Beautiful Creatures: Blu-ray
True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season: Blu-ray
Not having the vaguest clue as to what makes teenagers tick these days, I assumed incorrectly that “Beautiful Creatures” would give “Twilight” a run for its money at the multiplex. From my decidedly adult point of view, I thought that Richard LaGravenese’s adaptation of the best-selling young-adult series was more handsomely mounted, better acted and more interesting than the “Twilight” entries. Teenage protagonists Lena and Ethan (Alice Englert, Alden Ehrenreich) were at a disadvantage from the get-go, of course, given the amazing acceptance of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as lovers, but they look good together and aren’t lacking in chemistry. The relative lack of importance assigned other teenagers by LaGravenese – and noticeable absence of buff, shirtless wolf-boys – probably didn’t help build word-of-mouth. No matter how good Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Eileen Atkins and Jeremy Irons are in the adult roles, they aren’t on the radar of most teenagers. Or, perhaps, teens are as sick of romantic horror movies as everyone else and only there’s only room in their hearts for one such franchise … two, if TV’s “True Blood” is counted. If it weren’t for worldwide box-office returns, “Beautiful Creatures” would have missed it production nut by $40 million, instead of breaking even. It deserves to do better in its DVD/Blu-ray/VOD afterlife.
Lena (Englert), the new girl in town, lives with her Uncle Macon Ravenwood (Irons) and Gramma (Atkins) in a spooky Gothic estate that’s been vacant and presumed haunted for many years. The God-fearing Protestants in the small Southern town aren’t keen to learn that the Ravenwood clan is back in residence and, after Lena unleashes her “caster” powers on the “popular” bioches at school, they demand she be expelled. Like Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows,” though, Macon is quick to remind the bible-bangers that everything in town, including their church, exists at the behest of his ancestors’ generosity. Ethan digs Lena because she’s the only girl within miles that’s heard of Holden Caulfield and, like him, enjoys reading banned books. After he rescues her from a bad scene at school, Lena turns Ethan on to Charles Bukowski’s poetry. That would qualify as a stretch in most movies. The rest of the Ravenwood family is coming to town to participate in Lena’s coming-of-age ritual, at which time she will have to break Ethan’s heart forever or face the same terrible fate as her mother, who exists primarily as a dark specter and shape-shifter. The curse on all women sharing Lena’s bloodline was generated after a distant relative brought her human lover back to life during a Civil War battle. (For the record: casters are to witches, what the X-Men are to the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and those who live “in the dark” are the most evil of them all.) As luck would have it, Ethan’s African-American guardian (Davis) has a history with Uncle Macon and neither is interested in putting the kids in harm’s way. As Lena’s 16th birthday nears, “Beautiful Creatures” shifts into paranormal overdrive.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie, perhaps because I could listen to Irons and Thompson read the London phonebook and be entertained. Rossum, too, is allowed plenty of room to vamp up her demonic character. The Blu-ray package adds deleted scenes and a 24-minute compilation of “Focus Point” featurettes, including interviews with the authors.
After five seasons of life on HBO, it’s easy to forget that “True Blood” faced a sobering amount of indifference upon its launch on the premium-cable network. The network spent a ton of money trying to find an audience for the sexy vampire drama, covering every base from viral marketing and giving stuff away at ComiCon, to creating a True Blood beverage and handing out tapes of the first episode to Blockbuster customers. Regardless, it would open to disappointing ratings – compared to “Big Love” and, even, “John From Cincinnati” – and generally lukewarm reviews. By mid-season, the tide had turned. Newcomers were able to catch up via frequent repeats and creator Alan Ball was able to focus on the evolution of the story, rather than having to explain the motivations of the characters ad nauseam as the season went on. The second-season premiere was greeted with numbers second only to the recent finale of “The Sopranos.” Fans will continue to argue the merits of one season over previous years’ storylines and characters. Some feel the show “jumped the shark” after Season 1, while others can’t wait for the oft-promised Vampire Apocalypse to begin. Technically, “True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season” is a treat to watch on Blu-ray. Among the goodies are five commentaries with cast and crew; Enhanced Viewing Mode options are available on each episode, as are “Inside the Episodes” breakouts; the sixth episode, “Hopeless,” is given an hourlong “Autopsy”; an updated family tree; character “confessionals”; and DVD and digital copies. – Gary Dretzka
Cloud Atlas: Blu-ray
The first time I can remember being totally fooled and manipulated by special makeup effects – delightfully so, I should add – was as a wee lad, at the tail end of John Huston’s tricky 1963 mystery, “The List of Adrian Messenger.” In fact, I was twice confused by the use of disguised faces in the unraveling of the story. Once, when the faces of several of the heavily made-up characters were revealed to be those of A-list stars; second, when I learned that the cameo appearances, themselves, were ruses. In fact, most of the characters were played by stand-in actors, with the stars only adding their glitter as a favor to Huston. It was a cool gimmick and the first that required me to maintain a no-spoiler policy with friends. I was carried back in time to “Adrian Messenger” by the primary conceit of “Cloud Atlas.” As far as I can tell, more than 90 characters in “Cloud Atlas” are portrayed by a couple dozen actors, some un-credited or hardly known, with each of the stars taking on as many as six different parts and alternating genders. You’ll recognize most, but certainly not all of them in the guises. As adapted and directed by Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”) and Andy and Lana Wachowski (“The Matrix”), “Cloud Atlas” does a good job capturing the magic, mayhem and mechanics of David Mitchell’s much-celebrated 2004 novel. In doing so, however, the creative team requires of viewers that they not only suspend disbelief for most of its 172-minute length, but also keep track of its six “nested” stories. They take place in wildly diverse settings, from 1849 in the South Pacific, to a post-apocalyptic Earth and beyond. Vastly different iterations of the same characters appear in each of the interwoven stories – some bearing similar markings or humming the same tune – giving us reason to believe that the Butterfly Effect isn’t limited to a single plane of being in the physical world. In effect, the trajectories of our lives and incarnations are determined by astronomical configurations so dense with stars and interstellar debris that an atlas is necessary to chart the echoes of time. Feelings of déjà vu hint at where we’ve been, if not where we’re going … or something like that.
If all that metaphysical mumbo-jumbo sounds intimidating, imagine how the principal actors — Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whislaw, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon — felt when they were handed their scripts. Or, when they were told that the Wachowskis would direct the 1849, 2144 and 2321 segments, while Tykwer would handle 1936, 1973 and 2012. The theatrical version of “Cloud Atlas” inspired spirited debate among mainstream critics, dividing them roughly in half on its merits as an investment in time and effort. In Blu-ray, it’s a no-brainer. Movies this divisive – even the negative reviews offered degrees of praise – more often than not deserve to be seen, anyway, even if one sacrifices the big-screen environment. Here, the set designs, special effects and costumes are worth the price of a rental, alone, and, beyond that, the acting is flawless. And, yes, “Cloud Atlas” can be as maddening and bewildering as any synopsis might seem to people already averse to the traits admired by sci-fi and fantasy nerds. Certainly, it’s no more challenging than the Wachowskis’ “Matrix” trilogy. The Blu-ray package adds seven informative making-of featurettes, several of which even include the observations of the infrequently heard and rarely seen, Lana Wachowski. They tend to repeat themselves, but are better than no explanations at all. It’s likely that a more grandiose package will arrive eventually, possibly with commentary and deleted scenes. That’s pretty much the norm these days with high-profile projects. Among them are discussions of Mitchell’s novel and how one goes about translating an “un-filmable” book and how three writer/directors can co-exist on the same project. The audio-visual presentation is excellent, as well. Wal-mart shoppers will find a special edition that contains a VUDU digital copy. – Gary Dretzka
In “Eastern Promises,” David Cronenberg staged a fight in a London bathhouse so savage that it raised the bar on all gangster punch-outs to come. For my money, the shower-room skirmish that opens Roy Chow Hin-Yeung’s thriller, “Nightfall,” runs a pretty close second. The setting is a Hong Kong prison, where a scrawny young convict — convicted in a rape/murder he claims he didn’t commit — is required to do battle with three gangsters who probably would kill people even if they didn’t get paid to do it. Using every corner, edge, drain plate and blunt object available to him, Wong (Nick Cheung) destroys the brutes at their own game. The fight is as painful to watch in some places as it is thrilling. After barely surviving the beat-down, Wong takes it upon himself to buff up for the test of survival he knows will come every time he leaves his cell over the next 15-20 years. By the time he’s released on parole, Wong is fully prepared to avenge the wrong that landed him in prison in the first place. He secures a job as a piano tuner, a skill he retained from civilian life, and it puts him suspiciously close to two people who soon will figure into his master plan. One is a celebrated classical musician, while the other is a talented young pianist who we soon learn is his daughter. Without revealing too much of the story to come, suffice it to say that Wong has a history with both of them. What we don’t know is if Wong will punish the father by attacking the daughter or whether his attention to the daughter is simply one of several red herrings Chow and writer To Chi-long are throwing at us.
When the musician is found dead, floating in the ocean, the detective assigned to the case, Lam (Simon Yam), simply puts 2 and 2 together and comes up with Wong’s number. Absent evidence pinning him to the crime, however, the simple equation turns into a cat-and-mouse chase covering much of Hong Kong. The jaded cop, Lam, is carrying a heavy load of baggage of his own and it becomes an issue with his partner and squad. The investigation and pursuit reminded me of “Old Boy” and “Law & Order.” It also has contains a fight scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond movie. Some viewers will see the climax coming a mile away, but it’s more fun simply to sit back and let the action come to you. The Blu-ray arrives with a 47-minute making-of featurette that, while interesting, will please Hong Kong audiences and longtime fans of the actors more than newcomers. – Gary Dretzka
A Common Man: Blu-ray
If it weren’t for the presence of Ben Kingsley in the lead role, “A Common Man” would be just another under-realized movie that didn’t warrant a theatrical run or DVD distribution outside the market of origin, Sri Lanka. In fact, there are times when the topical, tropical terrorist thriller – a remake of the 2008 Indian film, “A Wednesday” – feels more like a vanity project than a movie that cried out to be made. That co-writer/director Chandran Rutnam was able to convince Kingsley to headline the project automatically makes “Common Man” of interest to international audiences, however. Sri Lanka has only recently begun to recover from a long and painful civil war, so, like everything else in the island nation, the evolution of a national cinema had to be put on hold for more than two decades. Because of the terribly brutal nature of that struggle, Kingsley’s portrayal of a terrorist bomb maker (a.k.a., the Man) didn’t require any suspension of disbelief among local viewers. As we know all too well, by now, a terrorist can look like an Academy Award-winning actor, the religious fanatic down the street or someone who could easily blend into a crowd at a major sporting event. Here, the movie opens with Kingsley methodically planting bombs in five different locations in the capital city of Colombo and then moving to a perch on a tall building overlooking the ocean. It allows him to monitor police radio transmissions and detonate the bombs without structural interference, if his demands aren’t met.
It only takes about 20 minutes to get to this point in the drama and Kingsley’s coldly efficient approach to his unstated mission is frightening to watch. The rest of the movie is consumed both with the unusual decision to meet his demands – the release of four convicted terrorists – and the police hunt for the Man’s whereabouts. We know that the wife of one of the cops involved in the investigation is sitting in a train car in which the Man has planted a bomb, but, otherwise, the emotional connection between the disparate key characters is pretty shaky. Neither is the depiction of the police work all that convincing. The resolution does come as something of a surprise, however. “A Wednesday” received solid reviews and was nominated for several awards, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why Rutnam decided to re-boot the movie after only four years, moving the location from Mumbai to Colombo. Nevertheless, the setting could just as well have been Boston on Patriots’ Day and the story would still work. All the better if Kingsley agreed to reprise the role. – Gary Dretzka
Love Sick Love
Look up “crazy-girlfriend movies” on the Internet and you’ll find barely enough titles to constitute a sub-genre. Psycho-boyfriends of the Mr. Goodbar persuasion are far more prevalent, as are psycho-roommates and psycho-wives. “Fatal Attraction” gave pause to married men considering a tryst on the side, while “Misery” argued against taking all acts of charity for granted. Otherwise, the odds against a guy being done in by a woman he picks up at a bar or nightclub – in the movies, at least – are pretty much in the man’s favor. “Love Sick Love” is a smallish black comedy that merges elements of “Misery,” “Fatal Attraction” and, for good measure, a pinch of the Addams Family. What it doesn’t provide is a reason to care about what happens to the unsuspecting boyfriend. In fact, it’s just as easy to embrace the crazies. Katia Winter is very convincing as Dori, a pretty serial dater who is as sweet as cherry pie one day and bat-shit crazy the next morning. After hooking up with the handsome cad, Norman (Matthew Settle), Dori invites him to spend the weekend with her at the family’s summer house in Upstate New York. The first night is a slice of heaven, but, when he awakes the next morning, Norman is confronted with a pair of children he wasn’t aware existed and Dori’s exceedingly wacky grandparents (old pros M. Emmet Walsh and Charlotte Rae). The first sign of real trouble comes when Dori and the kids pretend to be celebrating a holiday that’s well past and they insist that Norman join in the “fun.” This inexplicably goes on all weekend, with the holiday changing every couple of hours. When the boyfriend refuses to play along any longer, Dori and the grandparents makes him a prisoner, using everything from duct tape to chains and a makeshift suit of armor to keep him from escaping. Being an amoral real-estate developer in Manhattan, it’s difficult to find much sympathy for Norman, even when the picture of a lady caller pops up on his cellphone and Dori treats it as a betrayal of their “love.” Director Christian Charles has worked on some of Jerry Seinfeld’s side projects, but doesn’t have the movie thing down yet. If “Love Sick Love” isn’t quite ready for the big leagues, it still has enough going for it to give male viewers a few shivers and their girlfriends a few laughs at their expense. – Gary Dretzka
This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!: Blu-ray
The latest comedic assault from popular Thai actor/director/writer Petchtai Wongkamlao originally was titled “Jukkalan,” after its lead female character, JeeJa Yanin. On DVD and Blu-ray, it’s being sent out as “This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!,” which should ring a bell in the heads of fans of Matthew Vaughn’s wildly entertaining, “Kick-Ass,” if not the Danny Trejo straight-to-DVD actioner, “Bad Ass.” Both films feature a girl protagonist who can beat the crap out of her male enemies, while performing acrobatic stunts that remind us of Jackie Chan. If “This Girl Is Bad-Ass!!” were only half as coherent and competently made as “Kick-Ass,” it would stand a chance as an appealing oddity among martial-arts cultists. As it is, there are several scenes – one in which the girl uses a bicycle as a shield and weapon – that qualify it as a guilty pleasure. Jukkalan serves as a messenger for a rogues’ gallery of underworld types, who seemingly can’t find anyone older to deliver their money and drugs. When a shipment is hijacked, Jukkalan finds herself caught in the crossfire of threats and recriminations. Undaunted, the girl is every bit as bad-ass as the title suggests. Most nutty, though, are the gangsters and their henchmen she battles in the streets of Bangkok. They look funny, dress funny and say things that, in Thailand, probably are funny. There’s even a collection of bad-ass “little people” who train for and compete in Muy Thai competitions. As in Wongkamlao’s series of “Bodyguard” and “Ong-bak” flicks – along with Yanin’s breakthrough, “Chocolate” — the action is fast and furious. – Gary Dretzka
Last Kind Words
An Irish Vampire in Hollywood
The ABC’s of Death: Blu-ray
The Dark Dealer
The presence of veteran character actor Brad Dourif in a movie or television series is enough to recommend a second look, at least, to lovers of twisted genre entertainment. Although his best work came early in his career in such classy entertainments as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Wise Blood” and “Ragtime,” he was terrific in the HBO series “Deadwood” and remains a brand-name asset in any thriller or horror flick. In Kevin Barker’s very decent ghost story, “Last Kind Words,” he plays a Kentucky farmer whose property is also home to spirits that can be traced to the Civil War. The landowner has brought in a family to help him complete the tobacco harvest and is letting them live in a trailer there. Seventeen-year-old Eli (Spencer Daniels) avoids the drunken outbursts of his father by spending the night walking around the farm, occasionally spotting apparitions hanging from trees or finding himself being seduced by a mysterious redhead (Alexia Fast). Eventually, the farmer reveals secrets of his own to Eli and, of course, they’re linked inexplicably to the spook show in the cordoned-off back-40 acres. The biggest problem with “Last Kind Words” is Barker’s insistence on adding a separate romantic through-line to the story and an overly heavy-handed, if convenient threat to the farmer from local gangsters. Otherwise, it marks a nice start to Barker’s feature career.
“An Irish Vampire in Hollywood” (a.k.a., “An Irish Vampire Goes West”) is a rough-around-the-edges indie that’s been sitting around on someone’s shelf for the last six years and is only now getting a release on DVD. Although the movie has DIY written all over it, “Irish Vampire” has one thing going for it that the vast majority of all such supernatural films don’t and that’s Ireland. Along with Mexico, the Emerald Isle is one of the most magically realistic countries on the planet. Even without the twin vampires and mad scientists we meet here, Ireland already is populated with leprechauns, faeries and enough religious mysticism to fill a hundred movies. Add to that the many ruined castles, weathered cemeteries and sacred pubs and you have backdrops for horror Hollywood set-dressers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to re-create. The movie opens not in Hollywood, but in Venice, where an actress is kidnapped by one of the twin vampires and taken back to Ireland to be laid in the Old Sod. The woman’s sister gets wind of the abduction and finds herself in the middle of a sticky situation that somehow also involves their father and his land. I lost track of the plot about a third of the way through “Irish Vampire,” but the atmosphere was intriguing enough to keep me watching. The standard-issue vampire lore is amplified by cinematography that seems influenced by “Nosferatu” and other ancient horror classics.
Too ambitious by at least half, “The ABCs of Death” is an anthology that is simultaneously too much of one thing and not enough of the other. The conceit demands that 26 directors create 26 films no longer than five minutes each, describing 26 ways people can die, according to the 26 letters in the alphabet. The titles range from “A Is for Apocalypse” and “B Is for Bigfoot,” to “Y Is for Youngbuck” and “Z Is for Zetsumetsu,” with stops in between for “F Is for Fart,” “K Is for Klutz” and “T Is for Toilet.” And, yes, quite a few of the shorts wallow in scatological humor. Some are fun, while others require a cast-iron stomach to sit through. Among the better-know directors are Adam Wingard (“V/H/S”), Ben Wheatley (“Kill List”), Srdjan Spasojevic (“A Serbian Film”), Yoshihiro Nishimura (“Tokyo Gore Police”) and Angela Bettis (“Roman”). Fans of extreme new-school horror will enjoy the entries more than longtime genre followers.
It a storyline that might have been inspired by the Nixon administration’s unsuccessful attempt to eradicate the world’s marijuana crop with paraquat, “Mold” describes what happens scientists working at the behest of President Reagan’s DEA create a fungus to wipe out the coca fields of South America. Without leaving the confines of a laboratory that looks as if it were constructed of cardboard, the chemical reveals itself to be as lethal to humans as it is to the banned substances. The damage caused by the genetically engineered herbicide put the talent of the project’s makeup-effects to the fill test. “Mold” is wildly gory and the fungus resembles a steroid-enhanced corruption of the monster in “The Blob.” Not at all pretentious, however, Neil Meschino’s debut feature is the kind of movie aspiring effects wizards should watch to see what it takes to get their showcase reel noticed. The DVD adds plenty of making-of material.
Made in 1995 and just surfacing now, “The Dark Dealer” is a thorough mess in which Satan gives several miscreants an opportunity to save their souls by taking him on in a game of poker or blackjack. The cobbled-together feel derives from the decision to take two short films and wrap connecting tissue to them to create a feature-length picture. Unfortunately, the sum of its parts is of far less value than the original shorts. One of them expands on the myth of a bluesman whose devilishly good material is stolen 30 years after his uncelebrated death by a white lawyer and sold as if he’d written it. That sin tarnishes everyone records the songs. The other segments aren’t nearly as coherent as “Blues in the Night,” but, given the budget, it’s fortunate that “Dark Dealer” was completed, at all. – Gary Dretzka
The Town That Dreaded Sundown: Blu-ray
The Burning: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Captain America: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1976, slasher films had yet to be accorded even sub-genre status in the horror/exploitation arena. The outrage of mainstream critics toward “women in jeopardy” and “dead-teenager movies” had yet to be registered and trick-or-treaters had yet to don masks of their favorite serial killers to solicit goodies on Halloween. Set-designer Charles B. Pierce was one of the pioneers of the form, creating such low-budget actioners as “Bootleggers,” “Grayeagle,” “The Norsemen,” “The Evictors” and “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” mostly for consumption in Southern drive-ins. “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” represented a slight departure from the stereotype in that it was a docudrama that chronicled an actual series of brutal attacks that became known as the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders.” Although gory as all get-out, Pierce’s movie was built from a template used in decades’ worth of police procedurals, including the unseen narrator and small doses of comic relief. All that was known about the fiend, whose crimes began in 1946, was he covered his face with a flour sack and struck every 21 days in secluded places where young couples parked to neck and pet. The great mid-century Western star Ben Johnson stars as a celebrated Texas Ranger, J.D. Morales, who was called in to apprehend the killer. That Texas’ top investigator failed only added to the likelihood that he might still be on the loose and targeting teens elsewhere. The marketing campaign emphasized that possibility, of course. In fact, a sequel is being made, in which the killer strikes during one of the annual outdoor screenings of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” in Texarkana. Typically, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release is full of updated featurettes and interviews and is distinguished by a superb digital facelift.
Made in 1981, “The Burning” is credited with several noteworthy inventions. It wasn’t the first slasher picture to be set at a summer camp for teenagers – “Friday the 13th” is accorded that honor – but one legend argues that “The Burning” was written before Sean S. Cunningham began filming his camp-counselor-in-danger thriller. What is most interesting about “The Burning,” however, is its pedigree. Among other things, it is considered to be the first feature produced by Miramax Films. It was created and produced by Harvey Weinstein, from an original story he wrote with future mogul Brad Grey and director Tony Maylam. The screenplay was co-written by Bob Weinstein, and various other Weinsteins and Greys lent their support to the project, as well. Rick Wakeman, the former keyboard wizard of Yes, produced the soundtrack. But, wait, there’s more. Among the campers who become the prey of revenge killer, Cropsy, are then-newcomers Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter, Leah Ayres, Ned Eisenberg and Brian Backer. It also was one of the first noteworthy credits for special effects and makeup wizard Tom Savini. Once again, the Shout! Factory upgrade looks better than it has any right to be and the fresh interviews add much to our enjoyment.
The much-maligned 1990 version of “Captain America” was reissued as part of MGM’s on-demand series almost simultaneously with the release of Paramount’s mega-budget “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Made at a small fraction of the re-boot’s $160-million budget, Albert Pyun’s version is remarkably similar to its successor. The primary differences derive from the exponentially more sophisticated CGI effects and enlistment of an all-star cast. And, while “Captain America” launched straight-to-video, “CA:TFA” is ramping up for a 2014 sequel. More than two decades later, the special effects remain as cheesy as ever and the women supervillains still looks sexy while hoisting automatic weapons. Matt Salinger plays the American soldier who’s been given the superpowers – and shield – necessary to defend democracy against a superhuman Nazi, Red Skull (Scott Paulin). The endangered President of the United States is played by Ronny Cox. The chases and fights in Pyun’s version of the story may harken back to those in the first generation of James Bond rip-offs, but the Croatian and Slovenian locations help make us forget how low-rent the production really was. The Shout! Factory Blu-ray is sharper than it has any right to look and it adds a looking-back featurette with reminiscences by Pyun and Salinger. – Gary Dretzka
Rolling Thunder: Blu-ray
In 1968, when “The Green Berets” was released, Hollywood was more than happy to jump on the Pentagon bandwagon. The antiwar movement was still finding its legs and the divisive Democratic Convention was still a month away from the July 4 premiere. Moreover, John Wayne’s Batjac Productions would be assuming most of the expenses. Despite some ultra-negative reviews, it ended making money. It would take Hollywood almost a decade to figure out a way to exploit the war and not look like a tool of the Republican Party. A year before the 1978 release of such well-considered pictures as “Go Tell the Spartans,” “Who Will Stop the Rain,” “The Boys in Company C,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Coming Home.” The crazy-vet subgenre didn’t disappear overnight and neither did such vet-as-vigilante movies as “Rolling Thunder.” Neither did the fall of Saigon to the NVA and Viet Cong help the studios figure out how to respond to a decade’s worth of carnage.
Co-written by Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) and Heywood Gould (“The Boys From Brazil”), “Rolling Thunder” was scheduled by Fox to be one of its highlighted titles of 1977. When the brass saw the finished product, however, executives were so put off by the violence and a horribly negative test screening that they handed it off to the exploitation mavens at AIP. According to Schrader, they also reshaped the movie from an indictment of our Vietnam misadventure and fascism to revenge picture with characters the drive-in crowd was more able to digest. As the movie opens, former longtime POW Major Charles Rane (William Devane) returns to a hero’s welcome in San Antonio. He’s accompanied by a fellow Texan and prisoner-of-war, Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones). Neither is much interested in sharing much information about their ordeal with the local press and family members. Mirrored sunglasses hide their emotions from the public and the pain that comes to Rane when his wife informs him of her intentions to marry an old friend. Not even the red Cadillac convertible and $2,500 in silver dollars he received from community leaders can cut through the disappointment of losing his wife and, possibly, the son who hardly knows him. He maintains his stoicism even after some bad hombres break into his home to steal his silver dollars, cut off a hand and murder his family.
When his arm and heart begin to heal, Rane decides to grab his new soldier-groupie girlfriend and head for the border, where he suspects the bad guys are laying low. It takes a while before he can exact his revenge, but, with Vohden’s ready assistance, he finds justice in Old Mexico. The original script had “allegory” written all over it, but the finished product was cut to resemble genre fare. As it is, “Rolling Thunder” isn’t a bad movie and it looks pretty good in Studio Canal’s Blu-ray edition. (It was released on DVD two years ago, but in a manufactured-on-demand basis.) The package includes the film’s original theatrical trailer and TV spot; an interview with actress Linda Haynes; and audio commentary with Gould. – Gary Dretzka
Irvine Welsh’s Ecstacy
When Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, “Trainspotting,” was released in 1996, it was greeted by critics and arthouse habitués as something new and completely different from the usual portrayal of white punks on dope. It zigged and zagged along at a frantic pace, depicting the high highs and low lows of addiction in ways that mostly spared audiences the quivering and quaking clichés of euphoria and withdrawal. A few years later, Darren Aronofsky’s manic retelling of Hubert Selby’s “Requiem for a Dream” would trump its intensity and drama, while such gritty films as “Down to the Bone,” “Spun,” “The Salton Sea” and “Blow” followed suit. Had it been made a dozen years ago, “Irvine Welsh’s Ecstacy” would have fit alongside these titles and “24 Hour Party People” as a cautionary tale about irresistible temptations. Like “Trainspotting,” Rob Heydon borrows from the Irvine Welsh catalog of stories about life among Edinburgh’s youthful drug abusers. Ecstacy, whose scientific name is MDMA, taken in its purest form induces a sense of euphoria in its partakers, as well as an urge for intimacy and lessening of anxiety. Research into the effects of the drug has yet to reveal any long-term damage, but, like aspirin, it can be misused and cause adverse reactions.
The biggest drawback to Ecstacy in the movies, at least, is the illegality of procuring, transporting, selling and carrying it. In this way, Heydon’s first feature resembles “Layer Cake.” By banning it, governments have ensured that some awfully bad people will go to great lengths to fulfill the insatiable appetite of party animals and nightclub denizens. Here, a small-time trafficker falls prey to the same greed that upends most criminals. When he’s late in a payment to his underworld boss, the weight of the world begins to fall on his shoulders. In addition to having to scramble for cash, he loses the girlfriend who thinks his way with words comes naturally, instead of as a byproduct of MDMA and cocaine. It’s an ancient story, but Heydon’s retelling of it suffers from familiarity. The dancing and sex scenes could have been filmed any time within the last 20 years and the frenetic editing also borders on the cliché. Other than that, I have no real problems with “Ecstacy.” It’s well acted and entertaining, as far as it goes, but too often plays like a broken record. – Gary Dretzka
Struck by Lightning: Blu-ray
Chris Colfer, who turns 23 this week, probably will be asked to play high school seniors for another five years or until his high-pitched voice finally breaks. In “Struck by Lightning,” which he stars in and wrote, Colfer plays a character not very unlike the one he personifies in “Glee.” Here, though, his Carson Philips doesn’t have to battle homophobia or defend himself against bullies. Instead of spending his free time with the glee club, in “Struck by Lightning” is in charge of his school’s literary magazine. It isn’t a very popular extracurricular activity, so he has to come up with sneaky ways to fill its pages. And, no, he isn’t averse to resorting to blackmail. Carson has other problems, including being a longshot candidate for placement at Northwest University; a mother (Allison Janney), whose bitterness manifests itself in alcoholism and cruel personal attacks on her son; an estranged father (Dermot Mulroney), who’s more interested in building birdcages than sharing time with him; the baby soon to be delivered by his father’s much-younger girlfriend (Christina Hendricks); and teachers who openly side with the cool kids and jocks over the geeks and nerds. The kicker is revealed in the opening moments of Brian Dannelly’s movie, when Carson is struck by lightning in the school parking lot, so no spoiler alert is necessary. The boy narrates his own story, strictly from his semi-sarcastic point of view. The tried-and-true premise will resonate more with teenagers than adult fans of “Glee,” although Colfer’s charisma should be enough to draw some of them into it. He gets excellent support from Rebel Wilson, whose character enjoys editing the literary journal as much as Carson. The Blu-ray adds a “Story Behind the Scene” featurette; interviews with Colfer and Dannelly; bloopers; and deleted scenes. – Gary Dretzka
Saving Hope: The Complete First Season
Nature: The Mysteries of Eels
BBC: The Royal Collection
Made in Canada for a summer 2012 airing on NBC, “Saving Hope” is a hospital drama with a supernatural twist. While the body of Chief of Surgery Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks) lies in a coma in one corner of Toronto’s Hope Zion Hospital, his spirit wanders its hallways looking for ways to ease the transition from life to death for terminal patients. Conveniently, Harris is also able to monitor the comings and goings of his fiancée and fellow surgeon, Alex Reid (Erica Durance), and other former associates. The series was greeted by good ratings in its opening stanza, but the gimmick and resemblance to “Grey’s Anatomy” stymied its growth. The last two episodes in its run were pulled from the air and shown only on the network’s online service. They’re included here. “Saving Hope” has been picked up in Canada, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that it might return here someday. The DVD package includes interviews with Durance, Shanks and Daniel Gillies, as well as behind-the-scenes footage.
The “Nature” presentation, “The Mysteries of Eels,” doesn’t attempt to make a case for eels being as cute as clownfish or as majestic as a sperm whale. It accepts as given that most people are disgusted by its snakelike appearance, slimy flesh and fearsome teeth and that they breed in such numbers they might rival cockroaches in their ability to survive the apocalypse. If an increasing number of diners didn’t consider some fresh- and saltwater species so tasty, it’s possible they wouldn’t have any human allies. The eels considered by naturalist/artist/writer James Prosek are the most prosaic of a lot that also includes exotic morays, evil morays and the amazing electric species, although, technically, it’s a lethal variety of knifefish. The PBS show focuses on eels common to rivers in the American Northeast and in New Zealand, where the giant strains are treated as mystical creatures by the Maori. Prosek explores the long-unanswered question of where the breeding grounds are located and how they know when to move from rivers to the sea. Neither does he ignore the fact that while some upstart anglers in New England are getting rich trapping tiny eels for transport to China and Japan, the ones native to Japan and other places are in danger of extinction.
As if to test the ability of commoners to consume unending tidbits of information about the British royals, this summer will bring the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and the expected safe delivery of her heir apparent: Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s baby. To celebrate and/or exploit the occasions, BBC Home Entertainment is releasing a boxed set of its most interesting royal titles. “BBC: The Royal Collection” is comprised of “The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,” which explores the backstory to the Queen’s 1953 coronation; “King George and Queen Mary: The Royals Who Rescued the Monarchy,” about the couple that saved the Royal Family from near obsolescence and created the House of Windsor; “Queen Victoria’s Children,” a look into the tumultuous relationship between Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children”; and “How to Be a Prince,” which shows what it was like for Prince William to grow up royal and how his upbringing by Princess Diana stood in stark contrast to his many predecessors. The BBC always is the right source for such historic overviews. – Gary Dretzka
LEGO Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite: Blu-ray
Adventures of Bailey: Welcome to Cowtown
The idea of familiar superheroes being re-created in the likeness of LEGO blockheads remains more than a little bit curious to me. Such mergers of iconic entertainment brands always takes some getting used to, no matter how inevitable they’ve become. It’s nice to see that the companies have spared no expenses to ensure their products’ integrity. Despite the the unwieldy title, “LEGO Batman: The Movie: DC Super Heroes Unite,” the story should be familiar enough, even to newcomers to the comic legends. Based on a new video game, it describes what happens when a man-of-the-year ceremony forBruce Wayne is interrupted by the Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Two-Face. Upset that Wayne is getting all the attention from the community, Lex Luthor recruits Joker to join him in his pursuit of the public office and deployment of the Black LEGO Destructor Ray on Gotham. The call for help goes out to Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Justice League. The feature-length movie adds several cinematic touches not available to the video-game developers. The special Blu-ray package includes the featurette, “Building Batman”; three bonus cartoons; a LEGO Batman stop-motion short; and winning shorts from the LEGO DC Universe Super Heroes video contest. The UltraViolet feature allows fans to stream and download the material to their computers, as well as compatible Android, iPhone, iPod and iPad devices. It also offers a Clark Kent/Superman LEGO mini-figure.
Just when Bailey the Labrador settles into one new home, his owners pick up their stakes and move to a completely different environment. In the new feature-length “Adventures of Bailey: Welcome to Cowtown,” The heroic canine and his brother, Duke, find themselves in reasonable facsimile of the Old West. Bailey flips for a Pomeranian sweetie, Trixie, whose brother has been kidnaped and is being held for ransom in historic Cowtown. It should prove to be great fun for the youngest viewers, who don’t mind that the dogs’ jaws don’t move when communicating with each other. How old-fashioned is that? – Gary Dretzka
4 Movie Collection: Hollywood Hits
The latest batch of compilations from Mill Creek Entertainment offers a lot of entertainment for under $10 a set. This time around there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The selections include campy bombs, little seen treasures and genre oddities. Horror fans will enjoy “The Return of the Vampire,” with Bela Lugosi; Hammer Film’s “Revenge of Frankenstein”; William Castle’s “Mr. Sardonicus”; and “Brotherhood of Satan,” with Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. All are from the Columbia catalog. For something lighter, there’s the caper flick “Cops and Robbersons”; Bill Cosby’s disastrous “Leonard Part 6”; Mike Nichols’ sci-fi turkey, “What Planet Are You From?,” with Garry Shandling, John Goodman, Greg Kinnear and Annette Bening; and “Vibes,” with Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk. Erotic thrillers are represented by “In the Cut,” with Meg Ryan; “Shadow of a Doubt”; “The Quiet” and “Trapped.”
The other boxed sets include Stefan Ruzowitzky’ medical thrillers “Anatomy” and “Anatomy 2,” Chen Kuo-fu’s fungus-among-us mystery “Double Vision” and slasher tome “April Fool’s Day”; underexposed thrillers, “The Nines,” with Ryan Reynolds; Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis; actor/director/writer Anthony Hopkins’ “Slipstream”; John Sayles’ Alaska-based “Limbo”; and “Already Dead,” with Christopher Plummer. There’s also teen and family comedies “Bingo,” “Race the Sun,” “My Stepmother Is an Alien” and “Little Secrets.” – Gary Dretzka