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The DVD Wrapup: Bridge of Spies, Truth, Snow White, Breathe and more

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Bridge of Spies: Blu-ray
There’s always a point in a Steven Spielberg movie where I want to pull out my cellphone–or hit the pause button on my remote–to check the validity of what’s just happened on the screen. Likewise, there are times in every performance by Tom Hanks when he appears to be channeling Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart, instead of remaining within the skin of his character. It doesn’t take me out of the picture for very long, just enough to remind me that the operative word in “based on a true story” is “based,” not “true.” Most fact-based movies made in Hollywood require a suspension of disbelief for the sake of telling a story. It comes with the price of a ticket. If any collaborative team is allowed more latitude than Spielberg and Hanks, however, I’d be hard-pressed to name it. Their work on the Cold War drama, Bridge of Spies, provides a perfect example of why purists avoid going to see movies about their primary areas of interest, while others applaud a good screenwriter’s ability to make a historical event more entertaining than it was in real life. The drama surrounds the exchange of American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet KGB Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (a.k.a., Colonel Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) on February 10, 1962, at the Glienicke Bridge connecting West Berlin and Potsdam. At the same time, American student Frederic Pryor — accused of espionage by East German authorities –was quietly allowed to pass through Checkpoint Charlie, a free man. Both were arranged by New York insurance lawyer and former assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials in Germany political negotiator James B. Donovan. In the movie, it appeared as if someone in Washington had pulled Donovan’s name from a hat, when, in fact, he was General Counsel at the Office of Strategic Services from 1943 to 1945. If Donovan’s name hadn’t been made public, Spielberg might have invented a composite character of him for Hanks to play.

Reporters dubbed the Glienicke span, Bridge of Spies, after the 1985 swap of 23 American agents held in Eastern Europe for Polish agent Marian Zacharski and another three Soviet agents arrested in the west. A year later, Soviet political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and three western agents were traded for five eastern agents. The bridge also played a role in screen adaptations of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People and Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. Even so, Bridge of Spies didn’t exactly write itself. Spielberg enlisted Ethan and Joel Cohn to polish Matt Charman’s original script, adding some spice to the negotiations between Donovan and the almost morbidly drab KGB and East German agents. Hanks took it from there, practically winking at the audience when Donovan pulled one over the dullards. He took a more serious tack when, against all odds and professional advice, Donovan nearly convinced the Supreme Court to free his much-loathed client from jail on a technicality. Spielberg’s signature touch can be recognized in the film’s icy depiction of life behind the still uncompleted wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin. The bombed-out cityscape stands in bold contrast to the brightness of life in the west. Alan Alda and Amy Ryan are the only two cast members whose faces would be recognized outside an SAG pep rally, but Hanks makes everyone look good in his company. Besides grossing $162.4 million worldwide and receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim, Bridge of Spies has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (for Mark Rylance), Best Original Screenplay and Best Production Design. The Blu-ray adds featurettes “Berlin 1961: Re-Creating the Divide,” “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies,” “U-2 Spy Plane” and “Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act.”

Truth: Blu-ray
When Robert Redford played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, the Watergate crisis was fading from the memory of most American and journalism schools were churning out investigative journalists as if they’re so many sausages. Today, many of those same J-school graduates have been laid off from their jobs, with nary a parting handshake for their contributions to our great democracy. Investigative reporting took a big hit on the chin a few years later when CBS and ABC executives kowtowed to Big Tobacco for their own selfish reasons, denying the veracity of reports known to be accurate and making a mockery of the First Amendment. CBS’ betrayal was dramatized in The Insider, which, while making less money than All the President’s Men, did reasonably well at the box office. Al Pacino played reporter-producer Lowell Bergman and the picture attracted a flock of awards nominations. For its part, ABC cut a deal with a target of a “Day One” report to settle lawsuits ahead of its sale to Disney. In Up Close & Personal, Redford played a nearly washed up TV news director, who mentors, then falls for an ambitious blond reporter (Michelle Pfeiffer). The film had been intended to chronicle the rocket rise and tragic demise of Jessica Savitch, until studio buffoons decided that audiences really wanted to see another love story, featuring two blond leads.

In Truth, Redford plays another respected journalist and anchorman, Dan Rather, who could have benefited from having an editor like Ben Bradlee, instead of a bunch of Chicken Littles scurrying away at the first hint of controversy. Unlike All the President’s Men, James Vanderbilt’s debut feature serves as a reminder of how far the once-mighty industry has fallen in the eyes of the public. If Rather couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth – an argument made in the film not by viewers, but network suits – then, why not watch “Wheel of Fortune” or “Roseanne” reruns, instead? The trouble is, the Watergate scandal is probably fresher in the minds of today’s moviegoers than the 2004 fracas at CBS. If the impact of the events chronicled in Truth had made a dent on the American psyche, it didn’t register at the box office. In fact, it recovered less money in its domestic release than it cost to make ATPM in 1976. This, despite awards-caliber performances by Redford and Cate Blanchett, who, instead, was nominated for her work in Carol, and universally excellent reviews. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, Redford’s producer and chief reporter on an investigation into George W. Bush’s alleged ability to avoid the draft by phoning in his obligation to the Texas Air National Guard. While there would be no shame in Bush or anyone else attempting to find a way out of going to Southeast Asia at that particular point in time, he did so by calling in favors from Bush family friends. Even more reprehensible, 30-plus years later in Bush’s re-election campaign, his advisers would tar his opponent, Vietnam vet John Kerry, by accusing him of being a liar about his service to the U.S. Neither would the president hesitate to put tens of thousands of American lives in harm’s way, when Bush ordered the unnecessary invasion of Iraq. It was an ill-conceived blunder for which we’re still paying.

All of that was in play when Rather went on “60 Minutes” to present Mapes’ findings to an audience of millions. Instead of putting Bush on the defensive, the report put them in the crosshairs of a smear campaign that prompted CBS brass to put extraordinary pressure on their news-division stars to recant and apologize for a story that, at its worst, could have used one more on-the-record source and a few more days to report. Too many of the people who had verified Mapes’ findings caved in to threats from Republican power-brokers. The network’s investigation stunk to high heaven and it looks even more politically motivated in Truth. Rather would resign in shame, while Mapes would be fired. Other than write the book upon which Vanderbilt based his story, the Peabody Award-winning news producer – who also broke the Abu Ghraib scandal — has remained unemployed. After losing Rather would be hired by the obscure AXS-TV channel to do high-profile interviews and location reporting. I don’t know who thought this particular scandal would sell tickets, no matter how well made it might be. It didn’t topple a president or indict a major industry for knowingly causing the deaths of millions of its customers. There’s more tension, suspense and empathy built into 10 minutes of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News – Holly Hunter’s character was modeled after former Rather producer, Susan Zirinsky – than in the entirety of Truth. Special features include commentary with Vanderbilt and producers Brad Fischer and William Sherak; a Q&A with Blanchett, Vanderbilt and co-star Elisabeth Moss; deleted scenes; “The Reason for Being,” in which Rather, Mapes and cast members discuss the history behind the movie; and “The Team,” in which actors describe their characters.

Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs: Signature Collection: Blu-ray
When it comes to new Blu-ray editions of classic films, it’s always a good idea to read the fine print on the back cover before investing in something that may only be marginally different than what’s already on your shelf. While the differences between VHS, DVD and Blu-ray are obvious, those separating one Blu-ray iteration from another may be limited to qualities that have little or nothing to do with the audio-visual presentation. The addition or elimination of featurettes and other bonus material may not be sufficient reason for a replacement copy. It’s only been five years since Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – perhaps, the brightest jewel in the studio’s crown – in a brilliantly hi-def Diamond Edition. By all technical measures, the new Signature Collection is identical to the Diamond release … excellent. The bonus package here is highlighted by the Disney Digital Copy voucher found inside the case. It enables buyers of DVD and Blu‑ray discs to receive the digital version of the movie in their choice of iTunes or Windows Media formats. The fresh featurettes include, “In Walt’s Words: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with archival audio footage from an interview with Walt Disney in 1956; “Iconography,” which begins with individuals reflecting on their history with the film and continues on to discuss the title character’s long-standing popularity; “DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess,” in which animator Mark Henn and art directors Michael Giaimo, Bill Schwab, and Lorelay Bové discuss the film’s character design history, inspirations and the artists who designed Disney’s first princess and supporting characters; “The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”; “Snow White in Seventy Seconds,” a rapid-fire hip-hop retelling of the story; “Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White,” a never-before-seen sequence featuring Snow White meeting the Prince for the first time; and “Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a lengthier version of the supplement, “The One That Started It All,” found on the Diamond Edition release. The only missing featurettes anyone is likely to miss are some interactive activities, a music video and familiar studio history.

As great a movie as “Snow White” is, it isn’t a bad idea to warn parents against taking its G-rating at face value. As is the case with all of Disney’s animated fairy tales – and several live-action pictures – there will be material capable of frightening sensitive kids or prompting them to ask questions only a grown-up is qualified to answer. Disney has always gotten breaks from the ratings board that other companies don’t. Sometimes all a child needs to get through a “Bambi,” “Old Yeller” or “Snow White” is a hand to hold and a parent should be there to offer it.

Breathe
The least subtle moment in Mélanie Laurent’s taut teen drama, Breathe, comes in a high school science class, as the students absentmindedly watch a documentary about a noxious weed, cuscuta reflexa whose tentacles wind around the stems of a host plant, inserting sharp pincers into its vascular system. After the monster, as the teacher refers to it, is done sucking the sap and nutrients from a flowering plant, now smothered with “devil’s hair,” the predator will either attach itself to another plant in close proximity or, itself, die of starvation. Since we’ve already been introduced to the girls who will serve as the host and predator in this adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s popular YA novel, “Respire,” it isn’t difficult to imagine how things are going to play out in Breathe. It’s to Laurent’s credit that we never give up on Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laâge), even as we begin to witness the “monster” attempting to crush the life out of the flower. At first, Charlie appears to be a perfectly normal high school senior, happiest around a close-knit group of classmates and anxious to take her final exams. At home, however, it’s a different story. The sometimes violent exchanges between her estranged parents have left her feeling insignificant in their lives and her own. Charlie also suffers from asthma, so we know exactly when the pressures of life are beginning to choke her.

Enter Sarah, the new girl in town who’s as funny, flirty and brash as Charlie is fragile and withdrawn. After their homeroom teacher seats the girls next to each other and asks Charlie to get Sarah up to speed, they become fast friends … too fast. Because Sarah is adept at hiding her own pain, what begins as a complementary friendship eventually succumbs to feigned intimacy and the usual tyrannies of being a teenager. That the ending telegraphs itself doesn’t make it any less powerful. Laurent, who’s starred in Inglourious Basterds, Aloft and Now You See Me, has elicited terrific performances from her two young and relatively inexperienced leads. They look and act the part of teenagers on the verge of womanhood, vulnerable but optimistic that things will get better once they’re on their own. This month’s Film Movement short film, “Bonne Esperance,” describes an unlikely alliance between a belligerent teenage girl and the social worker who falls under her elusive spell. The DVD also includes interviews with Mélanie Laurent, Josephine Japy and Lou de Laâge, and a Q&A with the filmmaker.

Take Me to the River: Blu-ray
Anyone who’s spent more than a day or two in Memphis already has felt the beating heart of American music. For most of the last 100 years, the city has provided a home – however temporary – for the men and women who shaped gospel, soul, rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, R&B, jazz and the blues, on its journey from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago aboard the train they still call the City of New Orleans. The rhythm of the railroad, as it cut through the bayous, cotton fields, woodlands and farms, day and night, on its way to the promised land of the industrial north, served as the metronome for Memphis’ gift to the world. Personally, Martin Shore’s wonderfully entertaining documentary, Take Me to the River, warmly recalled the time I spent in the city with my son, visiting some of the same shrines and listening to the same music represented here. Shore uses multigenerational jam sessions, produced by descendants of the creators of the Memphis Sound at Hi, Royal and Stax studios, to link yesterday’s stars and session gods to such hip-hoppers as Snoop Dog, Yo Gotti, Al Kapone, Frayser Boy and Lil P-Nut. Among the old-timers represented, some for the last time on film, are Bobby Rush, William Bell, Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Clay, Booker T. Jones and Hubert Sumlin.

It’s tres cool to listen to guitarist Charlie “Skip” Pitts recall sessions for “Duke of Earl” and Wilson Pickett and how he introduced the famous “wah wah” guitar riff to Hayes for “Shaft.” You’ll never guess the origin story of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming.” Terrence Howard, who shot “Hustle & Flow” in Memphis, serves as host, plays the guitar and sings, while native sons Luther and Cody Dickinson demonstrate how black and white artists were able to cross boundaries in the studio that were closed outside. To that end, Bland pairs up with Gotti, on a mournful “Ain’t No Sunshine,” over a montage of images from the civil-rights struggle that led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, memorialized just a short drive from the studios. Although Take Me to the River doesn’t carry the same firepower as other recent documentary homages to creators of basically the same music, there are other joys to savor. I would have welcomed a bit more love shown to Sun Studios, but you can’t have everything. For those considering a trip to Memphis, I recommend stops at the Stax museum, Sun Studio, Beale Street, the Lorraine Motel memorial and civil-rights museum next-door, and, yes, Graceland. The DVD adds extended interviews and historic video footage.

The World of Kanako: Blu-ray
Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls, Confessions) has never been known for his restraint in depicting the ripple effect of violence, not only on its victims, but also perpetrators and society. His no-holds-barred approach has occasionally cost him the financial backing of major studios and some pointed criticism. His films do very well at the domestic box office, however, so it isn’t likely Nakashima will dial down the action any time soon. Based on a novel by Akio Fukamachi, The World of Kanako (a.k.a., “Thirst”) certainly lives up to the director’s reputation … or down, depending on where one stands on the subject of gratuitous violence. It opens with disgraced former police detective Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) berating his ex-wife after she calls to inform him of the disappearance of his daughter, who he probably couldn’t recognize in a lineup. Fujishima lost his job after beating the crap out of the man with whom she was cheating. He went on a six-month bender after being fired, resisting any outreach from his fellow cops, many of whom were crooked, corrupt or twisted. Before she went missing, both parents considered Kanako (Nana Komatsu) to be a model student and upholder of feminine virtues. It doesn’t take long for her father to uncover evidence of behavior that would shock a marine drill sergeant. After beating up and raping his ex-wife to temporarily silence his demons, Fujishima agrees there’s enough blame to go around for the girl’s inglorious slide.

In his effort to rescue Kanako from Tokyo’s forces of darkness, he bullies her friends into revealing what little they know about her and where she might be. The forced testimony makes it clear that his little flower is involved in illicit sex, hard drugs and other unladylike behavior. Even when Kanako’s shown kindness to bullied classmates, it came with a catch. Fujishima’s journey of discovery will remind some viewers Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, in which George C. Scott made the descent into the hell of Southern California’s porn industry to “rescue” his daughter and bring her back to Grand Rapids … and her senses. Unlike Scott’s strict Calvinist businessman, the boozy ex-cop in The World of Kanako becomes less and less inclined to bring his bad seed daughter home. Her disgrace is his cancerous tumor. Yakusho’s depiction of a Japanese Dirty Harry is so far over the top that viewers will be hard-pressed to find someone with whom to sympathize in The World of Kanako. Nakashima contrasts Fujishima’s dark, neo-noir mission with flashy J-pop images of his daughter partying hardy in nightclubs run by the yakuza. The operatically composed Blu-ray adds a lengthy making-of featurette and interviews with the cute-as-a-button Komatsu and the borderline creepy novelist, Fukamachi.

The Beauty Inside: Blu-ray
As gimmicks go, the one that informs Baek Jong-Yeol’s debut rom-dram The Beauty Within is pretty good. I doubt that the writer/director had Groundhog Day in mind when he embarked on a film in which the protagonist goes to bed one person, but wakes up the next 100-plus mornings looking radically different. Watching it during the first week of February, however, begged the question. On any given morning, Woo-jin could find himself in the body of someone of a different shape or size, gender or ethnicity. Inside, though, he’s the same lonely furniture maker he was before he fell asleep, only slightly more frustrated each time. Only his mother and nerdy best friend are privy to the situation. During one of his more manly morphs, Woo-jin is bowled over by the lovely Hong Yi-soo (Han Hyo-ju) and it causes him to do something drastic about the problem. One way is to stay up for three nights, milking his good looks, however temporary, for all they’re worth. God forbid, he should fall asleep and wake looking like Ted Cruz. Would Hong be attracted to his inner beauty, anyway? There’s more to the story, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Han is terrific as the imminently patient love interest for the many popular Korean actors and actresses playing Woo-jin. The Beauty Inside was adapted from the 2012 Web series directed by Drake Doremus and starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Topher Grace.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
In the short documentary, “Draft Day,” which accompanies the feature on this Wolfe Video release, writer/director Josh Kim follows two transgender Thais as they prepare to participate in their country’s mandatory military-conscription lottery. It requires of 18-year-old youths to draw cards from a container held above their heads. Those pulling red cards must prepare immediately for military service, those holding black cards are exempt. As is the case in most countries, the sons of wealthy parents rarely are called to serve in any position, as are those deemed medically or mentally unfit. Not all transgender women (a.k.a., ladyboys or kathoeys) desire to play the abnormal card and are absorbed into the branch to which they’ve been assigned. Such matters are handled differently in Thailand, where, one suspects, everyone has better things to concern themselves with than gender-identity issues. It explains Kim’s matter-of-fact approach to the subject in his first feature, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time), in which key transgender characters are required to make the same choice. That’s only indirectly what the film is about, however.

The Korean-American filmmaker puts a tighter focus here on growing up on the economic fringes of Bangkok, where some of the “better things” to worry about include gangsters, corrupt politicians and a general lack of education and hope for boys growing up poor in contemporary Thailand. Based on two short stories by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) observes the maturation process from the point of view of 11-year-old Oat, an orphan living with his aunt and kathoey brother, Ek, who’s approaching his 18th birthday.  Just as Ek protects his brother from the dangers of life in the high-crime neighborhood, Oat is determined to fix the draft in Ek’s favor. First, though, he must come up with the money necessary to bribe the local crimelord, whose son has nothing to fear from the coming lottery. In a captivating debut performance, Ingkarat Damrongsakkul comes of age before our eyes. The title refers to the game Oat and Ek (Thira Chutikul) play to fortify their bond. As good as it is, “Checkers” failed to make the short list of candidates for the 2016 Best Foreign Language Film. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a movie from Thailand – or anywhere else, for that matter – that doesn’t exploit the country’s infamous sex trade or its participants, not all of whom see themselves as victims or slaves.

Sticky: A (Self) Love Story
Historically, masturbation has not been a subject discussed with any degree of comfort in society … polite or otherwise. That reluctance has changed significantly since the media decided it was no longer a taboo subject. Seemingly, the children of the men and woman who fought in the Sexual Revolution no longer are taught they’ll be prohibited from entering the gates of heaven –  go blind or grow hair on the palms of their hands, either – if they occasionally bring themselves to orgasm. Even so, most parents still feel it necessary to react unfavorably to the discovery of evidence that suggests Babs or Junior is partaking in the joys of spanking the monkey or polishing the pearl. Instead of punishing them or attempting to add shame to the embarrassment of being caught red-handed, as it were, might I recommend a screening of Sticky: A (Self) Love Story as an alternative form of therapy? While tracing the stigma back to a basic misreading of Chapter 38 of the Book of Genesis, we’re introduced to ethicists and religious scholars who question the long-held belief that God condemned Onan for refusing to honor the teachings on levirate marriage and getting his rocks off without asking permission of a burning bush. Nicholas Tana’s strangely compelling documentary attempts to explain why masturbation is something most everyone does, but, until recently, few people will admit to doing. And, yet, the stigmatization that can cause permanent psychological damage or bullying on the social media continues. If we no longer buy into the same sort of FBI propaganda that linked compulsive masturbation to serial killers, then why have comedians Pee-wee Herman and Fred Willard paid such a high price for jerking off in a porno theater where, one might assume, it’s why they exist in the first place. Indeed, the relaxed attitude is reflected more accurately on television (“The  Contest” episode of “Seinfeld”), film (American Pie, There’s Something About Mary), music (“Sticky Fingers,” for one) and comedy clubs (too many to mention). Among those offering expert testimony are Janeane Garofalo, Nina Hartley, Larry Flynt, Film Threat founder Chris Gore and former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who was fired by Hypocrite in Chief Bill Clinton for advocating a more reasonable approach to drug legalization, contraception in schools, abortion and masturbation.

Home Invasion
Thrillers involving home invasions and hostage situations are a dime-a-dozen on DVD. Once a director is able to establish a rapport between the victims and viewers, all that’s required is convincing us of the perpetrators’ willingness to do great mental and bodily harm to the captives. The news media have already laid that foundation in countless reports of crazed killers and rapists terrorizing suburbia. Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, along with its English-language twin sibling of the same title, tapped into the fears of all middle-class citizens already frightened by the random encroachment of inner-city crime on their seemingly secure enclaves. Screenwriters, of course, have encountered no obstacles to preventing sadists, sociopaths and other desperate criminals from bypassing elaborate security codes, hidden cameras and thick gated walls in their pursuit of mayhem. David Tennant’s straight-to-DVD thriller, Home Invasion, probably doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Funny Games, but it works unexpectedly well as a scary time-killer. In it, a group of extremely well-coordinated and heavily armed bandits break into a home on an island linked to the mainland by a single-lane bridge. By disabling the bridge’s ability to open and close, the invaders buy themselves a couple of hours of time, even if the security system works correctly.

Natasha Henstridge’s Chloe is attempting to make peace with her belligerent stepson when the break-in occurs. Her husband has been out of town on business for a longer-than-normal time and completely out of touch with the family. The crooks’ knowledge of the home’s layout reveals a financial agreement gone bad between them and Chloe’s husband. She’s unaware of it, so can honestly plead ignorance when they demand to know the whereabouts of a safe filled with stolen money. Preoccupied with their mission, the crooks barely pay attention to the absence of Chloe and the boy when they escape into the large house’s many nooks and crannies. A storm is raging outside, so, even when she is able to contact the security company’s headquarters, its response team, led by Jason Patric, is unable to launch a land-and-sea rescue effort. Patric’s character is, however, partially able to monitor the movements of Chloe, the boy and the crooks, using cameras not blacked out in the early minutes of the invasion. They communicate via cellphone, but quietly and without any assurance it won’t be discovered by the gang’s sadistic leader (Scott Adkins). In some ways, I was reminded here, as well, of Wait Until Dark, another home-invasion thriller with a harrowing twist and a female protagonist who’s unable to say where a stolen doll, filled with heroin, is located. Home Invasion may not be essential viewing, even for genre buffs, but it makes good use of its limited resources.

The Land Before Time XIV: Journey of the Brave
Eight years have passed since the last entry in Universal’s “The Land Before Time” franchise, “The Wisdom of Friends,” found its way into the dinosaur-loving hearts of young DVD viewers. The 14th chapter in the saga, Journey of the Brave, follows the Apatosaurus Littlefoot, as he attempts to learn the whereabouts of his father, Bron, who returns to Green Valley once a year to lead his herd. Apparently, Bron became stranded in the wilderness when the “fire mountain” erupted and he needs some help. Littlefoot embarks on the journey with his friends Cera, Ducky, Petrie and Spike to find him. After a disagreement between Littlefoot and Cera on which path to take, Littlefoot (voiced by Scott McAfee) decides to go ahead, alone, where he meets a Pteranodon, Etta (Reba McEntire), who knows his father. As they travel across strange terrain, Littlefoot, Etta and Wild Arms (Damon Wayans Jr.) discover that by pulling together they can overcome any challenge. The series began in 1988 with The Land Before Time, directed and produced by Don Bluth and executive produced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It made enough money on a moderate budget to prompt a total of thirteen direct-to-video musical sequels and a TV series, even without the participation of its heavyweight trio.

TV-to-DVD
Mercy Street: Blu-ray
Masterpiece: Downton Abbey: Season 6: Blu-ray
The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics
The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes
Nickelodeon: Shimmer & Shine
In the wake of the recent re-lease of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentary, “The Civil War,” comes the six-part mini-series, “Mercy Street,” which dramatizes life, death, love and political intrigue in a Union Army Hospital, across the Potomac River from Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia. The thread of soap-opera melodrama that runs through the story is bolstered by the conceit of having the facility situated inside a previously grand hotel owned and managed by a family that believes strongly in the Confederate cause. The Greens aren’t entirely altruistic, of course, seeing as though James Green (Gary Cole) is a businessman first and patriot second. If viewers are supposed to think of Gone With the Wind’s O’Hara family when considering the machinations of the Greens, it works. Some also will recall the film’s single most powerful scene, panning the immensity of makeshift hospital grounds barely able to cope with the carnage of the battle for Atlanta. What happens inside the Mansion House is a microcosm of that and other scenes in “GWTW,” as well as the BBC’s fine WWI frontline-hospital mini-series, “The Crimson Field,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “ANZAC Girls” and James Kent’s Testament of Youth. (Even stately Downton Abbey was converted to a medical facility.) Likewise, “Mercy Street” puts a tight focus on several volunteer nurses, surgeons and patients, representing a myriad of opinions on what’s at stake in the American Civil War. Then, too, parallel storylines follow former slaves walking a tightrope between tenuous emancipation and the possibility they could be kidnapped and returned South, even as freed men and women; corrupt Union officials; and plots to murder President Lincoln. The series is created by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel and inspired by memoirs and letters of actual doctors and female nurse volunteers at Mansion House Hospital. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a making-of featurette.

If the British writer Robert Graves had lived long enough to be a fan of “Downton Abbey,” he might borrow some thoughts from his autobiography, “Good-Bye to All That,” to describe his feelings about the show’s sixth and final season. The book was published in 1929, when the author was 34 and quite ready to leave behind the world described in the beloved “Masterpiece” series. As much as we’d all love to see “Downton” last forever – or, at least, until Mick Jagger or Jimmy Page bought the estate – the family’s lifestyle no longer could be sustained … or tolerated. Creator Julian Fellowes has done a nice job wrapping things up, without resorting to maudlin devices or atypical fireworks. He has allowed for the luxury of tying up loose ends, however, by inviting back some long-absent characters. “Season 6” remains what “Downton Abbey” always been: a class act. For those viewers who can’t wait until next month’s finale – or, are still catching up – the Blu-ray arrives with the featurettes, “Cars of Downton Abbey,” “Farewell to Highclere,” “Changing Times” and, of course, a “Visit Britain” interstitial. I suspect that a gala compilation will become available shortly before Christmas, so fans may want to start saving their pennies. The fate of “Mercy Street” has yet to be decided.

Time Life/WEA continues to dish out bite-size portions of much larger and more expensive compilations, the latest being “The Hee Haw Collection: Kornfield Klassics.” The latest package of episodes from the long-running syndicated series, which gave new meaning to the terms, “cornpone” and “hayseed,” contains Episodes 45 and 48. They include contributions from series regulars Buck Owens, Roy Clark, the Hagers, Nashville Edition, as well as guest stars Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Bill Anderson and Peggy Little.

Last Saturday, Carol Burnette accepted a lifetime-achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild for her six decades on the big and small screen, including her groundbreaking namesake variety show, which ran for 11 years. During the late-1960s, CBS was sometimes called “The Carol Burnett Show Network,” a joking reference to the program’s huge ratings and value to its advertisers. And, yet, the first five seasons hadn’t resurfaced — no reruns, streaming video, DVDs or other formats — until Time Life introduced “The Lost Episodes.” The new six-disc set, “The Carol Burnett Show: Treasures From the Vault: The Lost Episodes,” features 15 uncut episodes and such guest stars as Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers and Mickey Rooney. There are more than four hours of bonus features.

Nickelodeon’s newest addition to its Nick Jr. block, “Shimmer & Shine, features a young girl named Leah and two apprentice genies, Shimmer and Shine, who happen to be fraternal twins. They are allowed to grant three wishes every day, but, first, must travel to Earth from the magical land of Zahramay Falls, which is located inside their genie bottle. When not granting wishes, Shimmer and Shine live with their pets Nahal and Tala and travel around on a magic carpet. The trouble is, as genies-in-training, they sometimes misinterpret Leah’s wishes and often accidentally grant her wishes she didn’t mean to make.

The DVD Wrapup: Burnt, Assassin, New Girlfriend, Patels, Mr. Robot and more

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Burnt: Blu-ray
A few years before Bradley Cooper broke from the pack of nearly interchangeable white male actors in The Hangover, he starred in an ill-fated Fox TV series, “Kitchen Confidential,” based on the memoirs of “bad boy” chef Anthony Bourdain. The celebrity-chef phenomenon had yet to reach critical mass on television, so the audience’s response probably had less to do with Cooper than the subject matter. In Burnt, he plays a character who more closely resembles Gordon Ramsey — Don Rickles, in a toque — than the hipper-than-thou bon vivant. Where the protagonist of “Kitchen Confidential,” Jack Bourdain, was required to overcome serious problems with substance abuse, Burnt’s Adam Jones not only has had to kick alcohol and drug habits, but also rage issues that precede him wherever he goes. Otherwise, the two productions could have been cut from the same template. Depending on how one feels about Ramsey, specifically, viewers either will be turned off after the film’s first half-hour or anxious to follow Jones on the road to redemption. To his credit, director John Wells also sought the advice of less idiosyncratic cooks Marco Pierre White, Marcus Wareing and Clare Smyth, who understand the difference between controlled chaos in the workplace and temper tantrums. Led by a supporting cast of fine international stars – Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Sam Keeley, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy – Burnt is best when Wells’ focus is inside the kitchen and dining room of Jones’ new London restaurant. Emma Thompson is typically good as Jones’ shrink, but, by now, the advice of one movie therapist is as good as anyone else’s opinion.

In “Kitchen Confidential,” apparently, the protagonist’s goal was to impress the restaurant critic of the New York Times. Here, in an unlikely scenario, the top London critic accepts an invitation to a preview dinner and makes sure everyone knows he’s there. More accurate is the anxiety that consumes Jones over what the Michelin critics might say after their surprise, if not entirely clandestine visit. A third star on his resume would validate everything Jones and his staffs have had to endure to get one. Curiously, the cuisine Jones prepares has less in common with the tastes of modern foodies than that of his rival (Rhys), whose kitchen is known for its micro gastronomy. As mouth-watering as Burnt is, I would discourage anyone from assuming that all foodie movies taste the same. The cranky-perfectionist conceit works better in Daniel Cohen’s Le Chef, Jon Favreau’s Chef, Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night and Brittany Murphy’s largely undiscovered gem, The Ramen Girl. Also tempting are Mostly Martha and its Hollywood remake No Reservations, Woman on Top. Tampopo, Ratatouille, Julie and Julia and, of course, Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate.  The Blu-ray adds the informative featurette, “Burnt: In the Kitchen with Bradley Cooper,” several deleted scenes, Q&A highlights with the director and cast, and commentary with Wells and executive chef consultant Marcus Wareing.

The Assassin: Blu-ray
When Ang Lee’s sumptuous martial-arts drama, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was nominated for 10 Oscars, winning 4, lots of people wondered if the academy finally was willing to give future Chinese wuxia a fair hearing, at least, from voters. Apart from consideration in a few non-marquee categories, however, the genre has been given short shrift. Fact is, though, no other such movie, with the exception of Kill Bill and Kung Fu Panda, however, has generated the same excitement at the domestic box office as “CT/HD.” Having made several 10-best lists compiled by prestigious American critics and garnered awards from Cannes to Palm Springs, many wuxia enthusiasts felt that Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin might be accorded the respect accorded Ang Lee. Although it survived the first cut in the Best Foreign Language Film category, the Taiwan entry didn’t make the list of finalists, let alone for Best Picture. Neither did it find traction in any of the same tech categories as “CT/HD.” Where most martial-arts movies emphasize the action over anything except the production design, The Assassin takes a more patient, painterly approach to a story loosely adapted from Pei Xing’s late 9th Century tale “Nie Yinniang,” which has informed other swordsmanship and wuxia fiction.

Hou has set his adaptation in 8th Century China, during the Tang Dynasty. Shu Qi (A Beautiful Life) plays Nie Yinniang, a killer appointed to slay corrupt government officials by her master, Jiaxin, a nun who raised her from the age of 10 for this express purpose. When Nie displays mercy toward a target, Jiaxin punishes her with a ruthless assignment designed to test her resolve. It requires her to travel to Weibo in remote northern China to kill its military governor, her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), to whom she had once been betrothed. Staged on location in China’s Wudang Mountains and Daiju Lake, in Hubai Province, as well as lush forest preserves on Taiwan, the mist-covered settings reflect Nie’s contemplative approach to her duties. The thick woods also provide cover for the assassin and the men sent to kill her. The 68-year-old Hou (The Voyage of the Red Balloon) has said that he intentionally delayed making a period piece until “he is older.”  In the eight years he’s been absent from the director’s chair, Hou must have used the time to study everything from armaments and clothing design to the obscure Chinese dialect spoken by the actors. For their part, the actors knew that the maestro would expect the same courtesy in return. Their respect for him is duly noted in the brief making-of featurettes. As such, The Assassin is a cinematic feast to be savored.

The New Girlfriend
If all one knows going into a screening of The New Girlfriend is that the psychosexual thriller has been adapted by director/writer François Ozon from a short story by Ruth Rendell, there’s more than a fighting chance you’ll enjoy the compelling French export. Rendell’s crime fiction has benefitted from interpretation by several European directors – Claude Chabrol, Pedro Almodovar, Claude Miller – if only because their audiences are more willing to embrace sexual situations that push the limits of mainstream tastes and taboos. Moreover, they do so without calling attention to the edgy subject matter or courage of the actors in lead roles. The New Girlfriend opens with the untimely death of a young wife and mother, Laura (Isild Le Besco), and a teary eulogy delivered by Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), in which she describes a blood oath made as childhood friends to take care of each other’s loved ones, if such a calamitous occasion arose. Devastated by the loss, Clair one day drops in unannounced on Laura’s husband, David (Romain Duris), while he’s feeding the baby in full drag. Claire’s first inclination may have been to label him a “pervert” and rush out the door, but she allows David to elaborate on his longtime desire to lounge around the house in his wife’s clothes. Furthermore, he believes the baby would benefit from having the support of a father and a mother, however faux. After Claire agrees to go along with the parental ruse, she also agrees to help David overcome his fear of going out in public as Virginia. Eventually, Claire accepts Virginia as an emotional surrogate for Laura in her own life. Ozon now is in a position to play all sorts of head games with his characters, who, for all purposes, didn’t exist at the beginning of the movie. For American audiences still trying to get their heads around Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s emergence from the Kardashian closet, The New Girlfriend provides a decidedly different spin on the protagonist’s gender-identity issues and how they impact his relationship with his BFF, her husband and his bourgeois in-laws. The movie is extremely well made and the acting is of the highest quality. The Blu-ray adds 10 deleted scenes and a making-of featurette describing Duris’ daily transformation into Virginia.

Meet the Patels
About 16 years ago, an article was published in the Sunday New York Times Magazine answering a question asked by American tourists struck by the large number of people named Patel they encountered while checking into a roadside motel. If it seemed as if every motel on a given stretch of highway was owned by a Patel, they were right.  In 1999, according to the latest figures from the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, slightly more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States were owned by people of Indian origin. Of that number, about 70 percent of all Indian motel owners — or a third of all motel owners in America – shared the same last name. The extremely long and exhaustively researched article explained how the so-called Patel Motel Phenomenon came to be and why the surname didn’t necessarily mean that every Patel on the Eastern Seaboard or in rural Texas shared common blood. Geeta and Ravi Patel’s documentary/romcom Meet the Patels effectively updates the article, “A Patel Motel Cartel?,” by introducing us to some of the assimilated descendents of the original Patel pioneers and eavesdropping on the marital rituals encouraged by their parents. The desire to match adult children of recent immigrants by nationality, race or religion is nothing new, of course. The difference in Meet the Patels is observing the great lengths – as up to date as the tablet computer — some parents will go to ensure that Patel traditions continue in the New World. Co-director Ravi Patel is a not-so-young Indian-American, who, after breaking up with his non-Indian girlfriend, agrees to allow his match-making mom to search the planet for the right Patel girl for her boy. In addition to participating in meet-and-greets and blind dates from coast to coast, Ravi travels with his family to the region in India populated almost exclusively by Patels of the Gujarati Hindu sub-caste. Ravi’s pickiness is matched only by his mother’s desire to exhaust every option available to her. The frequently amusing documentary is marked by the love shared by this family of Patels and their common willingness to compromise, if only for the sake of the movie. Finally, Meet the Patels is as American a story as any you’re likely to find.

Naz & Maalik
Jay Dockendorf’s impressive debut feature Naz & Maalik introduces us to a convivial pair of black teenagers struggling to come up with the money they’ll need to afford their college tuition. We’re amused by their attempts to sell “lucky” lottery tickets, aromatic potions and pictures of Roman Catholic saints to Brooklyn pedestrians who don’t appear to be disturbed by the interruption in their daily routines. They know they’re fighting a losing battle, but, if nothing else, they might have enough loose change in their pockets at the end of the day to buy a live chicken to be slaughtered according to Muslim law for a birthday feast. As their day wears on, however, Naz & Maalik evolves from offbeat walking-and-talking comedy to a closely observed drama about the many different obstacles facing urban youths as they make the transition to adulthood. And, as if being poor and first-generation African-American Muslims weren’t large enough burdens, Dockendorf also has made them gay and sufficiently naïve to paint themselves into a corner with the FBI. In fact, it isn’t until the night before we meet them that the longtime friends take their first giant step out of the closet by acting upon their sexual attraction to each other. Being gay is no picnic in any religion, but, as otherwise devout Muslims, Naz and Maalik face losing everything they cherish in the world, including the love of family members and access to their religious community.

In what could be described as an exercise in piling on by the filmmaker, a shady white street hustler points them out to a federal agent who’s trolling for potential terrorists in the Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The informant was sufficiently upset by their refusal to buy a handgun from him that decides to use them as bait for a handout … apparently, anyway. The agent’s clumsy follow-up demonstrates how frustrating it can be for any black Muslim – let alone those who abide by the laws of their state and religion – in post-9/11 America. Then, just when you think their day couldn’t possibly get any worse, Dockendorf devises a couple of interesting twists to do just that. After making the rounds of gay-and-lesbian festivals, it will be interesting to see if Naz & Maalik finds an audience outside the niche demographic, including those academy members who continue to bemoan the lack of diversity in Hollywood. Frankly, I’m surprised that it didn’t find any support among the generally more responsive voters at the Indie Spirit gatherings.

Luther the Geek Blu-ray
Sonny Boy: Blu-ray
Jack’s Back: Blu-ray
The Toxic Avenger Collection: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
Among the words that have almost completely lost their original meaning over the last 30-40 years is “geek.” Although it’s generally accepted today that a geek is a nerd with the ability of getting things done, instead of obsessing over how cool something will look once it’s finished, we’re reminded by writer/director Carlton Albright that it describes a gnarly midway performer who bites the heads off chickens and drinks their blood. If the ASPCA hasn’t already convinced legislators to ban such freakish behavior, it’s unlikely there’s much call for the talents of a geeks outside Tea Party conventions and birthday parties for meth addicts. In Luther the Geek, a gang of Depression-era farmers attends a performance of a caged geek, held in a barn. While they taunt him in the usual hayseed fashion, a boy accidentally hits his mouth on a board, dislodging several teeth. The taste of blood, combined with the excitement that comes with watching a crazed man decapitate a chicken, encourages Luther to follow the caged performer into show business. Before long, he’s replaced his lost teeth with steel dentures, filed to razor-sharp precision capable of biting through the throats of human beings. Absent the stealth and wiles of Jack the Ripper, Luther is captured and sentenced to an eternity in prison. In modern penal terms, an eternity too often translates to anywhere between 10 and 50 years. Somehow a majority of parole-board officials recognizes in Luther something resembling good behavior and he’s allowed to join polite society. No sooner is Luther kicked out of a supermarket – brazenly chugging raw eggs from a carton — than he attacks an elderly woman and attempts to bite off her head. To avoid the cops, the clucking geek (Edward Terry) jumps into the car of a shopper heading back to her farmhouse. Once there … well, you can probably guess the rest. If Luther the Geek could never be mistaken for a competently made horror film, it maintains a brisk pace throughout its 80-minute length, with more than enough gore, nudity and stupid behavior to satisfy the average genre nerd’s passion for mayhem. Newly refreshed with a 2K scan from the 35mm negative, the Blu-ray edition adds commentary with Albright, an interview with actor Jerome Clarke, outtakes and deleted shots, and reversible cover art.

If there was a film made in the 1980s as thoroughly reprehensible – in a good way — as Luther the Geek, it’s Robert Martin Carroll’s almost unrepentantly sick – again, in a good way – Sonny Boy, which co-star David Carradine once characterized as being a cross between Bonnie and Clyde, Bringing Up Baby and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In the remote desert town of Harmony, N.M., a psychopathic petty crook and purveyor of stolen TVs, Slue (Paul L Smith), is enjoying a life of redneck bliss with his transvestite girlfriend, Pearl (Carradine), when a local good-for-nothing, Weasel (Brad Dourif), delivers onto them a baby boy. Weasel had stolen the red convertible from the infant’s parents – now deceased – but neglected to look under the blankets piled on the back seat. It wasn’t until he got to Harmony that the baby decided to alert Weasel of his spoiled diapers, at which time Pearl decides she wants to experience the joys of motherhood. Her lover decides, instead, to cut out Sonny Boy’s tongue and toss him into a corn bin to fend for himself for the next 15 years. When the feral child (Michael Boston) escapes and begins to terrorize the unsuspecting residents of Harmony, they rise up as one to destroy Slue and Pearl’s stronghold. Because Slue owns a military-grade cannon, the body count promises to be impressive. For what should be obvious reasons, Sonny Boy was accorded a record low number of days in distribution. It arrives on Blu-ray in nearly pristine condition, alongside commentaries with Carroll and writer Graeme Whifler and a BD-Rom draft of the script.

No less gory, but far more coherent is Jack’s Back, in which a L.A.-based serial killer celebrates Jack the Ripper’s 100th birthday by committing similarly grisly murders. Because James Spader plays twin brothers John and Rick Wesford and is the only still recognizable star, there’s a very good chance he’s either the killer or will be the lead suspect required to prove one or both of them is innocent. Naturally, the brother who’s a surgeon and has the cutlery to prove it is both the most and least likely person to have killed the hookers.  For Spader, Jack’s Back was sandwiched between key supporting appearances in Less Than Zero and Wall Street and a breakout lead performance in Sex, Lies and Videotape. He worked steadily through the 1990s, but the movies shrank in importance. His return to form wouldn’t come until a dozen years later with a wicked turn in Secretary and the introduction of his ethically challenged lawyer, Alan Shore, in “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Writer/director Rowdy Herrington’s next assignment would be directing the endearing cult classic, Road House, with Patrick Swayze and Kelly Lynch. The Blu-ray adds Herrington’s commentary, a making-of featurette and interviews with producer Tim Moore, actress Cynthia Gibb and DP Shelly Johnson.

And, while we’re on the subject of gloriously grotesque cinema, there’s the arrival on Blu-ray of Troma’s The Toxic Avenger Collection, which is comprised of The Toxic Avenger, The Toxic Avenger Part II, The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie and Citizen Toxie. For the uninitiated, the oddly endearing cult character, Toxie, arose 15 years ago from decaying carcass of Melvin Junko, a nerdy mop boy in a Tromaville gym, who dived out of a window, landing headfirst into a simmering vat of toxic waste. Suddenly, the woefully deformed Melvin has been transformed into a dogged crusader against corruption, thuggish bullies and indifference. In “Part IV,” however, an explosion transports Toxie to a parallel universe in which the superhero and his evil doppelganger, Noxie, chose opposite sides of the environmental fence to defend, while also impregnating the blond princess Sarah and her own evil doppelganger. Similarly affected by the explosion are Sgt. Kabukiman, the obese Chester/Lardass, Dolphin Man, and the late Lemmy Kilmeister. The “Toxet” adds intros by Lloyd Kaufman, commentaries, interviews with the cast and crew, marketing material, “Apocalypse Soon: The Making of ‘Citizen Toxie’” and Tromatic videos.

Nikkatsu Diamond Guys: Vol. 1: Blu-ray
Arrow Video once again discovers gold in a most unusual place. In the late 1950s, the venerable Nikkatsu film studio inaugurated a star system, designed to locate exploitable male talent and assign them to its Diamond Line for a series of wild genre pictures. This collection celebrates three of the Diamond Guys with classic films from directors Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill), Toshio Masuda (Rusty Knife) and Buichi Saito (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril). Veteran tough guy Hideaki Nitani stars in Suzuki’s Voice Without a Shadow (1958), a noir whodunit about a former telephone-switchboard operator, Asako, who’s still haunted by the taunting voice of a disembodied killer. Reporter/narrator Ishikawa (Nitani) is pulled into the cold case when Asako recognizes the same voice emanating within the walls of her own home and calls her former co-worker for help. It belongs to one of the three men her husband has invited home for dinner and a game of mahjong. Her discovery triggers even more violence and an investigation that leads Ishikawa into the criminal underground.

Next, 1950s subculture icon Yujiro Ishihara stars in Masuda’s Red Pier as “Lefty” Jiro, a killer whose arrival in Kobe is complicated when he witnesses a man die in a crane “accident” that turns out to be anything but accidental. Much of the story unfolds in smoky nightclubs popular with trampy young women and slick gangsters. If Elvis Presley had been stationed in Japan, instead of Germany, he might have been convinced to spend his leave time acting in Saito’s The Rambling Guitarist, a 1959 action drama that resembles King Creole. Instead, pop superstar Akira Koabyashi stars as wandering street musician whose pugilistic skills endear him to a local crime boss and his daughter. The color cinematography adds a bit more of a Hollywood feel to the production, as well.

TV-to-DVD
USA: Mr. Robot: Season 1: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon Favorites: Whiskers & Paws
PBS Kids: Superwhy: Three Billy Goats Gruff & Other Fairytale Adventures
The Facts of Life: Season Eight
If, like me, the first time you paid attention to USA’s “Mr. Robot” was after it won two key Golden Globe awards, then you’ll be happy to learn that it’s easy to catch up on the series via DVD/Blu-ray, the USA Now app and select streaming services. Normally, I don’t give much credence to the organization, but, like a blind pig, it should be given due credit for finding the occasional acorn. The trophies for Best Television Series: Drama and Best Supporting Actor: Series, Miniseries or Television Film (Christian Slater) – as well as Rami Malek’s well-deserved Best Actor nomination – came as a happy surprise and vindication for early promoters of the show. The series follows Elliot Alderson (Malek), an extremely gifted, if totally creepy engineer, who works at the cybersecurity company Allsafe. As conceived by executive producer Sam Esmail (Comet), Elliot’s thought processes are heavily influenced by social anxiety disorder, paranoia and clinical depression. He connects to people by hacking them, like “human malware.” He isn’t averse to using his gifts to protect friends or punishing miscreants, including, in the first episode, a yuppie douchebag who mistreats his dog. Even so, Elliot finds himself at a crossroads when the mysterious leader of an underground hacker group recruits him to destroy the firm he is paid to protect. The antiheroic anarchist, known as Mr. Robot (Slater), woes Elliot by detailing a conspiracy designed to cancel all personal debts by taking down one of the largest corporations in the world. It’s the kind of revolutionary action behind which any TV viewer with a credit card or student loan can rally. At first, the scope of the plan intimidates Elliot. On balance, though, he decides that the mega-company is far too evil to be left to its devices. Just when the disparate pieces begin to come together, Elliot is forced to admit to a debilitating morphine addiction. What’s revealed in the detox-induced hallucinations takes us deeper into Elliot’s Lynchian backstory than some viewers may want to go. If there are times when Elliot acts as if he’s the love child of Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, Esmail admits to being influenced by such disparate entertainments as American Psycho, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, Fight Club, Risky Business and “Breaking Bad.” Mac Quayle’s nightmarish soundtrack raises more than a few goosebumps along the way, as well. Anyone plagued by the notion that the Internet could come crashing down, 20 minutes before they were able to cash out their investments, may want to avoid binge-viewing “Mr. Robot.” It’s that freaky. The Blu-ray adds deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurette.

Nickelodeon Favorites: Whiskers & Paws” features more than two hours of laughs from some of Nick’s newest shows. “Shimmer and Shine” and “Fresh Beat Band of Spies” make their DVD debut, as they encounter a zoo full of animals and an out-of-control bundle of bunnies. Other Nick adventures include the “PAW Patrol” pups trying to control some naughty kittens; “Dora and Friends” making peace between cat and dog; the “Bubble Guppies” getting an education in house cats; and Blue spending time with her bilingual kitten friend Periwinkle in “Blue’s Clues.”

In PBS Kids’ “Super Why: The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Other Fairytale Adventures,” the Super Readers employ basic literacy tools and strategies to uncover hidden clues in new and interactive ways. Among other things, the Super Readers reconsider “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” from the point of view of the Troll; Princess Pea and Red are partners in a potato sack race, but can’t decide whether to go slow and steady, as dictated in “The Tortoise & the Hare,” treat it as a sprint; and “The Elves and The Shoemaker,” in which Whyatt has a secret admirer and wants to know who it is.

In Season Eight of “The Facts of Life,” Blair, Natalie, Tootie and Jo say goodbye to their beloved Mrs. G, after she finds love and moves away. Her sister Beverly Ann (Cloris Leachman) steps in to keep an eye on them, but as the year passes and graduation from Langley College looms for Blair and Jo, things remain in flux. There’s also a rockin’ trip back to the 1960s; an Eastland girls’ reunion, featuring such familiar faces as George Clooney and Stacey Q.; and a surprising murder mystery, in which no one is truly safe.

The DVD Wrapup: Straight Outta Compton, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Howl, I Am Thor and more

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

Straight Outta Compton: Blu-ray
As difficult as it might be for fans of Straight Outta Compton to believe that it was nearly shut out of Oscar competition, it’s just that hard for me be to believe that enough voters in any category actually watched enough of the movie to endorse it. Unlike The Help and 12 Years a Slave, the story behind the rise and fall of the genre-shattering hip-hop group, N.W.A., had several things working against it from the get-go. Not all of them can be attributed to racial insensitivity and the lack of diversity in the academy, although they can’t be discounted out of hand. For example, I can’t imagine any voter over, say, 40, rewarding a movie whose acoustics required them to keep a tight grip on the remote control every time the explosive musical soundtrack kicked in on their state-of-the-art Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 system. And, then, feel it necessary to readjust the sound when dialogue is exchanged. Even if that obstacle could be overcome, of course, there still was the matter of what was being said. The theatrical cut, alone, included 293 f-bombs and at least as many colorfully delivered variations of the n-word for people who depend on studio-provided screeners to endure. Clearly, such concerns were of little consequence to those who actually were required to purchase tickets for the privilege of watching a movie. The fact that Straight Outta Compton grossed $200 million at the international box office argues that it effectively crossed over to audiences of several distinct ethnic groups, all conceivably below the age of 40. That, to me, is what should have made F. Gary Gray’s extremely well executed film a candidate for one of 10 potential spots in the Best Picture category. (In fact, only eight were deemed to be “of extraordinary merit.”) Beyond the irony of having its four white writers nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, observers were left scratching their heads over the omission of Gray as a Best Director.

If the academy was more diverse, or had been required to see the movie in a theater full of hip-hop fans, the Best Picture voting might have been different. As it is, other organizations did the right thing by honoring the movie’s ensemble cast. The larger and more obvious injustice – to outsiders, at least — could be found in the Best Supporting Actor category, in which Sylvester Stallone was honored for his work in Creed, at the same time as Michael B. Jordan was being stiffed in the Best Actor race. Finding Stallone’s name on the ballot after all these years likely was too great a temptation for old-timers in the actors’ branch to ignore … once they figured out that this Michael Jordan didn’t wear a “23” on his robe. Many predictions had Idris Elba a finalist in the supporting-actor category, for Beasts of No Nation, and Will Smith a Best Actor contender for Concussion. (If I was of Chinese background, I’d be angry that The Assassin wasn’t nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and several design categories.) Oscar-ceremony host Chris Rock probably will have the last laugh on the subject come February 28.

Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the “seminal” gangsta-rap group, N.W.A., whose appeal crossed racial boundaries and withstood attempts by police, the FBI and other conservative groups to silence its message. The outsider drama stars O’Shea Jackson Jr.as his real-life dad, Ice Cube; Corey Hawkins, as producer extraordinaire Dr. Dre; Jason Mitchell, as the doomed wordsmith Eazy-E; and Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, as the less visible MC Ren and DJ Yella. Gray eloquently dramatizes the group’s us-against-the-world origin story, which provided a beacon of hope for a legion of rappers to follow. Moreover, even before the Rodney King beating and acquittal of the officers involved in it, the song “Fuck tha Police” would shine a light on the very real problems of police brutality, racial profiling and arbitrary prosecution of minority youths. (The same issues would enflame passions a quarter-century later.) Predictably, perhaps, paranoia over the distribution of great wealth among the artists, promoters and labels prompted the artists to take sides against each other. Old-school rock manager Jerry Hellman (Paul Giamatti) exploited the fissures, causing some members to take shelter in the evil empire of Shug Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). Foreshadowed here, too, are the murders of Tupac and Biggie and emergence of such rappers as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Snoop Dog, LL Kool J and Sean Combs as cross-media actors and celebrities. The women are relegated to roles as pool-party ornaments, coke whores, and blindly supportive wives and girlfriends. (What was left out of this storyline probably could have filled another 20 minutes.) The extended director’s cut edition seamlessly adds 20 minutes to the theatrical version, as well as deleted scenes, a deleted song performance, the director’s commentary track and several making-of and background featurettes.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Blu-ray
Teenage girls are notoriously protective of the thoughts they collect in their diaries. They’re maintained with a nearly religious dedication and hidden from their nosy moms with the same care the government reserves for state secrets. It’s the rare diary, though, that can avoid detection by a person who has almost unlimited access to dressers, pillow cases and closets, and, of course, probably kept a diary of her own. The jottings that teens feared would shock parents, back in the days when Sandra Dee, Sally Field and Annette Funicello served as role models, probably would be viewed today with amusement and no small amount of relief. The innermost thoughts of 15-year-old Minnie Goetz (Bel Powley), as revealed in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, might even raise a blush in the cheeks of Bridget Jones. As originally conceived by novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and later adapted for stage and screen by Heller, Minnie is the daughter of Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). The divorced San Francisco mother of two is still living the Flower Power dream, a decade after it began to wither. They live in a neighborhood that looks very much like the Haight-Asbury of old (and probably still does). Minnie is exposed on daily basis to a wide variety of individuals specific to the city’s post-hippie generation, including all manner of libertines, predators and misfits. In her brief time on Earth, Minnie has developed precocious notions about the holy trinity of big city life in the 1970s: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Among other things she admits to in her dear-diary confessions are trysts with her mother’s sexually blasé boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and a growing fondness for hallucinogens. More telling than anything in her taped missives, perhaps, are illustrations in her notebook inspired by underground comics artist, Aline Kominsky, who, in 1978, would marry R. Crumb. The Diary of a Teenage Girl pulls few punches in its depiction of sex that qualifies in most jurisdictions as statutory rape, no matter how consensual. Powley may be 23, but she easily passes for 15. As such, parents of teenage daughters, especially, might find scenes depicting Minnie’s sexual awakening to be uncomfortably realistic, no matter how integral to the story and non-exploitative they are. In this way and others, I was reminded favorably of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, Larry Clark’s Kids and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World. Powley, Heller and the ensemble cast have been nominated for Indie Spirit Awards in three categories. The Blu-ray arrives with a strong making-of featurette, deleted scenes and L.A. Film Festival Q&A.

I Believe in Unicorns
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature I Believe in Unicorns bears easy comparison to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in that it tells the story of an awkward teenage girl, in San Francisco, coming to grips with her first not entirely pleasurable sexual experience. The boy the waifish Davina (Natalia Dyer) chooses to share her coming-of-age is a skateboarding Adonis, who plays the guitar, shoplifts and wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for denim jeans. Sterling (Peter Vack) also is genetically predisposed to violence towards women when things get difficult for him. In addition to being obsessed with unicorns, the seemingly grownup Davina sometimes dresses in animal costumes and collects dinosaur figurines. She also is required to take of her invalid mother, who once enjoyed many of the same fantasies. That Davina’s impressionistic dreams and fantasies are rendered in stop- and fast-motion cinematography is what makes I Believe in Unicorns so compelling. Jarin Blaschke’s camera also does a nice job chronicling Davina and Sterling’s excellent adventure through the rolling hills of northern California. The inclusion of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” familiar from the Badlands soundtrack, almost immediately surrounds the lovers with an aura of dread. Visually, I Believe in Unicorns could hardly be more inventive and the story, itself, carries the ring of truth. Although, it debuted on the Internet after a run on the festival circuit, I can easily see how it might enjoy a cult following among teenage girls, if they can only find the DVD.

Howl: Blu-ray
Unlike movies featuring vampires and zombies, it isn’t often that one comes across a werewolf movie to recommend. From British makeup-effects specialist Paul Hyett (The Seasoning House), Howl borrows from three different sub-genres for a very decent thriller, set in and around a broken-down commuter train, stuck in the woods somewhere outside of London. It’s late at night and the cars are sparsely populated with a variety of passengers and railroad employees, none of whom is particularly thrilled to be large at all. Things begin to get weird after the engineer leaves the train to investigate the extent of the damage and discovers a stag crushed under one of the carriage’s steel wheels. This, in itself, wouldn’t be sufficient cause for alarm, except, perhaps, for a vegan passenger who might blame themselves for the deer being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn’t take long for viewers, at least to discover what spooked the animal and it doesn’t bode well for the people on board. Naturally, when the engineer fails to return, they begin to frighten themselves with all of the various possibilities. Even after they barricade themselves inside one of the stalled cars, the passengers begin the serious job of looking out for their own best interests. They defend themselves admirably against what they believe to be the killer, not anticipating that the werewolf might not be alone in the darkness. Soon enough, the full extent of the threat is revealed and all that’s left for viewers to do is sit back and wait for the fun to begin. It’s a simple story, really, but writers Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler – perhaps inspired by their work on “Thomas the Tank Engine” – have given Hyett all the story he needs to create thrills and chills out of prosthetic gore, nasty fake fur and frightening masks and teeth. His team of set designers, lighting specialists and composers do the rest. The Blu-ray adds several making-of vignettes.

I Am Thor: Blu-ray
One of the most endearing things about rock ’n’ roll is its ability to surprise even its most jaded critics with unexpected twists on genre clichés and weird coincidences. Who would have guessed, even 35 years ago, that the deaths of David Bowie, Glenn Frye and Lemmy Kilmister would warrant notice on the front page of the New York Times? And, yet, there they were … on the newspaper’s website, at least. I wonder how many editors of the august publication could have picked Lemmy out of a lineup at the Hall of Fame before his death, at 70, on December 28. God knows, how they’ll handle the deaths of Ozzy or Jimmy Page … not to mention Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. I doubt very much that Canadian rocker Jon Mikl Thor would warrant more than a few inches in the Times or any other American newspaper. That’s part of what makes Ryan Wise’s I Am Thor such a welcome addition to already saturated field of rock-docs and bio-pics. Equal bits Spinal Tap and Last Days Here, which chronicled the rise, fall and resurrection of Pentagram singer’s Bobby Liebling, I Am Thor introduces us to the onetime bodybuilding champion whose stage act included bending steel bars, smashing concrete blocks and blowing up hot-water bottles. Before emerging as Thor the Rock Warrior, the Vancouver native was best known as the first Canadian to win both the Mr. Canada and Mr. USA trophies, competing against Lou Ferrigno, among others, in international competition.

He retired in 1973, at 19, to pursue a career in entertainment, first as a naked waiter in a Vegas revue and, then, as a cosplay rocker at the old Aladdin resort. Thor attracted the attention of Merv Griffin, mostly as a novelty act, appearing on television from Caesar’s Palace. While there was no denying his certifiably gruff “metal” voice and innate showmanship, bad timing and worse luck would account for Thor and the Imps’ inability to compete at the same level as Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, KISS and Lemmy’s creation, Motörhead. The zenith of his career came in 1984, when “Thunder on the Tundra” and “Let the Blood Run Red” topped the British charts. After an untimely nervous breakdown three years later, Thor would retire from live performances to focus on movies and his own record label. While living in North Carolina, Thor would be encouraged to dust off his props and send his costumes – which now barely fit his pot belly – to the dry cleaners for an attempt at a comeback. Director Wise and producer Alan Higbee met Thor in 2000, began filming in 2001, and only finished shooting in 2014, in time for last year’s Slamdance festival. Besides much background material, I Am Thor capably demonstrates how difficult it can be to re-ignite the fire under an act reduced to ashes 10 years earlier. It isn’t pretty. Even so, I Am Thor is blessedly free of sad tales of substance abuse, burned bridges and corporate rip-offs. Instead, it is informed by the singer’s winning personality and drive to make audiences happy. Against all odds, we’re left with the feeling that Bob Seger was thinking of Jon Mikl Thor when he wrote “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.”

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Da Vinci’s Demons: The Complete Third Season
PBS: Frontline: Inside Assad’s Syria
PBS: Off the Menu: Asian America
The Saint: Seasons 3 & 4
Sisters: Season Three
PBS Kids: Caillou: Caillou Learns to Share
Although it would be difficult to exaggerate the amazing achievements of the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci, the highly entertaining Starz’ mini-series, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” suggests that he might, in fact, have been the first Marvel superhero. Impossibly handsome, a gifted swordsman and capable of visualizing complex scientific concepts in thin air, the troubled genius portrayed by Tom Riley more closely resembles Leonardo di Caprio or Leon Trotsky than the “portrait of a man in red chalk,” attributed to a 60-year-old Da Vinci, currently housed at Turin’s Biblioteca Reale. Riley’s Leonardo da Vinci wouldn’t be out of place in the CBS Western series, “The Wild Wild West,” playing Artemus Gordon to Secret Service agent James West. Through three seasons, Starz audiences have followed Da Vinci’s search for the mystical Book of Leaves, which, in Season Two, even found him in the New World. In the show’s third and final stanza, the Medicis and Pazzis continue their terrible rivalry, even as Turkish forces have established a beachhead at Otranto. This year, DaVinci’s vulnerability to the whims of the powerful leaders of Rome and Florence – as well as representatives of Satan, in the Labyrinth – nearly does him in. As the season comes to a close, however, a multi-episode re-appearance by Vlad the Impaler turns Italy’s darkest hour into a delightfully excuse for war. “Da Vinci’s Demons” must have been a terribly expensive show to mount, as it never looks less than convincing historically and the CGI touches never feel anachronistic. The show’s primary drawback, ratings-wise, might have resulted from a scarcity of the gratuitous nudity that attracts male eyes to other premium-cable shows. It’s there, but blink and you’ll miss it. Everything else about “Da Vinci’s Demons,” even the ending – re-shot after the cancelation was announced — is first-rate.

Even before Syria erupted in civil war, the country inherited by Bashar al-Assad from his dictatorial father was something of a mystery to most Americans. We knew that Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had been a thorn in the side of western nations for most of his 30 years in charge of military and government affairs, specifically for harboring terrorists (including a Nazi war criminal), fomenting turmoil in Lebanon and being a staunch ally of the former Soviet Union. Syria remains, of course, a constant threat to Israel, with which it shares a disputed border. Beyond that, however, zilch. When the country did explode, as part of the Arab Spring uprising, the U.S. somehow convinced itself that Assad would be the next tyrant to topple at the hand of its own people. What President Obama and his advisers didn’t take into account, however, was the lack of common purpose in the Syrian resistance. Syrians were divided by religion, wealth, politics and ability to mount a rebellion. ISIS emerged from the fog of that war, as did a million or so refugees. What we’re learning today is just how desperate is the state of Syrians outside Damascus and the region controlled by ISIS. Entire populations are being starved to death and relief efforts are stymied. In the “Frontline” investigation, “Inside Assad’s Syria,” correspondent Martin Smith (“Obama at War,” “The Rise of the Isis”) was accorded access to government officials, militia leaders and areas generally off-limits to journalists. One of his guides, an Arab journalist, was killed in combat a day after they parted company outside the capital. Even as the death toll mounts, Smith was able to find delusional elements in the government and business community willing to promote Syria as a destination for tourism. He could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing.

In their continuing efforts to keep pace with the Food Network and other food-centric programming, such PBS shows as “Off the Menu: Asian America” draw viewers by championing diversity and our willingness to merge cross-cultural influences. A half-century ago, no cuisine was as foreign to the American palate as that of Pacific Rim countries. Outside of New York and San Francisco, Chinese food came out of a can and Japanese dishes practically were non-existent. One of the great victories in the foodie revolution came with the realization that fresh ingredients and exotic spices could be blended to satisfy famously picky American tastes. Young people turned to their grandparents for recipes that reflected their ethnic backgrounds, instead of disguising them with ketchup, sugar and gravy. “Off the Menu” looks beyond China and Japan for examples of Asian/Pacific/American fusion. It takes us on a journey from Texas to New York, and from Wisconsin to Hawaii, using our obsession with food as a launching point to delve into a wealth of stories, traditions and unexpected characters that help nourish this nation of immigrants.

In the third season of “Sisters” Georgie (Patricia Kalember) carries Frankie’s baby via surrogacy and gives birth while trapped in car after an accident. Following the birth, Georgie has maternal feelings for the baby and feels unable to give the baby to Frankie (Julianne Phillips). Teddy (Sela Ward) finds success as a fashion designer; Alex (Swoosie Kurtz) feuds with Teddy and Alex’s daughter, Reed (Ashley Judd), gets married to Kirby (Paul Rudd). Frankie and Mitch (Ed Marinaro) deal with custody problems when they divorce and Alex battles cancer. Otherwise, nothing of much consequence happened. At the time considered groundbreaking for focusing on the lives of four women, “Sisters” dealt with human issues with warmth, heart and sensitivity.

A timeless figure of adventure since his creation by Leslie Charteris in 1928, “The Saint” has thrilled adventure aficionados with his exploits in a variety of media, including novels, movies and radio, but nowhere was the dashing Simon Templar more indelibly realized than in his 1960s television series. It starred the pre-Bond Roger Moore in the title role and, in Seasons Three and Four, featured early appearances for such actors as Burt Kwouk (“The Pink Panther” films), Carol Cleveland (“Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) and Donald Sutherland. The generous package adds “Behind the Scenes, With Sir Roger Moore as Director” and commentaries on “The Happy Suicide,” with guest star with Jane Merrow, “The Saint Bids Diamonds,” with Moore, producer Robert S. Baker guest star Eunice Gayson.

From PBS Kids, “Caillou Learns to Share” teaches his young fans one of the toughest and longest-lasting lessons they’ll ever have to learn. In it, Caillou discovers that sharing his things with the people he loves always turns out better in the end. From teaching his classmate Clementine his special art technique, to taking turns at playing conductor with his friends and family, to sharing his favorite things with little sister Rosie, Caillou learns that sharing not only makes him feel really good, it makes those around him feel good, too.

The DVD Wrapup: The Walk, Irrational Man, Look of Silence, Bitter Rice, Last Horror Film and more

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

The Walk: Blu-ray
On September 10, 2001, it’s likely that some visitors to Lower Manhattan pointed to the summit of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and recalled the day, 27 years earlier, when a 24-year-old French daredevil covered the 138-foot distance between the two spans on a steel cable, not once, but eight times. Twenty-four hours later, Philippe Petit’s amazing test of human mettle would be obscured in the clouds of dust and debris raised by the collapse of the two 110-story towers in a horrifying terrorist attack. Absent any physical evidence of the edifice’s longtime mastery of the city’s skyline, Petit’s feat might just as well have been a scene from a movie. Almost a year later, though, Petit would remind us of his courageous stunt in “To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers,” an impressionistic memoir of “le coup” that read like a crime thriller. Its publication would soon be followed by Mordicai Gerstein’s Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” which he wrote and illustrated in response to the September 11 attacks. It’s possible that New Yorkers weren’t ready to re-embrace Petit’s achievement, while the memory of the deaths and destruction were so fresh in the collective consciousness. As politicians and developers continued to fine-tune plans for the construction of a new World Trade Center, a documentary based on the two books would test the public’s willingness to look beyond the attacks, however tentatively.

James Marsh’s universally-acclaimed documentary, Man on Wire, served both as a testament to Petit’s courage and the towers’ majesty. He also introduced the pickup team of French and American amateurs who helped Petit realize his dream. It would make a clean sweep of documentary awards and win the unanimous support of critics. What it didn’t do was make a lot of money at the box office … hardly unusual for documentaries. Even so, six years later, Robert Zemeckis thought enough of the story to give it another shot, with his vertigo-inducing The Walk. In a sense, the creator of Forrest Gump and Cast Away re-cast Petit as a superhero, with powers equal to those of Batman or Spider-Man. Dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks, The Walk allows for more backstory and a romantic subplot, involving Petit. A true Hollywood visionary, Zemeckis has long been an advocate for digital technology and exhibition, CGI animation and IMAX 3D. He not only intended to place viewers on top of the WTC with the aerialist – well played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – but on the wire, itself. Even if Petit avoided looking into the abyss, Zemeckis practically rubs our noses in it during the final third of the movie. Anticipating just how effective a conceit this could be, I consciously avoided watching The Walk on a large-format screen. It was scary enough on the much smaller 4K screen in my living room. The PG-rated film looks spectacular on Blu-ray, in 2D and, I’ve read, in 3D. It’s also funny, inspirational and extremely moving. It adds deleted scenes and such background featurettes “First Steps: Learning to Walk the Wire,” with Petit coaching Levi on the art of wire walking; “Pillars of Support,” which introduces the cast that portrays the supporting characters; and “The Amazing Walk,” on the confluence of human drama and movie magic.

Irrational Man: Blu-ray
For longtime admirers of Woody Allen’s comedies, there may be nothing scarier than hearing his name mentioned in the same breath as Fyodor Dostoevsky. His latest, Irrational Man, represents Allen’s fourth film that borrows themes from “Crime and Punishment,” following Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream. Throw in Leo Tolstoy (Love and Death), Anton Chekhov (September), Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, Another Woman, Husbands and Wives) and William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), and you have a Murderer’s Row of influences mainstream audiences avoid like the plague. Those of us who’ve given up waiting for his sequel to Bananas – and carry library cards in our wallets — aren’t nearly so particular. There are wonderful things in all of his pictures, including the hardly distributed and, therefore, barely seen Irrational Man. The best reason for sampling it on DVD/Blu-ray is a cast that includes Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Jamie Blackley, Parker Posey and supporting actors who demand we pay attention to what’s happening in the background, as well as the foreground. Everyone works hard, as if to show Woody that his confidence in them is warranted. When compared to such delightfully original recent successes as Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love and Blue Jasmine, however, Irrational Man does feel more than a wee bit slight. Phoenix plays a boozy professor of philosophy, Abe, invited to teach at an elite small-town college, despite a sordid reputation that would disqualify him from working in most other institutions.

No sooner does Abe arrive on campus than he’s hit on by an unhappily married professor (Posey), who plies him with bourbon, and a star-struck student, Jill (Stone), who’s half their age. While he’s able to avoid being blinded by flattery, he’s never met a single-malt he could resist. Pure chance changes everything when Abe and Jill overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge and a decision that could have disastrous implications for a mother and her child. Where Jill sees the conversation as an excuse to discuss situational ethics, Abe treats it as an opportunity to put his philosophical money where his mouth is, by plotting the perfect murder. The film’s impact is limited by the small number of people whose lives would be influenced by any action taken – or avoided – by the characters. Irrational Man works best as a closely observed crime novella or short story targeted at graduates of such institutions, where gossip and betrayal are the coin of the realm. As usual with Allen’s Blu-ray releases, the featurettes are limited to red-carpet chit-chat and a photo gallery.

The Look of Silence: Blu-ray
Hate Crimes in the Heartland
Three years ago, a truly shocking documentary, The Act of Killing, demonstrated precisely what Hannah Arendt meant when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize Adolph Eichmann’s role in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Director Joshua Oppenheimer risked his life by tracking down perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, especially the monsters who, in victory, never were required to pay for their sins. Indeed, four decades later, they lived freely among the families of the million-plus “communists” who were slaughtered as politicians, police, government troops and American advisers physically distanced themselves from the carnage. The elderly fiends even agreed to re-enact their crimes, as if Oppenheimer was a Hollywood casting director, instead of a documentarian. A decade after those interviews were recorded, the filmmaker dared to return to Indonesia at the request of Adi, the brother of a man whose death was detailed for the first time in The Act of Killing. For The Look of Silence, Adi would accompany Oppenheimer and, while fitting the old men for eyeglasses, cautiously interrogate them as to their memory of his brother’s ghastly death. He then would prod neighbors and family members as to their roles in the subsequent cover-ups. Truly disturbing, The Look of Silence, finds the perpetrators of the violence to be no less unrepentant or prepared to seek redemption for their acts than they were 12 years earlier. The conversations are almost surrealistically civil. A few of the men go so far as to describe the ritual of drinking the blood of their victims, whenever their determination to continue lagged. One man justified his willingness to eliminate the perceived threat thusly, “We did it because America taught us to hate communists.” Ari also asked them about the lies still being taught as facts about the political beliefs of the victims and actions blamed on the victims by the actual perpetrators. Although Oppenheimer was extremely cautious in approaching the interview subjects, he was pleased to note that The Look of Silence was being screened in public, before thousands of viewers, and young Indonesians are looking forward to the day that truth and reconciliation panels might be established, as they were in South Africa, to openly discuss and heal wounds left untreated for 50 years. The bonus features include post-screening Q&As and expanded material from the interviews.

If any country needs to undergo the truth-and-reconciliation process, it’s the United States. Race relations throughout the country are worse today than at any time since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the leading candidates to replace President Obama are blatantly exploiting long-held fears and unfounded prejudices. Watch Rachel Lyon’s eye-opening Hate Crimes in the Heartland after The Look of Silence and you’ll understand why advocates for the downtrodden of the world no longer look to the United States for hope and direction. Lyon demands we examine two events that took place 90 years apart from each other, in the same American city, with a similarly devastating impact on residents. How many of us can say that we’ve heard about the so-called Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which left the prosperous “Negro Wall Street” district of Greenwood devastated and destroyed. It began, as so many vigilante attacks and lynchings have, with a rumor that turned out to be a lie. This one was spread by a white woman who made physical contact with a black elevator operator and, for some reason, cried rape. Within 24 hours, a mob of white Tulsans levelled 35 city blocks, leaving as many as 300 people dead and more than 10,000 homeless. Thanks to officially sanctioned racism among police, politicians and newspaper editors, not one white person was ever arrested, tried or convicted of any crime related to the attacks. The documentary then flashes forward to the 2012 Good Friday Murders, a string of racially motivated killings that left three African-Americans dead and two injured. This time, white Tulsans Alvin Lee Watts and Jacob Carl England would be quickly arrested and accept plea agreements, trading a date with the gas chamber for life-without-parole sentences. As the documentary makes clear, the difference in the two incidents is the aggressive response by the law-enforcement community to arrest and prosecute the killers, in large part to avoid the kind of anti-police riots that rocked the U.S. last summer. Far drier than The Look of Silence, Hate Crimes in the Heartland convincingly examines the underlying racial tensions in Tulsa, some of which have festered since the 1921 riot. It does so using interviews with a variety of scholars and public figures, in and away from the city, with an eye toward reconciliation.

Contracted: Phase II: Blu-ray
In the original edition of Contracted, a deadly sexually transmitted disease is mysteriously carving its way through a section of Los Angeles, making the symptoms of full-blown AIDS look acne. That isn’t to diminish the impact of the killer disease, just to characterize the vomit-inducing body-horror effects on display, some of which might have been inspired by “The Hearse Song.” (“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout…”) Because almost every character of any consequence died in the 2013 original, director Josh Forbes and writer Craig Walendziak have chosen to focus Contracted: Phase II on Riley (Matt Mercer), a peripheral character who stupidly courted infection by giving in to his lust for the already decaying Samantha. With the maggots now beginning to wheedle their way through his body, Riley is racing the clock to find a cure or someone who might hold the answer to the disease’s origins. To this end, he turns to a curious police detective (Marianna Palka), while being stalked by B.J. (Morgan Peter Brown), who may or may not hold the key to a solution. At 78 minutes, Contracted: Phase II feels very much like the second chapter in a mini-series or a straight-to-DVD addendum to “The Walking Dead.”

Hotel Transylvania 2: Blu-ray
Never known for his subtlety or sophistication, Adam Sandler took a more active role in the creation of Hotel Transylvania 2, than merely providing the voice of Dracula in the original and serving as executive producer with Robert Smigel. Here, Sandler adds co-writer to his previous responsibilities, which makes sense, considering the animated comedy’s target audience. While adults quickly tire of overly broad characters, slapstick humor, cheap sentimentality and lame situations, kids rarely do. Neither are children influenced by critics who blame Sandler for countless of hours of screening-room agony. If it looks funny, they’ll give it a shot. I went into “HT2” without paying any attention to the cast list, so wasn’t prejudiced by memories of such recent disappointments as Grown Ups, Jack and Jill, Just Go With It, Blended and The Ridiculous 6. By marked contrast, the 6-year-old buried inside of me genuinely enjoyed Hotel Transylvania 2, even after perusing the publicity material. Sandler is one of several familiar actors reprising the roles they voiced in “T1,” along with Moscow-born director Genndy Tartakovsky. Among the new voices are those of Mel Brooks, Dana Carvey, Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman. Three years have passed since Jonathan (Andy Samberg) and Mavis (Selena Gomez) broke all sorts of human/vampire taboos by falling in love and getting married. There appears to be some confusion as to whether baby Dennis (Asher Blinkoff) is going to be one, the other or a hybrid of his parents’ gene pool.

Vampa Drac (Sandler) isn’t nearly as anxious to find out as his intolerant father, Vlad (Brooks), who still can’t understand why the hotel has put out the welcome mat for human guests. While Mavis and Jonathan are enjoying their first vacation in the outside world, Drac, Vlad and some monster friends decide to enroll Dennis in the same “monster-in-training” boot camp attended by his mother and her fanged friends. Nothing is quite the same there, either, however. The campers of both species are coddled to same degree as kids in a suburban pre-school program. If Dennis is going to earn his fangs, thus endearing himself with great-grandpa Vlad, and it will have to be here. “TH2” offers plenty of good noisy fun for kids, as well as some painless kicks for parents. The bonus package is targeted directly at younger viewers with separate commentary tracks; deleted scenes; a sketch gallery; a sing-along with Monster Scary-Oke; and interactive featurettes “Make the Scary, Silly Sounds of Hotel Transylvania 2,” “How to Throw the Ultimate Monster Party,” “How to Draw Your Favorite Characters” and “The New Guys: Meet Vlad, Dennis, Kakie.”

Bitter Rice: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Although the title of Giuseppe De Santis’ earthy drama, “Riso Amaro,” is commonly translated as Bitter Rice, it also translates as “Bitter Laughter.” The difference may only be relevant to linguists and those buffs who enjoy splitting such hairs, but it explains some of the ambiguity attached to a movie that’s defied easy classification. While most critics and historians lump Bitter Rice together with other products of the then-popular neorealism movement, it generally comes with an asterisk. De Santis’ leftist political beliefs can be detected in some decidedly anti-western conceits that feel out of place in a work of post-war drama. Apparently, by the time of its release, the spread of American pop culture was such that leftists feared it would turn the proletarian masses into bobby-soxers. That fear is reflected in the characterization of De Santis’ characterization of the sultry peasant girl, Silvana (Silvana Mangano), as the kind of jitter-bugging, gum-chewing bombshell, who, when she wasn’t in the fields, studied movie magazines. A former Miss Rome, Mangano graduated from the same finishing school as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Brigitte Bardot. Their obvious charms would clear the way for the code-flaunting exploitation of Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Mamie Van Doren. Then, too, while also decrying the brutal working conditions endured by displaced women in post-World War II, De Santis adds a criminal subplot that might very well have influenced Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.

It’s the confusion of conceits that prompted neorealism purists to slight the film as prurient entertainment and for audiences to embrace it. (The film even was nominated for the 1950 Academy Award for Best Story.) Bitter Rice is set in 1948, outside a train station where unemployed women are gathered to be transported to the rice fields of northern Italy for 40 days of largely thankless labor. Silvana is entertaining the crowd with her suggestive dancing, which wouldn’t be out of place in an American juke joint. Among Silvana’s admirers are Francesca (Doris Dowling) and Walter (Vittorio Gassman), who are on the lam from a jewel heist in France. Identified by police, Walter entrusts the jewelry to Francesca’s care, while he hops a train heading in the opposite direction. Francesca decides to cast her lot with the migrant workers – already divided by the employment of “scabs” — in particular the woman who seduced her boyfriend with her swiveling hips and come-hither eyes. The intrigue shifts to the rice fields, where the women express their pain, joys and solidarity in song and pine for boyfriends who are likely scratching for work in northern Europe. The melodramatic resolution occurs after Silvana and Francesca’s lovers return to collect what they think rightfully belongs to them. By then, however, the labor-hardened women have shifted their allegiances. The fully restored Blu-ray adds the 2008 documentary, “Giuseppe De Santis”; a 2003 interview with screenwriter Carlo Lizzani; and an essay by critic Pasquale Iannone.

The Last Horror Film: Blu-ray
Joe Spinell, a character actor who bore a passing resemblance to porn icon Ron Jeremy, will forever be known for his portrayal of Corleone Family henchman Willi Cicci in the first two installments of the Godfather. (He originally was intended to appear, as well, in The Godfather: Part III, but was written out and replaced by the character of Joey Zasa, following Spinell’s sudden death in early 1989.) In Rocky, the first of several films he made with Sylvester Stallone, he was the loan shark, Gazzo. In William Lustig’s critically reviled slasher classic, Maniac, co-writer Spinell portrays a momma’s-boy psychopath, loose in New York City, killing young women and taking their scalps as his trophies. Not nearly as loathsome as that film, The Last Horror Film stars Spinell as a demented fanboy – OK, fanman –who hopes to pitch and cast his slasher film at the Cannes Film Market. The trouble is, of course, that everyone who travels to the south of France in mid-May is too consumed with their own projects, image and party plans to screen a movie by a guy who looks as if he might have just escaped from a mental institution. Each new rejection, of course, results in an increasingly gory murder, with his ultimate target being the bombshell scream queen, Jana Bates (Caroline Munro).

None of that would be sufficient cause for excitement about The Last Horror Film’s Blu-ray release, 33 years later, if it weren’t for one thing: the ability of director David Winters (Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare) to turn the actual Cannes Film Festival into his own personal backlot. Employing guerrilla tactics, he found ways to inject Spinell’s psycho-killer, Vinny, into press conferences, parties, screenings and red-carpet arrivals. Viewers never know who’s going to show up in a scene. Winters also appears to have had the run of the city for locations, although it isn’t likely he paid a dime for permits. In this way, at least, The Last Horror Film reminded me of Henry Jaglom’s 2001 romcom, Festival in Cannes. I have no idea if Jaglom employed the same guerrilla tactic, but it’s the rare indie film that can afford such glamorous locations, cameos or music from a then largely unknown Depeche Mode. The Troma Blu-ray includes a new introduction by company president Lloyd Kaufman; commentary; “Mr. Robbie,” a short film by Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock), starring Spinell; highlights from the 2015 Tromadance Film Festival; a Dolphin-Man bit; and a full episode of Troma’s latest web-series, “Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner,” starring tattoo artist Paul Booth.

White Panther
Chasing a Star
One the common elements of the international cinema is the use of boxing to dramatize the struggle faced by minorities and immigrants seeking acceptance within a society that has little use for them, otherwise. The not so subtle message being transmitted is, “If you can make it the ring, you can make it anywhere,” no matter your race, religion or nationality. Maybe, maybe not. Likewise, White Panther is an Israeli movie about making it in the ring, as well as a society less united by race, religion and nationality than most Americans have been led to believe. In Danni Reisfeld’s debut film, Alex Zeitlin (Yevgeny Orlov) is just one of an estimated million Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. In the former Soviet Union, where following religious traditions was largely taboo, intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was a relatively common occurrence. If the newcomers expected to be accorded a red-carpet welcome upon their arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Even those non-Jewish fathers who volunteered for the military were shunned as outsiders – Alex’s KIA father was refused burial in a Jewish cemetery — and their children treated like third-class citizens reduced to living in rundown housing projects, surrounded by affluence and catering to tourists. Ironically, the immigrants were frequently scorned as atheists and troublemakers by the Sephardim, who historically have been looked down upon by the dominant Ashkenazi Jews.

These fissures explode intermittently during the course of the story, as gangs of Russian and Sephardi youths antagonize each other in the poorer sections of Tiberias. When Alex is arrested for participating in a brawl, he’s given the option of staying in jail or joining a fight club run by the cop, David, who arrested him. The religious Moroccan Jew takes Alex under his wing after learning that his late father was a champion boxer in Moscow, and “hero” of an IDF operation. This doesn’t sit well with David’s other boxers; his lovely daughter, Yasmin (Meytal Gal); or Alex’s hoodlum brother and his skinhead buddies. It sets the stage for melodrama of the most familiar sort: a still maturing young man finds himself torn between two father figures, until flaws of their own are revealed. “Bad seed” brother Yevgeny is destined for a life in prison for his self-loathing behavior, while the coach’s prejudice is revealed when Alex and Yasmin fall for each other and David’s prejudices are tested. While there’s nothing particularly unique in the boxing sequences, White Panther is enhanced by its Sea of Galili setting and views from hills that surround Tiberias. Boxing completists and viewers interested in Israeli themes should find a lot to like here.

Sports and gangsters figure, as well, in Avi Malka’s broadly farcical Chasing a Star (a.k.a., “Where Is Moshe Ivgy?”). In a plot that could have been inspired by Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, real-life Israeli movie star Moshe Ivgy (playing himself) is kidnaped by a disgruntled actor, Alex, whose agent appears to have forgotten he exists. If Alex can make Ivgy disappear for 24 hours, he might score a commercial intended for the more established actor. To accomplish this, he borrows a limousine from his chauffeur buddy and picks up Ivgy, who’s been slipped a mickey at party. Unfortunately, for Alex, the limousine is hijacked by a recently released ex-con who owes a pile of money to his old partners in crime –Russian, of course – and plans to split the country with his teenage lover. Sports enters the picture in the person of a talented forward for the police department’s women’s soccer team, who won’t participate in the championship game until Alex is safe and the limousine, with or without Ivgy, is located. Although Chasing a Star benefits from the fresh setting and attractive cast, the comedy probably won’t seem very new here.

Bolero/Ghosts Can’t Do It: Blu-ray
The name, Bo Derek, may not mean a lot to Americans born and raised in the Internet era, but, in the wake of her unforgettable appearance in Blake Edwards’ 10, she set the standard against which all great beauties would thereafter be measured. As the sexy newlywed Jenny Hanley, she rewarded Dudley Moore with a roll in the sack for rescuing her husband from drowning. Hanley may have defined what it meant be an “11 out of a possible 10,” but very few men disputed Bo’s claim to the title. She’s also famous for inspiring tens of thousands of white women of all shapes and sizes to embrace the ancient African art of cornrow braiding. Like her acting in movies produced with her husband, the modern-day Svengali John Derek, it was an unfortunate touchstone in the cultural zeitgeist of the Reagan era. Unlike the Kardashians and other reality-show bimbos, Bo Derek never held herself up as a paragon of beauty, acting or anything else, for that matter. Despite well-received appearances in 1981 and 1982 issues of Playboy, as well as several of the worst-reviewed movies of all time, the Dereks tended to keep to themselves, while pursuing their personal interests. For Bo, that included becoming an advocate for animal welfare legislation and support for organizations helping wounded veterans. While serving on the California Horse Racing Board, Bo’s also made guest appearances on several television shows and movies. Her husband, who also shaped the careers of sultry blond actresses Ursula Andress and Linda Evans, died in 1998.

If anything, the Shout! Factory Blu-ray double-feature, Bolero/Ghosts Can’t Do It, demonstrates how ill-equipped the photographer and former actor (All the King’s Men, The Ten Commandments), John Derek, was to direct his wife, or anyone else, in movies he’d also written. These titles contributed directly to Bo’s near-record haul of Razzy nominations and, in 2000, at the 20th Golden Raspberry Awards, for her being nominated as “Worst Actress of the Century,” alongside Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Berkley, Pia Zadora and eventual winner Madonna. Last year, she appeared in Syfy’s breathlessly awaited, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! Apart from some gorgeous scenery and much gratuitous nudity, Bolero owes far less to the soundtrack of 10 than it does to such Rudolph Valentino flicks as The Sheik, Blood and Sand and The Son of the Sheik. Blessedly, George Kennedy’s chauffeur is one of the few characters who manages to keep his clothes on. Ana Obregon, Olivia d’Abo and Mirta Miller more than compensate for that lapse.

Worse, perhaps, is Derek’s swan song as a writer/director, Ghosts Can’t Do It, which combines elements of Ghost and Heaven Can Wait. Here, Bo stars as a young widow determined to bring her elderly rancher husband (Anthony Quinn) back to life after he’s stricken with a debilitating heart attack and commits suicide. Julie Newmar is the angel who greets him on the way to his date with Saint Peter. She comforts Quinn while widow Bo travels to some of the most exotic corners of the Earth – the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, and Hong Kong — in her search for the perfect body to receive his reincarnated soul. The film was given a perfunctory release here, in 1990, but not before its VHS release overseas. Believe it or not, Donald Trump appears in an extended cameo as himself. Along with both Dereks, Newmar and Leo Damian, the future presidential candidate was nominated for a pair of Razzies, winning one for Worst Supporting Actor. Quinn dodged a bullet by being snubbed by the voters. Sadly, Ghosts Can’t Do It and Bolero don’t offer viewers any bonus features, although I’m sure Trump could have been convinced to do a commentary track, if asked.

The Image Revolution
In 1992, the world of comic-book heroes and villains was dominated by two companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics, just as it had been since the debuts of Superman, the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner in Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1. The Image Revolution recalls the upheaval caused by the departure of a group of illustrators and writers who had revitalized the industry by creating characters more in tune with Gen X readers. As has been the case in most businesses accustomed to maintaining extreme profit margins, Marvel executives refused to pay its most talented staff members what they believed they deserved for their contributions. Led by the outspoken Todd McFarlane (“Spawn”), the upstarts would form Image Comics and introduce a business model that would change the industry at a most propitious time. Among them were Rob Liefeld (“Deadpool”), Jim Lee (“X-Men”), Marc Silvestri (“Wolverine”), Erik Larsen (“Savage Dragon”), Whilce Portacio (“X-Factor”) and Jim Valentino (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). Harnessing such creative talent would prove no easier for Image than it had for Marvel and DC, however. The story is told through rare archival footage and new interviews with all seven founders, as well as industry insiders, comics historians and current Image Comics creators, including Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”).

TV-to-DVD
UpTV: Love Finds You in Charm
Hill Street Blues: The Final Season
The Wonder Years: Season Four
PBS: Reading Rainbow: Miss Nelson Is Back
How ya going to keep them Amish beauties down on the farm, once they’ve seen Charm, Ohio? That’s the musical question asked in UpTV’s original movie, Love Finds You in Charm, an extension of Summerside Press’ “Love Finds You” series of Christian-romance books. Although dozens of titles have been published, only Terry Cunningham’s Love Finds You in Charm and Love Finds You in Sugarcreek have been filmed. Love Finds You in Valentine is on tap for release next month on the Up TV cable network. Being made aware of that connection allowed me to make sense of the newly released DVD, which is set among Amish communities in Indiana and Ohio. The last Amish romance I can remember is Peter Weir’s Witness, in which Harrison Ford goes undercover to protect an Amish boy who’s the only witness to a murder in New York. While in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the newly bearded cop falls for a local widow (Kelly McGillis) and ruffles the feathers of a perspective husband played by the late Russian ballet star Alexander Godunov. (Thirty years later, McGillis would appear as a spinster aunt in “Sugarcreek.”) Frankly, I’m at a loss as to how true Amish and Mennonites feel about movies set in their communities. Absent electricity, it isn’t likely they’d have much opportunity to screen the finished products, in any case. In Love Finds You in Charm, a pretty Amish teenager, Emma (Danielle Chuchran), decides to expand her horizons by moving to her widowed cousin’s farm in Charm, where she’ll help her sell prize-winning produce to tourists. Eventually, Emma will have to decide whether she wants to live among the “Plain People” or ride around town in her friend’s red convertible and sell her hand-made cheese on the Food Network. Anyone who enjoys inspirational stories about Christian love and romance – as practiced by fundamentalists – should find “Charm” charming.

The latest release from Shout! Factory’s library of “Hill Street Blues” episodes represents the landmark show’s seventh and final season. In it, officer Patrick Flaherty (Robert Clohessy) and officer Tina Russo (Megan Gallagher) attempt to rekindle the intensity of the Bates-Coffey relationship of years past. Sgt. Stan Jablonski (Robert Prosky) was lowered to secondary status part way through this season, but it wasn’t until Daniel Travanti announced he would not return the next year that producers decided to pull the plug on the series. It was also moved to Tuesday nights, almost midway through the season, so as to clear the way for “L.A. Law” to inherit the catbird seat on NBC’s must-see Thursday nights.

In the fourth season of “The Wonder Years,” Kevin (Fred Savage) is entering his last year at Kennedy Junior High and feeling the effects of puberty more acutely than ever.  With Winnie (Danica McKellar) now attending a different school, he’s open to temptation in the form of Madeline (Julie Condra), a new girl in his French class. Later in the season, Winnie and Kevin will struggle to maintain their relationship, suffering heartbreak, denial and even injury in the tear-jerker episode, “The Accident.” At home, mother Norma (Alley Mills) takes a job at Kevin’s school; father Jack (Dan Lauria) gets a promotion that takes him on the road; elder brother Wayne (Jason Hervey) buys a car; and sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo) enters college, leaving her room up for grabs. In other firsts, Kevin gets a job as a caddy and tries to crash a 10th-grader’s slumber party (with beer). Again, the original music has been restored to newly released seasonal packages.

For more than 30 years, the PBS series “Reading Rainbow” has been bringing print stories to life. In “Miss Nelson Is Back,” hosted by LeVar Burton, we learn what happens when the teacher in Room 207 disappears for a week and the kids conspire to “really act up.” LeVar embarks on a treasure hunt, gets transformed by a makeup artist and attends a performance by Blackstone the Magician, before stumbling upon a surprise birthday party meant for him.

The DVD Wrapup: Sicario, Sleeping With Other People, Maneater, Cruel, Broad City and more

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Sicario: Blu-ray
In 2010, Gianfranco Rosi’s frightening interview with a real-life cartel assassin, El Sicario, Room 164, was awarded the top-documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival. Based on a Harper’s magazine article by Charles Bowden, El Sicario gave a hooded killer the opportunity to elaborate on how he came to work both sides of the law in Juarez, one of the most dangerous places on Earth to live.  Having recently experienced a religious catharsis, his confession effectively put a $250,000 price tag on his head. That the interview actually took place in one of the squalid motel rooms in which kidnap victims were interrogated and tortured only made the documentary that much more chilling. Anyone who’s watched El Sicario, Room 164 naturally would be suspicious of Denis Villeneuve’s ability to equal those spine-tingling recantations in the largely unrelated Sicario. An assassin’s handiwork can be observed in the opening scene, during which a FBI assault team led by Emily Blunt discovers the decaying bodies entombed behind a wall of a Tucson safehouse. Beyond that, however, Villeneuve (Incendies) and writer Taylor Sheridan are more interested in the wealthy Mexicans who pull the sicario’s strings.

Stripped to its narrative framework, Sicario is a powerfully rendered procedural that, while chronicling a strike against a cartel kingpin, forces viewers to endorse or decry the extralegal tactics used in the elimination of so-called narco-terrorists. In the same way that Osama Bin Laden was denied the luxury of a trial by a Navy SEAL hit squad, the target of the CIA-led commando unit in Sicario isn’t likely to require the services of a lawyer, either. Do we care? No more than we sweated the details of the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Villeneuve reserves those questions for Blunt’s ethically grounded FBI agent, Kate Macer. After leading the charge on the safehouse, Kate is assigned to a special inter-agency task force, based in El Paso. She’s never completely sure as to the role she’s supposed to play in the unit, but, by all appearances, it’s a real cowboy operation. Josh Brolin is the spook in charge, but, constantly at his side is a mysterious Colombian (Benicio Del Toro), who’s earned a reputation among drug traffickers as “Medellin.” When the CIA-led team crosses the border into Mexico to collect a prisoner from a Juarez jail, Kate is left to wonder how she’ll be able to square her participation with her superiors in Washington. Standing alongside the visibly larger and far more heavily armed commandoes, Kate senses that it has nothing to do with her tactical skills. After a shootout at the border, the prisoner is strongly encouraged by the Colombian to reveal everything he knows about the cartel’s methodology. As in any investigation of organized criminals, one clue leaked by an informer could leads to another, finally revealing the entire hill of beans.  Cutting corners through torture sometimes speeds the process.

Villeneuve has found the perfect vessel in Blunt, whose expressive eyes can’t disguise her distain either for the cartel or her unit’s tactics. He stacks the deck even further by putting her directly in harm’s way throughout Sicario, causing to wonder if Medellin is an agent of justice or a mercenary hired to settle an old score. The deceptively barren landscapes of northern Mexico and the American Southwest – as captured by perennial Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins – make the answers to her existential musings even more elusive. Neither does Villeneuve ignore the economic forces that drive poor Mexicans to risk their lives for the cartels, who profit from the insatiable appetite for illegal drugs by Americans undeterred by the body count along the shared border. Del Toro delivers an awards-quality performance as the presumptive sicario. Brolin, too, is excellent as the supercool American agent, who seemingly enjoys his job too much to listen to his conscience. The terrific Blu-ray presentation adds the featurettes, “Stepping Into Darkness: The Visual Design of Sicario,” which focuses on tone as much as actual cinematography; “Blunt, Brolin and Benicio: Portraying the Characters of Sicario,” features interviews with various cast and crew members; “A Pulse From the Desert: The Score of Sicario” profiles Jóhann Jóhannsson; and “Battle Zone: The Origins of Sicario,” with graphic evidence of cross-border horrors.

Sleeping With Other People
Somewhere between last year’s Sundance and a tentative limited release in September, Leslye Headland’s racy romcom, Sleeping With Other People, lost all of the wind that filled its sails going into the festival circuit. Its early reviews were largely positive, so the critics can’t be blamed for killing the buzz. That’s not unusual, though, as festival favorites cater to different audiences than the one necessary for commercial success. Sensing the change in momentum, distributors increasingly will redirect their resources toward the VOD, PPV and DVD marketplace. With its snappy dialogue and attractive young characters, Sleeping With Other People, reminded me of Ed Zwick’s Brat Pack adaptation of David Mamet’s 1974 play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” In an effort to capture the markedly different sexual zeitgeist of the me-decade, the producers of About Last Night decided to largely abandon Mamet’s rhythmic dialogue and episodic structure, in favor of narrative concessions more likely to appeal to mainstream yuppie audiences. It did well, considering its “R” rating, but fans of Mamet’s early theatrical works weren’t impressed. What About Last Night was able to capture, though, were characters, who, having tired with the dating grind, were willing to consider, at least, pairing up and settling down. The Reagan-era economic boom afforded them soft places to land if these relationships failed.

For a while, anyway, Sleeping With Other People offers similarly attractive characters and much bright and funny dialogue. Sadly, though, just as the narrative begins to get rolling behind the kooky sexual entanglements of the star-crossed Jake and Lainey (Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie), Headland turns down the heat. Instead of fueling the momentum behind their almost bromantic relationship, the story inexplicably takes a detour into the realm of sitcom clichés. The movie opens promisingly in 2002, when students Jake and Lainey get over their unearned sexual braggadocio long enough to take each other’s virginity on the roof of his dorm at Columbia. Love doesn’t have much to do with their encounter, so we aren’t surprised to learn that they haven’t seen each other in a dozen years. In an extreme example of unlikely coincidence, they bump into each other at a 12-step program for sex addicts. Instead of becoming lovers, again, though, Jake and Lainey become confidantes. Obviously, given the undeniable appeal of Sudeikis and Brie, such a limiting situation can’t be allowed to last very long. Naturally coquettish, Brie is especially fun to watch. Like Demi Moore in About Last Night, she easy conveys the heartbreak that comes with putting too much trust in a cad.

The Complete Lady Snowblood: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Memories of the Sword: Blu-ray
The House Where Evil Dwells/Ghost Warrior: Blu-ray
The most convenient reason for American fans of Japanese manga to seek out Criterion’s two-film collection, “The Complete Lady Snowblood,” is for its resemblance to Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill.” Lucy Liu’s half-breed assassin, O-Ren Ishii, is believed to have been inspired by Meiko Kaji’s interpretation of the brilliant swordswoman, Lady Snowblood, in Toshiya Fujita’s 1973 revenge thriller, Lady Snowblood, and its almost immediate sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance. Tarantino’s never felt it necessary to limit his inspirations to one or two sources, so O-Ren Ishii isn’t an exact match to Fujita’s Yuki Kashima. Still, the resemblance not only is uncanny, but also a very good excuse to invest in a rental or download. Kaji was a familiar presence in such Japanese genre pictures of the late-1960-70s as Stray Cat Rock, Female Convict Scorpion and Wandering Ginza Butterfly. She sings the theme songs to Lady Snowblood (“Shura no Hana”) and the Female Convict Scorpion series (“Urami Bushi”), both of which were used in Kill Bill. In the “Lady Snowblood” twin-bill, she plays the deceptively flower destined to avenge the deaths of her mother’s husband and son at the hands of four brutal bandits. After being sentenced to a life penalty for killing the bandit who raped and enslaved her, Yuki’s mother seduces a guard for the sole purpose of conceiving a child capable of exacting her vengeance on the three remaining bandits. The woman dies shortly after giving birth, but not before handing Yuki over to a stern priest anxious to begin her training in the martial arts. At 20, she’s fully prepared to carry out the responsibility inherited from the mother she never knew.

From this point on, Lady Snowblood offers almost non-stop action in the form of over-the-top swordplay and criminal chicanery. On the way to completing her mission, a reporter coins the nom de guerre Lady Snowblood – a play on the Japanese words for Snow White – ensuring mythic stature in the popular press. Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance picks up the story just as Yuki is about to be executed for her killing spree a year earlier. Instead, as she is sent to the gallows Yuki is rescued by Kikui Seishiro, head of the secret police, who offers her a deal to assassinate some revolutionaries and retrieve a crucial document. The plan backfires when Yuki begins to sympathize with her anarchist target, becoming a threat to the secret police and Imperialist government. The supplemental features include original trailers for the two films; new interviews with writer Kazuo Koike and screenwriter Norio Osada; and an illustrated leaflet with Howard Hampton’s essay “Flowers of Carnage.”

From Korea comes Memories of the Sword, another epic story of revenge in which a young swordswoman fulfills the destiny handed down to her by her parents. Set in the Goryeo era (sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries), Park Heung-Sik’s drama chronicles teenager Hong-yi’s (Kim Go-eun) quest to kill legendary fighters Sul-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) and Duk-gi (Lee Byung-hun), the two anti-imperial dissidents who murdered her father. It’s worth mentioning that Hong-yi’s hard-as-steel mother is blind. The handicap doesn’t prevent her from being a formidable warrior and an expert reader of the aroma of tea leaves. The story, which may actually be too complex for western audiences forced to rely on subtitles, benefits from some spectacular scenery, wild martial-arts action, dynamic swordplay and the fun that comes with watching another precious flower evolve into a stone killer.

The House Where Evil Dwells and Ghost Warrior put an American spin on a pair of Japanese genre standbys. Considering that both pictures probably were destined for drive-in purgatory here, I was surprised by how entertaining they remain three decades after their original release. When I say “entertaining,” however, I don’t want to imply that either film bears comparison to most newly imported Asian fare, just that they retain a certain campy charm. The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) offers early evidence that American filmmakers were aware of the appeal of Japanese ghost and haunted-house stories. In it, an American family newly transferred to Japan falls in love with a traditional home in which a terrible tragedy occurred a century earlier. The three participants in the ill-fated love triangle still inhabit the houses, but as ghostly specters intent on messing with any new tenant’s mind. Viewers of a certain age will appreciate the casting of Edward Albert (Galaxy of Terror), Susan George (Straw Dogs) and Doug McClure (Humanoids From the Deep), as well as the typically unsubtle direction of Kevin Connor (Motel Hell). For once, the doubly exposed ghosts look reasonably credible.

From 1984, Ghost Warrior (a.k.a., “Swordkill”) describes what happens when the intact body of a 400-year-old samurai warrior is found by skiers entombed in an ice cave. After being smuggled into the U.S., Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka) is miraculously revived through cryosurgery. If it weren’t for a hapless attempt to steal his 400-year-old sword, Yoshi might not have been able to escape the evil scientists’ lab and Ghost Warrior would have been far shorter than its current 81 minutes. Instead, Yoshi’s allowed to wander through L.A., in search of sushi bars, antique stores selling ancient armor and homeless people to rescue from street gangs. Ghost Warrior benefits from our memory of the discovery, seven years later, of the mummified body of Ötzi the Iceman, high in the snowfields that separate Austria and Italy. Instead of cryosurgery, though, Ötzi’s DNA could potentially be used in any re-animation experiment. The Charles Band production stars Janet Julian (King of New York).

Deathgasm: Blu-ray
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse: Blu-ray
if there were any two artistic pursuits that are made for each other, they’re heavy-metal music and zombie movies. Deathgasm, digital-effects specialist Jason Lei Howden’s first feature, combines both disciplines in a horror movie that’s so far over the top that it might not be considered appropriate viewing for anyone older than 18 or with an IQ score higher than, say, 80. It tells the story of the head-banging new kid in a high school dominated by jocks and cheerleaders. Just as water will always find its level, Brodie (Milo Cawthorne) has little trouble hooking up with the handful of like-minded dudes in school, as well as a Barbie look-alike who sees in the newbie an excuse to have her breasts and thighs tattooed. Naturally, these misfits form a band, while Medina (Kimberley Crossman) causes a rift between Brodie and her square boyfriend. Long story short, Brodie and his pal, Zakk (James Blake) stumble upon a mysterious piece of sheet music said to grant ultimate power to whoever plays it. The downside, however, is revealed when the music summons an ancient evil entity known as Aeloth, the Blind One, who threatens to destroy humanity as we know it. Once this force is unleashed, the only way to put the genie back in the bottle is to play the song backwards. Meanwhile, the gratuitous violence and zombie-inspired carnage perpetrated on the Auckland populace is, as they say, epic. The gore is so phony, it’s laughable. But, that’s sort of the point. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Howden, featurettes and the music video “Bulletbelt Deathgasm.”

Christopher Landon’s Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse should appeal to the same demographic as Deathgasm, if not fans of more sophisticated undead fare as Sean of the Dead and What We Do in the Shadows. In it, three young friends and fellow scouts — lower-case “s,” so as not to be confused with Boy Scouts of America — are enjoying a wilderness camping adventure when a zombie epidemic breaks out back home. When two of the boys’ boredom gets the better of them, they wind up in a gentleman’s club devoid of patrons, but rife with zombies. The one stripper who was powdering her nose when the zombie apocalypse erupted joins the scouts on their new mission to save the town. Of course, she does.

The Barefoot Artist
Watching Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub’s bittersweet documentary profile of artist-without-borders Lily Yeh, I couldn’t help but recall Mother Teresa’s selfless devotion to India’s poorest and most desperately ill citizens. I doubt that the Chinese-born artist, educator and humanitarian is destined for sainthood, as was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, but a statue or Kennedy Center Honor shouldn’t be out of the question. If the Eagles have earned one, why not an artist who brings joy and hope to the victims of war and poverty, without charging hundreds of dollars for her services? The Barefoot Artist takes its title from the organization Yeh founded to further her personal mission of using art to replicate the “village model” in devastated communities around the world. It began in 1986, when the professor of painting and art history at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts was asked by dancer Arthur Hall to create a park, mural and sculpture garden in the abandoned lot next to his studio in North Philly. The park, created, as well, from the hard work of neighborhood residents, was the beginning of the Village of Arts and Humanities project. After transforming more than 120 other lots into gardens and parks, it also began renovating vacant homes, creating art workshops, a youth theater and educational programs. In 2004, Yeh left the Village of Arts and Humanities to pursue other work internationally. It took her to Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, Ecuador, India, the Republic of Georgia and the Ivory Coast, where impoverished and war-weary citizens used scavenged material to create art that reflected both their bitter memories and newfound hope for the future. The Barefoot Artist also follows Yeh back to China, where her father’s long ignored “second family” was severely punished for his role in the civil war as a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Yeh’s intention was to make amends, but some wounds had yet to heal. As uplifting as most of the movie is, Yeh’s cathartic tracing of roots she didn’t know existed is almost too heart-breaking to bear.

The Gambler
Set in a Lithuania that doesn’t appear to have changed much since the last Soviet troops departed in August 1993, The Gambler offers as bleak a view of humanity as any movie made in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The national pastime still involves drinking to excess, then passing out, and the walls of the buildings don’t look as if they’ve gotten a fresh coat of paint since the Nazi occupation. When the film’s moody protagonist, Vincentas (Vytautas Kaniusonis), isn’t saving lives as the best emergency doctor in Vilnius, he’s pissing away his paycheck as a degenerate gambler. He owes a small fortune to a mobster who doesn’t care how many people Vincentas has pulled from the brink of death. To make up for the deficit, the doctor invents a game based on the old dead-pool principle. Instead of using celebrities, though, the doctors in his unit wager on the estimated day and time one of their very ill patients will die. In their downtime, they compare notes on the severity of the ailments in play and how unforeseen complications might impact the patients’ date with Saint Peter. Because the medical data is shared on a computer network, doctors and paramedics from all corners of Lithuania rush to join in the fun. The longer the patients stay alive, the greater the jackpots grow. The higher the prizes, the greater the potential for corruption and tinkering with God’s timetable. Things get even more complicated for Vincentas when he falls in love with a fellow medic, Ieva (Oona Mekas), a single mother with a seriously ill son. Because of this, Ieva is the only medic who refuses to participate in the game. Because her medical bills now rival Vincentas’ gambling debt, however, it’s only a matter of time before she’ll have to consider compromising her values. It’s at this point that the darkness of the Baltic soul takes hold, carrying the story with it. It’s an excellent story … just don’t expect any happy endings.

The Maneater
The French title of Natalie Saracco’s debut film, The Maneater, is “La mante religieuse,” or, “The Praying Mantis.” It could just as easily have been titled “Jezebel,” as that’s the wholly appropriate name of the incendiary protagonist, played to the hilt by Mylène Jampanoï. Because that title will forever be associated with Bette Davis and “The Praying Mantis” isn’t nearly as provocative as “La mante religieuse,” the American distributors probably figured that a Hall & Oates’ reference, combined with a sexy poster, could only help sales. Maybe … maybe, not. Unlike the titular insect, Jampanoi’s Jezabel doesn’t even bother to blend into the background as she pursues the handsome village priest who conducted the funeral mass for her father. Once their eyes meet, you instinctively know that Jezabel’s real target is Father David’s soul, not his heart … and vice versa. Throw in the jealousy felt by Jezabel’s très épicé lesbian lover and loyalty of Father Dave’s acolyte, and you have a pretty decent tug of war. Even if it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, The Maneater offers plenty of cheap thrills for Francophiles.

Cruel
French crime novelist Eric Cherrière makes a smooth transition from page to screen in his riveting directorial debut, Cruel. His protagonist, Pierre (Jean-Jacques Lelté), is the textbook example of a sociopathic serial killer. His personal issues can be traced to childhood musings about a distant future — most of them unfulfilled — repeated over home-movie footage taken of him frolicking on a pristine beach with his long-gone mother. Required to spend far too many of his waking hours taking care of his chair-bound father, who’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, Pierre only takes mind-numbing work in places he’s able to blend completely into the woodwork. It’s difficult to say what triggers his worst impulses, but they seem to involve separating his victims from what they cherish most. He studies his prey before pouncing, then locks them in the same basement cell in which his father once hid Jews from the Gestapo. Why Pierre tortures the helpless old man with his darkest thoughts also is open to the viewer’s conjecture. What’s more important is knowing that he’s a terribly efficient killer, who finally decides to help hapless police investigators connect the dots on his victims. It isn’t until Pierre is introduced to a lovely musician, Laure (Magali Moreau), that he’s given a viable alternative to killing and maintaining his anonymity. Of course, it also gives us cause to fear for her well-being. Cherrière’s pacing is such that we’re able to understand a bit more of what’s meant by “the banality of evil.” In the right hands, Cruel probably could be translated into a decent English-language thriller, but only if the temptation to cast a well-known actor is avoided.

Captive: Blu-ray
TV One: Stock Option
UPTV: Lyfe’s Journey
Valley Inn
This week’s selection of faith-based DVDs includes three films of special, but certainly not exclusive interest to African-American audiences. The best, Captive, combines true-crime drama with a story of redemption inspired indirectly from Pastor Rick Warren’s inspirational best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” Clearly a product of a bargain-basement budget, Jerry Jameson’s hostage thriller benefits hugely from lead performances by David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, who probably agreed to take a substantial cut in pay as a favor to the producers. Brian Bird’s screenplay was adapted from Ashley Smith’s recollections of her harrowing experiences on March 12, 2005. In a bizarre confluence of desperate circumstances, Smith was abducted and held hostage by Brian Nichols, who was on trial for rape when he escaped from custody and murdered the judge presiding over his trial, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy and later a federal agent. Already a captive to drugs, Smith was able to talk Nichols out of continuing his bloody day-long spree, in part by sharing passages from Warren’s books. In the movie, at least, she has just been given a copy of the book by her aunt (Mimi Rogers), who’s looking after Smith’s young daughter while she’s in the process of kicking her addiction. Blessedly, the proselytizing takes a distant backseat to the drama inherent in two people looking directly into the face of death. Given the popularity of Warren and Smith’s appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, I’m surprised that Captive didn’t draw numbers in line with War Room and other faith-based fare. It adds several making-of and background featurettes.

In Stock Option, an out-of-work and homeless stockbroker (Amin Joseph) catches a break when he rescues a model (Antonique Smith) from being raped by a hoodlum lurking in the alley next to her studio. In an unlikely act of gratitude and Christian charity, Alina invites Marv – short for Marvelous, no less — home for a shower, meal and change of clothes. Not surprisingly, a little TLC does a world of good for the strikingly handsome young man, who also turns out to be a glib conversationalist. Before long, he volunteers to help Alina complete some household chores, for which he enlists other homeless buddies. Her sudden interest in the down-and-out stockbroker doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, of course, who’s in a far less charitable state of mind. Marv will be required to clear several other hurdles before redeeming himself in the eyes of Alina’s family and friends he disappointed on his way to the bottom.

Although both movies debuted on different cable channels, Lyfe’s Journey is a product of the same Atlanta-based production company, Swirl Films. The company bills itself as America’s “number one urban film production company,” with over 40 original titles in the past 6 years. With a seemingly insatiable audience for original programming on niche cable outlets, it’s no wonder that evergreen dramatic conceits are recycled on a regular basis. The same strategy worked for Lifetime, after all. Here, family man David Lyfe (Keith Robinson) unexpectedly loses his lucrative job as a banking executive when the company falls into dire financial straits. It couldn’t come at a worse time for the father of a little girl and another in the oven. Despite solid references, Lyfe isn’t able to find another job. One night, he makes the mistake of commiserating over drinks with a suspiciously sympathetic young woman. The next thing he knows, his wife has thrown him out of the house. Desperate for a helping hand, he connects with a preacher who specializes in patching the broken souls of folks willing to contribute to their personal redemption. Besides paint-by-numbers scripts, both movies share attractive casts and protagonists we want to see succeed.

Valley Inn may be targeted at a different audience, but it shares the same Christian foundation as other faith-based films. If it also includes a subtle anti-capitalist subtext, then, so be it. Super-cute ingénue Jordan Scott plays a New Jersey college student, Emily, who accepts a summer job selling Christian books door-to-door in rural northwest Arkansas. Despite its location at the buckle of the bible belt, the territory proves to be less than fertile for book peddlers, especially those hawking tales already familiar to local residents. Expecting to be greeted with suspicion by stereotypical hillbillies, Emily finds herself surrounded by a surprisingly colorful and supportive collection of potentially new friends. The problem, of course, comes in knowing that the company for whom she toils expects sales and Emily isn’t anxious to force books on people with greater needs. Everything in Kim and Chris Spencer’s slight, if easy-on-the-eyes rom/dram/com leads to the region’s biggest event of the year, the Rodeo of the Ozarks. It’s here that Emily is given the opportunity to demonstrate just how much she’s grown over the course of a summer.

TV-to-DVD
Starz: Flesh and Bone: Blu-ray
Comedy Central: Broad City: Season 2
PBS: Nova: Cyberwar Threat/Inside Einstein’s Mind
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Vampire Legend
PBS: American Experience: American Commandante
PBS Kids: Wild Kratts: Australian Adventures
The world of ballet may seem an unnatural setting for a premium-cable mini-series, but the folks at Starz have proven themselves to be remarkably adept at turning atypical subjects into captivating entertainments. In a remarkably short time, such shows as “The Missing,” “Black Sails,” “Da Vinci’s Demons,” “Spartacus,” “Boss,” “The Pillars of the Earth,” “Magic City,” “Outlander,” “Camelot” and “Crash” have attracted viewers to what once was considered to be a minor-league operation. Among the things the mini-series share, to one degree or another, are attractive stars, interesting locations, nudity, contentious situations and provocative dialogue. Did I mention nudity? “Flesh and Bone” doesn’t skimp in any of these categories, especially what some might consider to be gratuitous sex. (Not me, of course.) The artistic milieu also allows for some not-so-usual homosexual liaisons and post-coital extortion. The intrigue begins when Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay) flees her Pittsburgh home, for reasons that won’t become apparent for several episodes to come. No sooner does Claire arrive in New York than she impresses the socks off of the imperious creative director of a prestigious ballet company. Naturally, this spurs an outbreak of jealousy and suspicions among the other dancers. Adding to her other problems is the appearance of a potentially dangerous specter from her past. Loyal fans of premium-cable miniseries won’t be at all surprised to learn that the artistry of classical ballet isn’t the only dance discipline likely to be exploited. Claire also is drawn to a local gentleman’s club – run by a Russian gangster – where she excels in contemporary lap dancing and stripper-pole gymnastics. As goofy it sounds, “Flesh and Bone” could hardly be more compelling. This ballet on display isn’t bad, either.

If Beavis and Butt-Head died and were reincarnated into a pair of twentysomething Jewish women, both single and living in New York City, their show might look a lot like Comedy Central’s hilarious sendup of contemporary hipster mores, “Broad City.” (And, yes, it matters that they’re Jewish.) The show is an extension of improv specialists Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s web-series, which found an angel in Amy Poehler. Their characters, Ilana and Abbi, spend most of their time avoiding hard work and anything resembling mainstream culture. They smoke dope and drink wine to excess and, when high, enjoy experimenting with makeup and sex toys. Their closest friends and acquaintances are only slightly less extreme examples of themselves and, perhaps, archetypal characters introduced in “Seinfeld” and “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” They might be completely foreign to viewers outside New York and other urban centers, but Ilana and Abbi probably aren’t much different than your average Starbucks barista or Whole Foods clerk. Among the weekly pleasures in Season Two are surprise guest spots by such familiar faces as Kelly Ripa, Janeane Garofalo, Seth Rogan, Kumail Nanjiani, Susie Essman, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Kimiko Glenn, Alia Shawkat and Patricia Clarkson. The set includes 10 episodes, deleted scenes, pop-ups and extended skits. The show has been renewed for a third season, beginning next month.

This week’s selections from PBS include a pair of “Nova” episodes, one of which might leaving you staring at your computer in fear, while the other could leave you gasping at the brilliance of a theoretical physicist easily confused with Harpo Marx. “Cyberwar Threat” is informed by documents released by Edward Snowden and stolen from Sony Pictures – as well as the “stuxnet” attack on an Iranian computer network — as stepping stones to a frightening discussion of the potential for disaster at the hands of computer hackers. Their anonymity and elusiveness only adds to the intrigue. “Inside Einstein’s Mind” retraces Albert Einstein’s early “thought experiments,” which led to an understanding of gravity and the theory of general relativity. I tried to understand the simplified explanations, but left as clueless as ever.

In the “Secrets of the Dead” episode “Vampire Legend,” Oxford professor John Blair uses forensics sciences to demonstrate how the vampire legend popularized by Bram Stoker in “Dracula” might actually have originated in England, not Eastern Europe. Evidence discovered in recently unearthed graveyards suggests a common belief that the dead could rise and terrorize the living. Beheaded skeletons found among intact remains have inspired a reexamination of the modern vampire mythos.

 

In the “American Experience” offering, “American Commandante,” we’re introduced to a renegade American soldier and fighter for other people’s freedom, who, had he not actually existed, could have emerged from a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The full story of Cleveland native William Alexander Morgan remains shrouded in mystery, but what is known describes a man who completely reinvented himself, trading a reputation as a military washout and mob flunky, for a larger-than-life hero in Cuba’s revolution and Fidel Castro’s subsequent betrayal of democracy. Oh, yeah, he might also have served J. Edgar Hoover as a counter-revolutionary.

PBS Kids’ “Wild Kratts: Australian Adventures” takes the Kratts’ crew Down Under, where they will test their wiles against harsh conditions of the vast Outback desert and endangered Eucalyptus forest. The episodes include “Koala Balloon,” in which Martin and Chris help a young koala stranded in the Outback get back to his natural habitat; “Kickin’ It With the Roos,” in which they meet up with a mob of pugilistic kangaroos and get their car keys stolen by a mischievous joey; and “Platypus Café,” during which the brothers are required to save the eggs of a platypus from ending up on the breakfast menu of a wicked chef.

Steam Room Stories: Volumes 1, 2 & 3
One of the things that distinguish web-based series from mainstream television is their ability to appeal directly to niche audiences. Neither are they limited to any one length or timeslot. This isn’t to imply that their appeal is limited to a specific audience, however. While “Steam Room Stories” scored a direct hit with its intended demographic: young gay men, who spend as much time on their appearance as they do on anything else. This 248-minute collection is comprised of 99 episodes of the series, in which a small handful of attractive guys, clad only in towels, exchange observations that are alternately witty, catty, bitchy and perceptive, about all sorts of things. The skits are consistently funny and observant.

IndiePix Mix 10 II
The second grab-bag collection of previously released DVDs from IndiePix – 918 minutes’ worth of provocative entertainment for just under $80 – once again is a tantalizing mix of drama, comedy and documentaries. It includes the 2009 Sundance Grand Jury-winning documentary, We Live in Public, which documents the loss of privacy in the Internet age; Bhopali, about the world’s worst industrial disaster; Disarmed, on the continuing threat from antipersonnel mines deployed in wars long past; White Shadow, Noaz Deshe’s horrifying drama about the plight of Tanzanian albinos; That Girl In Yellow Boots, a voyeuristic drama set against the sprawling chaos of Mumbai; Soldate Jean, a deadpan Austrian comedy from Daniel Hoesel; Road to the Big Leagues, on baseball in the Dominican Republic; Satellite, a romantic fable about a young couple who give up everything to find something better; and So Bright Is the View, an offbeat story about a Romanian woman seeking a job in Atlanta that probably doesn’t exist.

The DVD Wrapup: War Room, Nasty Baby, Queen of Earth, Leonard Cohen and more

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

War Room: Blu-ray
When it comes to faith-based movies and box-office obsessives, the old bromide applies, “They may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, you can’t argue with success.” Even more simply put, “Numbers don’t lie.” After Alex Kendrick and co/writer Stephen Kendrick’s War Room dueled Straight Outta Compton for Labor Day audiences, pundits trotted out all of the same explanations that have applied to movies targeted at evangelical Christian audiences since Mel Gibson’s staggering success with The Passion of the Christ. The marketing campaigns are practically invisible, by Hollywood standards, anyway, and they are usually superseded by word-of-mouth campaigns advanced through church groups. I don’t pay enough attention to Christian broadcasting networks to know if the stars of such movies as God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real pimp their products in the same way as mainstream actors required to do on late-night talk shows with Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien. Something’s working, though. The last four movies produced by the Kendrick brothers have grossed $146 million in their worldwide theatrical runs, against a total production budget of $5.6 million. Heaven Is for Real, which also was distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, grossed $101 million against $12 million. The ratio for God’s Not Dead, from niche Pure Flix Productions, was $63.8 million/$2 million. Those numbers don’t take into account any ancillary markets, either. Strictly from my point of view, I’ve seen a marked qualitative evolution in the entertainment product, itself. One reason for that is a shift away from the imperative that all faith-based content be family friendly. A very good movie, Ragamuffin, broke all sorts of new ground by fully documenting the struggles that led to singer/songwriter Rich Mullins (Michael Koch) becoming, with the assistance of Christian singing star Amy Grant (Amy Schultz), one of the largest-selling acts in the biz as a singer and songwriter for other artists. Just as success didn’t come easy to Mullins, neutralizing his demons long enough to record and tour would be a constant battle. As such, his story wasn’t all that different from dozens of others told about rock, country and jazz musicians. Indeed, it’s why so many listeners related to his message. By refusing to fudge history in pursuit of a PG rating, Ragamuffin was able to honestly depict one man’s Christian journey and inspire viewers who may have come to his songs only after his death in an automobile accident in 1997.

By comparison, War Room is a Sunday-school lesson on film. It stresses the core belief that all good things are derived from prayer and Satan is lurking in the shadows waiting to claim the soul of anyone who doesn’t bow down before God and ask his permission to cross the street. In the Kendrick’s uplifting drama, such beliefs are imparted on a troubled African-American wife and mother, whose husband (T.C. Stallings) is a philanderer, crook and liar. In the course of attempting to sell the house of an elderly woman, real-estate agent Elizabeth Jordan (Priscilla C. Shirer) is shown the nearly empty closet to which Aunt Clara (Karen Abercrombie) retreats whenever she feels the need to go to war against the devil. Sensing Elizabeth’s anxiety over her husband’s behavior, which is only getting worse, Aunt Clara suggests she establish a war room and a battle plan of prayer for her family. This would, however, involve forgiving her husband and taking him back whenever he’s ready to start behaving. If Elizabeth’s prayers aren’t heard, well, she obviously isn’t praying hard enough. Aunt Clara is the kind of old-school bible-banger who praises Jesus every time something positive, however insignificant, happens in her daily routine. If she had served her country as a chaplain in the army – as did her long-dead husband — it’s possible that wars could be prevented before anyone got hurt. If only that were true. The question remains, however, if God failed to hear the prayers of the millions of men and women whose spouses were sent to war over the course of the last 2,000 years, why would he listen to the wife of a jerk who doesn’t deserve her? Yes, I know, He works in mysterious ways. Screenwriters favor the magic-wand approach. There’s no reason to think that the makers of War Room are being insincere in their simplistic approach to prayerful problem-solving, because the Kendricks’ body of work suggests otherwise. Neither would I surmise that $67.8 million in box-office receipts some kind of mirage. What it all really boils down to is, “It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but, you can’t argue with success.” The Blu-ray adds commentary with Alex and Stephen Kendrick; several deleted scenes;   bloopers and outtakes; “‘War Room’ in 60 Seconds,” a condensed version of the story with special scenes filmed just for this extra; “The Heart of War Room,” a closer look at the film’s central message: the power and importance of prayer; the music video, “Warrior,” by Steven Curtis Chapman;  and a half-dozen other related featurettes.

Nasty Baby
No “Saturday Night Live” alumnus as taken as many risks with their career as Kristen Wiig. After scoring a direct hit in her first starring and co-writing role with Bridesmaids, she probably could have skated along for a good long while, appearing in silly character-based comedies, alongside other “SNL” veterans, or providing voices for animated features. Instead, Wiig’s kept busy honing her improvisational skills in various sketch-comedy shows and lending her considerable talents and good name to such edgy indies as Friends With Kids, Revenge for Jolly!, Girl Most Likely, Hateship Loveship, The Skeleton Twins, Welcome to Me and The Diary of a Teenage Girl. If you haven’t heard of any of these titles, it’s not for lack of trying on Wiig’s part. She’s gives them her all and isn’t reluctant to appear on talk shows promoting them. In Shira Piven’s thoroughly offbeat Welcome to Me, Wiig left nothing to the imagination in her portrayal of a bipolar woman who decides to stop taking her meds after winning the Mega-Millions lottery. She uses the money to finance her own talk show on cable television, basically to talk about herself, some fairly unappetizing recipes and masturbation. If anyone had gone to see it, Wiig might have gotten a Spirit Award nomination, at least.

Even fewer people saw Sebastián Silva’s challenging adult comedy, Nasty Baby, in which Wiig plays Polly, a Brooklyn woman who wants to create the “new normal” family with her closest friends, a gay couple, Freddy (Silva) and Mo (Tunde Adebimpe). It appears as if Freddy’s primary interest in fathering a child is to use it as a metaphorical prop in his film about the infantilism of modern men and women. When his sperm proves insufficient for the task of procreation, they turn to Mo, who’s much less enthusiastic about the prospect of being used a stud by his best friends and lover. He eventually warms to the idea, but not before exploring the idea with his mainstream African-American family, which is still getting over the reality of him being gay. The 36-year-old Chilean filmmaker has already made a name for himself in arthouse circles with The Maid, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Magic Magic. His first U.S.-set production is as much a riff on films about contemporary gay couples as it is a commentary about life in a newly gentrified neighborhood in New York. Polly’s neighbors run the gamut from artists and yuppies, to schizophrenic street people and cranky agitators. They all will figure into the equation sooner or later. Despite excellent performances all around, Nasty Baby’s appeal is limited to festival audiences and those who believe New York is the center of the universe. It’s emphatically not for viewers whose familiarity with Wiig begins with”SNL” and ends with Bridesmaids or, even, her key supporting role The Martian.

Queen of Earth
Like Kristen Wiig, Elisabeth Moss has resisted the temptation to be pigeonholed into roles that would remind “Mad Men” fans of the upwardly mobile doormat, Peggy Olson. Before landing a key role in current Oscar hopeful, Truth, Moss played prominent roles in a series of independent dramas that received excellent reviews but struggled for exposure. Her most prominent performance to date has come in Jane Campion’s New Zealand-set mini-series, “Top of the Lake,” in which she plays a dogged, if seemingly overmatched cop assigned to investigate a murder involving a Manson-like thug and his harem of brain-washed women. Shown here on Sundance Channel, it easily qualifies for binge viewing on VOD or DVD. In Queen of Earth, Moss portrays Catherine, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After the recent death of her father, a famous artist, and being dumped by her boyfriend, Catherine accepts an invitation from her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) to recuperate at her lake house. Although her memories of the house include images of happy times spent with her then-boyfriend, Catherine anticipates spending quality time with Virginia. While it’s possible to anticipate the close friends partaking in some sexual healing, what happens next is far more disturbing. Instead of devoting her time to Catherine, Ginny picks up a local stray, Rich (Patrick Fugit), who delights in picking the aspiring artist’s emotional scabs. Catherine piles on with some pent-up aggression of her own. For a while, Catherine is able to hold her own in the increasingly nasty verbal exchanges. Moss’ facial expressions provide all the evidence we need to determine precisely when Catherine reaches her breaking point. Alex Ross Perry’s Bergman-esque approach to his story benefits from the pastoral setting, and he’d already established a rapport with Moss in Listen Up Philip. Waterston’s icy take on the back-stabbing BFF is spot-on, as well. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Sand Dollars
I doubt very much if any candidate for this year’s Best Actress Oscar has delivered a performance nearly as risky, nuanced and well as Geraldine Chaplin does in Sand Dollars. At 71, Chaplain bares her body and soul in ways most American actors her age probably would refuse out of hand, if they were offered such parts in the first place. As much as I would love to see Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep or Glenn Close appear in a drama about the sexual exploitation of Third World men by North American women well beyond a certain age – and the price paid by them for a week’s worth of illicit pleasure – if there wasn’t a place in it for Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, it wouldn’t get made. Unlike Laurent Cantet’s steamy 2005 drama, Heading South, Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Sand Dollars doesn’t specifically address the many questions surrounding sexual tourism, as practiced by northern snowbirds of the female persuasion. (For that matter, how many dramas about male-oriented sexual tourism in Holland and Thailand have the studios attempted?) In Heading South, the ever-fearless Charlotte Rampling played Ellen, a French-lit professor from Boston, whose itinerary included sand, sun, clubbing, perhaps, sampling the local talent. For a fistful of Yankee dollars, these very young men allow themselves to be courted and won, for as many as seven days and six nights. The more gullible among them even believe their temporary lovers might want to continue seeing them if they can find a boat strong enough to make it to Miami. Ellen’s idyll sours after one of sexually exploited young men demands to be treated with the same respect as any other island entrepreneur.

Sand Dollars takes place not far from the Haitian beach upon which Rampling lounged, in the popular Dominican Republic resort town of Las Terrenas. Chaplin’s seemingly wealthy French character, Anne, may no longer qualify as being a woman of a certain age, but it hasn’t stopped her from entering into a financial understanding with a fragrant island flower 50 years her junior. So far, it’s lasted three years. For her part, Noeli (Yanet Mojica) is working a long con on Anne, by passing her boyfriend, Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio) off as her brother. The problem comes when Noeli is impregnated by the impatient Yeremi and realizes that it will prevent her from accepting Anne’s invitation to come with her to Paris and be spoiled rotten on a more permanent basis. Viewers may see the danger in such thinking, but what could be better than breaking away from the cycle of poverty that enslaves so many young women on this largely Roman Catholic island. In the short time Anne has left in the D.R., Noeli’s indecision and Yeremi’s machismo combine to push her last nerve. It’s to the credit of the husband/wife filmmaking team that we’re allowed to see both sides of the coin simultaneously and take sides based on the evidence on display. Adding greatly to our enjoyment of Sand Dollars is the native bachata music of Ramon Cordero and Edilio Paredes, who can make audiences dance through their tears. The DVD adds a making-of featurette, interviews, deleted scenes and a short film.

Keith Richards: In His Own Words
Leonard Cohen: Triumvirate
Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise
Jaco: The Film: Blu-Ray
Hawaiian Rainbow/Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture
No one embodies the rock ’n’ roll persona than Rolling Stones’ guitarist and co-founder Keith Richards. The fact that he’s still alive and kickin’ it at 72 has inspired tens of thousands of his fans to believe they’re also immortal. You can hate everything the Stones have recorded in the last 40 years and still love Richards, if only because, in 2006, while in Fiji, he was seriously injured while climbing a coconut tree, actually snorted the ashes of his cremated father and that he’s reprising his performances in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in the 2017 sequel Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. After Johnny Depp admitted to infusing his character with Richards’ mannerisms, he agreed to play the continuing character Captain Teague, the father of Captain Jack Sparrow. I.V. Media’s makeshift bio-doc Keith Richards: In His Own Words effectively serves as an unauthorized supplement to his best-selling and critically lauded 2011 autobiography, “Life.” The DVD includes almost two hours of previously filmed interviews with the guitarist/singer/songwriter, a couple of which were staged during the publicity tour for the book. As such, much of the material is repetitive. Even so, it’s fun listening to Richards from different periods in his career, including about hiatus projects apart from the Stones. In one, a very pretty Italian reporter actively flirts with him, basically handing him the keys to her hotel room after the interview concludes. I may be wrong, but it seems as if he couldn’t get away from her fast enough … maybe because Patti, his wife of 32 years, was lurking somewhere in the background.

If there were a competition for the coolest man in rock ’n’ roll, Leonard Cohen would either be a close runner-up to Richards or first in the singer/songwriter division. From Collector’s Forum comes the three-disc Leonard Cohen: Triumvirate, which includes the previously released Leonard Cohen: Under Review: 1934-1977, Leonard Cohen: Under Review: 1978-2006 and Leonard Cohen: The Mind of a Poet, a new compilation of vintage interviews and events. The analysis that accompanies the musical clips in the first two discs are extremely well-reasoned and informative. The career-spanning interviews package is marked by Cohen’s sense of humor and intellect, as well as visits to the Zen Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy and other locations. (If anything, European audiences are more reverential than their North American counterparts.) This would make a terrific gift for anyone who’s fallen in love with Cohen’s music and poetry. Here, too, a toothy blond Scandinavian reporter cautiously passes along the question her co-workers urgently believe needs to be asked: Will you sleep with me? His enigmatic answer suggests he might have taken the bait, if he weren’t on his monkish best behavior.

Neither was the delightfully eccentric jazz composer, musician, band leader and mystic Sun Ra lacking in the coolness department. Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise does a nice job showcasing the improvisational master’s musical range on the piano and the “cosmic jazz” that shocked and challenged jazz audiences for more than four decades. Listen close enough and you’ll hear references to Count Basie. Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor, alongside those to Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schoenberg and Shostakovich. He was an early pioneer in the free-jazz movement of the 1950-60s, introducing synthesizers and electric keyboards to the mix. Holding him back, however, was a penchant for pthurple robes, pointed hats and philosophies that go back to ancient-traveler myths and the pyramids. It’s fun, but only for a while. My favorite chapter features Sun Ra exploring his deepest roots in a selection informed by several different blues stylings, but it’s the wild presentations of the Arkestra that we recall most fondly. Robert Mugge spent two years shooting Sun Ra and the Arkestra in a wide variety of locales, among them Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom, Danny’s Hollywood Palace in Philadelphia, and on the roof of Philadelphia’s International House on the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Sun Ra’s poetry and mythological pronouncements were filmed in the Egyptian Room of the University of Pennsylvania’s anthropology museum, in a sculpture garden in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., and inside and outside of the house he shared with key band members in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Songs performed in the film include such Sun Ra classics as “Astro Black,” “Mister Mystery,” “We Travel the Spaceways,” “Along Came Ra/The Living Myth,” “Spaceship Earth (Destination Unknown)” and “Requiem for Trevor Johnson.” The DVD includes extended audio versions of the songs.

How many homeless people have been accorded the honor of having the park they once inhabited named after them? Not many, I’ll bet. On the date that would have marked his 56th birthday, December 1, 2008, Jaco Pastorius Park was dedicated in Broward County, Florida. It’s where the bassist extraordinaire spent the nights leading to his untimely death on September 21, 1987, at 35. Wracked by bipolar disorder, Pastorius had 10 days earlier substituted alcohol for his meds and began kicking in the door of a local nightclub. The beating inflicted on him by the club’s bouncer would cause the massive brain hemorrhage that led to his death. Blessedly, Paul Marchand and Stephen Kijak’s heart-breaking Jaco: The Film saves the sad stuff for the end, after exploring his extraordinary contributions to jazz, rock, Afro-Cuban and other musical disciplines. Among other things, Pastorius radically changed the way musicians and audiences perceived the contributions of the electronic bass to a band or orchestra. By pulling out the frets with a needle-nose pliers, he discovered a way to make the bass perform like a cello and add a harmonic voice to the ensemble. Almost immediately after his death, he was inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame, joining only six other bassists: Jimmy Blanton, Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden and Milt Hinton. In 2008, Fender also released the Jaco Pastorius Jazz Bass, a fretless instrument in its Artist Series. Besides some amazing musical performances, Jaco: The Film features revelatory interviews with such artists as Flea, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Wayne Shorter, Mike Stern, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Geddy Lee, as well as friends, family member and industry executives. A second disc adds another 100 minutes’ worth of outtakes, anecdotes and stories, in addition to special footage used during the historic Jaco’s World Tribute Show 2015 at the Hollywood Bowl. True-blue fans will notice some missing associations with other prominent artists, but what’s here is pretty compelling stuff.

The evidence on IMDB.com suggests that no documentary maker has stuck his camera into as many musical corners as Robert Mugge. In addition to the aforementioned Sun Ra documentary, this week’s mailbag included the combined screener, Hawaiian Rainbow/Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture. Released back-to-back in 1988-89, the films introduced traditional Hawaiian music, dance, myths and culture to mainlanders whose concept of greater-Polynesian culture is limited to poi, pig roasts and lei greetings at the airport. In fact, the musical heritage is extremely rich and its roots stretch from Portugal and Spain, to Honolulu and back to Nashville. Inspired by what he encountered during his first visit to Hawaii in 1986, Mugge joined forces with Dr. Neil Abercrombie, University of Hawaii ethnomusicologists Dr. Ricardo D. Trimillos and Jay W. Junker, educator Vicky Holt Takamine and Honolulu Academy of Arts film programmer Ann Brandman to produce an 85-minute documentary on Hawaiian music shot largely on the Island of Oahu. Then, with the help of Cove Enterprises executives Roy Tokujo and Ronald Letterman, a second 85-minute documentary on Hawaiian dance was shot on all six of the primary Hawaiian Islands. In both cases, Abercrombie was able to convince his former colleagues in the state legislature to fund the films because of their educational and promotional value for the state. And, the narrative frequently sounds far too distant and bland, by comparison to the music and dance. Hawaiian Rainbow focuses on Hawaii’s traditional chants, percussion, ukulele, slack-key and steel guitar, male and female falsetto, and lush vocal harmonies. Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture examines the art of the hula and Hawaiian dance traditions going back to 500 AD, when Polynesians first arrived in the islands. Takamine and other respected kumu hula – master educators and trustees of ancient knowledge — reveal how traditions have survived, despite attempts by 19th Century missionaries, plantation owners and the U.S. Marine Corps to repress Hawaii’s indigenous culture. Both films were transferred to HD video from their original 16mm and stereo audio masters and lovingly restored.

Jenny’s Wedding
Although same-sex marriages have only been recognized by legal authorities for a couple of years, gender-neutral co-habitation within the LGBT community predated it by several decades. Watching Mary Agnes Donoghue’s strangely old-fashioned pro-tolerance rom-dram Jenny’s Wedding, I was left with the same feelings I had after enduring Hollywood’s first tentative steps toward recognition of interracial marriage, gay rights and women’s liberation. In an effort to offend the least number of viewers, studio executive essentially rendered their own products irrelevant to huge numbers of more enlightened audiences. If members of the Fox News demographic cared to see a primer on gay marriage and the misconceptions forwarded by their pinhead pundits, Jenny’s Wedding would be that movie. They probably wouldn’t dig the ending, but, at least, they could leave the theater knowing some of the archetypal characters here aren’t beyond redemption. After years of living together, Jenny (Katherine Heigl) and Kitty (Alexis Bledel) have decided to get married. They make an extremely cute couple, by anyone’s standards, have good jobs and probably haven’t received a speeding ticket since their Sweet 16 parties. Somehow, Jenny’s outwardly liberal parents (Tom Wilkinson, Linda Emond) have missed all of the signs that point to their daughter being a lesbian. They still can’t figure out why she isn’t interested in the men she’s introduced to by her happily married brother or why she hasn’t shown much interest in having children, like her unhappily married sister. No sooner do Jenny and Kitty break the news of the impending nuptials and hoped-for pregnancy to the family than Jenny’s parents and sister declare that they’ll take a pass on the ceremony, no matter that it’s going to take place in a church. The rest of the movie concerns itself with finding ways to make mom, dad and sis feel guilty about their decision and stopping them from treating Jenny – Katherine Heigl, for God’s sake – like a freak. No matter how Donoghue spins it, though. the process holds no surprises for anyone who watches ABC’s “Modern Family.”

Bread and Circus
Axe/Kidnapped Coed: Blu-ray
Nightmares: Blu-ray
The Life of Death
Every so often, a genre picture from Scandinavia comes this way and typically it’s a doozy. It’s taken a dozen years for Blood and Circus to make the journey from Norway to the U.S. and, in all that time, it hasn’t lost any of its ability to gross out viewers. In a kingdom where non-conformists are hunted and killed, a man is born as a child to Mother Earth … literally. After his afterbirth is cleaned off, the Normal One is examined and allowed to enter the system. When NO gets old and useless, he’s scheduled for execution. Before that can happen, though, he carves a message on a stone for future generations to consider before they’re given business suits, marching orders and expelled through Earth’s anus. Outlaws lead a zombie-like existence, always wary of the shotgun blast to the brain that will wipe them out, too. A couple that finds the message attempts to put an end to the oppressive system. The rest is splatter. Blood and Circus should satisfy genre extremists’ lust for gore while repulsing everyone else.

From Severin Films comes a truly curious novelty. The Axe and Kidnapped Coed double feature is comprised of a pair of super-low-budget crime/horror films, from the mid-1970s, that appear to have been made back-to-back and with common elements. In each one, a small-time criminal (Eddie Matlock) conceives a nasty crime, which backfires in his face, leaving him in similar circumstances as the victim. In Axe, Jack Canon plays the heavy in a killing spree that ends with a hostage-taking situation at a remote farmhouse. The residents are a paralyzed old man and his teenage daughter, who’s more capable of defending herself than anyone could expect. In Kidnapped Coed, a young woman living in a boarding house is kidnapped by a small-time criminal (Canon), who hopes to be compensated by her wealthy father. When other crooks learn of the scheme, they short-circuit the abductor’s plans. In doing so, they get stuck in the kidnapped girl’s web. Taken on their own merits, these films feel incomplete. A third movie included as a bonus feature, Bloody Brothers, is an independently made mash-up of both pictures, in which Canon’s characters are evil twins separated from each other at birth. As adults, they unknowingly commit the similarly terrible crimes documented in Frederick R. Friedel’s Axe and Kidnapped Coed. It’s weirdly satisfying. The Blu-ray package adds several more bonus features than anyone would have felt necessary in the mid-‘70s.

Nightmares is a pretty decent, if tame horror anthology, directed by Joseph Sargent after he made MacArthur, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and White Lightning. His next high-profile picture would be the abysmal Jaws: The Revenge, so, maybe, he made a deal with the devil for early success and it ran out after Nightmares. The stories, though, all display the handiwork of a professional filmmaker and recognizable stars. If they aren’t terribly frightening, at least they’re clever and well made. Cristina Raines is a chain-smoking Topanga Canyon homemaker, who insists on going out for cigarettes even as an escaped madman is being hunted nearby. Emilio Estevez plays a video-game hotshot, who dares to take on a strange challenger. A troubled priest (Lance Henriksen) seeks to find the faith he has lost on the road, but instead encounters someone in the desert who is trying to drive him out of his mind; and, finally, when Claire (Veronica Cartwright) hears rats in the walls, her husband (Richard Masur) mistakenly believes he can take care of the problem with a few mousetraps.

In The Life of Death, real-life genre specialists discuss how they’ve come to perceive death during various periods in their lives and, likewise, how its certainty has influenced their work. It includes interviews and insights from Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, artist Bob Fingerman, writer Jack Ketchum, special-effects artist Tom Sullivan and scream queens Debbie Rochon and Caroline Munro, among other pros. It’s interesting, if only because the horror genre demands that death be considered separately with every new project.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson
American Experience: The Pilgrims
The Nanny: Season Five
PBS’ “Unity: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson” demonstrates the debt owed to the Gloved One by artists of a foreign musical genre. Peruvian-born, Miami-raised producer/multi-instrumentalist/arranger Tony Succar was able to round up more than 100 musicians and such Hispanic superstars as Judith Hill, Jon Secada and Obie Bermúdez in the first-ever Latin album salute to the King of Pop.

In the two-hour “American Experience” presentation “The Pilgrims,” Ric Burns chronicles the history, origins and critical first decade of the first permanent English colony in New England. Who were the men and women who constituted this multifarious band of English Protestants, in whose name we gorge on autumnal treats, football and parades? It’s a bit more complicated than what’s depicted in grade-school holiday pageants.

In the fifth season of “The Nanny,” Fran Fine (Fran Drescher) faces the very real possibility that her romance with Broadway producer Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy) might lead to a promotion from babysitter to bride. This stanza’s guest stars include Ray Charles, Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg and Elton John.

The DVD Wrapup: M:I, Ted 2, Burroughs, Time Out of Mind, Slow Learners and more

Friday, December 18th, 2015

Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation: Blu-ray
A year ago, I think it’s safe to say, Alicia Vikander and Rebecca Ferguson probably would have been off the radar screens of paparazzi everywhere, except in Stockholm – if such varmints exist that far north. After her star turns in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl, Vikander no longer will be able to go to Starbucks without a gaggle of photographers sniffing around behind her. Earning two Golden Globe nominations in the same year, for different movies, tends to impress tabloid editors and the bottom-feeders at “TMZ.” For her part, Ferguson received a GG nom last year for her portrayal of Elizabeth Woodville, Queen consort of England, in Starz’ one-season wonder, “The White Queen.” It’s her performance in Mission:Impossible: Rogue Nation, however, that will keep her name on Hollywood’s A-list, at least until the next chapter in the “M:I” franchise, to which she’s already been assigned. As long as Tom Cruise is up to the challenge of playing IMF agent Ethan Hunt, she’ll have to share the spotlight with him. After that, who knows? In “Rouge Nation,” though, Ferguson manages to steal it from everyone else in the cast. In it, she plays Ilsa Faust, a MI6 agent working deep cover in the Syndicate, which is the Paramount franchise’s answer to SPECTRE. That ultra-secretive global criminal organization was resurrected, of course, in the latest James Bond chapter. By contrast, the Syndicate is an international criminal consortium that shares its illicit profits with the world’s greediest government officials. Officially, the CIA doesn’t believe the Syndicate exists. It’s more interested in usurping the power of the Impossible Missions Force and taking over its assets.

Essentially, that’s all viewers really need to know about writer/director Christopher McQuarrie’s action-packed story to enjoy it. Audiences flock to “M:I” for the chases, fights and interplay between Hunt and fellow IMF agents, played here by Ving Rhames,  Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner. Interior logic runs a distant second. It explains why Paramount may never be required to consider turning “M:I” into a straight-to-DVD series or skimp on budgets that afford location shoots in such places as Morocco, Austria and all over London. Anyone who loves the movies surely will invest the time and money on the DVD and Blu-ray packages, whose bonus material reveals the secrets behind the magic. There’s nothing remotely stale or overly familiar about Paramount’s excellent Blu-ray presentation of “Rogue Nation.” Cruise and McQuarrie provide an enthusiastic commentary track, while the featurettes include “Lighting the Fuse,” a look at McQuarrie’s attachment to the project; “Cruise Control,” about his hands-on involvement in the filmmaking process; “Heroes …,” with glimpses at the four primary IMF characters, plus Ilsa; “Cruising Altitude,” on the film’s spectacular opening action sequence; “Mission: Immersible,” on the grueling underwater sequence; “Sand Theft Auto,” a look at crafting high-speed vehicle chases; and “The Missions Continue,” in which cast and crew discuss the franchise’s staying power. A DVD copy of the film and a voucher for a UV/iTunes digital copy are included with purchase, as well.

Ted 2: Blu-Ray
Unlike fine wine, the aging process isn’t likely to be kind to today’s movies. Once the cork is popped, there isn’t much left to savor. I doubt very much if we’ll ever see Criterion Collection editions of Ted, Dumb and Dumber, Jackass or any of their sequels or marathon showings on TCM. Comedy Central is a different story, altogether, commercials and bleeped-out words notwithstanding. Ted 2 probably made some money for Universal, but not nearly as much as the original, either at home or worldwide. The surprise that comes with watching a cute Paddington Bear look-alike impersonate Andrew “Dice” Clay only lasts so long, even when you’re stoned to the gills. The funny thing about Ted 2 isn’t found as much in the gags as its proximity to being socially relevant. In the years that have passed since the first movie became a smash hit, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and Lori Collins dissolved their marriage and Ted (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) has gotten married to Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth), whose desire to have a baby is complicated by his non-existent sperm count. Because a baby would go a long way toward saving their relationship, John agrees to find them a donor. Laughter ensues. In its effort to stifle their plans for artificial insemination, the State of Massachusetts aggressively challenges Ted’s claim to personhood and those rights accorded other citizens. If that scenario reminds you of the very real Dred Scott Case, well, you probably are too well-educated to find much humor in the conceit. Their inexperienced and slightly pot-addled lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) is no match for the state’s legal team, so they attempt to hire a prominent civil-rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) to overturn the decision. He demurs, but only after doing a background check to determine if Ted has done anything positive in his life. The answer, of course, is “no.” Meanwhile, Ted’s longtime nemesis, Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), has approached the head of the Hasbro toy company about abducting the bear and creating more “live” teddies from his DNA, as it were. The climax takes place at New York Comic Con, where the product placement is almost as shocking as John’s clumsiness at the fertility clinic. Nonetheless, Ted 2 is several times less painful to watch than MacFarlane’s odious A Million Ways to Die in the West or the feature version of Entourage, which was produced by Wahlberg. (Here’s an idea: send Ted to California and make him a member of Vince’s posse for the second sequel.) Ted 2 arrives in a 20-minute-longer unrated edition, which likely includes material eliminated to preserve its R rating. It also includes an entertaining commentary track; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and making-of featurettes “Thunder Buddies 4 Lyfe,” “Creating Comic-Con,” “Roadtripping,” “A Giant Opening Dance Number” and “Cameo Buddies,” with Morgan Freeman, Tom Brady, Liam Neeson and David Hasselhoff.

Burroughs: The Movie: Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Everyone who’s fallen in love with the mythos of the Beat Generation has, at one time or another, wondered how William S. Burroughs fit into the bigger picture. Apart from being an extremely cool guy, an accomplished writer, avant-garde artist and intellectual outlaw, the grandson of the man who founded the Burroughs Adding Machine Company didn’t fit into any of the molds created by the media to explain the confederation of artists that most prominently included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Herbert Hunke, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso. It’s almost impossible to imagine Burroughs hitchhiking across the country with Kerouac and Cassady, simply to “go,” and not be mistaken for a mortician or bible salesman. And, yet, go he did … to Mexico, Tangier, Paris, Rome, London and the Amazonian rain forest. His drugs of choice were heroin and morphine and to afford his habit he once was reduced to selling the stuff and fencing stolen property with Hunke. Even those who’ve never read a word he’s written are aware of the William Tell “act” in which he accidently killed his second wife, Joan. It might surprise them to learn that the autobiographical novel, “Queer,” even had a wife or enjoyed target shooting. A half-century after the publication of “Junkie” and “Naked Lunch,” and 18 years after his death, Burroughs’ influence on music, fiction, art and lifestyle choices is still palpable. Howard Brookner’s essential documentary, Burroughs: The Movie, was released in 1983, but quickly disappeared from distribution. Aaron Brookner, the late director’s nephew, would discover a clean print of the film in 2011 and spearhead a restoration. At the time, the writer was 69 and far more spry than could be expected of a man who’d been pushing limits for most of those years. Six years later, he would be re-introduced to the hip world in Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy – based on a short story from “Exterminator!” — as a defrocked priest addicted to heroin. He died on August 2, 1997, at 83, in Lawrence, Kansas. Brookner’s profile differs from most of the other attempts at encapsulating his life and literary legacy primarily for his access to Burroughs and his willingness to reveal himself to viewers. He freely discusses Joan’s death, which he describes as an accident, and we’re introduced to their son, Billy, who, as an adult, battled addictions to narcotics and alcohol, but also wrote two well-received novels based on his experience. Sadly, he would die of acute gastrointestinal hemorrhage, associated with micronodular cirrhosis, at 33, during the film’s production. Among the witnesses called to testify are Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, Patti Smith, Terry Southern, Jackie Curtis, James Grauerholz and John Giorno. In another poignant scene, Burroughs and his brother, Mortimer, converse in the backyard of his St. Louis home, recalling their Midwestern childhood. (Mortimer allows that he started reading “Naked Lunch,” but couldn’t get through it.) The special Blu-ray edition adds a new, high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with filmmakers Jim Jarmusch, Aaron Brookner and Tom DiCillo; outtakes; footage from the 2014 New York Film Festival premiere of the film’s restoration; a 30-minute experimental edit of the film from 1981 by inventor and photographer Robert E. Fulton Jr.; an essay by critic Luc Sante; and a collage poster by artist Alison Mosshart.

Time Out of Mind: Blu-ray
Homelessness is an issue that disappears from the public’s eyes as soon as something more media-friendly comes around to replace it on the evening news … like terrorism or, in L.A., a car chase. While the problem doesn’t disappear, the absence of pressure on public officials neutralizes its urgency. For the millions of Americans who aren’t required to skirt the local Skid Row on their way to work or be confronted by panhandlers while shopping, that’s just as well. Until it hits home, anyway. Oren Moverman’s grinding drama Time Out of Mind is a perfect example of a movie that asks all the right questions about a difficult social issue, but might as well have not existed outside a few film festivals. And, that’s really too bad, because Richard Gere delivers one of his best performances in years as a man whose daily struggle to find food and shelter has begun to affect his cognitive skills … that, and years of alcohol abuse. George is a fairly representative of a type of homeless person who once had a job, home and family, but pissed them away for reasons of his own. Indeed, he won’t even admit to being homeless. Every time George is rousted from a temporary squat, he argues that he’s only waiting for his long-gone wife to get home. Gere plays the character straight down the middle, seeking empathy for a fellow human being, but refusing to sugarcoat the conditions that led to his homelessness and mental illness. When George finally acknowledges that he’s no longer in control of his own well-being, he voluntarily seeks refuge in New York City’s no-nonsense social-welfare system. Like all the other men in the shelter, George is required to obey a tough set of rules and adjust to life in a community of similarly damaged residents.  Among them is a former jazz musician (Ben Vereen) who’s lost his ability to rest his vocal chords for more than 30 seconds at a time. Before the chatterbox gets on George’s last nerve, however, Dixon dispenses the kind of street knowledge his new sounding board will need to survive in the mean streets of Manhattan. As is probably the case with such down-and-outers, George and Dixon encounter as many predators as Good Samaritans. Jena Malone plays George’s estranged and embittered daughter, from whom he seeks forgiveness but is treated to a cold splash of well-earned resentment in return. Steve Buscemi portrays a contractor, who, in the course of rehabbing a tenement building, stumbles upon a bruised and battered George sleeping off a hangover in a bathtub. The appropriately gloomy Blu-ray adds commentary, interviews and a PSA with Gere.

Slow Learners
While Sarah Burns is far from a household name, fans of “Married,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Drunk History” and “Enlightened” should have little problem placing her face. As a resident performer at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, Burns is blessed with the same improvisational gift as Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Maya Rudolph and Tina Faye. In Slow Learners, her quirky personality dominates the character of Ann Martin, an unlucky-at-love teacher whose awareness of her own dorky persona causes her to seek a hipness replacement over summer break. Ann isn’t just socially awkward, though, she’s aggressively unpleasant. Adam Pally, of “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings,” plays her similarly nerdy best friend, Jeff Lowry. The puffy and slightly effeminate guidance teacher is a decent enough guy, but he might as well have “buzz kill” tattooed on his forehead. Jeff, too, commits his summer vacation to a crash course in cool behavior. It isn’t as if they are shunned by the cool kids, it’s just that they always succumb to their worst instincts and winning personalities aren’t something that can be easily taught. What distinguishes Slow Learners from most other nerd-centric comedies – including SNL’s hilarious skit, with Lisa Loopner (Gilda Radner) and Todd DiLaMuca (Bill Murray) – are Burns and Pally’s well-honed comedy chops and improvisational reflexes. Everything else is window dressing in Don Argott (Rock School), Sheena M. Joyce (The Atomic States of America) and writer Heather Maidat’s story. Because of its raunchy humor, Slow Learners is the kind of off-the-wall romance that will appeal primarily to teens and fans of free-form, Internet-based comedy.

Sex, Death and Bowling
While it can be argued endlessly as to whether bowling is a sport, hobby or excuse to smoke, drink beer and pretend it’s exercise, there’s no question as to how it’s been depicted by Hollywood filmmakers. In Five Easy Pieces, bowling alleys were where embittered oil worker Jack Nicholson went to drown out memories of being raised in a family of effete classical musicians. In Deer Hunter, King Ralph and Joe, bowling was used to establish blue-collar bona-fides. In The Big Lebowski, it marked the border between anarchy and order (“This is not ‘Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”). Kingpin is a delightfully low-brow parody of The Hustler. In Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore exploited the irony of giving away guns to promote sound capitalistic practices. Likewise, in There Will Be Blood, unlimited greed and power turned a simple spherical implement designed for leisure-time pleasure into a crushingly murderous capitalist tool. Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Great Bikini Bowling Bash and Dream with the Fishes locate the nexus of bowling and sensuality. If the title of Ally Walker’s debut feature, Sex, Death and Bowling, was chosen to remind potential viewers of Sex, Lies and Videotape, it’s likely to have the exact opposite effect. Walker’s character-driven drama may indeed deal with sex, death and bowling, but not as a unified whole. They could just as well be chapter headings.

The “sex,” which is less graphic than implied, is largely limited to flashbacks to a scandalous event in one of the primary character’s high school days. “Death” is a preoccupation shared by everyone, especially 11-year-old Eli McAllister (Bailey Chase), whose curiosity over his father’s terminal illness leads him to seek the consul of a Roman Catholic priest and his catechism full of answers, however dubious. “Bowling” is the common denominator in a community whose carved-in-stone rituals and traditions long ago forced Eli’s Uncle Sean (Adrian Grenier) into self-exile in London. An annual bowling tournament also provides the opportunity for redemption and reconciliation among long-estranged family members and longtime rivals. Walker’s underdeveloped script and characterizations collapse under the weight of drama that’s stacked like a layer cake. Fortunately, a cast that includes such familiar pros as Selma Blair, Drea de Matteo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Drew Powell, Melora Walters, Richard Riehle and Daniel Hugh Kelly keeps the narrative from succumbing to its more maudlin tendencies. In the central role of Uncle Sean, Grenier demonstrates more emotional range in five minutes than in the entirely of the Entourage movie.

Walt Before Mickey
It’s been a heck of a year for those who worship Walt Disney and everything he accomplished in a life cut short at 65, by lung cancer. In addition to Sarah Colt’s exhaustive “American Experience” bio-doc, “Walt Disney”; Saving Mr. Banks; The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story; and As Dreamers Do: The Amazing Life of Walt Disney. The latest addition to the list is Walt Before Mickey, a fact-based depiction of Uncle Walt’s formative years. Like “As Dreamers Do,” Khoa Le’s debut feature complements the epic “American Experience” doc, by focusing specifically on his pre-“Steamboat Willie” period and early financial struggles in forming an animation company. As such, it hues pretty closely to Timothy S. Susanin’s book, “Walt Before Mickey: Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928,” for which Diane Disney Miller supplied a forward. Shot on what must have been a miniscule budget, Le’s film looks as if it might have been intended for television, first, ahead of a DVD release. And, while the story rings true, the production values leave quite a bit to be desired. That said, Walt Before Mickey should interest newcomers to Disneyana, especially kids interested in the history of animation. At the ripe old age of 35, Las Vegas-native Thomas Ian Nicholas is convincing as Disney in his early adulthood. Once his fiancé, Edna, convinces him to grow a mustache, Nicholas is a dead-ringer for the real Disney. It might surprise some viewers to see the honest depiction of his cigarette addiction, which began during World War I, during which he served the Red Cross, and continued unabated for the rest of his life. Tom Hanks, who played the studio chief in Saving Mr. Banks, has said that the movie would have gotten a R-rating if it showed him smoking. Maybe so, but Walt Before Disney was accorded a PG and it accurately portrays his drug of choice. Where Bogart and Bacall made smoking look sexy, it looks like suicide here. Jon Heder does  a nice job as older brother, Roy Disney, whose influence on Walt can’t be understated.

The Surface
Melbourne-born model Harry Hains has the kind of deep-set blue eyes and long brown hair that can’t help but lure magazine readers into ads for jeans, gym shorts and all manner of au courant hipster attire. He’s frequently called upon to shed his shirt, revealing a cowboy-angel physicality and androgynous persona, that once might have defined “heroin chic.” In his feature-film debut, Hains could have been called upon to play a vampire, like those in the Théâtre des Vampires scene in Interview With the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles. In The Surface, however, Hains plays a young gay man who was raised in a series of foster homes and emerged grasping for anything that resembles a family. Evan’s dreamy appearance has attracted a wealthy lover, close to his own age, but from a far loftier social class. College isn’t working out as planned, but he knows that things could be worse. One day, at a yard sale, Evan picks up an old 8mm camera that belongs to an elderly gentleman, who, long ago, stopped using it to capture family memories. He sells it to Evan at a rock-bottom price on the condition that he develops the film already in the camera and shows it to him. He returns in two weeks with the footage, only to learn from the man’s adult son that he’s died. After striking up an unlikely friendship with the 43-year-old Peter (Michael Redford Carney), Evan feverishly begins work on a film spliced together from the home movies. His lover, Chris (Nicholas McDonald), feels slighted in the shift of attention to Peter, causing a serious rift. Writer/director Michael J. Saul (Crush) avoids the usual sturm-und-drang associated with such breakups, maintaining an unusually low-key approach to the drama and its resolution. It takes a while to get accustomed to the deliberate pace, but it should leave viewers satisfied. Like too many other underseen niche films, The Surface deserves a shot at success outside the LGBT festival circuit.

Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story
If you can imagine an artistic endeavor that merges “Dancing With the Stars” with Best in Show and Babes in Arms, it might look a lot like Justin Turcotte’s offbeat documentary, Unleashed! A Dog Dancing Story. It follows an aspiring theatre director – simply, Ray — as he realizes his dream of mounting the first ever theatrical performance featuring dancing dogs, their amateur handlers and indoor kite flying. Ironically, perhaps, Ray’s inspiration for the show was Cirque du Soleil, which, in its first iteration, became famous for eliminating animals from the circus experience. He might also have been encouraged by the musicals staged by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and community-theater director Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman. As easy as it is to watch “Unleashed!” and laugh at its conceit, there’s no questioning the dedication and zeal of the women who’ve literally taught their dogs to dance alongside them in coordinated routines. The Vancouver group spent more than two years, helping their first-time director realize his vision, by writing scripts, building sets, raising funds and rehearsing to the point of exhaustion. As is the case in any live production memorialized on screen – from “Guffman” to A Chorus Line, but writ much smaller — we’re also made privy to the mounting tensions and unexpected potholes along the way to Opening Night. Animal lovers won’t have any trouble falling in love with “Unleashed!” The dogs truly are amazing and their handlers easily recognizable as kindred spirits. I don’t know what to say about the kites.

What Have You Done to Solange?: Blu-ray
Count Dracula: Blu-ray
Zombie High: Bluray
The Dungeonmaster/Eliminators: Double Feature: Blu-ray
Blood Rage/Nightmare at Shadow Woods: Blu-ray
Arrow Video has almost singlehandedly breathed new life into exploitation flicks long dismissed as being cheapo knockoffs of American genre fare. At its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Italian movie industry was churning out about 350 titles a year, only a handful of which found their way into arthouses here. If most of them weren’t very good by anyone’s standards, some have aged pretty well. Taken in context, they are quite entertaining and not at all cheesy. An Italian-German co-production from 1972, What Have You Done to Solange?, can be enjoyed as both a classic specimen of early giallo and an erotic whodunit. Typically, once it reached these shores, the film was given at least four different names – “Terror in the Woods,” “The School That Couldn’t Scream,” “The Secret of the Green Pines” and its current, more representative title – and it almost certainly was independently edited for full-frontal nudity and some very nasty stuff involving knives and surgical tools. That most of the violence is perpetrated on sexually active teens – played by older-looking actresses – must have made American theater-owners queasy, as well. What immediately distinguishes What Have You Done to Solange?, though, is a creative team that includes director Massimo Dallamano (cinematographer on both A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More), veteran writer Bruno Di Geronimo (Dead Men Ride), music by the great Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Joe D’Amato, a sleaze-meister of the first water. The plot boils down to a search for a serial killer preying on the students of a prestigious all-girls academy in London. (The English setting and international cast was intended to snare global distribution.) There’s no shortage of suspects or clues, some of which may have been left behind as fool’s bait. Fresh off a key role in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Fabio Testi plays the prime suspect in the case, an oily gym teacher and seducer of one of the murdered students. Camille Keaton, who plays the missing girl, would go on to star in the infamous I Spit on Your Grave. As usual, the bonus package comes loaded with interesting making-of featurettes, commentary and freshly shot interviews, including one with Spanish co-star Cristina Galbó, who freely dishes the dirt on the production.

By the time Jesus Franco convinced Christopher Lee to reprise his signature role of Count Dracula in his adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, he had already portrayed the Prince of Darkness a half-dozen times at Hammer Studios. Lots of people think he’s the best actor to put on fangs. Franco convinced Lee to join his multinational production, shot largely in Spain, by promising him that Count Dracula would faithfully re-create Stoker’s narrative, minuses the flourishes added by the dozens of filmmakers who felt they could improve on genius. Lee remains the primary draw here, as well, but he gets more than ample support from Herbert Lom (the “Pink Panther” series); nutty Klaus Kinski, as the bug-eating Renfield; Franco’s muses Maria Rohm and Miranda Soledad; and versatile regulars Fred Williams and Jack Taylor. And, Franco does play it straight … more so than fans of his soft-core work would have expected or desired. As movies about alpha vampires go, it’s pretty darn good. Extras for the Severin Blu-ray release include the uncut feature at Franco’s approved aspect ratio of 1.33:1; “Cuadecuc, Vampir,” an experimental making-of documentary by Pere Portabella; commentary with horror historian David Del Valle and actress Maria Rohm; “Beloved Count,” interviews with Franco, Taylor and Williams; “Stake Holders,” an appreciation by filmmaker Christophe Gans; and Christopher Lee’s dramatic reading of the original novel.

Virginia Madsen, Sherilyn Fenn and James Wilder had hardly begun their careers in earnest when they agreed to play lead parts in the teens-in-jeopardy horror flick, Zombie High, which, even by 1987 standards, was pretty weak stuff. Their association with the zombie-less stinker didn’t hurt their careers, however, for the simple reason that no one bothered to go see it, apparently not even casting directors. In it, Madsen plays the perky new blond at a classy prep school, where a sexy brunette, portrayed by Fenn, is her roommate. It doesn’t take long for viewers to sense that something sinister has cast its spell on the student body, apparently composed of the sons and daughters of the Stepford wives. The faculty members are quite a bit livelier, if only because they’re the beneficiaries of the blood that once flowed through the veins of the student body. When the voluptuous blond and her townie buddy (Richard Cox) discover the school’s secret laboratory, they’re confronted by their teachers and seemingly lobotomized classmates. By comparison to almost everything else in the genre in 1987, Zombie High could have passed as an afterschool TV special. How it earned an R rating is a mystery. Co-star Paul Feig would survive, as well, going on to create the TV series “Freaks and Geeks” and direct such films as “Spy,” “Bridesmaids” and the 2016 remake of “Ghostbusters.”

Released and retitled at the height of the Dungeons & Dragons craze and dawn of the Nintendo and Sega home-entertainment era, Dungeonmaster (a.k.a., “Ragewar”) required the services of seven different directors and eight writers to create a film that delivers about 15 minutes of entertainment. Prolific-to-a-fault producer Charles Band thought it might be fun to assign different levels of the arcade-game experience to members of his creative team who wanted to add their stamp to a feature film, however sliced and diced it might be. Jeffrey Byron plays a young computer wiz, Paul, who becomes so obsessed with a new arcade game that he begins to ignore his girlfriend, school work and meals. Paul has been challenged by the deus ex machina, Mestema (Richard Moll), to a series of seven death-defying encounters, which he must survive not only to beat the game but also to save the life of his girlfriend (Leslie Wing). No one knows what happens when a player conquers all seven levels, because it hasn’t been done. It doesn’t take more than 73 minutes for us to find out, however. Dungeonmaster probably would have been a more entertaining film if Band had allowed his team the freedom to fully test their imaginations in the anthology format. Until I watched the featurettes, I was unaware that each level was conceived by a different filmmaker.

Sharing the Scream Factory double-bill with Dungeonmaster is Eliminators, a very silly sci-fi/action/adventure flick also produced by Charles and Albert Band’s Empire Pictures. The protagonist is a half-human, half-cyborg Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds), created as part of a sinister time-travel experiment by an evil scientist, Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice), and his well-meaning assistant, Doctor Takada (Tad Horino). Takada helps Mandroid escape the jungle laboratory before he’s decommissioned by Reeves, but is struck with amnesia on the way to civilization. To prevent the scientist’s scheme from being carried out, Manimal enlists the help of Andrew Prine, Denise Crosby and Conan Lee. Before they reach the lab, however, Manimal leads them through a time warp or two, where they encounter cave men, river pirates and a robotic Tinkerbell ’droid. The making-of featurette provides a glimpse into what must have been a very bizarre location shoot. As it is, Eliminators is more fun than it has any right to be and, for guys, anyway, the presence of Der Bingle’s granddaughter is worth the price of a rental.

What’s that old line about something being so nice, they made it twice? In the opinion of Arrow Films’ crack restoration team, the 1983 slasher epic Blood Rage was so nice, they not only made it thrice, but they also gave it three different titles: “Slasher” (clapboard), “Blood Rage” (1983) and “Nightmare at Shadow Woods” (1987 U.S. release). Even in its final incarnation, John Grissmer and Bruce Rubin’s movie wasn’t something anyone would wait in line more than 10 minutes to see. Almost 30 years later, it’s worth a visit for several buff-specific reasons: 1) the violence and gore are  gloriously excessive, even considering how late it arrived in the subgenre’s heyday; 2) Louise Lasser, still riding the success of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” is a delight, despite a push-up bra that would make Frederick of Hollywood choke on his popcorn; 3) the female characters’ ridiculously “big” hairdos; 4) a punishingly creepy synth score; and 5) special makeup effects that deserve enshrinement in the Hollywood Museum, housed in the Max Factor Building. By any name, Nightmare at Shadow Woods boils down to a good-twin/bad-twin picture, in which the good twin was committed to a mental facility by mistake, after a brutal ax attack on naked lovers at a drive-in movie theater, and, 10 years later, his escape threatens to trigger a killing spree by the evil twin. Apparently, the impressionable lad was traumatized by watching his parents make out and decided to punish all young lovers. The Blu-ray bonus package is extremely generous, copious making-of featurettes, interviews, outtakes and three complete versions of the film.

TV-to-DVD
Netflix: Marco Polo: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: American Masters: Althea
PBS: Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans American History
PBS: Frontline: My Brother’s Bomber
PBS: Nova: Dawn of Humanity
PBS: The Mind of a Chef: David Kinch: Season 4
PBS: Nature: Pets: Wild at Heart
Although I would encourage students of Asian history to take what is depicted in the Netflix mini-series, “Marco Polo,” with more than a few grains of salt, it would be nice if lessons were presented in as entertaining a fashion. Teachers could require their students to watch movies and mini-series, then work backwards by pointing out the mistakes and actual history of the events portrayed. The scene in which a naked-except-for-swords royal courtesan, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), uses her kung-fu skills to defend herself from a trio of soldiers loyal to Chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han) from brutally raping her, alone, would provide enough incentive for any young scholar to check out its accuracy in Wikipedia, at least. The same merger of dubious history and 21st Century sensuality prevails in such period mini-series as “Rome,” “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” “The White Queen” and “Da Vinci’s Dreams.” Here, Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is a Venetian stud, whose father built the land bridge connecting the trade routes of Asia and Europe. When the strangely ecumenical Kublai Khan decides to test the mettle of the Holy Roman Empire, he orders the father to return to Italy and bring back emissaries of the Pope. The son, Marco, is left behind as collateral. In the meantime, he makes himself extremely valuable to the Khan as an intellectual and military adviser. He also becomes proficient in the martial arts, under the tutelage of a blind monk known as Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu). The Mongol empire has long been in conflict with the Song Dynasty, soon to be led by Jia Sidao, whose headquarters are behind the fortified walls of Xiangyang. For fans of graphic violence, the Khan’s willingness to brutally dispatch with anyone perceived to be thwarting his will is well represented, with beheadings, slave soup and enemies trampled by Mongolian horsemen, while wrapped in rugs. What I liked about the mini-series most, aside from the aforementioned sword fight, are the magnificent Kazakhstan locations, which closely approximate the Mongolian steppes. The interior settings and costumes are splendid, as well. Netflix reportedly invested $90 million in the 10-episode project and every penny shows. This includes music by Mongolian bands Altan Urag and Batzorig Vaanchig of Khusugtun, who appears as a singer. The lavish presentation includes the many interesting bonus features, among them a 40-minute documentary on the historical Marco Polo, with the filmmakers and their technical advisers; several other making-of pieces; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.

It’s entirely fitting that PBS’ “American Masters: Althea” should arrive almost simultaneously with the naming of Serena Williams as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. While it’s entirely possible that Serena and Venus Williams might have become tennis champions without Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe first paving the road for them, the color barrier might still have been in place upon their arrival on the scene. As it is, they faced an uphill climb in the press and tennis establishment. When Gibson emerged from the streets of Harlem in the 1950s, much of the sporting world was as segregated as any capital of the American South. She would become the first African-American to play and win at Wimbledon and Forest Hills, a decade before Ashe. The profile covers her roots as a sharecropper’s daughter, the family’s migration north to Harlem, her mentoring from Sugar Ray Robinson, David Dinkins and others, and the fame that thrust her unwillingly into the glare of the early Civil Rights movement.

Ric Burns’ “Debt of Honor: Disabled Veterans American History” aired on Veterans Day, as a tribute to the history of disabled fighting men and women. It isn’t always a pretty or particularly honorable picture that Burns paints. “Debt of Honor” takes an unflinching look at the reality of warfare and disability, beginning in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and continuing through today’s conflicts in the Middle East. It is informed by interviews with some of the country’s most prominent disabled veterans.

For some 25 years, filmmaker Ken Dornstein has been haunted by the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The ghastly terrorist act killed 270 people, including his older brother, David. Now, Dornstein sets out to find the men responsible, hunting for clues to the identities and whereabouts of the suspects in the ruins and chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya in the “Frontline” spy thriller, “My Brother’s Bomber.”

For PBS’ “Dawn of Humanity,” producers from “Nova” and National Geographic were accorded exclusive access to an astounding discovery of ancient fossil human ancestors, deep in a South African cave. A special team of experts has brought to light an unprecedented wealth of fossils bridging a crucial gap in the record of our origins that spans the transition between the ape-like australopithecines (such as the famous Lucy) and the earliest members of the human family.

The latest installment of PBS’ “The Mind of a Chef” follows award-winning Chef David Kinch as he reflects on his inspiration, creative drive and the unforeseen challenges faced by chefs in their pursuit of excellence. In Season Four, Kinch invites us to explore a night of service at his restaurant, the people that make it work, the purveyors that provide the ingredients and his travels back to New Orleans to cook with old friends.

And, finally, what would box full of DVD screeners from PBS without at least one for lovers of domesticated animals. The “Nature” presentation “Pets: Wild at Heart” invites viewers into a secret world of wild behavior and natural abilities that we hardly notice or recognize. This two-part series explores the extraordinary senses and special skills of our pets, using with all sorts of high-tech devices:  spy cameras, moving X-rays, night-vision cameras, drones, miniature on-board cameras and high-speed cameras.

The DVD Wrapup: Ant-Man, Minions, Blind, Girl King, Speedy, Lucky and more

Thursday, December 10th, 2015

Ant-Man: Blu-ray/3D
Although Ant-Man was introduced to the world in 1962, via Marvel Comic’s Tales to Astonish No. 27, the shape-shifting superhero made his first live-action cameo in 1979, in the hilarious “Superhero Party” sketch, with the original cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Newlyweds Superman (Bill Murray) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) invite their superhero pals over for a cocktail party, during which the Hulk (John Belushi) and Flash (Dan Aykroyd) ridicule Ant-Man’s comparatively meager superpower – he’s able to shrink to the size of an insect, while retaining his human strength — and Lois confides in Clark Kent (Murray, again) that she’d been unfaithful to the Man of Steel. Like all of the other superheroes, Ant-Man (Garrett Morris) took full advantage of Lois’ dissatisfaction with Superman’s underwhelming sexual prowess. Thirty-five years later, Morris would be cast as Cab Driver – not a superhero – in Peyton Reed’s big-screen adaptation of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s venerable comic book. Here, Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas both play iterations of the original Ant-Man character. In the 2015 Ant-Man, though, while the character still shrinks to the size of an insect, his powers increase proportionally. Morris’ cameo is shorter than his Ant-Man turn on “SNL,” but about the same as the one traditionally accorded Lee.  It’s almost too easy to dismiss Ant-Man, by suggesting that the eight-minute sketch is more entertaining than the 117-minute movie, which cost an estimated $130 million to make. Considering that I’m old enough to remember the first cast of “SNL,” and with no small amount of fondness, I don’t suspect that my opinion matters on the subject much, one way or the other. What the sketch didn’t have, of course, are world-class special effects, armies of killer ants and the certitude of a 2018 sequel, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” because it did very well at the worldwide box office.

As Scott Lang, Rudd was caught burgling the laboratory of Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), where, instead of money, he grabs a prototype of the Ant-Man suit the scientist is hiding from his rivals, whose size-shifting experiments aren’t going so well. With the cat out of the bag, as it were, Lang and Pym join forces to work out the kinks in the costume and save the planet from bad guys, represented by Darren Cross (Corey Stall). While in shrink-mode, Lang is confronted by representatives of several of the 12,500 ant species known to exist on Earth. Just as the residents of every little boy’s “ant farm” are amazing to watch – until they escape, anyway – the non-human characters here a fun to watch, too. The story, however, is predictable and almost beside the point. Because of Ant-Man’s 12-year gestation period, during which Disney bought out Marvel Studios, many of Edgar Wright’s original ideas were altered to modulate Pym’s less than kids-friendly characteristics. As a merger of Honey I Shrunk the Kids and The Fly, it may actually be too kids-friendly for fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and other less-compromised superhero flicks. The handsome Blu-ray presentation adds the featurettes, “Making of an Ant-Sized Heist,” “Let’s Go to the Macroverse” and “WHIH NewsFront,” with newscast clips from the film’s world; deleted and extended scenes, with optional commentary by Reed and Rudd; a gag reel; and feature-length commentary with R&R. Not having seen the 3D version of Ant-Man – on either the big or small screen — I can’t comment on it.

Minions: Blu-ray
Is anyone surprised to learn that Universal’s family-oriented Minions sailed right past the movies from which it was spawned, Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2, on its way to an astonishing $1.157-billion worldwide box-office haul? I was. Clearly, we haven’t seen the last of the little boogers. For the uninitiated, Minions are small, yellow critters that have existed since the beginning of time, evolving from single-celled organisms into beings with only one purpose: to seek out, serve and destroy the most unctuous villains they can find. In 2010’s franchise-opener, Despicable Me, the Minions attached themselves to Gru, a super-villain so despicable that he adopts three little girls to help him shrink and steal the moon. It didn’t take long for Universal to foresee a time when the Minions could be spun off to a franchise of their own. A series of short films – once known as cartoons – was almost immediately launched. Minions speak in a language, Minionese, that consists of funny sounding words from Italian, Korean and other languages best appreciated at 78 rpm. If you liked the Chipmunks, you’ll love Minions. If not, well, caveat emptor. As directed by Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, and written by Brian Lynch, Minions serves as a prequel to Despicable Me. It’s 1968 and the Minions are living in self-imposed exile in Antarctica, absent a host villain to torment. After hitchhiking to Orlando for the annual Villain-Con convention, Kevin, Stuart and Bob hook up with London-based Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world’s first female supervillain. As is his wont, Kevin immediately invites the other Minions to pack their bags and leave Antarctica, where they had befriended, then unfriended a Yeti. Scarlett and her husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), assign them to infiltrate the Tower of London and steal the Queen’s treasures, so she can have a coronation of her own. Things don’t work out as planned, of course, but, being 1968, the oldies’ soundtrack is great. It’s at this point, too, that a young Gru (Steve Carell) makes his presence known to the Minions. The Blu-ray package adds a deleted scene, a trio of clever “mini-movies,” an around-the-world interactive map, “Behind the Goggles: The Illumination Story of the Minions,” “Jingle Bells Minion Style” and a theatrical trailer for “The Secret Life of Pets.”

The Girl King
Not having watched Greta Garbo, in Queen Christina (1933), or Liv Ullmann, in The Abdication (1974) – and not being a student of advanced Scandinavian studies in college — I was unaware of the existence of Christina, Queen of Sweden (a.k.a., “Minerva of the North”), who reigned from 1632 to 1654. At the age of 6, Christina succeeded her father, King Gustavus Adolphus, upon his death at the Battle of Lützen. That fact, alone, wouldn’t make her all that noteworthy in the history of the crowned heads of Europe or worthy of two major English-language movies. Those films could only tell half of her story, however, because the rest of it has for centuries been relegated to the realm of conjecture, gossip and rumor. In his fascinating period biopic, The Girl King, Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki (L.A. Without a Map) attempts to fill in some of the holes left unfilled by previous filmmakers, but, by necessity, only was able to take it as far as Christina’s voluntary abdication, at 28, and her setting out for Rome. Pope Alexander VII saw Christina’s conversion as a great boon to the counter-Reformation, describing her as “a queen without a realm, a Christian without faith, and a woman without shame.” Kaurismäki presents the Queen as an atypically educated and worldly monarch, who shocked her advisers by calling for an end to the Thirty Years’ War and having no interest in marriage.  He also elaborates on Christina’s admittedly intimate relationship with her lady-in-waiting Ebba Sparre and determinedly androgynous approach to dress, manners and discourse. Malin Buska, who closely resembles Christina’s portraiture, balances her portrayal of gender ambiguity with a pre-feminist approach to leadership. Her constant companion, Sparre, is more overtly feminine and trapped between the expectations of her parents and queen. If there’s one thing that filmmakers have always done well, it’s approximating the grandeur of life at court in the sets and costume design. Likewise, the filmmakers’ Scandinavian background works in the favor of providing a contrast between Christina’s environment and those of the more familiar courts of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette. The fact is, Christiana’s life outside Sweden, post-abdication, is every bit as fascinating and provocative as the 20-year span covered in The Girl Queen. Just knowing that she’s one of only three women and, possibly, the only lesbian, buried in the Vatican grotto makes it worthy of consideration for a mini-series.

Blind
It’s taken for granted that the human body is able to compensate for the loss of a sense by making at least one of the others stronger than it might have been, otherwise. Although recent studies suggest this phenomenon is limited to people who weren’t born without sight or hearing, circumstantial evidence is easier to believe than scientific papers. So, why not in the movies, too? In his erotically charged drama, Blind, writer/director Eskil Vogt (Oslo, August 31st) demonstrates how the imagination of one beautiful blond woman, Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Pettersen), kicks into overdrive after a genetic condition leaves her without sight. At first, the former teacher spends most of her time at home adjusting to her environment and trying to answer the rhetorical question, “Why me?” While her architect husband, Morten (Henrik Rafaelsen), is supportive of her situation, Ingrid’s emotional withdrawal eventually takes its toll. He compensates by turning to porn and occasionally spying on Ingrid before announcing that he’s in the apartment. She doesn’t seem to mind that his eavesdropping includes checking out the stories she’s been writing, which are surprisingly titillating. In one story, Ingrid describes the loneliness and frustration of an unattractive Oslo loner, who occupies his time at home peeping on a blind neighbor and devising ways to ingratiate himself into her life. As time goes by, the author begins inserting Morten into this scenario, giving her husband a sex life away from home, however fictional. Ingrid’s writing reveals something within herself that prompts her to expand her own narrowed horizons, adding yet another layer of make-believe to the game Vogt is playing with the viewer. Vogt won the Screenwriting Award for World Cinema/Dramatic and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance festival.

Speedy: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray     
To borrow a line that could have been, but probably wasn’t found on posters promoting Harold Lloyd’s final silent feature, “Speedy: Come for the laughs, stay for a bite of the Big Apple.” The same slogan applies to the Criterion Collection’s impeccable 4K digital restoration of the wonderful 1928 comedy, for which director Ted Wilde was nominated for the first and only Academy Award as Best Director of a Comedy. Speedy is first and foremost a tremendously entertaining movie in the great tradition of Hollywood silent comedies. What’s most fun about this Criterion Collection edition are the bonus features, in which historians describe how Lloyd and Wilde succeeded in making an action-comedy under extreme circumstances, most of which couldn’t happen today. Shooting in New York has never been a piece of cake, at the best of times, but, in the 1920s, crowd-control restrictions and permits didn’t exist. Lloyd’s elaborate stunts with horse-drawn trolleys would be conducted on the busiest streets of the busiest city on the planet, making them exponentially more dangerous than they already were. In character and at the height of his popularity, Lloyd was as instantly recognizable on the streets of New York City as he was in the backlots of Hollywood or on any screen in the world. Because Lloyd wanted Speedy to look as realistic as possible, cinematographer Walter Lundin frequently was required to hide his camera inside a box. This was the case in scenes shot at Coney Island on one of the hottest and most crowded days of the year. It’s interesting to learn how Lloyd and Ann Christy were able to partake in the amusement park’s rides and other attractions, more or less unrecognized, while completely surrounded by paying customers. (It’s here, too, that Lloyd famously flips the bird to himself in a funhouse mirror.) Another highlight of the film is an extended cameo by Babe Ruth, who, two weeks later, would hit his record-setting 60th homerun.

The story describes the attempts made by the scatterbrained New Yorker, Speedy, to helps his sweetheart’s grandfather either save the city’s last horse-drawn trolley line or be compensated for its demise. A greedy would-be monopolist doesn’t want to fork over a dime to the old-timer, preferring to hire thugs to convince him to call it quits, before a court-mandated deadline. The trolley’s fictitious route allows for a scenic tour of Manhattan, which was supplemented by inserts added in Los Angeles. To fully appreciate this conceit, viewers should take advantage of the audio commentary featuring Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, and Turner Classic Movies’ program director Scott McGee. Goldstein also hosts a documentary about the New York locations – then and now – and the L.A. replications. Other highlights include a 1992 musical score by composer Carl Davis, synchronized and restored under his supervision and presented in uncompressed stereo; truly rare archival footage of Ruth, presented by David Filipi, director of film and video at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio; a new visual essay featuring stills of deleted scenes from the film, narrated by Goldstein; a selection of Lloyd’s home movies, narrated by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd; “Bumping Into Broadway,” a 1919 Lloyd two-reeler, newly restored and with a 2004 score by Robert Israel; and an essay by critic Phillip Lopate.

Ballad of the Weeping Spring
The Dealers
I don’t pretend to understand all of the vagaries of film distribution, except to the extent that it defines the military-slang acronym FUBAR and, outside of a handful of niche companies, festivals and YouTube, rarely works in the interest of consumers. From SISU Entertainment comes Ballad of the Weeping Spring, a truly remarkable musical drama that transcends cultural and political borders, but has only been shown outside Israel in a few Jewish film festivals. Whatever the reason, it’s a crime. In very different ways, Benny Toraty’s film reminds me of Buena Vista Social Club, The Pied Piper of Hutzovina, Rembetiko, Genghis Blues and, even, The Commitments … movies about the transcendent properties of music and the people who maintain its integrity. If all anyone knows about Israeli folk music is “Hava Nagila,” Ballad of the Weeping Spring will come as a stunning, if wonderfully pleasant surprise. In most ways, it’s a universal story of loss, redemption, reconciliation and a reaffirmation of one’s roots. The roots here, however, extend through countless generations of Jewish life and tradition, outside the mainstream of its prevailing environment. With his father on his death bed, Amram Mufradi (Dudu Tassa) knows that he is running out of time to make a dream come true for the once famous Mizrahi musician. To accomplish this, however, Amram is required to locate Jossef Tawila (Uri Gavriel), the legendary tar player of the band Ensemble Tourqouise, and convince him to break out of a shell that’s been calcifying for 20 years. After the debut of Tawila and Avram Mufradi’s “Crying Spring Symphony,” the band was involved in a terrible, if entirely preventable automobile accident, in which two of the orchestra’s members were killed and the singer was crippled. Even if Amram is able to convince Tawila to pick up his instrument again, after two decades, they’ll then be required to recruit musicians capable of performing the symphony, using traditional instruments. Nothing comes easy in these sorts of stories, of course, even if a happy ending is assured from Minute One. The music of the Mizrahi Jews is informed by a long history of life in predominantly Muslim countries. It is more easily associated with Arab and Gypsy music, than the klezmer bands of eastern Europe. Like the earthy rembetes culture of Greek refugees from Asia Minor, it derives from a certain economic and cultural demi monde, populated by denizens of the night. Amram and Tawila’s mission takes them through parts of Israel not typically seen in movies from the region and in venues more related to juke joints of the American South or Gypsy weddings.  The brilliant musicianship was supervised by composer Mark Eliyahu and enhanced with an emotionally charged performance by singer/actor Ishtar.

If nothing else, Oded Davidoff’s slacker comedy, The Dealers, reveals a side of life in Jerusalem that rarely finds its way onto news reports from the Middle East. Almost nothing that doesn’t involve violence and religious intolerance is able to cut through the noise. Set in the residential neighborhood of Ramot, the 2012 release introduces us to a group of young-adult slackers, who spend most of their afternoons and nights smoking grass and hashish, dropping ecstasy and drinking American booze. The guys, at least, spend their mornings practicing for a city-wide soccer tournament. It’s a mixed group of Palestinians and Jews that doesn’t look as if they could play an entire match, without calling periodic time outs for oxygen and shots of Novocain. The women among them seem only marginally less useless. Because Rami and Avishay, both 27, owe money to a local gangster, much of the intrigue here involves their struggle to come up with the cash, without actually having to work terribly hard to get it. Also participating are some older friends from the same neighborhood, who’ve been to war, prison or both. What makes The Dealers different than any number of other slacker films extant is the firestorm its posters ignited, before the movie even opened. The marketing campaign was altered to remove images of its female stars because some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe pictures of women that distract men’s attention are unacceptable. The incident follows escalating tensions that have seen other film posters and publicity torn down.  (Recently, in anticipation of angry protests, images of Jennifer Lawrence on publicity for The Hunger Games were removed in some heavily Orthodox Israeli cities.) It’s gotten to the point where some films are made by women, specifically for female audiences, and they’ve even been withheld from the DVD market to ensure they don’t fall into the hands of men. Not surprisingly, this has created a backlash from more liberal Israelis, who feel as if their rights are being subordinated to placate the overzealous arguments of fundamentalists. They responded by demanding that The Dealers be allowed to continue its original marketing campaign and restrictions on the visibility of women be rescinded. If only the movie were as interesting as the debate.

One Eyed Girl: Blu-ray
Likely inspired by the suicide cults that developed around the quasi-religious rants of Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite, One Eyed Girl is a technically proficient and occasionally disturbing first directorial feature by Aussie cinematographer Nick Matthews (2:37). Mark Leonard Winter plays Travis, a young psychiatrist haunted by the death of one of his patients. On the brink of a nervous breakdown, Travis meets Grace (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) as she’s trying to hand out brochures promising spiritual salvation to commuters. She isn’t all that convincing, but something about Grace’s frail, but determined demeanor causes Travis to accept one. Desperate for redemption, he follows her to a rural compound outside Adelaide, where everyone appears to be just as messed up as he is. The church is run by the charismatic Father Jay (Steve Le Marquand), who, before trying religion, could have hosted infomercials on TV. Selling utopia to neurotics is far easier. Not surprisingly, Father Jay has a past life that about to catch up him. The flock’s questionably violent methodology also will come into play. Even if One Eyed Girl is all too familiar, the actors are convincing and Matthews knows how to build and maintain tension. His surprise ending works pretty well, too.

Lucky
Journalist Laura Checkoway’s debut documentary is about a young woman named Lucky, whose life has been anything but lucky. Petite in stature and covered in tattoos and piercings, Lucky Torres was born into poverty and raised by the state. A hundred years ago, she might have made a living in a midway freak show or appearing alongside Groucho Marx, as he sang “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Today, however, she’s just one of a million other kids who’ve buried their pain and lack of self-esteem in top-to-toe ink and metal protuberances. Unlike most of them, however, her tattoos don’t stop at the wrist and neckline. Lucky’s covered her face, neck and hands with the kind of skin art that tells everyone in the square world that she doesn’t give a shit what they think of her appearance. If Lucky can’t find a job that pays enough to take care of her son, rent, clothes, drugs and booze, it’s only because she doesn’t live in New Zealand, among the Maori, and employers here don’t care to have their customers insulted by the self-deprecating language etched on her face (“Bitch”), “fuck” and “you” on the back of her thighs, or numerous images of rapper L’il Wayne. Checkoway’s Lucky is exceedingly sympathetic to the titular subject, even as she threatens to self-destruct before her camera. The journalist followed Torres for six years before finishing the documentary. They met at the Christopher Street Pier, in Greenwich Village, where LGBT kids hang out in a community based on alienation, solidarity and friendship. Her sister, Fantasy, also has tattoos but they can be easily hidden by clothing. Neither is she as openly hostile to authority figures. While it’s difficult to feel sorry for Lucky – and she isn’t begging for pity — Checkoway’s intimate portrait demands that we live in her world for 72 minutes, and it isn’t easy. Maybe someone at Suicide Girls could find something for Lucky to do.

Women’s Prison Massacre: Blu-ray
There are a couple of things going on Women’s Prison Massacre (a.k.a., “Blade Violent”) that make it different than other women-in-prison pictures. Foremost, it combines the Emmanuelle/Emanuelle and WIP subgenres, with Laura Gemser adding her consider talents to the mix. Gemser’s presence classes up any piece of garbage to which she’s attached herself and Women’s Prison Massacre is crappy, even by the standards associated with a subgenre that’s migrated from Hollywood, to the Philippines, Italy and Japan. The other noteworthy thing is that the 1983 made-in-Italy grindhouse non-classic is almost a carbon copy of Caged Women (a.k.a., “Violence in a Women’s Prison”), except that Gemser only disrobes in the former. In the 1982 Caged Women, Emanuelle (one “m”) is a journalist who voluntarily goes undercover in a women’s prison to expose the corrupt officials, horrible living conditions, the guards’ poor treatment of the prisoners and prisoners’ poor treatment of each other. In Women’s Prison Massacre, Emanuelle is on the verge of breaking a big story about a corrupt politician when she gets framed and sent to a women’s prison, where the administration is dirty, the facility filthy, the cops are brutal and the prisoners feral. After four dangerous men are temporarily transferred to the facility, the sadists overpower the guards and torment the prison population. It’s up to Emanuelle and her fellow inmates to re-take control of the prison. It’s worth noting that the original “Emmanuelle” (two m’s) series, was palpably erotic where the single-m sequels feature gratuitous sexuality and violence. Although Gemser is a legitimate cult goddess, the people who wrote and directed her “Emanuelle” titles couldn’t be bothered with class and style. Bruno Mattei directed both pictures under two different pseudonyms, while co-writer and AD Claudio Fragasso would go on to direct Troll 2, one of the “best worst movies” of all time. (Gemser is credited as costume designer.) The Blu-ray restoration is better than it has any right to be.

TV-to-DVD
Dora and Friends: Season 1
CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season 1
Unlike so many other popular television characters, Nickelodeon has given Dora an opportunity to grow older and evolve alongside her fan base. In the bilingual “Dora and Friends: Into the City!,” the Latina heroine moves into an urban environment, where she attends school and makes friends with kids who work together to give back to the community. Armed with a magical charm bracelet and trusty Map App, Dora is always ready to solve problems, speak and teach Spanish, and go on real-life adventures. The four-disc “Dora and Friends: Season 1” offers more than seven hours of edutainment, including the never before-aired episode, “Dragon in the School,” a Nick Jr. bonus disc, doggie adoptions, puppy princesses and beautiful mermaids.

Just for the record, “CPO Sharkey: The Best of Season 1” delivers only six complete episodes culled from the complete-season package released in May by Time Life/WEA, so, if you have one, you don’t need the other, unless as a stocking stuffer. Episodes include “Oh Captain My Captain,” where the chauvinistic Sharkey (Don Rickles) meets his new commanding officer, who turns out to be a woman; “The Dear John Letter,” in which Chief Robinson (Harrison Page) suspects Sharkey to be a smooth ladies man; “Goodbye Dolly,” featuring an inflatable doll that causes a ruckus in the barracks, until Sharkey deflates the situation; “Sunday in Tijuana,” with some South of the Border jail time for the men of Company 144; “Sharkey Boogies on Down,” where Rickles tests his dance moves at a disco for Chief Robinson’s birthday; and, “Sharkey’s Secret Life,” in which the recruits are convinced that Sharkey may be gay after he purchases a toupee from a mysterious, shoulder-purse-toting wig salesman.

The DVD Wrapup: Momentum, Amorous, Secrets of War, Grace of Monaco, The Wall, The Square, Hunting Ground, MST3K and more

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Momentum: Blu-ray
Last week, the dull thud of one of the worst box-office duds of all times reverberated from the U.K. to trade and gossip sites across the U.S. Momentum, a crime thriller that cost an estimated $20 million to make, returned a whopping $69 to its investors from its opening week’s run in 10 theaters. How is that even possible? The headlines I saw attached Morgan Freeman’s name to the report, as if he were somehow responsible for the Momentum’s disastrous performance … or lack thereof. Considering how little time the Oscar-winner is on screen, the blame should have been shared, at least, by leads Olga Kurylenko and James Purefoy. And, yet, that wouldn’t have been fair, either. No, Momentum is an example of a movie in which actors were betrayed by their director and writers, in addition to the total absence of positive buzz from earlier runs in such disparate markets as Russia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Toronto, the UAE and the Philippines, where the total gross failed to pass a million dollars. At a time when overseas returns are compensating for bad decisions made by pinhead studio executives here, how is that even possible? By the time Momentum was ready for Brit audiences to see, its distributor, Signature Entertainment, probably decided to cut its losses by refusing to waste another cent on marketing.

In the U.S., the Capetown-shot heist flick opened on Internet, cable and other VOD outlets, before being sent out on DVD/Blu-ray, where Kurylenko has earned a reputation as a reliable action star. Is Momentum really as bad as all that? Yes, but being instantly forgettable, the pain doesn’t last long. Kurylenko looks hot, as usual, playing Alexis Faraday, the infiltration expert of a high-tech armed-robbery crew, whose disguises appear to have been rented from George Lucas. In addition to a cache of diamonds, the robbers now have in their possession a computer file incriminating a U.S. senator (Freeman) in an international conspiracy designed to trigger another expensive war on terrorism, destined only to benefit defense contractors. He sends out a hitman, Mr. Washington (Purefoy), to find and eliminate the gang members holding the disc. Instead, he wastes time ogling Alexis, allowing enough time for a long and needlessly confusing chase to ensue between the sort-of good guys and the really bad ones.

Amorous
Anyone who watched Showtime’s now-cancelled “Polyamory: Married & Dating” already knows how difficult it can be for multi-partner families to thrive in a society designed to promote monogamy, including newly legal gender-neutral marriages. The same problems that vex committed hetero- and LGBT couples – sexual, financial, hierarchical – are compounded in polyamorous settings. On the other hand, when things work out, the bliss can be magnified exponentially. Joanna Coates’ Amorous (a.k.a., “Hide and Seek”) moves the discussion from southern California to England, where four Londoners move to an isolated country cottage in an effort to escape the pressures and expectations of big-city life. In exercises that will seem extremely bizarre to people not accustomed to New Age tropes and adult-play therapy, the group fashions new rules and rituals to help them combat complacency and cynicism. The feeling-out process also includes becoming comfortable with each other sexually, by swapping partners and exploring unconventional relationships. There’s no guarantee it will work, of course, but the characters give it their best shots. The new personal and sexual bonds are tested by the arrival of an ex-lover, as was the case in “Polyamorous.” Josh O’Connor, Hannah Arterton, Rea Mole and Daniel Metz wouldn’t qualify as perfect-10s in most corners of the world, but that’s a good thing. By Hollywood standards, most of us wouldn’t make the cut in a beauty contest. The pastoral setting does add a make-believe aura to the fun and games, though.

Secrets of War
In such thrilling World War II movies as Black Book, Soldier of Orange, Winter in Wartime, and, now, Dennis Bots’ Secrets of War, Dutch filmmakers have demonstrated a remarkable ability to dramatize multiple aspects of the Nazi occupation simultaneously. Depictions of the resistance movement, threats to Jewish residents and German brutality toward the citizenry, in general, are common threads, of course, but we’ve also watched the war through the eyes of children, farmers, prostitutes and collaborationists … heroes, saints and finks. Based on a best-selling novel by Dutch scientist, politician and author Jan Terlouw, Winter in Wartime was the story of a 16-year-old boy who contributes to the resistance in any way he can, including rescuing British airmen whose flight paths take them over the Dutch countryside. The boy is conflicted, however, by his loyalty to his father, the mayor, who seemingly is only interested in maintaining the status quo between the town and the German Army. The lasting image I have of the movie is of the boy (Martijn Lakemeier) sneaking secret papers past German soldiers on his bicycle. Dutch children’s author and playwright Jacques Vriens wrote the book from which Secrets of War was adapted. The boys here may be younger, almost by half, but their everyday life in a rural village forces them to come to grips with issues related directly to the occupation and Holocaust.

Tuur and Lambert (Maas Bronkhuyzen, Joes Brauers) are best friends, with fathers on opposite sides of the ideological fence. They’ve been left largely in the dark about the uglier aspects of the occupation, but can’t help witnessing such injustices as the Nazis’ seizure of farm animals and occasional arrest of the local priest for his anti-German sermons. The boys take sides when playing games with make-believe guns, but have no idea what’s really at stake in the war. Neither are they aware of the contents of the locked box cars on trains travelling from Amsterdam to the Germany. It isn’t until a clever student, Maartje (Pippa Allen), transfers into their school and becomes their best friend, that they’re introduced to the ugliest truth of the war, by far. Maartje’s parents have been arrested by the Gestapo, but not before they were able to arrange for her identity changed and lodging with relatives in the village. It isn’t until youthful jealousy rears its ugly head that the horrors of war are visited on the trio. One of the primary things working in Bots’ favor are locations in the Benelux countries that probably haven’t changed much since 1945. This is especially true in the vast network of caves actually used in the war to hide downed pilots, Jewish families and resistance fighters looking to move between Holland and Belgium. Secrets of War can be watched by parents and their older children without concerns about gore, the glorification of militarism or nightmare-inducing images of genocide. It adds a decent making-of featurette and Kate Tsang’s short film, “So You’ve Grown Attached,” about some of the vagaries of growing up, anywhere.

Grace of Monaco
If the Principality of Monaco didn’t already have a patron saint – Devote, 283-303 AD — Prince Albert II could have sent Olivier Dahan’s overly pious biopic of his mother, Grace of Monaco, to the Vatican for consideration as a worthy candidate. The only thing missing is a halo radiating over the head of Nicole Kidman, who plays the expatriate princess and, of course, Oscar winner. What American film lover hasn’t heard fairytale story of Grace Kelly of Philadelphia and Hollywood giving up her acting career to marry the monarch of a geographic entity still known primarily for a Grand Prix race and casino. Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) must have been a helluva kisser, because he was no Prince Charming … or Cary Grant, for that matter. In the eyes of her filthy rich subjects, she was little more than a commoner. (Never mind that her personal fortune was greater than Rainier’s then-insolvent treasury.) Arash Amel’s heavily edited screenplay focuses less on the fairytale than her difficulties in adjusting to life as a subservient wife and the role she played in saving Monaco from being occupied by French forces. Charles De Gaulle wanted Rainier to begin taxing his subjects and contribute the revenues to his colonial escapades. Princess Grace would use her cinematic wiles to win world leaders’ support for breaking the French blockade and raise her profile as a great humanitarian.

By emphasizing this footnote in the history of celebrity diplomacy, screenwriter Arash Amel gave Dahan ample opportunity to level the playing field upon which the royal couple played their games, as well as the occasion for a rip-roaring speech before a room full of dignitaries that included De Gaulle, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Philip Delancy), Ari Onassis (Robert Lindsay) and Maria Callas (Paz Vega), who sang for her supper. Despite Dahan’s pedestrian direction, what stands out in Grace of Monaco are the lush settings, grand interiors and wonderful fashions. I would have liked to see more of the principality than is on display here, however. It’s an interesting place, with a splendid history, but you’d think it was an attraction at Disneyland, with Rainier left to impersonate the monarch in the Burger King commercials. The movie took a terrible critical drubbing when it opened the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, so much so that it was shown theatrically everywhere, except the U.S., where it opened on Lifetime a year later. Despite all of the negative word-of-mouth and tinkering, Grace of Monaco made $26.5 million at the international box office. Add the Lifetime, PPV and likely DVD/Blu-ray revenues to that figure and Weinstein Company shouldn’t do too badly. Certainly, they saved a few bucks by not adding commentaries or featurettes to the discs.

Roger Waters: The Wall: Blu-ray
I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song
How long future generations of musicians and actors will profit from performing rock operas and musicals identified with long-dead musicians pretty much depends on how long the heart of rock ’n’ roll is still beating. (Thank you, Huey Lewis.) Touring companies of “Hair,” “Godspell,”“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Tommy” and “American Idiot” and such “jukebox musicals” as “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Mamma Mia!,” “We Will Rock You,” “Fela!,” “Jersey Boys” and “Million Dollar Quartet” could probably go on forever, as well. I wonder if Pink Floyd’s magnum opus, “The Wall,” will survive after Roger Waters, David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason reunite with Richard Wright and Syd Barrett in Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven. Among other things, it’s difficult to imagine anyone outside of Las Vegas possessing the financial wherewithal to mount a production that would approximate the monumental concert experience memorialized in the Blu-ray/DVD  “Roger Water: The Wall” and previous performance films. Moreover, it would be exceedingly difficult to assign to anyone else the personal story attached to it by Waters. It was informed, in part, by the wartime deaths of his father and grandfather, as well as he and Gilmour’s alienation from the band’s audiences on the 1977 tour. The magnitude of “The Wall” in concert is perfectly demonstrated in time-lapse featurettes showing the complexity of the seven-day process of staging it in a Buenos Aires soccer stadium. The “wall” separating the audience from the band – and other societal disconnects – stretches from one side of the stadium to the other, while the video screen and canopy tower over the grandstands. The lighting and other special visual effects, alone, would bankrupt several small countries. It’s an amazing show. The only caveat here derives from Waters’ choice of integrating filmed vignettes into the concert footage. While heartfelt, they disrupt the musical flow throughout the production. In them, Waters visits memorials at battlefields throughout Europe, while also flashing back to prominent moments in his past. “Roger Waters: The Wall” was shot during the sold-out 2010-13 world tour, which included 219 shows, in 4K and mixed in Dolby Atmos. The package adds UltraViolet access; a visit to the Bulgarian grave of anti-fascist writer Frank Thompson; and Facebook films.

I can’t immediately recall the songs on my digital playlist 15 years ago, but I know that it didn’t include Lee Ann Womack’s heart-rending Song of the Year, “I Hope You Dance.” I have nothing against Womack or the song. It simply wasn’t on my radar … or the satellite stations to which I was tuned. According to the evidence presented in John Scheinfeld’s I Hope You Dance: The Power and Spirit of Song, Tia Sillers and Mark D. Sanders’ crossover hit has had a significant impact beyond the folks who downloaded it from the Internet or chose it for their wedding promenades. The documentary explores how a song about hope, faith and optimism — just under five minutes in length – has changed the lives of several “real” people in profound ways. In addition to introducing us to a half-dozen of them, there are testimonials from Dr. Maya Angelou, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, Pastor Joel Osteen, Vince Gill and Womack. It also showcases a new version by four-time Grammy-nominated artist, Mandisa. Instead of being sappy, the film feels as genuine today as the lyrics did when first heard.

The Square
It’s taken almost three years for Jehane Noujaim’s excellent documentary, The Square, to wind its way from Sundance to DVD. I suppose there’s a good reason for the delay, but I’ll be damned if I know precisely what it is. Here’s my guess: after its festival debut, late-breaking events in the “continuing Egyptian revolution” forced the Cairo-born filmmaker (Control Room, Startup.com) to update the ending of her finished product twice, before the crowd-sourced doc began its Oscar-qualifying runs in the fall and was picked up for streaming, on Netflix, in January, 2014. This meant that anyone whose interest was piqued by The Square’s Oscar, Emmy, IDA and Independent Spirit nominations, would only find it at Netflix, which, at the time, was transitioning from an all-mail to largely streaming service. The mass-distribution screener I received is from City Drive Entertainment Group and MVD Visual. In that 20-month interim, of course, the Arab Spring devolved into the ISIS Winter. The people Noujaim introduced us to in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, probably would want us to know that the revolution that began there in January, 2011, is still evolving. The Square’s abundant optimism flows through the hearts and minds of six very different protesters, who were there at the beginning and maintained their revolutionary spirit throughout the contentious struggles to come. They all had different reasons for coming to the original tent city, but shared a willingness to listen to the opinions of everyone around them, whether Muslim or Christian, left or right, young or old. That bond would be seriously tested twice more, at least, but Noujaim’s foresight held true. The DVD adds more than 90 minutes of deleted scenes and exclusive content.

Jerusalem: Blu-ray
For 43 minutes, at least, the creative team behind the beautifully rendered documentary, Jerusalem – originally shot for 3D IMAX theaters – shows us a deceptively peaceful city, where men and women of several different religions worship openly, without fear of being killed for their beliefs or stoned for praying in the wrong place. This is a city where hope reigns supreme and fundamentalists don’t pray for the End Times to arrive, so they can get to heaven before the rest of us … or not. In that regard, Jerusalem may hedge the truth, but it’s a fib most of us wish was true. Daniel Ferguson, who’s worked on similar documentaries about the pilgrimages to Mecca, opens the gates to the city with the assistance of three teenage girls – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – who share with us their love for Jerusalem and it vibrant cultures. As was the case in his films about the hajj, Ferguson sought and was accorded exceptional access to the holiest of shrines and rites. But, before he could begin filming, he had to cut through what must have seem like miles of red tape at every turn. He takes us directly above the Temple Mount, by helicopter, and to foundation of the ancient city, where natural spring water still flows. He was allowed to spend the night among religious leaders at Christ’s tomb. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to Israel in my lifetime, but, at least, I’ve seen more of Jerusalem than I thought I would. The Blu-ray arrives with commentary, deleted scenes, several extended interviews, making-of material and a well-reasoned explanation as to why Ferguson chose to avoid the politics of hate in his film.

Goodnight Mommy: Blu-ray
Hole
Killing Heat
When Mother (Susanne Wuest) returns to her isolated glass-walled summer home with bandages wrapped around her face, we, like her twin sons, Lukas and Elias, wonder what happened to her in the hospital. Was she in an accident? Has she undergone cosmetic surgery to repair damage done by an abusive husband or merely to maintain looks that once graced the cover of fashion magazines? The boys’ father isn’t around and there aren’t any photos of him on the walls. Mom seems lost in a world of her own. More to the point, however, is the almost telepathic relationship shared by the twins, who have full run of the gorgeous property, which lies between a pristine Austrian lake, thick pine forest and a carefully managed cornfield. By all outward appearances, they’re perfectly normal 9-year-olds, with imaginations that sometimes lead them astray. Because we’ve seen the kind of mischief twins get into the movies – those not made by Disney, anyway – we’re ready for anything. As much as Mother tries to distract their attention away from her face, she can’t keep the boys from wondering if she might have been switched with another woman while in the hospital. Their concern becomes especially acute after she appears to be favoring one of them over the other and forbidding the other to speak or wear clothes of his own choosing. In their minds, Mother is merging them into a single entity and they don’t like it. Considering how close we are to being in Michael Haneke territory, nothing ought to surprise us from this point forward. The boys become more conspiratorial, while Mother is too consumed with her self-image to recognize the signs of imminent danger. Goodnight Mother (a.k.a., in German, “I Spy With My Little Eye”) easily qualifies as “arthouse horror,” if only because of how writer/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz use the house’s unique architecture to add another layer of tension to the story. There’s no reason for other genre buffs to be intimidated by the fancy stuff, though. The Blu-ray adds an interesting conversation with the filmmakers.

Ed Kunkle, the antagonist of Hole, also has mommy issues. When he was young, she would tie him to a chair in a room full of wooden dolls and berate him. Guess what Ed grows up to be?  Remember “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs? The two characters share several horrifying traits, including a fondness for sewing. Joaquin Montalvan’s follow-up to The Legend of the Hillbilly Butcher does a pretty good getting inside the mind of an ex-con who’s tormented by demons of his own making and others left behind from his mother, after he killed her. By the way, Ed’s weapon of choice is a sledge hammer. What distinguishes Hole from most other DVD originals is Montalvan’s ability to drive his narrative with something other than the periodic bludgeoning deaths of his victims. If the movie thrives on the many conceptual conceits he invests in the story, they sometimes feel gratuitously clever. Much of Hole was shot on what appears to be damaged film stock, while the soundtrack mimics the drone of defective brain cells reverberating through the skull of a maniac. Montalvan mixes colors and textures at will, usually, though, to good effect. He also bombards us with flashbacks, flash-forwards, visual references to other horror films and experimentation for the sake of experimentation. Paul E. Respass, who plays Kunklem, has appeared in the director’s last two films and seems comfortable in the role of the monster. The DVD adds commentary, a making-of featurette and “Ed’s Journal,” which re-creates a weathered facsimile of “Wisconsin Death Trip.”

Also from exploitation specialist Wild Eye Releasing comes Killing Heat, an action flick with almost no action – until its half over, anyway – but plenty of disturbing attitude. Set in some infrequently seen Thai locations, co-writer/director/actor/producer/cinematographer Daniel Dahl’s thriller-without-thrills is so ludicrously scripted and ineptly made as to be laughable. And, it might have been funny, if its racism, sexism and violence weren’t so crudely drawn and executed. Imagine if the “two wild and crazy guys” from “Saturday Night Live” made a home movie while seeking “swinging adventures” in an exotic setting. And, I don’t mean Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd playing the Czech brothers … I mean the Festrunks, themselves. Here, Norwegian businessman J.D. is invited to Thailand by his bro’s for a bit of R&R after being fired from his desk job. For a couple of nights, they have a good time getting wasted, laid and tricked into paying for blowjobs by two of Bangkok’s famous lady boys. After one such debauched night out, J.D. wakes up in the jungle with no memory of how he got there. After raping a child – I’m not kidding – J.D. is forced to hightail it back to Bangkok, with half of the rural population chasing him. He manages to kill most of them with marksmanship that rivals Annie Oakley. Even the dubbing is horrible. The Festrunks couldn’t have made Killing Heat worse than Dahl already has, no matter how hard they tried. The only truly good idea Dahl has to offer comes in the final five minutes, but it’s too little, too late.

A Year and Change
Addiction: A ’60s Love Story
While it’s possible that fans of “How to Make It in America” and “One Tree Hill” will find something interesting in Bryan Greenberg’s performance in Stephen Suettinger’s unfocused rom/com/dram, A Year in Change, it isn’t likely that anyone else will. He plays Owen, an alcoholic vending-machine proprietor who’s squandered every opportunity in life, but feels as if there’s still time to sober up before things get too dire. That point comes when his ex-wife (Kat Foster) tells him that she’s landed a job in San Diego and is taking their son with her. It also coincides with him falling off the roof at a house party, while reaching for a bottle of beer in the rain gutter. If that weren’t sufficiently symbolic, Owen is required to endure several other indignities before the filmmakers deem him salvageable. Characters played Marshall Allman (“True Blood”) and T.R. Knight (“Grey’s Anatomy”) have troubles of their own, but look so much alike I managed to confuse them halfway through the film. Besides nearly screwing up his relationship with his son, Owen also is required to misread every cue thrown his way by a lovely, recently jilted bank teller (Claire van der Boom), who’s far too good for him. Unfortunately, by the time Suettinger and Jim Beggarly’s script allows for Owen to redeem himself, we’ve given up on him.

The same caveat applies to Addiction: A ’60s Love Story. Only fans of “Pretty Little Liars” star Ian Harding – or Luna Lovegood, in the “Harry Potter” films – are likely to do handsprings over what they see in Tate Steinsiek’s debut feature. In it, Harding does an OK job as Max Bornstein, a Jersey boy who dropped out of college to pursue a career in the then-underground porn industry, a heroin addiction and broken marriage. Long after getting clean and sober, Bornstein wrote a book about his experiences, which, except for the porn, resembles every other memoir by a middle-class white guy, who fell in love with drugs and pissed away a fortune in friends and money before finding the light. His real talent was hiding his vices from his family, including his wife (Evanna Lynch), until his book was published. The DVD adds interviews.

The Hunting Ground
A few weekends ago, CNN aired Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s stunning documentary about rape on campus, “The Hunting Ground,” despite threats of legal action from a lawyer for one of the athletes specifically accused in it by a “survivor.” That player, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, had ducked investigations while enrolled at Florida State University and law-enforcement officials in Tallahassee failed to investigate the alleged rape. Once the national media caught wind of the allegations and began to smell something fishy about the ease with which FSU athletes have been able to avoid persecution on most crimes, the police announced that they had no reason to believe the sex wasn’t consensual, as Winston argued, and refused to press charges. If FSU was an isolated example of athletes being allowed to behave badly, Dick and Ziering (The Invisible War) probably would have been forced to leave well enough. Instead, they discovered a network of dozens of women, connected by the Internet, who were willing to come forward and tell the world how they were seduced by their assailants and abandoned by school officials. The patterns are all too familiar, as they largely involve officially sanctioned fraternities and athletes who traditionally have been given a pass.

While it’s extremely difficult to differentiate between consensual sex between overserved and often underage students, it’s difficult to argue against the intention of frat boys chanting, “No means yes, yes means anal,” for all the world to hear. The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates how little support university officials will accord victims – women and men – when alumni money and prestige is involved. There’s also the testimony of parents, fathers mostly, who had watched helplessly as their precious daughters were vilified and bullied by Internet fiends and ignored by college administrators. Detractors have complained about the film’s structure and FSU president John Thrasher called The Hunting Ground “inaccurate and incomplete.” Like other officials mentioned in the film, Thrasher lacked the courage to appear on the follow-up program CNN arranged to address such complaints. As for questions raised by critics, they didn’t prevent Producers Guild of America from nominating the film for its top documentary award or Oscar nominators to include it on their short list.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats: Blu-ray
Wake Up and Kill: Blu-ray
The Amazing Doctor G
For a short story first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of the Saturday Evening Post, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” has enjoyed a long and fruitful life on the screen. Nine of them, at least, not including the parodies that followed very closely in the wake of the story’s publication. The idea of commissioning different artists to freely adapt “The Black Cat” isn’t new. Universal Pictures released a “Black Cat” in 1934 and 1941, and borrowed from the story for “Maniac,” also in 1934. In 1962, Roger Corman and Richard Matheson’s Tales of Terror combined “The Black Cat” with “The Cask of Amontillado” and sandwiched it between adaptations of “Morella” and “”The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The 1990 film Two Evil Eyes presents two Poe tales, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Black Cat.” The former was written and directed by George A. Romero while the latter was written and directed by Dario Argento. Arrow Video’s lavish Blu-ray box, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Black Cats” goes all giallo on us with Sergio Martino’s kooky 1972 thriller “Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key” and Lucio Fulci’s nasty 1981 take, “The Black Cat.” It’s funny how movies that once looked so cheesy on VHS become classic with 2K scrubbings from the original camera negatives and hi-def presentations. Martino’s contribution puts a hippy-dippy spin on the tale, as well adding sexy star turns by Edwige Fenech, Anita Strindberg, Angela La Vorgna and Dalila Di Lazzaro. Fulci’s contribution brings the story and the cat to an estate in rural England. Patrick Magee is outstanding as the mad psychic, who thinks he can control the cat’s killer instincts. The package arrives with new interviews with Martino; the featurettes, “Dolls of Flesh and Blood: The Gialli of Sergio Martino” and a visual essay by Michael Mackenzie exploring Martino’s unique contributions to the giallo genre and historian Stephen Thrower on “Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci”; reversible sleeves featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin; and a limited-edition 80-page book, featuring new writing on the films and Poe’s original story.

Also from Arrow Video and Italy, Carlo Lizzani’s Wake Up and Kill (a.k.a., “Wake Up and Die”) chronicles the exploits of the notorious armed robber Luciano Lutring, who, during the 1960s, committed more than 100 armed heists in Italy and on the French Riviera. Like Jesse James, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, Australia’s Ned Kelly, France’s Jacques Mesrine and Canada’s Edwin Boyd, Lutring was afforded a Robin Hood-like mystique by the media. Dubbed “the submachine gun soloist,” because he kept one in a violin case, Lutring’s stylish career lent itself to exploitation by filmmakers and Wake Up and Kill began production only months after his arrest on September 1, 1965. Compared to the poliziotteschi to come, in the 1970s, Wake Up and Kill is a no-frills account not only of Lutring’s spree, but also the glamorous singer (Lisa Gastoni) who became his moll. Robert Hoffman bears a closer resemblance to James Dean than Lutring, who died a free man in 2013, at 75. (The same can be said of Alain Delon, about his portrayal of the “gentleman thief” in Jose Giovanni’s 1975 thriller, Le Gitan.) Lizzani’s career spanned nearly 60 years, beginning in post-war neo-realism (Bitter Rice), moving on through giallo, cops-and-robbers and spaghetti-Westerns (Requiescant, The Violent Four), topical dramas (Love and Anger, Kleinhoff Hotel) and documentaries (Celluloid). Wake Up and Kill was scored by Ennio Morricone (Once Upon a Time in the West), co-scripted by Ugo Pirro (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), shot by Armando Nannuzzi (The Damned) and co-starring Gian Maria Volonté (The Death of Mario Ricci). That’s a lot of fire power for a movie that some might construe as a genre flick, albeit one that was hugely popular in Italy. The  Arrow upgrade, as usual, is excellent, and it arrives with a short English-language version.

The great Spanish actor Fernando Rey has done outstanding work in such noteworthy films as The French Connection, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire, Tristana, Elisa, My Life, Seven Beauties and Don Quijote de la Mancha. He’s been directed by William Friedkin, Luis Buñuel, Frank Perry, Robert Altman, Carlos Saura, Lina Wertmüller and Orson Welles. In the same year that Rey appeared in Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, he played the title character in a James Bond parody, The Amazing Doctor G, which also was sold as “The Two Crazy Secret Agents,” “Two Mafiosi Against Goldginger” and “Goldginger.” The Bond books and movies have been satirized endlessly since the early 1960s, often very well. From the appropriately named Cheezy Flicks – a distributor that specializes in such amusingly toxic fare — The Amazing Doctor G is not one of them. By comparison, it makes Austin Powers in Goldmember look like Commedia dell’arte. The evil Doctor Goldginger is planning to take over the world by brainwashing important leaders from around the world and start a war between the USA and the USSR. Upstaging Rey at every turn are photographers Franco and Ciccio, who are kidnapped by Goldginger. Sicilian comedians Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia play the foils to Goldginger and Agente 007 (George Hilton). These sorts of parodies were churned out for popular consumption during a period roughly spanning the end of Italian neo-realism and the rise of spaghetti-Westerns and giallo.

Assassination: Blu-ray
For many people, World War II began well before the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the hand of a divided Congress. It’s one of the things Americans can learn in new movies from Korea and China, where Japanese imperialist forces were making life miserable for the native populations long before December 7, 1941. The overall quality of the war pictures that find their way to the U.S. is excellent, with larger than ever budgets for talent and special effects. At 140 minutes, Choi Dong-hoon’s Assassination may seem like too daunting a test for Americans whose knowledge of what transpired in the Pacific Theater is necessarily limited to the Allies’ tortuous island-to-island march to victory. In 1933, much of Korea’s resistance movement is in jail or hiding in Manchuria. A group of exiled rebels have been instructed to return to Korea to assassinate the governor of the Japanese garrison in Gyeongseong and a pro-Japanese Korean business tycoon. Before they can begin, however, an elderly hero from an earlier resistance movement is recruited to break three specifically trained fighters from jail and take them to Shanghai, before re-entering Korea. One is a petite woman sharpshooter, who will have less trouble clearing security personnel than the men. Once inside Korea, however, they are required to deal with the added inconvenience of ferreting out an informer. Freelance assassin Hawaii Pistol and his sidekick Old Man have been hired to intercept the assassins. It’s complicated, alright, but there’s plenty of time to sort things out and the tension is relieved by more than a few light-hearted moments.

All About E
After watching Louise Wadley’s sure-footed buddy/road picture, All About E, I wondered what a 2015 remake of Thelma & Louise might look like if the protagonists were allowed to fall in love on their journey, naturally and without the angst usually associated with coming to grips with one’s sexual identity. They wouldn’t kick Brad Pitt out of bed for eating crackers, but they’d sure as hell not leave him in the same room with their money. Would the dynamics between Harvey Keitel’s sympathetic Detective Hal Slocumb and T&L change if he learned that the outlaw buddies had become don’t-give-a-shit lovers? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they wouldn’t feel it necessary to take the plunge into the canyon after their goodbye kiss. Maybe they’d call Gloria Allred, instead. In All About E, Mandahla Rose plays the title character, a Lebanese-Australian lesbian, who is the star deejay at a Sydney nightclub frequented by gay men, including her red-haired BFF, Matt. She’s lost her interest in a music career and her blond lover, Trish, has split for an Outback farm to escape the drama. One night, E finds a bag full of suitcase full of cash, lying there for her to steal it. When she learns that it belongs to her boss, a gay hoodlum, E decides to grab Matt for a road trip to the unknown. After visiting her parents, who’d love for her to pick up the clarinet again, E&M head for the farm for a possible reconciliation with Trish and a showdown with her very pissed-off boss. Things don’t work out exactly the way E imagined they would, but the ending is satisfying, anyway. The DVD adds interviews with Wadley and the filmmakers.

Zoolander: SteelBook Edition: Blu-ray
As most of the civilized world already knows, Zoolander No. 2 arrives February 12, in time for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and the Feast of Saint Valentine. As far as I know, neither Sacha Baron Cohen nor supermodel Bruno make appearances in it, although it would be fun if one or both of them did. I suspect that diehard fans already own the Blu-ray or DVD edition of the outrageous fashion-industry comedy, which share most of the same bonus features. Zoolander: SteelBook Edition, available only at Walmart until February 2, adds footage of Owen Wilson and Justin Theroux rehearsing their “epic” breakdance fight, under the direction of Ben Stiller, and an alternate version of the brainwashing sequence told through storyboards. What makes it giftable, though, are a collectible Zoolander headband, embellished with Derek’s world-famous coif; a look at “Zoolander No. 2”; and a coupon worth up to $8 towards a ticket to see the new film in theaters.

TV-to-DVD
Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIV
The Bold Ones: The Senator: The Complete Series
Angry Birds: Toons/Piggy Tales/Stella
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Revenge!
Shout Factory’s latest compilation of intergalactic schlock, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXXIV,” puts a tight focus on American International Pictures and its ability to change the way teenagers, especially, watched movies during the 1950s youthquake. The major studios tight grasp on available screens had been loosened significantly by new anti-monopoly laws and drive-in theaters provided a home away from home for kids anxious to taste the newfound freedom provided by access to automobiles. It’s not a new story, but one that’s fun to revisit on film. The titles represented here follow Samuel Z. Arkoff’s “formula” for producing a successful low-budget movie: action, entertainment, revolution, killing, oratory, fantasy and fornication … not necessarily in those exact words or order of preference. The selections include Roger Corman’s Viking Women and the Sea Serpent (a.k.a. “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent” ) and The Undead; Bert I. Gordon’s War of the Colossal Beast; and Edward L. Cahn’s The She-Creature. The longest of these is 77 minutes, which affords plenty of room for a second feature, intermission, previews and, perhaps, a cartoon. They also provide plenty of excuses for necking through the dull parts. In a fresh interview, Corman allows that “Viking Women” severely tested his ability to work with advanced special effects on a miniscule budget. A lengthy featurette discusses AIP and its place in cinematic history.

Timeless Media Group adds to its “Bold Ones” collection that includes complete-series sets of “The Bold Ones: The Lawyers,” featuring Burl Ives, Joseph Campanella and James Farentino; “The Bold Ones:  The Protectors,” with Leslie Nielsen and Hari Rhodes; and “The Bold Ones: The Senator,” with Hal Holbrook and Sharon Acker. “The Bold Ones: The New Doctors,” with E.G. Marshall, John Saxon and David Hartman, has yet to be shipped. Produced by Universal Television, the series were broadcast on NBC from 1969 to 1973, using the same wheel format that worked for “Columbo,” “McCloud” and “McMillan & Wife.” Instead of relying of being tied exclusively to crime-solving and personality-driven themes, “The Bold Ones” developed stories inspired by headline-making events, without stereotyping the characters. Examine the credit lists and you’ll find the names of veteran actors alongside those of such up-and-comers as Michael Ritchie, Steven Bochco, John Badham, Richard Donner, Will Geer, Georg Stanford Brown and Fred Williamson. They’re still fun to watch.

Originated in Finland, “Angry Birds” has grown from a single video game, in 2009, to a marketing phenomenon, in 2010, to a huge multimedia franchise, today, with a 3D feature film scheduled for May, 2016. There are almost too many non-gaming spinoffs – from toys to soft drinks to theme parks — to count. We’re talking billions of downloads here, folks. On March 16, 2013, “Angry Birds Toons,” a TV series based on the game, made its debut on Comcast’s Xfinity On-Demand, Samsung Smart TVs and Roku set-top boxes. “Toons” is available on mobile devices, by an additional Toons channel on all of the Angry Birds apps home screens. In April, 2014, Rovio released “Piggy Tales,” a stop-motion animated series that tells the stories of the Minion Pigs’ life. Stella and her five BFF’s have been given their own series as well. The new DVDs include, “Angry Birds: Stella: The Complete First Season,” “Piggy Tales: The Complete First Season” and “Angry Birds Toons: Season Two, Volume One.”

In the episodes included in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Revenge!,” Leo, Raph, Donnie and Mikey encounter new mutants, time travel and take on new Earth-threatening enemies. The two-disc collection contains the final 12 episodes (67-78) from Season Three of Nickelodeon’s hit animated series. Some of the new and old mutants are Muckman, the Mighty Mutanimals, Mondo Gecko, Serpent Karai, the Mega Shredder, Tiger Claw, the Creep, Bebop and Rocksteady. The DVD adds special features and a Leonardo zipper-pull gift with purchase.

The DVD Wrapup, Gift Guide II: Great American Dream Machine, McHale’s Navy, Brothers Quay, Shaun the Sheep, No Escape and more

Friday, November 27th, 2015

The Great American Dream Machine
McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series
Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Final Season
The counterculture of the 1960s not only was spawned from the antiwar, civil rights, feminist and gay rights movements, but also a collective belief that white bread, pollution and petroleum-based products would have the same lasting effect on American consumers that Agent Orange had on the forests of Vietnam. Such feelings of impending doom, combined with the malaise caused by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys and Malcolm X made the United States a rather humorless place to be, heading, as we were, into the 1968 presidential race. What this country needed more than anything else, perhaps, was a good laugh. With Lenny Bruce already gone and Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory busy chasing down conspiracy theories, such previously conventional comics as the Smothers Brothers, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, George Carlin and Richard Pryor stepped up to fill the vacuum and give network censors fits. The controversial decision to allow Donald Trump to host “Saturday Night Live” might have been made by someone old enough to remember Richard Nixon’s brief appearance on “Laugh-In,” 47 years ago, simply to ask the rhetorical question, “Sock it to me?” If nothing else, it demonstrated that Tricky Dick might actually have a sense of humor, buried under his jowls and scowls. His opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was extended an invitation, as well, but declined. According to George Schlatter, the show’s creator, “Humphrey later said that not doing it may have cost him the election,” while “[Nixon] said the rest of his life that appearing on ‘Laugh-In’ is what got him elected.” It certainly didn’t hurt.

At a time when public-broadcast stations were commonly referred to as “educational TV,” a show likened to an “intellectual ‘Laugh-In’” began production on New York City’s non-commercial WNET. “The Great American Dream Machine” was a weekly satirical variety television series – first 90 minutes, then 60 – that was picked up by PBS affiliates around the country. Its audience may have been miniscule, compared to “Laugh-In,” but it was composed of hard-core liberals, media mavens and the next generation of opinion-makers. It didn’t take long for the show to bear fruit in the form of “The Groove Tube,” “Saturday Night Life,” “SCTV” and Kentucky Fried Movie.  (Imported episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” “That Was the Week That Was” and Mad magazine also deserve credit in this regard.) The first disc in Entertainment One’s long-awaited greatest-hits compilation, “The Great American Dream Machine,” opens with citizens from all walks of life being asked to relate their concept of American Dream. Not surprisingly, none was the same as the one before or after it. The first person profiled as a possible Great American Hero, was Evel Knievel, who, at the time, was known more for breaking his bones in failed motorcycle jumps than completing them. The show also featured animated material, skits, music, literary readings and satirical reports by Marshall Efron, who lambasted laws that were intended to protect consumers, but mostly protected corporations from lawsuits. Another fondly recalled bit is Albert Brooks’ hilarious short film, “The Famous Comedians School,” which, in merging comic clichés and magazine ads for the Famous Artists School, was a precursor of the mockumentary subgenre. Interview subjects included oft-divorced band leader Artie Shaw, burlesque queen Blaze Starr and hot-rod designer “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. Other notable contributors included Chevy Chase, Andy Rooney, Penny Marshall, Henry Winkler, Tiny Tim, David Steinberg, Linda Lavin and Charles Grodin. Watch the show today on DVD and you’ll recognize the forebears of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, Trevor Noah and John Oliver. Liner notes are provided by critic David Bianculli.

If John F. Kennedy had decided to stay in Boston and get into the roofing business, instead of politics, it’s hard to say if anyone would have made a fuss over his heroism in the South Pacific, during World War II. After the boat he captained was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut in two, Kennedy used his swimming prowess to help rescue several of the 11 men who clung to PT-109’s slowing sinking bow. He also would swim to neighboring islands in search of water, food and communications equipment. There’s no question of the future president’s role in the harrowing attack or that the story, minus the bravery of native islanders, was milked by his advisors in future political campaigns. After he entered the White House, the incident became a cultural phenomenon, inspiring a song, books, movies, various television shows, collectible objects, scale-model replicas and an action figure, from Hasbro. It must have convinced ABC to green-light the comedy series, “McHale’s Navy,” which appeared to be inspired as much by “The Phil Silvers Show” as the President’s heroism. In it, a rag-tag crew of sailors was left stranded on a tiny South Pacific island, after a bombing raid by Japanese fliers. Although Earnest Borgnine bore no physical resemblance to JFK, as did Cliff Robertson in the 1963 biopic, PT 109, the Academy Award-winning actor (Marty) would be enlisted to play Lt. Commander Quinton McHale in the 1962-66 series. He favored Hawaiian shirts over fatigues and dress khakis, and, when his men weren’t shooting craps on the pier or hitting on the wahinis, they enjoyed water-skiing behind PT-73. The show’s beleaguered base commander, Captain Wallace B. Binghamton, was played by the ever-exasperated Joe Flynn, with Tom Conway also on board as the flustered Ensign Charles Parker. Long before Gavin McLeod took the wheel of the Love Boat, he portrayed the sailor, Happy Haynes. From Shout! Factory, “McHale’s Navy: The Complete Series” comes in a cardboard ditty box, containing 61 hours’ worth of programming; the featurettes, “The Crew Reunion” and “Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway Remember”; and two full-length feature films, McHale’s Navy (1964) and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1965). Listen carefully and you might hear a character mention an unnamed commander of torpedo boat, PT-109.

“Sgt. Bilko” would also provide the template for “Hogan’s Heroes” and “F Troop,” madcap military farces in which conflicts between historical antagonists were played for laughs. For those fans of the classic comedy who don’t already own “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Complete Series,” Shout! Factory finished rolling out individual complete-season DVDs, “Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show: The Final Season.” The episodes are as funny in repeat viewings as any show currently on television. In Season Four, Bilko and the rest of his platoon are transferred to California’s Camp Fremont, a vacant facility where Bilko is convinced that a fortune in gold is hidden. Although his scheme doesn’t pan out as foreseen, at least the camp is closer to the target-rich cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tijuana and Reno. It also allowed for cameos by such stars as Dean Martin, Lucille Ball, the sons of Bing Crosby and Mickey Rooney. Bilko’s schemes get more elaborate as the finale nears.

The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films: Blu-ray
To the extent that Stephen and Timothy Quay’s short films are known outside the arthouse and academic communities, it’s for the puppetry and stop-motion animation featured in music videos for Alice in Chains, Peter Gabriel (“Sledgehammer”), His Name Is Alive, Michael Penn, Sparklehorse, Legion of Horses, Pere Ubu and 16 Horsepower, as well as contributions to Frida and Jack and Diane. Someone even went to the trouble of replacing the soundtrack to the whimsical short, The Cabinet of Jan Švankmajer, with Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart’s “Willie the Pimp,” and attributing it to another animator. Unlike most of their imitators, the Quays aren’t reluctant when it comes to revealing their influences, who range from the Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, to puppeteers Wladyslaw Starewicz and Czech Richard Teschner, writers Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser and Michel de Ghelderode, and Czech composers Leoš Janáček, Zdeněk Liška and Pole Leszek Jankowski. They’ve also designed book covers, theater sets and installations for prominent galleries. Their best-known film, the 21-minute Street of Crocodiles, was based on the darkly metaphorical memoirs of Polish author and artist Bruno Schulz, murdered by a Gestapo thug in 1942. In describing the bleakness of life in interwar Poland, the Quays follow a mute protagonist as he explores a realm of “mechanical realities and manufactured pleasures.” It was selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the 10-best animated films of all time, while and critic Jonathan Romney included it on his list of the 10 best films in any medium for Sight and Sound’s 2002 critics’ poll. Most of their films feature puppets made of doll parts, and other objects and surfaces discovered Eastern European markets. They’re posed within tableaux resembling dollhouses haunted by ancient ghosts and extinguished dreams. The carefully chosen avant-garde musical scores complement the macabre settings and bizarre inhabitants of the Quays worlds. The intricacy demands repeat viewings, and Zeitgeist Films’ splendid Blu-ray edition, The Quay Brothers: Collected Short Films, allows for nearly microscopic inspection of the materials and props. Along with the aforementioned titles, the compilation includes This Unnameable Little Broom (1985), Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies (1987), Stille Nacht I-IV (1988-94), The Comb (1990), Anamorphosis (1991), In Absentia (2000), The Phantom Museum (2003), Maska (2010), Through The Weeping Glass (2011), Unmistaken Hands (2013) and “Quay,” an appreciation by Christopher Nolan (2015). Inside the digipak is a 28-page booklet, containing an updated Quay Dictionary and an introduction by Nolan. Although most of the shorts can be appreciated on one level or another by anyone with a childlike fascination of miniature worlds and clockwork gadgetry, for gifting purposes, “Collected Short Films” likely will best be appreciated by serious students of the animators’ art and amateur Freudians. The brothers’ commentaries, alone, are worth a second viewing.

The Civil War: 25th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
In case anyone is wondering if Ken Burns’ exceedingly giftable The Civil War: 25th Anniversary Edition features a different outcome to our country’s most terrible conflagration, the answer is “no.” The good guys still win, but, sadly, a minority of loudmouths on the losing team continues to wage war against human decency, civil rights and common sense. Some of them are even running for president. Neither has Burns anything new to add in the way of history lessons, beyond what we learned in the comprehensive nine-episode mini-series that drew millions of viewers to PBS. What makes this volume valuable is the effort that went into preserving the original footage for optimal video and audio quality. Blessedly, very little was damaged while in storage for the last quarter-century. So, all that was needed was a good digital scrub to restore details and eliminate artifacts. It looks good as new … maybe better. The six-disc collector’s set also features more than two hours of new bonus video, including the featurettes, “Making ‘The Civil War’: 25 Years Later” and “Restoring ‘The Civil War’” and complete Shelby Foote interviews.

Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series
Although the obsessive popularity enjoyed by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers has fluctuated over the last nearly 25 years, it’s never completely evaporated. New iterations of the concept have appeared in different formats and mediums, with a new theatrical film, designed to reboot the series, planned for release in January, 2017. If that comes as good news to you or someone on your gift list, you might want to consider picking up the boxed set, “Gosei Sentai Dairanger: The Complete Series,” the original Japanese series that inspired the Power Rangers franchise. The Toei entertainment conglomerate titled the series, “Star Rangers,” for international consumption. Elements from it were merged into the second season of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” specifically the action sequences between the giant robots (which became the Power Rangers’ Thunderzords) and some of the monsters. It would take a full day to lay out the many permutations of the story and characters, and I’d probably get them wrong, so let’s assume that fans of one series likely would be interested in seeing the source materialq.

The Colbys: The Complete Series
Released on DVD last spring by Shout! Factory, “The Colbys: The Complete Series” is one of those shows that must have looked like a no-brainer upon its release on ABC, on November 20, 1985, but, after a bright opening, lost all of its luster going its second and final season. Originally titled “Dynasty II: The Colbys,” the prime-time soap starred Charlton Heston, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Ross and Ricardo Montalban, who, at the time, might have been better suited for appearances on “The Love Boat,” which didn’t have much steam left in it, either. Produced by Aaron Spelling, it was a spin-off of the top-rated “Dynasty” – some critics called it a clone – featuring characters who are relatives by marriage of the Carringtons. If anything, they were even wealthier and more decadent than their in-laws. In a decision that smacked of suicidal hubris, ABC positioned the series against NBC’s powerhouse lineup of “Cheers” and “Night Court.” A year later, it was forced to stand up to CBS’ “Dallas” spinoff, “Knots Landing” and the Peacock’s re-positioned “The Cosby Show.” For that reason, alone, it might be more fun to watch the show today, than 30 years ago, when Americans were still trying to master their VCRs.

Shaun the Sheep Movie: Blu-ray
Through its mastery of stop-motion animation, Aardman has carved a niche in the family-entertainment game that few of its competitors have been able to match. It’s been a while since anything attached to company frontman Nick Park has lasted longer than 30 minutes and that was 10 years ago, with the Oscar- and BAFTA-winning The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The latest feature-length Aardman Animations production, Shaun the Sheep Movie, is based on Park’s “Shaun the Sheep” television series, which began in 2007 and is still going strong. Here, though, Park handed the reins to Mark Burton and Richard Starzak, who were able to commit six years of their time to the project. That it works so well without a single line of recognizable dialogue is a testament to the team’s ability to tickle our imagination with things other than words and anthropomorphic characters who wouldn’t be out of place in a petting zoo. Park introduced Shaun the Sheep in the 1995 “Wallace and Gromit” short “A Close Shave,” which also took top prize in Academy Award and BAFTA competition. Since then, Shaun has starred in 31 shorts of his own. Here, the mischievous ball of wool conspires to put the Farmer to sleep, in the usual sheeply way, so they can have some fun. The dull-minded doofus decides to take a nap in a trailer that soon will be rolling out-of-control to the nearest big city, where quickly loses his memory of anything except the use of shears.

Meanwhile, when things take an anarchic turn on the farm, Shaun and the flock decide to track down their master and bring him back to Mossy Bottom Farm, where the pigs have taken over the farmhouse. Unaware that untethered animals can be rounded up and impounded, until such time as they’re claimed or euthanized, Shaun makes the mistake of getting on the wrong side of the city’s animal-containment officer, Trumper. While inside the pound, Shaun finds allies in other caught critters, anxious for freedom. Almost accidentally, the escapees discover that Farmer has become a big star, shearing the heads of humans in fanciful shapes. Once again, the sheep put him to sleep and bring him back home, where Trumper is waiting for them. If the plot sounds simplistic, Aardman fans know to expect enough clever sight gags, musical cues, homages to previous films and crude barnyard humor to satisfy kids and adult viewers, alike. The Blu-ray’s audio/visual presentation literally sparkles, technically and artistically. The bonus features add “Making the Shaun Movie,” “Meet the Characters,”  “Join Shaun Behind the Scenes,” “Meet the Crew” and a “Parody Poster Gallery.”

No Escape: Blu-ray
In an interview contained in bonus package, John Erick Dowdle and his brother, Drew, describe No Escape as a “family drama, masquerading as an action film.” They’re too young to remember the type of political dramas that also were referred to as “paranoid thrillers,” but there’s a bit of that subgenre visible in No Escape, as well. Among the titles lumped under the same heading were The Parallax View, The China Syndrome, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor and, even, All the President’s Men. The Dowdles’ probably owe more to such films as Taken and Die Hard than any of those titles, but, here, too, bad things happen to good people for politically motivated reasons that will be revealed somewhere down the road. Owen Wilson plays a Texas-based engineer hired by an international conglomerate that facilitates the availability of fresh water in underdeveloped countries. Because he believes in his new employer’s mission, Jack convinces his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and two young daughters, to move with him to an unnamed Southeast Asian nation that borders on Vietnam. Because viewers have already witnessed the assassination of a local potentate, after a meeting with a western business executive, we know more about what’s about to happen than the jet-lagged American. The next morning, while Jack is wandering the neighborhood of his swank hotel for a newspaper, he finds himself trapped between a phalanx of riot police and insurgents dressed like the assassin. Jack’s route back to the hotel is now strewn with hacked-up bodies and the flaming husks of automobiles and motorbikes. Outside the entrance to the hotel, the same rowdy bunch of protesters is clamoring for something or other. When another westerner is murdered before his eyes, Jack rushes to the rescue of his family. On his way up the elevator, he encounters the mysterious fellow, Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), they befriended on last night’s trip from the airport to the hotel. Before dealing with a pair of rebels in pursuit, Hammond tells Jack to take his family to the roof. The chase is on.

Any resemblance between the mob outside the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi and the machete-wielding rabble outside the hotel likely is coincidental. In a few minutes, Jack will discover that they’re pissed off at his company, which is conspiring with the government to monetize the water system by charging for a commodity that has always been free. (This already is happening in sub-Saharan Africa, where potable water is as precious as gold.) When the government inevitably runs out of money to pay for their end of the deal, the conglomerate takes control of the water system, setting rates poor people can’t afford. Because Jack’s face appears on a corporate banner in the hotel lobby, he’s being held responsible for the objectionable policy. At this particular point in the narrative, mind you, Jack has no idea why his company is being singled out or why no one there has made contact with him. By this time, though, it doesn’t really matter, because the crowd has fallen in love with the smell of blood and wants more of it. Despite a certain absence of logic as to why there’s been so little military response to the lightly armed crowd, the Dowdles do a nice job investing us in the safety of the family and, tangentially, Hammond. If viewers were given a few seconds to think about the conglomerate’s odious designs, we’d probably sympathize with the insurgents, who are dressed to resemble Al Qaeda wannabes. Any questions we have about other political affiliations and motivations, like those surrounding the identity of the country, will go unanswered. Wilson and Lake are entirely credible as endangered and likely clueless couple, while, as usual, Brosnan keeps things interesting whenever he’s on the screen. The can be said about the Chiang Mai, Thailand, setting. The Blu-ray adds a couple of deleted scenes and interviews.

The Dinner
A few years ago, Hollywood fell in love with stories in which seemingly normal kids in model communities commit horrible crimes and their parents are forced to deal with the consequences. These ranged from deciding whether to report their children to police after a terrible automobile accident, to facing the survivors of a massacre caused by their demented little angels. These weren’t abstract situations, either on film or in contemporary life. That parents are among the last people to recognize the signs of potential psychosis in their kids no longer is unthinkable. In the aftermath of school massacres, we’ve learned that classmates tend to understand the motivations of perpetrators of crimes better than any parent could be expected to perceive in conversations around the dinner table. Based on a best-selling novel by Herman Koch, The Dinner Party immediately recalls Barbet Schroeder’s Before and After and Terry George’s Reservation Road, in which the moral dilemmas faced by the adult characters are thrown into the laps of viewers. Ivano De Matteo and co/writer Valentina Ferlan’s story adds an additional layer of tension between adult brothers – a lawyer and a doctor – and their respective wives, who only see the worst in each other and their kids. The movie opens with an incident that is only tangentially related to the brothers. In a case of road rage, a brutish Roman driver takes offense at hand gestures directed at him by another motorist. When both cars come to a stop, the offended driver picks up a baseball bat and charges the driver, who’s still in the driver’s seat. Just as the bat is about to hit glass, the second driver – a cop – picks up his service revolver and shoots, killing the man and wounding his son. Not being the United States, the cop is taken into custody in advance of an investigation into unauthorized use of a weapon. At the couples’ monthly dinner, brothers Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) spark over the former agreeing to defend the cop, while the doctor is treating the seriously injured boy. At this point, it’s little more than a coincidence.

Paolo’s wife, Clara, is addicted to a popular real-crime show on television. As she’s watching a segment in which security-camera footage captured the unsolved beating of a homeless woman being mercilessly beaten, Clara intuitively begins to worry that her teenage son, Michele, might be involved. If so, the tape might also reveal the participation of his cousin, Massimo’s daughter Benni, who had invited Michele to a party that night in the same neighborhood. Of course, they deny everything. Clara decides to do an end-run around her husband, by consulting Massimo, not only about their legal options, but also how to squeeze the truth from the cousins. Paolo’s immediate response is to be pissed off at his wife for consulting his brother, first, and possibly giving him something to lord over the doctor. When Benni is forced to acknowledge her role in the crime, both couples are required to come to grips with a situation that could ruin their families’ stability and damage their reputations in equal measure. Michele and Benni are willing to blame everything on being wasted at the time of the incident and, therefore, absent of any real blame in what they perceive to be an accident.

Naturally, the adults aren’t so sure about how to proceed. Both of the men are bound by the moral dictates of their jobs to be advocates of the truth. They disagreed on how the road-rage killing should have been handled and, here, the murder of a homeless woman can’t even be dismissed as self-defense. Presumably, the in-laws’ next discussion over the dinner table will result in an agreed-upon solution to their dilemma, without destroying their kids’ futures or sending the wrong message by not holding them accountable. After all, crimes like this don’t happen in the best of families. DeMatteo never ratchets down the tension that’s built up between the couples or, for that matter, between the characters and viewers. The Film Movement DVD adds a making-of featurette. Apparently, an American adaptation of Koch’s novel, with Cate Blanchett at the helm and Oren Moverman (Love & Mercy) at the typewriter.

Applesauce: Blu-ray
Like The Dinner, the primary characters in Applesauce are couples who meet for dinner on a regular basis, but who share one secret too many between them. Writer/director Onur Tukel plays Ron Welz, an inner-city teacher who challenges his students to put down their cellphones and check out what life has to offer. A decent guy, with discernible doofus tendencies, Ron is fascinated by a radio talk-show host (Dylan Baker), whose great talent is allowing his listeners the space to hang themselves with embarrassing revelations about themselves. On the night he works up the nerve to reveal his own worst moment, Ron is forced to sign off early by his wife, Nickki (Trieste Kelly Dunn), who’s anxious not to be late for their weekly dinner. When they’re asked why they’re late, however, Ron feels obligated to tell them what he was about to say to thousands of talk-show listeners. While unappetizing and potentially embarrassing, his faux pas more closely resembles an urban legend than actual occurrence. Even so, the next time they got together, Ron feels entitled to ask Les (Max Casella) the worst secret he might be harboring. Turns out, it’s a real game-changer for the four friends.

Meanwhile, after Ron reveals his secret about causing an adversary to lose a hand in a college tussle, someone begins sending him severed body parts in the mail and other deliveries. It unnerves him to the point that he begins to mistrust Les, Nikki, the Chinese take-out guy and an unruly student. Attentive viewers won’t have the same problem as Ron. Les’ secret, too, takes on a life of its own. In such uber-indies as Summer of Blood and Richard’s Wedding, the New York-based Tukel has already proven what one determined guy can accomplish on a mercilessly tiny budget, a few good ideas and game actors. When boiled down to the basics, Applesauce is a dark comedy about the law of unintended consequences and the dangers of being too honest with friends and strangers, alike. Not everything works as intended, but Applesauce demonstrates how Tukel may be ready to take a step or two up the indie ladder.

Ghost Story: Blu-ray
Audiences have become so accustomed to not seeing adults over the age of 30 in starring roles that the cast of John Irvin’s 1981 supernatural thriller, Ghost Story, might seem freakish to them. With the exception of two actors who play double roles — Craig Wasson (Body Double) and Alice Krige (Star Trek) – the movie represents something of a walk-of-fame reunion. Nearing the end of their long and distinguished careers, Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Houseman play four elderly New England gentlemen, who don tuxedos on a regular basis and tell tales of horror to each other. The Oscar- and Tony Award-winning actress, Patricia Neal (Hud), is a spring chicken compared to her older co-stars. Today, the odds of finding such a distinguished lineup in a genre film would be small-to-none. In 1981, however, any picture adapted from a best-selling novel by Peter Straub would warrant a budget that elevated it from ranks of drive-in and grindhouse fare.

The way Irvin makes us aware of the awful secret the lifelong friends have carried with them for more than 50 years is through flashbacks to their Jazz Age selves. In the interim, they became pillars of the town’s social and business communities. Recently, though, a ghost from the past has returned to haunt their dreams and those of younger family members. Knowing that their time in this world isn’t long, the specter appears to be working overtime to make their passage to the other side as painful as possible. As might be expected of a movie adapted from a novel, the thrills derive less from special makeup effects and jump scares than old-fashioned lighting tricks and anticipation. It worked then and still does, today. It helps mightily that the big reveals take place near the end of the movie. More than anything else, though, it’s fun to watch and guess along with the characters as to who will be the next to die. The upgraded Blu-ray adds commentary by Irvin; interviews with Straub, Krige, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, producer Burt Weissbourd and matte photographer Bill Taylor, as well as a vintage theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots and a photo gallery.

The Badger Game: Blu-ray
As most students of crime already know, a badger game is an extortion scheme in which a married man – usually – is lured into a compromising position by an attractive woman – usually — and blackmailed into scrapping up enough money to satisfy the crooks holding evidence of his cheating ways. Anyone attracted to Joshua Wagner and Thomas Zambeck’s The Badger Game by the wildly costumed actors on the cover needn’t worry about picking up a highlight reel from the University of Wisconsin’s march to the Final Four last year, because we’re talking about a different set of badgers. Here, two young women (Augie Duke, Jillian Leigh), who’ve fallen victim to a wealthy philanderer, scheme with a stripper and ex-con (Sasha Higgins, Patrick Cronen) to blackmail the man who’s done them wrong. They know that the “mark,” Liam (Sam Boxleitner), is worth $2 million and, because most it comes from his wealthy wife, he’d hate to give her reason to cut off the funding. It’s a sound idea that even allows for a couple of unexpected wrinkles. What can’t be anticipated, however, is Liam’s stubborn response to the threats and how the women will react to the cruelty of the sadistic ex-con. Hesitation and rookie mistakes ensure that everything that can go wrong in the basement of the big house in the woods does go wrong, including the arrival of a private eye interested in extorting the guy’s money before the amateurs get to it. The directors pull back from the sight of extreme torture, preferring to focus on tensions that arise upstairs between the kidnapers. The actors keep things from getting boring, at least. The package includes two separate commentary tracks and footage from a reception at a festival screening. (By the way, such blackmailing schemes go back at least to 1792, when the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was extorted for money and information by the husband of Maria Reynolds, with whom he was having an affair.)

Blood and Lace: Blu-ray
When Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace found its way to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, giallo was a subgenre of Italian psycho-thrillers in its infancy. Critics greeted it and other Italian imports with only mild interest and some outright disdain, comparing the style to something Hitchcock might have dismissed on the way to making Psycho. Every visual and audio aspect seemed exaggerated by half and the cinematography felt garish in the extreme. In 1971, Philip Gilbert’s Blood and Lace was released to similarly glum notices, disappearing not long after its debut. VHS was still years away, so it wouldn’t be easy to find for a long while to come. I can’t recall how long it took before Americans began to accept giallo as entity onto itself, certainly longer than the acceptance of spaghetti-Westerns. The proliferation of classic titles pretty much coincided with the introduction of DVD and the added value of commentaries and other bonus features. Today, it’s as popular and widely imitated as it ever was. Still, it’s taken this long for the first American giallo to find a distributor willing to invest some money in an upgrade.

Typically, Blood and Lace opens with the hyper-violent murder of a prostitute and her trick, while asleep, by a hammer-wielding fiend whose face isn’t shown. Before the woman’s teenage daughter, Ellie (Melody Patterson), can leave town, she’s captured and sent to an isolated orphanage run by Gloria Graham’s sadistic Mrs. Deere and her handyman, played by Len Lesser, who would go on to immortalize Uncle Leo, from “Seinfeld.” They profit from the number of orphans they house and the corners they cut on budget items that are subsidized by the state. When one disappears, it raises suspicions with local authorities, including a sheriff played by Vic Tayback (“Alice”), who has a special interest in Ellie. It becomes especially acute when it appears as if the hammer-wielding stranger has begun to stalk the girl. Blood and Lace remains as unapologetically lurid today as it was 40 years ago. It exists more as a curiosity than anything else, especially for the involvement of 1952 Best Supporting Actress, Graham (The Bad and the Beautiful) and the recently deceased blond bombshell, Patterson (“F Troop”). The Arrow Blu-ray adds commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith and an alternate opening title.

Cut Snake
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Last House
In such testosterone-fueled movies as Romper Stomper, Chopper, The Hard Word, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition and the Mad Max series, Australian filmmakers have shown international audiences what it means to be a hard-ass action hero from Down Under. Look at some of the early films of Bryan Brown, Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Heath Ledger and Joel Edgerton and it’s possible to wonder how anyone that intimidating could play rough-and-ready in one film and soft-and-sensitive the next. Feel free to add Melbourne-born Sullivan Stapleton to that list of actors who seem to appear out of nowhere, grab you by the throat and leave you kicking and screaming for more. In Tony Ayres’ Cut Snake, Stapleton plays the kind of prison-sculpted monster we met in Chopper and Bronson and hoped would never be released from stir. Set in 1970s Australia, it describes what happens when hardened criminal Pommie (Stapleton) is freed from prison and heads straight for the home of his former cellmate, Sparra Farrell (Alex Russell), who, since his release, has lived the life of a fully rehabilitated citizen. He’s engaged to the beautiful Paula (Jessica De Gouw) and gainfully employed as a machinist. It isn’t until well past Pommie shows up on their doorstep that Sparra feels it necessary to come clean about his stint in prison. Being young, handsome and not particularly tough, Sparra almost immediately becomes a target for the psychopaths and sexual predators. When Pommie took him under his wing, however, the torment ended. Once free, Pommie expected that Sparra would quit everything and go on a hell-raising tour of eastern Australia. It didn’t take much to set the musclebound ex-con off, however, and, within days, Pomma has set the wheels in motion for disaster. The story appears to have been informed, in part, by 1973 firebombing of the Whisky Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane, in which 15 people lost their lives. Admirers of The Hard Word and Animal Kingdom should find a lot to like in Cut Snake.

I wonder if Stanford University gets royalties from the half dozen, or so, movies and documentaries based on its famous 1971 prison experiment. Conducted from August 14–20, by a team of researchers led by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the experiment was staged in the basement of the psychology building. Twenty-four male students were divided into groups of 12 guards and 12 prisoners, including 3 alternates in each team. Zimbardo took on the role of the superintendent, and an undergraduate research assistant the role of the warden. They attempted to approximate the many variables that affect real prisoner/guard dynamics. After six days, the experiment had gotten so out of hand that Zimbardo was encouraged to call it off, which he did. Six years later, Italian director Carlo Tuzii adapted the experiment to an Italian environment, in La Gabbia (“The Cage”). The 1992 documentary, Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Experiment – written by Zimbardo and directed by Ken Musen — was made available via the SPE website. Mario Giordano’s novel “Black Box” was adapted for the screen by German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, as Das Experiment. An English-language remake of that film, The Experiment, was released in 2010. Newly released into DVD, The Stanford Prison Experiment, stars Billy Crudup as Zimbardo, from whose point-of-view the story is told. Other cast members include Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan, Keir Gilchrist, Michael Angarano and Thomas Mann. Spoiler alert: the conclusions are the same in all of the films. Ironically, the study was financed by U.S. Office of Naval Research, which apparently neglected to pass the results along to the guards assigned to the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. As could have been predicted, they abused the powers not specifically denied them by their superiors. Commentary on the DVD is provided by Zimbardo and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez. It adds featurettes, “Bringing to Life the Stanford Prison Experiment” and “The Psychology Behind the Stanford Prison Experiment.”

I was reading one of those where-are-they-now articles on the Internet a few days ago and, in it, the writer speculated on what Jason Mewes might have been up to since his last on-tour film, Jay and Silent Bob Get Irish: The Swearing O’ the Green. Mewes, who knows he’ll never be mistaken for Sir Laurence Olivier, has had endured several well-documented run-ins with the law and addiction problems since becoming Kevin Smith’s muse, in Clerks, but a quick perusal of IMDB.com would have shown that he’s currently as busy as ever. He serves as leading man in Sean Cain and Wes Laurie’s hookers-in-jeopardy thriller, The Last House (a.k.a., Breath of Hate), which is set in a for-sale Hollywood mansion taken over by a trio of loony-bin escapees. The leader of the gang, Hate (Ezra Buzzington), has a thing for female sex workers, so it’s only natural that he becomes possessed with one named Love (Lauren Walsh). The others suffer the same fate as naughty girls in horror movies, in which sex is followed by death. To rescue his damsel, Mewes’ Ned is required to follow a trail that leads through an unusually sleazy strip club and a pimp who keeps a turtle as a pet. Otherwise, it’s fairly standard straight-to-DVD fare. It’s interesting to see such soft- and hard-core veterans as Monique Parent (Play Time) and Joanna Angel (Tattooed Babysitters Club), if only for the most obvious of reasons. The DVD adds a deleted scene, director interview and festival Q&A.

The Color of Noise: Blu Ray
Dirty Works: Rebel Scum
In the history of contemporary music, the underground sub-genre “noise rock” represents little more than a footnote. But, in the eyes and ears of many parents, all music produced after the swing era qualified as noise, so why parse the difference. Freshman documentarian Eric Robel, the writer/director/cinematographer/producer of The Color of Noise, thought enough about the post-punk, pre/grunge movement to devote two hours of digital space, not including featurettes, to the subject. It could have been longer, but Robel wisely chose to focus his efforts on former U.S. Marine Tom Hazelmyer (a.k.a., Artist Haze XXL) and his notorious record label, Amphetamine Reptile Records. To be precise, Hazelmyer joined the corps only after he’d become disillusioned with his future as a punk musician. While stationed near Seattle, he established Amphetamine Reptile with the intention of issuing albums by his band Halo of Flies, which had already been turned down by several recording labels. “Ooh Rah!” Eventually the label’s roster expanded to include releases by Helmet, the Melvins, the Cows, Helios Creed, Chokebore, Servotron and others. The operation would move to Minneapolis, which, like Seattle, was home to a burgeoning alt-rock scene. In addition to the time devoted to performance footage, The Color of Noise excels in the label’s role in the resurgence of poster art, EP covers and concert leaflets. The artistic discipline had lain more or less dormant since the collapse of the psychedelic era. The film also features more than 50 interviews from fans and practitioners around the globe.

Representing yet another rock subset is the Knoxville-based, the Dirty Works, which describes itself as a “white trash punk band” and the nexus of the Bible Belt and Punk Rock. Dirty Works makes the Sex Pistols look like the Beach Boys, while its frontman Christopher Scum makes Iggy Pop look like Donny Osmond … not in a particularly good way, either. In Video Rahim’s almost painfully intimate documentary, Dirty Works: Rebel Scum, we watch as what essentially is a single-gimmick bar band develops delusions of grandeur and self-destructs in a haze of marijuana smoke, heroin, methadone and, especially, hard liquor … lots and lots of it. Scum’s shtick basically requires of him that he bang his head throughout each set, while shouting anti-social lyrics, until blood begins to drip from his forehead. It isn’t the most original gag in the biz, but it still impresses the rubes. Rahim appears to have been given an all-access pass to some of the worst behavior ever displayed by a rock band, much of which falls under the general heading, “It’s only rock ’n’ roll.” In fact, though, alcoholism and heroin is never attractive, especially when the victim lacks the financial and professional wherewithal of Keith Richards. Or, when the lead singer’s devoted girlfriend gives up trying to help him repel his demons and joins him in partaking in the poison. As entertainment, Dirty Works: Rebel Scum is pretty unappetizing, but, as a street-level cautionary tale, it could hardly be more effective.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Xmas Without China
Comedy Central: Inside Amy Schumer: Season 3
PBS: Secrets of the Dead: Jamestown’s Dark Winter
PBS: The Brain With David Eagleman
When it comes to production values and research, Alicia Dwyer’s seasonally appropriate documentary, “Xmas Without China,” doesn’t rival a Rick Burns’ production. It does, however, make some interesting points about how Americans celebrate what once was a religious holiday, with the help of people once considered to be godless communists. In fact, if it weren’t for China and its infamous sweatshops, Christmas would be a rather drab and far more expensive celebration. Dwyer follows Chinese immigrant Tom Xia around his family’s adopted hometown of Arcadia, California – heavily Asian-American and increasingly upper-middle-class – where he’s challenged residents to celebrate the holiday without the benefit of exports from China. The products would necessarily include the types of toys roundly condemned by consumer advocates for being potentially harmful to children. Xia wasn’t attempting to make any particular political point, preferring to question the American media’s blanket condemnation of imports from the PRC. The Jones family, which seems representative of the city’s non-Asian citizenry, agreed to give up toys, plates, lamps, clothes, appliances, entertainment platforms and decorations. They could substitute with products made elsewhere, but it turned out to be a more difficult task than actually finding a bull in a china shop. Meanwhile, Tom’s parents are constructing a new home, proudly using Chinese materials to build their American dream house. When they attempt to emulate their neighbors in the ritual of decorating their home and yard with lights, they, too, learn a lesson in consumerism, American style. (Having lived in the same neighborhood for many years, I can attest to the intense competition for most-brightly-lit house and hugely inflated prices for houses, which is forcing longtime residents, like the Jones, to consider selling at the top of the market and finding homes, elsewhere.) Xia also shares a visit to family members in China, where he also checks out how or even if the country’s export-based prosperity has trickled down to average citizens.

I wonder if anyone at Comedy Central has started a pool to guess how long superstar comedian Amy Schumer will continue hosting “Inside Amy Schumer,” before reserving her talents exclusively for the big screen. She’s already lasted a year longer at the network than Dave Chappelle, who took a powder from his hugely popular “Chappelle’s Show” after being accorded a $50-million contract. It’s difficult to believe that Schumer would risk her still young career for the uncertainty of Hollywood fame, but stranger things have happened. The third season DVD package represents her sassiest and most provocative stage and, yes, she’s already committed to a fourth stanza. The show has received a Peabody Award and has been nominated for eight Primetime Emmy Awards, winning two. Season Three opened with a bang, with Amy joining Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Patricia Arquette in a discussion about how it felt to reach their “Last Fuckable Day” in show business, as well as a hip-hop version of the scatological “Milk, Milk, Lemonade,” with Method Man, Amber Rose and other special guests. It would have been tough to top those show-stoppers, but Amy found ways to keep “Inside Amy Schumer” rolling for another nine episodes, ending at the same orifice that she began the season. It includes an unaired sketch and other goodies.

In PBS’ fascinating, sometimes macabre series, “Secrets of the Dead,” state-of-the-art forensics techniques are used to shed light on some of the most mysterious events in recorded history. The new DVD release, “Jamestown’s Dark Winter,” was inspired by a discovery made by a team of archaeologists excavating the site of the famously doomed early-American colony. Buried in the trash layer of a cellar, they discovered the remains of a young woman, dating back to 1609. The settlers faced an extremely harsh winter, surrounded by hostile members of the Powhatan tribe, who weren’t in a Thanksgiving state of mind. More surprising than the location in which they were found are the cut marks on the lower jaw and front of the cranium. With the help of forensic anthropologists, the extraordinary and frightening story of this young woman comes to life.

The six-part PBS series “The Brain With David Eagleman” reveals the human story behind neuroscience by blending scientific truth with innovative visual effects and compelling personal stories. Written and hosted by the genial scientist, the program attempts to educate neuroscience neophytes on the most fundamental processes of our most important organ: how it channels thought, how it processes reality, how it functions in both conscious and unconscious states. With barely a brain scanner or a white coat in sight, “The Brain” focuses on understanding the fundamental truths of what it means to be human now and in the coming centuries, while communicating these elegant and simple ideas as they apply to us and our experiences.

Shelby: A Magical Holiday Tail
Up TV: Marry Me for Christmas
Up TV: Christmas Mix
Up TV: Merry Ex-Mas
Original Christmas Classics Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
PBS Kids: Peg + Cat: A Totally Awesome Christmas
It’s been a while since a truly endearing movie about Christmas has been released into theaters and went on to become an annual treat. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the costs of making and marketing such recent holiday pictures as Arthur Christmas, Four Christmases, The Santa Clause series – however modest and likely profitable – no longer is worth the risk. The number of available screens has also been reduced by studios pushing their awards candidates and potential blockbusters. The safer option today has become the VOD, PPV and straight-to-DVD marketplace, where a few recognizable names on a cover can mean a few million dollars in revenue. Shelby: A Magical Holiday Tail is the kind of picture that can be enjoyed by anyone who loves dogs – especially those of the talking variety – and can remember the better days of Chevy Chase, Tom Arnold and, even, Rob Schneider, whose best work since “SNL” has come as a voice actor. Shelby is a stray beagle, who has proven adept at escaping dog pounds. Arnold plays the frazzled animal-control officer whose life Shelby has made miserable. When a spoiled rich kid tries to adopt him for all the wrong reasons, Shelby runs away and hides in the suburban basement of 10-year-old aspiring magician Jake Parker (John Paul Ruttan). After the rich kid’s family offers the dogcatcher a $5,000 reward for the slippery doggy, Chase plays Jake’s grandfather and most dependable ally. The Dove-approved movie adds enough rowdy behavior and silly pranks to keep everyone happy.

Another reliable place to find holiday-themed entertainments is cable television, especially the niche networks that have learned a few tricks from the folks at Lifetime: recognize your audience, give your viewers what they want and don’t push your luck by taking them for granted. Once known as the Gospel Music Channel, Up TV is dedicated to presenting “uplifting, family-friendly original movies, series and specials.” It doesn’t cater specifically to so-called urban audiences, but those who remember its gospel roots haven’t been forgotten. Up TV began putting its holiday inventory of original programming on heavy rotation, beginning on November 1. I don’t know how much the 2013 rom-com, Marry Me for Christmas, owes to The Proposal, in which a pushy boss (Sandra Bullock) forces her young assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her in order to keep her visa status in the U.S. and avoid deportation to Canada. Here, Marci Jewel (Malinda Williams) is the owner of an up-and-coming ad agency and thrilled with her single life in New York. With the pressure on at home for more grandbabies – and a deadline looming at work – Marci drags her employee, Adam (Brad James), to Atlanta, where he’s required to pretend to be her fiancé. While caught up in the family’s frenetic holiday drama, Marci learns some unexpected lessons about love, trust and family, particularly when it comes to her new ‘fiancé’ and lifelong friends.

As is too often the case with made-for-cable movies, Up TV’s original “Naughty and Nice” turns up on DVD as Christmas Mix. After infuriating advertisers with one of his trademark stunts, Los Angeles radio personality Pepper Sterling (Tilky Jones) gets exiled to the quaint town of Idyllwild for the holiday season. Forced to share airtime with his polar opposite, the buttoned-down psychologist Sandy Love (Haylie Duff), Pepper finds that he has met his match. After Christmas, Pepper is offered the chance to return home and resume his life as a radio celebrity. Gee, I wonder what he’ll do.

I can’t think of an actor who’s starred as the romantic lead in as many cable-original movies as Dean Cain. In Ion Television’s Merry Ex-Mas, he plays security specialist Jessie Rogers, who’s caught in a compromising position with his rock-star client, his humiliated wife Noelle (Kristy Swanson) swiftly files for divorce. Unable to convince her of his innocence, Jessie gets an assist from Jack Frost when they’re stuck in a cabin during a blizzard.

The Original Christmas Classics Anniversary Collector’s Edition” includes Blu-ray editions of seven holiday favorites that are so old they’ve begun to grow whiskers: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus Is Comin to Town,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Frosty Returns,” “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Cricket on the Hearth.” The set adds several new hi-def featurettes, including “Be an Artist and Create,” starring Joe Vance, director of character art at DreamWorks; the “Kringle Jingle” ditty; “Santa Special Delivery,” with historical factoids about Santa Claus, trivia about the television show and song, as well as some interstitial interviews with kids; “Learn to Draw,” with Dave Burgess of DreamWorks Animation; “Rudolph Unwrapped,” another trivia track; another sing-along, “Magical Melody”; and “Frosty Snowflake Surprises,” with trivia factoids. After decades of use, these old chestnuts have never looked better.

At PBS Kids, the name of the game is repackaging, a common practice when showcasing DVDs for the youngest viewers. In fact, not all of the episodes in these holiday-themed collections have anything to do with Christmas. In “Peg + Cat: A Totally Awesome Christmas,” Santa’s got serious problems, Peg and Cat have to figure out how to make and wrap presents for all the children of the world, and then deliver them using 100 sleighs. “WordWorld: Merry Christmas” offers five adventures, including “The Christmas Star” and “A Christmas Present for Dog.” “Caillou’s Christmas” features 12 fun-filled holiday- and winter-themed adventures, from visiting Santa and going Christmas-tree shopping in “Holiday Magic,” to planning to stay up all night to see Santa in “Caillou’s Christmas Eve.” “Odd Squad: Reindeer Games” follows Olive and Otto to the North Pole, where Santa needs help delivering presents and rounding up reindeers that have escaped from their pens. The set also includes “Ms. O Uh-Oh” and “Party of 5,4,3,2,1.”

The DVD Wrapup: Crumbs, Meru, Tenderness of Wolves, Living in Oblivion and more

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Crumbs
Forbidden Zone
As tiresome as most movies about our shared dystopian future have become, longtime fans of the increasingly predictable sub-genre shouldn’t give hope of finding something new and different until they’ve seen Crumbs, an instant classic from a place that looks as if it had already experienced the apocalypse and was left standing. Earlier this year, Ethiopia-based Spaniard Miguel Llansó captured the New Flesh Award for Best First Feature at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival and the Imaging the Future Award at the Neuchâtel International Fantasy Film Festival. If it isn’t given serious consideration for a Spirit Award, it’s only because the folks at Film Independent haven’t cast their nets out far enough this season. If it had been made 30 years ago and released here as a midnight movie, Crumbs might be mentioned today in the same breath as El Topo, Eraserhead, Freaks, A Boy and His Dog and Pink Flamingos. It’s that fresh and unique. Crumbs was shot primarily in the far northeastern tip of Ethiopia, in and around the ghost town of Dallol, which is one of the most remote human settlements on Earth. It makes the Salton Sea look like the Garden of Eden.

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A tiny malformed scavenger, Candy (Selam Tesfayie), whiles away his daylight hours in the punishing sun, picking through remnants of late twentieth century pop culture. At night, he shares a long-abandoned bowling alley with his artistic lover, Birdy (Daniel Tadesse), who worships the found relics in the same way as religious artifacts, ancient coins and antique jewelry are today. An amulet crafted from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurine is considered to be an especially significant item, as are a vintage copy of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” LP and is a framed photograph of Michael Jordan. The only other thing of relevance to the Amharic-speaking survivors – including a witch, gangly old man in a Santa Claus suit and a horseman in Nazi garb – is a mysterious spacecraft that hovers over the planet, like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Silent for generations, Candy senses that the ship is coming back to life – the ball-return machinery starts working again – and he wants to be on it when it makes its next move. Llansó makes full use of the remnants of the mining community that were left behind after its minerals were played out in the 1960s. He and cinematographer Israel Seoane also pay homage to such fantasies as District 9, WALL-E, E.T. and Wizard of Oz along the way, with a special musical nod to Andrei Tarkovsky. If this all sounds suspiciously pretentious, know that Crumbs times in at a comfortable 68 minutes and the surprises along the way make it feel even shorter. The DVD adds “anecdotes” and the short films “Night in the Wild Garden” and “Chigger Ale,” also featuring Tadesse.

If the mere mention of the band Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo raises a smile, it isn’t necessarily because you can recall whistling along to the band’s hits, “Dead Man’s Party” and “Weird Science,” or that you were among the few to see Forbidden Zone, upon its release 35 years ago. Relegated to the midnight-movie ghetto, it disappeared completely after politically correctness reared its ugly head and the whistle was blown on some inarguably racist characterizations. Forbidden Zone originally was conceived as a video showcase for the theatrical eccentricities of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo’s extravagant live performances. Tentatively titled “The Hercules Family,” the 16mm film would consist of 12 musical numbers and bumpers loosely constructed around a family’s unfortunate decision to move into a house whose basement served as a portal to hell. As Richard’s 16mm vision evolved into a 35mm reality, the musical sequences were extended to reflect its completely off-the-wall narrative and the Elfmans’ cinematic aspirations. It now betrayed influences ranging from Spike Jones and the City Slickers; the Three Stooges; Frank Zappa and Tony Palmer’s 200 Motels; Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees’ musical, Head; music videos by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band; and Terry Gilliam’s animation on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Among the many surprises in Forbidden Zone, apart from 3-foot-11 Hervé Villechaize’s portrayal of King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension, are delightfully twisted, if questionable homages to Josephine Baker and Cab Calloway. There’s also a human-size dancing frog, jockstrap-clad Kipper Kids, a chicken-boy able to communicate telepathically with his transvestite brother, Joe Spinell as a drunken sailor, classroom violence, a Jewish wrestler fighting a guy in an ape suit, and Danny Elfman playing Satan, while singing “Minnie the Moocher.” The Blu-ray set includes a re-mastered version of the original B&W film, a later colorized edition and interviews with the Elfmans, co-writer Matthew Bright, and co-stars Susan Tyrrell and Marie-Pascale Elfman. Danny Elfman’s next project was composing the theme music for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Meru: Blu-ray
Gringo Trails
Before April 18, 2014, when an avalanche crashed down the slopes of Mount Everest, killing 16 Sherpa guides, climbing the world’s tallest peak was becoming as newsworthy as riding the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Reports of gridlock on the most direct route were being common, as were issues surrounding decades’ worth of garbage and human waste, and, more recently, how to deal with the growing number of frozen corpses of less-fortunate mountaineers visible to trekkers. Even after Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and Lou Kasischke’s “After the Wind” described the events surrounding the 1996 tragedy, in which eight climbers were killed, the rush to “conquer” Everest continued apace. So did such theatrical films, documentaries and cautionary tales as Touching the Void, The Wildest Dream, The Beckoning Silence, K2: Siren of the Himalayas, The Summit, Messner, Cold, North Face, Dying for Everest, The Climb, Blindsight and Farther Than the Eye Can See. No such traffic jams exist on the trails leading to Meru Peak, a mountain which lies in the Garwhal Himalayas, in the Uttarakhand region of India. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2001 that Russian climber Valeri Babanov reached the summit of Meru Central, overcoming a 100-meter rock face along the way. It would take another 10 years before the more direct and difficult central route – imagine clinging to the edge of a shark’s fin, 21,000 feet high — was used to reach the top by a team consisting of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. The fabulously thrilling documentary, Meru, is their visual record of the feat, as well as the preparations and setbacks that led up to it. It was co-directed by Chin, who carried a Red Epic digital camera on the climb, and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who chose to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground. Mountain climbing isn’t often lumped together with so-called extreme sports, unless fingernails are used instead of ropes and climbers sleep in portaledges, high above the floor of a canyon below them. There’s almost nothing in Meru, however, that viewers wouldn’t consider to be extreme, in one way or another. The Music Box Blu-ray is excellent, with deleted scenes, commentaries and interview segments.

No matter how spectacular the images in Meru are, it isn’t likely that tourists and amateurs will beat a path to the doors of its permanent residents, including the local fakirs. The peak is far too forbidding for anyone not a world-class climber to attempt. Icarus Films’ provocative documentary, Gringo Trails, raises questions asked previously in films decrying the trashing of Everest. It boils down to  the steep price paid by the native populations when their homeland is “discovered” and revenues from tourism become impossible to resist. The exploitation of each new earthly paradise happens in dozens of different ways, some obvious and other far more subtle. As depicted by director Pegi Vail, associate director of the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University, the examples are all too familiar to what’s happened in and around our national parks, and during spring break in Florida, Texas and Palm Springs. In 1981, Israeli backpacker Yossi Ghinsberg survived a month lost in the Amazon, emerging from the jungle nearly as emaciated as a concentration-camp survivor. Rather than frighten tourists away from the Amazon basin, his memoirs resulted in a new cottage industry, with adventurous tourists delivering prosperity to some and new forms of poverty to others. Likewise, an intrepid backpacker’s search for an “unspoiled” island paradise in Thailand has the unintended effect of turning it into a destination for debauched young people from around the world. Another victim of word-of-mouth publicity is the original inhabitant of an island on the Salt Flats of Bolivia, whose kindness to strangers nearly turned his backyard into an eco-tragedy. If all Vail related in her film were horror stories, it would hardly come as news to most enlightened American travelers. (The titular gringos aren’t limited to Yanks, by any means. We’re simply the most desired and despised of tourists.) She finds several examples of local residents taking control of their own tourist industry and limiting our footprints to something manageable and eco-friendly. Several of the experts interviewed are travel journalists whose job it is to discover such destinations and alert well-heeled readers and their backpacking kids to them before they’re spoiled by Euros and other people just like them. Bonus material adds another 45 minutes to the 79-minute film.

Short Skin
When it comes to dealing with sexual maturity, teenagers have a tough enough time without adding rare and potentially embarrassing ailments to the mix. In the sensitively rendered Italian export Short Skin (“I Dolori Del Giovane Edo”), Edoardo is a 17-year-old virgin with an obstacle to manhood most males aren’t even aware exists. While most boys his age routinely fret about the width, length or shape of their penis, even despairing of the appearance of pubic hair, Edoardo (Matteo Creatini) suffers from phimosis: a potentially painful condition, in which the foreskin is too tight to be pulled back to accommodate urination and/or ejaculation. (In women, phimosis prevents the clitoral hood from retracting, limiting the ability to experience orgasm.) Apart from that, Edoardo is every bit the normal teenage boy: gangly, chronically horny and regrettably ill-informed about human physiology. This summer, however, he’s complicated his situation by accepting a wager proposed by his best friend as to which of them will be the first to lose their virginity. Fortuitously, the post-pubescent girls in his neighborhood have begun to see in Edoardo something they could use to cure their strange longings. What they can’t see, of course, can’t freak them out. Sensing future sexual challenges, he reluctantly seeks the advice of his parents and local doctors. It isn’t until he consults a prostitute, though, that he’s made to feel reasonably confident that he’s not a freak. Knowing this, however, doesn’t make it easier for the girls in his life, also virgins, to accept the fact they aren’t causing his pain by doing something “wrong.” As unentertaining as this might sound, first-timer Duccio Chiarini finds ways to mine enough humor from the material to enjoy it as a comedy, in all of the usual ways coming-of-age films are funny. Among other things, Short Skin does for octopi what American Pie did for apple pie. The DVD adds deleted scenes and a pair of short films by the director.

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery
While movies and documentaries about noteworthy artists and sculptors can be stimulating, they are rarely, if ever more fulfilling than visits to a museum or in a private collection. Films that dramatize the struggles of women artists — Séraphine, Frida, Artemisia, Camille Claudel – tend to be significantly more interesting than biopics of male artists, struggling or otherwise. Movies in which models, clothed and unclothed, steal the spotlight from famous painters — La belle noiseuse, Renoir, Klimt, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Surviving Picasso, Goya’s Ghosts – are better than those in which artists sit around a table at a Parisian bar sipping absinthe. Mr. Turner and Vincent & Theo succeeded, in part, because they demonstrate how difficult it is to capture the grandeur of nature on canvas and why so few artists are capable of doing so. In terms of sheer entertainment value, however, it’s difficult for biopics to beat stories in which forgers, phonies, thieves and conmen exploit great beauty for their own selfish purposes. Arne Birkenstock’s fascinating documentary, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery, many not ask as many penetrating questions as Orson Welles’ F for Fake, but it does a nice job getting inside the head of artists of a more larcenous bent. Wolfgang Beltracchi is a German art forger and artist, who has admitted to producing hundreds of fake paintings from the works of about 50 prominent painters. Beltracchi, his wife, and two accomplices sold these as original works by such famous artists as Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Kees van Dongen. Beltracchi’s genius, if you will, involved selling the legitimacy of the forgeries to people whose job it is to protect well-heeled consumers, auction houses and gallery owners from crooks exactly like him. For the police to build their case, though, they not only had to separate the masterpieces from the fakes, but also get Beltracchi’s victims to admit that they were capable of being conned.

If there were a mold, from which forgers and thieves were cut, it probably wouldn’t fit Beltracchi. If anything, he resembles a former hippie who struck it rich somewhere along the way and sees no reason to cut his hair or throw away the jeans he wore to Woodstock. He’s personable, funny and forthcoming, even as he is being interviewed within the lax confines of a minimum-security prison in Germany.  Before their release, Beltracchi and his wife, Helene, even were allowed to take commissions and work together in their home studio during the day, before having to return to their respective cells at night. His six-year sentence, which began in 2011, ended last January with a promise to paint only in his own name and move from Germany to France. There’s no indication in the documentary that Beltracchi suffers from remorse, guilt feelings or poverty. He was charged and found guilty of forgery and corruption related only to 14 works of art, which sold for a combined $45 million.  One of the ways he escaped detection for as long as he did was forging paintings by well-regarded, albeit lesser-known artists, and confusing their provenance through dummy galleries and auction houses. In an overheated marketplace ruled by blind greed, it wasn’t difficult to create and maintain a business creating paintings that few outside the cognoscenti would recognize, let alone sniff out as forgeries. A great Hollywood ending might have come if Beltracchi and his merry band of con artists had sold a piece of art to an investor whose collection was subsequently stolen by thieves whose fence recognized the works as phonies. A similar scenario played out in Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley Under Ground,” in which Tom Ripley is confronted by a collector, who correctly suspects that the paintings sold to him are forgeries. He probably should have left well enough alone.

Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax
Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary: Blu-ray
Gil Scott-Heron didn’t coin the Black Power slogan, “The revolution won’t be televised,” but, by surrounding it with radical poetics, bongos and conga drums, he created an anthem for the movement that had left “We Shall Overcome” behind, in its militant wake. Forty-five years later, the B-side to Heron’s first single, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” has lost none of its ability to stir dissent. Although the Chicago native’s popularity would wane in the years before his death, in 2011, the debt owed to him by two generations of rappers and hip-hop artist is still being paid. In Robert Mugge’s essential 1982 documentary, Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax, the self-described “bluesologist” gave viewers of the UK’s then-brand-new Channel 4 Television a tour of Washington, DC, unseen by tourists. In soft, but authoritative tones, Heron could be mistaken for an afro-coiffed Fred Rogers welcoming guests to his adopted ‘hood, starting with the monuments within walking distance of crime-plagued projects and flop houses. The setting moves to the Wax Museum Nightclub, where Heron stands among frozen-in-time politicians, musicians and celebrities to introduce half-sung/half-spoken renditions of his repertoire, backed by his 10-piece Midnight Band. Although “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised” isn’t on the night’s playlist, the doc features full performances of “Winter in America,” “Alien,” “Johannesburg,” “Storm Music,” “Waiting for the Axe to Fall,” “Gun” and “‘B’ Movie,” a scathing analysis of how Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States. On his walk-and-talk tour of the capital, Heron recites his poems “Paint it Black,” “Black History,” “Billy Green is Dead,” “The H2O-Gate Blues” and “Whitey on the Moon.” The original 16mm print has been restored to tip-top shape.

Martha Davis and the Motels Live at the Whisky a Go Go 50th Anniversary may be a long and unwieldy title for a concert Blu-ray/DVD, but it conforms to the truth-in-marketing dictates of the DVD Wrapup. That’s because Martha Davis and the Motels is what remains of groups formerly known as The Motels Featuring Martha Davis, Martha Davis, solo, The Motels, Angels of Mercy and, way back in 1971, the Warfield Foxes. To be completely accurate, please note that it’s the venerable Whisky a Go Go that was marking its 50th year in business, not the group, which, excluding separations, is closer to 27. Of the original members on stage that night, only Davis and sax and keyboard player Marty Jourard performed. Even so, the audience dug watching Davis belt out such hits as “Suddenly Last Summer,” “Only the Lonely,” “Mission of Mercy” and “Total Control.” Being her birthday, Davis was gushingly introduced by Rosanna Arquette and singer-songwriter Linda Perry. The film was shot in hi-def by Roy H. Wagner, and directed by choreographer Denise Faye. It includes a chat with former band members.

Tenderness of the Wolves: Blu-ray
The Voyeur: Blu-ray
Queen of Blood: Blu-ray
Although only partially based on the same serial killer who inspired Peter Lorre’s character in M, Ulli Lommel’s thoroughly disturbing crime drama, Tenderness of the Wolves, is cut from the same torn cloth. As portrayed with nightmarish precision by co-writer Kurt Raab, Fritz Haarmann is within weeks of being arrested, charged and convicted in the sexual assaults, murders, mutilations and dismemberments of at least 24 young men and boys in Hanover, Germany, between 1918 and 1924. Unlike Lorre’s deeply disturbed fiend, Hans Becker, Haarman was a homosexual. (The word, gay, doesn’t quite fit the description, here.) He earned the moniker, Vampire of Hanover, by attempting to rip out the Adam’s apple and trachea of his victims, before strangling them. Shaved bald and bearing a curious resemblance to Lorre and F.W. Murnau s Nosferatu, Raab plays Haarmann as a reasonably social being, with friends in high and low people. They weren’t limited to gay men and he didn’t have to lurk in the shadows to narrow down his choices of victims. Germany was still reeling from the impact of losing World War I – here, updated to World War II — and Hanover bore no resemblance to the divinely decadent Berlin. Lommel does a great shop capturing the menace in the air and desperation in the streets that followed both wars. He experiments with German Expressionist shadings, but a color scheme favored by producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder is especially scary in Blu-ray. Considering the nature of the crimes, Tenderness of the Wolves limits the extreme violence to specific scenes. We’re also spared any questions of guilt or innocence based on mental illness. What’s likely to shock most viewers are the insinuations of non-censual sex between Haarmann and minors, and full-frontal male nudity in more consensual preludes to murder.  The high-definition digital transfer was prepared by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, which is doing a great job restoring his library. Also new are insightful interviews with Lommel and director of photography Jürgen Jürges; an informative appreciation, by film historian and expert on European horror cinema Stephen Thrower; a theatrical trailer; reversible sleeve, featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil; and an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Tony Rayns. If Lommel’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of his mid-career move from Fassbinder’s factory to Andy Warhol’s Factory and such movies as Cocaine Cowboys and The Blank Generation, in which the artist cameoed as himself, and a string of straight-to-video genre flicks universally loathed by critics. (Look for a brief Fassbinder appearance in “Wolves.”)

At a time when American porn specialists were draining the eroticism from soft- and hard-core films, Tinto Brass decided to fill the worldwide vacuum by breathing fresh air into the moribund Euro-porn sub-genre. By 1990, home-grown producers of hard-core movies had fully committed to video and gonzo sex that was completely devoid of a narrative framework. Soft-core films were made to conform to the dictates of late-night cable television, which required of surgically enhanced actresses that they strategically position their hands during sex, so as to avoid any hints of genital-to-genital contact or pubic hair. Brass embraced fables of sexual desire, adding world-class cinematography, lush soundtracks, expensive lingerie, sumptuous locations and performers capable of acting and making love simultaneously. If he too often fell back on the use of mirrors, reflective glass and window frames in his films, and he favored women with large buttocks to those with more average figures, not all of the women required breast implants, at least. And, in another departure, male roles weren’t limited to gym rats under 25. The Voyeur was adapted from the erotic novel, “L’uomo che Guarda,” by Alberto Moravia. It tells the story of “Dodo,” a handsome professor of French literature who fears being cuckolded by his exhibitionist wife and cock-blocked by his father, whose live-in nurse specializes in leaving her clients with blue balls. Even when Dodo allows himself to be seduced by a gorgeous mixed-race student, his wife steps in at the last moment to share the experience with him. The Voyeur may look overly familiar to longtime fans, but newcomers and couples should be pleasantly surprised by what they see. The extras include a stills gallery, trailers for the main feature, as well as other Tinto Brass films, and a 25-minute interview with the quintessential dirty ol’ man, himself.

There’s nothing quite so foolhardy for a genre journalist to attempt than make a movie of his or her own and invite criticism from juries of their peers. Chris Alexander is the Toronto-based editor of Fangoria magazine, a critic with the Toronto Film Critics Association and, of late, a multi-hyphenate filmmaker. His 2012 directorial debut, Blood for Irina, won the Best Experimental Feature Film award at the 2013 PollyGrind Film Festival, in Las Vegas, which may offer prizes in more categories than the AVN Awards, which I never thought possible. I don’t often say this, but I doubt there’s any way that someone not familiar with the original can fully appreciate the sequel, Queen of Blood, as they share the same dialogue-free conceit and blood-starved lead character, the vampire Irina (Shauna Henry). In the former, Irina has reached the end of her 100-year run on Earth. By day, she’s living in a run-down motel on the water (probably Lake Ontario), while, at night, she stalks city streets looking for fresh blood. Her desperation is mirrored by the motel manager and a prostitute “living a life on the fringe, trapped in world of literal and figurative decay.” In the latter film, we first encounter Irina slowly emerging from a bog in the middle of a forest, trailing a stream of blood like the umbilical cord it represents. After being rescued by a mysterious fellow who lives in an isolated cabin, she seems to appreciate being cleaned up and given new clothes. Just as we begin to think that pathetic creature might have adopted an ethical code, she uses her razor-sharp fingernails to rip out his throat. And, so it goes, until Irina comes upon a pregnant woman … and, well, you might be able to guess the rest. Queen of Blood benefits from a certifiably Euro-horror look and an evocative soundtrack that almost makes up for the lack of dialogue.

The 9th
Here’s a movie that arrives with almost no advance marketing push or buzz, from a fledgling production company with no track record, except for a single festival appearance, in Europe. The synopsis in the press kit doesn’t appear to have been translated correctly into English and there were no published reviews for The 9th. What the DVD does have going for it, however, is the kind of cover art that draws one into a movie like a magnet, not unlike a classic poster by Saul Bass. The setting for Nathan Codrington’s debut feature, promoted as “a neo-noir psychological drama,” is a cocktail party in the penthouse apartment of what appears to be a swank urban residence. I kept waiting for Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world,” to walk in at any minute, surrounded by young men in tuxes and women in low-cut gowns. Here, though, the drink of choice is champagne and mystery is in the air. In fact, something terribly sinister is happening in a room not far from the gathering. A man in diapers and angels wings is being tortured for reasons unknown by thugs whose faces remain unseen, as directed, perhaps, by the party’s Master of Cermonies (Edward Barry). The 73-minute film clearly is based on two very different entertainment vehicles: the game, Clue (a.k.a., Cluedo) and seminal jazz pianist, Earl “Fatha” Hines. (The names of the characters are derived from famous singers and musicians.) Beyond that, I’m not sure of anything, including my interest in discovering who’s doing what to whom and why. The music, as performed Nigel Hart and Dan James, had the desired effect on me, however.

Nightmare Code
3’s a Shroud
Troll/Troll 2: Blu-ray
Listen to enough futurists and you’ll think that day artificial-intelligence technology supplants human intelligence is just around the corner. After watching the Republican debates, however, a robot would make a better alternative to any of the morons hoping to call the White House home. Nightmare Code is a cautionary sci-fi thriller that argues against our current system of checks and balances being able to stand up to a threat built into a computer network by a mad genius. Here, a paranoid nerd goes off his rocker when he comes to believe that he won’t get the credit he deserves for inventing an important new computer program. To avenge the perceived slight, he introduces a virus into the Internet that overrides the software from controls programmed into the system, triggering artificial intelligence at its least benign. Almost everything that happens in Mark Netter’s surprisingly accessible debut feature takes place through the multiple lenses of security cameras monitoring activity in the technology-company’s offices, hallways, computer system and meeting rooms. The government client appears ready to shut down the advanced behavior-recognition project, perhaps causing a key programmer to commit suicide and take a few of his colleagues with him, ostensibly to consult with Steve Jobs in the afterlife. With just a month to finish ROPER and a depleted staff left to do it, a famously brilliant young programmer, Brett Desmond (Andrew J. West), is recruited to burrow his way through the installed software to discover how much damage was done by the paranoid slob before he ate his pistol. As it turns out, more than anyone can imagine. And, beyond that, lie spoilers. Blessedly, the use of a quartered-frame screen doesn’t feel as gimmicky as it usually does, actually complementing the action taking place within the Skype-like system and reading the minds of the characters as they move out of one and into the other. Because Brett brings some emotional baggage of his own to the rescue mission, important things are revealed, as well, in conversations with his wife and daughter, at home. Mei Melançon plays the hot Eurasian programmer who inconveniently and unexpectedly adds her baggage to Brett’s pile. The DVD interviews are helpful.

3’s a Shroud is described as a modern British horror anthology in the tradition of Asylum and Tales From the Crypt. It earned some favorable notices on the festival circuit in 2012, none of which translated into a wide distribution. This hardly qualifies as news to horror aficionados, especially fans of the anthology sub-genre. With the exception of scream queen Suzi Lorraine (Busty Cops), none of the segments writers or directors — Dan Brownlie, David V.G. Davies, Andy Edwards — has yet to make a splash in feature-length films, so name recognition always becomes a problem. The individual shorts aren’t at all bad, however. Randle plays the maughty-nanny babysitter, who’s asked to read three scary stories to the boy and his Teddy before dozing off. None of them can be summarized in a sentence or two, except to suggest they might not be the kind of bedtime stories you’d want a babysitter to tell your children.

Eleven years before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels became a worldwide sensation, Noah Hathaway and Michael Moriarty played Henry Potter Jr. and Harry Potter Sr. in John Carl Buechler 1986’s cult classic, Troll. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The resemblances between Trolls, Ghoulies and Gremlins, however, is much more suspect. Harry Potter Sr. and his wife, Anne (Shelley Hack), are moving into a rented apartment in San Francisco, when Junior and daughter Wendy (Jenny Beck) first encounter the wicked troll, Torok, who uses his magic ring to possess the girl’s body as a host to transform the apartment dwellers into other trolls. When Junior senses that something is wrong with Wendy, he consults upstairs neighbor/witch Eunice St. Clair (June Lockhart). If the presence of Lassie’s mom weren’t enough, Troll also represented Julia Louis Dreyfuss’ first film appearance (and nip slip) and one of Sonny Bono’s last, before accidentally becoming mayor of Palm Springs. It adds “The Making of Troll,” with interviews and background material. Also included in the Blu-ray package is Troll 2, a film so onerous that it once maintained a 0-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (That’s improved to 6 percent with “top” critics and a stunning 44 percent audience score.) Apart from not resembling the original in any meaningful way, the sequel is about as frightening as a “Three Little Pigs” cartoon. Actors George Hardy and Deborah Reed provide commentary. A limited number of Blu-ray packages contain a separate disc with the feature-length, “Best Worst Movie,” a documentary that extends making-of memories to include reconnections with cast and crew.

Swim Little Fish Swim
It would be just as unfair to lump every quirky low-budget indie, informed by hyper-chatty dialogue and socially unformed characters, to the Mumblecore subgenre as it is to think that every neurotic New York Jew, wearing nerdy glasses and addicted to psychotherapy, is created by a Woody Allen wannabe. Sometimes, it just seems that way. Still, I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar’s practically weightless rom-com Swim Little Fish Swim than to say it reminds me of films that might have featured the work of Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers. That, or Lena Durham. Set in the New York demi-monde of aspiring artists, musicians and perpetual slackers, Swim Little Fish Swim stars the waifish Bessis as a visual artist, Lilas, desperate to convince immigration officials to renew her visa. One night, after being tossed out of her crash pad by a pervy artist, Lilas finds shelter in the already crowded apartment of  Leeward (Dustin Guy Defa) and Mary (Brooke Bloom), a married couple about to discover just how unsuited for marriage they are. While Mary works overtime as a nurse to support their household, Leeward jams with friends who play instruments they might have purchased at a FAO Schwarz toy store. Thoroughly coddled by his anti-capitalist parents, Leeward has convinced Mary that he’s willing to do commercials to help her out financially, but has committed his resources to a CD of songs written for his pre-school daughter, Rainbow/Maggie, depending on which parent you ask. Some of them aren’t bad, while others are aggressively pretentious. Not surprisingly, Lilas and Leeward are two peas in a pod. Her hang-up, though, it being the daughter of a prominent avant-garde artist, who denigrates her multi-media collages whenever she can. In various off-kilter ways, they lift each other’s spirits and even enlist Sunshine/Maggie in their harmless conspiracy. Swim Little Fish Swim ends much better than it begins, I think, even though none of the characters appear able to survive in New York’s artistic community without trust funds or generous grandparents.

Living in Oblivion: 20th Anniversary: Bluray
The great thing about re-watching Living in Oblivion, probably for the third time in the last 20 years, comes in the realization that the more you know about how independent films are made, the funnier it is. In 1995, I’d never been on a set, interviewed a star, attended a festival or covered a Spirit Awards ceremony. As much as Tom DiCillo exaggerates the process in Living in Oblivion, everything about it now rings true to me, especially how many things can go wrong in a short period of time. Then, too, there’s the coddling of fragile egos, the boredom that allows tensions to fester, the obsequious nature of on-set etiquette and the surprises that come with improvisation. While I haven’t witnessed the kinds of outbursts we see in the film, I have seen the happiness on the faces of everyone on the set when things go indisputably right. It also is wonderful to see some of the great actors of our time, at a point in their careers when they were standing on the cusp of crossing over from indie popularity to mainstream stardom. See if you recognize these names: Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, Kevin Corrigan, James Le Gros and Peter Dinklage. The sad thing is knowing that after making the entertaining, if unprofitable Johnny Suede, Box of Moonlight, The Real Blonde, Double Whammy, Delirious and the Doors documentary, When You’re Strange, has been limited to doing episodic television. It’s better than the alternative, however. The Blu-ray includes a deleted scene, a 2002 Q&A with the DiCillo and Buscemi, and longer interviews with cast and crew.

The Breaking Point
At a brisk 75 minutes, The Breaking Point probably could have been trimmed even more to fit the boundaries of a cops-and-courtroom drama on television. There are several scenes in James C. Hunter’s thugs-in-the-hood drama that wouldn’t missed and room made for commercials, without ruining the flow of the narrative. Does this sound familiar? Three gangbangers with completely different physiques and hairstyles enter a convenience store. Before they can even demand the contents of the cash register or Lottery tickets, one of them pulls out a gun and, instead, points at the angelic white woman we’ve just seen handing out goods to local residents. When she resists, he shoots and kills her. Turns out she’s the wife of a former cop, who vows revenge, knowing the unlikelihood of the store manager going the distance as a witness in a trial. It then becomes a race between the angry widower and the police, as in any procedural. Well, not only is there a trial, but a “Law & Order” trick ending, to boot. While it’s nice seeing this many young African-American actors working a feature film, it’s a shame that The Breaking Point feels as if it were made in 1987.

MHz Networks
The Churchmen: Season 1
Don Matteo: Sets 11/12
Kaboul Kitchen: Season One
Camilla Läckberg’s The Fjällbacka Murders, Set 1/2
A French Village: 1940: Season 1
MHz Networks is a programming service that has begun to provide viewers in the U.S. access to some of the most interesting shows on networks around the world via streaming and over-the-air digital transmission. In this way, it’s similar to Acorn TV, which specializes in English-language programming from the UK, Australia and New Zealand, including series and mini-series previously shown on PBS and BBC America. Both services are well worth the effort it takes to find them on such services as Hulu, Roku, Samsung Smart TV, iPhone, iPad, Vimeo, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. For the purposes of DVD Wrapup, however, many of the shows are now being packaged on DVD, as well. The latest MHz titles I’ve seen include:

From France, “The Churchmen” is the most unlikely of mini-series dramas. It follows five young candidates for the priesthood after their arrival at Paris’ Capuchin Seminary. As is usually the case with such ensemble shows, the characters come from wildly different backgrounds, bringing with them very different reasons for setting out on such a difficult path. As they prepare to take their vows, each of the men will be tempted, tested and tormented by forces from outside and within the seminary walls. As, yes, that includes issues of sexual preference of the adult variety, if not pedophilia. They also are required to slog their way through an aging institution fraught with its own weaknesses, not the least of which is a power struggle between seminary head Father Fromenger and the ambitious Bishop Roman. One needn’t be Catholic to become hooked on “The Churchmen” after giving it an episode or two. The intricate drama is complemented by settings that recall an institution that’s withstood countless dilemmas – most of its own making – and hasn’t surrendered to the same trappings of modernity embraced by the American Church.

In the same ballpark are the extremely popular “Don Matteo” mysteries, from Italy, in which Spaghetti Western star Terence Hill (They Call Me Trinity) plays the titular small-town priest with an extraordinary ability to read people and solve crimes. The series has been airing since 2000 on the premier channel of Italian national television. Hill’s cheeky portrayal reminds me a bit of “Columbo.”

I wonder how American audiences would react to “Kaboul Kitchen,” a black comedy set in the embattled Afghan capital, circa 2005, years before the current Taliban offensive and at a point when dollars were flowing through the hands of warlords and profiteers like water. The Kaboul Kitchen is a multipurpose gathering place in the heart of the city, where westerners can enjoy a non-halal meal, a stiff drink and a dip in the pool, surrounded by women in bikinis. As such, much of the show’s intrigue comes from the owner, Jacky (Gilbert Melki), having to negotiate his way through the roadblocks of war, religion, bureaucracy, corruption, espionage and family. After operating his business on a par with Rick Blaine, in Casablanca, Jacky walks into the club one day only to find his long estranged daughter, Sophie (Stéphanie Pasterkamp), who’s taken a job with a humanitarian-aid organization whose most recent charitable contribution was a truckload of skiing equipment. The series is loosely based on the real life experiences of journalist and co-creator of the series, Marc Victor.

The Fjällbacka Murders” is based on the world of Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg’s character, Erica Falck. She’s a successful crime writer and mother of three, who’s moved from the city to her hometown of Fjällbacka, a fishing village on a picturesque island off the coast of Sweden. Her return seems idyllic, but simmering beneath the village’s surface lie hidden secrets, twisted desires and murderous deceit. The chapters are based on the characters from Läckberg’s novels, but the stories are largely new, with actors Claudia Galli and Richard Ulfsäter playing the lead characters. Like most other Swedish exports, this mystery series is quite engrossing.

The ambitious period series ”A French Village” is set in Villeneuve, a fictional town in German-occupied France during World War II. Since 2009, it has dramatized year-by-year accounts of life there, as despair gave way to hope and fascists of both the German and Vichy variety fought for control of the sleepy district with the Resistance and Allied saboteurs. Liberation would come to central France, of course, but for not for five more TV seasons.

TV-to-DVD
Manimal: The Complete Series
Automan: The Complete Series
Sisters: Seasons One & Two
PBS: Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres
PBS: Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration
Comedy Central: Nathan For You: Seasons One & Two
Gene Autry Collection 12
The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Final Season
During his nearly 50-year career in television, Glen A. Larson wrote and produced some of the most memorable series in the history of the medium. Such long-running series as “Knight Rider” (1982), “The Fall Guy” (1981), “Magnum, P.I.” (1980), “Battlestar Galactica” (1978), “Alias Smith and Jones” and “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” (1979) will find homes on cable-TV outlets for a long time. Others barely lasted half a season. Newly released in complete-series packages are two shows that will live in infamy for as long as historians retain a sense of humor about the 1980s. In his lifetime, Larson frequently was accused of ripping off concepts, characters and storylines from popular movies. It’s possible, then, to imagine that the 1983 sci-fi “Manimal” was inspired by the erotic thriller, “Cat People,” in which a brother and sister shared the ability to shape-shift into black panthers. “Manimal,” which lasted all of eight episodes, told the story of Dr. Jonathan Chase (Simon MacCorkindale), who could turn himself into any animal he chose to fight crime, but preferred being a black panther. Only two people were aware of Jonathan’s secret, his friend Ty Earl (Michael D. Roberts) and police detective Brooke Mackenzie (Melody Anderson). The transformation sequences were designed and created by the Academy Award-winning SFX artist Stan Winston. Sadly, the potential for a bestiality throughline involving Chase and Mackenzie never was fully realized. Otherwise, this one had “cult classic” written all over it from the moment it was canceled on December 17, 1983

The lineage of Larson’s “Automan” was far more obvious, as the sci-fi/cop series shared a producer (Donald Kushner) with Tron, a movie that many considered to be several years ahead of its time, because it took place inside a video game. The brilliant blue outlines for the computer-generated vehicles and uniforms look exactly the same. Desi Arnaz Jr. plays Walter Nebicher, who’s constantly ridiculed for pushing computer-based crime detection on the department’s resident dinosaurs. Their attempts to keep Nebicher rooted at his desk are stymied, however, by an artificially intelligent computer hologram that looks real, sounds real and given enough electrical power can physically exist in the real world. Together, Walter, Automan and Cursor — a small floating droid that creates any object Automan desires — battle crime on city streets. It’s every bit as lame as it sounds. It lasted 13 episodes, before being achieving immediate cult status.

As unfathomable as it sounds today, NBC’s “Sisters” was the first primetime network television drama series to focus specifically on the lives of women and the issues relating to them. “Maude” dealt with many of the same hot-button issues, years earlier, but it typically used caustic humor to make its point, often at the expense of the recurring male characters. The sponsors of

“Sisters” risked losing male viewers to capture women in the key demographic segments. The 1991-96 show succeeded well enough to log a run of 127 episodes, a number that easily cleared it for syndication. “Sisters” follows the trials and triumphs of the four very different Reed sisters, living in the upper-middle-class Chicago suburb, Winnetka. Besides having unique personalities, the characters played by Sela Ward, Swoosie Kurtz, Patricia Kalember and Julianne Phillips looked as if they had either been adopted or had different fathers by the same mother. The poor sap had died a year before the series’ storylines began, causing his wife to bury herself in an alcoholic haze. He left enough secrets behind, however, to inspire several episodes throughout the show’s tenure. The new compilation contains all 29 episodes from the critically acclaimed first and second seasons, The series would go on to receive eight Emmy Award nominations, winning once in 1994 for Ward as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Kurtz was also nominated twice in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category in 1993 and 1994. The package adds lengthy conversations with created by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, who also developed the American adaptation of “Queer as Folk.”

Celebrity chef Jose Andres returns to Haiti, once again, after the 2010 earthquake inspired him to found the World Central Kitchen, as a non-profit that fights hunger and poverty in developing nations. He opened a bakery in an orphanage in Haiti that not only feeds the orphans and staff there, but also provides job training for the kids and has become such a successful business that it is bringing in several thousand dollars a month. In “Undiscovered Haiti With Jose Andres,” he hopes that by boosting the profile of Haitian cuisine, he can inspire more travelers to visit the much-maligned island. The special shows him spending time with local chefs and markets, and sampling island specialties ranging from spicy pikliz sauce to djon-djon rice and akasan, a sweet, thick, milky beverage. In between hunting for crabs, visiting a hilltop fortress and attending a voodoo ceremony, Andres visits with former President Bill Clinton and chef Mario Batali.

She “turned the world on with her smile” on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” “Mary Tyler Moore: A Celebration” features dozens of classic clips, plus comments from Betty White, Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, John Amos, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and the actress, herself. Plus, Oprah Winfrey recounts Mary Tyler Moore’s critical role in inspiring her — and millions of other women — as TV’s first independent career woman.

Nathan Fielder is an “alternative” Canadian writer and comedian, who’s found a niche on cable TV offering off-the-wall business tips to entrepreneurs in desperate need of turning a profit. The fun in “Nathan For You” comes from convincing the business owners to embrace marketing tactics no traditional consultant would dare attempt. He made headlines when one of his clients agreed to create a coffee shop called Dumb Starbucks. He also suggested inventing a poo-flavored yogurt and staging an elaborate viral video, in which a pig saves a goat. While Nathan’s efforts may not always succeed, they always have big results. The package includes all 16 episodes from the first two seasons!

Beside the good ol’ boy joshing around between cowboy hero Gene Autrey and sidekick Pat Buttram, the 12th edition of “The Gene Autry Collection” features The Sagebrush Troubadour (1935), in which Rangers Gene Autry and Frog Millhouse (Smiley Burnette) travel undercover as Western troubadours to find the killer of old, half-blind Frank Martin. Their only clues are a guitar string and a swayback horse that is the key to finding the dead man’s lost goldmine. It’s one of only two whodunits on the singing cowboy’s resume. The other movies in the set are Ride, Ranger, Ride (1936), Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge (1937) and Gold Mine in the Sky (1938).

Shout! Factory brings out farewell packages of “The Rebel: Johnny Yuma: Season Two,” in which the protagonist visits his namesake city and has to convince a diehard Confederate loyalist from killing General Grant, and “WKRP In Cincinnati: The Final Season,” which opens with the station getting a terrorist threat and the staff’s attempt to form a union.

The DVD Wrapup: Stations of the Cross, Code Unknown, Julien Duvivier, Eric Rohmer and more

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Stations of the Cross
Marie’s Story
Last awards season, Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski’s impassioned story about a novitiate nun in 1960s Poland, walked away with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Agata Trzebuchowska delivered a stunning performance as a young woman who was raised as a devout Roman Catholic, but discovers on the eve of taking her vows that almost everything she’s learned about her parents and religious background is a lie. While providing a not altogether unkind profile of the Church under Nazi and Communist domination, Ida revealed truths about the deeply engrained anti-Semitism of many of the faithful. Stations of the Cross is Dietrich Brüggemann’s tragic depiction of religious fundamentalism at its most destructive and, as such, can be construed as serving as an indictment of one particularly conservative Catholic order. This one is based in southern Germany, an area not immune to fanaticism. Given the Vatican’s current leadership, it’s difficult to believe the cruelty perpetrated here on the 14-year-old protagonist in the name of Christ. American Catholics who came of age in a darker period of Church history shouldn’t have any trouble accepting the film’s premise, though. Bruggemann shares the writing credit with his sister, Anna, who also plays a character in the movie. Like Trzebuchowska, newcomer Lea van Acken is unforgettable as Maria, a 14-year-old German girl about to be confirmed as a soldier of Christ. In many Catholic homes, it is a sacrament that priests and nuns take far more seriously than the parents of the kids forced to endure accelerated catechism lessons. Maria’s mother (Franziska Weisz) takes the rite very seriously, indeed, as do the clergy attached to the real-life Society of St. Pius X. Founded in 1970 by the traditionalist French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, its adherents reject the more secular rulings of the Second Vatican Council, especially changes in the liturgy and revisions to the Roman Missal. While the longing for a return to the Latin mass isn’t particularly unusual among older Catholics, Maria’s treatment is something quite different. She’s been taught that anything that brings pleasure – contemporary music and helping boys with their homework, for example – could lead to promiscuity. Mutter insists that even the most innocent contact with boys her age opens the door for Satan. Because Maria is too isolated too challenge her parents’ beliefs, she maintains a safe distance from temptation. In her mind, disobeying Mutter would be as disrespectful as using a crucifix as a doorstop.

The title, Stations of the Cross, refers to the 14 Stations of the Cross that Jesus endured on his path to Golgotha. Maria’s been taught that the same path not only leads to heaven, but also could cure her younger brother’s autism. Bruggemann tells Maria’s story through 14 fixed-angle, single-shot tableaus. The same ritual was depicted in excruciating detail in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. (On the cover, Maria is shown wearing a crown of thorns.) The nearer Bruggemann gets to the 13th and 14th station — Jesus dying on the cross and being laid in his tomb – the closer Maria gets to her personal Calvary. Instead of pulling the girl back from the brink of disaster, Mutter treats Maria’s ordeal as the first step toward beatification. Anyone who grew up Roman Catholic in a predominantly Catholic community, during the 1960-70s, won’t have any trouble recognizing the forces at play in Stations of the Cross. While many priests and parishioners embraced the reforms brought about during the Second Vatican Council, a vocal minority rejected it outright and still prays for a return to fundamentalist values. In their eyes, the pope is anything but infallible. It’s impossible not to equate Maria’s plight with the treatment of Moslem girls — Malala Yousafzai comes to mind — as they approach puberty and the likelihood of enslavement to a man not of their choosing. Certainly, Mutter and the parish priest could give the Taliban a run for their money. Stations of the Cross is powerful film that deserves to be seen and discussed by co-religionists and anyone who thinks Islamists have a monopoly on fanaticism. Bonus features include the director’s commentary and the short film, “One Shot.”

Also from Film Movement comes a more familiar story of Catholic faith and near-saintly charity. This time, the central figure is a French nun who sacrificed her own personal freedom to mentor a deaf and blind girl nearly given up for lost by her helpless parents. The true story of Sister Marguerite (Isabelle Carré) and Marie Heurtins (deaf actress Ariana Rivoire) unfolded at roughly the same point in the late 1800s as when Annie Sullivan was working her magic with Helen Keller, an ocean away in Massachusetts. Marguerite taught deaf girls to sign at the esteemed Larnay Institute, near Poitiers. In Jean-Pierre Améris’ tremendously moving Marie’s Story, her great challenge comes when a humble artisan brings his deaf and blind daughter to the rural facility in a last-ditch effort to keep her from being sent to an asylum for the mentally ill. When Marie is left at Larnay, the girl acts out her bewilderment, fear and anger in ways that recall Victor, Francois Truffaut’s l’enfant sauvage in The Wild Child. When the mother superior denies Marguerite’s request to tame the feral child, she’s treats the rejection as a direct challenge from God to serves as his miracle worker on Earth. (I wonder if Keller ever learned of Marie’s parallel story.) To accomplish this feat, the nun felt it necessary to distance herself from her other obligations and search for answers in nature. After much tussling, frustration and exploration, Marguerite feels confident of Marie’s ability to return to Larnay, where they can learn out to correspond using hand-to-hand signing techniques. Sadly, the other girls have yet to be taught the meaning of Christian charity, as they torment Marie whenever Marguerite leaves the room. Learning that the nun has been diagnosed with tuberculosis only makes us feel that much more fearful for Maria’s fate. Améris keeps a tight hold on the throttle here, nicely balancing the dramatic throughlines and resisting the temptation to play to the cheap seats. The acting is universally excellent and the lush rural settings open up a story that might have induced claustrophobia if the action remained indoors. Do I need to mention that Marie’s Story easily qualifies as entertainment for the entire family? The bonus features include an informative making-of featurette and the Iranian short film, “Motherly,” in which a blind woman “spies” on her wheelchair-bound son to determine if his girlfriend is marriage material.

Code Unknown: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
When Code Unknown debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, the influx of immigrants into Europe was still deemed manageable and writer/director/playwright Michael Haneke was known primarily for his almost unbearably intense home-invasion thriller, Funny Games. Haneke would go on to become a perennial favorite at international festivals and, by 2015, undocumented immigration would reach crisis proportions throughout Europe and North America. If anything, critics then were more impressed by Juliet Binoche’s terrific performance than Haneke’s observations about the growing communications gap between native Parisians and newcomers from Africa, Kosovo and other hotspots. Today, I think, the opposite would be true. We’ve come to expect great acting from Binoche and Haneke’s response to the immigration problem would be considered prescient. The complete title, “Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys” sums up the filmmaker’s narrative conceit pretty well. The central event involves the runaway brother of Binoche’s boyfriend, a photographer drawn to war zones around the world. Angry that the actress refuses to accept the boy’s frustration with farm life as seriously as he does, Jean crumples up a bag of pastry and rudely throws it into the lap of a Kosovar woman begging on a curb outside the bakery shop. Disturbed by the show of disrespect, a Malian student confronts the boy and is arrested for being the instigator of a tussle. The beggar is deported and the boy returns to the farm. Haneke revisits these characters throughout the rest of the movie, through vignettes separated by short blackouts. He also bookends the series of vignettes with scenes from a game of charades played by deaf students from several different cultural backgrounds.

In Code Unknown’s most troubling sequence, the actress is confronted on a subway train by an Arab youth, whose idea of fun is intimidating passengers he knows won’t fight back. At the time, at least, such provocations weren’t at all uncommon. Today, of course, the fear would be that the Arab youth would be in possession of a bomb or knife. I suspect some viewers might see the provocations as being too one-side and deduce that Code Unknown is an exercise in politically incorrect stereotyping. It would be difficult, however, to overstate the potential for violence and political extremism in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. Until President Trump clears the street of America of illegal immigrants, it will remain a problem without a solution here, as well. In this regard, even after 15 years, Code Unknown feels fresh and urgent. Haneke’s ability to keep the disparate characters from tripping all over each other is remarkable. Ten years after Funny Games raised his flag at Cannes, Haneke felt compelled to remake it almost verbatim for English-speaking audiences. Is it too much to ask of him to consider revisiting the issues raised in Code Unknown in a contemporary setting? The Criterion Collection upgrade includes a newly restored 2K digital transfer, approved by the director, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack; a new and vintage interview with Haneke; an introduction by Haneke, from 2001; a 2000 making-of documentary, featuring interviews with Haneke, Binoche and producer Marin Karmitz; a new interview with film scholar Roy Grundmann; and an essay by critic Nick James.

Eclipse Series 44: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties: The Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
No less an expert than Graham Greene called Julien Duvivier’s Algiers-set crime drama, Pépé le moko, “One of the most exciting and moving films I can remember seeing. … (It) raises the thriller to a poetic level!” It would serve as inspiration for Greene’s novel, “The Third Man,” and the American remakes, Algiers (1938) and Casbah (1948). As if to demonstrate that Duvivier was no one-hit wonder, Criterion Collection has released a quartet of films he made between the end of the silent era and the release of “Pepe,” in 1937. Though decidedly French in origin, all four films would fit neatly on the nights Turner Classic Movies devotes to film noir classics. David Golder (1931) is Duvivier’s the first sound film and first collaboration with actor Harry Baur, who appears in all four pictures. it brings to life the vivid protagonist of Irène Némirovsky’s novel, an avaricious, self-interested banker whose family life is as tempestuous as his business dealings in inter-war France. Poil De Carotte (“The Red Head”) is Duvivier’s 1932 remake his own silent adaptation of a popular turn-of-the-century novella about a farm boy nicknamed Carrot Top, who desperately wants to connect with his father; 1933’s La tête d’un Homme (a.k.a., “A Man’s Neck”) is one of the first adaptations of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels. It stars Baur as a novelist, investigating the odd circumstances surrounding the killing of a wealthy American woman in Paris. Every bit Baur’s equal is the Russian émigré actor Valéry Inkijinoff, cast as a nihilistic, reptilian medical student. Julien Duvivier gives the viewer one evocative image after another, constructing a work of sinister beauty. In Un Carnet De Bal (“Dance Program”), a rich widow, nostalgic for the lavish parties of her youth, sets off across Europe to reconnect with the many suitors who once courted her. In doing so, she embarks on a journey of discovery, both of herself and of how greatly the world has changed in two decades. The set is the 44th entry in Criterion’s valuable Eclipse Series.

Two Men in Town: Blu-ray
At a time when executions in the U.S. have been postponed in several states, due primarily to questions raised about the legality of the chemical formula used in lethal injections, it may come as a surprise for many Americans to learn that France relied on the guillotine until 1977. Four years after the execution of Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian pimp convicted of torture and murder, the guillotine and death penalty finally were abolished there. Four years before Djandoubi fell victim to the steel blade, a movie written and directed by a former Death Row inmate may have laid the foundation for their abolition. Far from being an emotionally draining drama on the order of Dead Man Walking, however, José Giovanni’s Two Men in Town (a.k.a., “Two Against the Law”) stuck a knife directly into the heart of France’s hypocritical justice system, which promoted punishment over rehabilitation for convicted criminals … much in the same way as American prisons do today. Giovanni (born, Joseph Damiani), knew whereof he spoke. After World War II, he joined the Corsican mob as a petty criminal and was involved in a crime that claimed three lives, including those of his older brother and an uncle. Despite the fact that he wasn’t armed, Giovanni was convicted and sentenced to death. After some political strings were pulled, clemency was granted and he began a more legitimate career, as writer of hard-boiled fiction set in the criminal underworld or prisons. Several would be adapted into excellent movies, starring such high-profile European leading men as Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Paul Meurisse, Daniel Auteuil, Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. He would add a couple more hyphens to his title before his death, in 2004. In Two Men in Town, Delon plays a safecracker who’s released from prison early after being vouched for by a social worker and prison reformer, portrayed by Gabin, then 69. Committed to going straight, Gino Strabliggi encounters three huge obstacles in his path: a tragic romance, his former mates and a cop bent on sending him back to the joint. Throughout it all, Gabin’s Germain Cazeneuve remains in his corner. Finally, though, a system that puts its trust in crooked cops, over rehabilitated sinners, causes Gino to make the kind of foolish mistake that results in dates with the guillotine. Although Two Men in Town suffers a bit from a less-than-fluid narrative, it doesn’t soften the power of Giovanni’s message. Last year, his original screenplay would be re-adapted to fit an American setting by Rachid Bouchareb (Days of Glory), with Forest Whitaker and Harvey Keitel facing off against each other in comparable roles. Newly restored in 4K, the Cohen Media Blu-ray adds commentary by Gabin biographer Charles Zigman, as well as the very different original and re-release trailer.

Full Moon in Paris: Blu-ray
The Marquise of O: Blu-ray
Amour Fou: Blu-ray
And, since we’re on the subject of foreign films, here are three more Film Movement releases to consider, all with deep connections to the famously idiosyncratic French auteur, Eric Rohmer. His 1984 romantic drama, Full Moon in Paris, is the fourth in his “Comedies and Proverbs” series, in which he probes the cycles, permutations and mysteries of love and desire. (Who does this kind of cool stuff, anymore?) It stars the dangerously thin and weirdly coiffed Pascale Ogier, who died very soon after winning the Venice Film Festival’s Best Actress prize, at 26. Her flighty interior designer, Louise, personifies the film’s gender-reversed epigram, “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.” Louise lives with her hunky boyfriend, Remi (Tcheky Karyo), in a suburb of Paris. She loves him, but doesn’t dig his possessive nature or the wasting away of her young life in the sleepy town. Plus, Remi doesn’t dance. So, Louise elects to divide her time in a Paris apartment, where she strings along her effete friend, Octave (Fabrice Luchini), a married writer. She doesn’t mind living or sleeping alone, even while retaining strong feelings for both men. It isn’t until Louise lets down her guard to the point where she spends the night at a rock musician’s apartment that she begins to understand the wisdom in the epigram. If Louise looked a bit more like a young Catherine Deneuve or Nathalie Baye, we’d wonder why such a determined female character would care to split her time between such imperfect men. In a Hollywood movie, though, Ogier would be relegated to geeky sidekick roles and settling for scraps left behind by her friends on the cheerleader squad. It’s these kinds of departures from the norm that make Rohmer’s work so diverting.

The natural tendency when first coming across Rohmer’s 1976 period drama, The Marquise of O, is to assume it has something to do with the Marquis de Sade or the S&M classic, “Story of O,” by Anne Desclos (a.k.a., Pauline Reage_. Alas, no. In fact, it was adapted from Heinrich von Kleist’s 1808 novella, about a young widow, the Marquise, who places an ad in the local paper seeking the father of the baby she’s carrying, but doesn’t remember conceiving. In flashback, Rohmer recalls an attack by Russian soldiers on a northern Italian town, during the Napoleonic Wars and the attempted rape of Die Marquise by soldiers overrunning the citadel. It is interrupted by the Russian Count F (Bruno Ganz), who returns the unconscious damsel to safety. The Marquise is distraught that her savior had to leave town after it was ransacked and was mistakenly reported dead in the advance. Soon thereafter, however, the count returns to her home and asks Der Vater – who had unsuccessfully defended the town against the Russians — her hand in marriage. Before this can happen, however, the count once again is called back to duty, with the promise that the matter would be revisited upon his return. Soon thereafter, the Marquise will learn she is pregnant and begin the search for the father. Things get considerably more complicated, but in ways that are difficult to predict. Ganz is excellent as the imperious count, as is Edith Clever as the extremely fragile Die Marquise. The film, which is an exhaustive depiction of long-buried manners and protocol, won the Grand Prix Spécial Prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival.

The connection to Rohmer in Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is the dramatization of the hopelessly romantic Von Kleist’s final weeks of life, which culminated in a double suicide with the similarly minded musician Henriette Vogel, who lived in a grand estate near Potsdam. Greatly impressed by Von Kleist’s poetry, Vogel invites him to spend time with her family, which includes a husband and child. Led to believe that she’s suffering from a terminal illness, Vogel (Birte Schnoeink) allows the writer (Christian Friedel) to talk her into going out in a blaze of romantic glory, according to the lofty dictates of his poetry. This account differs from the historical record, as does the mystery that surrounds Vogel’s illness, but where’s the fun in the truth? While the dialogue leading to the suicide pact borders on crazy-talk, Hausner’s depiction of life among the aristocracy at a time when the clamor for democracy and the potential for taxing the rich were blowing strongly in the wind is captivating. She also does a splendid job depicting the grandiosity of the estates where the bewigged twits frittered away their days. The bonus features include commentary with the director, deleted scenes, “Why We Selected” and the short film, “OIDA.”

Do I Sound Gay?
I wonder if, even 20 years ago, David Thorpe’s insightful documentary, Do I Sound Gay?, would have attracted the number of men willing to be interviewed on a subject that, in other hands, might be considered politically incorrect. It’s also worth considering where such a film might have been exhibited outside of gay and lesbian film festivals. Back then, religious zealots still were able to sell the idea that homosexuality could be reversed or cured. Today, of course, the stigma of speaking in a stereotypically gay voice – or, what once was dismissed as a lisp – has practically disappeared, at least in big cities and campus communities. Not caring how one sounds in social situations, job interviews, on screen or at church is as much a sign of the times as having same-sex marriage announcements published in the New York Times. Thorpe uses the break-up with his boyfriend as an excuse for confronting his anxiety about “sounding gay.” To this end, he solicits the advice of acting coaches, linguists, friends, family, total strangers and celebrities. What starts as a personal journey, though, effortlessly evolves into larger discussions about sexuality, identity, self-esteem and, finally, gay pride. The interesting thing to remember is that actors have been affecting gay voices and mannerisms for a very long time, and not always in cruel parodies. Some have been able to use their normal voice and profit from it. It isn’t likely that Liberace, Paul Lynde and Clifton Webb would have profited from going butch. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is how what’s accepted in entertainers and celebrities can still divide families. Among the more prominent witnesses called to testify here are Tim Gunn, columnist Dan Savage, David Sedaris, George Takei and Margaret Cho.

Bound to Vengeance: Blu-ray
When J.M. Cravioto’s hyper-violent revenge thriller Bound to Vengeance was shown at this year’s Sundance Festival, its title was “Reversal.” There probably was a logical reason for the change, although I can’t think of one right now. The reviews that followed its screening were close enough to the ones that greeted I Spit on Your Grave and its sequels to raise the question as to just how violent a movie has to be these days to offend critics gathered at a festival devoted to indies. While there’s no denying Bound to Vengeance’s exploitative ambitions, such reviews suggest that the bar separating good exploitation from bad exploitation hasn’t moved much in the last 37 years. In Rock Shaink and Keith Kjornes’ story, a young woman, Eve (Tina Ivlev), escapes her psychopathic captor after being chained in a basement and abused for nine months. While attempting to take flight, Eve discovers photos taken of other women whose lives appear still to be in jeopardy. Assuming that her captor knows where the others are imprisoned, she beats him to within an inch of his life and puts him in a metal harness, which can be manipulated to inflict more pain. By promising the fiend (Richard Tyson) medical attention, Eve is able to elicit the location of another victim, who agrees to join her crusade, and, so on and so forth. The further the trail leads into the horror zone, the more resistance they meet … and, yes, reversals. The obvious questions become, why doesn’t Eve call the police and where does vengeance end and sadism begin? Then, too, is a harder line drawn by mainstream critics when an exploitation flick debuts at Sundance, instead of going straight to DVD, where such genre fare can be ignored? Methinks, yes. Critics don’t enjoy wallowing in gore any more than the victims in exploitation movies. I don’t either, but VOD and straight-to-video titles are a large part of my workload. That said, because the violence in Bound to Vengeance is directed far more at the evil male characters than helpless women, the titillation factor associated with I Spit on Your Grave and its ilk isn’t at play here. While far from a home run, the movie is just good enough to raise the profile of its talented Mexican director in his debut feature.

The Aviation Cocktail
Like other first features made on miniscule budgets, David R. Higgins’ The Aviation Cocktail is long on style, but short on follow-through. At its best, the Nebraska-set crime drama represents the kind of rural noir Richard Brooks injected into In Cold Blood. Set in the kind of sleepy Midwestern town profiled in Truman Capote’s account of the Clutter Family murders, Higgins’ film benefits from being shot in, around and above the Sandhills National Natural Landmark, in the north-central part of Nebraska, as well as a snow-covered patch of nothingness in Colorado. There are times when it also resembles the more barren landscapes of Coen Brothers’ Fargo, North Dakota. The movie opens with a shootout between a posse of police sharpshooters and the kidnaper of a girl, who’s already dead when they approach the dilapidated shed. While the wounded suspect is being flown to a hospital in a shiny silver prop plane, the three other passengers conspire to exact their own form of vigilante justice on him. Sheriff Henry Fisher (Beau Kiger), his brother, Jack (Michael Haskins), and friend Bob Halloran (Brandon Eaton) are World War II veterans, not at all averse to keeping the prisoner’s fate secret. Things don’t begin to unravel until the cuckolded sheriff’s unfaithful wife, Alice (Leah Lockhart), begins flashing her boobs to everyone willing – or unwilling – to look at them. Her lovers include the pilot, Bob. Like everyone else in town, Jack is aware of the situation, but doesn’t want his brother to slide completely off, into the deep end. As if to demonstrate how haywire things can go in a small town largely populated with heavily armed alcoholics, Higgins adds the dead girl’s religious-fanatic brother (Connor L. Boyle) to the mix and gives him a handgun. By the time the shit hits the fan between Henry and Alice, though, the story’s gotten bogged down with too many characters and subplots. Even so, it’s difficult not to be impressed with Higgins’ choice of locations and obsession with period accuracy, especially in the vintage vehicles.

Before We Go: Blu-ray
If I were to guess, I’d say that prolific-to-a-fault screenwriter Ron Bass woke up one morning thinking it might not be a bad idea if someone crossed Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and that his assistants might have fun throwing it together. Before We Go reportedly began to take shape in 2008, as “1:30 Train,” and with director Joel Schumacher and Monica Bellucci attached to the project. By the time shooting began, in 2014, the retitled rom-com starred frequent superhero Chris Evans and Reece Witherspoon look-alike Alice Eve, with Evans doubling down as first-time director. Evans has said that he doesn’t want to play Captain America forever, but, even if Before We Go is far from a disaster, he may want to reconsider killing the goose that’s laying the golden eggs. In it, Evans plays a subway busker, Nick Vaughan, who hopes to join an established jazz ensemble after an audition scheduled for the next day. He becomes attracted to Eve’s Brooke Dalton after noticing that she’s missed her train to New Haven and is upset because her expensive purse has been stolen and her phone is broken. Sensing a damsel in distress, Nick volunteers to help her locate her bag and raise the money she needs to get back to her philandering husband. They make a cute couple, traipsing around the Lower East Side, even if there’s no guarantee they’ll still be a twosome by the time sunrise rolls around. The problem is that they don’t look as if they could survive a night in the mean streets of Omaha, let alone Manhattan, especially while attempting to recover a purse worth more empty than Nick’s made in all of his performances at Grand Central Station. We’re left with an urban fairytale as phony as the knock-off accessories sold on street corners by Nigerian conmen.

Charlie’s Farm
Stung: Blu-ray
Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Theatre of the Deranged II: Blu-ray
Symphony in Blood Red Blu-Ray,
Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.: Blu-ray
Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween
Bloodsucking Bastards: Blu-ray
If the Aussie export, Charlie’s Farm, is based on an overly familiar trope, writer/director Chris Sun deserves a lot of credit at least for creating a monster that fans of old-fashioned slasher flicks aren’t likely to forget. The story opens with a flashback to the night a vigilante mob confronted the owners of an Outback farm, believed to house a family of serial killers of trespassers and cannibals. The only person who escapes the carnage is the son, Charlie Wilson, who, 20 years later, has grown into a grotesque 6-foot-11, 360-pound killer, who wields handmade weapons of medieval origins. On this particular weekend, a quartet of fearless young suburbanites descends on the vacant farmhouse to test the validity of a horrifying local legend involving Charlie. While it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen to the couples, horror fans should enjoy guessing how they will be dispatched and in what order. It’s all pretty blood-curdling. American viewers may be tempted by the presence of Tara Reid, who hasn’t starred in anything more noteworthy lately than “Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2.”  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that a sequel is already in the works … probably without Reid.

Reportedly, first-time screenwriter Adam Aresty came up with the idea for Stung while working as a caterer at an outdoor party with a severe wasp-infestation problem. Based solely on that much background information, anyone who can’t guess what transpires over the course of the next 87 minutes of Aresty and Benni Diez’ film should be required to take a remedial course in creature features. Although I would have held out for predatory yellowjackets, Diez’s special-effects acumen (Melancholia) worked in the favor of the increasingly large, black wasps. If Stung had been made in the 1960-70s, it might have attracted Roger Corman’s attention and been distributed to drive-ins around the country. As it is, I can’t imagine how Syfy might have passed on it. It stars Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Matt O’Leary (Mother’s Day) and Jessica Cook (Awkward).

Pro-Wrestlers vs. Zombies isn’t the final movie Rowdy Roddy Piper made before his death this summer, at 61, but he’s the only good reason to check out Cody Knotts’ follow-up to Breeding Farm and Lucifer’s Unholy Desire. Although the title doesn’t need any further explanation, it’s worth noting that the battle royal takes place at night in an abandoned prison, where a troupe of professional wrestlers is booked for a private show. To their great surprise, the grapplers are confronted by a small army of zombies. The wrestlers turn to their weapons of choice – ladders, folding chairs, boards and sleeper holds – to turn back the undead horde, which relies primarily on rotten teeth and decaying fingernails. Besides Piper, the humans include Matt Hardy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, The Franchise Shane Douglas, Kurt Angle, Reby Sky, Sylvester ‘Bear’ Terkay and associate producer Camera Chatham Bartolotta. The action isn’t any more violent than what one might see at a Wrestlemania. The biggest problem is the under-lit setting, which makes the action tough to dicipher, even in hi-def. It adds commentary by Knotts and an introduction by Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman.

In the sequel to Troma’s 2012 horror anthology, Theater of the Deranged, Internet freak Damien Shadows takes over the reins as host from Andy the Arsonist. Shadows calls himself a paranormal investigator, a title that’s hardly exclusive to self-promoting young webheads who resemble Alice Cooper. As before, Theater of the Deranged II is comprised of a half-dozen very strange short films, this time directed by James Cullen Bressack (Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys), Shawn Burkett (A Shameless Revenge), Eric Hollerbach (Pets of the Rich and Famous), Christopher Leto (Die Die Delta Pi), Dustin Mills (Kill That Bitch) and Shane Ryan (Amateur Porn Star Killer). And, yes, included in the cast of miscreants is a killer mime. It adds bloopers, commentary and other Troma stuff.

There may very well be more filmmakers imitating Dario Argento, today, than there ever were during the heyday of giallo. And, why not? Those movies were built on a recognizable foundation of violence, sex and vivid imagery and the DVD/Blu-ray revolution works to the advantage of those sick individuals for whom murder, nudity and stylistic cinematography are as vital as mother’s milk. The 2010 Troma import, Symphony in Blood Red, doesn’t bother to conceal its influences, even adding a pair of featurettes in which Argento’s name, spirit and thoughts are invoked. In it, a psychologist unleashes her mysterious patient’s latent madness, by insisting he seek further help in a more specialized institution. Instead, he kills her and becomes his own therapist, recording his feelings in a crazy “crescendo” with a small camera. Somehow, he’s come to belief that he’s emerging from a chrysalis state and the next step is full-blown madness. Symphony in Blood Red was written by Antonio Tentori (Dracula 3D) and Luigi Pastore, who also is the director. The genre-specific score is by Claudio Simonetti. The Blu-ray comes with an intro by Lloyd Kaufman; a documentary with the “best voices of Italian horror,” including Dario Argento; a behind-the-scenes piece; a “Minute With Dario Argento: Make Your Own Damn Movie lesson; highlights from the 16th Tromadance Film Festival; Kabukiman’s Cocktail Corner trailer; and a music video, directed by Kaufman.

And, we’re not done with Troma just yet. On the 25th anniversary of Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D., Lloyd Kaufman has decided to re-launch the sci-fi cop adventure in Blu-ray. Harry Griswald is a NYPD cop possessed with the spirit of a great Kabuki master. This has made him “the chosen one” to do battle with “the evil one.” Sadly, not everyone in the Big Apple is ready for reform or such superheroics. Among the bonus features are commentary by Lloyd Kaufman, an animated Kabukiman, Kabuki rap, “Sgt. Kabukiman Accused of Sexual Harrassment,” Tromaville Cafe with Rick Gianasi and the ever-popular Troma Trailers.

Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween isn’t from Troma, but it might as well be, I guess. The titular protagonists return to the DVD marketplace to mess with sci-fi and horror conventions and clichés, while also paying homage to classic scenes and characters. Previous chapters have included C&O’s Summer Camp Massacre, C&O’s Deadly Xmas and C&O Meet Dracula’s Lawyer. It helps to have a solid background in horror history.

You know that any improv-comedy group with the chutzpah to name itself Dr. God is going to work extra hard to make people laugh. Anything less would be sacrilege. Dr. God is a Los Angeles-based troupe that develops content for film and television, in addition to performing live all across the country. Besides producing Bloodsucking Bastards, it currently is working on “MOCKpocalypse” for AXS-TV.  It is intended to appeal to fans of such movies as Shaun of the Dead, Office Space and “The Office,” among other influences. The DVD adds a gag reel, a making-of featurette and commentary with Dr. God members, including director Brian James O’Connell, producer/actor Justin Ware, writer/actor Sean Cowhig and actors Neil W. Garguilo and David F. Park.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart
Nothing in Jeremiah Zagar’s intriguing documentary Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart leads me to believe that the subject of his inquest was railroaded or deserves a new trial. It does, however, demand of viewers that we question, at least, if any defendant can get a fair hearing after being deemed exploitable by media outlets able to introduce facts, hearsay and outright lies jurors wouldn’t be allow to hear in court. Twenty-five years ago, Pamela Smart’s case made a huge splash when she was charged with encouraging her teenage lover and his slacker buddies to murder her husband. She had met the three teenage boys and a girl at Winnacunnet High School, in Hampton, New Hampshire, where she was employed as a “media coordinator.” Before the seduction and murder occurred, Smart and the students were linked by a mutual interested in heavy-metal music. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because of the intense media coverage of the trial – the first, even before O.J., to be televised from start to finish – and Joyce Maynard’s 1992 novel, “To Die For,” which was adapted by Gus Van Sant’s movie of the same title, starring Nicole Kidman, Matt Dillon and Joaquin Phoenix. Smart also was portrayed by Helen Hunt in the CBS movie, “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story,” and she appeared on “Oprah” in 2010 to plead her case for a new trial. It was rejected, despite several inconsistencies in the testimony of her co-conspirators.

Zagar’s most salient point is that, once the media began to exploit the story for all it was worth, it would have been impossible for Smart’s case to be fairly heard by an untainted judge and jury. If a presumption of innocence is the rule of law in any courtroom, a presumption of guilt is what sells papers and pumps up ratings. Among the things working against Smart was a too-pretty face, an expensive hairdo and photos of her in a bikini. How could three boys in their mid-teens resist such a sorceress? Or, so the prosecutor’s argument went. Even if we agree with the guilty verdict and punishment of life without parole, what are we to make of decisions that have already allowed the boys, including the 15-year-old who stabbed Smart’s husband to death, to already be free on parole? Zagar asks other worthwhile questions, while also interviewing Smart in prison. The documentary is informed, as well, by numerous court records, transcripts and fresh interviews with people on both sides of the argument. For those who followed the trial or simply are fans of true-crime stories, “Captivated” should be considered a must-see.

Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar
Although Adam Ant enjoyed a substantial career in the UK, in the post-punk 1980s, I can only recall him having a single memorable hit on the U.S. charts, “Goody Two Shoes.” He found some traction on MTV for his theatrical music videos and quasi-military costume  – he appeared to be channeling Monty Python’s inept highwayman, Dennis Moore – but pretty much disappeared by 1985. Jack Bond’s documentary, Adam Ant: The Blueblack Hussar, describes the 61-year-old singer/actor’s attempt to relaunch his career after stops along the way doing television, film and theater gigs and dealing with his bipolar condition. This time around, Ant (born, Stuart Leslie Goddard) resembles a cross between Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter. He’s still rocking – thanks to a solid band and hyperactive backup singers — but the lyrics to his new songs sound as if they were written during therapy sessions. Even so, the doc should appeal to 1980s’ nostalgists and fans who might have lost track of Ant. Among the more familiar guest stars are Charlotte Rampling (he’s a big fan of The Night Porter), guitarist Mark Ronson, sculptor Allen Jones, John Robb (Goldblade) and Jamie Reynolds (The Klaxons). Bonus features include live performances of “Whip in My Valise” (at The Scala in London), “Deutsche Girls” (at Electric Ballroom), and “Young Parisians” (duet with Boy George of Culture Club). There’s also an extended Q&A with Bond and Robb.

PBS-to-DVD
Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series
On Two Fronts Latinos & Vietnam
American Masters: Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey
Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History
My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes
The Jewish Journey: America
Nature: Nature’s Miracle Orphans
Cook’s Country: Season 8
It isn’t always easy to keep track of our favorite British series once we’ve fallen in love with them on PBS or BBC America. Few of them can afford the marketing push that alerts us to every new season of “Downton Abbey” and “Dr. Who,” so we’re pretty much left to our own devices. Fortunately, the release of these shows on DVD/Blu-ray has become far more predictable, and at their original UK lengths. (Yes, the U.S. outlets edit for language, nudity and the time necessary for pledge-drive hustles and commercials.) It explains why the arrival of “Masterpiece: Worricker: The Complete Series” will be greeted with joy by fans of British spy stories and Bill Nighy, in particular. As conceived and administered by David Hare, Johnny Worricker is a veteran MI5 officer, whose boss and best friend (Michael Gambon) in the first chapter, “Page Eight,” died unexpectedly, leaving behind a mysteriously encrypted file that threatens the stability of the agency. Meanwhile, a seemingly chance encounter with Johnny’s striking next-door neighbor and political activist (Rachel Weisz) proves too good to be true, forcing Worricker to leave the agency to discover the truth. In the second chapter of the trilogy, “Turks & Caicos,” Worricker is laying low on the titular tax-exile islands, when a CIA agent (Christopher Walken) forces him into the company of some ambiguous American businessmen who claim to be on the islands for a conference on the global financial crisis. When one is found dead, the head of the company’s publicity agency (Winona Ryder) leads Worricker in what could be a wild goose chase that leads back to the events described in “Page Eight.” The third episode, “Salting the Battlefield” follows Worricker as he criss-crosses Europe with a former girlfriend (Helena Bonham Carter), attempting to stay one or two steps ahead of MI5 agents pursuing him in the name of the prime minister (Ralph Fiennes). It’s a terrifically excitin series, with plenty of fresh insights into the game within the game. The casts also include Judy Davis, Olivia Williams, Rupert Graves, Felicity Jones, Dylan Baker, James Naughton and Tom Hughes.

More than any previous conflict involving American soldiers, the Vietnam War was fought by conscripts of working-class and impoverished backgrounds, most of whom had no desire to be there. Meanwhile, college deferments allowed more privileged youths to postpone or entirely avoid their obligation to become cannon fodder for Uncle Sam. When Hollywood finally caught up with Vietnam, it was largely portrayed as a war in which African-American males either were killed or came of age as dope fiends or Black Panthers. The cold facts demonstrated that young working-class Latinos were drafted in similar proportions to black high school graduates and paid the same terrible price. A generation later, Hispanic men and women would comprise an inordinately high percentage of slots in the all-volunteer military. This number included undocumented immigrants who would parley the experience into American citizenship. The PBS documentary, “On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam” frames the documentary within the memoirs of two siblings, Everett and Delia Alvarez, who stood on opposite sides of the Vietnam War, one as a POW and the other protesting at home. Other stories deepen the narrative: in Greenlee County, Arizona, miners’ children fought and died for their country in devastating proportions; sisters and mothers took notice and action; and a farmworker’s son translated his military experience into a career, before resigning in protest from his post on a local draft board.

The “American Masters” presentation, “Pedro E. Guerrero:  A Photographer’s Journey,” tells the remarkable story of a Mexican-American native of then-segregated Mesa, Arizona, who developed a love of art, photography and architecture that carried him to the loftiest peaks of his craft. His collaborations with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and sculptors Alexander Calder and Louise Nevelson have been seen by millions of magazine readers who have no idea who took the photographs or how his cultural background may have influenced his work. He also established an international reputation photographing the mid-century modern houses of such luminaries as Eero Saarinen, Edward Durell Stone, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, John Black Lee and Joseph Salerno. Magazine assignments also took him to Julia Child’s pot-lined kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and to John Huston’s castle in Ireland. For his early opposition to the Vietnam War, however, Guerrero was blacklisted by the same publishers of major shelter magazines who profited from his work. One needn’t be Hispanic or a student of design to enjoy this beautifully composed profile of an important American artist.

Among the historical figures who deserve to be given a temporary rest, at least, by filmmakers and documentarians are the Henry VIII of England and his unfortunate wives. It’s not that we’re not interested in their stories of star-crossed love, just that it’s almost impossible to imagine anything new and compelling to be derived from them. Tell that to historian Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb, who, in “Henry & Anne: The Lovers Who Changed History,” puts a tight focus on the heir-obsessed monarch and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In what amounts to a fact-based Harlequin bodice-ripper, Lipscomb illustrates her exhaustive research with sumptuous dramatizations and reconstructions, drawing on first-hand accounts from the time, and visiting the places where Henry and Anne lived. The only thing missing is a cameo appearance by Fabio, as the Lord High Executioner.

At a time when it would seem impossible to discover new accounts of heroism from World War II, here comes “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes,” which adds quite a bit more than a footnote to the story. In it, we’re introduced to dozens of largely unsung protectors of Jewish refugees, including Italian cycling champion Gino Bartali and citizens of a city that risked annihilation for hiding them. The film also offers an alternative take on the Catholic Church’s role in protecting scores of refugees. While not denying the presence of Vatican-endorsed “ratlines,” which allowed countless ex-Nazi leaders to escape Europe, Oren Jacoby’s film chooses to promote the actions of priests and nuns who adopted a more Christian response to Mussolini and Hitler’s insanity. Not all of the accounts have a happy ending, of course, but more than were previously known, at least. The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini.

On a significantly brighter note, “The Jewish Journey: America” traces Jewish immigration to the U.S. from the earliest arrivals in the mid-17th Century through the impact of the Nazi regime in World War II and subsequent breakup of the USSR. It also chronicles the choices made by American-born Jews in the 20th Century, as the religion faced challenges from within. Among those interviewed are two American-born rabbis whose own “Jewish Journey” has taken them from an assimilated household, with no real roots in the rituals of the religion, back to a life of observance. Top scholars, notable writers and immigrants themselves share stories of those who made a leap of faith to escape persecution or pursue opportunity.

There were several times during the two-part “Nature” mini-series, “Nature’s Miracle Orphans,” when I was tempted to put on one of the many recordings I have of the traditional Negro spiritual, “Motherless Child.” There were other times, however, when a happier tune would be a more appropriate accompaniment. As sad as it is to watch baby animals come to the grips with the absence of their parents – especially those of the maternal persuasion – it’s just that uplifting to see them discover ways to survive and prosper independently. While some orphans are taken in by foster parents, others are forced to go it alone or with the help of human volunteers. They include baby koalas, wallabies, kangaroos, sloths and anteaters.

Season Eight of PBS’ mouthwatering “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen” features the usual array of regional specialties prepared by host Christopher Kimball and chefs from America’s Test Kitchen. Among them are Delta Hot Tamales, Smoked Bourbon Chicken, Dakota Peach Kuchen, Latin Fried Chicken, Pork Ragu, Frosted Meatloaf and Barbecued Burnt Ends. It also includes “Tips & Techniques,” food tastings, equipment tests, and printable versions of all 26 recipes.

The Farmer’s Daughter
42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13
Watch enough porn and you’ll be surprised at who shows up in one. The late, great monologist and actor Spalding Gray plays a leading role in a nasty little ditty, The Farmer’s Daughter, which has been re-released by Impulse Pictures. It also starred Golden Age favorites Marlene Willoughby, Susan McBain and Gloria Leonard, but it should hardly come as a shock to find them in a 1976 porno. Directed by Zebedy Colt (a.k.a., Edward Earle Marsh), it extended the old joke about the farmer’s daughter by adding a couple siblings, a trio of escaped convicts, a moronic farmhand and trigger-happy farmer, a girl-on-boy gang rape, gender-neutral golden showers, incest and some anal. If it weren’t so rough, The Farmer’s Daughter could pass for comedy. Gray doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as one of the randy convicts … that would come eight years later, when he played the U.S. consul, in The Killing Fields. In 1985, he gained prominence on stage with the autobiographical monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia.” Gray also took uncredited roles in a pair of adult classics, Maraschino Cherry and Little Orphan Dusty. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for struggling actors to supplement their income with work in XXX flicks. No one could foresee the introduction of VCRs or that anyone might be able to reference past work in unsung flicks. Some of the then-unknown actors and peep-show veterans, including Leonard, would go on to make very decent money in the genre and never feel the need to apologize for it.

Among the future stars who likewise honed their craft in loops and other grindhouse attractions are Chris Cassidy, Tina Russell, Susan Nero and Sharon Mitchell, who can be found in “42nd Street Forever: The Peep Show Collection, Vol. 13.” The recently deceased Leonard, who also would serve as publisher of High Society, has appeared in previous editions of the series. As usual, liner notes for both sets are provided by Cinema Sewer publisher, Robin Bougie.

The DVD Wrapup: Jurassic World, Back to Future, Inside Out, Toy Story, Benoit Jacquot and more

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Jurassic World: Blu-ray
To paraphrase the Budweiser advertising jingle, “When you’ve collected $1.58 billion at the worldwide box office, you’ve said it all.” No amount of unenthusiastic reviews or over-familiarity with the subject matter could prevent the Jurassic World juggernaut from storming its way up, up, up the charts. Far from being a paint-by-number addition to a beloved franchise, Colin Trevorrow’s second feature – to clever indie debut, Safety Not Guaranteed film – still hones closely to conceits introduced 22 years ago by director Steven Spielberg and writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp. Even so, Trevorrow doesn’t appear to have been required to recall much from “The Lost World” and “JPIII,” which is just as well. Early on in Jurassic World, uptight theme-park executive Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), quips, “Face it, no one is impressed by a dinosaur, anymore.” A bit later, BD Wong’s Dr. Wu, explains, “Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. If the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn’t ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.” One doesn’t need much more information than that to feel at home here. When the Indominus runs amok in Jurassic World, as we know it will, its capture falls to the likable and brave trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Because the park is overflowing with tourists and men in business suits, who knows how much damage could be done by a crazed automaton. (Nothing short of a nuclear strike could put a dent in the franchise.) While Owen is a true macho man, the script treats the pompous female executive, Claire, as if she had no more business on the island than the Super Mario Bros. Trevorrow requires her to explore the park and escape marauding dinosaurs in the same ludicrously high heels she wore hours earlier, while escorting investors around the attraction. Because no Spielberg-produced movie would be complete without the inclusion of endangered children, Claire’s nephews (Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins) just happen to be visiting Jurassic World on this fateful day. All of those clichés aside, Jurassic World is a wonderfully rendered entertainment, with every penny of its $150-million budget visible on the screen. Howard and Pratt make the kind of compelling team we wouldn’t mind seeing again in the sequels already being planned. They get great support from an international cast of familiar actors, including Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, Judy Greer, Lauren Lapkus, Brian Tee and Katie McGrath. The science isn’t bad, either. Fans of the series will enjoy sorting out the homages and physical references to the three previous “JP” installments. Less entertaining are the myriad product placements, ranging from Mercedes to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant chain. They border on being offensive. If the writers had wanted to make a meaningful statement, they might have linked Indominus’ love of genetically modified grain for its monstrous size and temperament. It almost goes without saying that Universal’s Blu-ray/3D/DVD/UltraViolet audio and visual presentation is excellent, fully complementing the superb special effects and lush tropical settings.

Back to the Future 30th Anniversary Trilogy: Blu-ray
Among the most memorable moments in Back to the Future are the ones in which Marty McFly is required to discourage Lorraine, the woman who would become his mother, from falling in love with him. Besides making tens of thousands of male viewers queasy, the Freudian subtext dissuaded several studios, including Disney, from picking up the picture when the script was passed around Hollywood executive suites. Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, also partners on Jurassic World, will be eternally grateful that they did. Audiences, too, reaped the benefits of a script didn’t back down from a little controversy. The only things truly new in Uni’s comprehensive “30th Anniversary Trilogy” package is a fourth disc dedicated to two hours’ worth of featurettes and additional content. Otherwise, the three Blu-ray presentations, already upgraded once, retain the previously available supplementary material, of which there is plenty.  The set comes housed in a DigiBook-style case, with rigid cardboard sleeves comprising the “pages” and serving as disc holders. For those not keeping score at home, the set was released to coincide with the studio’s celebration of October 21, 2015, a date that figures prominently in Back to the Future mythology. Naturally, the hook-starved media took the bait. Passionate fans, already in possession of the 25th-anniversary package may not want to re-invest their money in the same three pictures, just to pick up some new featurettes. They’ll probably turn up online or at Netflix, anyway, and are well worth checking out. It includes “Doc Brown Saves the World,” an all-new short featuring Christopher Lloyd; “Outatime: Restoring the DeLorean,” an inside look at the extensive 2012 restoration of one of three DeLoreans used in the film, but left for years to deteriorate; “Looking Back to the Future,” a nine-part retrospective documentary, from 2009, on the trilogy’s legacy; two 1991 episodes from “Back to the Future: The Animated Series” (“Brothers” and “Mac the Black”), featuring live-action segments with Lloyd as Doc Brown; and newly minted “commercials” for properties seen in Back to the Future II, including are “Jaws 19” and “Hoverboard.”

Inside Out: Blu-ray
Toy Story That Time Forgot: Blu-ray
A LEGO Brickumentary: Blu-ray
Somehow, I managed to overlook the release of Disney/Pixar’s highly ambitious and thoroughly entertaining Inside Out when it finally dropped domestically on June 19. By that time, though, the $175-million animated feature had already been showcased at festivals in Cannes, Seattle, Sydney, L.A., Taormina and Buenos Aires. It also had opened theatrically in Egypt, the UAE, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan and a couple dozen other far-flung places before American audiences got a crack at it. I’m just patriotic enough to be concerned about what Disney’s increasingly erratic distribution patterns have to say, if anything, about serving mainstream audiences at home, as well as the confusion that occurs when reviews are published or aired any time within a nearly month-long window … six months, if you count the Blu-ray/DVD trades. It’s entirely possible that I read the trade reviews from Cannes, published on May 18, and wasn’t paying attention when the glowing opinions of mainstream critics were issued three weeks later. I concur, so anyone looking for a contrary opinion will be disappointed. If Oscar voters don’t give it serious consideration as a Best Picture candidate, they deserve to have their credentials revoked. At first, I thought that Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen and their team were searching for a clever way to create a narrative based on the many different emoticons that are used as shorthand in Internet communication. On closer examination, however, Inside Out is far more complex and challenging for parents who may be required to give their kids a crash course in Psychology 101. The story concerns an 11-year-old Minnesotan, Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias), who’s devastated by her father’s decision to take a job in San Francisco, which mostly exists as a playground for adults. Things get even worse when she fails to make a smooth transition to her new school. Mirroring Riley’s outer turmoil are anthropomorphized inner Emotions: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Each is represented by different colors, shapes, tones and textures. (The writers considered up to 27 different Emotions, but settled on five to make the story less complicated.) Also impacting Riley’s mood shifts are thousands of memory beads, stored like drops of honey in a giant hive, also controlled by the Emotions. With a bit of assistance from Riley’s understanding parents, she will come to appreciate the things San Francisco has to offer an 11-year-old, but not before attempting a jailbreak. If you’re thinking that her separation from her school’s hockey team might be one of the things the Emotions must overcome, you’d be right … but, stay tuned. The audio/visual presentation on Blu-ray is impeccable. As you can imagine, the richly endowed color palette employed by Inside Out’s artists is more crucial to any appreciation of the movie than most other animated features. I paused the picture several times to study the intricately drawn images. The choice of shapes and colors also was crucial to the depiction of the Emotions. Each of the actors voicing the Emotions — Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and Lewis Black — is given a unique look and hue.  Not surprisingly, Black’s Anger is painted bright red. The bonus material included on the film disc includes; “Lava,” a short, musically centered, volcanic love story; another related short, “Riley’s First Date?”; “Paths to Pixar: The Women of Inside Out,” in which female cast and crew members share stories from their lives, their work on the film, characters with whom they identify, their thoughts on human emotion and how they connect with the film; “Mixed Emotions,” a quick look at character design; and commentary with Docter and Del Carmen. A separate disc adds deleted scenes and several more making-of featurettes.

With at least three years to go before Disney-Pixar delivers “Toy Story 4,” the Blu-ray edition of Toy Story That Time Forgot will have to keep devoted fans satisfied. In fact, the delightful 22-minute short was unveiled on television almost a year ago, as something of a pre-holiday stocking stuffer. It has since been made available through streaming services, legally and surreptitiously, on the Internet. Normally, an already widely available movie wouldn’t be an easy product to recommend for purchase, even considering that voicing superstars Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Kristen Schaal, Don Rickles, Timothy Dalton, Joan Cusack, Wallace Shawn and newcomer Kevin McKidd (“Grey’s Anatomy”) were hired to class up the short film. Here, during one of Bonnie’s post-Christmas playdates, the Toy Story regulars are challenged by a set of action figures that were given to her friend, Mason. His Christmas haul includes a full line of Battlesaur action figures and a new video game system, complete with a virtual-reality headset. As befits their bellicose nature, the Battlesaurs threaten Mason’s old-school guests with extinction. Their only hope for survival is to convince Reptillus Maximus that he’s a toy, not a wartime leader. Writer/director Steve Purcell (Brave) does double-duty here as the cunning Cleric. The big selling point, though, besides the sparkling hi-def presentation, is a bonus package that includes, “Reptillus!,” a catch-all look at the importance of building a detailed backstory for the new characters, through design, digital animation, study in the real world and voice acting; “Toy Story Goes to Comic-Con”; “Karaoke: My Unexpected Friend,” with “Reptillus Sings” and “You Sing”; “Battlesaurs: Animated Opening,” a mock-up opening sequence for the fictitious Battlesaurs TV program; deleted scenes; and audio commentary with Purcell and Head of Story Derek Thompson.

One of the highlights of the 2014 film calendar was the release of The LEGO Movie, a truly inspired entertainment that accomplished with tiny plastic bricks what most studios can’t with nine-figure budgets, marquee actors and the best crews in the business. While nowhere near as surprising, A LEGO Brickumentary complements that accomplishment by showing how real-life Master Builders have expanded on that vision by creating sculptures, toys and artwork that border on the miraculous. They’re also being used in therapy and schools to encourage creativity, individual achievement and teamwork. Like any other geek pursuit, LEGO’s reach is global and “Brickumentary” is as dispassionate a film as its fandom’s zeal is uncontainable. Directors Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge open with an examination of the company’s surprisingly long roots, before describing how it bounced back from over-exposure in the early 1990s, basically trusting its customers to lead it into new directions. There’s no telling what parents might discover about their kids by watching “Brickumentary” with them. The Blu-ray makes good use of the toys’ bright color scheme, adding lengthy deleted scenes and an obligatory pitch for San Diego’s LEGOLAND amusement park.

The Benoit Jacquot Collection: Blu-ray
There’s no better example of the importance of niche distributors of DVD/Blu-ray titles than Cohen Media Group’s The Benoit Jacquot Collection. It serves as a triple-feature of films made in the 1990s by a veteran French director, only recently risen to prominence in the United States, with Farewell My Queen and Three Hearts (also from Cohen). Those pictures are far more accessible to mainstream American audiences than the decidedly arthouse-oriented The Disenchanted (1990), A Single Girl (1995) and Keep It Quiet (1999), which reflect more of a post-New Wave approach. Born in 1947, Jacquot began his career as an assistant director on Marguerite Duras’ Nathalie Granger (1972) and India Song (1975), and also an actor in India Song and Jean-Claude Biette’s 1973 short film La Sœur du cadre. Duras’ minimalist influence is most apparent in The Disenchanted and A Single Girl, which can be enjoyed as closely observed character studies of young French women whose young lives are very much in flux. Indeed, one of Jacquot’s strengths has been his ability to elicit signature performances from such prominent French actresses, including Virginie Ledoyen, Judith Godrèche, Isabelle Huppert, Vahina Giocante, Sandrine Kiberlain, Isabelle Adjani, Isild Le Besco, Léa Seydoux, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni. In The Disenchanted, Godrèche plays a 17-year-old standing at an unusually messy crossroads of sexual maturity, adult responsibility and youthful curiosity. In A Single Girl, Ledoyen’s curiously vague hotel maid also is required to come to grips with unexpected realities of adult life, after discovering she’s pregnant and, for the most part, alone. Keep It Quiet is an ensemble piece, in which a popular television host (Vincent Lindon) becomes emotionally unglued after his CEO brother (Fabrice Luchini) is released from prison, taking on a persona roughly that of Chance the Gardener, in “Being There.” Huppert and the much younger Giocante find themselves caught in the middle of the sibling drama, but from very different perspectives. All three of the films reward viewers for their patience, as Benoit typically maintains an almost glacial pace. Each is presented for the first time in new high-definition re-masterings, with commentaries by critics Wade Major and Tim Cogshell and insightful discussions between director Benoît Jacquot and the New York Film Festival’s Kent Jones.

In the Grayscale
Liz in September
Dreams from Strangers
Eastsiders: Season 2
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
Set in Santiago, Chile, where being gay probably isn’t as commonly accepted as it is in other countries, movies like In the Grayscale still resonate with young-adult professionals coming to grips with their sexual identity. As such, the emotional tug of freshman director Claudio Marcone and sophomore screenwriter Beppe Norero may be diluted for American audiences by overfamiliarity with the coming-out process. Here, Chilean TV star Francisco Celhay plays an architect, who, in the course of researching a commission, develops passionate feelings for an openly gay history teacher and guide, Fernando (Emilio Edwards), who’s helping with the project. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Bruno is married and the father of a son at an impressionable age. After moving out of their home, ostensibly to “find himself,” he realizes that his refusal to commit one way or the other isn’t doing either of the people he loves any good. The pressure builds to the breaking point when his son is teased by a boy whose father witnessed an indiscreet kiss between Bruno and Fer, in public. The boy is so shaken by the revelation, along with Bruno’s absence from home, it causes the adults to finally deal decisively with the dilemma. That Bruno’s wife engaged in a dalliance of her own modulates her desire to punish him unreasonably for hurting the child. As Fer begins to prod the architect into making a commitment to him, Bruno’s work begins to reflect his inner torment, as well. Despite any overfamiliarity, In the Grayscale displays Marcone’s sure hand on the throttle. The Chilean setting is interesting and performances are uniformly solid. I wonder if Celhay risked any career blowback from his fan base, which presumably extends throughout the Spanish-speaking world.

Reportedly Venezuela’s first lesbian drama, Liz in September is based on Jane Chambers’ landmark play, “Last Summer at Bluefish Cove.” In a low-key debut performance, Eloisa Maturen plays an attractive straight woman, Eva, whose car breaks down in a small coastal village. With no room at the local inns, the mechanic points her toward a resort hotel he neglects to tell her has a loyal lesbian clientele. It’s crowded, as well, but a bed is found for her. An annual reunion is being held by a multigenerational group of friends, all of whom appear to have slept with the titular character, Liz, played by Venezuelan actress and supermodel Patricia Velasquez (“The L Word”). Not at all shy about her sexual prowess, Liz bets the other women that she can seduce the newcomer within the three days it probably will take the mechanic to fix the car. It takes a while for us to learn that both women are nursing painful secrets, unrelated to any previous sexual conquest. Indeed, a different sort of relationship develops between Liz and Eva. It will be tested when Eva’s husband arrives to rescue her from the world’s laziest repairman. The wager forgotten, by now, the fate of their relationship rests on Liz’ willingness to fight for Eva’s love and Eva’s ability to live apart from Liz, even for a day or two. Everything that happens from here is patiently rendered by director/writer Fina Torres (Woman on Top). Despite the potential for fireworks and the jerking of tears, Liz in September is neither exploitative nor maudlin. The movie benefits, as well, from the beautiful coastal setting.

Roberto Cuzzillo’s timely Russian drama Dreams from Strangers uses evocative cinematography and poetic words to describe how painful it can be for gay men to connect in a society turned against them by the country’s despotic leader, Vladimir Putin. Italian swimmer Massimo falls in love with the team’s interpreter, Vladimir, while in St. Petersburg for a competition. Besides any natural cultural barriers between the two men, Putin’s virulently anti-gay stance ahead of the Winter Olympics has effectively put a bounty on LGBT people caught expressing their feelings in public. Cuzzillo employs artsy black-and-white photography to reflect the depth of the emotions shared with viewers in these desperate times. The DVD adds Cuzzillo’s short film, “Polaroid.”

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that it took the horrifying murder of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, in 1998, to awaken Americans to the epidemic of bullying and harassment of LGBT youths that went largely unchallenged by police, lawmakers and opinion makers. Gays and lesbians had been demanding protection from such attacks for almost 30 years before the news broke and, in some cases, policing their own communities. Prosecution of those arrested in such cases remained difficult, however, if only because too many potential jurors bought into the belief that predatory homosexuals were a greater risk to society than hate crimes. The facts in the case against the men charged in the robbery and beating death of Shepard in a field outside Laramie were so ugly that the media picked up on it – after being tortured, the 21-year-old was tied to a fence post and left to die – and spread the news around the world. Benefits would be organized, support groups formed, plays commissioned and legislation proposed … all in Shepard’s name. Freshman documentarian Michele Josue, a close friend of Shepard’s, made Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine to separate the man she knew from the symbol he became. Using personal reminiscences, never-before-seen photos, rare video footage and new revelations about Shepard’s life, it succeeds on all counts. Maybe if Putin could be encouraged to view the documentary, the sad conditions dramatized in Dreams From Strangers might change cease to exist without the interference of martyrdom.

Although Los Angeles’ primary gay ghetto is located in West Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park have emerged as affordable alternatives both for millennials and couples who want to distance themselves from the bar and barbell scene in WeHo. Silver Lake also is home to a large collection of yuppies, hipsters and artists. Eastsiders is a Web-based soap opera that’s recently made the leap into streaming video. Without offering as much gratuitous nudity and lascivious behavior as “Queer as Folk,” its gay, lesbian and semi-straight characters share many attributes. (“The L Word,” set on L.A.’s far west side, always struck me as being more obsessively bourgeois.) Clearly not blessed with a large budget, actor/writer/director Kit Williamson (“Mad Men”) is able to take advantage of such talented actors as Van Hansis (“As the World Turns”), Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”), Brea Grant (“Heroes”), Brianna Brown (“Devious Maids”), Steven Guarino (“Happy Endings”), Willam Belli (“Rupaul’s Drag Race”), John Halbach (“Such Good People”), Matthew McKelligon (“Interior Leather Bar”) and Vera Miao (“Best Friends Forever”). Anyone who can recall when Traci Lords (Cry Baby) scandalized the porn industry by admitting to being underage when starring in several prominent adult films might be amused to learn that, in Eastsiders, she plays the hard-drinking mother of one of the male characters.

Paulo Coelho’s Best Story
Although I consider myself to be a well-read fellow, I have to admit to not knowing a lot about an author, lyricist, screenwriter and playwright whose international reputation is almost inconceivably grand. The 68-year-old Rio de Janeiro native, Paulo Coelho, is credited with having written 30 books that have sold over 165 million copies in more than 150 countries and been translated in 56 languages. This doesn’t take into account the numbers associated with his musical collaborations, plays and Internet correspondence. Not to belabor the obvious point made by Daniel Augusto in his choice of titles, but Paulo Coelho’s Best Story truly is himself. Coelho’s life could hardly have been more eventful. Like so many children of successful parents, his desire to pursue a literary life as an adult was greeted with disapproval. Unlike most children with such aspirations, however, his dreams prompted his parents to have him committed in a mental institution, from which he escaped three times by the time he reached 20. Coelho’s willingness to appease them resulted in a one-year stint in law school. It was followed by a lifestyle that closely approximated that of millions of hippies around the world. If nothing else, he would learn that he wasn’t alone in his desire to explore the planet, savor different cultures, embrace the occult, partake in various illegal substances and treat the act of making music as if it were a sacrament from God. When he became popular enough for Brazil’s military junta to pay attention to the lyrics to his music, they mistook quasi-religious references for subversion and threw him in prison, where he was tortured. It caused him to move to France, where he began writing novels. His most popular and noteworthy work, the allegorical novel “The Alchemist,” was published in 1988 and is still going strong. The folks who keep track of such things at Guinness World Records, were impressed by the fact that, by 2009, the book had been translated into 67 distinctly different languages. Among his non-literary achievements, Coelho would turn his personal enlightenment on the 500-mile Road of Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, in northwestern Spain, into a destination for spiritual tourists. As is too often the case with literary biopics, however, Paulo Coelho’s Best Story is more reverential than inspirational. Fans of Coelho shouldn’t find that to be a problem, thanks to Julio Andrade’s fine portrayal. They will want to stay put for bonus material, which is more extensive than most making-of featurettes.

Seymour: An Introduction
Giving Up the Ghosts: Closing Time at Doc’s Hall
It’s possible that the word, “genius,” has been applied to classical musicians and composers more often than to any other professional. Count the number of times musicians have been profiled on “60 Minutes,” for example, and you’ll understand the reverence with which these men and women are held by society. Simply put, they’re able to express themselves in ways most of can’t and never will be able to do. It’s a language that knows no borders and affects listeners of all nationalities and backgrounds. A musician’s dedication to his or her art demands discipline rarely found outside of concert stages and rehearsal halls. We’ve bestowed genius on athletes, scientists and the occasional chef, but, somehow, the great musicians respond to a higher calling and greater audience. Even their idiosyncrasies are more interesting and, therefore, tolerable to those of us whose duty it is merely to listen to them. If that makes genius sound like one long cliché, watch Ethan Hawke’s heartfelt documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, and tell me how else to explain the brilliance of its subject, Seymour Bernstein. If his name is less familiar than other prominent classical musicians and composers, it’s probably because there are so few public venues for their genius in the United States, outside of concert halls and a handful of radio stations dedicated to their work. The disappearance of Ed Sullivan’s variety show, which routinely added highbrow music to its mix of vaudeville acts, Broadway stars and comedians, greatly reduced exposure to musicians who consider Carnegie Hall to be a second home. Bernstein, a virtuoso pianist, gave up a successful concert career, at 50 – he turned 88 in April — to teach music and write. These are noble callings, to be sure, and Hawke allows us to eavesdrop on his sessions with students, during which he imparts words of wisdom, as well as insightful reflections on art, creativity and the search for fulfillment. His gentle, soft-spoken demeanor, backed by the authority that comes with age, is infectious. It’s a beautiful documentary that deserves to make the short list of Oscar candidates, at least, when it’s announced. The DVD includes a performance, filmed in what appears to be a street-level Steinway showroom in New York.

Doc’s Music Hall may not resemble Carnegie Hall in any of the usual ways, but, for the jazz and R&B cognoscenti of Muncie, Indiana, they might as well share a post-office box. Muncie is one of those Rust Belt towns whose once-thriving downtown business district took a direct hit in the industrial downturn of the 1980s, leaving plenty of abandoned buildings that could be used for art studios and musical venues, like Doc’s. If nothing else, it attracted folks who hadn’t been downtown since their favorite shoe store years earlier. From 1992 to 2012, things worked out pretty well. Music doc specialist Robert Mugge (Last of the Mississippi Jukes) has made a living discovering hidden treasures in the nooks and crannies of America’s still-vibrant blues, folk and zydeco scene. Giving Up the Ghosts: Closing Time at Doc’s Music Hall feels very much like a valentine sent to an old friend who’s probably spent most of his earnings promoting good music and young talent in what’s affectionately known on the coasts as the boonies. Proprietor John Peterson splits his time between his medical practice, where he merges traditional and alternative medicines, and the club. Before he got the calling, the Iowa native toured the Midwest opening for more prominent acts and scratching for greater recognition. The experience provided the keyboardist with plenty of anecdotes to share with his audience in the club’s final concert, recorded here for posterity. The club also provided a local stage for better known touring acts, whose music sometimes would be channeled into the house band’s improvisational riffs. The film also includes a discussion of the ghosts of long-dead entertainers that many claim to have seen and heard in the building over the years. Anyone who’s experienced the cultural deprivation that comes with life in small-town America will recognize the folks who populate Giving Up the Ghosts.

The Death of April
Completed in 2012, Ruben Rodriguez’ Internet-inspired thriller, The Death of April, is only now finding a home on DVD. The idea of using a video blog to chronicle the descent into madness – and beyond – of 19-year-old Meagan Mullen would have been quite a bit fresher, if it had been released before the tsunami of lost-footage flicks deluged the marketplace in the interim. Katarina Hughes’ portrayal of the unfortunate student is as lackluster as the character, who remains in her bedroom even as the evidence mounts that it’s haunted by a digital poltergeist hidden somewhere in the wireless router, one presumes. The lost-footage element only comes into play after the first false climax, when a police spokesman admits to being flummoxed by what everyone’s witnessed before their eyes. Still, it’s unlikely that anyone lost much time or money in the creation of The Death of April.

Bloody Knuckles: Blu-ray
It’s sick, depraved and disturbing movies like Bloody Knuckles that give the horror genre a bad name … or a good one, depending on one’s ability to endure 85 minutes of unforgiving and largely gratuitous quantities of violence. Or, to wade through piles of gore to find the humor in situations most mainstream critics wouldn’t waste more than 10 minutes of their time watching. And, yes, I made it through the whole thing. Believe me, the bonus short film “Electric Fence” may even be worse. Perth native Adam Boys (Leprechaun: Origins) plays Travis, a boundary-pushing author of an underground comic book, Vulgarian Invasions, that succeeds in its mission to offend anyone not on the same wavelength. When one of the issues insults a Chinatown crime boss, the gangster punishes Travis by chopping off his drawing hand. While Travis drowns his sorrows, the discarded hand prepares for its entrance, stage right. Soon after, the artist and the vengeful hand join forces with a masked S&M superhero to rid the city of evil. Anyone with the stamina to make it this far in the narrative will already have bought into Matt O’Mahoney’s twisted sense of humor and willingness to test the limits of censors, should any make their feelings known. For those looking for romance, there’s a bit of that here, too. In addition to the pair of short films, O’Mahoney is interviewed individually by editors of genre publications.

Operator
Mining for Ruby
Without much fanfare, Mischa Barton has managed to resurrect her once-promising career by becoming one of the reigning queens of straight-to-DVD cinema. In the past two years, alone, the former star of “The O.C.” has worked alongside such genre stalwarts as Lorenzo Lamas, Ving Rhames, Michael Pare, Danny Glover, Vinnie Jones, Eric Roberts, Danny Trejo, Andy Dick, Tom Sizemore, Michael Madsen, Daniel Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Kal Penn … some of them, two or three times. If there was a Walk of Fame in Toronto or Vancouver, those names would be embedded in stone. Someone’s got to make ’em, right? Rapidly approaching the ripe old age of 30, Barton is quite good in the title role of Operator. In Amariah and Obin Olson’s police thriller, she plays a 911-line operator trained to guide crime victims through their ordeals. Burdened with family problems, her Pamela Miller is in danger of losing her job, due to tardiness and careless mistakes. On this day, a caller demands she not break contact with him, as he requires her to keep direct police – including her estranged husband – to places in the city where their lives might be endangered. If Pamela disobeys the orders, she risks putting their young daughter further in harm’s way than she already is, after being kidnaped from the school playground. Viewers are encouraged to guess the identity of the all-knowing caller, with just as many clues as those given Pamela. Typical of a DVD original, logic gives way to action at about the halfway point in Operator, but, by then, you’re either willing to cut it some slack or shut it off. Barton plays Pamela with much the same intensity and sense of purpose as Halle Berry’s 911 operator in Brad Anderson’s The Call.

Barton is given much less to do in Zoe Quist’s Alaska-set rom-dram, Mining for Ruby. Mostly, she gives advice by phone to her brother, Jack (Daniel Ponickly), a handsome bloke who’s still despondent over the death of his wife. He doesn’t know if he’s ready to fall in love with the gorgeous graduate student, Ruby (Antoinette Kalaj), he meets as she’s investigating a possible toxic-waste discharge near his cabin outside Fairbanks. In a forced contrivance, Jack is required to prove his manhood against Ruby’s dimwitted ex-boyfriend, while she’s conned into defending data that’s been manipulated by a rival student. Billy Zane, the king of straight-to-DVD movies, plays the students’ largely chair-bound adviser.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: The Great Fire: Blu-ray
Starz: Black Sails: The Complete Second Season: Blu-ray
Syfy: Lavalantula
PBS: In Their Own Words: Jim Henson/Queen Elizabeth
PBS: Food Forward
As devastating blazes go, the Great Fire of London still ranks as one of the all-time worst. It began shortly after midnight on Sunday, September 2, 1666, in a London bakery on Pudding Lane, and raged for four days. Although the death toll is believed to have been surprisingly small, the physical damage was huge. The fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of City authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the City’s 80,000 inhabitants. Much of what we know about the inferno has been gleaned from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, an obsequious gent who plays a prominent role in the four-part ITV mini-series, “The Great Fire,” which hasn’t been accorded the same exposure as other such period productions of late. Unlike the doubts surrounding the guilt or innocence of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, in the Great Chicago Fire, it’s known exactly where the London conflagration began and almost certainly how. Thanks to Pepys, we also have very good idea as to what was on the minds of Charles II and his brother, James, the Duke of York, who’s portrayed as being a participant in a conspiracy to assassinate the king. Meanwhile, Charles II was encouraged to believe that Roman Catholic terrorists, on the orders of the Pope, were also lying in wait for His Majesty. To dramatize what was happening in the streets, writers Tom Bradley, Tom Butterworth and Chris Hurford framed the chaos through the fictionalized perspective of Thomas Farriner, at whose bakery the spark was lit. And, he’s given sufficient reason to be angry with the royals, if not to destroy his business. Pepys intercedes at least once on Farriner’s behalf, but can’t keep the sister-in-law from being a prime suspect in a trumped-up conspiracy. The fun comes in watching the interaction between the royals and residents of the city, several of whom, we’re told, were forced to prostitute themselves to slumming royals to pay the bills. Not surprisingly, the costumes are wonderful, especially the men’s wigs. I couldn’t help but wonder if any American producer might borrow the conceit and build a similarly dramatized mini-series around the Chicago fire.

The second season of Starz’ sexy-pirate adventure, “Black Sails,” not only lived up to the expectations of its first-season critical notices, but also its notoriety on the celebrity-skin websites. It also extended a dandy lost-treasure storyline that kept the attention of viewers who expected a bit more for their premium-cable dollars. Here, the Walrus crew is stranded in Nassau with an army of Spanish soldiers, standing between them and their precious Urca gold. Chained together for earlier sins, former rivals Flint and Silver must join forces in a desperate bid for survival. Meanwhile, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) struggles to maintain her grip on Nassau, as a new breed of pirate arrives in the form of the sadistic Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy). It requires hunky Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) to commit to the powerful blond wench or the respect of his scurvy knaves. I think it’s one of the best shows on TV, with something to please men and women viewers, alike. Shot in South Africa, “Black Sails” looks terrific on Blu-ray.

There’s no mistaking a Syfy-original movie from every other DVD in my ever-lofty stack of screeners. Their titles and cheesy jacket art give them away. And, as if there was any question, a cover line on “Lavalantula” reminds browsers, “From Syfy, the network that brought you “Sharknado.” What better advertising could there be? “Lavalantula” may not measure up to that virtual blockbuster’s exacting standards – What could? – but it follows the recipe pretty well, and that’s usually all that’s necessary. After a dormant volcano erupts in the Santa Monica Mountains, it triggers an onslaught of giant arachnid-like creatures with an obsidian-black exoskeleton. Oh, did I mention that the spiders spew molten lava at their targets? The critters may look goofy as hell, but it explains the title, “Lavalantula” … if the creatures more closely resembled tarantulas, that is. The presence of Steve Guttenberg (“Diner”), playing a washed-up action star, ensures that the comedy in Mike Mendez’ second enormous spider flick in two years (Big Ass Spider!) is genuine. The DVD adds a decent making-of featurette.

Considering that every man, woman and cartoon character of any stature, whatsoever, has been profiled on the History, Biography, A&E and related cable channels, it’s nice to see that PBS is making the effort to add something new and different to the genre. “In Their Own Words” explores “an elite few of the 20th Century’s greatest figures” through words that “describe the subject creatively and intimately.” The inaugural season features episodes on a diverse trio of extraordinary subjects: Muhammad Ali, Queen Elizabeth II and Muppets creator Jim Henson. While none of these august personages is a mystery to viewers, the graphic presentation and reliance on quotes adds a new spin to the tired formula.

One of the cottage industries in the DVD universe involves promoting current theories in food production and preparation, with an emphasis on how multinational corporations have disrupted God’s original plan. Watch enough of these things and you’ll be tempted to give up eating anything that hasn’t been personally supervised by Anthony Bourdain or Alice Waters. The PBS series “Food Forward” showcases innovators and food rebels who are transforming the way we grow and eat our food. In it, we meet farmers, chefs, teachers, scientists, fishermen and ranchers in more than 50 cities across the country providing new solutions to help combat America’s growing food challenges. To this end, every episode incorporates beautiful cinematography, clever animation, cooking segments and original music videos, blending personal storytelling with a unique educational perspective. The newly released compilation weighs in at 390 reassuring minutes of tasty content.

DVD Wrapup Gift Guide I: W.C. Fields, IndiePix, Grinchmas, Human Centipede, Flowers, Neon God, Home Fires … More

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Now that Halloween is nearly upon us and early birds have begun to camp out in front of Walmart and Toys ‘R’ Us, in anticipation of Black Friday bargains, it’s the time to think about shelling out big bucks on giftable DVD/Blu-ray collections and holiday specialties. New multidisc packages will be released on a fast-and-furious basis – if you get my drift – over the course of the next eight weeks and they will be competing for eyes and shelf space with hundreds of sets already in the marketplace. Price tags can be steep, but terrific bargains can be found on the Internet and stores that handle previously viewed items. Like any serious vinyl collector, buyers for such second-hand stores pay meticulous attention to the condition of items they purchase and, of course, discs resist damage in ways vinyl never could. Most Internet outlets offer free shipping for sales of multiple items or a minimum purchase.  Here are some recent releases that have caught my eye:

W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection
Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection
The Marx Brothers have stood the test of time, delighting every new generation of comedy lovers. I wonder if W.C. Fields has demonstrated the same resilience with kids whose only knowledge of gin blossoms comes from the rock band, not one of the most famous lushes in Hollywood history. From Universal, the W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection serves both as a nostalgic reminder of movies past and an excellent starter kit for uninitiated youths. Serious collectors of vintage comedy will already possess most of the titles here, but certainly not all of them – Million Dollar Legs and Tillie and Gus — on actual DVD, as opposed to DVDr. For movies that are between 70 and 80-plus years old, the audio/visual quality far surpasses anything shown on television sets, dormitory walls and classrooms in the interim. Every one of Field’s sarcastic asides rings perfectly clear, even in DVD. This collection features 18 of his most memorable films, including Alice in Wonderland, If I Had a Million, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, Mississippi, International House, It’s a Gift, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, My Little Chickadee, The Bank Dick, Man on the Flying Trapeze, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, You’re Telling Me!, The Old Fashioned Way and Poppy. It adds the less-well-preserved bio-doc, “Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at W.C. Fields.” There is other Fields material extant, but not under the Universal banner.

While Fields tended to reserve his most toxic vitriol for children, dogs, spinsters and fellow boozehounds, “insult comic” Don Rickles adopted a more in-your-face approach. There’s no question both men were cut from the same cloth, however. Arguably at his best when least confined by network censors, “Mr. Warmth: Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection” demonstrates how caustic a comedian could be on prime time and still pass through the medium’s many filters. I would love to see footage of Rickles’ wee-hours’ Las Vegas lounge act, which attracted the Rat Pack and other marquee talent to the Sahara like a magnet, but, alas, evidence of those shows likely is lost to the ages. The Time Life/WEA compilation contains four one-hour network television specials, from the 1970s, and the complete series of “CPO Sharkey” episodes. Bonus features add never-before-seen outtakes and unedited scenes, with new introductions from Rickles; the “Tonight Show” clip with Johnny Carson’s surprise visit to the “CPO Sharkey” set; and the TV Land Awards’ Legend Award presentation by Jimmy Kimmel. Among the stars on display here are Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jack Klugman, Bob Newhart, John Wayne, Helen Reddy, Loretta Swift, Rip Taylor, Don Adams, James Caan, Michael Caine, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Godfrey, Elliott Gould, Michele Lee, Larry Linville, Jack Palance, Otto Preminger, Bobby Riggs and Loretta Swit.

IndiePix Mix 10
Parsing the difference between studio and independent films can be a tiresome exercise, even for moviegoers who make it a point to tune into both the Oscar and Indie Spirit Awards ceremonies. More often than not, anymore, the same artists, films and producers are nominated for awards in similar categories, while the budgets for many Spirits candidates match those accorded studio “prestige pictures.” There are strict rules for governing such things, but … well, why bother. One of the nice things about the Spirits has been a willingness on the part of voters to honor movies that have been exhibited on the festival circuit, without the benefit of a theatrical distributor.  Such is the case for several of the movies included in “IndiePix Mix 10,” a virtual grab bag of titles from the company’s decade-plus mission to unearth gems from festivals around the world and offer them to consumers on DVD. It isn’t the only company providing such a service, of course. Viewers’ acceptance of PPV and other streaming services has allowed niche distributors to target audiences for indies, arthouse, foreign, documentary and animated products, without spending a bundle to market them. Heavy on documentaries, the titles include The Axe in the Attic, which focuses on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; Jack Taylor of Beverly Hills, a nostalgic look at the tailor to such stars as Cary Grant, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra; Echotone, a close-up view into the lives and lifestyles of Austin’s young musicians; Frontrunner, set in Afghanistan during its first democratic election, with a tight focus on the country’s first candidates; Shooting Star(s) follows Johnny Nunez as he overcomes the obstacles imposed by his humble upbringing in Brooklyn, to become today’s most prominent hip-hop celebrity photographer; The Devilles, a verite glimpse into the lives of burlesque stripper and Marilyn Monroe lookalike Teri Lee Geary (a.k.a., Kitten DeVille) and her punk-rock-singer husband, Shawn Geary; and Candyman, a documentary recounting the true story of David Klein, the eccentric L.A. candy inventor who came up with the concept of Jelly Belly jellybeans. Dramas include “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers,” about a fortune teller who lives and works in a haunted house at the edge of the woods; Artois the Goat, about one man’s quest to create the greatest goat cheese the world has ever known; Evergreen, in which a Pacific Northwest teenager yearns to reinvent herself and find something she can be thankful for in the face of poverty. If the list is heavy on non-fiction, it’s only because docs are enjoying a creative renaissance, thanks mainly to advancements in technology. The titles have previously been available on an a la carte basis.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: Grinchmas Edition: Blu-ray
I wonder how many people expected Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas to do for Jim Carey what Aladdin did for Robin Williams, which is to say, add an entirely new dimension to a career that desperately needed a jump start. In the Disney animated feature, the directors allowed Williams to hit warp speed and stay there as long as they could stretch the Genie to fit his anarchic improvisation. Something tells me that director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer kept a tighter grip on the controls, allowing Carey less freedom to make gags up as he was going along. Neither was Williams required to act in costume, which required Carey to spend countless hours in the makeup and costume trailers. The physical restrictions imposed by the prize-winning designs, alone, would have been sufficiently stringent to discourage flights of fancy. (The Grinch did bear a fleeting resemblance to the actor’s creepy Fire Marshall Bill character, on “In Living Color,” though.) The movie’s huge budget, especially in circa-2000 dollars, also would have demanded more creative control on Howard and Grazer’s part. When foreign receipts and DVD/Blu-ray sales were added to a very decent domestic return, the folks inside Universal Studio’s hulking Black Tower probably breathed a sigh of relief. Critics, no strangers to Grinch-y behavior, gave the movie mixed reviews, mostly in reaction to the new material that had to be added to the 69-page children’s book – long on pictures, short on words – to fit a 104-minute movie. Kids don’t have much use for numbers, of course, so it’s likely the newly upgraded – mercifully so – edition will retain its ability to enchant the Suessian fan base. Besides the tech facelift, the Blu-ray picks up the features package included in the 2009 hi-def edition, including enhanced commentary with Howard, several making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes and Faith Hill’s “Where Are You Christmas?,” as well as BD Live and D Box.

Among the other early holiday releases are “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Christmas,” a themed collection of three vintage episodes: In “The Christmas Aliens” (2004), Michaelangelo runs afoul of a group of criminals hoping to attain a profit from some stolen toys; “The Way of Invisibility” (2003), in which the Turtles are required to deal with Foot Tech Ninjas that raise the bar in the ways of invisibility; and “Fallen Angel,” where Casey Jones tries to stop a young girl from becoming a member of the dangerous Purple Dragon gang. One of the titles sounds seasonal, at least.

Shout! Factory is offering “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour: Christmas Specials,” which packages two holiday shows from 1969 and 1970, late in the era of variety shows on prime-time television. The mix included guest appearances by George Gobel, Jerry Reed, Anne Murray, Shecky Greene, Mel Tillis, Cher, Andy Griffith and Paul Lynde.

Shalom Sesame
Chanukah & Passover on Planet Matzah Ball
There’s no particular reason for those who celebrate Chanukah to feel at a loss for gifts that reflect traditional values, while also taking into account their kids’ tech-savvy craving for at-home entertainment and virtual babysitters. SISU Entertainment, which caters to Jewish viewers of all ages and interests, offer a wide array of titles, most of which you’d be hard-pressed to find in the usual retail outlets. In the latest addition to its “Shalom Sesame” lineup, Grover and celebrity host Anneliese van der Pol (“That’s So Raven”) travel to Israel to discover the vitality of Jewish culture and tradition, as well as the diversity of Israeli life, intended for American children and their families. Each 30-minute episode combines live-action and animated sequences based on themed storylines, highlighting lessons on Hebrew letters and words, and unique sites in Israel. The six-DVD set is co-produced by Sesame Workshop — the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street” — and Israel’s Channel HOP! An additional DVD features two programs from the classic “Shalom Sesame” – “Jerusalem” and “People of Israel” – as well as a free 30-day trial download of the program, “Welcome to Israel.”

SISU also has a full line of Chanukah-specific titles. “Chanukah & Passover on Planet Matzah Ball” takes young viewers to a planet partially inhabited by Jews, but absent most Jewish traditions. One day, a menorah traveling through space crash lands on Planet Matzah Ball – I kid you, not — and the furry Jewish aliens don’t know what to make of it. Determined to solve the mystery of the menorah, 9-year-old Oogy uses a super-powered telescope to investigate all possibilities. Finally, he spies four children enjoying a Chanukah party in Cleveland, of all celestial landmarks. As he observes them, a clever Chanukah tale unfolds in his mind. It involves puppets, animation and music, all of which bring the wonderful holiday traditions to life. The DVD features include an interactive menu, karaoke and a guide for parents and teachers, as well as the companion video, “The Seder on Planet Matzah Ball.”

My Little Pony: Equestria Girls (Three Movie Gift Set)
And, what would a holiday gift guide be without something to excite young girls, brony brethren and pegasisters, in almost equal measure. After all, the “My Little Pony” video phenomenon was preceded by the success of an ever-expanding line of toys. The early animated titles weren’t particularly impressive, but they’ve improved markedly in the past five years. The DVD/Blu-ray package, “My Little Pony: Equestria Girls,” contains three feature-length movies – led by the title picture — that received limited runs in theaters before crossing over into DVD. When her crown is stolen from the Crystal Empire, Twilight pursues the thief, Sunset Shimmer, into an alternate world where she finds herself turned into a teenage girl. I couldn’t begin to explain with any accuracy the intricacies and plot twists at play in Equestria Girls, but, of course, I’m not a brony. The new package adds Rainbow Rocks and Friendship Games.

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series
Transformers: Robots in Disguise: A New Autobot Mission
While collectors are happy whenever complete-series sets of their favorite shows become available, they get cranky when they sense that distributors are toying with their affections. A quick perusal of retail and fan sites reveals how disappointed are with “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Complete Series.” While emphasizing their love for the product, fans who’ve waited for an all-inclusive three-season package have voiced their displeasure with the lack of a Blu-ray option and what they believe to be a missed opportunity to clean up visual problems, especially in Season One. With fans as loyal as those committed to “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” it’s dangerous to take shortcuts. Neither am I sure how loyalists will take the sweetheart deal with Amazon. In addition to the complete-series box, its customers will find the book, “Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise Part 1,” written by the co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The events described in the 80-page book take place directly following the ending of the series.

Considering that the first season of “Transformers: Robots in Disguise” ended more than a month ago and complete-season sets are what devoted fans are most interested in purchasing, it borders on cruelty for Hasbro Studios to send out “Transformers: Robots in Disguise: A New Autobot Mission” with a grand total of only 5 out of 26 episodes, plus a behind-the-scenes featurette. That said, the new Autobot mission begins when a prison ship crashes on Earth, setting hundreds of Cybertron’s most dangerous Decepticons free. Optimus Prime responds by ordering Bumblebee and his new squad — Strongarm, Sideswipe and former Decepticon, Grimlock, and two human allies – to track down and recapture the evil escapees.

The Human Centipede: The Complete Sequence: Blu-ray
Flowers: Limited Edition
The Horror Network
Anyone considering gifting The Human Centipede: The Complete Sequence either has a very twisted sense of humor or a giftee with a peculiar taste in movies. That doesn’t make the three-film compilation a bad present, necessarily, just one that many people might consider to be inappropriate, at best. In the six years since the first installment in the trilogy was released, comedians and sitcom writers have used The Human Centipede as a verbal cue for eliciting disgust and self-conscious laughter among horror and pop-culture cognoscenti. In Tom Mix’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence), a mad scientist (Dieter Laser) kidnaps and mutilates a trio of German tourists, in order to reassemble them by stitching their mouths to another victim’s rectum. It’s a movie that has to be seen to be believed and, apparently, enough people sought it out in DVD to warrant two sequels. To say these films aren’t for everyone is like saying body snatching isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. If the first installment in the series could fairly be judged as an extreme example of inky black humor, the sequel, The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), represented more of the same, absent any pretense of humor. In it, Martin (Laurence R. Harvey) is a mentally disturbed loner who lives with his mother in a bleak housing project. He works the night shift as a security guard in an equally grim and foreboding underground parking complex. To escape his dreary existence, Martin loses himself in the fantasy world of The Human Centipede (First Sequence), “fetishizing the meticulous surgical skills of the gifted Dr. Heiter, whose knowledge of the human gastrointestinal system inspires Martin to attempt the unthinkable.” Laser and Harvey return in The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence), but as very different characters. Laser plays Billy Boss, the warden of George H.W. Bush State Prison, while Harvey is the troubled facility’s chief financial officer. No amount of torture and degradation of the prison’s worst offenders dissuades the other inmates from misbehaving and rioting. Vexed to the point of considering mass castration, the accountant convinces Boss to borrow from their favorite movie, instead. When the pictures are shown to the prisoners, they react by shouting out actual quotes pulled from reviews written by mainstream critics. Finally, of course, the joke will be on them … unless Texas law-enforcement authorities agree to intercede. “The Complete Sequence” compilation adds the 48-minute featurette, “The Ladies of The Human Centipede,” with new interviews from Ashley C. Williams, Ashlynn Yennie, Maddi Black and Kandace Caine, from “First Sequence” (adult star Bree Daniels is the only woman in “III”); the color version of “THC2”; an alternate poster gallery; and Laurence Harvey’s audition tape.

Anyone who can’t make it through even one “sequence” of The Human Centipede saga isn’t likely to make it through 15 minutes of Flowers, an exercise in existential horror so potentially upsetting that it should carry a warning label. Phil Stevens’ debut feature demands of viewers that we empathize with the victims of a serial killer to the point where we might conjure a scenario in which they regained consciousness in their final resting place. Here, Stevens might have been inspired by the young men tortured, murdered and buried in the crawl space of John Wayne Gacy’s suburban Chicago home. In Flowers, the victims are all women … or, perhaps, one woman played by six different “flowers.” They are required to make their way through blood, guts and filth, until they are able to find an entrance to the house. Once inside, they relive the trials and tortures endured before their untimely deaths. Watching Flowers isn’t that far removed from trying to imagine the indignities suffered by women and girls kidnapped by fiends and forced to live in captivity until they can escape or be rescued. Try too hard and your dreams will never be the same. Even buffs, I think, would find Flowers a difficult movie to watch. But, I suppose, people in the 16th Century said the same thing about Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmarish depictions of hell in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights” … not that I’m making the comparison. The bonus package on the three-disc package adds commentaries with Phil Stevens and editor Ronnie Sortor; an interview with actor Bryant W. Lohr Sr.; Makaria Tsapatoris’ audition tape; a stills gallery; deleted scenes (with optional commentary); a trailer reel; an isolated FX track; featurette “Floravision: The Making of Flowers”; storyboards video gallery (with optional commentary); a CD soundtrack; and two versions of the short, “Kiss Me Whore.” It really will be interesting to see what Stevens comes up with, next.

Sometimes, when researching the work of an interesting actor or filmmaker, I turn to the pages on IMDB.com reserved for such things, only to find several short films listed among their credits. A quick trip to YouTube sometimes will provide an opportunity to see an artist’s earliest work. Occasionally, too, anthologies such as Creepshow, Tales From the Crypt, V/H/S and The ABCs of Death serve the same purpose. The Horror Network combines the efforts of six largely unsung writer/directors for five short films that test the limits of terror experienced by characters unaccustomed to strange noises, creepy neighbors and inanimate objects that unexpectedly become animated. Creators Brian Dorton and Douglas Conner reportedly sampled more than 200 films to get to the five that made the cut in The Horror Network. It succeeds, even absent such frills as a Cryptkeeper or animated interstitials.

Rebels of the Neon God
It took 25 years for Tsai Ming-liang’s excellent debut feature, Rebels of the Neon God, to be accorded a theatrical release in the United States. Since then, the Malaysian-born writer/director has developed an international reputation with such idiosyncratic entertainments as Vive L’Amour (1994), What Time Is It There? (2001), Good Bye, Dragon Inn (2003) and The Wayward Cloud (2005), all of which showcase minimalist values and atmospheric settings. Most clearly informed by the French New Wave, Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and either James Dean or Nicholas Ray (or both), his disaffected characters frequently seem overwhelmed by the chaos of urban life that surrounds them. Such is the case with Rebels of the Neon God, in which the lives of three aimless Taipei youths intersect in streets teeming with cars, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles and an endless parade of pedestrians, all going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. At night, a different population moves at a less impatient pace, seeking refuge from the garishly lit streets in the shadows and behind the doors of skating rinks, video arcades and all-night restaurants … anywhere, but in the tiny apartments they call home. The catalyst for drama is a mindless act of vandalism, committed by Ah-tze and his buddy Ah-ping after a taxi inadvertently cuts off their motorbike. It escalates exponentially when the cabbie’s son, Hsiao-Kang, recognizes the young hoodlums and, for lack of anything better to do, begins to stalk them. Hsiao-kang exacts his revenge in an even greater act of vandalism. To cover the damage, Ah-tze commits a crime that backfires badly on him. A curious romance, involving Ah-tze and a lovesick clerk at the rink, is every bit as hit-and-run as the careless incident in the streets, hours earlier. The characters don’t waste a lot of time exchanging dialogue and, when they do, it mostly serves to add a touch of humor to the drama.  The bustling Taipei setting adds greatly to the overall sense of alienation that permeates the story, just as America’s similarly mean streets informed Martin Scorsese’s early works.

Forever
If the name, Tatia Pilieva, sounds familiar it’s because of her short film, “First Kiss,” in which 20 strangers share kisses, to varying results. It caught fire on YouTube last year, registering more than 66 million visits. It isn’t likely that the filmmaker from the Republic of Georgia, now living in Los Angeles, would be known for her first feature, Forever, which found hardly any traction in theaters before being released into DVD.  The uneven drama was co-written with the late Gill Dennis, who previously shared screenwriting credits on Ring of Fire and Return to Oz. “True Blood” alums Deborah Ann Woll and Luke Grimes play Alice and Charlie, who meet very un-cute at a commune full of extremely troubled people, led by a doctor (John Diehl) whose methodology can best be described as curious. Alice is a passionate investigative reporter, who, after the suicide of her boyfriend, takes on an assignment requiring her to check out what’s happening in the compound across the lake from her hometown. Deep in the forest, she discovers what appears to be a multigenerational refuge for men and women who are either contemplating suicide or whose depression has reached an intolerable level. The mystery at the core of Forever requires Alice and viewers, alike, to decide if the doctor is a quack or a genius. And, if it’s the former, can Alice and Charlie escape the compound before the shit hits the fan? Not everything that transpires around the communal dining table translates into heart-tugging drama, but the cast, which also includes, Rhys Coiro, Jill Larson, Ioan Gruffudd, Tom Everett Scott, Shanola Hampton and Seth Gabel, give it their best shot.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Masterpiece: Home Fires: Blu-ray
PBS: Nova: Nuclear Meltdown Disaster
No one beats the Brits when it comes to soapy mini-series about life between and during our last two world wars. The UK’s unique perspective on the toll paid by civilians, medical and diplomatic personnel, stationed at home and abroad, is reflected in a continuing parade of movies and television shows. ITV’s fine period melodrama, “Home Fires,” is only the latest example. More gossipy than previous mini-series, it opens in a rural Cheshire village, in 1939, just as Hitler is about to light the fuse on war. Memories of England’s great losses in World War I remain fresh in the minds of older residents, just as the call to duty summons of men too young be intimately familiar with the carnage in the trenches. To fully appreciate “Home Fires,” American viewers need to know a little bit, at least, about the Women’s Institute, around which the story revolves. The community-based organization was founded in Stoney Creek, Ontario, by Adelaide Hoodless in 1897, and expanded to Britain 18 years later. The WI’s wartime mission involved revitalizing rural communities and encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. During World War II, they looked after evacuees, performed tasks normally handled by the men now training for combat and, somewhat famously, running the government-sponsored Preservation Centers, where volunteers canned or made jam from excess produce. The produce was sent to depots to be added to the rations sent to soldiers. It explains why novelist Julie Summers titled the book that inspired the six-part series, “Jambusters.” The emphasis here is less on food production than with the members’ interpersonal relationships and decisions that impacted daily life in the community, at home and in their work. A large ensemble cast is led by Samantha Bond (a.k.a., Miss Moneypenny) and Francesca Annis (“Wives and Daughters”). The first season ends with the harrowing Dunkirk evacuation. The PBS Blu-ray represents the full UK-length edition.

PBS’ “Nova” covers natural and man-made catastrophes with the same intensity – and frequency – as the E! network covers the Kardashians. “Nuclear Meltdown Disaster” takes the tick-tock approach to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, providing details that would have scared the crap out of the Japanese citizenry, if they had only been alerted to the perilously close call at the other Fukushima nuclear plant a few miles away from the meltdowns. The producers were accorded unprecedented access inside both facilities and to workers who there during the first harrowing days. We’re also introduced to an employee who has worked there since Day One and became the unsung hero who kept the disaster from spreading.

The DVD Wrapup: Larry Fessenden, My Favorite Martian, Testament of Youth, A Special Day and more

Thursday, October 22nd, 2015

The Larry Fessenden Collection: Blu-ray
Frightmare: The Horror Star:  Blu-ray
Demonoid: Messenger of Death Blu-ray
Like Clint Howard, Larry Fessenden is a seemingly tireless supporting actor whose horror-perfect face is far better known than his name … outside of Hollywood and fan conventions, anyway. If they hadn’t found work in the pictures, both could easily be mistaken for carnies, roustabouts, road-crew workers and reprobates of all stripe. As the son of Rance and Jean Speegle Howard, and brother of Ron, Clint Howard started acting early and hasn’t stopped, yet. Fessenden’s background may smack of East Coast establishment, but he caught exploitation fever in his teens and hasn’t had time to look back since then. At 52, he has more than a dozen credits as an actor (84), director (22), producer (58), writer (13), editor (15) and cinematographer (14). Not all of them have been memorable — Hollow Venus: Diary of a Go-Go Dancer, for one – but it hasn’t slowed him down much. Fessenden has 10 acting performances in post-production. Whether he “deserves” a Blu-ray retrospective at this point in his career is open to debate. Shout! Factory thinks so and that’s all that counts. “The Larry Fessenden Collection” contains four movies representative of various aspects of his career: The Mind’s Eye (acting), No Telling (acting, writing, directing, producing), Wendigo (actor, director, editor, writer) and The Last Winter (co-writer, director, actor, producer, editor). All have been accorded fresh director-approved HD transfers, Fessenden’s commentary and never-before-seen photos, storyboards and sketches, along with a 24-page booklet, with liner notes by Fangoria’s Michael Gingold. The compilation also includes several making-of featurettes, interviews, music videos, Glass Eye Pix sizzle reels, music videos for “Frankenstein Cannot Be Stopped,” “Save You from Yourself” and “Tired of Killing Myself,” and the short films, “White Trash” (1979), “Habit” (1981), “N Is for Nexus” (from Magnet Releasing’s The ABCs of Death 2), “Jebediah,”“Origins” and “Mister.”

Frightmare: The Horror Star borrows its central conceit from one of the greatest of all Hollywood legends. It involves the corpse-napping of Jack Barrymore from a funeral parlor, by director Raoul Walsh, for the purpose of scaring the bejeezus out of mutual friend and fellow alcoholic Errol Flynn. The story may very well be apocryphal, but its sounds good. In Norman Thaddeus Vane’s uneven horror thriller/comedy, legendary genre villain Conrad Radzoff (Ferdy Mayne) – a combination of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee – dies of a heart attack before he can address a group of college-age buffs. Feeling a tad cheated, the film society members decide to break into Conrad’s crypt and bring the Count Dracula look-alike back to their fraternity house for some drinks and frivolity. Conrad had already ordered funeral parlor management not to cremate his body, insisting that his work on his Earth wasn’t done. And, it isn’t. When Conrad’s widow and her friend Elizabeth (Nita Talbot) get word, they decide to hold a séance to try to contact his spirit and have it tell them where the body is. Instead, they accidentally raise Conrad from the dead. The film society kids are no match for the resurrected spirit of a demon from hell, anxious to wreak havoc on the arrogant students. The cast includes Luca Bercovici, Jennifer Starrett, Alan Stock, Jeffrey Combs and Chuck “Porky” Mitchell. The Blu-ray adds some looking-back material.

Early in Demonoid: Messenger of Death (a.k.a., Macabra), Samantha Eggar ignores the warnings to enter a Mexican mine, believed to be cursed. She wants to track down her husband, who’s seeking a treasure in silver. Naturally, her character is wearing high heels as she walks through the rocky shaft. In due order, she causes a small rockslide, which reveals a hidden chamber containing skeletons with their left hands cut off. It also reveals a silver chest, in which a fleshy hand is contained. Of course, the mine owner removes the chest from its longtime resting place, inadvertently unleashing the curse of the hand on the unwitting citizens of Guanajuato. Apparently, Alfredo Zacarías’ “Demonoid” was made two years before Oliver Stone’s The Hand and shelved until it could piggy-back on the marketing campaign for the WB/Orion release. It isn’t very good, but disembodied-hand completists will watch it, anyway.

I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine: Blu-ray
Although Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert effectively nailed the coffin shut on the budding I Spit on Your Grave franchise, way back in 1978, no guardian of public morality since then has been able to prevent the monster from rising from the grave 32 years later, first, as a direct remake of the original, and, then, in 2013, a rape-revenge sequel to both of its predecessors. In limited release, the 2010 remake actually received some not-entirely-negative reviews, which took note of the heavier emphasis on revenge and the director’s desire to lay guilt trips on viewers drawn to the film for its violence against women. By launching in only a single theater, I Spit on Your Grave 2 was able to avoid mainstream critics entirely. I Spit on Your Grave III: Vengeance Is Mine follows a similar pattern, except for the VOD option which won’t come until late next month. The strategy might work, if only because the franchise’s brand identity is strong enough to live or die on its own merits … or lack thereof. The good news for fans is the return of Sarah Butler as Jennifer Hills, the New York novelist who was savagely raped by backwoods sadists in the cabin she used to write. Still traumatized, Jennifer’s psychiatrist (Harley Jane Kozak) recommends that she join a support group for survivors of sexual attacks. Mostly, though, the experience only serves to depress her even further. One night, after hearing yet another horror story, Jennifer joins forces with a woman (Jennifer Landon) who’s actively planning to seek revenge against some of the other victims’ attackers. That she’s killed before they are able to formulate a plan only serves to convince Jennifer of the urgency of the mission. And, that requires Jennifer to set traps for guys who can’t imagine such a pretty little thing being so dangerous. Series followers know to expect violence of the most hideous sort.

 

My Favorite Martian: The Complete Series
Looking back at Halloweens past, I wonder how many Baby Boomer kids took a cue from their favorite television show and trick-or-treated in a costume that mimicked the one occasionally worn by Ray Walston, in “My Favorite Martian,” which ran from 1963-66. It would be easy to replicate, today, as it resembles the Spandex and Lycra bodysuits worn by serious athletes to cut seconds from their best times. The lime-green suit frequently was worn with a skull-gripping hood and, of course, the character’s retractable antennae. As the story goes, a human-looking extraterrestrial (Walston) crash-lands near Los Angeles in a one-man spaceship. The ship’s pilot, henceforth known as Uncle Martin, is an anthropologist and inventor from Mars. He is rescued by a reporter, Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby), on his way home from Edwards Air Force Base, where he was covering the flight of the experimental X-15 hypersonic research aircraft. Coincidence? I don’t think so. To the delight of viewers, Uncle Martin demonstrated such unusual powers as becoming invisible; reading and influencing minds; levitating objects with the motion of his finger; communicating with animals; freezing people or objects; and speeding up himself (and other people) to do work. Martin’s inventions benefitted the show by allowing time travel, including to such places as medieval England, St. Louis at the opening of the frontier and the early days of Hollywood, and transporting Leonardo da Vinci and Jesse James into the present. You get the gist. In addition to inspiring an animated series, nostalgic feature film, short-lived comic book, plastic model kit and, in 2012, an Uncle Martin bobble-head figure, “My Favorite Martian” created the template for such shows as “Mork & Mindy,” “Alf,” “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “The Neighbors” and, perhaps, the Coneheads on “SNL. In more than half of the 107 unedited episodes collected here, Pamela Britton (D.O.A.) plays their snoopy landlady Lorelei Brown. Part of the fun that derives from watching these retrospective collection is finding still-familiar guest stars in early- or late-career appearances. Here, look for Linda Evans, Gavin Macleod, Marlo Thomas, Jamie Farr, Bernie Kopell, Alan Hale Jr., Butch Patrick, Michael Constantine, Henry Gibson, Frank Devol, Madge Redmond and Shelley Morrison, among many others. The MPI Home Video release adds behind-the-scenes home movies, themed commercials and “bumpers,” special-effects explainers, a photo gallery, interviews with Bixby and Walton from Lucille Ball’s radio show and the original CBS pilot, “The Man in the Square Suit” (a.k.a., “Who Is Benny Goodman” and “Rambling Wreck From the Discotheque”). It starred Paul Dooley, Diane Sherry Case and Michael Blodgett, in a fish-out-of-water setup that differed quite a bit from that of first real episode.

Testament of Youth: Blu-ray
No event in modern history has demonstrated the futility, unfairness and insanity of human nature run amok than the First World War. Even if we’re able, today, to understand the posturing and provocations that led to the multinational conflagration, it’s difficult to understand how what amounted to a bloody stalemate was allowed to continue for as long as it did and for no discernably good reason. The crowned heads of Europe, who so desperately wanted to maintain the status quo, were doomed when the men fighting in their names realized that the emperors had stopped wearing clothes. In the end, World War I would simply be a proving ground for the greater horror to come, 20 years later, and the power of extremists to manipulate the passions of people who came to feel as if the cards would forever be stacked against them. The young British men and women we meet in Testament of Youth could barely wait for war to be declared before answering the patriotic call to duty. Like every other man in uniform, they wanted to believe the lies told by political and military leaders, who assured them that victory was pre-ordained and it would come quickly. It didn’t take long for them to realize that swords, side arms and troops on horsebacks would be no match for machine guns, artillery shells and armored vehicles. Based on the World War I memoirs of Vera Brittain, James Kent’s brilliantly acted film is told from the point of view of a first-year student at an elite college, who learns the truth after volunteering to be a combat nurse at the front lines in France. It this way, at least, Testament of Youth resembles “ANZAC Girls” and “The Crimson Fields,” in which combat nurses played roles as crucial to the Allied cause as the men in the trenches. More than anyone else, perhaps, they understood exactly how much more fearsome this war would be than any other in memory. It soon became apparent that wounded combatants were in far greater need of immediate care than the nurses were ready to provide. They would be required to make the same life-and-death decisions as doctors, who, likewise, were ill-prepared to deal with the sheer numbers of wounded and dying soldiers. The constantly evolving weapons of war — poison gas, warplanes, mortars, hand grenades, field artillery — raised the ante to limits impossible to anticipate when the shooting started. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), as fine a young actor as there is on the planet, plays Brittain, whose brother and three close male friends volunteered almost immediately, sometimes against the wishes of their parents. Believing that their station in life would make them leaders of men, instead of mere trench dwellers, they were smart enough to recognize what was happening very quickly. For the first time in their lives, they were helpless. As was the case in “The Crimson Fields,” the drama is enhanced by the fact that England was close enough to the front lines in France to allow home visits, during which they experienced first-hand the disconnect between what they’d witnessed and the lies told civilians to make them feel better about the sacrifices being made by their sons and daughters, just across the channel. In one excruciatingly poignant scene, Brittain, who’s back home on leave, is left to comfort the parents of a friend who’s been killed. The letter sent by his commanding officer praises the young man’s courage, while insisting that his death was instantaneous and painless. Reading between the lines, she senses that this couldn’t have been the real story. Upon learning the truth, she’s forced to decide between validating the comforting lie and overburdening her friend’s parents with the truth. Upon her return to Somerville College, Oxford, Brittain appears to be too shell-shocked to function, especially in the company of peers unaffected by the carnage. She eventually would find an outlet in writing novels about her experiences and friends who made the ultimate sacrifice. It wasn’t until 1933 that she was able to relive her experiences in “Testament of Youth,” a book that would gain a loyal following among pacifists and feminists. Colin Morgan, Taron Egerton, Kit Harington, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson and Dominic West all are excellent in key supporting roles. As coming-of-age dramas go, it would be difficult to find another one as powerful as Testament of Youth. The bonus package adds deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette and commentary with Harington and Kent.

A Special Day: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
There’s certainly no better reason to pick up the Criterion Collection edition of Ettore Scola’s A Special Day than to watch Sophia Loren (Marriage Italian Style) and Marcello Mastroianni (La dolce vita) working together at the top of their game. Besides being two of the most popular and instantly recognizable actors of the last half-century – who couldn’t be more representative of the Italian cinema if they came dipped in marinara sauce – Loren and Mastroianni had already worked together several times and anticipated each other’s moves as well as any dance team. The title refers to the fateful day in 1938 when Benito Mussolini and a million Roman citizens welcomed Adolf Hitler to the Eternal City for the first time. These were heady times for Il Duce’s fascisti faithful, who probably felt as if anyone who could get Italian trains to run on time also would be able to win a war. By the time Loren’s harried housewife, Antonietta, gets her husband and six children ready in their black shirts and silly caps, she’s too exhausted to fight the crowds. Instead, she stays in their crowded apartment, exchanging unpleasantries with her pet mynah bird parrot, Rosamunda, who decides that life on the other side of the apartment complex might be more interesting. Rosamunda finds a convenient perch outside the apartment of Mastroianni’s Gabriele, a recently fired announcer on the government-sponsored radio station. Even though Antonietta’s is enough of a fan of Mussolini to collect newspaper clippings and photographs in a scrapbook, she warms to Gabriele’s sensitivity and cultural cultivation. Moreover, he treats her like a woman deserving of respect, instead of a broodmare. Without knowing exactly why Gabriele lost his job and is considered a “degenerate,” Antonietta relishes his little courtesies and kindness toward her. Through newsreel footage taken on that day in history, viewers are far more acutely aware of what an outcast might be facing in the near future. When their friendship takes an unexpected turn, followed by the excited return of her family, we are left to wonder how the war will impact the futures of these two special people. Although Mastroianni is recognizable as the fastidious radio host, Loren interprets her character as being a woman too exhausted to fixate on her wardrobe and makeup. Even then, however, she radiates a natural beauty few women, including actresses, possess. The Blu-ray features a newly restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Scola, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack; new interviews with Scola and Loren; a recent short film, starring Loren and directed by her son; two 1977 episodes of “The Dick Cavett Show,” with Loren and Mastroianni; and an essay by critic Deborah Young.

Northern Limit Line: Blu-ray
On June 29, 2002, North Korean naval forces unleashed a surprise attack on South Korean patrol ship PKM-357. Kim Hak-Soon’s throwback war story, Northern Limit Line, dramatizes the events surrounding the so-called Second Battle of Yeonpyeong, along a disputed maritime boundary near Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. North Korean military leaders timed the confrontation to coincide with the 2002 World Cup consolation match between home team South Korea and Turkey. Before setting out on that night’s mission, officers on the South Korean vessel sensed that the sailors were pre-occupied with the match and voiced their displeasure. Once the fighting began, below the NLL, however, everyone reacted to the escalating situation very quickly. The drama is drawn out further with one sailor’s fight to stay alive in the hospital. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Northern Limit Line carries the distinct odor of partisan political spin, but no more than one expects in any country’s war pictures. If the special effects suffer a bit in comparison to similar Hollywood action dramas, it’s only because the crowd-sourced budget was on the snug side. American audiences, concerned that the South Korean military may not be able to carry its weight in any invasion from the north, should come away from the movie feeling that its forces are ready, willing and able to defend its side of the DMZ and not every confrontation or provocation needs to result in all-out war. The credit roll updates viewers on the fates of some of the actual sailors, whose actions inspired the characters.

#Lucky Number
There came a time, probably after Universal wasted $1 million on Vanilla Ice for Cool as Ice, when casting directors decided that hiring flash-in-the-pan chart-toppers wasn’t worth the trouble of teaching them to act. If, in their dramatic debuts, Mick Jagger and John Lennon couldn’t even approximate the box-office appeal of Elvis Presley, it wasn’t likely that Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees would do any better with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, yet, some studios still tried to buck the trend. The opposite proved to be the case for hip-hop musicians, whose presence in independent movies really hit the target. The posturing required of gangsta’ rappers on stage gave them a leg up when it came to impersonating African-American cops and criminals stories designed to appeal directly to urban audiences. Once they proved their value at the box-office, the roles offered them expanded greatly, into comedy and action pictures intended for crossover appeal. Today, of course, they’ve joined the ranks of behind-the-camera talent and executives on television. The list of rappers who’ve made the transition with seeming ease continues to grow. Will Smith, Ice Cube, Ice-T and LL Cool J opened doors previously closed to black actors. They would be followed by such double-dippers (soundtrack and acting credits) as Queen Latifah, Fredro Starr, Eminem, 50 Cent, Sean Combs, Xzibit, RZA, Will.i.am, Coolio, Eve and Master P, among several others. #Lucky Number co-stars Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man, as a New York basketball star, who, after being forced to get a new number for his cellphone, finds certain aspects of his life being usurped by someone who was given his old number. Tom Pelphrey plays the aspiring sportscaster, whose life takes a dramatic turn for the better, while the superstar’s stock sinks in every possible way. When the white upstart begins to cash in on the player’s lady friends, however, things escalate in a hurry. The movie’s loose and rowdy tone holds up pretty well for the rom-com’s brisk 80-minute length.

Enough Already!
From niche distributor SISU comes Enough Already!, an animated musical based on the Jewish folk tale about a poor farmer, who, on the advice of the town rabbi, brings one animal after another into an already over-crowded house. The result is a clever lesson in being grateful for what we have. It features the voices of Tom Lieberman and Rabbi Joe Black, as well as lively original songs, inspired by traditional klezmer music.

TV-to-DVD
AMC: The Making of the Mob: New York
PBS: The Widower
Syfy: Olympus: Season 1: Blu-ray
PBS: The Bomb
The Facts Of Life: Season Seven
If there’s any one entity that defines the term, “endlessly fascinating,” it’s the Mafia. How else to describe the proliferation of mini-series, docu-dramas, movies and television shows that began when ABC decided to test the Hollywood Production Code with the violent Prohibition-era series, “The Untouchables.” It drew an unprecedented amount of heat from Italian-American interest groups, anti-violence crusaders and historians who deplored the creative license applied to actual hoodlums and crimes. When sponsors began to kowtow to the protests, the producers made concessions in their portrayal of Italian-American criminals. Still, the show’s popularity allowed networks to expand the limits on violence shows that would debut in the 1960s. On the big screen, the MPAA’s new ratings system helped The Godfather open the floodgates to productions that ran the gamut from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets to Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone. When the cable-television industry completed its long march to critical mass, one of the first places to which it turned for original programming was the Mafia … that and Adolph Hitler. Documentary series about organized crime served both as entertainment and correctives for the first 50 years of myth making. When there was nothing more to be said about the New York and Chicago mobs – accurately or inaccurately – creative types looked toward New Jersey, Cuba, Boston, Miami, Las Vegas and L.A, as well as motorcycle and ethnic gangs.  Following on the heels of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” came such presentations as “Public Morals,” “Mob City,” “Magic City,” “Justified” and AMC’s “The Making of the Mob: New York,” which is newly available in DVD/Blu-ray. Narrated by Ray Liotta, it is an eight-part series that begins in 1905 and spans over 50 years to trace the rise of Charles Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Benjamin Bugsy Siegel, Dutch Schultz and other notorious New York and Chicago gangsters. The dramatizations look as if they were staged on leftover sets from Casino, Goodfellas, The Cotton Club and “Boardwalk Empire.” What the series does best is integrate the dramatizations into a gumbo that also includes archival footage, visual effects and snippets from interviews with such observers as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Meyer Lansky II, Thomas Dewey III, Chazz Palminteri, Drea de Matteo, Joe Mantegna, Vincent Pastore, Frankie Valli, Frank Vincent, attorney and former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, and noted author and historian David Pietrusza, among many others. I learned a couple of new things from the series, but nothing most fans of the sub-genre would find earth-shaking. The material is presented in an easy-to-follow format, with interesting visualizations and decent acting. The Blu-ray bonus package includes additional scenes and featurettes “The Real Arnold Rothstein,” “The Secret Life of a Mob Wife,” “The Mob and Mussolini,” “Style,” “Mob Innovations” and “Mob Shrink.”

Anyone missing the estimable presence of Archie Panjabi (a.k.a., Kalinda Sharma) from the continuing saga of CBS’ “The Good Wife” will find her in the Blu-ray iteration of “The Widower,” a 2013 mini-series from the UK now playing on some PBS affiliates.  Panjabi plays one of several lovers and wives of sociopathic hospital worker Malcolm Webster (Reece Shearsmith), who, in the 1990s and 2000s, engaged in a killing spree that moved from the UAE, to Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Paris, New Zealand and back to Scotland. Not all of the women he targeted in his schemes to collect their life-insurance money would die, but they were the lucky ones. In addition to the murder of first wife, Claire Morris Webster (Sheridan Smith), he’s believed to have induced insulin shock to three children in an Abu Dhabi hospital. The other women smelled a rat in their relationships with Webster before he could do his worst. Panjabi’s character, Simone Banerjee, bought into Webster’s claim of having leukemia, until she received an “Osman warning” from authorities spelling out their suspicions and detailing known facts about his personal life. She later said, “He is a very good actor and would give Colin Firth a run for his money. He was charming and that’s what made him so plausible.” He also was a world-class conman, thief and liar. In Shearsmith’s capable hands, Webster couldn’t seem more credible. Anyone looking for a production similar to those regularly featured in PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery” series will find one in “The Widower.
As long as television executives are in desperate need of time-honored material, Greek mythology will make their lives easier.

Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have provided more characters and story lines than any source, with the possible exception of the bible. It isn’t often that Homer has received the writer’s credit he’s due, but, the low estimate on IMDB.com is 43 times. The 13-episode Syfy series, “Olympus,” represents a young man’s quest to solve the riddle of the Gods, by unlocking the doors to Olympus and becoming an immortal. Here, Hero is a male character, played by Tom York (“Tyrant”). His epic journey leads him through the darkest realms of ancient Greece, accompanied by the beautiful, but twisted Oracle of Gaia (Sonya Cassidy), the powerful sorceress Medea (Sonita Henry) and genius inventor Daedalus (Matt Frewer). Hero battles trickster gods, vicious monsters, seductive nymphs, kings and despots, as he transforms from a fresh-faced youth into a ruthless, cold-hearted killer, and a match for the gods themselves. As the story goes, when Zeus asked Prometheus to make Man, he buried deep inside the mind of one of his favorites the knowledge that could turn him into a God and translate it into a map that lights the way to Olympus. This knowledge – known as the Lexicon – was passed down from father to son, with Hero being its current host. The Blu-ray edition of “Olympus” adds a brief overview of the show, with interviews; “Creating the World of Olympus,” which focuses on elements like green screen and other VFX; “The Characters of Olympus,” with interviews with cast members; “The Mythology of Olympus,” a sketchy look into this show’s conception of some of its themes; and “The Epic of Olympus,” which celebrates the series’ lofty ambitions. It’s yet to be revealed if the Canadian-British co-production has been renewed for a second season.

PBS has been heavy on in-depth science documentaries lately, from physics, to chemistry, life sciences and space flight. Deciphering the gobbledygook for largely unscientific-minded viewers (a.k.a., taxpayers) has always been one of the channel’s primary missions. On the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, PBS has outdone itself on the subject of nuclear fission. In “The Bomb,” we’re once again told how humans harnessed this incredible power and what challenges we have faced living with it since 1945. Using recently declassified material from the creation of the first atomic bomb and rare footage from bomb tests through the 1950-60s, it demonstrates the deadly power and strangely compelling beauty of nuclear explosions. Providing testimony are historian Richard Rhodes, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Secretary of State George Shultz, as well as scientists, weapons designers, pilots, witnesses, and ordinary men and women who have lived and worked with the nuclear bomb.

The a la carte edition of “The Facts Of Life: Season Seven” opens with the girls arriving home from summer vacation, ready for anything except the sight of Edna’s Edibles destroyed by fire. Undaunted, Mrs. Garrett and the girls decide to rebuild their store into an updated version of a 1950s malt shop. Mrs. Garrett hires a good-looking young carpenter, George Burnett, to help out, but it doesn’t takes long before he becomes a distraction. And, yes, he is played by George Clooney, who, at the time, was fresh off of the series, “E/R” – a different one than the NBC drama that would make him a star – and sported a modified mullet hairdo. When the business finally reopens, it will be a novelty shop called “Over Our Heads.”

The DVD Wrapup: Tomorrowland, Aladdin, Dope, Big Eden, Requiescant, Alleluia and ore

Friday, October 16th, 2015

Tomorrowland: Blu-ray
Aladdin: Diamond Edition: Blu-ray
Despite releasing Tomorrowland and Aladdin on Blu-ray almost simultaneously, Disney may not be asking consumers to draw any conclusions about the company’s past, present and future, but, what the hell, what better time? In effect, Brad Bird’s mystery-adventure Tomorrowland addresses a problem faced by Disneyland executives ever since it became obvious that tomorrow was going to arrive a bit sooner than Uncle Walt expected, way back in 1955. Tomorrowland’s concept of the future was so out of date by the mid-1990s, at least, that it had become quaint. Boomers still love it for its nostalgic references to a future now past, especially since the pandering to such corporate sponsors as Monsanto, American Motors, Richfield Oil and Dutch Boy Paint largely fell by the wayside. With the exception of the Space Mountain ride, however, the appeal to their children and grandchildren will depend largely on the popularity of the new Star Wars cycle and super-heroic contributions from Marvel. Tomorrowland, the movie, is informed throughout by Walt Disney’s true vision of a future in which brilliant scientists, visionary architects, benevolent corporations and an informed citizenry would join in creating a utopian society, not unlike Epcot Center … with a nod, as well, to Jules Verne and other prominent fantasists. Here, a disillusioned genius inventor, Frank Walker (George Clooney), and a teenage science enthusiast, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), form an unlikely alliance in their pursuit of an ambiguous dimension known as, yes, Tomorrowland. With a nod to “The Twilight Zone,” however, they come to understand how anything done today to fix tomorrow could inadvertently spell doom or hope for all of humanity. Walker is old enough to remember attending the 1964 New York World’s Fair, which served as a proving ground for Disney Imagineers – “It’s a Small World” and “Audio-Animatronics” – and a showcase for NASA. Newton is led to his remote doorstep by the accidental discovery of futuristic artifacts from Cape Canaveral in her possession and a visit to memorabilia shop in Houston, managed by audio-animatronic robots. And, yes, this is where things get really complicated. The trail leads to a much older and completely paranoid Walker, who lives in a New York farmhouse filled with computers and fortified by elaborate security devices.

After an attack by steampunk security forces tipped off by the autobots, Frank and Casey are fast-forwarded to a wheat field within view of the decaying skeleton of an even more futuristic Tomorrowland than the one envisioned by Walt Disney. That’s because the Founding Father wouldn’t live long enough to see the completion of Disney World and Epcot Center, let alone the moon landing and, decades later, government-mandated diminishment of NASA’s space-shuttle program. Other, less benevolent fantasists have relied on very different blueprints for Utopia. In true Disney-movie fashion, Bird offers viewers alternative scenarios, as well as an opportunity for a teenager to repair what her elders nearly destroyed. To accomplish this, though, Frank and Casey must get over themselves long enough to see how salvation can only be achieved through a merger of near-opposites: science and humanity, hardware and software, the wisdom that comes with age and youth exuberance. If this makes Tomorrowland sound as if it owes less to Jules Verne than Philip K. Dick, well, that’s because it probably does. Bird’s The Iron Giant may have promised an old-fashioned Saturday-matinee experience, but kids failed to embrace its metaphysical, philosophic and humanitarian musings. Expecting an Erector Set version of Rodan or Mothra, adults waited until the DVD release to what made critics endorse it. Bird’s Tomorrowland, I suspect, will enjoy a better fate in Blu-ray than at the box office. It’s a serious film that imagines a dystopian future not at all in keeping with the Disney dream. Moreover, co-writer Damon Lindelof’s script isn’t compromised by concessions to those who might be expecting an entertainment on the order of Pirates of the Caribbean or The Haunted Mansion. It succeeds far more as a conceptual and visual experience. Also good are Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Robinson in key supporting roles. The Blu-ray adds essential making-of and background featurettes; an animated story of how Tomorrowland came to be; Bird’s production diaries and personal recollections; and a couple of bits that kids should enjoy.

By contrast, the splendid “Diamond Edition” of the modern animated classic, Aladdin, offers something for everyone. Kids unfamiliar with the ageless fantasy/adventure will be blown away by Robin Williams’ brilliantly madcap interpretation of an over-caffeinated genie. Besides reacquainting themselves with Aladdin’s strikingly beautiful animation and engrossing story, adults can focus on Williams’ improvisational genius and wonderfully manic approach to the character. It also should be considered required viewing for anyone interested in someday seeing the live-action Broadway musical when it begins touring the hinterlands. Because Disney tends to play fast and loose with source material in the public domain, it would be nice to think that viewers would be drawn, as well, to the books and movies that influenced Aladdin, including “A Thousand and One Nights” and “The Thief of Bagdad.” In the excellent bonus package, producer/directors John Musker and Ron Clements, along with supervising animator Eric Goldberg, discuss what it was like working with Williams, whose voice acting could only be compared to a Force 5 hurricane for sheer improvisational fury. Sadly, there’s no video footage of Williams in action, just storyboards and audio recordings. Also recalled is long and difficult gestation period for the live-action production. It pre-dated the 1991 death of composer Alan Menken’s creative partner, Howard Ashman, and would be delayed to allow for technology to accommodate the artistic vision. The flying-carpet conceit was especially difficult to pull off in the early stages of development.  One of the important things to remember about Aladdin is how the decision to launch its feature-length sequel straight-to-video effectively opened the door to untapped profits, while also legitimizing the format as a creative option. By directly targeting very young audiences, The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves could be produced, marketed and distributed without having to impress adults with sophisticated animation techniques and storytelling. It also laid the groundwork for a television cartoon series. Corporate and artistic synergy would never be the same.

Dope: Blu-ray
Having only becoming aware of Rick Famuyiwa’s urban rom/dram/com, Dope, after it was delivered to my home by mail, I was stunned at how fresh, bright and entertaining it was. Hindsight should have reminded me that I had enjoyed the writer/director’s debut feature, The Wood, but I don’t always check out the credits before watching a movie. Why spoil the surprise? As Dope unfolded, it sometimes appeared – and I use the word, “appeared,” advisedly – to reference themes first explored in American Graffiti, Risky Business and the coming-of-age comedies of John Hughes. The biggest difference is the setting: a dead-end section of Inglewood, known as the Bottoms. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two buddies — lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and mousy Jib (Tony Revolori) – probably wouldn’t be considered geeks in most high schools populated by middle-class kids with aspirations of going to college. But in this gang-infested section of greater Los Angeles, too many teenagers are given one choice in life – Crips or Bloods? – and anyone who doesn’t conform to the conventions of thug life is scorned, ridiculed or bullied. As representatives of African-American geekdom go, however, Malcolm isn’t in the same league as Steve Urkel or Donald Glover’s character in “Community.” His crimes include favoring 1990s hip-hop to anything that’s come after, say, NWA; dressing in clothes even M.C. Hammer wouldn’t have been seen wearing; getting around on a BMX bicycle; using a backpack to tote books, instead of guns and drugs; and committing himself to being accepted to Harvard. Even his school’s guidance teacher finds that dream laughable. Oh, yeah, he’s also a virgin. After sneaking into a party to which Malcom and his friends aren’t invited, a melee leaves them in possession of a fortune in the hot drug, Molly, belonging to a local gang-banger. With the owner in jail and a target put on their heads by rival dealers, the only way to avoid getting killed is to cut up the dope, sell it and return the money to whomever has the most powerful claim to it. Naturally, getting rid of the drugs isn’t as difficult as covering up the money trail. In cahoots with a hippy hacker, they devise a plan only a subscriber to Wired might be capable of pulling off. Famuyiwa’s success here includes making everything that happens to the geeks plausible, while also maintaining a vibe that any fan of Cheech & Chong, Snoop Dogg and Half-Baked can appreciate Also starring in supporting roles are rapper A$AP Rocky, Blake Anderson (“Workaholics”), Rick Fox and Zoë Kravitz. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the soundtrack is a gas.

Tibetan Warrior
When all of the celebrity advocates of the various Free Tibet movements put away their banners and return to work in their chosen artistic disciplines, hard-core activists know that the really hard work required to free a nation won’t bear fruit for many years to come, if ever. In certain parts of the Tibetan diaspora, Indian-born Loten Namling is as big a celebrity as Richard Gere or Steven Seagal. Without discounting any celebrity’s commitment to support the14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, Namling would have to drag his “Free Tibet” coffin from New York to Kim and Kanye’s driveway, somewhere in greater L.A., to assure any coverage from the American news media. It’s what he did three years ago, in Switzerland, attracting attention by pulling a black coffin-like box from the capital of Bern, to UN headquarters in Geneva, chanting prayers and playing the lute at stops along the way. His “Journey for Freedom: One Man, One Path, Free Tibet” excursion is documented in Dodo Hunziker’s feature-length documentary, Tibetan Warrior, which also follows the singer, musician, artist, entertainer and cartoonist on his mission to meet with the Dalai Lama, from whom he only desires “wisdom.” At the time, 45 Tibetans had set themselves on fire in a renewed to protest against the Chinese annexation of the Himalayan nation, in 1951, and long-standing denial of basic human rights to citizens left behind after the Dalai Lama and his inner circle split, in 1959. Born in Dharamsala in 1963, Namling eventually would be granted a meeting with the Dalai Lama, who praised the uncharacteristically humble activist’s passionate contributions to the movement, without offering any more advice than to be patient and try to understand how realpolitik has become the operative philosophy of Free Tibet leadership. Given the PRC’s standing in the worlds of commerce, international politics and military power, Namling was pretty much left holding his lute in one hand and his dick in the other. Even so, one doesn’t leave Tibetan Warrior depressed or pessimistic about Tibet’s future. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of a cause that won’t be forgotten as long as artists are driven to extremes in the pursuit of freedom.

In the Courtyard: Blu-ray
Having already heaped layers of praise on Catherine Deneuve’s recent performances in a half-dozen excellent movies, there really isn’t all that much for me to add that would make American audiences flock to rent In the Courtyard. Besides being extremely moving, I would hope American actresses of a certain age might watch Pierre Salvadori’s bittersweet drama and be encouraged to demand the same opportunities here, as the still radiant Deneuve receives in France. Women directors have begun to cry foul over the lack of respect shown them by Hollywood studios … why not actresses whose only chance to shine comes in “important” movies, released in the holiday rush? Most of the movies in which Deneuve appears these days are intended to be enjoyed for their ability to entertain, not impress César Awards voters (although she’s been nominated four times in the last four years). In the Courtyard is a decidedly offbeat entertainment, in which a man and woman from completely different backgrounds find common ground in the pursuit of a common goal. In a sense, Antoine and Mathilde’s mission amounts to therapy, without the benefit of a shrink or a couch. Antoine is a middle-aged musician whose depression has become so pronounced that he no longer is able to make the journey from dressing room to the stage. Disheveled and absent any recognizable form of ambition, Antoine is further hampered by an inability to perform tasks associated with viable employment. In a Chance the Gardener conceit, possibly inspired by Being There, he is hired as caretaker of a residential building owned by Mathilde and her husband, Serge (Féodor Atkine). Recently retired, Mathilde kills time by fixating on dubious causes and obsessing over a crack she discovers in the wall of her apartment. The crack, which she believes to be the tip of a structural iceberg, so concerns Mathilde that she begins to rally support from neighbors, whose homes could be threatened, as well, if, say, the buildings were built over landfill. While she’s doing this, Antoine not only assumes nursemaid duties for the eccentric tenants, but also covers for Mathilde in her deteriorating relationship with Serge. Complicating things for Antoine is a fondness for crack cocaine and an inability to say “no” to the needier tenants. By this time, viewers may think they know where In the Courtyard is heading, but Salvadori neatly disguises the punch he reserves for the finale. If it comes off as being overly sentimental to some viewers, well, too bad for them. Watch it, anyway, for the acting clinic. The Blu-ray arrives with an interview with the writer/director.

Madcow
Class Of Nuke ‘Em High III: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid: Blu-ray
Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV: Blu-ray
The Sand
One of the more endearing things about Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman is that he’s rarely at a loss for hyperbole. In his introduction to Madcow, he not only brags about it being the first Troma import from South Africa, but also that it was Nelson Mandela’s favorite film while in prison. I would have guessed Shaft in Africa, but even that presupposes his Afrikaner keepers at Robben Island allowed the future leader of their country a single night’s respite from the hideous conditions of his incarceration and that Mandela had been in jail when Madcow was released in 2010, which, of course, was well after he retired from the presidency. (For several idiotic reasons, the government didn’t even allow the introduction of television until 1976.) That said, Michael Wright and Michael J. Rix’s video original fits neatly within the confines of the Troma asylum, which, this week alone, has added Blu-ray editions of Class Of Nuke ‘Em High III: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV to the cinematic commonweal. In it, a crazed scientist creates a half-man, half-cow creature which goes on chainsaw-wielding rampage at an African game lodge. It’s here that one of the world’s most physically gifted scream queens, Tanya van Graan (Starship Troopers 3: Marauder) stays busy, trying on lingerie and enjoying leisurely showers. Leading the campaign to corral the bovine killer is an investigator, who, in the right light, resembles Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad. While every bit as stupid as most Troma releases, Madcow falls short in the areas of technical proficiency and twisted topicality. Even so, it isn’t completely devoid of laughs and good ideas … or zombies.  In true Troma fashion, the principle cast went through “boot camp” at a dairy farm, so that “they could empathize more easily with the titular character.”

The only really positive thing to be gleaned from Class Of Nuke ‘Em High III: The Good, the Bad and the Subhumanoid, which picks up where the first sequel left off, is that the giant mutant squirrel, Tromie, returns for a cameo performance. Also back is former body builder and pro wrestler Brick Bronsky, this time in the multiple roles of Mayor Roger Smith and his good/evil twin sons Adlai and Dick Smith, and Baby Moishe Smith. Kidnapped at birth, Dick Smith becomes a crucial player in a plot devised by the mad Doctor Slag, PhD (John Tallman), and slutty/sexy Professor Holt (Lisa Gaye), first, to destroy his politician brother’s sterling reputation, and, then, turn Tromaville into a toxic wasteland. The Blu-ray arrives with director’s commentary, an interview with the tragically nudity-shy Gaye and trailers from the “Nuke ‘Em High” canon.

Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV opens with the notorious Diaper Mafia taking students of the Tromaville School for the Very Special hostage. After Toxie and his morbidly obese sidekick, Lardass, fail to prevent a powerful bomb from destroying the school, a dimensional portal is opened between Tromaville and its mirror image, Amortville. While father-to-be Toxie is trapped in Amortville, Tromaville comes under the control of his evil doppelganger, the Noxious Offender. Mayhem ensues. “Citizen Toxie” features the most formidable line-up of superheroes ever assembled, including Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD, Mad Cowboy, Dolphin Man, Master Bator and the Vibrator. Also reunited are Ron Jeremy, Lemmy Kilmister, Julie Strain, Corey Feldman, Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf, James Gunn and Kinky Finklestein. For truly demented viewers, there’s a topless translator for the deaf and newsreel footage shot at the Playboy Mansion. The Blu-ray adds a new intro by Lloyd Kaufman, from Stan Lee’s Comikaze; commentaries with Kaufman, producer Trent Haaga and actor Michael Budinger, and editors Friedman and Sean McGrath; the 147-minute “Apocalypse Soon” making-of featurette; a montage of Troma achievements, scored to songs by Motorhead; “Troma’s Tribute to Lemmy”’ deleted scenes; outtakes; and an interview with Debbie Rochon. The only thing missing is a scorecard to keep track of the visual references and homages to classic film moments.

Requiescant: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Historians and critics have for years debated on the influence of left-wing philosophy – overt or subliminal – on genre films written and/or directed by filmmakers who would face the HUAC inquisition and be blacklisted for exercising their constitutional right to espouse radical political believes … or simply organize strikes against Hollywood studios. Released in 1967, but rarely distributed outside Europe, Requiescant (a.k.a., “Kill and Pray”) is a Spaghetti Western that wears its Communist Party sympathies on its sleeve for all the world to see. Director Carlo Lizzani (The Violent Four) even had the audacity to cast Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salò) in a rare acting role as a revolutionary priest. While staying within the parameters set aside for genre fare, Requiescant exhibits the same relationship to history accuracy as Quentin Tarantino reserves for his period provocations. Here,

Lou Castel plays a young man, who, after transplanted Confederates massacred his Mexican family and other settlers, was raised to be a pacifist by a travelling preacher. When his stepsister runs away to join a troupe of barroom entertainers, the pursuit reveals his natural talent as a sharp-shooter. After she’s discovered working as a sex slave in a town run by fascist landowners and their puppets, Requiescant not only vows to liberate her from bondage, but lead the oppressed Mexican laborers to the Promised Land. Or, something like that. Reality sets in when the entrenched minority take out their hostility on the most defenseless citizens. Even without the political messaging, Requiescant stands as a hugely entertaining and completely viable genre specimen, with a very cool backstory. The Blu-ray package adds plenty of background.

The Sand may not bear the Troma brand, but it plays in the same ballpark. The franchise it most closely resembles, though, Tremors. The movie opens during a beach party being held on an early-summer night, just as the booze is beginning to flow and bikini tops are disappearing like the ebb tide. Flash ahead a few hours and the kids are spread out in a tight circle around a lifeguard stand. As soon as the first topless bimbo puts her feet in the sand to find her swimsuit’s other half, she realizes that she’s stuck and can’t move. Others become trapped, as well, before being devoured by the creature or creatures living underneath the sand. And, so it goes. Isaac Gabaeff’s conceit doesn’t require punishing young people for exercising their rights as sexual beings, but to see if the can survive using their wits … or half-wits, as the case may be. For so familiar a premise, The Sand is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. Credit for that probably belongs to writers Alex Greenfield (“WWE Smackdown!”) and Ben Powell (The Aggression Scale).

The Raid
The Avenging Fist
Fans of Chinese action director Tsui Hark will want to check out Go USA’s upgraded edition of The Raid, the wartime comedy/adventure he made in 1991 with Ching Siu-Tung (Chinese Ghost Story). As far as I can tell, it wasn’t accorded a release here, but follows quickly on the heels of the company’s Blu-ray of The Taking of Tiger Mountain, which it resembles in certain key ways. While “Tiger Mountain” is based on Qu Bo’s 1957 novel “Tracks in the Snowy Forest,” The Raid was inspired by the Hong Kong manhua (a.k.a., manga) “Uncle Choy,” published by Michael Hui since 1958. Hark uses art from the comic book in his opening credits and transitions. The story is set in 1930s China, after Japanese occupation forces installed the dethroned Emperor Pu-Yi (The Last Emperor) as the symbolic leader of the Manchurian puppet state of Manchukuo. He is portrayed as being complicit in the testing of poisonous gas as a weapon by the Japanese, against Republican-era resistance forces. After their leader is killed in the attack, he is replaced by Lieutenant Mang Tai-Hoi (Paul Chun), who considers Uncle Choy to be too old to help the movement with his ever-present wooden box, containing garlic, red pepper and dynamite for emergencies. Left behind when Mang launches his search for the Japanese armaments factory, Uncle Choy discovers a dao sword and heads for the front lines. He isn’t aware that his niece is hot on his heels, wielding a qiang sword she fully intends to use against the Chinese. If this description doesn’t sounds particularly comedic, it’s only because the slapsticky brawls, missed connections and close brushes with disaster are yet to come. Uncle Choy may look like a harmless old codger, but he’s a hardened veteran of post-dynastic battles and a brilliant swordsman. Just as “Tiger Mountain” occasionally played to the cheap seats, The Raid was designed for consumption by mainstream Chinese and Hong Kong audiences. A scene in which Chinese soldiers infiltrate the kitchen at a banquet honoring the emperor runs the emotional gamut from hilarity to horror, when the faux chefs screw up the preparation of delicacies none of them could have mastered in time for the meal. The interaction between Pu Yi, Japanese commander Masa (Tony Ka Fai Leung) and the treasonous movie star Kim Pak-fai (Joyce Godenzi) similarly confuses love, obligation and deceit. When necessary, Hark doesn’t hesitate playing the kung fu card, though.

Andrew Lau has been a major force in the Hong Kong action scene for nearly as long as Sark. The Avenging Fist, released a year before the highly regarded Infernal Affairs trilogy cemented his reputation as both a director and cinematographer, is a film that crosses so many genre and demographic borders that it could have required passports, as well as tickets. We’re reminded upfront that the human brain rarely uses more than 20 percent of its intellectual potential and, within the remaining 80 percent of capacity could lie answers to questions we’ve yet to ponder. The Avenging Fist plays out against a sci-fi background, likely influenced by Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, while everything in the foreground appears to have been borrowed from video games, wuxia fantasies, graphic novels and billboard ads for nightclub apparel. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, Power Gloves not only will hold the key to tapping into the 80 percent of unused brain power, but they will also enable the wearer to take over the minds of other people, presumably of the criminal persuasion. Dark, Thunder and War 21 are the names of three young police officers who volunteer to test the program. War 21 uses a glove to capture Thunder and disappear into the void for the next 20 years. They return to the scene of the experiment to attempt another coup, this time with a small army behind them. Realizing that he can’t take on the forces of evil himself, Dark (Sammo Hung) discovers a fighter 20 years his junior, Meganova (Wang Lee Hom), who appears to possess Thunder’s fighting DNA, but mistrusts everyone older than he is. Dark is forced to go to great lengths to convince Meganova that his power should be used for good. Only some decent action sequences prevent the story from imploding any further than it does.

Skin Traffik
For a hundred different reasons, making movies in Hollywood for American audiences has become an unattainable dream for most homebred filmmakers. Just as the major studios have come to depend on the international box-office for the bulk of their box-office returns, direct-to-video specialists know that their search for profits lies abroad, as well. Unlike the studios, however, high-profile franchises don’t grow on trees. Fortunately, audiences around the world also respond well to genres that A-listers feel are beneath them. If there’s still a stigma attached to features made specifically for the DVD, Blu-ray and PPV market, it hasn’t diminished the aspirations of a new generation of filmmakers who’ve learned how the play  the angles. Skin Traffik is a perfect example of this growing trend. By all of the usual standards, even those once used to judge drive-in and grindhouse fare, it isn’t very good. What multi-hyphenate filmmaker Ara Paiaya’s movie lacks in critical praise and mall appeal, though, it more than makes up for in action. Made at a fraction of the budget expended on each installment of The Expendables, Skin Traffik delivers wall-to-wall action and a list of stars who, while they may have lost their luster here, are remembered fondly for blasts from the past. It explains why the film’s hero, portrayed by the prolific Brit B-movie star, Gary Daniels, plays second fiddle in the marketing materials to such war horses as Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts and Daryl Hannah – last seen together 30 years ago in The Pope of Greenwich Village – Dominique Swain, Michael Madsen and Jeff Fahey. With a cast like that, there’s hardly any need for a screenplay … which, perhaps, is why Paiaya handled that chore, too. For the record, Daniels plays a hitman who retired after blowing an assignment in the worst possible way. Living in a tough section of a big city, Bradley decides that enough is enough after witnessing a prostitute being beaten by a pimp three times her size. Sensing that the prostitute’s partner will face a similar fate, simply for witnessing the thumping, Bradley takes her under his wings. This makes him a target for the pimp’s bosses and the Executive, who control the importation and exploitation of women smuggled into the city for one purpose, only. It’s on the higher branches of this twisted tree that Bradley locates Skin Traffik’s marquee attractions. If all that weren’t sufficiently crazy, Rourke reportedly gained 50 pounds for his role.

Sodoma: The Dark Side of Gomorrah
Gommorah, Matteo Garrone’s agonizingly realistic dissection of life among young aspirants to Naple’s vicious Camorra crime won the highest praise from American film critics when it opened here in 2008. Far less forgiving than such American gangland dramas as The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface, which romanticized certain aspects of organized crime, Gommorah proved to be too much for audiences here to handle. It was a huge success in Europe, however, where mob chieftains tend to maintain a lower profile than their American counterparts. Although it inspired an Italian TV mini-series, Gommorah was an unlikely candidate for parody. And, yet, that’s what Vincenzo Pirozzi and Corrado Ardone do in Sodoma: The Dark Side of Gomorrah, in which three guys named Ciro, Marco and Ettore attempt to land steady employment in the more quasi-legitimate areas controlled by the Camorra. Unfortunately, they hitch their wagon to a gangster who none of his peers takes seriously, but is dangerous enough to get them killed. One of his schemes is to dispose of toxic waste in the fires of Mount Vesuvius, which, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad idea. Although Al Pacino permitted the filmmakers to use several scenes from ”Scarface” to be inserted, free of charge, and it was named Best Comedy at the 2012 New York City International Film Festival, Sodoma: The Dark Side of Gomorrah’s reach isn’t likely to extend past hard-core fans of Italian genre movies and Gomorrah, in particular.

Big Eden: 15th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, Thomas Bezucha’s fairytale rom-dram Big Eden was released at a time when gay-themed movies were beginning to find acceptance here, if not in the mainstream, exactly, but as a commercial alternative to pictures in which LGBT characters were marginal players, at best. Its distributor, Wolfe Video, hadn’t waited for the term New Queer Cinema to be introduced by critic B. Ruby Rich, in 1992, to establish itself as a purveyor of videos to the emerging niche audience, largely through mail-order sales. By the time Big Eden made its way from the festival circuit to VHS and DVD, most independent video stores (remember them?) had reserved several shelves for gay and lesbian titles, not all of which maintained a tight focus on issues related to HIV/AIDS and exiting the closet. It would take the popular and artistic success of Brokeback Mountain and Milk for Hollywood to slowly open its door to LGBT-themed dramas. As appealing as it is, watching Big Eden today is a slightly disorienting experience. When New York artist Henry Hart (Arye Gross) learns that his grandfather has had a stroke, he rushes back to his wonderfully scenic Montana hometown, leaving his sales agent to oversee an important gallery opening. Just when we begin to gird ourselves for an onslaught of homophobic dialogue and the sound of closets being reopened, Bezucha reveals a Rocky Mountains Brigadoon that might have been founded by retirees from the Castro District. Not only is he welcomed with open arms by his grandfather and old friends, but he’s embraced by the preacher and local lay-abouts who might have been charter subscribers to Bear magazine. The principle issues faced by Henry involve determining how he will be welcomed by his childhood friend and first lover, Dean (Tim DeKay), now a father with two kids. He also must learn how to interpret the mixed signals sent to him by a handsome Native American, who cooks gourmet-style meals for his grandfather and him, but is too shy to admit his culinary interests to the guys who hang around the general store and post office. It’s harder for him to come out as gourmand than a gay man. Apart from a few tender kisses and a couple of gender-neutral waltzes, Big Eden would easily qualify for a “PG” rating. As Bezucha recalls in a newly recorded interview, the big achievement here was demonstrating that such a non-exploitative entertainment could exist alongside sexually explicit material and serious drama, without watering down the narrative.

Alleluia: Blu-ray
Angst: Blu-ray
Loosely based on the story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, already dramatized in Leonard Kastle’s disturbingly twisted 1969 romance, The Honeymoon Killers,  Fabrice Du Welz’ artistically gruesome Alleluia instead restages the crimes in Belgium and France. The couple’s victims are located through postings on social media. That’s how the desperately lonely corpse washer, Gloria (Lola Dueñas), connects with the candle-worshipping shoe salesman, Michel (Laurent Lucas), for a first date that goes as well as anyone could have hoped. When the morning comes, however, it’s clear that the single mother of a pre-teen daughter probably has bitten off more than she can chew. After Gloria agrees to cut Michel a check to cover a phony debt, we’re not surprised when the cad takes a powder. Not about to take this affront lying down, Gloria decides to track Michel down and demand retribution. Instead, they enter into an arrangement that includes working more elaborate cons on even more gullible women. When Michel is asked to move in with the women, he insists that his “sister,” Gloria, be given a room of her own, from which she’s driven mad with jealousy over the loud love-making taking place next-door. It’s enough to drive a proud woman to consider, well, murder. And, so it goes, until their path leads the Big Score: a magnificent farm owned by another single mother, who also makes the mistake of making too much noise during sex. Although the killings are quite graphic, Manu Dacosse’s exquisite cinematography allows Du Welz to juxtapose sex and violence in a way that demands we consider the killers’ point of view before our revulsion over their actions.The superb Cantalonian actress, Dueñas (Falling Star, Volver) contributes to our confusion by almost making her monstrous character sympathetic. The Blu-ray adds commentary with Du Welz; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; cast and crew interviews; and a short film film by Du Welz.

Gerald Kargl’s newly uncut and uncensored Angst also is based on an actual crime spree, this one perpetrated by Austrian mass murderer Werner Kniesek, in 1980. With slight variations on Kniesek’s spree, Erwin Leder (Das Boot) plays a maniacal killer, Psychopath, who, after being released from prison, feels driven to commit the same sort of crimes that put him there in the first place. He simply feels more comfortable behind bars than anywhere else. After one unsuccessful attempt to strangle a cab driver, Psychopath picks a random house to invade and slaughter everyone who makes the mistake of coming home before he changes his mind. Like Alleluia, Angst is so compellingly shot and composed that its artistry momentarily disguises the carnage taking place on screen. As if to argue that slasher films shouldn’t be able to get away with such diabolical tricks, Angst was effectively banned from view for three decades … everywhere. Fully restored, after 30 years, it hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock. As such, the natural audience for Angst probably will be limited to serious fans of John McNaughton’s unforgettable Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Kargl shares the spotlight here with the Oscar-winning Polish animator/cinematographer Zbig Rybczynski (“Tango”) and onetime Tangerine Dreamer Klaus Schulze. The Blu-ray package borders on the epic, requiring an appreciation of central European psycho-horror most humans simply don’t possess. For those who do, however, it includes a new Interview with Leder; less recent ones with Rybzcynski and Kargl, by Jorg Buttgereit (Nekromantik); commentary by Kargl and film critic Marcus Stiglegger; and an introduction by Gasper Noé (Irreversible).

The Jail: The Women’s Hell
Blue Rita
Hyde’s Secret Nightmare
Day 6
If there’s one thing more exploitative than a women-in-prison movie made in the Philippines during the 1970s, it’s a women-in-prison movie, made 30 years past the sub-genre’s Golden Age by the “Ed Wood of Italian filmmaking,” without Pam Grier. At the time The Jail: The Women’s Hell was filmed, writer/director Bruno Mattei probably already was being tormented by an undetected brain tumor. In the interviews included in the bonus package, one of the common recollections is a temper that erupted like storm clouds during the monsoons. When Mattei wasn’t screaming at cast and crew, however, he was as sweet and supportive as could be. Made in 2006, “The Jail” looks as if it were shot 35 years earlier, on a budget that made Roger Corman seem generous, by comparison. If the great 2-foot-9 Filipino actor and martial artist Weng Weng hadn’t died in 1992, he almost certainly would have been recruited for a cameo, at least. Otherwise, every women-in-prison trope and cliché found in such immortal titles as The Big Doll House, Women in Cages, The Big Bird Cage and Black Mama White Mama is repeated in “The Jail,” only several times cruder and without a hint of irony. In other words, it stinks … and not in a good way. The only actor resembling a star is Yvette Yzon, who, while not nearly as statuesque as Grier, probably logged more minutes of nudity in one film than the African-American dream-girl did in all four of her Philippine-made nightmares. Here, the jungle hellhole to which naughty women are sentenced is known as the House of Lost Souls. If anything, the warden is even more sadistic than earlier incarnations and the violence is significantly more offensive. Featurettes include “Acting for Bruno,” with Yzon and Alvin Anson, and “Prison Inferno,” with producer Giovanni Paolucci and screenwriter Antonio Tentori.

Spanish exploitation king Jess Franco made his share of women-in-prison epics during a career that spanned nearly 50 years and included more than 200 directorial credits. In fact, it would be difficult to name a subgenre of films that Franco didn’t exploit to varying degrees of artistic clarity. Blue Rita stands today as a prime example of soft-core Euro-porn from its mid-1970s heyday. Despite a plot that borders on the ridiculous, it excels in most of the areas that distinguished the category – including the early “Emmanuelle” chapters and films of Radley Metzger – from comparable American fare, which frequently amounted to nothing more than hard-core films edited to eliminate penetration and close-ups of genitalia. Blue Rita is set in a swinging strip nightclub, awash in psychedelic colors and featuring truly gorgeous dancers, who perform as if Twyla Tharp and Bob Fosse were taking notes in the audience,. When she isn’t dancing or diddling her dollies, the titular owner of the Parisian nightclub, Blue Rita (Martine Flety), is an operative for a Soviet spy ring. The club’s basement doubles as a dressing room for the dancers and a torture chamber for prisoners of interest to her handlers. To make the men talk, Rita doses them with a slimy green liquid that causes them to go into sexual withdrawal. Taunted with the promise of unlimited pussy, the prisoners inevitably spill the beans. Rita’s getting too old and tired for the game, so her bosses send in hot lesbian operatives to keep her from flaking out on them. Meanwhile, Interpol agents are anxious to infiltrate the operation. As these things go, Blue Rita is more erotic than most specimens in the subgenre. The musical score and cinematography are also good.

Domiziano Cristopharo dedicated his creepy 2011 psycho-thriller, Hyde’s Secret Nightmare, to Italian filmmaker Joe D’Amato, who was every bit as prolific as Franco and worked in as many different sub-genres. Inspired, as well, by the giallo movement, Hyde’s Secret Nightmare falls neatly in the same erotic-horror niche filled by D’Amato’s more popular offerings. At first, I was working from an assumption that the title was steering fans of the Jeckyll & Hyde legend to yet another entry in the repertoire. Instead, it refers to one Eva Hyde, who, as portrayed by the astonishing Roberta Gemma, embodies the film’s dark world of crumbling and corrupt institutions. Sadly, the horrors visited in actual nightmares rarely are relieved by dramatizations of sexual ecstasy, experienced by a woman who easily qualifies as one of the sexiest women on planet. Not all of the eroticism is limited to the female form, but the men are just plain weird. As nightmares go, however, Cristopharo’s doesn’t make much more sense than the ones we endure nightly, which too often are devoid of nudity. The DVD adds deleted scenes, a photo gallery, bloopers, a DVD-ROM comic and the “confessions” of Cristopharo and Gemma.

Also from Italy comes Day 6, in which writer/director Varo Venturi goes deep on the subject of alien abductions. I might have suggested keeping “Alien Exorcism” as the final title for this extremely complex exploration of the subject, but, having never seen a UFO or met an alien, what do I know? Massimo Poggio is reasonably convincing as Dr. Davide Piso, a scientist who uses hypnosis to get into the heads of thousands of people who claim to have been abducted. He’s come to the conclusion that some extraterrestrial races have been installing their active memories into the brains of humans they’ve abducted. It allows them to “live” through the victims in this dimension, while also tapping a uniquely human energy source: the soul. As if that weren’t nutty enough, after 18-year-old Saturnia insists on being hypnotized by the scientists, she assumes the personality of Hexabor of Ur. This alien entity traces his roots to Mesopotamia and considers himself a demi-god. Saturnia also appears to belong to a family of wealthy black aristocrats. The flakey stuff appears to be verified by new data and theories that push the boundaries of our belief system. The producers want us to believe that this merger of horror and sci-fi represents a new sub-genre: “sci-real.” A lengthy featurette uses scientists, theologians and scholars to further explain the points being made in Day 6. It’s more interesting than the movie, itself.

Mosquito: 20th Anniversary Edition: Blu-ray
Manos: The Hands of Fate: Blu-ray
The Return of Count Yorga: Blu-ray
When it comes to killer critter movies, I’ve always been of the opinion that mosquitos had a leg up on the myriad bugs, fish, mammals and other mutated and irradiated species enlisted for the sake of a few minutes entertainment on drive-in screens around North America. (Have they caught on anywhere else?) Through tens of millions of years, mosquitos have evolved into the prototype of the ideal movie monster. They have a history of transporting murderous diseases and possess stealth-like qualities that would be the envy of any military aircraft. Even when they’re easy to squash, the droplet of blood left behind tells us that much of the damage already has been done. A couple of nights ago, after watching Synapse Films’s Mosquito: 20th Anniversary Edition, I dreamt about mosquitos for the first time, maybe ever. The movie, itself, wasn’t particularly scary – only marginally better than the above-average Syfy thriller – but that’s how the power of suggestion works. Here, an alien space craft drops its waste into a lake in a national park that is popular with campers and chainsaw-wielding survivalists. The interstellar toxins are absorbed into the eggs distributed by motherly mosquitos, causing mutations in their larvae. The alien mosquitos, which, of course, feed on human blood, now are the size of drones capable of delivering packages for Amazon. In addition to not being particularly fussy about the orifices from which they draw blood or inject semen, the alien mosquitos truly are a force with which to be reckoned. The final showdown is about as frantic as one might expect, with Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface) reprising his iconic talent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Pop-culture fiends also might recognize Ron Asheton – a founding member of the Stooges – as Hendricks the Park Ranger. The Blu-ray adds audio commentary, deleted/extended scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, a stills gallery and “Bugging Out!: The Making of Mosquito.”

If Peter Bogdanovich hadn’t chosen Red River as the last movie to be shown in the Anarene theater featured in The Last Picture Show, he might have turned to Manos: The Hands of Fate, which was shot in nearby El Paso. As bad as any movie ever committed to film by Edward Wood Jr., “Manos” has at least as many legends attached to it as any film made by Orson Welles. The biggest whopper involves writer/director/producer/co-star Harold P. Warren, who is commonly dismissed as a west Texas fertilizer salesman on an ego trip the size of the Lone Star state, itself. In fact, Warren was manager of the American Founder’s Life Insurance Co., in El Paso, as well as an inventor and supporter of the local theater community. If he sold fertilizer, he was very good at his job. “Manos” was the result of a bet Warren made with screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who was in the neighborhood during a “Route 66” shoot. He felt as if he was eminently qualified to make a horror film and could do it on a budget of approximately $20,000 in 1966 currency. Of course, it would require skimping on everything from production values to using IOUs to pay the cast, but he did it. After debuting in El Paso and playing a handful of theaters in west Texas and New Mexico, “Manos” pretty much disappeared from the face of the planet. It would be re-discovered 20 years later and handed over to the geniuses behind “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” on which Joel and the ’bots included it among the worst movies they’d ever seen and accused Dr. Clayton Forrester and TV’s Frank of purposefully setting out to torture them. Thus, a cult classic was born. Not that it matters much, but the story involves an innocent family that becomes lost on a road trip through Texas and finds shelter at a remote farmhouse. The only apparent resident of the property is a strangely deformed man named Torgo, who insists he is watching the place for “The Master.” Turns out, the Master has lured the mother and daughter to the house to be used as sacrificial vessels for his harem of demon-worshipping wives in diaphanous gowns. The rest is sheer madness. Nearly lost, the original 16mm Ektachrome film elements have finally been unearthed and restored by Florida State graduate Ben Solovey, financed by a Kickstarter campaign. The Blu-ray adds commentary with actors Tom Neyman and Jackey Raye Neyman-Jones; the unrestored “grindhouse edition”; and featurettes “Hands: The Fate of ‘Manos,’” “Restoring the ‘Hands of Fate’” and “Felt: The Puppet ‘Hands of Fate’.”

While not in the same category of badness of “Manos,” horror-specialist Bob Kelljan’s The Return of Count Yorga demonstrates just how little creative effort is required in the creation of a sequel to an AIP flick, Count Yorga, Vampire, that became a surprise hit in 1970. In the original, a dashing vampire takes up residence in a mansion in a contemporary L.A. setting. As played with great gusto by Robert Quarry, the count has no trouble finding acolytes and nubile victims, in quarters of sunny Los Angeles no one could imagine being called home by a vampire lord. For the quick-turn-around sequel, Kelljan relies on the curative powers of the Santa Ana winds – huh? – to bring Yorga back to life and encourage him to return to L.A., this time in a rundown orphanage. Of all the women available to him as bridal material, Yorga chooses future Polaroid pitchwoman Mariette Hartley as being the most worthy. It also stars George Macready, Roger Perry and Craig T. Nelson in his screen debut. The Scream Factory Blu-ray adds commentary with film historian Steve Haberman and actor Rudy De Luca; a photo gallery; and marketing material.

Delusions of Guinevere
In her feature debut as writer/director/producer/actor, Joanna Bowzer sketches a sympathetic if darkly realistic profile of a former child star, Guinevere James, who, at 29, can’t deal with the fact that she is no longer a valuable commodity to casting directors. Hint: seriously overweight, she isn’t particularly adorable or talented, anymore. When Guinevere (co-writer Ariana Bernstein) receives an invitation to a 20th-anniversary special for her signature Gelee commercials, she is forced to deal with the conflicting feelings that come with reuniting with old friends and realizing that some, but not all of them have enjoyed successful professional afterlives. Despite her bad luck at auditions for which she arrives alarmingly unprepared, Guinevere thinks that enough people will remember her from her glory years to still be considered valuable to potential employers. It isn’t until Guinevere takes her geeky neuroses to You Tube that she begins to feel comfortable before an audience of her peers. The videos become so popular that social-media critics dub them, “Breakfast at Guinevere’s.” Attracted to her newfound fame, the same casting directors who couldn’t find a way to resuscitate her career begin to sense that they can parlay her Internet persona into something bigger. Maybe, maybe not, but it’s the first encouraging news Guinevere has heard in many years. As is suggested by the title, Delusions of Guinevere, the semi-talented actress will be given every chance to ignore the solid advice of friends and her former agent, now retired, and blow the opportunities presented her. Bowzer’s observant direction helps the movie maintain an even keel, even when some of the characters’ actions throw logic to the wind.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gone With the Wind
Despite repeated efforts to limit Lynyrd Skynyrd’s reputation to the Southern bands that followed in the enormous wake of the Allman Brothers, its songs continue to be played repeatedly on classic-rock stations and streamed to playlists assembled by three generations of fans. It almost doesn’t matter that most listeners are unaware of the plane crash that decimated the core of the band in 1977 or which incarnation of the unit is reprising the stirring rock anthem, “Free Bird.” I may not be anxious to ever hear “Sweet Home Alabama” again in my lifetime – ditto, Neil Young’s “Southern Man” – but I’ve never tired of hearing “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Saturday Night Special,” “I Know A Little,” “You Got That Right” and “That Smell.” If “Free Bird” pops up on one of my satellite-radio stations, I’ll sing along to it, again, for the thousandth time. It may not be my favorite band of all time, but their music makes me smile. In Sexy Intellectual’s Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gone With the Wind, rock historian Tom O’Dell puts the group under the same microscope he used the analyze the careers of musicians ranging from Lennon, McCartney, Jagger and Richards, to Sandy Denny, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse and Queen. Rather than rely exclusively on his own opinions, O’Dell has always used multiple sources and archival material to tell the story. Here, he’s accumulated seldom-seen film, new and vintage interviews, contributions from an esteemed panel of members past and present, location shoots, rare photographs, news reports and harrowing first-hand descriptions of the fateful plane crash. He reserves the tight focus for founding member, Ronnie Van Zant, which is as it should be. At 163 minutes, though, “Gone With the Mind” may be too long a slog for those whose only recollection of Lynyrd Skynyrd is the abbreviated version of “Free Bird,” used on AM stations, and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Indian Summers: Blu-ray
Danny Kaye: Legends
The Saint: Seasons 1 & 2
PBS: Frontline: Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty
When Calls the Heart: Year Two: The Television Movie Collection
Any faithful viewer of “Masterpiece Theater” probably could write a passable term paper on the tumultuous periods of time described in such British mini-series as “The Jewel in the Crown” and “Indian Summers.” Throw in such movies as Before the Rains, Sharpe’s Challenge/Peril, Staying On, A Passage to India, Gandhi, Water and Earth and you could probably fake a pretty good master’s thesis … unless, of course, your professor has seen the same movies and TV shows. Americans have left it to Hollywood to describe how the Southern aristocracy and their slaves functioned in anticipation of the Civil War and Reconstruction. For the time being, at least, Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave will have to stand as legitimate attempts to explain how things went so wrong for so long in the Land of the Free. The 10-part “Masterpiece” series “Indian Summers” is set against the sweeping grandeur of the Himalayas and tea plantations of Northern India, in the summer of 1932. Gandhi is once again in jail, but such an inconvenience isn’t enough to prevent representatives of the British Empire from pretending they’re in the Scottish Highlands on holiday. They gather once or twice a day at an exclusive club, where “dogs and Indians” are specifically excluded. Nonetheless, the stirrings of rebellion can be felt throughout the Raj, both on an empirical and personal basis. American audiences will be happy to learn that the history lessons are kept in the margins of the narrative, which seems more interested in reminding us of its kinship to “Downton Abbey” (in a good way). Julie Walters could hardly be more despicable as the manager of the club and puppet master pulling the strings on romances, affairs, scandals and exclusionary politics. Also good are Chloe Webster, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Rick Warden. The Blu-ray set adds an interesting making-of featurette.

MVD Visual’s second compilations of highlights from “The Danny Kaye Show” — “Danny Kaye: Legends” — brings together six classic episodes of the high-profile variety show, which ran from 1963-67 on CBS. Among the A-listers whose talents are on display here are Louis Armstrong, Lucille Ball, Tony Bennett, George Burns, Shirley Jones and Liberace. The collection also features performances by the Righteous Brothers, French songstress Mireille Mathieu, Vikki Carr, John Gary, Imogene Coca and series regulars Harvey Korman, Joyce Van Patten and orchestra leader Paul Weston. Even allowing for the 20/20 hindsight provided by nostalgia, “Legends” is an entertaining package.

When Shout! Factory/Timeless Media released “The Saint: The Complete Series” – all 5,560 minutes of it – patient fans knew that it would be available within a few months at more affordable prices, in seasonal installments. In something of an unusual move, “The Saint: Seasons 1 & 2” contains all 39 episodes from the first two stanzas. A timeless figure of intrigue and adventure since his creation by Leslie Charteris in 1928, Simon Templar has thrilled adventure aficionados with his exploits in a variety of media, including novels, movies, radio and TV, starring Roger Moore in the title role. Guest stars include Oliver Reed, Julie Christie, Honor Blackman and Shirley Eaton. Almost 50 years later, they hold up very well.

While Mexican law-enforcement officials and DEA agents worked feverishly to locate and arrest the most-wanted outlaw in North America –or, said they did — filmmakers Guillermo Galdos and Angus Macqueen got as close as anyone’s come to Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the drug kingpin known as “El Chapo.” The “Frontline” presentation, “Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty” touches all of the usual bases, speaking with key U.S. and Mexican officials tasked with finding Guzmán, while also landing rare interviews with his mother, senior members of his Sinaloa cartel and traffickers who operate by sea, air, land and underground tunnels. At one point in their search, the filmmakers found themselves locked up in a garage with a trafficker and hundreds of bricks of methamphetamine, ready to shipped to addicts across the border.

It seems as if I receive DVDs from Hallmark’s period series, “When Calls the Heart,” every other week. “When Calls the Heart: Year Two: The Television Movie Collection” is comprised of second-season titles “Trials of the Heart,” “Heart and Soul,” “Heart’s Desire,” “Awakenings & Revelations,” “Heart and Home,” “Coming Together, Coming Apart” and “With All My Heart.” Exclusive featurettes include behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew. “When Calls The Heart: Follow Your Heart” represents the beginning of new season. While Jack and Elizabeth’s relationship has cooled following their arguments in Hamilton, Jack is hot on the trail of a counterfeiter in Hope Valley.

Also new this week are “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Complete First and Second Seasons” and two sets from the “My Little Pony” family: “Equestria Girls” and “Equestria Girls: Friendship Games.” Both contain feature-length movies and bonus goodies.

The DVD Wrapup: Escobar, Manglehorn, People Places Things, Pee-wee… and more

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

Escobar: Paradise Lost: Blu-ray
The reputation of Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar – killed in a shootout with police almost 23 years ago – hardly needs any further mythologizing. Depending upon whom one asks, he either was a servant of Satan or a modern-day Robin Hood. Even though he once supplied about 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. and was worth at some $50 billion at the time of his death — taking into account money and gems that were hidden away before his death – Escobar courted loyalty by spreading his wealth to people who desperately needed financial help.  There seems to be no end to the movies, songs, books and television series based on a man whose legend also includes introducing stray hippos – escapees from his private menagerie – into Colombia’s delicate eco-system and possibly murdering a member of his soccer club, who made a costly mistake in a key match. In Andrea Di Stefano’s intense revisionist biopic, Escobar: Paradise Lost, we’re also led to believe that his generosity toward the citizens of Medellin didn’t necessarily extend to a Canadian surfer dude who couldn’t help himself from falling in love with Escobar’s niece. At the time, Nick (Josh Hutcherson) could be forgiven for not knowing the extent of Escobar’s control of the cocaine trade. Before meeting Maria (Claudia Trasiac), Nick’s interest in Colombia to his brother’s idyllic surf camp, built against a backdrop of blue lagoons and white beaches. Neither, though, is Maria fully aware of her kindly Uncle Pablo’s lucrative vocation or infamous reputation. It isn’t until Escobar makes a problem disappear for the campers – quietly, but with deadly efficiency – that Nick begins to fear it might be too late to avoid real trouble.

Benicio Del Toro is exceedingly credible as a man who has fulfilled his wildest dreams many times over, yet is willing to destroy everything and everyone he loves to remain unencumbered by shackles and bars. As agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration belong to close in on him, alongside the handful of Colombian officials he couldn’t control with bribes, the security blanket afforded him by hypocritical clergy, subservient politicians and overmatched local police would begin to shred. By injecting two naïve lovebirds into this story of monumental hubris gone awry, Di Stefano adds a layer of melodramatic fiction that, while cinematically valid, distracts us from the true nature of the beast. Romance is fine, in its place, but not when it’s used to manipulate emotions that have nothing to do with events already fully documented. What next, a telenovela? A better source for gut-wrenching drama would have been “The Accountant’s Story: Inside the Violent World of the Medellín Cartel,” written by Roberto Escobar, who kept the books for his brother and was imprisoned for 10 years. Despite being extremely well crafted, I was left with the feeling that, at its core, Escobar: Paradise Lost is simply a story about star-crossed lovers and, as such, could apply as well to Al Capone as Escobar. The making-of featurette is well worth a perusal, as it explains both the film’s conceit and the difficulty of the producing a movie in the Panamanian jungle. It should be noted, for the record, at least, that Escobar’s death had almost no effect on the amount of cocaine entering the U.S., just the direction from which it came.

Manglehorn: Blu-ray
Clutter
At 75, Al Pacino continues to deliver dynamic performances in movies – Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill and HBO’s Phil Spector and You Don’t Know Jack, notwithstanding — almost no one is going to pay to see, in theaters, at home or on airplanes. It isn’t that such recent pictures as Danny Collins, The Humbling, Salomé and The Son of No One can’t stand up to scrutiny or don’t show the actor in a positive light. For the most part, they have been positively reviewed. If anything the blame lies in extremely limited releases, ahead of lightly promoted send-offs in the after-market. If I were asked to guess, I’d say that Pacino’s appearance on posters and box covers is so intimidating that it frightens off casual browsers. (I wonder if they fare better in POV, where all of the selections are given equal weight.) In Manglehorn, as in other recent assignments, Pacino looks as if he’d just returned from an audition for a pirate movie and couldn’t be bothered with wigs or makeup. With his, by now, trademark modified Van Dyke, earring and a veritable forest of slicked-back hair he could pass for Keith Richard’s wingman. The look is less convincing on A.J. Manglehorn, a locksmith in a small Texas town who doesn’t go into work every day, but is always on call. Critics have described the character as being reclusive, but he gets around, usually with his fluffy-white cat in tow. Bank employees greet him with kindness when he pays them his weekly visit and he argues with friends over lunch at the local luncheonette. He also can be found some nights playing the slots at the local casino. It’s here that we learn that Manglehorn coached baseball as a younger man and favored more athletic boys over his son, whose interests were directed elsewhere. In fact, he still doesn’t seem particularly comfortable in the company of the seemingly well-off Jacob (Chris Messina) and his bourgeois trappings. The really troubling thing about Manglehorn, though, is his obsession with an old flame – the one who got away – with whom he carries on an unrequited correspondence. Jacob reminds him too much of his ex-wife and an unfulfilled expectations. On the occasion of his first official date with a friendly bank teller, wonderfully played by Holly Hunter, Manglehorn spends the entire dinner proclaiming his love for the long-gone Clara. Her disappointment is painful to watch. Director David Gordon Green (George Washington) uses it to demonstrate the old-man’s lack of compassion for anyone who isn’t feline or, possibly, no longer alive. Is his rudeness a functional of a debilitating illness or largely unchecked bad behavior? Whether we like Manglehorn or not, by the end of the movie Pacino has revealed as many facets of the man as he is likely to possess. Also good is Harmony Korine, who credits his former coach for teaching him everything he needed to know as he grew into manhood. Now a massage-club owner and part-time pimp, Manglehorn apparently once saw him as the son he wished he had. That chicken will come home roost as the movie progresses, as well. The movie’s eccentricity makes it difficult to recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Pacino’s work since, say, Ocean’s Thirteen.

The eccentricities of elderly people are explored yet again in Diane Crespo and Paul Marcarelli’s thoroughly offbeat study of a family on the brink of chaos. In Clutter, Carol Kane plays the matriarch of a Queens family that’s literally chocking amid piles of souvenirs, tchotchkes, unworn clothes, unusable appliances and just plain crap, which she began accumulating before her husband abandoned the family, citing lack of space. There’s a huge difference between being a hobbyist, who collects stuff that someday might be catalogued or traded, and a hoarder. Somewhere between those two points often can be found a pretty good story. Here, Crespo seems content to showcase an American family in extremis. Kane has made a long and successful career playing women, like Linda Bradford, whose emotional stability is frequently in doubt. Here, the evidence includes a water stain on the garage door, which she allows her neighbors to believe is the visage of the Blessed Virgin. Despite the miraculous apparition, the Bradford house has been cited by city officials as being a potential hazard to public health. The thought of parting with a single item makes her so apoplectic that her family doesn’t feel comfortable cleaning it up until she’s hospitalized for exhaustion. It’s there that she is visited by the specter of her husband, who offers some timely advice. Not surprisingly, the children have inherited the crazy gene from their mother. Charlie Bradford (Joshua Leonard) is an unemployed filmmaker, who began making home movies of his parents arguing over Linda’s then-hobby. Lisa (Natasha Lyonne) is a home health-care aide, who writes bad checks, shoplifts and wears a patch over one eye. Penny (Halley Feiffer) is trying to overcome her agonizing shyness by decorating homes in the precise and orderly fashion missing from her mother’s home. All of them must come to grips with the fact it’s now or never for them to clear the clutter from their own life or risk having it collapse on them. Also appearing are Dan Hedaya, Kathy Najimy and Maria Dizzia.

When Marnie Was There: Blu-ray
If, as speculated, When Marnie Was There turns out to be the final feature produced by Studio Ghibli, at least it means that the great Japanese animation factory went out on top of its artistic game. Based on a YA novel by Joan G. Robinson, it’s the first feature produced without the involvement of either Hayao Miyazaki (The Wind Rises) or Isao Takahata (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), which is the cinematic equivalent of fielding a Yankee lineup without Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig: formidable, but not invincible. Although Hiromasa Yonebayashi had hit a home run in his first at-bat with The Secret World of Arrietty, his name carries far less weight at the international box office. In the hugely expensive world of feature animation, it’s likely the loss of such marquee talent and lukewarm response to When Marnie Was There prompted studio investors to re-think its plans for the future. Theoretically, anyway, none of that should discourage viewers from sampling Yonebayashi’s excellent solo effort, which, if anything, skews younger than previous Ghibli releases. The protagonist, Anna, is a foster child whose asthma has contributed to a significant loss of self-confidence.  In her 12-year-old mind, she’s one of those unfortunate people who live outside the invisible magic circle to which most people belong and it’s caused her to withdraw into her art. Desperate for answers, her guardians are told that Anna might benefit from spending summer in a place with cleaner air and more open space than is available in Sapporo. Such conditions are readily available at the northern tip of Hokkaido, where relatives of her guardian reside. She naturally retreats to the marshes, where she can draw in seclusion. It’s there that Anna becomes attracted to an abandoned mansion — accessible when the tide is out – and makes friends with the decidedly western-looking blond girl, Marnie. Because she is the first person who accepts Anna on her own terms, Marnie represents the breath of fresh air her doctor has said she needs. Their friendship would be less problematic for the family entrusted with her well-being, however, if they could meet Marnie, in the flesh. It’s the kind of story to which ‘tweeners can easily relate, but may be a hard sell in animated form. The naturalistic artistry on display in When Marnie Was There is simply gorgeous, especially in hi-def. The English-language voicing talent includes Hailee Steinfeld, Kathy Bates, Ellen Burstyn, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly and Vanessa Williams. As is typical of Ghibli Blu-ray releases, the bonus package adds a pair of comprehensive making-of featurettes, storyboard re-creations, a behind-the-scenes look at the English voice cast and a selection of international marketing material.

People Places Things
Jemaine Clement has joined fast-frozen lamb chops, hobbits and frightening face tattoos and war chants as New Zealand’s most popular contributions to world culture. The gangly 6-foot-1 musician/actor, whose mother is Maori, was first brought to the attention of U.S. audiences as half of the quirky folk-comedy duo, Flight of the Conchord, and the HBO sitcom based on their attempt to crack the New York market. He’s since added his distinctive Kiwi-tinged voice to several animated features and appeared in supporting roles in Muppets Most Wanted, Men in Black 3 and Dinner for Schmucks. For the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek vampire comedy, What We Do in the Shadows, he shared directing, writing and acting duties with frequent collaborator Taika Waititi. If anyone had demonstrated the chutzpah to put James C. Strouse’s crowd-pleasing rom-com, People Places Things, into theatrical release after its festival run, Clement might have proven himself to be a box-office favorite, too. He plays Will Henry, an expatriate graphic-novelist, living in New York, whose world has begun to come apart at the seams like a bargain-basement hardball. Although Will would never be confused for fellow countrymen Russell Crowe or Sam Neill in the looks department, it defies logic that his wife, Charlie (Stephanie Allynne), would dump him for his even more unkempt and overweight pal, Gary (Michael Chernus), and that they would allow themselves to be caught having sex during their twin daughters’ birthday party. But, that’s the kind of humor on display here. Ever the sad sack, Will uses the incident to inform Strouse’s largely autobiographical work. He’s in such bad shape, actually, that one of his brighter students, the hugely dreadlocked Kat (Jessica Williams), tries to set him up with her mom, Diane (Regina Hall). Not at all a bad match, Will clearly is carrying a torch for his ex-, if only for the sake of the almost impossibly cute twins. Like one of those British rom-coms starring Hugh Grant, People Places Things puts its characters through their paces before devising an ending sure to satisfy everyone, including its audience. Anyone already familiar with Strouse’s previous work – Lonesome Jim, Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season – knows that it sometimes takes patience to get comfortable with his sense of humor.

Apartment Troubles
The more indie an indie gets, the more likely it is that one or more of the primary characters is certifiably crazy. In Jennifer Prediger and Jess Weixler’s Apartment Troubles, both of the protagonists display all the grace and finesse of baby birds forced to leave the nest before they’re able to fly. Clearly from upper middle-class backgrounds, Olivia (Prediger) and Nicole (Weixler) are profoundly co-dependent roommates in a Manhattan flat, whose electricity has been turned off for failing to pay the bills. They’ve also neglected to pay the rent and their landlord (Jeffrey Tambor) is no longer willing to accept free showers and implied sexual favors in lieu of monthly payments. Apparently, the young women are artists of one stripe or another, but business is too slow even to pay for cat food. When the poor thing keels over after digesting some poorly stored painting supplies, Olivia goes completely bananas. She convinces Nicole to call in a favor from her filthy rich father, who makes a private jet available to them for a cross-country flight home. (Why she simply didn’t ask for enough bread to cover expenses is a question left unanswered.) The only person waiting for them in Beverly Hills – after they accept a ride from a dangerously inebriated maniac (Will Forte) – is Nicole’s wildly eccentric aunt (Megan Mullally), who, when she isn’t producing shows like “American Idol,” is a practicing wino and sexual predator. After Olivia joins her in a show tune, she convinces the visitors to audition for her show. Instead of performing a number recognizable to most viewers, they come up with something so profoundly avant-garde that it wouldn’t last 10 seconds on “The Gong Show.” If the majority of the gags in Apartment Troubles are more disturbing than funny, the filmmakers were able to create characters that demonstrate genuine sisterly solidarity and unspoken communication. If only they had handed the characters over to someone who knew how to direct them, Apartment Troubles might have amounted to something greater than a Rorschach Test.

The Anomaly: Blu-ray
After failing to scare up any real interest at last year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Noel Clarke’s complex sci-fi thriller The Anomaly finally arrives here in a Blu-ray package that is several times more enticing than anything in the movie … unless one discounts the presence of model-turned-actress Alexis Knapp. Her conflicted prostitute, Dana, isn’t always naked, but, even when fully clothed, she’s the most interesting thing on the screen. Dana’s just one of several characters trapped in an overly complicated narrative that could have benefitted from a thorough rewrite. Clarke doubles as former soldier and PTSD patient Ryan Reeve, whose reward for his service to queen and country is a debilitating case of blackout amnesia. When Reeve regains consciousness, it’s only for 9 minutes and 47 seconds at a time – days or weeks apart – which doesn’t leave much time to figure out what in God’s name is happening to him. After determining that he’s been programmed to serve as a lethal operative for a mysterious organization, Reeve also must come to grips with the fact that he’s being targeted, as well. Because he doesn’t know what’s transpired during the blackouts, he isn’t always sure who’s on his side and who isn’t, when, and how to recognize them. As director, Clarke doesn’t make it any easier for us to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, either. The Anomaly aspires to be mentioned in the same breath as such brain-burners as The Matrix, Inception, Crank and Memento. Fat chance of that happening. Luke Hemsworth and Brian Cox also make their presences felt at various times in the narrative.

Road Hard: Blu-ray
Call Me Lucky: Blu-ray
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about comedians of the standup persuasion, it’s that life on the road is a living hell to be avoided at all possible costs, even if it means taking such stay-at-home gigs as talk- and game-show hosting, podcasting and appearing in really lousy sitcoms. On the other hand, finding regular work in a popular, well-written series is the comedy equivalent of stumbling upon the Holy Grail on a hike through the Santa Monica Mountains. In his nearly 20-year career, loose-cannon comic and social provocateur Adam Corolla has done everything worth doing as a professional comedian, as well as some things that are meant to be funny, like busting crooked builders on Spike TV’s “Catch a Contractor.”  His new film, Road Hard, appears to have been informed by every high and low point he’s experienced in the last two decades.  In it, he plays middle-age entertainer Bruce Madsen, whose ability to attain gainful work as an actor or TV host is fading rapidly. His reputation as a one-time bigshot still attracts customers to the Podunk comedy clubs into which he’s booked by his hideously bewigged agent, Barry “Baby Doll” Weissman (Larry Miller). Baby Doll tries to find satisfying work in Hollywood for Bruce, who’s still nursing the wounds of an ugly and tortuously embarrassing divorce and needs the bread for their daughter’s college tuition. Sadly, he’s too vain to be satisfied warming up talk-show audiences for his famous pal (Jay Mohr) or performing at corporate gatherings, without insulting audience members accidentally or intentionally. Corolla’s fans should be able to get past his character’s abrasive, self-pitying approach to underemployment long enough to enjoy watching Bruce endure the budget-chain hotels, broken contracts, coach seats on a puddle-jumpers and subsisting on junk food. Others, not so much. It’s easier to take when Bruce kvetches over breakfast with friends played by David Alan Grier and Philip Rosenthal, who are experiencing the same career doldrums. What’s that about misery loving company? Just when some viewers would voluntarily donate the money it would cost Bruce to buy the rope necessary to hang himself, the screenplay provides a new lease on life. Some viewers will see the solution coming from a mile away, but welcome it, nonetheless. Corolla’s faithful might find it to be too schmaltzy for their acid tastes or, worse, Disneyesque. The credit for pulling it off belongs to Diana Farr, an actress who’s always been equal parts fire and ice, and does a nice job here as the woman who comes into the comic’s life from out of the blue. Wisely, she makes Bruce makes him work very hard for her acceptance of him. Also adding some sparks to the proceedings are Howie Mandel, Illeana Douglas, Larry Clarke, Windell Middlebrooks, David Koechner, Christopher Douglas Reed, Dana Gould, Sam McMurray, Brad Williams and other familiar funny-faces. The DVD adds a making-of featurette and bits with Bryan Cranston. Because Road Hard was financed through crowd-sourcing, the closing credits are almost ridiculously long … longer, in fact, than most comics are ever allowed on the late-night talk shows.

Plenty of well-known comedians are featured in Call Me Lucky, Bobcat Goldwaithe’s sometimes funny, more frequently heart-breaking profile of Boston comedian and club owner Barry Crimmins. A product of the 1960s counterculture, he’s continually channeled his anger at government-sanctioned hypocrisy and lack of positive social change into an extremely angry satirical voice, more strident even than Lewis Black. His passion and fire often is directed at child abusers and institutions that inadvertently save them from prosecution. Even with his generally churlish and self-destructive demeanor, Crimmins has influenced an entire generation of Boston-area comedians. It wasn’t until he revealed himself to be a victim of terrible childhood abuse that they understood one of the reasons, at least, that their mentor was so obsessed with the Roman Catholic Church, which has protected countless pedophiles from prosecution. Crimmins found a national platform in Congress at the dawn of the Internet age, when he confronted the leader of AOL on the company’s complicity in providing space in unmonitored chatrooms for pedophiles and purveyors of pornography involving children. The more the AOL executive denied his claims, the more vigorous and pointed Crimmins’ attack became. While not admitting culpability, the company would change its self-policing policies dramatically after the hearing. Among the comics testifying in his defense are Margaret Cho, Lenny Clarke, David Cross, Marc Maron, Patton Oswalt, Kevin Rooney Jr., Jimmy Tingle and Steven Wright.

The Only Real Game
Golden Shoes
With the baseball playoffs in full gear, might I suggest something entertaining to kill time during a long rain delay, besides the usual videos of bloopers and miraculous plays? Mirra Bank’s fascinating documentary, The Only Real Game, takes viewers to roughly the same unlikely region as Disney’s 2014 fact-based sports drama, Million Dollar Arm, in which agent J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) stages a contest for Indian cricket players interested in trying out for a Major Leagues baseball team. Here, the remote Indian state of Manipur has a longer, if slightly more obscure relationship with the sport Babe Ruth called “the only real game in the world.” In fact, Manipur may be best known to trivia nuts as the place where polo was introduced to British colonialists. World War II buffs should have no trouble locating the former autonomous kingdom – one of many in the region – and immediately recognizing how it might have played a key role in the Allies push to deprive the Japanese of their foothold in Burma, as well as a staging area for flights over the Himalayas to China. As you might already have guessed, American soldiers and pilots stationed there spent much of their free time playing baseball, frequently with makeshift equipment. When local men, women and children weren’t providing necessary services to the GIs, British and Indian troops, they studied the game with rapt attention. The equipment left behind by the soldiers would require almost constant repair or replacement by reasonable facsimiles thereof. A couple of decades later, the story of baseball in Manipur reached the New York-based non-profit venture, First Pitch, which, in turn, contacted Major League Baseball International and Spalding Baseball. They not only provided new equipment, but also a pair of former players to coach current players and encourage new ones. They also attempted to explain the many nuances of the game and its rules to people whose native tongue would be foreign even to fellow Indians. Among the surprising things we learn about baseball in Manipur is that women play a central role in the organization and training of teams. The film doesn’t ignore a political situation that is as ugly as anywhere else in the world, where separatist groups long to control their own destinies. In Manipur, several such groups are fighting government troops, police and each other for control of the state, which the king annexed to India after the war. Since then, martial law has been a fact of life for citizens, as have unfettered police brutality and unusually high rates of HIV/AIDS and unemployment. Then, there is the occasional sacred cow that decides to take a nap in the outfield.

By now, it takes a lot for a sports-inspired fairytale to break away from the pack and make an impression on critics, let alone audiences with plenty of other things to do with their money. Lance Kawas’ family-friendly Golden Shoes starts in the usual way, with an undersized 8-year-old, Christian Larou (Christian Koza), who’s coming to grips with the fact that he isn’t likely to realize his dream of making the national soccer team. His father is a soldier, who recently went MIA in Afghanistan, and his mother soon will become incapacitated in an automobile accident. While she’s recuperating, Christian is taken in by their Jekyll/Hyde neighbor, Frank (Eric Roberts), who has a financial interest in seeing the soccer team do poorly. Against all odds, the coach (David DeLuise) shows his sympathy by letting Christian play every so often, sometimes at the expense of Frank’s son. Pretending to be nice to Christian, as a way to insinuate himself into the heart of the boy’s lonely mom (Dana Meyer), he takes him to a shoe store, where he asks the clerk to show him the cheapest possible soccer cleats. Of course, the crappy-looking shoes possess just enough magic to turn Christian into the second coming of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. Kawas does a nice job navigating the story around all the usual clichés associated with such underdog tales. He couldn’t avoid all of them, but our enjoyment of Golden Shoes doesn’t depend on huge surprises. If a few tears are jerked, they flow naturally.

Blunt Force Trauma: Blu-ray
Westerns don’t come any more revisionist than Blunt Force Trauma, a contemporary tale of a gunslinger, John (Ryan Kwanten), who may or may not push his luck too far by the time the final credits roll. Cop-turned-filmmaker Ken Sanzel combines elements of Fight Club, Cockfighter and the Wii game, “Fast Draw Showdown” to form a conceit that only makes sense to a lawman who’s had their life saved by a bullet-proof vest. Yeah, it’s that simple and that dumb. Duelists wearing Kevlar vests stand in opposing circles in a ring or a long pit once used for changing oil. At the clank of a metal bolt on the concrete floor, they will open fire on each other, aiming strictly at the Kevlar vests on their chests. The idea, then, is to force an opponent into submission, simply through the powerful impact of the bullets, one of which normally is enough to knock a normal-sized police officer on his butt. Here, it sometimes takes more than the allotted six bullets to keep the loser from returning to the circle and firing back at his foe. Money is wagered on the outcome, of course, and anyone accidentally shot outside the Kevlar shield is either declared winner or dead. John is on a winning streak that he expects will lead him to the reigning champion, Zorringer, who lives on a hilltop somewhere in South America and is played by Mickey Rourke … naturally. The closest thing resembling a plot here is John’s largely professional relationship with a steaming hot shootist, played by normally dainty Frida Pinto, who’s seeking revenge for the death of her brother. Maybe, for a sequel, the participants can trade their six-guns for Tasers or bean-bag guns. Fact is, though, Blunt Force Trauma is an extremely well made movie that looks better than it has any right to be.

White Shadow
Nothing I’ve seen in genre fiction comes close to equaling the unspeakable horrors perpetrated in the name of religion, superstition and tribal custom in real life. As hard as it must be for documentarians to confront such significant issues as female genital mutilation and excision, honor killings, ritual executions by torture, the scourge of HIV/AIDS and Ebola, genocidal wars and the violent persecution of LGBT citizens, it’s just that difficult for audiences to watch them play out on screen as fact or fiction. Noaz Deshe’s excruciating drama, White Shadow, depicts yet another unspeakable practice, this one perpetrated by unconscionable ignorance, greed and bigotry. It is the story of Alias, one of many Africans with albinism who’ve been hunted from birth, like so many elephants and rhinos, because of bounties put on naturally occurring physical characteristics. In Tanzania, where the movie is shot, witch doctors have been known to pay as much as $75,000 for an entire corpse and $6,000 for individual body parts hacked from the bodies of murdered albinos. The “conjure men” use them to make potions they insist will bring wealth and good luck to their customers. A U.S. survey conducted in 2010 found that, while most people in Tanzania are Christian or Muslim, 93 percent said they believed in witchcraft. At least 74 people with albinism have reportedly been murdered in the east African country since 2000. In the same time period, only 10 people have been convicted of murder. Earlier this year, Tanzania banned witch doctors from practicing their juju. For White Shadow, Deshe was able to recruit first-timer Hamisi Bazili, whose albinism ostensibly has put a target on his back, as well. After witnessing the brutal murder of his father, Alias is sent by his mother to the nearest large city. Although largely protected from persecution there, Alias finds it difficult to survive doing odd jobs. After he visits a shelter for young people with albinism, he returns to the bush with a younger boy, with ambitions of becoming a witch doctor, himself. The competition for customers is intense, however. Along with Bazili’s hauntingly realistic performance, White Shadow’s impact is enhanced by Deshe’s near-documentary approach to the material. The DVD adds valuable interviews and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers
In an experiment that harkens back to Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” reports for CBS News, college students Greg Grano and Sarah Sellman hit the road in American Bear to test the hospitality of average American citizens, who they had never met and, by Hollywood standards, anyway, are decidedly unremarkable. The idea was to approach complete strangers and, after a bit of conversation, ask if they knew where they could bum a place to sleep that night. The reception was generally cordial, even if the person being interviewed couldn’t personally accommodate them. It helped, of course, that Greg and Sarah had a concept to sell – the route was based on visiting disparate towns named Bear – and a camera that suggested that 15 minutes of fame was just around the corner. The countryside is beautiful and most of the people we meet have stories of their own to tell. I wasn’t terribly surprised by the results, if only because the towns visited aren’t beaten down by crime news every night on the local news, as viewers are in most large cities. The findings would be even more credible if one or both of the travelers was African-American, Hispanic or a hippie. The DVD adds material trimmed for length.

The Timber: Blu-ray
Anyone who ranks Jerimiah Johnson among their favorite movies should find something to like in The Timber, a Western that captures what it must have been like to spend a winter in the upper elevations of the continent, without such amenities as indoor plumbing, forced-air heating, hot-water heaters and satellite dishes. After being left high and dry by their psychopath father – a miner, who, when he ran out of luck and money, killed his laborers – two brothers resort to bounty hunting to save their property from being foreclosed by the bank. It’s the dead of winter in Alaska (a.k.a., Romania) and the women folk have been left behind to fend for themselves. The lads are plenty game, but the woods are full of men wearing head-to-toe animal skins and wielding Bowie knives longer than a baby’s arm. After being ripped off repeatedly by the banker, they’re offered the bounty that’s been put on their father’s head. Apart from being an exquisitely shot movie, there’s more than enough blood-soaked action in The Timber to keep hard-core Western fans from getting bored. I wouldn’t vouch for its accuracy, but, what co-writer/director Anthony O’Brien’s story lacks in narrative skill, he more than makes up for in atmosphere. The Blu-ray adds commentary with the director, interviews and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Beyond the Mask
Burns Family Studios, the company behind Beyond the Mask and Pendragon: Sword of His Father, bills itself as being committed to producing “quality, Christ-centered action-adventure films, because we believe stories can touch hearts, and Christ can change lives.” This, alone, wouldn’t make it unique among producers of faith-based material. What sets it apart, so far, is that the action doesn’t support dystopian or apocalyptic themes, related to end-times prophesy.  “Pendragon,” was set at the end of the Roman period in Britain, circa 411 AD, while Beyond the Mask takes place in Philadelphia, immediately before the ratification of the Declaration of Independence. In a wild historical contrivance, the potential for widespread rebellion prompts the head of the East India Company, Charles Kemp (John Rhys-Davies), to develop an elaborate plan to sabotage the Second Continental Congress, using barrels full of gunpowder and electronic detonators that Benjamin Franklin (Alan Madlane) might already have patented. Hoping to thwart the plan is a former assassin for the company, William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney), who’s only recently turned to God for redemption. Things get complicated for the swashbuckling Reynolds when he falls for Kemp’s alluring blond niece, Charlotte (Kara Killmer), who can’t imagine her uncle to be such a dastardly fellow. Considering that most of director Chad Burns’ budget probably was invested in costumes and casting, Beyond the Mask, offers a solid 103 minutes’ worth of “family” entertainment, and it demonstrates marked improvement from the 2008 “Pendragon,” which was more of a DIY affair. While some in the Christian film-production community might slight Burns’ films for not banging the bible as loudly as possible, it would be difficult for members of the target audience to mistake the message or not be entertained. The DVD adds interviews and background material.

Gravy
We Are Still Here: Blu-ray
Eli Roth Presents The Stranger: Blu-ray
Nocturna: Blu-ray
Navy SEALs vs. Zombies: Blu-ray
Tremors 5: Bloodlines
Earthfall
Anyone feeling nostalgic for such funkadelic cannibal flicks as Eating RaoulParents, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 and such grotesque Italianate fare as Cannibal Holocaust should run, don’t walk, to find a copy of Gravy for their Halloween viewing pleasure. Those with weaker stomachs for such fare probably will want to steer clear of this slice of hipster horror from James Roday and Todd Harthan (“Psyche”). Supposedly influenced by an incident that took place at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, co-writer/director Roday imagines a scenario in which a trio of costumed flesh-eaters (Jimmi Simpson, Michael Weston, Lily Cole) blockade themselves inside a nearly closed taco emporium, ahead of a trick-or-eat banquet whose menu is comprised of the owner, chef and wait staff. The “tricks” involve playing such games as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon and a William Tell archery contest. The meal’s ingredients are to be provided by Paul Rodriguez, Gabourey Sidibe, Gabriel Luna, Lothaire Bluteau, Molly Ephraim and Sutton Foster. If the humor ranges from darkly macabre to infantile, at least the actors seems to be having fun chewing the scenery, as well as the prosthetic limbs. Also making an appearance is Sarah Silverman, as a bunny-eared convenience-store clerk who develops a crush on the cannibal in a Robin Hood costume. As they say in the funnies: It is what it is.

Far more conventional an entertainment is We Are Still Here, a haunted-house mystery with several tantalizing trope-twisters. Revealing almost anything that happens after the first 15 minutes of expository material would spoil everything that follows. It’s safe to say, however, that a couple still traumatized by the death of their teenage son in a car crash decides to move to the New England countryside to try to start a new life. It doesn’t take long for Paul and Anne (Andrew Sensenig, Barbara Crampton) to learn that their new home comes with a history that their real-estate agent neglected to mention. In fact, it once served as a funeral home. When they visit a local pub for dinner with friends, they’re greeted with the same warmth accorded Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper when they stopped for breakfast in a redneck café, during Easy Rider. Unlike most other genre flicks these days, the cast of We Are Still Here is comprised primarily of adults, who’ve been around the block a couple of times before the events described in the film transpire. The Blu-ray package adds an informative commentary with writer/director Ted Geoghegan and producer Travis Stevens, and behind-the-scenes featurette.

Eli Roth lends his formidable brand to The Stranger, a revisionist vampire flick written and directed by rising horror star Guillermo Amoedo, with whom he partnered on The Green Inferno and Aftershock. Cristobal Tapia Montt plays the mysterious Martin, who, one day, arrives in a small town to kill his wife, Ana (Lorenza Izzo), with whom he shares an unfortunate blood malady that makes them thirsty for blood. Unlike most other such creatures of the night, whatever serum that passes for blood in his body also has the capacity to heal. Before he gets an opportunity to find Ana, though, he’s set upon by a trio of local punks, one of whom is the son of a corrupt cop. Beaten to a pulp after he challenges the thugs to do their worst to him, Martin finds shelter in the home of teenage graffiti artist and his freaked out mom, who informs Martin that Ana has died and is buried in a nearby cemetery. Believing his only release from the horror to come is to commit suicide — easier said than done for the undead – doesn’t appreciate it when the bad cop comes after him, thinking he’ll squeal on his son. Is it relevant that Ana was pregnant the last time Martin found her noshing on a still-warm human corpse? Perhaps. While The Stranger isn’t particularly scary, the gore factor should satisfy some genre enthusiasts. In an interview in the Blu-ray package, Amoedo has some fun explaining his rationale for casting English-speaking Chileans to play Canadians here. South America is ripe for exploitation by American producers seeking fresh talent. The Stranger is far from perfect, but, at least, it’s different.

In Nocturna, first-timer Buz Alexander takes full advantage of southern Louisiana’s abundant supply of empty mansions, rotting fishing shacks and hoodoo-on-the-bayou vibes, some of which have already proven their value to producers of horror flicks anxious to take advantage of Louisiana’s generous post-Katrina tax breaks. Although it more closely resembles a pilot for a television series than a theatrical film, Nocturna is stylishly made and the characters are creatively drawn. While investigating the disappearances of dozens of kids, NOPD detectives Harry Ganet and Roy Cody are led by a survivor to the hideout of the Molderos, a group of merciless vampires who feed on young blood. The detectives’ lives are rescued from the Molderos by a more benevolent trio of ancient vampires, who despise the fiends but require something of a quid pro quo for further considerations. Only in New Orleans, right? Blond bombshells Mariana Paola Vicente and Estella Warren add to the intrigue, when Harry develops a taste for some strange and ancient fruit.

Is there a greater sin than wasting a perfectly good title and concept? Not in Hollywood, there isn’t. In fact, it should be illegal. In Navy SEALS vs. Zombies, an elite team of battle-hardened warriors is summoned to Louisiana – this time, to Baton Rouge — when the Secret Service loses contact with the Vice President, who’s in town for a campaign stop. Besides having more resources available to them than local police and National Guard troops, the SEAL team members are significantly more buff, photogenic and capable of dealing with roving gangs of zombies. You can guess the rest. How cool would it have been if the zombies were comprised of undead Al Qaeda fighters, led by a seriously decomposed Osama Bin Laden, who avoided capture as they shuffled their way across the Rio Grande? Border Patrol agents could have been pre-occupied that day with protecting Republican presidential candidates posing for photo ops on its muddy banks. It took a while for the Islamic commandoes to make their way from Nuevo Laredo to Big Easy, of course, but Bin Laden would be determined to avenge his assassination by SEAL Team 6. And, besides, he had already grown bored sampling the virgins assigned to him in heaven. Given that several of the cast members actually are former SEALs, both sides would be highly motivated foes. Also along for the ride are Ed Quinn (“Eureka”), Michael Dudikoff (“American Ninja”), pro wrestler Chad “Gunner” Lail, Molly Hagan (“iZombie”), Olympian Lolo Jones and former NBA star, Rick Fox. It marks the directorial debut of Stanton Barrett, a former NASCAR driver and still-active stuntman.

After receiving a M.F.A. from Yale’s esteemed School of Drama and appearing in 171 episodes of “Family Ties,” as ex-hippie dad Steven Keaton, Michael Gross probably couldn’t imagine a time in the future when his name would be just as associated with survivalist Burt Gummer in the 25-year “Tremors” movie and TV franchise. (He also played mine owner, Hiram Gummer, in the 2004 prequel, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins.) But, hey, that’s show biz. In the fifth edition, Gummer’s hired to capture a deadly AssBlaster — the third and final stage of the Graboid life-cycle – now known to be terrorizing the deserts of South Africa. Gummer and his new sidekick, Travis Welker (Jamie Kennedy), don’t always agree on the tactics, but Welker manages to negotiate a sizable bit of funding for Burt’s TV show in exchange for dealing with the infestation. Burt probably didn’t need much convincing, however. Tremors 5: Bloodlines continues the tradition of combining action with humor, which has pulled the series through the doldrums when the giant worms didn’t do the trick. The Blu-ray adds deleted and extended scenes, outtakes and “Tremors 5: Behind the Bloodlines.”

Earthfall is a standard-issue SyFy product, with death and destruction following in the wake of a catastrophic intergalactic event no one could have possibly anticipated. It takes a small army of gallant teens and C-list actors to prevent our beloved planet from being dragged into the void by the magnetic pull of a rogue planet, which tears through our solar system carrying killer meteors in its wake. Kids just discovering sci-fi are likely to enjoy Earthfall more than anyone else. It teams freshman filmmakers Steven Daniels and Colin Reese, and a no-star cast that includes Joe Lando, Michelle Stafford, Denyse Tontz, Pressly Coker and Lou Ferrigno Jr.

TV-to-DVD
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special: Blu-ray
Nickelodeon: Out of the Vault Christmas Collection
Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)
PBS: Particle Fever
PBS: Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail
PBS: Earth: The Inside Story
While it isn’t common, anymore, to hear Pee-wee Herman’s name mentioned in the same breath as “great family entertainment,” there’s no question in my mind that the Blu-ray edition of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: Christmas Special” deserves a place on the same shelf as holiday specials hosted by dozens of other pop-cultural icons. (In the early days of television, holiday variety shows hosted by big stars were more prevalent than Westerns.) More so, even, than Pee-wee’s weekly show, the 1988 Christmas show can be enjoyed by anyone able to recognize such time-honored performers as Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Charo, The Del Rubio Triplets, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Whoopi Goldberg, Magic Johnson, Grace Jones, k.d. lang, Little Richard, Joan Rivers, Dinah Shore and Oprah Winfrey in themed cameos. If Pee-wee isn’t always the perfect host, it’s only because his creator, Paul Reubens, has allowed him enough leeway to play little pranks on his friends and break the “fourth wall” with snarky in-jokes. As always, the delightfully cluttered and warmly colorful playhouse, itself, is as much a part of the fun as anything else. The running gag involves Pee-wee miscalculating of the number of gifts he’ll need to cover everyone on his Christmas list. It’s so long that, if fulfilled, there won’t be enough presents for all the other kids in the world. When Santa Claus pleads for help, Pee-wee reluctantly learns a lesson about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s the one that doesn’t include the preparation of lists, trips to the mall, threatening kids with chunks of coal or camping outside the nearest big-box store on Thanksgiving and fighting for bargains. Another bit of misdirection occurs when a choir of uniformed Marines is revealed, in the bonus interviews, to be the Men’s Choir of UCLA, which stood in for the servicemen, who were otherwise engaged. Also lending a hand are such regular “friends” as Cowboy Curtis (Laurence Fishburne), the King of Cartoons (William Marshall), Reba the Mail Woman (S. Epatha Merkerson), Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) and Mrs. Rene (Suzanne Kent). The terrifically entertaining package adds commentary, several interviews and making-of featurettes.

The archivists at Shout! Factory and Nickelodeon were asked to work overtime for “Out of the Vault Christmas Collection,” which arrives with 16 cartoon episodes, instead of the usual 10 for previous “Out of the Vault” compilations. A big selling point here is the ability of parents of young children to share the Nicktoons shows and characters they loved with their kids, who may have grown accustomed to the more digital look of current fare. The collection contains holiday favorites from such shows as “Hey Arnold!,” “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” “The Angry Beavers,” “Rocko’s Modern Life,” and “CatDog.”

There’s only one more month left to wait for The Peanuts Movie, the first theatrical presentation featuring the Peanuts gang in 35 years and the first since the death of Charles M. Schulz, in 2000. The last full-length feature to hit theaters was Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!), which has been made available this week. In it, Charlie Brown and Linus are invited to be part of a student-exchange program that will take them to Europe, with Snoopy and Woodstock in tow. At another nearby school, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are participating in the same program. While the girls are welcomed in the home of a little farm boy named Pierre, Linus and Charlie Brown are surprised to find their destination, the Chateau of the Mal Voisin, deserted. Charlie is disturbed because he expected to be welcomed by the mysterious French girl who sent him the invitation to visit her in France. These and other questions will be answered in the next 75 minutes. It’s interesting to learn that the château is based on the one in which Schulz was billeted at for six weeks in World War II. “Bon Voyage” is the only Peanuts feature film to include adults on-screen with speaking parts, rather than the usual “wa-wa-wa” trombone sound. Kids can’t help but notice how the animation here differs from the CGI style in the new movie.

This week’s selection of documentaries from PBS is heavy on science and none of the three DVDs qualifies as kid’s stuff. Among them, “Particle Fever” is especially timely. This week, scientists from Japan and Canada won the Nobel Prize in physics for key discoveries about cosmic particles that whiz through space at nearly the speed of light, passing easily through Earth and even our bodies. They showed that these tiny particles, called neutrinos, have mass. “Particle Fever” follows six brilliant scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider, marking the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of the planet, pushing the edge of human innovation.

The title, “Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” was inspired by the Australian Aborigine legend that posits there’s a world beneath this one, where the Dragon sleeps … warm, coiled and ready to spring. It even goes on to advise against waking the Dragon. Without knowing its name or scientific number, the native people had long ago identified properties that make uranium different from other elements and used pictographs to locate it for future generations. That’s the starting point for a scientific journey that leads to Los Alamos, Hiroshima, Ukraine and beyond. Host physicist Dr. Derek Muller, the creator of the YouTube channel, Veritasium, goes to great lengths to demystify uranium for us, even using a soccer ball left behind at a deserted playground in Chernobyl. When he accepts an invitation to tour the underground hospital in which the first-responders died – and their clothes still register high levels of radiation – we’re able to share his anxiety over the highly dangerous assignment.

Do kids still believe it’s possible to dig a hole to China and walk out the other side? I did, although the closest I ever got before giving up was two feet. The PBS documentary, “Earth: The Inside Story,” explains, in ways even a child might grasp, why such an experiment would yield nothing more than a backache. Cameras take us as close to the center as anyone as gone, revealing volcanic vents, which ultimately could reveal the origins of earthly life. Adults, too, will gain a greater appreciation of the forces that continue to shape our planet, imperceptibly and violently. Drawing on the latest scientific research, the doc features the geologic forces that built our planet, from its sun-hot core to its life-sustaining atmosphere. It also lends scientific perspective to a question raised in light of recent earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and extreme weather: Is Earth undergoing a period of increased geological upheaval, in addition to global warming?

The DVD Wrapup: The Connection, Aloft, Duke of Burgundy, Patricio Guzman and more

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

The Connection: Blu-ray
It probably would have been impossible for Cédric Jimenez and his writing partner, Audrey Diwan, to duplicate in The Connection all of the thrills and heart-pounding intrigue William Friedkin built into his groundbreaking police thriller, The French Connection, even though they’re based on the same series of events. Instead, they succeeded in telling the story of a major heroin bust, this time from the perspective of the French police and heroin traffickers. There was no reason to correct the record or re-write history, either. Instead of the characters played so well by Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey, Jimenez and Diwan focused their attention on the deadly game of cat-and-mouse played in Marseille, by the port city’s dogged magistrate, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), and the charismatic Corsican drug kingpin, Gatean “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). If the names don’t ring a bell, American moviegoers should have no trouble remembering Dujardin’s Oscar-winning performance in The Artist, while arthouse buffs might recall Lellouche from Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One and Little White Lies. Neither is there an extended, pedal-to-the-metal chase scene here. Instead, we’re rewarded with plenty of gangland violence, outstanding police work, political corruption and millions of very real dollars at stake.  Present-day Malta makes a reasonable facsimile for Marseille, which, in the early 1970s, was the place where a highly organized network of criminals collected opium from Turkey and turned it into heroin, destined for New York. The smack was hidden in what appeared to be cans of French food products and loaded into a van, which made the trans-Atlantic journey in the cargo hold of a freighter, before being snuck past Customs agents, into the waiting hands of New York mobsters and veins of American junkies. Michel is as determined to put an end to the French connection, on his end, as Doyle and Grosso were on their turf. The biggest difference in the two movies’ takes on the same crime is Jimenez’ decision to make Michel’s family an integral part of the drama, which, of course, it was. His wife, Jacqueline (Céline Sallette), is, at first, deprived of her husband’s attention at home and, then, threatened by some very serious Corsican thugs. Eventually, the long hours and pressure on his family took its toll on Michel. It wasn’t until New York police intercepted one of the trucks and they invited him to participate in the interrogation that Michel was able to exploit the weakest links in the chain of command. It allowed him to intimidate the politicians and police officials who were protected the mobsters and tipping them off to raids. What Michel didn’t know was how much pressure was being exerted on Gatean by his customers in the U.S., who were being wooed by traffickers from Southeast Asia and Latin America with lower prices for heroin. At the same time, pressure was put on Turkish leaders to reduce or eliminate their production of morphine, ostensibly used for medicinal purposes. It raised the ante on Michel and his family, without him even knowing it. For viewers, the suspense is palpable. The stylish Blu-ray presentation adds a making-of featurette and deleted scenes.

Aloft: Blu-ray
I would have been attracted to Aloft, simply for the presence of Jennifer Connelly, Cillian Murphy and Mélanie Laurent, a French actress of astounding beauty who made a big impression in Inglourious Basterds. Even without their participation, however, I would have rented Aloft just to see how Peruvian writer/director Claudia Llosa would follow up her stunning debut features, Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow. It didn’t long for me to figure out Aloft wasn’t going to be me my cup of tea, however. Even by all of the usual arthouse standards, it soon become apparent to me that this was a movie, or should I say, film, that was going to demand more of my attention than I was prepared to give it. The last things that left me as far out at sea from Minute One were the bewildering HBO series “John From Cincinnati” and “The Leftovers.” Nearing its second season, “The Leftovers” began Season One three years after 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappeared, leaving survivors and viewers to wonder what could have precipitated such a cataclysmic event. The revelation, several episodes later, of a Lynchian cult named the Guilty Remnant, whose followers wear white, take vows of silence and chain-smoke cigarettes, added little to my comprehension of its creators’ intentions. The opening scene in Aloft reveals a line of cars and trucks, some of whose passengers, we’ll learn, hope to hear their names announced as winners of a lottery conducted by an enigmatic healer, known as “The Architect.” Connelly plays the mother of two boys, one of whom carries a falcon that crashes into a structure made of sticks when it senses that the boy is in danger, thus disrupting the ritual. Sacrilege. On the way back home, the bird is shot in flight by a random jerk, again for no good reason. Sometime soon, the Architect informs Connelly’s Nana Kunning that she’s the real healer, even she’s unable to prevent her youngest son from drowning in a tragic accident. Despondent, Nana blames the older boy, Ivan, effectively banishing him from her life.

Twenty years later, Nana is a renowned artist and healer, while her estranged son has grown into a falconer of some distinction. Jannia, a journalist, insinuates herself into the lives of Nana and Ivan, for no apparent reason than to facilitate an ending that some viewers will consider to have been worth their investment in time and patience. The amazing thing about Aloft is the stark environment in which it’s set. Like the similarly chilly The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm and Affliction, most of the movie takes place in late fall or the dead of a Manitoba winter, on and around a large frozen lake, where global warming is nothing more than a cruel joke. Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc makes the conditions look every bit as forbidding as they probably were during the location shoot. I imagine that the frigid environs hold some deeper meaning as to the tortuous feeling of abandonment Ivan feels toward Nana and the grief left over from the death of his brother. I don’t recommend tackling Aloft without first becoming acquainted with Llosa through Madeinusa and The Milk of Sorrow, movies whose strange magic feels as indigenous to the Andes as llamas and coca leaves. An interview with the filmmaker would have been a nice addition to the Blu-ray package, but, I’m afraid, the producers decided to cut their losses by leaving us in the dark.

Famous Nathan
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Cohen Media’s delicious documentary, Deli Man, and Film Movement’s mouth-watering Famous Nathan, or, for that matter, the even more obscure If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent. Those who aren’t, however, might require a translator to savor the films’ full flavor. Deli Man uses the rise and gradual decline of delicatessen dining to comment on the spread of Jewish culture in 20th Century America. Famous Nathan puts a tight focus on a single Jewish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, whose single-minded resolve turned a Coney Island hot-dog stand into a New York landmark and model for fast-food restaurants everywhere. He did it so future generations of Handwerkers – whose thick accents might require a screening of If These Knishes Could Talk to understand – would have a place of their own to go to work. Or, not, as the case might be. Nathan’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, appears to have created Famous Nathan as much to get a handle on the complexities of his cantankerous family as to memorialize the man who made it all possible. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the story of how Nathan made his way from Eastern Europe to Brooklyn is as interesting as how the restaurant that bears his name became as familiar a destination as Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden. The archival material that informs Famous Nathan necessarily describes what Coney Island meant to the millions of New Yorkers who flocked to it on hot days and weekends, when it served the city as a natural air-conditioning system. Less interesting is the discussion about the business’ evolution from a single dining institution to a brand, struggling to keep pace with dozens of other chains not as closely identified with a single product or location. Neither does the revelation of family secrets and other spilt milk add much to our enjoyment of the documentary. It’s the interviews with former employees and longtime denizens of Coney Island – now a far cry from the attraction it was in its heyday – that enliven the proceedings and paint a more essential portrait of a quintessential New York character.

Zipper: Blu-ray
One of the dubious things about movies in which prominent people are brought down by their own sexual malfeasance is that they assume viewers share the same disdain for the characters’ frailties as the filmmakers. The same goes for the media, which want us to be appalled by their reports of misbehavior by politicians and celebrities and revelations about escort services that would be legal in many parts of the world and a few counties in Nevada. Unless the accusations involve rape, sex slavery or children, generally speaking, the titillation dissipates after a few hours and is gone. Hypocrisy is something else entirely. It’s as good a subject for exploitation in the movies as any, but rarely dealt with the precision it requires. In Zipper, Sam Ellis (Patrick Wilson) is an ambitious Louisiana prosecutor, who finds himself turned on by an attractive blond intern (Dianna Agron). The pope would have trouble resisting the young woman’s advances, but Sam manages to avoid anything more provocative than a mushy kiss. Not only are workplace dalliances taboo, but, if caught, his political career would die a quick death. Still, he was tempted. A few days later, he appears at a deposition where an even more stunning woman – this time, a high-price escort – makes googly-eyes at him. Despite the fact that he’s married to a woman, Jeannie (Lena Headey), who’s every bit as hot as the escort and dotes on him, personally, professionally and sexually, Sam decides that he can’t live another minute without making an appointment at the same service as is being investigated by the feds. His first date with a pro goes well enough, we’re led to believe, to rate liaisons with as many different women as he can afford. As addictions go, heroin is nothing compared to strange pussy in anonymous rendezvous … at least, for this poor sap. Sam tries to jog away his cold sweats, but can’t shake the need for sweet young things. Things begin to go south for him when he grows paranoid over the possibility that he’s being spied upon – he is, but not for the same reasons he imagines them to be – and he makes the mistake of rushing into oncoming traffic, where he’s hit by a car. While he’s still in a haze from pain-killers, Jeannie, already knowing the answer, asks why he was carrying an envelope containing hundred-dollar bills, while outside a hotel in the middle of the afternoon. Busted, but to what end? Cognizant of the disappearing act that occurs when the wives of prominent philanderers seek a divorce, Jeannie is forced to weigh the options open to her. Should she risk the loss of access and prestige that comes with being a politician’s wife – Sam’s being groomed to fill a vacancy in Congress – or seek a new life, somewhere out of the spotlight? Maybe, too, Jeannie can use jiu-jitsu to spin the situation to her advantage. Meanwhile, Sam is still not sure if he’s being followed, who may have hired the tails and what they’re trying to discover about him. If he guesses wrong, it could be as hazardous to his career as being caught in a twin spin with Heidi Fleiss and the Mayflower Madam. Despite some fine acting and a plausible narrative, Zipper left me with the feeling that Sam was being set up for a fall more by co-writer/director Mora Stephens than, say, the pair of FBI investigators, grubby reporter (Ray Winstone), political fixer (Richard Dreyfuss) and father-in-law who have a stake in his career. In her commentary, Stephens says that her story was informed by her fascination with addictive behavior and how Bill Clinton’s self-destructive tendencies may have impacted Hillary’s personal and political aspirations. That’s fair, as far as it goes. However, it ignores the fact that Jeannie and Hillary are portrayed as being two very different people and none of the former president’s “bimbo eruptions” were triggered by a woman who looked like Dianna Agron. The great unsolved mystery of Bill Clinton remains why he would risk everything (allegedly) for Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and Kathleen Willey. JFK, at least, shot for the stars with Marilyn Monroe. Rounding out the cast are Christopher McDonald, John Cho, Alexandra Breckenridge, Elena Satine and Penelope Mitchell. Besides commentary, the disc adds deleted scenes.

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron: Blu-ray
With a global box-office haul of a staggering $1.40 billion Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn’t need any further endorsement from me. Joss Whedon’s juggernaut enters the DVD/Blu-ray market on Friday – the day typically reserved for theatrical openings – for an assault on the autumnal marketplace. With the recent release of Furious Seven still setting records, video retailers and VOD outlets should be all smiles these days. My only recommendation is for consumers not to expect the overall experience to fit comfortably on their itty-bitty cellphone screens. This time around, things go horribly wrong when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner try to jump-start a dormant peacekeeping program called Ultron. It takes the combined talents of Earth’s mightiest superheroes to stop the A.I. monster – played by added starter, James Spader — from enacting his terrible plans. Along the way, they confront two mysterious and powerful newcomers, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and meet an old friend, Vision (Paul). Special features include commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and making-of featurettes. Bettany Viewers new to the franchise may need a scorecard to keep track of the many new and old players.

Unexpected: Blu-ray
Fans of “How I Met Your Mother” are the target audience for Cobie Smulders’ portrayal of a pregnant high school science teacher in Kris Swanberg’s Mumblecorian melodrama, Unexpected. Since leaving the long-running show, last year, she’s also carried the lead in Andrew Bujalski’s barely released Results, and appeared as Maria Hill in Avengers: Age of Ultron,Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Smulder’s Samantha Abbott teaches at an inner-city school in Chicago that’s scheduled to be closed in the summer. The discovery of her unplanned pregnancy fills Samantha with the usual range of feelings experienced by working women who have yet to fulfill their career dreams, but aren’t necessarily averse to becoming a mom at 30. Once her husband, John (Anders Holm), gets used to the possibility of having to support a family on a single income, he turns into the kind of guy who embraces traditional expectations of how their child should be raised. His disappointment at Samantha’s decision to pursue a museum job that would begin a month after her delivery date both surprises and disappoints her. Neither is her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) very sympathetic to her concerns. Meanwhile, at school, her only prize student, Jasmine (Gail Bean), is pregnant and in dire need of solid advice. She’s decided to carry the child to term, based mostly on a promise from her marginally employed boyfriend to remain with her through thick and thin. Yeah, right. On the plus side, Samantha thinks she has arranged for Jasmine to attend the University of Illinois and live in family housing. Alas, that idea doesn’t work out so well, either. What Jasmine considers to be a broken promise splits the two women at the worst possible time. Unexpected received mostly positive reviews in its limited release, with the exception of a few critics who felt as if Jasmine’s plight was framed to fit the perspective of white screenwriters Megan Mercier and Swanberg, upon whose own life the picture is loosely based. As sympatico as they are with both their characters, it does occasionally feel as if they’ve stacked the deck against Jasmine, in order to goose the narrative.

Miles to Go
The West Side of Los Angeles is lousy with the children and grandchildren of well-known entertainers and industry executives. Most manage not to embarrass their elders, but few can say they didn’t find the leg up to be helpful. Some seem to go out of their way not promote the fact that they’re related to someone – the Gummer sisters, for example – while others count on their publicists to help audiences and critics make the connection for them. Such is the case with Quincy Rose, the author, director and star of the micro-budget rom-com, Miles to Go. In it, the beyond-neurotic protagonist, Miles, has decided that he’s a failure at romance and compensates for it through masturbation and regular massage-parlor visits. He’s a mess, but in the recognizably comic mold of characters created by Albert Brooks and Woody Allen. At 6-foot-2 and covered with tattoos, Miles is a frustrated writer who doesn’t easily fit the classic definition of a nebbish, even if that is how he’s been drawn. He also is surrounded by friends, a therapist and a sister whose advice ranges from supportive to crudely inappropriate. The central dilemma here, however, is his on-again/off-again relationship with Julia (Jen McPherson), who can’t seem to decide if she’s repulsed or attracted by Miles. That she seems to enjoy teasing him with regular booty-calls, before pulling the rug out from under him in the morning, only adds confusion to his neuroses. As perplexing as Julia is, however, in McPherson’s capable hands, she’s the only multidimensional character in the movie. In his portrayal of Miles, Rose demands that we recognize the creative debt he owes his father, Mickey, and “godfather,” Woody Allen,” who grew up together and collaborated on What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, Take the Money and Run and Bananas. Moreover, as we’re informed on IMDB.com, his mother and Woody’s sister, Letty Aronson, are best friends. At a formative age, Miles played small parts (“Guy on Bench” and “2d AD”) in Allen’s Whatever Works and Melinda and Melinda. If that ain’t nepotism, then Mayor Richard J. Daley didn’t say, “If a man can’t put his arms around his sons and help them, then, what’s the world coming to?” This isn’t to suggest Miles to Go is devoid of humor, only that Rose might want to shelf the nebbish routine for a while.

9 Full Moons
There’s almost nothing less interesting for audiences not comprised of angst-ridden hipsters than movies that are full of them. Although the characters’ woes seem important to them in the moment, to paraphrase Rick Blain, in Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of a couple little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The tragically hip characters in Tomer Almagor’s brooding rom-dram 9 Full Moons can’t seem to get their acts together, even if they have enough money to live in Los Angeles’ coolest neighborhood and can afford endless supplies of booze, drugs and ironic headwear. Frankie (Amy Seimetz) is a longtime alcoholic and emotional basket case, who hangs out among the indie-music crowd in Silver Lake and frequently accepts rides home with the wrong men. Lev (Bret Roberts) is a self-tortured hunk, who aspires to becoming the kind of uncompromising sound engineer who rejects demands for commercial appeal. They meet very un-cutely at a neighborhood bar and, after a rocky start, decide to see if opposites really do attract. It will take a substantial jolt of reality to get Lev and Frankie thinking of something greater than themselves, however. Just when it seems as if they might be growing up, Almagor pulls the rug out from under them. Even so, Silver Lake is the kind of place where everything is possible, so it pays never to give up on love. There’s nothing wrong with the performances here, especially a guest appearance by Donal Logue as a belligerent outlaw country star. Cameos by Pamela Adlon and Harry Dean Stanton don’t hurt, either.

Eaten Alive: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Death’s Door
A Plague So Pleasant
Queen Crab
Deadly Revisions
Following in the crimson wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s fact-based creature feature Eaten Alive couldn’t avoid the intense scrutiny of horror fans and critics. It box-office performance suffered from unrealistic expectations and spotty distribution. Forty years later, though, Eaten Alive remains as entertaining as any genre picture of the period. In addition to being inspired by the story of Joe Ball — the Alligator Man from Elmendorf, Texas – it has everything one would expect from a Southern Gothic chiller: killer reptiles and rats, a demented innkeeper, moon-illuminated swamps, sharply honed garden tools, a brothel with an African-American hostess, children in danger, lots of nudity and a rogue’s gallery of dubious characters, played by Neville Brand, Carolyn Jones, William Farley, Stuart Whitman, Mel Ferrer and a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund. Among the drive-in dollies and alligator bait are Janus Blythe, Marilyn Burns, Crystin Sinclaire and Roberta Collins. After Collins’ hideously wigged strumpet is drummed out of her job at the local whorehouse – she refuses to submit to demands for anal sex by Englund’s redneck douchebag – she seeks refuge in a spooky hotel run by a scythe-wielding freak (Brand), whose pet gator (or crocodile, depending on whom one asks) resides in a small pond on the side of the ramshackle building. The proprietor doesn’t cotton to prostitutes, so, after interrupting her bath, makes her his first victim of the evening. Despite its remote location in the boonies, the hotel also is found by the slain prostitute’s father and a woman who’s traveling with her cute and surprisingly fearless 6-year-old daughter. Because the entire film was shot on a soundstage at Hollywood’s Raleigh Studios, most of the action in Eaten Alive takes place in a relatively claustrophobic environment. For my money, the mechanical alligator deployed here is more realistic than the dozens of others that have followed in its wake. If the title, Eaten Alive, doesn’t ring a bell, older viewers might remember it as “Horror Hotel,” “Horror Hotel Massacre,” “Legend of the Bayou,” “Murder on the Bayou” or “Starlight Slaughter.” Ownership changed hands several times and, apparently, every new distributor thought its title held the key to success. They were wrong. Arrow Video’s 2K transfer cuts through the darkness of the Gothic conceits and the musical and dialogue tracks have also been given a fresh polish. The Blu-ray bonus package adds commentary with co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, stars Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon; interviews with Hooper, Janus, Reardon, Englund and Burns; vintage marketing material; a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Steven; and very entertaining chat with a close relative of the South Texas bar owner on whom Eaten Alive is loosely based.

From the ever-adventurous Wild Eye Releasing, A Plague So Pleasant is a zombie movie that owes almost everything to a close study of George Romero’s ground-breaking “Night of the Living Dead.” What separates Benjamin Roberds and Jordan Reyes’ debut feature from the pack, however, are a couple of interesting conceits that advance the sub-genre in unexpected ways. A cease-fire in the apocalyptic war between zombies and humans, which Romeo first chronicled in 1968, has been declared and appears to be holding. The undead shuffle their way through town, seemingly oblivious to the humans among whom they circulate. For their part, the living are legally obligated to tolerate the presence of the zombies in their midst. Anything to avoid another costly war. Because the corpses of dead combatants have become so prevalent, cemeteries have been turned into free-range preserves, surrounded by high fences. Relatives can visit their deteriorating loved ones, but shouldn’t expect their affection to be returned. Of course, not everyone is satisfied with the new status quo. Clay Marshall (David Chandler) has grown tired of taking his sister Mia (Eva Boehnke) to visit her dead boyfriend Gerry, for whom she’s even knit a new wool cap. His roommate Todd (Maxwell Moody) would like to hook up with Mia, but it’s difficult to compete with an undead memory. Clay knows that anything he does to eliminate the corpse from the equation theoretically would break the ceasefire and start a new war. How far is Clay willing to go to straighten out his delusional sister? It’s at this point that filmmakers elect to change the color palette entirely, shifting out of the black-and-white mode to something different. While it’s an interesting decision, they lacked the budget to avoid all of the clichés as they approached the climax. It’s amazing, though, how far they were able to stretch the $3,000 they reportedly had to make A Plague So Pleasant, especially in the special makeup effects, some of which are truly grotesque.

The easiest way to explain Crab Queen to anyone who hasn’t seen its cheesy cover is to suggest that it’s a made-for-Syfy movie that wasn’t made for Syfy. It opens on a serene lake, where a cabin doubles as a laboratory for a mad scientist working on a growth serum. His precocious daughter, Melissa, steals samples from her dad’s experiment to feeds it to her “best friend,” a fresh-water crab, which resembles a Potamon ibericum, several thousand miles away from its natural habitat. Twenty years after an accident destroys the lab, spewing chemicals into the lake, Melissa still resides on the property, protecting its secrets with a gun and riot grrrl attitude. One night, a childhood friend chances upon Melissa (Michelle Miller) in the woods, dancing in the moonlight, either nude or in a gauzy nightgown. (It’s shot from a distance, unfortunately.) Now a Hollywood movie star, Jennifer Kane (Kathryn Metz) not only is the closest thing Melissa has for a friend, but she also enjoys cock-teasing the local rednecks. Jennifer convinces Melissa to come out of her shell long enough to visit a nearby honky-tonk. Sensing her discomfort, Goliath the gigantic crab makes its presence known by doing what monster critters do in movies like Crab Queen. Given the creature’s gender, it should come as no surprise when iridescent eggs begin to litter the landscape, promising even more mayhem to come. There’s nothing in the movie to suggest that writer/director Brett Piper (Bacterium) has ever watched a genre flick enhanced by CGI technology that he’s wanted to copy. Because Crab Queen is old-school all the way, it can be enjoyed for its camp value, if nothing else. Bonus features include a pair of making-featurettes, a blooper reel, commentary with Piper and producer Mark Polonia and trailers for some of Piper’s previous films, all of which fall into the same category as the semi-legendary Birdemic.

There is a certain subgenre of horror that covers movies that describe what happens when writers and filmmakers find themselves stuck in the same nightmare worlds inhabited by their characters. Typically, they are severely blocked or depressed to the point where schizophrenia rules their waking life. In freshman filmmaker Gregory Blair’s Deadly Revisions, genre favorite Bill Oberst Jr. plays novelist and filmmaker Grafton Torn, who awakens from a coma with large chunks of his internal data base missing. In an effort to recoup his memories, he accepts a friend’s invitation to hole up in his remote lakeside cabin. Even under the supervision of a psychotherapist, this strategy never seems to turn out right. This is especially true when dealing with the kind of artists whose best dreams are everyone else’s nightmares. Not surprisingly, either, the writer’s imagination dredges up images of horrors he’s created, but buried deeply within his subconscious mind. Among them are a hooded figure, a possessed doll, a zombie and hangman’s noose. It would be difficult for a sane person, living in a noisy household, to handle, but the setting only amplifies the sound of things that go bump in the night. Oberst’s presence, alone, makes everything better. Bonus features include trailers and a blooper reel.

And, speaking of faces that go bump in the night, there’s the frightening visage of one Tommy “Tiny” Lister. At a muscular 6-foot-5, the former pro wrestler and basketball player would only be a slight underdog in a fistfight with King Kong and, in Death’s Door, he’s been given facial makeup that would scare the grin off of the Joker. He plays the doorman at a haunted mansion, where a dozen young men and women have been invited to boogey until the cows come home. Like the Hotel California, however, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” It seems to have been modeled after Hollywood’s Magic Castle, where there’s a secret behind every door and hallways that lead to unexpected places. Here, you can substitute “unexpected” for “horrifying.” The gag here is that the guests all have connections that date back to an ill-fated performance by a magician named Mesmer (Obba Babatundé). It would be a stretch to say that Kennedy Goldsby’s Death’s Door breaks any new ground in the haunted-house sub-genre, but the jolts are reasonably unpredictable and the actors are enthusiastic enough. Bonus features include a “Shorty Wassup” music video, by Sizzol Pop with Sean Samar; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and the personal accounts by cast and crew members of ghostly encounters on the set of Death’s Door, reputed to be a haunted house.

The Duke of Burgundy: Blu-ray
Wasp
Anyone who believes that a work of cinematic erotica requires nudity to be truly sexy hasn’t seen Peter Strickland’s sensually riveting, The Duke of Burgandy, which relies on delicate lingerie, experimental music, subtle visual effects, intricate set designs and superb acting to accomplish in 15 minutes what 50 Shades of Grey and 9½ Weeks couldn’t pull off in four hours of combined running times. Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Borgen”) and Chiara D’Anna (Berberian Sound Studio) hardly seem to be acting, as they take their bourgeois characters, Cynthia and Evelyn, to places most actors wouldn’t go, even if the nudity is limited to a fleeting glimpse of a nipple escaping a silky nightgown. It doesn’t take long to see that writer/director Peter Strickland is playing games with our first impressions. Evelyn is a maid in the ivy-covered estate owned by Cynthia, a widely respected butterfly researcher. Evelyn is completely subservient to her mistress, who demands she repeat simple chores – scrubbing her dainty britches by hand, always missing one frilly panty — and refrain from speaking. We aren’t really all that surprised when Cynthia finally opens herself to her servant’s caresses and careful massaging of legs in shiny black stockings. As time goes on and chores are repeated in the precise order that they’ve been performed previously, we see that Cynthia is following a script written by her submissive lover. The interplay between the two women truly is hypnotic, enhanced, as it is, by a lingerie wardrobe that makes the Victoria’s Secret collection look like a pre-Valentine’s Day sale at Sears. When Evelyn decides that she trade the plush comfort of Cynthia’s bed for an antique wooden box only a few feet away from where her mistress sleeps, it’s impossible not to wonder where pleasure ends and pain begins … and vice versa. Unlike the butterflies in their collection, neither woman seems pinned to or by their fetish of choice. Strickland intentionally has left open the question as to whether Cynthia and Evelyn relate exclusively to women. By focusing on the dynamics and details of their relationship – and excluding male characters, entirely – Strickland allows viewers to focus entirely on what’s happening to them on screen and not what might happen when things get too weird for the apprentice, as was the case in both 50 Shades of Grey and 9½ Weeks. It’s the sensuality that exists in the moment — like the fleeting beauty of a butterfly or moth in flight — that transcends the medium. Strickland accomplished something similar with the amazing audio palette in Berberian Sound Studio. The attention to sensual detail even extends to the conceit of adding a perfume credit (Je Suis Gizella) alongside that for lingerie designer (Andrea Flesch) and ethereal musical contributions by Cat’s Eye. If the film harkens back to 1970s European erotica, with its gauzy cinematography and soft-core sex, well, it’s almost certainly intentional.

The sensuality in Philippe Audi-Dor’s Wasp is provided primarily by the spectacularly beautiful scenery of Gordes, Provence, in southeastern France. To call it idyllic is to understate the obvious. Olivier (Simon Haycock) and his lover, James (Hugo Bolton), are staying in a family estate overlooking the valley for the summer, essentially doing nothing except luxuriating in the sun. Both men seem comfortable with their sexuality and, therefore, viewers don’t sense impending danger when the recently dumped redhead, Caroline (Elly Condron), is invited to join them for a while. Seemingly, without raising a finger, Caroline’s mere presence causes a rift between the two men, however. The first fissure becomes visible when Olivier becomes upset with all the attention paid to their guest by James, who seems only to feel sorry for her. The dynamic reverses itself when James becomes concerned with Olivier’s obsession over Caroline’s presence and subsequent rapprochement. He even goes so far as to demand of Olivier that he define what being gay means to him. Although she looks as if she would burn to a crisp if she stayed in the sun more than two minutes without a hat, Caroline isn’t nearly as harmless as she appears to be. Bored to the point where she prefers being mischievous to reading and swimming all day, she decides to take out her unhappiness with men, in general, by gently flirting with Olivier. At one point, Caroline reveals her unsupported breasts to him by changing her shirt in front of him. It’s a game intended to test the gay man’s response to a sight that technically shouldn’t have any effect on him, and it doesn’t. It’s when James walks in on them, clearly uptight, Caroline knows that she’s set the hook. The tension that grows out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness is palpable and not at all fun to watch. As drama, though, it works pretty well. Audi-Dor’s script sometimes sputters as it struggles to convince us that James and Olivier’s relationship is sufficiently fragile that wee ginger lass could come between them. In only her first feature, Condron looks as if she has a long career ahead of her in British rom-coms and BBC mini-series. The DVD adds several interviews with the actors and director, as well as a commentary track with Audi-Dor.

37: A Final Promise
Adam Webb is a successful goth-rocker, living in a spectacular Malibu aerie overlooking the ocean. Almost by definition, goth-rockers shouldn’t feel comfortable in such splendid surroundings, but Webb is only killing time until his 37th birthday, when he expects to commit suicide. He’s been tortured by the untimely death of his brother for many years and the number, 37, hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles. Before that can happen, though, Webb wants to deliver one last album. Instead, Adam falls in love with an ethereally beautiful woman, Jemma Johnstone (Scottie Thompson), he meets after a show, but is warned against pursuing by her sister, Christina (Tricia Helfer). Although Christina comes across as a groupie, she doesn’t trust the heavily tattooed musician to be anything but trouble for the fragile Jemma. As it turns out, Jemma is slowly dying from an unusually early onset of ALS. In true Hollywood fashion, Jemma’s plight reveals something bright and hopeful in Adam. As Jemma’s candle begins to burn out, 37: A Final Promise demands of Adam that he consider the ramifications not only of his own suicide, but also Jemma’s plea for an assisted death. It is a subject very much in the news these days, of course, and co-writer/director/Randall Batinkoff handles it with appropriate sensitivity. Batinkoff was inspired by the true story of Guy Blews, as described in his autobiographical, “How Angels Die.” Before becoming a lifestyle adviser, Blews was lead singer for the band, Monrow.  He backs up Adam in the band Wendigo on lead guitar. “37” isn’t particularly credible as drama, as it too frequently comes off as disease-of-the-week movie on MTV. Bruce Davison isn’t bad as a psychic, who sees the kinds of things his customers might not want to know. Also prominent are Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”), Kate Nauta (“Transporter 2”), Leon Robinson (“Cool Runnings”) and the rocker, Shavo (System of a Down). The DVD adds the music video, “No Answer,” by Dark Chapter. Cinematographer Wes Cardino does a particularly nice job capturing the natural beauty of Malibu, when the local surfers aren’t beating up outsiders and owners of beachfront property aren’t allowed to prohibit visitors from the sand owned by taxpayers.

Docs-to-DVD
Five Films by Patricio Guzman
Meeting ISIS
Souvenirs of Bucovina: A Romanian Survival Guide
A Murder in the Park
Few genres have benefitted as much from advances in filmmaking technology than documentaries. The smaller the camera and less obtrusive the sound equipment, the purer the product … or so the theory goes. Certainly, we’ve seen the benefits of digital cameras in covering such historical events as the resistance movements in Burma (They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain) and China (Disorder), which were shot by citizen documentarians using handheld equipment and smartcards. The introduction of lightweight 16mm cameras, in the 1960s, had a similar effect on independent filmmakers pursuing the cinéma vérité approach to non-fiction cinema. No greater demonstration of the possibilities afforded by 16mm cameras could be found than in the films of Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, who almost single-handedly delivered both the truth behind his homeland’s peaceful socialist revolution and of the violent, CIA-sponsored counter-revolution against it in 1973. As proof of the impact his films had on the military regime, Guzmán was rounded up with thousands of other suspected radicals and held in a soccer stadium. Upon his release, he left for Europe and didn’t return to Chile until General Augusto Pinochet was rendered powerless, 25 years later. It was during this period that Guzmán created his three-part The Battle of Chile, which, last year, was ranked 19th Sight & Sound’s list of Greatest Documentaries of All Time. It’s included in Icarus Films’ essential collection, “Five Films by Patricio Guzmán,” which also includes, Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), The Pinochet Case(2001), Salvador Allende (2004) and Nostalgia for the Light (2011), an almost impossibly beautiful and meditative essay on the nexus of astronomy, archaeology and Chilean politics in the Atacama Desert. “Nostalgia” was ranked No. 12 in the Sight & Sound poll. The collection adds a 24-page booklet, with a new essay written by José Miguel Palacios, and exclusive feature-length profile, “Filming Obstinately, Meeting Patricio Guzmán” (2014) by Boris Nicot.

Most of what we know about ISIS (a.k.a., Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) derives from propaganda supplied by the terrorist organization, itself, and whatever information the U.S. government cares to share with us, which isn’t much. The rest comes from Internet-delivered footage of mass murders committed in the name of a God who knows no shame or pity. The new Disinformation documentary, Meeting ISIS, only scratches the surface on the political and tactical blunders that led to emergence of an alternate Islamic universe equipped with like-new American equipment and populated by religious fanatics from around the world. The camera crew that was allowed access to extreme Takfiri ideologues came back with footage loaded with rhetoric, but blessedly short on actual atrocities. (A warning appears before the more grisly stuff is shown.) Their aim is said to be the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, absent any Shias, Christians, Sunnis, Yazidies, and any other group that dares question their distorted version of Islamic Sharia. The villagers we meet tend to go along with the program, if only to avoid being shot or deprived of staples. We also meet militants who’ve left ISIS and become affiliated with other organizations fighting the Syrian government. And, of course, women associated with ISIS are nowhere to be seen, as are those who were kidnapped, raped and forced to serve as sex slaves.

Souvenirs of Bucovina: A Romanian Survival Guide, directed by rock-doc specialist Robert Mugge, is a two-hour historical documentary masquerading as a travelogue. Bucovina is located on the northern slopes of the central Eastern Carpathians and adjoining plains, which means it’s been coveted for the last 2,000 years by the Romans, Goths, Huns, Turks, Austro-Hungarians, Nazis, Soviets and Soviet puppets. Since World War II, it has been split between Northern Romania and Southern Ukraine. In typical fashion, Mugge opens the film with performances by a traditional band and folk dancers. It sets up a discussion of the rich ethnic history of the region, which was re-populated by people from surrounding areas seeking a haven from religious prosecution and prohibitive taxing bodies. The film is divided into six parts: the first examines such enduring treasures of the Bucovina region as its pottery, its native dances, and the Eastern Orthodox monasteries built in the 16th Century by Moldavian princes and decorated with colorful exterior frescoes; the second introduces multiple generations of a unique Bucovinan family; the third explores some of the last remaining synagogues and cemeteries of the once-dominant Jewish population, which was largely killed off or deported during and after World War II; the fourth explores the Roma (gypsy) population, which was enslaved for 500 years and, like the Jewish population, transported to death camps by Nazis and their sympathizers; the fifth compares life under Communism from the 1940s through the 1980s, with life under Capitalism and democracy today; and the sixth explores the outbreak of color in Romanian society since the democratic revolution of 1989. Interviewees include the Mayor of Radauti, a local historian, an Eastern Orthodox archbishop, a Ukrainian rabbi, a cemetery caretaker, the president of a local Jewish Federation and a wide variety of musicians.

A Murder in the Park is an investigative documentary that completely demolishes one of the most controversial murder acquittals in Chicago legal history. The acquittal came several years after Anthony Porter was sentenced to death for the murders of teenagers Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green, on a hot night in Chicago’s Washington Park. In 1998, a group of university students re-investigated the case, and seemingly found the real killer, Alstory Simon. Simon confessed to the crimes, and Porter was released and pardoned after his harrowing ordeal shook the public’s confidence in the justice system and led to then-Governor George Ryan to vacate the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates. Soon after his confession, Simon accepted a plea bargain and began serving a 37 year sentence for the killings. He later claimed that he was coerced into the confession by overzealous journalists, students and lawyers who sought to use him simply as a tool in order to achieve their true goal of abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. From where I sit, though, Christopher S. Rech and Brandon Kimber weren’t determined to bring the death penalty back to Illinois, but to prove that police investigators had arrested the right guy and the wrong guy was a victim of overzealous prosecution by the state and an ego-driven journalism professor, who fell in love with his own headlines. In fact, there’s no end in sight to the case’s fallout, which now includes against Northwest University. It’s also an indictment of a legal system that treats minority suspects and witnesses as if they’re either lying or blind.

Dog Years
If you can imagine an estranged sibling version of Lost in Translation, it might look something like Dog Years. Brent Ellis plays an emotionally withdrawn Japanese-American accountant, who isn’t at all pleased about being sent to Tokyo by his employer. He likes it even less when he’s immediately contacted by his half-brother, Ben (Warren Sroka), who teaches English to Japanese kids that already know the language. He’s so good-natured that he doesn’t seem to mind the fact that their father split for Thailand with his secretary almost immediately after he landed at Narita. Brent clearly is still smarting from the loss of his mother at an early stage in his development and no sooner does he check into his hotel than he begins seeing her ghost riding a bicycle through the busy streets. Ben really wants to show Brent a good time, but he’s determined to be miserable. A bad case of insomnia doesn’t help lighten his mood and neither does bad romantic news from home. In typical boys-will-be-boys fashion, Ben finally wears down his brother enough to convince him to join him on a road trip to the countryside. It’s no sure thing that their truce will continue after they get back to Tokyo, but, by this time, we’re willing to hang in there a while more. Sroka and Willis’ script offers a bit of levity, in the form of a classroom flirtation for Ben, but it also comes at some emotional cost to Ben. Dog Years may not be in the same league as Sofia Coppola’s film – how could it, without Bill Murray? – but it takes us to places we wouldn’t have gone, otherwise, and got better as it went along. How many first features can say that?

The Crazy Kids of the War
Leave it to Cheezy Flicks to unearth a 1967 World War II comedy that makes “Hogan’s Heroes” look like Stalag 17 and the creative team is identified only by half of their real names: director Steno and co-writers Castellano and Pipolo. The Crazy Kids of the War is a wildly madcap affair, in which funny Nazis demonstrate once again just how entertaining it can be to be occupied by SS officers with death’s-head buttons on their hats. Italy is still occupied by Germans, most of whom fit the mold cast for the Three Stooges and Katzenjammer Kids, when a buffoonish American pilot crash lands in a lovely little town, populated by people who are more loyal to Uncle Sam than Il Duce. The rest of the movie is spent keeping the Nazi from discovering the pilot, who’s assumed the identity of a priest. Along with a fat cleric, a deaf rocketeer and pixie-ish waitress, the Yank tooks around the countryside in a stolen motorcycle and sidecar. They also are required to impersonate Nazi officers after finding themselves trapped in a commandeered mansion. It is at this point in the story when tiny pop star Rita Pavone is required to add a Hitler mustache to her SS uniform and dance with a much larger German woman who thinks she’s cute. It’s likely that Italian audiences were attracted more by Pavone than the comedy, as she performs several lively song-and-dance numbers. As crazy as all of this sounds, it harkens back to a time when anything was fair game for slapstick, even Nazis. Still, I can’t imagine Mel Brooks being inspired by these crazy kids.

SWAT: Unit 887
Ever since the existence of Special Weapons and Tactics teams was made known to the public, in the 1960s, Hollywood has struggled to stay ahead of the curve in depicting their heroics … rarely, their debacles. The one-sided SLA “shootout,” in 1974, was broadcast live to millions of viewers who probably didn’t know that the teams were created years earlier to more efficiently snuff out militant groups, like the Black Panthers. Because no one bothered to copyright SWAT as a brand name, movie and television producers have been free to throw it on their products, willy-nilly, whether or not it fit properly. In the straight-to-DVD SWAT: Unit 887 (a.k.a., “24 Hours”) the only resemblance between a real SWAT unit and the characters in the blue windbreakers are the fake weapons carried by the fake cops. That’s not even the biggest whopper contained therein, however. That one can be credited to whoever was responsible for casting 29-year-old Mischa Barton, formerly of “The O.C.,” as FBI Agent Melanie Hamlin. It’s not that she doesn’t look great in a windbreaker, because she does. It’s just that she’s at least 10 years and 20 pounds shy of being credible as someone allowed to bark orders to the head of Los Angeles’ SWAT teams. Tom Sizemore, as usual, called in his role as the head of paramilitary team assigned to kidnap a sultry VIP bio-chemist (Emilie Jo Tisdale) during a political fundraiser for a senator (Said Faraj) with a thick Lebanese accent. The howlers don’t end there, either. This mess was directed by Timothy Woodward Jr. (Throwdown), who plays one of the cops assigned to the party. He reports directly to Michael Pare.

The Bear: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
In 1981, Jean-Jacques Annaud made a big splash with a wildly inventive movie that approximated our distant ancestors’ search for that most valuable of commodities: fire. It was set 80,000 years ago, in Paleolithic Europe, even before the formation of a recognizable language. Not everyone embraced Quest for Fire, which some saw merely as a 100-minute extension of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey and others took for comedy. A lot more viewers, however, appreciated Annaud’s chutzpah, which extended to hiring authors Anthony Burgess (“A Clockwork Orange”) and Desmond Morris (“The Naked Ape”) to add their expertise to the proceedings. Not for nothing, but Quest for Fire also introduced Ron Perlman – whose skull may someday be mistaken for the missing link in human evolution – to international movie audiences. Seven years later, immediately after The Name of the Rose, Annaud took another audacious stab at presenting nature on its own terms. From Shout! Factory comes “The Bear: 25th Anniversary Collector’s Edition,” which, in Blu-ray, looks nothing short of spectacular. Once again, minimal dialogue was required to tell the coming-of-age story of an orphan bear cub that endears itself to a much larger bruin, by giving him some TLC after being wounded by a hunter. The giant grizzly gets its revenge by going medieval on the hunter’s camp, horses and pack mules. His partner will return after a trip downstream, with a pack of dogs and provisions for the long haul. In between, we’re treated to some wonderful play acting by the bears in the pristine meadows and river beds. If the scenery doesn’t quite resemble what most moviegoers, by now, recognize as British Columbia, it’s because Annaud decided to shoot The Bear high in Italy’s uniquely shaped, but equally rugged Dolomites. It would be another 10 years or so before the use of animatronic animals, enhanced by CGI technology, would become a reliable shortcut for directors of animal pictures. Reportedly, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop was hired to make five animatronic bears to act as stand-ins for the real ones and avoid anything that might be considered cruel. In the bright light of day, however, none of them looked quite as realistic as the cubs already enlisted for their individual talents, as explained in one of the Blu-ray featurettes. The Bear is based on a novel written in 1916 by American naturalist James Oliver Curwood, but some sequences are right out of the Walt Disney playbook. And, yes, any child who survived their first viewing of Bambi or Old Yeller isn’t likely to be freaked out by what happens in The Bear, which can be enjoyed by grown-ups, as well.

Soul Boys of the Western World
Unless one is familiar with the British rock band Spandau Ballet, George Hencken’s Soul Boys of the Western World is going to look a lot like a million other rock-u-mentaries currently in circulation. I can’t remember the band making much of a stir on this side of Atlantic, but, in the UK, it scored 10 Top 10 hits, including a No. 1 single “True”; a No. 2 single, “Gold”; and two No. 3 singles, “Chant No. 1″ and “Only When You Leave.” Additionally, the group has had 8 UK Top 10 albums, including three “greatest hits” compilations and an album of re-recorded material. What’s interesting about Spandau Ballet, though, is its place in British pop-music history as a leading proponent of the New Romantic movement, along with Duran Duran, Visage and Culture Club, bands known for their smooth, soulful style and anti-punk fashion sense. For the kids who frequented Covent Gardens’ Blitz club, New Romanticism freed them to dress as if every night was Halloween at fashion school. Likewise, the members of Spandau Ballet never went on stage unless their clothes and hairdos were as close to perfect as possible and the requisite accessories were in order. Later, as the drugs and booze began to corrode longtime friendships, squabbles over royalties led to lawsuits and a nasty breakup. Gary and Martin Kemp won critical accolades, for George Hencken their portrayal of the infamous twin gangsters, Ronald and Reginald Kray, in Peter Medak’s The Krays. George Hencken’s film winds up as the lads have re-formed for the inevitable reunion tour.

TV-to-DVD
Outlander: Season One, Volume Two: Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
PBS: Great Performances: Driving Miss Daisy
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: Tiger-tastic 3 Pack
I’m not sure what constitutes a surprise hit on premium-cable television these days, but I’m pretty sure that the Starz series, “Outlander,” easily qualifies as one. The time-travel romance follows the recent programming trend of dividing individual seasons in half, with a longer-than-usual hiatus period that reflects the demand for higher production values and tight storylines. Instead of waiting to compile full-season boxed sets, studios have begun to send out half-season DVD packages. Despite pricing considerations, it’s likely that fans of the show and people without cable prefer not to wait to re-savor individual episodes or sample the featurettes. The ability to endlessly replay the torrid sex scenes, featuring Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan, Caitriona Balfe), is worth the price of admission alone. The new compilation opens with even greater threats to the newlyweds by the sadistic Black Jack Randall. Soon, too, Claire’s knowledge of medicine will make her a target for those who equate healing outside the church as witchcraft. The real capper comes in the last two episodes after Jamie is re-captured and put into a cell that makes him easy prey for Black Jack. It’s as profoundly troubling a sequence as I’ve seen on television in a long time. The sparkling Blu-ray package adds 3D cover artwork; a 32-page book with photographs, excerpts from the scripts and an introduction from exec-producer Ronald D. Moore; podcasts; a gag reel; several lengthy making-of featurettes; deleted scenes with introduction by Ronald D. Moore; an extended version of “The Reckoning,” with Introduction by Moore; a cast and crew table read; and tour of the set with author Diana Gabaldon.

At a time when race relations in this country appear to have sunk to new lows, PBS is releasing its version of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” which has provided audiences with rays of hope for 30 years on stage, at the movies and on television. The pairing of Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones makes this edition must-viewing even for fans of the 1987 off-Broadway staging and Hollywood adaptation with Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines reprises his Broadway role as Daisy’s son Boolie Werthan. The Pulitzer Prize-winning work was recorded in Melbourne, Australia, at the Comedy Theater. For those unfamiliar with the story, when Daisy Werthan, a widowed, 72-year-old Jewish woman living in mid-century Atlanta, is deemed too old to drive, her son hires Hoke Colburn, an African-American man, to serve as her chauffeur. What begins as a troubled and hostile pairing, soon blossoms into a profound, life-altering friendship that transcends all the societal boundaries placed between them.

The new “Tiger-tastic” collection of episodes from “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” includes 26 stories produced by the Fred Rogers Company. In them, Daniel learns to navigate social situations, while discovering skills that parents and their children can practice together. In “Life’s Little Lessons,” Daniel even uncovers interesting ways to deal with visiting his doctor, managing the “potty” issue and mastering the responsibility of time-management. In “Daniel’s Big Feelings,” he discovers that talking about his feelings makes it easier to deal with being sad, jealous and frustrated. And, in “Daniel Tries Something New,” Daniel and his parents discuss what to expect when doing something for the very first time.

The DVD Wrapup: Beresford, Saint Laurent, Techine, Red Road, Dennis Hopper and more

Thursday, September 24th, 2015

Breaker Morant: Blu-ray
Mister Johnson: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
Turkey Shoot:  Blu-ray
In 1980, when Bruce Beresford’s court-martial drama Breaker Morant was released around the world, Americans could be forgiven if they’d never heard of the Boer War. If a historical event hadn’t occurred in the northern hemisphere, after all, our textbooks hardly bothered to mention it. A similar case of benign xenophobia would apply a year later, when Peter Weir’s Gallipoli was greeted here as if the World War I battle had taken place in a corner of the world that time forgot. Both of these fine dramas described tragedies related to Australia’s willingness to sacrifice its most gallant fighting men for the greater glory of the British Empire. Aussies and Kiwis rallied to the commonwealth’s call after Hitler’s forces steamrolled their way through Poland, but troops in the Mediterranean would return home after 242 Japanese planes attacked Darwin, two months after Pearl Harbor. Those Americans drawn to Breaker Morant by its performance at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival probably were surprised to learn how closely the 1902 court-martial of Bushveldt Carboniers Harry Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton mirrored the 1970 trial of Lt. William Laws Calley Jr., the U.S. Army officer deemed most responsible for the My Lai Massacre. While the defendants in both trials were guilty of serious crimes, the officers who demanded such terrible behavior of their subordinates escaped with the reputations largely intact. In 1901, several Boer prisoners-of-war were murdered in retaliation for the death of Captain Simon Hunt. Shortly thereafter, a German Lutheran missionary, Rev. Daniel Heese, was shot and killed by a long-range sniper, ostensibly because he was on way his way to Pietersburg to report the slaughter to British high command. Fearing German intervention in the war, British officials demanded a quick legal response to the incidents and a resolution that would satisfy the Kaiser. As was the case in the Calley trial, it was argued by the defense attorney – accorded a single day to prepare for his first court-martial — the soldiers had been given direct orders to reduce the number of prisoners taken to Pietersburg by summarily executing them, which was exactly what happened to POWs after an ambush of the Carboniers at a farmhouse reported to be a safe harbor for the Boers. After the bloody skirmish, the wounded Captain Hunt was brutalized and killed. One of the Boers arrested by British troops was wearing Hunt’s jacket, the sight of which enraged Morant when he came upon the column. The British officers conducting the court martial made sure that attorney Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) was completely hamstrung in his defense of the three Aussies and the execution of two of them took place less than 24 hours after they were found guilty.

Edward Woodward, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-Gerald are terrifically effective in their portrayal of the defendants, never overplaying the hands dealt their characters or wringing unwarranted sympathy for them out of viewers. Thompson, one of the most popular of all Australian actors, was awarded the Best Supporting Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for his portrayal of Thomas, whose frustration is palpable from the time his motion requesting more time to prepare his case is quashed. Beresford’s greatest achievement, however, was opening up Kenneth G. Ross’ play, “Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts,” as a way of putting the defendants’ actions into the larger context of a long, brutal and imperialistic war. The immensity of the remote and rugged Northern Transvaal is depicted in a way that helps viewers understand what happened in that then-remote corner of the planet, much in the same way as camera teams recorded the difficulties of fighting a war against a highly motivated and firmly entrenched enemy in Southeast Asia. In an interview included in the Criterion Collection edition, Beresford says that his intention wasn’t to make us feel undue sympathy for the defendants, but to ask “why men in war would behave as they had never behaved before in their lives.” This, of course, is the same question that troubles Americans whenever their men and women misbehave in combat. The supplemental features include commentary with Beresford; new interviews with Beresford, Brown and cinematographer Donald McAlpine; an archived interview with Thompson; a backgrounder on the Boer War, with historian Stephen Miller; Frank Shields’ 55-minute documentary, “The Breaker,” and the subsequent corrective, “The Myth Exploded”; and an illustrated leaflet, with an essay by Neil Sinyard.

Beresford would return to colonial Africa a decade later for Mister Johnson, a bittersweet drama based on Joyce Cary’s 1939 novel. Cary had joined the British colonial civil service in 1913 as someone dedicated to the idea that its colonies would be better served if their native populations adopted certain European ways of life. Cary’s opinions on the benefits of colonialism would change significantly during the more than two decades he spent in Africa. Set in British Colonial Nigeria, circa 1923, Mister Johnson tells the story of an educated black man with one foot in the European world and other in his homeland, where tribal leaders and Islamic clerics are vying with the Brits for control of the poor and illiterate natives. As portrayed with immense relish by first-timer Maynard Eziashi, the humorously Anglophilic Mr. Johnson plays a clerk who has ingratiated himself with the British district officer, Harry Rudbeck (Pierce Brosnan), and merchants in a tiny village in the interior. The villagers take him seriously, but only as long as he provides them with incomes – however meager — and protection from the cruelty of the elders. What Johnson can’t do, however, is protect himself from being exploited by white men who consider him to be only a step or two removed from the bush, no matter the fancy store-bought clothes and pith helmet. As trained by missionaries, Johnson is clever enough to help the white men achieve their goals, among them the construction of a road connecting the village to the country’s primary highway. What he isn’t able to recognize, until it’s too late, are the ramifications of being over-confident in his ability to manipulate numbers and pushing a personal agenda. Bereford’s primary objective in Mister Johnson is to demonstrate what happens to a simple community when forced to adapt to outside rule, whether it’s from imams, missionaries or colonists. The director encountered problems of his own, filming in a post-colonial Nigeria that clearly wasn’t ready to embrace what many considered to be cultural exploitation. If it weren’t for the casting of an influential shaman, the production almost certainly would have become mired in such modern traditions as bribery, extortion, hostility and bad juju. As it is, though, the portrayal of traditional village at a pivotal juncture in the nation’s history seems hugely credible and respectful of cultural values. Mister Johnson apparently fell victim to skittish distributors, who feared that African-American audiences would consider the protagonist to be cartoonish. Eziashi’s portrayal is far more nuanced than one might expect, however. There are times when you can almost see the gears inside Johnson’s brain spinning feverishly to stay one foot ahead of his superiors and detractors. Brosnan keeps a tight rein on his portrayal of a civil servant, who benefits from his clerk’s machinations, but doesn’t want to be considered soft on the “nigs” when they take advantage of his humanity. The Blu-ray adds new interviews with Beresford, Brosnan, Eziashi and producer Michael Fitzgerald, and an illustrated leaflet, featuring critic Neil Sinyard’s essay “Off the Beaten Track.”

It’s with no small degree of trepidation that I make the leap from the sublime to the ridiculous, by grouping Turkey Shoot (a.k.a., “Escape 2000″ and “Blood Camp Thatcher”) together with the work of such a brilliant Australian artist as Beresford. Indeed, the newly upgraded edition of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s widely disowned grindhouse extravaganza is so deliciously vile that it makes such Ozploitation classics as Mad Max, The Cars That Ate Paris, Howling III: The Marsupials, Razorback, Mad Dog Morgan and Dead-End Drive-In seem tame.  Made smack dab in the middle of the sub-genre’s golden age, Turkey Shoot is set in a post-apocalyptic “re-education” camp for hippies, radicals and “deviants” of all stripes. As was the case in all of the then-current women-in-prison flicks, the guards and warden are sadistic monsters, quick with the whip and never reluctant to slap the sass out of recalcitrant prisoners. There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in the movie’s 80-minute length, which culminates in a terribly lopsided human turkey shoot. Turkey Shoot is every bit as gnarly as it sounds. What distinguishes it from such kindred flicks as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, Women in Cages and Black Mama, White Mama is a production history that almost defies description and the presence of Steve Railsback (The Stunt Man) and Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet). Unlike some of the actors, who probably were pleased to work with exploitation specialist Trenchard-Smith (Day of the Assassin), the non-Aussie stars always look as if they signed on to the project while strung out on heroin. In a story oft-repeated in the bonus interviews, the production lost about $700,000 of its $3.2-million budget two weeks before its start date, causing Trenchard-Smith to eliminate the first 15 pages of the approved script, a four-page helicopter chase scene and two weeks of its original 44-day schedule. Overnight, what began in the director’s mind as a gritty homage to “1984” became something else entirely. Depending on who’s telling the story, the $700,000 either was pulled back by a skittish investors or wagered on horses that might have keeled over before reaching the finish line. Recollections of Railsback and Hussey’s idiosyncratic behavior and demands, alone, are worth the price of a rental. The Severin restoration is far better than the movie deserves, but, that said, the bonus package is exemplary. It includes extended interviews with Trenchard-Smith, Railsback, Antony I. Ginnane, Lynda Stoner, Roger Ward, Gus Mercurio and Bob McCarron, taken from the Ozploitation documentary, “Not Quite Hollywood”; “The Ozploitation Renaissance,” a roundtable discussion with Trenchard-Smith, producer Antony I. Ginnane, and Ozploitation cinematographer Vincent Monton; the featurette,  “Turkey Shoot: Blood & Thunder Memories”; commentary with Trenchard-Smith; an original trailer; and alternate title sequences from the “Escape 2000” and “Blood Camp Thatcher” editions.

Saint Laurent: Blu-ray
The way these things go, there soon could be as many documentaries and theatrical films about fashion designers as there are based on conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 and the Kennedy assassinations. In the last five years, alone, there have been three movies about Yves Saint Laurent, who died in 2008, at 71, in Paris. By then, his name had become his brand and his brand was as famous as any in the world of commerce. Less known, of course, was his personal story, which would have been difficult to invent, even out of whole cloth. Perhaps, as a concession to the times, Bertrand Bonello’s lush and colorful Saint Laurent – like Pierre Thoretton’s L’Amour Fou and Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent – goes beyond the runway and red carpets to document his personal and business relationships with his friends, business partners, employees and lovers. Foremost among them is Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent Couture House and, despite a rupture in their romantic relationship, longtime business associate. A few days before Saint Laurent died, of brain cancer, he and Bergé were joined in a civil union.  Bonello has consistently demonstrated a high comfort level for sexually explicit subject matter — The Pornographer, House of Tolerance, Tiresi – and, without being particularly lurid or graphic, the same is true in Saint Laurent. At the height of his career, there was no more decadent environment in which to work and play than fashion design. And, of course, wherever celebrities partied, drug dealers and trend-obsessed freeloaders hovered like flies at a picnic. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, in one movie or another, but Saint Laurent’s inability to cope with the clamor for his attention is compellingly presented here. At 150 minutes, though, anyone whose attention to fashion is limited to QVC and HSN, might want to take a pass on Saint Laurent. The Blu-ray adds making-of and background material.

In the Name of My Daughter: Blu-ray
At an age, 71, when her American peers have begun to pray for sitcom assignments, Catherine Deneuve continues to star in quality pictures made by influential directors. And, not just occasionally, either. Still one of the world’s great beauties, Deneuve has played prominent roles in a half-dozen movies in the past two years. The latest to reach our shores via Cohen Media Group is Andre Techine’s legal thriller, In the Name of My Daughter. The company imports more fresh and vintage products from Europe – at least four starring Deneuve, in the same period — than any company not involved with cheese or wine. In this fact-based story, she delivers a totally believable portrayal of Renée Le Roux, the très élégant owner of the Palais de La Mediterranée casino, in Nice. It is 1976 and her newly separated daughter, Agnès (Adèle Haenel), has returned from Africa to live at home. At the same time, Renee has begun to receive threats from the Corsican mafia, whose interest in casinos apparently has to do with laundering money. Meanwhile, Agnès has fallen in love with Maurice (Guillaume Canet), a lawyer who also serves as Renee’s business advisor. Maurice hopes to use the turmoil in Renee’s business to be promoted to the prestigious position of casino manager. Adding to her mother’s anxiety, Agnes demands access to her inheritance, which includes shares in the casino. After being passed over for the promotion, the très ambitious lawyer abandons Renee and conspires with Fratoni, the owner of a rival casino, to use Agnes’ financial interest in the Palais to topple her mother. Once the coup is complete, Agnes becomes estranged from her mother, who is humiliated in the press for the betrayal. When the already married philanderer, Maurice, loses interest in her clinging personality, it causes the insecure young woman to attempt suicide. None of this information should spoil anyone’s interest in In the Name of My Daughter, though, because it all leads to a mystery that, in real life, took 30 more years to unravel. It’s pretty solid stuff from Techine, one of France’s most versatile filmmakers (Unforgivable, The Girl on the Train). Among the movie’s considerable treats is Julien Hirsch’s splendid cinematography, which neatly captures the beauty of the Cote d’Azur and privileged lifestyles of its corrupted citizenry. The Blu-ray adds an interview with Guillaume Canet, whose slick interpretation of Harlan Coben’s best-selling mystery, “Tell No One,” became a sleeper hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The American Dreamer: Dennis Hopper Documentary: Blu-ray
After appearing alongside kindred spirit James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, Dennis Hopper might have been expected to enjoy a long career in feature films, if not as leading man, then in highly visible supporting roles. Instead, for the next dozen years, he kicked around Hollywood doing guest spots in TV shows, ranging from “Gunsmoke” to “Petticoat Junction,” and only the occasional feature film. Hopper had been branded an “enfant terrible” — French for “more trouble than he’s worth” – and it never completely disappears. A temporary reprieve was granted in 1969, after Easy Rider tapped into a vein in the counter-cultural audience that studio executives had previously found impossible to raise. Finally allowed to write his own ticket, Hopper decided it might be fun to cash a million-dollar check from Universal to make a cocaine-fueled Western in Peru, which, at the time, was between contested by communist rebels and a military-led government. The Last Movie describes what happens after a tragic accident causes an interruption in a film shoot in a remote village and the natives decide to continue on with the Western, despite the absence of an American cast and crew, comprised largely of Hopper’s pals. They used sticks and other artificial material to create reasonable facsimiles of cameras and sound equipment. out of. Hopper’s stunt coordinator character, Kansas, had by then moved in with a local prostitute, but was summoned back to the faux set to explain the difference between the firearms used by actors and the real ones being shot by the villagers. Although Hopper’s edit of The Last Movie won the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival and the premise was sound, Universal executives demanded a rewrite to eliminate the arthouse conceits they believed would confound American genre fans. When he refused, Hopper and his pet project were effectively blackballed by studio brass for another 10 years, at least. Apart from a handful of interesting assignments in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Henry Jaglom’s Tracks, Philippe Mora’s Mad Dog Morgan and a couple other foreign projects, the 1970s were a wash. While Hopper’s show-stopping portrayal of a stoned photographer in Apocalypse Now was unjustifiably ignored by Oscar voters, it effectively jump-started his career, allowing him to bounce between indie and mainstream pictures for most of the next 30 years. His atmospheric directorial adaptation of Charles Williams’ pulp-noir The Hot Spot received some excellent reviews and remains a popular distraction on premium cable networks.

Newly founded Etiquette Pictures, in collaboration with Vinegar Syndrome and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, is making its presence known with a fully restored Blu-ray edition of The American Dream, Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s absorbing profile of an artist in extremis. Rarely seen since 1971, the quasi-documentary chronicles Hopper’s attempts to reshape The Last Movie, while living at his creative retreat in Taos, New Mexico. His marriage to the Mamas and the Papas’ thrush Michelle Phillips had just ended after eight halcyon days and he was free to indulge his passion for filmmaking, booze, pot, cocaine, groupies, assault rifles and powerful handguns – not necessarily in that order – in the Mabel Dodge Luhan House. The Taoes landmark once provided a haven for such writers and artists as D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Robinson and Una Jeffers, Florence McClung, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Hunter Austin, Frank Waters and Jaime de Angulo. Based on the vérité evidence presented in The American Dreamer, the roomy estate might as well have been located in the Haight-Ashbury, across the street from Golden Gate Park, or re-dedicated Dennis’ Psychedelic Playhouse. Hopper is given plenty of time here to expand on his artistic principles, which don’t include reading books of any kind or adhering to adhere to commercially proven cinematic conventions. If one takes into account that he was stewed to the gills most of the time, the discourses can be enjoyed as a novelty, if nothing else. Within the context of the times, one can also forgive the groupies and hangers-on for being attracted to the historic setting, spectacular landscape, hot- and cold-running inebriants and proximity to stardom. How Hopper survived long enough to enjoy a second career resurgence, 10 years later, is a mystery that remains unanswered in the film. This home-video edition is enhanced by a new, director-approved 2K restoration, reconstructed from four 16mm prints housed in the Walker Art Center’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, as well as “Fighting Against the Wind,” a 30-minute making-of featurette; “A Long Way Home,” a seven-minute preservation featurette; an extensive photograph gallery; a booklet and essay by Chris Poggiali; and a reversible cover. (BTW: Carson would go on to write Paris, Texas, Breathless and, yes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, while Schiller directed such fact-based films as The Executioner’s Song, The Plot to Kill Hitler and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenét and the City of Boulder.

We Are Kings
Theresa Is a Mother

Discovering the occasional gem stone in a fully mined quarry is roughly the equivalent of finding cinematic treasures in the forbiddingly large pile of movies mailed to critics every week. They’re there, but who has the time and patience to dig through all of them to find a keeper? When confronted with a similar mountain of entries, festival judges might give a movie 15 minutes to capture their fancy or be tossed out like a ringer on “The Gong Show.” (The academy’s documentary nominators used the same process, including a bell, until they were exposed in the “Hoop Dreams” scandal.) Sending out screeners can be an expensive gamble for distributors, so it isn’t unreasonable to ask editors of niche websites, at least, to assign genre specialists the task of sniffing out a potential sleeper. The ones that do have proven to be essential resources for fans and filmmakers, alike. As a generalist, I don’t consider myself to be an expert in anything, in particular, but I occasionally enjoy digging below the surface to find treasure among the dregs. If I enjoy a niche film, maybe someone else will, too.

To that end, anyone who’s spent any time in Chicago or Mississippi will understand the appeal of We Are Kings and how its message might resonate beyond the festival circuit. In Toby Hubner’s sophomore feature (Deep Toad), an elderly bluesman and his chanteuse wife are in serious danger of having the local bank foreclose on their blues bar in a small Mississippi Delta town. When the pressure builds to the breaking point, Lilly (Rita Graham), who’s also chief cook and bottle-washer, suffers a near-catastrophic heart attack that leaves her in a coma. Her guitarist husband, I.B. King (Sammy Blue) decides that their only hope lies in him hopping in their RV for a trip to Chicago, where he hopes to secure a record contract. Alas, because Chicago may be the only place on Earth where aspiring blues musicians outnumber Republican presidential candidates, his journey fails to bear fruit. What does occur along the way, however, are serendipitous meetings with three teenage musicians, who have been driven from their homes by parents and stepparents who lack the patience to subsidize their dreams of stardom any farther. King may be a cantankerous old sot, but he doesn’t mind the company and enjoys jamming with the kids, who demonstrate real talent. On the way back from the Windy City, I.B. lacks even the money necessary  to pay for fuel, so they use the van’s loudspeaker to drum up business in small towns along the way. It isn’t easy, especially when police are put on the lookout for the runaways. Instead, Lilly offers supernatural guidance to I.B. and the teens from her hospital bed, allowing for a potential last-minute miracle. We Are Kings may push the limits of credulity, at times, but never past the breaking point. The musical interludes are delightfully lively and frequent enough to keep the plot from getting caught in a rut. I most enjoyed the respect shown to a musical genre that has been in danger of extinction for more than 50 years, but survives on the enthusiasm of musicians exactly like those we meet here. The Midwestern and Deep South landscapes also add to the fun.

I will admit to almost giving up on Theresa Is a Mother after the first 20 minutes, if only because the protagonist’s determination to become a punk-rock queen is based on an assumption of facts not in evidence. While it’s sometimes difficult to discern good punk-rock singing from bad, Theresa McDermott’s caterwauling wouldn’t be mistaken for singing in a Humane Society shelter. Neither would she ever be considered a candidate for mother-of-the-year honors, attempting to raise three young girls in a flophouse apartment in New York City. Out of money, Theresa (C. Fraser Press) reluctantly decides to move Upstate, into the house in which she was raised by a pair of truly kooky parents (Edie McClurg, Richard Poe). The arrangement is far from perfect, even if the parents cut Theresa plenty of slack for the sake of the children. Things come to a head, when a money-making scheme impacts the 13-year-son of a local banker. Naturally, Theresa calls on her eldest daughter to come to her rescue. It works, but in a way that couldn’t possibly have been expected. By pulling the boy out of his shell, the girl finds a reason not to give up hope for her own future. And, yes, the solution involves music. Blessedly, it is as far distant from punk, as Sardi’s was from CBGB. In addition to writing, co-directing (with her husband) and starring in Theresa Is a Mother, I have to assume that Press created the songs, as well. She deserves a lot of credit for convincing us – me, anyway – to hang in there with her characters.

Nightmare Weekend: Blu-ray
The Sentinel: Blu-ray
I’ve seen a lot of bad feature films in my time, some of them so bad that they’re a blast to watch. Released by Troma in 1986 after several rewrites, Nightmare Weekend is so appallingly bad that it redefines how crummy a movie can be and still rate as watchable, at least. (The aforementioned Turkey Shoot barely qualifies.) The antagonist of this incoherent mess, originally distributed by Troma, is the demented colleague of a “brilliant” scientist, who has created a super-computer with the ability of transforming juvenile delinquents into model citizens. The sorcerer’s apprentice, Julie (Debbie Laster) has plans of her own for the computer, which is controlled externally by a clairvoyant hand puppet named George. (Think, a malevolent escapee from “Mrs. Roger’s Neighborhood.”) In addition to allowing George to take control of moving vehicles – it borrows the screen imagery from ColecoVision’s home version of the Sega arcade classic, “Turbo” – the computer permits Julie to direct explosive spheroids at promiscuous teens and monitor the disastrous results using equipment that wouldn’t have been out of place in a “Flash Gordon” serial. Beyond that, I have no idea what we’re supposed to take away from Nightmare Weekend. As we learn in the bonus material, the film was shot in Florida by an international crew unfamiliar with the English language, under the direction of French soft-core specialist Henri Sala. All of the dialogue is dubbed, even the English spoken by American actors, and, judging from the rawness of their performances, the casting could have been conducted at Ocala-area biker bars and strip clubs. Of the women, only Andrea Thompson would enjoy an acting career beyond Nightmare Weekend … the highlights being a three-season stint on “NYPD Blue” and a short-lived job reading copy on “CNN Headline News.” If the movie was intended to be campy or hilariously rotten, none of the actors appear to have been in on the joke. On the plus side, few movies as incompetently made as Nightmare Weekend have been accorded the same kid-glove treatment as Vinegar Syndrome’s extreme makeover here. The Blu-ray/DVD combo includes the uncut and R-rated versions — restored in 2k from original 35mm negatives – as well as nostalgic interviews with special-effects artist Dean Gates and producer Marc Gottlieb, and material edited to get a R rating.

Looking back on the pre-tentpole mid-1970s, the popular cinema is noteworthy primarily as the golden age of “spawn of Satan” thrillers. The trend probably began in 1968, with the commercial and critical success of Rosemary’s Baby, but really kicked into gear with The Exorcist, The Omen. Burnt Offerings and Carrie. By the time The Sentinel and The Legacy rolled out, the subgenre had pretty much played itself out, trumped by killer sharks and space cowboys. The Legacy was released into Blu-ray last week, mostly for the edification of buffs and completists. The Sentinel owes far more to Rosemary’s Baby, than to any of the other movies in which Satan was the incognito antagonist. Here, a model played by real-life supermodel Cristina Raines (Nashville) moves into a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that serves as the portal to hell. She doesn’t realize that anything is amiss, beyond the usual New York weirdness, until she is informed that the neighbors she meets at a party don’t actually exist. In fact, apart from a blind priest (John Carradine), the ghostly guests represent the souls of long-dead killers and other miscreants. Actually, the party scene remains a favorite of subscribers to Mr. Skin, for nude appearances by Raines, Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo, who are surrounded by various freaks and goons. Only the priest understands the horrors awaiting the model. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Raines, director Michael Winner (Death Wish) and writer/producer Jeffrey Konvitz; an interview with assistant director Ralph S. Singleton; and vintage marketing material. Look for cameos by Ava Gardner, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Arthur Kennedy, Deborah Raffin, José Ferrer, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum, William Hickey and Jerry Orbach.

Secrets in the Fall
Beginner’s Bible: Volume 4
Searching for background information on Brittany Goodwin, writer and director of Secrets in the Fall and 2012’s Secrets in the Snow, I came across an interview in which the Raleigh-based filmmaker and musician cited the movies of John Hughes as a primary  influence on her work. While Goodwin wouldn’t be the first filmmaker to be inspired by Hughes’ teen-themed comedies, she might be the only one to have made faith-based odes to The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Uncle Buck. Not having seen her first directorial effort, I can’t say one way or the other if Goodwin was successful in finding a creative link between “Breakfast Club” and her story about a group of students trapped inside of their school during a blizzard. It certainly wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world, even if the boys and girls weren’t likely to share anything that would cross the boundaries separating family-friendly films with clear Christian messages and strictly secular entertainment. Secrets in the Fall was shot on location in a gorgeous mountain campground, near Hendersonville, N.C. The young campers participating in the weekend retreat at Camp Pinnacle may all be Christians – as strictly defined by those of the evangelical persuasion, at least – but some are more committed to the Lord than others. When a boy with identity issues runs away from the group, the campers band together not only to find him and keep him from harm, but also to help him find answers to his personal questions. And, he isn’t the only camper who needs to get right with Jesus. I can’t imagine Goodwin being too directly influenced here by Meatballs or Friday the 13th, all that’s really required of a movie set at a mountain retreat is a lake and campfire, both of which are prominently on display here. The Dove-approved Secrets in the Fall may not fit the tastes of all American teens, but, based solely on the recent success of the bible-thumping War Room, the audience for faith-based entertainment is willing to support movies that reflect their world view.

And, speaking of bibles, the fourth installment of Time Life’s animated series, “The Beginner’s Bible,” is newly available to parents interested in introducing their preschoolers to the events described in the Good Book. The producers have taken a simple, non-denominational approach to stories that someday may shape the way the kids live their lives. Besides full animation, the collections feature original music and the theme song by Kathie Lee Gifford. The new chapters are “Joseph & His Brothers,” “Daniel & the Lion’s Den,” “The Battle of Jericho” and “Jonah & the Whale.” The Old Testament overflows with blood, gore and righteous indignation, none of which find their way into “The Beginner’s Bible.”

TV-to-DVD
Sundance: The Red Road: Blu-ray
PBS: Frontline: Growing Up Trans
PBS: The Mystery of Matter: Search For the Elements
PBS: Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise
CPO Sharkey: Season 2
The Nanny: Season Four
Nickelodeon: The Adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants
Television can be a cruel medium, both for the producers of ongoing series and fans of shows that straddle the razor-thin line separating success and failure. There’s always a certain amount of suspense that begins to build as the end of every season approaches. While audiences prepare for the cliffhangers designed to keep them guessing over the summer, producers and actors sweat the very real possibility that their show might be canceled. Now that dozens of cable networks have begun to showcase original programming of their own, some of the more interesting borderline shows have successfully made the transition from airing on broadcast networks to being shown via cable, satellite and streaming outlets. Because “The Red Road” began its life on the niche-cable network SundanceTV, it isn’t likely that anyone else will pick it up, now that it’s been cancelled. This is bad news for lovers of off-the-beaten-track dramas that have opened doors for minority actors – in this case, Native Americans – to be cast in non-traditional roles. After a New Jersey tribe wins recognition from the federal government, it begins making plans to take possession and control of a lushly forested mountain, not all that far from New York City. To no one’s surprise, the white residents of Walpole, New Jersey — the nearest midsize town — aren’t anxious to relinquish land they’ve always used for hunting, fishing and other recreational purposes … and some nefarious ones, as well. For its part, the small, but tight-knit Ramapough Lunaape Nation now faces such challenges as policing its own people, dealing with extreme poverty and chronic illness, and deciding whether its leaders should listen to overtures about building a casino. Complicating things even further are the interpersonal relationships that are of soap-opera proportions. And, yes, there were plenty of cliffhangers left hanging when the show was cancelled. Who, then, should be interested in checking out the second-season compilation? Well, for one, any viewers who enjoyed Season One, but missed the final six episodes. Then, there’s anyone anxious to do some binging on two seasons’ worth of high-quality programming, with enough closure at the end of the second stanza to satisfy most folks. The bonus material includes two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

There could hardly be a timelier subject for exploration in a “Frontline” episode than the “new frontier” facing transgender youths. Observing the transition that Bruce Jenner so publicly underwent while becoming Caitlyn Jenner might lead one to assume that the issues probed in “Growing Up Trans” are trivial. Among the wealthiest and widely admired of people who’ve addressed the issue head-on, Jenner may not be the most relatable of role models, although his willingness to represent his/her LGBT peers certainly is admirable. It’s worth remembering that he’s far being the first high-profile person to have transitioned from one gender assignment to the other, just the most recent. Renee Richards took her fight for transsexual rights to the New York Supreme Court, in 1976, finally winning the right to play tennis professionally on the women’s tour. And, this was well before Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova decided that it was safe to exit the closet. Today, it’s difficult to find a television drama or sitcom that hasn’t added a transgender character or storyline. Kids in the same position face even greater obstacles than adults, however. They range from being disowned by church and family, to being tortured at school by fellow students and administrators who can’t even decide which bathrooms should be open to them. “Growing Up Trans” is told from the perspective of parents, doctors and eight transgender kids, ranging in age from 9 to 19. It was given extraordinary access to the gender program at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where filmmakers Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor examined the complicated and often controversial treatments now available to gender non-conforming and transgender kids.

PBS’ “The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements” revisits a subject that many of us slept through in high school chemistry and physics lessons. The three-part mini-series employs dramatizations, backed by extensive scientific and historic research, to describe how alchemists stumbled upon methodology that would lead succeeding generations of scientists to identify, understand and organize the basic building blocks of matter. Actors impersonate such key players as Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, whose discovery of oxygen and radical interpretation of it led to the modern science of chemistry; Humphry Davy, who made electricity a powerful new tool in the search for elements; Dmitri Mendeleev, whose Periodic Table brought order to the growing gaggle of elements; Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking research on radioactivity cracked open a window into the atom; Harry Moseley, whose discovery of atomic number redefined the Periodic Table; and Glenn Seaborg, whose recovery of plutonium opened up a whole new realm of elements, still being explored today. None of this would be meaningful if viewers couldn’t stay awake past the opening credits. Host Michael Emerson, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor, helps us makes sense of the otherwise mystifying science.

Mozambique’s million-acre Gorongosa National Park may not be as widely recognized as the major safari destinations in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, but it’s not because government officials had much choice in the matter. A cruel civil war was fought from 1977 to 1992, ravaging the countryside and preventing the nation from experiencing any kind of growth. To keep from starving, along with countless other citizens caught in the crossfire, rebels treated the animals in the park as if they were livestock waiting to be devoured. Recovery efforts have been slow and uncertain, leaving the inventory of animals depleted and not always anxious to stop on the annual migrations or maintain historic breeding patterns. In PBS’ six-part “Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise,” American-born, African-raised cameraman Bob Poole chronicles the two years he spent living in the park, joining scientists and conservationists in the battle to “re-wild this once-legendary nature preserve.” Besides keeping an extensive film record of the existing wildlife population, Poole is shown here helping scientists dart and track the park’s elusive lions; decoding the behavior of the park’s often fickle elephants; studying massive crocodiles, which thrived due to the rebels’ aversion to their meat and sharp teeth; and helping transport herds of animals to replace the ones lost during the war. The cinematography is truly magnificent and it’s thrilling to watch Poole work his way into and out of harm’s way.

The archivists at Time Life begin their month-long celebration of Don Rickles’ contributions to televised entertainment with Season Two of the NBC sitcom, “CPO Sharkey,” in which Mister Warmth plays a chief petty officer stationed at the San Diego Naval Base, where he has been assigned the task of leading a group of raw recruits. In the second go-round, the show added two new characters. Captain Quinlan has been replaced by Captain Buck Buckner (Richard X. Slattery), a by-the-book former submarine captain; and recruit Apadoca (Phillip Simms). Buckner cringes at the thought of Sharkey hosting a Japanese CPO, and almost blows a gasket when a child is born in the barracks while crusading Congresswoman Bagley inspects the base. His girlfriend gives him an ultimatum. He deals with a bout of Russian flu. He trains Rocky-style for a boxing match with a rival Marine lunkhead. Sharkey gleefully bails out his guys by foiling a crooked used-car salesman.  In October, look for “The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1” and “Mr. Warmth: The Ultimate Don Rickles TV Collection.”

In “The Nanny: Season Four,” Fran Drescher welcomes such guest stars as Bette Midler, Donald Trump, Pamela Anderson, Celine Dion, Jon Stewart, Jason Alexander and Joan Collins.

From Nickelodeon, “The Adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants” is distinguished by the complete collection of Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy episodes, available together for the first time.

The DVD Wrapup: Blind Chance, Furious 7, Monkey Kingdom, Borowczyk and more

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Blind Chance: Criterion Collection: Blu-ray
At the time of his death in 1996, at the far-too-young age of 54, Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski had become one of the most widely admired writer/directors on the planet. His name might not have meant much to mainstream audiences in Western Europe and United States, but, among critics and arthouse denizens, Kieslowski’s living-legend status had already been established. This was based primarily on the Polish television miniseries, “The Decalogue,” The Double Life of Véronique and his “Three Colors Trilogy”: Blue, White and Red, for which he received two Oscar nominations. The majority of his documentaries and feature films were made at the height of the Cold War – and occasional thaw, however brief – which meant that hardly any were seen here outside festivals. Blind Chance, for example, was made in 1981, a year after the Solidarity movement raised hopes for freedom among millions of Poles and anti-Communists in the Eastern bloc. That optimism was put on hold for such kindred filmmakers as Janusz Kijowski, Andrzej Wajda and Agnieszka Holland after the government, citing the possibility/likelihood of Soviet intervention, cracked down on dissidents and other free-thinkers. Blind Chance, would be kept on ice for six years, when a much censored version was allowed to debut at Cannes. The new Criterion Collection edition of the film – whose template was borrowed for Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors – is complete, except for a short segment that couldn’t be found. If there’s no question that Blind Chance is a product of its time and political environment, it also is informed by events recalled from his personal life and the loss of family members.

The protagonist of Blind Chance is a Lodz medical student, Witek (Bogusław Linda), about to lose his father to a serious illness. Although he isn’t able to make it home in time to comfort his father, he is left with a final message that frees the young man from fulfilling his dad’s directive to become a doctor.   What happens to him next will depend on whether or not he catches a train about to pull out of the station. In the first of three parallel story threads, Witek is able to grab hold of the door handle on the final car and climb aboard. Once inside, he chances on a fellow passenger who convinces him that the Communist Party needs some fresh thinking and he’s just the sort of positive fellow who could be valuable in the wake of Solidarity. Once he climbs the first few rungs of the party ladder, however, Witek realizes that the old guard is deeply entrenched and afraid of anything resembling change. In the second scenario, Witek is blocked from reaching the train by a security guard, beaten and arrested. The experience leads him to groups of idealistic men and women, who base their anti-Communist stance on Christian ideals and socialistic reform. In the third thread, he not only makes the train, but is allowed to complete medical school and maintain principles that include a non-partisan ethical code. These scenarios include alternative romantic and family lives, as well. Not willing to let well enough alone, Kieslowski reserves one last surprise for Witek and audiences members. He would reprise the conceit years later, in The Double Life of Véronique, and segments of the trilogy. One needn’t have grown up behind the Iron Curtain to see the relevance in Witek’s chance encounters … blind and otherwise. The film has been restored in 4K by TOR Film Studio in Warsaw. The Blu-ray package is further enhanced by a new interview with Polish film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski; an archival video interview with writer-irector Agnieszka Holland; a side-by-side comparison of scenes that were censored in its 1987 release and those recently restored; an illustrated leaflet, featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim and a 1993 interview with Kieslowski.

Furious 7: Extended Edition: Blu-ray
After Paul Walker was killed in an automobile accident on November 30, 2013, it put the future of the entire Universal Fast and the Furious franchise in doubt. Absent only from the third installment, “Tokyo Drift,” Walker co-anchored a series that began as a mid-budget hot-rod flick, but, after abandoning the street-racing conceit, grow’d like Topsy into a “Mission: Impossible”-on-wheels. (Vin Diesel skipped the first sequel, but made an uncredited teaser cameo in “Tokyo Drift.”) Indeed, of the $1.51 billion Furious 7 amassed at the worldwide box office, only $351 million represented domestic U.S. sales. The 14-year-old franchise’s consistently greater success abroad mirrored Hollywood’s growing dependence on the international audience’s love of CGI-driven action flicks. Walker’s disappearance will continue to haunt any new sequels, of course, but, with Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham already scheduled to appear in 2017’s Furious 8, there’s no reason to think interest in it will flag. Before Furious 7’s belated global release last April 1, the second question on the minds of fans and industry observers was what horror specialist James Wan (Saw) would bring to the table as Justin Lin’s successor in the director’s chair. Short answer: plenty. Having already trounced Ghost Protocol, it will be interesting to see if Furious 7’s numbers hold up against the upcoming 007 sequel, Spectre, whose budget will trump it by $100-150 million. While it lags behind Jurassic World by $100 million in overall worldwide grosses for 2015, Furious 7 has managed to overcome Avengers: Age of Ultron’s lead in domestic revenues by beating it $1,160.7 billion to $943.8 million, again, with a substantial smaller production budget. Those numbers wouldn’t mean anything to anyone outside Universal City, however, if the “Furious” franchise wasn’t keeping its fans begging for more on the screen.

Series newcomer Jason Statham plays rough, tough and canny Deckard Shaw, whose brother Owen was left lying in a British hospital, seriously burned and in a coma, at the end Fast & Furious 6. Shaw has sworn to avenge Owen’s likely death, by destroying Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his crew. Shaw scores a tactical edge by putting DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson) in the hospital for most of the picture, albeit in far less serious shape than Owen. Meanwhile, Dominic is attempting to nurse the amnesia-stricken Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) back to the same shape she was in after her reintroduction in Fast & Furious (“4”). The news of Han’s suspicious death, in Japan, causes him to call on Brian O’Conner (Walker), Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Taj (Ludacris) back from semi-retirement. O’Conner packs his partner, Mia (Jordana Brewster) to a relative’s gilded fortress in the D.R. As much as Shaw is obsessed with making Toretto and his “family” pay for his loss, Dom is committed to avoiding anymore funerals. He finds an unlikely ally in the form of a CIA-style spook (Kurt Russell), who’s been on Shaw’s trail since he joined forces with Jakande (Djimon Hounsou), the leader of a mysterious pack of well-equipped cyber-mercenaries, headquartered in Azerbaijan. They’ve kidnapped a stunning computer geek, Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), who’s invented an insanely precise global positioning system, known as “God’s Eye,” which could tip the balance of power in the intelligence game.

In one of the most entertaining chase scenes I’ve seen in a long time, Toretto & Co. ambush the gang’s motorcade in the Carpathians, attacking it from above. After a fierce chase on a twisting mountain highway, the good guys are able to free capture. The sense of victory is short-lived, though, because, before being captured, Ramsey mailed the chip to a contact in Abu Dubai. Another spectacular chase ensues, because the chip is hidden in a rare Lykan Hypersport, on display in a party-central penthouse in the upper reaches of a shiny new skyscraper. After the hard drive changes hands twice more, Chris Morgan’s script demands that Toretto, Shaw, Jakande and stealth helicopter run roughshod through downtown L.A. The plot may have been rendered completely nonsensical by this time, but, throughout Furious 7, Wan proves every bit as adept as Lin at translating pointless action into splendidly choreographed chases and set pieces. Also nice is the inclusion in the cast, if only in cameos, of a dozen characters/actors who’ve appeared in previous “TF&TF” chapters. Not that it matters, but I have no idea where the three minutes of “extended” material was added to the theatrical release. Fans will find the Blu-ray package to be must-viewing, as the featurettes do an excellent job explaining how everything — except the shooting around Walker’s death — came together. Besides deleted scenes, there are pieces on every aspect of the production, especially the choice of vehicles and green-screen elements. The sadly nostalgic music video, “See You Again,” is the only one that directly recalls how Walker’s death impacted the cast and crew.

The Seven Five
If Sidney Lumet had lived long enough to see Tiller Russell’s startling documentation of police corruption in the Big Apple, he might have considered adapting it, if only to complete a rare superfecta that began with Serpico, Prince of the City and Night Falls on Manhattan. In street-level NYPD officer Michael Dowd, Lumet would have recognized many of the same character traits embodied by Al Pacino’s Frank Serpico, Treat Williams’ Detective Daniel Ciello, Andy Garcia’s Sean Casey and, for that matter, Vin Diesel’s turncoat mobster in Find Me Guilty, Nick Nolte’s racist cop in Q&A and Melanie Griffith’s undercover Detective Emily Eden in A Stranger Among Us. As The Seven Five almost mournfully suggests, the code of misplaced entitlement found in the DNA of New York City cops exists, as well, in its mobsters, druglords, Wall Street bankers, slumlords, media chieftains, religious authorities and the immigrants whose first job in this country is selling bogus designer goods in the subway. The risks run by police officers who put their pensions on the line every time they shake down a drug dealer or torture a “perp” are equal only to risks taken by whistleblowers. In The Seven Five, we witness how the code of dishonor infected an entire precinct, leading its most notorious criminals to assume that they deserved greater access to NYPD services than citizens who work 9-to-5 and are afraid to leave their homes at night. The widespread abuses of power and outright criminality described in The Seven Five first came light with Dowd’s arrest in 1992 and were subsequently substantiated with the release of the Mollen Commission report. Its findings demonstrated how, according to the New York Times, the “New York City Police Department had failed at every level to uproot corruption and had instead tolerated a culture that fostered misconduct and concealed lawlessness by police officers.” Today’s corruption, the report said, “is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.”

Dowd was assigned to the city’s far less than posh 75th Precinct during the heyday of the crack-cocaine explosion of the late 1980s and early ’90s. When he decided to go over to the dark side, the Long Island resident didn’t have to look very hard for drug dealers interested in buying their own personal cop. Indeed, when the first dealer he approached balked at the terms, he was introduced to an even larger fish in the sea, one who knew the value of someone who didn’t have to hide his gun under his shirt tails. The amount of money dangled in front of underpaid police officers at the height of the cocaine epidemic represented the greatest temptation to God’s humble creations since the snake tempted Eve with an apple from Tree of Knowledge. As easy as it was for bulk dealers to create a network of sales reps that mimicked the distribution of Amway and Mary Kay products, it was almost as simple to buy protection from a cop who had a network of his own to support. It began with convincing his partner to share in the booty and ended with the arrests of a half-dozen other cops. Dowd would go so far as to advertise his prosperity by occasionally driving to work in a bright red Corvette and hiring a limousine to pick him up at the station house for gambling trips to Atlantic City. If Dowd and his partner hadn’t gotten so greedy, selling the cocaine they received from their benefactor and setting up a direct-sales operation of their own in Long Island, who knows how long the business might have prospered. Besides the usual array of newspaper headlines and TV news video The Seven Five was provided with video recordings of Dowd’s testimony before the Mollen panel. Also fascinating are the interviews conducted recently with Dowd – who served 11½ years in prison – and his partner, who risked his life by agreeing to wear a wire, rather than spend any real time behind bars. Also recently interviewed are his partner’s wife, internal-affairs investigators, prosecutors, the Suffolk County cops who finally busted Dowd’s Long Island operation and Adam Diaz, the Dominican drug kingpin whose headquarters was an ordinary looking bodega. After serving his time, Diaz was shipped back to the island, none the worse for the wear. If plans for a theatrical adaptation of The Seven Five are ever realized, Diaz still looks young enough to play himself. Unlike Dowd, he hasn’t lost an ounce of his swagger.

Disneynature: Monkey Kingdom: Blu-ray
Cinderella: Blu-ray
Disney has been shooting live-action nature documentaries for more nearly 70 years, all of them designed to appeal as much to adults as kids. The studio’s “True-Life Adventures” series, which began in 1948 with the two-reel “Seal Island” short, evolved five years later into feature-length presentations, stretching from The Living Desert to 1960’s Jungle Cat. Each of the longer movies would subsequently be cannibalized to make education films under different titles. The Disneynature label was launched in 2007, with a 90-minute re-tweaking of the esteemed BBC series, “Planet Earth.” The new banner’s first all-new feature, The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, was released a year later. The newest title, Monkey Kingdom, will be followed next year by “Born in China.” Unlike other such endeavors, the Disneynature installments are typically co-produced with outside companies and sent out across numerous platforms. Apart from that, Disneynature is a chip off of the old block. Amusing anthropomorphic touches are added to the narrative storyline – here, provided by Tina Faye – which is, at once, educational and entertaining. Monkey Kingdom’s paradisiacal setting is the sacred city of Pollonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, which is characterized by vast forests and the ancient stupas, Kiri Vehera, Menik Vehera and Rankoth Veher. The toque macaques that inhabit the temples, which overlook the vast forest, maintain a strict caste system. The macaques that live closer the forest floor exist primarily on leftovers and harder-to-reach resources, while their superiors dine on fruit, nuts, berries, flowers and first choice of the annual bloom of flying termites. As is typical of most Disney nature films and animated fairy tales, there is a fair amount of turmoil and tragedy for sensitive audiences to endure. There’s nothing more unnerving than a fight between gangs of screaming simians, who no longer seem so cute and cuddly in their natural habitat. When one tribe of macaques Is toppled from their penthouse, it finds refuge in a nearby city, where their maneuverability and cunning allows them to plunder the kiosks of merchants selling fresh fruit, vegetables and potato chips. When the exposure becomes too risky, they return to the forest to strategize against the macaques who took their temple. In the meantime, they’re required to keep an eye out for monitor lizards, sloth bears, mongeese and other rivals. One area in which Disneynature titles are superior to those in the “True-Life Adventures” series is their ability to tap into the extraordinary advances in cameras, lenses and the camouflage that allows for close observation at short range. Miniature cameras hidden in nooks and crannies of temples and caves can be manipulated from remote locations. The quality of high-definition presentation borders on the spectacular. You practically can count the hairs on a monkey’s chinny-chin-chin. The Blu-ray adds several making-of and background featurettes, as well as a music video.

High-definition camera work also favors the dazzling set pieces in Disney’s live-action Cinderella, a story that doesn’t exactly cry out to be remade every six months, or so. The lush ballroom sequence is so robustly enhanced by the Blu-ray presentation that some pre-teen girls might come to prefer it to Disney’s animated version or, even, the one in Beauty and the Beast. Also outstanding are Sandy Powell’s colorful costumes, Dante Ferretti’s elaborate production design, Haris Zambarloukos’ imaginative cinematography and Patrick Doyle’s lovely original music. Director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz’ story remains reasonably true to the 1950 version, which, itself, was inspired by Charles Perrault’s concept of the fairy tale. As far as I can tell, no expense was spared on any aspect of the product, including a largely Brit cast that includes Lily James and Richard Madden as the blessed couple; Cate Blanchett, Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger as the wicked stepmother and her defective daughters; Helena Bonham-Carter, as Fairy Godmother; and, in shorter supporting roles, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgård, Ben Chaplin, Derek Jacobi, Rob Brydon and Hayley Atwell. That’s a lot of firepower for an oft-told tale. The Blu-ray adds the theatrical short “Frozen Fever” and other Disney-esque featurettes, deleted scenes and an alternate opening. It will be interesting to see if Bill Condon’s live-action take on Beauty and the Beast, set for a 2017 release, can top Disney’s recent re-adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella. (Oh, yeah, sit patiently through the closing credit roll and you’ll rewarded with new versions of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo,” performed by Lily James and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively.)

Closer to the Moon
Anyone who believes that anti-Semitism disappeared from Europe after the existence of Nazi death camps was revealed at the end of World War II probably also believes that FDR and Winston Churchill didn’t know that Stalin was going to devour Eastern Europe as soon as the ink dried on the Yalta agreements. Anti-Semitism never really went away, even in the countries in which Jews played a vital role in resistance movements and post-war Communist governments. It was simply hibernating until the rest of world stopped paying attention to the poor souls trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In May, Criterion Collection released its edition of Costa-Gavras’ The Confession, in which Yves Montand portrays Artur London, the high-ranking Czechoslovak Communist Party leader, who, in 1952, narrowly missed a date with a hangman’s noose. Along with 13 other leading party members, 11 of whom were Jewish, London had been found guilty of participating in a phony “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist” conspiracy. Eleven were hanged and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Bad news didn’t travel fast in the Eastern bloc in the 1950s, so it’s possible that the real-life characters in Nae Caranfil’s Closer to the Moon hadn’t heard about the Stalin-directed purge of Jews from the leadership of Communist parties throughout Central and Eastern Europe. By 1959, it had reached the point where Romanian Jews in positions open only to top Communist Party stalwarts were beginning to feel the heat. Like London, the character’s we meet here fought the good fight against the Nazi occupation and helped organize the CP infrastructure. A dozen years later, dreams of a Marxist republic were replaced by the reality of Communist-style totalitarianism, even in the post-Stalin era.

Vera Farmiga and Mark Strong play two of the five disillusioned Jewish Communists who decided that it might be good idea to rob the National Bank of Romania, thus embarrassing the country’s iron-fisted leaders. In the mostly accurate Closer to the Moon, the four men and a woman who comprised the Ioanid Gang convinced the driver and guard of an armored car that they’d interrupted the production of a movie, but should pretend they belong in the scene. Having no idea how movies are made, the two bozos handed over several bags full of currency that, in any case, would have been worthless outside of Romania. Naturally, after several weeks had passed, they were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Before that could happen, however, the gang members would be required to re-create the crime for an actual government film crew, ostensibly in return for a reduced sentence. Caranfil tells this story from the perspective of a young man, Virgil (Harry Lloyd), who just happened to be sitting in a cafe across the street from the faux bank robbery and is asked to stand in for the alcoholic cameraman. He hits it off romantically with the doomed Alice, who’s playing herself in the movie and confides in Virgil as to how the real heist was planned and her accidental participation in the crime. If that sounds confusing, it’s only because bizarre stuff like that happen all the time in totalitarian states. My confusion was exasperated by the filmmakers’ decision to have all of the characters speak perfect English in a setting that otherwise resembles post-war Bucharest. To make this bizarre incident more entertaining, presumably for western audiences, Caranfil also decided to emphasize what he considered to be the darkly comic aspects of the story. Frankly, they eluded me. Snippets from the long-secreted movie can be seen at the end of Closer to the Moon.

Heaven Knows What: Blu-ray
If told without any punches pulled, stories about heroin addiction and the day-to-day struggle of junkies to stay high should be as difficult to watch as any film with graphic depictions of self-destruction and death. Fixing can be depicted as a near-sacramental ritual or an act of violence committed against one’s own body. Portrayed accurately, it’s the one sure way to force viewers to cover their eyes or turn their heads from the screen in unison. Unless the character overdoses within seconds of the fix, some curious viewers are likely to wonder how exhilarating a high must be to justify playing Russian roulette with a needle, instead of a gun. Seemingly, it’s a blast … until someone turns blue and dies. Ben and Joshua Safdie’s excruciatingly raw Heaven Knows What most closely resembles Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 The Panic in Needle Park, which starred Al Pacino and Kitty Winn as a pair of junkies desperate for a fix during a serious drought. In most ways, Pacino’s electrifying performance was the equal of Robert De Niro’s interpretation of Johnny Boy, in Mean Streets, and duly noted by casting directors. (Pacino’s next assignment would be The Godfather, while The Godfather II awaited De Niro.) Winn took the Best Actress prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. If there were any justice in the world of movie distribution, Heaven Knows What would have been shown in more theaters than 11 non-festival venues and be mentioned in the same breath as Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, Sid and Nancy, The Connection and High Art. If Arielle Holmes, who plays the film’s pathetic protagonist, Harley, hasn’t been more widely recognized for her performance, it’s probably because she was 19, homeless and an addict when she was discovered by Josh Safdie in a New York subway. He encouraged her to write down her personal story, parts of which were adapted into the script by Joshua Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs). If there’s hardly a sliver of difference between Harley and Holmes, it would be difficult, as well, for viewers to parse the real actors from the homeless recruits who act alongside her. Naturally, most of Harley’s time is spent panhandling for money to cop heroin or in relishing the high. You wouldn’t wish her male friends on your worst enemy’s daughter. One of the street “tramps” (Caleb Landry Jones) convinces her to slit her wrists, simply to prove her love for him. Moreover, Safdie’s vision of Manhattan harkens back to the hell on Earth it was in the 1970s, well before the Disneyfication of Times Square. Adventurous indie buffs are strongly encouraged to find Heaven Knows What, a movie that will stay with you long after you’ve savored the deleted scenes, making-of featurette and music video by Ariel Pink. A date for the publication of Holmes’ memoir, “Mad Love in New York City” has yet to be announced.

 

Immoral Tales: Special Edition: Blu-ray
The Beast: Special Edition: Blu-ray
Walerian Borowczyk was a Pole of an entirely different stripe from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Born nearly 20 years apart, the only things they shared was a Polish arts education and the need, at different points in their careers, to move to Paris. More difficult to define is an intellectual commonality shared by Eastern European artists, whose formative years were spent in the watchful eyes of totalitarian governments. A graduate of Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts, Borowczyk’s early career evolved from painting and lithography, to the creation of movie posters and surreal animations. After leaving for Paris in 1959 and working with Chris Marker, he moved into stop-motion and live-action films. The stop-motion shorts included in these Blu-ray packages suggest that he was a major influence on Terry Gilliam, one of the founding members of Monty Python. To make a living from his art, however, Borowczyk was convinced to turn his filmmaking talent to erotica and literary-based pornography. Not as inelegantly formulaic as the hard-core films that followed in the wake of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones, the 1974 erotic anthology Immoral Tales more closely resembles the classy soft-core movies produced by Randall Metzger (The Lickerish Quartet, The Image) at the same time. The film, as released, is split into four erotic-themed stories that involve the loss of virginity, masturbation, bloodlust and incest. The latter two sections were riffs on the Erzsébet Báthory and Lucrezia Borgia legends. A fifth chapter in Immoral Tales was originally planned, but removed and developed into the feature film La Bête. It has been restored in one of the “IT” discs included here, but clearly is no match for the separate full-length iteration. With that exception, the sexual encounters in “IT” are handled in as classy a manner as these things got in the 1970s. After portraying the young man who claimed the innocence of a 16-year-old nymphet, Fabrice Luchini would quickly become one of the most respected actors in France.

Before and after the release of La Bête/The Beast, comparisons inevitably were made to “La Belle et la Bête,” the 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont that inspired Jean Cocteau’s 1946 surrealist fantasy and, 45 years later, Disney’s animated musical of the same title. In fact, though, Borowczyk’s The Beast was informed by Prosper Mérimée’s 1869 horror/fantasy novella, “Lokis.” In it, wealthy American businessman Philip Broadhurst has died and left his entire estate to his daughter, Lucy. The stipulations require of Lucy that, within six months of his death, she marry Mathurin, the son of his best friend, the Marquis Pierre de l’Esperance. They are required, as well, to be married by Cardinal Joseph do Balo, the brother of Pierre’s uncle, the crippled Duc Rammaendelo de Balo. That’s easier said than done, because the dim-witted Mathurin has a deformity that prevented him from being baptized and his only interest in life is the family’s horse-breeding business. Pierre bribes a local priest, a pederast, to allow him to perform the baptism behind a closed door, leaving only the arrival of the incommunicado cardinal to overcome. While Mathurin is ambivalent toward marriage, Lucy becomes obsessed with the estate’s hidden history of bestiality, as well as the violent coupling of a well-hung stallion to a broodmare, literally dripping with desire. The legend of bestiality that dominates Lucy’s subconscious derives from the story of an 18th Century ancestor, Romilda (Sirpa Lane), who was raped and impregnated by a bear-like creature. The Beast is every bit as grotesque as it sounds, but not without large dollops of inky-black humor. A hit in Europe, the film’s notoriety caused it to be heavily censored and banned in other markets.

As has been the case with most of Arrow’s intricately conceived rehabilitation projects, the bonus features are as interesting as the cult-classics being shown. The nicely upgraded edition of Immoral Tales includes an introduction by Borowczyk expert Daniel Bird; “Love Reveals Itself: Making Immoral Tales,” with production manager Dominique Duvergé-Ségrétin and cinematographer Noël Véry; “Obscure Pleasures: A Portrait of Walerian Borowczyk,” a newly edited archival interview in which the filmmaker discusses painting, cinema and sex; two versions of “A Private Collection,” Borowczyk’s documentary about a truly remarkable collection of erotic memorabilia; and a reversible sleeve cover. The Blu-ray edition of The Beast adds an introduction by film critic Peter Bradshaw; “The Making of the Beast,” camera operator Noel Very; “Frenzy of Ecstasy,” a visual essay on the evolution of Borowczyk’s beast; “The Profligate Door,” a documentary about Borowczyk’s sound sculptures, featuring curator Maurice Corbet; “Boro Brunch,” a reunion meal recorded in February, 2014; a trio of mid-‘60s commercials by Borowczyk; “Gunpoint,” a documentary short by Peter Graham produced and edited by Borowczyk; a reversible sleeve featuring Borowczyk’s own original poster design; an illustrated booklet featuring new writing on the film by Daniel Bird and an archive piece by David Thompson, illustrated with original stills.

Francesco: Blu-ray
It’s only fitting that Liliana Cavani’s second of three biographies of St. Francis of Assisi should arrive in DVD/Blu-ray as preparations for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States draws nigh. I don’t know if the pontiff caught Francesco, when it opened in Argentina in 1994 and he was Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, but, if so, it’s entirely possible that he asked the same question raised by Italian critics and other observers, myself included: what, in God’s name, prompted Cavani to cast Mickey Rourke against type in the lead role? In the seven years after his breakthrough performances in Body Heat and Diner, Rourke had become an international star for such gritty films as The Pope of Greenwich Village, Year of the Dragon, 9 ½ Weeks, Angel Heart, A Prayer for the Dying and Barfly, in which he portrayed the notorious writer, alcoholic and horserace handicapper Charles Bukowski. With that image still fresh in viewers’ minds, it was virtually impossible to imagine how his hard-ass persona could meld with that of the popular, if not entirely accurate image of St. Francis. Over the years, the Vatican marketing department has convinced Catholics that he more closely resembles a patron saint of the Haight-Ashbury than a warrior for Christ. That’s based on his belief that all of God’s creations – animals, as well as the poorest of the poor – are equal in the eyes of the Lord. He’s been depicted in art as a Donovan-like flower child, surrounded by birds, bunnies and good vibes. That was only one aspect of his mostly tortured ministry, however. In Francesco, which is said to have been based on a Herman Hesse monograph, he’s drawn more accurately as a child of wealthy parents, who, after seeing the light, traded his silk garments for beggars’ rags. Pope Francis described his namesake as, “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation.” It explains why the Holy Father has been so outspoken on such issues as global warming, capitalistic greed and closing borders to political and economic refugees.

Although Rourke doesn’t embarrass himself or tarnish anyone’s pacifistic pre-conception of Saint Francis – even after being held for ransom as a Perugian POW, he enlisted in the army of Walter III, Count of Brienne – the actor frequently seems as out of place in Francesco as Bukowski would have been reading his poetry at the Louvre. Neither did Cavani insist on her protagonist being shorn in the traditional manner of a friar. Instead, Francis is made to look as if he traveled to Rome every two weeks for a razor-cut hairdo. That image changes dramatically as Francis’s order of friars expanded and leadership became an unwieldy responsibility. Rourke is most convincing in the final segment, when Francis became more isolated and his spirituality took a decided turn toward Christian mysticism and extreme sacrifice. Finally, during a 40-day fast at the La Verna retreat on Monta Penna, it’s said that he was approached by a six-winged angel on a cross and presented with the stigmata of Jesus Christ. As the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history, Francis become the subject of great adoration. Some wags believe that Rourke has been carrying the stigmata ever since that performance. Still, Cavani (The Night Porter, Ripley’s Game) does an excellent job balancing the beauty of the Abruzzo countryside with the cruelty of poverty and war in 13th Century Italy. It’s almost possible to feel the weight of Christ’s cross on Rourke’s shoulders in his imitation of Francis of Assisi. The rest of the cast is comprised mostly of Italian actors, who fit right into the story, as does Helena Bonham Carter as, Clare, the earliest follower and founder of the Order of Poor Ladies (a.k.a., Poor Clares), a monastic religious order for women in the Franciscan tradition. Greek composer, Vangelis, provided the musical score. The only bonus feature is a snippet from a press conference at Cannes.

All American High: Revisited
The timing of the release of two long-lost documentaries on DVD, both about high school life the early 1980s, practically tests the limits of coincidence. Last month, we welcomed the arrival of Seventeen, the chapter in PBS’ “Middletown” series that was banned outright from being broadcast and, apart from a couple of festival showings, was put on a shelf to gather dust for the next 25 years. PBS said that the filmmakers had exploited its key subjects, leaving them open to shame and condemnation for their extreme behavior. I’ve seen worse, but it probably would have shocked the socks off of the good citizens of Muncie, Indiana – dubbed Middletown, in an early study – with its harsh language, disrespect for parents and teachers, drugging and drinking, and testy interracial relationships. There’s no reason to think, however, that PBS viewers in larger ’burgs would have been disturbed by this coldly accurate portrayal of several at-risk teenagers in the American heartland. By contrast, Keva Rosenfeld’s All American High, surveyed a year in the lives of a broader cross-section of Torrance High School’s senior class, through the eyes of Finnish exchange student, “Rikki” Rauhala. Given the close proximity of the high school to everything a teenager might consider to be worth doing in Los Angeles, the students were far more cosmopolitan than their counterparts in Indiana and substantially more laid back about their lifestyle choices and plans for the future. They misbehaved, as well, but a certain amount of it was expected of them, it seems. In 1984, at least, Torrance High seemed to be a pretty decent place to go to school. The teachers are conscientious and the kids seemingly less likely to sass or disrespect them. Where Muncie was beginning to shiver in the first cold winds of dire economic change, Torrance’s multicultural, middle-class community enjoyed far more options. The doc received several positive reviews, but not enough to ensure distribution beyond the festival circuit. After 30 years of obscurity, All American High: Revisited benefits greatly from Rosenfeld’s decision to find and re-interview quite a few of the primary figures, most of whom appear to have followed separate paths in life. In an ironic twist, for example, one of the leading party animals became a cop, responsible for busting up the same kinds of beer bashes from which he once prospered. Another compared his high school tenure to Fast Times at Ridgemont High and admits to not recalling being interviewed by Rosenfeld. Seventeen should have attempted the same thing.

Little Glory
There is a particular kind of coming-of-age drama in which an older sibling takes charge of the affairs of his younger brothers and sisters after the loss of their parents. Typically, the elder orphan is required to overcome several seemingly insurmountable hurdles before demonstrating that the newly re-invigorated family unit would prevail. The scenery may change, but these stories tend to write themselves. Little Glory is a horse of a slightly different color. That this extremely worthwhile story has gone largely unseen here since 2011, on both large and small screens, says everything one needs to know about fissures in the distribution business. Within a very short period of time, the parents of 19-year-old Shawn (Cameron Bright) and his 9-year-old sister, Julie (Isabella Blake-Thomas), disappear from their lives. The death of his mother was a crushing blow to Shawn, leaving him at crossroads where one path leads to a better-than-nothing job in Nowhere, USA, while the other points to a time-share in a penal facility. With the family’s anchor gone, his boozy father uses Shawn as an easy target for his rage and inability to balance expenses. He treats Julie like a barmaid, whose only mission in life is to ferry bottles of beer from the refrigerator to the kitchen table. In return for Julie’s obedience, the old man made her the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy. After the ogre’s work-related death, the possibility of deciding how his sister might spend the $100,000 windfall prompts Shawn to battle his Aunt Monica (Astrid Whettnal) for her custody. Even a blind social worker could see that Shawn is uniquely unqualified to raise a 9-year-old girl, but he’s determined to prove everyone wrong, even if it means stealing the money they need to keep up appearances for the court. Although his mercenary approach to child-rearing softens over time, Belgian director Vincent Lannoo (Vampires) and freshman writers John Engel and François Verjans can’t resist testing our natural sympathy for Shawn, who probably mlbwould benefit from moving into Aunt Monica’s house more than Julie. To compensate, they find extra room in his life for a slightly more grounded girlfriend, nicely played by Hannah Murray (“Skins”). Little Glory’s ending may not satisfy all viewers, but it’s far from cliché, at least. The DVD adds a making-of featurette.

Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade
Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC: 1980-90
At a time when tickets for any performance by Van Morrison would sell out with an hour of being put on sale, it’s difficult to imagine how his career came to a virtual stop in the late 1970s. Van the Man wasn’t the only future hall-of-famer whose music would be eclipsed by purveyors of punk, progressive, glam, heavy metal and stadium rock, but the rare artist who refused to pander to trends, critics and audiences, demanding something he had no intention of giving them. The Sexy Intellectual/MVD bio-doc, Van Morrison: Another Glorious Decade, puts on tight focus Morrison’s musical output in the 1980s, after he’d become a teetotaler and disillusioned with the entirety of the industry. Fiercely independent, the Belfast Cowboy simply began to record only what obsessed him at any given moment in time, whether or not it sold albums. Famously prickly with the rock press, Morrison was his own worst enemy when it came to pitching his products. As his preferences bounced between rock, jazz, R&B, folk spiritual and meditative idioms, it would have been nice if he didn’t of his music that it speak for itself. It’s fun to know what motivates genius. We asked the same of Bob Dylan, who, much to the detriment of record sales, was going through similarly radical changes. Back then, all it took was one great song or album to bring fans back to the flock and convince them to keep the faith for a while longer. With the release of “The Best of Van Morrison,” compiled by artist himself, that the doldrums of the 1980s ended and fans agreed to let Van be Van, as long as he threw them the occasional bone and embarked on a concert tour. Director Tom O’Dell is to be commended for pulling together enough concert footage, interviews and learned opinion for fans to understand what actually was going on in his head during this difficult period. The featurette included in the bonus package is devoted to the reporters and critics whose job it was to interpret the whims and wisdom of a popular artist, who considered them to be little more than pests.

If any large American city could have benefitted from a punk-rock insurgency, it was Washington, D.C., during the Reagan years, An angry surge of electronic noise might have drowned out all of the nonsense emanating from the White House and Capitol Hill about free-market and trickle-down economics, whose birds finally came home to roost in the 2008 recession. Apparently, there were enough punk musicians in the District to form a quorum, at least, and a handful of rock-docs, 30 years later. “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90)” follows in the short wake of “Positive Force: More Than a Witness” and a recent episode of the HBO documentary series, “Sonic Highways.” Still to come are “Finding Joseph I” and “Punk the Capital: Straight from Washington, D.C.” The only things that linked the hard-core scenes in Washington and England, besides the booger-buddy relationship between Maggie Thatcher and President Reagan, was that they were sown from seeds planted in the ruins of economically ruined cities. Crack cocaine, unemployment and systemic government neglect had devastated the majority African-American community, leaving plenty of vacant space for white musicians from the suburbs to rehearse and play. One of the most influential bands of the period was fronted by punk-rock/reggae singer, Paul “HR” Hudson – subject of the 2012 film, Bad Brains: A Band in DC — but the dominant sound emanating from car radios and boom boxes was hip-hop. Some rock musicians affiliated themselves with progressive social movements and activist groups, including Positive Force, but audience members were more interested in moshing than organizing around lyrics rendered indecipherable by the extreme volume of the music. Among the usual suspects rounded up for interviews here are Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), Ian MacKaye (Fugazi), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and actor Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”). The target audience for “Salad Days” are people who’ve ever bought a ticket to see Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void, Faith, Rites of Spring, Marginal Man or Fugazi. There are several dozen other docs about local punk scenes from which to choose, however. The DVD adds extended interviews and 10 live performances from D.C. bands.

I’m No Dummy
Am I the only dummy out here who isn’t familiar with the term, “venting,” when used to describe what happens on stage between a ventriloquist and a puppeteer’s “dummy”? I’ve heard it referred to as “throwing a voice,” of course, and recently learned that diviners in Ancient Greece somehow convinced wealthy patrons that the sounds emanating from his digestive track were, in fact, messages to them from the dearly departed. The talent was called “gastromancy” and its practitioners included the priestess at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, who acted as the conduit for the Delphic Oracle. This most primitive form of ventriloquism served spiritualists until the Middle Ages, when it was equated with witchcraft. By adding the carved likeness of a curious looking human being to the act, ventriloquists effectively turned gastromancy into entertainment. If I were forced to guess, I would say the addition of “vent” to the show-biz lexicon was an attempt to re-brand ventriloquism to a new generation of ticket buyers. Ever since Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson and other host of variety shows disappeared from the television landscape, ventriloquists have found it difficult to showcase their art outside Las Vegas, cruise-ship stages and the talent portion of the Miss America broadcast. Bryan W. Simon’s delightful and informative documentary, “I’m No Dummy,” has been re-released six years after its original debut, with the addition of two hours of fresh material. The first disc contains the complete 2009 film, a director’s commentary, two Q&A’s with the filmmakers from the Seattle International Film Festival and a special interview with Jeff Dunham and his vintage figure, Skinny Duggan. The second disc adds previously unseen outtakes and interview material; additional comic performances; an interview with Las Vegas headliner Terry Fator; and a tour of the Vent Haven Museum, the only such facility dedicated to the art of ventriloquism. It’s another film that can enjoyed as much by parents and grandparents, as kids who wouldn’t know Mortimer Snerd from Donald Trump. Last year’s live-performance DVD, “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!” is also a lot of fun.

The Legacy: Blu-ray
By the time Katherine Ross agreed to star in the Hammer-esque horror thriller, The Legacy, such early successes as The Graduate, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Stepford Wife had practically disappeared from the rear-view mirror of her career. Meanwhile, the career trajectory of her co-star (and future husband) Sam Elliot was in its ascendency, thanks to a breakthrough performance in Lifeguard, the kind of guilty-pleasure rom-dram that no one east of Southern California would admit to enjoying. (I did.) Here, they play a pair of L.A.-based decorators, Margaret and Pete, hired to work their magic on a mansion smack dab in the middle of a sprawling English estate. Before they can get there, however, their motorcycle collides with a truck piloted by a suspiciously careless driver. Once they arrive at the mansion, they’re surprised to find several other invited guests, including rocker Roger Daltrey, who exude wealth, but aren’t long for this world. The story is far too convoluted to synopsize here, but no one should be surprised to learn that satanic forces will soon make their presence known. To what end remains a reasonably well-kept secret throughout most of the movie, which was directed by Richard Marquand, whose more noteworthy credits (The Jagged Edge, Star Wars: Episode VI) were still ahead of him, and written by frequent Hammer Films collaborator Jimmy Sangster. The Blu-ray upgrade adds to the total experience, which would have benefitted from fresh interviews with Ross and Elliott, in addition to editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia) and effects artist Robin Grantham, and a photo gallery.

Pretty Rosebud
Looks are deceiving here, from a cover that suggests that what’s contained inside is soft-core porn, to a plot that advances as many stereotypes as it seeks to deflate. The husband-wife team of Oscar Torre and Chuti Tiu directed, wrote and star in Pretty Rosebud, about an Asian-American “career woman” caught between her parents’ old-country beliefs and the same desire for independence shared by most women who’ve decided not to follow in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers. Tiu further burdens her character, Cecilia “Cissy” Santos, with an unemployed husband (Kipp Shiotani), who refuses to respond to her sexual advances – the most unlikely of the film’s conceits – and a mother-in-law who demands she mass produce children in her son’s broke-ass name. Frustrated, Cissy turns to recreational boxing and hit-and-run trysts with a veritable rainbow coalition of lovers. As if she weren’t confused enough, she also decides to confide in a friendly priest, who hopes to convince her to return to the flock. Cissy’s brother (James Kyson-Lee) is similarly alienated from their parents, because of his decision to marry a non-Asian woman and poor attendance at church. The only thing that saves Pretty Rosebud from drowning in its own freshman-filmmaker clutter is an appealing performance by the gorgeous Ms. Tiu. As problematic as the picture is, it’s great to see a movie populated with seasoned minority actors who rarely are accorded an opportunity to shine.

TV-to-DVD
Aquarius: The Complete First Season: Blu-ray
The Bold Ones: The Protectors: The Complete Series
The Hee Haw Collection 3 DVD Set        
The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes
Portlandia: Season Five
While binging on NBC’s curiously addictive “Aquarius: The Complete First Season” on Blu-ray, I frequently wondered if the officials at Corcoran State Prison – Charles Manson’s longtime home — had allowed inmates to watch the show when it aired this summer. The opportunity to see how the facility’s most notorious resident ended up in stir probably would have kept the inmates quiet for an hour or so each week, at least. Now that’s it’s available in an uncensored version, with extended episodes, it’s a question that begs to be asked once again. (Unlike the vast majority of “uncensored” TV series transferred to video, “Aquarius” walks the walk with partial, unblurred nudity and coarse language. None of it is any more gratuitous than the average episode of “Masters of Sex” on Showtime, though.) The first-season episodes follow Manson and his Family members as they begin to lay down their roots in Los Angeles, circa 1967, two years before the killing spree that led to life sentences for several of the characters we meet here. The hyper-charismatic career criminal has already accumulated a harem of starry-eyed flower children and a posse of violence-prone men. The show also posits that Manson had extended his grasp into the corporate offices of L.A., by doing dirty work for hypocritical executives, some of whom are linked to Richard Nixon’s comeback campaign. Manson, who started his criminal life as a pimp, traded the sexual favors of his followers for entrée into the city’s pop-music establishment. He was every bit as obsessed with becoming a rock superstar as the Family members are devoted to helping Manson succeed. If that was all “Aquarius” was about, however, it would have become tiresome after the first episode. Instead, writer John McNamara (“In Plain Sight”) hooks us by showing how the daughter of wealthy Republican parents. Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), allows herself to become one of Charlie’s most fervent devotees. Frantic, Emma’s mother calls on an old lover, homicide detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), to help track her down. In turn, Hodiak is allowed to recruit a shaggy undercover cop, Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) to shine light into corners unavailable to the flat-topped detective. Through Hodiak and Shafe, viewers are provided a first-hand look at a LAPD that, at the time, was a proto-fascist force of militaristic bigots. Shafe is far more liberal on most issues than Hodiak, who’s only slightly more progressive than the rest of force. Of course, he’s also a borderline alcoholic. In 1967, Los Angeles was a metropolis coming apart at its seams, with its segregated police force the largest target available to activists. The storylines also work in well-considered looks at the Vietnam War, the peace movement and Black Panthers. Not all of it will ring true to Boomers who witnessed the turmoil at ground level, but, by and large, the clichés, archetypes and stereotypical portrayals are close enough to pass muster. The summer startup series already has been renewed for a second season. The Blu-ray adds the backgrounder, “First Look: Aquarius,” and webisodes.

Leslie Nielsen enjoyed one of the most remarkable careers of any actor who straddled the worlds of television and movies in second half of the 20th Century. The first of 150 credits for his television work were recorded in 1950, at the dawn of the medium’s first Golden Age. His 100-title big-screen career began auspiciously enough with a turn as Commander Adams in the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet. For the next 50 years, the Saskatchewan native would bounce frequently between the different entertainment mediums. It was in 1980, however, that Nielsen experienced the kind of revitalization most veteran actors can only dream of having, and it only required that he put a 180-degree spin on characters he’d played for the past 30 years. In Airplane!, Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves were asked to play against type, spoofing then-popular disaster films with a straight face. Two years later, he was recruited once again by Paramount and satire specialists Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker (The Kentucky Fried Movie) for “Police Squad!” As hilarious as the show was, it only lasted six episodes on ABC. Nielsen’s Detective Frank Drebin was accorded a second lease on life in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and its sequels. As the average age of his fan base dropped by 40 years, Robert Ebert dubbed him, “the Laurence Olivier of spoofs.” A dozen years before Drebin was immortalized on “Police Squad!,” Nielsen portrayed a very different sort of cop in NBC’s “The Bold Ones: The Protectors,” a short-lived series that played in rotation with “The New Doctors” and “The Lawyers.” Newly released on DVD in a complete-series package, “The Protectors” starred Nielsen, as the newly installed deputy chief of police in a racially divided California city, and Hari Rhodes as the progressive African-American district attorney. They were required to put aside their political differences to prevent San Sebastian from going up in flames or be dominated by career criminals. Unlike other series, “The Protectors” wasn’t laughably clueless about the black liberation and anti-war movements and other topical social concerns. Guest stars included such still-recognizable actors as Edmond O’Brien, Edward Andrews James Broderick, John Rubinstein, Robert Drivas, Fred Williamson, Aldo Ray, Joe Besser, Ruby Dee, Max Julien, Lorraine Gary, Billy Gray and Louise Sorel. Writer/producer William Sackheim (“The Flying Nun,” “Gidget”), cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Close Encounters of the Third”), director Lamont Johnson (The Last American Hero, “That Certain Summer”) and composer Tom Scott (“Baretta,” “Stir Crazy“) were among the prominent behind-the-camera talents.

As guilty pleasures go, there are many far less entertaining diversions than watching reruns of “Hee Haw.” The show was positioned by CBS as a hayseed alternative to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and for 23 years – 21 of them in syndication, after the network failed to renew it — lived up to that billing.  Hosted by country artists Buck Owens and Roy Clark, it combined old-school country music with unapologetically cornball humor for millions of viewers who might otherwise be tuned in to broadcasts emanating from the Grand Ole Opry. In fact, when the recurring cast of musicians and comedians weren’t taping segments for the coming weeks’ shows, they might very well have hopped into their pickup trucks for that evening’s performance at the Ryman Auditorium, as many of the regulars were permanent members of the Opry. In its sole concession to the nascent sexual revolution, which informed much of the humor on “Laugh-In,” there were the “Hee Haw Honeys.” Their risqué outfits were inspired after the wardrobe favored by buxom blond Daisy Mae Yokum, in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” comic strip, who might have been kin to Daisy Mae Duke, of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Although the recording industry has labored long and hard to distance itself from the archetypal characters and traditional country and bluegrass music that attracted millions of viewers to the show each week, its track record speaks for itself. While the house band was comprised of Nashville’s top studio musicians — Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, Floyd Cramer, Charlie McCoy, Danny Davis, Jethro Burns and Johnny Gimble – the guest stars included such then-current chart-toppers as Tammy Wynette, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Jr., Dottie West, Charlie Rich and Donna Fargo. The only drawbacks in these appearances came when the lip-synching became too obvious and in the ridiculously chaste dresses worn by the women headliners, who were further burdened with hideous bouffant wigs. This would change as years went by, but any resemblance between the Lynn and Wynette we see in these compilations and today’s crop of hooker-chic songbirds is limited is to their sterling voices. By comparison, the male stars either looked as if they had just finished milking the cows or left a fitting at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors. The DVDs add fresh interviews and vintage comedy routines.

The archivists at TimeLife have also expanded on their inventory of treasures from “The Carol Burnett Show” and its various spinoffs. “The Carol Burnett Show: The Lost Episodes” adds material for the first five seasons, some of it not seen for more than 40 years. Among the gems are the show’s debut episode; the first performances of “As the Stomach Turns,” “The Old Folks & Carol & Sis” and “Gone With the Breeze”/“Went With the Wind”; on-set pranks and bloopers; and fresh chats with Julie Andrews, Tony Bennett, Tina Fey, Jim Nabors, Jimmy Fallon, Jack Jones, Steve Carell, Vicki Lawrence and Bob Newhart. Newcomers to vintage television variety shows probably will be appalled by the elaborate song-and-dance numbers and peculiar deployment of Vegas-style showgirls, which made viewers pray for commercials to arrive. They stand in direct contrast to everything being embraced by the counterculture in the late-1960s.

If “Portlandia” aired on HBO, Comedy Central or FX, instead of the sometimes difficult to find IFC, it would be hailed in the same breathe as such fringe comedies as “Louie,” “Veep,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Girls.” Like Amazon’s even more obscure “Transparent,” it is a show that owes its popularity to word-of-mouth and appearances by its stars on talk shows that skew to young audiences. The sketch-comedy series is an outgrowth of Internet and video collaborations between “SNL” alum Fred Armisen and musician/writer/actor Carrie Brownstein. If Portland were a person, instead of a city, it would fit the description of someone criticized for being “tragically hip.” As desirable a place to settle as it is, Portland is a magnet for an idiosyncratic collection of college-educated dweebs whose tolerance for anyone who strays from their politically correct agenda is roughly zero and defines liberal fascism. It’s entirely possible that the only constituency that doesn’t find “Portlandia” to be particularly funny are residents of the Rose City, who don’t think anything pertaining to them is amusing. Among the highlights of the show’s fifth season are “The Story of Toni & Candace,” which traces the corporate roots of the uber-feminist Women and Women First Bookstore; the double-barreled “Fashion,” during which Portland’s Dollar Store recruits Quinn (Brownstein) as the face for their rebranding campaign and Spyke (Armisen) faces trial for making unlicensed Bart Simpson merchandise; “4th of July,” in which Kath and Dave hire  a party planner (Jane Lynch) to organize an alternative Independence Day celebration and the mayor (Kyle MacLachlin) searches the “deep web” for alternative fireworks; and the self-explanatory, “Doug Becomes a Feminist,” during which Sandra also discovers the horrors of ride sharing.  Among the guest stars are Ed Begley Jr., Matt Groening, Oscar the Grouch, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Goldblum, Anna Gunn, Paul Simon, Paul Reubens, Olivia Wilde and Natasha Lyonne. The DVD adds deleted material from the ride-searching sketch.

PBS-on-DVD
American Experience: Walt Disney: He Made Believe
Masterpiece: Arthur & George
JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness
Frontline: Rape on the Night Shift
American Experience: Blackout
Counting on Birds: Tales of Migration
Seven Wonders of Brazil
Game Play
Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show
Although some viewers will consider the two-part “American Experience” bio-doc, “Walt Disney: He Made Believe,” to be a warts-and-all profile of a true visionary and creative genius, others might wonder why the producers stopped short of isolating the virus that caused the warts in the first place. Executive Producer Mark Samels and the “AE” team received extraordinary access to the Disney archives, which hitherto have been protected from outside surveillance as if it were the vault at Fort Knox. It adds video evidence to previous print biographies that dared to dig below the surface of the great man’s legacy. His testy relationship with his father is recalled alongside the importance of his brief, idyllic stay with relatives in rural Kansas as a boy. The film also gives proper credit to Roy Disney, who kept the wolves away from the studio gates long enough for Walt to realize artistic dreams that tended to go over budget. In fact, it wasn’t until the success of Disneyland was assured, thanks to a helping hand from fledgling ABC, that the wildly inventive showman was able to work his magic without fear of being foreclosed. He also owed a great debt of gratitude to the children who so loved his movies and cartoons that they demanded of their parents that they buy tens of millions of dollars’ worth of coonskin caps, toys, trading cards, records, comic books, wands, tiaras and other branded products that paid the bills when ticket sales lagged. It isn’t until the end of the first half of the documentary, when studio employees, including several of his most loyal artists, decided that Uncle Walt’s concept of “family” didn’t square with the financial realities of raising families of their own that our perceptions of life the Mouse House change. Disney blamed their decision to form unions on communists in their midst and refused to negotiate a settlement in an ugly strike. It wasn’t until he split for a tour of South America that Roy was able to achieve a settlement. Six years later, Disney would get his revenge by appearing as a “friendly witness” before the HUAC panel investigating the influence of communism in Hollywood.

It wasn’t until 1950, after “Cinderella” became a gamble that paid off big for the studio, that Disney was able to finance an ambitious slate of animated- and live-action projects, establish his own distribution company, enter television production and begin building Disneyland without looking over his shoulder for the nearest creditor. It also allowed him to further distance himself from those employees who could remember a time before he decided to take away such luxuries as rugs, comfortable chairs, adequate lighting, affordable cafeteria food and other things employees valued. Instead, he took time away from the studio to construct a narrow-gauge railroad at his home and form a splinter company to avoid the concerns of bean-counters. The bio-doc ends with the success of “Mary Poppins” and plans for Disney World, whose completion he wouldn’t live to see. Unlike the compact Anaheim facility, where growth was extremely limited, Disney bought enough land – surreptitiously, as possible — to control everything from who could build hotels and gas stations on roads leading to the property, to largely avoiding state, county and city interference. Where “He Made Believe” falls a tiny bit short, however, is in its seeming unwillingness to explore the root causes of his rabidly anti-labor stance – apart from being a control freak — and inability to see how some constituencies might feel left out of the overall Disney picture. A good deal of time is devoted to the controversy over “Song of the South,” which he considered to be a celebration of folklore, but African-Americans considered to be little more than an extension of the South’s ante-bellum plantation mentality. Although the movie was put on the shelf to avoid further protests here, it wasn’t pulled from overseas circulation and feelers about its re-release are sent out on a semi-regular basis. Criticism over images of racial minorities and non-European characters have always been a thorn in the studios side. The same is true of the 800-pound gorilla in Disney’s legacy: accusations of anti-Semitism. The doc’s producers argue that such charges couldn’t be verified in their research and, therefore, didn’t make the cut. It’s difficult, though, to separate Disney’s outrage toward union leadership and his lone-wolf stance among other Hollywood studio chiefs from suspicions that some deeply held bigotry from his formative years might have avoided extinction. Should such things matter in 2015? It’s hard to say.

Some PBS affiliates are in the midst of an Arthur Conan Doyle revival with a terrific adaptation of Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel, “Arthur & George,” and reruns of the Season Three episodes of BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, forming a double-feature, of sorts. (The UK-approved compilation is already available on Blu-ray/DVD. A fourth season is expected in 2017.)  On July 4, 1906, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lost his first wife, Mary Louise, to tuberculosis. In his despondent state, he was left unable to write or do much of anything else. It wasn’t until his secretary, Woodie, presented him with a possible case of institutionally condoned injustice that he could be roused to action. It was a bizarre situation, to be sure, involving mutilated farm animals in rural South Staffordshire and obscene threats to a half-Indian/half-British solicitor. George Edalji has already been tried, convicted and released from prison for the crimes, but there’s ample reason to believe he received a fair trial. After serving three years of a six-year sentence, George needs help to clear his name, so he can get on with his chosen life. Conan Doyle isn’t absolutely convinced of his innocence until he comes face to face with the local constabulary, who can’t disguise their contempt for anyone a shade or two darker than the average Midlands farmer, even the son of a minister. It’s an actual case, which had serious ramifications in British law. It’s also a grand entertainment, during which Conan Doyle uses methodology whose validity Holmes would be would be ashamed to admit.

The PBS documentary, “JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness,” not only goes a long way toward correcting misconceptions about Lyndon Baines Johnson’s record on civil rights – advanced in last year’s historical drama, Selma – but it also pinpoints exactly what’s wrong with politics-as-usual in today’s Congress. Although unfairly lumped together with the Southern voting bloc by liberals who couldn’t see beyond his Texas drawl, Johnson had been a lifelong opponent of racially based injustice, especially as it was applied to Mexican-Americans in his home state.  After the assassination of President Kennedy, in 1963, Cabinet holdovers fretted over what they assumed would be the vice-president’s lack of enthusiasm for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, advanced by the previous administration. Even with Kennedy’s sponsorship, the legislation was no sure bet for passage on the Hill. Fortunately, that era in politics was marked by a bipartisan desire to get some important things accomplished, even if it required compromise. LBJ knew that he couldn’t rely on Southern Democrats for support, as they were dyed-in-the-wool segregationists. Instead, he worked directly with Republican leadership – this was before the GOP had committed to flat-Earth beliefs and governance by fear – to get the job done. They understood that compromise was as much a part of American politics as being corrupted by lobbyists would become, 20 years later. Unfortunately, for Johnson and the American people, he also was stuck with Kennedy’s war in Southeast Asia, which the Pentagon and CIA still felt could be won by putting more American boots on the ground. He left office, a shattered man, only three years later.

In “Rape on the Night Shift,” the producers of “Frontline” return to an issue thoroughly investigated and uncovered two years ago in “Rape in the Fields.” Instead of blowing the whistle on the “open secret” of violent sexual harassment, including rape, of undocumented agricultural workers, the reporters tackled sexual abuse of undocumented women in the service industry. The film examines allegations of abuse across the janitorial industry – especially those subcontractors hired by building managers – and how the government, law enforcement and companies fall short in dealing with the problem. Contrary to everything Donald Trump has to say on the subject of immigration, the crimes are largely perpetrated against hard-working, poorly paid women by American citizens, who knew they controlled the fate of the undocumented workers.

The “American Experience” chapter, “Blackout,” revisits the events of July 13, 1977, when New Yorkers lost their electricity for more than a day and thousands of them used the cover of darkness to riot, start fires and confront police and firefighters. While millions of other citizens found non-violent ways to beat the heat, humidity and outage by grinning and bearing this inconvenience of city life, they were excluded from the headlines. Compounding the problem was high unemployment, the layoffs of police and firefighters, cuts in municipal services and the Son of Sam killings. Anyone who’s seen Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam already knows what to expect in “Blackout,” writ large. And, although the root cause of the disaster was an electrical storm, it was the lack of anticipatory preparations that kept the lights from coming back on any time soon.

Also new to the lineup of PBS-sourced DVDs, are the two-disc compilation “Counting on Birds: Tales of Migration,” in which host Willem Lange explores the migratory patterns and documentation of birds native to New England, including the broad-winged hawk; “Seven Wonders of Brazil,” a journey into the heart of the South American behemoth to explore the incredible spiritual diversity of Brazilian Christianity; the feature documentary, “Game Play,” traces the history of video games from Pong and Pac Man, to Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, with an eye toward the future; and “Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show,” an exploration of the world of U.S. television showrunners and the creative forces aligned around them, with Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof and other successful producers.