic love angle, involving Webber and his newly announced fiancé, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), a switchboard operator who made herself a pest at the Coast Guard station. Miriam’s persistence pays off at the end of the movie, adding a heart-tugging coda to an already emotionally charged climax. The bonus package includes: “Against All Odds: The Bernie Webber Story,” which includes a visit the quaint and close-knit town of Chatham and residents who recall the rescue; deleted scenes; and several short backgrounders.

The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero

If the graffiti artists of the 1970s had been content to reserve their statements for the sides of subway cars, their work would be little more than a passing eyesore for detractors. Because the scribblers elected, instead, to deface everything from garage doors, bridges and trucks to unattended baby carriages, the art-vs.-vandalism debate escalated to a national controversy. Sadly, the ratio of artists-to-taggers back then was heavily weighted toward wannabe gangbangers who simply loved seeing their name everywhere they went. It stopped being amusing when police and vigilantes took it upon themselves to eliminate the problem, one tagger at a time, and turf battles erupted between rivals. Carly Starr Brullo Niles’ splashy documentary, The Nasty Terrible T-Kid 170: Julius Cavero, profiles one of the most prolific subway artists of all time. The Peruvian/Puerto Rican Caverro began his tagging career as King 13 in the Bronx, using it to announce that he’d won one kind of challenge or another, including performing daredevil tricks on swings in local parks. He would be forced to join a local gang to prevent being beaten up for tagging the wrong wall in the wrong neighborhood. With an ego the size of the Big Apple, itself, Cavero finally succumbed to the twin perils of urban life: addiction and arrest. Unless one lives in New York or Philadelphia, the artist’s braggadocio might sound as appealing as Donald Trump with a bullhorn. Those so inclined, however, will enjoy watching the nearly 30 years’ worth of archived footage and home movies collected in The Nasty Terrible, including footage shot in train yards of the Bronx.

Dusk

On the cover of his first feature, writer-director Michael Maney appears to promise viewers one genre cliché – the cabin-in-the-woods thriller – when he actually has something far more original in mind. Some horror buffs may find the approach to be too clever by half, but originality in the pursuit of a fresh twist is no vice. I think Barry Goldwater said that. Maney demands that we think outside the box by setting things up with a spooky encounter on a dark, lonely road between the protagonist and a ghostly specter and his misbehaving car. After things get back to normal, recently wed John Whitmore (John McGlothlin) rushes home to describe the incident to his seemingly perfect wife, Anne (Juliana Harkavy), who’s too tired to listen. When he wakes up the next morning, Anne is nowhere to found. Instead, John discovers a mysterious tape recorder on the kitchen counter, with a taped message demanding cash for her safe return. Naturally, he’s warned against calling the police or trying anything “reckless.” Because the kidnaper knows the precise location of a safe in the house and the amount of cash it contains, it’s reasonable to assume it’s some kind of inside job and he may be taken for ride. Anne seems nice enough, but her over-protective father might very well be using the abduction as a test to see if his yuppie son-in-law is capable of protecting his daughter. Too afraid to consider such a cynical ploy, John is instructed to await a visit by a possibly dangerous man, David (Ford D’Aprix), who will drive them to the cabin in the woods, where, presumably, Anne awaits her knight in shining armor. Along the way, though, John once again begins experiencing flashbacks and visions, none of which would appear to connect to a straight kidnap-for-ransom job. Beyond this point, though, lies spoilers. Some viewers might able to put the puzzle together, but Maney is stingy with legitimate clues. If Dusk clearly could have benefitted from a larger budget, the largely unknown cast deserves credit for leaving most of the second-guessing until the final credits begin.

 

Rise of the Legend: Blu-ray

If the commercial value of a superhero could be measured against that of a folk hero, I’d love to see how Davy Crockett would fare against

Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Iron Man. Besides popularizing the coonskin cap as a fashion statement, ABC’s five-part series, “Davy Crockett,” drew millions of kids and adults to the fledgling network’s “Walt Disney’s Disneyland,” in 1954-55. The individual hourlong episodes would be combined and released in a pair of feature films, as well. Its theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” became a huge hit on the Walt Disney label for several different artists, while Crockett-themed bubble-gum cards kept dentists filling cavities for the next decade. The Davy Crockett Arcade and Davy Crockett Frontier Museum were original attractions at Disneyland’s Frontierland. Fess Parker and his co-star Buddy Ebsen toured the United States, Europe and Japan. By the end of 1955, Americans had purchased over $300 million worth of Davy Crockett merchandise, which translated to $2 billion by 2001. The D-ticket Indian War Canoes attraction, which began in 1956, gave way to Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes in 1971. Similarly named rides could be found in Disneyworld, Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland. I’d be surprised to learn, however, that Disney got a slice of the Postal Service’s 5-cent commemorative stamp, which debuted in 1967. I only mention this textbook example of corporate synergy to introduce a similarly revered Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung, who, since 1949, has been featured in more than 100 films and television series, including the newly released Rise of the Legend. Hong Kong actor Kwan Tak-hing starred as Wong in over 70 films between the 1940s and 1980s, earning the nickname “Master Wong.” At various times, he’s also been played by Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Vincent Zhao, Gordon Liu and Jackie Chan. Wong’s legacy extends to a hit theme song, a video game and characters in a novel, comic book series and card game. A master of Hung Ga, he introduced a new version of the Tiger Crane Paired Form Fist, which incorporates his Ten Special Fist techniques. Wong is renowned for using the Shadowless Kick and was adept at using such weapons as the staff and southern tiger fork. Like Ip Man, who specialized in the Wing Chun technique, his reputation has grown beyond the borders of China. If that weren’t enough, Wong practiced medicine and acupuncture, as well as the martial arts.

 

As directed by Roy Hin Yeung Chow and written by his Nightfall collaborator Christine To Chi Long, Rise of the Legend recounts the oft-told tale of how Wong defeated a group of 30 gangsters on the docks of Guangzhou, armed with a staff. It follows Wong as a child learning valuable life lessons from his revered father, Wong Kei Ying (Tony Ka Fai Leung), and being scarred forever by his death in a gang war. Twelve years later, the son (Eddie Peng) embarks on an intricately planned mission of revenge against the gangsters, who, in the late Qing Dynasty control the docks of Guangzhou, run opium dens and brothels, and sell slaves. (The real time frame as to when Wong Kei died may be a bit skewed here.) Wong Fei infiltrates the ruthless Black Tiger gang, led by the still-formidable Lei (Sammo Hung), who’s at war with the North Sea gang for control of the Huangpu Port. After proving his value in a wild knife fight, Lei accepts Wong Fei as a godson and one of his trusted Four Tigers. Meanwhile, a group of childhood friends (Jing Boran, Wang Luodan, Angelbaby, May Wang) have formed a reformist gang, the Orphans, and hope to bring justice back to the Guangzhou. Historically, collaboration between gangsters, corrupt officials and foreign traders would set off the Opium Wars and Boxer Rebellion, leading to the collapse of the last dynasty. Here, though, the emphasis is on action, as directed by Corey Yuen. Because Rise of the Legend is the first film to feature Wong Fei in nearly two decades, there’s plenty of room left to exploit the thoroughly buff character for a new generation. The Blu-ray package adds a making-of package, with featurettes on the characters, Eddie Peng, injuries, cinematography and stunts.

 

A Married Woman: Blu-ray

Typically, movies about marriage and extracurricular romance have one character, at least, with whom the audience can relate in a positive way. One person cheats, the other doesn’t. Another character might push his or her lover to make a choice that would change their lives forever and cause their partner a great deal of pain. If there’s no guarantee of happiness, tragedy is the more common result of deceit. In Jean-Luc Godard’s relatively obscure relationship drama, A Married Woman, viewers aren’t given the luxury of an easy choice. It arrived in 1964, a period when Godard had yet to commit to making overtly political films, employing non-traditional techniques and aggressive dialogue. It is of a piece with other films in which bourgeois women make dramatic changes in their lives, sometimes based on whims or urges prompted consumerist longings. In a role that might have been originally intended for Anna Karina, Godard chose the little known Macha Méril, an actress whose lineage could be traced to Russian and Ukrainian nobility. In A Married Woman, though, she plays a decidedly middle-class Parisian of the later post-war period, whose fashion choices are dictated by women’s magazines and world view is limited to her immediate horizons. Conventionally beautiful and up to date, Charlotte is more interested in the pursuit of the perfect bust than anything dealing with current politics. We’re willing to forgive this shortcoming, but only because Raoul Coutard’s almost voyeuristic camera demands we focus more on her body than her mind. Indeed, once we discover that Charlotte is cheating on her cocky pilot husband with an actor, Robert (Bernard Noël), we assume that she’s the aggrieved party. Robert would like her to leave Pierre (Philippe Leroy), but she hesitates in fear that he might be acting the part of her lover. Things will get extremely complicated when Charlotte learns she’s pregnant, not knowing who the father might be or if he’s the man she would choose to raise her child. We’d care more, too, if Godard hadn’t played a trick on us earlier, revealing just how vapid Charlotte really is. Because it derives from a joke inspired by the ongoing Frankfurt-Auschwitz war crimes trial, of which she’s blissfully unaware, and not, say, her thoughts on France’s hopes in the World Cup, Godard radically alters our perspective on her. He demands we question whether Charlotte’s interested in anything but what she sees in Vogue Paris and, more subtly, prompts us to wonder what, if anything is wrong with Pierre and what’s right about Robert. Pierre had her followed a few months before the current crisis, but Charlotte has become adept at dodging tails, real or imagined. Throw in the stereotypical perception of all French men being capable of juggling wives and lovers and we’re left with almost no reason to care what happens to anyone here. Such ambivalence for one’s own creations was jarring for mid-1960s audiences. It still is. That, however, was part of what made Godard and other New Wave directors interesting. The Cohen Media Group’s pristine restoration from the original negative adds interviews conducted in 2010 with French fashion designer and film producer agnès b., Godard scholar Antoine de Baecque and Méril.

 

Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia: Blu-ray

When I think of killer dames, my mind doesn’t turn immediately to Italy and the giallo boom of the early 1970s. I’m not even sure there’s a direct correlation between “dames” of noir tradition to something resembling the femme fatales we meet in Emilio P. Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave and The Red Queen Kills Seven Times. The cherchez la femme principle still applies, however. In giallo, men are more obsessed with prurient assumptions to notice whether a beautiful woman is pulling the wool over their eyes. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck, in Double Indemnity, women in the genre often fall victim to fetishistic violence and extreme cruelty in decidedly non-noir colors. The films collected in Killer Dames: Two Gothic Chillers by Emilio P. Miraglia, along with a treasure trove of interviews, analysis and commentary, are gothic giallo murder-mysteries, packed to the gills with twisted sexuality, ample bosoms, peek-a-boo nightgowns and lurid visuals. Miraglia’s name doesn’t pop immediately to mind when one considers the genre. Only two of the six films he directed fit the definition, while the others fall under the general heading of “spaghetti” action. In my mind, though, they’re as representative of the genre as the films of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava.

 

In The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is haunted by the memory of his wife, Evelyn. He channels the trauma of his late spouse’s past affair by picking up red-headed prostitutes, driving them to his decaying castle and subjecting them to vicious acts of torture. (One, at least, makes the mistake of thinking his whip is intended for fun.) The count’s friends and doctor recommend that he remarry, if only to recapture his fading sanity, and avoid redheads. When he does arrive home with a doe-eyed blond, Gladys (Marina Malfatti), however, it spawns a different series of sinister events, not the least of which is the disappearance of Evelyn’s corpse from the family crypt. The highlight of the bonus package is an interview with Erika Blanc, whose character might have been dismissed as just another sexy victim, if it weren’t for an opening striptease that begins in a casket and ends at the castle. It’s a classic.

 

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is based on a legend about a Black Queen and bloodthirsty Red Queen, who turn up every hundred years and claims seven fresh victims in a small German town. The story of sisterly hatred and revenge is conveyed to two girls by their grandfather, as if it were equal parts Grimm Brothers’ fable and cautionary tale. Years later, after the old man’s death, the girls would inherit both their family’s castle and curse. They would have to wait a year before assuming ownership, though. Plenty of things can happen in a year and, as befits a giallo, the almost startlingly gorgeous siblings, Kitty and Franziska (Barbara Bouchet, Malfatti), are involved in businesses that provide plenty of excuses for ritual violence and debauchery. When a few of Kitty’s co-workers at the fashion house turn up dead, she starts to believe that the curse might be real, after all. There are some incredibly freakish scenes here, involving rats, leaches and rape. None, I think, are gratuitous within the context of the genre. A 20-year-old Sybil Danning appears as a model in the movie and is the subject of an entertaining interview in the generous bonus package.

 

Accidental Incest

If anyone was a perfect fit to direct the film adaptation of Lenny Schwartz’ off-Broadway play, “Accidental Incest : Someone for Everyone,” it was veteran schlockmeister Richard Griffin. They had already collaborated had on Scorpio Films’ Murder University and Normal and, of curse. Mike Nichols was no longer available. That Griffin could turn Accidental Incest around for $20,000, or thereabouts, also might have been a contributing factor. With a resume that includes Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, Disco Exorcist, Creature From the Hillbilly Lagoon and Nun of That, Griffin wouldn’t have much problem mustering his fan base to sample his next gem, so any loss would be small and any gain enormous. First, though, the title. Apparently, incidences of accidental incest aren’t all that uncommon, anymore. Spiraling divorce rates have decreased the odds against separated children running into a sibling and falling in love, simply by chance, as do artificial insemination clinics that turn a blind eye toward serial contributors. Ken Scott’s Starbuck and Delivery Man described a situation in which a man, who, 20 years earlier, had sold his sperm to an unscrupulous clinic, was now being sued by hundreds of his progeny who wanted more information on their biological roots. Not surprisingly, Accidental Incest is exponentially more sordid. It also offers musical interludes, not unlike those in Rocky Horror Picture Show. In it, twisted neighbors Milton and Kendra (Johnny Sederquist, Elyssa Baldassarri) meet and fall in love after surviving near-death experiences. Their guardian angels comfort them by prophesizing they would meet someone who could alleviate their loneliness and that their child would be special. (God makes a cameo, as well.) Things begin to get sticky when word of their love gets back to their respective biological parents, who, naturally, try to sabotage Milton and Kendra’s relationship. Bonus features include commentary with cast and crew members and a deleted scene.

 

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead: Blu-ray

If you’ve ever tried to come up with the name of the British punk band co-founded by Captain Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies, or the first UK punk ensemble to release a single and an album and tour the United States, where it may even have inspired the first wave of West Coast hardcore punk, The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead is the documentary for you. Despite all of these distinctions and having nine singles that charted on the UK Top 40, the Damned pretty much squandered its advantage over the Sex Pistols, Clash and other punk bands by pissing on the notion of commercial success. The individual Sex Pistols may have scorned capitalism, but their manager, Malcolm McLaren, handled that end of the business. Nevertheless, as we learn in Wes Orshoski’s exhaustively researched film, the Damned would continue to make music intermittently and in numerous generic and personnel variations for most of the last 40 years. The documentary charts the history of the band against a backdrop of interviews and tour footage from 2011 to 2014, and was edited together “rough” to make the film feel more like the Damned’s uncompromising first album. It includes appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones, Lemmy and members of Pink Floyd, Black Flag, Depeche Mode, Sex Pistols, Blondie and Buzzcocks. In the bonus features, Captain Sensible takes viewers on a tour of Croydon, the south London town that gave rise to the Damned, and he busks on the streets of Hollywood with actor/musician/comedian Fred Armisen, who pops up in these docs with alarming regularity. Orchovski’s previous work includes the biopic Lemmy and Shuggie Otis: Live in Williamsburg.

Manhunter: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

Bad Influence: Blu-ray

Among the things heard after the 2002 release of Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, which starred Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes, were comparisons between it and Michael Mann’s Manhunter, both based on the same novel by Thomas Harris. Released in 1986 to positive reviews, but lackluster public support, Mann’s typically stylish thriller has grown in popularity since Hopkins assumed the role of the playfully sadistic Dr. Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs. In chronological fact, FBI profiler Will Graham had captured Lector beore Harris’ series began and would be forced to come out of retirement to confront the man who haunted his dreams in Manhunter, just as Clarise Starling would become hooked in “Silence.” “Red Dragon” would be revisited once again in the second season of the NBC series, “Hannibal,” with Hugh Dancy playing Graham. Relative newcomer William Petersen, a mainstay of Chicago’s off-Loop theater circuit, certainly wasn’t the obvious choice to play the emotionally fragile profiler, but he’d impressed Mann in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and might have landed a key role in Thief, if Jim Belushi hadn’t been available. His Graham is a throbbing bundle of nerves tortured by images of murdered innocents and afraid to lose his family to broken promises. Brian Cox, as a slicked-back “Lecktor,” was cooling his heels in a federal prison that was porous enough to allow the occasional coded letter from an admirer to slip past the guards and censors. In return for a peek at the case files pertaining to the “Tooth Fairy” murders, Lector gives Graham an idea of the kind of criminal with whom he’s dealt and, inadvertently, clues as to where the murderous Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) might be lurking as the next full moon nears. At 6-foot-6, Noonan was a frightening presence on the big screen, yet gentle enough to allow a blind co-worker (Joan Allen) to share his love for animals, including a sedated tiger she’s invited to pet. The decision to lay Iron Butterfly’s dark hippie anthem “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” over the violent confrontation at the film’s climax continues to raise goosebumps. The Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” comes with a director’s cut that adds four minutes to the film’s two-hour length, if not much revelatory material; the original cut in SD; lengthy interviews, both fresh and archival; vintage commentary with Mann; and a stills gallery.

On its glossy surface, Bad Influence remains a reasonably exciting, if slightly dated re-imagining of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” novels that had already served Alfred Hitchcock and Rene Clement very well. What’s most interesting today, though, is the lasting effect it would have on co-stars James Spader, who was coming off a career-altering performance in Sex, Lies and Videotape, and former Brat Pack member Rob Lowe; writer David Koepp, whose future would include credits for Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man; and director Curtis Hanson, future Oscar winner, for L.A. Confidential. Bad Influence might have done significantly better at the box office if it weren’t for the lingering effects of a sex-tape involving Lowe and a 16-year-old girl at the 1988 Democratic Convention. The leaked tape also featured Lowe and a friend in a ménage-a-trois with an American model, this time in Paris. It would be another two decades before Kim Kardashian’s leaked sex tape would help enhance her career, such as it is, rather than destroy it. In any case, here, Lowe plays an enigmatic sociopath, Alex, who insinuates himself into the sweet yuppie life and burgeoning career of Spader’s mousy financial analyst, Michael. The timing couldn’t be better, when it comes to building Michael’s self-confidence and willingness to stand up to bullies at work, at least, or worse, considering the false sense of invulnerability that Alex instills in him. Like Michael, we sort of like Alex. It isn’t until we recognize the strands of the web he and his sexy companion, Claire (Lisa Zane), are weaving around the poor chump. Marcia Cross plays Michael’s fiancé, the wealthy daughter of a business tycoon. The question becomes one of deciding whether there’s a method to Alex and Claire’s madness or they’re sadists who enjoy torturing their prey before going for the jugular. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Under the Influence With David Koepp,” an interview with the writer.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume II

This is the Shout! Factory edition of a MST3K DVD package distributed by Rhino more than a decade ago. I’m not exactly sure why it’s being re-released in an edition that only varies somewhat from the original, but I’ll hazard a guess. Cherry editions of the original 2003 package are going for a small fortune and that’s without now-standard closed captioning and hour wraps for Cave Dwellers and Pod People, movies so bad they defy easy verbal assault by the crew. The set also includes the completely baffling Angels Revenge – a.k.a., “Angels’ Brigade” and “Seven from Heaven” – apparently made in 1979 to exploit the already-cooling “Charlie’s Angels” craze. Sadly, unless there’s a European-cut extant, there’s no more T&A on this version than there was on the hit TV show. Angels Revenge focuses on seven women who decide to fight the local drug cartel after the brother of a Las Vegas pop singer, is found severely beaten. When taken to the hospital, the young man is found to have been on illegal drugs. The Angels hatch a plan to destroy the local drug processing plant. If onetime Playboy POTM Susan Kiger (January, 1977) is the only semi-recognizable female cast member, the male team is so loaded with over-the-hill actors it could constitute an AA meeting. They include Peter Lawford and Jack Palance as leaders of a drug cartel, and Jim Backus, Alan Hale Jr., Pat Buttram and Arthur Godfrey in smaller roles. A fourth disc is comprised vintage shorts: “The Home Economics Story,” “Junior Rodeo Daredevils,” “Body Care & Grooming,” “Cheating a Date With Your Family,” “Why Study Industrial Arts?” and “Chicken of Tomorrow.” All of them appear to have been made with the intention of preserving the status quo and middle-class value in post-war America.

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: 1916: The Irish Rebellion

PBS: American Experience: Space Men

Nova: Creatures of Light

Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Beyond the Known Universe

PBS: Kate and Mim-Mim: Balloon Buddies

On Easter Monday 1916, a smaller-than-anticipated group of 1,200 Irish rebels — poets, teachers, actors and workers, among them — mustered at several strategic locations in central Dublin, determined to disrupt business as usual in their wee corner of the British Empire. A unit was dispatched to the General Post Office, on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, with orders to occupy the building and hoist two republican flags outside it. That accomplished, Commander-in-Chief Patrick Pearse stood outside the building and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to pedestrians and office workers who barely took notice of him. The British were caught off-guard, at first, but it didn’t take long before an overwhelming force of troops from the mainland were put on ships and sent to Dublin to restore order. After some bitter street fighting the rebels were routed and their leaders jailed and shot. The Easter Rising may only have resulted in a moral victory, but it would inspire the creation of an independent Irish state and contribute to the eventual disintegration of the empire. The impressive three-hour PBS co-production, “1916: The Irish Rebellion,” examines the political history of Ireland that led to previous failed uprisings, while also examining the conditions of the day and signing of an Armistice that inevitably would lead to a bloody civil war and divided Ireland. The documentary doesn’t whitewash the mistakes made by rebel leadership, but there’s no way it could ignore the murderous intentions of a government that historically has refused to relinquish an inch of territory before first attempting to destroy anyone who dared demand freedom. Liam Neeson, who played the titular revolutionary leader in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, does his usual fine job as narrator.

We may never know how many primates and canines were sacrificed in the race to plant a flag on the moon. One would be too many, but science demands that we test the feasibility of space flight before sending a human being into orbit. I may be mistaken, but it’s possible that more screen time in The Right Stuff was devoted to our chimp astronauts than the heroic fliers we meet in the “American Experience” presentation, “Space Men,” which tells the little-known story of the men whose scientific experiments laid critical groundwork for NASA’s manned space program. A decade before President Kennedy committed the nation to sending a man to the moon, balloonists were the first to venture into the frozen near-vacuum on the edge of our world, exploring the very limits of human physiology and human ingenuity in this lethal realm. Among the people we meet are U.S. Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger, who set a world record for the highest parachute jump (102,200 feet) and longest parachute freefall (84,700 feet) while testing high-altitude parachute escape systems in Project Excelsior. The record stood until October 14, 2012. If his balloon had a patio chair attached to it, people would still be talking about Kittinger.

 

It’s said that we know more about what’s happening on Saturn than the fish and invertebrates that exist in the deepest parts of our oceans. The PBS series “Nova” routinely introduces viewers too things we couldn’t possibly have learned if it weren’t the constant evolution of technology. “Creatures of Light” may be the most colorful and enlightening such presentation yet. As familiar as most of us are with fireflies and electric eels, the light show that takes place constantly in the oceans’ depths is unmatched by anything outside Las Vegas. Until recently, for example, marine biologists were unaware of the staggering number of creatures capable of creating light, even in places where the sun’s presence is a rumor. In the dark depths of the oceans, nearly 90 percent of all species shine from within. Whether it’s to scare off predators, fish for prey or lure a mate, the language of light is everywhere in the ocean depths. “Nova” and National Geographic take a dazzling dive to this hidden undersea world where most creatures flash, sparkle, shimmer, or simply glow. Biologists are interested in learning if we might be able to harness nature’s light to track cancer cells, detect pollution, illuminate cities and the inner workings of our brains.

 

OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve completely lost track of the various “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series, the networks on which they’re shown and what in God’s name would possess anyone to live in a sewer. The new collection, “Beyond the Known Universe,” contains the first 12 episodes of Season Four. It picks up where the third-season finale left off, with the Triceratons’ successful destruction of the Earth with a Black Hole Generator. Thanks to the help of Professor Zayton Honeycutt, April O’Neil and Casey Jones are teleported back in time six months prior to the Earth’s destruction and travel throughout the galaxy to retrieve the three fragments of the generator and destroy them. What they couldn’t have anticipated are new enemies, such as the sinister Lord Dregg, the wacky Wyrm, the Jaws of outer space, Armaggon, and the entire Triceraton Empire. They also encounter such new allies as Sal Commander & Mona Lisa, the ancient Aeons, the Daagon, the Utrom Council and even their 1980s counterparts.

 

Three stories from PBS’ popular kids’ series “Kate and Mim-Mim” are collected in “Balloon Buddies.” Kate is making a balloon buddy for Mim-Mim, the rabbit, and needs a big balloon. In Mimiloo, they find a balloon tree, but all its fruit is flat and droopy. They must find a way to re-inflate the balloons for the Big Balloon Parade, where Kate has a big surprise for Mim-Mim. And, that’s just for starters.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Theeb, Naked Island, Witch, Maurice Pialat, Cop Rock and more

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

Theeb: Blu-ray

There are times when Naji Abu Nowar’s terrific World War I adventure, Theeb, feels very much like Lawrence of Arabia writ small. Less than half as long, it tells a similarly exciting story from the point of view of Bedouin tribesmen who attach themselves to a British Army officer assigned to blow up an Ottoman railroad in the heart of the desert. Because Theeb is essentially a coming-of-age story, it betrays no secrets to reveal that the officer rather quickly becomes a non-factor in the drama, leaving only what he left behind to drive the narrative. Theeb was shot in parts of Jordan’s magnificent Wadi Rum (a.k.a., Valley of the Moon) that also provided backdrops for David Lean’s epic, The Martian, Red Planet and Passion in the Desert. While war rages across Europe and in the Ottoman controlled wilderness, newly ordained tribal chief Hussein raises his younger brother, Theeb, in a traditional Bedouin community isolated by the vast desert and its maze-like sandstone formations. So as not to dishonor the memory of his recently deceased father, Hussein and a cousin agree to lead the officer on an arduous journey to a series of water wells on the route to Mecca. At an age when boys in such environments quickly are required to act like men, Theeb decides to follow the men at a discreet distance on his mule. The path takes him to a steep canyon, where a different sort of war is being waged by Ottoman mercenaries, Arab revolutionaries and outcast Bedouin raiders. A deadly ambush suddenly requires of Theeb that he not only determine his own fate, but also that of a mercenary “guide” cut from the same cloth as Omar Sharif’s black-clad in Sherif Ali. After a sudden reversal of fortune, the boy is forced to accompany the wounded guide to the nearest Turkish outpost, where secrets will be revealed and Theeb will be faced with the first great moral dilemma in his life. The maturation process will further demand of Theeb that he decides whether he’ll follow the lead of the outlaw, return to a leadership position in his tribe or conceivably join Lawrence in the march to Aqaba and beyond. Nowar and co-writer Bassel Ghandour lived among the desert tribes for a year, absorbing the language and culture. They constructed Theeb as a “tale of four water wells,” during which Theeb is called upon to live up to the name — “wolf,” representing manhood in Bedouin culture – bestowed upon him by his father. In a very real sense, then, it describes traditions not unlike those glorified in the American Westerns that allowed Native Americans more than a modicum of decency and respect. Wolfgang Thaler’s cinematography splendidly captures both the intimacy of the human drama and grand scale of the locations. Theeb, like Mustang and Son of Saul, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The other two candidates, Embrace of the Serpent and A War will be released into DVD next month. They attest to the continuing growth of the world cinema, especially in countries not typically represented in the category. The Blu-ray adds the director’s commentary and short film, “Waves ’98.”

The Naked Island: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

From high above Japan’s Setu Inland Sea, the small patch of land at the center of Kaneto Shindô’s minimalist 1960 classic, The Naked Island, looks very much like Alcatraz, minus the abandoned prison. The family of four that lives on the island struggles to grow crops for subsistence trading, absent the assistance of potable water, sophisticated tools, generators or a motor for the wooden boat that takes them to shore, at least once a day, for fresh water, provisions and school for one the boys. Given the modernity of post-WWII Japan clearly visible on the opposite shores, their self-reliance seems less a condition of abject poverty, than a conscious decision to demonstrate that such a way of life was still viable. That it clearly isn’t feasible can be seen in the Sisyphean nature of their labor. Water from the mainland is transported by rowboat, then carried up a contoured hillside over what is basically a well-trod goat path. The crops are irrigated by hand, using a ladle. While parents Toyo and Senta go about their chores, Taro and Jiro prepare meals, feed the animals and attempt to catch the rare fish that a mainland restaurateur might find valuable. It’s a numbing existence, to be sure, but not one without time for occasional displays of love, despair and comfort, the latter in the form of a lingering bath in a heated barrelful of water. Just when The Naked Island appears to have reached a monotonous uniformity, Shindo shifts gears so abruptly that viewers are shocked into doubting the sanity not only of the endeavor, but also the man who demands so much of his family. While dialogue remains virtually non-existent, the story takes an unexpected turn to something resembling modern life, with the attendant joys and tragedies that come with it. Soon enough, though, the dull routine of years past – maybe decades – re-enters with the spring. Just as Robert J. Flaherty and Merian C. Cooper fudged details of everyday life in their early ethnographic documentaries, Shindo takes liberties with Toyo and Senta’s chores and rituals. What shines through is the endurance of the human spirit, sometimes for inexplicable reasons and, at others, out of pure determination to succeed on one’s own terms. Kiyomi Kuroda’s sparkling black-and-white cinematography ensures a sense of realism that never wavers throughout the 94 minutes of The Naked Island. The Blu-ray adds a video introduction by Shindo; archival audio commentary with Shindo and composer Hikaru Hayashi; a new video interview with actor and Shindo promoter Benicio Del Toro; a new video interview with film scholar Akira Mizuta Lippit; and an illustrated leaflet featuring an essay by film scholar Haden Guest.

Kindergarten Cop 2

If sequel specialist Don Michael Paul (Jarhead 2, Tremors 5) doesn’t dishonor the legacy of Ivan Reitman and Arnold Schwarzegger’s hit fish-out-of-water comedy, Kindergarten Cop, his primary directive could have been to test the waters for a series of straight-to-DVD sequels targeted at kids who weren’t even born when the Governator left office in 2011. Twenty-five years later, in Kindergarten Cop 2, Dolph Lundgren proves to be a reasonable facsimile of a musclebound teacher terrorized by over-privileged kids and politically correct parents, while in pursuit of a dangerous international criminal. In this case, it’s an Albanian fiend, Zogu (Aleks Paunovic), whose wife provided Lundgren’s Agent Reed a few moments of bliss during the investigation. In order to solidify the FBI’s case against Zogu, Reed is assigned by his bullying boss to need to find a flash drive that belonged to a recently deceased kindergarten teacher. It’s believed to contain a tipoff to a terrorist attack. If the outcome is never actually in doubt, the interaction between Reed and everyone else at the progressive school is what will keep viewers occupied for most of the movie’s 100-minute length. After some awkward introductions, Reed develops an easy rapport with the kids – some of whom need extra TLC – and a fellow kindergarten teacher (Darla Taylor) who sees beyond his clumsy attempts at pedagogy. Bill Bellamy plays a fellow FBI agent, while Sarah Strange is the school’s p.c. principal. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a gag reel and “Kindergarten Cop 2: Undercover.”

Night Has Settled

Set in 1983, Steve Smith’s follow-up to 2008’s The Last International Playboy appears to borrow key elements of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions and “Gossip Girl,” all in the service of an adolescent coming-of-age dramedy populated by the sons and daughters of New York’s social elite. The cover blurbs want potential viewers to consider the films of Larry Clark, as well, but the prep-school attendees in Night Has Settled have quite a bit more going for them than the skateboarders and borderline criminals in his depictions of debauched youths. Eighteen-year-old Spencer List is extremely convincing as the post-pubescent protagonist, Oliver Nicholas, a member of a clique of prep school boys and girls whose boredom and lack of direction is salved by sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and shoplifting booze. As usual, almost none of their parents spend much time at home, leaving the kids free to engage in late-night parties and sexual experimentation. Oliver’s divorced mother, Luna (Pilar López de Ayala), is a self-absorbed free spirit who would prefer to be treated more like a friend and confidante to her son and daughter than a real mom. That responsibility lies with their Chilean nanny and housekeeper, Aida (Adriana Barraza), who is the parental figure Oliver wishes his mom would be. In fact, Luna is so incompetent as a mother that she happily leaves the parenting to Aida, who’s still grieving the loss of a son, years earlier, at the age of 10. Just when it seems as if the relationship between Oliver and Aida is becoming dangerously Oedipal, Smith puts her in the hospital with a debilitating stroke. Devastated, the boy acts out his myriad feelings in all the usual ways, leading to a cathartic moment that salvages both the character and the otherwise too-familiar story. If anything, Smith has invested too many interesting ideas into a film that’s all of 90 minutes. For example, in addition to all of his other problems, Oliver is cursed by migraine headaches whenever he nears climax while masturbating. That’s a new one on me, but Stone manages to pull it off without sacrificing much time or narrative coherency. Smith also finds room for the other youthful characters to grow.

The Witch: Blu-ray

The abruptness of the title and demonic visage of a goat on the DVD jacket may suggest that The Witch is just another low-budget portrait of a supernatural being, burdened by genre pretentions and clichés. An alternate image, used on the one-sheet posters, shows a young woman walking into an autumnal forest, brightly lit by a full moon, as naked as the branches of the trees. If that were all to recommend Robert Eggers’ debut feature, it probably would have been released straight-to-DVD or VOD and left to fend for itself. Fortunately for everyone involved, however, an executive at fledgling A24 recognized the film’s potential for carving a niche in a genre overpopulated by zombies, vampires and sadists. The buzz surrounding the modestly budgeted indie must have been ear-shattering, because The Witch did well enough against Deadpool and the faith-based Risen to be accorded a legitimate theatrical run. Instead of focusing directly on the protagonist’s midnight stroll or the spooky-looking goat, Eggers has constructed a deeply atmospheric period piece that anticipates the Salem witchcraft trials and persecution of women who may or may not have been guilty of something ungodly. In 1630s New England, a devout Puritan family of seven is banished from their church and village in a disagreement over Christian beliefs. They are required to start over on the edge of the known frontier, where fields will need to be cut from rocky earth and the dangers of the forest have yet to be fully defined. Bears and Indians, sure … the devil’s spawn, not so much. Whatever happens to them will be God’s will. Or, so they’ve been led to believe.

Eggers effectively cultivates a profound dread of the unknown before introducing the inevitable gore and Satanic heebie-jeebies. Shot in an abandoned lumber camp in northern Ontario, The Witch is infused with a palpable feeling of isolation. Eggers built his reputation on set design and his attention to historical detail here goes way past anything expected from a budget south of $4 million. (The mosquito repellant might have been the most expensive item on the budget.) The thickly accented dialogue, filled with “thys” and “thees,” also is perfectly credible. When disturbing things do begin to happen to the scripture-citing William (Ralph Ineson) and his fragile wife, Katherine (Kate Dickie), it’s difficult for them to determine if they’re acts of God or Satan. Their newborn child disappears, along with some prized objects. The crops fail. The next youngest boy and girl find comfort in the company of the belligerent goat, Black Peter. There’s even a malevolent jack rabbit. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), his father’s right-hand man, hasn’t been the same since he discovered a strange dwelling in the forest, inhabited by a woman who wouldn’t be out of place in a Russ Meyer film. We assume, without direct proof that the titular character is teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). In a movie about Catholic mysticism, Taylor-Joy is the kind of open-faced blond who would be cast as the tortured saint-to-be. That Eggers has been able to maintain viewers’ interest for two-thirds of the movie, without giving hard-core genre buffs something nasty to chew, demonstrates the power of suspense and foreboding, which is enhanced by a droning soundtrack and sensory cues as earthy as the farm’s dung heap. If Thomasin is the witch, she probably doesn’t look much different than any of women sacrificed to bigotry and intolerance in Salem, 60 years later. The interviews, Q&A and gallery included in the bonus package attest to Eggers mastery of the project, from start to finish. I won’t be the only one who can’t wait to see what he – and Taylor-Joy, for that matter – accomplish next.

Dementia: Blu-ray

I Saw What You Did: Blu-ray

In his feature debut at the helm, cinematographer/director Mike Testin does what he can with a script by fellow first-timer Meredith Berg that telegraphs almost all its surprises and will be familiar to anyone old enough to remember Nurse Diesel in High Anxiety or Annie Wilkes in Misery. If that sounds like I’ve spoiled the ending, I doubt anyone will hold a grudge against me. The best things in Dementia are incidental to the script devices. Veteran character actor Gene Jones (“Vinyl,” as Colonel Tom Parker) is very good as a Vietnam-era war hero and POW, George Lockhart, whose sound mind and body are about to give out on him. Haunted by dreams of being tortured and exposed to what he still considers to be the cowardice of one of his fellow prisoners, at least, suffers a stroke after using a rifle to scare some neighborhood bullies off a neighbor boy. While in the hospital, he’s also diagnosed with dementia … or whatever the politically correct term for the titular disease is these days. George would like to reconnect with his estranged son (Peter Cilella) and teenage granddaughter (Hassie Harrison) before his illness gets too advanced, but the distance between the two men presents a formidable challenge. His only friend is played by Richard Riehle, an old-timer who’s instantly recognizable from the 350 roles he’s played in movies and television. The son, Jerry, doesn’t have to look very far for the live-in caregiver/therapist, Michelle (Kristina Klebe), as they already met in the hospital. Afforded just that much information, it would be difficult not to figure out what transpires in the ensuing hour or so. Testin’s had plenty of experience shooting pictures not terribly dissimilar to Dementia and he’s saved a few tricks for his freshman outing in the director’s chair. When Michelle madness is revealed, he makes excellent use of George’s spacious house for the ensuing game of hide-and-seek. Testin also sets up a parallel test of nerves between his nurse and granddaughter, both of whom are blond and obsessed with completing their missions.

Even when it was released in 1965, I’m not sure William Castle’s psycho-thriller I Saw What You Did made much of an impression on its target audience, teenagers, who were becoming pretty jaded when it came to horror and other genre pictures. What’s interesting about it today is how Castle appears to have borrowed the shower scene from Psycho and telephone segment from Bye Bye Birdie – among other things – in the service of a movie that would influence John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Kevin Williamson, Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”) and possibly even some giallo specialists. To pass the time while babysitting, bored teenagers Libby and Kit (Andi Garrett, Sara Lane) pick names out of the phone book and prank strangers with the warning, “I saw what you did and I know who you are.” They couldn’t have known that one of men (John Ireland) they called had just murdered his wife in the shower and put her body in a trunk, for burial in the woods. The only person in a position to torment him with this knowledge is a neighbor with the hots for him and helps him with the trunk. (Joan Crawford’s assignment wasn’t much more than a cameo, but she was given top billing.) Castle conceives of a way, however illogical, for the killer to turn the tables on the girls and put them on the defensive. The rest of the movie pretty much plays out in jump scares, lighting and sound effects. I Saw What You Did clearly was made on a budget that didn’t allow for great artistry or frills. Competition with television for young eyes was still fierce and it was film that could play in theaters and drive-ins. Castle’s name may not mean as much to today’s audience as Roger Corman, but they were two peas in a pod when it came to the exploitation market. Such titles as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Strait-Jacket, 13 Ghosts and Macabre have stood the test of time and continue to be remade by new generations of filmmakers. His reputation as a showman is unmatched, as well. For I Saw What You Did, he instructed exhibitors to set aside a section of seats equipped with seat belts for easily shocked audiences.

The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music

Modern country music may owe more to the Eagles, the Allman Brothers and Buffalo Springfield than George Jones, Willy Nelson and Merle Haggard – ditto, country radio, which is more country-suburban, than country-western – but the roots of all commercially viable country music can be traced to A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter. That’s the premise of musician-turned-documentarian Beth Harrington (“Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly”), whose essential The Winding Stream: The Carters, the Cashes and the Course of Country Music should be shown on a continuous loop at the rock ’n’ roll and country music halls of fame, Opryland, the Ryman Auditorium and Grammy Museum. Harrington takes us all the way back to 1927, when A.P. piled family members into his car for the then-grueling journey from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee. Victor Records producer Ralph Peer had advertised for local musicians to gather there to record songs only familiar to the mountain folk. A.P. didn’t make it to the recording session, as he was looking for a replacement tire for the car, but, several weeks later, he received $50 for each song Sara and Maybelle recorded. By the end of 1930, they had sold 300,000 records in the United States. Realizing that he would benefit financially with each new song he collected and copyrighted, A.P. traveled around the southwestern Virginia area in search of new material. As the family grew, so did its fame. In 1938, the extended family traveled to Villa Acuña, Mexico – across the border from Del Rio, Texas – where they performed a twice-daily program on the 250,000-watt radio station, XERA. For the next 50 years, one iteration of the Carter Family or another performed “old time music” for enthusiastic fans everywhere. “The Winding Stream” is the product of exhaustive research and continually updated interviews with family members, historians and musicians. The Cash family connection is also duly noted, especially Johnny’s longtime relationship with June Carter. Harrington was able to interview the Man in Black only weeks before his death in 2003 and it’s terrific stuff. Anyone anxious to extend the experience should check out Maggie Greenwald’s underappreciated 2000 drama, Songcatcher, which chronicled a fictional musicologist’s (Janet McTeer) discovery of a treasure trove of ancient Scots-Irish ballads that had been handed down through generations of Appalachian musicians, but never written down or recorded. It is loosely based on the turn-of-the-century work of Olive Dame Campbell, founder of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, and that of the English folk-song collector Cecil Sharp.

The Films of Maurice Pialat: Volume 1: Blu-ray

Even by American arthouse standards, the films of French director Maurice Pialat were a hard sell. His intensely naturalistic technique required a great deal of patience from viewers accustomed to Nouvelle Vague storytelling, as well as a willingness to take unlikeable characters at face value. That they were inspired by people close to him in real life didn’t make them any more sympathetic. Pialat’s uncompromising attitude is reflected in a feature-length documentary, “Love Exists,” that’s included in the Cohen Film Collection package, The Films of Maurice Pialat: Volume 1. During his 35-year career, which began when he was 42, Pialat completed only 10 major features. Although his pictures scored numerous nominations at Cannes and in Cesar competition, they were shut out of the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. Probably the best known of three features included here is Loulou (1980), in which well-to-do Nelly (Isabelle Huppert) falls in lust with the unemployed lay-about Loulou (Gérard Depardieu). The underground life is fun until her husband pulls her safety net out from under her and she’s faced with having to raise a child with the small-time hoodlum, who can barely take care of himself. Like a working-class and not particularly funny version of American Graffiti, Graduate First (1978) follows a graduating class of teenagers in northern France as they await the results of the baccalaureate exams that could seal their fates as young adults. One path leads to college and the security that comes with middle-class life, while the other puts them in the more precarious position of having to live in continual fear of being laid off or making due on minimum-wage salaries. The kids need look no further than their parents to understand what they’re up against. In Mouth Agape (1974), a woman (Monique Mélinand) who’s worked hard all of her life as a shopkeeper, wife and mother, is fighting a losing battle with cancer. Gathered around her in her final weeks and days are her philandering husband (Hubert Deschamps), her adult son (Philippe Léotard) – also a cheat – and her eager-to-please daughter-in-law (Nathalie Baye). There’s love to be found here, but it takes a while to surface. In June and July, Cohen is sending out Blu-ray editions of Under the Sun of Satan and Van Gogh, an excellent biopic that had the misfortune of arriving within a year of Robert Altman’s terrific Vincent & Theo. All three volumes include insightful interviews and deleted scenes.

Hired to Kill: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Sometimes, I wonder if the famously inventive headline writers at New York’s tabloid newspapers (“Headless Body in Topless Bar”) are ever called upon to suggest taglines for movies. On Amazon, a blurb for Hired to Kill brashly declares, “No Man on Earth Could Get Him Out of Prison Alive. Seven Women Will Try.” This is collaborated in an interview included in the bonus package with filmmaker Nico Mastorakis, who allows that he envisioned a “Magnificent Seven with women.” More precisely, I’d suggest, “Magnificent Seven with runway models.” If Hired to Kill had been half as good as the tagline, it might not have been released straight-to-video in most markets or virtually forgotten in the 26 years since it was made. If anything, it exists as a slightly less sexploitative knockoff of Andy Sidaris’ Hard Ticket to Hawaii, Malibu Express, Picasso Trigger and Savage Beach, which defined the girls-with-guns subgenre in the 1980s. The difference is a cast that includes such noteworthy, if well past their prime stars as Oliver Reed, George Kennedy, Jose Ferrer and veteran tough guy Brian Thompson (Cobra). Here, Thompson plays the musclebound mercenary, Frank Ryan, assigned by Kennedy to track down Reed on a rebel-controlled island and free an imprisoned opposition leader (Ferrer). In a leap of faith impressive even by straight-to-DVD standards, the rock hard, 6-foot-3 actor is required to pose as a fashion designer conducting a photo shoot with seven “beautiful but deadly female fighters.” The Greek island of Corfu provides the perfect backdrop for action, glamour and intrigue. If only the machine guns looked as if they were firing live ammunition and some of the punches actually landed in the fight scenes. Co-writers Kirk Ellis and Fred Perry previously collaborated with Mastorakis on such immortal thrillers as The Naked Truth, Death Street USA and Terminal Exposure. Co-director Peter Rader enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame – or infamy — as co-writer of Waterworld, for which he later would be featured in “Flops 101: Lessons from the Biz.” Arrow Video has also released sterling Blu-ray “special editions” of Mastorakis’s Island of Death and The Zero Boys … not that there was all that much clamor for them. Bad-movie buffs should get a kick out of the presentations, though, as well as commentary and fresh interviews with editor Barry Zetlin, Mastorakis and Thompson; an essay by critic James Oliver; original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and BD/DVD-ROM copy of the original “Freedom or Death” screenplay.

TV-to-DVD

Cop Rock: The Complete Series

BBC: The Merchant of Venice

PBS: Mr. Selfridge: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray

The Red Skelton Show: The Best of Early Years, 1955-1958

Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy

The Facts of Life: The Final Season

Power Rangers: Ninja Sentai Kakuranger: The Complete Series

When an executive producer of hit television series is on a roll, he can propose almost anything and someone in Hollywood will take a nip at the bait, at least. Such was the case with Steven Bochco, who, by 1990, had successfully launched such landmark shows as “Hill Street Blues,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and “L.A. Law,” as well as near-misses “Hooperman” and “Rockford Files” spinoff “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye.” His record may not have been perfect, but Bochco and co-creator William M. Finkelstein (“L.A. Law,” “Murder One”) carried enough weight and promise to get ABC to buy into an idea so preposterous it would go down in history as one of the medium’s worst disasters. “Cop Rock” attempted to combine the gritty street-level police procedural with musical theater. The series centered on the LAPD and featured an ensemble cast that mixed musical numbers and choreography throughout individual storylines. Although some critics embraced the idea, it was trashed by most other opinion-makers and ignored by audiences. It lasted all of 11 episodes before being pulled off the network schedule. Today, like CBS’s ill-fated “Viva Laughlin,” it might not have made it to a third week. Even so, exposure on cable television would add a cult-like sheen to “Cop Rock.” (The same can’t be said of NBC’s “Hull High,” also launched in 1990, which lasted all of eight episodes, but would directly influence “Glee” and “High School Musical.”) Shout! Factory, a company known to take chances on longshots, has decided that the time might be right for a DVD revival of “Cop Rock.” If the individual episodes remain offbeat to a fault, it’s still fun to watch such members of Bochco’s repertory company as ex-wife Barbara Bosson, Larry Joshua, James McDaniel, Peter Onorati, Ronny Cox, CCH Pounder and guest stars Michelle Greene, James Sikking, Jimmy Smits, Gordon Clapp, Sheryl Crow, Gina Gershon and theme-song composer Randy Newman pop up every now and again. The police action and courtroom scenes should remind Bochco fans of scenes from his more fortunate efforts. The DVD adds new interviews with Bochco and series star Anne Bobby.

Perhaps the most provocative play in William Shakespeare’s repertoire, “The Merchant of Venice” has perplexed audiences as long as it’s been performed, somewhere in the neighborhood of 418 years. Aside from the lingering questions about the Bard’s intentions when it comes to his portrayal of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, the play’s ending defies easy categorization as to whether it’s technically a tragedy or comedy. It kind of depends on how one feels about the forced conversions as punishment. Shylock’s painful status in Venetian society is emphasized in his celebrated “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, even as the epithets of his enemies continue to sting the ears of contemporary audiences. Because of this ambiguity, the play has lent itself to contemporization as a vehicle for anti-Semitic vitriol by bigots and a loud call for tolerance by others. Then, too, by allowing Portia and Nerissa to don judicial disguises and beg Shylock to reconsider his demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh — “(Mercy) is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” – Shakespeare appears to be making a case for gender equality. The 1973 adaptation newly released on DVD here by Shout! Factory originally aired on Britain’s ITV and ABC on this side of the pond. Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Joan Plowright lead a stellar cast of actors (Anthony Nicholls, Anna Carteret, Jeremy Brett, Louise Purnell), most of whom originally appeared in the 1970 National Theatre stage production. That’s reason enough to check it out. Like Jonathan Miller, director John Sichel advanced the action to Victorian times.

ITV is also responsible for the surprise hit series, “Mr. Selfridge,” which currently is wrapping up its four-year run on PBS. In the episodes included in “The Complete Fourth Season” Blu-ray edition, creator Andrew Davies has advanced the narrative several years to the eve of the store’s 20th anniversary celebration. The Roaring ’20s have caught up with Harry, who’s begun to party like it’s 1909, again, and is paying for it. After missing Season Three, Lady Mae (Katherine Kelley) returns to London and, not surprisingly, Harry eventually finds himself in dire financial difficulty. A prominent newspaper publisher has declared war on him, as well. Faithful fans of the Sunday-night soap won’t be disappointed by the introduction of new characters — the hotsy-totsy Dolly sisters, a cocky business partner, a black seamstress — and story threads that need to tied before the series concludes. The Blu-ray adds four background featurettes.

Shout! Factory and Timeless Media Group extend their inventory of shows from the so-called Golden Age of Television with “The Red Skelton Show: The Best of the Early Years, 1955-1958.” Historically speaking, it marks the start of the beloved comic’s association with Johnson’s Wax and Pet Milk, as well as CBS’ experimentation with colorcasts on Tuesday night. Otherwise, the show continued to provide a home for such

delightful characters as Clem Kadiddlehopper, Cauliflower McPugg, San Fernando Red and Freddie the Freeloader. Among the guest stars are John Wayne, Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Phyllis Diller, George Raft, Martha Raye and Carol Channing, in other words the cream of Hollywood’s vintage crop. Young viewers will have to take my word on this, but the 18 shows represented here are as funny as anything on TV right now … not so much the dance and song routines, though.

Besides providing lots of laughs, the 1966 special “Carol + 2: The Original Queens of Comedy” offered a preview of the arrival of “The Carol Burnett Show.” Alongside the two redhead comedians is Broadway dynamo Zero Mostel, whose unpredictability was his hallmark. Carol’s wedding anniversary sketch with Mostel points to future marital angst with Harvey Korman. When she and Lucy clean up at the William Morris Agency, as imaginary “charwomen of the board,” she offers a variation of the character whose animated likeness opened the show. The first appearance of the character, included here in a bonus sketch, was on Burnett’s 1963 special, “Carol & Company.” The DVD also includes the 1972 CBS television movie version of “Once Upon a Mattress,” in which Carol reprises her 1959 Tony-nominated Broadway debut role as Princess Winnifred the Woebegone. Joining her are Ken Berry, Bernadette Peters and Jack Gilford, all of whom (in addition to Lucy) would guest star on “The Carol Burnett Show” multiple times over its 11 seasons.

The Facts of Life: The Final Season” wraps up nine years of life in and around Eastland School for Girls, a boarding school in Upstate New York. A spin-off of “Diff’rent Strokes,” the series focused on the school’s housemother and dietician Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae). Also under her wing are students Blair (Lisa Whelchel), Natalie (Mindy Cohn), Tootie (Kim Fields) and Jo (Nancy McKeon), who by this time, were probably closer to retirement than puberty. As the girls prepared to join the world outside Peekskill, Blair rallied the troops one more time to save Eastland from bankruptcy. Oh, yeah, one of the girls finally loses her virginity in the ninth season. Despite solid ratings, NBC was forced to cancel the show when Cohn and McKeon decided to move on to grown-up shows.

Before the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers stormed America in the 1990s, the Japanese series, “Super Sentai Zyuranger,” laid the foundation for its success of tokusatsu television. The sixteenth installment in the long-running “Super Sentai” franchise of superhero programs would provide the raw material for Saban’s “Power Rangers” franchise. The storyline in the “Complete Series” box is nearly incomprehensible. Apparently, though, “It’s been a long time since the great war between the Three God Generals and the Youkais, an ancient race of monstrous spirits. Since then, imprisoned in a cave protected by the mystical Seal Door, their leader Daimaou and his Youkai army wait, planning for the day they can finally strike. That day has arrived and it is up to the Kakurangers, along with the Three God Generals, to defeat the Youkais, before Daimaou’s villainy destroys Earth.” That, from the publicity blurb from Shout! Factory for the boxed set. Some things, you simply can’t make up.

The DVD Wrapup: Mustang, Where to Invade Next, Patty Duke, In a Lonely Place and more

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Mustang: Blu-ray

Once upon a time, when the world was a much larger place, the Arabic and Farsi-speaking world was seen from afar as a land of camel caravans, wandering Bedouins, harems, men who resembled Rudolph Valentino and woman shrouded head to toe in elegantly embroidered robes. That perception would change drastically after first the oil embargo, the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and even more when the Taliban thought it necessary to destroy the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan and declare war on women’s rights under God. Today, we’re much more aware of the religious practices and cultural nuances in states where Islam is the dominant faith, as well as among Muslim families here. Who, for instance, had heard of honor killings and female genital mutilation before the ascension of Ayatollah Khomeini opened the doors to discussions of such extreme practices or knew that such atrocities occurred in the U.S.? If only Lawrence of Arabia was still around to defend western ideals in a hostile land. The thing to remember is that Hollywood no longer shapes the world’s perception of life in parts of the world once so foreign to us. We learning a lot from the home-grown movies shown at international festivals and artists nominated for career-defining prizes.

Nominated for a 2015 Academy Award in Best Foreign Language Film category, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s and co-writer Alice Winocour’s heart-breaking coming-of-age drama, Mustang, describes what happens in a country, Turkey, where the dreams and hopes of too many girls are crushed at the onset of puberty. By now, stories of atrocities against women are almost commonplace in the international cinema, sometimes ending in shootings (He Named Me Malala), barbaric executions (The Stoning of Soraya M.) and genital mutilation (Desert Flower, God’s Sandbox). Controversies over Muslim women being forced to wear a hijab or burqas in public have migrated to Europe and the U.S. In Mustang, other forces are at play. School’s just ended for summer break in a village nestled along the cliffs of the Black Sea coast and the freedom the boys and girls enjoyed at secular institutions can’t be guaranteed under the roofs of guardians whose daily grind hasn’t changed much since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Five orphan sisters frolic in the shallow waters, oblivious to prying eyes of neighbors and any sense of shame. At one point, two of the girls are hoisted to the shoulders of male friends from which they can wrestle. What we see as innocent horseplay is treated as an immoral provocation by a neighbor of the girls’ uncle and grandmother. Embarrassed by the gossip, the grandmother berates and possibly strikes the girls off camera. When the uncle arrives home, he drags them to the nearest hospital, where all five are examined to see if their hymens are intact. The high-spirited girls barely know what to make of their elders’ behavior, probably because they have never received any sex education. The older girls already are aware of the urges that swell within their bodies occasionally and that boys experience them, as well. Their guardians have other concerns than rumor-mongering, though.

They know that village girls are worth nothing to the families of perspective husbands if tarnished before a wedding. The girls, even the youngest, are at an age when marriages are arranged and their values are established by people they don’t even know. All of them react differently when the oldest sister is assigned to a boy not of her choosing. It is at this point in the drama when the oh-so-religious uncle begins to make his midnight creeps outside their bedrooms and absent the new bride’s protective eye. Sexual abuse may not be condoned in the holy books of any religion, but no commandment has prevented a determined pervert from stalking his prey. Here, while the grandmother seems aware of her son’s tendencies, she’s unable to keep him in check. The sooner the girls are married off, the saver they’ll be … theoretically, at least. Another wedding doesn’t go so well, causing the remaining virgins to panic. Ergüven effectively disguises her intentions for their future, allowing the girls to muster the strength and moxie they have left to concoct a survival plan. One of the points the Ankara native makes clear is the difference between life for girls and women in the rural villages and those in Istanbul. It also applies to the women hired to teach girls in these areas, especially those looking for role models. Mustang is an exceptional movie, especially for a first-timer, neither as brutal and upsetting as it could have been nor completely devoid of humor. The girls and their grandmother are allowed to maintain their individual personalities and quirks, and several of the male characters demonstrate they aren’t stuck in the 18th Century. Things are pretty fragile right now in Turkey and no one can say with any certainty what the future holds for the people we meet in the movie. The Blu-ray adds Ergüven’s similarly impressive short, “A Drop of Water”; interviews with the giddy teen actors at Cannes; a 16-page Special Edition collectible booklet; and soundtrack download.

Where to Invade Next: Blu-ray

If Donald Trump really wants to make America great again, as he continually asks us to believe, it means that the presumptive Republican torch-bearer, 1) doesn’t consider the U.S. to be as great as most of us assume it still is, and 2) he has something up his sleeve more constructive than building a wall along the entirety of our border with Mexico, eliminating health-care benefits for all citizens and getting Rosie O’Donnell to lose weight. Say what you will about documentarian Michael Moore and his confrontational methodology, but in Where to Invade Next, at least, he offers several measured alternatives to the status quo Mr. Trump considers to be so inadequate. They’re not his ideas, really, they’re ours. The title refers to Moore’s tongue-in-cheek self-help strategy, which involves “invading” countries from which we can stake claim to programs, innovations and initiatives the U.S. could implement to make itself great again. The gag here is Moore’s assertion that all of the reforms originated here and were borrowed by such countries as Italy, France, Germany, Slovenia, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Tunisia. The initiatives, in one form or another, by workers, first, and later by industrialists who benefited from their implementation. Today, of course, corporations have turned their backs on their employees and their ideas, to meet terms dictated by the renegade state of Wall Street. In Where to Invade Next, Moore spends more time listening than preaching and inserting his snarky opinions into the discussions.

In Italy, he feigns astonishment when interviewing workers about their eight-weeks’ paid vacation and generous maternity leave. He asks French children to compare their school lunches to photos and descriptions of meals served to their American counterparts. Chefs, administrators and nutritionists explain how leisurely lunches, etiquette lessons and culinary diversity all serve the common good, just as they did before President Reagan’s USDA found a way to qualify ketchup and pizza as vegetables. The segment on the seemingly cushy Norwegian prison system might appear to viewers to be an apples-vs.-oranges comparison to penal conditions here, but not so the status of women in Iceland and Tunisia, drug laws in Portugal and progressive education systems in Slovenia, Germany and Finland. The arguments make sense and the statistics don’t lie. This kinder, gentler Moore will be recognizable those who follow him on the Internet or on talk shows, if not those so alienated by his grandstanding inBowling for Columbine, Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Roger & Me. It can be argued that Moore cherry-picks his examples in the doc, knowing that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to social reforms. Then, too, Where to Invade Next was made before the current refugee crisis and explosion of racism in Europe. Even so, Moore offers more alternatives to our current doldrums in two hours than the presidential hopefuls did in the entirety of the Republican and Democratic primary season. It’s funny, though, that the pressing issue of who can use which bathrooms wasn’t addressed, even once.

I Know a Woman Like That

I have no idea why it’s taken Elaine and Virginia Madsen’s celebratory documentary, I Know a Woman Like That, seven years to find a home outside festivals and private screenings. Nor, why its release on DVD comes two days after Mother’s Day, instead of several days before the holiday. In lieu of flowers and chocolates, it would have made a lovely gift for mothers and daughters of a certain age and older. The title derives from a comment made by Elaine to her Oscar-nominated daughter, after a glowing salute to an elderly woman of accomplishment in Chicago. Mom mentioned how nice it was to attend events honoring “women like that” and that she hopes Virginia will meet some. She replied, “I do know a woman like that.” Elaine parlayed that compliment into this film, in which 17 “exceptional and vigorous women … share an extraordinary attitude about how to live the upper decades of one’s life.” The wide-ranging and conversational interviews benefit from taking place in casual settings and absent any agenda, hidden or otherwise. Some of the women, who range in age from their 60s to their 90s, are instantly recognizable — Gloria Steinem, Lauren Hutton, Eartha Kitt and Rita Moreno – while others will require some prodding, including Evanston Mayor Lorraine Morton, restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, actor Olive McQueen and author Maxine Hong Kingston. The subject matter takes us from accomplishments and expectations, to maintaining beauty and sexual relations. The one thing that isn’t mentioned is retirement, which, of course, may have negative connotations for women of means and quite another for those whose working lives were far less fulfilling.

You’ll Like My Mother: Blu-ray

Symptoms: Blu-ray
The same question raised about I Know a Woman Like That’s post-Mother’s Day release applies for the folks at Scream Factory with You’ll Like My Mother. This year, the designated date for the holiday – the second Sunday in May – arrived earlier than usual, possibly causing the distributors of these mom-centric pictures to be blindsided. No matter, there’s a better excuse for picking upYou’ll Like My Mother than timing purchases to the happenstance of holidays. Its star, Patty Duke, died on March 29, at the too-early age of 69. A true star of stage, screen and television, Duke was only 16 when she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her first major starring role, as Helen Keller, in the The Miracle Worker. She had originated the role on Broadway, opposite Anne Bancroft, but only after appearing in a string of made-for-TV movies and anthologies. In what some observers probably considered to be a lateral move, Duke almost immediately switched gears to play twin cousins – one urbane, the other more free-wheeling – for three years, on “The Patty Duke Show.” (Her TV father, William Schallert, died this week, at 93.) Although her identification as a kooky teen never completely was erased, the New York native tried mightily to demonstrate her range in such pictures as Valley of the Dolls,Deadly Harvest and My Sweet Charlie, whose director, Lamont Johnson, would call on her again in You’ll Like My Mother. Set in the middle of a blizzard in northern Minnesota, the taut psychodrama plays out almost exclusively inside a grandly designed mansion populated with nut jobs. Duke portrays the very pregnant Francesca Kinsolving, whose arrival at her dead husband’s boyhood home is greeted with something approximating fear and loathing. This, despite his titular claim, “You’ll like my mother.” Rosemary Murphy (To Kill a Mockingbird) can’t wait for the snow to clear to be rid of the interloper, no matter that Francesca is carrying her grandchild. There’s something desperately wrong, as well, with the other two occupants, represented by Sian Barbara Allen and Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”). The unraveling of the mystery is neatly handled by Johnson, although kudos should also be accorded the set designers, who turn the stately home into an elegantly appointed house of horror. (A few years later, a horrible double murder would take place in the same Glensheen Mansion used in the movie.) I can’t recall if any of Duke’s obits or appreciations mentioned You’ll Like My Mother, but, if not, it’s no reflection on her performance. Fans and genre buffs will be happy to find the sparkling new Blu-ray editions, which add lengthy new interviews with actors Thomas and Allen, who would become lovers during the production.

Catalonian genre specialist José Ramón Larraz (Vampyres) employs much the same claustrophobic setting – a once-elegant estate in the rain-drenched British countryside – for Symptoms (a.k.a., “Blood Virgin”), a 1974 creep show that earned its R-rating and then some. Thought lost for most of the last 30 years, it underwent an extensive renovation by BFI Video before being released here by independent U.S. distributor Mondo Macabro. The company is one of several new entities whose international focus on erotic horror has produced impressive results. Angela Pleasence (From Beyond the Grave) plays Helen, a fawn-like young woman drawn to the mansion for reasons that coincide with her only barely submerged lesbianism. She’s invited the much healthier looking blond beauty, Anne (Lorna Heilbron), to share a weekend filled with walking through the forest, rowing, cooking and, perhaps, some bedtime fun. Adding to the tension is groundskeeper Brady (Peter Vaughan), the kind of hulking presence who lurks behind trees along the pathway and outside kitchen windows at night. That the house is haunted, as well, by other things that go bump in the night – possibly including Helen’s former lover, Dora — becomes clear well before the storm cuts off the electricity for the first time. One needn’t possess a Ph.D. in gothic horror to know how things are going to play out in Symptoms. What sells Larraz’ film are the clinging comic-book atmospherics and his willingness to push the borders of exploitation delivered, at the time, by Hammer and AIP. If he appears to have been influenced by early Roman Polanski, Vicente Aranda, Jesús Franco and Belgian writer Thomas Owen, it can also be said that his work likely inspired an entire generation of suspense specialists, including Guillermo del Toro, Jaume Balagueró, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez. The special features add the 2011 documentary on Larraz, “On Vampyres and Other Symptoms”; “From Barcelona to Tunbridge Wells,” a 1999 TV documentary on Larraz, part of the “Eurotika!”; new interviews with stars Pleasence, Lorna Heilbron and editor Brian Smedley-Aston. The retail version of this release will be preceded by a limited, numbered version (500 copies only) with exclusive extras.

In a Lonely Place: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Stripped of any necessity to meet box-office expectations and tease awards prognosticators, some movies are allowed to mature over time like a fine wine so as to impress future generations of imbibers, er, viewers. It explains why lists compiled by critics every 10 years, or so, rarely match those of largest-grossing films, even those prorated for inflation. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is a terrific mid-century noir that works as a crime drama, romance and inside look at how Hollywood’s rank-and-file suffer drunkenly for their craft. Made outside the studio system by Humphrey Bogart’s independent Santana Productions, Andrew Solt’s script took liberties with Dorothy B. Hughes’ source novel, sharpening some edges while ignoring other conceits. Bogart delivers a terrific performance, but his character is very different than the one adapted from the book. Because Americans aren’t big on nuance, or keen on seeing their heroes portrayed in atypical ways, In a Lonely Place didn’t impress at the box office or blow away the critics. That would come later. Among many other accolades, it was added to the registry of the National Film Preservation Board 57 years after it was released. Neither did Ray’s personal odyssey, as reported in the fan mags and trades, lend positive buzz to the marketing campaign. Blessedly, the new Criterion Collection release can be enjoyed and studied completely divorced from complaints about the adaptation, gossip surrounding Ray and Gloria Grahame’s tempestuous marriage, Bogie’s advancing years and premature comparisons to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. If the production’s backstory remains fascinating, it’s the kind of stuff that’s best suited for preludes to airings on TCM.

Bogart is easily recognizable as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking and deeply unhappy screenwriter Dixon Steele, who, like everyone else in Hollywood, is desperate for an assignment that’s intellectually fulfilling and sells tickets, too. Dix resents the fact that he’s only been asked to hack out a workable screenplay from a trashy best-seller and keep his flashy embellishments to himself. He’s so alienated from the project that he recruits a hatcheck girl to come home with him one night to synopsize the plot, so he doesn’t have to read the book … really. Dix quickly tires of her presence and gives her some money and directions to the nearest cabstand. The next morning, he’ll be told that she was strangled and tossed out of a moving vehicle sometime during the night. Today, we’d say that Dix has serious rage issues and is off his meds, so anything’s possible. He doesn’t have an alibi or even a logical explanation as to why he’d pass up what appears to have been a sure thing. After being grilled in the local police station, Dix becomes acquainted with his next-door neighbor, Laurel Gray, who gives him the alibi he would need to go home. As played by blond bombshell Grahame, his neighbor possesses everything necessary to lower his defenses for a while. They become lovers, of course, but Dix’s tirades and paranoia over the open murder file not only become tiresome for Laurel, but dangerous, as well. The chemistry between them is incendiary and Ray, who would divorce Graham immediately after the production wrapped, milked every spark from it. The ending will keep first-time viewers and those only familiar with the novel guessing. The supplemental features include an original trailer; new video interview with writer and biographer Vincent Curcio; archival featurette with director Curtis Hanson; new audio commentary with film scholar Dana Polan; the archival documentary film “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

Sheep Skin

Compared to the number of movies about vampires and zombies extant, werewolves appear to be an endangered species. CGI effects have helped make the transformations from man to beast cheaper, easier and scarier, but keeping up with the Joneses requires money. Sheep Skin, Kurtis Spieler’s first feature, is said to have cost $25,000 and, yes, there are times when it looks as if they ran out of funds prematurely. Instead, he made the smart decision to go heavy on dialogue and save the wham-bam action and special effects for later. As such, there are plenty of times when Sheep Skin more closely resembles a revenge thriller than a horror flick. In it, a group of friends in a punk-rock band kidnap a horn-dog business man, Todd (Laurence Malleny), who they believe is actually a werewolf hiding in plain sight. The group leader’s sister was murdered on the same full-moon night she accepted a date with the married jerk. Other young women disappeared under similar circumstances, only to be found ripped apart in the cruelest way possible. After the suspect is lured away from his office by one of the women band members, he’s taken to a warehouse to confess to his transgressions or be beaten to a pulp. Unlike the solidarity of the kidnappers, Ted holds firm that he’s only flesh-and-blood. When his wife shows up to find out what he’s doing out so late, things get more than a little crazy. At 80 minutes, very little time is wasted in extraneous narrative. The beast on the cover arrives at the right time and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Sheep Skin was adapted from Spieler’s considerably different 2007 short film, which is included in the bonus package. It also offers a Werewolf Reference Guide, stills gallery, commentary, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurette and separate B&W version of the film.

Toyen

If there’s a word in the American vernacular misused as often as “awesome” and “iconic,” it has to be “surreal.” No one should be allowed to use it unless he or she is able to pick Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Joan Miro and René Magritte from a lineup of 20th Century artists. Being able to parse the difference between a tobacco pipe and a painting would suffice, as well. In Toyen, Jan Nemec pays homage to artist Marie Čermínová, who co-founded the Surrealist movement in her native Prague, survived the Nazis and the Communists, maintained artistic and personal relationships with artists Jindrich Heisler (whom she hid during WWII) and Jindrich Styrsky, and was an active member of the French Surrealist circle. In order to access the almost exclusively male modernist art world, Čermínová adopted the gender-neutral name, Toyen, while also creating paintings and drawings that were overtly erotic. Nemec’s essay captures much of Toyen’s style, including a belief that, “Surrealism becomes a remarkably good way to understand the Nazi Occupation and Communist eras.” Toyenmixes archival footage with re-enactments, poems by Toyen, Heisler and Styrsky, and, according to Peter Hames, in “Czech and Slovak Cinema,” “a visual palette and soundscape that penetrate the interior life of this enigmatic and great artist.” While some familiarity with 20th Century artistic movements would increase a layperson’s appreciation of the film, a reminder of Nemec’s own contributions to the international cinema also add to the experience. Described as the enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave, Nemec came to prominence with his 1964 debut feature Diamonds of the Night, “a largely wordless tale of two boys who escape from a concentration camp,” which was followed by the Kafkaesque satire, A Report on the Party and the Guests, and the Surrealist triptych, Martyrs of Love. His critiques of authoritarian rule weren’t appreciated by the ruling Communist Party hacks and he was forbidden from making any more of them under their watch. Unlike fellow exile Miloš Forman, who would prosper in the west, Nemec found it difficult to work within the confines of traditional formats. He would return to filmmaking and teaching after the fall of the Iron Country. Co-written by Tereza Brdecková, Toyen didn’t find distribution in the U.S. until picked up by Facets Video, which released it on DVD a week after Nemec’s death, in Prague, at 79. The DVD includes bonus features relevant to the artist’s career and art.

Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman
Although the deaths of Nemec, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chantal Akerman didn’t receive quite the same amount of hyperbolic coverage as that of Prince and David Bowie – how could they? – they were duly noted in major newspapers and in appreciations published in other dedicated forums. Of the three, García Márquez maintained the highest profile outside South America and Europe, if only because he won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, which rarely is a guarantee of fame and fortune. The Colombian novelist, short-story writer, film critic, screenwriter, journalist and statesman’s legacy includes the universally admired and widely translated “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” (1967), “The Autumn of the Patriarch” (1975) and “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985). Not only were they acclaimed by critics, but they also were greeted with commercial success. Among other attributes, they popularized the literary style, “magical realism,” which injects supernatural elements and events into otherwise ordinary scenarios. Justin Webster’s highly accessible Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez does a very nice job defining the people, places and things that shaped a simple country boy’s journey from the “banana republic” of Aracataca – the basis for the fictional village, Macondo – and on to Barranquilla, Bogota, Barcelona, Havana, New York, Paris, Oslo and beyond. The influence of “solitude” in his work is traced to his parents’ near-abandonment of the boy when they left Aracataca for Barranquilla and left him with his maternal grandparents. They would introduce him to the art of storytelling and, yes, ice: a “miracle” found at the United Fruit Company store. García Márquez’ non-literary achievements would find him at the forefront of his country’s political struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and a previously unknown role in negotiations between Cuban leader Fidel Castro and American President Bill Clinton. In addition to Clinton himself, the documentary includes the testimony of former Colombian president César Gaviria; writers Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza; journalists Enrique Santos, María Jimena Duzán and Xavi Ayén; New Yorker correspondent and author Jon Lee Anderson; biographer Gerald Martin; literary agent Carmen Balcells; and siblings Aída and Jaime García Márquez.

Since the death last October of Chantal Akerman, hardly a month has gone by without some new or restored DVD release carrying her name. Despite being distraught over her own mother’s death – she was a Holocaust survivor, living in Brussels — Akerman had been working on a couple of projects, including her conversations with Marianne Lambert in I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman. At a mere 68 minutes, the film couldn’t possibly do justice to the Akerman’s nearly 50 years making movies, teaching and traveling the world, which, in part, explains the title. Akerman considered herself to be a nomad, even though the ties to her mother remained long and taut. She shares with Lambert her cinematic trajectory – albeit in a nonlinear fashion – using clips from Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News From Home, The Rendez-Vous of Anna, Je, Tu, Il, Elle, South, From The East, From The Other Side, Là-Bas and last year’s No Home Movie. (Some newly reissued or collected in boxed sets.) With her editor and long-time collaborator, Claire Atherton, Akerman examines the origins of her film language and aesthetic stance. It’s pretty heady stuff, but nothing someone interested in learning more about her career should find intimidating.

TV-to-DVD

BBC/A&E: War and Peace: Blu-ray
Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops
Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Season One
Newhart: The Complete Fifth Season
PBS: Ecuador: The Royal Tour
PBS: NOVA: Iceman Reborn
PBS: Yoga for the Rest of Us: Easy Yoga for Diabetes
Nickelodeon: Bubble Guppies: Fun on the Farm
Like most people who claim to be well-read, I’ve never finished “War and Peace,” a novel considered essential by many scholars and librarians. At a length of more than 1,000 pages, there’s a very good chance that I won’t get to it again in my lifetime. I don’t say that with any sense of pride, arrogance or xenophobia, however. In some ways, I greeted the prospect of watching the 354-minute BBC/Weinstein mini-series, “War and Peace,” with the same degree of trepidation. But, watch it, I did … in two sittings. While there’s no doubt on my part that I missed almost all of the key literary nuances and subtexts invested in the story by Tolstoy, I took away plenty of worthwhile things, perhaps, even, a desire to tackle the novel on a long vacation. As adapted by the reigning king of British prime-time soaps, Andrew Davies (“Mr Selfridge,” “House of Cards”) and directed by relative newcomer Tom Harper (“Peaky Blinders”), this “War and Peace” offers concessions to easily distracted viewers, without sacrificing the major themes or shortchanging the characters. The fine Anglo-American cast includes Paul Dano, as Pierre; James Norton, as Andrei; Lily James, as Natasha; Tuppence Middleton, as Helene; and, in other prominent roles, Greta Scacchi, Jack Lowden, Aisling Loftus, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Rea, Chloe Pirrie, Gillian Anderson and Brian Cox. There are dozens more, of course. We meet most of them in St. Petersburg, circa 1805, as the young officers prepare to join Austria in its crusade to stop Napoleon from taking control of Europe. They settle for a temporary non-aggression pact the older soldiers know won’t satisfy the pip-squeak potentate. The lull does give the young aristocrats a chance to polish their brass buttons, take dancing lessons and find suitable partners for a lifetime of luxury. The war proves cruel for everyone involved, however, especially the French lured to Moscow like a doomed mouse to the cheese in a trap. I don’t know if Tolstoy maintained a 50/50 balance between war and peace, but, here, I’d say the balance is tilted slightly in favor of romance and other palace intrigue, which, for the purposes of the medium, is OK. Some people might be curious about Dano’s casting as the idealistic Pierre, the illegitimate son of Russia’s richest man, but, finally, a real mensch. They might want to check out his work in Youth, Love & Mercy, Looper and 12 Years a Slave before passing judgment. The Brits, of course, appear to be of the manor born. The bonus features are short and insufficient to any understanding of the production challenges, but, after six hours of binge viewing, they’ll do: “From Page to Screen,” with writer Andrew Davies expanding on key parts of the writing process, including stage directions, and Tom Harper discussing staging the production; “The Read Through,” an inside look at the first stage of creating chemistry among cast members; “Making the Music,” with Michael Garvey, director of music, composer Martin Phipps and Andrew Skeet, orchestrator and conductor; “Count Rostov’s Dance,” in which choreographer Diana Scrivener and actor Adrian Edmondson quickly recall a captivating dance scene from the program; “Rundale Palace,” which examines the locations’ historical highlights; and “What Is War & Peace?,” another quick, playful piece in which the cast offers a few thoughts on what the story has to offer.

There’s something terribly sad buried deep within the levity on the surface of the shows featured in Time Life/WEA’s “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops.” The smiling faces in the audiences aren’t at all dissimilar to those seen in 50 years’ worth of the beloved entertainer’s previously broadcast Christmas specials. The entertainers seem genuinely pleased to be in Hope’s company, whether they’re performing to full houses on bases a half-world away from the shit or others only a few klicks from the DMZ’s in Korea and Vietnam. The DVD features three specials, two from the Vietnam era and a never-before-released 1951 special from Korea. Although Hope takes some shots at the pace of the Paris peace talks, only a single question from a soldier reveals the hostility we’ve been told greeted the entertainer as the Vietnam war dragged on and men died unnecessarily. The years, 1970 and 1971, were still pretty hot, despite President Nixon’s occasional pullouts and ceasefires. In a very real sense, though, it’s hard to look at the faces in the crowds and not see the ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come. Too many of them wouldn’t be coming home. Then, too, we’ve since watched a USO show go terribly wrong in Apocalypse Now andApocalypse Now Redux, in which the fate of the Playboy Bunnies is dramatized in the aftermath of the chaotic liftoff. “Bob Hope: Entertaining the Troops” encourages us to take the shows at face value, though. As corny as the jokes are, we laugh at them along with the audience members, who’d been deprived of any kind of television for months. There was no scarcity of skin mags in Vietnam, but the guys still go ape at the sight of Connie Stevens, Ursula Andress, the Golddiggers and various Miss Universes to which they’re introduced from the stage. It’s almost quaint. Most poignant are the shots of wounded soldiers carried to the shows on stretchers, while the cigar-chomping brass lounged nearby on cushioned chairs. The stops weren’t limited to war zones, though, as Hope made sure the men and women in far-flung bases and ships were entertained, as well. The 1951 special takes place on an aircraft carrier not far from the fighting in Korea. In its wisdom or lack thereof, the government had disbanded the USO after WWII due to lack of funds, but Secretary of Defense George Marshall and Secretary of the Navy Francis P. Matthews requested that the USO be reactivated to serve the troops in the soon-to-be-hellish conflict. It’s worth mentioning that the USO continues to provide entertainment for troops around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2009, Stephen Colbert performed the last episode of weeklong taping of “The Colbert Report,” carrying a golf club on stage and dedicating it to Bob Hope’s service for the USO.

Shout! Kids Factory and Hasbro Studios have combined once again to bring the well-travelled characters from “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” to DVD. The 26 episodes of Season One lead off with a Cybertronian prison ship filled with Decepticons crash landing and unleashing its prisoners on Earth. Bumblebee returns to the planet he once called home and, with Strongarm, Sideswipe, Fixit and Grimlock, tracks the escapees down, in order to bring them to justice. Along with their new human allies, Denny and Russell, this unlikely team of robots in disguise must protect the Earth while preparing for an ominous threat suited only for a Prime. The DVD includes all 26 episodes and bonus features of the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con International Panel, featurettes and animated shorts.

Comedy legend Bob Newhart returns as harried innkeeper Dick Loudon for a fifth season of “Newhart,” alongside his lovely, forever sweater-clad wife Joanna (Mary Frann) and such off-kilter friends and colleagues as handyman George (Tom Poston), yuppie-in-training Michael (Peter Scolari), spoiled and sassy Stephanie (Julia Duffy) and wacky brothers Larry (William Sanderson), Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) Darryl (John Voldstad). Only a comic genius could pull off even half of the off-the-wall setups for the 24 episodes included in the new package and it has three more seasons to go.

PBS’ “Ecuador: The Royal Tour,” represents the seventh in a series of “ultimate” or “royal” tours of countries conducted by seasoned host Peter S. Greenberg … 8½, if you count “Mexico: Mucho Mas” and “Maria Shriver’s California.” As the titles suggest, Greenberg is given extraordinary access to off-the-beaten path destination and clear sailing through crowded tourist spots and markets. If the schmoozing wears thin after a while, it pays off in treatment most of us could never hope to expect, including transportation to far-flung places by private jets, helicopters and sponsored vehicles. President of Ecuador Rafael Correa rolled out the red, green and liquid carpet for Greenberg as they swam with piranha in the Amazon rainforest, went whale watching off the coast of Manta, shopped like locals in a rural market in the Andes, returned to the President’s hometown of Guayaquil and the school he attended, visited a cacao plantation and went diving with sharks in the Galápagos Islands. Previous destinationsin the series included Jordan, New Zealand, Israel, Mexico, Peru and Jamaica.

Armed with the latest 3D modeling tools, “NOVA” returns to the scene of world’s oldest known murder mystery in “Iceman Reborn” Since the discovery of Otzi’s mummified corpse was discovered by hikers in 1991, PBS has established a beach head when it comes to his case and those of similar finds in Egypt, the Andes, Bronze Age bogs and Washington State. The Iceman found on a barren pass in Italian Alps, has been poked, prodded, drilled, detailed and re-frozen to the point where you’d think there was nothing left for the imagination. The latest modeling technology allows for the creation of a virtual clone, reborn with resin, clay and paint under the supervision of artist and paleo-sculptor Gary Staab. We also are made privy to new revelations about Otzi’s life and legacy, including surprising secrets hidden in his genetic code.

In PBS’ “Yoga for the Rest of Us: Easy Yoga for Diabetes,” veteran instructor Peggy Cappy demonstrates her signature approach in a daily workout for people struggling with diabetes or pre-diabetes. The disc is divided into seven separate segments, with exercises that can be performed at home, all at once in just over an hour, or a segment at a time. Contrary to what some yoga fanatics argue, the exercise discipline isn’t a sure-fire cure-all. People living with diabetes are strongly advised to observe dietary restrictions. Other installments in the “Yoga for the Rest of Us” focus on arthritis, pain management and the heart. The bonus features emphasize circulation, breathing and diet.

The new collection of “Bubble Guppies” episodes, “Fun on the Farm,” invite young viewers to join the stars as they explore the world of farming and meet new animal friends, such Bubble Kitty and Spring Chicken. Kids can also join in exciting farm events like the Cowgirl Parade. The five episodes collected “Fun on the Farm” are “Have A Cow,” “The Bubble Bee-Athalon,” the “Bubble Kitty!” episode “Whiskers & Paws,” the “Spring Chicken Is Coming” episode of “Springtime Adventures” and the “Cowgirl Parade” of “Rootin’ Tootin’ Wild West.”

42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 16

I suppose there are tens of thousands of these things lying around in warehouses and garages around New York and New Jersey, just waiting to be discovered, re-tooled and re-distributed to folks who’ve never dropped a token into a slot in a peep-show gallery. According to “porn archeologist” Dimitrios Otis, Vancouver’s Movieland Arcade may be the last place in North America, at least, that still provides booths for pervs to enjoy 8mm and 16mm loops, as God intended them to be shown. To call the ones shown in 42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 16 old-fashioned is akin to saying Pong is an old-school video game. And, yet, here are 15 more “classic” loops – Volume 16, to be exact — with such recognizable stars as Linda Shaw, Lisa DeLeeuw, Erica Boyer, Marlene Willoughby, John Holmes and the ageless Ron Jeremy, which suggests that some of the titles may be as recent as 1978, at the dawn of the VHS revolution.

The DVD Wrapup: East Side Sushi, Glassland, Scherzo Diabolico, The Club, Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and more

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

East Side Sushi

Every 10 years or so, the media get on their high horse about the lack of diversity in Hollywood – usually, vis a vis that season’s minority-free Oscar nominations – without also pointing out the scarcity of black, brown, red and yellow faces on magazine covers and photos attached to puff pieces in newspaper feature sections. Given the choice between another profile of Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman or George Clooney and interviewing a lesser-known actor of color, editors will always go with the overexposed money shot … as in, a publicist-approved, photo-shopped photograph that looks great on a magazine rack at CVS. Anthony Lucero’s delightful foodie dramedy East Side Sushi has everything that columnists and other opinion makers said was missing in the nominations. Sadly, like too many other critically blessed indies, it arrives in DVD virtually undistributed and barely recognized outside the festival circuit. In it, when single mom Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) finally comes to the conclusion that wheeling the family-owned fruit-vending cart around the mean streets of Oakland is a dead-end gig, she offers her considerable slicing-and-dicing skills to a local sushi restaurant advertising for help. While the premise lends itself to all sorts of potentially offensive culture-clash humor, Lucero cleverly avoids the cheap shots and other obvious stuff, in favor of a heart-warming human-interest story with plenty of laughs for a PG audience and just enough bite to keep grown-ups entertained. Neither is the narrative trajectory obvious. Having developed an interest in sushi preparation watching foodie shows on cable, Juana arrives at the Osaka Japanese Restaurant in downtown Oakland already primed to succeed. Although relegated to the kitchen behind the curtains leading to the counter, she’s a quick study, filling in for absent employees and always asking the right questions while stirring the rice. Nonetheless, while impressing her fellow chefs, Juana knows it will take more than talent to convince the owner and his wife of her value to them in a counter-chef position. And, yes, their reticence can be blamed on the fact that she’s a non-Asian woman. They run a “traditional” operation and don’t want to risk alienating any of their regular customers.

At home, Juana’s elderly father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) becomes her unwilling guinea pig when it comes to practicing the preparation of sushi at home. He prefers his leftover fish grilled or pan-fried and accompanied by jalapeño peppers. Her daughter (Kaya Jade Aguirre) enjoys helping mom in the kitchen, but her learning curve when it comes to raw fish is fairly steep, as well. To compensate, Juana creates foods that merge Japanese and Mexican tastes, without compromising either. Still, the restaurant owner (Roji Oyama) balks at putting her out front with the male chefs. To win them over, she enters a “Top Chef”-style competition, with her fusion concepts. The contest organizers love her “green diablo roll” (with a poblano pepper substituting for seaweed), but, like her boss, are stunned to learn she’s of the female persuasion. Unwilling to risk a legal challenge, she’s pitted against three male chefs, with her dad and daughter serving as her assistants. Back at the Osaka, the televised competition is monitored by the still-skeptical boss and the chefs – one of whom (Yutaka Takeuchi) has been especially supportive — who quietly pull for Juana. It doesn’t go exactly as Hollywood clichés would demand, but everything that follows is logical and satisfying. In addition to excellent acting, Marty Rosenberg’s cinematography makes the sushi look consistently mouthwatering. East Side Sushi may not carry the weight of a potential nominee for an Oscar or a Spirit nomination, but it succeeds nicely as an entertainment that can be enjoyed by teens and adults. The blend of ethnic elements is as natural and unforced as the Juana’s prize recipes. It reminds me favorably of the underappreciated rom/com/dram The Ramen Girl, in which Brittany Murphy played a fish out of water in Tokyo. Predictably, that wonderful picture went straight-to-DVD, too. Need I mention that the casts for both pictures are predominantly non-white? TheEast Side Sushi DVD adds a pair of deleted scenes, as well as featurettes “Behind the Sushi” and “Behind the Music.”

Glassland

Sydney native Toni Collette has been impressing international audiences and critics ever since her breakthrough performance in Muriel’s Wedding, in 1994. Between then and her riveting portrayal of an alcoholic mother in the intense Irish drama Glassland, she’s appeared in such disparate entertainments as Cosi,Emma, Velvet Goldmine, 8 1/2 Women, The Sixth Sense, Shaft, The Hours, Little Miss Sunshine, The Dead Girl, Hitchcock, Fright Night,Krampus and, of course, Showtime’s The United States of Tara. In that series, Collette played a homemaker with dissociative identity disorder and a dysfunctional family. That’s tough. Irish filmmaker Gerard Barrett (Pilgrim Hill) elicits another dynamite performance from Collette as a mother, Jean, whose husband moved on after she gave birth to a child with Down syndrome. For her part, Jean rejected the boy entirely, referring to him as a monster and immediately sinking into an alcoholic stupor. The only time she shows any signs of life is when she’s in the non-blackout phase of her drunkenness. If it weren’t for her first-born son, John (Jack Reynor), Jean probably would have frozen to death in a doorway years earlier. As it is, he’s grown weary of searching for her when she’s on a bender and cleaning up after her after she gets sick or begins to destroy dishes. John makes a few pounds driving taxi cab around Dublin and, in an undernourished narrative thread, transporting the occasional Asian sex slave for a local pimp. Finally, at wit’s end, John demands that his mother enter a rehab program neither of them can afford. To help pay for it, he makes a decision he could live to regret. Although we care for Jean and pull for her recovery – Collette’s performance demands it of us – it’s John we pity. Unlike his closest friend in the housing project, the young man has enjoyed none of the benefits of growing up in any normal way. When he isn’t babysitting his mother, he’s trying to make life as easy as possible for the institutionalized brother. There’s almost nothing new or surprising in Glassland, including another exceptional performance by Collette. Rising star Reynor (Macbeth, Transformers: Age of Extinction) is also quite good in a difficult role, and their interaction, at least, is worth the price of a rental.  Bonus content includes interviews with the director and actors Jack Raynor and Will Poulter; the short film, “Aïssa,” about a young Congolese women desperate to establish residence in France; and director’s statement.

Scherzo Diabolico

This twisted little kidnap/revenge thriller from Mexico should surprise even those genre buffs who think they’ve seen everything when it comes to table-turners. If Adrián García Bogliano’s Scherzo Diabolico begins slowly, there are times when it almost careens off its tracks like a speeding locomotive. In this, the movie resembles French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan’s titular Scherzo Diabolico Op. 39 no. 3, an étude designed to burrow as insidiously into the mind of viewers as it does in that of the victim. Francisco Barreiro, who previously worked with Bogliano in Here Comes the Devil, stars as Aram, a failed pianist who has been emotionally trampled by his professional and personal life. The mild-mannered functionary finally snaps after being passed over for the promotion he deserves and his shrewish wife expected him to get. To assuage his rage and frustration, Aram methodically times and tracks his boss’ daughter as she makes her way to and from school and other appointments. His idea is to abduct the girl and keep her chained to a pole in an abandoned warehouse outside Mexico City. To maintain his anonymity, Aram wears a skull mask and maintains a safe distance from his victim (Daniela Soto Vell), even when he’s photographing her for the ransom demand. Ironically, the kidnapping does such a number on his boss’ head that he’s forced to resign and Aram is promoted to the position he felt he deserved all along. Not only does this make his life easier at home, but it also allows him to promote the woman with whom he’s been carrying on an office affair. Curiously, Aram decides to free the girl from bondage, without any exchange of money. The police are baffled by the case and the girl is so traumatized that she can barely function. In a very neat twist, Aram seals his own fate when he bumps into his former boss on the street and gives him a tape of music he believes will soothe him. Instead, it sets off a series of events almost true gruesome to watch. As awful as they are, though, the brutality is designed to press Bogliano’s crescendo of unexpected twists. Composer and sound designer Sealtiel Alatriste contributes to the tension by adding his own ideas to the titular étude. As novel as it is, Scherzo Diabolico definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. The bonus features include commentaries, interviews and a music video.

The Club: Blu-ray

Instead of defrocking priests who’ve disgraced the Church and turning them over to the police, in its infinite and infallible wisdom the Vatican has chosen to punish them in ways that have allowed them to continue abusing children or sent them off to cushy retreats to ponder their crimes … or ignore them, as the case may be. In doing so, Church officials have spit in the eyes of aggrieved parishioners and continued to put children in harm’s way. Such blatant hypocrisy has caused otherwise devout Catholics to find other paths to worship and wonder why the commandments only apply to the unordained masses. Pablo Larraín’s theological drama, The Club, deals directly with some of the toughest questions faced by the clergy, their victims and Vatican officials, charged with separating the good priests from the bad. In it, four priests and a nun live together in a secluded house in the small Chilean fishing village of La Boca. It would be an idyllic setting, if it weren’t for the fact that the priests have been forbidden any meaningful communication with the community and the villagers can’t survey the cliffs overlooking the ocean without being reminded of the presence of the largely undisciplined inhabitants. Their crimes range from pedophilia and political corruption, to selling babies under the noses of their unwed mothers. One, who worked as chaplain in the fascist military of Augusto Pinochet, was tasked with convincing assassins, kidnappers and torturers that a timely confession would cleanse their souls of guilt and they’d be as welcome in heaven as Mother Teresa. It isn’t until a guilt-ridden priest, Father Lazcano (Jose Soza), shows up to join them that the atmosphere begins to change. Instead of being allowed to agonize in private – or not – Lazcano is followed to La Boca by a raving drifter, Sandokan (Roberto Farias), who accuses the Father of sexually molesting him. He stands outside the house loudly reciting the hideous acts for all to hear. When the other priests tire of this intrusion, Lazcano is handed a gun intended to convince the stranger to leave. Instead, he blows his brains out in the yard.

The suicide causes such a commotion with the Church that the Vatican assigns a special representative, Father Garcia (Marcel Alonso), to remind the residents of the debt they owe the Church, if not their victims, and their responsibility to repent in a far more Spartan environment than one that doesn’t include wine with home-cooked meals and training a racing greyhound for local contests. In fact, though, none of the priests or nun feel in particularly repentant moods. They’ve all figured out ways to forgive themselves and resent the implication that an outsider is capable of judging them. Nonetheless, the suicide does trigger a series of events, some darkly humorous, that implicates some of the residents in a scheme that eventually prompts the villagers to redirect their hostility to an innocent man. Because it’s so well acted, The Club compels viewers to remain with it, even after the transgressions are fully revealed. American audiences already have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of pedophilia in the priesthood, of course. By incorporating the sins of church and state into the discussions, Larraín asks questions that were raised in The Magdalene Sisters and movies about the Vatican’s alleged complicity in the Holocaust and Ratlines that allowed Nazis to escape persecutions after the war. (Feel free to add the allegations of corruption made in Godfather III.) The Club also benefits from the moody cinematography of Sergio Armstrong and empathetic compositions of Carlos Cabezas. Other Chilean films that demonstrate the country’s place in the international cinema include Larraín’s No, Tony Manero and Post Mortem, Andrés Wood’sMachuca and Loco Fever; Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light andSalvador Allende, Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, Matías Bize’s En la cama and Sebastián Silva’s The Maid and Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus. The bonus features add astute commentary by actors Alfrado Castro and Antonia Zegers; interviews with Larrain and Zegers; an excerpt from a press conference at the Berlinale festival; and a booklet featuring cast and crew interviews and an essay by Jessica Kiang

Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre: Blu-ray

Helga: She Wolf of Stilberg

Sometimes, I feel as if more attention is paid to the creation of titles for Syfy exploitation flicks than to the scripts, acting, special effects, cinematography and casting. At first glance, that would appear to be the case with Jim Wynorski’s wonderfully named, if dreadfully executed Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, which suggests genre-creep of the most egregious variety. Is it a women-in-prison picture crossed with a creature feature or something else entirely? Given that Wynorski’s been making low-budget quickies since 1984 — from Chopping Mall to the as yet unseen CobraGator – you might think he’d simply cast a couple of B-minus or C-plus actors in the lead and surround them with unknowns, reserving the bulk of the budget for effects and catering. Dominique Swain, who used up most of her 15 minutes of fame in 1997, as the nymphet in Adrian Lyne’s controversial adaptation of Lolita, easily qualifies as the former. With sexploitation stars as Traci Lords, Christine Nguyen and Cindy Lucas also on board, however, some fans of the WIP subgenre might hope for the days when the presence of a Pam Grier, Linda Blair, Sybil Danning or Barbara Steele assured them of a decent shower scene, at least. No such luck in a Syfy original, though, unless a separate version was cut for more worldly audiences overseas. As the modern environmental-disaster movies dictates, uncontrolled fracking has caused the plates under some swampy Southern wasteland to shift, allowing a prehistoric fresh-water shark to escape from the depths. With uncanny accuracy, the shark or sharks sense the presence of large-bosomed convicts forced to labor in the swamps and gulp them up almost instantly. When a shark runs out of navigable water, it is able to burrow through the muddy earth at a great speed. It becomes a landshark. The rest of the movie is spent luring the beast to explosive charges hidden around attractive targets. It would be nice to report that the shark displays greater range than the actors, but, alas, it isn’t the case. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Wynorski and actresses Cindy Lucas (Piranhaconda) and Amy Holt (Dinocroc vs. Supergator). There’s also a photo gallery.

Apparently, “Helga, la louve de Stilberg” (a.k.a., Helga, She Wolf of Spilberg) is making its first appearance on our shores, since being released in Europe in 1977. It was, of course, the French response to the series of “Ilsa” S&M epics, which began three years earlier with Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and ended withIlsa, The Tigress of Siberia, with the formidable Dyanne Thorne reprising her role in the various sequels and spinoffs. Unlike Ilsa, Malisa Longo’s Helga is the sadistic enforcer for a generic collection of fascists residing in a castle in an anonymous country somewhere in South America. The dungeon houses a dozen or so female political prisoners, all whom are routinely whipped and forced to provide sexual favors at Helga’s whim. Her most valuable catch and potentially greatest threat to her reign arrives in the form of the rebel leader’s daughter, Elisabeth (Patrizia Gori). What the story lacks in production values, acting and writing is more than compensated for in full-frontal nudity and other sexploitation essentials. The DVD isn’t in very good shape, but I’ve seen worse.

Mojin: The Lost Legend: Blu-ray

Chinese filmmakers have no need to borrow action characters from American movies, but it’s difficult not to speculate on the resemblance to Indiana Jones and Lara Croft in the tomb-raiding adventure, Mojin: The Lost Legend. Based on a best-selling series of Internet novels, which last year spawned two unrelated cinematic adventures, it stars Shu Qi, Chen Kun, Angelababy and Huang Bo as a team of modern grave robbers laying low in New York’s Chinatown to avoid laws that frown on such widespread practices. An offer from a mysterious stranger tempts them into one last heist, involving an ancient Mongolian pendant said to have supernatural powers, as well as the protection of ancient spirits. The degree of difficulty attached to the heist is confirmed by the many skeletons of Japanese soldiers who died attempting to steal it. It isn’t an impossible quest, really, but the spirits have to be in a generous mood.  Even so, the team is required to overcome several difficult obstacles, including zombies. If one doesn’t allow references to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution to slow down the proceedings, “Mojin” can be a lot of fun. If some of the effects look as if they’d be nice to experience in 3D, it’s only because that’s how the movie was shown in China. It must have helped Wuershan’s fantasy-adventure gross $1.6 billion in mainland theaters in less than a month. The Blu-ray extras include a making-of and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party

Anyone who sees the Wolfe Video logo on the DVD package for Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party and expects it to be a story primarily of interest to gay viewers, is going to be surprised … not disappointed necessarily, but curious as to how it came to be. Structurally, at least, it resembles Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party, in that a large group of friends gather at a lovely house with a large swimming pool to mark a milestone in their hosts’ marriage. As the guests grow drunker and higher, secrets and yearnings come to the fore. Chicago filmmaker/actor Stephen Cone’s film is populated with young characters who continue to struggle with the ramifications of coming of age physically and adults for whom the transition to middle age is bringing unexpected challenges. Sobriety, or lack thereof, is employed as a comic device, more than anything else. Cole Doman couldn’t have been a better choice to play Henry, the birthday boy and son of an evangelical minister, whose wife has recently experienced a moral crisis. Most of the teenagers are friends from school, church or summer bible camp. They represent a large cross-section of suburban Christian youth, ranging from conservative to laissez-faire. The same applies to the parents. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we sense Henry’s sexual orientation before he’s willing to commit to it. Cone is in no hurry to force anything on him or open doors that weren’t already cracked. Neither is the angst reserved for Henry and his parents. Being half-naked in and around a swimming pool does wonders not only for the libido, but also for framing the escalating degrees of melodrama. And, what would a party be without a few laughs. Henry Gamble’s Birthday Partyhas plenty of them. What I liked most is Cone’s natural pacing and taking the characters’ beliefs and quandaries at face value. If the picture has an agenda, it’s to demonstrate that not all evangelicals are cut from the same cloth and having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t preclude having a good time outside church or being gay. Pat Healy (Magnolia) and Elizabeth Laidlaw (“Boss”) are especially good as Henry’s parents.

Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records: Blu-ray

The electrified blues may one of Chicago’s greatest gifts to American culture, but, like so many other endangered species, it’s had to struggle to survive. If the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds and the original Fleetwood Mac hadn’t championed the hochie-coochie music from Chicago’s south and west sides, American bands might not have found the roots of their musical heritage. Nor would such amazing musicians as Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Jimmy Rogers, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy have gained inroads into predominantly white concerts halls, campus theaters and nightclubs, sometimes even collecting royalties from the Brits who borrowed from their songbooks. After the first and second waves of the British invasion turned to foam on the shores of Lake Michigan, it became incumbent on small record labels and nightclubs dedicated specifically to the blues to keep the flames burning. Among the first was Bob Koester’s Delmark, which specialized in jazz and blues, and Bruce Iglauer’s Alligator Records, both of which are still in business and represented in Robert Mugge’s Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, newly re-released in Blu-ray. (Arhoolie Records of El Cerrito, California, focused more on down-home roots music.) “Pride and Joy” was made in 1992, a year after he completed Deep Blues, about the blues traditions of Mississippi. In celebration of the label turning 20, Iglauer had organized an anniversary tour starring Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine, Elvin Bishop, Katie Webster, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials and the Lonnie Brooks Blues Band. Pride and Joy presents musical highlights from one of the four-plus-hour concerts, as well as interviews with Iglauer, Koester and the artists. The documentary has been transferred to high-definition from the original 16mm film and lovingly restored. It adds interviews and additional concert material.

Top Gun: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition: Blu-ray

The caveat that applies to Paramount’s new “Top Gun: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition” is that the only thing truly different here is the Steelbook packaging. So, it’s primarily of interest to completists and first-time buyers. I hadn’t watched Top Gun from start to finish for quite a while before putting the new release on my player. It holds up very well after three decades, both as entertainment and as a technical achievement. As a production team, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were about to embark on an unprecedented roll of success with mega-budget hits that, while not exactly formulaic, fit a certain template. The mix of action, adventure, romance, humor, tragedy, male bonding and rock music would work again and again in such films blockbusters asBeverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, Bad Boys, Crimson Tide and The Rock. (Simpson died in 1996, of heart failure). Tom Cruise, of course, had something to do with Top Gun’s success. The bonus features picked up from previous Blu-ray editions include commentary by Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, co-screenwriter Jack Epps Jr. and naval experts; the featurettes “Danger Zone: The Making of Top Gun,” “Best of the Best: Inside the Real Top Gun,” “Survival Training,” “Behind the Scenes”; interviews with Cruise; multi-angle storyboards with optional commentary by Scott; and music videos of “Danger Zone,” “Take My Breath Away,” “Heaven in Your Eyes” and “Top Gun Anthem.”

Ambrosia

Traditionally, immigrants to North America have found it difficult to carve niches in societies likely to treat them like outsiders, no matter how much their sweat, blood and tears have contributed to the common good of their adopted homes. Why should they be treated with any more kindness and dignity than that reserved for the Aboriginal people of the United States and Canada? That changed in the 1970s, when the immigrant class began to include potentates of the international drug and oil cartels, wealthy refugees from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime and Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan. They were required to sail past the Statue of Liberty before seeking ways to protect their nesteggs and families from being usurped by the newly capitalist PRC. Today, Saudi Arabian princes drag race through the streets of Beverly Hills and shop ’til they drop on Rodeo Drive and in Las Vegas. As far as the law is concerned, they’re untouchable. Meanwhile, Donald Trump wants to build a wall along our border with Mexico, ostensibly to keep out Spanish-speaking men and women who happily accept jobs Americans refuse to perform. Baharak Saeid Monir’s Ambrosia tells the story of an Iranian-Canadian couple, Ali and Leila, who dream of an exciting future in Vancouver. Ali (Camyar Chai) owns a pizza shop he hopes to expand into a franchise, while Leila wants to succeed as a designer of haute couture. We’re not supposed to think of Bravo’s “Shahs of Sunset” while watching Ambrosia, but’s difficult not to contrast the “reality” of the show to the unreal conceits of the movie. I’m sure, for instance, that there are transplanted Iranians who are struggling to make a go of things slinging pies for a living, I doubt that any of their wives resemble Sahar Biniaz, who represented Canada in the 2012 Miss Universe competition. Her character’s designs fit Biniaz’ 5-foot-8 frame like gloves worn to gala. Her thick raven hair practically defies description.

And, yet, Leila is condemned to balance her schoolwork with duties at the pizzeria. That is, until her teacher offers her a job at the high-end salon she runs with her lesbian lover. Both women (Heather Doerksen, Pauline Egan) could have given Biniaz a run for her money in the beauty contest. In the next 60-some minutes, Leila will be confronted with two moral dilemmas we needn’t dwell on here and Ali will have to decide if he can ask her to live in a motor home, at least until the economy picks up steam. The conceit here is to imagine Leila and, to a lesser degree, Ali, trapped in a cultural vice between traditional Islamic values and new-world decadence. Monir doesn’t require the protagonist to wear a headscarf while out in public and no one is required to disrobe, but Leila’s beliefs are sorely challenged. While this isn’t beyond the realm of possibility, such dilemmas are usually reserved for prime-time soaps and telenovelas. Ambrosia was shown at a couple of Iranian film festivals, where it paled compared to other representatives of the country’s excellent cinema. I don’t know where it will end up, certainly not Skinemax or whatever its equivalent might be in the Muslim world. To find a home in Bollywood, which supplies the same uptight countries with movies to exhibit, Ambrosia would require a dozen new production numbers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the actors in future projects, even those with fewer moral scruples. I can’t imagine it playing anywhere else, however, unless it’s on TV screen in the background of “Shahs of Sunset.”

Emelie: Blu-ray

Submerged: Blu-ray

The Mirror

Among the many rites of passage for new parents is the hiring of a babysitter and handing over responsibility for their children’s well-being, in some cases, to a stranger. In the movies, babysitters have been portrayed as heroes and villains, protagonists and antagonists. The tough part is predicting exactly when the distinction between good and evil is made abundantly clear and viewers are forced to take sides. In their first feature, Emelie, director Michael Thelin and writer Richard Raymond Harry Herbeck, leave the question hanging for a short time, before revealing that substitute babysitter, Emelie (Sarah Bolger), isn’t the benevolent guardian she appears to be. Our curiosity is piqued when Emelie wins over the youngest children by allowing them to draw on the walls and play crazy pretend games. The sullen older boy senses that things are completely out of whack when Emelie treats the kids to a cassette of their parents mimicking porn actors. Even so, her motivations remain cloudy for most of the movie’s brisk 80-minute length. Thelin does a nice job balancing the forces at work here, allowing big brother, Jacob (Joshua Rush), ample opportunity to take control of the situation, before Emelie rebounds in her effort to do … what, exactly? The parents aren’t given much to do, except being blissfully unaware of what’s going on at home. The spotlight belongs to Bolger (“The Tudors”) and Rush (“The Lion Guard”), whose dangerous game of cat-and-mouse rarely gets tiresome. If Emeliewon’t make anyone forget the scene in Curtis Hanson’s The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, in which the nanny played by Rebecca De Mornay begins breast-feeding the couple’s newborn child in an effort to make it her own, what could? The making-of featurette adds interviews with Thelin, Herbeck, the principal adult cast and several of the film’s producers.

Genre specialist Steven C. Miller (Automaton Transfusion) tries his best with writer Scott Milam’s claustrophobic closed-room thriller – here, a stretch limousine full of millennial scum at the bottom of a canal – that wastes far too much time outside the vehicle, explaining how the disco dogs and dollies ended up in such a predicament. The explanation takes longer to unfold than the time it takes for the limo to sink, leaving precious little time for viewers to feel claustrophobic. In the obviously titled Submerged, the car is being chased by a team of masked ninjas, intent on kidnapping Jesse (Talulah Riley), the daughter of a corrupt corporate mogul (Tim Daley). Jonathan Bennett (“Awkward”) plays a former Army Ranger, hired by the businessman to protect Jesse from creeps looking for ransom bait. All too conveniently, though, the limo has been tricked out to withstand all manner of attacks and prevent it from filling up with water too quickly and drowning the insufferable passengers. Submerged also stars Cody Christian (“Teen Wolf”), Rosa Salazar (“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”) Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City).

Based on allegedly real events, which apparently set certain quarters of the Internet atwitter, The Mirror dives into the deep end of found-footage flicks and almost fails to return to the surface. Three friends purchase a supposedly haunted mirror on eBay, with the intention of capturing proof of the paranormal on camera and winning a large financial prize from a vague online competition. The first sign of trouble occurs when one of the tenants begins to sleepwalk around the apartment, eventually grabbing a butcher’s knife and stalking a lone woman outside. The Mirror stars Jemma Dallender (I Spit on Your Grave 2), Joshua Dickinson and Nate Fallows.

TV-to-DVD

PBS: 10 That Changed America

Fox Kids: Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: The Complete Series

Nickelodeon: Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M. Vol. 2

PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Wild Animal Babies

This enticing compilation of episodes from PBS’ “10 That Changed America” series argues convincingly that all of what’s good in our country’s towns, parks, homes, churches office buildings can be traced to the genius of a few dozen architects, designers and visionaries. Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis H. Sullivan, Frank Gehry, Charles and Henry Greene, Charles and Ray Eames, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frederick Law Olmsted and Thomas Jefferson are appreciated, sometimes more than once. So, too, are the anonymous builders of the centuries-old Taos Pueblo and city of St. Augustine, Florida. Hosted by Geoffrey Baer, the tours are more of a whirlwind than a stroll in a park, but all of them should inspire family road trips and architecture tours. Some are a bit far out of the way. Others are a bus ride away. Don’t worry, you won’t be tested afterward.

Under the tutelage of Master Splinter, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo spent their formative years fighting their nemesis, Shredder, and his evil army, in the sewers of New York. In the 26-episode “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation: The Complete Series” the world inhabited by the live-action turtles is about to change. If you thought Shredder was bad, wait until you meet the newest TMNT foe: Dragon Lord. It will take all the power of the turtles to combat this new villain. This time around, though, they will have help from a female turtle named Venus De Milo. If fans can’t find it in the usual places, they might try Walmart. Bonus material includes the special “Power Rangers in Space” crossover episodes and a music video.

Nick’s “Let’s Learn: S.T.E.M. Vol 2” contains more than 140 minutes of S.T.E.M.-themed adventures with Blaze and the Monster Machines. The show is the first preschool series to comprehensively cover all areas of S.T.E.M. – science, tech, engineering, math — in every episode, as well as fan-favorites “Dora and Friends: Into the City,” “PAW Patrol” and “Team Umizoomi.” In addition to expanding imaginations and developing inquisitive minds, the DVD also comes with a themed worksheet to reinforce some of the lessons learned throughout the collection.

Wild Kratts: Wild Animal Babies” allows pre-schoolers to explore nature, discover amazing animals and meet wild animal babies. Join Martin Kratt and Chris Kratt as they learn about the unique ways young animals are raised and protected by their parents. In select adventures on this DVD, the crew helps an adorable (and destructive) baby elephant stay out of trouble, wrangle some playful lion cubs and more.

The DVD Wrapup: Son of Saul, Phoenix, Losing Ground, Jane Got a Gun, Driftless Area, Packed in a Trunk, Dillinger, Sexploitation, What?, Krampus and more

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Son of Saul: Blu-ray

Phoenix: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

As much as we’d like to put World War II in our rearview mirror and move on to less nightmarish film fodder, the sad truth is that we need constant reminders of what happened then and what could happen again, if hate is allowed to trump cries for peace and sanity. The sick legacy of Third Reich simply refuses to disappear into the fog of history, either in real life or in the movies. What’s amazing is that even 70 years after peace treaties were signed, ever more heart-wrenching stories continue to surface from the conflagration. How many more remain to be told is anyone’s guess. The concurrent release of Son of Saul and Phoenix on DVD/Blu-ray suggests that European historians, writers and filmmakers – the children and grandchildren of the silent generation — still have plenty to say on the subject. Hollywood studios didn’t waste any time lionizing the heroism of American troops in the service of the Allied cause. It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg put audiences directly in the line of fire, during the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan, that American audiences were forced to come to grips with the fact that John Wayne had died and no longer could shield us from the ugliness of combat. Outside the Soviet Union, where the Red Army’s triumphs were duly celebrated and atrocities ignored, European filmmakers struggled with ways to confront the reality of rampant of anti-Semitism and early appeal of fascism that allowed Nazi forces to cakewalk across borders. For too long, a dark shroud of guilt and shame kept artists from directly addressing the root causes Holocaust and the intricate machinery of death that served Hitler’s madness. Released in 1964, Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker was the first American movie to deal with the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a camp survivor. Typically, though, enforcers of the Production Code, the MPAA and Legion of Decency fretted more over the exposed breasts of two key characters than the good that could come from endorsing the distribution of a necessarily dark drama. It wasn’t until the 1970s, though, that non-documentary films and mini-series found audiences in large enough numbers to support a subgenre of war pictures dedicated to the Holocaust. In 1990, Polish director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa opened the door for movies that dealt with complex issues pertaining to ethnic identity and survival. Today, finding new ways to interest viewers in Holocaust-themed stories – even those involving doomed dissidents, homosexuals, Gypsies, Slavs and intellectuals — seemingly would be a difficult task for any filmmaker, especially in the long wake of Schindler’s List, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah and Oscar-winning Life Is Beautiful. Judging simply from such multifaceted European movies as Holland’s In Darkness, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s Sarah’s Key and Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters there are many more stories – albeit subtitled — out there to tell.

 

In addition to winning major prizes in nearly every competition in which it was entered – if only in the stopgap categories limited to foreign-language pictures — László Nemes’ breathtaking Holocaust drama, Son of Saul, probably deserved to capture the Academy Award for Best Picture or, at least, be nominated for it. That’s strictly my opinion, but I offer it after finally seeing all of the finalists on the big screen or on Blu-ray. They’re all excellent, but none compares to the wallop delivered by Son of Saul, which also is remarkable for its technical achievements and acting. The setting is Auschwitz-Birkenau, in October of 1944, as the Red Army is advancing on Germany with guns blazing and revenge on its collective mind. Unwilling to admit imminent defeat, Adolph Hitler has ordered the Gestapo to pick up the speed in transporting Jews to concentration camps. So many are being systematically murdered that the crematoriums can’t keep up with the volume and bodies are being stacked up in the open. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, the group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist the Nazis in the rounding up of new arrivals and directing them almost immediately to their deaths. While waiting for them to die, the prisoners were required to retrieve, sort and pile everything left behind by the doomed men, women and children. The Sonderkommandos weren’t exempt from death in the gas chamber, but the Nazis needed all the help they could get in expediting the process and pretending that hands other than Aryan were executing the dirtiest of deeds. Moreover, the cynical policy ensured that survivors would forever debate the morality of Jews serving the Nazis, even faced with death for disobedience, in such a hideous way. Despite the fact that many of the prisoners we meet here already consider themselves to be dead, the strongest among them conspire to sabotage the machinery and kill as many of the guards as they can before, if possible, rendezvousing with the advancing Soviets. Nemes based his story on testimony from camp survivors, repeated viewings of Shoah, and the “Scrolls of Auschwitz.” These were the diaries of members of the Sonderkommando, written and buried before they revolted.

 

Saul considers himself to be one of walking dead, going through the motions until it’s his turn to die. It isn’t until he discovers the body of a teenage boy, left barely breathing after everyone else in the chamber is dragged to the crematoriums, that something ignites a spark of reflection in his brain. Disturbed by what could be a glitch in the system, a German doctor orders Saul to transport the boy to an operating theater where he will be allowed to die in his own time – not long — and have an autopsy performed on him by another Jew forced to comply with the cruelest of commands. After learning that the boy is Hungarian, Saul decides that the boy is his illegitimate son and deserving of a religious burial. For this, he needs to find a rabbi among the multinational crush of prisoners and compel him to recite Kaddish over a single corpse, while ignoring so many others. His single-minded mission convinces Saul’s fellow prisoners that he’s completely mad, even in a place where all madness is relative. While they’re preoccupied with gathering the tools for their uprising and disguising them from the Nazis, as they continue to perform their tasks, Saul interrogates the newly arrived Jews to find a rabbi. Son of Saul, which takes place over the course of 36 hours, isn’t a story of survival or heroism. Instead, Nemes says that it’s about the reality of death and coming to terms with it. Even so, by tightly focusing on the faces, hands and whispered conversations of the living, rather than the dead and dying bodies in the slightly blurred background, the horrors of the gas chambers are almost blessedly muted. A student of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, a master of framing and long uninterrupted tracking shots, Nemes conspires with cinematographer Mátyás Erdély and sound designer Tamás Zányi to keep the viewer trapped in the immediacy of Saul’s world. The effect is mesmerizing. The drab color scheme argues, as well, that Auschwitz-Birkenau was a place the sun’s rays didn’t reach. Comprehensive, informative and sometimes philosophical commentary is contributed by Nemes, Röhrig, and Erdély. There’s also a deleted scene and a post-screening Q&A at the Museum of Tolerance, with the same participants. Admirers of Son of Saul should consider it to be required viewing.

 

German writer/director Christian Petzold takes a very different approach to his Holocaust-inspired, Phoenix, adopted from a novel by Hubert Monteilhet. Set in Berlin, in the early days of the Allied occupation, it measures the pain and guilt experienced by two women who never thought they’d survive, let alone return home. Before she was gathered up by the Gestapo, Nelly (Nina Hoss) was a nightclub singer in Berlin. Her souvenir from Auschwitz is a face disfigured by a bullet wound after its liberation. Travelling in the care of a protective friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), Nelly has inherited enough money from a deported family member to pay for a plastic surgery operation that she knows will make her a stranger to herself. After Nelly is completely healed and they get their affairs in order, the women plan to buy an apartment in Haifa and quit Germany for good. Before that, however, Nelly wants to reunite with her former husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who survived the war by ratting out her out, along with other Jewish friends. As the picture opens, however, she isn’t aware of the fact that it was his deceit that led the Gestapo to her. In a decidedly Hitchcock-inspired twist, Nelly’s reconstructed face allows her to sidle up to her onetime pianist, who’s employed as a janitor in the Phoenix cabaret, without recognizing her. Neither does Nelly reveal herself when Johnny enlists her in a plan to recover property confiscated from his wife after her arrest. This requires Johnny to teach his ex-wife how to act, walk and write as she did when they were together. The similarities give Johnny pause, but only momentarily. Such parasitic opportunists probably were as common in post-war Berlin as pigeons or rats. The more Nelly learns about Johnny’s backstabbing in her absence, the more we want to see her exact revenge on him. But, will she succumb to long-dormant romance … and, given the Hitchcockian plotting, how would she do it? Then, too, why aren’t Nelly and Lene already in Haifa? Even though, like Saul, they feel as if they’ve already died and are uncomfortable among the living, the payoff to these questions is very satisfying. Another thing that makes Phoenix special is re-creation of post-war Berlin, with special attention given to the nightclub, which now caters to GIs looking for a taste of the divine decadence forbidden by the Nazis. Personally, I was surprised not only that such places existed so soon after the war, but also that Nelly was confident that she’d recover wealth confiscated by the Nazis. In this, we probably know more about post-war Germany than a survivor possibly could. In addition to the Hitchcock touch, Petzold borrowed ideas from the Douglas Sirk playbook, Germany Year Zero and Out of the Past. Phoenix is the fifth out of his seven feature films to feature the wondrously talented Hoss and the second film in a row, after Barbara (2012), to star Hoss and Zehrfeld in the leading roles. Petzold won the FIPRESCI Prize at the San Sebastián International Film Festival and Hoss was voted top actress at several other events. The Criterion Collection package adds a conversation with Petzold and Hoss; an interview with cinematographer Hans Fromm; a making-of featurette; and an essay by critic Michael Koresky.

 

Losing Ground: Blu-ray

Founded in 1990, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller’s Milestone Films has received several prestigious awards for its restoration, preservation and release of such endangered and rarely seen movies as Alfred Hitchcock’s Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles, Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, Marcel Ophuls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, the Mariposa Film Group’s Word is Out, Shirley Clarke’s The Connection and Ornette: Made in America. In December, 2012, Milestone became the first-ever two-time winner of the New York Film Critics Circle’s Special Award, this time for its work in restoring, preserving and distributing the films of iconoclast Clarke, whose Portrait of Jason also was greeted warmly by collectors and buffs. The company’s latest reclamation project, Losing Ground, is being acclaimed for re-introducing filmmaker Kathleen Collins to a new generation of viewers, many of whom have grown accustomed to not seeing minority actors and themes represented on screen. The low-budget 1982 drama was one of the first features directed by an African-American woman. If it didn’t find distribution in the United States, the fault probably can be laid at the feet of distributors whose pre-conceived notions of what black audiences would pay to see was tilted toward Blaxploitation flicks and comedies with such popular stars as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Losing Ground reflects a completely different aspect of the African-American experience, then and now. Closer thematically to films of the French New Wave and intimate dramas of Ingmar Bergman and John Cassavetes, it profiles the marriage of a black philosophy professor (Seret Scott) at a New York college and an uncompromising abstract painter (Bill Gunn), who’s just sold his first piece to a major gallery. Although Sara is working on a paper about the “ecstatic experience” in religious rites, she’s as shy, sober and strait-laced as they come. By contrast, Victor is the kind of guy who wears his emotions on his sleeve and isn’t reluctant to push Sara into uncomfortable positions to share his exuberance. That summer, he convinces her to take a break from the city by joining him in a slightly rundown estate in an artists’ colony along the Hudson River in upstate New York. The quaint little town appears to be a magnet for Puerto Rican women and their families, seemingly on a full-time basis. If there’s nothing abstract in the scenery and faces available to Victor here, he’s reinvigorated by nature and colors that don’t come in geometric forms in the city. For her part, Sara would feel more comfortable in a town able to accommodate her needs for a library suited to her academic pursuits. (The Internet was a distant dream, if even that.) Not surprisingly, perhaps, Victor latches onto a young Puerto Rican neighbor, Celia (Maritza Rivera), who seemingly is the polar opposite of his wife and agrees to model for him. While Sara is in the city doing some research, she’s approached by a student who’s making a film that requires some dancing and dramatic displays of emotion. At first reluctant, Sara’s further encouraged by a dashing black actor, Duke (Duane Jones, star of the original Night of the Living Dead), who seems determined to bring out the blackness in her. They’re paired in a retelling of the “Frankie and Johnny” tragedy, which demands she let her hair down. Meanwhile, Victor’s attempting to stoke some of the Latin fire in Celia, both on canvas and over wine in the late afternoon and evenings, surrounded by old-growth trees.

 

Without going into detail, let’s just say that the tables eventually get turned on the Sara and Victor, in ways consistent with their characters’ personal trajectories and some narrative judo on Collins’ part, which provides a surprisingly satisfying ending. If Victor acts pretty much like any temporarily unattached and sexually frustrated man would in similar circumstances – or in an Eric Rohmer film, for that matter — Sara clearly is a stand-in for Collins, who was educated in France and became involved with SNCC in the civil-rights campaigns. She admits as much in the fascinating interview attached to the Blu-ray bonus package. This would be an appropriate time to point out that the filmmaker would succumb to cancer, in 1988, at age 46. The consistently challenging process of financing, producing and finding a distributor for Losing Ground must have taken its toll on her, especially when compared to her work in the theater and teaching at the college level. The Milestone package also contains her first film, the 50-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, which she based on episodes from “Cruz Chronicles,” a “novel of adventure and close calls” by Henry Roth. In it, three mischievous Puerto Rican lads find a summer job fixing up the once grand riverside home of an elderly stage actress. It takes a while for them warm to each other’s presence, as they share almost nothing in common. While the boys are directed by the practical, if ethereal advice of their dead father, Miss Malloy frequently gets lost in memories of a glorious past. It’s a lovely story, practically unseen since being made in 1980. Collins’ creative partner, cinematographer Ronald K. Gray, is represented by the 7-minute 1976 short, “Transmagnifican Dambamuality.” Lengthy interviews with Gray, playwright/actor Seret Scott and daughter, Nina Lopez Collins, add to the experience, as does a vintage 1982 interview with Kathleen Collins at Indiana University, in which the emphasis is on teaching.

 

Jane Got a Gun: Blu-ray

In Gavin O’Connor’s revisionist Western, Jane Got a Gun, wee Natalie Portman plays a frontier woman and former sex slave who calls on a onetime lover to help her save her daughter, homestead and severely wounded husband (Noah Emmerich) from a gang of revenge-minded gunmen led by Ewan McGregor. The ex-boyfriend, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), isn’t anxious to risk his life in what amounts to a suicide mission, but, knowing Jane will go it alone if necessary, he accepts the challenge. Set in scenic badlands of northern New Mexico, which could pass for 1865 B.C. if it had to, Jane Got a Gun was heavily influenced by the 1971 Western, Hannie Caulder, starring the physically more formidable Raquel Welch. In it, Welch plays the aggrieved widow who enlists a bounty hunter (Robert Culp) to teach her how to be a gunfighter. In both movies, the male lead is required to pull a trick out of his sleeve to balance what appear to be 20-to-1 odds against the protagonists. If all anyone requires is action and atmosphere in their Westerns, Jane Got a Gun shouldn’t disappoint. Beyond that, however, there’s nothing revolutionary here. I’d be surprised if Portman returns to the genre anytime soon, if only because the payoff rarely equals the investment in time, energy and money, anymore. As far as I’m concerned, the 2011 Oscar-winner can do whatever she wants … especially since she’s one of 30 names listed as one variety of producer or another. By 1971, Welch had already established herself as a sex symbol who wasn’t relegated to generic parts that required nothing more than unbuttoning her blouse. She was the primary drawing card in 100 Rifles and Bandolero! It would take another 20 years before women would be given top billing, even in revisionist and indie Westerns. Since then, we’ve seen The Ballad of Little Jo, Bad Girls, The Quick and the Dead, Meek’s Cutoff, The Homesman, Dead Man’s Burden and The Missing. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s portrayal of the doomed Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight is anything but typical. The problem, of course, is convincing audiences, especially women, to support Westerns in which female protagonists can hold their own in the blood-letting department. Jane Got a Gun ran into some serious problems during production, so, probably in consideration of budget constraints, there are no bonus features. The production values speak for themselves.

 

The Driftless Area

Burning Bodhi

It’s been seven years since Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt stole the hearts of indie audiences in the quirky, non-linear romance (500) Days of Summer. At the time, it was the irresistible 30-year-old’s most complete performance to date and a picture that made a bunch of money for Fox Searchlight. Instead of catching another big wave, Deschanel decided to take a chance on the wonderfully quirky Fox-TV series, “The New Girl,” which became an immediate hit in the most desirable demographics and turned her into a multi-platform star. That she’s stuck with the series all these years, without churning out a prestige picture or two during the hiatus periods, struck many observers as unusual. Instead, Deschanel focused whatever energy she had left on She & Him, the duo she formed with singer-songwriter M. Ward before (500) Days took off. In July, 2014, she gave birth to a daughter, Elsie Otter. She would appear in a few feature films – Our Idiot Brother, Your Highness and Rock the Casbah – but nothing to make anyone forget her earlier, more promising work. Along comes The Driftless Area, a very compelling neo-noir, which, for some reason, Sony has decided to launch on DVD and VOD. This, despite an ensemble cast that also includes Anton Yelchin, Aubrey Plaza, John Hawkes, Frank Langella, Alia Shawkat and Ciarán Hinds. Shot in B.C. and Wisconsin on what must have been a shoestring budget, co-writer/director Zachary Sluser adapted the story from Tom Drury’s 2006 novel. In it, a restless young man, Pierre (Yelchin) falls in love with a mysterious woman, Stella (Zooey Deschanel), who rescues him from a well, into which he fell while strolling through the countryside. Pierre had already been introduced to us in an ugly encounter he has with a local hoodlum (Hawkes) while hitchhiking home. A brief struggle leads to a potentially catastrophic event that drives the action for the next 90 minutes and adds a distinct air of magical realism to the proceedings. As his relationship with Stella deepens, Pierre is driven to engage in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the driver who assaulted him and, in a freak accident, was left for dead on the side of the highway. We’ll soon learn how the lives of all three of these characters intertwine in the most unusual of ways. I think The Driftless Area might have found a loyal audience in theaters if given the opportunity to create buzz and garner positive reviews. The DVD arrives with a decent making-of featurette.

 

Kaley Cuoco has been working in Hollywood, mostly on television, for 20 of her 30 years on the planet. Unlike Deschanel, the Camarillo native didn’t enjoy the luxury of garnering big-screen credentials before climbing on board “8 Simple Rules,” “Charmed” and the sitcom juggernaut that became “The Big Bang Theory.” Her character, Penny, represents a slight variation of the archetypal TV blond, whose lineage can be traced at least as far back as Elizabeth Montgomery on “Bewitched” and Barbara Eden on “I Dream of Jeannie.” Penny hasn’t been required to wear the dumb-blond yoke to play Penny, unless it was in the show’s early beauty-and-the-geeks period, as was the case for Goldie Hahn on “Laugh In,” Suzanne Somers in “Three’s Company” and Beth Behrs currently on “2 Broke Girls.” Nonetheless, when Cuoco was offered a non-comedic role in a contemporary ensemble piece, she didn’t have to think twice, even at small fraction of her $1 million/week salary on the “The Big Bang Theory.” In Matthew McDuffie’s indie drama, Burning Bodhi, Dylan (Landon Liboiron) finds out via Facebook that his best friend from high school, Bodhi, has died of an aneurysm. With no small degree of trepidation, he returns to Albuquerque to share in the grief generated by the deceased’s many friends. The former classmates struggle with the experience of confronting not only Bodhi’s sudden passing, but their own vulnerability to blind chance. Throughout their reunion, sticky feelings of love, longing and regret are stirred up in the characters – Cuoco, Sasha Pieterse, Cody Horn, Andy Buckley, Tatanka Means, Virginia Madsen, Meghann Fahy – whose lives he touched. As was the case in The Big Chill, they’ve all changed since going their separate ways after high school … or, not going anywhere at all, as the case may be. If Burning Bodhi couldn’t possibly make anyone forget Lawrence Kasdan’s Baby Boomer classic, it should please fans of the young actors, who, like Cuoco, are known far more for their work on television than on the big screen.

 

Packed in a Trunk

Anyone impressed by the 2013 American documentary Finding Vivian Maier, about the posthumous unlocking of a treasure trove of photographs taken by a previously unsung Chicago nanny and amateur street photographer, almost certainly will enjoy Packed in a Trunk. Although the circumstances are very different, both films describe an almost miraculous discovery of artistic gems created before the women responsible for them could benefit from their fame. In this, they shared certain qualities and demons with Vincent Van Gogh. In the case of Finding Vivian Maier, historian John Maloof purchased a box of photo negatives at a 2007 Chicago auction, then scanned the images and put them on the Internet site, Flickr. After news articles began to come out about Maier and another collector’s similar discovery of her work, a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary was launched. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards. The title, Packed in a Trunk, refers to the discovery of paintings by the obscure lesbian artist Edith Lake Wilkinson, who was part of the Provincetown art scene from 1914 to 1923. In 1924, at the recommendation of her crooked estate attorney, Wilkinson was committed to a decrepit, if expensive mental-health facility, in large part due to her “close and constant contact” with longtime companion. Once the artist was put away and abandoned, Edith’s work and all her worldly possessions were packed into trunks and shipped off to a relative in West Virginia, where they sat in an attic for the next 40 years. Edith’s great-niece, writer/director Jane Anderson (“Olive Kitteridge”), grew up surrounded by Edith’s vibrantly colorful Impressionistic paintings. On a whim, her mother had poked through the trunks and boxes in her dusty attic and rescued Edith’s work, if only for her own enjoyment. The film follows Anderson in her decades-long journey to find the answers to the mystery of Edith’s life and, then, return the work to Provincetown, where they could be recognized by the larger art world. As such, it also shines a light on the nation’s gay and lesbian community at a time when coming out of the closet often meant being locked up in jail or an asylum. She was joined in her quest by writer/director Michelle Boyaner (“A Finished Life: The Goodbye & No Regrets Tour”).

 

Dillinger: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Dolemite: Blu-ray

It wasn’t until Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967 that anyone in Hollywood attempted to take a chance on showing the effects of lead on flesh and bone, in slow motion and excruciating detail. The Production Code may have been on its last legs, but no one could predict with any certainty how audiences would react not only to witnessing full-blown carnage in living color – ABC’s highly controversial “The Untouchables” was shown in black-and-white – but also to what some saw as the romanticizing of criminality. It worked. And how! It didn’t take long for Roger Corman and his team of recent film-school graduates to breathe new life into the gangster genre and develop a formula to make it profitable. Among the throwback titles the company released were Corman’s Bloody Mama, Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha and John Milius’ Dillinger, which has just been accorded a first-class refurbishing by Arrow Video. Although there’s nothing particularly wrong with Michael Mann’s 2009 Public Enemies, the only justification for its retelling of John Dillinger’s story and $100-million production budget was the presence of Johnny Depp as titular bank robber. Milius, who had already joined the list of Hollywood’s screenwriting elite, agreed to participate in Dillinger if he could direct the picture, as well as write it. The $2.5 million AIP spent on it might not have covered the cost of renting vintage automobiles on Public Enemies, but it was money well spent. Both pictures took liberties with the facts, but nothing that would cause anyone to rewrite the time-honored legend. If J. Edgar Hoover was actually moved to complain about the portrayal of the G-men in Dillinger, he no longer carried the weight in Hollywood he once did. What was great then and is still the No. 1 reason to pick up a copy of the Blu-ray is a cast the included some of the greatest supporting actors in the industry: Warren Oates is a dead ringer for the boastful bank robber; Ben Johnson plays the cocky FBI bloodhound, Melvin Purvis; Harry Dean Stanton, Geoffrey Lewis, Steve Kanaly and star-to-be Richard Dreyfuss play ancillary gang members; Cloris Leachman, is a nice fit as the Lady in Red; and Mamas and Papas’ singer Michelle Phillips, in her first big movie role, doesn’t embarrass herself as the moll. As for action, Dillinger could still inspire wet dreams in card-carrying NRA members. Commentary is provided by Stephen Prince, author of “Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema”; new interviews with producer Lawrence Gordon, director of photography Jules Brenner and composer Barry De Vorzon; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a booklet containing new writing by Kim Newman on fictional portrayals of Dillinger, plus an on-set report containing interviews with writer-director John Milius and others, illustrated with original production stills.

 

Released in 1975, as the Blaxploitation subgenre was beginning to lose steam, Dolemite is an extreme example of the pimp as anti-superhero. Rudy Ray Moore, who resembles an over-the-hill heavyweight boxer, plays the title character, who’s just been released from prison and given carte blanche by a friendly FBI agent to take out his chief rival Willie Green (director D’Urville Martin). The well-connected thug had set up Dolemite on a phony drug charge and stole his club from under former partner-in-crime, Queen Bee (Lady Reed). In his corner, he’ll find a bevy of kung-fu-fightin’ prostitutes anxious for him to get back in the game. Supporting Green is the corrupt mayor, some crooked cops and a duplicitous preacher. Dolemite is an old-school pimp from the word, “go.” He’s also the headliner at his nightclub, the Total Experience, singing, dancing and signifyin’ with his hooker chorus line. Technically, Dolemite is a real mess and the acting isn’t much better. It may not hold a candle to The Mack … but, honestly, what does? The character and movie directly influenced Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, Eddie Murphy and Quentin Tarantino. The most essential thing about the newly scanned & restored in 2K version from Vinegar Syndrome is the background material on Moore, who enjoyed a thriving career as nightclub entertainer, freelance record distributor and producer, and X-rated comedian, before turning to the movies. In fact, Dolemite is an extension of a character he established in his act. The Blu-ray adds a delightful making-of documentary, “I, Dolemite,” and commentary track from Moore’s biographer, Mark Murray, featuring interviews with Moore as well as co-stars Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, John Kerry and cinematographer Nick von Sternberg; featurettes “Lady Reed Uncut” and “Locations: Then & Now”; the intended 1.85:1 widescreen frame and an alternate full-frame “boom mic” version; original trailers for Dolemite and The Human Tornado; and original cover artwork by Jay Shaw.

 

That’s Sexploitation!: Blu-ray

All Night at the Po-No: Storefront Theatre Collection: Volume #1

Trashy Lady: Blu-ray

I don’t know if the history of pornography can be traced beyond the Paleolithic cave paintings discovered in France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Caveto, but who would be surprised to learn that some of our ancient ancestors, at least, were as fixated on sexuality as the lions, rhinos, deer and bears that adorned the walls of Chauvet Cave? In fact, some archeologists believe that representations of genitalia and sexual coupling can be traced back at least 11,000 years to the Creswell Crags in England, although it couldn’t be determined if they were intended to stimulate the caves’ residents or sex-ed classes for the young’uns. Clearly, though, the graffiti artists of Egypt, Greek, Rome and Peru had something on their minds beyond landscapes, portraits and still lifes. Pornography has existed throughout recorded history and has adapted to each new medium, from papyrus to the Internet. Eroticism on film goes back to the invention of motion pictures and many of the earliest shorts still are available for perusing on You Tube Red. The borders separating titillation, Victorian pornography, sexploitation and art blurred forever from there. In the exhaustively researched and often quite entertaining documentary, That’s Sexploitation!, writer/director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) and producer David F. Friedman (a.k.a., Mighty Monarch of Exploitation) pick up the subject in the 1920s, when the monetization and widespread delivery of porn products became nearly unstoppable. That isn’t to say that law-enforcement officials and religious leaders didn’t attempt to eliminate it, just that the purveyors of smut always found ways to get around their efforts, thanks, in large part, to the insatiable appetite of the American public. Depictions of explicit nudity, sexual intercourse and medical diagrams were famously inserted into films distributed as “hygiene” or “educational” and exhibited before audiences segregated by gender. In the post-war era, stag films, nudist camp shorts and nudie-cuties would give way to hard- and soft-core pornography openly shown in large cities where adherence to the First Amendment wasn’t considered voluntary. Even so, up until the latter half of the 1960s, much of the quasi-legal content was tamer than what could be found in the ruins of the brothels of Pompeii. This kind of explicit material isn’t for everyone, of course. Among its shortcomings is a reluctance to pay attention to the participation of organized crime in the industry or the mainstreaming of porn, in the Golden Age. In addition to the two-hour-plus documentary from Severin Films, That’s Sexploitation! offers three more hours of shorts from the Something Weird Archives and commentary with Henenlotter and Something Weird’s Lisa Petrucci.

 

As if anticipating the release of That’s Sexploitation!, Vinegar Syndrome has sent out the three-disc concept compilation, “All Night at the Po-No: Storefront Theatre Collection: Volume #1,” which is comprised of titles made immediately preceding the Deep Throat phenomenon and were exhibited in spaces that today might accommodate a Subway or Chinese take-out joint. Unlike larger houses, including those in the Pussycat chain, the films screened in these cozy spaces were low-budget 16mm efforts, affectionately known as one-day-wonders. Hundreds of these theaters dotted the landscape, attracting the anonymous work of aspiring independent and underground filmmakers. If there’s a common denominator here, it’s the presence of amateur actors who might have been recruited at hippie acid tests and whose acting chops make Harry Reems and Marilyn Chambers look like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. The women, especially, are far from unattractive, but hardly classic movie goddesses. Their emotional range stretches from bored to giddy and none appear overly concerned about carrying a few extra pounds. Fetishists will welcome the absence of razors, implants and big hair. The male actors, with the exception of a very young John Holmes, are interchangeable. Most find it difficult to maintain an erection for more than a few minutes. Of the 12 films here, a few are no more than extended loops. Others tell stories that display a strong sense of humor, narrative and character development. The industry had not yet migrated from to L.A., from New York and San Francisco, so the action isn’t reserved exclusively to generic indoor sets. The titles include Huck Walker’s “All American Hustler,” Anthony Spinelli’s bizarre vampire comedy “Suckula,” Rik Taziner’s low-rent costume saga, “The Erotic Adventures of Hercules,” as well as such anonymously directed efforts as “Carnal-Go-Round,” “Sex Before Marriage,” “Homer the Late Comer” and the experimental subjective-camera feature, “Erotic Point of View.” Besides Holmes, only Rene Bond and Sandy Dempsey are remotely familiar. All have been scanned in 2k from rare original theatrical prints to re-create the experience of stumbling into the Po-No theater late one evening and not leaving until dawn the next day. Another thing that differentiates the films here from those to follow is a willingness to portray drug use and abuse honestly. Listen carefully and you might even catch a then-popular song by Paul Simon or Herb Alpert that’s been appropriated by the filmmakers, almost certainly without permission.

 

In a separate release, Vinegar Syndrome flashes ahead a mere 10 years to Trashy Lady, one of the most stylishly made and technically advanced hard-core films of the shot-on-35mm age. In the Roaring ’20s-period production, Harry Reems plays a slick gangster, Dutch, who has been ditched by his regular dame, Jessie (Cara Lott). Upon being introduced to the beautiful cigarette girl, Katherine (Ginger Lynn), who’s just begun to work at his classy speakeasy, Dutch is immediately smitten with her “good girl” looks and aura of innocence. Soon enough, though, he enlists the help of Rita (Amber Lynn) to teach her the tricks of the trade. It so happens that Rita served as main moll to Dutch’s incarcerated rival, Louie (Herschel Savage). Trashy Lady was nominated for six XRCO awards, including best director (Steve Scott), and featuring AFAA-award-winning cinematography by Tom Howard as well as an AVN-award-winning performance from Reems. In my opinion, though, Ginger steals the show with a performance that combines comedic chops with natural acting talent and natural girl-next-door beauty. The film arrives in Blu-ray for the first time, newly restored from its original 35mm negative, and Scott and Howard’s 1971 time-travel flick, “Coming West,” which very easily could have fit in the “Po-No” collection. The bonus package also includes commentary with Howard, moderated by filmmaker David McCabe, and a second commentary track with co-star Savage and XRCO co-founder, Bill Margold. Although Savage co-starred in Trashy Lady, he can barely recall the experience. What he and Margold can remember of the actors borders from offensive to hilarious.

 

What?: Blu-ray

After his wife, Sharon Tate, was so brutally murdered in an orgy of violence orchestrated by Charles Manson, it was easy to forgive any cinematic misstep taken in its immediate wake by Roman Polanski … until, of course, the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood Hills home. Despite receiving several excellent reviews by mainstream critics, the public response to his adaptation of Macbeth, made for or Playboy Productions, was dampened by the X-rating attached to it by the MPAA’s concerns of extreme violence and a scene of Lady Macbeth ruminating in the nude. Then, Polanski produced a lifestyle documentary on the effort by Jackie Stewart to win the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. After being shown at the 1972 Berlin International Film Festival, Weekend of a Champion was shelved for 40 years. Entertaining and occasionally exciting, it was re-edited and re-released briefly in 2013, before being sent out on DVD a year later. Blessedly forgotten after Polanski’s triumphant return to Hollywood with Chinatown was the over-the-top sex farce he made with Carlo Ponti’s money on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. What? (a.k.a., “Diary of Forbidden Dreams”) would be as reviled as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown were universally admired. Written by Polanski and frequent collaborator Gérard Brach, What? chronicles the sexual indignities that befall a curly-haired American hippie while hitchhiking through Italy. As portrayed by Akron native Sydne Rome (Just a Gigolo), the only differences between her naïve and over-accommodating Nancy and Little Annie Fannie is a surprisingly scholarly and artistic background that manifests itself in unexpected ways during the film. After being attacked by three lecherous Italians while hitchhiking, she escapes down the steps and funicular leading to a villa overlooking the sea. It is owned by a wealthy art collector (Hugh Griffith) and inhabited by an international collection of wackos and what appear to be very expensive prostitutes, including the recently retired pimp, Alex (Marcello Mastroianni), and the proprietor’s sneaky son, Mosquito (Polanski). As near as I can figure, the rest of the movie is taken up by Nancy attempting to keep her clothes from being stolen by the villa’s rambunctious watchdog and humoring the sexual fetishes of the other residents. What? reflects the prevailing attitudes toward sex in Europe, which found some humor in forced intercourse in unlikely place and frequently exploited the liberating aspects of the sexual revolution. If the women characters tended to be almost freakishly glamorous and voluptuous, the male characters in comedies would be portrayed as sexually inept buffoons. Mastroianni was able to pull off being the debonair leading man in one film and a hopelessly deficient playboy in another. Here, his grabby character might have been inspired more by the chick-chasing Harpo Marx, than, say, Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita. As clueless and vulnerable as her character frequently is, Rome is the only actor who comes out of What? unscathed. The nicely restored Blu-ray adds new interviews with Rome, composer Claudio Gizzi and cinematographer Marcello Gatti.

 

Krampus: Blu-ray

The Zero Boys: Blu-ray

Sssssss: Blu-ray

Before seeing the delightfully twisted Scandinavian fantasy, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, I was completely in the dark about the European holiday tradition that involved the “half-goat, half-demon” anti-Santa, Krampus. Appearing on the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas, Krampus would appear to children who didn’t live up to their holy obligation of being good little boys and girls in the preceding 300-some days leading up to Christmas. Where Saint Nicholas might award the lucky children rarely available fruit, nuts or trinkets, Krampus might bestow a lump of coal on the naughty ones, at best. Jalmari Helander’s inky black comedy, released here in December 2010, added several diabolically new wrinkles to the legend that also required reindeers and elves. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one unaware of Krampus, because, according to IMDB.com, it wasn’t until 2012 that the character appeared in an American entertainment, that being an episode of “Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated,” titled “Wrath of the Krampus.” Since then, he’s made more than a dozen appearances. The latest, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus, did well enough at the box office to think that it might be trotted out as every new holiday season approaches, not unlike National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. It succeeded even though its distributors decided not to show the picture to reviewers ahead their Friday deadlines – typically holiday-themed horror flicks haven’t fared well with mainstream critics – and most potential viewers hadn’t yet heard of Krampus. As is the case in the Griswald’s annual “Christmas Vacation” reunion, the spirit of the holiday is threatened by warring branches of the same dysfunctional family. The only one demonstrating anything close to a traditional Christmas mindset, if only in the form of believing in Santa Claus, is pre-teen Max. After being ridiculed by his obnoxious cousins, Max decides that putting too much credence in the holiday tradition no longer is worth the effort. This show of weakness emboldens the spirit of Krampus, who’s in the neighborhood this year. After killing the town’s electrical grid, the beast directs its wrath at Max’s family. Thanks to some effective special effects, the fury unleashed is pretty convincing, as are the monster’s makeup and costumes. If Universal lacked faith in its product in December, it’s made up for it with a bonus package that should please genre buffs. In addition to a digital copy of Krampus and UltraViolet access, it contains an alternate ending, deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel, galleries, commentary with Dougherty and co-writers Todd Casey and Zach Shields and featurettes, “Krampus Comes Alive!,” “Behind the Scenes at WETA Workshop” and “The Naughty Ones: Meet the Cast.”

 

I’m not at all sure what possessed Arrow Video to pull out the red carpet for The Zero Boys, a straight-to-video slasher flick from 1986 that also fit under the spam-in-a-cabin banner. In a nutshell, the story involves a group of “weekend warriors” – or, Rambo wannabes, take your pick – who, after a day spent shooting paintballs at pretend Nazis, ends up deep in a section of the woods north of Hollywood haunted by real killers. They’re accompanied by a small group of women, one of whom was the prize for winning that afternoon’s competition. It doesn’t take long for the couples to realize they’ve really stepped into some deep shit. In some ways, The Zero Boys appeared to be based on Charles Ng and Leonard Lake’s cabin of horrors in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles east of San Francisco. Finally, though, the targets of the fiends’ sociopathy discover a way to turn their faux armaments into killing machines and a battle royal ensues. Blond scream queen Kelli Maroney (Night of the Comet) turns in a decent performance as the hard-boiled prize catch. More interesting stuff can be found in the bonus package, including a pretty entertaining piece in which Mastorakis interviews himself on the highlights of his long and varied career (The Greek Tycoon, Ninja Academy). He’s extremely proud of the contributions made by future Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, cinematographer Steven Shaw (“Pandora’s Clock”), Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption) and other up-and-comers. Co-stars Kelli Maroney and Nicole Rio provide new interviews; Maroney and Mastorakis are on separate commentary tracks; a stills gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by critic James Oliver.

 

Released in 1973, SSSSSSS remains interesting mostly for the very real cobras and pythons imported specifically for the production from the jungles of Southeast Asia, as well as a typically manic performance by Strother Martin (Cool Hand Luke). He plays the head of research at a facility far enough from civilization to avoid the prying eyes of the medical-ethics police. Dr. Stoner’s madness manifests itself in his desire to develop a serum that can turn a man into a King Cobra. It takes a while for his daughter (Heather Menzies) to figure out that Stoner is using her boyfriend (Dirk Benedict) as a guinea pig. Considering its age, SSSSSSS looks pretty good for an early creature feature. The Blu-ray adds interviews with Benedict and Menzies, and a photo gallery.

 

Death Becomes Her: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

In this extremely broad and occasionally crude sendup of show-business narcissism, director Robert Zemeckis employs groundbreaking special effects in the service of what essentially is a 104-minute catfight between two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Image-obsessed diva Madeline Ashton is played by Meryl Streep, who, in the early 1990s, had yet to convince critics that she could do as well in comic roles as she did in dramas. In the somewhat more sober role of Helen Sharp, the girlfriend of a miracle-working plastic surgeon, Goldie Hahn was uncharacteristically asked to play straight man to Streep. As Death Becomes Her opens, Helen introduces Madeline to her escort, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), in a backstage visit after a performance of a play based on Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.” Hearing the words “plastic surgeon” elicits the same Pavlovian response in the actress as being told she’d being nominated for an Oscar or Tony. David Koepp and Martin Donovan’s screenplay flashes us forward to a period when Madeline and Ernest are unblissfully married and Helen has devolved into an obese coach potato. Another flash-forward reverses the roles of the two women, this time with Helen a successful author of self-help books, Madeline a nearly over-the-hill star and the doctor doing makeup on corpses at a funeral home. Now completely desperate, Madeline hands her fate to the mysterious seductress Lisle Von Rhoman, who claims to be 71 but looks, well, exactly like Isabella Rossellini in her prime. Lisle offers Madeline the secret to eternal youth, courtesy of a glowing purple potion that immediately restores her earlier beauty and figure. Like any miracle drug or promise of eternal youth, however, there’s a catch. I won’t reveal it here, except to say that it required all of Zemeckis’ pre-CGI expertise and it’s hilarious. The Blu-ray adds “The Making of ‘Death Becomes Her,’” featuring interviews with Zemeckis, Koepp, director of photography Dean Cundey, production designer Rick Carter and special effects artists Lance Anderson and David Anderson; a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette; and photo gallery.

 

TV-to-DVD

PBS: Nature: Raising the Dinosaur Giant

PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou’s Pet Parade

Just when paleontologists think they have the whole dinosaur thing figured out and can rest on their laurels for a generation, or two, a shepherd in Mongolia or Argentina will stumble upon on the fossilized remains of a previously unknown creature and force them to rewrite their textbooks. This is exactly what happened in 2014, in a remote corner of Patagonia where a portion of a thigh bone was discovered sticking out of a rock formation. Another 200 bones from the same species of titanosaur were discovered in the same vicinity. As yet unnamed, the gigantic herbivore is expected to weigh in at just over 77 tons and stand 121 feet from head to tail. In the “Nature” presentation, “Raising the Dinosaur Giant,” Sir David Attenborough guides us through the remarkable journey of “waking the giant” as it happens, connecting the dots, translating the paleo jargon and explaining the revelations using living examples, other dinosaur discoveries and CGI visuals.

 

The PBS Kids’ series “Caillou” is based on a series of books by Quebecoise writer and illustrator Hélène Desputeaux, which center on a 4-year-old boy who is fascinated by the world around him. In the DVD compilation, “Caillou’s Pet Parade,” he enjoys learning to care for different types of animals and pets belonging to his neighbors, parents and grandparents. The 13-episode collection times in at an hour.

The DVD Wrapup:  Ip Man 3, Lady in the Van, Chainsaw 2, Antonia’s Line, Gangster VIP, Dangerous Men, Lamb and more

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Ip Man 3: Blu-ray

The story of the truly legendary Chinese martial-arts teacher, Ip Man, has been told many times on film over the last 22 years. He was introduced in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story(1993),, but mostly as a sidebar reference in an overly reverential biopic about the world’s most famous kung fu fighter. It wasn’t until 2008 that Ip Man, who introduced the Wing Chun technique to Lee 50 years earlier, would be lionized in movies in which the more famous studentLee would be an incidental character. Ip Man 3 marks the end of a trilogy starring Donnie Yen and directed by Wilson Yip. Although exaggerated, the series remained faithful to the spirit of the man and influence Wing Chung had on the discipline. In 2013, Hong Kong writer=director Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) chimed in the on the subject in The Grandmaster, which did well at the international box office and was nominated for Academy Awards in the cinematography and fashion-design categories. Just as that film covered much of the same territory as Yip’s first two installments, Ip Man 3 adds biographical material also introduced in The Grandmaster, including the death of his wife to cancer. Now peacefully settled in British-controlled Hong Kong, Ip Man once again finds himself in the middle of hostile territory, this time when a local triad and land developer combine their efforts to take over property being used by a karate school. They’re formidable foes, but Ip Man has the backing of former students against the hordes of thugs available to the triad.

The thing that really sets Ip Man 3 apart from the first two films, however, is the presence of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson – huh? – as, who provides the muscular frontmanmuscle for athe property-development team. Soft-spoken as ever, Tyson’s Frank is a family man, as well as a two-fisted brawler. That he will engage in mortal combat with Ip Man – or one of his acolytes – is assured from the first second we lay eyes on him. Frank’s fighting style could hardly be more different than Ip Man’s Wing Chung, which is to boxing what ballet is to breaksquare dancing. It is a concept-based martial art and form of self-defense that utilizesutilizing both striking and grappling movements, while specializing in close-range combat. Frequently practiced on a wooden dummy, an expert practitioner can deliver lethal blows from a distance one or two inches from his opponent. The intricately choreographed acting scenes here also highlightutilize several forms of specialized weaponry and combat, including Muay Thai, MMA, daggersknives, Six and a Half Point Poles, Butterfly Swords, kicks, elbow strikes and eye gouges. Danny Chan, who had previously portrayed Lee in the 2008 TV series, “The Legend of Bruce Lee,” reprises the character in what amount to be entertaining cameos. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and interviews with Yen and Tyson.

The Lady in the Van: Blu-ray

One needn’t be enamored with the Dowager Countess of Grantham, in “Downton Abbey,” or Muriel Donnelly, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to pick up a copy of Nicholas Hytner and writer Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. A willingness to sample anything and everything in which Maggie Smith is involved is what could make this very, very British dramedy appealing to American audiences outside the arthouse circuit. In it, Smith plays Miss Mary Shepherd, an eccentric homeless woman whom Bennett befriended in the 1970s before allowing her to temporarily to park her beat-up van in the driveway of his Camden home. Even though it’s a well-off neighborhood, largely populated by artsy types, Mary is the kind of woman who could test the patience of a saint. She’s disheveled, cantankerous and tortured by demons that took up residence in her nogginmind decades earlier. Alex Jennings is as well-cast as the Oxford-educated Bennett – and his professionally competitive and frequently visible alter ego — as Smith is as Mary. Fastidious, reclusive and largely closeted, Bennett already had made a name for himself in the satirical revue, “Beyond the Fringe,” by the time Mary moved into his driveway. While the writer may have been intimidated by her outspoken nature, it’s also likely that Bennett saw in Mary a bit of his mother, who was being treated for depression in a private facility.. A lot of things happen over the course of 15 years, including the unraveling of the mystery that keeps Mary locked in her own private nightmarehell. In 2000, Smith was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Theater Award for her performance in “The Lady in the Van,” also directed by Nicholas Hytner. She reprised the role in 2009, on BBC Radio 4, opposite Bennett playing himself. For his part, Hytner directed both the stage and screen versions of Bennett’s “The Madness of King George III” and “The History Boys.” Also prominent in the cast are Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour and James Corden. The Blu-ray adds Hytner’s commentary; the featurettes “Playing the Lady: Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd,” “The Making of ‘The Lady in the Van’” and “The Visual Effects”; and deleted scenes.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray

The Stuff: Special Edition: Blu-ray

Thirty years ago, when Tobe Hooper unleashed “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2”,” on an unsuspecting public, mainstream critics labored to find the right words to condemn it as unmitigated trash. In Roger Ebert’s single-star review, he noted that “(It) has a lot of blood and disembowelment, to be sure, but it doesn’t have the terror of the original, the desire to be taken seriously. It’s a geek show.” Furthermore, “Maybe Tobe Hooper — who went on to make Poltergeist for Steven Spielberg — has grown mainstream, less concerned to shock, more eager to show us it’s all a joke.” Today, though, the same things that turned Ebert and others against the sequel to a film most of the same critics praised, upon its release in 1974, have found a ready audience among horror geeks whose collective voice now speaks at greater volume than their counterparts in the print media. I can see both points. By all traditional standards, “Part 2” is an unholy mess. If, in 1986, the now-shuttered Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College had a film school and its students had been assigned a sequel, its students might have collaborated on a movie very much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Part 2. With such over-the-top characters as Leatherface, Chop Top, Grandpa and Drayton “The Cook” Sawyer back in tow, in full freak-out regalia, the only thing standing between “Part 2” and some good old-fashioned screams is a script with its tongue solidly in its cheek.

 

Adding to the ironic fun was the casting of a newly clean-and-sober Dennis Hopper as Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright, who’s been seeking revenge against the cannibal clan ever since they butchered his niece. His next best lead comes after the Sawyers attack a pair of douchebag yuppies, driving to a big hoedown in Dallas. Just before they’re confronted on a bridge, the lads make a call to local radio host, Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), who records the whole thing and wants to join Lefty in his investigation. Bad idea. The lawman purchases a chainsaw of his own and Stretch falls down a rabbit hole into the Sawyers’ chamber of horrors. It’s a wonderlandmasterpiece of gore, depravity and skeletal memorabilia, as are the makeup effects by Tom Savini and Bart Mixon and Cary White’s production design. I also wonder what Ebert might have made of the Scream Factory Collector’s Edition, which outdoes Criterion Collection at its own game. In addition to the new 2K HD scan of the inter-positive film element, the two-disc set adds three separate commentary tracks, with cast and crew; extended outtakes from the feature-length “It Runs in the Family” documentary, featuring L.M. Kit Carson and Lou Perryman; a 43-minute compilation of behind-the-scenes footage from Tom Savini’s archives; an alternate opening-credit sequence; deleted scenes; still galleries including posters and lobby cards, behind-the-scenes photos, stills, and collector’s gallery; MGM’s original HD Master, with color correction supervision by director of photography Richard Kooris; “House of Pain,” an interview with make-up-effects artists Bart Mixon, Gabe Bartalos, Gino Crognale and John Vulich; “Yuppie Meat,” an interview with actors Chris Douridas and Barry Kinyon; “Cutting Moments,” with editor Alain Jakubowicz; “Behind the Mask,” an interview with stuntman and Leatherface performer Bob Elmore; “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds:” Revisiting the locations of the film, hosted by Sean Clark; the entire “It Runs in the Family,” a six-part documentary, featuring interviews with screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, actors Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams, Bill Johnson, Lou Perryman and special makeup effects artist Tom Savini.

 

Larry Cohen’s cautionary horror flick, The Stuff, received a half-star greater rating from Roger Ebert than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Part 2. Had he lived long enough to see the special Blu-ray editions, he might have wondered what he missed. What was easily dismissed in 1985-86 is being re-released today with audio commentaries, featurettes, interviews, essays and other goodies, as might befit an Oscar-winning or Cannes sensation. The title refers to a white substance found gurgling from the ground near a petroleum refinery in Alaska. Turns out, the “stuff” is so addictively delicious that a purveyor of supermarket desserts decides to package, distribute and market the product as if it were Ben & Jerry’s irresistible Cherry Garcia ice cream. The Stuff immediately recalls The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and original marketing campaigns for cigarettes, cocaine-laced Coca-Cola products and miracle drugs, ranging from penicillin to Viagra. Once devoured, average consumers begin parroting advertising slogans and hoarding containers in every nook-and-cranny of their homes. Only a curious pre-teen boy, Jason, (Scott Bloom), and industrial spysaboteur, Mo (Michael Moriarty), suspect that Stuff is comprised of chemicals that may not be entirely nutritious or healthy. Indeed, once threatened, Stuff takes on a life of its own, demanding of its addicts that they protect it from close inspection by government agencies.

Despite its environmental message, The Stuff is no more convincing today than it was in 1985 and the fluffy white “creature” is far less frightening than the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. Because its R-rating is totally unjustified, it would do wellmake a good on Syfy, where such low-budget, lower-IQ fare is commonplace. The Arrow Video facelift is only as good as the original camera negative allows it to be. What is undeniably fun is seeing Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, Patrick O’Neal, Brooke Adams, Tammy Grimes, Abe Vigoda, Clara “Where’s the Beef” Peller, Eric Bogosian, Patrick Dempsey and Mira Sorvino in roles they may or may not regret accepting. Other features include “Can’t Get Enough of ‘The Stuff’: Making Larry Cohen’s Classic Creature”; introduction and trailer commentary by director and fan Darren Bousman (Saw II); a reversible sleeve, with original and newly commissioned artwork by Gary Pullin; and a booklet withnew writing on the film by Joel Harley, illustrated with original stills and promotional materials. If I were to recommend other Cohen films, I’d start with Little Caesar, It’s Alive and Q.

Antonia’s Line: Blu-ray

Marleen Gorris’ multigenerational drama, Antonia’s Line, opens in the immediate wake of World War II, in a Dutch village left largely intact by German occupation forces, but not without some permanent scars. Into it strolls a strong-willed native daughter, Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy), who’s returned to claim the family farm she’ll inherit when her desperately ill mother finally kicks the bucket. Along the way, Antonia gives her own free-spirited artist daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), a cook’s tour of the rural village. Among the residents who survived the occupation are such colorfully named characters as Crooked Finger, Loony Lips, Mad Madonna and Protestant. For the next 40 years of Antonia and Danielle’s life, these and other endearing characters will fit into a narrative that eventually will include their children, grandchildren, and great-children and displaced neighbors.

. The title refers to the line of women for whom men are a largely incidental force within the family. It would be stretching the point to suggest that each new daughter represents a different step on the ladder of 20th Century feminist thought, because Antonia’s Line evolves organically from the land and womb. Every so often, Gorris spices the narrative with whimsical touches of magical realism, leftover traces of latent European fascism, nihilistic gloom, repressed Protestant thought and Catholic mysticism. Another common denominator is the communal sacrament of shared bounty. You’d think that an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film — the first to go to a woman director in the category — would have assured Gorris a place in the cinematic firmament for years to come. In fact, she would helm only seven more pictures in the next 20 years, including Mrs. Dalloway, The Luzhin Defence, Carolina and an episode of “The L Word.” Sadly, that appears to be par for the course for outspoken feminists, who address themes related to sexual violence and gay and lesbian issues. The Blu-ray package includes an archival interview with Gorris and a collector’s booklet, with an essay by Thelma Adams, cast and crew credits, chapter breaks and stills.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP: The Complete Collection: Blu-ray

Of all the vintage crime series being refurbished and repackaged by Arrow Video, the six titles in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP may be the most curious. It was inspired by the titular novel, written by Goro Fujita, a former gangster who wrote about what he knew: life as a state-raised yakuza functionaryassassin in the 1960s. Like the mafia, the yakuza’s place in post-war Japanese society has been alternately romanticized and vilified on screen. The street-level mobsters we meet in Toshio Masuda’s Gangster VIP, Mio Ezaki’sHeartless, and Keiichi Ozawa’s Gangster VIP 2, Black Dagger, Goro the Assassin and Kill! control the bars, brothels, karaoke joints, gambling, noodle shops and rackets in such pockets of crime as Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Roppongi neighborhoods. They bear almost no resemblance to the modern-day samurai earlier filmmakers had painted them to be. Neither had the yakuza consolidated its power bases to seize control of legitimate Japanese industries or political parties, so most of the bloodletting takes place among rival gangs and for relatively low stakes. After serving time in prison for knifing a would-be assassin, Goro (Tetsuya Watari) re-introduces himself to a subterranean world in which, if anything, life is even cheaper than it was before he left. He’s especially appalled by the thugs who terrorize average citizens, especially young women who they see as potential prostitutes. Despite Goro’s reputation, the gangsters resent his desire to remain unattached and Lone Ranger approach to justice. His appeal isn’t based on charisma or sense of nobility, though.

If anything, Goro will remind American audiences of Charles Bronson. His weapon of choice is the hand-forged tanto dagger, which is hidden in a sleeve or under a jacket. Goro’s prowess with a blade allows him to take on dozens of yakuza minions at a time. The feature-length movies in the “Outlaw” package were released in rapid-fire fashion in 1968 and 1969. To say they are formulaic would be an understatement. Watched back-to-back, they might as well have been Xeroxed. The street punks are interchangeable, as are the bosses, prostitutes and fingers that are sliced off whenever someone requires punishment. The funny thing is, though, each of the movies is different enough from the other – sequels, prequels, stand-alones – to encourage binge viewing. A deluge of yakuza films and series from Nikkatsu and Toei studios would follow in the wake of “Outlaw,” including Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. The limited-edition box set (3,000 copies) contains all six films in the “Outlaw series,” available with English subtitles for the first time on any home video format. They’ve received high-definition digital transfers, from original film elements by Nikkatsu, as well as original uncompressed mono audio; commentary on Gangster VIP by Jasper Sharp; a visual essay covering the entire series, by Kevin Gilvear; new artwork by Tonci Zonjic; original trailers for all six films and promotional image galleries; and a booklet featuring an interview with director Toshio Masuda, plus fresh essays.

Dangerous Men: Blu-ray

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dangerous Men a Death Wishfor feminists, but, way back in 1979, it must have seemed like that was what filmmaker John S. Rad had in mind. A better comparison might be made to Ms. 45, if it wasn’t for the fact that Abel Ferrara’s revenge thriller wouldn’t be released for another two years and set 3,000 miles from Malibu, where most of the movie was shot. Flash ahead 25 years, when Dangerous Men was finally finished and exhibited before a nearly empty house in Santa Monica. It, it probably elicited the same response as “Springtime for Hitler,” before the audience determined it was a goof. Conceived, financed and shot in dead earnestness by the Iranian expatriate, Dangerous Men is a revenge flick about an unfortunate young woman, Mina (Melody Wiggins), who’s attacked by a pair of bikers while enjoying a day at the beach with her fiancé. The rape is interrupted by Mina’s boyfriend, who kills one of the bikers and he, in turn, is knifed to death by athe bald behemoth. Without missing a beat, Mina devises a plan to take out her rage on the surviving biker and, a few hours later, a guy who picks her up while hitchhiking. Unlike the biker, the driver only loses his clothes to Mina and his sense of macho entitlementpride. She’ll quickly turn her attention to men who prey on working girls on Hollywood Boulevard. Because the brother of Mina’s dead fiancé is a police detective, it doesn’t take long for her to be unmasked asbecome the most wanted woman in southern California.

It’s from this point forward that whatever logic Rad invested in the screenplay gets picked up by the Santa Ana winds and blown out to sea. Every shortcut available to Rad is taken, as are the many contrivances, clichés and tropes he might have picked up watching American B-movies on Tehran television – some of which probably ended up on “MST3K” — before the Islamic revolution. Even worse, at the same time as Mina’s fate is sealed in the city, the rogue cop picks up the scent of a hitherto unknown criminal boss, Black Pepper, who looks like Dog the Bounty Hunter and gets his kicks watching a belly dancer with his sleazy girlfriend. And, after a chase through the brush, Dangerous Men ends … it just ends. No mention of Mina’s fate or that of the renegade cop. The production values are ridiculously bad, the stunt work laughable, Rad’s musical score sucks and the actors are inept, at best. Only a few of them acted in a feature before or since Dangerous Men. And, yet, it’s far from unwatchable. In fact, it’s tough to take your eyes off of it. The Drafthouse Films’ Blu-ray release features hours of extra content, including a feature-length commentary from authors Zack Carlson and Bryan Connelly; an original short documentary about the film’s original 2005 theatrical release; a video interview with cinematographer Peter Palian (Samurai Cop); the only television appearance of John S. Rad, on “Queer Edge With Jack E. Jette & Sandra Bernhard”; and a print interview.

Sex Ed

If any actor could convince us that a 23-year-old virgin is able to teach a sexual-hygiene class to junior high school students, it would be Haley Joel Osment. Still fondly remembered as the kid who saw dead people in The Sixth Sense, the 28-year-old actor not only is perfectly suited for the role of the teacher, but, through blurred eyes, he might be able to pass as a student. After disappearing from the big screen for a while, Osment has landed quite a few roles – Entourage, Tusk, “The Spoils Before Dying” — that don’t require the presence of a classic leading man. In Sex Ed, his Ed Cole accepts an adjunct position in a middle school teaching in a class that only requires him to show up in a tie. After discovering that the kids are completely clueless when it comes to their pubescent bodies and sex, other than what they glean from the Internet and older siblings. Given Ed’s awkwardness with the women he meets in the first few minutes of the movies, we sense that he’s a virgin before he is required to reveal it at a key point in the story. In fact, Ed’s completely comfortable addressing the sexually precocious students’ questions and anxieties. It’s the parents who are uncomfortable with the idea that their little darlings not only are capable of having sex, but likely would do the deed absent condoms or any other contraceptive. Naturally, director Isaac Feder (“Life on the Line”) and writer Bill Kennedy (“House of Cards”) have created a parallel storyline in which Ed is given every opportunity to get laid. Conceivably, Sex Ed is a movie that could be enjoyed by kids, sitting alongside their parents in front of the TV, but I don’t think either of them would make it through the movie without squirming a hole in their trousers.

Lamb

Faithfully adapted from a powerful first novel by Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb puts viewers in the uncomfortable position of having to reconsider the morality of a deeply disturbing and inarguably illegal act from the points of view of the perpetrator and victim simultaneously. The difference between this story and countless others that fall under general heading of thriller are the multidimensional portrayals of two loners – one in his 40s and the other still approaching puberty – whose shared neediness clouds their better judgment. Ross Partridge (“Wedlock”) serves triple duty as writer, director and male lead, playing the part of David Lamb, a Chicago businessman severely traumatized by the recent death of his father and breakup of his marriage. While feeling sorry for himself at a strip mall, he’s approached by the precocious pre-teen Tommie (Oona Laurence), who’s been dared by friends to hit him up for a cigarette. Instead of turning her away with a smile and tired piece of advice, he lights one up for her, knowing it will prompt a coughing jag. To teach her and her friends another lesson, however, David suggests she hop in his automobile and drive away with him, as if she were being kidnapped. If the potential for serious harm doesn’t faze them, nothing will.

 

When Tommie tells him her own tale of woe, David immediately senses both a kindred spirit in the girl and a pedagogical opportunity for himself. A day later, when she agrees to take off with him for the mountains of Wyoming, viewers naturally will begin to fear, as well, for her health and safety. We know that pedophiles and killers share few outwardly visible physical traits, so David’s true intentions are impossible to anticipate. That fear is corroborated by his tendency tell white lies to Tommie about his background and their reality of their destination. Instead of cabin in the mountains, with horses to ride, they’re headed to a shack on the plains with a cranky next-door neighbor. Learning she’s been deceived is the first test of Tommie’s stiff upper lip. Even so, the shack is near enough the snow-covered Rockies to keep her open to the possibilities of her adventure. Like Nadzam, Partridge keeps viewers guessing throughout the entirety of the narrative. While we wait for the monster to emerge, he and cinematographer Nathan M. Miller take full advantage of Wyoming’s wide horizons and surprising beauty of the plains. Although far from being a comedy, our queasiness isn’t unlike that felt while watching or reading “Lolita.” M comes to mind as well. In addition to riveting performances by the lead actors, Lamb benefits from a supporting cast that includes Jess Weixler, Tom Bower.  Scoot McNairy and Joel Murray. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and commentary with Partridge and Laurence.

Earthrise

If, after repeat viewingsviewing of The Martian, you still can’t get the Red Planet off your mind, you might consider taking a chance on Glenn Payne’s micro-budgeted Earthrise a shot. While clearly not in same league as Ridley Scott’s thriller or Solaris, which it resembles thematically, it asks the kind of questions sci-fi buffs enjoy pondering. Here, the thing to remember is that things have gotten so bad on Earth that 99 percent of its survivors have been repatriated on Mars. Each year, a team of colonists returns to their ancestors’ home to join the effort to rehabilitate the planet. Not having set foot on Earth previously, they’re either in for a treat orof a horror show. Everything that happens in Earthrise either takes place on the transport vehicle or in the imaginations of the passengers, who will be tortured by monsters, ghosts of family members, voices and hallucinations the others can’t see. Anyone who’s seen John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star (1974) already knows what can be accomplished in the sci-fi arena, even on a meager budget, using makeshift backgrounds and DIY props. Likewise, Earthrise is better than it has any right to be. Casey Dillard, Greg Earnest and Meaghin Burke deserve most the credit for that. The DVD adds commentary.

Norm of the North: Blu-ray

While the idea of building an animated franchise around a NIMBY polar bear must have sounded good at the time of conception, six years ago, in execution, Norm of the Northappears to have been jinxed from the get-go. Even so, it was given a two-week release on more than 2,400 screens, as well as in theaters around the world. Judged beside other animated features, Norm of the North underperformed to an almost historic magnitude. On the plus side, though, it probably didn’t cost a great deal of money to make and the marketing campaign was more or less perfunctory. When Norm the English-speaking polar bear (voiced by Rob Schneider) discovers that real-estate developers plan to build condos for tourists near the animals’ natural habitat, he and a gaggle of lemmings set out for New York to discourage them. While in the Apple to confront the greedy developer, the ironically named Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), he teams up with the environmentalist daughter of one of the man’s assistants (Maya Kay, Heather Graham). If the rest is predictable, a few laughs are generated by the Minion-like lemmings and Norm’s twerking moves. Then, there’s the kid-friendly potty humor, which should distract the target audience for a few minutes, at least. Good thing, thing 6-year-olds don’t base their viewing decisions on reviews. Other voices are supplied by Michael McElhatton, Colm Meaney, Bill Nighy and Zachary Gordon.

Docs-to-DVD

Theory of Obscurity: Blu-ray

If the band profiled in Don Hardy Jr.’s Theory of Obscuritywas a product to be sold to consumers, its slogan might be: The Residents, serving discerning hipsters and music nerds for more than 45 years. A rare breed, by any definition, the Bay Area “art collective” appears to have roots leadingwas directly todescended from Spike Jones, Flash Gordon, Sun Ra, Ernie Kovacs, Salvador Dali, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Art Ensemble of Chicago, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It would, in turn, influence Ween, Primus, Devo, Yello and Ke$ha, among others, while also helping to turn the music video into an emerging art form … sometimes, anyway.  Fiercely anonymous, the Residents’ public image has always been that of a group of tuxedoed gentlemen, wearing eyeball helmets and top hats … or variations, thereof. As the title Theory of Obscurity suggests, the Residents may be the most influential band that almost no one outside northern California knows. This, despite a resume that includes more than 60 albums, numerous music videos and short films, 3 CD-ROM projects, 10 DVDs, 7 major world tours and film soundtracks.

Even if the Residents may never be accorded access to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, except as paying customers, the band practically defined what it meant to be avant-garde in the final third of the 20th Century. As such, most consumers of record albums and CDs found it difficult to listen to more than one or two songs at a time. The same can be said for the documentary, which fans will enjoy immensely and leave others cold. Among those interviewed for the non-musical sections of the film are Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Gerald Casale (Devo), Josh Freese (Guns N’ Roses, Weezer), Penn Jillette and Homer Flynn. The Blu-ray’s bonus package adds extended interviews; footage of the Residents’ first performance, at San Francisco’s Boarding House; outtakes from the uncompleted film, “Vileness Fat”; three remastered classic short films; a new short film created from never-before-seen footage from the “Hello Skinny” sessions; an animated short film from an unfinished feature, “Freak Show”; a found-footage short film, “The Walking Woman”; and aa short film of the delivery of one of only two existing copies of the $100,000 “Ultimate Box Set” to the Museum of Modern Art. (It was housed in a 28-cubic-foot refrigerator, which contained the first pressings of every Residents’ release to date, as well as such ephemera as an eyeball mask and top hat.

Love Is a Verb: Blu-ray

Shadows of Liberty

A Dog Named Gucci

Biophilic Design

On “Real Time With Bill Maher,” hardly a week goes by before the host or a guest asks why no one in the global Muslim community seems willing to publically condemn the extremists and fundamentalists who use terror to advance their various religious, political and cultural agendas. The other question commonly heard involves the seeming lack of commonality among Arab states as to who, besides the United States, should lead the military offensive against ISIS andAl Qaeda. Answers to those very good questions have eluded us since such PLO spinoffs as al-Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Black September decided that it was easier to slaughter innocent men, women and children than take on the Israeli military head-on. In the wake of brutal terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, talk-show hosts across Europe are probably asking the same questions as Maher.

After watching Terry Spencer Hesser and Stephan Mazurek’s thought-provoking documentary, Love Is a Verb, it’s less difficult to understand why no one on that side of the argument has stepped forward to condemn violence committed in the name of Allah. Now living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, the Islamic preacher, scholar and reformist Fethullah Gülen is as close to a recognized spokesman for his co-religionists as anyone else on the planet. He teaches a Hanafi version of Islam — known as Hizmet, meaning service in Turkish — deriving from Sunni Muslim scholar Said Nursî’s teachings and Sufism. The secular leadership of Turkey so fears Gülen’s ability to inspire a parallel government, sufficiently powerful to impose its Islamic will on the nation, that it continually harasses and jails his followers. At first glance, the Gülen introduced to us in the documentary exists as the Bernie Sanders of Islam. Among other things, he promotes direct social activism, serving the poor and destitute, benevolent capitalism, traditional education and interfaith dialogue. He also believes that women play an essential role in the religion and science and faithreligion can co-exist in the network of schools he’s built here and around the globe.

At 55 minutes, however, Love Is a Verb begs almost as many questions as it attempts to answer. Foremost among them is why he prefers not to become the spokesman so many of us would love to see on talk shows and the speakers’ circuit. (Like everyone else, Gülen would probably love to live the rest of his life without having to fear a suicide bomber knocking on the gates of his 26-acre compound.). Despite the awards garnered by Gülen’s charter schools and graduates, are they immune from dogmaticto manipulation or a narrowing of values? If, as assumed, he favors sharia law over the current Turkish judicial system and corrupt secular elites, can it co-exist with modernist ideals. At 75, it’s also worth asking if Gülen has established a line of succession that can stand up to less moderate forces inside Turkey and beyond it, or, for that matter, the Pentagon.

For the last four years, reporters and lumberjacks have vied for dubious title of Worst Job in America, according to CareerCast.com. While I can understand why logging would be an unappealing career to pursue – if only because it’s extremely dangerous – it’s difficult to fathom how being a reporter ranks so low. Perhaps, it’s because the folks at CareerCast.com have an increasingly difficult time placing candidates for lucrative positions and job security for people older than 45 is almost non-existent. It sure beats yelling, “Timber,” or dodging falling trees for a living. In Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s disturbing documentary, Shadows of Liberty, several distinguished journalists describe why they’ve fallen out of love with their jobs. In the cases described here, it’s because the heyday of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers ended when the government allowed international conglomerates to purchase prominent media interests and milk them for every cent they could. In doing so, company brass began to kowtow to government agencies and the White House, for any number of bad reasons. The reporters remind us of several high-profile investigations – weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the CIA/Contra/crack conspiracy — that were successfully quashed or twisted from on high and one, at least, that was deemed too hot to handle, entirely. As alarming as this stuff is, solid reporting couldn’t prevent the re-election of George W. Bush, the rise of the Tea Party, iconization of the Kardashians and emergence of Donald Trump as a political force. Among those testifying here are Dan Rather, Julian Assange, Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Goodman and former CIA agent Robert Baer. The doc was originally released in 2012 and things have only gotten worse since then.

One needn’t be a dog lover to admire Gorman Bechard’s A Dog Named Gucci or even someone who’s owned a pet. All that’s necessary is a heart and profound sense of fairness for all living things. It opens with the horrifying story of Gucci, a 10-week old chow-shepherd mix, that was hung by his neck by aspiring teen sociopaths, beat up, doused with lighter fluid, and set afire. Doug James, standing on his porch nearby, heard the puppy’s cries and ran to help. After taking in the poor thing, at the request of Gucci’s 15-year-old runaway owner, he turned to specialists at Auburn University to nourish its recovery. What happened next is just as remarkable. When the perpetrators were given a slap on the wrist, James would convince local legislators to push for the passage of the “Gucci Bill,” making domestic animal abuse a felony. As word of the victory spread, Gucci’s story would inspire advocates in other states to follow the same strategy. Bechard, whose previous focus was on rom-coms and music videos, emphasizes how social media now allows people to maintain a network for the protection of domestic animals and strengthening of laws to prevent and punish it.

Normally, the last thing on the mind of business executives is the health, comfort and well-being of their office-bound employees. The more uniform the environment, the less work it will take the custodial workers to keep the place tidy. The easier the task, the fewer the number of employees are needed on the payroll, leaving more money for stockholders and budget-obsessed bosses. Too often, though, such exercises in corporate conformity cause morale, loyalty and productivity to plummet and absenteeism and turnover to rise. Stephen R. Kellert and Bill Finnegan’s documentary, Biophilic Design, makes a convincing case for so-called green architecture that humanizes the workplace by bringing the outdoors in and uses sustainable materials in creative ways. The concept is shown to work in hospitals, schools and other places where people need to be reminded of their natural roots.

TV-to-DVD

Syfy: Haven: Complete Final Season: Blu-ray

PBS: The Human Face of Big Data

PBS: Nova: Himalayan Megaquake

Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: Troubled Hearts

It’s difficult for any television series to sustain a gimmick as far-fetched as the one that lured fans of “Haven” to Syfy for five seasons. It helps, of course, that the network could promote the connection between the show and the Stephen King novel, “The Colorado Kid.” As is frequently the case with cable-based series, “Haven” opened in the summer of 2010, absent the kind of competition it might have faced two months later, when the more prominent networks introduced supernatural series of their own. The series opened with Emily Rose playing FBI special agent Audrey Parker, who is assigned to the small Maine town of Haven, where strange things happen to seemingly normal people. It doesn’t take long for her to experience “The Troubles,” a plague of paranormal afflictions that have occurred in the town at least twice in the past. As it turns out, Audrey is amenable to possibility that things in Haven really do go bump in the night and someday one of those things could lead her to the mother she has never known. In Season Five, the protagonists struggle to keep the town’s secrets under wraps, even under the watchful eyes of a smart CDC doctor, who comes to believe that there may be an underlying genetic marker to the Troubles. In the final 13 of 26 episodes of the fifth season, Haven has been cut off from the rest of the world by a mysterious fog bank. Through journeys into the past, the future and the very fabric between worlds, events in Haven hurtle towards a cataclysmic showdown. Patient fans will welcome the secret behind the “Croatoan” mystery. Special features 13 “Inside Haven” featurettes and commentary tracks; interviews with Eric Balfour, Lucas Bryant, William Shatner, Adam Copeland and producer Shawn Piller; a mythology refresher; and backgrounders. DVD buyer should be aware that the first 13 episodes of the final season already have been released.

After Edward Snowden became Public Enemy No. 1 by revealing the extent of spying – or, perhaps, the tip of the espionage iceberg – on people who may or may not have anything to do with terrorism, Americans were given something homegrown to replace the Red Scare. Any sense of security we’d developed over access to our financial, political and personal information vanished overnight. PBS’ “The Human Face of Big Data” argues that not everything in the digital universe is an open secret. The massive gathering and analyzing of data in real time is allowing us to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges, not all of which have anything to do with national security. This film captures the promise and peril of this extraordinary knowledge revolution.

On April 25, 2015, a devastating earthquake rocked Nepal. As it ripped across the Himalayas, it wiped out villages and left thousands dead or stranded, as were climbers preparing to tackle Mount Everest. Through dramatic eyewitness footage, expert interviews and stunning graphics, NOVA’s “Himalayan Megaquake” takes viewers beyond the pictures of destruction by exploring what we can learn from the deadly combination of earthquakes and landslides. If it seems as if NOVA’s producers are Johnny-on-the-spot whenever a large natural disaster, it’s only because they are.

In “Troubled Hearts,” the latest DVD release from Hallmark Channel’s “When Calls the Heart” series, big revelations are in store for Hope Valley as Elizabeth moves into her own house, dismaying Jack, who has been planning to build a new home for the both of them. Rosemary discovers that Lee has taken out a loan and worries that he is in financial difficulties. And Jesse, the young drifter who works in Abigail’s kitchen, has information that could ruin Pastor Frank’s good standing in Hope Valley.

The DVD Wrapup: Burns on Robinson, The Force Awakens, Dylan/Zappa, Jorg Buttgereit, Tony Perkins and more

Friday, April 15th, 2016

PBS: Ken Burns: Jackie Robinson: Blu-ray

Considering that Ken Burns put a tight focus on Jackie Robinson several times in his epochal 1994 documentary series, “Baseball,” and MLB has bent over backwards since 1997 to remind a new generation of fans of his significance to the game and beyond, it may seem curious that he would devote another four hours to this great African-American athlete and humanitarian. Fact is, though, there isn’t a superfluous moment in the entire 240-minute length of PBS’ tremendously compelling “Ken Burns: Jackie Robinson.” Rachel Robinson, his widow, convinced Burns to return to refocus on Jackie, who died, in 1972, at 53, to chronicle his off-the-field life in a separate bio-doc. In addition to covering his baseball career in greater detail, Burns, his daughter, Sarah Burns, and her husband, David McMahon (“The Central Park Five”) assembled interviews, photographs, reportage and other archival material, covering the hall-of-famer’s life from cradle to the grave. As such, the new documentary exists as an unexpected epilogue to Burns’ “The Civil War,” in that issues left unresolved by that conflagration have haunted black Americans – even those as prominent as Robinson — ever since Reconstruction. Instead of erasing the Original Sin of slavery by eradicating Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the South, Congress so wanted to maintain the illusion of national unity it allowed the defeated rebels everything they would needed to subjugate their former slaves and their ancestors. Today, the ongoing dilution of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Robinson and other civil-rights leaders demanded be enacted, could once again disenfranchise minority voters in states controlled by Tea Party Republicans. Burns’ film reminds us of the fact that Robinson never was able to escape the shadow of racism. Once the Dodger great hung up his cleats, he was condemned by whites and black Americans for taking an advocacy position on something more important than who deserves to start in the all-star game. Because his personal stand differed from the one taken by other civil-rights activists, Robinson started taking heat from those whose cheers once rang through stadiums everywhere. Among the things that went unremarked in official MLB celebrations marking the breaking of the color barrier was Robinson’s contrarian view of American politics. As Burns points out, because Robinson didn’t believe Democrats were sincere in their pledges to end segregation, he considered Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller greater hopes for racial justice than JFK and LBJ. It wasn’t until Barry Goldwater ignored black Republicans at the 1964 convention and Nixon embraced estranged Dixiecrats in 1968 that the Hall of Famer surrendered to political reality.

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919. After his parents divorced in 1920, his mother decided to move the family to Pasadena, California, where the children might avoid a future that only promised a life in the cotton fields. Instead, the Robinsons would encounter racism and police harassment in a city that, on its surface, was so unlike the region they’d left. If the memory of the Robinson brothers’ athletic feats is now a great source of pride for the City of Roses – older sibling, Mack, placed second to Jesse Owens in the 200 meters at 1936 Berlin Games, while Jack lettered in four sports at UCLA – it took a while for the scope of their achievements to be recognized off the fields of play. After being drafted into an officially segregated army, it would take heavyweight champion Joe Louis’ help to keep him from being anything more than a grunt among grunts in a war ostensibly against intolerance, bigotry and fascism. Even after Jackie was accepted into the army’s Officer Candidate School and commissioned as a second lieutenant, he would face court-martial for refusing a bus driver’s order to move to the back of an unsegregated bus commissioned by the army. He would be acquitted, but the proceedings prevented Robinson from joining the all-black 761st Tank Battalion in its deployment to Europe. In early 1945, while Robinson was coaching at Sam Huston College, the Kansas City Monarchs sent him a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues. And, as they say, the rest is sports history. Still, the only place Jackie and Rachel wouldn’t be confronted with the ugliness of racism and segregation was in Canada, during his time with the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League. Summer 1949 would bring another unwanted distraction for Robinson. In July 1949, the reigning National League MVP even was required to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities concerning statements made by athlete, actor and unrepentant communist Paul Robeson. If Robinson had declined to address the issue or defended Robeson’s First Amendment rights, he might have been sanctioned by the league. He managed to dodge that high fastball, but the tar would prove difficult to wash away. Rachel Robinson, even more so than such baseball greats as Don Newcomb, Carl Erskine and Willie Mays, singer Carly Simon and President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle, steals the show with her lucid recollections of what life was like for them during both the darkest and brightest periods in their professional and personal lives. Several less-known historians, journalists, friends and activists are given the by-now familiar Burns’ interview treatment. This is terrific stuff. The archival material shown in the Blu-ray presentation benefits from a fresh hi-def scrubbing.

Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Blu-ray

Back in 1999, when Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace was about to debut on a few screens, I spent time on Hollywood Boulevard interviewing fans who’d camped out in front of the Chinese Theater to get the best seats on opening night. In a very real sense, they’d been waiting for 16 years for the prequel trilogy to arrive, minus the tents and instant access to countless T-shirt shops and the Scientology center. The Hollywood & Highland complex and then-Kodak Theater were still on the drawing board, so the campers provided the biggest free show in La La Land. I even was able to tear one of them away from the makeshift community to attend a press screening just ahead of the first midnight show. Even if, at first, my companion debated the protocol in getting a head start on his pals, they encouraged him to do it. On the way to Westwood, he literally was trembling in anticipation of watching “Episode I” before almost anyone else in the world. When we returned to the encampment, it was all he could do to refrain from spoiling the fun for his fellow Warriors and Internet geeks who were monitoring the activities on Hollywood Boulevard via a primitive pre-Skype hookup. While “Episode 1” did well enough at the box office, I can’t recall many fans lining up more than a few hours for “Attack of the Clones” or “Revenge of the Sith.” The thrill was definitely gone. It returned when Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens opened huge and grew even bigger here and overseas, setting records as the pre-Christmas rush continued into the new year. How much of the pent-up anticipation was inspired by producer Kathleen Kennedy’s confirmation of speculation that Jar-Jar Binks and the Ewoks were 86’d from “Episode VII” – one of the very few leaks to emerge from the set – is impossible to gauge. With J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) at the helm and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) returning to the fold, passionate fans must have been encouraged. Clearly, someone at Disney must have convinced franchise creator George Lucas to sit this one out and obsess on something other than creating characters that appealed to pre-teens and could be exploited in toy stores, video games, slot machines, TV spinoffs, books and product-licensing deals.

 

Nonetheless, the largest part of what makes “The Force Awakens” so appealing is the non-gimmicky way beloved characters, as well as actors Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, have been re-integrated and in more substantial roles than cameos. The decision to make Daisy Ridley’s scrappy Jakkuian scavenger, Rey, the heroine could have backfired, as well, with predominantly male geeks. Instead, she fits right into the mix. I’m still not sold on Adam Driver (“Girls”) as the conflicted antagonist, Kylo Ren, but that’s probably because I identify him with the hipster characters he’s played in previous indie dramedies. The son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, Ren is consumed by a desire to emulate the legacy of his Sith Lord grandfather, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. He even goes so far as to wear a black mask in his honor. Andy Serkis plays the hologramic Snoke, supreme leader of the First Order, who controls the dark side of Ren’s personality, while the light side lurks deeply sublimated in his DNA. The sinister First Order rose from the ashes of the Empire and is still consumed with the possibility that Luke, the last Jedi, will emerge from hiding and quash its plans to conquer the galaxy. With Luke gone, the burden is taken up by Rey, Solo, Chewbacca and Finn, a defecting Stormtrooper. The inner characters’ inner conflicts are balanced by much outstanding action in the skies above D’Qar, in its snow forest and Snoke’s Starkiller Base, with advanced airborne weaponry and, finally, lightsabers. The Blu-ray, which looks and sounds terrific, is further enhanced by a separate disc containing an extensive making-of featurette, deleted scenes, interviews, table reads and location visits.

 

Bob Dylan: Triumvirate

 

Frank Zappa: In His Own Words

 

I receive a dozen, or so, discs each year from MVD Visual, in which celebrated musicians are profiled without their specific authorization or participation. In addition to footage borrowed from music videos, free concerts and other public-domain events, they include interviews with old friends and entertainment reporters, studio technicians, session musicians and learned critics, mostly of the British persuasion. Some of these clip shows are better than others, but few deserve unequivocal praise. While I expected some interesting material to emerge from Bob Dylan: Triumvirate and Frank Zappa: In His Own Words, I wasn’t prepared to be as entertained as I was by them. Typically, Dylan and Zappa – before the guitar wizard’s untimely death in 1993, at 52 — have proven to be hugely elusive, famously enigmatic and occasionally antagonistic targets for interviewers. Nonetheless, the MVD catalogue, alone, offers some 60 DVD and CD titles on various stages of Dylan’s career and 30 on Zappa. As unsanctioned as the material may be, they represent a treasure trove for fan-atics. The first two discs in Triumvirate cover the years 1961-65, during which Dylan evolved from struggling refugee from the frozen tundra of Minnesota to emerging genius and potential threat to the international folk music establishment. Dylan buffs will already have seen and heard most of it in previous documentaries, in unauthorized biographies, Martin Scorsese’s “No Direction Home” and his autobiography, “Chronicles.” It’s the third disc, containing vintage interviews conducted in tour stops around the world and including his “60 Minutes” session with Ed Bradley, that makes this set essential. What sets these interviews apart is how happy and outgoing he appears to be in person and in the forthcoming responses he gives the reporters, most of whom aren’t in the same league with Bradley. He tells stories, laughs easily and opens up about his influences. It’s a side of the man I haven’t seen, unless one goes back to his interchanges with Johnny Cash on the country giant’s TV show. They almost serve to contradict the wiseass attitude Dylan revealed to hostile mainstream reporters in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” shot back in 1965. The MVD/Collector’s Forum label recently released a similarly inclusive three-disc package on Leonard Cohen, also titled “Triumvirate.”

 

Likewise, Frank Zappa: In His Own Words showcases the iconoclastic musician at his most casual and chatty. In interviews recorded in Scandinavia, England and Australia, he cuts the largely uninformed interviewers a lot of slack with responses that are informative and absent snark, impatience or cynicism. In one panel discussion, the only thing the talk-show host appears to be interested in learning is the role groupies play in the rock world. Duh. Others clearly wondered why all of his albums weren’t as funny or caustic as the early Mothers of Invention material. (I was reminded of Joni Mitchell’s observation, “Nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!’ He painted it and that was it”) Frank really perks up whenever a reporter chooses to discuss his forays into classical music and the threat posed by then-Second Lady Tipper Gore and Parents Music Resource Center.

 

Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit: Blu-ray

 

Bride of Re-Animator: Limited Edition: Blu-ray

 

If a subgenre has been reserved for transgressive cinema, surely German filmmaker Jorg Buttgereit’s unparalleled work tops the rather short list of truly grotesque, unsettling and overtly anti-social titles only hard-core fans should be encouraged to watch before they die. Only those viewers who fully comprehend the risks to the brain of watching such provocations should attempt Cult Epics’ daring “Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit.” This carefully archived collection is comprised of his most noteworthy underground feature-length films: two versions of Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2, Der Todesking (“The Death King”) and Schramm, all in uncut and uncensored hi-def, as well as the documentary, “Corpse F*****g Art” and short films “Hot Love,” “A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein,” “Horror Heaven,” “Bloody Excess in the Führer’s Bunker” and “My Father.” Add commentaries, making-of featurettes, separate soundtrack CD’s, a 40-page booklet containing interviews and photos with Buttgereit and collaborators, and trailers, and you’ve got the cinematic equivalent of a medieval slaughterhouse. Of special interest to collectors are Buttergreit’s music video, “Half Girl,” a live concert presentation of Nekromantik 2 and new art design by Silver Ferox. As transgressive as the films collected here may be, at least it’s clear there’s a mind at work behind them, which is more than one can say for Tom Six’s The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence).

 

And, while we’re on the subject, there’s Arrow Video’s Blu-ray upgrade of Bride of Re-Animator, the inevitable, if unnecessary sequel to Stuart Gordon’s horror/comedy,Re-Animator (1985). That cult classic was adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Re-Animator.” Its success helped open the floodgates to dozens of other films inspired by Lovecraft’s work. Not only is Gordon’s hand missing from the sequel, but so, too, are freshly conceived characters from the author’s canon. As producer of Re-Animator, Brian Yuzna (Society) was as logical a choice to replace Gordon as anyone. He was well aware of the need to create a solid balance of gory horror, inky black humor and T&A. The sequel is set eight months after the events of the original, with the nutso scientist Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) and his reluctant assistant Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) in Peru performing illegal experiments on soldiers killed in a civil war. (Did I miss something?) Once back in the U.S.A., West continues his experimentation on corpses stolen from the graveyard next-door and the heart ripped from Cain’s dying lover (Mary Sheldon). If the bright yellow serum is effective in re-animating corpses, it also has the unexpected consequence of turning them into ferociously aggressive zombies. The less time viewers spend scrutinizing the narrative, the longer they can savor the cagey humor in the interaction between mortician Dr. Graves (Mel Stewart) and the disembodied head of Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), as well as the creations of special-effects master Screaming Mad George. Arrow’s fully upgraded three-disc set contains 2K restorations of the unrated and R-rated versions of the film; original Stereo 2.0 audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray), newly commissioned artwork, by Gary Pullin; a limited-edition booklet and packaging; fresh commentary with Brian Yuzna, alone, and alongside Combs, visual effects supervisor Tom Rainone and the effects team John Buechler, Mike Deak, Bob Kurtzman, Howard Berger and Screaming Mad George; another commentary track with Combs and Abbott; and featurettes “Brian Yuzna Remembers Bride of Re-Animator,” “Splatter Masters: The Special Effects Artists of Bride of Re-Animator” and “Getting Ahead in Horror”; and deleted scenes.

 

Village of the Damned: Blu-ray

 

Destroyer/Edge of Sanity: Blu-ray

 

In an interview conducted for the Blu-ray edition of his 1995 Village of the Damned, John Carpenter acknowledges that he agreed to remake Wolf Rilla’s sci-fi/horror classic, released in 1960, in return for the money necessary to put his stamp on Creature from the Black Lagoon. I don’t know what happened to that project or the money promised to him. (Wes Craven’s Swamp Thingprobably would have sated most horror fans’ appetite for such a thing.) One reason the original black-and-whiteVillage of the Damned was so scary is that it was among the first to suggest that a sinister force could control the destiny of children born to unsuspecting parents. Like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the children in Village of the Damned appear to have been engineered to conform to certain social and political norms, before growing up to become mindless communists, fascists or pawns of an intergalactic Caesar. The idea would be revisited in The Boys from Brazil (1978) and other movies about the cloned spawn of Adolf Hitler. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. How else to explain Ted Cruz? Besides adding color to the movie, Carpenter relocated the story to an isolated rural community in northern California and chose to tell it from the point of view of the women who were impregnated during the mysterious blackout period. Standing in the children’s way is Dr. Alan Chaffee (Christopher Reeve), whose own daughter is among the damned kids, and a scientist (Kirstie Alley) who stole the only stillborn baby from the mass maternity ward and is conducting experiments on it. Linda Kozlowski (Crocodile Dundee) plays the mother of a boy who might actually possess a conscience. The children are sufficiently scary and evil, but the addition of color tends to flatten the impact of their laser-beam eyes. So does our familiarity with the conceit and the absence of a convincing perpetrator of the mass pregnancy. That mostly applies to adult viewers and sci-fi buffs, however. Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is well enough made to scare first-timers. Special features include “It Takes A Village: The Making of ‘Village of the Damned’,” featuring interviews with Carpenter, producer Sandy King, actors Michael Pare, Peter Jason, Karen Kahn, Meredith Salenger, Thomas Dekker, Cody Dorkin, Lindsey Haun, Danielle Wiener-Keaton and make-up effects artist Greg Nicotero; “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” revisiting the locations of the film; “The Go-To Guy,” Peter Jason on John Carpenter; vintage interviews with Carpenter, Reeve, Alley, Kozlowski, Mark Hamill and Wolf Rilla; a stills gallery; and vintage behind-the-scenes footage. It would be Reeves’ final feature role, before being paralyzed in an equestrian accident involving a horse used in the film.

 

The common element in the Scream Factory double feature,Destroyer/Edge of Sanity is Anthony Perkins, who made the pictures back-to-back in 1988-89. While far from his prime as an actor – he would die a couple of years later from complications of AIDS – the 57-year-old star ofPsycho still was capable of raising goosebumps when the occasion arose.

 

In the women-behind-bars flick, Destroyer, Perkins’ replaced Roddy McDowall on short notice. He plays a director making an exploitation picture in a prison that, 18 months earlier, had been the site of a botched execution and terrible riot. The place is still haunted by the spirit of Moser (Lyle Alzado), a muscle-bound freak who defied death in the electric chair and is obsessed with the picture’s star, Deborah Foreman. (All of the female inmates wear stockings, a garter belt and heels.) While the picture is flimsy around the edges, Alzado’s menacing presence is enough to keep viewers from dozing off in mid-scene.

 

In Edge of Sanity, Perkins pulls double duty as the rational Dr. Henry Jekyll to the murderous Jack Hyde, who, after his alter ego freebases cocaine, might commit crimes historically attributed to Jack the Ripper. Jekyll’s sexual inadequacies cause him to take to the streets and brothels of London as Hyde. His gorgeous wife, Elizabeth (Glynis Barber), does charity work with the working girls of Whitechapel, some of whom have had near-misses with the monstrous Hyde, who she only knows as Henry. Gérard Kikoïne’s thriller benefits from some very convincing design work and cinematography, which recalls the heyday of Hammer Films.

 

Bannister: Everest on the Track

 

In 1952, when Queen Elizabeth II ascended to the throne, Britain pretty much defined what it meant to win the war, but lose the peace. Work was scarce and financing for ambitious projects, including the 1948 Olympics, was even tougher to secure. The empire had shrunk dramatically, while the U.S. and Soviet Union, vied for the title of world’s most dominant superpower. What the shrinking commonwealth desperately needed was something to stiffen its citizens’ upper lips. The first such event made headlines on the same day as the queen’s long-delayed coronation, when a British mountaineering team led by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. A year later, medical student Roger Bannister would accomplish a feat many people also thought to be impossible. On May 6, 1954, at Iffley Road track in Oxford, he became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. Given the number of climbers and runners who’ve done the same thing in the past 60-plus years, it would be easy to argue that both giant leaps for mankind were inevitable, thanks to modern training methods and advanced equipment. The same could be said about the first lunar mission. Tom Ratcliffe and Jeremy Mosher’s no-frills documentary, Bannister: Everest on the Track, does a nice job setting the stage for the worldwide acclaim and honors bestowed on Hillary and Bannister as soon as the news spread around the world. They use vintage interviews to capture the excitement and frustrations that accompanied Bannister’s mission. Unlike almost everyone else who would follow in his pin-spiked footprints, he was a student first and athlete second. He practiced when it didn’t interfere with his studies and even showed up for work on the day he would set the record. Bannister: Everest on the Track isn’t the kind of film that is likely to get any young athlete’s heart racing, but, in the run-up to the Summer Olympics, there are far less entertaining ways to kill 70 minutes,

 

TV-to-DVD

 

Samson and Delilah: The Bible Stories

 

David: The Bible Stories

 

CNN Documents Babylon 5

 

PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 3

 

PBS: Frontline: Supplements & Safety

 

Sisters: Season Four

 

The latest installments in executive producer Gerald Rafshoon’s series of made-for-TV bible epics are “Samson and Delilah” and “David,” which debuted here in the mid-1990s on Turner Network Television before moving into the ancillary markets and the Trinity network under various banners. The Shout! Factory editions are being released as “The Bible Stories.” Like most chapters in the Old Testament, they would appear to have been written in anticipation of God’s vision for Hollywood – Sodom & Gomorrah West – in mind. Checking in at or around three hours in length, they featured actors known to audiences around the world and behind-the-camera talent with experience on feature films. The timeless Moroccan locations added a palpable air of period authenticity, as well. What distinguishes Nicolas Roeg’s “Samson and Delilah” from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Technicolor pageant – besides the unlikely pairing of Roeg and the Book of Judges – is the presence of Dennis Hopper, Elizabeth Hurley, Eric Thal, Michael Gambon and Diana Rigg in some of the same roles played by Victor Mature, Hedy Lamar, George Sanders, Henry Wilcoxon and a young and surprisingly hot Angela Lansbury. Although there are many discernible differences in the two movies, the basic framework is still visible. God imbues in Samson the supernatural strength necessary to battle the Philistines, who kept the Israelites under their collective thumb. After scoring several miraculous triumphs, Samson famously succumbs to forbidden pleasures of the flesh and loses his precious hair in the process. Lesson learned, Samson is allowed one more opportunity to serve God and punish the Philistines. If nothing else, Roeg (Walkabout) demonstrates that he’s still comfortable making movies about forbidden love in desert settings.

 

Robert Markowitz’ 1997 interpretation of the story of David faced competition that was even fresher in the minds of fans of bible epics. In addition to Henry King’s David and Bathsheba and, indirectly, King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba, from the 1950s, there were Bruce Beresford’s 1985King David, starring Richard Gere and Alice Krige, and, a year later, the animated David and Goliath, with Robby Benson voicing the future king. At 190 minutes, David was accorded plenty of time to expand on the anointing of the shepherd boy (Nathaniel Parker) as future king of Israel by the prophet Samuel (Leonard Nimoy), through his slaying of Goliath, the tests presented by King Saul (Jonathan Pryce) and the seduction of Bathsheeba (Sheryl Lee), and on to the succession struggle with their sons. It’s a thrilling story, which continues to reverberate today in Jerusalem.

 

Not having watched a single episode of “Babylon 5,” I’d be one of the last people to judge anything related to its story or position in the hierarchy of episodic sci-fi shows. Based on what I’ve heard from people I respect, however, the series was admired by the kind of viewers who read things other than science-fiction and don’t aspire to being buried in a model of the bridge of the Enterprise. Although the ratings didn’t match those of the various “Star Trek” offshoots, its demographic appeal was sterling. In a sense, “Babylon 5” was the flagship of the ambitious, if short-lived Prime Time Entertainment Network, which only existed from 1993 to 1997. The show would be revived for a fifth and final season, beginning in 1998, by TNT. Series creator J. Michael Straczynski reportedly conceived of “Babylon 5”as, fundamentally, a five-year novel for television. “CNN Documents Babylon 5” offers diehard fans something unusual to the point of being unique. In anticipation of special news presentation, CNN producers were invited to the sets and stages used to create “Babylon 5” to conduct lengthy background interviews and collect footage to accompany the edited chats and clips. In any such report, hours of videotape might produce a mere10-15 minutes of footage, which will supplement a staff reporter’s narrative. The CNN package is comprised of five hours of vintage material: three hours of never-before-released video and two hours of bonus content. It is broken into five “encounters”: “Behind the Scenes,” “Behind the Scenes With Tour Guide Jason Davis,” “Complete Interviews,” “Complete Interviews With Video Footnotes” and “20 Years Later,” a picture-in-picture look back with Jerry Doyle and Claudia Christian.”

 

The third season compilation of “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Gates Jr., continues to examine our nation’s fascinating ethnic mixture. The show employs traditional genealogical research and genetics to discover the family history of well-known Americans. The pairings include Donna Brazile, Ty Burrell and Kara Walker; Bill O’Reilly, Bill Maher and Soledad O’Brien; Shonda Rhimes, Maya Rudolph and Keenen Ivory Wayans; Bill Hader, Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear; Richard Branson, Frank Gehry and Maya Lin; Sean Combs and LL Cool J; Patricia Arquette, John McCain and Julianne Moore; Sandra Cisneros, Neil Patrick Harris and Gloria Steinem; Lidia Bastianich, Julianna Margulies and Azar Nafisi; and Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.

 

In “Supplements & Safety,” PBS’ “Frontline” tackles the booming $30 billion industry built on vitamins and other dietary supplements. It’s estimated that half of all Americans take a health supplement every day, ranging from fish oil to multivitamins to diet pills. Some 85,000 supplements currently are on the market, which is largely unregulated and tests the limits of FDA regulators. The lack of proof in labelling has also become a hazard to consumers.

 

The early highlight of Season Four of NBC’s women-first drama, “Sisters,” is the addition of George Clooney as police detective James Falconer, who’s assigned to Cat’s (Heather McAdam) rape case and grows close to Teddy (Sela Ward). Jo Anderson (“Roswell”) also joins an already strong supporting cast as Dr. Charlotte ‘Charley’ Bennett. Otherwise, Season Four “Sisters” provides the same bewildering tangle of melodrama, drama, humor, tragedy and out-of-the-blue surprises as it did for six heart-tugging, gut-wrenching seasons.

 

The DVD Wrapup: Stealing Cars, Dixieland, Great Hypnotist, The Forest, Dreams Rewired, Giallo, Zydeco, Alice’s Restaurant and more

Friday, April 8th, 2016

Stealing Cars

If this affecting teen drama had been made in the 1930s, it might have starred Mickey Rooney as the most unrepentant juvenile delinquent in a reform school full of hard cases. Or, it could have provided the perfect ensemble vehicle for the Dead End Kids, with Leo Gorcey standing up to the brutal screws and finding redemption in the nifty car he’s assigned to wax for the warden. In Stealing Cars, Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines) plays the self-destructive Billy Wyatt, a too-smart-for-his-own-good wiseass whose criminal behavior lands him in the Bernville Camp for Boys. Seemingly without any concern for his own safety, Billy shoves his education in the faces of the guards and fellow hoodlums, alike. Moreover, by defending the hapless, undersized Jewish inmate, Nathan (Al Calderon), Billy effectively deprives the camp’s bullies of a convenient punching bag. Both boys take the brunt of the head guard’s sadistic behavior, as well. Soon enough, it becomes clear that director Bradley J. Kaplan and screenwriters Will Aldis and Steve Mackall have created Billy Wyatt in the same mold as Paul Newman, in Cool Hand Luke, and Jack Nicholson, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That the young man isn’t invested with the same rebellious charm and charisma as those two great actors has less to do with Cohen’s acting chops and more to do with the fact that Bernville really isn’t the hellhole the filmmakers would like us to believe it is … except, perhaps, for Nathan. John Leguizamo isn’t bad as Warden Montgomery De La Cruz, who treats his classic automobile as if it were the world’s most expensive blow-up doll. He makes the effort to help Billy, by separating him from the rabble, but loses the teen’s respect when he ignores the abuse being heaped on Nathan. Now that society seemingly has embraced the out-of-sight/out-of-mind philosophy when it comes to correctional facilities for troubled kids, it’s laudatory that the filmmakers have shone a spotlight on a problem most of us refuse to acknowledge. As such,Stealing Cars isn’t nearly as urgent as, say, Rick Rosenthal and Richard Di Lello’s powerful 1983 reform-school drama, Bad Boys, which starred Sean Penn, Esai Morales and Ally Sheedy. Still, it has its moments. Nice work is also turned in by Heather Lind (“TURN: Washington’s Spies”), as the camp’s nurse and Billy’s love interest, and, in cameos, Felicity Hoffman, William H. Macy and Mike Epps.

Dixieland

I’m perfectly aware that “poor white trash” is no longer an acceptable way to describe no-account individuals from the rural South, whose principal interests in life appear to be procuring drugs, performing and/or drinking in strip clubs and worshiping the gun gods. Based solely on the evidence provided viewers in Hank Bedford’s surprisingly compelling Dixieland, there’s practically no other way to encapsulate the motivations of the characters, who define what it means to be dismissed thusly. Chris Zylka (“The Leftovers”) is convincing as Kermit, a handsome young man incarcerated for attempting to shoot his mother’s lover, when he caught them diddling each other in a hot tub. His father, a drug dealer, was killed when Kermit was still a boy, leaving his mother (Faith Hill, in white-trash drag) to support them by dancing in a strip club run by a guy who demands sexual favors of “his” girls. Kermit isn’t out of jail more than 24 hours, when hooks up with Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road), who lives in the double-wide trailer next-door and, likewise, has turned to dancing to pay for her mama’s cancer treatments. When the same greasy club owner attempts to put his mitts on Rachel, Kermit arrives in the nick of time to preserve her honor … such as it is. Worse, perhaps, he’s agreed to help Rachel pay off her debts by risking parole to act as courier for a $50,000 shipment of marijuana. All things being equal, Kermit would prefer training to become a barber to running drugs, like his daddy, but it isn’t in the stars. As unappetizing as all that might sound, Dixieland is salvaged by some fine acting, a rootsy country-music score and redneck atmospherics provided by the Mississippi Film Office. Also making memorable cameos are singer-songwriter Steve Earle and wrestler Mick Foley. (Need I remind anyone that the up-and-coming Keough is the eldest grandchild of Elvis and actress Priscilla Presley?) I know, perfect. The DVD adds deleted scenes and an interview with Bedford.

The Great Hypnotist

For reasons that, perhaps, can be laid at the doorstep of China’s censorship board, it’s unusual for a western-style psycho-thriller to find its way into circulation in the PRC. I don’t know the Communist Party’s official policy on hypnotherapy, but it’s not likely to be as accepted a practice as, say, acupuncture, tai chi or herbal medicine. Leste Chen’s The Great Hypnotist appears to have been influenced, at least, by Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and M. Night Shyamalan’sThe Sixth Sense, as well as the surrealistic imagery of Salvador Dali. Hypnotherapist Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) finds his nationally recognized talents severely tested when a colleague asks him to take on a case involving a young woman, Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok), who claims to be haunted by the appearances of dead people. The harder Xu tries to find a solution for Ren’s dilemma, the deeper he finds himself in a psychological quagmire that might involve his own personal demons. Although much of the story takes place inside the doctor’s chambers, The Great Hypnotist opens up when Ren’s dream state is induced. If Chen had been free to add some giallo tropes to the story, it might have resembled Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (reviewed below). It wouldn’t have passed muster with the censors, but might have been fun to watch, anyway.

#Horror: Blu-ray

Veteran actor Tara Subkoff’s first feature film as writer/director feels as if it were inspired by a parent’s frustration at watching a pre-teen daughter and her friends communicate exclusively through social media, even when they’re sitting across the dinner table from each other.#Horror also is informed by the national plague of cyber-bullying. These may not be the most original of themes, but Subkoff has managed to merge both elements into a frequently horrifying experience both for teenage viewers and their parents. Likely influenced by the Internet’s “Slender Man” phenomenon – a sinister fictional character that originated as a meme – which has been cited in several acts of violence among teens. Here, a group of self-absorbed and obscenely privileged pre-teen girls take their obsession with a bewildering online game way too far. In a posh suburban setting that recalls Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, the precocious cabal is allowed free rein of a glass-walled house, with an indoor swimming pool and dozens of hideous art pieces that scream, “nouveau riche.” While parents played by Chloe Sevigny and Balthazar Getty are away, the kids take turns bullying each other and using objets d’art as toys. When one of the girls, Cat (Haley Murphy), decides she’s taken enough abuse for one day, she takes a shortcut home through the forest. Not a great idea, considering someone possibly impersonating Slender Man has been spying on the girls and already murdered the Alpha Female’s dad, cheating on his wife in a red sports car. Adding to the madness is a rage-laced tirade by Cat’s dad (Timothy Hutton), who threatens the girls with jail, or worse, if something untoward happens to his daughter. Subkoff does a nice job illustrating the more sinister aspects of the online game, incorporating splashy graphics, emogis and animated mayhem. While #Horror is far from perfect, it delivers the goods when necessary, demonstrating just how fragile and vulnerable oh-so-hip teeny-boppers can be when presented with real horror.

The Hallow: Blu-ray

If the name Corin Hardy rings a bell in the heads of horror buffs, it’s likely because they’ve read speculation in the trades that the Irish effects wizard had been hired to direct Relativity’s remake of The Crow. If that no longer appears to be the case, it shouldn’t dissuade anyone from checking out Hardy’s neat debut feature, The Hallow, which suggests that he probably won’t have to wait much longer for his next high-profile project. Boiled to its essence, the modestly budgeted movie is a by-the-book haunted-house thriller, enhanced by a very clever mix of practical effects, animatronics, puppetry, prosthetics and a bit of CGI detailing. In it, a British botanist, his wife and their baby move into an abandoned mill house in scenic Letterfrack, County Galway. Before they can even complain about the closets being too small, they’re warned by a local wag about raising a child so near the forest, which ostensibly is inhabited by faeries, banshees, leprechauns and baby-snatching boogeymen. “Things really do go bump in the night here,” they’re told. The botanist discovers something that’s possibly even more sinister, in the form ofOphiocordyceps unilateralis, an insect-pathogenising growth commonly known as the “zombie fungus.” Need I say more? Hardy’s imagination is sufficiently fertile to take things from there. The Hallow, which has been dedicated to effects wizards Ray Harryhausen, Dick Smith and Stan Winston, stars Joseph Mawle (“Ripper Street”) and Bojana Novakovic (“Shameless”). The Blu-ray adds Hardy’s audio commentary track; the featurette, “Surviving the Fairytale: The Making of ‘The Hallow’” and several more behind-the-scenes bits and production galleries.

Rows; The Forest: Blu-ray

While there’s nothing intrinsically frightening about cornfields – unless one suffers from seasonal allergies – filmmakers have found dozens of ways to use them to the advantage of a good story. In Field of Dreams, Phil Alden Robinson hid a ghostly team of baseball players between the rows of corn. In Casino, just as magically, a truckload of stalks was brought to Las Vegas to stand in for the Indiana cornfield in which the Santoro brothers are brutally murdered. Children of the Corn has produced eight sequels, with another on the drawing board. Real crop circles were carved into the fields M. Night Shyamalan used in Signs. Just as ventriloquist dummies strike fear in children and adults, alike, it’s now impossible to look at a scarecrow without thinking it might come alive and cut one’s throat with his scythe. There are plenty more examples of cornfields being put to sinister use by filmmakers, but you get the picture. Could there be a more succinct title than Rows? Apparently inspired by a Brothers Grimm tale, writer/director/producer David W. Warfield’s psychological thriller takes place in and around a well-tended cornfield that’s enchanted by someone other than the Jolly Green Giant. Because the story is told from at least four separate points of view, while flashing forward and backward at a dizzying frequency, Rows defies easy encapsulation. In some ways it reminded me of the fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, because the protagonist, Rose (Hannah Schick), is captured by a malevolent blond squatter, Haviland (Nancy Murray), when she serves eviction papers at her condemned farmhouse. Her father wants to tear down the house and develop the property into something far more profitable than agriculture. After somehow escaping Haviland’s torture chamber and losing her memory of the ordeal, Rose returns again with her friend, Greta (Lauren Lakis), with shockingly different results. People are repeatedly killed and hidden in the cornfield, where they either are buried or come back to life to torment the perpetrators of the crimes. Despite the neatly parallel rows, the field appears to swallow up the girls, for the purpose of toying with their fragile psyches. Finally, the house, itself, develops a mind of its own and it clearly doesn’t want to be torn down and replaced by condos or a Home Depot. Nevertheless, Warfield doesn’t squander a moment of Rows’ 84-minute running time, returning to the cornfield whenever the other storylines begin to lag.

Historically, haunted and enchanted forests have provided even more fertile ground for purveyors of genre fiction. Today, filmmakers who choose to set their film in Japan’s dense Aokigahara park (a.k.a., Suicide Forest or Sea of Trees), which lies at Mount Fuji’s northwest base, already have half of their work done for them. Because it’s a place where people go to die on their own terms, visitors who stray from the approved pathways are likely to trip over a corpse or bump their head on the feet of a hanging victim. At night, the forest is said to be haunted by the yūrei (angry spirits) of those left to die. I’ve seen a few of the movies set at Aokigahara, mostly Japanese, and they share two basis conceits. One, a hiker ignores the guide’s advice to stay on the well-marked and monitored paths, and 2) at least one of the characters ignores curfew and ends up spending the night with the yūrei. It’s up to the screenwriter to come up with something unique. Jason Zada’s debut feature The Forest, which, like Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, got slammed by the critics, doesn’t break a lot of new ground. Ghost stories are best left to the Japanese and The Fores got tripped up by its own unlikely back story. On the small screen, however, most of its sins are overcome by some atmospheric cinematography and decent special effects. Rising star Natalie Dormer (“Game of Thrones”) plays Sara Price, an American woman who rushes off to Japan after receiving a call from Japanese police informing her that her troubled twin sister, Jess, was seen going into Aokigahara four days earlier and, therefore, is believed dead. After tracing Jess’ footprints from Tokyo to Mount Fugi, Sara strays far enough away from the path to find her sister’s tent. Instead of leaving a note and returning to the hotel, she decides to spend the night with an Aussie journalist who wants to report her story. No need to belabor the obvious, so I’ll leave well enough alone. If The Forest isn’t completely devoid of thrills – jump scares, mostly — there simply aren’t enough of them. Perhaps, if Sara hadn’t found the tent so easily … The handsome Blu-ray adds commentary, a gallery and making-of material.

Tumbledown: Blu-ray

Fans of romantic dramas adapted from the novels of Nicholas Sparks would find more to like in Tumbledown than most other viewers drawn to stars Jason Sudeikis and Rebecca Hall. Although the setting is hundreds of miles north of the author’s beloved Carolina shore, the dynamics at work are nearly the same. Sean Mewshaw’s debut feature, co-written with his wife, Desiree Van Til, describes what happens when “pop-culture scholar” Andrew McDonnell (Sudeikis) travels to Maine to interview Hannah (Hall), the protective widow of a once-promising singer-songwriter who died before his star reached its ascendency. The songs, actually written and performed by Seattle musician Damien Jurado wouldn’t make anyone forget Jackson Brown or Nick Drake, but they possess a soulful authenticity true to the spirit of the deceased artist. Andrew and Hannah don’t exactly hit it off when introduced to each other in a tres-tres quain tbookstore owned by an elder hippie (Griffin Dunne). Even so, they agree to collaborate on a biography, for which Andrew has been accorded extraordinary access to the singer’s tapes and files. Just when it looks as if they’ll begin making some music of their own, Hannah snaps to the reality that they’re both coming at the same subject from different angles. Andrew believes that the singer’s melancholic lyrics reflect a depression that couldn’t be overcome by love, alone, while Hannah and other family members refuse to consider the possibility that his fatal fall from a nearby cliff could have been suicide. Will their creative impasse put a freeze on their budding relationship or will they discover something in the unpublished songs that will bring them together, again? Duh. Actually, the ending offers one or two decent twists, but none that would qualify as surprising. Hall and Sudeikis aren’t required to carry the weight of the schmaltz alone. They get ample support from Blythe Danner and Richard Masur as Hannah’s parents and Dianna Aragon as Sudeikis’ girlfriend, back in the big, bad city. Massachusetts and British Columbia pass easily for Maine, as well.

Dreams Rewired

Using hundreds of clips from films made between the 1880s and 1930s, directors Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode ask us in Dreams Rewired to imagine how the shrinking of the world through electronic communications might have rubbed the genie in the lamp in a way no one foresaw or intended. Consider the fact that during this 50-year period scientists and engineers connected disparate corners of the Earth through telephony and early motion-picture devices to radio and TV. Ideas, too, could spread like wildfire, if left unchecked by censorship boards. Edison and Melies conceived of miraculous ways to amaze and entertain the masses, while, a couple decades later, several western democracies would ban The Battleship Potemkin, fearing those same audiences might catch a severe case of Bolshevism. (Ironically, Stalin felt the same need to discourage rebellion and democratic reforms.) Adolf Hitler understood the power of film as propaganda much more acutely than documentarian Leni Riefenstahl (Triumph of the Will), who, upon forced reflection, said, “I filmed the truth as it was then. Nothing more.” In another 50 years, some political observers would argue that MTV had has much to do with raising the Iran Curtain as Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. In one sequence, clips from popular movies demonstrate how the invention of the phone precipitated the invention of the switchboard, which allowed for eavesdropping on conversations and the creation of machines to record them. Tilda Swinton’s soothing, precisely measured narration allows viewers to make the connection between eavesdropping then and spying on e-mails and cellphone conversations now. Unlike Bill Morrison’s meditative compilations of archival films – many of which have been severely damaged by neglect and the ravages of time — the material in Dreams Rewired is remarkably well preserved and a joy to study, over and over again.

Mutual Friends

In the movies, nothing good can come from throwing a party for a lover, spouse or anyone old enough to resent having to acknowledge his or her age or inner demons. Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party provided an extreme example of what can happen when too many self-absorbed people come together under the same roof to pretend they’re happy. The characters to whom we’re introduced in Matthew Watts’Mutual Friends have been called together to celebrate Liv’s engagement to Christoph (Caitlin Fitzgerald, Cheyenne Jackson). They’re yuppies on the way yup and can only dream of owning a Richard Neutra-designed home in the Hollywood Hills, as did Cumming and Leigh’s characters. Maybe, someday, but not now. They’re fortunate to have cozy flats in a transitioning neighborhood in one of New York City’s suddenly trendy neighborhoods. Party planners shouldn’t have to be told to avoid inviting former lovers and other people with unfinished business hanging between them to someone else’s happy occasion. Here, both Liv and Christoph will be required to address problems from past longtime relationships. Liv’s closest confidant, Nate (Peter Scanavino), has left her hanging for years, even though both of them suspect they’re perfect for each other. Also at the party is Christoph’s formidable ex-girlfriend of seven years, Annie (Jennifer LaFleur), who is none too happy that he never popped the question to her. Other characters include Sammy (Ross Partridge), a husband who finds out his wife is (Annika Peterson) cheating on him that afternoon; Paul (Michael Stahl-David), who can’t decide how he feels about impending fatherhood; Cody (Derek Cecil), a guy Liv dated twice before realizing what an odd creep he was; and a few helpful dopers, who provide comic relief. If Mutual Friends doesn’t really hang together, it’s because Watts’ central creative conceit called for merging seven different story threads written by seven different people. You can almost see the duct tape holding some of the scenes together. The other problem is that none of the characters are particularly likable. Even so, indie fans probably will appreciate the effort.

Deceived

There isn’t much to be said for Carlos Jimenez Flores’ messy little thriller, Deceived, except to point out that it was shot in Puerto Rico and features several actors with deep local roots. At a time when Hollywood casting directors can’t seem to be able to place minority actors in high-profile projects, it’s worth pointing out that there doesn’t appear to be a scarcity of them in the DVDs that cross my desk from indie distributors. Hollywood suits mostly need to imagine them in bigger pictures, under better direction, and in more substantial roles. Here, Alejandro (Sevier Crespo) has returned to San Juan in order to rescue his sister, Magdalena (Betsy Landin), from a life dominated by finding work in sleazy nightclubs and copping drugs from her surfer boyfriend (Mike Falkow). The last anyone’s heard of Magdalena – who, like the other women in the movie, is drop-dead gorgeous – is that she’s laying low on the beach with the South African surfer. After some kind of spat, she returns to old San Juan looking for work. Just missing her brother, Magdalena agrees to a date with a rich trick, who isn’t at all what he appears to be. If Alejandro isn’t having any luck in his search, the same can’t be said for Magdalena’s friends at the nightclub – the bar manager (David Paladino) and two stunning bar maids (Millie Ruperto, Darlene Vazquetelles) – who begin to fear for her safety when her date’s identity is finally revealed. (Hint: his eyes glow bright red when he gets over-stimulated.) The final showdown will shock some viewers, but that’s only if they’re still interested in what’s happening in Deceived.

That Uncertain Feeling

Only Angels Have Wings: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Every month, dozens of “classic” movies are released on DVD, many of them retrieved from the public domain by distributors like Gotham Distributing Corporation and Alpha Home Entertainment. It’s pretty tough to keep up with the new stuff, but one good place to look is MoviesUnlimited.com or by picking up its extensive catalog. It beats waiting for the picture to show up on TCM. I can’t recall why I chose Ernst Lubitsch’s 1941 comedy, That Uncertain Feeling, except for the director’s ability to make me chuckle and a taste for Merle Oberon. In it, she plays the penthouse-bound wife of a wealthy insurance broker, Larry Baker (Melvyn Douglas), who’s more devoted to his job than his very attractive wife, Jill. After developing a lingering case of hiccups, possibly linked to her marital frustrations, she agrees to visit a psychoanalyst who specializes in psychosomatic disorders. While waiting for the tardy shrink, Jill allows herself to be amused by neurotic pianist Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), said to have been modeled after Oscar Levant. By comparison to her husband, Alexander is the life of the party. She convinces Larry to allow the fox to use a spare bedroom in the henhouse, eventually leading to a friendly divorce and yet another change of heart. It seems a bit risqué for a post-code picture, but that’s part of its appeal. There’s a wonderful scene in which the pianist nearly ruins a dinner thrown by Larry with a group of Hungarian investors, but ends up saving the deal with his ability to keep the doughy executives amused in their native tongue.

By marked contrast, Only Angels Have Wings, made two years earlier than That Uncertain Feeling, by an equally revered director, has been given a first-class makeover by Criterion Collection, with all sorts of goodies heaped on for good measure. Lubitsch’s film suffered endlessly after the original owner neglected to renew its copyright and it became open game for anyone with a duplicating machine. Howard Hawks’ aviation thriller has fared far better in its afterlife. Hawks loved making movies about the perils of flight and retelling the stories he’d heard about pilots who sometimes laughed at death, but never underestimated the dangers inherent in their job. Like Charles Brown’s Night Flight before it, Only Angels Have Wings is that kind of picture. Both movies are set in South America, where the Andes tested the limits altitude-challenged planes and forced pilots to take chances they wouldn’t have had to face anywhere else. Hawks was a master, too, of dramatizing the devil-may-care camaraderie that occurs when and if a mission is accomplished and booze is on the house. (How often have you seen someone pay for a drink in these kinds of situations?) Add a couple of immediately essential, but ultimately disposal dames to the male bonding and you had the fixings for a Hollywood melodrama. “Angels” opens when the “banana boat” San Luis makes its stop at the port of Barranca, Jean Arthur follows the mailbags off the ship to a part of town where stereotypically creepy local lurk in the shadows. Fortunately, she’s rescued from her dilemma by a couple of good ol’ boys from the watering hole that also serves as the airfield. She gets along famously with the pilots and ground crews, but immediately sets her sites on Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter, who coordinates the flights. The laughter stops when one of the younger fliers (Noah Beery Jr.) takes a nose dive on the landing strip, then picks up when the guys stiffen up their lips. As if Arthur weren’t tempting enough, Hawks adds Rita Hayworth on the arm of a disgraced former pilot, Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), possibly seeking redemption for a deadly faux pas.Naturally, the beautiful newcomer shares history with Carter, causing Arthur to seize up like an engine with a damaged oil pump. What’s really special about “Angels” area flying scenes that aren’t enhanced by wires and models. MacPherson volunteers to land an unproven plane on a mesa in the high Andes to rescue a seriously injured miner. He’ll return soon thereafter with a load of nitro glycerin. It’s pretty good stuff. The bonus features include an audio-only chat between Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich; a critical profile of the director; a discussion focused specifically on Hawks’ love affair with planes; a radio play featuring the all-star cast; and an essay by critic Michael Sragow.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin: Blu-ray

Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli: Blu-ray

At a time when contemporary filmmakers are attempting to say something new by borrowing tricks, tropes and techniques from the noir and giallo masters, it’s never been easier to find the real thing in crisp new Blu-ray editions. Freshly polished noir titles from around the world have kept buffs happy ever since high-def technology made it easy for them to cut through the grit, grime and shadows and watch the films in the way they were intended to be seen. Giallo is only now being accorded the same treatment by specialty labels, including here Mondo Macabro and Arrow Video. Even if some of the movies have been around for years on VHS, they’re only now being accorded the same degree of pampering usually reserved for Criterion Collection and Cohen Media releases. These three are especially representative of the genre’s unique characteristics.

Directed by “Godfather of Gore” Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling, Zombie), Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (a.k.a., “Schizoid”) was considered sensational, even in territory already mined by Dario Argento, Mario Bava and Umberto Lenzi. Employing cutting-edge special effects normally reserved for horror, “Lizard” pushed the limits on what audiences could endure in a story that also exploited the recreational and therapeutic uses of LSD, sexual orgies, nightmarish murders and cheesy euro-rock. Brazilian bombshell Florinda Bolkin plays Carol, the frustrated wife of a successful London lawyer. Carol’s begun to experience erotic dreams about her uninhibited neighbor, Julia (Anita Strindberg). One night, her dreams culminate in Julia’s violent death and she wakes to find her nightmares have become reality. Carol is, at once, the main witness and primary suspect. Things go even nuttier from there, as a hippie played by the former lead singer of Los Bravos (“Black Is Black”), Mike Kennedy, and his demonic girlfriend, begin to torture Carol with the truth. This, the first U.S. Blu-ray release of the film, is the longest uncut version of “Lizard” currently available. The package includes several fascinating featurettes and interviews with actors, writers and historians, as well as commentary with Kris Gavin.

“Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli” presents two substantially different examples of genre staples, in Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight, both starring the gorgeous Nieves Navarro (billed under her occasional stage name of Susan Scott) in the twin role of protagonist and damsel in distress. In “Midnight,” fashion model Valentina agrees to help a journalist (Simón Andreu) research the effects of LSD. While under the influence of the drug, she sees a man bludgeon a woman to death with a spiked metal glove. Until she begins to be stalked by a creepy psychopath, Valentina isn’t sure whether a murder took place or it was a hallucination. Adding to her dilemma are a pair of detestable drug smugglers, a flaky boyfriend and a cop who doesn’t believe she’s innocent in a series of actual deaths. Remarkably, there’s almost no nudity in the picture. That vacuum is filled in “High Heels,” this time with Navarro as an exotic dancer and the daughter of a murdered jewel thief. She finds herself terrorized by a black-clad assailant, determined on stealing her father’s stolen gems. She allows a persistent sugar daddy to take her to his London pad, only to discover that she can’t escape all her demons. These films are believed to have influenced Brian De Palma’s early psycho-thrillers. The double set is filled with goodies that giallo fans will treasure and newcomers can learn everything they need to know about the genre in lengthy interviews. The restoration work is excellent, as are the interviews, essays and featurettes.

The Kingdom of Zydeco: Blu-ray

Zydeco Crossroads: Tale of Two Cities: Blu-ray

Antibalas: Live From the House of Soul

If these three discs aren’t able to get your head boppin’ and feet tappin’, don’t bother to set your clock tonight, because you’re already dead. In the first two Blu-rays, Robert Mugge’s The Kingdom of Zydeco captures a moment in Cajun and Creole music when the giants of zydeco handed the baton to a new generation of Louisiana-based musicians. The core event is a joint concert appearance by Boozoo Chavis and Beau Jocque, who, after the deaths of Clifton Chenier and Rockin’ Dopsie, were vying for the crown that went with the title, King of Zydeco. In deference to the undisputed master of the art, Dopsie adopted the title of Crowned Prince of Zydeco and even wore a crown on a 1986 album. After Chenier died a year later, the mayor of Lafayette anointed Dopsie king. When Dopsie passed, in 1993, he reportedly asked a representative of the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame to bestow the title on Chavis. That didn’t sit well with Joque or fans who favored a more democratic process. In a wonderful marketing brainstorm, the owner of a Lafayette nightclub decided it might be fun to stage his own competition. The primary beneficiaries of the night’s festivities were the audience members, who didn’t need an invitation to dance, and anyone who can get their hands on this disc. Mugge’s film is noteworthy, as well, for showcasing the two bands before Chavis and Joque would themselves be summoned to that big crayfish boil in the sky. Also shown performing in the film are respected bandleader John Delafose and the talented younger artist Nathan Williams of Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Historical perspective is provided by competing nightclub owners Kerman Richard and Sid Williams (older brother of Nathan), deejay Lester Thibeaux, record store owner Irene Hebert, Zydeco Association heads Wilbert Guillory and Paul Scott, and from Louisiana Hall of Fame founder Lou Gabus. It adds the 27-minute performance film, Iguanas in the House (1996), starring New Orleans roots-fusion band the Iguanas.

Zydeco Crossroads: Tale of Two Cities documents the efforts of east-coast radio station WXPN to introduce its audience to a “great American genre that’s underexposed in Philadelphia that people really ought to know about,” says general manager Roger LaMay. The 15-month “Zydeco Crossroads” project featured broadcasts, live concerts, dance lessons and culinary exhibits. Mugge’s documentary also serves as an introduction to the generation of musicians who followed in the footsteps of the masters. Some are descendants of the artists discussed in The Kingdom of Zydeco and Les Blanc’s earlier, Hot Pepper, while others didn’t even enjoy the benefit of growing up in a French-speaking household. In addition to some interesting background material, the disc features concerts by C.J. Chenier and Rosie Ledet, in a Philadelphia festival setting, and performances in Lafayette by Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan Williams, Chubby Carrier, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Major Handy, Creole United, Soul Creole, Lil’ Nate Williams, Chris Ardoin, Corey Arceneaux and Mississippi bluesman Vasti Jackson. Just FYI, there’s still time to buy tickets for this year’s edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the New York or road production of “Fela!” is encouraged to check out the next installment of Daptone Records’ new video series, “Live From the House Of Soul.” Recorded at Daptone’s backyard stage, in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, Antibalas is an afrobeat band modeled after Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 band and Eddie Palmieri’s Harlem River Drive Orchestra. The band also incorporates elements of jazz, funk, dub, improvised music and traditional drumming from Cuba and West Africa. In 2008, Antibalas was featured off-Broadway in “Fela!” and, again, a year later, when it moved to Broadway, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

Natural Born Pranksters

It would be difficult for any comedy troupe to make the Jackass gang seem warm, sincere and Shakespearean, by contrast to their own work. That, however, is exactly what happens in Natural Born Pranksters, which features the antics of YouTube and “vlog” sensations Roman Atwood, Dennis Roady and Vitaly Zdorovetskiy. Atwood, alone, has recorded over a billion views on RomanAtwoodVlogs. While the pranks bear a certain resemblance to the kind of gags popularized on “Jackass,” “Punk’d,” “Just for Laughs” and “Impractical Jokers,” all of which owe their existence to “Candid Camera,” Natural Born Prankstersoften is unbearably unfunny. Neither does prankster-in-chief Atwood display even a fraction of the crude charisma of a Tom Green, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Kennedy or the Crank Yanker crew. As for any comparisons with Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, Steve-O and Jason “Wee Man” Acuña, it boils down to the difference between inspired masochism and borderline sadism … watching restaurant patrons react with surprise to naked waiters and simply pointing a camera at a streaker at a sports events … or capturing the reactions of art patrons as a painting comes to life and merely exhibiting paintings made of homemade shit. That said, however, I haven’t seen any of the YouTube bits that prompted Lionsgate to take a chance onNatural Born Pranksters or Nissan, for that matter, which gave Atwood a 2015 GTR in exchange for the use of his Plastic Ball Prank video during half-time at Super Bowl XLIX. Maybe, I should have started there.

TV-to-DVD

PBS: Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Concert

NYPD Blue: Season 09

Power Rangers: Wild Force: The Complete Series

PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Goes Camping

PBS Kids: Peg & Cat: Super Peg & Cat Guy

Among the landmark moments in the life of any true hippie’s life would have to be the first time they heard Arlo Guthrie’s recording of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” Upon the release of his 1967 album from which it was taken, the only thing most people knew about the bushy-haired musician was that his father was the great folk singer, songwriter and Okie raconteur Woody Guthrie, who succumbed to the ravages of Huntington’s disease the same month as the song was released. The rambling 18-minute song/monologue was based on a true incident from Arlo’s life, which began on Thanksgiving Day 1965 with a citation for littering, and ended with the refusal of the U.S. Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime. The garbage that Guthrie was charged with dumping illegally at a closed dump, outside Great Barrington, Massachusetts, had been stored at a deconsecrated church being used as a home for two of his friends, Alice and Ray. For young people protesting the Vietnam War and other things that bothered them about their country, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” contrasted what was wonderful about the burgeoning counterculture and its adoption of a communal lifestyle, with the arrogance of moralistic cops and judges, the inherent hypocrisy of military conscription and frustration that comes with banging one’s head against the walls built to preserve mainstream conformity. Flash forward 50 years and the song is still being trotted out every Thanksgiving by FM classic-rock stations and PBS outlets in need of pledge-month entertainment. “Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Concert” demonstrates just how timeless a well-told story can be, even several decades after the counterculture imploded and restaurants, like Alice’s, were turned into IHOPs. Arlo still has a full head of hair, albeit gray, and his voice remains evocative of a bygone era, not only of the Summer of Love, but also a period of time when acoustic music reigned and topical lyrics broke through the sounds of silence. The disc adds 13 additional songs, ranging from the whimsical “Motorcycle Song” and “Coming Into Los Angeles,” to “City of New Orleans” and “This Land Is Your Land,” and a featurette on the Guthrie Center’s annual “Arlo Guthrie’s Historic Garbage Trail March.”

Like everything else in New York City that fall, the launch of the ninth season of “NYPD Blue” was overshadowed by the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It would take a few weeks before the writers could incorporate the tragedy into the storylines, but shadows of gloom and doom hung over the 15th Precinct for most of the early episodes. Once again, Sipowicz would have to adjust to the reality of a new partner in the field, John Clark Jr. (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and another in his heart (Charlotte Ross). He also is accorded a promotion. Clark took over for Danny Sorenson’s character, who disappeared in a dangerous bust at the end of Season Eight. Turns out, Sipowicz has had run-ins in the past with Clark’s dad, who steer’s the young man’s career from above, whether or not he wants the help. The cast also includes Gordon Clapp, Henry Simmons, Bill Brochtrup, Garcelle Beauvais, Esai Morales and newcomer Jacqueline Obradors.

Power Rangers: Wild Force: The Complete Series is something of an oddity, in that it lasted all of a single season and its production was split between Saban Entertainment and Disney’s BVS Entertainment, which took over the franchise from Fox. For those keeping score at home, “Wild Force” officially represented the 10thseason in the “Power Rangers” series. (This season used footage from “Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger.”)  Episode 34, “Forever Red,” represented an anniversary commemoration with nearly every Red Ranger. To confuse things even further, Disney moved production to New Zealand, allowing it to lay off many crew members and all voice actors. Saban would repurchase the company in 2010 and move the show to Nickelodeon and Nicktoons. There’s more, but who really cares? The year’s episodes revolved around the Orgs returning to the floating island in the sky, the Animarium, which is all that remains of an ancient kingdom destroyed 3,000 years ago. The Power Rangers are summoned to Animarium, where they join forces with giant beasts, known as Wild Zords.

The latest DVD offerings from PBS Kids include “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Daniel Goes Camping,” in which the feline star camps outdoors for the first time and experiences everything that makes nighttime special, from twinkling stars and playing with flashlights, to singing “Goodnight Sun.” The set includes “Backyard Camping,” “Daniel’s Sleepover” and an extended version of “Nighttime in the Neighborhood.” In “Peg & Cat: Super Peg & Cat Guy” the dynamic duo uses basic math and geometry concepts to protect the citizens of Mathtropolis.

The DVD Wrapup: Hateful 8, Winter, Child of Century, Chantal Akerman, Mediterranea, Leon Russell, Death Valley Days and more

Friday, April 1st, 2016

The Hateful Eight: Blu-ray

Released on Christmas in its limited 70mm road-show presentation, The Hateful Eight served both as an extravagant gift from Quentin Tarantino to his many fans and a happy reminder of how movies once were made and exhibited. It also demanded of critics that they find new ways to assure readers that experiencing the film’s visual grandeur on the wide, wide screen balances the pain associated with enduring Tarantino’s trademark excesses: the sting of the so-called n-word is felt 65 times in the three-hour version, with an extremely grisly body count of 16. Experiencing the Colorado-for-Wyoming Rockies in winter, as captured by Robert Richardson’s Ultra Panavision 70 cinematography and accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s Oscar-winning score, is nothing short of exhilarating. So, too, are nasty-as-sin performances by such familiar faces as Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Channing Tatum, Walton Goggins and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh, who continually steals the spotlight from the other heavy hitters in this Agatha Christie-meets-The Thing adventure. For all of the attention paid to the spectacular panoramas and landscapes, however, most of The Hateful Eight takes place within the confines of a stagecoach stop, deep in the mountains, while a fast-rising blizzard constricts the characters’ mobility. Set several years after the close of the Civil War, in a corner of the Union where old wounds have yet to heal, The Hateful Eight opens with Russell’s dogged bounty hunter John Ruth trying to get his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, to the town of Red Rock, where she’s scheduled to be brought to justice. Along the way, Ruth, who’s paid for the exclusive use of the stagecoach, allows the driver to pick up two strangers stranded in the snow: another bounty hunter and former union soldier, Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) and a former southern renegade who claims to be the new mayor of Red Rock (Goggins). When the impending storm forces them to bivouac at Minnie’s Haberdashery, they are confronted by four seemingly unrelated strangers, absent Minnie and her co-workers. Shackled to Ruth, Domergue exploits the tense atmosphere by slinging insults and racial epithets like sharp sticks at the other trapped characters. The Southerners also taunt the black bounty hunter, although it’s nothing he hasn’t heard before in his travels. It isn’t until halfway through the picture, though, that the disparate characters start dropping like Christie’s 10 little Indians. The impeccable Blu-ray and digital edition includes the 167-minute version that was released into the many theaters that weren’t retrofitted for 70mm projection. It’s likely that the 187-minute road-show edition will be released sometime down the road, with a few more featurettes than the perfunctory “Beyond the Eight: A Behind the Scenes Look” and slightly more insightful “Sam Jackson’s Guide to Glorious 70mm.”

The Winter

Konstantinos Koutsoliotas compelling debut feature, The Winter, takes place in a long abandoned house haunted by memories of the stories told to him by his wildly eccentric father. The remote rural setting is essential, because it represents a way of life gone to seed in Greece and a future as unstable as the country’s economy. Like so many Greeks born after World War II, Nikos Gounaras (Theo Albanis) is the product of parents who were forced to choose between eking out a subsistence living in the village they were born and moving to Athens, Thessalonica, northern Europe, America, or anywhere else the jobs were. Nikos’ father bucked the trend by remaining in the tiny village of Siatista, causing his wife to decide that she’d had enough of his nutty fantasies and antisocial behavior and split for the city with Nikos. Years later, perhaps inspired by his father’s bedtime stories, Nikos would write a novel accorded a fair measure of international acclaim. When we meet him, the visually eccentric hipster is living in London, completely blocked and dodging a flock of savagely persistent debt collectors. He can’t bear to reveal his true economic state to his mother, who’s tethered herself to her son via cellphone, so he invents little white lies to keep her from hopping on a plane and moving in with him. Even when Nikos is ensconced in the dilapidated family home in Siatista, he pretends to be living the life of a successful writer in Scotland.

 

Increasing delusional, the old man had died there, years earlier, under what Nikos considers to be mysterious circumstances. As the title suggests, he’s picked the coldest time of the year to work out his problems. The electricity has been turned off and the conveniences of modern plumbing have yet to make it to the mountains of north-central Greece. Unable to sleep comfortably, he has plenty of time on his hands to be confronted with the supernatural forces that plagued his father. Neither has Niko been welcomed back to the neighborhood with open arms. The elderly woman next-door is hospitable, if wary of his motives. It’s the priests who are most suspicious of the young man’s unexpected presence and they rule village life with an iron hand. Not only do they prey on their parishioners’ religious fears and superstitions, but they create new ones, as well, whenever the younger ones begin to show their independence. Koutsoliotas’ visual-effects background serves him well in The Winter. The animated fantasy sequences run the gamut from delightfully whimsical to downright nightmarish. The abandoned house in which the movie is filmed belongs to the co-writer/director’s family and, yes, the locals believe it to be haunted.

 

Confession of a Child of the Century: Blu-ray

French writer/director Sylvie Verheyde’s Confession of a Child of the Century feels very much like one of those lush period dramas that don’t quite fit the confines of a two-hour movie – even one that’s 125 minutes long – but might not carry enough literary heft for a “Masterpiece” mini-series. Like Diane Kurys’ 1999 rom-dram, The Children of the Century, it was inspired by Alfred de Musset’s 1836 semi-autobiographical novel. In it, the French dramatist, poet, and novelist describes his tempestuous two-year love affair with writer George Sand, who also counted composer Frédéric Chopin among her conquests. She is represented here, as Brigitte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a widow 10 years older than the self-described libertine and all-around dandy Octave (Pete Doherty), who is sitting in for Musset. Upended by the death of his father and crushed by the betrayal of his mistress (Lily Cole), Octave is laying low in the French countryside. Like so many other rich young men of his generation, he suffers from the “disease of the century,” caused by drink, debauchery and ennui. It’s where he meets Brigitte, who allows herself to be wooed and won, but only for as long as their stars remain uncrossed. Ultimately, the younger man is undone by jealousy. Like the book, the movie doesn’t belabor the facts of their relationship, which, by all accounts, was something of a roller-coaster ride. Not surprisingly, Gainsbourg is well-cast in the lead female role. The choice of rock musician Doherty as Octave probably was a bit too on-the-nose, however. Having already survived more than his fair share of debauchery, he looks the part of someone who’s been used up and thrown away a time or two. Opposite Gainsborough, he is clearly out of his league. Verheyde’s design team really got the job done, though. The Cohen Media Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Confession of a French Literature Fanatic” to lend scholarly context to the proceedings.

 

Chantal Akerman: Four Films

If all one knows about Chantal Akerman’s significant body of work has been gleaned from the many glowing tributes published after her untimely death last year, or even from her 1975 breakthrough film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai de commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, there’s a great deal more to be savored. Even from the perspective of an arthouse habitué, Akerman’s sometimes excruciatingly personal movies demanded great intellectual and visual forbearance. Although the Brussels native could easily be categorized as a “critics’ darling,” she presented challenges to them, as well. Akerman did what she what wanted to do, however and whenever she was moved to do it. Icarus’ newly released compilation, Chantal Akerman: Four Films, contains four mid-period documentaries that stretch the limits of the non-fictional discipline, by presenting alternative points of view, framing devices and sound designs. It wouldn’t be the first place most admirers would recommend as a starting place for an appreciation of her oeuvre – that, too, probably would be “Jeanne Dielman” – but it will do in a pinch.

 

From the East (1993) retraces a journey she made from East Germany, across Poland and the Baltics, to Moscow, to capture a crumbling post-Soviet world “before it is too late.” Set largely in the fall and winter, much of From the East was filmed using long, lingering tracking shots taken from a static, car-borne camera, pointed at lines at emotionless people waiting at points of transit. Their expressions tell us all we need to know about what life must have been like for people as yet unsure of what to expect from the new democracies. In South (1999), Akerman examines the facts and faces behind one of the most heinous crimes in post-Civil War history. Rather than continue her preparations for a project involving Mississippi writer William Faulkner, she traveled to rural Jasper, Texas, where 49-year-old James Byrd Jr. had been dragged behind a pickup truck to his death by a trio of white supremacists. The meditative film’s most striking sequence, perhaps, is a real-time ride along the same three-mile stretch of asphalt where parts of Byrd’s mutilated body had been scattered by his killers. It’s contrasted by matter-of-fact interviews and shots taken inside local churches.

 

Never more timely, From the Other Side (2002) examines life along both sides of the America’s porous border with Mexico, in Douglas, Arizona, and the Sonoran town of Agua Prietra. Unlike most reports from the region in the late-1990s, Akerman chose not to pursue political or coldly economic motives for the migration north and Arizonans’ reaction to it. Rather, she puts a tight focus on the human dilemma faced by people living alongside or traveling through the then-incomplete fence separating the two countries. Although the cultural differences are obvious, the common unifying factor is the harsh and forbidding wasteland unnaturally bisected by metal barrier. In Down There (2006), Akerman set up her camera inside an apartment in Tel Aviv and pointed it directly at the residential building across the street. In her narration, she muses on issues concerning her family, Jewish identity, her childhood and the fragility of life in the embattled Jewish state. A bonus film, Chantal Akerman, From Here (2010), consists of an hour-long, single-shot interview — directed by Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira – during which she discusses her methodology and her directorial philosophy with an out-of-frame reporter. That person is either terribly unprepared for task or uncomfortable with the language gap. Akerman’s body language is as interesting as anything said in the interview. A 12-page booklet with new essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Amy Taubin is included in the five-disc box set.

 

In May, Icarus will release I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, which explores some of the Belgian filmmaker’s 40-plus films, carrying viewers from Brussels to Tel Aviv and Paris to New York. On April 1, Fandor subscribers can stream Akerman’s intimate final film, No Home Movie, to their home theater or mobile units. It is a stylized portrait of her perhaps too-close relationship with her mother, Natalia, a Holocaust survivor, who died a few months before Akerman is believed to have committed suicide. I also recommend checking out her early feminist films on YouTube. Her first feature, Je Tu Il Elle (1974), and first short, Saute ma ville (1968), could easily have provided the templates upon which Leah Dunham built “Girls.”

 

Mediterranea

Before the Syrian refugee crisis began in earnest, European media outlets decried the seemingly unstoppable flow of African immigrants from Tunisia, Libya and other countries that profit from the trafficking of humans. Reports of beaches littered with the bloated bodies of people who fell short of fulfilling their dream still threaten the tourist trade in southern Italy, even if the world’s attention has shifted further east. In 2011, Emanuele Crialese’s excellent Terraferma tackled the problem from the point of residents of the island of Lampedusa, where individual lifestyles have been dramatically altered by a decline in the fishing industry, new laws governing the rescue and harboring illegal immigrants, and the annual influx of tourists. Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, also released in 2011, describes how residents of one French port city interact with recently arrived Africans. Jonas Carpignano’s debut feature, Mediterranea, follows best friends Ayiva and Abas as they make their way from landlocked Burkina Faso, through Libya, and, by boat, to the small town of Rosarno, in southern Italy. Each step of the journey is fraught with danger and an expectation of being ripped off in a dozen different ways. The young men are determined to fulfill the promises made to their family and friends back home, but nothing comes easy, even when they reach the promised land.

 

By extending the story beyond the immediacy of the journey, itself, Mediterranea echoes Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre and Gregory Nava’s El Norte, which anticipated the current crisis on the U.S./Mexico border. Like the immigrants who are welcomed by farmers and agricultural interests in the U.S., a large number of Africans who make their way to Europe find work in the fields and orchards. The more recently arrived they are, however, the more exploited they tend to be. Moreover, the Africans are subject to a form of racism as insidious as any that’s reared its head in the U.S., without the benefits won by Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Carpignano succeeds in taking viewers beyond the orchards and juice factories, to the camps, relief and social agencies, and places in Rosarno where the Africans interact in various ways with the locals. The movie’s most touching moment, perhaps, comes when Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) is given access to a computer capable of facilitating a Skype reunion with his sister and 7-year-old daughter. Mediterranea was inspired, in large part, by Carpignano’s award-winning 2012 short, “A Chjàna,” which was informed by Seihon’s own experiences and the 2010 Rosarno riots, which resulted in 1,000 African workers being removed from the area for their own protection.

 

Pigs: Blu-ray

Dickshark

Cherry Falls: Blu-ray

Murders in the Rue Morgue/The Dunwich Horror: Blu-ray

Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXV

One of the things Hollywood-based reporters hear when assigned to write about movies that aren’t very good is that no one sets out to make a bad film. According to their stars and directors, the real stinkers were doomed from the start, wildly misunderstood or butchered by the suits. Actors rarely go into a project thinking they can phone in their performance from home. Directors, writers, cinematographers, grips and designers all hope to be congratulated by friends and relatives after the opening weekend. After the first round of budget cuts are announced, however, and pages begin to be ripped out of the working script, everyone begins to expect the worst. I only mention this because none of the genre specimens reviewed this week can be recommended for any other reason than being a guilty pleasure or for an individual performance or technical credit. I generally leave it up to the individual to decide whether a movie is “so bad it’s good.” These titles, I believe, are so bad that they almost defy description. Even so, the filmmakers and actors interviewed in the bonus features describe the movies we’ve just seen as being a lot better than they were, by any objective or critical standard. other than objectively inferior to most movies that have preceded it into the ancillary markets. It’s truly refreshing when a director comes clean as to how his dog picked up its fleas. In Hollywood, though, the truth isn’t a valued quality.

 

One definite tipoff to a picture’s distinct absence of quality is the number of titles its carried on its arduous journey to DVD/Blu-ray. Pigs was veteran character actor Marc Lawrence’s second and final foray into the business of making a feature film from behind the camera. Released briefly in 1972 as “The 13th Pig,” its working title was “Daddy’s Deadly Darling.” In Pig’s many re-edits and re-issues, it’s also been called “Blood Pen,” “Daddy’s Girl,” “Roadside Torture Chamber,” “The Secret of Lynn Hart,” “The Strange Love Exorcist” and “Horror Farm.” As far as anyone knows, the new Vinegar Syndrome DVD/Blu-ray represents the only time Lawrence’s vision has been realized intact. In it, Lawrence’s very attractive and amazingly buxom daughter, Toni, plays a young woman who one day shows up in a dusty speck on the map of California, where she takes a job at a restaurant owned by Zambrini (Lawrence), an elderly former circus performer who runs a small café and pig farm. Local legend has it that his pigs only eat human flesh and that in order to satisfy their growing appetites, Zambrini has begun to murder drifters. Coincidentally, his new waitress is an escapee from a mental facility and not at all averse to supporting her boss’ hobby. In fact, Lynn had killed her father after he raped her and now senses his abusive behavior is a condition shared by most men. Because it was made before the introduction of sophisticated special makeup effects and CGI, the titular stars of Pigs are limited to grunting before cinematographer Glenn Roland’s in-your-snout camera and terrorizing Lynn’s suitors by running through their legs. The pigs owned by the Chinese butcher in “Deadwood” were far more convincing, as was the wild boar in Razorback and the masks worn by the killers in Motel Hell, Saw and Berkshire County. Several movies have been inspired by Canada’s most prolific serial killer, pig farmer Robert Pickton. As bad as it is, VS has sent Pigs out in Blu-ray with a new 2K restoration from the 35mm Interpositive; featurettes with Toni Lawrence, also noteworthy for being Billy Bob Thornton’s second wife, composer Charles Bernstein (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Cujo) and Roland (Ilsa She Wolf of the S.S.); two alternate openings and alternate ending; and a gallery.

 

Anyone familiar with the work of sleazoid New Jersey auteur Bill Zebub already will have a pretty good idea what to expect when picking up his latest micro-budget extravaganza, Dickshark. Based on the jacket notes, we already know it will combine elements of creature horror, sci-fi experimentation and bargain-basement porn in the service of a story that satirizes the cottage industry of performance-enhancing ointments and other quackery pitched in late-night infomercials and pop-up ads on porn sites. The only thing open to question is the degree of depravity Zebub will achieve. Dickshark opens with a poorly endowed man borrowing what he believes to be his roommate’s penis-enlargement cream. In fact, the substance is the penile equivalent of Victor Frankenstein’s monster. The misinformed Romeo now is able to mold his unit into the shape of a small shark, which comes as bad news to his girlfriend. After shooting the dickshark off the body of her lover, she makes the tactical mistake of flushing it down the toilet. Its ability to survive the toxicity of the sewer water also allows it to grow larger and develop a penis-like appendage at the tip of its fin. When he isn’t busy fondling bimbos in the forest, the slovenly scientist must find a way to stop his monster while also preventing his experimental formula from falling into the wrong hands. If this doesn’t sound very promising, consider that Dickshark is only slightly less convincing than the many half-baked sequels to Jaws. I’m not a connoisseur of death-metal music, but Zebub finds a way to make it work for him here.

 

When it comes to genre parodies, timing is everything. In his American debut, promising Aussie filmmaker Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper) came up a month short to Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie, a spoof of the already tongue-in-cheek Scream series. Cherry Falls not only was intended as a subtle sendup of the teens-in-jeopardy genre, but David Lynch’s nearly bulletproof “Twin Falls.” The central conceit in Ken Selden’s screenplay is that the killer is targeting virgins, instead going after the promiscuous teens usually slaughtered in the opening minutes of a slasher picture. It takes a while for the local sheriff (Michael Biehn) to figure out why the fiend is carving a “V” into the corpses of the victims and, when he does, he’s left with a dilemma. If the only way to avoid being killed is to be promiscuous, he’ll be put in the precarious position with their parents of promoting such behavior. Having gotten wind of the sheriff’s news, the students at Cherry Hills High don’t wait for permission to organize a potentially life-saving orgy. To prevent the mass deflowering and stop the killer, Sheriff Brent will have to revisit an episode in his distant past that might have prompted the crimes. The problem is that Cherry Falls is basically a two-gag comedy and, when the fun is wrung out of them, there’s nothing left to keep us interested. Wright probably could have salvaged something by making the comedy darker and the orgy a lot raunchier. The studio, by now probably eying a straight-to-TV release, decided to tighten the reins on him, instead. Apart from very decent performances by the eternally youthful Brittany Murphy and transitioning standup comic, Jay Mohr, there isn’t much else here to savor. The unfortunate backstory is explained in audio commentary with Wright and extended interviews with writer and co-executive producer Selden and producer Marshall Persinger and co-star Amanda Anka. Vintage interviews with Murphy, Biehn, Mohr and Wright, behind-the-scenes footage and the original script, via BD-Rom, also are included on the Blu-ray.

 

The new Scream Factory double-feature opens with Murders in the Rue Morgue, a truly unfortunate mashup of the Edgar Allan Poe story and The Phantom of the Opera. Director Gordon Hessler didn’t think he could wring any more excitement from what many people consider to be the first modern detective story, so he added an unconvincing psychosexual angle that might have been more interesting if it weren’t so tame. Although the period look isn’t bad, Jason Robards Jr. seems ridiculously out of place as the director of a Grand Guignol-type theater, where the players have suddenly become real-life victims. Victor Lom plays the disfigured actor, who no one considers to be the culprit because he’s believed to be long dead and buried. Adolfo Celi plays Inspector Vidocq, whose detecting skills are subordinate to the silly stuff happening in and around the theater. Michael Dunn and Lilli Palmer fare better in supporting roles. The Dunwich Horror was co-adapted from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft by future Academy Award winner Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Its primary claim to fame is a cast that includes Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley Sr., Talia Shire and Sam Jaffe and music by       Les Baxter. Otherwise, the story feels like a Druid take on Rosemary’s Baby. Dee plays the college girl who falls in love with the last descendant of a race of strange creatures that once inhabited the Earth. In an attempt to use her as a sacrifice in an unholy rite that will bring his people back to life, the young man comes face to face with a university professor whose knowledge of the occult is more than a match. The Blu-ray package adds commentaries with author and film historian Steve Haberman and the featurette, “Stage Tricks & Screen Frights.”

 

Normally, the “MST3K” compilations offer a movie or two that transcends its cornball reputation and offers something truly noteworthy to savor. Not so, with “Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXXV,” which inadvertently tests the aforementioned theory that no one sets out to make a bad movie. Take Teenage Cave Man … please. This film was shot under Roger Corman’s quick-and-dirty direction under the title “Prehistoric World.” American International Pictures changed the title to Teenage Cave Man to exploit the popularity of its own I Was a Teenage Werewolf, which made a small fortune for the company, prompting calls for an instant sequel. Hence, Teenage Cave Man, starring 25-year-old rising star Robert Vaughn, as the rebellious son of the clan’s Symbol Maker. After the dust clears from battles with dinosaurs, wild dogs and other monsters borrowed from previous AIP releases, screenwriter R. Wright Campbell delivered a surprisingly good ending, which presaged Planet of the Apes. In 1982, Corman’s New World Pictures would put its fingerprints on another future MST3K classic, Being From Another Planet (a.k.a., “Time Walker”). In it, professor Douglas McCadden (Ben Murphy) is exploring the tomb of King Tutankhamun when an earthquake causes a wall in the tomb to collapse, revealing a hidden chamber. Inside, McCadden discovers what he believes to be a mummy in a sarcophagus. After bringing it to his lab in California, the mummy reveals itself to be an extraterrestrial alien in suspended animation, wrapped up and covered with a dormant green fungus. Chaos ensues. Corman’s video production and distribution interest, Concorde Pictures, was responsible for Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, a 1988 sword-and-sorcery fantasy and the third film in the “Deathstalker” tetralogy. It anticipated the cosplay phenomenon by two decades. The fourth entry in the “MST3K” compilation, 12 to the Moon, is a 1960 science-fiction film depicting a moon landing by an international crew. As laughable as it is, David Bradley’s picture deserves kudos for anticipating President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. Moreover, it foresaw the International Space Station, which didn’t launch into orbit until 1998. Even as prehistoric sci-fi goes, however, it’s pretty lame, which is to say, perfect for Joel, Mike and their robot compadres Crow and Tom to satirize.

 

A Poem Is a Naked Person: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray

Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous : A Road Map to Louisiana Music

Today, with his long white hair and beard, Leon Russell more closely resembles a relic from a bygone age of rock ’n’ roll than a living legend still capable of raising hell on stage and in concert. Even before he helped Joe Cocker organize the 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour with, Don Preston, Rita Coolidge, Claudia Lennear, Carl Radle, Jim Price, Jim Horn, Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon and Chris Stainton – a who’s who of eminent sidemen and background singers – was known far and wide for his contributions to the recordings of rock’s biggest stars. The tour, along with several successful hit songs of his own creation, turned him into a marquee attraction in his own right. Deep down, however, Russell never stopped being a good ol’ boy from Tulsa, albeit one who looked like a character out of the Old Testament. In 1972, Russell and his British production partner Denny Cordell hired Les Blank – based on his 1968 film, The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins – to make a documentary set largely at his recording studio on Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees, in northeastern Oklahoma. It also would include footage from concerts, rehearsals, recording and interview sessions. That was the intention, anyway. After Blank moved into a cabin at the onetime fishing camp, complete with a first-rate Moviola editing machine, the project evolved into something very different. The result, A Poem Is a Naked Person, is as much Blank as it was supposed to about Russell. That’s because, while Russell was out of town, Blank was left alone to record things he believed made Russell what he became. They included interpretive images of the lake, woods, sunsets, hippies, artists and eccentric characters who lived between the lake and Tulsa. That the finished product clashed with Russell and Cordell’s idea of A Poem Is a Naked Person should be is an understatement. They hated it and, because they financed it, held it from general release for 40 years. Blank’s son, Harrod, would resurrect the project, with Russell’s tacit approval, shortly before his father’s death in 2013, securing clearances for the music and returning it to tip-top shape. Last March, a restored version of the documentary was screened publicly at the South by Southwest Film Festival, with Russell in attendance. It’s pretty easy to see why he wouldn’t have been thrilled with the finished product, as a lot of it bears a closer resemblance to a hillbilly freak show than and a rock-doc. It can be appreciated today, however, if for no other reason than it represents a missing chapter in Blank’s catalogue of bizarro Americana. The sparkling Criterion Collection edition adds a conversation between Harrod Blank and Russell; excerpts from an interview with Les Blank; a new making-of documentary; a short film by Blank’s creative assistant, “Out in the Woods,” Maureen Gosling; and an essay by Kent Jones.

 

Although Robert Mugge’s films are far less eccentric than those on Blank’s repertoire, they’re no less musically eclectic. The self-described ethnomusicologist has ridden along the same roads as Blank and partaken in the same ethnic and regional cuisine. Mugge’s camera is far less subjective, however absent the trademark idiosyncrasies and freak-show impulses. Like Blank, Mugge has repeatedly been drawn back to Louisiana, if not specifically for the food, then the great regional music. Rhythm ‘n’ Bayous: A Road Map to Louisiana Music is one of several recent explorations of the state’s musical heritage and current stars. What originally was intended to be a film about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bus tour through New Orleans and southwestern Louisiana grew into a slightly broader appreciation of foot-stomping music, including Cajun, Creole, country, gospel, roots-rock, R&B, zydeco and “swamp pop.” The musicians to whom we’re introduced aren’t household names outside their own communities. The most familiar among them are old-timers, Dale Hawkins, who performs his 1957 single “Susie Q”; Claude King, doing his 1962 hit “Wolverton Mountain”; the duo, Dale and Grace, reprise their 1963 swamp- pop chart topper, “I’m Leaving It Up to You”; and Frankie Ford, best known for his 1959 hit, “Sea Cruise,” performs the A-side number, “Roberta.” (Ford died last September, at 76, in Gretna.) The younger and less known musicians are every bit as entertaining.

 

Sam Klemke’s Time Machine

I don’t know if Denver native Sam Klemke is the first person to have begun chronicling his life on the Internet, but, by the time YouTube got rolling, in the mid-aughts, already had 30 years’ worth of material to share with international geekdom. A caricature artist by profession, Klemke decided at 17 to begin recording annual updates on his life, using newly affordable and lightweight video technology. At the time, he was a reasonably handsome young man, bearded, but not one who would stand out from a crowd at a rock concert. As time went by, however, Klemke practically wrote the book on what it meant to be someone so obsessed with the Internet that everything, including his physical appearance, become subordinate to what’s happening there. It isn’t a pretty picture. Obese and disheveled, he barely makes an effort to avoid an early grave. Klemke isn’t a recluse, precisely, but he might as well be, because normal life held so far options for him. Somehow, he managed to find a like-minded girlfriend, who, eventually, would go to seed, too, but his friends were Web-based. Then, in 2011, Klemke (Shut Up Little Man!) decided to edit his videos into a reverse-aging clip, which went viral and resulted in Australian filmmaker Matthew Bate contacting him to make Sam Klemke’s Time Machine. It compares the subject’s ongoing self-portraiture to the 1977 NASA Voyager mission, which carried Carl Sagan’s golden recording of life on Earth to deep space. It’s a pretty neat conceit, especially considering the unappealing portrait of the protagonist.

 

Killing Them Safely

Anyone who’s watched more than a few episodes of “Cops” has seen how TASERs are supposed to work, when employed by police officers who’ve been trained how not to abuse the so-called non-lethal law-enforcement tool. Bad boys and even worse men, almost exclusively, are the targets of the electrical barbs shot by police, who, otherwise, might have considered using bullets or siccing police dogs on them. It looks safe enough, both for the offenders and cops, although it’s unlikely the producers would televise the death – or savage beating, for that matter – of an offender. As a corrective, first-time documentarian Nick Berardini offers Killing Them Safely (a.k.a., “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle”), which argues that the rush to find a non-lethal alternative to lethal force helped create a different sort of monster. It turns out that stun guns can kill people, too, and some of them are only guilty of having rage issues. Berardini stacks the deck by introducing the power of the device with footage of a buffalo being stung and re-stung with electric charges in what amounts to a macabre dance. The point is that early stun guns could topple a large beast, even though the charges were far less powerful than the ones used today to incapacitate humans. Hideous, but, so far, no smoking gun. It isn’t until we watch a few of the hundreds of people who’ve suffered fatal heart attacks after being zapped multiple times. Berardini also wants us question the ethics of the company, TASER International, created by brothers Rick and Tom Smith, that’s profited mightily from the demand for non-lethal technology by police and the public. The Smiths may not be the most charismatic corporate spokesmen on the planet, but neither do they seem particularly evil. They don’t appear to have cooked the books to misrepresent the dangers inherent in the use of their product or market their products to children or demonstrably crazy people, as is the case with gun manufacturers. The interviews and data are fairly presented and balanced. Neither do they encourage police to zap suspects multiple times, when one might do. Some police officials are as concerned with the findings – and lawsuits – as any of us should be and no longer allow officers to use them. It’s possible that the only proven solution to charges of police brutality and misuse of tactical equipment is to equip all units with camera crews, so that arrests and chases can be chronicled for posterity. Hey, it works on TV.

 

Felicity: Blu-ray

Infrasexum

Blue Ice: Blu-ray

Newly upgraded to Blu-ray by the folks at Severin Films, the 1978 Aussie sexploitation romp, Felicity, plays like a dirty old man’s fantasy about what a 17-year-old girl fantasizes about before coming of age sexually. Fresh-faced Canadian Glory Annen looks every inch the obsessively horny convent-school student, who, in her free time, peruses the source novels of the films Emmanuelle and The Story of O. She’s proud of her still-developing body and doesn’t care who knows it. If that isn’t a textbook example of a male fantasy, I don’t know what is. She’s given the opportunity to live out her fantasies when she receives an invitation to visit a relative in Hong Kong. And, boy, does Felicity make up for lost time. Naturally, the nudity and sex scenes are handled with all the delicacy due a seriously soft-core Emmanuelle imitator. Writer/director John D. Lamond makes great use of his Hong Kong locations, which range from hilltop mansions to floating brothels, teeming markets to world-class restaurants. Besides Emmanuelle, Lamond says he was heavily influenced by The World of Suzie Wong. As these things go, Felicity is professionally made and rarely dull. The Blu-ray adds Lamont’s two previous Ozploitation flicks, The ABCs of Love & Sex … Australia Style and Australia After Dark, accompanied by commentaries on all three films; outtakes from the Not Quite Hollywood documentary; a fresh interview with Annen; and a John Lamond trailer reel.

 

It’s always fun to discover the first film made by a soon-to-emerge director or actor. Typically, they reveal at least a spark of talent, upon which a career can be built. Either that or an ability to turn in a reasonably coherent film on time and under budget. That, at least, was the Corman model. Three years before the commercial success of Deep Throat challenged creators of feature-length porn to incorporate recognizable narratives in their peep-show-ready sex scenes writer/director Carlos Tobalina introduced himself with Infrasexum, a sleazy affair Vinegar Syndrome deems worthy of being restored in 2K from a 35mm camera negative. Tobalina would go on to make nearly 50 more films, in a career that spanned 20 of the genre’s more productive years. With the possible exception of the 1975 sexploitation romp, Marilyn and the Senator, few of Tobalina’s pictures have stood the test of time and that’s only because he used exterior shots of the Watergate Hotel. Infrasexum represents a time in porn history before cameramen figured out how to make sex look interesting on camera and producers recruited hippie checks to make good on their dedication to the sexual revolution. Here, a middle-aged businessman, Errof Lynn (Brad Grinter), is sexually constipated and, on his doctor’s advice, leaves home to find relief. His path takes him to post-Rat Pack Las Vegas and post-Summer of Love California. I can only imagine how little the poor flower children were paid to have sex on camera with the impotent old fart. Beyond that, the story is nearly incoherent. Still. Tobalina scores points for trying, anyway.

 

Flash forward 17 years and things have improved immeasurably, in front and behind the XXX-rated camera. Blue Ice has a plot, passable production values and an all-star cast male stars. The women are less familiar, but professional. Herschel Savage plays hard-boiled San Francisco private eye Ted Singer, who has been hired by an eccentric high-roller (Jamie Gillis) to find an ancient and mysterious book that has the power to grant anyone who can open it the gift of eternal life and power. Also hot on the trail is a group of unrepentant Nazis, who believe that the book contains the formula for sexual bliss. Phillip Marshak’s effects-laden sci-fi “thriller” also features Jacqueline Lorians, Shanna McCullough, Paul Thomas, Ron Jeremy and character actor Reggie Nalder (The Man Who Knew Too Much). VS presents Blue Ice on Blu-ray and DVD in a new 2K restoration from its original 35mm camera negative. It adds an audio commentary track with Savage and co-star William Margold.

 

Stories of the Baal Shem Tov

Los Angeles-based animator Tawd B. Dorenfeld uses stop-motion techniques to illustrate the tales of handed down by Yisroel ben Eliezer, widely known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), the 18th Century scholar, mystic and holy man who’s credited with founding the Hasidic movement. The Baal Shem Tov left the dissemination of his teachings to his disciples, who passed them along in the oral tradition or in print. According to the Holy World Productions’ mission statement, “Baal Shem Tov was renowned for his love of simple people and their honest pure ways of serving God.” That’s been translated into a series of short animated films – collected in the 80-minute anthology, Stories of the Baal Shem Tov – that are embedded in Jewish tradition and lore. “We visit poor Jewish families, who find hope in their spirituality … not because of their religious acts, but because of their human kindness.” Even if the hand-crafted stop-motion characters will appeal most to younger viewers, parents and grandparents should stick around to add their own impressions and interpretations. The universal messages needn’t be limited to strictly Jewish or Hasidic audiences, either. Mayim Bialik, Roseanne Barr and Du Du Fisher are featured in the voicing cast.

 

TV-to-DVD

Death Valley Days: The Complete First Season: Collector’s Edition

PBS: Frontline: Netanyahu at War

PBS: American Experience: The Perfect Crime

PBS: Nature: Moose: Life of a Twig Eater

PBS Kids: Kate & Mim-Mim: Flight of the Flowers

The Nanny: The Final Season

CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season Two

Before Death Valley was accorded national park status, in 1994, and expanded to include Saline and Eureka Valleys, it’s likely that most American tourists were made aware of its unique properties and history through the long-running radio and television anthology series, “Death Valley Days.” Most of the episodes focused on the notoriously harsh environment and stamina of the pioneers who attempted to cross through it, mine its riches or make it home. The continuing sponsor was 20 Mule Team Borax, a cleaning product manufactured from boron mined in Death Valley. The ore was transported from the valley floor by team of mules pictured on the box of soap. The radio program was created in 1930 by Ruth Woodman and broadcast until 1945. From 1952 to 1975, “Death Valley Days” was produced as a syndicated television series. The hosts for the 532 episodes, repeats of which were syndicated under different titles, included Stanley “The Old Ranger” Andrews, Dale Robertson, Will Rogers Jr., Ray Milland, Rory Calhoun, John Payne and, finally, Ronald Reagan. Shout! Factory’s nicely scrubbed and polished DVD collection, “Death Valley Days: The Complete First Season,” features all 18 episodes in a three-disc set. We’re told that the straight-forward narratives are based on true events. Because the entire series was shot on location on black-and-white film, the unique scenic beauty of the park wasn’t readily apparent. The only things tourists knew to expect was the potentially deadly heat and lack of rain. What they didn’t know was that the extreme heat was only a factor for four months of the year and that, in winter, the even infrequent rainfall could produce blooms of normally dormant desert flowers. Visitors to Death Valley today can find many weathered remnants of the days represented in the series. In terms of storytelling, the first year’s episodes of “Death Valley Days” could have been repurposed from original radio scripts. Even so, they’re fun to watch, if only to see the occasional acting star of the past or future.

 

Anyone concerned about the situation in Mideast and our increasingly tense relationship with Israel should take a look at the “Frontline” presentation, “Netanyahu at War.” Historically, the U.S. has been a staunch supporter of the whatever government is in power in the Jewish state, over the last 65 years. The program uses Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s personal background to demonstrate how his hardline policies have impacted his relationship with President Obama, who has shown more of an open mind toward Arab concerns than previous presidents. Our recent negotiations with Iran over its nuclear stance and Netanyahu’s decision to back Republican congressional candidates are closely studied, as well. The results make for depressing, if necessary viewing, especially in an election year in which none of the candidates can be trusted to tell the truth about their intentions for the Middle East.

 

PBS’ “American Experience” presentation “The Perfect Crime” chronicles tells the shocking story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, wealthy University of Chicago students, who amused themselves one day in 1924 by abducting and killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks, ostensibly to see if they could get away with it. They didn’t. At issue in the trial wasn’t their guilt or innocence, but whether defense attorney Clarence Darrow could convince the judge to spare them a date with the electric chair. It’s an amazing story, even if it only represented the third so-called trial of the century. (There would be more, of course.)

 

The most distressing news disseminated in the “Nature” presentation, “Moose: Life of a Twig Eater,” is the populations across many parts of North America is in steep decline and it has almost nothing to do with trophy hunters. The intimate nature documentary, filmed over 13 months in the spectacular wilds of Canada’s Jasper National Park, follows the birthing cycle and weighs alternative explanations for the drop in population.

 

From PBS Kids comes the pre-school favorite, “Kate & Mim-Mim: Flight of the Flowers,” which helps youngsters navigate some of the more difficult challenges facing them. They include Kate’s riding her bike for the first time without training wheels and Mimiloo’s efforts to learn to fly giant wind flowers.

 

Finally married, Fran and Maxwell Sheffield have all of Season Six to savor bliss of the marital variety. Alas, the first thing they experience together is being stranded on a deserted island, after falling off of the yacht carrying them to their honeymoon destination. Expect plenty more turmoil and excitement in “The Nanny: The Final Season,” not the least of which is a tenuous date with the stork for Fran and new opportunities for producer Maxwell, 3,000 miles away from New York, in La-La Land.

 

CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season Two” is strictly for those who haven’t already purchased “The Ultimate Don Rickles” set, which includes both seasons of the sitcom, or a la carte editions of the first and second seasons. This release features six episodes, supposedly “selected by Mr. Warmth himself”: “The New Captain,” “Sharkey Flies Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Close Encounters of the Worst Kind,” “Captain’s Right Hand Man,” “Fear of Flying” and “The Used-Car Caper.”

 

April 5

 

Stealing Cars

Billy Wyatt (Emory Cohen) is a young man with tremendous promise, but a troubled past leads him to the Bernville Camp for Boys. Billy must navigate his way through dangerous inmates and a cruel and punishing staff, but during it all, he learns to inspire others and find out the truth about himself in the process. STEALING CARS is a compelling drama with powerful performances by Emory Cohen, John Leguizamo, Mike Epps and Academy Award nominees William H. Macy – Best Supporting Actor, FARGO, 1996 and Felicity Huffman – Best Actress, TRANSAMERICA, 2005.

 

Dixieland

Featuring explosive chemistry between rising stars Chris Zylka (The Leftovers) and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road) and impressive supporting performances from music legends Faith Hill and Steve Earle, Dixieland is an intoxicating portrait of life and love on the margins. Fresh out of prison, Kermit (Zylka), a mostly good kid mixed up with local drug dealers, returns home to his rural Mississippi trailer park. As he struggles to keep his nose clean, he falls for Rachel (Keough), his sultry neighbor who s turned to dancing in a club to support her sick mother. Determined to overcome their inauspicious circumstances, the star-crossed lovers make a desperate, last-ditch effort to escape their dead-end town but soon find themselves ensnared in a cycle of crime.

 

The Great Hypnotist

Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng), a nationally renowned therapist incredibly skilled in hypnotherapy. But when his career takes off, he meets a patient named Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok) who brings him a complex problem. Xu Ruining discovers that with this particular case, the struggle between the doctor and the patient is not as easy as he expected. Despite her thin and weak appearance, Ren Xiaoyan always reacts violently to any problems with Xu Ruining. He wonders what exactly makes her closed-off to everyone. Is it from a painful memory in her childhood or the ring mark still visible on her middle finger? While sparing no efforts to figure out what has happened, he finds himself falling into a horrible trap…

 

#Horror [Blu-ray]

You’ve got followers… Cyberbullying goes offline during one deadly night. Inspired by a shocking true story, #Horror follows a group of preteen girls living in a suburban world of money and privilege. But when their obsession with a disturbing online game goes too far, virtual terror becomes all too real. Chloe Sevigny leads an ensemble cast that includes Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, and Timothy Hutton in Tara Subkoff’s directorial debut.

 

The Hallow [Blu-ray]

A family moves to a remote house in rural Ireland and finds themselves in a fight for survival with an ancient evil living in the secluded woods.

Special Features Include:

-Audio commentary with director Corin Hardy

-“Surviving the Fairytale: The Making of “The Hallow””

-Behind-the-Scenes: “The Story”

-Behind-the-Scenes: “Influence”

-Behind-the-Scenes: “Practical F/X”

-Director’s storyboards gallery

-Director’s sketchbook gallery

-“The Book of Invasions” original illustrations gallery

-Creature concepts gallery

-Theatrical Trailer

 

Tumbledown [Blu-ray]

Pop culture scholar Andrew (Jason Sudeikis) comes to Maine to interview Hannah (Rebecca Hall), the protective widow of an acclaimed singer. When the unlikely pair strike a deal to co-write a biography, Andrew finds himself clashing with a cast of locals, including Hannah s hunky suitor (Joe Manganiello), and her loving but defensive parents (Blythe Danner, Richard Masur). When Hannah and Andrew’s stormy partnership blossoms into an unexpected connection, they face the possibility that the next chapter in their lives may involve each other. Dianna Aragon and Griffin Dunne costar in this startlingly funny and sweetly romantic tale of moving on and finding love in the unlikeliest of places.

 

Dreams Rewired’

Tilda Swinton’s hypnotic voiceover and a treasure trove of rare archival footage culled from hundreds of films from the 1880s through the 1930s much of it previously unseen combine to trace the anxieties of today’s hyper-connected world back a hundred years.Review

This film essay features an intricately, crafted voice-over by Tilda Swinton, melding together historic fact and contemporary theories. –Screen International

4 Stars! A marvelous essay film [that] leaves you fantasizing about what things there are to come. –Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian

Explores the history and ongoing narratives and idealizations that new advents in technology brought, like end to global crisis, less barriers to the outside world, as well as the end of privacy and security. –Aimee Murillo, Orange County Weekly

 

Mutual Friends

Liv is throwing a surprise birthday party for her too-perfect-to-be-true new fiancé, Christoph. And, the party must be flawless so all their friends will know how excited Liv is to be his wife. An amazing party might also help Liv atone for sleeping with her best friend Nate on the night of her engagement. Which meant nothing. Nate is averse to commitments, so he should just add Liv to his long list of women. And he usually could. But, as party time approaches, Nate begins to question his no-strings mantra and decides to make a full court press for Liv’s affections. As Liv is busy party planning and resisting Nate’s awkward advances, the rest of their friends head on a collision course through New York City. Prim, proper and newly pregnant Beatrice wants someone to admire her cabinets, while her husband, Paul is freaked out by the baby news. Paul admires Nate’s unattached ways and urges his buddy towards Ms. Sexy Hot Boss. Paul may not be able to take advantage of her charms, but he’s excited to know that Nate can. It may be torched Earth for Paul, but Nate still has a world of women to conquer. Across town, Liv’s older brother, the non-communicative Sammy, takes his stoner assistant to stakeout Sammy’s cheating wife. Where the fault lies in the break up of Sammy’s marriage may be unclear, but ignoring the problem, as Sammy tends to do, is not the answer. Meanwhile, drop-out brother Thomas has hired a stripper instead of a bartender and bought piñatas and disco balls to spice up Liv’s stuffy soiree. To make matters worse, Christoph’s ex, Annie, just showed up to win back her man or to punch him in the face. And, the party is just getting started–with or without the cock cake. When this tangled web of friends finally gathers, some people get lucky, some get even, and some go home in tears.

 

Deceived

Alejandro returns to his home in Puerto Rico, to help his sister Magdalena get her life together. Only to find out from an old acquaintance, Detective Garcia, that Magdalena has gone missing. Led to a bar in old San Juan, he discovers that not only was Magdalena working as an exotic dancer, but she was dating a drug dealing surfer, Laz. Here Alejandro tries to piece together the events that led to her disappearance and struggles to wrap his head around the interconnected nature of all the characters. Upon discovering that the bar manager, Michael, has a dark history and a millionaire philanthropist, Roman, is not just here to build an orphanage, Alejandro starts to realize that not everything is as it seems

 

Rows

is a horror/ fantasy/ thriller inspired by Grimm’s tales. ROSE works for her father, MARK, who turns cornfields into subdivisions. Rose must deliver eviction papers to HAVILAND, a squatter in a condemned farmhouse. Haviland is an evil enchantress– she puts Rose under a spell. Rose’s friend, GRETA, will also come under Haviland’s powers. They become lost in a seemingly infinite cornfield and must repeat a series of surreal or terrifying events in order to solve the mystery and break the spell. Rose and Greta (seemingly) murder Haviland, drag her into a cornfield, and bury her. But they cannot find their way out. Rose finds a portal, escapes and runs home. Inexplicably, Rose finds Greta waiting for her there. Events seem to repeat, but with shocking variations. When Rose and Greta return to the farmhouse, Haviland impales Rose with a knife. Greta and JACK (pawn of Haviland) drag Rose through the cornfield and throw her into the grave. The enchantment warps the laws of time and nature; Rose finds herself resurrected. She learns through a changeling that if the house dies, Haviland dies. Rose must fight back against Haviland and save her Father. The cycle repeats. This time however, Rose disrupts Haviland’s spell by “murdering” Jack. Rose attempts to set the farmhouse afire. Greta leads Rose underneath the farmhouse to a weird circular room. Rose’s father is drawn into the mystery, and Rose’s relationship with him is tested. A series of shocking reversals leads to a haunting climax: Rose finds her catatonic father. Greta, as Haviland’s mouthpiece, tells Rose that she must plunge the knife through her father’s chest, in order to break the spell. It won’t really kill him. Rose can’t make herself do it. In the end, Mark and Rose succumb to the Haviland’s powers. Rose will live as caretaker to the farmhouse, and Haviland, forever.

 

That Uncertain Feeling

Beautiful but neglected housewife Jill Baker visits a psychologist for treatment of her psychosomatic hiccups. There she meets neurotic pianist Alexander Sebastian and sparks fly. While boring insurance salesman Larry Baker ignores his wife, Sebastian is soon squiring her around town to art galleries, concerts and romantic lunches. When Jill requests a divorce, Larry reluctantly consents. She sets up housekeeping with Sebastian and learns that the grass that seemed so much greener, may be full of weeds.

After her performance as Lady Marguerite Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), gorgeous Merle Oberon headed for Hollywood and stardom. Some of her standout performances included The Dark Angel (1935), The Divorce Of Lady X (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939) and Desiree (1954). One of Hollywood’s greatest actors, Melvyn Douglas took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1963 for his role in Hud and added a second Oscar in 1979 for his role in Being There. The excellent cast of That Uncertain Feeling includes Eve Arden, Alan Mowbray as the psychiatrist and a hilarious turn by Burgess Meredith as the wacky artist. Brilliant director Ernst Lubitsch was known for his witty and sophisticated handling of adult themes often referred to as the “Lubitsch Touch.” He is best remembered for his classics Ninotchka (1939), To Be Or Not To Be (1942) and Heaven Can Wait (1943).

 

Death Walks Twice: Two Films by Luciano Ercoli: Blu-ray

Emerging at the peak of the giallo boom of the early 70s, Luciano Ercoli s Death Walks films are two superlative examples of the genre linked by their shared casting of the stunning Nieves Navarro (billed under her adopted stage name of Susan Scott) as the lead woman in peril.finds herself terrorised by a black-clad assailant determined on procuring her father s stolen gems. Fleeing Paris and her knife-wielding pursuer, Nicole arrives in London only to discover that death stalks her at every corner.

Returning in Death Walks at Midnight (1972), Navarro stars as Valentina a model who, in the midst of a drug-fuelled photoshoot, witnesses a brutal murder in the apartment opposite hers. But when it becomes clear that the savage slaying she describes relates to a crime that took place six months earlier, the police are at a loss – forcing Valentina to solve the mystery alone.

Offering up all the glamour, perversity and narrative twists and turns that are typical of the giallo genre at its best, Luciano Ercoli s Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight anticipate the super-stylized trappings of Brian De Palma s early psycho thrillers (most notably, Dressed to Kill).

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

Limited Edition boxed-set (3000 copies) containing Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight

Brand new 2K restorations of the films from the original camera negatives

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations

Original Italian and English soundtracks in mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-rays)

Newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtracks

Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtracks

Limited Edition 60-page booklet containing new writing from authors Danny Shipka (Perverse Titillation: The Exploitation Cinema of Italy, Spain and France), Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films) and writer Leonard Jacobs, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

DEATH WALKS ON HIGH HEELS

Audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas

Introduction to the film by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi

Newly-edited archive interview with director Luciano Ercoli and actress Nieves Navarro

Master of Giallo brand new interview in which Gastaldi discusses Death Walks on High Heels and offers up his thoughts as to what constitutes a good giallo

An interview with composer Stelvio Cipriani

Original Italian trailer

Original English trailer

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

DEATH WALKS AT MIDNIGHT

Audio commentary by film critic Tim Lucas

Introduction to the film by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi

Extended TV version of the feature [105 mins]

Crime Does Pay brand new interview in which Gastaldi discusses Death Walks at Midnight and a career script-writing crime films

Desperately Seeking Susan a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring the distinctive giallo collaborations between director Luciano Ercoli and star Nieves Navarro

Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx

Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight)

 

NYPD Blue: Season 09

The Emmy award-winning drama from co-creators Steven Bochco and David Milch returns for another twenty-three riveting episodes in NYPD Blue: Season Nine. Always a series that effortlessly adapted to change, Season Nine finds Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) experiencing several dramatic developments in his life, including a long-overdue promotion, a surprising new romance with Detective Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross), and a new partner in the form of John Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar). The 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City are also employed into the series, reflecting both the evolving emotions about our public safety as well as the steadfast strength and dedication of law enforcement officers in the wake of those real-life events.

 

 

 

April 12

 

The Forest [Blu-ray]

A young woman’s hunt for her missing sister leads to horror and madness in this terrifying supernatural thriller starring Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games franchise). When her troubled twin sister mysteriously disappears, Sara Price (Dormer) discovers she vanished in Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest. Searching its eerie dark woods, Sara plunges into a tormented world where angry spirits lie in wait for those who ignore the warning: never stray from the path. Exploring The Forest

Galleries

Feature Commentary with Director Jason Zada

 

Village of the Damned

A doctor battles children who exert deadly mind control over adults in a small Northern California town.

Special Features Include:

-“It Takes A Village: The Making of:” Featuring interviews with director John Carpenter, producer Sandy King, actors Michael Pare, Peter Jason, Karen Kahn, Meredith Salenger, Thomas Dekker, Cody Dorkin, Lindsey Haun, Danielle Wiener-Keaton, and make-up effects artist Greg Nicotero

-“Horror’s Hallowed Grounds:” Revisiting the locations of the film

-“The Go-to Guy:” Peter Jason on John Carpenter

-Vintage interviews featuring John Carpenter, Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski, Mark Hamill, and Wolf Rilla (director of the original “Village of the Damned”)

-Vintage behind-the-scenes footage

-Theatrical Trailer

-Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery

 

Bob Dylan – Triumvirate

Frank Zappa: In His Own Words

Arguably the sharpest tool in the rock musician box, Frank Zappa was never lost for words when presented with another’s opinion and would counter any position he did not agree with, fluently, eloquently and with the style and wit normally reserved for the great orator or the finest raconteur. Frank could be funny, serious and just about anywhere in-between and could literally talk for hours without losing a single member of his audience. This DVD collects together over 90 minutes of video interviews and talking engagements with or undertaken by Zappa across his career, during which the great man is on form and on the money throughout. Talking on numerous subjects and displaying variously; charm, intelligence, humour and impatience – sometimes all within the same interview – this is Zappa away from the day job but at his fascinating, albeit at times fearsome, best.

 

More than 50 years ago Bob Dylan entered New York’s Greenwich Village and created a one man tidal wave of musical change which most commentators of substance would agree was near instrumental in kick-starting what has come to be thought of as ‘modern music’ or ‘the rock age’. Dylan would of course balk at the idea, but by taking elements of just about everything that had gone before and dragging from the resultant soup a coherent blend of something that no one has ever been quite able to put their finger on, but which appealed to masses of youngsters, he succeeded as though destined to do so for millennia; Elvis and Little Richard had gone part of the way but Bob drove in the final nails of the coffin that put the past to rest and changed music in a way it had never changed before. This three disc set celebrates and documents the era during which Bob Dylan pulled off this extraordinary feat and created a musical enlightenment by doing so. Featuring documentary and interview material as well as rare footage from the time, this collection will leave no viewer in doubt as to where the roots of what we now largely take for granted were sown.

 

 

April 19

 

Biophilic Design

BIOPHILIC DESIGN is an innovative way of designing the places where we live, work and learn. We need nature in a deep and fundamental fashion, but we have often designed our cities and suburbs in ways that both degrade the environment and alienate us from nature. The recent trend in green architecture has decreased the environmental impact of the built environment, but it has accomplished little in the way of reconnecting us to the natural world, the missing piece in the puzzle of sustainable development. Come on a journey from our evolutionary past and the origins of architecture to the world s most celebrated buildings in a search for the architecture of life. Encounter buildings that connect people and nature hospitals where patients heal faster, schools where children s test scores are higher, and communities where people know their neighbors and families thrive. BIOPHILIC DESIGN points the way toward creating healthy and productive habitats for modern humans.

 

Shadows of Liberty

SHADOWS OF LIBERTY reveals the extraordinary truth behind the news media: censorship, cover-ups and corporate control. Filmmaker Jean-Philippe Tremblay takes a journey through the darker corridors of the US media, where global conglomerates call the shots. For decades, their overwhelming influence has distorted news journalism and compromised its values. In highly revealing stories, renowned journalists, activists and academics give insider accounts of a broken media system. Tracing the story of media manipulation over the years, SHADOWS OF LIBERTY poses a crucial question: why have we let a handful of powerful corporations write the news? We re left in no doubt media reform is urgent and freedom of the press is fundamental.

 

 

 

 

 

The DVD Wrapup: Freaks & Geeks, Daddy’s Home, Censored Voices,Black Mama White Mama, Mammon and more

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series: Blu-ray
Like “My So-Called Life” before it and “Veronica Mars” after it, “Freaks and Geeks” was a show about suburban teenagers that blurred traditional genre boundaries and appreciated the fact that parents and teachers didn’t have all the solutions to life’s problems. For all of the respect shown these fondly remembered “cult classics,” however, “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” lasted all of one of season, while “Veronica Mars” was always in danger of being cancelled. Indeed, the shows’ greatest accomplishment might have been clearing the way for “Glee,” a show that smashed through the imaginary lines they blurred. Shout!Factory’s Blu-ray release of “Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series” is unusual for taking full advantage of a show that lasted all of 18 episodes, only 15 of which actually were aired in the original 1999-2000 season on NBC. Normally, a show that was canceled prematurely would be accorded a single multi-disk package and, perhaps, some liner notes. Here, though, one multi-disc package contains 18 episodes in their original aspect (1.33:1), with deleted scenes, while another carries the same episodes in the widescreen format (1.78:1). A third disc contains such bonus material as a Museum of Television & Radio panel discussion; complete script for a never-shot episode; three full-episode table reads; original cast audition footage; raw footage; skits by the Sober Students Improv Players; NBC promo material; and several making-of and background featurettes. A separate “notebook” adds a letter and Q&A from creators Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, essays, memorabilia and synopses.

Set in 1980 at the fictional McKinley High near Detroit, “Freaks and Geeks” focused on two groups of outsiders: the stoners, tough kids and bad girls; and the brains, nerds and squares. The jocks, cheerleaders and bullies were noteworthy only in their interaction with the two fringe entities. A few of the teachers were featured in recurring storylines and parents ran the gamut from comic relief to completely dysfunctional. The prevailing lesson to be taken away from the series was and remains: there are no easy answers in life or high school, so keep your eyes, ears and mind open for everything to come. From a distance of 15 years, “Freaks and Geeks” isn’t devoid of cringe-worthy moments, but they’ll seem authentic to anyone who isn’t harboring the misconception that high school was anything but torture. Most fun, I think, is recognizing the faces of actors whose careers were still years away from blossoming and themes that Feig (Bridesmaids) and Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) would revisit in future projects. The co-creators would find several other good excuses to hire Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel in movies. (Segel, Samm Levine, Martin Starr and Busy Philipps would all appear in the series “How I Met Your Mother.”) In the end, “Freaks and Geeks” didn’t suffer from pathetically poor ratings, as do most canceled shows. The licensing fees for the music, alone, would have crippled most series. The large ensemble cast was no bargain, either. NBC probably didn’t want to risk the bottom falling out in the second season. I’m guessing, too, that the network’s sponsors weren’t anxious to have their brands associated with episodes dealing with such issues as teen pregnancy, binge drinking, enjoying pot and other drugs, bashing the establishment, overripe libidos, homosexuality and gender-reassignment surgery. (The problems faced by teachers and parents seem trivial, by comparison.)

Daddy’s Home: Blu-ray
While watching the Blu-ray edition of Paramount’s Christmas comedy, Daddy’s Home, I couldn’t help but wonder when Will Ferrell began morphing into Fred MacMurray. After being successfully cast against type in such great dramas as Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny, There’s Always Tomorrow, Pushover and The Apartment, MacMurray would once again face typecasting, but this time as the All-American Dad, in Disney’s The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber and as single father Steve Douglas, on “My Three Sons.” In the lightweight, if commercially successful Daddy’s Home, Ferrell plays the All-American stepdad to his wife’s two children. Although his Mark Whitaker would appear to be the perfect counter to an absentee father who rides a Harley, wears top-to-toe leather and thinks proper parenting mostly takes place at the mall, he gets nearly no respect at home. Naturally, the kids are crazy about their dad-by-birth, Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg), and openly hostile to Mark. (I didn’t buy the rude behavior directed at such a decent man, but it’s the film’s central conceit.) Their mom, Sara (Linda Cardellini), is too buffaloed by her ex-husband’s blarney to tell him to book a room in a motel or to see through his scheme to reclaim her heart. Mark sees through the ruse, but is too nice a guy to send Dusty packing, especially after he schmoozes his boss (Thomas Haden Church). The more Mark tries to even the playing field at home, the more paranoid and buffoonish he acts in front of the family. The one-upmanship doesn’t really get funny until the two men try to out-impress the kids at a Lakers’ game. Mark spends a fortune for courtside seats and souvenirs, but is trumped by Dusty’s ability to stage a meeting with Kobe. It causes Mark to drown his disappointment and envy in beer, which translates into a hugely embarrassing performance in a halftime three-point competition. It’s the only scene that demonstrates co-writer/director Sean Anders understands the difference between cheap slapstick (That’s My Boy, Horrible Bosses 2) and the precise comic timing Ferrell can bring to physical gag, when he’s on his game. Like I said, however, Daddy’s Home did extremely well against very tough competition over the Christmas holiday, so I might not be the right person to listen to on the subject. The PG-13 rating seems fairly earned, with only a couple of silly dick gags standing in the way of a PG. The package adds several deleted scenes, a blooper and a half-dozen background and making-of featurettes.

Censored Voices
Almost 50 years ago, this June, Israel kicked the crap out of a coalition of Arab states determined to wipe it off of the maps redrawn after the 1948 war. It did so by launching a devastating pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian Air Force and a nearly simultaneous ground offensive against tanks and infantry massed in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai. Unwilling to admit defeat, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser convinced his counterparts in Syria and Jordan that reports of his military’s demise were greatly exaggerated and they shouldn’t dissuade anyone from going ahead with plans to attack Israel from the north and east. Even before the Arabs could say “uncle” and forestall the disaster, Israeli counterattacks resulted in the seizure of East Jerusalem and West Bank from Jordan, while Syria was forced to pull back from the Golan Heights. If the defeated countries had played their cards right, they might have found Israel responsive to some concessions on captured territory, but the sound of sword-rattling drowned out any hope for long-term peace. Almost overnight, Israel went from underdog to potentially invincible superpower, with a new problem weighing heavy in its hands. By not immediately resolving the plight of Palestinians expelled from annexed territory or forced to live in ghetto conditions in their own homes, the country opened its windows to the winds of political hypocrisy, opportunism and media manipulation by the PLO and other terrorist organizations. The only thing that’s changed in the last half-century is the increased threat to Israel by previously powerless states and its conservative government’s willingness to spit in the eye of longtime allies.

Mor Loushy’s impassioned documentary Censored Voices reminds us that, except in times of imminent danger, Israeli homogeneity has never really existed. The ink hadn’t even dried on the ceasefire agreement before people on all sides of the political spectrum began to debate the ramifications of annexing captured territory and issues relating to Palestinian despair. One week after the war, while much of the country was still celebrating the reclamation of Old Jerusalem, novelist Amos Oz and historian Avraham Shapira visited several kibbutzim to record the fresh and candid recollections of reservists returning from the battlefield. Although severely censored by the Israel Defense Force, the transcripts would provide material for a popular work of non-fiction, “The Seventh Day.” Loushy had read the book, but wondered what the “censored voices” had to say. It took some convincing on her part to get Shapira to give her permission to peruse the tapes and compare them to the edited transcripts. While it can be argued that the kibbutzniks interviewed might have been predisposed to adopt more progressive, anti-nationalist attitudes after experiencing the horrors of war, the authenticity and sincerity in the anonymously recorded voices is palpable. Even so, Censored Voices doesn’t pretend to offer a balanced accounting of post-war public opinion. Once Loushy had gained access to the tapes, she attempted to round up the men interviewed and film them. She didn’t, however, record anything except their facial expressions. What’s striking about the observations is the prescience in evidence. While considering the implications of Israel so suddenly evolving from David to Goliath, the men predicted the eventuality of future wars and the unending turmoil surrounding the occupation of land Palestinians traditionally called home. Also included are tales of heroism and recrimination, based on battlefield memories. Censored Voices is a sobering document, but one that’s no less relevant today than when the censors took their red pencils to the transcripts.

Addiction Incorporated
In 1999, Michael Mann enlisted considerable star power to tell the story of a research chemist who came under personal and professional attack when he decided to appear in a “60 Minutes” expose on Big Tobacco. Despite only tepid box-office numbers, The Insider, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including one for Russell Crowe as valiant whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Charles Evans Jr.’s provocative documentary, Addiction Incorporated, tells a remarkably similar tale of corporate malfeasance, greed and fraud. Instead of Brown & Williamson, where Wigand was employed, Victor J. DeNoble was employed by Philip Morris in the Behavioral Research Department from 1980-84. As such, he performed in-house rat studies on nicotine and addiction and was later fired because of the sensitive nature of what his studies revealed about nicotine dependency. His superiors had heard enough and decided to bury the evidence. After his lab was shuttered and publication of the results of years of research was canceled by scientific journals, DeNoble decided that it was his civic duty to make his findings public. The startling revelations prompted the 1994 congressional hearings, during which the seven heads of the major tobacco companies declared, under oath, that they believed nicotine was not addictive and could not be manipulated to ensure dependency. The legislators demanded that DeNoble be relieved of his contractual pledge to maintain silence on the research, clearly proving the executives were lying. Before the dust settled, an alliance of journalists, politicians, attorneys and whistleblowers set out to achieve what was once considered impossible: the first-ever federal regulation of the tobacco industry. Released in 2011, Addiction Incorporated only played in a couple of big-city theaters and festivals. It certainly didn’t benefit from being so far removed from 1998, when the Master Settlement Agreement was announced between states’ attorneys general and tobacco companies to settle lawsuits. The war against tobacco addiction continues, but the really loud guns were fired more than a decade earlier. In another similarity, journalists interviewed here from ABC News became the target of bullying by Big Tobacco, just as CBS’ Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) felt the heat in The Insider. Like CBS, ABC caved to the pressure of multibillion-dollar lawsuits.

Rage of Honor: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Invasion U.S.A.: Blu-ray
Braddock: Missing in Action III: Blu-ray
In February, Arrow Video released a nicely restored edition of the ninja action flick, Pray for Death, starring martial-arts all-star Sho Kosugi (Enter the Ninja) and directed by Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad). It’s only taken a month for its virtual sequel, Rage of Honor, to arrive in Blu-ray, with the same principals on board. The stories aren’t identical, as was the case with other mid-1980s action series, but they certainly aren’t different enough to warrant separate releases. A double-feature package would have served the same purpose, while saving collectors a few bucks. Instead of being set exclusively in a big U.S. city, Rage of Honor takes place in the American Southwest, Argentina and the Philippines, a location historically synonymous with low-budget action slop. After the death of his partner in a bungled drug bust, federal agent Shiro Tanaka (Kosugi) trades his badge and standard-issue sidearm for an arsenal comprised of nunchucks, blades and ninja stars. He follows the trail of blood to Buenos Aries and the jungles of Brazil (a.k.a., Philippines) for a series of showdowns with an international team of narco-terrorists. There’s nothing really new here, except the South American locations, which allowed for some excellent chase scenes, including one pitting cigarette boats. Besides performing the ninja tropes with care and precision, Kosugi is a master acrobat and, in Pray for Death and Rage of Honor, Hessler takes full advantage of his athleticism. The new Arrow edition is from a transfer of original elements by MGM. It adds the featurette, “Sho and Tell, Part 2: The Domination,” which extends interviews shot for Pray for Death; vintage trailers; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and a collectors’ booklet with new writing on the film and an extract from Kosugi’s upcoming book.

At about the same time in American movie history as Kosugi was kicking butts and taking names, Chuck Norris was selling tickets like hotcakes as the second great American avenger to Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. While Stallone fought terribly hard not to be pigeonholed as a punch-drunk pugilist or jungle fighter with a chip on his shoulder, Norris pretty much rolled with the punches. An accomplished martial-arts fighter and teacher, Norris played to the crowd desperate for a non-Asian protagonist – Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren would follow – committed to killing commies for Christ and serving as America’s last hope to find and free the 1,000-plus POWs said to be held by the Vietnamese, who soon become a trading partner. Other Norris characters crushed drug pushers and organized crime at home and abroad. His association with Cannon Films ensured that he’d never be accorded the same budgets or marketing campaigns as Stallone. Neither, though, were the financial expectations as high. When Cannon went out of business, Norris was able to resuscitate his career on the small screen’s “Walker, Texas Ranger” and by making movies designed to go straight to video. Released in 1985, Invasion U.S.A. plays like the Bay of Pigs Invasion in reverse, crossed with Charles Manson’s helter-skelter theory of instigating a race war. As former CIA agent Matt Hunter, Norris is asked by the agency to put down an invasion of generic anti-American rebels, led by a former foe simply named Rostov. One of the reasons Hunter quit is because he wasn’t allowed to kill Rostov when the opportunity arose several years earlier. So, it isn’t until his nemesis attacks his home in the Everglades that Hunter agrees to eliminate Rostov and stop the invasion. Absurd, yes, but packed with hard-core action. The Blu-ray adds commentary by director Joseph Zito and interviews with writer James Bruner, special effects makeup artists Tom Savini, Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero.

Braddock: Missing in Action III is the third in series of “MIA” titles dedicated to the memory of Norris’ younger brother, Wieland, who was killed in the Vietnam War in 1970. It was directed by brother and frequent collaborator, Aaron, who also served in the war and is a martial-arts expert. This time Colonel James Braddock returns to Southeast Asia after he is told that his Vietnamese wife and 12-year-old son are still alive and possibly living among other Amer-Asian dependents left behind in the chaos of the takeover of Saigon by NVA and Vietcong forces. Without going into too much detail, Braddock somehow locates the stronghold in which the children are being held. After being captured and tortured for what seems be an eternity, Braddock is required to fight half of what’s left of the Vietnamese army, after its decimation in the first and second “MIA,” before crossing into Thailand with the children. He survives less on kung-fu than state-of-the-art weaponry.

Black Mama, White Mama: Blu-ray
In the annals of exploitation and grindhouse history, no picture stands taller or stoops lower the Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize it as the Citizen Kane of the genre, few pictures fused as many key thematic and visual elements into such a wildly entertaining product. Filmed in the Philippines from a script co-authored by Jonathan Demme and Joe Viola — collaborators on The Hot Box, Angels Hard as They Come and Rio TigreBlack Mama, White Mama (a.k.a., “Women in Chains,”
“Chained Women” and “Hot, Hard and Mean”) borrowed liberally from Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, which starred Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in roles assumed by Margaret Markov and Pam Grier. For Grier, the movie sat on the cusp of her transition from women-in-prison (The Big Bird Cage) and Blaxploitation (Coffey) flicks. They play diametrically opposed convicts – a revolutionary and “harem girl” — who meet on a bus heading for a hell-hole prison in the boonies. Before escaping in chains, they engage in an unforgettable cat fight and shower scene, complete with a voyeuristic blond guard watching behind a peephole. What else makes “BM/WM” essential viewing? Well, there’s Corman regular Sid Haig, as an American cowboy bounty hunter; Lynn Borden, whose previous credits included Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Frogs and The Weekend Nun; the insanely prolific Philippine actor Vic Diaz; truckloads of U.S. surplus weaponry; fake nuns in chains; drawers full of white cotton panties; and the extraordinary tagline, “Chicks in chains … on the lam from a prison hell … manacled together by hate and the strange ideas a woman gets after 1,000 nights without a man.” The excellent Arrow Video restoration arrives with high- and standard-definition presentations; the original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray); commentary by filmmaker Andrew Leavold, director of “The Search for Weng Weng”; essential interviews with Markov, Haig and Romero; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a first-pressing booklet with new writing on the film by Temple of Schlock’s Chris Poggiali, as well as archival stills and posters.

Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs
All Hell Breaks Loose
Anyone whose taste in movies runs to such wacky straight-to-Syfy flicks as Sharknado, Lavalantula, SnakeHead Swamp and the upcoming Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre will want to rush out and find Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs. None of these titles could be considered good by anyone’s standards, except those used to judge movies that are so bad they almost demand to be watched and passed around by friends. Also known as “Jurassic Hunters,” Ari Novak’s first quasi-theatrical feature benefits from tight pacing, some decent sight gags and the mountains surrounding Livingstone, Montana. Dollar-for-dollar-spent, Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs makes Jurassic World look like, well, Sharknado: Heart of Sharkness. In a plot that might have been inspired by Rodan, miners are ordered by their greedy boss to break through an artificially constructed wall in a shaft leading to an iridium deposit. No sooner do they crack the blockage than they’re attacked by Velociraptors that have been trapped inside the chamber for God knows how long. The foreman manages to toss an explosive charge behind him in his rush to get out of the cave, temporarily stopping the advance of the vicious carnivores. It doesn’t long for the surviving raptors to clear the impediment and make a beeline to a small lake where a group of bikini-clad babes are taking a dip. In fact, the monsters appear to have an appetite for women in and out of uniform. The crazy thing about the Velociraptors is how easy it is to take them out with handguns, shotguns and flame-tipped arrows. In movies with exponentially larger budgets, it requires a small army to kill a single dinosaur. Here, a square-jawed cowboy (Rib Hillis), his ex-girlfriend and her sheriff dad (John Freeman) take out a bunch them with the kinds of constitutionally protected guns that kids in Montana and Texas receive as gifts for their First Communion. For variety, an actual T-Rex and Triceratops escape from the mine, as well. I don’t remember the latter being killed, so it might still be wandering around Montana looking for a Hooters to terrorize. And, lest I forget, the always delightful Eric Roberts plays a jailhouse lush.

If Cowboys vs. Dinosaurs pays homage to Japanese creature features of the 1950s, All Hell Breaks Loose is a throwback to the heyday of bad-biker movies, which may have met their waterloo when Joe Namath and Ann-Margaret were paired in C.C. & Company. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Jeremy Garner’s debut feature a religious film, but it involves a motorcycle gang from hell, Satan’s Sinners, determined to kidnap a virgin to be defiled by their demonic master. In doing so, they murder her husband before the geeky couple can consummate their marriage. While she’s being held hostage in a dirtball strip bar, God appears in cowboy drag to breathe new life into the newlywed. Even in his resurrected form, the poor sap, is an inordinately inept soldier of the lord. Without coming close to freeing his wife, he’s repeatedly murdered and reborn. Despite the DIY budget, the bikers look convincingly sleazy and comfortable in their native environment. There’s plenty of ridiculously gory action, too. For what it’s worth, the screenplay was penned by a self-described movie critic, who goes by the name of The Vocabulariast. That has to count for something.

Disturbing Behavior: Blu-ray
I can’t imagine many more dispiriting things for a director to experience than watching his picture being pecked to death by ducks assembled by studio executives in focus groups to nitpick pictures they may not completely grasp. Just as hurtful is reading reviews that blame the director for screwing up a picture that actually was dismantled and stitched back together by producers wielding mallets where a scalpel would have been the appropriate tool. Apparently, this is what happened to Disturbing Behavior, a movie that started out as a teen-horror version of The Stepford Wives, but ended up looking more like Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick’s uncharacteristically lousy 2004 remake. Essentially, David Nutter (“The X-Files”) and Scott Rosenberg (Beautiful Girls) imagined a high school on an isolated island in Puget Sound, where the normal pecking order has been subverted by the evil Dr. Edgar Caldicott (Bruce Greenwood). In his scheme, the naughty boys and girls are transformed into “blue ribbon” students, without losing all of their bad tendencies. The new kid in school senses that something isn’t kosher, but may be overmatched in restoring the status quo. The cast includes James Marsden, Katie Holmes and Nick Stahl. For some reason, 1999 overflowed with movies about demonic teens. The Blu-ray adds a slightly snarky commentary with Nutter, deleted scenes and an alternate ending.

TV-to-DVD
MHz Networks: The Heavy Water War
MHz Networks: Mammon
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season: Special Edition: Blu-ray
AMC: Turn: Washington’s Spies: Season 2
NOVA: Secret Tunnel Warfare
NOVA: Mystery Beneath the Ice
Maude: Season Four
Nickelodeon: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Half-Shell Heroes: Blast to the Past
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Super Daniel
Of all the little-known stories about World War II, the least little-known may be the one in which Norwegian resistance fighters and British intelligence specialists combined forces to stall Hitler’s war machine by depriving his scientists of the “heavy water” required to control nuclear fission. That and the absence of key researchers – many of whom were Jewish and, therefore, scientists non grata in the Third Reich – kept Germany from beating the Allies to nuclear dominance. Besides being the subject of several books, the same story was first covered in the 1948 Franco-Norwegian production, Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water, with many of the original Nordic commandos playing themselves. In the 1965 British film, The Heroes of Telemark, Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris were cast in the key roles. Ray Mears’ 2003 documentary, The Real Heroes of Telemark, corrected several of the fudged facts in Anthony Mann’s hit movie. It and other historical made-for-cable docs have kept the memory of the courageous men and women alive to this day. At 267 minutes, MHz Networks’ mini-series “The Heavy Water War” (a.k.a., “The Saboteurs”) enjoyed the luxury of being as close to historically correct as possible, while also exploiting the inherent drama of the top-secret preparations and execution of the raid; the pressure put on German Nobel Prize-winner Werner Heisenberg to create a pineapple-sized bomb capable of decimating London; and the stress of family dynamics in Norway and Germany. There’s a hint of romance, but, unlike in The Heroes of Telemark, only of the unrequited variety between the essential Norwegian defector, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner) and a widowed intelligence officer (Anna Friel), who’s fictitious. What may not be recalled from previous versions of the story is the terrible toll paid by several dozen potential saboteurs, who were captured and killed by German soldiers before they could rendezvous with the advance team of four Norwegian fighters, who’d run out of food. Otherwise, the action bounces between Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan, the British training base in Scotland, Berlin and the snow-covered mountains that stood between the raiders and factory. The mini-series doesn’t ignore the moral and ethical issues faced by scientists and spies, alike, including the slaughter of innocent civilians whose only crime is living too close to the target.

Also from Norway, by way of MHz Networks, comes the contemporary mini-series “Mammon,” which documents the end days of a decades-long financial and political conspiracy that becomes unraveled when a participant’s role is uncovered by his reporter brother, Peter Verås (Jon Øigarden), and, rather than spilling the beans, commits suicide. Bewildered and grief-stricken, Peter continues his investigation but the closer he gets to the truth, the more dangerous it becomes for him and his family. Another mysterious suicide provides the journalist with the single verbal clue, “Abraham,” that suggests the financial wrongdoing also involves some old-fashioned Old Testament violence. Naturally, as Peter gets closer to developing leads into the increasingly bizarre scheme, he encounters resistance from his pastor father, nephew, an ex-girlfriend, police, editor, paid assassins, other reporters and prominent businessmen and politicians, who may or may not share links to Abraham. Given the six-day time span of the narrative and mini-series, the story is only slightly less complicated than it could have been if William Faulkner had been called in to do a rewrite. I didn’t recognize any of the cast members, but I’m pretty sure they’re all big stars in Scandinavia, where “Mammon” was a hit. Fans of such recent exports as “The Killing,” “Borgen,” “Wallander,” “The Bridge” and “Lilyhammer” should find a lot to enjoy here.

Working from the principle that American television will always find room for zombies and other undead creatures, AMC parlayed the huge success of “The Walking Dead” into a potentially even greater franchise, by adding the combination origin story/prequel, “Fear the Walking Dead,” into a companion series. The six-episode horror/drama mini-series is based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. Its second season, debuting on April 10, will be comprised of 15 episodes.  This time, the epicenter of the plague in Los Angeles, when some hope for a cure is held by public-health officials and the infected are being warehoused in sports arenas. The family around whom the narrative revolves lives in the working-class enclave of El Sereno, on the city’s Eastside. It’s been set apart by a high chain-link fence, monitored by soldiers, after riots break out downtown. After escaping the violence, the Clark/Manawa and Salazar clans have found shelter in the abandoned homes of the barricaded suburb. Both extended families have troubles of their own to conquer before finding a permanent home, maybe in Georgia. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the heroin addiction of teen burnout Nick Clark (Frank Dillane), who’s finding it difficult to cop in the zombie apocalypse. The Salazars don’t trust the gringos and the Clark/Manawas are divided by marriage and rivalries between Travis’ first and second wives. “Fear the Walking Dead” gets a bit soapy around the edges, but it’s relieved by plenty of cool head-splattering action, as the epidemic spreads and becomes uncontrollable. Not surprisingly, the production values are all top-notch, especially settings that will be familiar to anyone who lives east of La Brea in L.A. The Blu-ray package adds the featurettes, “A Look at the Series,” a brief look at the series’ timeframe, setting, characters and trials, and “Inside the Characters of ‘Fear the Walking Dead,’”; audio commentaries; a widescreen version of the pilot episode; deleted scenes; and other undead goodies.

In the second season of AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” the producers have moved beyond the origins of the Culper Ring, a spy network centered in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut formulated to feed intelligence directly to General George Washington. In 1776, the outcome of the Revolutionary War was anything but a foregone conclusion. As Season One opened, British forces recaptured Long Island, Staten Island and New York City for the Crown, leaving Washington’s army in dire straits. Against the wishes of his loyalist father, Long Island farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) would put his life in constant danger by passing through enemy lines in the guise of a merchant carrying produce to New York. The ring members developed invisible ink and other unique ways of communicating with fellow spies, known only by numbers. The arrest of Woodhull in the early episodes of the second season allows for the focus to shift to the evil machinations of Benedict Arnold and John Graves Simcoe; the fragile mental states of King George and General George; women volunteers on both sides of the fence; and the key roles played by black freemen. There are times in the narrative when it seems as if every character not fighting is spying, passing along gossip as fact or positioning himself for a job after the war ends. I think “Turn” is a terrific series – it returns in late-April – with a clear ring of authenticity throughout. Even at the end of the season, the war has a long way to go before it’s over. I hope “Turn” can find the audience necessary to take us there, with it.  The DVD adds deleted and extended scenes and a background featurette on Washington and William “Billy” Lee.

“NOVA” takes on two very different subjects, a world apart, in this week’s DVD packages. “Secret Tunnel Warfare” returns to the blood-drenched fields near the village of Messines, in Belgian West Flanders, where some of the heaviest fighting of World War I took place. To break a years’ long stalemate, Allies devised a devastating attack, planting 600 tons of explosives in secret tunnels carved under the German trenches. Scratch the surface of the cornfields there today and you’ll find a largely intact network of trenches, tunnels and mines left behind when the Armistice was signed, compete with live ammunition and corroding grenades, the skeletons of horses killed in the line of duty, helmets and unexploded ordinance. At the expense of a few dozen ears of corn, archaeologists are revealing the extraordinary scale and risks of the Allied tunneling operations in one of the biggest excavations ever undertaken on the Western Front. It opens a unique window on the frenzy of Allied mining activity that led up to the attack in June of 1917, during which mines planted under the German lines were simultaneously triggered, killing an estimated 10,000 German troops instantly.

In “Mystery Beneath the Ice,” the loyalty of PBS viewers is rewarded with yet another reason to worry about the imminent disruption of life on Earth. Apparently, the krill apocalypse has begun and it’s taking place under a thick crust of ice. The population of krill crucial to the Antarctic ecosystem – and, by extension, the world’s ecosystem –is crashing for reasons that continue to baffle the experts. One theory argues that the krill life cycle is driven by an internal body clock that responds to the waxing and waning of the Antarctic ice pack. As climate change alters the timing of the ice pack, their life cycle is disrupted. If krill go the way of the dodo, a primary food source for large sea animals goes with it. Scientists are working on, above and below the ice pack to discover ways to reverse the situation, but diving in frigid conditions makes it tough to find the breeding caves, where krill life begins.

It’s appropriate that Season Four of “Maude” opens with Our Heroine considering a run for New York State Senate, which, on paper, might sound like a good idea, but seriously threatens her marriage to Walter, who’s in danger falling off the wagon. Later in the season, Maude really shows off her independent streak when she spearheads a campaign to elect Henry Fonda as President of the United States, whether or not he wants to be typecast in the role.

Targeted at a slightly younger audience than other TMNT products, “Half-Shell Heroes: Blast to the Past” finds the turtles in the Jurassic Era, where they encounter some friendly dinosaurs and decidedly unfriendly aliens from the future. Using their ninja skills and transportation supplied by the dinosaurs, the four brothers must find a waу to save the daу and future simultaneously. It previously aired as a hourlong special, counting commercials, on Nickelodeon.

From PBS Kids comes Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Super Daniel, with nine episodes sure to tickle the fancy of your preschoolers. Here, the young tiger uses his imagination and “superpowers,” to figure out ways to help his friends out of predicaments. The new collection offers almost two hours of previously aired episodes, including bonus feature, “Goodnight Daniel.”

The DVD Wrapup: Agnes Varda, Macbeth, Coming Home, Finding Gaston and more

Thursday, March 10th, 2016

Jane B. Par Agnès V./Kung-Fu Master: Blu-ray
At 87, the much celebrated European filmmaker Agnès Varda doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Aligned with the French New Wave, her early work not only pre-dated the movement and but also influenced its more identifiable practitioners. If she isn’t as well-known as André Bazin, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and her future husband, Jacques Demy, it’s because of her desire to make films that didn’t focus on established traditions or classical standards. So it took longer for American audiences to warm to her singular vision and experimentation. Being a woman in an industry dominated by men couldn’t have helped her chances for commercial success, either. Varda also has remained active as a creator of stylized documentaries, a judge at prestigious festivals and frequent recipient of honorary awards. Cinelicious Pics has done the arthouse crowd a huge favor by releasing a double feature of rarely seen films Varda made concurrently with Jane Birkin in the mid-1980s: Jane B. Par Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master (a.k.a., “Le Petit amour”). Varda has described the former as a collaborative portrait of a woman at 40. Although a huge star and multitalented celebrity in Europe, Birkin probably is best known here for being, 1) one of two topless nymphets who invade David Hemmings’ photo studio in “Blow-Up” and, 2) the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. She’s enjoyed far greater popularity in England and France as an actress, singer, model, cultural attaché, activist and “muse” to French composer Serge Gainsbourg. In 1986, she was approaching 40 with trepidation. Varda, who had passed that milestone 20 years earlier, hoped to convince her that it was a glorious age, with much room left to accomplish great things. In the non-linear bio-doc, Birkin relives key moments in her life through fantasy tableaux, some verging on the surreal. She wanted to “make a feature film about how I really am: jeans, old sweaters, messy hair, barefoot in my garden. Just once, I’d like to forget wigs and pretty costumes. I’d like to be filmed as if I were transparent, anonymous, like everyone else.” While Jane B. Par Agnès V. isn’t remotely mundane, Birkin comes across as a celebrity without airs or false modesty. For those familiar with the London-born personality’s history, it’s as revealing as it is entertaining.

Sometime during the filming of Jane B. Par Agnès V., Birkin described to the filmmaker a story in which a desperately lonely single mother of two girls fills the void in her life with a fling that would qualify as statutory rape in most civilized countries in the world. (In others, the perpetrator probably would be a candidate for summary execution.) Varda saw so much promise in the premise that she put their primary project on hold and quickly embarked on Kung-Fu Master, a purposely misleading title. In it, Birkin’s Mary-Jane becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy – played by the director’s son, Mathieu Demy – who can’t hold his liquor at a birthday party and required the help of a maternal figure to make it through his dry and wet heaves. In due course, Mary-Jane develops an unlikely crush on Julien, whose parents have left him alone while they’re gallivanting through Africa. In the time it takes most people to spell M-I-L-F, Varda has put the character on the path of forbidden love, albeit one that remains relatively chaste on screen. In one of her first roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays Mary-Jane’s teen daughter, who’s having her own troubles with boys, if of a far more normal variety. The title refers to Julien’s obsession with a violent arcade game of the same name. It reminds us that the boy is a long way away from being mature, while the decidedly immature Mary-Jane might have benefitted from having a son to nurture in more acceptable ways. She even goes so far as to invite Julien to join her and the girls on a trip to England, to visit her folks, and on a vacation to a secluded island. And, yes, it’s fraught with danger for everyone involved. As if to ground the story in something resembling reality, Varda adds a through-line involving a media campaign to alert young people in France and England about the then-growing peril of AIDS. If the thought of a 40-year-old woman becoming sexually infatuated with a 14-year-old boy disgusts you, as it should, Kung-Fu Master is definitely not for you. Ditto, if the fantasy romance between Mena Suvari and Kevin Spacey, in American Beauty, made you squirm. This one, methinks, is strictly for Varda/Birkin completists, who would allow the creative process some slack. Cinelicious Pics has done a nice job restoring both pictures from the original 35mm camera negatives. The set adds new interviews with Varda, one with Miranda July, and an essay by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis

Macbeth: Bu-ray
There’s nothing that demands to be seen live, in a theater, more than the plays of William Shakespeare. Several great adaptations have been committed to the big screen, as well, but too many of them feel forced, contrived or inconsequential. The ones that knock me out are those that take advantage of the settings Shakespeare left for his audience to imagine, through his words. The first time I traveled through Europe, for example, I was astounded by the number of castles visible from the windows of a train. I was also impressed by the close proximity of ancient battlefields, some hundreds of centuries older than the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. In an instant, I was able to envision events impossible to grasp completely in a classroom. The number of film adaptations of Shakespeare plays now is well beyond easy count. Stage productions captured on video only add trees to an already dense forest. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from Justin Kurzel’s recent adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender as the Thane of Glamis, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth and a host of terrific Brits in key supporting roles. What differentiates this version of “the Scottish play” from others, though, is the verisimilitude of meteorological conditions that must have plagued generations of warlords and soldiers hoping for fair skies, under which to conduct their bloody business. “Macbeth” is gloomy enough, without adding enough rain, fog, muck, dirt, dust and portentous clouds to test the resolve of any seasoned cinematographer. Here, Aussie shooter Adam Arkapaw (“True Detective”) turns all of those potential hurdles into gifts from the cinematic gods. Many of the battle scenes were staged on the rocky slopes of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, the largest and most northerly major island in the Inner Hebrides. Blood had been shed there for hundreds of years before King Duncan was born. Other sites include Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland; Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire; Hankley Common, Surrey; and the as-yet unsettled landslip of Quiraing, on Skye. It’s easy to imagine terrible things happening there.  In this, I was reminded of Grigori Kozintsev’s Soviet-era Hamlet and King Lear – available through Facets Video which were shot largely in Estonia and featured translations by Boris Pasternak, music by Dmitri Shostakovich and Jonas Gricius’ icy cold cinematography. You’ll want to keep a sweater close, before hitting play on these DVDs. The splendid Blu-ray adds an excellent Q&A with Fassbender and descriptive “Making Macbeth” featurette. And, how’s this for trivia: Fassbender is the fourth actor of the “X-Men” franchise to play the future king of Scotland, but the only one who’s never played the character on stage. James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have all played the role on stage and on screen. Moreover, Cotillard has twice starred opposite an actor who played Magneto in the series.

Nights With Theodore
Of all the millions of tourists who visit Paris each year, I wonder how many get a chance to stroll through Parc des Buttes Chaumont, an island of serenity situated in northeastern Paris. Its history, alone, would require another movie or documentary to fully explore. From certain vantage points, it’s possible to marvel at City of Light, fully illuminated, bookended by the Eiffel Tower and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. Other attractions include two manmade streams, an artificial lake, waterfall and grotto, left behind from the park’s days as a gypsum and limestone quarry. (Before Emperor Napoleon III assigned Jean-Charles Alphand to reclaim the land, it had also served as a site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed, as a refuse and sewage dump, and a place for cutting up horse carcasses.) The gardens, woods, bridges and “Temple of Sybille” are pretty spectacular, too. If your Parisian friends are reluctant to share their love of the park, it’s only because they don’t want to see it overrun by tourists. Anyone who picks up a copy of Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights With Theodore, which is largely set within its fenced perimeter, will almost certainly want to add it to the itinerary on their next tour of the 19th arrondissement. The beguiling romance began its life in 2012 as a made-for-TV movie, which explains the 67-minute length. One night, at a party, willowy college student Anna (Agathe Bonitzer) and an underemployed millennial, Theodore (Pio Marmaï), are smitten with each other, if only because this is a fairytale and serendipity is at play. Not wanting the night to end, Theodore leads the Modigliani-esque beauty to a climbable portion of the fence protecting Parc des Buttes Chaumont at night. They fall asleep under a majestic tree, awakening when the sun is high and the park is bustling. It’s a great way to begin a romance and one night of bliss leads to several more, if not always under the same tree. So far, so idyllic. It isn’t until they discover the presence of another park resident that things begin to get weird. Although Theodore is in fine fettle at night, alone in the park with Anna, outside of it he can barely make it from his bed to the door. Could it be that the park, which has a long and fascinating history, provides some magical curative charm over Theodore? Are we supposed to associate Theodore’s condition with Mimi, in La Bohème? And, what’s the deal with the other people who arrive there on moonlit nights to sit on a hill and stare into space? It’s that kind of enigmatic story. Even if we’re left with more questions than answers, the time we spend with the possibly star-crossed lovers is well worth the too-short visit to Paris.

Coming Home: Blu-ray
Zhang Yimou’s name might be familiar to Americans, if at all, as director of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. Movie buffs, however, know him from such modern classics Red Sorghum, Ju Dou , Raise the Red Lantern, Not One Less, Hero and  House of Flying Daggers, some of which were seen by more people in the west than in the PRC. One of the curious things about Chinese censorship is that it allows for movies unavailable to its citizens to be shown openly elsewhere. Zhang is one of several Chinese artists, who, despite such impediments, continue to work there.) His latest period drama, set during and immediately after the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, anticipated problems with the censorship board and worked around them. Apparently, there are certain aspects of the Cultural Revolution that Communist Party officials don’t want to see revisited. Coming Home was adapted for the screen by Zou Jingzhi (The Grandmaster) from Yan Geling’s novel, “The Criminal Lu Yanshi.” While the Shanghai-born Yan was serving with the army in Tibet, Zhang was sent to the boonies to work on a farm and in a textile mill. His crime: having a father, uncle and brother who left for Taiwan after the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War. It was a small miracle that he was allowed to enroll in film school after the madness of the Cultural Revolution ended.

Zhang has said that he’s wanted to make a film that dealt specifically with the horrors of life during the period, but was prohibited from using that half of her novel for his film. Instead, he focused on the aborted romance between a professor, Lu (Chen Daoming), forced to work in a labor camp during the 10-year period, and his long-suffering wife, Feng (Gong Li), who develops amnesia to compensate for her pain. After escaping from his labor camp, Lu risks immediate re-arrest by making a beeline home. Being a loyal follower of Chairman Mao, his daughter, Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), turns him in to police after a brief, if less-than-fruitful reunion. For her trouble, Dandan is denied a leading role in her ballet company’s production of “Red Detachment of Women.” When Lu is finally freed, along with millions of other men and women, Dandan has abandoned dance and is working in a factory. His wife not only doesn’t recognize him, but she also associates his face with that of a supervisor who sexually harassed her. Without giving too much away, the rest of the movie is taken up with the reconciled father and daughter’s struggle to fix Feng. Not surprisingly, Gong Li delivers a powerful performance for Zhang. Not so coincidentally, her acting debut was in his first film as director, Red Sorghum. The Blu-ray adds a Q&A with Zhang Yimou at the Toronto International Film Festival and directors’ commentary.

Flesh for the Inferno
When it comes to exploitation, few filmmakers are as reliably prolific and, well, exploitative than Richard Griffin, who’s churned out more than 30 movies in the last 15 years. Not all of them are gems, but who can resist such titles as Accidental Incest, Seven Dorms of Death, Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead, The Disco Exorcist and Creature from the Hillbilly Lagoon? In the giallo-inspired Flesh for the Inferno, Griffin and writer Michael Varrati (Jagoff Massacre) jump on the pederast-priest bandwagon. In 1999, four nuns at a Catholic school confront a priest over allegations that he’s been molesting children. After listening to them patiently, he shoots one in the forehead and walls the other three behind a brick wall in the basement. Before they suffocate, the nuns sell their immortal souls to the devil … not that it does them any good. Skip ahead 15 years and the school’s been abandoned by the archdiocese and is ripe for gentrification. Guess what happens when a neighborhood youth group volunteers to clean up the place? That’s right, someone accidentally dislodges the bricks in the nuns’ prison, unleashing the demonic zombies and turning Flesh for the Inferno into an ungodly splatterfest. It helps that Griffin’s been able to round up his usual repertory company of genre-ready actors, Jamie Lyn Bagley, Anna Rizzo, Michael Thurber and Jamie Dufault.

You’re Killing Me
Black comedies don’t get much darker than You’re Killing Me, Jim Hansen’s LGBT answer to “Dexter.” It tells the story of a group of friends so self-absorbed that they not only fail to recognize the presence of a sociopath in their midst, but also refuse to believe him when he admits as much to them. As played by Matthew McKelligon (“Eastsiders”), Joe may not seem normal, exactly, but he’s far too gorgeous and sexy to be a serial killer. It must be a joke. Before George (Jeffrey Self), a narcissistic wannabe Internet star, begins to date Joe, viewers have already witnessed what happened to his last boyfriend. A week into their relationship, he made the mistake of pressing Joe on the sex thing and paid the price for pushing his luck. Joe then became obsessed with George after seeing him perform on his very silly webcast. It isn’t until the folks around them start disappearing that George and his colleagues begin to take Joe seriously. Is it too late or will Joe have the last laugh? While You’re Killing Me lacks the polish of Eating Raoul or “Dexter,” it’s certainly in line with other movies currently attempting to cross over from the LGBT festival circuit.

We Come as Friends
The age of colonization may be long gone, but imperialism continues apace in Africa, where Chinese and American interests now are fighting over what was left behind when the Europeans took their balls and went home. The newly liberated nations basked in the glory of independence for a while, but the celebrated ended when they realized how little was left in the way of easily exploitable resources. Meanwhile, the vultures, buoyed by unlimited capital or religious zealotry, hovered overhead in wait for the most megalomaniacal and greedy leaders to emerge. Nowhere is that more apparent than in South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011 and has endured internal conflict ever since then. Apart from traditional tribal rivalries, the largely agrarian population is divided by religion, politics, economics and other allegiances. The government also is required to burn what little money it has protecting its borders. In We Come as Friends, Austrian-born documentarian Hubert Sauper returns to the continent that inspired him to make the similarly harrowing Darwin’s Nightmare and Kisangani Diary.

This time, he arrived in homemade ultralight plane that took him to places not accessible to large craft and also served as an ice-breaker in more hostile areas. Impoverished villagers and refugees from the north are far more accustomed to the giant transport planes that could either be carrying relief provisions or heavy equipment to rape the and. South Sudan may not have been blessed with the best climate or rich soil, but it has oil, timber and minerals desired in the outside world. Some of their new “friends” didn’t even wait for the fighting to end to come calling. Unfortunately, once the oil started flowing, the prospect of jobs and prosperity didn’t follow. Sauper’s easy mobility allows him to flit from one village to next, listening to the elders’ stories – some of which extend beyond the arrival of the first European colonists – and meeting with politicians charged with cutting deals with the neo-colonists. He eavesdropped on missionaries selling Christianity, Islamists demanding allegiance to the Koran and business executives promising better times to come. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is as optimistic as anyone on the subject of trickle-down economics, even as oil drilling has poisoned the ground water supply garbage dumps have spoiled the scenery. If We Come as Friends asks troubling questions, it’s important to understand why poor people around the world still associate their poverty with U.S. “interests” … Chinese, too.

The Mask You Live In
Finding Gaston
It’s not out of the question to think that filmmaker/actress/speaker/activist Jennifer Siebel Newsom could someday be residing in the White House. She’s married to California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, a Kennedy-esque politician and odds-on favorite to succeed Jerry Brown in 2018. Only 48, Newsom probably already is being groomed for the nation’s highest office. Her resume is impressive, as well. After moving behind the camera, Jennifer’s executive produced two of the most provocative documentaries of the decade: The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War. In 2011, she co-directed with Kimberlee Acquaro another eye-opening film, Miss Representation, which explored the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America, and challenged the media’s limited portrayal of what it means to be a powerful woman. The Mask You Live In examines gender issues from the other side of the fence. Without promoting what could be dismissed as a feminist agenda, the film explores how our culture’s definition of masculinity is harming boys, men and society at large, practically from the cradle to the grave … or, to be more precise, from the color of the paint in a newborn’s nursery to the tears we’re only allowed to shed at the funeral of a close friend, spouse or relative. Some boys can fit into any pigeonhole they’re placed, sailing through life confident in our choices and without resorting to bullying or accepting stereotypes as fact. Others are able to roll with the punches and reach our preferred destination without making too many compromises or concessions to predetermined notions of manhood. Increasingly, though, society is being forced to come to grips with the effects of boys being bullied, shunned, humiliated and forced to conform with absurdly rigid societal norms. Newsom has gathered a diverse group of witnesses to testify on the own experiences, observations and research. They include experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education and media. And, blessedly, none argues for boys and young men to accentuate their “feminine side.” The discussions cover sexuality, homophobia, sexism, pornography, abuse, suicide, rape and acting like a dick because that’s what is expected of males in certain social situations. The Mask You Live In is the kind of film that could be shown in prenatal parenting classes – without putting any macho-man dads on the spot – and again when a son or daughter reaches puberty.

Julia Patricia Perez’ mouth-watering documentary, Finding Gaston, provides even more evidence of the value of a young male listening to his heart and acting accordingly, even if it temporarily causes a parent apoplexy. Gaston Acurio, the only son of a prominent Peruvian politician, was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, first as a lawyer and, then, as a candidate for office. It wasn’t to be. After one day in a law office, Gaston traded his briefcase for a toque and never looked back. The documentary follows his journey from student, in Paris, to one of the most admired chefs in the world. After establishing himself in Paris, Gaston’s father encouraged him to return to Peru and give something back to the culture and people who influenced his ascendency in the culinary universe. And, that’s exactly what he did. In popularizing Peruvian cuisine, Gaston listened to farmers, fishermen and women whose recipes had been handed down to them for generations. He returned the favor by founding schools for aspiring chefs and everyday homemakers, alike, while also providing a market for native produce, fruit, fish and spices. The Lima restaurant he opened with his wife, Astrid, started out French, but grew increasingly Peruvian as they became more familiar with the food available in their own backyard. Its influence spread throughout South America and among foodies, for whom Peru is now a destination for something other than Machu Picchu.

Sucker
In the right hands, there’s almost nothing more fun than a good heist movie. Scam artists come in all sizes, shapes and colors – witness the “Oceans” franchise – and recognize no language barrier. In the wrong hands, of course, the tell is visible from the first sleight-of-hand gag and only an inattentive blind person could miss it. The Australian export, Sucker, falls somewhere in the middle. Its saving grace is a typically delightful performance by Timothy Spall, as a career con artist who takes an 18-year-old Chinese-Australian lad under his arm. TV specialist Ben Chessell collaborated on the screenplay with comedian/actor Lawrence Leung, whose one-man show “Sucker” was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Sydney Opera House. Viral Internet star John Luc (“Mychonny”) plays Leung as a fragile young man who becomes estranged from his parents after being caught cheating on his entrance exams for medical school. Banished to his uncle’s house for the summer, Lawrence meets the Professor (Spall) after he single-handedly takes on the local chess club … drunk. The kid’s such a quick study that the Professor enlists him as a silent partner in his cons. The old man’s teenage daughter is already on the team, so, maybe, you can already see where this thing is headed. If not, hint, it’s a high-stakes card game in which Prof hopes to exact revenge for a beat-down he took years earlier. Frankly, it isn’t much of a scam, but Spall helps the kids pull it off.

The Golden Cane Warrior: Blu-ray
For the past 10 years, Well Go USA Entertainment has been a primary source for new martial arts and action pictures from China, South Korea, Japan and other Pacific Rim countries. It takes real nice care of the DVDs and Blu-rays distributed under its banner here. The Golden Cane Warrior is a fantasy wuxia picture not unlike others produced elsewhere in the region, except for the fact that it was made in Indonesia, by Indonesians, for distribution inside and outside Indonesia. Moreover, it looks as if someone invested real money in the project. The weapons of choice are staffs and sticks, including the “golden cane” of the title. The multigenerational cast of characters is comprised of men and women, boys and girls, who twirl their sticks with the same intensity as any Miss Texas aspirant, albeit with exponentially more lethal force. As Master Cempaka and her four disciples – orphans of her enemies, now potential heirs to the golden cane – prepare for the new warrior guardian to ascend, a treasonous act threatens to destroy the clan. The trouble starts when Cempaka separates Dara, the youngest of the two young women, and Angin, the youngest of the two boys from the group. One will be awarded the Golden Cane and learn the secret maneuver only handed down to masters. The two orphans who are left behind decide to uphold the honor of their parents’ clan by ambushing Cempaka and stealing the staff, thus tipping the balance of power in the mountainous region. Let the fighting commence. The Golden Cane Warrior’s greatest asset might be Indonesia, itself. The vast multi-island nation has been largely unexploited by movie and television teams, so almost anything shot in the boonies would look new and different. And, it does. The Blu-ray easily captures the contrasting colors, flora and topography. If Ifa Isfansyah’s unrated film had gone through the MPAA process, it probably would have qualified for a PG-13 tag. The violence isn’t particularly graphic and, Indonesia being a predominantly Muslim nation, there’s no sex or nudity. What it mostly is, though, is fun.

Children of the Stars
Anyone who thinks that the cosplay phenomenon began at midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, hippy-dippy Renaissance fairs, Trekkie conventions and ComiCon, isn’t taking into account Civil War re-enactments and gatherings of sci-fi fans in 1908 and 1939. It’s only within the last 20 years that every subset of genre fanaticism has been represented in gatherings around the planet. Bill Perrine’s jaw-dropping documentary, Children of the Stars, introduces us to the late Ruth Norman (a.k.a., Uriel), who, in 1954, founded the Unarius Academy of Science with her husband, Ernest. Unarius is short for “Universal Articulate Interdimensional Understanding of Science” and, if it sounds wacky, imagine trying to explain Roman Catholic, Mormon and Scientology tenets to a newly discovered tribe in the Amazon. If it weren’t for the fact that Spanish missionaries threatened the indigenous peoples of the New World with death and dismemberment, they would have been laughed back to Europe. That the Unarius faithful appear to be normal, whatever that means, and not at all cultish, attests to lengths people will go to find something – anything – to hold on to as the world spins its merry way around the sun. At the Unarius Academy of Science, death does not exist, Nicola Tesla was a Space Brother, Satan drives a Cadillac and “Star Trek” creator Gene Rodenberry was a fellow traveler. Members stage their own pageants, make their own movies and get together to discuss where they met and who they’ve been in previous lives. For some reason, Hitler’s name is dropped throughout the film. Not at all self-conscious, believers opened the archives to Perrine and offered testimony that doesn’t sound at all goofy, compared to the nonsense spouted by this year’s crop of Republican presidential candidates. Indeed, given the choice between an America led by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or the next incarnation of Ruth Norman, a lot of us would pick up the Uranius flag. In any case, Children of the Stars should be of special interest to folks drawn to the early docs of Errol Morris and Trekkies who look for hidden meaning in the original series and its spinoffs. The DVD adds 25 minutes of bonus material.

Open Season: Scared Silly: Blu-ray
After 10 years and four animated features, the four-legged stars of Sony Pictures’ “Open Season” franchise show no sign of throwing in the towel, even after a wholesale change in the actors who voice them.  Open Season: Scared Silly follows the pattern of opening theatrically in some overseas markets, before debuting on DVD in others, including the U.S. The nice thing about it is that it doesn’t shortchange fans, by trimming each new installment to an hour or less and saving money on the animation. This time around, Elliot the mule deer entertains the woodland creatures with a campfire story meant to raise a few goosebumps before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, the legend of the Wailing Wampus Werewolf only serves to scare the bejeezus out of the scaredy-cat bear, Boog. The thought of confronting a werewolf in Timberline National Forest convinces Boog that he should skip the annual summer camping trip. The critters come together on a plan to scare the fear out of their ursine pal, if that makes sense. The Blu-ray comes with bloopers and outtakes; a “super speedy” re-cap of the movie; the featurettes, “Stepping Into the Spotlight: Mr. Weenie’s Process” and “Scaredy Pants: The Fears of ‘Open Season: Scared Silly’”; feature commentary with director David Feiss; and a director profile.

Decline of Western Civilization: Blu-ray
Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years: Blu-ray
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection Vol. 14/15
Shout! Factory has released a la carte chapters of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy, which, in 1981 and 1988, deconstructed punk and metal music, respectively, for adults too frightened to address the issue with their spaced-out kids. A third installment, which could have been subtitled, “Teenage Wasteland,” was only peripherally concerned with the music in 1998. Chapter One is distinguished by vintage performances with X, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, Germs and Alice Bag Band, as well as conversations with their more coherent representatives. “The Metal Years” takes a fast-paced look at Sunset Strip’s outrageous Heavy Metal scene of the late ’80s. It features Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, Poison, members of Aerosmith, Kiss and Motorhead, as well as performances by Megadeath, Faster Pussycat, Lizzy Borden, London, Odin and Seduce. It’s the more entertaining of the two, if only because of the amount of alcohol and drugs consumed and ubiquitous groupies.

Impulse Pictures’ comprehensive series of sleazy 8mm shorts, “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection,” has turned the corner on volumes 14 and 15. By my conservative count, that brings the total to more than 200 entries in the collection, all designed to be viewed during lunch hours and coffee breaks. The no-frills action is definitely not intended for couples’ viewing, unless, of course, the booth is built for two and your partner wasn’t averse to extreme back hair and sticky floors. Among the helpfully descriptive titles in these two volumes are “Totem Pole,” “Licking Lezzies,” “Slippery When Wet,” “Three’s a Ball” and “In the Barn.” Among the recognizable stars are Annie Sprinkle, Erica Boyer, Desiree West, Serena, Linda Shaw, Tina Russell and Veri Knotty, although I think the last one is a ringer. The sets arrive with liner notes from film “archeologist,” Dimitrios Otis, and hall-of-famer, Serena.

TV-to-DVD
IFC: The Spoils of Babylon: Season 1
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart
PBS: Nature: Natural Born Hustlers
PBS: NOVA: Life’s Rocky Start
PBS Kids: WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks
What began in 2007 as a free-form Internet outlet for comedians and other clever people has evolved, as these things sometimes do, into a spot where producers and programming executives visit regularly to scout talent and borrow ideas. Like National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live and Second City before it, Funny or Die has become a brand synonymous with guaranteed laughs and an audience willing to go the extra mile to find offbeat humor. Founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, Funny or Die showcases videos of various lengths from a number of famous and amateur contributors. The in-house Funny or Die Team now creates original material for the site and other outlets. One such project, “The Spoils of Babylon,” aired on the IFC channel. In it, Ferrell plays Hemingway-esque author Eric Jonrosh, a master of dramatic fiction and chronicler of the Morehouse family. In a pose once adopted by Orson Welles to pitch wine to TV viewers with uncultivated taste buds, Jonrush introduces each week’s episode, following it with a postscript of overripe pomposity. In the first series, patriarch Jonas Morehouse (Tim Robbins) shepherds his daughter, Cynthia (Kristen Wiig), and adopted son, Devon (Tobey Maguire), from meager beginnings in the Texas oil patch to powerful boardrooms in New York City. Just as the Welles impersonation might fly over the heads of millennial viewers, the obvious references to such 1970-80s’ mini-series as “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War” probably work more effectively on their Boomer parents. Even so, it was pretty easy to buy into the conceit, especially as enhanced by guests Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, David Spade, Michael Sheen, Molly Shannon, Haley Joel Osment and a mannequin voiced by Carey Mulligan.  Not yet on DVD is the follow-up series, “The Spoils Before Dying,” in which Jonrosh’s banned movie of the same title is unearthed for a hipper generation of viewers.

When Calls the Heart: It Begins With Heart” originally aired over the Christmas holidays as “A New Year’s Wish.” I don’t know why Hallmark felt it necessary to change the title, but it isn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last. Thus, as they said in ancient Rome, caveat emptor. Neither does it look particularly wintery in Hope Valley, this year. In fact, it looks downright tropical. Everything in the frontier outpost has a fairytale aura. The women are all gorgeous and the men abnormally attractive for the period. Everyone has good teeth and fashionable hairdos. There are other anomalies, but who’s counting? This time around, Rosemary’s essay on what it’s like to be a “real frontier family” has attracted the attention of a reporter from the San Francisco Herald, who arrives in time for the annual fireworks show. Problem is, because Rosemary isn’t married, she has to pose as Lee’s wife. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger pays a visit to the handsome Pastor Frank and Abigail opens her door and heart to a pair of ragamuffin orphans. There’s more, of course.

The latest release from PBS’ “Nature” series, “Natural Born Hustlers,” introduces younger viewers, especially, to animals noteworthy for their ability to fool predators and attract meals through genetic chicanery. They are the shape shifters, mimics, masters of disguise and illusion, cheats and sneaks in the natural world. The series reveals the modus operandi of remarkable animals going to elaborate lengths to claw their way to the top. I only wish that “Nature” was available in Blu-ray. “NOVA” continues its studies in advanced geology, with “Life’s Rocky Start.” Mineralogist Robert Hazen explains, in language most of us can understand how the same tumultuous convulsions that shaped the Earth also created the conditions ripe for the origins of life.

Also from PBS comes “WordWorld: Planes, Trains, and Trucks,” a show designed to help the youngest viewers get a leg up on the basics, when it’s their turn to begin school. All of the characters are made from the letters that spell their names, so, when Frog loses the letters PL from his plane, he and Bug Band must scour the jungle to find them. This DVD set is comprised of eight episodes, all pertaining to movement and travel.

The Bible Stories: In the Beginning
After serving President Jimmy Carter as White House communications director, the advertising and political strategist Gerald Rafshoon began a third career as a producer of such television docudramas as “The Atlanta Child Murders” and “Iran: Days of Crisis.” Getting a Georgia peanut farmer into the White House might have been a piece of cake compared to collaborating on a rapid-fire series of eight TV movies inspired by Old Testament scripture. The international co-productions were shot in Ouarzazate, Morocco, a desert mecca for studios in need of a reliable place to shoot period flicks set in the Holy Land. “The Bible Stories” collection has been released on video/DVD a couple of times since they aired here on TNT in the mid-1990s. The new Shout!Factory series looks as good as new. The three titles released this week are the four-disc collection, “The Bible Stories: In The Beginning,” with “Abraham,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Moses”; “Abraham,” starring Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey; and “Moses,” with Ben Kingsley, Frank Langella, David Suchet and Christopher Lee. Individual releases of “David,” “Jacob,” “Joseph” and “Samson & Delilah” will trickle out through the spring. “Esther” and “Jeremiah” don’t appear to have a street date.

The DVD Wrapup: Danish Girl, Boy, Intruders, Beautiful When Angry, Iron Sheik and more

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

The Danish Girl: Blu-ray
As the just completed awards season evolved, the biggest controversy surrounding The Danish Girl was the decision made by its distribution company, Focus Features, to promote the movie’s wonderful Alicia Vikander in the academy’s Best Supporting Actress category, instead of in the more prestigious and competitive Best Actress race. In fact, the rising Swedish superstar is on screen longer than the formidable Eddie Redmayne, who was properly placed in the Best Actor grouping. The strategy worked, of course, and went unmentioned in Vikander’s acceptance speech. If the brouhaha over the lack of minority nominees hadn’t erupted, someone might have made a bigger deal over the maneuver, which the Academy has rarely cared to challenge. As expected, 26-year-old Sacramento-native Brie Larson walked away with the Best Actress Oscar, for Room, and everyone walked away happy … except, perhaps, the other Supporting Actress candidates. Vikander will be back soon enough. Still, whenever the Motion Picture Academy lowers itself to the level of the Golden Globes, where The Martian was deemed a comedy-musical, instead of a drama, well, it raises eyebrows. Oscar’s presence in the ancillary marketing campaign – albeit, tarnished – should encourage potential viewers to take a chance on Room and The Danish Girl on DVD-Blu-ray or VOD. If neither picture performed particularly well at the domestic box office, Danish Girl is doing very well globally.) It will be interesting to see if Universal Studios Home Entertainment places advertising in Sunday’s second-season premiere of “I Am Cait” or finds a way to piggy-back off the critical success of Amazon’s “Transparent.” However much overhyped, Bruce Jenner’s public transition to Caitlyn Marie Jenner brought more attention to the struggle for LGBT rights and respectability than could have been achieved in a dozen marches on Washington or PBS documentaries.

Adapted from David Ebershoff’s best-selling novel by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon and director Tom Hooper, The Danish Girl is an intelligent and absolutely gorgeous movie. If neither the book nor the movie bear much resemblance to the historical facts, the film’s interwar European settings, set design and period costumes are splendidly rendered and the lead characters’ paintings are very easy on the eyes. As are Redmayne’s Einar Wegener/Lily Elbe and Vikander’s Gerda Wegener. In the book and film, Gerda is the loyal wife and fellow artist who supports Einar from the decisive modeling session in which he meets his inner Lily, through Lily’s first awkward relationships with men and the surgery that came with no guarantee of success. By choosing to focus on a romance that tested the limits of loyalty, patience and love, Hooper risked offending those of us who prefer the truth to pathos and unharnessed sentimentality. The real story, which has been obscured by time and distance, is extremely compelling, if not nearly as cinematic. What else is new? There’s certainly no discounting the drama of the sexual-reassignment surgery and Lily’s decision to undergo a relatively unproven procedure. Neither has Gerda’s struggle to be recognized as an artist of significance in a man’s world lost any of its relevance. Indeed, what happens in the next nine years in Gerda’s life – she died in 1940, at 54 – would provide ample material for a sequel, if anyone chose to tackle the subject. Also fascinating here is the depiction of German gynecologist Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch) and his relationship to the work already being conducted in Berlin at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research. Anyone inspired to learn more about the early years of sexual-identity research should know that most of it was destroyed in 1933, when the Nazis closed the institute and Hirschfeld was able to escape to France. Gerda’s erotic paintings, illustrations and portraits of Lili currently are on display at Copenhagen’s ARKEN museum, with addition stops on the tour possible. Einar/Lili’s work, largely landscapes, is tougher to track down, but some pieces can found in public collections, including the Vejle Art Museum, in Jutland, Denmark. The Blu-ray, which nicely captures Danny Cohen’s imaginative lighting and camera work, adds “The Making of ‘The Danish Girl.’”

The Boy
Intruders
Craig William Macneill’s second feature, The Boy, has several good things going for it, not the least of which are excellent performances by David Morse and Rainn Wilson, as diametrically opposed father figures to a 9-year-old sociopath. Morse plays John Henley, divorced father of Ted (Jared Breeze) and struggling proprietor of an old-fashioned motor lodge in an undefined mountain setting. His wife had her fill of trying to make a dollar stretch to the breaking point and split for Florida, leaving them both behind. The motel’s been in the family for a generation, or two, and John expects to hand it over to Ted when the time comes, whether he likes it or not. Odds are, though, there won’t be anything left to inherit, thanks to a distinct lack of tourist dollars. At first glance, John seems to be a decent father. Before long, however, his bouts with self-pity and booze begin to wear on Ted, whose assignments include sweeping road kill off the highway, feeding the chickens and cleaning up after the guests. One of the first clues that any boy is developing antisocial tendencies is a fondness for killing defenseless animals. One rainy night, Ted uses strewn garbage to lure a deer into the middle of the highway, where, he expects, a speeding car won’t see it in time to hit the brakes. The driver of that car is William Colby (Wilson), who’s escaping something that has something to do with the ashes of his wife carried in a box next to the driver’s seat. Although Colby isn’t looking for company as his wounds heal, he finds Ted’s willingness to help him get back on the road irresistible. For his part, Ted sees in the mysterious stranger an opportunity to hitch a ride to Florida. Every new visitor to the Mt. Vista Motel provides the boy fresh victims for his insipient sociopathy. And, yes, things do get ugly a hurry. In an interview included in the bonus package, Macneill admits to envisioning The Boy as the first installment in a trilogy about the evolution of a serial killer. That kind of thing works if Chapter One is as powerful as The Silence of the Lambs or, dare I say, The Godfather. A more recent example of misplaced chutzpah was evidenced in the dreadful Atlas Shrugged trilogy, which, dollar for dollar, may be one of the greatest box-office flops in history … times three. Even if The Boy looks like the first chapter in the Mad Max series, compared to that hot mess, I can’t see how a direct-to-DVD thriller could raise much financial interest in a trilogy. But, like I said, the performances are worth a look and the mountains – Colombian, as it turns out – are well photographed by first-timer Noah Greenberg.

Just as The Boy teases us with potential, so, too, does Adam Schindler’s debut feature Intruders, which was forced to change its better title, “Shut In,” to avoid confusion with an upcoming film starring Naomi Watts, Oliver Pratt and boy wonder, Jacob Tremblay. Beth Riesgraf, who was so good as the larcenous acrobat in “Leverage,” stars as a pretty blond, Anna, whose agoraphobia is so severe that she can’t even leave the confines of her spacious Victorian house to attend the funeral of her brother. In fact, she can barely accept the fact he’s left her behind. Part of her undesired inheritance is a bag full of money, possibly ill-gotten, that she tries to donate to her flakey Meals-on-Wheels driver, Dan (Rory Culkin), who qualifies as her only friend. Instead of going to the funeral, Anna is at home when a trio of low-life thugs decide to break into the house to steal the money. How they even know the money exists is a mystery to Anna – and us – until what should be the most obvious answer to the question is revealed. In the meantime, she proves herself quite adept at taking on the intruders on her own terms. Everything that happens after Anna takes out the first crook qualifies as a spoiler. What I can say, however, is that Intruders eventually reminded me of a cross between O’Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” crossed with Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Reisgraf demonstrates her versatility as Anna evolves from victim to tormenter and avenging angel. How far is she willing to push her luck? Stay tuned. It the screenplay by newcomers T.J. Cimfel and David White isn’t able to sustain the story’s promise, well, it isn’t likely anyone will be bored or come away from the movie unimpressed by Reisgraf.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
The nine words guaranteed to make anyone born after 1980 cringe are, “This is how we did it in the ’60s.” No single generation of Americans has proven to be more self-absorbed than the Baby Boomers, of which I was a member. Yes, we helped change the world for the better, if not always for ourselves, then our children and grandchildren. But, we’ve made it awfully difficult for anyone else to carve a niche for themselves. If Mary Dore’s extremely timely history of the women’s liberation movement, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, can be criticized, it’s because it too often feels self-congratulatory and, maybe, if I were 30 years younger, preachy. The women we become reacquainted with here deserve to have their story told and hard-won victories recalled. It isn’t until the final few minutes that we get to the crux of the matter, however. The same young women who’ve benefitted most from the feminist imperative – and, too often, reject the appellation, feminism – are the ones who stand to lose the most if the Supreme Court is allowed to swing even further to the right. In a very real way, the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade sparked a war that no one saw coming until Ronald Reagan sold what was left of his soul to evangelical activists. Like the appointment of Antonin Scalia, it went largely unchallenged by members of the so-called Me Generation. Now, it may too late.

What’s happening today in Texas, Mississippi and most of the other “red” states could spread to the “blue” states in a heartbeat. And, not just the right to have an abortion on demand or equal pay for equal labor, either. The threat can’t be exaggerated. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry rightly traces the women’s liberation movement of the 1960-70s to the Suffragettes, who, decades earlier, had refused to be dismissed or silenced. That the campaign for women’s suffrage became associated with the temperance movement would come back to haunt activists when Prohibition raised its ugly head. Unlike zealots in the New Left and anti-war movements of 1960s, who too often treated women as if they were slaves, with benefits, progressives came to realize that women’s liberation couldn’t be achieved unless they reached out to sisters of all ethnic, political, religious, economic and sexual orientations. Dore doesn’t ignore the deep fissures in the movement, either. In some cases, victories were won despite the static of dissent. The excitement and passion heard in the voices of the film’s witnesses is so palpable that it might inspire young women today to stand up for the rights they stand to lose in a worst case political solution. Another positive thing about She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is that it allows the daughters and granddaughters of the activists we meet in the film to see them when they were young, burning with passion and had the numbers … not simply as the prigs who bug them about wearing mini-skirts, heels and too much makeup to school. It wouldn’t kill sons and grandsons to watch it, either. The DVD adds deleted scenes that probably were difficult to edit out of the finished product.

Narcopolis: Blu-ray
One of the great conspiracy theories of the 1960s involved tobacco companies, anticipating the inevitable legalization of marijuana, bidding to trademark such brands as Acapulco Gold and Panama Red, which, at the time, were the marketing equivalent of Burgundy wine, Roquefort cheese and Scotch whisky. If the rumor wasn’t true then, it almost certainly will become true as legalization and decriminalization continues apace. And, of course, once Big Tobacco gets its greedy hands on the product, the next most likely thing to happen is the criminalization and taxation of home- and boutique-grown herb. Sound familiar? If not, pick up a copy of Thunder Road or google, “moonshine/NASCAR.” That worst-case scenario is the easiest thing to grasp about Justin Trefgarne’s overcomplicated debut thriller, Narcopolis, which imagines a not-too-distant future in which the manufacture and consumption of all drugs have been legalized, just as long as said drugs have been grown or dispensed by licensed pharmaceutical firms. And, of course, licensing breeds corruption. In the dystopian underground of 2024, an elite police unit, Drecks, has been created to keep black-market dealers off the streets and the drug companies rich. Elliot Cowan (“Da Vinci’s Demons”) plays a former cop and addict, Frank Grieves, called in by Dreck to investigate the identity of a corpse and source of the drug shot or ingested. Not surprisingly, it’s traced to a conglomerate, Ambro, so large its right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing … or, if it does, refuses to acknowledge it. The biggest question then becomes, if the establishment wants to protect itself from the truth, why hire someone capable of upending the applecart? Once the jig is up, all that’s left is a long chase that goes nowhere none too fast. On the plus side, the low-budget project looks better than it has any right to be, thanks to newcomer Christopher Moon’s Blade Runner-inspired cinematography and set/art/production designs that provide a legitimately futuristic environment. Also prominent are Jonathan Pryce (“Game of Thrones”), James Callis (“Battlestar Galactica”) and Elodie Yung (“Daredevil”).

Weaponized: Blu-ray
With hall-of-famers Tom Sizemore, Mickey Rourke and Michael Paré on board, almost any straight-to-disc movie is going to have a leg up on the competition. It hardly matters if the story doesn’t make sense or the director is in over his head, because some genuinely nutty stuff is bound to happen between the credit rolls. Weaponized (a.k.a., “Swap”) is no exception. Timothy Woodward Jr.’s action-heavy sci-fi thriller opens with a terrorist attack intended to remind viewers of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. Private military contractor Kyle Norris (Sizemore) facilitates the development of a bio-mechanical weapons program by Professor Clarence Peterson (Rourke), who’s seeking revenge for the death of his son. According to the synopsis, the program allows soldiers to swap consciousness with an enemy target, giving them complete, if temporary control. While the program was intended to combat terrorists and safeguard American soldiers, its goals have been subverted. Naturally, when Detective Walker (Johnny Messner) unwittingly stumbles upon the program, he’s removed from the investigation by his captain (Pare) and a world of shit lands in his lap. I added that part. Frankly, I lost track of what was going on pretty early in the proceedings. Consciousness swapping is a new gimmick to me and I can’t say that it makes much sense. Still, watching these masters of schlock at work is worth the price of admission … barely.

The Sheik
The genius of professional-wrestling magnate Vince McMahon came to the fore in the 1980s, when he took a page from Stan Lee’s book and turned the WWF into a spectacle worthy of a Marvel Comics reunion. By turning a bunch of underappreciated ex-jocks and barroom brawlers into costumed superheroes and supervillains, then adding a rock-’n’-roll soundtrack to the proceedings, McMahon made fans of a generation of young people more attuned to Kiss and Metallica, than Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher. Igal Hecht’s extremely entertaining bio-doc, The Sheik, describes how a supremely talented Iranian athlete would find fame half a world away in an activity that resembles amateur wrestling in the same way that ballroom dancing approximates pogoing and stage diving. Born in Teheran in 1942, Khosrow Ali Vaziri represented Iran in the 1968 Olympics, as part of the Greco Roman wrestling team, before becoming a bodyguard for the Shah of Iran and his family. After his good friend, Olympic gold-medalist and national hero, Gholemreza Takhti, was found in his hotel room, dead of a not-so-apparent suicide, Vaziri decided to split for the United States. He became an amateur champion and coach, before joining Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. After kicking around various North American circuits for several years, the Islamic fundamentalists who captured the American Embassy opened the door to eventual superstardom in the then-WWF. As the Iron Sheik, he taunted fans by spouting pro-Iran gibberish and waving the country’s flag. His trajectory was straight up, finally winning the championship in 1983 from old-schooler Bob Backlund. A month later, the Iron Sheik’s tenure would be overwhelmed by Hulkomania. His athleticism and showmanship allowed him to go from supervillain to superhero, until the fateful day in 1987 when Vaziri and his “arch-rival” “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan were pulled over by a New Jersey state trooper and busted for possession of cocaine and marijuana. His cover blown, the Sheik would lose his standing in the WWF and develop habits that threatened his marriage, career and health. Most of the second half of the no-holds-barred documentary is devoted to those dark years, from which he would emerge in the early 2000s as a pop-culture hero. What differentiates this film from a dozen others on the same topic and sports, in general, is the forthrightness of Vaziri, family members and 25 fellow wrestlers, including Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who add their testimony on his place in WWF/WWE history.

Paprika: Blu-ray
Peekarama: Erotic Adventures of Candy/Candy Goes to Hollywood: Blu-ray
Peekarama: The Young Like It Hot/Sweet Young Foxes
Sensual Encounters of Every Kind
Sex and Astrology
Movies featuring prostitutes, call girls, mistresses, madams, pimps and other freelancers are dime-a-dozen and have been since the silent era. Those set within the walls of a brothel are fewer in number, if for no other reason than the reality of life in a house is less easy to manipulate than those of individuals caught up in the game outside of one. The truly legendary bordellos no longer exist and the prostitutes can in no way be manufactured from a mold or cookie cutter. Among the titles that stand out are Belle de Jour, House of Tolerance, In the Realm of the Senses, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Love Ranch, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pretty Baby, Working Girls, Saint Jack, the French TV series “Maison close” and such documentaries as “Cathouse: The Series,” Chicken Ranch and Born Into Brothels. The hypocrisy of the American government quietly sanctioning the existence of brothels during times of war, while legislating them out of existence in times of peace, was noted in “Biloxi Blues,” “Catch-22,” “From Here to Eternity” and the History Channel’s “XY Factor: Sex in World War II: The Pacific Front.” Released in 1991, Paprika combined social realism with co-writer-director Tinto Brass’ personal memories of killing time in legal brothels in post-war Italy, instead of attending college classes. It was inspired by John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill,” published in 1748, but updated to 1950s Italy. The astonishingly gorgeous and naturally sexy Debora Caprioglio plays a country girl, Mimma, who, after the death of her parents, lands a job in a big-city brothel to earn money for her boyfriend to start his own business. Given that the only business for which he’s shown any skill is pimping, Mimma soon will be sharing her earnings with the cad and Madame Collette, who nicknames her Paprika for her physical attributes. She only anticipates working at the brothel for two weeks, but is encouraged to stay on and conserve her money. To call Mimma a natural wouldn’t be an exaggeration. With a few exceptions, she enjoys the work and adapts well to the relative luxury and security of brothel life. The patrons are relatively well-heeled, but she falls for an aspiring seaman with dreams of owning his own boat. Mimma’s personal ambitions lead her from one house to another, as well as benefactors of increasing wealth and privilege. Besides the debt Mimma’s been led to believe she still owes her first boyfriend, the underlying tension throughout Paprika is a conservative initiative to close the brothels and return control of the business to pimps and mobsters. In an entertaining interview, Brass explains how the new legislation, while detrimental to his social life, probably forced him to focus on a career in filmmaking. Considering that Brass would become renowned as an eroticist, obsessed with busty babes with big butts, he clearly found a way to monetize the time wasted in his college days. Paprika isn’t exclusively interested in promoting the pulchritude of Italian womanhood, as is usually the case with Brass’ output. The narrative also offers commentary on the hypocrisy of Italian lawmakers and the plight of working girls, who, after the Merlin Law went into effect, in 1958, were forced to work the streets, take on pimps, rely on their own resources for health concerns and weather the ravages of age on their own. If Paprika has a happy ending, it can be credited in large part to the gumption and inspiration of Fanny Hill. Part of what makes Brass’ films such a treat are the brilliant production values on display, including the lighting, sets, costume designs and many strategically placed mirrors. No matter how one feels about his sexual appetites, his slightly softer than hard-core approach to porn never lacks polish, eye candy or winking humor. And, it looks great on Blu-ray.

Vinegar Syndrome’s series of “Peekarama” double-features takes viewers of a certain age back to a time in American eroticism when some companies gave lip service, at least, to the idea that porn needn’t be peddled exclusively to the rain-coat crowd. Some movies were distinguished by recognizable narratives, sex-positive couplings and attractive actors. (Ron Jeremy didn’t always resemble an overgrown Chia Pet.) That, of course, would change as budgets were kept from matching the aspirations of the more creative artists. In 1978, shortly after the amazing financial success of Deep Throat suggested that all things were possible, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner teased buxom blonds everywhere by hinting of a worldwide search for the actress to portray Playboy’s cartoon goddess, Little Annie Fanny, in a live-action movie. That didn’t happen, of course, but it wasn’t for lack of inspiration. VCX beat Playboy to the punch, intentionally or otherwise, with Erotic Adventures of Candy and Candy Goes to Hollywood, whose star, Carol Connors, combined the attributes of Daisy Mae Yokum and Little Annie Fanny. As conceived by Gail Palmer, the former is a comic adaptation of Voltaire’s, “Candide,” by way of Terry Southern’s novel, “Candy,” in which the virginal farm girl is curious about sex, but is forced to learn all the essential lessons the hard way. In Candy Goes to Hollywood, our heroine no sooner steps off the Greyhound on Hollywood Boulevard than she attracts the attention of a predatory sleazeball (John Leslie), who convinces her that he should serve as her agent. This one is full of the then-current pop-cultural references, including Saturday Night Fever and “The Gong Show.” The sex scenes aren’t anything special, but everything else easily qualifies as comedy. It includes a guest appearance by the late punk performer, Wendy O. Williams. Also in the mix of both pictures are such Golden Age stars as Desiree Cousteau, Sharon Kane, John Holmes, Rhonda Jo Petty, Richard Pacheco, Don Fernando, Georgina Spelvin, Paul Thomas, Patti Cakes and Eileen Welles.

The second double-feature is from 1983 and, therefore, more buttoned down, as these things go, anyway. Both qualify as couples’ viewing, though. Otherwise, Bob Chinn’s The Young Like It Hot and Sweet Young Foxes are noteworthy for introducing the glamorous Native American actress and two-time Miss Nude Galaxy, Hyapatia Lee, to adult-movie fans and, boy, did she make an impression. In The Young Like It Hot, telephone operators at a small-town company turn to phone-sex when threatened by their boss with automation. In Sweet Young Foxes, Lee plays a college freshman home from school and bored out of her mind. Along with some hometown friends, none of whom look remotely young enough to still be in college, Lee uncovers a world of sexual delights she never knew existed. In addition to Lee, the casts include Kay Parker, Shauna Grant, Lili Marlene, Herschel Savage, Mike Horner, Joey Silvera, Cara Lott, Pat Manning, Eric Edwards and a 30-year-old Jeremy. All four movies have been scanned and restored from 35mm camera negatives and add original theatrical trailers. Interviews with director Bob Chinn and actor Bill Margold are included in the former.

As long as we’re strolling down mammary lane, here, there’s 1978’s Sensual Encounters of Every Kind in which several more future all-stars – Leslie Bovee, Serena, Dorothy LeMay, Jon Martin, the ageless Spelvin and ubiquitous Leslie – pass an ancient talisman from one generation to another. Possession ensures its owner will be granted an ultimate sexual fantasy. The plot device will be used and reused for as long as porn exists. The new 2K restoration adds an audio interview with Jon Martin. Co-written by Harold Lime (Amanda by Night) is pretty hot, actually.

Even if Matt Cimber hadn’t created the ridiculous 1980s TV series, “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” or anticipated the mainstream porn revolution with the 1971 mockumentary, Sex and Astrology, his place in the show-biz hall of shame would be assured by the notoriety surrounding the Pia Zadora vehicle, Butterfly, which he adapted from a James M. Cain novel. Historians will immediately recall Butterfly as the movie most closely identified with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s greatest moment of infamy. It also was nominated for 10 Razzies, including two for Oscar-winner Ennio Morricone and one for Orson Welles. (To be fair, Cimber also directed recently re-released The Witch Who Came From the Sea, which wasn’t half-bad.) Anyway,

in Sex and Astrology, Cimber explored the erotic, humorous and downright unappetizing confluences of the constellations and human sexuality. It extends from toga parties in ancient Greece and Rome, to hippie freakouts in the psychedelic 1960s. Vinegar Syndrome brings it to home video for the first time, restored in 2k from newly discovered 16mm vault elements.

Kung Fu Trailers of Fury: Blu-ray
Common wisdom among moviegoers today holds that trailers not only are too goddam loud, but that they give away far too much of the plot. If the trailer sucks, it’s highly likely the movie it plugs will, too. The nature of the cinematic beast now demands that teasers sometimes appear a year ahead of a potential blockbuster’s release, serving best as trailers for trailers to come. Those savvy viewers who wouldn’t think of taking their seats after the trailers begin to roll know that the earlier a trailer is shown, the less likely it is that a scene they see will appear intact in the finished product. The same is true for the music and, even, a character. That’s because the first trailers for highly anticipated movies are finished before shooting is completed and long before the soundtrack has been recorded or special effects edited. Exhibitors who gather in Las Vegas each spring expect to be shown previews of films they’ll be showing at Christmas, if not some early footage and appearances by a star or two. Genre films not destined for holiday release are allowed to take their time. From Severin Films comes “Kung Fu Trailers of Fury,” a two-hour compendium of vintage previews for dozens of movies from the Golden Age of Hong Kong action flicks. What’s wonderful about them is the amount of martial-arts action and stunt gags represented in the trailers, leaving almost nothing to anticipate when the finished product finally arrived. And, for Western audiences, many of these pictures never did open. Among the many actors shown in various stages of their career are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Lo Lieh, Sammo Hung, Angela Mao, Chuck Norris, Jimmy Wang Yu and Wu Tang, in such classics as The Way of the Dragon, Death Blow, Two Champions of Shaolin, Daggers 8, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, Shaolin Wooden Men, The Story of Drunken Master, Enter the Fat Dragon and Brutal Boxer. There’s plenty more, as well. They’ve been transferred in 2K from a collection of recently unearthed 35mm reels. Blu-ray bonuses add “A Brief History of Kung Fu Cinema,” with martial-arts nerds Ric Meyers and Frank Djeng; commentary with Meyers (“Films of Fury”), Michael Worth (“The Bruceploitation Bible”), martial-arts instructor Greg Schiller and Rick Stelow of Drunken Master Video; “The Way of the Cube,” on the discovery of the original 35mm trailers underneath the stage of a maverick UK cinema.

TV-to-DVD
The Bold Ones: The New Doctors: The Complete Series
Comedy Central: Drunk History: Season 3
Disney XD: Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Brave Heroes Big Rescues
With the release of “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors: The Complete Series,” Shout! Factory archivists have completed the cycle of groundbreaking series under NBC’s “The Bold Ones” umbrella: “The Lawyers,” “The Protectors” and “The Senator.” The network had also employed the wheel format for anthology series produced by Universal Studios, “The Name of the Game” and “The NBC Mystery Movie.” All of them reflected an effort by a new generation of producers to break from prime-time clichés and personality-driven gimmicks. Along with a mix of movie-tested actors and attractive newcomers, “The Bold Ones” showed new thinking in the various disciplines. “The New Doctors” chronicled the inner workings of the “prestigious” David Craig Institute of New Medicine, where Dr. David Craig (E.G. Marshall) and his assistants Dr. Paul Hunter (David Hartman) and Dr. Ted Stuart (John Saxon) tackled the most challenging of cases, frequently using cutting-edge medical techniques and “psychosocial” reasoning. At the dawn of the HMO era, doctors could afford the time to dig into maladies that today would be dismissed out of hand or passed along to another health-care provider. Despite some unrealistically soapy elements, the individual episodes – which ran for four seasons, from 1969 to 1973 — hold up pretty well today. Like most other network series of the time, women and diversity protagonists were limited to guest spots. (In “The Protectors,” African-American actor Hari Rhodes played a liberal district attorney to Leslie Neilsen’s conservative deputy chief of police.) Co-creator Steven Bochco was still a decade away from revolutionizing the industry with such series as “Hill Street Blues,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” Directors included Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon), John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) and Jerry Lewis (The Nutty Professor). The 43-episode set adds an “Ironside” crossover.

I don’t know if the producers of “Drunk History” have considered adding an interactive home game to the hilarious Comedy Central franchise. It wouldn’t be difficult for amateur comedians/alcoholics to improvise on their own, but a collection of scripts would save a tedious Wikipedia search for themes. The winners could be awarded a free Uber trip to a local rehab center or AA meeting. The star-studded show is an offshoot of the “Funny or Die” web series created in 2007 by Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner. In each episode, an inebriated narrator struggles to recount an event from American history, while actors enact the narrator’s anecdote and lip sync the dialog. Season Three topics include New Jersey, Miami, spies, New Orleans, Cleveland, games, journalism and Los Angeles. Guests include Kat Dennings, Colin Hanks, Jack Black, Jaleel White, Greg Kinnear, Stephen Merchant, Justin Long, Jason Ritter, Tony Hale and Christopher Meloni.  Since January 12, 2015, a British version of “Drunk History” has been broadcast on the UK’s Comedy Central.

A comparison can be made between “Drunken History” and the five-part mini-series “Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales,” in that the entire “Star Wars” story — “Phantom Menace” to “Return of the Jedi” – is told through the subjective memories of R2-D2 and C-3PO. As far as I know, the beloved robots were stone-cold sober while recalling events in the mega-franchise’s history, as dramatized by characters (and backdrops) built from Lego bricks. A working knowledge of all-things-Star Wars is probably necessary to fully enjoy the mini-series, but not essential. An accidental kidnapping occurs while the droids are reminiscing at a victory celebration in the Ewok village on Endor. Some parents may be concerned that “Droid Tales” is nothing more than an infomercial for related products, but, sadly, such interlocking synergies have become a fact of life. At least, young fans should enjoy the action and writing.

Nickelodeon’s popular adventure series for pre-schoolers is represented by the six-adventure collection, “Paw Patrol: Brave Heroes, Big Rescues.” Their daring canine heroes are required to “em-Bark” on missions that take them through dangerous caves, bunny-filled woods, an icy tundra, under the waves and Adventure Bay, to prevent a dinosaur invasion.  and more adventures.

Capture the Flag
Enrique Gato’s computer-animated sci-fi feature, Capture the Flag, was made in Spain, about one of the great conspiracy theories in American history. No sooner did the Apollo 11 team splash down in the ocean than skeptics began to spread the theory that the mission was staged on a Hollywood backlot and directed for broadcast by Stanley Kubrick, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey has made NASA groovy. Capture the Flag revisits the paranoia surrounding the mission and others to come. Mike Goldwing is a “plucky” 12-year-old surfer, whose father and grandfather were astronauts. Grandpa Frank remains haunted by the decision that kept him from joining Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface. Even that memory is being threatened by a billionaire, who wants to fly to the moon, mine its resources and steal the American flag planted there. In an effort to thwart the scheme and redeem his grandfather’s reputation, Mike, gramps and his best friends, stow away on the shuttle. While Capture the Flag could never be mistaken for a Pixar or DreamWorks production, scientific-minded youngsters should find something here to enjoy.

Dudes & Dragons
What I know about cosplay movies could be put in a thimble, with room left over for spare change. I can’t even tell the difference between a straight fantasy adventure and a parody of a fantasy adventure. The title here, Dudes & Dragons, sounds as if it could be a satire, but I think I missed most of the jokes. Then, I learned that it originally was called, “Dragon Warriors,” which, while more accurate, wasn’t nearly as promising. It has to count for something, though, that Maclain Nelson and Stephen Shimelk’s film won a top prize at the 2015 Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival. What was able to discern immediately was that all of the action was shot in front of a green screen, so, occasionally, it seems as if elements from other movies or podcasts are accidentally intruding on the characters in Dudes & Dragons. Despite the momentary presence of Luke Perry, I suspect that most male viewers will be attracted to the movie by the beautiful Lady Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday), who spends an inordinate amount of time chained to makeshift gallows in an outfit that reveals plenty of side-boob, if not nearly enough front-boob. She’s being punished for refusing to marry the evil wizard, Lord Tensley (James Marsters), who, in retaliation, releases a deadly dragon to terrorize the land and eliminate love. Only the intercession of a true Dragon Master can break the curse and neutralize the dragon. It gets far more complicated from here. At 122 minutes, there’s plenty of time for things to get uncomplicated. How many viewers will make it to the end is another question altogether.