The Girl on the Train: Blu-ray
Since I didn’t read Paula Hawkins’ worldwide bestseller before watching The Girl on the Train, I allowed myself not to compare what I might have loved about the book, contrasted to the decisions made by the filmmakers. These include everything from debatable casting choices to relocating the action from London to Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York, and refocusing the point-of-view to that of a single protagonist, Rachel (Emily Blunt), instead of her sharing it equally with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett). The whole movie was new to me. Devastated by her recent divorce, Rachel spends her daily commute fantasizing about Megan and Scott (Luke Evans) the seemingly perfect couple she sees most days from the window of her train. They live in a house with a million-dollar view of the Hudson River and always appear to be cuddling, making love or sharing the chores. Her perception changes in a flash when she witnesses something that jolts her to the core – it’s a real Rear Window moment – and she decides to insinuate herself into two interrelated marital dramas … three, when you take into account that one of the spouses is her ex-husband. The trouble with trusting Rachel’s point of view implicitly is that her former husband, Tom (Justin Theroux) really did a number on her and she’s since become a barely functioning alcoholic, prone to blackouts and misremembering events in her recent past. She’s also developed a morbid preoccupation with Tom’s newborn daughter. One of things that caused her to turn to the bottle was an inability to conceive a child. Another was Tom’s decision to cheat on her with their New Age-y real-estate agent, Anna. Because this is a movie and not real life, the female half of the “perfect couple,” Megan, not only lives a few doors down from Tom and Anna, but she also is their nanny.
One day, after Scott reports Rachel missing, Rachel wakes up from a night of heavy drinking with vague memories of something nasty having happened in a tunnel not far from the couples’ homes. She’d already begun stalking Anna, so, in her fog-shrouded mind, anything was possible, including being completely innocent. Detective Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) immediately suspects Rachel of having something to do with the disappearance, but, without a dead body, all she’s guilty of being a pest to Tom and Anna, and someone capable of harming their nanny or kidnapping their baby. She also makes Scott miserable by suggesting that Megan may have run away with her shrink (Edgar Ramírez) after being impregnated by him. Working from a workmanlike script by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), director Tate Taylor (The Help) pretty much remains faithful to the novel, or so I’m told. My biggest problems with the movie derives from an early confusion of blond actresses and a subsequent lack of interest on my part in the plight of their characters and their marriages. Eliminating their points of view from the narrative made Anna and Megan seem more distant to me. (Or, am I prejudiced against pretty blonds living in nice homes?) Things picked up rapidly after Taylor refocused his attention on the mystery of what happened to Megan and what’s really behind Rachel’s blackouts. Blunt ultimately convinces us of Rachel’s worth and commitment to sobriety. Despite the book’s popularity, The Girl on the Train fell well short of blockbuster status. A relatively modest budget and overseas box-office returns might have helped push it into the black, however. There’s no reason to think it won’t do better in VOD and DVD/Blu-ray/UHD. The bonus package includes deleted and extended scenes, Taylor’s commentary and a couple of perfunctory making-of featurettes.
The Whole Truth: Blu-ray
Once it became clear to me that Keanu Reeves is playing a defense attorney in The Whole Truth, I began to worry that his character might turn out to be a mere shadow of Kevin Lomax, the bedeviled lawyer in The Devil’s Advocate. The movie was shown first on VOD, before being granted a limited release last October, so it could have been a real stinker. Reeves has fooled me before, however. Thanks to his freakishly youthful genetic makeup, Richard Ramsey doesn’t look a day older than Lomax did in 1997. Apart from the physical resemblance, though, the two lawyers play in completely different ballparks and “Devil’s Advocate” director Taylor Hackford was given far more to work with than Courtney Hunt, in her theatrical follow-up to the terrific 2008 drama, Frozen River. Another red flag was raised by screenwriter Nicolas Kazan choosing to write The Whole Truth under the pseudonym Rafael Jackson. It represents his first screenwriter credit since the 2002 Jennifer Lopez vehicle, Escape, and 1999 Robin Williams bomb, Bicentennial Man. Here, Ramsey is a hotshot Louisiana lawyer, hired by the widow (Renée Zellweger) of a more successful attorney (Jim Belushi) to defend their son against charges of murdering his father. Ever since the incident, the bright young man (Gabriel Basso) has remained mute, thus compounding the degree of difficulty for Ramsey.
Even if the verdict isn’t likely to surprise anyone who’s watched more than few episodes of “Law & Order,” the movie offers a few decent twists, at least. The Whole Truth wisely dispenses with the commonly held notion that all judges south of the Mason-Dixon Line are buffoons, bigots, fascists, crooks or combinations thereof. Judge Robichaux (Ritchie Montgomery) may be a wee bit eccentric – it’s a Louisiana courtroom, after all – but he’s atypically fair. He’s more interested administering justice in a swift and uneventful manner than grandstanding. That’s a rare thing. Then, too, there’s the re-emergence of Zellweger’s re-emergence in a key role. Because it was released last spring in several overseas markets, The Whole Truth, not Bridget Jones’s Baby, represents her first movie role in six years. While the cosmetic work she’s had done on her face takes some getting used to, she’s far from unrecognizable or unattractive. Now 47, Zellweger looks her age and can still pull off the role of the sexy widow, who’s harboring a secret. Then, too, there’s Oxford-born Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Free State of Jones), who does a nice job as the daughter of a respected African-American judge and Ramsey’s spunky second-chair. Kazan/Jackson’s script wisely spares viewers any race-based throughlines. Even so, if the story, itself, offered a few more unexpected twists and turns, it would be easier to forgive Reeves his frequently one-dimensional performance.
Come and Find Me: Blu-ray
In his directorial debut, writer Zach Whedon (“Southland”) has crafted a paranoid-thriller that probably could have gotten lost in theaters, but fits pretty well on the small screen. (Small comfort for opening on VOD outlets, I suppose.) Although, at 112 minutes, Come and Find Me tests our ability to suspend disbelief in the central mystery, Aaron Paul (”Breaking Bad”) makes us care very much about the sudden disappearance of David’s hot blond girlfriend, Claire. He’s a L.A.-based graphic designer who falls for a free-spirited photographer (Annabelle Wallis) who he meets – cute, of course — in their shared apartment building. No sooner do we warm to the couple than Claire simply disappears from David’s life, almost as if she never existed. Heart-broken and deeply concerned, he desperately searches for clues that don’t really exist. After discovering some rather ordinary-looking photos she had taken, David decides to ascertain where they were shot and ask people there if they recognize Claire. It doesn’t take long for David to learn that she was leading a double life and it involved guns, muscular guys with Slavic accents and spooks in look-alike black suits. An acquaintance breaks into his apartment, punching holes in the drywall in search of God-knows-what. Everyone David meets encourages him to forget about Claire, or else. But, where would be the fun in that. Instead, he uses their obsession with a missing roll of film as leverage to get closer to the truth about Claire. The deeper he digs, the more dangerous things get for him in the gorgeous mountains, surrounding Vancouver. Even if things stop making sense after a while, Whedon keeps things from getting boring with shootouts, chases and missed connections.
Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050: Blu-ray
In the annals of exploitation cinema, Roger Corman and Paul Bartel’s 1975 action/satire Death Race 2000 holds a special place. Originally created to take advantage of advance publicity for the futuristic combat-sport fantasy, Rollerball, it is one of the most influential of all AIP/New World titles, pre-dating Mad Max, The Gumball Rally, the WWE superstars and Hunger Games. Robert Thom and Charles Griffith’s adaptation of a short story by Ib Melchior (The Time Travelers) hit home with a generation of teenagers and young adults who’d given up on peace, love and good vibes and were steeling themselves for a bleak, dystopian future … not that the word, “dystopian,” was part of the vernacular. If the apocalypse has yet to qrear its ugly head, as prophesized in Death Race 2000, the conditions for total annihilation could hardly be riper. Without completely discounting the previous “DR2K” prequels, sequels, remakes and ancillary products, Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050 strikes me as being a closer representation of the anarchic spirit that propelled the original drive-in classic.
In 2050, the United States is controlled by an all-powerful corporate government ruled by a dictator (Malcolm McDowell), not unlike the character he played in Rob Zombie’s 31 or, for that matter, Donald Trump. Once again, race fans are so invested in its outcome that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves at various points in the cross-country race, so their favorite driver can amass points. The reigning champion and fan favorite, Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), is anxious to retain the crown, but is continually thwarted by his rebel-spy co-pilot (Marci Miller). This time, the scenes of a ravaged American terrain were shot in and around Lima, Peru. The setting looks distressingly real. Corman may have allowed the production a slightly larger production budget, but it wasn’t enough to mask the purposefully cheesy production values and makeshift props. The race cars haven’t improved much, either. Even so, Death Race 2050 can be enjoyed as a throwback to the days when drive-in theaters ruled and viewers stopped paying attention after the first six-pack was downed. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and features, “The Making of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2050,” “The Look of 2050,” “Cars! Cars! Cars!” and “Cast Car Tours.”
If the Ukrainian-born “bad boy of ballet,” Sergei Polunin, isn’t as well-known outside of dance circles as Baryshnikov, Nureyev or Godunov, it’s because he didn’t have to risk everything by defecting to the west for his art. The west came to him. The lifting of the Iron Curtain denied the American media the ability to capitalize on artists’ and athletes’ desire to find wealth and happiness outside Eastern European. If it weren’t for the occasional Cuban baseball player making the 90-mile leap to the Major Leagues, the word “defect” would be limited to spies and Chinese exports. Just because I wasn’t familiar with Polunin before watching Steven Cantor’s incisive bio-doc, Dancer, doesn’t mean he lacks mainstream recognition in the United States. In 2014, his video collaboration with photographer and music director David LaChapelle, based on Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” went viral, not only introducing millions of the fans to Polunin, but also to a distinctly masculine merging of ballet and modern dance. In June, 2010, he became the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal. Less than two years later, though, Polunin shocked the dance world by announcing his resignation from the company. “The artist in me was dying,” he said. If it precipitated the media’s characterization of the multi-tattooed Polunin as a “bad boy,” or rebel, they didn’t take into account the fact that he’d already spent most of young life training, rehearsing and performing under the most rigid circumstances imaginable, mostly without his parents and away from home.
From ages 4 to 8, he trained at a gymnastics academy in his hometown, Kherson, then part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. He would spend the next four years at the Kiev State Choreographic Institute, while his father worked in Portugal to support the family. At 13, he was invited to join the British Royal Ballet School, sponsored by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Several months after leaving the company, he agreed to dance as a principal dancer with Russia’s Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, and as a guest dancer with other international companies. Still not satisfied, Polunin soon would develop a reputation as being flighty and undependable. Apparently, he now has his sights set on Hollywood, where Nureyev (Valentino), Baryshnikov (The Turning Point) and Godunov (Die Hard) enjoyed a modicum of success. Dancer makes a solid case for Polunin being an artist of extraordinary talent and intelligence, worthy of our patience and understanding. Moreover, at 27, he’s far from washed up. The documentary includes the dance video and details of the dancer’s life and career.
The Free World
The presence of Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer is a good-enough reason to check out The Free World, the uneven directorial debut of sophomore screenwriter Jason Lew (Restless). Holbrook (“Narcos”) plays Mohamed Lundy, a brooding ex-con who discovered Islam in prison after convincing fellow inmates and guards, alike, that he wasn’t raised to be anyone’s bitch. Exonerated of his guilt in a terrible crime, Mohamed finds work in an animal shelter, where the caged beasts might as well be sitting in a cell on Death Row. Apart from his sympathetic boss (Spencer), the wounded dogs are his only friends. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for trouble to come to Mohamed. A brutal cop arrives at the shelter to drop off his wife’s mutt, which he’s beaten within an inch of its life, just to piss her off. The cop recognizes Lundy and taunts him to provoke a fight, but “Mo” refuses to take the bait. A couple of nights later, the wife, Doris (Moss), shows up at the pound looking for her dog, her clothes stained with blood and as desperate to survive as a cornered animal. Worried that someone is lying in wait for her, Mo takes her to his furniture-deprived apartment for safekeeping. We’ll learn soon enough that the blood once belonged to her now-late husband and she’s the subject of an intense police dragnet. Because her trail disappears at the shelter, Mohamed is targeted for harassment by the merciless Detective Shin (Sung Kang), who believes he knows where Doris is hiding. He does, of course, but Mo’s apartment has already been searched and he’s given Shin no reason to intimidate him. Doris may not be terribly bright, but she’s impressed by Mo’s dedication to his religion and how it changed him. When she makes the kind of dumb mistake that could lead the police back to the apartment, Mo decides that the time has come to head for the border, with the assistance of another convert to Islam. Lew doesn’t exactly clear a direct path to Mexico for his characters. Instead, it’s littered with improbable obstacles designed to test Mo’s strength and faith. If Lew’s story is too contrived to be believable, the movie is salvaged by the leads’ excellent performances and some good fights.
Train to Busan: Blu-ray
As if South Koreans didn’t have enough on their minds, considering that North Korean despot Kim Jong-un could launch a nuclear attack at any moment, the hugely popular thriller, Train to Busan, added the zombie apocalypse to the mix. Yeon Sang-ho’s first live-action feature imagines what could happen if someone infected with the plague stumbled upon a bullet train to escape a nationwide viral outbreak. It takes a while for the passengers, who boarded at an earlier stop, to figure out what’s happening in the car in which the diseased woman is nursing a bite wound on her leg. The situation worsens exponentially as the infection quickly spreads from car to car. Finally, the passengers in a single car are left to battle the undead legions inside the train and at every stop on the way to the Safe Zone. Yeon heightens the tension with almost non-stop action and gore, as well as a handful of clearly drawn characters we hope won’t end up having their brain bludgeoned by a baseball bat or errant bullet. Naturally, Train to Busan’s box-office success overseas ensured that a Hollywood remake would soon follow. Where they’ll find a bullet train here is anyone’s guess. The package includes behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes.
Honky Holocaust: Blu-ray
B.C. Butcher: Blu-ray
Bubba the Redneck Werewolf
For at least one generation of horror and slasher buffs, Charles Manson is the gift that keeps on giving. Even while ensconced at San Quentin and Corcoran State Prison, he was rarely far from the public’s eye. His face appeared on T-shirts almost as often as Che Guevara and Mickey Mouse and the tabloid papers never tired of inventing ways to feature stories about his prison activities and parole efforts of jailed gang members. His bizarre magnetism was such that visitors conspired with guards and fellow cons to import contraband, such as drugs and cellphones, into prison on his orders. When, on New Year’s Day, Manson was rushed by ambulance to Mercy Hospital, in downtown Bakersfield, the news stirred a feeding frenzy in the media and scared the crap out of locals afraid that he might escape in his hospital gown into the Central Valley night. He didn’t, but imagine the scope of the manhunt if he had. Honky Holocaust, Troma’s latest assault on western culture, is built on the outlandish premise that Manson’s Helter Skelter strategy had played out as planned and his merry band of followers is finally ready to come out of hiding, fit and ready to save mankind from an apocalyptic race war. Writer/director Paul M. McAlarney tweaks the Helter Skelter scenario by killing off Manson a decade underground and creating a society dominated by militant blacks, who aren’t likely to be intimidated by a couple of dozen middle-age freaks with automatic weapons. Manson’s daughter, Kendra (Maria Natapov), is the first to realize that, among other things, her father’s plan failed to take into account the possibility that Angela Davis would be elected president in 1984; that dollar bills would someday feature the likeness of renegade slave, Nat Turner; and whites (referred to derisively as “albies”) would be relegated to slums and ghettos, in a reversal of Jim Crow segregation. Even so, a race war of sorts does break out in the streets of San Francisco, but it duplicates all the worst elements of Blaxploitation movies in the 1970s. As indigestible as Honky Holocaust is, it can’t be said that it’s devoid of deliciously Tromatastic flourishes. I can imagine Quentin Tarantino surveying the movie and seeing some of his own handiwork on display. It’s definitely not for the squeamish or politically correct. The Blu-ray includes an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman and director Paul McAlarney; a behind-the-scenes “Honkumentary”; “exterminated” scenes; a photo gallery; McAlarney’s exclusive video takes; “Troma Now! Xtreme Edition”; Radiation March; and Tromatic trailers.
Troma is distributing Kansas Bowling’s B.C. Butcher, which barely qualifies for mention in the same breath as Honky Holocaust or The Toxic Avenger. The best things that can be said for it are that it lives up to its tagline, “The first slasher film to be set in prehistoric times!,” and that Bowling, who was 17-years-old when she began to make B.C. Butcher, learned from the experience. Her music videos, included in the Blu-ray package, are already better than anything in the movie. For the record, though, the story involves a tribe of cavewomen, modeled after Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C., who, after exacting a cruel form of justice on one of their own, is stalked by a laughably deformed monster. If only the gals had listened to the tribe’s blind soothsayer and made a beeline for the bayou. Shot on a shoestring, or less, it features cameos by Kato Kaelin and Rodney “The Mayor of Sunset Strip” Bingenheimer; narration by Kadeem Hardison; and a performance by the Ugly Kids. The bonus package adds an intro by Kaufman; amusing commentary with Bowling and Kaufman; an interview with the savvy-beyond-her-years director; and promotional material. I’d love to see what Bowling could do with a larger budget and a shot at a series on MTV or Syfy.
Bubba the Redneck Werewolf wasn’t churned out by the Troma factory, but it might as well have been. Overflowing with gags that Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot-long rod and reel, it tells the story of local laughingstock Bubba (Fred Lass/Chris Stephens), who longs to win back the heart of his high school sweetheart, Bobbie Jo (Malone Thomas), but needs some help. When the Devil (Mitch Hyman) comes to Broken Taint, Florida, Bubba begs to be transformed into a hairy-chested macho man. Instead, the next morning, he wakes up as a macho wolfman, in constant need of a shave. To demonstrate his new-found heroism, Bubba engages malicious bikers, cryptic hobos, gaseous gypsies and, yes, a zombie hoard. Based on the comic book series of the same name, Bubba benefits from the humorously matter-of-fact attitude adopted by the local yokels toward their hirsute dog catcher.
Fox and His Friends: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Lazy Eye: Extended Director’s Cut
I can’t recall when the term, “queer cinema,” became an acceptable way to describe films of specific interest to the LGBT and sometimes Q community. Probably around the same time that other minority groups reappropriated slurs traditionally employed by bigots for their own purposes. As the mainstreaming of the queer cinema continues apace, the arrival of the Criterion Collection edition of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends reminds us of filmmakers whose non-polemical storytelling predated Stonewall or paralleled the rise of the gay liberation movement. A short list would include Shirley Clarke, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ken Russell, John Schlesinger, Luchino Visconti, Toshio Matsumoto and John Waters. At a time when William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band was being hailed and condemned, in almost equal measure, for its depiction of archetypal characters confronting their sexual identity, the work of these arthouse directors had already exited the genre closet and entered a world in which porn and self-pity didn’t necessarily inform the narratives. Ten years after the release of The Boys in the Band, Friedkin’s crime thriller, Cruising, about a serial killer targeting homosexuals, especially those associated with the leather scene, would inspire an outcry that forced Hollywood to rethink its approach to gay-themed movies. Tellingly, perhaps, it took 17 years for a major studio to adapt Édouard Molinaro’s hilarious Franco-Italian farce, La Cage aux Folles, as The Birdcage – rated “R,” for language — and turn it into a huge hit, thanks to director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May, and stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
By the time that Fox and His Friends was introduced at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, Fassbinder had already established a reputation as a leading light in the New German Cinema and provocateur of the first order. Many of the films he made in the early- to mid-1970s were inspired by the melodramas made in Hollywood by Hamburg-born Douglas Sirk. They explored societal prejudices about race, sex, sexual orientation, politics and class, while also tackling the “everyday fascism of family life and friendship.” In some ways, Fox and His Friends resembles a Sirkian tragedy, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion.” An atypically svelte Fassbinder plays Franz Biberkopf, a penniless gay man who performs in a traveling circus as Fox the Talking Head. One day, after his boss is arrested and the act is closed, Franz is cruised by a classy older man, Max, who introduces the rough trade to younger friends, Eugen and Philip. At first dismissive, their ears perk up when Max shares the news of Franz’ recent lottery win of a half-million marks. (The money for the ticket was stolen from a florist, who made the mistake of turning his back on his flirtatious customer.) Franz is beguiled by Eugen’s polish and willingness to show him a good time in Munich’s gay demimonde, for so long as he’s picking up the tab, anyway. To avoid undue embarrassment, Eugen (Peter Chatel) plays Professor Henry Higgins to Franz’ Eliza Doolittle. It also opens the door for Eugen’s father, a bookbinder, to hit up his son’s lover for an investment in his failing company. Franz jumps at the chance to join the ranks of important industrialists, even as Eugen’s cheap shots and frustration become more pointed. When the money finally evaporates … well, you might be able to guess the rest. The Blu-ray adds interviews with fresh interviews, vintage TV appearances by Fassbinder and essays.
Fassbinder, who committed suicide in 1982, at 37, said this about “Fox and His Friends: “It is certainly the first film in which the characters are homosexuals, without homosexuality being made into a problem. In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different. It’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s the story I always tell”.
In a nutshell, that explains how America’s queer cinema has evolved in the last 20 years, from narratives almost exclusively associated with the pain of accepting one’s sexuality and coming out to friends and family, to comedies, dramas and melodramas in which being gay is almost incidental to the story. The latest examples I’ve seen are from Breaking Glass Pictures, a distribution company that’s become a key player in several niche categories. In Nick Corporon’s Vertigo-inspired Retake, a lonely, middle-aged gay man, played by Tuc Watkins (“One Life to Live”), picks up a male prostitute on Santa Monica Boulevard, hoping to convince him to join him on a trip to the Grand Canyon. The offer sounds lucrative, if potentially dangerous to Adam (Devon Graye), who’s no stranger to taking risks for money. The Hitchcockian quid pro quo would require of Adam that he not ask Jonathan any personal questions and to help re-create memories from a road trip he took with a former lover, years earlier. Adam’s game for an adventure, so long as it doesn’t involve airplanes. His assignment is complicated, though, by Jonathan’s tendency to become temperamental when challenged or disappointed. And, that’s where things could get scary. Retake largely takes place in the Mojave Desert — beautifully shot by Collin Brazie – where the shabbiness of the motels and other roadside attractions is overshadowed by spectacular sunsets and mountainous horizons. The rootsy soundtrack fits right into the story, as well. The DVD arrives with cast and crew commentary, interviews, making-of featurettes, Q&A’s and Corporon’s short, “The Passenger.”
Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye also takes place in and around Joshua Tree, albeit a little further off the beaten path. At about the same time as Dean, a graphic designer in Los Angeles, notices a sudden change in his vision, a lover from 15 years earlier contacts him unexpectedly in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Dean’s been scouring the Internet for anything to do with Alex’s whereabouts, but to no avail. He invites Alex to a vacation house in the desert, near Palm Springs, but saves his deepest secrets for the day after they enjoy a long-delayed roll in the hay. Much of the movie’s 87-minute length is consumed by bickering and making up, as is the case in most other indie romance/dramas. At this point in their lives, both men are looking for a bit more permanence and stability than that afforded them in the urban bar scene, where they first met. Finally, Lazy Eye asks us to question the wisdom of hooking up with old flames, especially at a time when sexual-identity issues have re-invented traditional notions about love and marriage. Some viewers will find the picture to be too talky by half and a few of the symbolic touches – suicidal mice! – a bit hard to take. Even so, the lovely desert landscapes provide timely diversions for viewers’ lazy eyes and the characters’ problems are recognizable and credibly rendered. The disc adds a deleted scene, blooper reel and film festival Q&A. Kirkman’s previous credits include The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Loggerheads and Dear Jesse.
Something Wild: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Although its redemption-through-marriage conclusion wouldn’t pass muster today, Something Wild deserves to been seen by anyone interested in the evolution of the independent-film movement and, especially, the impact of the Actors Studio on the international cinema, since the early 1950s. The intense urban drama was directed by Jack Garfein, who, at 25, was invited to become a non-performing member of the Actors Studio, where he would serve as mentor to a who’s-who of future stars. A survivor of 11 different concentration camps, 16-year-old Garfein was among the first five Holocaust survivors to arrive in the United States after the war. An extremely quick study, he would in short order become proficient in English and an essential member of New York’s exploding post-war theater scene. Something Wild, starring his then-wife and student Carroll Baker, represents Garfein’s second and final motion picture. In it, Baker plays a student who’s brutally raped on her way home from a train platform in the Bronx. At first, Mary Ann tries to shake off the pain and trauma caused in the attack, but, soon, they overwhelm her. While contemplating suicide on the Manhattan Bridge, she’s pulled from the brink by a mechanic, Mike (Ralph Meeker), who happens to be walking across the span at the same time. Mary Ann agrees to take Mike up on his offer of food and shelter in his threadbare basement apartment. After a long sleep, she decides that it’s a better place to recuperate than under the too-watchful eyes of her parent and the flophouse to which she escaped after the rape. (Her next-door neighbor is a floozy, played by Jean Stapleton.)
Unfortunately, Mike’s tendency to come home drunk and belligerent at night has an adverse effect on Mary Ann’s recovery. Worse, Mike decides that saving her from suicide entitles him to holding her as a prisoner in his basement lair. Their deeply personal discussions and intensely choreographed arguments are straight out of the Actors Studio handbook. When push comes to shove, Mary Ann will be required to make a choice between the lesser of several evils and a shot at happiness. Not everyone will buy into her decision, but, at least, the ending isn’t as ambiguous as that of Garfein’s previous film, The Strange One, a commentary on American race relations that didn’t have one. Something Wild is interesting, though, for reasons other than the passionate storytelling or stylized performances, which, long ago, became the standard for American actors. Few movies have be able to capture the extremes of New York’s visual and tonal palette as vividly and succinctly as is accomplished here composer Aaron Copland, veteran cinematographer Eugen Schufftan and Saul Bass, whose strikingly angular title sequence — a montage of glistening skyscrapers, fluttering pigeons, dense traffic and bustling pedestrians – will stand in direct contrast to the loneliness felt by Mary Ann. (Copland would re-arrange music from the score for the concert performance, “Music for a Great City.”) The Criterion package includes a fresh interview with an almost giddy Baker; a filmed conversation between Garfein and critic Kim Morgan; an interview with film scholar Foster Hirsch on the roots and impact of the Artists Studio; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Sheila O’Malley.
Long Way North: Blu-ray
Surf’s up 2: WaveMania
In a short time, Shout! Factory Kids has amassed an extremely healthy catalogue of animation titles, some vintage and others brand new. Rémi Chayé’s understated directorial debut, Long Way North follows collaborative work on the award-winning The Painting and The Secret of Kells. No one would mistake these French exports for blockbuster titles from Pixar, DreamWorks or other American studios, but easier access to animation from Europe and Japan, especially, has broadened many of our horizons. Long Way North can be fairly described as a girl-power adventure, set in 1882, in which a young Russian aristocrat, Sacha, risks her life to save her family’s reputation. Her grandfather was a world-famous explorer, who is believed to have discovered a water passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, but vanished in his quest to plant Russia’s flag at the North Pole. Prince Tomsky, a new advisor to the Tsar, becomes her instant enemy by disparaging Oloukine as a failure, who wasted a fortune in pursuing impossible dreams. After failing to convince the prince of the value in mounting an expedition to discover the truth, Sacha sets out on her own to recover evidence of granddad’s accomplishment. Although CGI technology almost certainly was used to animate Long Way North, the soft lines and pastels will remind some viewers, at least, of hand-painted cel animation. The package adds a 39-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a half-hour interview with Chayé and producer Henri Magalon; still galleries; and animatics.
It’s been 10 years since fledgling Sony Pictures Animation rode the wave of anthropomorphic penguin flicks with Surf’s Up. The gentle spoof of such surfing documentaries as The Endless Summer and Riding Giants, as well as North Shore, it featured the voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, James Woods and Jon Heder. If, at $100 million, Surf’s Up didn’t hit real pay dirt in its original theatrical release, DVD and soundtrack sales likely benefitted from positive reviews and being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The direct-to-video, computer-animated mockumentary, Surf’s Up 2: WaveManiae may be a far more modest production, but it’s likely to benefit from a brand association with WWE Studios. Since 2002, the company has expanded its reach from action pictures into holiday-themed and children’s animation, including Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery and The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown! Here, Cody Maverick (Jeremy Shada) convinces an infamous big-wave-riding crew known as the Hang 5 (voiced by WWE Superstars John Cena, The Undertaker, Triple H, WWE Diva Paige and Mr. McMahon) to let him join them on their journey to a mysterious surf spot known as the Trenches. It’s where, legend has it, they’ll find the biggest waves in the world. Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader return as Chicken Joe as Tank “The Shredder” Evans.
xXx: 15th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If the producers of Paramount’s upcoming xXx: Return of Xander Cage had wanted to pound home their point any harder, they could have tweaked the title to read: “xXx: Return of Vin Diesel” or “xXx III: Come Back Back Vin, All Is Forgiven.” As was the case when Diesel and director Rob Cohen opted out of the first The Fast and the Furious sequel, the law of diminishing returns threatened to hobble what would become a monster franchise, but only so long as Diesel shared the lead with Paul Walker. Diesel and Cohen also chose to sit out 2005’s tepidly received xXx: State of the Union, preferring to light a fire under the “Riddick” series. While the modestly budgeted Pitch Black and made-for-TV The Chronicles of Riddick: Into Pitch Black (2000) had established Diesel as a legitimate action star, the decision to pump another $80 million to the cost of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick produced the opposite effect. The 2013 reboot, Reddick, benefitted from a return to fiscal sanity, but probably not enough to ensure anything but a straight-to-DVD future – or refocusing the video-game and animated shorts — with a less prestigious cast. Diesel’s disembodied voice, as the sentient plant, Groot, in Marvel/Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy, will re-echo in this spring’s sequel, as Baby Groot.
Xander Cage (a.k.a., codenamed xXx, for the tattoo on the back of his neck) is a rebellious extreme-sports enthusiast and adrenalin-junky, whose irreverent attitude toward life and patriotism has inspired comparisons to a quintessentially American James Bond. He listens to heavy-metal music and is drawn to dangerous women (Asia Argento, among them). In his first scene, Cage steals a Corvette from a politician, drives it off a high bridge to avoid a roadblock and B.A.S.E. jumps into the passenger seat of his getaway car. He is coerced by NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), who fails to see the humor in such stunts, into infiltrating the Prague-based underground group Anarchy 99. It is led by Yorgi, a former Russian soldier (Marton Csokas), who, like Cage, harbors a grudge against society and authority. From this point on, the story gets more than a little bit convoluted. Just when it seems as if Cage’s cover is about to be blown, Gibbons pops up, as if out of thin air. Neither are we ever sure who’s working for whom or whether Cage’s first priority is taking out Yorgi or profiting from the assignment. Unlike the sequel, which starred Ice Cube as xXx operative Darius Stone, it can fairly be described as an action/parody, with the accent on action. (Stone reprises the role in xXx: Return of Xander Cage.) The amped-up Blu-ray edition adds the new featurette, “Origins of a Renegade,” with stars from the upcoming sequel; deleted scenes; 10 vintage featurettes; commentary; and music videos.
The advance marketing material for The Babymooners suggests that freshman co-writer/director Shaina Feinberg was “clearly influenced by old Woody Allen films” in the creation of this video letter to her unborn son. If only. I’d suggest that the influence of early Mumblecore or Ed Burns was more noticeable. Shania exhibits her neuroses by asking passersby if they think having a baby will negatively impact her creativity or if being noticeably pregnant makes her less attractive. The reply to the first question: I’m a defense lawyer and didn’t have time left for creativity, anyway; to the second: I’m not attracted to your cartoon-mouse face now, so probably not. The series of vignettes includes dealing with a newly sober husband (co-collaborator Chris Manley), interviewing her standard-issue Upper West Side parents, a boring Shih Tzu mix puppy, an overly anxious shrink and her views on daytime television. The title refers to “a relaxing or romantic vacation taken by parents-to-be before their baby is born.” Is that really a thing? No matter, when they get to the cabin reserved for a brief “babymoon,” everyone’s in for a surprise. It’s pretty much the only vignette that rings true.
PBS: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
PBS: Pearl Harbor: Into the Arizona
The IT Crowd: The Internet Is Coming
PBS: WordWorld: WordWorld: Let’s Make Music!
Like most good mysteries, the PBS documentary “Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne” began with a question. After watching the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers,” which was adapted from a book by Steven Ambrose, director Mike Edwards (Yellow Roses) and military historian Martin King decided to follow up on the brief mention of a black nurse, “Anna,” who treated wounded soldiers in a Bastogne aid station, during the Battle of the Bulge. Locating a Congolese/Belgian woman dubbed the “Angel of Bastogne” turned out to be a more difficult task than seemed possible at the beginning of their search. Given the ferocity of the conflict, it was difficult for them to parse fact from fiction, especially when it concerned civilian aid workers. It was also possible that “Anna” was, in fact, Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire, who was killed during a German air raid on Christmas Eve, 1944. For their purposes, the trail leading back to “Anna” ended where the Allies march into Germany began. To their surprise, word of mouth proved to be more accurate than the research of historians. The unassuming heroine, Augusta Chiwy, was “discovered” in a nursing home, around the corner from her last known address. Like so many other World War II veterans, Chiwy chose to keep what she’d seen and done during the war to herself. The daughter of a Belgian veterinarian, from Bastogne, and his Congolese wife, Chiwy was born in 1921 in the then-Belgian Congo. She returned to Belgium at the age of 9 and, in 1940, went to Leuven to be trained as a nurse. Racial discrimination prevented her from finding work through normal channels. It wouldn’t be the first time. Despite their wounds, some American soldiers from the Deep South refused to be treated by a dark-skinned nurse. (In similar circumstances, many diehard Nazis refused the treatment of nurses they believed to be racially inferior to them.) “Searching for Augusta” ends with Chiwy receiving the honors she so richly deserved, but never sought. It’s a terrific story.
Do you get queasy watching shows in which archeologists, anthropologists and historians traipse through sacred burial grounds or peat bogs, looking for clues to our shared existence? It depends, of course, on whose long-dead ancestors are being disturbed. The Giza Necropolis of ancient Egypt and catacombs of Rome and Paris have served their countries’ tourist industries well, providing museums with mummies, sarcophagi and other artifacts, as well as postcard images of amusingly arranged skulls and bones. Native Americans have begun reclaiming precisely numbered bones lying around in research centers, contributing almost nothing to science. The PBS show, “Secrets of the Dead,” does a good job balancing history and curiosity, as do the producers of documentaries for National Geographic. Thanks to miracles of modern technology, anyone who can afford an underwater-drone camera or deep-water submersible – James Cameron, for example – can tour sunken ocean liners, submarines and warships, in search of souvenirs and clues as to their demise. Since the discovery of skeletons isn’t likely after all this time, viewers don’t necessarily look upon these wrecks as underwater cemeteries. Even though the activities described in PBS’s “Pearl Harbor: Into the Arizona” were performed in the name of preservation, it struck me as coming a tad too close to being sacrilegious. The submerged battleship, which is slowly being eroded by natural forces, has been memorialized as the final resting place of 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on USS Arizona during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. The ashes of survivors frequently are strewn on the waters above the bridge. Using a remote-controlled underwater camera, researchers hoped to map and study the ship’s ruins before they can collapse on themselves. Survivor Donald Stratton was invited to monitor and serve as guide to the investigation, so, by inference, if he didn’t object to the intrusion, why should we? It’s fascinating, of course, but the closest most viewers will come to being creeped out will be the opening of a hatch that leads to an officer’s quarters and guest bathroom for their lady friends. Conditions allowed for the preservation of uniforms, a made bed, silver buttons and porcelain shaving gear. In 2012, in “Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor,” “NOVA” producers chronicled the search for conclusive evidence of the presence of Japanese mini-subs off Pearl Harbor on that fateful day. The recovery of bodies became an issue in that instance, as well.
Following hot on the heels of “IT Crowd: The Complete Series,” “The IT Crowd: The Internet Is Coming” really does wrap up the truly offbeat British series, which aired here on IFC and Netflix for four years. Completed three years after the culmination of the series, “The Internet Is Coming” was intended to part of a six-episode fifth season. Due to scheduling problems, it was shortened to a 50-minute, during which most of the loose ends were tied. An American version of the show never made it past the pilot stage. Having learnt from their boss, Douglas Reynholm (Matt Berry), that the secret of his success is wearing women’s slacks, Moss (Richard Ayoade) buys a pair for his wardrobe … such as it is. They somehow make him brave and creative. Meanwhile, Roy (Chris O’Dowd) is annoyed that tiny Troy the Barista (Gareth Morinan) is making his coffee too milky and they argue, after which Troy falls in front of a van. At the same time, Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is filmed accidentally throwing coffee over a homeless man. Both incidents are captured on camera and posted on the Internet, turning Jen and Roy into global pariahs. Roy also accompanies girlfriend Alice (Rachel Parris) to her grandfather’s funeral but overdoes the pepper spray to simulate tears of grief. It only works too well. Douglas then attempts to control the damage to his company on TV’s “The Secret Millionaire,” but blows his cover. Moss devises a plan to market the pepper spray and turn his colleagues into heroes. All in a day’s work for the geek squad at Reynholm Industries. The DVD adds interviews and featurettes.
In PBS Kids’ “WordWorld: Let’s Make Music” for beginning readers, Duck encourages Shark to dance in his show, “The Dancing Duck Bonanza.” Shark can’t do much more than flop around the stage, however. Later, Sheep is preparing a big musical show of his own. While singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” in front of his friends, Duck gets a case of stage fright. Can Sheep and Ant help Duck overcome his stage fright? Put on your dancing shoes and stay tuned. The new DVD contains eight stories from the award-winning problem-solving and word-building series.