The Jungle Book: Blu-ray
Move over, Tarzan, the real King of the Jungle is a wee mancub named Mowgli. Born two decades before Edgar Rice Burroughs left John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke, parentless in Africa, to be raised by apes, Rudyard Kipling’s feral boy was adopted by wolves in the forests of India. At one time or another, perhaps after studying the worldwide revenues of The Jungle Book and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, someone in charge of a studio or comic-book empire has imagined a showdown between Tarzan and Mowgli, or a way to have them combine their powers to save mankind from vengeful animals. Given the vagaries of public domain, anything seems possible. On the Disney lot, anyway, Mowgli rules. While the 1999 animated Tarzan probably made the company some money in its global sales and DVD/Blu-ray afterlife, the animated editions of The Jungle Book have all sold through the roof. Moreover, its lineage can be traced directly back to Uncle Walt, without the stain of racism or white entitlement that greeted Tarzan.
Comparing live-action apples to live-action apples, The Jungle Book has swamped Maleficent and Cinderella, but slightly trails Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which benefitted from huge 3D numbers. Of these, the only live-action title even close to Jon Favreau’s “reimagining” of the Kipling classic at the Metacritic site is Kenneth Branagh’s delightful Cinderella, starring Lily James. (Tarzan scored slightly higher, but based on many fewer critics’ opinions.) So, what should parents and children make of these numbers? Nothing, really. True, it might take a few minutes for kids to get accustomed to the live-action settings, photo-realistic backdrops and freakishly accurate CGI animals. Ditto parents, who also need to know that the reimagining has resulted in some darker elements than the original – some harkening back to Bambi – and more violence. The Dolby Atmos sound system turns the thunderous noise produced by an avalanche and stampeding animals downright frightening. Thus, the PG seems earned.
Poor Mowgli hasn’t changed his diapers in more than 45 years, but we can blame mother wolf Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) for that, as her other cubs have never worn clothes. Otherwise, 12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi is as animated as Disney’s other Mowglis and far more expressive. If there are fewer songs this time around, it’s well worth the wait to hear Christopher Walken’s take on “I Wan’na Be Like You,” Bill Murray & Kermit Ruffins’s “The Bare Necessities” (also Dr. John and the Nite Trippers, in the closing credits) and Scarlett Johansson channeling Peggy Lee in the serpentine “Trust in Me.” As was the case in the 1999 “TJB,” several characters have been reconsidered, added or erased from Kipling’s book. Murray’s impersonation of Baloo is truly inspired. Ben Kingsley and Idris Elba’s readings of black panther Bagheera and evil tiger Shere Kahn are also noteworthy. A Blu-ray purchase adds a DVD copy of the film and Disney digital code; the 35-minute “The Jungle Book Reimagined,” with producer Brigham Taylor, visual-effects supervisor Robert Legato and director Favreau discussing how the film got off the ground, the source material, early drafts of the new film, Disney and Kipling book Easter eggs and tech talk; “I Am Mowgli,” a closer look at young Neel Sethi’s casting and performance; “King Louie’s Temple: Layer by Layer,” a quick look behind the scenes of one of the movie’s key musical pieces and homage to co-writer Richard Sherman; and commentary with Favreau.
All politicians are narcissists, to one degree or another. They love watching themselves on television, giving speeches and responding to their followers’ adoration. They can’t help themselves. If Donald Trump is the extreme example of a politician who can’t get enough of himself, especially when he’s making up lies and his loyalists are buying every one of them, then disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner is the ultimate example of someone who lies to himself and believes every word. After being caught exchanging humiliating e-mails and photographs of his penis with women on the Internet, everyone assumed he would simply disappear from public view and find work outside the public sector. Instead, the liberal Democrat decided to become a candidate for further derision by running for mayor of New York, one of the most visible positions in American politics. Worse, he allowed former chief of staff Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg to chronicle his uphill struggle for their cringe-inducing documentary, Weiner. Somehow, he’d convinced himself that he’d win and, in doing so, would become the star of his own movie. Instead, after leading early on in the polls, another scandal erupted, putting Weiner on the defensive once again, this time irrevocably.
Before quietly disappearing from view, Weiner’s ever-stoic wife, Huma Abedin, stood alongside him, looking every bit as dyspeptic as Julianna Margulies, when forced to campaign for her philandering husband on “The Good Wife.” In doing so, she joined a long line of beleaguered women – Jackie Kennedy, Lee Hart, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Silda Wall Spitzer – who stood by their men, frequently to the disdain of pundits and other women, who’d suffered similar indignities, not always in public. Apparently, Huma had not given her permission to be filmed for Weiner, and for good reason. Instead of being portrayed as the influential aide and confidante of the first woman chosen by her party to seek the nation’s highest office, she either looks like a hood ornament or just another mom with too much to do. (Last week, we not only learned that Weiner got caught in yet another “catfish” trap by a different Internet troll, but also that Republicans want to throw her under the same bus as Hillary in the e-mail scandal.) Whatever happens, Huma is likely to survive the fall from grace better than her husband. The same can’t be said with any assurance for Weiner’s young and inexperienced communications director Barbara Morgan, who gets as much face time in Weiner as Huma. After losing all of her natural blond buoyancy when the first betrayal breaks, she gets suckered into an X-rated blowout with a gabby ex-intern that becomes first-page news. By election night, Morgan looks as if she might be considering a different line of work, altogether. Apart from any Shakespearian undertones, Weiner works best as a portrayal of New York politics at its most brutal. (In a delicatessen, he’s attacked by a loudmouth customer for marrying “an Arab.”) Even Howard Stern’s influence is felt, when a former sexting partner of Weiner – and wannabe porn star – is encouraged to stalk him through the streets of the city. If this is democracy in action, then what do New Yorkers call pro wrestling?
The Man Who Knew Infinity: Blu-ray
I don’t know what it is about mathematics that turns filmmakers into wide-eyed schoolboys, but there’s almost as many movies about numbers junkies as there are meth labs in southern California’s Inland Empire … maybe more. Matthew Brown’s surprisingly accessible The Man Who Knew Infinity joins such recent math-centric dramas, dramedies and thrillers as A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, Pi, A Brilliant Young Mind, Proof, Enigma, Fermat’s Room, The Oxford Murders, An Invisible Sign, Codebreaker and Raising Genius. Then, too, there are the many movies about physicists and astrophysicists. If the name Srinivasa Ramanujan sounds familiar it’s either because you’re Indian, a math major or can remember back to the point in Good Will Hunting when Stellan Skarsgard explains the genius of the character played by Matt Damon to Robin Williams by comparing him to Ramanujan. (Who? We asked.) As played by Dev Patel, Ramunajan is a dirt poor mathematical autodidact living in Madras, when he’s noticed by teachers who can’t keep up with his ideas. They encourage him to send some of his work to British mathematician G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who, after being disavowed of the notion that the letter is a hoax, invites the young man to continue his studies at Cambridge.
The necessary clash between characters comes when Ramanujan bristles at Hardy’s insistence that he offer demonstrable proofs for his theorems, which appear to him as godsends. They’re among the most complex and important discoveries in the history of the science and continue to be applied to advanced research, including recent revelations about black holes. The other point of contention reflects Hardy’s atheism and Ramunajin’s deep religious conviction. “An equation for me has no meaning,” he says, “unless it expresses a thought of God.” Brown’s story, from Robert Kanigel’s biography of the same title, also accents the racism faced by this talented young “wog” as he, Hardy and J. E. Littlewood (Toby Jones) worked tirelessly to have the work recognized by Oxford authorities, and the long separation from his wife, Janaki (Devika Bhise). As these things go, The Man Who Knew Infinity is reasonably faithful to the facts of Ramunajin’s life. The acting is first-rate, even giving a nod to philosopher Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam), whose pacifism would cause him to be removed from the Cambridge faculty as World War I raged across the channel and a makeshift hospital was built in the college’s yard. Even if the equations surely won’t make sense to viewers, the story is as compelling as any biopic of a scientist you’re likely to find.
Paths of the Soul
Zhang Yang’s amazing docudrama, Paths of the Soul, is so mesmerizing that it doesn’t take long for viewers to forget about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in a corner of the screen. The film condenses an extended Tibetan family’s 10-month, 1,200-mile pilgrimage to the holy city of Lhasa – by foot, in a continuous repetition of prostrating one’s self on the ground – into 115 minutes of devotion-in-motion, unbelievable perseverance and stunning physical beauty. The gorilla, as you might already have guessed, is the absence of any mention of the politics behind the schism separating active followers of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, and Buddhists still living in Tibet, under the all-seeing eye of the Chinese government, which intends to pick the next leader when he dies. Because anyone pre-disposed to watching Paths of the Soul already is aware of the division and its political ramifications around the world, it’s worth the effort simply to take in the wonders of contemporary Tibet and Lhasa. Kowtowing involves taking several steps, prostrating oneself, sliding on wooden blocks and clapping them three times after standing upright. The group of 11 here is followed by a tractor carrying provisions and each evening’s shelter. One traveler is committed to cleansing bad family karma; another, a butcher, wants to wash the animals’ bloodstains from his soul; and another pilgrim, sensing the end is near, hopes that prayers and prostrations will break the chain of cause-and-effect determined by his life’s actions. Like the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, it’s a trek every Tibetan Buddhist hopes to accomplish in their lifetime, at least once. The mostly two-lane road is high, winding, exceedingly arduous and, sometimes, not there at all. The pilgrims share the road with other vehicles, whose drivers many not be paying strict attention to what’s happening in front of them. Along the way, the men, women and child experience
avalanches, rockslides, childbirth, flooded roads, a traffic accident and the death and high-altitude funeral of a comrade. How many of the individual events along the route were depictions or outright orchestrations isn’t clear. The devotion of the pilgrims is never in question. Kundun may not be the most highly regarded of Martin Scorsese’s many films, but anyone who is moved by Paths of the Soul will certainly benefit from checking it out. Because it focuses on the reigning Dalai Lama and his banishment from Tibet, it had to be shot in Morocco. Scorsese, writer Melissa Mathison and her then-husband Harrison Ford were added to the list of people banned from entering Tibet because of Kundun.
Gastón Solnicki’s 2011 documentary, Papirosen, features a religious quest of a very different sort, and its appeal will likely be limited to those whose thirst for Holocaust-related stories is unquenchable. That, and folks whose tolerance for other people’s home movies is insatiable. It is a little of both. Masterfully edited from nearly 200 hours of footage to 74 minutes, Papirosen represents a decade of filmmaking, and four generations of Argentine director Solnicki’s family history, culled from 8mm home videos, a VHS bar mitzvah, interviews with his father and grandmother, as well as original observational material. His father, Victor, emerges as the lead figure, primarily as he’s the most outspoken, neurotic and in need of the passport he’s lacked for more than 50 years. That’s because he left Europe on the brink of war without stopping to collect such necessities as birth records and didn’t need them as long as he remained in Argentina. The kids have other, more mundane problems with which to contend, including an addiction to shopping. The most poignant moment comes when longtime friends join in songs with the older Solnickis at a Buenos Aires restaurant and are informed that a person given up for dead decades earlier is still very much alive and living in the Old Country.
Inspirational stories about racehorses facing uphill battles against insurmountable odds have become dime-a-dozen. Even so, cheap thrills are better than none at all and equine dramas are better than most. Dark Horse not only tells the unlikely story of a horse given no chance of winning anything, but also introduces us to some uncommon Welsh folks, about 23 in all, who invested the equivalent of about $13 a week to raise and keep a Thoroughbred. Dream Alliance was bred by Janet Vokes, a barmaid at a workingmen’s club in Cefn Fforest, in the depressed mining region of Gwent. Her primary experience until then had been breeding whippets and racing pigeons. While on the job, Vokes overheard Howard Davies, a local tax adviser, discussing a racehorse he had owned 20 years earlier. She was inspired by the idea, and, soon after, she and her husband, Brian, found a mare, Rewbell, that was available for ₤1000. They ultimately bought her for ₤350, a sum that didn’t guarantee anything resembling a potential champion. Davies would be anointed the “racing manager” of the group and, as trainer, J.L. Flint. They bred Rewbell to multiple U.S. stakes winner Bien Bien, then in his first year at stud in the UK, and their chestnut foal ultimately would allow a group of unemployed miners to partake in the “sport of kings.” (Actually, Dream Alliance’s American-bred half-siblings, Bienamado and Bien Nicole, enjoyed productive careers, so maybe the gelding shouldn’t have been considered much of a dark horse, after all.) Dream Alliance’s brief racing career included more than any horse’s fair share of challenges, from a devastating injury and miracle recovery, to returning to competition confronting winners considered to be a class or two above his own. The story has gone largely unsung here, primarily because Dream Alliance was a steeplechase specialist at a time before international championships were broadcast worldwide on TVG and HRTV. A lot of the movie’s charm comes from watching the amateur cast react to their horse’s good and bad luck. For an owner, there’s nothing quite like either one.
The Duel: Blu-ray
Few actors chew scenery with as much enthusiasm and vigor as Woody Harrelson. In the revisionist Western, The Duel, he gets to play a messianic nut job who combines the look of Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, with the criminal religiosity of David Koresh and Warren Jeffs. Kieran Darcy-Smith’s film opens with duel-to-the-death between Harrelson’s Abraham and another man, whose son, David (Liam Hemsworth), would witness the one-sided battle and grow up to be a Texas Ranger. Twenty-two years later, David would assigned to investigate the mysterious deaths of Mexicans in the vicinity of the city controlled by Abraham. Shortly after David and his wife (Alice Braga) ride into town incognito, Abraham inexplicably makes him sheriff. It doesn’t take long to see that the snake-handling Abraham intends to seduce Marisol and, while David is busy investigating the murders, add her to his corral of sister wives. From this point on, things in Helena get even stranger. Writer Matt Cook (Triple 9) deserves kudos for coming up with a story with enough grit to keep viewers’ nourished for the The Duel’s entire 110-minute length.
The Other Side
It’s sometimes said that the face and soul of America are best captured by foreigner filmmakers and writers willing to shine light into corners most of us would prefer remain in shadows. While I agree with this sentiment to some degree, I believe the same can be said of American outsider artists and other truly independent voices. Going off the grid is as easy as buying a dependable car and being willing to stay in fleabag motels and meet people whose prison tattoos are less frightening than their views on just about everything in which you believe. That’s certainly the case in Italian documentarian Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, a more transgressive follow-up to his “Texas Trilogy” — Stop the Pounding Heart, Low Tide and The Passage — which found the humanity in folks whose everyday existences depend on a deep and abiding relationship with a God who’s probably forgotten they even exist. (Don’t tell them that, though.) The Other Side finds Minervini in the north-central Louisiana hamlet of West Monroe, known best, perhaps, as the home town of the “Duck Dynasty” family. Compared to the people we meet here, however, the Robertsons are wimps. The film’s first half is taken up with the day-to-day life of a no-count junkie and his similarly addicted girlfriend, who, even while pregnant, shoots up and strips to make money. The setting may be half-a-state away from Terrebonne Parish, where Beasts of the Southern Wild was filmed, but it could have been next-door. During the second half, Minervini was allowed to follow a small, but heavily armed militia of gun freaks, whose hatred of African-Americans and liberals has convinced them that President Obama’s about to declare martial law and they’re going to come out the other side, assault rifles in hand. They rehearse for war by donning their camos and blowing up lots of harmless stuff in the forests outside town … and, of course, drinking lots of beer. And, yet, through Minervini’s lens, they’re just as worthy of a fair shake as anyone else we meet in The Other Side. The DVD adds deleted scenes.
The first half of French actor-turned-writer/director/cinematographer/producer Raphaël Neal’s debut feature, Fever, combines large dollops of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” with several familiar coming-of-age tropes. The second half is dominated by echoes of Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt and arguments surrounding her theories concerning the “banality of evil,” as they pertained to Adolf Eichmann and his so-called conscience. Set in contemporary Paris and adapted from a novel by Leslie Kaplan, Fever follows two high school students, Damien and Pierre, after they murder a woman unknown to them — and unseen by viewers — in her apartment. Their action coincides with discussions they’re having in school, concerning the Holocaust and individual responses to evil. Like Leopold and Loeb, Damien and Pierre are from well-off families. If they aren’t old enough to have constructed moral boundaries for their behavior, they absorb other people’s ideas like a sponge and enjoy the freedom to test them on innocent people. One of them is a young optician, Zoé, who lives across the street from the murdered woman and literally crashes into one of the boys as they are leaving the apartment. Her eyes connect with one of them as she picks up a glove taken from the scene as a souvenir. It’s the only clue tying Damien and Pierre to the murder and she doesn’t tie one to the other until later. By the time that happens, Zoé, has begun to question everything about her own bland existence, causing her to break up with her longtime partner and do some detective work of her own. At school, Eichmann’s ghost is doing a number on students asked to apply Arendt’s journalism to themselves and their families, some of whom lived through the Nazi occupation and may have been complicit in the cover-up of war crimes. A lot of difficult questions are asked and discussed in the course of Neal’s 80-minute drama, so the lack of answers hardly comes as a surprise. Martin Loizillon, Pierre Moure and Julie-Marie Parmentier are excellent in the difficult lead roles.
Shooting the Prodigal
The Fight Within
Two new faith-based movies push the limits on logic and credibility, especially when it comes to sending mixed messages to viewers. There are so many fish out of water in David E. Powers’ Southern-fried comedy, Shooting the Prodigal, that it’s difficult to identify the faith being served. A Baptist church in a small Alabama town is running low on money and attendance, causing the elders to demand a return to the Bible-banging techniques of the late, lamented previous pastor, Bob Sr. It was his dream to build a youth center on land owned by his secret friend, who’s known in the parish as “that Jewish woman.” The younger Pastor Bob turns to her once again and she agrees to donate the land, with a single caveat, that her nephew be brought in from New York to direct a fund-raising movie, based on the fable of the Prodigal Son. An Old Testament-New Testament conflict develops when the Jewish director fills the cast and crew with the only capable locals available, including a black gentleman who’s “light in the loafers” and other non-Evangelical types. An inter-faith romance also blooms between director Josh and Pastor Bob’s volleyball-star daughter. I wondered what kind of secular humanist was responsible for this politically correct picture, until noticing that it was co-written/directed by David E. Powers, a retired associate pastor at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. It’s his first film and, by any reckoning, a well-made one, at that. It has some genuinely humorous moments and the diversity doesn’t seem forced or foreign. I expected quite a bit less.
In director Michael William Gordon and writer Jim Davis’ The Fight Within, God comes to the rescue of a MMA fighter who forgoes retirement long enough to help his brother save his gym and protect his lovely young Christian sweetheart from an old foe. Emma’s about to begin a stretch of missionary work with orphans in Africa, but becomes a believer in the redemptive qualities of MMA fighting when it affects her boyfriend. The only times The Fight Within works is in the fighting scenes, which are actually pretty brutal and not at all forgiving.
Psycho IV: The Beginning: Blu-ray
The Bloodstained Butterfly: Blu-ray
The Sleeping Room
Several genre obsessives consider Psycho IV: The Beginning to be the best of the sequels to the original Alfred Hitchcock thriller. While that’s not saying a great deal, really, it shouldn’t be construed as being damning with faint praise, either. Created for release in the U.S. on the Showtime cable network, “The Beginning” is both a prequel and sequel to Psycho. It is the only episode in the series that shows Norma Bates alive and the only one of the sequels to use Bernard Herrmann’s theme. Working from a script by Hitchcock’s screenwriter and, of course, Robert Bloch’s novel, director Mick Garris (Sleepwalkers) presents a seemingly rehabilitated Norman Bates (Perkins), who’s drawn to a late-night radio show where the host (CCH Pounder) encourages him to share his views on the topic of matricide. Reliving his childhood, Norman recounts his trials as a boy (Henry Thomas) living with his widowed, schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey), who’s a psycho-sexual nightmare. Could reliving these memories rekindle murderous impulses from Bates’ past? Stay tuned. This would be one of the last films Perkins completed before his death on September 12, 1992, due to pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. He was 60. Special features add commentary with Garris, Thomas and Hussey; the featurette, “The Making of Mother,” an interview with make-up effects artist Tony Gardner; behind-the-scenes footage from Garris; and a gallery of rare photos from Garris’ collection.
The Bloodstained Butterfly is another excellent entry in Arrow Video’s giallo catalogue from 1971, this one directed by Duccio Tessari (Death Occurred Last Night, A Pistol for Ringo), a year that also included releases by maestros Dario Argento (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and Mario Bava (A Bay of Blood). Apart from the usual genre conceits, “Butterfly” contains elements of the courtroom-drama and police-procedural subgenres. When a young woman is knifed to death in a Bergamo park, during a thunderstorm, all fingers point to TV sports personality Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia), seen fleeing the scene of the crime by numerous eyewitnesses. A guilty verdict looks cut-and-dried, at least until a killer using similar methodology strikes while Marchi’s behind bars. While the truth comes out in the end, it’s what happens in between that makes “Butterfly” so compelling. That, and a cast that includes Helmut Berger, Evelyn Stewart and Carole André, as well as a score by Gianni Ferrio. The Blu-ray set adds commentary with critics Alan Jones and Kim Newman; “Murder in B-Flat Minor,” a new visual essay on the film, its cast and crew by author Troy Howarth; a career retrospective on director Duccio Tessari; original Italian and English theatrical trailers; a gallery of original promotional images; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and a 36-page booklet, illustrated by Tonci Zonjic, containing writing by James Blackford, Howard Hughes and Leonard Jacobs.
John Shackleton’s freshman feature is all style and setup, with very little follow-through. That doesn’t necessarily make it unusual or unworthy, though. In The Sleeping Room, an inexperienced prostitute, Blue (Leila Mimmack), works for a pimp and madam in the British coastal town of Brighton. Conveniently, she does house calls, one of which takes her to a Victorian structure being remodeled by a shady contractor. While exploring, they uncover a secret space, a “sleeping room,” where working girls could rest between servicing clients. Blue also comes across a mutoscope, an early motion-picture device that works very much like a flip book. The story told in by the photographs will evolve through the short length of the movie and eventually take Blue back to the roots of her family tree. The house has its share of ghosts and secrets, some of which are dangerous. The DVD adds making-of featurettes and a short film.
The Adventures of Paula Peril
Anyone who’s pondered getting into the world of cosplay (costume play, for the uninitiated), but has been holding out for a heroine, may want to check out Valerie Perez. Besides making any of her many superhero costumes look sexier, just by being squeezed into them, she’s proven she can do more than test the tensile strength of a bodice. If that doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment, consider that most cosplay models are content merely to stand around a comic-book convention and be stared at by hordes of nerds. (As opposed to participating in cosplay rituals and competitions, which are something else entirely.) Next year, Israeli hottie Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious) will attempt to step into the boots, tiara and bulletproof bracelets once worn by TV Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. Perez, who stars in the DVD series, The Adventures of Paula Peril, has been impersonating Wonder Woman at charity events, conventions and other gatherings of the geeks for years and, at a trim and athletic 5-foot-7, very much looks the part. She models for various comic book and video game artists, while also making appearances as Lara Croft, Zatanna the Magician, Vampirella, a Vulcan scientist and Scarlet Witch, and stage hosting the annual Saturn Awards. Perez has appeared as Paula Peril in a total of six short films, including the seven-minute short, “Trapped in the Flames,” which, curiously, can even be found on the occasional bondage site. The Adventures of Paula Peril is an anthology feature, containing the short films “Mystery of the Crystal Falcon,” “The Invisible Evil” and “Midnight Whistle” – a “Perils of Pauline” look-alike — re-mastered with 30 minutes of new content and a storyline directed by Jason Winn. Perez describes her character as “Lois Lane and Nancy Drew meet Indiana Jones.” At her newspaper office, Paula must contend with the headline-stealing Veronica Vilancourt (Marla Malcolm), a deadline-fretting editor (James Connor) and protective friend (Stephen Hanthorn). Paula’s made enemies with a mob boss and is constantly getting herself into and out of dilemmas. Unlike most women in the newspaper dodge, her work outfit consists of black boots, a mini-skirt, tight red sweater, bra made to hold DDs at a right angle from her body and, maybe, skin-colored hose. Frankly, while the movie isn’t much to look at, Perez’ presence more than makes up for the lapses in coherency.
How can one distinguish a Jess Franco women-in-prison movie from all of the others made in the 1970s? The guards, as well as the inmates. are topless, and none of them speak Filipino, at least not in Love Camp, which also incorporates the conceits of a jungle prison flick. Here, incredibly, a group of listless women is abducted from a lazy South American town by communist guerrillas and forced to march through the jungle in various stages of undress. At a makeshift brothel, they’ll serve the revolution by servicing the fighters. One of the women, Angela (Ada Tauler), is kidnapped on her wedding night, before she could consummate her marriage. At the prison, Angela enchants both the Germanic commandant and lesbian warden, and, they compete to keep her fruits to themselves. Suddenly, though, her counter-revolutionary husband arrives to save Angela, leaving her to decide between three lovers. It’s junk, of course, but a prime example of its genre, and a nicely restored one, at that. As for the sex, Love Camp’s almost ubiquitous nudity and rape scenarios make it harder than soft-core but softer than hard-core. The extras add previews of other Franco films and an interview with the ultra-prolific Spanish sleazeball, who died in 2013, at 82, in Málaga.
History: Roots: Blu-ray
Netflix: Narcos: Season One: Blu-ray
Starz: Blunt Talk: Season One
Starz: Ash vs Evil Dead: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Endeavour Series The Complete Third Season: Blu-ray
PBS: Masterpiece Mystery!: Inspector Lewis Season 8: Blu-ray
With the 2016 Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony right around the corner – September 18 – there’s no better time to start binging on full-season packages of the nominees and the snubbed, alike. I hesitated to watch the “reimagining” of “Roots” as it played out last spring on the History, A&E and Lifetime networks in four two-hour installments. In the same way that it isn’t fair to measure one Super Bowl or World Series against another, especially if one’s home team is competing, I didn’t want to hold the new “Roots” up against the truly epochal 1977 original. Simply put, no one had seen anything like producers Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper’s history of slavery in America – based, of course, on Alex Haley’s book – which didn’t hold much back when it came to the horrors associated with this country’s “original sin.” The fact that ABC was one of only three commercial broadcast networks at the time, and the cable industry was still in its infancy, helped focus 100 million viewers’ rapt attention on the mid-January mini-series, which was still a fresh concept. (It devastated movie attendance, among other things.) The new “Roots” couldn’t possibly match that experience … or could it? Well, no and yes. Unless one were paying close attention, it would have been easy to miss the Memorial Day opening. It received excellent reviews, but who reads them anymore? As phenomenon goes … it wasn’t. And, yet, it was able to stand on its own merits as a compelling drama and valuable history lesson. If it didn’t feature as recognizable a cast as the 1977 original, which included a large number of stars familiar mostly to TV viewers, the equally fine cast of newcomers allowed viewers to focus exclusively on their characters and individual stories, some of which had been condensed or expanded from the original. The impact of the brutality on viewers was heightened, as well, by the current state of race relations in this country and Donald Trump’s unwillingness to denounce his bigoted followers. This isn’t to say that “Roots” didn’t offer humor, warmth and humanity to counter the countless n-words and whip lashes. Regé-Jean Page’s Chicken George storyline, and Forest Whitaker’s Fiddler arc, especially demand to be seen and enjoyed. Technical advances unimaginable 40 years ago also enhance the experience. The Blu-ray includes the 42-minute featurette, “Roots: A History Revealed,” which is well worth watching. It’s too early say whether a remounting of “Roots: The Next Generations” might already be on the drawing boards.
Neither was I in much of a hurry to catch Netflix’s “Narcos,” which threatened to be a rehash of everything already known and shown about the rise of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. The pursuit by law enforcement divisions, bridging Colombia and the United States, didn’t promise much in the way of refreshing the story, either. Now that I’ve binged on it, however, I can easily recommend it to fans of international crime thrillers and those who watch Scarface whenever it pops up on cable TV. Brazilian actor/musician Wagner Moura is terrific as the cocaine kingpin who revolutionized the smuggling game, by recognizing the insatiable appetite of Americans for a drug that wasn’t considered dangerous for almost a decade after its arrival here. The rest of the largely South and Central American cast is also very good. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Escobar comes off here as an antihero or charismatic criminal, because he doesn’t. It’s the spoils of his crimes that whet the appetites of viewers, who, against their better judgment, envy his plunder. While his many bizarre excesses – a personal menagerie that included hippos and zebras, and gold-plated everything else – are amusing, there’s no disguising the fact that Escobar was a cold-blooded killer, philanderer and amoral ego maniac. He got around it by becoming something of a modern-day Robin Hood, at least in the Medellin region, where poverty had been a cold reality of life. Neither is there any doubt that he and his mates needed to be contained or eliminated. (Luis Guzman’s José Rodríguez Gacha is even more ruthless than Moura’s Escobar.) The problem for some viewers will come in watching DEA, CIA, Pentagon and State Department officials put Colombia in a stranglehold for the sins of coke-snorting Americans and a handful of criminals who serviced their insatiable appetite for the drug. When the U.S. turned the screws on Colombian leaders, largely to appease First Lady Nancy Reagan and her “Just Say No” campaign, it assured a bloodbath that claimed the lives of as many innocents as criminals. (President Reagan was more obsessed with eliminating communist guerrillas, who, at least, weren’t as corrupt as the nation’s political elite.) As the cartel leaders grew richer and more powerful, the behavior of the DEA in combatting them became that much more reprehensible. American agents and officials played by Boyd Holbrook, Pedro Pascal, Danielle Kennedy, Richard T. Jones and Patrick St. Esprit demonstrate exactly how muddled our policies were in Colombia and how often they worked at cross-purposes to each other. By the end of Season One, it was difficult to cheer for anyone with much conviction. The Blu-ray arrives with select commentaries, deleted scenes and making-of pieces.
Someday, in the not too distant future, the major broadcast networks are going have to do something about their problem with developing new sitcoms. As far as I can tell, the only three sitcoms that cracked last season’s top-25 shows – in the “key 18-49 demographic,” anyway – were “The Goldbergs,” “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory.” NFL football broadcasts dominated almost all of the timeslots they occupied. “The Middle,” “Black-ish,” “Life in Pieces,” “Two Broke Girls,” “The Simpsons” and the now-deceased “Mike & Molly” all had their moments, but none that recalled the Glory Days of the sitcom. The Big Four can still churn out the occasional hit drama, reality and talent show and be rewarded with impressive numbers, of course. For comedy, though, viewers head for the cable networks, where the writers and exec-producers have greater latitude when it comes to language, nudity, sex, drugs and subject matter and niche appeal. Starz’ “Blunt Talk” is a perfect example of a show that thrives creatively on the freedom provided by premium cable and easy availability through streaming services and DVD compilations. Its numbers are probably dwarfed by the aforementioned sitcoms, but who’s counting? In it, the wonderfully talented Patrick Stewart skewers the image of cable-news hosts, by playing one so pompous, misguided and uninformed that we recognize a little bit of his Walter Blunt in every host on CNN, Fox, CNBC, MSNBC and, for that matter, ESPN and Fox Sports. (I doubt that any of Blunt’s real-life peers would acknowledge their influence on him, though.) Through the platform of his nightly news show, the Falklands War veteran is on a mission to impart his wisdom and guidance on how Americans should live, think and behave. Imagine, if possible, Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy, in the HBO drama series “The Newsroom,” crossed with the much-hired/fired/resigned Keith Olbermann. As is also the case with off-network sitcoms, the supporting cast of long-suffering characters – here, played by Jacki Weaver, Adrian Scarborough, Dolly Wells, Timm Sharp — is superlative. Any show able to reference Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, as “Blunt Talk” so nimbly pulled off in Episode Eight, is one to watch on a weekly basis or binge on.
Starz’ completely nutso horror/comedy “Ash vs Evil Dead” is a 10-episode follow-up to the film franchise, The Evil Dead, this time in half-hour bites. The series follows the exploits of chainsaw-handed monster hunter Ash (Bruce Campbell), the stock boy and aging lothario who has spent the last 30 years avoiding responsibility, maturity and the ever-present zombie terrors of the Evil Dead. Also along for the roller-coast ride are Lucy Lawless, as Ruby, a mysterious figure who believes Ash is the cause of the Evil outbreaks; Ray Santiago, as Pablo Simon Bolivar, an idealistic immigrant who becomes Ash’s loyal sidekick; Dana DeLorenzo as Kelly Maxwell, a moody wild child trying to outrun her past; and Jill Marie Jones, as Amanda Fisher, a disgraced Michigan state trooper sent to find Ash and prove his responsibility in the grisly murder of her partner. The series is executive produced by Sam Raimi, who also directed the first episode. As entertaining as it is, “Ash vs Evil Dead” is not for the squeamish.
In 1971, Stanford graduate student Penny Patterson began teaching sign language to an infant gorilla, Koko, on loan from the San Francisco Zoo. What started out as a scientific experiment evolved into an intimate friendship, as depicted in “Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks.” The exhaustively documented film shows Penny and Koko at every turn in their relationship. There are times when viewers will question if the researcher may have gone too far, by pushing the experiment beyond any possible goals and not finding a more social habitat for Koko. Personally, I’d prefer it if gorillas in the wild could be armed and trained to defend themselves from poachers.
PBS’ tremendously popular “Masterpiece Mystery!” entries “Endeavour” and “Inspector Lewis” are newly available in packages comprising episodes in their third and eighth seasons, respectively. Set in the 1960s, “Endeavor” follows Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) in his early years as a police constable, working alongside his senior partner DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), in the oddly crime-ridden precincts of Oxford. The new series of four “Endeavour” episodes is set in 1967, just after Morse is placed in police custody, framed for a murder he didn’t commit, and Thursday’s life was left hanging in the balance after being shot. The sometimes uneasy rapport between the two men is a joy to watch.
The eighth (or ninth, depending on where one sits) season of “Inspector Lewis” is said to be the show’s final stanza. Given that the successor to “Inspector Morse” represents a third generation of characters, though, there’s no real reason to believe that never will be never. One can only hope not, anyway. The arrival of new Chief Superintendent Joe Moody (Steve Toussaint) heralds a new era for Oxfordshire Police, causing DI Will Lewis (Kevin Whately) to finally make a decision on retirement. Meanwhile, after years of avoiding the thorny issue of family ties, Hathaway (Laurence Fox) is forced to confront his past.