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The DVD Wrapup: Michelin Stars, Captain Marvel, Sower, Cielo, Frank in Palm Springs, Swing Time, Can’t Stop the Music, Entity, Blood … More

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

Michelin Stars: Tales From the Kitchen
Constructing Albert
This week, trophies were awarded to the world’s best basketball and hockey teams. The triumphant players caressed, hugged and held the sparkling awards up for their fans to worship. The NHL not only allows for the champions to drink champagne from the Stanley Cup, but also enjoy a day in the off-season to show it off to friends, family, fans and sponsors. The Vince Lombardi Trophy goes to winner of the Super Bowl, while baseball’s best team gets the Commissioner’s Trophy and the World Cup – perhaps, the most coveted of them all – is awarded every four years to men’s soccer champions. As much as they are passed around, it was inevitable that someday, somewhere, shit would happen. The World Cup has been stolen several times in the past, but a true catastrophe occurred when the Super Bowl LII champion New England Patriots crashed this year’s home opener of the Boston Red Sox, at Fenway Park, which also served as the team’s World Series victory celebration. As is his wont, the now-retired Patriots’ tight end, Rob Gronkowski, volunteered to help fellow receiver Julian Edelman prepare for throwing out the first pitch. Outside of the view of fans, the clown prince of professional football picked up the silver football and used it to bunt a thrown pitch from Edelman. It left a baseball-shaped crater in the shiny surface that, today, is worn like a badge of honor by New England sports faithful. After all, boys will be boys.

Although professional sports may have next to nothing to do with haute cuisine and fine dining experiences, the awarding of a Michelin Star to a world-class restaurant may be as significant as any trophy … OK, there’s the Oscars. I was reminded of this by two new documentaries about the years-long pursuit of perfection by chefs and restaurants around the planet: Rasmus Dinesen’s Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen (2017) and Laura Collado and Jim Loomis’ Constructing Albert (2017). Just as pipsqueak hockey players in Moose Jaw dream of playing on a Stanley Cup-winning team and young ballers imagine kissing the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, like MJ and LeBron, so, too, do sous chefs, back-of-the-house workers, servers, maître d’s, receptionists and bartenders anticipate basking in the reflected glory of a head chef and restaurant owner. Phone calls and press releases reveal the individual winners and no trophies are exchanged. A chef’s worst nightmare is losing a star, or two, in subsequent editions of the Michelin Guide, which is like a Negro Motorist Green Book for obscenely rich, mostly white and Asian, passionately fashionable and unbearably opinionated gourmands. Just as serious birders pursue rarely seen species in the wild, so, too, do foodies plan their vacations and business trips around visits to Michelin-rated dining rooms. The Michelin Guide to Chicago 2014, for example, includes almost 500 restaurants. Only one restaurant received three stars (Alinea); four were awarded two stars (Grace, L2O, Graham Elliot, Sixteen); and 20 restaurants got one star. That doesn’t mean the other 475 establishments served food that was inedible or that they weren’t sufficiently elitist. It means that the 25 winners were the crème de la crème. The 2019 guide for the Windy City lists one three-star restaurant (Alinea); three two-star establishments (Smyth, Oriole, Acadia); 15 one-stars; 58 Bib Gourmands; and 123 Plate Michelins. By comparison, New York City is home to 76 starred restaurants; Hong Kong, 63; and Rio de Janeiro, 6.  For the record, one star denotes, a “good place to stop on your journey, indicating a very good restaurant in its category, offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard; two stars, “a restaurant worth a detour, indicating excellent cuisine and skillfully and carefully crafted dishes of outstanding quality”; three stars for a restaurant worth a special journey, indicating exceptional cuisine where diners eat extremely well, often superbly. Distinctive dishes are precisely executed, using superlative ingredients.”

Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen and Constructing Albert differ from documentaries about sports in that they aren’t about competition. Because the restaurants are judged by anonymous individuals, with specific guidelines and tastes, the awarding of stars isn’t based on such objective standards as wins and losses. Things can get sticky if a judge arrives on a day when a kitchen is under-staffed or key ingredients are unavailable. Michelin Stars: Tales from the Kitchen goes behind the scenes to see how the stars are awarded, interview chefs and determine the impact of the Michelin Guide on the world of haute cuisine. It comes at a moment in time, when consumers consider themselves capable of passing judgment on a restaurant’s worth – based on their own standards – and photographing every dish for consumption by their followers on Yelp, where opinions can be bought and sold, and restaurants pander to yahoos with iPhones. Dinesen’s film digs under the surface by allowing chefs, writers, diners and purveyors to present their sides of the story, offering them an opportunity to tell viewers why the guide is so important to them, as a boon to business and maintaining excellence. Chefs have been known to commit suicide and close their dining rooms after losing a star. Among those featured are Alain Ducasse, Daniel Humm, René Redzepi, Andoni Aduriz, Yoshihiro Narisawa, Victor Arquinzoniz and Guy Savoy, and other chefs from around the world. Preparations is also showcased.

When it closed in 2011, the much-honored Spanish restaurant elBulli was still considered the best in the world. The intriguing foodie documentary Constructing Albert reveals how head chef Ferran Adrià’s sterling reputation prompted his younger brother, Albert, to meet the challenge of matching it. Over a four-year period, filmmakers Collado and Loomis followed the story of Ferran’s former partner and co-chef, as he stepped out from the long shadow of elBulli and staked his own claim to fame. Creating another perennial Michelin contender would be difficult for any top chef. Albert chose to open five restaurants in Barcelona’s theater district, each featuring a different cuisine. This would be Albert’s proclamation of self-assurance and calling card to the Pantheon of great chefs. All the pressure, stress and tension that went into his pursuit are palpable in Constructing Albert, which sometimes resembles a heart attack waiting to happen. (He even closed a one-star startup when it failed to meet his standards.) Barcelona has emerged as one of the world’s prominent dining destinations. If this doc doesn’t wet your whistle, nothing will.

Captain Marvel: Cinematic Universe Edition: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Being cast to play a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like being a handed an annuity or pension from the late, great Stan Lee, himself. As long as the franchise is going strong, superheroes and supervillains will appear and re-appear in lead roles and cameos, alike, in succeeding adaptations. Obscure characters will resurrected from the Marvel library and given an opportunity to share in the bounty. Take Nick Fury, for example. The character made his first appearance in the early 1960s and was given his inaugural cover story in May 1963 (“Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, #1”), as the leader of Marvel’s super-spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D. Today, a physically transformed Fury has never been more active. In the Ultimate Marvel Universe, now-General Nick Fury is an African American born in Huntsville, Alabama, with his look and personality tailored after actor Samuel L. Jackson. The immensely popular actor first embodied the character on film in an uncredited appearance in Iron Man (2008). Since then, Fury has appeared for various amounts of time in more than a dozen feature films and voiced the character in four video games. Spider-Man: Far from Home arrives next month. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson joined the MCU/Avengers team in Iron Man 2 (2010), as Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow, which just began production in Norway, represents her character’s first personal vehicle.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel was released theatrically on March 8, 2019 — International Women’s Day — in IMAX and 3D. Since then, it has grossed over $1.1 billion worldwide, making it the first female-led superhero film to pass the billion-dollar mark. It is currently the No. 2 grossing film of 2019, and the No. 9 grossing superhero film of all time. Not doing nearly as well at the international box office this spring was David F. Sandberg’s critically lauded Shazam!, also based on the original Captain Marvel, created for DC Comics in 1939 by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker. The male iteration of Captain Marvel (a.k.a., William Joseph “Billy” Batson, Wizard Shazam, Captain Thunder, Captain Sparklefingers) has represented the company on radio, in serials, features, direct-to-video animated films, comic strips and video games. Through a miracle of legal legerdemain, the MCU/Disney version of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) has transitioned into a female superhero, who commutes between outer space and an endangered Earth, also known as C-53. (Djimon Hounsou appears in both films as different characters, both male, and separate entities in the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy and the DCUE’s Aquaman.) After crashing an experimental U.S. Air Force fighter on the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala, pilot Carol Danvers (a.k.a., Vers, Captain Marvel, Captain Sparklefists) is rescued and treated for amnesia and recurring nightmares. She is then trained as a member of the elite Starforce Military, under the command of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). Six years later, after a failed mission to recover a prisoner of the shape shifting Skrulls, Danvers/Vers is led back to Earth by subliminal instincts. Meanwhile, the Skrulls tap into her memory cache and send a guerrilla team to pursue her. With help from Fury, Danvers sets out to unravel the truth.

If that brief summary sounds needlessly complicated, that’s only because it is. And, it only gets more confusing from there. Even with an early passion for comic books, I could barely keep track of what was happening to whom in the 123-minute movie and where the action was taking place at any given time. The shape-shifting element kept me off-balance, as well. Finally, I gave up trying, focusing my attention, instead, on the brilliantly conceived action scenes. My favorite character is a weaponized tabby cat named Goose. I also welcomed the occasional interludes when Annette Bening appears out of nowhere, as the Supreme Intelligence of the Kree people and ruler of the Kree Empire. She, too, is a shape shifter. Beyond that, the mind boggles. I have since come to the conclusion that the film’s six-person writing team based several of the characters and settings on The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy reincarnated as Danvers and Bening as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. The HDR color enhancements make a big difference from the Blu-ray, where the  images sometimes are overwhelmed by the overall dark look. The bonus features, contained on the Blu-ray disc, offer alternate versions of Captain Marvel, with an introduction by directors/screenwriters Boden and Fleck, and with commentary by the same duo; a half-dozen EPK-style featurettes; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and several behind-the-scenes digital exclusives.

The Sower
The inspiration for the short story that was adapted as The Sower, is as interesting as anything in Marine Francen’s sumptuous historical rom-dram, And, that’s saying a lot about both works of art. In 1919, when Violette Ailhaud was in her 80s, the former village schoolteacher wrote the autobiographical short story “L’homme semence,” upon which The Sower is based. She passed the manuscript on to her attorney with clear instructions that it be given to her eldest female descendant in 1952, a full century after the events it depicts occurred. It remained in the family for a half-century before being published, in 2006, to steadily building acclaim. Some manner of film adaptation was inevitable. Today, The Sower can be enjoyed as a historically based romance or a bittersweet feminist fable that links lost innocence to a code of honor among women in a male-deprived community. Beyond modernizing the language and aesthetics, Francen stuck to the story, as written, which doesn’t always happen. The winner of the prestigious New Director competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival, The Sower opens in 1851, after France’s autocratic President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte rejected the constitutional ban against being re-elected and chose, instead, to become Emperor of the French (1852-70). It’s worth noting, perhaps, that, at about the same time, in Paris, Victor Hugo was beginning work on “Les Miserables.” As Francen’s film opens, the emperor has just ordered the arrest of all the men of a remote farming village in the Lower Alps. They were believed to have taken part in a Republican uprising and sent to prisons and work camps throughout the far-flung empire. The women left behind will spend years in total isolation, forced to tend the crops and animals themselves. While some of the older women have lost their husbands to the order, possibly forever, the younger ones — including the shy, but inwardly strong Violette (Pauline Burlet) – have come to the realization that they may have no chance of experiencing physical love or motherhood.

The women take an oath: if a man comes to the village, they will convince him to stay and share him as a lover. It takes a couple of years before a mysterious and handsome blacksmith, Jean (Alban Lenoir), offers to help with the harvest, in return for room and board. Conveniently, Violette is assigned the task of acclimating Jean to the village. That both can read sets them apart from the rest of the woman and establishes a bond between them. Naturally, this provides an easy transition to sex and love. Figuring that their turns are long overdue, the other women demand of Violette that she curtail their relationship and reveal the conditions of the oath to Jean, which she does only begrudgingly. By the time she’s become noticeably pregnant, some of the male villagers begin to stagger home, with woeful tales of torture and deprivation. When Jean senses that his continued presence could be misconstrued and punished, he gives Violette a choice between traveling with him to another town or staying behind to raise their daughter, alone. Some critics have compared the film’s plot to Xavier Beauvois’ wartime drama, The Guardians (2017), and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (2017), and it’s apt. Cinematographer Alain Duplantier expertly captures the hardships and scant rewards of the women’s daily grind, at home and in the golden fields of wheat. Unlike Jean-Francois Millet’s famous 1850 painting “The Sower,” which it resembles, Francen’s film hasn’t been criticized for ennobling the poverty-stricken peasants. It does, however, humanize the women, by showing the severity of their challenge and personalizing their longings, pain and determination. The Sower was shot in and around the lovely medieval village of La Garde-Guérin. And, yes, tourism is welcomed.

Cielo
Minute Bodies: Blu-ray
Nature documentaries have improved exponentially since the introduction of digital technology to the filmmakers’ bag of tricks and Blu-ray and 4K UHD exhibition. While the subjects haven’t much – even taking global warming into consideration – everything else has evolved. Digital and handheld cameras have given documentarians greater access to their prey and drones offer perspectives unavailable only 10 years ago. Neither does going to the ends of the Earth to capture an image constitute an impossible mission. These two films literally shuttle viewers between the imperceptible and infinite, with no stops in between for gratuitous gasping and wondering if CGI was involved. Alison McAlpine’s documentary, Cielo, takes viewers to Chile’s ultra-remote Atacama Desert, where the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory investigates heavenly bodies outside the purview of  stargazers in the North Hemisphere. Located at an altitude of over 15,700 feet and 31 miles from the nearest town, Llano de Chajnantor, the site is home to nine separate telescopes and observatories, each designed to focus on different parts of the humidity-, pollution- and transmission- free sky. Extend the Atacama a few hundred miles north and east, into Argentina and  Bolivia and you’ll find 7 of the 10 highest such facilities in the world. But, let’s cut to the chase. The images captured for our amazement are “crazy beautiful,” thanks, in part, to some time-lapse photography. Beyond that, I won’t bother trying to describe the nightly display of stars and light, which make the Aurora Borealis look anemic. Occasionally, the phantasmagoria is interrupted by interviews with native Chileans, who live at these altitudes, and the astronomers who spend so much of their scientific lives here. Or, you could turn off the audio track and subtitles and, simply, watch the skies. Cielo makes a perfect double-feature with Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which combines the scientists’ search for answers in the cosmos and concurrent hunt for the remains of “disappeared” loved ones, killed by the U.S.-backed regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Political activists, students and Chileans considered to be left of Henry Kissinger were imprisoned in a salt-miners’ barracks abandoned in the 19th Century. Some of the victims were buried anonymously there or put on an airplane or helicopter and dropped into the ocean.

Minute Bodies leads viewers in an altogether different direction. The effect is essentially the same, however. Stuart A. Staples’ meditative, immersive and description-free documentary pays homage to the astonishing work and achievements of naturalist, inventor and pioneering filmmaker F. Percy Smith. An early pioneer in time-lapse and microcinematography, Smith began to photograph the natural world around his house and inside his laboratory, while working as a clerk for the British Board of Education. He was on his own, until his close-up photograph of a bluebottle fly’s tongue caught the attention of producer Charles Urban. He subsequently made “Urban Science: To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly” (1909) and “The Acrobatic Fly” (1910), before joining the Charles Urban Trading Company full-time. He directed more than 50 nature films for the Urban Sciences series, including the pioneering stop-motion film, “The Birth of a Flower” (1910), prior to the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served as a naval photographer. Minute Bodies is a 50-minute merger of botanical poetry and the ambient music of Staples’ band, Tindersticks. Without a word of dialogue or narration, the film depicts the growth of plants – and a handful of frogs – from the cellular to their blossoming as flowers, ferns and a variety of other plant life. The overall effect is hypnotic. The Blu-ray adds several bonus shorts, which contain narration, but no music.

Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home: Blu-Ray
Although the focus of Leo Zahn’s documentary is Frank Sinatra, the people in his orbit and his love affair with Palm Springs, it falls well short of being sycophantic. Any biography of Sinatra is going to face close scrutiny and nit-picking by pop historians and detractors, alike. If it skims over Ol’ Blue Eye’s legendary temper tantrums, feuds, mob ties and reputation as a notorious horndog, Sinatra in Palm Springs: The Place He Called Home lives up to its site-specific mission. Up to immediately after the singer’s death in 1998, Zahn couldn’t have expected cooperation from local businessmen, neighbors, family members and friends. They protected Sinatra from the media glare, paparazzi and overly aggressive fans every bit as ferociously as he did. And, he repaid them by performing in countless benefit concerts and encouraging his Hollywood cronies to do likewise. In fact, his generosity to everyone with whom he crossed paths is noted by everyone interviewed here. That includes the wait staffs, bartenders and valets at his favorite restaurants and watering holes. After being repeatedly reminded of his proclivity for handing out hundred-dollar tips, as if they were singles, the glorification of Frank’s largess gets tiresome, however. We get it. According to Zahn, Sinatra made the Coachella Valley his primary home for almost 50 years. The film community had long considered Palm Springs to be a convenient escape from the madness of Hollywood. When Frank moved about 10 miles east, to Rancho Mirage, it re-awakened the sleepy desert outpost. Interviews with Barbara Sinatra, Tom Dreesen, Trini Lopez and local civic leaders provide a fuller picture than usual of his willingness to host late-night gatherings and let his toupee down in public. Finally, though, Zahn uses Sinatra to paint a comprehensive portrait of his adopted hometown. He describes how Frank decided to bypass the lure of “restricted” country clubs and help launch one open to Jews and other non-WASPs. The doc then describes how the concept of fairway-side housing first blossomed and how a new definition of exclusivity had to be written. Zahn glosses over the embarrassment Sinatra felt when President Kennedy was dissuaded by his brother, the attorney general, not to stay at his house, even after he built a helicopter pad to accommodate Marine One. He doesn’t get into the reasons behind Bobby Kennedy’s recommendation, however. The film makes it clear that Palm Springs was always a winter home for gangsters, without digging deeply into the coincidence. Zahn does acknowledge former wives and other family members, but it’s limited to photographs and one or two anecdotes. It would have been interesting to know if Sinatra’s children spent much time in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. Clips from From Here to Eternity and 50 other movies and television shows – some that only used the home as locations – keep Sinatra in Palm Springs from growing monotonous and overly reverential. The bonus package adds nine deleted scenes. Maybe Zahn will tackle fellow Palm Springs resident, Elvis Presley, next.

Swing Time: Criterion Collection: Blu-Ray
Unlike the many screwball comedies made during the Depression, Swing Time uses music and dance – instead of physical gags and satire – to tell a story that barely makes any sense, otherwise. Most of the characters favor tuxedoes and gowns, and some occupy posh apartments that 95 percent of all Americans then could afford. Like the gangsters portrayed in movies of the time, their playgrounds are supper clubs, with chorus lines and featured dancers … the better to provide added entertainment value and glamour to the movie. Adaptations of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath” wouldn’t reveal the other side of the Depression for another year, or so. Today, of course, it’s easy to buy the studio line that these sorts of pictures helped everyday audiences to forget their troubles for a few hours and, maybe, win a dinner setting while they were at it. It’s more likely that the moguls didn’t want to be reminded of the Hard Times – and the people considered to be below their station – anymore than the other members of their country clubs and income brackets. The profits spoke for themselves. But, as usual, I digress. No matter how one slices it, Swing Time was and remains a delight. It provided a perfect showcase for the heavenly dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Bernard Newman’s formal wear, Hermes Pan’s dance direction and Van Nest Polglase’s art direction. At first glance, George Stevens (Shane) probably wasn’t the most likely candidate to direct this perfect storm of talent, class and glamour – he’d just finished Annie Oakley (1935), his first Western – but his experience as a lighting cameraman gave him a leg up on helming the sixth Astaire/Rogers musical. Even though Oscar pretty much ignored his work on Swing Time – Kern and Field took home a statuette, while Pan was nominated for “Bojangles of Harlem” – the filmfecl’s since been recognized as one of the true classics of the American cinema. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Swing Time one of the top 100 films and, in 2004, it was included in the United States National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Three years later, in 2007, the American Film Institute ranked the movie No. 90 on its 10th-anniversary list, “100 Years …100 Movies.”

The plot is simplicity, itself. The feckless hoofer/gambler Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is tricked into missing his wedding to socialite Margaret Watson (Betty Furness) by the other members of Pop Cardetti’s magic and dance act, and he has to make $25,000 to be allowed to marry her. Lucky and Pop (Victor Moore) go to New York, where they run into Penny Carroll (Rogers), a dancing instructor. After some playful missteps, they form a successful dance partnership. Their romance is nipped in the bud by his attachment to Margaret and her feelings for the slick band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who won’t play for them to dance together. It’s only a matter of time before those entanglements are untangled and everyone can live happily ever after, well above the poverty level and Americans who don’t wear top hats and tails to work. It does allow for the marvelously choreographed and sung, “Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” “A Fine Romance,” “Bojangles of Harlem,” “Never Gonna Dance” and a final duet, in which Astaire and Rogers sing shortened versions of “A Fine Romance” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” If all anyone under 40 knows about formal dance is what they see on “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance,” these numbers will be revelatory. Just watching Rogers’ gown shimmer and sway to Astaire’s lead is the dance equivalent of poetry. The Criterion Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; commentary from 1986, featuring John Mueller, author of “Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films”; archival interviews with Astaire, Rogers, Pan; a fresh one with George Stevens Jr.; a new program on the film’s choreography and soundtrack, featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert and Dorothy Fields’ biographer Deborah Grace Winer; and an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

The 800-pound gorilla in the movie is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, with Astaire performing in blackface. Apart from being a wonderfully orchestrated, brilliantly lit and innovatively choreographed number, it begs several questions that remain especially pertinent today. If the piece was meant as a homage to the reigning king of tap — Bill “Bojangles” Robinson – why was his presence and/or tap style not also deemed essential? If, as some have speculated, the innovatively conceived production number was intended as a parody of The Green Pastures (1936), what was the point? If it was merely intended as a sop to white audiences, who knew next to nothing about Robinson, but didn’t mind a bit of blackface, again, why bother? And, how might Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson or Louis Armstrong have reacted to seeing their art and music represented on the big screen, with nary a naturally black face to be seen. A new interview with film scholar Mia Mask addresses the subject, without providing any definitive answers.

Frankenstein Created Woman: Blu-Ray
The Entity: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The 27 Club
This week’s releases from Scream Factory may be more entertaining today than they were upon their original release. In part, that’s because the horror market has become so diffuse and segmented since Frankenstein Created Woman and The Entity were released in 1967 and 1982, respectively, that such pictures have been allotted comparatively meager budgets and almost no marketing support, as is the case with such non-theatrical fare as The 27 Club. The straight-to-cassette phenomenon was still gestating in 1982 and drive-ins were drying up, like L.A. in July. Only a handful of contemporary genre flicks are accorded the same publicity boost, star support and production values as vintage titles from the Hammer stable and 20th Century Fox.

Frankenstein Created Woman was originally intended as a follow-up to Hammer’s The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), piggy-backing on the notoriety of Roger Vadim and Brigette Bardot’s And God Created Woman (1956). Eight years later, it would lose the “And …” and any residual impact of a clever title. It did, however, represent a departure from the Frankenstein legend. In it, a young boy, Hans, witnesses the beheading of his father for a crime he neither committed, not could deny, without incriminating his lover. A decade later, Hans (Robert Morris) works as a lab assistant for Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing), who, with the aid of Dr. Hertz (Thorley Walters), is attempting to perfect a process that re-animates the body and soul of his creatures. Hans is in love with a local barmaid, Christina (recent Playboy model Susan Denberg), a disfigured girl, who’s ashamed of her looks and openly taunted by a trio of good-for-nothing swells. When the troublemakers team up to harass Christina’s father, restaurateur Kleve (Alan McNaughton), the men end up committing a murder, for which Hans takes the blame and is sent to the guillotine. The despondent Christine responds by killing herself. Employing a Nobel Prize-worthy technique, Doctor Frankenstein captures Hans’s soul and places it inside Christina’s new and improved body. The result is a  blond, beautiful and no longer crippled Christina, who takes orders from the separated head of Hans’ revenge-minded soul. Neither the remorseless dandies, nor the scientists are capable of curtailing the resultant bloodbath. The Scream Factory upgrade features a 2K remaster of the film; new commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr; new interviews with Morris, camera assistant Eddie Collins and assistant director Joe Marks, as well as nine ported-over supplements.

The Entity (1983), we’re assured, is based on the reported haunting of Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey), her two kids and their new house. Not only does the spirit behave, at first, like an angry poltergeist, but it also rapes Carla for no more reason than that’s she there. It takes a while before the kids witness the spirits’ wrath. By then, however, Mom is approaching basket-case status. A bevy of psychiatrists, led by Ron Silver, dismiss her bruising and fright as something other than self-inflicted byproducts of an overly stressed mind. It isn’t until a team of parapsychologists and amateur ghost hunters enters the picture that we get a concrete idea of Carla really is up against. And, it’s formidable.  Finally, Silver agrees to join his disrespected peers in their scheme to isolate and reveal the demon, who doesn’t want to be isolated or revealed. The destruction wrought is impressive, even by post-Exorcist standards.  If the postscript is to be believed, the  continued haunting of Carla is one for the books.

Barbara Hershey is terrific in what might have been a career-saving performance. The promising co-star of Last Summer (1969), The Baby Maker (1970) and Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha (1972) spent much of the 1970s demonstrating her hippie credentials and alienating anyone who would put up with her antics. They included breast-feeding her 2-year-old while being interviewed by Dick Cavett. By 1980, she’d dropped the adopted surname of Seagull, which she adopted after a seagull was accidentally killed during the filming of Last Summer (1969). (Barbara said she felt as if she had absorbed the bird’s spirit.) She began the new decade with a stellar performance in Richard Rush’s little-seen masterpiece, The Stunt Man (1980). After The Entity, she appeared in The Right Stuff (1983), The Natural (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Tin Men (1987), Shy People (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), A World Apart (1988) and Beaches (1988). That’s a hell of a run. In 1990, Hershey won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special for her role as accused ax-murderer Candy Morrison in “A Killing in a Small Town.” Afterward, she would commit to a series of television and cable dramas, including “Paris Trout,” “Return to Lonesome Dove” and “Chicago Hope.” Although she hasn’t completely forsaken acting, such highlights as the Australia-set Lantana (2001), balletic psycho-thriller Black Swan and A&E’s “Damien” (2016) have been few and far between.

To qualify for membership in the mythical 27 Club, an artist of some substance merely has to die – preferably by substance abuse – during their 27th year on Earth. Among the noteworthy performers who’ve qualified for induction in the select club are Robert Johnson, Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson (Canned Heat), Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (Grateful Dead), Dave Alexander (The Stooges), Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kurt Kobain, Amy Winehouse, actor Anton Yelchin and Korean boy-band superstar Kim Jong-hyun. That abridged list might be more persuasive, if it didn’t cover a period, ranging from 1938 to 2017, the lack of statistical anomalies discovered by several dedicated computer jockeys. That didn’t prevent co-writer/director Patrick Fogarty (“Average”) from basing The 27 Club on the urban legend. If only it had. (It’s dedicated to sax master Big Jay McNeely, who died last September, at 81, before his scenes were edited out of the picture.) In it, an unpleasant punk rocker named Quinn Scott (Travis Grant) wastes no screen time before OD’ing and becoming eligible for the 27 Club. It doesn’t matter that he’s surrounded by friends when he buys the farm, because they’re too stoned to pay attention to his high or the demonic presence in the room. It inspires a student filmmaker, Jason (Derrick Denicola), to investigate the phenomenon. His mentor is played by Todd Rundgren, who also made it past the 27 barrier and helps here on the musical score. Jason hooks up with Lily (Maddisyn Carter), another punk-rocker who makes Courtney Love sound like Maria Callas. Her reason for being in the movie is the fact that her next birthday cake will have 27 candles. Together, they’ll find themselves trapped in an evil underworld that takes artists’ souls as payment for eternal fame. (While that’s the legend behind Johnson’s amazing blues output, most of the other club members committed suicide, OD’d or drank themselves to an early grave.) Jason steals Quinn’s copy of the “Necronomicon,” which adds to the story’s horror aspect. It’s seriously undernourished, though. The Blu-ray adds short interviews with Carter and Denicola, and a slideshow.

Can’t Stop the Music: Blu-Ray
Jeffrey: Blu-Ray
Shout Factory is celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month with the simultaneous re-release of Can’t Stop the Music (1980) and Jeffrey (1995). The company previously sent out an upgraded edition of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). The only thing new to be said about the musical retelling of the Village People’s rise to the top of the charts — during America’s post-Saturday Night Fever period –is that the production numbers look and sound great in Blu-ray. Otherwise, the critically lambasted box-office bomb remains a chore to watch from start to finish. It remains curious that EMI Films attempted to take the gay out of a movie about a clearly gay cultural phenomenon, which began in gay nightclubs and whose members affected the look of iconic gay fantasy figures. Here, if the implications are unavoidable, viewers are led to believe that the Village People’s early appeal was gender-neutral and only a little bit ironic. The VP’s secondary audience would be sports fans, who may or may not have recognized the spell-along hit, “Y-M-C-A,” from the album, “Crusing’,” as a gay anthem. (One group member has said that it can interpreted as a “double entendre,” because the YMCA is a place where gay culture and working-class workouts coexist in a single communal space.”) Either way you slice it, though, it’s one of the great dance songs of all time. By effectively neutering the protagonists of Can’t Stop the Music, producers kept most of its intended audience at arm’s length and opened themselves to criticism by activists, reviewers and anyone already aware of the VP’s story. Even so, Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard’s love child might have avoided most of the slings and arrows hurled at it, if it were even remotely entertaining and overtly campy. In it, a retired supermodel Samantha “Sam” Simpson (Valerie Perrine) and songwriter/deejay Jack Morell (Steve Guttenberg) hope to convince her devious ex-boyfriend, a record-company executive (Paul Sand), to promote one of his songs. When Jack’s vocal skills are deemed inadequate, Sam recruits neighbor and Saddle Tramps waiter/go-go boy Felipe Rose (Indian); fellow model David “Scar” Hodo (Construction Worker); “G.I.” Alex Briley; Ray Simpson (Policeman); “Cowboy” Randy Jones; and “Leatherman” Glenn Hughes. In return for their participation, she offers them … dinner. As things progress, the band is given rehearsal space at the local YMCA and a flashy musical commercial for milk. (The movie was rated PG, but amateur pervs can run the “Y-M-C-A” segment in slo-mo and catch a glimpse of an unpixellated penis and Perrine’s nipples in a whirlpool with the band.) With few exceptions, the acting is wooden and Nancy Walker’s direction is haphazard, at best.

Trivia buffs may recall that John Wilson was inspired to create the Golden Raspberry Awards after paying 99 cents to endure a double-bill featuring Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu (1980). “Music” was nominated for seven inaugural Razzie awards, with Carr winning Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay trophies. Caitlyn Jenner, then known primarily as the 1976 Olympics decathlon champion, was a finalist for Worst Actor. In 2005, the movie was a nominee for the Worst Musical of Our First 25 Years prize. Neither was Carr’s timing very sound. By the time Can’t Stop the Music was released, the Village People popularity had peaked and the Disco Sucks movement had made headlines by ransacking Chicago’s Comiskey Park, on Disco Demolition Night. The Blu-ray package is highlighted by a delightful 65-minute interview with Cowboy Randy Jones, in which he discusses the disco era, the creation of “Music” and life after disco. Commentary is provided by comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and Jeffrey Schwarz, director of The Fabulous Allan Carr. There’s also vintage publicity material and a photo gallery. Co-stars included Tammy Grimes, June Havoc, Barbara Rush, Altovise Davis, Jack Weston and Leigh Taylor-Young.

Jeffrey, the movie, arrived in theaters about 2½ years after “Jeffrey,” the play, was mounted off-Broadway. If Can’t Stop the Music can be characterized as a pre-AIDS musical comedy, “Jeffrey,” the play and movie, takes place at what might be considered the height of the epidemic. It wasn’t until 1992 that the first combination drug therapies for HIV were introduced. In 1995, a new type of protease inhibitor drug, Saquinavir, became available to treat HIV. Within two years, death rates due to AIDS would begin to plummet in the developed world. It took no small amount of courage to use humor to treat the parallel plagues of sexual anxiety and fear of intimacy and loss. Even considering the unexpected success of the play, studios weren’t anxious to become the first to distribute what they mistakenly saw as an “AIDS comedy.” Produced independently for what might have been a song, Jeffrey might have made a tiny bit of money in its limited release by Orion Classics. Christopher Ashley (Lucky Stiff) and Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values) returned to direct and write Jeffrey, the movie, which benefitted greater star power and a wider canvass. Steven Weber (“Wings”) plays the title character, a transplanted gay New Yorker whose attitude toward sex shifts from extremely positive to outright fearful, when he decides that AIDS has made it too unromantic and difficult. Celibacy becomes the only viable option, until he meets his dream man, Steve (Michael T. Weiss), who turns out to be HIV positive. With the help of his friends Sterling (Patrick Stewart) and Darius (Bryan Batt), Jeffrey decides to give love a second shot. Most critics preferred the intimacy and directness of the play, while relishing the well-timed cameos by Nathan Lane, Olympia Dukakis, Christine Baranski, Victor Garber, Camryn Manheim, Kathy Najimy and Sigourney Weaver. The Blu-ray adds new commentary with Weber and film critic/author Alonso Duralde; fresh interviews with Weber and producer Mark Balsam; and a stills gallery.

My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie: Blu-ray
In the last 12 months, Cult Epics has released several soft-core pictures from Pim de la Parra, Wim Verstappen and Scorpio Films’ “Dutch Sex Wave” series, spanning 1967 and 1976. Some, like Blue Movie (1971), pushed the boundaries on relaxed censorship laws, by combing natural sexual encounters, attractive actors and stories that support the nudity, humor and hanky-panky. My Nights With Susan, Sandra, Olga & Julie (1976) falls short in these departments, without adding anything to compensate for the loss for their absence. In it, Susan (Willeke Van Ammelrooy) lives in an idyllic farmhouse, along with the sex-loving youngsters, Sandra, Olga and Julie, and the unstable voyeur, Albert. Two of the women are spree killers, who target men who try to take advantage of their youth, beauty and deceptively frisky personalities. A witness to one of the killings  is Piet (Nelly Frijda), a female neighbor whose manly appearance and creepy behavior stands in stark contrast to the younger girls. Piet also commits an unconscionable murder that spoils any fun left in the story. De la Parra, who co-wrote Obsessions (1969) with Verstappen and Martin Scorsese, clearly knows how to make sex pictures with mainstream production values. “My Night” begins to fall apart as soon as Piet makes her appearance known. What I’m probably missing is the popularity of Frijda in Holland, where she’s long been a cultural fixture. It is interesting to note that, somewhere between the Netherlands and the U.S.,  Piet’s name was dropped from the title. The Blu-ray features the last score by composer Elisabeth Lutyens — known for Hammer films and Amicus Productions – a screenplay co-credited to Harry Kumel (Daughters of Darkness); a fresh HD restoration and transfer from original 35mm print; a lengthy introduction by Pim de la Parra; the short Scorpio films, “Heart Beat Fresco” (1966), “Joop” (1969) and “Joop Strikes Again” (1970); a poster and photo gallery; original Scorpio Films theatrical trailers; and an optional English-language track.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn Original: Blood: Blu-ray
Acorn Original: London Kills: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: Delicious: Series 3
If rural doctor Jim Hogan hadn’t lied to his black-sheep daughter, Cat, about the death of her invalid mother, the six-chapter mini-series could have been reduced to one. Thank goodness, that wasn’t an option in Sophie Petzal’s terrifically complex and entirely engrossing “Blood,” made for Ireland’s Virgin Media One and Acorn. In one way or another, all of the characters here are damaged by things they choose not to reveal to close friends and relatives. Jim and Cat take their insecurities to levels not often seen in series television, however. While successful in his small-town practice, Jim (Adrian Dunbar) has constructed a wall of lies to prevent his inordinately fragile family from being hurt by his self-destructive actions. The hyper-neurotic Cat (Carolina Main) is haunted by her decision to blow off a planned return home, hours before her mother’s seemingly accidental death. Instead of blaming herself for canceling the reunion, Cat immediately suspects her estranged father of murdering her. She bases her suspicions on the sketchiest of circumstantial evidence. When weighed against Jim’s flimsy defense, Cat’s case builds a parallel wall of infectious paranoia. I wouldn’t be spoiling anyone’s enjoyment of the mini-series by revealing that Jim has been cheating on his saintly wife (Ingrid Craigie), squandering money he couldn’t afford to lose, concealing a coroner’s report from the son of a suicide victim, taking advantage of a dotty patient and fudging his appointment book. On the plus side, however, viewers can see that he’s sincere about his determination to protect his family from the lies and their impact on the community, at large. Cat’s sublimated memory of an event in her childhood prevents her from trusting anything said by Jim. Viewers will find it difficult to fully embrace either character, even when they’re at their most vulnerable. Just when it seems as if we’ve discovered the truth, however, Petzal pulls the rug out from under us in the climactic final hour. Beyond the plotting and acting, “Blood” benefits from the beautifully photographed countryside and depictions of Irish manners and customs. It’s also interesting to learn that, at a time when American women are chafing at the bit for inclusion in the filmmaking process, “Blood” is represented by women at every level: writer, both directors, 4 of 11 producers, cinematographer, co-editor, casting director, costume design and production management, among other positions. Bonus material include cast and crew interviews, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Another Acorn Original mini-series, “London Kills,” takes full advantage of its widespread urban setting, from the banks of the Thames, to its junkie-infested tenements, leafy parks and architecturally significant inner city. While the homicide-squad setup would be recognizable to any fan of television procedurals, anywhere, each character here is allowed a full range of emotions and complexities. The diversity of the city’s demographic makeup is also represented, and women fill positions of authority inside the police department. They also are among the key suspects in the somewhat messy murder investigations. It opens when DC Rob Brady (Bailey Patrick) and Trainee DC Billie Fitzgerald (Tori Allen-Martin) respond to a gruesome scene in a hilly park, where a man is found stabbed multiple times and left hanging from a tree. When the victim is identified as the son of a prominent politician, the squad is not only pressured to find the killer, but also keep the details quiet from the press. That always works, right? The bodies keep piling up during the course of the five-part series, until a single common denominator surfaces in the form of a dreadlocked drifter, who attempts a sapphic hookup with Fitzgerald. An antagonistic relationship between DI David Bradford (Hugo Speer) and DS Vivienne Cole (Sharon Small) causes problems that are caused more by her rebellious nature, than any sexist inclinations on his part. The pressure on Bradford to solve the case is compounded by the recent disappearance of his social worker wife and their daughter’s insurrection, both of which, of course, could figure in the murder spree. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

The soapy BSkyB mini-series, “Delicious,” appears to have been engineered specifically to appeal to what, in the U.S., highbrows frequently describe derisively as the Lifetime audience. That would be its natural home, I think, but Food Channel fanatics should love it, too. It also plays to fans of “Downton Abbey,” who were drawn to the series for its spectacular architecture, plush interiors and elitist aura. Shot at Cornwall’s Pentille Castle, Port Eliot House, Boconnoc House and other splendid locations, it also appeals to Anglophiles everywhere. In the show’s first four-part season, we were introduced to celebrity chef Leo Vincent (Iain Glen), a serial philanderer, who, before his untimely death, was married to the beautiful blond hotelier, Sam (Emilia Fox), and having an affair with his first wife, Gina (Dawn French), from whom he stole recipes that made him successful. Instead of bashing each other, Sam and Gina combine their talents to preserve the Penrose estate’s legacy as a superb place to stay, dine and get married. Things get complicated when Gina and Sam’s children – possibly step-siblings – fall in love and split for parts unknown. The third season is highlighted by the return of Gina’s emaciated daughter, Teresa (Tanya Reynolds); a medical emergency for Leo’s live-in mother (Sheila Hancock); the arrival of rich investor and restaurateur Mason Elliott (Vincent Regan), with whom Gina also has a history; Elliott’s undisguised moves to steal Penrose’s top talent, including Sam and promising chef, Adam Hesketh (Aaron Anthony), who is Gina’s protege and Leo’s biological son. Like Ivory, “Delicious” is 99 and 44⁄100-percent pure soap. Although there’s plenty of room left for a Season Four – the return of Sam’s son, Vincent, perhaps? – no decision has yet been made.

The DVD Wrapup: Madea Funeral, Sharon Tate, Gloria Bell, Women at War, Guy, Farinelli, Screwball, The Kid, Andromeda Strain, Woody Guthrie, Jack Ryan, Sara Stein … More

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

A Madea Family Funeral: Blu-ray
Kinky
No one has more at stake in the controversy over Georgia’s heartbeat abortion bill than multi-hyphenate mogul Tyler Perry and the businesses and individuals who count on him for income. It took a while, but Hollywood and cable producers have fallen in line behind calls for a boycott of the state, if the legislation is fully enacted. (Among other things, a woman who isn’t aware she’s pregnant could be put on trial for miscarrying the fetus.) In 2016, Perry spoke out against legislation, which, effectively, would allow businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. The governor’s decision not to sign the law may have been influenced by Perry’s comments. (His drag persona, Madea, may have beaten the actor to death with her purse if he hadn’t spoken out.) Three years later, it remains unclear where Perry stands on the abortion bill, which soon will be winding its way to the Supreme Court, along with similarly draconian legislation in a few other Southern states and Ohio. (When did the Buckeye state join the Confederacy, anyway?) Earlier this week, in a media blog for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Rodney Ho pointed out that “Perry has committed hundreds of millions of dollars into the state. … (He) has expressed a deep commitment to Georgia and has not shown any inclination to leave.” Nor should he, if he once again uses his influence to turn back a law pushed by predatory right-wing evangelicals.

What’s also at stake is Perry’s partnership with Atlanta-based TBS and Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, as well as a long-term deal with Viacom, with shows slated mostly for BET. (Based in Georgia, as well, is the subsidiary of AT&T that oversees TBS, TNT and CNN.) While former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams understands the power of a boycott to force such issues to the fore, she’s also aware of the impact on people who benefit directly from the $2.7 billion Hollywood spends yearly in the state. Hollywood has a lot to lose in a boycott. Of that $2.7 billion figure, an estimated $800 million comes back to the studios in the form of the highest yielding, uncapped tax-incentive program in the nation. Abrams would prefer that some of that money be directed to pro-choice politicians and activists, working tirelessly to bring Georgia into the 21st Century. Because Abrams is well aware of the fact that Georgia continues to look for ways to prevent blacks and other minorities from voting, such a call could prove fruitless, in any case. Perry and Winfrey’s support for the boycott, in conjunction with the solicitations for contributions to the legal battle could tip the balance. And, why stop in the Deep South? Couldn’t Cleveland’s tourist-friendly Rock and Roll Hall of Fame use its weight to pressure Ohio’s governor?

Certainly, Perry has no problem with euthanizing his most popular creation before she’s drawn her last breath. He revealed last year, on the SiriusXM show “Bevelations,” that he’s finished playing the tough old bird, Madea. “I’m happy to kill off that old bitch,” he said. “I’m tired, man. I just don’t want to be her age, playing her.” Detractors of the 11-film series would be relieved for countless other reasons. It’s tough to laugh at Madea’s antics and coarse dialogue, knowing that she’s personified political incorrectness since 1999, when the musical play, “Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself,” was performed before mostly black audiences around the country. Even as a girl, Madea was in constant trouble with the law, supporting herself by stripping, pole dancing, professional wrestling, gambling, fraud and theft. She’s admits to killing two of her nine dead husbands, to collect life-insurance settlements and because she despised them. She carried a gun and a knife but was equally adept at fisticuffs and dispensing poison. If Madea softened over time and the transition to film – 2002’s Madea’s Family Reunion – it remained difficult for her children to pull the wool over her eyes. Stifling our laughter over Perry’s brilliant use of Ebonics and ghetto mannerisms hasn’t been easy for viewers to stifle.

There are plenty of laughs to be found in A Madea Family Funeral, which begins during a road trip with Madea; her younger brother, Joe (Perry); Joe’s son Brian (Perry), a defense attorney; feisty diner owner and family friend, Hattie Mae Love (Patrice Lovely); and partner-in-crime, Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis). Ostensibly, they’re on their way to backwoods Georgia for a joyous family reunion. They are required to stick around for a funeral, as well. Because of the nature of their relative’s death – hint, Viagra is involved – the funeral and its various rituals turn ugly. In hurriedly planning the funeral, Madea declares that it will be strictly be an African American affair, with an old-timey flare. Largely, this means that the ceremony will be long (eight hours), confessional and interactive. Depending on where one stands on impolite humor, Perry’s latest creation – Madea’s wheelchair-bound brother, Heathrow — will either be seen as delightfully offensive or just plain offensive. I’m in the former category. Despite the usual array of negative reviews, “Family Funeral” did extremely well at the domestic box office and, as usual, almost no business overseas. (I doubt that much effort was put into it.) I don’t know what Madea’s position is on abortion – who could? – but, even if she’s adamantly pro-life, she could also be against legislation that enslaves women and denies them their right to choose.

Operating in the long shadow of Tyler Perry, and well under the radar of mainstream media, is NuLite Media. Formed in in 2002, it is an independent production company, with a focus on niche films targeting African American audiences. Like Perry’s various endeavors, NuLite has produced dozens of movies, TV shows and live events that run the gamut from raw and risqué (Kinky, Chocolate City), to faith-based (The Sins of Deacon Whyles) and provocative (Color of the Cross), with forays into such genre fare as the revisionist Western, Gang Of Roses and the ensemble comedy, Nora’s Hair Salon. The Chocolate City spinoff, “Black Magic Live,” is billed as the only all-black male revue in Las Vegas. Moreover, Haitian American co-founder Jean Claude La Marre has 51 acting credits on his IMDB.com, ranging from Malcolm X (1992) and Fresh (1994), to Trapped: Haitian Nights (2010) and Basketball Girlfriend (2014). His Pastor Jones is a recurring character and Vivica A. Fox routinely appears in starring and co-starring capacity. They both appear in Kinky, in non-prominent roles.

Written and directed by La Marre, Kinky could have been re-titled “50 Shades of Ebony” – 50 Shades of Black was already taken — and reached the same audiences as those attracted by the DVD’s slightly naughty cover photo and posters. In them, a stunning black surgeon, Dr. Joyce Carmichael (Dawn Richard), clad in black leather lingerie and a freaky Lone Ranger mask, is being gently held from behind by a handsome black investor, Tyrone Bernard (Robert Ri’chard), wearing only a Rolex. The satin bedspread is littered with rose petals, while a padded set of handcuffs awaits its turn on a pillow. Although the film’s overly punitive R-rating would suggest something harder, that image sums up the movie’s tame approach to sexuality. That said, however, there may be a ready audience among African Americans for a PG-13 romance in an R-rated package. I wouldn’t know. Set primarily in Perry’s own backyard – Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood — the story follows the “talented, yet introverted” Carmichael, as she struggles with the fact that she is still single, despite all her professional success and well-manicured exterior features. Joyce’s strict Christian upbringing is a constant source of internal conflict for her, and it sets unwanted boundaries on the men she dates. What isn’t so obvious is her being blackmailed by a mysterious man who has photos of her in incriminating S&M poses. Tyrone decides to stalk the doctor to learn why she’s been so glum, lately. He discovers the mysterious man’s dungeon, where another young woman is being held, and a fire is about to erupt. The ending is both happy and ominous. Even so, Kinky makes “50 Shades” look like Deep Throat. Beyond the needlessly tame sex scenes, the writing, direction, set design and most of the acting are substandard, at best. If such shortcomings haven’t already stopped La Marre – and his films didn’t make money –we wouldn’t be here, right now.

The Haunting of Sharon Tate: Blu-ray
I’ve yet to see Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood or Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, which is floating around the Internet. I have seen Daniel Farrands’ The Haunting of Sharon Tate, though, and it’s done nothing to make me want to rush out and see the other two. Supposedly inspired by premonitions reported by the rising Hollywood star and pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, writer/director Farrands (The Amityville Murders) re-creates the events of August 8, 1969, at 10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon. Since the so-called premonitions were so similar, Farrands likely saved money by filming the actual attack and two flashbacks simultaneously. Only one of them is the real thing, but they all look curiously similar. As has been reported, Tate and her soon-to-be-late friends encountered Manson and “Family” members several times before the massacre. The first contact came when he believed that record producer Terry Melcher still lived there, with Candace Bergman, and he wanted to personally deliver a recording to him. Not finding them there, Manson directed his gang to haunt and harass the current residents. With her husband in Europe doing God knows what, Tate approaches her delivery date with trepidation. OK, you know the rest. While Farrands’ version isn’t remotely new or newsworthy, it does avoid digging up cliched attempts to psychoanalyze Manson Family members and contextualize their actions as a harbinger of bad times to come. It’s a gory home-invasion thriller that tells us precious little about Tate we didn’t already know and even less about the other victims. It’s exploitation, pure and simple. Hilary Duff does a credible job as the ravishing blond protagonist … otherwise, zilch.

The one thing that struck me, however, was the incorporation of Manson’s “Cease to Exist” into the soundtrack. (It was covered by the Beach Boys as “Never Learn Not to Love”) It’s a freaky song, even by the standards of the time. Hearing it played as part of Tate’s nightmares makes some sense, but it also led me to wonder who licensed the song to Farrands and continues to profit from the tragedy. It isn’t an easy task. In the last 50 years, several bands have added the song to their repertoire, simply for the weird pleasure that comes with doing something shocking and reprehensible for personal gain. In 1993, Sharon’s sister, Patti, Tate confronted David Geffen and board members of Geffen Records over plans to include a song written by Charles Manson on the Guns N’ Roses album, “The Spaghetti Incident?” She commented to a journalist that the record company was “putting Manson up on a pedestal for young people … to worship like an idol.” Geffen wouldn’t budge. A year earlier, Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, sought inspiration by moving into the house 10050 Cielo Drive. He built a studio, called “Le Pig,” for recording “Broken” (1992) and “The Downward Spiral” (1994), with collaborations from other musicians. It soon, would later be demolished and renumbered. Reznor’s seeming glorification of evil ended during a random encounter with Tate’s sister. According to Reznor, in a 1997 Rolling Stone interview, she asked, “‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face.” Redd Kross member Jeff McDonald expressed regret for covering Manson on 1982’s “Born Innocent.” He said the move was largely done to annoy the band members’ parents. (By law, Manson wasn’t allowed to collect royalties. Others, including ESP-Disc, Come Organisation and Susan Lawly, have seen their videos and recording widely ripped off by YouTube pirates. Too bad.)

In what must have appeared, at first, to be an ironic marketing decision, Sony originally scheduled Tarantino’s 160-minute epic to be released on August 9, 2019, as if it were the pop-cultural equivalent of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. The studio then changed the release date to July 26, 2019, insisting that August 9, 1969, is recognized, as well, as the date the hippie movement, free-love era and the 1960s, as a whole, came to a screeching halt. Someone forgot to mention this to the 500,000 freaks who gathered at Woodstock a week later or, for that matter, the 300,000 who attended Altamont. It wasn’t until the Family was rounded up and put on trial, beginning June 15, 1970, that it became safe to write obits for the hippie movement and, as I recall, for hitchhikers to return to the nation’s highway, albeit at greatly reduced numbers. On Monday, Gavin Newsom overruled a parole board’s decision to free Leslie Van Houten, marking the third time a California governor has stopped the release of the youngest member of Manson’s cult. No candidate for higher political office wants such an extreme show of mercy on their resume.

The Kid: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, The Kid, Vincent D’Onofrio takes on the legend of the Charles Manson of 1880s’ New Mexico, William H. Bonney (a.k.a., Billy the Kid). As criminal cult figures go, however, Bonney probably bore a closer resemblance to John Dillinger than the man reputed to have killed the 1960s. Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) is at least the 50th actor to portray the murderous young fellow, who died of a gunshot wound, administered by Sheriff Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke), at 21. That much has remained consistent in Hollywood histories – I use the term advisedly – although he makes frequent extended cameos in such cross-genre fare as BloodRayne: Deliverance (2007), Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (1979), Gas-s-s-s (1970) and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). In The Kid, DeHaan looks the part of a baby-faced killer, but was 32 when the film was released. (I wonder how many times Bonney has been played by someone his age.) The kid in the title may just as well refer to the boy, Rio (Jake Schur), who, after killing his abusive father, finds himself on the run from an uncle (Chris Pratt), who feels obligated to avenge his brother’s death. After Garrett captures Billy the Kid and saves him from being lynched, Rio and his sister, Sara (Leila George), hitch a ride with them to Santa Fe for the trial. In a very real sense, Rio finds two legitimate father figures in the older men. The Kid is a modern retelling of a classic Western legend, but it isn’t as revisionist as other oaters I’ve seen lately. All of the actors appear to be enjoying themselves and the frontier ambience is enhanced by cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd’s visions of the frontier state in the 1880s. (Lots of places in the Land of Enchantment haven’t changed all that much in the last 140 years.)

Gloria Bell: Blu-ray
A couple of weeks ago, in the general vicinity of the DVD Wrapup, Ray Pride reviewed Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria Bell and Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In, ahead of their concurrent theatrical release in Chicago and almost simultaneous arrival in DVD/Blu-ray. As there are no good reasons to repeat raves in this space, I’ll simply reiterate my believe that I can’t think of more appropriate excuse for spending nearly five hours – plus, featurettes – in front of a television, in the company of two of the finest actresses in the world. It also would provide an excellent excuse for combining a monthly book-club meeting with a post-screening dissection of the protagonists, Juliette Binoche’s Isabella and Julianna Moore’s Gloria. Anyone with a bit more time on their hands might also want to check out the Chilean-born filmmaker’s 2013 comedy/romance/drama, Gloria, from which Gloria Bell was adapted, with the formidable Chilean actress Paulina Garcia in the lead. I suspect that you won’t see three better performances this year, even at awards time. Binoche is about four years older than Moore and Garcia, who were born within a week of each other, in 1960. In addition to being of the same age and divorced, with two adult children, both Glorias embrace their freedom by dancing in clubs, in which disco has never gone out of fashion. (Wisely, she’s surrounded by adults of a certain age and Lelio has resisted the temptation to re-paint Gloria Bell as a MILF or cougar. She’s sexually active and isn’t afraid to meet new men at the bar.) Oh, yeah, the Glorias also share a wiry hairless cat, possibly of the Ukrainian Levkoy or Peterbald persuasion. One problem all three women experience is a mutual inability to avoid men with baggage stuffed with issues. Gloria Bell is exactly the kind of mature, observant film that American studios have abandoned, except for awards consideration, leaving some great talent on the sidelines. Also prominent here are John Turturro, Rita Wilson, Sean Astin, Jean Tripplehorn, Holland Taylor, Brad Garrett, Barbara Sukowa, Alanna Ubach, Caren Pistorius and Lelio’s male muse Michael Cera. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director and the featurette, “An Extraordinary Ordinary Woman: Making Gloria Bell.”

Woman at War
All You Ever Wished For
These days, you never know from which corner of the Earth a truly offbeat gem is going to emerge. Iceland usually is a reliable place to start looking, though. Directors of sci-fi and fantasy epics routinely take advantage of its otherworldly landscapes, volcanoes, lava fields, hot springs, mountains, fjords, glaciers and waterfalls. Native filmmakers tend to look inward and in the rugged faces of it citizenry for inspiration. Having to adjust from seemingly eternal darkness in winter, to summer’s frequently off-putting Midnight Sun, can drive Icelanders to drink … and usually does. And, those surnames … Guð minn! Like so many other Icelandic entertainments, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War starts small and ends bigger than one would expect. Halldóra Geirharõsdóttir (Sense8) plays a 50-year-old eco-terrorist, Halla, who, when she isn’t sabotaging high-tension wires leading to an aluminum plant, is the town’s well-respected choir director. She fears that Chinese investors and government officials will agree on plans for building a new aluminum smelter and find other ways to exploit the land. She takes it upon herself to trek into the mountains, usually by herself – or accompanied by an imaginary band and folk dancers — and take out the power line, using a makeshift bow-and-arrow. As federal police zero in on her, the self-described Woman of the Mountain knows that the time for her to complete her mission is running short. Halla also knows that an arrest could curtail her plans to adopt a Ukrainian child and experience motherhood. Her conflicted sense of urgency leads to a pretty exciting climax. Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s expansive cinematography goes a long way toward explaining the importance of Halla’s quest. Jodie Foster is said to be interested in developing an English-language remake.

Emmy and Academy Award-winning writer Barry Morrow (“Bill,” Rain Man) tried his hand at directing in All You Ever Wished For, a fairytale romance set so high and deep in the Italian Alps that it might be the product of a spell cast by fairies. “Glee” alumnus Darren Criss plays Tyler Hutton, the almost impossibly handsome son of a Gordon Hutton (James Remar). The old man wants his kid to quit farting around and join the family business in a meaningful way. The curly-haired young man is sent to Milan, where he’s expected to finalize some deals. No sooner does he step out of the airport than he’s kidnapped by local Mafiosi, who immediately send a ransom note to Gordon, in New York. Tyler is whisked off to the Alpine village, where the locals await further instructions. Unbeknownst to most of the villagers and viewers, Tyler has fallen under a spell that makes him covet the first person he sees. Here, it’s the exotic Rosalia Drago (Mãdãlina Ghenea), who looks as if she had just been plucked from the centerfold of Romanian Playboy. As obsessed as Tyler is with her, Rosalia is equally resistant to his advances. Conveniently, the ransom money winds up in the hands of the village’s mayor, who declares it to be a miraculous windfall that calls for a celebration, which requires masks, costumes and dancing. It’s during this delightful interlude that the spell is lifted and the elder Hutton arrives with the mobsters, who want their ransom money back. Things get complicated for a while, but not long enough to spoil the happy ending. At this altitude, all sorts of magical things can happen. Like Woman at War, All You Ever Wished For is gorgeously shot, this time by Stefano Falivene (Still Life). The film may sound hopelessly schmaltzy, but, hey, it’s a fairytale.

Guy
Farinelli: Blu-ray
My knowledge of French pop and chanson singers from the 1960-80s is limited to Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday and Patricia Kaas. Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf arrived and departed before pop popped. That’s probably three or four more names than most Americans know. Chanson required more intimacy between the artist and audience and, by then, their American counterparts were building moats between themselves and their fans, if only for the sake of personal security. It explains why it took a while for me to figure out that Alex Lutz’ faux documentary, Guy, is just that: faux. Co-writer/director Lutz also stars as the title character, Guy Jamet, who, at 72, may or may not have another concert tour left in him. Faux-documentarian Gauthier (Tom Dingler), who’s just learned from his mother’s letters that he may be Guy’s love child, wants to probe the singer’s memories of her … if any. For years, the handsome, rail-thin singer affected a loosely combed white-as-snow coiffure, which makes him immediately identifiable to his faux fans, who adore him for reprising the songs to which they fell in love. Tony Bennett is the American singer who comes the closest to approximating Jamet’s appeal and willingness to play small clubs. Lutz’ ability to mimic his characters’ traits kept me guessing as to whether Guy was pulling my leg or was kidding on the square. Any film that can maintain my interest and curiosity in equal measures, while also being completely scripted – Vincent Blanchard and Romain Greffe’s songs, too – is worth a closer look by viewers outside France and Belgium. In case you’re wondering, Jamet is a dead ringer for Klaus Kinski and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), depending on their need for a haircut or dye job.) Dani (Day for Night), Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds) and Marina Hands (Tell No One) are the most recognizable of co-stars. For his effort, Lutz was awarded a Cesar Award as Best Actor, along with Blanchard and Greffe’s songs. Guy was a finalist for Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Director.

When I was growing up, one of the more disturbing urban legends affecting boys assigned to choir duty in Catholic schools involved the probability that priests served as recruiters for the Vatican’s glee club. That’s because the heavenly chorus was in constant need of pre-pubescent sopranos, who could expect to be castrated on their arrival in Rome. Apparently, the pope’s musical director required a handful of boys each year, whose unnaturally high and powerful voices could survive puberty and last as long as they maintained their youthful appearance. Boys were chosen over girls because side-effects of the castration process gave them unrivalled vocal stamina and breath capacity. Moreover, because their vocal cords remained compact and flexible, their voices could replicate the sounds of amorous songbirds. No one bothered to tell us that the legend – which isn’t mythical, at all — was less than a century out of date. The Church didn’t officially ban the procedure until 1903. Indeed, the last Sistine castrato to survive was Alessandro Moreschi, who lived long enough to make solo recordings. Farinelli is the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, perhaps the most celebrated, well-travelled and highly rewarded castrato of the 18th Century. Although Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 drama, Farinelli, took many liberties with the history of the singer and his composer brother, Riccardo Broschi (Enrico Lo Verso), as well as their feud with composer George Frideric Handel, what truth there is in it is both fascinating and wonderfully decorous. Not at all graphic, the film’s most sensational scenes include demonstrations of the Broschis’ tag-team approach to copulation and pro-creation with their female fans. Even with the handicap of possessing only a single penis between them, the technique was pretty effective. Their partners were so overwhelmed by the presence of the superstar, Farenelli, they barely noticed when the brothers made the tag. Anyone who gets through the 111-minute costume drama and wants to learn more about castrati should make it a point to check out the featurettes, “Farinelli: Nostalgia for a Lost Voice,” “Farinelli: The Birth of a Voice,” and new essay by film critic Kenji Fujishima. Ewa Malas-Godlewska and Derek Lee Ragin are shown combining their talents to produce a single radiant sound, with the help of a synthesizer.

Screwball
As long as athletes from Eastern Bloc nations were the ones abusing steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, Americans could simply blame the commies for corrupting amateur athletics and ignore what was happening in their own back yards. By the time world-class cyclist Lance Armstrong acknowledged his own bending of the rules – almost 20 years after suspicions first were raised – dozens of professional and collegiate athletes had already been rounded up and put into the penalty box. Some of the best players in their sport have been suspended, fined and returned to the game. Still, the problem persists. In the surprisingly entertaining documentary, Screwball, director Billy Corben (Cocaine Cowboys) describes how Miami PED peddler Anthony Bosch built a lucrative business by supplying steroids – not all of them illegal – to body builders, fitness fanatics and athletes, mostly on the strength of word-of-mouth advertising. It wasn’t unusual to see photographs of the fake doctor in locker rooms and in the company of all-stars. A petty dispute with a hapless “juice” junkie would set off a chain of events that not only led to his own imprisonment, but also brought down such stars as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro  and Ryan Braun … temporarily, at least. In the process, Bosch also revealed the hypocrisy of Major League Baseball executives, who exploited the triumphs of homerun hitters Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds to sell tickets and merchandise, but, then, kowtowed to Congress by cracking down on users. Incredibly, MLB then paid Bosch and his accuser hundreds of thousands of dollars to join its flawed investigation. As we learn here, the whole mess could have been avoided if he’d repaid a $4,800 loan from a muscle-bound doofus, Porter Fischer, who hung out at his tanning salon and was desperate to help spread the message. Now that the eye of the hurricane has passed, Corben gives Bosch and Fischer plenty of time to tell their stories to the unblinking eye of his camera. In a stroke of genius, he also employs the considerable talents of a dozen, or so, pre-teen actors to impersonate other players in the scandal. Although the kids stick to the script, their costumes, padding and hairstyles turn what could have been a dry recitation of nearly forgotten events, into a comedy of errors worthy of Carl Hiaasen and the late, great Elmore Leonard. The common denominator in Screwball isn’t necessarily greed, however. Simply put, the performance-driven pros wanted to gain the same statistical edge as other athletes, whose almost freakish achievements spoke for themselves. They did so during pennant races and before their contracts expired. Finally, though, Bosch was done in by his own expensive habits and a mad desire to bask in the spotlight of his clients’ glory. Fischer simply wanted to be respected by people he admired. A $4,800 reimbursement would have discouraged him from snooping around the office and supplying evidence to a reporter at a weekly newspaper. For his part, A-Rod enjoyed the protection of influential media pundits, who bought into his story, and local gangsters, who, for a price, would fulfill his requests. Meanwhile, MLB executives sought the same authority to chase down outlaws as the FBI and DEA. The real schmucks here, however, are the parents of Little League and high-school athletes who went to Bosch to score steroids and PEDs, so their kids could excel at the next level. Sounds a bit like Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and the other millionaire moms and dads who only wanted to give their kids an edge, by paying a fortune to get them enrolled in the most prestigious colleges.

Trapped Alive: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Andromeda Strain: Special Edition: Blu-ray
If the disappearance of drive-in theaters in the 1970-80s weren’t so devastating, the release of Leszek Burzynski’s reasonably entertaining Trapped Alive might not have been delayed for five years, with the distribution rights handed off to a completely different company. It didn’t help that it was the first movie to emerge from Wisconsin’s now-defunct Windsor Lake Studios, which would go on to produce a number of genre treasures (Mindwarp) under the Fangoria Films label. Otherwise, Trapped Alive wallowed in VHS hell as just another mutant-cannibal/slasher thriller that showed its seams at every turn and required T&A to keep its audience from dozing off every 15 minutes. Today, it’s considered to be a minor cult classic by genre buffs, whose opinions carry weight on niche websites. Cameron Mitchell (The Toolbox Murders) tops the marquee, even though most of the action involves a pair of teenage pals, Robin and Monica (one-time wonders, Sullivan Hester and Laura Kallison), who, one wintry night, are carjacked on their way to a Christmas party. Three desperadoes have just escaped from the local penitentiary and can’t decide whether to hold them for ransom – which never works – or simply force them to disrobe and submit to their demands. That happens after the jamoke driving the stolen car manages to cause it to plummet down a hill and into an abandoned mine shaft. Unbeknownst to the trapped humans, they’ve trespassed their way into the lair of a mutant cannibal, who has been living in the cavern for a couple of decades, waiting for such happy surprises to arrive. Soon enough, they’re joined by a sheriff’s deputy, who’s just finished schtupping the Cher wannabe who’s married to the mine’s dullard caretaker. Even by drive-in standards, Trapped Alive remains a smallish picture of interest primarily to genre geeks, teenage boys and topless-scene completists, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t get a kick out of it. Arrow gives it a spanking new 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentaries with Burzynski, special-effects artist Hank Carlson, horror writer Josh Hadley and The Hysteria Continues; a fresh making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Burzynski, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, production manager Alexandra Reed and actors Alex Kubik and Sullivan Hester; a vintage episode of “Upper Michigan Tonight”; a 1988 television documentary on Windsor Lake Studios, featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the DIY set of Trapped Alive; contemporary interviews with Burzynski, producer Christopher Webster and production designer Brian Savegar;  “Leszek Burzynski: The Early Years”; a reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Justin Osbourn; and a collector’s booklet, with new writing by Zach Carlson. Some genuine classics haven’t received this much coverage when they launched in Blu-ray.

Before he created Westworld and Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton first blurred the line between science fiction and science fact with his breakout novel, The Andromeda Strain. Its success forced the 6-foot-9 Harvard Medical School student to begin using his real name – instead of clever pseudonyms – and move west to try his luck in the movie dodge. (God only knows what such a mind might have accomplished had he stayed in medicine.) Two years after the novel’s publication, Robert Wise was hired by Universal to direct the film adaptation. Wise brought in  screenwriter Nelson Gidding, with whom he collaborated on  The Haunting (1963). In 1972, Crichton joined the ranks of directors, by adapting his novel, “Pursuit,” for television. Then came Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978). The Andromeda Strain effectively linked the noir-tinged procedurals Panic in the Streets (1950) and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), with And the Band Played On (1993), also about an imported plague, AIDS. In The Andromeda Strain, almost an entire New Mexican town is wiped out by an air-borne virus carried into Earth’s atmosphere by a spent satellite. Curiously, only a baby and elderly alcoholic seem immune to the crystalline menace. The remains of the satellite and both survivors are sent to Wildfire, a top-secret underground laboratory equipped with a nuclear self-destruct mechanism. Because of the remote location of the town, the lethal organism has yet to spread elsewhere. It’s only a matter of time, however, and the clock is ticking. In hindsight, the movie’s state-of-the-art computers and other high-tech implements look pretty primitive. The interaction between scientists and technicians – men and women – still holds up to scrutiny, however. The production benefitted from Douglas Trumbull’s post-2001 visual effects and an avant-garde electronic musical score by Gil Melle (The Sentinel). The Arrow Video package is highlighted by a new restoration from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; commentary by critic Bryan Reesman; a worthwhile critical appreciation, “A New Strain of Science Fiction,” by Kim Newman; “The Andromeda Strain: Making the Film,” an archived featurette, with Wise and Gidding; “A Portrait of Michael Crichton,” also from 2001, featuring an interview with Crichton; “Cinescript Gallery,” with highlights from the annotated and illustrated shooting script by Gidding; a BD-ROM: PDF of the 192-page ”cinescript” with diagrams and production designs; a reversible sleeve featuring original newly commissioned artwork by Corey Brickley; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Peter Tonguette and archival publicity materials

Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert, 1970
Previously unreleased on video, except for excerpts shown recently on PBS, “Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert 1970” provides a visual record of one several concerts and CD collections honoring the American saint, who died in 1967, at 55. It represents the second of two star-studded concerts produced by Harold Leventhal to benefit research into hereditary diseases, like the one that stilled the voice of the hugely influential singer/songwriter. (“It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort disturbed people and to disturb comfortable people.”) The first was staged at New York’s Carnegie Hall, three months after Guthrie lost his battle with Huntington’s chorea, which also claimed his mother. The 1970 tribute concert was held over two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. (It might have inspired George Harrison to organize “The Concert for Bangladesh,” a year later.) At 80 minutes, the DVD couldn’t possibly cover all of the highlights of the concerts and still allow room for readings by actors Will Geer and Peter Fonda. Considering that live-concert recordings of such events had yet to be perfected – at times, there were too few microphones and cameras to handle the number of musicians involved – the DVD looks and sounds remarkably good. The performers on “Woody Guthrie: All-Star Tribute Concert 1970” include Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald and Richie Havens. It isn’t designed to take the place of more complete CD collections from Bear Family Records, Sony Legacy and Smithsonian Folkways. Listening to Woody singing his own material is a completely different experience than listening to other artists covering him. And, yes, his songs are every bit as relevant today as they were during the Dust Bowl, Great Depression and Red Scare. Extras include three never-before-seen songs performed by Baez, Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack, as well as concert rehearsal footage and audio interviews with Arlo and Ramblin’ Jack.

TV-to-DVD
Amazon: Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan: Season One
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Film Movement: Sara Stein: From Berlin to Tel Aviv: The Complete Series
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Jungle Rescues
Fox/Saban: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie
When John Krasinski finished his 188-episode run on “The Office,” portraying Jim Halpert, the gentle homewrecker and stabilizing force at dysfunctional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, it wasn’t easy to predict what he’d do for an encore. In addition to voicing characters in several animated features, he lent his support to Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit (2017), Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015) and Michael Bay’s 13 Hours (2016), since rebranded as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (see below). He also turned his attention to directing the rom/dram/com, The Hollars (2016), and co-writing, directing and co-starring in the wildly successful supernatural thriller, A Quiet Place (2018). The Amazon Prime mini-series, “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” proves that “13 Hours” wasn’t a fluke and Krasinski could handle playing a kick-ass soldier with the best of them. As the titular character, Krasinski joined Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck and Chris Pine as protagonists drawn from the Clancy’s so-called “Ryanverse.” (Unlike the other theatrical installments, “Jack Ryan” wasn’t adapted from a Clancy book.) Just like every succeeding actor who played Ryan, Krasinski brought something different to the character. Here, he’s in the beginning stages of his career, serving the CIA as a financial analyst. I found it a tad ironic that this iteration of Ryan combines elements of Jim Halpert and Krasinski’s Jack Silva, from 13 Hours. When the former Marine stumbles upon a suspicious series of bank transfers, his search for answers catapults him from the safety of his desk job, into a global game of cat-and-mouse with an up-and-coming terrorist leader, Mousa bin Suleiman (Ali Suliman). If this Ryan ultimately is an Everyman in extremis, Suleiman is a fully realized character, with well-founded reasons for becoming a jihadist and a complicated family life. He’s also a monster. Because the story unfolds over eight hourlong chapters – it’s been renewed for two more seasons – the audience learns everything they need to know about the characters, their backgrounds and motivations. Spook jargon occasionally gets in the way of normal human discourse, but viewers get the picture soon enough. Also prominent here are Wendell Pierce, as Ryan’s tough-to-like boss, Jim Greer; Abbie Cornish, as Ryan’s easily deceived girlfriend; Dina Shihabi, as Suleiman’s courageous wife; and several extremely convincing child actors. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a Dolby Atmos soundtrack.

Although the events depicted in 13 Hours have been manipulated beyond recognition by disingenuous Republican politicians and Hillary haters, the movie retains its power to impress. Hardly anyone makes action films with the same verve, intensity and signature touches as Bay, and Krasinski is credible as the leader of the commando force facing incalculable odds. As was the case with Black Hawk Down (2001), where our intelligence services underestimated the ferocity of Somali militia fighters, the CIA contractors in 13 Hours were at a disadvantage when Libyan militants attacked our ambassador’s compound in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annex on September 11, 2012. Four Americans died in the assault: Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Information Officer Sean Smith and two CIA operatives, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs. Apart from being the anniversary of the 9/11 catastrophe, intelligence officials at the CIA, Pentagon and State Department should have foreseen how a leaderless Libya might be ripe for an uprising coordinated by members of the Islamic militant group, Ansar al-Sharia. Requests for increased security at American diplomatic facilities went unanswered until the Benghazi attacks demonstrated the possible shortfalls. When everything went wrong for the American team, six men had the courage to take it upon themselves to unscramble the clusterfuck, for which there was plenty of blame to go around. This is their story. Paramount’s marketing strategy targeted the same audiences that supported Lone Survivor and American Sniper, with a special emphasis on Republican lawmakers, whose primary goal was to discredit President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Thus politicized, the picture barely covered its $50-million production nut – not accounting from marketing costs — with another $16 million generated the foreign box office. The 4K UHD presentation upgrades Paramount’s already excellent 2016 two-disc Blu-ray. Here, the bundled Blu-ray includes the earlier supplements, “For the Record: Finding the Truth Amid the Noise,” “Uncovering Benghazi’s Secret Soldiers,” “Preparing for Battle: Behind the Scenes of 13 Hours,” “Operation: 13 Hours Premiere” and “In Memoriam.” The Atmos track is every bit as invigorating as one would expect.

Recent DVD and Blu-ray releases from the BBC, MHz, Acorn and other off-brand streaming services attest to the notion that the world has caught up with American producers of crime-based mini-series and courtroom dramas. While U.S. networks continue to shove impossibly young and physically attractive cops and lawyers down viewers’ throats – with the occasional veteran actor to add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings – the foreign imports are far more diverse and less obsessed with youth, beauty and bosoms. While Film Movement’s four-chapter, “Sara Stein: From Berlin to Tel Aviv: The Complete Series” doesn’t attempt to break much new ground in the genre, it tweaks the clichés and tropes is unexpected ways. The first involves locations largely unfamiliar to American viewers. Sara Stein (Katherina Lorenz) is an Israeli criminal investigator, working as a police investigator in Berlin. It’s entirely likely that she moved to Germany to avoid family entanglements that involve at least one overbearing Jewish mother, intrusive friends and the macho camaraderie that erupts when she returns to Israel and joins a police unit comprised of military veterans from the same unit. Even after Sara proves herself worthy of their support, she’s trips the wire on a long-buried secret among the smug male detectives. The four telefilms require that she solve the murders of an Israeli deejay in Berlin; the police inspector in whose seat she now sits; an archeologist corrupted by fame and money; and a human rights activist whose severed hand and forearm wash up on a beach. Apart from the occasional subtitle, the films are easily relatable to audiences here.

Nickelodeon’s latest compilation, “Paw Patrol: Jungle Rescues,” is comprised of seven adventures that are set, you guessed it, in a jungle. It features a double-length episode, in which they’re also required to solve the mystery of the Monkey Queen. In other episodes, the patrol swings into action, when an enchanted coconut turns Mayor Humdinger into a baby; an elephant gets trapped on a jungle gym; and a gigantic ape wanders into Adventure Bay.

First released in 1995, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie has been passed around as if it were a movie in the public domain that suddenly got hot. The brand name, alone, has been monetized to the point where you’d think the law of diminishing returns would have kicked in years before the new Blu-ray release. Still, the franchise keeps bouncing around the world, in search of audiences that weren’t born when the last re-release was launched. In the U.S., it’s carried the fingerprints of several different units of Twentieth Century Fox (now Disney-21st Fox), Saban Entertainment and Toei Company. Twenty-four years after the show’s boom times, Shout! Factory has picked up distribution rights. It’s been presented theatrically, in VHS, on cable and broadcast television, on DVD and, finally, on Blu-ray. In it, a giant egg is unearthed at a construction site. When opened, it releases the terrible Ivan Ooze. who wreaks vengeance on Zordon — an inter-dimensional being and the ultimate fighter for good — for imprisoning him six millennia ago. He is the leader of most of the Power Ranger teams. As always, the live-action heroes skydive, skateboard and engage in hand-to-hand combat, after morphing into their color-coded Power Ranger alter egos. Here, they fight giant metallic monsters and a villain who smirks like Freddy Krueger and leaves gobs of purple goo in his wake. With Zordon dying and their powers lost, the Rangers head to a distant planet to find the mystic warrior, Dulcea. The Blu-ray includes, “The Mighty Leap to the Silver Screen,” a new 44-minute documentary that covers the script’s origins, casting, the Australian locations, Ivan Ooze’s makeup, stunts, the Rangers’ armored suits, reception at the movie’s premiere and interviews with director Bryan Spicer, stars Jason David Frank, Johnny Yong Bosch, Steve Cardenas, Karan Ashley, Paul Freeman, Jason Narvy and some of the stunt performers; and the original 4½-minute promotional featurette.

The DVD Wrapup: Eleven, Genesis 2.0, Climax, Sweet Murder, Let Sunshine In, One Sings, Eugenie, JCVDx2, Boom!, Velvet … More

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Eleven
Now that another Memorial Day is in the books, it’s worth remembering the combatants on both sides of the lines who were killed minutes before and after the ceasefires were called and armistices were signed. Someone had to be the last one to die and typically it was because of a mistake made by an overzealous officer or a soldier who wasn’t on the need-to-know list. It’s a tragedy compounded by ignorance or malice. I don’t know if the military records how such blunders occurred, or if. parents and spouses are alerted to the true nature of their loved one’s sacrifice. (We know that instances of friendly-fire casualties often are disguised.) Sean Cronin and Rock Salt’s Eleven is a small film on the recurring tragedy of bad timing. It dramatizes what happened on a single battlefield in France, I believe, in the 11 minutes leading up to and away from the World War I armistice. It went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of 1918, but negotiations on the terms of disengagement would take six more months. In Eleven, soldiers on both sides of the line knew it was coming and some resisted orders given at the very last moment to score one last tag. Although we aren’t shown the German officer who ordered his troops to prepare for a last-minute counterattack, we do meet the demented Brit who uses toy soldiers to prepares for the final assault. We are introduced to their immediate subordinates, who assume their directives are based on solid intelligence and never learned to say “no” to a dubious order. Nonetheless, they’re reluctant to pass them along to their men.

Filmed on a relatively compact piece of land on a micro-budget, we learn a little bit about the 11 men who died and a bit more about the one or two who survived. For some reason, the death-dealing shots are made to sound more like individual firecrackers or caps than loaded bullets, and the “assault” resembles a re-enactment by war buffs. Still, the sunshine of humanity occasional shines through the darkness. In the UK,  Eleven’s November 11, 2018, release coincided with the arrival of Peter Jackson’s more formidable documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, which not only colorized black-and-footage from the Great War, but also added a hi-def sheen to the century-old images. (They both arrived on DVD and/or Blu-ray in time for Memorial Day.) Driven by a personal interest in the war, Jackson set out to re-create the day-to-day experiences of frontline British soldiers. After months immersed in the BBC and Imperial War Museum’s archives, Jackson was able to re-capture dialogue, and formulate narratives and strategies on how to tell this massive story. (Time restraints prohibited inclusion of restored footage of naval combat, the invention of aerial combat and the war effort at home, where women joined the workplace, leading directly to the success of the women’s suffrage movement.) They Shall Not Grow Old made almost $18 million in its U.S. release and, no doubt, more millions in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, both of which recorded terrible losses in the war. Eleven would be fortunate to break even. Both deserve to reach their intended audiences.

Genesis 2.0
The fact that woolly mammoths have been discovered intact and in pieces for hundreds of years doesn’t diminish the entertainment and educational value of Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev’s fascinating documentary, Genesis 2.0 (2018), one bit. It takes viewers to the remote New Siberian Islands, in the Arctic Ocean, where Native Siberian hunters scratch the permafrost surface – literally — searching for the tusks and intact carcasses of the long extinct behemoths. Global warming has made their jobs considerably easier. The hunters don’t appear to mind the presence of the filmmakers and scientists as they scour the frozen tundra for ancient ivory. They are far more cautious when it comes to revealing the exact locations of their finds, some of which are extremely valuable when sold in China and places where tusks are sculpted into jewelry, religious and historical treasures. One of the hunters reminds us of native mythology that cautions against touching or unearthing buried animals. In some digs, they leave behind ornaments and blessed soil. One estimate puts the annual harvest, if you will, at between 20-30 tons of mammoth ivory from the New Siberian Islands, of which the hunters reap only a few hundred dollars in return. Ethical questions are also addressed. The filmmakers visit facilities in Korea and China, where sequencing and stem-cell research have produced litters of puppies, some for sale to people, like Barbra Streisand, who can’t deal with the loss of a beloved pet. Researchers prefer to point out the work done on cures for Down’s syndrome and other diseases. It’s also possible that the genetic tools provided by long-frozen beasts, might free commercial interests to open their own versions of Jurassic Park or, perhaps, Mammoth Burgers franchises. Could vivisection be far behind?. I’d like someone to clone Babe Ruth, Wilt Chamberlain and Seabiscuit, but Barbra and her rich friends’ puppies come first.

Climax
A Record of Sweet Murder: Blu-ray
When a Stranger Calls Back: Blu-ray
A few weeks ago, in my review of Brink Video’s “Edwin Brienen Collection,” I lumped it together with a couple of films from Darkside Releasing, directed by Vince D’Amato, as examples of a new school of transgressive “entertainment.” The recent re-release of A Serbian Film (2010) also prompted a perusal of Internet sites that keep track of such supremely offensive titles. I couldn’t have known how soon I would be called upon to return to the subgenre. Turns out, not long, thanks to the ever-controversial Gaspar Noé, who, 15 years ago, earned a permanent place on most lists with Irreversible. In it, the events of one traumatic night in Paris unfold in reverse-chronological order, Monica Bellucci’s character is brutally raped and beaten by a stranger (Jo Prestia) in an underpass. Her boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and ex-lover (Albert Dupontel) take matters into their own hands by hiring two criminals to help them find the rapist, so that they can exact revenge, in kind. Roger Ebert put himself in the minority, by giving Irreversible three stars and a heads-up to potential viewers attracted by Bellucci and Cassel. Among the many walkouts during its theatrical run were 200 members of the audience at its Cannes debut. Three others fainted during the same showing, which reportedly left everyone else sitting in almost complete silence, until the next movie was scheduled to start. By contrast, Climax received a standing ovation. It’s set in the mid-1990s, inside a rehearsal space of a closed school, where a racially diverse troupe of dancers is rehearsing to the pounding hip-hop music provided by a very large deejay. The dancers seem possessed with a divinely inspired surge of enthusiasm and energy that combines improvisation with ideas provided by Noe. Parts of it were shot in single 10-minute takes and from every conceivable angle. In my untrained opinion. it’s as exciting as anything in All That Jazz (1979), West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002).

Like the street artists who invented the locks, pops and robotic moves, in the first place, it doesn’t feel at all choreographed … which some of it was. Audition tapes give us an opportunity to meet the dancers as individuals, and not the characters they’ve been assigned. They all make their livings dancing, or try to, at least, but probably would do it for free. The exception of Algerian actress, dancer and model Sofia Boutella (Atomic Blond), who started her career in Capezios. Once the rehearsal ends, the dancers celebrate by sharing cups of sangria laced with something that combines the worst tendencies of meth, LSD, ecstasy and PCP. When it begins to kick in, Noe pulls the rug out from under the feet of his characters and audience. As he describes the transition: “The first part of Climax is like a roller-coaster, the second like a ghost train.” Noe’s also compared it to a version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the humans revert to being apes and their natural forces re-emerge. One critic described that opposing halves as “Rent meets Lord of the Flies.” It’s nothing short of madness, as the stoned dancers try to discover the person who dosed the sangria and, then, turn against each other, largely based on racial and class distinctions. The soundtrack turns aggressively loud and the women’s screams are unbearable. Not only is Climax the first R-rated release in Noe’s career, but it received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It made him suspect that he’d done something wrong. It’s interesting that he positioned the end credits to appear 2 minutes into the film; the main credits, 43 minutes later; and title card within the final 8 seconds. The featurette, “A Visceral Experience: Making Climax,” caps off the package.

Kôji Shiraishi’s Grotesque (2008) has appeared atop some lists I’ve seen, as well. If his Teketeke (2009), Occult (2009), Noroi: The Curse (2005), The Slit-Mouthed Woman (2007) and Sedako vs. Kayako (2016) have, so far, failed to make the cut, it’s only because they’ve been so rarely seen in the U.S. (It’s entirely possible that “SvK,” which pits the vengeful spirits of the Ring and Grudge series against each other, someday will be adapted for western audiences.) Critics found Shiraishi’s A Record of Sweet Murder (2014), newly released on DVD, to be something of letdown, but not for lack of trying on his part. His decision to shoot 95 percent of the film in a single take, in a single deserted apartment, drained a bit of the suspense from the film, as did the reliance on a found-footage narrative. (Yawn.) In it, the inarguably insane Sang-joon (Yeon Je-wook) has recently escaped from a Korean mental institution and, since then, has amassed a kill count of between 18 and 25 innocents, depending on who’s keeping score. He invites a childhood friend, South Korean investigative journalist Soyeon (Kkobbi Kim), to meet with him in an abandoned apartment building, with a Japanese cameraman (the mostly unseen Kôji Shiraishi) and no other recording devices. Turns out the criminal and reporter are linked by a childhood tragedy, involving the accidental death of a playmate, and Sang-joon wants his captives to bear witness to the final two murders on a list he believes was handed down to him by God. When then happens, he expects, their little playmate will be resurrected and return to him. He predicts that the final two killings will involve a pair of Japanese lovebirds (Ryôtarô Yonemura, adult star Tsukasa Aoi), who will  mysteriously be attracted to the fifth floor of the same building. The only other things to know are that the totally nutso Sang-joon continually threatens his unarmed captives with a carving knife and cleaver, and that his Japanese guests have criminal backgrounds, as well, but favor slashing knives and baseball bats. The weapons may have been made of rubber here, but they appear to be razor-sharp stainless steel. The Unearthed Films package arrives without extras.

When a Stranger Calls Back (1993) doesn’t really fit in a summary alongside Climax and A Record of Sweet Murder, except in its willingness to jack up the levels of suspense to the limit. It is a belated sequel to co-writer/director Fred Walton’s When a Stranger Calls (1979), which fit right in with the emerging women-in-jeopardy trend. If viewers of Record of Sweet Murder, viewers never know which bodily appendage will sliced off next, or orifice violated, the menace in “Stranger” derives from more traditional conceits. Here, an unseen fiend begins to harass a babysitter almost as soon the parents leave the driveway. Their two children are already asleep upstairs, so the high school student, Jill Johnson (Carol Kane), has nothing to distract her from the stalker lurking outside. The incessant ringing of a telephone, backed by a scary musical soundtrack, not only begins to unnerve the girl, but it has the same effect on viewers. By the time the parents return home, their kids have been butchered and Jill has come within seconds of sharing the same fate. Charles Durning played the cop who prevented the prowler from doing to Jill what was done to the children. Seven years later, in the same 94-minute span, the killer escapes the mental hospital in which he’s been incarcerated and returns to terrorize the now-married Jill, who has kids of her own. Once again, Durning intervenes. Pretty simple, huh? Even though When a Stranger Calls returned nearly 20 times its production budget, but co-writer/director Walton found it difficult to sell a sequel to Columbia and other major studios. The moment had passed. The only company to show him some love for When a Stranger Calls Back was Showtime, which, in 1993, was just beginning to experiment with original movies. Then, as now, the premium-cable service was a place where exhausted subgenres never went out of style. In the sequel, Jill (still Kane) works for a victim’s-rights agency, while Durning’s cop, John Clifford, has retired. Even though she was approaching 30 years old at the time, Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) fit the role of a babysitter, who, when summoned, didn’t have time to change out of her school uniform. Once again, the babysitter – newly named, Julia Jenz – is taunted by an invisible antagonist … two, actually. One is standing behind the front door, demanding to be allowed inside to call AAA. It’s only when Julia agrees to call the service, herself, that the threatening calls begin. Once again, the sitter escapes death. Four years later, the still-traumatized Julia begins to receive threats from someone who knows that she’s a sitting duck in a dorm room. Police recommend that she contact Jill, who asks Durning for some help. After revisiting the scene of the original crime, he concludes that the assailant is a ventriloquist who knows how to blend into his surroundings. If When a Stranger Calls Back wasn’t as graphic as today’s cable-TV standards would allow, it probably raised more than a few goosebumps. The climax, which Walton says was influenced by the supermodel Veruschka (Blow-Up), is pretty clever. Simon West’s 2006 remake of When a Stranger Calls, starring Camilla Belle, Katie Cassidy and Clark Gregg, made some money by sticking to a modest $15-million budget. Critics didn’t like it, though, even if cellphones were integrated into the story. The newly remastered Scream Factory Blu-ray is presented in its original 1.33:1, for TV broadcast, and an alternate 1.78:1 theatrical version; interviews with Walton, Kane and Schoelen; and Walton’s gritty 1977 short film, The Sitter, which concisely set up the first 20 minutes of the 1979 feature.

Let the Sunshine In: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One Sings, the Other Doesn’t: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When the great purge of full-time, adequately paid movie critics began in the mid-’90s and continued into the ’2000s, the primary reason given by the editors of mainstream publications was to save money on salaries and benefits. Local voices were lost, but syndicated reviews cost almost nothing and freelancers even less. Other unstated reasons included basic disagreements between features editors and news editors as to the value of reviews. The latter relied on box-office tallies in USA Today to determine quality, without also watching the movies, themselves. Some editors considered critics to be too effete for their readers tastes, and, as such, expendable when studio advertising began to shrink. (An editor once fumed to me about the lack of quotes pulled from our pundits’ reviews by studios for inclusion in the display ads placed in Sunday and Friday features sections. The alternative was for critics to inflate the value of stars attached to “popular” releases and deflating the stars accorded arthouse films. Occasionally, an overly vague sentence or paragraph would be added, so advertisers could tailor it to their needs. Some reviewers became notorious for their leniency.) Some editors went so far as to justify the firing of white, male critics – and the occasional white woman – by saying they wanted to diversify the paper’s voice. What they didn’t want to do, however, was pay for the luxury. The promise of a Golden Age of Internet Criticism loomed, but not for long. Pretty soon, the number of unpaid critics – in all of the artistic disciplines – surpassed the number of staff reviewers. Advertising flowed into a handful of websites, while others simply disappeared or stopped paying for content. Fans of arthouse, indie and documentary films were required to rely on reviews and articles in local alternative and niche media for sound opinions. Sadly, they also began laying off critics and reducing the space to accommodate brief summaries of select films, plays, exhibits and concerts. which, today, are mere skeletons of their former selves. Blessedly, such aggregators as Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes have filled some of the vacuum left by the Great Purge by redefining “mainstream” and separating critic reviews and audience reviews.

After watching Criterion Collection’s impressive Blu-ray editions of Claire Denis’ brilliant 2017 drama/comedy/romance Let the Sunshine In (a.k.a., “Bright Sunshine Within”) and Agnès Varda’s 1977 historical drama One Sings, the Other Doesn’t, I really wanted to learn what women critics thought of these very different, if similarly feminist films. The latter was released before aggregators came into vogue, so I’ll let Roger Ebert’s then-contemporary four-star review and Carmen Gray’s recent analysis on VillageVoice.com stand as consensus. (Most of the other nine critics based their ratings on DVD releases and revivals. Only a single audience response was recorded and only Ebert, Gray, Dave Kehr and Justin Chang were designated “top critics.”) Of the 46 reviews by Metacritic contributors, only 6 were written by women. Rotten Tomatoes tends to cast wider net. In its look at Let the Sunshine In, which includes several newspapers, magazines and websites in the UK and Australia, the ratio of men-to-women was slightly better, but not by much. The 134 conclusions by “all critics,” derive, as well, from vanity and other niche websites, 87 percent of which certified it “fresh.” An audience score of 30 percent  — 582 responses, presumably many from home viewers – baffled, but didn’t surprise me. What could they have been expecting? On Metacritic, only 11 “amateurs” bothered to respond, with 5 positive, 5 negative and a single middling review. The interesting thing to me was the contrasting opinions of men and women critics. Men seemed to focus less on the foibles of the individual characters and more on the tour-de-force performance by Binoche, who, for obvious reasons, has never been afraid to play her age (55). While women critics also admire Binoche’s portrayal of the lonely, love-starved, but not-at-all brittle divorcee, many of them found it difficult for one inarguably desirable woman to make so many bad choices in lovers, who come in several different sizes, shapes, ages and colors. All of the critics took their time to express their opinions, even when they were negative, and found it to be a worthwhile viewing experience.

Let the Sunshine In was adapted from Roland Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments” by novelist Christine Angot and frequent Denis collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau. In my opinion, which isn’t part of the aggregators’ tallies, Isabelle goes through lovers like some serial killers go through victims: obsessed one minute, pissed off the next. Once Isabelle mind is made up, the men are dead in her eyes. Viewers will generally, if not always agree with her assessments. Her ex-husband may be total dick, but it’s easy to see why they agreed on a divorce. What we don’t understand is why she keeps having hit-and-run sex with him. She’s given him custody of their daughter and, in return, doesn’t have to pay rent in the building they once shared. He refuses to return his set of keys to her and walks in whenever he feels like it. From a distance, Isabelle’s only guilty of looking for love in all the wrong faces and allowing her libido to overcome reason. She asserts her independence by favoring short leather skirts and jackets, black stockings, over-the-knee boots, colorful scarves and ironic t-shirts. If Binoche weren’t as beautiful as she is – with silky smooth skin and impeccable makeup – Isabelle might have resembled one of those sad cougars on “Real Housewives.” When her tears ravish her cosmetics, however, she looks 15 years older than when’s she out on the town. (Much credit for this transformation is owed cinematographer Agnès Godard.) Finally, after yet another lover has failed to impose his conditions on their relationship – or burdened her with his neuroses – Isabelle visits a psychic (Gérard Depardieu), who reads her like a book and doesn’t hold back on his opinions. He  neatly sums up her problems in the romance department, while also advising to keep on keeping on. The clairvoyant sees better luck in her future, but he can’t say when or with whom (probably not married lechers, though). It’s an amazingly well-scripted, exquisitely acted sequence, which benefits, as Binoche allows in an interview, from time spent together with Depardieu in an earlier, more intimate setting. In some ways, I think, Let the Sunshine In bears comparison to Francois Truffaut’s underseen The Man Who Loved Woman (1977) and kinda-sorta of John Trent’s difficult-to-find Middle Age Crazy (1980), which, I’m sure, wasn’t on Denis’ radar. The Criterion package adds a pair of newly recorded and absolutely essential interviews with Denis and Binoche; Denis’ incisive short film, “Voilà l’enchaînement,” which depicts what can happen in an interracial marriage, when misread signals come between spouses; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.

As dated as Vardas’ One Sings, the Other Doesn’t may seem to women who came of age after Roe v. Wade, it might feel like yesterday for their mothers, grandmothers and aunties who struggled for the right to decide what happens to their own bodies, as well as the ill-fated ERA and equal pay for equal work. That includes the ranks of staunch feminists, harried housewives and hippies, who decided it was time to make their own way in life, trying not to let male-dominated legislatures get the best of them. Now that the right to an abortion is more threatened than it’s been in nearly a half-century – at least, in the states controlled by right-wing troglodytes – such discussions have returned to relevancy. One Sings, the Other Doesn’t follows the intertwined lives of two young Parisian women, who become close friends in 1962, but, in most respects, are opposites. Pauline/Pomme (Valerie Mairesse) is a red-headed 17-year-old spitfire, who befriends a dour 22-year-old neighbor, Suzanne (Therese Liotard), who is the unmarried mother of two toddlers and once-again pregnant. Her married photographer lover, Jerome (Robert Dadies), can barely afford to maintain one family, let alone two, so, when Pauline suggests an illegal abortion, her hesitancy only comes from a lack of money and proximity to a safe clinic. Pauline lies to her parents to get the money, but the procedure is performed too late to prevent Jerome from committing suicide. His inability to secure a divorce and make money as a commercial photographer – not the abortion, which may have been shielded from him — have forced him over the edge. The women will go their own separate ways, meeting up occasionally to let the audience know what they’ve been up to and where they’ve been. Nothing remarkable, considering the times, but interesting.

By the mid-1970s, when they hook up once again, Pomme is part of traveling group of talented activist singers, busking their way around Europe. She was married to a Persian man, Darius (Ali Rafie), and moved with him to pre-Ayatollah Iran. After deciding that life there was untenable, Pauline decides to go home. He agrees to let her go, but demands that she leave their son in Isfahan, which is what happens. Suzanne and her two children struggle for a while on a relative’s subsistence farm, before she self-teaches her way to a stable life as administer of a family-care center in the south. By the time Suzanne’s daughter and son have grown into their teens, France is a completely different place for women than it was when she was their age. The trials and tribulations of motherhood haven’t gotten any easier, however. The 2K restoration was supervised by Varda, who died this past March 29, at 90, and cinematographer Charlie Van Damme. It adds a pair of short films, “Women Are Naturally Creative” (1977), a documentary directed by Katja Raganelli, featuring an interview with Varda shot during the making of the film, plus on-set interviews with actors Mairesse and Liotard; “Réponse de femmes” (1975), on the question “What is a woman?”; “Plaisir d’amour en Iran” (1976), another short film by Varda, starring Mairesse and Ali Raffi; and an essay by critic Amy Taubin, with excerpts from the film’s original press book

Eugenie … The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion
On the face of it,  Eugenie … The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1970) is only slightly more watchable today than a dozen other soft-core flicks from Jesús Franco’s sexploitation mill. It differs tonally from the early erotica of Radley Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet) and Chuck Vincent (While the Cat’s Away ...), and mid-career Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), if only in Franco’s obsession with edgy pre-Victorian literature and a willingness to cast a wide net for actors. The same casting formula was used to sell Italian genre pictures outside Italy and Spain. Eugenie … (a.k.a., “De Sade 70″) benefits from the presence of expatriate American Jack Taylor (Succubus); Stockholm-born Marie Liljedahl, who’d already appeared in Joseph W. Sarno’s Inga and The Seduction of Inga; prolific Swiss character actor Paul Muller (Moses, the Lawgiver); and Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man). Lee has said that he was under the impression his only responsibility was to narrate Sade’s writings and was surprised to see his name attached to what was being marketed in London as a porno. Lee further explains that the scenes in which naked bodies are shown writhing behind him – wearing a smoking jacket borrowed from Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) – were staged to prevent him from seeing a quick removal of costumes. Stranger things have happened, I suppose. Of all the cast members, however, Vienna-born Maria Rohm is the most intriguing. The classically trained ingenue was content to settle for a career on stage, until, at age18, she auditioned before writer/producer Harry Alan Towers (a.k.a., Peter Welbeck). The 50-year-old Brit (The Face of Fu Manchu) was about to make a hard-right turn into the exploitation business, hitching his wagon to Franco’s perverse story-telling genius and Rohm’s professional approach to some pretty seedy material. (That, and her slinky 5-foot-6 frame, golden-blond hair and steely reserve.) Before her retirement, in 1976, to join her husband in the producers’ office, she’d worked alongside an odd lot of international stars: including Lee, Klaus Kinski, Vincent Price, Jack Palance, Tony Randall, Senta Berger, Herbert Lom, James Darren, Frankie Avalon, Richard Attenborough, Charles Aznavour, Barbara McNair and Oliver Reed. Broken down to its essentials, Eugenie … describes what happens when the virginal teenager, Eugenie (Liljedahl) is summoned to an isolated island off the Spanish coast, by an aunt (Rohm) who’s decided she isn’t maturing fast enough into womanhood. Little time is wasted breaking the girl into the cult of DeSade, organized by her aunt, her “brother” and a bunch of S&M devotees, who dress up in pirate outfits and show up after the girl’s meals have been dosed. Franco and Towers saw the torture scenes as being part of Eugenie’s coming-of-age process. They’re reasonably hard-core, without drifting into XXX territory. Cinematographer Manuel Merino (Vampyros Lesbos) captures much of the island’s natural light, while also adding some psychedelic tricks during the torture scenes. The Blue Underground Blu-ray package adds a new video interview with film historian Stephen Thrower; archival interviews with Franco and Towers; cast and crew interviews; a large collection of promotional materials; a CD, featuring Bruno Nicolai’s soundtrack; and an 18-page illustrated booklet with writings on the film and technical credits.

Double Impact: MVD Rewind Collection: Blu-ray
Way back when I was a lad, I found myself in the same Pasadena bank as the Doublemint Twins. Presumably, their contributions to Wells Fargo’s solvency were exponentially larger than mine would ever be, then and now. Although I had known twins of both genders while growing up, I’m embarrassed to recall that I stared at them as if they had just escaped from the midway of a traveling circus. That isn’t to say they were freakish in any way, shape or form. Being in the presence of beauty-squared – especially in its most apple-pie wholesome form – almost brought me to my knees. I’m sure they were as unaware of the damage done to American teeth by chewing gum, as they were of my presence that day. The twin fighting machines on display in Sheldon Lettich’s Double Impact (1991) were separated as infants after a Triad hit squad attacked their parents’ limousine. Their mother begs the gang’s leader to spare the twins, but Moon (Bolo Yeung) is in no position to disobey his boss’ orders. In all the confusion, baby Chad is rescued by the family bodyguard, Frank Avery (Geoffrey Lewis), and raised in the U.S. At the same time, Baby Alex is dropped off on the doorstep of a Hong Kong orphanage by the family maid. Despite the miles separating them, the boys grow up in ways that argue a predisposition for martial arts and body building can be shared by twins, along with a handsome face and good hair. In the present day, Chad and Frank are running a successful martial-arts dojo and fitness center in Los Angeles, when Frank reveals a new “business” for the two of them in Hong Kong. At a financially appropriate time, Frank not only tells Chad that he isn’t his uncle, but, upon their return to Hong Kong, he should expect to meet his long-lost brother, Alex. Things get exceptionally complicated at this point, even by the standards established by chop-socky action flicks. Suffice it to say that the brothers quarrel before teaming up to avenge the deaths of their parents and wipe out the triad’s criminal operations. Lettich and JCVD’s screenplay leaves room for a pair of lethal women (Alonna Shaw, recent Ms. Olympia Corinna Everson) and a cameo by that June’s Penthouse Pet of the Month, Julie Strain. The Hong Kong scenery isn’t bad, either. The MVD Rewind package adds the two-part “The Making of Double Impact,” deleted and extended scenes, “Anatomy of a Scene” and a “collectible” mini-poster.

Boom!: Blu-ray
To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything: Julie Newmar: Blu-ray
No less an expert on outré entertainment than John Waters has cited Boom! (1968) as one of the “best films you’ve never seen.” (The same title as Robert K. Elder’s anthology on the subject.) It doesn’t seem possible that any British drama, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Noël Coward, directed by Joseph Losey, and adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, could be so savagely dismissed by critics and audiences as Boom! Waters explains the film’s singular appeal thusly, “… beyond bad. It’s the other side of camp. It’s beautiful, atrocious, and it’s perfect. It’s a perfect movie, really, and I never tire of it.” The film’s poster is visible in Waters’ 1972 outrage, Pink Flamingos, and he has introduced it to understandably skeptical cineastes at festivals around the world. Taylor’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth is a fabulously wealthy and thoroughly eccentric widow, who lives in a spectacular clifftop house on the Mediterranean island she owns (a.k.a., Sardinia). When the acrophobic Goforth isn’t too drunk or high, she dictates the words to a book to her beleaguered secretary (Joanna Shimkus). One day, the poet Chris Flanders (Burton) washes up on the beach below her villa, climbs the 1,000-foot cliff below it and reminds Sissy that she’d invited him to visit her, whenever he’s in the neighborhood. It’s an invitation she almost immediately regrets, especially after Coward’s “Queen of Capri” informs her of Flanders’ reputation as an Angel of Death, who guides rich and sickly spinsters to the afterlife. Add the wonderfully talented dwarf actor, Michael Dunn (“The Wild Wild West”), and you’ve got a movie that is more entertaining today than it was 50 years ago, when very different things were expected of the principals, Waters provides the commentary; “The Sound of a Bomb,” with critic Alonso Duralde; and three photo galleries.

President Trump and his Republican cronies are so phobic about the thought of having to share a rest room with a transsexual, transvestite or drag queen that they pushed for laws that would prevent such things from ever happening to anyone in the MAGA rabble. The controversy may be rekindled before the 2020 elections, but as long as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” remains on television, the next generation of voters isn’t likely to take the homophobic bait. It’s even gotten difficult to find shows that are targeted at young-adult audiences that don’t include one or more LGBTQ characters. La Cage aux Folles (1978), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), Paris Is Burning (1990), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) The Birdcage (1996) and Kinky Boots (2005) all went a long way toward changing attitudes toward gender-fluid people that mainstream Americans may not have encountered in their normal day-to-day activities. Beeban Kidron and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), which bears an uncanny resemblance to “Pricillla,” must have confused fans of macho guys Patrick Swayze (Dirty Dancing), John Leguizamo (Romeo + Juliet) and Wesley Snipes (White Men Can’t Jump) as much as Aussies who weren’t accustomed to seeing  Hugo Weaving, Terrence Stamp and Guy Pearce in gowns, heels and makeup. In the former, Vida (Swayze), Chi-Chi (Leguizamo) and Noxeema (Snipes) hit the road linking New York to Hollywood in a broken-down Cadillac. Naturally, they encounter a redneck cop (Chris Penn), who stops them for speeding, but is willing to forgive the offense for a quickie. After he discovers his mistake, the bully is knocked flat for his efforts. (It isn’t easy for him to explain the situation to his chief and fellow deputies.) The ladies find a temporary home in a Midwestern farm town, which they transform into their personal Brigadoon. The Shout Factory edition of “To Wong Foo” arrives with deleted scenes; the making-of featurette, “Easy Rider In Dresses”; and marketing material.

TV-to-DVD
MHz: Miss Friman’s War
MHz: Velvet: Seasons 1-4
MHz: Captain Marleau, Volumes 1-2
PBS: Frontline: The Trial of Ratko Mladic
Typically, before reviewing season-long compilations of television shows and mini-series, I prefer to do a bit of binging, first. If I were to binge my way through the trio of compilations I received last weekend from MHz Video, it would require 5,376 minutes of my not-so-precious time. That translates to 89.6 hours, or nearly 4 complete days, of staying glued to my television. OK, sometimes I’ll watch two shows simultaneously – one in English and the other subtitled – on my living-room unit and portable Blu-ray player. That isn’t an excuse for giving short shrift to any one of them … or, maybe, it is. Judging from the amount of material I’ve been able to absorb, however, I can safely recommend “Miss Friman’s War,” “Velvet” and “Captain Marleau” to fans of quality television who aren’t allergic to subtitles. Two of them involve the running of stores … large and small, on opposite ends of the economic spectrum.

The surprisingly addictive “Miss Friman’s War” traces the roots of  Sweden’s feminist movement to 1905, when a diverse group of women takes on the male-dominated Grocer’s Association, by opening a coop dedicated to providing fresh meat, fruit and produce, as well as other dry and canned goods and other merchandise, to women from diverse backgrounds. Children are dying of TB, while their fathers drink away the money that they’ve forced them to earn. The only food they’re able to afford is rancid or camouflaged to look edible and, of course, city officials and purveyors can’t be bothered. It prompts characters played Sissela Kyle, Frida Hallgren, Lena T. Hansson and Maria Kulle to organize a women’s solidarity organization and take on the men, including one or two husbands, constantly throwing hurdles in their way. In pre-World War I Europe, anyone harboring such anti-establishment feelings could be tarred for espousing Marxist ideals, threatening paternalistic families and dismantling class barriers. The melodramatic touches include the rekindling of long-dormant romance, the adoption of a mistreated boy; working-class romance; adultery; and the coming-around of a love-starved chauvinist. In Season Two and beyond, the women of the cooperative grocery store begin to campaign for women’s equal and universal suffrage, as well as the right to run for public offices; take on corrupt officials, some of whom force young women into prostitution; labor unions; and rumors of revolution.

“Velvet” is easy to recommend to fans of “Mr Selfridge,” “The Paradise” and other prime-time soaps for the BBC/PBS crowd.   It is set in late-1950s Madrid, during Spain’s golden age of haute couture, a period when Franco’s privileged patrons enjoyed pretending that they were too busy to shop in Paris, London or New York. Like Selfridge’s, Velvet’s management dotes on its wealthy patrons, whose tastes in haute couture haven’t changed in decades. With the swinging ’60s just around the corner, Velvet will have to change with the times or perish. That’s only one of several storylines that propel the mini-series. The rest mostly involve love, broken promises, adultery, deception and jealousy … the standard stuff. Unlike Selfridge’s, rank-and-file employees live, work and canoodle under the same roof. As in “Upstairs/Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” conditions are strict, without also being draconian. The women’s supervisor may be as rigid as they come, but her secrets are coming home to roost, like so many chickens. The men’s supervisor is more malleable, except when it comes to his niece, Ana (Paula Echevarría), whose happiness he blocks at every step. After the suicide of the store’s founder, his heir, Alberto (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), comes to believe that he and Anna can rekindle their long-simmering childhood romance. Instead, their hopes are dashed, when Alberto is offered a deal to rescue Velvet from bankruptcy, if only he agrees to marry the benefactor’s daughter. While there isn’t anything remotely wrong with Cristina (Manuela Velasco), with whom Alberto shares a romantic past, he will inevitably find his way back to Anna, once again threatening the store’s solvency, Very soapy, indeed. Two of the story’s greatest assets are its glorious Art Deco décor and mid-century fashions.

From France, “Captain Marleau” is the latest in a long line of TV mysteries, whose protagonist’s methodology bears a distinct resemblance to that of Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo. As portrayed by Corinne Masiero, Marleau is a high-ranking officer in the National Gendarmerie, with a hunter’s instinct. It comes disguised under a deliberately offbeat veneer and a hat inspired by Elmer Fudd. Like so many other TV cops, she’s a real piece of work. (As is also the case in such shows, the coroner is deceptively wise and funny.) Marleau doesn’t skim over cases, she plunges into them. Always on the prowl, she lies in wait for clues and her prey, until she can take them by surprise. In each episode, her case centers around a character played by a famous actor: Gérard Depardieu, Bulle Ogier, Victoria Abril, Bruno Todeschini, Pierre Arditi, Sandrine Bonnaire, Julie Depardieu, Yolande Moreau and David Suchet.

The PBS “Frontline” presentation, “The Trial of Ratko Mladic” describes how a legal case against a widely recognized war criminal can go from no-brainer to nail-biter over the course of 22 years. The media had long branded Mladic, “Butcher of Bosnia,” and deemed him responsible for war crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was convened in The Hague, was less willing to declare a verdict, even in absentia. The first indictment of Mladic was issued by the ICTY on July 24, 1995, but he escaped capture until May 26, 2011, after which he was promptly extradited to the Netherlands. His trial formally opened in The Hague on 16 May 2012. It would take another five years to convict Mladic on 10 of 11 very serious charges. They included one of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and four of violations of the laws or customs of war. He was cleared of one count of genocide. What … how did that happen? Watch this documentary and learn.

The DVD Wrapup: Big Brother, Iceman, Upside, White Chamber, Trading Paint, Dark Place, Ruben Brandt, Lords of Chaos, Earthquake, Seduction, Les Miz … More

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Big Brother: Blu-ray
Anyone able to visualize a movie that combines elements of To Sir, With Love (1967), Stand and Deliver (1988), Dangerous Minds (1995) and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” with Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man trilogy, will have a pretty good idea of what happens in Big Brother. I’d also toss Blackboard Jungle (1955) into the mix, but Kam Ka-Wai and Chan Tai-lee’s action/dramedy is set in a Hong Kong middle school and only handful of the kids could be considered juvenile delinquents. Like several of the protagonists in the movies already mentioned, Yen’s Henry Chen is a combat veteran. He’d performed heroic acts, but finally was traumatized by the toll paid by civilians caught in the crossfire. (His guardian had shipped the rambunctious youth to a military academy in the U.S., after which he joined the Marine Corps.) After taking time off to travel and reflect on his wartime experiences, he returns to Hong Kong, where volunteers to teach at the same school from which he was expelled. After years of neglect and understaffing, the school is in danger of losing its funding. I can’t recall whether Chen has a degree or was trained as a teacher, but he’s committed to using unconventional methods to reach the dead-enders. Typically, some of them relate immediately to his personable hands-on approach, while the hard-core elements show no interest in progressing. Chen, who appears to be everywhere at once, goes out of his way to explore what’s happening their lives at home and during the time they’re not doing homework. Not surprisingly, he learns how the most troublesome students have been impacted by the death or departure of a parent; a father’s alcoholism; another’s refusal to treat his daughter with the same positivity shown her brother; and one boy’s early acceptance in a street gang, whose leader is being paid by a developer to make the school disappear. It’s at this point that Yen’s martial-arts experience comes in handy. It allows Chen to overcome obstacles by kicking the crap out of the gangsters, who come at him in human waves when he disrupts their plans. His willingness to go to war for the students who’ve disrupted his classroom inspires everyone else in the school … kids, teachers and administrators. Now, if that makes Big Brother sound hopelessly contrived and overtly pollyannaish, it’s probably because we’ve seen the same movie a couple dozen times, already … hundreds, if you count “Kotter” reruns. The difference can be boiled down to Yen’s winning personality and inventive martial-arts choreography. As envisioned by Kam (Queen of Triads) and Chan (Ip Man), the middle-school students are cleverly drawn, worthy of our sympathy and deceptively vulnerable to outside forces. The antagonist’s foot soldiers are credibly nasty and, while no match for the hero, well-schooled in the martial arts and MMA fighting. In a satisfying, if tenuous narrative stretch, the gang leader (Yu Kang) has a secret connection to Chen, which extends to their days together in the same school. Their climactic fight is genuinely exciting and realistic.

Iceman
You might have heard of Ötzi, the mummified corpse discovered 28 years ago, in the Ötztal Alps – hence the name — near the border separating Austria and Italy. For the better part of the last 5,300 years, Ötzi has been hiding in plain sight on the east ridge of the Fineilspitze. His body was found on September 19, 1991, by two German tourists, at an elevation of 3,210 meters (10,530 feet). The hikers, who had wandered off the path between the Hauslabjoch and Tisenjoch passes, saw a bone extending from the frozen earth and notified authorities. It would take a while to determine the significance of the discovery, so Ötzi was transported to Innsbruck, together with objects found alongside the body, including an ax. Seven years later, Ötzi was put on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Bolzano, Italy. By then, forensics experts felt certain that he had bled out after being struck by an arrow. They also were able to determine what he’d eaten before he was attacked, where the food had been collected, how he made his living and the significance of his tattoos. All of these findings would inform Felix Randau’s fascinating Neolithic drama, Iceman (a.k.a., “Der Mann aus dem Eis”), which depicts what may have happened to Ötzi – here, named Kelab (Jürgen Vogel) — in the hours and days before his death. It was shot in the same mountains, at various elevations, that the keeper of his clan’s flame called home. Whatever hopes and dreams Kelab may have harbored were thwarted, when, while hunting, a marauding trio of savages pillaged his clan’s riverside outpost. They killed the men and raped the women; stole their valuables; desecrated their property; and set fire to the tents and shelters. The only survivor, beside Kelab, an infant child. The baby would accompany him, as he pursued the killers into further reaches of the valley. The mountains, which are spectacular, grow increasingly more threatening the higher Kelab treks and the weather begins to turn on him. The story benefits from not having to fake translatable dialogue and add subtitles. The guttural exchanges are a primitive form of an early Rhaetian dialect. Kelab hands off the child to the daughter of the leader of a down-river clan – played augustly by Franco Nero – freeing him to use stealth to exact his revenge. Anyone who enjoyed such movies as The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) and Quest for Fire (1981), which took place even earlier, should really get a kick out of Iceman. The DVD adds a bonus making-of featurette.

The Upside: Blu-ray
Not knowing much about The Upside before slipping the Blu-ray into the slot of my weary playback unit, it didn’t take long before experiencing the unmistakable sense of déjà vu. Sure enough, a quick visit to IMDB.com revealed it to be a fully credited transplant of Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s worldwide sensation Les Intouchables (2011), which also spawned Argentine director Marcos Carnevale’s Inseparables (2016) and Oopiri (2016), by Indian director Vamshi Paidipally and co-writer, Hami. Neil Burger and writer Jon Hartmere’s English-language adaptation only demonstrates how much Hollywood owes France, when it comes to such bright and lively adult entertainments: La Cage aux Folles (“The Birdcage”), Le Diner de Cons (“Dinner for Schmucks”), Les Compères (“Father’s Day”), Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire (“The Man with One Red Shoe”), among many others. The Upside, which starred Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman, did very well in domestic release, despite decidedly lukewarm reviews. Several American critics griped that The Upside merely represented the latest Hollywood effort to show that a black man and a white man, with seemingly nothing in common, can see past their differences and develop a mutual friendship …” (The Wrap).

Even if The Upside were an accurate portrayal of Hollywood liberalism in action, it’s more likely that its producers and audience were, once again, on a different wavelength than mainstream pundits. Some knee-jerk critics reject such notions as odd couplings actually exist in real life; that white males in power do occasionally come to the rescue of minority men and women in distress; and that easily conned white viewers can’t see through such blatant agitprop. The same dubious wisdom was dismissed by AMPAS voters as recently as the naming of Green Book for their choice of Best Picture. The more likely reason for re-adapting Les Intouchables was the ability of studio executives to recognize a sure thing when BoxOfficeMojo alerts them to one. Of the $426.6 million the French soufflé grossed worldwide, a not-so-bad $10.2 million was collected in the U.S. Even with largely unrecognizable stars and subtitles, that sum, alone, probably covered its production costs.  By adding three recognized box-office favorites and maintaining a modest budget of $37.5 million, not counting reasonable marketing costs, studio bean-counters probably foresaw profitable returns from cross-over audiences. The strategy worked to the tune of a $108.3 million domestic haul and another $13.9 million in foreign sales. With numbers like that, Hollywood execs will gladly wear the tar of liberality.

In The Upside, a recently paroled ex-convict, Dell (Kevin Hart), struggles to gain the signatures of three companies or individuals who’ve placed help-wanted notices. That’s he’s more interested in collecting signatures to maintain his freedom, than actually earning a paycheck, is evidenced when stumbles into an interview with quadriplegic billionaire Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) and his highly protective financial adviser, Yvonne Pendleton (Kidman). Because Phillip isn’t all that interested in prolonging his life any longer than is necessary, he recognizes in Dell someone who wouldn’t care if he lives or dies, either. This attitude amuses Phillip, almost as much as it disturbs Yvonne, who uses baseball metaphors to suggest that Dell is being given three strikes to avoid being fired. When he asks how much he would be paid, Dell is struck dumb by Phillip’s generosity. For most of the next two reels, the three characters trade barbs, witticisms and challenges … some funnier than the others. When Dell discovers Phillip’s expensive automobile collection in the garage, he asks the onetime daredevil if he’d like to take a hot lap around Manhattan in one of the sports cars. With the lead-footed Dell at the controls and nothing to lose, in any case, Phillip digs the adrenal juice that flows inside him. The rest of The Upside is easily predictable, even by viewers unfamiliar with the original. A sentimental twist at the end, while satisfying, can be seen from several miles away, as well. Still, the chemistry between the stars – two of whom would argue they’re playing against type — keeps things from getting slogged down in handwringing, heart wrenching and mind-numbing melodrama. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a gag reel; featurettes, “Onscreen Chemistry: Kevin and Bryan,” “Creating a Story of Possibility,” “Bridging Divisions,” “Embracing Positivity” and “Presenting a Different Side of Kevin Hart.”

White Chamber: Blu-ray
Paul Raschid’s techno-thriller, White Chamber, is set against the background of a civil war in the United Kingdom, triggered, in part, by an uprising of oppressed immigrants. That much we know from a few flashbacks and news footage. Otherwise, the story is set in a glass, steel and concrete penal facility, at the center of which is a rather large plexiglass cube. It has been fitted out with implements of psychological and emotional torture, as well as some two-way compartments that can be used to transfer food and utensils. Lying on the floor is an anonymous woman (Shauna Macdonald), who claims to be a clerical worker, but is being for grilled for information she swears she doesn’t possess. Because her inquisitor (Oded Fehr) feels otherwise, he punishes her by controlling the temperature inside the cell, alternating between Arctic and rain-forest conditions, as well as starvation and spiking what food she is given with hallucinogens. Then, without warning, the inquisitor – revealed as a leader of the insurgents – has switched places with the woman. Now, we know her as Dr. Elle Chrystler, a chilly scientist who’s about to lose control of her experiments to the whims of subordinates. To the extent that White Chamber works, at all, it’s because of forceful performances by Macdonald (The Descent) and Fehr (“Sleeper Cell”), which bypass the need for most explanations. Comparisons to the British game show “The Cube,” as well as the sci-fi/drama/thriller Cube, are impossible to ignore. That shouldn’t bother fans of the series or, for that matter, torture.

Trading Paint:  Blu-ray
God knows, anyone with a private air force in his back yard probably doesn’t need anyone telling him which movies he should or should not make. Fabulously wealthy people do what they want, when they want to do it and for reasons known only to them. For most of the last 10 years, John Travolta has been the recipient of slings and arrows from critics and fans who wonder what went wrong with his roller-coaster career and why he keeps repeating his mistakes. For every return to form – “American Crime Story,” “Hairspray,” “Get Shorty,” “Pulp Fiction” – there’s been several times that many more stinkers. Feeling obligated to watch such kamikaze missions as Gotti (2018), Speed Kills (2018), I Am Wrath (2016), Life on the Line (2015) and Battlefield Earth (2000) must be tortuous duty for Travolta’s diehard admirers and completists. One can only hope that some of the money that isn’t spent on jet fuel, goes directly into the Jett Travolta Foundation, which raises money for children with educational needs. (A similar tithe should be exacted from actors and state film commissions that benefit from such fan-bait movies.)

Apparently, Travolta has been feeling an acute need for speed, lately. In Speed Kills, which was partially shot in Puerto Rico and Miami, he plays Cigarette-boat designer and multimillionaire crook Ben Aronoff. Trading Paint was made on location in Alabama, a state that loves its redneck pastimes, but won’t be seeing much Hollywood money until its misogynistic leaders retire or die. The title, Trading Paint, derives from NASCAR jargon, describing what happens when drivers play bump-and-run with other competitors’ cars. Lifelessly directed by Karzan Kader (Bekas), who was born in Kurdistan and raised in Sweden, it’s a classic tale of a father/son rivalry that escalates beyond the point of any reason. Travolta plays veteran short-track racer Sam Munroe, whose son, Cam (Toby Sebastian), is getting impatient, waiting for his dad to get over some personal problems and put him in a competitive car. When Cam alerts Sam of a job, raise and driving offer from his archrival, Linsky – Michael Madsen, who else? – the old man throws a conniption fit. Cam’s family needs an influx of money and Linsky is happy to teach Sam a lesson. Anyone who can’t figure out what happens in the next few months hasn’t been paying attention to good-ol’-boy melodramas. Among the cast members are Western Heritage Award-winner Buck Taylor (“Gunsmoke”), Barry Corbin (Urban Cowboy), Kevin Dunne (“Veep”), Rosabell Laurenti Sellers (“GoT”) and Walk-of-Fame singer/songwriter Shania Twain, all of whom have a right to wonder why the star’s name is the only one to appear on the box cover and posters.

After re-reading my Big Brother review, I began to wonder how many times Travolta has been pitched “Welcome Back, Kotter” sequels, in which Vinnie Barbarino volunteers to fill in for his mentor, Gabe Kotter (Gabe Kaplan). The now-74-year-old teacher has decided to retire, move to Atlantic City and risk his pension, playing poker. A whole new generation of Sweathogs could be introduced, as mirror images of Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Probably, a thousand times. I’m warming to the idea, however.

A Dark Place: Blu-ray
When a young boy turns up dead in a sleepy Western Pennsylvania town, everyone wants to belief that he wandered away from home and drowned in a nearby river. It made sense on most levels, except for the fact that the boy’s closest relatives didn’t press for an autopsy or any investigation into how the reclusive child found his way so far away from his comfort zone. The protagonist of Simon Fellows (Malice in Wonderland) and Brendan Higgins’ deliberately paced arthouse thriller, A Dark Place (a.k.a., “Steel Country”), is garbage-truck driver Donald Devlin (Andrew Scott), who remembers seeing the boy wave at him from his bedroom window on pickup days. After offering his condolences to the boy’s mother, Linda (Denise Gough), her affectless reply begins to bother Donald. He immediately embarks on an obsessive investigation to prove that foul play may have been involved in the boy’s death. Working on little more than a hunch, Donald’s case is fortified when he begins to receive warnings about continuing his search. Unable to do so, he digs up the body and pleads with a local medical examiner to go where law-enforcement officials refused to tread. He even takes up the challenge made by the letter-writer to meet at a bridge, underneath which trains pass. I’ve deliberately left out the role played by his work partner, Donna Reutzel (Bronagh Waugh), who grows increasingly concerned about Devlin’s off-the-job safety. That’s all we’ll say about that. A Dark Place was accorded lukewarm reviews upon it’s extremely limited release, ahead of a launch on DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. It probably works just as well, maybe better, as a small-screen crime story. Scott and Waugh make a terrific pairing, even if any romantic attachment is tenuous and beside-the-point.

Lords of Chaos: Blu-ray
Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders
I think it’s safe to say that Rory Culkin has effectively stepped out of the shadow of his older brother, Macaulay, who appears to be on extended hiatus. In 2018, alone, Rory’s taken key supporting roles in TV mini-series, “Waco,” “Castle Rock” and “Sneaky Pete,” with another series and feature film already on tap. He’s listed as a co-producer on Lords of Chaos (2018), a loud and nasty rock-u-drama based on the life and hideous death of former Mayhem guitarist Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth. Euronymous (Culkin) narrates the movie from the grave – or his ashes, one – as an early member of the extreme heavy-metal band; founder of the record label, Deathlike Silence Productions; and owner of Helvete (Norwegian for “Hell”), an Oslo record store and hangout for hard-core musicians, known collectively as the Black Circle. All I know about Norwegian Black Metal is that aficionados can tell the difference between it and Swedish Black Metal, both of which I’ve experienced in

Heavy Trip (2018), Metalhead (2013) and Until the Light Takes Us (2008). The difference between the characters we meet in those films and such English-language pioneers of heavy metal as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer and Steppenwolf approximates resembles the difference between a semi-retired member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a rotting corpse, which is what some of them yearned to be. In his 1962 novel, “The Soft Machine,” William S. Burroughs includes a character known as “Uranian Willy, the Heavy Metal Kid.” In the late 1960s, “heavy metal” was used to differentiate the subgenre from “acid rock.” While “heads” were weaning themselves from psychedelia, “headbangers” found solace in the former’s dark imagery and occasionally Satanic lyrics. By the time Norwegian Black Metal came into the picture, heavy metal had subdivided itself into glam, punk, thrash, death, black, industrial, sludge, goth, doom, drone and symphonic. It keeps evolving, but you’d need a keener sense of hearing than mine to discern the sub-generic differences. In Jonas Åkerlund and co-writer Dennis Magnusson’s extremely dark and violent Lords of Chaos – based on Michael Jenkins Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind’s 1998 book, “Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground” – describes Mayhem’s decision to put their money where their lyrics were by murdering people, slicing veins on stage, successfully committing suicide and burning down dozens of churches. The movie is not for the faint of heart or easily offended. Besides Culkin, it features gritty performances by Emory Cohen, as “Varg”; Jack Kilmer, as “Dead”; Anthony De La Torre, as “Hellhammer”; Valter (Son of Stellan) Skarsgård, as “Faust”; Jonathan Barnwell, as “Necrobutcher”; Sam Coleman, as “Metalion”; Lucian Charles Collier. as “Occultus”; and Sky Ferreira, as Ann-Marit. The names, alone, approximate the darkness of what humor there is in Lords of Chaos. The bonus material adds “11 Director’s Teasers”:

Cleopatra Entertainment’s Room 37: The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders dramatizes the sad final days of ex-New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders, who also formed an early edition of the Heartbreakers. Addicted to heroin throughout most of career, Thunders arrived in New Orleans in April 1991, committed to begin a new chapter of his life by following a new musical sound, and staying clean from drugs in order to see his kids again. When he settled into the St. Peter’s Guest House, he was carrying an adequate supply of methadone and enough money to get him through recording sessions and the occasional gig. Unfortunately, Thunders made the kind of mistake that native New Yorkers brag about never making, by neglecting to close the door to Room 37 before pulling a wad of cash out of one bag and putting it into the one containing his methadone. Not surprisingly, after a night on the town, Thunders returns to his room, which has been broken into and robbed. He attempted to score another supply of methadone – legally and illegally – without a prescription or the money to pay for it. Thanks to a lack of interest by the city’s police department, co-writer/directors Fernando Cordero Caballero and Vicente Cordero had almost nothing upon which to base their story, except conjecture and the shared memories of friends. Instead, they’ve concocted a scenario that may remind some viewers of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” According to a passage from Dee Dee Ramone’s autobiography, one of Johnny’s band members “told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards … who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.” An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, who concluded that the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. Thunders’ sister, Mariann Bracken, said the autopsy also confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which might have explained the decline in his appearance in the final year of his life. The musician’s nightmare end is well-depicted by the Cordero brothers and emerging actor, Leo Ramsey. The multimedia package includes a Blu-ray disc, DVD, bonus soundtrack CD and extended preview of the in-concert video, “Madrid Memory.” MVD Visual/Jungle also offers Danny Garcia’s compelling documentary, Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders.

Ruben Brandt, Collector
This brilliantly colorful, tremendously imaginative and delightfully hyperactive animated feature reminds me of how narrow the gap separating animators from the U.S., Europe (East and West) and Japan has become since I began paying attention to such things. Disney still sets the standard not only for blockbuster movies, but also creating humanoid characters to sing, dance and canoodle on Broadway stages, on ice and at sporting events and theme parks from Paris to Japan. Since the mid-’90s, however, major animation studios and niche operations have used computer animation and CGI to level the playing field. With the exception of Hayao Miyazaki, producers of anime and manga-inspired films have used the same technology to expand their horizons beyond kiddie fare, sci-fi and superheroes. Every year at Oscar time, at least one post-Miyazaki creative team, or another, scores a nomination for animation that appeals more to adults than children. The short category no longer is dominated by Pixar. Western European studios have wowed with sophisticated storytelling and literary storylines. Although Klasky Csupo has been based in Hollywood since it was founded in 1982, it introduced American television audiences to a distinctly Eastern European sensibility, which was still being stifled behind the Iron Curtain. Such series as “Rugrats,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” and “The Wild Thornberrys” challenged Nickelodeon audiences to adjust to characters who owed more to Salvador Dali and Picasso, in his Cubist period, than Walt Disney. They looked as if they stepped off a spacecraft from the nearest populated planet to Earth, while babies knew more about life than their parents.

Milorad Krstic and co-writer Radmila Roczkov’s whimsical caper/thriller, Ruben Brandt, Collector, was financed by the Hungarian National Film Fund, whose sales arm placed it in festivals around the world and sold it to Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in the Americas. Not bad, considering the 67-year-old Krstić’s last credit was for the 1995 short, “My Baby Left Me,” and it’s Roczkov’s debut as writer/producer. Since 1989, the Slovenia native has been living and working in Budapest, as a painter and multimedia artist. As such, it’s entirely possible that he’s experienced some of the same dreams/nightmares that haunt his “Collector” protagonist, psychotherapist Ruben Brandt. In Brandt’s dreams, at least, figures from a 13 famous paintings come alive to torment him. They include Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis,” Manet’s reclining Olympia, Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy,” Botticelli’s Venus, Bazille’s Renoir portrait, Velázquez’s Infanta Margarita and images from works by, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Edward Hopper and the creation of Madison Avenue mad men. Knowing how much their doctor is suffering from lack of sleep, a group of his more larcenous patients teams up to steal the paintings and present them to Brandt, so he can “own his fears.” Krstic allows, “I’ve visited most of the museums you see in the film and use these locations — the Louvre, Tate, the Uffizi, MOMA, Art Institute of Chicago, St. Petersburg, Washington, among them — to make Ruben Brandt, Collector feel like a James Bond movie. This is a film about art, and I wanted to show that art belongs to the globe.” He also throws in references to Alfred Hitchcock, Dada and snails found in paintings through the years. Brand names and labels are placed next to masterworks. The backgrounds appear to have been inspired by Salvador Dali. When the museums put a $100-million price on his head, the Collector and his gang is forced to expend their energy dodging bounty hunters and other art thieves. (The sultry Mimi resembles various women painted by Picasso, Fernand Léger and Georges Braque.) This is one picture that benefits from repeat viewings.

Motel Mist
Foreigners visit Thailand for all sorts of reasons: street food, beautiful beaches, rain forests, elephant rides and, of course, sexual freedom. Thais visit the Motel Mistress – on the outskirts of Bangkok – for reasons of their own. Billed imprecisely as a sci-fi thriller, Prabda Yoon’s Motel Mist describes what happens during a seemingly routine afternoon in the “love” motel, through the eyes of four very different patrons. Although the sex isn’t particularly graphic, what’s on display will disturb viewers unfamiliar with such no-holds-barred operations, where guests are assigned rooms designed to sate their fetishes. It opens with Sopol, a typical Thai father figure, picking up a teenage girl, Laila, at her school and driving her to the motel, where, for a price, she’ll allow him to corrupt her. In another room,  a former child actor, Tul, hides from the media spotlight and the aliens he believes are coming to take him away. Tot, a motel staffer, dreams of finding a better job and, perhaps, the lucrative reward money offered by Tul’s mother. Sexy teenager, Vicky, arrives just in time to help keep Laila from falling under Sopol’s violent domination. These four lives eventually connect in a way that none of them could have anticipated. Motel Mist gets off to a tortuously slow start, but it picks up when we become attuned to Yoon’s conceits. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the filmmakers simply paid the manager of a similarly garish love motel to turn the premises over to them for the time it took to capture what goes on inside it. Thai movies aren’t particularly easy to grasp, even the ones that have won prestigious awards at international film festivals. In the case of Motel Mist, it’s worth doing some homework before committing to the price of a rental.

Earthquake: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
At the same time as Hollywood was beginning to embrace a new generation of movie mavericks, it also made room for traditional storytelling, in films that combined melodrama with natural and manmade calamities and terrorist threats. The trend began in 1970, with Airport, and ended a decade later, with the box-office bomb, The Concorde … Airport ’79, and hilarious parody of such “event” pictures, Airplane! (1980). In between, there were The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Skyjacked (1972), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Two-Minute Warning (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and Black Sunday (1977) and Gray Lady Down (1978). In 1974, The Towering Inferno, Airport 1975 and Earthquake competed for top box-office honors with Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Godfather: Part II, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, Gone in 60 Seconds and Benji. Some of them were the last to be shown in the gloriously designed movie palaces of yore. For those readers whose parents weren’t even born in 1974, it’s worth noting that Mario Puzo and Mel Brooks are represented in the top-10 with two titles each. You don’t have to be nearing the age of Social Security eligibility to pick out Brooks’ hits, or the second most prominent adaptation of a Puzo novel. It came as a surprise to learning that the author/screenwriter of The Godfather also penned the first draft of the Earthquake screenplay. When Universal executives deemed it to be too multi-layered, too expensive and overpopulated with characters who resembled actual human beings – heaven, forfend — the rewrite assignment went to magazine writer George Fox, who had never penned a screenplay. Director Mark Robson helped him work on the 11 drafts submitted to Universal, before one of them made the cut.

Like every other disaster movie, before or since, the cast included a dozen or more then-familiar actors, led by Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, George Kennedy, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold, Richard Roundtree, Marjoe Gortner and an uncredited Walter Matthau. An A-lister, Matthau insisted on being credited as Walter Matuschanskayasky, which several people incorrectly believed to be his real last name. Combine writer/alcoholic Charles Bukowski and streetwise informant Huggy Bear — Antonio Fargas’ character on “Starsky & Hutch” – and you’ve got Matuschanskayasky. He wears Superfly-inspired outfits and barely notices the first temblors. It’s hilarious. Otherwise, the only thing to know about Earthquake is that it’s set in a Los Angeles largely inhabited by middle-class white people – this, even after the Watts riots and bloody National Chicano Moratorium March, in 1970 – who weren’t wasn’t remotely prepared for a 9.0-magnitude shake. That would be like New Orleans being prepared to handle a hurricane packing twice the wallop of Katrina. Given the reliance on pre-CGI special effects, however, Robson made the best of a cliché-ridden situation. The two-disc Shout Factory re-release features 2K remasters of the theatrical and television versions of the film, original marketing material,  additional TV elements and featurettes,  “Sounds of Disaster: Ben Burtt Talks About Sensurround,” “Scoring Disaster: The Music of Earthquake” and “Painting Disaster: The Matte Art of Albert Whitlock.” In layman’s terms, Sensurround was employed by Universal in select big-city theaters to amplify the sonic impact of scenes depicting the Big One, which lasted 20 minutes longer than most such events. It required removal of several rows of seats and the installation of large, low frequency, horn-loaded speakers, which contained specially designed 18-inch drivers in custom-made black wood cabinets. Because the vibrations also caused pieces of the ceiling to fall into the audience, Sensurround was only used three more times, on Midway, Rollercoaster and Battlestar Galactica.
The Seduction: Blu-ray
This glossy 1982 thriller may not have been the first movie to address the menace of stalking and the people who prey on women who can’t escape their grasp. It’s difficult, after all, to forget scenes in Cat People (1942), in which Simone Simon’s Irena Dubrovna tracks and terrorizes her rival, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), in a darkened swimming pool. Alice wasn’t a celebrity, however, and Irena was lusting for her fiancé, not her. Let’s just say that David Schmoeller’s The Seduction (1982) was among the first movies, in the wake of attacks by John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman, to anticipate a series of attacks on women, prominent in the arts and media, whose lives would be threatened by unhinged fans and outright psychopaths. In the interview section of the Blu-ray package producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and writer/director David Schmoeller recalls how the story was influenced by a newspaper article about the stalking of a popular actress. (The near-fatal attack on actress Theresa Saldana occurred later that year.) Although, in hindsight, the inaccurately titled The Seduction can be considered prophetic, it was, at the time, purely an exploitation flick. Before viewers know anything else about the endangered TV-news anchorwoman, Jamie Douglas (Morgan Fairchild, in her first feature), she’s shown taking a skinny-dip within full view of a neighbor (Andrew Stevens) wielding a long-lens camera. When she rebuffs his attention – in the form of gifts and flowers – he convinces himself that the blond beauty is merely playing hard-to-get. Somehow, Derek is able to monitor her phone calls and badger her with calls of his own. Naturally, the situation escalates to the point where Jamie and her boyfriend, Brandon (Michael Sarrazin), attempt to enlist the help of police detective Maxwell (Vince Edwards), who’s helpless to do much more than advise her to buy a gun. If, in the end, frontier justice prevails, some important points are made along the way. In real life, a couple of decades and several similarly brutal attacks would pass before police departments were authorized by law to anticipate such crimes and nip them in the bud. Detectives also were taught to take women’s complaints seriously. In that light, The Seduction can be viewed as a cautionary tale. And, anyone who thinks Fairchild was too beautiful – artificially, perhaps – to be an anchorwoman … well, they weren’t paying attention to what was happening on the national and local news reports in the 1980s. Dazzling bleached-blond news readers and weather goddesses sat alongside ancient white male newsreaders and goofy male sports reporters, making horrible crimes and terrible accidents palatable for the consumption family audiences. Fox News is famous for honing and perfecting the same sexist policy. I suspect that most of them have been harassed by “fans” and seen video-captures of them crossing their legs for everyone on the Internet to “like” and pass along to fellow pervs. Maybe that’s putting too much weight on a long-forgotten drive-in hit, but an interview with Curtis, Schmoeller and L.A.P.D. detective Martha Defoe, from the force’s Threat Management Unit, suggests there’s still a long way to go.

The Short Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Raymundo Gleyzer’s active career as a creator of revolutionary documentaries ended with his disappearance and presumed death, at the hands of Argentine fascists and/or CIA torturers, in 1976, at the beginning of Operation Condor (a.k.a., Dirty War). The films he made over the course of 10 years tested the patience and resolve of right-wing leaders and their backers in the military to eliminate resistance by factory workers, agricultural laborers, students, artists and intellectuals. This put the filmmaker in the company of the roughly 30,000 people who were deemed threats to the dictatorship and disappeared in Argentine concentration camps or after being flown over international waters were dropped, sometimes already dead or barely alive. Facets’ “The Short Films of Raymundo Gleyzer” is comprised of “Swift” (1971), “Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive” (1973) and “They Kill Me If I Work and If I Don’t Work, They Kill Me” (1974). Like other documentary makers, he identified himself as a revolutionary first and artist second. He eschewed Hollywood production values and intended for them to be seen by workers in whatever venues were available to them: whitewashed walls, lunchrooms, union halls. In “Swift,” Gleyzer joins displaced workers in line for factory distributed food and blankets. In “Don’t Forget, Don’t Forgive,” he puts viewers in the middle of a meeting of socialist leaders as they work out the terms for a peaceful surrender of escaped political prisoners. These young revolutionaries speak with confidence and idealism, but, days later, would be listed among the martyrs at the Trelew massacre. The most stylized of these films is “They Kill Me If I Work and If I Don’t Work, They Kill Me,” which chronicles an outbreak of lead poisoning among factory workers due to inhumane and completely disregarded factory conditions. The title derives from one of the ditties sung by the striking workers. Also included is Jorge Denti’s “The AAA Are the Armed Forces” (1979). It concerns the disappearance of the body of the activist writer Rodolfo Walsh, after he was shot in an ambush by a special military group on March 25, 1977.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Les Miserables: Blu-ray
PBS: Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters
PBS Kids: Splash and Bubbles: The Kelp Forest
PBS Kids: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?
The last 110 years of cinematic history have been marked by repeat productions of beloved literary classics, of which Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is right on top of the list. If a better recipe for the perfect historic drama exists, it can only be found in the bible. Between Jean Valjean’s search for redemption, Javert’s twisted quest for “justice,” Fantine’s futile struggle for love and security, and Cosette’s pursuit of legitimacy in a corrupted Paris, lies a story no screenwriter or playwright has topped. A huge commercial success from Day One, “Les Miserables” has stood up against the snotty critiques of George Sand, Baudelaire and Rimbaud’s mother, among others, and it was banned by the Vatican as a “socialist tract” and publicly burned in Spain. Neither did the musical versions of “Les Misérables” escape the criticism of elitist critics. And, yet, audiences love it. Between 2007 and 2018, it’s been revived on film four times. Newly released on Blu-ray is Andrew Davies and Tom Shankland epic BBC One “Masterpiece” adaptation, which is concluding its run on some PBS affiliates. It might take some time for diehard fans of the 1980 musical to recognize the bones of the 1,280-page Modern Library edition in the six-episode, 240-minute mini-series. Having watched abridged versions of the book, I was struck by the intricacies and historical details that inform the mini-series. The acting is uniformly terrific, as well. Among the standouts are Dominic West (“The Affair”), as Jean Valjean; David Oyelowo (Selma), as Javert; Lily Collins (To the Bone), as Fantene; Ellie Bamber (Nocturnal Animals), as Cosette; Adeel Akhtar (“Unforgotten”), as the thieving Thénardier; Olivia Colman (The Favourite), as the abusive Madame Thénardier; Erin Kellyman (Solo: A Star Wars Story), as the abused Azelma Thénardier. Also superb are Richard Bullock’s production designs; Ilse Willocx’s set decorations; Marianne Agertoft’s costumes; and Stephan Pehrsson’s subdued cinematography. The Blu-ray adds informative making-of and background featurettes. “Les Miserables” is extremely binge-worthy.

When the docu-drama, “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters,” was shown in Britain last year, it marked the centennial of the murders of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Empress Alexandra. Like most of Europe’s royals, Nicholas had cousins in the United Kingdom and blood ties to potentates whose names are meaningless, today. When it was time for Nicholas to abdicate his throne, it was the furthest thing from a game. While there was practically no way for him to avoid violent reprisal for his crimes against the impoverished Russian people, vast unearned wealth and an inability to govern in periods of economic, military and civil stress, and pressure to join what promised to be an unpopular war. Nicholas held a sliver of hope that his family might be allowed to slip away to another monarchy. Instead, on the night of July 17, 1918, they were unceremoniously executed by their Bolshevik guards. The locations of their bodies remained a state secret for nearly 50 years, while conclusive IDs wouldn’t be made for another 40. As is typically the case, tyrants lose their bite after they’ve been buried for more than 50  years, or so, and their successors on the left have proven to be as bad, or worse, than they were. In 1981, Nicholas and his immediate family were recognized as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. Nineteen years later, they were memorialized by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the 1998 DNA test, the remains of the Emperor and his immediate family were interred at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral, Saint Petersburg, where then-President Boris Yeltsin said, “Today is a historic day for Russia. For many years, we kept quiet about this monstrous crime, but the truth has to be spoken.” Reassessments of the monarchy will continue for as long as the Russian people are ruled by oligarchs and remnants of the Soviet system. By humanizing the Romanovs, “Nicholas and Alexandra: The Letters” is part of the rehabilitation process. Through the couple’s politically damning, sexually intimate and personally revealing letters, this two-part docudrama, presented by historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, explores Nicholas and Alexandra’s complex love story and the couple’s role in the lead up to the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to their executions. I wonder if a DVD copy found its way to Buckingham Palace, where the ever-expanding Mountbatten-Windsor lineage may someday need to justify their very existences, beyond their role as tourist attractions.

From PBS Kids, “Splash and Bubbles: Explore the Kelp Forest” is comprised of six ocean adventures, suitable for viewing by very young viewers. They’ll enjoy watching Splash, Bubbles and Dunk, as they meet Tidy the Garibaldi, the self-appointed Kelp Forest Ranger. The forest fun continues when Splash and Bubbles try to babysit a curious and fearless seal pup named Tyke, who they can’t find during a game of hide-and-seek. It’s produced by the Jim Henson Company and Herschend Studios.

Also from PBS Kids comes “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Won’t You Be Our Neighbor?,” an American-Canadian children’s television series, co-produced by Fred Rogers Productions. The animated program, which is targeted at preschool-aged children, is based on the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In this compilation, Daniel is so excited to learn that a new family is moving into the neighborhood that he rallies his family members and friends to welcome the newcomers and help them adjust to their unfamiliar surroundings. Daniel even lends an extra hand to make Jodi Platypus, his new playmate, feel right at home.

The DVD Wrapup: Cold Pursuit, Valentine, Bosch, Nina, Shape of Now, Big Clock, Yakuza Law, Donna Reed, Unforgotten, Moses, Korea … More

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Cold Pursuit: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Big White: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray
When Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 thriller, In Order of Disappearance (a.k.a., “Kraftidioten”), was released on DVD in the U.S., it starred Stellan Skarsgård as Nils, a down-to-earth fellow who makes a living plowing snow in the mountains of Norway. When his son is mistakenly murdered by a ruthless drug gang, the recent Citizen of the Year awardee inadvertently ignites a war between the vegan gangster, Count (Pål Sverre Hagen), and his Serbian mafia-boss rival, Papa (Bruno Ganz). Before Nils can exact vengeance on whomever ordered the botched hit, he is required to kill his way through the many layers of the gangs’ hierarchy, one by one, which he does with great proficiency. His weapons of choice are snowplows and other heavy machinery. In Order of Disappearance is a terrifically exciting and darkly comic thriller that makes full use of its snowbound location. Now, if you or I had been asked to adapt the film for the consumption of English-speaking audiences, we might have considered keeping Skarsgård in the driver’s seat, based, as well, on his chilling work in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010), Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) or Liam Neeson, if he hadn’t already announced that he was getting too old for thrillers.  It would also be easy to  re-set the action in the American or Canadian Rockies, at the height of winter, and pit rival drug cartels against each other. (God knows, the apres-ski crowd loves its cocaine.) Director Hans Petter Moland (Aberdeen) had a better idea. He convinced Neeson, the world’s No. 1 action hero, to fill in for Skarsgård as the vigilante hero, Nels, and Americanized the story by turning into a contemporary Western. Before his son is mistakenly murdered, Nels is as much of a model citizen as Nils. The mountains of B.C. and Alberta are natural stand-ins for the Colorado Rockies, where Cold Pursuit is set. The cocaine cowboys and their Native American partners have profited in equal measure by pushing drugs in local communities. The truce is broken when Nels’ son is murdered and it’s made to look like a hit by the Indian gang. The grieving father tips over the first domino, by killing a few small-time dealers, who, before they die, give up the names of their suppliers. At the top of the ladders are Trevor “Viking” Calcote (Tom Bateman) and White Bull (Tom Jackson), who suspect each other of ordering the hits. By the time the small-town police department — eager new Kehoe Police recruit Kim Dash (Emmy Rossum) and her grizzled veteran partner John “Gip” Gipsky (John Doman) – they’re left with little to do, except to exchange light banter and notify the next of kin. Otherwise, Cold Pursuit and In Order of Disappearance are nearly identical. Laura Dern plays Nels’ distraught wife, who mistakenly blames herself for her son’s non-existent drug habit and disappears in the first reel. In 4K UHD, the snow drifts take on an extra dimension. Bonus features include “Welcome to Kehoe: Behind the Scenes on Cold Pursuit,” interviews with Neeson and Moland; and deleted scenes. Both movies are based on Finn Gjerdrum’s story, “Kraftidioten.”

Like Cold Pursuit, Mark Mylod and writer Collin Friesen’s dark and icy dramedy, The Big White (2005), takes place in parts of the Great White North that are usually reserved for migrating caribou, polar bears and the native Inuit. In summer, you might find the occasional prospector, seeking what’s left of the Klondike lode, or reality-show huckster. It’s a great place to shoot a movie, but only if the screenplay can stand up to the demanding conditions. Robin Williams plays an Alaskan travel agent, Paul, who owes money to everyone and has only one option. He decides to redeem his long-lost brother’s life-insurance policy, which has been collecting dust ahead of a ten-year deadline for the body to show up. When he discovers a frozen corpse in a dumpster, Paul devices a plan to dump the body in a spot where wolves, bears and crows will make identification difficult and, after a short period of mourning, lead police to believe it’s his brother. A local life-insurance agent, Ted (Giovanni Ribisi), remains skeptical. Before long, the hitmen return to the town to collect what remains of the body,  because their own skeptical boss demands proof. Don’t ask. Meanwhile, Paul’s missing brother, Raymond (Woody Harrelson), surprises everyone by returning home. After beating up Paul, Raymond demands a portion of the insurance money. To speed up the delivery of the million-dollar insurance payment, Paul convinces Ted’s supervisor that his agent beat him up. He satisfies the hitmen (Tim Blake Nelson, W. Earl Brown) by agreeing to dig up the original victim’s body and give it to them. When Raymond susses out the plan, he shows up at the cemetery, interested only in killing everyone and keeping the money for himself. Ted’s girlfriend (Alison Lohman) and Paul’s nutty wife (Holly Hunter), who has Tourette syndrome, add some giggles along the way. In the right hands, The Big White might have ended up resembling a minor-key Fargo. Up until 2005, however, Mylod was known mostly for directing the original British version of “Shameless,” “Succession” and “Ali G Indahouse.” Since then, his credits have included “Entourage,” Game of Thrones” and the Showtime version of “Shameless.” Writer Friesen is known best for his work on the CBC comedy “Schitt’s Creek.” The Blu-ray includes frigid on-location interviews with cast and crew.

Valentine: The Dark Avenger: Blu-ray
Kiss Kiss
While there’s never been a scarcity of female superheroes and supervillains in the world of comics and underground comix – R. Crumb’s Lenore Goldberg and her Girl Commandos and S. Clay Wilson’s Ruby the Dyke, among them – Hollywood’s had a hard time selling them to fanboy-heavy audiences. It’s too early to say if Patty Jenkin’s 2017 blockbuster, Wonder Woman, will open a door or be the exception that proves the rule. Former Miss Israel Gal Gadot is making a solid case for Wonder Woman’s place in the Pantheon of superheroes and clearing memories of four decades of miscues. Lest we forget: Supergirl was supposed to make her cinematic debut in the third installment of Ilya Salkind’s Superman series, starring Christopher Reeve, but Warner Bros. rejected the story outline. The first live-action depiction of Supergirl, then, was in the eponymous 1984 film, starring Helen Slater as Kara Zor-El/Linda Lee/Supergirl. Kara (Laura Vandervoort) was re-introduced in the seventh season of the CW’s “Smallville” and, seven years later, received a CBS timeslot of her own, played by  Melissa Benoist. The character has also appeared in several animated series, direct-to-video titles, web series and video games. Other memorable female protagonists include, Brigitte Nielsen, in Red Sonja (1985); Laurie Petty, in Tank Girl (1995); Pamela Anderson, in Barb Wire (1996); Michelle Pfeiffer, in Batman Returns (1992), Catwoman (2004) and Avengers: Endgame (2019); Pfeiffer and Evangeline Lilly, in  Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018); Tanya Roberts, as Sheena (1984); Jennifer Garner, in Elektra (2005); and, if vampire warriors count, Kate Beckinsale, the Underworld series (2003-16). Halley Berry’s take on Catwoman (2004) may have set female-superhero movies back 10 years, at least. (For my money, Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar’s take on the character in the “Batman” TV  series may never be topped.)

Tucked in between these action pictures was a pair of mid-range independent flicks — Kick-Ass (2010), Kick-Ass 2 (2013) – in which teen superheroes played by Chloë Grace Moretz and Aaron Taylor-Johnson delighted audiences with MPAA-defying profanity and violence. Based on the Marvel comic book of the same name by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., the youthful crimefighters, Hit-Girl and Kick-Ass, are proteges of Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a former cop on a quest to bring down the crime boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his son Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). After its release on DVD and Blu-ray, Kick-Ass gained a strong cult following. I only mention Matthew Vaughan’s black comedy here, because it’s the movie that came immediately to mind while watching the Indonesian export, Valentine: The Dark Avenger. Based on a Skylar Comics storyline, Ubay Fox and Agus Pestol’s action-packed romp – from a screenplay by Beby Hasibuan – is set in a fictionalized Batavia City, which could easily be mistaken for modern-day Jakarta. Criminality is rampant in the capitol and no one is immune from its sting. Srimaya (Estelle Linden) is a pretty, young waitress, with a flair for martial arts handed down from her father. After watching Srimaya repel a group of robbers, documentary director Bono (Matthew Settle) and his friend, Wawan (Arie Dagienkz), ask her to join them in the creation of a reality show on fighting crime in Batavia. Their first encounter almost ends in failure, due to a wardrobe malfunction. Under her new identity, Valentine, Srimaya scours every corner of the Gotham-like city to fight criminals and uphold justice, while maintaining her dream of becoming a movie star. A sinister villain emerges from the shadows to test Valentine’s strength and commitment, in a final confrontation on the rooftop of the headquarters of Batavia’s beleaguered police force. Like everything else in Valentine: The Dark Avenger, it’s a doozy. Before cameras rolled, Linden spent a year preparing for the role, which required she master four different martial-arts disciplines: pencak silat, jujitsu, tae kwon do and boxing.

There’s really no defense for Dallas King’s exploitative Kiss Kiss, which could imprecisely be characterized as “Fight Club for Strippers.” In it, a new dancer at the local “gentlemen’s club,” Tia (Nathalia Castellon), is tipped a invitation to an exclusive wine tasting at a nearby vineyard — Malibu Wines Vineyard, to be precise – and she’s been encouraged to bring along some co-workers. While there, Tia, Kiss (Natascha Hopkins), Treasure (Tamra Dae) and Kurious (Janey B) display impeccable manners, as well as a curiosity for good wine. (As Kiss cautions their host, “We’re not strippers. We’re fucking ladies!”) At dinner, they’re poured glasses full of an Afghan wine smuggled out of the country by military brass, as if it were bottled by the folks at Château Lafite Rothschild. It gives them quite a buzz. In fact, when combined with the small mountain of cocaine they ingest, eliminates any possibility of resistance. They’re led to stables housing prized horses and four other women in the same predicament as they are. All the women will be pitted against each in a ring, from which one will emerge victorious and the loser will die. The combatants will be given shots of a serum, designed by the vineyard owner, to give the recipients superhuman fighting powers. He hopes to sell it to his male and female guests, from Washington, who wager on the bouts and chortle at the death blows. You get the picture. Unless In a real departure from grindhouse form, none of the women is forced to disrobe beyond two-piece outfits that barely qualify as bikinis. Somehow, King has convinced himself that Kiss Kiss is his homage to “Alice in Wonderland.” His explanation would be risible, if the movie weren’t intended to titillate voyeuristic men, who don’t object to watching women beat each other to death for their pleasure. The final surprise is a character, revealed late in the movie, who has been injected with enough serum to turn her into the perfect killing machine, which she isn’t. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Bosch: The Garden of Dreams
In 2016, at least three feature-length documentaries were released to commemorate the         quincentennial of the death of artist Hieronymus Bosch. His most famous triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” – painted anywhere between 1490 and 1505 – lures tens of thousands of visitors each year to Madrid’s Museo del Prado, where it’s been housed since 1939. Although it’s instantly recognizable, in whole or in part, the origins of Bosch’s provocative imagery remain a mystery, debated by art historians, students, clergy, laymen, atheists and conspiracy theorists, alike. Many believe that “The Garden” was intended to be an altarpiece, as the left-hand panel, “Eden,” shows the pre-incarnate Christ blessing Eve before she is presented to Adam; the center panel describes the pleasures and temptations open to God’s Earth-bound flock;, and the right-hand panel, “Last Judgment,” is a vision of heaven and hell that would make any sermon about fire, brimstone and eternal damnation seem trivial. All three discourage easy or definitve interpretation. José Luis López-Linares’ intriguing Bosch: The Garden of Dreams stands alongside David Bickerstaff’s The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter van Huystee’s Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil, as essential viewing for anyone who’s been inspired, transfixed, perplexed or simply made curious by the masterpiece.  In “The Garden of Dreams,” López-Linares asks 30 well-schooled personalities from diverse disciplines – technology, science, the arts, academics — for their opinions on its meanings and signifiers. López-Linares’ camera captures the scale of Bosch’s work and the extraordinary detail of the piece through close-up analysis. Amateurs won’t have any problem enjoying the doc, either.

Nina
Marilyn
And Then There Was Eve
Olga Chajdas’ Nina is a lesbian melodrama that doesn’t take any particular stand on LGBTQ issues, but wouldn’t work, at all, if two of the primary characters weren’t gay. Set in middle-class Warsaw, Nina (Julia Kijowska) and Wotjek (Andrzej Konopka) have been attempting to have a child for years, without any luck. It isn’t clear why they’re desperate to experience parenthood, although, in predominantly Catholic Poland, married couples are encouraged to pre-create … or else, what’s the point of marriage? Arriving at the proverbial last resort, they agree to shop around for a surrogate. Wotjek is an automobile mechanic, who appears to have given up improving his lot in life and can’t wait to get home each night to watch a little TV and fall asleep. Nina teaches French at a good school and makes little effort to disguise her bourgeoise roots. Eventually, they meet, interview (surreptiously) and agree upon Magda (Eliza Rycembel). She’s a noticeably younger airport worker, whose carefree behavior is in direct contrast to Nina’s icy, somewhat world-weary demeanor, and Wotjek’s lumpen nature. Both women are attractive, but, clearly, Nina spends more time in front of the mirror and at the cosmetics counter. Although Nina doesn’t reveal her willingness to date women, Chajdas doesn’t waste any time cutting to the chase. Magda’s winsome nature and impulsive decisions appeal to Nina and she comes to enjoy the city’s lesbian-club scene, of which the younger woman is an active participant. The trouble comes when Wotjek discovers, to his dismay, that the two women in his life are lovers. They hadn’t let Magda in on their reproductive scheme, which is OK because the presence of an infant wouldn’t have suited any of their lifestyles, anyway. This only is a problem because, at 130 minutes, Nina has already run out of gas. Watching the two actresses interact rarely gets tiresome, however. Bonus features include the short film, Social Butterfly, which takes lesbian dating in a different direction, altogether.

Even at a brisk 79 minutes in length, Martín Rodríguez Redondo’s feature debut, Marilyn, is one of the most compelling LGBTQ dramas to find a home on DVD. It’s international and festival release barely qualified as “limited.” That it’s based on an incident that rocked much of South America, and ignored elsewhere, only makes the movie that much more essential. It tells the story of farmworker Marcelo Bernasconi, as he’s begun to make the transition from bullied teenager, Marco, to the exuberant cross-dresser, Marilyn, and beyond. It takes place in a part of rural Argentina, where anything out of the ordinary is treated with caution, if not outright alarm. Inside the home he shares with his mother and brother, Marco learns how to make the brilliantly colored clothes he’ll only be able to wear during the local festivals. At first, he’s indistinguishable from the women dressed to kill, while dancing to the cumbia rhythms – performed by the Argentine tropical-punk band, Kumbia Queers – but, as the night wears on and the men get grabby, his secret is revealed. Neither does the scandal sit well at home, where Marco/Marilyn is given an ultimatum with which he no longer is able to  abide. I won’t reveal what happens next. Most viewers in South America already know that Bernasconi has been incarcerated for most of the last 10 years in an Argentine prison and, in that time, has completed the transition to Marilyn. (He’s interviewed in the bonus package, which also includes a featurette on the creation of the soundtrack.) American audiences aren’t likely to know how he got there, however, so it’s better to maintain the suspense. BTW: wide-ranging anti-discrimination laws have been put into place  in Argentina since Bernasconi was imprisoned.

Savannah Bloch’s psychological thriller/mystery, And Then There Was Eve, has already collected enough positive reviews from LGBTQ festival screenings to render anything I have to say about it superfluous. It’s easy to applaud the casting of a transgender actor, in the role of a transgender character, and its straight-forward approach to an issue affecting the straight spouses of men and women about to embark on the transitioning process. That said, I found its flashback-laden narrative to be confusing and the final “reveal” too predictable to be considered thrilling or mysterious. Kiwi transplant Tania Nolan (“Home and Away”) plays Alyssa, a successful SoCal photographer, who wakes up one morning to find her apartment ransacked and her husband missing. Left without even a photograph to offer the police, Alyssa turns to his colleague, Eve (newcomer Rachel Crowl), a talented jazz pianist with flirtatious charm and disarming grace. Eve helps her confront her husband’s longtime struggle with depression and encourages her to accept his absence. Their relationship blossoms into something approaching love and admiration, but flashbacks remind viewers of things Alyssa has conveniently forgotten and/or overlooked. Nothing in the film, co-written by Colette Freedman (Lifetime’s “Sister Cities”) feels exploitative, controversial or targeted specifically at a niche-within-a-niche audience. Considering how little money was allotted the filmmakers, the production values and acting are excellent. Robert Lydecker’s score, while excellent, sometimes overwhelms the film’s emotional pull. The DVD adds interesting interviews and making-of material.

The Shape of Now
The fear of what might occur after apartheid ended kept many white South Africans from pursuing a peaceful accord earlier than it was forced on them. Part of the reason a peaceful transition was achieved was the public acceptance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was seen by many as a crucial component of the move to a full and free democracy. In the commission’s 1,000-plus hearings, victims of gross human rights violations were invited to recall their experiences, while perpetrators of said violence could request amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution. It was an unusual way to solve a difficult problem. Contrary to the perception outside South Africa, only 849 out of the 7,111 amnesty applications were granted. It might not have been a perfect system, but, in the 23 years since the establishment of the TRC and Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, peace has held. The Shape of Now describes how survivors of  the nearly concurrent Colombian “conflict” are attempting to survive the peace by facing their grievances head-on and attempting to use peaceful means to heal wounds even deeper than those sustained in South Africa. The differences between the two long and bloody conflagrations can be found in the racial and political differences of the combatants. Once the white government of South Africa was isolated from the rest of the world economically and otherwise, the maintenance of apartheid was the only thing that stood in the way of a solution … peaceful or violent. In Colombia, however, you practically needed a scorecard to identify the various teams and reasons for fighting. Historical differences between the ruling class, working poor and peasants were exasperated by the success of the Cuban revolution, the defeat of the French in Vietnam, anti-colonial uprisings in Africa and fervently anti-communist, aggressively capitalistic leaders of Colombia and the United States. On the pro-government side were several blood-thirsty paramilitary groups, greedy multinational corporations and South American juntas and right-wingers in the White House and Pentagon. Opposing them in far-flung pockets of resistance were such pro-communist/guerrilla organizations as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Crime syndicates and drug cartels compounded the disorder not by choosing sides, but by mounting offensives of their own against anyone unwilling to accept their bribes and cooperate with the so-called war on drugs. The right- and left-leaning forces weren’t united against a common enemy, per se, frequently choosing to attack each other to increase their influence. The same applied to the warring cartels.

In November 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed a peace accord. (An earlier referendum was narrowly defeated by civilian voters.) According to most estimates, approximately 220,000 people lost their lives — 177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters — between 1958 and 2013. (Many of the 25,000 people kidnapped and held for ransom are still considered missing.) Between 1985-2012, more than 5 million civilians were forced from their homes, including 3 million children. Manuel Correa’s heart-breaking doc, The Shape of Now, argues that no two Colombians will tell you the same story about how they were impacted by the conflict. As such, the challenge of creating recognizable history, amidst post-war reconciliation, is extremely difficult. The doc portrays the experiences of survivors in the different social spheres invested in keeping the peace. They include scientists, academics and activists, attempting to normalize Colombia, as well as a group of elderly mothers, struggling to find a direct way to approach their children’s possible killers. It’s referred to as “closure,” but widows and grieving mothers will never find anything resembling closure until their loved ones’ bodies are found, identified and interred in a religious ceremony. Justice is another issue, althogeth. The Shape of Now illuminates the strenuous process of having to agree on a common past and forge a common path to the future.

 
Never Grow Old: Blu-ray
If Never Grow Old had been made in the 1960-70s, it could easily be pigeonholed with other “revisionist” Westerns. Today, however, nearly every new oater qualifies as revisionist, in one way or another. An animated version of Blazing Saddles or The Outlaw Josey Wales might extend the subgenre, but who, in their right mind, would make them? Shot in Luxembourg and Connemara, Ireland, Never Grow Old is set in the fictional town of Garlow, which straddles the California Trail. The muddy thoroughfare leads pilgrims, fur traders and 49er prospectors from Fort Hall, Idaho, to the NorCal goldfields. Irish writer/director Ivan Kavanagh (The Canal) shares a place-of-birth with the film’s tentative protagonist, undertaker/gallows-builder Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch), whose business has profited from the recent influx of crooks and gunslingers, and the proclivity of the fundamentalist preacher (Danny Webb) to rid Garlow of backsliders, heathens and blasphemers. John Cusack plays the outlaw Dutch Albert, whose gang has just re-introduced booze, gambling and whoring to the town’s social activities, overturning the  preacher’s prohibition against all three vices. The low vocal timbre of Cusack’s antagonist – along with his cigars and whisky habit – make it difficult to discern a Dutch accent, but Tate’s wife (Deborah Francois) does nothing to disguise her European background. Garlow could serve as a high-plains’ United Nations. Tim Ahern’s Sheriff Parker is nearly powerless, standing, as he does, between two implacable sides. Things get really interesting when the daughter of a local citizen is forced into prostitution by a gang member – with grease applied by her mother – and her first and only customer is a known child molester and she’s charged with murder for defending herself.  DP Piers McGrail (Without Name) does a really nice job maintaining a dark and murky color palate, without losing any details in the mix. And, no, none of the castles that mark Luxembourg and Ireland’s sneak into the background in exterior shots. The Blu-ray adds “Dire Consequences: The Making of Never Grow Old.”

Life Like
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-writers Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke created a computer, the HAL 9000, with an AI mind of its own, It changed the way screenwriters, sci-fi novelists and audiences would look at computers, robots and cyborgs, which, in fact, had been visualized in art and theater since the Han Dynasty. Now that it appears as if our cellphones, laptops and set-top boxes have proven capable of interacting with us, recording our habits and predicting our behavior, Hollywood screenwriters have flashed on the reality that they have carte blanche to create any sort of mechanical or CGI creatures. They include virtual clones of any celebrity or historical figure, and invest them with personality traits guaranteed to freak us out. A brothel in Nevada recently challenged a manufacturer of sex dolls to put up or shut up when it comes to boasting that their creations are better lovers than humans. In his first feature, Life Like, writer/director Josh Janowicz – the Pride of Mukwonago, Wisconsin – adds only a slight twist to the long list of cyborgs, who, before they turn on their owners, willingly fulfill their every conceivable wish … from washing dishes to performing mind-blowing sex … AC or DC. Here, Addison Timlin (Californication) and Drew Van Acker (“Pretty Little Liars”) play an arrogant young couple, Sophie and James, who move to a spacious estate in Upstate New York, not far from the laboratory in which James’ father created a next-generation model of a cybernetic personal assistant. The suspiciously obedient Henry (Steven Strait) looks as if he was patterned after Christian Bale’s charter in American Psycho, as do most of the other male characters. When given a choice between robotic genders, Sophie’s potential for jealousy mandated the choice of James. You already can guess how that decision will play out. Left at home, alone, during the day, Sophie is the more likely candidate for a creepy liaison with the help. Apparently, Henry has not only been programmed to fold towels and make dinner, but also to read the minds and respond to the emotional and sexual needs of its owners … even before they recognize them. Life Like telegraphs its twists and surprise, except for a pretty decent closer. (There weren’t many more options left.)

Naples in Veils
Any tourist who’s avoided spending time in Naples, based solely on such movies, docs and TV series as Camorra (2018) and Gomorrah (2008) and its ongoing mini-series spinoff of the same title, is hereby encouraged to pick up a copy of Ferzan Ozpetek’s erotic thriller, Naples in Veils (2017). Like John Turturro’s tribute to the city and its people, Passione (2010), it captures the vitality of life in Naples’ many different  neighborhoods, as reflected in music, food, art and mysteries. Long available on DVD, the Clark Gable/Sophia Loren vehicle, It Started in Naples (1960), and Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964), should also be considered before planning obligatory side trips to Pompeii, Vesuvio National Park and the Amalfi Coast. Despite its reputation as a safe haven for petty larceny and con artists, the closest most tourists come to crime are the admonishments about being on the alert for pick pockets.

As scenic as Naples in Veils may be, its appeal should strictly be limited to adult audiences. During a party, the breathtaking medical examiner Adriana (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) crosses paths with a charming young stud, Andrea (Alessandro Borghi). Not surprisingly, perhaps, these paths lead to a bedroom, where a night of intense sex ensues. Adriana dares to imagine spending much more quality time with Andrea and they agree to meet the next day at a sculpture museum. Naturally, he’s a no-show. They do meet later in the afternoon, but in the morgue, where’s he’s laid out on a slab. The plot takes a turn for the Hitchcockian, when Adriana discovers that Andrea has a long-lost twin brother, Luca, and he’s been seen hanging around the city. Or, is it possible that Luca’s lying on the slab and Andrea is attempting to get cops or killers off his trail. Gian Filippo Corticell’s eye-catching cinematography nicely captures Naples’ many architectural wonders … old and new. “It’s a city I know well … very strange and fascinating,” Ozpetek has allowed in interviews. “Naples is magical, and very pagan. It’s a city back in time.” If the mystery-solving isn’t entirely satisfying, Ozpetek fills the gaps with eye candy.

Princess Mononoke: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray/CD/Book
A couple of columns ago, we checked out Shout! Factory’s  fascinating documentary, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, which chronicled the master’s life in semi-retirement. It was released in Japan in 2016, but it didn’t make it to these shores until last December. That same month, the company sent out My Neighbor Totoro,” repackaged in a special “30th Anniversary Edition” boxed set. This week, Princess Mononoke returns in a similarly classy “Collector’s Edition,” with a Blu-ray copy of the award-winning film; a CD soundtrack, featuring Joe Hisaishi’s evocative score; and an exclusive 40-page booklet, featuring artwork and essays on Princess Mononoke. Featurettes that have been ported over from previous Blu-ray editions include, “Princess Mononoke in the USA,” “Behind the Microphone,” feature-length storyboards and original marketing material. The 40-page book features new essays by film critic Glenn Kenny, alongside imagery and statements from Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki, and Miyazaki’s poems about the characters. The movie, itself, remains as entertaining and visually stricking as it’s ever been. To summarize, “Inflicted with a deadly curse, the young feudal warrior, Ashitaka, heads west in search of a cure. There, he stumbles into the bitter conflict between Lady Eboshi, the proud people of Iron Town and the enigmatic Princess Mononoke. As a girl, the princess was adopted by a pack of wolves, who will stop at nothing to prevent the humans from destroying her home and the forest spirits and animal gods who live there.

It’s interesting to recall that Miyazaki had intended Princess Mononoke to be his final film before retiring. Its great success led him to do another, Spirited Away (2001), and a few more features. Produced for approximately $23.5 million, it was, at the time of its release, the most expensive anime ever made. When Miramax-founder Harvey Weinstein obtained the North American distribution rights to Princess Mononoke, he approached Miyazaki and insisted on a shorter version of the film that he felt would be better attuned to American audiences. Still upset by the heavily cut version of 1984’s “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (a.k.a., Warriors of the Wind), he angrily left the meeting. Several days later, Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki sent a katana sword to Weinstein’s office, with “NO CUTS” embedded into its blade. The film was later released in the USA in its 133-minute version. When asked about the incident in an interview, Miyazaki smiled and said, “I defeated him.”

Beer League: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray
Mortuary: MVD Marquee Collection: Blu-ray.
Boogie Boy: MVD Rewind Collection #18: Blu-ray
I’ve discovered a bug up my ass, so please bear with me for a paragraph, or so. In this highly mechanized and media-obsessed world, surprises are few and far between. That’s probably a good thing. Caller ID may take the suspense out of answering a ringing phone, but 90 percent of the calls we receive now fall under the category of “unsolicited.” Some of these are requests for donations or participation in surveys, which isn’t anything new. “Robocalls” to landlines and cellphones have become an epidemic. They bypass caller-ID programs, disguise themselves behind legitimate numbers proliferation and don’t respond to the people whose numbers they call. Spam texts not only are unsolicited, but they may also count against data quotas. This week, the government tossed the problem into the laps of telecommunication companies, by allowing them to take direct extralegal action against robo-companies. The problem, of course, is that the FCC and phone companies have never expended much time, energy and money getting ahead of the curve, at least when it comes to serving their customers in this way. They haven’t been able to combat call mills based in India and Philippines and are impotent against techies, who’ve committed themselves to confounding conglomerates and harassing consumers. So far, our only recourse has  been to ignore calls from unknown numbers or pay their service providers a fee for blocking more than a handful of numbers. The new FCC proposal would allow the companies to offer blocking services for free, thus requiring consumers to constantly update the list, themselves, and forcing the competition to spend money to match their “free” services … which, of course, they should do, anyway.

One of the pleasures of reviewing DVDs is the “surprise factor.” Typically, the envelopes and boxes in which new releases arrive can be easily traced to individual distributers, who’ve already pitched the journalist and told them when to expect delivery, frequently within a week prior to the “street date.” Some companies still fly under the radar, however, by anticipating a writer’s desires and interests, or putting us on an automatic-send basis. It partially explains why so many of the titles reviewed here – golden oldies, indies, docs, cult, foreign-language — qualify as obscure, unexpected and unheralded. As a University of Wisconsin graduate, I know that “sifting and winnowing is at the heart of what we do.” Typically, I leave the critiquing to others. MVD Visual is a company that’s surprised me on a monthly basis for nearly two decades. It describes itself as a “full-service music and movie distribution firm, exclusively representing thousands of audio and visual products for DVD, Blu-ray, CD, vinyl and digital rights, worldwide.” It distributes a growing line of titles and merchandise, including limited-edition collectibles and apparel. Recently, its visual line has branched into new territories.

There’s MVD Classics, whose releases “might be a little too obscure for our other labels” – we already reviewed Diamonds of Kilimanjaro (1983), Golden Temple Amazons (1986)  —  as well as its MVD Rewind and MVD Marquee collections. If few of these titles genuinely qualify as classics, there’s always something redeemable in them. We’ve already considered The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Giovanni Ribisi, Holly Hunter and Woody Harrelson, which, at least, offers scenic beauty and A-list names. Today’s other Marquee attractions are Blu-ray editions of Mortuary (2005) and Beer League (2006), which appear to have made on different planets. The former was made very late in Tobe Hooper’s directorial career and, as they say, it shows. In it, a family moves to a small town in California, where they plan on starting a new life, while Mom (Denise Crosby) attempts to revive a long-abandoned funeral home. And, guess what, local teens use its tiny cemetery as a proving ground for courage and romance. Adults suspect it’s build over haunted ground and stay away from it. Of course, zombies will make everyone’s live miserable, except, perhaps, those of Hooper and undead completists. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and Hooper’s commentary. In Beer League, a fat, sloppy, chain-smoking and wholly gross Artie Lange conspires to keep his favorite tavern’s softball team from being expelled by league officials. And, yes, the comedy’s as politically incorrect as one might suspect from one-time director Frank Sebastiano, a veteran of late-night variety shows and celebrity roasts. The real selling points are appearances by the late, great Seymour Cassel, Ralph Macchio, Laurie Metcalf, Jimmy Palumbo, Tina Fey, Mary Birdsong and porn star Keisha, who plays a human pitching machine. Bonus features add interviews and featurettes, including, “In the Studio with Artie: Jokes and Ringtones,” “Live From Cine Vegas!,” Artie behind-the-scenes at “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” and “Best Damn Sports Show,” behind-the-scenes featurette,” “Beer Goggles” short and unrated commentary with Lange and Sebastiano.

On MVD’s Rewind collection, the entries are packaged as they might have appeared in video stores during the Golden Age of cassettes. Fortuitously, that doesn’t include their audio and visual presentations, which weren’t high points in VHS. “Boogie Boy: MVD Rewind Collection #18” takes us back to the early days of the DVD revolution, when straight-to-video movies were a subgenre onto themselves. Hardly anyone thought that the majority of pulpy hit-and-run features would be worth the time and money to upgrade to future technologies. They’ve survived this long because some long-term thinkers anticipated a need for product when a killer-app technology took over the industry. Niche distributors purchased inventory in bulk and either sold them to other companies or created boutique labels of their own. And, that’s what’s happening now. Boogie Boy opens with pretty-boy outlaw Jesse Page (Mark Dacascos) being released from prison. Almost immediately he hooks up with his former cellmate and presumed lover, Larry (Jaimz Woolvett), and a drug deal goes sour. With the dealers hot on his trail, Jesse has three days to reach Detroit, where a new, clean, legitimate life, as the drummer for Joan Jett, awaits him. Before that can happen, though, his ties to his criminal past and biker buddies threaten to trip Jesse up. Upon its first release into video, the distributor attempted to create the illusion that sole writer/director Craig  Hamann had worked closely with Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The exaggerated claim was dubious, at best. The Blu-ray box isn’t nearly as misleading. Boogie Boy isn’t a total waste of time, however. (Avary’s status as executive producer is proclaimed, but no one can be sure what that title actually means.) It’s the cast that separates Boogie Boy from other bargain-bin mediocrities. Besides Jett (Light of Day), it includes Emily Lloyd (A River Runs Through It), Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now), Michael Peña (Ant-Man and the Wasp), Traci Lords (Blade), Linnea Quigley (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Jaimz Woolvett (“Joan of Arc”), Jonathan Scarfe (The Equalizer 2) and James Lew and John Koyama, two of the industry’s best and busiest martial-arts and stunt performers. It’s nice to find so many familiar faces in a movie that has so many visible faults. Action junkies might want to take a look at it, as well. The extras include the new, 92-minute ”The Making of Boogie Boy,” a photo gallery and mini-poster.

The Big Clock: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Yakuza Law: Special Edition: Blu-ray
UK-based Arrow Films also has divided its catalogue to differentiate cult and quirky selections, from classic and collectible titles. All look and sound great, while also offering new and vintage bonus features. Moreover, it’s difficult to know from which direction, genre and period the next group will come. Special editions of The Big Clock (1948) and Yakuza Law (1969) are indicative of the company’s scope and variety.

John Farrow’s adaptation of Kenneth Fearing’s novel, for Paramount, combines elements of noir, thriller, crime drama and screwball comedy. Something for everyone, especially fans of Ray Milland, Maureen O’Sullivan, Charles Laughton, George Macready, Elsa Lanchester and Rita Johnson. I was completely taken aback by seeing Noel Neill in a brief uncredited appearance as an elevator operator and possible lover of Laughton’s rotund and thoroughly evil publishing tycoon, Earl Janoth. Stay tuned, as well, for a juicy performance by Harry/Henry Morgan, who plays a creepy masseuse and gunman. As young as they are here, they’re instantly recognizable as the future Lois Lane (“Adventures of Superman”) and Col. Sherman T. Potter (“M*A*S*H”) and Officer Frank Gannon (“Dragnet 1967”). Here, Milland plays George Stroud, an overworked editor for a true-crime magazine run by Janoth. He’s been planning to take a vacation/honeymoon for months, but something always comes up. When Janoth insists he give up his vacation, for another assignment, Milland decides to quit. Instead of going home to his suspicious wife, Georgette (O’Sullivan) he embarks on a drinking spree with his boss’ mistress, Pauline (Johnson). In one of the great closeups in noir history, Pauline taunts Janoth to the point where the skin beneath his nose begins to twitch, and he picks up a heavy prop and kills her. Not about to turn himself in to authorities, Janoth calls in his trusted henchmen and works out a plot to frame someone else in the murder. Eventually, he decides that Stroud deserves the honor, setting off a rather clumsy game of cat-and-mouse, from the penthouse to the basement of the magazine’s high-rise headquarters. Doors are slammed, opportunities are missed, clues are overlooked. The Blu-ray package includes a lovely tribute to Laughton by actor, writer and theater director Simon Callow, as well as new commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; “Turning Back the Clock,” a fresh analysis of the film by the critic and chief executive of Film London, Adrian Wootton; an hourlong 1948 radio dramatization of The Big Clock by the Lux Radio Theatre; a stills gallery; promotional materials; reversible sleeve; and illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Christina Newland. Fearing’s book also provided the source material for the Kevin Costner vehicle, No Way Out (1987), adapted by Roger Donaldson and writer Robert Garland.

And, now, something completely different from across the Pacific. Yakuza Law (a.k.a., “A History of Yakuza Punishment: Lynch!”) was written and directed by Teruo Ishii, alternately and affectionately known as “Godfather of J-sploitation,” “The King of Cult” and as a pioneer in the Ero guro (“erotic-grotesque”) subgenre of pinku eiga. In a very small nutshell, Yakuza Law is a trilogy of stories depicting mistakes, misreads and the nature of punishment within crime families during the Edo, Taisho, and Showa periods. If yakuza clans have traditionally been guided by strict rules and vicious reprisals for breaking them, Ishii makes them look arbitrary, capricious and ridiculous. They might look different to viewers in Japan, but much of what happens in Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia dramas looks pretty darn silly, especially when taken out of historical context. Yakuza Law is one many Ishii films to make a late debut here. Critics who make their living writing about such things aren’t enamored with the film, but it’s probably as good a place as any for anyone curious about extreme Japanese genre fare to start. After a retrospective opening-credit roll, oozing with violence, Chapter One explores what happens when a major rule is broken: the one that forbids sleeping with a married woman or one who is already taken by another family member. In the second, gang soldier Ogata completes a hit on a rival gang boss, based on a request from his superiors. After he’s lopped off the rival’s arm and presented to them as evidence, his bosses come to believe the attack could start a gang war and it’s one they’ll surely lose. To save face and their lives, they declare the Ogata’s hit unsanctioned and exile him from both the clan and Eastern Japan. Finally, the third story focuses on the law that family secrets must not leaked or divulged, while exploring the backstabbing that occurs between ambitious gang members. The tale, which  is set in the 1960s, also introduces an outsider whose shooting skills attract the attention of a gangster looking to betray his boss. Eyes are gouged out, men are dragged over rocks by a helicopter; faces are burned off by cigarette lighters; and a vase is used to perform a punishment commonly utilizing knives. Other places to begin might include Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), Blind Woman’s Curse (1970), The Hitman: Blood Smells Like Roses (1991) and Shogun’s Joys of Torture (1968). The segments star  Bunta Sugawara, Minoru Oki and Teruo Yoshida. The supplements include commentary by author and critic Jasper Sharp; “Erotic-Grotesque and Genre Hopping: Teruo Ishii Speaks,” an entertaining vintage interview, newly edited for this release; image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jacob Phillips; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

A Serbian Film: Blu-ray
A few months ago, I had occasion to research the films other critics and writers have decided are the most transgressive, disgusting, disturbing and depraved titles of all time. Some are routinely listed among the Top 25: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pink Flamingos (1972), El Topo (1970), Audition (1999) , Cannibal Holocaust (1980), The Human Centipede II (2012) and Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985). Twenty years ago, Freaks (1932) might have been found on top of most lists. As disturbing as it might still be, Freaks is movie of substance, with allegorical throughlines and three-dimensional characters, possessing identifiable problems and dreams. Srdjan Spasojevic and co-writer Aleksandar Radivojevic’s A Serbian Film (2010) appears on most ballots, as well. It’s been banned, censored, re-edited, trimmed and condemned by arbiters of good taste around the world. Like many of the movies that landed on the UK’s list of “Video Nasties,” A Serbian Film has also been lauded and taken seriously by enough critics, festival organizers and arthouse audiences to make headlines when authorities dare mess with it.

In it, retired Serbian porn star, Milos (Srdan Todorovic), and his beloved wife, Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic), and son, Peter, are struggling to maintain a normal life, outside the nasty adult-film and modeling business. The family is facing financial difficulties, when, out of the blue, Milos is contacted by the still-active actress, Lejla (Katarina Zutic), offering him a job opportunity in an “art” film. The director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), offers a millionaire contract to Milos, but refuses to show him the screenplay or summarize the story. Milos discusses the proposal with Marija and, without any enthusiasm, signs the contract. When he discovers that Vukmir and his crew are involved in non-simulated snuff films — requiring pedophilia, necrophilia and torture – he’s told that it’s too late for him to back out and his decision might also imperil his family. Spasojević and Radivojević have stated that A Serbian Film is a parody of politically correct films made in post-war Serbia, which were financially supported by foreign funds. When asked why they chose the title “Srpski Film” for the film’s name, Radivojević answered, “We have become synonyms for chaos and lunacy. The title is a cynical reference to that image. Srpski Film is also a metaphor for our national cinema — boring, predictable and altogether unintentionally hilarious.” If he says so. To point out that it isn’t for everyone is like saying that gargling with bleach isn’t for everyone with bad breath. Invincible Pictures has re-released it on DVD and Blu-ray, at its original, uncensored 104-minute length.

TV-to-DVD
The Donna Reed Show: Seasons 1-5
PBS/ITV: Masterpiece Mystery!: Unforgotten: Season 3 (UK Edition)
PBS: Korea: The Never-Ending War
PBS: NOVA: Rise of the Rockets
PBS: Henry IX: The Lost King
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files
PBS: Finding Your Roots: Season 5
Looking back at “The Donna Reed Show” and the star’s character, Donna Stone, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how it might be considered a pioneer in the portrayal of middle-class American women on television. Since the show’s inception, on September 24, 1958, Stone set what today is considered an impossible standard for wives and mothers at the center of nuclear families during Eisenhower- and Kennedy era. (Direct comparisons to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy can be made, I suppose.)  She is the idealized small-town housewife to her physician husband, Alex (Carl Betz), who she married at 18, as well as the mother of ideal teenagers, Mary (Shelley Fabares) and Jeff (Paul Petersen). Stone sometimes works as a nurse on the show, but she sees her first obligation as being a wife, mother and homemaker. She doesn’t expect or get much help from the others. She participates in such community activities as charity campaigns and amateur theatricals, but always finds time to share sound advice with friends and neighbors. What concerned some mid-century feminists and critics, though, was her appearance. Like other television wives and mothers of the 1950s, she inexplicably wears heels, pearls and chic frocks to do the housework. The only exception I saw was when one of Mary’s boyfriends (Jimmy Hawkins) began to treat Donna as if she was TV’s first MILF and she handled the situation by disguising herself as a shrew … not unlike Roseanne Barr’s Roseanne Conner, a couple of decades later. I’m not sure if Stone’s persona was a creation of the show’s writers, advertisers or the star, herself. (Reed was an uncredited producer — and occasional director and writer — on the series.) Four years earlier, Reed accepted the Best Supporting Actress trophy for playing a social-club “hostess” – wink, wink, nod, nod — in From Here to Eternity. In the hindsight provided by MPI Home Video’s gargantuan, “The Donna Reed Show: Seasons 1-5,” it’s clear that the show served as something other than an arbiter of mid-century tastes. For one thing, Stone was the sun around which the other characters and situations revolved. This was a TV first. The issues tackled were of a more topical nature than those on other sitcoms and, despite the double beds, Mom and Dad weren’t reluctant to demonstrate their affection for each other. Guest stars included Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Buster Keaton, Bob Crane, Marion Ross, Gale Gordon, John Astin, Ted Knight, Richard Deacon, Don Drysdale, Esther Williams and Tony Martin. The special DVD collection presents all 186 episodes from Seasons 1 through 5, in complete versions and digitally remastered. It adds several new featurettes and interviews with Fabares, Paul and Patty Peterse and Hawkins; vintage promotional spots; original cast/sponsor commercials; the cast’s 1959 Christmas greeting; Reed’s PS’s; music producer Stu Phillips’ interview and song outtakes; Reed tribute on “This Is Your Life”; rare footage and photos; and subtitles.

Season Three of the “Masterpiece Mystery” mini-series, “Unforgotten,” is approaching its final episode on PBS affiliates, with at least one more go-round assured. Like so many other such shows, it is a procedural dominated by unpleasant cold-case crimes, multiple suspects and dogged police inspectors and forensics experts. Imagine “Law & Order,” if the SVU had six television hours to solve a single notorious crime, following several false leads and dead-ends, and compiling enough evidence to put the fiend(s) away for a long time. Nicola Walker (“MI-5”) and Sanjeev Bhaskar (“The Kumars at No. 42”) make a terrific investigative team, with fellow officers who are supportive, competent and, like their supervisors, somewhere short of infallible. The central crime here involves the discovery of human remains, buried in a strip of land dividing a major highway. At first, speculation surrounds the possibility that the skeleton may date back to medieval times. Once that’s dismissed, the medical examiner uses a unique piece of evidence to trace it to a 16-year-old girl. who went missing on the eve of the millennium. That, in turn, leads to a group of men who attended high school together and remain friendly enough to build alibis for each other. Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart is determined to correct the mistakes made in the original investigation of the disappearance – and others — no matter the personal cost.

PBS’s gut-wrenching documentary, “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” could just as easily been titled, “Korea: The Never-Ending Tragedy” or “Korea: The Never-Ending Blunder.” The details surrounding the buildup to war, its execution and inherently unenforceable non-conclusion are so complicated that Americans have banished it to the recesses of their memory cache and shown no interest in learning its history. President Truman lied by labelling it a “police action,” while historians have reduced it to a “silent war.” It’s also been described an inevitable confrontation between free-market democracies in the UN, and predatory communist demagogues, who missed their chance to stop the war before it started. The U.S. supported the installation and maintenance of an authoritarian government in the south, while China and the Soviet Union backed an even more authoritarian dictator in the north. According to U.S. Department of Defense data, the US suffered 33,686 battle deaths, along with 2,830 non-battle deaths, during the Korean War. American combat casualties comprised 90 percent of non-Korean UN losses. South Korea reported some 373,599 civilian and 137,899 military deaths, while the toll in North Korea is still being calculated, with every new plague and famine. Still, it could have been worse, if General MacArthur had been allowed to nuke mainland China and Central North Korea, thus ensuring World War III, with the USSR leading the other team. The two-hour PBS doc sheds new light on the global upheaval that led to the Korean War, in 1950, and how that war’s brutal legacy led directly to the Vietnam War and other less-visible conflicts. It reminds us once again that no proponent of a military confrontation has ever considered the human factor, when deciding to go to war. Even they know they’re being duped, soldiers go where they’re told to go and fight the people that they’ve been convinced are their enemy. The lives of civilians caught between the lines are of no consequence. The current standoff between North Korea and the U.S. could escalate into another nuclear holocaust, and it’s only because President Trump and Kim Jong-un are megalomaniacs who only answer to their own demons. The North Korean people don’t hate and fear average Americans any more than we hate and fear them. PBS and BBC documentaries, such as “Korea: The Never-Ending War,” “The Vietnam War,” “The War,” “The Great War,” “World War I” and  “The Civil War,” remind us that human frailties, demagoguery and prejudices make wars inevitable. These films should be made required viewing for high-schools students, fighting men and women, and voters here and abroad.

PBS’ “NOVA: Rise of the Rockets” describes how rockets are becoming cheaper and more powerful to build and are opening the door wider for public and private entities to join the parade. As companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic make space more accessible, and NASA returns to crewed spaceflight, a new era of space exploration may be on the horizon. Of course, in these cases, “exploration” has always tended to be a synonym for “exploitation.” It’s older than 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, which predicted the branding of space travel and mining operations on far-flung planets. As much fun as it may be to spend a week or two vacationing on the moon – thanks to Virgin Galactic – it’s worth pondering how such programs would be impacted by a catastrophic explosion upon liftoff or the disappointment that comes when interplanetary travelers discover that one moonwalk is the same as every other moonwalk. “NOVA” explores the latest rocket technologies and the growing role private citizens may have in space.

In PBS’ informative, enjoyable and timely “Henry IX: The Lost King,” scholar/broadcaster Paul Murton takes viewers on a journey to investigate the mysterious disappearance from historical records of “forgotten” Scottish prince, Henry Fredrick Stuart (a.k.a., “the best king Britain never had.”) Yes, you read that right — Henry the 9th – who was born in Stirling Castle in 1594 and died young, 18 years later, of typhoid. He was the eldest son and heir of King James VI and I, of Scotland and Ireland, and his wife, Anne of Denmark. His father placed him in the care of John Erskine, Earl of Mar at Stirling Castle, away from the boy’s mother, because James worried that her tendency toward Catholicism might affect the son. The boy remained under the care of Mar until 1603, when James became King of England and his family moved south.  By all accounts, the prince was popular with the British people and was a proponent of education and the arts. Among his activities, the prince started the British Museum and the Royal Collection and was the first royal prince to back a permanent settlement on American soil in the early 1700s. Since the births of Prince George and his royal cousin, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the media’s been awash with speculation as to how they will be raised and what customs they’ll be required to follow. Because Prince Henry IX’s father feared the growing popularity and independence of his son, some historians believe he may have been poisoned. Murton’s research argues that the boy died after consuming toxic oysters and a swim in the Thames, which probably was just as polluted.

And, while we’re on the subject of intrigue in royal circles, PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead: The Nero Files” makes a good case for the probability that everything we know about Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus derives from the fertile imaginations of three Roman writers. Nero’s rule is usually associated with tyranny and extravagance, but renowned criminal psychologist Thomas Müller and a team of scientists have investigated newly available evidence, in order to discover the truth behind accusations that he killed his stepbrother, his wife and his mother, as well as his role in the persecution of Christians and instigating the devastating Great Fire of Rome, through which, it’s said, he fiddled. “Secrets of the Dead” is an absorbing series of documentaries, which rely on methodology that is as effective on television as it is in real life.

In PBS’s “Finding Your Roots: Season 5,” Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. discovers the surprising ancestral stories of 25 fascinating guests, including Marisa Tomei, Felicity Huffman, Laura Linney, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael K. Williams, Andy Samberg, Chloe Sevigny, Kal Penn, George R.R. Martin, Christiane Amanpour, Ann Curry, Joe Madison, Lisa Ling, Sheryl Sandberg, Seth Meyers, Michael Strahan and other celebrities. He does so by weaving genealogical detective work together with cutting-edge DNA analysis to trace the ancestries trailblazing public figures.

Moses, the Lawgiver
Surviving Birkenau: The Dr. Susan Spatz Story
Reb Elimelech & the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood
Broadcast on opposite ends of 1974 in the UK and Italy, and televised here during the post-sweeps holy month of June, 1975, “Moses the Lawgiver” is an epic biblical mini-series, that almost no one mentions in the same sentence as “Jesus of Nazareth.” That’s probably because the latter was directed three years later by Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet) and made lots of money for producer Lew Grade when it was licensed to NBC. It’s even possible that  it was too much of a stretch for American audiences to accept Burt Lancaster in a role so firmly associated with Charlton Heston. Either way, one excellent mini-series is fondly remembered, while the other has nearly been forgotten. It opens with the discovery of baby Moses, by an Egyptian princess, after his mother and sister helped him escape a deadly edict by the Pharaoh. It follows Moses through his royal boyhood and the killing of a slaveholder that causes him to spend the next 40 years, wandering in the wilderness, until God orders him to return to Egypt and free the enslaved Israelites. The new Pharaoh, his cousin by adoption, resists losing his unpaid work force, only to succumb to heavenly intervention. Then, director Gianfranco De Bosio meets the challenge of re-creating the Hebrews’ arduous decades-long march to the Promised Land, where the 120-year-old “lawgiver” awaits his pre-ordained death. Location shoots in Israel and Morocco effectively depict the degree of difficulty involved in the journey. Writers De Bosio, Vittorio Bonicelli, Anthony Burgess and Bernardino Zapponi do a nice job emphasizing the problems Moses faced dealing with his flock of ex-slaves, many of whom saw every setback and misstep as an excuse to defy Moses and his God and return to Egypt and pantheistic beliefs. Ennio Morricone contributed the soundtrack.

Surviving Birkenau: The Dr. Susan Spatz Story” is the second film from the recently formed Holocaust Education Film Foundation. Their first release, To Auschwitz and Back: The Joe Engel Story,” also describes a survivor’s unwavering will to live, by overcoming unimaginable horrors and inhuman conditions. Not all first-person accounts by Holocaust survivors have happy endings, but these do. Now living in Charlotte, Spatz recalls a privileged childhood, interrupted by the Nazis’ advance through central Europe. She’s extremely candid about her mother and father’s lack of responsibility, when it came time to escape or face the likelihood of death in the gas chambers. Instead, the Vienna-born multilinguistic was sent to the SS’ “model camp,” Theresienstadt, where she stayed until January 1943. Like most other residents of the Czech camp, Spatz was transferred to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, in Poland. Although she fully expected to be immediately sent to the gas chambers, Spatz escaped death by being assigned to horrible jobs, making friends in higher places and avoiding obvious traps. At one point, she was recognized by a Jewish woman, with whom she shared mutual acquaintances, and was given a job alongside her. It allowed her certain luxuries – relatively speaking, of course – like better food, more comfortable surroundings and companionship. That would end, too, when the SS got wind of the Red Army’s rapid advance west. She was ordered to grab clothes left behind by the dead captives and join the “death march” further west. It took her to an area occupied by American forces and freedom, serving the Allied team as a translator and spy. Her first marriage was a nightmare, but once she got her degree in linguistics, Spatz could look forward to happiness. “Surviving Birkenau” is informed by film footage taken and/or captured by Ukrainian troops.

Because I know next to nothing about Hasidism and how it compares to other Jewish religious groups, I was interested in screening a copy of “Reb Elimelech & the Chassidic Legacy of Brotherhood.” Apparently, present-day Hasidism is a sub-group within ultra-Orthodox Judaism (“Haredi”) and is noted for its religious conservatism and social seclusion. Its members adhere closely both to Orthodox Jewish practice and the traditions of Eastern European Jews. Hanoch Teller’s documentary explores the world prior to the evolvement of the movement, in the late 18th Century, and how certain traditions and practices translate today. Besides the history lesson, the film is filled with parables, music and examples of brotherhood and sharing, It is being shown around the country in special screenings at synagogues and clubs. I must admit to feeling like more of an outsider than I was before watching the film, mostly because the producers assume a knowledge of Yiddish that doesn’t allow for curious newcomers and wasn’t compensated for by subtitles. Discussions, fables and street interviews fluctuate between Yiddish and English so often that I couldn’t possibly look up the words on the Internet, even if I knew how to spell them. This won’t be a problem for those in the target audience.

The DVD Wrapup: What Men Want, Blaze, Banjos, Bauhaus, Scientology, Lily Chou-Chou, Glass, Grand Duel, George Carlin, Agatha Raison … More

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

What Men Want: Blu-ray
Not surprisingly, Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) is the best reason to pick up a copy of What Men Want, Adam Shankman’s re-imaging of Nancy Meyers’ hit comedy, What Women Want (2000). Tracy Morgan’s always fun to watch, but his character is only partially developed. In the original, Mel Gibson plays a chauvinistic advertising executive, whose life is turned around by a fluke accident that enables him to hear what women think. At first, all he wants to do is rid himself of this curse, which his psychiatrist convinces him can be used to his advantage. His primary target is the woman (Helen Hunt) that got the promotion he wanted. Naturally, love gets in the way of any plans for revenge. Henson’s Ali Davis is a successful sports agent for an Atlanta firm whose focus is on early first-round draft choices and male and female athletes with championship rings. The daughter of a boxer (Richard Roundtree), who named her after a great champion, Ali expects to be handed the promotion that goes to a white agent, whose head is stuck up the ass of their boss (Brian Bosworth). Her BFFs recommend that Ali visit their local pot-dealer/psychic – nuttily played by Erykah Badu – who gives her a liquid concoction that accords her the same powers that Gibson’s character gained in What Women Want. If the insights aren’t nearly as funny as those he gleaned in the original, it’s because Ali’s male co-workers are constructed from cardboard and the story’s romantic angle makes her look like as if she’s trying to squeeze up her boss’ butt, alongside her rival.

Her boyfriend, Will (Aldis Hodge), is a handsome bartender and single dad who’s too good to be true. Unwisely, if true to her character’s overly ambitious nature, Ali devises a way to use Will and his adorable son to impress a potential blue-chip client (Shane Paul McGhie) and his lame-brain manager, Joe “Dolla” Barry (Morgan). When Will discovers how he’s being played, Ali suddenly is left without a potential husband and a valuable client. She also loses the confidence of her friends (Tamala Jones, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Phoebe Robinson), when she gleans private information on their husbands and boyfriends and decides to reveal it at inappropriate times. As What Men Want winds down to its most-likely conclusion, the subplots crash into each other in ways that Meyers typically handled in a better way. Even so, cameos by sports stars Lisa Leslie, Devonta Freeman, Mark Cuban, Shaquille O’Neal, Kristen Ledlow and Grant Hill keep things interesting for a while, while co-stars Josh Brener (The Internship) and an uncredited Pete Davidson (“SNL”) add a light, gay touch to the proceedings, thereby touching all of the bases of modern rom-coms. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Shankman; deleted and extended scenes, as well as a gag reel, with an introduction by Shankman; and featurettes, “The Dream Team,” “Flipping the Narrative,” “What DO Men Want?,” “Poker Night,” “Ali + Athletes” and “Sister Spills the Tea,” with Badu.

Blaze: Blu-ray
In 1981, less than a year after Urban Country introduced line-dancing and mechanical-bull riding to a milieu already filling up with trend-followers and goat ropers, Barbara Mandrell recorded the Fleming/Morgan answer-song, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” The song, which featured an uncredited contribution by George Jones, reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in July of that year. Blaze Foley, the real-life subject of Ethan Hawkes’ unconventional musical drama, Blaze, mocked the craze by placing duct tape on the part of his cowboy boots that urban cowpokes and some Nashville stars reserved for pointy silver tips. That included the boot-scooters who made Gilley’s massive nightclub, in Pasadena, Texas, one of the nation’s hottest tourist attractions. Later, perhaps in response to the run on Nudie’s custom-made apparel, Foley made a suit out of duct tape and wore it around town. It became his trademark. At his funeral, on February 1, 1989, friends of the troubled 39-year-old singer-songwriter coated his casket with duct tape. He had died after being shot in the chest by the son of Foley’s friend, Concho January, after Blaze accused him of stealing his father’s veterans’ pension and welfare checks. If that isn’t sufficiently country for you, Townes Van Zandt once recalled how he and other musicians went to Foley’s grave to dig up his body, because the pawn ticket for Townes’s guitar was still in his pocket. (Friends also considered digging up his body and duct-taping it to a wall in a club, where a benefit concert was being held.)

There’s no way anyone could mistake John Travolta or, for that matter, John Denver, for Foley. He was a mountain of a man, fully bearded, and unadorned by the usual conceits of country musicians. He was aligned with the Austin/Dallas school of Outlaw country artists, like Van Zandt, who’d been heavily influenced by Waylon Jennings’ album, “Honky Tonk Heroes”; Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger”; Kris Kristofferson’s  first two LPs on Monument Records; and Shaver’s own. “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” (Anyone inspired by Blaze and the Austin scene should check out Heartworn Highways, Heartworn Highways Revisited and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt.) Not knowing Foley’s story or being unfamiliar with his songs shouldn’t embarrass anyone, especially fans of mainstream country. Even though he recorded three albums, at least, none was released in his lifetime. Master tapes from his first studio album were confiscated by the DEA, after the executive producer was caught in a drug bust. Another studio album disappeared when the master copies were stolen with his belongings from a station wagon in which Foley was living. The master tape for Foley’s third studio album fell victim to posthumous legal wrangling and, yes, disappeared. Fortunately, his songs have been recorded by John Prine (“Clay Pigeons”), Merle Haggard (“If I Could Only Fly”) and Lyle Lovett (“Election Day”), and such contemporaries as Lucinda Williams, Van Zandt and Gurf Morlix have written odes to him in “Drunken Angel,” “Blaze’s Blues” and “Music You Mighta Made.” Country rockers Kings of Leon wrote the song “Reverend” as an homage to Foley.

Alia Shawkat (“Transparent”) is terrific as Sybil Rosen, whose memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley,” informed Hawke and Rosen’s screenplay. (Rosen appears in the movie as her own mother, who couldn’t quite fathom the eccentric musician’s appeal.) After serving as Foley’s companion, wife and muse, Rosen decided he was a lost cause and moved away to pursue her own artistic goals.) Portrayals of women attempting to live with alcoholic husbands, or struggling to save drug-addicted lovers from themselves, have become a staple of bio-pics on country, rock and jazz musicians. Hawke has filled Blaze with music indicative of his dark moods, bad habits, faded loves and life on the road. It’s as good as advertised. Musician/actor Ben Dickey (The Kid) delivers a restrained, yet highly sympathetic portrayal of Foley, who wasn’t always easy to love. Also excellent is musician/actor Charlie Sexton (Boyhood), who plays Van Zandt in various stages of disrepair.

Banjos, Bluegrass and Squirrel Barkers
Hardly anyone associates San Diego with bluegrass or, for that matter, any other particular genre of music. Mariachi’s popular there, but only because of its proximity to the border. That’s why Rick Bowman’s hourlong documentary, Banjos, Bluegrass and Squirrel Barkers, is such an unexpected treat. More influenced by the Kingston Trio than Flatt & Scruggs, the San Diego-based pickers we meet in the film learned their licks off records newly available in the folk-revival period and at hootenannies. Psychedelic rock was just taking off in Los Angeles and San Francisco — Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions would evolve into the Grateful Dead – and surf music was at its height, as well. In 1962, members of the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers found loyal followers in San Diego’s military melting pot, as well as veterans of the Okies’ migration west, during the Dust Bowl period. The selling point of the documentary, however, is knowing that the Squirrels provided an early launching pad for Chris Hillman (The Byrds), Bernie Leadon (The Eagles), Kenny Wertz (The Flying Burrito Bros.) and Larry Murray (“The Johnny Cash Show”) and Grammy-winning band, Nickel Creek. Mason Williams, who would later write and record the hit song, “Classical Gas,” and singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton, also hung out a local guitar shop. San Diego would provide an early home for the country-rock subgenre, which emerged from the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” featuring Graham Parsons. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the city is the longtime home of Greg and Janet Deering, whose Deering Banjos “has delivered the finest hand-built American instruments to over 100,000 happy musicians and counting … one banjo at a time.” The interviews here are folksy, informative and fun. (Apparently, Bowman’s next project is, “The Holstein Dilemma: Heritage Breed Animals and the Need for Biodiversity.”)

My Scientology Movie
If there’s a subject that causes more American eyes to close than the Kardashians, Trumps and British royals, it would have to be Scientology. The media spends more time obsessing over these three topics than covering global warming, the health-care crisis and the country’s deteriorating infrastructure. News outlets have convinced themselves that Americans are too stupid to understand complex issues, so they feed us more of what they think we want, in addition to commercials for processed foods, cosmetics and diet drinks. Organized religions always warrant close scrutiny, but, unless celebrities are involved, why bother? Tom Cruise gets plenty of screen time in Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and, as usual, he looks ridiculous in the company of the faith’s hierarchical leaders. Still, it’s difficult to condemn anyone who believes so earnestly in something whose appeal has never been completely articulated. From the outside, Scientology is best described as a religious Ponzi scheme, which preys on its own members and contradicts or ignores most tenets espoused in the bible, Koran and Talmud. Without the celebrities, it wouldn’t exist. As I understand it, Scientology’s greatest crime is using extortion and intimidation to prevent members – those who’ve provided a steady revenue flow, anyway – from leaving the fold or asking their spouses to come with them. It’s then that the church’s intimidation tactics and interaction with outsiders turns ferocious and its lawyers earn their fees. Beyond that, Scientology has had zero impact on my life.

My Scientology Movie was completed almost simultaneously with Alex Gibney’s incisive “Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief” and the launch of A&E’s “Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath.” Both have provided closer inspections of church machinery than Leroux’s only occasionally revelatory doc. Theroux has a better reputation in the UK than here, for his work as a documentary filmmaker, investigative journalist and broadcaster. In “Weird Weekends” (1998–2000), Theroux covered marginal, mostly American subcultures — survivalists, black nationalists, white supremacists, porn — often by living among or close to participants. His feature-length specials for BBC Two covered such topics as gambling addiction, the notoriously hateful Westboro Baptist Church, American prisons and facilities for the criminally insane, Michael Jackson and extreme cosmetic surgery. Even though I haven’t seen any of them, I can’t imagine that Theroux had a more difficult time producing them than he experienced on My Scientology Movie. For some reason, Theroux’s producers anticipated a warmer reception from church leaders than was accorded the dozens of other journalists who hoped to crack its egg. He failed, as well, but elected to find another route to the something close to the truth. Among other things, Theroux hoped to address questions raised by the alleged physical attacks perpetrated by Grand Poohbah David Miscavige, even on his most trusted lieutenants. He might also have wanted to grill Miscavige on Scientology’s sweetheart deals with the IRS, which even managed to raise President Trump’s eyebrows, before he forgot to pursue the matter. Theroux could have focused on the Ponzi scheme, itself, which allows acolytes to profit from every dollar brought by new members, in the form of fees for tests and “educational” products.

Instead, he’s reduced to staging meetings and tantrums witnessed by high-level defectors and recording the verbal harassment he receives from street-level defenders of the faith when he closes in on church outposts. He also attempts to enter a Scientology studio, located in the high desert, where the church’s cornball propaganda is produced. After about an hour of such futile nonsense, John Dower’s 99-minute documentary hits a wall. Some viewers will chose other avenues, as well, including watching the scathing “South Park” episode, “Trapped in the Closet,” in which a Cruise lookalike comes to believe that Stan is the reincarnation of the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. The episode also mocked Cruise’s acting abilities and insinuated that he was gay. When Cruise bullied Paramount into pulling repeat showings from the schedule, South Park Nation rallied to get the studio to rescind that decision. What do they say about there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Theroux reminds me of CBS News’ too-clever-by-half correspondent, Mo Rocca, physically and their approach to similarly offbeat subject matter.

Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus
Several decades ago, humorist/musician/painter Martin Mull observed, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It has since been repeated so often that few people remember who uttered it first and what it means. The original title for Willard Carroll’s Playing by Heart (1998) was “Dancing About Architecture,” as was a short-lived Australian talk show and Jacob Potashnik’s musical/dance exploration of the principles behind Habitat ’67, architect Moishe Safdie’s model community built as part of Montreal’s Expo ’67. Niels Bolbrinker and Thomas Tielsch’s enlightening documentary, Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus, contains much celebratory and explanatory dancing about architecture. Literally and figuratively, it is employed to explore concepts advanced by the Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School. The German art institution, which operated from 1919 to 1933. Tbe movement combined crafts and the fine arts to create architecture, communities, furniture, gadgets and objects that were, at once, beautiful and functional. Not surprisingly, the incoming Nazi leadership frowned upon such concepts and made things difficult for Bauhaus students and faculty. Before that happened, however, Gropius recruited such luminaries as Paul Klee, Johannes Itten, Josef Albers, Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, Otto Bartning and Wassily Kandinsky. As much as Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus looks back at the school’s historical significance and the work of its disciples, the film also looks forward, by providing answers for overcrowding in cities and the improvement of life for their citizens. The creation and implementation of “tiny houses” is an idea whose time has certainly come. The deployment of modular units, vertically or horizontally, also makes more sense today than ever. The irony derives from the fact that anything carrying a Bauhaus designer’s pedigree is likely to become prohibitively expensive, as soon as they’re put up for sale. The same thing happened with Montreal’s Habitat ’67 development, which was designed for economical living, but quickly became unaffordable. This, even though from certain angles, the still vital community could be mistaken for a hillside shantytown or favela. It’s still an answer waiting for a question.

Never Ever
Directed by Palme d’Or-nominated French director Benoît Jacquot (The School of Flesh) and co-starring Un Certain Regard winner Mathieu Amalric (Barbara), the fantasy/drama Never Ever barely raised a ripple of excitement when it was released three years ago, in European and Asian markets. It isn’t difficult to understand why the film – loosely based on the Don DeLillo novella,  “The Body Artist” – didn’t find any traction here. The story’s supernatural underpinnings allow for too many real-life questions to go unanswered and the lithesome Julia Roy – she also adapted the screenplay — lacks the heft of a young Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert or Isild Le Besco.  This is especially apparent when her performance-artist character, Laura, loses her much older lover – the self-centered filmmaker, Jacques Rey — and she’s left in a black hole of grief.

Amalric plays the director, who, during a museum retrospective of his films, wandered into an adjoining gallery, where he becomes mesmerized by Laura’s winsome beauty and fluid movements. Although Jacques arrived at the screening with his longtime leading lady and lover, Isabella (Jeanne Balibar), he’ll leave with Laura sitting on the back of his gender-affirming motorcycle. In DeLillo’s book, the director is 64 and his wife, Lauren, is only described as much younger. Amalric is 53 and Laura doesn’t look a day over 19 or 20 years old, so there’s no mystery as to what her initial appeal is to him. At first, Laura probably sees in the more accomplished director someone able to mentor her artistically and introduce her to all the right people. Instead, she immediately begins playing house with her venerable mentor, washing dishes and making sandwiches. The house is in a lovely oceanside setting, where there’s no pressure on her to hone her art. In Never Ever (a.k.a., “À jamais”), only three months pass before a terrible traffic accident takes the careless motorcyclist out of the picture early. Or, does it?

Obviously distraught, Laura doesn’t feel any immediate pressure to leave the leased house. Instead, she begins to hear noises that indicate to viewers, anyway, that the attic is either occupied by noisy raccoons or is haunted by a clumsy poltergeist. In the novella, Lauren’s fantasies involve entirely new characters, whose interference in her life dredges up memories of Jacques and prompts her to renew her career. In order to facilitate a more saleable romantic fantasy – think Ghost, without the clay – Never Again brings Jacques back from the dead, making us wonder if Laura has completely lost her mind or some ghosts are more resilient than others. Frankly, it feels as if Jacquot lost interest in the movie after Jacques is killed, deciding to feature Roy in an early showcase role. Francophiles will want to check out Never Ever, if only to observe Jacquot’s latest work and a bright young actress who’ll likely appear in better movies. I probably would encourage her to stick with acting and leave the adapting of intricately plotted novels to others … for the time being, at least.

All About Lily Chou-Chou: Blu-ray
For many years, western audiences viewed Japanese students and other young people through a prism that makes them look as regimented, rule-abiding and colorless as many American parents would like their own kids to be. In the 1960s, depictions of Japanese juvenile delinquents, greasers and gangs frequently incorporated such American tropes and clichés as tight jeans, motorcycle boots, wild hairdos and rockabilly music, with lyrics that rarely made any sense in translation. The bad girls wore fashions adopted from movies exported from the U.S., with poodle skirts and bobby sox. The trend didn’t last long, but, somehow, you knew that the characters would soon graduate to jobs with the yakuza or as B-girls, overserving the GIs and other rubes who stumbled into bars run by the yakuza. In the 1990s, teens were used as fodder for ghosts, ghouls and other malevolent spirits. In Takashi Miike’s Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), the son of a yakuza lieutenant witnesses his father killing his older brother to settle a business debt. Otherwise a model student, Fudoh vows to create a new and powerful gang controlled by talented teenagers and small children, who murder one old boss after another in creative ways. In Kinji Fukasaku’s controversial bloodfest, Battle Royale, groups of rebellious ninth-graders are forced by a government edict to compete in a deadly battle for survival on an island that is considered to be escape-proof. The annual Battle Royale, which may have inspired The Hunger Games (2012), pits students against each other in a no-holds-barred game to the death, until one survives the ordeal or all are dead.

In 2002, All About Lily Chou-Chou took on a problem – bullying – that wouldn’t be given a proper airing in western movies and television shows for several more years. The Internet angle made the subject sexy. Shunji Iwai’s film stands out for effectively combining experimental and arthouse conceits, with early attempts to merge Internet iconography and social-media graphics into the narrative. The story revolves around a pair of incoming junior-high boys, Yuichi and Hoshino, who meet in the school’s kendo club, which serves as a sanctuary for kids attempting to escape the usual classroom mayhem. They become close friends, with Hoshino proving kind and very communicative, in contrast to the timid, introverted Yuichi. On a summer trip to Okinawa, Hoshino experiences a near-death experience that affects him in an unexpected way. Starting next term, he becomes a harsh manipulator of everyone around him, including Yuichi, and even prostituting a classmate, Shiori. None of the adults wants to admit that they’ve lost control of their students and children, but the bullies know what’s up. Yuichi’s only solace is pop star Lily Chou Chou and the fan site he’s dedicated to her New Age-y music. Although Chou Chou’s a fictional and never-seen character, her ethereal songs appear to soothe the wounds of alienated students. As sung by Salyu and composed by Takeshi Kobayashi, the music might remind some viewers of Bjork, Sarah McLachlan, Kate Bush and other Lilith Fair veterans. At an exhaustive 146 nonlinear minutes, All About Lily Chou-Chou allowed Iwai plenty of time to address other issues affecting contemporary Japanese society, such as JK Business (dating and sexting between horny older men and adolescent girls, who are paid for their services), liberal interpretations of rape and assault, abuses of social media and idol worship. Bonus features include a making-of featurette and essay by Stephen Cremin, New York Asian Film Festival. Aiwa’s earlier success include the animated, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? (1995) and Ghost Soup (1992), and live-action Love Letter (1995) and Swallowtail Butterfly (1996).

Glass: The Brivido Giallo Trilogy: Blu-ray
Last month, I introduced readers to Vince D’Amato’s “Brivido Giallo Trilogy,” which he created to update the venerable Italian genre, by adding more sex, violence and micro-mini skirts than censors would have allowed in the 1960-70s. Or, for that matter, the mid-1980s horror anthology mini-series, “Brivido Giallo,” directed by the Italian master of horror, Lamberto Bava. Unfortunately, D’Amato’s contributions to the form are short on story, but long on psycho-sexual violence and leggy actresses … which, as far as I know, isn’t a crime, yet. Glass tells the tale of a well-off young couple, Mike and Zarana (Casey Manderson, Tirra Dent), who decide to cut themselves off from social media and stay put in their glass-walled apartment overlooking Vancouver. After she witnesses her neighbor’s murder through a mail slot, Zarana is consumed by paranoia and terrible nightmares. Soon, she finds herself relentlessly stalked by the enigmatic killer. The Blu-ray adds a pair of short films and music videos, as well as “Yoga With Tirra.”

The Grand Duel: Special Edition: Blu-ray
When asked by Spaghetti.Western.com to name his top-20 SW titles of all time, Quentin Tarantino came up with a list that includes a half-dozen movies that everyone who enjoys Westerns already loves and a dozen, or so, only obsessives would recognize. The request coincided with the release of the maestro’s Django Unchained (2012), which clearly was influenced by Sergio Corbucci‘s The Great Silence (1968) and Django (1966), and Giulio Petroni‘s Death Rides a Horse (1972). The latter film starred genre stalwart Lee Van Cleef, as does Giancarlo Santi‘s The Grand Duel (1972), the latest addition to Arrow Video’s Spaghetti Western Corral. It came in at No. 15 on Tarantino’s list. Apart from being made at the tail end of the genre’s reign, The Grand Duel is an archetypal example of the form, featuring such classic hallmarks as furiously staged shootouts, wild stunts and climactic showdowns. Van Cleef plays the gnarled ex-sheriff, Clayton, who comes to the aid of young Philip Vermeer (Alberto Dentice), a fugitive framed for the murder of “Patriarch” Samuel Saxon (Horst Frank). In a well-choreographed series of confrontations, Clayton helps Philip fend off attacks from bounty hunters. Before making their way to Jefferson for Vermeer’s date with destiny, they’ll also be required to deal with the revenge-minded Saxon brothers and clear up the question of who killed their old man. The complex tale of revenge was penned by prolific giallo writer Ernesto Gastaldi (Torso). The portentous score is by composer Luis Bacalov (Django). Much of The Grand Duel was shot in Uliveto Terme, near Pisa, in what appears to be a marble quarry. The new 2K restoration is from the original 35mm camera negative. It adds commentary by film critic, historian and theorist Stephen Prince; fresh interviews with Santi, Gastaldi, actor Alberto Dentice (a.k.a., Peter O’Brien), producer Ettore Rosboch and assistant director Harald Buggenig; a fresh video appreciation by the academic Austin Fisher; a comparison between the original cut and the longer German cut; an obscure sci-fi short film directed in 1984 by Bernard Villiot and starring Marc Mazza; marketing material; and an illustrated booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Kevin Grant and original reviews.

Bachman: Blu-ray
In Mark 10:25, Jesus told his disciples, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” I wouldn’t know. Two millennia later, it can be argued that it will be easier for Jann Wenner to pass through the eye of a needle than for another Canadian rock band to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Considering the inclusion of Rush, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Band, Leonard Cohen and individual members of U.S.-based bands, Hall of Fame officials would argue against such an assertion. Fans of the Guess Who/Bachman Turner Overdrive, Steppenwolf and Paul Anka could point to Getty Lee and Rush’s 2013 induction as the exception that proves the rule. Their nearly 30-year wait for satisfaction shows no sign of ending any time soon. In the meantime, acts with fewer credentials have been clouted into the hall by their record labels and the pull of influential board members, including Wenner. Indeed, individual members of important bands have been repeatedly awarded for separate projects, presumably to ensure higher ratings for the televised ceremony.

John Barnard’s entertaining 2017 rockumentary, Bachman, makes a very good case for Randy Bachman’s induction, individually or as a founder of two exceedingly influential and commercially successful bands, the Guess Who and Bachman–Turner Overdrive, and he’s still rocking. But, don’t take my word for it. Listen to testimonials Neil Young, Paul Shaffer, Peter Frampton, Alex Lifeson (Rush), Buffy Sainte-Marie and Sam Roberts, none of whom sound as if they’re pimping for Bachman’s nomination. Speaking for themselves are such hits as “American Woman,” “These Eyes” and “Laughing,” with the Guess Who, and “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” and “Roll on Down the Highway,” with BTO. Interviews with family members, friends and fellow rockers paint a portrait of a musician, who, while surviving many winters in Winnipeg, followed a route to stardom not unlike the paths walked by countless other artists. The exception is his early dedication to Mormonism and a commitment to sobriety and traditional family values. It’s something, as Young points outs, that was anathema to rock musicians in the 1960-70s. The low-key doc also points out Bachman’s commitment to excellence, hard work and history, through the instruments he’s chosen to use and save. Bachman adds extended interviews and deleted footage.

TV-to-DVD
George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy
Arrow: Agatha Raisin: Series Two
PBS: Sesame Street: Awesome Alphabet Collection
Enough time has passed since George Carlin died of cardiac arrest, at 71, for nearly an entire generation of young people to have forgotten why he’s still worshipped, alongside Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, as one of the greatest comedians of all time. It came in 2008, 48 years after he and fellow comic Jack Burns moved to Los Angeles, from Fort Worth, to pursue a career in comedy. The act only last about two years, but Carlin’s ability to create wacky characters — Al Sleet, the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman, and the doofus disc jockeys at “wonderful WINO radio,” among them – impressed bookers for late-night talk shows, variety specials and nightclubs. It was a different world then for comedians, as evidenced by his being detained for questioning on one of the nights Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity. Carlin simply was an audience member, but his lack of a government-issued ID was deemed sufficiently subversive to transport him to jail with Bruce in the same vehicle. A historic moment, indeed. On July 21, 1972, Carlin was arrested after performing “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, and charged with violating obscenity laws. Not only were the charges dropped, freeing countless comics and deejays from self-censorship, but the routine sent Carlin’s already soaring career into show-biz orbit. In between those landmark events, Carlin stopped wearing a coat-and-tie while performing and let his beard and hair grow, a la mode. If he lost some older fans along the way, the casual look endeared him to another generation of listeners, viewers and club-goers. His frequent ingestions of cocaine probably contributed to the heart problems he experienced during a five-year layoff in the late 1970s. His longtime relationship with fledging HBO began in 1982.  His 10th showcase, “George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy,” debuted there in 1997. The 50-minute special contains a 27-minute stand-up performance – including new bits,  “Advertising,” “Pets” and “American Bullshit” — a retrospective celebrating Carlin’s career and an interview with the host Jon Stewart. Short, but sweet, it showcased his ability to explain America to Americans, and the English language to consumers bombarded by the exaggerations and outright lies fed to them in commercials and advertising. It also provided a forum for his political activism, social views, boyhood recollections and history with drugs. The comedian’s 10th special for the pay-cable network was broadcast live from the Wheeler Theater in Aspen, Colorado. Another hour of material could have been gleaned from his acting in movies and television shows.

I suspect that many fans of Acorn TV’s “Agatha Raison” fell in with it for the same reason as the title character, a big-city PR executive, moved to the pastoral Cotswolds countryside, in the first place. She wanted to escape the crime, violence and mayhem associated with urban life, as much as viewers want to escape the same things on prime-time television. The mini-series is set in the fictional village of Carsely and shot in Biddestone, Wiltshire, a region that attracts tens of thousands of tourists for its natural beauty and quaint architecture. Until Raison’s arrival, Carsely had yet to experience a murder. “Après Agatha, le deluge.” In the pilot episode, “Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death,” the retirement-minded newcomer was forced to embark on an alternative career when she becomes a suspect in a murder case involving the village’s Annual Fete and Quiche Baking Competition. The fortysomething Agatha is played with great relish by the veteran comic actress, Ashley Jensen (“Ugly Betty”), who’s nothing like Agatha Christie’s protagonists. Raison’s famously blond hair figures in the first 90-minute episode in the second-season package, when her new stylist is found dead and her hair is “poisoned.” She suspects the arrogant stylist is blackmailing clients with their darkest secrets. There are two more episodes and a making-of featurette.

PBS’ “Sesame Street” has always used individual letters and numbers to facilitate its audience’s transition from pre-school, to real school and beyond. “Awesome Alphabet Collection” features such classics as “The Beetles Perform Letter B” and “C is for Cookie,” plus animation, parodies and the best segments from recent seasons. Celebrating the alphabet alongside their furry friends are Norah Jones, duetting with the letter Y; Tori Kelly, trying a little kindness; Pharrell Williams, belting it out for the letter B; Maya Angelou stops by to share hugs; Sheryl Crow helps “I” soak up some sun; and Ricky Gervais attempts a lullaby. “Elmo’s Amazing Alphabet Race” is included as a bonus feature.

The DVD Wrapup: Jackie Chan, Dragged Across Concrete, Miyazaki, Khrustalyov, Tarantula!, Bigger, Wire in Blood, Finding Joy

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

Police Story/Police Story 2: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Finding Jackie Chan’s name and likeness on the cover of a Criterion Collection double-feature may seem like an improbable discovery, but the pairing of Police Story and Police Story 2 doesn’t mark his first appearance on the prestigious label. That came three years ago, in Criterion’s 4K digital restoration of King Hu’s wushu classic, A Touch of Zen (1971), in which Chan delivered an uncredited performance. (As well, Hu’s splendid Dragon Inn was released last summer by Criterion, a label known more for Japanese samurai titles, than Hong Kong kung fu.) Barely out of his teens and still acting under several different pseudonyms, Chan would play bit parts and perform stunts alongside Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). His brief association with Lee resulted in movies with such Anglicized titles as Bruce Lee and I (1973), New Fist of Fury (1976) and the Bruce Li-vehicle, Bruce and Shao-lin Kung Fu 2 (1978). Chan’s big-screen breakthrough also came in 1978, albeit as Lung Cheng, in Yuen Woo-ping’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, as Jacky Chan. For the first time, the producers allowed the cocksure actor complete freedom over his stunt work, which was becoming increasingly injurious to his health. Performing under the now-familiar moniker, Jackie Chan, he was encouraged by a string of box-office successes to test western waters in Robert Clouse’s English-language, U.S.-shot Battle Creek Brawl (1980) – a.k.a., The Big Brawl — and Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run (1981), neither of which provided much room for Chan’s brand of comic kung-fu. After disappointing returns for Cannonball Run II (1984) and The Protector (1985), he returned to Hong Kong, where he quickly began resetting box-office records and establishing critical acclaim.

Police Story (1986) was a huge hit in Asian markets, where audiences were more attuned to Chan’s trademark blend of action, comedy and sentimentality. It took another decade, at least, for American critics to recognize the genius it took to create such monumental set pieces as the opening chase, which ended with the destruction of a hillside shantytown. Chan plays Hong Kong police Inspector Chan Ka-Kui (a.k.a., Kevin Chan), who, after arresting drug kingpin Chu Tao (Chor Yuen), is assigned to protect Chu’s secretary and government witness, Selina Fong (Brigitte Lin). When the well-connected gangster is released on bail, he vows revenge against Ka-Kui, by framing him for the murder of a fellow police inspector. Meanwhile, Selina, realizing Chu’s criminality, goes to his office at a shopping mall to download incriminating data from Chu’s computer system. It sets up a fight, in which Ka-Kui defeats all of Chu’s henchmen and police apprehend the boss’ briefcase, which contains damaging data. Maggie Cheung. Ka-Kui’s much-put-upon girlfriend, May, won audiences’ hearts, as well.

In 1988, Police Story 2 overcame most of the obstacles that commonly upend action sequels. Most of the characters from the original were called upon to reprise their roles. Critical of the handling of his previous case – including the violent arrest of Chu and heavy property damage – his bosses have demoted Ka-Kui to highway-patrol duty. If attention-starved May is glad that her boyfriend is no longer taking difficult cases and has more time to see her, audiences already know that the downtime isn’t likely to last very long. Having convinced prison authorities that he’s terminally ill, Chu demands of his henchmen, John Ko (Charlie Cho), that he make life difficult for Ka-Kui and, if necessary, his family. It also results in the cop taking out his anger on Ko and his men in a restaurant; the near-calamitous bombing of the shopping mall; May’s kidnapping; and the introduction of an unhinged antagonist, Gabby (Benny Lai), who, despite being an undersized deaf-mute, is a fierce martial artist and explosives expert. Their skirmishes are almost worth the price of a purchase, alone. The bonus package includes the Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2, presented in a high-definition digital transfer for the first time; new pieces on Chan’s screen persona and action-filmmaking techniques, featuring author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix; archival interviews with Chan and actor/stuntman Lai; a 1964 featurette, detailing the rigors of training for a career in the Peking opera, which was Chan’s ambition as a child; a stunt reel; and an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton. In one of them, Chan pays homage to the great silent comedian, Buster Keaton, whose inventiveness is reflected in several Police Story stunts, just as Chan’s work has been mimicked in movies ever since then.

Dragged Across Concrete: Blu-ray
At a none-too-brisk 159 minutes, S. Craig Zahler’s intricately conceived crime story could never have competed with more concise thrillers for space in theaters. Those of us who no longer limit our entertainment choices to what’s playing at the local megaplex aren’t nearly as particular, though, especially when the straight-to-DVD/Blu-ray/PPV menu offers movies starring actors whose salad days have begun to wilt. In addition to the presence of a still-marketable Mel Gibson, Dragged Across Concrete features members of Zahler’s familiar repertory company: Vince Vaughn (Swingers), Don Johnson (“Miami Vice”), Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein), Jennifer Carpenter (“Dexter”) and Fred Melamed (A Serious Man). Of these, however, only Vaughn and Carpenter are accorded more than a few minutes of screen time. A terrific supporting cast of up-and-coming, mostly TV-based actors otherwise carries the load. Most of the viewers’ time is spent watching soiled cops Ridgeman and Lurasetti (Gibson, Vaughn) stake out suspects and crime scenes, while exchanging hard-boiled dialogue that falls well short of rivaling that provided by Ben Hecht and Elmore Leonard. Zahler’s script demands of Ridgeman and Lurasetti that they place odds on their every strategic movie, and some that aren’t remotely strategic. The gimmick is amusing for an hour, or so, but the arbitrariness of the numbers grows tiresome after that point.

After the cops were suspended for applying excessive force on a man suspected of pushing heroin in a school zone — or, so the arrest appeared on the television news, when captured by an engaged citizen – they’re unable to finance Lurasetti’s choice of an engagement ring for his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones) and a demand by Ridgeman’s wife (Laurie Holden) to move their family to safer environs. When Ridgeman is informed of a big heist already in the planning stage, he convinces his younger partner to join the party. Even when they sniff out the details of the robbery, the cops remain in the dark as to the crooks’ goals and the ruthlessness they’re willing to invest in the job’s success. The audience is given a hint – a stone-cold killer, committing petty crimes — but it makes virtually no sense. Neither is the hiring of small-timers Tory Kittles (“True Detective”) and Michael Jai White (“Arrow”) to drive the armored-car arranged for by the mastermind, Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann). He also is the crook who decides to abduct and hold bank employee Kelly Summer (Carpenter) as a wild-card hostage.

For no good reason, she’s been hesitant to return to work after taking her family-leave benefit, while her unemployable husband stays home with the baby. As Dragged Across Concrete reaches its climactic finale, Kelly’s sacrifice seems unnecessarily cruel. Those qualifiers aside, it isn’t likely that Gibson and Vaughn’s fans will be disappointed or terribly critical of Dragged Across Concrete, even if they feel the need to insert an intermission near its midpoint. In only his third directorial effort, Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99) isn’t afraid to make bold editorial decisions or free his actors to interpret their characters in their own way. The production values are solid, and the tension builds throughout the picture. If only he’d learned to yell, “cut,” more often than he did here. The Blu-ray includes “Elements of a Crime,” a three-part making-of documentary, and the featurette, “Moral Conflict: Creating Cinema that Challenges.”

Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki: Blu-ray
In 2013, 72-year-old Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki caused a great uproar in the animation community – in Japan and abroad – by unexpectedly announcing his retirement. Having already reached and surpassed every milestone a filmmaker can achieve as an animator, storyteller, writer, director and manga artist, Miyazaki said he was abandoning the production of feature films, due to his age, declining health and to concentrate on displays at the Studio Ghibli Museum, in the Tokyo suburb of Mitaka. Still, even as a self-described “retired geezer and pensioner,” Miyazaki couldn’t sit still for long. It is evidenced in Kaku Arakawa’s tightly focused documentary, Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki, first shown on Japanese television in November 13, 2016, and finally released here last December 14.  If all outward indications suggest that Miyazaki is some kind of Zen master, whose wisdom guided his artists’ pursuit of greatness, the truth is that he was a stern taskmaster and obsessive creative force. It made him a heart attack waiting to happen. His impatience with people interfering with time devoted to his work is evidenced here in cranky asides aimed toward Arakawa’s team and a group of young animators trying to sell the old-school artist on CGI technology. “Never-Ending Man” doesn’t spend a lot of time retracing Miyazaki’s personal history, discussing his occasionally controversial political views or reviewing such past successes as the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises (2013). The film crew did, however, spend a lot of time at home with Miyazaki, chatting, cooking, watching him draw his sengoku-era samurai manga and begin production on the 14-minute “Boro the Caterpillar,” now showing at the museum. Anyone planning a trip to Mitaka is advised to make reservations for the museum and theater well in advance of their arrival.

Khrustalyov, My Car! Special Edition: Blu-ray
In an extended interview included in Arrow Academy’s special edition of Khrustalyov, My Car!, co-writer/director Aleksei German maintains that only a native-born Russian artist can translate what’s happened in the former Soviet state since the revolution and keeps recurring today. Outsiders, even those once aligned with Moscow in war and peace, are bound to get it wrong. Based on the evidence provided by Khrustalyov, My Car and other great Russian films newly available in DVD/Blu-ray, he’s probably right. Joseph Stalin forced his people to live under a veil of enforced secrecy and never-ending purges that only spared ass-kissers and thugs willing to enforce his paranoiac urges. After the Great Patriotic War was won and the possibility of freedom arose among returning Red Army soldiers, Stalin declared war on his own people. He had good reason to fear the encroachment of powerful anti-communist forces from the west and propaganda designed to promote the worship of material goods and free-market philosophies. Instead, he tempered the aspirations of Soviet citizens by manipulating the output of farms and factories and convincing his diehard admirers that the country would collapse without him. Finally, just before his death in 1953, Stalin finally got around to implementing plans of his own for sequestering Jewish intellectuals, skilled professionals and politicians. He especially feared their disloyalty to his hand-picked apparatchiks, the creation of an Israel aligned with the U.S. and the influence of American Jews on relatives still living in the USSR. These weren’t the only targets of Stalin’s hostility, however. The gulags and labor camps, once home to millions of German POWs, were quickly being refilled with perceived enemies of the Soviet people and those deemed susceptible to western influence.

Khrustalyov, My Car is set in the first still-frigid days of the spring of 1953, as Stalin’s anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot” raged in Moscow and, at his Kuntsevo Dacha, the dictator’s 74-year-old body was ready to give up his ghost. (At the time, there were as many suppressed conspiracy theories about his death as JFK’s assassination would spawn, only a decade later.) The film’s central character is military surgeon General Yuri Georgievich Klensky (Yuri Tsurilo), a larger-than-life Jewish war hero who’s just discovered that he’s being targeted in the Doctors’ Plot. There’s no indication that he’s a threat to the state, but, as a Jewish doctor, Klensky no longer was trusted to treat or operate on party officials. In his final hours of freedom – for lack of a better term — he’s pursued, abused and marked for a tour of the gulags. It’s almost impossible for a writer to do justice to German’s nightmarish version of Yuri’s last hours in a Moscow he once considered to be a personal playground. His desperate, jolting journey east encapsulates the madness of the period. When Stalin’s failing health becomes known at the Kremlin, Soviet authorities track down the truck carrying Klensky to the labor camps and demand he be released to see what he can accomplish, if anything, at the dacha. He’s still suffering a beating and anal rape to which he was subjected on the truck, but even a whiff of freedom is enough to reignite his spirits. By the time Klensky arrives, the “Great Leader” is either dying or already dead. When Stalin finally kicks the bucket, his evil Head of Security, Lavrentiy Beria, utters the first sentence of post-Stalinist USSR, “Khrustalyov, My Car!” The apparatchiks are all in a great hurry to return to the Kremlin, where no clear line of succession was in place and powerful heroes of World War II wasted no time creating alliances and buying votes in the Politburo.

Even though Klensky is immediately released, he does not return to medicine, preferring, instead, to “go to the people.” As commandant of a train, the last image we see is of the general happily drinking with laborers and balancing a glass of port on his shaved head. Meanwhile, Klensky’s very bizarre family has been evicted from their relatively comfortable digs and relocated to a crowded communal apartment. Outside, the Russian winter keeps the streets empty, except for police vehicles and the limousines of government authorities and secret police. Almost nothing “normal” happens during the movie’s entire 147-minute length. To fully appreciate Khrustalyov, My Car, a short course in post-war Soviet history isn’t particularly necessary, even if a quick Internet survey might help non-academics. A perusal of  Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy, The Death of Stalin (2017), which depicts the power struggle following the leader’s  death, might be warranted, as well. The new 2K restoration, from the original camera negative, accentuates the austere beauty of Vladimir Ilin’s austere black-and-white cinematography. Audio commentary is provided by producer Daniel Bird; “Between Realism and Nightmare” is a new video essay on the movie and German’s other films, by historian and film critic Eugénie Zvonkine; “Diagnosis Murder: Jonathan Brent on the Doctors’ Plot” clarifies different elements of Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign; film historian and critic Ron Holloway interviews the Russian director, who died in 2013 and struggled with censorship and financing throughout his career; “German … at Last,” an interview with German by producer Guy Séligmann; a double-sided fold-out poster; limited edition 60-page booklet, featuring new writing by Gianna D’Emilio, an  archival essay by Joël Chaperon and original reviews.

Tarantula!: Blu-ray
The Brain: Blu-ray
Jack Arnold (Creature From the Black Lagoon) and co-writer Robert M. Fresco’s giant-creature-feature Tarantula! (1955) has its defenders – mostly critics, who mark on the curve, and midnight-movie fanatics – but the only question it raises today is how it managed to avoid enshrinement on “MST3K.” It arrived in theaters a year after Them! effectively invented the “nuclear monster” and “big bug” subgenres. The primary difference between the two drive-in favorites is Tarantula!’s use of radioactive isotopes to trigger gigantism in caged lab animals, instead of fallout from nuclear bombs deployed or tested in southwestern desert. In Japan, the kaiju (a.k.a., “strange beast”) movement was launched by Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), whose monsters’ growth could be directly traced to the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and test in the South Pacific. In Tarantula!, Hitchcock-favorite Leo G. Carroll plays mad scientist Gerald Deemer, whose partner is first seen wandering through the Arizona desert deformed and demented by whatever happened in the lab. He’s replaced by recent college graduate Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), who looks as if she just stepped out of a Vogue pictorial on what modern socialites wear to work in New York. It takes handsome  Dr. Matt Hastings – genre specialist John Agar (The Mole People) – about 10 seconds to hook up with the new arrival, who needs a ride to Deemer’s remote laboratory. To be fair, the biochemist insists that he is working on a plan to feed the world, by developing a quick-growth formula on plants and animals. In Tarantula!, however, the test subject is more likely to eat the humans, instead of enrich them. In the absence of a direct nuclear threat, the only thing that appears to stall the progress of the insatiable creature are napalm bombs, called in by an uncredited jet-squadron leader (Clint Eastwood). That might sound like a spoiler – and, it is – but how else would viewers know to pay close attention to a masked character, who only arrives in the last five minutes? The Scream Factory package features a dandy new 2K remaster of the film, a stills gallery and fresh commentary with film historians Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J. Kiss and David Schecter.

Also from Scream Factory, Ed Hunt’s “Canuxploitation classic, The Brain, easily qualifies as a sci-fi/horror film that’s so outrageously bad it’s fun to watch. The eponymous antagonist is a pulsating mass of grey matter that explodes in size and strength as it takes control of human minds and devours human bodies. The monster is in cahoots with the host of a small town’s most popular TV show, “Independent Thinking,” which is hosted by the megalomaniacal Dr. Anthony Blakely (David Gale). Thinking that Blakely is on the level, local police and school authorities send juvenile delinquents to him to “fix.” Two of them, Jim Majelewski (Tom Bresnahan) and his girlfriend, Janet (Cynthia Preston), smell a rat when they spot other problem teens, doing their best impression of pod people. Although the movie harkens back to the 1950s, The Brain might remind some bad-movie aficionados of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978), which, 10 years earlier, introduced the concept of bulbous monsters. Unlike Tarantula!, too, The Brain was featured in last year’s live traveling tour of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In addition to the 4K restoration from the original negative, the package adds new commentaries from Hunt, Bresnahan and composer Paul Zaza; interviews with Preston, actor George Buza and assistant art director Michael Borthwick; the featurette, “Food for Thought: A Love Letter to The Brain”; and a stills gallery.

Bigger Like Me: Extended Director’s Cut
In his 2014 documentary, Big Like Me, comedian Greg Bergman took what I assumed to be a trademark bit from his standup routine and expanded the concept to its illogical conclusion. He did so by demonstrating how far he would go, in real life, to make peace with his penis, a goal that, so far, had eluded him. He claimed that men have always obsessed about the size of their penis, but, until recently, felt no great need to do anything about it. As long as their wives and lovers pretended, as least, to be satisfied with the length and girth of their appendage, most men elected to leave well enough alone. Then, in the 1960s, the sexual revolution opened the floodgates to nudity on-screen, on-stage, in magazines and in public. This freedom, some men believed, gave women the ability to see what they might be missing and, if desired, comparison shop. It wasn’t until the “Seinfeld” episode, “The Shrinkage,” brought size issues into the open – just as masturbation was demystified, in “The Contest” – that such once-taboo topics were opened for discussion by mainstream comics. It was about the same time as Internet streaming made pornography as accessible as music videos and flying saucer videos. When the tollgates were still up, subscription fees limited consumers to what they could afford to see and the fetishes they chose to embrace. Those days are way behind us, of course, with access to adult material freely available to anyone with a search engine.

Although no one, including Bergman’s wife, complained or ridiculed his perfectly normal-sized penis, he compared his johnson to those he saw on the porn sites and determined it was lacking a certain … heft. After it became a part of his standup routine, Bergman decided to do something about it and, of course, make a documentary about his quest.  Hence, Big Like Me. This year’s Bigger Like Me: Extended Director’s Cut adds 14 minutes of mostly redundant material to that film, updating us on his marital status and other pointless concerns. After failed experiments using pills, pumps and other OTC remedies, Bergman traveled to Tijuana, where, for a price and prayer, all things are available. He found a surgeon who reluctantly agreed to add some girth to Bergman’s joint, absent any promises that the experiment wouldn’t leave him deformed, disappointed and depressed. Instead, the surgery was successful. It opened all sorts of narrative avenues to the comic, including much semi-gratuitous nudity, embarrassing interviews with random women on size issues, a guest appearance by the man with the world’s biggest cock – hint, it isn’t — and a crude variation of the “The Dating Game.” We’re also invited to witness the inevitable second breakup with his first wife, who we don’t for a minute blame for the divorces. Bigger Like Me isn’t without humor, but it’s limited to the amount of time it would have taken Bergman to explain his adventure in a comedy club. (It might have worked better if the guy wasn’t such an outright dick, himself, or as a bit on Comedy Central’s “Nathan for You.”) I thought Bergman’s 2017 political mockumentary, Obamaland Part 1: Rise of the Trumpublikans, was a far better way for him to showcase his offbeat sense of humor.

TV-to-DVD
ITV/Acorn: Wire in the Blood: The Complete Collection
Acorn: Finding Joy: Series 1
Acorn: A Place to Call Home: Season 6
Based on characters created by the prolific Scottish mystery writer, Val McDermid, ITV’s “Wire in the Blood” pre-dated most of the network crime dramas featuring clinical psychologists, clairvoyants, forensic geniuses and other readers of crystal balls. Today, the show’s protagonist, Dr. Anthony Valentine Hill (Robson Green) might be confused with any number of other such crimefighters. During its 2002-2008 British run – it also aired on BBC America — the conceit was still extremely viable and full of intriguing storylines. Green, who, since 1989, has worked exclusively on television, had already endeared himself with fans of British police dramas, with ITV’s “Touching Evil.” For the first 14 episodes of “Wire,” Green was most often paired with DCI Carol Jordan, played by another stalwart of British television, Hermione Norris (MI-5), and, later, DI Alex Fielding (Simone Lahbib). Their turf is fictional Bradfield, which might still be found in West Yorkshire. Although Hill’s assistance isn’t always appreciated, he’s known for being able to tap into his own dark side to get inside the heads of serial killers. As such, he’s only called upon to help on tough and seemingly impenetrable cases. They feel as fresh today as most other British crime series from the period, which was well-known for its exemplary mini-series. A complete-series package was released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 2016, but at a considerably higher price than the Arrow collection currently being offered by Amazon. The 24 movie-length episodes weigh in at a hefty 1,922 minutes.

In the first season of Acorn Media’s “Finding Joy,” Internet news gal, Joy Morris (Amy Huberman), is handed a horizontal promotion, from copy editor, to special-interest vlogger. It coincides with the nearly simultaneous discovery of a tryst by her live-in boyfriend, Aidan (Lochlann O’Mearáin), with a gorgeous brunette, and a turd left on her bed’s white duvet by her dog, also named Aidan. Yes, the same bed both times. The wee blond Dubliner (“Striking Out”) is a perfect fit in the role of a likeably neurotic young woman, whose new assignment takes her to the unusual places that people find their bliss: full-contact wrestling, touchy-feely wellness retreats, hot-yoga sessions, vertigo therapy, non-committal dating and Lamaze lessons with her best friend. Huberman is credited, as well, with creating and co-writing the six-episode series. Some of the fun comes when Joy attempts to fill the physical gap left by the ouster of “human Aidan.” After the de rigueur ordeal of finding the perfect roommate, she settles for her polar opposite: the bold and brassy Amelia (Aisling Bea). Joy’s quirky, punky workmate, Charlene (Jenny Rainsford), is also a delight. The talking “canine Aidan” may be a bit of a stretch, but the gimmick doesn’t wear out its welcome. The set contains a making-of featurette.

Set in rural New South Wales in the period following the Second World War, “A Place to Call Home” is a highly melodramatic mini-series/soap-opera, whose run was capped last year at six seasons. The show’s most prominent actor is Marta Dusseldorp, who’s starred in such international hits as “Jack Irish,” “Janet King” and the “BlackJack” movies. After 20 years living in Europe, her Sarah Adams returns to Australia, working her way home as a nurse on an ocean liner. During the voyage, Sarah befriends the influential and wealthy Bligh family and discovers a scandalous family secret. In Sydney, she finds her estranged mother still unwilling to forgive her perceived “sin” of converting to Judaism. With no other prospects, Sarah takes up an offer for a job by George Bligh (Brett Climo), in the Inverness hospital, much to the disapproval of his overbearing mother, Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst). In the final season, Sarah finally marries George, causing Elizabeth’s anti-Semitic instincts to re-emerge, especially when her new daughter-in-law takes her place as lady of Ash Park.  George’s son, James (David Berry), also returns from abroad to start a business in Sydney, while his daughter, Anna (Abby Earl), remains in Hawaii with her sister-in-law (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood), nursing a secret from the rest of the family. An uprising of their male-chauvinist neighbors threatens to undo progress made on a center promoting women’s rights.

The DVD Wrapup: Diamonds of the Night, School of Life, Red Room, Witch/Hagazussa, Tito & the Birds, Keoma, Andre’s Gospel, Noir

Wednesday, April 24th, 2019

Diamonds of the Night: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
One way to tell if a film-school graduate wasn’t daydreaming his or her way through courses in cinema history is by paying attention to the overt homages and purloined images in their debut films. A fledgling writer/director can overplay her hand, by referencing such oft-imitated classics as Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Psycho, Persona and, of course, Pulp Fiction. Or, she can integrate the references with such natural fluidity that only the sharpest of eyes would be able to identify them. Among the homages in Jan Nemec’s amazing debut drama, Diamonds of the Night (1964) – newly released into Blu-ray — were those paid to such giants as Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad), Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped), Luis Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Ivan’s Childhood). They were woven into the narrative so seamlessly that only a buff or one of Nemec’s classmates would recognize most of them. His innovative techniques would signal the beginning of the Czech New Wave, to which he also would contribute A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) and Martyrs of Love (1967). In 1988, Philip Kaufman would repurpose footage of Soviet tanks from the banned documentary Oratorio for Prague (1968), in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nemec’s reputation for being an enfant terrible didn’t endear him with Czech or Soviet censors or mainstream producers in the west. Neither did it serve him well during his exile in the west. He returned to his native country after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, making several new films and teaching at his alma mater, FAMU. Nemec’s literary influences included William Faulkner, from whom he borrowed non-linear storytelling techniques, and Prague native Arnost Lustig, who survived the Holocaust in ways that were repeated by characters in his novels. The splendid Criterion Blu-ray package finds room for Nemec’s 11-minute school project, A Piece of Bread (1960), also adapted from a semi-autobiographical Lustig short story.

Like “Diamonds, it chronicles the fate of a few Nazi prisoners, who escape from a train being used to transfer concentration-camp inmates, in advance of the Red Army advance. Starving, they draw lots to select which one of them will risk his life, stealing a loaf of bread from under the nose of a SS guard and making it back to cover before he notices it missing. Likewise, “Diamonds” follows the progress of two unnamed boys – who we can only assume to be Jewish – after they escape from a train transferring prisoners to another death camp. The boys find themselves in a dense forest, again, with no food, wet clothes and no escape route. Diamonds of the Night differs from A Piece of Bread, as well, by making it difficult for viewers to discern, with any accuracy, when events are taking place. Some occur in the present, while the others are presented as flashbacks and memories. Nemec also anticipates their futures in dreamlike settings. In a risky leap of narrative faith, he avoids attaching labels to the characters. Instead of describing “Diamonds” as a World War II or Holocaust film, he wants audiences to see it as a survival story that explores the human condition under extreme conditions. Even when it looks as if the protagonists might be able to avoid capture until the end of the war, Nemec keeps audiences guessing. He did so by expanding a short scene in the book and original screenplay into an intriguing serio-comic nightmare for the boys. In it, they’re chased through a steeply textured forest by a group of retirees, who are shooting at them with rifles they might have salvaged from World War I. Once captured, accidentally, they’re forced to await their fates in the same room as that being used by the geezers to celebrate, with buckets of beer, drinking songs and dances with make-believe partners. Then, Nemec gives us reason to believe that the boys either are killed by their captors, released into a secure situation, or forced to give up their dignity in a post-war world muddled by poverty, hunger, destroyed homes, revenge seeking and the arrival of new tyrants from the east. The supplemental features include an archival program with the director; an exclusive new video interview with film programmer and Czechoslovak-film expert Irena Kovarova; the documentary, “Arnost Lustig Through the Eyes of Jan Nemec”; new video essay produced by film scholar James Quandt; an illustrated leaflet, featuring critic Michael Atkinson’s essay “Into the Woods” and technical credits.

School of Life
There is a subgenre of French cinema in which children are pulled from their natural abodes and sent to the boonies, either to escape a sinister force – Nazis, usually – or to realize a coming-of-age experience, under the tutelage of grumpy old men. Nature-specialist Nicolas Vanier’s School of Life takes a different route to a similarly foretold conclusion. It opens behind the high walls of an austere orphanage in suburban Paris, circa the early 1930s. It’s the only home that Paul (Jean Scandel) has only ever experienced. As such, he doesn’t know how to react when an out-of- their-element couple — Célestine (Valérie Karsenti) and Borel (Eric Elmosnino) – arrives with the sole purpose of taking him back to their rural home, situated on magnificent estate owned by a reclusive aristocrat. Habitually inclined to mistrust strangers,  Paul resists their many acts of kindness toward him. Borel is the gamekeeper on the property, which lies in the untamed French countryside of Sologne. Initially recalcitrant and rebellious, Paul becomes close with Borel’s nemesis: the elusive poacher, Totoche (François Cluzet). He teaches Paul about life and death in the forest primeval, while Borel focuses the boy’s attention on conserving Count de la Fresnaye’s  resources and keeping poachers from destroying the natural balance. In doing so, Borel allows the count to feel ethically comfortable in his attempts to advance the generational tradition of downing a magnificent stag and adding its head to the mansion’s trophy wall. Paul doesn’t’ know how to feel about such regal pursuits, except to side with the beast when it’s cornered. That’s only half the story, though. The other half begins when the count is seriously injured in a hunt and his cruel, playboy son arrives to wait for him to die and the will to be read. The pompous jerk, who once was cursed by gypsies for killing a heron on a duck hunt, can’t wait to fence in the entire property and prevent the migration of animals and people. He can’ t possibly know what lies ahead for him when the will is read, although some viewers may not be surprised. Nicolas Vanier has already demonstrated his ability to create films that aren’t overwhelmed by nature’s grandeur — Belle & Sebastian (2013) and Loup (2009) — freeing cinematographer Éric Guichard (Les diables) great latitude in capturing the beauty, serenity and ecology of the count’s property, as well as the diversity of its inhabitants.

We Are Boats
Born in Soviet Armenia, in 1983, Angela Sarafyan possesses the kind of ethereal beauty that is marked by flowing white gowns, eyes that don’t require cosmetic enhancements and wavy brown hair, inspired by goddesses in Greek mythology. It must be difficult for agents and casting directors to find roles in which her exotic features won’t detract from those of her co-stars and dominate every scene in which she appears. Although she’s fit comfortably within the parameters established for guest stars and supporting characters in short-lived roles, Sarafyan’s still waiting for a major breakthrough. Audiences might recall performances in hourlong TV dramas (“American Horror Story”), playing top-shelf hookers (“Westworld”), paranormals (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), vampires (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn), spies and assassins (“Nikita”) and, most notably, in films about the Armenian genocide (The Promise, Lost and Found in Armenia, 1915). Everything came together for Sarafyan on “Westworld,” in which she played the occasionally topless host/prostitute Clementine Pennyfeather at Maeve’s saloon. As far as I can tell, We Are Boats marks Sarafyan’s first shot as playing the protagonist, Francesca, who alternately performs the duties of an angel, grim reaper, prostitute, temptress and distraught mom. It is, however, not a movie most people are likely to see.

In it, Francesca dies prematurely after being shot by a disgruntled john in a hotel-room assignation. After some confusion at the gates to the hereafter, she is assigned by Sir (Uzo Aduba) to remain in the corporeal world temporarily, encountering strangers at crisis points in their lives. She’ll guide them onto a path toward happiness or set the wheels in motion for tragic ending. Her status allows her to appear and disappear, according to her own whims and the directions the various characters are heading. When she completes her assignments, Francesca fears she’ll be sent to her just reward before she can re-connect with the daughter. We Are Boats is writer/director/producer James Bird’s fourth feature after Eat Spirit Eat (2013), Honeyglue (2015) and From Above (2013), for which he received sole writing credit only. I get the feeling that he becomes so invested in his characters’ affairs and issues that he begins to take them personally. In We Are Boats, at least, a couple of promising characters – Amanda Plummer’s homeless Jimmie, among them – get lost in the stories of other people.

According to Bird and everyone else interviewed in the special features, We Are Boats is “the first 100 percent vegan feature film ever made. No animals were harmed, worn or eaten during the entire production. This includes cruelty-free hair products, makeup, wardrobe and all catering.” Moreover, the film’s cast is 50 percent female and 41 percent people of color. The crew is comprised, as well, of 45 percent women. Bird is of Native American ancestry and Indians were cast in non-stereotypical roles. While admirable in so many ways, this devotion to an atypical agenda – swimming outside the Hollywood mainstream at every turn – may have caused Bird to momentarily take his eye off the narrative ball. As enchanting as Sarafyan’s interpretation of Francesca may be, for example, viewers may lose track of who it is she’s supposed to be.

The Witch: A New-England Folktale: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Hagazussa: A Gothic Folk Tale: Blu-ray
Considering that Robert Eggers’ terrifically creepy period horror The Witch: A New-England Folktale (a.k.a, “A Primal Folktale”) was initially released on Blu-ray just short of three years ago and nothing new has been added to sweeten the package — except, 4K UHD – collectors may want to consider holding back on a visual upgrade. Rabid fans, who’ve only recently committed to the format, won’t be disappointed by the ultra-high-definition transfer and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation, which fine-tune some of the sensory details. Eggers’s debut feature not only is one of the smartest genre pictures in memory, but it also stands up in repeat viewings. Part of The Witch’s charm derives from the story’s no-frills approach, which corresponds to the no-frills existences of Puritan settlers in 1630s New England. For reasons that probably are too complex to explain, devout English settlers William, Katherine and their children have been banished from their congregation and forced to find agreeable land outside the settlement’s walls. (Historically, there was a rift between Puritan factions at the time.) The patch of land they find looks as if it would be a perfect place to grow corn, goats and chickens, and raise God-fearing children. The perfectly horizontal tree-line that borders and protects the stone-free property should have raised suspicions, but God-fearing pilgrims never questioned His plans for them. Moreover, William and Katherine believe strongly in the power of prayer to protect them from spiritual and physical harm … and, boy, do they pray. Almost from the start, inexplicable tragedies impact the family and continue as the children grow. Anya Taylor-Joy (Thoroughbreds) plays the oldest daughter, Thomasin, who is accused by her mother and younger twin sisters of being a witch and the catalyst for terrible occurrences. What, then, to make of Black Phillip, the family’s truly scary billy goat; a mysterious rabbit that’s always around when trouble starts; and the wrinkly old woman, who sneaks into the barn at night to drink bloody milk from the teat of the female goats? Nothing beneficial to the protagonists, that’s for sure. The fancifully curious ending goes a long way to redeeming the film’ more disturbing moments, but only if you think witches are entitled to some good times, too. The ported-over bonus material includes Egger’s commentary; “The Witch: A Primal Folktale,” with interviews; “Salem Panel Q&A,” with cast and crew; and design gallery.

The highly coincidental title, Hagazussa: A Gothic Folk Tale (a.k.a., “A Heathen’s Curse”), is taken from an Old High German term for “witch.” It isn’t the only similarity to Egger’s The Witch – the subtitles ring a bell, as well – but it’s the one that comes immediately to mind. Both are set in the kinds of isolated rural locations where locals consume gossip, lies and superstition like people in the city absorb newspaper and broadsheet headlines. As such, the possibility of Satan intruding  into the lives of church-going people is a more fearsome prospect than the virtual absence of God in their daily lives. Even with the daily deluge of prayers from fundamentalist Christians, the deity seems to prefer letting the miracles revealed in the Book of Genesis speak for themselves. After all, how could the creation of Earth and all its natural wonders be considered less wondrous than the devil’s occasional manifestations? Seemingly, God has bigger fish to fry. In Hagazussa, the walls of the local church are built from the dried bones and skulls of former parishioners, and priests are the closest things the living have to medical practitioners. The goats in Hagazussa are only slightly less sinister than those in The Witch, however. Like The Sound of Music, it is set in the highest pastures in the Austrian Alps, only a century removed from the events depicted in Eggers’ film. Although Mark Korven’s score for The Witch was honored with nominations and awards from several niche festivals and publications, the droning white-noise score here, by Greek duo MMMD, is as ominous as Black Phillip’s chillingly blank stares in The Witch. Because of the hideous circumstances surrounding her mother’s death, Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) becomes the scapegoat for every inexplicable evil that feeds the ancient superstitions and monstrous misogyny of the mountain folk. Shunned, Albrun grew up alone in a shepherd’s cabin with a zillion-dollar view of the Alps, but still managed to become impregnated by an unseen and undescribed man. Her loneliness is abated somewhat by the appearance of a young and pretty neighbor, Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), who takes advantage of Albrun’s situation and pays the price. After Swinda arranges for Albrun to be raped by her dimwitted husband, something that’s laid dormant since her mother’s death suddenly comes to the surface. Her revenge can easily be interpreted as a satanic act, as is her lack of remorse. Later, she eats a psychedelic mushroom that causes her to experience a bad trip of epic proportions. MMMD’s no-frills musical accompaniment suits debuting writer/director Lukas Feigelfeld’s approach to minimalist horror. It’s stunning to learn that Hagazussa served as his graduation project. His work is also on display – along with that of cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro – in the unsettling short film, Interferenz (2014), included in the Music Box package. There’s also a deleted scene, music video and commentaries on select scenes.

Red Room
The Manitou: Blu-ray
Superstition: Blu-ray
Scared Stiff: Blu-ray
It wouldn’t be fair to assume that the people who create, market and pay good money to watch such torture-porn exercises as Red Room are as twisted and depraved as the movies’ inarguably sick antagonists. How else to explain their very existence, though? Less frightening than it is gut-wrenching. Dubliner Stephen Gaffney (Bully) and freshman co-writer Erica Keegan’s  women-in-jeopardy drama is too well-made to be dismissed out of hand, however. Red Room sets a goal and achieves it. Only sadists, misogynists and perverts are likely to find anything entertaining in watching helpless young women being toyed with and tormented by porn profiteers. As an indictment of the corruptive power of the Internet, too, it falls well short of the target. In its opening moments, Kyra (Amy Kelly), is kidnapped off the street after a night out on the town. She wakes up in the locked basement of an isolated house with two other young female captives. They are being held for the amusement of sickos who get their kicks via webcasts that capture the women being forced to do unconscionable things and suffer deprivations designed to make them look even more pitiable than they already are. When one patron pushes the bidding for an exclusive act of cruelty past the $4-million mark, the women realize that their only salvation will come though their own cunning and collective strength … if then. Superheroes and comic-book heroes don’t exist in this realm. The most interesting featurette is a video capture of a test audience reacting to one of Red Room’s more unsettling scenes. Other additions include interviews with director and cast, deleted scenes and a concept promo.

Leave it to Hollywood to take a sacred Native American origins myth and turn it into a horror show. While most screenwriters are cautioned against restructuring religious dogma to fit their own needs – Satan being the exception that proves the rule – aboriginal mythology has been considered fair game for more than a hundred years. The Manitou not only reinvented Algonquian-group beliefs, but it turned the spiritual and fundamental life force into an intergalactic bogeyman. Based on Graham Masterton’s best-selling 1976 pot-boiler, it begins when Karen Tandy (Susan Strasberg) enters a San Francisco hospital, suffering from a growth on her spine. Her incredulous doctors surmise that it’s a soft tumor with the characteristics of William Castle’s Tingler. On closer inspection, they fear it’s a fetus of unknown origin incupating inside the tumor. Fortune-teller Harry Erskine (Tony Curtis) dismisses the whole thing, until one of his customers begins speaking in tongues and levitating, finally throwing herself down a flight of stairs. Her words appear to relate to an aboriginal spirit. Then, as Karen’s surgeon attempts to excise her tumor, a supernatural force pushes him to cut off his hand, instead. Erskine finally seeks help from another fortune teller, Amelia Crusoe (Stella Stevens), and her husband, to learn the cause of these frightening events. Dr. Snow
(Burgess Meredith) speculates that within her tumor lives a the embryo of a vengeful 400-year-old Indian spirit. Erskine travels to South Dakota to enlist the aid of Indian medicine man John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) to force the evil spirit out of Karen’s body and back to from whence it came. If not, it could find new hosts and spread the pain. The final showdown takes  place in outer space, where a topless avatar uses then-modern technology to defeat the ancient beast. Blu-ray additions include a new 4K scan of the original film elements; fresh interviews with Masterson, executive producer David Sheldon; new commentary with film historian Troy Howarth; and a stills gallery.

Working from a screenplay by Galen Thompson (Hellbound), director James W. Roberson (The Legend of Alfred Packer) provides little time in Superstition (1982) for minister George Leahy (Larry Pennell) and his family to settle into their new home, before he pulls the rug out from under them. The long-abandoned mansion — popular with pranksters and neckers – is haunted by a malevolent spirit … or two. It was built on the site of an infamously botched witch hunt, in 1692, when a crazed minister decided to improvise on her spiritual cleansing. Instead of burning Elvira Sharack (Jacquelyn Hyde) on a wooden stake, the Puritan fanatic elects to drown the genuinely possessed woman in a nearby pond, while tied to a cross. Ever since then, the property has been assumed to be haunted. As the new renters settle in, mysterious things begin to occur around the estate, including the deaths of workers and visitors. Because it’s owned by the local Catholic archdiocese, Father David Thompson (James Houghton) is called in to determine what’s really going on there and, more to the point, if the Church is liable for reparations. Conveniently, the caretaker’s mentally ill and prone-to-violence son, Arlen (Joshua Cadman), makes himself the primary suspect. If the violence is sufficiently nasty to satisfy gore aficionados, Superstition’s inner logic and overabundance of characters make it impossible to embrace. The Blu-ray benefits from a new 2K scan from the original film elements and new interviews with Roberson and Houghton.

When it entered the genre marketplace, in 1987. Richard Friedman’s haunted-house thriller, Scared Stiff, doesn’t appear to have done much business, despite the presence of genre heartthrob Andrew Stevens. Apart from the dull-as-dishwater title, it probably suffered from the setting: an ante-bellum Southern mansion that once was owned by a ruthless planter, George Masterson (David Ramsey), who tormented everyone who entered his perimeter, including his wife, son and slaves. By then, movies featuring scenes of extreme racist behavior had become repugnant to post-“Roots” and post-Mandingo audiences. They wouldn’t come back into vogue until Django Unchained (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Free State of Jones (2016) and The Birth of a Nation (2016). After the demonic repression of a slave uprising in Scared Stiff, Friedman flash-forwards 125 years and the introduction of the plantation’s new owners. Mary Page Keller plays Kate, a recently traumatized pop star, while Stevens portrays her psychiatrist/boyfriend, David Young. Their freaked-out son isn’t immune to the horrors to come, either. After poking around the house’s attic, Doctor Young discovers artifacts and papers left behind by the previous owners and rebellious slaves. The artifacts include talismans associated with voodoo and rituals that extend back to Africa. Soon enough, Kate (Mary Page Keller) and her son begin seeing the Masterson’s ghost, who fools her by playing impeccable piano sonatas with his back turned to her. They’re also exposed to flashbacks of Masterson’s brutality toward his family. None of it is terribly well executed, really, more closely resembling “Dark Shadows” than a period horror. Eventually, the previous owner’s much-abused wife (Nicole Fortier) appears to recall the original voodoo curse and the likelihood that Young’s body has been repossessed by Masterson. The portrayals of the slaves and their African customs may not have impressed test audiences, who, by this time, were exhausted by plantation-based dramas. The really crazy stuff – the slaves’ ghostly revenge – doesn’t happen until near the end of the 83-minute flick, which seems to have disappeared from view upon its U.S. release. The Blu-ray adds a few extras, including commentary with Friedman and writer/producer Dan Bacaner; the 34-minute featurette, “Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff”; a stills gallery a separate interview, with composer Billy Barber; and some marketing material. It’s worth noting that co-writer Mark Frost would go on to co-create “Twin Peaks” and “Buddy Faro.”  (The greater mystery involves IMDB.com’s insistence that the actor playing Masterson, David Ramsey, was a then-16-year-old black male, instead of a twenty- or thirtysomething white man, who, based on an Internet search, appears to have never existed. The black Ramsey has starred recently in “Arrow,” “The Flash” and “Dexter.”)

Edwin Brienen Collection: Blu-ray
Once upon a time in cinema history, films designated “avant-garde,” “underground,” “cult” and “experimental” filled the same niches held today by arty music videos, YouTube and other Internet-delivered oddities, and cutting-edge animation. While some became midnight-movie and campus-film-club sensations – Night of the Living Dead (1968), El Topo (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) Eraserhead (1977) – it was difficult for them to find crossover appeal. To some degree, that’s because off-Hollywood movies, made by members of the so-called Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation, pushed the limits of mainstream appeal and moviegoers’ willingness to take chances with their hard-earned money. Foreign products lost their appeal, as well, simply because Americans decided not to support movies with subtitles, anymore. It became a best-of-times/worst-of-times deal, soon to be overwhelmed by the “tentpole” phenomenon. When the studios also committed to single-laydown marketing campaigns, openings on multiple screens in the same complex and pleasing teen audiences before adults, the avant-garde was left cooling its collective heels. The next revolution was facilitated by introduction of camcorders and handheld digital cameras, VHS and Beta technology, and the willingness of independent distributers and mini-majors to take chances on low-budget movies. Internet streaming has broken down the walls left standing from the days of studio domination. It’s never been easier, or less expensive to find examples of films even arthouses wouldn’t touch over the last 50 years.

Brink’s five-film “Edwin Brienen Collection” is an invitation for extreme cineastes, if you will, to sample the work of a Dutch auteur, whose films can rightly be said to mirror those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Theo van Gogh, Andy Warhol and artists associated with Brechtian theater. Now 48, Brienen only began making feature films in 2001, after stints as an actor, producer, journalist, radio moderator and television director. The sole English-language review on IMDB.com, lifted from the soiledsinema.com website, describes that film, Terrorama!, as being “a sensory-deranging digital-diarrhea explosion of raunchy rape, unsentimental sacrilege, nasty nihilism, sick sex, and philosophical terrorism.” Moreover, “Because, it won Best Film at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival and earned (actress) Esther Eva Verkaaik Best Leading Actress honors at the Toronto Independent Film Festival, Terrorama! cemented the director’s reputation as an erratic enfant terrible.” The critic failed to mention that it received the 2002 Melbourne Underground Film Festival prize for Best Gratuitous Use of Sex.

No matter, really. Asked to characterize his transgressive approach to such keystone themes as sexuality, politics, religion, relationships, death, abuse and trauma, Brienen, now a resident of Berlin, remarked, “I don’t do mainstream films. And, I realize that people might find themselves uncomfortable, while watching my work. But, I think, it’s not the film that’s disturbing. It’s the person who looks at it, who chooses to find it that way. To be honest, I do not shoot my films with the idea of making them disturbing, on purpose.” Whether he said it with a straight face or not, I can’t say. Brienen acquired the nickname, “Dutch Fassbinder,” for having churned out 30 features, shorts and television series in fewer than 20 years, with the highest of production values affordable. For some reason, Terrorama! (2001), Last Performance (2006), Lena Wants to Know Once and for All (2011), Exploitation (2012) and God (2016) are presented out of chronological order on the Brink collection, with the latest release on the first disc and the earliest on the second. Sharp eyes would be required to spot Brienen’s creative and philosophical evolution, though. There’s no question that he elicits exemplary work from his small repertory company of fearless actors: Eva Dorrepaal, Esther Eva Verkaaik, Vivien LaFleur and Agnieszka Rozenbajgier. My best recommendation for new arrivals to this sort of thing would be taking a short course in Fassbinder’s body of work.

The Lightest Darkness
Reversed: Blu-ray
Billed as the first female-directed Russian noir – a niche if I ever saw one — Diana Galimzyanova’s The Lightest Darkness also is noteworthy for being the first made with a reverse chronology. It’s a conceit that explains a lot about the movie’s inscrutable narrative. In a nutshell it involves the neurotic, if stylish sleuth R.I. Musin (Rashid Aitouganov), who’s overly invested in a complex case that has troubled him for a long time. Working to finish up the estate of a recently deceased uncle, Musin finds himself traveling by train alongside a concert pianist, Elina (Marina Voytuk), and video-game scriptwriter, Arina (Irina Gevorgyan), both of whom are fashionably seductive and exchange intriguingly clever dialogue. Arina’s work-in-progress is based on the Fruiterer, an active serial killer who haunts the night trains. The Lightest Darkness is a consciously Modernist noir, whose striking black-and-white imagery masks the story’s reverse-linear mysteries. A second viewing may be necessary to grasp Galimzyanova’s intricate methodology, but that’s up to you.

Vince D’Amato’s Reversed: The Brivido Giallo Trilogy, also from Darkside Releasing, arrives self-described as “a thrilling new experience in experimental noir, inspired by the sensual and violent world of the Italian giallo film.” Its roots extend back to Lamberto Bava’s mid-1980s cable series, “Brivido Giallo,” which featured four full-length horror films, directed by the master: Dinner With a Vampire (1989), The Ogre (1989), Until Death (1988) and Graveyard Disturbance (1988), all of which are available on DVD. It took me a while to figure out that Reversed is the third release from Darkside’s so-called Brivido Giallo division, alongside Glass and Valley of the Rats. According to the press material, they pay homage to the visually dazzling, exceedingly violent and inarguably sexy Italian horror/mystery/thrillers of the 1970s, “while broadening modern artistic exploration in this genre.” By broadening modern artistic exploration, I suppose they mean incorporating fetishistic portrayals of women in peril, who are photographed through gauzy lenses reminiscent of early Penthouse magazine pictorials, Vogue and underground photographers Richard Kern, Petra Collins and former Leg Show editor Dian Hanson. I’ll let the official summary say what I can’t discern: “Reversed tells the twisted tale of Asia, a globe-trotting socialite who winds up involved in murder, sex and mayhem. Is someone really after her, or is she completely delusional and paranoid?” Exploring the bloody back-story from the point-of-view of her three lovers, Asia’s tale of eroticism and violence is a twisting journey through a disturbed and passionate mind that either will perplex or titillate viewers.

Tito and the Birds: Blu-ray
One of the most difficult duties in any awards season has to be choosing five films from short lists of a dozen, or so, titles in as many as nine hotly contested categories: animation, documentaries, foreign language, music, visual effects, makeup and hairstyling among them, on the Academy Awards docket. Nominees for the 2019 Best Foreign Language Film prize, alone, were pared down to 9 films from the 87 submitted and, in the Best Documentary Feature, 166 to 15. The short lists would be winnowed down even further, typically, to five. Twenty-five years ago, few people outside the niche branches paid much attention to such preliminaries. The unconscionable treatment accorded Hoop Dreams (1994) by the nominating committee forced critics, pundits and administrators to demand reforms in one of the most hidebound categories of them all. Observers then turned their attention to the similarly shameful selection processes in other categories. The ascendency of independent distributors in the early 1990s raised the ante on the importance of all awards. The word, “snub,” had been around for decades, probably, but the Hoop Dreams fiasco gave it new life in the media. Today, entertainment reporters file stories about snubs immediately after the short lists are announced – now, in mid-December – and, again, in mid-January, when the finalists are announced. Snub pieces also follow the selections of nominees for Grammys, Emmys and the Golden Globes …  after the media began to take the HFPA seriously. The laws that govern the Independent Spirit Awards ensure dozens of snubs, each year, but the stakes are lower and the once-fun ceremony is overshadowed by coverage of Oscar parties. Most film lovers don’t enjoy the luxury of watching more than a handful of the short-listed nominees – not to mention, the snubs — in the niche categories.

The arrival on my doorstep of Brazil’s AMPAS entry, Tito and the Birds, reminded once again how difficult it must be to cull the picks from the near-misses, snubs and also-rans. Then, there are prize-worthy films that go unnominated by the selection committees in their sources countries. Anime and animated films from Japan, Eastern and Western Europe, Mexico, South America and, lest we forget, Canada hold their own against pictures from Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and other studios, whose primary goal is to make lots of money, here and abroad. American studios still dominate the finalists, but artists from around the world have earned a place at the table. Tito and the Birds was directed, in Portuguese, by Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto and Gustavo Steinberg, from a screenplay by Eduardo Benaim and Gustavo Steinberg. It was a finalist for an     Annie Award for Best Animated Independent Feature – won by Studio Chizu’s terrific Mirai, an Oscar finalist – but didn’t make the short list of 10, out of 25 qualifiers, I won’t go as far as to say that Tito and the Birds was snubbed, because it wasn’t. It simply didn’t make the cut. The gloriously colorful and politically shaded film tells the story of an inventive 10-year-old boy, Tito (voiced by Pedro Henrique), who takes on the responsibility of finding the cure for an illness that is contracted after individuals experience something hugely frightful. Building from data developed by his father (Matheus Nachtergaele), Tito creates a rattletrap machine to help humans translate the language of birds, who are known to anticipate traumatic events. Tito’s anxious and over-protective mother, Rosa (Denise Fraga), is a typical victim of the malady, which causes patients to shrink into mute, immobile lumps of quasi-human rock.

The contagion is exploited by Alaor Souza (Matheus Solano), a right-wing TV personality whose dubious state-of-the-nation reports stoke paranoia throughout the populace. (Viewers don’t have to look too far to see the similarities between Souza and real-life potentates Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump.) The commentator encourages them to purchase property in the disease-free Dome Garden, a high-tech, sealed-off luxury estate that he owns. Tito believes that the answer lies, instead, in the wisdom of doves. Unfortunately, there’s no known way for the birds to relate their thoughts to humans. If the political angle goes over the heads of some viewers, Tito and the Birds can be enjoyed solely for the constantly shifting fusion of oil paints, embellished with digital enhancements. The swirling images build to an Expressionist-inspired dystopian nightmare, as well as a beautifully rendered solution. Here and there are hints of Disney’s Coco, as well. The Blu-ray adds an interview with filmmakers Steinberg and Bitar.

Replicas: Blu-ray
Director Chad Stahelski, writer Derek Kolstad and star Keanu Reeves will soon find out how much steam is left in their collective engine, when John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum opens in theaters around the world, beginning on May 15. It’s the rare action franchise that’s increased in value since its initial release on October 24, 2014, while also garnering largely positive reviews. The modest $40 million production budget for the first sequel doubled that of the original entry, which almost seems impossible. Both times, the martial-arts action and fetishistic gunplay easily compensated for a script that required a minimum amount of dialogue. If foreign sales hold up the way they have for this and other action franchises, a fourth installment for the poor man’s Mission:Impossible couldn’t be ruled out. Alas, the same can’t be said about such recent Reeves’ sidebars as Destination Wedding, Siberia, A Happening of Monumental Proportions, Lionsgate Television’s “Swedish Dicks” and this week’s movie-in-question, Replicas, all of which followed John Wick: Chapter 2 into the marketplace. It isn’t likely that Reeves participated in their creation to feather his nest-egg. On Replicas, which was developed at Reeves and Stephen Hamel’s Company Films, he was one of nearly 30 dozen producers credited on the movie’s IMDB.com web page. The star’s bona-fides as an action hero are well-established, so, despite the stinkers, “Chapter 3” probably won’t disappoint anyone born after “The Matrix” trilogy. The less said about Replicas, the better. It’s an old-school sci-fi flick that takes advantage of new-school technology to tell a story whose origins can be traced to Frankenstein (1931). Reeves plays Will Foster, a “daring synthetic biologist,” who, after a car accident kills his family, stops at nothing to bring them back, even if it means pitting himself against a government-controlled laboratory, a military task force and the physical laws of science. Also participating are the nearly ubiquitous John Ortiz (Peppermint), Thomas Middleditch (“Silicon Valley”), Alice Eve (“Iron Fist”) and her look-alike screen daughter, Emily Alyn Lind (“Code Black”). Blu-ray extras include commentary with Nachmanoff and executive producer James Dodson; the 26-minute “Imprint Complete: The Making of Replicas”; and deleted scenes.

Keoma: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Spaghetti Western, in most of its crazy permutations, was headed for its last roundup when veteran writer/director Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards) was handed the reins of Keoma, one of the very few such genre specimens to be made in the mid-1970s, and beyond. He didn’t particularly like the patchwork script by Luigi Montefiori (a.k.a., George Eastman) and the vintage studio sets had been torn down for lack of use. A short window opened in Franco Nero’s schedule, allowing for some time to rewrite the screenplay and move the location shoot to scenic, unspoiled Abruzzo, about 80 miles due east of Rome. Even then, much of the dialogue was improvised as the production moved forward. Although Keoma isn’t well-known outside Italy, the Arrow/Mill Creek special edition should go a long way toward raising its profile here. It’s every bit that skillfully made and genuinely entertaining. The title character, a half-breed Civil War veteran, is played with undisguised relish by Nero (Django), still one of the great stars of genre cinema.

The first time we see Keoma Shannon’s long hair and beard, it’s impossible not to anticipate his come-to-Jesus scene, during which he’ll suffer at the hands of his enemy and look to the sky for God’s help. It’s worth the 90-minute wait. Keoma has returned to his hometown after the war, looking forward to spending time with his stepfather, William Shannon (Willian Berger), a rancher who trained him as a boy to be an ace gunslinger. Instead, the town is awash with fears of the plague spreading through the population. Those already exposed are forced by vigilantes to find shelter in caves outside the city limits. One of the evacuees is a gorgeous pregnant woman, Liza (Olga Karlatos), who’s treated like Typhoid Mary at a Fourth of July celebration. She becomes Keoma’s personal reclamation project. He believes that the infectious disease can be treated with medicines available nearby, but only if he can eliminate the tyrannical gang leader, Caldwell (Donald O’Brien) who’s blocking shipments for his own financial gain.

Then, there’s the personal vendetta being conducted by his three evil stepbrothers, who’ve bullied Keoma since he was boy. Even when he’s outmanned by a ratio of 50-to-1, he’s the match of his enemies. Things do get sticky after a while, but, with the aid of crack archer, George (Woody Strode), and his stepfather, he’s able to vanquish the Caldwells. If the ending is more or less proforma – what Western isn’t? – Keoma overflows with brilliantly choreographed fights and scenery that rivals that in any Western, shot east of Monument Valley. The special Blu-ray edition is enhanced by a new 2K restoration, from the original 35mm camera negative; new commentary by Spaghetti Western experts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry C. Parke; lengthy new interviews with Nero, Castellari, Montefiori, editor Gianfranco Amicucci, actors Massimo Vanni and Volfango Soldati; “Keoma and the Twilight of the Spaghetti Western,” a newly filmed video appreciation by the academic Austin Fisher;
“An Introduction to Keoma,” by Alex Cox; original Italian and international theatrical trailers; gallery of original promotional images from the Mike Siegel archive; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Simon Abrams and Howard Hughes.

Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954: Blu-ray
Death Is a Number/Torment
While the nine movies collected in “Noir Archive Volume 1: 1944-1954” stretch the definition of what it means to be “noir,” they’re in the same ballpark. Originally released as the second title in a double-feature, these B-movies are only formulaic in the sense that the shading is dark, the angles are sharp, the guys are tough and the dames are slicker than owl shit. Unlike most other noirs, the themes and settings are all over the place. Address Unknown (1944) stars Paul Lucas, as a German/American art dealer, who returns to the Rhineland at the outbreak of World War Two and swallows the Nazi-propaganda pill whole. In doing so, he puts the lives of his Jewish fiancée (K.T. Stevens) and son (Peter Van Eyck) in the crosshairs of the Gestapo. Budd Boetticher’s Escape in the Fog (1945) also tackles wartime intrigue, this time in San Francisco, with spies vying for a secret message the Japanese literally would kill to possess. Rosalind Russell stars in The Guilt of Janet Ames (1947), alongside Melvin Douglas, Sid Caesar, Betsy Blair and Nina Foch. Russell plays a war widow whose husband threw himself on a grenade, saving five men in his platoon. Angry and bitter, she has the names of the men, and sets out to meet each one to see if any of them is worth her husband’s sacrifice. The movie feels a bit like A Christmas Carol, with Douglas’ Smithfield “Smitty” Cobb playing the ghost of her past, present and future. It features a wild performance by Caesar. The real ringer here is Anthony Mann’s The Black Book (1049), which takes place during the French Revolution and involves the fevered search for Maximilian Robespierre’s enemies’ list. Robert Cummings, Richard Basehart, Arlene Dahl and Norman Lloyd top the bill. In the not-terribly-noirish Johnny Allegro (1949), George Raft unconvincingly plays an ex-con currently working as a florist in a swank hotel. (The character possibly was based on Chicago mobster/florist Dion O’Bannion.) Before you know it, though, he’s killed a federal agent and is hustled away to an island not far from L.A. … or Miami. It’s occupied by the mastermind of counterfeiting ring, who agrees to shelter Allegro at the behest of his girlfriend. Not surprisingly, his curiosity makes him an easy target for the slick crook, who wields a bow-and-arrow and enjoys hunting humans. It’s nutty, but watchable. As is The Killer That Stalked New York (1950), an engaging public-safety procedural in which the killer is small-pox; the femme fatale (Evelyn Keyes) is an infected gem smuggler; and plague-hunters team up with police to solve a crime and prevent a disaster. Despite the craps reference in the title, 711 Ocean Drive (1950) is less concerned with loaded dice than fixed horse races. An excellent Edmond O’Brien plays an electronics expert, who creates a lucrative bookie network for his crime boss. He takes over operations when his boss is murdered, but, of course, is upended by his greed. Joanne Dru and Dorothy Patrick supply the sizzle. Assignment Paris (1952) is a Cold War thriller, in which American and French reporters (Dana Andrews, Märta Torén) are assigned the task of proving that Hungarian authorities killed an American operative and poisoned a reporter who got the goods on them. George Sanders plays the editor of the Paris-based newspaper. The Miami Story (1954) takes a quasi-documentary approach to an overly complicated story about Cuban and native-born mobsters, competing to control organized crime in “the spa.” Luther Adler, Barry Sullivan, Adele Jergens, Beverly Garland and stripper Lili St. Cyr keep things moving, as well. In a real-life PSA, former U.S. Senator George Smathers informs the world that organized crime is a thing of the past in Miami. OK.

The British film industry produced several monumental pictures in the period directly following World War II: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948); Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949); Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948); and Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. In the early 1950s, however, studios faced financial difficulties and restrictions, not unlike those facing the country, at large. A few excellent comedies slipped through, including The Lavender Hill Mob: and Laughter in Paradise (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). The doldrums pretty much ended towards the end of the decade, when Hammer Films found audiences for its peculiar brand of horror, while British New Wave filmmakers introduced “kitchen sink realism” to audiences.

Juno Films Selects and MVD recently launched a series of lesser-known films from the era. This week’s selection includes John Guillermin’s Death Is a Number and Torment (a.k.a., “Paper Gallows”). Short enough to fit within the confines of a horror or crime anthology for television, both films feel more like short stories. In the former, a numerologist (Terrence Alexander) relates the family history of a friend — racing driver John Bridgeman (Denis Webb) — whose mysterious death, he sets out to prove, may have been the final act of an ancient family curse, related to the number, 9. The dry narration is saved by the arrival of several cool ghosts and a haunted castle in a haunted section of England. In the latter, Torment, brothers Cliff (Dermot Walsh) and Jim Brandon (John Bentley) are a successful writing team specializing in murder mysteries. They resemble each other facially, but one is a fine, upstanding gentleman and the other a moody, neurotic psychopath. When an ex-convict visits them, Cliff is determined to commit the perfect crime and frame his secretary, Joan (Rona Anderson), who favors his brother. Jim engages in a race against time to save her from execution. Guillermin would go on to direct Shaft in Africa (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974) and King Kong (1976).

Fortune Defies Death
Writer/director/producer/editor and visual effects and sound poohbah Jennifer Hulum stretches the limits of the locked-door mystery in her debut feature, Fortune Defies Death. She does so by putting 10 years between the death of a wealthy family’s patriarch and the reading of his will in front of a roomful of anxious relatives. At the time, he expected that the disappearance of his adopted daughter would be explained, and she could join her relatives at the reading conducted by her father’s lawyer. Even if she doesn’t appear, out of the blue, the old man anticipated that it would either bring the feuding Woods’ family members together or reveal the killer(s). Among the usual suspects are the old man’s greedy sister and her grandson; an eccentric niece and two ambitious nephews; his mistress; and his missing daughter’s husband, accompanied by their amnesiac granddaughter. Standing in for Agatha Christie — or Nero Wolf, one — is the family attorney, who’s been investigating Mona’s disappearance, all along. With so many legitimate suspects, convoluted storylines and flashbacks – compounded by the absence of well-known actors — Fortune Defies Death wears out its welcome, long before the 115-minute mark.

As You Like It
Based on the jacket art, alone, it would be easy to dismiss Carlyle Stewart’s freshman film as a stunt – an all-male cast, in a modern setting — suited primarily for screenings at LGBTQ festivals and benefits. Once you get past the suggestive cover, however, it’s worth recalling that theatrical productions in Shakespeare’s time were staged with casts comprised of men and boys, exclusively, and the contemporizing of sets, props and costumes has been a popular option for a long time. Even so, it’s impossible to watch an all-male anything and not think that all the actors are as gay as the subtext. Although I’m not at all sure what Stewart’s intentions were going into the project, As You Like It does a nice job combining both conceits at once and sticking to the Shakespearean ideal. Set in and around the vast open spaces of Death Valley, the male characters look very much like the ranchers, cowhands and drifters they’re supposed to be. The males playing women – with one prominent exception – are made up to resemble attractive young women in the same outdoor milieu. (The lone ringer qualifies as both comic relief and the exception that proves the rule.) Anyone expecting a Western version of “Beach Blanket Bingo” may be disappointed, but not for long. A synopsis: “After the overthrowing of Duke Senior by his tyrannical brother, Senior’s daughter Rosalind disguises herself as a man and sets out to find her banished father, while also counseling her clumsy suitor Orlando in the art of wooing.” The part about, “Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, disguising herself as a man” only adds another layer of intrigue to the roles played by Grant Jordan (“Home”). Another noteworthy thing about As You Like It is the cast’s diversity, which reflects that of the American Southwest. Among the more recognizable actors are Tom Bower (“Ice”),  Branton Box (“Mayans M.C.”), Eloy Casados (“Shameless”), Stephen Ellis (“You’re the Worst”), Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves) and Jeff Lorch (Jonny’s Sweet Revenge).

The Gospel According to Andre
Traditionally, the fashion world isn’t a place most people go to measure the progress of women of color in the worlds of culture, business and influence. As much as Vogue magazine has changed in that regard, the “industry bible” is still playing catch-up when it comes to balancing the color palate as evidenced by its covers. Even today, most people assume that Beverly Johnson’s appearance on the cover of the August 1974, issue of Vogue gave her the historical distinction of being the first black woman so anointed. In fact, that distinction is held by African-American model Donyale Luna, whose obscured visage graced the cover of the  March 1966, edition of British Vogue … only. Still, for many people, Johnson’s non-masked appearance is seen in the same light as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, in 1947. She would appear on the American Vogue cover twice more, in 1975 and 1981, and break the same ground as the first black woman to appear on the cover of the French edition of Elle, in 1975. Within the next three years, Peggy Dillard appeared on two covers of American Vogue, with Sherrie Belafonte being shot by Richard Avedon five times in 1980s. In December 1987, supermodel Naomi Campbell appeared on the front of British Vogue, as that publication’s first black cover model since 1966. A year later, she became the first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue, if only because designer Yves St. Laurent threatened to withdraw his advertising if the magazine continued its discriminatory practices.

In 1988, Campbell broke another barrier by appearing on the front of the magazine’s September magazine, traditionally the year’s biggest and most important issue. Like movie studios and television networks, the fashion-magazine industry had taken that long to be convinced of the marketability of minority women, especially in the South. That all changed in the 1990s, when Vogue executives decided that entertainers and celebrities of all racial backgrounds sold more magazines at the checkout counter than predominantly white supermodels. It broadened the choices available to the various editors exponentially, while raising the magazine’s profile in Hollywood. The decision also paved the way for multiple appearances by Beyonce, Halle Berry, Rihanna, Serena Williams, Lupita Nyong’o and Michelle Obama, with Jennifer Hudson and Oprah already having proven doubters wrong. Now that Vogue has opened outposts in several different countries, editors can choose the colors and nationalities of models/celebrities that work best for them. (South African model, activist and lawyer Thando Hopa is the current cover model at Portugal Vogue. She’s the first woman with albinism to grace the cover of Vogue and most other periodicals. In some African countries, albinos are still demonized by witch doctors and murdered for their bones.)

For 30 of those years, André Leon Talley was a fixture at Vogue magazine and the fashion world, at large … really large. At 6-foot-5 and various levels of weight, Talley cast a long shadow on the industry as a journalist, pundit, taste-maker, scenester, boulevardier and muse to rich and powerful women looking for a few tips. He’s a fixture in documentaries about other fashion fixtures, and frequent guest star on talk shows and such entertainments as “America’s Next Top Model,” “Empire” and “Sex and the City.” Kate Novack’s lively bio-doc The Gospel According to Andre goes well beyond Talley’s sometimes outrageous public persona, to a consideration of how he evolved from being a curious and whip-smart North Carolina schoolboy, to becoming an important editorial voice at Vogue and a companion to the top designers and their influential patrons. What isn’t so well-known are his deep Southern and religious roots and commitment to civil rights and equality in the fashion realm. Talley’s emotional recollection of seeing Michelle Obama on the cover of his magazine for the first time is heart-wrenching. He wonders what how his beloved grandmother/mentor would have reacted to the same sight, knowing exactly how proud she would be.

Target: St. Louis
If we’d lost World War II or the Vietnam War, some people think that the men who build our weapons of mass destruction, including poisonous gases, antipersonnel bombs and nuclear devices, would have been put on trial as war criminals. The toll paid by Vietnamese and Cambodian non-combatants for the target spraying of Agent Orange has yet to tallied and children around the world continue to lose their limbs after stepping on landmines made here and still buried, there. Sean Slater’s deeply disturbing documentary, Target: St. Louis, reminds viewers how powerless American citizens have been when it comes to discovering the truth about atrocities committed against them and their neighbors by military officials and government-paid researchers sworn to protect them. News of the U.S. Department of Public Health’s facilitation of the famously flawed Tuskegee Syphilis Project broke hearts and embarrassed tens of thousands of government employees. Reports of tests of LSD sprays and air-borne diseases in the transit systems of major cities – without the test subjects being told they were being used as guinea pigs — was greeted by dismay, as well. The cold reality of such revelations, however, came in learning that the government is shielded from lawsuits, criminal complaints and revealing the names of victims and amounts of compensation paid, if any. Target: St. Louis describes how the government secretly tested the effects of airborne aerosol radiation on mostly poor and black residents of a metropolitan area whose meteorological conditions approximate those of Moscow. Most of the now-elderly men and women interviewed here say they were led to believe that the chemical already being sprayed on them was a pesticide commonly used to control pests, such as mosquitos or Dutch elm disease. Even in those largely benign situations, however, residents of more prosperous neighborhoods were typically advised in advance of such flyovers and advised to stay indoors. No warnings were given the children living in the projects and playing outside at the time. The face of one of the men interviewed is nearly covered with humongous tumors that weren’t there when he was a boy and outside his home at the time of the spraying. The documentary makes comparisons to the experiments conducted in Nazi Germany by Joseph Mengele, although the contexts are extremely different, and no Americans have punished for approving domestic atrocities and similar experiments. There’s no telling what kinds of substances to which Americans are being exposed, even a half-century after the St. Louis incident.

Tickled
It would be easy to mistake David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s  beyond-strange documentary, Tickled (2016), for a mockumentary. That’s because the subject matter is almost too bizarre to be true. If it isn’t the first documentary to shine a light on Internet activities that defy easy explanation – from “crush porn,” to “cosplay” – it’s one of the few to measure the lengths to which some folks will go to defend their extreme behavior and perpetuation of cash cows. Tickled is downright scary. Farrier is a New Zealand television reporter, whose beat focuses on “quirky and odd stories.” When he learns of videos being distributed online about an activity described as “competitive endurance tickling,” he can’t resist sinking his teeth into it. In them, young athletic men are restrained and tickled to the point where they might break a blood vessel or pee their gym shorts. Farrier begins his research into the story by requesting an interview with the videos’ producer, Jane O’Brien Media, but the company refuses to “associate with a homosexual journalist,” which he’s not. The e-mails threaten legal action, bodily and mental harm, and reports of criminal activity to people involved with Farrier in a professional capacity. But, why? After blogging about the incident, Farrier and Reeve receive even worse threats and a fruitless visit from O’Brien reps. The Kiwis respond by traveling to Los Angeles, where they find the same representatives at their recording studio, but they’re are turned away at the door. Upon further investigation, Farrier and Reeve discover a network of trolls, known for harassing and harming those who protest their inclusion in these films. The closer they get to the pathetic individual instigating the campaign, the more elusive he becomes. Worse, they discover that he’s already been brought to court to answer such charges, but the judges didn’t take them seriously enough to give him more than a light slap on the wrist. Tickled would be more amusing than it is if every-day Americans weren’t already being bombarded by serial callers, cybercrooks, trolls and Nigerian housewives at all hours of the day or night. I wish someone would make a movie about them.

Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver
Supposedly based on an unlikely urban folk tale, spread via Creepypasta and Angelfire– once described as “the world’s worst website” — Living Dark: The Story of Ted the Caver is a slow-burn horror/thriller that gets more exciting the further it strays from the legend. It’s the story of two estranged brothers, Ted and Brad (Chris Cleveland, Matthew Alan), reunited momentarily for the funeral of their father, a dedicated spelunker. They stumble upon the sealed entrance to an underground cavern no one knew existed. Knowing that their dad would want them to explore the hole in the ground, they rappel down the sides of the cave’s entrance, where they find signs of his presence. What’s most intriguing, though, is small hole that appears to lead to a space beyond an extremely tight tunnel. The old man’s chair is positioned immediately of front of the hole in the impenetrable stone, as if he knew there was something on the other side worth pursuing. Viewers won’t be able to avoid feeling claustrophobic, as Ted scratches his way through the tunnel, with no more than a half-inch to spare on either side of his body. Once he reaches what appears to be a virgin space, the real freak show begins. Perhaps, you can guess what it is. Constructed on a budget said to be $2 million, Living Dark takes full advantage of its compact quarters, deep shadows and our natural fear of being trapped in an inaccessible space. Now that fracking could cause untold damage to areas not typically prone to earthquakes, it’s OK to fear what’s going below the ground at our feet. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, Living Dark performs surprisingly well.

The Adventures of Jurassic Pet
Ryan Bellgardt’s resume includes such fantasy titles as The Jurassic Games (2018), Gremlin (2017) and Army of Frankensteins (2013). His current directorial effort is The Adventures of Rufus: the Fantastic Pet. You get the idea that he’s comfortable around make-believe animals and monsters, knowing he doesn’t have the money available to Steven Spielberg for creating fluid movement and credible skin texture. In The Adventures of Jurassic Pet, an adventurous teenager, Chris (Kyler Charles Beck), finds an ancient unbroken egg in a curio shop and decides to hatch it. When an adorable baby T. Rex pops out, Chris names him Albert. After it runs wild in a grocery store, Albert’s captured by police and delivered to mad scientist Dr. Jost (David Fletcher-Hall), who wants to use the rapidly growing beast to breed more dinosaurs. With time running out, Chris must find the secret lab, rescue Albert and stop the experiment, before dinosaurs rule the earth … again. Kids are obsessed with dinosaurs, anyway, so why not one in which dinosaurs work toward the same goal as the youthful hero.

TV-To-DVD
Acorn: Rake: Series 5
Acorn: The Heart Guy: Series 3
Not having seen the first four seasons of the Australian dramedy series, “Rake,” I can’t say with any certainty how “Series 5” measures up to the others. It reminds me of a cross between “Veep” and “House of Cards,” with an Aussie accent and down-under point-of-view. In its final year, disbarred lawyer Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh) doesn’t quite know what to do with the Australian Senate seat he won, based on a confusion of names on the ballot and his campaign promise to do nothing while in office. As low as Cleaver’s expectations are for his tenure, they fall short of matching the absurd reality of Australian politics. The onetime pro athlete manages to blunder his way into one situation after another, requiring he cut deals with other politicians and justify his extreme behavior outside chambers to the media. Among other things Cleaver contends with a delightfully hypocritical right-wing nemesis (Jane Turner, of “Kath & Kim”); a noxious gas attack mistakenly believed to be the work of terrorists; a disastrous visit from the U.S. defense secretary (Anthony LaPaglia); and having to sort out romantic entanglements that would make Cupid consider changing jobs. The writers even find humor in the fact that one of Australia’s greatest allies is being led by a man whose decisions threaten the existence of peaceful countries that just happen to be in the neighborhood. The series also stars Matt Day (Muriel’s Wedding), Sara Wiseman (A Place to Call Home), Jacek Koman (“Jack Irish”), Erroll Shand (“Mystery Road”), Mark Mitchinson (“Dear Murderer”) Kate Box (“Picnic at Hanging Rock”), Caroline Brazier (“Tidelands”) and William McInnes (“East West 101”). It adds a backgrounder.

Likewise, I’ve haven’t seen the first two seasons of “The Heart Guy,” another hit Australian prime-time soap opera. It’s set in a small farming town in New South Wales, Whyhope, where the closely-knit Knight family has just lost its patriarch and is about to begin coming apart at the scene. Each of the three adult brothers will react differently to their father’s death, but none does it very well. They argue about the division of labor on the property and base their behavior on what their father might have expected to see from them. They stifle their mother (Tina Bursill) when she wants to rejoin the world of non-mourning women and men, and violently resist anyone who volunteers to stand in for their dad. Rodger Corser plays Hugh Knight, a brilliant but arrogant heart surgeon forced to give up his prestigious job in Sydney, after being put on probation for addiction problems. He elects to work as a GP in Whyhope, until he can reapply for his big-city job. As his tenure there winds up, Hugh is forced to choose between three women: his pregnant ex-wife (Genevieve Hegney); an ex-lover (Vanessa Buckley); and his hospital boss (Hayley McElhinney), a pretty redhead who’s just adopted a wounded wombat. If the other sons, played by Matt Castley and Ryan Johnson are insufferable, as well, the women in their lives (Nicole da Silva, Chloe Bayliss) find ways to make them seem human, at least.

The DVD Wrapup: Bumblebee, Ginsburg, Buster, Silent Voice, Nazi Junkies, Prisoner, Golden Vampires, Highway Rat, Terra Formars, No Alternative … More

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Bumblebee: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Fans of the Transformers spinoff, Bumblebee, may not be aware that the film’s transforming mecha protagonist and title character is only now coming of age, 35 years after it was introduced in the original rollout of branded merchandise from the Japanese toy company Takara Tomy and America’s Hasbro label. The popularity of such “Generation 1″ products as Go-Bots, Transformers, the 1984 animated television series and comic books spread to other foreign markets, spawning an animated feature film (1986), video games, books, shirts, costumes and collectibles. It wasn’t until Michael Bay’s live-action adventure Transformers (2007) achieved blockbuster status worldwide – on a production budget of $150 million — that the venerable franchise found new wings. Buoyed once again by huge foreign sales, the six-chapter Paramount/DreamWorks series passed the billion-dollar barrier two times. Budgets would surpass or tease the $200-million threshold four times. In 2017, Transformers: The Last Knight, which cost $217 million to make, grossed a comparatively anemic $605 million, 78.5 percent of those dollars coming from outside the U.S. Clearly, something had to be done to preserve the franchise, before playing the straight-to-video card, anyway. Bumblebee was developed as either a spin-off or prequel, and later declared a reboot. The studio and now-producer Bay decided to downscale the size of the sixth installment, by reducing the budget drastically, bringing in fresh behind-the-camera talent (Travis Knight, Christina Hodson), keeping the running time under 120 minutes for the first time in 12 years, putting the focus on fewer characters and de-emphasizing the brand in the publicity material. It would promote the presence of a formidable teenage heroine (Hailee Steinfeld), alongside the already popular Bumblebee and formidable  Decepticon enemy, and add a malleable American warrior (John Cena). Neither did the atypically favorable reviews hurt Bumblebee’s chances  at the box office. By re-setting the action in 1987, it also serves as an origin story for those fans whose only knowledge of Transformers derives from Bay’s quintet.

On faraway Cybertron, the Autobot resistance, led by Optimus Prime, is on the verge of losing the civil war against the Decepticons. When a Decepticon force intercepts evacuees, Optimus sends his scout, B-127, to Earth to set up a less vulnerable base of operations. When B-127’s pod crash-lands in California, it disrupts a training exercise by a secret government agency that monitors extraterrestrial activity here. Sector 7 Colonel Jack Burns (Cena) assumes B-127 is a hostile invader and pursues him. To mask his escape, B-127 scans a Willys MB jeep and heads toward a mine. A Decepticon Seeker will ambush the Autobot there and interrogate it. When B-127 refuses to reveal Optimus’ whereabouts, Blitzwing tears out the alien’s  voice box and damages it’s memory core. Despite this, B-127 manages to kill Blitzwing with one of his own missiles. Before collapsing from his injuries, B-127 scans a nearby 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. Flash ahead to 1987, when a teenage mechanic, Charlie (Steinfeld), finds a yellow Volkswagen Beetle in a scrapyard. Unaware of the VW’s identity, the  owner gives it to her as an 18th-birthday present. When she attempts to start “Bumblebee,” Charlie unknowingly activates a homing signal that is detected by Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, as they interrogate and execute the Autobot, Cliffjumper, on one of Saturn’s moons. The pair heads to Earth, where the shapeshifters pretend to be peacekeepers, so as to convince Sector 7 agents Burns (Cena) and Powell (John Ortiz) to help them capture B-127. Bumblebee concludes with a series of action sequences designed to test the mettle of Charlie and Burns, who’s smelled a rat and joined B-127’s mission to protect Optimus Prime. Together, they will endeavor to keep the planet safe for humans and transformative allies, alike. The Paramount 4K UHD is a treat for the senses, thanks, in large part, to the 2160p/Dolby Vision and Atmos soundtrack. The bonus material contained on the Blu-ray disc includes deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and the featurettes, “Sector 7 Archive,” “Bee Vision: The Transformers Rrobots of Cybertron” and “Bringing Bumblebee to the Big Screen.”

On the Basis of Sex: Blu-ray
While on the subject of superheroes, Mimi Leder’s inspiring bio-drama, On the Basis of Sex, is the origin story of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), who’s maintained he seat on the Supreme Court after surviving several bouts with cancer, broken bones and the 2010 loss of her husband and collaborator, Marty (Armie Hammer). In some circles, the 86-year-old Brooklyn-native is known by her superhero alias, Notorious RBG. On the Basis of Sex recalls Ginsburg’s Harvard education and breakthrough case, which was widely considered to be a non-starter, simply because no one had successfully challenged the legal system’s Good Ol’ Boy cabal at its own game. For as long as anyone could remember, women were forced to accept positions of subservience to their male peers, no matter how qualified and successful they were. Ironically, the case involved the ability of a man to claim tax breaks as the caretaker of his ailing mother. Women caretakers could claim such deductions, but, incredibly, not men. If that sounds like a no-brainer today, no lawyer in the mid-1960s wanted to touch the case. Even the film’s ACLU attorney (Justin Theroux) had to be coaxed into supporting it. If, at times, Jones appears to be channeling Sally Field, in Norma Rae (1979), it doesn’t’ detract from her performance. On the Basis of Sex followed by only a few months the release of Oscar-nominated bio-doc, RBG, into niche theaters. By then, Ginsburg had already become a pop-culture icon, referenced in “SNL,” “New Girl,” The Lego Movie 2, Deadpool 2 and labels of Samuel Adams’s limited-edition beer, “When There Are Nine.” The Blu-ray adds three short production featurettes.

The Charmer
Co-writer/director Milad Alami and Ingeborg Topsoe’s twisty psychological drama, The Charmer, measures the lengths to which some immigrants and guest workers will go to secure citizenship in their adoptive homelands. Although the hurdles facing refugees are very much in the news these days, there’s never been a shortage of movies about immigrants – men, especially – who see marriage as the quickest way to secure green cards and citizenship papers. They practically constitute a subgenre of comedies and dramas of their own. When we meet Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), the young Iranian has already been in Denmark for several years. Despite a history of holding menial pa-time jobs, Esmail appears to have had no trouble hooking up with local ladies of marriageable age, solid finances and open minds. Each time, however, something in Esmail’s standoffish personality queers the deal at the last minute. It isn’t until he befriends a young Iranian woman, whose family has lived in the country long enough to have sunk roots in the soil, that Esmail appears to have hit the jackpot. Although he had no intention of getting involved with an Iranian woman – why, we wonder? – a pair of sexy Persian party animals grab his attention at a club. The less-cynical Sara (Soho Rezanejad) takes an immediate shine to the unpretentious outsider, although primarily  as a companion. Soon enough, however, Sara will use their friendship to avoid meeting her mother’s smothering expectations. It will evolve, as well, from best-buddy status, to friends-with-benefits, to mutually dependent lovers. It’s at precisely this point that Alami and Topsoe pull the rug out from everyone’s feet with one fell swoop, including our own. The twist changes everything, except our appreciation of the filmmakers’ imaginations and the cast’s ability to keep us guessing. Bonus features include Pearl Gluck’s excellent short film, “Summer,” about two teenage girls attending a Hasidic sleepaway camp, where a forbidden book poses questions about sex that the uptight counselors are reluctant to answer.

The Great Buster: A Celebration: Blu-ray
Way back in television’s Pleistocene Age, silent comedies and vintage cartoons often filled the gaps between local news reports and network programming.  There simply wasn’t enough original material available and the syndication market was beginning to blossom. Until the mid-1960s, “Popeye” cartoons, “Three Stooges” shorts, Mickey Mouse and Saturday  morning kiddie fare added words and sound effects to the mix … then, the bottom fell out, entirely, leaving a gap for imported anime. Nothing topped the classics, though. I only mention this here as a way to encourage anyone born after, say, 1980, to check out  Peter Bogdanovich and Cohen Film Classics’ delightful bio-doc The Great Buster: A Celebration, which explains why Buster Keaton – Hollywood’s “Great Stone Face” – Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Harold Lloyd, remain only slightly less essential today than before they handed the baton to radio- and stage-based comedians. Unless one lives near a theater specializing in silent entertainment – or watches TCM on “silent nights” – it would be easy to think that physical comedy sprung from the brows of such post-silent comics as Jerry Lewis, John Candy, Jim Carrey and generations of “SNL” cast members. Among the many actors and comics bearing witness in The Great Buster: A Celebration is Johnny Knoxville – co-creator of MTV’s stunt- and prank-heavy “Jackass” – who freely acknowledges the debt he owes Keaton. The “Jackass” crew nearly killed themselves attempting the same gags Keaton invented and made look easy.

The doc is filled with impeccably restored material from the Keaton achieves.  It also delivers a fascinating recounting of Buster’s beginnings on the vaudeville circuit, where his dad used him as a fall guy and punching bag, and development of his trademark physical comedy and deadpan expression. He would struggle with  alcoholism and bad business advice to succeed as a director, writer, producer and star of his own short films and features. The loss of artistic independence and career decline, as the talkies took hold, are also covered by Bogdanovich, before focusing on Keaton’s extraordinary output from 1923 to 1929. It yielded 10 remarkable feature films — including The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) –that are among the greatest of all time. Also shown are snippets from Samuel Beckett’s  Film (1965), Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and his final silent short, The Scribe (1966),  Interspersed throughout are interviews with nearly two-dozen collaborators, filmmakers, performers and friends, including Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Werner Herzog, Dick van Dyke, Dick Cavett, Bill Irwin, Norman Lloyd  and Carl Reiner. The Blu-ray adds the nearly inaudible post-screening Q&A, “Conversations From the Quad,” an exclusive interview with Bogdanovich, and intro by Charles S. Cohen.

A Silent Voice: Blu-ray
No Alternative: Blu-ray
Bullying in our schools is one of those issues that concerns parents, teachers and children, equally, but won’t be solved until administrators and juvenile authorities are allowed to isolate the perpetrators and deal with them, without fear of being sued or retaliated against by delusional moms and dads. Social media has only exasperated the problem, by making the bullies invisible and the victims more vulnerable. Apparently, the plague knows no boundaries. Director Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice, which was adapted from Yoshitoki Oima’s manga, “Koe no katachi,” bypasses the after-school-special approach by refusing to sugarcoat the issue or find a quick fix in melodrama. Veteran voice actor  Miyu Irino (Spirited Away) plays class-clown Shôya Ishida, who’s fooled himself into believing that he’s popular, just because the cool kids think his antics are funny. When his mocking of a newly arrived deaf girl, which extends to stealing her earplugs, Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami), turns his classmates’ equally cruel laughter to scorn, Shôya begins to understand the meaning of, “what goes around, comes around.” What makes A Silent Voice exceptional, however, is the beautifully rendered animation, poignant narrative and empathetic characters. After Shoko drops out of school and Shôya’s shunning continues apace, he sets out to find her and offer his sincere apology. Yamada doesn’t make it easy for him to find redemption. As if bullying weren’t a serious enough problem to address in an anime, suicide will inevitably compound the narrative. The soft colors and evocative music add to the drama, which is genuine and heartfelt.

No Alternative is another coming-of-age drama that deals with the most serious of teen traumas. It’s set in a middle-class community in Upstate New Yok, in the direct wake of Kurt Cobain’s death, by suicide, in 1994. It struck teenage fans everywhere with the same devastating punch as the untimely deaths of Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and, three years later, Princess Diana. As a historically depressed individual and survivor of previous suicide attempts, Kobain was a tragedy waiting to happen. The lyrics to Nirvana’s songs sometimes read like invitations to oblivion. Writer/director William Dickerson adapted No Alternative from his 2012 debut  novel of the same title. It was informed by his own experiences as a youth and those of his late sister, Briana. “She suffered from borderline personality disorder and used the character of gangster rapper Bri Da B to channel her emotions and get outside of her own turbulent mind. A movie about this preppy white girl, who becomes this gangsta rapper, could have ended up being a broad comedy. I wanted it to show how my sister was suffering and how she dealt with it.” Thomas (Conor Proft) and Bridget Harrison (Michaela Cavazos) are determined to use music to escape the pressure of being lorded over by their politically ambitious father. Thomas wants his band to take a grungier approach to the band’s music. Dickerson allowed Bridget to adopt his sister’s stage name, Bri Da B. The conceit is as ludicrous as it sounds, primarily because she elects to make her debut at a coffeehouse, where the entirely white audience is flummoxed by the act. Blessedly, Dickerson pulls a rabbit out of his hat, with an ending that doesn’t necessarily condemn Bridget to an untimely death.

At the Drive-In
From sleeping under the concession stand, to working for free, the quirky film fanatics (a.k.a., nerds) at the struggling Mahoning Drive-in faced uncertainty when Hollywood distributors announced they would switch to digital projection for all new movies. Unable to purchase an expensive digital projector, the multigenerational gang pins its hopes of survival on showing vintage 35mm prints of their favorite movies on their original 1949 projectors. God bless ’em. At the Drive-In relives the underdog story to save a less-than-iconic Pennsylvania drive-in, old-school exhibition and imaginative programming. More to the point, it is a documentary about the magic of movies and the people who love them … on their own terms. Special features include more than 17 minutes of deleted scenes; three commentaries; and a Q&A from a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers.

Cam Girl
I don’t know enough about the Internet-enabled sex-chat business to say if anything about the enterprise depicted in Cam Girl makes sense financially and operationally. My guess is that it bears some likeness to the billion-dollar industry’s earliest iterations, when all one needed to make money was a Skype connection, a 900-number and prominent position on a powerful search engine, like Google or Yahoo. Early concerns about the legality and ethics of profiting from such sketchy endeavors temporarily provided openings for organized-crime elements from Eastern European – and young exhibitionists who recognized a quick and reasonably anonymous buck when they saw one — to prosper. Now, though, phone- and Internet-sex operations constitute a borderless industry that piggybacks on free- and subscriber-backed sites and offers large and diverse selections of models, kinks and fetishes. By comparison, fledgling companies that continue to rely on magazine ads and search-engine listings can’t remain competitive. What differentiates the models in Cam Girl from those found on a thousand other sites, today, is their extraordinary beauty, poise, naivete and girl-next-door appeal … if one lives next-door to the Playboy Mansion or a haute-couture fashion house in Paris. Neither does their generous sexuality ever wander beyond the bounds of Cinemax T&A.

Desperate after losing her dream job in advertising, Alice (Antonia Liskova) is advised by a fiend, Ross (Alessia Piovan), to consider joining or starting a webcam site. She enlists two other similarly gorgeous friends to take a chance on going broke or getting rich: struggling waitress, Gilda (Sveva Alviti), and aspiring basketball player, Martina (Ilaria Capponi). The business is headquartered in one of the girls’ apartment, which becomes awfully crowded after models from other webcam sites decide to switch teams. And, the business is tremendously successful … until, suddenly, it wasn’t. Now, Alice keeps running out of money to pay the employees or find more comfortable accommodations. It doesn’t take long before the ladies abandon ship. Some even begin to date clients on the side. If there’s a lesson buried under the T&A here, I couldn’t find it. Neither did I miss it.

The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires: Blu-ray
I’m not going to waste a lot of time trying to sell you on Shout!Factory’s splendidly restored edition of The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a 1974 hybrid of Hammer Films trademark  horror and Shaw Brothers martial-arts action. Hammer’s original uncut version is being presented here for the first time in high-definition, 40 years after it was released in the U.S. in an edited version. “The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula.” In the movie’s English-language lifetime, alone, it’s been presented as “Seven Golden Vampires: The Last Warning,” “The Last Warning,” “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” “The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula,” “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” “7 Brothers Versus Dracula” and “7 Brothers and a Sister Meet Dracula.” If that weren’t sufficiently confusing, consider that Peter Cushing’s character in the film is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Professor Lawrence Van Helsing, when he is actually playing a different member of the Van Helsing family. All of Cushing’s scenes take place in 1904, even though Van Helsing was killed in 1872, in a previous edition in the Hammer franchise. After learning about the seven golden vampires of Ping Kuei, Hsi Ching (David Chiang), Vanessa Buren (Julie Ege) and Mai Kwei (Szu Shih) offer to guide Van Helsing and his son to the village, where he’s expected to free it from the curse of Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robinson). The group encounters several attackers before arriving at the golden vampires’ derelict temple. Once there, Van Helsing and Count Dracula begin the “ultimate clash between good and evil.” The count had traveled to the remote village, disguised as a warlord, to show his support for the vampires, who’ve been dispirited after the loss of a seventh member of their cult. Coincidentally, Van Helsing is in China on a lecture tour. Let the fun begin. The Shout! package also contains commentary with author/historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck; new interviews with actor David Chiang and Hong Kong film expert Rick Baker; and the alternate U.S. theatrical version, in high-def.

Nazi Junkies
While Adolph Hitler’s addiction to stimulants is common knowledge among historians, war buffs and biker gangs, the extent to which his fellow Germans were similarly hooked on der Führer’s little helpers — methamphetamine, cocaine and muscle relaxers — remains largely unknown. It explains why Hitler sounded so impassioned and inexhaustible  in speeches that seemed to go on forever. Inspired by Norman Ohler’s revelatory book, “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich,” Christian Huleu’s fascinating documentary, Nazi Junkies – sounds like “Nazi Zombies,”  doesn’t’ it? — explains how Pervitin pills put the blitz in blitzkrieg and gave his soldiers and pilots superhuman energy and stamina. Until the negative effects of the meth inevitably took hold, Pervitin served as the Reich’s secret weapon and stimulant of choice for soldiers, warmongers and housewives, alike. (Technically, the use of drugs was anathema to Nazi principles, but so were the opiates given soldiers to relax after combat and living on the down-low.) Hitler’s personal Doctor Feelgood was one of the first to recognize the negative signs of Pervitin abuse and immediately began the search for less-toxic substances to fill his patient’s insatiable hunger. They would include an assortment of medications, including vitamin cocktails, cocaine, opiates and steroids. Like Ohler’s best-selling book, Huleu relied on the secret journals of Hitler’s personal doctor, Théodore Morell, as well as archival documents and testimonies from historians, scientists and World War II experts. The practice didn’t end with pill-popping Nazis, either. Allied troops and pilots in Europe and Korea chowed down on Benzedrine, amphetamines and speed balls,  an injectable mixture of amphetamine and heroin. Chinese fighters were given an anti-sleep pill, referred to as “Night Eagle,” to enable soldiers to stay awake for up to 72 hours. In Vietnam, it was heroin, marijuana, LSD and alcohol that kept them buzzing. Today, the number of desert-war veterans suffering from an addiction to crystal meth is staggering, too frequently ending in jail sentences or suicide attempts, when they come home. Although there’s some disagreement on the extent to which Japanese combatants used uppers before engaging the enemy or kamikaze missions, having formulated meth in the 1890s, it isn’t likely they would curtail its use in World War II. More recently jihadists have been reported to consume the powerful stimulant  Captagon pervasively, while also taking powerful opioid painkillers and hashish.

The Prisoner: Blu-ray
No sooner were the Nazis defeated in World War II than the Soviet Union began to create a buffer zone between the communist east and democratic west, using Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and the Baltic states, as Stalin’s first line of defense against  capitalism. Basically, though, Eastern Europe was handed to him on a platter by two war-weary American presidents, over the objections of Winston Churchill. In most respects, Stalin was just as domineering a presence in Eastern Europe as Adolph Hitler and just as willing to use force and atrocities to put down rebellions there. Puppet governments and kangaroo judiciaries were installed to maintain the status quo. Western democracies did their best to put down left-leaning liberation movements, as well, often bowing to American demands for autocratic, pro-capitalist leaders. Made in 1955, The Prisoner probably was informed by the ordeal of Polish Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, who was a war hero and religious leader of millions of Roman Catholics. Like Alec Guinness’ character in The Prisoner, Wyszynski had made accommodations with the communists, pledging to maintain a balance between Church and state, in return for property seized after the war and the ability to perform religious rites. As pro-democracy protests in Polish cities spread, the government demanded of Guinness’ cardinal that he encourage restraint – perhaps, even, rat out resistance leaders – or risk being arrested, put on trial and, worst case, executed for treason. In prison, his Interrogator (Jack Hawkins) is determined to get a confession from the strong-willed Cardinal and destroy his power over his flock. The verbal and psychological debates are gripping and powerful, even when the Interrogator’s bosses’ demand results, at all costs. When the Interrogator finds his Achilles’ heel, the Cardinal is faced with an even greater challenge. The harsh black-and-white set designs emphasize the barrenness of the ideology on display. It’s interesting that director Peter Glenville and writer Bridget Boland’s The Prisoner — both on stage and screen — was deemed sufficiently controversial to be banned from the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals, for ideologically opposite reasons. The Prisoner would make a terrifying lead-in to a double-feature from political hell, with Orson Welles’ equally disturbing, The Trial (1962). For anyone who’s ever wondered what it takes for a work of art to be considered “Kafkaesque,” the pairing would make the distinction painfully clear. Franz Kafka admitted being heavily influenced by Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov.” The Arrow package adds selected scenes, with Philip Kent’s commentary, and a well-appointed insert booklet.

Terra Formars: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Takashi Miike’s many over-the-top entertainments don’t always arrive on these shores at the same time as they do in foreign markets. It doesn’t look as if his 2016 sci-fi extravaganza, Terra Formars, found a place to land here, even on the festival circuit. It isn’t difficult to see why. Terra Formars is too arthouse for genre buffs and too genre for arthouse habitués. Like Audition, the Dead or Alive trilogy and Blade of the Immortal, which it doesn’t remotely resemble, Terra Formars is a Miike film … plain and simple. Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch come to mind, but not many other filmmakers, even of the auteur persuasion. Like so many other Japanese films, these days, the space adventure is based on a popular manga series of the same title. Terra Formars also is something of a cautionary tale for those who want to colonize Mars in their lifetimes. It opens in the mid-26th Century, 500 years after scientists seeded the planet with algae and cockroaches, to create an atmosphere conducive to habitation by humans. A manned mission has arrived on the red planet with the sole purpose of eliminating the bugs. Turns out, however, la cucarachas are just as difficult to kill on Mars, as they are on Earth. The team of Japanese space explorers finds itself confronted by a horde of huge anthropomorphic cockroaches, capable of wielding weapons and shape-shifting. (All those years away from Raid and the soles of shoes has allowed them to evolve naturally.) Miike must not have had much money to spend on special effects, because the cheapo green-screen work distracts from the action sequences. Everything else is fun, though. The Arrow Blu-ray adds the feature-length “The Making of Terra Formars,extended cast interviews, footage from the 2016 Japanese premiere, outtakes, an image gallery, a reversible sleeve and a fully illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing on the film by Tom Mes.

Mélo: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Alain Resnais’ stagey slow-burn melodrama, Mélo, is typical of the French auteur’s work in his late period, when he began challenging himself and audiences by integrating material from other forms of popular culture into his films, drawing especially on music and the theater. While his work has always been influenced by the theater, Resnais’ adaptation of Henri Bernstein’s 1929 play of the same name – a shortening of “melodrama” – was extremely faithful to the source material. He  emphasized its theatricality by filming in long takes, on sets that could hardly be more artificially designed or lit. As such the narrative is almost entirely driven by dialogue and facial expressions. Like a play, too, the film’s acts are divided by the fall of a curtain and snippets from a playbill. Needless to say, viewers are left at a distinct disadvantage throughout much of Mélo’s first act, at least. It opens in the 1920s, in the courtyard of a home in a posh Paris suburb, where two old fiends are enjoying drinks after dinner. The distinguished soloist, Marcel (André Dussollier), has just returned from a long concert tour, during which he endured a cruel breakup with his lover. In the meantime, his longtime friend, collaborator and host, Pierre (Pierre Arditi) has fallen in love with and married a coquettish younger woman, Romaine (Sabine Azéma), who’s pretty, personable and not outwardly flirtatious. i Marcel s happy for his fiend’s good fortune and seemingly unaffected by Romaine’s charms. That lasts until the next afternoon, when Romaine pays a visit to Marcel’s apartment and lets Bach clear the way for some hanky-panky. The more  Marcel  resists her overture, the deeper the hook is set. Romaine takes his decision to return to touring badly and everyone’s affected by her response. Three years later, Pierre pays Marcel a visit to clarify their friendship and demand the truth. It’s here that the intimacy of the cinema returns to the forefront. Arrow Academy’s restoration adds a newly filmed introduction by critic Jonathan Romney; archived interviews with director Alain Resnais, producer Marin Karmitz, actors Pierre Arditi and André Dussolier, script supervisor Sylvette Baudrot, set designer Jacques Saulnier; a reversible sleeve, featuring original artwork; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by Bilge Ebiri.

Iguana With the Tongue of Fire: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In 1971, the animal-in-the-title trend in giallo films – following Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — was just beginning.   Riccardo Freda (Caltiki, the Immortal Monster) decided to further test the newborn genre’s elasticity by staging his thriller in Ireland and raising the ante on fetishized violence inflicted upon women. The Iguana With the Tongue of Fire is a gloriously excessive giallo that boasts a rogues’ gallery of perverse characters of both genders and, of course, a veritable orgy of red herrings and potential killers … probably too many, in fact. “Iguana” opens audaciously with an acid-throwing, razor-wielding maniac brutally slaying a woman in her own home. The victim’s mangled corpse is discovered in a limousine owned by Swiss Ambassador Sobiesky (Anton Diffring) and a police investigation is launched. When the murders continue and the ambassador claims diplomatic immunity, tough ex-cop John Norton (Luigi Pistilli) is brought in to jump-start the investigation. Benefitting from a sumptuous score by Stelvio Cipriani (Death Walks on High Heels) and exuberant supporting performances from Valentina Cortese (The Possessed) and Dagmar Lassander (The Black Cat), “The Iguana”  isn’t for beginners. It adds new commentary by giallo connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; a newly filmed video appreciation by the cultural critic and academic Richard Dyer; “Considering Cipriani,” a new appreciation of the composer by soundtrack collector, Lovely Jon; “The Cutting Game,” a new interview with assistant editor Bruno Micheli; “The Red Queen of Hearts,” a career-spanning interview with actress Dagmar Lassander; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and a collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich.

Penny Points to Paradise
There are a couple of very good reasons to check out Penny Points to Paradise, the first in a series of vintage British films from Juno and MVD. It marked the feature-film debut of the stars of “The Goon Show”: Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers. And, it’s available for the first time, on disc, in North America. It was directed by Tony Young, who later produced “The Telegoons” for BBC Television. After a big gambling win, Harry Flakers and his friend Spike Donnelly decide to go to the same shabby seaside boarding house that they have always patronized for their summer holiday. The other guests include two young women out to marry money, a dodgy investment adviser, a master forger and his assistant. They’re intent on taking the money from the Goonies, one way or another. Also included is the 32-minute short, “Let’s Go Crazy,” also starring Sellers. It’s a “madcap comedy,” set in a nightclub where variety acts are interwoven with comedy sketches. Neither is representative of the group’s later work.

We Die Young: Blu-ray
President Trump deserves partial screenwriter credit for Lior Geller’s hit-and-run gangland drama, We Die Young. Desperate for a quickee campaign issue, POTUS only had to investigate crime in his own backyard, where Mara Salvatrucha (a.k.a., MS-13), a gang of Central American criminals, ruled drug-running and child prostitution along the Eastern Seaboard. He unjustly equated the multi-tattooed hoodlums with immigrants seeking sanctuary and employment here. Naturally, the crisis disappeared, when a different bug crawled up his ass. In We Die Young, Lucas (Elijah Rodriguez) is a 14-year-old boy who was inducted into the gang life in Washington, D.C., but determined to prevent his 10-year-old brother from following the same trap. When a down-and-out Afghanistan war veteran (Jean-Claude Van Damme) comes into the neighborhood to score drugs, an opportunity arises. While We Die Young is loaded with clichés, it accomplishes what the federal government couldn’t, by disrupting a multinational syndicate. Strong performances by Van Damme and villain David Castañeda, who plays the brutal MS-13 gang leader, Rincon, add a few sparks to the proceedings.

Matriarch
Rachel (Charlie Blackwood) and her husband, Matt (Scott Vickers), are on a drive through the Scottish countryside, when Matt hits a tree. The pair decides to get out and walk, despite Rachel being 9-months pregnant. They soon come to a farmhouse owned by the same jerk (Alan Cuthbert),  who refused them a ride earlier.  At first, the farmer, Bob, once again rudely turns them away. When he sees that Rachel is with child, though, he insists that they come into the house.  There, they meet Bob’s wife, Agnes (Julie Hannan), and their sinister sons, David (Thoren Ferguson) and Luke (Martin Murphy).  While the family gives off an odd vibe, Rachel and Matt appreciate their hospitality. Before long, however, Rachel’s intuition tells them to leave, pronto. They also realize their hosts’ daughter was, in fact, abducted and made headlines when she went missing years earlier. In his first feature, writer/director Scott Vickers displays a flare for raising goosebumps.

Enigma: Blu-ray
The cold war was still in full forward gear, when Jeannot Szwarc’s espionage thriller, Enigma, opened, in 1982. From some perspectives, though, it was easy to see that the end was near. If Apocalypse Now (1979) had made Marin Sheen a star, he still wasn’t ready to pull off playing a spy of the caliber  of Harry Palmer  (The Ipcress File), Alec Leamas  (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), James Bond (Dr. No) or George Smiley (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Neither would Vick ever play in the same big leagues as novelists John le Carré, Len Deighton or Ian Fleming. Nobody could. Nonetheless, fans of the genre may want to make room for Enigma, which also features fine performances by Derek Jacobi, Sam Neill, Brigitte Fossey and Michael Lonsdale. In it, the CIA discovers a KGB plot to assassinate five Soviet dissidents on Christmas Day, but it doesn’t’ know their names. East German defector and radio activist Alex Holbeck (Sheen) is recruited in Paris by the CIA and sent to East Berlin to find and warn the intended victims and steal the code-scrambler machine, Enigma, still used by Soviet intelligence for communications. On his arrival, Holbeck discovers that the KGB and the East Germany government know that he’s in town and his contacts have been arrested. Holbeck meets his former lover, the lawyer Karen Reinhardt,  (Fosse), and she gives keys to a safe house to him. The Russian agent Dimitri Vasilikov (Neill) and the East German agent (Limmer) try to find Holbeck, while Karen seduces Dimitri to get the information about the location of the suspects that Holbeck needs. Enigma has is moments – including a clever chase scene and dangerous CIA trick — although no enough of hem.

Jihadists
Banned in France following the 2016 attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, Jihadists goes to the dark heart of Islamic extremism, where men with guns, explosives and swords interpret the Koran for everyone else in the world. That includes the tens of millions of Muslims who belong to sects other than the Salafi movement and hundreds of millions of other infidels they’re willing to kill in the name of Allah. A pair of Western filmmakers were granted unparalleled access to fundamentalist Sunni clerics, who proselytize for a purer form of Islam in Mali, Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan and the imposition of sharia law. Jihadists paints a stark portrait of everyday life under jihadi rule and the lectures could hardly be more tedious.

TV-to-DVD
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of … Volume 3
BBC: The Highway Rat
PAW Patrol: Ultimate Rescue
Since 1968, Dick Cavett has hosted his own talk show, in a variety of television and radio formats and several different panel configurations. At a time when all such hosts played to a wide cross-section of views – and others began to play to the cheap seats — Cavett wasn’t reluctant to put his IQ and high-end tastes on full display, sometimes to the point of overshadowing his guests’ input. “The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds of … Volume 3” contains conversations, with  Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, in which his attempts to be as hip as thou bordered on self-parody. Regardless, enough good stuff sneaks into the chats to make them worthwhile. In addition to individual conversations, Foxx appears on a panel with Patty Duke, Richard Attenborough and James J. Kirkpatrick, from July 14, 1969, and Gregory is part of a panel with Alan Arkin, from May 5, 1972. Murphy sits with Cavett on November 4, 1985, shortly after departing “SNL” and while celebrating the success of Beverly Hills Cop. Already an accomplished multihyphenate, Pryor joins Cavett shortly before the release of his semi-autobiographical ”Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.”

Based on the beloved children’s book, written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, the Annie-nominated The Highway Rat tells the tale of a ravenous rat who craves buns, cookies and all sweet things. Tearing along the highway, he searches for sugary treats to steal from the harvests of everyday people he meets on the highway. It’s only a matter of time before his sweet tooth leads him to a sticky end. Previous Magic Light Pictures productions for the BBC include Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo and Revolting Rhymes. Rob Brydon narrates, alongside David Tennant, Frances de la Tour, Tom Hollander, Nina Sosanya and Husaam Kiani. The making-of material is longer than the film itself, but quite worthwhile.

Nick Jr’s “Paw Patrol: Ultimate Rescue” is comprised of Season Five episodes, “Pups Save the Royal Kitties,” with Chase and his Ultimate Police Truck; “Pups Save the Tigers,” with Skye and her Ultimate Helicopter; “Pups Save the Movie Monster,” with Marshall and his Ultimate Fire Truck; “Pups Save a Swamp Monster,” with Zuma and his Ultimate Swamp Vehicle; and “Pups and the Hidden Golden Bones,” with Rocky and his Ultimate Tow Truck.”

The DVD Wrapup: Capernaum, Perfect Blue, Cameron Post, Tyrel, Ailes, Body Snatcher, Sam J. Jones, Sonny Chiba, Phantom Lady, Victoria’s Wedding … More

Friday, March 29th, 2019

Capernaum: Blu-ray
Nominated as one of five candidates for top prize in AMPAS’ Best Foreign Language category, Capernaum deserved consideration for a Best Picture Oscar, alongside Roma. It’s that good. For my money, 12-year-old newcomer, Zain Al Rafeea, deserved to be mentioned with the other Best Lead Actor nominees, as well. Academy voters are rightly cautious when it comes to honoring child actors, especially those with little or no experience or training. That’s because it’s difficult to tell when they’re acting, as defined in the guidelines, or simply behaving instinctively, based on personal history and genetics. There’s no question that Zain’s performance in Capernaum – a word that translates as “chaos” — was informed by incidents in his own life. Al Rafeea was born in Daraa, Syria, in 2004, and moved to Lebanon in 2012 as a refugee. He had lived in Beirut for several years, when he was discovered by co-writer/director Nadine Labaki in the streets of a depressed neighborhood, eating chicken. Like his character, Zain was uneducated, illiterate and genuinely “street smart.” (That’s changed.) In Capernaum, Zain is a victim of a nearly universal legal system that allows unsuitable parents to retain control of their children. Here, Zain helps support the family by hauling goods to costumers in the street market. It’s more than his old man contributes. He becomes incensed when his 11-year-old sister is sold to a man at least twice her age as a potential bride. Zain’s pleading is ignored by both his parents. Instead of risking a beating from his father, Zain runs away from home. He survives on the streets through his wits and wits and courage. Then, he’s taken in by an Ethiopian refugee, Rahil —   played by fellow first-timer, Yordanos Shiferaw – who’s the single mother of a son, Yonas, who’s only a few days away from teaching himself how to walk.

When Rahil is away, working, Zain proves to be a conscientious caretaker. Sadly, after she’s jailed in a roundup of undocumented workers, Zain and Yonas are left to their own devises. (She’s afraid that officials will take the boy away, if they learn of his existence.) When Zain begins to despair of his ability to properly care for the child – diapers pose a constant challenge – he tracks down Rahil’s Lebanese benefactor, who gives him money while hatching a plan to take control of Yonas, before his mother is released or deported, and sell him. In return, he’ll finance Zain’s dream of escaping north. Before that can happens, Zain needs to return home to collect the papers he’ll need to secure forged papers. While there, he learns that his sister died after being impregnated by her husband. His parents shrug off the tragedy as being the will of God – the mother is  already pregnant, again — and no longer any of their business. They also inform Zain of the illegal circumstances of his own birth, which prevented them from securing a birth certificate. Even more incensed than before, the boy picks up a kitchen knife, with the intention of avenging his sister’s death. He willingly takes a five-year sentence at a prison reserved for underage  offenders. Somehow, he comes up with idea of suing his parents for negligence and giving  him life, in the first place. Labaki uses the lawsuit as a framing device, holding Capernaum together. The suit is taken seriously by everyone involved and Al Rafeea makes a sound case for emancipation. Labaki and cinematographer Christopher Aoun (In White) benefitted from such existing settings as the Souk Al Ahad market, Beirut’s Le Cola slum, the Roumieh Prison and Luna Park amusement park with Labaki and  The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette and a post-screening Q&A with Labaki, Zain and her husband/producer/composer/co-writer Khaled Mouzanar. BTW: After winning the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes festival, it was revealed that Zain and his family were relocated by the UN Refugee Agency, to Norway, where he’s begun going to school.

Perfect Blue: Blu-ray’s
In a season already overflowing with excellent anime titles, newcomers to the movement – adults, anyway — are encouraged to check out Perfect Blue, a sophisticated psychosexual thriller from the late Japanese director, Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress). Released in 1997, a time when western audiences were becoming attuned to the work of Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke) and the absence of fantasy superheroes, the R-rated Perfect Blue erased borders separating horror, erotica and suspense. I didn’t know the 81-minute thriller is 22 years old and only found out after reading the press clips. Either way, it holds up remarkably well, today. Mima is an ambitious J-pop superstar, anxious to escape the glare of the spotlight shone on boy and girl groups by rabid fans and an insatiable media. When she announces her retirement and desire to pursue an acting/modeling career, her fans can’t believe it. That includes the stalkers who follow Mima’s every movement. Like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus and other Disney brats gone bad, Mima’s ascendency in the grown-up world of leeches, perverts and corporate weasels doesn’t always go as expected. Not only is she is stalked by a potentially dangerous fan, but violent acts against her managers and backers have begun to occur, as well. Mima then comes to believe that an invisible hand has taken control of her mind and career. It begins when she stumbles upon “Mima’s Room,” a social-media website that purports to be written entirely by her, but publishes intimate details of her thoughts, dreams and desires, much of which are fabricated. It causes Mima to doubt her sanity. Finally, she’s driven to accept a role in a borderline hard-core film, which includes some not-so-borderline violence and rape. Kon’s ability to keep Mima guessing as to the source of her manic behavior is matched by the director’s skill at maintaining the audience’s confusion, too. His detail-rich panels and splashy color scheme works well across the board, in depictions of pop stardom, violence, cartoon nudity and sexuality. As much as Kon admitted to being influenced by novelists Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner) and Yasutaka Tsutsui (Paprika), and films by Terry Gilliam (Brazil), so, too, were westerners Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Christopher Nolan (Inception) inspired by Kon. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer on August 24, 2010, at 46. For all I knew going into Perfect Blue, adapted from Yoshikazu Takeuchi’s novel of the same title, it could have been made last year.

The Vault: Blu-ray
King of Thieves: Blu-ray
Released over Labor Day weekend, 2017, Dan Bush’s horror/heist/thriller, The Vault, spent a mere week in 11 theaters, before disappearing until this week, when it popped up again on DVD/Blu-ray. It may not be the greatest representative of it’s subgenre(s), but a cast that includes James “Mr. Everything” Franco, Taryn Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”), Francesca Eastwood (Outlaws and Angels), Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World), Clifton Collins Jr. (“Star Trek”), Scott Haze (Venom) and Jeff Gum (“New Girl”) make things interesting, at least. Bush probably could have used more time and money to recreate the critical success he enjoyed for his dystopian horror, The Signal (2007). For committing the sin of underperforming at the box office, The Vault was sent to purgatory for two years. The story revolves around a pair of estranged sisters, Vee and Leah Dillon, and their brother, Michael – none of whom are terribly bright – who were told that the bank they’re about to rob contains a million dollars in cash. After making a lot of noise and threatening to shoot their hostages, the gang only can locate $70,000. Reacting to the news as Manny’s character in “Orange Is the New Black” might, Vee tells her fellow gang members to keep searching. The only hostage who gives her any hope is the bank manager played by Franco, who, considering the circumstances, seems remarkably cool. After eliciting the sisters’ promise that no one will be hurt, he tells them that there’s a safe in the basement that may contain the rest of the cash. Horror buffs won’t be surprised by Maas’ willingness to give up the goods, because they’ve already guessed that something sinister is lurking in the basement. (The newsreel footage that preceded The Vault was a dead giveaway.) While what happens next is best left to the imagination, viewers already fixated on the zombie apocalypse will find themselves two steps ahead of the narrative. The Vault might have worked, if it weren’t too dark for its audience to clearly recognize the danger presented to bank robbers, hostages and SWAT team when the doors to the basement fly open. The ending is something of a surprise, if only to people who haven’t been paying strict attention to the shadowy details. Franco’s elongated cameo, while essential, might confuse viewers who expect a bit more from the cover blurbs. Manning and Eastwood’s testy relationship is almost reason enough to recommend The Vault.

According to the ticket-counters at Box Office Mojo, James Marsh’s true-crime/heist/drama, King of Thieves, played in 14 U.S. theaters, from January 25 through February 7, 2019. It’s total domestic gross reached $7,518 – about $1,800 more than The Vault – against the $9.55 million it made in foreign sales. It suffered from mostly mediocre reviews, which were influenced negatively from Marsh’s overly deliberate pacing and the dissipation of tension that followed the commission of the movie’s central crime. A gang of elderly crooks, dubbed the Diamond Wheezers, led by lifelong crook Jack Reader (Michael Caine), relieved the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd of £14 million worth of gold, jewels and cash. As much as £10 million from the haul still remains unrecovered. The heist, which occurred over the Easter weekend, 2015, is well-depicted by screenwriter Joe Penhall (The Road), who adapted it from a Vanity Fair article by Mark Seal. Caine leads a cast of great British actors, including Jim Broadbent, as Terry Perkins, the uncompromising wannabe leader; Ray Winstone, as the straight-talking heavy, Danny Jones; Tom Courtenay, as the two-faced conniver, Kenny Collins; Paul Whitehouse, as the reluctant sixth man, Carl Wood; Michael Gambon, as the unlikely fence, Billy “The Fish” Lincoln; and Charlie Cox, Reader’s computer-savvy protégé. If none of the characters are as clearly drawn as Reader —  a former associate of the Krays — their roguish behavior and old-fashioned dialogue never gets dull. If Marsh’s name is familiar it’s because he also was at the helm of such fine entertainments as The Theory of Everything (2014), Shadow Dancer (2012), Best Documentary-winner Man on Wire (2008) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999).

Impulso
Dance enthusiasts from around the world travel to southern Spain for one express purpose: to observe flamenco in its purest form. If they’re very lucky, their guidebook will lead them to some out-of-the-way nightclub, where the tourists don’t outnumber the regulars and there isn’t a two-drink minimum. Typically, the amateurs aren’t interested in watching dancers who take liberties with tradition, which can be traced, some say, to the arrival of Romani clans to Andalusia. Other historians associate flamenco with the cross-cultural interchange between native Andalusians, Romani, Castilians, Moors and Sephardic Jews that occurred there. Emilio Belmonte Molina’s Impulso documents the creation of a new piece by avant-garde dancer/choreographer Rocio Molina, intended to debut at Chaillot National Theater in Paris. Her extravagant, mesmerizing and mostly improvised pieces combine traditional Flamenco with modern-dance, theatrics, physical objects, paint and eclectic musical compositions. As intriguing as it is, Impulso isn’t for those who get their kicks from watching “Dancing With the Stars” or study ballroom dancing at an Arthur Murray studio. (Amazingly, there are more flamenco academies in Japan than there are in Spain.) Molina travels the world to perform her improvised “impulsos” at venues ranging from art museums to prisons. At 32, she’s into her third decade as a performer. Impulso was photographed in a studio with a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower and at her lavish family compound in Andalucia. In addition to Molina and her impassioned musicians, she’s also joined onstage by 67-year-old Antonia Santiago Amador (a.k.a., La Chana), a self-taught Gypsy dancer also known for her innovative approach to the discipline, as well as rhythmic combinations enhanced by atypical speed, expression and power. Lucija Stojevic’s 2016 documentary, La Chana, not only celebrates flamenco, but it also reveals a personal history that’s as dramatic as the dance. As such, it’s a perfect companion to Impulso.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Based on Emily Danforth’s debut novel of the same title, The Miseducation of Cameron Post examines the controversial practice of conversion therapy – a.k.a., reparative therapy and de-gaying – that many fundamentalist ministers and parents pushed on teenagers believed to be L, G, B, T or Q, in the 1970-90s. It quickly evolved from a trend, in the 1970s, to a thriving industry, in the 1990s, backed by Christian organizations and con artists, alike. Conversion therapy has since been discredited by psychiatric organizations and banned in 15 states, the District of Columbia, and such major cities as Miami and Cincinnati. In addition to being demonstrably ineffective, the practice has been shown to be harmful to teens whose sexuality may or not be established. Co-writer/director Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele’s adaptation of Danforth’s 2012 book – based on her own experiences growing up in Montana – is set in 1993, a time when dramatizations of kidnappings authorized by parents and deprogrammers had become a Hollywood staple. What makes The Miseducation of Cameron Post different from those movie-of-the-week dramas is its willingness to portray the staff of God’s Promise as something other than monsters, sadists and exploitative. Instead, they’re naïve and dangerously inexperienced in the treatment of standard deviations from normal behavior. The teachers and administrators of God’s Promise don’t realize they’re in over their heads until it’s too late. Neither do the state and federalagencies assigned to monitor them.

Cameron Post (Chloë Grace Moretz) is caught by her boyfriend having a sexual encounter with another girl, in a parked car, on homecoming night. Cameron’s aunt, Ruth, a devout Christian, sends Cameron to God’s Promise. Cameron may not like it, but she’s willing to go along with Ruth’s demand for the sake of appearances. While Cameron is getting acclimated to guidelines and restrictions at the rural camp, which takes an AA approach to the teens’ witnessing, she befriends fellow “disciples,” Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane), who was raised in a hippie commune, and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a Lakota “two-spirit,” whose father turned his back on tradition when he converted to Christianity. Another girl is so addicted to the modern Christian lifestyle that she works out to “Blessercize” videos, while another is obsessed with Christian rock music. The effeminate boy whose problems finally overwhelm councilors played John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle and Marin Ireland was bullied by his father, who expects certain results from the program. The movie’s willingness to treat all the characters with varying degrees of respect is what differentiates it from other, less sensitive dramatizations. The notion of teenage empowerment also is welcome. Some pundits were unhappy that Akhavan didn’t direct the wrath of God at the movie’s antagonists – I was a bit surprised, as well – but the film followed the novel’s blueprint, which the author describes as a story about growing up queer in Montana, in the ’90s. It was thoroughly researched by Danforth, currently an associate professor of English at Rhode Island College. It adds commentary with Akhavan and co-writer/producer Frugiuele.

The protagonist of Amanda Lundquist’s Pinsky is a Jewish out-lesbian adult, Sophia Pinsky – played by impish co-writer Rebecca Karpovsky — whose sexuality is vilified by her recently widowed grandmother, from  whom she’s been estranged for three years. The matriarch is more concerned about her position in Boston’s Russian-Jewish community than Sophia’s soul and happiness Even so, Sophia agrees to return home to sit shiva for her beloved grandfather. As expected, it’s the kind of nightmare that an aspiring standup comedian could mine for laughs in clubs around the country. Unless I missed something, though, Sophia isn’t quite ready for prime time and the film’s humor doesn’t always qualify as a “comedy about finding your chosen family and forgiving the one you’re born into.” Besides the death of her grandfather, Sophia’s misery is compounded by the sudden decision of her live-in lover to leave home, without notice. Being a lesbian doesn’t protect Sophia from the matchmaking that’s a staple of movies set in Jewish households. Despite a lifelong friendship with the likely candidate, their personal time together turns into a disaster, as well. And, then there’s the secret being kept between Granny and their rabbi (Alan Blumenfeld). Oy, vey. That’s a lot of baggage to carry, even for a movie that is only required to  bear the load for 73 minutes. Pinsky potentially could find an audience for the mishigas on display here among Jews living under the same circumstances as the protagonist. Others may fail to find the humor in the constant bickering, put-downs and stereotypes. The DVD contains a “Sitting Down” with Blumenfeld and additional standup comedy, featuring Rebecca Karpovsky.

Director Gene Saks and playwright/screenwriter Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) doesn’t contain any LGBTQ references that I could see, but its depiction of a working-class Jewish family on the eve of World War II probably influenced Pinsky, if only subliminally. The 1982 play may also have informed parts of Woody Allen’s similarly nostalgic Radio Days (1987), as well. All three films are listed as comedies on IMDB.com, but there are plenty of times when the arguments, rivalries and unappetizing ethnic food  — never a problem in movies about Italian families – melt into blob of clichés. Simon’s semi-autographical story begins with a series of events that would test the stability of any family of disparate parts living under the same roof. Jonathan Silverman plays 15-year-old Eugene Jerome, around whom all the bad craziness revolves. During Brighton Beach Memoirs, the Polish/Jewish/American boy will be challenged by puberty, his first sexual cravings and desire to solve all of his family’s myriad problems. They include those faced by his Aunt Blanche (Judith Ivey) and her two daughters (Lisa Waltz, Stacey Glick), who share the house. His father (Bob Dishy) and older brother (Brian Drillinger) have just lost their jobs and their savings won’t pull them through the Depression. His mother (Blythe Danner) acts as if she has burrs in her foundation garments, while her sister, Blanche, is still traumatized by the loss of her husband. Eugene’s youngest cousin has a serious heart condition and her16-year-old sister desperately wants to take a Broadway producer up on his offer of a job in the chorus line of his new production … wink, wink/nod, nod. Then, there’s the matter of the impending storm in Poland, and their cousins’ efforts to get the papers necessary to leave for England or America, and a debt owed by some local gangsters by his brother. Just as things couldn’t get any less humorous, Eugene’s mother and aunt begin airing out differences that began when they were young. As it turns out, however, the Broadway-perfect ending couldn’t be more uplifting. Brighton Beach Memoirs, it should be noted, was the first installment in Simon’s unintended “Eugene trilogy,” followed by “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound.”

Tyrel: Blu-ray
With such celebrated, if eccentric gems as The Maid (2009), Magic Magic (2013), Crystal Fairy (2013) and Old Cats (2010) on his resume, Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva is among a handful of filmmakers whose every new project is anticipated by critics and arthouse buffs around the world. One never knows what to expect from him. The only thing I knew about Tyrel (2018) was what I gleaned from a casual sampling of the trailer, which promised racially charged drama and, perhaps, a violent confrontation between the sole African-American character and a half-dozen, or so, white guys intent on making this bro’s-will-be-bro’s weekend one for the ages. Tyler (Jason Mitchell) is welcomed with the same gusto as every other new arrival, even if there’s no clear link between him and the other yahoos. When the booze begins to flow freely, references to Tyler’s singular distinction begin to be dropped into the rowdy conversations. Similar observations are made about the sole Hispanic character and anyone else with distinguishing characteristic. At this moment in American history, when every perceived slur is put under a microscope, the jokes carry added significance. Pretty soon, however, the apologies that follow each gag lose their ability soothe ruffled features. When, the next day, Tyler begs off playing a bruising game on a frozen-over pond, it’s impossible not to see it as a slight against the white guys, who, to be fair, don’t seem to be fazed by the rejection. At one point during the next drinking marathon, Tyler’s ability to overcome lack of sleep and a strong headache causes him to put on the nearest parka and escape into the below-zero Catskills night. When the temperatures get to be too much for the young man, he seeks temporary shelter in a lonely cabin. Instead of a family of white supremacists, meth cookers or lizard people, Tyler’s greeted by a friendly white woman (Ann Dowd), who’d helped his group when their car ran out of guess. More surprises come when he’s introduced to her husband (Reg E. Cathey) and their mixed-race son. When Tyler feels ready to return home, he’s greeted on the road by a large and intimidating party animal, who, we assume, has been sent to retrieve him, at all costs. But, no, all he’s being offered is a ride in a warm car. What gives? And, where are the strippers who inevitably show up at the worst possible time, and are either raped, forced to commit unthinkable sex acts or are tossed into the nearest snow bank, naked, and forced to walk home. Nope, nada, nothing like that occurs. Maybe, later. What Silva accomplishes in Tyrel – the spelling is significant – is the creation of a ticking time-bomb of a thriller, whose fuse appears to malfunction whenever the timer hits 0:00:01. By putting ourselves in Tyler’s shoes, so early in the narrative, we mirror how it must feel, every day, when minorities are surrounded by people in red MAGA caps in public. The same qapplies, of course, when a single white man or woman attends a rally, party or sporting event and is lost in a sea of black, brown, yellow faces. That’s where we’re at in America today and Silva has found a neat way to exploit the kind of loneliness that makes people feel trapped, on one side, and, on the other, by rampant paranoia. Michael Cera, who also starred in Magic Magic and Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus is the most-recognizable actor here. The Blu-ray adds an interview with the writer/director.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
Because I was taught never to speak ill of the dead – unless they’re Adolph Hitler, James Earl Ray, John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald – I’ll let Alexis Bloom’s horrifying documentary, Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes do it for me. Before being buried under a mountain of accusations of gender-related crimes and unconscionable behavior, Ailes enjoyed the support and confidence of Rupert Murdoch. He had, after all, managed the campaigns of politicians who shared the Fox head’s politics, policies and line of bullshit, and turned Fox News into a huge force in the American media.  As such, Ailes did more harm to our democracy than any sitting president, congressman or public official in the last 50 years. His preferred title at Fox News and other stops along the way was “king maker.” From the  1960s’ presidential debates onward, Ailes manipulated the broadcast media into serving as vehicles the lies, distortions and slander served up by ultra-conservative candidates. Fox News represented the realization of a lifetime spent destroying the reputations of people outside the 1 percent of American earners. But, you already knew that. The documentary is even more damning when it recalls Ailes’ 60-year history of blackmailing young women into humiliating themselves sexually, in exchange for jobs, raises and promotions. Sometimes, his demands were limited to leg shows and stripteases, but they escalated from there to blow jobs, intercourse and performing for friends. On camera, he demanded that beautiful blond anchors wear spike heels, short skirts and cross their legs while sinking into couches for inane chats. He even put lights under the news desks to prevent male viewers from getting bored by the right-wing propaganda. When an anchorwoman was sitting at the end of a desk, camera operators were told to shot from an angle that captured their every movement. Imagine your daughter, wife or sister working for a pig like Ailes and his minions. And, as long as he was making money for someone, Ailes had been allowed to get away with such behavior since his days as an executive producer for “The Mike Douglas Show,” where he met Richard Nixon for the first time. It wasn’t until settlements in suits filed against Ailes and commentator Bill O’Reilly passed the $100-million mark that Murdoch, his sons and other Fox executive realized that these bozos were greater liabilities than assets. Even then, his good friend, Donald Trump, used Ailes to prepare for debates and anti-Hillary tantrums. He was an evil man and there probably was a place reserved for him in hell when he died on May 18, 2017, at 77. Like I said, though, Bloom’s documentary makes a far better case for eternal damnation than I ever could.

The Body Snatcher: Blu-ray
The Witches: Blu-ray
Just because Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi had left the Universal Classic Monsters barn by the time production began on RKO Radio Pictures’ The Body Snatcher (1945) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t mentioned alongside any of their better-known horror titles. It’s extremely well-made and still a lot of fun to watch. Most of the credit belongs to producer/co-writer Val Lewton – a true genius of genre filmmaking – and his decision to hire promising director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still). British genre novelist/screenwriter Philip MacDonald (Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto) joined Lewton (as Carlos Keith) in adapting Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1881 short story of the same title, which he based on real-life body snatchers, who turned to murder when teachers, researchers and surgeons faced  a shortage of legally obtained cadavers. Robert Knox, a noted Edinburgh surgeon, anatomist, zoologist, ethologist and physician, was the chief beneficiary of crimes committed by Irish immigrants William Burke and William Hare. They were paid handsomely by Knox to deliver more or less fresh bodies to the university. In 1928, after committing at least 16 murders in 10 months, they were captured. At the trial, Hare turned King’s evidence, while Burke was convicted, hanged, dissected and displayed for the amusement of 25,000 Jacobite spectators, some of whom paid handsomely for the privilege. When Knox escaped prosecution on a technicality, a mob comprised of “the lowest rabble of the Old Town” attacked his house. Although disgraced, he would continue working in the field until his death, in 1862. On the plus side, the trial raised public awareness of the need for bodies for medical purposes, and of the trade that doctors had conducted with grave robbers and murderers. After another corpse-selling ring was broken up, this one in London, a bill was quickly introduced into Parliament, and it gained royal assent nine months later as the Anatomy Act of 1832. It authorized dissection on bodies from workhouses, unclaimed after 48 hours, and ended the practice of anatomizing as part of the death sentence for murder. The filmmakers relied on Stevenson’s story for the thoroughly creepy ending to The Body Snatcher, even if the public record would might have been just as effective. have sufficed. It was one of three films – along with Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) – that Karloff made under Lewton’s guidance for RKO Radio Pictures. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Karloff stated that Lewton was the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored his soul. Lugosi’s role is far less pronounced in the story. Lewton, Wise and cinematographer Robert De Grasse made the most of RKO’s budgetary restrictions and it resulted in a picture that won the respect of critics, then and now. The Scream/Shout package benefits from a 4K scan of the original camera negative; the new featurette, “You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher”; commentary with Wise and writer/film-historian Steve Haberman; the documentary, “Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy; stills galleries; and marketing material.

Although Hammer’s The Witches (a.k.a., “The Devil’s Own”) and Dino de Laurentiis’ La Strega (a.k.a., “The Witches”) were produced almost simultaneously in the mid-1960s – released under the same title in some markets – the common elements begin and end there. That is, unless one considers the near coincidence of their Blu-ray release, a year apart. The short films collected in Arrow Video’s anthology all starred Silvana Mangano. The episodes were directed by Mauro Bolognini (Careless), Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), Franco Rossi (Nude Odyssey) and Luchino Visconti (The Leopard). Scream/Shout’s Joan Fontaine-vehicle, was directed by journeyman Cyril Frankel, who was making the transition from documentaries and features, to television. Fontaine, who, a quarter-century earlier, captured the Oscar as Best Actress for Suspicion, reportedly purchased the film rights to Norah Lofts’ novel –written under the nom-de-plume of Peter Curtis — and brought the project to Hammer. A box-office and critical bomb, The Witches would be her last feature. The plot, you might ask? Haunted by the terrors of her experience with African witch doctors, teacher Gwen Mayfield (Fontaine) accepts an appointment as headmistress at the quiet, rural Haddaby School, run by Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) and his sister, Stephanie (Kay Walsh). Soon enough, however, the pastoral English town reveals itself to be an outpost for witches and subscribers to the dark arts. Voodoo dolls link Gwen’s memories of her African ordeal to what’s happening today. If there’s a genuine scare in the entirety of The Witches, I missed it. The Blu-ray adds commentary with filmmaker/historian Ted Newsom; a stills gallery; vintage trailers; and the entertaining “Hammer Glamour: A Featurette on the Women of Hammer,”  with a half-dozen still-fi 1960-70s scream queens.

Life After Flash: Blu-ray
I must have had other things on my mind when Universal launched the sci-fi fantasy, Flash Gordon, into 823 American theaters on December 6, 1980. It was an updated version of the wildly popular 1930s serials, starring Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers/Carol Hughes and Charles Middleton, and, I probably assumed, a cheap rip-off of Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Even if that was producer Dino De Laurentiis’ intention, Flash Gordon was anything but a cheap rip-off. Many critics lauded its faithful re-adaptation of the original serial, while the presence of director Mike Hodges (Get Carter), writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Pretty Poison), cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (Star Wars), production and costume designer Danilo Donati (Amarcord), Queen (Highlander) and such top-shelf actors as Max von Sydow (The Seventh Seal), Brian Blessed (“I Claudius”), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton (License to Kill), Ornella Muti (The Last Woman), Peter Wyngarde (“Doctor Who”) and Mariangela Melato (The Seduction of Mimi) should have alerted me to the movie’s blockbuster potential. Like I said, though, I wasn’t paying attention. The only ringers, it turns out, were unknowns Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson, who were chosen to play protagonists Flash Gordon and Dale Arden, and they did a commendable job in the future cult classic.

Lisa Downs’ incisive documentary, Life After Flash (2017), explains what happened to Jones after his career was nearly ruined by a nasty disagreement with De Laurentiis near the end of Flash Gordon’s production. The chisel-chinned actor never stopped working after being replaced during the dubbing process, but superstar status would forever elude him. Nonetheless fans of the actor and movie still turn out for autographs and photos by the dozens at Comic Cons and memorabilia auctions around the world. Still handsome and buff, at 64, the former Marine is a personable guy, who freely admits to his struggles and mistakes as an actor, husband and father. I don’t know how many fans of George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Klinton Spilsbury (The Legend of the Lone Ranger) and “internationally known and acclaimed actress,” Rula Lenska (Alberto VO5 Shampoo), frequent their appearances at conventions … if any. Jones survived his blunders in much the same way as Adam West overcame his close, campy association with “Batman,”  the 1967 TV series on ABC. Downs devotes an equal amount of time to the production of Flash Gordon, itself, through the candid recollections of Hodges, Stan Lee, Queen’s Brian May and Jones’ co-stars, crew members, fans, sci-fi buffs and family members. Among them are Michael Rooker, Robert Rodriguez, Patrick Warburton, musician Paul Oakenfold, Sean Gunn, Richard Donner, Martha De Laurentiis and Jon Heder. An appreciation of Jones’ body of work or Flash Gordon isn’t necessary to get something out Life After Flash, but it certainly helps. Bonus materials include behind-the-scenes footage and extended interviews with cast and crew. (In a cool cross-promotion gimmick, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment once paired the Blu-ray edition of Flash Gordon with Ted and Ted 2, during which Mark Wahlberg and his stuffed-bear buddy, Ted, frequently reference Jones. It includes, as well, the first episode of the 1936 serial.)

Warning Sign: Blu-ray
Made in 1985, a time when no conspiracy theory was too outrageous to dismiss out of hand, Warning Sign is a paranoid thriller too close to reality for comfort. In this way, at least, it resembled The China Syndrome (1979), The Satan Bug (1965), Soylent Green (1975) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). In the film’s opening moments, we watch a crop duster spray an agricultural field with chemicals created to kill pests, weeds and other deterrents to a profitable yield. We’re then transported to the grounds of a nearby chemical plant, BioTek Agronomics, where, we’re led to believe, such products are formulated. The rest of Warning Sign takes place inside the BioTek complex. When a clumsy researcher drops a vial on the floor and one of his cronies steps on it, we instinctively know that things won’t be the same for anyone in the vicinity. Moreover, fans of such cautionary tales know that a greater catastrophe could be triggered if the substance finds its way into the world outside the facility.

When the impacted worker attempts to leave the building for his nightly commute home, a warning sound blares out, prompting a cleansing ritual right out of Silkwood (1983). It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that the plant’s primary product is a bio-chemical weapon and the research is backed by the Pentagon. Soon, scabs begin to form on the faces of BioTek scientists and they begin to act like blood-thirsty ghouls. Because this is a side-effect to the toxin no one in the company anticipated, they’ve failed to produce a vaccine to counteract its effects. Conveniently, sheriff Cal Morse (Sam Waterston) – who’s not only married to an endangered guard, Joanie Morse (Kathleen Quinlan), but also is a rogue biologist – is emboldened to break into the infected laboratory and whip a remedy together. Can he do it in time to save the planet? You get one guess. All I’ll reveal is the curious fact that at least one of the women trapped inside the building appears to be immune to the virus and, therein, a cure might be discovered. Hal Barwood’s Warning Sign is every bit as cut-and-dried as that summary makes it sound. Early in their careers, co-screenwriters Barwood and Matthew Robbins worked closely with Steven Spielberg on his debut feature, The Sugarland Express (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), as well as John Badham’s The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, Joe Sargent’s MacArthur (1977) and Robbins’ Dragonslayer (1981) and Corvette Summer (1978). It doesn’t show in Warning Sign, which isn’t as claustrophobic or ominous as it should be. Zombie completists may want to add it to their bucket list, though. The Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Barwood and producer Jim Bloom, and vintage commentary with Barwood.

Nemesis: Sequel Trilogy: Blu-ray
In December, Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) was released on Blu-ray in a surprisingly generous “Collector’s Edition” as part of MVD’s Rewind Collection. Coming so soon after the first re-discovery of Blade Runner’s brilliance, it seemed to be an unofficial, unsanctioned and unequal sequel to Ridley Scott’s futuristic noir. Even given its budgetary limitations, though, Nemesis didn’t dishonor Blade Runner by skimping on the production values or mocking the science behind the fiction. The Blu-ray release begged the question as to when the company would package the three sequels that quickly followed in original’s  wake. Here it is. Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) is set 73 years after the events depicted in Nemesis, during which humans lost the Cyborg Wars and were enslaved to their robotic masters. In the interim, rebel scientists developed a new DNA strain, which presents a direct threat to cyborg rule. The strain is injected it into a pregnant volunteer, who, when discovered, travels back in time with her baby, on a stolen cyborg time machine. Long story short, the child survives the death of her mother, growing into a formidable young cyber-woman, Alex, who not only is beautiful, but also is built like Arnold Schwarzenegger. She’s played by professional body builder and model Sue Price, who sports blond dreadlocks and favors skimpy two-piece outfits. Her existence is discovered by a cyborg bounty hunter, Nebula (Chad Stahelski), who travels back in time to terminate her. In Nemesis 3: Time Lapse, which was cobbled together from scraps collected from the first sequel, Alex learns that she has 20 half-sisters, who are waiting for her to return to the year 2077. Before that can happen, though, Central Command wants her to be captured alive and scanned to see if her DNA is a more powerful strain than normal. Tim Thomerson returns to the franchise, playing the second version of his cyborg character from Nemesis. Alex may be too tough for him to handle, though.

In Nemesis 4: Cry of Angels: Alex finally returns to the future, during an uneasy ceasefire between the humans and the cyborgs. Like other such beings, she is earning a living as a cybernetically enhanced assassin for her boss, Bernardo (Andrew Divoff). When Alex accidentally kills the son of a crime-syndicate boss, he puts a price on her head that other assassins can’t ignore.  Here, the story unspools in an urban setting and Alex has changed her look into something cosmopolitan and traditionally feminine. Pyun also convinced Price to give fanboys a thrill, by instructing the character to shed her clothes for the first time. The package adds three lengthy interviews with Pyun. On June 6, MVD is scheduled to release the Pyun-less Nemesis 5: The New Model, which adds a bit more mileage to the franchise, if not a lot of substance. For it, Price returned to acting for the first time in 21 years.

The Street Fighter Collection: Blu-ray
Sister Street Fighter Collection: Blu-ray
In the wake of Bruce Lee’s untimely death on July 20, 1973, and posthumous release of Enter the Dragon, a month later, producers of martial-arts actioners scrambled to find somehow to fill one of his shoes, at least. In Hong Kong, it was easier to stage retrospectives and bio-docs, frequently with lesser actors adopting variations of his name, than to move forward with new ideas and superstars. That would come a bit later. Thai kick-boxing lacked the broader appeal that came with charismatic stars and complex storylines. Such American and European stars as Jim Kelly, Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damm emerged from the pack, as did Asian fighters Jackie Chan, Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Chia-Hui Liu and Bolo Yeung. Whether he played a hero or antihero, Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba capably shifted the axis of martial-arts domination from Hong Kong to Japan, at least until Chan developed a style and personality to call his own. Unlike Lee, there was nothing balletic, fluid or nuanced in Chiba’s repertoire of karate, judo and kenpo skills. At times, he defined the term, “bull in a china shop.” But, man, he could fight. After a decade spent playing gangsters, undercover cops, bodyguards and soldiers, Shiba broke through the scrum in The Street Fighter (1974), which established him as the reigning Japanese martial-arts actor in international cinema for the next two decades. Produced by Toei Company Ltd and released in the U.S. by fledgling New Line Cinema, it is notable as the first film to receive an X-rating solely for violence. The MPAA ratings board looked askance at Chiba’s character, Tsurugi, castrating a rapist with his bare hands and crushing another henchman’s skull as if it were an ostrich egg. (Today, it would be released with an R or, worst case, NC-17 designation.)

In it, Takuma Tsurugi is a master of martial arts and much-in-demand mercenary. When an important business magnate dies, leaving billions to his daughter, the Mafia and Yakuza try to hire Takuma to kidnap the girl. When the gangsters refuse to meet his admittedly exorbitant price, they try to kill him to protect their interests. He, then, offers his services to keep her out of harm’s way. That’s all the information one needs to complete the summary. Also included in Shout’s “The Street Fighter Collection” are the sequels Toei produced immediately thereafter to cash in on Chiba’s increased marketability: Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge. All three were released in Japan in the same year. In the first R-rated sequel, Tsurugi commits his talents to busting up a phony charity put together by the Yakuza. In “Last Revenge,” which took five years to reach the U.S., albeit in abbreviated form, Tsurugi is involved in a scheme to obtain one of two tapes containing a secret recipe that would allow someone to make high-quality synthetic heroin cheaply. When the deal goes wrong, the mobsters cheat Tsurugi out of his money and try to kill him. He also gets mixed up with a corrupt district attorney, who uses an ancient Korean martial-arts technique to beat up Tsurugi, who will go to great lengths to avoid it happening, again. It also turns out that the D.A. and Takuma are sleeping with the same femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to gets what wants. If the story doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, neither will the plots of most other martial-arts flicks of the period. It isn’t what drew paying customers to theaters. (This includes Alabama and Clarence, in True Romance, who meet at a Sonny Chiba triple-feature.) The Shout collection is enhanced by 2K remasters of the films; uncut versions of the films, as well as the U.S. edition of “Last Revenge”; and lively new interviews with Chiba and filmmaker Jack Shoulder (The Hidden).

The four films in Arrow’s  similarly entertaining “Sister Street Fighter Collection,” series, which began that same year with Sister Street Fighter, starring Chiba-protégée Etsuko Shihomi. After writing her hero a few times, the teenager joined his élite Japan Action Club, where students learned martial-arts technique and performed acting exercises. A quick learner, the onetime gymnast made her feature film debut opposite Sonny in 1973’s Bodyguard Kiba and shortly thereafter landed a supporting role in The Street Fighter. She went on to appear in both Street Fighter sequels and star in all three sequels to Sister Street Fighter, changing her character’s name from Li Koryu, in Sister Street Fighter: Hanging by a Thread (1974) and The Return of the Sister Street Fighter (1975), to Kiku Nakagawa, in Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (a.k.a., “Lethal Woman: Fifth Level Fist”), which probably was envisioned as a stand-alone feature, until studio executives decided that there was nothing to be gained by messing with the brand. Neither did they mess with the basic story elements. In all four movies, the title character is a wonderfully gifted martial artist, who volunteers to travel from Hong Kong to Japan to check on the well-being of a family member or friend who’s disappeared from view and is likely involved in a Yakuza enterprise, be it smuggling, cutting gems, drug trafficking, prostitution, blackmail, or combinations thereof. It doesn’t take long for the mob boss to recognize Li or Kiku as an imposter or undercover cop. He’ll pay his minions a small fortune to eliminate her, but her fighting skills keep her alive. What’s interesting is the large number of fighting styles represented in the clashes, which the producers were kind enough to identify by name, country of origin and weapon of choice, from nunchuks and swords, to darts and tanto daggers. Neither are Shihomi’s characters the only women represented in the melees. There’s also a group of female Thai kickboxers, called the Amazon Seven, (In Sister Street Fighter, Chiba appears in a cameo as a fellow karate master who helps Koryu in her mission.) The Arrow collection adds the excellent featurettes, “Sonny Chiba: A Life in Action, Vol. 3”; “Kazuhiko Yamaguchi: Kick Ass Sisters,” with the director, who discusses some of his films, which prominently feature women; “Masahiro Kaketuda: Subversive Action,” with the co-screenwriter of the first three Sister Street Fighter films; isolated score highlights; a stills and poster gallery; international versions; and an insert booklet.

Also from Arrow Video
Phantom Lady: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Kolobos: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Strip Nude for Your Killer: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Film noir is elastic enough a subgenre to include private detectives who aren’t particularly hardboiled, lighting schemes that aren’t always dark and shadowy, women who would resent being referred to as a dame or doll, and narratives that don’t need a searchlight to follow. Before watching Robert Siodmak’s “lesser noir” drama, Phantom Lady (1944), I recommend checking out “Dark and Deadly: 50 Years of Film Noir,” an insightful archival documentary, featuring contributions from directors Robert Wise, Edward Dmytryk and Bryan Singer, Dennis Hopper, critic B. Ruby Rich and others, who debate the definitions of noir and neo-noir, using lots of samples of movies that qualify and others that don’t. Siodmak was raised and educated in Germany, where he couldn’t help but be influenced by the techniques of Expressionism, which he would incorporate into his Hollywood assignments (The Killers, The Dark Mirror), especially those compartmentalized as noir. Phantom Lady has also been called Hitchcockian, if only because producer Joan Harrison worked closely with him in England and accompanied him to the U.S., in 1939. (With Harriet Parsons and Virginia Van Upp, was one of only three women working as contract producers for major Hollywood studios between 1943 and 1955.) What Phantom Lady lacks in narrative logic is more than made up for in eccentric stylistic conceits that mask the problems. Basically, it’s about businessman Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis), who’s framed in the murder of his wife, with whom he’s just had an argument. When Scott gets home from a night spent at a cabaret show, with an equally despondent woman (Fay Helm) he’s just met at a bar, he’s greeted by a trio of callous cops. After he recalls for them his movements from the moment he left home to the moment he returned, he’s still considered to be the prime suspect. The lead inspector (Thomas Gomez) willingly tests Henderson’s alibi, but no one he met the night before – bartender, cabbie, cabaret dancer, a drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) – agrees with his version. Worse, his date has vanished from the face of the Earth. Of course, Henderson comes off as a hopeless fantasist to the jury members and judge, who sentences him to death. His only hope lies in his secretary’s belief in his innocence. Carol (Ella Raines) picks up the investigation where the police dropped it. Then, she’s joined by Gomez and Scott’s best friend (Franchot Tone), whose alibi is being on a ship headed to Cuba that night. At 87 minutes, viewers are asked to suspend their disbelief to the limits of their patience. I suspect that Cornell Woolrich’s hit novel left less to the imagination. The package also includes a rare, hour-long 1944 radio dramatization of Phantom Lady, by the Lux Radio Theater; a stills and promotional gallery; and an illustrated collector’s booklet, featuring new writing on the film by author Alan K. Rode.

In addition to classics, cult favorites and genre fare, Arrow will occasionally release on Blu-ray a pristinely archived edition of a film so obscure that its creators may not remember making it. Kolobos (1999) is just such a flick. Co-writers/co-directors Daniel Liatowitsch and David Todd Ocvirk, and co-writer Nne Ebong, don’t appear to have benefitted much from the straight-to-video release, although a few of the actors would enjoy a couple of moments in the sun. It would be difficult not recognize Kolobos’ antecedents: Suspiria (1977), MTV’s “The Real World” (1992), Cube (1997) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), or such coincidental descendants as CBS’ “Big Brother” (2000) and “Survivor” (2000), Saw (2004) and My Little Eye (2002). The film begins with a couple coming across a severely wounded girl, who can only utter the word “kolobos.” It, then, flashes back a few days, to the arrival of an artist named Kyra (Amy Weber) at a house, with several other college-age kids who’ve agreed to take part in an experimental film. It requires them to live together for three months, while cameras record their interactions. Kyra’s artwork, which appears to be inspired by a creepy faceless entity, disturbs her new housemates. Certain members of the group don’t get along so well, but things don’t turn nasty until the house literally shuts itself off from the outside world and a series of deadly traps picks them off one by one. Each murder is ghastly in its own way. Then, of course, the story flashes forward briefly to Kyra’s portentous stay in the hospital. Kolobos doesn’t fit naturally into the haunted-house subgenre. The murders are gory enough to qualify the movie as “torture porn,” while the budget and production values probably fit within the D.I.Y. framework. Completists will certainly want to give Kolobos a peek. (At one point, Kyra observes, “Kolobos means ‘mutilated.’ Some would say it’s what Zeus did when he severed the first creatures who roamed the earth in two, condemning them to wander in search of their better half.”) The Blu-ray features a fresh 2K restoration from the original negative; original stereo and 5.1 audio options; commentary with Liatowitsch and Ocvirk; a new featurette, “Real World Massacre: The Making of Kolobos,” and interviews with actor Ilia Volok, the actor who played “Faceless,” and composer William Kidd; a behind-the-scenes image gallery; a Super 8 short film, by Liatowitsch; and, with the first pressing, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Phillip Escott.

Nowhere is the nexus between sex, violence and horror more pronounced than in special Blu-ray editions of “Blood Hunger: The Films of Jose Larraz” and Strip Nude for Your Killer. One of the most underrated and oft-neglected genre filmmakers of his generation, Catalonian director José Ramón Larraz finally receives his due in this collection of three creepy/sexy films from the first half of his 32-year cinematic career. Rarely seen, Whirlpool (1970) was his debut feature. It features Vivian Neves, as Tulia, a young model invited to a photographer’s secluded country home for a weekend retreat. A ménage-a-trois develops between Tulia, the decidedly perverse photographer (Karl Lanchbury) and a MILF-y magazine editor (Pia Andersson). Tulia has good reason to become concerned about the arrangement, when a local police detective arrives at the estate to investigate the disappearance of a previous guest, played by another model-turned-actress, Johanna Hegger. Whirlpool contains lots of nudity, feigned sex, a ghost and murder. Vampyres (1974) is the most widely-released of all Larraz’ films, if only because of the irresistible combination of beautiful lesbian vampires (Marianne Morris, Anulka Dziubinska), handsome male victims (Murray Brown, Brian Deacon, Michael Byrne), a busty tourist (Sally Faulkner), beaucoup nudity and gallons of blood. As an additional bonus, Vampyres was shot almost entirely at Oakley Court, a stately mansion also used on Rocky Horror Picture Show. In The Coming of Sin (1978), a superstitious, illiterate gypsy servant girl, Triana (Lidia Zuazo), is invited to move into the rural estate of a solitary female artist, Lorna (Patricia Granada). Triana experiences recurring nightmares of a naked man – a handsome, young gypsy – riding a magnificent steed, bareback. When Lorna meets Chico (Rafael Machado), the man she assumes is from Triana’s dreams, she can’t help but be attracted to him. Lorna will ignore her maid’s warnings about the danger presented by Chico, even going so far as to inviting him into the villa and painting him alongside Triana, in Goya-esque poses. She also encourages Chico to bring his entire family for a party, at which the paintings will be displayed. Trouble ensues. Coming of Sin was distributed around the world, but under different titles and varying degrees of censorship. The limited-edition collection features all three films, newly restored in 2K from original film elements; an extensive menu of newly produced bonus material, including commentaries, interviews and unseen archival content; newly commissioned artwork, by Gilles Vranckx; an 80-page perfect-bound book, with new writing by Jo Botting, Tim Greaves and Vanity Celis; and the frighteningly erotic 27-minute short, “His Last Request” (2005), directed by Simon Birrell and made under the guidance of Larraz.

As the 1970s wore on and audiences began to tire of the tried and tested giallo formula, Italian filmmakers sought to reinvigorate the ailing movement by injecting elements from other genres. Some took inspiration from the then-burgeoning crime/thriller movement, with tales of organized crime and corrupt police officials, while others decided to sex things up by crossing serial-killer thrills with salacious softcore antics. In Andrea Bianchi and co-writer Massimo Felisatti’s Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975), a spate of highly sexualized murders is rocking a prestigious Milanese fashion house. Ambitious photographer Magda (Edwige Fenech) and her boyfriend, Carlo (Nino Castelnuovo), team up to crack the case. The common denominator is a leather-clad intruder, who wears a motorcycle helmet and knows exactly what she’s doing and why she’s doing it. Although there are plenty of suspects, the revelation of the killer’s identity may take many viewers by surprise. Once again, the nudity is plentiful, as are such diversions as kitschy fashion shoots, a back-alley abortion, blow-up sex dolls and bawdy humor. It, too, benefits from a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative; enhanced subtitles; new audio commentary by horrorpedia.com’s Adrian J. Smith and David Flint; “Sex and Death With a Smile,” a fresh video essay by author and critic Kat Ellinger on giallo and sex comedy icon Edwige Fenech; “A Good Man for the Murders,” a newly edited video interview with actor Nino Castelnuovo; “The Blonde Salamander,” with actress Erna Schurer; “The Art of Helping,” with assistant director Daniele Sangiorgi; an interview with actor and production manager Tino Polenghi; two versions of the opening scene, tinted and un-tinted; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and, first-pressing only, an illustrated collectors’ booklet, with a new essay by critic Rachael Nisbet.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Victoria and Albert: The Wedding
PBS: NOVA: Pluto and Beyond
PBS: Nature: Equus: Story of the Horse
PBS is to Britain’s royal family what the Trumps are to Fox News: gifts that keep on giving. “Victoria and Albert: The Wedding” aired in the runup to the third-season premiere of the network’s much-admired mini-series, “Victoria.” Naturally, when the BBC decided to re-stage the world’s most lavish and expensive wedding to date, it tapped Lucy Worsley, the network’s historian of choice. Her sparkling personality stands in direct contrast to previous BBC presenters, who, by comparison, made Prince Phillip look like Buddy Hackett. In doing so, she scoured archival materials from several museums and libraries, as well Queen Victoria’s diaries. Not all of them had been preserved, but those that were available allowed Worsley to offer guidance and supervision to dozens of artisans hired  for the project. She accomplished this much in the same way that Victoria and her staff had pulled things together for the all-day gala on February 10, 1840. Worsley also delights in recounting the story of Victoria and Albert’s courtship and engagement, and the new king’s efforts to win over detractors of the German invader. More than anything else, however, the two-part mini-series explains how this one extraordinary event helped to invent the modern “white wedding.” The meals are replicated in ways that almost defy the laws of gravity, architecture and economics. We’re taken to the royal archives, where various pieces of wedding attire are stored. Absent wedding photographs, the show’s producers relied on George Hayter’s painting, “The Marriage of Queen Victoria,” which took the artist more than two years to complete. It detailed the placement of the guests and clergy, as well as dresses and military garb of those in attendance.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. For the next 62 years, it was considered the ninth planet in the solar system. Between 1992 and 2006, astronomers with too much time on their hand debated whether  Pluto was, in fact, a planet; a dwarf planet among other dwarves in the Kuiper belt; or a giant snowball. It took the International Astronomical Union all that time to define the term “planet” formally and reclassify Pluto as a dwarf. It pissed off a lot of astronomy buffs, lower-grade researchers and sci-fi enthusiasts. Pluto has five known moons – Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra — but is less massive than Eris, another dwarf in the belt. While the geniuses at the IAU played the name game, NASA went ahead and launched the New Horizons interplanetary space probe and pointed it towards the soon-to-be-disrespected non-planet. It took the spacecraft nine years to accomplish its primary mission — a fly-by study of Pluto’s surface — and begin its secondary objective, which includes flying by and studying one or more other Kuiper belt objects. “NOVA: Pluto and Beyond” tells the amazing story of the mission, so far, through downloaded photographs, data, interviews and speculation. The probe then headed for Ultima Thule, for another flu-by and downlink.

The fascinating two-part “Nature” presentation, “Equus: Story of the Horse” traces the evolution of the horse from its emergence as a small multi-toed creature, Eohippus, into the large, single-toed animal of today. The process has occurred over the past 45 to 55 million years. Humans began domesticating horses around 4000 BC, and their domestication is believed to have been widespread by 3000 BC. Since then, they’ve helped shape the human world, conquering distances and other obstacles to progress, sometimes at full speed and, when necessary, pulling great loads. They’ve lifted countless warriors to victory and died beside less-fortunate riders on the fields of battle. In Part II, we follow the producers as they study the bloodlines of very different breeds of horses around the planet and use modern technology to discover why Thoroughbred racehorses sometimes appear as if they’re taking  flight. With the Kentucky Derby just around the corner the DVD is a perfect way to prepare for the annual display of pageantry, beauty and speed.

The DVD Wrapup: Mary Returns, Becoming Astrid, Quake, Holiday, Vengeance, Out of Love, HoneyGlue, Born in East L.A., Greasy Strangler, Mystery Road … More

Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

Mary Poppins Returns: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The release of Mary Poppins Returns, on DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD, provides a great excuse for fans of the 1964  musical/fantasy to re-focus on the story behind the myth. It might not be essential to any enjoyment of Disney’s adaptation of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel – or its 2018 re-adaptation – but it’s always fun to spray graffiti on our landmarks.Many pop-historians thought Saving Mr. Banks (2013) would settle the score on who did what to whom and why Travers was so incensed by the Disney version. What, she was? Yes, but that’s not exactly how John Lee Hancock’s otherwise entertaining biopic, starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, saw it. In fact, it echoed so many other Disney fantasies that merged fact with fiction in defense of a happy ending. What it didn’t explain was the mysterious lack of sequels to Mary Poppins, which normally would have spawned adaptations of all eight of the books in the series, which began in 1934 and didn’t end until 1988. It was a big commercial hit, with 13 Oscar nominations – winning five – and nearly unanimous praise from critics. In fact, Uncle Walt was so distressed over the possibility that Travers would spoil the gala opening, he made sure that she wasn’t invited. (She found an executive, who soothed her features by adding her name to the guest list.) In fact, most of Travers’ complaints didn’t hold water, then, and they still don’t. Instead, this wonderfully talented Australian-born writer should have followed the good witch Glinda’s advice to Dorothy, click the heels of her ruby slippers together three and chant, “There’s no place like home.” Or, she might have been better advised to anticipate the advice given to viewers of Last House on the Left (1972): “keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie,’ and a good one, at that.” Still, even with its revisionist take on a historic event, Saving Mr. Banks wasn’t all that far off the mark. There’s no faulting the actors’ portrayal of Disney or Travers, or Hancock’s depiction of the collaborative process that made Mary Poppins such a treat. (A quick perusal of the trivia sections at IMDB.com provides explanations for most of the misrepresentations.) In 2004, a stage musical adaptation opened on London’s West End, and, two years later, on Broadway.

The production defied her wish that no one who worked on the movie be allowed to contribute to any subsequent adaptation. And, Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Misérables”) did agree to her stipulation about only hiring English-born writers and crew. Wisely, though, Mackintosh and the folks at Walt Disney Theatrical chose to include original songs by the Sherman Brothers, with additional material by Brit tunesmiths George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The live musical did very well in both countries. Travers softened her anti-Disney stance in the 1980s, but all sorts of creative differences arose, anyway, delaying its launch until well after her death, in 1996. Flash ahead to Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. A sequel in most of the usual ways, it does tweak Julie Andrew’s sunny interpretation of the magical nanny’s personality, making her more outwardly stern and inflexible with Michael Banks’ three children. In Emily Blunt’s talented hands, Poppins is truer to Travers’ original description of the character. The family’s situation is quite a bit more dire, as well. The story is set in Depression-era London, a year after the untimely passing of Michael’s wife and 25 years since the events of Mary Poppins. Older sister Jane Banks (Emily Mortimer) has moved into the house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, largely to keep Annabel, John and Georgie from tearing the house into pieces and helping longtime housekeeper, Ellen (Emily Walters), feed and clothe them. When Jane isn’t doing that, she is a labor organizer. It’s a career choice that Disney wouldn’t have tolerated. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is preoccupied by threats from his boss, William “Weatherall” Wilkins (Colin Firth), to foreclose on his home and fire him. As the bank’s deadline approaches, Mary conjures a plan to save the house and give Weatherall his comeuppance, all in one fell swoop.

By now, she’s got the kids working as a unit, alongside cockney lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Admiral Boom (David Warner) and first-mate Mister Binacle (Jim Norton), and Jack’s fellow lamplighter, Angus (Tarik Frimpong). Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameos in smaller, but still crucial scenes. Miranda and Blunt’s acting and singing in new, Broadway-ready production numbers – “The Place Where Lost Things Go,” “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” — energize Mary Poppins Returns, without doing any damage to the Sherman Brothers’ original time-honored soundtrack, which can be heard in the background. Neither are we allowed to forget Mary Poppin’s mission to promote the notion that “everything is possible, even the impossible,” especially if Michael and Jane can rekindle their childhood enthusiasm for discovery and balancing work and play. My only problem with the picture is its length. At 130 minutes, I doubt that most younger viewers possess the stamina to stay with Mary Poppins Returns until the uplifting ending, which transcends the darkness by adding some pixie dust. (It’s correctly rated PG, for “some mild thematic elements and brief action.”) The 4K UHD presentation nicely enhances Marshall’s shifting color palette, depending on the outdoor setting, post-Victorian fashions and the live-action animation. The shimmering cityscape in the opening credits reminded me of Claude Monet’s “London, Houses of Parliament” series and other Impressionist views of urban life.

Bolstered by HDR color enhancements, the 4K produces a mild increase in sharpness over the Blu-ray, offering slightly more clear and nuanced textures across the board. Only audio geeks and purists are likely detect much of a difference between Mary Poppins Returns‘ Dolby Atmos soundtrack and the Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack. The bonus material is contained exclusively on the bundled Blu-ray disc. (A commentary track with Marshall and producer John DeLuca is available only with the enclosed digital version.) Also included  are the on-screen “Sing-Along Mode”; “Back to Cherry Tree Lane: Dick Van Dyke Returns,” in which cast and crew members discuss the impact of the 93-year-old hoofer’s appearance in the film and how it shaped the production by returning an original cast member to the set; “Practically Perfect Bloopers”; “Seeing Things From a Different Point of View,” a collection of making-of shorts that focus on several of the musical numbers; “Trip a Little Light Fantastic,” on the song’s importance to the film and how the choreography developed as an homage to the original film (young viewers are allowed to ask the musical question, “What the hell is a light fantastic?”); “The Royal Doulton Music Hall”/”A Cover Is Not the Book,” in which cast and crew discuss the challenges of filming live-action sequences that show up in the animated world; “Turning Turtle” explores set design for the “Topsy Turvy” sequence, with Meryl Streep, and how the musical number came together; “Can You Imagine That?,” a look at creating the magical sequence in the bathtub, including the slide used to move the characters into the underwater world and the rigging used to green-screen the scene before the CGI was added; the deleted song, “The Anthropomorphic Zoo”; the four-part “Practically Perfect Making of Mary Poppins Returns; “Nowhere to Go But Up” highlights Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke’s work and impact on the film; and deleted scenes.

Becoming Astrid
At its core, Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid is a coming-of-age story about a Swedish teenager, Astrid Lindgren, required to clear several hurdles before emerging, years later, as one of the most celebrated authors of children’s literature on the planet. If the name rings a bell, it’s because of her authorship of the Pippi Longstocking stories. The events covered in Becoming Astrid occur almost 20 years before the first of those beloved books was published. Instead of focusing on the development of her most popular character, the movie considers how her ability to overcome the social and religious stigmas of her time informed everything that would happen later. Raised on a modest dairy farm, by simple God-fearing parents, Astrid knew that her horizons expanded further than those typically allowed Scandinavian villagers. After graduating from high school, the whip-smart Astrid (Alba August) jumped at the opportunity to work for the editor of a local newspaper. Reinhold Blomberg (Henrik Rafaelsen) was several years older than his intern, married and the father of one of her classmates. Because Blomberg was in the process of divorcing his wife, he was vulnerable to the attention of a prime-and-proper teenager, in a hurry to grow up. If Christensen and her co-writer/husband Kim Fupz Aakeson don’t present the characters’ ensuing affair as a prime example of an early #MeToo moment, contemporary viewers won’t miss what’s right before her eyes. That’s because, when Astrid becomes pregnant, she’s the one required to give up a promising career and move out of town. Even though Blomberg promises they will be married, as soon as the divorce is finalized, we know that it’s unlikely to happen. Instead, Mrs. Blomberg sniffs out the situation and threatens her husband with charges of adultery and a never-ending trial. To avoid complications for her parents, who are reliant on the church for their living, Astrid decides to move secretly into a home for unwed mothers in Copenhagen, where she isn’t required to disclose the baby-daddy’s name. Eventually, she gives up on any chance that Blomberg will ever be in a position to acknowledge Lars as his child. Fortuitously, the saint-like woman who agrees to be the child’s foster mom is agreeable to regular visits from Astrid and a co-parenting arrangement. She’s working at the Royal Automobile Club, in Stockholm, and struggling build a nestegg. Lars isn’t quite as accommodating, however, feeling safer around the foster mother, Maria Bonnevie, wonderfully played by Trine Dyrholm (Nico, 1988).

Things come to a head, once again, when Maria is diagnosed with a fatal illness and Astrid must find a way to care for her toddler, while working  at the office as a proofreader. In what appears to be another perfect setting for a #MeToo moment, her new employer recognizes her dilemma and cuts her the slack she needs to attend to her son and still meet her deadlines. Our fears that Sture Lindgren (Björn Gustafsson), who’s married, will attempt to take advantage of Astrid, for once, aren’t realized. Indeed, they will spend the next 20 years together, as a married couple and parents of a daughter, Karin … off-screen. Long before that happens, however, Becoming Astrid ties a bow on the package, by allowing her to return to home town, with Lars in tow, where she’ll enjoy a sincere rapprochement with her parents and a family visit to church. To constantly remind viewers of the reasons we should care about her protagonist – years before Pippi enters Astrid’s life — Christensen creates a framing device build around letters she would receive decades later from young readers, who credit the stories for inspiring them to dream and overcome obstacles to success. Apropos of nothing, Lindgren created the mischievous 9-year-old, whose red hair is woven into braids, to amuse her daughter when she was sick and confined to her bed. Karin even came up with the girl’s delightful name.  The impact of Pippi’s rebellious personality on women born in the wake of World War II and, of course, their own daughters, wouldn’t be felt until the late 1960s, when the Women’s Liberation Movement forever changed male/female dynamic. Pippi also was an early, if subliminal model for women who would lead the charge in the movement to empower women. Stieg Larsson has admitted Pippi’s likeness to Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). She could have been the patron saint of women belonging to Wild Grrrl bands of the early 1990s and the SuicideGirls’ online community. Alba August, whose parents are Swedish/Danish filmmakers, Bille and Pernilla August, was an excellent choice to play the girl who traded milking pails for typewriters and printers’ ink. Although I wouldn’t necessarily limit my recommendation of Becoming Astrid to teenage girls and women who grew up on Lindberg’s books, it’s the movie’s natural audience.

The Quake: Blu-ray
Like its 2015 predecessor, The Wave, the disaster depicted in The Quake is based on the laws of scientific probability and the real impact of previous tragedies. Roar Uthaug’s regional blockbuster, The Wave, was inspired by a geological event that occurred on April 7, 1934, in Tafjorden, Norway, when a huge chunk of a steep mountain fell 700 meters, into the fjord, creating a 62-meters-high tsunami. It swept away two villages, killing dozens, and prompted calls for early-warning systems. In the latter, John Andreas Andersen resets much of the calamitous action that made The Wave a hit, back in the partially restored village of Geirangerfjord, which was destroyed in the earlier picture. Also returning in The Quake is Norwegian actor Kristoffer Joner, as geologist Kristian Eikjord, the man credited with saving hundreds of lives in the tsunami. Three years later, Kristian is suffering from a debilitating bout of post-tsunami-stress disorder and depression, sufficiently serious to cause his wife and children to move to a high-rise in the capital. Although he’s still haunted by the faces of victims of the tsunami, he’s become fixated on the possibility of another disaster tearing through a more populated region. In 1904, a 5.4 earthquake shook Oslo, along the Oslo Graben rift, which, like the San Andreas Fault, presents a constant danger to the urban center. When a colleague is killed in a rockslide, inside a closed transit tunnel outside Oslo, Kristian visits the city to discover what the scientist was researching at the time of his death. Mostly, though, he wants to warn officials of the possibility of a similar disaster occurring sometime soon and encourage them to begin preparations for it. Kristian also wants to reconnect with his family and the daughter of his friend. In a Hollywood remake – please Lord, no – Jonas could be replaced by Steve Buscemi, to whom he bears a physical resemblance. Conveniently, just as city officials are preparing to write Kristian off as just another boy crying wolf, a series of electrical blackouts begin to occur. I’ll let you guess what happens next. The narratives of both The Wave and The Quake remain solidly in Syfy Channel territory, until the disasters strike and things get very exciting, indeed. The movies’ techies create a great deal of mayhem on budgets comparable to just over $5 million. In John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake, the anemic budget allows just enough leeway for an exciting escape from a bar/restaurant, teetering precariously at a chillingly high distance from the ground. The luscious scenery looks great on Blu-ray, which also adds an 11-minute behind-the-scenes featurette.

Holiday
For her freshman feature, Swedish multi-hyphenate Isabella Eklöf wears the influence of Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl (Import/Export) like a tattoo drawn on her chest. That shouldn’t be taken as a slight. It’s also possible that Holiday was inspired by such sun-drenched dramas as Sexy Beast (2000), Sand Dollars (2014), Heading South (2005), Swimming Pool (2003), The Limey (1999) and Seidel’s Paradise Trilogy (2012). If none is a direct match to Holiday, they all feature characters who travel from the dreary climes of northern Europe, to places where an overabundance of sunshine and sex erase well-drawn boundaries separating decorum and risky business. The poster photo showed rising Danish star Victoria Carmen Sonne posing on an idyllic white-sand beach, probably on the Turkish Riviera, where much of Holiday was shot. Indeed, her stance and modest swimsuit wouldn’t have been out of place on the covers of such magazines as Travel, Famous Models and, yes, Holiday, from the 1950s. The appropriately named actress also graces the cover of the DVD. This time, however, Sonne’s balancing her well-toned bottom on a railing over a yacht’s tapered bow. If her character, Sascha, seems a tad more common here, it’s only because she’s looking over her shoulder with an inquisitive stare. Add heart-shaped sunglasses and she’d be the spitting image of Lolita, and just as barely legal. Sascha’s just arrived in Bodrum, on her way to her gangster boyfriend’s mancave and yacht. Once there, Michael (Lai Yde) treats her as if she were an apprentice tart on holiday, enjoying her presence one minute and pummeling her the next. The beatings usually lead to rough sex … the kind even a compliant teenage girlfriend, well on her way to becoming a sex slave, might try to avoid. Even if Michael knows no limits, Sascha understands that the primary benefit of being a modern mobster’s moll is unlimited access to champagne, cocaine, jewelry and expensive modes of transportation. Curiously, Sascha doesn’t even appear to mind being passed along to his cronies. Eklöf doesn’t turn the burners up until the 50-minute mark into her story, co-written by first-timer Johanne Algren. It’s when a vicious sexual assault – the kind that gives some men a kick, but will leave the victim fighting for life — makes something snap inside Sascha, and she knows that she’s reached a point no return. She can either go back home and become a barista, or, she could continue to enjoy the trappings of wealth and power as a sociopathic leach, not unlike Theresa Russell’s character, in Black Widow (1987), or Thomas Ripley, in Patricia Highsmith novels and adaptations.

Vengeance: A Love Story: Blu-ray
In his sophomore feature, stuntman-turned-director/producer Johnny Martin (Case#13) adapted Joyce Carol Oates’ novella, “Rape: A Love Story,” as Vengeance: A Love Story. It may have been the only sound choice he made in the run-up to the straight-to-VOD thriller. It removes any ambiguity Oates may have built into the title of her story, without forcing writer John Mankiewicz (“House of Cards”) to conjure any more of his own device … or subtlety, for that matter. By comparison, Vengeance: A Love Story makes the Charles Bronson-vehicle Death Wish (1974) and more recent Peppermint (2018), starring Jessica Alba, look nuanced and contemplative. In all three of these revenge-driven films, the vigilante protagonist reacts not only to the murder/rape of loved ones by garden-variety hoodlums, but also the miscarriages of justice that follow. The same pattern was repeated in Oates’ novella. In it, Teena Maguire (Anna Hutchison) and her pre-teen daughter, Bethie (Talitha Eliana Bateman), decide to walk home from a 4th of July party, at midnight, through a wooded area on the fringes of Niagara Falls. Of course, they are attacked by a group of semi-literate hairballs, who remember Teena from high school. They’ve been celebrating our nation’s birthday by drinking cheap liquor and smoking crank. The cheerleader-cute blond is dragged into a remote boathouse and gang-raped, while Bethie is forced to watch, only a few feet away from her sister. It’s one of the most vicious sexual attacks I’ve seen in a TV-MA movie and Teena is given little chance of survival.

Enter John Dromoor (Cage), a Gulf War veteran and police detective, who’s just returned to work after the traumatic loss of his partner in a chase. He finds Bethie, walking in the middle of a road, screaming hysterically, immediately after the attack. It doesn’t take long for Dromoor to track down the rapists, who would be among the usual suspects in any crime committed within earshot of the falls. After Bethie identifies the attackers in a lineup and Teena slowly recovers from her wounds, the young men’s mother forcibly convinces her husband to mortgage their home to afford the best defence lawyer in the region, unctuously played a slick-as-owl-shit Don Johnson. Naturally, he uses the judge’s acquiescence to batter the prosecution witnesses, including Teena and Bethia, guaranteeing a dismissal of charges. Anyone who’s watched similar tales, made in the wake of Death Wish, already knows what happens next and who the avenging angel will be. The only thing left to determine is the meaning of “Love Story” in the titles of the book and movie. It’s not as obvious as one might think. Cage has played any number of cold-blooded killers and sociopaths – on both sides of the law – and, here, he’s spot-on. He even dispenses with most of his trademark theatrics. It’s always nice to find Deborah Kara Unger in a juicy role, this time as Teena and Bethia’s mother. The scenes shot at the rim of the falls are better than anything in the movie’s by-the-numbers script. For those, the production moved to the Atlanta area.

Out of Love: Blu-ray
Filmed and set in the great melting pot that is the Netherlands, sophomore writer/director Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito’s contentious drama, Out of Love, prompts viewers to ask themselves several tough questions: how much leeway should we give lovers, who, after meeting cute, inexplicably turn into monsters; how can characters we start out liking not see the same storm clouds moving in that we do; what are we missing here, anyway; and how many times can a filmmaker pull the rug out from viewers, before we can no longer fight the urge to get up and go home. Varya (Naomi Velissariou) and Nikolai (Daniil Vorobyov) hook up after their eyes meet over the counter in a neighborhood restaurant. He’s in the kitchen, cooking, while she’s at the bar, drinking. Before too long, the Greek woman and Russian man are in bed having great sex. It’s first time we’re allowed to feel good about them, as a couple. The next time comes  when they appear to be testing the Ronettes’ time-honored theorem, “The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up (with me).” At first, we’re willing to consider the possibility that their fights are minor inconveniences. Then, Nikolai’s rage issues begin to surface, triggered, first, by Varya’s cooking, which doesn’t measure up to his. His outbursts are greeted by tantrums of her own, in which dishware and other moveable objects become casualties of war. Still, the makeup sex is pretty good. Jealousy, greed and insecurity push them to the brink of despair and separation, which, as long as they don’t have kids, is OK with us. When they meet again, near the 90-minute mark, we couldn’t care less about what happens to them. In another lifetime, maybe, these inarguably cute kids might have been able to overcome their differences and agree never to cook for each other, again.

Beyond Atlantis: Blu-ray
This low-budget, lower-profile drive-in non-thriller from 1973 combined recognizable elements of South of Pago Pago (1940), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). It did so, without adding anything positive to the time-honored story of beautiful mermaids and amphibious mermen, determined to protect a fortune in pearls from outsiders. The island’s inhabitants believe they’re survivors of the calamity that wiped out Atlantis, as do some Basques, and it’s their duty to honor its legacy. Unlike most other products from Eddie Romero, John Ashley and Sid Haig’s Philippine grindhouse factory –  Black Mama White Mama (1973), Savage Sisters (1974) and The Woman Hunt (1972), come to mind — Beyond Atlantis is an exploitation picture with no exploitable content. That is, unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, whose computer blocks all adult content, and you’ll settle for Amazons in shaggy bikinis. That’s because co-star Patrick Wayne insisted that the film be family friendly and go out PG-rated. Beyond Atlantis has been described by Corman graduate David DeCoteau as “one of the very few family-oriented B movies to come out of the Philippines.” It’s probably the closest thing to a compliment – bank-handed, as it may be – the film received. If Romero and Ashley could have predicted the VHS revolution, they might have gone ahead with plans for the mermaids to go topless and held the footage for an optional director’s-cut edition. The scenes that would have benefited most from the partial nudity are clearly visible in the finished product and any alterations would have been seamless. The cover illustration wouldn’t have to be changed, at all. As it is, Beyond Atlantis probably would have attracted more family audiences if it had been animated. Still, Romero, Ashley and Haig completists will want to take a peek at it. Bonus features include the original theatrical trailer; interviews with Ashley, Haig and actress Leigh Christian; commentary track with makeup-effects specialists Howard S. Berger and Pinoy film historian, Andrew Leavold; the 13-minute “John Ashley Remembered,” which was culled from interviews done for Mark Hartley’s 2010 documentary, “Machete Maidens Unleashed”; a photo and pressbook gallery; Berger also contributes an essay, which is printed on the inside of the cover.

The Greasy Strangler: Special Director’s Edition: Blu-ray
After somehow surviving two separate viewings of Jim Hosking and co-writer Toby Harvard’s The Greasy Strangler (2016) – three years apart – I’m prepared to defend it as the guiltiest of all guilty pleasures released after Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) and John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). Apart from being a modern gross-out classic, The Greasy Strangler is consistently funny and occasionally hilarious. The humor isn’t “ironic” and the total package is too shrewdly conceived to qualify for “so bad, it’s good” status. It knows how far the envelope can be pushed and tests viewers ability to laugh out loud, while vomiting. In it, extreme social misfits, Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) and his son, Big Brayden (Sky Elobar), live in a house that’s always on the verge of being condemned, subsisting on food whose expiration dates are long past and probably had been scavenged from dumpsters. No matter how vile it looks and tastes, Daddy Dearest insists on slathering on obscene amounts of grease. No surprise, they’re seriously out of shape, hideously coiffed, dressed in thrift-shop rejects and frequently air out their diseased cocks in public. Even though we know they’re prosthetic, the thought of any woman allowing the men to penetrate their orifices is sickening. And yet, a short, nearly rotund tourist they me       et while conducting one of their bogus Disco Walking Tours falls in love with both the color-coordinated men. Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo) may be nearly as out of shape as Big Ronnie and Big Brayden, but she’s exponentially more conscious of personal hygiene and the need for borders. Janet’s willingness to share the attentions of father and son sparks a winner-take-all war between them. It also brings out the beast in Big Ronnie, who, while slathered with grease (tapioca), joins the ranks of sociopathic serial killers. After each murder, he walks through the swirling brushes at the carwash managed by Big Paul (Gil Gex), who’s blind and an easy mark for his friend’s hand-drawn counterfeit bills. It goes on like this until the movie’s slimy ending. The unrated The Greasy Strangler should come with a warning from the surgeon general attached to it, at least. The special Blu-ray edition includes 5.1 Surround Sound stereo and, of course, English subtitles for the deaf and hearing-impaired; cast and crew interviews; commentary with  Hosking, St. Michaels and Elobar, whose careers don’t appear to have been stunted by their participation is The Greasy Strangler.

Born in East L.A.: Blu-ray
It’s entirely possible that Donald Trump’s immigration policy began to take shape after ordering one of his minions to pick up a VHS cassette of Wall Street (1987) – his favorite movie, despite its fake liberal ending – and finding a cassette of Cheech Marin’s Born in East L.A. (1987), instead. Although it was rented as part of a 2-for-1 Tuesday promotion and intended for the personal enjoyment of his soon-to-be-fired houseboy, the future POTUS mistook it for a documentary and freaked out. When he realized his mistake and re-watched Born in East L.A. to find its deeper meaning, his delusional mind saw it as a work of prophesy. Instead of watching hundreds of illegal immigrants being led into the Promised Land by the wrongly deported Rudy (Marin) and his Salvadoran girlfriend, Dolores (Kamala Lopez), he somehow got it into his orange head that the freedom-seeking throng was comprised entirely of undocumented zombies, hoping to steal American jobs. The horrifying vision never left his mind. As such, Born in East L.A. is several times more relevant today, than it was in 1987, when the men and women were welcomed to the U.S. by farmers in need of pickers, willing to break their backs for sub-minimum-wage pay, and owners of food-processing plants, where it wasn’t uncommon for workers to have parts of their bodies sliced off by razor-sharp tools and thrown into the bologna.

Thirty years later, it’s entirely possibly our president is putting our economy at risk because he still can’t parse the difference between people desperate to escape poverty, gangs and tyranny for flesh-devouring fiends. Born in East L.A. may not feel as madcap as it did 40 years ago, but it’s topicality can’t be ignored. The scenes shot on the Tijuana side of the border, especially those set in the hillsides still used as rallying points for the refugees, take on a fresh aura of poignancy. In an interview included in the Blu-ray, Marin doesn’t make any excuses for the film’s slapdash appearance, except to point out its strictly monitored budget and shooting schedule. Tommy Chong only appears in a stream of cameos, during which Paul Rodriguez mistakes a painting of Jesus on the cross for the real thing. They’re still very funny. The Blu-ray adds Marin’s commentary; a 31-minute behind-the-scenes featurette; a telling interview with  Rodriguez; “What Is a Disco Bunnies?,” with Lopez; a stills gallery; and the 93-minute, extended television cut of the movie, which sanitized the R-rated material in the theatrical version, while adding several deleted scenes.

Honeyglue
Then Came You: Blu-ray
The Long Goodbye
These three heart-rending films confront the subject of dying unnaturally young head-on, while also describing how the unfortunate women benefit from the kindness of friends, family members and, of course, strangers. The cancer patients in these modestly budgeted indies lose their hair, along with muscle tone, weight, their appetites and, sometimes, good reasons to fight for their lives. They stand in direct contrast to protagonists in Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), a hugely popular tragedy based on Erich Segal’s best-selling tearjerker and screenplay. Back then, viewers weren’t given a name for Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri’s suddenly devastating illness. Neither was Ali MacGraw required to sacrifice her hair for the role, lose weight or modify her natural beauty. (In Segal’s book, leukemia is mentioned as the disease that claim Jenny’s life, but the producers felt as if the reality of its impact could turn off paying customers.) Today, Jenny and Oliver (Ryan O’Neill) might have been able to survive their ordeal, through chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments unavailable to cancer patients in 1970. No actress would refuse to cut her hair off, if it meant landing a role in a sure-fire blockbuster. Neither would audiences be freaked out by having to witness the slow decline of a character they’d grown to love. Neither do these three new releases attempt to squeeze teardrops from the eyes of viewers, who know when they’re being manipulated into reacting to tragedies as if they hadn’t watched friends or relatives die before their eyes. None of the films is perfect, but all of them possess qualities that are life-affirming and inspirational.

James Bird’s Honeyglue is a prime example of the kind of movie that wouldn’t have found backers in the 1970s.The thoroughly offbeat romantic drama follows Morgan (Adriana Mather), who’s just learned that she has three months to live. Against the wishes of her curiously square and conservative parents, she falls for a cross-dressing cartoonist, Jordan (Zach Villa), who comforts Morgan while encouraging her to cross off as many items on her bucket list as she can. Although Jason doesn’t appear to be saving his money for a gender-reassignment operation, he favors women’s fashions, exotic makeup and fun hairdos. They marry and take a honeymoon, which is interrupted by a serious relapse. One of the things they both enjoy are Jason’s self-illustrated stories, featuring bees capable of turning nectar into gold.

Peter Hutchings and writer Fergal Rock’s Then Came You (2018) also features a terminally ill 19-year-old, Skye (Maisie Williams), who befriends a hypochondriac her age, Calvin (Asa Butterfield), whose every visit to the doctor ends in disappointment over the fact that he’s deemed perfectly healthy. In an odd sort of way, they’re a perfect match. When they finally hook up, Calvin helps Skye fulfill her final wishes, while she provides him with the love and courage he needs to confront and conquer his own fears. She even encourages him to pursue a relationship with an outgoing flight attendant, Izzy (Nina Dobrev), who normally would be way out of his league. Williams (“Game of Thrones”) is a gifted comic actor, who has a big future ahead of her. At the ripe old age of  21, Butterfield has already starred in such high-end projects as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), Hugo (2011), Ender’s Game (2013), A Brilliant Young Mind (2014), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) and The Space Between Us (2017). The Bulgarian-Canadian actress, Dobrev (“The Vampire Diaries”), is 30 years old, but she doesn’t look a day over 19 in Then Came You. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Hutchings gave all of them a copy of Hal Ashby’s delightfully dark comedy, Harold and Maude (1971), to study before beginning production. Butterfield is practically a dead ringer for that film’s wealthy male protagonist (Bud Cort), who’s obsessed with death,

In Jay Lyons’ heart-breaking documentary, The Long Goodbye (2019), we’re invited to watch middle-aged “normal mom” Kara Tippetts stand up to breast cancer, which has reached the terminal stage by the time we meet her. Kara is blessed with a vivacious personality, a strong family life and wonderful friends. She’s exactly the kind of woman who shouldn’t contact such a terrible disease, but, when she does, shares her recovery efforts with other cancer patients. Anyone who has experienced loss, pain or disappointment will relate to Kara,  who’s quick to smile, even through the pain. My only caveat would involve preparing for the pervasive evangelizing, which propels her struggle. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking solace in prayer and miracles, some viewers may find it difficult to square the witnessing before God and praising His good works, when someone as strong in her beliefs as Kara is in such pain. Bonus features include interviews with the best-selling Christian author Ann Voskamp (“One Thousand Gifts”) and Joni Eareckson Tada, an evangelical Christian author, radio host and founder of Joni and Friends, an organization “accelerating Christian ministry in the disability community.”

Isiboshwa
Rich Girl
Hostage
In the latest release of long-lost titles from IndiePix’s “Retro Afrika” collection – all made in South Africa, just before the lifting of Apartheid – could be characterized as a tribute to the subgenre’s leading male actor. Although they weren’t made exclusively by black writers, directors and technical specialists, they featured all-black casts and were intended for the consumption of native audiences in strictly segregated townships and theaters. They paid homage to familiar Hollywood genres, with an emphasis on action. The link connecting Isiboshwa (1989), Rich Girl (1990) and Hostage (1986) is the presence in a starring role of Innocent Gumede (a.k.a., Popo Gumede).

In the action/comedy Isiboshwa, three adolescent boys set out on an  adventure in the bush, lured by a tale of missing treasure. Once the booty they seek is found, they’re overcome by gold-fever and turn on one another. Met with a similarly feverish pair of thieves, who attempt to scare the boys off with supernatural illusions, they gather their resources and together to combat the grownup thieves. There’s great scene in which the boys carve sharp points on the ends of bamboo stick and mimic a lion-hunting ritual passed down from generation to generation of tribesmen. They employ it to subdue one of the crooks. Isiboshwa avoids most the genre’s clichés and slapstick, in the service of casual comedy and a personality-driven fable.

In Rich Girl, Gumede plays a highly trained bodyguard for corporate clients, one of whom has a pampered and beautiful daughter who needs  protecting. As is common in such scenarios, the handsome and well-dressed Robert Gambu has his work’s cut out for him. Charlotte (Lungi Mdlala) doesn’t want protection or believe it’s necessary. Enter Hector Methanda, a popular gap-tooth actor, who specializes in tough-guy roles. He and his partner in crime kidnap both the girl and the guard, who may be one more person than they can handle. Being only 70 minutes long, Robert doesn’t waste many precious seconds planning an elaborate escape. It just sort of happens.

In Hostage, Gumede works the other side of the legal divide, as aspiring drug kingpin Bra Jack. His two underlings, Jabu and Thabi, specialize in setting up rich married men and blackmailing them, using photos of them having sex with the female side of the criminal triangle. To secure the cooperation of a stubborn warehouse owner, Bra Jack kidnaps the man’s wife and holds her for ransom. Instead of blindly acquiescing to the demand, the businessman calls in a friend who knows how these things work … or not.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission
PBS: USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter
Acorn: Mystery Road: Series 1: Blu-ray
Acorn: The Simple Heist: Series 1
Acorn: Brokenwood Mysteries: Series 5
Ever since the release of The Right Stuff, Americans have been bombarded with documentaries, docudramas and plain ol’ dramas depicting events from the space race and beyond. Science-fiction writers could barely keep up with developments at NASA, JPL and the Johnson Space Center. When the Space Shuttle program got too boring to draw flies, let alone eyes, Hollywood screenwriters decided to clip the astronauts’ cords to the mother ship, sending the helping guy  spinning into deep space. One of the reasons taxpayers didn’t complain, when funds intended for the use by shuttle teams, were cut off is NASA’s inability to stick with narrative. Space flights lost their luster, except, perhaps, in the classrooms linked to the shuttle via the Internet. NASA probably could have sold millions of tickets for the privilege of watching astronauts copulating, while floating around their sleeping quarters in Zero-g conditions. If the highly educated and rigorously trained astronauts resisted the proposal, a couple of high-profile porn stars – Stormy Daniels and Ron Jeremy, come to mind – might want a slice of the pay-per-view action. Neither did NASA do itself any favors by keeping a tight lid on the really cool stuff going on up there, like eavesdropping on world leaders and celebrities, military research, intercepting UFOs and growing super strains of marijuana in space labs. I only mention this because of the things I learned while watching “NOVA: Apollo’s Daring Mission.” The PBS presentation tells the inside story of how NASA engineers – inat least one ex-Nazi — did the heavy lifting ahead of the first, now nearly completely forgotten mission to the moon.  Although the headline-making stuff would have to wait another seven months, the Apollo 8 mission laid the foundation for the far sexier Apollo 11. In addition to the risks taken by astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – the first humans to circle the moon – any failure along the way might have given the Soviet program an insurmountable lead in the race, while also dampening the optimism of millions of taxpayers. The story is told by surviving Apollo astronauts and engineers.

One of best scenes in Jaws comes when Robert Shaw describes the lingering tragedy that began with the sinking of USS Indianapolis, after being struck by a pair of torpedoes. It was the first time most Americans learned of the shark attacks on dozens of sailors stranded at sea for five long days and nights, without food, potable water, vests that retained their buoyancy and anything to get the oil off their bodies. We remember the sharks, but the top-secret mission that preceded the ship’s sinking has been largely forgotten. Ditto, the Navy’s rush to blame Captain Charles B. McVay III for its own malfeasance. (His name wouldn’t be cleared until 2000, three decades after he committed suicide.) It wasn’t until 2017 that an expedition financed by philanthropist Paul G. Allen discovered the ship, resting in an impact crater, at a depth of 18,044 feet below the surface of the North Philippine Sea. PBS’s “USS Indianapolis: The Final Chapter” successfully reconstructs the ship’s heroic legacy, her dramatic final moments and the discovery of the wreck site. Watching survivors study images of the Indianapolis, transmitted from the submersible, is as emotionally rewarding as anything we’ve witnessed in this era of undersea exploration.

As much as I miss Judy Davis’ presence on the big scream – her last credit was for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker (2015) —  it’s great to see the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winner in such prestigious mini-series as “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the upcoming Netflix drama, “Ratched,” and Outback thriller, “Mystery Road.” Before jumping feet-first into the latest entry, it’s worth doing some homework first. Although Davis is the marquee attraction here, the show really belongs to Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), an Aboriginal police detective, whose bristly personality doesn’t always sit well with the non-native ranchers, farmers and traffickers in humans and drugs. Given the vast acreage the police are required to survey, and closed-mouth attitudes of the locals, finding crooks can be as challenging as separating fleas from a kangaroo’s hide. Adding to the degrees of difficulty are the largely hidden network of springs, waterfalls, streams and caverns, known only to Aboriginals, who’ve lived here centuries before the almost simultaneous arrival of the first Commonwealth felons and European rabbits. Ivan Sen’s feature-length Mystery Road (2013) introduced  Swan to crime-hungry Aussies. It was followed three years later by Goldstone (2016), which reset the action hundreds of miles away, in Furnace Creek, where a brothel/bar serves as a destination for girls flown in from Southeast Asia to service miners, in exchange for pay off family debts. For the 2018 mini-series, also called “Mystery Road,” Sen passed the baton to Aboriginal director  Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae). It takes place in linear time between the previous two movies, in a community that time may have forgot, but whose residents remember hundreds of years’ worth of slights and insults, crimes large and small, and incidents fueled by deeply entrenched racism and corruption. Swan (Aaron Pedersen) is assigned to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two young farmhands on an outback cattle station. Working together with local police sergeant Emma James (Davis), the investigation uncovers drug trafficking in the town, and a past injustice that threatens the fabric of the whole community. They don’t form a natural team, even though she’s part native, but get the work done … as long as she doesn’t expect responses to her questions or smiles to her jokes. It’s available on Acorn’s screening service and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Acorn’s far lighter mini-series “The Simple Heist” describes the two-woman crime spree, conducted by Jenny (Lotta Tejle) and Cecilia (Sissela Kyle), who, at a time when they should planning their retirements, discover that they’ve fallen for a fraudulent scheme involving Chinese securities and a criminally one-sided divorce agreement. Cecilia dreads the day when she’ll be forced to reveal the loss to her husband, who’s been given little cause to mistrust her. Jenny’s account has been frozen since divorce proceedings began. He’s an unlikeable bloke, who only realizes that’s he chosen the wrong woman to cheat when it’s too late.  In a scheme that combines elements of Going in Style (1979) and Small Time Crooks (2000), Jenny and Cecilia – a teacher and a gastroenterologist – take the advice of a dying security guard, who recommends robbing a bank in Stockholm. Even if everything that could go wrong, does, they wind up with containers full of money that they know are booby-trapped. They turn to a pair of ornery bikers who are as trustworthy as bald tires. It’s at this point, that things really start going sideways for the old gals, who’ve already begun to spend their windfall. As old-fashioned as the premise is, the actors make The Simple Heist irresistible.

Like “Midsomer Murders” and other small-town procedurals from foreign sources, New Zealand’s “The Brokenwood Mysteries” succeeds in making the characters’ home communities feel as comfortable and inviting as our own. Even when we begin to feel a fogbank of complacency as it rolls over the fields and quaint homes, something cruel and unexpected happens to get tongues wagging and deadbolts locking. Because each boxed set of “Brokenwood” procedurals contains four stand-alone episodes, the show and its quirky cops and interesting antagonists have been compared to “Columbo” and other entries in NBC’s “Mystery Movie” wheel in the 1970s. In Series 5, Shepherd and his team investigate the death of an amusement park owner killed on his own haunted-house ride; a bachelorette party gone horribly wrong; the systematic targeting of a will’s beneficiaries; and a gruesome electrocution in an abandoned asylum. As usual, New Zealand is one of the best countries on countries to shoot pictures.

The DVD Wrapup: Ritual, She Wolf, Over the Top, Dark River, Man’s Best Friend, Mr & Mrs Adelman, Mad Dog & Glory, A.I. Rising, Deadly Mantis, Watch Over Me … More

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

Ritual: Una storia psicomagica
She Wolf
The words “arthouse” and “horror” aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence. Two that qualify are Let Me In (2010) and its American remake, Let the Right One In (2008), both based on a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist. So do Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ Good Manners (2017) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Add to that list the newly-released-on-DVD She Wolf  (2013) and Ritual: Una storia psicomagica (2013) and you’d have a pretty good head-start on a high-end Empowered Women in Horror festival, perfect for any  upcoming Women’s History Month commemoration. Female characters have played key roles in the horror and sci-fi genres since James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), at least. Here, however, the accent would be on fully realized women protagonists/antagonists, who aren’t merely interchangeable substitutes for archetypal characters previously created for and by men, within genre norms. Any programmers wary of being accused of trivializing women’s history could point out how rare it is to find empowered women in genre films – who don’t resemble Pamela Anderson or Jenna Jameson anyway — especially those driven by arthouse conceits. Or, to appease the doubts, they can add copies of the completely unrelated documentary, RBG, to gift bags handed out at the awards’ ceremony.

From Argentina comes Tamae Garateguy and co-writer Diego Fleischer’s belated arrival, She Wolf (2013), which combines elements from Nunnally Johnson’s The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Ferrara’s The Addiction. Ms. 45 (1981) and Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow (1987). Without giving too much of the story away, the title character is a drop-dead-sexy serial killer — alternately played by Mónica Lairana, Luján Ariza and Guadalupe Docampo – who stalks the steamy streets and sardine-can subway cars of Buenos Aires, exuding pheromones that confuse men into thinking she’s coming on to them. She is, of course, but her idea of a happy ending won’t correspond to their expectations. Things get sticky when a police detective tracks her down, unaware that witnesses’ descriptions of the killer won’t square with what he sees before his eyes. Each of woman’s individual selves look different from the other two and have different personalities. Neither are they all drawn to the same kind of man. When the reckoning comes, viewers might get the impression that Garateguy chose aura and tone, over narrative closure. Even so, her ability to maintain a shadowy and intensely erotic texture throughout most of She Wolf is commendable. Kudos also apply to Sami Buccella’s original punk-rock soundtrack, Catalina Rincon’s edgy editing and Pigu Gomez’ stark black-and-white photography. If the film dissuaded any Argentine horndogs and low-rent lotharios from hitting on women they encounter in public, Garateguy’s mission was served.

Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi’s Ritual: Una storia psicomagica is another late arrival to these shores – thank you, Film Movement — although it’s difficult to understand why. The chief selling point is spelled out on the jacket: “Inspired by the philosophy of, and featuring an appearance by the father of ‘psychomagic,’ Alejandro Jodorowsky.” The marketing team might just as easily summoned the memory of Luis Bunuel, if only because the movie’s characters and setting – Italy, but it could be Spain or Mexico – are right out of the master surrealist’s  sketchbook. Anyone expecting a reprise of the pyschomagic exhibited in such outrageous entertainments as El Topo (1970), The Holy Mountain (1973) and Santa Sangre (1989) might be disappointed, but only mildly so. Fragile Lia (Désirée Giorgetti) and her sadistic boyfriend, Viktor (Ivan Franek) – he recalls Marcel, the twisted antagonist, in Bunuel’s Belle du Jour (1967) – are involved in a long-term relationship that’s equal parts passionate and cruel. It’s sometimes difficult to tell when their sex is consensual and when it fits the legal definition of rape, however. When Lia tells Victor that she’s pregnant, he replies with a straight face that he’ll “take care” of the abortion he’ll force her to undergo. Victor is such a vile person that viewers will want to see him murdered, sooner than later, even if it means that Lia and her supernaturally gifted Aunt Agata (Anna Bonasso) might wind up in jail. Shortly after the procedure, Lia asks Victor to join her in a visit to Veneto, as is recommended by her shrink (Cosimo Cinieri). He turns down the offer and demands she stay at home. Instead, she attempts to kill herself. When Lia sneaks away from home and arrives at her aunt’s 18th Century villa, Agata immediately senses that the abortion caused her to sink deeper into her depression. When Lia begins to imagine hearing crying babies and eerie songs – inexplicably, she even takes a bath in a tub already occupied by a couple dozen goldfish — Agata decides to play her ace in the hole. The widely respected healer encourages Lia to regress into childhood, to the momentary shame and confusion she felt upon her first period, to discover the roots of her depression. This is when the real fun begin, with a pair of neighborhood kids acting as fairy godchildren. A witch will attempt to use a baby – or lifelike doll – to lure Lia into a cave, but Agata steps in before that can happen. Just as it appears as if Lia’s depression is receding into something resembling happiness, Victor shows up to enforce his will on her. One drunken night out, his true colors begin to shine through his faux-pacific exterior. Jodorowsky, as the ghost of Agata’s former Chilean husband, arrives one evening to offer his advice … healer to healer. Part of Ritual’s appeal derives from the petite Milanese actress, Giorgetti, navigate her way through mood swings that range from despondent to sexually compliant. As Agata, Bonasso nearly steals the entire show.

Over the Limit
It will probably be a long time before a Russian sports authority invites another foreign documentary maker to examine the star-making machinery that powers the country’s Olympic teams. As if the scandal over an illegal, state-backed doping operation hadn’t done enough damage to the country’s reputation – causing the IOC to ban its athletes from representing Russia in the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang – along comes Marta Prus’ troubling documentary, Over the Limit, to seal the deal. Filmed during the runup to the 2016 Summer Olympics, held in Rio de Janeiro, it confirms long-spread rumors about other kinds of physical and mental abuses at Russian training camps. Like the subject of Over the Limit, Margarita Mamun, Prus competed as a rhythmic gymnast and her allegiances to the sport and its competitors are clear. Even so, the filmmaker was severely tested by her subject’s sadistic coaches, Irina Viner, and, to a lesser degree, Amina Zaripova. Although Viner’s credentials speak from themselves, she’s a harridan in the same league as Cruella DeVille – whom she resembles – and a foul-mouthed brute, in same coaching category as former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. While it isn’t difficult to respect a coach who’s tough, domineering and strives for the unattainable goal of perfection – Vince Lombardi comes immediately to mind – any coach who publicly belittles her star athlete with profane slurs, icy cold stares and personal insults, as Viner does here, deserves a special place in hell. She’s married to Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in a country whose oligarchs have a hotline to the highest reaches of the Kremlin and, presumably, the White House. Therefore, it’s fair to believe that her behavior, as showcased in Over the Top, won’t cause an alarm to go off at the offices of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Among other things, Usmanov is the president of the FIE, the international governing body of fencing, and a chief backer of the sport worldwide. His mining conglomerate, Metalloinvest also sponsored the soccer club, Dinamo Moscow. Before the Sochi games, Usmanov donated $130 million to the  Olympic Organizational Committee. I can’t remember his name being mentioned in Prus’ doc. Certainly, Viner played a crucial role in Mamun’s development and that of other top rhythmic gymnasts. It does not, however make her behavior in Over the Top any more palatable. If Viner felt comfortable berating her sport’s top competitor – her assistant coach, too – imagine what she gets away with while training lesser lights. Even when Mamun is frustrated and peeved by Viner’s behavior – she tells the gymnast to use her father’s losing battle with cancer as motivation – the 20-year-old Muscovite’s dedication and patience are admirable, and her routines are as beautiful as they get in the niche activity. We also meet some of Mamun’s teammates and are given a glimpse into her personal life, if mostly by eavesdropping on her constant texting and phone calls. Over the Top is a powerful document, whose message probably wouldn’t be lost on aspiring athletes around the world and their parents, especially when compounded by reports of sexual abuse by top gymnastic, tennis and soccer coachess. The Film Movement DVD includes the delightful Chinese short film, “Iron Hands,” directed by Johnson Cheng, about a girl weightlifter attempting to qualify on the boys’ team, and the valuable advice she receives from a surprising source.

Monsieur & Madame Adelman
Despite the best intentions of co-writer/co-star Doria Tillier and co-writer/co-star/director Nicolas Bedos, their debut as multihyphenates is tough sledding for audiences looking for a reason to care about the protagonists. Watching Monsieur & Madame Adelman in one sitting felt a bit like joining warring spouses over dinner and being forced to listen to them cut each other to ribbons for two hours. In this way, viewers serve as surrogates for the contemporary iterations of Nick and Honey, who, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), were treated to a master class in marital discord from George and Martha. Indeed, the same question arises, as to how two highly educated and respected pillars of society – and, of course, alcoholics — could put up with other’s verbal and mental abuse for this length of time. There’s little relief from the palpable aura of unfettered dysfunction and frayed nerve endings. Some marriages thrive on such constant aggravation, while others end with one or both the principles on a slab in the morgue. At its least interesting, Monsieur & Madame Adelman is simply a French adaptation of  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, absent such esteemed actors as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, and a director as perceptive as Mike Nichols. (Can you imagine having to sit through a poorly mounted stage production of Edward Albee’s play at a summer playhouse? That’s kind of what happens here.) I watch movies that most people would consider to be distasteful, highly irritating or amateurish. Typically, though, I rarely feel like asking for my investment in time to be refunded by the film’s producers, but that’s what I wanted to do after watching Monsieur & Madame Adelman. Too much creative talent is on display here to dismiss it out of hand, because the script and direction suck.

I’ve read that Bedos and Tillier are “companions,” at least, and, as multihyphenates, are required to carry the weight of the production on their slender shoulders. The lack of genuine feelings shared by their characters is probably attributable to not being able to see the forest from the trees. A more seasoned director and script doctor might have helped smooth the rough patches and stem the overacting. The couple’s epic depiction of the roller-coaster marriage of Victor de Richemont dit Adelman and Sarah, his wife of 45 years, is told in flashback from the early-1970s forward. It opens during Monsieur Adelman’s outdoor funeral at the family plot, from which Madame Adelman escapes as soon as his friends and admirers begin their testimonials. A journalist approaches her, hoping to secure an interview he hopes will precipitate a biography of her much-honored husband. In the same amount of time it takes for reporter Jerry Thompson, in Citizen Kane, to find someone willing to speculate on the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s  final utterance — “Rosebud” – Madame Adelman begins to chronicle her atrocious marriage. A meet-cute opening is denied viewers by a meet-ugly courtship that threatens to split his haute bourgeois family. Sarah cuts Victor a lot of slack as he struggles to sell his first manuscript. If she is enamored by his artistic potential, Sarah also shares the audience’s abhorrence of his volcanic outbursts, which, like road rage, are triggered by perceived slights, extreme frustration, impatience, misdirected jealousy and bad internal chemistry.

Then, skip ahead a few years, to when Victor’s career begins to skyrocket, while Sarah stays home with the dogs, servants and a developmentally challenged and largely ignored son. When their bright, happy and perfectly “normal” daughter comes into picture, the Adelmans effectively sweep the boy under the carpet and wish him away from the narrative. Not surprisingly, either, Victor’s insatiable appetite for fame and money begins to grate on Sarah. He demands to be worshipped by everyone in his orbit, including his family, and he never allows himself to stop and smell the roses. Although his suspicions aren’t backed by evidence, Victor assumes that Sarah either wants the sleep with his closest friends or already is. When she does take a pleasant and suitably wealthy over, Sarah’s too shell-shocked to distinguish between his kindness and her addiction to fireworks. Monsieur & Madame Adelman is described as comedy/romance, but precious little of either genre is revealed, unless it’s accompanied by pain. Therefore, only dyed-in-the-wool Francophiles are likely to stay with the movie until the end. Tillier, whose character tests the limits of our empathy, makes the most of a desperately unpleasant narrative, growing more beautiful and sage as she begins to reach her MILF-y period. The somewhat surprising climax salvages much of what leads up to it, but not the memory of Victor’s outbursts and insults. Oddly enough, one of the things that bothered me the most was the makeup adjustments made to Victor’s face, as time passed. By the time he entered middle age, his face began to resemble Dustin Hoffman’s elderly Jack Crabb, in Little Big Man.

Dark River: Blu-ray
Although Surrey-native Rita Wilson broke into the acting dodge in 2006, playing Jewel Diamond in Channel 5’s wacky “Suburban Shootout” and Jane Eyre, in in the BBC mini-series, she only broke out of the pack here in the Showtime drama, “The Affair.” I have to believe that viewers had a difficult time deciding whether her sultry, working-class character, Alison Bailey, was a shameless homewrecker and adulterer, or a sucker for the dubious charms of novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West). All could agree that the real victim in “The Affair” was poor little rich girl, Helen Butler (Maura Tierney), if only for two of the show’s four seasons. Seriously depressed since the drowning death of her child — with local hero Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson), in the waters off Montauk — Wilson convincingly conveyed the damage done by Alison’s unending series of emotional upheavals. Wilson’s haunted character in Dark River, Alice Bell, is only a couple of degrees removed from Alison’s tortured demeanor in “The Affair.” Set in the brilliantly green and gently rolling hills of North Yorkshire, Dark River opens in the choppy wake of Alice’s father’s death. She returns home to family farm for the first time in 15 years, to claim the tenancy rights she believes are rightfully hers. Once there, she is confronted by her ill-tempered, hard-drinking brother, Joe (Mark Stanley), who insists that the farm already belongs  to him, via his investment in sweat equity. Joe dismisses her compromise offer, by which they would share the farm’s modest assets and labor. If he weren’t such a drunken bastard and bully, it would be easy to sympathize with Joe’s position. As it turns out, Alice has invested her own fair share of blood, sweat and tears into the property. Through a series of inescapably horrific flashbacks, we witness a father/daughter relationship that went several degrees past being merely dysfunctional. Even before Alice could comprehend what was happening to her at night and why it was wrong, her father (Sean Bean) filled the vacuum left by wife with his daughter, as sexual surrogate, whipping girl and household slave. Cruel memories of her nightly hell are as deeply etched in her mind as Joe’s claims of ownership are solidly entrenched in his own. When Joe is awarded tenancy rights, he decides to sell the whole kit and caboodle, starting with the sheep. A violent confrontation with a truck loader is the catalyst for both a terrible accident and a rapprochement, of sorts, between the siblings. Writer/director Clio Barnard (The Arbor) took several great liberties with Rose Tremain’s novel and Lila Rawlings’ original adaptation. If you didn’t read the book, you won’t notice the changes, which would have made Dark River look like a British remake of Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams (2015),  which was about a serious rivalry between elderly brothers on a sheep farm in rural Iceland.

Man’s Best Friend: Blu-ray
Life in the Doghouse: Blu-ray
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my dogs-on-DVD collection has grown to the point where I need a kennel to keep them from cross-fertilizing with every new batch of movies about zombies and comic-book superheroes. Among them are sub-groupings dedicated to service animals, canines trained for military duty, skateboarding bulldogs, lip-syncing chihuahuas and flu-inflicted mixed-breeds exiled to a floating garbage dump (Wes Anderson’s Oscar-nominated Isle of Dogs). Man’s Best Friend (1993) does them all one better. Imagine, if you can, a creature feature in which the top dog is genetically linked to Beethoven, Cujo and The Terminator: cuddly one moment, vicious the next and trained to be an indestructible cyber-assassin. The protagonist/antagonist star of Man’s Best Friend is Max, a product of a mad scientist, Jarret (Lance Henriksen), so incensed by street crime that he’s genetically engineered a Tibetan mastiff to use its superpowers against evil. Among them are superior sight and hearing, robotic strength, uncanny intelligence, blistering speed and an ability to leap over cars and fences. In the right hands and on the correct meds, Max can also be a trusted companion or a faithful watchdog. Ally Sheedy, who looks as if she’s still a dues-paying member of the Hollywood Brat Pack, falls into the latter category. As crusading TV reporter Lori Tanner she breaks into a research facility that she believes is involved in vivisection, just like what happens in The Island of Dr. Moreau. After videotaping the holding cells, containing a diverse collection of wild beasts, she’s confronted by a security guard. While attempting to escape his grip and save her footage, Lori inadvertently frees Max from his cage. To show his appreciation, Max races to her vehicle and hops into the backseat. On the way home, Lori is mugged outside a supermarket by a Hispanic punk straight out of Central Casting. (He could double as poster child for President Trump’s Build the Wall campaign.) It takes Max a few seconds to figure out how to unlock the back door and frighten the thug into running away. A few minutes later, the dog returns to the parking lot with Lori’s purse in his mouth.

What Lori doesn’t know, of course, is that she’s the only adult who Max responds to with affection, and he’s in desperate need of a booster shot of neuropathic drugs to keep him sane. In his hysteria to re-capture his monstrous guinea pig, Jarett reluctantly enlists the police department – including the wonderful character actor, Robert Costanzo – to help him identify and track down Max’s liberator. Sadly, in his decreasingly stable state of mind, Max can’t parse the difference between people in the neighborhood – her too-amorous boyfriend, a paperboy on his bike, a Mace-happy mailman and hissing cats and a collie in heat – and the ones attempting to find Lori and put him back in his cage. Man’s Best Friend didn’t do well with critics in its theatrical release. I suspect that its undeserved R-rating (ostensibly for “terror and violence, involving a household pet”) confused them as to the intended audience demographic and less-than-graphic violence. In fact, it’s one of the few scary movies of the period that kept the attacks off-screen – or clearly were simulated – and was legitimately funny. (Before Max has his way with the collie, the choice in soundtrack material is Paul Anka’s “Puppy Love.”) I don’t know why distributors don’t contest such egregiously out-of-touch ratings for DVD editions. Probably because they want horror fans to think a picture like Man’s Best Friend is gorier and more anti-social than it is. I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it, though. It was written/directed by John Lafia, who made his bones on Child’s Play (1988) and Child’s Play 2 (1990).

Dog-rescuers Danny Robertshaw and Ron Danta knew that their saintly dedication to rescuing dogs had bared fruit when a breeder of whippets and show dogs admited that he didn’t like them very much. The reason: the men’s ability to find homes for abandoned, mistreated and overbred rescue animals was cutting into his business. Twenty years ago, people looking for canine companions wanted them to come with papers that traced their lineage to the Mayflower, and they were willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for pedigreed pups. Besides being status symbols, owners convinced themselves that purebred AKC dogs would pay for themselves, as show dogs, breeders or studs. Ultimately, the hobby turned out to be more expensive, time-consuming and frustrating than it was worth. At about the same time as this was happening, well-organized greyhound-adoption programs demonstrated that, with a little TLC, many past-their-prime racers made wonderful pets. “The Price Is Right” host Bob Barker also began to cap each show reminding viewers, “To help control the pet population, have your pets spayed or neutered. Life in the Dog House is a documentary that is both uplifting and inspirational.

Although they also maintain a training and coaching facility for show horses and jumpers, Robertshaw and Danta have dedicated themselves to rescuing, healing and preparing for adoption dogs that would otherwise be euthanized, as are millions of other canines each year. Their outreach began in 2005, after watching news reports about family pets left stranded and abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to delivering aid to survivors, they rounded up as many of the dogs as their horse trailer would carry and drove them back to their South Carolina training facility. Since then, they’ve effectively rescued and re-situated more than 11,000 doomed animals. What makes their story unique is the TLC that they bring to their mission. At any one time, as many as 125 dogs might be living under the same roof with Robertshaw and Danta. The free-range critters are taught to behave, outside their pens, and maintain a high standard for personal hygiene and manners. Their staff analyzes every application for adoption and showcases their most likely candidates at contests, fairs and other gatherings around Camden, South Carolina, and Wellington, Florida. The before-and-after footage in Life in the Doghouse is nothing less than remarkable. Anyone who thinks raising AKC-level dogs is difficult and sometimes prohibitively expensive will marvel at the amount of work and money – food, worming, sheltering, daily cleaning – it takes to prepare a mutt for new homes and maintain a heart-tugging website that introduces potential adoptive parents to the latest class of graduates. It helps that the two men treat the animals as if they, themselves, had studied under Fred Rogers, who made every one of his neighbors and fans feel essential. And, of course, part of the message here is the continuing need for funding and grants that also eats up big chunks of the men’s time. Abandoned animals and euthanasian laws are problems that won’t go away any time soon. Director Ron Davis’ previous work includes the well-regarded docs, Harry & Snowman (2015) and Pageant (2008). The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes and a photo gallery.

Mad Dog and Glory: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Speaking of dogs, the only one visible in John McNaughton’s romantic “urban fable,” Mad Dog and Glory (1993), is the ironically nicknamed police photographer, Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie. The second half of the title refers to Uma Thurman’s character, Glory, who’s “given” to the cop by a gangster whose live Dobie saved. When he isn’t imitating Al Capone, Frank Milo (Bill Murray) does comedy spots at the club he bought for just that purpose. They meet in a convenience store that’s being robbed by a suspect in a double-murder. Even though he’s got a gun pointed at his head, Milo berates Dobie for his less-than-forceful negotiating tactics. They work, however, saving both Milo and the killer’s life, if only for a few hours. The only string attached to Milo’s gift is the distinct possibility that Wayne and Glory will find a reason to fall in love before her expiration date requires the gangster to take her out of circulation … or try to, at least. Richard Price’s atypically uplifting script combines sharp dialogue, gritty urban backdrops and natural police/criminal tension in the service of an appealing odd-couple conceit. Casting the lead actors against type was a risk McNaughton was willing to take, even if test audiences wondered why the star of “Raging Bull” allowed himself to be beaten up by Lisa Loopner’s boyfriend, Todd. Murray’s only other more-or-less-straight role, in The Razor’s Edge (1984), flopped at the box office, while De Niro had yet to prove to audiences that he could be funny. Thurman was still just another a pretty Hollywood blond, waiting to be taking seriously. It wouldn’t take long. For Windy City viewers, Mad Dog and Glory plays like a 97-minute edition of “Lost Chicago,” with its many familiar locations and a cast loaded with veterans of the city’s thriving theater and movie scene. They include Tom Toles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer),  J.J. Johnston (Fatal Attraction), Guy Van Swearingen (The Negotiator), Jack Wallace (Homicide), Chuck Parello (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Tony Fitzpatrick (Primal Fear), Bruce Jarchow (“Weird Science”), Kevin Hurley (Henry II: Portrait of a Serial Killer), Paula Killen (Walls in the City), Tony Castillo (“Watch Over Me”), Brian Reed Garvin (Centurion AD) and former CPD cops Anthony Cannata and  John Polce. Also prominent are Mike Starr (Miller’s Crossing), Kathy Baker (Street Smart), Richard Belzer (“Law & Order: SVU”) and David Caruso, who went from “Mad Dog” to “NYPD Blue.” Director and Chicago native John McNaughton, of course, had just survived the ordeal of getting Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer distributed. Special features include fresh commentary with  John McNaughton; a brief making-of featurette; interviews conducted with Murray, De Niro and producer Martin Scorsese, in the latter’s apartment; sound bites with Thurman, McNaughton and  Scorsese explores the “urban fable” tone of “Mad Dog and Glory.”

A.I. Rising
Judging solely from its cover art, marketing pitch and Eastern European roots, Lazar Bodroža’s debut feature, A.I. Rising, belongs on the same web pages Netflix and Amazon Prime reserve for such sci-fi oddities as Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), Dark Star (1974) and Spaceballs (1987). The presence of adult-film goddess, Stoya (a.k.a., Jessica Stoya Stoyadinovich), would argue, as well, for a place alongside Not of This Earth (1988), with Traci Lords in her mainstream debut; ditto, Sasha Grey, in The Girlfriend Experience (2009); Sunny Leone, in Pirate’s Blood (2008); Belladonna, in Inherent Vice (2014); Jenna Jameson, in Zombie Strippers (2008); and Nina Hartley, in Boogie Nights (1997). Feel free to throw in Scott Schwartz, who made the leap from A Christmas Story (1983) to Scotty’s X-Rated Adventure (1996) and, in 1999, returned to the mainstream, and national treasure Ron Jeremy, who received a credit in 52 Pick-Up (1986), along with Tom Byron, Herschel Savage, Amber Lynn and Sharon Mitchell. None of the actors embarrassed themselves – or the movies – and some continue to appear in non-adult roles. It may not sound like much to say that Stoya delivers an excellent portrayal of an android, programed to help and give pleasure to an astronaut making the lonely journey from Earth to Alpha Centauri. And, like the movie itself, the astronaut, Milutin (Sebastian Cavazza) is of Serbian descent, hired from the Yugoslavian space agency – that’s right – by the Ederlezi Corporation of the “Reformed USSR” to “export a non-communist ideology” to its inhabitants. Milutin is an old-school cosmonaut, who’s been around the solar system a time or two, and doesn’t like taking orders from anyone, including robots. Still, it’s a long trip and Nimani (Stoya) is willing to do anything – yes, anything – to make it feel like a walk in the park.

Unfortunately, Nimani is “too compliant” for Milutin’s taste. He’d prefer that she/it pretends to enjoy the sex (like the girls back home), at least, or pretends to resist his advances. Nimani isn’t programmed to do anything, besides give pleasure, keep Milutin healthy, support the mission and abide by Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” Eventually, Milutin attempts to rejigger her software to accommodate his wishes. Big mistake. It triggers an alert to company officials, who’ve anticipated such behavior and programmed Nimani to shut down when her circuits are molested. The circuitry built into the android demands answers to some of the same questions asked by HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the cyber-emotions it expressed as it was dying. Of course, if the cosmonaut’s tinkering shuts down Nimani’s software, the entire mission will be threatened, along with Milutin’s longterm sanity. A.I. Rising also examines the importance or lack-thereof of sexual relations on extended space missions. (The issue was given a spin in 2016’s Passenger, when early-risers played by Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are facing 90 years of boredom, until the other passengers are awakened from their deep sleep. In 1981, Gerard Damiano’s sex romp The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue also addressed the question of android/human sex,) If Stanley Kubrick were to arise from his deep sleep, I think he would find nice things to say about Kosta Glusica’s cinematography, Aljosa Spajic’s production design and Nemanja Mosurovic’s music. Despite Stoya’s background in adult films, the sex in A.I. Rising is somewhat less than explicit. There’s plenty of android nudity, but its impact is tempered by the actress’ matter-of-fact demeanor and “boyish” figure. (No offense, intended. It hasn’t hurt Stoya’s career.) The DVD adds several deleted scenes, interviews and making-of featurettes.

The Last Man: Blu-ray
Despite the presence of Harvey Keitel and Hayden Christensen, Rodrigo H. Vila’s The Last Man challenged the few critics who’ve seen it to choose between blowing up their players or watching the movie again, to see if they’d missed something that might redeem it. That’s a courtesy sometimes accorded genre pictures that feature the work of artists they admire, but who must have had a very good reason for signing a contract: medical bills, college costs, their manager’s financial malfeasance or the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in a delightful location, in this case Argentina. Who reads the reviews of direct-to-DVD movies, anyway? Keitel and Christensen’s name on a listing probably carries some weight with genre buffs looking for something to stream late at night. For the record, The Last Man isn’t close to being the worst dystopian thriller I’ve seen lately. The Blade Runner-inspired set designs are appropriately grimy and gritty, while the genuinely menacing neo-Nazis resemble the Alex’s droogs in A Clockwork Orange. The tagline says it all: “Set in a world where climate change has brought about the apocalypse.” That could describe any number of Syfy movies-of-the-week and disaster flicks, from such big-budget mediocracies as The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009) and Geostorm (2017), to the hit documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and less-successful, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (2017). For those still interested, though: Christensen plays Kurt (a.k.a., Tov Matheson), a combat veteran suffering from PTSD, who comes home to a city and civilization in ruins. Local street prophet, Noe (Keitel), says things will get even worse when a catastrophic storm hits. Kurt heeds Noe’s advice, by constructing a secret shelter just below the remains of a mega-store. At approximately the same time, he meets the sultry redhead, Jessica (Liz Solari), with whom he worked at a security firm. Together, they face Noe’s bleak predictions, with some supernatural and arguably Christian stops, along the way.

The Deadly Mantis: Blu-ray
I’ve encountered praying mantises in the wild a couple of times in my life, usually in the woodlands of Wisconsin and, once, chillin’ over the front door of my San Gabriel Valley home. Each time, I was impressed by their impeccable camouflage, deceptive strength and neon-green color. I’m pretty sure that a mantis wouldn’t last two minutes buried inside an iceberg in the Arctic Circle. Periodical cicadas (a.k.a., magicicadas) burrow themselves inside trees, feeding on xylem fluids, returning annoyingly to life in the outside world 13-17 years later. Cicadas are noisy, not frightening or particularly cinematic. As harmless as they look, mantises have heads ad faces that extraterrestrials would envy, are deadly predators and have inspired a Chinese martial art known as the Southern Praying Mantis. Unlike most praying mantises, who usually top out at six inches, the prehistoric monster in Nathan Juran’s beyond-campy creature-feature, The Deadly Mantis (1957), is as big as a house and, for some reason, pissed off as hell. The calving of an Arctic iceberg releases the giant bug, whose hunger causes it to attack an Alaskan outpost of the U.S. Distant Early Warning System, to eat its occupants. The monster, then, finds its way to the Eastern Seaboard, where the weather is more conducive to ravenous feeding. Unfortunately, its size also scares the crap out of residents of one of the most densely populated regions of the country. Paleontologist William Hopper (20 Million Miles to Earth) and voluptuous photographer Alix Talton (“My Favorite Husband”) join forces with the military – in the person of Craig Stevens (“Peter Gunn”) — to render it extinct. End of story … except to mention the 2K remastering of the film; new commentary with McNaughton and film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; the “MST3K” episode, “The Deadly Mantis,” from 1997; and a stills gallery.

Someone to Watch Over Me: Blu-ray
Although Ridley Scott’s highly stylized visual presentation was widely praised by critics, they found Someone to Watch Over Me’s plot and narrative less impressive. The romantic stakeout thriller didn’t make any money in its theatrical release, but, I suspect, it’s done very well in VHS and DVD. Unlike Tom Berenger, who impressed casting directors with performances in Platoon (1986), Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985) and The Big Chill (1993), the delicately-balanced female protagonists, Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, had yet to emerge as stars in their own right. Working from a neo-noir screenplay by Howard Franklin (The Name of the Rose) – and three different renditions of the classic Gershwin title ballad — Scott inserted Berenger’s newly minted NYPD detective, Mike Keegan, smack-dab in the middle of a two-sided love triangle. He’s the only character on the big screen – or viewers, for that matter – who couldn’t anticipate the quandary that would develop when his tough-as-nails wife, Ellie (Bracco), gets winding of the society princess, Claire (Rogers), he’s guarding. Keegan’s been assigned to protect the headstrong socialite, who’s witnessed a murder and is being stalked by the bailed-out suspect (Andreas Katsulas). Naturally, the cop’s devotion to duty evolves into an obsession with the vulnerable witness, while his wife’s jealousy turns out to be entirely justified. Finally, both women are threatened by the same hoodlum, simultaneously, and their protector can’t be in two places at the same time. The tension rises to a violent crescendo that provides two satisfying resolutions. Not surprisingly, Scott’s visual instincts perfectly complement Steven Poster’s camerawork. The brilliantly restored Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with writer Howard Franklin and Poster.

The Craft: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
I don’t know when the never-ending parade of movies featuring teenage witches, vampires and Satanists began, although Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976) probably would be a good place to start looking. Heathers (1988) described just how dangerous teenager girls could be when threatened by peer pressure and social conformity. The supernatural aspects of teen angst picked up again a few years later, with the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and, in 1996, the slightly darker television series of the same title. The flood gates really opened with the releases of such kindred fantasies as Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Jawbreaker (1999) and Scary Movie (2000). Newly re-released by Scream Factory in a special Blu-ray collector’s edition is The Craft (1996), one of the most influential entries in the sleepover-cinema sub-subgenre. It opens with the introduction of troubled-teen Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), whose father and stepmother have relocated to L.A., from San Francisco. The parochial school has a strictly enforced social order with cliques, dividing the freaks and geeks from the brainiacs, jocks and “popular” kids. Although she’s hotter than all the cool girls combined, Sarah naturally finds her level among the misfits: Neve Campbell (Wild Things), Fairuza Balk (American History X) and Rachel True (Half Baked). Individually, Sarah, Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle are the least-empowered girls in the school. As a group, however, they maximize each other’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses. When Sarah exhibits a supernatural power, her new friends believe that she will complete their coven. In fact, she helps turn it into a single-minded entity capable of righting wrongs and punishing perceived slights. The rest of The Craft depicts what happens when the wannabe Wiccans lose control of their newly acquired powers. The bonus material adds new interviews with co-writer/director Andrew Fleming, producer Douglas Wick, co-writer Peter Filard and makeup- effects supervisor Tony Gardner; commentary with Fleming; two making-of featurettes; and deleted scenes, with optional audio commentary.

Showdown: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The stated purpose of the MVD Rewind Collection is to celebrate “cult classics and more from the video store” in special-edition Blu-ray and DVD collector’s sets, loaded with special features. They’re packaged to resemble the original VHS box, minus the scratchy cassette, tracking problems and fees charged for not rewinding. In 1993, the cover of Showdown was dominated by martial-arts superstar Billy Blanks, an African-American gentleman. Here, the cover features the young, white protagonist, Ken (Kenn Scott), and equally white protagonist, Tom (Ken McLeod), although Blanks is the heart and soul of Showdown. Otherwise, it’s The Karate Kid all over, again. Transfer student Ken Marks moves from Kansas to Phoenix, where he’ll enter high school as a second-semester senior. By trying to make friends with a cute classmate, Julie (Christine Taylor), he infuriates her boyfriend, who’s a highly trained kick-boxer. The more often Tom kicks the crap out of Ken, the closer Julie is drawn to the newcomer. This leads to the final showdown, where Tom is encouraged to kill Ken. Between their first encounter and the last one, however, Ken is coached by the school’s janitor, Billy (Blanks), who, as a cop, accidentally killed the brother of the brutal sensei of a local dojo. He immediately quit the force and, seven years later, found work at the school. One of the biggest problems with Showdown is the high school’s student body, whose median age appears to be 30 years old. None of the students appears to be intimated by vice-principal Kowalski, played by veteran hard-ass, Brion James (Blade Runner), who’s one of the scariest actors alive. The fights that aren’t one-sided beatdowns are well choreographed and exciting. As crappy and cliché-ridden as Showdown is, the supplement package is surprisingly generous and informative. The making-of featurette, alone, is 98 minutes long.

TV-to-DVD
History: Ancient Aliens: Season 11, Volume 2
Perry Como’s Music Hall
Pat Boone & Family Springtime & Easter Specials
Nickelodeon: Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The title, “Ancient Aliens: Season 11, Volume 2,” appears not to be completely accurate. According to episode lineup on IMDB.com, it should be “Ancient Aliens: Season 13, Volume 2,” which ran from July 20, 2018, to January 7, 2019. I can’t explain the discrepancy, except to point out the show’s mission, which is to demonstrate how much of an impact that extraterrestrials have had on mankind and its greatest achievements. That could include new math. Among the highlights: in Egypt, new technology has detected a previously unknown void in the Great Pyramid; on the island of Sardinia, ancient statues of giants with robotic faces are being shown to the public for the first time; abduction stories around the world are analyzed; a look at suspicions that the U.S. and Russia have been working together to prepare for an extraterrestrial encounter; ancient cultures believed that meteorites were not merely rocks that fell from the sky, but sacred stones imbued with the power of the gods; in the north of England, scientists claim to have discovered what could be biological evidence of alien life; and, 50 years after the publication of “Chariots of the Gods,” is Erich Von Daniken about to be proven right?

MPI Media Group adds to its collection of easy-listening TV specials from traditional favorites, Perry Como and Pat Boone. In “Perry Como’s Music Hall,” which was broadcast in color in April 1967, the crooner “Perry Como’s Music Hall,” broadcast in color, the crooner welcomed then-rising comic George Carlin, pop-jazz singer Nancy Wilson and young ballerina Joyce Cuoco. In prime form, Perry sings his latest hit, “Stop! And Think It Over,” as well as “A Taste of Honey,” “How Beautiful the World Can Be,” “Dindi,” “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” with Nancy. Carlin performs his fast-spinning disc-jockey routine, and the Ray Charles Singers join Perry and cast for a rousing Tax Day 1967 finale of “The Money Tree,” “Pennies From Heaven” and
“The Best Things in Life Are Free.”

Pat Boone & Family: Springtime Special”  brings together guests Parker Stevenson (“The Hardy Boys Mysteries”), Dick Van Patten (“Eight Is Enough”), The Unknown Comic and cameo appearances by comedians George Burns and Don Rickles. Pat performs a heart-warming “You & Me Against the World to his grandson; Debby and Parker duet on “Love Story”; the Boone sisters hit the dance floor; and the entire family teams up for “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher.” “Pat Boone & Family: Easter Special” celebrates the holiday at home, as the Boones welcome fellow ABC-TV stars Ted Knight (“Too Close for Comfort”) and Katherine Helmond (“Soap”) in addition to comic/impersonator John Byner. Bonus features: “The Boone Girls in Performance,” “Pat Boone: Irish Medleys,” “Pat Boone: Patriotic Songs”; “Debby Boone Promo”; and original TV promos.

Emerging from their hidden lair in the sewers for the very first time, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are ready to explore the hostile streets of New York City. In Nickelodeon’s “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” fans are invited to join Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo, as they face enemies more dangerous, and taste pizza more delicious, than anything they could have imagined. The seven episodes are “Mystic Mayhem,” “Origami Tsunami,” “Donnie’s Gifts,” “War and Pizza,” “Mascot Melee,” “Shell in a Cell” and “Minotaur Maze.”

 

The DVD Wrapup: Instant Family, Burning, Clovehitch Killer, Vanishing, Marquise, Kalifornia, Donna Haraway, Walking Dead … More

Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Instant Family: Blu-ray
Ever since his breakthrough performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), Mark Wahlberg has proven capable of handling a wide variety of roles and making money for everyone around him. He’s done so, because audiences naturally want to like him and go along his characters’ disparate personalities and traits. It’s no small trick. The Boston-native has also found legitimate success as a television producer – the Emmy-nominated series, “Entourage,” “Boardwalk Empire” “Wahlburgers” – and as a force on both sides of the camera in such films as Lone Survivor (2013), Prisoners (2013), Deepwater Horizon (2016) and The Gambler (2014). I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s a natural comic actor, but he’s more than held his own alongside such scene-stealers as Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home), Anthony Hopkins (Transformers: The Last Knight), Dwayne Johnson (Pain & Gain), Steve Carell (Date Night) and a bad-ass teddy bear (Ted) … all along, looking to be as unaffected by fame as any boy’s band graduate (Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch), underwear model (Calvin Klein) and juvenile delinquent could possibly be. If his infectious smile appears to have been built into his face, it might be related to the good fortune of being one of the few travelers booked on a Flights 11 and 175, leaving Boston for L.A. on 9/11/2001, who made it to 9/12/2001. Instead of being incinerated in one of the planes that crashed into the Twin Towers that day, he decided a few days earlier to cancel his ticket and travel west on a private plane. Wahlberg went on to become the highest-paid actor of 2017, earning $68 million. Instant Family marks Wahlberg’s third collaboration with co-writer/director Sean Anders – Daddy’s Home (2015) and Daddy’s Home Two (2017) – whose experiences as an adoptive parent of three Hispanic children inform the story. Ultimately, it is saved by Anders’ hopeful message for potential foster parents. His previous stints as writer or co-writer of such middle-brow entertainments as We’re the Millers (2013), Dumb and Dumber To (2014), Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) and She’s Out of My League (2010) weren’t as enlightening, although a few of them made money.

Instant Family splits the difference between comedy and drama right down the middle. When suburbanites Pete (Wahlberg) and Ellie Wagner (Rose Byrne) choose to start a family, they stumble headfirst into the world of foster-care adoption. While they’re extremely serious about taking on such a responsibility – three siblings of various challenging ages – they are spooked by some of the negative stories they hear. That includes cautious advice from social workers Karen and Sharon (Octavia Spencer, Tig Notaro), who guide prospective parents on the joys, hurdles and potential disasters facing them on the way to official adoption. Much of the movie’s humor derives from the interaction between the Wagners and other couples in a workshop environment. (The group’s social and ethnic diversity couldn’t be more politically correct.) Isabela Moner, Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz do a terrific job portraying kids thrown into foster hell when their drug-addicted mother is incarcerated for putting them at risk of harm. Each one deals with separation anxiety in their own way: little Lita is a screamer, who needs everything to go according to plan, or she freaks out; pre-teen Juan is too clumsy to excel in sports and lacks the self-confidence to move forward socially; teenage Lizzy thinks her mom’s poop doesn’t stink and punishes the Wagners for using them to assuage liberal guilt. By frustrating them, Lizzy hopes to dissuade Pete and Ellie from going ahead with the adoption. Her scheme might have worked, too, if fate hadn’t stepped in at crucial moments to convince the younger siblings, otherwise. Naturally, their mom’s return on parole causes the kind of turmoil – emotional and legal — that nearly destroys everyone involved, including Lizzy when she behaves every bit as callously as audiences have been conditioned to expect from neglectful mothers.

If everything that happens outside the group-therapy sessions plays out according to Hollywood standards, the interaction between the prospective parents and the social workers effectively serves as a counterbalance to the Wagners’ misery. They face challenges, too, but off-screen. This isn’t to say, however, that Anders’ message doesn’t come through, loud and clear: the adoptive process requires patience, courage and fortitude; adoptees don’t come with guarantees or warranties, especially if they’re from dysfunctional backgrounds; good intentions won’t cushion all the blows; and, finally, the rewards truly can be worth the pain absorbed along the way. It helps that Wahlberg and Byrne make a lovely couple, blessed with the patience of saints – almost, anyway — and Spencer and Notaro are allowed to dominate key moments in the show, without overshadowing the stars. The Paramount Blu-ray adds commentary and an introduction with Anders and his frequent co/writer John Morris; a gag reel; deleted and extended scenes; “Mr. and Mrs. Fix-It,” behind the scenes with Wahlberg and Byrne; “Kid Power,” with the talented young cast; “I Need Some Support,” in which Spencer and Notaro guide a group of parents through the emotional roller-coaster of parenting; “Order in the Court,” inside one of the film’s most heartfelt moments; “The Families Behind the Fair,” with actual foster parents and adopted kids; “Crew Inspiration,” crew members share their own foster-care stories; “The Anders Family,” with the real-life inspiration for the film, Isabela Moner; “I’ll Stay,” a promotional music video; and “On Set Proposal,” a surprise wedding proposal from one crew member to another.

Burning: Blu-ray
If  Roma hadn’t raised the Mexican flag over festivals and awards ceremonies around the world, 2018 would be remembered as a banner year for Pacific Rim countries. At Cannes, where Alfonso Cuaron was denied a slot, 4 of the 19 films in contention for the Palme d’Or were from Japan, Korea and China. (Only two, BlackKKKlansman and the as-yet-unreleased Under the Silver Lake, were from the United States.) In addition to Koreeda Hirokazu’s highly regarded Shoplifters and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s Killing, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II, Zhangke Jia’s Ash Is Purest White and Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night also did well in international competition. Jon M. Chu’s money-maker, Crazy Rich Asians, gave Hollywood studio executives one fewer excuse for not financing films of interest to Asian-American audiences. (Best Picture-winner Green Room got its fair share of attention in the U.S., Canada and England, but underperformed in foreign markets.) That’s a long of saying that the best Asian releases, last year, were very good, indeed. And, if the cinematic equivalent of soccer’s World Cup  (or Miss Universe) had been conducted after the Oscars, BAFTAs, Césars, Goyas, Globes and festivals – wouldn’t that be fun? — Burning might have finished in a dead heat with Shoplifters and Roma.

Like so many of the best movies from foreign countries, Burning took an emotionally and philosophically literary work and boiled it down to its essence. Working from the story “Barn Burning,” by Haruki Murakami, Lee and co-writer Oh Jung-mi enhanced the story’s fictional narrative with the kind of visually poetic and texturally relatable elements that honor the source material, as well as the filmmakers’ imagination. The acting couldn’t be more naturalistic or compelling. After 148 minutes, viewers inclined to tolerate arthouse conceits will wonder where the time went. The protagonist, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), is a recent college graduate and aspiring novelist, who wears his alienation from mainstream society on his sleeve. He keeps one foot in Seoul and the other in his hometown, near the border with North Korea, where he maintains a barn containing a single calf. It’s in the latter, where Jong-su seems happiest and most self-assured. Just after stepping off a train in the capital, he notices something familiar in one of the young women promoting a street raffle, in cheerleader outfits. Turns out, Haemi (Jun Jong-seo) grew up in the same city and remembers Jong-su as a long-ago playmate. Haemi is an effervescent and inquisitive sort, who lives in the moment and isn’t particularly interested in limiting her horizons by taking a mainstream job. Even before they make love, she asks him to housesit and feed her unseen cat while she’s in Africa, studying indigenous culture.

Upon her return several weeks later, Jong-su happily agrees to pick her up at the airport. He is chagrined, however, to find her accompanied by a handsome and refined chap, a bit older than they are. They met during a long layover in Africa, following a terrorist attack, and quickly forged a bond, although it’s difficult to say whether it’s based on love, lust or kismet. Ben (Steven Yeun) is a bit smug, but not at all offended by the presence of Haemi’s previous lover. It doesn’t take long for Ben’s lavish lifestyle to become apparent. (The shiny, new Porsche is a dead giveaway.) By allowing Haemi and Jong-su to share his expensive toys and posh friends – without also revealing the sources of his income and personal history – Ben naturally recalls the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel. That, of course, effectively makes Haemi and Jong-su stand-ins for Daisy and Tom Buchanan. While Jong-su recognizes the new dynamic, he can’t help but be intrigued by Ben. He tells them, as well, that he often feels as if he’s a character in a novel by Faulkner — one of Murakami’s primary influences – and recommends his books to Ben. Jong-su is invited to the decidedly modern home Ben now shares with Haemi and where he hosts lavish parties. Neither man feels particularly comfortable – let alone, at home – there, however. Later, at Jong-su’s exceedingly modest country home, Ben describes his secret fetish of burning down abandoned greenhouses, which he doesn’t consider to be particularly harmful or illegal. At the same time as Jong-su agrees to help him scout potential targets to satisfy his addiction to arson, Haemi suddenly disappears. At first, Jong-su is merely confused by his inability to connect with her. As time passes, however, his futile investigation pushes him to the edge of sanity. Among the things he does learn from her relatives is that Haemi’s notorious for embellishing the events in her life – possibly including the nearly fatal fall into an abandoned well that she describes to her old friend – and they’ve given up trying to distinguish between the truth and fibs. Like his mother’s sudden reappearance after 15 years, it’s all part of the “mystery of life.”

Much of the credit for Burning’s velvety look goes to cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo  (Snowpiercer), who was challenged by the country’s everchanging natural light, morning fog, neon-lit urban settings and conventional rural countryside. It’s all of a piece with Chang-Dong’s belief that “a small mystery in a short story can be expanded into a bigger, multilayered mystery in a  cinematic way.” Moreover, “the gaping holes in the chain of events — the missing piece from which we can never know the truth — allude to the mysterious world we live in now … the world in which we sense that something is wrong but cannot quite put a finger on what the problem is.” That, in a philosophical nut shell, is what Burning and so many other Asian movies – French, too, I suppose – are all about. It also describes what’s missing in nearly every Hollywood “product” these days. As complex as Lee’s reasoning may sound, it’s far from unfathomable. Burning unfolds in a natural way, saving its greatest mysteries until nearly the end. I had no trouble re-investing another 148 minutes of my less-than-precious time, re-watching Burning a day later, if only to catch some of the subtleties in the director’s quote. The pristine Well-Go Entertainment Blu-ray adds only a six-minute meet-the-characters featurette.

The Clovehitch Killer
At first glance, frequent collaborators Duncan Skiles and Christopher Ford (“The Fuzz”) have conspired to make a movie that fools potential viewers into thinking The Clovehitch Killer is another addition to J.J. Abrams’ “Cloverfield” franchise. No two of those movies appear to belong in the same series and it took my tired eyes a few moments to distinguish “Clovehitch” from “Cloverfield.” I could be completely wrong about such a manipulative marketing strategy, but, of all the knots in the Boy Scout handbook, why choose the clove hitch, instead of, say, the similarly tied “double half hitch” or “two half hitch” knot? Brevity, I suppose. Even then, why not the bowline or hangman’s knot. As The Clovehitch Killer begins, viewers are told of a serial killer, who terrorized a small Kentucky community 10 years earlier, leaving behind a small piece of rope attached to a nearby object by a clove hitch. Mysteriously, the killer’s disease has lain dormant for an entire decade, giving residents a false sense of security. While the title alludes to the Clovehitch Killer’s return to action, Skiles and Ford are in no hurry to reveal the villain or villains’ identity or modus operandi. As obvious as they may be to seasoned fans of murder mysteries, however, the real action doesn’t occur until well after the halfway point. By that time, we assume that the sociopath probably resembles any other normal, law-abiding citizen and family man, whose trigger point lies deeply hidden within his psyche. That description easily covers Don Burnside (Dylan McDermott), whose passive 16-year-old son, Tyler (Charlie Plummer), is struggling to come of age on his own terms. Don has narrowed Tyler’s horizons to activities pertaining to church, scouting and leadership camp.

On a rare night away from home, his companion, Kassi (Madisen Beaty), finds a disturbing photograph under the front seat of his dad’s pickup truck. The boy has no idea how the picture got there, but he insists that it doesn’t belong to him. Even so, hallway gossips accuse him of being a pervert. Coincidentally, Kassi has spent the last few years studying the Clovehitch murders and recognizes something in the photograph that relates to the killer’s M.O., which includes bondage and a fascination with torture porn. Although he’s perplexed by the unfounded rumors, Tyler decides to do some investigating of his own. After some digging and moving heavy objects around his dad’s workshop, in the backyard, he discovers a trove of S&M magazines. Tyler doesn’t want to believe that someone in his family might be the infamous serial killer and, after Don notices signs of Tyler’s sleuthing, he already has a credible excuse: the cache belonged to his long-dead brother. Kassi isn’t convinced. After she persuades Tyler to continue digging, he discovers a torture dungeon under the garage. At the same time, killer begins to crawl out of his shell, leaving a clove hitch at the home of a perspective victim. Sure enough, the teenagers’ investigation crosses paths with the killer’s stalking. Something ugly is destined to happen, but viewers are never sure how things will play out. The Clovehitch Killer has conveniently been pigeonholed as a horror thriller, even if the gory stuff takes place off screen and the monster isn’t likely to resemble any genre prototype. In fact, the story appears to have been inspired by Dennis Rader (a.k.a., the “BTK killer”), who was a Cub Scout leader, president of the church council, census-compliance supervisor, dog catcher and security-alarm installer. He led a seemingly normal family life, but also created pornographic collages, collected his victims’ driver’s licenses and posed in his victims’ underwear … just like the movie’s antagonist. He eluded capture for 30 years. Even if The Clovehitch Killer may be a tad slow and bloodless for some genre buffs, the gradual uptick in tension and dread is palpable. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

 
The Vanishing: Blu-ray
Any filmmaker obsessed with making claustrophobic thrillers could do a lot worse than setting a movie on a wee island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In director Kristoffer Nyholm’s thrilling The Vanishing (a.k.a., “The Keepers”), a lighthouse atop a steep, 150-foot cliff in the Flannan Isles is as much a character as any of the heroes and villains. With its craggy inlets, forbidding weather and ever-circling seabirds, it provided a perfect starting place for a mystery never destined to be solved. This one came ready-made with an unsolved disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the same group of islands, dating back to 1900. Here, two experienced lantern keepers and an apprentice endure murderous winds, capable of smashing gulls into the tower’s walls; Nordic marauders, searching for a lost cache of gold; hidden jealousies and family secrets; the threat of mercury poisoning; and a broken short-wave radio. Veteran Scottish actors Gerard Butler (Olympus Has Fallen) and Peter Mullan (My Name Is Joe) look right at home on the isolated piece of rock, while relative newcomer Connor Swindells (“Sex Education”) appears to feel as out of place as a misguided flamingo. After a storm, Donald (Swindells) discovers a comatose sailor and his battered lifeboat lying at the bottom of a cliff. He’s given the task of inspecting the scene to see if the man’s dead or alive. Once there, he’s attacked by the sailor, who’s been playing possum. A brutal fight ensues, when Donald attempts to abscond with the box.

Once the crate is retrieved, Thomas (Mullan) can’t resist the temptation to open it. No surprise, it contains gold bars of dubious provenance. As if on cue, a trawler carrying nasty-looking sailors arrives, determined to claim their shipmate’s body and the purloined box. While the keepers have a pretty good story prepared – based on legal protocol — it fails to satisfy the intruders (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Gary Lewis). They pretend to leave for the nearest port but are spotted returning to finish the job they started. Like Vikings, from another era, they plan to lay waste to the island. Although they’re visibly tougher and more ruthless than the Scots, it’s two against three and the keepers have movie-luck on their side. Fans of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre will know what to expect next. (On their way to finding pay dirt, Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs asks Tim Holt’s Curtin, “Do you believe that stuff the old man was saying … about gold changin’ a man’s soul so’s he ain’t the same sort of man as he was before findin’ it?” Neither man is willing to imagine how gold would change them, even when the prophesy becomes fact.) At first, the keepers simply disagree as to how to get the gold to the mainland and when to begin spending it. Then, it becomes a matter of the mercury-addled James trusting Thomas, an old salt haunted by memories of previous misdeeds. It’s difficult to predict with any certainty on which of three men, if any, will survive the ordeal. Nyholm (“Taboo”) and writers Joe Bone (“The Alienist”) and Celyn Jones (Set Fire to the  Stars) wisely decided to give The Vanishing as open-ended a climax as the 1900 mystery. Ultimately, learning what happens to the gold hardly serves any useful purpose. The Blu-ray adds the featurette, “Emerging From the Darkness.”

Marquise: Blu-ray
Lavish historical dramas and comedies never go out style. Among the things that lure fans to such elaborate period pieces as The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots – nominees in the Oscars’ Costume Design category – are the museum-quality fashions and production design, layer-cake hairstyles and bizarre cosmetics applied to the male and female characters, alike. Part of the appeal is to imagine how much research, time and manual labor were invested into scenes, ranging from picnics and croquet, to grand balls and royal receptions. (Typically, the storylines aren’t nearly as compelling as speculation over whether the actors are wearing historically correct underwear.) In Véra Belmont’s tantalizing French-language dramedy, Marquise (1997), viewers are invited along a Grand Tour of 17th Century fashions – the wigs are singularly captivating – ranging from the costumes worn by street performers, to the gowns and foppish finery favored at the court of the Sun King, Louis  X1V (Thierry Lhermitte). Born into poverty, Marquise (Sophie Marceau) is a promiscuous young entertainer, who uses her exquisite beauty and seductive dancing to earn a living … on and off stage. The distinguished, if impoverished playwright and actor, Molière (Bernard Giraudeau), falls under the spell of the sultry dancer and part-time prostitute (a.k.a., Marquise-Thérèse de Gorl and Mlle. Du Parc), even knowing that she turns tricks between acts. Similarly enchanted is the wealthy, if not-remotely-handsome Gros René (Patrick Timsit), who proposes to Marquise while she’s servicing a dreadful old geezer. She agrees, but only if he convinces Molière to take her to Paris and perform legitimate works with his troupe.

Marquise would love to discontinue the hoochie-coochie dancing, along with the hooking, but it attracts the attention of members of the royal court, who recommend her to the Louie XIV. Although she loves her tubby, kind and generous husband, she sees nothing unethical about sleeping her way to the top. This includes an affair with the budding playwright, Jean Racine (Lambert Wilson), who offers her private acting lessons. When the king bans Molière’s “Tartuffe,” for offending the archbishop, Racine is commissioned to write a new tragedy, “Andromaque.” While it made stars of Racine and Marquise, she becomes so exhausted that it ruins her health. It doesn’t help matters, when she jumps into a Versailles fountain (in her britches) to give the king a long-needed bath (in his skivvies). By avoiding discussions of war and politics, Marquise maintains an air of mirth throughout its 122-minute length. Unlike the comparatively drab British royals, who don’t like to be upstaged, the Sun King surrounds himself with colorfully dressed twits and coquettes, whose principal duties include keeping him in good spirits. The hair designs, themselves, are almost worth the price of admission. (When the king takes off his faux-poodle wig, revealing a few unruly strands of hair, it serves the same purpose as a jump-scare in a horror movie.) While all the actors are terrific, Marceau gives the most memorable performance, demonstrating comedic chops and an ability to act while dancing and screwing. Bonus features include an interview with director Belmont and an essay by Laurence Marie-Sacks.

Kalifornia: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The early 1990s dripped with blood and irony, thanks to such offbeat neo-noir thrillers as Dominic Sena’s Kalifornia (1993), Tony Scott’s True Romance (1992), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), and, stretching the time frame, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998). It was the decade that changed everything in the crime genre, freeing a generation of film-school misfits to think outside the box and push the limits on MPAA guidelines. It was fun while it lasted, but, like everything else, the subgenre became larded down with copy cats, unhinged violence, slinky molls in black thigh-high stockings and, of course, cocaine. Occasionally, a good one will sneak through, but they’re few, far between, underfinanced and limited to festival exhibition. Kalifornia is best remembered as a launching pad for the still-very-active Michelle Forbes (“Berlin Station”), Juliette Lewis (“Camping”), David Duchovny (“The X-Files”) and Brad Pitt (Deadpool 2), who plays a distant white-trash cousin to the adorable thief and gigolo, J.D., in Thelma and Louise (1991). Brian Kessler (Duchovny) and Carrie Laughlin (Forbes) are artsy-fartsy types, who’ve run out of ways to please their publishers and agents.

Brian comes up with a scheme to embark on a cross-country road trip, during which they’ll visit scenes of notorious murders and interview the locals. Carrie, whose photography is inspired by Robert Mapplethorpe, will capture the scenes of the crimes on black-and-white film. It’s not a bad setup for a book based on a borderline-tasteless subject. Before hitting the road, they hope to find passengers to help them pay for gas, by posting a notice at a local college. Enter, Early Grayce (Pitt) and Adele Corners (Lewis). He sports a shaggy beard, greasy hair and a Make Dixie Great Again cap … OK, it’s simply a rebel-flag patch on a red baseball cap. She’s sweet, loyal, gullible and dumb as a box of rocks. Moreover, Adele’s completely unaware of the fact that she’s fallen  passionately in love with a sociopath. It takes a while for the hipster couple to figure out Early’s  problem, as well. They finally smell a rat when Early’s image is shown on a TV set, walking away from the office of a gasoline station, whose owner he’d just killed for gas money. Because it’s difficult to get rid of passengers in midtrip – especially when one of them is armed – Brian and Carrie are stuck with him until, 1) they reach L.A. or 2) they’re shot and killed en route. Sena effectively maintains a constant aura of dread. The location scenery is interesting, as is most of the pulpy dialogue. The problem for me, anyway, came down to sitting through depictions of horrifying acts of violence –frequently involving innocent bystanders – two decades after they ceased being fashionable. Somehow, whatever message Kalifornia is trying to convey no longer resonates in a society horrified and frightened by random slaughter in schools, federal buildings, synagogues, stadiums and nightclubs, no matter who’s wielding the AK-47. The bonus features include a new interview with Sena; the theatrical and unrated cuts; an original featurette; and cast interviews.

Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival
Before watching Fabrizio Terranova’s lively documentary, Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival, I was completely unaware of her work and station in the hierarchy of educators and other deep-thinkers. I wondered why she was deemed she worthy of an 81-minute, mostly one-woman show. That’s my problem, however, not her’s. Upon further examination, I learned that she’s previously appeared in a pair of documentaries — The Cyborg Cometh (1994), No Gravity (2011) – but, like most other self-described postmodern feminists, appears not to have received any invitations to be a guest on a late-night talk show. (She’d be considerably more charismatic and entertaining than most celebrities a third her age.) More to the point, Haraway is a Professor Emerita in the History of Consciousness Department and Feminist Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. That fact, alone, explains why I’ve sailed through my adult life without being exposed to her specialized knowledge and teaching. Of all the schools I might have chosen as a possible setting for her seminars and research, however, among the top two or three would have been U.C.S.C., an institution widely known for the eccentricities of its students, teachers and curriculum. Its outside-the-mainstream reputation has attracted like-minded students and scholars, ever since it was established, in 1965. Haraway’s thoughts on gender, cyborgs, animals and post-colonialism, as well as explorations into her own life, influences and ideas, probably have combined to make her one of the college’s most popular lecturers. Terranova structured his film around a series of discussions on such subjects as capitalism, science fiction, unconventional marital and sexual relationships, the role of Catholicism in her upbringing, dogs, the suppression of women’s writing, the history of orthodontic aesthetics and the need for new post-patriarchal narratives. She is a passionate and discursive storyteller, who reminds me a bit of Mr. Natural and Fred Rogers … and I don’t mean that in a bad way.Terranova’s video effects, including an enormous jellyfish that floats in and out of Haraway’s study, adds another light, if bewildering touch to the proceedings.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete Fourth Season: Blu-ray
Hallmark: When Calls the Heart: The Greatest Blessing
Nick Jr: Meet the Baby Animals
Nickelodeon: Top Wing: Eggcellent Missions
Like its companion frachise, “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s super-popular zombies series, “Fear the Walking Dead,” shuffled through its fourth season, with no signs of needing resuscitation or a bullet in the head. The season premiere featured the first crossover between the two shows, setting up Morgan Jones’s move from Virginia to Texas. After ignoring the advice of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the main protagonist of “The Walking Dead,” Jones (Lennie James) connects with John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) in the Lone Star state. The next day, they’re captured by a group of Survivors, but are saved by journalist Althea (Maggie Grace), who drives a SWAT vehicle and wants to tell their stories on camera. John tells Althea that he is on a mission to find his girlfriend, Laura – wait until the new season’s fifth episode — but eventually agrees to participate. Their vehicle stops when they see a woman, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), crawling along the ground. Morgan, John and Althea are then surrounded at gunpoint by Nick, Strand, and Luciana. The season also features new showrunners, Andrew Chambliss and Ian B. Goldberg (“Once Upon a Time”), and a new filming location, Austin. In Season Four, as well, shocking things happen to Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her family. The converging groups find safe haven inside a baseball stadium, but only until they’re threatened by a group of antagonistic Survivors known as the Vultures. Jenna Elfman (“Dharma & Greg”), whose career could really benefit from a hit show, is also among the new cast members. The Blu-ray carries all 16 episodes from the bifurcated season and a few commentary tracks scattered throughout the set.

When Calls the Heart: The Greatest Blessing” aired on Christmas Day, 2018, before an appreciative audience of G-rated families and collectors of Hallmark cards. As usual, it’s well-made and consistantly entertaining, even if it lacks the sort of pleasures that attract R-rated families, like mine. Here, as the holiday approaches in Hope Valley, newly widowed Elizabeth (Erin Krakow) anticipates the birth of her baby, while Abigail (Lori Loughlin) prepares for the town’s Christmas gathering. The town welcomes a group of orphans and their caretakers, who have been stranded on their journey to a new orphanage. All goes charitably, until Bill (Jack Wagner) makes a troubling discovery about the newcomers and is forced to make a difficult decision, which will affect all their lives. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, Abigail and Rosemary (Pascale Hutton) get stuck in a storm and face a Christmas Eve emergency. The episode is the introduction to the series’ spin-off, “When Hope Calls,” premiering in August 2019 on Hallmark Movies Now, the Hallmark Channel’s digital streaming service.

In Nick Jr.’s “Meet the Baby Animals,” preschoolers can meet some adorable cartoon newcomers in episodes of such fan favorites as “PAW Patrol,” “Bubble Guppies,” “Blaze and his Monster Machine” and “Shimmer and Shine.” It features seven episodes from seasons 1-3.

Fans of “Top Wing: Eggcellent Missions” are invited to join the high-flying “Top Wing” cadets on eight egg-citing missions. as they save Sandy Stork’s eggs, recover their vehicles from Cheep and Chirp’s cousins, and help Rod prove he’s a rooster, not a chicken. The DVD includes eight Season One episodes, as well as “Top Wing” stickers.

The DVD Wrapup: Sleep With Anger, Ralph Wrecks Internet, Liz & Blue Bird, Hannah Grace, Unseen, Jupiter’s Moon, Legally Blonde, Willard, Bang … More

Friday, March 1st, 2019

To Sleep With Anger: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Not to belabor the obvious problems on display in this past weekend’s Oscar-cast, but something really has to be done to correct at least one of the many injustices now committed annually by AMPAS. To appease the ratings-addicted executives at ABC, the academy continues to present its “prestigious” Governors’ Awards off-screen, well away from the spotlight. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and Honorary Awards are handed out in November. The less-prestigious Scientific and Engineering Awards and Technical Achievement Awards are presented earlier in February, while the Student Academy Awards and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are reserved for October. In its wisdom, too, AMPAS only elects to anoint Hersholt and Thalberg recipients in years that it’s located sufficiently worthy candidates. It’s a problem that’s never plagued Major League Baseball, when it comes time to pick winners of the Cy Young Awards and Golden Gloves, or the scholarship-granted at the Miss America contest. Does Hollywood suffer from a lack of noteworthy candidates?

After watching Criterion Collection’s upgraded edition of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger – and being familiar with his other significant works – I wondered if he’d ever been honored by AMPAS or received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The answers: yes and no. Two years ago, the Mississippi-born, Watts-raised multihyphenate was granted an Honorary Award by the organization’s gubernatorial board. As of yet, however, no star. I’d missed the minute or two devoted to such honorees, during the 2018 Academy Awards broadcast ceremony, and incorrectly assumed that he hadn’t made the cut. Good for him and good for the academy. Oscar Micheaux, perhaps the greatest of all African-American filmmakers and producers, was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard, 36 years after his death, and a 44-cent commemorative stamp, in 2010. Nothing from AMPAS, whose members conspired to segregate the motion-picture industry, forcing Micheaux to focus on making “race movies.” It’s still not too late, I suppose. Without Micheaux, there wouldn’t have been a Charles Burnett, and, without Burnett, an entire generation of African-American filmmakers might have had to wait another 10 years for their work to celebrated. If you want to know why Burnett deserved such an honor, you’ll have to pick up a copy of To Sleep With Anger and stay tuned for the splendidly rendered supplementals. To Sleep With Anger was released in 1990, 12 years after Burnett’s UCLA master’s thesis, Killer of Sheep, debuted at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and began a festival tour. Even though the $5,000 film won the FIPRESCI Prize, awarded by critics, at the 1981 Berlin International Film Festival, it was denied distribution. His sin: Burnett couldn’t afford to pay the tariff for proper legal permits, music-rights acquisitions and anything more than 16mm prints. Thirty years later, these hurdles were finally cleared. Rights were secured and a new 35mm print of Killer of Sheep was restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive, clearing it for festivals, retrospectives and video. The Library of Congress has declared Killer of Sheep as a national treasure and one of the first 50 on the National Film Registry. The National Society of Film Critics selected it as one of the “100 Essential Films” of all time. Among other things, Burnett helped convince a generation of African-American filmmakers – many of them in attendance at last weekend’s Oscars ceremony — they could make the movies they wanted, independently and without studio interference. Ironically, because To Sleep With Anger didn’t contain any of the then-current images of thug life in the ’hood, as exemplified by such surprise hits as Boyz n the Hood (1991) and New Jack City (1991), only the Samuel Goldwyn Company was willing to give it a ride, albeit on a strictly limited marketing budget.

The PG-rated To Sleep With Anger features three of Burnett’s favorite themes: family, community and tradition. It is set in a middle-class section of South-Central L.A., before the Watts riots changed the outside world’s perception of the LAPD and the willingness of residents to stand up for their community. We know from the jump that Gideon and Suzie (Paul Butler, Mary Alice) were raised in the Deep South and are surrounded by many other people who made the same westward  journey to find jobs and dignity. They share certain traditions, beliefs and superstitions that survived the Middle Passage and were passed along by their ancestors, who, of course, were enslaved. Although they live perfectly normal lives, otherwise, Gideon and Suzie made sure their sons respected such traditions. Now fully grown, however, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks) and Junior (Richard Brooks) are as different in temperament as Cain and Able. Out of nowhere, sportin’ man Harry Mention (Danny Glover) arrives at the family abode. It makes everyone happy and ready to pull the “good” corn liquor out of the cupboard. By now, it’s apparent that happy-go-lucky Harry’s presence is likely to precipitate a series of events that aren’t divinely inspired. The centerpiece here is a well-attended welcoming party, during which much soul food is devoured, memories are swapped, blues songs are sung and everyone who hasn’t been “saved” gets drunk. Later, many of the same folks will gather to pray over Gideon, who’s suffered a severe heart attack. Meanwhile, too, Babe Brother and Junior have come to loggerheads over issues that began in childhood. It also affects their wives (Sheryl Lee Ralph, Vonetta McGee), who, being modern Angelinos, recognize the source of the problem and wish Harry would simply go away. By the time the 102-minute story ends, the whole package will be tied together in a neat bow, but not in any predictable way. Naturally, without a link connecting To Sleep With Anger to the gang-banger trend, the distributor couldn’t decide how to market the movie for crossover consumption – it belonged in the mainstream, after all — and, five years later, it finally received a VHS sendoff.

This occurred, despite the fact that the $1.4-million To Sleep With Anger – partially financed by a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant to Burnett — won several awards, including best screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics. It also took home Independent Spirit Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay, the AFI’s Maya Deren Award, the Special Jury Recognition Award at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, a special award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and nominations for both Burnett and Glover by the New York Film Critics Association. The Criterion Blu-ray package represents its long-awaited reward from the greater film industry. Special features and technical specs include a 4K digital transfer, approved by Burnett, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a new interview program, with Burnett, Glover, Ralph and associate producer Linda Koulisis; a nearly feature-length, “A Walk With Charles Burnett,” with filmmaker Robert Townsend, revisiting shooting locations; a short video tribute to Burnett, produced for the Governors Awards ceremony; and an essay by critic Ashley Clark.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: Blu-ray/4K UHD
The Little Mermaid: Signature Collection, Blu-ray/4K UHD
Liz and the Blue Bird: Blu-ray
The trio of animated films discussed here represents three different periods in the medium’s evolution. The success of the mostly hand-drawn The Little Mermaid (1989) brought Disney’s animation division, under Jeffrey Katzenberg, a solid victory, after nearly 20 years of miscues. (Two years earlier, Who Framed Roger Rabbit signaled a return to glory, as well.)  Ralph Breaks the Internet shows how far Walt Disney Animation Studios has come, not only from The Little Mermaid, but also in the realm of digital production. Not long after the merger with Pixar, many observers theorized that John Lasseter — chief creative officer and executive producer on most projects – would eliminate the redundancies and pretty much make the then-struggling Animation Studios subservient to the Pixar juggernaut. Today, both subsidiaries have retained their own fingerprints and continue to deliver features that impress audiences, critics and animation buffs. The corporate roots of Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird (2018) extend all the way back to contributions Kyoto Animation made on Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Porco Rosso (1992). In 1996, Ghibli announced a international distribution deal with Disney, covering its films and home-entertainment products. In this way, Disney helped introduce anime and manga to people who’d grown up on Mickey Mouse, who’d long been a superstar in Japan.

Ralph Breaks the Internet follows by six years the mayhem chronicled in Wreck-It Ralph. In the latter, video-game palooka Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and the vexing “glitch,” Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), conspire to raise their profiles in the arcade community by eliminating the nasty Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Here, when Vanellope admits to being bored with the Sugar Rush game’s predictability, Ralph creates a secret bonus track for her confectionary kart races. When Vanellope, being Vanellope, overrides player control to test the track, the resulting conflict causes a crash in which her car’s steering wheel is broken. Since the company that manufactured Sugar Rush is defunct, one of the kids scours the Internet for a used replacement part. It’s found on the bidding site, eBay, ready for auction. If he deems the part to be too expensive, Mr. Litvak (Ed O’Neill) will have no choice but to unplug Sugar Rush, leaving the game’s characters homeless. Instead, Ralph and Vanellope decide to enter the brave new world of the World Wide Web – for them, anyway – and go directly to land of eBay. The problem, of course, is that they lack the basic skills needed to make winning bid. Neither do they understand the difference between a dollar and points. The trouble begins when they begin to outbid each other, even after their nearest competitor dropped out 20,000 cyber-dollars earlier. In Sugar Rush, Vanellope knows that 40,000 points is easily attained. In the real world of eBay transactions, not so much. They’re given 24 hours to find the money, collecting transferable points in all kinds of branded websites. Normally, I can’t stand product placements in movies. Here, however, it’s all done in the name of fun. Adult viewers, especially, will enjoy identifying the various logos of defunct and active companies, as well the lampooning of Internet tropes. The best things about Ralph Breaks the Internet, besides the witty script and voice acting, are the brilliantly vibrant colors on display in the 4K UHD universe. The Blu-ray adds “Surfing for Easter Eggs,” “The Music of Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “BuzzzTube Cats,” the 35-minute “How We Broke the Internet,” deleted scenes and music videos, performed by Imagine Dragons and Julia Michaels.

The first thing to know about the Signature Collection release of The Little Mermaid is that it predates all the straight-to-video prequels and sequels. Neither is it related to last year’s bargain-basement live-action The Little Mermaid or, for that matter, the filmed version of Disney’s theatrical musical, which opened on Broadway in 2008. Rob Marshall’s CGI and live-action remake — with new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda – still awaits a delivery date. Nope, the 30th anniversary Signature Collection edition simply represents the latest iteration of Disney’s beloved classic, which had been on the studio’s to-do list for more than 50 years … same great characters, music and interpretation of the Hans Christian Andersen’s story. That, and a bright, newly upgrade visual and audio presentation. It also adds new featurettes, “Alan Menken and the Leading Ladies,” with Jodi Benson (Ariel), Paige O’Hara (Belle, Beauty and the Beast), Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas), Lillias White (Hercules) and Donna Murphy (Tangled); “What I Want From You Is …Your Voice,” with the actors who voiced Sebastian, Scuttle, Urusla and Ariel; “Stories From Walt’s Office: Gadgets and Gizmos,” which takes viewers inside Uncle Walt’s office and explores his various collectibles — mostly miniatures — that people gave to him after it was revealed that he collected them. Six other featurettes have been ported over from previous editions, alongside an exclusive digital extra, “‘Part of Your World’: A Look Back,” in which Menken and Jodi Benson discuss the song’s impact and early plans to cut the song from the film. Missing are “The Little Match Girl,” “John & Ron Make Caricatures of Each Other,“ “Animators Comment on their Characters” and “The Little Mermaid Handshake,” which fans probably have already seen. I’m fortunate to have a combined Blu-ray/4K platform, which allowed me to compare the formats, without having to move any further than the distance from my couch to the TV. If you can remember the difference between the VHS cassette and the first DVD and Blu-ray discs, you might be surprised to learn how much better The Little Mermaid looks and sounds in 4K UHD. Although some of the original analog portions are only noticeably more clear, clean and visually appealing, everything else in HDR is strikingly better, especially the depth-of-color and artistic precision. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also is a welcome addition.

With its wispy, hand-painted texture, Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird will remind anime buffs of early Miyazaki. The look is of a piece with “Sound! Euphonium” (2015-16), the manga and TV series that chronicles the lives and complexities of the students participating in Kitauji High School’s music club. It also resembles “K-On!” (2009-10), which followed five girls, who become friends through the Light Music Club at a fictional Japanese school. These feel-good series were based on popular novels, most likely targeted at girls who grew up obsessed with all-things-“Hello Kitty.” Because Liz and the Blue Bird is a standalone spin-off of Ayano Takeda’s “Sound! Euphonium,” teens and pre-teens are advised not to jump into the feature film cold. (Episodes are available through various streaming platforms.) Here, best friends Mizore and Nozomi prepare to perform a complex musical duet inspired by the fairy tale “Liz und ein Blauer Vogel,” for oboe and flute. Though they play beautifully together and have been friends since childhood, Mizore and Nozomi are having trouble squaring plans for graduation with rehearsals for a difficult duet. Interspersed with their story is a more lushly animated fantasy tale, drawn in the style of a storybook, that contrasts with the crisp, uncomplicated realism of the scholastic storyline. Yamada does a nice job weaving the distinctly different artistic styles into the fabric of the musical presentation. In the TV series, Mizore and Nozomi were background characters. Here, with the spotlight on their endangered friendship, young viewers are encouraged to consider issues relating to connection and loss. Yamada had already proved her skill in depicting young adults in “A Silent Voice” (2016), “Tamako Love Story” (2014) and “K-On! The Movie” (2011).

Jupiter’s Moon
Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s supernatural thriller, Jupiter’s Moon, screened in competition for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Three years earlier, he won top prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar for White God, a film in which a city’s canine population rebels against the inhumanity of humans. In 2005, Mundruczó’s musical drama, Johanna, was nominated there, as well. In it, a young drug addict emerges from a deep coma with an ability to miraculously cure patients by offering sexual favors. As offbeat as those premises seem, Jupiter’s Moon tops them, if only because its story is linked inexorably to refugee crises elsewhere. It opens as a young immigrant from Homs, Syria, is shot by border guards while attempting to cross into Hungary with his father. Just as we begin to assume Aryan Dashni (Zsombor Jéger) is dead, his corporeal body levitates above the scene of the mass arrests. Aryan is unable to remain aloft long enough to avoid capture, however. Thrown into the hospital ward of a nearby refugee camp, he is smuggled out by Dr. Gabor Stern (Merab Ninidze), whose kindness masks a scheme to sell medical reprieves to immigrants threatened with immediate deportation. Stern needs the money to pay off the family of an aspiring athlete, who, while the surgeon was drunk, died from procedural mistake.

After witnessing Aryan’s extraordinary power,  Gábor comes up with an even more devious plan to bail himself out of charges of medical malpractice. He offers Aryan a deal: in exchange for money and legal papers, Gábor will bring Aryan to Budapest to reunite with his father, who may or may not have survived the border altercation. In fact, the corrupt doctor will present himself as a spiritual healer, using Aryan as an assistant capable of curing  people with terminal diseases. Meanwhile, the same police officer who shot Aryan and, coincidentally, despises Stern for trying to cover-up the athlete’s death, steals the doctor’s cellphone. It contains a video showing Aryan levitating. The brutal cop, László (György Cserhalmi) dedicates himself to unmasking Stern’s scheme and using Aryan’s powers to his own benefit. A terrorist attack at the Budapest train depot opens an entirely new can of worms, again involving stolen papers. In the mayhem that follows the suicide bombing, Aryan takes advantage of his powers to float away, landing on a nearby rooftop. A woman who witnesses the otherworldly event assumes that Aryan is an “angel,” who “flew to the sky,” and is worthy of her prayers. Before the movie concludes, thousands of other people will witness the same miracle and assume that a heavenly superhero is now among them. We’ve all seen enough illusionists pull off the same trick on stage to remain skeptical of the source of Aryan’s powers: heaven, magic or Krypton. Regardless, Mundruczó and cinematographer Marcell Rév (“Paterno”) have created a cinematic world that encourages viewers to suspend their disbelief for the 129 minutes it takes for us to buy into anything they want to sell us. I can easily imagine a scenario, in which an enterprising Hollywood producer invests in an adaptation of Jupiter’s Moon – the title is more metaphorical than indicative of a sci-fi thriller – that switches the location from the Hungarian border to the Rio Grande valley, where some of the same things probably happen on a routine basis, minus the magical realism. Given a bit more editorial guidance, Mundruczó probably could handle the change in scenery.

The Possession of Hannah Grace: Blu-ray
Between Worlds: Blu-ray
In Diederik Van Rooijen’s nearly out-of-control American debut, The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) — written by Brian Sieve (“Scream: The TV Series”) – a demonic presence rises from the seemingly dead, to terrorize a nearly empty Boston medical facility. The devil may possess Hannah Gray’s soul, but her body is residing on a slab in the facility’s morgue. It’s there that former cop Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell) is weaning herself from the substances she takes to ease the pain of PTSD and panic attacks. On her first night on the graveyard shift, Hannah’s putrefying corpse is wheeled in on a stretcher. She died in an exorcism that didn’t quite work. No sooner is her cadaver locked inside the stainless-steel refrigerator than the usual array of loud and crazy things begin to happen around her. Not the least of them is the arrival of a disheveled guy at the hospital’s entrance, demanding to be allowed inside the morgue to kill – again? – Hannah, this time for eternity. They almost manage to stuff the body into the crematorium, when Hannah pulls a switcheroo on the invader. Strangely enough, the purification process begins to reverse itself, turning Megan’s first night into a nightmare of biblical proportions. That becomes obvious when Hannah begins stalking the hallways like a contortionist possessing the DNA of a spider. However disappointing the action is, there’s no question of dancer/gymnast Kirby Johnson’s ability to imitate a possessed woman. There’s nothing else in the movie that comes close. The Blu-ray adds on-set interviews.

Maria Pulera’s sophomore thriller, behind Falsely Accused (2016), is an unredeemable mess, except as a direct appeal to Nicolas Cage’s most rabid fans, who might love it. In Between Worlds, he plays a mangy, down-on-his-luck truck driver, who’s haunted by the memory of his recently deceased wife and child. While stranded at a truck stop, Joe rescues a fellow trucker, Julie (Franke Potente), from being strangled by a guy she’s hired to do just that. Apparently, she’s come to believe that the only way to pull her daughter, Billie (Penelope Mitchell), out of a coma is to feign the kind of near-death condition she experienced as a child. Even though Joe’s act of misguided kindness ruined her little scheme, Julie brings him home, as if he were just another abandoned hound to keep her couch warm at night and keep her company. They also engage in some unbridled sexual healing. Apparently, their gyrations woke the genie slumbering  in a magic lamp hidden under Julie’s mattress. Billie miraculously emerges from her coma, catching the adults in the afterglow of orgasmic bliss. Because Joe can’t afford to bail his truck out of hock, he agrees to remain with Julie, making repairs around the house. While Julie’s on the road, however, Billie entices her mother’s lodger into replicating scenes from Poison Ivy. It has less to do with his being unsatisfied or insatiable – in either case, he’s not – than the possibility that the teenager possesses the reincarnated spirit of his ex-wife, Mary (Lydia Hearst), right down to shared memories and personal trivia. Revealing anything more about Between Worlds would only serve to spoil the fun for members of Nic’s fan club. Suffice it to say, the action is as hot, heavy, loud and bizarre as anything he’s been involved in since Wild at Heart. At one point, Joe is even shown reading passages from “Memories by Nicolas Cage” to Billie/Mary. It’s impossible to say whether Pulera came up with the conceit herself or Cage pulled it out of his bag of tricks. Besides that, the highlights are limited to Angelo Badalamenti’s musical score and costume designer Bonnie Stauch’s choice of lingerie for Billie/Mary to seduce the house guest. (Nic’s brief might have come from a Good Will repository.)

The Unseen
Willard: Blu-ray
In his first foray into world of writing and directing feature films, makeup-effects wizard Geoff Redknap (“The X-Files”) puts an inventive twist on the time-honored legend of Universal’s Invisible Man. Instead of being able to turn his invisibility on and off — like Claude Raines, Steve Guttenberg, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Kevin Bacon in similar circumstances – lumber-yard-worker Bob Langmore (Aden Young) is unable to prevent his body from decomposing, piece by gruesome piece. By the end of Redknap’s The Unseen – an example of Canuxploitation creativity at its most Canadian – Langmore is barely there, at all, although his innards are on nearly full display. Bob notices the first manifestations of his unexplained malady while working at a sawmill in northern British Columbia. He’s been battling extreme anxiety and depression caused by rough working conditions at and the residual pain precipitated by his separation from his wife and daughter, eight years earlier. When in public, Bob uses caps and jackets to strategically hide the parts of him that have vanished, adding more layers when needed. After getting a call from his ex-wife (Julia Sarah Stone) about their daughter, Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), Bob decides to visit the girl whose memory of him is no more stable than his visibility. Adding to the intrigue is a contrived arrangement with a local drug dealer, who fixes Bob’s truck in exchange for a bit of smuggling. When the task isn’t performed, as ordered, the gangster begins to threaten Bob’s family. While Redknap’s screenplay may contain as many holes as his protagonist, the special effects are creepy enough to keep most viewers interested.

Like Redknap, Willard’s writer/director/producer Glen Morgan and producer James Wong can credit stints with “The X-Files” for some of their success, at least. Morgan’s re-adaptation of Gilbert Ralston’s 1971 screenplay, was based on Stephen Gilbert’s 1968 novel, “Ratman’s Notebooks,” as was its turnaround sequel, Ben (1972). The original starred Bruce Davison as the protagonist, Willard Stiles, with Ernest Borgnine, Elsa Lanchester and Sondra Locke along for the ride. Framed images of Davison appear throughout the sequel. Willard is credited with launching the 1970s’ creature-feature renaissance. Morgan’s Willard take some liberties with the original, but not many. At its core is a story about a young man (Crispin Glover), who falls in love with the vermin in his basement. What Willard doesn’t take into consideration is the animals’ propensity to reproduce exponentially. He will employ his varmint army to avenge his firing by his boss, Frank, played by R. Lee Ermey in full-tyrant mode. Laura Elena Harring (Mulholland Drive), former adult-movie queen Ashlyn Gere (Body and Soul) and poor old Jackie Burroughs (Avonlea)  also contribute to the fun. More than anything else, however, is the introduction of spanking-new CGI effects into the mix, allowing a few rats to represent a multitude, without any measurable rutting. Despite some good reviews, Willard failed to match the performance of the original, which explains why Ben wasn’t accorded a sequel of its own. That, and the near extinction of drive-in theaters, which, in 1973, were still a force in exhibition. The Scream Factory release adds a 2K remaster of the film; new commentaries with Morgan and DP Robert McLachlan and animal trainers Mark Harden and David Allsberry, of Animals for Hollywood; “The Road to Willard,” a fresh interview with Morgan; “Destination Willard,” a new interview with McLachlan; “The Rat Trainer’s Notebook,” with behind-the-scenes footage from Animals for Hollywood; vintage commentary with Morgan, Wong, Glover and Ermey; “The Year of the Rat,” a making-of documentary; “Rat People: Friends or Foes?,” a documentary on real-life rats; deleted/alternate scenes, with optional commentary; the music video, “Ben,” by Crispin Hellion Glover, with optional commentary; and behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from the electronic press kit.

The Mole People: Blu-ray
The Return of the Vampire: Blu-ray
The Vengeance of She: Blu-ray
Scream Factory is also responsible for the Blu-ray release of several other near classics and cheesy cult faves. Like so many other mid-century sci-fi/horror flicks, The Mole People imagines a world so far from anything resembling reality that it might as well be listed at Netflix under comedies. I don’t know if it was inspired by Superman and the Mole-Men (1951), but it could have been. No matter, because director Virgil W. Vogel hired educator/TV-personality Frank C. Baxter to introduce The Mole People with 10 minutes of mumbo-jumbo about the possibility of entire civilizations existing and flourishing underground. Hence, the title. The mole people are only one of several obstacles facing archaeologists John Agar (Attack of the Puppet People), Hugh Beaumont (“Leave It to Beaver”) and Nestor Paiva (Creature From the Black Lagoon), when they come upon an unusual race of albino beings living on the tippy-top of a mountain in the Himalayas, untouched by Noah’s great flood. They shun all forms of light – including “magical cylinders of fire” (a.k.a., flashlights) – and keep mutant mole men as their slaves. The archaeologists are treated like gods, until they try to liberate the mole people. Can they escape this hallowed mountain, with an underground kingdom and sophisticated system of tunnels, or will they live long enough to commit other cinematic crimes? The mind boggles. The Blu-ray offers two presentations of the film: in 1.85:1 and 2.00:1 aspect ratios; new commentary with film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter; the featurette, “Of Mushrooms and Madmen: The Making of The Mole People”; the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” episode, skewering The Mole People, in standard definition; stills galleries; movie stills, posters and lobby cards; and a theatrical trailer. It’s perfect for stoned viewing.

The Scream/Shout catalogue now also includes Columbia’s 1943 cult favorite  The Return of the Vampire and Hammer’s The Vengeance of She, which, even by 1968 standards, feels as if it might have fit a drive-in double bill with The Mole People. In the former, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi) is a 200-year-old Hungarian vampire, who, as is his wont, prowls the English countryside, feeding from the jugulars of the villagers. His reign of terror is interrupted by a pair of scientists, Lady Jane (Frieda Inescort) and Sir John Ainsley (Roland Varno), who drive a railroad spike through his heart and bury him. Flash forward 20 years, to the early days of WWII, when German bombers and blimps were leaving holes throughout the English countryside. Collateral damage includes a casket revealed to a couple of groundskeepers, who don’t see any harm in removing a spike – yes, the very same one – from Tesla’s chest. Along with his werewolf servant, Andreas Obry (Matt Willis), the famished vampire now plots vengeance on the family that put a halt to his earlier nocturnal feasting. At a crisp 69 minutes, there isn’t much more room for an elongated storyline. Special features and technical specs: new audio commentaries with film historian Troy Howarth, author/film-historian Gary Don Rhodes and historian Lee Gambin; a silent and much-abridged 8mm presentation of the film; and a stills gallery.

H. Rider Haggard is the author of the serialized adventure novel, “She: A History of Adventure” (1886), from which The Vengeance of She and a dozen other female-empowerment movies were adapted. They range from Georges Méliès’ 1899 short film, The Pillar of Fire, to Clive Nolan’s rock-opera/musical version of She, which was recorded live in 2007, in Katowice, Poland, and released on DVD a year later. The Vengeance of She is a sequel to She (1965), which benefitted from the pairing of Ursula Andress and stud-muffin John Richardson. No such luck for the sequel, in which Richardson, as King Killikrates, was paired with Olinka Berova, a blond bombshell whose greatest challenge was fitting into her abbreviated Grecian costume. Berova’s Carol appears to be possessed by the spirit of Queen Ayesha. She’s drawn to the lost city of Kuma, where the spirit of Ayesha yearns to be reunited with Killikrates and reclaim her domain. Probably due to the lack of T&A, the movie died a slow, painful death at the box office. The Blu-ray arrives with fresh interviews with assistant director Terence Clegg, visual effects artist Joy Cuff and clapper/loader Trevor Coop; new commentary by the Monster Party podcast hosts, Matt Weinhold, Shawn Sheridan, Larry Strothe and James Gonis; a delightful return to the 1960s, in “World of Hammer: Lands Before Time”; the theatrical trailer; TV spots; and a stills gallery.

Legally Blonde Collection
With the release of Legally Blonde 3 set for Valentine’s Day, 2020, what better way to begin beating the drums than with a fresh re-packaging of the surprisingly successful 2001 original and its 2003 sequel, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Both movies made money, but Legally Blonde received far better reviews. Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Cauffiel are set to return for “LB3.” (There’s still time to retitle it “Legally Blond 3: MILFs on the Move.”) One thing that “LB3” will have going for it that the sequel didn’t claim is the return of writers Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, who also co-wrote Ella Enchanted (2004) and The House Bunny (2008). The director’s name hasn’t been announced yet, but Robert Luketic is probably still available. In “LB1,” SoCal Dreamsicle Elle Woods makes the unprecedented leap from USC sorority queenbee to Harvard Law graduate, shedding her worthless boy-toy for Luke Wilson along the way, In “LB: 2,” the crusading attorney takes Washington by storm in her Jimmy Choo pumps and fashionably square pink and lavender suits. (Pink is red-hot right now.) Her mission is to lobby for  legislation prohibiting the use of animals for testing consumer goods. If the plot feels more than a little bit obvious, the movie benefits from the addition of Sally Field, Regina King, Bruce McGill, Bob Newhart and the retention of Witherspoon, Cauffiel, Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, Alanna Ubach, Bruce Thomas, James Read and Tane McClure. In addition to those features, the Elle Woods saga includes a Reese-free 2009 direct-to-DVD spin-off, Legally Blondes; and “Legally Blonde: The Musical” (2007). The collection’s only new featurettes are fresh interviews with Cauffiel, along with upgraded visuals.

TV-to-DVD
Acorn TV: Bang: Series 1
Acorn TV: Ackley Bridge: Series 2
Acorn TV: 800 Words: Season 3, Part 2
Once again, Acorn Media is sending out sets of popular mini-series from the Commonwealth, or what passes for it these days. “Bang” is a crackerjack police-procedural that arrives in Welsh and English (subtitles recommended). It is set in the smoggy coastal town of Port Talbot, Wales, which is dominated by a steelworks. The police force, whose officers look as if they were recruited from the cast of “Misfits,” is involved with investigations into at least two murders, the disappearance of a stolen gun and drug- and human-trafficking, dating back to 1990s. Romantic entanglements border on the incestuous. At last count, Port Talbot is home to some 37,276 people, a number that wouldn’t fill most soccer stadiums. It stars Jacob Ifan (“Cuffs”) as Sam Jenkins, a loner who becomes entangled in a web of lies after coming into possession of a gun. He barely recalls the murder of his father, years earlier on a local beach favored by surfers, but the scars of growing up without him still show. His sister, Gina, played by Catrin Stewart (“Doctor Who” and, yes, “Misfiits”), works out her separation anxiety as a member of the police force. When a local bigshot is found dead, suffocated with a plastic bag and submerged under his boat, Gina discovers a trail that leads back to her father’s own criminal past. Another storyline involves her mother, Linda (Nia Roberts), and her thuggish second husband, who threatens to evict Sam from his grandmother’s house after she dies. Because the mini-series plays out in eight 60-minute episodes, “Bang” isn’t as complicated as it sounds. The actors are excellent and little time is left between plot points for any paint to dry. Watching “Bang” made me wonder what Dick Wolf might be able to come up with if he were asked to create an eight-hour mini-series, featuring characters from various “Law & Order” series. The Brits have it down to a science. The package comes with a making-of featurette.

The second season of the Channel 4 drama series, “Ackley Bridge,” continues to follow the lives of the staff and pupils at the fictional multi-cultural academy school, Ackley Bridge College, located in the fictitious Yorkshire mill town of Ackley Bridge. It’s grown from six episodes in Season One, to 12 in Season Two, and eight in the upcoming Season Three. In the opening stanza, we watched what happens after budget cuts force the merger of two schools in a racially divided British and Pakistani community. As such, it explores “the turbulent school experience, covering the challenges of prejudice and cultural issues in the school environment, as well as the humor, relationships and conflict had by the pupils, teachers and parents.” With key characters and plotlines already established, the writers were able to dig deeper into issues common to the students, teachers and community. “Ackley Bridge” has been compared favorably to the BBC’s long-running school dramas, “Waterloo Road” and “Grange Hill.”

The Australia/New Zealand co-production, “800 Words,” is a dramedy series about George Turner, a popular newspaper columnist and recent widower, who decides it’s time for a big change in his life. (The title relates to the mandated length of his columns.) After his wife dies, he buys — over the internet and sight unseen – an unfinished home in the wee seaside town of Weld, N.Z. It’s where his parents took him on holiday as a child. The first dilemma he faced came when he had to break the news to his two teenage children, Shay and Arlo. The second involved his new neighbors, who, while colorful, are nosy and disruptive. The soap-opera atmosphere is balanced by situations unique to small towns in exotic locales. The bad news is that “800 Words” – a staple on many PBS affiliates – has been canceled after three seasons.

 

The DVD Wrap: Robin Hood, Overlord, Alexanderplatz, Rodrigo D., Happy Hour, Moko Jumbie, Last Race, Joseph H. Lewis, Backtrace, Backbeat … More

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

Robin Hood: Blu-ray/4K UHD
At one time or another, we’ve all been asked to consider the great conundrum of the 20th Century: if you were able to go back in history and kill a tyrant, before he assumed power, would you? The easy answer  is, yes. What, then, if the despot’s replacement turned out to be even worse? The same applies in Hollywood. What if some smart cookie had talked his boss out of investing in a dubious biopic of John Gotti, only for the money to be spent on something demonic, like “Battlefield Earth II” or “The Postman Returns”? Worse things happen all the time, I suppose. I wonder, though, if a soothsayer had warned producer Leonardo DiCaprio against pouring a small fortune into Otto Bathurst and writer Ben Chandler’s Robin Hood, would  his Appian Way Productions have redirected the money into, say, another collaboration with Martin Scorsese, like The Revenant and The Wolf of Wall Street? Universal and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood (2010) would have bombed if Russell Crowe weren’t a box-office force around the world. WB and Kevin Reynold’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) did well, too, but, at the time, Kevin Costner was still at the top of his game. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) gave Mel Brooks one last big-screen hurrah, before he turned his comic intentions toward Broadway, voice-overs and television. You’d think, by 2018, that Hollywood would have exhausted any interest in Mr. Hood and his Merry Men. Where was the upside? Not surprisingly, perhaps, the geniuses decided that a Robin Hood that borrowed liberally from the Wachowskis’ V for Vendetta (2005) and Baz Luhrmann and DiCaprio’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) could pump fresh blood into a character whose cinematic career began in 1908, in Percy Stow’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1908)? Talk about re-inventing the wheel. According to the creative folks interviewed in the bonus material: the set and costume designers were instructed to make everything one-third historically correct, one-third contemporary and one-third futuristic. That Columbia Pictures is said to have bought the script for its “universe” of Marvel superheroes also explains why it looks like a movie made for teenage boys with a comic-book fetish. Casting Bono’s 5-foot-1-inch daughter, Eve Hewson, and asking her to spark a revolt in the streets of Nottingham, probably wasn’t a good idea, either.

But, then, Taron Egerton (Robin), Jamie Foxx (John), Ben Mendelsohn (the sheriff) and Tim Minchin (Friar Tuck) don’t always feel comfortable in their tights, either. Worse, Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlett is reimagined as a competitor for Marion’s hand, with Robin, and a potential ally to the evil oligarchs. It all squares with Bathurst’s stated desire to turn Robin Hood into more of a rock ’n’ roll, action flick for a new generation of viewers. (In a gala party scene, the damsels are dressed for a long day’s night in Las Vegas, while their suitors favor “Star Trek” fashions.) The revisions arrive out of nowhere, absent context, and interrupt any flow Bathurst has managed to develop in the opening scenes. Otherwise, stripped of all the nonsensical revisionism and before being drafted into the Third Crusades, Lord Robin of Loxley lives in Nottingham, enjoying a good life with his lover Marian. It’s in the Holy Land that Lord Robin meets, fights and fails to save John the Moor’s son from being executed by his commander, Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Anderson). After four years away from England, Robin is surprised to learn that he’s been declared dead and his property has been seized on the sheriff’s orders, on behalf of the corrupt Cardinal Franklin (F. Murray Abraham). The citizens are being taxed to pay for the Crusades, while the Church is pocketing the tariffs. Robin and his not-so-merry men need only follow the money to plot their insurrection. And, while there’s plenty of explosive action to keep teenagers interested – including some terrific archery effects – it takes viewers far too long to sort long-cherished legend from revisionary text. Most of Robin’s altruistic thievery takes place off-screen, in a Sherwood Forest that is left to the imagine. Mendelsohn’s sheriff may be constructed from pure evil, but his forces are too easily outfoxed by a handful of rag-tag rebels. The climax is left open-ended, of course, but it seems unlikely that there will be many takers for a sequel. The bonus features add the hour-long “Outlaws and Auteurs: Reshaping Robin Hood,” outtakes and a deleted scene. Another plus: the 4K UHD edition is a gem.

Overlord: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
After watching Julius Avery’s Nazi-zombie thriller, Overlord, I thought it might be fun to see if the conceit was a one-off or something more familiar to genre specialists. Sure enough, there were enough titles to constitute a sub-genre of its own: Jesus Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies (1982), the video-game-based Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001), the Outpost trilogy (2008), Joel Schumacher’s Blood Creek (2009), Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves (1977) and Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow (2009). And, yes, there are several more, all relating to experiments designed to create undead super-soldiers or resurrecting Hitler. In fact, Overlord was released in the same week as Nazi Overlord, a bargain-basement knockoff that starred Tom Sizemore, of course. As their titles imply, both movies are set within hours of the D-Day landings. In Nazi Overlord, a team of soldiers is sent to Romania to rescue an English scientist (Dominque Swain) being used by Nazis for experiments. The better, theatrically released Overlord follows a platoon of U.S. paratroopers, dropped behind enemy lines that morning for the sole purpose of destroying a radio transmitter believed to be hidden in the steeple of a church in an occupied Normandy town. The village is packed with Germans, guarding the church and killing the occasional insubordinate resident. The American soldiers get a boost from a local woman – red-hot newcomer, Mathilde Ollivier — whose only interest is to protect her young brother. It takes a few hours to prepare for the attack and, in the meantime, an SS officer arrives for a forced sexual encounter. So far, viewers have been kept in the dark about the presence of dozens of human guineas pigs in a heavily guarded cavern below the tower. When a couple of GIs discovers them, however, all hell breaks loose. The ensuing standoff is extremely well choreographed, and the zombies are very combative. Overlord is gory, of course, but not without some humor and emotionally charged moments. The fights are loud and exciting, even by zombie standards, and the makeup effects are excellent. For what it’s worth, in Uwe Boll’s BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011), the female vampire, Rayne, is battling her way through Europe in search of Ekart Brand, a Nazi leader who wants to inject Hitler with her blood in order to transform him into a dhampir and attain immortality. Produced by J.J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber (The Cloverfield Paradox), Overlord arrives with about 50 minutes of making-off material.

Happy Hour: Blu-ray
The bad news about Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s epic drama, Happy Hour, is that its running time is 5 hours and 17 minutes, which is extraordinary even by most arthouse standards. The good news comes in knowing that it will be a long time before viewers – those inclined to forgive gifted filmmakers their excesses, at least — are likely to find another 5-hour-plus movie so worthy of their time and patience. (In France, it was released theatrically in three parts, over three weeks, respectively dubbed “1&2,” “3&4″ and “5.”) On Blu-ray, Happy Hour is divided into two discs, separated at a natural break in the narrative. I couldn’t help but watch the whole thing in one sitting. Still, I have no idea why Hamaguchi selected the title, except as an acknowledgement that only about 60 minutes of its runtime qualifies as being particularly happy or light. It only makes sense when the protagonists share a few laughs over drinks and dinner. Otherwise, the overall tone is one of elongated melancholy. Happy Hour follows the emotional journey of four middle-class women, all 37, who live in the misty port city of Kobe and welcome each other’s company. It isn’t until Jun (Rira Kawamura)  reveals that she’s had an affair and is divorcing her inattentive husband that the worm begins to turn. Jun’s decision causes her friends to re-evaluate their feelings about work, friendship, romance, family and identity. Besides these breaks for drinks and conversation, Hamaguchi interrupts the narrative flow with several brilliant set pieces: a leisurely trip, via aerial tramway, to the top of Mount Rokkō; a half-hour self-awareness session at a New Age performance space, managed by Fumi (Maiko Mihara); a divorce hearing for Jun and her husband, Kohei (Yoshitaka Zahana); a reading at the same performance space, by a writer (Reina Shiihashi) who had a romantic encounter at a spa once frequented by the women; a face-saving visit to the parents of a girl impregnated by the son of Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi); and Akiri’s unpleasant encounter with a subordinate nurse, which leaves her with a broken leg. Potentially, any one of the vignettes could have been excised in their entirety by a heavy-handed studio executive to save time. Blessedly, the they remain intact, as intended, serving Hamaguchi and co-writers Tadashi Nohara and Tomoyuki Takahashi as connecting tissue to other storylines and characters. If this summary doesn’t make Happy Hour sound all that appealing to viewers who tend to check out after 120 minutes, it’s worth knowing ahead of time that the story’s tightly woven fabric is of a piece with the best Japanese cinema, while cast members – almost all of them rigorously rehearsed first-timers – are superb in difficult roles. (They were chosen from an improvisational workshop conducted Hamaguchi when he was artist-in-residence at KIITO Design and Creative Center Kobe.) The Blu-ray comes with an informative 20-minute making-of featurette.

Berlin Alexanderplatz: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15½-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” based on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same title, began its life on West German television in 1980, as a 14-part mini-series. When it was released theatrically in the U.S., three years later, it would be divided into two or three parts and exhibited as if it were a multi-day movie marathon. It garnered a cult following and eventually was released on VHS and shown on PBS and Bravo. In the select world of hit television mini-series, it’s only rivaled by Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” (1989), for Polish television; the BBC’s “I Claudius,” “The Singing Detective,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Jewel in the Crown” and “Downton Abbey”; American television’s “Brothers in Arms,” “Lonesome Dove,” “John Adams,” “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man”; France’s “A French Village”; and Sweden’s “Wallander,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and, with Denmark, “Bron/Broen” (2011). That’s heady company, but “Berlin Alexanderplatz” has not only stood the test of time, but also put a foot in the door of American markets for long-form, foreign-language programming. At 34, Fassbinder had already made more than 30 films, some of them among the most radically conceived of the various international new-wave movements. His immersive epic follows the hulking, childlike ex-convict Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht) as he attempts to “become an honest soul” amid the corrosive urban landscape of Weimar-era Germany. With equal parts cynicism and humanity, Fassbinder details a mammoth portrait of a common man struggling to survive in a viciously uncommon time. The Criterion release is highlighted by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation and Bavaria Media’s hi-def digital restoration, supervised, and approved by director of photography Xaver Schwarzenberger, with a DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; separate documentaries by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation president Juliane Lorenz, one with cast/crew interviews and the other on the restoration; Hans-Dieter Hartl’s 1980 documentary, “Notes on the Making of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’”; Phil Jutzi’s 1931 feature-length film of Döblin’s novel, from a screenplay cowritten by the author; a 2007 interview with Peter Jelavich, author of “Berlin Alexanderplatz: Radio, Film and the Death of Weimar Culture”; a book featuring an essay by filmmaker Tom Tykwer, reflections on the novel by Fassbinder and author Thomas Steinfeld, and an interview with DP Schwarzenberger.

Rodrigo D.: No Future
Not of This World
A Woman Without Love
The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales
Shelter Song: Art from the Homeless
In the formative years of VHS/Beta, one of the few reliable places to find and rent cassettes from the American underground, foreign distributors of arthouse films and documentaries was Facets Multimedia. Founded in 1975, the non-profit Chicago-based organization and cinematheque has also exhibited obscure and newly restored titles of consequence from Eastern Europe and post-colonial nations. Through  some miracle of word-of-mouth marketing, dogged persistence and innovative programming, it still does. The package of recently released films partially reveals the breadth of Facets’ menu.

From Colombia, Víctor Gaviria’s Rodrigo D: No Future (1990) tells the brutal tale of impoverished teenagers trying to make their way in one of the world’s toughest and most densely populated cities: Medellin. In 1988, it was known as the home of the Medellín Cartel, funded by Pablo Escobar, and was fought over by rival suppliers of cocaine to the world. If any of Escobar’s well-known largesse trickled down to the young people we meet in the city’s high-altitude barrios, it isn’t visible in Rodrigo D: No Future. Rodrigo (Ramiro Meneses) dreams of playing drums in a punk-rock band, whose music would be as angry and violent as the musicians, themselves. His pickup band’s music, which is rarely heard outside the slum, emerges as temporary salvation from a web of violence, fear, aimlessness, drugs, booze and jail. It doesn’t last long, however. Gaviria’s title makes it clear to viewers not to expect a happy ending, and the incessant beat of Rodrigo’s drum sticks – absent a decent set of skins to play – only propels the tension to an inevitable climax. The characters have been compared to those in Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, and desperate youth in City of God and Pixote. In a postscript, we learn that some of the young actors and real-life street toughs in the movie met violent ends before the film was released.

Giuseppe Piccioni’s Not of This World tells the story of a young nun, Caterina (Margherita Buy), who, like most such women in the movies, comes to a point in her life where her faith is tested by God, fate or love. Unlike most nuns and priests in films, however, Caterina’s dilemma comes at a time when she’s well-suited to confronting it and making rational decisions, founded on deep-seated beliefs. Bay’s portrayal is informed by a quiet strength and determination to do the right thing without consulting anyone, except her own conscience. Not that it matters much within the narrative, but Caterina not only is atypically pretty, but her calling came a bit later in life than it did for her fellow novitiates. One even gets the feeling she’s been around the block a time or two. While strolling through a large Milanese park, one day, Caterina is handed a baby swathed in a sweater by a jogger. He found the infant alongside the jogging path and can hardly wait to hand the hot potato to someone else. Caterina takes the baby to a hospital, but she appears to have developed an emotional attachment to the child in the short time he was in her arms. Naturally, viewers are free to assume that the nun’s crisis will come when she’s forced to choose between motherhood and the convent. Instead, Caterina embarks on a mission to pair the foundling with one of his parents, at least. Her first lead comes by tracing the sweater to the owner of a dry-cleaning shop, Ernesto (Silvio Orlando), an unhappy nebbish, who, it turns out, may have slept with the child’s mother. Ernesto is a mess. Although his business is successful, he frets about it continually. The stress has affected his already weak heart and discovering he’s possibly the father could cause him to have another heart attack, this one fatal. It could, but it doesn’t. Instead, he partners with Caterina in her search, even going so far as to participate with her in chores and bingo at the convent. Again, Piccioni invites viewers to anticipate a marriage of convenience between them. Other, less obvious forces are at play here, however. Ludovico Einaudi’s ethereal score adds a touch of magic that complements all of Not of This World’s many twists and turns. A short making-of featurette arrives with the DVD.

Luis Buñuel reportedly dismissed A Woman Without Love (1952) — a Sirkian melodrama from his 18-year, 21-movie creative period in Mexico — as his “worst film.” Even if contemporary critics and historians took Bunuel at his word, however, most other directors would be happy to claim it as their own. Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s “Pierre et Jean,” A Woman Without Love is absent any hint of the director’s trademark surrealism. Intended as a commercial vehicle, it still manages to skewer bourgeois values, with subtle humor and sharply etched characters. Rosario (Rosario Granados) is unhappily married to Don Carlos Montero (Julio Villarreal), an upper-class antiques dealer, who rescued her family from poverty in exchange for her hand. After a theft at school, for which their son, Carlitos, is blamed, the boy reacts to his father’s severe scolding by running away from home. A couple of days later, Carlitos is discovered by a team of foresters and returned to his parents. In addition to being extremely grateful for the supervising engineer’s kindness, Mr. and Mrs. Monteros develop a bond of friendship with Julio (Tito Junco). Rosario’s feelings for Julio extend beyond mere friendship, however. He serves as a receptacle for the younger woman’s pain, which only makes her that much more appealing to him. Julio also helps Carlos through a medical crisis. A visit to Julio’s worksite, absent Carlos for most of the day, provides the couple an opportunity to connect as lovers, although nothing sexual is shown. Just as they’re about to run off to a new life in Brazil, Carlos suffers a severe heart attack. He survives, but it unnerves Rosario to the point where she cancels her plans. The movie flashes forward 20 years, or so, to the point in the story where Carlitos and his younger brother, Miguel, have graduated from medical school and are planning to develop a clinic. One day, a telegram alerts the Monteros to Julio’s death and his desire to leave his fortune to Miguel, who’s never met the man. The mystery deepens considerably from there, even though viewers will have already put all the clues together themselves. Just when it appears as if the Monteros family is about to be torn apart by the ambiguity of the bequest, fate steps in to clarify the situation. Most soap operas take weeks to work out the same number of kinks as Bunuel does in 85 minutes.

Considering how desperate Hollywood studios are for compelling stories, both new and time-honored, it’s odd that so few of Arthur Machen’s works have been adapted. Active between 1888 and 1940, the Welsh writer was consumed with the occult, horror, Christian and Celtic mysticism, fantasy and legends. As such, his works have influenced novelists, ranging from Algernon Blackwood, Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft, to Peter Straub, Guillermo del Toro and Stephen King. Machen’s novel “The Secret Glory” – published in 1922, but completed in 1908 — marked the first use in fiction of the possibility that the Holy Grail survived into modern times in some form. The same idea has informed Charles Williams (“War in Heaven”), Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) and George Lucas (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Nonetheless, The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (1960) is one of only five stories adapted into films from Machen’s bibliography. It would have been a perfect match for Roger Corman and Vincent Price, for instance. Instead, the prolific Mexican writer/director Luis Alcoriza (Always Further On) — a frequent collaborator with Buñuel — adapted The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales for director Rogelio A. González (Agony to Be a Mother) from Machen’s “The Islington Mystery.” In it, the quiet, if occasionally soused taxidermist Pablo Morales (Arturo de Córdova) is the long-suffering husband of Gloria (Amparo Rivelles), a prudish hypochondriac who wears her orthodox Catholicism on her sleeve. Finally, when he’s had enough of her sanctimonious behavior and generous contributions to a local priest, Pablo uses his scientific training to concoct a semi-tragic end to his misery and a perpetual place in heaven for his wife, alongside her lord and savior. When Pablo puts a human skeleton on display in the shop’s front window, the priest convinces police that it once belonged to Gloria and he should face the consequences for her death. There’s no need to spoil anyone’s fun, by describing what happens at his trial and afterwards. Suffice it to say that it’s of a piece with the rest of the story and, if you will, comparable literary-based thrillers produced by Corman. Over-the-top performances and an ironic, final twist make this film by Rogelio A. González a timeless satire of weepy melodramas.

Even at 26 minutes, Shelter Song: Art From the Homeless provides a vivid reminder of the artistic talents that lie hidden inside the hearts and souls of people who’ve been relegated to the scrap heaps of society. Documentarian Joan Laskoff disputes the common misconception that art is too intangible or too impractical to create social change, by discovering artists and performers who prove that creativity can exist even in the most dire circumstances. The film explores the work of men, women and children who either are or have been homeless, providing a candid look at their lives and context for their vehicles for expression, from painting to hip hop. Laskoff’s film gives invaluable insight into the therapeutic, empowering and political potential of art, as well as the transformation that comes from peer and tutorial approval and fresh, clean clothes.

Moko Jumbie
Down by Love
Nude Area
Ferahfeza
Blue Movie: Blu-ray
More recent imports than the ones released by Facets are every bit as intriguing and obscure. All involve love and romance in one way or another … sex, too.

Vashti Anderson’s debut film, Moko Jumbie, is a “gothic punk Caribbean love story,” set among the ruins of a coconut plantation in rural Trinidad. An English teenager, Asha (Vanna Girod), has returned to her Indo-Caribbean family home, where, if nothing else, no one dismisses her generically as a “Paki.” Asha is staying with her aunt and uncle (Sharda Maharaj, Dinesh Maharaj), whose ancestors were led to Trinidad by the British to work on the sugar-cane farms after slavery was abolished. When the industry dried up, most of the Indians couldn’t afford the fare to their native home, where they might have faced issues related to their caste. Although Trinidad is generally considered to be multicultural, a longstanding strain between African and Indian populations has persisted. Asha’s uncle says that the Africans and Indians keep fighting each other, while the British get richer. Almost immediately, she’s drawn to Roger (Jeremy Thomas), the Afro-Caribbean boy who lives across the road in a house that’s best described as delightfully ramshackle. The taboo attraction between the two teenagers grows despite family disapproval, political turmoil, a clash between cultures and mysterious hauntings by stick-walkers, representing mythic spirits from the Middle Passage. Tempers flare when auntie’s nest egg  of gold jewelry is stolen from a barely concealed hiding place. Issues pertaining to identity and the desire to connect with one’s roots are interwoven with those pertaining to superstition and spirituality. The musical soundtrack is also worth a visit.

From French director Pierre Godeau (Juliette), Down by Love is driven by an incendiary performance by Adéle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), as Anna, an inmate in a women’s prison. It’s where she meets Jean (Guillame Gallienne), the warden who can’t resist her raw, natural beauty and faux air of vulnerability. Jean is happily married to Elise (Stéphanie Cléau), who also works at the detention center. She’s beautiful and sexy, too, but Jean can’t resist the lure of Anna’s youthful vitality. As he devices more excuses for them to connect, it becomes increasingly obvious to prisoners and staff that he’s developed a taste for forbidden fruit. His superiors have also been made aware of it, along with a discrepancy in the numbers pertaining purchases. (Apparently, he’s saving the prison too much money … a clear indication that he’s either dealing with black-market sources or has blocked an avenue for kickbacks to others.) Viewers will also be asked to judge Anna’s true intentions toward Jean. Based on a true story, Down by Love explores the power of right, wrong and unleashed passion.

Although the title makes Nude Area sound more prurient than it is, the steam that clouds the female-only sauna, where nudity means equality, can be interpreted literally and figuratively. In a series of 15 dialogue-free vignettes, Urszula Antoniak’s third feature tells the sensual and seductive story of forbidden love between two very different girls, living in Amsterdam. Native Dutch teenager Naomi (Sammy Boonstra) hails from posh Amsterdam South, while Fama is a Muslim beauty, Fama (Imaan Hammam), from the poor quarter of Amsterdam East. They meet each other in the spa, where, among other things, fashionable clothes are left inside lockers and head scarfs can’t be worn. Even so, their body language delivers messages that words can’t fully convey. Piotr Sobocinski Jr.’s cinematography and music by Pawel Mykietyn and Ethan Rose amplify what’s happening inside the girl’s hearts and minds.

In Elif Refig’s debut feature, Ferahfeza (a.k.a., “Ships”), Istanbul is as essential a character as the youthful would-be lovers and adventurers, Ali (Ugur Uzunel) and Eda (M. Sitare Akbas). Confined to the ancient, teeming city, which straddles Europe and Asia, they’re mere cogs in a hugely impersonal machine. On its fringes, however, they find room to dream and pursue their own creative avenues. Although he isn’t fond of the work, Ali spends time on the water, servicing ships docked in the bustling port. It’s his father’s business and Ali imagines a world beyond the horizon. At every opportunity, his minds drifts towards thoughts of signs that will guide him to a happier life. One night, Ali climbs up to a billboard platform, and sees a half-finished mural of a ship on the side of an abandoned building. Upon meeting its creator, Ada (M. Sitare Akbas), he is certain she will accompany him to faraway lands. In the port, they search for the ship, “Vamos,” that repeatedly appears in Ali’s dreams and visions.

An early example of European soft-core erotica, Blue Movie (1971) provided a test of the ongoing liberalization of laws and attitudes towards nudity and depictions of sex in movies. A product of Holland, it joined Radley Metzger’s Camille 2000 (1969) and The Lickerish Quartet (1970), cleared the way for such X-rated blockbusters as Deep Throat (1972) and Emmanuelle (1974). Unlike their successors, they offered voyeurs – er, viewers – recognizable narrative structure and, in some cases, wonderful scenery, as well as female protagonists. In Blue Movie, however, the central character is a 25-year-old ex-con, Michael (Hugo Metsers), who’s just been released on parole after spending five years in jail for having sex with an underage girl. His parole officer has placed him in a high-rise apartment building, while he looks for work. Not so coincidentally, it’s populated with dozens of gorgeous predatory women – married and otherwise – who love the idea of taking advantage of a handsome guy who’s been celibate for five years. The sexual revolution has been fought in Michael’s absence and won by the libertines, so anything goes. It allows for several amusing meet-and-greets with his neighbors, who couldn’t possibly be more horny. The overriding question, however, is whether Michael can find something resembling normal love and a permanent relationship. Among the actress are Carry Tefsen, Ine Veen, Bruni Heinke, Ursula Blauth and Monique Smal. The controversial release made a small fortune for producer Pim de la Parra and his partner/director Wim Verstappen. (Jan De Bont was the director of photography.) The Blu-ray boasts a fresh HD restoration and transfer by Eye Film Institute; new interviews with Verstappen, De la Parra and Metsers; a featurette on the Eye Film Institute; a poster and photo gallery; and vintage Scorpio Films theatrical trailers.

Skinner: Blu-ray
Some horror movies slip through the cracks, disappearing completely or eventually achieving cult status. Others ooze through the same fissures, biding their time until someone discovers them, lying just below the surface of the floor. Ivan Nagy and writer Paul Hart-Wilden’s 1993 contribution to the miseducation of American youth, Skinner, didn’t make its video debut here until 1995, delayed by one of Cannon Films’ many bankruptcies and legal blockades. Nagy’s involvement in Heidi Fleiss’ prostitution scandal didn’t help Skinner’s chances for finding wide distribution, or that it was barred for release on VHS and DVD in the UK and Australia. From a distance of 25 years, Skinner is as repulsive as it ever was, but the inky black humor is a lot easier to find on Blu-ray. Probably inspired by Psycho’s Norman Bates and The Silence of the Lambs’ Jame Gumb, who, themselves, were patterned after Wisconsin’s most notorious ghoul, Ed Gein, Nagy’s titular antagonist is a serial killer who mostly targets solitary female pedestrians and prostitutes. He flays his victims in an unused backroom of the factory where he works as a janitor, and stitches together pieces of skin, as if he were making a costume for a superhero alter ego. Tired of being hassled at work by a black co-worker, Skinner (Ted Raimi) even goes so far as to murder the bully, relieve him of his skin and repeat his jive dialogue while pursing a prostitute. (This conceit probably wouldn’t pass muster in the Black Lives Matter era.) Skinner lives in a boarding house owned by Kerry Tate (Ricki Lake) and her ill-tempered husband, Geoff (David Warshofsky), who also gets on the killer’s last nerve. The beauty part in all this nonsense is the unexpected presence of Heidi (Traci Lords), a vampire with physical deformities, who looks and dresses like Stevie Nicks. Heidi’s become obsessed with avenging an attack by Skinner and stalks him on his nightly creeps. There’s isn’t much more to the story, except for the entertainment value in watching the building supervisor, played by Richard Schiff (“The West Wing”), peep on Heidi without understanding the possible consequences. The uncut Severin package, which benefits from a 4K remaster, features some of the earliest effects work by KNB EFX Group (“The Walking Dead”). The featurettes include “A Touch of Scandal,” an interview with Nagy; “Under His Skin,” with Raimi; “Bargain Bin VHS for a Buck,” with screenwriter Paul Hart-Wilden (“1000 Ways to Die”); “Cutting Skinner,” with editor Jeremy Kasten; and barely watchable out-takes and extended takes from a flaying sequence.

Backtrace: Blu-ray
The greatest amount of noise being generated from this year’s Oscar hoedown derives from debates over the future of Hollywood interests vs.  those of streaming and distribution services provided by Netflix, Amazon and other off-brand companies. The controversy isn’t new or particularly fresh. AMPAS prefers to remain a reactionary force within the greater filmmaking community, protecting well-entrenched and deep-pocketed interests over those representing new schools of thought and technology. In 2017, the Cannes Film Festival decided not to let films done exclusively for Netflix or other streaming services participate in its prestigious soiree, stating that it wants to preserve the traditional way of watching and making films. In 2018, Netflix announced a boycott of the festival, and Roma instead went to the Venice festival. In retaliation, Netflix announced a boycott of the 2018 festival, taking Roma to the Venice festival, instead. If Alfonso Cuarón’s memory play weren’t the Academy Awards’ frontrunner or merely was relegated to the Best Foreign Language category – as is AMPAS’ usual fallback position — the media might have delayed the Great Debate for another year.

None of this is related to any criticism of director Brian A. Miller and Emmett/Furla/Oasis Films’ Backtrace, a fingerpaint-by-numbers genre flick, distinguished solely by the presence of Sylvester Stallone, Matthew Modine and enough firepower to launch a coup in Venezuela. Miller’s directed several of Bruce Willis’ recent actioners, while EFO’s name has been attached to such limited-release and direct-to-PPV/DVD exercises as Gotti, Escape Plan, Acts of Violence, Aftermath, Reprisal, Inconceivable, Exposed and Heist. The common denominator in all of them – apart from certain genre tropes and clichés – is the listless presence of one or two bona-fide stars from a previous era, if only as marketing aids for streaming and foreign revenues. The younger, less universally known cast members do almost all the heavy lifting, which is frequently just as  well. Among the other one-time A-listers in EFO’s stable have been John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nicolas Cage, John Cusack, Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Keanu Reeves Mira Sorvino and Gina Gershon.

Now, here’s the rub, EFO has also employed multiple award-winners Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns), Martin Scorsese (The Silence) and Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) in respectable mainstream projects. If, hypothetically, such production and distribution companies as EFO, Grindstone (Affairs of State), thefyzz (A Private War), WWE Studios (The Call) or, for that matter, Troma Entertainment (Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies), should discover a pearl cast into a pigpen of genre muck, they be given demerits by AMPAS for their streaming, direct-to-video and PPV pasts? Roma began its post-festival life with a limited theatrical run here, three weeks before it started streaming on Netflix on December 14, 2018. The same day-and-date distribution strategy is being applied to many high-profile studio releases. Why should Netflix be held to a higher standard at Cannes or by diehard observers of Oscar standards and practices. The ceremony, after all, has become just another  made-for-TV fashion show. By the time the academy’s contract with ABC runs out, it isn’t difficult to imagine the rights being sold to Netflix, HBO or the Food Network, if it’s the highest bidder. How ironic would that be?

Back to Backtrace, though, for a minute. It opens seven years in the past, when Mac (Modine) was part of a well-organized crew that stole $20 million from a Savannah bank. Before being ambushed by the gang’s silent partners, Mac managed to hide the cash. After he’s shot in the head and left for dead by the shortsighted crooks, he slips into a coma and awakens in a state hospital facility. Apparently suffering from retrograde amnesia. he can’t recall where the money is hidden. It not only frustrates the remaining bank robbers, but also police detective Sykes (Stallone) and the FBI. One day, Mac is surprised by a soon-to-be-paroled inmate, Lucas (Ryan Guzman), who offers him a chance to escape, although he’s not sure why, exactly. Joined by nurse Erin (Meadow Willis) and generic hard-ass Farren (Tyler Jon Olson), Lucas forces Mac to take an experimental memory enhancer to help clear his mind. It does appear to work, but only in painful fits and starts. News of Mac’s escape immediately captures the attention of Sykes and FBI Agent Franks (Christopher McDonald), who join forces for one last attempt to clear the case. (Anyone familiar with McDonald’s resume will know that his duplicitous characters tend not to reveal their evil side until they’ve gained the faith of his enemies.) Sadly, Mike Maples’ story never overcomes its Swiss-cheese plot. Even if Stallone, at 72, looks as if he should have retired when he turned 65, Modine picks up some of the slack, with a performance that recalls his character in Alan Parker’s PTSD drama, Birdy (1984).

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
How do parents and teachers in the South explain slavery to students whose knowledge of the abomination may be limited to the most basic excuses employed by generations of historians, economists and partisans? I suspect that most nuanced discussions are left for educators at the college level, where politicians are less likely to censor textbooks. This also includes consideration of the contradictory role played by northern industrialists and planters, who weren’t as offended by slavery as we’ve been let believe. Issues raised in the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 still resonate today, more than 150 years after the spilt blood dried. Wait, what, draft riots? How many of us were taught that rich people in the North could pay $300 – or hire a substitute – to avoid the draft, just as hypocritical Southern planters and corrupt officials worked the system in favor of their sons and heirs. Only those who watched Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.”

Watching Isaac Julien and co-writer Mark Nash’s incisive docudrama, Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1995), prompted me to wonder how students in countries whose economies thrived under colonialism learn about the black stains in their histories. It’s easy to see how the chickens of colonialism have come home to roost on the walls built to contain immigrants from the lands of their former masters. War- and poverty-ravaged immigrants need only follow the roots of the languages the were required to learn to find refuge from the storm. Just as issues raised by Fanon (Colin Salmon) in such books as “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) raised the political and social consciousness of enslaved people nearly 70 years ago, many of the same theories hold true today. The Martinique-born, Paris-educated author, intellectual, psychiatrist and activist was credited – when he wasn’t being condemned and censored – with pioneering studies of the psychological impact of racism on both colonized and colonizer. Jean-Paul Sartre recognized Fanon as the figure “through whose voice the Third World finds and speaks for itself.” The 70-minute Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask takes an impressionistic, almost poetic approach to his theories of identity and race, as it traces his involvement in the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, which set the table for liberation movements around the world. Even if Fanon’s posthumous influence on left-wing, anti-war and anti-colonial activists and students probably peaked in 1970s, many of the same issues he raised have remained unresolved since then. Julien is also responsible for such prize-winning films as Derek (2008), Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991). Bonus features include Nash’s short film, “Between Two Worlds” (1992), and essays by the filmmakers.

Docs to DVD
The Last Race
Canine Soldiers
To the Edge of the Sky
PBS: NOVA: Operation Bridge Rescue
PBS: American Masters: Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me
Any similarities between Michael Dweck’s elegiac documentary, The Last Race, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show may be coincidental, but the effect is the same.  Even if his choice of classical music to back up the otherwise percussive sounds of a stock-car arena appears to be an ironic conceit, it grows on you. As we’re reminded in a historical prelude, stock-car racing originated on Long Island in 1927, the same year as Charles Lindbergh embarked for France from the same hallowed ground. At its post-WWII heyday, Long Island was home to more than 40 small-track ovals. While NASCAR expanded in the south and west, erasing its good-ol’-boy roots along the way, racetracks in the northeast became victims of suburban sprawl and the malling of America. The focus here is on Riverhead Raceway, in Suffolk County, a quarter-mile track that now stands as the last of the Mohicans. It opened as a dirt track in 1951, before permanently changing over to asphalt in 1955. Although Dweck doesn’t dwell on it, the raceway is also known locally for a towering statue of a Native American warrior, dubbed “Chief Running Fair,” standing at its gates. Both the track and statue are surrounded by megamalls distinguished by, well, large parking lots. Dweck is a photographer, who’s been a fan of stock car racing since childhood. He had been shooting stills at the track for five years when he got the idea for a documentary, and he enlisted Gregory Kershaw as both cinematographer and co-producer. Besides the film’s high-art trappings, it’s distinguished by a grounds-up approach to the sport and its participants, who are blue-collar to their core. It also introduces us to 87-year-old owners, Barbara and Jim Cromarty, who’ve run the place for 37 years, but are being courted by developers who want to make them multimillionaires. It’s an Oscar-quality documentary that should appeal to any adult or teenagers who’s ever dreamed of taking the family car out for a fast and messy spin. The DVD adds extended interviews.

I’ve seen a dozen documentaries about dogs trained to serve the military in combat and as working pets for wounded and blind veterans and civilians. Like their owners, service dogs now come in a variety of shapes, sizes and breeds, not just shades of German shepherd. Canine Soldiers stands out for its willingness to acknowledge the moral and ethical concerns of putting our best four-footed friends in harm’s way, so their human counterparts can avoid death in the name of someone in Washington’s corrupt political agenda. Moreover, the film answers any questions about whether combat canines are capable of suffering from PTSD – they are – and the same separation anxiety that affects their handlers when they’re sent home. One needn’t be a card-carrying member of PETA see how such issues approximate the same moral equivalencies that apply to captive animals used to test cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and fashion trends. That, however, is only part of what we’re asked to consider in Nancy Schiesari’s 66-minute film. Mostly, it’s dominated by footage showing the dogs in training and at work, where they’re susceptible to the same bullets and bombs as the rest of the men and women in their units. Like them, too, not all dogs are suited to combat and other stressful situations. If they’re accorded the same military rites as those reserved for humans killed in action – as depicted here — it’s only because they deserve it.

Jedd and Todd Wider’s heart-wrenching and provocative documentary, To the Edge of the Sky, accomplishes several important things simultaneously. By chronicling the evolution of four mothers from caregivers to political activists, it demonstrates how far parents will go before giving up on children assumed to be terminally ill. It also describes the commitment by patients, researchers, nurses and volunteers to get over some painfully frustrating obstacles. Even more to the point, we’re given another reason to believe that federal bureaucracies – the FDA, specifically – are more prone to work against the interests of sick people than to risk lawsuits, political blowback and pressure of lobbyists who only answer to corporations.  To the Edge of the Sky follows the battle of four American mothers whose sons are diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, described as the No. 1 genetic killer of boys. They’ve learned of a treatment that shows promise, but whose development and testing have been blocked by the FDA. It’s a common problem, really, and one that could be mitigated by allowing parents to voluntarily enlist their children in trials and experiments that might be their last hope. They would be required to sign away their right to sue the manufacturers of drugs that fail to work, along with the agencies supervising the process, but why not give it a shot? The women’s efforts led to passage of the federal Right to Try Bill —  a.k.a., “Dallas Buyers Club” – and similar legislation in more than 38 states. Of course, such legislation comes with known hazards and limitations. Still, seeing the joy in the faces of parents and children, who once were doomed to an early death, explains why the bill was able to gain bipartisan support in Congress.

Until it was destroyed by Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Old Blenheim Bridge, which spanned Schoharie Creek in North Blenheim, N.Y., was the longest surviving single-span covered bridge in the world. The “NOVA” presentation “Operation Bridge Rescue” follows an elite team of engineers, commissioned to faithfully reproduce the intricate timber structure that characterized the bridge, which opened in 1855. We also witness traditional Chinese artisans restoring ancient covered bridges to ensure their survival.

It’s been almost 29 years since Sammy Davis Jr., one of the greatest entertainers in show-business history, succumbed to throat cancer at the age of 64. After smoking four packs of cigarettes a day for much of his adult life, the doctors’ bad news couldn’t have come as any surprise to Davis. Impressionists, including Billy Crystal, have kept his memory alive for people who were born after his final appearances on stage and on television. So did the recent resurgence in interest in the Rat Pack and mid-century Las Vegas. PBS’ “Sammy Davis Jr: I’ve Gotta Be Me” digs much further back in Davis’ life than that, to his amazing childhood, struggle to attain stardom, survive racism in the army and entertainment industry, and recover from an automobile accident that cost him an eye. Some humiliations hit harder than others: JFK, who benefitted from the Rat Pack’s fund-raising support, canceled Davis’ appearance at the Inauguration, because he recently married a white woman. (A previous affair with Kim Novak nearly prompted Frank Sinatra’s pals in the Mafia, at the behest of a studio executive, to take his one good eye.) For a previous generation of young Americans, Davis’ very public hugging of President Nixon, along with a tour of American bases in Vietnam, wiped out a lifetime of good will and financial support for civil-rights groups and individual activists, without seeking recognition. Each time his career stalled, Davis found ways to return to the spotlight. One of them was a timely ability to pick hit songs – “Mr. Bojangles,” “Candy Man,” “I Gotta Be Me,” “What Kind of Fool Am I?” – and, the other, to never shortchange an audience. The PBS special captures the Davis’ spirit, energy and contradictions in such chapters as Hoofer, Singer, Impressionist, Leading Man, Rebel and Activist. It also includes clips of Davis in performance and interviews with current stars.

So Dark the Night: Special Edition: Blu-ray
My Name Is Julia Ross: Special Edition: Blu-ray
This month, Arrow Academy is celebrating the film noir of Joseph H. Lewis, a Brooklyn-born director of B-movies in several different genres. His reputation among auteur theorists began to grow only after his retirement, in 1966. An earlier heart attack limited his work in movies, but he continued to direct television Westerns. After his retirement, Lewis kept his foot in the door by lecturing at film schools and festivals, while also participating in special screenings and retrospectives in the U.S. and Europe. In 1997, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on him. Along with Gun Crazy (1950), his most memorable noir titles are So Dark the Night (1946) and My Name Is Julia Ross (1945). So Dark the Night is a Hitchcockian tale of mystery and intrigue, in which a renowned Paris detective (Steven Geray) departs to the country for a much-needed break. He falls in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, Nanette (Micheline Cheire, who is already betrothed to a local farmer. On the evening of their engagement party, Nanette and the farmer both disappear. Cassin volunteers to discover what happened to them and who is responsible. Curiously, a sketch of the prime suspect resembles the detective. There’s a very good reason for that, even if he doesn’t understand how such a thing could happen. Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde) effectively used his camera to create a rural noir with Expressionist shadings. The black-and-white Blu-ray adds commentary with critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme; the featurette, “So Dark: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia,” with critic Imogen Sara Smith; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tonci Zonjic; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing by critic David Cairns

At 65 minutes, Lewis’ gothic melodrama My Name Is Julia Ross is six minutes shorter than So Dark the Night, which must have pleased exhibitors interested in selling more popcorn and candy between shows. It might not have gone down so well with customers expecting 180 minutes’ worth of entertainment for their investment in a double feature, not counting cartoons, newsreels and trailers. Reportedly, Lewis’ first movie for Columbia was so well-received that it was promoted to A-feature status in mid-run. Nina Foch portrays the title character, who, after a surgical procedure, is in desperate need of work. After answering an ad placed by an employment agency, Julia not only is hired, but also told to report to duty that night in a Cornish mansion resting precariously on a seaside cliff. Viewers have already been shown evidence of a devious scheme, but Julia will have to wait her turn. Soon enough, she learns that she’ll be impersonating the late wife of the mansion’s psychotic owner (George Macready). Fortunately, she’s sent an emergency message about her whereabouts to an anxious suitor (Roland Varno), who already is searching for her. The rest of the movie becomes a race to see if Julia is murdered before she can be rescued. There’s a twist at the ending that most people will have figured out beforehand, but, in 1945, might have fooled audiences. Although My Name Is Julia Ross easily qualifies as time-killing fun, it probably could have used another six minutes – or 20 – of exposition to add some flair. The similarly upgraded Blu-ray adds commentary by noir expert Alan K. Rode; “Identity Crisis: Joseph H. Lewis at Columbia,” with Nora “Nitrate Diva” Fiore; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Scott Saslow; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Adrian Martin.

Backbeat: Blu-ray
Last month, pop-culture historians commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ final performance, which famously took place on the roof of the band’s multimedia Apple Corps, at 3 Savile Row. That momentous event ended prematurely when London police arrived, ostensibly in response to the noise and traffic issues. Footage from the performance was used in the 1970 rockumentary, Let It Be, which was accompanied by a studio album, produced by Phil Spector, on May 8, 1970. By then, however, the individual Beatles had already embarked on career paths of their own. (The 50th anniversary of the album’s release begs the question as to whether Spector will be made accessible to reporters’ questions, from his current home, the California Health Care Facility, a prison hospital, in Stockton. In September 2014, it was reported that Spector had lost his ability to speak, owing to laryngeal papillomatosis, so the conversations may be limited to e-mail.) Appropriately, Shout Factory didn’t wait for that landmark anniversary to release Iain Softley’s Backbeat in Blu-ray. That’s because the 1994 film recalls the core group’s earlier roots, which extend back another 10 years, to the Beatles’ 3½ -month residency at a club in Hamburg’s red-light district. At the time, John (Ian Hart), Paul (Gary Bakewell) and George (Chris O’Neill) were accompanied by bass guitarist Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and pre-Ringo drummer, Pete Best (Scot Williams). Backbeat effectively chronicles that grungy period in the band’s history, as well as the departure of Sutcliffe  and overall influence of German photographer/muse Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). The rollicking soundtrack is comprised of songs popularized Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, the Marvelettes, Barrett Strong and Bo Diddley, performed by such contemporary artists as Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs). There’s even a cameo by a pre-Beatles’ Ringo (Paul Duckworth). Bonus features include a conversation with Kirchherr, deleted scenes, interviews with Softley and Hart, a made-for-TV featurette, casting session and commentary with Softley Hart, and Dorff.

Iceman: The Time Traveler: Blu-ray
Hong Kong-based critics really tore into Wai Man Yip’s Iceman: The Time Traveler, dismissing it as an unnecessary sequel to Iceman (2014), a botched remake of a not terribly coherent 1989 time-travel actioner, Iceman Cometh. I kid you, not. Not having seen the earlier movies, I decided to go into Iceman: The Time Traveler blind and somewhat distracted. And, no, it didn’t make much sense to me, either. The basic premise shared by all three films is the protagonist’s ability to bounce between the grounds of a Ming Dynasty palace and contemporary Hong Kong, while chasing criminals and threats to the  crown. In “Time Traveler,” a few more temporal stops are made, including one in Mao-era Beijing and another on a train carrying people anticipating the ruinous Japanese occupation of China. Between those disparate destinations, He Ying (Donnie Yen) and whichever traitor he’s been ordered to chase through time are frozen in ice, until they’re defrosted by some innocent bystander. Facilitating their migrations is an ancient crystal that serves as a remote control for the Golden Wheel of Time – a gyroscope crossed with a Rubik’s cube – devised by an ancient Buddhist mystic to capture and manipulate time. One new twist here involves a young woman, May (Eva Huang), that He befriends in current-day Hong Kong, where she studied the martial arts. Somehow, she manages to hitch a ride on the Golden Wheel of Time, back to the Ming Dynasty’s royal court, only to discover that He’s fiancé has been waiting 10 years for him to return. Teenagers are likely to get more from “Time Traveler” than adults accustomed to less gimmicky Chinese adventures. For them, the first 10 minutes are used to familiarize viewers with what happened in the first two movies.

The DVD Wrapup: Shoplifters, Front Runner, Nobody’s Fool, Peppermint Soda, Haunted Hospital, Valentine, Possum, Mermaid, Guilty, Antonio Lopez, 4 Weddings … More

Thursday, February 14th, 2019

Shoplifters
No one makes movies about families any better than Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, whose Shoplifters was awarded the 2018 Palme d’Or at Cannes and subsequently was nominated in the Best Foreign Language category at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTA. If Roma had been released a year earlier or later, Shoplifters might have hit the cinematic equivalent of a grand-slam homerun. It’s every bit that good. To characterize it as a story about a family of small-type crooks – shoplifters, mostly – wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it misses what makes the made great. What made Earl Hamner  Jr.’s  “The Waltons” one of television’s most celebrated shows wasn’t its basic setup: “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, during the Great Depression, the Walton family makes its small income from its sawmill on Walton’s Mountain.” It doesn’t explain, for example, how Hamner found enough stories within that rather limited framework to be a household favorite for nine seasons. Each week, there would be a new and different point of entry for viewers in search of the show’s heart and soul. Likewise, Shoplifters’ appeal isn’t limited to a single character’s ability to survive on the fringes of Tokyo in an era when the skyrocketing economy has begun to fizzle and traditional ethics are being adjusted to fit the demands of Japan’s corporate juggernaut. Shoplifters feels very much like a modern-day retelling of “Oliver Twist,” if Fagin were on a daily regimen of sedatives, marijuana and and noodles.

As Shoplifters opens, we watch as Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Jyo Kairi) are in a busy grocery store, exchanging hand signals to coordinate a heist of everyday items. On the way home, they find a 5-year-old girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who appears to be locked out, lost or abandoned. Taking into account the frigid temperatures, Osamu decides to take the shivering and clearly famished girl home with them. Because the family of five is sharing – squatting, perhaps – a small two-room apartment, Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), reacts like most would do if their son or daughter brought home a stray puppy or kitten, and they wanted to incorporate it into the family. She tells them to return the girl to where she belongs. When it becomes clear that Yuri’s parents don’t have her best interests in mind – the marks on her arm are another dead giveaway – Nobuyo agrees to open their door to her. This inevitably leads to a beginner’s course in crime and how to escape arrest, with the other kids acting as teaching assistants. Yuri also learns not to take shoplifting as anything more than a means to an end. ( “The stuff in stores doesn’t belong to anyone, so we’re not stealing it,” Shota explains, before becoming the first family member to develop a conscience.) Towards the end of the movie, after Shota is injured attempting to divert a shopkeeper’s attention from Yuri, something happens to kindly Grandma Shibata that makes us look at her in a completely different way than we had previously. Shoplifters is of a piece with Koreeda’s previous gems, Like Father, Like Son (2013), Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016), all of which attempt to define “family” in the 21st Century.

The Front Runner
Just before Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart was outed as an adulterer in some of the same publications that ignored the misdeeds of JFK and LBJ, reporters were forced to take off their kid gloves. Political troglodytes U.S. Reps. Wilbur D. Mills and Wayne Hays forced their hand by reports of bartering jobs for sex (Hays) and carousing with a stripper (Mills) … at the time, Congress could have sponsored its own Alcoholics Anonymous  chapter. Hart might have gotten away with his tryst with Donna Rice, if he hadn’t challenged New York Times reporter E.J. Dionne (strangely absent in the film), “Follow me around. I don’t care. I’m serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They’ll be very bored.” Even if Bill Clinton escaped impeachment and Donald Trump has been forgiven for justifying sexual assault on women and paying adult-film stars and models for sex, the rules for covering politicians changed with that single quote. As much as the public appears not to care about such shenanigans, the media can’t help itself from acting like America’s conscience. Jason Reitman’s political drama, The Front Runner does a nice job describing how reporters turned into pack animals in pursuit wounded prey. Hart (Hugh Jackman) had already been caught cheating on wife, Lee (Vera Farmiga), and probably thought she was the only person whose punishment he deserved. By 1988, however, reporters influenced less by H.L. Mencken and Ralph McGill, than Woodward and Bernstein, coveted the fame and money that came with bringing down a corrupt president.

Reitman’s greatest success in The Front Runner comes in his Robert Altman/ensemble approach to depicting the press, which, then, was dominated by newspapers. He’s recruited some of Hollywood’s best and brightest character actors: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Alex Karpovsky (“Girls”), Josh Brener (“Silicon Valley”), Alfred Molina (Frida), John Bedford Lloyd (“Ozark”), Kevin Pollak (“Billions”), Ari Graynor (“I’m Dying Up Here”), Toby Huss (“Halt and Catch Fire”), Spencer Garrett (“Survivor’s Remorse”), Courtney Ford (“Dexter”) and Bill Burr (“Kroll Show”). His biggest mistake is not showing the self-incriminating front-page National Enquirer photo – or a replication of it – of Rice (Sara Paxton) sitting on Hart’s lap, because it demonstrated to every supermarket shopper a lapse in the candidate’s judgment that bordered on hubris. It’s unforgettable. The only thing that Jackman lacks in his portrayal of Hart is the dopey joy that can be seen in the smile that comes when 50-plus guy is hooking up with a blond model/actress/pill-pusher 20 years his junior. (Worse, he was wearing a “Monkey Business Crew” shirt.) As Lee Hart, Farmiga is the emotional center of The Front Runner, as she was in the post-tryst coverage. In effect, she became the archetype for every wife who would stand by their celebrity husband after he’s caught with his pants down. (At least once, again, during their two separations.) The Front Runner might also have enjoyed a jolt of electricity, if its writers had figured out a way to inject the conspiracy theory begun by the late Republican prankster Lee Atwater before he died. He said he arranged the whole “affair,” using Hart’s reputation as a womanizer as bait for a ravenous press. Hart and Rice both have denied having sex, so, as unlikely as it sounds, it might have happened that way. (Reporters on a stakeout of Hart’s Washington townhouse were unaware of the back entrance she could have used as an early escape route.) The Blu-ray includes a commentary track, three deleted scenes and the featurette, “The Unmaking of a Candidate.”

Nobody’s Fool: Blu-ray
No filmmaker knows what his audience wants better than Tyler Perry or gets criticized as much for giving it to them. And, not just by white and black critics, either. He’s taken heat from Spike Lee, who, in 2009, described his “stuff” as “coonery buffoonery.” Also, in 2009, journalist and radio executive Jamilah Lemieux thanked Perry for “giving black folks jobs in front of and behind the camera,” while criticizing his sitcoms, “Meet the Browns” and “House of Payne,” which, she said, “are marked by old stereotypes of buffoonish, emasculated black men and crass, sassy black women.” That might not have put Perry in the same league as Jerry Lewis, who was roasted for advancing the same sorts of stereotypes. It wasn’t until French critics reminded American critics of Lewis’ ability to make comedies that audiences loved that they started reassessing . Perry’s career began on the stages of the “chitlin’ circuit,” where his self-financed plays combined extremely broad humor, with Christian themes and moralistic narratives. Perry’s earliest movies were little more than plays and musicals captured  on film. They made him very wealthy, as well as a force with which to be reckoned in Hollywood, as well as his home base, Atlanta, whose citizens benefited mightily from his productions. He’s never forgotten the characters – Madea, the Browns, the Paynes — that got his ball rolling, either. In Adam McKay’s multi-nominated political dramedy, Vice, he plays Colin Powell; in Star, he voiced one of the camels belonging to the Maji; a newspaper editor, in Brain on Fire; a mad scientist, TMNT: Out of the Shadows; the titular police detective, in Alex Cross; and an attorney, in Gone Girl. In the same seven-year period, Perry portrayed his bread-and-butter character, Madea, 10 times.

By all the usual standards, Nobody’s Fool isn’t a film that ever was going to compete for top industry awards or impress critics … and, it didn’t. It plays to Perry’s base, even without forcing Madea into places she doesn’t belongs. And, as his third R-rated movie, viewers probably didn’t expect to find much in the way of Christian witnessing or moralizing. Instead, Nobody’s Fool is a romantic urban dramedy about opposites failing to attract and not recognizing the right mate when he’s standing right in front of the protagonist. The biggest laughs derive from the forced reunion between Danica (Tika Sumpter) and Tanya  (Tiffany Haddish), who have nothing in common, besides their mother, Lola (Whoopi Goldberg). Lola still hasn’t reconciled with Tanya, after she stole her toaster and used the money to purchase drugs. She isn’t about to welcome her back home, after she’s released from prison on parole. Danica does very well for herself as a marketing executive. It doesn’t take long for her to figure out that Tanya has spent her time in stir, learning out to be a better gangsta’. She has no more business moving into her sister’s luxurious high-rise apartment than any other ex-con who thinks that the world owes her a living. Perry allows Tanya to overwhelm Danica in every scene they share. And, it’s at this point that Perry decided to throw the kitchen sink into the mix. When Danica describes her love life to Tanya, she immediately raises the possibility that she’s being catfished by an Internet troll, who she’s never met in person. The next morning, Tanya meets the other man in her sister’s life, Frank (Omari Hardwick), a coffee-shop owner who offers her a job based on her ability to fix the cappuccino machine. Frank want Danica to fall in love with him – so do we – but the invisible Charlie always gets in the way. If that weren’t enough, Danica runs into her ex-fiancé, accompanied by new bride-to-be, at the coffee shop, and Tanya has to be restrained from beating the crap out of them. Hadish and Amber Riley, as Danica’s best friend, deliver the laughs to the mess, as does Chris Rock in a delicious cameo. The Blu-ray adds an introduction by Perry and Haddish; 20 minutes of deleted, extended and alternate scenes; a gag reel; nine making-of featurettes; and two faux commercials.

Peppermint Soda: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s seen Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) and Francois Truffaut’s debut, The 400 Blows (1959 ), both classics, will recognize a lot of what happens in them in Diane Kurys and Cohen Media’s disarming Peppermint Soda (1977). I wouldn’t be averse to throwing in Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) or Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle (1955), either, although they might be a stretch. Like these pictures, Peppermint Soda captures particular moments in  the development of young people anxious to enter the world of adults, but reluctant to abandon the absence of responsibility and self-denial that comes with turning 18. In it, Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and Frederique (Odile Michel) are sisters entering a new school year at their strict all-girls high school. They’ve just been put on a train to Paris, after spending the summer on the Normandy coast with their father. The older sibling, Frederique, has used the time learning all the secrets of being a young woman, capable of enjoying sex, cigarettes, boys and adult fashions. She thinks she knows what’s wrong in the world and is willing to be swayed by slightly older kids who are convinced they know how to change it. That usually means being able to shout over anyone whose religion and political views differ from their own. France is still dealing with repercussions from its withdrawal from Algeria and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the ban-the-bomb movement is spreading from its British roots. At 13, Anne knows that this is the year she’ll enter puberty, begin standing up to her mother and that mischievous behavior won’t be tolerated by parents and teachers.

Kurys invested a lot of personal memories into Peppermint Soda (a.k.a., “Diabolo Menthe”), including her difficult relationship with her parents, who divorced when she was a child, and uneasy feelings toward her sister. She returned to the same school she attended in her teens. It’s in these classrooms that we watch sweet young girls behave in the same disorderly way as the boys in The 400 Blows and Zero for Conduct. From Day One, they make life miserable – and teaching impossible – for educators who’ve already dismissed them as incorrigible ingrates. In a hurry to grow up fast, Anne cribs a paper prepared by her sister when she was in the same grade. She also endures the wrath of her mother and sister for the sin of putting pantyhose over her skinny legs after school. Neither does Frederique approve when Anne begins to hang out in her favorite café and drink her trademark beverage, a carbonated “non-potent potable” made using seltzer and peppermint. Kurys doesn’t forget the parents, who are going through changes of their own, while attempting to demonstrate their devotion to the girls in their own ways. By assuming that they’re going to get through high school and college alright – despite Anne’s grades, which have taken a nosedive – Peppermint Soda can be enjoyed as the kind of coming-of-age movie that moms and daughters might want to share. The Cohen Film Collection presentation takes advantage of a new 2K restoration, adding lengthy interviews with Kurys, Eleonore Klairwen and composer Yves Simon, who contributed the movie’s irresistibly poppy theme song, and a scrapbook.

Possum
Audition: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Purgatory Road: Blu-ray
Ever since coming across Sean Harris’ peculiarly spastic portrayal of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, in 24 Hour Party People (2002), I’ve begun thinking of him as the second coming of Anthony Perkins. Although he was best known for his disturbing take on Norman Bates, in Psycho (1960), he continued to give audiences shivers for the next 32 years of his life. And, he didn’t have to rely on much in the way of makeup or other special effects. On screen, at least, Perkins was creepy from the word, “go.” After 24 Hour Party People, Harris was assigned a series of genre flicks, with single-word titles: Trauma, Creep, Asylum, Outlaw, Isolation and Saxon. Beginning in 2009, however, Harris would begin to land such meaty roles as Detective Superintendent Bob Craven, in the “Red Riding Trilogy”; Micheletto Corella, Cesare Borgia’s henchmen in “The Borgia”; and, most prominent of all, Solomon Lane in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation/Fallout. To each character, Harris has added a sharp, perceptible edge. In Matthew Holness’ debut feature, Possum –the title derives from a sinister children’s rhyme – he plays a seriously damaged young man, Philip, who, before trying his luck as puppeteer, lost his parents in a mysterious fire at their isolated rural property. He was handed over to his cruel “uncle,” Maurice (Alun Armstrong), who’s either a retired or active pervert. The old sot enjoys taunting Philip about his failed career and loss of his parents, What’s really scary here, though, is the puppet he carries in a leather satchel and appears to have a mind of its own. The nightmarish creature resembles a long-legged spider, wearing a white death-head mask. As hard as Philip tries to eliminate the puppet from his life, the more difficult it becomes, sometimes returning to his bedroom before he does. Is it a manifestation of a too vivid imagination or something that emerged from one of his dreams and never returned? At the same time, police are searching for a missing boy, last seen in Philip’s vicinity. The puppet may not present a threat to viewers, like some movie monsters, but its relationship to Philip is guaranteed to trigger the heebie-jeebies. At 85 minutes, Possum could have benefitted from another 5-10 minutes of background information. The Blu-ray adds several good interviews with Holness, Harris, Armstrong and the puppeteer.

I’ll admit to being totally creeped out by Audition, Takashi Miike’s calling card to the world outside Japan. I had no idea what to expect, when I discovered a VHS copy of the film in a pile of cassettes in the judges’ room at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, which limited entries to 40 minutes, credits included. At 113 minutes, it couldn’t be shown in competition, so, perhaps, it was left there as a challenge to critics and filmmakers to find their individual breaking points. It wouldn’t be the first time that Audition would be used as a test of courage among horror buffs who thought they’d seen everything. At least, they’d found a point of reference by the time Audition opened in New York, nearly two years after its debut at the Vancouver International Film Festival. (Its DVD release came six months later.) American audiences had already embraced such J-horror hits as Ringu (“Ring”), Ringu 2, Tetsuo (“Tetsuo: The Iron Man”) and Sôseiji (“Gemini”). There simply are too many things going on in Audition to craft a spoiler-free encapsulation. Let’s see how this works: recent widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a television producer, who is urged by his son to find happiness with a new wife. Having been out of the dating scene for many years, Aoyama seeks the advice of a colleague, who works at the same production studio. They decide to stage an audition, at which the female candidates will be led to believe that they’re being given a screen test. Instead, Shigeharu is only interested in finding a mate or companion. The woman he selects, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiinahe), isn’t who she appears to be, either. After a satisfying weekend “date” at a seaside hotel, the former ballerina mysteriously disappears into one of her many lies, this one involving a large sack in her apartment that contains … let’s stop there. Audition has been lauded by Quentin Tarantino and Rob Zombie. Eli Roth was so influenced by it that he invited Miike to make a cameo appearance in Hostel, as a satisfied customer of the kidnappers, who let customers torture their victims. Although Audition has been lumped together with such progenitors of “torture porn” as Saw, The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Baise-moi and Miike’s own, Ichi the Killer, it makes its points by manipulating the audience’s intellectual curiosity and their deepest fears. I won’t say that the violence isn’t off-putting, but viewers already familiar with the film probably can leave their barf bags at home, this time around. Arrow’s “Special Edition” is enhanced by a fresh 2K restoration of original vault elements; commentary with Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan; new commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes, examining the film and its source novel; an introduction by the director and new interview, “Ties That Bind”; interviews with Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Renji Ishibashi and Ren Osugi; “Damaged Romance,” an appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Anton Bitel.

Our February creep-a-thon continues with Mark Savage’s low-budget splatter/thriller, Purgatory Road, whose protagonist is a defrocked Catholic priest. Father Vincent (Gary Cairns) ministers to his backwoods Mississippi flock from a restored food van, equipped with a mobile confessional. (I doubt that many rural Mississippians would allow their taxpayer-funded roads to be used to advance papist propaganda.) As a boy, Vincent stood by helpless as a female burglar stole his father’s life savings from his desk. Neither was he able to prevent his dad from committing suicide, immediately thereafter. Two decades later, he and his brother are still wracked with guilt. Vincent wants everyone to go to heaven with an untarnished soul, and the easiest way for that to happen is to hear the confessions of the lost sheep he lures into the van and kill them, especially if he sensed they were thieves. After killing them, Vincent and his brother would find an out-of-the-way place to slaughter them. Before long, they’re joined by a footloose avenging angel, Mary Francis (Trista Robinson), who’s thirsty for blood and wants to drive a wedge between the brothers. Anyone whose stomach churns at the sight of blood and viscera – however faux it may be – may want to take a pass on Purgatory Road. They certainly won’t see the dark humor hidden in the shadows. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and Savage’s commentary.

Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten: Blu-ray
Stop me if you’ve heard this one, before. A group of vloggers illegally accesses a condemned TB sanitarium for a “Will You Survive the Night” social-media challenge. Equipped with night vision and thermal cameras, the adolescent adrenaline junkies chase rumors of paranormal activity and leftover horrors from the Third Reich, when patients were known to have been tortured. (There’s speculation that Adolph Hitler convalesced at Heilstätten after the end of the first world war.) Naturally, the interlopers will quickly learn that they’re not alone and not at all welcome. There’s only two ways these found-footage thrillers tend to end, one with a surprise and the other with buckets full of blood and gore. Haunted Hospital: Heilstätten splits the difference between them. While the climax isn’t bad, a lot of viewers probably will have been driven away by the clichéd chase through the hospital’s caverns, tunnels and operating rooms, where the ghosts of former patients still linger. Anyone who likes jump scares, accompanied by shockingly loud bursts of noise, probably will enjoy the whole thing. There’s an English-language dub track, but stick to the German.

Valentine: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
After Scream (1996), Scream 2 (1997), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998) effectively resurrected the slasher/horror genre, which wore out its welcome in the late 1980s,  several movies went back to the template created for Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). They  did so, even knowing that Scream had revealed the secret formula that made them popular. Watch Scream Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” of Valentine (2001) today and you might think someone was trying to re-invent the wheel, without knowing what to do with it. Jamie Blanks, who’d already scored with Urban Legend, embedded in Valentine a credible origin story and recognizable antagonist; several beautiful young actresses for a masked killer to pursue; a few interesting ways to kill them; and a “final girl” we don’t want to see die. What his movie lacked, however, was anything new and different. At a Valentine’s Day hop, junior-high dweeb Jeremy (Joel Palmer) asks several girls to dance and is rudely shot down each time, even by the one girl, Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw), who agrees to join him. Like an angel of mercy, she even encourages him to sneak around the gym’s bleachers and engage in some light necking. In doing so, she becomes a target for the bullies taunting Jeremy. Instead of ignoring the boys or giving them the finger, Dorothy accuses the outcast of forcing himself on her. That’s all the excuse they need to spill the contents of a punch bowl on him and pummel him with their fists and feet. Flash forward a few years and the “popular” clique no longer has a hold on all the eligible girls, even though they’re still appealing physically. With another Valentine’s Day dance just around the corner, no one in the audience should be surprised when a ninja-like creeper, wearing a doll’s mask, shows up to exact his revenge. Or, does he? When the bodies begin to fall, the no-longer-girls are told by a police detective not to expect the villain to resemble anyone from the pictures in their yearbook. In other words, everyone’s a suspect, even one of the women. This includes characters played by Capshaw, Denise Richards, Jessica Cauffiel, Katherine Heigl, Marley Shelton and Hedy Burress, as well as Daniel Cosgrove, David Boreanaz, Johnny Whitworth and Adam J. Harrington. There’s a trick ending that some viewers will consider worth the wait. As is sometimes the case with Scream and Arrow upgrades, the bonus package is worth the price of an admission. Along with a nice, clean 2K scan of the original film elements — supervised by Blanks and DP Rick Bota – there’s fresh  commentary with Blanks and filmmaker Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), moderated by author Peter Bracke; new interviews with Richards, Shelton, Cauffiel, co-writers Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts, editor Steve Mirkovich, composer Don Davis; almost two hours of unseen footage from Blanks’ personal archive; Blanks’ commentary; a vintage making-of featurette, with cast and crew; extended interviews and behind-the-scenes footage from the EPK; deleted scenes, including extended death scenes; music video; stills gallery; and hidden Easter egg.

Horror Express: Special Edition: Blu-ray
In poker terms, the pairings of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Telly Savalas represents a set to draw to … three of a kind that could be converted into a difficult-to-beat full house or four of a kind. Cushing and Lee had already made their bones as staples of Hammer Horror releases, while Savalas was cooling his heels in Europe, with other American character actors, turning spaghetti into gold. A year after he paired with Cushing and Lee on Horror Express, in Madrid, Savalas would become an instant pop-culture icon, with “Kojak.” So, in hindsight, Savalas’ presence as the Cossack officer in Horror Express is even more of a draw today than when it was released. He had worked with director Eugenio Martín on the Spanish spaghetti Western, Pancho Villa, whose train cars were repurposed for Horror Express. (Savalas also sang the title song.) Otherwise, the plot leaves little to the imagination. Renowned anthropologist Saxton (Lee) boards the Trans-Siberian Express with a crate containing the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid, which, he discovered in a Manchurian cave. All around the crate, people begin to die in heinous ways. Sci-fi merges with horror when scientists figure out the creature’s alien origins and ability to shift shapes and resurrect the dead, as zombies. If Horror Express sounds confusing, that’s only because it is … in a good way. The claustrophobic setting clearly helps. The Arrow Blu-ray is enhanced by a new 2K restoration from original film elements; fresh commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman; an introduction to the film by film journalist and Horror Express superfan Chris Alexander; an interview with director Eugenio Martin; notes from blacklisted producer Bernard Gordon, on working in Hollywood during the McCarthy Era; “Telly and Me,” an interview with composer John Cacavas (“Kojak”); reversible sleeve, featuring newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys; and, first printing only, a fully-illustrated collector’s booklet with new writing by Adam Scovell.

American Nightmares
Co-writers/producers/directors Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott have previously collaborated on such movies, TV shows and anthologies as Tales from the Hood 2 (1995), Fear of a Black Hat (1993) and Sprung (1997). Before they decided to stick with the title, American Nightmares, it was known as “Mr. Malevolent” and “Tales of the Crib.”  Once again, Danny Trejo lends his name and probably a day’s worth of his time to a project that wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of breaking through the DVD clutter without them. Along with Nichelle Nichols (“Star Trek”), Trejo’s job here is to introduce seven uneven parables of interest to computer-savvy viewers, who don’t mind a bit of progressive posturing with their horror. Essentially, he plays the Crypt-Keeper role here, as Mr. Malevolent, who torments a pair of webcam hackers by taking over their monitors and forcing them to watch several stories of criminal and supernatural design. Among the other recognizable faces are Clarence Williams III (“Mod Squad”), Eddie Steeples (“My Name Is Earl”), Kate Butler (“Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Vivica A. Fox (“Empire”), Noel Gugliemi (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Tamala Jones (“Castle”), Jay Mohr (“Suburgatory”) and Chris Kattan (“SNL”). The sketches may not represent the actors’ best work, but the cast’s overall diversity is worth the price of a rental, anyway.

The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead: Blu-ray
Just two weeks ahead of the 30th-anniversary release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, on 4K UHD, comes Svyatoslav Podgaevskiy’s The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead. The only thing connecting the two, however, are the words “The” and “Mermaid.” You guessed that already, however. Moreover, because she doesn’t have a tail or fins – and inhabits a freshwater lake — the titular figure is no more a mermaid than Nemo, even if they both live in water. For the sake of this summary, though, let’s agree that Sofia Shidlovskaya’s character is a mermaid, also known as Lisa Grigorieva, who’s more of a shape-shifting water nymph or succubus. The film’s plot derives from a Russian legend, which stipulates that drowned unwed girls are transformed into evil mermaids lurking in rivers and lakes. At night, they seduce men with their singing, and lure them to the bottom of the lake, where they become guards, protecting the mermaids. As the picture opens, a young couple sits on a pier at their lakeside cottage. When a mermaid summons the husband to her underwater lair, his wife sacrifices her life to save him. Skip forward another 20 years and the man’s son, Roma, has been given the keys to the cottage by his demented father. He agrees to invite a group of friends to the lake for a bachelor party and housewarming. Before the strippers can take off their bras, however, Roma is drawn to the siren’s song and walks toward the lake, where he begins to understand what happened to his mother. I’ll end the encapsulation here, because, 1) the plot is too convoluted to explain, and 2) spoilers await at every turn in the plot. Roma’s fiancé, Marina (Viktoriya Agalakova), puts herself in harm’s way, as well, when she returns to cabin and battles the mermaid for Roma’s heart and soul. The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead is a lot more intense and captivating than most summaries I’ve read make it seem. The underwater scenes are enthralling, and the special makeup effects are genuinely scary. The dubbing didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think of listening to the Russian track, but maybe I’ll go back to the lake and do so.

The Guilty: Blu-ray
In 1958, while working as an advertising copywriter in Chicago, Bob Newhart and a co-worker entertained each other with long telephone chats about absurd scenarios, which they later recorded and sent to radio stations as audition tapes. When his co-worker ended his participation, Newhart continued to record one-sided conversations with unseen characters, ranging from Abraham Lincoln and the Wright Brothers, to a nervous driving instructor. His 1960 comedy album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was the first to make No. 1 on the Billboard charts. (My dad brought home a copy and I wore it out.) On “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” aspiring standup Joel Maisel, steals Newhart’s classic “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” and Lenny Bruce’s delivery, in his comedy debut at the Gaslight. The only similarity between Newhart and the emergency dispatcher in Gustav Möller’s intense debut feature, The Guilty, is the headset worn by the Danish protagonist and cellphones used by a killer’s captives. Near the end of his shift, Jakob Cedergren’s troubled cop, Asger Holm, catches the kind of call that could redeem or destroy him. The ordeal begins with a call from a woman afraid of being kidnapped and slain for reasons unknown. She hangs up just as something significant is about to happen. Soon, Asger will begin playing phone tag with children who’ve either witnessed the brutal murder of a sibling or imagined it. He sticks with the callers well into the next shift, hoping to control the situation from afar, before he faces his own day of reckoning in a Copenhagen courtroom. Part of what makes The Guilty so effective is Möller’s decision to restrict the drama to two rooms in police headquarters, with the thermostat ratcheted to high. The Guilty, which debuted at last year’s Sundance festival, reminded me of such claustrophobic thrillers as Amariah and Obin Olson’s Operator (2015), Steven Knight’s Locke (2013), Halle Berry’s 911 operator in The Call , Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Booth (2005) and Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth (2002).

Among Wolves
As one of the bikers and former paramilitary fighters we meet in Among Wolves reminds viewers, the Bosnian War may have ended nearly 25 years ago, but its horrors continue to reverberate throughout the country’s mountains, canyons, pastures and tiny villages. He could have  been reciting lyrics from “Turn, Turn, Turn”: “To every thing there is a season … A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. …” In other words, if everyone involved in the terrible conflict did terrible things, in defense of their country and homes, when can these men expect to be reimbursed with jobs and gratitude? These veterans continue to serve their communities by doing good deeds and having some fun while they’re at it. This uncommon motorcycle gang, the Wolves, which wouldn’t look out of place cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in Hell’s Angels colors, is committed to non-violence, promoting charities and defending the threatened herd of wild horses they first met on the front lines. It’s only when one of the men reminisces about training his cannon fire on Serbian soldiers, playing soccer, from high atop a craggy peak, that viewers are reminded of the savagery that masqueraded for war. Shawn Convey and Martin Lagner’s cinematography argues against the notion that God was on the side of anyone who would desecrate His splendor with religion-based tyranny.

Narcissister: Organ Player
Against the backdrop of her provocative and inventive performance art, Narcissister reflects on the personal impact of her mother’s illness and death. If she hadn’t appeared on “America’s Got Talent,” it would be difficult to describe how the Brooklyn-based feminist — born of Moroccan Jewish and African-American descent – expresses her opinions on gender, racial identity and sexuality. In Narcissister: Organ Player, the ever-masked, topless and frequently merkined artist uses a gigantic, interactive mannequin to interpret the pain, sloppiness and grandeur of insemination, birth and growing up different in a society that rewards conformity and punishes originality. That said, Narcissister is completely different than anything most viewers have ever seen. Bonus features include two deleted scenes.

Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
As wonderfully influential as fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez’ work proved to be, at a pivotal point in the transition from haute couture to prêt-à-porter, James Crump’s Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco frequently wallows in the divine decadence that characterized the demi-monde in the heady days before AIDS began to take its toll. The documentary is a veritable time capsule of Paris and New York, between 1969 and 1973. A native of Puerto Rico, raised in the Bronx, Lopez was a seductive arbiter of style and glamour, who was hailed for bridging elements of funky urban street wear and a postwar fashion world desperate for change and diversity. Counted among Antonio’s discoveries were such iconic beauties as Grace Jones, Jessica Lange, Jerry Hall and Warhol superstars Donna Jordan, Jane Forth and Patti D’Arbanville. Antonio’s inner circle was also comprised of his romantic and creative partner, Juan Ramos, makeup artist Corey Tippin, photographer Bill Cunningham and rival designers Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint-Laurent. What some fans of such things might take from the film is the by-now fatuous exaltation of the beautiful people who lived to party and leech off people more wealthy and successful than they were. On the downside, if I see one more fawning film that worships at the altar of Andy Warhol’s Factory, without pointing out the casualties, I think I’ll puke. And, Jerry Hall as a blond angel from Texas … puhleeze. Bonus features include archival footage; excerpts from the Bill Cunningham interview; and the short film, “You Can’t Do Everything at Once, But You Can Leave Everything at Once.”

Four Weddings and a Funeral: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
If Richard Curtis was only famous outside the UK for writing The Black Adder, Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, his fame would be well-earned. That he’s created so many other wonderful entertainments is icing on his cake. Like “I Love Lucy,” “Gilligan’s Island” and “Bonanza,” Love Actually plays on an endless rotation on cable stations around globe. On its silver anniversary, Four Weddings and a Funeral is only slightly less visible. Let’s cut to the chase. This edition’s special features include a 4K remaster struck from the original camera negative; a new interview with DP Michael Coulter, “The Wedding Photographer”; commentary with director Mike Newell, producer Duncan Kenworthy and Curtis; “The Wedding Planners” documentary; featurettes “Four Weddings and a funeral … In the Making” and “Two Actors and a Director”; deleted scenes; and promotional material.

The Poison Ivy Collection: Blu-ray
At a time when the #MeToo movement continues to add notches to its pistol, the release of  “The Poison Ivy Collection” reminds us of a series of R-rated films that found something titillating in the seduction of older men by teenage girls. When the four films were released, hardly anyone saw anything wrong with movies whose life spans would include endless airings on Cinemax. The first three entries in the series — Poison Ivy (1992), Poison Ivy 2: Lily (1996), Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997) — deal with the implications of an emotionally neglected, sexually assertive young woman’s fascination with her best friend’s father, and how her desire for him affects multiple individuals who fall under her influence. The fourth made-for-TV film, Poison Ivy:The Secret Society (2008), is only thematically linked to the first three, dealing with a secret society of young women dedicated to obtaining control over powerful men through seduction. Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy received critical acclaim at the Sundance Festival and developed a cult status through word-of-mouth marketing. At 17, Drew Barrymore’s incendiary performance didn’t hurt, either. The next two films were released direct-to-video and received a generally negative reception.

Band vs Brand
I doubt that anyone born after the breakup of the Beatles would be surprised to learn that band logos have a much longer shelf life than the musicians in the groups they represent. Fleetwood Mac is more popular today than when its first album was released in 1968, but only two of its original members remain with the band today. Christine McVie has been on all of Mac’s albums, except the first one. Like the Rolling Stones, the group’s original focus shifted long ago from classic American blues to original material. On its last album, “Blue & Lonesome” (2016), only Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts are still around to participate in the band’s return to the Chicago Blues. After the Beatles dissolved, the members carried on separately in differently named ensembles. Jefferson Airplane decided that its fans would get behind Jefferson Starship, no matter the names and lineup changes. This sort of chicanery didn’t begin with the birth of rock ’n’ roll, either. Even if the last original member of the Platters, Herb Reed, died in 2012, you can catch the most recent incarnation this week on its tour through the South. The Glenn Miller Orchestra has outlived its namesake by more than 70 years, after his plane crash landed in the English Channel in WWII. As is frequently pointed out in Bob Nalbandian’s thoroughly researched Band vs Brand, no matter who owns a band name, logo and library, the songs belong to those who love them. The doc explains how these things work, from the point of view of “classic rock” stars of yore — David Ellefson (Megadeth), Jack Russell (Jack Russell’s Great White), Nik Turner (Hawkwind), Nicky Garrett (UK Subs), Dave Lombardo (Slayer/Suicidal Tendencies), Marc Ferrari, Adam Parsons, Frank DiMino (Angel) – and in the digital/streaming era. No one who aspires to rock stardom should miss it.

Norm of the North: Keys to the Kingdom
If the sequel to Norm of the North (2016) looks to parents as if it’s two short animated films stitched together at the middle, they’d be right. Although the entire film is credited as Keys to the Kingdom, it tells two separate stories, both commissioned by Splash Entertainment for distribution by Lionsgate. The second half would have been called “The Arctic All-Stars.” Lionsgate decided to give it a limited theatrical release at the last minute. Norm, the newly crowned king of the North, travels to New York to accept the keys to the city. But Norm goes from hero to villain when he’s framed for a crime he didn’t commit. While he is trying to clear his good name, back in the Arctic a vicious bottled-water company has moved in and is starting to steal the ice. Norm must rely on his friends, both old and new, to clear his good name and help save his kingdom in a winner-take-all hockey match. Co-directors Richard Finn and Tim Maltby, with writer Dean Stefan, are already commissioned to produce the animated feature “Norm of the North: King Sized Adventure.” Anthony Bell (The Jetsons & WWE: Robo-WrestleMania!) is working on “Norm of the North: Family Vacation.” Someone is making money somewhere from the Dove-approved franchise.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: American Experience: The Swamp
PBS: Frontline: Documenting Hate
PBS: Sesame Street: Celebrate Family
If any further proof were needed to confirm Florida’s status as the greediest and least environmentally concerned state in the union isn’t paying attention. It began when venture capitalists began draining the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee to make room for new farmland and housing, and it continues today as legislators ignore warnings about global warming. PBS’ “American Experience: The Swamp” chronicles how what passes for humanity in Florida has worked feverishly to turn God’s gift to mankind into profit centers. “The Swamp,” told through the lives of a handful of colorful and resolute characters, explores the repeated efforts to reclaim, control and transform what was seen as a vast wasteland into an agricultural and urban paradise, and, ultimately, drive the Seminoles from their homelands. Each time, the native alligators, snakes and occasional hurricane have conspired to reclaim Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ “River of Grass.” At the same time, the film introduces us to several generations of native ecologists, who’ve forced pinhead politicians to create parks and refuges, instead of golf courses.

Far more than vampires and zombies, the rise of extreme right-wing hate groups may turn out to be America’s greatest threat. Thanks, in part, to President Trump’s not-so-tacit endorsement of attacks on Jews, Arabs, blacks and protesters – and the Internet’s coconut telegraph — white supremacists and neo-Nazis have never felt as emboldened as they do today. PBS’ two-pronged “Frontline: Documenting Hate” – “Charlottesville,” “American Nazis” – digs deeper into the subject than most police departments and federal crimefighting agencies. Richard Rowley’s investigations, with ProPublica, expose a neo-Nazi group that has actively recruited inside the U.S. military, as well as how the group’s terrorist objectives helped them gain strength after the 2017 Charlottesville rally.

PBS’ “Sesame Street: Celebrate Family” is comprised of five stories suitable family engagements and party planning. From “Sesame Street! First,” Abby’s family has dinner at Elmo’s house, where she learns that different families can have fun working together to make a meal; then, “Cookie Monster” realizes he’s forgotten a gift for his mommy for Mother’s Day; for “Father’s Day,” Rosita wants to make a video for her dad, but she needs some help from her friends. Next, we meet Rudy, Abby’s new stepbrother, and finally, Hooper’s Store is throwing a special party for kids and their grandparents.

The DVD Wrapup: Spider’s Web, Maquia, Cloverfield, No Date, Free Lunch, Possessed, Road House 2, Dolphins, Poetic Justice, Human 3.0 … More  

Friday, February 8th, 2019

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: Blu-ray
If ever a literary franchise looked as if it could equal its success at the international box office, it was Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, from which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest were created. The Swedish-language series began OK, but it petered out in the second and third installments. David Fincher and Steven Zaillian’s English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might have made a few dollars, as well, but not enough to get Columbia/Sony/MGM to commit another nearly $100 million, each, on sequels that already have failed in the marketplace. Why Larsson’s dark and edgy protagonist, Lisbeth Salander – portrayed equally well by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara – couldn’t sell as many tickets as books is one of those questions without answers that vex box-office prognosticators. Most of them chalked it up to the audience’s unwillingness to embrace a female hero, in general, and a character who didn’t resemble Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson, specifically. In an article for Queen’s Quarterly, Jennie Punter characterized Salander as a “diminutive, flat-chested, chain-smoking, tattoo-adorned, anti-social, bisexual, genius computer hacker,” albeit “one of the most compelling characters in recent popular fiction.” A Bond girl, she’s not. In the only interview he ever gave about the series, Larsson said he based the character on how Pippi Longstocking might have turned out, as an adult. He also credited his rebellious teenage niece, Therese, for Salander’s goth look. She often wore black clothing and dark makeup, and told Larsson several times that she wanted to get a tattoo of a dragon. Apparently, he often e-mailed Therese to ask her about her life and how she would react in certain situations. From small seeds, big things sometimes grow.

After Larsson’s untimely death, in 2004, Swedish author/journalist David Lagercrantz was handed the reins to the Millennium series by the writer’s estate. “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” was published in 2015, with “The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye” following two years later. Although both books did well, I doubt that any studio will ever take a stab at “Millennium 5.” That’s because the fourth installment, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story only recovered $35 million of its production budget of a reported $43 million. In an interview included in the bonus package, producer Elizabeth Cantillon says that the protagonist in her predecessors had targeted the wrong audiences. While readers of crime thrillers had no problem with a female protagonist who was as complex, devious and hard-boiled as any of her male peers. Cantillon believes that audiences wanted Salander to be a female James Bond. The problem here, of course, is that Salander must cross-circuit plans for a global paramilitary conspiracy, based on activating stolen computer software at nuclear bases around the globe, while also escaping several life-threatening situations, based solely on good luck. Salander is hired by computer programmer Frans Balder to retrieve Firefall, the program he developed for the National Security Agency.

After she accomplishes the task, Salander becomes the target for an array of mercenaries, hoping to profit from stealing it back from her. One manages to kidnap the inventor’s super-smart son, who has stored the information on how to open the software in his head. After about 90 minutes of this back-and-forth, one of Salander’s computer-geek pals rides to the rescue, using his security devices to turn the tables on her captors. Add the inclusion of an origin story for Salander and some viewers will require a scorecard to keep track of the players. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe) did pretty much what the producers wanted of him, but the action frequently overwhelms the story. Otherwise, “Spider’s Web” makes for some entertaining viewing. Claire Foy (First Man) is as convincing as Salander as Rapace and Mara, and the Swedish and German settings maintain the books’ frosty atmosphere. The supporting characters aren’t given much to do, however. One of the fascinating things I learned from a featurette on choreographing the action was that the stunt coordinators used driverless cars to jack up the pace and impact of the chases. Other bonus items include commentaries on the feature and deleted scenes, with Álvarez and screenwriter Jay Basu; and four featurettes: “Claire Foy: Becoming Lisbeth,” “All About the Stunts,” “Secrets of the Salander Sisters” and “Creating the World: The Making Of.”

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms: Blu-ray
Anyone who wants to check how much anime has evolved, as a storytelling medium, anyway, needs only to pick up Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. On its surface, or through the eyes of a child, Maquia may look like just another medieval fantasy that mimics The Hobbit and “Game of Thrones. Just below that surface, however, lies a story that demands to be viewed as a parable about motherhood, aging, loss and coming of age in a cruel world … grown-up stuff. And, coming in at just short of two hours, Maquia easily fits the description of epic fairy tale. Though only 15, the title character knows she will live for centuries without outwardly aging past adolescence. She belongs to the Iorph, a clan of ageless beings whose primary task on Earth is to weave colorful tapestries whose threads anticipate future events. Maquia has been warned against falling in love with anyone outside their realm, which would inevitably lead to the twin tragedies of loss and loneliness, emotions rarely felt by immortals. The Iorph’s realm is turned upside by an attack from the mortal territory of Mesate, whose prince wants to attain immortality for his heir by kidnapping and marrying Leilia, the clan’s eternally radiant elder. As they’re whisked away atop a gigantic dragon – Mesate’s weapons of mass destruction – the prince’s troops ransack the Iorphs’ homes and kill as many of them as possible. Maquia is carried away by a benign, if dying dragon that leads her to a cave in a forest, where she discovers a young warrior and an abandoned baby, who’s handed off to the newcomer to raise. We follow their progress through Ariel’s teenage years, as he grows taller than Maquia and itchy to find his own place in life. It strains their relationship to the point where he wants to serve the prince, effectively siding with the enemy of his adoptive mother’s people. By this time, though, Maquia’s re-connected with fellow survivors, who hope to free their queen – who, by now, is pregnant –and move back to their kingdom. There’s more, but why spoil the drama? The emphasis on  issues pertinent to women is easily traced to writer/director Okada, who has 58 writing credits and four directing nods, three of them shorts. Because women are so rarely chosen to direct anime features, it made headlines when Maquia took first prize for an animation film at the Shanghai International Film Festival. (It also was submitted for Oscar consideration.) The special features add the 25-minute “Making of Maquia.”

The Cloverfield Paradox: Blu-ray
J.J. Abrams is a multihyphenate’s multihyphenate. If he needed a nickname, it could be “Abracadabra,” for his ability to pull rabbits out of his hat wherever he goes. As a writer, producer, director, actor and composer, Abrams has won or been nominated for almost every award  available to multihyphenates, including a Razzie (Armageddon). The exception is any recognition from AMPAS – an Academy Award being the only honor that really counts in Hollywood — and that’s only because of Oscar voters’ prejudice against sci-fi, action and other genre pictures, outside of the technical categories. He’s extended more franchises – Mission:Impossible, Star Trek, Star Wars, Cloverfield – than anyone not named McDonald. Without question, it’s the latter series that has raised the most eyebrows among sci-fi and horror nerds. With three installments already completed – Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Cloverfield Paradox – and another sequel on the way, it’s difficult to explain, with any certainty, what they all have in common, apart from Godzilla-like monsters, apocalyptic scenarios, everyday characters, extreme secrecy from the get-go and references to something called  Slusho and Abrams’ grandfather, Henry Kelvin. In Cloverfield (2008), a farewell party held by a group of New York yuppies is interrupted by the appearance of a rampaging sea monster. All the action is captured by a hand-held camera, operated by an unseen friend. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) describes what happens to a young woman, when, after a car accident, she finds herself in a bomb shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is infected by a widespread chemical attack. The Cloverfield Paradox takes places almost entirely on a space vehicle, which is orbiting Earth while scientists test a machine – a giant particle accelerator – that could solve a global energy crisis. For a while, the only unusual thing that happens is the crew’s inability to get the damn thing to kick into gear. When it does, however, really strange things begin to happen in the control room. On the down side, the accelerator is capable of interfering with the time-space continuum and creating alternate realities. There’s no reason to spoil any mysteries here, except to suggest that an alien force has taken control of the orbiter and is messing with the astronauts’ heads. It even finds a way to make our world “disappear.” Critics weren’t particularly impressed with The Cloverfield Paradox, which launched on Netflix almost immediately after a preview ad aired during the 2018 Super Bowl broadcast. It’s interesting enough, however, to recommend to sci-fi buffs and completists. The international crew is portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki and Chris O’Dowd. The Blu-ray boasts excellent technical credentials, as well as “Things Are Not as They Appear: The Making of The Cloverfield Paradox” and “Shepard Team: The Cast.”

No Date, No Signature
There are so many things that Iranian filmmakers are forbidden from exploring in their own country, it’s amazing how good the ones that are approved turn out to be. In No Date, No Signature, co-writer/director Vahid Jalilvand (Wednesday, May 9), winner of Best Director prize at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, takes on a gripping psychological drama about morality and class dynamics in contemporary Iran. It was the official submission of Iran in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. Facing stiff competition, however, it failed to make the list of finalists. In it, forensic pathologist Dr. Kaveh Nariman’s car accidentally injures a motorcyclist’s 8-year-old son. And, yes, it was a clearly an accident. He offers to take the child to a clinic, but the father refuses his help. A few days later, in the hospital where he works, Nariman (Amir Aghaee) learns that the boy has died under suspicious circumstances, which caused him to be infected with botulism. The father, Moosa, had purchased the chicken from a worker at the slaughter house. Too embarrassed to share his encounter with Moosa with colleagues handling the autopsy, he merely acknowledges knowing the father. Even so, the doctor becomes obsessed with the possibility that the boy’s spine might have been damaged in the accident and a sudden awkward movement might have caused his death. Meanwhile, the father (Navid Mohammadzadeh), himself wracked with guilt, goes to the plant to confront the man who sold him the diseased bird. Finding no relief, Moosa gets into a fight that leaves the worker in a coma and him in jail. This pushes the doctor to call for an exhumation of the boy’s body, based on his own belated admission of possible guilt. Anyone expecting a clear-cut Hollywood ending might be disappointed. It’s enough to know that Nariman’s sense of morality and integrity faces the kind of challenge that others would have bypassed when the cause of death, botulism, was rendered. Several critics have remarked on the similarities between No Date, No Signature and the work of Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, Fireworks Wednesday, The Past), who tackles sticky contemporary issues with clarity and dramatic appeal. Zakieh Behbahani and Hediyeh Tehrani deliver compelling portrayals of Iranian women from opposite sides of the country’s economic and cultural divide.

Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen
The more attention paid to Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Corte in the runup to the 2020 elections, the more scrutiny will be given the concept of an unconditional basic wage. If it isn’t the most popular issue to be debated – no one wants to be accused of advocating extreme economic politics or, worse, socialism – it’s certainly the most misunderstood. For one thing, its leading proponents didn’t wake up one morning, thinking they might give UBI a spin. The idea of a state-run Basic Income dates to the early 16th Century, when Sir Thomas More argued in “Utopia” that every person should receive a guaranteed income, and to the late 18th century when English radical Thomas Spence and American revolutionary Thomas Paine both declared their support for a welfare system in which all citizens were guaranteed a certain income. In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Canada conducted several experiments with negative income taxation, a related welfare system. Neither is it true that UBI is an idea that sprung from the brow of hippies looking for a handout. Richard Nixon proposed a negative income tax in a bill to the U.S. Congress, which only approved a guaranteed minimum income for the elderly and the disabled. Warren Buffet is a UBI advocate, so was Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, the Permanent Fund of Alaska already provides a kind of basic income to longtime residents – all of them, regardless of other sources of income — based on the oil and gas revenues generated by the oil pipeline. So, there. Christian Tod’s well-reasoned documentary Free Lunch Society: Komm Komm Grundeinkommen lays out the whys and wherefores of UBI, in addition to responding to criticisms. It does so in ways that go beyond laymen’s terms, without resorting to economics jargon and academics. It explains why America’s middle class has become an endangered species – trickle-down economics got that ball rolling – and how the low unemployment rate is maintained by people who work two or three low-paying jobs. Neither does Tod demand of viewers that they buy into his pitch. It would be enough for the citizenry to be in position to yell, “B.S.,” whenever a politician tries to sell a truckload of snake oil, based solely on such faulty premises that UBI is socialism and recirculating new money through the system won’t raise all boats equally. If citizens had the opportunity to benefit from the Alaska model – or, not – my guess is that they’d take the free money and spend some of it, at least, on American-made products.

All the Devil’s Men: Blu-ray
Movies about mercenaries and former Special Forces fighters have reached dime-a-dozen status, especially those destined for an early reincarnation in DVD/Blu-ray/PPV. If action pictures, such as Matthew Hope’s All the Devil’s Men, enjoy a theatrical run, it’s only to salvage a few quotes from otherwise negative reviews for their release in foreign markets. It may not be a particularly new strategy, but the appetite for product in the streaming marketplace has become voracious. Here, it takes a while before clues emerge, explaining what all the shooting is about. After nearly losing his life in Morocco, on a covert operation financed by the CIA, former Navy SEAL Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is sent by his American handler, Leigh (Sylvia Hoeks), to London, where a disavowed CIA operative, McKnight (Elliot Cowan), is about to procure a WMD from Russian gangsters. Where the device’s final destination might be is anyone’s guess. Because Leigh has a personal grudge against McKnight, she teams Collins with two other bounty hunters, Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). When they’re ambushed by ninja-looking thugs, viewers wonder how it could have occurred with such accuracy. The leader of this pack is a former colleague, Deighton (Joseph Millson), who was hired by McKnight as protection, but was willing to make a deal with Leigh, against Collins and McKnight. Because so much of the fighting takes place at night, between men wearing balaclavas and carrying similar weaponry, it’s difficult to tell who’s assaulting whom. Fortunately, Collins doesn’t always wear a mask, and his partner is black, so that much is clear, at least. The other thing at play here is Collins’ disintegrating emotional strength, for which he takes “go pills” to keep him, yes, going. The other interesting thing is the presence of Milo Gibson in the lead role, playing the kind of character his dad, Mel, might have been assigned before he left Australia. All the Devil’s Men’s might have been a better picture if it had focused on our government’s recent practice of outsourcing its dirty work to contractors, with private armies that are only held accountable when they go too far and begin slaughtering civilians. In doing so, the government buys itself “plausible deniability,” when shit happens, and the mercenaries aren’t questioned by congressional committees, the media and representatives of their victims’ families. As long as filmmakers bypass the obvious conflicts in their pictures, for the sake of promoting pure action, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be anything except mediocre genre specimens. The Blu-ray adds a making-of featurette.

Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Large-format specialist Stephen Low has been making movies about airplanes for as long as he’s been in the business, almost 40 years. For nearly 35 of those years, the Ottawa-born filmmaker has given managers of IMAX venues reasons to go to work each day, whether they’re located in modern megaplexes or in museums. In addition to creating edutainment products about all manner of aircraft, from biplanes to fighter jets, he’s made several stops along the way to promote advances in corporate aeronautics. He’s also used bulky 65mm cameras to explore oceanic wonders, aboveground transportation and natural splendor. Because the 3DTV format has yet to be embraced by consumers, the full impact of his films must be enjoyed in theaters that cater to large groups of students, seniors and pot smokers. This isn’t to say that very much is lost on large-screen television monitors, especially those set up for 4K UHD playback. Aircraft Carrier: Guardian of the Seas not only promotes the capabilities of the modern navy in times of war and peace – remember peace? – but it also marks advances in naval aviation, which is largely dependent on the readiness of crews assigned to such magnificent ships. One of the greatest engineering feats in the history of warfare, the Nimitz-class carrier USS Ronald Reagan is a masterpiece of technology, and the flagship of the American fleet. The ship also provides a focal point for Low’s coverage of RIMPAC exercises, which take place far from view of curious citizens and prying media. Audiences, however, are whistled aboard the carrier and its 6,000 highly skilled sea and air personnel, amid war games comprised of 22 allied nations and more than 50 ships and submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 military personnel. From the air, especially, the fleet is impressive. (I think some of the same aerial footage might have been repurposed in Hunter Killer.) From the viewpoint of an engineer, mechanic or aspiring naval recruit, the dissection of duties and responsibilities, via live-action coverage and engineering visualizations – including a cross-section of the nuclear reactor and power train – should be nothing short of awe-inspiring. It takes viewers from the ship’s bridge to its rudders, with up-close peeks at the F-35C Lightning, the F35A, F-18 Super Hornet and Osprey. And, while a certain amount of patriotic posturing is inevitable, the emphasis is clearly on deterrence. Bonus features include some audience testimonials; speed comparisons between an F-35, Bugatti and human cannonball, and Usain Bolt, giraffe and nuclear carrier; and a F-35 Navy “selects reel.” Someone at the studio should have tried harder on them.

The Possessed: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Fifth Cord: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Another week, another pair of giallo thrillers from Arrow. These, however, are a bit different than the usual fare. The Possessed (a.k.a., “The Lady of the Lake”) is described on the jacket as being an atmospheric proto-giallo,” based on one of Italy’s most notorious crimes, the Alleghe killings, and adapted from the book by Giovanni Comisso. If it’s proto-anything, it’s only because The Possessed was released in 1965, more than a year after Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace merged his brilliantly colorful cinematography with stylized crime stories. It’s entirely possible that co-directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini were more interested in combining traditional American noir with Michelangelo Antonioni’s arthouse appeal and Carol Reed’s deployment of shadows and light. Peter Baldwin (The Weekend Murders) stars as Bernard, a depressed novelist who sets off in search of his old flame, Tilde (Virna Lisi), a beautiful maid who works at a remote lakeside hotel. Bernard is warmly greeted by the hotel owner, Enrico (Salvo Randone), and his daughter, Irma (Valentina Cortese), but Tilde isn’t around, anymore. After some cajoling, he learns that Tilde is deceased and her death has been ruled a suicide. The consternation in the faces of the people with whom he speaks about the case keeps him wondering what really happened to his ex-lover. When he notices a woman in a white coat and scarf, walking along the lakeshore, night after night, Bernard suspects that he’s being tested or it’s an innocent coincidence. Things only get more darkly sinister from there. The Possessed is presented here in a sensational new 2K restoration, from the original camera negative. It also includes newly translated English subtitles for the Italian soundtrack and optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing for the English soundtrack; new audio commentary by writer and critic Tim Lucas; an appreciation by critic Richard Dyer; “Cat’s Eyes,” a wonderfully wicked interview with the film’s makeup artist, Giannetto De Rossi; “Two Days a Week,” an interview with the film’s award-winning assistant art director Dante Ferretti; “The Legacy of the Bazzoni Brothers,” an interview with actor/director Francesco Barilli, a close friend of Luigi and Camillo Bazzoni; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sean Phillips; and, first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Andreas Ehrenreich, Roberto Curti and original reviews.

There’s no question that Luigi Bazzoni’s brilliantly photographed The Fifth Cord is straight-up, old-school giallo … one of the best. It was released simultaneously with Dario Argento’s “Animal Trilogy,” which still represents ground zero for giallo. In addition to the many home-grown actors, the cast is enhanced by the presence of such genre-specific hotties as Silvia Monti, Ira von Fürstenberg, Rossella Falk, Agostina Belli and token American Pamela Tiffen (State Fair).Too bad, most of these bodacious ladies don’t survive the movie’s central killing streak or Franco Nero’s investigation into the five pre-ordained crime. Nero plays reporter Andrea Bild, an almost-divorced lush, who drinks whatever is put in front of him. The Fifth Cord opens on New Year’s Eve, at one of the hottest nightclubs in town. Off camera, the murderer tells us that before the new year ends, five people will die at his hands. He’s already scoped out the candidates and all that’s left is the preferred method. At the scene of the first aborted attack, the killer leaves behind a black glove with a fingertip missing. With every new murder, another leather fingertip disappears. When police deduce that Bild not only is in direct contact with the killer, but also is connected to the victims, they make him the prime suspect. Given his propensity to black out when he’s drunk, even Bild isn’t 100 percent sure he’s innocent. He begs the police for one more day to identify the killer or he’ll voluntary come in for booking. The only surprise left is the identity of the killer and his/her motivation. Giallo buffs are encouraged to skip ahead to the bonus features and check out “Lines and Shadows,” a new video essay on DP Vittorio Storaro’s use of architecture, space and reflections; new audio commentary by critic Travis Crawford; “Whisky Giallore,” a new video interview with author and critic Michael Mackenzie; “Black Day for Nero,” an entertaining video interview with actor Franco Nero; “The Rhythm Section,” a new interview with film editor Eugenio Alabiso; a previously unseen deleted sequence, restored from the original negative; an image gallery; a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Haunt Love; and,first pressing only, an illustrated collector’s booklet, with new writing on the film by Kat Ellinger and Peter Jilmstad.

1 Billion Orgasms
Although theories about female ejaculation can be traced to the 16th Century, no serious scientific research has been reported, except in brief acknowledgments by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson. Typically, the studies have been limited to determining the ejaculate’s chemical composition or the precise location of the G-spot. It wasn’t until 1998 that any new light was shown on the phenomenon, by Helen O’Connell, a urology surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. “There is a lot of erectile tissue down there that is not drawn in any anatomy textbooks, save perhaps a couple of really old dissections in the French and German literature,” O’Connell wrote, at the time. “Just because you can’t see the rest doesn’t mean it is not there.” Some feminists continued to describe it as a male myth. By then, though, “squirting” had already entered the porn lexicon and actresses were showing off their ejaculatory skills in videos. The actress, Fallon, is credited with being the first porn star to perform the act on the small screen, in The Squirt (1989), Squirt Bunny (1989) and Squirt ’em Cowgirl (1990). Today, amateurs and fakers do most of the Internet squirting. Brent Kinetz and Terence Mickey’s very strange documentary, 1 Billion Orgasms, profiles the respected engineer and field-applications engineer Aaron Headley, who, when he wasn’t developing digital filters for space capsules, invented a “wristband movement detector” that, he claims, practically guarantees women an explosive full-squirt orgasm. Also known as the “G-spot Squirt Watch,” it could be used, Headley claims, by the world’s 8 billion women to ensure spectacular orgasms, with ejaculations of whatever it is as a side benefit.

On March 7, 2017, Headley was granted a patent for what was more discreetly described as “Wrist Band Motion Analyzer With Comparison Feedback.” Three years earlier, he’d applied for a patent for the remarkably similar “Squirt Watch.” Headley is portrayed as being a personable Minnesota family man, who grew up in a household that treated sex as a perfectly normal human experience and believes that all 8 billion women on Earth deserve an otherworldly orgasm. We’re even allowed to eavesdrop on his experiments with male and female porn stars. And, heck, the thing seems to work. The second-half of the doc takes place at the storied AVN show, in Las Vegas, where dozens of male and female orgasm-enhancers are on display. There might have been something in the desert air the weekend 8 Billion Orgasms was filmed, as, before our eyes, Headly goes from mild-mannered inventor to sleazy salesman. The first thing he does after his plane arrives is get a shoeshine at the airport, from a gentleman who doesn’t seem to mind having his ears bent by a future Nobel Prize-winner, who sounds as if he’s capable of delivering a good tip. After hooking up with Kat, the same woman who served as his booth assistant (a.k.a., booth babe) a year earlier, Headley turns into a schmoozaholic, who glad-hands everyone who might agree to endorse his product or help him get on Howard Stern’s radio show. (He’s become the Ed Sullivan of adult-toy purveyors.) His encounters with porn superstars appear, at first, to go well, but it’s an illusion. By the end of the first day of business, Headley looks crushed and Kat acts as if the only thing she wants to do is take a shower. He only sells a couple of watches, even when he offers a lucrative cut to wholesalers. One gets the feeling that women aren’t as keen to squirt that he believes they are and would prefer having the kind of orgasms that don’t require toweling off afterwards or wearing a raincoat. If Headley hadn’t been such an insufferable dick on the convention hall’s floor, it would be easy to forgive his resemblance to Willie Loman and file him away as someone dreaming the impossible dream. Even Kat takes an early powder from the show. If humiliating a guy who believes he knows more about a woman’s sexual response than the 8 million women he hopes to serve – or the inventor of the Rabbit, for that matter —  was the co-directors’ goal, they achieved it.

Road House 2: Blu-ray
Greater minds than mine have tried to explain what made Road House (1989) a bigger hit on VHS and cable than it was in theaters. Some pundits have cited the distributors’ dubious decision to emphasize Patrick Swayze’s romantic links to Dirty Dancing – another cult favorite – over the picture’s many fighting scenes and vigilante action. Others think that describing Swayze’s character, Dalton, as a world-class bouncer (a.k.a., cooler) from New York, instead of local tough guy, was too ludicrous a conceit to support. The T&A was more conducive to viewing on VHS, which, for guys, anyway, allowed endless rewinds. After the first bloody fight scene, I’m guessing that a lot of women viewers forgot that Swayze was even in Dirty Dozen. What began as a date movie, quickly devolved into a flick whose appeal was limited to guys looking for 90 minutes of transgressive entertainment. Neither were VHS sales and rentals dampened when Road House was nominated for Razzies  as Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actor (Swayze), and Worst Supporting Actor (Ben Gazzara), winning none. There simply was no interest on the part of women who loved Dirty Dancing in embracing a guy who, while undeniably cute, lacks Swayze’s charisma and sex appeal.

Road House 2: Last Call may be every bit as stupid and nonsensical as the original, but, by bypassing theaters, it could appeal directly to the core audience, with porn-y cover art and the promise of watching major tool, Jake Busey (a.k.a., Wild Bill), get the shit kicked out of him. It takes too long for that to happen, though. Shane Tanner (Johnathon Schaech) is an undercover DEA agent, who left the bayou country to escape the onus of being the only surviving son of a legendary bouncer. When his uncle (Will Patton) is nearly killed by gang of low-lives, Shane takes a leave of absence from the DEA and volunteers to run the joint. He discovers that the Black Pelican is Wild Bill’s bar of choice to conduct drug deals and he’ll stop at nothing in his efforts to buy it. Both men vow to run the other out of town or die trying. Although the movie features more than the usual number of bar fights and shootouts – most of them so obviously choreographed as to be a distraction — the highlight for most guys will be the knife fight between Wild Bill’s right-hand-woman (Marisa Quintanilla) and Shane’s blond girlfriend (Ellen Hollman). It’s right up there with the cat fights in Kill Bill.The MVD Collection release looks great in Blu-ray, but is scarce on bonus material.

Double Dragon: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The 1994 live-action film, Double Dragon, was based on the Technōs Japan arcade game, which was released in 1987 and went on to spawn a video-game franchise across several different platforms and animated television series. Directed by music-video specialist James Yukich (“Jeff Beck: Live at the Hollywood Bowl”), Double Dragon was set in 2007, amid the ruins of Los Angeles – now known as New Angeles — a city ravaged by earthquakes, tidal waves and vicious gangs. The landmark Capitol Records tower has begun to sag; Hollywood Boulevard has become the highly flammable Hollywood River; and curbside oxygen booths provide the only relief from the suffocating smog. Each day’s horrors are reported on television by news anchors Vanna White and George Hamilton. The evil tycoon Koga Shuko (Robert Patrick) is obsessed with joining the two halves of a talisman known as the Double Dragon, which, he believes, possesses mystical powers. Two teenage brothers, Jimmy (Mark Dacascos) and Billy Lee (Scott Wolf) find themselves in possession of the amulet’s other half, leaving them in a precarious position with the ruthless tycoon. With the help of Maria (Alyssa Milano) and her vigilante group, the Power Corps, the boys are required to summon all their courage, resourcefulness and martial-arts skills to stop Koga Shuka’s evil plan. Because of its origins as a fighting game, it should come as no surprise to fans that Double Dragon overflows with non-stop action and imaginative special effects. The problem, of course, is a plot that will only make sense to children well-versed in franchise mythology. The irony of filming so much of the New Angeles scenes in Cleveland won’t be lost on many older viewers. Here, the Cuyahoga River was set ablaze artificially – it caught fire in 1969, due to industrial pollution – to show what the faux Hollywood River would look like in similar circumstances. It caused quite a stir in Cleveland, with 210 phone calls to emergency services reported in 10 minutes. New featurettes include “The Making of Double Dragon,” a full-length documentary, with interviews with Wolf and Dacascos, writers Peter Gould and Michael Davis, and producer Don Murphy; and “Don Murphy: Portrait of a Producer.” Several previously shown featurettes are included, as well.

Poetic Justice: Blu-ray
After his hugely successful debut a year earlier, as writer/director of Boyz N the Hood, John Singleton probably would have made Columbia executives happy by churning out another drama about growing-up-gangsta’ in South-Central L.A. It’s difficult to imagine how they reacted to Singleton’s proposal for a romantic drama, featuring characters who would be recognizable from “Boyz,” but was set largely along the famously scenic coastal highway connecting Los Angeles and Oakland. “Black people take vacations, too,” Singleton recalls telling doubters, in an interview included in the bonus features on Poetic Justice. Not wishing to ruffle the feathers of the goose who laid a golden egg on his freshman project, Columbia only demanded screen tests from prospective leads, Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur. If that sounds crazy, today, consider that Jackson had yet to star in a feature film and Shakur’s only other prominent role was in Ernest Dickerson gang-related thriller, Juice. When Jackson’s character, Justice, isn’t working at a hair salon, she’s writing poetry to overcome her depression over witnessing the violent death of a boyfriend (Q-Tip). In a brief early scene, Justice rejects Lucky  (Shakur) by pretending to be in a lesbian relationship with her boss. Lucky, who works at the post office, has his hands full caring for his daughter, after catching her mother having sex with her crack dealer, while the child is only a few feet away from the bedroom. A bit later, Justice’s friend Iesha (Regina King) talks her into taking a road trip to Oakland with her boyfriend, Chicago (Joe Torry), who works at the post office with Lucky. Justice warily accepts, mainly because she’s expected in Oakland for a hair show and her car broke down at the last minute. Unbeknownst to Justice, Lucky is also on the trip, and she will now be sharing a postal van with him and their two mutual friends.

Initially they argue, but they soften towards each other as they discover their similarities over the course of the film. As Justice and Lucky establish common ground, though, Iesha and Chicago are coming apart at the seams. She’s a flirt and he’s a bully. When the truck reaches Oakland – minus Chicago, who may still be hitchhiking through Big Sur – Lucky arrives at his aunt’s home at the same time as paramedics, who fail to save his cousin from a gunshot wound. Somehow, the incident serves to cause enough tension between Justice and Lucky to cause a fissure to develop between them. Anyone want to guess how this story ends? Too easy. Besides taking his protagonists out of the ’hood, for a few days, anyway, Singleton finds a pastoral setting for a Johnson Family Picnic, at which some of the many relatives trace their ancestry all the way back to Africa. He also breaks the urban-drama mold by creating empowered black female characters. They include Maya Angelo, who supplied Justice’s poetry, Khandi Alexander, Lori Petty, Yvette Wilson, Robi Reed and  Mikki Val. I didn’t recognize all the hip-hop singer/actors, but the soundtrack is terrific. The bonus material includes 10 never-before-seen deleted and extended scenes, a rare look at Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur’s original screen test, and a new retrospective interview with Singleton.

Bernie the Dolphin
Set in St. Augustine, Florida, Bernie the Dolphin is a better-than-average family adventure about a brother and sister, who use their friendship with a pod of dolphins to investigate a well-financed scheme to construct a chemical plant on a stretch of pristine beach. Using the ruse of building a marine amusement park, instead, the contractors’ rep  (Kevin Sorbo) has inadvertently hired the kids’ father (Patrick Muldoon) to purchase land for the factory. When the kids (Lola Sultan, Logan Allen) raise their suspicions to their parents – based on clandestine surveillance of the rep’s meetings with corrupt officials – they are warned about getting their dad fired. While this is going on, the kids volunteer to work at a local dolphin-rescue facility, where a severely sunburnt member of the pod is being nursed back to health after being beached by a reckless boater. If Bernie the Dolphin’s narrative sounds a tad complicated, if not completely inconceivable, it’s worth knowing that the movie is saved by the young actors’ credibility as amateur sleuths/ninjas and their trusting relationship with their somewhat goofy dad and down-to-earth mom (Sam Sorbo). Their mentor at the care facility (Lily Cardone) is realistically drawn, as well. By combining the movie’s strong environmental message with the frequently humorous antics of the siblings, Kirk Harris’s Bernie the Dolphin becomes the rare family film that should appeal to all family members, regardless of age. The lovely St. Augustine locations serve the story well. The DVD adds a making-of featurette. It must have done well in limited release and PPV, because a sequel is already in the works.

TV-to-DVD
AMC/Acorn: Humans 3.0: Uncut UK Edition:  Blu-ray
PBS: NOVA: Last B-24
PBS:  NOVA: Thai Cave Rescue
PBS: Letters From Baghdad
PBS: We’ll Meet Again, Season 2
Nickelodeon: PAW Patrol: Pawsome Collection
Nickelodeon: Peter Rabbit Springtime Collection
Nickelodeon Shimmer and Shine: Flight of the Zahracorns
Nick Jr.: Blaze and the Monster Machines: Robot Riders
Based on the Swedish science-fiction drama “Real Humans,” the Channel 4/AMC Studios co-production, “Humans” (a.k.a., “HUM∀NS”) explores artificial intelligence and robotics, while focusing on the social, cultural and psychological impact of the invention of anthropomorphic robots called “synths.” Frankly, I hadn’t noticed that the show existed, before receiving the “Humans 3.0” package in the mail from Acorn Media. As such, I have no idea how much footage was trimmed from the UK edition to make room for commercials and cuts for content. (I didn’t notice any offensive material.) Synths were created as convenience tools for people who had run out of time to accommodate to their work, social and family obligations. Naturally, many owners treated their synths as slaves. Others developed a more emotional attachment to them. In “2.0.” we learned that some of them, at least, were built with the ability to achieve consciousness embedded deeply in their software. “3.0” opens one year after a devastating event drives a wedge between the synths and humans, who fear they’ve begun to plan a revolt. A large number of synths are confined to an abandoned railyard, where some hone their technological abilities and others develop a conspiracy. At the same time, a human lawyer, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), fights for synth rights at a high-profile government commission. The glamorous Mia (Gemma Chan) and Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) run a settlement for sentient synths. But Max is torn between his new role as leader and helping his friend, human-synth hybrid Leo (Colin Morgan). When a bomb destroys an integrated pub, Niska (Emily Berrington) searches for the perpetrator, and what she finds will have monumental consequences for humans and synths, alike. Bonus material includes “Behind the Scenes,” during which cast and crew members discuss what to expect in Series Three and how the characters have changed; “Synths,” in which cast and crew go into depth on all things synth; and “New Characters,” about, you guessed it, the new characters introduced in “3.0.”

The “NOVA” presentation “Last B-24” demonstrates how a new generation of forensic scientists is working feverishly to find and identify soldiers and airmen long considered MIA and, by now, deceased. Although the show’s primary focus is on the Tulsamerican, a B-24 bomber that crashed off the coast of Croatia during World War II, parallel searches involve a B-17 Flying Fortress lost in the section of the Adriatic Sea, and a Red Tail fighter plane piloted by a lost Tuskegee Airman. In the search of the B-24, divers create the same kind of grid forensics scientists and archeologists use in terrestrial digs. The degree of difficulty is markedly higher, due mostly to the corrosive effects of sea water, strong currents and silt. When the B-17 is discovered, the plane is nearly intact. Pentagon bureaucracy makes it difficult for the dive teams to explore the plane’s interior, for reasons I don’t quite understand. The Tuskegee Airman’s remains are relatively easy to locate, on a forested hill on the Austrian border, but the story of racism involving those brave African-American volunteers is simultaneously beyond sad and not a bit surprising. Among other things, the pilots were forced to fly many more missions than their white peers, without much recognition in official releases to the media. In “Thai Cave Rescue,” the “NOVA” team chronicles the efforts made to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand. In July 2018, the world held its breath as an international team of scientists and cave divers struggled to come up with answers for problems they’d never before faced. Follow the harrowing operation and discover the scientific ingenuity that made the rescue possible. Hear how rescuers explored every option, from pumping water, to drilling a new exit, to ultimately cave diving with the children through the treacherous, flooded passages.

Sometimes, an online subscription to the New York Times pays unexpected dividends. After watching Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum’s intriguing documentary, “Letters from Baghdad,” as well as Werner Herzog’s  Queen of the Desert (2015), I dialed up Gertrude Bell’s name on the Times’ search engine, just to see how far back coverage of this largely unsung explorer and diplomat went in the “paper of record.” The headline over her four-column obituary, which ran on July 18, 1926, next to sketched portrait, read, “GERTRUDE BELL A DESERT POWER: Englishwoman Who Died as Her Cherished Dream Was Fulfilled in Middle East Helped Win the Arabs to Britain.” A year later, over a full-front-page review in the Times Book Review, the headline read, “AN UNCROWNED QUEEN OF ARABIA: Gertrude Bell’s Letters Give The Story Of An Amazing Career.” In 1937, a second collection of Bell’s letters was reviewed and, in 1941, Ronald Bodley and Lorna Hearst’s biography, “Gertrude Bell,” was feted in the same section. When Allied forces decided to kick Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait, Bell’s diplomatic efforts in the Iraq were recalled, as well. So, no, Times readers would not be surprised by much in the PBS documentary. It’s likely, however, that outlanders didn’t receive much information about shaping British relations with nations demanding independence from the Crown and its broken promises. What “Letters from Baghdad” does add to the mix is a cornucopia of unseen photographs and home-movie footage (with sound) and readings from the letters by Tilda Swinton. Other actors give voice to the recollections of colleagues and friends, including, among others, T.E. Lawrence, Vita Sackville-West, Lady Florence Bell, Fakhry Jamil, Suleiman Faidhi, Winston Churchill and Mme. Jamil Zadeh. It’s a fascinating program. March being Women’s History Month, any teenager scratching for a noteworthy subject to cover could do worse than turning to the New York Times, “Letters From Baghdad” and Queen of the Desert for their audio-visual presentation.

Today, broadcast reporters can barely contain themselves when the parents of a long-missing child or relative of a POW use the “c” word or is prompted into doing so. Before the word became so overused that it lost most of its meaning, “closure” was a precise way of describing the feeling that comes with closing one bleak chapter in life and opening a brighter new one. The PBS presentation, “We’ll Meet Again,” could just as easily be titled, “Closure,” because that’s the gift given the subjects of each episode. The mini-series, hosted by Ann Curry, explores the lives of everyday Americans who survived moments of great personal trauma, thanks to the humanity shown to them by strangers. Season Two includes powerful stories of the Vietnam War, refugees fleeing Cuba, the great Alaskan earthquake, WWII’s Holocaust, the fight for women’s rights, and brothers in arms during the Korean War. (My Season Two DVD held shows from Season One.) Two-thirds of each episode is devoted to the search for the missing person, while the other third focuses on the reunion, which sometimes is limited to the next of kin. There isn’t a dry eye in the house, including those of viewers.

In the runup to spring and Easter, Nickelodeon is pulling out some of its big guns: the extended-length “PAW Patrol: Pawsome Collection” and “Peter Rabbit Springtime Collection.” The former repackages “PAW Patrol: Sports Day,” “PAW Patrol: Meet Everest” and “PAW Patrol: Marshall and Chase on the Case.” The latter encourages kids to hop
into a modern take on Beatrix Potter’s classic adventure. They’re invited to join Peter, his cousin Benjamin Bunny and his friend Lily Bobtail for eight charming tales in the Lake District. Help them take on adventures big and small, as the bunnies work together to rescue a friend, catch a trout, help a baby bunny who’s afraid of the dark and make time for a yummy radish snack.

Shimmer and Shine: Flight of the Zahracorns represents the popular Nickelodeon characters’ sixth DVD release. In it, the genies-in-training take to Zahramay Skies for a series of adventures through fluffy clouds and over glittering rainbows. From learning about stardust magic, to discovering the enchanting stars of Zahramay Skies, and participating in the Zahracorn race, Shimmer and Shine’s journeys are always filled with magic and valuable lessons for youngsters. In Nick Jr.’s “Blaze and the Monster Machines: Robot Riders” fans can join the gang on four adrenaline-pumping adventures, as they transform into robots to save Axle City, rescue T-Rex babies and race through wormholes. The episodes are “Robots to the Rescue,” “T-Rex Trouble,” “Meatball Mayhem” and “Robots in Space.”

The DVD Wrapup: Nutcracker, Always Room For Giallo, Mondo, Hunter Killer, Slice, Night Is Short, Suburbia, Masanjia and more

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms: Blu-ray/4K UHD
Like most other people, the only “Nutcracker” of which I was aware, before tackling Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, was the ballet composed in 1892 by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. And, while I knew that it’s become as much a part of the annual Christmas ritual as presentations of “A Christmas Carol,” I didn’t know that it was based on Alexandre Dumas’ revision of German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” For some reason, Disney decided that The Nutcracker and the Four Realms had a better ring to it than “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And, perhaps, that’s where the studio’s expectations for the holiday movie first hit a wall. I have no proof as to whether a title can turn a bad movie into a hit, but, I suspect, a good movie can be hindered by a bad title. What if someone at Paramount thought “The Godfather and the Five Families” would sell more tickets than The Godfather, which, before it was a movie, was a best-seller. Mainstream critics found several more reasons why The Nutcracker and the Four Realms might not be the placeholder Disney hoped it would be when it took over the original release date for the live-action Mulan, now set for March 27, 2020, and next December’s launch of Star Wars: Episode IX. None of them mentioned the title. They had more problems with the length of time it took for the heroine, Clara (Mackenzie Foy), to make her way to the Four Realms and figure out why they needed reunification. There was also the challenge of convincing audiences that the story was more interesting than the music and ballet that generations of little girls and their moms had grown to love. And, while Misty Copeland’s beautifully choreographed interludes add more than a mere touch of class to the 99-minute fantasy, they reduce whatever momentum that co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston managed to build.

The Stahlbaum family is facing a dreary Christmas. The matriarch died earlier in the year and Clara, at least, has no interest in going along with the request by her father (Matthew Macfadyen) to fulfill their social obligations. All she wants to do is find the key that unlocks the ornate silver egg left to her by her mother as a present. During the ball, Clara sneaks away to the workspace belonging to her wondrously inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman), who created the egg. He points her in the direction of the key, which is promptly stolen by a mouse. She’s led to a mysterious fairyland, where she encounters a nutcracker soldier, Phillip (Jayden Fowora-Knight), a gang of mice and the regents who preside over three of the four sectors: Snowflakes, Flowers and Sweets. Together, Clara and Phillip must brave the ominous Fourth Realm, home to the tyrant, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), to retrieve Clara’s key and return harmony to the unstable world, where her mother is favorably remembered. The wild card here is Keira Knightley’s duplicitous Sugar Plum Fairy. Watching The Nutcracker and the Four Realms in 4K UHD convinced me that 99 minutes wasn’t an inordinately long amount of time for viewers to invest in a movie whose imaginatively designed sets – alternately mechanical, floral, ominous and spectacular – probably were worth the studio’s $120-million  investment, as are the wonderful costumes, hairdos and makeup on display. At the beginning of Copeland’s first ballet sequence, which introduces the story of the Four Realms, conductor Gustavo Dudamel mounts a podium in silhouette and conducts the London Philharmonic. Older viewers will recognize the visual reference from Disney’s Fantasia, which included a segment based on “The Nutcracker Suite.” It’s a nice touch. The separate Blu-ray disc adds a rather slim menu of extras: “On Pointe: A Conversation with Misty Copeland”; “Unwrapping The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,” in which cast and crew members discuss set designs, the qualities the various sets added to the film’s themes and how the costumes complement the story; deleted scenes; and the music videos, “Fall on Me,” performed by Andrea and Matteo Bocelli and Matteo Bocelli, and “The Nutcracker Suite” performed by Lang Lang.

Suspiria: Blu-ray
Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria has frequently been referred to as a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 original, an Italian supernatural horror film that’s easily mistaken for a giallo. At 152 minutes, though, it’s more of a long homage than a remake. Only purists and genre nerds need quibble over the nomenclature. Guadagnino was the recipient of worldwide critical acclaim, as well as Best Picture nominations from AMPAS and BAFTA, for Call Me by Your Name (2017). The Palermo-born filmmaker also made a name for himself on the arthouse circuit with A Bigger Splash (2015), I Am Love (2009), Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory (2002) and The Protagonists (1999). Plans for a Suspiria reboot were announced in 2008, after Guadagnino acquired the option from Argento and co-writer Daria Nicolodi. He offered the project to director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express), who gathered commitments from several A-listers, but it fell victim to financing conflicts. In 2015, Guadagnino confirmed his plans to direct Suspiria, from a new screenplay drafted by David Kajganich (A Bigger Splash). He began filming only four months after finishing work on Call Me by Your Name. The new script transferred the setting from a ballet academy in Freiberg, Germany, to a modern dance troupe in Berlin, circa 1977. Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) stands in for Jessica Harper, who, in the original, played an American transfer student, who figures out there’s something rotten in Freiburg, when she witnesses another student fleeing the school in terror and larvae falling from the ceiling during dinner. Because of the original’s 98-minute length, Argento wasted little time cutting to the chase, by acknowledging that the dance company is a front for an ancient witch coven. Madness ensues.

The reboot differs from the original in several other noticeable ways, besides the additional length, which allowed Guadagnino and Kajganich a great deal more time to escalate the suspense and focus on the dance company’s preparations for a major recital and disappearance of key performers. Susie’s miraculously quick rise to principal dancer suggests that her talent may be inspired less by her admiration for Madame Blanc (Swinton) than demonic guidance. Meanwhile, police and the runaway girl’s elderly psychotherapist, Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton, as Lutz Ebersdorf), become suspicious enough about the missing dancers that they visit the school. It’s then that the strength of the “mother witches” begins to manifest itself in some extremely freaky ways. By the time the performance rolls around, viewers should already have braced themselves for an anything-goes horror show, hypnotically choreographed by Damien Jalet, and with special-makeup effects and prosthetics by Mark Coulier (Candyman). Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name) deviated from Argento and Luciano Tovoli’s brilliantly stylized color scheme by depicting Berlin as a fundamentally drab city not only divided by a wall, but also extreme right- and left-wing politics, terrorism and disparities in the distribution of wealth. Appropriately, Mukdeeprom’ reference point was cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’ work in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The other nod to Fassbinder reference came in the casting of his wife and collaborator, Ingrid Caven (The American Soldier), as the company’s spooky housemother, Miss Vendegast.

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was the director’s first choice to compose the score, which, he said, was inspired by Blade Runner; musique concrète artists, such as Pierre Henry; modern electronic artists, including James Holden; and 1977-vintage krautrock. Finally, viewers who’ve made it through Suspira’s barrage of blood and gore will be rewarded with a nice cameo by Harper, whose presence ties up one of story’s lingering Nazi-era threads. Unlike most horror and suspense titles, Suspiria is dominated by women and maternal themes. And, in case anyone’s wondering, Johnson holds her own here, opposite Tilden and other excellent actors and dancers. For newcomers to gialli and Euro-horror of the period, I’d suggest starting with the 1977 version of Suspiria, from Synapse Films, and even more representative genre re-releases from Arrow, Scream Factory, Scorpion, Severin and Kino Lorber. The Blu-ray adds a trio of too-short making-of briefs.

All the Colors of Giallo: Blu-ray
All the Colors of the Dark: Blu-ray
Newcomers to giallo, as well as students of the international cinema, should benefit from Severin’s three-disc documentary, All the Colors of Giallo, which provides all the historical  background a master’s-degree candidate would need for their thesis. Watching the movies themselves is, of course, recommended, but that’s the fun part. Newcomers can learn where these frequently odd pictures fit within the context of films typically relegated to sub-genres encompassing crime, thrillers, horror, grindhouse and exploitation fare, and such kindred influences as Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Michael Powell (Peeping Tom), Henri-Georges Clouzot (Les diaboliques), Hammer Films (Paranoiac) and Sigmund Freud. If American audiences didn’t immediately embrace the genre – despite the presence of such familiar actors as Telly Savalas, Cameron Mitchell, Walter Matthau and Caroll Baker – the blame can be laid less on the stories than to the unfamiliar European settings and actors, garish cinematography, poor dubbing and/or subtitles. Feminists wouldn’t have to look very far to find objectionable portrayals of women as sex objects and vixens, easy targets for serial killers and willing victims of male chauvinism. There’s plenty of violence, but the representations are more lurid than graphic. Today, of course, gialli can appreciated for their technical and storytelling merits, as well as the amazing cinematography and color schemes.

All the Colors of Giallo is nothing, if not comprehensive. It recalls the genre’s pulp-fiction roots – the book jackets favored yellow ink – and its evolution into film, which was interrupted by the dictates of fascism, the liberation by Allied forces and rise of neo-realism, and popularity of German krimi flicks in the 1950s. Giallo also had to wait in line behind such fads as Hercules, Mondo and Spaghetti Westerns to run out of steam. In addition to Federico Caddeo’s feature-length documentary, Disc One of All the Colors of Giallo contains “The Giallo Frames,” an interview with John Martin, editor of “The Giallo Pages”; and four hours of trailers, with commentary by with Kat Ellinger, author of “All the Colors of Sergio Martino.” Disc Two includes “The Case of the Krimi,” with film historian Marcus Stiglegger, and another 90 minutes of trailers, including dozens of adaptations of novels by Edgar Wallace and a couple that starred a very young Klaus Kinski and Christopher Lee. Disc Three is taken up by “The Strange Sounds of the Bloodstained Film,” a bonus CD of musical themes compiled by Alfonso Carrillo, of the DJ collective Rendezvous, and remastered by Claudio Fuiano.

Severin has released Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972), a movie that fits within the giallo category easier than Suspiria, while also adding full dollops of witchcraft, Satanism, psychedelia and Freudian dream analysis. Otherwise, it’s as representative an example of giallo as anything by such masters as Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Dario Lucio Fulci, Antonio Margheriti and Umberto Lenzi. The most impressive aspect of the film, in my opinion, is the amazing use of color to amplify the things going on in the mind of the female protagonist. Some of it reminded me of the cinematography in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Genre favorite Edwige Fenech plays Jane, a bourgeoise “housewife,” who, after a serious auto accident and miscarriage, is plagued by nightmarish visions of her own bloody death. Her husband (George Hilton) attempts to raise her spirits, but they only lead Jane to suspect that he’s having an affair with her similarly gorgeous sister, Barbara (Nieves Navarro), who wants her to see her psychiatrist. Still largely unhinged, Janes is convinced by a sexy neighbor (Marina Malfatti) to attend a black-magic ceremony, organized by a secret sect. The desperate girl foolishly agrees and soon after her life spins out of control. The cult leader and one of his more psychotic followers manage to get far enough inside Jane’s head that they enter her nightmares as prospective killers, along with her partner and sister. As is typical the case in the best thrillers, it doesn’t pay to assume that the obvious suspects will even be alive at the 95-minute mark. For an actress that many people have dismissed as eye candy, Fenech is excellent as a woman whose paranoia is anything but a figment of her imagination. Martino is well known for toying with genre conventions and, here, his instincts nearly always hit the target. The Blu-ray benefits from the new 4K restoration of the film, from the original negative; the alternate, 88-minute U.S. cut; “Color My Nightmare,” an interview with Martino; “Last of the Mohicans,” an interview with ace screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi; “Giallo Is the Color,” interviews with Hilton and Italian horror expert, Antonio Tentori; and commentary with Ellinger.

Mondo Freudo?/Mondo Bizarro: Blu-ray
Ecco/The Forbidden: Blu-ray
Released in 1962, Mondo Cane (a.k.a., “Tales of the Bizarre: Rites, Rituals and Superstitions”) became such an international box-office sensation that it spawned a subgenre of non-fiction films that were equal parts travelogues, shockumentaries and culturally exploitative. Only a small handful of the sequels demonstrated the filmmakers’ attention to accuracy, truth and respect for the people and cultures represented in the original. In fact, most of the spinoffs were cut from whole cloth, inventing rituals and traditions and exploiting racial stereotypes. Because the world has become a much smaller place than it was in the early 1960s, it’s become much easier to spot a ruse or manufactured incident. A spinoff of the Mondo category was the cannibal film, which went to great to demonstrate the unholy rites of native tribes and their insatiable appetite for blonds from the U.S. and Europe. To that end, Severin Films presents Lee Frost and Bob Cresse’s Mondo Freudo (1996) and Mondo Bizarro (1996), shockumentaries that often crossed the line into schlockumentary and mockumentary territory. In addition to depictions of voodoo rituals in the Bahamas and East Harlem, a narrator gleefully expresses his dismay at S&M clubs and massage parlors in Japan; a fakir braving a bed of nails; the mailroom at Frederick’s of Hollywood; blindfolded swordsmen; and various food-preparation practices. Mondo Bizarro opens in lingerie shop’s dressing room, where women are captured trying on bras and panties from behind a two-way mirror. It was a time in America when most men and boys’ access to naked breasts – all pubic hair is scratched out – was limited to National Geographic, Playboy, foreign art films and midway attractions. There are many more of them on display here, although the models’ amateur status was dubious, at best. After a visit to topless bars in Tijuana, an “Arab slave auction” is staged in Griffith Park’s  Bronson Canyon, which is supposed to remind viewers of Lebanon. Both movies, some of whose scenes are interchangeable, are accompanied by commentary with Johnny Legend and Eric Caidin, and the featurette, “The Cadaver Is Infinity: Bob Cresse, Lee Frost and the Birth of American Mondo,” with Temple of Schlock founder Chris Poggiali.

Cresse adds his sleazy commentary to George Sanders’ narration in Gianni Proia’s Ecco (a.k.a., “This Shocking World”), which was shot in 1963, but seems several times more mature than the previous two Mondo titles. This documentary explores assorted “forbidden” topics from all over the world. Among them are a racy TV commercial for a female martial arts school, rowdy teenagers protesting a strict curfew on the Sunset Strip, an underground lesbian club in Geneva, a portable topless bar, and a London strip clubs featuring virgin dancers. The Forbidden is Frost and Cresse’s 1966 fake Mondo, which, when it isn’t visiting nightclubs catering to Swiss lesbians, Parisian tarts and Nazi strippers, visits an early antiwar demonstration on Sunset Boulevard. newly-transferred from the only known 35mm print in existence. The package adds “The Bandit,” in which producer David Goldstein remembers Cresse, and a short film, “I Want More.”

Hunter Killer: Blu-ray/4K UHD HDR
Donovan Marsh’s contemporary submarine thriller, Hunter Killer, took a drubbing  from critics, largely based on circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers. In it, an untested American submarine captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), teams with U.S. Navy Seals, led by Lieutenant Bill Beaman (Toby Stephens), to rescue the Russian president, Nikolai Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko), who has been kidnapped by rogue defense minister, Dmitri Durov (Michael Gor). Durov wants to garner public support by triggering a war with U.S. naval forces. After a wildly improbable undersea rescue of a Russian submarine captain, Sergei Andropov (Michael Nyqvist), and his crew, Glass is assigned to breach enemy defenses and coordinate with Beaman, whose surveillance of the Russian naval base has confirmed the specifics of the plot to the satisfaction of American leaders – played by Common, Gary Oldman, Caroline Goodall and Linda Cardellini — monitoring the situation inside the president’s war room. If that scenario sounds far-fetched, it’s because Hunter Killer, which was based on the 2012 novel, “Firing Point,” by Don Keith and George Wallace, strains credulity throughout. Production began three months before Donald Trump was elected president, thanks, in no small part, to the interference of Russian hackers, with the blessings of Vladimir Putin. Although the saber-rattling continues, it doesn’t appear likely that Putin will be the target of a coup attempt any time soon. Any resemblance between Zakarin and Putin is strictly limited to their ability to speak Russian. Once one recognizes the improbability of anything in Hunter Killer playing out in real life the way it does on screen, however, the easier it is to sit back and enjoy the tension-filled story. (Was the ending of The Hunt for Red October any more realistic?) The real excitement comes in trying to figure out how the filmmakers are going to pull it off. Or, maybe, I’m just a sucker for submarine movies. Even if the native Scotsman, Butler, is dead-ringer for Mel Gibson facially and vocally, he fits the role of a naval officer who’s never spent a minute at Annapolis, but knows the abilities and limitations of his ship as well as any college-educated captain. There are other inconsistencies, but, even at 122 minutes, Hunter Killer doesn’t feel padded. The 4K UHD and Dolby Vision HDR bring out the nighttime and underwater scenes, while the Dolby Atmos audio track helps with the pings, pongs and silent moments. It adds Marsh’s commentary and the 24-minute featurette, “Surface Tension: Declassifying Hunter Killer.”

The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl: Blu-ray
Lu Over the Wall
Anyone who thinks that animated features from Japan are limited to stories that use children, fairies and forest animals to teach life lessons to adults, or wacky sci-fi adventures, might want to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl. Adapted by Makoto Ueda from a popular YA novel by Tomihiko Morimi – the trio previously collaborated on the animated mini-series, The Tatami Galaxy – the coming-of-age story reminds me of something John Hughes might have written for Molly Ringwald, after her graduation from high school. Otome (a.k.a., Girl with Black Hair) is a student at Kyoto University, as is Seipei, a boy who’s determined to profess his love for her … but is having trouble getting near enough to do so, in a “coincidental” way. Like sophomores everywhere, Otome is an adult in most ways that matter, but is waiting to turn 21 for a blowout evening with her friends. On this particular night, however, she commits herself to getting pie-eyed drunk on cocktails with flowery names and boogying until the cows come home. Despite being a novice, Otome can hold her own against the local boozers and eccentrics she encounters, without appearing to be any worse for the wear. Meanwhile, Seipei is experiencing the opposite of fun, as his attempts to court the Girl With Black Har inevitably hit roadblocks. The hand-drawn cells are vividly rendered, reflecting Otome’s moments of joy, exhilaration and lightheadedness. Funny and extremely inventive, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl arrives on Blu-ray with a PG-13 rating intended to keep the kiddies, usually attracted to anime, from any premature lessons in debauchery. It adds an interview with the director.

Yuasa scored an extremely rare double when his second 2018 release, Lu Over the Wall, was submitted alongside The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl for consideration for this year’s Oscar as Best Animated Feature. They were among more than a half-dozen animated titles from Pacific Rim countries included in the list of 25. (Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs was based on a story by Anderson, Kunichi Nomura, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman. It is set on an island off the city of Megasaki, Japan.) Last week, Mamoru Hosoda’s Mirai was nominated alongside Isle of Dogs, Incredibles 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Ralph Breaks the Internet. It’s a formidable list, dominated by studio products. What makes Yuasa’s accomplishment so special is the time it takes to create one animated feature, from conception to release, let alone two. Although Lu Over the Wall and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl share several visual qualities, as well as fanciful storylines, they’re very different movies. For one thing, there’s nothing in “Lu” that can’t be enjoyed by family members over the age of, say, 8 or 9. The other concerns the musical content in “Lu,” which some might consider to be a rock opera. In it, new-kid Kai is a talented, but almost morbidly shy boy, who spends his days sulking and isolated in the small fishing village to which his parents just moved.  When Kai demonstrates a proficiency at making music on a synthesizer, his classmates invite him to join their nascent garage band. Their sound doesn’t begin to gel, until a young mermaid, Lu, lends her voice and enthusiasm to the compositions. Superstitious locals, including his umbrella-maker grandfather, have had a long, if not always happy relationship with the merfolk in their midst. They’ve even gone so far as to create a wall between the species. In light of Lu’s contributions to the band, it behooves the adults to reconsider their hostility to the merfolk. But, you old prejudices die hard. As in “Night Is Short,” Yuasa isn’t timid when it comes to making dramatic shifts in artistic styles and color palettes in “Lu.” Hayao Miyazaki, who just turned 78, recently came out of retirement for a couple of projects. Any fear that he won’t be able to pass his baton to a new generation of Japanese animators should no longer exist. The bonus features include commentary and an interview with Yuasa.

Slice
Blood Brother: Blu-ray
It wasn’t so long ago that such genre spoofs as The Groove Tube, Police Squad!, Airplane!, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle and Scary Movie ruled the nation’s multiplexes, skewering the kind of clichés and tropes that helped several generations of Hollywood screenwriters overcome writer’s block. The best ones would inspire any number of copycat comedies on television: like “Reno 911!,” “Another Period,” “Party Down,” “Children’s Hospital,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “Angie Tribeca.” One of the things that made these shows work was the surplus of actors in L.A., who had honed their craft in such improv troupes as the Groundlings, the State, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City. Moreover, the actors willingly shared their spotlight with other improv veterans and created material for niche websites, including “Funny or Die,” that keep us laughing through our tears at the antics of brain-dead politicians, the media’s obsession with celebrities, overpaid athletes and the banality of everyday life, as reflected in sitcoms, tabloids and the nightly news. I didn’t know what to expect from Austin Vesely’s debut feature, Slice. The prominence of Chance the Rapper’s face on posters for the movie made me think that Slice might be yet another side project for bored hip-hop artists. On closer inspection, however, I was buoyed by the presence of Paul Sheer (“The League”), Zazie Beetz (“Atlanta”), Rae Gray (“Fear of the Walking Dead”), Chris Parnell (“Happy Together”), Hannibal Buress (“Broad City”) and Katherine Cunningham  (“Condor”), none of whom could be mistaken for chopped liver. Like Chance the Rapper (a.k.a., Chance Bennett), many of the actors have strong Chicago roots. Beetz and Chance both have worked alongside Donald Glover, on “Atlanta” or one his Childish Gambino projects. Buress appeared in Chance’s music video “NaNa” and Vesely directed several other videos for the artist and philanthropist. Despite his marquee value, Chance spends a lot of screen time wearing a motorcycle helmet with a smoky face shield. As for the story, let’s just say that Mel Brooks probably would have taken a pass on Slice. It’s a faux mystery, in which someone is murdering pizza deliverers in a typical Midwestern town – it was shot in Joliet — where werewolves, ghosts and zombies co-exist with humans and the mayor has reasons of his own to keep the citizenry happy. Slice might have benefitted from one or two fewer subplots, but, at 83 minutes, Vesely’s gags hit pay dirt more often than they fizzle. The DVD adds commentary and deleted scenes.

There are several prominent rappers, singers and wrestlers in WWE Studio’s Blood Brother. None of them emerge from the experience as unscathed as Chance the Rapper, who made it through Slice without being taxed too heavily by Vesely. Unlike 50 Cent, Method Man, Ludacris, Common, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Will Smith and other male rappers, who didn’t miss a beat when they began acting in TV shows and movies, Chance’s biggest contribution to the movie was his name and visage on the marketing material. The same can’t be said for Trey Songz and Fetty Wap, singer/actor China Anne McClain (“Descendants”) and WWE star Ron Killings (a.k.a., R-Truth), all of whom succumb to a half-baked script. The only thing that really matters in Blood Brother is action and badassery, some of which gets lost in the muddled narrative. The movie opens with a quartet of teenage taggers, the Demons, escaping down an alley to avoid an angry business owner. Out of nowhere comes an armored truck and carload of crooks, speeding toward a devastating crash. The only survivor is a black guard, who’s ruthlessly slain by the only white kid, Jake (Jack Kasy), in the gang. The others get away with a small fortune in loot. Flash forward 15 years and Sonny (Songz) is a cop, shown waiting outside of a prison to pick up his old partner-in-crime, Jake, who clearly hasn’t been rehabilitated. During the next 24 hours, Jake murders a half-dozen innocent residents of New Orleans, as well as a few not-so-innocent hoodlums. Jake’s harbored 15 years of resentment for Sonny, his oldest friend and confidante, blaming him for letting him take the fall in the robbery. Somehow, he’d forgotten that he’d murdered a guard in cold blood, with his own service weapon, and deserved a life sentence, without parole. To Jake, it no longer matters that Sonny is perfectly willing to relinquish the money he’s hidden for the last 15 years, only that he be outed as the monster Jake thinks he is. It leads to several aborted head-to-head showdowns between the old friends, who chase each other around the city as if their cars were linked by GPS. Naturally, Jake has also threatened Sonny by making nice to his wife’s teenage sister, Darcy (McClain), and taunting him about his ex-wife (Tanee McCall). No one on the police force is aware of Sonny’s continued link to the Demons, through the hidden money, and why he manages to show up ahead of the cops at murder scenes. Director John Pogue (The Quiet Ones) is left with building to a final showdown – remember, this all takes place over a 24-hour period – that ostensibly is designed to seal Sonny’s fate. On the plus side, Kesy is extremely credible as the psychopathic ex-con with a one-track mind and death wish. (When did crooks become so emotionally attached to their crimes: why not take the money and run?) Their face-to-face confrontations are pretty effective, albeit redundant after the first two.

Suburbia: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Two years after Penelope Spheeris documented the burgeoning Los Angeles punk-rock scene, in The Decline of Western Civilization, producer Roger Corman recruited her for Suburbia, a theatrical movie that frequently looks like a sequel to her documentary. (Eventually, Spheeris would add two more chapters.) In it, she locates a small community of runaways, dopers and anarchists, illegally squatting in houses abandoned ahead of the construction of, what else, a freeway. Although some of the kids aren’t averse to breaking the law to gather food and other essentials, most are too stoned to bother, preferring to contribute in other ways. The living conditions are bared-boned and squalid, but preferable to the tense domestic situations they had escaped. Their dogs are nearly as feral as they are. (A child is killed by a stray in Suburbia’s opening scene.) At night, the kids to whom we’re introduced – not all of whom are actors – work out their frustrations in the mosh pits of punk-rock concerts. Much of drama evolves from a growing hostility between the squatters and a group of crudely drawn rednecks, who fancy themselves to be protectors of middle-class morality and red-white-and-blue values. The most prominent cast members are musicians Chris Pedersen and Flea. Bands include D.I., T.S.O.L. and The Vandals. As usual, the kids will prove to be their own worst enemies. Realistically gritty and frequently uncomfortable to watch, Suburbia is a long way from Spheeris’ teen-culture phenomenon, Wayne’s World (1992). It benefits from a fresh 4K remaster of the film; commentaries with Spheeris, individually, and Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay; and a stills gallery.

Screamers: Blu-ray
When Philip K. Dick died, on March 2, 1982, only two of his short stories had made the journey from page to screen … the small one. When Blade Runner was released, a few months after his passing, only sci-fi buffs recognized the resemblance to the author’s 1968 short novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” despite his name on the credit roll. Another eight years would pass before Total Recall, adapted from his 1966 short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” once again raised his profile in Hollywood. Screamers was released in 1995, between Jérôme Boivin’s French-language Confessions d’un Barjo (1992) and Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). Just before that, audiences and critics helped Dimension Films’ Imposter (2002) lay an extremely expensive egg. Last year, Amazon Prime offered subscribers two separate mini-series, based on Dick’s works: “Electric Dreams” and “The Man in the High Castle.” If more adaptations haven’t been attempted, it’s probably because of the complexity and intellectualism of Dick’s ideas and characters. Nearly 50 years before scientists, futurists and ethicists began debating whether our increased dependence on robotics might soon backfire on humanity, Dick’s books dealt with similarly crucial issues. Studio executives have traditionally shown a reluctance to fund genre movies that put ideas ahead of action. Dan O’Bannon (Alien) had been working on a screenplay for Screamers as early as 1981. When the project fell through, Dick’s estate made it difficult for anyone else to pick it back up. More than a decade would pass before Canadian producer Tom Berry was able to obtain the rights to the 1953 cautionary tale, “Second Variety.” In it, the U.S. and United Nations make a last-ditch stand against Soviet forces from a base on the moon. Outmanned by the Russkies, UN engineers develop weapons and prosthetics that rely on advanced robotic technology. Inevitably, the robots’ artificial intelligence develops the capacity to create weapons of their own, with which they attack humans and other robots.

To save money, Berry rounded up a group of film-school graduates from his alma mater, Montreal’s Concordia College, including director Christian Duguay (Scanners II/III), and acquired funds from Triumph Films, a division of Sony Pictures. The budget would be tight, but manageable in Canada. Miguel Tejada-Flores (The Revenge of the Nerds) revised O’Bannon’s screenplay, by resetting it on a distant planet devastated by a war between an Alliance of scientists and miners, and NEB mercenaries financed by mining companies profiting from a toxic energy source. Although most of the fighting had already taken place, robotic flesh-seeking weapons (Autonomous Mobile Swords) and armed humanoids were left behind, as was a squadron of Alliance soldiers. The AMS weapons are nicknamed “screamers” because of a high-pitched noise they emit as they attack from just below the surface of the land. Screamers track targets by their heartbeats, so Alliance soldiers wear “tabs,” which broadcast a signal canceling out the wearer’s heartbeat and rendering them “invisible” to the “swords.” A message, purportedly from Earth, arrives at Alliance headquarters, alerting the soldiers to a ceasefire and negotiations. The leader is ordered to return to Earth, but, first, he’ll be required to trek to a NEB stronghold, where a rocket transport is located. The problem for Hendricksson (Peter Weller) and his associate comes in knowing which of the enemy’s weapons they can defuse with their tabs and the difference between killer androids and NEB soldiers awaiting war’s end. (Former model Jennifer Rubin plays a soldier who could pass for both.) Duguay does a nice job keeping the guessing game going for most of Screamers’ 108-minute length, thanks in large part to an almost painfully noisy audio track. Wintertime Quebec looked desolate enough to pass for a combat zone on the planet Sirius 6B, circa 2078. If Screamers didn’t make much money in its initial release, it attained cult status on VHS and DVD. As usual, the bonus material produced by Scream Factory is informative and entertaining. It includes separate interviews with Duguay, Berry, Rubin and Tejada-Flores.

Letter From Masanjia
Watching Leon Lee’s disturbing documentary, Letter From Masanjia, I couldn’t help but recall the urban myth about a note purportedly found inside a fortune cookie that says, “Help, I’m trapped inside a Chinese fortune cookie factory!” The reason most such myths, legends and folklore persist is because they’re usually too good not be true and we willingly suspend our disbelief to maintain the delusion. In 2012, a letter, written in English and Chinese, was discovered inside a box of Halloween decorations purchased by Oregon resident Julie Keith from a local Kmart. It said essentially the same thing as the note in the fabled fortune cookie, but in many more words and much greater detail. The message had been clandestinely written two years earlier by an inmate of the notorious Masanjia labor camp, in far northeast China, where the principle of “re-education through labor” was used to punish dissidents, Falun Gong disciples and petty criminals. Their work also paid dividends to the Communist Party functionaries who dealt with foreign companies – including Sears Holdings’ Kmart subsidiary – that had no qualms about profiting from such arrangements. After U.S. news outlets learned about Keith’s discovery, however, it created the kind of firestorm that Chinese authorities abhor. After the story broke on the Internet, reforms in the re-education campaign were announced. The movie vividly describes the punishment received by the letter-writer, Sun Yi, and others caught defying camp rules. It also follows up on his efforts to live a normal life after his release. Despite a poignant reunion with the recipient of the letter, there would be no happy ending for Sun Yi.

TV-to-DVD
Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic: Blu-ray
PBS: Nature: Dogs in the Land of Lions
Way back in the early 1950s, studio executives expressed concerns over the possibility their audiences would abandon theaters for the comfort of watching television in their living rooms. For a while, it looked as if they might be right. Their fears dissipated after certain realities became evident. For the most part, early television shows were little more than radio shows with pictures. The scope and grandeur of a Hollywood movie – especially biblical epics — couldn’t be equaled on the small screen. Despite the restrictions imposed by the Hays Office, filmmakers benefitted from certain freedoms that sponsors of television shows prohibited even the best directors. And, apart from guest appearances on variety shows, movie stars shied away from any commitments to television. All of that would change, but not before network execs decided that it would be more economical to produce movies of their own, instead of paying for the privilege of transferring Hollywood products to the small screen and annoying viewers with commercials. Likewise, the cost of rerunning such fare was nil. The so-called movies-of-the-week frequently served as testing grounds for proposed shows and actors not quite ready for prime time.  As a bonus, the writers of these teleplays found ways to address social ills of interest to viewers in the key demographics. Some courted controversy, while disease-of-the-week movies exploited viewer fears of illnesses causing premature death and disfigurement. Newly released on Blu-ray, the 1975 message film, “Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic,” remains one of the most memorable of these pictures. Like the NBC World Premiere Movie, “Born Innocent,” it starred Linda Blair, who, a year earlier, played the possessed daughter of a famous actress, in The Exorcist (1973). In it, Blair’s character is a 14-year-old runaway, who, after getting arrested one too many times, is banished to girls’ juvenile detention center, where she’s raped in a communal shower scene. Before the gruesome depiction of girl-on-girl sexual abuse was excised from future airings, it was loudly criticized by the National Organization for Women, the New York Rape Coalition and numerous gay and lesbian rights organizations. Such was the growing power of television. Also, in 1975, Blair played a semi-literate farm girl kidnapped by a fugitive mental patient, in ABC’s “Sweet Hostage.” Because of her “brainwashing” by her captor, Blair would be credited with introducing the Stockholm Syndrome theory to Americans, along with Patty Hearst and Al Pacino, in Dog Day Afternoon. It wasn’t until she played the lead in 1979’s Roller Boogie that Blair was given a too-rare respite from horror and crime flicks.

As the title character in “Sarah T,” Blair demonstrates how an innocent 15-year-old girl from the suburbs might get to the point in her young life where her only salvation comes at AA meetings. As tawdry as that might sound, “Sarah T” doesn’t pin the blame solely on a desire to fit in with her peers. Her alcoholic father (Larry Hagman) is forced to shoulder much of the responsibility, as are her mother (Verna Bloom) and stepfather (William Daniels), who never met a cocktail they didn’t like. Just as the adults in her life rely on booze to cure their ills and share their happiness with others, Sarah begins to drink to overcome her inferiority complex and raise her comfort level around boys. Before she knows what’s happening to her, Sarah’s stealing alcohol from her parents and those of the kids she babysits. Everything goes downhill from there. “Sarah T” doesn’t offer simple solutions to what, viewers are told, is a growing epidemic among teens. Most of the credit for the non-exploitative approach to the subject matter goes to writers Richard and Esther Shapiro (“Dynasty”) and director Richard Donner, who’d spent the 1960s at the helm of television Westerns and crime dramas. Immediately after “Sarah T,” Donner found big-screen success with The Omen, Superman and their sequels. It’s easy to see his touch allowed “Sarah T” to rise above the made-for-TV pack. The Shout!Factory package is enhanced by a new 2K scan of original film elements; a stills gallery; and lengthy interviews with Blair, and Donner and producer David Levinson.

No one travels all the way to Africa to study the habits of dogs, even those distantly related to the pets they left behind at home. Unless memory fails me, I can’t remember visiting any zoo that exhibits wild dogs captured on the savannah or raised in captivity. Kennels and pet shops, only. No, only the so-called big cats have earned the distinction of being tourist attractions. And, all they had to do was act naturally. PBS’ “Nature: Dogs in the Land of Lions” doesn’t attempt to make a case for the worthiness of African wild dogs – also known as the painted hunting dog – to be mentioned in the same breath as lions, cheetahs and leopards. In fact, it’s quick to point out that the dogs have become endangered, in large part due to their precarious relationship to lions, with whom they compete for prey and habitat in the Zimbabwe bush. Their battle for survival is well-documented by cinematographer Kim Wolhuter (“The Cheetah Children”), who spent two years capturing the habits of a large family of wild dogs, all of whom share a common mother, “Puzzle.” While the pups provide some light-hearted moments, viewers are constantly reminded of their precarious future, as well as their ferocious loyalty to the pack and ability to hunt much larger wildebeest.

The DVD Wrapup: Mikey & Nicky, Apparition, Widowed Witch, Dis, Spiral, Wandering Muse, Jack the Ripper, Howling 3, Eating Animals, Scoundrels, Waterworld … More

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Mikey and Nicky: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Not being well-versed in the way such things work in New York, these days, I can only wonder if Criterion Collection timed the release of Mikey and Nicky with the concurrent salute to writer/director Elaine May, at the Film Forum, and her performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” on Broadway. As coincidences go, anyway, it’s a welcome one. Released in 1976, Mikey and Nicky starred Peter Falk and John Cassavetes – the arthouse equivalent of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin – as a pair of childhood friends, who, as adults, are foot soldiers in the army of a Jewish mobster (Sanford Meisner), based in Philadelphia. They survive by taking orders and playing by the rules, not interpreting them as they see fit. As the picture opens, Nicky (Cassavetes) is holed up in a seedy hotel, deranged by the likelihood that he’s being targeted for assassination for overstepping his bounds in the murder of a bookie. He’s summoned Mikey (Falk) to help him make it through the night. At first, it’s possible to assume that Nicky is suffering from a gunshot or knife wound, even though there’s no evidence of bloodshed. Instead, his ordeal is being complicated by an ulcer. There’s just enough humor in their early exchanges to think that Mikey and Nicky might eventually play out as an improvisational gangland bromance, like Husbands (1970), but without kindred spirit Ben Gazzara. Instead, as the two men venture deeper into the neon-lit night and three decades’ worth of memories, the characters’ shallowness overwhelms any hope for comic relief. Nicky is, indeed, being hunted by a hitman (Ned Beatty), who’s becoming increasingly impatient with his target’s unpredictable antics. How Mikey fits within the big picture hasn’t been made clear, yet. Today, audiences can watch May’s third directorial effort without expecting an offbeat, if frequently dark romcom, as were The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf. In 1976, that wasn’t the case. Two years later, some of the same viewers would wait 90 minutes for the laughs to come in Woody Allen’s Bergman-esque Interiors … to no avail.

Cassavetes and Falk may fit the mold of small-time wise guys, but the characters’ likability factor decreases from the moment May ratchets up the dial on Nicky’s booze-fueled paranoia. It plummets even further during their visits to former wives and girlfriends, who act as if they expect to be slapped around, fucked and forsaken. After two hours, any pent-up sympathy we might have for the actors playing these despicable characters has completely disappeared. It isn’t an accident or a false step on May’s part, however. It’s entirely possible that she intended Mickey and Nicky to be a corrective portrait of the charismatic mobsters depicted in Mean Streets and The Godfather. In fact, May had conceived the story in the mid-1950s, even as she was emerging as one of improvisational comedy’s most talented practitioners, with Mike Nichols and the Compass Players. In their comments in the bonus material, critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey point out how Mikey and Nicky can be seen an example of toxic masculinity and the “seductive power of abusers.” Simply taken as a story about the brotherhood of criminals, it also provides a prime example of the cost of betrayal. It is, of course, the ultimate sin a wise guy can commit, whether it constitutes ratting out an associate or modifying an order to fit one’s own purposes. As impressively constructed as it is, Mickey and Nicky remains difficult to watch and impossible to enjoy. The acting, though, is worth the effort of enduring some visceral discomfort. Also included is an interesting 1976 radio interview with Falk; new chats with distributer Julian Schlossberg and co-star Joyce Van Patten; and an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by Nathan Rabin.

The Apparition
For me, one of the most endearing aspects of the Roman Catholic Church is its willingness to accept that miracles are a fact of religious culture and demonic possession can be eradicated. The Vatican spends millions of dollars annually to verify the veracity of apparitions reported by members of the flock and attempts to evict the devil from stricken souls through exorcisms. Perhaps, if the Church had allocated a few more millions of dollars into the pursuit and eradication of sexually abusive priests, it might not be in the same sad shape it’s in today. The Apparition is a frequently compelling ecclesiastical thriller about a dedicated French war correspondent, Jacques Mayano (Vincent Lindon), who is recruited by the Vatican to join in a clerical investigation of a possible miracle. The movie was inspired by the true story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, a 14-year-old girl, who, in the late 1850s, experienced 18 visitations by the Virgin Mary. After a rigorous investigation, Church authorities confirmed the authenticity of the apparitions, as well as dozens of “inexplicable” cures verified by the Lourdes Medical Bureau. The faithful still line up to experience the phenomenon. In Xavier Giannoli’s contemporary drama, co-written with Jacques Fieschi (Place Vendôme) and Marcia Romano (Marguerite, with Giannoli), Mayano was chosen by Vatican authorities for his humanitarian dispatches from war zones around the world. He’s been in a state of depression – accompanied by severe ear damage – since the death of his photographer and friend in an explosion. Unlike the other members of the panel, he employs journalistic techniques in his investigation.

Even before the study could begin, tens of thousands of worshippers and curiosity-seekers descended on the rural French village where the sightings reportedly occurred. Vatican officials know that it wouldn’t be the first time a miracle was staged to raise money for a city or church that didn’t particularly care how the funds were derived. Here, an otherwise normal teenager, Anna (Galatéa Bellugi), claims to have been told by the Virgin to build a “home for her son” built on the site, where the faithful could pray for world peace and the power of love and compassion. After keeping the visitations to herself, Anna felt compelled to share them with the local priest, Père Borrodine (Patrick d’Assumçao), who intuitively knew what to do with them and wasn’t beholden to anyone in Rome. Determined to protect her from the outside world, Borrodine accepted Anna as a novitiate. His dodgy associate, Anton Meyer (Anatole Taubman), hopes to monetize the miracle through the Internet and social media. As rumors of the miraculous event spread throughout Europe, Borrodine decided to satisfy the growing crowds of worshippers by trotting out Anna for daily processions. For his part, Meyer creates a gift shop, full of trinkets and statuary for the girl to bless, although she resists the request. At one of the services, Anna appears to take a shine to Mayano. She will provide him with additional access for questioning and even sneak out of the convent for more casual discussions. There’s nothing sexual in them, although Borrodine infers that the journalist might be taking advantage of her and, of course, wonder when this shoe may drop. (Cynical viewers might also anticipate a visitation by a monstrous satanic creature, which, blessedly, never materializes.) In his search for Anna’s friends, relatives and fellow witnesses, Jacques comes across a relic from a war zone – a Madonna with her eyes scratched out – that is exactly like one his friend photographed in Syria. Discovering it in the home of one of Anna’s closest friends, who’s since disappeared, makes the reporter shutter at the possibilities of such a discovery. The rest, dear readers, is a path littered with potholes and spoilers. All I can say is that the shift in narrative direction closes one loophole, while opening another. The Apparition is for viewers who don’t mind suspending more than two hours’ worth of disbelief in the service of a story that’s provocative, suspenseful and well-acted.

The Widowed Witch
Last week, in this space, the centerpiece DVD was Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch, a tragi-comic story about the plight of Zambian women and girls convicted of being possessed with supernatural powers. Unlike the 200-plus women and men of Salem, Massachusetts, who faced execution on charges of witchcraft in 1692, the African women are required to live in a virtual purgatory on Earth, tethered to a truck to prevent them from using their powers to “fly away” from work camps. Cai Chengjie’s debut feature, The Widowed Witch, provides yet another example of how ancient superstitions are used to punish women who deviate from the norm. It is set during winter in a desolate corner of Hebei province in northern China. The streams and fields are frozen over and the locals are reduced to huddling in their modest homes, drinking tea and waiting for the first signs of spring to arrive. Until then, gossip is one of the few escapes from reality left to them. Into this bleak portrait of life in a country otherwise known for overcrowded cities, non-stop motion and rationale behavior arrives a woman whose reputation precedes her. Er Hou (Tian Tian) recently emerged from a coma, in the home of a relative who rescued her from the ruins of an illegal fireworks factory she ran with her late husband. After she recovers a bit from injuries sustained in the explosion at the plant, the relative decides that she’s healthy enough to be raped. Because it was an unauthorized factory, Er Hou doesn’t expect protection from police or, for that matter, compensation from the government or subsidized housing. It forces her to seek shelter from less-repulsive family members and relatives of her three deceased husbands. And, aye, there’s the rub. In the minds of the people she encounters, any woman capable of surviving the accidental deaths of three spouses can only be a witch or a shaman … preferably the latter.

Clever enough to exploit an opening when she finds one, Er Hao takes advantage of several coincidental incidents to win the admiration of local men, who agree to share their food and shelter with her. In one instance, Er Hao is assigned the task of tending to an elderly man, who hasn’t left his bed for at least a year. To overcome the stench, she prepares a hot bath for him in a converted oil drum. After accidentally leaving him in boiling water overnight, the old man is relieved of his paralysis. The discovery of a frilly bra among Er Hao’s belonging is deemed sufficient cause for punishment by local women jealous of her hold on their husbands. Knowing that her coat is made of a Kevlar-like material, Er Hao taunts one of the women into shooting her. After recovering from the impact of the bullet, she miraculously recovers before their eyes. Er Hao’s softer side is visible in exchanges with her last husband’s mute 10-year-old brother, Shitao (Wen Xinyu), who’s been handed over to her by her parents. Together, they inhabit a RV that doesn’t provide much protection from the frigid winds. Finally, they find a spot, further in the wilderness, where other shamans gather. Like Vivian Qu’s Angels Wear White (2017), The Widowed Witch is the rare Chinese film whose use of magical realism and frank examples of the oppression of women was given a pass by normally overbearing censors. Freshman cinematographer Feng Jiao’s depiction of winter in the boonies – black and white, with occasional splashes of color – is appropriately chilling.

Dis: Blu-ray
Adrian Corona’s Dis packs more gratuitous nudity, gore and depravity into its 61-minute length than most movies twice as long. That should come as good news to fans of such things, as well as a warning to viewers drawn to emerging genre icon Bill Oberst Jr. (Circus of the Dead). Anyone uncomfortable in the presence of real horror and torture porn would do well to sit this one out. Oberst plays a former soldier, with a sketchy past, who’s taken refuge from civilization in a dense tropical jungle. He’s lured to the concrete ruins of a building by a topless figure that shifts her shape before his eyes. Inside, the demon has constructed a grimy torture chamber, where naked women are tormented, apparently for the pleasure of Corona’s viewers. Turns out, the monster is in pursuit of the “seed of killers and blood of the damned to feed his mandrake garden.” In today’s Internet biology lesson, I learned that mandrakes display hallucinogenic and narcotic properties, and can cause poisoning when ingested. Because their roots often resemble human figures, they have been associated with a variety of superstitious practices and pagan rituals throughout history. Here, Corona added several gooey gimmicks to the legend, as well as Lori Jo Hendrix’s otherworldly physique. Bonus features include a still gallery, interview with Oberst, an introduction by the director and behind-the-scenes material.

Spiral: Blu-ray
After the conclusion of World War II and liberation of Nazi death camps, it probably felt safe for survivors to imagination a future free of anti-Semitism and genocide. We all know how long that lasted, however. Today, of course, the stain of sectarian violence and religious intolerance covers most of Europe and is spreading through the U.S. While it’s easy to blame some of the hatred on the continuing unrest in Israel and Palestine — including the construction of illegal settlements, the wall, rocket attacks, terrorist activity, poverty and unemployment — anti-Semitism wasn’t invented in the 20th Century and isn’t reserved for Israel. Laura Fairrie’s 79-minute documentary, Spiral, describes how an escalation of physical attacks, verbal assaults and terrorist attacks has prompted tens of thousands of European Jews to emigrate to Israel. That, in turn, complicates the situation in the Holy Land, where expectations of safety and peace can only be realized through measures distasteful to many of them. In portraying the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France, Spiral focuses on the experiences of individuals, including Muslims, on both sides of the conflicts that have fueled the escalation. Needless to say, this approach has had its limitations. Some of the most striking evidence derives from children, who suffer from fears of violence they don’t understand and being uprooted to escape it. Moving to settlements on barren hilltops, surrounded by people you’ve been taught to hate and fear, doesn’t feel like much of a solution. The DVD adds a post-screening Q&A.

The Wandering Muse
The title of Tamas Wormser’s musical documentary, The Wandering Muse, could refer to anyone from Alan-a-Dale to Woody Guthrie. The tagline, “From Ram’s Horn to Beatbox, Music of the Jewish Diaspora,” not only ties the documentary to the legend of the wandering Jew, but also the music’s ability to bridge the historical past and contemporary motifs. Unlike modern klezmer music, which has proven flexible enough to incorporate jazz and disparate folk traditions, the musicians represented in The Wandering Muse reflect “the nomadic soul wandering in a borderless world of harmonies.” As the tagline implies, the instruments on display range from the most basic – the ram’s horn – to sounds created digitally in an electronic box. The songs  run the gamut from cantorial and ceremonial, to hip-hop and jazz, with some performed by costumed singers. Neither was Wormser limited to concert stages and synagogues. Like Ry Cooder (Buena Vista Social Club), Les Blank (Hot Pepper) and Bela Fleck (Throw Down Your Heart), Wormser took his cameras to where traditional music is as fresh as anything on the Billboard charts. It took him eight years, but the hard work and travel paid dividends. In constant motion, The Wandering Muse is a series of encounters with Jewish musicians from around the world: an alternative Argentinean bar, where two friends play tango-infused klezmer; in rural Uganda, where villagers chant Hebrew prayers in East African harmonies; at a Montreal party, where an artist mixes hip-hop and jazz with multilingual cantorial singing; and in a Berlin apartment, where an American harmonizes with a Russian friend in a rendition of an anti-Zionist song from the 1920s. One needn’t be Jewish to enjoy The Wandering Jew – the music speaks for itself – but an understanding of the linkage between religious and folk traditions is useful.  If the documentary is difficult to find, try wanderingmuse.net, the “online component of Artesian Films’ multiplatform project that explores the vibrant array of Jewish music.” The DVD adds lots of deleted musical scenes.

Henri
If it weren’t for a near-death cameo by Burt Reynolds, a lazy appearance by Eric Roberts and the prospect of watching the extensively tattooed Robert LaSardo in a lead role, I can’t imagine why any distributor would find a reason to release Henri. Octavian O’s martial-arts romance defines the old phrase, Amateur Night in Dixie. Since the veteran actors are promoted on the DVD’s cover, though, the movie’s fair game. We meet the title character (Eli Zen) as the deer he’s feeding is killed by a group of rednecks who ride roughshod over the town. Turns out, the mild-mannered Henri was raised in a monastery in the Far East and now lives in a swamp in southern Florida. Apart from one family, Henri is alone in the world. Over a dinner, for which the hostess is unprepared for the guest of honor’s distaste for meat, Henri takes a shine to Ashley (Lori Katz). A pretty blond with doe eyes, Ashley works behind the counter at the local convenience mart, where she’s harassed on a daily basis by one of the deer murderers. Humiliated by Ashley’s preference for Henri, the dude retaliates by raping and beating his fantasy girlfriend in the store’s bathroom … blessedly, off-screen. Like Billy Jack before him, Henri decides to break his vow of non-violence by kicking the crap out of the rednecks, who are related by birth to Roberts’ good-ol’-boy character. As sheriff, LaSardo is reluctant to take on the brothers-from-another-mother, for the sole reason that he’s screwing the rapist’s mother. The bottom line here is that no one, with the exception of the aforementioned stars, knows how to act and that includes the guy who plays Henri (Eli Zen). Apparently, Reynolds has at least one more movie in the can. One can only pray he looks healthier in it than he does in Henri.

Jack the Ripper: Blu-ray
10 to Midnight: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
Cobra: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
Dozens of movies have featured characters inspired directly or indirectly by the killings attributed to Jack the Ripper. Most of them have been made after 1960, when the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho opened the gates for more graphic depictions of violence in the cinema. Less known is Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman’s Jack the Ripper, which opened in London a full year earlier than Psycho was released in the U.S., and was controversial, as well, for its depictions of knifings. After both black-and-white movies cleared the various censorship boards and Psycho, at least, made a ton of money, the floodgates opened for horror flicks whose antagonists also specialized in knife-inflicted wounds. A decade later, the slasher/splatter subgenre, no longer limited to b&w, was born. Upon closer examination, however, Jack the Ripper’s bloody trail can be traced to 1927, when Hitchcock adapted Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 speculative novel, “The Lodger,” and Horace Annesley Vachell’s stage version, “Who Is He?” For The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, Hitchcock would borrow ideas gleaned from earlier work by German Expressionists F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. According to Hitchcock scholar Donald Spoto, the silent film represented “the first time Hitchcock revealed his psychological attraction to the association between sex and murder, between ecstasy and death.” It also included his first cameo appearance.

Although Jack the Ripper isn’t in the same cinematic league as Psycho, it isn’t bereft of merits. Among them is the atmospheric portrayal of Victorian London, specifically the notorious Whitechapel district, where most of the attacks occurred. The movie skims over the neighborhood’s more fetid features and presents the victims as ordinary women who make the mistake of going out at night, rather than portraying them correctly, as prostitutes. (In 1888, an estimated 1,200 of them worked in an area covering only a few square miles.) Whitechapel also is made to look as if it might have been an entertainment district, where slumming socialites, sailors and crooks could enjoy cabaret-style entertainment and the French cancan. (It’s a highlight of the movie.) As the story goes, police inspector O’Neill (Eddie Byrne) is being deluged with complaints by locals who think catching killers is a piece of cake. He is joined by Sam Lowry (Lee Patterson), a police colleague from America who looks like a cross between James Rockford and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. Lowry becomes attracted to Anne Ford (Betty McDowall), the ward of the respected surgeon, Dr. Tranter (John Le Mesurier), who volunteers at the Whitechapel hospital and frequently is called upon to work on the female victims, pre- and post-mortem. He’s assisted by a mute hunchback (Endre Muller), who, of course, becomes the primary suspect of the local lynch mob. As was typically the case in such potboilers, the filmmakers were compelled by the Production Code and censors to reveal a guilty individual, even though history tells us that the killings remain unsolved. Severin Films’ Blu-ray package contains the original British version; the American edition, re-tailored by legendary showman Joseph E. Levine; commentary with co-director/co-producer/co-cinematographer Robert S. Baker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and AD Peter Manley, moderated By British horror-historian Marcus Hearn; an interview with Denis Meikle, author of “Jack the Ripper: The Murders and the Movies”; the featurette, “Gentleman Jack: The Whitechapel Murders Revisited”; a poster and stills gallery; and, perhaps, best of all, alternate/extended scenes shot for “continental audiences,” accustomed to nudity in exploitation movies. Levine added a new musical score, composed by Jimmy McHugh and Pete Rugolo.

Ten years before the term incel was created by Internet grammarians as a portmanteau of “involuntary celibates,” a young man enflamed by rejections from women was written into J. Lee Thompson’s 10 to Midnight (1983), as its antagonist. Since 2014, when self-described incel Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California, more than three dozen other murders have been attributed to such misogynistic behavior. Before embarking on his murderous rampage and committing suicide, the Santa Barbara City College dropout wrote a 137-page manifesto and created YouTube videos detailing his involuntary celibacy. In them, he discussed how he wanted revenge for being rejected by women. Since then, Rodger has been mentioned as a source of inspiration by other perpetrators of mass killings. Before his death, in 1997, screenwriter William Roberts (The Last American Hero) couldn’t have known how close he’d come to identifying the incipient form of a new social disease. Neither could Charles Bronson, the film’s marquee attraction. In 10 to Midnight, the veteran hard-guy plays Leo Kessler, a cynical Los Angeles cop tracking Warren Stacy (Gene Davis), a homicidal maniac who turns rejection from beautiful women into the ultimate revenge. Stacy doesn’t try very hard to cover his tracks, as the diary left behind by his first victim provides almost all the evidence necessary to indict him. Almost. When the legal system sets the reasonably handsome dweeb free, Kessler plants evidence to put him behind bars for good. Meanwhile, his partner, Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens) takes a fancy to Laurie Kessler (Lisa Eilbacher), a nursing student and the cop’s daughter, who, he correctly guesses, is the perfect target for Stacy’s attention and, when rejected, wrath. In fact, Stevens does most of the heavy lifting in 10 to Midnight, leaving room for Bronson to put his personal stamp on the picture. Like Jack the Ripper, who easily could have suffered from incel syndrome, Stacey’s weapon of choice is a knife and, in his mind, his victims are whores, not co-workers or students. Because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, it’s difficult to recommend 10 to Midnight to anyone, except Bronson completists. In addition to bonus material ported over from previous editions, the technically upgraded Scream Factory Blu-ray adds fresh interviews with Stevens, producer Lance Hool and actors Robert F. Lyons and Jeana Tomasina Keough, and commentary with writer/historian Paul Talbot, author of “Bronson’s Loose!”

For Cobra (1986), George P. Cosmatos was teamed once again with Sylvester Stallone, then the highest paid and arguably the biggest box-office draw on the planet. They’d just completed Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which made a lot of money, especially overseas, and the re-pairing made a lot of sense. If John Rambo had decided to forgo mercenary work and gone into law enforcement, instead, he’d very closely resemble the title character, whose full name is Marion Cobretti. (Reportedly, Stallone has described Cobretti as “Bruce Springsteen with a badge.” In his dreams.)  In Cobra, Stallone plays the police department’s designated vigilante, called in when all other legal measures to take a killer off the street fail. His work isn’t universally admired within the department, but, really, who cares? In the mid-1980s, all that mattered at the box office was a movie’s body count. Here, 41 of the 52 people killed were taken out by Cobra. What does any of this have to do with Jack the Ripper? Well, the knife used by the antagonist was made for the film by designer Herman Schneider, whose only request from Stallone was to “create a knife that audiences would never forget.” Neither could Cobra have been made under restrictions enforced by the Hays Office. As it is, a half-hour of really, really nasty stuff was trimmed to avoid an X-rating. Alas, the missing scenes weren’t added to the bonus supplements, along with lively new interviews with actors Brian Thompson, Marco Rodriguez, Andrew Robinson, Lee Garlington and Art LaFleur.

Howling III: Blu-ray
More successful than it has any right to be, the werewolf-themed “Howling” franchise includes three novels and eight films. It began in 1977 with Gary Brandner’s horror novel, “The Howling,” which, four years later, would be adapted into the film of the same title, by Joe Dante and screenwriters John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. Even though the narrative deviated from Brandner’s story, The Howling made some money and received favorable reviews. In 1985, Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf was released to mostly negative reviews and fewer revenues. Critics wondered if what they were watching – much of which was shot in the Czech Republic – was what Brandner had in mind, in the first place, and where the producers saw the franchise heading. No one could have predicted that the series was on its way Down Under. Aussie director Philippe Mora (Mad Dog Morgan), who was at the helm of “Howling II,” took over the chores as director, co-writer and co-producer on Howling III. In a newly recorded interview, Mora explains that he wanted to do a picture that was a sequel in title only and Brandner went along with it. Somewhere along the way, Howling III morphed into Howling III: The Marsupials. By the time it was released in Blu-ray, “The Marsupials” disappeared. I can’t imagine why. It was a quick and easy way to alert potential viewers to the fact that the triquel – the last installment to be released theatrically — was really going to be different. As Howling III opens, anthropologist Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto) obtains film footage, from 1905, showing Australian Aborigines ceremonially sacrificing a wolf-like creature. Alarmed by the reports of a werewolf killing a man in Siberia, Beckmeyer tries to warn the president of the United States about the possibility of widespread werewolf attacks, but, of course, he isn’t interested. Meanwhile, back in Australia, we’re introduced to a young Australian werewolf, Jerboa (Imogen Annesley), as she’s fleeing the Outback and her sexually abusive stepfather, Thylo (Max Fairchild). She doesn’t display any noticeable marsupial properties, but neither do most marsupials. After spending the night on a park bench near the Sydney Opera House, she is spotted by a young American, Donny Martin (Leigh Biolos), who offers her a role in a horror film, “Shape Shifters Part 8.” The hilariously affected director, Jack Citron (Frank Thring), takes a liking to the brash newcomer, even though he’s unaware of her own shape-shifting abilities. Later, Jerboa and Donny attend a movie that depicts a human transforming into a werewolf. In a moment dripping with irony, she reveals her true identity by insisting that “it doesn’t happen like that.” At the wrap party, Jerboa is exposed to strobe lights, which trigger an unexpected transformation of her own. She flees the party and is hit by a car. At the hospital, doctors find she has a marsupial pouch and striped fur on her back like a thylacine, alternately known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. Now extinct, it was the largest known carnivorous marsupial of modern times. Turns out, Jerboa is pregnant. The freak-out point in “III” arrives when Jerboa gives birth to a baby werewolf, which, as is customary, crawls from the mother’s vagina to her abdominal pouch, where her nipples are located. While the movie doesn’t get any more shocking that that, it continues to offer more than its fair share of surprises … and some laughs along the way. (A ballet dancer transforms in mid-pas de deux.) As a prime example of Ozploitation, the digital transfer was sponsored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. It adds new commentary with Mora, moderated by filmmaker Jamie Blanks (Urban Legend); a fresh conversation with Mora: and vintage interviews from “Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!”

Eating Animals
Far From the Tree
Based on the bestselling book by Jonathan Safran Foer and narrated by co-producer Natalie Portman, Eating Animals is an eye-opening, frequently gut-wrenching examination of the environmental, economic, and public-health consequences of factory farming. In tracing the history of food production in the United States, the film charts how farming has gone from local and sustainable to a corporate Frankenstein monster that offers cheap eggs, meat and dairy at a steep cost to the environment. If you’re thinking that this could describe any number of documentaries about the benefits of veganism and organic farming, and horrors of modern food production and processing, you’d be right. Some of the video footage captured clandestinely inside the hatcheries and rendering plants are little short of sickening. No less tolerable are the scenes showing government and corporate harassment of whistleblowers and reporters, who dare photograph or chronicle conditions at feet lots and hog prisons, where waste ponds are the color of Pepto-Bismol. On the plus side, we meet farmers trying to beat the odds by treating their livestock humanely – even as they’re being prepared for slaughter at home and by consumers – and giving them plenty of room to roam. Sadly, the uplifting parts bookend the sickening stuff. And, of course, Trump administration officials are committed to protecting the polluters, torturers and profiteers, not the people they ostensibly were hired to serve.

How do filmmakers skilled in making hourlong documentaries for television take a 962-page examination of how families accommodate children with physical, mental and social disabilities, and make it fit a 93-minute framework? Gently, of course, but also with compassion and admiration for the people introduced by author in his best-selling and award-winning tome. Andrew Solomon, a prolific writer and professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center, handed over the reins of “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity” to Rachel Dretzin (“Hope & Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media”) and Jamila Ephron (“American Experience: Clinton”). Their mission was to discover and describe the courage of parents on disparate journeys toward acceptance of their one-of-a-kind kids: a mother and son determined to show the world that his Down’s syndrome doesn’t define him; a couple learning to communicate with their bright, but nonverbal autistic son; a young woman dealing with what it means to be the only little person in her family; and parents whose deep love for their son persists even after he committed an unspeakable crime. Far From the Tree traces their joys, challenges, tragedies and triumphs, while asking them to re-examine what it means to be a normal family.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: Collector’s Edition: Blu-Ray
The natural lure for Shout!Factory’s re-release on Blu-ray – the first since 2013 – is the opportunity to watch Michael Caine and Steve Martin, working at the top of their game, under the direction of Frank Oz. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was noteworthy at the time, as well, as Oz’ first directorial effort that did not feature puppets. His previous feature credits included The Dark Crystal (1982), Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). For my money, though, the best reason to watch the re-make of Bedtime Story (1964), which starred David Niven and Marlon Brando, hasn’t anything to do with the leading men. It’s to see Glenn Headley, who passed away in 2017 at the too-early age of 62, in the role originated by Shirley Jones. (I couldn’t locate Bedtime Story on DVD or Blu-ray.) In the early 1980s, it was easy to find Headley performing on various stages in Chicago, but, usually, as a key member of the fledgling Steppenwolf Theater ensemble. As was the case with so many other Chicago actors at the time, Glenn would make her way from the Windy City to New York and Hollywood, where she’d continue to work in movies and television, including Dick Tracy, Lonesome Dove, And the Band Played On, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Bastard Out of Carolina. Headley took most of the 1990s off from the stage to focus on her family, but she returned afterwards. At the time of her death, Glenn was involved in productions on television, film and the theater. Anyway, she was a terrific actor and is greatly missed. Unfortunately, Glenn’s barely mentioned in the otherwise self-serving featurette, newly created for writer Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny). It’s worth mentioning, perhaps, that a new remake of Bedtime Story/Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is scheduled for release on May 10, 2019, starring Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson and Tim Blake Nelson.

Waterworld: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Contrary to popular opinion at the time of its release, Waterworld (1995) was not an unqualified bomb. While it underperformed at the domestic box office, foreign ticket sales pumped up the worldwide volume to a then-respectable $264.1 million. The problem, of course, was that the media fixed its gaze on the record-topping $175-million production budget, the massive floating set, the replacement of the film’s director (by Costner), nasty gossip that flew from Hawaii to the mainland in a heartbeat, a 135-minute length and high expectations by Universal. The fact is, however, Waterworld’s problems weren’t visible on the screen and the opinions of mainstream critics were split right down the middle of the spectrum. Moreover, after a while, money from home-video sales, TV broadcast rights and other revenue streams, finally pushed Costner’s “folly” firmly into the black. Today, $175 million is the going rate for most high-profile animated features and comic-book movies. Not factored into the final box-office figures is the money Universal made from licensing the title for video and pinball games, comic books, a novelization and, of course, “Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular,” at Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Japan, and Universal Studios Singapore. In 2020, at the Hollywood venue, the action-packed water-stunt show will turn 25, a landmark few theme-park attractions ever reach.

For the many people who weren’t born by the time Waterworld was released, it’s worth pointing out that it was one of the first disaster thrillers to pin the blame for the apocalypse on global warming. When the polar ice caps melted, flooding set civilization adrift. Survivors cling to life on floating cities, their existence constantly threatened by bands of marauding pirates, known as Smokers. The survivors’ last hope to defeat the Smokers and their ruthless leader, the Deacon (Dennis Hopper) is a solitary figure, Mariner (Costner). His goal is to reach Dryland, if such a place even exists, with Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her ward, Enola (Tina Majorino), who holds the key to humanity’s continuation. The folks at Arrow Video think enough about Waterworld to have compiled a technically upgraded “Limited Edition” package, comprised of three separate versions of the film and new features. The three-disc “keepcase” is housed in a chipboard box which also includes six collector’s postcards, a double-sided fold-out poster and a limited-edition 60-page “perfect bound” book, featuring essays by David J. Moore and Daniel Griffith, along with some archival pictures and writing. There’s also a reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Paul Shipper. The first disc holds the original theatrical edition; “Maelstrom: The Odyssey of Waterworld,” a feature-length retrospective on the production; the featurettes, “Dancing With Waves” and “Global Warnings”; original marketing material; and image galleries. The second disc contains the nearly three-hour “TV Cut,” which was created for U.S. broadcast television and contains over 40 minutes of additional material, including alternate scenes. On the third disc, the nearly as long “Ulysses Cut” was crafted for European broadcast markets and restores some material excised from the U.S. broadcast version. The total package was accorded highly-recommended status by the folks at Blu-ray.com.

The Revelation of Lee “Scratch” Perry
If all one knows about reggae derives from the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals, you may not have heard much about Lee “Scratch” Perry. Now 82, the Jamaica native began his career in the late 1950s. Like Cliff’s character in The Harder They Come, he peddled records on the street for various producers, while refining his own sound. By the end of the 1960s, he was cranking out hits of own, backed by the studio band, the Upsetters. He’s continued recording his own songs, touring and producing music for other artists ever since then. In 2011, the documentary profile, The Upsetter, narrated by Benicio Del Toro, was released worldwide in theaters. Steve Marshall’s The Revelation of Lee “Scratch” Perry documents the making of his Grammy-nominated album, ”Revelation.” On it, engineer/producer Marshall lays down a digitally rendered reggae beat, while Perry raps a narrative based on his spirituality and today’s global events. The doc, which was filmed at Perry’s mountain-top home and studio in Switzerland, also features behind-the-scenes input by Keith Richards and George Clinton, along with Duncan & Green, Tim Hill, Dr. Sleepy, Alec Hay, elodieO & Abi Browning, and David Stewart Jones. (The studio has since been destroyed in a fire.) The DVD adds excerpts from a free-flowing and revealing interview of Perry, conducted by Marshall and accompanied by a parrot.

TV-to-DVD
Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success
The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds Of: Vol. 2
Did you know that fox squirrels can remember the location of 9,000 nuts they’ve stored for a snowy day? I didn’t. I do know that squirrels who live in cities have developed a taste for the insulation on wiring installed by cable companies and cause frequent blackouts. In some suburban areas, they’ve achieved nuisance status, even in the eyes of liberals, who normally wouldn’t hurt a fly. It’s why I raised an eyebrow when I saw the title, “Nature: A Squirrel’s Guide to Success.” Squirrels need a guide to success, like cockroaches need maps and blueprints to find dirty sinks. In any case, it’s fun to watch researchers study the critters’ problem-solving abilities and try to figure out how squirrels – of which there are 300 species – have developed the ability to glide through the air, outwit rattlesnakes and survive the coldest temperatures of any mammal. Kids will enjoy seeing the world through the eyes of an orphan red squirrel, Billy.

The Dick Cavett Show: Inside the Minds Of: Vol. 2” picks up where the first compilation of clips left off, only with three comics who display more respect for the host’s format than his previous guests. Maybe, that’s because these episodes were chosen from shows that aired between 1990 through 1995, a period when the art of standup comedy had fully matured and was beginning to pay off in a big way for comedians accustomed to living on the fringes of the entertainment business. George Carlin, Martin Mull and Steve Martin were already seasoned veterans when these shows were taped. Cavett obviously felt more comfortable in their company than with the comics just starting out. Some of the interviews first took place on CNBC and other non-network outlets.

The DVD Wrapup: Not A Witch, Jonathan, The Captain, Speed Kills, Room 304, Hippocrates, The Dark, Crimson Peak, Tea With Dames, Forbidden Photos, Addiction … More

Thursday, January 17th, 2019

I Am Not a Witch
In 1980, Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy became the most commercially successful release in the history of South Africa’s film industry … possibly in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. The movie generated extensive word-of-mouth success in Europe, Japan and North America, with the movie rights initially being sold to 45 countries. Funny, unexpected and exotic, The Gods Must Be Crazy became a huge arthouse hit here. Set in Botswana, it follows the story of Xi, a Saan of the Kalahari Desert — played by Namibian Saan farmer Nǃxau ǂToma — whose tribe has no knowledge of the world beyond its villages. After a Coca-Cola bottle is discarded from a plane flying over the Kalahari Desert, it’s found, intact, by a bushman, who has no idea what it is, what purpose it serves or from whence it came. When Xi brings it to his village, the bottle causes such consternation that tribal officials order the bushman to return it to the gods, who must have sent it in the first place. His journey describes the stark differences between the “primitive” culture of the aboriginal, Xhosa-speaking Saan and the technologically advanced culture of the modern world. By becoming an international sensation, The Gods Must Be Crazy also opened the door for criticism by anti-apartheid activists, who were quick to point out the things Uys omitted from the comedy to assure a government subsidy and release. They included the economic, judicial and cultural realities for tribes under apartheid – the star, Nǃxau initially earned less than $2,000 for his starring role – self-censorship of political issues raised and any mention of restrictions prohibiting blacks from making movies and watching them in theaters, outside of crudely produced genre films made in the 1980s by white producers and featuring  actors of color, for the enjoyment of township audiences. (Some of them are now available through IndiePix Films’ Retro Afrika series.) The Gods Must Be Crazy and its inferior sequel were released on DVD in 2004, but not since in Blu-ray.

I was reminded of Nǃxau while watching I Am Not a Witch, an offbeat dramedy by the Zambian-born, British-raised writer/director Rungano Nyoni. It depicts the ways women convicted of being witches in rural Zambia cope with ignorance, prejudice and forced labor. That cold reality is offset by the comic buffoonery and outright hypocrisy of rural officials, who are swayed by legal statutes, superstition and fear of the unknown when dealing with women accused of being witches. Here, 9-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is exiled to a mobile witch camp after being accused of crimes that wouldn’t even stand up in a kangaroo court.  To prevent the women from “flying away,” they’re required to wear long white ribbons, which connect to spools affixed to rods on a flatbed truck. She’s warned by a corrupt government agent, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), that any attempt to escape could result in her being transformed into a white goat. Before Shula’s actually convicted of witchcraft and given a ribbon to wear, Banda confers with the local tribe’s witch doctor, whose judgements are dictated by what he gleans from the final death throes of beheaded chickens. If Shula doesn’t offer much in the way of a defense, it’s only because the older women are kind to her and benefit from regular meals, shelter and the occasional bottle of gin. It only takes Banda a few hours to figure out how to profit from Shula’s gift, as it were, and use it to maintain his comparatively lavish western lifestyle and the continued adoration of his wife – a pretty woman he rescued from the camp — who believes that she’s protected from bigotry by the ring on her finger. Banda courts celebrityhood by bringing Shula into the nearest city and sitting alongside her while she’s interviewed by a talk-show host. He goes out on a limb by promising the audience that Shula will come up with a way to end the region’s crippling drought. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a little girl, but Banda has more to lose than she does, as her worst-case scenario begins and ends with being turned into a goat, able to roam freely and eat what it wants. Nyoni enhances the story with a few dollops of magical realism and her ability to remain as objective as possible under the circumstances. Special features include two of Nyoni’s award-winning shorts and an interview.

If the witch doctor in I Am Not a Witch is less sinister than Banda, the ones to whom we’re exposed in In the Shadow of the Sun (2012), Africa Investigates: Spell of the Albino (2011), White Shadow (2013) and Albino Africa (2014), are nothing less than demonic. These and other recent documentaries, docudramas and dramas describe how albinos in Tanzania – a country considered progressive by African standards – are hunted, maimed and murdered for body parts used by witch doctors in their rituals. While some people believe they bring bad luck and are somehow immortal, witch doctors have convinced bounty hunters that their bones can cure diseases or be used as charms to bring wealth. In Swahili, albinos are called “zeru zeru,” which means “ghosts.” In a country with a high rate of poverty, the prices put on their body parts have encouraged a recent wave of violent crimes against albinos. In Tanzania, the percentage of people born without melanin is said to be eight times higher than anywhere else in the world. There is no scientific explanation for this anomaly and the locals rarely talk about it. To combat the extraordinary cruelty and superstitions, government and relief agencies have created boarding schools and shelters to protect potential victims.

Jonathan
In his directorial debut, Bill Oliver puts a “Twilight Zone” spin on questions raised by Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr  Jeckyl and Mr Hyde” and subsequent examinations of the duality of human nature and inner struggle between good and evil. Typically, filmmakers use identical-twin characters as easily recognizable entry points to narratives on schizophrenia and the “evil twin” phenomenon. If viewers are lucky, directors will provide a visual hint to distinguish between the twins. If not, we’re required to guess which of the characters are worthy of our support or empathy. Jonathan bears more than a passing resemblance to David Cronenberg’s simultaneously scary, disturbing and kinky Dead Ringers (1988). Clearly, Oliver hasn’t reached the point in his career where he’s capable of going toe-to-toe on the subject with Cronenberg, Brian De Palma (Sisters), Krzysztof Kieslowski (The Double Life of Véronique) or François Ozon (Double Lover). It’s a good start, however.

In it, Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) plays two brothers, Jonathan/John, living separate lives inside the same body. While they’ve been cognizant of their otherness for some time, it’s been ascribed it to schizophrenia or some other mental condition that’s more perplexing than overtly painful or dangerous. Their therapist, Dr. Mina Nariman (Patricia Clarkson), made the controversial twin-within-a-twin diagnosis and convinced the brothers to agree on a schedule that allows for each of them to divide their 12-hour days into shifts: sleep, work and free time. Neither of them is aware of the other’s activities while he’s off-the-clock, as it were. Jonathan is rigid, precise and fussy, and takes his work home with him. John has more of a laid-back personality and invested his free time in more leisurely pursuits. Until lately, they’ve lived by a strict set of rules, limiting their exposure to outsiders and avoiding romantic and social entanglements. To make sure they’re on the same wavelength after each of their shifts – inwardly and outwardly – each brother leaves the other a video, describing every detail of their conscious periods, which run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and vice versa. The men will squabble over who’s forgotten to clean up their apartment or neglected other chores, but they know that cooperation is the only option open to them.

It takes a while for Jonathan, an aspiring architect, to notice a change in their respective routines. It presents itself as a lack of sleep or a bruise that wasn’t there when they last exchanged videos. It almost goes without saying that John, who works as a temp at a law firm and is something of a party animal, will eventually breaks the rules by falling in love with  Elena (Suki Waterhouse), a pretty blond who’s unaware of the brothers’ situation. When Jonathan alerts Dr. Nariman to John’s misbehavior, she immediately senses that such risky behavior could affect both of them simultaneously and unfairly impact Elena. She demands that John tell Elena about his double life or, preferably, cut things off completely. Jonathan is so unnerved that he hires a P.I. to dig up the goods on Elena and uses the information to stalk Elena on her daily rounds. He doesn’t ask John’s permission to do so, however. When John decides to break off their relationship, it causes him to fall into a depressive state and become belligerent with strangers. (Johnathan will find the bruises in the morning.) Ironically, the decision also serves to drive Elena into Jonathan’s arms, which isn’t particularly healthy, either. Because Jonathan, the movie, doesn’t quite know what it wants to be – sci-fi, romance, drama, suspense – it has trouble sticking the landing. As the title suggests, the story suffers from an unbalanced presentation of points-of-view, leaving us wondering what going on in John’s half of their brain. The same applies to Elena. It might have been interesting to see what would happen if John and Elena had decided to get married or take a trip to Mexico, without informing Jonathan. He’d wake up the next morning in Cancun, with a ring on his finger and reservations for scuba lessons. Then, what?

The Captain: Blu-ray
Memoir of War
If, going into it, all one knew about the harrowing German wartime drama, The Captain, is that its writer/director previously made Flightplan (2005), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), RED (2010), R.I.P.D. (2013), Insurgent (2015) and Allegiant (2016), the safe assumption would be that it will be a typical Hollywood entertainment, with a couple of marquee actors and lots of CGI-enhanced action. Oh, yeah, the same director is also scheduled to direct a G.I. Joe spin-off, featuring the character Snake Eyes, for release in 2020. That guess would be wrong. Instead, Stuttgart-born writer/director Robert Schwentke — a 1992 graduate of Columbia College Hollywood – has crafted the kind of story that takes risks most studios avoid, unless Steven Spielberg or George Lucas is attached to the project. Although it did well at several international film festivals and received excellent reviews, The Captain was released in only a handful of niche theaters, in advance of what deserves to be a lucrative run on DVD. Schwentke based the movie on the true story of Willi Herold – a.k.a., the Executioner of Emsland – which appears to have only been a footnote in the recorded annals of World War II. As far as I can tell, The Captain grossed $109,226 here and another $191,873 overseas. As Schwentke mentions in an interview included in the bonus package, he wanted to remind viewers – including his fellow countrymen – that some of the atrocities that were committed during the war were caused by everyday soldiers and officers, without any direct link to Adolph Hitler, the Gestapo or death-camp commandoes. The perpetrators weren’t following orders and their victims weren’t always Jews, enemy combatants or POWs protected by the Geneva Conventions.

Most of what happens during the first half of The Captain would naturally lead viewers to believe that it will be as darkly comedic as Catch 22 (1970) or The Good Soldier Schweik (1960). In September 1943, Herold (Max Hubacher), then 18, was called up for military service and fought in battles at Nettuno and Monte Cassino. He was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and promoted to corporal after destroying two British tanks at Salerno. After being relocated to Germany in early April 1945, Herold became separated from his unit near Bad Bentheim and swallowed up in the chaos of the retreating German army. The Captain opens with Herold wandering through the countryside, scratching for food and behaving strangely in the company of deserters in makeshift shelters. In time, Willie comes across an abandoned limousine, containing the luggage and papers of a Luftwaffe captain. After he puts on the officer’s uniform, Herold metamorphosizes into something he never was and is ill-prepared to be: a leader of men. Hoping simply to find food and the quickest route back to Berlin, he forms a platoon of raggedy soldiers, deserters and escaped criminals, who don’t look any more out of place than the other soldiers they encounter. At first, Willie’s uniform, papers and posturing protect him from possible questions about his actual status and youthful demeanor. He looks the part and effectively mimics the extreme behavior of a SS official. The closer Herold comes to a place where he can ride out the end of the war, however, the more likely it becomes that Wehrmacht officers will demand that he prove his leadership skills. Herold volunteers to shoot anyone acting out of line, while ordering his troops to perform odious tasks. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the power goes to his head. At a loosely run prison camp for Nazi riff-raff, he orders guards to execute prisoners for breaking the rules or for simply getting in his way. A comedy presentation and sing-along turn violent and it triggers in him a mad desire to execute dozens of prisoners herded into a trench. When the Allies bomb the camp, Herold decides to get while the gettin’s good, escaping into the forest. He’s arrested and escapes one more time before returning home, where he pursues a career as a chimney sweep. In the epilogue, we learn that Herold was eventually arrested by the Royal Navy for the theft of a loaf of bread, and rightly punished for being a war criminal. Schwentke took some liberties with the details of the case, but not many. Even then, it’s difficult to discern whether Willi’s madness can be written off as the “banality of evil” or was the result of crossed circuitry in the brain of a 19-year-old sociopath unworthy of wearing anyone’s uniform.The Blu-ray adds commentary and a festival Q&A with Schwentke; making-of featurettes; interviews; and deleted scenes.

Also, from Music Box this month, comes a second atypical World War II drama, Memoir of War, from France. Both films are set during the waning months of World War II, albeit from radically different points of view. In Emmanuel Finkiel’s adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel, “The War” (1985)  – ostensibly inspired by diaries discovered decades after VE Day — Mélanie Thierry (The Dancer) delivers a haunting portrayal of the author in extremis. Duras’ communist husband, Robert Antelme (Emmanuel Bourdieu), has been captured by French police and deported to a series of German concentration camps. Somehow, other members of their cell have avoided arrest. Naturally, they question Marguerite’s decision to play along with the intelligence officer, Pierre Rabier (Benoît Magim), who nabbed him. He wants to squeeze Duras, whose books he admires, for leads to other Resistance members and an opportunity to exchange information on her husband for sexual favors. Pierre is quite a bit more suave and intellectual than what we’ve come to expect from collaborators in other wartime movies, so Duras doesn’t seem to mind being in his company, as long as the flow of information about Robert continues. Neither gets what they want, even though an awkward friendship develops between them. (It’s difficult to tell what the cell members have accomplished, but, if nothing else, they serve as our conduit to information on the Allied advances and liberation of death camps.) Marguerite’s emotional state is in a steady decline throughout the movie, even when Robert returns home, nearly dead from beatings and malnutrition. Finkiel and his DP, Alexis Kavyrchine (Back to Burgundy), employ all sorts of visual gimmicks to reflect the extremes in Duras’ condition, as described in her diaries. While an affair with their oily friend and comrade, Dionys Mascolo (Benjamin Biolay), is handled with delicacy, viewers are left wondering as to who is taking advantage of whom and why their tryst couldn’t wait a couple more months to begin. Maybe it’s a French thing. The scenes I admire most in Memoir of War derive from Finkiel’s atypical depiction of the Occupation. Usually, the Nazis and Vichy police are shown beating and killing people, almost at random, and SS officers strut around town like malevolent peacocks. Signs of Nazi propaganda and oppression are everywhere, but, apart from the lines of people outside police headquarters, very little appears to be out of the ordinary … everything else considered.  Scenes depicting the return of relieved soldiers, weary POWs and rail-thing camp survivors pack quite a punch. They’re certainly a change of pace from the images we usually see of cheering, flag-waving crowds and pretty girls kissing American soldiers. The DVD adds deleted scenes and making-of featurettes.

Room 304
Released in 2011, but only now finding its way to the U.S., Birgitte Stærmose and writer Kim Fupz Aakesonn’s Room 304 borrows a familiar conceit and updates it to mirror contemporary issues and personnel dilemmas. The ensemble drama is set in a small, but classy Copenhagen hotel, where disparate lives intersect by chance or fate. Among the people we meet are a stewardess (Ariadna Gil) desperate for intimacy; an immigrant (Luan Jaha) from a war-torn country, obsessed with revenge; a hotel manager (Magnus Krepper) lost in despair; a wife (Trine Dyrholm) abandoned by her husband; and a receptionist (David Dencik) with blood on his hands … literally. Liberated by the feigned intimacy of hotel rooms, secrets are revealed and unexpected events merge into a dramatic tale of love and longing. One of the best things about Room 304 is the multicultural cast, which reflects the diversity of life – ethnically and economically – in central Europe, along with the upstairs/downstairs intermingling of characters.

Speed Kills: Blu-ray
Nominations for the 39th Golden Raspberry Awards won’t be announced until January 21, but, unless I’m very wrong, John Travolta (Gotti) is a mortal lock for being chosen as a Worst Actor finalist for the first time since 2010. That was the year he lost the Worst Actor of the Decade Razzie to Eddie Murphy and the Worst Actor prize (Old Dogs) to all three of the Jonas Brothers for The 3D Concert Experience. If it was any consolation to him, Battlefield Earth – adapted from L. Ron Hubbard’s eponymous sci-fi novel — was awarded the prize for Worst Picture of the Decade. For his contributions to Roger Christian’s homage to Scientology mythos, Travolta was named Worst Actor at the 2001 ceremony. In between Old Dogs and Gotti, Travolta appeared in eight movies that were elevated – if not very high – by his presence. The highlight, though, was his award-winning portrayal of sleazy “dream team” lawyer Robert Shapiro, in FX Network’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (2016). Whoever convinced the two-time Oscar nominee to follow that masterwork with Gotti and Speed Kills (2018) deserves to lose his talent-agent’s license and donate his or her fee to the Jett Travolta Foundation. In both films, Travolta plays men involved in organized crime: John Gotti was a king, while Ben Aronoff is portrayed as a pawn whose luck ran out in a Miami parking lot, in 1987. In fact, first-time director Jodi Scurfield and a team of screenwriters based Aronoff on Donald Joel Aronow, who, hardly a pawn, was known far and wide as a world-class racer and manufacturer of some of the fastest and most expensive boats ever made. His Rolodex included the names and numbers of kings, shahs, politicians, mobsters and poseurs, including then-Vice President George Bush, who was to Aronow what Richard Nixon was to Bebe Rebozo. That connection is alluded to in Speed Kills, but only during an almost comical boat ride, in which Travolta and Matthew Modine, as Aranoff and Bush, tool around Biscayne Bay. The ride is shown to have inspired Bush, already the proud owner of a Cigarette boat, to invest taxpayer dollars into a small fleet of Blue Thunder catamarans, at $150,000 apiece.

Until the cats were proven to be unequal to the task, they were assigned to the U.S. Customs Service, as substitutes for Cigarettes seized from drug dealers to catch traffickers. Because both the catamarans and Cigarettes were designed and manufactured by Aronow, President Reagan’s point man in the drug war was effectively pimping for a BFF who not only serviced his favorite maritime toy, but who also was selling boats to drug traffickers and laundering money for the Gambino crime family. It’s represented here by Meyer Lansky’s psychotic nephew, Robbie Reemer (Kellan Lutz). In fact, Reemer is based on the mafia accountant’s great-nephew, Ben Kramer, another champion racer, who, in 1989, would be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for having imported a half-million pounds of marijuana. (A year later, father Jack and son Ben would be found guilty of 23 and 28 counts of federal money-laundering charges. In 1996, Ben Kramer pled guilty to manslaughter charges for ordering Aronow’s death over a business dispute.) As was the case in Gotti, in which the mob chieftain’s paternal qualities are emphasized, Speed Kills is less concerned with Aronow and the mob’s relationship with Bush and other world leaders than his willingness to puff out his chest and stand up to Lansky and his henchmen … until he became a liability, anyway. As such, Speed Kills isn’t nearly as interesting as the average episode of “Miami Vice,” which frequently served as an unofficial marketing wing for Aronow’s boat-manufacturing concerns. There was a better story to be told about Aronow and his dealings – sketchy, as they are, even today – but asking Travolta to reprise his makeup-intensive Gotti performance distracts from the truth. (Somehow, Scurfield  even manages to make Jennifer Esposito, playing Aronoff’s first wife, Katherine/Shirley Goldin, look frumpy.) If Speed Kills opened theatrically, no one told the ticket counters at Box Office Mojo. That’s what happens, though, when you have three dozen exec-producers on a project, three producers and a freshman director. The real story gets lost in the fog of myth-making. I wonder if they’ll all show up for the Razzies, if their baby is nominated.

The Dark
After Darkness
As much as I tried, I couldn’t find any linkage between these two thrillers, except for the similarity in the titles. Any port in a storm, right? The better movie, The Dark, debuted on the festival circuit, before being made available on streaming outlets. The deeply flawed After Darkness, as far as I can tell, went straight to VOD, before also landing on DVD. And, despite the presence of such recognizable actors as Tim and Sam Daly (“Madam Secretary”), Kyra Sedgwick (“The Closer”), John Patrick Amedori (“Dear White People”), Valerie Curry (“The Following”) and Natalia Dyer (“Stranger Things”), I couldn’t find any reviews for the latter picture. The opposite is the case for The Dark. Let’s start there.

Essentially, The Dark is a don’t-go-into-the-woods drama, with splatter, slasher and buddy elements thrown in for kicks. Viewers should brace themselves for 95 minutes of jump-scares from the minute a convenience-store operator warns a stranger about visiting a mysterious tract of wilderness, known far and wide as Devil’s Den. He describes it as a place where many outsiders have entered, but none has left. When the proprietor notices a photo of the stranger in that day’s newspaper, identifying him as a suspect in a terrible crime, he’s shot and killed by the man asking directions. Naturally, Josef (Karl Markovics) heads immediately for Devil’s Den, thinking it might be the last place anyone dares to look for him. (Turns out, it’s the first place local lawmen go.), Shortly after his car’s tires are destroyed by a spike strip laid across a dirt road leading deeper into the woods, the fugitive makes his way to a decaying house that appears to be abandoned, but we instinctively know is inhabited by a demon of some as-yet-unknown variety. Sure enough, he’s set upon by the creature, who moves too quickly to describe. Even without knowing who or what is responsible for the terrible deed, the killing serves writer/director Justin P. Lange’s purpose of convincing viewers not to get too comfortable in their seats. Just as surprisingly, a grotesquely disfigured boy, Alex, pops his head up from the back of the station wagon, wondering where Josef went. It captures the attention of the certifiably undead killer, Mina (Nadia Alexander), who didn’t know what to expect when she inspected the vehicle. Although we fear that Alex will become Mina’s dessert, nothing of the sort happens. In short order, we learn that the teenage girl is, indeed, the notorious monster of Devil’s Den and, more to the point, an undead reminder of a crime that happened long ago in the same house. Alex not only was blinded by Josef, after an indeterminate amount of time in confinement, but he also acquired Stockholm Syndrome. Perhaps sensing the blind boy’s predicament, Mina takes pity on the boy and allows him to tag along on her bloody treks in search of food. Their co-dependency will be sorely tested when a sheriff’s begins looking for Josef, unaware of what else awaits them in the woods. For some reason, the coupling reminded of the scene in Frankenstein (1931), when the Monster (a.k.a., ?) first met Little Maria at the lake and they briefly enjoyed playing a game together. Eventually, Lange paints himself into a narrative corner, with nowhere to logically conclude The Dark. What’s lingers, though, is satisfying enough for a recommendation.

Thematically, at least, After Darkness reminded me of Mike Cahill’s pre-apocalypse rom-dram Another Earth (2011) and Lars von Trier’s chilling sci-fi drama, Melancholia (2011). That’s because all three pictures depict how small groups of endangered humans might deal with impending doom from above. In the first two, humanity is threatened by runaway planets on a collision course with Earth. In After Darkness, Batan Silva’s characters are threatened by our own Sun, which, like a lightbulb on the blink, has begun to show signs of going dark, leaving the world in darkness. Normally, that would be a prospect too horrifying to contemplate. What I found too horrible to imagine was the prospect of spending more than 98 minutes in the company of Tim Daly’s patriarchal brute, Raymond Beaty, a man so irredeemably abusive and selfish that it’s impossible to imagine why his wife and children have agreed to spend their last moments of life in his company. Raymond professes to have discovered a secret location, within a day’s drive, where the Beatys might survive the absence of natural light, for a short while, at least. From the moment the first family members begin to gather, however, the father criticizes their every movement and decision. He demands they remain in the house, at all hours, and obey other rules that make no logical sense in advance of the world’s end. Apparently, though, he’s always been a tyrant and his wife, Georgina, has demonstrated a reluctance to challenge him. So, why not spend their last hours with someone likeable? Maybe, because one of the siblings is hours away from delivering Raymond and Georgina their first grandchild and what better way to welcome it into what’s left of the  solar system’s life span. A couple of outside threats serve to pull the disparate family members together, but they’re no more unnerving than the Beatys’ family dinners. Blessedly, Sedgwick and the younger actors keep hope alive for a miracle that doesn’t include Daly’s character.

Tea With the Dames
In a different era, the title of this delightful chat-umentary would suggest a fish-out-of-water comedy starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, or  musical comedy inspred by the showstopping song from South Pacific, “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame.” In the UK, however, viewers would know exactly what to expect from Tea With the Dames: nearly 90 minutes of light-hearted banter with Dame Maggie Smith, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins and Dame Joan Plowright. Already familiar to lovers of prestige theater, film and television presentations around the world, these formidable actresses have been honored by the Queen of England for their contributions to drama, although she might have included comedy and romance for good measure. The honorific title of dame is the feminine equivalent of knight and comparable form of address to “sir.” In addition to their many Oscars, Tonys, Emmys and BAFTAs, the longtime friends have logged four lifetimes worth of memories, anecdotes, observations, triumphs and regrets unique to only a handful of other actors, male or female. Before the Oscars, such publications as Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Vogue and the New York Times routinely stage roundtable discussions with nominees and former winners to gain some insight into their careers. None that I’ve read has been as delightfully rendered as Tea With the Dames or produced such candid disclosures. Director Roger Michell (Hyde Park on Hudson) benefits mightily from the congenial setting — the country home Plowright shared with her late husband, Laurence Olivier – and many circumstances they have in common. In addition to the chat, Michell provides viewers with clips of their work from the beginning of their careers to as late as “Downton Abbey,” which senior  cast member Dame Smith admits not to have seen. Especially poignant are the images captured when the women were “younger than springtime” – to borrow another lyric from “South Pacific” – and enjoyed the spoils of capturing the attention of Swinging London. At 84, dames Dench, Smith and Atkins still look glamorous and remain active in their careers. In 2014, when she was 84, Plowright officially announced her retirement from acting, because she had become completely blind. That doesn’t prevent her from sharing tea, chocolate, champagne and candid memories with her friends here, however. Tea With the Dames is one of those films you wish could last another 90 minutes and, perhaps, be a tad more catty or contemporary, with references to #MeToo and their thoughts on today’s A-list actresses. It’s likely, though, that time-honored discretion would prevent them from sharing their thoughts on such subjects with the camera.

 
A Quest for Meaning
A lot of people make a lot sense in Nathanaël Coste and Marc De La Ménardière’s inspirational documentary, A Quest for Meaning. Unfortunately, none of them are in positions to dictate the kinds of changes we’ll need to save the planet, before the forces of greed, conspicuous consumption and opportunism lose their arguments against the reality of global warming. When, in 2009, French documentarian Nathanael Coste reconnected in New York with his childhood friend, Marc de la Menardiere, the latter was a marketing executive for an international agribusiness conglomerate. A freak accident cleared some time for Marc to watch Nathanael’s cautionary films about environmental issues. They caused him to reflect on a frequently misquoted observation, attributed to Black Panthers leader Eldridge Cleaver, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution or you’re going to be part of the problem.” The accident coincided, as well, with the rapidly expanding global financial crisis, which had taken the wind out of the sails of his generation’s hedonistic juggernaut. Their combined resources allowed the two men the freedom to find and film deep-thinkers who already had decided where they stood on Cleaver’s proposition. They also were introduced to farmers and communards, who are practicing what Mahatma Gandhi preached on questions about post-colonial agrarian reforms. Among other things, Gandhi believed that land, air, water, sunlight and sky are God’s gifts and, under no circumstances, should come under the control of any person, business or industrial group, or any centralized form of power. He didn’t have anymore luck achieving that goal than the hippie farmers in Easy Rider. Today, of course, proponents of organic agriculture and healthy eating have found support among customers of farmers’ markets, high-end restaurants and grocers. At the same time, genetically modified seeds have been pushed on farmers in developing countries, where information on their negative effects on humans and livestock is scarce and consumers aren’t alerted to their presence in food staples.  The things that differentiate A Quest for Meaning from dozens of other, more academic and polemical documentaries on our abuse of the planet are interviews with astrophysicists, clinical psychologists and developmental biologists and spiritualists. Conveniently, the filmmakers’ “quest” took them to splendorous corners of France, the Himalayas, Mexico, Guatemala and the United States. The conversations may be overly familiar to most viewers in the target demographic, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be shown to high school students or 4-H clubs. It’s their world, too, after all.

Hippocrates: Diary of a  French Doctor
Although thousands of medical doctors have served the movie and television industries as consultants, writers and inspirations, the number who’ve taken the next step, by becoming directors, can be counted on one hand. George Miller (Mad Max) is the most prominent exception to the rule, and Michael Crichton (Westworld) dropped out of medical school when his books became best-sellers. British comedian, author, television presenter, filmmaker and former doctor Harry Hill (“TV Burp”) probably wouldn’t be recognized outside the UK. Then, too, there’s French multihyphenate Thomas Lilti, a family doctor who’s written and directed three mainstream films featuring doctors, nurses and patients, as well as co-authoring Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (2017). Lilti began making short movies at the same time he was studying medicine. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014) and the spinoff series, “Hippocrates” (2018), are informed by his experiences as an intern, while Irreplaceable (2016) describes a changing of the guard at a country hospital and The Freshman explores friendships made during the first year of medical school. Irreplaceable, which starred François Cluzet and Marianne Denicourt, was released on DVD here last spring. Like that picture, the newly available Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor did well at the French box office. It looks at the daily life of a hospital through the eyes of a newly minted intern, Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste), whose father (Jacques Gamblin) just so happens to be the facility’s chief administrator. He’s cocky, but not because he thinks his dad will grease any skids for him. As an intern, Benjamin is assigned one of the least-desirable jobs, caring for terminally ill patients, of which there are many. Without going into detail, corners are cut in the treatment of some of the more needy patients, if only because the hospital’s budget doesn’t allow for reliable equipment. Innocently made mistakes are covered up, to protect the interns and hospital, alike. Benjamin benefits from one of the coverups, but he’s haunted by others. His relationship with his father eventually gets too close for the comfort of fellow staff ministers and administrators. As is usually the case with movies about interns at busy hospitals, we assume that Benjamin will someday become a good, possibly great doctor … but, only if he can survive the long hours, disappointments, politics and, being a French film, beaucoup cigarettes. And, that’s far from a gimme. It’s easy to see how Lilti’s experience and expertise kept the overstuffed narrative from going off the rails and no more than 102 minutes long. Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor also benefits from non-stereotypical characters and a set that approximates a facility that’s out of date, out of space and running on empty. I’ve yet to see Canal Plus’ “Hippocrates,” which Lilti also directs and co-wrote, so I can’t say if it swings closer to “ER,” “St. Elsewhere” or “Grey’s Anatomy.” I’m guessing it’s not the latter.

The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion: Blu-ray
The parade of exquisitely restored gialli from Arrow Video continues apace with Luciano Ercoli’s genre debut, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion. It opened only a few months after Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and immediately preceded his own Death Walks on High Heels and Death Walks at Midnight. Although giallo can be traced a bit further back, to the mid-1960s, these were the titles that captured the attention of European audiences and critics looking for something new and valid. Some historians consider “Forbidden Photos” to be closer to melodrama than giallo, while allowing for its importance as a female-drive story that would “define Ercoli’s style” and feature the recurring theme of “the nightmare of being threatened by one’s own sexual partner.” As sexually charged and borderline kinky as it is, however, the lack of nudity might not sit well with genre buffs. In Ercoli’s triangle of love, sex and, perhaps, murder, Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is newly married to Peter (Pier Paolo Capponi), a businessman who’s gone into debt as he struggles to bring a new product to market. They met through Dominique (Nieves Navarro), Minou’s sexually voracious best friend and Peter’s former lover. While strolling on the beach one night, Minou  is accosted by a leather-clad stranger (Simón Andreu) on a motorcycle. He informs her that Peter has murdered a business associate and may be involved in other crimes. If certain demands aren’t met, the creep threatens to take his evidence to police. Driven by misplaced loyalty to Peter, Minou ends up in bed with the blackmailer, who, naturally, takes photos of their tryst and uses them to escalate the terms of their arrangement. Curiously, Minou accidently discovers pornographic photos of the blackmailer with Dominque, which have made their way from Denmark to Barcelona. WTF, right? When Minou finally approaches the police, they lead her to believe that she’s imagining things and may need a different kind of help. That is pretty much the long and short of screenwriters Ernesto Gastaldi and Mahnahén Velasco’s story. “Forbidden Photos” will be of interest primarily to completists and admirers of Ennio Morricone bossa nova-tinged score and cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa. It further benefits from Arrow’s 2K restoration from the original camera negative; new commentary by Kat Ellinger, author and editor-in-chief of Diabolique magazine; “Private Pictures,” a freshly edited documentary featuring archival interviews with Navarro and Ercoli, and new material with writer Ernesto Gastaldi; “The Forbidden Soundtrack of the Big Three,” an appreciation of the music of 1970s cult cinema by musician and soundtrack collector Lovely Jon; a Q&A with Lassander at the 2016 Festival of Fantastic Films; an image gallery; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Twins of Evil; and a limited-edition booklet, with new writing on the film by author and critic Michael Mackenzie.

Crimson Peak: Blu-ray
It’s been less than four years since Crimson Peak opened in theaters around the world and almost three years since Universal’s Blu-ray edition was released. The short window made me wonder why Arrow Video went to the trouble and expense to create a limited-edition set for a high-end genre film that was a box-office disappointment. The package isnn’t being promoted as an uncut, unrated director’s-cut version of the picture or a new, improved edition of the Universal release. Technically, they’re very much the same product, if not identical. Given all the attention paid to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017), which made more money and cost less to produce, it’s possible that Arrow wanted to re-market Crimson Peak as a prestige Blu-ray, with a lavishly book-like package and a few new bonus features included in it. As a fan of 4K UHD, I also wondered why it wasn’t  sent out with the latest format upgrade attached. (It’s likely that Uni wanted to save that prestigious event for its own customers.) Even though del Toro admits to being influenced by The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Shining (1980) – as well as Mario Bava’s Technicolor conceits – he emphasizes in the bonus material that he envisioned Crimson Peak primarily as a “Gothic romance,” staged within a decrepit mansion populated by ghosts. Actresses Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain have also said that their portrayals were shaped by those of Winona Ryder and Sadie  Frost in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). You’d think that would be enough to sell a more than a few tickets to a superbly conceived period thriller. Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring novelist haunted by frightening visions that bear an ominous warning about a place called Crimson Peak. She’s the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Jim Beaver), who rudely turns down a proposal by a young English entrepreneur, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), pitching an invention he hopes will facilitate mining red clay. Not only does Sharpe’s sales pitch fall on deaf ears, but his budding romance with Edith is cut short after her father hires a P.I. to dig into his past. Soon thereafter, Edith’s father is murdered. Bereft, but unhappy to learn of her father’s effort to bribe her boyfriend, Edith agrees to marry Sharpe and move with him to a decaying Victorian estate, sitting on a mountain of red clay. The catch comes in having to share their life with Sharpe’s freaky sister, Lucille (Chastain), and endure a nightmare that would intimate both sets of Ghostbusters. The Arrow package ports over the bonus material created for the Uni Blu-ray. It adds the featurettes “The House Is Alive: Constructing Crimson Peak” (50 minutes); “An Interview With Guillermo del Toro” (8:36); “Crimson Peak and the Tradition of Gothic Romance” (7:37), with an assessment of the “genre” proclivities of del Toro; “Violence and Beauty in Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic Fairy Tale Films” (23:37), a visual essay by Kat Ellinger; marketing material; and an image gallery.

The Plague of the Zombies: Blu-ray
Last month, a pair of newly remastered Hammer Films “classics” — Horror of Dracula (1958) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) – were re-released into Blu-ray. The parade continues in the new year with the restoration and release of The Plague of the Zombies (1966), which, absent Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, could get lost in the recent flurry of Hammer products from Scream Factory and Warner Archives. In effect, the period horror anticipated George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), which gave the long-dormant, if undead subgenre a contemporary, distinctly American tenor. Even without Lee and Cushing, John Gilling (Blood Beast from Outer Space) and writer Peter Bryan (Trog) deserve to share some of the credit, with Romero, for shaping the ongoing Zombie Apocalypse. Shot back-to-back with Gilling’s The Reptile (1966), Hammer saved money by reusing many of the same sets, most noticeably the main village on the backlot at Bray Studios. Somehow, though, The Plague of the Zombies looks none the worse for the wear. In a remote 19th Century Cornish village, an evil presence lurks within the darkness of the witching hour. A mysterious plague relentlessly consumes lives at an unstoppable rate. Unable to find the cause, Dr. Peter Tompson (Brook Williams) enlists the help of his mentor, Sir James Forbes (André Morell). Desperate to find an antidote, they instead encounter inexplicable horror: empty coffins with the diseased corpses missing. Following a series of strange and frightening clues, they discover a deserted tin mine, where they discover a world of black magic and a doomed legion of slaves. The importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean was already banned by law, but it came too late to halt the flow of voodoo rituals from the colonies. Without drawing much, if any undue attention to itself, The Plague of the Zombies, remains terrifically entertaining and as good as any Hammer production of the 1960s. Diane Clare and Jacqueline Pearce were even allowed to keep their clothes on for the full 90 minutes, while being pursued by grabby zombies. The supplemental features include an original theatrical trailer; making-of featurette; restoration comparison; and “Mummies, Werewolves and the Living Dead,” an episode of the “World of Hammer.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: NOVA: Addiction
PBS: NOVA: Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire/Volcano on the Brink
PBS: Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals
PBS: NOVA: Flying Supersonic
PBS: Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide
Nickelodeon: Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis
In the “NOVA” presentation, “Addiction,” viewers can hear first-hand accounts from individuals struggling with addiction and follow the cutting-edge work of doctors and scientists, striving to find cures, treatments and ways to curtail the epidemic. At the same time, the show’s producers investigate the stigma attached to addiction by people who’ve yet to feel the effects of the scourge in their lives. They also ask why such drugs and prescription medications as heroin, fentanyl and OxyContin are as readily available and affordable as they’ve ever been, especially in areas of the country where unemployment is high and hope for a meaningful future is non-existent. While scientists are revealing how addiction affects the brain, other professionals are gathering evidence about how we should address our drug problem, from embracing evidence-based treatments, to rethinking public policies. Forcing our legislators to reign in Big Pharma and its lobbyists would be a place to start, but that would mean refusing to take money from the companies that manufacture the poisons, without following the money back to the sources.

In the two-part “NOVA” presentation, “Volatile Earth: Volcano on Fire” and “Volatile Earth: Volcano on the Brink,” an intrepid team of volcanologists embarks on an expedition to explore the Virunga Mountains in east Africa. It’s where two of the world’s most dangerous, spectacular and least understood volcanoes can be found. Viewers are also invited to join a team of scientists exploring another one of the world’s most active and mysterious volcanoes, Nyamuragira, in central Africa. What learn what feeds its frequent eruptions and what it portends for the tens of millions of people living on or near the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire.

For those fans of “Downton Abbey” who’ve already toured the great estates and mansions once inhabited by Britain’s upper crust, PBS now offers “Secrets of Britain’s Great Cathedrals.” The three-disc set explores the ancient cathedrals and abbeys that have dominated the landscape for centuries and reflect the nation’s turbulent history through their architectural grandeur. The 432-minute mini-series features interviews with historians, architects and clergy, as well as footage showing their legendary facades and soaring interior spaces. Among other things, the producers go back to ancient blueprints and manuscripts, while using drones to capture images only available to birds and angels.

How many viewers remember a time when supersonic aircraft – military and commercial – flew across the country, scaring unsuspecting citizens with thunderous “sonic booms.” They became such a nuisance that Congress outlawed such flights over populated areas on the mainland and from landing and taking off from airports in the interior. It effectively killed an industry that catered to the rich and impatient and relied on frequent flights between far-flung countries. “NOVA: Flying Supersonic” recalls the historic international race to develop the first supersonic airliner, Concorde, and the choreographed effort to design and build it in two countries simultaneously. It also interviews pilots and flight crews. Then, it invites us to follow Concorde’s legacy to a new generation of innovators, hoping to revive the dream of supersonic passenger travel.

Now that the third season of PBS’ Victoria has begun airing, the network’s home-video wing is re-releasing “Masterpiece: Victoria: The Complete First Season,” in Blu-ray, at the original British-TV length.

From PBS Kids arrives “Nature Cat: Nature Cat and Mr. Hide,” in which the title character and his pals take on their nemesis, Ronald, in four exciting adventures. To win the neighborhood Hide ’N’ Seek Championship of the World, the challengers will have to learn how to master the art of camouflage from wild animals.

Nickelodeon’s “Paw Patrol: Pups Save Puplantis” is comprised of six underwater adventures, featuring Marshall, Chase, Zuma, Skye, Rubble and Rocky. Together, they save Puplantis, rescue a wiggly whale and save the Sea Patroller from pirates.